Academic journal article Arthuriana

Teaching Undergraduates How to Read Arthurian Texts

Academic journal article Arthuriana

Teaching Undergraduates How to Read Arthurian Texts

Article excerpt

Three strategies for teaching critical reading skills to non-majors in the undergraduate Arthurian classroom engage students as novice readers of pre-modern sources by exploiting what they do not and cannot know about medieval culture and inviting them to apply expertise developed in other disciplines to Arthuriana. (JTS)

One of the great pleasures of teaching the Arthurian legend is the topic's adaptability to a variety of curricular configurations. The many teachable sources, both textual and non-textual, that invoke the name or spirit of the rex quondam rexque futurus overflow traditional period and linguistic boundaries and thus lend themselves well to different teaching and learning environments. In this essay I want to address the challenges and opportunities unique to one such environment: the undergraduate Arthurian course for non-majors. Because the matter of Britain has reinvented itself in contemporary popular culture, the King Arthur course is currently fashionable, the humanities' equivalent of 'Rocks for Jocks.' The vast majority of my students, for example, are not, nor will they ever be, English majors. They hail from every college within the university and potentially from every department. Beyond an introductory course, most of them have little experience with analyzing literature. Some even stare in blank astonishment when asked what a particular poem is doing, as if the idea of a poem doing anything is as unseemly as Perceval's early behavior in some tellings of his story or as preposterous as Richard Gere and Scan Connery's accents in First Knight.

I want to suggest, however, that we let Perceval (though perhaps not Gere or Connery) be our guide: we ought to pursue pedagogical strategies that maximize students' collective potential regardless of the rough edges. In what follows I explore three approaches to teaching Arthuriana that emphasize the development of critical reading skills explicitly developed on the one hand from what undergraduates do know and on the other from what they do not and should not. But first, the disclaimer: most of the observations that follow derive exclusively from my own experience teaching the legend of King Arthur to non-majors (non-English majors in my case). My evidence is often anecdotal, never scientific, and, for the most part, unabashedly uncorroborated, although I suspect that many readers of this essay will find something that reminds them of their own encounters with undergraduates. At the very least I sincerely hope that I am not the only instructor who has received a paper on Arthurian imagery and themes in contemporary 'power metal' with accompanying CD. (For those of you who haven't, allow me to recommend the band At Vance's song 'Hold Your Fire" from their CD Only Human. While less overtly Arthurian than Blind Guardian's 'Mordred's Song,' 'Hold Your Fire' is replete with thoroughly enjoyable gut-wrenching chivalric angst.)1

ENGAGING THE OTHER: ALTERITY AND THE NOVICE READER

For undergraduates, learning how to read medieval sources can be an intimidating process. Although trained in disparate disciplines, they are nevertheless likely to discover common ground in their shared awareness of, or even innate aversion to, the alterity of the medieval, even if the word 'alterity' itself means nothing in particular to them.2 Such an aversion, when allowed to lurk unchecked, can be suffocating in the classroom. Quickly deconstructing the medieval Other is a salutary first step in teaching Arthurian materials to an audience of novices so that less-outspoken students might not struggle on in silent frustration under the misguided assumption that they alone have failed to grasp what's going on or that this strange material seems somehow less strange to everyone else. It becomes the responsibility of the instructor to intervene before frustration devolves into self-loathing by encouraging students to read actively and against the text, to challenge anything and everything that doesn't make sense. …

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