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The Professors Tale

Pete Beidler led his modern pilgrims to a spring where Chaucer's pilgrims would have drank.

Geoffrey Chaucer lived and wrote in an uncertain time full of political and religious unrest, when it was considered by many to be taboo to talk about sex, and passing gas was considered funny (by some, at least).

A time, in other words, not all that different from our own.

Although Chaucer's Canterbury Tales seems modern in many ways, it is also very much a reflection of the unique period of the Middle Ages in the medieval Britain in which he lived. Over the summer, Pete Beidler, professor of English, led his own merry band of pilgrims to Canterbury to immerse themselves in the culture, history, architecture, geography, literature, and language of Chaucer.

Thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, 15 lucky high school teachers from across the country spent six weeks under Beidler's tutelage in Canterbury -- the English town where Chaucer created the lively conversations and scenarios that have been enjoyed by readers for centuries. The goal of the seminar, titled "Chaucer's Canterbury Comedies," was to deepen and widen appreciation for one of the most influential writers in history.

"Surprisingly, I had never read Chaucer before I came to Lehigh," Beidler says.

That was in the fall of 1963, when Beidler arrived at Lehigh as a graduate student. The Chaucer course, taught by J. Burke Severs, was required, and, Beidler confesses, "I took it just to get it out of the way.

"Then I looked at the textbook and I said, 'Oh, damn, it's not even in English! Not only will it be boring, it'll be impossibly difficult,'" he recalls. "But then the course started and I found the various stories in the Canterbury Tales to be (after a little practice with Middle English) rich, varied, funny, touching, engaging, raunchy, philosophical, and psychologically complex. I found myself not just learning about a 600-year-old literary culture, but about myself."

(For more on J. Burke Severs and Lehigh's long line of Middle English scholarship, read "Tradition of Scholarship.")

Beidler hopes that the high school teachers who attended the seminar will in turn teach Chaucer's works with a greater depth of knowledge and familiarity for the setting, time period, and man behind the words.

Diane DiDona, an English teacher from Whitehall, Pa., who took part in Beidler's seminar, says she gained a greater appreciation for how to bridge the gap between Chaucer's writings and today's teens.

"The stories the kids really get a kick out of are the ones that are sort of forbidden. If I say, 'Don't read this tale because it's profane and not suitable,' then of course they want to read it," DiDona says. "Most kids think people were more puritanical in historical periods such as Chaucer's, and they're surprised to find out that's not necessarily so. It makes it more fun for them."

During the six-week seminar that kicked off with a dinner in a 14th-century pub called Simple Simon's, Beidler taught a few of the Canterbury Tales and provided participants with cultural history, background studies, training in Chaucer's Middle English, and travel opportunities to the places Chaucer saw and wrote about, such as Bath, London, and Cambridge.

"We don't really know a whole lot about Chaucer himself, about his life," Beidler says. "A lot of what we do know is from the comedies themselves. So some of the seminar was spent reading and discussing some of his comedies, so the participants could discover how truly delightful his stories really are."

The group also toured the cathedral where Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was murdered in 1170 -- the site where pilgrims, including the fictional ones who told stories in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, came to pay homage to the Catholic saint.

Other experts were brought in for the seminar, including an archaeologist who took the group all over Canterbury and explained the age, structure, and history of the buildings, and a former don from Emmanuel College who took the group to Kings College Cathedral for a discussion of stained glass and his knowledge of Chaucer.

"The teachers were in awe of the ancientness of it all -- the stories, the places, the museums, the manuscripts," says Beidler, who had spent a one-year sabbatical in Canterbury two decades ago. "We have nothing so old in the U.S., and of course, they were also delighted by Chaucer's stories."

The Greyfriars House in Canterbury.

For Kimberly Smith, a high school English teacher from Boston, the seminar provided insights that no book could ever convey.

"During the seminar, I took walks that could have been taken by Chaucer himself," Smith says. "That kind of learning just can't be gained from reading. Plus, Pete has given us pamphlets and quizzes that will be invaluable teaching tools."

The 15 teachers who attended the seminar were selected by Beidler and a panel of judges out of more than 200 teachers nationwide who inquired about the seminar. They had to complete an arduous application process that included an essay and a proposal for a special project relating to Chaucer.

"I was looking for people who taught high school, preferably who taught some kind of a course including Chaucer, and I was looking for a range of people geographically," Beidler says. "Some were experienced world travelers, but one had never left the country before."

That would be Anna Moose, an English teacher from North Carolina who left the country for the first time in her life for "Chaucer's Canterbury Comedies."

"In my application essay, I was open and honest about my limited experience traveling and the limited travel in general from the area of the country where I live," Moose says. "I would like to show my students another part of the world because many of them will never have the opportunity to explore."

And the exploration, Moose adds, is not only geographic. "In order for you to know who you are, you have to understand the past. I think diving into historical texts such as Chaucer's sheds light on what we know and who we are today."

Overall, the goal of the seminar was to inspire 15 teachers to keep Chaucer alive, so they could pass on their passion for the writer to generations to come.

"Chaucer's stories are read for entertainment, appreciation of our English literary origins, and for love of the language," says Kevin Wolgemuth, an English teacher from Salisbury, Conn. "Literary works like the Canterbury Tales are what made English fun when I was in high school -- literature that is primarily about reveling in and laughing about the oddities of human nature. I think the Tales need to be taught because they are rich, delightful renderings of human absurdity."

Beidler "In order for you to know who you are, you have to understand the past. I think diving into historical texts such as Chaucer's sheds light on what we know and who we are today."

Overall, the goal of the seminar was to inspire 15 teachers to keep Chaucer alive, so they could pass on their passion for the writer to generations to come.

"Chaucer's stories are read for entertainment, appreciation of our English literary origins, and for love of the language," says Kevin Wolgemuth, an English teacher from Salisbury, Conn. "Literary works like the Canterbury Tales are what made English fun when I was in high school -- literature that is primarily about reveling in and laughing about the oddities of human nature. I think the Tales need to be taught because they are rich, delightful renderings of human absurdity."

Beidler says he geared the seminar to high school teachers because he feels many of them need the stimulation of being on the other side of the classroom desk for a change, as well as to rub elbows with fellow teachers from all over the country who share the same job.

"Teaching year after year can be a mind-numbing experience. The participants seemed to enjoy reading new material and knowing that they will be able to use it in their classrooms next year. Plus, it was great to see 15 strangers become 15 friends," he says.

Toni Tucei, a teacher from southern Mississippi, agrees. "To actually share ideas with a group of people with the same interests and profession has helped me grow not only as a person, but also as an educator," Tucei says. "I don't think anyone can be a good teacher if he or she is not willing to assume the role of learner."

For Beidler, teaching the seminar was one of the final chapters in a long and distinguished career as a scholar and teacher. He is 65, and plans to retire after this year.

"I feel strongly that teachers should leave while they are at the top of their game, not on their way down that soft slippery slide that comes with staying on too long," Beidler says. "I love what I do and I love Lehigh, but it feels like a good time to step aside and leave to others the fun of teaching Lehigh's great students. I've been lucky."

That provided another, more personal, reason for Beidler to share his knowledge and love of Chaucer with the select group of high school teachers.

"One of my reasons for wanting to do the seminar for high school teachers was to say my thanks to all the great high school English teachers in the world while I was still a teacher myself," he says. "I had some great high school English teachers, and so did my four kids. A good teacher can save a life, and the seminar in Canterbury was my way of saying thanks."

--Elizabeth Shimer

Lehigh Alumni Bulletin
Fall 2005

Posted on Friday, October 14, 2005

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