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Pedagogy 3.2 (2003) 197-203

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Whose Poem Is This Anyway?
Teaching Spenser through the Stanza Workshop

John Webster

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I struggled with The Faerie Queene—more than . . . with any other text in any college course.

—student evaluation, summer 2000

Planning for my survey-class teaching of Spenser has usually begun with two questions: how much of The Faerie Queene should I cover, and how much time from a ten-week quarter should I take to do it? For years I answered these questions primarily from my own experience as a student. We had taken a week to read a book of the poem when I was a sophomore, and that pretty much guided my practice in turn. Students never complained. Indeed, in end-of-quarter evaluations they often talked about The Faerie Queene in glowing terms: brilliant, complex, and so on.

Yet if they seemed happy enough, their written work was often disappointing, though it took me a long time to understand the import of this. For I had still not figured out that papers and midterms are not just about how well students have prepared and therefore what grade they should get. They are also measures of how much learning—and of what kind of learning—has taken place. They are thus also, at least in potentia, an evaluative measure of the effectiveness of one's teaching. Looked at from this point of view, though my students praised the course, the fact that their work showed little independent, active reading of Spenser's poetry finally proved too discomfiting to ignore.

For I cannot imagine anything more valuable than the complex thinking skills that reading Spenser can supply. I came of professorial age, after all, in the last glow of New Criticism. Paul Alpers had taught us how to look anew at the canto and the line, and he, Harry Berger, Tom Roche, and others had taught us how to slow down, how to follow in an interpretive vein the instruction that Keats, alluding to Spenser, had given Shelley in a writerly vein: "Load every rift with ore" (cf. 2.7.28). The responsiveness of the poem's language to this sort of attention is central to my understanding of Spenser's [End Page 197] accomplishment and, more to the point, of why it is worth my students' time in the first place. I do like the subjects Spenser offers for reflection—the commonplaces of early modern ethics—and I think it important to show students how the poem opens onto issues of social and cultural history. But what for me makes the poem so very worth teaching is the way that it offers one of Western literature's great training grounds for multivalent, contextually dependent, provisionally envisioned ethical thought. And that—entrée to a kind of thinking so challenging that in his well-known Forms of Intellectual and Ethical Development in the College Years William G. Perry Jr. (1999 [1968]) regards its achievement as the gateway to a fully mature intellectual life—was what students lacked when they left my class.

So I began to focus more clearly on enabling my students to think Spenserianly. Of course, it was not as if I had never tried to teach them reading skills before. I had certainly shown them what I was after, had modeled it, had worked through stanzas with them in class. But while they could follow that sort of discourse, and redact it at least partially if asked, their work showed that few of them could go on to new stanzas or cantos on their own.

And why was this? The main reason, I think, was that we simply went too fast. Most of my students could not read a book in a week with full plot comprehension, let alone with any real understanding of how to explore Spenser's open-ended, interrogatory language. They put on a good show—they seemed to find it all very compelling—and in the classroom I was happy to indulge myself in one of my great pleasures: reading...


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