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.

Literary Hindsight: Teaching Medieval Love and Violence

At a Kalamazoo ICMS roundtable titled “Teaching Violence and Trauma in the Premodern Classroom (A Roundtable),” the question arose: How do we get our students to understand that the violence and horrors depicted in the literary and historical texts are not necessarily representative of the realities of the time?

I was reminded of an exercise I had done with my students when we read Lanval, focusing on the literary representation of romantic love versus the reality. I mentioned it, and (omigod!!) Tara Mendola (one of the panelists) tweeted out my idea.

I had written up this lesson as a resource for the Pearl Kibre Medieval Study a while ago, so I’ve decided to post it now in this context. The lesson plan, with some notes, is below:

Lanval Lesson Plan

Pre-class: Transition from Anglo-Saxon, brief overview of Anglo-Norman language and culture, mention of term “courtly love”

Class session:

  1. Ten-minute writing exercise with two questions:
    1. “Describe “romantic love” according to medieval literature (using the text we’ve read so far, Lanval.)”
    2. “Describe “romantic love” according to your own (contemporary) understanding.”
      1. Note: I passed out half-papers with one question on each side. I did not direct the students to one question first, rather letting them decide which to answer first. Some didn’t realize there were two questions until their classmates told them to turn the paper over. I am curious what effect the order of questions has on the way students answer…
  2. PowerPoint: factual information about medieval marriage; explanation of the idealized system of courtly love; explanation of chivalry and its development; images from manuscripts depicting tournaments, chivalric behavior, etc.
  3. Group activity: class divided into three groups. Each one assigned a character (Lanval, Guinevere, fairy queen).
    1. Instructions: identify lines that describe their assigned character, copy out those lines, and then discuss the character.
  4. Full-class discussion: beginning with character analyses, moving into discussions of gender roles, loyalty, lordship, courtly love, etc.

Post-class: Blog post assignment:

Hindsight on modern romance: After we’ve read and discussed Marie de France’s Lanval in the context of courtly love and chivalry, you know now that love as portrayed in medieval literature often does not resemble the realities of medieval love. Choose a contemporary genre of literature or film (romance, Young Adult, erotica, science fiction, fantasy, mystery, thriller), and think about how love and romance are portrayed in that genre. Imagine you’re a student of literature or film in the year 2500, studying the literature of the 21st century. What conclusions would you draw about love and romance based on the genre you’ve chosen to analyze? How does this match up with what you (the real you) know about love and romance in contemporary real life? (There’s no need to be personal, but you may use personal details.) 250-500 words.

An Ex-Orthodox Queer Reviews a Review of Disobedience

This weekend, I saw Disobedience twice. I have been looking forward to this movie ever since I saw the first clip of it, months ago. A story about two queer women, one who left the frum community and one who struggled to stay? Yes, please. Plus, Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams! And the costumes looked so authentic! And it seemed like it was done with such sensitivity! I hadn’t read the book (I still haven’t, though I plan to now). So I didn’t know much about the story other than that it deals with Ronit’s return to the frum community after her father’s death and with the two women’s forbidden love.

On Thursday, April 26, I attended the 7pm screening at Angelika Film Center. I was anxious, my stomach unexpectedly roiling as I sat in my seat and waited for the movie to start. I became more and more anxious as I looked around and saw kippa-wearing men and skirt-wearing women, as I heard Hebrew being spoken all around me. I was here for a liberating movie – titled Disobedience, for fuck’s sake! – and I felt the same claustrophobia and mounting scream inside me as I felt when I had to attend frum events.

I cried a fair few times during the movie, and I stayed in my seat and sobbed for a bit after the movie was over. I wasn’t crying over the queer parts. I was crying over Ronit’s relationship with her father.

I walked out of the movie in a bit of a daze. I texted some friends about it, but they hadn’t seen it yet and didn’t want spoilers. In an effort to keep the experience going, I decided to look for reviews and other information about the film. I found a review by Manohla Dargis in The New York Times, and I immediately became furious.

The title is “The Flesh Is Willing in ‘Disobedience’.” Wtf. Way to miss the point of the movie? (Also, really? You had to go to the New Testament to find a good title for a movie about ultra-Orthodox Jews?)

The content of the review is even worse. Now, Manohla Dargis is a respected movie critic. Her resume is quite extensive and impressive. And yet I feel perfectly comfortable saying – this review sounds like it was written by someone who does not understand film and storytelling.

Fired up, I decided to write my own review. I do have thoughts about the movie that go beyond Dargis’s points. But I’m going to start by quoting and reacting to some of her statements. If you want to just read my thoughts about the film more generally, wait for it – that’ll come in Part 2 😉

“In ‘Disobedience,’ the emotions are reserved, the palette muted, the rooms claustrophobic, the storytelling restrained.

True. So far so good.

It’s almost a surprise that Ronit (Rachel Weisz), a successful art photographer living in New York, can breathe, given how drained of oxygen this frustrating movie is.

Wait, what? Remove the word “frustrating,” and I would say this sentence hits it on the nose. The movie is (purposely, I would argue) drained of oxygen, because of the repressive environment of the frum community. And if Ronit seems unable to breathe – well, isn’t that the point? I can personally attest to the feeling of not being able to breathe, of gasping for air, when returning to frum environments. That Dargis felt that lack of oxygen and inability to breathe is proof of the film’s success, not of its failure.

It doesn’t seem especially airless at first, when Ronit is seen taking a portrait of a tattooed, bare-chested, much-older gent. They’re in a nice, roomy studio…

Exactly. It begins with openness and ease in Ronit’s whole persona, and that changes abruptly when she goes back to her childhood home. That’s the… whole point, Dargis. The whole point. You’ve just described a genius move of the movie, but your framing of it as a drawback is just so… not.

…and as he poses, she teasingly speaks to him about smiling, a nonchalant exchange that telegraphs some of this story’s larger concerns.

Okay, I disagree with this interpretation, but it is a valid one. I similarly disagree with Dargis’s interpretation of the beards on this tatted man and the rabbi as symbolic (in the following quote), but that’s a critical interpretation that’s at least valid.

Ronit lives in the modern age, in the here and now of groovy tattooed seniors, art photography and liberated women, but ‘Disobedience’ tracks her when she steps back in time after the death of her rabbi father (Anton Lesser), a revered religious figure in north London. Like Ronit’s portrait subject, the rabbi – seen early on delivering a sermon – is prodigiously bearded, though the other man’s body art underscores the divide separating these men and their realities. This in-between space is where Ronit now uneasily lives. She doesn’t cover her head and freely smokes, yet she also rends her clothes in mourning, ripping material with her teeth as the tears fall.

This is just… no. She does not live in the in-between, nor does she do it uneasily, at least not that we can see. Her life in NY, for all we know from the scene we’re shown, is completely separate from her previous life.

Why would she cover her head? Even if she were frum – she’s not married!

She smokes freely, yes – but in this moment it’s not an expression of her in-betweenness. Later in the film, the smoking becomes a motif that very much does carry symbolic weight, as Esti refuses a cigarette and then plucks Ronit’s lit cigarette from her hand to take a drag, charting her inner turmoil and re-blossoming disobedience. But here? It’s not a symbol of in-betweenness, just of living a secular, arty NY life.

And oh, dear lord, but way to take a really really poignant scene and reduce it to so little! She rips her shirt with her teeth, yes. It’s part of the rituals and rules surrounding mourning and grief. And her engagement with this practice is so powerful, not because she does it, but because of how long it takes her to do it, and what she does first.

The film cuts from Ronit in her studio being told she has a phone call to a close-up on her face as she walks along darkened streets. We’re left to infer that the phone call was about the man we just saw collapse and die in shul on the other side of the Atlantic. There’s no dialogue, just a quick series of shots:

Ronit walking along the night streets; Ronit dancing wildly to the pulsing music of a club; Ronit being fucked by a faceless man against the wall of the club’s bathroom, the pulsing music muted in the background – and she is being fucked, passively, as her expressionless face makes it clear she is not contributing much to the encounter other than her body; Ronit ice-skating in a rink, the camera following her face as the background music swells to fill the room and presumably her mind; Ronit sitting on a bench in the locker room, breathing deeply, exuding so much aching sadness that I began to cry before she did – and finally, Ronit grabbing her neckline, biting it, tearing it with teeth and hands, leaving her collarbone exposed and collapsing in utter exhaustion against the wall as her eyes well up with tears.

This is a brilliantly directed and acted sequence. Ronit has just found out that her father, whom she has not spoken to in years, is dead. She knows how to grieve according to Jewish rules, but she resists that and tries to deal with the overwhelming grief by drowning it in drink, dance, music, sex, the meditative rhythms of ice-skating – and none of it works.

Finally, she tears her shirt according to Jewish law – and cries.

Maybe I’m projecting, but those tears seem to me a result of both grief at her father’s death and pain at the limbo she finds herself in. That is the in-betweenness, that is the achingly painful part. Not the actions of smoking-and-tearing-clothes. But the feeling of wanting to alleviate grief, the need to deal with it somehow, the realization that the only way the grief might be alleviated is by following customs she has rejected, and the recognition that those customs will no longer work for her the way they would have if she had never left. She can find comfort in these rituals, but without the profound belief that they are divinely commanded, they are empty, hollow gestures.

Reising kriah was her last resort, and it enabled an emotional release despite her lack of belief in it. That is the in-betweenness.

Based on the novel of the same title by Naomi Alderman, ‘Disobedience’ delicately and far too bloodlessly charts the intricacies of Ronit’s return to a tight religious community that no longer wholly welcomes her.

Oh, sweetie pie. Bloodlessness is what allows a rigid community like that to survive. Emotions held in check, careful careful, don’t let them see, don’t let yourself see – the film’s bloodlessness perfectly matches the actual experience Ronit has as she returns to a tight religious community.

Besides, the entire movie is not bloodless. One of the most amazing things about the movie is the way the characters, especially Esti, become far less inhibited and rigid as the movie progresses. The movie brilliantly balances muted silence of sound, colors, body language, with bright vividness – to amazing effect.

One who does, though hesitantly, is Dovid (a very good Alessandro Nivola), a once-close comrade who is her father’s probable successor. Ronit also resumes her relationship with a former lover, Esti (Rachel McAdams), Dovid’s wife. The women’s reunion rapidly rekindles a passion that – with stolen kisses and progressively steamier intimacy – disturbs this world’s scrupulous order, a disruption that is more about hidebound tradition than about religious belief.

A mostly good summary of the plot. But that bit about the disruption being more about “hidebound tradition than about religious belief” – let’s keep that in mind and I’ll come back to that in a minute.

The director Sebastian Lelio should have been a good fit for this story if only because of the sensitivity he’s brought to female-driven movies like ‘Gloria.’ Although ‘Disobedience’ seems to offer him similar material – female desire up against the patriarchy – it defeats him.

Let’s just be clear here: the “female desire” of the film need not have been lesbian desire. Ronit could have been a man, and the story wouldn’t have changed very much. If Esti and “Rafi” had explored their hetero-sexuality with each other before marriage and been found out, the rav would have been horrified as well – perhaps a different kind of horrified, but still. “Rafi” may have left while Esti stayed and married someone else. With “Rafi’s” return, an old love between “Rafi” and Esti is rekindled, and Esti engages in extra-marital hetero-sex, and the storyline changes not all that much.

Yes, this is a wonderful queer story. But that’s not what it is mainly about. It is, as Dargis says, about “female desire up against the patriarchy.” But as to why it defeats Lelio:

He handles the story’s cloistered confines with visual intelligence, finding beauty in austerity though to an aestheticizing fault, as when Ronit walks amid a procession of mourners in which everyone seems arranged by height. The problem isn’t the scene, which is gracefully shot and staged. It’s that you notice the visual design but have no sense of – or feeling for – the faith binding these mourners.

First of all, I paid careful attention to this scene the second time I watched the movie, after I had read this review. That procession is not at all arranged by height… Dargis must have misremembered it? I don’t know. All I know is – that scene looks aesthetically exactly like small processions through the streets of Boro Park or Midwood or Williamsburg might look (except for the mixing of men and women). I didn’t notice the visual design of it, and I think Dargis was projecting some of her own biases onto her perception of that scene.

As to the lack of feeling for the faith binding these mourners – that’s because faith is not what binds them!

Remember how Dargis said earlier that the disruption is more about “hidebound tradition than about religious belief”? She seems to have forgotten her excellent point here – this procession is not about belief or faith. It’s about adherence to ritual and custom. And hoo boy, do we get a sense of that in this scene!

That puts a heavy burden on Ms. McAdams, who with some cursory lines of dialogue, a lot of brooding dark looks and some behind-doors weeping needs to make a persuasive case for why Esti stayed in this world and with her husband. Ms. McAdams, who lets you see the eddies of emotion rippling over Esti’s face as she pulls off her wig, does some lovely work here to convey a woman agonizing over her existential situation.

I categorically disagree with the first part of this analysis.

She does not have “cursory lines of dialogue.” She has some of the most powerful lines of dialogue in the film. In the scene embedded in Dargis’s review, as Esti and Ronit walk together, you can even see how Lelio highlights one of her most anguished and poignant lines of dialogue: Ronit questions Esti about her life, and asks her “what about you?” Esti’s vehement response, “That is me!” is amazing. Lelio explains why he chose to cut to a close-up on Rachel McAdams then. Here’s my take on and reaction to that line:

Esti is expressing an internal struggle so beautifully, so painfully. She may not tell us why she stayed in this world, but as someone who stayed in that world far too long, I fully understood why Esti did as well.

On my second viewing, on Friday evening after I had read this review, I paid attention to whether the film lets the audience see this, or if I was just projecting my own experience onto Esti. I think the former, to some degree.

The film doesn’t hit us over the head with “here’s why she stayed.” I don’t think Esti is even meant to understand why she stayed.

And I don’t think the film wants to give us a tidy explanation for why Esti stayed. This is a complex, painful, multi-layered situation, and the film does a beautiful job of portraying that complete confusion, that lack of self-awareness, that repression of self-awareness in order to stay with the familiar.

Esti was heartbroken when Ronit left, after all. The movie never tells us how old they were, but one assumes they were seventeen or eighteen. And Esti did have a support system of sorts in the rav, who advised her to marry Dovid. It sounds like she didn’t believe what the rav did, that marriage would “cure” her, but I really don’t think that the movie needs to explicitly show or explain that staying with what’s comfortable and familiar is often the default.

Later in the film, as Ronit leaves to catch a flight, Esti says, “It’s always easier to leave, isn’t it?” That, combined with an earlier statement to Ronit about how she profoundly believes, and how the word of Hashem is her life, should be enough for the viewer to understand the intense internal struggle that led to Esti’s choice to stay.

The movie never tells us why Ronit left, either. I find it interesting that Dargis wants an explanation for why Esti stayed, but doesn’t ask the same of Ronit. All we know of Ronit’s departure is that her father caught her and Esti engaging in sexual activity, and Ronit abruptly left. Why did she cut off ties with Esti and Dovid, if they were so close? Why didn’t she take Esti with her? Or rather, why didn’t Ronit and Esti leave together? Dargis seems wholly unconcerned with these questions, focusing instead on one that is in fact answered in the film.

Yet even as she and the filmmakers – Mr. Lelio shares script credit with Rebecca Lenkiewicz – thicken the texture, adding realistic details that should energize the scenes, the movie insistently puts a secular frame around its story, leaving little room for the metaphysical.

What?? Secular?? Metaphysical?? Hang on, hang on…

Part of what makes Ms. McAdams and Ms. Weisz such appealing performers is how persuasively they convey the inner lives of the characters they play, which makes it easy to put yourself on their side. Yet ‘Disobedience’ is so emphatically on Ronit’s side from the get go that the character has no mystery, which in turn robs the audience of the very possibility of discovery or surprise. Ronit is an uncomplicated exile from patriarchy, and demonstrably ill at ease among the Orthodox. In this, she clearly serves as a proxy for the secular viewer, who in ‘Disobedience’ is invited to intimately witness the agony of faith but not its potentially more unfamiliar, more discomfiting ecstasy.

Okay, okay, so much wrong with this paragraph. Let’s start with the end and go backwards:

  1. Yes, indeed, this movie is about the agony of faith. It is not about the ecstasy. If you want to see a movie about the ecstasy of faith, that’s fine – but go see a different movie. That’s just not what this movie is about. It’s like watching Spotlight and saying “this movie doesn’t show how amazing a priest’s mentorship of young boys could be.” Well, no, because this movie is about how priests groom and then rape young boys…
  2. That Ronit serves as a proxy for the secular viewer is not a bad point. But there does need to be an entry point for viewers who do not understand the ultra-Orthodox world, after all. And having someone who left come back after years away is an excellent way of doing that – of having a focal character who knows the world and can therefore move in it semi-effectively, but to whom everything is strange – as strange as it is to the secular audience. At the same time, the non-secular audience and newly-secular audience (eg: moi) gets a different understanding of the film as we experience it through Ronit. Because we more viscerally understand the pain, the wild discomfort of being back in this community. It is a good thing that Ronit serves as a proxy, as a focal character, for the audience to experience this world. (Incidentally, in the Q&A with Rachel Wiesz, Alessandro Nivola, and Naomi Alderman that I attended on Friday night, Rachel and Naomi talked about how the book is written from Ronit’s point of view, and how that affects the way the story is told in the film.)
  3. Yes, the movie is emphatically on Ronit’s side against the oppressive frum patriarchy. Again, if Dargis wanted a movie that gives voice to both sides, she should have known that this is not the movie for it. This movie tells a story – obviously not the one Dargis wanted. Besides, Rachel Weisz does a wonderful job of showing us her interiority, and I found myself surprised and delighted by revelations of her character at times (most notably at the Friday night shabbos meal when she can no longer restrain herself and gets all snarky at the rebetzin – you go, girl!)

Okay, so that’s it for my “critique” of Manohla Dargis’s abysmal review. Next post will have some of my own thoughts, independent of this crap.

Can I Go Back & Rewrite My Adolescence?

A while ago, I posted about a song from my high school days. I examined the rhetoric of the song, arguing that the use of a first-person “I,” in the context of an inspirational shabbaton, forces the singer to assume the identity of the speaker.

One of the biggest points of critique I got about the post was that the song was, after all, composed and sung by the students, not the teachers or religious leaders.

So how could I argue that the rhetorical effects of the song were being imposed on us students by oppressive leaders? Isn’t this simply an indication that the teenage girls did in fact believe these things?

Well, no. It’s far more complicated than that.

As I continue sifting through the ephemera of my youth (because I am most definitely a masochist), I came across some high school student publications that I was involved in. One of my best friends was in charge of L’chu, the major student publication of Bais Yaakov High School, and I helped with editing, printing, collating, etc. – and I also contributed a fair number of written pieces.

These stories and articles I wrote are at times horrifying. I nearly cried a number of times as I read the words I wrote – the words I wrote! – when I was in twelfth grade.

I wish I could brush it off and say, “well, I was a high school teenager, what could I have known.” But as high school students all around the country today demonstrate, it’s quite possible for teenagers to have stronger moral fiber than adults.

The difference between these teenagers and my fellow BY-students and myself, I think, is that they are fighting against the wider world, but more often than not they have their parents’ and others’ support – their moral standpoints reflect their parents’ (though of course not always).

Us? We would have had to realize that what our parents and teachers were telling us was wrong.

In some ways, I think (or like to think) that I can see some stirrings of misgivings in the content and style of what I wrote.

There’s one story that is so disgustingly racist, but I can see an attempt on my part to be non-racist – I just didn’t know how to do it then. I was stuck in thought patterns that had been ingrained in me, and I hadn’t had a chance to learn how to break free of them yet.

lchu horribly racist

There’s one story that winds up arguing that everything is hashgacha pratis (divine providence) even when there doesn’t seem to be any reason for why things happen. But I can sense (or like to think I can sense) that it’s an attempt to grapple with the beginnings of disenchantment with the idea of god orchestrating everything and everything happening for a reason – I just didn’t know how to get there yet. I was stuck in thought patterns that had been ingrained in me, and I hadn’t had a chance to learn how to break free of them yet.

lchu hasgacha pratis

I’ve been worrying about publishing these on my blog, and I’ve been talking to some friends about the horror I feel when reading my own words (over ten years old by now, and yet still – my words).

Then I found this blog post, by a medievalist who published an excellent article about Beowulf in 2004. In light of recent neo-Nazi / white supremacist appropriations of medieval culture and symbolism, he worried that some of what he wrote could be used as fuel for the neo-Nazis’ fire.

So he wrote a blog post to explain how he went wrong over ten years ago, and pinned the link to it to the top of his Twitter account with the caption “Can you go back & rewrite your own scholarship?”

It’s not quite the same thing as what I’m doing, of course. His article is published, is being widely read, and is archived forever. My pieces exist only in print, and it’s more than likely that I have one of only three or four surviving copies.

But I think there is purpose to making those texts public, and working through them, analyzing them, reading them closely… They are important in showing how the Bais Yaakov / charedi education system works – especially when you consider that the person who wrote those things (me) is now horrified at them, and quite likely was uncomfortable with them even when I wrote them.

My plan is to post detailed critiques of pieces from these publications – coming soon! (That’s why the above images are so tiny – I’ll post better images and transcriptions when I write about each one.)

lchu cheshvan cover


One of the great things about engaging as a student in the very academic endeavor I teach is that one enriches the other. As I lead my students through the process of writing, I am engaged in the very same process under my own teacher’s guidance. And if I pay careful attention, I can see my frustrations and anxieties matching my students, and I can harness my experience with each perspective to inform and enrich the other.

This renewed realization (which is kind of a truism, isn’t it) was prompted most recently by a burst of inspiration I had as I was forced to write and produce pages for my dissertation workshop to read.

After my orals had been passed and my prospectus approved, it took me a long time to start writing the dissertation in any real way. Part of this was due to life events that I could not have predicted or prevented, but part of it was paralyzing fear of getting started.

I wanted a roadmap. I wanted to draw up a schedule, I wanted to know which chapter I would tackle first, I wanted to set myself deadlines.

My method of teaching the writing process to my students includes moments when I refuse to give them guidance.

I’ve previously written on this blog about my struggle to balance broad prompts (which invite imagination and passion) with specific prompts (which provide direction and clear expectations). But even when the prompts are very specific, students want to know where exactly to start, what exactly to write, how exactly to structure the essay. Up to a certain point, I of course provide that guidance. But eventually, if students continue to display anxiety and a desire for hand-holding, I stop answering their questions, and I say, “just start writing – the answers will come to you as you write.”

By this point in the writing/teaching process, I would have already discussed the concepts of writing-to-learn, of drafting, of finding out what you think by writing about it, etc. But the time always comes for them to dive in and explore, discover the joy (and/or nail-biting anxiety) of this all on their own.

Often students will say, “But I have so little to say about this! I can say everything I have to say in three sentences! I can’t write a full 3-page draft!” Start writing anyway, I tell them, feigning a lack of mercy.

I know that they will definitely get more than three sentences, and that when they give their draft to their classmates for peer review (and to me for comments), their readers will have questions and will point out where their “very obvious” statements need expansion and explanation.

When it comes to my own writing, I don’t have the audacity to ask my advisor to lay out the roadmap for me. But I wanted to ask for that.

So instead, I drew up plans and went to his office, and presented them to him in hopes that he would revise the plan for me and tell me what I should read and which specific parts I should start with… He didn’t. (My advisor, by the way, has legendary amounts of patience.)

So I spent time wondering: Should I start with the introduction, because that will set up the framework for the whole project? Maybe I should start with the chapter on fables, because that genre is the most didactic (of the genres I’m working with) and that would allow me to dive into the historical documents about education as well? Or maybe I should start with the chapter on romance, because that’s the genre I’m most familiar with and can knock out a first draft fairly quickly? Or, maybe the opposite – I should start with dream visions, because I know least about them, so the bulk of work I need to do would be at the beginning of my writing, and I could get to romance at the end, when I just want to finish already?

(As it happens, it’s a good thing I didn’t start with dream visions, because they are gone from the dissertation, cut after the chapters on fable and romance expanded into two separate chapters for each, kind of like an amoeba growing so big and then splitting into two amoebas through asexual reproduction / binary fission – hello, ninth grade biology! – and you can’t tell which is the parent and which is the child. Ooh, I like that!)

Eventually, I had to write something to hand in to the workshop. So I wrote some pages for the chapter on romance. I presented them to the group, got feedback, and had some new ideas about the overall project.

For my next submission, I did some writing that would be part of the introduction. It was full of half-formed ideas, I didn’t include the citations and references I needed (I wrote down things like “add Orme’s thing here,” but I didn’t take the time at this point to actually go check what Orme says about it).

Again, the feedback from the dissertation workshop caused my mind to go wild with explosions of ideas and possibilities, and I revised half of those pages for my third submission, expanding on some ideas that I hadn’t fully explored in the previous draft. And yet again, the feedback from the group helped me rethink the structure of the introduction, which helped me rethink the overall structure of the entire dissertation, and now I’m roaring to go again…

And it hit me: I had been acting exactly like my students, dragging my feet because I couldn’t see how the end product would come from the material and ideas I had in the moment. And the methods that worked were exactly the same as the advice I give my students: just start writing the damn thing.

An amazing aspect of the dissertation workshop is also getting to see others’ works-in-progress, to watch their drafts becoming light-years clearer with each revision. We often don’t see that on a graduate or professional level – we’ll look over friends’ and colleagues’ drafts when they’re confident enough to share it, but not before that. In this workshop format, though, we by necessity share drafts that are, as Anne Lamott says, shitty. We all expect our undergraduate students to produce shitty first drafts, and we encourage that as part of the writing process. But it is so good to see graduate-level versions of shitty first drafts! (Sorry, friends, but you get to see my shitty first drafts too, so…)

I’m not teaching any college courses this semester, but I plan to take this renewed realization with me when I plan my next composition syllabus.

Image: the first and last page of my latest draft, with comments from the workshop scribbled all over them (deliberately blurred!)


Race and Religion in The King of Tars: An Undergraduate Lesson

This is a pretty cut-and-dry account of a lesson I planned  and how it went. I’m sharing because 1) I’m proud of it; 2) I think it might be useful to others to see the overall lesson and the twists and turns of my reasoning for each step; and 3) it’s a good way to force myself to actually take notes on what I do… 

After what’s been described by some as the garbage-fire summer of medieval studies, I decided to switch out one text on my syllabus for The King of Tars, a medieval text about a Christian princess who is forced to marry a Saracen sultan. I usually mention race in medieval texts when we talk about Marie de France’s description of the fairy queen in Lanval, and in reference to some lines in Chaucer. But I wanted to foreground discussions of racial and religious in/tolerance more clearly, and this text was the way to do it.

I prefaced the two-day discussion with a heads-up about what we’ll focus on in the text, but I gave no further direction than that. I had switched the text after the semester had already started, so my students were aware of the change and they knew why I had made the change.

[The King of Tars is not available from any publisher in undergrad-friendly text, but thankfully a colleague had painstakingly translated and glossed the entire text for her students and graciously allowed me to use her translation. I have relied on the Norton Anthology for this class until now, but I intend to “resist the canon” a lot more in future sections I teach.]

On the first day discussing the text, I began class with a few slides to ground the discussion in the urgency the field medieval studies feels now: to directly address race, namely the alt-right / Nazis’ coopting of medieval symbols and imagery and the inaccuracy of the claim to a “pure” white past.

I showed them screenshots of Twitter posts, beginning with this, which delighted them:

I also gave them a brief overview, explaining that the idea of “race” developed long after the Middle Ages. So although the text definitely refers to whiteness and blackness, we need to dig into the text to figure out how it’s being portrayed and viewed, rather than relying on contemporary ideas about race.

After this presentation, we reviewed major plot points, and then moved into group work.

From the start of the semester, I’d begun each class with a ten-minute writing exercise in which I asked students to write down: one quote from the text; one comment about the text; one question about the text.

This time, I asked them to pair up and to find four quotes from the text, one in each of the following categories: race; religion; women; children. I acknowledged that these are broad categories, and I said that I’m not giving any further explanation for them because I want each pair to interpret the four topics as they see fit.

As I rotated among the pairs, many asked me to help them figure out which category a specific quote belonged to. “We want to quote this line, but it could fit into either the women category or the race category,” etc. I told them to think about which category they want to put it in – what interests them about this quote? Of course, there will be overlap among categories, but I want them each to choose one category for each quote.

Once each pair had chosen four quotes, I asked them to write one of their quotes (with line citations) on the board. I had written the four categories on the board and drawn lines separating them into columns. I stood back as they each chose one quote and wrote it in the appropriate category.

The Result: When everyone was done writing on the board, there were two quotes each for the categories of women, children, and race. Under religion, there were ten quotes. (With 29 students in the class, this means at least a few pairs wrote more than one quote, but I’m not complaining!)

I asked the class to look at the board and think about what this text is about, based on the quotes they focused on: is it about race, or is it about religion? Of course, they all agreed that this text is about religion.

We moved into an intense discussion about representations of race and religion in the text, particularly the way the sultan becomes white when he converts.

A few students asked about the confusing portrayal of Islam in the text (Mohammed as a god or saint rather than a prophet, Juipter and Apollo and idols as part of what appears to be a pantheon of gods), and we talked about how the text calls the sultan a “pagan,” a “heathen,” a “Saracen,” and the way the text uses these terms to refer to both non-Christians and non-whites without really allowing for the possibility of a black Christian or a white non-Christian. We discussed the text’s focus on presenting the sultan as different, as non-Christian, not on presenting an accurate portrayal of Islam.

We left off by the end of class with a number of questions that students posed about the text as they began to think in these terms, not least of which was: Aren’t the Christians as bad as the Saracens by the end, when they kill everyone?

Before wrapping up for the day, I handed out copies of Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s chapter “Monster Culture: Seven Theses” (recommended by a few colleagues – thanks!) We read the introduction together, wading past references to de Man and Foucault to get to the undergrad-comprehensible part. After making sure everyone understood what to expect from the essay, I asked them all to read it for the following class, when we would discuss it and apply it to The King of Tars.

Day 2:

I reviewed the concept of differentiating between the medieval text and contemporary interpretation by dividing the board in half and asking students to review what we had discussed in the previous session. As they spoke, I took notes, placing each idea in the appropriate column.

We then returned to discussion of the questions we’d been left with at the end of the previous session, using the two columns on the board to keep the medieval and contemporary sensibilities from getting jumbled together. I particularly wanted them to keep this distinction in mind when asking “aren’t the Christians just as bad?”

Finally, we moved to the most intense part of the lesson. The class divided themselves into groups of three, which meant we had nine groups. I assigned each group one of Cohen’s theses, with two groups working on Thesis II and two on Thesis IV. I asked them to 1) review Cohen’s points and make sure everyone in the group understood the arguments, and 2) apply these arguments to The King of Tars, looking at specific lines or moments in the text which either support or refute Cohen’s claims about “monster culture.”

Since this is a 200-level class, I expected students to struggle with many of the ideas (a 300-level class would likely struggle too!). I sat with each group for a while, helping them work through the ideas and doing mini-lectures about each group’s assigned thesis. The small group was ideal, as students got to ask specific questions of me and of each other, and I was able to ascertain that all three students understood before I moved on to the next group. [Side-note: at one point, I thought “if this is what the UK tutorial model is like, sign me up right now!”]

The ideas that resulted from this group discussion were amazing. Students at first identified almost every character as a monster, but then they revised and edited, carefully differentiating between the perspectives of the medieval reader and our contemporary class. They questioned themselves and each other as they worked, forcing themselves to really think deeply about Cohen’s assertions and the text – on a level I would expect from an upper-level literature class. They worked through ideas about “pure body” and “pure culture,” they looked up lots of words they had never encountered before and might not ever encounter again.

They at times circled around to previous notions of monsters (violent, feared, hated) but caught themselves and each other and went back to wrapping their minds around the idea of a monster as a symbol and manifestation of cultural fears, anxieties, desires, and fantasies, etc.

For the wrap-up, each group presented an explanation of Cohen’s thesis and an analysis of The King of Tars through that lens. Again, I took notes on the board as they spoke (see image below).


(Note: “princess” should have been crossed out by the end of the lesson, I just forgot to do it on the board! Also note the distinction between medieval and contemporary views under Thesis II.)

We didn’t come to any hard-and-fast conclusions about what the text does in regard to medieval portrayals of race, but we did begin to dig into the development of monstrosity and difference in the Middle Ages, and to put it in context with our contemporary perceptions. And since I tend to leave many discussions like that (“so what’s the answer? whatever you can provide evidence for”), my students by then understood the benefit of simply raising questions about a text.

Some of them chose to return to these questions in their papers, which I may write about at another point…