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Wack: Building bridges between Middle Ages and late 20th century

STANFORD -- As an associate professor of English specializing in the Middle Ages, Mary Wack faces the continual challenge of making Chaucerian tales and Arthurian legends relevant to students who will live well into the 21st century.

"I try to build bridges between pockets of culture," she said, working with what the students know to bring them into the medieval world view.

Most undergraduates, for example, have read Prince Valiant or seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Wack uses those points of reference to introduce a distant age.

Last winter, at the outbreak of the Persian Gulf War, she was teaching "The Knight's Tale," a story of chivalry, love and war that is part of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.

"It gave us the opportunity to think about violence and conflict through the centuries," said Wack, who talked with her students about how they could use a tale of the past to clarify issues in the present.

Aware that students usually don't read the great works in their spare time, Wack, in her class on Arthurian literature, looks at a popular novel, The Mists of Avalon, and a comic book, both based on legends of King Arthur and his companions.

In this way, Wack said, the students learn how skills developed in literary criticism can be applied to other media, movies for example.

"It gives them a more active role in approaching culture," she said.

Students never know what to expect from her, Wack said, because she tries to change from year to year and is always willing to experiment with new approaches. She especially likes to use technology in a variety of ways.

For her Chaucer course, for example, she had parts of the Canterbury Tales scanned into a computerized text searcher. This, she said, allowed students to get into the language more quickly, helping them to overcome the problems inherent in learning Middle English.

The text searcher also was an aid in dispelling the students' "chip on the shoulder" attitude about the course textbook, a tome of about seven pounds that is not "user-friendly," Wack said. "You can't curl up in bed with it."

"I will not jettison the book, which I have tremendous respect for, but I want students to feel that studying Chaucer is a pleasure, not a pain," she said.

The experiment was a success, but that is not always the case, Wack said. Last quarter, for freshmen in the humanities track of the Cultures, Ideas and Values (CIV) course, she put together a quarter-long series of programs available in the dorms through the Stanford Instructional Television Network. She chose a number of programs related to the course theme, including a Public Broadcasting System series on Western civilization and films on African music and dance.

Unfortunately, she said, "It turned out that students did not have such easy access to television as I had thought. And their schedules were so packed, they just didn't have time to watch the programs."

Wack said she hasn't given up on the idea entirely, however, and next fall will try a scaled-down version aimed at dorm-based CIV sections.

Wack plans to use some of her $10,000-a-year Bing award money to work with another technological project: the Humanities Image Archive, a large data base of visual material that can be searched and projected on computer screens. Bing funds will allow her to add special materials from the English Department to the archive, which, she said, "offers a way of integrating visual and verbal signs in a culture."



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