Friday, August 5, 2016

And a new era for In Romaunce begins!

I started this blog several years ago, inspired by an array of exciting public work being done by medievalists on the blogosphere. Since 2010, it has been a space for me to share and test-drive ideas I wasn't ready to pursue in (or that wouldn't fit the generic requirements of) article/chapter/conference paper forms. It has been an integral space for me as grad student, adjunct, and postdoc as a result, and I am so grateful for the support the blog has gotten from all its readers!

Shortly after creating In Romaunce, I started to feel as though the blog would be more generative -- not to mention fun! -- if it had more voices than just my own, and so I asked my good friend Kristi Castleberry if she'd like to become a co-author. I am grateful beyond words that she said yes. I could not have asked for a more generous, insightful, hilarious, and kind co-conspirator. I have had such a fantastic time working with her in this space, and my writing (both here and elsewhere) is so much better because of her friendship and collegial spirit. Transitions like these always bring about some wistfulness, but I know that Kristi and I will be co-conspiring for years to come if not here, then elsewhere!

In the Middle was and is a very special source of inspiration for me, and so I am nothing short of thrilled and delighted to be joining forces with Jeffrey, Karl, Jonathan, and Mary Kate as Blogger #5. But before I officially hoist the sails and head over to ITM, I want to share with all of you some truly exciting news about In Romaunce: it's new blogger!

It is a complete delight to say that Kara McShane -- a dear friend and brilliant colleague -- will now be the co-blogger at In Romaunce. She does fascinating work with Middle English romance, travel writing, medievalism, and the digital humanities, and I cannot wait to see what she writes about here. Please join me in welcoming her!

Kara L. McShane is Assistant Professor of English at Ursinus College, where she specializes in medieval literature and digital humanities.  She received her Ph.D. from the University of Rochester in 2014. Her research interests include Middle English romance and dream vision, travel writing, cultural translation, and digital pedagogy; she is especially interested in the intersections between writing and the vernacular in medieval English culture. 
Her work has appeared in the South Atlantic Review, The Once and Future Classroom, and Studies in Medievalism.  She is presently at work on her first book, tentatively titled Exotic Documents and Vernacular Anxieties in Late Medieval England.  In it, she examines instances of non-English writing across a range of Middle English narratives, arguing that these moments of writing create space for authors to express anxieties about writing as a means of memorialization and about the vernacular as a medium.  The fascination with writing within Middle English literature, she argues, is central to understanding the relationship between language and national identity. 
Kara’s interest in the development of English identity in the Middle Ages has led very naturally to an interest in medievalism, particularly how “the medieval” is deployed to address contemporary social and political issues.  She is the general editor of Visualizing Chaucer, a Robbins Library Digital Project, and has contributed to The Camelot Project.  She also serves as an assistant editor for medievally speaking, an open-access review journal supported by the International Society for the Study of Medievalism.
As “the medievalist” of her department, Kara teaches on all manner of medieval topics.  Recent offerings have included courses on medieval & early modern travel writing, medieval women, and medieval romance. She also teaches a course called Structure of the English Language, which combines advanced grammar and history of English and is quite a lot of fun. 
Kara shares her home and her fascination with all things medieval with her wife Karen, three chinchillas, and a grumpy but very handsome cat named Severus.
Kara, with Gower. 


Tuesday, August 2, 2016

On NCS London and Orkney: Some Thoughts on Material History and Conviviality

As many/most know at this point, I'm now blogger #5 at In The Middle! The write-up below on NCS London and Orkney kind of ballooned in the last 24 hours, so I'll be writing a *separate* post (which will appear very soon -- likely tomorrow) with details on my move to In the Middle and on the fantastic person who will be the new co-blogger here at In Romaunce. More soon, but for now, some thoughts on NCS London, Orkney, "things material," and convivial scholarship.


*****

Between the NCS London conference and a brief but fulfilling trip to Orkney, the past few weeks have been a blur in the best of ways. The NCS conference was absolutely spectacular. So many meetings of friends old and new, fantastic sessions and plenaries, the joy seeing Kristi’s and my Narrative Conduit sessions come together as beautifully as they did, and a series of outings that ranged from a tour of the medieval Thames (more on that in a moment!) to the rare opportunity to see the Book of Margery Kempe and the Shewings of Julian of Norwich side by side (at an exhibit on Voice at the Wellcome Collection) to the concluding “pilgrimage” to Canterbury. I am so profoundly grateful to all who made this conference possible – it was, from start to finish, a wildly generative and innervating gathering, and it did so much to renew my energy and enthusiasm for all that I’m working on at the moment. Between the move and the intensity of the job search, I’d been feeling my momentum flagging in the weeks leading up to the trip, but I’ve come away from the conference feeling, as I always do after these gatherings, a much-needed surge of excitement for projects well underway, and for projects I hope to embark on in the not-too-distant future.

There is so much to write about, but I think I’ll focus these next few paragraphs on one particular, but enduring theme of the trip: the importance of interweaving material history/materiality into what I do as a literary scholar. Several happenings over the past two weeks brought home to me the importance of the material – how the spaces and places that we encounter in our studies of the Middle Ages can be made all the more vivid by bearing witness to them in tactile ways.

The tour of Medieval London and the Thames was the first of such happenings. Shortly after Kristi and I organized our session on Narrative Conduits, it occurred to me that getting to wander around together and be guided through the medieval parts of the city and the river might help to amplify our conversations. I was directly inspired by the glacier tour that Jeffrey J. Cohen organized for the Ice session presenters at NCS Iceland (you can read all about it here). That tour so beautifully informed and inflected the conversations that developed in our sessions, and I was hopeful that organizing a tour of medieval London might do the same for Kristi’s and my sessions this year.


Gustav Milne, walking us down a medieval road in Cheapside.
We were lucky enough – through a series of fortunate events – to have the incomparable Gustav Milne lead us on a tour of medieval London for three hours the day before the conference started. He was an extraordinary guide, and he began our tour at the Museum of London, showing us numerous artifacts that ranged from Anglo-Saxon pottery, to a clinker-built ship fragment (the etchings on which proved the numeric literacy of the shipbuilders), to a series of pilgrim souvenir badges that told the story of St. Thomas a Beckett. From there, we wandered briskly all over town, where he showed us all manner of things: vestiges of the medieval city wall; narrow medieval city roads; the place in Cheapside where Thomas a Beckett was likely born; ruins of medieval parish churches; the Vintner’s Hall (roundabouts where Chaucer would have been born); the Guild Hall – site of a medieval marketplace and, before that, a Roman amphitheater, the location of which is now marked by a curving black line on the ground; the site of the medieval London Bridge; glimpses across the river of Southwark; and, in closing, the site of Chaucer’s Custom House, where he worked as a comptroller and likely wrote the Canterbury Tales. The tour also included a trip to the Thames’ foreshore, where we got to hunt for shards of medieval and Roman pottery and tile. We wandered in and around vestiges of the medieval wharf, and Gustav was kind enough to identify and date what we found. I was stunned by how easy it was to find these sorts of things. There were little bits of them everywhere you looked! This particular portion of the trip, coupled with our stop at the site of the Custom House were especially powerful and moving. I found myself grateful to be reminded, so palpably, of the material reality of Chaucer’s London, especially since it can be easy to lose sight of those sorts of details as you attend to all that he wrote. I am, needless to say, looking forward all the more to teaching the Canterbury Tales and Troilus this fall, medieval pottery shards and photos of the tour in hand!
My findings, which included part of a large 
medieval jug handle, part of a medieval 
peg tile, and shards of glazed medieval pottery. 
Remnants of the medieval wharf along
the Thames' foreshore.


Near the site of the Customs House. Gustav recited the opening 
lines of the General Prologue, and reminded us that Chaucer 
likely wrote the Canterbury Tales while at work there.  
(photo by Jeffrey J. Cohen)
The tour reminded me, in short, of how valuable it can be to attend to the material reality of the culture that produces the literature we study, and it subsequently got me thinking about future projects. At present, I’ve got five out of six book chapters drafted, and it’s looking more and more as though I might be able to get a complete manuscript together by the end of next summer/early Fall. I’ve generated a few ideas for a subsequent major project for a while now, and have found myself going back and forth in the past several months about which one to pursue. I think I’ll always gravitate back to the literature of crusading, and to matters of Otherness and alterity in medieval literature, but I’m feeling a need right now to branch into other areas once this crusades book is realized. And, I’ll confess, I’ve been looking for an excuse to get back to work on my work on “animate books” in Chaucer’s poetry for a while now. So! Thanks to this incredibly tour (for which I cannot thank Gustav enough!), the energy of the NCS conference, and the much-needed validation and support of several friends, I’ve decided to put my energies into a book project on materialism and Chaucer once I’ve got a complete manuscript of Crusading Imaginary. I’ll save the details for later, but I am beyond excited about it, and it is currently serving as a much-needed “carrot” as I make my way through chapter revisions!

The trip to the Orkneys brought home the significance of material history all the more – and how helpful it can be to situate literature in its landscape. Kristi and I galavanted around the islands for about five days, and encountered Pictish artifacts, Neolithic stone circles and burial cairns, Viking settlement ruins, Viking graffiti *inside* Neolithic burial cairns, and we also had the privilege of listening to a phenomenal story-teller tell a series of traditional Orcadian folktales – stories viscerally tied to the landscape and traditions of these islands. I knew before going – thanks to Leah Haught’s work on the Orkney boys in Malory -- that Orkney was a bit of a liminal space. Because of its dual allegiance to the kings of Scotland and Norway, it was as Norse as it was Scottish in the Middle Ages, and I was curious to see how much of that liminality still remained. As it turns out, the Orcadians pride themselves on their Norse ancestry, and so much of what we encountered — the folktales, the richly layered material history of the place, the keen attempts to preserve that history — demonstrated as much.

Maeshowe.
The power of material history was especially prevalent at Maeshowe, the last place we visited before heading back to London. Following our guide, we half-crawled our way into the 5,000 year old neolithic burial mound, and then stood as a group in semi-darkness. Our guide told us the cairn’s story, starting with theories of how the Neolithic people managed to drag its massive stones to this spot. She then recounted how the mound was broken into by the Norsemen, many of whom decided to do what so many people feel moved to do in such places: carve their name. In this case, they carved their names in runes, and often wrote other things about themselves as well. There are references to crusaders (“Jerusalem-men broke this mound”), attractive women (“Ingigerth is the most beautiful,” which is accompanied by a drooling dog to stress the point), boasts (“Eyjolf Kolbeinson carved these runes high up”; “The man who is most skilled in runes west of the ocean carved these runes . . .”); and the names of recognizable figures such as Ragnar Lothbrok. Aside from the references to crusading (which both surprised and amazed me given my current work on viking crusaders), the most striking graffiti was the drawing of the Maeshowe "dragon" and its accompanying otter and coiled serpent. Our guide made a compelling case for the dragon not being a dragon at all, but rather a wolf, and a very specific wolf at that: Fenrir. The presence of the other animals supports this theory: the otter could be Otr, killed by Loki in one of many famous myths about the trickster God, and the serpent could, in turn, be Jormungand – the world serpent and, like Fenrir, Loki’s offspring.

The Maeshowe "dragon."
Photo by Charles Tait
As I'm sure you can imagine, Kristi and I gestured very excitedly to one another the entire time, much to the amusement of the non-medievalists in our midst, I think — but these runes were utterly fascinating to behold. They correspond with the description of Maeshowe (or Orkahaugr) in the Orkneyinga saga, and they have so much to tell us – in however fragmented a way -- about the Norsemen who wrote them. They are consistently hilarious and viscerally human, and they represent the largest collection of runic inscriptions (read: viking graffiti) outside Scandinavia proper.  It was nothing short of incredible to stand in this space for as long as we did and witness up close a vivid example of richly imbricated history, and to see first-hand one of the major landmarks that features so prominently in Orkneyinga saga. We had similar experiences earlier on in the trip – our journey to Birsay for instance, a tidal island that features prominently in Orkneyinga saga as well, where the ruins of a Viking settlement (with some stray Pictish ruins in the mix) can be found; or our time spent inside the Dwarfie stane, a neolithic tomb carved out of a single, enormous glacial erratic. It too was covered in old graffiti (in this case 18th and 19th century travelers), and we spent ample time huddled inside the carved out cave, examining the inscriptions and (on the recommendation of the guide we met at Birsay), humming low notes to feel the walls reverberate and "hum back" -- among the most eery things I have ever experienced. But I think if I had to pick a single example that really brought home the value of coming into contact with a literary landscape – in this case, that of the Orkneyinga saga – it would without question be the experience of standing in Maeshowe.

Needless to say, I've come away from this trip with a renewed commitment to situating literature alongside its material history and within its particular landscape, and I have to confess: I am sorely tempted to create a course on the literature of the Orkneys to put this to practice in the classroom -- it would be a perfect place to teach a class about the ways in which literature springs from a particular cultural landscape. 


In closing, I came away from these two weeks incredibly grateful to be a part of this field. Every day of the NCS conference promised an array of meetings (however brief!) with warm and enthusiastic colleagues, with good friends old (and new!), and an array of deeply generative conversations and presentations. So much conviviality, and so many commitments to make our field more open and inclusive. As a result, I came away from this journey with renewed energy for my own work but also a renewed sense of optimism for where we are headed as a community. Cheers, then, to our merry and electric band of interswervists -- I am already counting the days to NCS Toronto! 


Saturday, July 9, 2016

CFP for Kalamazoo 2017: Assembling Arthur

Thrilled to announce that my good friend Leah Haught (University of West Georgia) and yours truly (The University of Washington, starting this Fall) have gotten a roundtable session approved for ICMS 2017.  Called "Assembling Arthur," it will invite scholars to consider ways in which reading Arthurian texts "compilationally" (a term borrowed from Arthur Bahr's work) might invite new interpretive possibilities to emerge, especially in terms of how we teach Arthurian materials.  

You can find the full abstract below! If interested, please send abstracts to Leah and myself (lhhaught@gmail.com and lknorako@gmail.com) before September 15th:



Assembling Arthur

            When we teach classes on the Arthurian tradition, many of us rely on anthologies such as James Wilhelm’s The Romance of Arthur or collections such as the William Kibler and Carleton Carroll edition of Chr├ętien de Troyes’ “complete” Arthurian Romances for the Penguin Classics Series.  While indispensable to such courses, these assemblages present Arthurian texts in ways vastly different from how they appear in medieval manuscripts.  Many medieval Arthurian texts, for instance, survive in a single manuscript alongside non-Arthurian writings and images from a wide array of diverse traditions and styles.  Indeed, even when a single text is extant in more than one manuscript or a single manuscript includes more than one Arthurian text, the different materials surrounding these contributions to the larger legend highlight the numerous interpretive potentialities associated with Arthuriana instead of advancing a fixed meaning for a given contribution.  Drawing on Arthur Bahr’s recent suggestion that literary value can be continuously (re)discovered among the interchanges between “codicological form and textual content” (Fragments and Assemblages 2013), this Round Table seeks to explore Arthurian manuscripts, broadly defined, as compilations.  What insights are gained about individual texts and/or the larger legend as a whole when we accept Bahr’s invitation to read “compilationally”?  How might such exchanges between codicology and formalism open up new avenues for future study of Arthuriana?  And how might accounting for the complex realities of the Arthurian manuscript tradition in the classroom invite our students to participate in these alternate modes of critical engagement?      

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

CFP for "Women at Sea" Symposium

I am excited to announce that Roberta Magnani, Rachel Moss, and I are organizing a one-day symposium on the topic of "Women at Sea," which will take place on July 1st at the lovely National Waterfront Museum in Swansea, Wales. You can find the symposium website here. Please take a look at our call for papers, and please share this CFP with others who might be interested. We welcome papers from various disciplines, as well as creative pieces, and we're excited to see the many ways in which people might respond to the topic.

Symposium: Women at Sea
National Waterfront Museum, Swansea, Wales
July 1, 2016
Call for Papers


Keynote Speakers: Dorothy Kim and Jonathan Hsy


Countless women float through the waters of medieval narrative. In romance, Constance is pushed repeatedly into the waves without a rudder, often with an infant in her arms. Hagiography gives us Mary Magdalene’s journey to spread Christianity, sometimes with fate guiding her ship and other times with a captain and crew to do the sailing. Egeria makes a pilgrimage across the Mediterranean in the 4th century, and Margery Kempe travels from England to Jerusalem in the 15th. These women at sea populate the realms of literature and history, as well as the shadowy space between fact and fiction.

Tales of women at sea call our attention to questions of agency. The sea can seem to be dominated by men in economic and martial terms, and the woman at sea is often set adrift by men who on land have ultimate power over her. But perhaps at sea, a woman enters a more generative and transformative space. The woman at sea is frequently unmoored, lost, vulnerable, her direction chosen by wind and fate. Yet the sea may also open up a more feminine, queer, imaginative space: the woman adrift in a place of transformation, negotiation and transition in which she can re-cast her sense of self.
The sea is a place where boundaries are no longer visible, where there are no direct paths. The sea is its own space (and the largest on the planet), but it also overlaps with land. It is outside of national realms, but functions as a conduit between those realms. And while the edge of the ocean is a boundary, the open sea seems boundless. It defies linearity. Thus, women in oceanic narratives can inhabit a different temporality than is available in narratives defined by land. They enter an exceptional space, a place where bodies need not be territories.  

This symposium seeks presentations from all disciplines, including creative responses and innovative re-imaginings that put medieval narratives in dialogue with current empowering or traumatic experiences of women at sea. Please submit abstracts of approximately 300 words to womenatseasymposium@swansea.ac.uk by 26 February 2016.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Loving the Alien: On David Bowie, Imbricated Time, and the Crusades

There are so many things I should be working on right now, but I can't stop thinking about David Bowie and his passing. As I wrote elsewhere, his music has inflected so much of my life and has been a constant source of inspiration. So many, many fond memories are tied to his songs in some way.

But one of the biggest surprises for me as a lifelong fan was when I discovered his song "Loving the Alien," while researching pop culture references to the crusades. I was working on an exhibit for Robbins Library entitled The Crusades and Western Cultural Imagination, and was amazed to find a Bowie song that talked about holy war, templars, saracens, and the cyclic nature of cultural and religious violence. It was a song that, it seems to me anyway, imbricates cultural moments as a gesture of both frustration and near despair over how little things seem to have changed—especially in terms of how religious fervor is so frequently harnessed for violent ends.

The first version I encountered was the stripped down arrangement performed on the Reality Tour, and it nearly brought me to tears. I will confess that the original music video, by contrast, baffled me to the point of weeping laughter. Though, having just watched it again, I think it's a deliberately unsettling response to contemporary events and to the concept of religion's capacity to inspire violence and oppression. . . consider the moment when he stands as a crusader caught on fire, for instance. But that's the thing I perhaps love most about Bowie as an artist: his ability always to unsettle me as an eager listener and receiver of his work. I love the fact that I oftentimes don't "get" (or sometimes even like) what he's produced on a first, second, or seventeenth listen or viewing. It's always signaled to me that he was unafraid to take his art in directions that ran the risk of alienation and failure. And that, just as much as the songs and albums I've come to adore and cherish, never ceases to inspire me in my own work.

As he said before he performed "Loving the Alien" on the DVD performance from the Reality Tour, he felt that the 2003 arrangement was "the way it should maybe always have been done," and so I'll share that version with you here. I think it's worth noting the cultural moment in which this arrangement was performed too: Dublin, 2003. Just two years after 9/11 and just months after the invasion of Iraq, a war that—based on erstwhile quotes from President Bush, patches worn by certain members of the U.S. armed forces, and many other examples—was regularly feared to be a form of crusading. Given that, this particular arrangement can—and perhaps should—be viewed as a powerful response to its cultural moment. A call, perhaps, to remember that history—as some unknown person once said—tends all too often to rhyme.


RIP, Mr. Bowie. You are so very missed.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Crusading in Disney's Robin Hood

My toddler has been madly in love with Disney's Robin Hood for some time now. So much so, in fact, that she starts dancing if my husband and I start humming or singing Alan-a-Dale's opening song. Needless to say, I've watched the cartoon more than few times over the past several months, and in the process, I noticed something rather interesting/peculiar about the way in which the Third Crusade is imagined and configured therein.

In the cartoon, Richard I is doing what he so often does in various iterations of the Robin Hood story: he's off fighting in the Holy Land, and his absence gives the wicked (but ultimately feckless) Prince John an opportunity to usurp the crown. We know this (albeit deeply fictive) part of the story from an early point in the narrative. However, the actual reason for his crusade is revealed in a conversation between Prince John and Sir Hiss while the two make their way to Nottingham: 


The "real reason," then, for the Third Crusade -- as the film tells it -- is Sir Hiss's hypnotic powers, his ability to brainwash the King into waging holy war. I chatted about this scene with my friend and colleague Bronwen (who also has a toddler quite taken with the film) and she offered that this was a way, perhaps, to "excuse" the English king for waging a religious war that might have appeared vexed at best to contemporary audiences.

This theory seems to be confirmed by the way the film itself opens. The first shot is of a book that opens to the following text:
Long ago, good King Richard of England departed for the holy land on a great crusade. During his absence, Prince John his greedy and treacherous brother, usurped the crown. Robin Hood was the people's only hope. He robbed from the rich to feed the poor. He was beloved by all the people of England. Robin and his merry men hid in Sherwood Forest to... 

Alan-a-Dale takes over the narration at this point, however, and tells his audience that
there's been a heap of legends and tall tales... about Robin Hood. All different too. Well, we folks of the animal kingdom have our own version. It's the story of what really happened in Sherwood Forest. (emphasis mine)
In other words, Alan-a-Dale suggests here that the "book version" to which we're introduced, and in which he ambles about with his lute, is merely one of those "legends and tall tales." As a result, we're invited to question all other iterations of the story, and this invitation creates a space in which to place the aforementioned revelation about Richard's crusade. By implication, then, we're encouraged to understand that Richard's crusade, despite what that first page of the book might tell us, was hardly "great" at all. 

However, a slight wrinkle in this theory presents itself in Little John's boisterous song far later in the film, where he sings of "bonny good King Richard lead[ing] the great crusade he's on." The good people of Nottingham and Sherwood forest, then, perceive the crusade to be virtuous, and clearly have no idea either here (or at the end when Richard returns to England) that the whole campaign was waged because the king was hypnotized. The king fighting a holy war, in other words, doesn't seem to vex our heroes in the slightest.

So what can we make of all of this? Admittedly, Robin Hood was a rather hastily-constructed cartoon, so I do have my doubts over the amount of time the writers spent laboring over this particular plot point. Nevertheless, the representation of crusading (or at least the motivations for it), struck me as compelling, because the contradictory and disjointed allusions to Richard's crusade seem to reveal, if nothing else, a discomfort with the matter of crusading — and perhaps even a desire to find a way to tell a children's version of this story and maintain the heroic status of Richard and Robin Hood without implicitly championing crusading and holy war. 




Friday, August 7, 2015

Steinway vs. Ikea

It's been a busy few days/weeks, hence the blog dormancy. I've been slogging away on the book project, and most recently had the immense pleasure of contributing to postmedieval Forum V: The Public Middle Ages. I'll be writing much more about the forum in an upcoming post, but for now wanted to jot down some brief (somewhat rage-induced) thoughts about an article I stumbled upon the other day:

I chanced upon this interview with  Sebastian Thrun, Udacity's CEO, a little while back, and it bothered me deeply for a whole host of reasons. Don't get me wrong. I am hardly anti-online ed, having taught at an online institution for several years and having seen the tangible good it did to the many servicepersons who otherwise would have had a near-to-impossible time getting a college degree. But I developed -- over the course of my time there -- a deep aversion to and distrust of said institution's privileging of quantifiable vs. qualifiable teaching methodologies, not to mention its treatment of students as consumers who can and should dictate the ins and outs of their educational experience -- which resulted, for instance, in the mandatory intro to college-level writing course being shaved down to a mere 8-weeks because, I was told, students just didn't want to take a longer version.

My unease with quantifiable teaching methods being imposed on humanities courses, the quickness with which slow learning is dismissed, and the "student-as-consumer" perspective translates directly into my concerns over Thrun's approach to education. I could go on and on, but will just leave a few thoughts-in-progress here for now:

1. Thrun states in this article that he wants Udacity to be the Uber of education. Both of these companies, "use a network of freelancers paid per piece of work that they perform." He's perfectly content to boast that one such freelancer makes $11k/month at this work, but I'd be very interested to know how the rest of his corps of "adjuncts" fare, especially since we know from recent reports how poorly Uber drivers fare in their own work. He seems either oblivious to or callously dismissive of the ethical implications of this kind of educational model.

2. Thrun also compares Udacity to Ikea, saying the following:
He claims it would be harder to develop such a business in another part of the world and certainly not in an existing academic institution. “People in education are risk averse,” he says. “They want to build Steinways. I like to think of us having the impact Ikea has.”
First, the metaphor doesn't even work. Steinway doesn't build furniture, and Ikea sure as hell doesn't mass produce pianos. But even if that was the case, what he's essentially saying is this: because "academics" value slow and meticulous learning and craftsmanship, he doesn't want them involved. He wants people willing to sign up for his vision of swift, mass-produced education. Udacity's name for its degrees -- nanodegrees -- all but speaks for itself. Now, I'm not trying to vilify what Udacity offers in any wholesale way. There are several examples of how these nanodegrees have served Udacity's students well. I harbor concerns, however, over how his perspective reflects broader attitudes towards higher education -- how it stands as such a clear symptom of much larger and wider-reaching problems, problems that have a direct impact on how the humanities are being devalued at present.

3. The description of academics as "risk-averse" all but makes me froth at the mouth. Not only does it imply/assume that corporate business models can and should be imposed on academia writ large, but it also is wildly insulting in an even broader sense. It creates a hierarchy where the speed with which a degree is earned takes precedence over what is learned along the way, where the end result is of greater value than the learning process, where the quantifiable is always, already of greater worth than the qualifiable.

This points to the central concern I have with Thrun and his mogul/corporate approach to education. Nowhere in this interview does he express an interest in the student's experience at Udacity (beyond the speed with which they earn their nanodegrees). And nowhere is there any consideration of the ethics of the work that they are doing and will do as they venture into their careers. To that end, in labeling brick-and-mortar academics as "risk-averse," he demonstrates his complete misunderstanding (I want so much to believe it's not intentional disregard) for the ways in which slow learning cultivates empathy and, as Marion Turner stresses so beautifully, "encourages us constantly to question assumptions; in particular, perhaps, to question the idea that any part of how we live and how we are is natural, or self-evidently superior."

I sympathize with students attending college right now -- the pressure to make their time in college vocational is real, and I understand all too well why they don't feel as free to pursue their intellectual interests as I did back in the early 2000's. But, I've said it several times here and on social media, and I'll keep adding my voice to the chorus of humanists until I'm blue in the face: the humanities, and the slow learning that they require, teach us how to be decent human beings. They might not teach you how to code, or lead directly to making $100k right out of college, but they can, if you let them, enhance your capacity to move through the world more ethically. We need entrepreneurs, progressive thinkers, start-ups, and boom towns, to be sure. But we also need those same people/organizations/spaces to think past their own proverbial noses to consider the broader ramifications of their actions. I see that lacking out here in Silicon Valley in so many, many ways, which is why I feel such a sense of urgency in my current work (i.e. teaching humanities-based critical thinking courses to incoming freshmen at Stanford, many of whom will never take another humanities course in their time here). And to be blunt, if Thrun had any understanding of what's actually at stake in a college education, and what professors regularly put on the line when they commit to their teaching, he might have hesitated before using that term.