Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Courseblogging: Differently Logical

We have been reading Walter Map and Christine de Pizan in the medieval lit class (we're sort of in debate mode, and will be for the rest of the semester). The students are having some problems with medieval argumentation, which is quite understandable. I mean, big massive heaps o' examples from classical mythology, relatively recent history, and the Bible all lumped together tend not to do all that much for us nowadays. And Christine, bless her, tends to make matters worse when she makes Lady Reason say things like "Well, there's this rhetorical figure called antiphrasis, in which people say the opposite of what they mean, so whenever you come across a book that dispraises women, you may as well assume that the author is actually praising them, regardless of what his real intentions were." (This inspired me to go off on this weird tangent about what it means when a text destabilizes the whole idea of written authority, presumably including its own authority, which I'm not sure the students really understood. Which is also understandable, because I sure as heck didn't understand it myself.)

But anyway, I felt obliged to point out that what constitutes a good argument is culturally determined, and it's therefore probably not all that productive to go around calling twelfth- or fifteenth-century authors illogical. Just, you know, differently logical. The students laughed at this, because of course it sounds like the most ridiculous of politically-correct euphemisms, although I didn't mean it that way. And then, because I never know when to shut up, I ended class by saying something like, "Whoa, get a load of that story about the cross-dressed monk. What did you make of that?"

One of the students said that there's not very much you can do with stories about cross-dressed monks, except laugh at them and move on. Which was pretty much what we did, since there were only five minutes left in the class period anyway.

Anyway, I think this is one of the biggest things I've been strugging with this semester: there's so much about this body of literature that is, to modern readers, Just Plain Weird. I'm uncertain what to do with the weirdness myself, and I'm never sure whether the laughter it often invites is appropriate, or whether it's exoticizing or dismissive or otherwise nonproductive. Yvain's lion trying to commit suicide? OK, funny. Margery Kempe inviting herself into the Crucifixion and telling Mary she'll feel better if she has a nice hot drink? I'm honestly not sure (although I think Kempe had a more robust sense of humor than she's usually credited with, and there are definitely things in the text we ARE meant to laugh at. "Her wot we wel that sche hath a devyl wythinne hir, for sche spekyth of the gospel" is a line that would not be out of place in Dr. Strangelove, and I believe she knew it.)

I'm looking forward to a month of Chaucer, because I feel like I'm on firmer ground with Chaucer (at least, I feel pretty confident I know which parts are supposed to be funny or ironic). Although, come to think of it, we'll be reading the Clerk's Tale and the Second Nun's Tale and all kinds of things which I don't normally teach, and which are filled with Weirdness, so who knows how it will turn out.


Flavia said...

When I went to Japan on a summer exchange program in high school, one of the pre-orientation activities that we had in the U.S. involved a phrase I've liked ever since: "equally logical, but different."

For example, one of the young staff members said, although homesickness and disorientation are natural, and make it easy to say or think things like, "what a stupid kind of toilet! what kind of stupid people use THAT?", we should pause and correct ourselves by thinking, "My! What an equally-logical-but-different toilet!"

"Differently logical" is, I think, an even better condensation of that idea, and a great way of thinking about the habits of thought of the past.

Fretful Porpentine said...

I'm glad somebody likes my coinage. I'm not totally sure I do, but I couldn't think of a better way of putting it on the spur of the moment.

hck said...

Concerning the passage by Christine de Pizan's Lady Reason and your comment on this: Considering in the task of the reader to decide on how to deal with the validity (or lack there of) of an argument seems to be fairly common. You get it in many dialogues from Plato onwards (e.g.: (Ps-?)-Occam explicitly warns in the preface to his Dialogus that one should not assume that the master or the pupil state O's opinion). Durandus, when in trouble because of some things said in his Lecture on the sentences defended himself by stating that stating something in a lecture is something different from stating it in a text published with the authors consent.
And I don't think we nowadays act really differently when in the classroom: I say many a thing just to see what the reactions are like, without knowing when I say it whether I believe it,and how I want it to be taken ... .

Fretful Porpentine said...

Thanks for the background, hck; I wasn't aware of either of these examples (although they both seem to be doing something a bit different from what Lady Reason is doing, since this passage is phrased as advice about how to read others' books rather than Christine's own).

R said...

I'm uncertain what to do with the weirdness myself, and I'm never sure whether the laughter it often invites is appropriate, or whether it's exoticizing or dismissive or otherwise nonproductive.

Ooh, I worry about this too! I say things fairly often in class like, "Oh, Renaissance" or "Oh, Victorians" when we hit something unexpected (I didn't realize I did it that often until I was talking to a friend about some random fact I'd found, and she replied, "Oh, Renaissance"). And it usually provokes a laugh, but I worry that the students won't get that I'm serious about thinking about those moments of weirdness as well, not just dismissing them.

Of course, if I use the word "weird" too often, my students complain about it on my evaluations, so I don't even have the terminology to discuss these things, apparently.

Fretful Porpentine said...

What a wei... um, peculiar thing to complain about on evaluations! Although I guess it's a good sign that they're not complaining about something more substantive.

R said...

Well, the complaints about the word "weird" (and also the word "cool," which actually, I *don't* think I use that much, though I do sometimes say "I just love that bit" in a rather helpless way) are a part of a whole grab bag of related "she didn't tell us which answers were the right answers"-type comments.

Fretful Porpentine said...

Oh God ... those comments. Nice to know I'm not the only one whose students complain about not being told what to think. It drives me nuts.

hck said...

R: '"she didn't tell us which answers were the right answers"-type comments'


Fretful Porpentine: 'Nice to know I'm not the only one whose students complain about not being told what to think. '

Ah, well, no. No, you are not the only ones to get such comments.
I try to teach my students that scholarly activities are activities: they are doing thing, not knowing things, and our knowledge (whatever that might be) is just a tool (one of several) for doing things. And that "TIMTOWTDI" ("there's more than one way to do it") is not necessarily true for Perl programming only ... .

Part of the students accept this. The other part changes to other teachers or even an other (or no) field of studies.