The Cultural Context of the Renaissance

Today in 203, I’m planning a competitive quiz game of sorts based on the introductory readings in the Norton anthology–I’ve never done this before, but I’ve been trying to break out of my lecture mode. So, we’ll see what happens! I’d like to divide the class into two (or three) groups, which can gain points adjudicated by the opposing team and myself based on whether they provide an acceptable answer to the question, “What are the cultural and/or historical characteristics of the Renaissance?”  I envision the students choosing a spokesperson and, as a group, determining one response to the question–which is then evaluated by their peers on the opposition and myself. A point will be awarded if the answer is accurate, specific, and substantive.  If the answer is judged inaccurate, inspecific, or unsubstantive, the opposing team will have the opportunity to take the point–and the turn–away by clarifying what their peers meant. I’d like to offer the winning team a special prize at the end of the term–maybe a group dinner, or a relevant book for each. I’ll have to think about what would make a good prize… Not candy or something lame like that.

I might want to divide the class into three groups, though–two playing teams, and one “jury.” The jury rotates throughout the term. I think I might do this, instead of the two groups, in part because I might end up having to buy 10 individual gifts! Plus, it will probably be difficult to get 10 students to work together effectively as a team–inevitably, there will be some who aren’t able to voice their ideas. At any rate.

Then we’ll go over Petrarch–I want to go over the “Ascent” letter briefly, just looking for important passages that mark it out as engaging with–perhaps performing?–the features of the Renaissance that make it an exciting, creative time. We’ll move on pretty quickly to the sonnets, though, which will be tough for some students. What are the sonnets about, in general? How do they particpate in the discourse of the Renaissance? What key images or motifs emerge? What is a “Petrarchan conceit”? I want to share a song by The Smiths–though that might be too eliptical and require too much background information; perhaps I’ll use that awful James Blunt song, “You’re Beautiful,” or the better Cake (“Distance”), even Magnetic Fields (“Like a Chicken with Its Head Cut Off”)–as an example of the way musicians have drawn on the Petrarchan tradition, and invite them to think about a song they know that does, as well.

For the last part of class, I want to introduce them to the first assignment, the sonnet paraphrase assignment. Then, we’ll try our hand at paraphrasing one of the poems in the text–probably in small groups of two or three.

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