Sunday, April 26, 2015

Let's Get Medieval

In Tara Williams’ essay “Multimedia Learning Gets Medieval,” she discusses how technology helps students tackle the difficulty that is medieval literature. I have to agree with her when she says that the “first and most intimidating impediment to understanding medieval texts and contexts is the language itself” (83). I, myself, struggled so much with the language when I was assigned Canterbury Tales as a reading for a class in college, that I never really got through it (Sorry, Alex). But maybe if my professors had used technology the way that Williams does in her own classroom, then I would have been able to understand and actually get through it.

Williams states “students often approach medieval literature as ‘dead texts,’ artifacts of a culture and society that seem very distant” (77). So, she started using different types of technology to help make the readings connect to the lives of students in her undergraduate class. She used PowerPoint slides that had images to go with the texts, audio and video clips, and a project that required researching different websites to decide which one best fit a curriculum for medieval studies. Her students seemed to respond very well to these technological enhancements. They said in surveys about the course that it really helped the contextualize medieval times and helped make medieval times seem more real and less like a time period that they are just using their imaginations to visualize. For people who are currently teaching in your own classroom, how do you use technology to make literature like this come to life for your students?

Something that Williams talked about that stuck out to me was the connections she made “between medieval texts over time and the hypertextual relationships that exist on the Web…it signifies a certain way of thinking: links bring together related texts, but each link brings you to a site with a changed focus or a different interpretation” (88). I never thought of medieval texts that way. Whenever my college professors discussed Beowulf and how it had been told and retold for thousands of years, I never connected that to my modern life by thinking about how hypertexts connects all different, but related, Internet articles. It’s definitely an interesting way to think about how the interconnectivity that we have on the internet today has always been a part of literary societies.

“Multimedia learning gets medieval” also touched on the skepticism that many people have about using technology in the classroom. Williams quoted one professor as saying that technology is “pedagogical parsley added decoratively to the edge of the platter of learning.” And she quoted Jacqueline Foertsch’s argument about film and television being used in the classroom saying that they become the “dessert” reward for the students after having the “literary broccoli” that she has been serving all year. She goes on to say that “courses in film and television analysis bring out the couch potato not only in students but in teachers as well.” Now, while I can almost see the point she was trying to make, I radically disagree with this statement. But I’m more interested in what you all think. Do you think that film and television are negatively affecting our students?

Williams talks about how to use technology to enhance learning medieval literature or other literature from a different time period. But how can we use technology to enhance learning more modern literature? How do we, as educators, use technology without bringing out the “couch potato” in the student?


  1. Thanks, Maddison, for your engagement with Williams' essay here, which makes many points that I've been trying to make all semester! And don't feel badly for not finishing the Canterbury Tales - very few people have, even some accomplished medievalists, I daresay.

    To respond to the concerns about using multimedia, I would just say that I have indeed witnessed many many (what I view as) poor uses of visual media. As a high school teacher, I remember that it was quite common for my colleagues and I to show films of literature that students had just read, not because it was a pedagogically sound thing to do, but rather because it gave us a break, time to grade papers while students could be rewarded with screen time. In retrospect, this was a poor teaching decision, but it was also one I don't blame teachers for making, simply because they are so short on time and the demands are so high. Ideally, we would actively teach critical media literacy while showing films, and I think more teachers are doing this than ever before. However, the ELA curriculum still does not emphasize this as much as it should, quite simply because they haven't developed standardized tests (yet) to assess it. This is a poor reason, but it's also a reality.

  2. Maddison--I say let's all be couch potatoes! :) Great post!

    I too disagreed with Foertsch's argument, quoted by Williams, because the educational value of watching movies is such that the students can, and DO actually, make references between the literature they have read and the movies they see. Students are always making comments about how, after reading a particular novel, they found the literary elements have contributed to the movie, sometimes even quotes! They're able to make connections rapidly, which makes conversations interesting. However, I also agree that relying too much on movies can detract from the goals of the class. The two movies I have shown I had students write movie reviews that made connections to a text or texts, literary periods, and themes discussed in class. Sure the assignment means something else to read, but I feel less guilty about showing a movie by having the students practice a less traditional genre of writing.

    In regards to the standards, while the Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks do not mention "video literacy" specifically, but you can interpret (i.e. manipulate) the frameworks to meet the needs of your students and the assignments.

  3. In my own experience, there have been very few times where I put a movie on and let it play through. I wish I could just chill out and watch all of To Kill a Mockingbird, but I know it’s not what I should be doing. For my 8th graders, I try to play videos that help enhance the literature by linking it to the modern day. While we will watch clips of the 1962 version of To Kill… in order for students to see and piece together the narrative (also, it’s necessary for kids that don’t read), there are often group assignments that ask students to compare the events to the text version, or to another form of media that could help their understanding of the events. Just like Samantha, my hope is that students will develop valuable media literacy skills while also making that link between what they’ve read and see. I think that by incorporating these skills we are asking students to get off the couch – do not become consumers, but critical viewers that can also use their skills to create their own work in different media.

    One major way that I can see TV and videos (and the like) having a negative impact on our students is that it creates tension in the classroom. What I mean by this is that since students relate to one another in their out of school environment using multimedia, they often feel as if their lives and interests outside of school do not link with what’s up in the classroom. They come to school and it often seems that teachers, especially English, do not value their personalized and well-understood mediums as valid forms of expression. However, it is tough for teachers to value it when the standards do not link up. Either way, adding other multimedia to texts can help bridge that link in my opinion.

    Personally, I especially like how Williams makes the comparison of medieval texts to elements of hypertexts. I think incorporating this element into lessons for high school and college students, having them find certain qualities of hypertext in a digital representation of the original manuscript, is a great way to help students bring the text into their lives, to appreciate it and possibly see how it is important to understanding the elements of text, both physical and digital. I’ve had experience with this first-hand, and it made my engagement with unknown content deeper and more meaningful.

  4. Excellent post!

    I'll have to admit that reading this article felt like reading a summary of a lot of the elements we've covered in this course, Williams was hitting many and more of the points we'd covered, even sharing many of our conclusions about the nature of teaching with multimedia and how it benefited students. Foertsch’s idea that technology turns students (and teachers) into couch potatoes strikes me as disingenuous and smacks of incredibly little faith in students and their abilities. Yes, students can be lazy and may attempt to do their best to do as little work as possible, but this is not the fault of technology (the answer of whose fault it is exactly can most likely be found after a slew of psychology studies).

    Williams apparent success in her medieval classes does indicate a honest desire in students to have the text and the technology work in tandem. I do not think I’d much enjoying a Shakespeare class if all we did was read the plays and ignore the various recordings, shows, and films that have come out of Shakespeare’s works. While more modern literature in classrooms may not have films or shows made of them, using tools in the way Alex did with his King Arthur course, the blogs allowing the students to act as the characters, and even using images of notable locations in the literature could help students imagine the world of the novel. Websites on historical context and even old maps of the city the novels are set in could enhance student learning and engagement.

    It really comes down to how the technology is used. If a teacher puts on the film for, say, Pride and Prejudice and does not give the students the task of drawing parallels, spotting differences, or just ponder how their experience changed, what would the film have added? The student most likely had some of their interpretations enhanced or changed, but they were not given room in the classroom to reflect on that. It is about drawing the correlations between the text being covered and the multimedia being used and forcing students to think about why these two contrasting elements, the textual and the visual or what-have-you, should be shown together.

  5. Great post, Maddison!

    I have the same feeling with Tiril when I was reading Williams’ essay that we have already been acquainted with most of the points he’s trying to make. But one thing that really impressed me is that he draws connection between medieval texts and hypertexts, which I have never realized. I assume when teaching medieval texts, the introduction of such idea could make students excited and treat the texts as lively rather than outdated ones.

    As for incorporating movies and other visual media into class, I think Alex is quite right—sometimes teachers do need a break and not do the talking all the time. But I’ve experienced for many times unsuccessful attempt of bring movies of the related texts into classroom when students get completely lost. Without knowing where the movies are getting at, students probably won’t take them seriously. I appreciate Samantha and Brian’s way of dealing with the issue—“make references between the literature they have read and the movies they see”, thus to “practice a less traditional genre of writing” and also to “develop valuable media literacy skills”. That’s how the doing of showing movies in the classroom transforms into a positive and generative way of learning.

    In terms of how we can use technology to enhance learning more modern literature, I think what we have covered so far—digital story, role play, blog post, etc.—can all well serve the purpose. I cannot wait to design my own class!

  6. Thanks, Maddi! This is a great analysis of Williams’s article, and you pose some challenging questions that I think about often in my hypothetical classroom. I also agreed with many of the points that Williams makes about using technology to help revive texts that students may feel totally distant from. I certainly felt this way, many times throughout the six years I spent in a required Latin class, and often wondered (usually aloud to my frustrated teachers) what the point of learning a dead language was. Of course, now I wish I’d taken advantage of the classes while I had the chance, and I have to wonder if the incorporation of technology could have help sparked some interest in me and my fellow classmates. I’m not suggesting the use of multimedia would have suddenly made me a straight A student, but I do think it would have provided necessary connections to my life that I couldn’t make with the language and the literature at the time. Although it is certainly not my area of expertise, I think that Medieval studies, ironically enough, is one area where technology can really benefit students. Like Williams suggests, the incorporation of technology can “help to create a learning experience that is closer to interactive performance than to passive reception.” I think this is sometimes needed when dealing with texts that are basically in an entirely different language from the one students are familiar with. As she points out, “American students are distance from medieval European culture not only temporally but also geographically,” and in lieu of ancient artifacts that may help to peak interest, multimedia may suffice.

  7. Great post Maddi! Thanks for digging into this for us. I was also really interested in the links Williams drew between medieval texts and hypertexts. This is something that Alex has spoken about before, and it is so fascinating to think about how writers throughout time have been drawing from and connecting back to the ideas and writing of others, just like we are doing with hypertexts today. Allen gave us an awesome example of this in his Remix assignment last week! I do agree with Tiril that overall this article felt a bit like retreading familiar ground, but it definitely helped to drive home some of the central conclusions that we have reached over the course of the semester. I am reminded of the Wharton quote from last week about helping our students become owners and producers of content, not just consumers. While I do not see any inherent problem with using film or television in the classroom, as with all of the things we have explored in class, it all depends on how we as teachers utilize it. The old couch potato model of using media (video) in the classroom was based on passive consumption, but the tools and activities that we have been exploring throughout this course are focused on active engagement with and production of thoughtful original content and ideas. This is basically the mission of the digital humanities right? To develop tools and techniques that make technology not just the “parsley” at the edge of the platter, but the actual main course, full of rich nutritious educational goodness! By the end of this semester we will all be well prepared to take on that challenge in our classrooms.

  8. Maddison, thank you so much for your well thought and illuminating post. I'm glad you began your post noting what Williams says perception of many students studying medieval literature as "dead texts" as I think many of the approaches she gives work to fundamentally change this perception of them in that term. I think we can often get lost in the history of the literature to the point where we lose sight of many of the points Alex has made this semester of "Technology" being a relative term and that really many of the ways in which we can assist in reading and analyzing literature come from adaptations of systems that already previously existed. Technology I think definitely gives us new and exciting ways to present them and I think tying various technologies into their more historical precedents help us to understand them as a whole.

    As far as the question of television and video is concerned, I think largely the experience is that viewing things as class are often seen as the dessert, but there are ways to push it beyond that. I think as television and movies become more sophisticated, there's a way to use them to analyze the literature in many of the ways we use and other technology to do so, but it's up to teachers to do that. I remember as a senior in high school, doing a unit on Hamlet and our teacher screening Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead for the class, but not just viewing it but challenging us to see the intertextuality between the original play and Stoppard's play (or movie as we watched) and really this did a great deal towards helping me to understand the over all play better. But it only happened because she made it a part of the lesson as opposed to "giving us our dessert." I think by changing the paradigm and context in which we screen/teach things like movies and TV in our classrooms, we do many of the things William's is able to do for her students and their understanding of medieval literature.

  9. As someone who has just finished teaching Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-long Blog and has two more films lined up on the syllabus, I think I can safely say go ahead and harbor that vehement disagreement. Spending half a second with Prof. Sarah Hamblin will disabuse anyone of such a ridiculous notion, but I think in more general terms we can safely arc an eyebrow at anyone who tries to dismiss an artistic medium in totum.
    Although I think many teachers have used films or TV shows as ‘dessert’ (I can remember a few times from my own K-12 journey of this being the case) that’s just, at worst, an example of bad teaching. One can show Pacific Rim as a reward for a job well done (and, really, there’s nothing wrong with that so long as they are not sacrificing rigor or instruction in order to fit the film in), or you can have students investigate Pacific Rim for the implications it has for transnational capitalism. It all depends on how the film is being used and how it is contributing to instruction. I personally follow the adage of my favorite undergrad professor, who designed an entire class around comparing Shakespearean plays to their film counterparts (authentic, no Scotland, PA): you don’t read a poem or play or story in class, you do it for homework – why should films be different? Films are text (in the Barthes sense) and should be treated as such if they are being handled like a text. Dessert’s fine – it just needs to come after dinner.
    On your point about bringing medieval works ‘to life’ for students, this essay had me thinking on two points. First, something that might help could be an ‘on the ground’ historicization of the period, like you might get in The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval Europe. If you can temporally bridge the medieval time to the students – make them really see and smell the place – then the work becomes just that much more alive, and I can see technology easily helping in this endeavor. Another way might be to find examples of medieval texts being kept ‘alive’ by living fans. Two examples that jump out to me right away are Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog (you can find it here: or Banana bag and Bodice’s Indy-Jazz Musical Beowulf, A Thousand Years of Baggage (About here:, which both show that these texts, while old, are anything but dead.

  10. Maddi, great post!

    I’m really glad that everyone’s diving into this discussion of the film/video adaptation serving as the “dessert” after the students have choked down the “literary broccoli” successfully. Just today I found myself in front of a pack of wild-eyed, bloodthirsty freshmen who were ferociously declaring that we must watch one of the adaptations of ANIMAL FARM now that we’ve finished Orwell’s text. When they found out that no screening was planned, they demanded to know why. I told them, in earnest, that I don’t want to screen a subpar adaptation that not only fails to add anything to our exploration but might actually taint their appreciation for a wonderful book.

    Although I didn’t have the dessert/broccoli metaphor at my disposal at the time, I can’t help but apply it to the aforementioned scenario. As English teachers, we shouldn’t be stuffing our students’ mind-gullets with book-broccoli while screaming “JUST EAT IT SO THAT WE CAN GET TO THE MOVIE-DESSERT.” Instead, we should be helping our students understand that not only is the broccoli good for us, but it’s also tasty as hell.

    With that being said, I want to echo Erik’s sentiments about his experience of watching the adaptation of ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN..., which his teacher actively used to show the “intertextuality between the original play and Stoppard's play (or movie as we watched) and really this did a great deal towards helping [him] to understand the over all play better.” I think that when used well, film and TV can really help generate a deeper appreciation for the content at hand. For instance, over the last few years I’ve managed to put together a pretty solid Junior English exploration of the Lost Generation, which sees students reading Hemingway and Fitzgerald and TS Eliot and Stein. But rather than watching any of the abysmal Fitzgerald/Hemingway adaptations, we end by watching/discussing/writing about MIDNIGHT IN PARIS.

    Anyways, I’ve already written too much – see everyone in class!


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