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.)

*

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. . .)

*

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.

consider the note

(an academic hot take)

If it weren’t for the professional pressure to produce them as CV items, most scholarly articles and book chapters would be better as notes. Notes are 1-6 page essays. Stereotypically they announce a small discovery or solve a crux in a text, but they can also communicate article-sized ideas. I encourage early career researchers to consider publishing in this form. And I encourage my senior colleagues to give notes due weight in hiring and promotion decisions.

I am a fan of the note form. It is for writing an article without having to write an article. So many articles I read feel like a note-sized discovery or insight dutifully inflated to 8,000-15,000 words. Writing up your idea as a note can be liberating: instead of welding the text/idea you really care about to a few others that are related, simply present your best idea, once. Instead of lumbering introductions and conclusions that restate your idea in general terms, simply dive right in. Instead of speculating at length on the implications of your argument, mention these in a concluding sentence and leave their elaboration to those who will respond to the note, or to yourself later on. Ditch the discursive footnotes. Ditch the lit-review footnotes.

I might as well complete the thought and burn the bridge: if it weren’t for the fact that the book is the gold standard professionally in many humanities disciplines, most academic monographs would be better as long-ish articles. . .*

Notes and conference presentations have the virtue of being digestible in one sitting. Books and even some longer essays must be refrigerated and reheated; or they must be skimmed. Notes align better with the kind of reading that is required in order to keep up with a scholarly subfield year in and year out. Notes get right to the point. In that way, notes are kinder to their readers.

*

When I said as much on Twitter, responses were mostly positive, but some were offended at the suggestion, as if a particular intellectual virtue inheres in a particular page count. That got me thinking about what distinguishes a monograph from an article and an article from a note, really. At least for my own field of literary studies, I do not accept that the difference between these three lengths of argument is, typically, the complexity of the argument, or the full documentation of claims. It often seems to me to be, instead, performance: the performance of expertise. Books afford more room than articles for this performance, and articles afford more room than notes.

I say this not to dismiss the performance of expertise, in which I am, of course, invested. To perform expertise is both professionally and intellectually mandatory in academia. That’s the real reason the book remains the gold standard. I would never recommend that ECRs publish only notes. (In this economy?) To the extent that length is a valid proxy for demonstrated expertise, hiring and promotion committees in ‘book fields’ like mine are justified in valuing books above articles, and articles above notes. But performance of expertise isn’t a virtue in itself; it is a thing that one is called upon to do. The best notes (like the best conference presentations) emerge from subject expertise without having to advertise it.


*I freely include my own book English Alliterative Verse in this judgment. If you want to pretend you have read it, read this article instead. I enjoy the experience of composing articles and books, and in that limited sense I prefer them to shorter forms that take less time to make; plus, my work must answer to my field’s professional expectations. Still, I can’t help fantasizing about an alternate reality in which most scholarly discourse was transacted in much shorter forms. It’s like that in medicine and many STEM fields, for example.

elements of a good book review


I’ve been publishing academic book reviews since 2015. Among genres of scholarly writing, I find this one requires special care. Unless you have permission from the journal to write a review essay, in which case the essay will likely be subject to peer review, you don’t have room to expand on your points. Reviews in my field run from 750 to 2000 words, depending on the venue. You must also consider the readership of the journal, which might range from nonspecialists interested in the topic of the book, who need a general orientation, all the way to experts in the subfield, for whom even a minor error in your review could seem glaring. Finally, while accurately summarizing another scholar’s views goes into the larger academic genres, in a book review it is the whole game. If you don’t do that well, it won’t be a helpful review.

Why publish reviews? If your own book is receiving reviews–and if you are fortunate enough to be paid a salary to do this work–it is fair to give back. It’s a public form of peer review. Plus, the book and the journal can signal your established expertise on a topic, or your intention to move into a new subfield. It’s characteristic of book reviews that the “questions left unanswered” or “areas for further nuance” in the eyes of a reviewer tend to be ones that the reviewer her/himself is actively pursuing. And taking on a review can be the push you need to read an academic book cover-to-cover, an experience I have always found edifying.

While journals usually commission reviews, a process that can entrench institutional and social hierarchies, you may put yourself forward as a reviewer. Many journals consider unsolicited book reviews, and many will publish reviews by PhD candidates. Simply explain who you are and what qualifies you to review the book.

Successful book reviews share certain features, typically in this order:

  1. Introduction. This places the book in some larger context, one more immediately recognizable to the journal’s readers. Common contexts are a problem, a text, a field, and the author’s career.
  2. Description. It’s amazing to me how many book reviews skip this part. In order to appreciate all the other elements of the review, the reader needs to know the book’s structure, the titles of the chapters, and a summary of the book’s argument. The goal is to state the author’s ideas in terms the author would approve. This is a good place to include quotations from the book that, in your estimation, epitomize the author’s approach.
  3. Synthesis. It is understood that there is too much in an academic monograph or, especially, an edited collection for a review to transmit every analytical move. You must choose a path through the material. You are obliged to mention any idea important enough to be the focus of a chapter or perhaps a long section of a chapter, but anything below that level is up to you. At this point in the review, you may be making connections between the author’s ideas that the author does not explicitly make. (If so, be clear about that.)
  4. Evaluation. You have been asked to write this review because you have expertise relevant to evaluating the book’s arguments. Do they hold water? What are their implications for study of this text or period or problem? What is their institutional or intellectual context? How does the book stack up against previous books on similar topics? This is the part of the review that will command readers’ attention, since it will be most different from other reviews of the same book. Resist the twin temptations of a book review, which are not to evaluate at all (often we have a weakness for neutrality early in our careers, for pragmatic reasons), or else to be thoroughly negative (generally senior-scholar behavior). Throughout elements 2-4, the reader should be able to reconstruct from your prose what the author was aiming at, and why, even if you feel the author has not achieved it. Because the review is so much shorter than the book, it must be representative: avoid nitpicking.
  5. Conclusion. Regardless of any criticisms you have leveled at the book, end with some praise or, if you cannot muster praise (!), a prediction that the book’s impact on the field will be positive.

histories of time

Poole, Kristen, and Owen Williams, eds. Early Modern Histories of Time: The Periodizations of Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019.

Early Modern Histories of Time, ed. Kristen Poole and Owen Williams

The University of Pennsylvania Press released this edited collection ten days ago. I’ve been reading through it since then in preparation to send off the final version of my second book (also to be published by Penn Press). I recognize that the book isn’t “for” me, someone who primarily studies medieval literature. Nonetheless, I think I’ve worked in and across these two fields and on this topic long enough to earn an opinion.

Early Modern Histories of Time should be seen as part of a periodization industry in English studies that began c. 2005 and is now on the downswing. All fifteen essays (except one, which could be summarized: “I am a very clever close reader”) have something to offer beyond the particular examples given. I’ll exercise the prerogative of a blog post and won’t mention all fifteen.

Naturally I paid special attention to the one medieval literature expert, James Simpson (“Trans-Reformation English Literary History”). In his characteristically clear and polemical prose, Simpson synthesizes one of the main planks of his research agenda, the analysis of literature, religion, and politics across the English Reformation. His critique of the resolutely synchronic frames of reference for medievalist and early modernist historicist scholarship, 1970-2000, is spot-on. I don’t agree with Simpson’s premise that religion and politics are more consequential for (English literary) history than other dimensions of human experience, but at least he feels the need to argue the point out loud. By prioritizing the same two domains that historically generated the medieval/modern break, Simpson leaves himself no choice but to accept the break on new terms. The inversion of the narrative of modernity, as opposed to its displacement or replacement, was both a feature and a limitation of Simpson’s Reform and Cultural Revolution. Here he concludes with an optimistically “synergetic” (100) vision of medievalist and early modernist collaboration.

The essay that most impressed me was the one by Mihoko Suzuki (“Did the English Seventeenth Century Really End at 1660? Subaltern Perspectives on the Continuing Impact of the English Civil Wars”). Opposing the division of the English seventeenth century at 1660, Suzuki weaves together comparative political history (English / Japanese); women’s studies / subaltern studies; ideology critique; and, again in a comparative mood, a takedown of “Renaissance.” Amazingly, or predictably, this is the volume’s only extended discussion of that all-consuming narrative category. Suzuki’s is an essay I will be glad to cite in my book, which ends c. 1650 but has no investment in halving the seventeenth century (or in renaissances).

Another standout essay is by Natasha Korda (“Much Ado about Ruffs: Laundry Time in the Feminist Counter-Archives”). I studied Shakespeare with Korda in college. Her essay identifies a dissenting form of periodization in the feminine labor behind Elizabethan ruffs. There was a (to me) surprising depth and breadth of evidence for this claim. The essay ends with a fantastic reading of the centrality of ruffs to Virginia Woolf’s literary imagination.

Ethan H. Shagan’s essay (“Periodization and the Secular”) is medievalist-friendly. Shagan argues that secularism is not the opposite of religion, as narratives of secularization maintain, but a development internal to the relationship between (Christian) religion and (Western) society. This argument neutralizes one of the most popular criteria for the dismissal of the medieval past, that it was an age of superstition, succeeded by an age of reason. Shagan’s ecclesiological history chimes with Simpson’s–as does an insightful postscript on Shakespeare as prophet of twenty-first-century “postsecularism” in the contribution by Julia Reinhard Lupton (“Periodic Shakespeare,” 210-12).

Despite what I interpret as good intentions, the collection has a problem of scope, of which the editors are aware. The book explores periodization concepts “indigenous” to early modernity, but structurally it takes early modernity for granted. This would be an issue in a book in any subfield; it’s particularly vexatious coming from early modernists, since “Renaissance” / “early modern” is the period of European history that habitually claims to have invented periodization. (The eighteenth century has a better claim, for it was then that periodization became standardized, totalized, and institutionalized, according to Davis.) The claim for a “birth of the past” in early modernity is a durable one, always made at the expense of a supposedly anachronistic Middle Ages.* While the editors and some of the contributors acknowledge what has been left out, most are content to imply that the Middle Ages had no “indigenous” periodizations, that the project of this volume is uniquely possible for post-1500 English literature and culture. But it isn’t.

Gordon Teskey (“The Period Concept and Seventeenth-Century Poetry”) gorgeously describes the experience of working in a period through the historically apt metaphor of the inner surface of a sphere. Yet Teskey betrays no sense that there might be anything wrong with being trapped inside a sphere. “We could not do research without periods. And of course we could not–at least until recently–organize a curriculum without periods” (150), he writes, repeating the most common defense of periodization, the defense from inevitability. But of course we could! Before the 1830s, we did (Underwood). There are too many moments in this volume in which the contributors treat periodization in the disciplinary present as a mere “mathematical convenience” before pivoting to the historical texts and topics that interest them. The result is a shortchanging of the ostensible payoff of this exercise. One gets the impression that early modernity possessed nuanced, multifarious, politically labile periodizations, while early modernists possess. . .the early modern, period. In this regard I’d contrast this book with Cole and Smith, a majority-medievalist effort that both explores the medieval period’s self-periodizations and challenges its retroactive construction as a period in the first place. An honorable exception is the essay by Heather Dubrow (“Space Travel: Spatiality and/or Temporality in the Study of Periodization”), which criticizes “early modern” both on historical grounds and “in terms of the professional domains we inhabit today” (258). Only Dubrow expresses the point that the intellectual content of literary periods depends on the social logic of disciplinary formation (cf. Underwood).

It’s axiomatic that any arbitrarily selected segment of history will both resemble the preceding centuries and resemble the subsequent ones. The choice of whether to bracket the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries with what came before or with what came after is just that, a motivated choice. The overview essay by Tim Harris (“Periodizing the Early Modern: The Historian’s View”) clarifies this point. The problem with “early modernity” in literary studies is that its arbitrariness has been lost to consciousness, submerged in the distribution of professional labor. Neither medievalists nor early modernists are obliged to think about the boundary line in the normal course of their professional duties, except when teaching a survey of British literature or (this happened in my grad program) when a “Medieval and Renaissance” colloquium splits up. The situation is not as drastic in history departments, in which period and area are dueling organizational principles. Historians can pick up and put down periods with greater equanimity. It’s telling that the other two contributors with expertise in the Middle Ages, apart from Simpson, are a historian (Euan Cameron, “How Early Modern Church Historians Defined Periods in History”) and an archaeologist (Kate Giles, “Time and Place in Shakespeare’s Stratford-upon-Avon”). The problem with literary periodizations, and “early modern” above all, is that they are sticky.

This book won’t unstick them, much as it yearns to. But probably no book could do that. All in all, Early Modern Histories of Time has some uncommonly good thinking about literature and temporality.


*Zachary Sayre Schiffman, author of The Birth of the Past (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011), blurbed this book. There is a cottage industry in Renaissance studies of monographs dedicated to pursuing this same claim. Munro proves it’s possible to discuss early modern historicism without leaning on a cardboard replica of the Middle Ages. (Many medieval European authors were intensely interested in the alterity of the past! There were whole poems, narratives, sermons, and theological quandaries about it!)

further reading

Cole, Andrew, and D. Vance Smith, eds. The Legitimacy of the Middle Ages: On the Unwritten History of Theory. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010.

Davis, Kathleen. Periodization and Sovereignty: How Ideas of Feudalism and Secularization Govern the Politics of Time. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008.

Munro, Lucy. Archaic Style in English Literature, 1590-1674. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Simpson, James. Reform and Cultural Revolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Underwood, Ted. Why Literary Periods Mattered: Historical Contrast and the Prestige of English Studies. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013.