This rather long post begins with a reflection on my teaching methods for my first and second year courses on Old and Middle English literature at University College, Oxford. I then introduce the context and background for my experiment of using twitter with my second year students to engage creatively with Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde.
Context: Teaching Methods
I like to experiment with different methods in my teaching and to take advantage of all the resources that the university has to offer. This term I took my first year students to the Bodleian Library with the Univ librarians to use the hand-press printers (see previous post here). This experience will help them to understand print culture when they study Renaissance Literature next year. We also had a class at the Ashmolean Museum with Dr Jim Harris, handling and learning to ‘read’ Anglo-Saxon objects, such as the decorative brooches that students encounter in poems such as Beowulf. I linked this in to our class on the structure of Beowulf, in which I asked the students to think about John Leyerle’s influential article on ‘interlace’ structure. This article directly compares the Beowulf-poet’s style to the decorative patterns found on objects such as the Sutton Hoo belt buckle or in
the carpet pages of the Lindisfarne Gospels. Focusing on the material culture of a text’s production and period is an important part of my own research (see the post about my work on The Book of Margery Kempe and devotional objects here) and I think that it’s important that students think about texts as part of the range of practices that a culture employs, from building churches to going on pilgrimage, producing visual art to staging dramatic performances.
In my second year teaching this term, I have been working with my students on Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde. In their final exam, the students have to write a critical commentary on a passage from the poem so they need to know the poem and its style in considerable detail. My colleague Jenni Nuttall (@stylisticienne) has produced some invaluable resources for Troilus commentary, from her Reader’s Guide to the poem to the Poetics Primer on her blog. I frequently make use of both in my teaching.
One of my primary strategies for helping to students to engage with the poem and become familiar with it over the term, is my Chaucer Reading Group. The group was inspired by my undergraduate experience at Durham when my tutors ran a similar group and allowed eager undergrads to take part. It was a real pleasure to read through the Canterbury Tales with Corinne Saunders, John McKinnell, and David Fuller, all of whom read with skill, passion, and good humour. I realise now that it was a formative experience for my thinking about how to engage students in medieval literature.
‘Joie’ and ‘Troie’: Reading Chaucer Aloud
This term, my Chaucer Reading Group met six times and we read from Books I, II, III, and V of the poem (we didn’t have chance to read from Book IV but we studied passages from it in my normal classes). During the reading group, we all read aloud from the poem, going around the group, and stopping to discuss passages in detail as we go. I am a great believer in the importance and value of reading aloud, for any literary period, but especially for the Middle Ages when texts were read aloud and experienced communally (see here for the ‘Troilus frontispiece’ from Corpus Christi College Cambridge MS 61 which depicts Chaucer reading aloud to a courtly audience)
Reading Troilus with my second years is always a joy and it is wonderful to see how the students develop their readings as we go through the term and look in detail at the narrative as it unfolds. Reading aloud has a number of advantages. Students gain a better sense of the pace of the poem. The dramatic quality of the dialogues between characters comes to the fore (in previous years we have experimented with dividing the roles between students- one will read Criseyde’s lines, one Troilus, one Pandarus, and one the narrator). The poem really comes to life when read aloud. We’ve simultaneously laughed at and recoiled from the exchanges between Pandarus and Criseyde. We’ve been frustrated with Troilus’s courtly excess but sympathised as he waited for Criseyde’s promised return. We’ve watched with a mixture of anticipation and fear as Criseyde has fallen in love with Troilus and then, inevitably, betrayed him. Reading Troilus aloud is always one of the highlights of my term and I always notice new things about the poem in collaboration with my students.
Troilus Twitter Experiment: The Background
This term, in our final reading group, I decided to experiment with using twitter in my teaching of the poem. As many of you know, I am something of a twitter-addict! It’s a wonderful way of connecting with medievalists in the field and I’ve had a number of fascinating twitter conversations that have made me think about texts in new ways (talking about The Book of Margery Kempe as ‘fan fiction’ with Kathryn Maude, for example).
I have come across a number of interesting ways of using twitter to think about medieval texts. Academics who have tweeted medieval poems in 100 tweets (Elaine Treharne tweeted Beowulf; Christene D’Anca tweeted Troilus; Eric Weiskott tweeted Gawain and the Green Knight in 101 tweets as the poem has 101 stanzas). There have been projects asking students to tweet throughout their courses and engage with their peers and other twitter users, such as academics (see Josh Eyler on Adventures in Student Engagement; Kisha Tracy’s use of twitter in a course on the Crusades; and Mary Flannery’s article on teaching a course on Troy using twitter). As a social media platform, twitter fosters debate and exchange and I like the idea of students engaging with other academics both in the UK and internationally. One of my twitter followers, an undergraduate student working on Old Norse texts, Josefina, commented on one of my recent tweets that she has really benefited from twitter discussions with academics and she has even been inspired to start a debate herself, setting up a poll for users to vote on their preferred Old Norse character (Gudrun or Brynhild!)
Getting Creative with Twitter
I was particularly inspired by Sjoerd Levelt who has tweeted and blogged about his use of twitter in teaching the Iliad as part of a course on ancient and classical civilisation. (For a description, see here) Levelt set an assignment whereby students has to tweet as certain characters from the Iliad (for whom he had devised twitter-handles or names) and he highlighted the importance of ‘perspective‘, telling the students to ‘think, for example, of what your character can know, what they would find important, how they would view certain actions and events, what kind of language they would use’ (Levelt) What I particularly liked about this activity was its creative focus. The students had to compose tweets as certain characters and they were encouraged to tweet ‘at’ other characters and to use hashtags creatively. My own students at Univ are incredibly creative and when I teach Old English, I often have a class in which I ask the students to produce their own creative translation of any of the Old English poems that we have studied. (This has produced some incredible material, from a rap version of Bede’s story of Caedmon’s Hymn to a puppet show of The Battle of Maldon, retold in limericks!)
So for my last reading group, I decided to ask my students to come up with twitter-handles, tweets, and hashtags for Troilus and Criseyde. As this was motivated in part by a desire to allow the students to think creatively and freely about the poem, I didn’t set detailed parameters but if I was using twitter as an official in-class activity, I would think more carefully about this next time (Mary Flannery reflects on the importance of having a plan in her article on ‘Teaching with Twitter’: ‘social media needs to be clearly relevant: students need to know why they are using it and what they will get out of it’, p.4). I told my second years that our use of twitter was experimental and they were happy with this (and for me to blog about the results). So, what did my students come up with?
Troilus Twitter: The Results
- @lil’Troy or @TroyBoy [reflecting the relationship between the fate of Troilus and the fate of Troy]
- @weepy_warrior [emphasising Troilus’s tears as part of his performance as a courtly lover]
- @twixt-wyndes [referring to Troilus’s state ‘betwixen wyndes two’ in the Canticus Troilus of Book I, line 417]
- @god_of_bataille [referring to Book II when Criseyde sees Troilus through the window, II.630, foregrounding the importance of how individuals are seen in public in the poem]
- @hevenysshwoman [reflecting the narrator’s description of Criseyde in the temple in Book I:104]
- @Criseyde_you_look [punning on ‘made you look’ and reflecting the trend for twitter handles to be humorous, but also on how crucial public perception of Criseyde is to the poem]
- @monobrow_Cris [referring to the portrait in Book V:813 when we suddenly discover that Criseyde has a monobrow, and how this reminds us again of the narrator’s role in controlling our knowledge of key facts and interpretations]
- @MrStealYoGirl [reflecting Diomede’s active role in Criseyde’s betrayal of Troilus, and also reflecting an internet meme]
- @tongelarge [referring to Diomede’s portrait in Book V:804 and our discussions of Diomede’s carefully planned speeches to Criseyde]
The students also thought about other characters who would be tweeting. The goddess Fortune was a particular favourite, with suggested twitter-handles of @wheelerdealer, @hotwheel, @slipperywheel reflecting the image of Fortune’s wheel in the poem. In our classes we frequently discussed A. C. Spearing’s view of the narrator of Troilus not as a character but a ‘sequence of narratorial first-persons’ (quoted in Nuttall, Reader’s Guide, p.6), so one of the students suggested that the narrator would tweet from @Spearing_fan. One student thought that Criseyde’s father, Calchas, who betrayed Troy and defected to the Greeks might tweet as @ILoveGreece. Another student thought about the envoy in Book V when the narrator dismisses his book (‘Go, litel book, go litel myn tragedye’ V:1786) and suggested that @litel_bok might tweet as follows: ‘Tehee, off I go! @Virgil @Ovid @Homer @Lucan @Stace’ The tweet reflects how Chaucer dismisses his book and sends it to follow in the footsteps of his great classical auctours, as a twitter-user might tweet ‘at’ other users, hoping for a response.
2. Tweets and conversations
A number of the students experimented with tweeting particular moments from the poem:
Book I, temple scene, Troilus and the God of Love: Troilus walking up and down ‘byholding ay the ladies of the town’ (I:186), his pride and arrogance in criticising lovers (‘surquidrie’ I:213) and the sudden change that comes over him when the God of Love shoots him with his arrow (I:237-8)
- Troilus tweets ‘blynde be you fooles, loveres alle #ByholdingAyTheLadies #surquidrie’
- God of Love replies ‘Oi Oi, no man fordon the lawe of kynde’
- Troilus replies ‘#weilaway What feele I do, I dey, I dey!!!!!!!!!!!!!’
Book I, Troilus falls in love and Pandarus resolves to help him. Troilus tweets a cryptic message encouraging Pandarus to contact him (cf I:416-7 winds of fate from Canticus Troili). Pandarus replies asking for Troilus to ‘DM’ or direct message him, the tweet highlighting the role of secrecy in the affair. In Book II when Criseyde is beginning to fall for Troilus, Pandarus then tweets the image of the ruby in the ring with a winky face emoticon (II:585), alluding to the troubling nature of Pandarus’s role as go-between in the poem.
- Troilus tweets ‘TFW you are blown between the winds of fate’ [TFW: That Feeling When]
- Pandarus replies ‘DM me x’
- Pandarus tweets ‘the ruby is set wel within the ring 😉 ‘
Book V, Criseyde is tweeting from the Greek camp and Troilus responds bitterly.
- Criseyde tweets, ‘I’m meeting loads of new people in the Greek camp #siegeswop’
- Diomede replies with the smiley face emoticon with heart-shaped eyes: 😍
- Troilus replies, ‘you can tweet but you can’t write me a decent letter’
Book III consummation scene, Pandarus tweets ‘MFW [my face when] I read an olde romaunce’. The students thought that this might also come with a GIF! (III:979-80, ‘fond his contenaunce, / as for to looke upon an old romaunce’)
Book V, Criseyde tweets ‘Any good present ideas anyone, I’ve only got this brooch #feelingconfused’ This arose from our debate over Criseyde giving Diomede the brooch that belonged to Troilus (V:1040-41, ‘and ek a broche- and that was litel nede- / that Troilus was, she yaf this Diomede’)
When we discussed hashtags, we thought that all the characters would be following the #TrojanWar and that if personal tweets were also tagged with the Trojan War, it would replicate the way in which Troilus and Criseyde’s affair takes place in the context of the war.
In the course of our classes we discussed Criseyde’s concern for her ‘honour’ and reputation, and what the public might be saying about her. The students suggested that #jangle might be used to tag the gossip about Criseyde (in Middle English ‘jangling‘ covers spiteful gossip, idle chatter, tale-telling, quarrelling). In the poem the narrator uses it in Book II when Criseyde has fallen for Troilus (‘Now myghte som envious jangle thus: / ‘This was a sodeyn love’, II:666-7) and in Book V Criseyde uses it when she is trying to convince herself that she will not listen to ‘wikked tonges janglerie‘ (V:755) and she will return to Troy.
Case Study: Pandarus
One of my students, Jess, produced a brilliant twitter profile for Pandarus (thank you to Jess for allowing me to share it here!). For the twitter-handle she chose ‘@PuppetPandy’, foregrounding Pandarus’s role in orchestrating the affair between Troilus and Criseyde. For his profile description, she had Pandarus describe himself as ‘lover of proverbs, dab hand at matchmaking’ and gave him a website that highlighted his voyeurism in overseeing the affair.
The top trend was ‘#IHateTheGreeksBecause‘, reflecting the Trojan War context. Pandarus used #tresoun when questioning whether Criseyde would return from the Greek camp, which tied in to our discussions of betrayal in the poem (Calchas betraying Troy and his daughter when he defects to the Greeks, for example). Troilus was tweeting as ‘@onlyfoolsfallinlove’ and Diomede was ‘@babemagnet’. Criseyde was ‘@ThatGirlCriseyde’, emphasising her public prominence.
In the tweets, Jess wanted to highlight the passage of time, in particular the time that has elapsed since the beginning of the affair and Criseyde’s betrayal (Chaucer extended the time frame from his source, Boccaccio’s Il Filostrato- Book V:8-14 begins by telling us that three springs have gone by since Troilus say Criseyde in the temple in Book I). In her presentation, Jess talked in particular about the final tweet in which Pandarus tweets Criseyde, ‘I kind of hate you btw, lol.’ This refers to Pandarus’s final speech in the poem in Book V when he declares to Troilus, ‘I hate, ywis, Cryseyde; / And, God woot, I wol hate hire evermore!‘ (V:1732-33) We had considerable debate about this speech in class (whether we felt that it was justified, why Pandarus would resort to such a severe condemnation of his niece). With the use of ‘lol‘, Jess wanted to explore the ways in which statements on social media can be undercut or defended as a joke if they are followed by ‘lol’ or a winky face, making the author’s intention difficult to discover (and of course ‘entente‘ is a key word in the poem, especially concerning Criseyde).
After the students had presented their creations, I asked them what they had learned from the experiment. Here are some of the points raised:
- tweeting from the perspective of the characters helped the students to think about Chaucer’s characterisation (including how difficult or easy it was to tweet as certain characters)
- it was fun to ‘update‘ the emotions of the characters into the language of social media, which in some ways reflected Chaucer’s own updating or ‘medievalizing’ of the Trojan story
- it highlighted the humour of the poem (especially when thinking about Pandarus, a character who often polarises opinion in discussion!)
- it raised interesting questions about time in the poem (we discussed whether Troilus would be ‘live-tweeting’ from the temple in Book I)
- the connection with other social media platforms such as instagram (Criseyde looking out of the window and seeing Troilus riding by in his armour in Book II would make a good instagram picture)
- Criseyde’s fear that she will become a byword for infidelity could be replicated on twitter by her being ‘trolled‘ by hostile followers, provoking a twitterstorm of debate about her actions
One key theme in the poem that proved difficult to replicate on twitter was the secrecy of Troilus and Criseyde’s affair and the importance of keeping it out of the public eye. With twitter being such a public platform, it is unlikely that Troilus and Criseyde would tweet about their love for each other! We also discussed the moments when Chaucer gives us access to Criseyde’s thoughts and then reports her speech. If Criseyde was tweeting both her private thoughts and public utterances, this would replicate our reading experience as of course we have access to both, but the characters within the poem do not. We also discussed the complexity of tweeting from Criseyde’s perspective in Book V once she is in the Greek camp. Barry Windeatt comments that one of the effects of the narration in the final Book is that Criseyde ‘slips ever further out of focus’ and that the ‘reader’s baffled sense of ‘losing’ Criseyde in the narrative shares in the bafflement and pain of Troilus himself’ (Troilus and Criseyde, p.288).
I really enjoyed my creative twitter experiment and I would certainly consider making use of twitter in other classes in the future, perhaps with a focus on student writing in addition to creative outputs. Mary Flannery reflects that twitter improves student writing as being confined to 140 characters requires students to be precise and focused, especially when tweeting the argument of an essay (Flannery, pp.6-7). If I used twitter again I think I would do this kind of activity as I often find that students can struggle to articulate the central argument of an essay and breaking it down into five tweets, for example, might be a helpful way of establishing their basic premise in stages.
Thank you very much for reading. If you have also used twitter in teaching, please do let me know! Comment below or tweet @lauravarnam
Thank you to my second year English students at Univ for participating in this experiment and allowing me to quote from their work: Jess, Jennie, Seamus, Ben, JH, John, and Alex.
Thank you to Mary C. Flannery for letting me read her article.
- Mary C. Flannery, ‘Teaching with Twitter: A Medievalist’s Case Study’, Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Teaching, 22.1 (2015), 99-109
- Jenni Nuttall, Troilus and Criseyde: A Reader’s Guide (CUP, 2012)
- Mark Sample, ‘Practical Advice for Teaching with Twitter’, Chronicle of Higher Education , August 25 2010 (here)
- Barry Windeatt, Oxford Guides to Chaucer: Troilus and Criseyde (OUP, 1992; repr. 2002)