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Pedagogy 3.2 (2003) 171-177

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"Clowdily Enwrapped in Allegorical Deuices":
The Joys and Perils of Teaching Spenser's Epic

Sheila T. Cavanagh

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My introduction to Edmund Spenser came in my sophomore year in college during a survey class, when my professor announced: "If you've read one page of The Faerie Queene, you've read more than enough." Since I had never heard of the epic, let alone read a word of it, I had no reason to doubt this proffered wisdom. That same semester, however, I encountered Spenser again, albeit vicariously, from a very different perspective. A group of my friends were enrolled in the senior honors seminar, which was focused on a single author. To their horror, they discovered that they would be spending the semester working on Spenser's writings. Why they were appalled, I cannot remember, but I do recall that they spent countless meal hours complaining about the fate they believed awaited them. The professor listened to their objections and offered a compromise, which they accepted: they agreed to read and discuss The Faerie Queene for three weeks. At the end of that time they were free to request a change in topic for the rest of the term. But by the time Spenser's probationary period was over, they were hooked, and as the semester passed they became more and more obsessed. They wrote and [End Page 171] performed Spenser songs in the cafeteria; they had T-shirts printed with Spenserian slogans; and, in general, they lived, breathed, and celebrated Spenser with an almost unimaginable enthusiasm. Indeed, although none of the students I am still in touch with from this class became an English professor, they retained enough content and excitement from the course that several were able to talk with me knowledgeably as I worked on my Spenser dissertation and book.

Needless to say, as a student I became intrigued by the dramatic shift in their reaction to Spenser and his epic. I contacted their professor, arranged to do my senior tutorial with him—a year of weekly meetings on the Legend of Temperance, as it turned out—and never looked back. As I read and discussed this portion of The Faerie Queene in this intensive setting, I too became entranced. The experience was clearly pivotal, since I have spent many years now reading, teaching, and writing about Spenser's poem.

As this anecdote suggests, I began my Spenser studies already aware of some of the epic's challenges and pleasures. I enthusiastically undertook the project of learning about The Faerie Queene and had the opportunity to do it slowly and thoroughly. Such an experience is not possible, or desirable, for all students. As the following essays indicate, The Faerie Queene today normally reaches students as part of a Renaissance course that also covers a range of other writers, and these classroom encounters generally include only portions of Spenser's epic. Most faculty choose depth over breadth in their teaching of Spenser, and the course descriptions offered here suggest that students gain invaluable lessons from such strategies.

The essays in this symposium all began as oral presentations in a panel sponsored by the International Spenser Society at the 2001 meeting of the Modern Language Association (MLA) in New Orleans. The panel's title indicates its rationale: "Teach The Faerie Queene in a Week? Spenser in Today's Curriculum." In response to a perceived change in the ability of many faculty members to teach Spenser regularly and in depth, the topic was chosen to provide a forum in which to discuss the teaching of Spenser in various settings, from the rushed survey course to the comparatively leisurely graduate seminar. The society sought a range of answers to the question posed in the title, from "Yes, I teach it in a week and let me tell you how," to "I have to do it, but it can't be done," to "I teach all of Spenser all the time and my students adore it," to whatever other responses...


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