06 January 2011

I expected to hate it . . .

With at least a third of the academic blogosphere off to conferences, I feel it is my duty to come up with something to entertain the rest of you until more lively bloggers like Dr. Crazy get a minute to report on the MLA.

You will be happy that I decided to refrain from live-blogging the Excavation of the Box of Things That Must Be Filed, Saved, or Otherwise Dealt With, or simply fall into the category of "I might use this [20% off coupon/ catalog/ etc.] so I'll save it till it has expired and then I can recycle it." I am relieved to report that a lot of the box's contents do fall into the last category, and that I am making good progress with the rest of it. I am embarrassed to report that I found . . . oh, never mind. If you have a good guess as to how to complete that sentence, leave it in the comments.

The title phrase from this post is the most common one to appear in my course evaluations. Because of the way our major is structured, students rarely take my classes because of a deep interest in the topics, or even a passing curiosity combined with a convenient course time. No, they show up (in droves: at least my courses make) because they have to. And most of them discover that Chaucer is actually an interesting writer (who knew?), and had insights into human nature that remain applicable (I refuse to say "relatable") today, and that the Middle Ages were a lively, even exciting period that repay closer attention.

But we almost always start with the negativity. My best and favorite student from last semester, who had a work ethic I admired as well as a lively and curious mind, confessed to expecting to hate the course. I'm beginning to wonder where this comes from. Are students forced to read Chaucer in high school, and thus hate Chaucer either because of the associations, because of being forced to read him (forcing anything always seems to result in distaste), or because he's not well taught? Or do they expect to hate Chaucer because his works are even older than Shakespeare's, and they struggled in high school with Shakespeare's language, and so expect (rightly) that Chaucer's language will be even harder, without considering that they might have learned something, reading Shakespeare, that will help with Chaucer? Sir John suggested that they assume the past just gets worse the farther back you go, so that, having been forced to read The Scarlet Letter in high school, they expect the Middle Ages to be even drearier and more repressive.

I don't really get this. I "came of age," so to speak, between the First Flowering of the Lord of the Rings and the heyday of Dungeons and Dragons; my generation, and my first students, were all in love with the Middle Ages as the Source Of All That Is Cool in fantasy literature and role-playing games. But I would like to know where my students' dread comes from.

7 comments:

Sulpicia said...

Thanks for this. I've seen this too, and I think you're right about students' anxieties over language. I've been wondering if it's not also due to the kinds of usage the medieval's getting in popular culture now?

There's still a certain amount of glamour attached to the Middle Ages via films like the LOR trilogy, but I don't know that that's always enough to counter the tendency to associate the medieval with brutality and backwardness. Which is hardly likely to leave them convinced that we've got much to offer in the way of aesthetic or intellectual pleasure. Sorry for the length of the comment!

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

Long comments welcome--thanks for stopping by, & for thinking about the problem!

nicoleandmaggie said...

We definitely didn't study Chaucer in high school. I imagine it's scary because of the language. But once you get past the language barrier and learn to decode it, it's probably quite entertaining. The copy of Chaucer I had at home had lots of dirty pictures in it... I remember one of a monk and some nuns, habits and robes thrown aside...

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

N&M: that's the obverse side of the coin; people who know a little may expect Chaucer to be dirtier than he is. I can't think of anyplace where he actually describes monks and nuns cavorting, though Harry Bailey does some nudge-nudge wink-wink over the Nun's Priest's Tale, which is about a (ahem) cock and his flock. Fart jokes and a spot of adultery are about the extent of it. You have to go to penitential manuals for the real smut.

Fencing Bear said...

Just ask if they've seen "Knight's Tale," and if they haven't, tell them Heath Ledger was in it. Then tell them to watch for the guy who shows up walking down the road naked. And then tell them: "That's Chaucer!" I find that it is much easier to deal with Brian Helgeland's anachronisms than the cultural propensity to blame the Middle Ages for everything we don't like about the present.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

"A Knight's Tale" is a romance, and romances are often anachronistic, even or especially the medieval ones. I show it in the last week of classes to prove to students that they have indeed learned something: they have to write down all the jokes/references they would not have caught before taking the class. This year, I had a whole batch who had seen the movie before and had no idea Chaucer was in it, because "Chaucer" didn't mean anything to them when they first saw it.

Bardiac said...

I think it's because they think that anything old must be stale and religious in a boring way.

I must admit that I delight when they begin to get the fun in the CT and realize that most of the religious thinking is anything but boring.

capcha: inksm :)