Surely you’re mistaken II

I am on holiday this week, and so probably have time but have little inclination to write you a long and technical post just now. Happily, student assessment comes to the rescue, or rather did in January to June 2019, over which time I collected, as some form of relief from marking, some more of my then-students’ best and brightest errors of fact, judgement or meaning on the two first-year modules I then taught, a full medieval and a late antique survey. All these students have now long since left our care, hopefully have their degrees and I don’t, in any case, know who they were as they were marked anonymously. I very much doubt they can remember writing these things, if they should ever read this. So I think it’s OK to let them lighten your summer as well. I shall group them and apply commentary where, well, where I think it’s funny…

Not quite thought through

“The impact of Constantine’s Christian implementation can be seen during the fourth and fifth centuries, whereby a widespread depiction of Christian art was displayed. For instance, churches became decorated with images of clear Christian origin and meaning, which conveyed an apparent Christian message.”

I mean, aren’t churches the last place you’d expect a Christian message to appear?

From one answer on the Black Death (that wasn’t really supposed to be about the Black Death):1

“However, the BD [sic] also led to the emergance [sic] of the Middle Class, ending the war for resources as the peasantry lessened and people could afford to feed their family.”

Damn peasants! We’d have so much more food without farmers!

“Many bodies were buried in the same grave but there were also many graves – this was a damage to the rural land and reduced possible crop-growing land therefore reducing the positive effect of the middle class emergance.”

Also dead people! So inconsiderate with the space they take up!

Similar vein, different paper, no way to know if it was the same student:

“… the growth of the bishops was not necessarily the main cause of the cities’ decline…”

But they just eat so much at that stage!

I know what you started with, but I don’t know how this happened to it

From the same answer on the Black Death as above:

“Public health, due to the Black Death, was instantly improved. In a short-term effort, people knew to isolate the sick from the cities and often used catapults to expel them.”

The source here must be an old story that the Mongols, while besieging the Venetian colony of Caffa in the Black Sea, catapulted their dead from the plague into the city. This may even have been true, though the source isn’t great, but it’s not true as it ended up here!2

And lastly…

“Britain was home to key Renaissance figures such as Chaucer and Diptych and also saw the spread of grammar schools across the country.”

But of course it wasn’t till the secondary moderns came along that we could develop thinkers like Triptych or Quadbyke.3 And that’s all, folks!

1. I have discovered, in my years of teaching across several institutions, that if you run a full medieval survey and don’t include assessment questions on the Vikings or the Black Death, you’ll get answers on them anyway. They are apparently the two things even the weakest students are interested enough by to revise.

2. See Mark Wheelis, “Biological Warfare at the 1346 Siege of Caffa” in Emerging Infectious Diseases Vol. 8 (Atlanta GA 2002), pp. 971–975, DOI: 10.3201/eid0809.010536.

3. My colleague who did the Renaissance lecture on this module liked to use Jan Van Eyck’s diptych of the Crucifixion and the Last Judgement, which see here, as an example of Renaissance art not all being from Italy. I hardly need to say that that colleague did not relocate it or Van Eyck to Britain, but even if they had, this student had more that they could add…

9 responses to “Surely you’re mistaken II

  1. I think the student writing about the Renaissance might have been vaguely alluding to the Wilton Diptych, which was actually painted here. Whatever they really meant, it’s nice to see a first year student who doesn’t think that the early Renaissance was all just some Italian dudes, or that these isles were a cultural backwater before the Tudors.

    The other thing I’ll say is that Sellars and Yeatman would be looking at these exam papers in Heaven and weeping tears of joy – “1066 and all that” is not lost on us today.

    • I have found this a diminishing source of returns over the years, actually, which I think probably means we’re doing better at adapting to the situation of our students as they come out of school (and of course, recently, out of the pandemic too). I have one more of these posts stored up for when the perpetrators are safely out of the building but no more since then.

      I also first hit the Wilton Diptych when trying to search up what they might have meant, but firstly it’s Gothic, not Renaissance, and secondly I didn’t recognise it, whereas I do know the Van Eyck one was in the lecture. So I fear you’re being unjustifiedly kind, alas…

      • That’s really good to hear. The gap between A level and university is always a difficult one to bridge. But it seems like your pedagogical methods are doing the trick if you’re getting diminishing returns of these kind of answers. And there are signs that secondary school history teaching, which has certainly changed a lot from Sellars and Yeatman’s day, is continuing to improve. Doing some observations in school this year (I’m starting a PGCE in September) I noticed that teachers are doing more than they did even when I was in secondary school (and that really wasn’t long ago at all) to encourage students to do independent reading and research, and not just rely on class notes, the course textbook and good old Wikipedia for everything.

        As for the Wilton Diptych. Yes it’s International Gothic, in the sense that it’s got Gothic architectural motifs, it’s done on a plain gold background, it’s done with traditional egg tempera not revolutionary oil paint (like Van Eyck) and there’s certainly no linear perspective. But the way it does human portraiture is clearly taking its cues from the pioneering Italian artists of the Trecento, above all Simone Martini and the Sienese school. And whether Simone Martini counts as Gothic or Renaissance, that’s a controversial question. I find that so much of what we count as medieval or Renaissance is really quite arbitrary. Think of Chaucer, the other figure who that student mentioned. Traditionally he’s thought of as exemplifying the best of “medieval” literature, but he inhabited the same intellectual milieu as Boccaccio (indeed, it’s fairly demonstrable that the latter influenced the former and they were in Milan together for the wedding of Lionel duke of Clarence and Violante Visconti in 1369 so they probably met) and was just as interested in Classical literature, mythology and history as him (c.f. Boccaccio’s De muliebriis clariis and Chaucer’s The Legend of Good women, the strong Ovidian influence throughout Chaucer’s oeuvre). Yet Boccaccio often gets roped in with the Renaissance label while Chaucer doesn’t, often simply because one is Italian and the other isn’t. Likewise, going round the Louvre a few months ago and visiting Rheims cathedral a few days later reminded me of the impressive naturalism of Gothic sculpture – the tomb of Philippe Pot (d.1493) had just as much lifelike detail as Michelangelo’s David, yet it’s considered medieval not Renaissance because the figure is decked out in armour not nude and painted (as statues in antiquity were) not plain white marble. And Leonardo da Vinci’s sketches weren’t really all that different to what medieval engineers had been doing in their sketchbooks since Villard de Honnecourt in the early thirteenth century. Admittedly not all of, but much of what constitutes medieval and Renaissance is basically semantics when you get down to it.

        • The problem we meet with students’ independent research skills as they arrive with us is that the skills do not include discrimination. Some nutcase they Googled up (and indeed Wikipedia, though here they usually try and hide the fact) is reckoned as good as scholarship, and indeed possibly better as it’s on the open web and easily comprehensible whereas academic work may be neither. And this is not necessarily the fault of the students, since the rubric for those assignments (and especially the Extended Project Qualification) actually requires students to assemble a bibliography including several different types of sources, including websites, podcasts, interviews and videos on the list alongside print publications, as a single lump. There are also assignments where students aren’t allowed to use their reading lists, because they’re supposed to assemble their own. Against this training, it takes a while to get through to our pupils that we think academic work all that they need, even if they can distinguish it from other forms of writing.

          As to the Wilton Diptych, I don’t disagree, especially on the inanity of the periodizations involved; but I still don’t think the student in question meant it or had met it, and I do know they had met the other one…

  2. The difficulty I find, these days, is that the imposition of ‘scientific thinking’ on humanities means students expect see everything to be either either data or theory. What we seem to be losing is an understanding of the need to accord relative weight to ‘data’ and qualitative assessment of opinions about historical evidence.
    As a colleague once put it, ‘Students have become too credulous, and have no time to read history because they’re too busy inventing some novel theory about it.” It seems to me, though, that your students’ haven’t gained enough practice, in their earlier education, of producing ‘abstract’-style precis of each day’s lecture.

    On a different point – I have a fairly technical research question about Mozarabic culture and would be most grateful for advise in compiling a relevant bibliography. I’d prefer to give details by email, if you’d permit? My email address, I think, will appear within your own editor’s page.

    • On Mozarabic culture, I don’t know how much help I can be, but I can be some; expect mail. On the pedagogical question, however, I think I would have to take the opposite path to your colleague; while we start from observing the same credulity, I’m not seeing very much invention of theory, just their repetition from the crazier parts of the web (or, more accurately, the ones which prefer, and reproduce, the answers of the 19th century rather than the ones we replaced them with). And I don’t think my weaker pupils have much understanding either that data and theory are different, or that the former has any rôle in creating the latter.

  3. “I noticed that teachers are doing more than they did even when I was in secondary school … to encourage students to do independent reading and research”

    When I was 13 my assigned summer reading was “The Wars of Italian Nationalism”. I was cautioned not to focus solely on Garibaldi but to keep an eye out for Count Cavour.

    This was many decades ago, so perhaps intelligent history teaching isn’t, gasp!, restricted to the 21st century. But I’ll grant you it would never have crossed our minds to describe spending some wet summer days with noses in books as “research”.

    It was a self-limiting task because, as is universally acknowledged, almost all boyhood summer days are sunny so that we’d be out swimming in the river or camping in the woods. Or on the beach. Or …

  4. Thanks Jonathan.
    I don’t know how others feel, but I find the phenomenon chilling and encounter it even in people of post-grad level. As you say, “not much understanding either that data and theory are different, or that the former has any rôle in creating the latter” with creating the vital word.

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