Most people who know me (from an academic standpoint) know of my love of medieval literature–particularly Arthurian studies. Ever since I was a kid, my head was filled with stories of young boys becoming knights, riding off on their charger in full plate armor in search of adventure. More than just looking for trouble, these knights were a part of an organization, The Round Table, that stood for a higher set of ideals for man to aspire to than the simple, mean life that faced him. It is no wonder that I would train for all four years of college and after serve in the military–what other organization parallels this romantic notion better? Of course, I think my desire to teach is what brought me back to being a civilian again but I still maintained my desire to study medieval literature.
Of course, the military does not conform exactly to the highly romanticized Round Table of King Arthur. And neither is teaching medieval literature–at least, doing so at the post-secondary level. Something I continually came to discover during my graduate studies is that my lack of knowledge in the relevant foreign languages severely limited my abilities (Latin, Old English in particular and in some lesser extents, German and French). In examining texts, it became clear that translators often gloss certain words (or forgo secondary meanings) in favor of an understanding that is either more commonly known or better fits their view. Unfortunately, writers choose words deliberately and we can lose additional understandings of the text when we rely on someone else to inform us–this is where the knowledge of these languages comes into play as it frees the academic to discover on their own what the text is or is not actually saying. Lacking these tools, one must simply rely on someone else for the answer. This is fine for a student up to a point, but for a teacher, I cannot believe this is a responsible treatment of the material that will then be taught.
So I find myself at a crossroads: do I devote additional years to learning these languages so that I can thoroughly and responsibly handle those texts which I would teach, or seek an alternative?
Fortunately, slightly more than half of my Master’s program focused on American literature and unlike my undergraduate studies, I found myself responding strongly to this body of literature. This was a field where I felt that despite any personal misgivings about a particular writer or text, I was very successful in navigating through the material–and even enjoying myself perhaps nearly as much as my medieval coursework. Further, few Americanists have specialties that require a thorough grounding in foreign languages.
While I cannot claim to have taught medieval literature yet, I was forced to teach Contemporary Non-Western Literature this past year where students were placed in a position of reading texts with little historical or contextual knowledge of the readings. Even after attempting to help provide that context, students still struggled with the reading thereby negating significant dialogue about the significance of the text. Now, I am much more comfortable in medieval English than I am Non-Western Lit, but I still believe this would remain a significant challenge for students nonetheless. And I am faced with the additional question of whether I want to dedicate large portions of each class towards sociology of medieval England?
Looking at those courses dedicated towards American Lit, I have to confess that it was a breath of fresh air being able to “plug and play” much of the readings into class discussion. That’s not to say history and context were not addressed! Certainly when we looked at the American Gothic of the 19th-Century, there was a lot of history that needed to be reviewed especially with Hawthorne. Nonetheless, I felt students were much better prepared for this body of reading thereby allowing me to do what I do best–dig into the text, generate a discourse, and challenge them to expand their minds!
As a Ph.D. student, there is the expectation that we will write a dissertation about a particular field of study often narrowing that focus to a particular time period. This dissertation is usually supported by a variety of coursework taken within that general frame, and so, your specialty is developed. I am at that point where I am going to need to stop straddling the fence and choose a side. There are pros to each side and there are cons. In some ways, I am bothered that I am being forced into this binary position of having to choose ‘either-or.’
So, I am at a crossroads here in Indiana, PA. American or Medieval?