III. A MEDIEVALIST TEACHING EXPERIMENT
(Continuing from part 1. Long. This is what I’ve been working on from September through December.)
The rest of this talk was about a practical experiment in medievalist teaching last term. MDVL301a was a third-year undergraduate course in Medieval Studies, on 5th-14th c. European literature. The image above was at its beginning and end and visually centred the course. Further investigation of the image—reading, research, contextualising—sets up some key questions and critical comments about education (higher / advanced and otherwise). The image is from the 12th-century Hortus deliciarum by Herrad of Landsberg: an encyclopaedic work containing and about knowledge, for educational purposes, written by a scholar-teacher with others (including students) as a collaborative work, in an institution of advanced learning founded in the 7th century. Not a university. Not a university academic. By people who are excluded from the medieval university, yet are persons of privilege and high rank. And yet: part of the same world of learning, composed of people and networks devoting their lives to learning; a world that is also one of lifelong learning.
The course combined three principal elements:
(1) From the 5th-century start, delimitation, confine, bounds…
A theme: THE LIBERAL ARTS
- Through a literary work: DE NUPTIIS PHILOLOGIAE ET MERCURII
- What are the liberal arts?
- What is a liberal arts education at a university?
- What is a university?
- What are these things, what’s their point, what do they mean?
- What can the medieval liberal arts tell us about its present-day relative, and how might higher education in the present day learn from its medieval cousin?
(2) From the 14th-century end of the parameters, borders again…
A literary work, at the centre of the course: LE ROMAN DE LA ROSE
- that looked back to the 5th century (and before, and all over Europe)
- and forward to the 14th century (and into the 15th, and the first recorded debate about vernacular literature in Europe; and indeed further beyond the usual limits of the medieval)
(3) Bridging the 5th- and 14th-century “ends,” an overarching structure…
A form: THE ROSE
A mode: ALLEGORY
- a course that was shaped something like its material
- circular and spiral shapes, wheels, and globes
- serving as a gateway (the circular Stargate, the Chinese and Bermudan Moongate) into an other world and other ways of thinking and being:
- non-linearity, rose-structures, in movement, with multiple points of view, multiplicity and polyphony and polysemy, allegory, and satire
- seeing and thinking imaginatively, metaphorically, poetically
- and a conjunction of creativity and criticism that can enable people to stand, defend, hope, and survive against hypocrisy and whatever else Life and Fortune send our way
I set the course up and taught it as a mixture of medieval literature and medieval studies; it included assorted history/ies, social, institutional, (some political but not much), of art, of ideas, of the book; and some manuscript studies and work with digital humanities online projects. While the set texts were European and literary, we also worked with different kinds of texts—which might or might not be considered “literary”—and a range of materials and contexts that were not just European. The two set readings were at either end of the historical period, and influential throughout Europe, and therefore (besides being interesting in their own right) potentially useful to any students continuing in medieval and/or literary studies: Martianus Capella, De nuptiis Philologae et Mercurii and Guillaume de Lorris & Jean de Meun, Le Roman de la Rose. Both were read in English translation, but with reference to the original especially through manuscript witnesses. While these other languages were not taught in the course, I observed that some students started acquiring bits and pieces through parallel reading; this is also how I started learning some languages (so I approve). Of the other writers and works that recurred and wove a network around our texts, the most influential node was probably Boethius: connecting together liberal arts, “translating” in the broad and bridge-building sense, and for obvious timely reasons the idea of consolation was a catchy one. Some students read and opted to work on De Consolatione Philosophiae for their final projects.
The course was shaped around the Roman de la Rose. It was a natural choice, l’incontournable. For those who have not yet met it: this is a 13th-century 21,000+ -line long dream-vision allegorical narrative poem, in two parts, the longer of which reads as a continuation of the first. It is, amongst other things, about learning. It ends with the rape of the rose. Many other things happen along the way, mostly in the form of talk, much of which embeds storytelling in the frame narrative, sometimes in further mise en abyme. Think of it as a stereotypical French movie avant la lettre, mostly talk; bohemian, intello, misogynist, flippant, uncanny, witty, scandalous, erudite, bitchy, lyrically poetic, sarcastic, cruel, angsty, visionary, irreverent, prophetic, and occasionally pompous; in black and white, very shady, probably Nouvelle vague, with five o’clock shadow and a whiff of unfiltered Gitanes. It’s quite seductive in its way. And dangerous. And, I repeat, deeply misogynist… though its irony, facetiousness, and scathing satire can be misanthropic, and/or feminist, and/or also anti-feminist, all of them simultaneously if you’re very lucky. I’ve had a love/hate relationship with the Rose since first reading it as an undergraduate twenty years ago, and working with it (and trying to keep away from it) as a graduate student. This is now the fifth time I’ve taught it; it’s been different every time; that is, both the course and the book. I had last taught it in 2012, in two courses at the same time (reading it very differently in each: see RMST221 – “Intrigue” and MDVL302 – “Commentary”).
L’incontournable is not alone: on a similar scale and range, add Chrétien de Troyes, Marie de France, Guillaume de Machaut, Christine de Pizan. Just as a course in English, or a medieval studies course taught by someone in English, would probably centre naturally (even if avoiding them and being anti-canonical) around Chaucer or the Pearl Poet, were it to centre on one single writer from this period. Or, for Italianists, Dante or Boccaccio. And with other parallels for others. For other periods in French, we’re looking at other single works of similar magnitude and scope; like À la recherche du temps perdu or La Vie mode d’emploi. Now add that as well as being a roman of aventures, the Rose is a bona fide encyclopaedic specular total work containing all knowledge. In over 300 manuscripts—with the usual variation one would expect, and then some—from the 13th to 16th centuries, not counting incunabules and early printed books from the 15th century onwards. It’s usually only taught (if at all) at the graduate level, sometimes upper-level undergraduate but in Old French. Being a perverse creature, I like teaching it to other audiences. Yes, in English (if it’s good enough for Dante, then it’s good enough for Jean); with occasional pokes into the Old French as necessary, and hopefully to entice students into learning it, just as reading Proust in translation has been an incentive to many to learn French. Besides, 13th-century French is much easier than the 19th- or early 20th-century version.
By the time I was part-way through the course, I realised that I had a book’s worth of material on the Roman de la Rose. I have absolutely no idea what to do with it, or how. It’s not shaped as a book and it’s weird. Anyway, that stuff is there. If anyone wants to use it for teaching, please do; if anyone sees ideas there and can develop them in their own way, please do; and if anyone has any idea what else I can do with this stuff, please let me know.
THE COURSE ITSELF
The course was on UBC WordPress. I’ve used WP “proper” for ten years now: the first time not as you might imagine, for blogging, but to build a “website that’s not a website but looks like one” for the Forum for Medieval and Renaissance Studies in Ireland, because for our purposes we needed to make something that wasn’t a traditional (at that time) HTML site but a MySQL database with PHP code. This present blog is on WP, and I’ve used WP for making course sites since 2008; including, here at UBC, the UBC version. For my purposes, it’s perfect; more adaptable and designable than the university’s official learning management system, which is a version of Blackboard; lacking some of the latter’s functionality (things that are useless or irrelevant for my/our purposes) but nicer to use, faster, and easy to change in an organic fashion along the way: making changes to individual pages and posts, moving elements around, adding new ones, reconfiguring how things connect to each other, having them rhizomally networked and with multiple connections rather than in a simple hierarchical order that, once set up, is very much set.
The course remains where it is, and freely available (Creative Commons BY-NC-SA licence). At a certain (uncertain) point, I’ll export it to a WordPress site as a backup. If teaching multiple iterations of a same course as different versions (for example RMST 221: 2012 (“Intrigue”), 2011 (“Mischief”), 2009 (“Adventures”)), I’ll archive backups on WP and use the UBC WP site for the active version, with redirects for old versions.
The main page was the point of entry and main reference-point, and I’d change it every week accordingly, links and all. The current version is therefore from the end of the course:
I’ve used variations on this kind of set-up before. It is labour-intensive. The home-page retains fixed elements that stay in the same place throughout the term—the translated equivalent of the table of contents, appendices, and index of a fixed book—though they were being added to along the way. The motile home-page functions as a moving book-mark.
Here are the fixed elements, structuring the course as a whole as they appear on every page or post, providing a navigational layer / dimension that’s always there:
A search box: because no matter how much imaginative work I might be able to do, putting myself in the shoes of any potential user of the site, trying to think of anything they might possibly be looking for and any route they might possibly be taking to find it, I have limits. The lack of searchability is my own Number One Bugbear about a LMS like Blackboard, and it’s the first thing I put in any site I’m building. Free open access to information in whatever way you want; technology at your service, not the other way around.
First and foremost, as the most immediate, active, interactive part of the course: the area where students added their comments every week, with the option throughout the course of adding to comments on previous weeks and continuing discussion.
Class notes, every week, happened in three stages:
- The set readings for that week and general topic (set up in August 2016, before the start of term and of the course)
- At the start of the week: my own notes (I work from notes, I never write a whole lecture as a written paper to read out: this is how I translate and interpret the word lectio)
- At the end of the week: a tidied version including links to online materials that were used, links to further information about persons and place and ideas and works referred to, embedded images and video (which sometimes succeeds in feeling a little like the multimedia work that is an illuminated manuscript), and any digressions, tangents, divagations, and questions raised especially open or unaswerable ones
- A cumulative index nominum which is almost all Wikipedia links to persons, works, and places mentioned in the course; plus some from students’ presentations. While those who make frequent reappearances are all there, it’s not complete: I do need to add some more but I’m writing this at home and the notebooks containing notes I took during student presentations are in my office in the MDVL301A file in a filing-cabinet… Were I teaching a similar course again, I would also have students work on cumulative indices like this one, and helpful resources, all term (say, for 5% of their final grade); as community service.
Students could also record the class (audio only) if they wished.
- Resources specifically on the Roman de la Rose, including old teaching materials of my own and a short list of works and scholars I’ve found most accessible, clear, and comprehensive
- Resources for any work on medieval European (and somewhat broader) languages, literature, other artifacts, and culture; also a slightly elderly but probably now classic list of digital humanities projects. They show what can be and is currently being done, and where there’s future work to be done, continuing beyond the course in lifelong learning.
- Resources on reading and writing (= “On reading, writing, and commentary” here on metametamedieval)
- and research
Last—as furthest from the immediate present of active learning—the syllabus and associated things, either expansions or extensions of items in the syllabus (ex. Assignments and Help):
Navigation: Conceptually, a site is closer to a map or graph than it is to a book. That’s not just because of the moving and changeable aspects. Ideally, it provides support and guidance: information for its reader to make up their own mind, seeing all routes and a larger whole rather than just the immediate next step and a single directed pathway, and providing the opportunity for digressions and meanderings in a whole landscape rather than a fenced-in highway. Mind you, I’m prejudiced as more inclined towards bridges and fords than walls.
The main elements of the course that I highlighted in my talk were structural ones; I didn’t go into the course content in any detail. If you read the class notes from weeks 4-10, you’ll see why; one can’t condense several hours’ material into one talk. So the talk was rather like the first class in a course, when you go through the syllabus with students. In this post-course talk version, I actually knew a little more about what I was talking about. This was a curious sensation; I’m still not sure if it was more or less odd than the introductory session in the original class itself. That first class is always a strange one, in any course; for a course that’s completely new and much of which is going to be carded and spun and woven along the way, there’s a lot of added uncertainty. I did emphasize that this was an experimental course in which many things would be unknown, unpredictable, and improvised so as to respond flexibly to student presentations, readings, comments, questions.
PRE-HISTORY OF THE COURSE
Events in the outside world influenced the first stages of working on this course, from December 2015 to February 2016. For some years, we have been reading about “the crisis of the humanities” and “the liberal arts in peril,” and seeing both in live action. Universities were and are under threat: education commodified, institutions corporatised, and their very identity and definition as places of higher learning under destruction. Their running and governance shifted to “professional” administrators and managers, with an ever-growing presence of sub-contracted external “expert” consultants. Decision-making powers moving increasingly to governors who represented interests other than, and often antithetical to, those of the intellectual world: the world of ideas, the preservation and creation and dissemination of knowledge, and free investigation and experimentation and research. Governors who appeared to be innocent of education, or of an education of their own, let alone a higher education. (And no, as we’re seeing in the horrors south of the border right now, business school most definitely does not count as it is not equivalent to an actual university higher education.) Even UBC was not immune from such problems.
Some of my most irritable and irate public online commentary at the time had been about the misuse of words. Once a philologist, always a philologist: it’s as inescapable as Catholicism. Misuse and abuse; and about misreading and reading competence. I questioned whether people had read let alone understood some vital things like the law, codes of conduct, and dictionary definitions of words like university and education (regular readers of this blog may also recall ethics, confidence, innovation).
Umberto Eco died on 19 February 2016. He haunted this course; with Il nome della rosa (book or film or both) as pre- or side-reading, and its contributions to a semiotics of rosaceousness. The only thing that I actually read aloud in the introductory class—yes, that kind of lectio—was the opening pages of the English translation, to get into the spirit of medievalism, investigation, adventure, and an other-worldliness that intersected with our own.
On 22 November 2016—in the second-last week of our course and shortly after the American presidential elections—Eco’s essay “Ur-Fascism” re-circulated widely online, via Open Culture. It was first published in the New York Review of Books twenty years before (June 1995), and joined a litany of uncanny apocalyptic prophecy that progressively formed an unexpected thematic undercurrent to the course.
So it seemed like a good idea at the time: to have a course on what a university, the liberal arts, and a liberal arts education actually are.
Here is a quick reminder of what a university is. It is a body corporate of students and faculty. To rescue it from dismemberment and forgetting, from destruction and rewriting as gaslighting alt-facts, we need to “remember” (in all senses) the university, and return the faculy of Arts to its proper place at the centre and as foundation to all further disciplines (law, medicine, and theology-and/as-its-descendants). Remember that the “S&M” in STEM are actually arts (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music, and the descendants). The E is also perfectly respectable, the descendant of masons’ fraternities; and the T is that of craft guilds. They all fit into a living world of learning that includes but is not limited by ideas (past and present) of “the university,” while upholding ideas of “higher” knowledge (more abstract and seeing further in all directions) and of universality.
Remember our central image: made by and for persons and in a place on the margins of university education at that time. Remember the relative position and role of philosophy herself; of Plato and Socrates in conversation; and, on the lower border of the page but crucial, the “magi” and the poets: observing, glossing, commentating, talking to each other, guiding, catalysing; sages, savants, and seers. They are all in positions to see everything that is happening, all points of view, with critical distance. Not all are positioned centrally; yet all can see all, and see each other. This is a non-hierarchical interconnected network in which the marginal is quite the opposite, and in which there is room for movement, growth, and an increase in connective concentration. From which come true richness, value, and influence; greater goods than mere importance; and appropriate to a (public, in UBC’s case) institution serving the public interest and public good, part of the common wealth and res publica, looking in many directions, taking the long view far into the past and the future.
This (image, university) is also culture: a continuity beyond the life and limits of one individual or generation; a greater whole and a bigger picture; community, memory, hope. That is what puts and keeps the “human” in the humanities, and without which they, we, and the world are dehumanised, inhuman, a mindless zombie walking dead, and doomed.
Enough doom and gloom. What did we actually do in this course?
ENTER THE SYLLABUS
The art of asking questions is vital. It may be the most important skill learned in a medieval BA, and tested in an MA, with a relic in the modern PhD viva / defence. It is the single most important thing that an undergraduate degree (BA or BSc) today can teach, to prepare students for wherever their lives and Lady Fortune will take them. Whatever you do, you should—I hope we all will—always be a citizen and member of a civic, civil, civilised community; with rights and responsibilities; a liber. And that means asking questions, and that in turn means asking the right questions. Questioning powers, holding authorities to account, advocating for others, interacting harmoniously, and maintaining curiosity about the world around you. Being geeky. Being alive, sentient, and a human being.
I’ve incorporated blog commentary for questions in courses for nearly ten years now. I borrowed the original basic format from colleagues in philosophy:
Every week, in response to your reading or to what we’ve been doing in class, ask
(1) a simple question (of a sort that you or a peer could answer right now, and that it would be reasonable to see on an exam),
(2) a difficult question (that would require further research to answer, might even be taxing to the original writer or an expert, and could be a topic for advanced studies), and
(3) make a comment.
These questions are then used for discussion sessions: this helps shyer students and others who benefit from more time to prepare. Questions are a less infantilising way to gauge and encourage attendance and participation, using the positive peer pressure of collegiality, and help to foster respect and relationships. In the case of a course with a final exam, I’ve used the students’ questions for revision and for the exam itself; students would each select ten questions they would be happy to see, ten questions they wouldn’t, and from there I would put together the exam (open book, with meta-level questions on student independent work and how it responds to course title and topics). Students working on thei own final exam is also one of the most productive and intelligent kinds of student-directed learning and higher-order oversight of their course; indeed, making it theirs. Here is an example of such an exam from another UBC Medieval Studies course, MDVL 302, which was thematically centred on commentary, criticism, and questioning. MDVL301A had no exam: I didn’t have to have one, I was feeling quite anti-exam, it seemed inappropriate as being out of keeping with living, for at least a few hours a week, in an other pre-exam world. When I checked with the students in the first week, they were happy with no exam. So that was that.
Finding, making, and sharing knowledge was a collaborative effort. Student presentations were the core, living beating heart, in the middle seven weeks of the course.
We met twice a week, on Tuesday and Thursday, one and a half hours each time.
The class was divided into seven groups at the beginning of term: a sign-up sheet, some juggling as people joined and left the course, it all worked out. Each group was responsible for one of the seven liberal arts. No prior knowledge was expected. Their first assignment, while I was away performing bridesmaidenly duties at my sister’s wedding in York (UK), was to spend a class getting to know each other, reading “their” section of De nuptiis, and then explain it to the rest of us in class the next week. This way, no-one had to read through the whole text in one sitting the first time they met it; everyone got some sense of the other parts from six other groups; and thus, they had a sense of the whole. This was also an exercise in collective reading, non-linear reading, multiple rereading, and that medieval kind of active interactive reading that means there’s a lot of interpretation, reinterpretation, questioning, and discussion afterwards. Accompanied by close reading and followed by further rereading. (I did fieldwork of my own while I was away; on marriage, conjointure, translatio, and some other 4th-6th century matters.)
After some more time working on and around De nuptiis we moved into the main part of the course, in which I took a section (and character or personification) from the Roman de la Rose and married it—mysteriously if not mystically—to a liberal art. Some were obvious: Nature and Astronomy, for example. Some less so. Some could have been rematched in more ways; like real human beings, some just aren’t suited to a one-to-one mapping.
The general pattern: On the Tuesday, we would start by tackling questions from the previous week’s Rose reading, passages needing further explanation, hypotheses on meaning(s). Then I’d talk about the Rose. This might include other material woven in, thanks to #medievaltwitter and ever more apocalyptic current affairs, and be associated with the student presentation to come, on the Thursday. My role would be to frame and set up the student presentation; the students came to see me (usually the week before their presentation, sometimes also over email) and I’d make sure I wasn’t going to repeat any of their material before their performance. They were also under strict instructions to stop me if I seemed to be in danger of trespassing; this worked out. On the Thursday, it would be over to the students for their presentation. I would help out at the end, to tie together their presentation and liberal art with the Rose section of the week. Presentations varied in length; I always prepared some more material just in case, but would leave it flexible enough to fit around the presentation’s content (ideally, to be a response to it) and duration. I set very minimal parameters or expectations for the presentations, expecting them to be around 20 minutes for the whole group. The first group set a high standard and it just went up from there. The longest single student sub-presentations were 20 minutes long, and the longest student group presentation took a whole class, nearly the full hour and twenty minutes. Presenters received individual marks. Some groups or parts of groups worked together more and were duly rewarded. Some individuals who didn’t work with the rest of their group still had a good mark. I tried to be fair.
They learned from each other, (at least) as much as they learned from me, and I learned from them too. I’ve learned massive amounts about medieval maths and sciences; I’ve also learned about those arts that I thought I knew fairly well. That’s brilliant. (Thank you, O belovèd students.) If you haven’t done this kind of thing before, may I recommend it to you.
It is hard work: you have to keep your own material sufficiently loose to adapt to the students, be ready to stop out of respect for their presentation to come, shape what you have to say around them. With some groups, this meant we were planning both that week’s classes together. But this kind of lecturing means improvisation. And what to say after the student presentations? I never asked students to show me exactly what they were doing beforehand, because I knew that many were working on their presentations right up to the last minute before class. If there was going to be extra stress in that situation, it should be on me rather than them. And while it didn’t feel stressful (because listening to the presentations was fun), working out how to round off and open out afterwards was probably the hardest work in this course for me. A thousand times harder than chairing a conference panel and thinking up questions for speakers in case there aren’t enough from the audience. A hundred times harder than being the formal respondent to a panel giving or talking about papers that you’ve read beforehand.
It may seem risky to have students work on something that is new to them and to you: trust them, and have the humility to learn from (and, if they’re generous, with) them. I’m not a very humble sort of person; but humility is definitely the word here. Being on the same level of knowledge is the single best way I’ve found to have an equitable, sharing, collaborative atmosphere in class. And the best of it is that you get to learn too, which is always brilliant. It’s refreshing, rejuvenating, exciting, and geekily enjoyable.
We talked a lot about the joys of geeking out, the pleasure of learning, docere et delectare; for example, playing with the online interactive Hieronymus Bosch Garden of Earthly Delights. (Were I to teach MDVL 302 again—Medieval European literature of the 14th to 16th centuries—I think I’d centre it on that. With the title “GARDEN OF EARTHLY DELIGHTS.”)
The knowledge-finding was also in figuring out the course itself: how to fit together the liberal arts, the Rose, and a sense of the medieval as a whole world: a sensory world too. It was a very visual and colourful course; I also had at the back of my mind another new course, also experimental, that I’m teaching right now on the bande dessinée in French. There was some sound. The next time I am teaching a medieval studies course, I will add more touch, taste, and smell: with books and other objects, and food.
What helped us all immensely was that during the last two weeks of the course, some kind wonderful colleagues graciously agreed to come and talk to the class. Some did so individually and some as a round-table; all dealt with the course’s key questions, each from different angles and fields, and in a very different way. So: students learned from me and from each other, I learned from them, we learned some things together (including figuring out weird bits of text—or not: just finding the right questions to ask is often as far as you can get, with the Rose). And then we all learned from our visitors (I sat with the students), and we all asked them questions. In the same way that graduate students and faculty do at colloquia, conferences, congresses. This added to the polysemy of the classroom: a networked learning across levels; which could be represented as a multi-dimensional mapping.
The very last class was a “festive fair of learning” in which students presented their final projects (or work in progress) to each other. A last session of students teaching each other, explaining what they were doing, asking each other questions about it, sharing knowledge. Some work was individual, some by pairs or threes. They were then supposed to email me their votes, views, reviews. This was not compulsory; I’ve made it compulsory in the past, and will be doing so in another course this term (where the final “anti-exam” is essentially a similar festive fair with written peer evaluation). In marking the presentations, I added points for votes from fellow students and for having provided feedback on them. This does means that there may be presentations whose mark was raised by student peer evaluation; the opposite is also true, as students are as good as anyone else at spotting shoddy work, the pedestrian, and plagiarism.
Student projects were of various sorts: essays, research papers, visual and plastic artworks, recordings of musical performances, research as a blog/site, and creative writing: continuation, rewriting, versions in alternative realities, resetting the Rose here and now, allegorical science fiction about education, history, economic history, history of science, how to prove the existence of the divine (not by a theologian), an origami wreath of roses, and a smartphone game. Masterworks: a point of conjunction between (1) medieval guilds’ practical, applied idea and a superficially non-scholarly world, (2) medieval scholarship (from a university master’s first public lecture to an encyclopaedia written by some nuns), and (3) any scholarship and approaches to learning in other cultures at other times and around the world, including those of First Nations here in BC.
AN EXPERIMENT: WHAT RESULTS?
As a course on Le Roman de la Rose, on medieval allegory, and as an experiment in medievalism, this was a success. A problematic and paradoxical success. None of it of my own doing. And I wish it hadn’t been a success. See, for example, what happens at the course and Rose mid-point:
And, by pure luck, two of the apocalyptic images in the sequence above
were echoed in the cover of a recent issue (July 2016) of The Economist,
which led us into talking about political allegory via a community outreach event on the other side of the world:
Now, that Faus Samblant section of the Rose is fiendishly difficult and complicated. It’s one of those passages where you see something new, and gobsmackingly bizarre, every time you read it. This time it was positively easy. Students moved to the tricky eschatological questions. My additions to course notes were further details about church and millenarian heretical history. It was all very à propos, apt, even natural (in its unnatural horror).
Week 10 of the course: music, Bel Accueil, harmony, and making sense of a whole.
Also: the American presidential elections.
An uncanny freakish unpredictable interflow of worlds. Such things cannot (and should not) be planned for in advance; they cannot be avoided or escaped; blinkers and tunnels and walls won’t help anyone; the only possible course of action is to go with the flow and plant the seeds of resilience and resistance.
And now, more than a month after final projects were submitted, a month into the new term?
Of the students in the class, one has presented their research at a conference, some are applying for related further study (research, library and information and archival studies), some are thinking about it, one is publishing a story (and other MDVL 301A students, if you’re reading this: SHARE YOUR WORK! SPREAD THE WEALTH! PUBLISH, PERFORM, KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK OF PLAYFULNESS!)
I was so confident that the course had been a success that I read the student evaluations, on my own. The first time I’ve done so in many years. I am not a very fearful person in other ways, but I cannot handle student evaluations on my own. Department heads have had the kindness to read them with me, reading for what is good and what can be improved on, avoiding the other stuff. Really, seriously, I can’t read them on my own. It hurts. I have nightmares. I feel destroyed by evaluations. Never want to teach again. But last week, I felt that I trusted my own judgement and perception of the class, and trusted the students, enough to read their evaluations. And they’re really good. In the touching, validating way; they got it, it got them, it was all worth the work. Fides, spes, et caritas are restored.
That having been said, the evaluation system could be better. Ask someone a year later about a course. A year after graduation. Five years later, ten, twenty. That is, if you really want to know what is remembered in the long term, what has been most transformative, what has become part of a person, changed their world, saved their life. If you actually care and if the purpose of the exercise is about actual knowledge: that of students, and the thing itself. This is what a university’s alumni relations ought to be asking; and this is how the liberal arts and humanities could be strengthening their own community, communities outside, and by the bye raising funds. To invest in the future in the long term, looking back in the long distance, taking the long view in both directions just as wise universities and governments do with the funding of research: expect nothing right now, or tomorrow, or in a five-year plan. Expect the unexpected. Hope for Einstein.
I hope that students have gained and grown from the course, as you always do; but here and now, that’s important: to think critically and creatively; to be imaginative, innovative, irreverent; for life to become more metaphorical, allegorical, and poetic; to have and to continue to find sources of consolation; and to survive and help others survive through subversion and satire.
I hope that this course has given hope, and gives others hope.
Read, teach, learn, and write allegory and satire.
Scholars, journalists, commentators, writers, artists, thinkers: we are the Fifth Estate.
We serve as check and balance to unfettered absolutist power and rule by dictat and fiat.
(because a blog post can never be too long):
SOME SAMPLE CLASSES
Here’s a sample of the course, from the first three weeks of term. These screenshots go directly to the course site. And yes, we dove straight into digitised manuscripts and online collections and databases straight away; we also made much use of the Roman de la Rose Digital Library (Johns Hopkins University & Bibliothèque Nationale de France).
Notes can be consulted in a number of ways: using the drop-down menu, using the “class notes” post as a base, and also—in the manner of a physical book—starting with a given week and leafing through them; I used date- and time-stamps to group sets of posts together, so that the foot of each post leads you to the next and previous ones. Starting with “class notes” itself, you can read to the end, go to the next item > which is “Notes: weeks 1-2 >,” and so on… (I first devised this cunning pre-/post-/fake-compromise book trick for putting members of the FMRSI in alphabetical order, so that
led to the member before and after them, alphabetically (ex. “” around “Jim Smith”). There are other simpler and more sophisticated ways of doing that nowadays, such as actually using MySQL properly. But this clunky old thing works.)