The Intellectual Conversation


By Roy F. Smith

Light, camera, action!  “Okay kids, I want you to engage in a self-directed intellectual conversation about Chaucer’s “The Wife of Bath,” and by the way, I want you to film your conversation and upload it to YouTube.”

Did my kids jump up and down and scream “O’boy Mr. Smith!  Can we get started right now!” No. I was met with a hard silence.  A “you must be kidding kind of silence.”

But I pressed ahead like I knew what I was doing.   

The intellectual conversation is part of a larger Chaucer project.  I group kids into “fiefdoms.” Each fiedom has three to four students.  The actual assignment handout reads as follows:

“The Wife of Bath Tale and Prologue”

English 2322 Fall 2018

(Fiefdom Project)

  1. Each fiefdom will create either a PowerPoint or an equivalent which includes the following elements:
  2. A minimum of 20 slides (10 slides for the Prologue and 10 slides for the tale itself).
  3. Each slide will include a quote from the work, an accompanying visual and a brief analysis of the quoted section.
  4. One slide for each the Prologue and the Tale will provide an overall analysis of the section.
  5. You must select a piece of music to accompany your presentation that reflects an understanding of the pilgrimage.
  6. The ordering of the presentation will reflect a coherent flow and analysis of Chaucer’s work.
  7. The presentations will start on October 10th.  I will assign the order of presentations on October 8th.
  8. You will also include a five-ten minute video that features your fiefdom having an intellectual conversation about the importance of The Wife of Bath to Chaucer’s work and to our world today. After you finished filming and editing, upload your intellectual conversation to YouTube and share the link with me.  
  9. You project will receive a single grade that your fiefdom will split as deemed fair and just.  If I deem your division unfair, I will step in and right the wrong.

I passed out the assignment to the class and asked each fiefdom read a section of the assignment aloud.  All was going well until the fiefdom in charge of step three regarding the intellectual conversation and YouTube.  Four or five students spoke at the same time in unified voices of disbelief, confusion, and terror.

Their questions ran along the lines of “wait, what?, are you saying we have to film ourselves just sitting around talking smart about The Wife?”

I also heard some under-the-breath grumbles of  “no, way!” “ain’t going to happen.” and “is it too late to drop this class?”

After restoring a semblance of order, I assured my mighty fiefdoms that like Beowulf, they too would conquer their fears and triumph over monsters and internal fears.

I explained to them that I wasn’t trying to make their lives miserable.  I explained that I had confidence in their ideas and their abilities to express those ideas to a larger audience.  I also explained that by sharing with a wider audience, they would be more diligent in their preparations and delivery.  I encouraged them to be natural and trust their ideas.

Every student entered the project nervous and uncertain, but every student participated and shared ideas before a camera.  

Part of my job as an English teacher is to help kids see themselves as thinking adults capable of far more than they realize. Requiring them to step into their fears, in a safe environment, encourages not only intellectual growth, but personal growth as soon-to-be college students.

With my students’ permission, I have included their presentations and intellectual conversations.

Thank you Nicole, Sheryl, Lauren, Evan, Eden, Maddy, and Jarrett for allowing me to share your work with an even wider audience.  

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