Survey of British Literature to 1789
"King Me!": Checking Sovereign Power in Late Medieval England
My teaching philosophy has always been to realize Horace's dictum "to delight and to instruct." The challenge is to make literary texts, particularly very old ones delightful as well as instructive. I do so by asking students (as I ask myself) how can we read culture through literature. That is, how can we use time as our friend and bend it such that the elements that composed the intellectual environment of a text can be seen as closely as possible? How then does our temporal experiment inform us better as citizens of the twenty-first century?
In my early literature surveys (such as my British Literature to 1789 course), I frame each period of enquiry with the image of an artifact such as a church, palace, or other monumental relic. I have that image speak to us about what its makers thought. Why is an Anglo-Saxon church built like a fortress? What does the absence of a hallway in a Renaissance palace mean for privacy? Why is porcelain dinnerware so important in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries? When discussing the answers to these and other similar questions, I can provide the students potential lenses for understanding the texts of the period and begin to provide their own readings of them.
For my upper-division courses, such as my Chaucer or comedy classes, our focus is on how we can contribute to the scholarly conversation. The comedy class spans much of English literary history and asks the students to consider the question of who are we when we laugh. As such, we study what authors of earlier times thought about when they wrote comedy. By comparison, my medieval courses focus primarily on my research area of medieval literature. In these, I ask the students to read the texts through the practices that the writer rendered in his or her characters. I apply my own research in commercial practices, London archival documents, and other cultural material to students see through class discussion or their own research questions how they can understand the elements of medieval literature and culture.
In my graduate courses, I want my students to think of themselves as scholars and teachers of the texts on which they write. My graduate course on the crisis of sovereignty in the late fourteenth century, for instance, frames the texts we read in a theoretical lens to provide us with a vocabulary for sovereign power. We then discuss how the works of this period, such as Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, Gower's Confessio Amantis, Hoccleve's poetry, as well as other texts address the issue of sovereign power and all its complications. I want them to see the richness of medieval literature that I saw when I began my graduate career and how they too can find new things to say about old books. In practicing Horace's dictum, then, I hope in all my classes as we explore a text together, my students too learn from it and are delighted by the exercise.