23 September: Desirable Difficulty

If you can’t read this (easily), that’s exactly what should happen.

This typeface has been named Sans Forgetica by some Jacques aficionado genius, because it’s supposed to help you not forget what you’ve read. It’s got gaps and is back-slanted so that it becomes difficult (though not impossible) to read. It’s been developed by researchers of psychology, cognitive science, and behavioural business people at RMIT University, Australia in 2018, and is freely available here.

The whole idea is based on a sizable number of experiments that explore how retention rate of information is higher if we have some kind of difficulty when acquiring it in the first place. So rather than just reading a text in a smooth highly legible font, it’s better for learning if our eyes and brain stumble a little, and are being teased just that tiny bit.

Quizzes do something similar, or difficult questions, paraphrasing a text, group work, problem-solving: all this helps students remember better and increase comprehension and interpretation of the material. That’s called ‘desirable difficulties’.

There are so many ways to use this for the class room, and I love that it goes against our modern grain of hyper smoothness, and hyper simplicity. Promises everywhere to learn a language in 30 days, and all that. Efficiency, efficiency, efficiency. But we just have to accept that some stuff is hard to get. That’s just the way it is, and it’s supposed to be like that.

It makes me think that, perhaps, we should not offer modern spelling editions of old texts, and perhaps we should not be afraid to use texts in the original blackletter, and even (shriek) secretary hand. I did change the spelling of the Tottel preface I am going to discuss with my students, but only grudgingly so. Will they really be thrown off balance because ‘words’ is spelt ‘wordes’? Or is it a (for now) unnecessary wall between them and comprehension of sense? Should we not say that, yes, universities are place that are supposed to challenge us? Maybe I should go back, and put the preface into Sans Forgetica at least.

Who knows, perhaps Wyatt would have been more successful, amorous-wise, if he had written his poems in the anti-oblivion font. But then again, we wouldn’t have much to remember and think deeply about today. This. Forgotten not yet. In any typeface.

17 September: What’s aught but as ’tis valued

This, the title, is of course from everyone’s favourite play, good old Troilus and Cressida. We had that as our set play in the Cambridge tripos back in the days, so I feel nostalgic about it. I actually quite like it, less in the ‘oh, beautiful’ way, but rather ‘oh, interesting!’. Questions of honour, loyalty, the curious deflation upon fulfilling desire, how the past (or what we think it is) reaches into the present, the entrappings of myth, creating a perpetual loop, the tricks language can be made to play, and of course, most prominently, the relativity (or not?) of value.

Nothing has intrinsic value, Troilus says at the beginning of the play, discussing whether or not to persue the war with his brother Hector who wants to give Helen back to the Greeks. We assign value to something, and so, if we say Helen is worth all the pain and awfulness of war (though is he really convinced that it is so? does it matter?), she is. If we say the annotations and underlinings of the first folio in the Free Library of Philadelphia are made by Milton, then they are so.


An old supervisor of mine, Jason Scott-Warren from Gonville and Caius, Cambridge, has published a blog entry on the Cambrige Centre for Material Culture website a week ago which has made big waves in the scholarly world (and had, dare I say it, a small ripple effect in the cultural scene beyond that, see a Guardian article on the discovery). Having read Claire Bourne’s article describing the marginalia in the book which she locates anywhere between 1625 and 1660, Jason had a look at the handwriting and had a stroke of insight (if he’s right) that the hand looks like Milton’s in the few witnesses we have of him.

The reader of the folio made meticulous corrections to spellings, metrical irregularities, and general textual lacunae such as supplying missing lines from other quarto editions of plays. A proper editor. There are also some mark-ups and underlinings, probably referring to commonplacing, or general highlighting of nice passages. More thoughts, wordish criticism, is absent.

Jason provides some photos of the annotator’s hand and habits of forming letters, and tries to parse these with photos of Milton’s hand. Yes, things do look similar. But is it enough? Is palaeographical evidence sufficient for such a remarkable allegation? Maybe it is. Maybe the informed opinion of experts is enough, and goodness we need to listen to experts in today’s anti-education world. But maybe the wish is father to the thought. A little bit at least.

To Troilus’ case for the relativity of worth (one man’s beautiful is another man’s ugly), Hector replies, not less passionately,

But value dwells not in particular will;
It holds his estimate and dignity
As well wherein ’tis precious of itself
As in the prizer.

There’s something timeless and absolute in things that are worthwhile – and at the same time we choose to invest in it, or not. It’s both, Hector says. Troilus and Paris continue to press for war with, perhaps, somewhat unconvincing unsavoury metaphors (and different designs: Paris wants sex, Troilus wants occasions for glory), and Hector eventually gives in, a bit too fast. He, too, is a soldier, after all. He, too, is trapped in his story that already has an end for him in store.

What is aught but as ’tis valued? If we want this to be Milton’s copy of Shakespeare, we will find proof enough for it in his writings.

What irks me, though, is why do we jump to the conclusion that the hand is a man’s straightaway?

10 September: To periodize, or not to periodize…

Back after a longish summer break. Back with more controversial stuff. A friend of mine, an Anglo-Saxonist, drew my attention to what he called the “Twitter shit storm” about the supposedly racist terminology of “Anglo-Saxon”. The twitter account of the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists was hacked, re-named “International Society of Something or Other” (lol, or what), now posting a barrage of angry one-sided tweets on the rampant racism and protection of sexual predators in the higher ranks of professors of medieval English.

My friend said he thinks he knows which professor they mean, and that it is true that he is approaching young female academics, but adult women should take responsibility in saying no. I countered that someone in a position of lesser power may not be able to do so when pressured, and should not be in such a situation in the first place, unless she consented very clearly indeed before being propositioned. That’s a pretty clear case to me. He needs to be called out, and expelled/punished.

What’s not clear to me is re-naming the period. Those in favour say it is a racist term, and offer a spade of others like “early English” – which doesn’t work since it wouldn’t cover Latin. Insular studies, but what about English literature written on the continent? Anglo-Saxon does not ring racist to my European ears, though it may do in the American “wasp”/white supremacy context. It seems exaggerated to change something that has worked well. I wonder if most black or brown Anglo-Saxonists take issue with the term?

I am using black and brown on purpose. I consider myself brown too. Brownish anyway. My father is Iranian, I have a very strong sense of Iranian identity, and my skin *is* browner than other people’s. But I could just as well be Italian or French, a.k.a. white. I don’t at all think the buzz term “person of colour” is useful. Does it not do the exact opposite it’s hoped to do? It’s a blanket term for literally every single person that is not white (whatever that means). So the experience of an Egyptian is the same as that of a Japanese, Indian, Polynesian, Nigerian, Mexican? I don’t think so.

PoC creates a totally false dichotomy between white and literally the rest of the world, and completely obscures the historical fact that supposedly white Europeans and North Americans are pretty mixed themselves. Were the Ottomans not literally in front of the gates of Vienna at the beginning of the sixteenth century? And the Arabs, were they not in Spain for almost 800 years until 1492? That’s longer than those 500 years since they left it. Surely, then, Spaniards must be PoC, too? We need fewer labels and more engagement with individual identities and experiences.

I’m not following the fortunes of “Anglo-Saxon” on Twitter. I think there is a vote on the name. It’s a bit of a shame that the society gets hijacked by a group of youngish early career scholars who masturbate over their woke-ness (sorry, but not sorry), and describe themselves as witch hunters chasing others down. Speaking of self-righteousness.

I saw a couple of tweets that we should also change the term “early modern”, because it means different things in different contexts. Well, yes, d’uh. Italy’s early modern starts 1300, and I don’t expect an Italian early modern scholar to disregard Petrarca when I meet them at a Renaissance conference. It’s also discipline-specific. “Early modern” for history goes right up to 1830, which it does not at all for literature. Jane Austen would be early modern, imagine!

I feel like we should always always discuss and explore inherited terms, concepts, ways of looking at the world. But we also can’t re-invent the wheel. As long as we know what we’re doing, as long as we consciously use terms, knowing very well that they are unstable, entirely dependent on our point of view, it’s okay. It’s okay. Periodization is okay. Let’s talk about it, it’s exciting and insightful to do so, but keeping it is okay, too. A baby calls both an Irish wolf dog and a pug “dog”. But when she grows up, she’ll learn the difference. She’ll learnt that “dog” is a category you use for thinking, but one that is not representative of the entirety of what the thing is.

I found these two articles on the insufficiencies of the term PoC useful and eloquent. Here, and here.