Grief and Glory: Use of Hebrew Crusades Chronicles and Piyuttim to Deter Adolescent Conversion

Way back in 2015, what feels like a lifetime ago, I wrote a seminar paper titled “Affective Use of First Crusade Chronicles and Piyyutim to Stem Adolescent Conversion” for a class on medieval conversions. In 2017, I presented a revised version of that paper at the International Medieval Congress at Leeds.

My work has since shifted in multiple ways, and that paper doesn’t fit into my dissertation anymore. But I’ve kept it simmering on a back burner, always intending to do something with it. Now, after a Twitter conversation with someone who encouraged me to write and submit this to journals, I’m working on it again.

The paper I presented at Leeds needs a lot or work and revision – essentially a whole rewrite – to make it journal-submission-worthy. I’m sharing it here as I begin to revise, rewrite, rework it.


The first few sections of the paper lead you through my thought-process and research process because I was still working through these ideas at the time and was far from being able to write decisively and authoritatively. Hopefully, returning to this all after having it rattle around my brain for two years, I’ll be able to write it more seamlessly for publication!

I ’m going to begin with three introductions. First, about how this paper fits into my work more broadly: This paper is really only tangential to my dissertation topic. My dissertation focuses on educational and pedagogical moves in medieval British literature. [Edit: no longer true. My dissertation no longer focuses on medieval British literature, but on contemporary American Haredi literature.] There is a consensus in childhood studies and in medieval studies that various constructions of childhood existed based on differences in class, gender, religion, etc. I’ll be arguing that the ideologies of education and of childhood are dependent as much on differences in the formal conventions of literary genres as on the lived differences of medieval children. This paper is focused on a different geographic area (Ashkenaz) and doesn’t deal directly with educational texts. But it does focus on the ways in which adults try to teach or influence young minds, and that is the focus of my dissertation. [This part is still true.]The argument of this paper is based on an exploration of how these texts may have been used to influence young minds, how adults thought certain moves and associations would affect teenage boys’ decisions.

So now for a brief introduction to the texts and the events they commemorate, with an acknowledgement that this is not my main area of study and I may at times gloss over some of the more important aspects in order to get to my point of interest… In 1096, as Crusaders headed to Jerusalem during the First Crusade, they passed through Europe and killed many Jews who lived in the area called Ashkenaz, particularly in the cities of Speyer, Worms, and Mainz. This tragedy became an integral part of Jewish history – in fact, growing up in a twentieth-century Jewish home and attending Jewish schools, I thought the Crusades were only about the Christians killing Jews – like a precursor to the Holocaust. The Hebrew chronicles and poetry written in the twelfth century to commemorate the tragedy of course also focus on the Jewish victims, with only brief mention of the main purpose of the Crusades – as one would expect from texts memorializing the massacres of Jewish communities.

Susan Einbinder argues that the martyrological poetry was aimed at least in part at an audience of potential converts after the threat of the Crusades had passed – medieval Jews converted to Christianity at times voluntarily due to a variety of factors including social, economic, and political factors. William Chester Jordan claims that adolescent Jewish boys were the group most vulnerable to voluntary conversion to Christianity in the twelfth century. Einbinder draws on that argument to suggest that aspects of the poetry do show signs of being directed at adolescent males rather than (or, in addition to) adults – the poetry sets up the extreme cruelty and evil of the Christian Crusaders in contradiction to the pure and valiant martyrdom of the Jewish teens, which adults hoped would convince teens to align themselves with the pure and valiant (the Jews) rather than the cruel and evil (the Christians.)

The third introduction is about my personal connection to the topic. When I read Susan Einbinder’s argument that the piyyutim, the poetry, were perhaps used to persuade teenage boys not to convert from Judaism to Christianity, my first reaction was – I was baffled. If adolescent boys were at risk for conversion because of the suffering and degradation they experienced as Jews and because of the perceived release from suffering that conversion could bestow – how, then, could poetry which agonizes over the suffering and deaths of the previous generation convince young boys to remain Jewish? If the poetry keeps telling them how bad it is for Jews, wouldn’t that serve to convince them to leave rather than to stay in the Jewish community?  Einbinder does address that, but from my own childhood and adolescence, I could find an answer – I was raised in an Orthodox Jewish community, where the Holocaust is invoked often to prove that Jews are the most persecuted people in the history of the world, and there is an expectation that this reminder will engender Jewish pride and a sense of belonging and obligation rather than a desire to leave – in fact, when I left religion, my mother said to me, “you’re demeaning the sacrifices your ancestors made in order to keep the faith.” So, I could begin to see that perhaps stories of ongoing persecution could be used as a means of convincing people to remain part of the persecuted group. Whether or not it works is a different story… But it does indicate that it is thought to be effective.

As I continued to read about the chronicles and the piyyutim, and as I read the texts themselves numerous times, I had another question, this time about the glorification of the martyrs, especially the young martyrs. It would seem that these figures, the young adult males who sacrificed themselves, would be the point of identification for boys in the following generation, boys who are ostensibly the target of anti-conversionary uses of the texts. But the point can’t possibly be to convince these teenage boys to martyr themselves? I began to read about the ideas of martyrdom, and about the uses of these texts in later generations, etc. And again, this is addressed in the scholarship, which emphasizes that the martyrs were not an ideal to emulate. But another memory from my own childhood and adolescence surfaced: the many times I had heard the phrase, “it’s wonderful to die al Kiddush Hashem (in sanctification of God’s name), but it’s much more difficult and much more beautiful to live al Kiddush Hashem.” So again, I could see that rhetoric being employed with the Crusade chronicles and piyyutim as well – the boys would see the impossible choice the martyrs had, and the adults hoped that this would inspire them to live according to God’s principles.

These personal conclusions were borne out as I continued reading. I think it’s important to make this connection, to acknowledge that the kinds of arguments scholars see being made in medieval texts are still used today. And here I leave the personal behind, and get to the analysis of the Hebrew texts themselves…

Both sets of texts grapple with theological ideas like whether the victims of the Crusade massacres were sinful and being punished or were in fact holy and being tested – the resounding conclusion is that they were holy and passed an extremely difficult test set by God, and that this heralds hope for an immediate redemption rather the absence of God’s help seen during the massacres. But these complex problems are dealt with not via theological reasoning but via strong emotional expression: expressions of outrage and despair at God turn quickly into expressions of hope and blessing, making the jump via emotionally-charged language rather than rational explanation. If we accept Einbinder’s claim (as I do) that this body of poetry was utilized to dissuade teenage boys from converting, then it would seem that emotional rather than theological argument was the preferred strategy for preventing young converts. While the prose chronicles are less forceful in their emotional expression and do include some theological reasoning, they also use emotional language. (Of course, the prose wasn’t used the same way the poetry was, as part of the liturgy, and wasn’t as widely read as the poems. But there is of course reason to include them in an analysis of rhetorical attempts to dissuade conversion.)

The reason this matters a lot to me is that Einbinder bases her argument on the following factors: first, “the stylistic features and some of the motifs in Hebrew martyrological poetry suggest that its textual matter targeted an audience characterized by a high level of linguistic sophistication and a high susceptibility to images of vulgarity and pollution” (12). That’s in her introduction, a brief overview of this point. Later, in the chapter where she lays out the full argument, she writes that “young men experiencing the characteristic frustration and volatility of adolescence could see in conversion a powerful way to rebel” (25). This assumes that medieval teenage boys were in essence the same as contemporary teenage boys – frustrated, volatile, wanting to rebel – an assumption I think is made too quickly.

Ephraim Shoham-Steiner, in an essay about madness, conversion, and adolescent suicide among Jews in twelfth-century England, defines adolescence according to a mix of contemporary and historical views: first, there’s the “radical changes associated with puberty,” which in contemporary thought is linked to hormonal changes “causing emotional and personal changes accompanied by a growing awareness of the self and a projected self-image,” at times linked to an identity crisis and defining oneself vis-à-vis others. He also says that adolescents tend to “wrestle with ideological issues rather intensely,” and that adults tend to interpret all of this as “impulsive and incoherent” (73).

The problem with all of this is that it assumes that once the category of adolescence is proven to be applicable to medieval youth (as Einbinder acknowledges that it is an often-contested category), contemporary ideas about adolescence are mapped onto medieval adolescence. While the consensus among medieval childhood scholars is that there was in fact a category of adolescence during the Middle Ages, the characteristics associated with that stage in medieval minds could be different than the contemporary ideas, and could vary widely between Christian communities and Jewish communities. While I saw no reason to discount Einbinder’s and Shoham-Steiner’s assumptions, I did want to check their accuracy. After analyzing the texts for evidence of attitudes toward adolescents via the ways in which adults spoke to or attempted to influence adolescents, I concluded that (according to these texts, at least) these assumptions could be accurate. The ways in which the chronicles and poetry attempt to influence the minds of these adolescent boys indicate that the medieval Jewish Ashkenazic idea of teenage boys does focus on their volatility, and does view their “intense wrestling with ideological matters” as simply “impulsive and incoherent.”

Eliezer bar Nathan begins his chronicle with the technical details of where and when, referring to the Torah in the midst of this very briefly in order to say that ״כל הצרות האמורות בכל התוכחות הכתובות בעשרים וארבעה ספרים, כתוב ולא כתוב עבר עלינו ועל נפשנו״ (Haberman 72), “All the misfortunes related in all the admonitions written in the twenty-four books, those enumerated in Scripture as well as those unwritten, befell us and our souls” (Eidelberg 79). In this way, the chronicle of simple historical facts is already set up as an attempt to explain the events theologically, not only to describe them. And yet for the next while in the text, events are described and no explicit theological reason is given for the troubles plaguing the Jewish communities.

Later in the chronicle, there are two clear instances of a kind of explanation. The second one occurs during the narration of a failed attempt by the bishop of Mainz to save some of the Jews by relocating them to the villages of Rheingau, where Bar Nathan says that fleeing was futile, ״כי בעוונותינו ניתן רשות למשחית לחבל״ (Haberman 75), “for because of our sins, the slayer had been given permission to injure” (Eidelberg 84). This is a common explanation for tragedy, but again, doesn’t seem suitable for an attempt to win young boys back to the faith. The first instance, though, is a perfect strategy for playing on emotions of pride in saying that ״וזה הדור נבחר לפניו להיות לו למנה, כי היה בהם כח וגבורה לעמוד בהיכלו ולעשות דברו ולקדש שמו הגדול בעולמו ועליהם אמר דוד ׳ברכו יי מלאכיו גבורי כח עושי דברו״ (Haberman 73), “this was the generation that had been chosen by Him to be His portion, for they had the strength and the fortitude to stand in His sanctuary, and fulfill His word, and sanctify His Great Name in His world. It is of these that King David said: ‘Bless the Lord, ye angels of His, ye mighty in strength, that fulfill His word’” (Eidelberg 80).

Though the boys susceptible to conversionary efforts would not have been part of this generation chosen for their strength, the chronicle’s narrative shifting between communities, community leaders, and brave young individuals does have the potential to inspire a fierce pride and to create an alignment in the young readers’ minds between themselves and these brave chosen ones. (Others have read this shifting between leaders and individuals differently, but this explanation does work here in the context of adolescents…) And although the chronicle does not do this very much, some of the poems make a clear connection between the word בחורים meaning young men and the idea of נבחר, the chosen ones. בחורים does literally mean chosen ones, and the juxtaposition of these words in some poems (particularly אדברה בצר רוחי “Adabra b’Tzar Ruchi”) provides strong suggestion that the young men are the best and bravest.

One of the anonymous poems, אדברה בצר רוחי “Adabra b’Tzar Ruchi,” uses the explanation of the people’s sins as well, but the nuances there are different.

על התורה אשר בקדושה נחקקה, כלו לומדיה שנתגזרו להפסקה ברית מילה חמחודה וחשוקה, שבתות ומועדים וכל יום צרה וצוקה

חסין יה, שוכן מעלים! מקדם על עקידה אחת צעקו לפניך אראלים, ועתה כמה נעקדים ונכללים – ומדוע לא הרעישו על בני עוללים!

ואנו אין להרהר על הרדומים, כי הם לחיי עד ערוכים ומחותמים: אבל עלינו, כי למאד חויבנו אשמים אשר עברנו מצוות תמימים (Haberman 62 and Carmi 373)

On the Torah which was enacted in holiness, her learners died because they were ordered to stop the precious and desirable bris milah, and the Shabbos and holidays and every day of tragedy and distress.

Almighty Lord, dwelling on high, in days of old the angels cried out to you to put a halt to one sacrifice [akeidah]. And now, so many are bound and slaughtered – why do they not clamour over my infants?

But we must not question the fate of the dead, for they have been destined for eternal life. We must question ourselves, for we have been found very guilty; we have transgressed the precepts of right. (Carmi 373)

There is a clear separation here, again not atypical of explanations of tragedy, between those killed, or sacrificed, and those left to mourn. Those killed are pure and holy – they have sanctified god’s name. Those left to live with the horrors must do a personal accounting of their sins and acknowledge their part in bringing suffering upon the nation. Two stanzas before the line confessing guilt, the poet talks about the holiness of the Torah and those who study it, and claims that the holy students died because they were told to stop practicing bris milah and observing Shabbos and holidays. It suggests the martyrs acted with steadfast refusal to leave their faith and implies that those who survived might not have been strong enough and instead brought god’s wrath on the entire community.

While that does not seem effective in inspiring good feelings in the youth and would rather inspire resentment at being called sinful, most of the other rhetorical constructions in both the poetry and prose ensure that the young readers would be identifying with the martyred heroes and not with those too weak to resist. The next stanza in this poem does that: ״חי עולמים, בצל כנפיך אנו בורחים, כי נשארנו עגונים ואנוחים מבלי להשתתף לתלוי שוחחים – פגר מובס, יבושו כל אליו בוטחים!״ “O everlasting God, we seek refuge in the shadow of Your wings. We have been abandoned, alone and suffering, because we refused to bow our heads before the crucified one, a corpse trampled underfoot. Let all who put their trust in him be put to shame!” (Carmi 373). Although the poem calls out the survivors for having sinned, the rhetoric negates that and instead places them in the category of those who sacrificed their lives for god – “we have refused to bow…” As Einbinder points out, the poems tend to ignore the individuals who did convert or were forcibly converted, while the prose chronicles do mention them (Einbinder 20). But the chronicles, particularly Bar Nathan’s, even as they relate conversions taking place, go to great efforts to present these converts in a heroic light as well. There is the instance of Master Uri and Master Isaac with Isaac’s two daughters all killing themselves after having been forcibly converted (Eidelberg 84), where it is obvious that the conversion was not a result of weakness and that they were spared from death not because they were unworthy of being martyrs. Their suicides make it clear that they are just as holy and above suspicion as those killed by the Crusaders. Their suicides, of course, are their acts of martyrdom.

The chronicle also mentions those who converted, or who were converted forcibly, and did not martyr themselves. Again using language evoking vivid images of vile putrefaction, the chronicle says, “שסופם מוכיח על תחילתם, שלסוף לא חשבו את יראתם עי אם לטיט ולצואה” (Haberman 73), “the later acts of those thus coerced are testimony to this beginning, for in the end they regarded the object of the enemy’s veneration as no more than slime and dung” (Eidelberg 81). Rather than leave an opening for the vulnerable teens to say, “but these people converted and made it!” the chronicle states clearly that even those who escaped dying, which the teens might connect to their own potential escape from hardship and degradation, knew by the end that their new environment was associated with “slime and dung.”

A technique which does tie fierce pride and community to faith-based identification is the relating of events to significant moments in the Jewish calendar or week. The connection is made between the calendar day when the Jews began to prepare themselves to receive the Torah and the day when the community of Worms began to seclude themselves and prepare to sacrifice themselves. The destruction of Cologne as ״ויהרסו בית הכנסת ויוציאו את ספרי התורות ויתעוללו בהם ויתנום למרמס חוצות, ביום נתינתה, אשר הרעישה הארץ ועמודיה יתפלצון״ (Haberman 76), “the foe destroyed the synagogue and removed the Torah scrolls, desecrating them and casting them into the streets to be trodden underfoot” happened “on the very day that the Torah was given, when the earth trembled and its pillars quivered” (Eidelberg 85), drawing a distinction between the holiness of the Jews on that day and the profanity of the Christians. A few times, bar Nathan mentions that the destruction began or the first person was killed on Shabbos or as Shabbos was about to begin, implying an inherent holiness to the action further imbued by the holiness of the day. As the youth admire the heroism and bravery for its exciting qualities, the overt connection to religious faith and bravery would (or would be hoped to) strengthen the affective bond of the youth to the Jewish faith.

Though the lack of theological discussion is obvious, a staple of lamentations – that of crying out to god and either pleading for redemption or accusing him of ignoring those pleas – is employed in the chronicle to serve a kind of theological purpose. Exclamations like ״העל אלה לא תפקוד בם. ועד אנה תביט בוגדים ותחריש״ (Haberman 76), “O God, will You not punish them for these acts? How long will you look on at the wicked and remain silent?” (Eidelberg 85) do raise the question about why god stands by and does not protect the Jews, but at the same time they answer that question with the implicit expectation of eventual salvation. Twice bar Nathan uses the sentence ״העל אלה תתאפק יי״ (Haberman 75 and 80), “Wilt thou restrain Thyself for these things, O Lord?” (Eidelberg 83 and 90), with the expectation obviously being that he will not. The poetry as a general rule employs more anger and accusation in these anguished cries, but the prose embeds answers within the questions.

Both of these match the functions of each set in terms of influencing young men. Even with the chronicle’s craft in evoking emotion, it is more logical than the poetry and it is understandable that the author would want to at least gesture toward a level-headed answer. If dissatisfaction with being a part of a community which suffers so much was a possible impetus for conversion, giving the youth a place to express anger at their situation was vital, especially when the speaker of the poem was one of the leaders of the community. For a few moments, everyone, both the scholarly old and the rash youth, could be united in their anguish and could acknowledge that believing that god will make things right does not take away the pain of the moment. Validating that emotion for adolescents would be more crucial in convincing them to stay with the battered community than any theological reasoning.

Playing on the emotions of the reader in relation to family, closer to home than the general community, the texts also set up the youth as a link between generations past and future. The examples of this are interestingly divided neatly, so that the prose chronicle contains more descriptions of fathers in this context and the poetry more descriptions of little children, especially younger siblings. Bar Nathan recounts many stories involving sons and fathers. One is skillfully crafted not only to showcase Jewish familial pride and legacy, but at the same time to juxtapose Christian expectations with that.

״וקידש מר שמואל ב״ר אשר את השם לעיני השמש וגם שני בניו אשר עמו. לאחר שנהרג, הוא ובניו, התעוללו בהם וגררום וירמוסם בטיט חוצות, ויתלו את בניו על פתח ביתו כדי להתעולל בו״

(Haberman 77)

“Samuel, the son of Asher, sanctified God’s Name for all to behold, as did his two sons who were with him. After he and his sons were slain, they [the Crusaders] defiled their bodies by dragging them through the muddy streets and trampling them. Then they hanged his sons at the entrance to his home in order to mock him” (Eidelberg 86).

The Crusaders intend this action of hanging his sons at his door to be an insult, displaying their own power and the sons’ degradation and therefore the shame brought upon the father. To the Jews, however, this would have been a symbol of great pride, albeit a somber pride, since the sons followed the father’s lead and martyred themselves for god’s glory, never succumbing to pressure. This works as a method of showing young teenagers how their dedication to their faith could bring their parents joy and pride even among grief.

The poetry plays on another aspect of adolescent pride by addressing the reactions of younger siblings and children more generally. אדברה בצר רוחי  “Adabra b’Tzar Ruchi” describes how ״צעקת ילדים איך גדלה! רואים אחיהם נשחטים בחלחלה, האם קושרת בנה פן בפרכוס יחללה, והאב מברך על השחיטה לכללה״ “the children cried aloud! Trembling, they see their brothers slaughtered; the mother binding her son, lest he profane the sacrifice by shuddering; the father making the ritual blessing to sanctify the slaughter” (Carmi 373). Since we’ve accepted that medieval Ashkenazic adolescence is similar to the contemporary idea, I’ll venture to say this: Teens usually can’t resist the idea of having an effect on their younger siblings, and the image of the little ones being so affected by their own sacrifice could have a strong impact on the way they behave. Obviously, they’re not expected to die in order to have this effect on their younger siblings. But as a ploy to get adolescent boys to think about themselves as role models or exemplars for their younger siblings, this moving description of children watching their older brothers die is very powerful.

There’s a lot more to be said about how the texts, both the poetry and the prose, attempt to influence teenage boys. Einbinder includes a question of whether the poetry was effective in these methods, whether it did stem the tide of conversions. There seems to be no real way of drawing direct correlations between the literature and the trends of conversion, and therefore no way of knowing whether the perceived efficacy of these methods worked, whether the way the writers thought teenage minds worked matched with the way teenage minds actually worked. (I know a few rabbis who would love to know which methods work – the director of Agudath Israel loves to call the current trend of youth leaving Orthodox Judaism a “hemorrhage,” though I’m fairly certain he has not read Shatzmiller…) However, it does seem important that the modes of persuasion are similar to some of the modes still used today in some Jewish communities. My work on medieval British literary modes of education and patterns of thought about how children’s and teens’ minds work, etc., suggests (at least so far, as I’m still toward the beginning of my work) that they differ greatly from contemporary modes and patterns.

Afterword:Reading this through again now, it seems so obvious to me that my dissertation shifted from medieval British Christian texts to contemporary American Haredi texts.

Sorted: Educators’ Praise as Evidence of Their Ideologies

According to one theory about the Hogwarts Houses and the Sorting Hat, students are not sorted by what they are best at. Rather, they are sorted by what they value most. Most of the characters in the series contain multiple traits from each of the four houses, but the house they are sorted into indicates which traits they value most.

As I continue to work on my dissertation’s central question (what is education, according to different cultures?) I have been asking what each system of education values. It stands to reason that the traits praised by educators are the ones they see as the goal of education.

My own report cards from elementary school provide an interesting window into this question. I was usually an excellent student, with some notable exceptions. But what exactly each teacher praises is telling.

Some teachers who wrote my report card comments value academics, self-discipline, and effort. Some don’t mention academics at all, and instead focus entirely on personality. Most are a mix of the two. 

Many talk about my contribution to the class, and many mention a wish that I provide nachas to my parents – as if the purpose of my excellence is to benefit my parents and community, not primarily to help propel my own future.

My favorite of these is my eighth grade Secular Studies report card. Mrs. Mitnick was my favorite teacher in elementary/middle school, because she so obviously valued intelligence and academic success for personal benefit. And her comments reflect that. Thank you, Mrs. Malky Mitnick ❤

Below are images and transcriptions of my Jewish Studies and Secular Studies from Pre-1-A through 8th Grade (missing fifth grade Secular Studies).

Esther Shaindel is doing very well scholastically and is a pleasure to have in class.

Announcing: The Bais Yaakov Project!

I am overjoyed to announce that I am part of a brand-new project, The Bais Yaakov Project. The website is still being built, with support from The CUNY Graduate Center’s New Media Lab, and will hopefully go live in early 2019.Bais Yaakov Project CFM

The Project:
The Bais Yaakov Project is dedicated to the collection, preservation, and digitization of historical material related to the Bais Yaakov movement from its founding in 1917 to the 1970s. The Bais Yaakov Project has no affiliation with any Bais Yaakov school or educational organization. It begins as a collaboration by two Bais Yaakov graduates interested in this history, but we hope to expand to include others who share an interest in the movement.

The People:
Dainy Bernstein is a Ph.D. candidate in medieval and children’s literature at the CUNY Graduate Center. She attended Bais Yaakov of Boro Park, Bais Yaakov High School in Boro Park, and Yavne Seminary in Cleveland. Her focus of study is education and childhood as represented in literature.

Naomi Seidman is the Chancellor Jackman Professor of the Arts in the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto. She attended Bais Yaakov of Boro Park, Bais Yaakov Academy, Michlala, and Bais Yaakov Seminary. Her book, Sarah Schenirer and Bais Yaakov: A Revolution in the Name of Tradition, is forthcoming from Littman Library. An exhibit of Bais Yaakov material, and a concert of Bais Yaakov songs through the decades, will accompany the book launch, to be held at the Center for Jewish History on March 17, 2019.

The Public:
We are presently collecting and digitizing historical material in preparation for launching the website in early 2019. We are also interested in the loan of physical objects for display at the CJH exhibit.

Items we are looking for include:

  • Yearbooks and autograph books
  • Textbooks, newspapers, and other school publications
  • Photos and videos of Bais Yaakov events
  • Report cards and diplomas
  • Notebooks
  • Family archives of Bais Yaakov students or alumnae

All items will be treated with the utmost care and returned to you.

If you have any such material, or are interested in our project, please contact Dainy Bernstein or Naomi Seidman

All inquiries welcome! Comment below or email me and/or Naomi.

Please share this call for materials widely – the more people we reach, the more material we’ll get for the website. 

Separate images for easier sharing:


Comics as a Tool for Summarizing and Understanding Essays

Sherman Alexie’s essay “The Joy of Reading and Writing: Superman and Me” includes a paragraph about paragraphs:

I still remember the exact moment when I first understood, with a sudden clarity, the purpose of a paragraph… I realized that a paragraph was a fence that held words. The words inside the paragraph worked together for a common purpose. They had some specific reason for being inside the same fence. This knowledge delighted me. I began to think of everything in terms of paragraphs. Our reservation was a small paragraph within the United States…

As the first assignment in The College of Staten Island’s English 111 Essay Sequence is a reflective narrative, this essay was perfect for my students to read and discuss. Not only is it actually a reflective narrative so that we could analyze the components of this genre; it also explicitly addresses the form of writing! I used this paragraph to discuss how and why we use paragraphs, the function of this element of an essay, when to start a new paragraph, etc.

I assigned Alexie’s essay for the week after my students had written a first draft of their reflective narratives. Last week, we had read two reflective narratives from the textbook Language Awarenessand we had discussed the genre and the essay assignment. They had submitted a first draft (with encouragement to “make it a shitty first draft“) on Tuesday, which gave me enough time to read and comment on their drafts before Friday. One of the major issues I noticed in their essays was a tendency to write their whole essay as a single long block of text – or at the most with an introduction, a very long body paragraph, and a conclusion. So in fact, the Alexie essay was perfect for this moment, when they would read my comments and prepare to revise their drafts.

And because Alexie talks about reading Superman comics before he could read text, I was led to thinking of an exercise that incorporates comics…

We started in class by zeroing in on the paragraph where Alexie talks about seeing the world in paragraphs. I asked students to define a paragraph in simple writing terms, and we then analyzed each of Alexie’s “levels” of paragraphs. We talked about how his reservation could be a paragraph of the “essay” of the United States, how his house could be one paragraph of the “essay” of his community, how each of his family members could be a single paragraph of the “essay” of his family… We talked about the comparison of a paragraph to a fence, and concluded that a paragraph break sets boundaries within the essay, marking the end of one idea and the beginning of another.

Alexie’s essay is particularly suited for this discussion because all of its paragraphs fit the standard description. Many other narratives include dialogue or single-sentence paragraphs for effect, and that would confuse the issue with unnecessary complications at this stage.

After that discussion, we focused briefly on Alexie’s use of the Superman comic, the way he vividly describes a single panel of the comic (Superman breaking down a door) and refers to this image at the end of the essay without actually mentioning Superman. We talked about how a comic strip functions similarly to an essay with paragraph breaks, with each panel serving as its own paragraph. (You could also argue that each panel is a sentence within the “paragraph” of a page or something similar, but I kept it simple for now.)

And then I assigned a group exercise:

There are eight paragraphs in Alexie’s essay. In groups of three, draw a comic strip consisting of eight panels – one for each paragraph. Discuss each paragraph with your group, figure out what the main point or main idea of each paragraph is, and then choose: images; text above the image; speech bubbles; and/or thought bubbles.

The class was at first delighted, then worried, about doing this exercise. But as soon as they started, they began 1) having fun and 2) really understanding the essay.

I circulated while they worked, helping them think through some of the paragraphs. I also had to nudge them along, reminding them of the goal of the exercise, as some groups got caught up in agonizing over how to draw a specific detail or whether their images were recognizable as what they were supposed to be. (Many weren’t! but that was fine because the purpose of the exercise was not to showcase artistic skills…)

The results were magnificent (see images below). In each of my two classes, I asked students to display their comics as a gallery on the desks at the front of the class, and invited them to circulate and read their classmates’ comics. They engaged in a lively gallery visit, chatting and picking up the papers to discuss with each other.

We briefly discussed how this exercise helped them understand the essay better. I explained that I had essentially asked them to write a summary of the essay, but since they were using images rather than words, it was far easier to cut out the unnecessary details. If they had included more details, they would have immediately seen that the images were cluttered. When they write textual summaries, it’s sometimes harder to see how many extra details wind up in there.

This exercise was set aside for a while after this. We switched to talking about their essays, reading one student’s essay together (I got permission before sharing their draft with the class) and talking about specific details to focus on while revising. I pointed back to their comic strips as we discussed how to incorporate reflection within each paragraph, rather than first telling the story and then writing a “here’s what I learned” section. After all, their comic strips contain almost exclusively narrative even though Alexie definitely reflects – because the reflection is embedded within the narrative, and the narrative is dominant in this genre.

To end the day, I asked my students to try drawing their own essays as comic strips. I emphasized that these would be different from the comics they had drawn from Alexie’s essay because their own essays were still in the process of being written and revised. “Start anywhere,” I advised them. “You don’t have to start at the beginning. Just choose an event or a moment and start drawing. You’ll reorganize the panels afterward, once you have something on the paper.”

In both classes, though they struggled to start, within ten minutes the class had fallen silent and the air was filled with intense concentration. I let them work in silence for a while, sitting at my desk so as not to disturb (after first circulating to make sure they were each confident about what they were doing). We’re in a small classroom, so I was able to continually scan the room and make sure they were all working.

Finally, I interrupted them and asked: Is this helping? The unanimous answer was yes. How? I asked. Their responses, with additional analysis from me:

  • Drawing each event or moment as an image forces them to remember details about the event or moment that they can now transfer to their writing. While they struggled to see how each event could be expanded in writing, drawing it made that very clear.
  • Drawing each event or moment as an image also made it very clear when a new paragraph was needed. In text, it’s easy to smash multiple moments together and not see how they each need their own fully-developed paragraph. But when you try to draw the story, sequencing it as a comic strip forces you to see each moment separately, and you can begin to separate the many individual moments and ideas.
  • Sequencing the story as a comic strip made some of them realize how disorganized their storytelling was in their essays. A number of them had jumped back and forth chronologically in their drafts, often repeating themselves because they had written essentially as a stream of consciousness… This exercise helped them see how often they doubled back on themselves, and made it clear that they need to cut and paste parts of their essay for better organization.

A few students commented that when they think of “telling a story,” they think of images more than text. I asked them if they meant comics, or if perhaps they were thinking of movies. They agreed that it was movies they were thinking of. I suggested that this is another method they can use when revising: think of your essay as a movie (with a voiceover if necessary – they enjoyed that) and make sure it makes sense that way.

I wrapped up for the day by pointing out that this drawing method is something they can use to annotate as they read for next class as well.

The whole exercise was a fun activity, took a lot less time than I had expected, and was immensely beneficial.

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(Images out of order – I’m not that expert at this! But it gives you the general idea, I hope.)

Syllabus Creation: A Nightmare Within a Dream

When I was offered a course on Critical Approaches to Children’s Literature at Lehman College for the fall semester, I was super-excited to get started on my syllabus. There’s so much I can do in a course like that! And then as I started putting it together, I got more and more frustrated with it: there’s so much I can do in a course like that…. How will I ever figure out which books to use and what issues to focus on?

It took quite a while, but I’m pleased with the final results. Just for fun (and because I kept exclaiming on social media as “things are falling into place!” and as they fell… out of place), I’m sharing a few drafts of the syllabus in various stages, including versions where I was going to require that my students read chapters from a textbook in addition to one children’s book each week (what on earth was I thinking??)

What I’m not showing here: the many lists and configurations of books and assignments. What you see here, in the images below, is just a sample of how I played around with the structure of the semester. (Links to screen-readable PDFs above each set of images.)

child lit schedule draft NOT USING

Note: The purpose of this draft, and the next, was to figure out the trajectory of the semester. I was never going to assign this much reading!!

syllabus playing around 1

child lit schedule draft NOT USING 2

syllabus topics 1

syllabus topics 2

child lit schedule draft 2

syllabus 1 - 1

syllabus 1 - 2syllabus 1 - 3

Bernstein_English 335_Fall 2018_syllabus

syllabus final 1

syllabus final 2syllabus final 3

Release and Relief on the First Day of Class

Yesterday was the first day of class for my two composition sections at College of Staten Island. Both sections meet once a week for four hours each week – a grueling schedule for any class, and even worse when the point of the class is learning how to write, and when four (FOUR) essays are required, with drafting and revision required for every one of them.

My first-day classes are always designed to get students to relax, to show them that while I expect them to show up and do the work, I also want them to enjoy themselves; I understand that my passions are not theirs; I am there for them; and I actually want them to do well.

We usually don’t do any grueling work in the first class session, which is devoted to going over the syllabus (boring but necessary, as I tell them) and a fun ice-breaker exercise that also results in some writing that they hand in so I can begin to get a sense of their various writing habits and voices. The grueling part starts after the second class – after they’ve had a chance to go home, decompress after the nerves of starting a new class, read a bit, and come back prepared to get to work. By the end of that second class, I assign a more intense writing assignment – usually the first draft of their first essay.

In a class that collapses the whole week into one day, I can’t do that. I had to rearrange some of my expectations. Even within the class session, I rearranged my expectations numerous times.

First, that was simply because the computer classroom which I had requested had numerous problems (including locking me out of the main computer so I couldn’t project anything on the board, and then locking some students out of the computers so I had to ask students to double up in order to look at the syllabus and couldn’t ask them to submit anything through Blackboard as I had originally planned).

But even without the technological problems, I had to continually adjust my expectations for how long first-semester students could sit and how much work they could do in a four-hour period. I gave them a fifteen-minute break halfway through the class, but in both sections they returned listless and tired after the break, so I ended class early and scrapped one of my planned activities while re-configuring an assignment I had wanted to work on in class to be done partly for homework and partly in next week’s class.

The main point of the first class session still worked, though – largely due to this cartoon I found on Facebook not too long ago and decided to include in my first day PowerPoint. (Not being able to project the PowerPoint, I instead uploaded it to BlackBoard during the 15-minute break and had students access it on their own computers.)

Cartoon by Kasia Basis

Reading the cartoon together in class had a few effects:

  1. It relaxed students’ worries about reading academic texts. It showed them that the texts we read and take seriously are not all academic essays. We can seriously read and analyze a cartoon or graphic story or essay as well.
  2. It forced them to try to pronounce a word in a language they’re unfamiliar with. 
  3. It allowed them to curse in class. I had underestimated just how much delight they would take in this, to be honest. I always assign “Shitty First Drafts” in composition classes (this was the activity that was pushed to the second week here). And the purpose there is to show that more relaxed language is okay, as well. But for reasons I’m still puzzling over, both sections reacted with delight and a bit too much enthusiasm to the cursing. (In one class, a student asked me if it’s okay to curse during discussion, and when I said “within reason, and get used to hearing me curse sometimes to,” asked me to define how much is okay. I was a bit alarmed at her enthusiasm, and tried to explain a bit about cursing can affect a conversation. I may have tone-policed a person of color as I did so [the student is a poc] and I tried to dial that back, and still regret how I responded to her, but… yikes. She’s not the only one in that class who showed a bit too much enthusiasm for cursing. I am on alert now…)
  4. It relaxed their worries about their own writing. This fun cartoon gave me a chance to show how and why their grade is only marginally based on spelling, grammar, punctuation, etc.

In both classes, before we read the final panel, I asked the class: “Is this true? Should her points be taken less seriously because she doesn’t know how to spell?” To my surprise, in both classes the initial response was “Yeah! She can’t spell, her argument is worthless.” But I didn’t even have to say anything, just waited a few seconds, and I saw their faces shift as they heard what they had just said… And then they all forcefully said NO. 

It gave me an opportunity to talk about the logistics of my grading, which is based on argument far more than mechanics, and also about the larger concept of separating language performance from ability to make logical arguments.

I always stress to my students that first drafts can be messy (or “shitty”) but I don’t think they fully grasp how much I mean that. After having read this cartoon with my students, I think I can expect shittier first drafts this semester – which makes me happy! Because that means they will be focusing on their arguments rather than on their grammar and spelling.

At the end of this discussion in one section, a student very sincerely thanked me for sharing the cartoon and the message that skill in grammar and skill in argument are two different things. (Incidentally, this is the same student who asked about the rules for cursing in class…)

The first day of classes was stressful, and went almost entirely wrong, with nothing working the way I planned. But this went right.

A Little Organization Goes a Long Way

I recently helped a friend who was struggling in her undergraduate classes. Her writing is excellent; she’s brilliant. But her organization was a mess. As soon as we sat down to begin working, she sheepishly admitted that her organization is terrible, and apologized profusely as she struggled to find the assignment sheet in her email, on Blackboard, on her computer, in her Google Drive…

As I watched her navigate through the various files, I sympathized. Yes, she needed some advice on how to keep her own files organized. But it wasn’t entirely her fault that she couldn’t find the documents – every professor’s Blackboard site was organized differently, and every professor’s file-naming system was different. One professor’s system was so sloppy that two folders had the identical name! She had to open each folder to see what files were in there, and she had to open each file to see what text was in there! It was a nightmare.

And it got me thinking – how many times do we fail our students by assuming they have skills like this? What if we took the time to very carefully guide them through our own organization systems and teach them how to create their own?

Obviously, we can’t standardize a single organization system that every professor would be required to use. But we can give our students skills so that when they’re taking four or five classes a semester, they can easily navigate through four or five different professors’ organization systems.

The first thing my friend and I did was talk about how she can download and organize every file in her own system. This is useful, because it eliminates the need to remember multiple different organization systems. It’s also useful for students without access to a laptop or a home computer, because every file can be downloaded to a school computer, and then uploaded to the cloud. CUNY schools now offer free access to OneDrive and Microsoft Word, so students can create their own folders and host all their class materials in one spot.

The system I use, and taught my friend:

  1. Create a new folder for each semester.
  2. Within that folder, create a new folder for each class.
  3. Within that folder, save the syllabus and any miscellaneous items.
  4. Create another folder for each assignment in each class, for easy organization of potential sources. Download each source rather than simply reading it online!
  5. Rename every document as soon as you download it.
    1. For research sources: “AuthorLastName_Title_Year.” If you discover that a source is not actually going to be helpful to you, rename it by adding another tag: “Author_Title_Year_IRRELEVANT.” Make that last tag all-caps so it catches your eye and you can easily tell that you should skip it.
    2. For documents like syllabi and assignment sheets, and for the documents you create on your own: “YYYY-MM-DD_YourLastName_Title_Class#_ClassName.” All the info you need is there for easy finding, your name is there for when you submit to your professor, and if you put the date first your folder will be sorted chronologically.

Some tips for professors:

  1. Separate out assignments from the syllabus. One of the things I noticed while watching my friend navigate three different styles was that some professors include assignments directly in the syllabus and some include a separate sheet. I myself have done both in the past, but it hadn’t really occurred to me how confusing that can be. From now on, even if I include full instructions for each assignment in the syllabus, I will add a separate document for each as well – not only for the major papers but for things like a reading log as well. It helps if a student knows exactly where to find the instructions for the task they’re sitting down to complete, rather than having to scroll through the whole syllabus to find it. When I used a class blog, I had separate tabs for each section of the syllabus (requirements and grading, reading and writing schedule, resources, etc). It’s a bit more work on my part to do that on Blackboard, creating separate Word docs or PDFs and uploading each separately – but worth it in the long run.
  2. Rename each folder in Blackboard/Canvas/etc. The folder names that Blackboard and Canvas provide tend to be generic things like “Course Materials” and “Information.” Some professors put the syllabus in Course Materials, and some put it in Information. Each one makes sense to different people for different reasons. But if you rename them, students will know exactly what is in each one. I tend to rename mine to “Syllabus” (which includes only one file at the beginning of the semester, and any updates or revisions to the schedule as the semester progresses); “Reading Assignments” (which includes PDFs or links to any non-textbook reading); “Writing Assignments” (which includes all assignment sheets as well as links through which to submit them). You can also rename the Discussion Board / Forum to reflect whatever you call it on your syllabus and in assignments. For example, in my composition classes this semester, that tab is titled “Writing to Discover” because I’m using that feature from the assigned textbook. In my literature class, that tab is titled “Reading Log” because that’s what I call the weekly response in my syllabus. It’s a small thing with monumental effects on a student’s ability to quickly and easily find it for each class.
  3. Keep your files in chronological order! Take the extra time to move your files around after you’ve uploaded them to Blackboard, putting the first week’s reading / writing assignments first, and keeping them all in order. It will make it so much easier for students to find the correct file if they can just scroll past the ones they’ve already done until they hit the new one.
  4. Walk your students through your Blackboard on the first day of class. Don’t assume that it’s self-explanatory, even after making your organization as clear as possible. Remember that your students may not be familiar with digital files – yes, even now, not everyone has access to a computer as often as you think! And if they usually use their phones to write papers (not ideal, but it happens – so roll with it!) they really do need to be taught how to navigate folders etc.
  5. Spend time with your students setting up their own files and folders. If you have a computer classroom, you can do this on the first day of class. If you’re teaching first-semester composition or the freshman seminar, this is especially helpful. If you don’t have a computer classroom, you can still show them how to set it up and assign that as homework, or you can request to use the computer lab for one class session and do it then.

My main point here: Students struggle enough with the work itself. With minimal effort on our part, we can eliminate the hurdle of getting to the work in the first place, and allow them to devote all their energy to doing the work itself!

Kalamazoo 2019 Can Be #TheFutureWeWant

Medieval studies has become a site of tension as the field is one of the last to interrogate its approaches, methodologies, effects, and responsibilities. Over the last few years, with the rise of white supremacists across America and Europe, medieval scholars have ramped up efforts that were already underway to bring a more nuanced and inclusive approach to the study of the Middle Ages.

My purpose here is not to recap the developments and debates. (You can read more about it here, here, here, here, and here. And plenty others.)

My purpose is instead to highlight the positive, as Jeffrey Cohen suggested in this blog post: “May I suggest that we give our attention instead to those who deserve our regard? Numerous alternative versions of the field are already out there: promote the hell out of them. Proclaim the future you want. Amplify the work and the voices you stand behind.”

One of the results of this heightened awareness in medieval studies is that certain time-honored practices and institutions come under scrutiny. (Because “this is how things have always been done” is not a good reason to continue doing it that way.)

Most noticeably in the recent past, the International Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo has come under scrutiny. A number of medievalists of color (and others) have decided not to attend Kalamazoo 2019 as a result (see links above for some statements about this). As of now, I still plan to attend. I have tentative faith that the organizers’ promise to create more transparency and to incorporate a broader range of voices in the selection process is not an empty one. While Kzoo 2019 may not immediately address all the problems, I hope that the committee will be working to fix the problems by Kzoo 2020. I will, however, constantly re-evaluate my decision with each development between now and May 2019. It’s a long time from now until then, and many things could happen.

But as we (rightfully) call out various aspects of our field and community that need repairing, it’s easy to lose sight of how much amazing work is being done in the opposite direction – how much of medieval scholarship is devoted to fostering a present that is inclusive of all races, genders, sexualities, abilities, etc.

So here’s my small attempt to contribute to the awareness of our collective awesomeness in the face of a rising tide of racism and white supremacy: a collected list of sessions at the upcoming conference in Kalamazoo 2019 that do this kind of forward-thinking work.

This is not to argue that Kalamazoo 2019 will be #TheFutureWeWant, but that it CAN be – with continued and strenuous effort on all our parts. In the grand scheme of things (hundreds of panels) this list is a drop in the bucket. Still, it’s useful to highlight these panels. I also want to stress that you can submit a forward-thinking paper to any panel, regardless of whether the cfp actively solicits that approach or not.

Some of these panels overtly address racism, white supremacy, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, etc., while some incorporate or make space for those approaches without overtly addressing them. Some CFPs don’t address contemporary issues directly, but they do hint at the possibility (these may be generous readings on my part, but I’m inclined to see the potential for now).

Many of these panels (including the one I’m organizing!) don’t directly explain how and why their approaches are helpful to combating racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, etc. But I do think they are potential spaces for discussions that will help theorize and analyze the way we look at medieval texts and topics, and therefore affect how our scholarship is positioned and deployed. And just because the panels aren’t direct doesn’t mean the papers in that session won’t be!

I am including all of them because I want to highlight how even those of us not on the “front lines” can (and must) be conscious of how our scholarship affects the overall picture.

(Note: In no way should this list be construed as absolute approval of any panel on my part. I could not possibly evaluate in depth each and every one of these, and I’m certainly not qualified to do so! Some of these assertions of inclusivity may not play out in the final line-up of papers, either. Use your judgement as you read this list, and please do comment if you disagree!)

Let me know if I missed any panels that should be included on this list! (I used UPenn’s cfp site, Facebook, a few email lists I subscribe to, and some Google searches to find these. I obviously missed at least some, and look forward to discovering more!)

(Click through to each for the full CFP. Below are excerpts from each that have a stable link, and full CFPs for any I accessed via an email and therefore don’t have a stable link for.)

I’ll begin with a CFP that includes a sharp critique of the field and of Kalamazoo: “Bryan and I can’t ignore the fact that two white men were given more space to talk about diversity than a group that is explicitly composed of scholars of color. We’re disappointed and more than a little bewildered. Considering that the ICMS organizing committee foregoes the kind of transparency that is standard in academic conferences generally, we can only speculate as to their reasons.”

  • Intersectional Medievalisms I (Creators of Color) &II (Queering the Medieval) “The close ties between medieval revivalism and the construction of cultural identities have long been recognized. The appropriation of the medieval past by white supremacist and nationalist groups has especially attracted comment over the past two years, and many scholars of medieval studies have traced those appropriations and highlighted the myths and misconceptions upon which they are built. The association of medievalism with the construction of normative (white, heterosexual, cisgender, Christian) identity has come to be so strong that it is often assumed that those who fall outside such identity groups would (or even should) have little or no interest in the Middle Ages. That this belief, which can troublingly be found in in the scholarly community just as much as the general public, is patently false could readily be seen at The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2018 “Heavenly Bodies” Gala. But similar to the invocation of the medieval past by such artists as Kehinde Wiley and Ron Athey, the medievalism of the Met Gala was treated somewhat superficially, with more concern for the glamor of the event than the complex coding of the fashion and its wearers. These sessions will consider the important, if often unmentioned, intersectional practice of medievalism in contemporary culture through papers and discussion about the use of medieval motifs and themes in contemporary works in any media by writers, performers, musicians, and artists of color and by queer and trans-identifying creators. As such, these sessions seek to be a first step towards a fuller consideration of medievalisms that range outside the customary assumptions about to whom the Middle Ages presents a usable past.”
  • Messy Bodies: An Interdisciplinary Approach to the Body in Pre-Modern Culture “Bodies resist categorization, they push against their own boundaries, they complicate our understanding of medieval and Renaissance subjectivity and individuality; ultimately, they show how we—modern scholars—still need to consider what constitutes the often radicalized or gendered body. They remind us that no “body” may be taken as a given, requiring (even while confounding) construction in discourse, images, and other media. “
  • The Medieval “Canon” in the Early British Literature Survey (A Roundtable) “Specifically, we welcome presentations that examine texts situated outside of the traditional/publisher-sanctioned medieval canon, the ways in which so-called non-canonical texts can be incorporated into the time period and the course, and how instructors address aspects of canonicity within the early survey.”
  • Dysphoric Pedagogies: Teaching About Transgender and Intersex in the Middle Ages: Students have long seemed curious about the non-binary and non-cisgender lives that appear in courses on pre-modern periods. This panel will offer a range of pedagogy techniques, lesson plans, assignments, reading lists, and anecdotes for those interested in enhancing how they teach about transgender and intersex in the Middle Ages. The concept of “Dysphoric Pedagogies” is drawn from the DSM-5 diagnostic language that describes the experience where one’s identified or expressed gender conflicts with the gender assigned by society. Scholars will share their experiences teaching dysphoria within the art, history, and literature in an era before the DSM-5 and its various diagnoses, or the coinage of the words “transgender” or “intersex.”  How have these moments of gender diversity and conflict provoked conversations about self and society, expression and audience, nature and nurture, gender norms and non-conformity, past and present? Send abstracts, Participant Information Form, and other inquiries to Gabrielle M.W. Bychowski (
  • The Middle Ages: What Does it Have to Do with Me? What does medieval art, culture, and history have to do with my life; what is the point of knowing this stuff? Immersed in the study of the Middle Ages as we are, we may lose sight of the fact that for many people the material to which we are passionately devoted holds little to no interest. It is our hope that this roundtable discussion can produce some strategies for countering this disengagement. As we consider how to expand access to and engagement with the field, we invite consideration of the roles identity can play in both academic and popular engagement with Medieval Studies. From its antiquarian origins to today, the field has been shaped by nationalist identities, impulses, and agendas. In more recent decades, scholarly attention to gender, racial, ethnic, religious, and sexual identities has expanded and re-shaped the field and created opportunities for multiple identifications with the past. We also wish to question this paradigm: must engagement be structured by identity? We welcome contributions treating all aspects of fostering access to and engagement with Medieval Studies both in the classroom and beyond. This includes consideration of the way we as scholars talk about Medieval Studies—where our voices are heard and what we can be heard to say. With humanities fields under constant threat, we may also wish to consider the various publics with whom we might profitably engage. Beyond undergraduate students are the parents, administrators, and legislators whose voices sway what does and does not get taught at colleges and universities; there are also the primary and secondary school students who may enter our classrooms someday in the future. A discussion of public engagement is also an opportunity to reconsider the way we conceive of our field. Ongoing efforts to decolonize Medieval Studies are essential to the mission of making the field accessible to a more diverse public. This includes engaging colleagues to recognize the need for change as well as the need to support medievalists marginalized by race, LGBTQ identity, or employment status. Topics for consideration may include but not be limited to: Engaging students; Engaging the public beyond the classroom; Medieval Studies and modern identities; Medieval Studies in the neoliberal academy; Promoting access to Medieval Studies; Role of public scholarship within the academy. Please submit abstracts of 300 words by September 15, 2018 to Rachel Dressler ( and Maeve Doyle (DOYLEMAE@EASTERNCT.EDU).
  • Imperialism and Colonialism in the Late Middle Ages “Thus, an Empire-focused global history should take into account the origin, development and downfall of the diverse Empires that developed during the traditional time frame of the Middle Ages, not only in Europe, but also in the Middle and Far East, Northern and Sub-Saharan Africa. This session will receive papers by scholars who study Empire-building states with a focus on global history and multiculturalism in any of the aforementioned geographical locations, especially within the traditional time limits of the Late Middle Ages (1250-1500), but we can be flexible. No preference will be given to any particular geographical area, and we will try to accommodate a diversity of topics in the session.”
  • Toxic Masculinities: Creating, Enforcing, and Distorting Ideas of Manliness in the Middle Ages “MEARCSTAPA and Société Rencesvals, American-Canadian Branch seek to examine constructions of masculinity in the medieval world that destroys its subject, where it glorifies rape or violence as a means of restoration, or where, in other ways, it proves harmful to those caught in its restrictive ideologies.”
  • Critical Approaches to Medieval Men and Masculinities “This panel invites papers which contribute to and extend scholarship on medieval men and masculinities, particularly those which explore queer and intersectional masculinities. We aim to build upon critical work in this area, in particular developing scholarly knowledge of marginalised men and masculinities. “
  • Finding The Women in the Et Cetera: Doing Women’s History with Medieval Documents and Modern Archives “This panel will create a space for historians to reflect on what it means to do women’s history with tools and in spaces that were designed to privilege men and their voices, and to make visible the accreted layers of assumptions surrounding archival materials and the ways medieval women are present within them. We would like to further contribute to the ongoing scholarly conversation about archival theory by considering how the construction and use of archives is a gendered affair, and how that specifically affects the practice of medieval women’s history.”
  • Nineteenth- Century Medievalism(s) “The session, then, aims to explore this distinction through presentations that examine how writers in the nineteenth century both research and uncover the Middle Ages as well as creatively imagine and reimagine it. The theoretical notion of presentism—which argues (sometimes contentiously) that the past is not contaminated or cheapened by the present but is rather a time that interacts with the present and exists in the present—offers rich insights into the relevance of and continued interest in the Middle Ages today by highlighting progressive, nostalgic, and nonlinear views of history.”
  • Language and Boundaries in the Brut “We welcome papers that explore ways in which language both establishes and transgresses boundaries in the Brut texts—how language differentiates different national groups in the Brut, for instance, and how it is shown as bridging boundaries, through translation and through establishment of shared identities through shared language. The session is further interested in proposals that examine how language may be used to transgress boundaries of acceptable conduct and undermine established order, as in narratives of treachery and deceit.”
  • Girls to Women, Boys to Men: Gender in Medieval Education and Socialization “In addition, the scholarship on the socialization of children rarely — if ever — addresses queer gender identities, nor does it often directly address the formations of gender identities, gender expressions, or gender roles. This panel therefore aims to expand the discussion through papers about children and childhood, gender, socialization, and education…. What ideologies and structures played a role in the ways girls were trained or taught? What were the circumstances under which those ideologies differed (region, class, etc)? Was there space for queer gender identities and/or expressions in lived reality or in texts? How do texts reinforce or defy the dominant models of feminine training and socialization?”
  • Rhetoric of Resistance “Collectively, the session and its participants will consider how outlaw rhetoric comments upon the justice system and its representatives, thereby formulating a medieval rhetoric of resistance.”
  • Early Medieval Childhood, Parenting, and Family Structures “This panel welcomes papers that discuss parents, children, and families in early medieval England from any angle, but which might respond to one or several of the following questions. How did Anglo-Saxon writers imagine reproductive technologies and family structures beyond the constraints of heterosexuality and the nuclear family? How did they depict alternative forms of parenting, such as fosterage, child oblation, or cross-species adoption? How do genealogical trees describe the relationship between humankind and nature? How do representations of children speak to broader philosophical or theological investigations of human vulnerability and productivity?”
  • Translating Back: Vernacular Sources and Prestige-Language Adaptations “If theories of translation often seem to subscribe implicitly to King Alfred’s philosophy that vernacular translation ensures continued possession (and perhaps even a kind of democratization) of knowledge, does translating “upstream” restrict knowledge, or does it grant works a broader readership?”
  • Early Medieval Education “This panel welcomes scholarship from across medieval studies disciplines and geographical foci. It aims to engage global, theoretical, and material methodologies, to discover both broad and localized instances and impacts of early medieval education.”
  • Returning and Not Returning from War: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Loss of Self and Others in Medieval Depictions of Conflict “This panel seeks papers that apply approaches from psychology, trauma studies, medicine, hagiography, and any other relevant fields to analyze the aftereffects of war on knights’ minds and bodies in medieval narratives.”
  • More Fuss about the Body: New Medievalists’ Perspectives “We seek papers that deal with personhood, identity, and the material body, updating histories of the body through areas of study that have grown in popularity since the mid-1990s, including disability studies, trans studies, queer theory, postcolonial studies, posthumanism, ecocriticism, animal studies, and the global Middle Ages, along with new developments in feminist and critical race theory.”
  • Scribal Cultures Across Eurasia “This session will be an extension of the 2018-2019 programming at Princeton on this topic, which is part of an ongoing Princeton initiative seeking to connect not only divergent parts of medieval worlds but also this initiative with similar interests and projects at other research institutions and by other scholars. The Princeton medieval studies community is deeply committed to inclusivity. Graduate students, contingent faculty, early-career medievalists, women, persons with disabilities, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and people of color are strongly encouraged to apply.”
  • Byzantine and Medieval Slavic Theological Aesthetics “In addition to studies rooted in the Byzantine and Slavic traditions we would be delighted also to consider papers on topics connected to theology and aesthetics in the Arab, Armenian, Coptic, Ethiopian, Georgian, Syriac, and other Eastern Christian cultural communities in late antiquity and the middle ages as well. Comparative work with other religious traditions is also welcome, so long as it demonstrates a firm grasp of the various traditions it addresses.”
  • All three of the Chaucer Review’s panels:Chaucer and Power 1: Governance/Resistance: This session seeks papers that explore Chaucer’s treatment of the operation of, or resistance to, contemporary social, political, and economic systems. Possible topics may include, but are not limited to: democracy and populism; socialist or capitalist economic relations; hierarchical relationships; urban and manorial social structures; rebellion and suppression; authority and dependency; the politics of religion, education, or language. Chaucer and Power 2: Gender/Post-Gender: In light of contemporary discussions of gender and power such as consent and coercion (#metoo), this session seeks new frameworks by which to examine Chaucer’s work. We invite papers that treat gender in any of its manifestations, including work that draws on new frontiers created by feminism, queer and trans theory, non-binary gender, transnational and post-colonial studies, and past/present studies. How might Chaucer push us to rethink relationships of desire? How might his work reinforce or disrupt normative notions of gender and power? Chaucer and Power 3: Empathy/Revulsion: This session seeks papers that examine particular moments of empathetic or dismissive response that illuminate Chaucer’s art and ideas. How does Chaucer push us to consider or inhabit the thoughts and feelings of others? How does he make the bridging of difference an attribute of reading his work? How does he create identifications with or against persons who are the products of late medieval society? How condemnatory or condemned are particular judgments and biases against others?”
  • Putting Women in the Pulpit: A Roundtable about Women and Preaching “The proposed roundtable, then, will feature reflections about women in Anglo-Saxon and related preaching texts as well as the work of women on medieval homiletics, in order to showcase medieval female voices, past scholarship, and a forum for lively discussion of future directions. With the hopes of foregrounding the study of gender in Anglo-Saxon studies, this roundtable will provide an intervention in historiography meant to celebrate the legacy of women in the field.”
  • Periodization “This panel provides a timely forum for reconsidering the question of periodization and directing it to new research problems…medieval studies must build bridges with postcolonial studies if medieval studies is to avoid Eurocentrism even as it attacks presentism. That is, the issue of time and temporality has been bound up, in Western historiography, with the issue of space and spatiality. To question the medieval/modern divide may also amount to questioning the European/non-European divide.”
  • Queyntes, Cuckolds, and Handsy Clerks: Toxic Masculinity and Medieval Bro Culture: One of the most popular of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Talesis without a doubt The Miller’s Tale—but why?  While the physical comedy of hendeNicholas grabbing the miller’s wife Alisoun by the queynte and getting a hot colter in the nethers after a fart joke is rollicking fun in the classroom, Nicholas’ behaviors and sexual morés grate against the culture of informed consent and equality we foster as educators.  Nor is Nicholas’ behavior uncharacteristic from a medieval perspective:  From the homosocial bragging rights and cuckoldry of chivalric romance to the real life drunken profligacy of the scholarly class inspiring Chaucer’s satirical portrayal of Nicholas, representations of medieval masculinity ape many of the same reductive stereotypes that we seek to confront in our current discourses on sex and power. This panel seeks papers that will explore these manifestations of sexual license and gender-essentializing behavior in medieval history and literature in order to inform our current debates about toxic masculinity in our own media and politics.  If we are to understand our role in educating future generations about consent and gender, we must first engage with the enduring legacy of male homosocial narratives that marginalize women’s agency and excuse men’s objectification of women.  In other words, we need to develop a critical appraisal of the roots of medieval “bro” culture and their continued relevance for our present-day social realities of consent and exploitation. Please submit an abstract for a 15- to 20-minute presentation to Matthew O’Donnell at
  • Nevertheless, She Resisted: Centering Female Will and Consent in Medieval Literature: As Amy Vines notes, rape in medieval literature often functions as a “chivalric necessity,” a means of articulating masculine identity that elides or ignores questions of female bodily sovereignty and autonomy of will in favor of the male protagonist’s development. Yet we also find instances where texts implicitly or explicitly call attention to the act of rape as a violation of female will, either in dread of the act, in the face of its perpetration, or its aftermath. Building on recent work by Vines, Christine Rose, Suzanne Edwards, and Carissa Harris, this session seeks papers of 15-20 minutes exploring narratives of resistance in medieval literary portrayals of rape. In what ways do such narratives recenter female will and consent? What different modes of resistance to sexual violence do they articulate? To what extent do they return agency to survivors of sexual violence? Please submit an abstract for a 15- to 20-minute presentation to Alison Langdon at
  • Visualizing Identity in the Middle Ages: Coins, Seals and Material Culture: “This session explores the multifarious ways that artists visualized identity in the material culture of the Middle Ages, particularly in coins and seals as well as in other objects.  How did such objects serve as vehicles for claims of identity, as well as related claims of authority and legitimacy, with goals or subtexts that included the politics of self- presentation; the construction of personal, civic, national and cultural identity; the advertisement of dynastic succession, and much more?  How did medieval beholders experience these messages and how did this experience contribute to the value of these objects as powerful forces of social, cultural, and political legitimization? Intentionally broad in its focus and designed to transcend national and cultural boundaries, this session seeks papers from late antiquity through the 15th century that consider any aspect of this topic and/or shift the interpretive emphasis of what is conventionally thought of as medieval art, from aesthetic or formalist toward function, agency, presentation and reception. Papers extending disciplinary boundaries and utilizing interdisciplinary approaches and methodologies are particularly welcome. Abstracts of no more than 300 words and a completed Participant Information Form should be sent to Susan Solway at  Deadline: September 15.”
  • Playing the Past: Race, Gender, and Heroism in Gaming (A Roundtable):Video and PC gaming have come to play a substantial role in popular consciousness in the 21st century and the medium itself offers a uniquely immersive experience unfathomable in other facets of popular culture. In virtual “medieval” and fantasy worlds, a player gets the chance to live the story rather than being a passive observer, and in MMORPGs like World of Warcraft, he or she can even relate to other players as that character, experiencing the world as priest or paladin existing in an expansive virtual space. However, the interactive nature of these games also raises important questions about how we conceptualize and create the past and the impact these imagined worlds can have on notions of the “medieval” for a non-academic audience. Often these games leave women behind in the role of damsels in distress, drawing from modern conceptions of “medieval” chivalric codes that do not make space for female adventurers and heroes. Moreover, race often refers to various humanoid creatures like trolls and goblins, and these fantasy “races” are often included in lieu of real racial and ethnic diversity on the grounds that fantasy creatures are somehow “more medieval.” When a developer chooses to include women or people of color in their “medieval” video game, alt-right gamer movements like Gamergate have resisted, claiming the game has become “ahistorical” by allowing anyone but white men into their pseudo-medieval fantasy. This roundtable will raise questions about how the past has been used in gaming to alienate non-white, non-male players, and the extent to which gaming developers have managed to resist medievalist tropes as held in popular consciousness. Each participant will give a 7-10-minute presentation, which will be followed by a roundtable discussion. Possible topics can include but are not limited to constructions of the past in video game medievalisms, problematic uses of race and gender in fantasy gaming, and the mobilization of faux medievalism against inclusivity by online movements like Gamergate. Please submit a 200 word abstract to Ali Frauman at by September 15th, 2018and direct any questions to the same address. Thank you!
  • Dreams and Visions in a Global Context: The western medieval world’s most comprehensive dream encyclopedia, Oneirocriticon Achmetis, derives from Arabic sources, yet much current engagement with the medieval realm of dreams and visions remains western- and eurocentric. This panel seeks papers addressing how dreams are understood, maneuvered, deployed, and creatively fictionalized across global borders and the western-eastern cultural divide. That is, I am explicitly interested in papers that do not focus primarily on western and Anglocentric medieval dream cultures, but that think through the meaning of dreams and/or visions for eastern cultural and religious written and oral traditions from various contexts. Papers that explore cultural exchange between eastern and western dream and vision traditions are also welcome. In the current sociopolitical moment, it is more urgent than ever that we step beyond our institutional, geographical, and disciplinary silos to expose ourselves to other forms of thinking, feeling and being, both in and beyond the material world. While there is clearly work being done on eastern mystical and visionary traditions, there is little crossover between scholars working in other global disciplines and those from English and associated departments. Ideally, this panel will draw a range of interest from scholars working in the realm of medieval dreams and visions across a variety of geographical and cultural contexts, thus serving the overarching goal of decolonizing the university in attempting to displace whiteness and westernness as the center against which other traditions are simply marginal. The visionary potential of dreams offers a particularly fruitful lens through which to apprehend these cultural differences and points of contact. Contact: Dr. Boyda Johnstone,
  • Vices and Virtues: Gender, Subversion, and Moralizing Discourses: Significant watersheds in medieval Christianity have often entailed the reconceptualization of notions of vice and virtueand of gender. From the twelfth-century “renaissance” and “reformation,” amid the thirteenth-century “pastoral revolution,” and after the rediscovery of Aristotle, these two conceptual categories formed a mutually influential discourse. However, much of the scholarship on the development of discourses of vice and virtue has not incorporated gender as a central category of analysis, outside of specific case studies, if at all. Where gender has been addressed it has often been treated primarily as an egalitarian, gender-neutral discourse. Certainly, on one level, one’s susceptibility to vice or the development of virtue was not the domain of one or another gender, but this did not stop medieval people from creatively deploying them in gendered terms. Despite this seemingly ambivalent relationship to gender, medieval Christians wielded virtue and vice to organize social hierarchies, construct theoretical and practical anthropologies, and,
    as in telling cases such as Prudentius’ Psychomachia, to subvert gender binaries.
    This panel will aim both to interrogate and theorize, broadly, the extent to which moralizing discourses concerning the vices and virtues incorporated notions of gender and vice versa. How does the gendering of specific personifications of
    vices and virtues reinforce and subvert medieval discourses about gender? How do normative commitments to gender roles and performances structure programmatic and didactic accounts of vice and virtue? To what extent does the intersection of vice and virtue with gendered language change between different religious or non-religious contexts, for example between monasteries, the universities, and popularizing works for the laity, or in the politics of the nobility? How may recent gender- and queer- theoretical thought equip us to interpret medieval writings on vice and virtue? Given these variegated questions, we seek an interdisciplinary panel and welcome proposals from scholars of religion, philosophy, literature, art history, and history. If interested, please send abstracts of no more than 250 words including your name title, and affiliation along with a completed Participant Information Form to the session organizers, Jacob Doss ( or Matthew Vanderpoel (
  • The Medieval in Children’s Literature: Although the presence of medieval elements in children’s literature has long been acknowledged, this session invites papers that explore how recent children’s literature authors extend their treatment of the medieval beyond the conventional heroes of Britain, and Europe in general. Authors retell tales of beowulf, Robin Hood, and King Arthur with female and non-binary protagonists, filling in gaps of tradition narratives, and creating new characters to engage with these older themes. This session particularly seeks papers that address issues of diversity in race, gender and sexuality, religion, and/or geography in children’s literature that treats of the medieval, both Western and non-Western. Deadline for proposals is September 15, 2018. Please submit an abstract for a 15- to 20-minute presentation to Kristin Bovaird-Abbo at
  • Complicit: White Women and the Project of Empire: Women in medieval texts are often read as oppressed, powerless, and without agency. This panel asks how our readings of women, such as Constance in Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale or the Princess of Tars from The King of Tars, change when we view these women as not simply acted upon, but as complicit in the scenes of conversion and imperial power that dominate these narratives. This panel seeks papers that move beyond reading women in narratives of imperial dominance as solely victims of patriarchal structures of power, and asks what it means to recognize complicity with the project of empire alongside patriarchal oppression. The goal of this panel is to offer intersectional analyses of the project of patriarchy alongside the project of empire through a reexamination of how we define and understand women’s agency. Send abstracts, Participant Information Form, and other inquiries to Shyama Rajendran (
  • #MEditerraneanTOO: Neither rape culture nor women’s collective activism against sexual harassment and gender-based violence are 21st century phenomena, nor are they exclusive to the US. As a collaboration between the Association of Spanish and Portuguese Historical Studies and the Society of Medieval Feminist Scholarship, this panel seeks papers that examine these topics transregionally, specifically around the multi-religious environment of the medieval Mediterranean. A range of methodologies is welcome – literary assessments of the querelle des femmes, court cases on the definition of rape, archival work on sex workers and violence, laws on forced concubinage between religious traditions, analysis of hagiographic tropes of forced marriage, etc. Organizer: Jessica Boon. Send abstracts, Participant Information Form, and other inquiries to
  • Nasty Women: Villains, Witches, Rebels in the Middle Ages: Recent debates in modern discourse have centered around appropriate boundaries of feminine behavior. “Nastiness” has become a by-word for a specific type of womanhood, one that pushes the boundaries of acceptable sexual agency, political power, and social hierarchies. This panel will explore the various ways in “nastiness” existed in the Middle Ages, with a particular focus on gender and sexuality. How did contemporary authors, philosophers, or courts depict or deal with subversive women? How did women conceive of their own power in terms of sexual acts, gender expression, and other forms of socially-rebellious behavior? The papers in this session will address these issues through several lenses, providing new insight in the critical discourses of queer and feminist medieval scholarship. Send abstracts, Participant Information Form, and other inquiries to Graham Drake (
  • Medieval and Modern anti-Semitisms: Central to historical work on anti-Semitism has been a certain disagreement over the question of continuity: do modern anti-Semitic formations build directly on premodern (and specifically medieval) constructions or do they develop more independently, out of the forces that shape modern sociality (nation states, global economic empires, modern conceptions of race). This session will bring together work on both medieval and modern moments and texts to consider the ways in which medieval anti-Semitic texts and tropes might be sui generis, or alternatively might be taken up and reworked into new, modern forms. Please send a 250-word abstract, along with a completed Participant Information Form by September 15 to Steven Kruger (
  • Non-Christian Medievalists Studying the Middle Ages: This session will continue the work of our sponsored Kalamazoo 2018 session, in which medievalists from conservative religious backgrounds (mostly Christian, but also Jewish) reflected on their work in academic medievalism. Here, we invite scholars either to reflect on how their own non-Christian backgrounds shape their work on medieval materials or to think about the significance of the work of non-Christian medievalists (Morton Bloomfield, Israel Gollancz, Sheila Delany, et al.) for medieval studies. Please send a 250-word abstract, along with a completed Participant Information Form by September 15 to Steven Kruger (
  • Father Chaucer and the Critics: The Problems of Chaucerian Biography in the 21st Century: Organizers: Sarah Baechle and Carissa Harris. Please send a one-page abstract to and by September 15, 2018. The 1380 document, enrolled in the Chancery by Cecily Chaumpaigne and releasing Geoffrey Chaucer from all charges “de raptu meo” [relating to my rape], has long been a thorn in the side of Chaucer scholars looking for ways to explain Chaucer’s actions. Chaucer has been imagined to have perpetrated various lesser offenses, including the termination of a love affair, an ill-advised youthful seduction, or an attempt to remedy “the heat of passion or exasperation [in which] he may indeed have raped her” (Howard, Chaucer: His Life, His Work, His World 319). Chaucer’s oeuvre poses similar challenges: scholarship on the Reeve’s Tale seeks ways to understand the clerks John and Aleyn’s actions toward the Miller’s wife and daughter outside the rubric of sexual violence, while the antisemitism of the Prioress’ Tale is varyingly blamed on other figures—The Prioress, Chaucer’s fictional pilgrim self—rather than the author, or even removed from conversation altogether as anachronism (Blurton and Johnson, The Critics and the Prioress 4). This roundtable seeks to interrogate the ways in which current scholarship responds to ethical difficulties in Chaucer’s life records and in his literature. We invite short five-to-seven-minute talks investigating the areas in which Chaucer scholarship continues to fear to (metaphorically) tread.  Panelists might consider new or unexpected biographical details or Chaucerian attitudes which scholars continue to excuse; they can explore the rhetorical strategies that scholarship uses to deflect unsavory interpretations of Chaucer and his life records; or they might read Chaucer’s biographical shortcomings alongside the complexities of his controversial texts. We particularly welcome talks which address the assumptions about Chaucer, the canon, and authorship that attempt to reinscribe the poet as a figure above reproach; talks considering what modern readers imagine to be at stake in calling Chaucer a rapist, a racist, or an anti-Semite; and talks which take intersectional approaches, considering the problems of Chaucerian racism and rape as they inform one another. In exploring Chaucerian scholarship’s discomfort with the Chaumpaigne release and the Prioress’ Tale’s antisemitism, this panel extends the work of scholars like Susan Morrison, Heather Blurton, and Hannah Johnson. We seek to respond to and advance their efforts to suggest new interventions in Chaucer criticism that accommodate a more complex picture of the poet and his work.


And finally, some panels that don’t really address these issues at all, but to which anyone who wants can submit a paper that does take a more direct and overt “SJW” approach!


Bonus: I like having a list without all the distracting details, so that I can skim through it and get a sense of the overview – so here it is!

Setting the Bar Low: Teaching Students to Draft

As the summer begins to wind down for me (what, it just started? ah well, it’s almost over too), I’m beginning to put together my fall syllabi in earnest. I’m teaching two sections of first-year writing at a new campus, the College of Staten Island, and as with every campus, I need to tweak my usual syllabus to fit their unique requirements.

I’m lucky not to have taken a complete break from teaching over the summer. Though I’m not teaching a college course, I continued to work with the high-school student who I tutor in literature and writing throughout the year. And as we work together one-on-one, in a style of teaching that is necessarily very different from running a full class of 20-25 students, I am learning new tricks and strategies that I can now use in my college classes.

One of these is encouraging students to fully embrace the drafting process.

In the past, my college students have dutifully submitted first drafts, but as often happens, their revisions for the second and third drafts are minimal. They fix what I commented on, but no more. If I point out a logical flaw in one sentence, they will fix that sentence, and not much else.

The problem is that they think of their first draft as “nearly-done.” I don’t. I don’t even want it to be nearly done! I want to see their thoughts and nebulous ideas early on, I want to see their messy thoughts, so I can guide them in the early stages to better and stronger logical arguments. As Professor Mark McBeth says to his graduate students (me included), “send me pages, no matter how messy and chaotic. I want to see your process” (paraphrased!).

Although I of course scaffold my assignments and have students do initial low-stakes work, their first drafts ought to be messier than they are. This will result in far stronger final drafts, which seems counter-intuitive to them. I even read Anne Lamott’s “Shitty First Drafts” with them, but they’re still afraid of submitting sub-par work.

So how to encourage students to turn in imperfect work?

I may have stumbled on a method while dealing with a slightly different obstacle that my high-school student was struggling with.

My student and I work together on her essays. Her drafts work differently than my college students’, because I can give her more direct and immediate guidance than I can provide to 25 students at once. She can write her paper section by section, if need be, and build better and stronger sections without having to wait for my feedback. We can slow things down and really get into the outlining and organization and sources etc., in far more detail than I can with a full class.

But when the time comes to write something – anything! – she becomes paralyzed with fear of not getting it right, and she has a hard time beginning to write. At the end of one session, I told her I wanted her to write an introduction in preparation for our next session. I saw her hesitation, and asked how she felt about that.

“Okay, I guess…?” she said. “I just think it’ll be horrible.”

I seized on that and said, “Okay, you know what? That’s your assignment! Write a horrible introduction!” We had a good laugh, I revised her written homework assignment, and she sat down later with gusto to write a “horrible” introduction.

Was it horrible? Heck, no. It was nearly perfect. But she had had fun with it! And when I pointed out one issue and taught her how to correct it, she was more relaxed – after all, I was critiquing a paragraph she had written to be horrible! She didn’t have to take critique of a paragraph she had attempted to write perfectly. We adopted this method for a few weeks, joking about how her task was to write “horrible” drafts, and to then polish them up – but remember to make them horrible first!

After a while, she casually commented to me that somehow, it’s easier to write when she thinks her task is to be bad. I laughed about her phrasing of “being bad.”

“It’s liberating to be bad, isn’t it?” I joked. And her face lit up. Yes! It’s liberating!

Seriously, then, I explained that yes, it is liberating to expect our work to be bad – if you’re not aiming for perfection at the first try, you’re freed to actually write and perfect it later.

And that’s when it occurred to me that I could adapt this method – which I discovered accidentally! – for use in my first-year writing classes.

I have two activities in mind:

Activity 1: I will use this McSweeney’s piece to show my students the typical essay gaffes. I have used this in the past, and my students found it hilarious and good-naturedly ‘fessed up to being guilty of using many of the tired cliches. It’s difficult to get through even the first paragraph without recognizing tics that many of them use, and it’s so over-the-top ridiculous that it induces ridiculous laughter:

Since the beginning of time, bullshit, flowery overgeneralization with at least one thesaurus’d vocabulary word. In addition, irrelevant and misleading personal anecdote. However, oversimplification of first Googled author (citation: p. 37). Thesis statement which doesn’t follow whatsoever from the previous.

After reading it and hopefully becoming more relaxed through laughter and camaraderie, students will then be put into groups and tasked with writing an essay about the theme of the class – but making it as horrible as they can, with as many cliches as possible, using the McSweeney’s essay as a model.

If all goes well, this should be a side-splittingly fun activity. I expect the room to be loud and boisterous.

Since both of my sections this fall will be one-day-a-week, four-hour-long sessions, I am trying to build as much fun and physical activity into the lesson as possible, to break up the monotony and to keep energy levels high. I also want to do this activity on the first day, when everyone is new to the class, to each other, and to me. If all goes well, in addition to being fun it will help create a cohesive group and set the tone for the rest of the semester.

The result of this will be at least four essays that are ridiculously shitty. I will post these essays to the (private) class blog so that students can revisit them throughout the semester.

Activity 2: I will assign a first draft of their first essay, reminding them that their first draft should be shitty. I will stress that it should not be ridiculous and cliched as their fun activity was. Rather, the point is not to worry about avoiding those cliches. The focus should be on getting the ideas down and having something to rip apart and redo for the next draft.

I hope that by that point, my cheerful “now go home and write a horrible first draft” will have the desired effect, and that students will feel more free to play with ideas in the first round so that we can begin to polish them up for the second draft!

Update to come in September…. 🙂

Postscript: As with any planned series of activities, I will have to gauge how the first one goes before I decide whether or not to implement the second. If either class doesn’t respond well to the “horrible essay” assignment, I will of course not go on to use that language for their first essay draft.

Image from here.

Call for Papers: Kalamazoo 2019

I’m organizing a panel at the 2019 International Congress of Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo! I’m super-excited about this. I’ve shared the CFP in multiple medieval places, and I’ll continue doing so. I know sharing it on this blog isn’t exactly going to generate submissions… But I’m proud of the call, and I want to share it here 😉

I will post updates once I have a lineup for the session (likely at the end of September), and after the conference in May!


Girls to Women, Boys to Men: Gender in Medieval Education and Socialization
54th International Congress on Medieval Studies
Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo – May 9-12, 2019
Sponsored by the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship
Organized by Dainy Bernstein

The past decade has seen a significant amount of scholarship on the means and methods of medieval socialization, in texts such as Merridee L. Bailey’s Socialising the Child in Late Medieval England, c. 1400-1600 (2012). By tracing ideologies surrounding the socialization of medieval boys, Ruth Mazo Karras’s From Boys to Men: Formations of Masculinity in Late Medieval Europe (2002) contributes to critical masculinity studies, examining the formation in addition to the manifestation of masculinity. But in studies about socialization more broadly, gender is usually relegated to a small portion of the study, with the majority of each scholarly text discussing the socialization of male children by default and of female as simply a subcategory. The manifestation of medieval concepts of femininity has been extensively studied, but more attention needs to be paid to the ways in which girls were socialized to become women. In addition, the scholarship on the socialization of children rarely — if ever — addresses queer gender identities, nor does it often directly address the formations of gender identities, gender expressions, or gender roles. This panel therefore aims to expand the discussion through papers about children and childhood, gender, socialization, and education.

We encourage submissions that address non-European and / or non-Christian contexts.

Questions that might be raised include:

  • How were girls trained to become women?
  • How were girls taught to view themselves?
  • How were girls taught to view boys/men?
  • How were boys taught to view girls/women?
  • What ideologies and structures played a role in the ways girls were trained or taught?
  • What were the circumstances under which those ideologies differed (region, class, etc)?
  • Was there space for queer gender identities and/or expressions in lived reality or in texts?
  • How do texts reinforce or defy the dominant models of feminine training and socialization?

Please send abstracts of approximately 250 words, along with a completed Participant Information form, to session organizer Dainy Bernstein by September 15. Please include your name, title and affiliation on the abstract itself. All abstracts not accepted for the session will be forwarded to Congress administrators for consideration in general sessions, per Congress rules.