Christopher Baswell

This professor has earned a CULPA gold nugget

Dec 2020

I decided to take this class because I loved the Canterbury Tales and thought I'd explore more of Chaucer's work. However, I didn't realize Chaucer was actually kind of bad before he became good. A sizeable portion of the class was spent on some of the driest readings I've ever come across (seriously, who wants to read a 16-page long description of a generic maiden by a knight in love). The class did become much more interesting for me when we got to "Troilus and Criseyde" after all the boring stuff, but I wouldn't say the beginning portion of the class was useless. If anything, it did help a lot in getting used to Middle English and the general cadence of Chaucer's language. That being said, Baswell managed to make most of the class bearable. He was really funny and insightful during lectures and also accepting of new takes on the texts. Admittedly, the timing of assignments was a little overwhelming, with the biggest load of essay writing and exam-taking in the latter half of the semester. However, I also took this class during a pandemic semester and everything was remote, so I don't know how an in-person experience would have been. Additionally, Baswell tends to lecture much more than facilitate peer-to-peer discussion, so sometimes the class was a little tiring for me, but I'd also say the lecture was necessary for context. Overall, Baswell was a great prof but I think the pandemic made the class experience worse for me than it would have been in person. Oh yes, and everything was in Middle English, which was more doable than I initially thought, but be prepared to spend a lot of time basically translating the text in your head.

Apr 2017

The class itself was good. For starters, Baswell gives you a really comprehensive look at the Tales by offering a lot of supplementary material to enrich your understanding, including handouts on Middle English pronunciation and links to websites with linguistic and audio resources. I was enamored with his lectures - never reductive, as they relate the rhetorical structure and other formal aspects of the Tales to its substantive content, and weave in a lot of literary theory and historical context. That being said, I'm genuinely surprised, judging from the reviews below, that other people have had positive experiences with him as a person. To me, he was elitist, misogynist, and xenophobic. These are some instances of what happened: 1) We went over my final exam in his office hours, during which he asked, "Is English your second language?" I said no (it technically is, as I'm first-gen American, something about which I've felt acutely self-conscious at this institution); he responded, "Oh, so did you go to public school then?" It's really quite incredulous and inexcusable. Both ethnic and class condescension, in one? Really? My final grade was a B+, which - considering the standards to which he holds his students - isn't a bad grade; I'm proud of it. Accordingly, there's literally nothing that could have warranted those comments, other than a desire to be cruel via repulsive and antiquated prejudices. (Not to say that getting a bad grade could have justified those comments, because all in all he was really unprofessional. He's intelligent. If he had wanted to provide constructive critique, there would have been many ways to go about it.) 2) Unlike my final, my midterm hadn't gone so well, and he was keen to remind me. When I was scheduling my appointment for a Middle English pronunciation exercise, he said, "it's ungraded, I might add." (He hadn't reminded other students of that.) So it appears the man is as adept at being passive-aggressive as he is at being blunt. 3) A semester later, I stopped by his office hours for advice on my senior thesis, a portion of which concerned the Tales. (Possibly I thought to use him as a resource out of some masochistic urge, I don't know.) He dismissed my idea ("sometimes a cigar is just a cigar"), urged me to "think about it more" (I'd brought a large binder with heaps of research), and - when another student walked in - ushered her inside and kicked me out. Can you believe this man is a professor, in charge of cultivating the intellect of young adults at a generally insecure and transitional period in their lives? 4) He told me I was "interesting," and that Barnard tends to admit more "interesting" students than CC because of a "more holistic and less rote admissions process," and, in this way, "Barnard is analogous to GS." Then: "The problem is that sometimes they admit students who can't meet the institution's standards." Again: my class grade was a B+, which clearly meets the standards; also, this man is a BARNARD PROFESSOR. Add ironic, self-defeating misogynistic condescension to the list of his wonderful traits. I was so rattled by all this - mostly instance #1 - that I considered, and am still considering, going to my class dean. I'm not sure what about me provoked him, but something did, and I'm inclined to think that people like him don't have just one target. Is it possible his personality has changed so much from the years in which previous reviews were written? Because I do recommend the class - it was quite good - but I also recommend keeping your distance from him, and not expecting too much of him as a professor. He was generally unavailable in office hours (showed up late to appointments, and a couple of times not at all, without notice). I understand that he might be going through difficult things, but that doesn't give him license to renege on his job, ethically or otherwise.

Apr 2015

Professor Baswell changed my life. I went into The Canterbury Tales having half-read one Tale - not set on keeping the course past the shopping period. I'm an English major but I've never particularly been enthralled by Medieval Literature (and, generally, I'm still not). However, this course is easily the best course I've ever taken in my time here. He made the topic so exciting and I was genuinely so excited to go to class. It was the first class where I looked at the clock and was disappointed that we "only" had 45 minutes left. I recommend all English majors take this course. Heck, I recommend everyone take this course. I left the course feeling so confident in my understanding of the Tales - and no, I didn't do all the readings all the time.

Jan 2015

Okay, at the risk of being anonymously passive-aggressive toward my classmates, I'm gonna jump in here and respond mostly to the Nov. 5 review below this one. The syllabus was definitely not pointless. Odd, sure, but certainly relevant in obvious ways to disability studies (though I may have to agree about the Pope...). Then again the class wasn't really supposed to be ~about~ disability studies anyway, or even necessarily about disability as it's most commonly interpreted. It's not a theory course or a methods course but a literature course based on body difference very broadly defined—and that includes not just the obvious stuff like Jean-Dominique Bauby but weird shit like the magical talking wolves of medieval Ireland too. (Speaking of which, yes, there's a bit of a medieval bent to the syllabus, so if Beowulf and the saints' lives aren't your cup of tea, then the first couple weeks of the semester may well be a drag for you.) Basically this class allows for a lot of flexibility in what "disability" means, and I can understand why it would be off-putting to someone who's trying to get at a more mainstream/contemporary/political/social understanding of the subject. Personally, I really liked the eclectic approach, and I think that it made for a more interesting class than simply reading, I don't know, 20th-century memoir accounts one after another. TL;DR: This is a cool class and you should take it, unless you have some kind of unfortunate vendetta against medieval texts and using your imagination in which case you definitely shouldn't.

Nov 2014

This class was truly disappointing. It's such an interesting topic, but the syllabus is just one boring, unreadable, pointless book after another. 2/3 of the course is dedicated to medieval/ancient texts that sort of relate to disability, but not enough to make us have to endure reading them. Seriously, it goes beyond boring mainstays like Beowulf and Canterbury Tales (although you read those too) - the syllabus approaches a whole next level of boring. You spend an entire class discussing "History and Topography of Ireland," which is pretty much the ancient Irish equivalent of a mystical TripAdvisor entry. I still have no idea how it could possibly be even remotely relevant. Then there's the class about "The Life of St. Osith," which may have been even more dreadful than the Ireland book! Pope, Montaigne and Locke each get their own classes too, and while they are all certainly very important to the study of western literature, they really don't have much to say about disability. You'd be better off taking a class just on 17th century lit. Professor Baswell is a nice guy, and he knows his stuff, but the class itself is miserable.

Jun 2014

Prof. Baswell is a gem. Not only is he a fantastic professor, he is a truly delightful individual. His knowledge of medieval literature is absolutely astounding and his enthusiasm is irrepressible. Furthermore, he is genuinely invested in the success of his students. He made himself very available during office hours and was very helpful in scheduling meetings outside of his office hours to accommodate student's needs. I would happily pay a million dollars to listen to him read Middle English to me all day. His pronunciation is absolutely beautiful. Baswell's tests are fair and reasonable. I found I didn't need to do any studying outside of class to prepare for his tests. I paid attention and took notes during every class and was able to do well on the tests with almost no additional effort. Baswell is no push over and his grading reflects his high standards. I would say that Baswell is a fair grader and makes up for any toughness with his willingness to help during the writing process. Overall, I would highly recommend taking a class with Prof. Baswell. He's the kind of professor you want to learn from and grab a coffee or beer with after class.

Dec 2011

I have taken two classes with Professor Baswell, Canterbury Tales in Fall 2009 and Chaucer Before Canterbury (which was a broad survey of Chaucer’s other works, some post-Canterbury) in Spring 2011, and am baffled by the paucity of reviews here. There is no question that he is one of the most insightful, encouraging, and motivated professors I have encountered in my time at Columbia. What do you expect from a college-level English lecture? Baswell’s Canterbury Tales was my first, and I still have yet to encounter another professor whose approach surpasses what was on display there. It will of course be obvious that no particular style can satisfy every student. Baswell taught in a manner that accommodated student questions and participation (which, admittedly, was always welcome, and indeed solicited, but rarely offered willingly) but which required none. I left this 9 a.m. class every time in a daze; his exposition of the text took on the gravity of a sermon, and always deftly wove historical details and knowledge Chaucer’s personal life into the analysis. I can hardly imagine readings more cogent than those offered by Baswell (you cannot doubt his mastery of and love for the texts). The Canterbury Tales is a dirty, profound, and moving work. It is by turns vulgar and sacred, and all of it is heady stuff when you start to take apart the accruing layers. And did I mention you’ll be reading it all in the original Middle English? Don’t be turned off by the age of the poem, as Chaucer’s sensibilities were presciently modern and his concerns (it feels trite to say so) timeless. The range on display here, and the sensitivity to perspective rivals anything I’ve read post-18th century (if that’s where your interests lie). This is vital stuff. Baswell is an understanding guide if you find yourself struggling, and his pop quizzes keep you on top of the work (the quizzes are standard translation exercises, with an occasional question that forces you to demonstrate a clear knowledge of the assigned reading). The two papers (one short paper, and one longer, ‘more ambitions’ on a topic of your choosing) are also very fairly graded, and the midterm and final—in spite of the nerve-wracking proposition of text identifications—are fairly relaxed, and not designed to consume the entirety of the allocated testing period. Although it seems prudent to say that Baswell is not fond of technology, so don't expect any assignments through courseworks (by email, perhaps). This is hardly a hindrance, as the Norton editions of the assigned texts contain most everything you'll need, and the internet links provided on the syllabus round out your available resources. I will note that I found Chaucer Before Canterbury to be a bit more disorganized than Canterbury Tales. The bulk of the semester was devoted to Chaucer’s second masterpiece, Troilus and Criseyde. Because that poem is more introverted, and perhaps less immediately compelling, I found that the lectures occasionally sagged beneath explications of the plot (I suspect this shift in strategy might have been a consequence of the students in the class, not all of whom kept up with the work). But the analyses of Chaucer’s early and later short poems (and his Dream Visions) were top-notch. This is a course I would recommend after having spent some time with Canterbury Tales (although it too is designed for newcomers to Middle English), primarily because it supplies a different view of the author—you see Chaucer probing new territories and steadying his focus, with mixed results overall. The courseload hardly varies from what I’ve mentioned above. Baswell is the real thing: a brilliant scholar and a devoted professor. He’s nothing if not a credit to the department, and it's time someone brought that to greater light.

Apr 2009

Christopher Baswell is an extremely cool guy. He is passionate about what he is teaching, and very, very smart, and funny. You will enjoy his lectures. His insights into the material are interesting, and he is a generous teacher- you will feel comfortable asking questions. He often praises students' questions or observations but he is not jerking your chain- if you are engaged in the reading and he can see that, he will appreciate it. The course I took with him was Social Topics in Literature: Disability. We read literature and disability theory side by side. He has a lot to say about both sides of the syllabus, so be attentive to his lectures. It is possible to just skim a lot of the reading and still do well, but you must come to class to do well- use the ideas he offers in his lectures, get into the ideas of the course, and you will do well.