Saturday, July 7, 2012

Wonder and Pedagogy

I just finished reading Caroline Walker Bynum's Metamorphosis and Identity.  It is a good read--I finished it in a day.  It is a smart collection of essays. Although somewhat disparate (as is typical of collections of essays), she has some especially interesting historiographical reflections when delineating the problems surrounding the endurance of the self through different forms of change from quotidian aging and social changes to Ovidian metamorphosis, given primarily through the prism of werewolves.  Yes, werewolves!  Whatever one thinks of each individual essay, it is worth taking a look to see one of the better historians of the medieval period talk about werewolves to open up important insights into the 12th and 13th centuries.  Why werewolves?  The strange, the weird, and the awe-inducing are, in fact, important historiographical and, what is more, pedagogical tools that reveal and engage us and our students:
...we write the best history when the specificity, the novelty, the awe-fulness, of what our sources render up bowls us over with its complexity and its significance.  Our research is better when we move only cautiously to understanding, when fear that we may appropriate the "other" leads us not so much to writing about ourselves and our fears as to crafting our stories with attentive, wondering care.  At our best, we strive for the "strange view of things"--not least because, as Thomas Aquinas understood, admiratio has to with teaching....  But surely our job as teachings it to puzzle, confuse, and amaze.  We must rear a new generation of students who will gaze in wonder at texts and artifacts, quick to puzzle over a translation, slow to project or to appropriate, quick to assume there is a significance, slow to generalize about it.  Not only as scholars, then, but also as teachers, we must astonish and be astonished.  For the flat, generalizing, presentist view of the past encapsulates it and makes it boring, whereas amazement yearns toward an understanding, a significance, that is always just a little beyond both our theories and our fears.  (pp. 74-75)
How much more urgent is this message for those teaching a text that is as familiar and as strange and as complex as the Bible!  It is, in fact, a very weird collection.  If we forget, ignore, paper over, smooth out its weirdness, we lose it, flatten it, make it boring.  If we embrace its strangeness, then we can delve into its complexity.

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