On animal reading and being humanimal

Teaching is a curious business


Teaching is a curious business. Whatever you plan, and however much and meticulously you plan, everything can change from one minute to the next in a live class composed of other living beings. This could be scary. It’s also wonderful. I wouldn’t change it for a minute, certainly not for the seemingly greater stability and solidity of the rigorously programmed and the rigidly scripted.

What happens in class is only a small part of teaching and of what a course is, and a class; for a course changes again with every class and its individual human participants, as a community of co-creation. How a course will translate to that class is never predictable, as it depends on who that class will be; a class is a “who,” not a “what.” At the moment of formally starting to make a course, you’re bearing in mind these unknowns and hoping to retain enough flexibility to accommodate them; that is, at the moment when you know, officially, that you will be teaching a certain course. You might already have been loosely thinking about ideas for courses off and on—just as a regular part of “what if …” everyday fanciful musings—and there would then be several months’ thinking, reading, writing, designing, and shaping before the course starts.

Then the course happens, and the class. And afterwards, there are highs and lows, and a stage when you’re wondering if it’s the right time to look back and think through it again; not too soon, not too late. In my case, I had to do this about a month ago in the regular periodic rethinking and redesigning of beginners’ French courses for this coming new term. I also have to do this rereading right now about another course from last term, as it’s part of a talk I’m doing at the MLA convention next week, in a session on “Animal Thinking.” The idea and abstract for that talk were the first stage of making this course last term, on “Animal Reading.” (This post isn’t that talk.)

RMST 221B “Literatures and Cultures of the Romance World I: Medieval to Early Modern – Animal Reading“ was a strange course. I knew it was going to be strange back last spring, and it grew strangely and stranger, and then, as expected—if the only thing that is predictable about how design translates to realisation is unpredictability—it took some odd twists and turns between September and December. One of the most remarkable was a human turn; or perhaps, rather, a human turn within The Animal Turn.

That Animal Turn: somewhere between trendy and a trend in humanities scholarship this century / extended fin de siècle. Part of a network of ecocritical movements within an environmental humanities; which might seem paradoxical in distancing itself from humanistically centring The Human Subject And (usually His) Agency.

The Animal Turn is no mere fashion, nor an irrelevant pointless useless scholarly abstraction in the Anthropocene, Capitalocene / Necrocene, and Cthulhucene. How the humanities—or at least the qualitative literate humanities—works actively and imaginatively on climate emergency, while in climate emergency, is very real, right here right now wherever you are, and urgent. We can start, as is the humanities and intelligent human way, by asking questions. (We’ll return to this paragraph towards the end of this essay.)

What does it mean to be an animal? To be a human? And what does reading have to do with anything?

These were the guiding questions for our course. Given the course topic and these questions; given the world that we were inhabiting in 2019; and being as we were in what I gather is perceived as a pretty right-on left-coast university: I fully expected the class to be much more pro-animal and anti-human. I hoped, of course, for it and them to be more complicated than a simple human/animal dichotomy; and we were.

It helped that Marie de France and Montaigne were the required readings, and read intensively. (More about the other readings later, including in the talk next week.) Hybridity, metamorphosis, and shifting and/or simultaneous multiple identities seem to be more comfortable every time that I teach Marie de France; moving from acceptable to accepted, but never becoming a blasé normal, always retaining an edge; surprising, sometimes shocking, radical, cool. By week 2 of term, we were already moving beyond mere anthropomorphism, starting to question the arrogance behind the assumption that empathy is always possible, and considering human limits to understanding.

Our reading was becoming less stereotypically human; what it was becoming is an open question. Ask us all again in ten years, in twenty, in fifty; hoping that we or anyone or anything else is still alive then.

I like the word “humanimal,” a human that accepts that it is a many-splendoured thing that hasn’t lost touch with its vegetative and sensitive souls, and that daily wonders and delights at being part of a splendid whole larger world; I’m still thinking through this idea of a humanimality within—to save a term from NewSpeak abusage—a “learning ecosystem.”

One of the purposes of this course was to introduce students to “some of the finest and most intriguing literary works from the premodern Romance world,” and one of the Official Stated Objectives was to provide “a deeper knowledge about the medieval European world: its culture and literature, against the broad lines of its historical background.” Bold, but bear in mind that the “deeper” was in the spirit of deep ecology; that “historical background” was from the point of view of, say, a frog rather than, say, Johan Huizinga; and that the “broad lines” were not Google Earth with the ability to zoom into the minute (pseudo-)objective topographical exactitude of Street View but rather the sweeping sense and affective feeling of impressionistic landscape art by Turner or, even more immersive (and ranine), the large-scale Monet water-lily paintings.

Any first visits into medieval studies can be alien and alienating. It’s easy to be scared and to resist and dismiss that alienness as difficulty, add in geographical and linguistic and temporal distance, and reject a whole world—or rather, a constellation of worlds—as a useless pointless irrelevance.

My usual approach is to draw attention as soon as possible in a course to that very alienness as a positive attribute and an attraction: exciting adventures in speculative fiction, fantasy and fairy-tale, science fiction, travels into unknown realms of wonder; bracing challenges for curiosity; embracing the strange. Remembering that “awesome” has more than one sense, and is the more awesome the more it is at once both wondrous and scary.

For this specific medieval studies course (with apologies to Montaigne whom I read more, medievally, as part of a long pre-/anti-modern continuum than as an Early Modern Post-Medieval Renaissance Man Paradigm Shift), the topical angles of approach helped: animals add further distance (and thinking about reading helps to see us weird humans with more critical distance; this can be a big step, in a second-year undergraduate course, in which many students were in their first year), a distance that’s again embracing rather than rejecting the alien, embracing the very idea of seeking out the alien and strange, questioning because doing so is stimulating and fun, and questing curiously. At the same time, our animals brought a medieval Romance world and a 21st-century Pacific north-west closer together; frogs retain a quintessential froggishness wherever they might be—though they and their stories vary—and our other shared fauna included deer, werewolves, horses, birds, large water-creatures, and mustelids.

This was also an environmental humanities course, and I’m still figuring out how that happened in the live action of a classroom. (There’s a lot of lecture notes, some of them very rough and scrappy, and another way in which this course changed course was unexpected creative ecocritical readings. Were I to do it again, I’d add even more trees, and trees as parts of whole forests. But I digress.) Thinking about our present world in environmentalist ways is, depending on your point of view, humbling or humiliating. You feel small, but part of it, enriched by that intimacy; or you feel big, but above and outside it, it’s an irritation to be swatted or stomped on, an irrelevance to be ignored, only relevant if useful, only useful if exploitable, only enriching through extraction and appropriation.

These are also two ways of thinking about understanding, and about learning and the point of a university course. The first, centred on appropriation, is characterised by a rhetoric of acquisition, ownership, and mastery. There’s a sense that you “take” a course, and it becomes “yours” when you “complete” it. At which point it ends and you move on to the next thing. Linear progression. In a straight line. That always progresses: straight ahead and upwards. The second way is centred on intimacy and is about relationship, care, respect, trust, co-dependance, and mutuality. A course takes you to other places and does so in curves, loops, spirals, labyrinths, and multidimensional meanders off the maps. You and it have become a new thing that can’t be yours as it’s ours: a class that is a community of people. A course is incomplete and unending: it continues, alive, moving outwards and inwards and back and under and every which way, applied and reflected through the active and interactive practice of lifelong learning.

This second way to understanding fits nicely with a course being doubly marginal or marginalised—the medieval and the environmental—and highlights how these marginalities are akin, how marginalities (more broadly speaking) intersect—a medieval studies that doesn’t have to be just one of white men with power and privilege doing great deeds of derring-do, but can be one of the truly noble of soul—and how the medieval can be a vital part of a richly biodiverse interconnected larger world of cultures / cultural world; just as anything else that’s strange and small is an important and enriching part of its environment. Frogs, for example. Imaginary and hypothetical people, human (recognisably or less so) and otherwise. Humans of the past. Humans now. Our class. The very marginality of the medieval, combined with the course topics, can help its approachability. Our supplementary readings included the fragile and precious: digitised manuscripts, 11th-13th c. textiles, and some slightly rare contemporary books: my own copy of Anne VanderMeer’s 2015 Bestiary, which I stalked online for years; and Elizabeth Morrison’s catalogue for the summer 2019 Getty Museum Bestiary exhibition, which I borrowed from our library as soon as it was processed, located in the Chamber of New Books, and given a barcode.

“Animal Reading” was a deeply humanistic and humane class; that is, the class that is the living community that we made together out of the course. Not the course itself—the quantity and quality of expected reading was brutal—nor me; this was the students, their mutual influence on one another and on me. This creative act was a key Human Turn in our animality.

When designing the course, I knew that the quantity of reading would be considerable. Because I have this weird thing about having a duty of care towards the old and the dead, respecting a book as a whole thing, leaving it complete, I didn’t want to set an anthology or dismembered selections from Montaigne’s Essays, and I wanted an English translation based on the Bordeaux copy and Villey edition, not—for all their merits—an Early Modern one. I did completely rearrange the order of the Essais (and Marie de France’s Lais), but students had their own book which they could read in its regular linear order (or any other way they chose). Now, we might be humans, and special humans at that, a self-selecting group of students who chose to take this strange course and who stayed despite warnings in every class for the first two weeks that it would be strange and experimental; but we were still living beings with animal limitations: time, energy, need for rest. So part of The Grand Plan was for us all to share in the reading and hope for supportive mutual aid.

And so it came to pass. For most of the course, in the Thursday class we’d divide up readings into sorts of reading circles. The first such session was in week 3, once the class had stabilised after the end of the course registration period. We took one essay as a practice session for reading in groups:

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(screenshots from discussions on the UBC “Learning Management System,” Canvas; closed site for students in the class)

The next week, we divided the class in two, divided the readings, and doubled the Montaigne:

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Week 5 was the first student discussion session proper. I helped with ideas, but we worked together; with more discussion prompts for support. Eschewing “leaders” and “facilitators,” RL came up with the term “Prof For The Day”; what would otherwise be “teams” were referred to as “[X]’s People.” The People did their thing. While they did so I would wander from group to group, answer questions (or suggest how they might be unanswerable and how that was fine and good), ask tangential questions, set up tangents, judiciously inject levity and/or gravity as appropriate and/or inappropriate, generally free-associate, and I guess be an irritating disruptive innovator.

I learned lots and loved it.

I think the students enjoyed it too, and enjoyed each other’s company and that communion and community; though this is a risky andragogical approach in today’s corporatised neoliberal individualist consumerist education with its outrageous fees (yes, even in a public university), where it might seem like poor value for money for so much time and effort in class to be spent listening and talking to fellow students. If I’m doing it right, it doesn’t look like it; but that meandering, and thinking on your feet, and getting other people to talk and listen to each other, and doing that gently and seeming casual and non-threatening and developing a comfortable congenial collegial atmosphere … that is work. Intensive hard work, 100% focussed. As is time spent in individual appointments—two sets, I think around 20 extra hours each week—talking through a term-long “scaffolded” project face to face, in lieu of setting and marking a traditional midterm.

In future sessions, we usually just divided up the readings in advance and questions tended to be set on the day through Profs For The Day each doing a mini-presentation to their People to set up discussion. I’d set up these discussions so as NOT to force students to do traditional presentations in front of the whole class, and this discussion set-up meant that those who liked doing that sort of thing were able to do so. Some students who were apprehensive or anxious (or traumatised and terrified) found themselves able to do so too, in the more supportive and humane environment of their more intimate reading circle. I divided up the class differently each week, so that people had a chance to meet others, except the last discussion class (week 12) that was done freely.

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Even in week 3, the discussion prompts were no more than that: a way to frame and start conversation, not necessarily to direct it—natural organic flow vs artificial and imposed structure—and for mutual respect, care, trust, and relations to grow.

One thread in the fabric of class relationship was a running joke about getting into the Montaignian spirit through digressions; a creative challenge for students, to see how far you could stray; and one for me, to see how any digression can still be relevant to our readings and topics.

Digressions and tangents are essential to education. The philological deep rooted sense of “education” isn’t just the ex– + ducere of “to lead out”—developing latent potential, a teacher bringing something out of a student—but that of drawing someone away, moving elsewhere. Leading astray and being led into straying. Digressing. Transgressing. An education of adventure, an uneducation of undirection. The education of Exodus 20.2, “Ego sum Dominus Deus tuus, qui eduxi te de terra Aegypti, de domo servitutis.” An education of flight; a miseducation of migrancy; an anarchist aducation of refuge-finding and -making and -sharing, moving towards a utopian elsewhere of radical hospitality.

One of the first and most fortuitous tangents was impromptu, when I mispronounced a student’s name. She kindly taught me how to say it and, so as to avoid any embarrassment or self-consciousness for her—any embarrassment should be mine—I used that as an excuse to find out what everyone’s names meant, for students to explain their names and naming to one another. It was a stroke of luck. It is so much more interesting for all concerned than just exchanging names; for future reference as a New Class Ice-Breaking Activity. It gave us a hook for a crucially humanimal Montaigne essay that we’d read a few weeks later (II.26, “Des pouces / Of thumbs”), a connection that wove back and forth through other sessions too via Isidore of Seville, etymologies (narrow and broad sense) and philology, meanings and the meaningfulnesses of things (and of people), and our topic of reading.

The students were great. They were kind and considerate when I was ill for, on and off, most of the term (variously, including flu and stress vomiting and worsening double anaemia undiagnosed until very late) and late. They were humane. Above all, they were good with each other, in this environment that they created together.

A course on animality turned into a class of human values.

Their humanity was most beautifully expressed in their anti-exam, in which they presented their final independent projects to each other and commented on them, and in their generous peer evaluations of each other; much of the assessed work in the course was self– and peer-evaluated. It’s not often that marking undergraduate exam papers make you cry in a good way. Some, many, of these students moved me to tears in their care, kindness, and love for their fellow students. They valued them. Hey, they might all have written horrible things about me in student evaluations—my tardiness was terrible—but that doesn’t matter: their care for each other does, and that is what I care about.

Alas that “love” is not the sort of thing that one could ever state explicitly as an official Course Learning Objective. (Oh hang on … )

The Animal Turn is no mere trend, nor an irrelevant pointless useless scholarly abstraction in the Anthropocene, Capitalocene / Necrocene, and Cthulhucene. How the humanities—or at least the qualitative literate humanities—works actively and imaginatively on climate emergency, while in climate emergency, is very real, right here right now wherever you are, and urgent. We can start, as is the humanities and intelligent human way, by asking questions. (We’ll return to this paragraph towards the end of this essay.)

I’d like to think that conjunctions, like in this course, of humanistic environmentalism and the environmental humanities could be a Human Turn in universities: in research and its scholarship, in teaching and the scholarship of teaching and learning, and in research and teaching working together as sustainable and sustaining learning-centred learning. Translating all of our institution’s marketeering strategic vision transformative experiential innovation into an actual real live Respectful Environment. That would be an Excellent Learning Outcome for all of us.

How the university humanities—or at least the qualitative literate critical creative liberal arts and humanities—works actively and imaginatively in urgent times is as actual real live as you can be: climate emergency, humanitarian crises, political catastrophes, daily fresh threats of cultural annihilation and genocide, the brink of world war. We are some of the people who are best qualified to resist the Capitalocene / Necrocene colonisation and corruption of education. We can refuse and publicly condemn its perversion of education into a paedophagocene pedagogy and an andragogy of abusive extractive utility. We can speak truth to power, for we are critical and creative experts. We are keepers and conservators of knowledge, and trobador makers and finders, and Campbellian seekers. We are writers, artists, and thinkers. We are visionaries and futuristic imagineers. As is the humanities and intelligent human way, as speculative fictioneers, we can start by asking the big questions, going beyond is to deal with might and could; like “what if …?” and “what might be?” and “how could our world be instead …?”

Educational leadership—or rather, educational collegial cooperative collaboration for intersectional (including environmental) social justice in rebellion against extinctionis intelligent innovation is The Public Humanities.

This course had “learning outcomes”; deliverables, product, results. The immediate one is student work. I can’t show you student final projects, though I may at some point one day get around to listing the kinds of things that students have made, over the ten years that I’ve been assigning them Medieval Masterwork / Anything But A ****ing Academic Essay final projects. You can read their other final work, some of which overlaps with their final projects, in their entries for a Local Bestiary as a Public Knowledge Contribution (a couple of entries aren’t on the public site yet but just on the closed Canvas; long story, my fault).

I made a few things too. There was the course itself; some bits of it I’ve already posted on here, there’s the MLA talk next week, I’ll be fleshing out what I thought was a decent lecture about reading like weasels, and there seems to be Content in some of what I can make out of my notes from the least animal and most environmental and most Experimental Creative Reading lectures (unfortunately they’re also from when I was most ill and should have been off work so this will be Interesting). Also:

Regarding that last item, a closing note about bibliography and secondary reading. As this was a second-year undergraduate literary and cultural course, our readings were whole primary texts (in modern English translation, with reference to digitised manuscripts online and introductory reference to the original languages; some students also read the original).

Rather than second-hand accounts, digests, excerpts, and secondary materials; while acknowledging that my own teaching and its readings of these primary writings is itself secondary writing, like any other interpretation and commentary.

And rather than, as I’ve done in similar courses before—looking back to the first time I taught RMST 221, for example—starting a course with two weeks’ solid general historical background to “set the scene,” the same before reading each text, texts read one at a time, and in chronological order. Without which a text can’t make any sense. (Spoiler: there are other ways to read contextually, respectfully, sensitively. Such as jumping right in and splashing around, frog-like; being small and scared and cautiously burrowing in mud, being aware that the world around you is bigger than you are, that you can’t get and grasp and control all of it, and that that’s OK; not least as you can see wonderful brilliant small things close up on the ground and in a water-course that The Big People can’t and can’t be bothered with and think don’t matter. Like lengthy parentheses.) With this kind of course, while I’ll add supplementary bibliography, it’s intended for individual independent further reading and in live teaching I tend to be very theory- and criticism-light. We already had plenty to do with Marie de France, Montaigne, and introductory encounters with bestiaries and fables and Old Occitan poetry; cutting time for them would have been a cruel and inhuman (human?) injustice.

The course was, however, of course haunted by everything that I was reading or had read, including a wide range of secondary writing; the bestiography includes a selection, and the Canvas screenshots above give some suggestion of the range of the rest. A central text for me, to which I’m fairly sure that I never referred—or no more than in passing, a throwaway footnote written on a board—was Donna Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (2016). That full title could be a subtitle for this course. We tried to stay human (and/or/as animal), we stayed with the trouble, and maybe added some more to it, and I see potential for some of the fine writers, artists, and thinkers who grew out of the course to make more humanimal trouble; and, I hope, to maintain some of the kinships made, to continue to make more kin, and for kinship to help us through trouble.

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The Local Public Eatery that inspired a Local Public Bestiary. Ending this post with a solution to the design question of how to end a course: our last week and the last word went to two sets—would-be “round-tables”—of guest speakers; in the first, we revisited the frog from the beginning of term; in the last class we consumed gingerbread babies while our visitors shared their readings of our final text, Montaigne essay I.31, “Des Cannibales.”

Next planned posts, in no particular order:

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