Analogy, Textuality, and Materiality in the Medieval Studies Classroom (extended remix): Presented at Georgia State University, Atlanta, GA, 13 March, 2014

Here are the text and slides from a (successful!) job talk I gave at Georgia State. This is an expanded version of a previous roundtable presentation, and my goal was to demonstrate how my scholarship in medieval studies, rhetoric and composition, and the digital humanities informs my pedagogy and classrooom praxis.

Analogy, Textuality, and Materiality in the Medieval Studies Classroom

Thank you for the opportunity to come and speak with you today about my work as a teacher and scholar working in digital composition studies, medieval studies, and the digital humanities. Before I get into my talk, “Analogy, Textuality, and Materiality in the Medieval Studies Classroom,” I’d like to give you a brief overview of my background, to provide some context for the work I’ll be discussing.

As a collaborator on the <emma>/Marca project, through my work with Hybrid Pedagogy, and as a Brittain postdoctoral fellow and then Assistant Director of Writing and Communication at Georgia Tech, I’ve developed and run workshops, bootcamps, orientation programs, and faculty professional development seminars focused on various permutations of “best practices for teaching with technology.” During the discussion period following my presentation, I am happy to talk about that experience and my approach to teaching in situations where the students are in fact my colleagues, or even my supervisors, and how I approach issues regarding resistance to technology in such settings.

During my talk, however, I am going to keep the focus on my work with undergraduates in one of my own classes, a literature class. In doing so, I want to demonstrate how I might work with those of you who are interested in doing so, to use technology to adapt and scale process-oriented, multimodal composition pedagogy for literature and cultural studies courses. I also want to show how even though the techniques and tools might be innovative and new to some of you, the fundamental pedagogical imperatives that shape my teaching in first-year and upper-division composition classes, and inform my understanding of where technology fits in humanities pedagogy, are most likely quite familiar.

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In his “An Attempt at a ‘Compositionist Manifesto,’” Bruno Latour advocates for a discursive practice he labels “composition.” Composition involves assembly, construction, creation. It challenges and calls into question the conceptual boundaries that often separate literary things, things such as books and scholarly essays, from non-literary things, things such as paintings and musical scores, buildings and dance. Latour’s discussion of compositionism also seems to blur at least some of the distinctions we often make between literary “authorship” and literary “scholarship” by suggesting the artist and the humanist ultimately draw upon many of the same tools and processes.

As a teacher who works frequently with medieval texts, and as a digital humanist, I am attracted by the affinities that seem to exist between composition and premodern hermeneutic practices. Middle English writers, like their medieval contemporaries on the Continent and in the Middle East and Asia, inventively recombined received genres and texts to create new works that responded to the urgent crises of their particular historical moment. Medieval authors were, of course, often concerned, some of them were perhaps even obsessed, with revealing hidden meaning and truth. They employed formal practices, however, that, like compositionism as Latour describes it, in many cases involved putting old things together in new ways in order to make or discover something unprecedented.

Thus, in the quote I’ve drawn from John Gower’s Confessio Amantis, the poet writes of finding a “middel weie,” a composition style that engages the reason through stimulation of the reader’s aesthetic sensibilities. He imagines the Confessio as a generic hybrid of historical “reporting,” political “commentary,” and good old-fashioned storytelling, combining “Somwhat of lust, somewhat of lore.” Gower goes on to announce his intention to draw stories of ancient virtue and vice together with his concerns about the present fallen state of his polity, in order to uncover the new lessons that might be gleaned from old books. He also justifies his decision to write a book in English “for Engelondes sake.” As a poet who worked with equal fluency in Latin and French, by announcing his choice of the vernacular as a departure from a real or imagined norm of literary practice at the time, he demonstrates his keen awareness of how conventions shape and are shaped by one’s audience. Further, the medieval “book” as Gower imagines it was a multimodal production. As objects, books could be elaborately decorated, and reading often involved social performance. Reading aloud—for instruction and entertainment, and sometimes both at once—was a common practice in a variety of settings.

In this image are depicted pages from 15th century exemplars of the Confessio Amantis, as well as a page from a modern critical edition of the same work. What we gain in the modern edition is a stable, legible text, and useful editorial apparatus. We lose, though, is a sense of the text's variability and multimodality in its original historical context. This slide led to questions and brief side discussion about the production and circulation of Middle English text in late-medieval England.

In this image are depicted pages from 15th century exemplars of the Confessio Amantis, as well as a page from a modern critical edition of the same work. What we gain in the modern edition is a stable, legible text, and useful editorial apparatus. We lose, though, a sense of the text’s variability and multimodality in its original historical context. This slide led to questions and brief side discussion about manuscript production and circulation of Middle English texts in late-medieval England.

The Confessio offers just one example of how the inventiveness, interdisciplinarity, and multimodality Latour attributes to compositionism are inherent in the period and the historical artifacts medievalists study. Yet, for the most the part, the products of medieval scholarship—including pretty much everything from critical editions of canonical texts to interdisciplinary studies of art and architecture—conform to narrow disciplinary and aesthetic conventions born out of the dominance within modern academic discourse—and to some extent perhaps within our culture more broadly—of the print monograph. Gradually, over the past several years, however, medieval studies has begun to open itself to the discursive potential Latour unearths in his exploration of compositionism. A return to or recovery of the value of historical analogy in our study of the past has helped pave the way for new-form scholarship that is both ludic and serious, and formally as well as methodologically innovative.

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For example, Carolyn Dinshaw in How Soon is Now? offers what she describes as “a contribution to a broad and heterogeneous knowledge collective that values various ways of knowing that are drawn not only from positions of detachment but also . . . from positions of affect and attachment, from desires to build another kind of world.”

If Dinshaw is describing the discipline of medieval studies—as a “broad and heterogeneous knowledge collective that values various ways of knowing,” then why must the participation of students within it be limited to reproducing, or attempting to reproduce, the forms and methods of what Latour calls “critique”? Can we not maintain intellectual rigor in our pedagogy, while at the same time embracing the range of productive activities imagined in Latour’s compositionism or Dinshaw’s “amateurisms? These were some of the questions with which I began designing an upper-division Chaucer seminar.

Ultimately, I took an approach that reconfigured textual studies, often identified as a point of divergence between “presentist” approaches relying on analogy, on the one hand, and more traditional medieval scholarship, on the other, as the link between the two. My goal was to get students to begin thinking of themselves as authors, or to use a word that might have been more familiar to Chaucer, as “makers.” I invited them to explore how their own processes of historical inquiry and creative production are situated, contingent, and shaped by available technology and dominant cultural practices, in order to help them understand how Chaucer’s were as well. In approaching course design, I never ask, “How can I get more technology into the classroom?” Rather, I ask, “What do I want to do in this class, and what might multimedia resources, particularly digital or new media, provide that printed texts and materials alone cannot?”

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Perhaps one of the least controversial answers to that question involves the role digital secondary sources played in the course. When I teach medieval literature, I want students to leave the class knowing medieval texts and also hopefully understanding how knowledge of these texts and their moment in history can enrich the students’ educational experience and their lives. And, like any good medievalist, I try to do that by immersing them, both the texts and the students, in rich historical context. Increasingly, we can access that historical context online via digital images and archives, and other web-enabled technologies. Many contextualizing secondary resources—maps, art, architecture—are simply not available to us in the original. And in some cases, the digital versions are just more pedagogically useful.

On on the first day of class, for example, I introduced my students to the Gough Map project. Since I was fortunate to see the map on display at the Bodleian library, I know how impressive the real thing is, and I hope that at least some of the students from class get to see it as well someday. But the map is also a unique and fragile thing. Even if we had access to it, there’s no way 16 undergraduate students and their instructor would have been allowed to crowd around and handle the map together. Having the map in a digital version allowed us to explore and discuss it as a group. We talked about its systems of representation, its familiar and unfamiliar modes of ordering and organizing geographical and cultural knowledge. Beginning with the map as an object of analysis also helped me ease students into methodologies of close reading where observation of surface detail (discussion of how something was represented on the map and how that is different from modern representational strategies) leads to historical and cultural analysis (a discussion of why someone might choose this particular strategy).

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In addition to providing access to material that would otherwise be unavailable in any form, some digital secondary sources convey information that is best understood when presented both aurally and visually, as well as textually. One of the most frustrating experiences I had as a graduate student was attempting to understand how medieval and early modern books were constructed through the folding and sewing of vellum or paper. Even diagrams sometimes created more confusion than clarity. So when I introduced my students to textual studies, I drew upon some of the really wonderful video resources that are available on the web. The source referenced here is an excellent series of short videos documenting the numerous stages of medieval bookmaking produced by a modern artisan manuscript maker.

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While the use of digital resources as secondary texts may be relatively uncontroversial, the proliferation of digital versions of primary texts in the public domain can present problems in the classroom. Students often rely on open access digital versions, rather than relatively expensive scholarly print editions of primary texts, and thus lose the important context provided by the editorial apparatus. Nevertheless, digital resources do often play an important role in my courses as primary objects of study for a variety of reasons.

LibreVox provides public domain audio recordings of public domain texts. Playing the the LibreVox audio recordings of the Canterbury Tales in class helped my students get a better grasp of Middle English pronunciation, making them more comfortable with reading the Middle English aloud. It added to their appreciation of the aesthetics of Chaucer’s poetry, how he uses sound, rhyme, and meter to create meaning in the text. We also discussed the different approaches the readers took when making the recordings as an entry point for thinking about reading—as both medieval and modern practice—as an act of interpretation.

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eChaucer is another excellent resource that did more than simply keep costs down for my students. I had them purchase a good edition of the Canterbury Tales with a facing-page modern English translation, but I used eChaucer for everything else. Even where I ask students to buy a print edition, availability of the digital version provides several practical advantages. It is much, much easier to integrate quotations from the primary source when one can copy and paste from a digital version. eChaucer certainly came in handy for me when I was pulling passages for the identification questions in weekly reading quizzes. For students, having access to a digital text that can be easily searched and reproduced—in addition to a good print edition—makes the text similarly available as raw material for their own compositions. I encouraged them to begin the drafting process by collecting passages they identified as significant through their reading and research into a Word or Google doc, and we discussed the relationship between academic explication and medieval compilatio and commentary.

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Eventually, as work in the class progressed, the remediated digital texts themselves became primary objects of investigation. For the final project, which was the culmination of our unit on problems of preservation and curation of history in the Middle Ages and in modernity, my students created a digital edition of the physical text they created for a previous project. So, we examined sites such as the Library of Scotland’s Auchinleck MS online and the Walters Manuscript and Rare Book Collection site to talk about different approaches to curating and presenting medieval codices on the web.

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Thus far, I’ve offered an overview of how a turn to the digital in my pedagogy facilitated an exploration of what Middle English literary production potentially shares with Latour’s idea of compositionism, and in doing so helped to bring the poetry of Chaucer and his contemporaries “off the page” so to speak, by drawing attention to its multimodality, its artifice, and its historical contingency. Now, I’d like to transition into a discussion of how digital pedagogy can transform the work of the classroom through a similar process. For anyone who is looking for such reassurance, let me assure you, I am not arguing we should abandon the essay or the seminar discussion. Rather, I think we need to understand both of them as strategies for facilitating critical and analytical engagement with the course material, and introducing students to the practice of humanistic inquiry. When we begin to think about our pedagogy in this way, we can make more intentional and better informed decisions about what strategies will work best for a particular outcome or text, with a particular group of students.

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For example, I have found that collaborative, in-class work on a multimodal, multimedia presentation on a subject can be more effective than in-class discussion. Late in the semester, when we were reading the Legend of Good Women and excerpts from Chaucer’s source material, the weekly reading quizzes and lagging in-class discussions cued me in to the fact many students had stopped reading, or at least, they had stopped close reading for retention and analysis. So, I designed a project where, over the course of three class periods, the students worked in groups to create and present collaborative multimedia source studies. Completing the project required direct engagement with the texts, conversation among team members about their meaning, and formulation and multimodal presentation of an argument.

In my digital humanities scholarship, I apply a broad understanding of “building,” one that encompasses academic writing within its scope. Yet, students can often have trouble seeing their own essay writing as a creative act, one ideally designed to teach them about humanistic inquiry through practice. Integrating digital tools in my Chaucer class allowed me to model for my students the productive relationships that scholars in any academic community must cultivate in order to facilitate our work. And turning the essays they wrote early in the semester into material for an ongoing project involving other forms of building helped them to see our class itself as a scholarly community.

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Any good class on medieval texts should at least introduce students to their textual history. I therefore partnered with an instructional librarian to design a project in which students engaged with medieval paleography and codicology through an exploration of modern manuscript and artisan book culture. During the first phase of the project, students were introduced to Chaucerian textual studies and medieval and modern manuscript culture, and then asked collaboratively to design and fabricate a modern manuscript of Chaucer’s shorter poems, with commentary and interpretation drawn from their own essays.

The goal was not for students merely to imitate medieval manuscript practice. Rather, they were required to think about (and attempt to embody) post-digital manuscript practice and consider what sort of cultural work it does or might do. That process was informed by students’ examination of how medieval texts embody medieval textual practice and the cultural work that was and is performed by the medieval codex.

The second phase of the project tasked students with digitizing and creating an online edition of their manuscript. Here again, they were introduced to some of the promises and perils of digital preservation and curation methods, and they had to consider how they applied—or not—in the context of preserving a contemporary manuscript artifact.

The results of the project, both the codex and the site our students created to preserve and explain the digital facsimile were prototypes, learning tools valuable in where they fail as much as in where they succeed. Facilitating and participating in the collaboration, I was fascinated yet again by the potential of physical books to become nodes in a productive scholarly assemblage. Perhaps even more important than the disciplinary knowledge the project helped my students embody was the opportunity it afforded them to become part of long tradition, which Dinshaw chronicles, of amateurs and scholars engaged in reading, editing, critiquing, explaining, illuminating, and transmitting Chaucer’s work.

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In conclusion, I’d like to touch briefly on why I believe any conversation about “new form scholarly communication” and what counts as scholarship, whether it is in medieval studies or the humanities more generally, must also involve consideration of how a shift in scholarly practice will be mirrored in the classroom. In “Unpacking My Library,” and in his other work on the figure of the collector, Benjamin argues for the existence of subject-object (or maybe object-object) relations that, even though they cannot exist outside of the exchange economy, nevertheless resist the ontological consequences of that economy in highly productive ways. I see that potential in Latour’s discussion of compositionism, and Dinshaw’s amateurism. Academic practices that transgress distinctions between the products and objects of literary analysis simultaneously blur the lines between producer and consumer, or artist and critic–categories with substantial legal, social, and economic significance. Because such practices require us to re-examine foundational and often implicit discursive assumptions, they have potential value not only as a scholarly practices in the humanities, but also as a critical pedagogical practice in the humanities.

To be clear once again, essays, discussions, even quizzes — all of these still have an important place in my classroom. As a lawyer and legal scholar, I am absolutely aware of how essential the ability to interpret and reproduce discursive conventions can be to establishing one’s authority to speak. Yet, what is truly empowering is understanding such forms are constructed, open to interpretation, negotiable, and also knowing where they fail and when other forms are better suited to the task at hand. I have seen in a variety of contexts how process and methodology work to establish personal and professional identity in ways that can be liberating and also limiting. We should constantly be re-examining how our own processes and methodologies as teachers, students, scholars, and artists position us in relation to one another and the subjects and objects of study within our classrooms.