Chaucer: Assignment

Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University


The Objective:

One of the goals of this course is that you improve your skills in critical analysis by articulating, organizing, and polishing the presentation of your insights in some kind of written presentation. But Ladye Fortuna smileth on yow: you have several options for meeting this objective which can both appeal to your own individual talents and still allow you to package brilliant scholarly textual analysis in impressive and professional ways.

You need two things at this stage: a planned presentational mode, and an idea.

The Options:

Depending on how you work best, you may want the idea first. Identify one intriguing Shakespearean moment in one of the plays we have examined and explore, or at least start to explore, its implications. You are aiming for an excruciatingly focused angle on this facet of the play and will present your analysis in either:

A) a minimum four-page complete manuscript using MLA-style format (use of secondary source journal articles is optional but professional and therefore strongly advised; we’ll discuss literary research and writing conventions in class);


B) another kind of complete project (such as a web page or other media product) equivalent in scholarship, analysis, and grunt work to a mimimum four-page manuscript;


C) about four pages worth of work, with a detailing of the state of, and remaining plans towards, a larger project (a web site or ten+-page manuscript, for example) to be turned in as complete near the end of the semester.

Finding a Topic:

The rule here is simple: the more particular the better. These works have been combed over for a long time; so ideally you want to find a somewhat new angle on them, something unusual and arcane that no one else will think of. Be conscientious, nay ruthless, in focusing your scope. Find a specific moment, subtle motif, or character issue. Why is this one observation or insight of yours significant in the larger framework of the play? Papers lumbering through general or hackneyed topics will be disappointing … all around! The typical weakness with 383 papers is the too vast nature in the discussions of the topics. The weak mind thinks that selection of some enormous subject such as “love” will allow for superficial discussion of three different poems slapped together to fill the required pages. Such a project, and its resultant grade, will suck.

To find something potentially original to say about a play we’ve been reading, start from one particular moment in the poem. What is peculiar and subtle about this moment? Consider its several layers of potential meaning. Then consider its larger significance within the poem — perhaps how this moment advances one of the key themes or motifs in the larger work. What are the ramifications?

The excruciatingly close focus should be on your perceptions rather than your evaluations or on you (e.g., “I feel that the Miller is an OK joe”). Rather than as an “opinion,” think of this as your perspective or insight. Also, this is not a “review” — drippy “appreciation” or rhapsodic praise of Chaucer is tiresome and dorky, so between the rough draft and the final draft, omit all those “Chaucer does a great job, but then that’s why he’s the father of English literature” embarrassments. More stylistic advice is coming in class as more examples of what I never want to see again keep occurring to me.

You are encouraged to research and include secondary sources, but original insight and analysis should still dominate the entire discussion. Your final revised essay must consist of typed, double-spaced pages containing an intriguing (not underlined) title, an original unified thesis, vigorous analytical work, no extra spaces between paragraphs, all in a clean, effective, illuminating, properly documented presentation (correctly punctuated in-text parenthetical citations of author and page, and a correctly formatted MLA-style Works Cited list). You will include a Works Cited list even if the only work on the list is the Chaucer text. For further instruction regarding documentation, refer to the handout given with the assignment, or to the web page, or ask me ahead of time. Proofread well so that minor surface matters do not distract readers from your ideas. The grade for any manuscript lacking a Works Cited list or containing a renegade, variant, or insane documentation system will strike you as intensely disappointing.

Doing the Bloody Work:

Meeting these requirements, on time, assures you of at least a C grade (see grading sheet). Specific quotation from the play should demonstrate the validity of your argument. The analytical discussion inside the paper should be persuading readers of the significance of adopting your unique perspective on the material; it should not be a report of pointless factoids nor a scan of tons of bilge. MLA documentation is required for humanities papers and should be carried out correctly; so stop making me cross out commas, p’s, pg’s, pgs’s, and all other manner of clutter between simply author and page in parenthetical citations of secondary sources! Also quit with the bastardized Works Cited lists (MLA cross-bred with numbered references, APA corruptions, etc.). Refer to a handbook (MLA, Hacker’s A Writer┬╣s Reference, etc.) for correct documentation, read the MLA advice on the next page of this handout, and/or ask me ahead of time. “Are you gonna be like really strict on us about a Works Cited and all that stuff?” Uh, yeah? And stop priding yourself on having a jaunty identity based largely on your special lack of skill in spelling. The presentation and appearance of your work should be letter-perfect so that niggling surface matters do not distract your readers from your ideas.


You may work alone or with someone else creating a useful resource for current and future students of Chaucer. Realize that this is a scholarly project, not an advertisement or fan page. Pick an appropriately manageable scope for the project and include all the key ingredients that you would provide for a paper: research, analysis, commentary, and whatever else would make this creation impressive and valuable. And then package this in ways appropriate for a web site (research gets registered in a Works Cited that may include hyperlinks, for example) and for an audience consisting of future students of this class. Do not just create a recycling dumpsite, that is, don’t replicate what’s already available. Instead, be sure to offer the one thing most lacking on the web: critical analysis — not a full paper’s worth, since that just invites plagiarism, but some sophisticated components of commentary.

If you choose this project because it seems easy and you think you can submit any old crap with a jpg of a medieval dolt, you are doomed and will fail most miserably. If you take up this challenge heroically and meaningfully, it will show.

Alternate Projects:

I welcome other kinds of projects that demonstrate the same objectives: ability to carry out sophisticated research, to discover an original purpose and focus, to write with clarity and influence your audience’s perspective. You may find a way to construct a bibliographical, filmic, pedagogical, or popular culture related project appropriate to Chaucer studies which will inspire enthusiasm and break new ground impressively. You may work on a cooperative endeavor with a colleague. There are many possibilities. Think about it.

The Deal:

You are obligated to hand in the assignment (or the textual portions of a web page with the URL) at the beginning of the class period on the designated due date. Truancy is, of course, no excuse (i.e., “I couldn’t get my paper in ’cause I cut class”). Fate, as we know, plays amusing tricks. I tell you right now that Aunt Millie could drop in a flash on Paper-due Eve: it is your obligation to anticipate anything like this in your life that could go wrong and to take preventive measures or to develop back-up plans. You also must accept responsibility for being so foolish as to stake your grade on a computer’s or printer’s reliability. And no bitter ironies about roommates and alarm-clocks. No work submitted means you did not meet the requirements of the course (big F); late work will not be read but at least you will have met requirements minimally (little F factored in). On a more positive note, I assure you that I am happy to provide advice and help at any stage of the pre-writing, researching, and drafting processes, short of giving you a topic and writing the text for you. Ultimately, though, it must be completed and turned in when due; the schedule does not allow for screwing around and cheesy excuses. Get to work early, consult with me as needed, and turn in the best possible masterpiece. Sample papers, good to excellent, are available on the web site, as are instructions and examples for the required MLA-style documentation:here.

PROJECT DUE:THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 23rd, 2004; 12:00 noon.