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English students experience medieval culture through song

Sing-along project gets more than 100 students to learn and sing 15th-century tune together 

Students in the course English 340: Literature from the Middle Ages to the Present were introduced to a 15th-century song’s history, tune and lyrics which culminated in a sing-along project for the medieval song “I Have a Yong Suster.” Photo by Dave Brown

On a typical Tuesday afternoon, you might find students in English 340: Literature from the Middle Ages to the Present, puzzling over a passage from Chaucer or analyzing a sonnet. On Nov. 10th, students took a pause from this work to sing together.

The medieval sing-along project was an experiment in large lecture community building and experiential learning. It began in small groups where students were introduced to a 15th-century song’s history, tune and lyrics and culminated in a full class, with more than 100 voices singing “I Have a Yong Suster.”

Project collaborators English instructor Jenny McKenney and English librarian Melanie Boyd agreed that song choice was crucial.

“This course covers a lot of material that is historically and linguistically remote,” says McKenney, a senior instructor and associate head in the Department of English. “We wanted students to experience a line of continuity between the past and present. "Yong Suster" dates back to a 15th-century manuscript, but variations of the song still survive in the English folk music canon as ‘The Riddle Song’.”  

Song ticked off all the boxes for group-friendly singing 

Boyd, who is founder of No Wrong Notes, a non-performing, group-singing model using oral methods of transmission, suggested additional song criteria.

“When people of different singing experience come together — especially if it’s not by choice — we need repertoire that has built-in support, like an easy tune, repetition, catchy rhythm, and a story. 'Yong Suster’ ticked all the boxes," says Boyd, associate librarian for the departments of English, and French, Italian & Spanish. For Boyd, successful group-singing facilitation also depends upon an upbeat, non-judgmental environment.

“Melanie took these methods to each of our five tutorials and had the students singing within minutes,” says McKenney. “Students who were reluctant to offer opinions on Chaucer, were harmonizing after a few verses.” Students singing together as a large group was the end goal of this project.

“So much of our work — reading and writing papers — is often done alone,” says Janice Parker, a PhD student in English and teaching assistant for the class. “The sing-along allowed students to work and play together as a group — to create something meaningful and to experience a deeper level of community — all while having a few laughs.”

English student Nadia Novello appreciated being a part of something greater than one individual. “I thought it was fun to come together as a full 340 class and sing," she says. "It felt like my church choir group but on a much bigger scale and in a totally non-traditional sense.” 

Singing was an experiential learning opportunity for large lecture 

The singing project was also an initiative tied to the English department’s efforts to integrate meaningful, experiential learning opportunities into large lectures.

“Large lecture courses play an important role in establishing, for students, the foundational material of a discipline, but it is important to find ways for students to lay claim to the knowledge these lectures impart,” says McKenney. “Singing, in this case, was a low-tech, low-stakes method of time travel.”

According to Faakhra Choudhry, a second-year English student, the experience was definitely the highlight of her year. "I will forever have 'partum quartum' stuck in my head, much to the dismay of my family," she says. "ENGL 340 definitely dropped the hottest mix tape of 2015.”

Listen to a recording of the English 340 version of “Yong Suster.”