Teaching Chaucer, the New Old-fashioned Way

How do you teach Chaucer now, especially to undergraduates? It’s a really difficult question, especially with Chaucer’s particular legacy. While Chaucer didn’t see himself as the Father of English as a national (and nationalist) literature, the organization of our departments and curricula places him there. He tells misogynist, racist, and anti-semitic stories, and was responsible for the rape of Cecily Champagne, yet his work has been the impetus for astounding feminist and anti-racist work. He is part of the trio of “Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton” who are synonymous with English and male literary chauvinism, but has also motivated adaptations by those who stand outside of the traditional English literary scene. While a graduate course can do much to situate students in relationship to multiple discourses, undergraduate courses are often teaching students the basics of Middle English, close reading, and research practices, and simply introducing the literature itself, which most undergraduates have not read, or read only in the smallest selections. 

All three of us do most (or all) of our teaching at the undergraduate level, and have spent a lot of time thinking about how our research work does and doesn’t express itself in that undergraduate teaching. When we designed this project, we were thinking about the unifying feature of our teaching and our research: the fascination with a term of Chaucer’s. I often tell students that it is important for them to learn not only to read Middle English, but to think in Middle English – that is, to think in a language that has so many fewer words, and which therefore requires greater semantic breadth. But I also ask them to think etymologically, and see how medieval terms are narrowed or developed into modern ones, or how Middle English options are abandoned or replaced. Specific terms are a way for students, even those students still learning Middle English, to engage with the texts in front of them: it was the thing that all three of us found we had in common in our Chaucer courses. 

That’s why this companion begins with the basics—Chaucer’s words—with each chapter exploring a single word from Chaucer’s works. These words are central to “critical thinking” on Chaucer not in the saccharine sense often invoked in Humanities discourse (where “critical thinking” is the bland transferable skill that Humanities provides as grist for the mill of job preparedness), but because these words produce crises. Some of these crises are internal to Chaucer’s poetry – after all, what is the moral sense of slider or of swyven, forms that modern English has lost? Some of them are developed simultaneously in Chaucer’s poetry and other discourses, like entente (with law) or auctorite (with political and moral theory). Some are crises of understanding for us now, like blacke and thinge. These terms allow those coming to Chaucer for the first time, and those who are perhaps old hands, to experience the excitement of these crises of thought by fully investing themselves in Chaucer’s work – but in a way that is inextricable from the way these words function in the context of our 21st century language(s). In the process of engaging with these terms, they become part of the language of today. 

By Stephanie Batkie, Matt Irvin, and Lynn Shutters

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