Teaching Old English in Tallahassee

David F. Johnson

Florida State University


[Files accompanying this article: 1) Assignment, 2) Guide, 3) Rumble article]


I. What I Do

I preface my remarks with the statement that my perspective is that of a Research I, state-funded public institution, and I am well aware that my experience will not match that of others at different kinds of institutions. For as long as I have taught in the English department here—some twenty-three years—Florida State University has been friendly to the teaching of Old English language and literature. Back when giants walked the earth and I was on the job market, FSU's was one of only a handful of advertisements that specifically asked for candidates who could teach both Old and Middle English. When I arrived here, the department was supportive of my opening up the Old English courses to undergraduates (they were only on the books as graduate offerings), and for many years I was fortunate enough to be able to teach the Introduction to Old English/Beowulf sequence every other year. Over the years we've graduated our share of PhD students with Old English in their repertoire, but also undergraduates and Master's students who have gone on to careers in Medieval Studies, some of them specializing in Old English and earning their PhDs at Cornell, the University of Connecticut, New York University, the University of Rochester, and the University of Virginia, among others.

Until recently, the graduate students taking my Old English courses would include both MA and PhD students from all three of our PhD tracks: Literature, Creative Writing, and Rhetoric and Composition. Students from the latter two categories especially typically enrolled to fulfill a linguistics (not language) requirement, but they were frequently some of the most engaged and creative students I have had the pleasure of teaching. A recent change in the requirements for PhD students (elimination of all linguistics requirements for Creative Writing and Literature students) has led to a slight reduction in enrollments, but the courses continue to fill well enough to run, with something like a 50-50 ratio grad to undergrad population. The overall numbers have fallen in recent years, though. Where in the past I've had as many as 20 students in a beginning Old English class, these days it's about half that.1 Part of the enrollment decline is due to the loosening of degree requirements described above, but that can (and, some would argue, should) be addressed through aggressive recruitment and cultivation of a constituency in undergraduate classes, rather than through "artificial" requirements. Fair enough; more on that in moment.

My approach has always been a skills-based one, the primary goal being to learn how to translate Old English with facility and felicity. Naturally, cultural and literary history always features in my classes, but the main aim has consistently been for my students to leave my course with the ability to read any text in Old English they might wish or be required to work with. Old English studies is blessed with a variety of excellent textbooks for beginners, but for as many years as I can remember, I have used Hasenfratz and Jambek's Reading Old English.2 In the course of the first eight weeks we work through the grammar of Old English, translating and completing the exercises in each chapter of the book. Once this Parris Island-like portion of the course is complete, and exams are behind us, the remainder of the course is devoted to translating and discussing a selection of texts in Richard Marsden's The Cambridge Old English Reader.3

Partly because my department houses the History of Text Technologies program (and with it students at all levels with some knowledge of and interest in manuscript studies), but mostly because I am convinced it is an excellent way for learners of Old English to solidify their knowledge of the grammar, I typically assign an editing project in my beginning Old English course. Students receive instructions and materials on the very first day of class, and are told to start transcribing their assigned text before they have even learned their first paradigm.4 The text is usually a very short excerpt from an Old English prose text, and more recently students have been able to access manuscript witnesses to their assigned texts on sites like "Parker on the Web," to which our University library subscribes. (Most recently I have used the Old English Dialogues for this exercise, in particular because it is comprised of many short, discrete narratives that lend themselves to brief editorial treatments of this kind.) This exercise lends a further practical dimension to the learning of Old English, and again, tends to strengthen students' command of the paradigms and vocabulary they learn in the course of the class. So by term's end, in addition to having learned something about Anglo-Saxon culture and literature, and having accumulated significant practice in translating Old English, FSU students submit a completed mini-edition, replete with introduction, commentary, glossary and translation. In the follow-up semester, when I have been able to offer it, many of those same students would sign up to translate and discuss Beowulf in its entirety.5

Now, I imagine that what I do in my Introduction to Old English class is not that much different from what other colleagues, who are lucky enough to be able to teach this course elsewhere, do in theirs. Some may organize the course around a theme ("Popular Religion," "Women in Anglo-Saxon England," "The Language of Life and Death in Anglo-Saxon Literature"), but when it comes right down to it, the paradigms have to be learned and translation skills acquired.


II. Pressures: STEM, assessment, state budgets, student employability


It's difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of the recent drop in English literature major enrollments at FSU. There has been a concerted push to steer students in the state of Florida toward STEM degrees, on the assumption that such degrees will lead to jobs. Rick Scott, Floridas current Governor, famously barked that Florida doesnt need "a lot more anthropologists in this state."6 To my knowledge, no one has asked him what he thinks about Old English or Medieval Studies, but it does not require much imagination to guess what his response would be. So at the highest level of state government funding, the Humanities are getting short shrift in Florida. The states funding model for higher education has changed recently, as well. In the not so distant past, a university simply had to take on more students if it wanted more funding from the state. To quote a former Provost of FSU, the answer to the funding question was "warm butts in seats." Now we have seen a shift in Florida from that model to one based on "performance metrics," and one of the significant metrics that determines budget decisions is post-graduation employment. State funding for the FSU English department is thus based at least partly on the number of employed FSU English graduates and their salaries. So how have these developments affected the way I teach Old English at FSU? So far, not at all.

It is a fact that numbers have been going down here in the (undergraduate) literature major for the past three years, but a concurrent rise in enrollments in the Editing, Writing, and Media (EMW) track has meant that the overall number of English majors in the department has remained pretty much steady-state. As the title of that track suggests, it meets a perceived demand of our students for a more "practical" focus in the English major and their expectation that a degree in English can also lead directly to employment (FSU has no Journalism department or major, although we do have a Communications major; the EWM track in English is structurally distinct from the latter).

Of course, at FSU Introduction to Old English proper isn't an undergraduate course, really, but recruitment from the undergraduate ranks over the years has led to a steady stream of students in my Old English classes. One does what one can. I teach an undergraduate large lecture class in Medieval Literature and Film (one version of which includes Beowulf); I have a "Vikings in Film" course coming up, and I offer a course on Icelandic Sagas in translation (among other things as a hook to draw in enough students so that my Introduction to Old Norse/Icelandic course will make). In other words, I have for some time now been doing some of what Richard Utz has recently advocated in order "to save Medieval studies" 7, i.e. dabbled in Medievalism and catered, to some extent, to the more popular, modern mind-set of todays undergraduates (who then occasionally enroll in the mixed grad/undergrad Old English course). Utz's remarks are part of a larger debate taking place within the field of Medieval Studies, a debate of perhaps questionable utility at a time when the Humanities as a whole are once again under attack in Higher Education. I think Tom Bredehoft, in a recent response to Utz's article, is in the right here:

    The problem with using medievalism to make the work of medievalists relevant is that it echoes or embodies the humanities' current focus on the modern. Medievalists hold a precarious position on the margins of the modern, and early medievalists have found themselves quite solidly placed upon the side of the pre-modern. But to simply try to make medieval studies more relevant to modernists gives the game up, it appears, by throwing the pre-modern period under the bus.8
And I'll admit that what really bothers me is this notion that all subjects taught in the context of an undergraduate education must of necessity be "relevant." Relevant to what? To whom? Ultimately, of course, the one answer that counts most might well be "to the students." This debate—about the value of medieval studies and the study of Old English within it—is not new. Old English came under severe attack even at Oxford, of all places, where it came very close to be scrapped from the curriculum in the 1990s. One of the arguments against the study of Old English at the time was Valentine Cunningham's radical and monumentally misguided view that Old English was a
    'linguistic and literary blind alley', 'educationally, linguistically, historically...a cul-de-sac', a wearisome philological diversion from the broad current of English literature rather than a central part of it. In Cunnigham's argument, the language has no 'essential kinship with our own', the themes and concerns of the literature have left no trace on ours, and the very term 'Old English' implying that such a connection exists, is spurious.'9
Thankfully, shrewder and calmer heads prevailed, and Old English is still offered in the English degree at Oxford, but apparently it was a close thing. Nothing quite so dire has even come close to happening here at FSU, though admittedly, we're not exactly Oxford. Then again, far fewer people would notice or perhaps even care if Old English disappeared form the curriculum here in Tallahassee. In one of the defenses of Old English that appeared in the aftermath of the Oxford debate, Stuart Lee was of the opinion in 2001 that the way forward was an infusion of popular culture into Old English courses (somewhat like Utz today): "In short, if you wish to teach difficult, or culturally distant courses, you can increase your students' understanding and enjoyment by including a dose of contemporary content."10

Bredehoft suggests something slightly different as an alternative to Utz's solution for "saving medieval studies," (and, perhaps, mutatis mutandi, Old English): What medieval studies needs to do, I think, is to argue for our importance on the basis of multi-culturalism and diversity. Pre-modern cultures were different from modern ones, and they have much to offer us for understanding culture difference, cultural contact and conflict, and cultural change. These problems are vital ones in our time, and whether it is STEM thinking or humanities thinking that urges us to see the pre-modern responses to these problems as too distant to be of value, it is short-sighted thinking. Medievalists—and others, working on even earlier periods—take the long view, and that is precisely what we have to offer to the world at large. We need to find ways to communicate the value and relevance of the long view, rather than shifting our focus onto more recent cultural formations. This is an argument that can and should be made, perhaps in the Old English classroom, but certainly in our undergraduate medieval offerings (in my context, the recruiting ground for Introduction to Old English).

In an era when everything (except the proliferation of Vice Presidents on our campuses) has to be metrically justified and held accountable, there is a strong case to be made here for the continued inclusion of Old English in the English curriculum. I think Bredehoft's observation is spot on here—our students' understanding of "culture difference, cultural contact and conflict, and cultural change" is greatly enhanced by the study of Anglo-Saxon language, history, and culture, and while this approach to the subject offers multiple points of connection with modern interests and cultural views, be they popular or otherwise, to achieve the deepest understanding of this particular pre-modern culture, one simply has to learn the language.

As long as the Republican legislators of Florida, so concerned with making sure students choose degrees that will lead to jobs, are the ones directly responsible for the elimination of the kinds of jobs my graduate students are best trained to do, the notion that the study of Medieval Studies and Old English could be a direct path to employment will not, of course, carry much weight. The study of Old English might well strike some outside academia today as an "intellectual luxury," to use Ronald Reagans famously inane phrase.11 But Bredehoft's admonition here resonates with my local situation, and I for one will continue to adopt the long view: I shall dabble in Medievalism when it makes sense to, I shall stress the insights into cultural differences and diversity to be gained from the study of Old English, but in the end my main goal will continue to be to nurture my students' intellectual curiosity by providing them with the tools to satisfy it, at least when it comes to this, one of my favorite pre-modern cultures. I'll continue to do what I do.

1. The College of Arts & Sciences at FSU currently has a policy that a course must have 5 students enrolled in order to make.

2. West Virginia University Press, revised edition, 2011. See Andy Scheil's review of the first edition, as well as other primers that have appeared in recent years, in OEN 40.3 [LINK].

3. Cambridge University Press, 2004.

4. See links at the top of this article to PDFs of specific assignments, which colleagues are welcome to adapt for their own classrooms.

5. In the past six years I have not offered the follow-up Beowulf course, mainly due to staffing issues and curricular need.

6. Huff Post "Rick Scott Says Florida Does Not Need More anthropology Majors, Daughter Hold Degree In Field," October 12, 2011. LINK [accessed 29 August 2015].

7. Richard Utz, "Don't Be Snobs, Medievalists," The Chronicle of Higher Education [LINK, accessed 29 August 2015].

8. Tom Bredehoft, "ChanceryHillBooks: Saving Medieval Studies?," ChanceryHillBooks, 2015. [LINK, accessed 29 August 2015].

9. Cunningham's position is referenced and discussed in Stuart D Lee, "Whither Old English?," Dragons in the Sky (2001) [LINK, accessed 29 August 2015]

10. idem.

11 Dan Berrett, "The Day the Purpose of College Changed," The Chronicle of Higher Education, 26 January 2015 LINK, accessed 29 August 2015].