One of the big things I get from being part of the medieval academic blogospheric conspiracy effort is a shedload of perspectives and wisdom on teaching. A lot of the people in my blogroll are engaged, one way or another, with communicating stuff about the Middle Ages to the young, or at least, the novitiate. Those who blog anonymously or pseudonymously have the most freedom to talk about this, and if I tried to list the times I’ve read something at Blogenspiel, The Rebel Letter, Not of General Interest, Quills or The Adventures of Notorious, Ph. D., to name but a few, and thought, “ah, I’ve met that” or “I’m sure to meet that before long” and been educated by their responses, or at least recognised the particular brick wall against which their heads have been banging, I… well, it would be a long list. The process of evaluation and design of outcomes that these people put themselves through has taught me, who have just done less of this than have they, a lot.
Now that I’m teaching again, I’d like to give something back, but not being anonymous, the issues are very different, even supposing that I have anything to say. The last teaching gig I had, one of my students had found this blog within a week, and my teaching group was so small then that there was really no way that, if I’d said anything more specific than “I need to re-write that lecture if I ever give it again”, it would have been possible to obscure what ‘teaching moment’ had inspired me. That seemed like something to avoid, not least because it was unfair on the students to expose them like that but also because it might potentially be actionable. After all, the law on blogs is pretty darn rubbish as yet. Similarly, if I’d said something that could be read as a comment on an institution where I was readily locatable, given the number of my colleagues who know this is here, it would probably not have made any friends unless I’d only said nice things.1 Some people manage this, Richard Nokes and Michael Drout most obviously successfully pull off the double of being both positive and also informative about their classroom practice and results, but I’m not at their level. For all these reasons, student confidentiality, institutional codes of practice written or tacit, correct self-promotion and my own sense of how much I have to learn at this game even now (do we ever stop, after all?) I shall not be blogging about teaching here.
Except. This paragraph is my only exception. The week of writing, this passage from Notker the Stammerer’s Gesta Karoli was in the assigned reading for the seminars, among a lot of other stuff, but there:
This incident led to another much greater and more important. For, when your imperial majesty’s most holy grandfather departed from life, certain … mighty men, I say, despised the most worthy children of Charles, and each tried to seize for himself the command in the kingdom and themselves to wear the crown.2
Now, these kids all have History A-Levels, or at least responded yes to my initial check that they did. It seems that a full quarter of the marks at A-Level (which is England’s final school qualification for those of or around 18 years of age) in History, at least in the first board I searched up, still go for commentary on actual source extracts, and so it should. In other words, they ought to have done this before. So, I feel quite strongly that the question, “So, who is Notker writing this for?” should not have drawn an utter blank from the entirety of both my seminars at this point. Even if they can’t work out who exactly the “imperial majesty” in question is, I would submit that those words are a clue. But no dice. I’m not entirely sure what to do about this, which seems to me like a failure of reading comprehension. I don’t have much latitude to change materials or class titles, so there’s only so remedial I can get and I don’t even think that’s really the right approach, but I should certainly be doing more than nagging them to read more closely and providing examples or testing their reading each week. But one way or another I intend that by the end of the semester they will be reading things for details as well as for overall sense. And any advice that the sages of the Interwebs have here will be gratefully appreciated.
1. I will however risk saying here that if anyone reading is in the UK and does a bit of carpentry or braziery on the side, you should consider getting in touch with KCL’s History Department and offering to make them some new map-mounts. The maps they have and can’t use are miles better than anything anyone will ever be able to put through a data projector and it’s a shame. I bodged up ways of using them while I was there, stringing them from screen housings and so on, but it would be better to be able to have both map and screen at once and I think they might be sympathetic to some suitably pragmatic offer to that end.
2. It’s from cap. 12, one of four paragraphs of Notker they had to lose it in.