Chaucer and Writing in the Disciplines

A few years ago GW initiated a Writing in the Disciplines (WID) program to ensure that the attention to writing given in the first year of study continues thereafter. I’m naturally skeptical of all initiatives, especially when they come bearing acronyms, but I have to say that the WID program is very well thought out pedagogically. In fact, WID has changed how I teach.

A WID course emphasizes comprehension through writing and revision within discipline-appropriate modes. In a way most literature courses achieve these objectives already, but a true WID experience entails a consistent reliance upon writing as a mode of analysis, especially through frequent small exercises — and not just the single big research paper which is the crowning jewel of traditional classes. WID courses move away from the examination model of evaluation completely, something that after years of grading near indecipherable handwriting I have found refreshing. (I tell my students that some day their kids will mock them for having had to compose anything in longhand; the in-class examination is one of the few spaces where this archaic practice still unfolds).

I’d always relied on the exam to ensure that comprehension of Middle English passages was what it should be in my Chaucer class. This semester I am finally teaching a transformed version of the course under the WID rubric. I still do a complete Canterbury Tales, but instead of two midterms and a quiz we have five writing assignments, all of which are completed back at the dorm to free up more class time (though we will talk about them in class to ensure that the students’ labor is integrated into what we do in the classroom; I want these exercises to be central to our endeavors, not annoying little tasks completed in spare time).

Here are the five:

1. Take five lines of the General Prologue and rewrite as a faithful translation into Modern English, then into Modern English but with no poetic language (no figures of speech, nothing fancy, just a statement of bare meaning).

2. Translation of two quotations from the CT with an analytical paragraph on themes and context. Rubric:
(1) Briefly identify the passage by work, speaker, and context.
(2) Translate the passage into good Modern English.
(3) Paying close attention to the images, structure, and language of the passage, explain its significance to the themes of the tale in which it appears.
(4) Making specific reference to other tales, explain the significance of the passage to the themes of The Canterbury Tales as a whole.
Be ANALYTICAL: do not merely summarize plot.

3. Three passages of Middle English analyzed thematically
Rubric as above, but no translation.

4. Evaluation of a scholarly article.

5. Opening paragraph and one page prospectus for final paper.

We help studnets along the way through workshops and peer review, so this five assignment arc is a guided process through which my TA and I will get to know our student’s strengths and weaknesses in writing and interpretation very well.

I’m also using, for the third time, the fairly new Chaucer: An Oxford Guide. I like this compendium because it helps us achieve one of our course objectives: understanding how various scholars analyze Chaucer, preferably so that we can disagree with them and mount persuasive interpretations of our own. To that end the big (15pp) research paper has this rubric:

The objectives of this paper are twofold: to acquaint you with the ways that contemporary medievalists interpret Chaucer, and to hone your own analytical skills while making a convincing argument for a reading of one of the Canterbury Tales.

Choose a tale that you have found especially rich and provocative. Reread the narrative carefully, making notes about the themes and problems of the text. Carefully read the relevant notes on your chosen tale at the back of the book (these notes are broken down by line number, so you will find yourself flipping back and forth between notes and text).

Now find two recent (published within the last seven to ten years) critical articles about your chosen tale, each of which offers a distinct interpretation. Good ways to unearth useful scholarly criticism include:
• the MLA International Bibliography (can be accessed via the Gelman web page, most easily via the “English and American Language Research Guide” [])
• Project Muse (a cluster of scholarly journals in electronic form, easily searchable:
• JSTOR (another such cluster, though these journals tend to be at least five years old:
• the essays in Chaucer: An Oxford Guide (ed. Ellis)
• the bibliographies and index in Chaucer: An Oxford Guide (ed. Ellis)

Not especially useful or reliable for a project such as this would be a Google search or most internet sites.

Your task in this paper is to analyze critically each scholarly article, demonstrating both its strengths and its weaknesses. Throughout this section of your essay you must keep Chaucer’s text in mind, quoting from it to support your analysis of the two articles. You must then argue your own interpretation of the tale, making good use of the two essays but pushing their analysis farther – either to a place at which they meet or (even better) towards an interpretation neither anticipates but to which you, through reliance upon Chaucer’s text, can confidently bring the line of argument.

You will be graded upon clarity and competence of writing; knowledge and critical use of your chosen Canterbury tale; depth of engagement with and understanding of the two scholarly articles; originality and persuasiveness of your interpretation.

I’ve framed the research project this way since last year, and students have actually enjoyed the assignment. This narrowed exercise has seemed so much more rewarding to them than the usual, vague “Go away and write me a good essay about a Canterbury Tale” approach.

We’ll see how this all turns out, but I’ve been very pleased to have the chance to rethink how I teach the course — my absolute favorite to teach.

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