They’re rooting for their knight as he bravely gallops his horse across the stadium, lifting his arm to signal the cheers. One side roars with enthusiasm while the other boos with gusto and disdain. He represents them – they’re winners if he is, they think, as they grab their greasy chicken leg, tearing a piece off and washing it down with a gulp from their golden goblet.
A trip to Medieval Times is just one of the ways a Rollins College literature class called ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ gets to live medieval. The class, taught by Jana Mathews, whose research specializes in medieval England, focuses on the study of medieval literature and culture, and how that relates to modern times. The class explores the Middle Ages in many ways, and culminates in the college’s first Medieval Faire, where each “kingdom” of students will have a special Middle Age themed ware to sell or trade.
“There’s multiple ways to learn a principle or concept … I’m a fan of experiential learning,” Mathews said.
Learning by doing
Mathews, who teaches literature, said she features some alternative learning methods in all her classes, but Dungeons and Dragons is her most extreme course, complete with a disclaimer for students to expect to do some out-of-the-box assignments. She expects her students to participate, to live medieval, even if it means acting a little silly. A trip into her class means finding students bouncing balls off a wooden sword, and chugging soda while pretending it’s a contest featuring tasty, warm ale.
It sets her apart, and it’s the reason there’s a waiting list to take her course. The students get to learn in a different way when Mathews is their professor, and it helps them remember what they’ve learned on the day of the test, she said. It’s also a class that, many years down the road, will still be with them.
“That message becomes more imprinted on their lives,” she said.
Jana Mathews and her students will be hosting a medieval inspired faire, where each of the class’ “kingdoms” will have a special middle ages ware to sell. The faire takes place on the Rollins College campus on April 18 and is open to all students and the public.
Taking from pop culture
Mathews takes what the students know about medieval culture and uses it in her class. While many medieval academics might scorn movies like “Braveheart” or “A Knight’s Tale,” Mathews lets that become the gateway to students’ interest. That time period’s culture is reflected in the everyday – a football game with quarterback heroes to cheer for is very similar to rooting for a brave knight – and Mathews tries to make students see that. They get to take something thought of as just a bit of pop culture, for example “Harry Potter,” and look at it a little deeper, as literature, said student Ashley Malans.
“She incorporates so much of modern life in medieval culture,” said student Mandy McRae.
Making the literature come alive
Then, she uses her experimental teaching methods to make it stick. It’s tough teaching medieval literature – it’s written almost in a different language, it can be dry and it’s challenging, Mathews said. It’s hard to make it fun and engaging, but she does it. During the year, students have become bards and sang love sonnets to other students around campus Shakespeare-style, gone on quests filled with riddles and puzzles, and performed plays about a mysterious medieval manuscript acquired by the college.
“She can make something tedious be alive in a way I wouldn’t have thought possible,” said Zack Uliasz, an English major at Rollins.
And that’s what she aims to do, even if it means having students battle it out using foam swords. It gives them something to feel; it makes it relevant to them.
“It teaches you that texts are alive,” Mathews said. “That texts are living organisms.”