This blog is defunct

Might as well admit it – blog defunct; blogger unlikely to return to the same premises.

I am, however, still alive and academically active. I’ve started an assitantship in switzerland, which is pretty cool. There are some public updates at my dreamwidth.


On lecturing

I’m lecturing a lot this semester – about nine hours, all on the one course, all of them pre-scheduled (as opposed to my schtick in earlier years, racking up lecture hours by dint of a useful ability to knock together emergency lectures when other people were ill). For added interest, I’m lecturing on a history-leaning course (interdisciplinary medieval studies tends to ‘lean’ to history or literature or occasionally something else, at least around here), for which the students need different kinds of input compared to lit courses.

I’ve been reading some discussions and bloggy commentary on lectures, how and why to. I was particularly fond of Notorius PhD’s defense of the lecture format, here. In it, she makes the point that lectures should do something which a textbook can’t – she zones in on the ability to draw connections between apparently disparate ideas or processes. She also touches on the fact that she’s a *good speaker*: it’s worth remembering that some students will be aural learners who take in information better from people than from textbooks!

To add to that: I think there’s much to be said for a course in which the lectures are the textbook. That can be done well or badly, of course, but for senior level courses, lectures are the simplest way of delivering the background information you know students will need to navigate the texts you’ve set them. The course I’m teaching on, we’ve recommended a textbook as well – its job is to be a handy resource for applying the necessary theoretical concepts to the primary sources, more or less. We give them historical background and more specific examples of applied critical frameworks.

I spat out at a friend recently the five key things I aim to do in lectures – although not all at once. Typically I don’t try to do more than two of them in an hour.

Preparing students to navigate primary sources

– Introducing text, context, and cultural setting. Trying to ward off egregious history!fail by, for instance, stating at the outset that Shakespeare was not medieval and Protestants are not relevant to your essay on the medieval church.

– Modelling critical skills for working with primary sources (in lit courses, this often takes the form of devoting ten minutes or so to close-reading an illustrative passage)

– And, especially if the primary sources are diverse or dense, introducing a set of key themes we expect to talk about in more detail in tutorials or essays

Preparing students to navigate secondary sources

– Providing historical overviews, especially of things which academic secondary sources assume you know (eg: last week I devoted about 40 minutes to the history of early Christianity, covering such concepts as who St Paul was and why he’s often credited with ‘hellenising’ Christianity).

– Modelling the use of, or breaking down into simplified chunks, the most important theoretical or critical frameworks. This might come in a historiography-overview kind of fashion, as with the brutally short introduction to gender theory I delivered two weeks ago; or integrated with ‘modelling primary source analysis’, as with the lecture we had in Medieval Heroes and Heroines entitled ‘Amy does Donald Maddox’s Fictions of Identity in Half an Hour!’ My operative principle here is that I’m either explaining something you need to navigate the rest of the secondary lit (eg: you don’t have to read Judith Butler, but you need to be able to decode Bultler-inflected gender studies), or giving students a rough guide to work with the key critical framework despite its density (as with Donald Maddox)

No one could do all of these in a single lecture. I do think those five points cover most of what I’d expect to get out of lectures were I enrolled in a lecture-based course.

There is a certain amount of repetition (I tell you what they key points of Augustine’s writing on marriage are; then you read Augustine!), but ideally, by giving a synthesis (not a synopsis!) in advance, a lecturer is setting students up with some idea of what to expect and how to process the readings. My learnings as an ESL teacher tell me you should never set students to reading things without either having them predict the content (for elementary ESL, that might be “what do you find on a restaurant menu?”) or giving them a  table, a set of questions, or something else to fill out as they read. University level humanities students should need less structure than elementary ESL (should, she says, hopefully), but I see both lecturer input and ‘tutorial questions’ as filling the ‘preparing to read’ function.

Thoughts on cultural difference courtesy of Charles Zika

Belated follow-up to my last post about ANZAMEMS. The closing plenary on Saturday gave us the pleasure of hearing Charles Zika speak – I had never encountered Zika before, but by all accounts he’s something of an institution in Melbournian and indeed antipodean historical circles. I have one piece of advice: if you have the opportunity to hear Charles Zika speak, on any topic, ever, do so

The plenary, which was on the topic of early modern representations of a. witches and b. the Witch of Endor, and how the latter influenced artistic concepts of the former, began with Charles Zika giving a very personalised introduction to his methodologies. He spoke of his childhood as a refugee child immigrant in Australia, and his consciousness at a young age of cultural and religious difference. This, he said, made him ‘intellectually but also emotionally predisposed to engage with stories that speak of otherness’. Then, also interestingly, he spoke of a fascination with ‘strategies that close off understanding… or even feign misunderstanding’ between cultural and religious groups.

That awareness is, I think, critically important to the study of the past. It doesn’t have to come by the hard-earned personal route – I have little claim to experience of otherness myself, unless you count the odd dislocated place which antipodeans tend to occupy in Anglo-American cultural spaces (eg: European history; the Internet) – but I do think it is in the interests of Knowledge at Large if those hard-won personal knowledges and interests are allowed to enter into even apparently unrelated academic space. Who knows what we might find?

Zika then went on to demonstrate, if I understood him correctly, a pattern in northern European images of the Witch of Endor to follow certain exemplars. Alongside that, he showed generic images of witches following these images as their models, and, in one case, an example of reverse influence. He didn’t speak in the lecture itself about why it is that most of his evidence is northern, but in conversation afterwards he said he sees two possibilities: either he hasn’t found the southern evidence yet, or for some reason northern artists were particularly interested in the Witch of Endor imagery. You could tell he was leaning toward the latter conclusion, especially since one of the exemplar pictures was Italian, and copied by Dutch artists who had worked in Italy – but only after they returned to Northern Europe.

By and large, the lecture was about art history, and about ideas of how witchcraft operated (the Witch of Endor illustrations tended to show her with magic circles, books, and other accoutrements of masculine magic). Where the cultural difference comes in is in what witchcraft treatises – in which these images are found – were trying to do.

Zika takes a long view of the development of ‘canonical’ witchcraft theories – he asserted that they were still accumulating in the late 16th and 17th centuries. Witchcraft treatises, then, are ways of assembling information and putting forth certain views and explanations, not necessarily universally codified beliefs. And what they’re assembling and interpreting is a vast range of folk belief and practice – most of it culturally distant from the authors, if not in space then in vertical culture (wealth, class, religious training). The expectation of a universal witchcraft then required elaborate theories for unifying these diverse beliefs, and that seems to be where Zika’s witch-pictures come in: the Witch of Endor, as the only biblical witch, provided a grounding for witchcraft theories, an imagined past which might possibly connect the diverse present.

Conference frivolity

It’s been remarked by persons other than I that the dress code at Leeds varies widely by discipline – Arthurianists tend to be well-dressed, Celticists either well-dressed and floaty-garbed or somewhat scruffy, early medievalists vary from shambolic to neat casual, and only archaeologists and anthropologists are liable to wear safari suits. Meanwhile, last ANZAMEMS it seemed to me that antipodeans clustered by institution – Auckland being particularly casual, and Sydney notably not so (due, largely, to the sartorial trend-setting of two British expats among us).

By this year, I can report that the antipodean medievalist community seem to have become sartorially homogenous. ‘Office casual’ seems to be the order of the day. Skirt-and-blouse or trouser-and-blouse combinations abound; sleeved dresses (often with button-down-fronts, for some reason) were plentiful; and I’m given to understand that a deliberate shopping expedition was made to find a lightweight summer dress suitable for one heat-afflicted denizen of the northern hemisphere. I myself acquired a cropped cardigan and a cropped short-sleeved jacket, the blazer I brought with me having turned out to be both too warm and too formal.

Women seem to dress up more than men, but then it’s hard to say with men’s business-casual clothes. Few suit jackets were in evidence, many buttoned shirts, but few ties. The suit jackets which were to be seen were quite likely to be paired with jeans, especially on younger chaps.

Best dressed institution award this year must surely go to UWA, who boast not only well-dressed scholars and postgrads, but a cluster of honours students whose ability to dress up far exceeds my own ability to dress like an adult at that stage of my life. Special mention must go to the scholar who stood out in neck-to-knee purple and carried it off most elegantly.

Non-conclusive thoughts on the relationship between medievalism and European cultural hegemony

Hello, internets. I’m at ANZAMEMS. It’s delightful! Constant Mews, in opening the conference, spoke heartily and fondly of the strong sociability which characterises antipodean research communities for early European study. He’s right, and though the conference is much smaller than Leeds it’s diverse and vibrant and very very friendly. There are people here I haven’t laid eyes on since last ANZAMEMS and it’s delightful to see what’s become of them in the meantime.

But that’s not what brings me back to the internets. It’s a puzzling point which Constant raised in his opening comments. We had been given a Welcome to Country, and a thought-provoking few words on the importance of culture, heritage, and listening to the experience of others, by Aunty Diane Kerr, a leader from the local indigenous community. Constant then spoke about something I’ve seen few medievalists* talk about in relation to our discipline: the expansion and veneration of European culture and history as part of the colonial process.

Constant spoke of the ANZAMEMS theme, ‘Cultures in translation’, as embracing ideas of fluidity, transition, and moving away from the dominance of the European historical narrative as brought out to Australia from mostly the UK, with seasoning from Europe and the US. He spoke of this as something ANZAMEMS really wanted to be doing.

… but how? I don’t know what ANZAMEMS may have been doing or attempting to do**, but when I look at the program, it’s European history. There’s only a very little about Europeans interacting with other places and cultures. I think Constant did well to remind us of our troublesome place as people who have chosen – many of us in contexts where other options were available – to specialise in, devote our energies and our teaching to, the history and appreciation of European culture.

I don’t know that ANZAMEMS this year lives up to Constant’s hope of going beyond the dominance of European history. What I do think is that there is something useful to be done not beyond but within that tradition: not expanding, but fragmenting. I notice, especially with these themed conferences where everyone tries to bend the theme their way, that we often end up talking about inter-cultural exchange within Europe. About dominant and excluded perspectives within Europe, and the ways which different cultures rubbed up against each other throughout our period. England, of course, is a wonderful example; as is the Anglo-French cultural zone, or for that matter, even the slightest brush with pre-revolution France.

It seems to me that there are two particularly damaging myths built into a system which preferences European culture and history: a myth of a European monoculture*** and a myth of cultural progress. The latter allows you to view any evidence of cultural variance within Europe as a stage in the past, a building block on the way to monocultural modernity.

This, I think, is something medievalists can and should easily counter; and as medieval studies is often experienced as safely alien, buffered from the present by the safe barrier of the early modern, I think collaboration with early modernists is particularly useful here. It’s very often poor historical work to approach ‘medieval Europe’ as a monolith – although we sometimes have to, for expediency’s sake.

And I do believe we should resist the urge to read the past as the origins of the present or the historical narrative as a consistent progression toward the ‘civilised’. That’s usually poor history, as well as politically Euro-centric. For instance, in a series of papers on emotions associated with crime and execution, one paper looked at early modern English customs of ‘benefit of clergy’ and the emphasis on mercy and redemption in thought surrounding that practice. We might have moved on from death penalties, mostly, but one would be hard put to say that the principle of mercy is less commendable than the patterns of punitive justice which underpin the current system.

That’s not enough, not by a long shot; real change needs far more than that. But it’s not worthless, either. I think a sharp awareness of the changeability of social systems, value systems and intellectual systems is critically important to… well, to any critical thinking about modern society, and that is something that cannot be supplied by modern history and anthropology alone. Then there’s the immense commonality of humans over time: consistent experiences like sex, childbirth, death, grief and suffering, which are embedded in vastly different social systems and shouldn’t be treated as ahistorical and are so easily recognised. That, too, is valuable, for if the past is alien and yet recognisable, then so to ought the cultural variance of the present be accessible if one pays attention long enough to find the point of common interest.

*coughs* Here endeth the lesson for today.


*Here. I understand it’s a problem which most people teaching introductory world lit or world history courses in the US have to wrangle with, on a broader scale.

** Things a conference or organisation could do, if they wanted to broaden their purview in this way, would be to organise and sponsor panels on cross-cultural topics (bonus points if you move beyond the crusades…); dedicate travel bursaries to people working in particular fields; dedicate travel bursaries for delegates from Asia, Africa, the middle east or South America. Advertise calls for papers well outside of the usual medieval places. Seek keynotes, etc etc. For all I know, ANZAMEMS may have tried some of these methods.

*** And with that often comes a laughably narrow definition of ‘white’, which is treated as synonymous with ‘civilised’ and thus with Europe. Ask me about how the White Australia policy didn’t consider Italians to be white. Or most Germans. GO ON, ASK ME.

Om. Nom. Nom. Manuscript.

I appear to still be on the mailing list of the not-terribly-active Pearl Poet Society. Thus, I know this:

This resource is one part of London, British Library MS Cotton Nero A.x. (art. 3): A Digital Facsimile and Commented Transcription. Publications of the Cotton Nero A.x. Project 3 (Calgary: Cotton Nero A.x. Project, 2012). 
For the commented transcription, to be published shortly after this digital facsimile, please see the main Web site of the Cotton Nero A.x. Project

Look. At. The. Shiny.

IMC leeds!

Um, hi, internets! I’m in the UK.

I’m going to Leeds. Magistra and I and a small but noble collection of blogfolk will be found in the Stables bar at 8pm on Monday, if anyone reading wishes to join us. I look something like this. Magistra will probably post an official announcement with more useful contacts at some point, but if not, let this be your announcement.