Showing posts with label pedagogy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label pedagogy. Show all posts

Friday, September 26, 2014

Teaching the Prioress, again: Shock, Awe, and Innocence

by KARL STEEL

Obviously, read Jonathan Hsy first, below, before you read me. His stuff on Vikings is great. And do your darndest to get your paws on Inhuman Nature!

Now, my post.

I've just commented, with some befuddlement, on two classes of short papers on the Prioress's Tale. I had introduced the Tale with, yes, a Trigger Warning that went something like this: "As this is a class on race and racism focused on medieval texts, many of the readings will, or at least should, horrify you. Chaucer's Prioress's Tale is one of them. It's antisemitic. For the last 50 years or so, the main debate has been whether Chaucer or the Prioress is to blame for its antisemitism. But there's no way around it: it's awful."

Despite all that, about half the papers said something like "I think this story is antisemitic," "it seems unfair to Jews," "it seems to be trying to say Christians are good and Jews are evil," "it tells us that antisemitism is really old," or, the variant, "the antisemitism in the Prioress's Tale is still around today."

I warned them, but they're still shocked. I'm befuddled but I'm also delighted, because the tale really is that horrible.

I've tried to push them towards more direct, more specific engagement, not only with the tale's antisemitism, but also with the anxieties, concerns, and assumptions that antisemitism requires to have any force at all. When a student says "this shows that medieval Christians were antisemitic," I, of course, say "the earliest written account of this kind of tale is the 1170s; they're confined to northern Europe; so we have to get more specific"; but when a student just condemns the tale's antisemitism in the broadest possible terms and walks away, then I have to lean on their good conscience. At the least, I have to teach them to close read. My main questions:
  • What's the relationship between ignorance and holiness? In other versions of the tale, the boy's 10 years old; here he's 7, just before the age of responsibility, killed before he learns how to read. The nun herself wants to become like a child of 12 months old, unable to speak even. The Prioress herself snarks at the monk, and even the 'holy abbot' in the tale is, in a way, the one to kill the boy. And what does this suggest about the way that 'simplicity' and 'goodness' tend to be equated? Is there something sinister about this?
  • Similarly, why do you assume that the Prioress's intense feeling for the Virgin has to be faked? Why do you assume that simplicity and simple expression are more authentic than fancy talk?
  • The central myth of Christianity is a martyred god who resurrects. This is the story Christianity needs to tell. While the tale blames the Jews, sort of, for killing the boy, Christianity, especially medieval Christianity, needs martyrs. The tale itself, I'll remind you, is an antisemitic fiction. So, who killed the boy? Not the Jews. The tale did. And why was the tale told? Christianity. Or to get a free dinner. One or both of these, I'd argue, is what actually killed the little boy. Think of the way that detective shows chase after killers, but need to kill women, especially women, to start the story...
  • The tale blames Satan for inspiring the Jews to murder; or it thinks Satan makes his nest in Jews' hearts. Are the Jews responsible or not? Unlike other versions of the tale, the Jews don't murder the child out of a sense of religious duty. The Prioress's Tale isn't a Ritual Murder case, but rather a random, unthinking act of violence. Also: the tale has a pure little boy who -- as a sign of his pureness -- sings a song he barely understands and who tends towards intellectual neoteny. The Jews do what they do because they have to; the boy does what he does without understanding. They're both machines, objects not agents, the one evil, the other good. Why does Chaucer strip agency from both Jews and boy?
In the next class, I'm also going to talk about this painting:



This painting, by or based on Edward Burne-Jones, appears regularly in my students' presentations on the Prioress's Tale. Probably yours too. No wonder: it illustrates the Wikipedia page on the Tale, and dominates the Google image search results. Though I've recommended ArtStor for images, the students go with what's most readily at hand (probably yours too). I imagine, though, that even if they'd gone to ArtStor, they'd find much the same stuff (but as the Brooklyn College library website is shockingly down....).

I'm going to tell them this: the image, featuring a standard pre-Raphaelite pose for Virgin and clergeon, is itself antisemitic, and just a little more subtle than the images, just as popular in presentations, of hooked-nose Jews (there, usually, to show the continuing force of antisemitic stereotypes). I thank the St Louis Museum of Art (warning AUTOPLAY) for making some of this clear to me: the image invites us in, opening the gate to let us join the virgin and boy. The Jews and the murder are in the background, cut off absolutely from the virgin by the garden wall, barred from this innocent paradise. Now, the St Louis Museum seems perfectly fine with this, and perhaps my students too, though far more innocently. As I'll argue next week, the painting is as antisemitic as the tale itself to the degree that it reproduces without condemning both the tale's hatred of Jews and its saccharine logic of sanctity.

I'll say the painting, in fact, aims to become like the Litel Clergeon. It pretends not to understand the tale. It just presents the encounter between boy and (virgin) mother -- the virgin mother who can belong to the boy entirely precisely because she remains a virgin1 -- as the tale's actual content, while forgetting, as much as it can, how the tale proves the boy's innocence by hating Jews and by murdering the boy. The painting pretends to be a holy fool and is all the worse for it.

 For more on the painting, see Eileen way back in 2007, who saw it in St Louis, and writes well about:
all the ways in which various anti-semitic discourses and even meta-anti-semitic discourses [whether in the form of apocryphal stories, reductively stereotypical tropes, satire, etc.] are made to kind of "disappear" in or move into the background of our "readings" of various texts.



1 The psychoanalytic readings come automatically, don't they? The Jews, Satan, and even the Abbot are all men who want to interpose themselves between the boy and his mother, cutting him off. The boy, refusing to learn to read, doesn't want to enter the Symbolic or doesn't want to give up on the good object of his virgin mother. The Prioress wants to be a like a child of twelve months old or less. It's basically fill in the blanks by this point, yeah?

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Teaching Literature in the West Virginian Ecotone

a guest post by LOWELL DUCKERT

[I invited Lowell to compose this post for ITM because his innovative ways of teaching ecology and environmental theory as part of graduate and undergraduate classes deserves emulation, tying global crises to local histories and rethinking pedagogical space. It's been an honor for me to have been collaborating with him for the past few years. I've learned a great deal from both his creative praxis and his generosity of living and writing. Lowell is an assistant professor of English at West Virginia University. He taught GW's very first environmental literature course while here as a graduate student. I hope this piece inspires you as much as it did me. -- JJC]

Teaching Literature in the West Virginian Ecotone
So let’s get fated and outcast together. Not as an experiment in reckless fatalism or as a collective abandonment of our hopes, but as the crafting of a more heightened sense of the co-melancholic implication of pretty much everything…This is a civic project. And it is a hopeful one. (Eileen A. Joy, “Blue,” from Prismatic Ecology)
It’s hard to believe that two weeks ago I began my third year at West Virginia University. I was hired to teach Shakespeare, and so far I’ve taught him every semester, but I’ve also been given opportunities to engage my other research interests in environmental criticism, ecotheory, and travel literature. (Or all at once: I’m teaching “Ecology without Shakespeare?” right now.) On every syllabus I include a statement that reads something like this: how can past works of literature not only resemble the present, but influence it, and consequently bring about livable futures for as many human and nonhuman beings as possible? Lately I’ve been thinking about how premodern descriptions of ecological ills, whether or not written by authors we would now deem “writer-activists,” might actually invigorate environmental justice and health movements today. These ethical thought experiments are often unsettling for my students, which is the point; opinions are freely given, some more passionately than others, which typically lead to (respectfully) stimulating discussion. I’ve always been inspired by Lynne Bruckner’s article “Teaching Shakespeare in the Ecotone,” an ecocritical effort, she says, that “requires something new from us—a deliberate heterodoxy, a willingness to take risks and break rules, a commitment not only to examining our own historical, material, political selves as we really live in the world, but also asking our students to do the same.” (A requirement, to be sure, that doesn’t just apply to Shakespeare.)

Like many places, West Virginia is a precarious ecotone, and it’s been a challenge getting to know my new home in- and outside the classroom: it’s the second-poorest state in the country; chronically divided over energy production and consumption (coal keeps the lights on, but coal also kills); red politically but blue psychologically; predominantly white with racism directed towards other whites (“trash”) as well as persons of color; glorified historically as a sacrifice zone for the nation’s industries but a resource colony in reality; whose workers’ demands for unionization led to the only time in history (so far) that the U.S. military has bombed its own citizens (The Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921). Every week the amount of explosives used in the surface-mining technique known as mountaintop removal (MTR) equals the amount of force that leveled Hiroshima. A chemical spill in the capital city of Charleston earlier this year left three hundred thousand people without water. My university is supported by funds from environmentally harmful companies. And yet my students are often the first in their family to attend college and bring with them an enthusiasm for change; the region is astoundingly beautiful, containing some of the oldest mountains and rivers on earth; a deep-rooted Appalachian identity has compelled many to stay and improve the lives of both human and nonhuman residents, together.

In the fall of 2013 I took my graduate Shakespeare class to Kayford Mountain, an active MTR site just south of Charleston. We read King Lear and selections from the PMLA “Sustainability”cluster to think about how (and even why) to carry on in a post-sustainable, eco-catastrophic world. Standing on the brink together with our guide, an environmental lawyer and organizer for the Keeper of the Mountains Foundation, we witnessed the destruction firsthand. I was surprised when the visit didn’t have the impact I expected. Many (but not all) of my students were frustrated with the experiential learning requirement of the course, the unusual nature of the subsequent assignment (to put Lear in conversation with the rhetoric of post/sustainability and their own feelings atop the mountain), and the idea that I was forcing them to become “activists.” I was downtrodden, to say the least, to the point where I honestly reconsidered having any environmental engagement in future courses. But I talked through it with others (thank you); I gleaned (what little I could) from my course evaluations; I revisited some of my favorite sections of the state; and I added details from the trip to “Earth’s Prospects,” my contribution to the Elemental Ecocriticism volume Jeffrey and I are co-editing. Most importantly, I prepared myself for a new class I had proposed for the spring semester: “Environmental Criticism,” an introduction to ecology and literature for undergraduates.

I paired each primary text with a style and a color of ecotheory: think of a “Pink” and “White” Frankenstein with a queer-ecological bent. This time, however, I tweaked the experimental learning component: because all (five) of my students were native West Virginians, I assigned them colors one would commonly associate with the state: “Blue,” “Black,” and “Grey”—a palette of struggle. “Blue” granted us the optimism of empathy, of cohabiting another’s melancholia as a way forward; “Black” the denigrated color of coal and of skin, but also a presence that speaks of inextricable absorption within a “wilderness” of relations; “Grey” the ashen bodies of abject laborers, zombie miners, the objects of dehumanization. One of my students was (and still is) an activist in the southern coalfields, and with his and his friend Catherine’s help, I arranged a daytrip for us to the abandoned mining community of Nuttallburg along the scenic New River. Nuttallburg was like many boom-and-bust coal towns: founded in 1870, its citizens manufactured coke (a high-carbon fuel made from coal) until diminishing demand closed the mine once and for all in 1958. But what makes Nuttallburg more unique, and more troubling, is the fact that it was racially segregated. I had designed the course to ask precisely this question about which beings are allowed into the oikos of ecology, and what’s at stake when the commons is de/limited: why are certain human and nonhuman voices unquiet and others are quieted, why are some heard and others ignored? To help us dwell on this (unapparent or purposefully forgotten) aspect of the river gorge’s history, we stopped at the African American Heritage Family Tree Museum in Ansted and met its curator, Norman Jordan. Not only was Carter G. Woodson, he told us, the founder of Black History Month, but he was also a West Virginian who mined Fayette County as a young man. Before we left, Norman read us a few of his own poems, after which I asked him why he thinks many people (myself included) are unaware of the area’s (and even the state’s) African American ties. He replied through his art: “Poetry,” he said, “is about telling stories.”


Telling stories. My students and I, guided by Catherine, thought about Norman’s response as we stood next to the foundations of Nuttallburg’s “Black School” and “Black Church.” It was a beautiful early spring day; the wind was the only noise we could hear. We talked about the interpretive sign’s disturbing language: African-American miners had a tough life, but “slavery was worse.” When we crossed Short Creek, the trickling line that separated the camps, it felt ridiculous to us that something so small could divide races, and at the same time we thought about the real danger that the small stream would’ve posed. We passed the coke ovens and imagined what the heat and smoke must have felt and tasted like, and how fragile, how illusory, the romanticized notion that men went into the mines different colors, but they all came out the same truly was. The coal tipple led our eyes hundreds of feet up the hill to the mine. About an hour later we stood, sweating, next to warped and rusted pieces of metal with leafy offshoots, vegetable-mineral machines of no more use. Pieces of coal littered the ground. We peered into the mine’s mouth as far as we could, trying to look beyond the boulders that were deliberately placed there to block our entry. It was cold. And although together, it felt lonely. Fated and outcast.

On the way down the hill, the New River looked as scenic as ever, and yet I could tell that our relationships with the riverscape had gained unexpected, and necessary, complexity. Later that evening the mood lightened as we enjoyed dinner together in the nearby town of Fayatteville. The trip set the tone for the rest of the semester – one of my favorite classes – for it helped us think about the stories that are told and are yet to be told, their potential to intervene in our lives (including our policies), and who cares, or is willing, to listen. It was a long two-hour drive back to Morgantown. I like to think that it was a hopeful one.

May we all offer something new from ourselves this semester, in every tone and any form imaginable.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

When is the when of the Physician’s Tale?

Still more Richard Serra at Gagogian
Yet more Serra at, of course, the Gagosian. When is the when of a piece that corrodes?
by KARL STEEL

Great comments below in response to my little post on sympathy and anthropomorphism. Read them. I hope to respond to them soon. Today, though, is grading and drafting a grant proposal.

In re: grading, just wrote this comment in response to one of several paper proposals on the Physician’s Tale and what it says about gender relations in Chaucer’s time:

The question here is which time : after all, Chaucer is writing historical fiction, as were his sources. Livy, who wrote the original story in the 1st century, himself set it in Republican Rome, centuries before he lived. Then some 1300 years later, the Romance of the Rose translated the story into French verse, and then 150 or so years still later, Chaucer used that story to write his tale, while citing Livy, who had lived roughly 1400 years before him.
So when is the when of the Physician’s Tale? What era is this story talking about?

Thursday, November 21, 2013

A Rabbit Post for Rebels

Image from the Morgan Library.
by KARL STEEL

Obviously, you should read Eileen's post below first, and then Jeffrey, and then have mine only for dessert.

Here's one for Fumblr, the Academic Failblog:

Some years ago, while chatting with my students about hunting, I told them that medieval badgers were ferreted out of their holes and then bashed, as they emerged, with clubs. "Like Whack-a-Mole?," they asked. "Yes. Precisely."

And the next day I had to confess I'd made it all up, and not even deliberately.

Nets, not clubs: nets are the thing if you want to hunt a badger.

And then last night: I realized we'd slogged through nearly an entire semester of The Canterbury Tales without once mentioning the risings of 1381. The Nun's Priest's Tale ("Certes, he Jakke Straw and his meinee" &c, VII.3394 ff.) gave me my entrance, and the animal theme led me to my grand finale: the story of the St Alban's rebels, who, to show their contempt for the poaching laws, crucified a rabbit.

My students immediately understood the significance. "Is that where the Easter Bunny comes from?"

"I'm...I'm not sure." I offered what I knew: "The French, they have an Easter bell. Instead of a rabbit."

"Yes, but they crucified a rabbit. Maybe that's why we have an Easter Bunny."

"I'll ask my friends."

My friend, in this case, is Thomas Walsingham. And forgive my Latin, because neglect. Feel encouraged to correct me.
Ceperunt quemdam cuniculum vivum, inter eos in plano campi per multitudinem populi vi captum, et in quadam hasta coram se ferri statuerunt, et super collistrigium in villa Sancti Albani, in signum libertatis et warrenae sic adeptae, difixerunt (303)
They seized a certain living hare, taken by force by them in the open field by a great crowd of people, and had it carried among them on a spear and fastened it upon a "collistrigium" (a pillory) as a sign of the liberty and warren thus obtained.
Something quite other than a crucifix.

Still, while searching for collistrigium, I found this odd bit of, I hope, forgotten child-rearing practice:



From here.


Monday, November 11, 2013

A nervous moment in a Chaucer class, solved.

by KARL STEEL

We've all faced and perhaps all been the nervous presenter.

Today I hit upon what might be the perfect solution. I suggested to a nervous student that, for her presentation, we just sit up at the front of the room together and chat about it, talk-show style. I asked her what her paper was about, she told me, I asked her to elaborate, she did, and so on, in what became a conversation based on what was, unsurprisingly, a very nice paper with a clever argument.

It worked so beautifully that I just have to share it here. One for your bag of tricks.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Physician's Tale, Favorite Comments


image
Detail Filippino Lippi, "Scenes from the History of Virginia," a cassone (c. 1470-80); Louvre

by KARL STEEL

Obviously, read Mary Kate Hurley first. It's a great post.

Maybe you've also just graded your first set of Canterbury Tales papers. Mine were on the Physician's Tale, where I now routinely start because of David Wallace's facetious (?) recommendation at the New Chaucer Society in 2010. He was right, anyway.

The Physician's Tale is short, with a stirring narrative, moral and ironic, graced with an obvious source and as obvious alterations, and without a lot of weird vocabulary: in other words, it's a far better place to introduce students to the tales than the usual slog through the General Prologue.

Apart from my habitual comments about characters being tools and not real people, about literature making culture and not just "reflecting" it, and about upper-class women having a lot less freedom in marriage than women in general, I've landed on some new ideas, because grading is also thinking. Sometimes.

Here's my list of some favorite new comments, maybe of use to you when you next read or teach this tale:
  1. Who is responsible here? Apius sins because devils enter into him; Virginius calls his daughter the ender of his life. And the Host dodges the Physician's weird moral about 'sin finding you out.' The men shift responsibility onto anyone but themselves.
  2. Virginius's belief that virtue requires female virginity does kill him, in a sense, since it turns him into a killing machine, a zombie working for a patriarchal system that compels him to kill what he loves most
  3. human sacrifice simultaneously degrades humans and attests to the supreme value of humans as the greatest sacrifice
  4. martyrs are killed by the enemies of God, while sacrifices are offered by his friends: is Virginia a martyr or a sacrifice? And what does that make Virginius?
  5. since Virginius is well supplied with money and friends, he could have saved Virginia, especially because Chaucer has cut out the political content of his source material. So, Virginius fails Virginia as a knight and father as much as Apius fails her and the law in general as a judge. The tale's about a systematic failure of masculine authority and the resulting death of a girl who, alone, has done everything right.
  6. Why so much attention to Virginia's whole slate of virtues when the threatened failure of just the one means she must die? How shaky is virginity as the foundation of a whole system of virtue?
  7. Why is the tale so specific about Virginia's honors and so vague about her father's: full of honor and worthiness, and that's it.
  8. Note how Virginius spares Apius and kills his daughter and the various guilty churls: think about the prerogatives of inter-masculine respect.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

I blame Gerald of Wales

by Karl Steel

(OBVIOUSLY, the first thing you must do, if you haven't done so yet, is to read (and distribute) the more important posts below: Eileen's announcement of the James J. Paxson Memorial Travel Grant for Scholars of Limited Funds, hugely important as Kzoo creeps up on us, and then Jeffrey's Introduction to his Stone Book, hoving its mass still further into view.)

There's lecturing with a blackboard. There's lecturing with slides. There's group work and conversation and problem solving and Reacting to the Past. And then there's the end of the party, when everyone else is putting on jackets and thanking the hosts, when you become the guy who just has to show everyone one last hilarious internet video. That was me, maybe, outsmarted by a smart classroom.

Here's a key moment from last night's frenzy.


For those of you trapped in a tomb since 1960, some lyrics:
The rain may never fall till after sundown.
By eight, the morning fog must disappear.
In short, there's simply not
A more congenial spot
For happily-ever-aftering than here
In Camelot.
It is so relevant! It's not just a chance to introduce students to one of Wales' more famous sons/worst singers. It is that, of course, but it's also this: use it to talk about the Messianic Arthur of the Welsh, the hopes of the return of the quondam et futurus rex whose law is the best law for all Britain, whose return promises a world, human and non-, of obedient subjects, so unlike the horridos Kambriae, the "wild Wales" of the present. Then gesture towards the much-reviled Henry II “discovering” Arthur and Guinevere's bones at Glastonbury, and finally spring into Gerald of Wales' own peculiar relationship to the work of Geoffrey of Monmouth (Journey through Wales I.5) and his conflicted hopes for Wales.

That's but the slightest soupçon of what last night's students got served. Again, I blame Gerald, and again. (I also blame Jeffrey for making Gerald so delightful). If you're reading this blog, you probably know Gerald, and you know his wunderkammer aesthetic. Like Gervase of Tilbury, William of Malmesbury, Ralph of Coggeshall, William of Newburgh, and (keep going?), Gerald's another twelfth-century British wonder-collector. His crusader tour can't take two steps without acquiring another story; and neither could I, except what I was preaching was “the Middle Ages” and my “Wild Wales" is the Internet.



For some evidence, if you like, see below. Or skip it. I'd just as soon hear from you about times in the classroom where your zeal for sharing and for keeping a class hopping became a public, and therefore worse, version of any private internet binge. How do you keep it under control?

Because this is the danger of screens in classrooms! Not distracted students, but manic professors. Not Facebook, but archive.org and flickr and the British Library.

So! Here's a very small selection of what I thought I needed for Gerald. Use what you can.
  • Bruce Holsinger's post on Uterine Vellum, to start the class with a shock, and a promise of learning more Middle English ("3if þou wilte make letters on abortiue or bortiue, lai þi oile also þynne þeron als þou may.")
  • Welsh Phrases, for a sense of twelfth-century British linguistic diversity. Be sure to start here though.
  • Siân Echard's extraordinary Medieval Welsh Poetry page, with generous samples, translations, and links to manuscripts.
  • An excerpt from Eric Rohmer's Perceval le Gallois, for the spread of idea of the Welsh as fools.
  • Gerald of Wales' autobiography (warning, a large PDF, but a useful one), page 53, for the astonishing story, worthy of Sergio Leone, of Archdeacon Gerald and a Bishop facing off, each threatening to excommunicate the other. It's such a fine introduction to Gerald's theatrical self-promotion and professional ambition, and as fine a way to break apart students' sense of the medieval church as monolithic.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Having to Stretch, Having Room: A Voyage of Brendan Lesson

Valhalla Rising, to set the mood
by KARL STEEL

 "Merely quantitative differences, beyond a certain point, pass into qualitative changes."
 (Marx, Capital I.11, cadged from Malcolm Harris)

This semester, I'm teaching my first 3-hour, once-weekly class, an undergrad medieval comparative lit course. It runs from 6:30-9:10 every Monday, which I bisect with an optional but absolutely needed 15-minute break from roughly 7:45-8pm.

Three classes in and I'm loving it. It's not just that I have to wind myself up to teach this stuff only once instead of twice a week (and we know, at least I do, the emotional effort required to step into a classroom); it's what a long class does to my teaching.

For me and other talkers, a 75-minute class (or these thrice-weekly 50-minute classes I've heard rumor of) loves for me just to offload great blocks of ad-libbed information. And judging by my evals, this works. The letter arrives at some destination, if I'm just trying to convince my students that they're getting what they think is an education and, even more so, if I want them to think I'm smart. But it's obviously not our jobs to convince students that we deserve to be running the class.

Three hours of talking though? Doable, definitely, but far more obviously useless than in a regular-length class, or my name isn't Karl "Increase Mather" Steel. Quantitative differences have forced me to flip my classroom. I'm following the scientists who are following humanities teaching.

Below, I'll give you a map of the whole class. First, though, last night's favorite bit.

I showed them the Wikipedia page on The Voyage of Saint Brendan and gave them five or ten minutes to read it (either from the screen up front or from their phones) and to write down one key thing the wikipedia page missed, and--if they had time--why this thing matters for understanding the text. If you don't want to read the Wikipedia, because why?, it offers a very brief intro and then a 29-item list of the steps of the voyage. And that's it.

Here's a partial list of what the class turned up:

  • Birds are fallen angels, not just birds. 
  • Interactions between the people – the kisses for example, or the bowing, or the conversation. 
  • What Brendan thinks about Abbot Ailbe's silence, which he thinks too severe for human nature to bear. 
  • How Brendan lets God guide them to islands rather than travelling deliberately. 
  • All the stuff about don’t worry, god will keep us safe: gryphon eg. 
  • Jasconius: wikip doesn’t seem to understand that he is also the whale island. 
  • Omits the size of the sheep – giant holy land sheep who never get milked. 
  • Above all: the Psalms and the liturgy. Calendar and the solstice, Easter, Christmas. 

What champs! We could have kept going for another 20 minutes on this. Now, I told them the obvious: they were being tested on whether they'd done the reading, and also being given a practical lesson in Wikipedian inadequacies. They got all this. But then I unpacked a fun fact: we have 120+ extant manuscripts of the Voyage of Brendan, and translations into most European vernaculars. And a lot of the translations, or really, adaptations, do exactly what the Wikipedia article does, namely, they hush up the religious element and turn up the adventure. See some of this for example. What does this say about continuities between medieval and modern readers?

Keep reading for the complete lesson plan. And if you'd rather just skip to comments, do that, and let me know your classroom flipping tricks, because frankly this old talker is new to all this...fun. Note that my class has only 24 students, which strikes me as perfect for a 300-level undergrad course.

The whole plan:

  1. As students come in, to set a mood, I played a long scene from Valhalla Rising of warriors drifting at sea, mostly mute, filthy, and lost in the fog; 
  2. the medieval news: last week it was Richard III. This week it was the Pope's resignation (helped along by showing them Bruce Holsinger's blog) and then some Wonders of the East from the newly digitized Cotton MS Vitellius A XV (which means talking about the Ashburnham House fire);
  3. then, once I know I have a full complement, the Wikipedia thing;
  4. three five-minute student presentations. All smart and interesting. The first on animal guides; the second on ecology, conservationism, and sainthood; and the third on Christian allegory. Everyone had to write down a comment or question for every presenter, which meant a lively discussion until the break at 7:45;
  5. during the break, students who stuck around learned how to build a coracle;
  6. since mine might be the only medieval class the students take, I do a lot of "medieval ambassadorship"--or just show and tell--whenever I do take time to talk. Last night I showed them an Adam Roberts pun ("The Em-Bayeux Strikes Back") and then...explained the joke;
  7. boring discussion of the papers I had just graded. Had to be done, but this I hadn't quite planned on, so I reverted back to the old lecturing Karl. Will need to fix this next time;
  8. quick gesture at favorite bits from the immrama and echtrai, mostly from old issues of the Revue celtique available on Archive.org: Voyage of Snegdus and Mac Riagla; Voyage of Mael Duin; Voyage of the Húi Corra; and the Voyage of Bran. This led into a brief discussion of medieval remix culture, and using TvTropes to undo the modern pretension of "originality";
  9. and finally, in-class writing, small group discussion, followed by reports back to the class.

Here were the questions:

  • Having read Bede's Life of Cuthbert and the Voyage of St. Brendan, what do you now know about Christian monastic asceticism, and what does this say about their conception about the good and the evil? What do they think someone needs to do to be holy, and why? [this required explaining the difference between asceticism and aestheticism]; 
  • Why is the Voyage precise on so many things (the size of the "iceberg" for example), but never about where things actually are (the relative position of the islands)? 
  • Why should being naked except for full-body hair be a sign of holiness? 

They got 10 minutes. They could write first about whichever one interested them, and all three if they could. One detailed response would be more than sufficient, though. Then groups of four had to try to synthesize an answer (which is always, usefully, impossible). Discussion had to be cut off, both in the small groups, and then when I finally let them go precisely at 9:10.

One more point! Because of all the in-class writing (which is ungraded but read and counts for 15% of their grade), and the presentation (which has a graded written component), I'm eliminating TWO short papers from my standard syllabus. Advantages abound: less to grade; they write more; they think about the reading more often, and possibly more deeply; and they have more time at home to work on their other classes. Which means I'm not the bad guy, and I'm stuck in grading jail a lot less. Everyone wins.

Next week we start four weeks on Gerald of Wales. I hope we all can keep it up!

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Medieval Sex: A Syllabus

by EILEEN JOY

"How is it that in a society like ours, sexuality is not simply a means of reproducing the species, the family, the individual? Not simply a means to obtain pleasure and enjoyment? How has sexuality come to be considered the privileged place where our deepest 'truth' is read and expressed? For that is the essential fact: since Christianity, the Western world has never ceased saying, To know who you are, know what your sexuality is. Sex has always been the forum where both the future of our species and our 'truth' as human subjects are decided." (Michel Foucault, 1977 interview)

This semester I am wading into new territory, teaching-wise, with an M.A.-level seminar on sex and sexuality in the Middle Ages. Although I have, for a while now, been doing an awful lot of reading and research in contemporary queer and critical sexuality studies and some reading in critical medieval sexuality studies [primarily, Carolyn Dinshaw, Glenn Burger, Anna Klosowska, Karma Lochrie, James Schultz, Cary Howie, Michael Camille, Jeffrey, Clare Lees, Lara Farina, Tison Pugh], when doing further research for this syllabus, I realized how much scholarship I am not familiar with, and so, this seminar will partly be a crash course in the subject for myself as well as for my students. The syllabus was both fun but also frustrating to put together--for example, why do we not have more scholarship on sex and sexuality in the lais of Marie de France? But then again, what might be missing on my syllabus that I simply don't know about? I've tried to cover different cultural traditions [Anglo-Saxon, Anglo-Norman, French, and German] and I've left things out, like Heloise and Abelard, which I am sure many will find strange [but as the Ur-couple of the Middle Ages, they also seem, in my mind, to be "done to death" on syllabi such as these], and also Roman de la rose [partly because I am just not prepared this semester to teach too many texts that would be too new for me]. It was difficult to decide which Chaucer tales to include--the "Wife of Bath's Prologue" and "Tale" is the obvious pick, and I did include her, but I have also included the "Man of Law's Tale" as that makes a nice parallel story with the Old English translation of "Apollonius of Tyre," which is where I begin the course. Overall, the the syllabus felt unwieldy to me [and I did a lot of cutting, in the end, that pained me, but I have to be realistic about how much students can read in a week, of course], partly because I am trying to offer "samplings" of four inter-related things, as it were, in this seminar: 1) how sex and sexuality are treated in medieval texts (literary and otherwise), in both "official" and more subversive registers; 2) how sex and sexuality in the Middle Ages are analyzed in contemporary medieval scholarship; 3) how sex and sexuality are historicized in contemporary critical sexuality studies; and 4) how sexuality and sexual identity have been taken up by some contemporary artists [in ways that highlight the complex inter-relations of past and present], such as in the films of Lars von Trier and Pedro Almodovar and also in Jeffrey Eugenides's novel Middlesex. I'm likely trying to do too much, but I thought I would share the syllabus here with everyone, and any critical comments you might have for me would be greatly appreciated. Have I overlooked something important or interesting, either primary or secondary text-wise? [Since I'll teach this course again, I'll be more than happy to make major adjustments to the syllabus next time I offer it.] I'm including here, also, a link to the working bibliography for the course, and if there's something I've not included there that you think is important, please let me know and I'll add it.

ENG505 Seminar in Medieval Literature: Medieval Sex

ENG505 Seminar in Medieval Literature: Working Bibliography

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

course evaluations

by J J Cohen

The fall semester trickles to its end, and such is the perversity of the academic calendar that the time has arrived to think about the spring, with its vigorous new crop of students, papers, and grade complaints. I'm teaching the newest course in my rotation, Myths of Britain, and as a prelude to tinkering with its syllabus have been rereading the student evaluations from last spring.

Mostly, the evaluations are quite strong -- and I'm pleased that students responded favorably to a challenging course that offers literature they mostly would not otherwise have read. Although some of those who take the class go on to become English majors, the majority do not: the course was for them a way to satisfy their Humanities or Writing in the Disciplines requirements. Predictably, therefore, most of the negative comments were pleas to make the course easier, to not require attendance, to grade on a curve or with reduction in rigor, to assign less writing. Many student comments were negated by their peers: "Remove Shakespeare from the syllabus!" on one evaluation form, "Teach more than two Shakespeare plays!" on the next. Beowulf was likewise a lightning rod. Quite a number of students stated they were tired of reading it, and quite a few observed that they had never been assigned the poem before. Some student comments are incredibly sweet; some make me feel naked under the cold glare of their observing eyes; most are filled with an enthusiasm that makes me eager to teach the class again; a few are meanspirited; some give me a chuckle. My favorite: "Prof Cohen is adorable and knowledgeable. It is so entertaining to watch him lecture even though at times the content can get tedious." Um, yeah. I'm happy that I can be amusing despite my dull content.

Taking lessons away from the evaluations is not easy, especially when there are so many of them and the comments are contradictory. Perhaps after two decades of teaching I am also just comfortable with my style -- though, then again, I do try to add new components each time I teach a course. In Myths of Britain, for example, I intend to call on more students at random, to have them read aloud and then be "interviewed," and I will perhaps walk the room a bit more (the class takes place in a fairly large space, since it enrolls 90). I'll likely repeat course objectives regularly and relate assignments back to these objectives, and add a lecture-end summary, since those things were requested. I've swapped a few readings as well (out: Lear, Malory; in: Mandeville, Song of Roland), but not because of student feedback.

So what about you? Do you find course-end evaluations useful? How do you use them -- or do you use them -- in planning your future teaching?

Monday, August 31, 2009

Pedagogical Journal: Some small points on Marie's Prologue

by KARL STEEL

Today was the first day of class for my Undergrad Comp Lit course (where I'm doing Marie Lais, a Life of Cuthbert, Voyage of Brendan, Lai d'Haveloc, Grettir's Saga, the Gawain Poet (SGGK, Pearl, & Patience), the Hebrew King Artus, Amis e Amilun, and the ME "Debate of a Christian and Jew"). After my dreadful pocket introduction to the MA, I distributed the prologue to the lais, and asked them to keep a few basic questions in mind: "How does she claim authority or the right to speak? What is the purpose of literature? Why is she writing? And who is her audience?" Surprising me with their enthusiasm, as good students always do, they would never have left the first question had I not interrupted them with a few of my favorite points. For example:
Li philesophe le saveient,
Par eux meïsmes entendeient,
Cum plus trespassereit li tens,
Plus serreient sutil de sens
E plus se savreient garder
De ceo k’i ert a trespasser. (17-22)

Philosophers knew this
they understood among themselves
that the more time they spent,
the more subtle their minds would become
and the better they would know how to keep themselves
from whatever was to be avoided. (Hanning and Ferrante trans; here's another one)
You probably recall that Marie is here speaking about the deliberate obscurity of ancient texts, and the necessity of glossing them, and that she implicitly links her own literary production to that of the ancients. This is what I told my students, anyhow, but I also observed that the verb "trespasser" means, in its first use, to spend time, but in the second use means much more like what we mean, now, when we say "trespass." Since the AND doesn't allowing linking (easily?), click on this image for more:

What is she up to here? What do you do in your classrooms? (I know more than a few of you have handled the Prologue, although I'm told not typically on the first day of class). I suggested that she's at once claiming the mantle of the ancients and disputing the social value of literary interpretation: perhaps all glossing, she suggests, is a waste of time (or worse!). If, however, she's sinking, she plans to take the whole literary edifice down with her at the same time.


I also played with the metaphor of blooming by linking it with her address to the King. Cf.:
Quant uns granz biens est mult oïz,
Dunc a primes est il fluriz,
E quant loëz est de plusurs,
Dunc ad espeandues ses flurs. (5-8)

When a great good is widely heard of,
then, and only then, does it bloom,
and when that good is praised by many,
it has spread its blossoms.
to her praise of Henry (?): "e en qui quer tuz biens racine" (46; in whose heart all goods [nb: "biens" means goodness, as in l. 5, and also wealth or property] take root [modified trans.]) and to Marie's description of her heart, which thinks and decides ("mun quer pensoe e diseie" (49)).

Hers is the heart that thinks; his is the heart in which she means to plant her flower. In other words, he is the reproductive body, the recipient of her rational seed, the biens, the flurs, she gives him. Typically, we speak of the writer as pregnant with the work he or she brings forth ("my hideous progeny"), but here, reversing Mary's impregnation by the Verbum Dei, she herself fertilizes the king!

Friday, January 23, 2009

Beginnings



[figure 1: A view of Lake Erie, from Hamburg's public beach. I took this photo on a chilly day this past November.]

by Mary Kate Hurley

(Speaking of beginnings, don't miss JJC's post below, on a beginning we've all been watching the past few days.)

Despite the chill in the air and the snow on the ground here in New York, spring semester always puts me in mind to think about beginnings. Spring reminds me that when it comes to my medieval interests, it all started in the spring – in this case, spring 2002. My first Old English class started seven years ago this past Wednesday – and every year, I’ve grown more certain that if the course caught my interest, it was largely because of how difficult it was. I’d never learned a language before, truth be told – French had been part of my growing up, present both in and out of school thanks to my mother’s background as former French professor. And anyone who’s been through the American school system knows that it’s a rare thing to really learn English grammar. I joke about it, but I think I really did learn modern English grammar in my Old English class – I wonder if others have had that experience? I certainly didn’t know the difference between a nominative and a genitive (in terms of what the words meant, at any rate), and I don’t think I’d ever heard of the dative before. It was like a revelation, really: modern English just made so much more sense after taking Old English, from the past tense of verbs to the use of apostrophes to indicate possession. Grammar rules had reasons – who knew?

So awhile back, Jeffrey invited us to talk about what we're teaching this semester -- and now, finally, I can make my contribution to that discussion. This semester is pretty exciting for me, as I’m beginning my career in teaching literature, after five semesters teaching freshman composition. If you're familiar with my academic preoccupations, the way I plan to begin the semester won’t surprise you.

Columbia’s English department has recently instituted a new course for graduate students to teach. It functions as a kind of introduction the English major. Essentially, we cover various genres of literature (the triad of poetry, drama, prose), and critical methodologies for understanding and interpreting them. It’s a wide ranging class, in which a professor lectures for an hour once a week, and then graduate students teach a section of seminar that meets for two hours, also once a week, and covers more material than the lectures do. It’s a big course, and looks scary from the outside, but it’s not meant to be an in-depth study of any one period or method – it’s just introductions, making acquaintances, and learning to engage with texts in ways that are meaningful to current critical discourses.

All that aside, I wanted to start with something that would put everyone on the same level. I can’t teach literature without finding some way to put something medieval, or even better Old English, into it. I couldn’t even teach writing without using medieval references to illustrate writing points (like the idea of “auctoritee,” borrowed happily from Chaucer). My opening class? I think I’m going to start with something I know intimately, but am utterly unable to understand (yes, one honors thesis, one masters thesis, and countless translations later, I still don’t understand this poem – I doubt I ever really will). The idea here is to start from a place where there is no background information, to look closely at what can be understood without a sense of the context of a piece. So I’ll start with the manuscript: what can we tell just from looking at this text, as it appears on the page? Then, I hand out a modern edition of the poem (in old English, of course). I’m assuming no one will be able to read it. But if you know that it’s an edition of the MS we’ve been looking at, then what can you say about the text now? With a little luck, I’ll be treated to a rousing chorus of “It’s poetry!” The fun part will be discussing why we can say that now, if we couldn’t tell before. It allows discussion of editorial practice, and will hopefully allow us to talk a bit about assumptions concerning how poetry “looks.” Also: a great moment to point out alliteration, caesurae and the like.

From there, we move to a translation (I’m still deciding which to use, so any suggestions would be appreciated!), and what becomes an exercise in close reading of what the poem says, and how we arrive at conclusions about the techniques it is using to do so. Of course, I’ll close the class with a mini-lecture on the cultural and historical context of the poem, and hopefully that will spur a few more minutes of discussion and questions about how we can understand the poem in its literary and historical contexts. Ideally, it’ll be a fun exercise to think about how we approach poems, what we bring to the table in analysis, and how to think about a poem without immediate reference to the author’s biography or even any historical context. Most of all, I’m hoping it will get everyone talking early on in the class, as they will presumably all be coming in at the same level of knowledge concerning the poem in question.

In a class about introductions, you see, I’m planning to introduce them to the poem I’ve spent far too much time reading, thinking, writing and talking about, on ITM, OENY and elsewhere. My first real literature class? I’m teaching The Wanderer.

cross posted at OENY.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Kids 'n' codices

by J J Cohen

An advantage of having the Folger Shakespeare Library occupy the same city as your university, and of having your former departmental colleague as director of that library, is that you can then put together something like GW's Undergraduate Research Seminar at the Folger. This course grants a select group of students reader's privileges for a year, enabling them direct access to early modern archival materials.

If you'd like to learn more about this program (of which I am very proud), follow this link. You can even watch a streaming video in which I say some very ITM-y words about past and future to a vaguely Renaissance soundtrack.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

A query: Chaucer translations?

by J J Cohen

Last year I mentioned in passing a course I'd newly designed called Myths of Britain. I'll be teaching the class again come spring, this time with ninety students and three TAs (the course is as much about mentoring graduate student teachers as it is about developing critical thinking through writing among undergraduates). So, considering the theme, I thought I might introduce some Chaucer this time ... and here is my question. If you've ever taught a Brit Lit survey, do you keep the Chaucer in Middle English (a la the Norton anthology) or do you utilize a snappy translation into Modern English? If so, what translation do you use?

My students will mostly be sophomores; most will not be English majors (though experience proves the class can cause sudden conversions). We want to challenge them, of course -- but I also worry that if we do Chaucer for only one or two weeks, and do him in Middle English, the students will be too wrapped up in just getting the langauge that they won't move to themes and analysis -- as they do, say, with our excellent translations of Beowulf, Marie de France, and SGGK.

What do you think?

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Seeking Chaucer e-resources

[illustration: a former student dropped by my office today and bestowed upon me two gifts purchased via the Geoffrey Chaucer blog: a T-Shirt with the Man Himself, and a mug with Thomas Chaucer's coat of arms. Thanks, Beth! You are my new favorite former student. Sorry, all other former students. What have you done for me lately?]

by J J Cohen

So I'm teaching my favorite Chaucer class. I'd like to assemble a collection of electronic resources that my undergraduates might find useful. I've an inkling that it might even be helpful to a wider audience to maintain a kind Chaucer portal here at ITM. So, I ask for your help. Aside from the sparse list you find below, of what internet resources are you aware? Have you used any in your own class, and if so, to what effect?

JJC's sparse list:

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Remembering Students

by J J Cohen

Though I once accused Stephanie Trigg of purporting to have face blindness to snub those with whom she doesn't wish to speak, I must admit that when I took the prosopagnosia test to which she links in a post on the subject I flubbed the exercise: a "lucky" grade of 75%, and a lingering anxiety hangover (all the faces looked like various permutations of Shrek to me). No wonder I have such difficulty placing names to visages in the classroom.

I've attempted many ways of compensating over the years. I have each student create card about themselves with name, major, and (most importantly) a picture -- though that doesn't help as much as it sounds, since the picture is good only when it is directly in front of me (Also, snarky students will sometimes give me pictures of themselves dressed for the high school prom, or as a child ... or in one case 95% naked). I have students compose a paragraph about why they are taking the course and I hope that something sticks from the thing. But you know, after teaching more than a thousand students in my lifetime not a lot is sticking any more. Generally I don't remember students well until they come to my office and we chat: then I find the quirk, fact, or passion that will connect them to me and keep them in my memory -- at least for a while.

So, a practical question at this time of year when so many of us have just or are about to return to the classroom: what tricks do you use to remember the names of your students?

Monday, April 21, 2008

Thank Setebos for YouTube

My Myths of Britain class is located in GW's Siberia, a building at the very edge of campus (you know, the place where they draw cynocephali and cannibals on mappaemundi). I don't mind the walk, not even on rainy days like this one, but my students do find it difficult to arrive on time. To quicken their gait, for the first five minutes of class I always show a short clip from a relevant DVD: The Fisher King as we did Marie de France, the Helm's Deep sequence from LotR as we examined crusader mythology in its relation to Mandeville, Sword of the Valiant (!) for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The class is quickly moving towards its close, and that means today's lecture is The Tempest. What better way to foreground the movement from Old World to New than to look at a play set upon an island 'twixt Italy and Africa, but really Bermuda and Virginia?

I realized last night that I had no relevant DVDs. Luckily someone has placed a scene from the nude extravaganza Prospero's Books on YouTube. Perfect: an excellent scene to discuss.

I also found this really weird mash-up there. New Agey chanteuse Loreena McKennitt sings the play's epilogue in a sparse, ethereal arrangement. The song is visually overlaid with footage from an old BBC documentary on Pompeii. Such an odd juxtaposition -- but the frailty, contingency, possibility of sorrow in the Shakespeare portion echo hauntingly in the scenes of ruin and death. I might use it next week as we conclude the course.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Chaucer: An Oxford Guide / Postcolonial Chaucer

The latest Studies in the Age of Chaucer has an appreciative review of Steve Ellis's Chaucer: An Oxford Guide, a volume to which I was a contributor. A proliferation of guides, companions, and introductions have burgeoned around Chaucer like microbes in the human genome. Each has a distinct personality (typically reflecting the temperament of its editor), and each is useful in its own way. The only guide I've used in my undergraduate classroom, however, is this one.

My students for the most part liked the volume. I paired major essays with various tales, and used the pieces as an entryway into each day's discussion. The essays invite readers into conversation, rather than lecture them with Things They Must Know Before Even Thinking About Studying Chaucer. The Guide enabled my class to understand how contemporary scholars analyze Chaucer's work. I was hoping that such familiarity would improve their own critical analyses (it mostly did). Oddly, the most beloved and most detested of the essays I assigned was Glenn Burger's on "Queer Theory," an essay that made several of them feel like their heads would explode. It's a dazzling study, centering around category confusion and medieval capitalism. The students who loved it were truly enamored: several then went off and read Burger's monograph Chaucer's Queer Nation, becoming hardcore Burgerphiles as well as protodeleuzians.

Chaucer: An Oxford Guide is composed of sophisticated essays that are also quite lucid. All were written for the book, and many contain significant new work. The range of topics covered is quite broad: from a nuanced overview of Chaucer's life and the limits of what this information allows in the interpretation of his works (Ruth Evans, connecting Chaucer to the scandals that haunt his biography, and usefully invoking parallels from Sylvia Plath to Paul de Man) to a nifty tour of the problems of editing Chaucer (Liz Scala at her best, witty and contrarian) ... even an overview of the genre of Chaucer handbooks.

Below, I excerpt a small piece from my own essay, 'Postcolonialism.' This section centers upon the Prioress's Tale, loss and remembrance.

---------------------------------
In this closing section I would like to turn to a function that medieval studies has always shared with postcolonial theory: memorialization of that which might otherwise be forgotten. We live in a frightening and dangerous world, mainly because we human beings are so frightening and dangerous. But we are also creatures of history, both formed by the past and desirous of the past. Postcolonial critique refuses to see history as inert, and turns to what has gone before in order to remember it differently, less absolutely and less singularly – a way of seeing that isn't so much relativism as perspectivism.

In the tale told by the Prioress, a schoolboy decides to memorize a Latin hymn to Mary, an endeavor that necessitates neglecting his primer. In the religiously plural Asia that the 'litel clergeon' inhabits, the 'litel scole of Cristen folk … in which ther were / Children an heep' (495-97) performs an important differentiating function. That the children are 'ycomen of Cristen blood (497) may hint at a biological dimension to their community. Yet it is the 'litel scole' that imparts to the young pupils the culture and history that will ensure they know their difference from the 'Hebrayk peple' (560) of the 'Juerie,' as well as from the Muslims who apparently govern the land. In choosing the hymn over his primer, the young boy's act of rebellion is not all that subversive: his passion serves to remind the Christians of his unnamed city and the Christians of the Canterbury pilgrimage that a shared and timeless inheritance, codified in the song's Latin words, separates them from the rest of the world, renders them a people with an exclusive history, specially chosen and protected by God. The clergeon's worry over punishment at school is misplaced, for it is the nearby Jews through whose neighborhood he passes twice a day who will harm him, not his teachers. These very same Jews will, by the end of the tale, be tied to horses, dragged through the streets, and then hanged.

The ardor of the 'litel clergeon' for the Latin words which he does not fully understand is supposed to be admirable. Precocious sanctity should inspire exactly the kind of reverential awe that greets the ending of the 'Prioress's Tale' ('Whan seyd was al this miracle, every man / As sobre was that wonder was to se,' 691-92). Yet what happens when the ears through which the echoing hymn is heard are not Christian, but Jewish? Alma redemptoris ('nourishing [mother] of the redeemer'), the opening line of the clergeon's song, means little to a people whose sacred language is not Latin and whose messiah has not arrived. Cried 'ful murily' twice a day in passing through the ghetto (553), the hymn becomes an act of violence, announcing to its unwilling auditors that their religion, culture, and very identity have been superseded.

Postcolonial criticism encourages us to pay attention to how communities come into being and who is excluded. It asks us to listen with the other's ear and interrogate what is at stake when a body of knowledge is created, codified, promulgated as universal and peerless. The culmination of the 'Prioress's Tale' is the eradication of its Jews, leaving its narrative as empty of 'Hebrayk peple' at its close as the English nation was in Chaucer's day. What history is being remembered here, and what is being forgotten?

Though the action is set in ancient Asia, the Jews of the 'Prioress's Tale' are not as distant as they seem. England expelled its Jewish population in 1290, but rather than rid itself of anti-Semitism, the Jew who was no longer anywhere came to be everywhere. Jews were central to post-Expulsion 'English religious devotion and national identity,' an absent presence around which community solidified.' Once Jews no longer lived in England, their eradication was repeatedly performed figuratively, a repetition that demonstrates that violence committed long in the past can still trouble and haunt for many years, seeming to have happened 'but a litel while ago' (686). The Prioress ends her tale with an apostrophe to another boy martyr, Hugh of Lincoln, 'slayn also / With cursed Jewes' (684-85). Young Hugh's corpse had been discovered in a well almost 150 years earlier, but to an England that owed its sense of cohesiveness to the absence of its Jews, that death possessed an enduring vividness. The ideological uses to which his corpse was put can obscure the fact that a boy named Hugh really did perish, probably an accidental drowning, likely at the home of a Jewish friend. Because this death, all the more terrible because it claimed a child, was believed to be an act of murder, other innocents likewise lost their lives. According to Matthew Paris, the ringleader of the group of Jews who had supposedly crucified the boy as part of a secret ritual was tied to a horse, dragged and hanged -- exactly the punishment repeated on the Prioress's Jews. King Edward himself took a special interest in punishing the supposed malefactors; eighteen more Jews were eventually hanged as coconspirators.

Hugh of Lincoln's death and the violence that exploded around it harkens back to the first recorded accusation that Jews routinely kill Christian children, and the first attempt to create a boy martyr for communal reverence. When a boy named William was found dead in the woods outside Norwich in 1144, the grisly murder was blamed upon the local Jewish population. In this first instance of the blood libel, the accusation that Jews commit murder as part of their religious rituals, enough citizens of the city were sceptical of the charge not to attack their accused neighbors. Yet the boy's corpse was eventually interred in the cathedral and worshipped as a saint. Again, I would like to point out what is obvious but often overlooked in the scholarship attempting to analyze the significance of this episode: a young boy died horribly (gagged, stripped, tortured), and a demand is made that other innocents forfeit their lives in order to give some meaning – any meaning -- to this utterly senseless act. This makes William's fate similar not only to Hugh's, but also to that of another boy who died under terrible circumstances, this time at his own mother's hand. Unlike William, Hugh, and the nameless 'litel clergeon,' however, this boy was Jewish.

Besieged by Crusaders who, on their way to the Holy Land, decided that they ought not to spare God's domestic enemies, a group of Jews found themselves trapped inside the archbishop's palace at Mainz. Realizing that barred doors offered only some few moments of safety, these Jews chose to take their own lives rather than be forcefully baptized or hacked by Christian swords. Two surviving Hebrew chronicles narrate the martyrdoms of 1096. A chilling scene centers upon a mother named Rachel, who declares to her companions that her four children must predecease her so that the 'uncircumcised ones' will not convert them to their pseudo-faith.' As her friend takes a knife to her youngest boy and her two girls are cut in turn, Rachel realizes that her older son, Aaron, ought not to have witnessed his siblings' deaths because he is too young to face his own demise with resolve. 'Mother, Mother, do not slaughter me!' Aaron wails, then cowers beneath a bureau. Rachel
lifted her voice and called to her son: 'Aaron, Aaron, where are you? I shall not have pity or mercy on you either.' She pulled him by the leg from under the bureau, where he had hidden, and sacrificed him before the sublime and exalted God.

It is difficult not to see in Rachel a shocking coldness. As she announces to hidden, terrified Aaron exactly what fate she will inflict upon him, as she drags him by the leg from the only spot of safety he could find in this room flowing with blood, as Aaron pleads with his mother not to be cut open like his siblings, her actions seem inhuman … and that is exactly the point of the episode. Rachel's heroism resides for the chronicler in her ability to transcend human emotion and maternal attachment. Aaron is young and weak and human in order to ensure that his mother becomes timeless, a sublime example rather than a mere historical fact. Aaron, in other words, exists in that innocent space between infant insensibility and the adult ability to choose self-obliteration; he is able to feel the pain of martyrdom but horrifically unable to desire it. Aaron suffers so that his parents and his community accrue the glory of kiddush ha-Shem ('sanctification of the divine name'). The story in which he figures is not ultimately about him at all, but about his mother Rachel's sacrifice.

The Jewish choice of mass martyrdom over conversion shocked their Christian antagonists. Based upon the pioneering work of Israel J. Yuval, however, John McCulloh has argued that the fantasy that Jews ritually murder Christian children arose in the aftermath of the Rhineland Jews' choice of death for themselves and for their own offspring. I would go even further and argue that this spectacular choice to take one's life 'in the sanctification of God's name' and the flow of blood which resulted from these actions resulted in an enduring Christian fascination with Jews and sanguinary ritual. The violence that connects the 'litel clergeon' to Hugh of Lincoln, William of Norwich and Aaron of Mainz also binds together Christian and Jewish boys who did not and could not choose their own martyrdom. When childhood becomes the orientalized space of edenic purity, existing only so that adult ideologies can assert themselves, then lives are lost once again. Chaucer's eerily bloodless narrative of the 'litel clergeon' can hide in its conventionality the fact that behind its piety a flow of blood emanates from a boy who, when faced by an inflexible demand to suffer and die for an ideology he knows imperfectly, can answer back only the very human, 'Mother, Mother do not slaughter me!' If there is a historical voice that resonates after death in the 'Prioress's Tale,' it is indeed an innocent one, but it is also a hybrid one, speaking not just in Latin and in English but in Hebrew.

In the gruesome but highly literary demise of the 'litel clergeon' can be witnessed the historical deaths of three boys, two Christians and a Jew, whose furthest thought was martyrdom. I do not think that this knowledge makes the 'Prioress's Tale' unreadable, but it does inalterably transform the text. In the process it also illustrates well what postcolonial critique ultimately aims to do: not simply offer one more interpretation among many, but to alter profoundly the grounds upon which interpretation is conducted.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Beowulf, Postmodern and Blazing Hot

Yesterday I walked into my super deluxe technology up the wazoo classroom, armed with a DVD, a CD, and a memory stick with some kick ass PowerPoint ... only to discover that (1) the thermostat had been ripped from the wall and the temperature was somewhere between spa-like and hellish; and (2) the sophisticated lighting system was broken, so that classroom illumination was stuck at its highest level, irradiating the room with brilliant white. Somehow I was supposed to teach Beowulf Part II in this desert.

So I did what any formerly low tech professor would do. I held my book in my hand and I talked about what the text offered: meditations on history, loss, parents and children, the limits of an identity you never chose, constriction, freedom, oblivion, the unraveling of every human bond, apocalypse, hope. I sweated. I drank copious amounts of water. I considered putting my sunglasses on so that I could see my eighty students better. And you know what? Despite it being so blazingly uncomfortable in the room, it was one of the best classes I've ever had.

No one nodded off. The eighty three of us had an invigorating conversation. We lost ourselves in the question of what we can possibly do that can endure beyond our demise, what actions or objects we can send to a future that seems intent on forgetting everything -- intent on swallowing it into some nameless barrow to rust and rot, or to be guarded by a dragon whose other name is Forgetting. Classes like that -- where both the students and I work up an intellectual sweat -- that's why I teach literature.

I come naked and alone.
Well, I wasn't quite naked in the class, but I was stripped of my technology. That's metaphorically undressed, right? And it did feel vulnerable, to be wondering with my students about survival and remembrance, about questions for which I have no compelling answers.

The line above is from this song, the one piece of media that did function in my classroom yesterday. What did not work, however, was the PowerPoint I had planned, a brief presentation that would have included Tolkien on ruined towers and the transcendent sea; a disintegrating page from the Beowulf manuscript; and the cover of Eileen Joy and Mary K. Ramsey's Postmodern Beowulf. The cover shows a dessicated arm with a ring visible on one finger, a photograph of the corpse of a Kuwaiti soldier from the first Gulf War. I had placed this quotation from "Liquid Beowulf" (the volume's introduction) next to it:
Like the photograph, the poem of Beowulf ‘is a cultural response that, as testimony, overcomes a historical gap, its lostness and its pastness, with a power to reconfigure our understanding of the present world and our present selves.’ And it overcomes that gap, of course, through language, in the same way that the photograph crosses the space that separates the middle Eastern desert from our Western shores.
I wonder what my students would have made of its transtemporal reach.

By the way, I'd also like to put in a good word for The Postmodern Beowulf. I've been reading the thick volume through in its entirety, and though I've pored over many of its collected essays before, to read them back to back and to follow the conversation that Joy and Ramsey have staged has been enlightening. This is a great, fun, erudite book.