Having to Stretch, Having Room: A Voyage of Brendan Lesson

Valhalla Rising, to set the mood


“Merely quantitative differences, beyond a certain point, pass into qualitative changes.”

(Marx, Capital I.11, cadged from Malcolm Harris)

This semester, I’m teaching my first 3-hour, once-weekly class, an undergrad medieval comparative lit course. It runs from 6:30-9:10 every Monday, which I bisect with an optional but absolutely needed 15-minute break from roughly 7:45-8pm.

Three classes in and I’m loving it. It’s not just that I have to wind myself up to teach this stuff only once instead of twice a week (and we know, at least I do, the emotional effort required to step into a classroom); it’s what a long class does to my teaching.

For me and other talkers, a 75-minute class (or these thrice-weekly 50-minute classes I’ve heard rumor of) loves for me just to offload great blocks of ad-libbed information. And judging by my evals, this works. The letter arrives at some destination, if I’m just trying to convince my students that they’re getting what they think is an education and, even more so, if I want them to think I’m smart. But it’s obviously not our jobs to convince students that we deserve to be running the class.

Three hours of talking though? Doable, definitely, but far more obviously useless than in a regular-length class, or my name isn’t Karl “Increase Mather” Steel. Quantitative differences have forced me to flip my classroom. I’m following the scientists who are following humanities teaching.

Below, I’ll give you a map of the whole class. First, though, last night’s favorite bit.

I showed them the Wikipedia page on The Voyage of Saint Brendan and gave them five or ten minutes to read it (either from the screen up front or from their phones) and to write down one key thing the wikipedia page missed, and–if they had time–why this thing matters for understanding the text. If you don’t want to read the Wikipedia, because why?, it offers a very brief intro and then a 29-item list of the steps of the voyage. And that’s it.

Here’s a partial list of what the class turned up:

  • Birds are fallen angels, not just birds.
  • Interactions between the people – the kisses for example, or the bowing, or the conversation.
  • What Brendan thinks about Abbot Ailbe’s silence, which he thinks too severe for human nature to bear.
  • How Brendan lets God guide them to islands rather than travelling deliberately.
  • All the stuff about don’t worry, god will keep us safe: gryphon eg.
  • Jasconius: wikip doesn’t seem to understand that he is also the whale island.
  • Omits the size of the sheep – giant holy land sheep who never get milked.
  • Above all: the Psalms and the liturgy. Calendar and the solstice, Easter, Christmas.

What champs! We could have kept going for another 20 minutes on this. Now, I told them the obvious: they were being tested on whether they’d done the reading, and also being given a practical lesson in Wikipedian inadequacies. They got all this. But then I unpacked a fun fact: we have 120+ extant manuscripts of the Voyage of Brendan, and translations into most European vernaculars. And a lot of the translations, or really, adaptations, do exactly what the Wikipedia article does, namely, they hush up the religious element and turn up the adventure. See some of this for example. What does this say about continuities between medieval and modern readers?

Keep reading for the complete lesson plan. And if you’d rather just skip to comments, do that, and let me know your classroom flipping tricks, because frankly this old talker is new to all this…fun. Note that my class has only 24 students, which strikes me as perfect for a 300-level undergrad course.

The whole plan:

  1. As students come in, to set a mood, I played a long scene from Valhalla Rising of warriors drifting at sea, mostly mute, filthy, and lost in the fog;
  2. the medieval news: last week it was Richard III. This week it was the Pope’s resignation (helped along by showing them Bruce Holsinger’s blog) and then some Wonders of the East from the newly digitized Cotton MS Vitellius A XV (which means talking about the Ashburnham House fire);
  3. then, once I know I have a full complement, the Wikipedia thing;
  4. three five-minute student presentations. All smart and interesting. The first on animal guides; the second on ecology, conservationism, and sainthood; and the third on Christian allegory. Everyone had to write down a comment or question for every presenter, which meant a lively discussion until the break at 7:45;
  5. during the break, students who stuck around learned how to build a coracle;
  6. since mine might be the only medieval class the students take, I do a lot of “medieval ambassadorship”–or just show and tell–whenever I do take time to talk. Last night I showed them an Adam Roberts pun (“The Em-Bayeux Strikes Back”) and then…explained the joke;
  7. boring discussion of the papers I had just graded. Had to be done, but this I hadn’t quite planned on, so I reverted back to the old lecturing Karl. Will need to fix this next time;
  8. quick gesture at favorite bits from the immrama and echtrai, mostly from old issues of the Revue celtique available on Archive.org: Voyage of Snegdus and Mac Riagla; Voyage of Mael Duin; Voyage of the Húi Corra; and the Voyage of Bran. This led into a brief discussion of medieval remix culture, and using TvTropes to undo the modern pretension of “originality”;
  9. and finally, in-class writing, small group discussion, followed by reports back to the class.

Here were the questions:

  • Having read Bede’s Life of Cuthbert and the Voyage of St. Brendan, what do you now know about Christian monastic asceticism, and what does this say about their conception about the good and the evil? What do they think someone needs to do to be holy, and why? [this required explaining the difference between asceticism and aestheticism];
  • Why is the Voyage precise on so many things (the size of the “iceberg” for example), but never about where things actually are (the relative position of the islands)?
  • Why should being naked except for full-body hair be a sign of holiness?

They got 10 minutes. They could write first about whichever one interested them, and all three if they could. One detailed response would be more than sufficient, though. Then groups of four had to try to synthesize an answer (which is always, usefully, impossible). Discussion had to be cut off, both in the small groups, and then when I finally let them go precisely at 9:10.

One more point! Because of all the in-class writing (which is ungraded but read and counts for 15% of their grade), and the presentation (which has a graded written component), I’m eliminating TWO short papers from my standard syllabus. Advantages abound: less to grade; they write more; they think about the reading more often, and possibly more deeply; and they have more time at home to work on their other classes. Which means I’m not the bad guy, and I’m stuck in grading jail a lot less.

Everyone wins.

Next week we start four weeks on Gerald of Wales. I hope we all can keep it up!