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Learning from the Ends…and the Means

by Mardy Fones No Comment

twain.shakespeare

Take two scholars, one specializing in U.S. literature, the other in British. Normally the classes they teach are as far apart as, well, as the width of the Atlantic Ocean. How can they challenge a group of graduate students—and themselves—into seeing the parallels in two subsets of literature, and indeed, the parallels to modern life?

Cecelia Tichi, William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of English, and Lynn Enterline, professor of English, talk about team teaching the graduate seminar, Ends of Empire, and lessons learned from 1,000 years of fiction ranging from Virgil’s Aeneid to Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus to Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and other works.

Ends of Empire—that’s a formidable title for a class. What was the thinking behind it?

ENTERLINE: I work in the early modern period of British literature, and Cecelia brings the contemporary American perspective. We came up with the framework for the course based on the cultural legacies linking these two distinct bodies of work.

TICHI: At the same time, the word “ends” in the course title indicates a phase of history that has come to an end, even as the goals, intentions and desires of a people continue. Empire was a topic that allowed us to bring together both the European and American traditions in one seminar.

ENTERLINE: Essentially “Ends of Empire” implies there is no finite point at which one regime ends and another begins. It brings to bear the ideas that lie behind imperial expansion, goals that can be mapped and pursued. The texts we read often pose the question: “What’s the impetus behind a particular power?”

TICHI: Our job as professors and critics is to ask the question—does the study of the literature of the U.S. and early Britain have anything to tell us about our world today? A review of literature over time can bring an understanding of the forces that lead to the ends of empire.

ENTERLINE: The class also brought the unique opportunity to compare texts across traditions. Most university English departments divide the study of British and U.S. literature. We wanted to have a conversation between ourselves and graduate students to see experimentally what we might attain by bridging that divide.

“Does the study of the literature of the U.S. and early Britain have anything to tell us about our world today?”

–Cecelia Tichi

So what did this across-the-pond look teach you? What did it teach the graduate students?

ENTERLINE: When you work with a peer from another field, you shift your frame of reference. Reading outside my field provoked new questions for me. Our ultimate goal is to make new contributions to a field. To do that, you have to push past what’s already known, past comfort zones.

TICHI: For me, it was like going back to school. I learned what I don’t know, which is a whole canon. Team teaching provides the opportunity to work across lines of canon, across historical moments. It’s one thing to attend a lecture by a colleague talking about what she’s working on. It’s another to spend a semester in the presence of a colleague and graduate students and engage in an interchange, in different yet complementary turns.

ENTERLINE: For the graduate students, this type of give and take helps them over a difficult hump in their intellectual development. In your first years as a student, you are an apprentice. For our students, it was the chance to hear two people from different historical and methodological perspectives. It reminds them that their work isn’t to replicate a single model. It’s to ask different questions in the hope of making new contributions to knowledge.

What sorts of parallels were uncovered and how are they relevant and revealing?

TICHI: In Connecticut Yankee, Twain made a great deal of the medieval knights, which leads to the question: what sorts of knighthoods existed during the period in which he was writing? This was an era of labor union development, one of which was called the Knights of Labor. It was also the time in which Ku Klux Klan, which followed some chivalric traditions, had its beginnings.

How manliness reveals itself was another topic in the course. Theodore Roosevelt’s hunting narratives are representative. The animals he hunted represent the “other,” the indigenous, those that deserve to be removed so that manly leadership and domination can take its place. In that sense, the four faces of Mt. Rushmore [represent] the culmination of the domination of a continent.

ENTERLINE: In the European perspective on masculinity, 16th-century British grammar schools claimed to be in the business of producing English gentlemen, which meant that only boys were schooled in Latin. Ideas about Roman rule and power were imported along the way, at a foundational level of socialization.

TICHI: Once transposed to U.S. in the colonial period, this British perspective led to a particular demarcation of civil and religious authority.

ENTERLINE: We looked into the schools’ way of transmitting empire via the everyday life of manliness. In early modern Britain the mark of a gentleman, derived from Rome, was rhetorical facility.

“You have to push past what’s already known, past comfort zones.”

–Lynn Enterline

Are there more contemporary lessons?

TICHI: In Cullen Murphy’s Are We Rome? The Fall of An Empire and the Fate of America, there’s a description of a Roman emperor traveling with his entourage of soldiers, carts, scribers, servants and women. It’s an absolute matchup with the U.S. president traveling in Air Force One—armored cars, helicopters, cooks, flunkies and so on. Both demand tributes and create bases in far-flung empires.

ENTERLINE: Then we read Virgil and his concern about what Rome was to do with her war veterans. It’s a conversation similar to the one we hear now about today’s military veterans. And in Book 2 of the Aeneid, the god Jupiter predicts Aeneas’ descendants will go on to found an “empire without end.” The promise of peace as an end point of imperial ambition is still around, a claim that one group is not killing people so much as bringing peace through occupation and domination. If you look at this with a critical eye, one starts to wonder about that promise.

illustration credit: Kevin Meneck

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