In recent years, calls for more inclusive approaches to teaching early modern studies have been championed by scholars of drama, and particularly, of Shakespeare. These developments have shaken up the field, stimulating productive methodological differences at times; and at others, triggering more nefarious engagements that foreground precisely the unequal power structures that some scholars seek to dismantle.
The movement for Black lives last year, among other circumstances, has only sharpened these stakes. What do we gain by enlisting Spenser – a poet whose critical undertaking often calls into the question the politics and ambiguities of pedagogy – into these dialogues? For a writer whose commitment to humanist fashioning exists in tension with, to use Jeff Dolven’s words, ‘a skepticism, or even despair about the very possibility of teaching’, Spenser’s poetics models a site to interrogate the historical foundations of Western academic pedagogy.
And thus, to develop insights for inclusive pedagogy from Spenser’s work is not to substitute scholarly rigour for anachronistic paradigms: it is to allow the uneven and interminable surface of the text to produce new engines of critique. The Faerie Queene discourages an isolated and uncritical reading practice: it asks its readers to think with others, to refer to contemporary methods and forebears, to think against itself, to reread, and to rethink.
The initial programming of the International Spenser Society’s Inclusive Pedagogy Initiative’s emerged from these observations. By thinking with the text and all its resources, we aimed to model a scholarly engagement that underscores collective knowledge production in practice. Inspired by #TeamFQAndRace a few years ago, #GettingStartedWithSpenser is an attempt to promote open-ended dialogues, spurred by a series of simple questions about how one can, or should, begin to read Spenser, through a popular digital medium. The discussion rhizomatically flourished like the lurching, expansive landscape of Faeryland itself: connected by the hashtag and the contributions of some scholars who had pre-committed to anchor the discussion, we saw Steven Swarbrick marshalling Christina Sharpe’s work to interpret Blackness in the weather, and Sarah Van der Laan asking how Amoret’s sexualized torture of Busirane raises questions of textual authority and the expectations for critique in the contemporary classroom.
The nature of conducting an open discussion via hashtag holds open the space for unfinished pedagogy – perhaps a more apposite handling of Spenser’s text than any finite hour of seminar. These conversations culminated in a workshop in mid-December, with a panel showcasing teachers from different ranks representing different reading practices, joined by over 170 scholars with public notes recorded in the form of live-tweeting by Liza Blake and Mira Kafantaris. Guided by Ayesha Ramachandran, Dennis Britton indexed the racialized metaphors of Blackness in the figure of Error; Ross Lerner unpacked how the process of allegorization aids the logic of demarcating race and other hierarchies; Debapriya Sarkar discussed how Spenser’s poetics provides a lens to understand human activities and non-human environments or life-forms together; Morgan Souza offered pedagogical exercises that get students thinking about gender and how actions are rendered permissible in the poem; and finally, Susanne Wofford used the figure of Malbecco to understand the contradictions of class and chivalry in early capitalism. In the new year, we are keen to expand on these productions by adapting the talks into recorded mini-lectures as resources for undergraduates, and by designing other interactive discussion spaces.
These endeavours will undoubtedly continue to stimulate new teaching practices, but what new lesson is to be gained by inviting Spenser into the enterprise of making pedagogy more inclusive? In a sense, the discursive field generated by these pedagogical apparatuses replays the radically non-utopic, contradictory, and experimental space enacted by Spenser’s long poem. Just as Redcrosse fails his intended lessons, we continue to be implicated in institutional imbalances, and the crisis of the humanities persists. No one reading or action necessarily guides us toward understanding or enlightenment. But just as we closely gloss the characters navigating Faeryland’s topography, we can always begin from our various positions in the unruly institutions and contradictions we inhabit. As Roderick Ferguson reminds us in The Reorder of Things, to revolutionize our hegemonic institutions entails “the activation of minor details” - to transform the ‘little acts of production’ composed of our complex of pedagogical duties and horizons.
- Follow the International Spenser Society’s new Facebook and Twitter pages for updates on new programming.
- Track and join the discussions on #GettingStartedWithSpenser by typing in that hashtag in the Twitter search bar. Follow and add to specific conversations by clicking on tweets that are directly responding to other tweets, and checking for ‘quote tweets’, which are retweets made with a comment.
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