My day began as I prepared to moderate the “Disability Studies and the Post/Human” panel, sponsored by the Society for the Study of Disability in the Middle Ages (SSDMA), of which I am a member. I have been looking forward to this panel, mainly because I am mostly unfamiliar with posthuman scholarship, and I was hoping to learn quite a bit from the presenters. Phillip Bernhardt-House began with a talk entitled “Medieval Irish Cybernetic Debates.” This work focused in particular upon the texts of Nuada Argatlam (Nuada Silver-Arm). Referencing Miach, the healer who sets the arm, as the first cyberneticist, Bernhardt-House discussed how, in spite of being the one to fashion metal into limb, he is more concerned with the humanity and humanness of King Nuada than anyone else. Of particular interest to me is the point made that the loss of the silver arm and, thus, the loss of the very “thing” that gives him his name is particularly troublesome for the characters, tantamount to taking away identity.
Nicole Eddy presented “Mental Disability and Mental Illness in the ‘Lives’ of the Devotio Moderna.” First, I was once again struck by, no matter how long I have been in this field and how many books and articles I have read, there is still so much to which I am constantly introduced. One of the many reasons to love being a medievalist – it’s never ending. All that to say, the community of the Devotio Moderna is new to me, all the more surprising given that they are an influence upon Thomas à Kempis. Eddy’s work focuses on the texts produced by this community, particularly those that detailed the lives and especially the end of lives of some of its members. She emphasized how these lives, while clearly aware of the saint’s life motifs, did not stylize their subjects in this way. In particular, she discussed how disabilities brought about by aging, such as what we would term dementia, are described. Of interest is that, while disability was a means of demonstrating virtues (as defined and prized by the Devotio Moderna), virtue was not affected by disability.
Last in the panel was Tory Pearman and “Perceval’s Sister, (Dis)ability and the Posthuman.” Tory’s engagement with the concept of the posthuman and then creating a new category of the prehuman to discuss this character was enlightening. I was especially interested in her reading of the Grail itself as potentially emblematic of the posthuman. This reading seems to be useful, especially considering the varying identities and fluidity of the Grail. Considering only the idea of the Grail as vessel for holding Christ’s blood and the considerations for understanding it as a “body,” and a potentially immortal one, is vastly intriguing. In the discussion afterwards, it was brought up how the knights (in Malory, for instance) are almost analogous to the Grail, and subsequently its relationship to Christ’s body, in the many moments they are pierced, wounded, and bleeding.
In the afternoon, between SSDMA panels, I decided to attend the “Cultural Approaches to Teaching History of the English Language,” sponsored by the Medieval Association of the Midwest. I teach a course occasionally called Structure and Nature of Language, which shares certain characteristics with a traditional HEL class. I was curious to see what others do as I have found the class challenging for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that students sometimes resist the material, but, more importantly, there is so much to cover, especially as we do not have other supplemental linguistic courses. Elizabeth Howard, in “An Integrative Approach to Teaching HEL,” offered the idea of teaching the material with the principles of the “new-known” pedagogy – start students with what they know and then step-by-step lead them to apply what they know to the new concepts. It’s an approach I will have to consider.
The second SSDMA panel was a roundtable, featuring “Disability Studies and the Digital Humanities.” The roundtable provoked a great deal of useful discussion. Indeed, so many ideas were being examined that it is difficult to summarize it all. I will limit myself to three main ones. Rick Godden began the panel thinking about how the debate (argument, brouhaha – whatever you want to call it) about whether it is better to take notes by hand or on a digital device raises some serious issues about access. The claim that pen and paper is the better method can exclude those who are prevented from using it for a variety of reasons. To me, it seems that the thought that one or the other is the only solution is incredibly limiting. Both traditional methods (pen/paper, books, etc.) and digital methods (laptops, tablets, voice machines, etc.) have their time, place, usefulness, etc. Digital advancements have opened up access to many, which should be something we embrace and explore – with reason and research and careful thought, yes, but with open minds.
This discussion led to the second idea I want to mention, which is, as Cameron Hunt McNabb commented upon, that with the advancements in access we also need to consider advancements in production. These advancements might be in who is able to produce or it might be in the types of production of which we are now capable. It’s a good point. Inventions, digital enhancements, etc., can be fascinating, but, if we do not ask the next question of how they can be put to use, then they become mere toys. John, also on the panel, is an advocate of considering well how to adopt the digital humanities, particularly in light of the fact that new digital platforms require a great deal of time and effort to train on and use, which could take away from time spent elsewhere. Still, one aspect of digital humanities that he highlighted is its ability to bring what we do to newer audiences in a format we can control and maintain.
The fourth member of the panel, Jonathan Hsy, demonstrated the possibility of digital humanities to promote activism. One example he gave is the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship project here at Kalamazoo who are sponsoring a well-publicized Wikipedia Write-in in order to promote and edit entries on medieval women. He also discussed how difficult or typically uncomfortable topics can be opened up on social media in ways that they cannot in other venues.
There ended my day (well, it ended on the SSDMA business meeting, but I’ll stop here!). On to the next…