Thursday, December 31, 2015

2015 (personal retrospect)

some favorite pictures taken from airplanes this year
by J J Cohen

A great many things happened this year, some of them good, some of them bad (hashtags #mixedbag and #GregoryofTours). It could be last night's insomnia speaking here but as December 31, 2015 trickles to its close I am thinking: the Prosecco is in the fridge. Welcome 2016. Please come quickly.

It's been a sparse year for blogging. Although in general I'm happy with what I did manage to place here, last year's promise to offer more in the way of posts did not quite work out. Still, In the Middle did host some spectacular guest posts: Karina F. Attar and Lynn ShuttersSuzanne Conklin Akbari and Alexandra GillespieLesley S. Curtis and Cord J. Whitaker; Robert McRuer; Arthur Bahr; Sharon O'Dair; and Julian Yates. That seems to me the best of what this shared space can foster. I hope that we will continue to make this space available to all as 2016 progresses. Contact any of the co-bloggers if you have some ideas.

So here is a quick meditation on some of what I did post over the past twelve months, a tradition I've been trying to honor since 2007 (!). I began the year by posting my #MLA15 presentation on teaching Chaucer in the wake of student trauma (especially suicide and sexual assault), and I am ending it eager to return to the GW classroom. I spent my spring semester at the Folger Shakespeare Library here in DC, leading a graduate/postgraduate seminar on The Scale of Catastrophe that became the best teaching experience of my life -- a combination of tremendously good participants and terrific support from the Folger Institute. I was on research leave during the autumn, writing all the time in the way that I do when I don't have a sane schedule of classes and meetings to prevent that borderlessness ... and so I'm looking forward to being back with undergraduates come January. My favorite course, Myths of Britain, begins again in less than two weeks. Also: TWO WEEKS (!!!), holy cow, can it really be starting that soon?

Though 2016 was in general good (professionally, some books published; personally, one child off to college, one child navigating middle school well). Rough patches surfaced frequently over the year though. I lost a cousin and a friend to suicide, and in the aftermath thought a great deal about the ability of teachers to save their troubled students (and without going into further detail I will say that this particular post has been haunting me recently for reasons close to home, since we have an 18 year old recently returned from college and ... well, see what I wrote about insomnia above). My dissertation director Larry Benson died, and I tried to find some gifts in what was a fraught relationship. I put great energy into some capacious projects like the new MLA Environmental Humanities and Ecocriticism Forum (and I love working with Sharon O'Dair, Stephanie LeMenager and Stacy Alaimo on this). I wrote about the ethics of PhD programs and ethics itself as door-opening and door-holding. My frustrations with my university make me count the days sometimes that I have left as MEMSI Director -- but I try to concentrate on the rewards of collaboration despite the soul-grinding mechanisms of institutional bureaucracy that will inevitably work against such efforts at making something communal and new.

I blogged some of my Noah's Arkive project. I travelled to Geneva for a Posthumanism conference and ate fondue in Switzerland late at night while a thunderstorm neared. I revealed a project that I had been working on for about 15 years without really knowing it, an ecological contemplation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by means of a neglected urban park near my house -- a project that is really about the love of life, something I'd like to think more about. I ruminated on Monster Theory now that the book is turning twenty -- and the monster's place in the classroom, wanted or not. I wondered about terror and art, and young people and constricted futures, and hope. I made some new friends and tried some new things. This superb roundtable happened, with contributions so moving I was never able to find the words to blog what unfolded.

My book on Stone was finally published (and this blog post gives you some deep background on why that was a struggle; or look here for a scary glimpse of my writing process). Stone was reviewed very quickly, too: thanks, LARB. Two new books went under contract, Earth (with Lindy-Elkins Tanton) and Veer Ecology (co-edited with Lowell Duckert and featuring an extensive list of contributors). Elemental Ecocriticism is now out, and Earth nearly finished. I am finding such collaborative projects more rewarding than solo endeavors. I wrote two review essays, one with Karl on “Race, Travel, Time, Heritage” and one for GLQ on “Queer Crip Sex and Critical Mattering.” I participated in a review forum on Stuart Elden's wonderful The Birth of Territory and collaborated with Steve Mentz and Allan Mitchell on Oceanic New York. I travelled to Vancouver, Morgantown, Washington PA, Atlanta, Chicago, Cancun (a much needed family break), Kalamazoo, Geneva, London, New Zealand (visiting faculty at University of Auckland, which was superb), Portland (dropping son off for college), Cambridge UK (Indian food and wine in a punt = a lifetime highlight), Vancouver and Tempe. Busy, busy year.

I won't say everything went well personally or professionally. Some dear friends have gone through very difficult things, and I have been trying to help as I can. I learned some good and some bad things about myself, and quite a bit about limits and necessary endings. A great many things will continue to happen, I have no doubt, as 2016 begins. Some of them bad, of course, but here is my hope that for you most of them are good. Happy new year!

Monday, December 28, 2015

Seafaring: an early medieval conference on the islands of the North Atlantic CFP

a guest post by Dan Remein

Seafaring: an early medieval conference on the islands of the North Atlantic - November 3-5, 2016

Hi ITM readers.

With Donna Beth Ellard (University of Denver) and Tiffany Beechy (University of Colorado Boulder), I’ve been planning a conference for next November that we hope will grab the attention of the ITM readership:

Seafaring: an early medieval conference on the islands of the North Atlantic is a three-day national conference that brings together scholars of early medieval Ireland, Britain, and Scandinavia to imagine cooperative, interdisciplinary futures for the study of North Atlantic archipelagos during the early medieval period.  Seafaring invites proposals for two kinds of sessions, seminars and workshops/forums, that will help imagine more collective and cooperative futures for scholars of the so-called "British" archipelago and/or reinvigorate the interdisciplinary mandate of early medieval studies.

Designed less around traditional conference presentations than as a "workspace," Seafaring: an early medieval conference on the islands of the North Atlantic invites proposals that will engage participants in mini-tutorials, masterclasses, writing workshops, and learning laboratories - all of which are designed to widen their linguistic competence, interdisciplinary methods, geographic familiarity, and temporal scope, within and beyond the early medieval period.

This conference, “Seafaring: an early medieval conference on the islands of the North Atlantic” came out of a discussion Donna Beth and I had last year after a workshop on translation theory, contemporary poetics, and Beowulf that I ran with her very smart and pleasantly intimate Graduate seminar on Beowulf of Spring 2015. The workshop produced a series of what we thought were really compelling and fresh readings of particular scenes of Beowulf, partially by forcing the study of Old English Poetry into conversation with some other disciplinary economies (namely, more avant-garde 20th century poetics).

We, and a lot of ITM readers, are trained in the study of Old English—and wouldn’t trade that for anything. But we all know that the world of Old English poetry is a) not only a world that takes place between roughly 450 and 1100 CE (the very fact that this world extends into 21st century classrooms alone suggests its longer and more complicated life), and b) a world that is much larger—geographically, ethnically, racially, and temporally—than the world summoned by the term “Anglo-Saxon.” Thinking through this, along with Donna Beth’s own work on race and ethnicity in Old English Studies, we worked through a number of ideas as to how to build more space for the study of Early Medieval Britain that could at once reframe literary and historical discussions outside the traditional disciplinary lines of Nationalized Literatures and open those discussions to a wide variety field-changing disciplines, from poetics to neuroscience. We think that what we’ve put together will take some very concrete steps towards formalizing spaces for disciplinary experimentation and de-nationalizing literary history in early medieval Britain and across the North Atlantic.

We also think that for this to work, certain kinds of workshop spaces need to be opened up: places to pick up new skills as much as present new readings, spaces where scholars from a variety of disciplines can work on some shared questions. So, we’re inviting proposals for seminars (intimate groups that will focus on a shared text, question, topic) and proposals for workshops or forums (focused on a particular skill, a philological crux, etc). 

We’ve decided to extend the deadline for Seminar Proposals to January 10. Take a look at the Conference Call here: [], and consider carving out a few moments of the holidays to consider how you might want to contribute.

Submit your seminar proposal to, subject line: "Seminar Submission."

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Yes. Let's start.

possible cover for the book
by J J Cohen

So Lindy sent the last letter in our Earth book to me last night, December 25, a festival of light and life against winter's chill.

We don’t celebrate Christmas, but my family loves the various traditions that cluster around the solstice: candles, food and merriment when nights are long. One of my favorite poems for this time of year is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which affirms so much vibrancy (green holly and red berries, feasts and warm fires) without disregarding the world’s violence or things that exceed merely human frames (red is also the color of blood; animals suffer and shelter along with humans; green throughout the poem is supernatural in its ability to stun, challenge and stealthily thrive). Unlike the contemporary poet Geoffrey Chaucer, whose Troilus and Criseyde exults in a moment of viewing the Earth from great distance (so that it becomes “this little spot of earth, that is embraced with the sea”), the anonymous author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight never gives you a moment of rising above it all. He is never tempted to imagine a view of the planet in its entirety, and thereby diminish life lived among the Earthbound. Icy winter weather batters knights, horses, and shivering birds equally, just as the sun’s warmth delights even the plants. It’s hard to take an easy moral from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, especially because the Green Knight is as full of life as death, of peril as exuberance. He’s a monster but he’s also a jolly drinking companion who after he forgives you for lying and decides not to chop off your head invites you back to his castle for cocktails. Facebook yesterday reminded me of that medieval poem’s intertwining of themes because so many friends posted about the Krampus (the horned and hairy devil who punishes naughty children) and Jólakötturinn (the Yule Cat who devours those who do not leave offerings) along with pictures of garlanded fir trees, gifts torn open by the eager young, and plentiful cakes. It’s traditional to tell ghost stories around the winter holidays. Maybe The Smiths said it best: “In the midst of life we are in death etc.” Can we have an un-ironic version of that?

Precariousness is also on my mind because we just made our annual December return to New England to see family and celebrate my dad’s birthday -- 85 this year, and so nearing the nearly 100 revolutions around the sun his father attained. At various family gatherings stories were retold about how many times things went badly wrong, and how persistence and good humor often enabled recovery. When he arrived in 1882, my great grandfather, an immigrant from Lithuania, made his peddler’s way from farm to lonely farm in Penobscot County and was for many Yankees the first Jew they ever met. He eventually saved enough money to open a shop in Bangor, then a chain of clothing stores across Maine. He lost everything in the Depression. Sudden turns of fortune, the unkindness of family towards family, and eventual peace are recurring themes of these stories we tell. I am thinking about all this because Lindy’s letter contains a poignant meditation upon houses reduced to ruin and encountering human history as it vanishes into landscape. Few of my relatives now remember that my great-grandfather’s name was Simon, and fewer still know that it was really Shimson. Today you will not find many traces of the once lively Jewish community in Bangor.

But you will find something, if you look with enough attention.

When Lindy sent her letter I was on an airplane back to DC, descending through so much night rain that it seemed we were on a ship with battered portals. Alex is just back from his first semester in college. Katherine has completed about half of her first year of middle school. Wendy continues two jobs well, as a nonprofit’s vice president and as an elected official. Sometimes I think that time is propelling the four of us so quickly forward (how is it that we now have an 18 and an 11 year old?) that it’s always like that moment on the plane, onwards relentlessly towards destinations we can’t clearly see, trusting we will safely arrive. We landed, happy to be under the storm rather than within it. As we taxied for the gate I checked my phone for email. I read Lindy’s letter while we waited for delayed luggage and as we took a shuttle bus to our car. Its close is so full of hope and promise that I knew it had to end the book, even though she and I didn’t plan it that way. That sudden realization surprised me with the pang of sadness it brought. I do not want the conversation to end.

Earth is a problem. In my last letter I had worried that awe for its beauty can lead to political and ethical paralysis. Too often people convince themselves that it's enough to praise the splendor of the planet. Imagination propels us to find new modes of comprehension but it sometimes immobilizes or betrays. How do we ensure that appreciation and apprehension yield to endeavor? Lindy wrote (and I hope she will not mind my quoting her words here, but they seem so right as we approach the New Year):
So let us, and let all who feel able, both luxuriate in beauty and initiate action and change. We each can find a vision to lead us to an optimistic future, and we can lead with our visions. Let’s start.
This book comes to its close as yet another rotation of the planet round its warming star completes – a cosmically insignificant fact that means the world to us Earthbound observers, who need to pick some place to start and to end, and then to begin again.  A lure for the imagination, a catalyst to creativity, and (if we are lucky) a spur to vision and engagement, Earth is too vast to be encompassed, especially in a book so small. Earth is a shared project, beautiful and incomplete.

Yes, let's start.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Christmas Cherries, Untimely Ripeness


This morning, I came across this tweet from Mike Becker, with a photo perhaps taken in Heidelberg:

That is, "The cherry tree is blooming. Just in the nick of time for Christmas Eve."

Middle English scholars, like me, will be immediately reminded of another set of Christmas Eve cherries, from the "lay" (if we can call it that) Sir Cleges, summarized here
As he knelyd oune hys kne
Underneth a chery tre,
   Makyng hys praere,
He rawght a bowghe in hys hond,
To ryse therby and upstond;
   No lenger knelyd he ther.
When the bowghe was in hys hond,
Gren levys theron he fond
   And ronde beryes in fere.
He seyd: "Dere God in Trinyté,
What maner beryes may this be,
   That grow this tyme of yere?
[As he kneeled on his knee underneath a cherry tree, making his prayer, he grabbed a bough in his hand to rise thereby and stand up; he no longer kneeled there. When the bough was in his hand, he found green leaves on it, and round berries together. He said, "Dear God in Trinity, what kind of berries could these be, that grow at this time of year?"]

Untimely ripeness: the former a miracle, the latter a horror. Or, as I say here:

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Elemental Ecocriticism: Thinking with Earth, Air, Water, and Fire

by J J Cohen

Although its official release date does not arrive until Dec. 23, the University of Minnesota Press is shipping copies of Elemental Ecocriticism: Thinking with Earth, Air, Water, and Fire a little early. I received mine on Thursday, a happy surprise after a very long day.

The elements are never easy. That's the opening line of the introduction, and it seems to have come to me and Lowell simultaneously, or at least indicates that when the two of us wrote together it was quickly difficult to tell one's prose from the other's. That, I think, is a sign of success. Lowell is a wonderful collaborator, and I feel very fortunate to have had the chance to work with him on a second project. 

Yet "the elements are never easy" is also not quite right, at least when it comes to the volume itself: the contributors were a delight to work with, from the symposium that Sharon O'Dair organized in Tuscaloosa to the wending of the volume through UMP (and profound thanks go to Richard Morrison, Doug Armato and Erin Warholm-Wohlenhaus for making the press such a welcoming home). An intellectual companion to Prismatic Ecology, Elemental Ecocriticism will be joined in time at UMP by a book to complete this informal ecocritical trilogy, Veer Ecology (also a collaboration with Lowell, this time with 30 contributors). I've published with many presses over the years but my debt to Minnesota is greatest: this is my sixth book on their lists, which seem to get only better over time (e.g. Steve's book, and Allan's book, and ...)

As you'll discover when you read the acknowledgments, the elements and their interstices were assigned by the book's muse, Jane Bennett. She pulled names and elemental assignments from a burrito bowl in Boston in 2012, and thus each author received an element (or a materiality between two elements) to follow. I somehow expected to get something earthy, considering all I was thinking about at the time was stone, but the spirits of the burrito bowl gave me water-earth. I wrote my essay on medieval imaginings of an ocean that flows above the clouds, and the sailors to be glimpsed coursing those waters from time to time. I will place a complete table of contents and book description at the end of this post. I still find it difficult to believe that Lowell and I got so many great writers and thinkers together like this.

If you can afford it, please consider buying a copy of Elemental Ecocriticism for yourself, and asking your institution's library to obtain one as well (if you cannot afford it, and the book would be very helpful to you ... contact me). The University of Minnesota Press is a not-for-profit entity. Most of their titles never recoup the costs of producing them (a team of salaried professionals is behind each book, and that is not inexpensive, but their care is evident on every page). The Press also took a gamble on this one, hoping that it will be read widely and appeal to more than those readers who are already well disposed. Lowell and I are trying hard through this collection to ensure that medieval and early modern studies are vocal, valued contributors to contemporary conversations within the environmental humanities. We won't save the Earth if we discard its long histories. In part that is why we asked Stacy Alaimo, Tim Morton and Cary Wolfe to contribute (but also: we value deeply their scholarship). The book is reasonably priced: $27 for the handsome paperback [$20 on Amazon], with an e-version soon to come (if priced at about the same as Prismatic, EE should cost around $14 for the Kindle). And if you buy the book and hate it, you can hurl it at my head the next time you see me and I will exact no vengeance. I promise.

For centuries it was believed that all matter was composed of four elements: earth, air, water, and fire in promiscuous combination, bound by love and pulled apart by strife. Elemental theory offered a mode of understanding materiality that did not center the cosmos around the human. Outgrown as a science, the elements are now what we build our houses against. Their renunciation has fostered only estrangement from the material world.
The essays collected in Elemental Ecocriticism show how elemental materiality precipitates new engagements with the ecological. Here the classical elements reveal the vitality of supposedly inert substances (mud, water, earth, air), chemical processes (fire), and natural phenomena, as well as the promise in the abandoned and the unreal (ether, phlogiston, spontaneous generation).
Decentering the human, this volume provides important correctives to the idea of the material world as mere resource. Three response essays meditate on the connections of this collaborative project to the framing of modern-day ecological concerns. A renewed intimacy with the elemental holds the potential for a more dynamic environmental ethics and the possibility of a reinvigorated materialism. 
Introduction: Eleven Principles of the Elements
Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Lowell Duckert
1. Pyromena: Fire’s Doing
Anne Harris
2. Phlogiston
Steve Mentz
3. Airy Something
Valerie Allen
4. The Sea Above
Jeffrey Jerome Cohen
5. Muddy Thinking
Sharon O'Dair
6. The Quintessence of Wit
Chris Barrett
7. Wet?
Julian Yates
8. Creeping Things: Spontaneous Generation and Material Creativity
Karl Steel
9. Earth’s Prospects
Lowell Duckert
Love and Strife: Response Essays
Timothy Morton
Elemental Relations at the Edge
Cary Wolfe
Elemental Love in the Anthropocene
Stacy Alaimo
Coda: Wandering Elements and Natures to Come
Serpil Oppermann and Serenella Iovino

Thursday, December 03, 2015

#InclusiveSyllabus: Tips For/From Premodernists


A brief posting for academics who are thinking ahead to the next semester:

Earlier this week, Aimée Morrison and Erin Wunker (two of the co-founders and editors of the excellent blog Hook & Eye) launched an important conversation about how to incorporate a wide range of perspectives and backgrounds into any new course. Wunker proposed using the #InclusiveSyllabus hashtag to carry these discussions over to twitter.

One big challenge that medievalists (and scholars in other historically distant fields) can face is this: how do you craft an inclusive syllabus if the discipline, era, genre, topic, or field is dominated by (dead) white men? You can check out this archived #InclusiveSyllabus convo for more tips (I'll be updating it periodically as the conversation continues).


In case you're not on twitter or don't want to scroll through the tweets, I offered ten ideas with reference to teaching pre-1500 British literature (but much of these ideas apply to other fields too):

1. In each course, include least two female authors. One woman can't represent an entire gender, and it's useful for students to access to varied modes of (gendered) writing.

2. Put texts in conversation, but not necessarily by obvious "identity category." For instance, a Kempe/Mandeville juxtaposition can reveal new insights into travel writing; a Kempe/Malory pairing might consider romance conventions.

3. Even if you can't avoid a "white male" syllabus, you can still include varied scholarly perspectives: women, people of color, non-Anglo perspectives, etc.

4. Use multiple translations or editions of a work to frame varied responses to a text (works by women and men, different media, forms, generations of scholarship).

5. Find "diversity" and inclusion even within a "white male" canon. Thinking about queerness or disability, for instance, can reveal nuanced facets of authorial identity.

6. Use the anonymity of many premodern texts to question classed/gendered assumptions about authorship.

7. Premodern literary cultures are inherently collaborative; scribes, authors, readers, and translators can all be active "players" in interpretation.

8. Even a "male only" syllabus can still stress role of women as patrons, readers, audience, and scholars who shape meaning and context.

9. Present texts in multiple forms (various print editions, different kinds of media, visual art or other adaptations) to show varied modes of accessing a work or tradition.

10. Lead with and integrate women and varied perspectives throughout the syllabus, rather than grouping "diverse" perspectives at the end of the term or within special segment of the term.