Renaissance literature: History

Renaissance literature

The shifting historicisms of the last quarter-century or so of Renaissance criticism cut both ways for teachers. Whilst the interplay between literature and the matter of history offers a multitude of ways to enthuse students, the question of how much time to spend on social, political, cultural or material ‘context’ remains tricky. Too much top-down history can be dangerous, as Philip Martin pointed out in an article in the Subject Centre Newsletter a few years ago: by over-zealous historicising, we can easily seem to be disempowering our students, taking a text out of their hands and placing it ‘in the irrefutable grasp of an imposingly authentic better knowledge: history, the factual tyrant governing literature’s fictions’. Much recent Renaissance criticism, indeed, reacting against historicisms old and new, attempts to downplay antiquarian approaches, whether through a ‘presentist’ emphasis on the twenty-first century experience of the text or through a renewed interest in literary form.

What are the possible ways forward?

  • Option courses related to a lecturer’s research are a common way of interrogating the relationship between culture and history, and can be a powerful method for enthusing students. There are drawbacks with this model, however: it sometimes places rather arbitrary limitations on topics available to students, and it can reduce a teacher’s range of pedagogical approaches. It is sometimes easier (more liberating, even) to teach topics not wilting under the full beam of an intensive research timetable.
  • Team teaching can be a good way of refreshing both your teaching methods and your approach to a historically-based topic–perhaps particularly if you collaborate with a lecturer from a cognate discipline.
  • Other aspects of interdisciplinarity will be useful too: don’t forget, for example, that students taking modules outside English (History, Modern Languages, Classics, Sociology, Politics, Anthropology…) can open up historical topics very valuably for their peers (and tutors), if given the opportunity.
  • A strategic approach to module and programme design–ideally involving meetings between module leaders to discuss ways in which related modules might fit in with or complement one another–can be very beneficial to students, particularly if it works across departments. There are two key questions to ask: ‘What do we want our students to know about the Renaissance?’ and ‘Does our range of Renaissance modules make it possible for them to know it?’

Making History

Another useful approach is to devise seminar structures and assessment tasks with the specific aim of getting students to research and produce historical knowledge for themselves and to bring that knowledge to bear on literary texts.‘Problem-based learning’(or ‘enquiry/inquiry-based learning’) project work—in which student groups work together on a ‘problem’ given to them by a tutor, producing a collaborative piece of work—is one obvious way to do this, but there are many other smaller-scale possibilities:

    • Building seminar plans on the basis of student ignorance of or preconceptions about the Renaissance (for example: ask students to list three things they associate with the period, or five adjectives they think might apply to Renaissance texts).
    • Asking students to prepare an annotated edition of a short text: for example, part of a Donne poem.
    • The staging of more or less formal debates on specific literary/historical topics.
    • Role-play activities involving particular historical episodes or issues and requiring preparatory research.
    • Writing exercises applying (for example) the rhetorical training methods of the Elizabethan to twenty-first century life.
    • Asking students to research and bring along to a seminar Renaissance materials in non-verbal media (images, pieces of music) appropriate to a set text.
    • Field trips to archives and historical sites (city streets, public buildings, houses, countryside) relevant to set texts, linked to assessment tasks.
    • Taking advantage of TV programmes, exhibitions, festivals and other present-day appropriations of Renaissance texts: these can be analysed critically in seminars.

All of these activities will involve direction from lecturers—indeed, bibliographical guidance will be crucial to their success. The range of online resources now available is a big help here, enabling easy student access to materials previously confined to research libraries. Many assessment tasks (and whole modules) can be and are being built around student work with archives such as Early English Books Online (EEBO) and electronic reference sources such as the OED, LEME (Lexicons of Early Modern English) and the DNB. As well as essays and other kinds of writing exercise, possible assessment tasks might include the making of websites, wikis and blogs.