I’m glad to say I’m still learning.
Over the first ten years of teaching, I really worked on developing my teaching persona. Who I am in the classroom is a little different from who I am in my street clothes.
Also, I have developed (or appropriated) some tag lines or truisms that have come to characterize my approach to the world and to literature and language: It’s all connected; There’s treasure everywhere; Never trust a vowel.
When students realize that Big Bang Theory is making use of ancient type scenes, or when they realize they can figure out the meaning of an old, say Middle English, word because they know a modern Spanish cognate, I say “It’s all connected.”
When they think a text sounds ridiculous (the titles of The Mabinogion and the Nibelungenlied always get snickers), or that it’s too old and foreign to matter to them, but they find some gem that sparkles for them, and that leads them in to loving it, I remind them “There’s treasure everywhere.”
When they beat their heads against the wall (figuratively!) trying to figure out how to translate Chaucer or Beowulf, sometimes a well-timed “Never trust a vowel” leads to an epiphany.
This year I’ve discovered a new truth: Context is everything.
I’ve taught Ovid’s Metamorphoses for ten years, and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales for fifteen, and they still remain fresh and vivid to me. Classics can do that. But part of my enjoyment is shifting this year, as I look deeper in to the order of events and stories within the works.
I have always encouraged students to look for structure and order in the works we read, but somehow this year, the context of ideas like the tragic deaths of children in Ovid (Apollo loses his son Phaethon and Inachus the river god loses his daughter Io, and both fathers mourn deeply) seem to come to a head in later stories, or at least to lend gravitas to them. After seeing several parents pine for their lost children, the story of Demeter succeeding in regaining her daughter from the land of the dead, even for half the year, is a consolation to all the grieving parents thus far.
In the Canterbury Tales, too, I’ve often noted that the connections between the tales get more subtle but also more numerous as the Tales go on, but this year I was compelled to read “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” in the context of the earlier “Reeve’s Tale” (where there is a rape which is treated as a lark by its grim, bitter narrator, despite the obvious discomfort of the audience). The Wife’s tale, then responds to that whole scene—the Reeve’s introduction, his tale, and its reception—with a tale of rape that is not laughed off, but punished, the rapist threatened, put through an ordeal, and apparently rehabilitated. Yes, she’s a strong woman writing a tale of wish fulfillment for herself, but after she shows the Reeve what she thinks ought to happen to men who perpetrate or cosign such violence.
As a medievalist, part of my job is drawing attention to texts that came before the ones we read, helping my students to see the progression of ideas (or not) and the continuity of traditions. It makes us feel part of a historical continuum and lends a richness to contemporary and pop culture.
But this year, I’m devoting more attention to the connections within the text itself—adopting and exploring the idea that the text itself teaches us how to read it most fully. Context is everything. We’ll see how much mileage I can get out of that.
*There’s Treasure Everywhere” comes from the delightful 1996 Calvin and Hobbes treasury by Bill Watterson. I use it for wildly different texts and scenarios, but it remains a pretty universal truth.
** Ancora imparo is Italian for “I am still learning,” and attributed to Michelangelo and therefore appearing on plaques and paperweights everywhere, as well as the top of this blog.