Teaching Inclusivity through Early Modern English Literature

british museum m dictating to daughters

(Milton seated with his arms folded, books on the floor at his feet, and his daughter writing at a pulpit, with a quill, to the left, another woman sitting sewing behind her; after Fuseli (Schiff 922). 1806 Stipple. Image taken from the online collection of the British Museum.)

This comes back because I keep thinking about this stuff.

Last spring, a few of us early modernists were engaged in putting together an academic panel on “Teaching Inclusivity through Early Modern English Literature.” We were putting this panel together as friends, colleagues, scholars, and teachers sharing an excitement in the power of centuries-old literature to open up and invigorate the present and the lived for our students. And we did so with a shared commitment to the scholarly practice of robust and constructive discussion, and a firm belief in:

-access and inclusion for our students (that is, making sure that our students, irrespective of class, gender, sexual orientation, dis/ability, nationality, etc. should not suffer barriers to their learning), and

as themselves real and consequential pedagogic goals for our students to take away from the classroom (that is, inculcating a sense of the importance of inclusivity and dynamic belonging in the world as means towards a richer life for each of them, as also means towards a better world for us to collectively inhabit).

As I contemplated this panel, I wanted to talk, in the few minutes allotted to me, about some of my most generative teaching moments of the last few years. For instance, I would talk about when I had a group of students read Milton’s sonnet “On his Blindness” followed by Book III of Paradise Lost, and saw them begin to ask questions about seventeenth-century realities of literacy, class, access to help and support, and practices of memory and composition. Or when my class read a selection of seventeenth-century newsbooks (mainly Mercurius Politicus and its Monday counterpart Publick Intelligencer), and wrote imagined letters home from London after having been witness to a public punishment or execution. My students debated at length the matter and manner of revolution, treason, justice, punishment, and pardon. Or when I brought photographs of some sixteenth- and seventeenth-century parish records to class,[1] and my students dabbled in a bit of early modern palaeography and deciphered together and aloud how one of the coffins mentioned in the records only needed one bearer, because it carried a child. The initial challenge of the handwriting, and the ownership that came from reading it together only accentuated this single detail’s triggering of an immediate historical empathy that opened into a discussion of grief, a consideration of the medical contingencies of premodern communities, and methods of support and consolation.

Apart from talking about these instances of what I had seen work well, I would also think aloud and learn about pedagogic methods I knew of from fellow teachers and scholars, and wanted to bring to my own classroom: such as asking students to learn their favourite Shakespearean monologue, but in another language (including American Sign Language). Or asking students to make casting decisions for their favourite early modern play. How would they cast their actors in terms of race, gender, nationality/ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc.? Or asking them to read, as evidence of a way of life, the still music we now encounter as broadside ballads. And I’d love to think more about this, for this is probably my favourite landing place for teaching inclusivity through early modern literature—I can imagine nothing better than these ubiquitous, rude, absurd, bawdy, mundane, and marvellous creations to talk both about a nameless and marginalized authorship, and about a universe of variety and difference that it today takes us a serious imaginative leap to countenance.

But something happened to overturn those plans and to compel me to ask myself with renewed emphasis what it was that we meant when we said inclusivity. What were our rights and duties to ourselves and the world in which we lived, and the world in which we wanted to live—and how did early modern literature contribute towards a pedagogic goal of inclusivity?

A week before the conference, I went to an opera production of Midsummer Night’s Dream at the School of Theatre, Music and Dance in my university.[2] I had heard much about the talented musicians at the School, and I was excited at the thought of a production in which all the actors and musicians were students. But I am still talking about it because I can’t very well explain the sadness of what happened. As someone who enjoys theatre and film and Shakespeare, I have seen many kinds of performances/adaptations—in three countries, now, and put on by the most amazingly well-studied and well-funded people, and put on by people armed with nothing except their adaptation or improvisation of the text. But this one stands out.

This production brought on stage a statue of Nataraj (the cosmic dancer of Hindu mythology) for the changeling/Indian boy. I have tried hard over the last few days to figure out what they might have wanted out of such a choice, but I am now compelled to conclude that the decision came from a non- or immature understanding of at least three things: first, Elizabethan faerie; second, the “global” energies or conjectures of Shakespeare’s England or our own world; and third, all cultural valences, past or present, of Nataraj or those who emulate that dance. But I barely had time to whirl this around in my head before Helena came on stage: a Helena whose “humour” appeared, incredibly, to have been constructed around the actress’s plumpness. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing on stage, and couldn’t believe the laughter around me in the audience. Helena’s beseechings of Demetrius (whose “spaniel” she is, as she says) and Demetrius’s spurning of her were made a farce to reinforce our society’s all too readily available ideas of female desire, beauty, agency, and desirability. This was when I left.

I realised then, that in my own enthusiasm to see in the early modern all kinds of wonderful subversions of power, and exciting voices raised against oppression and marginalisation, I have sometimes forgotten that any canon or archive or record only ever gives us what we either already have, or wish to have. I realised too the importance of what Peter Erickson and Kim Hall wrote in a recent Shakespeare Quarterly article on race: “Even if the arc of our moral universe bends towards justice,”—or hopefully it does, although in this moment we might wonder—“it may be that Shakespeare’s moral universe does not bend far enough to go the distance needed now.”[3] I couldn’t help feeling that this was not just about Shakespeare, but his world. I was made deeply aware too, as I watched these talented and dedicated young people on the stage and in the orchestra, that erasure and obliviousness succeed precisely because they proceed from what seems to be neutral, natural, even necessary.[4] It was similarly reinforced to me that exclusion always appears to be apolitical. It is the demand for inclusion that is seen to be narrow, self-interested, and political. Marginalisation of people, and marginalisation of their lives from domains of knowledge or consideration go hand in hand. And I realised, walking home, that if I sought to teach inclusivity as a goal and an ethic, I sought to teach it as both a capacity and an incapacity. That is, as much as I wanted to teach my students—my fellow citizens in the world I inhabit—to be capable of certain things—like empathy, critical thinking, compassion, and imagination—I also wanted to teach them to be incapable of other things—like a deep and hard critical obliviousness. I did not want to teach a “humanity” that is as broad as it is complacent about and complicit in the disappearance of those who fall through the cracks. I wanted to teach an incapacity for not taking measure of and responsibility for our part in a complex and interlocked world. And I wanted to teach a refusal of complacency and self-congratulation until the time when it makes no sense any more to talk about “inclusivity.”

I continue to believe that the early modern can and will facilitate this. But as I recently learnt while at a home-grown and meticulously produced Shakespeare adaptation in a large research university in this country, it will take vigilance, care, and even a kind of critical stubbornness to unpack the early modern in a way that is adequate to our moment.

 

[1] Parish records from 1571-1673; this is with many thanks to Bill Ingram and Alan Nelson, and their work on the token books of St Saviour in Southwark.

[2] Music by Benjamin Britten (1913-1976); libretto by Britten & Peter Pears; adapted from William Shakespeare; University Opera Theatre; University Philharmonia Orchestra; sung in English with projected surtitles. See http://www.music.umich.edu/performances_events/productions/2016-2017/midsummer.htm.

[3] Shakespeare Quarterly 67. 1 (2016), p. 10.

[4] Martha Nussbaum, Cultivating Humanity (Harvard 1998); Tobin Siebers, conversation.

On a Turquoise Ledge

turquoise ledge

A few months ago, I was engaged in thinking about Leslie Marmon Silko as a mountain travel author. Primarily through The Turquoise Ledge. Here are some notes from that time.

 

Seeing good places

for my hands

I grab the warm parts of the cliff

and feel the mountain as I climb.

 

Somewhere around here

yellow spotted snake is sleeping on his rock

in the sun.

 

So

please, I tell them

watch out,

don’t step on the spotted yellow snake

he lives here.

The mountain is his.[1]

 

The landscape of Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico emerges with aching loveliness in the photographs of Lee Marmon. Cliffs, canyons, tabletops, and lavabeds; rain, sand, snow, and clouds; ruins, mission churches, doorways and cliff-dwellings. A changing land, the coming of the railroads, and a human presence in symbiosis with the land: horsemen and sheepherders, Laguna elders, girls at a clothesline, Eagle Dancers, Deer Dancers, Buffalo Dancers.[2] The photographs by her father give us something of the faces and geography of Leslie Marmon Silko’s intellectual and emotional inheritance. A long life of making the desert and sandstone mountains home comes together in this remarkable novelist, poet, and indigenous-rights activist’s lyrical memoir, The Turquoise Ledge. ‘My friend Bill Orzen taught me to speed walk on flat ground in town’, she opens, ‘but I prefer the hills to the city, so I adapted the speed walk to the steep rough terrain.’[3]

Over time, she walks into the knowledge of how the desert supported an entire population ‘The footpaths through the Tucson Mountains are ancient. Humans have lived in these hills and arroyos for thousands of years. The palo verde and mesquite trees give great quantities of beans in June and the saguaro fruit and prickly pear ripened at the same time; the small game and birds were easy to hunt. For the ancient people, these hills and arroyos held everything they might need for survival.’[4] She reclaims and rewrites the history of the land and its ancient people with an assured  wave aside of the European narrative. ‘The Pueblo people lived in the Laguna-Acoma area for thousands of years before the Europeans invaded, but the Spanish record-keepers made no mention of Laguna Pueblo, only Acoma. It was at Acoma that the Spaniards chopped off one hand and one foot of every captured Acoma man or boy over the age of seven, in retaliation for an Acoma victory over the Spanish troops in 1598. […] [T]he Kawaikameh, the Laguna people, had been living there by the lake on the Rio San José for thousands of years already when the rebels from the northern pueblos were brought there. Thus the Spaniards erroneously stated Laguna Pueblo wasn’t established until 1698. The error about the date of the founding of Laguna Pueblo was repeated in later histories. The Laguna Pueblo people didn’t bother to correct the error because it made no difference to their reckoning of the world.’[5] Silko argues for the connectedness of land with language as she argues for firm inheritance of Nahuatl and related Uto-Aztecan languages. ‘Linguistic diversity is integral to the cultural diversity that ensures some humans will survive in the event of one of the periodic global catastrophes. Local indigenous languages hold the keys to survival because they contain the nouns, the names of the plants, insects, birds and mammals important locally to human survival.’[6] She learns the names of flowers and plants, and gives snakes a home. And she continues to collect bits of turquoise pebble and to write about them as these flashes of compacted blue planet arrest her eyes and her thoughts.

The book is an ode to and entreaty for pacific and responsible survival as a species and as a people. In the desert, this is about dark peaks stopping and entertaining clouds to the point of rain. ‘Turquoise is the ritual colour of Tlaloc, the Nahua God of Rain.’ Her story about a group of Hopi traditionalists who decided, at the start of the eleventh year of a severe drought (2006), to undertake a sacred run from northern Arizona to Mexico City to the carved stone monolith of Tlaloc, is emblematic of her layered understanding of human place on our planet. ‘They’d been educated, as we all have,’ she says of the Hopi traditionalists with gentle irony, ‘to expect no miracles from Tlaloc. But in the Americas, the sacred surrounds us, no matter how damaged or changed a place may appear to be.’ Three months later, the rain clouds gathered, and broke, and pulled a writer away from her desk. ‘In Tucson where the drought had lasted so long even the desert vegetation was beginning to die, the rain smell was intoxicating—I couldn’t work on this manuscript.’[7]

 

Notes:

[1] ‘The Time We Climbed Snake Mountain’, Storyteller (New York: Seaver Books, 1981), pp. 76-77.

[2] See The Pueblo Imagination: Landscape and Memory in the Photography of Lee Marmon (Boston: Beacon Press, 2003), and Lee Marmon and Tom Corbett, Laguna Pueblo: A Photographic History (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2015).

[3], Leslie Marmon Silko, The Turquoise Ledge: A Memoir (New York: Viking, 2010), p. 5.

[4] The Turquoise Ledge, p. 11.

[5] The Turquoise Ledge, pp. 20-21.

[6] The Turquoise Ledge, p. 46. In this breath, see also Robert Macfarlane’s magnificent word-hoarding in Landmarks (London: Penguin, 2015). Long interested in the links between language and landscape, Macfarlane is spurred on by a collection of peat-land-specific place words to begin an ongoing project of ‘assembling some of this terrifically fine-grained vocabulary–and releasing it back into imaginative circulation, as a way to rewild our language.’ This rewilding is a project of joy and discovery and sadness and possibility, undertaken at a time when, as we learn, a junior dictionary makes place for ‘broadband’, but has no room for ‘bluebell’. ‘The Word-Hoard’, The Guardian, 27 February 2015.

[7] The Turquoise Ledge, pp. 144-146.

Of the Place Now Called Victoria

I shall write about the stimulating experience of my first DHSI (Digital Humanities Summer Institute) in a bit, but today’s post, in inadequate phone pictures, is about the loveliness of the southern part of Vancouver Island. There is also a sadness to it that I cannot find words for. You too might see, if you visit, what this land was to the peoples who lived here long before European arrival. (And most of us, we must understand, are visitors. Whether or not we live there now, our power to do so is a separate matter from our right to do so.) It is important to understand, too, that the magnificent curatorial achievements of something like the First Nations Collections are markers as much of voice and resilience as of silencing and continued violence. On the eve of #Canada150, the question mark in #Canada150? is more important than ever.

(My thanks to Ashley Morford, through whom I came to know Christi Belcourt’s poem.)

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Prayer for Travelling People

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If it is evening when they set out,

collect them into the last light

and make it dawn for them.

If someone kissed them

goodbye, let them both remember.

Give them fewer waits at airports

or train stations or bus stops

or rickshaw-stands. Mostly,

give them breath to walk

far and wide and with

clouds catching their eyes.

Keep them warm.

Give them silence if they

are happy. Give them

conversation if they are

in themselves alone

and thinking not just of

passing from place to place

but of passing the world by.

Bring to them the

kindness of strangers.

Fill their eyes.

Let there be someone,

when they arrive, to

bring them home.

By Rabindranath

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Indweller,

In my midnight doze I think of

how I shall at dawn open my eyes

and see you.

Awake in the white light of day

I tell myself how I may joyously

bring the day’s work to you.

I think of you while at work–

and tell myself that at day’s end

I shall sit at your side.

And in the evening, I sit in

your sea of infinite rest, knowing

that my tired soul is home.

Contours of Light

girls

Two girls stand against a clear sky and flying wisps of clouds–and against a clothesline. There is a bit of wind in the uplift of the new wash and the girls’ hair and clothes. But most importantly, there is light caught in the sky and the very earth the girls are standing on. I think this is one of my very favourite photographs anywhere.

Last year, while reading Leslie Marmon Silko‘s gorgeous memoir The Turquoise Ledge, I started looking at the photographic work of Lee Marmon, Silko’s father. It was a revelation, together with the sharp sadness of not having known this magnificent body of work earlier. I have since picked up and spent time with two books that bring some of this remarkable work to codex print: The Pueblo Imagination: Landscape and Memory in the Photography of Lee Marmon (Boston: Beacon Press, 2003), and the recent Laguna Pueblo: A Photographic History (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico press, 2015). Little Girls at Clothesline is reproduced from its online presence at the Lee Marmon Gallery–although I should mention that you cannot see anything of its luminosity and detail in this limited-resolution reproduction. I realize too that what I have seen so far is a very small fraction of Marmon’s work. Some day, I should love to look in on the University of New Mexico’s Lee Marmon Pictorial Collection to spend more time among these contours of light.

Man’s Best Friend, 5.7, 2 pitches of different colours

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Simplicity itself you might say

Feel reach balance handhold

foothold stepup joy

But in the warmth of a winter sun

the antiquity of a desert upthrust

and the patient sculpture of wind

An old music in the quiet

of a belay stance

Life and death of lizards joshua trees

turtles creosotes yuccas snakes

under a vaulting sky

of cracks beneath my hands

White sand then red

piled upon piled still warm

wonders everywhere

English 124, The Literature of Wilderness and Exploration

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to my students

 

We live our lives increasingly removed from nature

It’s like we’ve lost touch

Unnatural lives

Come on, human nature is not unnatural

I agree, but surely we can do better

 

If every lion ate only just as many squirrels as he needed to eat,

wouldn’t that be good for both the lion population and the squirrel population?

Yes, but there are always some greedy lions, right?

 

***

 

It’s not perfect, but the Wilderness Act does its job

I’d still revise it

I would too

I’d change the definition of ‘wilderness’ in the Act

I’d dismantle it completely—it only gives us a cop out, like a permission

to trash what is outside its boundaries

Yes, if we didn’t have ‘wilderness’ to fall back upon, we’d take better care of our wilderness

 

Isn’t it strange, these Native Americans saying they have no word for wilderness?

Why should they? It’s home

I think it bothers them, an idea of wilderness that defines itself by separation from the human

In their place, it would bother me too

 

***

 

I don’t want to talk about anything today

I don’t understand how this happened

I was watching the results with my boyfriend and his friend—I had to get up and leave when I heard the reasons why his friend was celebrating

My roommate slept through the night and woke up and asked me who won—I cannot even put into words how much privilege that is, to not care who won

I didn’t sleep, I couldn’t sleep all night

My friend knows a bunch of people who voted third party—because they could!

I don’t see how anything I’m doing matters anymore—what is the point of college?

Yeah, I don’t know who will even hire me when I graduate

Will I graduate?

His policies will stop my scholarship, and I have no other opportunities

He basically wants to electrocute me until I’m straight

Look, we cannot let this define us, we just can’t

 

‘Atomic Dawn’

‘The day I first climbed Mt. St. Helens was August 13, 1945 […] “By

the purity and beauty and permanence of Mt. St. Helens, I will fight

against this cruel destructive power and those who would seek to

use it, for all my life.”’

 

He thought the world really was ending, didn’t he?

And he used it

His anger

And his sadness

How old is he now?

He’s still writing

 

stay together

learn the flowers

go light

 

I mean, these are such clichés—but they…

Yes, they work, don’t they?

 

***

 

Eighteen young people in a classroom

in a town travelling into winter

Tomorrow, remember that you had these conversations

Remember your youth, your compassion, your energy

Remember your willingness to stand in a different pair of shoes

and walk in them

The Holding of Hands

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Seashore

Waves answering—gently—a sky

of cloudy blue that supports

an arrow of birds

straight and true

as free as life ever was

or can be

 

He holds his daughter’s hand

she her father’s

Girl/woman/child/daughter

Father/old man/boy

in love with his best poems

 

He is often unwell these days

 

I don’t know when my

eyes filled with tears

Blink hard

to the salty wind

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