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This article first appeared in the May 2002 issue of The Teaching Professor.

My model for setting classroom expectations is a green giant. No, not the jolly green one of vegetable fame, but the playful, disruptive, yet effective Green Knight of the 14th-century romance Gawain and the Green Knight. The scenario unfolds like this: Until his arrival, King Arthur’s court seems disengaged. Arthur is described as boyish; in fact, he is refusing to eat until he has been entertained. He wants a story—fantastical ones are best—or some marvelous feat. Into this scene comes the Green Knight, and within only a few stanzas manages to discipline the rowdy king, awaken his sleeping men, and draw out the reluctant Gawain (who appears more inclined to rest upon his reputation for being the best in the class rather than undertake new challenges). Gigantic, well-dressed, and well-equipped, not to mention green, the Green Knight seems to be exactly what the king had been wishing for—a magical solution to his boredom.

It is not, however, these characteristics, that account for the pedagogical wonders he performs. Rather, it is that he clearly states his purpose from almost the moment of his entrance. He does not prolong his bewildered audience’s confusion, but quickly clarifies his intent: The Green Knight will lay bare his neck and let Gawain take the first swipe (with tools he himself will supply.) A year and a day from now, Gawain will do the same for him. A “year and a day from now” is a standard deadline for those embarking on a quest and even its apparent risks are considerably less than they initially appear.

To be sure Gawain understands the terms of their agreement, the Green Knight asks him to repeat it. In other words, he establishes an oral contract. “Recount we our contract,” he intones, one that binds them both to this quest. He even goes first, risking his neck to ensure that Gawain risks his, and modeling the behavior he seeks to encourage. And he does all this in language Gawain can understand, this shared contract transforming what had been his absolute (and even somewhat threatening) difference into a shared identity. They are both players in the same game—and game it is, for the giant is fully aware that they could never truly compete, his abilities so clearly exceed those of Gawain. So when he walks away from this initial encounter unscathed, we know that Gawain will insist on taking his turn as well.  

Gawain does fulfill his assignment, showing up in a year and a day, and the court, reassured by his commitment to this quest, emerges more united. Most significantly, our hero completes his quest actually having learned something about himself. In seeking this test of his abilities and keeping the difficult terms of his contract, he learns more than anything else that he is capable of learning and that complacency, even in what are his clear merits, prohibit from understanding his true self.

For as it turns out, the Green Knight was somewhat deceptive. What mattered to him were not so much the material conditions of their arrangement, even the defining and evaluative nick on his neck, but that Gawain learn for himself—undertake the requisite journey. Indeed, the point (of that finely honed axe)—and the lesson I have learned from the Green Knight—was that without these clearly defined conditions none of these marvels could have occurred.

A summary of what I’ve learned and how I accomplish those lessons follows:

Cynthia Richards, PhD, is a professor of English at Wittenberg University.