The Massachusetts Medievalist on Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale (Lesley University edition)

Like most university faculty in the world of the #CovidCampus, the Massachusetts Medievalist has been scrapping together the end of the semester in the virtual world, flustered and headachy and anxious.  Also like most faculty, I miss my students — we humans are social animals, and “interaction” in the Learning Management System is functional but not nearly as satisfying, intellectually or emotionally.

Last week, I had planned to walk with my seniors through the “Handmaid’s Tour,” a walking tour of Margaret Atwood’s Gilead described in her 1985 Handmaid’s Tale. Set in a dystopian version of Harvard Square and its environs, HT takes place in an evangelical, quasi-fundamentalist patriarchy that is frighteningly recognizable. The novel’s setting hits close to home quite literally for Lesley University, as our campus borders that of Harvard, where the Sons of Jacob and Gilead emerge to take power and conscript the few still-fertile women to reproduce for the regime.

The Boston Book Blog‘s Jessica A. Kent laid out the route of a Handmaid’s tour of Harvard Square; I had planned to merely crib from (but also cite!) Kent’s work to walk out of Lesley’s library, down Brattle St., into Harvard Square, and then into Harvard Yard to see versions of the places where HT characters shop, reminisce, and participate in public executions.  As Kent notes, “Atwood didn’t create a fantasy world for her novel” – instead, she built upon what is already here.

One Lesley-specific item that I want to add to Kent’s tour: I think Offred/June and Moira went to Lesley. The whole novel is very local; we get the sense that Offred has lived in the Boston/Cambridge area her entire life. Offred/June didn’t go to Harvard – that’s where the Gilead regime was hatched; all the Commanders are Harvard-connected; she doesn’t have enough insider access or prestige to have been a Harvard student. Offred worked at one of the Harvard libraries in her second (and final) job after college: “It was in a library, not the big one with Death and Victory, a smaller one” (173). Maybe she worked at Lamont or the Houghton? Her scattered, fleeting references to the Harvard libraries are those of a former employee, not a former employee who is also a former student.

It’s a good bet that Atwood knew there was a small, regional college right near Harvard that shared geographic space but little else with its behemoth neighbor. Offred’s college experience seems pretty generic, but I think there are enough hints throughout the text to add White Hall in the Lesley quad (bordering Everett St.) to the tour as the place where Offred remembers that “On the floor of the room there were books, open face down, this way and that, extravagantly” (37).

As we finish this very strange spring semester of 2020, I like to think of my students hunkered down off campus, writing their term papers, with books piled on the floor, extravagantly.

Lesley quadrangle
White Hall from Doble quad, Lesley University

The Massachusetts Medievalist on stepmothers and hangnails

Like many New Englanders, the Massachusetts medievalist struggles with dry skin as winter drags on, and with dry skin comes hangnails.  As I was emptying yet another tube of hand cream, I remembered that my mother always called them “stepmothers” (I didn’t learn the term “hangnail” until I went to college). And since it is much more fun to engage in historical linguistic detective work than to read undergraduate papers, off I went down the rabbit hole.

The phrase “stepmother’s blessing” is listed as a synonym for hangnail or “agnail” in the venerable Oxford English Dictionary as a dialect entry. The irony comes from the ill intent of the stepmother, since her “blessing” is nothing more than an irritated and surprisingly painful bit of torn skin.

screenshot of OED entry

But my mother never used the “blessing” part – just the noun, as in “you need to trim that stepmother” or “don’t pick at that stepmother.” The OED quotations place the dialectical usage in Leeds and Cheshire, both in the northern part of England.  I know basically nothing about the immigration story on my mother’s side of the family, but now I suspect northern England must be involved in some way.

Since I try to use a number of my mother’s odd usages and pronunciations as a way to keep her memory alive, I hereby add “stepmother” as a replacement for “hangnail” to my active vocabulary.

“stepmother, n.”. OED Online. December 2019. Oxford University Press.


The Massachusetts Medievalist on adjunct faculty and home renovation

The Massachusetts Medievalist has been thinking a lot about the vicious relationship between university reliance on adjunct faculty and the abysmal academic job market in this anxiety-producing season: the always terrible market for academic English jobs is now “cratering,” one of many apocalyptic yet appropriate adjectives I’ve seen on social media.

Like many universities across the country, my own institution uses an uncomfortably high number of adjunct faculty, especially in general education “service courses” like English Composition or Intro Psych. In this fall term 2019, for example, core faculty taught only 12% of our first-year writing courses (2 of 17 sections)(n.b.: since our unionized faculty does not have tenure, Lesley uses the term “core” rather than the more usual “tenured or tenure-track”). All parties involved- administrators, adjunct faculty, core faculty, pundit columnists in various media outlets, and the students themselves – agree that this is not an ideal situation. Financial exigency trumps idealism every time, however, and we continue to take advantage of the high number of under-employed academics in metro Boston to staff an uncomfortable number of our undergraduate class sections.

At the same time, the university is rolling out and investing in new programs: a Masters in Social Work, an all-online MBA, a Masters in Mindfulness, and others.  One announcement used the verb “build” to describe these programs and a home improvement analogy immediately occurred to me.

A new academic program is like the spiffy addition to the house: we’ve always wanted to turn that deck into an all-season “solarium” where we can have parties and scout meetings and quiet reading space.  It’ll be shiny and new and fun and we can invite all the neighbors over to admire it. Look at our new all-online MBA!!

Investing in core faculty to teach crucial undergraduate general education classes is like a window replacement project: it’s extremely expensive and at first glance there’s no noticeable difference. Sure, the old windows are single-pane items with no insulation; the casings would probably start to crack from overuse in the next few years. But the new ones look pretty much the same, even though they’re energy efficient: no parties for the neighbors to admire the windows, no shiny new solarium. Look at our first year writing classes that meet the same program requirements and have the same catalog descriptions as in past years!

The difference, however, is that eventually the heating bills go down. The house is less drafty. The faculty can invest in multi-year curriculum development projects, since they know they have a long-term stake in the enterprise.  First year students see their general education faculty in other courses in their majors and elsewhere. A favorite freshman English professor is around campus and easily found for academic and career advice in later years.  At Lesley, we would need to hire 2.5 core faculty to teach just this semester’s adjunct load in first year writing. I don’t think that’s going to happen, but it should.

In an ideal world, we’d replace the windows AND get the new solarium. We don’t live in ideal world, and my university just bought the solarium. But for those playing a long game, the windows are the smarter choice.

The Massachusetts Medievalist calls out the Clark Art Institute: #TimesUp for Stieglitz

This past weekend, the Massachusetts Medievalist journeyed to the northwest corner of the state for the Clark Art Institute’s exhibit, “Ida O’Keeffe: Escaping Georgia’s Shadow.” The small, chronologically arranged exhibit includes numerous interesting and engaging works, most especially six of the seven paintings in O’Keeffe’s “Lighthouse” series that she painted in Provincetown MA 1931-1932.

Oil painting of lighthouse
Ida O’Keeffe, Variation on a Lighthouse Theme VII, 1931/1932

I was also struck by the still lifes, especially the 1927 “Peach-blown vase,” with its intriguing mixture of techniques and composition. The paintings on display left me somewhat unsatisfied, wanting to see more of the work of this artist who seemed to experiment with a variety of styles and palettes without settling into one.

Oil painting of vase with pink flowers
Ida O’Keeffe, Peach-Blown Vase, 1927

The feminist historian in me, however, disagrees with the narrative presented by the exhibition. Signage and labels show Ida’s attempts to move away from “Georgia’s shadow,” note the varieties of paid employment she performed, and ultimately define her as a minor artist who never found her own style (conclusions drawn, somewhat more harshly, by Roxana Robinson in the New Yorker).

Most egregiously, the exhibit refers to the relationship of Ida and Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia’s husband and Ida’s brother-in-law, as “flirtatious” and full of “sexual innuendo.” Stieglitz’s photo of Crow’s Feather and Apple is included as a visual example of this “flirtation”:

Black and white photograph of a crow's feather inserted into an apple

With Stieglitz himself as the feather and Ida as the “Ida Red” apple. The photograph was made in 1924 when Ida was “visiting” Georgia and Alfred in the summer between teaching jobs.

So here’s my version of the narrative:
Like many unmarried, middle-class professional women of her era, Ida O’Keeffe participated in a sexist, impoverishing version of the gig economy, cobbling together teaching jobs, nursing positions, and editorial work to try to pay her basic expenses. In the summer of 1924, when she was between jobs and had no other place to live, a “visit” to her sister and brother-in-law entailed her endurance of Stieglitz’s deeply inappropriate and aggressive, predatory behavior. The split between the sisters – often discussed in terms of Georgia’s desire to be the only serous artist in the family — was exacerbated by Georgia’s willful ignorance about her husband’s harassment of her sister. Without hardly any financial and professional support, Ida was unable to focus on development of her artistic technique and style; she spent much of her adult life moving around the country to various teaching and nursing positions, fitting her painting and exhibiting around the non-artistic work that paid the bills.

Ida O’Keeffe is then indicative of probably thousands of women whose talent was stifled by masculinist culture in general and that of the art world in particular — #TimesUp for Stieglitz the entitled creepy predator, and time to celebrate Ida O’Keeffe, whose few remaining works, provocative and somewhat haunting, painfully remind us of her unrealized ambitions.

The Massachusetts Medievalist aspires to decolonize the curriculum

The Massachusetts Medievalist has had a tumultuous couple of weeks. Not only did the primary organization in my field, the society formerly known as the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists, completely implode in what I hope is a productive and ultimately healthy way, but I ended up in the OR having major emergency surgery right as fall term classes were starting. (Personal side note: no cancer; multi-week, but manageable recovery; my dept.head amazing lining up substitute faculty for all classes).

My planned blog about decolonizing the curriculum seems ever more crucial now, in the wake of last week’s discussions about racism in pre-Conquest English studies (the members of no-longer-ISAS did indeed vote to change the name of the organization, but it’s not entirely clear what will happen next). As American universities as a whole grapple with the structural racism behind our bronzed gates and within our ivory towers, I want to think a bit about how Lesley’s new English major may help to make some changes to make the field of English overall more welcoming to students of color, at least at my own regional university.

Two years ago, Lesley’s Cultural Literacy and Curriculum institute got me thinking about the ways that our English major – a very standard set of requirements for surveys, seminars, and “electives in the major” — was set up to reinforce coverage and periodization, inadvertently making many students feel excluded and unwelcome. The sequence of coursework basically made students work chronologically through literary history, with a substantial majority of texts by white men, despite well-intentioned attempts throughout to diversify represented authors in classes like English Lit I or American Lit survey. Depending on the order she selected the core courses, a student could theoretically be a second semester junior before taking a class with even 50% of authors who were not white and male. It didn’t take rocket science to figure out why English is one of the least diverse undergraduate majors at Lesley, despite our quite good numbers of students of color overall (ranging around 40%).

The new major attempts to address these and other issues to provide a robust curriculum that will include and welcome all students from the first core course to senior seminar. Two guiding principles:

1. “Coverage” is impossible: while we use the phrase “expanded literary canon” in some descriptive materials, that canon is now so large that any attempt to “cover” it is doomed to failure. It’s more important – and more feasible – to study a variety of voices, cultures, genres, and time periods than to try to make sure that students have read a laundry list of “core texts” (mostly from the traditional western canon of white, male authors) previously defined as essential. Such “coverage” has often “included” authors of color as seeming add-ons at the end of a semester of chronologically presented texts (the Massachusetts Medievalist herself is a guilty party here).

2. Skills are more important than content: even more importantly, we are trying to teach students how to be strong critical readers and writers, to help them build a toolbox that they can use when engaging with ANY texts in any situation, formal or informal. Students will be ready to think and talk and write about literary structure, about character development, about symbol and theme and literary figures. They can hone those skills without Beowulf and Chaucer – but if they decide that they want to read Beowulf and Chaucer, in a class or on their own, they will have the skills to do so. We hope.

We are devising some assessment processes that will help us to gauge the success of the new requirements in the major. For me, one of the crucial metrics will be growth in the number of English majors overall, but especially in the numbers of students of color choosing to major in English. Stay tuned.

The Massachusetts Medievalist thinks about patriarchy, feminism, and definite articles

The Massachusetts Medievalist spent some of the last few days with the Google NGRAM tool and I feel like it could become a dangerously time-consuming relationship. Why finish fall term syllabi and lesson plans when I could generate hundreds of graphs about word usage trends in published books?

I had been wondering for a while about a potential change in usage I’ve seen in both spoken and written communication in the past twenty-odd years. In common discourse, is “patriarchy” or “the patriarchy” now more common? I feel like we have been adding the definite article more frequently, and I thought google NGRAM could tell me if that feeling is accurate.

Unfortunately, the core answer is that it can’t–  or at least, not in the ways I was using the tool. From 1970-2008, the most common word to appear before “patriarchy” was “of.” “The” was second or third, depending on capitalization and other parameters. Adding up the frequency of other words that appeared before “patriarchy” (these included and, to, under, by, and in) indicated that the usage of the definite article occurs only about one-sixth of the time (exact numbers vary by year).

The sample uses data only until 2008, with more to come as the google scanning project continues, but the time lag means that information from the last eleven years, when I think I’ve been hearing and reading “the patriarchy” much more than “patriarchy,” is not yet available. We don’t have real-time access to that sort of linguistic information, at least not yet.

That said, I did find some data that made sense with what we know about overall trends in American culture, especially feminism, up to 2008. Usage of “patriarchy” in American English, with and without the definite article, crested in the mid-1990s and was basically non-existent before the 1950s. First Wave feminists didn’t use the term, and as the Second Wave gained momentum, “patriarchy” became a part of discourse in an ever-growing way.

Usage of “patriarchy” and “the patriarchy” spiked in the mid- to late-1990s, with fewer iterations from 1998-2008 than in 1992-1998. Those mid-1990s years correspond to the increased attention in mainstream discourse to feminist issues in the wake of the Anita Hill testimony, the “year of the woman” in congressional elections, and the first national engagement with sexual harassment that eventually became the #MeToo movement.

I suspect the decrease in overall usage of “patriarchy” in published work in the first decade of the new millennium stems from the mistaken idea that the feminist project was complete, as well as from the also mistaken idea that the word “patriarchy” was somehow offensive or aggressive or impolitic — its usage could cause a woman to be described as “shrill.”  I hope that when data from 2008-2019 becomes available, it includes a rise in the number of usages of “patriarchy,” as the last three years especially have taught us that misogyny, sexism, and racism are by no means finished projects that we no longer need to discuss.

I also suspect that data will show a preponderance of the definite article before “patriarchy.” My students — mostly young women, a group widely acknowledged to be at the cutting edge of language change — use “the patriarchy,” the definite article indicating a monolithic and definitive system that we need to dismantle. Perhaps in a hundred years all references to “the patriarchy” will use past tense verbs. Google NGRAM might be able to tell us.

The Massachusetts Medievalist does a little pleaching to end the summer

This past weekend the Massachusetts Medievalist headed west to the Berkshires, where I learned an entirely new word (and did a number of other things, btw). Pleach: interlace, plait (Merriam-Webster). Etymology is from medieval French / Anglo-Norman.

“Pleach” came up during the garden tour at Edith Wharton’s stunning home The Mount, which was built in the first decade and restored in the last decade of the twentieth century (although the restoration is still somewhat ongoing). Here’s a shot of Wharton’s study, which she called her “boudoir,” a term I feel it would be best not to adopt in general discourse (as in, “come to my boudoir after class so we can talk about that some more”):

Edith Wharton's study

Our tour guide in the garden was spectacularly knowledgeable about everything: Wharton’s house, her life, her garden, her literary works, and her Pulitzer prize (1921 for Age of Innocence, in case you were wondering). He told us that some of the rows of trees in the main part of the garden (which looked like basic box hedges to my untrained eye, albeit hedges with trunks) were “pleached” to create the look of a box hedge on stilts. This image from The Mount’s website shows these pleached trees as a background to the French garden:

Image of Wharton's garden with pleached trees

The marvelous Oxford English Dictionary tells me that “pleach” can be both a noun and verb, although it’s been a verb for about 300 years longer—first recorded use in English c.1398 (by my man John Trevisa, whom most medievalists know as the Middle English translator of Higden’s Polychronicon). As a noun, its use is almost exclusively horticultural (“interlacing, intertwining…of tree boughs to form a lattice or hedge”), but as a verb it can provide a more metaphorical usage, with examples of pleached hair or even a pleached roof.

I’m more interested in the metaphorical use of this word, as I don’t plan on entwining any tree branches to form a hedge any time soon, but the idea of weaving together previously or seemingly separate items is enormously appealing right now. Perhaps we should start discussing pleached families or pleached communities, pleached musical genres and pleached child care solutions.

Please use the word “pleach” in casual conversation in the next week or so –

For Henry D. B. F., born March 2019

In which the Massachusetts Medievalist realizes it is easy to write poetry when one is basically plagiarizing (with apologies to William Shakespeare and the Chorus that begins Act IV of Henry V):

O now, who will behold
The tired father of this new-come babe
Walking from room to room, from chair to chair,
Let him cry, ‘Praise and glory on his head!’
For forth he goes and cradles all his child,
Bids him good twilight with a sheepish smile
And calls him small one, sweet, and little lamb.
Upon his tired face there is no note
How dread sleeplessness hath enrounded him;
Nor doth he dedicate one jot of noyance
Unto the weary and all-watched night,
But bleary looks and semblant attention
With cheerful singings and incoherence;
That his own wife, glor’ous yet spent as well,
Beholding him, plucks comfort from his looks.
The baby’s glow, universal like the sun,
Ruddy softness doth give to each of them,
Welding their bond. Mother and father both
Adore, as may fierce nurturance define,
Their little touch of Harry in the night.


The Massachusetts Medievalist thinks about ART’s Othello

The current production of Othello at the American Repertory Theater forces the audience to see the play’s importance to our cultural moment. Bill Rauch’s direction does not allow us to rationalize Othello as different – in another language, from another era, about other people. The show, originally created at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, shows us the misogyny and violence and racism in our own time, and the stunning acting ensures that we cannot look away.

I had the good fortune to see this Othello with Christina Tucker, a former student who is now a colleague and friend (check out @C_GraceT for her wisdom on theater, books, and all things pop culture).  As we thought out loud about the play during intermission and after the show, she noted that the setting was very specifically contemporary  to our moment– this is not some vaguely “modern” production with actors in chronologically ambiguous suits. Brabantio has a smart phone. Othello, Iago, Emilia, and Desdemona work out in a gym festooned with a bank of TV screens showing different cable channels. The military part of the cast wore authentic US Navy uniforms, complete with embroidered name tags (Othello is now an “admiral” rather than the “general” of the original text, btw). Part of the brilliance of the production is that it doesn’t seem odd at all that these very-2019 Americans are communicating in Early Modern English Poetry.

conversation between Othello and Iago set in a 21st-century gym
Chris Butler as Othello and Danforth Comins as Iago

As I walked through Cambridge in some thematically appropriate snow and sleet after the show, I was thinking about that contemporaneity, and specifically about Danforth Comins as Iago.  As far as I’m concerned, no one has ever fully answered the crucial question about this play: Why does Iago ruin all these lives? Various answers include his suspicion of his own cuckoldry; his anger at not being promoted; his racism; his enjoyment in his role of puppeteer; or his sexual desires for Desdemona, Othello, or Cassio.  And yes, all of these are factors, but Comins has provided an answer to that question unique to this production, this moment of #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter and our culture’s interrogations of structural racism and sexism.

In this Othello, Comins as Iago embodies patriarchy firmly planted in the 2019 United States. He is a walking, talking, fighting personification of an ingrained system of privileged power.  His entitlement as a handsome, articulate, powerful white man allows him to obey no boundaries other than his own desires and expectations. The most frightening part of his performance was not his murder of his wife (although a number of audience members gasped when he drove the knife into Emilia), but his soliloquies to the audience about his plots and his exultation at their unfolding.

When Iago spoke to us, the lights in the house went up a bit, weakening even more the separation between the actor and audience. One conventional critique of Iago is that these speeches make the audience complicit in his crimes; in this theater, the lighting design made that complicity painfully explicit.  Comins’s Iago as a personification of patriarchy thus answers that “why?” question, if only for this moment: Iago ruins all these lives because oppression and sexism and racism ruin lives, and we, his audience, are complict in that ruin.

#OthelloOSF plays at American Repertory Theater through 9 February 2019

The Massachusetts Medievalist on archetypal moments and problematic episodes (Odyssey, Books 21-24)

There are so many iconic literary moments at the end of The Odyssey that it’s hard to do more than simply touch on them (and inevitably leave some out). But here’s a starter list:

The bow that seems to know its true owner (just like “the wand knows the wizard”?)

The test of military skill with specific weapons (think Excalibur or Luke’s light-saber)

The choice to let the bard/poet live during the battle so he can sing immortal songs afterward (think about the various bards that appear during Beowulf)

The test of the bed that can’t be moved (with the special satisfaction of knowing that Odysseus, the wily hero, is now being tested himself by his perhaps equally wily wife)

Athena holding back the dawn so that Odysseus and Penelope can catch up a bit (we have all wanted this skill at some point, if not for this specific reason)

The imposition of peace from the gods to end the action (not technically a “deus ex machina” but pretty darn close)

Each of these moments defines a trope or archetype that is then repeated throughout narrative traditions — sometimes intentionally (think about the preparations for the fight between Hector and Achille in Walcott’s Omeros), sometimes unintentionally (think about the courtroom scene at the end of My Cousin Vinny). The parallels with the Ramayana‘s scene with the bow are so striking that they have led to much critical discussion about whether the original compositors of the Ramayana knew a form of the Odyssey.

But there are also some problems with the end of The Odyssey, all of which tie into Wilson’s description of Odysseus as a “complicated man.” Foremost is the issue of the slaughter of the slave girls in Book XXII – Odysseus orders Telemachus to murder them for their sexual infidelity to his house.  Numerous feminist critics have pointed out that these “maidservants” (see last week’s post for references to translation choices around these and other enslaved characters) had no choice in the matter, as female slaves were assumed to be sexually available to male guests.  Both Margaret Atwood and Madeline Miller have provided fictional redress to this problem as part of their novels that re-tell (some of) the events of The Odyssey from the points of view of female characters. (Side note: fanfic is an entry at Merriam-Webster but only a “draft addition” in the Oxford English Dictionary.)

For me this time around, Odysseus’s test of his father in Book XXIV was especially infuriating.  He’s back, he’s beaten the suitors, he’s reunited with Penelope, he has the adulation of his young adult son….but he still needs to make up one more lie, one more fake back story for Laertes to see if he can fool him. He can’t just give the old guy a break, announce his identity, show his scar, and get on with the important point that he’s just killed a lot of the young male population of Ithaca and surrounding districts.  The peace at the end of the epic is a divinely-imposed peace which seems very precarious to me right now (August 2018); the humans in the narrative have agreed to peace only under duress, and the violence under the surface has not been eradicated or dealt with but merely suppressed.  It seems like the end of any epic sequence (Beowulf, the Ramayana, Star Wars, Harry Potter…..) in that the ending isn’t really an ending but more of a pause. Homer didn’t compose a sequel — the Telemachy of books I-IV did not presage a separate epic of the heroic deeds of Telemachus — but he has definitely left wide open the door of opportunity to continue to think about what could happen next. Many of the authors in global literary traditions have walked, consciously or unconsciously, through that door.

So here ends the Lesley summer reading group 2018, though I’ll be monitoring comments here and on twitter through the month of August – I have very much enjoyed this chance to revisit one of the cornerstones of literary tradition!