This project began in 1999 as a three-year research project, funded by the University of Glamorgan and some external funding. From 2002 it will be based dually at the University of York Centre for Medieval Studies and St John’s College, Nottingham. It has become an inter-institutional project, with wide international participation. Designated partner universities include the Heinrich Heine University, Düsseldorf, SUNY, Baylor University, and the University of Missouri. In 2000 we created the Society for the Study of Medieval Christianity and Culture, with an international board. The Project’s own UK-based board also has a panel of international consultants and an American steering group. I am the present Director of the Project and Chair of the Society and from summer 2001 Dr Dee Dyas becomes the Director of the Project. We have a two-fold aim, research and pedagogy. Our conference series, 1999-2003, in the UK and USA, combines (on the research side) invited speakers in the forefront of developments in their area, together with (on the pedagogic side) panels, demonstrations and meetings to communicate and share teaching methods and materials. Conference topics include Anglo-Saxon Culture; Mystics and Anchorites; Saints, Sin and Penance; and Chaucer. Further topics are under discussion, including using art in teaching, medieval women, and drama. The Project aims to produce teaching materials in a variety of modes, including books and CD-ROMs. Boydell and Brewer, for example, will be publishing a series of books based on the conferences. The meetings, discussions and sessions we hold at other conferences have proved immeasurably illuminating in defining the issues, as well as offering a wealth of good practice to learn from. Up to now, pedagogic issues have not had the place in UK conferences they have in the USA and it is perhaps fair to say that teaching in the UK often still lags behind some other countries, especially the USA, in creative and realistic, student-centred, approaches to teaching.
The Project was born from what seemed an obvious problem: modern students’ lack of relevant religious background for the study of art history, literature and history. This applies as much to the English Civil War, or Milton and Mansfield Park as to medieval studies, but the current Project concentrates on the medieval area. Actually, though universally acknowledged, our seemingly obvious problem is a complex one, culturally, pedagogically and ethically. Some of our key ideas and principles are these. First, we are an academic and pedagogic project, not an evangelising one. This is a project for teaching religious background in a multi-cultural, largely secular (in Britain) society. ‘Religious literacy’ is a term the American critic Julian Wasserman used for it. Another key term, raised early on by a Japanese professor, is ‘distance’: medieval Christian culture is another world. And as she pointed out, academics in Asia already have experience in methods of teaching western Christian culture to students who do not come themselves from a Christian background. Moreover, the modern Methodist student feels little common culture with Chaucer’s Pardoner or Milton’s Adam. The presence of students with strong religious beliefs in a class does not make any difference to the pedagogic challenge and by invoking their own knowledge, we may end up making both them and the non-Christian members of the group feel uncomfortable and marginalised. In a sense we are anthropologists, looking for ways of introducing an unfamiliar society. In fact, despite its traditional aura of difficulty, the medieval area of a syllabus offers all students a level playing field: we all enter equally into an alien culture. We have to avoid teaching the illusion of a unified, discrete, medieval culture: one of the aims of Humanities teaching, after all, is to interrogate past and present cultures.
A central reason for teaching medieval literature or history is, precisely, to explore how our own world comes to be as it is. We have found that, far from teaching a dead, closed society (‘background’) remote from the contemporary student’s position, the best teaching offers students not only the skills to read a past culture with understanding but to investigate their own cultural and even psychological assumptions and structures. A practical example might be, for example, for students to explore differences between Jewish, medieval Christian, and modern categorisations and conceptualisations of evil, guilt and personal ethical priorities. Two other key terms for the Project, in communicating teaching methods and producing teaching materials, are time and practicality: we are all busy, our modules have little space for teaching context; departmental funds are limited and so often is enough accessible technology for students. The priority is for a variety of easily available and eminently usable teaching materials: a short well-produced video may in some situations be as useful as a more elaborate electronic package. The Project developed from work several people, including Dee Dyas and Rosalind Field, had been doing for several years beforehand on these problems, for example, on the use of visual imagery in teaching. We recognised from the beginning we were not the only people working on these issues, hence the firmly inter-institutional, multi-centred, international structures for our operations.
We are all interdisciplinary these days. Knowledge of Christian medieval culture comes into many areas of the English syllabus outside specialist medieval modules; two immediately obvious ones are Gay Studies and courses on women writers: when medieval female authors appear on Women’s Writing modules, what sorts of entry into ways of reading and understanding do we offer? How do we present them not just as baffling progenitors to a tradition (ur-women writers), but women writers situated in a particular culture trying to solve problems that are both familiar and unfamiliar? The attitudes of the medieval Church and assumptions of medieval cultures underlie many present issues, from attitudes to gender and sex through to western relations with Islam. My personal entry into the subject of the Project came not just from the classic hand-wringing awareness of how little modern students knew of the Bible or Christian doctrines, but rather from a moment about fifteen years ago, teaching the Faerie Queen in a seminar with several Muslim students: suddenly those villain Saracens, as well as the theological, biblical and Reformation assumptions of the text, sprang out from the page posing a teaching challenge hitherto unrecognised. The legacy from the past includes xenophobia, prejudice, and oppression, as well as spirituality, morality (in structures familiar and unfamiliar to the modern western student), art and a language of images, belief and biblical narrative. Without some ways of giving students access to Christian background, many texts will either silently be dropped from student choice or from the syllabus, or we find ourselves teaching them through perspectives that avoid their religious elements. At the same time, the spirit of this project is that, while gaining ways to read the religious elements and structures of past literature and culture, students may also be enabled, as adults situated in their own culture, whatever their own religious or non-religious background, both to gain insights and to ask questions, modern questions, about the past and present. ‘Christian background’ isn’t the only area in which students urgently need help with ways of reading past literature: classical background and the general history of ideas are two others. One of the welcome aspects of the current Academic Review is that it asks departments to assess what needs their students have when they enter higher education, and this is akin to the purposes of the Project.
For further information about the Project and its activities and events, please contact Dr Dee Dyas, School of Humanities, the University of Glamorgan, Pontypridd, CF 37 1DL; email@example.com.
Newsletter Issue 2 - August 2001
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