Unconventional class gives WU students a ‘Medieval Experience’

Jinglan Jiang / Washburn Review

Wearing robes in class, writing with pencils and paper without electronic devices, standing up and saying “Hello, teacher” in Latin are all part of the classroom scene in the Medieval Experience class taught by Tony Silvestri, history department lecturer.

“It’s like living in history rather than just reading it,” said Toby Halverson, a junior history major. “The instructor is very  knowledgeable about this subject. The experience of going to the class is like having some of the experience that people in the 13th century may have gone through.”

Silvestri has the students wear their graduation robes because in the Medieval universities, students wore black gowns in order to distinguish themselves as students in the university rather than citizens of the town.

“I am trying to organize this class as closely as I could in the same way that university class in the 13th century would be taught,” said Silvestri.

Part of this class is a codex that all the students have to share. Because books are very expensive in the 13th centuries, students couldn’t afford their own books. They had to all use one copy of the same book.

It was very normal in the Middle Ages for readers to write in the book that they were reading, add little commentaries and dialogue between each other in the margins of the book.

“So the students are required to ‘gloss’ their readings of the book, and then I go back and look at the glosses to make sure they are reading and understanding what they are reading,” said Silvestri.

Students in this class had made a lot of notes in this 140 page codex.

“You get all kinds of comments from the student,” said Silvestri. “What I like is when one student writes something, and then another student will comment on that and actually a dialogue will get started in the margins of the book.”

 Silverstri also brings in individuals who speak on Saxon poetry and music from that period is also played. There are also disputations and debates on certain topics in class.

“I’ve noticed that students are not only being analytical about their reading but personal about it as well,” said Silvestri. “They are allowing their readings to challenge their own ideas, opinions and faith.”

Silvestri said the structure of the class is different. The papers that the students are writing are Medieval papers rather than modern papers. But he thinks the students are learning Medieval history more deeply and more effectively than they would if he was just lecturing to them and they read a textbook like most classes.

 “I am really enjoying it. It’s a lot of fun,” said Eric Budreau, a senior history major. “It’s such a different class. I think Silverstri is a perfect professor. He tried to teach a class like this just because he loves the whole theater aspect and role playing idea.”

Silverstri sometimes worries that there is not enough work, and some students are just in there for fun. But that’s okay with him.

“College should be fun, and part of your experience should be different than just taking notes day after day,” said Silvestri.

As an experimental class, this is the first semester that Silvestri has taught in this way.

“This is the most outrageous, creative and on-the-edge of professional and academic class I have ever taught and it seems to be a success,” said Silvesrtri. “The students seem to be reacting positively to it so I’ll teach it in this way again. I’ve learned a lot about how to teach this class this semester and I will make some changes next time.”