Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Why Chaucer Now? #MLA15

My daughter made me this for MLA
by J J Cohen

I had the honor of participating in a lively roundtable at the most recent MLA on "Why Chaucer Now?" Emma Lipton put the roundtable together and moderated the session so well that the conversation was prolonged and lively. Audience participation and MLA seldom go hand in hand. Inevitably papers go far too long (senior scholars seem especially bad at timing themselves; at least I'd like to think it's a timing issue rather than presumption). Chairs often exhibit a "What can you do?" attitude -- forgetting that some people have traveled very long distances for the conference, and would rather have engagement with the speakers than the live delivery of a performance that could have more comfortably been viewed via video at home.  Admittedly, we also lost two of our Chaucer speakers to the hazards of travel -- but I liked that instead of filling in the opened space with longer presentations the audience was invited to prod and provoke.

Patricia Ingham started the session with an enormously helpful historicization of the question that had brought us together as a panel: should the MLA combine divisions like Old English, Chaucer, and Middle English Exclusive of Chaucer? She ruminated over a long archive of the MLA pondering such bureaucratic and institutional questions embedded within historical ones, and emphasized the public pedagogical outreach that the organization used to do (eg, being involved with the teaching of Chaucer in the high school curriculum). Nicole Nolan Sidhu spoke of the flourishing of supposedly surpassed racism and misogyny within internet porn (so easily accessible, yet "private" and thereby not amenable to intervention or challenge) and used Chaucer to drawn an alternative history of obscenity as a public and reconfigurable discourse.

I'd decided that my own contribution would be about the teaching of Chaucer, and that I'd involve my students in its composition. I'm happy I did. One more quick note and then I'll post it. Emma asked me before I presented how important Chaucer is to my work, and not that long ago I would have said not all that much. I realize that isn't true though. Yes, I've written a few essays, contributed to handbooks, have a Chaucer chapter in one of my books, and so on. But doing the index for Stone and seeing the sheer number of references to Chaucer permeating a book that is in no way about him made me realize that even when I don't think I'm engaging his work, I often quietly am.

Why Chaucer?

            To the question “Why Chaucer?” my response not long ago would have been historicist, emphasizing inertia and disciplinary conservatism. Because we’ve been teaching him in classrooms for so long, one of the few single author courses still on the books at many institutions. Because his London dialect became ascendant, and does not require the depth of special training needed to read other medieval works like the poems of the Gawain poet or anything in Old English. Because the academy is conservative. Because we are inheritors of the pronouncement that Chaucer is the father of English poetry, and even though we know we don’t need a primal father we continue to canonize him through our specialty societies, our publications, our MLA divisions. Because most of us teach in English rather than Literature Departments (and some strong challenges to Chaucer’s supremacy have come from scholars attempting to restore to the British archipelago its roiled diversity of cultures and tongues). Feminism and postcolonial studies can buttress Chaucer’s position at the generative center of medieval English literature, but they have also made us see that Marie de France was just as sophisticated a poet (too bad she wrote in French), and that trilingual John Gower conveys the polyglot truth of late 14th century literature better. We teach and study Chaucer because that’s the field we have been trained to teach and study. Chaucer will vanish as medievalist jobs in English Departments do (followed most likely by English Departments themselves: it's interesting to think who will be coming to these MLA meetings a hundred years from now).
            Why Chaucer? My answer is more complicated now than it would have been last summer. This semester, my twentieth at George Washington University, saw me teaching the Canterbury Tales to undergraduates yet again. Three things occurred that changed how I teach and think about Chaucer’s works. First, the Cengage-owned Riverside Chaucer is now so expensive even in paperback that no professor can reasonably ask students to purchase the volume. For the first time I ordered Jill Mann’s edition of the Canterbury Tales (Penguin Classics, $14). That change in text meant I taught the class from a fresh, clean book lacking the decades of marginalia that have accrued on my Riverside (an amply glossed hardcover held together by duck tape). It was liberating to let those textual predeterminations go, an inscribed history of my normative training as a medievalist. Second, during the fall semester of 2014, it was impossible to close the door of any classroom and expect to bar the entry of the aftermath of the racism and violence in Ferguson, or the growing awareness of the depth and persistence of rape culture on college campuses. Theformer president of GW made some victim blaming remarks about drinking andsexual assault just before I taught the Wife of Bath’s Tale, with its casual narration of a knight who rapes a maiden “maugree hir hed.” I teach that text on day three of the course, so our concerns were clear from the start. Third, I was fortunate enough to have 24 extraordinary students in the class, and they were diverse. Two of them changed the class profoundly, at least from my point of view: K., a student who declared on the first day that they would like to be referred to by third person plural and thereby gender indeterminate pronouns (I took it as a good sign that all the students in the room simply nodded to the request, registering no surprise; and that they were later happy to find in the Pardoner and John/Eleanor Rykener medieval genderqueers); and C., a student who had taken a previous class with me, who emailed me after reading the Wife of Bath’s tale to ask if sexual assault would be a frequent topic in the class because she would likely not be able to sit through discussions. I arranged it so that C. knew in advance what classes would probably touch upon rape – and with Chaucer, that is quite a few. She sat near the door, and if she felt the need, she left. I assured her that was no problem. We had three GW studentscommit suicide in the spring and one more publicly attempt it in the fall semester: those deaths took a toll on my students, and made me realize we need to be more vigilant to signs of distress. I told C. that if leaving class is something she needs to do as an act of self-preservation, then I applaud her for speaking to me and choosing not to endure an unbearable topic. I never understood the recent furor over trigger warnings. They don’t limit discussion, they simply respect the fact that not every one of our students has had the life we wish them to have had.
            Keeping C. in mind, I dreaded discussion of the Reeve’s Tale, with its vengeance rapes. I always teach it with the Cook’s Tale, so we started there, and using the work of Paul Strohm and David Wallace to talk about London, community making, exclusion, and violence directed at those identified as foreign bodies (the Cook’s Flemish proverb as invitation to speak of the murder of the Flemings in 1381 in Chaucer’s boyhood neighborhood). We circled around the edges of the Reeve’s Tale, speaking of dialect and humor, the animal noises and animal desires, the glimpses of rural life, the fabliau structure. But we did not speak directly of the sexual violence at the center of the tale, the events that within my glossed Riverside are given a long contextual history as pranks and topoi, with the aubade supposed to be especially funny. Instead I told my students when we reached the bedroom scene that they know what comes next, that rape is not entertainment, that I did not want to participate in a long history of making light of sexual assault. I asked them to leave thinking about the source of humor in the tale and the essential conversation about rape culture that college campuses are having now. They departed in an uncharacteristically somber mood.

            And that’s all too the good. As I brought the class to a close in December, I asked my students the “Why Chaucer?” question that we are pondering together today. Their answers surprised me. Because he is someone to disagree with as well as be inspired by. Because he is difficult, complicated, artful. Because of the problems he conveys. Because his idea of fellowship as an unlikely gathering of the diverse gets enacted when we read his works together. Because having to learn Middle English together reduces every student in the class to the same starting point, to the same position of shared vulnerability. Because the pilgrims never exactly arrive in Canterbury, and the conversation they start is worth carrying on.

1 comment:

Steve Muhlberger said...

Excellent, thoughtful. Having something that's good to argue against (with?) is really important!