Teaching Strides

MRU Faculty Daring Greatly

Season 4, Episode 3: All aboard the Medieval school bus: making Old and Middle English Literature come alive in the classroom


Dr. Kenna Olsen has been teaching in MRU’s Department of English, Languages and Culture since 2008. She teaches Old and Middle English Literature, but the tools she uses are anything but medieval — from tweeting the field’s best-regarded academics to feasting in the MRU Library’s Immersion Studio to Twitter.

You can follow Dr. Olsen on Twitter @KennaOlsen


Meg Wilcox: I’m Meg Wilcox and this is Teaching Strides, MRU faculty daring greatly. In this episode, how Twitter can better help students understand medieval literature.

What do popular culture and old English literature have in common? Well, an MRU classroom. Dr Kenna Olsen is a professor in the department of English Languages and Culture. She teaches Old and Middle English Literature, but that doesn’t just mean reading the texts. Dr. Olsen brings popular TV shows and social media into the classroom to keep students engaged and that’s what we’ll be talking about today. Thank you so much for joining me.

Kenna Olsen: It’s amazing to be here, thank you. What a nice introduction!

MW: So your students have often commented on how enthusiastic you are in the classroom. Do you have a tactic or a reason behind your enthusiasm or is it just there?

KO: It’s just there, it’s just there. I can even just think of yesterday I was teaching literature in the age of Chaucer and on the docket was the Friar’s tale. And I just get a lot of energy. I think just feeding off of the students, you know, when I can illuminate it for them, something that’s in the text that maybe they didn’t know was there or weren’t quite comfortable with those things.

And then just to have that conversation, I don’t know, it’s so energizing that to me it’s just so wonderful when you can say, yes, these are how the pieces fit together. And by the end of a class…it takes me hours to come down after class teaching. So I think it’s just my interest in the material and when I can see that the students are generating that same kind of interest, it’s just, it’s so, it’s so wonderful and it just, you know, sparks this energy. So how can you not be enthusiastic about it?

MW: Well, and you mentioned your enthusiasm for the topic itself and then the students are really into it. Do you think that’s rubbing off of you or do you think that it’s a chicken and egg thing?

KO: It’s kind of hard to tell. Yeah, I don’t know. I don’t know where the origin is for that. And maybe you’ve noticed my egg that there seems to be like a lot of medieval tropes in popular culture. And so I think students come with sometimes like an expectation or an anticipation of what a class might be like. And I really like to turn those expectations upside down and we do a lot of that. And that I think has some, you know, fulfilling conversations.

MW: And I want to get to some of those examples that you’re using in a minute. But first I wanted to just ask you a bit about the culture of the department that you work in. How would you describe the overall teaching culture there?

KO: Well, all of my colleagues are incredible teachers. The thing about English literature as a discipline is we’re so varied, right? So I have colleagues who are studying Canadian literature. I have colleagues who study theory. I have colleagues who do film, but I think what brings us all together is that we are all really interested in rhetoric and how rhetoric can inspire, how it can create, how it can destroy, how it can illuminate truth, how it can hide.

And so we all have our different ways of approaching those things. So we are, we all have a lot of autonomy in our classrooms. But we feel, I think all of us, that there is an essence about textual media and research that is crucial that we sort of want to communicate to students. So we all are sort of individual, I would say in our select disciplines. But there’s a lot of coming together and thinking about like how can we shape things for students and what do we want them to agree to look like? And why would, why would students, you know, why would they take this class? And just like a lot of conversation that is really student focused. And I love that about my department.

MW: And so in the collaborations, in the conversations you have with your colleagues, but also the autonomy you have in designing your classes, what would you say has become your focus or your goal when you’re creating that class or that experience for students?

KO: I don’t know, actually. I think what started to happen for me, a few years ago was that I realized that the more I brought in my own natural curiosity about the subject I’m studying. So really bringing in my own research into the classroom, sometimes in very gentle ways. And just the more I could do that, the more the students could see how studying a text that is, say, 800 years old, maybe is still, you know, within their interests or has relevance today, kind of thing. So I think what I’m trying to do constantly is just model for themmy curiosity about what drives me to keep pursuing my questions and my research.

And then I can see that, you know, that starts to generate some sort of interesting and powerful thought processes for students. So it’s like, here’s the other thing, it’s just a heck of a lot of fun, right? It’s just a heck of a lot of fun to show students. Like, here’s a text written on, you know, animal skin, 800 years old. You’re holding it in your hand. Like how does that make you feel? Right? Like that’s just fun. And so I think it’s great to just see the smiles and to sometimes see the furrowed brows, you know, because thinking is this work and it’s necessary work. And that’s, I think what I’m wanting my students to take away, right? It’s that our gaze can go many places, but if we have a if we have a focus, a question, a leading question, you know the dialogue is worthwhile. Does that make sense?

MW: And I guess my other thought is, as you mentioned, is the idea of creating relevance for the students. Right? And we’re in a world where many of the students who arrive care more about what’s on their phones, stuff that’s old is not super interesting. So, I guess I’m curious about some of the ways that you create that relevance part of it as you said, is turning expectations on their head when they come into class. But what are some other ways that you engage to help make the content more relevant for students?

KO: Yeah, it’s interesting. Sometimes we hear that don’t we? That students are less engaged, more screen driven, and it’s true, you walk into a classroom at the beginning of class then, you know, 15 years ago when I started teaching, I think it was 15 years ago, something like that. Don’t tell anybody. You know, you’d walk into a classroom and the students would be talking to each other, right? Sometimes about the class and maybe some anxiety about an assignment or something or they were talking about TV show or what have you.

But now, generally when I walk into a classroom at the beginning, and I’m sure you’ve experienced this, it’s very silent and students are on their devices. And that used to worry me a little bit. And this idea that students are less engaged because they are more internal and looking at their phones. I’m not sure that that’s the root of all the anxiety that we see in students. I think students are anxious because of things that should be alarming, like climate change and mental health and, you know, how do I communicate and feel like I’m and, you know, a citizen who contributes to society but also is getting what I need? And those are really good, deep socially driven questions. Well, guess what? They had those same questions in the 14th century and the texts that were circulating articulate those questions.

You know, we have the rise of the middle class and medieval England in the 14th century. We’ve got some, you know, really unjust tax and labor laws. People feel like they have no agency, no autonomy. And so when we start discussing those things for students, this conversation was happening. I mean, there are texts that are written that have to do with, how does one sustain the environment? And how to be environmentally friendly.

There’s a text called winner and waster and I mean, you’d think that winner is the one coming out, but there’s actually a surprise ending. But the students are so I think bolstered by the fact that idea of being a citizen that feels that they are contributing and that their voices are heard, isn’t necessarily a 21st century issue. Right? These issues were circulating, here’s how people dealt with them, here’s how people found solutions. And I think that that’s really amazing to see that sort of bolstering attitude and to see the links, you know, 600 years back I think is really neat for students. Right?

MW: Well, especially because it’s something they’re not expecting when they sign up for a medieval literature course.

KO: That’s right. I mean, to be fair, I still nerd out and make them, you know, like recite old English or recite middle English and usually they take up the challenge and you know, they sound amazing. And there we are in course reading like some crazy middle English texts together. And that’s a lot of fun too.

MW: So you’ve mentioned how part of connecting your content with students is about finding similar themes that they still face in their everyday. You’ve also talked about using technology to immerse them in and understand the space that this would’ve been created. But you also work with social media and get the students engaged with pop culture and using social media. So tell me a bit about how you do that.

KO: So social media is something that’s much more profound and like an everyday event for many of our students. And I think that that does perhaps contribute to a certain kind of anxiety. Medievalists have always been on the, surprising for some people, but the cutting edge of technology, right. We were really the first to forge into digital humanities. And because it’s all about making texts accessible, right? And digital humanities was great for that.

So there we are on Twitter, having conversations with each other, talking about our research, talking about our issues on this hashtag medieval Twitter. And I thought, I’m going to get my students to start checking this out. And what do you know then for some assignments, they reach out via Twitter and they get the most upstanding, famous colleague who works say, on Marjorie Kemp, tweeting back at them saying, ‘I love your assignment here. You know, here’s what I would ask you.’ And then they’re getting, you know, the benefit of not just me as a professor but then somebody else who is, you know, so interested in what they’re doing and they feel so inspired, right? To get that sort of communication back from yet another expert.

And then two, we’re creating a community outside of the classroom, which is wonderful because I mean, as you know, as a teacher, it’s right at that moment, sometimes when you hit like the heavy, wonderful energizing stuff and your time for classes up and the conversation has to come to an end. So for class I create or get the students to decide on, I shouldn’t say I create, use a hashtag that brings us together and they’ll just tweet to the hashtag like, ‘Hey, I’m thinking about the politicization of medieval isms and Game of Thrones.’ And someone else will tweet. And that conversation that we’ve started in class continues and it’s wonderful.

So that’s one way that I’m using Twitter and I will never go back. I will always use Twitter. In and without the classroom. I’ve been told by students, you know, honor students that have been here for five years, that it’s the first time they felt like such a concrete essence of community. And you know, so that’s kind of what we’re thinking about in those classes, it’s a lot.

MW: But that’s what makes it good.

KO: Yeah, well maybe that’s what makes it good. Yeah. And it’s a lot of fun too.

MW: Thank you so much for joining me.

KO: Oh, well thank you for having me.

MW: That was Dr. Kenna Olsen, a professor at MRUs, department of English Languages and Culture. You can find her on Twitter @KennaOlsen. Teaching Strides is produced by Hadeel Abdel-Nabi and me, Meg Wilcox, in conjunction with the Academic Development Center at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Alberta.

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