Teaching Medieval Literature Online–Part II: Contemplating Spaces

Carol L. Robinson

July 20, 2014

Co-published with Polygonal Prose.

As I am working to finish up a final draft of my documentary film, Listening to You, Listening to Me, Listening to Everyone: a Neomedieval, Deaf/Hearing, Community Theatre Experience (and the topic is as complex as the film’s title), as well as working to finish up converting my hybrid (brick-n-mortar/cyberspace) Medieval Literature class into a 100% online course, I have been thinking about the benefits and disadvantages of one type of space over another, of brick-n-mortar space over cyberspace.  So, I would like to tell the story of this film project, as an analogy for this debate over spaces.  This film documentary is about a town-and-gown community theatre experience that happened at Kent State University–Trumbull.


The play, For Every Man, Woman and Child–a modern morality play inspired by EVERYMAN, was written by Deaf playwright Willy Conley (and published in his collection of plays, Vignettes of the Deaf Character and Other Plays). He adapted the late medieval British morality play, Everyman, into written contemporary English (1980s American, actually), with the intention that productions would translate from this written English into performed American Sign Language (ASL) and/or a combination of spoken English  and American Sign Language.  (American Sign Language does not have an established written form, so his written English lines had to be translated for the performance.)  The production at Kent Trumbull Theatre was co-produced by theatre professor Daniel-Raymond Nadon (Director), American Sign Language professor Nancy M. Resh (Sign-Master), and myself (an English professor, serving as Dramaturg for this production).  (We have since written about this experience, and thus far have published a small chapter in Teaching Drama in the Classroom: A Toolbox for Teachers, as well as an article in Studies in Medievalism XXIII: Ethics and Medievalism.)

As you might guess, the production was a linguistic and cultural challenge.  We chose to produce the play in dual languages, ASL and English: one actor was signing while another actor was speaking the same lines.  We had a combination of deaf (technically deaf but unable to us a sign language), Deaf (a cultural term, involving the use of a sign language), hard-of-hearing, and hearing.  This meant, linguistically, that space was used in two ways on the stage: through sound (the ear and mouth) and through kinetics (the eye and the body).  Space was also used for sound and kinetics for acting (projecting, emoting, blocking/movement, audiological gestures, visual gestures).  But I think it is important to note that this 3D use of space was based upon what was written on the page (both in the original medieval English of Everyman, as well as Conley’s contemporary adaptation): a transference from the abstract construction of space in the mind to the literal construction of space on the stage.

Not only did language form define spaces (be it the pages or the stage), not only did spaces control language form (the limitations of space of the printed word–both on paper and in the adapted abstract spaces of the mind’s imagination, the limitations of space of a theatre–both on-stage and off-stage), but community provided the energy, the connective drive, for those languages in their spaces.


In other words, we were dealing with a multitude of community cross-overs.  There were several communities involved:

This is a wide variety of peoples: deaf, Deaf, hearing, hard-of-hearing, English speaking, ASL signing, men, women, teenage boys, teenage girls, professors, parents, interpreters, college students, some native to the northeast Ohio area, some not, and a wide variety of religious  and secularist affiliations (or lack thereof) to boot!  But it the theatre, the brick-n-mortar space of that theater, is what brought everyone together: off-campus, on-campus, and even one former student theatre graduate, Cleric Costes, who left his job in the Chicago Theatre District to come back home and be a part of this play (and to write about it)!  Willy Conley, who lives in Maryland and is a theatre professor at Gallaudet University, was included into this community as well, as he was there for the beginning planning stages and several performances (except one night, when he found himself hospitalized).


So far, then, the evidence for building a sense of community and communication (including teaching) in brick-n-mortar spaces is very powerful.  However, as Joe Toto’s above YouTube video message to Willy Conley (from the cast and crew) and Cleric Costes’ blog, Downplayed and Upstaged, show, the brick-n-mortar community has infiltrated cyberspace.  One might even argue that cyberspace is yet another frontier movement, akin to the drive westward in the North America during the 1800s, but that’s another article to be written by another person.

The World Wide Web is a not such a small space: the geographic boundaries are defined by borders of domains and digital pagination, rather than by maps and landmarks.  This makes the freedom of community building both vast and tiny at the same time.  The possibilities for community building are vast in the sense that (so far) one is able to create any number and sizes and types (written, animated, …) of digital spaces.  The possibilities for community building are tiny in the sense that there are so very many communities (more and more everyday), the universe of cyberspace is expanding so very rapidly, that finding communities to even join, much less thrive within, is increasingly difficult.

Who is even reading this blog?  What communities are its audience and is it reaching them?


In teaching online, there is one more factor to consider in terms of space: privacy.  Students must be protected under FERPA regulations, which means that the class must be at least partially contained (grades, for example) within a Learning Management System, such as Blackboard (which is proprietary software, costing a great deal of money) or Moodle (which is free and community driven).  There is also the issue of ownership: who owns the students’ work if it is published (even privately) online?  who owns the instructor’s work if it is published online?  One of the many reasons that I use Google Drive (particularly Google Chats and Google Docs) is so that my students can submit their work and text-chat with me knowing that they ultimately own the documents (and can delete them) and co-own the chats (with me and no one else, without our mutual permission).  There are numerous (hopefully obvious) loopholes in this idealistic situation, and those loopholes become even loopier when I acknowledge that I actually use a part of Google that is owned and run by Kent State University (KSU Google).  Also, student may delete their work from within an LMS just as easily (even though composing a paper is much more difficult, and submitting an attached word processor paper, such as MS Word invites its own complications of glitches, such as when it crosses operating system platforms).

Cyberspace, in other words, has become an increasingly wider space of paranoia (who is stealing what from whom and when?).  I do not post my lessons, for this reason, within an LMS.  My university pays me to teach my classes, and does not own my materials, so I refuse to publish my materials for any amount of time on university space (such as the LMS).  Yet, it isn’t just about protection of ownership; it is even more about sharing.  My course pages include numerous links to other wonderful pages of information.

Space, then, is the real question to building community.  As the above story illustrates, when driven, members of a community (even a temporarily formed community such as the cast and crew for this performance of Conley’s play) will literally cross miles of physical space (by car, by train, by bus, by plane) to come together: some of us drove from other counties, some of us came from other states, one of us flew in periodically, and the entire community drove/flew to put on a production for the 24th International Conference on Medievalism, sponsored by Pam Clements at Siena College (Albany, NY).  That’s a lot of miles, time, gas, and money!  Cyber is much cheaper in terms of both time and money.  The question becomes, then, how does one transfer a sense of community (instructor and students) from the space of the brick-n-mortar classroom to the space(s) of cyberspace, particularly when many of those spaces are little more than digital pages, including (in the case of my medieval literature class) facsimiles of medieval manuscripts?  Instead of a managed learning system, in other words, I am all for a less managed (slightly chaotic) system of learning that is more connective with other communities.



1 2 3 4 5 8