This past fall I taught an undergraduate seminar entitled “Medievalisms: Past and Present.” In previous years I’ve taught a first-year Writing seminar using this theme. But, after three attempts, I decided it was too complicated for that course. Ultimately I felt like some students weren’t ever able to master the medievalisms concept completely (or, at least, to the degree I’d hoped) and, consequently, it proved an obstacle to their writing efforts.
Instead, I developed this 300-level General Education seminar, thinking this was the better venue for students to explore the topic. The course could fulfill the upper-level “Cultural Perspectives” requirement, which meant it needed to investigate “the practices that allow for the production and reproduction of the systems of meaning (e.g., art, ritual, and beliefs) through which groups and individuals define and express themselves.” Arguably, no historical period has been produced and reproduced in culture in as many different ways as the Middle Ages, and therefore I was excited to use the theme to explore historiography—that ongoing production and reproduction of the system of meaning we call “history.”
Notably, I was asked to design the course as an Honors section. I’m not sure if this made a difference with respect to student interest, but I was very lucky to have students who were ready to grapple with a challenging topic. Most students not only don’t know anything about medievalism, but they also know very little about the Middle Ages, and what they do know tends to be a medievalism. Consequently, part of my work was to disabuse them of their medievalisms as I taught them about that very topic. I felt fortunate to have fourteen students ready to wrestle with that mental mobius strip and, since the course cap is lower for Honors sections, a bit more time to work individually with students who initially struggled.
The students and I examined the construction of the Middle Ages from a number of perspectives during the term (click here to see abbreviated syllabus). At the end, students wrote a major research paper and many chose challenging topics; one student wrote about how the media deploys the term “medieval” in discussions about the use of torture by the U.S. and presented extensive research on the actual use of torture in the Middle Ages as part of the argument. But the final assignment in the course was a collaborative project with the following context and objective:
A group of wealthy investors is planning to develop an edu-taining theme park about medievalism. This will be an immersive venue designed to entertain adults and children, while also educating them about medievalisms (past and present). By interactively engaging with examples of medievalisms—both obvious examples and some more unexpected—theme park visitors will learn how repurposing the Middle Ages has always been a way for post-medieval societies to reflect upon & discuss their own cultural, social, political, environmental, religious, and scientific issues. The theme park obviously cannot effectively cover all examples of medievalism. Instead, those who design the park will need to think strategically about what inclusions will best serve and successfully fulfill the investors’ goals.
Divide yourselves into teams of 2-5 people each. Each of your teams will propose its theme park concept to the investors. Each proposal must include a visual display that conveys the concept’s overarching principles, aesthetic, major components, and execution. Every team will have a maximum of fifteen minutes in which to pitch its concept to the investors and to convince the selection committee that its approach will best serve the goals for this theme park. You and your team members will need to determine how best to use these fifteen minutes in order to make your case. The selection committee has encouraged teams to think constructively and creatively about how you would create an immersive, edu-taining visitor experience.
Although I’ve assigned similar collaborative, context-specific projects in my Theatre courses, this one seemed slipperier; ultimately, I was asking students to transform historiography into an edu-taining experience. Is that possible? I truly had no clue what the students would do.
In the end, I was really impressed by the creative and professional presentations they developed, and by how different each was. My college has very large Theatre and Dance departments, so I was lucky to have a relatively diverse mix of majors—one Biology, one Business, one Art History/Theatre Design double major, one English & World Literature, six Theatre Performance (a mix of BA and BFAs), three Dance, and one Liberal Studies. This definitely impacted how each group approached their work; for instance, the group with the Biologist used evidence from a study on nostalgia published in a scientific journal as part of its presentation. All of the students invested fully in the assignment and the presentations became competitive at moments. During our wrap-up discussion afterwards, one student said she’d pretty much forgotten that this was “just an assignment” and was “kind of sad” to remember that their park wasn’t actually going to become a reality.
When reading their brief reflection papers I was gratified to see that the project did indeed help students think further about major themes in the course:
“This is by far the coolest and one of the most challenging projects I have ever received, though I didn’t understand how challenging until our first group meeting…. During our first rather unsuccessful meeting, we kept falling into the trap of just doing a Middle Ages theme park filled with all the stereotypes and medievalisms. This was a type of place Renèe Trilling warns against in her article ‘Medievalism and its Discontents.’…. By asking us to design this park, you were asking us to take all the brain work we did this semester and apply it to real life.”
“To us, grasping the concept of re-appropriation is one of the most vital steps in understanding medievalisms.”
“[Our] unique and creative idea of making the entire park a medievalism that is ransacked by authentic [medieval] residents who interact with modern people at the park, would have been impossible to come up with without the concepts discussed in class. We picked this idea to emphasize the anachronisms and perceptions that modern society has of the Middle Ages.”
However, I was especially happy that it also encouraged them to think specifically about historiographic concerns:
“How could we pop the medievalism bubble while still making attractions fun and exciting for guests? …Harder still would be the creation of a theme park that debunks medievalisms without indulging in new ones. I soon realized that this was an impossibility…. Throughout history, civilization has constantly borrowed and reappropriated from the past in order to further a personal agenda. In our case, the agenda is to entertain and educate, but in order to do both we must use medievalisms ourselves.”
“This project forced me to seriously consider how we as consumers and makers of products view and treat the Middle Ages. Even in presenting a ‘true’ Middle Ages, our group picked and chose from parts of history that were convenient for us to make our point. We chose pieces of history that we saw as in direct opposition to common preconceptions and made those the focal points of half of our park. I believe our bias is incredibly apparent in this method, yet we all have learned that there is no way to remove from ourselves [sic] in order to present an ‘unbiased truth.’ I found myself carefully examining this, regardless of whether or not it was the intention of this project. Although I do believe our park serves its purpose to educate and entertain the masses, I also believe that this exercise was useful in forcing us to examine our own biases and how we choose to portray things under the justification of education and coming immediately from a semester full of critical analysis.”
There are certainly things I’ll change about this course when I teach it again; however, I don’t imagine changing this final project. Not only did it flip the classroom, but it also allowed the students to construct a space in which the problems and possibilities of historiography were made concrete and relevant—both in their own processes and in the environment of the theme park itself. And, as that final student comment suggests, it effectively illustrated the intimate links between our consumption and construction of history.
There may be ways to use a similar “theme park” assignment to explore theatre historiography, perhaps with different groups assigned to different periods. There was definitely something about the theme park genre that encouraged playfulness, but was familiar enough that students had to make very specific choices about many different experiential features. So, while their parks were specifically about medievalisms, the rides, games, and other elements students designed ultimately allowed for physical experiences with historiography. As we discussed after the presentations, their curation and design work was a form of historical editing. (For the full assignment description, click here.)