A Few Ideas Comparing the Past and Present

I was reading a book a while back about the importance of a handful of beverages in social history. Coffee was one and the coffee house was really the main focus of the chapter. Basically, in the Enlightenment (18th century Europe) the coffee house was the one of the social and intellectual centers of life for most people. While I had some problems with how the book in question presented and interpreted its information, it got me thinking about my own habits in coffee shops. Since I was in graduate school, the local Milwaukee coffee shops were where I got a lot of my academic stuff done. They also were good meeting up places for social get-togethers. When I moved half a country away, one of the first things I did was find the local places, and there’s been one or two added since then (about 5 years ago).

Two now come to mind: one, the current pandemic and social distancing practices, and two, what would the medieval equivalent have been?

I can’t think of a general equivalent of such a location for the Middle Ages that matches well; it would have to be somewhere that had both practical/business and social functions, as well as cater to a wide range of different kinds of people. Taverns could be an option, but those weren’t quite as socially diverse as a modern coffee shop, at least not to my knowledge. Certainly there were such places for the nobles and places for the upper class peasants and places for the lower classes, but was there much or any intermixing? It’s either too bad most libraries are closed right now, or this could be a chance for trying to research like most students would want to start (as in, To the Google!). Church or local festivals of public functions might be another option, but those are less about location and business, at least in some ways. It’s an interesting question in terms of history, but also in terms of modern society. How socially open are modern coffeehouses? Starbucks for example is supposedly open to any and all, but when you go into one, there isn’t necessarily a wide mix in terms of social standing.

Medieval Europe also has experience with pandemic and plague outbreaks, although Black Death was bacterial not viral. The bubonic plague of the 14th century does have some significant parallels including the social panic and distancing (think the frame of Boccaccio’s Decameron), as well as the origins of the term “quarantine”. Again, the details are quite different than the now, but the general parallels do make for interesting ideas.

Besides adapting to a lot more life and work online, I’ve also noticed another phenomenon with connections to the medieval past including the roles of books and reading, and personal written works. I kept a diary when I was younger (as in 20 years ago) but I have over recent years started to keep a journal when travelling. That’s unlikely to be much of thing for me this year since most of my summer travel has been canceled or postponed, but I have started to keep track of what goes on in daily life since social distancing went into full effect in my area, not quite two weeks as of this moment of writing. Looking at what I’ve got so far, it’s mostly just listing off things done, but also includes some general observations about for example how exciting it was to see a display of toilet paper and paper towels that wasn’t totally empty in a grocery store a few days ago, or how I took my fairly new car through a drive through for the first time ever (as in first time for the car, not first time ever for me). The travel journal was a major genre in the middle ages, to the point where now it’s hard to tell some of the fact from the fiction. For example, the Book of John Mandeville and the Book of Margery Kempe both contain aspects of actual travel as well as interpretive observations and thoughts and feelings about what’s been going on for the author. Then you’ve got the more household familial texts, like the Paston letters. The interesting thing here is that the forms are not quite what we might now call a journal, since Mandeville and Kempe’s are travel texts (at least as one of their main genres) and the Paston books are epistolary collections. The personal diary as we know it becomes a thing a bit later in history.

Then there’s the reading. Books as objects especially in the earlier part of the what we might call the medieval era would not have a been a common item in most households, since the printing press wasn’t around yet, and even towards the end of the fifteenth century when it was still a newer thing. Storytelling might have been one general option, and the popularity of the story telling collections from this time (Boccaccio, Chaucer, Christine de Pizan – not necessarily in any kind of order here) suggest this might have actually been a possibility. Today, there’s a lot on social media about how some people plan to catch up on their reading, but there’s also responses about how realistic of an expectation this might be. Fiction definitely seems to have some kind of social effect, not just for the entertainment value (although it’s certainly that) but also for the ‘escapist’ factor. I would be willing to bet that there’s a good bit of promise in the idea, since I know that there’s plenty of scholarship on the book as an object. I also have to wonder how far a research project into the use of fiction as a coping mechanism could go without a research library since I for one find great value in shelf browsing. Not that the databases etc. aren’t good places to go, they are, but sometimes finding exactly the right search is a struggle, and you find the best sources by checking out what’s near whatever it was you had found in the catalog.

There have already been some more public comparisons to history of pandemics and outbreaks of disease, and this one here is by no means detailed or comprehensive. I’m mostly considering a series of general ideas and how they might apply both to the past and to the present, and maybe a little intot he future.

Getting Medieval on Theory

I face an interesting challenge this fall: teaching my first theory and methods for English majors course. I’ve had to start thinking on it now since textbook orders are due late February. I was surprised how few theory anthologies there are which are not $100 plus, or mostly summaries of ideas without actual excerpts (preferably longer ones) of the actual original theories. I had the idea that for the first ¾ of the class I would choose a single base text that students could practice on. Ideally, this would be something of manageable length, has been around long enough to have been subjected to a variety of examinations, and not too much of a chore read, meaning something most students are likely to have at least heard of if not had to read bits of before. Not a deal breaker but also preferable would be something I’ve studied in some detail myself, so that gives me medieval works like Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Shakespeare was also an option for a while (I was thinking either Macbeth or Midsummer Night’s Dream), but I figured that a) there might be too much on some of the plays, and b) I don’t know the scholarship off hand quite as well, meaning more set up work for me.

The full semester at my institution is 16 weeks, which means I can cover about 12-13 areas of theory; there needs to be an intro week, and a few weeks at the end to focus on the main end-of-course paper/project. It’s going to take me a while to really get things fully designed, but for a starting point, here’s an initial list, in no particular order: feminist studies, gender studies, Marxist, new critical, new historicism, eco-criticism, race studies, queer theory, post-colonialism, structuralism, deconstruction, disability studies, psychoanalysis, reader response, and cultural studies. I did find a theory reader that has a decent balance of description and actual readings from theorists, as well as some sample applications. It’s slightly out of date for some theories but I can deal with that with some supplementary lecture and articles.

The other side of the course is the methods side, and I found that textbook pretty quickly after getting a hold of several library titles that looked promising, and one of them was exactly right, although it too is a few years out of date, but not unmanageably so. This handbook covers general research resources both online and print, bibliography, history of the book and editing literary texts, history of the discipline, interdisciplinarity, translation, media, and planning/executing a larger research project. My literary trial text needs to be something that has options for all of these areas, and with medieval literature, many of them are pretty accessible, even for mid-level undergraduate students.

So besides the obvious need to overlap and work out scheduling time for each thing to be covered, I still need that literary test piece. If Beowulf and SGGK are my main choices, the big question now is which one will work best, again bearing in mind the level of my students.

Beowulf:

Feminist reading: Gendel’s mother and the Hrothgar’s queen

Gender: masculinity and warriors

Marxism: social hierarchies and some of the transactions between families during war/feuds

New Critical: details of the poetic forms

New Historical: cultures of the original time and place of composition

Eco-criticism: landscape descriptions, role of environment, interactions with outdoors

Race: the controversy and contents of the new collection of essays that was all over social media late 2019; also Gredelkin as racially other

Queer: less of the sexuality angle, more on the otherness identities of some characters

Post-colonial: Grendlekin as native against the Danes, maybe Geats and Danes in each other’s lands

Structuralism: language and genre conventions, possible links to other Scandinavian epics or sagas; maybe bring up Tolkien here

Deconstruction: paradox and self-revelation possibly in Beowulf the character

Psychoanalysis: dreams, prophecies (alluded to in the songs), and maybe Beowulf and Grendel’s mother

Disability: this one will be trickier but I’m thinking maybe old Beowulf’s final battle

Cultural studies: possibly bringing in ideologies and nationalities

Reader response: ways to describe how people might react to and make meaning from the text

Beowulf also offers ample possibilities for all the basic methods components including bibliography, editions, translation, media, etc.

 

On the other hand, we have Sir Gawain and the Green Knight:

Feminist reading: Arthur’s queen, Morgan leFay, and Lady Bertilak

Gender: masculinity and warriors

Marxism: social hierarchies and the transactional nature of the bargains

New Critical: details of the poetic forms

New Historical: cultures of the original time and place of composition

Eco-criticism: landscape descriptions, role of environment, interactions with outdoors; the Green Man

Race: the othering of certain characters in certain situations, the casting of Gawain in the new movie, possibly race in Arthuriana

Queer: discussions of Gawain’s identity

Post-colonial: founding of Britain frame, Gawain and the Green Knight in each other’s territories

Structuralism: language and genre conventions, the Arthurian traditions

Deconstruction: paradox and self-revelation Gawain, but also the identities of the Green Knight, and possibly a few others

Psychoanalysis: symbolism, Gawain’s psychology, and Gawain in Bertilak’s castle

Disability: Gawain as guest in the castle vs the hunting; this one again might take a little work to get right

Cultural studies: possibly bringing in ideologies and nationalities of Arthur’s court vs the Bertilak’s

Reader response: ways to describe how people might react to and make meaning from the text

 

Much like Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight also has plenty of strong options for the methods areas to be covered.

So far, the two texts are roughly equal. It comes down to text options. Both texts are available in a range of translations and edition types. I decided I didn’t want an edition that comes with a lot of extra supplementary analysis either, because the goal of using the text would be for the students to start working on their own analyses using the various theoretical and methodological applications. Part of the decision came from personal taste in terms of translation options, and I also wanted something that kept some of the original style or language but that was done in a readable way for a 21st century student, and was readily available in a paperback or ebook under $20. I landed on Armitage’s SGGK.

What I’ve got listed here are really only the initial starting possibilities. As I start to focus on designing this course over the summer, I’ll be getting a lot more into the details of each theory as it has been and could be applied to the medieval text. I’m also going to need to consider how to align pairing theoretical work with methodologies. IF anyone has any ideas or advice, I’d love to hear it…

End of the year review: sort of

Maybe it’s just the people I’m around on social media, but it seems like nearly everyone was ending 2019 and/or starting 2020 with goals concerning reading, nearly always in the form of a goal number of books to be read or finish reading. Take Goodreads: it’s an easy way to keep track of what you want to and already have and are currently reading. It’s also pretty good for helping decide if a book is something you might want to add to your reading list, with the reviews. And it lets you do all this in public, in front of everyone you know via digital stuff. I’m reasonably sure you can’t turn off the feature that sends you an email every time you list another book as “Read”, although you can turn off or block the daily notices about what your friends are reading, adding, or finishing. So one question this all brings up is something of a paradox: reading is largely a solitary activity, and yet it has become a fairly public performance. The question then is how much of this is due to the oversharing/bragging/trolling (frequently anonymous) opportunities offered by social media, or how much of it is something else?

What strikes me is how much this resembles medieval practices in some ways. Books, or at least the contents of books, essentially were a form of social media, they were a prestige item, they had social and solitary aspects to them, and people had opinions about them. Books also existed in multiple formats, much as they do now, although obviously some of the forms themselves have changed.

Take audio books for example. I’ve never really been able to get into this method of experiencing books, but it is quite popular. Back in the Middle Ages, this way actually how a lot of people would experience books. The origins of the term “lecture” comes from the Latin for “to read”, and that’s how higher levels of education were often provided. The instructor would read from the lone copy of the textbook, and possibly commentate, while the students took notes. In some cases students could copy out their own versions of the book, but this would need to be done by hand, either by themselves or someone they paid. There are also records of medieval monasteries that indicate that it was a practice to have someone reading from scripture or other religious text while everyone else was eating.

Certain forms of ebooks also have medieval analogues or at least general comparisons. On several online platforms, including GoogleBooks, you don’t flip through the pages, you scroll. The modern book through which one flips or turns pages is a descendant of the codex, while the scroll through counterpart is the much older roll or scroll. You read as you unroll and re-roll. There’s actually an older hilarious video called “Medieval Helpdesk” (you can find it subtitled on Youtube, since it was originally done in Norwegian: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pQHX-SjgQvQ) that makes the very real suggestion that, at one time, the book in the shape that it’s now most commonly known for was a revolutionary thing.

Books had a social function much as they do now as well, especially if you follow platforms like the above mentioned Goodreads. People would leave comments in the margins containing critiques, comments, and sometimes even discussion threads. One of my favorite examples is from the Devonshire Manuscript (British Library Additional 17492). This book was originally passed around a group of lady friends at Henry VIII’s court, and one page has a poem composed by a gentleman hoping to court one of the ladies. Here is Cynthia Roger’s description of the thread:

Poem 8 on fols. 6v-7r is a declaration of love to Mary Shelton from one of her admirers. The first letter of each stanza spells out her last name. She seems to have known the author, as she writes a tart reply to his poem just below it— “Undesired service, requires no hire (payment).” Margaret Douglas seems to have also known the author and the fact that her friend was rejecting him, as she writes out to the side of this poem, “Forget this.” Mary, being a little more charitable, writes underneath Margaret’s comment, “It is worthy.”

Manuscripts like this also show people sharing favorite bits of text, much in the way we might now retweet or share a post we particularly enjoyed or wanted to share, and many such examples still survive.

Reading in the Middle Ages and beyond was commonly a public activity. In times before the printing press and better sources and methods of production came along, books were not something readily available. So, in this time which was also before modern forms of entertainment like television and streaming, people might get together and read to each other.  We get a look at this even in stories, like Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde. After Pandarus has agreed to help Troilus win Criseyde’s affections, he goes off to find her, and he finds her and two companions listening to a fourth lady reading out loud:

Whan he was come vnto his Neces place,

“Wher is my lady?” to hire folk quod he;

And they hym tolde and he forth in gan pace

And fond two othere ladys sete, and she,

With-inne a paued parlour, and they thre

Herden a mayden reden hem the geste

Of the siege of Thebes while hem leste.      (II.78-84)

 

Reading could also still be a private activity in the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, especially when it came to producing and collecting books. The anonymous writer of the lyric “Pangur Ban” for example describes a scene in which the monk studies alone, while his cat pays attention to the mice. Such scenes of personal solitary reading or study also show up in a lot of dream visions, like the introductions of Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess and Parliament of Foules. Many medieval books that still survive come to us from private collections gathered during the Early Modern period and later, and possessing such a personal or private library would have been a sign of wealth or prestige, or in other words, something only a few people could or did do.

Bookmaking was itself both a solitary and group activity. A monastery scriptorium for example was a public space used by many, but each copyist or artist was largely working alone on his part of the book.

Finally, the reviews. In addition to marginalia, medieval versions of reviews and trolls and fan fiction still survive, even in highly respected literary works. Gower and Chaucer and Lydgate all participated in such activities. Towards the end of Troilus and Criseyde, Chaucer makes a dedication to “moral Gower” a label which stuck and has been taken as a slight insult towards his acquaintance and possibly friend. Lydgate frames his Siege of Thebes as an additional Canterbury Tale. While it’s not possible to definitively prove Chaucer’s intention in his remark about Gower, it has long been taken as snarky in a way that might pass for light-hearted trolling. It is possible to prove Lydgate’s fan-fiction though since Lydgate directly places himself within the frame of the Canterbury Tales, and he wrote admiringly of Chaucer in other works, such as The Fall of Princes.

There is a good deal of serious research and scholarship that has been done on reading as practice and what it meant culturally in medieval Europe, not to mention a good deal of modern scientific work on how the human brain may have evolved or adapted to/for reading and how it manages what appear to be several complex simultaneous processes that need to happen in order for reading to be done. While I’m not touching much on those details here, it is worth realizing that the idea of reading as well as the practice is far more complicated than most people realize. It’s something worth thinking about, even if only in terms of personal practice.

Reading Classics: Challenges and Ideas

I am not likely to meet a goal/deadline: I wanted to finish reading Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes by the end of October. It’s got really pretty, literary writing, but I’ve had to sometimes force myself through certain parts when I get bored or lose focus. This got me thinking about the struggle to read something because you have to or feel you should. I’m planning to teach something that takes inspiration in part from Bradbury’s novel, plus it’s a classic work by a canonical author which I’ve never read. The thing that’s causing me some trouble here is I suspect that I want the story and the style to work better together; for me at least, I’d like to be able to enjoy the two things together, but it’s been hard so far to do that. Mostly, I’ve only been able to focus on one or the other. If I, who have lots of academic literary training have a hard time with something that’s supposed to be a classic, then what must students sometimes feel when asked to read things like this, or things even less familiar in terms of language and/or cultural background?

For commonly assigned longer readings, like Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, or Canterbury Tales, I have found that students have often already read at least excerpts, and thus get bored, or they find the material and style too difficult, and give up on actually doing the reading. I noticed pretty quickly that when I included Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight on syllabi for World Lit and Brit Lit 1 surveys that a lot of students had had to read at least some of those texts in previous classes. One problem is that it’s difficult to introduce some of the more intricate issues and interesting problems of either one of these two texts when about half the class knows the story but the other half does not. Issue two is that in most surveys, reading the entirety of multiple longer poems like this can be difficult to get students to actually read, as opposed to the Shmoop, CliffNotes. Grade Saver, etc. summaries. Some of that kind of thing is inevitable, but when students get tired of struggling with the style, that makes considering some of the features of the actual poetry more difficult, and those are some of the things that most survey students are not as likely to have encountered before.

This is something I can relate to from Something Wicked This Way Comes because the style is so much the point of the book, more so than with an average novel at any rate. I have to admit I looked at some of the supplementary materials in the edition I have and found out enough that I can already summarize the entire plot without having read half the novel yet. On one hand, now that I know the story I can focus a bit more on the style and more literary elements like foreshadow etc, but on the other I won’t be able to follow the gradual building of the characters and the world as naturally.

Something I’ve been considering doing is switching to some lesser known texts that cover many of the same literary and cultural elements as the commonly taught ones. For example, instead of Beowulf, The Battle of Maldon contains a lot of the same warrior culture stuff and literary elements, and has the added bonus of being relevant to actual history as well as the Vikings. One assignment I personally would enjoy would be to have students write their own endings and/or introductions to the story since we know the history for guidance but enough of the text is missing that students could get creative.

Instead of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, I think selections from a sister text like Pearl might be an interesting option. As with the Old English texts, there remains a lot of cultural and historical and poetic room for exploration and interest. I taught excerpts of Pearl in a Middle English language and culture course one summer, and I was surprised a little at how much some of the students took to Pearl. I have not really looked, but I have to wonder if there is a passable translation readily and freely available for students to use. I know for a fact such things exist for The Battle of Maldon, so I have some hope for Pearl. Maldon is short enough that it can be done in its entirety, and wouldn’t be too much of a burden on someone’s attention or interest if it turns out this just is not something they can get into; for Pearl, I would imagine that the opening sequence and the conclusion would provide enough for students to work with and appreciate, but likewise not be overly difficult to get through if again it turns out this is just not something a given person gets into.

This brings me to another related idea; when you are told something is canon, classic, or traditional, it can give the impression that you must like it to demonstrate you are a person of intelligence and/or taste. I would like to figure a way to allow students to dislike something as long as they can explain why in more depth than “Boring”, “Too hard”, “Too long”, etc. I hesitate to use examples of my own personal taste because then students are apt to go with the strategy of “cater to Prof’s personal interests”. However, I do think the general idea has some merit. I don’t especially care for Leaves of Grass, but I can explain why in terms of technical details of poetry. I also cannot stand a lot of traditional chivalric romances, particularly those in the Arthurian tradition. A lot of Crétiene de Troyes’ works annoy me in a fairly visceral way and I absolutely cannot stand Le Morte d’ Arthur for their overly melodramatic and soap-opera-esque characters and plot-lines. Nevertheless, these things do have cultural and historical interest to them, and a lot of people are likely familiar with some of the basics but not as much with the original stories or versions.

To the original question of what to do about classic works and the perceived need to read them, there seems to be a bit of a stalemate: one the one hand, students should have at least some basic familiarity with the literary canon in order to consider where current trends (literary, historical, cultural, etc) might have come from and they might actually discover a surprising interest, but on the other the majority of the time, reading such things can be burdensome when forced, making it far less likely a person would be able to appreciate anything about a particular text. This is why I’m thinking of changing a few things out to see if it makes any difference. As for Bradbury, I will finish it in part because it would be professionally useful for me since I am planning to teach a novel with direct literary debts to this canonical original. Whether or not I end up enjoying the original is still unclear, but we’ll just have to see.

Academic Vs General Public Book Gatherings

Over a recent long weekend I went to my second ever non-academic book festival (the Decatur Book Festival), and this second time I really noticed a couple of things. First, there’s the question to authors of all varieties “How do you get your ideas?” Two writers, one I knew of and one I didn’t, on different panels on very different styles and age ranges, gave almost the same answer: ‘I wrote what I {would have} wanted to read when I was {that age}”.  Both authors have been and currently are best-sellers in YA and kid’s lit, and one of them has done that in adult novels as well. Both were apparently rather nerdy as children, getting into science fiction or fantasy, Star Wars and Harry Potter were what they named as the thing that really inspired them.

There is an entirely different atmosphere at this type of gathering than at academic conferences even though there are similarities, at least on the surface. Attendees at both types tend to like to read and/or write, and both have a high number of people who either do or want to do the writing and reading in some sort of professional capacity. One kind of funny, in the sense of vague irony, thing I noticed that really does show the difference in atmosphere is that when it was discussion time, at a major national academic conference I was at about 9 months ago, there were constant reminders to attendees that “questions” should be no more than a few sentences and end in a question mark. To someone who has been to any kind of academic conference, this is at the same time silly but also necessary since there always seem to be people who want to talk about their own work and its relevance to everything instead of focusing on the content of the panel in front of them. At the public festival, there was no need for such reminders. It’s like the people were genuinely there to learn about the subject-work-person in a far more genuine way.

The panelists at the public festival also seemed more interested in each other and in connections between their work than at the academic level. On one panel, the two lady authors, both of whom wrote best-selling fantasy for YA/adult readers, but were there to talk about new middle grade books, started conversing and the moderator let them do it, staying out of things for almost 10 minutes. I have never seen this sort of thing happen at an academic gathering, although sometimes panelists do ask each other questions, but it never really seems to develop into extended conversation.

The other thing that I noticed, besides the general tone, was that even for a general interest book festival, at least some of the panels were reasonably intellectual. The first panel I went to was on wit and humor and I was kind of surprised at how well some of the theories brought up matched with some of the ancient and medieval definitions that I’d recently been working with. At this panel, one of the presenters argued that the key to successful wit or humor was to have to allow the audience to make some of the connections and jumps in meaning, sometimes invoking a bit of misdirection for effect. For example, in an essay discussing the definition or identification of humor in the Middle Ages and Early Modern eras or Western European literature, Albrecht Classen argues that, the comic “results from a conflict between norms, their breach or transgression, though mostly not too egregious to hurt or insult badly”.[1] This idea suggests that the audience would then find the humor by having to fill in the incongruity through a jump in reasoning otherwise making the connection between the conflicting ideas, nearly a repeat of the current scholar of wit and humor. Puns were one of the speaker’s key examples, and to illustrate, medievalists of a certain persuasion should likely be able to spot the one in my title.

Lastly, it may have been some of the particular panels I went to, but there were a lot more children than I’ve ever seen at an academic conference. Occasionally, someone might bring along a spouse and young child, but neither are often seen, and never during the actual panels. Granted, a general interest presentation geared towards things children might be interested in, like books they know and like in terms they can understand, would attract parent with their children, as opposed to a panel talking about the academic theories and interpretations of the same. Even so, there was a child at the book festival complaining to his mother, “This is sooooo boring!”; I’m guessing he was about 5 or so. Another reason you may not see too many children at an academic conference is that, it’s bad enough to have to tell your child in a situation where it might be expected “Don’t kick the person in front of you! Say ‘sorry’!” {child mumbles the apology, and the person nudged never acknowledges either being kicked or apologized to}. These sorts of things would probably be considered far too distracting or interrupting at a more academic event, but it does make the tone more real. That’s real kid, as opposed to listening to people talk about for example the levels and variations of morality or ethics in the same book these two kids were apparently present to hear about, the latest in a series called The Last Kids on Earth; this was not something I’m familiar with, but I’m probably out of the loop on the most current trends and what’s popular, not having kids within the target age range myself.

There’s a certain level of artifice present in the academic world in terms of writing and reading that was just not there at this non-academic festival. People actually wanted to be there for the most part and enjoyed it. Academic conferences can be fun if you know people and/or like to meet new people, but it’s still more like work, and that can take some of the joy out of it.

Circling back to the beginning for a moment, when the author of this series mentioned he was a Star Wars fan-boy as a child, I was reminded of how many people in their late teens through early thirties have said that the Harry Potter series was what really got them into reading and maybe even writing. I was slightly above the target age range when the first few books came out, and was unaware of them until not long after the third novel was published when I was a senior in high school. I re-read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for another project not long ago, and some things really stood out to me. It’s so well written and the world and characters building are so detailed and well done without a lot of the tropes that get old, like the info dump speeches from one character to another (not that I mind these, it’s just that they’re pretty common). After book 3, when the books doubled to tripled in size, the writing was less witty and the story was less about the world and characters and more about action plot things and angst. I’m not the first to point to the differences between books 1-3 as a set and 4-7, but I feel it more upon a reread much removed from the first time through. Anyways, with these novels being so influential on the current starts and rising stars of the fiction, especially fantasy and sci-fi, it’s going to be interesting to see how much things change if these writers are going to write what they wanted to read other than Harry Potter.

[1] “Laughter as an Expression of Human Nature in the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period: Literary, Historical, Theological, Philosophical, and Psychological Reflections. Also an Introduction.”  Laughter in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Times. Ed. Albrecht Classen. De Gruyeter, 2010. Pp.1-140. Here p.5.

Reading Motivations

Motivation is important. In order to motivate yourself, you need to know what motivates you. Me, I like challenges, especially if there’s a reward of some sort at the end. Sometimes, competition works too.

It seems like every New Years for the past few, I’ve something in my resolutions about fun reading. First, it was spending more time at it, then it was focusing on books I already had, and most recently (ongoing for 2019) it was to finish the several things that I had started the year before before I started on anything new. I’ve only been half successful with that. There’s one thing I really need to finish that I bought when it came out, started about two years later, and two years after that, haven’t properly finished. But that’s not the point here.

My point is that over the past 2 ½ months, I’ve made a visible dent in my TBR (to-be-read) shelves. Why? Thanks mostly to 3 challenges, one ongoing that I’ve participated in for about four years, and two new.  Two are related. The ongoing previously done challenge is a book review group/website that’s an offshoot of Pajiba, the pop culture site, called “Cannonball Reads“. Basically it’s a challenge to read and review 52 books in a year (or a half-cannonball at 26, or a double at 104). It all started as a way to honor a founding member who passed away from cancer, and to raise money for cancer research. I found out about this from a friend from graduate school, and then enrolled myself after finishing my degree as a way to get back into pleasure reading; those years are the main reason why my TBR shelf was actually shelves. I’d purchased things I really wanted to read, but didn’t have time for at the time, on the assumption I’d eventually have time. The goal setting is not really competitive here; it’s more of a social thing, and a way to raise money for a good cause. This year, I think I finished my 52 earlier than I have in years past. Part of this I’m reasonably sure was thanks to new challenge #1.

I found out from a colleague that the local library system was running a summer reading program, not surprising in itself, that included kids, teens, and (surprisingly) adults. If you signed up, read so many hours between May-June-July, you could exchange your reading log for prizes. For the adults, that meant a clip on reading light for 15 hours, and a tote bag for 25 hours. I am one of those people who will do a ridiculous amount of work for small prizes if the work is something I like or is somehow beneficial (including things like a t-shirt for a 5k race or attend so many fitness classes in a month, etc). I wanted me my tote bag. I got me my tote bag. The funny thing is, that I’m pretty sure I actually underrepresented the hours I spent on each book I worked through for that challenge. In any event, some of the books I read for that were recent releases, but quite a few were things I’d been wanting to get to for a while.

Challenge 2 is new to me in the sense that I’ve not tried doing it before, but it’s been running for a couple of years now I think for Cannonball Reads people, and I’d known about it before. I think the momentum from the library challenge stayed with me long enough and they two challenges did overlap by about a month; I may have double dipped a little. Anyways, basically it’s a Bingo board with various categories that you have to read and review a qualifying book for. It’s not a race or standard Bingo in that whoever fills a line first wins; it’s whoever gets a Bingo gets an entry into a drawing for books stuff (I’m honestly not  sure of the specifics for this year, but that doesn’t really matter anyways), and more lines filled equals more chances. The added challenge here is of course the requirement that the book be reviewed. The reviews are often informal, personal, and usually not that long (350-500 words is average). Since the challenge opened in early July, I’ve been trying to average 2-3 books per week, since once school gets back in session, my free time will probably be more limited. I honestly haven’t been all that strategic about planning what to read next as long as it fits somewhere on the board, and so far I’ve got 1 Bingo and probably 4 other possible full lines halfway done.

Not only have I made a dent in my TBR shelves thanks to these 3 events, to the point where there’s actually room for new books, I’ve rediscovered popular non-fiction, found a new series or two, and picked up some things I may not have otherwise.

So, what’s to be gained from all this? Knowing what motivates you helps you read sometimes. Why does this matter? Classroom tactics. I’ve seen plenty of articles and studies bemoaning how difficult it is to get undergraduate students to actually read things, and how few of them are likely to actually complete something that’s assigned. Granted, personal motivation is different for everyone, and there’s realistic way to ensure that every individual in a class group will want to participate, but as I’m starting to set up for the fall semester (which starts in just over a week), I’m starting to need to strategize. Incentive 1: less homework, but more focused and in-depth homework. Incentive 2: possibly some kind of silly competitive game for part or all of the semester. Incentive 3: trying out more interesting, relevant, and/or recent readings. Incentive 4: trying to match readings to skills and outcomes. Basically, try to have the reading be something that models or is otherwise applicable towards a graded assignment.

As already noted, I’m only now getting around to some of the more specific aspects of planning out the semester’s calendars, so some options aren’t fully realized, and I may come up with more. Suggestions appreciated, and we’ll see how this all turns out.

 

On the Arts of Notebooks and Conferencing

I saw a thread on Twitter started by someone asking what the most necessary thing to bring to major overseas conference might be. I found the resulting thread interesting. Some things noted were expected like a converter or running shoes or a copy of the program. Then there were some surprises. One of the most mentioned was stationary, including pens and notebooks. This first reminded me of a colleague who said that the last time she attended this particular conference (last year -2018) she had filled whole notebook. Then, came some mild disagreement (internal). Yes, you certainly need a pen or few and a notebook, but why not get those things at the venue or area as souvenirs?

I also noticed that surprisingly there were not many mentions of things like a novel for fun reading; even if you end up with not lots of downtime planned, you definitely will have some during travel, and quite frankly if you’re not a night-partier/socializer (and I’m really not, not even a little) and you don’t have tv or access to your Netflix etc. (overseas licensing stuff often blocks US streaming US stuff), you’re going to need and want something else to do with a few hours most evenings. There’s also the question of securing technology for phone/data use (at least GPS), and figuring out work/communication strategies for any work related projects or classes currently ongoing.

Back to the notion of The Conference Notebook. I have noticed that a standard size (80-100 pages, college rule) for one conference doesn’t work since I almost always only fill part of it. The problem then becomes what to do with the rest, unless I know I’m planning to make that paper into an article. A small notebook can work, but those are easier to lose on a desk full of books, grading, etc.; notepad freebies from hotel or vendors are often too small or flimsy. Then there’s also the problem of what to do with handouts (still a thing) and keep the relevant one with corresponding notes. Full sized notebooks allow better space for adding inserts. Folders are too easy to lose or get separated from the notebook.

This year I decided to try using the same standard notebook for all 2019 conferences. We’ll see how this goes since there is still to go (MMLA) after 4 down (MLA, CAMWS, Sewanee, Leeds). I have started using it a bit for researching/trying to finish something from last year too. SO far this loose organization seems to be working out.

I’ve also started something similar for teaching. I essentially have color coded my commonly taught classes, and have been using the same pink notebook for Comp 101 for the past few terms, purple for Comp 102, and green for World Lit 1; I’m close to filling that last one. This seems to be a good way for me to keep track of lesson plans and what’s been working, what I’ve tried out, and what might need some changing next (which there will inevitably be).

I remember a similar issue to when I was a college student and didn’t fill a notebook for a class.  If you keep such things (and I have), it’s a waste of paper to stop using a notebook before it’s filled but then again if you’re using the same notebook for 2 different things, it can  get hard to keep track of what’s where.

Back to conferencing advice. I have found that it’s a good idea to try and plan to get to the conference venue at least one afternoon before the conference gets going. This allows you some time to figure out where key locations are, and in most cases recover a little from the strain of long distance travel. It also is potentially the one chance to explore a little bit if you haven’t been to the area before. I have not been to the International Medieval Congress at Leeds before, and that first evening was about my only chance to explore dinner options off campus since most other evenings would be booked with conference activities. I discovered a really good restaurant within walking distance (an Asian place called Fuji Hiro- really good veggie ramen!) as well as two bubble tea shops, two non-chain coffee shops, and the local grocery store where I stocked up on UK junk food not easily available in the US.

I also find that it’s a good idea to know where several of the tea/coffee stations are if you’re at a larger conference like IMC Leeds. That way if one is super busy and you’re on a deadline to get to another session, you can hopefully swing by another station and get your caffeine or water there.

Penultimate-ly, be ready for surprises. These are often good, although there are also the inevitable snags; occasionally one even ends up being the same thing. For example, your dorm building fire alarm going off at 2:30am and again at 4:30am one night/morning is on the one hand highly irritating and disruptive, but on the other hand, it’s an opportunity to meet your building-mates all at once. Good surprises are things like finding out on the final day of the conference there’s a food-stall market on the premises along with the expected medieval performances and demos of things like falconry and armor (complete with people on horses).

Lastly, promise yourself to try at least one new or unusual thing for you. I mentioned earlier that I don’t often attend late evening social events. I found one that sounded interesting and made myself go. It turns out that medieval court and folk dancing is a little more complex than you might think. I was also definitely not the only novice or newbie there, which was nice when we were told to form groups. I still have one of the tunes stuck in my head a few days later, and will not be forgetting the little shoulder shimmy move that looked surprisingly modern.