Friday, February 22, 2008

Why I teach medieval literature

I know I’m coming really late to the game in this meme (which, btw, is more like a real meme in some ways than the things that are called memes, since Dr. Crazy had no intention of starting a meme when she wrote the original post that inspired it), but I think I may have something new to contribute. I admit I haven’t read all the contributions made to this discussion (here's a list of links to a lot of them), but I read Dr. Crazy’s post when it was new, and I’ve read all the medievalists’ and early modernists’ responses, including New Kid’s contribution on why she teaches history. (I've also read the kerfuffle that resulted from Dr. Crazy's post and the meme it became, but I'm not linking to that.) New Kid is the person who tagged me to respond to this discussion, and since she singled out people who do work in pre-modern eras, I’ve specified my topic as why I teach medieval literature in particular. And along the way I’ll probably also be answering, at least indirectly, a question Neophyte posed long ago about whether those of us who study the past think of it in terms of alterity and difference, or if we see correspondence and connection with the present.

Now, when the MLA held the panel that inspired Dr. Crazy’s original post, I’m sure their topic question – “Why do we teach literature” – really meant something more like “Why is literature a worthy subject of study in higher education?” But I’m actually going to take the question a bit at its face value, not because I’m an idiot who doesn’t know how to read subtext and its implications, but because in answering the question as why *I* personally teach literature – in this case, medieval literature – I also have a point to make about why students should at least have the option of studying it (note: not “should study it” – I’m not proscribing a canon here) and what I think the study of medieval literature has to offer students and teachers alike. So I’m taking a question that originally implied a desire for universal answers and giving personal ones instead because I think one of the strengths of literary studies is an aspect that is often mistakenly depicted as one of its weaknesses: its “subjectivity” vs. the supposed “objectivity” of other disciplines.

It might be surprising to some that I find personal value in teaching the oldest literature in English since it is supposedly the farthest removed from my personal experiences. But I do. And the first and foremost way in which I experience that value can be expressed in a single word: pleasure. (You really have to say it like the Scotsman in Chariots of Fire: “God made for a purrrrpose, and when I rrrrun, I feel his playzhurrrrrrre.” Hee!) All joking aside, pleasure is serious stuff. It’s part of the very social fabric of obligations to others: please, if you please, s’il vous plait, RSVP. And long ago I realized I could not live a life with a job or a career that didn’t at least afford the opportunity of deep pleasure on a semi-regular basis. That’s not to say that my life is all fun and games; pleasure is distinctly different from mere fun. In my universe a roller coaster ride is fun; but a marathon is intensely pleasurable while only rarely fun. Being grad director frequently drives me nuts, but it’s also deeply pleasurable. I found pleasure in the long years and hard work it took to finish my degree, get this job, turn my dissertation into a book, and so forth. And I find tremendous pleasure in the difficulty of medieval literature. Chaucer has perhaps gotten easier for me over the years, although there is still much to puzzle over (Melibee, for instance). But much of medieval literature is dazzlingly hard. Piers Plowman, for instance. Every time I read it, it’s like working through it for the first time again. And I’ve yet to figure out how to teach it, which is even more daunting than trying to teach it to myself. But I will keep trying, and I will take pleasure in the process.

Medieval literature is not something I simply “got” on some instinctive, sympathetic level of my imagination, the way I “got” Virginia Woolf, for example. I never felt, upon reading medieval literature, some instantaneous fellow-feeling. To use a word that’s a new favorite of students and Entertainment Weekly, I never found medieval literature “relatable.” (OK, not never; I “get” both Troilus and Criseyde on some ordinary level, for instance. I have badly dumped lovers and been badly dumped in return. But I don’t think that’s really what that poem is about.) But when I first encountered medieval literature as an undergraduate, it astonished and stunned me with its weird and wonderful beauty (really I should work in “wlonc” there, shouldn’t I?). Take the words “weird,” “wonderful,” and “wlonc.” All three are medieval, all three are native to English, going back deep into its very beginnings. But the first two have morphed in meaning more than once over the centuries, and the last disappeared before English became “Modern.” Where did it go? Why did it go? And how did we get from the Old English “wyrd” (roughly, fortune, fate, or destiny – but not quite any of those exactly) to our meaning of strange and outlandish. As an undergraduate I wanted answers to those questions not so much in a linguistic sense, but in a broader, more philosophical sense: where do words go when they die? Can the dead speak through them or are they rendered mute? Can we reach them through their words, or are we always “hearing” them through translators and interpreters, even if we are those interpreters? Were these writers using weird words essentially the same as me – humans, story tellers, imaginative creatures – or did the differences in their language, major and minor, make them a different people?

So in the beginning I was attracted to the difference, the alterity that the Middle Ages offered me. And I found pleasure in that difference. After all, why would I want to read about people or the works of people who were just like me? But that’s where I suppose I am also weird, because it seems many people like literature that’s “relatable.” And so, in the end, ironically, I guess I do identify with medieval literature: we’re both weird.

And I want students to see that: that I’m weird and that I take pleasure in weirdness. (Yes, here’s where I finally turn to why I teach medieval literature, rather than why I teach it.) I want them to see that pleasure and discovery and connection and understanding can take place in the oddest of moments, in the most unexpected of subject matters. I want them to understand that the struggle to understand can make the understanding all the more valuable and pleasurable. I want them to have the opportunity to break out of their comfortable habits and to explore what for them is uncharted territory. I want them to find their own pleasures.

And that’s really what it’s about for me: letting students find their pleasures, follow their bliss, discover what matters to them, learn what they’re passionate about. And that pleasure isn’t about some narrow sense of middle class success – it’s not about merely finding a job or being a recognizable label of a professional (doctor, lawyer, engineer) – unless that’s where your pleasure lies. And again, I don’t mean fun or contentment or entertainment. I mean deep, sustaining, satisfying pleasure. I want them to know that there are people in the world who get giddy over the third line in the Reeve’s Prologue in The Canterbury Tales – “diverse folk diversely they seyde” (it does what it says! It marks linguistic variation in the two possible ways of accenting “diverse” – the French way or the English way! It shows a French loan word with an Old English suffix in “diversely”! And all this marking the start of a tale that will showcase not one but *two* regional and generational varieties of 14th century English! It works on so many levels!) – and also that there was once a 14th century poet who probably worked hard on that line and was likely mighty pleased with it himself, and who also noticed how various and full of wonder his own world was, and who very obviously also thought about the possibility of “diverse folk” responding “diversely” to a story (in this case, the Miller’s Tale), and presumably finding a diversity of meanings and values in it. And weirdly, wonderfully, he seems to have anticipated us in a way, sitting in our classrooms responding to the Reeve’s Tale and others in ways that he may or may not have anticipated or intended.

And therein lies one of the many values of teaching medieval literature in particular: Medieval writers often seem intensely aware the presence and practices of readers across time, and the differences and diversities of texts and readers. Medieval texts hail readers across time and space: “Hwaet!” opens Beowulf – listen! Lo! Pay attention! “Herkneth!” – listen! – say too many Middle English texts to count. And Chaucer invites the reader into the Canterbury pilgrimage when his narrator-persona says that he and the other pilgrims made an agreement to get an early start in the morning, “as I yow devyse” – “as I (will) tell you.” And these writers and others freely adapt foreign, ancient, and pagan texts for their purposes – for “out of olde bookes cometh new science,” says Chaucer (a quote I should have on the top of every syllabus, come to think of it) – but also worry and puzzle self-consciously and openly over those differences and what they mean in the “now” of the medieval writer’s world, and what they might also, therefore, mean for future readers. And so we do in our modern classroom. In mine at least, I try to give equal time to puzzling out how a medieval reader might have responded to a given text – and teaching students how we judge such things through reading texts closely, by reading even more texts, or by learning what we can about their reception, etc. – but also to how we respond, and whether those responses are shared or divergent, and why. I also at least give some time and space to critical history, at least in a nutshell, to demonstrate the diversity of readings between “now” and “then.” Also, when my students try to make medieval texts too much a part of their own world, I call them out on their collapsing of difference. (Quick example: if a student tells me Criseyde is worried that Troilus will “disappoint his family” if he elopes with her, I say, no, she worries he’ll bring shame on his father, King Priam, and then ask students what the difference is.) By their very nature, medieval texts ask us to think about the connections between then and now, to raise the possibility of communication across time and space, even as they offer up their differences. They call out and say, “Hwaet/listen, what do you think of this story which I yow devyse?”

Of course, not every student hears the call. Not every student listens or cares to listen. And that’s fine with me. Diverse folk have diverse tastes. I want them to find their own pleasures, too, and I offer mine – and through mine, the pleasures medieval writers had – as merely a model, as a possibility for inquiry, study, and deep, satisfying pleasure. I offer it as something that’s both highly subjective – after all, what’s my pleasure might be your pain! – but also as something that takes students outside of themselves and their worlds. One of the most basic lessons that every student ideally should learn in college (though I know plenty don’t, or else they forget that they have) is that not everyone thinks like you. But that’s a slightly harder lesson to learn at a regional university than one that draws its students from across the country and the globe. (That’s not to say that everyone in a region thinks the same, but the differences might be less underscored when most of your classmates talk like you and have the same local references as you.) And so in an institution like mine, I think humanities and social science classes in which students encounter lives unlike their own are especially valuable for that process of forming the self that college often can be – and, I think, ideally should be. (And let’s not discount the difference that I, myself, offer standing there in front of the classroom: a nearly 40-something woman who values the life of the mind, who finds deep pleasure in it, who has a happy personal life, who did not feel it was imperative to marry and have kids in her twenties, who forged an independent and pleasurable life on her own terms.) But on a more mundane level, the humanities and social sciences, along with the sciences and the professional schools are all important for offering students a choice of visions, a choice of ways of being, a choice of pleasures. How can a student really decide who s/he wants to be if the choices are limited?

And so I teach medieval literature here at Rust Belt University and I will continue to do so even if we should become Rust Belt Institute of Technology (RibBIT? Croak U? Hee!), as seems to be in the works. If that happens, I’ll teach medieval literature of the body, medieval literature of the natural environment, medieval melancholia, “Medieval Doctors, Alchemists, Magicians, and Wizards,” or whatever I can to keep doing it. I do it now and I’ll keep doing it in the future to offer my students a view that is both broad and deep, that offers them possibilities they might not have otherwise known – possibilities for thinking, being, connecting, and living, possibilities for pleasure in unexpected places.

13 comments:

Prof. de Breeze said...

This is fabulous. I'm printing it out and hanging it on my wall to read whenever I start to lose sight of what drew me to medieval literature in the first place. If I thought it would fit, I'd laminate it and put it in my wallet.

What I especially relate to is the inestimable enjoyment to be found in trying to "figure out" the weirdness in medieval texts. Why, for example, does an OE text I'm working with translate Latin "pectus" (breast) as OE "innoth" (belly or womb)? Did the words mean the same thing to the author? Was the author trying to make some kind of point? Was the author simply influenced by the appearance of "innoth" on the previous page? I don't know, and I doubt I ever will know for sure, but I'm enjoying the hell out of trying to figure it out.

cps @ Free Exchange said...

Agreed--another great post on this meme which seems to keep going. We added it to the list over at our place.

Dr. Virago said...

Prof de Breeze -- thanks! No one's ever told me they wish they could laminate something I've written.

And CPS -- Glad you saw this so quickly. Clearly you're still monitoring the trackbacks even for us late arrivals. Thanks!

tempestsarekind said...

This is a wonderful post. Do you mind if I link to it on my LJ? Rather selfishly, I'd like to be able to put the post with the link in it onto my memories page, so I can find it later. (There may be a more technologically elegant way of marking your post, but that's the best I can think of.)

I was particularly interested in the idea of "getting" a text or a field of literature. I wonder if a text has to be "relatable" in order for a person to "get" it in some way? I tend to say that Shakespeare more or less "made sense" to me on some level right away, when I'm asked about why I study it, but that isn't quite right--while I've never felt that I had to struggle with Shakespeare in the way that I've seen classmates (in high school) or some of my students do, I fell in love with plays like _Hamlet_ in large part precisely because they felt like a foreign country. And so I'm always a little startled when students tell me they relate to the plays. I'm rambling, but--I've been trying to figure out how to get students to accept that sense of weirdness instead of dismissing it or glossing over it--and how to separate the weirdness we should keep from the genuine, sometimes off-putting, confusion that results from encountering something new. Anyway, I loved reading this.

Dr. Virago said...

Tempests -- Link away! And thanks! Btw, I find a useful pedagogical strategy is to say, "Isn't this weird?? I mean..." and then ask a question framing the weirdness. Seriously, I use it all the time. Of course, I also am in the habit of saying, "How weird is it that we're sitting around a university classroom discussing this 600 year old text. What do you think Chaucer would think of *that*?"

Jeffrey J Cohen said...

A beautiful post. Thanks for that.

tempestsarekind said...

Hee. One of my student evaluations from last semester said that I used the words "weird" and "cool" too *much*! I think it's because I haven't quite worked out how to frame questions around the weirdness. (The followup questions seem connected to me, but something isn't quite translating, I guess, since the students don't seem inclined to answer them.)

Sisyphus said...

Ahhhh, this was a lovely post1

neophyte said...

Ooh ooh ooh! I love this post.

... That's all.

(Well, that and "you make me wanna be a medievalist!" as I crack out my Canterbury Tales, the only ME text I have. Just to. You know. Play with it. Yes, earlyists are weird, and I love us for it.)

the rebel lettriste said...

This is to me the heart of the matter:

"...where do words go when they die? Can the dead speak through them or are they rendered mute? Can we reach them through their words, or are we always “hearing” them through translators and interpreters, even if we are those interpreters?"

Reading and discussing and writing about ME literature is in so many ways an act of recovery, of listening to and for the dead. And of never quite being able to match our interpretation with what is being said.

I am really glad you wrote this.

bibliotecaria said...

A fascinating post, and a great insight to the joys of being a teacher. It's interesting how diverse people feel that pleasure (I call it joy, but I think we mean essentially the same thing). For me it's not in teaching but in my work as a librarian and my creative endeavors with fiber. I take great joy in creating order in information so it can be found again by the people who need it, especially within the subject area that I serve, and also in creating beautiful, useful items made of fiber.

That joy keeps me interested and encouraged in my job and my activities when I otherwise lose energy.

Anonymous said...

I think the phrase "life of the mind" encapsulates our beliefs and appears in every discipline. And perhaps it is not so much as we love to teach as we love what we teach (or read, listen to, view, or talk about) that matters the most.

Dedalus said...

OK, yeah, I'm skimming through your old stuff becasue I'm bored and at the same time trying to avoid work I should be doing. Overwhelmingly, I'm just glad that I didn't end up in that world, your world, because I'm not at all equipped for it. (Milton and Victoria can tell you all about this.)

But mostly, yeah, What You Said, exactly. Diversely. You know.

And yeah about "getting" Dear Virginia. :) And her Hibernian Contemporary, of course; hence the nom d'internet.

(And OMFG, RibBIT? That's so wonderful! Did you spread that around? That could catch on! That's a once-in-a-lifetime Meme Originating kinda moment. Go with it. And I say that as an alumnus and a defiantly loyal RB native.)