Further thoughts concerning the medieval and modern fantasy

NB: I have yet to do any serious scholarly investigation on this subject; right now, I’m concentrating on working out my own ideas and reasoning.

It seems to me that a lot of scholars who specialize in medieval literature also end up working with fantasy, both as creative writers and as scholars. For example, J.R.R. Tolkien was a professor of medieval literature at Oxford, and he wrote (among other scholarly things) a book on Beowulf. Although I haven’t looked for it, I know from other scholars that Tolkien ‘borrowed’ extensively from Beowulf and other medieval literature in his creation of the Lord of the Rings series and its companion works. Perhaps lesser known, but no less important in some ways, Kathryn Hume first wrote a scholarly book on The Owl and the Nightingale. She later went on to write another scholarly work on fantasy literature, Fantasy and Mimesis. One of the founders of the Monty Python comedy troop, Terry Jones, has written several books on Chaucer.

Clearly, you don’t need to be a medievalist as an academic specialty to create good fantasy literature. The late great Terry Pratchett includes medieval elements in his Discworld series, but he himself once said, his learning was broad, not deep. Patrick Rothfuss was an English major who went to graduate school, but I have no idea what he may have specialized in or if he took an advanced degree (his website says “I don’t’ want to talk about it.”). If I had to speculate, if not a specialty, Rothfuss has at least done some in depth study of medieval literature and/or history. There’s too many accurate parallels between medieval realities and the world of The Kingkiller Chronicles to be coincidence. Then again, maybe I’m overanalyzing.

Similarly, successful fantasy does not need to be terribly medieval or academically based. Take The Elfstones of Shannara by Terry Brooks. This book has a lot of classic high fantasy elements like the unwilling hero, the journey, the band of friends, the elves and humans, the magic, demonic bad guys, etc. The world is generically medieval but there’s not much detail about the world itself; that’s not really the point of this series. It’s more about the characters and the plot. I have to admit, I only read the one and half of the novels, but I could already tell that there was a pattern, and I got bored.

Fantasy also doesn’t need to be medievally-based at all. V.E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic and its sequels hints at some research into the history and culture of Renaissance and Victorian England, but that’s not medieval. Likewise, Naomi Novik’s Temeraire dragon series is built on historically accurate life during the Napoleonic Wars in the early 19th century.

Then there’s fantasy that’s built on mythologies, which often places them in somewhat medieval times or settings. Again turning to Naomi Novik, Uprooted is clearly based on Eastern European folklore; the Baba Yaga references give that away, as do some of the character names (I’d never heard of the names Agnieszka and Kasia until I met my Polish now aunt). The general time and place have a medieval feel, although not nearly as detailed as the likes of Tolkien and Rothfuss. I love Uprooted for many reasons, but it’s not as detailed in the same way.

Then there’s the fantasy that is based on myth but set at least partially in the modern world. For example, there’s Neil Gaiman’s adult novels, including Anansi Boys and American Gods, which are heavily based in African and Norse mythology respectively, though not exclusively. Then there’s the YA versions, most notably Rick Riordan’s series Percy Jackson for the Greek myths, and Magnus Chase for the Norse.

Eventually I’m going to need to get into the actual scholarship done on these questions, but for now I think it’s safe to at least say that modern fantasy literature has a serious debt to medieval literature and culture and probably history too.


Fantastic Origins

I saw a CFP (‘call for papers’) not long ago that was considering the notion of fantasy in medieval literature. I had a better proposal for a different call, but this one got me wondering about the history of the fantasy genre. Not long after, I got into a discussion during an online book club meeting concerning whether or not The Devourers by Indra Das actually qualifies as fantasy, as it is often labeled. On the basis of a lack of plot and too much emphasis on character psychology, I was among those arguing for ‘no’. I didn’t like the book, but that’s another story.

According to a general Google search, the fantasy genre as it is now recognized started during the Victorian era in England. Depending on who you ask, the first ‘modern fantasy’ was written in either 1872 or 1894 by George MacDonald (The Princess and the Goblin”) or William Morris (“The Wood Beyond the World”). Before these, epic poetry and fairy tales seem to be the most directly and frequently noted as ancestors. I haven’t read either MacDonald or Morris, so I can’t speak to that (yet); I have however read a substantial amount of epic poetry as well as mythology and fairy tales.

From epic poetry and mythology, I would guess the notable attributes of fantasy would be the supernatural elements and the focus on heroic warriors. The thing is though, these components are not restricted to western European epic, such as those by Homer or Vergil, or the Norse sagas. While the hero warriors like Beowulf, Achilles, Odysseus, deities like Thor and Odin, monsters, and sorcer-ers/-esses are certainly ancestors of many modern fantasy characters, these elements also appear in other times and places. Gilgamesh for example is Sumerian, Ramayana is from India, and Sunjata is from Africa. Theses epics also contain the same sorts of elements, yet are rarely connected to modern fantasy literature. In some ways this is too bad; I would rather like to see a story somehow featuring Enkidu (Wildman companion of Gilgamesh), Sumaworo (sorcerer king/antagonist of Sunjata) and Hanuman (helpful flying monkey/wind deity in Ramayana).

The fairy tale genre is also pretty obvious. The supernatural elements, the struggles of the heroes to interact and-or overcome them makes a lot of sense in connection to fantasy. The cautionary element of many of the original stories seems to have been removed from most modern fantasy, but then again Disney does the same thing. Every year in an intro to lit class, I shock at least a few students by pointing out that Ann Sexton’s “Cinderella” is actually pretty accurate to the original story in terms of narrative. This is also similar to the argument for story collections such as the 1001 Nights as possible ancestors. I can see that as a possibility; however, many of those stories might fall under the category of fairy tale or myth. I also wonder why something like Christina Rosetti’s Goblin Market isn’t often cited. Maybe it’s too directly rooted in fairy tale tradition, but I would argue it too could be classified as fantasy.

There are some likely contributors that I was surprised to not see, such as chivalric tales. Something like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has nearly all of the elements already discussed, including the supernatural, deities (the Christian God and relevant associates are mentioned frequently), a hero, and has the addition of what may now be recognized as basic elements of high fantasy, knights, wizards and sorceresses, lords, and damsels. Given the obvious debt to Arthurian legend and tales of chivalry, I have to wonder why these kinds of stories aren’t connected to the modern genre. It’s possible, that I didn’t go looking enough, yet I would have though these things would be at the top of the list of likely ancestors, and they are not.

I understand why the likes of J.R.R. Tolkien would be cited as crucial to the history of the fantasy genre, as the mention of the likes of Patrick Rothfuss as inheritors and continuers of the genre. Both authors write in the tradition of high fantasy, using vaguely medieval settings, magic and its practitioners, heroes and ladies, dragons, demons, etc. I wonder why we don’t see more mention of the likes of C.S. Lewis or Lewis Carroll, authors of The Chronicles of Narnia and Alice in Wonderland series’ respectively. You could even add Frank L. Baum’s Wizard of Oz series too. While they do not write high fantasy, and their stories tend to be rooted pretty closely to the real world in some way, both Carroll and Lewis do in fact use many of the tropes, including magic, adventure, heroes, unusual creatures, battles, an all-powerful (or at least knowing) force, etc. Baum does so as well, although he lacks the deity element.

All of these possibilities also help consider hybrid genres like steampunk. I mention steampunk specifically because of the frequent Victorian element in the stories, characters, and-or settings. This genre shares many of the previously mentioned fantasy attributes with the addition of historical fiction options, and connections to science fiction (technology is often important).

Steampunk also happens to be a current favorite of mine, so maybe all of this is by way of saying, possible new research project, here I come!  To be continued…………..

A Medieval Style Writing Class

A few months ago I got a little cranky and frustrated with technical composition proficiencies in some composition-based classes, and I felt the need to get students back to basics of citation, grammar, and style. Being from a medievalist background, I wondered if a good way to accomplish this might not be through the medieval foundation of education in both the arts and sciences, the trivium.  Here now is a course outline that I plan to use next time I teach composition 101, along with the goals and reasons for each assignment.

The medieval trivium is a foundational element in the history of the liberal arts. It features in everything from allegories (ex. De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii by Martianus Capella) to handbooks (artes poetriae) to textbooks (especially on rhetoric) to pedagogy/philosophy (ex. Metalogicon by John of Salisbury). The three branches are Grammar, Rhetoric, and Dialectic or Logic.  These three subjects have been the foundations of education in much of the modern world.

In spite of this extensive and critical place in history, all 3 subjects have suffered a general decline in how much and often they are directly taught. In a basic intro to composition course at the college level, most students won’t know the distinction between grammatical subject and object (grammar), be able to name the 3 appeals (rhetoric), or the difference between inductive and deductive reasoning (dialectic). Largely, this lack of knowledge is not their fault. This stuff just isn’t taught much anymore; maybe it’s time to bring the trivium back and see if it can help remedy some of the general complaints teachers and employers almost always seem to have nowadays about people’s ability to write and otherwise communicate clearly and effectively.

My current institution works largely on 75 minute class periods, twice a week, for a 16-week semester. Within that timeframe, I envision something like this:

Assignment 1: A review of a movie or book or tv show

Time to completion: 2 and a half weeks

Reason and Purpose: Less intimidating, and allows students to develop skills in summarizing, describing content and stylistic features, and stating opinions.

Branch of the trivium: grammatica. Grammar makes a good starting point both in the modern functional and medieval senses. In the past, classes have liked opening class periods with a series of brief grammatical exercises. I suspect that since formal grammar is not taught as much anymore yet remains an important aspect of good style, students appreciate learning some of the basics, such as parts of speech and correct uses for commas. In the medieval sense, grammatica included things like the parts of speech and usage, but also included figures of speech and arrangement. Eventually, some of these elements would fall under the purview of rhetoric. Early medieval grammar textbooks, such as Donatus’ Ars Maior and Ars Minor, and Priscian’s Institutiones Grammaticae, include sections that consider syntax, tropes, and figures of speech, and as such I would include some of these components to help students develop their descriptive and stylistic capabilities.

Assignment 2: A rhetorical analysis of a political speech, based on the 3 appeals and 5 canons

Reason and purpose: Approaching rhetoric through the medium for which the tradition was originally designed makes it easier to understand and work with. I first designed this assignment for fall 2016 which happened to coincide with the presidential election season, which made the subject particularly relevant. For non-political seasons, the assignment could be modified to focus on speeches by politicians currently in office, or historical speeches.

Time to completion: 3 ½ weeks

Branches of the trivium: rhetorica et grammatica.  This assignment could be moved later and include dialectic as well, but knowledge of the rhetorical triangle is useful in upcoming assignments, starting with the appeals in their natural habitat seems to be a good introduction, and adding elements of formal logic, particularly fallacies, alongside the triangle might be too much new information for a lot of early career college students to take in well. From the medieval perspective, the Aristotelian focus here is a little anachronistic, since most handbooks of rhetoric were based more directly on Ciceronian rhetoric. Aristotle was re-discovered late in the medieval era, and this was more in terms of dialectic than rhetoric. That said, Cicero and Quintilian’s focus on the 5 canons (invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery) I think would prove a useful addition to the triangle. Figures of speech (figura), which are of particular interest to medieval rhetoricians and grammarians, could provide the further possibility for analysis, since they are also connected to style.

Assignment 3: Personal Narrative with Purpose in which students are asked to present the narrative of a personal experience that illustrates a unique aspect (good or bad) of their community (as they define it) according to the parameters of a magazine article or essay.

Reason and purpose: This assignment serves several functions, including giving students a change of pace from the traditional academic analysis, focusing on concrete language, keeping in mind length restrictions and audience analysis, and developing vocabulary. It also provides the foundation for the companion assignment that follows.

Time to completion: 2 weeks

Branches of the trivium: grammatica et rhetorica. This assignment provides students the chance to actually implement strategies of the trivium so far for themselves, as opposed to identifying and interpreting them in other texts. Quite a few of the early handbooks and textbooks that considered grammatica focused strongly on syntax and style, both of which are necessary here. Students don’t often realize how hard it is to comply with a length restriction rather than a minimum, and in order to deal with the 1,000 word limit they have to employ as strategic language as they can manage in terms of narrative and description. Students also need to consider strategies from rhetorica as well because students have to determine how to tell the story in a way that emphasizes the uniqueness of the community and-or the experience. Rhetoric also comes into play when considering the style and conventions necessary for persuading the audience of a particular publication to stop and read a particular article.

Assignment 3.5: Proposal Letter

Reason and purpose: This assignment serves as a companion to the personal narrative with the added feature of asking students to write using the conventions of the formal proposal letter. Students are to identify a real magazine that might publish their narrative, and find the contact person and their information to send their story to. Students must consider and investigate the magazine audience, and explain what about their text would appeal to that audience.

Time to completion: 1 ½-2 weeks

Branches of the trivium: rhetorica et dialectica

The rhetoric comes from understanding the rhetorical situation and making appeals to the audience, in addition to the first 3 of the canons (invention, arrangement, and style). The dialectic elements is present in the requirement to provide strong reasoning and avoiding fallacies when arguing the benefits of the position (namely, why you should publish my work).

Assignment 4: Researched Proposal in which students define a community issue, explore what has previously been proposed and attempted, and make the case for what they believe is the most promising option.

Reason and purpose: The most basic goal of this assignment is to familiarize students with the conventions and practices of academic research at the university level.  The focus on current, local issues is intended to encourage more creative research, particularly in terms of primary material, including creating surveys, conducting interviews, and exploring local organizations.

Time to completion: 5 weeks

Branches of the trivium: omnes

Dialectic will be a prevalent influence here as students will be expected to work with Plato’s and Aristotle’s ideas of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis with both primary and secondary information. They will also have to analyze the reasoning of sources as they encounter different propositions using some of the techniques described in the Organon. This would also be a possible place to introduce syllogism and enthymeme. Rhetoric comes in with the possibility of enthymeme, but also in considering rhetorical situations of the positions they find, as well as their own arguments. Grammatica would be relevant particularly with identifying the auctoritas of sources and working with citations. Organization of the entire project would include both grammatica and rhetorica.

Assignment 5: Revision of Essay 1, 2, or 3 (including 3.5). Students are also be required to explain changes they made in footnotes or marginal comments.

Reason and purpose: Students are asked to reassess a previous piece of writing to encourage them to always look for ways to improve their work, and to emphasize that good writing is a process. In addition to making changes, students have to consider and explain their motives and reason for making each specific change through the notes.

Time to completion: 1 week or whatever is left of the term

Branches of the trivium: omnes

The particulars of working with each branch of the trivium will vary depending on which essay students decide to focus on, but there are some overall elements that all revisions will share.

The common elements of grammatica are the necessity to evaluate and adjust style and structure in the essay, as well as making choices about the structure and level of detail in the explanatory annotations.

The common rhetorical focus in in the contents of the explanations themselves, as students would need to be convincing (ie- detailed and specific) about why a particular improvement was made beyond “it was in the feedback or grade-sheet”.

Finally, with dialectic, no matter which essay is chosen, students would need to be able to identify and explain which changes would be most effective, and provide the reasoning how the changes made represent improvement.

New Year’s Goals 2017

I find goal setting useful, and doing so in a somewhat public way even better for self-accountability. I have found that setting goals for different things regularly actually helps me get more realistic about it, especially in how to build in flexibility. So on that note, here’s my Goals for 2017:


I’m going to be able to teach a course in my specialty area over the summer, assuming it meets registration minimums that is. I want to be careful to write this one well, and plan ahead to make sure I don’t over-do it. It’s totally true of first time teachers, both in the sense of being new to the classroom (which I am not) and in terms of building a new course from scratch (which I am), that the temptation is to be too ambitious. I’m going to follow the general technique I used last summer of building the course thematically, because that worked out very well (see my earlier post “English Renaissance Lit: The 5 Week Edition” for details).  The difference though is that this upcoming class isn’t quite as period centered like last year (Literature of the English Renaissance); it’s Middle English Language and Culture. I haven’t taught a full-scale language course in a few years, so this will be a welcome but challenging return and review. It’s also going to be a challenge to combine grammar and vocabulary building with literature and material culture, all in a 6 week hybrid course. I’m looking forward to this.

I also want to plan to re-focus the writing 101 course that I’ll likely teach in the fall to center more on the actual craft of writing. I’m considering using the trivium to help do that, and I also want to find a reader that students might actually read. I’ve finally found a handbook I like and a way to get students to actually use it, but I still need that reader and possibly something on the trivium itself.

I also want to work on the research components of all writing and literature classes to develop a basic guide/review to use in all levels of both composition and literature courses. I have such a set of notes for basic composition, but I am realizing the need for one concerning research and citation as well. I was grading the first set of homework in a sophomore level literature course yesterday afternoon and I found myself thinking “We’re going to have to go over in-text citation”. I then had almost the exact same thought going through the homework for a section of composition 102 (intro to lit).


Once I again, I resolve to post once a month, or 12 posts this year. I may not be exactly on time each month, but I found last year that making myself come up with something each month, even though sometimes thinking of a topic was hard, was good way to keep myself reminded of the need to make time for non-teaching related work.

On that note, I am setting myself a schedule for scholarly time. This practice is recommended in “how to survive academia” articles all the time, and it’s a good point.  I’m undecided whether it’s better to do 1 hour a day or 1 day a week. I’m leaning towards the former as more productive, especially since I think the best writing advice I’ve heard from an author (Joann Fluke writes fiction but her advice is still applicable) was to always stop before you’re fully done with a thought, so you have a place to go when you pick up again.  I’ve tried the one day a week, and I’m not sure that way was as productive as it could have been for me. I’m going to try the one hour a day most days, and see how that goes for a while.

As of now, I have 2 things to work on. First, I am starting to get into new project. I presented the first part at a conference last summer (NCS 2016), and I’m going to present the second part at a conference this coming summer (Gower Society 2017).  As I do the research for this second part, I need to keep developing and writing the first part while also keeping an eye on an outline for the article version.

My second project is to go back to my dissertation to see what I might do about converting it into a book. This year I think it’ll be a do-able goal to set up a plan for what to fix, remove, and add to turn it into a book manuscript. I haven’t really looked at it in almost 2 years, and I think the time away will be good for a change in perspective.


If someone told me a few years ago that I would have to make an active effort to do fun, non-work reading, I’d have thought they were crazy. Then, candidacy and dissertating happened. I built up quite a pile of future personal reading over the two years it took to complete my dissertation, and I’m still working on it, although admittedly I also keep adding to it. Something I’ve found motivating, helpful, and just fun is that I’ve joined a book review blog group; this will be my 3rd year there. The basic premise of Cannonball Reads is to read and review 52 books per year; that’s called a Cannonball. The first and second year I thought it would be more realistic to do a half-Cannonball (i.e. 26 read and reviews). This was manageable the first time, but last year (2016) I actually managed a full 52. This year, I plan to repeat that effort. For me, I’ve noticed that it’s less the reading time than the reviewing time that causes more time management problems. I’ve noticed that the reviewing really forces me to evaluate why I react to a book the way I did, and that’s useful, since part of my job is to help my students figure out how express such things. I also like the social, community aspect of the whole thing, and it raises money for cancer research.

In addition, I intend to be more active on Goodreads. I’ve been pretty good about updating what I read, but not much in the way of reviews. I don’t think I’ll be able to present full reviews of everything I read, but I plan to at least comment briefly on most things I read and rate this upcoming year.


Medieval with Social Media

I’m a little late with my December post, but better late than never. I decided to look back at the past year and consider what kind of social media and digital things have been most useful to me during 2016.

There are certainly plenty of specialized academic and popular subject websites and pages, but finding the right ones for a given purpose is hit or miss. Many of the best are sponsored by academics via universities or libraries (eChaucer, DIMEV, Fordham Sourcebooks, etc) but even so, you need to get lucky with the right search at the right time to find them. Increasingly, it seems that web searching may not always be the best way to keep track of useful sources. Instead, using other digital resources like social media are becoming more useful for finding and following academic and popular resources.

Twitter is very useful for finding out about academic sources and news. I’ve found more CFPs and useful sites here than any other social media or list-serve. I came to Twitter late. I was at a conference over the summer (NCS July 2016) and ran into someone I knew from graduate school who told me that I should be on Twitter because he’d found some good professional opportunities there. I sign up and within a few weeks I find a promising CFP and a few websites I wouldn’t have known about otherwise (an open access edition of Chaucer for example). Following academic specialist publishers is also quite handy for keeping up with new publications but not getting stuck with a disorganized and overloaded email or mail inbox. I don’t feel at all bad about checking my Twitter account at work, as I use it mostly for professional, academic purposes, although I do follow some entertainment and non-medieval or literary sorts of things.

Facebook is less useful for professional news, but is good for keeping in touch with specific people, and for posing questions-problems to a specific group without the hassle of putting together an email group. I admit I use this more for personal and entertainment purposes than anything else.

Blogs {Blogspot, WordPress, etc} are also proving useful for following the state of the field. A lot of academics are blogging about project ideas or progress, and these are often posted by or re-posted by professional organizations like the Medieval Academy of America or the British Library.

Youtube is useful for in-class demo stuff, but not as much for academic sources. Movie clips and recitations are useful tools, but I haven’t found a good use for the informational videos that are there (and some of them look pretty good).

Google+: I haven’t checked this in a long time, and I don’t know anyone who really uses it for anything other than personal social media interests. Does anyone use Google+ for scholarly or educational networking or resources?

I don’t do Instagram or Pinterest, but I would imagine that these have some limited uses for a medieval literary scholar, particularly for images, and material culture and/or reproduction.

I also am not on Reddit. I suspect it is the least useful for specialist interests, as it relies on user feedback to drive what stories and discussions show up more or less prominently.

Tumblr is also not a site I use. As a multi-media blog site, I suspect this one might be the one that has the most potential of the sites I don’t use. I follow some authors (fiction) through other sites (Twitter and Goodreads mostly) who use Tumblr, but I don’t know of much of an academic presence on this one.

The last 3 social media/ web tools seem to have a greater focus on networking and professional uses.

Skype/Snapchat: I’ve only used Skype twice, and those for professional purposes. Once was during my dissertation defense when one of my committee members was in Norway on a Fulbright that semester, and the other was a first round job interview for the position that I now have. I’ve heard the Skype interview is becoming more the norm, at least for first round interviews as it gives the hiring committee a chance to see the person and interact/react a bit more directly. I also read that when technology problems arise (and they will-there were all sorts of techy issues during my interview) it gives the hiring committee a chance to see the candidate react under pressure. I’ve also seen Skype used during a conference presentation when, due to special circumstances, a presenter was allowed to give her paper via Skype. I was told by an advisor that one of the keys to presenting yourself well in one of these interviews (since first impressions can be important) is to be sure that you are not looking at the screen straight one, because this means that given the likely placement of the camera, that you will be seen as actually looking down at the hiring committee, which is not a flattering angle and also has some associations a candidate would want to avoid. Instead, you want to have the computer or camera above your head a little so it looks like you’re looking at or up to the people you’re talking to.  I’ve never used Snapchat, but I suspect it does not have the same professional type uses. It strikes me as more of an IM or texting app.

Academia.edu: I heard someone describe this as Facebook for academics. I only half agree with that. It’s accurate in that you post your thoughts and ideas, although in this platform they’re articles, publications, teaching ideas, etc, and people can see and comment, or download what you post. This site can be a good way to see what people are up to in terms of publishing and also to get yourself out in public, but then there’s the risk of if you put it on Academia, you may not be able to submit it for publication with a journal. Most journals have pretty strict rules about not taking previously published work. Where I disagree with the Facebook comparison is that there doesn’t seem to be a lot of discussion or sharing surrounding posts. It’s possible to comment, but seems to be rarely done. The most interesting feature is that Academia alerts you when someone searches you name on Google. This becomes a little annoying around registration time when students try to research possible instructors using Google.

LinkedIn: I think this site has more use for someone not interesting in pursuing an academic career. I only found one academic posting that I could go for, and most everyone else I know on this site is through non-academic affiliations (family, and some friends who are not looking to be university teachers/scholars). It looks like a good tool for pursuing connections in the professional world, but not as useful for a scholar or post-secondary teacher. The application-profile site that seems to be more popular in academic job searching would be Interfolio which is a for-profit service.

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.

Updates, or why books are better

Technology and software updates are now a fact of life. But they are still a supreme annoyance when major changes are made. For example, I have an I-Pad and an OS update was recently issued for it that made some major changes in both the user interface and in some of the permanent apps. I hate the new way News is set up, and it’s so much less customizable and user friendly. The worst part though is that if you go into the app store, there’s no option to review it. It’s like Apple did this on purpose, knowing it would upset people but not caring. There was no need for such extensive revisions; I liked the app. But now I can’t see everything list chronologically the way I could before, and if I want to see all the listings from a favorite publication, I can’t just look for that; I have to look through all of the articles for the general subject category, and they’re no longer in clear chronological order.

I understand the need to update things, and I know change can be irritating. With the same system update I also had to relearn how to convert a Pages file, but it was easy enough to figure out. Pages itself remains much the same in terms of function and interface. This kind of thing I am accepting of. Complete overhauls that change things for the worse and that give no outlet for venting, not so much.

I do have a relevant point here, not just a rant against the new I-Pad OS. With technology, these problems are inevitable; the case as much with innovations in actual books is different. As funny as it is, I doubt here is much realism in the following link to a video concerning medieval tech support: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pQHX-SjgQvQ

When new structures were added to books, they did not change the entire interface or functionality of the object. Instead, often “updates” were added to help with use, including indices, TOC, text titles, glosses, or accesus (a technical term that basically means an abstract). The following images are from British Library Additional MS 11859, a 15th century book containing the Gospels:


The penciled-in addition in the upper margin and the note on the outer R margin do not alter the main interface, but adds further information.



This table of contents was added much later (you can tell by the handwriting as well as the fact that it’s in pencil), but does not interfere with the original function or user interface. Instead it provides optional extra information.

You had the option of customizing a book as you chose. For example, BL Add. MS 22283 (possibly my favorite book in the BL):


Not only does this book have decoration, it also has some added notes (you can see in the upper R corner of this page).

Another adaptation was to have the original text surrounded by professional scholarly commentary as in Add MS 11727, Thucydides’ Historiae with scholia by Marcellinus:


You could even leave feedback for posterity concerning something that happened to the page, for good or bad. For example, in Historisches Archiv, G.B. quarto, 249:

Caption: Cursed be this cat for peeing over my book! (Cologne, Historisches Archiv, G.B. quarto, 249, fol. 68r)

The finger pointing to the smudge and the note explain what happened, are a fifteenth century version of a feedback comment (namely the monk/scribe’s annoyance at how a cat had altered his work in progress).

Such innovations were usually added alongside what was already present.  Major changes, such as from scroll to codex, or from parchment to paper, happened gradually, and rarely were total. An exception could be when the printing press was introduced, as to my knowledge there would not be a good way to reproduce a scroll-style text using the mechanism, although you probably could print a series of pages and the attach them in scroll form?

Whether or not the technology would make scrolls possible, the codex represents an improved interface simply because it makes for more convenient back and forth between locations in the text. Even if you preferred the scroll form, the change from scroll to codex was gradual, like the change-over from VCR to DVDs. VCRs were still being made until 2016, decades after the introduction of the DVD, so if you had a preference for the older technology, you had a long while to make the change. It wasn’t forced upon you suddenly.

A note on the images: I have included the links to the original sources, though not always the exact page, all of which all publicly available online.