what’s the point?

Image at left: some points, with something (also sort of pointy) at their end, and a definite purpose-point to this pointy activity.*

At some point along the way in a course about literature, some eternal questions will be raised. Or, flat-footed ugly pedestrian practical truths. How to tackle them will of course vary. I like to combine nipping things in the bud—turn potential negatives positive, all that frowns are smiles upside-down hokum—with being honest and, I hope, treating students like the intelligent responsible adults they are. I don’t mind having Big Unanswerables hang over a course. But rather than have them as shady specters haunting the whole class and perhaps looming larger, darker, and more malevolent with each class; I’d rather have them overarching, and turn that into an actual arch, an arc narratif, a supporting structure that helps to hold a course together and give it some shape over its whole span from beginning to end. Not so much choosing fight over flight in reaction to such things, but turning a tackle into an embrace. Classic nightmare-manipulation strategy; now, it’s OK, I haven’t gone doolally in the summer sun: we’re not going to go into F—d-word charlatanry; but this is literature we’re talking about, and as a new friend reminded me a couple of days ago, one of its strongest oldest forms is the visio.

Take, for an example of The Big Questions, “Introduction to Early French Literature and to Textual Analysis” (FREN 220). Start the first week by asking what each of these terms means. That’s already an introduction to the course. And to the dissertation littéraire: start by defining your terms and demonstrating that you understand the question you’re setting out or “essaying” to answer; an hypothèse that will lead to your thèse and antithèse and so on. It’s also a start to the analyse / commentaire de texte, and its requirement that you select, from all possible analysable points/material, your question/topic/thème.

Each of these “qu’est-ce que la…” questions includes further questions (introduction / literature / French literature / early literature / early French literature / analysis / text / textual analysis). The two sub-clauses (introduction to… literature / introduction to… analysis). Build up to the whole phrase. Ponder the lack of verb? Does this imply an elided verb of action / investigation / other?

Leave all this stuff as open questions, repeat from time to time, and laisser mijoter on a gentle heat while stirring occasionally. Continue for 13 weeks. Keep an eye on it along the way. See what happens at the end. End result not guaranteed and will vary every time—given natural variation in all factors—but it’s surely better than turning your back on the whole thing and risking under-cooking, tasteless raw lumpiness, and/or equally tasteless overdone patches where your materia has been allowed to stick to itself, not mix properly, and consumed itself into a burned powdery crisp.

I did the manifesto on why literature, reading, writing, story-telling, and poetry matters last year quite a lot: partly as at that stage I didn’t know what I’d be doing after April 2012, and there was—given the current economy—a distinct possibility that these would be the last courses and the last people I ever taught. That feels like a very heavy load. Sometimes that felt a bit teary. I resisted the urge to watch Dead Poets Society again, read Baudelaire, be melancholy and splenetic (insofar as females of the species can do such things: the other side of our incapacity for virtue?), and behave according to the worst stereotypes of French literary introspection. “Malingering,” my grandad would have called that (and probably mother too, in less charitable moments; fortunately, she’s kinder than to do that!).

Teary: melancholy, malingering, or melodrama; but the good thing was that it reinforced the heavy burden that teaching is, that this is something that matters. I think it was great that that last semester last year might have been my last; I like to think that I’ve usually taught well in the past, and I know I’ve always cared: about the courses, the transmission of knowledge, about the students themselves as people, and about helping and nurturing and catalysing growth. (Please don’t all barf at once. This is serious stuff.) But that last term: to quote the great Vinny Jones, “it’s been emotional.” In the period between applying for and getting my present job, and now—going into Week 3—I’ve learned two things.

One: when back teaching again this semester, I felt that same sense of “this matters.” Of fulfillment at the end of a class and a day. I like it and it makes me happy. Even if things ballsed up along the way, as they inevitably do, and then wiggled back on course or somewhere nearby. I mean, anyone who thinks they can teach in a fun interactive creative way, that respects and engages with their students, and who thinks they can do that with a neat tidy precise Lesson Plan à la Pedagogy & Teaching Methodology 101? Is having a laugh, hallucinating, delusional, or living in some other possible world. Yes, that even goes for the classic “I am going to talk for 45 to 50 minutes” lecture. For which there is, by the bye, a time and a place. Not every day, obviously. But it’s got a role to play in your multimedia multiple-approach textured “enriched” learning.

Two: rethinking the academic formula and identity. Teaching is important, and some research is too. Hopefully all teaching, though sometimes one does wonder: depending on who’s doing it, why, what they’re teaching, how, why the students are there, and if it’s not a self-perpetuating ego-massaging exercise and excuse for continuing existence. Both for some students (that’s often easily seen, in perpetual students of the wrong sort) and, I’m afraid, for some faculty. This may be news to people outside academia, and probably isn’t for most people working at universities and elsewhere in higher/third-level education. It’s a sad and sorry truth, and doesn’t help anyone. Least of all, as I was saying to a chum over email earlier today, us poor old marginalised medievalists: somewhere between exclusive and exotic, and in danger of extinction. For reasons of evolutionary adaptation; coping with climate-change; and senescence, decrepitude, and decay. But there is ground for hope: the human element. Teaching by humans who are humanists (in all senses). Who are alive and have a healthy survival instinct, and who are living rational beings and can use reason not merely to survive, but to flourish. Not necessarily to grow: enough of the Viagra-paradigm in everything from economics, politics, and history to more mundane everyday life… but to be an integral stable part of something that continues in a robust vivacious way.

Rethinking that connection between teaching and research: for me, but also on the larger-scale. I’ve taught for a fair while, and wanted for just as long to bring that activity and research together in some way, but that’s partly as these are two things that I like (off and on) and I know are important—they matter to me, and they matter full stop—and, like all things/people/ideas you like, it’s nice to try to introduce them to each other and you hope they’ll be friends. There’s a hundred ways of integrating teaching and research: twins, a Platonic androgyne, a love-hate relationship, two faces of one thing, separate but complementary, an active/passive duo.

One I hadn’t thought of much until last year was that they’re both learning, and they’re both a looped conjoined reading-and-writing (I’d call it circular, except it’s more spiral… maybe “nebular,” if that doesn’t sound too nebulous?)

The kind of teaching I do asks students to learn. And me to learn with them and from them; to see how they’re learning and bring that into teaching; and all that involves my reading them (and writing on their written work, comments being of course commentary and “textual analysis” in their own right). The learning that the students are (hopefully) doing is similar to mine. In beginners’ language classes; in the class that sits on the wonderful thresh-hold between language and literature—hello FREN 122—where students are first starting to write about their reading of others’ writing; and in FREN 220, a combined introduction to (a) literature and (b) textual analysis, where students work on the commentary and the essay.

The kind of research I do, when you break it down, is this:

  • reading stuff
  • thinking about it
  • rereading it
  • rethinking it, and rethinking the thinking-part
  • re-rereading
  • re-rethinking
  • and so on

Accompanied by:

  • writing about the reading and the thinking, sometimes separately, sometimes together
  • rewriting: about the writing, the rereading, the rethinking
  • re-rewriting: similarly
  • and so on


  • reading and thinking leading to other further reading: looking unknown new things up, remembering parallels or echoes, checking old half-remembered vague recollections
  • reading random things and that reading leading to other reading
  • with accompanying networks being built threading, weaving, and webbing all those readings (and the thinkings and the writings) together

Sometimes “random” is “a word triggers something, sticks out, niggles and nags.” Association, analogy. Intuition, instinct. Distraction, digression. Seeing something out the corner of the eye/mind’s eye, and that thing catching the attention. This phenomenon has got something to do with being short-sighted. If you’ve worn glasses all your thinking life, you live in two realities—with/without glasses—and with an edge between corrected “normal” vision and bat-blind “natural” vision.You are much more aware of the difference between the two and of that edge. That is true of long-sighted people too, of course. But for the short-sighted, what you see outside framed normality is blurry and at a different focal distance. It’s mysterious. And because it’s blurry anything that is discernible out of the blur catches your eye. I’m in the -8 to -10 range, so we’re talking blurrissimo… I spend some of my time spec-less, and spent quite a lot of time that way when I was a small child; providing me with natural powers of magnification on close-up details, but also with more practice in deductive guesswork, the construction of meaning from haze, deploying past experience and acquired knowledge then forming hypotheses then testing them, and pattern-recognition.

It’s no coincidence that the Gibson novel of that name is one of my favourites in his opus. All this is of course “reading” in the Barthes sense. See also: “le monde flou,” and Marc Escola, « Présentation : le vœu de myopie », dans Fabula LHT (Littérature, histoire, théorie), 01 septembre 2007, URL : http://www.fabula.org/lht/3/Presentation.html The latter is a good overview piece on les microlectures: sharing something of the long tradition of exegesis and commentary, 20th c. English close reading and practical criticism, and the classic French explication/analyse de texte. Back to teaching: every week in FREN 220 will involve exercises that combine microlecture with micro-écriture, and half the course’s work, of a commentative nature, is of course microlecture.

Often the random turns out not to be utterly arbitrary, but following some cunning rapid mysterious inner mechanism that later on can be rethought and reformulated/~written as: was a good idea and makes sense. Only later. And when reconstructing, adding in hypothetical a.k.a. imaginary and maybe even fictitious pathways. There’s something in common here with that spectre vs. arch approach to Big Questions, in that apparent uncontrolled randomness is one of these things that can be dark and scary and bad, or a positive asset and boon, depending on attitude and response.

What complicates with microlecture complicates this pseudo-random reading:

  • reading on several levels and in several layers simultaneously
    • + keeping all these levels, layers, threads in view and under control
    • + maintaining sense in sight: delving into detail without getting lost in it; digging while clinging to and following rhizomal networks … and surfacing for air occasionally…
    • … that is, not forgetting to breathe: remembering what you’re doing and why you’re there
  • + doing all this in the contrary motions of decryption and deduction

Best practice and prior or parallel training for this, and best accompanying background music: The Best Of Bach or anything else that’s contrapunctal, polyphonic, and richly textured.

Best reading-material (whether books, TV shows, or movies) for intermissions: anything featuring detection (e.g. crime fiction) and/or the hypothetical (e.gg. science fiction and other speculative fictions). Twin Peaks is highly recommended.

All of which is lovely and happy and leaves me gamboling like a spring lamb in flowery meadows, and leads to the following links, which were actually what I meant to talk about when I started writing this post. This post, which has turned out to be mostly preliminary prologue; or, an introduction to literature and to literary analysis. Consider these links, assembled, as an introduction to Early French literature and to textual analysis:

  • (sorry, UBC FHIS French folks only) part of this year’s French Research Seminar is on microlecture, with accompanying bloggy commentating activity. We’re very hip in my department, and intelligently so.
    The guiding precepts for which are the Escola piece linked above.

    • Classic case of random-linkage-method in operation: I found it when searching “barthes + myope/myopie” as I (still) vaguely remember that he was short-sighted, and am convinced that short-sightedness makes for better critics. That Escola piece turns up and is linked to several times in the first several pages of Google search results. I then went to the Research Seminar’s blog/site for the first time, to check what their microlecture materialsand who their Cited Authorities were and guess what? Escola again.
    • From which: links can come into being, and they can also wax and wane. This one strengthened and became more important. As with any network-map and its component points (when a point becomes a nexus) and threads (when a minor vessel becomes an artery for heavy information-flow).
  • The 41st UBC Medieval Workshop’s DEADLINE FOR ABSTRACTS is today: its theme is “Interpretive Conflations: Exegesis and the Arts in the Middle Ages” and the call for papers is here.
  • l’affaire Millet: Richard Millet has resigned from Gallimard’s editorial board, because of the reception of his “Eloge littéraire d’Anders Breivik”; reception which included a marvellous piece from Annie Ernaux, coming up in the next post (as this one is already over 2000 words long). For more, see:
  • l’affaire Camus: another scandal, around the planned Camus exhibition. It’s been building up for a while now. See the latest: Michel Onfray’s “la nef des fous” in Le Monde (YO MEDIEVAL REFERENCE! MEDIEVALISM RULES OK!!) and the commentaries thereon.
    As ever with blogging: if you’re interested in commentary and commenting, you’re in clover. The literary point of interest here is—back to this post’s title—”what’s the point of having an exhibition about a writer?”
  • and—Le Monde again—republication a couple of days ago of a wonderful interview with Yves Bonnefoy from 2010. One of my favourite poets, translators, and writers about poetry (and all manner of other things, and the poetry in life, and living poetically). If you haven’t at least read his translations of Shakespeare, you haven’t lived.
    I think it might be something about getting old(er), that the passing of time changes, and you’re sometimes not too sure if someone’s living or dead. I am often surprised at how old someone I like is (usually it’s older rather than younger), and all too often find someone I think of as very much alive is dead. So it’s really nice to see someone you thought was dead is still alive.
    In apology: here are his most recent works (that is, since the date I thought he’d died):

    • Deux scènes et notes conjointes (2009)
    • Notre besoin de Rimbaud, Seuil (2009)
    • Raturer outre (2010)
    • La Communauté des critiques, Presses universitaires de Strasbourg, (2010)
    • Pensées d’étoffe ou d’argile, Coll. Carnets, L’Herne (2010)
    • Genève, 1993, Coll. Carnets, L’Herne (2010)
    • La Beauté dès le premier jour, Bordeaux, William Blake & Co (2010)
    • L’Inachevable, Entretiens sur la poésie, 1990-2010, Albin Michel (2010)
    • Le Lieu d’herbes, Galilée (2010)
    • Le Siècle où la parole a été victime, Mercure de France, (2010)
    • L’Heure présente (2011)
    • Sous le signe de Baudelaire, Gallimard, (2011)

I was also amused to see another earlier one: La Quête du Graal, avec Albert Béguin, Le Club du livre, 1958 ; rééd. Seuil, 1982. Interest piqued (or, the eye caught) from a medievalist point of view and because The Mole had been working on 1958, a year that has thus been haunting us for the last couple of years.**  It’s uncanny how often you bump into 1958 in daily life, without even looking for it.

Aside from the teaching-research-learning nexus—perhaps a Karl Uitti creative triangle—maybe these sorts of commentative literary activities and reflexions on literariness are in the air? I’d rather thing of this as something normal and natural and essentially human, rather than a fashion. Style, rather than fashion. Chic, not mode.

On which subject of fine French style:

  • The Collège de France have revamped their site and it is now officially amazing. It’s brought the term universitas into the 21st century, the digital text revolution (on which: back to 1958, earlier txtual revolutions, and introduction to text/ual analysis) and its move to free public access to knowledge, and at the same time brought us back to WHAT A UNIVERSITY IS and WHAT THAT WORD MEANS.
    Marketing and branding departments, take note. UBC Brand, that means you.
  • See for a completely non-haphazard example of why the Collège de France is great, why its site is great, and why Medievalism and Medievalists are great: Michel Zink (Chaire, Littératures de la France médiévale)
  • Collège de France inaugural lectures (OpenEdition; leçons inaugurales)
  • Collège de France podcasts
  • word of the week: la baladodiffusion

To conclude: here is one answer to “what’s the point (of FREN 220, French literature, literature, and/or learning)?”

* Image at top, further interpretation thereof / commentary thereon: Possibly accompanied by some pointing; unknown whether intentional, accidental, nonchalant hand-waving, or with mysterious underlying forces at work.
Optional extra, for imaginative readers: iron hand in velvet glove, beyond the confines of the frame.

** Christopher Mole, “Nineteen Fifty-Eight: Information Technology and the Reconceptualisation of Creativity,” Cambridge Quarterly 40.4 (2011): 301-27.

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