Thursday, January 10, 2013


by J J Cohen

[read Eileen's amazing post first]

After long absence from the classroom I return next week. I'm especially excited to teach an experimental graduate seminar called "Environ Body Object Veer." The course is a mashup of some familiar late medieval texts with an array of contemporary writing on thing theory, disability, embodiment, queer theory, and environmental studies -- among other critical topics. In keeping with its themes (and especially with its final term, veer) the pedagogy is more playful than that which animates a typical graduate seminar. It's a collaboratory more than one of those courses that teaches you The Things You Need to Know For Coverage Purposes (I'm doing one of those in the fall). EBOV is not going to be an easy course for those who take it: the amount of reading is high, and the demands placed on its participants no cake walk. But I do think it will be enjoyable, productive, and (I hope) a space for innovation.

Let me know what you think. The syllabus is permanently "in process" and we are going to spend the first class meeting ripping it apart.

 English 6220:
Seminar in Medieval and Early Modern Studies
Jeffrey J. Cohen
Spring 2013

Environ Body Object Veer

This cartographic seminar follows the vectors of possibility generated when the words environ, body, object and veer are simultaneously nouns (surroundings; corpus; impedimental thing [from the Latin “to throw in the way of”]; abrupt directional shift) and verbs (to circuit inward; to materialize an abstraction; to protest or differ; to fly off course).

Among the questions to which we will compose some possible answers using our four keywords and our modern and medieval texts:
  • What worlds commence when the inhuman exerts its sidelong agency?
  • What transpires at the congruence of disability, embodiment, and environment?
  • What vocabulary existed in the Middle Ages for thinking about the secular, the intermixed, and the unpredetermined?
  • What does it mean to possess life?
  • Can things desire? Can they love?
  • What relations unfold among process and thing, event and adventure, velocity and substance?
  • Is anthropocentricity an inevitable circumscription to thought?
  • How does travel (in space, in time, in scale) open vistas that might otherwise remain unperceived?
  • What work does nature perform, and what unexpected knowledges do its contradictions yield?
  • Are medieval and posthuman one or several temporalities?

We collude in this seminar to create a confluence of contemporary theory (disability studies; queer theory; the new materialism; object oriented ontology; ecocriticism) with medieval English, Latin and French texts to map (environ, body, object and veer) possibilities – or what medieval writers called aventure -- for both. 

The pedagogy that propels this seminar’s unfolding is:
  • collaborative (we work together to invent rather than proceed from a model of mastery and induction)
  • emergent (an openness has been inbuilt, because we cannot predict where the seminar’s veering will lead)
  • compositional (our community assembles, produces and generates)
  • multimodal (encompassing the creation of: blog posts and other social media, conference presentations, peer assessment, collectivity, a public, and a journal-ready short critical essay)
Learning Objectives
To be composed during the first meeting of the seminar and recomposed as needed.

Attendance and active participation; respect for the ethos of the seminar in comportment and conversation; completion of all assigned work on time.

As part of this seminar you must attend three GW MEMSI events:
  • Digital Humanities Symposium, Jan 25-26
  • Will Stockton lecture, March 1
  • “Ecology of the Inhuman” Symposium, April 5
In recognition of the amount of work required and to enable you to prepare for our own in-class symposium, the seminar will not meet on March 26.

Your grade will be determined in these proportions:
            Participation                                                   20
            4 Blog Posts (             20
            Symposium Presentation (April 2)                20
Peer Assessment                                             10
            Journal Essay  (3K words)                             30       

Participation refers to your readiness in class to discuss the assigned readings, and your thoughtfulness in giving an account of them and in responding to your seminar colleagues. Participation may be deepened by extending your efforts into additional social media (e.g. Twitter, a Facebook discussion group) as desired. At least four blog posts are required: one on each of the three MEMSI events, and an additional post based upon a particular class or its readings (you may, of course, do more). The symposium presentation is an 8 minute, coherent, argument-driven, well performed presentation on Carolyn Dinshaw’s How Soon Is Now? Peer assessment refers to the feedback you will give your colleagues on their symposium presentations as well as your participation as a commentator on the seminar’s blog. The journal essay is a 3000 word essay patterned after those published in postmedieval that makes a clear and persuasive argument.
Policy on lateness and extensions
Plan carefully. Except for a documented medical reason, late work is not accepted. You may not take an incomplete for this course.

Academic dishonesty:
Academic dishonesty of any kind is a serious offense. In most cases you will fail the course. According to the GW Code of Academic Integrity, “Academic dishonesty is defined as cheating of any kind, including misrepresenting one's own work, taking credit for the work of others without crediting them and without appropriate authorization, and the fabrication of information.” Most Academic Integrity cases involve a failure to cite internet or other sources consulted as part of a project. You can find more on the Code of Academic Integrity at

Disability statement:
If you require accommodations based on disability, contact me immediately. Disability Support Services (Rome Hall 1st floor, 994‑8250, is available to assist and you should not hesitate to use that office.

The following books are available at the GW Bookstore. With the exception of Chaucer, it is very important to possess the required translation. Please speak to me if obtaining the texts poses a financial difficulty. Supplements to class readings may sometimes be posted on Blackboard.
  • Riverside Chaucer, reissue with new foreword  (Oxford) 978-0199552092 or any suitable edition in Middle English
  • Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain (Penguin) 978-0140441703
  • John Mandeville, The Book of Marvels and Travels (Oxford), trans. Anthony Bale 978-0199600601
  • John DuVal, Song of Roland (Hackett) 978-1603848503
  • The Gawain Poet: Complete Works, trans. Marie Borroff (Norton), 978-0393912357
  • Ian Bogost, Alien Phenomenology (U Minnesota Press) 978-0816678983
  • Robert McRuer and Anna Mollow, eds. Sex and Disability (Duke) 978-0822351542
  • Margrit Shildrick, Dangerous Discourses of Disability, Subjectivity and Sexuality (Palgrave Macmillan) 978-1137272805
  • Mel Y. Chen, Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering and Queer Affect (Duke) 978-0822352723
  • Carolyn Dinshaw, How Soon Is Now?: Medieval Texts, Amateur Readers, and the Queerness of Time (Duke) 978-0822353676
  • Stacy Alaimo, Bodily Natures (Indiana) 978-0253222404
  • Will Stockton, Playing Dirty (Minnesota) 978-0816666072
  • Tim Ingold, Being Alive (Routledge) 978-0415576840

Schedule of Readings

January 15
  • “Advertisement” “Casting Off” and “ On Critical and Creative Writing” in Nicholas Royle, Veering: A Theory of Literature [download from Blackboard]
  • Interrogation of the syllabus and communal construction of the seminar’s learning objectives

January 22
  • “Pearl” (in The Gawain Poet: Complete Works)
  • Mel Y. Chen, Animacies: “Introduction” “Language and Mattering Humans,” “Queer Animation” “Following Mercurial Affect”

January 25-26
Digital Humanities Symposium
  • post on this symposium by Monday 1/28 at 5 PM

January 29
  • Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (in The Gawain Poet: Complete Works)
  • Mel Y. Chen, Animacies “Queer Animality” “Animals, Sex, and Transubstantiation” “Afterword”

February 5
  • Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain
  • Tim Ingold, Being Alive: “Materials Against Materiality” “Culture on the Ground” “Rethinking the Animate” “Point, Line, Counterpoint” “When ANT meets SPIDER”

February 12
  • Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain
  • Geoffrey Chaucer, Franklin’s Tale
  • Tim Ingold, Being Alive: “The Shape of the Earth” “Earth, Sky, Wind and Weather” “Stories against classification” “The Textility of Making” “Drawing Together” “Epilogue”

February 19
Guest faculty: Anthony Bale
  • John Mandeville, The Book of Marvels and Travels
  • CWRD Moseley, “Behaim's Globe and Mandeville's Travels,” Imago Mundi 33 (1981), 89-91

February 26
  • Geoffrey Chaucer, “The Pardoner’s Tale”
  • “Introduction” “The Wandering Anus” and “The Pardoner’s Dirty Breeches” in Will Stockton, Playing Dirty

March 1
Will Stockton lectures on "The Fierce Urgency of Now: Queerness, Presentism, and Romeo and Juliet."
  • post on this lecture by Monday 3/4 at 5 PM

March 5
  • The Song of Roland
  • Stacy Alaimo, Bodily Natures: “Bodily Natures” “Eros and X-Rays” “Deviant Agents” “Genetics, Material Agency, and the Evolution of Posthuman Environmental Ethics in Science Fiction”


March 19
  • Saint Erkenwald (in The Gawain Poet: Complete Works)
  • Ian Bogost, Alien Phenomenology

March 26  NO CLASS

April 2
In-Class Symposium on How Soon is Now?
A symposium of presentations on Carolyn Dinshaw, How Soon is Now? Medieval Texts, Amateur Readers and the Queerness of Time. Each seminar member will speak on any aspect of the book for 7 minutes, keeping the themes of the course in mind. The presentations will be peer assessed, and followed by a lively discussion and reception.

April 5
Ecology of the Inhuman Symposium
  • post on this lecture by Monday 4/8 at 5 PM

April 9
  • Margrit Shildrick, Dangerous Discourses of Disability, Subjectivity and Sexuality
  • Geoffrey Chaucer, The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale

April 16
  • “Cleanness” (in The Gawain Poet: Complete Works); Geoffrey Chaucer, The Physician’s Tale
  • Sex and Disability: Read the “Introduction” and four essays of your choice from four different sections (Access, Histories, Spaces, Lives, Desires)

April 23
Concluding thoughts, new directions, and discussion of short journal essays.

May 3  Journal Essay Due by Noon


Jonathan Hsy said...

Jeffrey - AWESOMESAUCE. I'm loving how this syllabus is earnestly thinking through - and setting in motion - a multimodal and collaborative pedagogy.

Rick Godden said...

All of this looks awesome, Jeffrey. I really think it looks like a fascinating course.

I am most interested to hear about how the multimodal component works out. I've experimented with things like blogs and tumblr, etc. I think that we need to unmoor written work from the professor/student dynamic. Make it more pressing, sometimes more public, always more engaged. Excellent stuff.