Either/Or [Versus?] Yes/And: Towards an Ethos of Inclusivity and Inquiry in the Twenty-First Century Classroom

The following is a presentation on inclusivity and collaborative inquiry practices that I gave as part of the “Far Out!” Roundtable discussion at the 2016 International Congress on Medieval Studies.

Either/Or [Versus?] Yes/And:
Towards an Ethos of Inclusivity and Inquiry in the Twenty-First Century Classroom,
A Presentation in Five Paragraphs With Musical and Comedic Interludes

Zero Draft: Some Preliminary Thoughts

Three scholars among hundreds responded when polled on traditional versus more innovative pedagogical approaches, suggesting either that scholars were too busy, or that they were not comfortable responding.

But, when asked simply to share successful teaching activities, people offered amazing contributions, suggesting that yes, teaching is important and people want to talk about it.

Yet, despite that interest in pedagogy, one scholar responded via private message that it seemed awkward to discuss such matters on social media, as they’re intensely personal.

Isn’t everything we do as scholars intensely personal? Why is teaching more personal than scholarship? (Why) Is it still more common than not to think that one is either essentially a scholar or essentially a teacher?[1]

This presentation was particularly difficult for me to write, suggesting that yes, the subject of teaching is personal and presenting on it is hard.

It is, then, apparently, “far out!” to discuss the perceived conflict between traditional [versus?] innovative approaches to teaching medieval literary studies.

Paragraph 1: Introduction

Since the beginning of medieval literary studies in the academy,[2] scholars have always embraced traditional approaches to literary texts, including philology, editing, close and comparative reading, and analysis.[3] Teaching activities included analytical and research essays, and content-based quizzes and exams. This approach was appropriate for the University of the nineteenth to mid twentieth century, where a robust English department boasting medievalists in multiple specialty areas held prestige value. From this system we have inherited a highly divided, highly specialized field at odds with the reality of contemporary universities where the lone medievalist is common. We are at a watershed moment in medieval literary studies. Some scholars cling to traditional approaches and seek to replicate their own training, while others attempt to jettison tradition in favor of innovation in efforts to remain relevant, and all of us wonder in this era of accountability and slashed budgets: where are we going?

Musical Interlude The First

Paragraph 2: Either/Or

As usually happens when my students try to write their thoughts out in five paragraphs, I find limited room to say everything I want to say in this presentation and therefore resort to summarizing and listing. Here is a summary list of the either/or arguments which I attribute to our inherited field divisiveness:

Either one is an Anglo-Saxonist, or one works in Middle English.

Either one focuses on religious literature, or on vernacular texts.

Either one focuses on the truly medieval, or on medievalism.

More broadly, there are two such binaries that bear mentioning here, even though only tangentially related to the current discussion, because they also betray the inherited views of the University with which we find ourselves grappling. The first, concerning one’s position within the academy, goes something like this:

Either one is a tenure-track or tenured professor, or one is not (yet) a serious medievalist.

The second, dealing with collegiality and access, and the recent topic of a discussion on social media, goes like this:

Either one drinks to network, or one does not network.

All of these binaries exist. All of them are inherited from a system that no longer exists if, indeed, it ever truly did. All of them are untenable in the modern academy, with our dwindling tenure track positions and escalating adjunctification and lone medievalist conditions. So….. what now?

 Musical Interlude The Second

Paragraph 3: [Versus?][4]

I return to a question from my zero draft: (Why) Is there such a divide between “traditional” and “new” approaches to scholarship and teaching in medieval literary studies? To this question I pile on more: Why must we be either an Anglo-Saxonist or a Middle English scholar, particularly when we are increasingly called upon to serve as the lone medievalist in our departments? Why shouldn’t medievalists also teach courses on medievalism, which attract students who otherwise might not feel the lure of the medieval? Why are essays and examinations still commonly viewed as the most “legitimate” forms of assessment? Why do we feel we must develop our reputations as either great scholars or great teachers? What would happen if our position weren’t always left up to a binary imposed upon us by past systems? Is our position always left up to a binary imposed upon us by past systems? I place “versus” in brackets and offer it as a questioning term to underscore my concern that this is more a perceived and thus perpetuated divide, than an actual one. The University is built not only on traditional, but also on innovative, approaches to the field; in fact, our careers depend upon our ability to make original contribution. That original contribution can and should happen in the classroom as much as in our research and scholarship.

Comedic Interlude

Paragraph 4: Yes/And

We can’t keep playing divide and conquer within our field and expect to retain or grow our programs of study; we need a more inclusive approach. We can for instance take the best of traditional approaches and infuse them with innovations made possible by interdisciplinarity. What happens, for instance, if we say, “Yes, she’s an Anglo-Saxonist and also teaches Middle English?” Or, “Yes, he teaches medieval literature, and also Tolkien’s medievalisms? Or, “Yes, there’s a gathering at Bilbo’s for beers, and also a gathering at the Radisson for donuts?” Rather than divisiveness and exclusion, we see new spaces opening up, bringing new ways of thinking and being to an old field. Yes, this presentation has been about a lot of things, and now I’m going to conclude it by focusing specifically on one thing: pedagogy.

Paragraph 5: Conclusion

“Traditional” and “Innovative” are not mutually exclusive terms, especially in teaching. Good pedagogical innovation derives from and is informed by the best traditional approaches. Tradition and innovation in the classroom can and should be mutually energizing. This is an inclusive approach to instruction, grounded in our own ongoing inquiry concerning how and why we teach. I find that effective assignments for today’s students take this approach.

I am not alone. On your handout are descriptions of assignments designed by many of our colleagues that bridge the traditional and innovative divide. These assignments are not essays and examinations, but they do require close reading, comparison, interpretation and analysis—the skills of the English field. They also allow for students to individualize their learning experience. Not everyone is going to be a medievalist when s/he grows up. But everyone can derive great value and even pleasure from a class in medieval literature, if in that class we are no longer merely trying to replicate ourselves, to replicate the university, but to both transmit the traditional and develop the new towards an inclusive pedagogy in which students can use their coursework to develop the skills they will need regardless of their chosen career path.

As a final statement, I was advised while on the job market not to share my best assignments publicly, because I should keep them for myself. This kind of thinking, to my mind, harkens to an either/or past when we had to hide our best work to keep others from stealing it.  There is no reason not to share what works, if our teaching is really about student learning experiences and not our egos or our careers. In a far out! act of collegiality, then, here are some of my best and most successful student assignments. If they’ll work for you, please use them; if you think they will work for someone else, please share them. Thank you.


1. A Florilegium of Pedagogy

This handout comprises narratives of assignments collected from scholars at all levels and stages of their careers that make use of traditional skills associated with the study of medieval literature and culture, but build on those traditional elements with innovative aspects suited to the contemporary student’s more cosmopolitan needs. These assignments are shared with their creators’ permission, in an effort to stimulate thinking and discussion of Far Out! approaches to the pedagogy of medieval literary studies.

Not particularly innovative, but I love it: I have students in my Brit Lit Survey choose 20ish lines (a poem, part of a poem, part of a play) and read it aloud to the class at the end. They have to tell us why they chose it–not much else. Just tell us and read the lines. I’ve gotten some great stories from folks. Some are “I think it is pretty” to “I lost a twin when I was born, and this reminds me of my mom talking about it” (On my first son, Jonson *sobs*). I also do it in Shakespeare (they can do pairs if they like to do dialogue). They turn in a “this is why I chose it” one page thing–nothing scholarly, but that’s the point. Just interact with the text. Every class I get someone who reads BEAUTIFULLY. Often someone whose voice I’ve barely heard at all in the semester.

                                                                                                        Emily Leverett, Methodist University

In British and World drama, I assign the groups a current TV show that they then have to transform into either a classical drama or comedy for the first project, a medieval morality, miracle, or mystery play for the second project, and for the third I assign a modern or world theatrical style or movement (NCIS as kabuki theater for example). It works pretty well.

Larry Swain, Bemijdi State University

Having them to perform Charles d’Orleans “hiver vous etes un vilain”, but to keep in mind their performance should be a close reading. They LOVE it.

                                                                    Charles-Louis Morand-Motiver, University of Vermont

Not particularly innovative but…. I show them a Lego version of the Battle of Maldon the day we cover that poem (you can find the video on youtube by easy searching) and we talk about the translation from poem to video–visuals, editing, the ‘gore’, etc. It’s a solid assignment to bring up issues in the poem, and we often discuss why Dunnere’s speech is cut, etc.

Then when we get to Beowulf, they must at least storyboard a video (some of my students are low tech, but they can at least storyboard on index cards) of how they’d do one of the key battles in that poem–it’s fun to see how they make the monsters look, and we talk about what ‘good guys’ look like, and how old is Beowulf anyway at the end, etc. Nothing super creative, but they seem to have fun and we end up having good discussions about a lot of their choices.

                                  A.J. DeLong, Suffolk County Community College

I took this from one of my professors: create a stemma-ed manuscript tradition and then reconstruct it (after having removed some). Give all students something to copy (in handwriting, preferably in a lesser-known language) one day; a week later, give several of those out (in photocopy) for them to copy; another week later, a few more (some from the first time, some from second); limit time and light available. Then choose a few from which to reconstruct a stemma. Lots of fun.

              Leslie Morgan

I do a manuscript remediation project, where students have to translate the visual and textual strategies of mise-en-page into another medium. (Melissa interjecting: one group did a cake decorated as the manuscript mise-en-page. It was amazing.)

              Angie Bennett, University of Nevada Reno

One of my favorites is my opening assignment on “the historical Arthur.” In every opening Arthurian Legend class of the semester, I ask the convoluted question, “What if what we knew about George Washington were like what we know about King Arthur?” Then I give them the hypothetical situation in which it is 1270 years from the current date, a global catastrophe has brought civilization to ruin (insert Donald Trump joke or whatever the political flavor of the month is at the moment), causing a massive loss of written historical records. Each student is an historian who, for no particular reason other than that I was teaching at VMI and next door to W&L when I came up with it, has learned about Robert E. Lee and wants to research his life. You learn that Lee was a college president as well as a general, discover the ruins of W&L, and start looking for written records in the debris. By sheer luck, you find a newspaper obituary from 1870, which states “Lee was a great leader, but he was no George Washington.” This is the first time you have ever heard of George Washington, but you can infer several things about him. 1. He was either a contemporary of Lee or predated him. 2. He was likely either a military leader, a college president, or both. 3. He is a benchmark for leadership. 4. He is so well known to the newspaper’s readers that he doesn’t need further identification. But that’s all. So it piques your curiosity and you shift your research to discovering more about Washington. But the next written record you find is more or less reliably dated around 2070, 200 years after the first (well past the current date of the class). I go on from there, positing the growth of a legend around Washington that exactly parallels Arthurian Legend (including his leading troops at the Battle of Bunker Hill, even though you find independent contemporary evidence of the battle that doesn’t mention his presence).

I put all this up on the blackboard, then give them a handout with all of it in the right-hand column. The left-hand column is blank except for “King Arthur” at the top. Their assignment is to read the first chapter of The Arthurian Handbook and fill in all the parallels with the hypothetical Washington, including dates, work titles, author if known, and significant details. We then go over it all in the second class. It goes from Y Gododdin to Malory. As we go through them, I ask them to draw the same inferences about Arthur that they drew from Washington (noting also what you can NOT confidently infer from Y Gododdin and Nennius, that Arthur was a king).

This has the double purpose of giving them an overview of the development of at least the high points of Arthurian Legend on a chart they made themselves and putting in the forefront of their minds the huge gaps in time between all the surviving references to King Arthur. It is the basis of my contention from the beginning of the course that there is no one Arthur (or Guinevere or Perceval or Lancelot), but that each medieval “historian” or poet or romancer can do whatever he or she wants with the story. As long as it’s interesting.

                                                                                             Alan Baragona, James Madison University

Talking about the range of characters Dante puts into Hell—well-known literary characters, people from ancient history, world leaders, minor celebrities of his own day, etc.—and asking the students to nominate characters for a new version of the Inferno.

       Carrie Beneš, New College of Florida

When I’m teaching medieval drama I spend a lot of time talking about staging. Then when we’re discussing the plays we go out onto various spots on campus and I ask how they’d put the play on in that space. It helps them to see how the plays are living pieces that used their environment rather than static, edited works safely contained in an anthology.

       Matthew Davis, Independent Scholar

When I taught a medieval travel course last semester, for their final exam I wrote a travel narrative (cribbed from Marco Polo and Giovanni de Plano Carpini) based on our small campus that they had to follow, meet “foreign rulers,” who demanded tribute in return for information (primary sources) that they used for a final reflective essay fitting their journey into the travel narratives we’d read throughout the semester. I’m still pretty proud of that one.

            Kristi DiClemente, Mississippi University for Women

My Old Norse students wrote brief poems, transcribed them into runes, and then carved them in runesticks.

     David Johnson, Florida State University

Medieval or Modern—Can You Tell?  Available at: https://massmedieval.com/2015/09/29/medieval-or-modern-can-you-tell/

    Kisha Tracy, Fitchburg State University

More Ideas Can Be Found on the International Congress on Medieval Studies Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/groups/220255454652480/

2. Illuminated Class Notes Assignment:  An Experience in Slow Learning

Melissa Ridley Elmes, Lindenwood University

Rationale. Research has proven that students learn better when they handwrite their class notes, as opposed to when they type them (http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/a-learning-secret-don-t-take-notes-with-a-laptop/). Because this class focuses on manuscript culture, it is very appropriate for us to test out this theory with a(n) (im)practical application!

Instructions. We have spent the past several weeks studying various manuscript page layouts and designs, information retrieval systems, scribal hands, illuminations, and marginalia. Selecting from these as you see fit, rewrite two weeks’ worth of notes from this class as illuminated class notes. This means you will need to determine what page layout, information retrieval system(s) and lettering you feel will best help you to recall the information while providing a pleasant aesthetic experience. You should also include at least two images and some marginalia—will it be silly figures doing silly things? Cartoon commentary on the main text? Reminders of what to focus on? Images completely unrelated to the main text of your notes? Beautiful plants and animalia? Block or bubble lettering, tagging, or other more modern illustration styles? Your illuminated class notes are limited only by your understanding of how scribes design manuscript pages for reader use.

Directions. You may complete this assignment on any type of paper, using any form of writing implement, but it should be fully handwritten and hand-illustrated (you may, for example, use watercolors or acrylics or similar for the illuminations, but should use some form of pen, pencil, or other writing tool for the words). You should aim for between 4-6 pages of illuminated class notes. When you have completed the assignment, you will write a brief reflection that 1.) explains the rationale behind your work—the specific choices you made in terms of page layout, design, information retrieval systems, and marginalia and why you made those choices and 2.) your experience in completing this assignment—what did you like, what did you not enjoy, what did you learn, how might you use this in future classroom experiences?

Assessment. Your illuminated class notes will be assessed as follows:

25% You include all of the required components for the assignment: 4-6 pages of illuminated notes and a reflection/rationale explaining your choices.

25% Your illuminated class notes have been entirely completed by your hand.

25% You have a clear rationale for the choices you made in terms of page layout and design, information retrieval system, and marginalia, and you have articulated your choices in a reflection included with the assignment.

25% Your illuminated class notes show evidence of effort and attention to the work (I am not grading you on your artistic abilities, but your notes should not look as though you dashed them off in class—this assignment is intended to slow you down and have you really reaching into the work of developing your notes into something both beautiful and functional, and your final project should reflect that slow, intentional approach).

This assignment is due _________________________________________

(Write in the date announced in class)

3.Medieval Afterlives: Medieval Figures in Modern Art and Literature Scavenger Hunt

Melissa Ridley Elmes, Lindenwood University

Directions: The purpose of this assignment is to make you aware of the widespread reach and presence of medieval subjects and figures in the modern world, to give you experience using the Internet as a research tool, to give you a basic understanding of the scholarly and popular sources available to you in your own research, and to provide you with a broad range of potential research topics. Use the Internet to complete this scavenger hunt. You may not use WIKIPEDIA as a source for more than five items. Make certain that you create a Works Cited for this assignment that documents the sites you visit in MLA format and includes a brief description of the pages/sites you visited, to create an ANNOTATED BIBLIOGRAPHY. For example:

Trendacosta, Katherine. “The Things Adaptations of King Arthur Should Be Including.” i09. 2 February 2015. Web.

20 July 2015. http://io9.com/the-things-adaptations-of-king-arthur-should-be-includi-1683204285

In this article Trendacosta complains about the elements of the Arthurian legend that do not get enough screen time and makes suggestions for what to include in future film versions of the Arthurian legend.

There are twenty-five items to be located. You may certainly go to Jackson library and work with a research librarian if you wish; likewise, it is fine to work with a classmate, or a group of classmates, although you must turn in your own completed hunt.

You will be turning your scavenger hunt in electronically as a Word document. Please cut and paste required text and images directly into your document, and include URLs for film clips you have chosen.

This assignment is worth 15% of your grade in the course, and will be graded as follows:

  1. You have located and included all items on the list.
  2. You have used a variety of web sources and sites (8-10+ different sites).
  3. You have included the required images and text for each item.
  4. You have a correctly completed annotated bibliography at the end of your document.
  5. Your annotated bibliography descriptions of the pages you visited are well-written and easily understood; there is effort involved in your completion of this scavenger hunt and the presentation of your results.

Automatic “0” on the assignment:

  1. The assignment is turned in late or not at all, AND/OR
  2. No annotated bibliography is included with the assignment.

If you have any questions or concerns about this assignment, please make arrangements to see me during my office hours to discuss it.

 Internet Scavenger Hunt: Medieval Afterlives

  1. Locate the names, country and dates of reign, and a brief biographical paragraph of THREE medieval kings. Give the title of one literary text written during each reign.
  2. Locate the names, country and life dates, names of the children, and a brief biographical paragraph of THREE medieval queens.
  3. Locate the dates and provide a brief description of THREE major events from the medieval period.
  4. Locate and provide a brief description of the works of THREE major literary figures from the medieval period.
  5. Locate and give the title of a scholarly journal that focuses on medieval subjects. Does Jackson Library offer access to the journal you located?
  6. Locate and give the name of a scholarly press that focuses on medieval topics. Give five titles from that press that are directly relevant to the subjects we are covering in this class. Use the Jackson Library online catalog to find the ISBN and call number for these titles. Does UNCG own the titles, or would you have to use ILL to obtain them?
  7. Find the name, location, and dates of a scholarly conference in medieval studies, and provide a link to its website.
  8. Locate a website devoted to the Robin Hood legend. Give one interesting fact from that website and provide two images of Robin Hood from the site.
  9. Locate a website devoted to the Arthurian legend. Give one interesting fact from that website and provide two images of King Arthur from the site.
  10. Provide THREE images of comic book heroes who originated in the medieval period.
  11. Locate the titles of THREE Children’s books from the 20th/21st century that focus on medieval subjects. Use the Jackson Library online catalog to find the ISBN and call number for these titles. Does UNCG own the titles, or would you have to use ILL to obtain them?
  12. Locate the titles of THREE Young Adult books from the 20th/21st century that focus on medieval subjects. Use the Jackson Library online catalog to find the ISBN and call number for these titles. Does UNCG own the titles, or would you have to use ILL to obtain them?
  13. Locate the titles of THREE New York Times bestseller books from the 20th/21st century that focus on medieval subjects. Use the Jackson Library online catalog to find the ISBN and call number for these titles. Does UNCG own the titles, or would you have to use ILL to obtain them?
  14. Use IMDB to locate the titles of FIVE films and FIVE television series that focus specifically on some aspect of the medieval period. Give the date(s) of the film or series, the production studio/station, the director(s), and the star(s).
  15. Give the titles and a brief description of THREE video games specifically devoted to medieval subjects.
  16. Find illustrations from THREE different versions of a story originally from the medieval period, such as that of Beowulf, King Arthur, or Robin Hood.
  17. Locate a museum or archive that includes medieval objects and items, and list at least three objects or items you can see there.
  18. Locate FIVE fine art artistic representations of medieval subjects and topics. Provide the title, artist, date, medium, and location for each painting/sculpture.
  19. Locate the titles of FIVE performance art works (plays, operas, ballets) that feature medieval figures or subjects. Where and when have they been performed?
  20. Use Youtube to locate video clips from THREE medieval-themed television shows and/or films. Give their URLs.
  21. Use Youtube to locate THREE video clips of medieval music performances. Give their URLs.
  22. Use Youtube to locate THREE video clips of student assignments based on medieval texts or topics. Give their URLs.
  23. Locate the Medieval Times restaurant closest to Greensboro. Where is it and when are the meals/show times?
  24. Locate and give a picture of TEN modern items you can buy in a store or online that are named or modeled after medieval figures or items.
  25. Take one of the online medieval quizzes, like “What medieval martyr would you be?” Research the answer you get using at least two websites, and write a brief paragraph about your answer based on your research.

Possible quizzes you could take:






https://uquiz.com/oJXp7r  (which medieval theologian/ religious thinker are you?)


4a.Arthurian Construct a Chivalric Identity Assignment

Melissa Ridley Elmes, Lindenwood Unversity

From the syllabus:

Creative Writing: Constructing a Chivalric Identity: 10% of your final grade. As you read and reflect on the knightly figures in the texts assigned in the course, you will begin drafting lists and generating narratives concerning your own chivalric identity—your strengths and weaknesses, your abilities, your motives, and your goals for yourself. Over the course of the term, you will use this material to create your own knightly persona and add yourself into the Arthurian tradition. You will write a brief encyclopedic description of your moniker and deeds, and include an image of your heraldic device; write a short comparison of how you stack up against the other Knights of the Round Table, and craft a short poem about one of your adventures and a short story about one of your tests. Refer to assignment sheet for further instructions. (SLO 1 & 4; WI 1 & 2)

Assignment components:

  1. Encyclopedic entry (approximately 300-500 words): This should include the “factual” information about your character—your name, moniker (Knight of the….), where you are from, lineage, and major chivalric or courteous deeds.
  2. Heraldic device: an image of your shield design, with a brief explanation of what each element stands for.
  3. Comparison (500-1000 words): write a brief comparative essay explaining how you stack up against at least three of the already-established knights in the Arthurian legend. Try to use specific details about those knights garnered from your reading to contextualize your place in the legend in comparison to theirs.
  4. Brief poem (no more than 4 pages): this may be in any of the poetic forms associated with the Arthurian legend—a lai, a metrical romance, a blank verse narrative, or a lyric poem. Focus either on an adventure or on your relationship with another figure in the canon (either romantic or friendship in nature).
  5. Short story (1-3 pages long): should focus on one or two of your particular adventures or tests of your knightly prowess, and include recognizably Arthurian characteristics.

Grading: Based on effort, how well you demonstrate your understanding of the Arthurian legend through each assignment, and basic neatness and creativity; broken down as follows

Encyclopedic entry:  20%
Heraldic device: 20%
Comparative essay: 20%
Brief poem: 20%
Short story: 20%

Assignment total: 100% / 10% of final grade in the class

 4b.Original Arthurian Knight Tale

For this assignment, students will develop an original short fiction tale to add to the Arthurian legend. The tale should center around one or more of the student’s own Arthurian persona’s adventures.

The successful tale will be readily identifiable as an Arthurian story by including one or more narrative elements generally associated with the Arthurian legend. Such narrative elements might include, but are not limited to: being set in Camelot or Caerleon; taking place on Pentecost, Whitsuntide, or some other High Holy Day, featuring one or more of the known knights of the Round Table, including Arthur and/or Guinevere in the action, mentioning another knight’s adventures, or featuring magical objects such as swords, rings, shields, mantles, or similar.

In addition to being readily identifiable as an Arthurian story, the successful assignment will be between ½ and 3 pages in length, and will demonstrate evidence of attention to the compositional principles of organization and arrangement by presenting a clear and readily followed narrative line. The story may be written in the student’s choice of narrative style—a summary of events, such as a Grimm’s fairy tale might present the story; a brief narrative passage in either first or third person; as an episode inserted into a longer tale or one of the works we have read in class; or as a lai or other poetic form.

Students should also consider the tone and language of the story. Feel free to make use of common narrative stylistic techniques used by the authors we have read so far—Malory’s interlacement of stories (“Now turn we unto….”) and descriptions (“And he was a passing fair knight of goodly prowess”), or Marie’s comparisons (“So beautiful was she that no women ever more beautiful had appeared at Arthur’s court”), for example. Finally, please double-check for grammatical and spelling errors prior to turning this assignment in.

This story will comprise part of your personal Knightly Persona assignment. Please post the story to Blackboard by ___________, and please read through your peers’ stories by class on __________. Bring a hard copy of  your story with you to class on___________.

(Teaching note: On the day they bring in their tales, I tape them to the wall all around the classroom, and have the students go around and write the “rumors” they heard about each knight on those hard copies–thus, building the “fama” for the knights; these rumors come from the tales, themselves (i.e. “I heard the Knight of the Steed once bested Lancelot in a jousting match”; I heard that Sir Dalton once saved fifty maidens from a fire-breathing dragon” & etc). Then the students read through those comments from their peers to find ideas for constructing their Encyclopedia entry. They are also encouraged to pick a moment from this tale to build their poem around, so they can get a sense of the organic manner in which the overarching Arthurian legend was created in their own endeavors.)

 5. Commonplace Book Blogging Assignment, Introduction to Poetry course on “Dreams, Dreamers, and Dreaming” (adaptable for a variety of courses by just changing the theme of the blog.)

Assignment At-a-Glance: Students will create and maintain an online Dream Journal/Commonplace Book comprised of at least 20 posts distributed across a variety of written and multimodal genres as detailed below. This work should reflect the student’s growing understanding of the literary study of poetry over the course of the term, drawing on readings from Lenses: Perspectives on Literature and the dream theory texts to enhance student observations and reflections on various poems, poetic forms, and poets. The dream journal/commonplace book is a required assignment worth 25% of your final grade in the class.

Instructions: Toward the beginning of the term, I will go over how to set up a free WordPress blogging site, which will be the platform on which students will maintain their Dream Journal/ Commonplace Books. Over the course of the term, students will create at least 20 entries for this site, distributed across the following categories (explained in greater detail below):

Dream record and analysis
Reading responses
Poetic analysis
Outside poems
Personal/creative poems
Spotlight poet, form, or era
Song lyrics and analysis
Dream images and analysis

The REQUIRED posts for this assignment (13) are as follows:

Dream record and reflection/analysis (2)
Reading responses (2)
Formal poetic analysis (2)
Outside poems and critical response (2)
Personal/creative poems (2)
Spotlight poet, form, or era (research component) (2)
Summative critical reflection of the dream journal/commonplace book (1)

The other seven posts are ELECTIVE, and can be in any of the categories.

Within these 20 posts, students should include at least FIVE (5) images and TWO (2) audio-visual elements (videos, podcasts, interviews, and similar). These multimedia elements should be chosen for their integral aspects—that is, they should work within the context of the post in which they appear, rather than simply being tacked on as a required element.

Grading: The grade for this assignment is broken down as follows:

13 required posts    20%
7 elective posts       20%
5 images and 2 audio-visual elements 10%
Midterm checkpoint (at least 10 posts completed by midterm): 10%
Quality of written expression, analysis, and reflection in individual posts   20%
Summative critical reflection of the dream journal/commonplace book      20%

Assignment total: 100% (25% of the final grade in the course)

Explanation of Commonplace Book/Dream Journal post types

The Commonplace Book/ Dream Journal is intended to enhance your overall experience in the course by drawing multiple resources of your own choosing and creation together in one place to help you think about both the course theme of dreams, dreaming and dreamers, and the course subject of poetry, poetics, and poets. It is also intended to help you practice a variety of written modes and genres, including reflection, analysis, response, researched writing, essay, and original poetic expression. Please put care and attention to the conventions of written English  into each post to your WordPress site, as this is the major written assignment for the course and will be the primary means of assessing whether or not you have successfully met the course objectives outlined on the first page of your syllabus. I recommend composing your entries in a Word document and saving them to your computer, then uploading them to your WordPress site, which avoids accidentally losing material due to Internet connectivity issues and similar, while ensuring you have a backup copy of each post. What follows is a narrative explanation of each of the required post types for this assignment, along with word count suggestions for each assignment to give you an idea of what to aim for. Please do not hesitate to ask questions if you are not sure about what is being asked of you.

Dream record and analysis: Students should keep a notebook or other recording device next to their bed and try to write down any dreams and/or parts of dreams they recall upon waking up. Select a few of these over the course of the term, and try to analyze what you think the dreams might mean using various websites on dream imagery and your own understanding of situations, problems, issues, or concerns you are dealing with that might be reflected in your dreams. For two of these, post your summary of the dream and your analysis of what it might mean to your WordPress site. (500-1000 words each).

Reading responses: A reading response is just that—your response to a reading you have done for class. It can take the form of how the reading made you feel, what it made you think about, what it reminded you of, connections between the reading and other things you have read, seen, or experienced, a memory it calls forth, or similar. These can be done for any reading on the course syllabus. (300-500 words each).

Poetic analysis: Choosing 2-3 poetic elements from Lenses, students should conduct a poetic analysis in which they discuss how those elements are used and how their use contribute to the meaning within at least two of the poems we read for class this term. (500-1000 words each).

Outside poems: Students should look for poems about dreams/dreaming/dreamers that are not found on the syllabus. Post them to your WordPress site with a brief explanation for why you chose to include these particular poems/how you feel they connect to the class theme/ why they seem significant to you in terms of the theme of dreams. Use Lenses to help you determine specific elements you want to consider in this post. (100-200 words for the explanation).

Personal/creative poems: Original poetic work written by the student, either based on class activities or of the student’s own devising. (No word limit).

Spotlight poet, form, or era: Choose a specific poet, a poetic form, or a time period to focus on, conduct research using at least 3 sources, at least one of which must be NOT electronic (i.e. a book or other physical medium), and write a carefully-crafted short essay on a specific point or set of points about your topic. Make sure to include a correctly-formatted Works Cited at the end of these essays. (1000-2000 words).

Song lyrics and analysis: Find a song that deals with the class theme of dreams/dreamers/dreaming in some way. Post the lyrics or embed a video or audio file, and include an analytical discussion of how the song deals with the theme. You may choose to use Lenses to help you determine poetic elements and/or techniques used in the song lyrics, if you choose. (500 words).

Dream images and analysis: Choose 2-3 images commonly found in dreams, research their meaning in at least 3 different sources (at least one of which must be a print/ other physical source), and write an explanation of what they are and their significance. You may wish to note a poem in which each image occurs, for reference purposes, when possible. Make sure you include a correctly-formatted Works Cited page for this assignment. (600-1000 words).

Other: If you think of something relevant and useful for the purposes of your exploration of the course theme and/or of poetry and poetic practices, feel free to add it to the Commonplace Book! Make sure to provide a clear explanation for why you include such elements. (No word limit).

Summative Critical Reflection: The final post to your blog should be a critical reflection exploring how keeping this Commonplace Book/ Dream Journal contributed to your experience in the class and to meeting the course objectives outlined on the syllabus, including any specific insights or points of interest it helped you gain about both the theme of dreams, dreaming, and dreamers and the subject of poetry and poetics, and which posts/writings you found most helpful or important for your own purposes and development as a critical thinker and writer. This final reflection should represent the best writing that you are able to do by the end of the course—don’t try to do it in one sitting an hour before it is due. Take the time to carefully consider what you want to say and how you want to say it, remembering that together with the final examination, this is the final impression you are leaving with the instructor concerning your work in the course. Make it count! Aim for between 1500-2000 words in this essay.


[1] I don’t have answers to these questions. They’re also not really the focus of this particular presentation, although they are certainly among the issues I’m interested in. I would be glad to discuss these questions with anyone who wants to discuss them.

[2] Fun fact: the first English scholar of medieval English literature to hold an endowed university professorship was Charles Mayo (1767-1858), the first Rawlinson Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University (1795).

[3] I decided to go with a conventional five-paragraph essay introductory sentence, so as not to get too “far out” with my opening remarks. I wanted to save the “far out” bits for the actual essay-proper. I also take advantage of the expectation that the five-paragraph essay will be “all over the place” as my presentation covers a lot of ground in 8 minutes.

[4] So we are on the same page, this is the “inquiry” part of my presentation. I want you to think about these questions going forward, not necessarily for the purposes of this roundtable but also more generally. Question why we do what we do, and whether we can do it better, always.



About Melissa Ridley Elmes

Professor and writer; Unrepentant nerd; chaotic good. Author of Arthurian Things: A Collection of Poems. PhD, MFA. She/hers. Views my own.
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3 Responses to Either/Or [Versus?] Yes/And: Towards an Ethos of Inclusivity and Inquiry in the Twenty-First Century Classroom

  1. Tammy Jones says:

    Dr. Elmes,

    I just love reading your posts. Ah, the illuminated notes – I still have the ones I did for your English class…good times! I hope all is well with you and yours. Oh, and if you ever do succeed in “finding more hours in a day” – please post the formula. I have been trying to crack that code for many years to no avail. Take care and enjoy this beautiful Fall weather!

    • Melissa Ridley Elmes says:

      I’m so glad that you are still enjoying my writing, and that you still have those wonderful illuminated notes you did for my class! I hope everything is going amazingly well for you.The weather right now is sublime–60s and sunny with gorgeous foliage. No one could ask for more! 🙂

      • Tammy Jones says:

        Well, LSAT in December. I need at least a 160 to be considered for my “Perfect Fit Law School” -Wake Forest. I took a practice test one month ago and scored a 158…..good sign, right?
        The weather here – meh, it was cool this morning, however 3 days ago it was 89. You lived here, you know it’s one of the few places you can get sunburn and frost bite in the same week! Hopefully it stays cool from here on out.

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