Category Archives: Chaucer

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.”

Okay, I think my head asplode.

As you might have noticed, if you have been reading my blog since the beginning loyal readers, I am very fond of Chaucer, both in his real and blog incarnations. And you may also have noticed, along with less loyal readers, who come here via Cheeseburger, that I am also fascinated by lolcats. These didn’t seem to be tastes that in any way intersected, but what the hell, this is my blog, and I said I would write about things I like and things that interest me.

Apparently, a liking for medieval poetry and cat macros not that rare a combination, and when put together, it results in Chaucer deciding he can hath cheezburger. He called them lolpilgrim, but some wag in the comments suggested Lollards, which is so much funnier.


Feckless’ immediate reaction to seeing the Lollard pictures was to ask “Did you do that?” meaning, did I mention lolcats to Chaucer. Which is flattering, but no. I did mention them to some other medievalists, though. Unusually, I didn’t find the post by checking Chaucer’s blog (although I do this very frequently), but because I was reading another blog. What delights me is the idea of the synergy, I think. This is partly about the lolcat phenom, but it is also about blogging and the community of ideas. So much awsum.

Sir Robin and Sir Thopas, or Why I love Chaucer

Tomorrow is the last class of the term for my British Literature Survey class, informally known as Beowulf to Milton. I love teaching this class, and I confess that I do tend to spend a lot more time over the course of the semester on the earlier literature, Chaucer in particular, and we tend to give poor old Milton short shrift.

As a round-off to the semester, I tell the class we are going to do a refresher of the first part of the course (that is, the medieval part), and I act all serious and stuff, and then, when they come to class, I show them Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Yes, I am the kind of professor who enjoys perpetrating lame pleasantries on my students.

This isn’t quite as gratuitous as it might seem, because I am quite possibly the only person who teaches The Tale of Sir Thopas in a survey class. Sir Thopas is universally derided as a bad poem; it is even derided within the Canterbury Tales as a bad poem, and it tends to get dismissed as unworthy of inclusion on University syllabi. Except by me, and by the incomparable Terry Jones, who is one Chaucer scholar who gets the joke. Which is why I show Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The Tale of Sir Robin (which comes up about halfway into the clip above) is lifted absolutely straight from The Tale of Sir Thopas, and of course, it is quite funny even if you don’t know that. Students who read Sir Thopas and enjoyed it are rewarded with that special glow you feel when you get an in-joke.

So why do I insist on teaching this bad poem? Well, because it really isn’t bad, or rather, it is bad on purpose, so bad that it is good, which is quite a different category. Chaucer the master poet writes clunky rhythm in this poem, and all sorts of dreadful jokes because it is a multilayered parody of knightly romance poetry, and even better, it is a poem inside a larger work which makes fun of the dude who is writing a larger work, and all his pretensions about writing in multiple voices. Chaucer is the only writer I know who manages to laugh at himself and make it truly funny; other writers who try always tend to have a more or less obvious tone of “but really, we both know I’m great, hur hur” tone about them.

Literary scholars don’t seem to like this much, but then I think they probably aren’t huge fans of Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, either.

Earlier this month, Chaucer issued a challenge to his readers to celebrate his works. If you want to hear my Gaudete to Geoffrey, click the link.

Sir Thopas, Fitt 1