Category Archives: Technology

Guest Post – M. Wendy Hennequin: How Medieval People Composed

I am no rhetorician.  Granted, I have a professional interest in composition because I teach it, and I’ve served as the Freshman English coordinator in my department.  But the study of composition just doesn’t ignite my scholarly passions.  I’m a medievalist.  Give me Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight any day.

But recently, I became very personally interested in how medieval people composed.

Last January, I broke my right wrist.  Yes, I am right-handed.  The cast immobilized my right arm and my right thumb, and partially restricted the movement of my fingers.  I could not write or type or use a keyboard.  Yet I needed to compose a paper for the International Medieval Congress in May.

Normally, I compose the way all the manuals prescribe: brainstorming, research, outline, drafts, revision, revision, more revision coupled with editing, and proofreading.  We think of this process as mental, but it depends heavily on physical acts: writing or typing notes and ideas; writing or typing research notes; using the notes to compose an outline, either in writing or in typescript; and then using these manuscript papers and typescript files to compose the paper, again either by writing or typing.

I literally couldn’t hold a pen or type, so I got to work using the only tool I could still wield: dictation software.

Composing a paper—a difficult process at best—presented a new set of painful challenges when using the dictation software.  The software isn’t as accurate as the manufacturers claim, and my composition process became an adventure in proofreading. The dictation software would render everyday words incorrectly: “act” as “ask”; “she is” as “choose”; “define” as “to find.” (Strangely, the software accurately rendered the foul language I used to curse its inefficiency.)  Dictation software also requires the user to dictate everything that appears on the page, including punctuation and capitals.  The simple sentence, “The comitatus bond has its roots in Ancient Germanic society,” becomes, when dictated, “open quotes cap the comitatus italicize that [pause while software complies] bond has its roots in cap Ancient cap Germanic society period close quotes.” Then I can go on to the next sentence, so long as the software doesn’t render “society” as “so sigh at tea.”

Taking and organizing notes was also cumbersome, because it involved switching between multiple documents, and dictation errors in my notes sometimes confused me. Worse, the dictation software made mistakes in almost every sentence, even after I added words to its dictionary and trained the software on the words.

Drafting with dictation software took an enormous toll on the ease and quality of my composition.  The constant distraction of fixing mistakes and dictating punctuation interfered with my thought process.  I often lost my place and, worse, my ideas.  My argument flowed in fits and starts, paragraphs came out fragmented, and sentences were roughly worded.  The paper got done, finally, but it was a draft, a horrible one.  Composing it took so long that I had no time to improve it—and the process of revising through dictation software would have been just as frustrating.

I knew there had to be a better way.  Medieval and ancient authors composed long works, but they could not have composed drafts the way we do, because they had limited resources for physical writing.  They didn’t have a huge supply of scrap paper for research notes or drafts.  They had wax tablets, but nothing large enough to hold long, multi-sectioned works.  Even light was limited.

Granted, some, like Homer and possibly the author of Beowulf, composed orally.  The oral-formulaic theory posits that highly-trained poets composed the lines ex tempore, hanging well-known formulae (stock phrases or parts of stock phrases) onto a narrative outline like ornaments on a Christmas tree.  These poets eventually dictated the poem to a scribe, leaving us with works like Gilgamesh and The Odyssey.

But most medieval and ancient authors were not oral-formulaic composers, but literate authors who carefully crafted and revised their works without unlimited access to physical writing and written drafts.  Chaucer did it this way—whatever this way was.  Virgil did it, too.  Boccaccio, Aristotle, Alfred the Great, Christine de Pizan, Thomas Aquinas, and Thomas Malory did it in prose, as did all the medieval and ancient historians.  Even Milton did it—and he was blind. There had to be a way to compose these longs works without physically writing, because these authors had done it.

Facing with the possibility of surgery and another six months of dictation software, I was determined to learn their secret.  But I discovered I knew the secret—and I had already used the technique myself.

As I was laboriously constructing my conference paper, my snarky Muse hit me with an unexpected story idea.  My adventures with the conference paper demonstrated to me vividly that I shouldn’t even try to compose this story on the computer.  For one thing, the proper names and terms would trip up the dictation software.  For another, the constant corrections and insertion of punctuation would fragment the story, just as they had done in my conference paper.

Since I intended the story for storytelling anyway (yes, I have weird hobbies), I tried another approach.  After some research, I started hashing out the plot in my brain, setting up events and shuffling them around, adding things in and taking them out.  I paced in the living room as I hashed out the plot. I stared at the bedroom ceiling as I planned the exposition.  I rejected ideas and injected new ones as I drove to work.  And I muttered to myself a lot.

Constructing the prose was somewhat more difficult.  The exact wording in my stories is important, but since I didn’t want to mess with the dictation software, I had no way to record the wording except in my own memory.  So I started speaking the paragraphs out loud to myself, correcting my wording as I went, adding and subtracting and revising, then repeating sentences, paragraphs, and finally sections aloud to myself until I had memorized them almost completely.  I then added one section to another, repeating them, making them work together, revising even more.  Finally, I began rehearsing the completed story and testing it with listeners—again, correcting myself as I spoke, revising where I needed to, refining the wording where it needed polish and ease.

I started composing at the end of February.  By the middle of April, I had a complete story in its final form.  I did not type the story in writing until the end of August.  The story is 1422 words—no Summa Theologica, but a pretty significant length for an orally composed prose work.

I had unknowingly duplicated medieval composition processes to create this story. According to Mary Carruthers’ The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture (2nd ed., Cambridge UP, 2008), we only have a few records of medieval composition, but these generally include:

  • Meditating, praying, and talking to oneself until basically completing a mental draft called the res;
  • Refining and revising the res, mentally, orally, and /or with written notes on an easily reusable surface, into a more formal draft called the dictamen;
  • Dictating the dictamen to a scribe;
  • Correcting the scribe’s transcript, sometimes with revision based on others’ input. (Carruthers 235-65)

Note that the physical act of writing is absent from most of the medieval process.  The early stages depend almost entirely on mental composition, and even the written aspects are fragmentary, until the scribe’s transcript.

Unexpectedly, I had achieved the Holy Grail of composition without writing.  But no Holy Grail ever solves problems as advertised.  Yes, I had composed a story successfully, but I knew I could never compose a modern scholarly paper as I had composed my story.  On one level, the medieval, non-written composition process mirrors our own: we still brainstorm until we find our res and organize it, then we draft more formally, transcribe, edit and proofread our work.  But we depend on written records, either paper or electronic.  Paper, computers, and phones have become external, retrievable, physical records of our res and dictamen.  Our technologies of writing—pen, paper, print, typewriter, computer, word processor, printers, and the Internet—and their easy availability have not only changed the process of composition, but have also changed our standards of research and scholarship.

Carruthers points out in The Book of Memory is that medieval scholars practically memorized their research.   We don’t.  For one thing, our writing technologies of writing make memorization unnecessary.  For another, we have access to so many more sources that memorization is impossible.  My conference paper had over twenty sources, including Beowulf, and amounted to close to 4,000 pages of text.  Brain space aside, there simply isn’t enough time to memorize all the sources.

And because we have so many sources to deal with, we’ve become very particular about citation.  What we would call outright plagiarism was commonplace in medieval scholarship, and medieval scholars cited very casually when they cited at all.  A medieval author quoting Plato might never mention whether he’s referring to The Republic or The Symposium—and in fact, he might be quoting Aristotle instead of Plato.  But a contemporary scholar must be painstakingly specific.  Which work by Plato?  Which translation?  Which edition?  Which manuscript?  And the quote had better be correct, too, because someone will be looking it up when we publish it.  Scholars build their work on other scholars’; we rely on each other’s ideas to feed our own, and we rely on each other’s accuracy to be able to trace and adjust and (especially in the sciences) correct and disprove other theories.  There is no way that today’s scholar could accurately reproduce all research, and all the details of the sources, by using the medieval composition process.

We are victims of our technologies.  The proliferation and availability of books and other sources, increased literacy, and the easy access to writing and writing material of all sorts has, in a way, forced us to move our memories from our brains to papers, tablets, notebooks, and computers.  It’s a vicious cycle: we have access to more sources and more detail, so we must use more sources and give more detail and do so accurately.  We have more; therefore, more is expected of us.

Is this change for better or for worse?  Or simply change?  Writing technologies help us retain and transmit knowledge more efficiently; preserve and dissemminate knowledge far more accurately; and possibly increase our production of knowledge.  As a scholar, I acknowledge that these are consummations devoutly to be wished.  But our expectations of writers have correspondingly increased, and my own experiences show how much our composition process is intertwined at almost every stage with some sort of physical or electronic writing.  We are paralyzed when our notes disappear or our Internet connection freezes, when our hands break or the power goes out.  Medieval authors carried their notes and their libraries in their heads; though they had fewer sources, they never lost access to their knowledge, their work, or their tools.  Their process was slower, less efficient, but produced great results.  Perhaps the pressure and work of composing was just as great and onerous as it was to us. Certainly, my experience with medieval composition techniques required more brain-power, memory, and time than composing with technologies.  Yet, I found composing in the medieval way was far more enjoyable, and far less frustrating, than composing with malfunctioning technology.  It is telling that we begin our writing in a storm, and they began with meditation and prayer.

1 Comment

Filed under Guest Post, Technology

The Story of the “Chaucer Pilgrimage Site”

It all started with this:
I and a couple of students were presenting at the New England Association of the Teachers of English Fall 2014 Conference. As I checked in, the woman at the table told me about the mini-grants. Apparently, to apply all you had to do was write out a proposal on the back of the form and turn it in by the end of the conference. Never one to turn down an opportunity, I mulled ideas as I listened to the keynote speaker. As I considered my courses, I naturally focused on my upcoming Chaucer class in Spring 2015. I had not taught a course just on Chaucer yet, and I was still considering ways to make his texts and Middle English accessible to my students.
My thoughts wandered, considered a variety of options and dismissed them. Then, I came up with the “Pilgrimage Site.” I would create a physical location in our English Studies Department that students would have to visit. Pilgrimage can be complex for students to apply to their modern experiences, especially the difficulty with traveling in the Middle Ages.
What would they do when they got to the Site? Pilgrimage badges! I decided that I would have students “journey” to the Site, pick up a badge specific to our readings of the week, and then leave their own offerings at the Site to represent their understanding of some aspect of the texts.  Students would take photos, provide analysis of their badges and objects, and discuss other students’ objects in a public Facebook group.
I wrote it up, turned it in, and received quite a surprise when I got the email that I had been awarded the mini-grant – its first ever university awardee.
Now came the planning. I have never had more fun planning a course than I did in selecting badges that matched our readings. Students would be visiting the Site every other week, which ended up being seven weeks. I wanted students to have choices, so I provided at least two badges per week.
Before the semester started, I created our Site with the generous support of the department giving me a corner of one of our study rooms. I also decided that the Site would not be complete without Chaucer himself.
It soon became the “thing” to do to take a selfie with Chaucer. Several of my colleagues in the department (and around the university) took their photo with our author. I received the generous permission from some to post them on the project’s Facebook page, which generated more interest among my own students who were delighted at this development. And, of course, I couldn’t resist the opportunity myself.
Having set up the Facebook page (click here to see!), with the beginning of the semester, we began our pilgrimage project.
The Badges
Week 1 – The Book of the Duchess – Black Knights and Tiny Books
Week 2 – Troilus and Criseyde – Wheel of Fortune Magnets and an Arrow
Week 3 – General Prologue – Pilgrim Pins and Becket Prayer Cards
Week 4 – The Friar’s and Summoner’s Tales – Bags of Flour and Frying Pans
Week 5 – The Pardoner’s Tale – Treasure Chests and Bells
Week 6 – The Clerk’s Tale – Brooms and Wedding Rings

Week 7 – The Franklin’s Tale – Star Chart

Student Objects
As the semester progressed, our Site became more and more populated with objects students left to represent their readings.

So What Did I Learn?
For me, this”Pilgrimage Site” became a deliberate study of pedagogical physical and digital spaces. In thinking about ways to negotiate the technology-filled learning environments, we may already have discovered one method that we are not utilizing to its fullest extent – the concept of hybridity. Integrating both physical and digital spaces in more dynamic ways than simply using face-to-face class time as the “physical” aspect allows each to enhance the other. The “paper” and “digital” worlds and teaching practices do not need to be in conflict with each other or be mutually exclusive; they can work together in highly productive ways. The students participated and were immersed in the cultural practice of medieval pilgrimage as well as had a different, creative, active experience with the works of Chaucer. It encouraged interaction with the texts outside of class through cooperative physical and digital interaction. I highly recommend this type of activity!
What About You?
  • Do you have a similar idea? Post it in the comments!
  • How would you analyze each of the badges above? What badges would you have chosen? Comment!

Leave a comment

Filed under Chaucer, Teaching, Technology, Uncategorized

Kalamazoo 2014: MassMedieval Roundtable – “Digital Life of Twenty-First-Century Medieval Studies”

I know that I promised a final blog post about the last day of KZoo, specifically MassMedieval’s roundtable, “Medievalists and the Social Media Pilgrimage: The Digital Life of Twenty-First-Century Medieval Studies,” featuring  John; Peter Konieczny, Medievalists.netBrandon W. Hawk, University of Connecticut; Andrew M. Pfrenger, Kent State University–Salem; Joshua R. Eyler, Rice University; and M. Wendy Hennequin, Tennessee State University. Unfortunately, I simply haven’t had the time! To make up for my lapse, I decided, in lieu of a traditional post and in the spirit of the subject of the roundtable itself, to create a Storify of the Tweets from the session, which gives a fairly complete summary of the discussions. Take a look! –Kisha

1 Comment

Filed under Conferences, Kalamazoo, Technology

Reposting Guest Blog: iPads in the Higher Education Classroom

Forgive me for a departure from the medieval for this post. My university is doing an iPad pilot to test out the possibility of using them in our classrooms. I am a member of this pilot. I have had several concerns about this initiative, and I was asked to do a few guest posts for a blog that is documenting the project. Below is a copy of the text of my first post, originally published here. I would be interested in hearing thoughts and responses from anyone.


It’s Different.

First, I should define where I stand on the “iPads in the classroom question,” which is a much more difficult task than it seems. To begin, what am I not? I am not a full-fledged “skeptic.” I believe that technology can be incredibly effective in the classroom. Indeed, I have promoted pedagogical technologies for several years, and I am currently working on research heading towards a book about wikis in higher education. I also recognize that students should be aware of and proficient with these tools as they will be a part of their future professional and personal landscapes. This leads to what else I am not. I am not a “technology novice.” While the finer points of software, hardware, and the infamous coding are outside my realms of expertise, I can make my way around devices, applications, programs, and electronic toys relatively easily and confidently. Thus, I fall somewhere between the so-called digital native and digital immigrant (phrases I find to be incredibly inaccurate and deceptive, particularly with respect to my students, who missed the memo that everyone their age should be technologically-proficient).
So what am I? I suppose the best term for me at the beginning of this pilot is “concerned.” I believe there is a vast amount of considerations that need to be addressed as institutions move forward with iPad (or similar) initiatives. I could make a long list of concerns that I have, but I will categorize them in three areas for now.1) Reading. The move toward e-(text)books appears, at this stage, to be inevitable, and there are several advantages – not the least of which is cost, something I am constantly aware of given the average socioeconomic status of our students. There is, however, a great deal of research concerning how different it is to read digitally than on paper. I am not proposing (unless further studies determine thus) that either digital or paper is the better medium. However, it isdifferent, and this difference needs to be considered in our approaches to teaching. Handing a student a book and linking them to an e-(text)book simply cannot be viewed as requiring the same skills. We attempt to teach our students to read at a college-level, and we will need to teach them to read digitally at a college-level. Leaving aside academic research on the subject, the Scientific American posted a useful article entitled “The Reading Brain in the Digital Age,” which highlights this issue very well:
  • “[E]vidence from laboratory experiments, polls and consumer reports indicates that modern screens and e-readers fail to adequately recreate certain tactile experiences of reading on paper that many people miss and, more importantly, prevent people from navigating long texts in an intuitive and satisfying way. In turn, such navigational difficulties may subtly inhibit reading comprehension.”
  • “Although e-readers like the Kindle and tablets like the iPad re-create pagination—sometimes complete with page numbers, headers and illustrations—the screen only displays a single virtual page: it is there and then it is gone. Instead of hiking the trail yourself, the trees, rocks and moss move past you in flashes with no trace of what came before and no way to see what lies ahead.”

2) Writing. Much the same argument applies to writing (for my purposes as an instructor in higher education, academic/college-level writing) on a mobile device. It is different. And I would argue even more so if e-(text)books are used in conjunction with it. As a literary scholar, I think about how I write – with several books open in front of me, or PDF’s open on parallel screens, with a document/notepad available for notes, and then another document for the actual writing. Such a process necessarily changes on a mobile device. Multiple screens might be possible, but in a much more limited way. I will not pretend that my undergraduates have the same process that I do, although getting closer to something in that ballpark is one of the goals of their education. Still, even having an e-(text)book open as well as the word processor is awkward on that platform. Then, of course, there is the physical act of typing a long paper on a small device – keyboard or not. Put simply, it’s different.

3) Research and information literacy. After mulling about how I write, I think about how I research. How often I focus on footnotes or endnotes. How often I have several different portions of a book open at the same time, ready to be compared, analyzed, and cross-referenced. I think about how I line up passages next to each other. Then I turn to how I engage with sources – not as isolated, individual entities, but as a cog in a network of connections: the books next to the one I went to find in the library, the rest of the articles in the same issue, the sources found in notes and bibliographies. I again am not arguing that I think this is impossible on a digital (especially mobile) device (indeed, we have gained much in terms of resources), but I think the process is different. While our students struggle with the traditional ways to research, they also struggle with the new, burgeoning ways to research, particularly in how to access that network of connections and follow it down the rabbit hole. We should consider carefully how and when we are going to teach both; there is every possibility that they can eventually complement each other, but curriculum will need to be developed deliberately.

In case you missed it, I have a theme in my concerns: namely, that teaching on a mobile device such as the iPad is different in multiple ways. These differences are my focus as I prepare for this experiment.


Filed under Non-Medieval, Teaching, Technology

#MedievalDis on #DayofDH

John and I are both a part of the Society for the Study of Disability in the Middle Ages. Yesterday, the Society chose to participate in the Day of Digital Humanities by doing some work on its project, the Medieval Disability Glossary, and recording everything on Twitter. Using the hashtag #MedievalDis (and #DayofDH), there was some interesting and fun discussion, which we gathered into the Storify post below. Check it out!


Leave a comment

Filed under Disability, Scholar, Technology

English Studies Abroad: “Footsteps of Legend in Medieval England”

That time is here again. Preparing and finalizing syllabi for the semester. I had a bit of a challenge for this spring: designing a study abroad course. I thought I would share some of my thoughts here.

The Background

A couple of years ago, I designed a shell course for my department – ENGL 3025: English Studies Abroad (previously mentioned here) – with the following description:

Special topics taken in a foreign study program. The topics covered in this course will vary according to the location of the program, duration of travel, and specialty of the respective instructors. Each version of the course will concentrate on the literary culture of the locale of the program and incorporate the value of travel and intellectual inquiry in the experience of reading, writing, performing, and/or teaching. Possible locations abroad include England, Ireland, France, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, India, the Middle East, South Africa, etc.

The hope is that instructors who want to teach this course, from any of our three concentrations of literature, professional writing, or secondary education, will be able to do so, choosing the focus that fits their interests and specialties.

With the development of ENGL 3025, planning began as I will have the privilege of being the first to teach it. Working with our Office of International Education, the details took shape. I wanted to try a spring break model for a couple of reasons. One, I have experience with this particular model as I was a secondary instructor on a Denmark study abroad when I was a graduate student and it worked very well. Two, it is a bit more doable for some of our students, particularly in terms of cost and for those who may not be able to be away for a longer period of time. Three, who doesn’t want to spend spring break travelling?!

The Course

For my first foray into leading my own study abroad, I chose England. The name of the course is “Footsteps of Legend in Medieval England.” The course description:

Many medieval English characters, historical figures, and authors – from King Arthur to Robin Hood and Richard the Lionhearted to Geoffrey Chaucer – have become familiar through films and other forms of popular culture and have influenced a variety of modern literature – including Lord of the Rings. But what are the actual stories behind these characters? Where did the legends begin?

The first part of this course will take an in-depth look at a selection of these popular stories, studying the literature that shaped them as well as the locations in which they developed and focusing on how they became the legends we know today. Then, during spring break, students will have the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of legend, by visiting sites in England relevant to their studies, gaining first-hand cultural experience. Destinations will include libraries, museums, cultural attractions, cathedrals, and cities in various locations around the country.

The class meets regularly for the first part of the semester, and then we take off for England for ten days at spring break. After that, we will meet a couple of more times (the reasons for which I’ll mention in a moment).

I decided to structure the in-class part of the course mostly around the different locations we are going to visit, allowing students to have experience before they even see the sights. Thus, with two exceptions, each week has a theme dedicated to a city, and the readings are either about that city or are in some way connected to it. For instance, part of the London week is dedicated to Chaucer, which leads into the beginning of the Canterbury week, which includes part of The Canterbury Tales. And so on for theseother locations: Bath, Oxford, and Warwick and Leeds Castles (yes, the last are not cities, but you get the picture!). The remaining two weeks are focused on  legendary figures: King Arthur and Robin Hood. A course concerning legends in England would not be complete without them, in my humble opinion. Also, we will make the Stonehenge connection with the stories about Merlin. (I previously posted a while back about a “test run” to England with potential destinations. Some of these were not feasible monetarily-speaking, but the schedule our travel advisor put together is awesome.)

The Assignments

I’m trying out some different things in this class. For one, all of the course documents, readings, and assignments are on Google Drive. This is the first time I have done this, and I am curious to see how it works. Next, our travel/reading journals are going to be created on the site Storify. To develop a sense of camaraderie, I too am going to have my own journal, so “cleverly” titled “Dr. T Goes to England.”

As another online project, we are going to create a Google Map (here). Each student is required to add a location point along with a description related to the city/figure under discussion each week before we leave. Also, I have designed a weekly activity that is quite a bit outside the box, including, for example, a trebuchet battle.
When we return, we will continue our journals, updating them with ideas from our travel. Then, I am in the process of setting up two public presentations – one to the honors academy of a local high school and the other to the community historical society. The students will run these presentations on their own, drawing from their experiences and the work they have done throughout the semester.
Needless to say, I am SO excited – both for the travel and to see how these experiments pan out. I very much hope that the students jump into the work and the experience with enthusiasm. The more excited they are the more fun we are going to have. Each week, I will post what we read, the weekly activity, and updates on the Google Map Project, among other details of the class. So stay tuned.


Filed under Teaching, Technology, Travels

Around the Table: Day 4, Kalamazoo

Day 4: Roundtables on Blogging and Disability Studies

Today was my day of work (well, a little fun by having lunch with a friend). I participated in two roundtables, both of which turned out to have excellent discussion and provided me with much food for thought.

The first – the MassMedieval roundtable, “Blogging the Medieval(ist) World”! I am incredibly pleased with this discussion. There were so many interesting topics brought up that I will never be able to summarize them, but I will try to get to a few. First, a list of the panelists and their sites:

In the initial comments from each panelist, we hit on a few ideas that were discussed in more detail later. Peter and Sandra briefly considered the possibilities of Twitter, particularly in how medieval images are ideal subjects because they are visually appealing, often have an element of the strange, and need little explanation. Meg, a self-described “slow-blogger,” gave the background of her amazing opportunity to recreate the England to Rome journey of Arthur and how her blog is both a travelogue  and a means for writing through the experience. She offered the idea of how a blog can provide the structure to follow a literary story through a geographic space. She also provided the name of a resource that I plan on examining: Blog Theory by Jodi Dean. Beth uses her blog as a way to read a poem a day from Petrarch’s Canzoniere. She, unlike Meg, describes herself as “blogging in haste” by using “Voi che ascoltate” to focus on daily reading and writing exercises. Beth also brought up the idea of how to bridge the gap between medievalists and “civilians,” particularly by making links to contemporary music and art. Jenny does not currently have a site – though she is on board to write a guest post for MassMedieval! – but, through her survey of medievalist blogs, she offered some insightful comments about the choice to remain anonymous or not and how the choice to incorporate personal details into posts can change the representation of the authors. In my remarks, I outlined the reasons John and I decided to start MassMedieval – in particular, as an outlet of expression for medievalists at small institutions and the desire to connect with other medievalists.

After these comments, the discussion was engaging and wide-ranging. Some highlights:

  • Online presence as an academic – The validity of online interactions has changed considerably over the last few years. Whereas, not too long ago, such activity would have been considered in a poor light, now it is more often than not encouraged. Still, the type of online activity and individual profile is still a consideration. We thought about the concept of how having a blog could be a means of raising profile while on the job market. We found that some of us tend to compartmentalize our online work (Facebook separate from other activities or personal vs professional blogs/Twitter accounts) while others seek to integrate their online personas.
  • Collaboration – Two of the blogs on the panel are a collaborative effort, while two others are not. In general, collaboration allows for more activity as well as more diversity in types of posts and more potential for motivation to continue. The bloggers from one author are both highly structured projects with an end point, not to say this always has to be the case.
  • Guest posts – It was generally agreed that guest posts are the way to go. The advantage of a blog is the ability to communicate. Bringing others in to offer different perspectives creates a rich, dynamic site. Many at the roundtable were interested in collaborating in this way with each other.
  • Using the blog to further research – A couple of the panelists are very much already doing this, especially with their specific focus in their sites. It was also mentioned how blogging can provide motivation and inspiration for research projects. It has even been possible for some to turn their blogs themselves into publications.

Other blogs from the audience (if you are a medieval blogger, please feel free to leave a comment with a link):

For those who attended or participated in the roundtable, please fill in anything I have forgotten to add!

Second, I was a panelist on the Society for the Study of Disability in the Middle Ages roundtable on “Incorporating Medieval Disability Studies in the Classroom.” The discussion here too was quite rich. Some of the panelists focused on descriptions and thoughts about specific courses taught, both undergraduate and graduate, as well as American and European. The considerations raised dealt with issues of considering the types of students in these courses, who may or may not have a background in either disability studies or the Middle Ages. I also discussed my own experience teaching a graduate course, mostly comprised of high school teachers, who found the complications and complexities of medieval disability useful in thinking about their students and the state-mandated labels of different types of students. Besides courses with disability topics, it is also important to think about bringing in issues of disability into other courses, such as surveys, thereby giving students an additional lens with which to read texts. It may also be possible to have students consider what makes someone “abled” or “dis-abled” in a particular profession or social sphere (i.e. kings vs. peasants, women, scribes, etc.).

John also brought up a point that we must consider in introducing our students to any critical framework. How can students become well-versed in a vocabulary or in a particular type of critical reading in one semester? Will they simply default to mimicking terminology or critical styles without learning how to apply or how to assess such work? This becomes important when considering how students may fall back on the “diagnosis model” of reading the text – “therefore, this character has this disease/disability – the end.” One specific solution we considered is the possibility that more focused work – looking at one word across texts, for example – might help this particular situation. The work of the Society also may provide a solution, for we are developing a Medieval Disability Glossary, which will offer opportunities for various critical assignments.

Whew! My last Kzoo post! It has been an informative and invigorating conference. As always, I am filled with ideas for projects and teaching experiments. The trick now is to keep up the momentum as I return and grade finals to end out the semester and begin the summer!



Filed under Conferences, Huzzah!, Kalamazoo, Professional stuff, Technology

E-Books and the Culture of Reading

A few days ago, I ended up in an interesting conversation with several colleagues about the likely impact of e-books on our work as teachers of writing and literature. As often happens in groups like this, the discussion turned to the future of print books in the age of technology, and a typically funereal note was struck. But I tried to argue for a bit of optimism on multiple fronts. Are e-readers here to stay? Maybe. Are print books dead? Maybe not.

There are some pretty clear parallels between the “death of the print book” and its birth. The advent of the printing press did not change the writing culture of Europe overnight. Decades passed while presses were built and publishing concerns established, but it took even longer to convince the entire reading population that manuscripts (with their artistry, craft, marginalia, durability, and colorful illuminations) were not the superior choice. New technology does not exist in a vacuum. Its utility and possibility is not fully realized until other technologies, educational models, and mindsets are created or adjusted to make fuller use of it. Books became popular over the course of multiple lifetimes, as more people became accustomed to and desirous of the qualities of print books (relatively low cost of production, accessibility, ease of ownership, faster production time, etc.), and more ink-and-parchment users either came to prefer these qualities as well or died off.  Manuscripts became collectors’ curiosities and eventually historians’ prizes, but only after enjoying a long and slow slide into obsolescence. Sentimentality, of course, played a role in that slowness–just as sentimentality is part of what fuels the hue and cry over the death of the book. Will print books, like their manuscript forebears, be reduced to a novelty item?

A new invention and an old one can coexist for a long time. The telephone was patented in 1876, yet the last telegraph to a sitting president (from a naval vessel) was sent in 1999. From the presidencies of Rutherford B. Hayes (whose phone number, incidentally, was “1”) to Bill Clinton, these two technologies existed side by side, one gradually taking the place of the other. New technology replaces an older form when, and only when, a sufficient majority of people decide that the advantages and limitations of the new technology are preferable to those of the older type. It takes a while, therefore, to replace a technology that works, and it would be hard to argue that any technological innovation of the second millennium AD was more culturally pervasive and universally successful than the printing press. (Gunpowder was invented in the first millennium, so I can sidestep the cynical comparison to guns on a technicality). Print books will be around until a new technology, which may or may not look anything like the current crop of e-readers, can convince enough people of its superior utility in comparison to bound paper and ink.

In the meantime, e-readers and “traditional” texts may turn out to interact in ways we’re not fully expecting. Last semester, I was bloviating at a class about the advantage of a physically small book which I’d assigned for class, a copy of which I keep in a coat pocket. “I can get a bit of reading done even while waiting on a line or between classes,” I pointed out, suggesting that they might do the same. A student in the front row held up his iPhone, on which, he explained, he had a copy of the same book–as well as fifty others (and yes, I’d already known that this was possible). After class, he told me that he reads on both an e-reader and his phone. When he’s done with a book, he decides whether he likes it enough to buy a paper copy, which he then can reread and write in if he chooses. My own shelves groan under the weight of books I read once, was indifferent to, and stuck back in place. My student’s private library, on the other hand, is made up entirely of books he’s already vetted and approved through their cheaper, electronically accessible forms.

Are the days of print books numbered? Maybe–but that number is probably a lot higher than many people think.

That said, the more disposable forms of writing, including nearly all periodicals, should look to e-readers as their best hope for the future. I don’t have an e-reader at present, but I’m thinking about getting one–mainly so that I can start accessing my subscriptions to newspapers, journals, and magazines when I’m traveling, stuck in a car with a sleeping baby, or just eating lunch somewhere without my laptop handy.

I probably won’t start reading books on a machine anytime soon, though–I like paper, the ability to move around in the text, my occasional marginal writing, my ownership of a physical text. Besides, I’m comfortable with one foot in the past and one in the present…after all, it’s what I do for a living.


Filed under History, Teaching, Technology

A Semester Rundown

My apologies for the unplanned hiatus. Unlike one of my colleagues (if you’re into American Studies, I recommend his blog – Ben Railton) who is an active and experienced blogger, I am still getting into the groove – which means I let little things like the beginning of the semester interrupt my posting.

On that note, if you will indulge me, I thought I would ruminate on the subject uppermost in my mind the last few weeks – my current classes.

British Literature I – Beowulf to Milton

This is the fourth semester I have taught an incarnation of this course. First observation – it’s one of my favorites. Second observation – it’s one of the most frustrating. I love it because it allows me to do a crash course in the history and culture as well as the literature of early Britain while, at the same time, pushing me forward in time to the Early Modern period. My complaint is, naturally, the same that any instructor of this course has: the scope. 800-1600 in fifteen weeks. Go. I believe that translates to roughly fifteen minutes per half century. Or maybe not. Math isn’t my thing.

Fall 2011 is shaping up well for Brit Lit I. Usually, as this is a General Education option (or Liberal Arts and Sciences as we label it), it is a hodge-podge of majors from across the university. Somehow, this time, I ended up with mostly English majors and/or minors. As I said on the first day of class, at least I know they like to read. So far, they are proving to be delightful. There is barely a question that goes by that doesn’t see several hands in the air. It’s occasionally disconcerting, but I am learning to live with it.

A new-ish feature to my course is the Blackboard wiki. I have been using wikis for a while and have become something of the wiki point person on campus. What is new is that FSU just acquired the wiki tool within our Blackboard system. It’s proven to be, in the first few weeks, decidedly successful in all my classes and I have high hopes for the semester. In the past, I have used Wikispaces, but the cons have been a) it’s an outside site and b) it requires the students to log in. Basically, it means “out of sight, out of mind.” The best part of Blackboard is that it is right there and hard to miss. They are automatically members and able to update and edit. As with any wiki, it has its cons, particularly in its simplicity, but, so far, they are issues that can be tolerated. Given it is now integrated into Blackboard, I was able to increase its overall weight in their grades.

The highlight so far: one of my students created a page on the wiki of “Dr. Tracy’s Rules of Medieval Literature” – now I’ll know what number I am on at any given point. At the moment, it’s five.

World Literature I

The same issues apply to this course as with British Literature I, but now there is the entire sphere of ancient to Early Modern world literature from which to draw. I have always “solved” this problem by setting up my syllabus in thematic units. We don’t read chronologically or geographically – we read based on themes of human experience. Origins, war, epics, love, death, etc. The big ones. It seems to help students to have something to hold on to, particularly in small chunks of material. We are still on the origins and creation myths section, having just read excerpts from Genesis, the Babylonian Enûma Eliš, and the Egyptian Hymn to Aten.

Traditionally, World Literature I is a bit difficult in that students in the course seem to have a certain resistance to the subject as well as an aversion to reading in general. It’s a truth I need to mull over more. I am in luck, however, that one section this semester is talkative, which allows us to have some fun. The jury is still out on the other section. I am always fascinated by the dynamics of classes and how the personalities of the students affects the material I am trying to present. Now that I teach multiple sections of the same course back-to-back, I can really observe this phenomenon at work. Same text(s), same lesson plans – different outcome.

Highlight so far: while my students were working on a short group analysis comparing the Hymn to Aten with Psalm 104, I played them the “Hymn to Aten” from the opera Akhnaten by Philip Glass. Halfway through, one of them asked, “Do you listen to this kind of stuff, you know, for fun?” I’ll let you interpret that.

Bible as Literature

I posted a description of this course prior to the semester, when I was developing it (“Teaching the Bible”). I know I am going to sound like a broken record here, but the students are fantastic. Talkative and interested. Even the ones who are feeling a bit overwhelmed are willing to speak up in class and ask questions. They represent a diverse group of belief systems, but all of them have been willing to be open-minded and accept the goals of the course, respecting each other. (I suppose I should knock on wood now that this continues for the next few months.) And they like to have fun – or, at the very least, they indulge me and laugh at my jokes.

So far, we have made it through the history, culture, and timeline unit. It has been a while since I have studied ancient Hebrew history. I find it fascinating. The ability of these people to maintain faith in the face of being exiled and the prevailing political belief that you can’t have a religion without a state to support it is unprecedented. It’s been a few weeks of reminders and new discoveries as I prepare for each class.

I have been using a new (to me) technology: Prezi. While I have always been a fan of PowerPoint, I am being won over by the ability in Prezi to think and present in more circular and dynamic patterns. There are not a lot of bells and whistles as far as fonts and such (at least in the free version), but I recommend it. If you’re interested in taking a look, here’s one of mine: Bible as Literature: Ancient Near Eastern Literature and Social World.

Highlight: I happened to mention at a department get-together that I had taught the Protestant Reformation that day as context for a discussion of English Bible translations. Before I could finish my sentence, one of my colleagues laughed and explained how he had brought up Martin Luther in class. When he forgot the date, one of my Bible students quickly filled it in. It’s nice to know someone is listening.

All in all, while I know that the newness hasn’t quite worn off and there is plenty of time left for inevitable frustrations, the semester is shaping up well classroom-wise. I continue to be impressed with the type of students I have at Fitchburg.

I wish you all successful semesters!


Leave a comment

Filed under Teaching, Technology