Keeping Things Somewhat Medieval Online

It seems like a lot of things you see about online teaching right now are about the sudden shift we all went through this spring from in person to online only courses, especially in places like Inside Higher Ed etc. Then there’s all the responses, often on social media which tend to take one of two positions: just surviving is what’s going on OR people are doing great things. The other thing I’ve noticed online a lot are comparisons between the virus situation in the world now and medieval plagues, and in the pieces by actual medieval scholars the main idea tends to be, the similarities are mostly superficial and if you look at the details (and most people won’t, let’s face it) things were actually a lot more complicated in the medieval world than is often credited.

These two near-simultaneous threads got me thinking about some of the parallels between the shift to suddenly entirely online education, and medieval pedagogy at the university level. You might think there’s nothing in common between the two times and methods, but at least in some ways, there are some interesting points of connection. Just for the record, what follows is not at all researched specifically in this context, nor is anything citable beyond my own memory. With libraries closed and being at a non-R1 institution (meaning without a fully stocked online library), this is the best I can do for now.

The basic medieval university program was based on the seven liberal arts for curriculum, and lecture and disputation in the classroom. The seven liberal arts were subdivided into the initial 3 (trivium) subjects of rhetoric, grammar, and logic, and the more advanced later 4 (quadrivium) of math, music, astronomy, and geometry. The specific content in each subject area was basically the classical texts by ancient and earlier medieval authors, and their main commentaries. In class, students would sit and take notes as the instructor read the textbook out loud; “lecture” comes from the Latin for “to read”, and this was in the days before the printing press (meaning personal books were probably beyond a student’s means). In order to progress to the next stage or complete their education, a student would have to participate and do well in a public debate called a disputation, which would involve interpretive argumentation based on the curricular texts. This is pretty over-simplified, but it’s the basic gist of how a medieval college student would be expected to learn.

So, some practices in the modern college or university classroom remain the same. Many instructors still “lecture” and expect students to take notes, students still need to prove their knowledge and skill to progress, and there is often some common educational content required of all students. One of the biggest changes at least philosophically is now one of the main objectives is to show students how to use critical thinking and come up with their own thoughts and reasoning. Not that this was entirely absent in the Middle Ages, it wasn’t, but the focus on individual interpretive creativity is most definitely a more modern focus.

One of things that I noticed was that the degree of interactivity between class members (including the instructor) dropped drastically when my students came back after an extended spring break to a purely online educational experience. This goes beyond students not discussing with each other as much as they might have in an in-person setting, but also when it comes to things like lectures. The most efficient thing could think of was to take the PowerPoints or lecture notes I already would have used, and added voice-over to them for the students to play and listen to in their own time. This makes the lecture experience considerably less interactive than it would have been otherwise, and at least a bit more like the medieval classroom experience.

A reason why the interactivity in particular stood out to me relates to the results of an informal survey I did of the students. As an extra credit option, they could fill out and return (online) an evaluation that specifically targeted the online section of the course (basically, the last month of class). One of the questions asked directly about the degree of interaction: did they like the lower degree or working with their class mates or would they have preferred more, and why? What surprised me was that of those who chose to do the extra assignment, there were actually more in favor of the less classmate interaction than more. While there are all kinds of reasons why this might have happened, a lot of the reasoning given was similar: students liked being able to think at their own pace. I had asked students about a week after we’d gone online to take a survey embedded in our course management software concerning if they wanted me to implement video interactivity or other more person to person technology to raise the options for discussion beyond the discussion board.

Of the three classes this was put to, a total of zero students filled out the survey. While this may have been partly due to student unfamiliarity with the tool involved, again I was a little surprised that no one was in favor of more personal interaction, because most modern pedagogical reasoning would be that many students prefer being able to discuss and interact with each other before committing to ideas or possibilities. The modern concept of there being benefit to being exposed to a variety of possibilities and reasonings before fully working out one’s own is on the one hand seemingly in opposition of the medieval focus on knowing the “correct” interpretations and reasons, and yet I was faced with students saying they preferred something almost similar to the medieval experience by working more with the texts and my lectures by themselves, as they might have in preparation for a medieval disputation.

While there certainly were students who stated their preference for more interactive personal discussion and education experience, as I was expecting, they were not in the majority. This takes me back to an article I read somewhere that suggested that many modern students actually like getting the facts and starting point interpretive ideas that often form the basis for most lectures. I also have to consider how, in a course that had been online the entire semester, students rarely engaged with the interactive options, including the discussion board, video chat, as well as voice only, any more than they were required to for a grade. Out of a class of over 20, there were about 4 or 5 students who regularly used those options. While technological experience is likely a factor, this phenomenon still seems to me to suggest that for all the focus and value put on modern students personally connecting with their instructor and each other, there might also be something to the medieval models.

I don’t know enough about the historical details of the various plagues that came through Europe in the centuries of the Middle Ages and Renaissance to speak in any detail on how those situations compare to our own world in 2020, but the one thing I will say about comparisons to those situations and now was that when addressing Boccaccio’s Decameron and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales the basic premises of concepts such as the quarantine and social distancing made those texts a lot more interesting to teach. I had already designed an assignment involving re-writing a frame and tale, and as you might expect students really used that to consider their own life situations or those of people around them in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. The thing that really got my attention beyond how much thought students were seeming to put into this assignment compared to others was that no one took the comparison too far, that is I didn’t have to correct anyone on trying to get too ahistorical with the plague that formed a part of Boccaccio’s frame.

In any event, if nothing else, I have learned from this last month’s teaching experience that students will 1) surprise you no matter what the situation, and that 2) the Middle Ages are still relevant in a lot of interesting ways.

What’s in The Name of the Rose?

It’s probably been 15 years since I’ve read anything substantial by Umberto Eco. I’m pretty sure I was maybe a sophomore or junior in college the first time I read The Name of the Rose. Now, I find myself in the position of needing to reread it for a work-related event. In the intervening decade and a half, I’ve gotten a lot better at Latin, and I’ve also been exposed to a lot more primary source material concerning theology, philosophy, science, literature, and history of the European Middle Ages, as well as 20th century literary theory. I’ve read medieval sermons and sermon manuals, disputations, summae including parts of Aquinas’ Summa Theologica and Abelard’s Sic et Non, Aristotle’s Poetics, Roger Bacon, William of Ockham, some basic semiotics and structuralism including Ferdinand de Saussure and Claude Levi-Strauss, as well as a lot of secondary history of politics, religious orders and faith trends, literary trends and theories, and language use and theory of the western European Middle Ages. And I’ve read most of the primary literature in the original language.

What do my academic qualifications have to do with this book? I remember reading it the first time and thinking something along the lines of ‘I guess that’s that classic off my list’ but I don’t remember any other impression. Coming back to it, I wonder how I could have understood much of anything at all. I’m still pretty sure I only caught/understood half of what’s going on beneath the surface story. I’ve studied enough of the original material to appreciate things like the debate over Aristotle’s Poetics and the missing analysis of humor, the history of scientific thought and practice, some of the distinctions between the Benedictine and Franciscan orders (among others), manuscript production and the role of monastery scriptoria, and I’ve read some original Sherlock Holmes stories. This is more learning in the medieval (and literary) world than most people have, and if even this isn’t enough to fully understand The Name of the Rose, then nearly every reader of this book who appreciates it and enjoys it must probably do so with the understanding that they’re missing something, and accepting that.

This novel is incredibly dense. There’s massive chunks of medieval theological discussion and debate, lots of references to real people and events, but it’s all mixed in with a murder mystery and Eco’s fictional additions which almost fit into the historical. I’m not sure anyone who reads this can really understand it without either one of the “how to read this” books that now exist or multiple PhDs and facility in several languages. As much as I enjoy smart books that include a lot of allusions, Terry Pratchett is a favorite of mine after all, The Name of the Rose is too much. The novel, or perhaps more accurately its author, almost seems to be trying too hard to show off, or at least deliberately daring the reader to try and understand even a fraction of what’s being suggested beneath the surface.

The basic story is simple enough: elderly monk Adso recalls the series of unfortunate events that occurred when he as a young novice monk travels with his master William of Baskerville to an abbey in Italy where William is to serve as a representative and mediator at a historic meeting between two sides of the religious controversy between secular and Church leaders. William’s name should be a give-away as to his general role and method of playing it in the murder mystery, and also by extension Adso’s, but in addition William at various points expresses admiration for William of Ockham and Roger Bacon (both controversial in their days for their scientific ideas). Upon arriving at the abbey which houses a library equivalent to the ancient one of Alexandria, not that I’m foreshadowing or anything, William is informed by the abbot of a mysterious death which must be solved before the various delegations arrive in a few days. A variety of problems of course ensue including multiple suspicious people, more murders, a mysterious manuscript several of the dead have a connection to, a labyrinth, prohibitions about the top floor of the library, etc.

None of this is really the point though; it’s not even the full frame, which gets into treating Adso’s story as itself a lost manuscript. There are pages and pages of descriptions of places, spiritual and some not so spiritual visions, theological disputation on among other things, did Christ ever laugh and why that even matters, and deciphering the signs of the End of Days; there are quite a few allusions and some direct references to the Book of Revelations. There’s a good bit of Latin (some of it historical, some of it fictional), some references to Greek, a little German, and most of it untranslated. Even 1980 when the book was first published in Italy, knowledge of most of these languages was likely fairly limited, meaning most readers couldn’t read significant chunks of the book directly. The number of people who can is probably even less today. The nature of interpretation and meaning is a key concern, which makes sense for two reasons. First, Eco was interested in linguistics and semiotics (a branch of language theory that deals with meaning), and second, words like ‘symbol’, ‘sign’, and ‘signify’ (and their variations) appear almost constantly throughout the book. The theory of semiotics is not something particularly commonly known beyond scholars of literature and linguistics, meaning that a fundamental aspect of the book is not accessible to the general public. And yet, the novel was a best-seller. The movie didn’t do as well, at least not in the US, and it left out a lot of the more academic parts.

This is definitely one of those books that is worth reading at least once, carefully, but with the understanding that it’s intentionally very academic, and even academics have trouble with catching or understanding some of the more obscure references. Don’t even try to read this if you’re a person who needs to understand everything that occurs in a story. Unless you’re an expert in everything Eco was interested in and a bit more, you don’t stand a chance. It’s still worth the read though. At least once.