Pandemic/Protest Teaching

by Elizabeth Allen

This piece was previously published on The New Chaucer Society’s new blog, New Chaucer Studies: Pedagogy and Profession. Learn more about NCS here:

The morning after Trump sent in the National Guard, I paused “record” at the beginning of our Zoom seminar to ask students how they were doing. Their answers ranged across the liberal political spectrum: desire to join the protests, concern about anti-Asian violence, and a sotto voce reference to tension in the household between the student and her sister—who had gone out to protest—and their fearful and furious parents.

There was a silence. Maybe it was solemnity; maybe they were sleepy; maybe someone was about to say more. But I took the silence to mean that the 12 people in attendance did not want to discuss the protests in more detail. They are living at home, in their parents’ houses, scattered up and down California. Some of them have not been leaving their houses at all. They have been watching hours of Zoom lectures and reading books online and following the news online and they look exhausted.

A couple people nodded when I asked if they wanted to talk about Chaucer.

It was the last class of the quarter, on the end of the Canterbury Tales. All quarter we had been talking about how tale-telling makes a community: a virtual community made up of language, like our Zoom community made of pixels and light, crackling frozen moments, sudden lightning-fast comments, inexpressive thumbnails: a sliding puzzle of 9 to 15 students in my 20-person seminar. I record the class sessions for one student who has a 4-year-old and another who is in the hospital but cannot drop her classes because she will lose financial aid. It is a community varied in status, appearance, and expertise. It is like Chaucer’s community, which is tolerant and elastic: one that can label someone drunk and let him shine, one that can recover from dire ruptures like the Pardoner’s insult to the Host.

At the end of the Canterbury Tales, Chaucer makes a series of apparently self-canceling moves. In the last two tales, language lies; fiction sins; then Chaucer retracts everything he wrote that tends toward sin. I wanted to ask my students to think about the end(s) of community. As I said that phrase, ‘ends of community’, I found myself tearing up because my students are 21 and 22 years old, and they are living in a world whose communities are in the middle of suffering and death and protest, and they were struggling to get their reading and video-lectures and paper-writing done, and they did not know what they should do next.

I wanted to let my students study Chaucer for a while, free from allegories of modern life and suffering. But Chaucer wrote a meta-narrative, and the Canterbury Tales is all about community. And the analogies to modern life reared up before me all through the class, half-formed and hungry.

Usually I emphasize the Parson’s Tale, a description of how human beings achieve absolution: I make the case for its optimism, its provision of remedies for every sin, and its hope for salvation. I say that Chaucer retracts his tales because he is turning toward salvation, and tales belong in the world pre-salvation, the world of the here and now, the messy community of the Tales, where stories still belong even as Chaucer turns his own attention elsewhere. Right now, the here and now is the world of pandemic and protest and people reduced to little squares. I did say those things, but I also spent more time with the Manciple this year.

The Manciple (an officer who buys provisions for institutions) insults the Cook (the guy who makes those provisions into meals) – a professional quarrel, of which there are several in the framework of the Tales. The Manciple tells the drunken Cook to shut his mouth: his breath stinks as if the devil has taken up residence in there, and “thy cursed breeth infecte wol us alle!” I stumbled over “cursed breeth” and “infection” and vile stink and I thought of George Floyd gasping for breath and Covid spreading among protesters and the peppery stink of tear gas. How to apply this to the Cook, an otherwise rather faceless blob of a pilgrim? I couldn’t; I paused and said something incoherent; I moved along.

Teaching is often like this: you fail to grasp a thought in class. But the distraction and the sense of grasping are at once enhanced and made less visible on Zoom. In class, I might have paused to ask whether they were stumbling, getting them to help me think through what’s possibly a moment of reading too much against the grain. Pausing—the classic teacherly technique of waiting while students summon their courage and logic to speak—doesn’t work so well in Zoom because it might always be a connectivity issue: a disruption, a self-cancellation, instead of a creative invitation.

The analogies in my head fell apart as we talked. The Cook is a mute and sickened creature who elsewhere tells a truncated tale. Is he an image of oppression and degradation? An image of a sick and sorry White America? In response to the Manciple, he is so mad that he can’t speak; he takes a swing at the Manciple; he falls off his horse. And because he is not a small man, the pilgrims lift him up with a lot of shoving to and fro, and “muchel care and wo, / so unwieldy was this sory palled gost” [so unwieldy was this sorry pallid ghost]. I pointed out the way that the community re-integrates the poor old drunken Cook.

The Manciple gives him a drink and they make up, apparently turning rancor to accord, disease to love, and earnest into game. But the Manciple’s peace offering is superficial and his Tale is not a game.

The challenge of pandemic teaching and protest teaching lies in striking some kind of balance. Students need a space where they get to think about Chaucer, not America, where they can learn the rules of a culturally different game. They also need to draw the links between what they study and what they do in the world. You can’t do away with either the freedom or the tight analogy.

The Manciple’s Tale is as rancorous and dis-eased as any in the Tales. Phoebus Apollo has a lovely crow, back in the days when crows were white and they could talk and sing. He also has a beloved wife, who cheats on him. The crow tells Phoebus about her infidelity. In his fury, Phoebus murders her; he is immediately filled with regret. So what does he do? He accuses the crow of lying: “I wol thee quyte anon thy false tale!” [I will repay you at once for your false tale!”] Phoebus turns his rage upon the crow, turns its plumage black and takes away its speech so that now it can only caw.

Teaching this moment, I got distracted again. Apollo, the god of song! The story is so black and white. Whiteness is good and beautiful. Blackness is evil and ugly, unable to speak or sing.

I had planned a different analogy. President Trump looks like a brutal Phoebus, with his declaration of martial law, his walk to the church and his wielding of the Bible on the church steps: silent, unopened, meaningless, a black box instead of a book legible to a whole range of cultures and interpreters, albeit some readers are grim as the Manciple, others flaccid as the Cook. Instead of speaking truth, he ordered peaceful protesters cleared from the steps by tear gas and rubber bullets. Every time he speaks, he weaponizes and reduces words, reduces speech to nouns without verbs and phrases without ends.

I was both too distracted to say all that, and too aware that saying it would turn me into a bit of a preacher. I wanted to elicit thinking, not tell my students what to think. We looked at the language of Apollo’s lies, the repetition of the call to silence, the way that the tale sputters to a halt. I asked them about the Retraction.

The stated moral of the Manciple’s story is silence. The moral is that speech can only be a lie. The moral is that facts don’t matter, or that they should go unspoken. That speaking truth is not possible in a world of profound betrayal.

Wrapped up with that moral is a radical simplification. White is good. Black is bad. Blackness and silence are bound up in the figure of the cawing crow. I couldn’t get away from the Manciple’s grim refusal of accord, love, and game—and I was thoroughly, irredeemably distracted by its resemblance to the now.

Teaching is an anxious task. Its results are nebulous and unknowable. I worried my students didn’t learn enough Middle English this term. I forgot to tell them what a Reeve is (he’s kinda like a Manciple.) I let certain rigors slide because we were online, and all the best practices say to keep things short, organized, and clear; and that meant, I felt, thinner than they might have been. I was afraid I missed the balance between study and application, then and now. The students did amazing work in the circumstances: smart discussion posts and weekly writing and thoughtful conversation and solid formal papers. They wrote new Canterbury Tales for their final projects, clever and heartfelt and bold.

Okay, then. We all did what we could. May my students make this nation a new community. May they raise their voices on Zoom, in final projects, in classrooms, at work, in the media. May their voices chime with the protesters still showing up in the streets. May these young people in uncertain times raise their varied voices high, and shout the Manciple and his vacuous descendants into dust.

Dr. Elizabeth Allen is Associate Professor, English in the School of Humanities at UC Irvine. Dr. Allen has published a book on exemplarity (False Fables and Exemplary Truth, Palgrave 2005) and assorted essays on Chaucer, the Gawain-poet, and medieval romance, among other topics.