“Beowulf will be read differently if it is imagined to have been produced in the time of Bede (c. 725) or Alfred (c. 880) or AElfric (c. 1000). The earlier we think the poem to be, the more potentially authentic its historical material; a later Beowulf, more openly fictional, is a more complex and “literary” work. Moreover, the more closely we try to assign a date and place of origin to the poem, the more closely we must read it as a text, the intention of a single author or a reflection of a particular ideology, rather than a product of an oral poetic art whose composition may have been collective and whose traditional roots are beyond discovery” (“Beowulf.” BABL Concise, Edited by Joseph Black et. al., 2015, p.60)
Topic: Pagan/Christian themes
“Then, as I’ve heard, four swift horses, / fallow as apples, well-matched, followed / that war-gear” (Beowulf 2163-2165). Allusion to Four Horses of the Apocalypse?
I just kicked off another six course semester teaching at three institutions. Yes, Hamlet, I’m well aware that this way madness lies.
Despite the variety of subjects across my teaching load, there’s a core element of urgency associated with the ideas we’re exploring and the projects we’re developing — at least I think so. As an early modernist who has spent a fair amount of time studying print culture and is presently exploring the evolution of the English vernacular from Chaucer to Shakespeare, I believe there are very strong shared points of contact between the Gutenberg and Internet Revolutions. In classes, I sometimes call them “Information Revolution 1.0” and “Information Revolution 2.0” to underscore the similarities. I’ve heard other teachers debate the merits of students’ desires to “relate” to what they’re learning. I think we should help them relate to the materials they study. I believe that getting them to recognize their places in the history of ideas, especially those ideas that people continue to fight and die, for not only engages them in the course at hand, but also helps them think critically and compassionately about their places in a world largely characterized by division and instability.
At Wentworth Institute of Technology, we are wrapping up a unit on the emergence of Enlightenment thinking. Since 2014, my Spring semester teaching at WIT has taught me that the first-year students frequently resent spending a second semester jumping through a hoop outside of their major — especially a writing-intensive hoop! There is no English major at the university and I learned quickly that these students don’t respond well to conventional English classes like the ones I taught in grad school. I’ve had to change-up the game.
All English professors know that form and content are interdependent, and that’s a driving principle in my pedagogy. I avoid textbooks in favor of assembling readings and activities that encourage students to take diverse approaches to a central concept. In this class, I introduced the Enlightenment as a response to the socio-political and religious turmoil that characterized the Renaissance. The world had been turned upside down (and doesn’t every generation feel that way!) and people were desperate for stability, desperate for fixed knowledge. Science comes out of the closet and Descartes anticipates structuralism by dismembering mind and body.
The students perk up. Science and reason appeal much to my Applied Math, Construction Management, Architecture, Engineering, and Computer Science majors. The opening gambits to Discourse on Method seduce them further — “Hey, Descartes said we can learn empirically! We want to learn from the book of the world!” — Although I must help them understand that Descartes’ methods wouldn’t have emerged without his oh-so-humbly-described study at the best universities, they begin to recognize that learning takes many different forms.
My WIT students are really smart. They’re all there because they have great problem-solving skills. Sure, most admit they have never read for fun and do not enjoy reading. But I would argue that most public schools discourage reading by teaching to the standardized tests that are a pox on students’ intellectual and creative development from the primary years through secondary school. I am frequent witness to this phenomenon as a teaching supervisor in the Boston Public Schools, but I’ll talk about that another time. In sum, it’s not entirely their faults that they don’t enjoy reading. And, shame on any teacher who disparages students for not liking books. First, it’s our job to teach them. Second, not everyone likes what we like. But if we can give them skills to negotiate reading critically, and perhaps with a bit more confidence than they had than when we met them, that’s a win.
And that brings us back to my introduction of the Enlightenment. Descartes and I led my students into a discussion about how, during the long early modern period, knowledge evolved into a wondrous commodity disseminated by print. People of (many) classes could obtain knowledge by reading in their own language! We learned how intellectual revolutions lead to social and political revolutions, and how rhetoric inspires ACTION.
Tom Paine tells my students that “these are the times that try men’s souls” (TheCrisis). Yes, they were. But, wait! “These” times are too! We’re in the midst of a similar information revolution — a global revolution! We still have print culture, but digital media has qualitatively changed the way we receive and process information. At this point in the course, Paine’s “Crisis” becomes a medium for conversational exchanges with the text. Students work in groups of three as they learn to develop individualized annotation methods using digital tools, to question what they read, to find reliable sources to cross-check their findings, to talk about their discoveries, and to present their insights to the class, inviting further discussion.
More prosaic expressions of Enlightenment thinking, such as those represented in this 1704 facsimile edition of The Athenian Oracle, also help students connect the dots between these social media revolutions. The Oracle is a greatest hits edition of The Athenian Mercury, a publication that was driven by public contributions. People would send questions – any kind of question – to the “Athenians,” a group of well-educated gentlemen with wide-ranging expertise, who answer readers’ questions.
I chose this particular edition because the first question brought us directly back to Descartes and underscored the connections between philosophy and pop culture. We practiced grappling with the Latin long-s in the course of reading the text aloud and discussed our open fascination with what troubled individuals in the 18th Century, and how many of us are still troubled by similar problems. Students were then given an assignment to read, choose a question they found interesting, and reflect on the question in the context of how one might think about it, or answer it today.
One student was interested with the reader who asked: “What is the reason that when you lay a Leaf of a Tree over any hollow place, suppose the fore part of your Hand, half graspt, and with the other Hand strike upon the Leaf, it shall break with a Noise like a Pot-gun?” The student then commented: “I believe the author of this question is saying that its worth questioning anything in life. Even though we have an idea about why a lot of things happen with the developments in science and physics, we still can’t say we know for sure why the world that we live in works the way it does. This caught my attention because I can relate to wanting to question even the things that we often times take as given.”
Another chose the question: “What is love?” This student then wrote: “I believe this question is relevant in today’s society, especially because I feel like a lot of people don’t know the difference between love and lust. The advice given in the reading can still be applied today since it is says that “love is a mixture of friendship and desire, bounded by the rules of honor and virtue” (15). The only problem with the advice is I think it was implying that true love can only exist between opposite sexes. Obviously, this is not true, anyone can love whoever they want regardless of sexual orientation.”
(These students’ responses are so inspiring that you probably think they were painstakingly curated. They weren’t. Admittedly, I chose two students I had in class for English I last semester; I knew they could write decent sentences. Not all responses were as insightful as these, or as socially aware as the second, but they were consistently interesting.)
Yesterday we laughed about the irony of trying to excise love from pathos and rationalize the greatest and most illogical gift humans possess. We then returned our attention to the text as a digital artifact representing early-ish print culture. Students wondered at how much spelling, punctuation, and typographic conventions have changed over the years. I shared anecdotes with them about how many individuals throughout the long early modern period expressed anxiety about the impact of print culture on the integrity of the English language. Of course, English is one of the most polyglot languages in the world, but some used to worry that print was fostering the decline of public discourse and sending everyone to hell in a handbasket.
My students facial expressions changed as revelations dawned. Last weekend, the president of the United States allegedly called Africa a “shithole country” and the tweets that followed rocked the world. Communications media has again contributed to the devaluation of public discourse. Yet we’ve survived it before, and we will again. Our media have changed, but we face similar challenges to those of the Oracle querists. Admittedly, our challenges have been compounded by the speed at which information, and misinformation, travels.
What have my students learned so far? I’ll have more insight when they generate essay prompts next week that interest them. For now, I hope they’ve learned something about the way they take in and process information. They have told me directly that the Oracle assignment forced them to read differently, to read slowly so they could interpret the unfamiliar forms and content. I hope they’ve learned that reading carefully and thoughtfully may take more time than they may have given it in the past, yet it can be rewarding. Despite the fact that our news feeds often make our world feel like a scary place, I hope also that they’ve learned that most generations have found it the same. We aren’t alone. Further, by opening conversations that foster rational debate tempered by compassion, we can negotiate the world together – whichever way it’s turned ’round.
As each year passes, I do my best to resist judging 365 days of wildly disparate events as “good” or “bad.” Life, like most of my literary arguments, is a both/and scenario. I haven’t been spending much time on social media (and, by extension, my “new” web blog) because the wildly fluctuating emotional responses to world events in my feeds were simply too much to absorb. On reflection, I see that my own broken world-view likely inspired me to pursue research on Ciceronian, Stoic, and Nashean versions of cosmographical contemplation last summer. It’s a useful practice that may come in handy now. As our calendar rather arbitrarily turns from one year to the next, it might be helpful to think about how the world looks if we fly up out of the atmosphere and see it from the universe’s perspective. On the one hand, we might think: “Wow! We’re part of something truly special and possibly divine.” OTOH: “Wow! The Roman Empire is a pinpoint” (paraphrasing Cicero), or “Our armies are like ants on a field” (paraphrasing Seneca). During the early modern period, we witness many lamenting the “world turned upside down.”
It is a constant and common trope that has been repeated through the ages. Yet one might also ask “was it ever turned right side up?” I think many of us know, at risk of over-simplifying a complex problem, that our present global turmoil results simply (there, I said it) from humans being humans. It’s been a long time in the making and a long time coming. The new administrations in the US, UK and elsewhere are plainly symptomatic of this evolution.
That said, I suggest we take advantage of this fresh start and think about how one might practice perspective in 2018. Personally, I think a bit of stoicism might help us face up to our reality without over-sentimentalizing problems. We need strength and conviction to move forward with dignity plus, for those of us who are scholars and teachers, to help our students do the same. 2017 was not so different from many other years – there were ups and downs, sure. Moreover, 2018 may not depart much from its predecessor. But it offers an opportunity to find balance, so that we might stay perched – however precariously – on our magnificent globe whichever way it happens to be turned.
“Early Modern Conversations” (the alias) was born while I was finishing my PhD at Tufts University (2013) and editing a collection of essays entitled Conversational Exchanges in Early Modern England (1549-1640). I have long been outed as Kristen Abbott Bennett –some have asked why I haven’t changed my social media. To my mind, EMC reflects a spirit of collaboration and camraderie that I should like to foster. Plus, I like aliases.
I am building this site to share approaches to early modern scholarship and pedagogy that are in conversation with digital tools and platforms – it is a work in progress.
I’ve long wanted to share this recycled woodcut of Thomas Nashe sans ball & chain, prefacing a sweet ballad about a young man with no money who a girl marries for love (1631). I can’t help but wonder if this image represents a sentimentalization of “tender young Juvenal” or is just dumb luck. Sung to the tune of “Lie Lulling Beyond Thee.”