Alison Baker Marks Provost's Award with Speech

Dr. Alison Baker

February 19, 2015. EFL Professor Alison Baker, winner of the 2014 Provost's Award for Excelence in Teaching, was a featured speaker at the Provost's Award for Excelence Symposium. In a speech ranging through classical myth, fairy tales, and Goeffrey Chaucer, Baker drew on her professional specialization in Medieval and Classical Literature and Mythology to make an impassioned case for the teaching of analytical, critical, and esthetic reading as part of a university education. Way to go, Alison! View the speech here or read the text of it below.

Alison A. Baker
Provost’s Award for Excellence in Teaching
February 19, 2015


I’d like to start with a story.  The Greek myth of Hades and Persephone is the story that explains the origin of the seasons. Hades--the god of the Underworld, the master of the dead, the ruler of the least attractive real estate after Zeus took the heavens and Poseidon claimed the sea--felt himself deserving of a boon.  If he must dwell forever in the Underworld, he must make it livable, as it were.  He came to an agreement with Zeus (as all marriages were arranged between fathers and grooms, sometimes even fathers of grooms and fathers of brides, but Hades was a big boy) that he would marry Persephone, Zeus’s daughter and the goddess of spring.   And one day, as Persephone played in a meadow with her girlfriends, picking flowers and making garlands for their hair, Hades swooped down in his black chariot of death and swept her away, her crown of flowers falling from her fingertips as she shrieked for help. 

Persephone stayed in the underworld.  She ate the blood-red pomegranate; you remember.  But because Persephone lives with Hades—because she ultimately married Hades--Life and Death are inextricably bound together.  We know we cannot have life without death, but now we cannot also suffer death without life attending.  When Persephone goes to Hades, the earth “dies,” and we experience winter.   When she comes back, Spring returns, with new life and hope and beauty and promise.  Because the myth binds life to death in the strongest bond we could create, the crisis of death is lessened.  This myth is early therapy. 

But Persephone didn’t understand at first.  The crown of jewels Hades offered in lieu of her floral garland didn’t help.  My students sometimes don’t understand it right away either, so we have to take it apart to see how it works. You know who else didn’t understand?  Her mother.  Persephone’s mother was Demeter, Zeus and Hera’s sister, and the goddess of the harvest, of grain and cultivated crops.  (She’s Ceres in the Roman pantheon, from which we get the word “cereal,” like Froot Loops.  Thanks, Demeter.)  Demeter was not included in the negotiations between the men, didn’t even get a memo or a shower invite, so when she heard her daughter was lost, she embarked on what I affectionately call a Mommy Quest.  She wandered all over the world, looking for her lost child.  This happens in other traditions as well, and sometimes even in real life, so we recognize it.  Demeter, who is autumn to Persephone’s spring—maturity and fulfillment, nourishment and plenty, and a touch of madness, when her mama bear instinct is triggered--wanders and searches for Persephone in desperation, without caring at all for the rest of the world.  Her personal Mommy Quest trumps the peasants’ need for healthy crops.  The earth goes barren without her. Crops fail. Fields lie fallow, waiting for Demeter’s blessing that does not come.  Students can identify with this.  Some things are too big to ignore.  Sometimes daily responsibilities fall by the wayside when larger problems eclipse them.  Sometimes term papers are late because life (and sometimes death) gets in the way.  Now I’ve got them.  Now if we can extrapolate from a personal story—the love of a mother for a child—we can begin to imagine the next levels—the politics of the king of the gods, and the concept of the seasons—of the life and death of the earth mirroring the cosmic truth that life and death are intertwined.   Reading that story has just made their lives not only more bearable, but also more meaningful. 

I teach literature.  More than that, I teach reading.  Not reading for six year olds, obviously, but I do dabble there too.  I have kids and have helped them become readers and worked in their classrooms, and I’ve helped my students become teachers of reading.  It’s all connected, of course.  But I teach reading at the college level—reading for depth and understanding, reading for appreciation and enjoyment, reading that provides a way to take in the world and decide thoughtfully what, if anything, to do with it.  To do this, I need smallish classes, so I can get to know my students and meet each of them where they are and help move them forward.  I try to give them skills they need to bridge the gaps between where they are and the times and places the texts I assign were written.  I try to give them positive encounters with difficult texts, so that they can feel confident approaching other texts on their own.  In doing this, I position them as Little Red Riding Hood, trying to find their way through the forest, on their way to self-discovery.  I share some of my own journey toward literacy and identity every time I read with my students.  I can help my students pick their way through the forest because I spent so much time lost there myself.  Most of my young life I thought of myself as a poet who was going to be a doctor.  I wanted to be a reader and a writer, but I didn’t think those sounded like serious enough occupations.  Like Little Red Riding Hood, I took detour after detour in the forest.  I let myself be distracted from my purpose.  I wasn’t ready to commit to the path I knew I should take.  I was three years in to grad school before I found that right path, and when I did, it was broad, bright, and open and it led straight to where I wanted to be. 

We’re all Little Red Riding Hood, pushing through the brambles, trying not to get too lost.  But some getting lost is important.  Knights errant have their adventures (even that word tells us—errant means wandering, but also screwing up—erring). Heroes are tested and saints are tempted before they are rewarded; the darkness, the confusion, the error is useful in making us who we are.  For my first two years of college, I was a biology major.  I wanted to be a cardiologist.  Then when I finally admitted to myself that that really wasn’t where my strengths lay, I went to the most scientific branch of language study—linguistics.  But even that was wrong.  I learned a lot about how languages work and develop, and I studied many dead languages, but those courses for me were always aimed at getting closer to the original texts—back to the stories.  If I could read Old Norse or Old French, I wouldn’t have to rely upon a translator and trust someone else to tell me what was there.  I wanted to read for myself.  I want my students to read for themselves.  And all those linguistics and language classes made me a better reader, and ultimately a better teacher.  They were not a mistake; they were foundational.

I teach reading.  Critical reading.  Analytical reading.  Aesthetic reading. I teach my students how to see connections between the text at hand and other texts, other media, other experiences.  Literature is supposed to teach us about life, about how to get along with people, and about how to make meaning out of what we do and see.  So we have to think critically about what a story says.  We scrutinize the narrator, the use of source material, and the language to get a rich understanding of the text.  We look at individual elements—characters, scenes, descriptions, dialogue—and try to understand how the parts contribute to the whole.  We make connections to other texts:  how is this scene like the Arming of the Hero in the Iliad or The Avengers, or the last time you geared up for a statistics test, or to visit a sick child at the hospital?   

Most importantly, perhaps, we practice aesthetic reading.  We try to understand the literary conventions of eras long past and of cultures foreign to our own, and we try to see the beauty of the texts in their original context.  Then we try to understand the relevance of the old artistry in our contemporary society.  Learning to judge something fairly, on its own terms, is a very useful skill that transfers widely beyond literary studies.  Learning to appreciate standards of beauty and virtue foreign to your own is the first step to understanding those standards are fluid, changeable by generations past and changeable today.  And of course, learning to appreciate more types of beauty and artistry means there are more things to love—more to make us happy in the world. 

I teach old literature.  I teach medieval and classical literature--myths that are thousands of years old, epics and romances and tales that are hundreds of years old.  One characteristic of the cultures that produced the texts I teach is that the number of people who could read them was relatively small, so to appreciate them in their original context is to read and hear them aloud.  I teach students to read aloud.  We still value this skill in an age of audio books, but we don’t pay much attention to it.  But I believe it’s important. Some of my classes have read alouds as graded activities.  I want students to practice delivery of lines—to act, to some extent, with practice and intent.  But I also want them to become more facile at picking up anything and reading it with skill.  Sentences hold together in a certain way; phrases need to be grouped so as to convey meaning and not leave an important noun until the next breath.  The eye can improve at taking in a whole phrase and reading it aloud with clarity and drama.  The skills relevant to good sight-reading can be learned, so I teach reading aloud as a subject.

I do this because I am a card-carrying medievalist—a philologist, or a lover of words.  This practice permeates my career.  I have learned languages mostly by translation classes, where we deduced the grammatical rules from the data of a manuscript or a transcription.  We practiced reading the text aloud to see where the phrases held together in a poem without punctuation.  Reading aloud was part of my linguistic training, part of my philological training, part of my literary training.  Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales were read aloud to a courtly audience, so I have my students learn to read aloud in Middle English, to get a fuller appreciation of the language, the syntax, the sound system, and the poetry of the Tales as they read them.  I participate in Reader’s Theater performances of Sir Thomas Malory’s fifteenth century works at an annual conference.  I have recordings available on various websites in Old and Middle English, and I directed and read the narrator’s role for a recording of a King Arthur romance.  I even facilitated a Chaucer reading group for ten years in Claremont whose annual highlight was to perform a Canterbury Tale in Middle English at a Catholic mass held in honor of Geoffrey Chaucer on the anniversary of his death.  For some of us, clearly, the Middle Ages are alive and well.  But it’s all to do with reading for me.  It all connects to literacy and appreciation of the power of words.  Which brings me to my last story—the Wife of Bath’s story. 

Chaucer’s Wife of Bath tells a King Arthur tale herself.  In the cross section of society that Chaucer depicts through his pilgrims, the Wife of Bath is an independent woman—a widow five times over, but “Welcome the sixth!,” and a business woman.  She is the only pilgrim on the journey to Canterbury whose prologue is longer than her tale.  The tale is delightful, of course—a romance popularly associated with Sir Gawain, featuring a knight whose quest is to find out what all women want—but it’s adapted for her purposes.  In the tale, the ugly old woman gets to marry the handsome knight, and through magic she becomes young and beautiful again.  It’s a wish fulfillment fantasy for an aging widow. 

What is really interesting about the Wife of Bath, though, is her prologue.  She does some things in that prologue that are absolutely shocking for the time.  For instance, the very first words out of her mouth assert that although she is not book learned, as the clerk and the religious folks are, her personal experience confers authority to talk on her subject, which happens to be marriage.  Then she goes on to describe her marriages, but also her understanding of the church fathers on the subjects of virginity, multiple marriages, and whether sex for pleasure, not procreation, is sinful.  That is to say, she has read the bible and other authorities (badly in some cases—like misattributing quotes on the internet, and incompletely in others—like she only got through half the book and didn’t see the surprise ending coming--but she’s trying, at least) and she offers her interpretation and judgment in light of her personal experiences.  Modern literary critics would call this Reader Response.  The Wife of Bath reads books and listens to tales and sermons, and she tries to make sense of her life in relation to them.  That is what I want to accomplish. 

I want my students to feel empowered by what they read.  (Certainly I want them to read more completely than the Wife of Bath does, and I want them to critique their sources more rigorously than she does, but we shouldn’t judge her too harshly; she couldn’t go to Cal Poly.)  I want my students to learn to read—to read the books I put on the syllabus, to read the barrage of information they encounter on the internet, to read the world, and to read other people—so they can make the best informed decisions and lead their richest lives.  I want them to love reading and never stop and read to their kids when they have them and carry on.  I want them to get lost and found like Little Red, to learn the value of blooming where they’re planted, like Persephone, and to take responsibility for their own learning and confidently shape their world for the better like the Wife of Bath, whose first name happens to be Alison.