New approach to Old English

July 7, 2000

Old English is considered old hat in some universities. But the internet is helping to keep it alive. Tony Tysome reports

Oxford University caused a stir in English literature departments up and down the country earlier this year when it decided to dump compulsory Old English.

The subject, which was apparently too difficult and unpopular to continue forcing Oxford undergraduates to study, was defended with Beowulf-like determination by academics who felt it was Oxford's teaching method, rather than Old English itself, which was the problem.

Even the subject's champions admit learning the language can prove daunting, very time-consuming, and therefore potentially off-putting, for many students.

Julie Coleman, English language lecturer at Leicester University, explained: "In a normal literature seminar, the entire session is devoted to discussion of the content and context of a text. But in Old English seminars, we have to cover the basic grammar, history and theology before we can even move on to problems with translation and comprehension.

"Discussions of the text as literature then tend to be lost. For example, where significant proportions of students are hazy about details of the crucifixion, the finer points of The Dream of the Rood are unlikely to make much of an impression. When reading the Life of Saint Edmund takes several weeks of gruelling translation, his eventual martyrdom may come as a blessed relief for all concerned. Even a text as action-packed as the early sections of Beowulf can lose its momentum in attempts to understand just who is ripping off whose arm!" To help overcome this problem and stimulate thought and discussion on issues raised by the ancient text, Dr Coleman and her colleagues decided to use the most modern of communication systems. They created a web-based "bulletin board" where students could participate in a virtual seminar whenever they wished throughout a semester.

Contributions to the discussions - set at a minumum 2,000 words per student over the period the bulletin board was open - replaced a non-assessed essay for the course. Dr Coleman says the experiment brought exciting results. Students were engaging in heated arguments about their interpretations of Old English texts; by the end of one semester there were more than 500 messages on the board; during term-time, ten to 12 students were logging on each day to read what other people had said and to make their own contributions; and students who were quiet in traditional seminars demonstrated and shared "astonishing" insights.

Dr Coleman said: "The intention was to say to the students: this is your non-assessed work - whatever feedback you get from it will come from each other. It's your chance to talk without us interfering."

Any tutor intervention in the forum tended to cause discussions to dry up, so lecturers used pseudonyms when they wanted to join in to correct misinformed arguments and help give direction to debate.

"This meant I could be controversial without students accepting my contributions as authoritative - although I could still be authoritative when I wanted," Dr Coleman said.

The bulletin board turned out to be a powerful teaching and learning tool for a number of reasons. The discussions helped students to engage with the texts critically. Since they were wordprocessing, they had to compose their thoughts.

But the "virtual" nature of the exercise encouraged them to express controversial opinions. They could disagree with one another and admit difficulties without losing face.

"In a traditional seminar, students may be reluctant to say they haven't a clue what is going on - but they were prepared to admit that on the bulletin board," Dr Coleman said.

Since the discussions did not have to take place in "real time", students could contribute when they were ready to do so, after reflection, rather than having to be on the ball during a seminar.

Dr Coleman said: "What is clear is that students modified their own opinions in the light of other students' messages. They also disagreed with their own previous postings after reflecting on what they had learned from lectures, seminars and reading. In other words, they were actively learning from their timetabled sessions and library work, instead of passively absorbing information."

One student, Manju Rani, said: "I felt it was giving me a better understanding of Old English: it was challenging in different ways. It meant you could be spontaneous or you could take some time to think.

"I felt more confident because I had heard other people's points of view and I could have an open mind rather than answering in a conservative way."

Ross Bird, another student, said: "I found it got me thinking more. Just through the normal day, you might read something on the board and you do not reply straight away, or maybe just write a hundred words. You go away and maybe you hear something in a seminar or lecture which sparks off a few other ideas. Then you can go back and alter your arguments and add to them. It's not the same as either an essay or seminar."

The fact that the board was web-based apparently caused few problems for students, who said they tended to juggle their work and other commitments if necessary to ensure they had access to a computer terminal by avoiding busy times.

However, the approach did increase workloads significantly for both students and staff, leading to some adjustments for next year.

Dr Coleman said: "At first, I found I was reading every message posted - and there were hundreds of them. We thought of getting them to print out their contributions and hand them in, but they didn't make sense out of context.

"The students also felt they had an awful lot to read. So for next year I am going to break them down into smaller discussion groups so that it's easier to handle."

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