Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Guest Lectures, Omissions, and Dumb Visigoths

A really terrible account of Islamic Spain was posted to the academic blogosphere a couple of weeks ago by a modernist. (Not going to link to it.) It basically read like a parody of what critics of Ornament of the World make that book out to be. One medievalist (not me) responded and the author replied with ad hominem attacks against her and against medievalists in general and defended her post in an argument that boiled down to, well, it's a blog post and not a doctoral dissertation (And also: Not all cultures are equal so how dare you call me out for saying that the Visigoths were dumb? I really wish I were kidding, or even exaggerating.)

The blog post =/= dissertation formulation was on my mind this week because I was preparing a guest lecture to give in a colleague's class. It's a "presidential honors seminar," part of a program for the best and brightest NYU freshmen that includes extra access to advising and enrichment, and participation in a seminar that meets every other week and culminates in a trip  to the part of the world that they are learning about. My colleague is teaching the "Spain" seminar, and my guest lecture was the only thing that these students were going to hear about the Middle Ages. It's the guest teaching equivalent of writing a single blog post or teaching one single session on the Middle Ages in a big survey course.

To be sure, I couldn't do more than give a sledgehammer overview of the period. There's even a decent possibility that the group of students I met now think that the red-and-white alternating vouissoir is the single most important cultural development in the Middle Ages — because the Great Mosque of Cordoba is a really nice encapsulated way to talk about interreligious cultural relationships at that time and place; and because it's concrete, it works well under limits of time and continuity. I did a lot of that kind of shorthanding. I compared the mythology that grew up around the Cid to the mythology that grew up around George Washington because it was an analogy that allowed me to say a lot in just a minute or two, even though it's never an analogy I'd use in a semester-long class. I used the word multicultural, which I hate. And I used the world hybrid, which I spend a lot of time unpacking when I use it in seminars.

I showed these slides and did not once mention the word Almohad (an omission that should be abhorrent to me as a cultural historian of 12th and 13th century Spain), instead explaining that artistic and architectural tastes changed over time and that synagogues and palaces, just as much as mosques, kept up with the times.

But all of the shorthanding and all of the omission was done in the service of conveying the one main idea that I wanted them to take away: That religion is one factor amongst many, including economic interest, taste, desire for power, that goverened people's behavior in the Middle Ages; that they gravitate towards what is familiar to them without regard for its complex history; and in this respect, people in the Middle Ages weren't all that different to us. I thought that was a good takeway for a bunch of college freshmen I'd only ever meet once before they were loosed on the historic Toledo which survives unscathed in name only. It's not how I'd talk to my own students and certainly not how I'd talk to my colleagues (it's also not how I'd shorthand it for my own blog post or even for a general public talk to an older lay audience outside of a university setting) but there's still a certain integrity and logic to the talk that I gave.

So I've really said all of this to hopefully start a conversation.

We all make judgment calls and omissions and elisions when introducing material in introductory classes, and even moreso when we're stepping into someone else's class for one session or giving a public talk. I'm curious to hear what kinds of judgment calls other people make? What do skip when you're pressed for time? What would you unpack in a seminar that you leave at face value in a one-off talk? What kinds of principles or ideas or guiding frames help shape your thinking about what to leave in and what to take out?

Okay. Go.


  1. I generally speak with the colleague first, so I can gear my talk to the course. But in general, I tend to use invites as ways of showing that we can be respectful of our colleagues and still correct them. I usually preface corrections with a little bit about how we all have our areas of expertise, and the reason we call on each other to help out is because we are expected to keep up in our own fields, but for most of us, what we know about each other's fields is usually pretty old.

  2. I rarely step into another's course but I'm constantly having to weigh what can get well-presented versus what we can tackle in the time, at the level and with the objectives for the course. Students who start with my medieval survey and wrap up with my senior seminar on medieval chronicles get a much different perspective on the medieval world which I also hasten to frame as "a non-medievalist's perspective on this" because my own expertise is really early modern.

    The important thing is to remind them and ourselves not to get cocky, not to think that we have all of the answers or the best perspectives just because we studied this in grad school or with someone prestigious or whatever. We can't know it all and if we sound like we do? We're failing already!

  3. Janice, yes! I think that the best teaching advice I got in grad school was this two-parter: 1) Approach everything with great humility and you'll be fine. 2) If you find you're standing in front of a room telling your students how cool something is, it means you've already lost them. And that second part maybe isn't directly related to the question of how to shorthand except as a reminder not to reduce examples so much that you lose the show and only retain the tell; but I think it does also speak to the credential-as-crutch question. "Look at how cool this is" fails compared to "let me show you what's cool about this" in the same way that "because I'm a medievalist" isn't an answer but "because I use x, y, and z methodologies as a medievalist" is.