by Kimberly Johnson, English
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2002
The teacher of Renaissance poetry faces a double set of challenges; the first is a tendency among students generally to be daunted by poetry, and the second (which compounds the first) is the unfamiliarity of students with language four or five centuries old. My students approached the readings for my course with a combination of resentment and trepidation. The antique idiom prevented them from confident interpretation. They were reluctant to believe that these alien, stiff, wrought verses could be understood by a 21st-century readership, much less that they could provoke any passion other than boredom.
In response to this problem, I assigned each student to choose a poem from the course’s syllabus and teach it to the class. Their presentations were to have three components: 1) The student began by translating the poem into a 21st-century American idiom, explaining the dramatic situation of the poem, its issues, its development, and its conclusion. 2) The student presented a current lyric text — that is, a pop song written since 1960 — that revisited the same topoi that her Renaissance poem covered. The student was required to explain how the contemporary text mirrored the situation and agenda of the Renaissance text, and to assess which of the two texts was the more effective piece of communication. 3) Finally, the student returned to the Renaissance poem and presented an interpretation of the text in its original idiom.
The most immediate evidence that this assignment improved student analysis is that they invariably concluded, in step 2 of the presentation, that the Renaissance poem achieved its purposes more effectively, demonstrating a more engaged relationship with the text. Under the umbrella of pop culture, the students were able to approach work by Spenser and Donne as if it held currency in their lives, and were bolstered to give scrutiny to the text’s operation and design. After the presentations were done, the students’ enthusiasm for the work grew as they realized that these foreign-sounding poems were nothing different— nothing more terrifying — than they were accustomed to hearing through their own headphones. The papers they turned in following the presentations (unlike papers written earlier in the semester) reflected a nuanced, patient, and deliberate analysis of the texts at the level of rhetoric, where before the students seemed to have been content providing vague summaries or repeating discussion material. The presentations fostered a familiarity with 400-year-old texts that gave students interpretive purchase; no longer daunted, they could devote their energies to investigation rather than to comprehension.