Teaching Chaucer to Dumbasses

So. This semester I have 2 sections of the same course, which is a Brit Lit Survey from Beowulf to Milton. I may have mentioned before that I like this class; it’s my area, and I get to teach lots of cool stuff I like. I think I teach it well, and students tend to enjoy it, if the comments on my evaluations are to be believed. (I got my favourite comment ever on an evaluation for this class, actually; it said: “this course was not nearly as boring as I was expecting it to be.” Backhanded, yes, but something about it really pleased me.)

Taking all that into account, believe me when I tell you that I am teaching one decent group, and the other is a rancid pile of dumbasses.

I started having my suspicions earlier in the semester – it was becoming clear that the Good Class read and the Bad Class didn’t. The Good Class hands its work in, the Bad class asks repeatedly “is there something due?” The Good Class are thinking about their essay topics; the Bad Class are still coming up to me and saying “I think there was a handout about an essay or something last week?” The Good Class come to class; the Bad Class email me weak excuses. You get the idea.

Today we were reading some of the portraits in the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales. These are usually fun, and I take them slowly because this is most students’ first experience of reading Chaucer. Usually they get the general gist of it, and we use class time to go over some of the more interesting nuances of the descriptions. There are some good jokes, and so it is a class that gets some laughs.

Today, I had to spend 10 minutes explaining a couple of lines of portrait of the Prioress to the Bad Class. By the end, I felt like someone explaining a knock knock joke to a slow-witted foreigner: “Well, the idea is that I pretend I am knocking on your door.” “What door?” “There is no door, but we are pretending there is one.” “Why?” “So I can knock on it.” Et cetera.

Here are the lines in question:

Ful weel she soong the service dyvyne,
Entuned in hir nose ful semely,
And Frenssh she spak ful faire and fetisly,
After the scole of Stratford atte Bowe,
For Frenssh of Parys was to hire unknowe.

So, the deal is, Chaucer is talking about this nun, who seems to be from a nice family, and she has some social pretensions. He makes a little joke about her French being very Englishy. Here’s a rough transcript of me trying to get this across to the Bad Class.

Me: So, he says she sings through her nose. Anyone got any idea what that might mean?
Dumbasses omnes: [silence]
Me: Who talks through their noses?
Random Dumbass: People with colds?
Me (talking through nose as snobbily as possible): Well, possibly, but I was thinking more along the lines of a general stereotype. [Dumbasses appear to notice nothing.]
Dumbasses omnes: [silence]
Me (still talking through nose, and now tipping head to look down nose): No one can think of anything you associate with noses and social class?
Dumbasses omnes: [silence]
Me: How do snobby people talk?
Front row Dumbass: They use big words. [If this were the smart class, I would think that was a little dig. As it is, I am unsure.]
Me: They might, but we were thinking about noses, remember? [He clearly doesn’t. Dumbasses omnes look blank. Pause.] Well, sometimes people say that people who are snobby, or who are trying to sound very proper talk through their noses.
Dumbasses omnes: [silence]
Me: No one heard of that before? [Apparently not.] Then, he goes on to comment about her French. What does he say about it?
Least Dumb Dumbass: It’s very good?
Me: Well, he says she speaks it very nicely, yes. Where does he say she learned it?
[Long pause while they all look at the text for a couple minutes.]
Tentative Dumbass, reading from the book: Stratforde atte Bowe?
Me: Yes, and where is that?
Mumbler Dumbass: [something that sounds like, but cannot possibly be] Russia?
Me: Sorry?
Mumbler Dumbass: Nvmnd.
Dumbass who can read footnotes, but not the whole of the footnote: Middlesex.
Me: Yes, that’s partly what the footnote says. Where is that, then?
Dumbasses omnes: [silence]
Me: If you look at the rest of the footnote, it explains that it’s just outside London. So, what kind of French do they speak in London?
Back row Dumbass: Good French?
Me: Really?
Least Dumb Dumbass: Not so good French?
Me: Possibly. Why would that be?
Dumbasses omnes: [silence]
Me: What language do they speak in London?
Random Dumbass, having a flash of brilliance: English?
Me: Right! So, if the Prioress learned her French in London, and she doesn’t know Paris French, what does this say about her? [They stare blankly. I realise that this question was far too complex, and so I backtrack.] Remember the video we watched last week about the French invading England, and how the language changed?
A few Dumbasses: [Vague nods.]
Me: And who spoke French?
Least Dumb Dumbass: The king.
Me: And who else?
Front Row Dumbass: Rich people?
Me: Right. And remember how the guy was talking about families paying for people to teach French to their children? Why did they do that?
Least Dumb Dumbass: Because the were rich? Or noble class?
Me: Yes. And who else would want to do this? [By this point, I totally feel like Sir Bedevere in Monty Python and the Holy Grail: “Why do witches burn?”]
Girl Dumbass: French people?
Me [Kindly ignoring this sally]: “What about people who might want their children to associate with noble people? Would they want their children to speak French like the nobles?”
[Dumbasses nod sagely.]
Me:  So, we could call them social climbers? [No, of course we couldn’t. This gets more blank looks.] Anyone know what that means?
Mumbler Dumbass: People who smthing r other.
Me [desperately grasping at straws]: Yes! People who aspire to a higher social class, or who want to look like they come from a higher social class. So, teaching your children French would be a way to gain social status. But if you didn’t speak French yourself, would you be able to tell if they learned to speak good French?
Least Dumb Dumbass: Maybe not.
Me: Right, so maybe Stratford French is the kind of Englishy French, and it might be the kind that people who want to look like nobles speak? [The Dumbasses graciously concede that this is so.] So, he’s making a little joke about the kind of French she knows, and maybe saying she isn’t as good as she thinks it is.
King Dumbass: It’s not a very funny joke.

At which point I groaned and banged my head against the desk.

However, I did have a moment of teaching genius today. Professor Birkenstock was moaning (bragging, actually) to me and assorted colleagues in the hallway about his brilliant class of keeners. “They all have their drafts done already! I don’t know what to do with them.” I said, “So, give them the talk about how smart they are, and how, because of this, you are going to have to raise your standards and increase the difficulty of the material.” He looked nonplussed. “But then I still have to think of new things for them to do.” Poor poppet. “No you don’t,” I said. “You just do exactly what you would have done anyway.”

9 thoughts on “Teaching Chaucer to Dumbasses

  1. Catherine

    Boy, does that take me back to my days in school..unfortunately, I was in the dumb class and didn’t have enough confidence to buck the dumbass crowd. Now is the time when I should have time to go to college, when I’m old enough to appreciate it, but now I have a job that puts a severe crimp in my free time. Maybe in retirement…..sigh.

  2. Ollie

    I admire your patience. One of my favorite methods to try to get Dumbasses to engage in class is to let the uncomfortable silence after I ask them a question drag on forever. It sounds like this tactic wouldn’t work here, but perhaps you could try brining in hand puppets?

  3. Milla

    The quip about knock knock jokes reminded me of this:

    “If you’re confused about what a funny cigarette might be, here’s a helpful chart:

    Funny Cigarette (a.k.a. Mary Jane, The Chronic, Cheeba):
    Je suis un transvestite executive! Le singe est sur le table! J’aime la plume de ma tante. Anyone slower than you on the highway is an idiot. Anyone faster than you is a maniac. I’m picking out a thermos for YOU…

    Mildly Amusing Cigarette (a.k.a. Those Damned Sampoerna Clove Things):
    Take my wife, please! I just flew in from Wisconsin and BOY are my arms tired! Jalapeno on a steeek! S’okay? S’all right. *sledgehammer to a watermelon*

    Plain Ol’ Ordinary Cigarette (a.k.a. Available at all fine gas stations and grocery stores near you):
    Knock, knock.”

  4. reggikko

    You’ve been eavesdropping on my Poetry and Drama class, haven’t you? I don’t know whether to be relieved or discouraged that dumbassedness is not restricted to the U.S., but has infiltrated Canada, as well.

  5. nuckingfutz

    You know what’s really scary? I just read your blog post out loud to my TEN YEAR OLD, and she understood about 80% of what you were trying to get across to your students. I repeat – she’s TEN.

    I don’t know whether to admire your tenacity or to feel sorry for you.

    Probably a little bit of both.

  6. Pingback: Pointing and laughing at idiots, and other hobbies. « What Ladder?

  7. Carla

    As I read this my students were having silent reading time. I started laughing so hard I had to reach for a Kleenex and stop reading! I can SO relate to this, having the same divisions in my current American Lit classes. Thanks for taking the time to share this!


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