Striking Balances in a Graduate Seminar

Jonathan Davis-Secord

University of New Mexico


Graduate seminars in Old English literature present several challenges in course design, since contemporary graduate students need not only information and skills but also a command of the theoretical approaches essential to the contemporary English department. Anglo-Saxonists cannot be allowed to neglect their philological "chops" or their grasp of historical context, but an ignorance of theory constitutes an imprudent avoidance of a useful tool, as well as an unnecessary detriment on the job market. Lives of saints provide an excellent site for this blending of fundamentals and theory: they were important elements of Anglo-Saxon religious and literary culture, and they offer fertile ground for theoretical readings. They have clear and concrete links to their historical surroundings but resist simple, historicizing interpretations through their stylization and adherence to generic conventions. Because of hagiographical texts' frequent interest in power, gender, bodies, and belief, theoretical paradigms open up Lives in new ways and reveal aspects that would remain otherwise hidden (see, for example, some of the essays in Paul Szarmach's new collection). Nonetheless, successfully combining philology with theory is a tall order, even for a graduate seminar. A semester is only so long, schedules only so open, and students able to handle only so much work. It was with this goal of a theoretically informed yet fundamentally grounded seminar that I designed my "Old English Queens and Cross-Dressers," which focused on gender in Lives of female saints.

The class consisted of nine registered students and two auditors, happily exceeding the critical mass necessary for productive discussions. Seven of the students were women, leaving four men; all were students in the English Department. Not all, however, were doctoral students at the time: four were Masters students, although two of those are now in Ph.D. programs and a third intends to enter a Ph.D. program next year. The fourth Masters student admittedly took the class only to fulfill the department's foreign language requirement in conjunction with my "Introduction to Old English" from the prior semester. All but that one Masters student intend to become professional medievalists. In the main, they already knew each other, making it much easier to attain the comfort that allows for vigorous participation in discussions. I was acquainted with all but two of the students before the semester began, but we did not know each other well, since 2012–2013 was my first year at the University. As a result, they did not know my style and expectations beforehand, and I approached the class with a healthy respect for my relative ignorance of their abilities and preferences.

The choice of primary texts presented the first challenge in designing an effective graduate seminar, since the corpus provides a surfeit of options, but the schedule does not. Although Ælfric's works almost always play a major role in any class on Old English hagiography, I wanted a topical seminar and not simply an Ælfric seminar, and I also wanted to include traditionally recognized poetry for breadth. Stipulating non-Ælfrician verse hagiography of female saints narrows the field to Juliana and Elene, but even then time and scheduling constraints ruled out the inclusion of both texts. I chose Juliana, mainly due to its shorter length. The inclusion of a non-Ælfrician poem is one of the few choices that I will change the next time I teach the course: pedagogically, I found the transition to Juliana jarring, interrupting the good rhythm we had developed over several weeks of reading selections from Lives of Saints. Replacing Juliana with more readings from Lives of Saints will allow the students to concentrate more on the secondary readings as the semester progresses, rather than being forced to regain their bearings in a transition from rhythmical prose to poetry in their translations. This change will sacrifice a breadth of form for the cultivation of a balance of primary and secondary texts.

The second challenge, of course, was fitting in a balanced selection of secondary works alongside significant translation time. It would be a mistake to avoid important and fundamental articles such as Michael Lapidge's introduction to the genre, but he had to share time with Judith Butler, whose Gender Trouble introduced several of the students to feminist and psychoanalytic theory for the first time. The most egregiously ambitious assignment asked the students to read all of Gender Trouble while also translating a good portion of the Life of Euphrosyne in the same week. In the future, I will instead assign only the most salient sections of Gender Trouble. The detailed intellectual history of psychoanalytic theory lying behind Butler's formulation of performativity, although important, went beyond the needs of the course and ended up bogging down the discussion and distracting from the main focus. Unfortunately, I had to leave out several good secondary readings, although the students tended to come to those readings on their own in the course of their research. Ultimately, I took an optimistic view and trusted my students' capacities, assigning a fairly heavy load that paired a full monograph with a full passage of translation for many of the meetings. Asking any more than that amount of work would likely be excessive, at least for my students, who must take a full load of two or three courses while also teaching two courses of their own each semester (we have no part-time graduate students).

One major factor in organizing the course was that my department's seminars meet once a week for three and a half hours—one hour longer than seminars in most other departments. That long meeting duration initially seemed daunting but ultimately demanded and enforced a good solution to the issue of balancing primary and secondary readings. To fend off exhaustion, I divided each meeting in half with a brief break in the middle. I began with straight translation for the first half of each regular meeting. During that period, I asked philological and grammatical questions, keeping the students on their toes regarding verbs taking genitive and Verner's Law, among other things. The focus on the concrete details of language in the first half allowed the students to warm up, as it were, and become comfortable participating each week. That comfort then facilitated successful discussion of theoretical issues in the second halves of each meeting. In those second halves, after a limited number of minutes purging any gripes about how hard it was to understand the theory, we were able to get down to productive discussion. I assumed it would be difficult for the students (and me) to last to the very end of the scheduled time, but each week we would get out just on time, and I think the intentional break and balance between translation and discussion contributed significantly to our endurance.

A predictable but nonetheless interesting challenge was the division between students receptive to theory and those opposed. Interestingly, both groups contained a mix of men and women, with no decided pattern of, for example, male students resisting feminist theory. Indeed, the only pattern to the division was that, oddly, all the students receptive to theory sat on one side of the seminar table, while those resistant sat on the other. This arrangement seems not to have been the product of friends sitting with friends, and I am unable to account for it. In sum, five of the students consistently expressed reservations concerning theoretical approaches, but none of them were unyieldingly resistant, only initially skeptical. That openness may in part have been due to my addressing the issue head on in the first meeting, when I explained my views on theory. Scholars should not dogmatically expect adherence to any theoretical paradigm or even theory as an abstract concept. Rather, theory should simply be another tool in our interpretive toolboxes, parallel and complementary to such traditional paradigms as philology and historicism. I trusted my students to take an open mind and see what they might find with theory. A few students ultimately wrote papers employing more traditional approaches instead of the postmodern theories discussed in class, but those students had fully respected other theoretical approaches during our discussions. Other students for whom the theories were entirely new did work to include theory in their papers simply to try it. That openness on the part of the "theory-novices" even led to some fascinating discussions, such as questioning the gender of zombies, which then led into a discussion of the gender of monks, nuns, and eunuchs. If gender is a performance involving sex to some degree, how do we understand people who are unable to or choose not to perform sexually?

Among the most impressive results of the seminar were the substantial connections that the students made between secondary readings assigned in different weeks. The readings followed a coherent progression, but the students led the discussions in directions that I had not anticipated. We focused on the issue of gender performance throughout the semester; however, the students' attention turned agency into the most important issue that we traced. While I had included several readings on agency (Lees and Overing, Scheck, Olsen, O'Brien O'Keeffe), I had not considered it the main topic of the course. The students, however, clearly found the issue compelling, and their interest shifted the course of our discussions. The most fruitful result of my students' excellent work was putting into conversation Helene Scheck's Reform and Resistance and Katherine O'Brien O'Keeffe's Stealing Obedience. Scheck's monograph was very useful in analyzing the Anglo-Saxon Benedictine reform movement in light of several parallels, but our discussions found her definition of agency to be limiting. Several weeks (and a spring break) later, the students reintroduced Scheck's book into our discussion of Stealing Obedience. I was struck by the quality of their analysis, especially in the face of the long time separating the two discussions. The differences between the approaches to agency in the two monographs led to a much deeper discussion of the abstract issues than I had expected, which then fed into an excellently nuanced discussion of all the texts from the semester. As the last scholarly reading, Stealing Obedience was a resounding success, for it tied everything together and inspired my students to their best efforts.

My students' excellent work in seminar discussions exemplifies the last balance that I sought to strike in my seminar. Graduate seminars should help our students find their own scholarly voices and prepare them to join the academic community beyond their programs; I wanted the course to be a balance between myself and the students. While it may sound like empty jargon to be cynically bandied about in teaching portfolios, I take a "student-centered" approach to teaching. Although that term is most often applied to undergraduate course design, graduate seminars should perhaps be the most "student-centered" courses that we teach, since they should in a sense prepare the students to lead graduate seminars themselves. The approach means not that I cater to my students' desires but that they must share with me the responsibility for their learning. For example, in addition to the translations and discussions already noted, each student gave a presentation on a Vita of a female saint, covering the legend, elements specific to its Anglo-Saxon version, and the current scholarship. These presentations put each student in charge of the meeting for fifteen minutes at a time, which allowed them to experience and practice the role for which the program trains them. They already teach undergraduates, but the presentations put them in front of their peers. The students also took turns at center stage in the final class meetings, which functioned as a symposium for research presentations. I made sure to participate as well, presenting a portion of the article that I developed through teaching the seminar. The equal weight given to each student's work and my own research was the fulfillment of the semester-long tenor of the meetings as gatherings of peers at a conference. I had high expectations of my students, and they fulfilled them.

In sum, I tried to strike the balances that I think a graduate seminar needs: fundamentals with theory, original texts with scholarship, and students with professor. To achieve those goals, I plotted a challenging and optimistic course that required copious translation, difficult secondary readings, and complete engagement from me and my students. This design laid the foundation for a successful seminar, but the seminar's success also depended significantly on the students, who were both willing and able to make it work. That lesson is perhaps the most valuable one that I learned from teaching my first graduate seminar: trust the students. Trust their desire to expend great effort in their studies, and, most importantly, trust their ability to live up to formidable expectations.


Works Cited


Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. 1990. New York: Routledge, 2006.

Lapidge, Michael. "The Saintly Life in Anglo-Saxon England." The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature. Ed. Malcolm Godden and Lapidge. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1991. 243–63.

Lees, Clare A., and Gillian R. Overing. Double Agents: Women and Clerical Culture in Anglo- Saxon England. 2001. Cardiff: U of Wales P, 2010.

Olsen, Alexandra Hennessey. "Cynewulf's Autonomous Women: A Reconsideration of Elene and Juliana." New Readings on Women in Old English Literature. Ed. Helen Damico and Olsen. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1990. 222–32.

O'Brien O'Keeffe, Katherine. Stealing Obedience: Narratives of Agency and Identity in Later Anglo-Saxon England. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2012.

Scheck, Helene. Reform and Resistance: Formations of Female Subjectivity in Early Medieval Ecclesiastical Culture. New York: SUNY, 2008.

Szarmach, Paul E., ed. Writing Women Saints in Anglo-Saxon England. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2013.