I've kept this blog, on and off, since 2006. In 2015 I used it to chart daily encounters, images, thoughts and feelings about volcanic basalt/bluestone in Melbourne and Victoria, especially in the first part of the year. I plan to write a book provisionally titled Bluestone: An Emotional History, about human uses of and feelings for bluestone. But I am also working on quite a few other projects and a big grant application, especially now I am on research leave. I'm working mostly from home, then, for six months, and will need online sociability for company!

Thursday, December 07, 2006

How we teach and write now

This is a question for all you literary/historical types.

For the little essay I’m writing on Piers Plowman, I’m reading around and thinking about the question of authorial and narrative voice, and thinking about the ways we can help students think about the voices in the poem. I’ve been reading David Benson’s wonderful book, Public Piers Plowman: Modern Scholarship and Late Medieval English Culture, and am pleased to find he has been thinking about medieval public culture (using Habermas) in ways I know I am going to find useful when I eventually get around to working on the project and grant application whose progress I began this blog in order to chart. Oh well. Sigh. Being sick just means I have to go slower, is all.

I was very struck by this passage, on page 74:

“Piers is an interactive text meant to be applied to its readers’ lives. As such, it somewhat resembles a modern newspaper, which different readers will use differently, each one finding information or advice to suit his or her own needs.”

I find this a very evocative analogy, because it chimes with my slowly-germinating idea about the pre-history of public or mass culture in a manuscript era. I suspect, too, it is the kind of thing we often say when we are teaching, as a short-hand guide to students trying to make sense of unfamiliar works. And because it takes the form of an analogy, it is different from Kittredge’s famously ahistorical pronouncement about Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde as the first novel.

But there is perhaps an interesting issue to be teased out here, about the way we use analogy or other similar devices to explain the effect of medieval or pre-modern texts. I don't mean to raise the hoary methodological issue of "presentism". I'm interested in the rhetorical status of this kind of remark in what is a profoundly historicist study, after all.

Perhaps it's a question about the relation between pedagogy and scholarship. Have we tended to censor this kind of remark out of our writing, when we might use it freely in the classroom? Is that self-censorship lightening up? What do people think? How do we see the relation between our teaching and our writing?

Now that I think about it, I am reminded of a comment one of my students made after our discussions of Troilus and Criseyde this semester: he was a little disturbed by the easy and familiar way we were talking about the characters' personalities and sexualities. It's hard *not* to do this when you are teaching, though I would almost certainly not write in that way. Hypocrisy? Or respect for the differences between spoken and written discourse, between informal and formal contexts, between pedagogy and scholarship?

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Anonymous said...


Thanks for sharing this. I have had similar "slowly-germinating" ideas, both about classroom analogies and medieval textual culture, and I started thinking along these lines after reading David Benson's book a couple of years ago.

For the last few semesters one of my favorite analogies has been jazz, which I apply in different ways to Chaucer and Langland as well as to Old English Poetry.

With Chaucer I use the idea of the Great American Songbook, a canon of great tunes that jazz musicians have used to make a tremendous variety of diverse musical statements. Students who are reading Chaucer for the first time and whose notions of literary value are linked to post-Romantic concepts of originality sometimes just can't get past the fact that Chaucer for the most part used pre-existing narratives and didn't "make up his own stuff" (like they do in creative writing classes). So I play for them "My Favorite Things" from The Sound of Music, followed by John Coltrane's version of the song. This immediately makes sense to them: Coltrane has taken an existing tune and made it new in a profound way.

I haven't taught Langland as much, but I see the different versions of Piers (and the bewildering variety of manuscript iterations) as analogous to jazz performances--wide open spaces for experimenting and for putting old pieces together in new ways, with no fixed text beyond the harmonic progression (which is flexible). I realize that this breaks down at a certain point; manuscripts are not, after all, real-time performances. But I think that it is a useful way to get us beyond our modern assumptions about textuality.

But, as you suggest, scholarly rhetoric does not usually include these kinds of analogies, and reviewers at journals will most likely raise one or two eyebrows if they see something like this in a submitted essay. So many of us on the wrong side of tenure will tend to play it safe and fall back into the philological comfort zone.

Sorry about the length of this comment, but I was struck that someone half-way around the world was having thoughts similar to mine.

All best,

J J Cohen said...

It seems to me that you're approaching simile in the only way a sane scholar can: as the yoking together of disparate temporal moments that has inherent limitations (What does Langland know about newspapers? What does The Times know about manuscrtipt culture?) but provides a productive entryway for undergraduate discussion.

Of course you can always go further: how does this connection of the temporally disparate via a thread of something shared potentially change present perception of both?

It's funny, I think the day is not far off when Benson's comparison will seem creekily out of date. Students, already accustomed to getting their information electronically, will ask "What is this 'newspaper' thing he is talking about?"

Stephanie Trigg said...

NIcely put, both of you. It makes me think about the analogies I sometimes draw - though less frequently, perhaps, than I used to — about pre-modern and post-modern texuality and authorship. You know, seeing the 'birth of the author' as the modern interruption to a more free-floating exchange of text, intertext and commentary that re-asserted itself with postmodernism. It can be useful for students to see modern anxiety about ownership and originality as a kind of historical aberration, or interlude, perhaps, rather than a timeless norm destablised by post-modernism. And this goes some way to JJC's point about using temporal disparity (neat phrase) to say something about both ends of the spectrum, both kinds of textuality.

Would I go further than Benson, though, to say Piers was like a website? Not really: it's the limit case that shows that the linear form of the text is still predominant.

John makes a good point about the caution we internalise when seeking publication and acceptance. On the other hand, I also think most editors and readers worth their salt are (ok, should be) willing to see a good argument. As a reader, I come across a fair amount of 'safe' stuff; what gets *my* interest, at least, is the essay that pushes the envelope a little and encourages some second-order reflection on our practices.