An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

March 12, 2016

Attar and Shutters, eds.: Teaching Medieval and Early Modern Cross-Cultural Encounters

Karina F. Attar and Lynn Shutters, eds. Teaching Medieval and Early Modern Cross-Cultural Encounters. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

Reviewed by Patricia Taylor (

Editors Karina F. Attar and Lynn Shutters have created an excellent collection on teaching cross-cultural encounters in courses focused on medieval and early modern culture. As the editors note in the introduction, the humanities are under suspicion from some critics for their relevancy to modern society at precisely the same time that businesses and politicians proclaim the importance of having workers that have cross-cultural and global acumen.  Attar and Shutter present a convincing case—or, more accurately, a series of convincing cases—that teaching the cross-cultural and global natures of the medieval and early modern world provide ample training ground for students to practice the specific forms of critical thinking, self-awareness, and flexibility that are required to move across and between cultures in the modern world. Attar, Shutters, and their contributors thus speak to the institutional relevance of teaching medieval and early modern cultures, as well as the humanities more broadly.

The book offers twelve essays by scholars and faculty in a wide range of disciplines, including art history, theater, Italian, French, English, and Latin and Iberian Studies. Each essay articulates a theoretical and pedagogical basis for addressing the stakes and difficulties of teaching cross-cultural encounters in a particular discipline, and then proceeds from the underlying theory to examples of syllabi, pedagogical approaches, class discussions, and specific assignments. The courses described are both undergraduate and graduate, and from a wide range of institutions with a variety of student demographics.

The central conceit of the book is that cross-cultural encounters are not simply synchronic, but also diachronic, and that historical distance can be a feature, not a bug, when teaching cross-cultural encounters. The book is broken into three major sections: the first six essays describe how the authors teach examples of synchronic cultural encounters, while the next five describe how faculty link synchronic encounters to diachronic ones. The final two essays focus primarily on diachronic encounters. While breaking the essays into these groups is appealing on the surface, when reading the volume, it became increasingly clear that it was not nearly as necessary or accurate as it appears: every essay in the opening section offers reflections on the diachronic cross-cultural encounters between students and texts, and often other diachronic encounters as well. Elizabeth Pentland’s essay, “Teaching English Travel Writing from 1500 to the Present” describes a course that explicitly sets up comparisons between modern and early modern travel literature, and Seth Kimmel explains in “Andalusian Iberias: from Spanish to Iberian Literature” how his course takes advantage of the fact that “especially since September 11, 2001, students come to classes on the history and representation of pre-modern Christians, Muslims, and Jews aware that contemporary politics of religion shape interpretations of the past” (22).  
While every essay offers something of import to teachers in particular disciplines, what is perhaps most encouraging about the book as a whole is the way it reminds us that both our students’ and our own discomfort can be productive in the classroom. The theme of comfort and discomfort appears over and over in the collection. Most obvious and useful are the numerous essays that offer different ways to help address students’ discomforts when encountering texts from different cultures. Julie Scheck’s essay, “Stranger than Fiction: Early Modern Travel Narratives and the Antiracist Classroom,” describes how the distancing effect of teaching early modern literature is an important first step in helping students become comfortable and more productive when discussing race, but she also rightly insists that the historical distance of early modern texts can accidentally perpetuate racism if faculty do not resist the potential “minimizing” effect by connecting early modern texts to contemporary parallels (97). Other essays, such as Ambereen Dadabhoy’s “The Moor of America,” productively follow this line of thought by describing how faculty can avoid such minimizing. Dadabhoy’s essay describes how she paired Othello with a discussion of the discourse surrounding President Barak Obama. 
The collection repeatedly reminds faculty that their own discomfort can be equally as important as student discomfort, and that teaching to our own discomforts can increase student learning. For example, in “A Journey through the Silk Road in a Cosmopolitan Classroom,” Kyunghee Pyun writes that “I was always more comfortable staying away from current political issues,” but that the course’s content pushed class discussion into productive, useful, and even “sensitive” explorations of “humanitarian causes and the difficulty of maintaining a delicate balance of power in the post-9/11 era” (66). Other essays highlight how an instructor’s own discomfort stepping outside a traditional area of expertise can actually produce the opportunity for students to bring their own expertise—as immigrants, as speakers of other languages, as coming from a range of ethnic and religious backgrounds—to create a more cross-cultural classroom. As our classrooms become sites of increasing diversity, teaching even where we lack authority and expertise can create the conditions for a truly student-centered cross-cultural experience.

The diversity of disciplines and approaches represented in the collection also proves a great boon for the reader. For example, as an English literature specialist, I found the approaches to teaching cross-cultural encounters through the materiality of different disciplines particularly useful in two essays: Pyun’s essay which discusses cross-cultural encounters through art history, and Jenna Soleo-Shanks’s “Resurrecting Callimachus: Pop Music, Puppets, and the Necessity of Performance in Teaching Medieval Drama,” which describes a performance-based pedagogy for teaching medieval Italian drama. The editors state in the introduction that they hope to “encourage interdisciplinary conversation, itself a vital, if sometimes lacking, form of cross-cultural encounter within academia” (9). I believe they have succeeded on this point, and I hope others will take up their call as well. Teaching Medieval and Early Modern Cross Cultural Encounters offers much that can encourage both faculty and students to understand their classrooms as sites of cross-cultural encounters with the medieval and early modern past. It is a much-needed resource, though as the editors themselves point out, it only scratches the surface of what is possible and needed.

Patricia Taylor
Georgia Institute of Technology