Saturday, January 11, 2014

Why Do We Study Works We Can't Read?

The first semester is winding down and somehow I've managed to get (mostly) caught up on grading and end-of-term paperwork. So I've got some time to look over my unit plans and think about what I teach and how I teach and why I do things that way.

The thing is, I'm rather conflicted about my reasons for teaching Beowulf. Like... if it's important to study, say, the original text of Romeo and Juliet, and it's not enough just to watch the Baz Luhrman flick from the 1990s, why do we not apply the same reasoning to Beowulf? What makes an adaptation okay in one case - even something of a tradition - and not okay in another?

Is studying Beowulf really the best use of that time? I mean, sure, it's a ripping yarn, but personally I like The Song of Roland better. I mean, the epic friendship - "A Roland for an Oliver!" and the way it develops through the story and the REVEAL... it's awesome. And then there's Durandal and the arms of Achilles and it's just buckets of fun.

Right now I feel like I'm supposed to teach it because it's the oldest long work we have (why does that matter so much?) that's a progenitor of Modern English. (Given the Norman invasion, why NOT start with Roland, especially as a counterpart to the Canterbury Tales?) And because TRADITION.

Help me out! Why does this particular work matter so much more than everything else I don't get to teach?

Cross-posted from the EC Ning.


Gina said...

I can't help you here. I have no answers. As an enthusiastic reader and lover of all things English, I hated Beowulf when we read it in high school. When we finally reached the end, I only had one word in mind - What?- okay, maybe two words- What? and Why? As a senior English teacher, I've never had the pleasure of teaching it. I teach all of the senior classes at my school- regular, honors, and AP Language. Fortunately, when I started this journey senior English changed from Brit Lit focus to Composition. So, I avoided the Beowulf landmine.

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