Sunday, October 12, 2008

Medieval Literature at Tasmania

I was very sorry to hear about the proposal to abolish the teaching of Medieval English Literature at the University of Tasmania. Like lots of other places around the country — my own Arts Faculty; ADFA — the School has become overstaffed, and they are looking to abolish medieval literature (and the position of Jenna Mead, who teaches there).

This kind of thing is always tricky. It's a small department; and enrolments in medieval literature will never be enormous. But there are certainly ways to integrate medieval literature into the curriculum. The School has particular research strengths in C19 and C20, and in regional literature and colonial and post-colonial studies, and wants to focus its undergraduate teaching in that area. (Oh, but an exception is made for Shakespeare, which just seems weird to me.) All the more reason, then, to give students the historical depth that medieval studies offers.

I've just written to the vice-chancellor at UTas. In part, my letter read:

Contemporary medieval studies is a cutting-edge field that readily engages not only with its traditional interdisciplinary partners — historical studies, art history, architecture, music, etc. — but also with a wide range of sophisticated theoretical approaches to literature and cultural studies. Moreover, medieval studies is an exemplary way to study the literature of the past, of cultures and societies other than our own, especially through dialogue with the field of medievalism, the study of various attempts to revive, re-create and re-work medieval culture in contemporary literature, film, and in other cultural forms.

Professor _____ remarks that medieval literature is not taught in many Australian universities. All the more reason, then, to preserve it in the syllabus at Tasmania, where it is well supported by the team of excellent medievalists in the School of History and Classics. English departments, even small ones, have an obligation to give students the widest possible exposure to the many traditions of English literature, not just those relevant to the School’s research strengths. Professor _____ comments that Medieval Literature is a specialized subject that “cannot be readily integrated into a reinvigorated and restructured English programme”. Permit me to register my most profound disagreement with this statement: the teaching of Middle English language skills may well be specialised, but there is no reason why medieval literature and medievalist literature and film cannot be fully integrated into a lively curriculum, as is seen in other universities in Australia and internationally.
It felt a bit odd to be writing, given that my own Faculty is grappling with forced redundancies of our own, though there is a growing tide of resistance to this next stage. Anyway, if you are reading this with concern, and would like to know more, and perhaps write your own letter, I suggest getting in contact with Jenna directly, or leaving a comment here in support of medieval literature.

5 comments:

meli said...

That's just horrible! I can't imagine not having had the chance to study medieval literature as an undergraduate at Adelaide (we only had one medievalist there, too). I know that the combination of medieval and postcolonial literature helped me achieve international student scholarships for my masters and phd, and I wouldn't have had that chance if my Australian university didn't teach medieval literature.

Further to that, as you pointed out, how can you really separate the new from the old when so much of the new is built on or responding to or rewriting the old?

I don't suppose a letter from me would carry a great deal of weight, but I am more than happy to write one if you think adding one more voice to the mix would be a good idea.

Stephanie Trigg said...

Meli, I think the thing to do would be to write to Jenna directly (easy to find her email on the web: I don't like to post it here), and ask what would be most useful at this stage. I think there's a Facebook site for students, for example, but it might just be UTas students. I agree with your sentiments entirely, though. That particular cast of Australian medieval(ist) studies is v. interesting, isn't it?

Eileen Joy said...

Stehanie et alia,

earlier in September, in response to a reader's query regarding a similar situation [but much less threatening] at an American university, I wrote the following, and I contribute it to the discussion here "in defense of medieval studies," as it were [and forgive the longish-ness of this, but this is a subject I obsess over continually; I have made some emendations]:

Now that we have Bruce Holsinger's "The Premodern Condition" and Erin F. Labbie's "Lacan's Medievalism" and Amy Hollywood's "Sensible Ecstasy" in hand [all of which demonstrate how dependent certain important modern theorists were upon the work of medieval authors], there are some very strong arguments to be made about the vital *necessity* of medieval studies to modern/contemporary theory. In addition, the attentive reader will note that, in the very visible and strong area of contemporary queer studies, the leading work in this field includes quite a few classicists, medievalists, and early modernists [some of whom, like David Halperin and Carolyn Dinshaw, can be considered, alongside figures such as Eve Sedgewick, Judith, Butler, and Michael Warner, to be the *founders* of the field]. Consider, also, that the most interesting work being undertaken in contemporary queer studies now by theorists who are not medievalists is concerned with the "affective turn" [Heather Love, Erin Manning, Kathleen Stewart, Brian Massumi, Lauren Berlant, Elizabeth Freeman], for which "turn" the medievalist Carolyn Dinshaw is the important predecessor. It is also no accident that the most important work being done now in postcolonial studies has been energized by a renewed attention to longer historical perspectives [and by medievalists' collaborative efforts to *intervene* into this field that, historically, has not always taken the premodern into enough account: Jeffrey J. Cohen's "The Postcolonial Middle Ages" is one such important effort, as is Ananya Kabir's and Deanne Williams' "Postcolonial Approaches to the European Middle Ages," and also Michelle Warren's "History on the Edge," David Williams's "Premodern Places," Kofi Campbell's "Literature and Culture in the Black Atlantic," and I could go on and on]. The recent book by the Anglo-Saxonist Kathleen Davis, "Periodization and Sovereignty: How Ideas of Feudalism and Secularization Govern the Politics of Time" directly addresses modern and contemporary historical, social, and legal issues related to national sovereignty [could anything be more timely and pressing on the world historical stage?] and is partly a result of an active dialogue between Davis and important postcolonial thinkers such as Dipesh Chakrabarty [who provided a blurb for the book!]. A new book [a collection of essays] is coming out from Duquesne University Press that traces the influence of the medieval in the thought of one of the twentieth century's most important philosophers, Emmanuel Levinas: "Levinas and Medieval Literature" The "Difficult Reading' of Texts, English and Rabbinic," edited by Ann Astell and Justin Jackson [full disclaimer: I am in this book]. So, there's that. Which is to say: one important component of the argument that we can make to university administrations is to compile a kind of narrative bibliography of the increasingly important role that medieval studies is playing in important contemporary fields such as queer studies, postcolonial studies, and Continental philosophy, as well as in the *historical* development of critical and cultural theory more broadly. Also, there is the issue of the significant role of medieval studies in relation to understanding popular culture, which means medieval studies is important, on a vital level, to that vexed [yet I would argue *very* important, and certainly *healthy*] academic field of cultural studies [reference here all work in "studies in medievalism," which, especially thanks to the recent collaborative work of Stephanie Trigg and Tom Prendergast is now also developing an important self-reflexive critique of medieval studies more broadly].

But I think the strongest argument to be made, in *integration* with the ones I outlined above, would be for *all* departments of English [Ken's included] to work together more collaboratively on creating innovative cultural studies programs that would integrate all of the literary periods--ancient through modern--in relation to a variety of what we might call pressing contemporary concerns: theoretical, global, aesthetic, social, etc. And then, somehow create linkages between those programs of study [which could be designed as "tracks" within, say, B.A. and M.A. degree programs, or could even be structured as required components within existing B.A. and M.A. program requirements] and courses being offered in other departments. In my own department, I and a few other faculty led a charge about five years ago to revise our B.A. in English in order to, simultaneously,

1. strengthen [and actually make a bit tougher] our students' grounding in the more full oeuvres of "major authors" [broadly defined, by the way];

2. add a global literatures component;

3. rejuvenate the teaching of older literatures in new, cross-temporal literature courses;

and

4. [and this will be the horror moment for some medievalists, I know], get rid of periodization as both a factor in which particular courses are required [we used to require an early Brit. Lit survey because it was believed students would never get Beowulf, Chaucer, Spenser, or Milton otherwise] and also as organizing principle for any of our survey or upper-level courses [instead, surveys will all be themed courses at the 200-level, representing an integration of all sorts of different literatures, early and late, American, English, and global].

So, for starters, in addition to our stand-alone courses in Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Milton, we added Morrison. Then we created two new "Major Authors" courses, "Shared Traditions" and "Crossing Boundaries," which will feature 2-4 authors who share an historical period and/or genre and 2-4 authors who normally would never be taught together in a gadjillion years yet can be conceptualized to have connections [so, for example, in Fall 2009 I am teaching a course titled "The Question of Sin in the Work of John Milton and Neil Labute, and another colleague is doing a course on Ibsen and Tony Kushner]. So, some kind of internal departmental effort to revise the curriculum [*especially*--this cannot be stressed enough--at the undergraduate level] with an eye toward better integrating the disparate teaching areas and literary periods, in a manner that demonstrates the important worth of premodern studies to the study of later periods, is another possible prong in the so-called defense [I would call this an offensive maneuver, actually].

There is finally--and especially for me, personally--the ways in which all of us, situated at different institutions, can work together [through entities such as the BABEL Working Group, but also through "institutes" such as George Washington's Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute or Columbia/Rutgers/University of Rhode Island/New York University's Anglo-Saxon Studies Colloquium, and also through various conference, symposia, online, and publishing ventures] to forge productive alliances for the further development of what, for lack of a better term at present, I want to call "medieval cultural studies." I cannot claim to know for certain how this "field," let's say first originated and has since developed, but in the process of putting together a formal prospectus for a new journal in "medieval cultural studies," I had the occasion to reflect on what I believe may have been something like its first [public, anyway] genesis/representation in a small conference held at Georgetown University in 1995, "Cultural Frictions: Medieval Cultural Studies in Post-Modern Contexts," which featured the current work/thinking at that time of Jeffrey Cohen, Carolyn Dinshaw, Steven Kruger, Karma Lochrie, Glenn Burger, Vance Smith, Michael Uebel, Robert Stein, Sarah Stanbury, Kathleen Biddick, Claire Sponsler, Martin Irvine, Andrew Galloway, and Paul Strohm, among a few others. This conference--since forgotten by a lot of people, I think, not counting the participants, of course--represented a really important gathering of young-ish medieval scholars who were trying, collectively, to grapple with what a "medieval cultural studies" might look like [the conference proceedings can be found on the Labyrinth site at Georgetown: http://www8.georgetown.edu/departments/medieval/labyrinth/conf/cs95/]. They may not have entirely succeeded [god knows, I didn't, when I tried to pick up their gauntlet in the Introduction to BABEL's Palgrave volume, "Cultural Studies of the Modern Middle Ages"], but that is, I really believe, partly a function of how difficult it has always been for those who practice cultural studies to define it--both in Britain, where it originated in a more Marxist, materialist mode, and in the U.S. where it has often devolved into rather bland studies of "pop culture." Nevertheless, in his closing remarks [which he later refined and included in his book "Theory and the Premodern Text"], Paul Strohm pointed to a kind of gap, or impasse, that often opens up within cultural studies between cultural studies conceptualized as a form of critique that attends to the discursivity of cultural forms [including texts, and really, this is where everything *becomes* text, and this can lead to difficult problems for historians as regards being able to separate "events" out --see, on this point, the excellent introduction written by Stephen Greenblatt and Catherine Gallagher, in their book "Practicing New Historicism," where they write: "If an entire culture is regarded as text, then everything is at least potentially in play both at the level of representation and at the level of event. Indeed, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain a clear, unambiguous boundary between what is representation and what is event. . . .[Further], if all the textual traces of an era 'count' as both representation and event. . .then it is increasingly difficult to invoke 'history' as a censor."] and cultural studies understood as being primarily concerned with the *material* effects of cultural objects [including texts]. In his address at the conference, Strohm also said this:

"Postmodernism has been devastating in its critique of the authoritative observer, exposing its feigned objectivity as a construction founded in privilege and supported by social authority. But its seeming obverse--complete disinvestment--is actually its twin, founded in a similar claim of disinterest and no less privileged (in this case, the privilege not to care). A recent Representations article on Lollardy situates our best chance of access to the past in unpositioned inattention--a place where scribal indolence is reciprocated in our own address to the past as diversion, or, when more pointedly motivated, as at best 'cultivation of the soul.' Here we see the posture of privilege elevated to principled status. I associate unpositionality with privilege because history (past and present) is full of people placed in circumstances which require care, full of people who can't not care. Such historical actors can neither be everywhere nor nowhere; they have no choice but to be somewhere. And this is how I suggest we position ourselves: provisionally, precariously, temporarily, maybe sometimes bemusedly--but always somewhere. And wherever this somewhere is, that it be an invested place, a place that knows things are at stake."

I, of course, quote this Strohm bit all the time--in the Palgrave book, in various talks--partly because it has acted as a sort of interior mantra for me as regards what I hope can be the vigorous future development of a medieval cultural studies that would:

1. work strenuously to delineate all the connections as well as fissures and cracks that inhere in various representation-event matrices [this is another way of saying that medieval cultural studies are ideally situated to uncovering the layers and layers of repressed mentalities and other deep historical "structurations" that underlie or are embedded in much of contemporary life and thought];

2. explore the slower and semi-still currents of deep historical time that inhere in present cultural formations, which also means attending to what Richard Johnson [in his famous 1987 essay "What is Cultural Studies, Anyway?"] argued should be the chief object of cultural studies: not the text itself [whether that text be a book or another cultural object], but the "social life of subjective forms at each moment of their circulation in the text" [and I would say, more largely, in the world];

and

3. enter into active collaboration with scholars working in more contemporary fields of cultural studies and cultural theory [such as a Cary Wolfe, who just inaugurated the new book series at POSTHUMANities at Minnesota] in order to help those studies, in the words of Simon During, examine their own "temporal border[s]: the separation of past from present," and to also ask: what is the role of history [including medieval history] in contemporary theoretical formulations and cultural studies? This questions has remained largely unexamined in these fields. But instead of just writing articles where we point that out [and we have plenty of these already], we should work collaboratively with scholars in more contemporary field--even in "working group" formations--in order to, in a sense, labor side-by-side on pressing contemporary questions.

This will also mean working toward, not a cross-temporal inter-disciplinarity that would only reinscribe borders and lines [albeit new one, but still lines! around which various forms of sedimenting and settling occur; this is what Cary Wolfe calls "a system of ‘hetero-reference’ that is always a product of ‘self-reference’”], but rather, toward, in Bill Readings' words, a "shifting disciplinary structure that holds open the question of whether and how [our] thoughts fit together" ["The University in Ruins"].

For my own part, and on behalf of BABEL, I would never let the state of affairs at Jenna's university be *her* state of affairs and not mine. Just as, after hearing some horrifying news about a recent layoff at the University of Florida of 32 tenure-track faculty working in primarily obscure humanities fields, I cannot say, well that is Florida's problem. Collective efforts are required, ones that go beyond the occasional polemical essay here and there, or the article that demonstrates "best practice" of a virtuous "cultural studies. Which is also to say, I will also contact Jenna Mead and see if a letter from, say, me [on behalf of all the medievalist in BABEL] might not also help.

Stephanie Trigg said...

A characteristically thoughtful and generous response from Eileen, which I endorse whole-heartedly. You are absolutely right that these issues are always much bigger than the local circumstances.

But times are tight in Australia. In addition to forced redundancies at Melbourne, the same thing is happening (spread across all disciplines) at La Trobe and Victoria Universities. The unions are stepping up to the mark, so hopefully this will give another dimension to the problem in Tasmania.

Matthew Boyd Goldie said...

I am following this discussion with some interest. Although Rider University is not facing the closure of medieval studies as at Tasmania, which is appallingly short-sighted, we are having an interesting discussion within the department about restructuring an English curriculum based on periods. If I might broaden the discussion to "why learn about older literatures," which might be useful to people at Tasmania and elsewhere, here are thoughts. We have three "tracks": literature, writing, and cinema studies, so we are thinking about the reasons for studying older literatures for a variety of students. My input might be something like this:
Just as we might look for diversity in terms of country, gender, etc. in the canon, it is important to have students exposed to older literatures. Presentism and ignorance of the older past is shortsighted. Indeed, it might be more important to teach older literature than recent literature because of the prevalence of contexts in which we encounter recent literature. A related point is that students tend to choose courses on later periods of English literature and even a course on Shakespeare because they have already encountered that literature in high school. What that means is an unexamined repetition and reinforcement of what is already taught, not a choice based on any sound reasoning. Second (and related to point one), older literature is less familiar to students, and so is a way of introducing them to difference, to materials with which they are not familiar. In terms of the latter part of point one, period distribution encourages them to encounter literatures from less-familiar periods. Third, older literature is still relevant: it has shaped and continues to shape not only our present literature (ask any writer!) but is revealing about our present society in terms of globalism, race, gender, etc. Indeed, recent approaches to literature continue to be shaped by studies in older literatures: witness New Historicism out of Early Modern period, postcolonial and queer theories out of medieval literature. Fourth, many of the top-rated universities around the country continue to have distribution because they see the value in a liberal education of having familiarity with older literatures. Fifth, older literature is just as "useful" to students as recent literature. After all, what makes recent literature more useful to students than older literature? I teach recent literature which is, in style and content, as unfamiliar to students as an Old English poem. Sixth, scholarship on older literatures is as active and is changing as rapidly as scholarship on recent literatures. We have well-trained faculty who can communicate the literature to students as effectively as recent literature.
Secondarily, we serve a significant number of students who will be teachers, and it is important for them to feel able to introduce literature of different periods to their students. We serve a small number of students who go on to graduate school, and if you want some hard facts just for the GREs:
"The literary-historical scope of the ENGLISH LITERATURE test follows the distribution below.
1. Continental, Classical, and Comparative Literature through 1925 5-10%
2. British Literature to 1660 (including Milton) 25-30%
3. British Literature 1660-1925 25-35%
4. American Literature through 1925 15-25%
5. American, British, and World Literatures after 1925 20-30%"
Thirdly, many curricula are already weighted towards more recent literature. We might want to increase the weight towards courses that are pre-Romantic.
An alternative approach, which Eileen helpfully suggests, would be to take a thematic approach in our curriculum instead of a period approach, so instead of gateway and period courses, we have different levels of courses on topics at the 200 level. Some other English Department programs have taken up that approach: broadly themed 200 level courses that cover across periods.
I have already sent my thoughts on to Jenna.
Matthew Boyd Goldie