A Return to Medieval Composition Basics

I was reminded recently of something most teachers know but easily forget: when you draft assignments, you need to have outcomes in mind first. Setting the goal and ideal result first allows you to target the assignment better to specific learning outcomes.

As I consider how to revise and strengthen my composition courses for the spring semester and beyond, I am deciding on an experiment. But first, here’s the background. My composition 101 classes are currently in the middle of a research project. This time around I decided to split the assignment in half: part 1 is a report on a subject chosen by the student, and part 2 is an interpretive argument concerning the best possible position or solution. With the first part, students struggled with 3 things overall: distinguishing primary and secondary sources, keeping their own interpretive opinions out, and citation. Part 2 is currently in progress.

The last issue concerning citation was the least surprising, but in observing student putting together potential bibliographies, I noticed something striking. When putting together a bibliography entry, many students automatically go to the citation generators (not the surprise), which are not especially accurate (also unsurprising). The surprise came when I insisted on annotations including rhetorical situation, students could not locate basic information like the date of publication, the organization or publication names, and in some cases the author. I think I’m really going to have to refocus my composition-based courses on writing techniques, including fundamentals of grammar, structure, and citation. I’m not really looking forward to the worksheets and technical exercises but if that’s what I have to do to get students to write, then I will. I’m really starting to think, as a practicing composition teacher, that students don’t need all the emphasis on critical thinking; they need help with expressing the ideas they have more effectively.

All of this is by way of saying that I am going to be writing a draft of the research essay assignment myself this weekend. I don’t think it will take more than a few hours, because I’m not planning on revising it. Instead, I’m giving it to students to critique. Normally, I don’t like giving students models because then they just follow that blueprint, instead of creating their own argument structures. Again, I believe that students can think on their own just fine; they just can’t write according to traditional academic standards. This is not an especially new idea, but I want to use this as an experiment to see if students target technical errors, or argumentative-content-based ones. If I’m right, students are going to find more fault with the argumentation and ideas, than with technical flaws.

I wonder if the reason my students had so much trouble with the report section of the research assignment was because they have become so used to critical thinking and analysis requirements, that they can’t just report and record information on a focused subject. I’m not saying that the focus on critical thinking skills is bad; I am saying that maybe we also need to spend more time on the basics. That’s my new outcome of focus.

The medieval theory of the seven liberal arts may be a good place to start looking for solutions. I’m thinking that I’m going to want to base future composition classes on the trivium: grammar, rhetoric, and logic. Granted, I’ll be using the terms in more modern senses, but it might just be useful. Instead of Donatus and Priscian, the grammar lessons will probably come from a hand book and I might also include a grammar book (The Deluxe Transitive Vampire is one of my favorites) as required reading. This part will work especially well in an intro to literature class, as the medieval discussions of grammatica tend to focus a lot of figures of speech and poetry.  Rhetoric may include some Aristotle and Cicero, but will likely be more based on a reader. I still haven’t found a favorite yet.  For dialectic, I’m working on that still. I’m not an expert on formal logic, and I don’t think the conventions of disputation would work well. Students can pull up supporting ideas and references easily enough thanks to Internet search engines; it’s the explanations and reasoning that tend to be the problem, and medieval disputation might be too complex on those levels for general, introductory courses.

So, returning to the original thought, I am working on a new set of outcomes in mind for introductory courses in writing and literature (which are labeled as composition courses at my institution). I need to codify them in some more detail, but they will be based on the medieval principles of the artes liberales.

Why Is Fantasy Literature Missing School?

When most people think of ‘medieval’ in popular culture (books, tv, movies, games) they usually think of fantasy that includes knights, ladies, wizards, and maybe some royalty and/or supernatural folk including dragons, elves, dwarves, etc. In terms of narrative or plot, there is almost always adventure and travel, battles and conflict, possibly a love story. Very often, the story revolves around a character or few learning about themselves or their world in some capacity. The strange thing is that education is almost never a major concern in most fantasy, medieval or modern.

The reason why this is strange is that education as we now know it was “invented” in Europe in the period now called the Middle Ages, roughly the 12 through 15th centuries (1100-1400 in other words). So many other features of the period are recognized elements of fantasy fiction of all genres in some form, so the question is why not this one?

Historically speaking, the system of education is one of the biggest and certainly one of the longest lasting innovations of the Middle Ages or Medieval period. This is the time period when public education was becoming more established via monasteries and other church institutions. This period is when many of the great universities of Europe, including the Sorbonne- University of Paris (1150, 1257), Oxford (1096 or 1167), and Cambridge (1209), were founded.

In medieval stories of kings, knights, and damsels (known as ‘romances’ in the literary sense) there is virtually never mention of school education as a part of anyone’s life. Stories like Sir Orfeo, Lanval, or anything by Chrétien de Troyes (author of a series of 12th c Arthurian stories) very rarely show the main characters as school age, and while training or reading may be referenced, it is almost always as a solitary or pair activity, not in a group as a school would have been.

Admittedly, the fantasy genre as we now know it is a broad category, covering everything from George Orwell to Douglass Adams to Ann McCaffrey to Rick Riordan. What I’m focusing on here are fantasy stories that take place in an at least somewhat medieval setting (at least partially).

Can anyone tell me if Game of Thrones, probably the best known modern fantasy, cares at all about anyone’s education? My guess would be no. I admit I’m not a big follower of the series, either book or tv, but even so I’m fairly certain that schooling is not a concern.

The bildungsroman is another major type of fantasy literature, but even these tales have little to do with formal education. Take The Golden Compass series which begins at Oxford University. Lyra’s education has virtually nothing to do with the 3 book series; instead it’s all about self-discovery which takes place alongside an adventure plot.

The one type of fantasy that even hints at a formal education process is the wizard or magic centric story.

If we back up for a moment to historical medieval times, there were 3 social classes known commonly as the ‘estates’: the noble (aristocrats and knights), the clerical (priests and Church officials), and the working class (ranging from crafts-folk to peasants). In the fantasy fiction sense, these 3 estates translate roughly to the ruling class, the wizards, and everyone else. Historically, the king’s (or ruler’s) education was a genre of literature unto itself, and in practice was likely conducted by private tutors and not in a formal school setting. Writers including John Gower and John Lydgate contributed to the literature that was meant to instruct a king on good states-craft and ruling. While such writing reflects some elements of fantasy as we now know it, the education of the king literature just is not present in modern fantasy.

The second class is the one that requires any degree of formal education. Clergy were educated by schools, universities, and the Church, while wizard education varies by author. Many famous wizards we meet in classic fantasy are already beyond their formal years of study; think Gandalf from the Lord of the Rings or Merlin from Le Morte d’Arthur. If the wizard’s education is a factor in the story, it’s accomplished via experience or apprenticeship as in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell or Uprooted. Uprooted makes explicit mention of this when Agnieszka goes to the royal court and another wizard asks her how long she’s been studying for, and is shocked to learn she has only been learning magic for a few months as opposed to the tradition 7 year apprenticeship.

There are 3 major exceptions to the rule: A Wizard of Earthsea, the Discworld series, and The Name of the Wind. Ursula LeGuin’s story shows young Ged apprenticing to a wizard but then shows him spending some time in magic school. The school scenes are not the point of the book though, as the novel does fall under the bildungsroman category. Much like the Golden Compass, the focus is not as much on learning magic, but on personal development.

In the Discworld series, the wizards have an official school, Unseen University, which appears occasionally throughout the series but is a main setting of 2 novels: Equal Rights and Unseen Academicals. Equal Rights is the one which most directly considers a main character’s magical education, although the schooling is less the focus than the student’s gender. In this world, wizards get educated at school, but witches learn as apprentices (see the Tiffany Aching stories among others). Unseen Academicals may take place at the University, but focuses again not as much on education as it does on the rise of sports as a part of the university.

The Name of the Wind takes as its focus the education of it protagonist wizard Kvothe (pronounced ‘quothe’). About half of the novel takes place at a formal institution of learning that is pretty close to an actual medieval university. Students go to lectures together, study closely with individual masters, and undergo examinations. Cost is also a concern, as in both the world of the novel and medieval history, pursuing formal education was expensive.

The Magician is similar to The Name of the Wind in its focus on an educational institution, but is concerned more with the effects, obsessions, and consequences that magic has on people than with actual learning. In any event, the school in The Magician operates more as a modern school in a modern world, and not as a medieval institution. The same is also true of the Harry Potter series. Harry Potter is too closely tied to the modern world, and Hogwarts is modeled more on a more contemporary system, since tuition is not an issue and the curriculum includes things like electives and extra-curriculars.

So, even though wizards and witches too in some cases require education, it is rare in medieval and medievalism fantasy to spend much time considering the contents or experience of that formal learning. The question remains why?

2015-2016 School Year in Review

It has now been one full school year since I started at my current teaching position. So this month, I am going to reflect on what I have learned about teaching and scholarship from this new start just over a year ago.

One of the things that goes along with a tenure track job is summer school teaching. I have never taught one of these, nor have I taught a night class. I have taken both, though not recently. Yet starting next week, I will be teaching a major level course on Renaissance literature sans Shakespeare two evenings a week, with a third evening online. The two weeks I have between the end of the spring semester and the start of the first summer school term are being split between preparing two conference papers to be given over the summer, and the rest of the time on preparing for class.

This is also my first hybrid course (part online, part in person).  I have taught classes with online components, but never regular class periods. I have noticed in other courses that when I assign reading from online sources, students either don’t do it (at a higher rate than with paper) or don’t have access to the text in class, which makes for difficult in class teaching. I have also frequently posted online supplementary material that students either don’t consult or don’t cite. It bothers me that most students would rather go to Shmoop or similar than check something out that has been vetted and recommended by me. I have lost track of how many times I’ve explained why Shmoop is not a good source to use, even though entries supposedly are authored by Ivy League graduate students. First, I don’t think students know that, and second even if authors were named, these kinds of things stop students from doing any kind of critical thinking about a text; instead, they just accept and use what the website says.

I am fairly certain that students at an upper level should know better, but we shall see. To set an example, I have cited all outside sources for all my lecture notes. I am hopeful this will encourage students to check out the sources themselves. I will likely have to wait until the end of term projects and evaluations where I ask students about the best and worst thing about class, and best and worst text (I do this in most classes) to whether or not this tactic will work. Given the subject matter, Luminarium.org will feature prominently as will the websites of several major research libraries, including the Folger Shakespeare Library and the British Library. If I can get all of my lecture notes set up before class starts I will be happy. The way things are going now, I might just make it.

On a different but related note, not too long ago I saw an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about work-life balance concentrating on publishing output. Among its conclusions and proposals were the idea that scholars who take time off for a life actually publish more, and of course the standard advice about planning and scheduling writing/research time. I didn’t know the first, but the second recommendation is pretty much ubiquitous in these kinds of articles. Even though it’s stuff I already know, sometimes a reminder is useful. I’m going to try a self-imposed rule for when class is in session: thou shalt write/research thine own stuff for at least 1 hour a day, with Sundays off. We will see how this turns out.

Something I promised myself at the beginning of this year was to make more time for personal, fun reading. I have managed to start making a dent in my to-read pile, but there is still plenty to go. I have found that public accountability like a reading goal is useful. For this, I am thankful to Goodreads (the book based social media site- it has a yearly reading challenge where you can set and track a goal for the number of books you read in a year) and Cannonball Reads, a review and discussion based site that uses its recommendations to raise money for the American Cancer Society. When you sign up at the beginning of the year, you commit to a certain number of reviews for the year.  For me, the problem is less the reading, but finding the time for the reviewing. This is my second year, and I think this time around, I am managing my time better.

This summer will be busy, not just because I’m teaching but also because I have two conferences and a good friend’s wedding to prepare for and attend, and then school starts in mid-August. I will also get to start learning more about the university bureaucracy, as I learn how to work the student advising system, prepare for my first year of committee work aka service, try to navigate funding proposals-procedures, and get ready for the fall semester.

I will sign off with a few observations about how medieval things fit into all of the above. I have yet to teach a strictly medieval literature course (this could happen next summer- fingers crossed) but I have managed to bring in the medieval to all but one class. Another goal for the summer is to figure out if there is a reasonable way to include medieval literature in a Composition 101 type class. Anybody got any ideas?

Return to Gower. Sort of.

In working on a conference paper, I have come up with an outline for a theory that I think will actually work very well in helping to structure and organize my Gower project.

The theory: Medieval authors would borrow structures, techniques, and styles from not-strictly literary genres in order to give their own work a boost in credibility (auctoritas).

This idea is not new. The idea of using established authors and works as the basis for your own was an established and recommended technique for literary authors in Roman times. For example, the Roman poet Horatius Quintus Flaccus (aka Horace) gives advice of this nature in his Epistula ad Pisonem better known as the Ars Poetica. Horace suggests “As a writer, either follow tradition or compose what is consistent in itself” (lines 119-120). What Horace means here is that good poetry writers need to follow traditional styles, methods, and narratives, or at be consistent in terms of following expectations of audience concerning characters, stories, and modes.

Three major models used by medieval poets, especially of the debate type poetry, are the sermon handbooks, confession handbooks, and academic disputation format.

For confessional manuals: A lot of scholarship concerning Gower’s Confessio Amantis looks at the confessional model that is set up by the frame of the poem, and provides the connecting narrative between all of the various exempla and themes included throughout the 8 Books.

For disputation: There are scattered references to argument and debate throughout the Confessio, and Genius and Amans engage is a “debat” near the end of Book 8 (8.2189-2190) before Venus comes out for the final reveal about Amans’ character that allows him to reconcile himself with the idea of giving up his lover status.
For sermon manuals: A lot of the advice in these manual concerns how to use and explain the exempla and auctores related to the preacher’s main theme in order to convince an audience to act and/or think according to the preacher’s interpretation. The arrangement of the Confessio into books generally concentrating on a theme relates closely to structure recommended by the sermon manuals, as is the explication in terms of the audience’s lives. In the Confessio, Genius is the preacher with Amans for an audience.

What links these three structures to Gower’s poem and debate poetry is that debate poems, including the Owl and the Nightingale, “Als I Lay”, and Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls, use these structures in the same way that the Confessio Amantis does.

To be continued…

An Inspiring Thing Happened on the Way to the Panel

Conferences are always a good time for a lot of reasons, but one of my favorites is getting inspiration, both academic and personal. Two weekends ago, I attended the Medieval Academy of America’s annual conference held this year at the University of Notre Dame. This is a story of how some inspiration led to more work (in a good way).

On the personal side, I got to see and hear in person a scholar with whose work, my dissertation would never have happened, Professor James J. Murphy. He was presenting a team talk with another scholar (Alex Novikoff) who was born in the year the article Professor Murphy was referencing was published. Professor Murphy’s point was that his 1978 article on The Owl and the Nightingale as modeled on medieval disputation practices was met with silence from contemporary scholars. Professor Novikoff recently published a book (2013) on the subject of how medieval disputation affected social and cultural elements outside of the academy. My second dissertation chapter deals with many of the same ideas these two scholars covered, so it was nice to see that I was not the only one who thought the connection was worth looking into. There was some internal fan-girl geeking out at that panel.

On the academic side, I admit I was guilty of a little thing that lots of scholars seem to do: getting ready to present a paper to which I did not yet have a thesis. The abstract I submitted was taken out of my dissertation work concerning marginalia in the manuscripts preserving Middle English debate poems. Taking it out of that context meant that I had to reframe the research into a self-contained argument. I managed to do it the night before my presentation was scheduled when I had a realization that I could actually connect this older research with my current Gower project.

What I had to explain was why, when most Middle English debate poems have little to no marginalia in their manuscripts (a feature shared with most lyric poetry), did John Lydgate’sDebate of the Horse, Goose, and Sheep”  (HGS) has consistent speaker notations in the margins? Two obvious potential reasons, that the poem had a famous author and that the poem is more narrative both in length and content, don’t work out. Chaucer also wrote some debate poetry (“Fortune”, “The Parliament of Fowls”) and was the attributed author for centuries of another debate poem (“The Cuckoo and the Nightingale”). None of the Chaucerian poems have anything near the consistent manuscript marginal notation of Lydgate’s work. In terms of length, Lydgate’s other debate poem, “The Churl and the Bird”, is similar in terms of narrative content, although it is 20 stanzas shorter than HGS. This second debate has nothing of the consistent marginal speaker guides like HGS.

My brilliant (if I do say so myself) hypothesis is the possibility that Lydgate was following in the path of John Gower’s Confessio Amantis (which I also think has debate poem connections, but that’s another story). Gower oversaw some of the early manuscript production himself, and himself was the author of a lot of the marginalia that is consistently present. Gower manuscripts certainly were added to in terms of commentary and marginal notations, but Gower’s own use of the convention of marginal commentary seems to have ensured some degree of preservation throughout the following centuries. Lydgate knew of both Chaucer and Gower’s works, so the possibility that he had seen an early copy of the Confessio is not a stretch.

Proving this of course means doing a study of equal depth of Confessio Amantis manuscripts. Thanks to the digitization of manuscripts, this will be an easier task than it would have been even a decade ago. This is one great advantage to digital scholarship. Manuscript catalogues are not consistent in terms of describing marginalia, which is why the manuscripts themselves are going to be critical evidence. Even scholarship on Gower manuscripts (of which there is plenty) is not consistent in terms of contemplation of Gower’s influence over the marginalia as a manuscript feature, preferring often to focus on the interpretive suggestions of the notes.

This issue brings up one problem with the digital humanities. Although there is a lot more access than there used to be to manuscripts, scholars no longer have to practice taking notes of manuscript descriptions as they can easily go back to the images. The problem here is that without practice in describing the particular paleographical or codicological features of a text, the actual descriptions of the unique features of interest becomes a struggle when it comes to presenting an argument based on physical evidence.

So, now what? I am planning to finish working on and drafting the original Gower paper, then switching over to the pastoral project while starting the manuscript work on the Lydgate-Gower connection with aid from facsimiles both digital and print. I am hoping by the time I get to the manuscripts that I will have to see ‘in person’ I’ll have some time and resources to actually make the trip to the UK where many of them are kept.

Modern Theory Goes Medieval (or Tries)

A while back I mentioned that I have a problem with applying a lot of contemporary literary theories to medieval literature. Now, I’m going to explain why in more detail. The major problem with most contemporary literary theories is that they are not text-based; rather, theories like feminism, psycho-analysis, post-colonial, deconstruction, etc., are based on current culture, sociology, psychology, etc. Why is this a problem for application to medieval literature? All that remains of the medieval time period is text. So, in order to apply a more modern theory to a medieval text, you either have to bend the theory itself (meaning apply it in ways that might be contrary to the theory itself) OR risk serious argumentative fallacies like reversing the burden of proof or assuming an unproven – untested premise.

Here’s an example of what I mean. A few weeks ago, I went to a talk by a medieval scholar who considered himself an eco-critic.

I now interrupt this reasoning for some theoretical definitions.

Ecocriticism is relatively new, having developed as a literary discipline in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Although the definition can vary depending on who you ask here’s a few of the key points, courtesy of the Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism. One of the editors of an influential collection on the subject, Cheryll Glotfelty, defines ecocriticism as “the study of the relationship between literature and the physical environment {taking} an earth-centered approach to literary studies”.  Ann Milne adds that often ecocriticsm contains a degree of activism and advocacy for awareness and change. A third scholar, Lawrence Buell, defines the theory as “the relationship between literature and environment conducted in a spirit of commitment to environmental praxis”. Buell adds that, in order for text to be considered ecocentric, it must meet the following requirement: “that the “non human environment is present not merely as a framing device but as a presence”.

Back to my argument.

This talk I attended discussed a set of three vitae of a particular saint written within about 50 years of each other. The earliest is anonymous, the other two are by Bede. Bede likely knew the first anonymous text, as his first vita of the saint was a continuation or companion to the earlier version. Bede’s second text, the presenter argued, was intended as an update or replacement. The key difference in Bede’s new version of the Vita was that Bede removed several of the place names, and instead used generic location descriptions. The argument of the talk was that Bede likely made the alterations in order to account for leadership and power-political changes in the bishoprics the saint visited or lived in.

The talk was interesting and founded on good scholarship, but the label of ‘ecocriticism’ does not work for me. First of all, the evidence is almost purely textual. The geography involved did not focus as much on nature or even place, as it did on name (a textual feature). Second, the focus was not on human interaction with the land other than naming areas. Lastly, according to the definitions cited above, the argument does not qualify as ecocriticism on the grounds of 1) not featuring any kind of advocacy and 2) not containing ‘nature’ as a distinct presence (in this case, only places names and frame-setting).

Another general problem I have with theories like eco-criticism and medieval literature is that the core concepts, like “Nature”, had very different meanings in the Middle Ages. Ecology was less a factor in the use of the term ‘nature’, and nature was more often thought of in terms of ‘human nature’. While anthropomorphizations, allegories, and frames involving the natural world abound in medieval literature, ecocriticism’s focus on activism and non-textual meaning and relationships are nearly impossible to establish for texts from a time and place like the saint’s lives considered in the talk.

I liked the talk and found it interesting, but I disagree with the scholar’s appraisal of the theoretical approach. Ecocriticism and theories like it are not helpful (in my mind) in determining how the medieval thinkers and writers saw themselves, their history, or their world. Ecology as we now consider it implies understanding, values, and science beyond what was known or even accepted between 1066 and 1500. What modern theories like ecocrticism can do in terms of medieval literature is help current students and scholars understand how we view the medieval thinkers and writers.

The problem is that most modern students, and literary theorists and critics aim for the former rather than the latter.

A Realization, Excitement, and Vadamus!

A new writing project is always an exciting thing. I admit that for me personally it feels especially good because I was not as productive as I would have liked in the fall. The change in habits required pre- and post- PhD was a bit more difficult of a transition than I was imagining. That said, here’s the plan: I am still reading for my Gower project, which given the scale of the project, is not unexpected. I am in a position  to start writing for my pastoral in medieval English poetry paper. I recently read an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education that made some relevant points. I had been using my heavy teaching load as an excuse to not spend as much time as I would have liked on my own work. While my new schedule (5 classes (3 courses) at 2 schools; 2 of the courses were new to me), I was emotionally and almost physically stretched. But Jenkin’s article resonated with me, especially the points that you can and should use previous ideas that can be expanded (from blogs etc), and that even with a hard teaching schedule, scholarship is possible though it requires detailed planning and some sacrifice.

Now, onwards to pastoral features in English literature during the medieval period. I have already done the writing that illustrates how the Latin pastoral traditions carry on into the medieval period (dissertation work that can be easily adapted), and it turns out that much of the reading will not be new to me based on that and previous graduate school papers/presentations. I will be writing about how the pastoral tradition is clearly present as a part of the gradual evolution and adaptation that happened between the Latin Classical period (Virgil) and the English Renaissance (Milton, Shakespeare, Spenser,etc). Chaucer, Gower, Henryson, and several anonymous poets will provide the texts using pastoral methods and tropes both in their frames and their central messages. This is going to be fun. Stay tuned…