by Carl Olsen, Scandinavian
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2007
The Problem: I was once asked why I teach medieval texts in my Reading & Composition courses, the implication being that writing competently on medieval material requires more contextual knowledge than casual students can master in a semester. In my own experience I have found the centuries between “us and them” to be a productive obstacle rather than a forbidding one: the problem has been in communicating the significance and appeal of that distance to my students. I begin with Jauss’s concept of “horizons of expectations” and suggest that we view our task as the recovery of the medieval horizon. This, of course, is in a strict sense impossible, and students often have trouble understanding why we can’t just “take the text as it is.” My initial response has been to suggest that we consider our mission to be not just the reading of texts, but the exploration of a foreign culture by way of those texts: we are sleuths who have been given a collection of cultural artifacts and must figure out how those artifacts “worked.” This has helped, as many of my students major in the sciences, engineering, or computer science and find the “problem-solution” structure of the course appealing; but it only takes us so far. Without some sense of relevance to their own situation, casual students find it difficult to engage critically with the material. I employ the following strategy to overcome this last hurdle.
The Strategy: Once my students have sampled enough of the readings to get a feel for the style and subject matter of the mythological material, I have them write an original myth, either using the gods and heroes whom we have been studying or creating their own. They may write their myth as a poem, after the model of the Poetic Edda, or in prose, after the model of Snorri’s Edda. They are to mimic the style and subject matter of the Old Norse material (understanding, of course, that much of what they will be imitating is the translator’s own imitation of the original — an unavoidable problem), taking two to three pages (or longer) for their myth and another one-and-a-half to two pages for a justification of their strategy in writing their myth. This amounts to an analysis of the unique style and subject matter of the Norse material itself. Where previously the oddities of the texts have been barriers to understanding, obstacles to be overcome, they are now the students’ tools for creating narratives of their own. The exercise is meant to help them highlight the differences between their own narrative “horizon of expectations” and that of medieval Icelanders, and to appreciate the common art of narrative behind the dissimilarities.
Assessment: The effectiveness of the assignment varies from student to student. Some throw together a sloppy story having little to do with the course, most enjoy the opportunity for a creative outlet and make some decent observations about the material they are imitating, and others give me beautiful myths or heroic legends that feel as though they ought to be in a collection of their own. In nearly all cases I find that the students become excited about their ability to generate original, entertaining products using those very narrative tools and concerns that previously hampered their understanding. Those things that marked the texts as irrevocably different now become means by which students reach and recognize a common concern for narrative.