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.

The Online World of World Lit

I am facing an interesting challenge for the new year: teaching my first ever fully online class. I’ve taught World Literature 1 every semester I’ve been at my current institution (4 ½ years), but now I’m facing adapting it to a new platform. I have taught some hybrid courses (up to 50% online), but now I have to work out how to adapt everything to the online platform. In addition to the existential strangeness of likely never meeting many of those students in person, I also have to work out a variety of different ways to replace in-person classroom activities and interactions.

This is probably the biggest challenge in terms of technology, much of which I have at least theoretical familiarity, but it’s also got me thinking about texts. As with many institutions, textbook costs have been a concern of note at my university of late and there has been a push towards lower cost or no cost materials, nearly all of which are digital. There are a lot of good quality ancient and medieval texts in translation online, but the problem for me is that when I’ve assigned online texts before, I have noticed a distinct drop in the likelihood that members of the class have done that reading, as opposed to how many would have done it if assigned from the physical paper textbook. I remember the one and only fully online course I myself took, and the biggest thing I remember from it was how little I got from it intellectually. I remember especially one online discussion board when the professor made a comment on something I’d posted, and I responded hoping for more discussion, but never got anything back. I also remember totally forgetting about a fairly sizable assignment until the last minute, rushing to find a suitable source text online because for some reason, probably date or time, the local library was closed. I’m pretty sure I must have done at least ok in that class since otherwise I’d remember it better. My point is, I don’t have a lot of practical experience with the fully online class, but I’ve got enough of an idea of things that can go wrong to be a little concerned about how I set mine up.

With texts in a general literature survey like this one, I’ve found over the years that what seems to work best is a fairly even mix of things students have probably heard of or even read bits of previously (Homer, Beowulf, Chaucer, Dante, Cervantes, Milton) and things they likely have not (Ramayana, Tukaram, Boccaccio, Rabelais, The Abencerraje, Tales of the Heike). I also like to include a few things likely to be more intellectually challenging like selections from the writings of Boethius and Confucius.

I have found myself emphasizing more and more the fact that nearly all of these texts are in fact translations from another language, time, place, and/or culture. It has started especially when a new edition of the textbook was published that used a totally different translation of Sunjata. The 3rd edition had a translation more faithful to the original poetic style of the recitation, while the 4th edition had a prose translation. I’m guessing the editors made that decision because the poetic version was a little more difficult to comprehend in terms of story and character, but the prose version loses so much of the cultural and historical feel. When I realized I was going to have students with both versions, and I still do even though it’s been a few semesters since the new edition was released, I really liked what happened when students with the different versions had to work together in class. This is the kind of thing I now have to figure out digital ways to replace. Each section or unit of the course is going to have some kind of group or not-solo thing in it, but I want to have things that are more interactive to encourage students to engage and collaborate in ways beyond just posting to a discussion board and generally agreeing with each other as seems to happen most of the time.

One project I’m hoping will enable some of all the things I’ve been considering is a “where did this come from” or “how-why do we still have this” kind of thing where students look up the textual histories and transmissions of various texts. Because so many repositories of ancient and medieval texts have been digitizing and making more freely available not only the digital facsimiles but also general information about the various texts and copies, my hope is to have students make use of these resources. The group aspect would come in the form of students collaborating to cover multiple time periods of transmission or textual history. For example, with something like the Illiad, one student would work with what is known about the oral text and ”original” composition, another with the ancient manuscripts, another the medieval translations and copies, and the final with how the text was thought of and existed in the mid-Renaissance era. Each individual would be responsible for researching and putting together their own section, and then they would have to collaborate in putting everything together as a timeline or other to be figured out format. I’m also thinking that these projects should be shared with the rest of the class.

Besides some of the logistics, the biggest challenge for me is that while I have great familiarity with many of the European, especially UK libraries and collections, I am going to need to locate English language sources for things that are held in other parts of the world.

I’m also most likely going to have to put together the class as the class proceeds, something I don’t really like doing if possible because it can feel rushed, and that’s not usually not my personal best work.  I know most of the text selections pretty well by now, and I have discussion cues and assignments to go with them, but those are all designed for a different delivery. I’m thinking of using this whole semester as an opportunity to experiment a little more than I might otherwise do with some class elements. For example, I’m thinking of pairing shorter excerpts from the standard works, like Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, with much less known writers and texts from the same period, and giving students a choice of the second text from a list. So someone might have to read the required pieces of the Canterbury Tales, and then their choice of the following: online excerpts of Gower’s Confessio Amantis or Lydgate’s Siege of Thebes. Somehow, some way, I also want to figure a way to work in Hoccleve’s Complaint. I’m thinking that something like this, where everyone has one text in common, and then one text that they can’t be sure other class members have looked at, might help get some kind of collaborative learning going. The problem is, it’ll be tough to pull off without more reading than usual, and students sometimes have enough trouble keeping interested or up with the reading calendar as it currently is.

The next few months are likely going to be me figuring things out as I go, and probably a fair bit of thinking out loud here.  We’ll see how this goes.

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.

Teacher and Student Struggles with Citation and Research

Scholarly research and citation are things commonly taught in most every English course, particularly composition. I saw a post on social media recently suggesting that focusing too much of Works Cited formatting might scare students off. But then again, students do really need to be able to cite accurately no matter what their post-school goals might be, even if the formatting rules might vary by profession. Even if students practice and review, it seems like the majority of the time most Works Cited in a batch of essays have noticeable errors. Students know citation is important, they can explain why it’s a good thing, yet why is it that it seems so difficult to remember to italicize or indent?

I have taken to trying to explain why those things are part of the formatting to help students realize that these formatting details are not just there for looks. I think it helps them understand, but I’m still no closer to figuring out why so many can’t quite manage to format basic book or article citations properly. I know of the problem is citation generators, but even that does not fully explain. Maybe it’s also because the rules seem to change a bit every few years, but most composition students have really only had to work with one set of rules, possibly two. MLA 8 has been the standard in most English composition classes for long enough now that the changes should no longer be much of a challenge.

As someone who has been through MLA 6, 7, and now 8, I have to say an adjustment period should not be years long. There were some substantial changes between MLA 7 and 8, many of them good and necessary, although the revision of the structure on the Handbook itself was one of the worst pedagogical decisions made by an academic group in recent memory. I have serious doubts anyone who was seriously involved in that process has had to work with actual students much, or at least not aby other than top tier very above average ones. I was and am a good student in the traditional sense; I’m good with details and traditional schooling has not been something difficult for me. But I have had trouble trying to figure out how to cite something even slightly less than common using that manual. The style itself is not the issue; it’s how the book is set up, and how over-generalized it has become. MLA 7 let you look up exactly how to cite things, while MLA 8 tries to use the same basic paradigm for everything and it only makes a process confusing for students even worse.

Every now and then, I seem to run into something that reminds me of what it might be like for students who struggle with Works Cited and formatting. I realized that I needed to cite a digitized manuscript but had not idea of whether to treat it as an e-book or as a manuscript, which require two quite different formats. The journal I’m aiming for requires MLA citation, and the MLA 8 Handbook was not helpful for something this specialized. While I’m advanced enough as a scholar to know that sometimes the rules are not as set as one might think, it’s still a mildly vexing problem since you don’t want to submit something to a professional journal that has basic level errors like a faulty Works Cited; that’s just embarrassing even if the peer-reviewing is done blind. It’s especially bad if the particular citation is something incredibly well-known, like the Ellesmere Chaucer or the Findern manuscript.

One of the other common struggles with composition is trying to get students to take the time to actually find the best possible sources for their projects, and not simply the most convenient. Some of this might be attributable to the rise of the digital age, and the fading of patience to spend an hour working through an index or bibliography of a given subject. I’m sure there’s plenty of research about this sort of thing, but none of it helps with figuring out how to show students the value of in-depth research for a researched-based writing assignment. This complaint is all well and good in theory, but when it comes to practice some student problems are more relate-able. When the main campus library only has about half a floor worth of books on shelves, students might be quickly discouraged from the stacks, and when the accessible databases either don’t have the most current or relevant sources, again, it would be easy for an average student to get discouraged. Thankfully, my institution has great people in our ILL area, but getting students to use that system also has challenges. Even for me, having to wait a week to get a source is aggravating since I might have had time for the work when I requested the book, but may not when the book actually shows up. Or as a colleague noted, it might be difficult to remember exactly what the new arrival was needed for. If these things are troubling for someone with research experience and who learned how to use things like physical book-length bibliographies and indices, then I can only imagine what such difficulties might be like for someone who does not have the same level of expertise or experience.

Then comes the problem of fully reading and understanding things like academic sources themselves. I remember as an undergraduate being quite excited to find a journal article that I could fully read and understand. I saw on social media recently a post along the lines of “If you run into an academic source that you can’t read, that does not mean you are stupid; it just means you are not ready for that source.” I like this sentiment, but I have to wonder if the average student would accept this or feel more like they were being talked down to or possibly dismiss the idea as a feel good palliative.

So where does all this leave me? For now, students know that formatting counts on a Works Cited but is not a major part of an essay grade overall. I’m experimenting with a few things this semester in Composition 1 to see if some work on finding and citing sources outside the context of the middle of a major research assignment will be helpful. I also try to use prompts that are open enough that students can tailor their research both their own interests as well as the current resources available to them. We’ll see in December how everything works out.

How to Learn or Explore the Comedy of Good Omens

I chose to assign an intro to lit class Good Omens; this decision was made before I realized the timing of the release of the tv version. The resulting assignment is a research paper looking into basic tropes and how the novel applies, ignores, tweaks, or generally deals with said set of expectations and conditions. The beginning of class very nearly coincided with the tv release, so there was a good bit of media attention to both the pending tv release as well as its source novel. Two particular themes kept showing up in the reviews and predictions: the comedy (success, failure, possible dated-ness) and romance/gender (especially the nature of Aziraphale’s and Crowley’s relationship, and the presence and treatment of female characters). The thing with the comedy got me thinking about how a group of early-ish career college students in a not-large urban-ish area in the Southern United States were going to be able to appreciate nearly 30-year old British language and comedy. Never mind the possible research subject, I was starting to wonder about just following the story.

We haven’t gotten to this point in the course yet, but I’m wondering if a review on general British comedy might not be in order. Starting with medieval riddles, fabliaux, and drama would be something fun to look into. One of my favorite things to do when teaching Chaucer, in both surveys and upper-level literature courses, is to surprise students with some of the lower level comic bits. It always amuses me that students don’t realize how old the word ‘fart’ actually is, and that they (farts) have been funny since before the Middle Ages in Europe. There is a surprising amount of scholarship on the history of farting and fart-based humor in the Middle Ages (and a good bit for even earlier times). Just search Google for “medieval fart”; you’ll end up with academic and non-academic links and some videos about comic performances involving farts, significant and often untimely farts in history, ancient and medieval medical practices involving farts (often capturing them in various ways for various reasons), farting and early music, and more. Then there’s the “Christmas” song sing-along in the morality play Mankind; again students are often surprised that that kind of thing was actually A) done that long ago, B) was considered (by most) to be funny, and c) involved “bad” words modern students both recognize and (probably) use. I am actively trying to avoid the word ‘humor’ here since that word had a much different, and broader meaning pre-seventeenth century. To show a little continuity, I’m thinking some of the British poetry in the section of class (before drama, which is before the novel) might be helpful. Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” along with John Donne’s “The Flea” might be an entertaining paring. Entertaining and potentially educational though this sort of thing can be, this is really not the same style of comedy or entertainment that appears in Good Omens. But it does provide a baseline for comparison, especially on the level of British vs American language.

One of the dramas currently on the reading syllabus is Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound. In terms of style and type of comedy involved, this is the closest we get to Good Omens before the actual novel itself. Father Ted or Keeping Up Appearances, or The Office (the first, British one) might also be points of reference students can easily look up via places like Youtube, Netflix, etc. that give a similar flavor of the language and style. The level of absurdity is debatably a touch higher in the play than in the novel, but I would argue not by all that much. I hesitate to consider Monty Python here simply because the more theologically inclined of the movies (Life of Brian) is not something I think would be terribly productive. It’s not that I don’t think my students can’t be open-minded (I know for a fact many of them can be) but rather that it would be difficult for many of them to fathom the possibility and nature of the language used and the tone of the satire, meaning we’d spend too much time trying to figure out/explain the Monty Python, and lose track of the Pratchett/Gaiman. Holy Grail would be a better candidate both in terms of comfort with basic content (most everyone has at least heard of King Arthur et al.) and also for satiric-parodic meaning, but not as directly relevant in terms of content and potential meaning. Either way, the biggest problem has little to do with content and more with the language and cultural background. I’ve noticed in the past when using video clips of British performers doing Shakespeare or Stoppard, that many of my student struggled with the accents and vocabulary they were hearing. Add the cultural knowledge required to catch the comic intent, which in an introductory class isn’t guaranteed students have beforehand and would have to be provided, I’m wondering if it won’t be struggle enough to get through Good Omens itself, never mind the comic strategies at work; then again, the comedic elements are a major part of understanding the novel, so they can’t rightly be ignored.

There is some good theory and history out there that I could point students towards, since British tv and dramatic comedy has been well studied both in terms of works from this century and those past. Titles such as Comic Persuasion: Moral Structure in British Comedy from Shakespeare to Stoppard (Alice Rayner, 1987) or British TV Comedies: Cultural Concepts, Contexts & Controversies (ed. Jurgen Kamm, 2016) provide a good background in some of the theory and history behind a lot of things students are likely to be working with. A problem with using such books and article collections though is that my institution library does not carry many such titles, which means accessing useful material could be somewhat difficult.

The big problem I’m facing really isn’t even the lack of specialized resources; it’s the lack of time. The novel is scheduled to take that last 2 ½ weeks of class, which needs to include time to read, time to research, lectures and  classwork on how to do all that, and finally, write the research paper. A lot of what I’ve reviewed above would be a struggle to cram into a full-length semester course, never mind a shortened summer term. Comedy will be simply an option along with a host of others including Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Armageddon, Biblical/Christian fiction, and fantasy. It’ll be interesting to see what members of the class choose to focus on.

To be continued….

 

Thoughts on a Theory Kick

I remember a certain professor in graduate school who seemed to think that modern theory had little application for the study of medieval literature. I’m not going to take up that argument here, rather I’m suggesting that medieval ideas and texts offer some interesting challenges in terms of applications for modern theories. Take Joseph Campbell and his hero’s journey. Medieval literature is hugely influenced by myth and folklore, so there is some application there. However, there is also the question of the chivalric romance. Many of these stories feature stories that star “heroes” who go on journeys, and yet they don’t quite fit the pattern presented by Campbell. King Arthur stories comes to mind. Something like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight might work out in terms of following the monomyth, but Lancelot? Even Galahad, by Malory’s version at least, doesn’t quite fit the pattern on account of being too perfect. I have to wonder whether or not anyone has really tried this kind of theory on these stories beyond Arthur himself; it would be pretty interesting to see the results for anyone of the other Knights of the Round Table. A quick Google search suggests that there’s plenty out there on Arthur, but not much on other individual knights. On a side-note, there was one comparison or suggestion of tracing Tiger Wood’s career as following the monomyth alongside Harry Potter or King Arthur.

Propp’s 31 functions and 7 characters is another interesting case. With this one, the Arthuriana seems like it would fit reasonably well. However, I wonder whether or not a medieval story collection of mostly folk and common stories, like the Canterbury Tales, would hold up. The popularity of the frame narrative and story collection was pretty high in mid to late medieval Europe, and certain tales might work well, I wonder what a story-within-a-story would do to Propp’s ideas. While Propp does allow for repetition within the functions sequence, I have my doubts that the interweaving of stories within a master narrative would work. Admittedly, Propp’s theory was designed specifically for fairy tales, but even so, what happens if the fairy tale in question is part of a larger narrative, and an unfinished one at that?

Bakhtin is already in use and was in some ways designed especially for medieval narratives, including his ideas about discourse, heteroglossia, polyphony, and the carnivalesque. The ideas of the carnivalesque were borrowed from medieval carnival practices, and the dialogic stuff is still an approach used in manuscript and marginalia studies as well as literary studies. The Canterbury Tales has been examined from several of these approaches with genuine effort (as in un-ironic). But, there was a second frame story collection that was well known and influential in the Middle Ages: Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Both the Metamorphoses and some of The Canterbury Tales include scenarios, characters, and settings that meet the general definition of fantasy that involve the use of a frame story.  So then the question becomes, how seriously should the frames and the narratives they contain be taken? Chaucer’s frame has been observed to contain some degree of satire, but how about the Metamorphoses? It’s frame as a history of the world sets up a more serious tone on Ovid’s part. So the question becomes what would a more Bakhtinian reading of some of the escapades and the many problems of communication do to an interpretation of medieval versions like the Ovid Moralisé?

Gender and queer studies of various approaches are also in current use towards all kinds of texts, as are multicultural approaches and those which consider race. Travel and Crusade narratives provide a point of consideration for considering race, which Geraldine Heng gets into in her recent book The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages. As general understanding about such concepts changes in the modern world, every so often, a re-evaluation of how they might help in understanding the medieval consideration of the same kinds of questions and issues might reflect an update in understanding or thinking. How the Middle Ages thought about Ovid’s Metamorphoses for example would change if the definitions and perception of gender and consent being applied had shifted substantially.

Theories like deconstruction and psychoanalysis are no longer as popular as they used to be, at least not in their original forms, and I’m guessing a good part of that at least in relation to medieval literature has to do with the recognition of the complexity of dealing with texts many centuries old. Derrida’s notion that language is fundamentally impossible to fully understand or assess is not particularly compatible with the reasonably recent notion that much medieval literature contains components that have gone unrecognized, and as such must now be studied. The connections between western Europe and the Middle East and parts of Asia and Africa are currently a topic of interest for many medieval scholars, and it almost seems like Derrida’s theory would sound like a poor excuse to ignore an important but until now overlooked or oppressed existence or perspective. I do have to wonder what applying Freud in any kind of depth to a fabliau would do beyond attempt to destroy the humor.

Semiotics and its focus on how meaning can be created using language still has some utility although the theory doesn’t seem to be terribly popular at the moment. The social side of language such as Barthes thought of it might make for an interesting consideration of something like the Harley lyrics or the riddles of the Exeter book which engages the question of how big a role should historical or cultural context play in interpretation, and how possible such analysis really is from a non-native perspective; non-native here refers both to time and place.

Even the New Critical focus on close reading and the-text-and-nothing-but-the-text is problematic for medieval works since they are so far separated in time and culture from any current scholar that without context, any real level of comprehension would be difficult if not impossible. Take Pearl for example. As a text alone, and no reference to medieval dream vision or theology, the story is superficial, and what narrative and character information would survive leads to only minimal understanding. Even the technical prowess of the text would have less meaning since a lot of the rhyme and numerical meaning depends on knowledge external of the text.

I’m also thinking that medieval theories and practices might have some interesting results when paired with modern texts and theories. But that’s another discussion.

Challenging the Canon

I teach a lot of survey courses, often to non-English majors. Recently the idea came to my attention of the question of accessibility of some less than canonical authors and texts that still might be useful in a literature survey. I have taught a few things that aren’t staples in surveys of global literature and British literature, but Ovid’s Amores, Boethius‘ Consolation of Philosophy, Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel, and Mankind are all canonical, at least tangentially, in terms of general Western literature. With some extra annotation and lecture framing, these texts are not too hard for a student to look up either for background or for translations or secondary analysis.

I have used Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound before as well, and students generally respond well to it, although this is definitely a play where you need to use both the script and a performance. Because it isn’t a classroom standard, it’s less likely that students will have studied it previously, and some students might be more interested because this play is something new to them that they haven’t even heard of. Even Stoppard’s biggest commercial/popular hit, Shakespeare in Love, isn’t as well known to students in a first year introduction to literature class. I know this because I asked, and upon further reflection I figured out that the movie might be slightly older than some of the younger students.

There are some titles, both medieval and popular, that could have some real classroom use, but aren’t always available in accessible forms, which makes them even more likely to remain obscure. For example, the 9th century monk Sedulius Scottus wrote among other things a series of lyrics, some of which would fit nicely into either ancient or medieval traditions. For example, one of his poems (c. 81) is a debate between a rose and a lily. Not only is debate poetry a popular genre around that time, but the poem also explores some themes and images which are common like the symbolism of the two flowers, and the attempt to balance pagan and Christian ideas. The problem is that both the original Latin and the single published translation are not readily available. Neither is freely found online, and in physical book form, three copies of Sedulius Scottus: On Christian Rulers and The Poems and a single copy of Sedulii Scotti Carmina (CCCM 117) exist in the library system for the entire University System of Georgia (which includes places like the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech). There are ways to include a single poem in a syllabus, including doing my own translation, but if students get interested, their options for further exploration are quite limited.

Similarly, something like Walafrid Strabo’s Hortulus, as a botanical treatise, might get students who aren’t planning to be literature majors interested in 9th century poetry. Nursing is a popular major and learning that at one point in history lilies were considered an anti-venom in addition to their literary and cultural symbolism might be a gateway for certain students. A dual language (Latin and English) edition is the same large USG library system exists in only three copies; again, as with the lyrics of Sedulius Scottus, if a student were interested in further investigation, finding the materials to explore that text would be a struggle if their institution did not possess one of these copies. A more determined student might be able to find some additional resources, but often, if the class or assignment doesn’t directly align with the student’s major or career goals, they are less likely to be willing to take the time to seek out further information.

The problem with using something that’s not especially standard as a teaching text is not just that the primary text itself can be difficult to find. The same problem exists when a more modern text is popular, but too recent to have generated much secondary scholarship. I have previously used V.E. Schwab’s Vicious in the same general literature survey as The Real Inspector Hound. I also used novels by Kim Newman (The Secret of Drearcliff Grange School) and Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One. All three novels were reasonably popular (two were best-sellers) and all published within about the past ten years. My reasoning was that these were stories students might be able to get interested in, and that they wouldn’t be able to rely too much on secondary work and online summaries or study guides. Vicious was probably the most successful, and I’ll be using it again, but this time I’ll compare it to how students get on with Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and Drew Hayes’ The Utterly Uninteresting and Unadventurous Tales of Fred, Vampire Accountant. All of these novels are pretty readily available, although none free should a student want their own copy. It’s my experience with novels like these that tells me that often students aren’t often willing to spend time digging into related but less direct avenues of research if they can’t find something directly on their subject within an hour at most. Of the novelists I’ve listed, only Neil Gaiman has been around long enough, been popular enough, and been viewed as literary enough to have much secondary scholarship published on his work. But the interesting thing is that the university library system doesn’t have much of that scholarship; I had to go to the public library for it. Again, limited access and/or time many students may not be willing to spend.

While student struggles with critical thinking, especially when research might be involved, have long been lamented in various academically-centered media for some time, very little, at least of what I’ve seen, has been able to come up with a particularly useful solution. Getting students more interested and invested in what they’re working with is the best solution I’ve encountered, and sometimes the best way to do that is to use things that aren’t as traditional or even canonical in the classroom or academy. The problem of resources is much larger and one individual instructors don’t have much control over, but we can at least get things started by getting students interested, since demand after all can be a pretty powerful force.