Saturday, February 25, 2012

Reducing the Medieval (with an anecdote about dissertating!)

Apologies for the hiatus, folks. I am in the last two weeks of dissertation editing before I file (o.O).  I feel, at the moment, much as I felt when I (stupidly) decided to swim at Waimea Bay a week before surf season started despite the black flagged beach and the warnings of a dangerous shore break (n.b. DO NOT EVER DO THIS). Despite these warnings, swimming at this beach seemed like a great life decision, and so I did.  My solution to dealing with the large waves crashing ominously close to shore was to time my entry in between the dangerous waves, swim out a nice distance, and tread water far enough away from shore so that the waves wouldn’t toss me around and damage my person.  I did this for as long as I could until I began to get tired and pruny – about an hour or so.   My hope is that my exit from the dissertation editing will leave me with at least a shred more dignity than what remained after I tried to exit the ocean on this particular day.  To say that I “exited,” in fact, assumes far more dignity than what I actually maintained.  “Projectile vomited by Mother Nature” is probably a more accurate description.  It certainly comes closer to capturing what I looked like as I emerged, like a geriatric Swamp Thing, from the chop.

So, here’s hoping I look a lot better on the 13th of March than I did at Waimea a few Novembers ago! I would post comparative pictures, but a) there were, quite mercifully, no photographs taken on that fateful day at Waimea and b) there WILL be no cameras anywhere near me on the 13th of March.


In the meantime, I wanted to share a few thoughts that came to me as I commented on student questions a couple weeks ago in my medieval literature course.  My students are fantastic, by the way, and have managed to make the past few weeks a truly innervating teaching and learning experience – even though we are only three in number!  One of my students brought up Eve in a recent comment, referring to her as many tend to do — as arguably the most negative exemplar for women in medieval iconography, the binary opposite of the Virgin Mary.  In truth, however, Eve’s treatment in medieval literature, as John Flood has recently observed, is far more nuanced and – in several cases – more deeply sympathetic than we’d necessarily assume.  My student was hardly at fault for not realizing this, since the negative portrayal of Eve in the Middle Ages tends to take the foreground more often than not.

The process of clarifying my student’s understanding of Eve’s representation in medieval literature, however, got me thinking about reduction and its imbricated relationship with proximity.  It is so much easier to strip away nuance —from a person, a religion, a culture, etc. — when the object in question is distanced from the viewer.  I’d even go so far as to say that the farther away you get from an object, the easier this process becomes.  Many pre-postcolonial theorists who examine medieval literature have noted as much about the treatment of cultural others in medieval European literature (the work of Sylvia Tomasch comes immediately to mind), and my dissertation argues, in part, that the stark binaries that appear in so many Middle English crusades romances are maintained specifically because of this relationship between proximity and reduction.

The conversation with my student, however, reminded me that this ability to be reductive by way of distance can also apply to 21st century perceptions of the Middle Ages. As John Ganim has observed, the Middle Ages as a time period is both consistently and conspicuously Othered, and scholars who invest themselves in the study of it will always be at odds with the reductive approaches that have been endorsed and perpetuated for centuries.  Because of this treatment, however, studying the Middle Ages can allow students to become more aware of how we are conditioned— and how we condition ourselves — to consider and quantify “things in the past.”  Perhaps one of our broader purposes of teaching these dusty tomes, then, is to invite students to challenge their own tendencies to strip nuance away simply because the object in question is – and always will be – profoundly alien.

Monday, February 20, 2012

"Do you feel different than you did yesterday?": Identity and Growing up

This past week I've turned 30, and I've been thinking a lot about age. In my culture, I've reached a new landmark. I'm now in a different category. Perhaps I'm even an adult (though it's hard to be sure). Yet I remember clearly being a child, being a teenager, turning 18 and 21. Those selves were different, and yet they were also me. I am different, and yet I am still them as well. When I look at the images of me in my prom pictures, first drivers license, or kindergarten school photo I know what thoughts lie behind the eyes of the girl in those pictures because I was the one thinking them. Since I teach and write so much about identity, I think it's perhaps useful to think a bit about how age and identity interact in ways similar to and different from other identity categories.

Aging is inevitable; as long as we're alive we continue to age. (Whether we mature or not is another story . . .) And yet I find it important to remember earlier ages, to remember what it was like to be in different positions because of age. Children are disenfranchised and vulnerable, at the mercy of those to whom fate has delivered them. I was lucky enough to have wonderful parents to care for me, but not all children are fortunate in this way. And being a child is scary even in the best of circumstances. Everything is new, and children have little power over their lives, little understanding of the world around them, and little ability to communicate their ideas.

I remember learning to write my name with my grandma. I must have been about three. I felt terribly unjust providing the "i" with dots and leaving the other letters dotless, so I took a bold and unprecedented step and dotted every letter. My grandmother, a wonderful teacher and very patient person, erased the extra dots and explained to me once again how to spell my name. I tried to explain to her that I did understand how to write my name, that I hadn't made a mistake but instead had made a difficult choice in the name of justice. As you might imagine, I simply didn't have the words. Though this is a silly example, I still understand that struggle to express my opinions and beliefs to others. In fact, much of grad school has been about learning to put into words those things that I've always cared about. Dissertation-writing is so painful at times because it's an attempt to think things that haven't yet been expressed and find a way to express them.

I also remember my first day of pre-school. I was thrilled to be entering a world of learning, but I was also painfully timid. I sat at playtime doing nothing. I wanted to go across the room and get the play-doh, but I wasn't sure whether or not I was allowed to play with the play-doh. That distance between my chair and the toy cabinet was too perilous to cross, so I sat alone while other children laughed and played. Yet that day I came home and announced to my parents that I would be a teacher one day. In the safety of my own bedroom, I grew bold in my newly attained school-wisdom. I lined up my dolls and stuffed animals and taught them everything I'd learned. Over the years, I have worked hard to bring out the assertive teacher-self in me. Most of the time, I have succeeded, but sometimes the scared little child in the big and frightening classroom of the world returns without warning. Not only do I remember what it's like to be her, but sometimes I am her again.

I could write endless examples of such moments in my life, both meaningful and mundane. I could write about the sense of desperate grief and dismay and terror when my friend was stolen from her bedroom at night when I was 11 while her mother slept down the hall. I could talk less seriously, and explain my feelings of righteous validation when it was discovered that my first car was stolen (and totaled) by a bunch of 30-somethings rather than by "stupid teenagers," as all the adults had assumed. I could talk about my first breakup or about my cross-country move or the moment I discovered that my father had died. All of these represent different moments of my life. I can neither fully exist in those moments again nor be fully detached from how I felt in them. They work together to make up me.

Time is funny that way. Age is funny that way. We all move inexorably from childhood to adulthood, whatever those terms mean. In fact, age might be the only way in which everyone, without fail, drastically changes identity categories. All one must do is stay alive. At different ages, we exist differently in the world, and the world treats us differently based on how long we've been in it. Of course there are countless factors making up our identity position at any one moment. Our race, class, sex, religion, etc. all impact identity position, as does individual personality. And different times and places define ages differently, as they do these other factors. But age is unique in that any given age is fleeting. We all move from one age to the next and can make the choice of how to treat those people younger than we (or, for that matter, older than we). Perhaps if we can consider how it felt to be in a different identity position because of age we can go a step further and think about how it might feel to be in a different position for other reasons. Perhaps if we learn some compassion for our younger selves, we can extend that to compassion for other people as well. Perhaps it's clear that, while I've grown more cynical with each year, I'm also still the same idealist who wanted to give every letter a dot.