In my last post, I wrote about the BABEL punctuation session at the 2014 International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, MI, and, in particular, the meaningful presentation by Josh Eyler on the comma. Now we have a surprise – he has been generous enough to post the full text of his presentation here on MassMedieval! We are very grateful for this opportunity and thank Josh for his willingness to share his work with us – and you.
After receiving his Ph.D. in Medieval Studies from the University of Connecticut in 2006, Josh Eyler moved to a position as Assistant Professor in the English department at Columbus State University in Georgia. Although he was approved for tenure at CSU, his love for teaching and his desire to work with instructors from many different disciplines led him to the field of faculty development and to George Mason University, where he served as an Associate Director of the Center for Teaching and Faculty Excellence from 2011-2013. In August of 2013, he moved to Rice University to take the positions of Director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and Adjunct Associate Professor of Humanities. He has published broadly on medieval literature, and his eclectic research interests include brain-based learning theories, Chaucer, and disability studies. His current projects include the book Teaching the Humanities in the 21st Century, which is under contract with the University of Nebraska Press.
The Comma: it has always intrigued me that such a tiny sliver of ink on paper, as Kurt Vonnegut used to say, could be so powerful. There are, of course, the heated debates about the Oxford comma that drive proponents of either side into near apoplexy (I am unabashedly in favor of ol’ Oxie). And there are the books and internet memes shouting at us about the ways in which “Punctuation Saves Lives!” When used effectively, commas can magnify beauty, as in the elegant, yet potent, appositive in the title of John Updike’s Rabbit, Run, or in the proliferation that drives us deeper into the consciousness of Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. At the same time, when implemented poorly, commas can render prose nearly unintelligible. There is power there. I would like to suggest, though, that the comma’s power is more than just a stylistic one; it is a philosophical one too. Today I want to productively splice the comma, weaving together a number of different perspectives on our field of Medieval Studies and ourselves. To do so, I want to a build off of a foundation laid out in the Pulitzer Prize winning play Wit by Margaret Edson. As you may recall, Wit tells the story of Vivian Bearing, a scholar specializing in John Donne’s poetry, and her ultimately unsuccessful battle with cancer. In one particular scene, Vivian recalls her time as a graduate student and a meeting she has with her mentor Professor E. M. Ashford.
(The scene performed in the session ends with “It isn’t?”)
It’s not. The point is the pause. The breath.
As I think about this field that caught my mind and my heart many years ago now, I think about a comma the way Ashford describes it. The Middle Ages offer the pregnant pause of possibility, the nurturing breath that gave rise to some of the most profound works of art the world has ever produced. And yet, at the same time, those centuries that we group together and label as “medieval” still represent only the briefest of moments before the world began to move in different directions. Time has always operated like this. The Classical era, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, then, now, tomorrow—all simply breaths in the collective sigh of the past. Because, despite what Stephen Greenblatt and other Burckhardtians would have us believe, history is not made up of full-stop “periods,” all separate from each other, but of commas, one inextricably linked to the next as parts of the same structure.
In a similar way, only the smallest of pauses, a comma, separates us from the medieval world. The art of the Middle Ages still speaks to us with immediacy and urgency. When Dante talks about his dark wood, we understand; manuscripts, written by hands not very different from our own, capture us intellectually; Chaucer’s jokes about bodily functions make us laugh; Boccaccio’s gripping account of the bubonic plague reveal what could still account for the best and worst in human nature; cathedrals and castles built a thousand years ago continue to inspire; Julian of Norwich’s claim that “all shall be well” resonates with a comforting, if not entirely convincing, hope.
Finally, nothing but a breath, a comma, separates us from our students–for we do not teach medieval literature, medieval art, medieval history, or medieval archaeology; we teach students about these subjects, about new ways to see their world through the lens of the past. Our field will continue to live and breathe only insofar as we dedicate ourselves to teaching it. And here I look to the wisdom of my dissertation director, Fred Biggs, who once told me that *everything* is a teaching activity—writing, presenting, publishing, but especially our work in the classroom, where we will teach hundreds and even thousands of students over the course of a career. The work we do with our students will push back the boundaries of our knowledge about the Middle Ages ever further, but to accomplish this we need to tear down the tenuous hierarchies of our classrooms—professor/student, expert/novice—and move forward together as fellow learners, engaging in projects together, teaching each other, finding meaning together in this moment—our own pause, our breath, our comma.