Myth and Folklore towards a Theory of Superheroes

There’s an old saying that to learn something thoroughly, you have to teach it. For me the past few weeks, that’s been mythology and folklore that’s affected literature (and culture), and the theories that have been applied to them. I’ve been familiar with many of the basic stories since childhood, but I hadn’t gone very in depth in terms of context or interpretive strategies. With a little research, context isn’t hard to find, but interpretation when it comes to this kind of literature has a varied history, not to mention, literary theory is not something I have a lot of practice with using and neither is contemporary literature.

In retrospect, I first learned about literary theory in my senior year of graduate school. At the time, I wasn’t really clear what ‘cultural studies was or why it mattered. I later had two semesters of theory surveys in graduate school. I enjoyed those courses. The ‘problem’ was that my general scholarly specialty, medieval literature, is traditionally most often studied via close reading, source use, or historical context. It probably might also have something to do with the fact that I had an advisor who doesn’t believe modern theory has much applicability to older texts.

Not only then have I not used a variety of theory in my own scholarship, but I also have not taught it. That’s where things got interesting the past few weeks. I taught a 5-week short summer term course on ‘Myth and Folklore for Literary Studies’. I didn’t plan this initially, but as it turns out, theory was unavoidable. I knew the name Joseph Campbell from my senior year of high school, when I think we watched an episode of two of the series of interviews that he did with Bill Moyers, “The Power of Myth”. I don’t remember learning or understanding much from that, especially not in terms of using those kinds of ideas to interpret stories.

What I ended up doing was starting with definitions of ‘mythology’ and ‘folklore’, then adding a new theorist each week. My students and I ended up with Campbell twice (once for archetypes, and once for modern utility and applicability), Karl Jung, Vladimir Propp, Claude Levi-Strauss, and Otto Rank. Not that I’d tell them this directly, but I probably learned as much about theory over the past month as they did. We also ended up going into pop culture more than I had planned, but it was something the students could relate to and they also (hopefully) now know that there can be academic value in using scholarly tactics with things like anime or comic books. For example, we looked at a translation/prose rendering of the first section of Journey to the West, which covers the backstory of Sun Wukong the Monkey King, which has been very influential even in American popular culture. We used that story as the basis to try and formulate a theory of the American superhero story. We ended up with something that looked an awful lot like Rank’s breakdown of the hero story. I admit I was a little disappointed things didn’t get more creative with putting together a new theoretical framework derived from the examples of heroes that the class had been reading and talking about, but it was a start. In any event, it was entertaining to see the class try and reason how well their ideas fit a range of contemporary hero characters, like Batman and Wonder Woman.

I was also a bit inspired by some of the work done for their final projects. The assignment was to take a classic adaptation of myth or folklore like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Beowulf, or The Hobbit, and compare/contrast the treatment of the identified source material with a modern adaptation like Krampus by Brom, The Immortals by Jordanna Max Brodsky, The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski, or The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden. After seeing what a small group of English majors about halfway through college managed to work out, I now rather want to see what might be done if I applied Otto Rank’s ideas of the family romance and his 10 step hero journey to the likes of V.E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic trilogy. Or, once the sequel to Vicious, Vengeful, comes out in September (9/29- not that it’s not on my calendar or anything), using any and all of the theories previously noted to determine once and for all the good guy-bad guy dynamic, since I have long questioned the common blurb that comes with Vicious that it’s a twist on the superhero/supervillain story.

After some brief checking, it looks like most scholarship on modern (ie- 20th century-ish) American superheroes deals with their cultural origins and meanings, and very little on structural or morphological characteristics that theorists of centuries past have constructed. While I readily admit this kind of approach is old-fashioned and not terribly fashionable at the moment, it does have its uses, especially for introducing students to interpretive possibilities. Frameworks that include things like concrete patterns (ex-7 basic archetypes) and lists (ex-31 functions) are far easier to start working with than ideologically-based theories. Not that ideologies are bad as interpretive bases, they just seem a bit harder to start with for most. Techniques that allow for patters to appear seem a good half-way point between theories that start with a pattern to apply and those which advance a more philosophical approach.

For example, if I wanted to use Vicious and Super Powereds (by Drew Hayes) as my primary basis for contemporary treatments of heroes, a basic comparison and contrast such appears in Levi-Strauss’ “The Structural Study of Myth” provides a technique for gathering information and looking for potential patterns resulting in something like:

Super Powereds is far more traditional in some ways (capes, secret identities, lairs, etc) than Vicious, but there are overlaps in things like concerns for ethics and individual moral choices/reasoning, starring college age individuals who must learn how to use their abilities, the perceived gaps between those who have powers and those who don’t, and the question of created vs naturally super-powered individuals.

Now that I’m thinking about it, there’s a lot of ways this could go. I’ll have to work on this further.

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Thoughts from ICMS 2018

Conferences are fun, from locating a coveted JSTOR sticker to old friends and favorite places to Michael Jackson and Disney in Latin to Marjorie Kempe visits Wonderland, to the little annoyances like the teen hoard that took over the Pita Pit about 5 minutes before I got there resulting in nowhere to sit and a 20 minute wait to the campus Bigsby schedule not matching what was printed in the program to never meeting the person you’re sharing a bathroom with and praying you don’t walk in on or get walked in on.

With larger ones like the International Congress on Medieval Studies (ICMS) at Kalamazoo, you have the burden/opportunity to choose from 40+ sessions each round of panels. While this can be aggravating when 3 panels you really want to see are at the same time, it also means that you have the opportunity to hear talks on things you know little to nothing about. This time around, I ended up enjoying those more than the ones I had more familiarity with. There were quite a few popular culture panels and I went to several since they were relevant to my current science fiction/fantasy in the Middle Ages project, and because they might provide some useful information or sources for my Myth-Folklore course.

The concept of ‘medievalism’ has been around for a few years. In fact, the last time I was at ICMS in 2015, the keynote speaker Richard Utz presented on that very topic, and later published the address “Don’t Be Snobs, Medievalists” as both an article and a short monograph. If you can find the version published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the comments section reiterates the points for him. To oversimplify a little, it essentially means uses of the medieval in or by non-academic sources such as the Society for Creative Anachronism, video games, Dungeons and Dragons online fora, etc. The idea is that this kind of adaptation of medieval history and culture is not necessarily any less valid in terms of accuracy or usefulness than an academic book or article by someone with a PhD in the exact area they’re discussing. I’m hoping that borrowing some of this theory might help students really start to look at some of the texts, the less traditionally academic ones in particular, as genuinely worthy of in-depth analysis.

NB: For citation in the following, everything is labeled as (panel #) as noted in the ICMS program, available here: https://wmich.edu/medievalcongress/events/sessions Apologies to individual speakers, but my notes weren’t always clear on which paper some ideas were from. If you notice a detail that you recognize as yours, let me know and I’ll update the reference.

Why does all of this matter? A lot of the pop culture panels I went to that I found useful in adding some ideas and information to what I’m working on dealt with medievalism. For example, a couple of the panels included papers on the videogame Witcher 3 (#119, 469). I plan on using the first Witcher novel The Last Wish in class. I’m not a gamer, but I have read the first few novels so I figured I might get some interesting interpretive possibilities. I was not wrong. Use of gaze make sense for the video game, especially paired with gender and it turns out that in the game there’s a lot of jokes about Geralt potentially being gay or queer. It’s also interesting that there’s a version of the Grail quest in which the Lady of the Lake is actually sick of people going on Grail quests, which also factors in questions of gender since chastity becomes a factor, at least in the original Arthurian version as the chaste knight Galahad is the only one to actually succeed. The point was also raised about how in many games like The Witcher, when you start, you’re given the choice of race of your avatar, except that ‘race’ is more like ‘species’, and the term ‘race’, like gender and sexuality, has very current modern relevance. I’m hopeful that analyses like this will prove useful in class when we get to a lot of the folklore and some of the mythology.

I think these approaches about gaze, gender, race, and identity might work well, at least with the first novel of the series since it’s effectively a collection of short stories which are interrelated. Certainly the traditional ideas about good and evil and destiny and similar are there, but as a modern folk tale set of stories considering fairly contemporary and current issues, in the same way the original folk stories reflected the fears and values of their tellers, I’m hopeful that at least one or two people will take on this option.

It may be my current research interests, but I noticed an interesting emphasis at quite a few panels on some connections between nature, humanity, magic, and Christian faith (#33, 160). A talk on medieval medical folk remedies and/or magic pointed out that the Church borrowed the formulae used for cures concerning relics and other faith-based medical treatments, while simultaneously labeling and condemning the folk beliefs themselves as ‘magic’. The close connections between magic, faith, and medicine have some interesting possibilities in terms of fantasy and science fiction literatures, especially those dating to the middle ages, although I’m hopeful there might be room for application of some of the ideas in more contemporary novels and stories as well. I think that something like Uprooted or The Bear and the Nightingale might work well with some of these ideas. The Bear and the Nightingale gets pointedly direct in its consideration of the medieval Christian church and folk beliefs and practices, so that one might have an edge, but Uprooted presents folk knowledge in contrast to formal academic knowledge and their uses, so I think that either story might work out. Given how popular these two novels have been, I wouldn’t doubt that at least of them gets taken up.

Poetry might be an interesting avenue to consider as well. Something like Goblin Market or The Rime of the Ancient Mariner would be interesting to consider from the perspectives of magic versus faith, or nature and humanity. The problem here is that finding contemporary texts to use alongside would be a challenge, since that type of narrative poetry is far less common than it used to be. The only examples that I can name off the top of my head are Sexton’s “Cinderella” which students seem to struggle with, and Walcott’s Omeros. Neither or these 2 texts would work especially well with the themes of nature and faith and magic either.

Another talk noticed that the natural becomes God, and that nature becomes ‘other’/’bad’ in terms of symbolism of the forest and similar, and that the human eventually becomes substituted for the natural, and nature becomes not natural (#256, 391). Again, I feel this might have applications in terms of some sub-genres of fantasy. Certainly a text like Gawain and the Green Knight might be applicable here in terms of its contrasts with the Christian and chivalric values and how Morgan and Bertilak text Gawain.

So far, much of what I’ve said has been summarizing other people’s arguments and observations, and speculating a bit on potential applications. For now, I’m ok with that. What I need to do now is to figure out how effective some of these approaches might be in class, and how best to deploy them.

A Side Trip into Fantasy

While working on a project concerning the presence of science fiction in the Middle Ages, I noticed a question that seems to get left out of a lot of the history of fantasy and science fiction mixed origins: if, as a common argument goes, a lot of medieval stories based on what we might call science fiction now was fantasy, where does our notion of fantasy as based on medieval perceptions come from? Similarly and relatedly, if as I will eventually be suggesting many medieval stories were in fact science fiction before the label was invented, than what did medieval writers consider as what we now call fantasy?

A few working definitions to start: science fiction, no matter whose definition you’re looking at, seems to require a degree of connection to reality, either in terms of knowledge or believability in terms of technological basis, theoretical or philosophical understanding, or at least imagined possibility. Fantasy on the other hand, is based on a degree of acknowledged impossible and unrealistic characters, settings, and/or scenarios.

An obvious place to start looking for the medieval version of what at the time might have been called fantasy if that existed as a genre is the chivalric and Arthurian romance. These are the stories of the knights and kings and damsels that now make the basis of a lot of what’s now called high or epic fantasy (not fully interchangeable terms, but very closely related), the usual stereotype along the lines of the Shannara Chronicles or something by Robert Jordan. But there’s reasons why the chivalric romance cannot be the only basis. Firstly, to the medieval writer, these stories of Arthur etc. may have been a form of historical fiction, not necessarily fantasy as the requisite lack of realism may have been absent. Second, many of the modern versions contain a significant amount of magic, witches, wizards, demons, and other fantastical creatures like dragons. Again the realism problem is present if you take into consideration that on the creature front at least there exists the possibility that at least in theory these creatures were believed to be possible. This possibility rests in the medieval bestiaries which contain descriptions and pictures of creatures that would now be placed in the fantasy realm like griffins and basilisks. Third, looking at many of the original chivalric tales, there is a distinct lack of wizards, witches, and magic. Yes these things are present, but not nearly to the degree with which modern fantasy relies. Merlin is definitely presented as a wizard in many of the medieval stories including him, but he is less magician and more prophet. Witches or magical women of some sort occasionally show up as well, but again neither to the degree nor the range of powers that their modern equivalents are given; Morgan LeFay or the Lady of the Lake are virtually never a main character. Likewise, random acts of magic are few and far between, and even when they are a big part of the story, episodes like that of Le chevaler qui fist les cons parler focus less on the magic and more on the moral/humor of the resulting actions.

So, where does all the magic come from? What did the general medieval story consider actual fantasy? A big part of the answer is folklore. Folk tales in the Middle Ages I would argue were at the time and remain today a major source of the fantasy genre. Take for example the fairly well-known story/poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The frame might be Arthurian but that is not the source of the fantasy, and neither is it really the focus of the story itself. The main focus is on Gawain as a knight and how his perfection in chivalry and Christianity are tested via supernatural, folkloric means. There is quite a bit of research on the poem that argues that the Green Knight/Bertilak has his origins in the folkloric Celtic figure of the Green Man, and I might also add a touch of the dullahan (also present in Celtic folklore). Both the Green Man and the dullahan are fantastic figures out of pagan Celtic folklore, and their presence in the main antagonist, friendly though he may end up being, gives an otherwise chivalric Christian poem the rightful label of ‘fantasy’. Particularly given the Christian flavoring elsewhere in the poem, for example the symbolism in the description of Gawain’s poem or his occasional prayers to the Virgin Mary just before he is miraculously rescued from a bad or unpleasant situation, the use of the Green Man figure would likely be in the context of folklore and not someone who may have genuinely believed in the character. Even epic poems like Beowulf owe the fantasy components of their stories to folklore. Adversaries like the swamp-dwelling Grendel-kin and the dragon that make the poem more fantasy than Christian (and in the case of Beowulf to the point of some scholarly questioning of how late an addition the Christian elements might be) come from the pagan folk traditions.

Folktales and lore also account for the presence in much modern fantasy of witches, wizards, supernatural creatures of many sorts, magic, alone and in combination with heroes, damsels, and kings. Consider any story in the Grimm, Perault, or Christian Anderson collections (the originals, not the sanitized versions presented in the Disney Princess canon). Stories like “The Little Mermaid”, “Cinderella”, or “Beauty and the Beast” have the same kind of knightly hero, the damsel, the royalty, the magic, and the supernatural denizens that you see in epic or high fantasy tales such as Markus Heitz’s Dwarves series or The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis.

I have to admit that since I haven’t started seriously researching this thread yet I find it likely that many of the ideas I’ve expressed are not unique to me. Even though I suspect these initial thoughts are not exactly new to the world, they most certainly are commonly overlooked in popular understanding.

Tracing Science Fiction Trends from the 1300s on

Here is the list that I am working on to base my eventual argument that Science Fiction has genuine medieval roots. I’ve included a few basic notes with each to briefly summarize what the text is and how it fits into the genre.

This list is not comprehensive or complete at the moment, as I’m still working on finding sources. I’ve also include links to the text, but some of the earlier texts are not translated into modern English, and some that are I’ve not had time to track down the original language to verify the accuracy of translation. I also can’t make any promises as to the stability or availability of the links.

Here’s a general outline of the texts upon which my argument so far is based:

1300s- Chaucer “The Canon’s Yeoman’s Prologue and Tale”: a skeptical description of both ‘fictional’ and ‘real’ alchemists at work

The Book of John Mandeville: a travelogue to other lands, based on possibilities but not on known facts about real places

1400s- ??? still looking

1500s- Thomas More Utopia: a travelogue as above except that the place itself is also a possibility, not fact

1600s- Edmund Spencer The Faerie Queene Book 5: features Talus the metal man-servant of a star given to a knight as his helper. This text raises a question of fantasy vs sci-fi; I would suggest that while it’s largely fantasy, in an otherwise standard fantasy, this part stands out as different.

Johannes Kepler “Somnium”: describes what life on the Moon is like. This might pass as fantasy save that Kepler was a scientist {astronomer}/ mathematician, and may have believed in the possibility of what he was considering. NB: there is no formal open access translation into English that I’ve found so far.

Francis Godwin “The Man in the Moone”: similar to the above, although with a Utopian emphasis

Francis Bacon “New Atlantis”: full on scientifically based fictional world that also takes a Utopian approach to a world based on experimentation and the scientific method.

1700s- Jonathan Swift Gulliver’s Travels Book 3: the section exploring the flying island of Laputa, inhabited by a bunch of science-obsessed philosophers, is most relevant, although as with other of Swift’s writings, the satirical nature must be kept in mind.

Voltaire Micromegas: visitors from Saturn and Sirius are bemused about Earth customs. This may be the first alien visitation story.

Louis-Sebastian Mercier The Year 2440: the story of a science-worshipping society where science is the religion, and plays a role in all aspects of life.

1800s- Mary Shelley Frankenstein: the classic tale in which a scientist brings to life an artificially created man. Also The Last Man in which the lone survivor on a dead planet wanders around looking at the remains of a civilization.

Edward Ellis The Huge Hunter, or The Steam Man of the Prairie: Eliot, a curious young man, finds a steam-powered robot man and hijinks/adventures ensue.

Jules Verne 20000 Leagues Under The Sea: a submarine adventure that shares qualities with the travelogue. See also Journey to the Center of the Earth in which a crew of explorers discover dinosaurs etc. under the Earth’s crust.

HG Wells: The Time Machine: time travel both to the distant future and speculation as to what society becomes with some commentary on current Victorian England. See also War of the Worlds: an alien invasion and subsequent attempts by humanity to defend Earth.

William Henry Rhodes “The Case of Summerfield”: a mad scientist creates a death ray and must be stopped.

1900s- Arthur Conan Doyle The Lost World: dinosaurs still survive on a remote island, although more time is spent with the local tribe of ape-people.

Arthur C. Clarke 2001: Space Odyssey: space travel and artificial intelligence that goes awry.

Isaac Asimov I, Robot: a series of short stories about the interactions between robots and humans.

William Gibson Neuromancer: cyber world versus reality in which a suspense/action story plays out.

One argument that gets brought up sometimes about the earlier parts of this list is that at the time they were written they were considered fantasy or another genre entirely, and only in retrospect might the stories by the likes of Kepler and Spencer be considered science-fiction. Another objection to some of these titles being true science fiction is that while they might demonstrate very early sparks of what would become science fiction, they don’t really show a building or continuing trend that constitutes genre.

To the first I say while that may be true to some extent like with Spencer (although even then, I would dispute is slightly), the sciences upon which the ideas were based was developing at the time the stories were written, and some of the key research was in fact being done by the authors. This would suggest that said authors, like Kepler, may well have considered what he was doing science fiction although he may not have known the genre term. Similarly when texts might have been intended as travel narrative or utopian fiction, that doesn’t mean that they cannot also have been based upon extensions of current knowledge, which is the basic definition of science fiction. Even in the Middle Ages, the concept of genre was fluid and flexible, far more so than many people realize, or even consider today.

To the second problem, I answer that the list I have compiled does in fact illustrate a trend. In fact, the earliest stories are travel narratives, a popular historical practice and genre at the time, and while satire might apply in some cases, it does not change the fact that such stories remain plausible within the realm of current knowledge. Next comes stories based on the rise of various scientific disciplines including astronomy (space travel and civilizations), then biology (Frankenstein or Hawthorne “Rappaccini’s Daughter”), then physics (time travel), then computers (AI, VR, etc).

A third and final potential problem that I can foresee being held against this list and its argument is that it is pretty thoroughly uninclusive. This is true; however, the purpose of this list is to present the basic historical outline, not the current developments which include increasing attention to gender, race, and a variety of other identities, in terms of both author and story.

Thoughts on the Medieval Origins of Science Fiction

There is plenty of discussion on the medieval influence on some of the major sub-genres of modern fantasy, but much less on fantasy in medieval period literature, and even less than that on science-fiction connections to medieval literature. Part of this comes from a reference I found while shelf-browsing in a research library. The rest comes from some ideas I’ve been starting to pick up from older projects concerning Chaucer and science, and a thought to consider possible connections between steampunk and the Middle Ages.

Traditional high fantasy like Tolkien’s has been the subject of some scholarly attention in the past few decades, as has fantasy by writers who invoke folkloric of mythological elements in their story worlds, like Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, or Rick Riordan. The idea of science fiction having connections to medieval writers and ideas might seem like an oxymoron since science is based more on projections into the future, not the past, but when you think about it, the Middle Ages actually marks the beginnings of science fiction writing as we now know it.

The book that got me thinking was Medieval Science Fiction, a collection of scholarly essays edited by Carl Kears, published in 2016 by the Center for Late Antique and Medieval Studies at King’s College London. One of the essays made the connection between Chaucer’s Canon’s Yeoman in the Canterbury Tales and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, arguably one of the first works of modern sci-fi. The basic idea is that both Victor Frankenstein and the alchemists in the Canon’s Yeoman’s prologue and tale are attempting to change Nature through experimentation and the scientific method, which has disastrous or at least disheartening consequences for all involved.

This point about the Canon’s Yeoman and alchemy in Chaucer’s time, and the question of how much might Chaucer have actually know about alchemy brings me back to a project that I’m reviving and refocusing for a conference paper this summer, and possibly developing into something longer. One of the key conflicts in interpreting the story concerns Chaucer’s presentation of the perceptions of alchemy. Alchemy was fairly new in the public knowledge in the 14th century in England, and it was not wholly trusted. Chaucer clearly had some interest in science; he wrote Treatise on the Astrolabe after all, and this is basically a scientific instruction manual on how to use a device designed to help figure out calendar dates based on astronomical information. The problem with alchemy in Chaucer’s story is that the source, the Canon’s Yeoman, gets a lot of his interpretation wrong or is clearly quoting from a standard text, and makes frequent claims about the trouble with alchemy and his own lack of success. His tale about a dishonest alchemist who dupes a local priest out of a substantial amount of money to some extent reflects the distrust that the public may have had in what has sometimes been labeled as the predecessor of modern chemistry.

This use of a modern science and the problems it causes individuals and society in general is a theme in many science fiction novels, from William Gibson and Isaac Asimov to Emma Newman and Sue Burke. Not that all science fiction focuses on social problems resulting at least in part from technological human creations, since Star Trek’s Data probably has some loose connection to Talus,  metal-man sidekick of Arthegall, knight of justice in Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene. Granted, Spenser was not a medieval writer, rather an Elizabethan, but the point stands that science fiction has much deeper/older roots than it’s usually given credit for.

The connection between steam-punk and medieval literary tropes comes from this reasoning. Steampunk reflects some of the fictional interest in the past similar to fantasy as it’s often set in pseudo-Victorian London, but it also considers the impacts of technology and man-made impacts on the natural world, including social implications both individual and general. Mark Hoddor or Pip Ballentine and Tee Morris would be prime examples. Especially when held up next to a text like The Canterbury Tales which has lot of potential for social commentary and critique, a lot of science fiction and steampunk reflects similar characters, attitudes, situations, and commentary via fiction. Granted, I need to do further tracing, but given Chaucer’s influence on literary history, I’m willing to bet that there’s more in the science fiction tradition between his 14th century, Spenser’s 17th, and the current 21st.

A Digital Research Project Outline

After an interesting conference panel on digital teaching ideas, discussion turned into a gripe-fest against giant corporate owners of journals and software and certain textbook companies, which then led to discussion of who owns online content created by professors, the professor who created it or the school (the answer is often the school). Intellectual property rights sound complex, and given how important such things are becoming, I was a little surprised at how little I knew.

The professional development workshop I went to a while back focusing on copyrights ended up being more on using digital sources (and citing them), not as much on creating your own; I admit, I may have dozed and thus could have missed something. While I recognize the importance of that aspect of law, I ended up mentally going back to students, and how much they might know or understand on the subject.

I ended up thinking back to the history professor who’d presented on the panel, talking about how to teach basic research techniques in an online class. The assignment he described that he’d developed to help students work with primary sources sounds like it would be easily adaptable to other subjects, like literature, especially the medieval. I’m not sure exactly when or how I’ll use this, but I do think this assignment would be really useful for helping students learn about primary sources, and some basic research techniques. NB: The following is based on a presentation titled “”Defining Good Research: Using Digital Resources in British and European History Surveys” by Dr. John Krenke, presented at the 64th Annual Midwest Conference on British Studies.

Step 1: Assign students a primary document. Have them analyze who the author was and consider any bias on the author’s part towards his or her subject.

Step 2: Have students consider the author’s goal and maybe do some general rhetorical analysis.

Step 3: Link the document and its details to the macro-context of the time, place, and situation of the subject. This final step would likely require students to do some research using tools provided by the instructor, including databases or textbooks or other reference sources pertinent to the subject.

This assignment would work with documents on a subject that covers multiple sides, such as the slave trade. Sources for documents include places like the Internet History Sourcebook, or on the literary side, any number of library digitization projects and Early English Books Online (if your institution has access- the free version only allows access to some documents).

In a more medieval option, questions like ‘should the Bible be translated into the vernacular?’ or ‘should women be allowed to own property?’ might work well.

Assignments like this have several benefits to my mind. First, they help students learn about digital resources. During that panel’s discussion segment, it was observed and universally agreed upon that most students, being of the Millenial generation, are perceived as tech-savvy, but really are not when it comes to learning how to navigate new (academic) tools, sites, and systems. I can personally attest to this. Not only does every fall involve a 2 week learning curve as new students learn how to navigate the D2L/Brightspace system, but even more advanced students can struggle with more specialized tools. For example, the online Middle English Dictionary requires some fairly detailed search knowledge to be able to navigate easily and efficiently. Boolean operators are a must-know, as are the different places one can search (head-words as opposed to entries, etc). The irony of all this is that while data suggest that online and technology based classes are where enrollment is keeping steady or rising in general, it’s harder for students and professors both to engage with each other and with the material.

Another benefit of this type of assignment is that it breaks down the process of primary based research into manageable pieces: focused background information research, close reading, and secondary research on the broader issue or context.

This assignment also presents the opportunity to blend digital tools and techniques with more traditional library and literary (or historical) methods. I maintain that no matter how good the digital catalogue of a library may be, it still can’t beat browsing the shelves of a decently-stocked research library for finding potential sources. That said, if students don’t have easy access to such a library then it’s all the more important for them to learn how to conduct focused and broad searches using digital resources with as much efficiency and efficacy as possible.

Going back to the original thought about intellectual property in the digital world, breaking down the assignment like this also makes it easier for students to keep track of their sources and citations in a way that makes sense. Students can get the idea that smaller assignments, like homework, don’t need the kind of attention to citation that larger, longer written work like essays require, and an assignment like this could be used to highlight the need to always cite any source that is outside of your own head..

Irma instead of Sir Orfeo

I’m facing a preemptive weather day off school thanks to Hurricane Irma. The announcement was made Friday, for classes the following Monday. While Tuesday remains a question, my guess is there might be a delayed opening, but no full cancellation. Although given that both my classes Tuesday-Thursday are in the morning, it might effectively be a second day off. We’ll see. I bring this up because it got me thinking about how technology has changed the logistics of how these things work.

On the plus side, the announcement went through quickly, as opposed to ye olden dayes when a phone tree might have been used to ensure the message got out. I got both an alert on my phone and an email. The cancellation also features prominently on the university website, and you can’t even go to the email log-in without the red banner near the top of the page informing you of no class Monday. Similarly, through digital technology I can quickly and with relative certainty notify students of both the cancellation and of what to do instead of class. In this case, I posted on class D2L/Brightspace pages an alternative online assignment. It’s not ideal, but it ensures that we can keep moving on with the calendar instead of having to rewrite it or move everything back a day. I also sent out an email alert to the classes telling them where to go for further information.

In the downside, if power goes out, as it certainly will in some areas, then students may lose the ability to see further communications and access certain materials. No power of course equals no wi-fi, and while it’s possible a smart phone might still work, doing a full class assignment on one strikes me as unreasonably difficult. Unless the student does the assignment by hand, takes a picture, and then uploads it onto the D2L dropbox, but I doubt anyone will be thinking that creatively. This does not solve the problem of accessing online lecture outlines or in the case of my British Literature class, the annotated TEAMS version of Sir Orfeo. Most people should have it in the textbook, but a few students with older editions may have to use the online version, which, again, may be difficult to not possible without power.

It’s also a little disappointing that I won’t be doing my manuscript demo in class, since that involves being in person and having access to a digitized pages of Ashmole 61, and pages of the Auchinleck manuscript. The Ashmole manuscript is especially fun to bring up in class because of the scribal signatures, both the name and doodle of the fishy that show up after most of the texts. Students usually have some fun speculating what the fish means and why the scribe draws it. It doesn’t fit to push this back until Wednesday because we’re doing Chaucer that day, which is a whole new set of manuscripts and related issues which don’t’ really lend themselves well to brief class presentations or discussions. If I ever get the chance to teach a full Chaucer course, then heck yes, we’re going there, but this is a Brit Lit 1 survey; it’s just not really feasible. I might have to wait until two weeks from now when we get to the Second Shepherd’s Play (our representation of medieval drama) to bring in manuscript context, and by that point, there’s no guarantee anyone will remember the courtly romances in enough depth. Plus, the questions and manuscript situation for the mystery plays is just plain different.

The final possible inconvenience that technology might cause is not entirely a bad thing. If there are widespread losses of power and therefore access to digital resources, I would guess that students will email questions using their phones. This means I either have to use phone battery life or wait for a backup of emails when I next get into my office. The downside is getting behind in email and students potentially getting worried or frustrated; the plus side here is the forced unplug. While I recognize it just means putting things off in some ways and facing more work when tech is back up and running, for the while it lasts, going old school with paper and pen/pencil is good for a person, or at least for me. Then again, I have the benefit of being from the window of people who experienced a childhood without digital technology, but experienced it early enough in life to be relatively at ease with it now. It’s possible that students, most of whom are from the first generations to grow up with digital technology, may not share this sentiment, but who knows? I’ve seen reports and studies suggesting that even later Millenials recognize the value of getting away from tech every now and again.