Literary Ornithology: Bird-Watching Across Academic Disciplines with Honors Students

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As professors of literature, we have a fairly good chance of engaging our students when we teach Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” True, the text can seem daunting on a first read, but who can resist a moody if not downright creepy ghost story told by the survivor of a nightmarish ordeal to a detained and gradually mesmerized wedding guest? The story has an intriguing psychological component in the progressive isolation of its main narrator, strong theological references, and vivid tactile images. And it has a bird in it, an albatross, the image of which has given rise to the well known expression “an albatross around one’s neck.” Similarly, John Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale,” a beautiful poem that practically embraces the readers with its lyricism and commandeers them with its precision and elegance, is a relatively easy sell to undergraduates. Both of these poems use a bird to reflect some sort of journey of the mind, and while these works are inviting texts on their own, their appeal is enhanced when the reader knows something about the bird at the center of the verse. This appeal is even stronger in poems and literary periods that do not appear quite as immediately attractive to students, such as the longer Middle English debate poem “The Owl and the Nightingale,” an entertaining and spirited argument between two species as to which better serves humanity. Or, to move back a few centuries, the Old English poem “The Phoenix,” which students tend to find too dry or “philosophical” (they mean theological), or, to move ahead to a more recent era, Edward Thomas’s “The Owl,” a poem which remains cryptic to students unfamiliar with its World War I milieu. Even Emily Dickinson’s “Poem 1463,” almost universally acknowledged as a description of a hummingbird, becomes more appealing when the powerful images are reinforced by scientific observation and biological reality. This reinforcement is what we set out to do in our interdisciplinary team-taught honors seminar at Marshall University, playfully entitled “Literary Ornithology.”


Copyright 2008 National Collegiate Honors Council.