tyrannical curriculum

The more and more I teach at the college level, the more and more I appreciate how intertwined teaching and research are for professional academics. This is not immediately obvious when reading through scholarship on the page. Periodization ensures that fields don’t connect, because courses within those fields don’t connect.

The same dynamic plays out within the fields of literary study. Features of the intellectual landscape in my own field that puzzled me as an undergraduate and PhD candidate are readily explained with reference to the need to teach in a curriculum. The overwhelming centrality of Chaucer in late medieval English studies corresponds to the provision of Chaucer courses at nearly every college and university. We offer “Chaucer” ostensibly because Chaucer is uniquely important, and because undergraduates most want to take these courses. I have grown skeptical of both of these implicit rationales, the first about Chaucer’s intrinsic worth and the second about students’ preferences. I now think it’s the other way around: Chaucer remains canonical and well-known because every English-department medievalist shares an experience of taking and/or teaching a class on his work. It’s just easier to have something to say about texts that you regularly discuss with students. And the Chaucerian texts that get the most attention in scholarship, in turn, are those that are easiest to teach and most commonly taught to undergraduates: the Wife of Bath’s Tale, less so Troilus, still less the Boece or most of the lyrics. It’s understandable.

There are more subtle examples. The first part or visio of Langland’s Piers Plowman (A.Prologue-8 / B.Prologue-7 / C.Prologue-9) receives far more scholarly attention than the rest of the poem, which makes up about two-thirds of Piers Plowman by volume. That is because the visio is a blueprint for the whole poem, but it is also because it’s typically not possible to read beyond the visio in the undergraduate (or often even the graduate) classroom. The visio is all we have time for when we teach Piers Plowman in a course on alliterative poetry, or political poetry, or religious literature, or multilingualism, etc.

This is true for Old English, too. Beowulf dominates this field for many reasons, and a major reason is that it is nearly always the spring semester text, after a fall introduction to the language. It’s the right size to get through in one semester at a fast clip, but there’s no room to read other texts in that semester. For the same reason, a handful of short texts (the ones in Eight Old English Poems, ed. R. D. Fulk) also get a lot of play: they are bite-sized and easy to work through in a non-Beowulf spring Old English seminar.

Texts that, on paper, ought to be central to our assessment of medieval English literary culture are often relegated to the status of specialized topics because they are difficult to squeeze into a semester: the Paris Psalter (the longest poem in Old English), Lawman’s Brut (the longest poem in Early Middle English), the Prick of Conscience (the most-copied poem in Middle English), the so-called Wycliffite Bible. Not to mention the many important medieval English texts not composed in English, which must be taught in translation, if at all, in the US: Richard Rolle’s Latin writings, Gower’s Vox clamantis, Froissart’s dits amoureux. Medievalists whose training is in a different language tradition are always on about the single-minded prioritization of the English language in English departments, and they have a point. It’s a point less about the individual moral rectitude of researchers in this field than it is about the pragmatism of keeping a research career spinning while teaching a full courseload.

(Now, it’s always possible to do research on texts that you never teach, but it is much harder to maintain that split-brain for long.)

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Here is an opposite framing of all this. I have the incredible privilege of learning with my students about texts that I then analyze in scholarship. The feedback loop between teaching and research is both professionally convenient and intellectually fulfilling. Just this semester, rereading Sir Gawain and the Green Knight with my students generated two small new ideas about the poem, which are now under consideration as two scholarly notes. One must, after all, teach something, and, unbelievably, I get paid to read and think about the literature that I already want to read and think about. If that has to include Chaucer, well, fine, I’ll think of something to say about him, too.

The problem arises, I think, as it also does for periodization and linguistic nationalism, when the boundary-line between foreground and background sinks below the level of consciousness: when we forget the tyranny of the curriculum and mistake a field of study for a self-sufficient and essentially disinterested response to the past. Medievalists, like other humanists, have long since discarded the idea that historical work could ever really be disinterested, yet certain basic assumptions about what is a ‘major’ text, which poets had an ‘Age,’ seem to replicate the thinking that we claim to have transcended as a field. (This mirrors the situation with periodization, whereby the political-historical boundaries that, we all agreed long ago, should not deterministically govern English literary history still do so in the curriculum, and therefore in the distribution of fields, hiring, scholarly organizations. . .)

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What to do? I don’t know. In a small way, I’ve been trying to be a bit more experimental in what I assign to undergraduates, partly in order to be a bit more experimental in what I can speak about in my research. I teach anonymous political prophecies in English and Latin, Welsh poetry in translation, Gower alongside Chaucer, Piers Plowman beyond the visio. This has meant foreshortening some other, expected components of my course offerings.

Experimentalism is a decision that I have the luxury of making as a tenured professor rather than a graduate candidate, a job-seeker, or a junior colleague. Ideally, though, experimental teaching can in turn change expectations, reflecting a different vision of the field back into research, hiring, etc. The prospects for this shift in perspective seem to me good: postmedievalists don’t know all that much about our texts, anyway, so I think they are just as happy to hear about an anti- or non-Chaucerian book as a Chaucerian one–as long as you promise to teach “Chaucer” one way or another.

multispectral imaging and manuscripts

My essay, “Multispectral Imaging and Medieval Manuscripts,” appears in a volume devoted to digital humanities and medieval literature and culture, edited by Jennifer E. Boyle and Helen J. Burgess. My essay introduces a new digital approach to medieval manuscripts by summarizing a Mellon-funded project in the digital humanities at Yale University. Here’s the opening section:

Debates in the field of manuscript studies often take the form of disputes over material details that are at least theoretically quantifiable: the curve of an ascender, the shape of a damaged leaf, the color of a paraph mark. Until recently, such debates were adjudicated entirely on the basis of comparison by human eyes. Paleographical and codicological research along these lines has been transformative: it remains the edifice on which rest all other forms of knowledge about medieval texts. Yet human eyes have scientifically well-understood limitations, especially as regards the perception of color. Recently, it has become possible to supplement the human eye with a digital one.

Human eyes see in three colors, whose various proportions the brain interprets as the range of colors we perceive in the world. There are finer ways of slicing up the color spectrum, however. The eyes of some species have developed to see in more than three colors, enhancing discrimination between closely similar wavelengths of light. Computers, too, can ‘see’ in many more than three colors. Digital capture of spectral information in more than three colors is known as multispectral imaging. (Hyperspectral imaging, marginally more accurate but substantially more costly and time-consuming, refers to digital capture of spectral information continuously across the color spectrum.) A non-invasive procedure involving a professional camera and a computer, multispectral imaging reveals differences in reflected light that remain invisible to human eyes. Multispectral imaging also captures data across the infrared and ultraviolet ranges, which lie, respectively, beneath and above our visible light spectrum. In other words, computers can be programmed to ‘see’ more and more finely than human eyes.

Progress in computer science thus enables the creation of new kinds of data about medieval manuscripts (among other objects of interest). These new data promise to confirm, enrich, problematize, or even invalidate the conclusions of traditional manuscript study. This essay outlines the scope and goals of interdisciplinary research at the intersection of computer science, manuscript studies, and cultural heritage preservation. It does so through an overview of a case study: a research project in the digital humanities carried out by computer scientists, medievalists, and digital preservation experts at Yale University from 2012-2015 under the auspices of an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Scholarly Communications and Information Technology grant. Entitled Digitally Enabled Scholarship with Medieval Manuscripts, this project had three arms, of which I will discuss one, “Creating English Literature, c. 1385-1425: Inks, Pigments, and the Textual Canon.” While at Yale I served as graduate assistant for “Creating English Literature” to Principal Investigators (PIs) Alastair Minnis and Barbara A. Shailor, who were later joined by PI Ardis Butterfield. The other two arms of Digitally Enabled Scholarship with Medieval Manuscripts are “Editions of the First and Second Recensions of Gratian’s Decretum” (PI: Anders Winroth) and “A Literary History of the English Book of Hours” (PI: Jessica Brantley).

the Yale team’s technical setup for multispectral imaging of medieval manuscripts