Wednesday, April 22, 2015

About a Recent News Piece on Martin and Coursework

An April 2015 Associated Press piece appearing on, "Game of Thrones- College Course," notes that Northern Illinois University will be offering a course on the as-yet-ongoing television series. Among the comments made in reference to the course are that its subject offers relatively realistic presentations of the European Middle Ages and that it provides a useful example of the continuing manifestation in the past within the present. Also noted in the article is the popularity of the course, which filled quickly and will be offered in consecutive semesters.

The three points identified deserve some comment, with the first speaking to a topic not seldom treated in this webspace (see the Game of Thrones entries and the comments made on them). How "realistic" the presentations are is hardly a settled matter, as Helen Young and a number of other scholars have argued at great length. While some consideration must be made for the fact of reporting and the constraints of journalistic prose, the article's presentation conduces to the idea of the matter as fixed and established, beyond contestation. In facilitating such a reading, the article does a disservice to the body of scholarship that continues to examine Martin's work and the television series deriving from it--as well as to the work and likely to the activities of the class as a whole.

The exemplification of how the past continues to manifest in the present is also something this webspace treats; it is, indeed, the avowed purpose of the Society. That a major media product does invoke and involve the medieval--and not only the "traditional" medieval patterned after the European High Middle Ages--is a good thing, surely. The problem, though, is that the past Martin refigures is not the past as it has been recorded as being or that the physical evidence increasingly available suggests is true. Again, Young and other scholars detail the problems in Martin's portrayals in great detail, and it is admittedly true that "refiguring" is far from the same thing as "accurate reporting." It is not to be expected that a fictional world, even one based more or less loosely on the "real" world, would adhere completely to the "real" world. When a work is presented as being authentic, however, it is obliged to be authentic, or as authentic as it can be (i.e., reliant on the current best knowledge of the medieval as asserted by scholars of the medieval, since it is not necessarily to be expected that a non-specialist will have the same level of knowledge of a specialty as a specialist); to misidentify authority and authenticity, whether willfully or inadvertently, is not helpful.

The popularity of the course, if perhaps less targeted to the interests of the Society itself, may well be of interest to many of the members of the Society, who are themselves students and teachers. Popular courses would seem to argue well on behalf of those who teach them; a popular instructor ought to be someone to be valued. Some scholarship on popularity among instructors and courses, however, raises concerns; among others, Nate Kordell addresses the matter in a 31 May 2013 Psychology Today piece, "Do the Best Professors Get the Worst Ratings?" Many of those who have spent time in the college environment can offer up anecdotal support for the idea that popularity does not always indicate the relative value of a course; many students openly avow taking courses based on the seeming promise of an "easy A." This is not to say, of course, that the class offered at Northern Illinois University will be the "easy A"; Professors Garver and Chown are without doubt pushing their students to excel. But there is a perception that classes treating popular culture materials are less substantial than those treating more traditional subjects, a perception addressed perhaps most prominently among reactionary media but exerting some influence even so. How many students seek to take the course because of the perceived ease of watching television--and it is only perceived, as watching for scholarly purposes is far more dynamic and demanding than watching for entertainment only--or because they will be able to look at a number of attractive people in various states of undress is unclear, but it does likely vitiate against the use of popularity as a rubric for the course's success--something the article neglects, to its discredit.

That the article reporting the course deserves critique does not mean that the course is not worth offering, of course. Again, the Society does attend to Game of Thrones and to the novels which inform it. It does laud continued engagement with the past, particularly the medieval past, in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. It does work to promote accurate understandings of the medieval past by those who create and consume the products of contemporary popular culture. And so it does stand to reason that the kind of course being offered at Northern Illinois University is the kind of course that the Society could well endorse and support. (I am not in a position to offer such an endorsement on behalf of the Society, although I would encourage such a thing if it became an issue.) But it also stands to reason that, as a group invested in such things, the Society would like to see them accurately reported--particularly when the report appears in a venue so tightly concerned with the scholarly community as is The medieval and its refigurations deserve better than a glossed, summary treatment.