By Laurie Laker ’12
“The Canterbury Tales,” Geoffrey Chaucer’s most popular work, is a collection of 24 tales told by pilgrims from across the social classes, written in a combination of verse and prose. Each pilgrim is on their way to Canterbury Cathedral to visit the shrine of St. Thomas of Becket. As they journey, the pilgrims engage in a storytelling competition in order to entertain each other and pass the time along the way.
Associate Professor of English Re Evitt has been reading, examining, studying, and teaching “The Canterbury Tales” for some time. This year’s Block 3 class, though, and its eight students, presented her with new challenges in how she approached the material and what she hoped her students would learn.
“I’m just coming back from a sabbatical, so I’ve had time to think and reassess certain things about my classrooms,” she says.
“This generation of students is unlike any that’s come before, in my experience. Their thinking is fully associative thinking, linking one idea to another, that’s their hallmark as learners.”
“With that in mind,” she adds, “the question becomes how do we work backwards from the revelation of the text, not simply how do we get to it.” Evitt explains that students today are far less concerned with grounding themselves solely in theory, but rather prefer to approach a text organically, in the moment as learners and readers. They come into class with ideas and revelations.
Revelations in “The Canterbury Tales” aren’t hard to come by, but they’re always hard-earned for the students and scholars examining the over 600-year old texts. Visiting the class in Armstrong Hall, one encounters a group on a collective journey — much like the pilgrims of the tales themselves.
“The language is the first challenge, and it’s really difficult,” says Haley Loper ’22, a Creative Writing major in the department. The Canterbury Tales are written in Middle English, a form of English spoken after the Norman conquest of 1066 and into the late 15th century. Middle English, in comparison with contemporary English, differs heavily in pronunciation, rhythm, and speech.
“There’s a huge impact that the text has on the wider world of literature, and I love that there’s an experimental and creative element to the class, too – as a creative writing major that’s what drew me to the class initially.”
That experimental element that Loper speaks to includes the class’s use of the Shared Studios Colorado Springs Portal, with access provided by Deborah Thornton, executive director of Colorado Springs’ Imagination Celebration. Shared Studios portals are repurposed shipping containers, painted gold, upgraded and equipped with immersive and new audio-visual technology designed to connect people across the world directly to each other in live, face-to-face, full-body engagements. The portals launched in 2014, and the one in Colorado Springs connects to a huge number of countries and regions, including Afghanistan, Germany, Honduras, Iraq, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, Greece, Jordan, the Palestinian territories, as well as across the United States.
The class conducted two portal “field trips.” The first one connected the CC students with a group of student creative writers attending a poetry festival and writers’ workshop in Lagos, the capital of Nigeria. The second field trip connected students with participants in the Refocus Media Labs project on the island of Lesvos, Greece. Refocus Media Labs work to create a global network of media and technology labs aimed at equipping refugees with modern media creation skills and providing them with a platform to showcase their work and stories. A brief second visit that day included a conversation with a refugee student who is also a rapper-computer programmer in Erbil, Iraq.
Evitt’s aim with the portal experiences was to put Chaucer’s work into a contemporary lens and context, bringing the modern world into a medieval framework. To assist with this goal, she also had the class read Patience Agbabi’s “Telling Tales,” a retelling of Chaucer’s tales through modern-day counterparts to the pilgrims’ stories of migration, immigration, and refugee experiences.
For Andrew Austin ’20, the portal experience brought another dimension to his reading of the material.
“When you go home and read it on your own, you’re trying to understand the story itself. In class and in the portal space, you’re understanding broader connections of the text,” he says.
“In some ways, it’s actually frustrating, because you’re able to make such easy connections with situations of suffering and pain around the world today, but at the same time there are aspects of Chaucer’s work that are reparative, when characters reclaim agency and power.”
For Evitt, the use of technology mirrors how this new generation of students approaches the classroom space. The portal is a space for immersive discussion and communication around the world, and the classroom environment that these students are creating reflects that.
“They use the classroom as a space to think and try out ideas on the fly, rather than attack what they’ve prepared beforehand. It’s really interesting for me, too, to learn that new approach and strategy that these students bring to the literature.”
For Loper, the portal experience was “a bit weird” at first, but also very encouraging and informative.
“What I got out of it was really cool; being able to talk to young women around the world. It felt a bit random at the time, but I definitely got a lot out of it.”