Monday, January 28, 2013

Cultural Shakespeare

I attended the very last seminar in the Digital Humanities Symposium and it made me wish, keenly, that I'd been able to attend the rest of the panels. Sheila Cavanaugh and Kevin Quarmby gave an amazing presentation on their digitally dependent global Shakespeare program. A program that, because of it's rooting in technology, is able to travel all over the world. The discussion between Sheila and Kevin focused a lot on their programs in India and Morocco and the beginnings of programs they hope to offer to tribal universities in the United States.

What was most interesting to me was their discussion of the different ways Shakespeare was being reclaimed by the different cultures, and the way cultural discourse illuminates and redefines conversations about Shakespeare both in the American academic discourse among the students at Emory and the cultures abroad, who appropriate the text and translate it in meaningful ways. The interrogation of the text through differing cultural lenses and the subsequent performances that resulted add a layering to American academic understandings of Shakespeare, especially at the undergraduate level, that I think are often missing.

An interesting question was asked during the Q&A, that I think is worth dwelling on, and that Sheila and Kevin handled well. What happens when 'the Academy' enters spaces that are resistant to it, that have had (and possibly continue to have) poor experiences with exploitive presences? Their interest in opening conversation through the digital, as opposed to packaging Shakespeare, is refreshing and part of their success. Their continued focus on tailoring each program to the technological level available and their ability to not only make these programs work but open dialogue in interesting, explosive ways speaks volumes. 

Online Information and Interactive Academia

As someone who has just begun their higher academic career, I think it's time for me to come to a reluctant realization: the concept of academia is dead. I know how that sounds, but let me explain. It's clear to me, especially after attending the Digital Humanities Symposium, that the education I will be receiving over the next five years or so will only partially resemble that of the generations before me. Information is being spread and presented to those outside of the field, and this is undoubtedly a positive development, enabling those without the privilege of obtaining higher education to view information they may have once not been privy to. As much as I shy away from citing anything but books and articles, it's time to admit that the information on the internet is now, in many cases, sponsored by educational institutions or written by scholars, and has brought the realm of academic prowess into the digital age. With creatively enhanced websites and interactive experiences such as the Map of London project put together by Janelle Jenstad and the Melville Interactive Library created by John Bryant, it's clear that the days of examining information strictly on paper in dusty archives are long gone.

But if this is true, then what does it mean for those of us just getting started in the field? Will our future positions be jeopardized by this sudden democratization of information? The answer, in my opinion, is stuck somewhere between yes and no.

During the symposium on Friday, I was struck not only by the variety of speakers and their interests, but also by what that must mean for the internet itself. Considering that a small sampling of those using digital means to expand their interaction with texts had such a wide range of fields and information, imagine what must also be out there, just waiting for scholars and resourceful students to engage with it. The scale of the information present on the web is astounding, and more than a little intimidating. With so much information and so many reliable online sources, how is it possible to discern what's really relevant? 

In my opinion, this is one of the reasons that academia will never cease in significance. The long heralded concept of gated libraries and dark offices of knowledge is gone. Information is out there, for anyone with a WI-FI connection, and it's no longer gated, but has been thrown wide open. Universities and scholars, however, have not lost their relevance. Rather, by transitioning to the internet, the information, analyses, and insights they can present have simply changed audiences. You don't have to be a scholar to use JSTOR, you just have to be interested enough to want to spend the money. Online lecture series have been wildly popular, and bring in audiences of not only curious current students, but even those who have never stepped foot on a university campus. The importance of professors and universities has not been diminished through this open forum of information. They remain crucial to shaping the presentation and development of information, but the platform has simply changed, and the audience has widened. 

To connect this back to my initial statement, the classic idea of academia is unarguably disappearing more and more each year, as more and more information and interactive learning tools appear. However, it's still easy to see the influence that scholarship has, even in the digital world. Academia isn't going anywhere- it's just moving, to a brave new world of interactive websites and digitized data, open for anyone determined to learn. And in the end, isn't that what it always should have been?

Freelancing, Twitter and Veering

Last Friday afternoon, I attended Professor Jeff Cohen’s seminar at the Digital Humanities conference. Jeff began his lecture by pulling up the Twitter feed of the conference itself, with tweets grouped by the hastag #gwdh13. Although EBOV is my first real graduate seminar, and about Medieval and Early Modern Studies to boot, I never thought that Twitter would be utilized in the capacity of a conference, let alone the classroom. I didn't find the constant feed updates as much as distracting, but contributing to the conversation.

Twitter is certainly a medium that can be overwhelming from the beginning. But if you manage to sift through the millions of users, you have the incredible ability to aggregate writers, friends and news sources that are tailored to your most peculiar interests. With Twitter, we have the 21st century version of a highly individualized source of personalized journalism. 

I do a bit of freelance journalism on the side, primarily revolving around music and culture, for a variety of publications both based in DC and elsewhere, including New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Houston. In my time doing the freelance hustle Twitter has been crucial to network with other writers and editors. I’ve even pitched using tweets -- which editors love, because it's succinct -- and snagged writing and interview opportunities by simply answering a tweet or composing one myself.

I never realized how similar this notion could be applied to the conference or the classroom. In the same way that I tweet ideas and establish a rapport with writers and editors across the globe, most of whom I’ve never met in person, Twitter can be utilized to globalize the classroom, in a sense. It extends the conversation while establishing a community of bloggers, writers, listeners, and people that have an interest in the subject. Information and opinions have the chance to transcend the local and can be distributed widely and remotely, from either the Jack Morton Auditorium to someone who’s following the state of Digital Humanities all the way from say, Norway. 

What intrigued me about Jeff’s lecture in particular highlighted the dangers that this form of globalized information can cause. He brought up that blogs and Twitter can be complicit in forming micro-communities that can proliferate misogyny, and mentioned that he himself had been a victim of “blog stalking” (so creepy!). Twitter definitely lends itself to create antagonistic communities too, where people can egg each other on in unhealthy ways. 

One example is even within the network of music journalists who constantly bombard everyone’s feed whining about how journalism has already plunged into such an abyss that there’s no point in salvaging it. They victimize themselves or make fun of journalists altogether. Call it my naive youth or restless idealism, but I don’t think this is the case at all. The goal of journalism -- and Twitter, for that matter -- is to establish conversations, where people have the ability to connect about topics that transcend the physical sphere. And for that matter, I’ve unfollowed those naysayers. No matter how the media landscape may continue to shift, I firmly believe that good writing and thoughtful conversations will prevail.

In light of Jeff's Twitter discussion, I couldn’t help but think about our extensive conversations about “veering” in class. Twitter itself is definitely a human veer -- it veers from human interaction, where all you need is a stable Internet connection and an idea under 140 characters. In our desire to become more “connected”, are we ourselves losing our ability to connect with each other face to face? I can't possibly imagine a future where the digital classroom is the only classroom. It certainly supplements classroom discussion, but it's no replacement. When do our online personalities overtake our own personalities -- do we become a product of what we project, or vice versa? 

Digitizer Knot: Materialism and Medieval Texts

First of all, a disclaimer: I am not a complete Luddite; I have a Facebook account, and a page for my martial arts business, but in my pursuit for knowledge of things medieval, I have always found museums, libraries, and archives in the "real world" to be much more useful than a computer. I know there is a current push to digitize medieval manuscripts, and worry that I will be forced out of my comfortable (if moldy) cell and dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century. 

When I first sat down at the Digital Humanities Symposium on Friday, I wasn't sure what to expect. Being a medievalist, it was difficult for me to conceptualize how digital media might be relevant to my research interests, outside of internet searches that mostly reveal websites in medieval history geared to the average 10 year old, or YouTube videos of people playing dress up and hitting each other with foam "swords."

As I listened to Elaine Treharne's keynote address, "Digital Text as Inhabited Object," I realized that I was not alone in my suspicions that the encroachment of the digital age represents a very real change (read: threat) to how medieval texts are even defined, much less studied. However, according to Dr. Treharne, as researchers, it is in our own best interests not to be "dragged" into the use of digitized versions of manuscripts. Rather, we need to direct how digital texts are used, what new technologies need to be developed, and what questions should be asked and answered.

First of all, we cannot dismiss the importance of a certain materialism as the essence of a medieval text; Dr. Treharne uses the term "plenitext" to describe this phenomenon. A text is more than simply the words on the page - it is the totality of the object, including the binding, the space it occupies, and the visceral relationship it has to the reader/ researcher. Yet, as J J Cohen has asserted, the academic environment is changing, and the power of collaborative education and research via digital environments is a key factor in expanding our understanding and knowledge base about medieval texts. 

How then do we rectify the gap between legitimizing digital representations of these texts and the physicality of the texts themselves?

To my mind, the answer lies in Star Trek, where computer technology has enabled people to interact with fully digitized environments via the "holodeck." Everything in the holodeck seems real, and has a tactile and visceral component, called up at will by engaging a computer program. I realize this sounds far-fetched and possibly a bit silly, but the important point here is to move forward into digitization with a long durĂ©e goal. New technologies are being developed constantly, and many are working to improve the quality of digital modeling and creating functional "objects" within cyberspace. If these were developed to the point of being truly interactive, only then might a digital projection of a medieval text have the same impact as the actual object.

Until then, I think it is of paramount importance that two concepts be established in working with medieval texts:

1. Medieval historians, academics and researchers should never be permitted to rely solely on digital versions of these works for their own publications, but be permitted to make use of digitization to forward knowledge to the rest of mankind. This should always include a caveat that digital representations are not the text itself, nor are they particularly accurate; they are simply the most efficient way to show something to a wide audience.

2. Digital constructs should not be legitimized in and of themselves. They are avatars - simulacra of existing works. One does not print out a picture of the Mona Lisa and manage to convince everyone that the printout is the Mona Lisa; while this seems self-evident, there is a real danger in losing the importance of a physical folio if digital representations become the norm. Just look at the decline of bookstores since the advent of the kindle for an example.

If we advance the digital age with those two points in mind, I think eventually it may be possible to direct the advancement of technology in a direction that will not only spark a more universal access and interest into medieval texts, but preserve the central importance of the physicality of the text themselves and their integrity.  Until that technology is fully developed, we must be patient, vigilant, and always looking forward, so as not to grow complacent with poor digital representations of these works of art simply because they are plentiful and easy to access.

Besides, I really want a holodeck.

Public Awareness and New Technology

This is the first blog post I've ever written, so I would humbly ask for everyone's patience and understanding. I had several thoughts on many of the different presentations, and it is difficult to focus on any one of them specifically. The keynote presentation by Elaine Treharne was a wonderful start to the event, especially with her statement that "we have to ask the right questions." The initiators of differing digital humanities projects bear quite a heavy burden, especially referring to the work of archivists and curators, since their jobs have changed from preservation and protection to creating systems by which anyone around the world can access their resources. This responsibility, and consequently power, only increases with the advancement in technology, and unless we are asking the right questions, our results can be relatively similar to those obtained through faulty science.

Katherine Rowe's application for Shakespeare's Tempest seemed to be the only project willing to collaborate with popular commercial devices, and the format they created can in fact enhance the reading experience of certain texts the way a physical print might not. One example of this is Milton's body of work and his meticulous structure (Acrostic rhymes in particular), which at times can lose its effect and go unnoticed due to page breaks at inconvenient times.

The one issue that struck me, in line with Gil Harris' mention of the sheer and overwhelming amount of digital humanities projects was the issue of accessibility, not in terms of hardware, but in terms of advertising and general awareness. I was surprised by the number of projects in progress as well as the variety of subjects from maps of medieval London to collections of Shakespeare performances from all over the globe. I am worried about the longevity of these projects as they seem to be directed only for humanities scholars and it doesn't seem to be at the point where people can come across these projects and websites easily, at least at their own leisure. I don't think I would have heard of these projects if I hadn't attended the symposium, or taken courses directed by professors who knew of them. I do believe that as long as there is a search bar, we bring our own contexts with us and can, eventually, find what we intend to seek through research. The issue is what we don't intend to seek and I guess my question is, how accessible are these projects to people who are completely unrelated to the fields under discussion? Could it be possible to somehow incorporate a feature similar to StumbleUpon for these projects?

On a side note, I was very interested in Sarah Werner's mention of Second Life and the possibility of creating libraries in a virtual space. There is a new virtual reality device in development titled Oculus Rift, that will be available for commercial sale. Even though it is being developed primarily for video game purposes, it can be adapted to create libraries in virtual space in which one can examine the folios or manuscripts in their original forms. We need to be updated on technological advances that are beyond blogs and social networking, and if the Oculus Rift device works as it is intended to, we need to find those "right questions" fast, because the world is changing faster than updates to websites. 

Image source:

On Twitter (and its Discontents?)

Although the Digital Humanities Symposium hosted by GW this past weekend was about multiple aspects of the field—innovative applications like the gorgeous Tempest app, open source online projects like the Map of Early Modern London, as well as pedagogical endeavors like the Global Shakespeares project—I personally spent much of my time thinking about the role of social media, and specifically Twitter, in academia. As I’ve said a few times now, my recent acquisition of a tablet meant that this was the first time I’ve ever really been able to engage in the digital aspects of a conference. Throughout the two days I had Twitter open pretty much all of the time, and I was surprised by the complexity of my feelings about it. In his talk, nicely timed at the end of the first day of the conference (and readable here), Jeffrey Cohen made a strong case for “a nonhierarchical and wall breaching nomadism assisted by social media’s tools.” Although the bulk of his presentation was about his experience as a blogger at In the Middle, Jeffrey’s also projected a livestream of the #gwdh13 Twitter feed during his talk, highlighting the importance of this other form of digital conversation.

I certainly found myself experiencing a small version of this “wall breaching” at the conference. I am terribly shy, and the kind of small talky, in-person networking that happens at conferences (indeed, the very term “networking” itself) is the stuff of my nightmares. It was extremely gratifying, then, to find myself in conversations through Twitter that I would never have had the courage to initiate otherwise. Turns out, Twitter was also a lot of fun (!), a creative outlet and a way to pass an hour stuck at the registration table. Furthermore, Twitter helped me as a listener. I am an extremely visual learner, and I have a hard time at conferences where listening comprehension is the primary required skill. Twitter thus served unexpectedly as a kind of evolving handout, helping me to keep up with key points.

I also have some real reservations about Twitter. Some of its downsides have been nicely documented by others—for instance, see Ryan Cordell’s invaluable post on the ethics of Tweeting at conferences—but I think it’s worth raising a few more concerns. I’m uncomfortable, for instance, with the way Twitter encourages us to discuss a presentation as it unfolds. What do we lose, I wonder, when we articulate and—crucially—publish reactions to a presentation before it has finished? It reminds me of my worst weeks in seminar, when I haven’t managed to finish the reading and am trying to articulate something useful based on whatever I’ve managed to get through. This is probably really old-fashioned of me, but I also wonder: don’t we owe the speaker our undivided attention, or at least the simulacrum of our undivided attention? What is it like to speak to an audience that is scrambling, sometimes competitively, to share and analyze your every sentence? I also worry that the stakes of social media may be somewhat different for fledgling academics in ways that perhaps we haven’t totally thought through. Every time I tweet or post a comment on a blog I think, “Well, there goes my career.” Unfortunately, I think the same thing when I’m not tweeting or commenting enough, and that brings me to my final concern: to what extent is social media becoming mandatory, just another hoop to be jumped through for anyone who wants to have a shred of a chance at finding a job? Do we want that, especially when social media requires a certain degree of access to devices—like my own iPad mini—with serious environmental and human rights concerns attached to them? I bring up these issues not as a condemnation of social media, which I largely find to be everything Jeffrey says it can be, but as open questions. 

Creative Commons photo from here

Pluralities Abound: 2013 GW Digital Humanities Symposium

Screen shot of a search of the "#gwdh13" feed
Initially, the prospect of attending the Digital Humanities symposium was a daunting one for me (as I would probably consider my existence slightly more analog than digital). And although my mind is still reeling from all of the incredibly generative discussion that took place there, I have read back through my frantic notes and deciphered that what emerged for me from this symposium were three--slightly surprising--primary themes emphasized during nearly every panel: pedagogy, collaboration, and community. Whether or not panels were specifically addressing one of these topics (like "Digital Pedagogy," "Joint Enterprises," or "Transformative Media, Transforming Community"), every speaker seemed to somehow touch on all three of these ideas, as if you could really not discuss one without discussing the others when addressing the importance of digital projects. For me, I think the emphasis on teaching was perhaps the most surprising, as most might assume such established and technologically savvy scholars would not prioritize their teaching in such a way. But over and over again, presenters cited the potentiality of their projects in terms of being an asset in the classroom and beyond at all levels of education and teaching.

In the same vein, without working within the false dichotomy of "analog or digital," nearly all of the presenters stressed the importance of digital technology as tools to integrate into scholarship, rather than completely dismantling the institution itself. As Peter Donaldson and Alexander Huang discussed in their presentation on Global Shakespeares, the goal of their project is to eventually get to a place where there will not be a need to be any Shakespearean qualified as "Global." From the discussions generated at the symposium, this seems to be the ultimate goal of "Digital Humanities," to one day drop the "digital" and simply consider these projects, ideas and tools ones of the humanities. Plurality and multiplicity seem to be the constants of the symposium, providing various perspectives that more traditional modes of scholarship and reading cannot physically provide. I personally am most excited about getting my hands on those projects that provide multiple perspectives on and readings of a single text, like that of The Tempest App, the ever-growing Map of Early Modern London, and the forthcoming project Annotation Studio.

I think this aspect of digital humanities might be helpful for our own class discussion, specifically when considering pluralities of time and lived experience during a particular "time period." I was meaning to blog about this after our last class, but I am wondering if we can perhaps put more pressure on the idea that there is a singular medieval lived experience we are able to access and reference in comparison to our own modern lives (a singular idea that I also think we can trouble). Coming away from the symposium, I hope that our two-day immersion into the digital humanities can get us thinking further on this issue, as I think that it will prove helpful to keep in mind during future class discussions.

So as not to "hog" our class blog, I'll finish here, but I have further thoughts on the symposium (specifically on tweeting!) on my other blog. Here is the link in case you'd like to read it, and on a slightly tangential note, here is an article by Ryan Cordell on the problematics of tweeting and tweeting etiquette during conferences that might be helpful when thinking about the digital humanities generally.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Of Trolls and Critics

"Beowulf's Dragon, if one really wishes to criticize, 
is not to be blamed for being a dragon but for not being dragon enough"
"Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics"
J.R.R. Tolkien

The problem with Monsters, it seems is not that they are too Post-Human but that they are often far too Human. If the things we wanted to regard as Alien were more fundamentally different, our violence and exclusion of them would be less problematic. If Trolls were more different than their Critics, than Humanists and Digital Humanists might not get criticized in turn for their wars against them. Fortunately, or unfortunately, that is not the world they live in, no matter how new this one may promise to be.

J.R.R. Tolkien knew a thing or two about monsters and world-building: associating the former with Critics and the latter with "Sub-Creation". While the Oxford don might not have been able to operate a Google-Chrome Book, he certainly might have recognized the internet as a proliferation of technologies he already knew. We could extensively discuss differences between books and the world-wide-web, but in  important ways the community activities of writers & monsters, readers & critics, digital-humanists & trolls are extensions of one another. There is a danger in celebrating the "newness" of a Virtual Reality insofar as it blinds us to the ways in which re-inscribes long held power-structures, practices of marginalization and systematic violence.

The Digital World we are creating is a Sub-Creation; it is an extension from this World. As much as we would like to imagine it as an Edenic Paradise, whether or not it existed before us, upon our arrival we bring with us many of our old wars and ways of thinking. In dangerous ways, we build (or rebuild it) in our image. What do we already see reflected?

At the Inaugural Digital Humanities Symposium at the George Washington University scholars presented a host of building projects and how they dealt with getting rid of "bugs" and "trolls" to make way for desirable users and functions. Speakers at times spoke about their "troll-police" like knights-slaying-dragons, making the wild-web safe for civilized occupiers.

In Tech-speak, "Troll" functions as both a noun and a verb. What is a Troll? Well, someone that Trolls. What is trolling then? Well, someone that exhibits unacceptable behavior. A Troll, then, becomes anyone regarded as unacceptable. We haven't changed that much in our Monster Theory since J.R.R. Tolkien, or J.J. Cohen, first wrote on it, have we?

Now, you might say: but a Troll can be reformed! By deleting their comments and banning them from websites, we think we can slowly cultivate in them a sense that "their sort" of behavior must be suppressed if they are going to be integrated into civilized human society. In a performative space, defined by textual presence (defined widely) and interconnectedness, to be labeled a Troll is to be forced into either an integration into the human (the compulsory norm) or else an exile into digital oblivion.

That's not sensible, you might say, painting Trolls as some sort of endangered people. Aren't they just jerks that behave vicious, nasty and usually anonymously online? Shouldn't we want to get rid of them? Well, that depends on who gets to define who we are, who they are, and what exactly constitutes bad behavior. As for anonymity, we all too often come to know our Trolls far too well for comfort. Lumping all undesirables together does make it easier to eject them from our community, but doing so does not eliminate them from existence nor resolve our grievances.

In this way, we make Trolls by marking and ejecting them. In turn, as anyone that is deep in internet culture knows, plenty of people have begun to rally from these electronic margins and appropriate that name. Trolls organize and raid "civilized" spaces of the web, for fun, for revenge, for identity. Those that have internalized the feeling of being unacceptable and found an alternative community, proliferating in the margins with the sense that if they are predetermined as being inhuman, they might as well live up to the name.

That is one story, at very least. There are any number of other stories. Frankly, I don't know most of them and the worst part is, neither do you, neither do the people that block such persons from access to our special places of work. We don't know why they can't or won't or are unable (we might say "disabled") to conform and be productive on our sites. Any theory or story we might tell however brings us back to something that is getting clearer and clearer the more we live in a "new" digital world: it is an extension of the "old" world and that is a place full of people(s) we still don't understand.

The Digital Humanities does change things, certainly, and it changes us, but often only enough to make things unrecognizable. Increasingly I fear and witness a resurgence of prejudices and ideologies that attack or exclude people online in ways which reveal latent racism, sexism, ableism, classism and many other -isms (new and old). The proliferation of "Trolls" and other monsters on our borders should certainly clue anyone familiar with medieval monster theory (like our friend JRR Tolkien) that a resurgence of social divides and prejudices is also at hand.

To clarify, I am not so concerned about either the language or the identity of "Trolls" as I am concerned about how they work with the supposed digital anonymity that via screens and screen-names allow for us to battle and police one another. The Humanities has long devoted itself to dealing more peaceably and ethically with such conflicts, let us not become so blinded by the sparkly "newness" of the Digital that we lose what may be the best thing it offers: a sense of togetherness that only further implicates us in each other's actions and inactions across divides of geography, nationality, language, identity, gender, race, ability, class and other markers of difference.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Learning Objects

During our first seminar meeting we mapped out a great deal of space: ruminating over the topics we will consider, wondering how medieval and posthuman meet, considering what kind of ethos and community we want to cultivate, dwelling a little on the contours of the contemporary academy and the precarious place of those being trained within it, reflecting upon doing intellectual work as a public rather than solitary practice.

We also mapped the possible meanings of our four noun-verbs (environ, body, object, veer) and watched them converge in the word ... converge. We read some chapters about veering from Nicholas Royle's book, and asked if (as he claimed) only the living veer. Can the inorganic hold and foster that kind of swerve? Did a certain geological veer (for example) in the Preseli Hills call forth the construction of Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain? We also contemplated veering as destructive force.

Object as a thing thrown in the way (ob + jacere) and a voice of dissent added some dissonance to our culminating task, communal construction of the seminar's learning objectives. We wrote them on scraps individually and then on the board without comment, thinking that rumination would come in time. These ended up being questions to follow and imperatives to ponder. I will transcribe them now. They're provisional. Now that they have been composed, what do you think?

Environ Body Object Veer: Learning Objectives
What do we do now? How do we explore blind spots? Add questions of aesthetics to arsenal. Further understanding of the relation between object and animal. Can we learn to "think medievally" and learn to appreciate/recognize literature as it applies to a different world view? How does "enchanting" / "magic" function nationally and globally? How do they intersect with other verbs/nouns? Continue what we started today. Can we eventually find other venues for the exploration of "veer"? How does the nonhuman impact creative endeavors? Literary ideas vs. consciousness? How do language and literature resist and/or generate veering? Professionalization. When is it useful to draw distinctions between living things (or things with DNA?) and non-living things? When is it useful to flatten the distinctions? How does the material world _____? How can we open ourselves to veer from our own expectations and intentions? Environ ourselves with both mind-warping discussion and disagreement?


 English 6220:
Seminar in Medieval and Early Modern Studies
Jeffrey J. Cohen
Spring 2013

Environ Body Object Veer

This cartographic seminar follows the vectors of possibility generated when the words environ, body, object and veer are simultaneously nouns (surroundings; corpus; impedimental thing [from the Latin “to throw in the way of”]; abrupt directional shift) and verbs (to circuit inward; to materialize an abstraction; to protest or differ; to fly off course).

Among the questions to which we will compose some possible answers using our four keywords and our modern and medieval texts:
  • What worlds commence when the inhuman exerts its sidelong agency?
  • What transpires at the congruence of disability, embodiment, and environment?
  • What vocabulary existed in the Middle Ages for thinking about the secular, the intermixed, and the unpredetermined?
  • What does it mean to possess life?
  • Can things desire? Can they love?
  • What relations unfold among process and thing, event and adventure, velocity and substance?
  • Is anthropocentricity an inevitable circumscription to thought?
  • How does travel (in space, in time, in scale) open vistas that might otherwise remain unperceived?
  • What work does nature perform, and what unexpected knowledges do its contradictions yield?
  • Are medieval and posthuman one or several temporalities?

We collude in this seminar to create a confluence of contemporary theory (disability studies; queer theory; the new materialism; object oriented ontology; ecocriticism) with medieval English, Latin and French texts to map (environ, body, object and veer) possibilities – or what medieval writers called aventure -- for both. 

The pedagogy that propels this seminar’s unfolding is:
  • collaborative (we work together to invent rather than proceed from a model of mastery and induction)
  • emergent (an openness has been inbuilt, because we cannot predict where the seminar’s veering will lead)
  • compositional (our community assembles, produces and generates)
  • multimodal (encompassing the creation of: blog posts and other social media, conference presentations, peer assessment, collectivity, a public, and a journal-ready short critical essay)
Learning Objectives
To be composed during the first meeting of the seminar and recomposed as needed.

Attendance and active participation; respect for the ethos of the seminar in comportment and conversation; completion of all assigned work on time.

As part of this seminar you must attend three GW MEMSI events:
  • Digital Humanities Symposium, Jan 25-26
  • Will Stockton lecture, March 1
  • “Ecology of the Inhuman” Symposium, April 5
In recognition of the amount of work required and to enable you to prepare for our own in-class symposium, the seminar will not meet on March 26.

Your grade will be determined in these proportions:
            Participation                                                   20
            4 Blog Posts (             20
            Symposium Presentation (April 2)                20
Peer Assessment                                             10
            Journal Essay  (3K words)                             30       

Participation refers to your readiness in class to discuss the assigned readings, and your thoughtfulness in giving an account of them and in responding to your seminar colleagues. Participation may be deepened by extending your efforts into additional social media (e.g. Twitter, a Facebook discussion group) as desired. At least four blog posts are required: one on each of the three MEMSI events, and an additional post based upon a particular class or its readings (you may, of course, do more). The symposium presentation is an 8 minute, coherent, argument-driven, well performed presentation on Carolyn Dinshaw’s How Soon Is Now? Peer assessment refers to the feedback you will give your colleagues on their symposium presentations as well as your participation as a commentator on the seminar’s blog. The journal essay is a 3000 word essay patterned after those published in postmedieval that makes a clear and persuasive argument.
Policy on lateness and extensions
Plan carefully. Except for a documented medical reason, late work is not accepted. You may not take an incomplete for this course.

Academic dishonesty:
Academic dishonesty of any kind is a serious offense. In most cases you will fail the course. According to the GW Code of Academic Integrity, “Academic dishonesty is defined as cheating of any kind, including misrepresenting one's own work, taking credit for the work of others without crediting them and without appropriate authorization, and the fabrication of information.” Most Academic Integrity cases involve a failure to cite internet or other sources consulted as part of a project. You can find more on the Code of Academic Integrity at

Disability statement:
If you require accommodations based on disability, contact me immediately. Disability Support Services (Rome Hall 1st floor, 994‑8250, is available to assist and you should not hesitate to use that office.

The following books are available at the GW Bookstore. With the exception of Chaucer, it is very important to possess the required translation. Please speak to me if obtaining the texts poses a financial difficulty. Supplements to class readings may sometimes be posted on Blackboard.
  • Riverside Chaucer, reissue with new foreword  (Oxford) 978-0199552092 or any suitable edition in Middle English
  • Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain (Penguin) 978-0140441703
  • John Mandeville, The Book of Marvels and Travels (Oxford), trans. Anthony Bale 978-0199600601
  • John DuVal, Song of Roland (Hackett) 978-1603848503
  • The Gawain Poet: Complete Works, trans. Marie Borroff (Norton), 978-0393912357
  • Ian Bogost, Alien Phenomenology (U Minnesota Press) 978-0816678983
  • Robert McRuer and Anna Mollow, eds. Sex and Disability (Duke) 978-0822351542
  • Margrit Shildrick, Dangerous Discourses of Disability, Subjectivity and Sexuality (Palgrave Macmillan) 978-1137272805
  • Mel Y. Chen, Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering and Queer Affect (Duke) 978-0822352723
  • Carolyn Dinshaw, How Soon Is Now?: Medieval Texts, Amateur Readers, and the Queerness of Time (Duke) 978-0822353676
  • Stacy Alaimo, Bodily Natures (Indiana) 978-0253222404
  • Will Stockton, Playing Dirty (Minnesota) 978-0816666072
  • Tim Ingold, Being Alive (Routledge) 978-0415576840

Schedule of Readings

January 15
  • “Advertisement” “Casting Off” and “ On Critical and Creative Writing” in Nicholas Royle, Veering: A Theory of Literature [download from Blackboard]
  • Interrogation of the syllabus and communal construction of the seminar’s learning objectives

January 22
  • “Pearl” (in The Gawain Poet: Complete Works)
  • Mel Y. Chen, Animacies: “Introduction” “Language and Mattering Humans,” “Queer Animation” “Following Mercurial Affect”

January 25-26
Digital Humanities Symposium
  • post on this symposium by Monday 1/28 at 5 PM

January 29
  • Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (in The Gawain Poet: Complete Works)
  • Mel Y. Chen, Animacies “Queer Animality” “Animals, Sex, and Transubstantiation” “Afterword”

February 5
  • Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain
  • Tim Ingold, Being Alive: “Materials Against Materiality” “Culture on the Ground” “Rethinking the Animate” “Point, Line, Counterpoint” “When ANT meets SPIDER”

February 12
  • Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain
  • Geoffrey Chaucer, Franklin’s Tale
  • Tim Ingold, Being Alive: “The Shape of the Earth” “Earth, Sky, Wind and Weather” “Stories against classification” “The Textility of Making” “Drawing Together” “Epilogue”

February 19
Guest faculty: Anthony Bale
  • John Mandeville, The Book of Marvels and Travels
  • CWRD Moseley, “Behaim's Globe and Mandeville's Travels,” Imago Mundi 33 (1981), 89-91

February 26
  • Geoffrey Chaucer, “The Pardoner’s Tale”
  • “Introduction” “The Wandering Anus” and “The Pardoner’s Dirty Breeches” in Will Stockton, Playing Dirty

March 1
Will Stockton lectures on "The Fierce Urgency of Now: Queerness, Presentism, and Romeo and Juliet."
  • post on this lecture by Monday 3/4 at 5 PM

March 5
  • The Song of Roland
  • Stacy Alaimo, Bodily Natures: “Bodily Natures” “Eros and X-Rays” “Deviant Agents” “Genetics, Material Agency, and the Evolution of Posthuman Environmental Ethics in Science Fiction”


March 19
  • Saint Erkenwald (in The Gawain Poet: Complete Works)
  • Ian Bogost, Alien Phenomenology

March 26  NO CLASS

April 2
In-Class Symposium on How Soon is Now?
A symposium of presentations on Carolyn Dinshaw, How Soon is Now? Medieval Texts, Amateur Readers and the Queerness of Time. Each seminar member will speak on any aspect of the book for 7 minutes, keeping the themes of the course in mind. The presentations will be peer assessed, and followed by a lively discussion and reception.

April 5
Ecology of the Inhuman Symposium
  • post on this lecture by Monday 4/8 at 5 PM

April 9
  • Margrit Shildrick, Dangerous Discourses of Disability, Subjectivity and Sexuality
  • Geoffrey Chaucer, The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale

April 16
  • “Cleanness” (in The Gawain Poet: Complete Works); Geoffrey Chaucer, The Physician’s Tale
  • Sex and Disability: Read the “Introduction” and four essays of your choice from four different sections (Access, Histories, Spaces, Lives, Desires)

April 23
Concluding thoughts, new directions, and discussion of short journal essays.

May 3  Journal Essay Due by Noon