The Bottom Line
Middle English Competence: Though we will read some works in translation, students will be trained to read fourteenth-century East Midlands dialect of Middle English (i.e., London English of Chaucer's time), which emerged as the dominant English tongue in the century after Chaucer's death. Aids include conferences, tapes of lyrics and excerpts of longer works, and in-class performance. By the end of the semester, students will be able to read Middle English with a glossary and will be ready to read the entire Canterbury Tales and other major Middle English works.
Your ability to read Middle English, silently and aloud, will be a graded element of course work in several senses. First, you almost certainly will have to read aloud at least some Middle English in your in-class presentation, and the accuracy and "voice" of your Middle English reading counts for part of the presentation's grade. Second, most of this literature was written for the ear, to be read aloud, not for the eye, to be read silently. Therefore, being able to read the Middle English aloud to yourself will be crucial to your ability to resolve the meaning of difficult passages. It won't "look right," but it will start to "sound right."
When you are first starting to read Middle English, we will have short Middle English performance conferences to get you started. After those conferences are over, though, please don't hesitate to call me for assistance about pronunciation, syntax, or interpretation of any unit of the language, from words to phrases to whole stanzas to whole works. Most students find the first three weeks are the hardest, but if you listen to the tapes and commit at least some time every day to "singing Middle English" to yourself, or to each other, or to me (!), you will adapt more quickly. Think of it as a foreign language lesson combined with choir practice. Also, remember that there are lots of acceptable dialect variants in speaking Modern American English. Listen closely to your friends, to actors on TV, to people interviewed for the news. Listen to what they actually say and how they say it, comparing it with what you know to be "strictly correct usage, sentence structure, and pronunciation," and you'll be surprised. (But don't keep it up too long or you'll wind up an English teacher!) Our goal is to have the whole class form a reasonably accurate facsimile of some kind of Middle English dialect circa 1350 (if you really roll those "r"s and stick those Germanic consonants like "k" and "gh") and 1450 (if you can't trill an "r" and the Germanic consonants give you a coughing fit). That's good enough. If you want to see Chaucer doing some local dialectical variation from the emerging standard London-Center English of the East Midlands, read the "Reeve's Tale" and look for the dialogue of Alan and John, two boys from Northumbria (up near Scotland, with a bit o' burr in their speech).
Major Graded Work: Class participation--well-informed conversation at least once each week in-person or via email or GoucherLearn postings (20%); Midterm Paper (8-10 pages--20%), in-class performances and interpretations (two, 30%), 12- to 15-page final paper (30%).
Each of your two in-class performance/interpretations will introduce the class to a Middle English text assigned for the day. Chose a brief passage that you believe contains non-obvious interpretable significance related to one of more analytical themes of the course (or others you have worked out with me). In the presentation, first explain what drew you to the passage in the first place. Then, either be prepared to read the passage aloud in class to explain what you see or hear in it, or record the passage at least once using either a local digital recorder or one based in the "cloud." After you have read (and possibly re-read) the passage, interpret what you have read to explain its significance. Be especially alert to passages in which changes in emphasis or tone as you read can reveal characters' states of mind, irony, humor, ambiguity, or other key poetic strategies for creating complex meanings in the text. "Interpretation" can include asking questions that illuminate difficulties in understanding the text, especially questions you cannot answer, yourself. In addition to the main analytical themes of the course, try to seek issues that connect your readings to other things we have read, or works you have read in other courses. I would be happy to talk with you in the days before your presentation to help you work out both the performance and interpretation of the passage, and I will even brainstorm ways to pick passages that would reward close attention. But if you are stuck at the passage-choice stage, see me at least several days before your presentation to give yourself time to work.
In addition to the performance of the passage and your accompanying interpretation of it, provide the class with a brief (3- to 5-sentence) annotated bibliography for the most important and most recent (since 2000) scholarship on the portion of the work you are presenting. Use the MLA Bibliography and LION to cover article-length sources, of course, but do not neglect book-length sources accessible through the library's print collection via the online catalog. Pay attention to studies about issues related to your passage--do not make the common mistake of only searching for scholarship specifically about your author or the title of the work you are researching. (E.g., scholarship in the fields of history, political science, women's studies, economics, and law might be relevant to a work that deals with marriage or inheritance.) In most cases you can chose readings which fit your schedule. Presentations will be evaluated and should be carefully prepared. See this instruction page for suggestions for preparing your presentations.
The Midterm Paper may extend ideas from a presentation but it must be turned in by 4 PM on the Friday before Spring Break. I would also like to see an early draft of all Midterm Papers to give you feedback. The Final Paper (due by the Monday after the last day of classes) must deal with more than one work, or with one of the major works ("Pearl," Malory, "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight," or Troilus). Use of secondary sources for the papers is understood to be a necessary part of informed scholarship, but no specific number or type of sources are required.
As always, I encourage you to take papers to Writing Center tutors specializing in English for assistance, and I am happy to read early email queries/proposals about what you intend to write. If you have talked to the tutors and engaged me in email correspondence about the but remain seriously concerned that your paper might be headed in the wrong direction or simply insufficient, I will read a pre-final draft and let you know if it appears to be competent work.