by Nichole Sterling, Scandinavian
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2006
In the six semesters that I have taught a medieval section of reading and composition for the department of Scandinavian, one problem has been constant: how do I get students to connect with the literature that I teach in a way that allows them to write meaningful essays? In these classes I typically use Old Norse literature in modern English translation. However, the problems with teaching this literature in translation go well beyond merely translating a foreign language into English. With medieval literature, the act of translation insofar as teaching is concerned must necessarily involve the interpretation of not only a foreign culture, but a “dead” culture. The Old Norse sagas are problematic as medieval literature in their own ways. For instance, their distinctive, concise style and use of terse language can make the sagas seem deceptively simplistic to students. However, underneath this misleading facade, there is a wealth of information about medieval Icelandic society and culture. How then can I involve students in these sagas in a way that helps them to understand the formal structure of the literature and lets them see past the unfamiliar writing to the cultural importance?
During my first semester of teaching, as my students’ frustrations with the material became more noticeable, I decided that it would be interesting to see what students might come up with if I asked them to create their own sagas. In this assignment, I asked them to work in groups in class and to use the formal conventions of saga writing to create their own story. Then the groups were asked to orally present their story to the class. As a result of this experiment, many students began to comment on how difficult it was to write in such a “simple” style and yet go beyond telling the story to show emotion and develop characters. It gave them a new appreciation for the anonymous saga authors of thirteenth-century Iceland as they began to realize just how carefully constructed the sagas in fact are. In the sagas, every word matters, and several students mentioned that this was useful in editing and rethinking their own writing skills. Finally, the oral presentation aspect of this activity was useful for understanding a possible way in which the sagas were initially told and retold, and it gave my students a new insight into the way in which aspects of the writing, such as repetition, might have functioned. Since then, largely due to student response from my first semester of teaching, I have continued to develop the “mock saga” as a project in both my 5A and 5B sections. The students enjoy the creative aspects of the assignment, and in trying their hand at a medieval style of writing students are able to break down some of the barriers that make the medieval seem so foreign.
However, assessing these projects was initially a problem as they involve both group work and creative work — two types of projects that I find perhaps the most difficult to assess. Thus, rather than grading the creativity of the project itself, I have started to use a self-assessment process in which student discuss what they learn about the medieval literature from creating their own saga, and how this impacts their understanding of the literature. Additionally, I ask students to think about how this kind of creative writing helps them to think about analytical writing and/or research writing. I ask them to write down their observations and turn them in. These are graded, and the students’ observations are discussed with the class as a whole.
Ultimately, I have found that creative projects can have place in composition courses. Creative projects can help students to understand what they read, and a greater understanding of what students read can only lead to better papers and better discussion in class.