From the category archives:

British Literature

Syllabi Trigger Warnings?

by Dr Davis on June 4, 2014

The New York Times posted “Warning: The Literary Canon Could Make Students Squirm,” which addresses the idea of notify students about what hard issues are involved in the readings on the syllabus.

Colleges across the country this spring have been wrestling with student requests for what are known as “trigger warnings,” explicit alerts that the material they are about to read or see in a classroom might upset them or, as some students assert, cause symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder…

The debate has left many academics fuming, saying that professors should be trusted to use common sense and that being provocative is part of their mandate. Trigger warnings, they say, suggest a certain fragility of mind that higher learning is meant to challenge, not embrace.

Ms. Loverin [a sophomore at Santa Barbara] draws a distinction between alerting students to material that might truly tap into memories of trauma — such as war and torture, since many students at Santa Barbara are veterans — and slapping warning labels on famous literary works, as other advocates of trigger warnings have proposed.

While I have not thought of this specifically before, I would not be opposed to some applications of trigger warnings–especially for post-traumatic stress disorder issues (such as particularly specific descriptions of battle or rape). General, applied to literature warnings, seems a little odd. Gulliver’s Travels is size-ist. Really?

My favorite sentence in the whole article, however, comes from the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education: “It is only going to get harder to teach people that there is a real important and serious value to being offended.”


Who Would Win in a Fight?

by Dr Davis on May 17, 2014

Who would win in a fight between William Shakespeare and Elizabeth Russell? The answer is Elizabeth Russell.

How did Elizabeth Russell manage to turn his closest friends and allies against him? Who were her other supporters? And why did they want to put his theatrical company out of business?

Read the whole story. It is fascinating.


Digital Presentations This Semester

by Dr Davis on May 10, 2014

The digital presentations are an important component of the writing classes I teach as they offer the students an opportunity to present information they have gathered (from the research paper for fyc) or created (for the commercial analysis for fyc).

They are also important components in my literature classes where they review what we learned in class (as students present their digital presentations on a work or aspect of a text that we read for class, where the videos serve as a unique review for the comprehensive final exam for British literature) or introduce students to an additional work (Old English Readings). They are rhetorically remixing and composing with a real-world medium.

These digital presentations have always been opportunities for the students to learn new technologies and to master information they have already been exposed to, but this semester, particularly, I have been delighted to see the students’ creativity as they have taken the assignments and used their particular giftings to make them phenomenal.

One of the students in my Old English readings course created all the images for her digital explication of the Harrowing of Hell (an Old English text that she read out of class and was introducing to her classmates). Whoo too!

One student in fyc created the video to parallel her research project out of a series of twenty interviews she filmed with teachers, administrators, and students at her high school alma mater regarding the soon-to-be-implemented school uniform policy. Last semester I had a journalism major who regularly interviews people for a television show and whose final project for Business Writing was a video; while it was good, this freshman project is another level beyond it.

One freshman student’s research was on the various forms of child abuse and the signs of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. Her video was particularly poignant, with students commenting on her incredible invocation of pathos through text, images, and sound. I had written in my notes that the music was perfectly aligned—in both rhythm and meaning—for the presentation topic; soon after the presentations were shown I learned that she created and performed the music for her digital presentation.

Digital presentations are a different type of composition and aren’t specifically “writing” as we have known it. These compositions, however, add a strong rhetorical component to the writing classes, allow for introduction and recall of texts for the literature classes, and add the possibility of students showing their creative gifts, in addition to encouraging students to develop the skills to use the types of media they watch and interact with all the time.


Tolkien’s Translation of Beowulf

by Dr Davis on March 20, 2014

Beowulf British library pages taped onto other pages WC pdAccording to PBS, Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf is coming out soon.

It will be released on May 22, along with a series of lectures (presumably Tolkien’s) and (a little oddly to my lights) a Tolkien tale.


CCTE: Winning Lit Paper Notes

by Dr Davis on March 6, 2014

Sherry Rankin
Abilene Christian University, “An Approach Using J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings to Teach Medieval Lit in the Brit Lit Survey Classroom”

special area of interest: Old English
No way this Powerpoint will live up to the amount of time it took us to get it going…

Tolkien fan since before I could read… when I first started teaching first half of Brit lit, it was of limited use. But since the Peter Jackson movies came out, lot more students have watched those and become interested in the books.

I use Tolkien a lot as I teach the Anglo-Saxon period.

AS culture can seem foreign and forbidding, popularity of Game of Thrones, WOW, Harry Potter,
Students can appreciate foreign culture.

Differences difficult to understand: esp fate and relational aspects of culture

With video games and movies, they can connect with completely foreign culture.

Tolkien was philologist and medievalist.
particularly in depiction of Rohan (Anglo-Saxon pretty much everything)
not only place in trilogy where you see AS culture
many elements of the novel are AS

all the ways I use Tolkien in the classroom, but narrowed it to use to explain technical aspects of poetry

Beowulf format usually not translated and presented as OE poet.
Context of comitatus relationship.

poetic characteristics/literary attributes
ubi sunt

Benjamin Bagby credits modal elements as memory makers
Tolkien’s work allows students to explore this organically

2nd book of LotR
ent Treebeard
turns to oral formulaic poetry to try to figure out the hobbits
after fall of Eisengard, tells the hobbits have been added
“the Hobbit children,
the laughing folk, the little people”

Ent children were made to learn by heart for educational purpose—like ABCs and “30 days have September”

Asking about things that lend to memorization students come out with alliteration and halves.

whipping folks who didn’t learn
Ents sing while beating hands upon their flanks

She had a lot more good stuff!


CCTE: Shakespeare

by Dr Davis on March 4, 2014

Jacqueline Peveto
Abilene Christian University, “Sounding and Dressing the Part: Understanding Macbeth through Language and Costume”

Tomahawk production
military v civilian
black hoodie—witch
at odds with supernatural forces, descent into darkness is quick
Macbeth makes a foray into supernatural place and is destroyed.
small room for emotion
He was dedicated to evil and perpetrated evil on his neighbors.

Globe—all actors are on stage playing drums
all actors left, except 3
disregarded their Renaissance costumes and ran around in their shifts
witches imitated the animals, threw flower petals, were in acts where they do not appear in the text

Macbeth and Banquo in blue and red. Disconnect with long time friend.
before Macbeth kills Duncan, calls Banquo his friend. After Duncan is death, Banquo is his enemy.

Globe offered dynamic character, downplayed supernatural witches. Macbeth gains strong agency. Relationships define Macbeth. Relationship with witches impact the kind of message audience receives.

private, supernatural war OR close to home battle with human nature and nature?

Sarah Eason
Abilene Christian University, “Constructed Gender Performances of Kate and Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew

constructed gender performances in The Taming of the Shrew
perhaps the most controversial
ambiguous script
strictly misogynous to feminist readings
problem= set binaries for a play that expresses and explores gender ambiguity
can’t treat play in binary situation
there must be another option

questioning identity
highlights the beggar’s identity
What do you think?
only moments after id’ing self by family and history
Upon my life, I am not a tinker…
how does the self take form?

can identity be created by discourse of others
Sly implies this is possible

Kate and Bianca represent the extremes—though neither is all good or all evil

gender is a binary concept created by people
Kate is threatening because she is performing masculine identity.
“meddle not with her” Kate
“yielding of a devilish spirit” Kate
father sees her as threat

in the bet they pull off a normative performance of gender in public
The wedding banquet is set up to mimic the norms.
When Kate first enters, Petruchio tells her to take the cap off.
Cap becomes infinitely symbolic.

Ariane Peveto
Abilene Christian University, “Completing the Spell: Setting and Language in As You Like It

weaving the spell, setting and language in As You Like It
tall wise looking trees, gentle meadows, flowers like jewels

most well known romantic comedy
Forest of Arden
power based in language

As You Like It is written like a magic spell.
theme, character, setting = pastoral genre
story of romance woven in with other…

ability to change surroundings with words/language
ability to shape surroundings is dependent on the Forest of Arden
expectations and associations are abandoned

linguistic magic in ways characters describe the forest
show active shaping of the forest

production Globe Theater (2009—live for DVD)
simple, effective
colors wrapped on black fabric—felt closed in, despite the open stage
transition to Forest of Arden
drapes covering entrances and balcony
illusion of a thickening forest

Orlando began tacking his poetry onto the pillars. Throwing the poetry out into the audience.

parallel between theater and Forest of Arden
places where a char brings audience back to paying attention

exigency beyond mere entertainment

removed reality of the theater is not as obvious, but remains strong today

equivalence between the play and the theater
just at the point when audience were disengaging that Rosalinde steps forward with a finger against her lips
She reveals that she is wearing the pants of Ganymede underneath her wedding dress.

Touchstone asked a particular man in the audience a question.
Rosalinde refers to a man in the audience by name.

Epilogue is put where credits are expected.
highly exotic forest setting changed to exp with audience


Bestiary Online

by Dr Davis on January 13, 2014

T. H. White’s The Book of Beasts is online. I didn’t realize that.
Manticore_-_British_Library_Royal_12_F_xiii_f24v_(detail) Rochester bestiary medieval late 1200s WC pd


Reading List(s)

by Dr Davis on December 30, 2013

I advertised the class with
Women Warrior

Possible readings (probable readings?) are grouped by topic.

Magic, 3 days’ readings total
1- The Magical World of the Anglo-Saxons 238 pages
OR Popular Religion of Late Saxon England–Both are fairly easy to read. One is more in line with the worldview the students understand and could relate to more easily, but is also more expensive.

2- charms (and Numbers chapter 5)

3- Ecclesiastical History (all in the iBook): Intro, Caedmon’s Hymn, Variations, Edwin’s Conversion, Bede’s Death Song (388-407)
Dream of the Rood (324-31)

Note: Beowulf includes some magic. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight includes magic and is the last reading we will cover in the course. Both of these readings I intend to give 2 days for.

heroine Judith JewishJournal dot comWomen Warriors, 6 readings total
1- chapter 1 of Woman as Hero in Old English Literature Peace Weaver, queen and ides
Exeter Book section 12 Gnomes or Maxims

2- Nowell Codex sections 4-7 Judith: OE and Apocrypha (introduction, pre-text, etc)

3- Chapter 3 of Woman as Hero in Old English Literature “Judith, Juliana, Elene”
Exeter Book section 9 Juliana

4- Vercelli Book section 2 Elene or St. Helen

5- chapter 5 of Woman as Hero in Old English Literature “Eve in Genesis B”
Junius 11 section 1 Genesis B

6- chapter 6 of Woman as Hero in Old English Literature “Wulf & Eadwacer, Wife’s Lament”
Exeter Book sections 6-8 Wulf & Eadwacer, Wife’s Lament, Message Brought

Monsters, 4 days of readings
1- Book of Kells. Yes, I know it is the Bible, but it includes some amazing animal representations.

2- The Old English Physiologus
The Phoenix

3- Bestiary

4- Aberdeen Bestiary

Note: Whether we read the Arthurian tales or not, I intend to read Marie de France’s “The Lay of the Were-Wolf.” Technically that would give this 5 days’ of readings, but right now I am still leaning towards Arthurian readings.

Arthurian Readings, 6 days’ readings, plus Sir Gawain

1- short poems on Arthur from Celtic and Welsh traditions

2- Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Life of Merlin, which followed more traditional views according to the reading I have done. This is 26 pages of reading plus 8 pages of notes.

3- Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Arthurian Passages from History of the Kings of Britain, 96 pages.

4- excerpts from Layamon’s Brut, 540 lines of the original 30,000+

5- two lays of Marie de France

6- Book of Taliesin, Welsh, 1300s

Two texts, Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, have magic and monsters and, to some extent, women warriors.

To the reading of Beowulf I plan to add Tolkien’s “Beowulf: The Monster and the Critics.” This is 110 pages of reading, but I do intend to have it take at least two days.

I am seriously considering adding The Fight at Finnesburg, The Battle at Brunnanburg, the Battle of Maldon, and the poems of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles.

I am also considering adding the beginning through 900 of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, but assigning each individual student something to read or scan for. So students would be searching for specific things in the Chronicles and wouldn’t be responsible for “reading” the whole text.

That would be 25 days’ readings out of 30 days of class time. Take a midterm and that’s 26. Add a day of no homework reading for the reading digital presentation and the research project (whatever that ends up being) and that is 28 days. I have a list of things to read during class on the days when there is no homework reading, which includes
The Exeter Riddles
Second Shepherd’s Play.

However, the last two probably won’t be within the time frame of the era we are reading in.

That leaves two additional days for catch up… If we are snowed in and miss days (like we did in the fall) or if I have to be out of town for a conference (which I may).

But I also like the idea of reading the mystics. If I put the mystics in the magic section, though, that would mean reading across time periods (which I think would confuse the students).

Mystics, 5 or 6 days’ reading

1+2- Julian of Norwich, which is 141 pages

3+4- Margery Kempe (or only do excerpts and do 1 day)

5+6- The Cloud of Unknowing, 110 pages

So, while I have a core of selected “for sure” readings, there are a significant number of “maybe” texts. Maybe the Chronicles and battles. Maybe the Arthurian texts. Maybe the mystics.

While I would like (for several reasons) to do the mystics, I am leaning towards the Arthurian readings instead. For one thing, I will be able to talk about the different versions of the stories (Irish, Scottish, Welsh, Anglo-Norman, Anglo-Saxon, etc). That way I can re-present the idea that the British Isles are not monolithic; they are full of multiple cultures across multiple time periods who speak multiple languages.

For another, as my son says, no one would object to reading Arthur stories.



by Dr Davis on December 28, 2013

I was given the go-ahead last spring to teach a course this spring (next semester) on readings in British literature before 1700. My boss said I could concentrate on my areas of interest–which mostly center in Old English.

This summer I put together an iBook for the class.

Then this fall I advertised the class (not having realized that was the norm in my department for some reason). In the advertisement, I wrote
Warrior Women

I liked the alliterative aspects and I knew we were doing Beowulf, Judith so I figured, why not? However, after talking to a few students, I realized that having that as the “ad” meant that students were going to be expecting those to be the major sections of the readings–not just something present in some of them.

That took me back to the drawing board and I have been struggling ever since then. I haven’t just vacillated on what to teach, but in what order and how much (for longer works) and at what time period to end.

Original planned texts included
The Wife’s Lament
The Wanderer
The Seafarer
The Battle of Maldon
The Fight at Finnsburg
Dream of the Rood
Elene, St. Helen
Cædmon’s Hymn
Exeter Riddles
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

This class will start in two weeks. It will probably be the only time I ever get to teach it. I want to teach all the things I love and also the things I think will appeal to the students.

I’m still wrestling with questions of texts, not just projects (as mentioned yesterday).

So, do I include the Arthurian tales (like Geoffrey of Monmouth and Layamon and Marie de France, including “The Lay of the Were-Wolf”) or do I go for the mystics (like Julian of Norwich, Margery Kempe, The Cloud of Unknowing [I saw a great presentation on Kalamazoo about an assignment for that.])?

How will I teach magic, when there isn’t a lot of clear-cut magical writing and students won’t understand that much of the “magic” was science at the time (or what eventually became science)? I purchased two Kindle versions of texts I was considering using Magic in the Cloister and The Magical World of the Anglo-Saxons. The first is very dense and not what I was expecting–being more about the actual works of magic, whether they were in the abbey she is discussing or not, and the second deals much more with the archaeological and place name remnants that indicate magical beliefs. I actually think the second will be very good and useful–but it does assume the students will be able to follow the arguments and think about them critically.

woman as hero by Jane ChanceHow much primary versus secondary readings do I require? I have definitely decided to use Jane Chance’s Woman as Hero in Old English Literature, though we are only reading five chapters. We will also be reading Exeter Gnomes or Maxims, Judith, Juliana, Elene, Wulf & Eadwacer, Wife’s Lament, and Message Brought in that section.

I am still wrestling with the reading list and I really wanted to send it to the students early enough that they could order the texts from Amazon if they wanted.


Project Ideas

by Dr Davis on December 27, 2013

I am teaching a junior/senior readings class this spring. I am envisioning the class including a reading digital presentation (where students read a short work and create a digital presentation on it), a research project (where students read up on some work or author or idea through scholarly journal articles and books and create a narrative of the ideas they found–though some would say they must come up with their own unique take on the subject and I am not sure that I am prepared to require that), and a creative project (where students take some aspect they enjoy artistically or creatively and present some related work).

Codex_Bodmer_127_044v_Juliana ties up devil 1170-1200 WC PDReading ideas:
The readings for the digital presentation vary depending on what I want to accomplish. Unfortunately, I haven’t yet decided!

Originally I thought short works that I did not think that we would have time to cover in class but that were literary and Old English. This list would include works like
The Wanderer
The Seafarer
Deor, Waldere
The Ruin
Fates of Men

These readings range from 45 to 140 lines total. Those are extremely short and would lend themselves to a reading of the poem and perhaps some explication.

Then I branched out a bit. I thought of
The Voyage of Othere and the Voyage of Wulfstan
The Art of Courtly Love.

Those are fairly short, easier to read than the poems, but could be added to the list of options.

Then I considered having them read and discuss/describe/summarize or in some general way present an aspect of a longer work, perhaps from the Middle English period, since most of the works we will be reading will be from the Old English.

Then the possible works in the list included
King Horn
Sir Orfeo
Havelok the Dane
Adventures of Arthur at Tarn Wadling

Bartolome Anglicus’ Encyclopædia (44)
Chretien de Troyes (77 pages).
These range in length from 15 to 77 pages. That is a significant differentiation. Also some, such as Sir Orfeo are verse translations, while most are not.

I also want to include the writings of Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe, but they don’t perfectly fit within the organization of the class. Also they are very long, so they don’t fit my original length plans–even at the long end of the longer works listed above.

I included somewhere a note for reading two versions of The Battle of Otterburn.

How do I choose?
Do I want them to “get into” a longer work that we don’t read in class? Do I want them to have a short work in Old English to prepare while we are in the short works of Old English section? Do I want them to read outside the time period we are studying and have to know things that they may not have had any exposure to?

I thought about making them do the presentation only on things we read in my sophomore lit class, so that I can use their examples for my sophomore students. However, in the original list only two of the works are things we read there. Everything else we are already covering in class and I DON’T want to do that with this class.

Research ideas:
Originally I thought this would be limited to them researching a topic related to a reading that has been done in class. However, that also limits them significantly as we won’t have done a lot of readings by the time this is due.

Things on my original list for research on readings we are doing in class include:
women in Beowulf
medicine in early England (Middle English period and earlier)
magic in early England (ME and earlier)
history of Merlin (reading some of the source material we will not read)
reading The Ruin and putting together a slide show of the Roman ruins of England with a discussion of history, related texts, archaeological digs, etc.

This expanded to other things which might be of interest:
the medieval undead (including St. Erkenwald, William of Newburgh, draugr of Icelandic stories)

Then I thought about having them read a single modern scholastic text (but not necessarily written for an academic audience) that they could read and then choose something from there to focus on. Examples include:
Roberta Gilchrist’s Medieval Life: Archaeology and the Life Course, which has a chapter that includes a discussion of zombies and relics as animate objects that have agency.
Jane Gilbert’s Living Death in Medieval French and English Literature, which includes a discussion of the Pearl Poet’s poem Cleanness/Purity and The Legend of Good Women.
Heads Will Roll: Decapitation in the Medieval and Early Modern Imagination edited by Tracy and Massey
Angels in Medieval Philosophy: Their Function and Significance by Iribarren and Lenz
Magic in the Cloister by Sophie Page

So I have vacillated on a traditional research paper or a research project, where they begin research on a topic of interest with an extended reading and then add shorter readings.

Would I be willing to have them create a solid annotated bibliography on the topic? I took a class in my graduate coursework where I had to do an annotated bibliography on some subject in English literature and I read every article our library had on the Exeter Riddles–which I had never even heard of before I started the annotation assignment. It was of significance for me in my love of Old English literature (though I no longer have the annotations I did then–handwritten on 5×7 cards).

You know, the more I think about that, the more I like that idea. They could read one book-length work and then a bunch of shorter works. They won’t have to come to a “unique idea” but they will have to construct a solid collection of articles on related topics which could furnish the beginning sources for a senior thesis or a graduate level paper.

I wish I knew these students better. What kind of works would they be interested in and does our library have these? I guess I could write to them over the break and get some ideas, so I can be looking for works they would be interested in. I want them to be passionate about the topic they are researching, so that it might actually be something they would use to write a paper in another course.

Creative project:
I also wanted to have a creative project assignment. I have seen some amazing work in this. I wrote about this part of the assignment already on TCE.

What is enough and what is too much?
Are these things too much to expect in a class? How much reading am I going to be able to get them to do? How much are they going to be willing to do?

I’ve actually assigned less reading than KC, a colleague, does in her sophomore survey. But she doesn’t have students do those three projects I am talking about. And I really think a mid-term and a final need to be done.

How do you decide what is enough to do and how do you know when you are getting too much on your list?