Thursday, August 2, 2012

In the iScriptorium

I read a really nice post recently by Medieval Bex in which she thinks about the St. Cuthbert Gospel manuscript relative to modern e-readers, and not just because the whole thing has been digitized (well, digitised, as it's in the British Library). It particularly caught my attention because I, like MB, see parallels between the medieval and the modern all over the place and even moreso because this is exactly the issue I've been thinking about in terms of developing digital materials for my intro course in the hopes of getting students who are not particularly interested in the Middle Ages or even literature in general excited about manuscripts. So I thought I'd jump in with a post of my own on the topic. (And fortuitously, another related post showed up on Twitter between the time I finished this post and got my links and images together before publishing.)



As I mentioned in an earlier post, I had the somewhat disturbing realization this past spring that the one week that I happened to show a video (and a video that connected the ancient and medieval worlds to pop culture, to boot) was the one week that my students really got into the material, and that I should probably start showing more videos and incorporating more technology into my course, even if it's not strictly necessary for what we're doing. (Scratch the even-if. It really isn't.)

The next time I teach the course, I think that for the week that paper and parchment is the commodity topic, I'm going to do a much more hands-on activity in recitation. My paper and parchment lecture focuses on instances in the Libro de Alexandre in which the text talks about itself as a text, in other words, where there's an awareness of this tale as a written document. Next time, though, I'll start with the Alexander the Great video in lecture and allow some time for discussion of the Alexander as all things to all men issue before launching into the discussion of paper and parchment (since it's important that the students do learn more about the texts each week than just the ways in which they intersect with trading commodities, even if that is the organizing principle of the course), which I'll have to scale back, but not too badly.

When they arrive in recitation, they will have already thought about the literary figure of Alexander in his Iberian setting and they will have basic information about the text as something written down. They will (theoretically/hopefully/inshallah, at any rate) have read the relevant excerpts from the Libro de Alexandre, as well as the Andalus/Maghreb chapters of Jonathan Bloom's Paper Before Print.

At the beginning of section, I will ask them to read this short article from the popular press. They will then form small groups in which they will come up with a list of verbs that they use to describe the act of reading on a computer or e-reader. What actions do you do when you read with a Kindle or an iPad? Then once they have that list, I will ask them to see how many of those they can apply to reading in an analog medium and to think about how the actions described by the same verbs differ. What do you do when you scroll on your computer versus when you scroll in a, well, scroll? Does flipping through images on an iPad differ from flipping through pages in a book?

It has been my experience the last two semesters that enough students here have iPads that the next piece of the exercise should work: Still in small groups, with at least one iPad per group, I will ask students to look at some manuscript images on their iPads. (This is one piece of the course that I've been developing this summer with NYU Humanities Initiative funding.) The reason for doing this is two-fold: First, it gives them the experience of holding a facsimile manuscript image at a reading distance rather than just on a screen projected from a powerpoint in lecture. And I do actually think it's important to see the images as they were meant to be seen. Imagine seeing a picture of a page of the Wasteland projected up on a wall at a distance of twenty feet, versus holding it (even a copy on a metallic, glowing e-reader) in your hands, in your lap, sitting in a chair. The experience is very different, and I want to drive home to my students that these are books that people read, and not just things that get stuck up on walls because they are pretty. First and a half, this also very much drives home to students that each new development (paper, parchment, the codex) is actually a technological advance in the same way that an e-reader is a technological advance. And second, I'm in the process of selecting and digitally accentuating (altering sounds a little too dramatic) some manuscript images (which I will email to students before class and ask them to load them onto their iPads) to give them a sense of some of the challenges that manuscripts present, both as they did in their original context and as they do now. One way that I will illustrate this is by asking them to try to read a manuscript image (and for this I'll use a very legible image — easy hand, clear writing, no major damage to the page, good photograph, fairly late, in early modern Spanish or English, perhaps even the image below, from Beinecke MS 633) with the iPads on the table, no hands. The reason for this is that the tablets will dim over time, hopefully simulating the experience of being in a scriptorium as daylight wanes.  With other images, I'll use light and drawing filters to create different versions of the same page to show how different types of damage and lighting can alter the legibility.

Then I will give them about 15 minutes to do a medium-stakes writing assignment: Using your knowledge of medieval reading and writing practices, your experience with manuscript pages, and the list of verbs you came up with in your group, write a scene in which someone is reading or writing in the 12th century. Then write an updated version of the same scene for the 21st century.

Finally, I will introduce the one unit of material that I will have cut out of lecture in favor of showing the video then rather than in section, namely a letter from Judah Halevi in which he makes mention of sending five hundred sheets of paper to a business partner:



Goitein has this to say about that remark:
"In my collection of Geniza documents on the India trade there are many instances of paper sent as presents, but the quantities involved were always limited, between 12 and 36 sheets, although the donors and receivers were substantial businessmen. Thus, a consignment of 500 sheets must have been on a commercial basis, which is also implied by the text" (A Mediterranean Society, vol. 5, p. 457).
After giving the students a moment to review the letter, I will tell them that I am going to send around an important artifact of modern life, at which point I will pull out a ream of paper. I will ask them to examine it and share what they notice in light of having read the letter from Halevi. What I'm hoping they'll see is that a ream of paper in modernity is still 500 sheets, that is, that a commercial unit of paper has been the same size that it is now for almost a thousand years.

I've not yet determined what the formal writing assignment will be that uses these in-class reading and writing exercises as their scaffolding, in large measure because this is, after all, a team-taught course and so I will need to coordinate which research and academic writing skills I will be in charge of and which my co-instructor will be in charge of; but this will all lead to more in-depth critical thinking and writing work, as well.

So that's a brief overview of my iPad-as-medieval-manuscript pedagogic concept.

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