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Teaching Tarlton: success!

2012 January 29

For my fall ENGL1102 course in City Comedy I assigned students to produce a collaborative digital edition of Tarlton’s Jests. I was curious to see how these anecdotes would work for an undergraduate, non-English major audience. I also wanted to explore how strong a connection could be made between the Jests and a study of early modern English drama. It made sense to me, but I’ve been so immersed in the idea that I wanted a litmus test to confirm my expectations.

The results were better than I could have imagined. I assigned each student a jest or a section of a jest (as the jests are unequal in length and I had 75 students, I needed to do a bit of juggling). Students were to use the course wiki as the primary platform for all elements of the assignment except for a blog to which they were post on a weekly basis to document and examine their progress as well as those of their peers. I chopped up a PDF of the 1613 edition (EEBO facsimile) and gave the individual sections to the students. The assignment consisted of four parts:

  1. A draft transcription of the original black letter printing.
  2. A revised text incorporating student editorial decisions and OED-based gloss.
  3. An editorial introduction explaining why the student had made particular choices regarding spelling, punctuation, layout, etc.
  4. A contextual essay analyzing the jest in terms of what we had learned about comedy and performance during the semester, as well as considering their jest in relation to the larger publication.

I wondered how a group of largely untried eighteen year-olds – all of whom are non-humanities students – would be able to manage an early 17th century text; I was curious to see if they could access the humor in the jests and respond to Tarlton’s character. As it turned out, the assignment was a success. Most of the students responded positively to the assignment (this observation is based on anonymous student evaluation comments). Several expressed significant enthusiasm and wished we could have spent more time on Tarlton rather than reading the assigned plays (Shoemakers Holiday, Knight of the Burning Pestle, and Bartholmew Fair).

Facsimile of "A Jest of Tarlton, proving Mustard to have wit."

Invariably they complained at first – I saw plenty of grimaces when students first saw the blurry, blotchy texts they were supposed to interpret. But we treated it as a puzzle and very quickly most began to enjoy the exercise. Particularly surprising was the response to using OED online. Most had never worked with the OED before, and were intrigued by its definition chronology feature. As for humor, most of the students experienced some disconnect – not having been exposed to much early modern theatre history and practice proved almost insurmountable in “getting” the joke. But they were willing to put their own perceptions about comedy aside and think instead about how humor is in many ways dependent on context.

The results were gratifying – particularly since I’ll be presenting a paper about this experience at the RSA in March (note to self: start writing paper!) More to come as the conference gets closer.

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