Saturday, March 8, 2008

Why I Teach Medieval Lit II

The whole Dr. Crazy meme and Stanley Fish post and recent discussion of why I teach this or that which seems to be a response to the meme, has got me "taking stock" as they say. To begin, I have problems with the essence of the question.. (that question being "why do the humanities matter?" in all of its permutations). This questions begs for some definitional substance: matter to who? matter when? what are the humanities? what does it mean to matter? If I take the question at face value (without all of my pomo flutterings), the answer seems to be answered in circumstances like Frederick Douglas or Harrriet Beecher Stowe or Upton Sinclair (can you tell me that you can eat meat after reading the slaughterhouse section of The Jungle?) Slave narratives, social narratives...even though I am a medievalist and these texts are nineteenth and twentieth century, from what I understand these texts had social impacts. These books made people see things in a different way. And didn't The Jungle change rules and regulations on how meat was processed? or at least reveal the inhumanity of the line (although, one could argue that nothing has changed since, according to Fast Food Nation, the meatpacking industry is one of the most dangerous jobs in America and our recent rash of e coli in our hamburger--but without The Jungle, we certainly could not have Michael Pollan!! Ahhh, but I digress).

In my own cynical and sometime Marxist view, I feel like we are in a time where the humanities are not a cash cow. Therefore, as the university becomes more and more of a business and are run like businesses, when the humanities cannot bring in the money, the programs are reduced or cut (lo, the poor philosophy grad looking for a job now). Therefore, if we can say that the humanities are intrinsically valuable, as Fish posits, then in some ways the pressure is off...humanities can do what they want, they are only for those in the know or only for those who care...the rest of you'se--go play on the computer. To pull my various thoughts together here: we are facing a systemic problem--an ideology of how can we (as people who believe in the humanities) bring in more money--because that is how you see results--with a dollar sign. I think the humanities can bring in money, btw, but I do not think that the humanities must show its dollar worth to be considered a successful enterprise. In many ways, the indeterminancy of what the humanities are for or how they matter is a good thing!! We are having this debate (in a national forum) that, shows, to me, that they do matter--if they didn't, Fish's blog post would not have resulted in over 400 responses and so many personal blog responses. Some I heartily, heartily disagree with (though I like this particular blog).
So to the task at had--why do I teach medieval lit (or lit in general)? Well, when I was in grad school (and I know you're supposed to get over all of that, but some stuff really still sticks with you) there was this emphasis on telling stories. Telling your story was extremely important. The assumption here was in telling your story you connect yourself with history and you realize the power of not only your voice, but others. It engenders discovery and empathy. I have always believed that literature does that. Not only in identifying with a character--I can still remember the time I felt a kinship with the Gene Forrester, the narrator of A Separate Peace, when I was in high school, or most recently I was reading People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks, and thought of the ways books are passed hand to hand through history--the context of the book changes, and something new is brought to the book each time (in the case of the book something material), but it touches the human each time (and I thought about handing down books to my children).

I've had a professional affinity for medieval lit for some time, and I can remember the first time I read Chaucer and discovered the multiplicity of voices, or Piers Plowman with its many revisions and the power of the political, or Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich--each of their attempts to forge a language to speak of the ineffable was amazing. I want my students to feel this amazement; this sense of voices through history! With Kempe and Julian, how do we speak about that what we cannot see? Well, we try our best. We situate ourselves in relation to the ineffable and its place in history and we try to speak to it, with it, and in it. This happens with varying success, of course.

And this possibly is what we must do with the ineffable humanities... speak to it, with it, and in it. And even though we may be living in a post-human age, the humanity that the post-human is based on, still exists, and still offers up new discoveries every time.

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