English 240

In-Class Performance and Commentary

1) Choice of passage(s): importance to work/author/era/genre. (25 %) 

        Before you read the passages, take time to tell us briefly what kinds of issues you thought were raised by the material we were assigned to read for the day.  Because we are interpreting literature, New Critical observations about the work's aesthetics would be important, though you should not automatically expect Medieval works to obey Modern aesthetic standards.  Be sure to familiarize yourself with the basic conventions of the genre we are reading.   If the text does not grab you by the lapels and drag you physically into a struggle with its powers, apply the basic English 200/215 interpretive strategies you have been taught.  Look for complex passages that invite readers to ask questions about the characters, plot, and setting that reveal the author's poetic strategies.  Take those insights to the class and tell us about them, and ask us those questions and show us your reasons for asking them.  Pay attention to specific passages whenever possible, keeping in mind what New Criticism taught us about keeping our interpretive processes in touch with an accurate close reading of the text.  Why are those passages crucial or at least very helpful to our understanding of the work, itself, or of the author? Does the passage contain evidence which illustrates some essential issue or cultural value relevant to the era from which it comes? You also can draw relationship between the work in question and others of the same genre--is this pushing the generic definition to new levels, or is it a classical example of the form?

        Students in haste often neglect to give the class a chance to keep up with them. Take your time and situate us solidly within the work, taking care to give us the page or poetic line numbers, and give us time to turn to the starting page so that we can read along with you.  Provide context if you're excerpting--what has just happened and/or what is about to happen, and how does this excerpt connect to those things? Is that part of what makes this passage important?

        Above all, do not spend much time introducing "biographical background" of the author and plot summary of the work.  Unlike the Norton Anthology introductions, prefatory essays by editors of Medieval literature often are considered scholarly sources, so you can improve your presentation by directing us to useful parts of those introductions.  If you are having trouble understanding them, remember that I am on call to answer your questions.  If you want to silently fill in gaps in what your high school taught you, I recommend a reliable encyclopedia (like the Britannica available from the library's web page) or a professional dictionary like The Oxford Companion to English Literature. 

        Do consult OLLI and the MLA Bibliography via the Library's web site and let us know what scholars have published on your author, the work, and/or the major topics you see as important to understanding the passage you will perform.  See me for help if you have not used the MLA bibliography before; it is an essential tool of the trade for English majors.  If you discover relevant published research on your passage or or work or author, I will reward your use of it in the presentation with extra credit, but I will not expect every presentation to produce such support.  If you find something useful, even if you do not use it, consider preparing a web page or handout containing the bibliographic citations to aid your colleagues.  I also will reward that with additional credit.

 2)  Quality of performance: accuracy, Middle English pronunciation, accent, rhythm, observation of punctuation, feeling for the persona’s voice/spirit. (25%)

        Your ability to "do" Middle English and to capture characters' voices will be a major asset in your presentation.  Ask me for help in working out the sound of the passage, keeping in mind that all literature of this era was intended to be read aloud.  Record your BlackBoard passage several times until you have developed its possibilities fully.  Think about how the passage can be read as if you were an actor playing the part on a stage.  Get inside the "persona" or speaking characters.  Inhabit the situation in which the passage is set.  What emotional content does it carry and how can tone, rhythm, even body language be part of performing the text's emotional content?

        "accuracy . . . observation of punctuation": First, take care to figure out where the sentences are.  Don't make the mistake of starting in the midst of an on-going sentence without explaining that you're excerpting and quickly summarizing what you left out. Generally it's not a good idea to violate sentence unity when quoting unless you have a good reason (i.e., it's a huge Chaucerian sentence and you're after just a key clause or phrase). Rehearse it until you can read it clearly without dropping or misreading words and phrases, and pay attention to the difference between a poetic "pause" (comma), a poetic "stop" (semi-colon or colon), or a poetic "full stop" (period). At this level, it's like reading music--hear its rhythms and make sure you know the lyrics.

        "pronunciation, accent": If punctuation and diction are the lyrics, pronunciation and accent are the "tune" of Middle English.  In Middle English, that fusion of Norman French and Old English will require you to practice. Use Larry D. Benson's Harvard U. web site to practice your Middle English vowels and to practice sounding the Germanic "k" and "gh" (k-ni-gh-t actually requires all four of those consonant sounds to be heard!). The final "-e" also is sounded unless it is followed by an open vowel (a, e, i, o, or u). I'd welcome the chance to help you "sing" Middle English. Give me a call or make an appointment for a short conference.  If you are working with Malory's late-C15 Middle English, borrow the library's CD-ROM of Malory read-aloud and adjust your Middle English to its progress toward the Great Vowel Shift, the loss of the "hard" Germanic consonants ("kn," and "gh"), and the gradual diminution of the final "-e" in most words.

        "voice/spirit": This is the passage's "soul."  Literature for this period nearly always was intended to be read, and much of it is dramatic, containing or implying a plot and one or more personae who populate it. Even short lyrics often manage this in miniature. (The third stanza of Chaucer's "Merciless Beaute" is a wonderful example.) If something's going on, you have to take part in it emotionally and you have to make your reading match the events in speed, pitch, and other aspects of delivery. In the end, getting "in-character" is rather more like an act of "spirit possession" than anything one can rationally describe, though rational preparation is essential to getting one's self ready to do the job. There might be more than one possible "spirit" in which the passage might be performed, and if so, use the performance to expose this.  (Chaucer's "Gentilesse" is an excellent example depending on whether it would have been performed as a modest petition for new thinking or a radical call for reform.)  Think about the character, the situation, what has just happened (if narrative or drama), and the intent of what is being said. Intent reveals the persona's emotional makeup. The more you think about intent, and how that would be revealed, the more you can infer (by use of other parallel instances) about the persona's deep structure, what s/he/it is made of. This is a place where talking to the instructor can reveal important information about the text, things that can lead to papers and good exam answers (hint!).

3)  Quality of commentary: accuracy, analysis, insight, application to the goals of the course. (50%)

        I understand that nobody is going to be able to nail the oral performance perfectly, but we all should be engaged in trying to interpret what we are reading.  Especially, we can describe the parts of the passage which were important (see #1) in greater detail, and we can apply those unique insights which are expressible only just after a complete performance of the passage in question. You have to exercise judgment, looking for an insight which gets beneath the literal surface of what you've read, and you have to think about what we're up to in English 240. This, too, is another opportunity for you to get some one-on-one tutoring from me. Give me some lead time to schedule a conference, and some choice of times to do it, and we can have a great conversation about the literature.  Often, these passage presentations are sources for successful midterm and final paper ideas.

        For a basic introduction to the strategies used to achieve insight into a text's less obvious meanings and (hence) into the author's technique and intentions, read "In Defense of Hidden Meanings and Interpretation--Theory 101."   If you've taken English 215 but want to brush up on your interpretive theory and method, or if you haven't yet taken it and want to learn how to operate the tools of our trade, go to the English 215 web site.