Monday, January 27, 2014

Guest Post: Irina Dumitrescu on the Future of Old English

by Irina Dumitrescu

Preface by Mary Kate Hurley: 

[first, congrats to Alfred Kentigern Siewers on his edited volume, just published with Bucknell University Press]

This year at the MLA convention in Chicago, I spent the vast majority of the conference waiting to attend what I decided in advance would be the most invigorating panel I went to – 743, “Anglo-Saxon Studies in the Profession.” The panel was at high noon on Sunday, the last day of MLA – a somehow fittingly late moment for such an “early” field.

The panel did not disappoint. We heard from a number of prominent Anglo-Saxonists, each speaking to the role our field might play in the university. Mary Dockray-Miller (Lesley University) examined the role of Old English in women’s colleges in the 19th century; Eddie Christie (Georgia State University) spoke on the perceptions and misperceptions of the Anglo-Saxonist, and the value of slow reading; Damian Fleming (Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne) reminded us that we can often be our own best PR, and therefore we should embrace it!; and Elaine Treharne (Stanford) reminded us that medievalists and Anglo-Saxonists in particular have always been at the forefront of digital ventures, and that our most important task is to remember to be generous. Each of these papers was thought-provoking and useful – and each gave me hope for the potential of my field. The live-tweeting of the session from several scholars added to my experience (and gave me a good source by which to remember everything when I went to write this preface!).

Today I wanted to share one of the papers from this panel with you all. Irina Dumitrescu (Southern Methodist University and Berlin) – who I’ve had the pleasure of knowing since my very early days back in NYC – gave a paper I found particularly moving and useful. She has been kind enough to allow me to post her paper here at ITM, as a spur to continuing discussions. What I found most important about her talk is its call for closer attention to the place where the study of Old English must always begin: the classroom.  It's easy to forget, after a time, that we speak what can only be a foreign language (as all medievalists do, but especially Anglo-Saxonists) -- here, Irina gives a powerful argument that, as scholars and as teachers, we are also custodians of how students approach this foreign/native tongue, and the poetry written in it.

Thinking about the future of Anglo-Saxon studies begins for me, always, in the classroom. It is, of course, necessary to argue against presentist bias among our colleagues and administrators, and to interrogate how our field fits into the structures of academe. And yet I cannot help but think that much of the battle starts in graduate and undergraduate courses on Old English. I believe this because of my own conviction of the importance of teaching, and of elementary teaching in particular, but also because when a new acquaintance from another field of English finds out I’m an Anglo-Saxonist, they usually insist on telling me about their Old English professor and that one course they had to take as part of their historical requirements. Sometimes their face brightens, and they recount how surprised they were by the fact that they liked the material. They might even insist on relating to me the topic of their term paper. (I cannot be the only one this happens to regularly.) Just as often, sadly, I think, more often than not among the older generations of scholars – the ones who lead departments and scholarly organizations – their memory is of dull, uninspiring teaching, of professors who thrust them into what Borges called “las junglas de las declinaciones” without a bag of crumbs. No scholar has ever told me about an amazing essay they read on Anglo-Saxon literature, or even about a boring one; our greatest and most profound chance as a field to shape what other scholars of English think of us is by teaching them well when they are still students.
            The next question is how we do this. The performance of passion for our subject coupled with personal charisma goes a long way – there is a reason why students who take medieval literature with my colleague Bonnie Wheeler wind up installing medieval-style toilets into their mansions decades down the road. (This is not a joke, and those things are very hard to flush.) I myself have been known to be shameless in my attempts to make Anglo-Saxon texts memorable, but in my defense, students really connect to Ælfric Bata if you lecture on him with a whip. Depending on the nature of the text, I might try and make the medieval work speak to their own experiences, despite the vast disparity in time, and I am willing to sacrifice a bit of their awareness of historical difference for this. Some of my colleagues would argue that literary theory is the answer, that discussing our corpus using the same language our colleagues employ will make it relevant to our students. Others might focus on an historicist approach, or on the manuscript context. I suspect that in the hands of dedicated and engaged teachers, all of these approaches work. And yet I have become convinced that there’s a problem at the center of our teaching, of our attempts to reach our students, that has been left unaddressed.
            When I think of those moments when I stood in front of a classroom leading a discussion and saw that look of mingled surprise, recognition, and pleasure on a student’s face, an expression I think of and experience as a little poetry orgasm, I recognize that they almost always occurred when we were engaged in a really good close reading. It tends to happen with the better students, the ones who are there due to a genuine passion for literature. These students can handle and are interested in both historicist and theoretical approaches, but I believe what brought them to my classroom, and to an English major, is the sheer pleasure of literary complexity. And, like it or not, our colleagues in later fields have an easier time producing this experience, if they try. Moreover, the texts they study – and I think “poetry orgasms” can happen with prose or drama or narrative poetry too, although they do seem to privilege lyric – the texts they study can often do this on their own, simply because they are written in a language whose nuances and connotations our better students understand. A seminar on Shakespeare can be badly taught, because the good students will experience Shakespeare as richly literary anyway. Or the sole focus can be on interrogating the works of Shakespeare from a certain theoretical perspective, or on framing them historically. I do not think we have that luxury. If we do not make our works speak to our students as literature, they simply will not experience them as literature.
            But here is the next problem: when I read much of the criticism we write, and I am willing to include my own work in this, I am not sure that we feel Old English and Anglo-Latin texts as literature. We have to work so hard, sometimes, even to know the basic denotation of a word, how are we to trace the delicious ambiguity and tension that was the legacy of New Critics to our intellectual and aesthetic experience of literature? Wallace Stevens once wrote, “I do not know which to prefer,/The beauty of inflections/Or the beauty of innuendoes,/The blackbird whistling/Or just after.” We are, I think, so busied sometimes with the beauty of inflections that we forget to attend to the beauty of innuendoes. At the risk of offending, well, everyone, I’m willing to say that I think that finding an explanation for a textual crux in a biblical passage or a theological work, or neatly putting a text in some historical context – Poem A is explained by the Eucharistic controversy, Poem B is a response to the Viking attacks – is cognitively easier than figuring out what work the text is doing, and how its language contributes or pulls away from it. What I want to read more of in our field is what Michael Wood, in an essay on William Empson, called “criticism which attends to the behaviour of words, but also evokes the dark rich world of the words, analysis which is also appreciation.” Maybe the reason we teach The Wanderer and the Dream of the Rood so often is not simply because they are short and they satisfy Post-Romantic preferences for lyric. Maybe it is also because we have, as a field, done the work on them, and if we craft and publish more sensitive analyses of, say, Solomon and Saturn, Christ C, and Bede’s Ecclesiastical History for each other to read, we will teach them more often too. It’s a wild dream, but I have a dream that one day, when English faculty sit and consider whether to ask for their early medieval line to be renewed, they will think back to that undergrad professor who so sublimely unfolded for them the witty wordplay of Andreas or the erotic irony of The Life of Mary of Egypt.

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