You might be able to teach Chrétien without talking about rape, but I shan’t

Yesterday, I talked about some ethical problems that bug me when it comes to teaching texts with a lot of sexual violence in them. As you may have gathered from that post, I don’t have a choice about what my texts are at the moment, but I do get to make some judgement calls on how to introduce them in tutorials, and about what goes into the lectures when I’m scheduled to lecture. As I noted in that post, I made this judgement calls after talking to fellow bloggers and my boss, and having read a few chapters on teaching ‘dangerous subjects’.

Since we’re talking about warnings protocol, have a trigger warning for academic discussion of rape in literary texts.

I made my judgement call  as a tutor last semester: I gave trigger warnings for the Conte du Graal and Chevalier de la Charette: I advised that there were attempted rape scenes, and suggested that those for whom that posed a problem, summaries online might help them navigate the text. This semester I did the same, with an added warning for blood and guts in the Chanson de Roland (less of a hot topic, but I do have at least one friend, a medieval studies student although not at my uni, who cannot handle descriptions of blood and guts, even in text).

Interestingly, I now know I’m not the only person doing something like this: a student mentioned to me that a tutor in a different course had emailed her personally to let her know that the following week’s content dealt with death and bereavement, which the tutor knew might be difficult for her. That was a one-to-one exchange, but nevertheless, the principle stands. The tutor in question was a formidable academic (not in my field at all) for whom I have great respect, so I took heart from this evidence that I’m not running around in circles here with a strange newbie idea all by myself.

Another judgement call was in order for the actual lecture content. In the end, I simply couldn’t talk about Erec et Enide without talking about rape, because rape – or more specifically, raptus (marriage-by-capture, which Magistra covered here) is so tied up in the marital politics of Chrétien’s romances. How do you talk about the Count of Limors and the deliberate (ironic?) contrast between him and Erec without talking about raptus? So that answered the ‘is it necessary’ question, and I gave the class a general warning last week that there was a ‘high probability of me talking about rape’.

A lecture - the art of transferring information from the notes of the lecturer to the notes of the students without passing through the minds of eitherWhen I sat down to structure the second lecture, though, I ended up talking about far more rape than I’d meant to. I ended up structuring the whole lecture around ‘the two most difficult topics – rape and structuralist theory’. They’re difficult for completely different reasons, but both are topics that I wanted to walk the class through personally. I wanted to give the class a run-down of Donald Maddox’s Fictions of Identity, so that those who needed to deal with him could go in armed with my lecture slides. He’s difficult because of his dense prose, which is, um, useful, but not exactly undergrad-friendly, shall we say? He’s also challenging because his ‘schema’ based structuralist approach looks for commonalities across a wide range of texts, which doesn’t easily account for unique features of particular narratives. That provides a great opportunity for creative students to start with the framework and poke at how it doesn’t quite fit the text; but given that it’s taken me a year and a half to feel I can do that comfortably myself, I thought second-years deserved a walk-through before we set them loose on the essays.

And I ended up approaching the whole topic of sexual violence in the same way. I had to conclude that it would be negligent of me to teach this text without talking about what the hell is with all the rape. What I said to them at the outset is that I wanted to give them some idea of an academic way of responding to this, in addition to the perfectly understandable readerly response of throwing the book across the room and declaring that they’re all shits. So that’s what we did: we walked through each of the attempted abduction and forced marriage scenes, tied them in to a reading which focuses on Enide progressively becoming more outspoken; and talked about masculinity, rape law, and so on. I gave two different but complementary readings on why all this rape, taken from Katherine Gravdal and Tracy Adams respectively, and I really hope that by the end of it the class could go away with something to say about sexual violence in 12th century romance other than “oh god they’re all bastards”.

I don’t know if this is a right answer, but right now, I would rather be the teacher who talked about rape too much than the teacher who pretended like it wasn’t there at all. I am going to trust that, with a heads-up in advance, anyone with really devastating triggers will make whatever decisions they need to, given that attendance is not marked in lectures; and that the remaining body of students benefit in some way from a content-heavy lecture on what the hell is with all the rape.

Also, I think I deserve a cookie for managing to get the I-read-this-so-you-don’t-have-to summary of Donald Maddox to flow smoothly into a discussion of all the rape, and close readings of Enide’s speeches. Now if only my thesis were this so coherent.

[Yeah, this post gives away quite a lot about me and my institution and my job. Given that my associate supervisor reads this – hi, Lawrence – and so do a number of my former students and my postgrad peers, the discretion ship has sailed.]


Apologies to those reading on DW, I don’t know why the feed suddenly spat out all those old posts. Did that happen on RSS readers, too?

Can you teach Chrétien without talking about rape?

Going to hell in a bobsled cause it's faster than a basketThere must be a special hell for anyone who gives a lecture titled ‘Erec et Enide II: Rape, and structuralist theory’. And it is to this hell that I am going, in my specially designed handbasket.

Some time ago, I had a conversation in a comment thread somewhere with Magistra about how one might handle problematic and potentially triggering material in a classroom setting. I’ve also had long conversations with people in my LJ, and a couple of conversations with my boss, and I’ve read with care the ‘Teaching Dangerous Subjects’ chapter in Elaine Showalter’s Teaching Literature, and a similar chapter in a book of essays on history pedagogy.

Background: I have participated in feminist internet spaces for long enough that it is now second nature to me to provide trigger warnings before recommending material to people. I sometimes miss things, but still, if I lend you my Sara Douglass books I will give them to you with profuse recommendations and a cautionary note for graphic rape and general misogyny on the part of the characters (but not, I believe, the author). Even if I don’t think that will bother you in particular.

The Geek Feminism wiki explain it better than I can:

Trigger warnings are customary in some feminist and other spaces. They are designed to prevent people who have an extremely strong and damaging emotional response (for example, post-traumatic flashbacks or urges to harm themselves) to certain subjects from encountering them unaware. Having these responses is called “being triggered”.

They tend to look like this: Trigger warning for: academic discussion of rape in literary texts. (You may now consider yourselves warned for this post. You should probably consider yourselves warned for my blog at large and also any conversation you get into with me in a pub.)

There is often a lot of debate and wank about precisely how much warning is necessary, in what formats, and so on. I think we can skip over that, but one common point of contention to which the debate keeps coming back is the conflict between the desire of the creator of, say, a fanvid, to educate the audience about something (say, violence against women in TV shows), and the need of some audience members to protect themselves from just that material. Fear of censorship also runs pretty strongly there.

Personally, I wouldn’t like to work or learn in an institution where one wasn’t allowed to discuss problematic material. I would also be skeptical of any attempt to make broad policies on warnings in educational context, since it seems likely to me to swiftly become more about policing the curriculum and Thinking of The Children than extending courtesy to adults who just happen to be our students. I also see a significant difference between texts one reads for educational purposes and texts or blogs or whatever that one reads for fun. But it’s still a problem – how do you frame sexual violence in a literary classroom?

  • Do I have a responsibility to teach my students about sex and violence in 12th century literature? That’s not actually a straight forward question. They didn’t enrol in ‘Violence in Italy’ (one hopes students of Violence in Italy are prepared for, well, violence). They enrolled in a general medieval studies course.
  • Do I have a responsibility to discuss sex and violence in Erec et Enide, given that I didn’t chose the text (perhaps I would have chosen a less rape-tastic text… or perhaps not)? I’m pretty sure my boss got through last year’s lectures on same without talking for half an hour about rape. Am I banging my personal drum and potentially harming others in so doing?
  • But conversely, would it be negligent to leave out an intellectually challenging, infinitely fascinating area of study which I know a couple of students are particularly interested in, because it’s too problematic?
  • Would giving trigger warnings imply that one doesn’t need to read a text to pass the course/learn the content? And if one doesn’t need to, then shouldn’t a teacher use that class time on something more accessible and more valuable?
  • Would I handle this question differently if it were another issue, equally problematic but with less personal relevance to me? Would I handle a violently racist text differently? Would I discuss genocide differently?
  • One problem we don’t have in Chrétien studies, but I’m told we do have in other areas, especially the study of Sir Degarré, is how does one deal with secondary material which is itself problematic (a friend of mine has run into ‘but it wasn’t real rape’ type commentaries in Sir Degarré). Thus far, everyone I’ve found either handles the sexual violence in E&E fairly well, or doesn’t touch it at all: but it’s a point of pedagogical concern worth keeping in mind.

I am not speaking from a point of patronising concern here, either. The week I first read Cligés, I could do nothing and think of nothing else. My first reading of Gravdal’s Ravishing Maidens also chewed up a lot of my mental and emotional energy, in a way that, say, Donald Maddox’s Fictions of Identity never does (it saps my will to live with its dense prose, but isn’t actually traumatic). Now, I dealt with that by giving a paper on sex and submission in Cligés, but I’m an odd case and I don’t expect that your average undergrad deals with upsetting material by turning it into exciting academic work.

That raises another concern – I worry about my own vulnerability. I worry about acknowledging that this material is upsetting as well as academically challenging; I worry about what that says to students about me. Conversely, I worry about being seen as callous or perverse because I’m interested in rape as a literary trope. I worry that these perceptions might detract from the academic content of my work; I worry that students might find them too self-revealing, or threatening in some way.

This post is getting long, so I shall cut it here, and tomorrow talk about the judgement calls I make as a tutor with regard to set texts, and with regard to my lecture content, which did, in the end, talk about rape rather a lot.

Institutional logic at its finest

I can now be contacted at four different USyd email addresses, each formatted slightly different from the other. Two involve my name, two involve my student login code. One involves an old mail domain which is supposed to have been defunct for three years.

I access these email addresses through two different institutional webmail services. I use three different usernames and two different passwords to do this. All of them forward to gmail, two by means I have recently established and two by, so far as I can tell, the magical powers of the gremlins in the tubes. Also, I can only send mail from three of the four email addresses.

Only one of these email addresses is supposed to stay with me for the rest of my life, the alumni one; but based on current evidence, all the others will lurk around like a bad smell forever, as long as I don’t actually rely on them for anything (when relied upon, they will promptly become erratic about what they forward for me).

On the bright side, thank you, USyd, for the free, permanent alumni address! Being young, and named by unimaginative people, I came to webmail too late to snare an email address that bears any resemblance to my name. Chances of applying for jobs using a stable email address which doesn’t proclaim my own sense of oddness to the world? VASTLY IMPROVED as of today.*

* Or as of two years ago, when the account was created for me. It’s not the uni’s fault I only just figured out how to access it.

Leeds Report #5, or the one where Highly went to the wrong side of campus

Dr Who - universally recognised as a mature responsible adultHere are some things that happened to me on Wednesday morning at Leeds.
1. I overslept and missed breakfast.
2. I drank truly abysmal tea in Boddington. Seriously, who thought it was a good idea to have coffee and plain boiling water and hot chocolate all coming out of the same spout on the machine? I ended up with tea that tasted of hot chocolate!
3. I dashed onto the bus to Weetwood, running late.
4. I got to Weetwood and discovered that the session I wanted, ‘Royal, Patron and Civic Saints’, was actually back at Boddington.
5. I scanned the program, saw the words ‘pontificate’ and ‘Innocent’ and dashed off to Session 1127.

Of course, it turned out that Session 1127 was about Innocent II, not my buddy Innocent III. One presenter, Damian Smith, wasn’t present; and I missed enough of Anne J. Duggan’s paper on legal reform that it made very little sense to me.

But I learned interesting things from Dale Kinney’s paper ‘The Artistic Patronage of Pope Innocent II’.

What I liked best about Dale Kinney’s paper was that she said from the outset that she was correcting an assertion she’d made in her own PhD thesis, with which she now disagreed. I like a person who’s happy to argue with themselves in public!

The second thing I liked about this paper was her lovely slides – art historians are good at slides, I have noticed. The third fabulous thing was that she accidentally referred to scholar Herbert Black as ‘Herbert the Black’. More scholars should have fearsome monikers, I feel.

Also, there were some arguments in this paper. Basically, in her PhD thesis, Dale Kinney had asserted that Innocent II was ‘not a building pope’. This, she now realises, rested on a strange assumption that there was such a thing as a ‘building pope’ in the 12th century; and that Innocent II’s well-attested rebuilding projects (described by Cardinal Boso; mostly it was falling rooves. Apparently rooves were falling in on churches all over Rome) had no particular project.

Now, she thinks otherwise. She discussed three facets of Innocent II’s building programs:

  • Gifts (possibly re-gifts?) to various churches, including a big shiny silver cross to St Peter’s, which may be a deliberate parallel with a similar gift of Constantine’s. Such gifts seem to point to a high value placed on churches in general and church decoration in particular.
  • Technologically demanding rebuilding projects – for example, the Cathedral of St John Lateran had collapsed in the 9th century, been rebuilt in the early 10th, but struck by lightning in 1115, after which it began to collapse again. Innocent II seems to have been the first to attempt a complete reconstruction. Many of these reconstructions involved deviating significantly from the original plan – at St Pauls, for example, Innocent II’s architects halved the span of the columns, with shorter arches and windows placed above, for lack of the technology to replicate the originals. At St Stephanus Rotunda, which had originally had several (2? 3? I’m not sure and didn’t write down) concentric colonnades, they had to fill in the second colonnade in entirely and cut the outer one out entirely, making the whole church dramatically smaller.
  • Innocent II was also a great spoliast, removing and re-using a number of features from Roman monuments. This is by no means the lazy option – as Dale Kinney pointed out, much of Rome was actively hostile to the Papacy at the time; dragging great big columns and whatnot across the city is no mean feat.

Perhaps most interesting of all, she told us the story of Innocent II’s own sarcophagus. It was found ‘in media giro’ (in the middle circuit) of the Mausoleum of Hadrian, which was at the time a heavily-used fortress.

First of all, the Mausoleum of Hadrian doesn’t have circuits, so no one’s quite sure what that meant. The passage from the entrance to the two central chambers was a sort of spiral, so it could mean in the middle of that; or perhaps in one of the two central chambers.

Secondly, Innocent II laboured under the delusion that the sarcophagus was Hadrian’s; but Hadrian was cremated and buried in an urn. So it must be someone else’s sarcophagus. But whose?  Everyone else buried there – the last person was a woman named Julia Domina – would also have been cremated. So the sarcophagus must have been *moved in there* from another tomb at some point.

At any rate, Innocent II took it out and got it across Rome, through largely hostile territory – Dale Kinney suggested a route, involving floating the sarcophagus upriver as far as possible. This probably saved it from destruction in an assault on the  Mausoleum. In fact, it ought to have been perfectly safe forever – except the church it was placed in burned down on top of it in the 14th century. Ooops.

This post needs more pictures, but, unlike Dale Kinney, I don’t have access to a lot of educational and illustrative pictures of medieval reconstructions of various Roman churches. I can’t even find a picture of St Stephanus Rotunda.


[NB: Dear person who’s sending me compliments via google search strings – <3. Dear person who’s googling ‘stairway fantasy’, I got nuffin’ for you.]

I went to Ely to visit St Audrey

Flagstone in Ely cathedral - here stood the shrine of St Ethelreda

I lit a candle for her.

Close-up of the statue of St Ethelreda at the east end of Ely CathedralBut I don’t think she could’ve heard me over the din.

View from the transept of Ely cathedral - a christian rock band rehearsingRave in the nave. I kid you not.1

A signboard announcing Rave in the Nave

I have… complicated feelings about my own hagio-tourism. A lot of it’s historical curiosity and artistic appreciation. But then. I was raised in a really protestant environment. I developed a sense of connection to the past, to traditional liturgy and saints at the same time I was losing my faith. The faith’s gone but I still have a sense of connection to, say, St Audrey, one which doesn’t fit with either my upbringing or my current state of atheism. Maybe it’s just that I wrote an essay on her once. I don’t know.

I also don’t know why I’m telling the internet at large this.

Speaking of supernatural encounters on church grounds…

Transept of Ely Cathedral, with TARDIS, Daleks and Cybermen


1. In all fairness, Rave in the Nave seemed like a pretty cool production (it was being rehearsed as I came through). I’m just not sure that there’s any way to hit on more of my religious angst at one time than put up a mass youth event with what looked like a tilt toward the evangelical side, in a church dedicated to St Audrey, on the day I decide to pop in. Wait. I can think of one way, but fortunately, there were no truly vicious atheists around to mock these guys. If you feel like mocking in the comments, keep it gentle, OK? Yes, it’s incongruous and the name is ridiculous, but be gentle, as a favour to me.

Sometimes, google users really confuse me

All those people out there searching for ‘naked medieval [something]’*. How, precisely do you propose to tell the difference between naked medieval humans and any other humans? They’re naked.

And the searches for ‘naked medieval wives’ particularly confuse me. How can you tell if they’re medieval or married? They’re naked. Sumptuary laws are not much use in the case of nudity.


* Never scholars, which is, I think, a good thing