By Invitation
Decentering the Canon through Cultural and Material Perspectives (4 of 6)

In the past three HumCore workshops, we have not shied away from asking big questions. What are the global humanities? How does a new institution teach them? What kinds of students do we attract, lose, and produce as a result? Where do the global humanities sit within the educational landscape of the United States? How does Pakistan’s colonial history intersect with contemporary pedagogy?

On February 16, 2022, Profs. Sharon Kinoshita and Vered Shemtov, of UC Santa Cruz and Stanford respectively, opted to move away from these high-level questions and toward a different scale of thought. How might one design or adapt a course to make it more responsibly global? How might we teach important texts, long disappeared into the morass of the “canon,” in such a way that highlights their inherent globality and renders them new?

Kinoshita has been working through these questions through her teaching of Marco Polo, whose work The Description of the World she translated in 2016. Though she leans heavily on historiographical work for her literary scholarship, in the classroom she is more drawn towards inspiring students through the idea of a culturally global Middle Ages. How could we think about the world that Marco Polo inhabited not only from a world-historical perspective, but also a cultural standpoint?

To explain her pedagogical approach—“adding thick description to a synchronic snapshot”—to her students, Kinoshita likens their shared project to a Polaroid that initially appears blurry but which gains color and detail over time. One method of finding this color and detail is through bringing other figures besides Marco Polo into the discussion, contemporaries across Eurasia who were born and died around the same time. Another is through a module Kinoshita calls “Animal, Vegetable, and Mineral,” which allows her to move away from a focus on the cultures explored by Marco Polo in his writings and towards the materiality of his travels. Taking pepper as an example, which is described with great enthusiasm in The Description of the World for its ability to connect China to the Mediterranean via Alexandria, Kinoshita’s class delve into a contemporaneous Syrian cookbook to explore the spice’s role in everyday thirteenth-century life, such as in recipes for roasting lamb or curing nausea. Such an approach effectively globalizes Marco Polo’s work for students wishing to better understand the cultural, rather than purely historiographical, elements of the study of the Middle Ages.

For Shemtov, similar principles apply when thinking about how to teach ancient texts that were initially created for specific local communities, but that quickly spread and evolved to become part of what we now consider to be “world literature.” Beginning with the geographical area from which these texts emerged is necessarily fraught given the complicated history of terms like the “Middle East”; focusing on the concept of “great books” is no better, considering the lack of easy definition for either “great” or “book.” Shemtov described the counter-intuitive process of flipping the traditional course design process to circumnavigate these obstacles: instead of beginning with a region, a period, or a canon, which proved unproductive, Shemtov and her colleagues prioritized the “how,” a question usually reserved for the end of the process. How should we teach the Humanities Core at Stanford?

Temporarily leaving aside the questions of “what” and “why” in favor of the “how” and “who” ultimately proved to be a more generative starting point for Shemtov and her colleagues. Much like Kinoshita’s Polaroid, Shemtov’s conceptualization of her pedagogical approach is deeply physical: each class session is likened to opening a door, with further meetings constituting movement through other rooms within this metaphorical building. This spatial conceptualization allows for greater curiosity and flexibility than any adherence to established doctrine: rather than insisting on concrete connections between two texts, Shemtov and her students simply place multiple texts together and ask how each one changes due to this juxtaposition. It also allows, like Kinoshita’s pepper, for an emphasis on the cultural through the material. When studying the Epic of Gilgamesh, for example, Shemtov invites her students to acknowledge that discoveries of new tablets also remake the text, and our understanding of it. This then enables us to decenter questions of authorship and origin in favor of investigating the cultural response to a specific iteration or version of a text. Such a pluralistic approach necessarily encourages diversity of interpretation and analysis within the classroom.

Though specific pedagogical decisions, such as the number of students in a classroom or the frequency of meetings, will differ across institutions, both Kinoshita and Shemtov advocate for a non-traditional, culturally driven approach to teaching “canonical” premodern texts. Shemtov also stressed that the structure the global connections: by putting faculty with different regional and methodological backgrounds together - with their students - in a plenary room once a week, the humanities are globalized without any one narrative or context-dependent set of questions taking precedence. While they playfully problematize terminology relating to canonization and periodization in the early weeks of their courses, they nonetheless acknowledge that students will likely not be invested in the deep scholarly debates around these questions, and will instead prefer to understand the global element of the Bible, the Epic of Gilgamesh, or Marco Polo’s travel writings through their cultural and material connections. At the micro scale of a single course, Kinoshita and Shemtov have demonstrated that it is possible to teach “great books” without reifying their status as such, paving the way for further irreverent pedagogies of the “canon” in future iterations of courses on the global humanities.

The discussion continues on the next post, available here.

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