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The rose may smell as sweet regardless, but names still matter. Image from wikimedia commons.

Some weeks ago, not for the first time, I received a compliment from a student that both gave me a little glow inside and flabbergasted me at the same time. There are clearly some things I regard as a baseline effort in the classroom that other people just don’t. Naturally, it’s gratifying when students recognize their tutor’s hard work. It’s also extremely lovely when they are appreciative enough to let one know. As I replied, it can be unexpectedly difficult to tell from the front of the classroom how things are being received by students. (Are they quiet because they’re listening and thinking hard? Or are they all secretly stifling yawns?!) Letting tutors know when they do something right is important because it helps them – at least in theory – to refine their practice.

On this occasion the student remarked that my commitment to teaching was evident in the fact that I could remember my students’ names. Names? The fact that this should be something worth complimenting a tutor on is, quite frankly, horrifying.

I know some people find names hard. I know some people have been teaching for an awfully long time, and a staggering number of names and faces have passed before them. For all I know, this student’s other tutors are all suffering clinical prosopagnosia. If that applies to you, you have my deep sympathy. But for myself, I look at it this way: you, the tutor, have to meet with these young people on a weekly basis for at least three months. You might have a number of groups, but probably no more than (in our system, at least) five groups of twenty or so. That’s one hundred people, give or take. If it’s not the first semester of first year, it’s reasonably likely that you’ve met some of them before. You also have (or at least, we have in my institution) the facility to print off a photographic roll. You have to lead these students in discussion, teach them, advise them, collect and assess their work and, determining whether they’ve taken on your advice, return it to them, and eventually sign off that you are satisfied that the final grade they receive is appropriate to their level of effort and achievement throughout semester… and you propose to do all of this without being able to identify them as individuals? I’m sorry, but words actually fail me… Read the rest of this entry »

I don’t think I’m really adding to knowledge here, but it always comes as rather a shock to students that Luther didn’t simply spring out of the virgin earth as the ‘inventor’ of calls for reform of the Church. It says something, I presume, about the success of post-Reformation movements in discourse, casting everything that was thought or done before about 1500 (excepting, perhaps, the composition of the Bible) into superstitious and ignorant darkness. However, this is not the time or place for me to get started on a rant about that!

Anyway, a couple of weeks ago I prepared a lovely and offensively vibrant handout for my students to illustrate, if not the entire (pre)history of reform, then at least some of the major points that should, I hope, enable them to contextualize the Reformation somewhat more securely. They hadn’t had the Schism in lectures, for instance, so reading from Nicholas of Cusa about the powers of councils to constrain popes rather flummoxed them until I did my ‘well, you know there were three popes at one point?’ gag. It’s the history tutor’s equivalent to the stand up comic’s fall-back oneliner. Always gets a reaction.

I’m putting this handout here not with any significant purpose in mind, but mostly just because I’m rather proud of my design efforts, and given how many hours it took me to construct, it may as well have an appreciative audience. Click through for the full hypercoloured glory. Enjoy!

What’s not to love about a brief history of Reformation in a multicoloured flowchart? Hint: start at the top left! Text & Design © Kathleen Neal.

Well, every humanities unit these days seems to have a week on gender, and here we are again. I’m going to get to a pleasing aspect of teaching the topic this time in a moment – but first let me get something off my chest…

A gender week.

Is it just me or are there problems with corralling gender into a corner of its own, and going off happily afterwards, dusting the hands, and saying “Right! Well at least that’s got *that* over with for another semester!”? I’ll allow that this is an issue most undergraduate students haven’t previously dealt with in the ways that academics tend to take for granted, and it’s complicated, so they need some careful guidance and signposting through the process. In that respect giving it some dedicated time and attention is clearly necessary and valuable, as was raised in the comments last time I talked about this matter. On the other hand, it seems to me that by so structuring it we risk perpetuating the marginalization of all things ‘gendered’: of confirming in young minds that women and femininity are peripheral concerns to History, and that men and masculinity can go on happily being the assumed centre while remaining essentially unexamined. I know there’s debate about this,[1] but I think I, for one, am becoming more determined in my view that what we need here is some integration, rather than reiteration of the battle lines. It appears that pedagogy hasn’t quite figured out the best way of achieving this yet. I can’t say that I currently I have any inspired answers to offer, merely a gripe.

So anyway, this semester I’m out of my comfort zone, teaching a unit on the (mostly Italian) Renaissance. Whodathunkit!? It’s quite fun, despite the risk of a nose bleed from straying so far forward in time.[2] For one thing, as a friend pointed out, teaching outside one’s own research specialty enables one to focus on teaching as a process. I try to practice active reflection on my teaching at any time, but there is an element of truth to this. Being less invested in the role of gate-keeper for the content of a specific discipline does free the mind to reflect on the structural aspects of how most effectively to convey any information, coach any skills, and so on. I have found myself taking a much more hands-off approach, allowing students to take a greater degree of control over the discussion, and to arrive at their own interpretations (which is not to say I don’t intervene if the conversation threatens to derail!).

Most of my students seem to have responded well to this responsibility/burden. They are rising to the challenge, and it’s a joy to see them develoing a better understanding of what being a tertiary student of history is about, and realising the raw potential of ideas themselves. Given that many of my students in this unit were also in my classes last semester, I can really see the development of their academic maturity since they arrived on campus, and I feel no small satisfaction and pride at their achievements. In some ways, one might say it’s all rather maternal!

Which brings me back to gender. This gender week – despite my reservations, above – has been one of those moments when the students’ increasing intellectual maturity and grasp of historical discipline has been born home to me. In conversations, I was glowing inside to hear students arguing that “maybe what this author meant by ‘love’ when discussing marriage was really what we might call ‘respect’?”, or that “maybe the ideals put forward for a marriageable woman in a text written for men contemplating matrimony weren’t a full or representative expression of women’s roles in marriage?”, or that – amazing! – “perhaps men were also constrained by social forces and norms over which their personal control was limited?”… These kinds of comments show me how far we’ve come since the essays in semester one. These are the moments that make teaching so much fun, and so darn satisfying.

Students, take note!

[1] See, for instance, Dyan Elliot, ‘The three ages of Joan Scott’, American Historical Review 113.5 (2008), 1390-1403.
[2] I wish I could take credit for this lovely and evocative metaphor, but in fact Joanna Huntingdon first brought it to my attention.

I’m in the midst of preparing a lecture on the use (and abuse) of King Arthur by twelfth- and thirteenth-century historians in Britain. This has been a real privilege, since a desire to study the ‘history’ behind the myth was one of the reasons I chose my particular undergraduate degree and institution, more years ago than is generally mentioned in polite society. As a bright-eyed eighteen year old, I envisaged my future as revolutionizing the understanding of this murky figure. Ah, the naïvety of youth! Somehow, despite being older and considerably more cynical now (if not necessarily very much wiser), being invited to take on this task feels like ‘arriving’, or at the very least, achieving a long-forgotten goal. It’s been a fair while since I considered the literature on this topic, so I thought a compilation here of what I see as the most pertinent and recent arguments would be a useful exercise for me, if not of gripping relevance to the rest of you. You have my permission to look away if you so desire.

Speaking of the abuse of history, this is *not* the King Arthur I’m going to be discussing…

My task in this guest lecture is to fill in “what happens to Arthur in (medieval) historians’ work after Geoffrey of Monmouth”, and I’m planning to adopt an essentially chronological structure on the day. In this forum, however, I’m going to begin from the other end with where Arthur and Arthurian history ended up in Edwardian times, since we’re all about the thirteenth century here.

…nor, for that matter, is this…

The pendulum of opinion concerning Edward I’s identification with Arthur has swung between two poles since the early 20th century: what we might call the romantic and pragmatic. R.S. Loomis, himself a noted Arthurian devotee, long ago took issue with what he saw as Sir Maurice Powicke’s excessively political reading of Edward’s understanding of Arthur.[1] Powicke had commented, as if in passing, that Edward’s procession to Glastonbury and the pageantry that attended his, and Queen Eleanor’s, ceremonial disinterment and reburial of the remains of Arthur and Guinevere was intended as a demonstration of the subjugation of Wales. Loomis argued that, instead, Edward was genuinely a devotee of Arthurian literature, and that, at the very least, “sentiment too was involved”.[2] I think it would be fair to call this the minority view. Rather more recently, Michael Prestwich assembled the evidence for Edward’s association with Arthur and found it to be unexceptional and unfocused: part of his general embeddedness in the culture of chivalry, but not constituting a particular dedication to an Arthurian cult.[3] Rather curiously, however, Prestwich went on to declare that it was “not clear what [Edward’s] purpose was” in going to Glastonbury in 1278.[4] Read the rest of this entry »

I really liked this distinction, raised by Prof. Peter T. Struck of UPenn, in a recent interview with The Chronicle on his hopes for and concerns about teaching a free online unit on Greek myth (you can read it here). I particularly liked his comment: “Great education is transformative. Data transfer isn’t.”

I wonder if I have been educating students, or shoving data at them. I hadn’t considered the difference terribly consciously until now. I hope I’ve done at least some of the former. Yet I fear that some of my – and my colleagues’ – obsessions tend to focus on data transfer, perhaps because it’s the easiest thing to notice when it goes wrong or fails. When a student hasn’t realised that a unit requires a certain footnote style, for instance, it’s noticeable: you mark an essay and groan as you write for the sixth or seventh time, ‘please note, footnotes are required by all history units…‘, and wonder why you bothered spending a whole tutorial on research and citation skills if nobody was listening.

We’ve thought and talked a fair bit about how to do this better next time, for example by doubling the tutorial time dedicated to discussing these skills, by redesigning relevant assessment to emphasise key skills, changing the format of the tutorial, and so on. This week, however, a colleague and I realised in the course of our conversation that most of the measures we’ve considered involve an increase in our responsibility, as if all we – as teachers – must do is ‘more’ and that will fix it. We began to think that, instead, we might need to force each student to assume these responsibilities for themselves: this, as we said to each other, is a more valuable thing to teach them in the long run than how to conform to MHRA style.

In light of Prof. Struck’s comments, I now see this little case study as a discussion of education vs. data transfer, and I’m pleased that we arrived independently at the notion that the former was preferable. The question remains, how to do it in practice. Education is a darn sight harder to do and to design than merely dispensing information. Somehow an eagerness for knowledge, and both the tools and the motivation to seek it for oneself have to be conveyed. Can this be done when the time allotted to a unit is no more than 22 lecture and 10 tutorial hours?

Any suggestions?

So, excuse me while I blather on about this. As I was saying, gender is a complex historical phenomenon, and part of a much bigger social matrix. In this post I want to talk about one example, Katherine Paynel, a widow in late 13th-century England, whose case helps, I think, to dispel a few mythical assumptions of the kind that students tend to make about the position of women in medieval society.

Katherine’s story hasn’t yet completely been unpicked – this is one of the projects sitting in my ‘to do’ tray at the moment, and will sadly remain on the back burner for a few months yet while I finish up my thesis. However, what we do know indicates that she was a woman of some independent means, and certainly a woman of character. Katherine was a tenant in chief of the king,[1] having jointly inherited the lands of her father, Adam de Periton, with her nephew, Robert, and sister, Isabel;[2] but she is known to us principally because a letter she sent to the chancellor, John Langton, c. 1292,[3] survives in The National Archives, Kew, as SC 1/27/113. In my rough translation,[4] it reads:

To her own very dear special friend in God, if he please, Sir John de Langton, chancellor of our lord king, his own liege and erstwhile mother,[5] if he please, Katherine Paynel, greetings and her blessing and [herself] always ready for your commandments. Dear lord and son, I have great joy in the heart from your advancement and may God be praised for the grace which he has given you that all men love you, and [for] that perserverance which ought to remain all your life; that is my prayer and it has been and will be as long as I live. As to that, dear lord, it is known to you, if it please you to remember, that since our first meeting I have had a difficult task to sustain and guide myself and my children with scarcely any aid. But, blessed be the Lord, they are agreeable enough to me, and humble, and each of my sons has some livelihood, and my daughter can take counsel with them when she desires. Dear lord, my younger son, Stephen Paynel, prays and requests me often that I send him to court in service or company where he can acquire sense and manners, so that he can recover the goods (pust aver recoverir) after me if he should be of service. And indeed, lord, I now have no sure aquaintance except, if it please, yours. Thus, I pray and request you, dear lord, for love of me and for all friendship that by your counsel and aid he may be entrusted to you yourself, lord, or to your bailiff. And I, lord, will work on his behalf for the costs in every way in my power, if by that he may support himself. Dear lord, concerning this prayer may you wish by your letter to tell me through this same bearer; and often, in all other matters, your pleasure; and concerning your state of body and health, which may God cause to be good and long. Lord, I commend you to God and His sweet mother.

Reading this letter in light of some of my complaints from the previous post, let me point out a few of the most salient points.

First, this letter constructs a gendered world in which men and women are both participating, actively yet differently. As a widow with children Katherine is in some ways the chief of her household: her children remain under her guidance to some degree, despite that they seem to be adults. They are ‘humble’ and agreeable to her; and she on her part ‘stuggles’ to sustain and guide them. Her sons’ role in life is clearly distinct from that of her daughter – the sons have livelihoods, while the daughter implicitly does not – and yet the daughter is not described as an empty or passive instrument. She can ‘take counsel’ with her brothers ‘when she desires’, and is thus recognised as a person who (a) has desires, and (b) has affairs in which she may require advice. Part of Katherine’s role as mother, which is clearly articulated here, is to establish and advance careers for her sons by whatever means open to her. One of those means is this letter. Read the rest of this entry »

I’ve just finished teaching a unit in first year history on Medieval Europe – although there are still essays trickling in for assessment. This has been a quite lovely experience, I must say. (Especially given the dire predictions of some colleagues about the low standards in written composition and general comprehension among today’s youth.  Personally, I blame society.) I’ve been spoilt with a great bunch of students, almost all of whom seemed genuinely happy to be in class. However, for all their engagement and enthusiasm, there was one thing in particular that bothered me about their grasp of the course material.


Now, it may not have escaped your notice that I am, myself, female. I’m on the record as saying that I’m basically glad I don’t live in 13th-Century England, because of the opportunities modernity offers me, in particular to be a scholar and a relatively independent person. I regard many of the attitudes towards women in the past as distasteful, and unconscionable in the present. But I also recognise that (a) history is not a long but simple story of the emancipation of women from male control; (b) some attitudes towards men in the past were also pretty lousy; (c) gender was only one factor – a factor, sure, even an important one, but still only one of a complex set of factors – in determining how good or bad you had it in the medieval world; and (d) women, as much as men, constituted the societies that held and expressed gendered attitudes.

I wish my students could see it that way. I’ve just finished reading a batch of research essays on the topic of gender roles in high medieval Europe, and there was a depressing sameness to them. Most assured me that women were uniformly detested and oppressed. Several failed to mention men at all (except in connection with oppressing women), even through the set question specifically concerned gender roles, and not the treatment of women. The (largely un-articulated) definition of oppression seemed to include involvement in arranged marriages (somewhat conveniently – or disrespectfully – forgetting that marriage, like the tango, takes two); the existence of the story of Eve (equally conveniently overlooking the many Biblical heroines); the fact that as wives they had and were expected to have children (as if women themselves were somehow immune to and separate from notions of lineage and status); and lack of participation in the workforce. In these terms, a number of essays concluded, at least the peasant ‘woman on the street’ was relatively equal to the man, even if they were all kneeling in the shit together. (And the great thing about endemic malnutrition and working as a wet-nurse is you don’t have as many children!) To be fair, this general impression is one they might easily have obtained from the assigned readings, about which I hope to make some recommendations for future years.

Now, I am not about to argue that, au contraire, medieval women had it easy, or that the imagery of the ultimate temptress wasn’t sometimes, or even often, used against them. But I do want to make a stand for some nuance; some complication; some questioning of this rather bland and unimaginative view of medieval women. In the first place, I object to the assumption that women then wanted the same things as women now, in middle-class, 21st-Century Australia (in fact, while we’re on the topic, do all 21st-Century, middle-class, Australian women even want the same things?). I also object to the implicit objectification of women in the view that society (often, explicitly, ‘The Church’ in the essays I’ve just marked) did this to them, as if they were completely passive instruments, utterly lacking in agency. They may have had limited opportunities to express their desires and decisions outside the social structures and assumptions in which they were embedded, but so do we, and so did contemporary men, by and large. Significantly, those structures and assumptions were/are also gendered, and so the ways and means in which men’s and women’s options were/are limited are not identical.

I shall have more to say on this over the coming weeks, in which I hope to bring together a number of examples of women in 13th-Century England, not so much to show how amazing, exceptional or admirable they were, but to show how complex their lives were, how much gender was only (an integrated) part of their many social roles, and how agency is actually everywhere if you only think of turning over a historical rock or two.

For now, I’ll close by asking: Have you come across this kind of uncritical approach to gender (or other topics) among undergraduate history students? How did you address it?

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I teach and research at the Centre for Medieval & Renaissance Studies in the School of Philosophical, Historial and International Studies, Monash University (Australia). Views expressed here are my own and not representative of the CMRS, SOPHIS or Monash.

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Twitter: @KB_Neal

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