The Choose Your Own Adventure Project: A Creative Assignment for the Literature (or Humanities) Classroom

Although I didn’t create the assignment below until about six years ago, when reflecting back on my decade-long teaching career, it stands out as the most memorable and satisfying experience. Once written, it was, by far, the one I reused the most in almost every literature course I taught. It is utterly adaptable for undergraduates at any level, nearly always inspires students to become more deeply invested in their learning, and receives the most positive comments in teaching evaluations. In other words, this assignment is my most successful one, and the one that reminds me every single time of why I wanted to teach in the first place. It is also fun to grade (said no professor ever!), and I mean that unironically. There is, hands down, nothing like seeing students grow passionate about their work and enjoy the hands-on learning experience. For me, this assignment is more about the process than the final product, and effort factors into the final grade in a major way. I always explain to students that creative endeavors do not always end up as planned, despite a great deal of hard work. Sometimes mistakes or flaws in art work out to become something even better than planned, and sometimes not. That’s okay here.

I gage their efforts with a proposal and verbal reports along the way. As a result, students can explore, in a trial and error fashion, without the fear that their grade will suffer dramatically if their project doesn’t turn out exactly right. Oftentimes, I worry that students don’t get enough opportunities for that kind of active learning in their traditional essay assignments in which the quality of their arguments matters most, and these projects have helped me to build space for that in a structured manner. And, as a side note, the quality of student work tends to end up being much greater than expected probably because some of the pressure is taken off of them by allowing more freedom and control. And since they choose their own learning adventure, they simply care more about it.

Unfortunately, I may never have the opportunity to reuse this assignment, but I can’t fathom letting it stay buried in my personal wasteland of old computer files. So, in the off chance that somebody will find inspiration for their own teaching practices, I provide it here to be copied, revised, and adapted at will in any way that suits your instructional needs. It can remain completely open-ended, or made as specific and narrow as possible. Every part of it is flexible. I’ve used versions of it at public schools and private schools, for freshman and seniors, for general education and specialized courses. It works in any setting. Please feel free to use any or all of it, keep it the same, or make it your own. If you have a moment, I’d love to hear about your version of the creative assignment and how it goes in the comments section below.

Link to a .pdf of the Choose Your Own Adventure Project.

Karrie Fuller, PhD
University of Notre Dame

The Inquisitor’s Tale by Adam Gidwitz, A (Medievalist’s) Reader Response

I had not read far into Adam Gidwitz’s 2016 novel The Inquisitor’s Tale before wondering, “How does this guy know so much about the Middle Ages?” Upon flipping to the back of the book, I learned that Adam Gidwitz is married to a medieval historian. As a result, he had access to quality resources on the period, in the form of experts in the field and source materials, that made all the difference.

Clearly, he’s read Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales as the chapter titles mimic those of the canonical text. For instance, Gidwitz presents readers with “The Nun’s Tale” and “The Librarian’s Tale,” echoing Chaucer’s “Nun’s Priest’s Tale,” or “Clerk’s Tale.” Identifying the storytellers in those titles by their occupation, rather than their given name, imbues the story with more than a hint of the personification-style caricatures Chaucer provides of the medieval estates, referring to society’s organization by profession according to a religious and secular ranking system.[1] However, Gidwitz’s narrators diverge from the model text by telling their tales in multiple parts, whereas Chaucer’s, despite the Prologue’s stated ambitions for multiple tales per speaker, take one turn each. Nevertheless, this book makes for a good comparison text that could work in a class on the Canterbury Tales, or on literature influenced by it.

Aside from chapter and character titles, the book’s structure resembles that of the Canterbury Tales in one other significant way: the frame narrative. Chaucer presents readers with a collection of tales united into a single text by a larger narrative in which a group of pilgrims agree to the terms of a storytelling contest. However, instead of a frame narrative that brings together a series of disparate, standalone stories, unified only by that framing, Gidwitz tells one story through the perspectives of many storytellers, each of whom witnesses a different “chapter” of the narrative.[2] Like Chaucer’s narrators, Gidwitz’s speak in a tone and vocabulary suitable to their professional identities. The lead voice of the frame narrative comes from a soon-to-be reformed Inquisitor instead of a fictionalized authorial voice like the one Chaucer creates for himself. According to this Inquisitor, the nun speaks in an accent “as proper as any I’ve ever heard” (11). The Joungler with the most pronounced verbal idiosyncrasies clearly identifies his status through his speech: “I’m a jongleur. I’ll set me up in a market on market day, sing songs, juggle a little, whatever it takes to make a penny or two for poor boy like meself” (104). The wide strata of medieval classes and occupations represented at Gidwitz’ gathering of tale tellers also imitate Chaucer’s use of fictional narrators representing many levels of the medieval estates hierarchy. But, while Chaucer’s text remains incomplete (he died before finishing what would have been a monstrously large masterpiece), Gidwitz’s characters take multiple turns at storytelling in a fully realized novel.[3]

It makes sense for anyone with a background in English to have encountered Chaucer because of his consistent presence in the average undergraduate curriculum. However, the loose structural influence of the CanterburyTales on The Inquisitor’s Tales does not account for the depth of knowledge the book contains about a wide, wide range of all the most popular genres circulating in the Middle Ages (despite Chaucer’s use of pretty much all of them), nor does it account for his understanding of France where the story takes place, rather than England, the site of the Canterbury pilgrimage. Indeed, Gidwitz draws upon vitae(saints’ lives), miracle stories, chronicles, theological treatises, sermons, and more. The story even becomes a kind of pilgrimage for the protagonists with a holy destination, Mont-Saint-Michel, albeit the journey looks rather unconventional in comparison with many original source texts on pilgrimage, especially considering their ages and mixed religious affiliations.[4] Gidwitz likewise inserts his characters into actual medieval events (i.e.–the burning of Jewish books, or the lost Holy Nail) in historically important places (i.e.–Saint-Denis) among real people, such as Louix IX and his mother, Blanche of Castile.[5] These historical influences, as much as is possible in a fictional text, make the text feel authentic. The palpable presence of the Middle Ages derives from the breadth of primary and secondary sources from which Gidwitz draws, and it leaves the reader (or at least this medievalist) with a sense of authenticity absent in much of the modern medievalism I’ve encountered of late.[6] (Dare I mention Game of Thrones here?)

And then, to delight and assault the reader’s senses, there’s the matter of stinky cheese and a flatulent dragon. Dragons, of course, feature regularly in medieval texts, and saints regularly find themselves in battles with them. Gidwitz drew inspiration here from Saint Martha’s story in a popular collection of saints’ lives called The Golden Legend (350). As a specialist in English literature, it was impossible not to discern other literary echoes, such as the epic poem Beowulf, especially with the Beowulfian meadhall feasts that occur before and after every victory over a monster, including after Beowulf’s much fiercer and deadlier dragon. Or, perhaps more immediately, the feast scenes in Arthurian romances resonate here. The feasting hall often serves as site of serious political negotiations, and Jeanne, William, and Jacob must navigate these tricky conversations even as they are confronted with Époisses cheese that “tastes like being punched in the face” (137). Given the saintliness of the novel’s three children, a hagiographical source for the episode makes better sense than Beowulf, but recognizing parallels, even unintentional ones, is one of the great joys of reading. Moreover, because this book targets a younger audience, the humor injected into the narrative by the glorious cheese and stinky dragon counterbalances the weightier issues, such as the likely death of Jacob’s parents.

As a book historian, the illustrations just might be my favorite part of the book. While the illustrator, Hatem Aly, chose a more modern drawing style, he took care to base this style on common features of medieval manuscript decoration. Historiated initials (large, decorative letters with drawings inside them), vegetal borders, authoritative figures with their right hand in the declamatio position (raised with index finger pointing upwards), and wacky creatures lurking in the margins all grace the pages as visualizations and interpretations of the story. The artist’s development of a text-image relationship with an interpretative angle amounts to a form of reader response in line with common medieval practice. Gidwitz supports the text-image relationship with a healthy respect for the bookmaking process in a novel that writes manuscripts into the story’s central conflict: the burning of Jewish books. William the oblate’s comments here are particularly striking, and a great way to introduce younger audiences to book history:

A scribe might copy out a single book for years. An illuminator would then take it and work on it for longer still. Not to mention the tanner who made the parchment, and the bookbinder who stitched the book together, and the librarian who worked to get the book for the library and keep it safe from mold and thieves and clumsy monks with ink pots and dirty hands. And some books have authors, too, like Saint Augustine or Rabbi Yehuda. When you think about it, each book is a lot of lives. Dozens and dozens of them (305).

Based on the story’s reliance on book history, I could easily envision a writing assignment that asks students to close read an image or two alongside its corresponding text. Because the book caters to younger audiences, such an assignment could work across many grade levels, or even at the undergraduate level when framed appropriately.

Most importantly, at the center of this narrative sits a friendship that stands as a corrective to the religious intolerances so familiar to medievalists accustomed to staring down at hate-filled pages on occasion (not that this experience represents all the period’s literature). Jeanne, the main protagonist and a Christian peasant, befriends two boys: Jacob, a Jew, and William, an oblate (monk-in-training) with a Saracen mother (the standard, but not the most tolerant medieval term for a Muslim). Although widespread, such intolerances were neither universal, nor evenly applied in medieval texts, but they appear even in our most canonical medieval texts, such as Chaucer’s “Prioress’s Tale” with its severe anti-Semitism.[7] However, Gidwitz counters these earlier medieval narratives with a transformative friendship:

Just a few days ago, William and Jeanne would have begged Jacob to follow Christ, and save his soul from damnation. Now the idea of it seemed ludicrous. If God would save their souls, surely, surely, He would save Jacob’s, too. What difference was there between them, except the language in which he prayed? (262).

Such a sentiment might send some medieval theologians into a rage. But, even the more tolerant thinkers of the age tend to turn to conversion as their rationale, rather than understanding and accepting the coexistence of multiple faiths into their worldview. For example, in The Book of John Mandeville, a wildly popular text throughout nearly all of Europe, the narrator draws several parallels between the Muslim and Christian faiths, seeing Islam as similar enough to prompt greater conversion efforts and, therefore, greater tolerance. However, he does not apply such “generous” (extra emphasis on the quotations here) perspectives to the Jews, who he villainizes as friends of the Antichrist.[8] Gidwitz, in his efforts towards tolerance and understanding, veers intentionally and rightly from his source materials even while acknowledging the harsh, often dangerous, climate in which medieval Jews in Europe lived.

So, with all these accurate historical re-creations, does Gidwitz’s novel give us an exact replica of the Middle Ages? Well, no. That would require non-fiction and a time machine, a real life one. Ultimately, it’s a fiction novel for younger audiences. It contains crucial life lessons about cheese. Oh, and friendship, tolerance, and love, but all of that can be pretty well be summed up with cheese.

And one final point, why is it that the frame narrative’s characters do not realize the main speaker’s occupation? That’s easy: Nobody expects the Inquisition, Spanish or otherwise.[9]

Karrie Fuller, PhD
University of Notre Dame

Notes:

[1]To learn about different occupations’ rank in the social hierarchy, see Jill Mann’s Chaucer and Medieval Estates Satire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973).

[2]Some of Chaucer’s tales circulate independently in manuscripts, especially religious ones, such as the “Tale of Melibee.”

[3]The use of a frame narrative, it should be noted, was not unique to Chaucer among medieval authors. Boccaccio’s Decameron represents the form in Italy, a country Chaucer visited multiple times where he encountered the works of Boccaccio, Dante, and other major authors on the continent.

[4]For those new to pilgrimage texts, a good place to begin might be The Pilgrimage of Egeria for an early example and William Wey for a much later example. While pilgrimage was a spiritual journey and texts most often reflect the seriousness of the experience, it could also be a form of tourism, and fictionalized versions, such as Chaucer’s, reflect this side of the journey to a greater degree. Dragons, and legends more generally, can fit into a pilgrimage narrative as The Book of Sir John Mandeville attests.

[5]Read the “Author’s Note” at the back of the book for more details.

[6]Some of Gidwitz’s sources appear in the back of the book in the “Annotated Bibliography.” It’s a good place to start for background reading.

[7]In addition to the Canterbury Tales itself, there are several commentaries on this topic right here on the Medieval Studies Research Blog. For a modern take on Chaucer’s anti-Semitism see this post on “Teaching the Canterbury Talesin the Alt-Right Era” by Natalie Weber. Find other relevant posts under the “Undergrad Wednesdays” category as well.

[8]Access an online version of Mandeville as part of the TEAMS Middle English Texts Series.

[9]If you need to read this footnote to understand the cultural reference here, please immerse yourself in the world of Monty Python immediately. It’s for your own good, really.

Medieval Chicago–In Gothic City: The Old Water Tower and Pumping Station, Part 2

Don’t forget to read Part 1 of this post first!
Full view of water tower. Photo by Karrie Fuller, copyright reserved.

The 19th-century preference for ornate, gothic structures indicates their admiration toward this formerly maligned medieval style, and it is within this context that William W. Boyington, his water tower, and many more of his buildings sit. However, architecturally speaking, Boyington’s tower has not always received great accolades for its artistry, tending to be revered as an engineering marvel instead. One guidebook, for instance, describes it as “stylistically naive,” stating that “Chicagoans are content to venerate it as a monument rather than criticize it as art” (Schultz 143). While emblematic of the neo-gothic style, this building might lack some of the aesthetic impact to which it aspires. His water tower and pumping station, therefore, represent his most famous, though perhaps not his most successful, attempt at integrating form and function in one building design. However lacking it might be in aesthetics, the tower’s medieval inspiration is impossible to miss. Although we tend to associate gothic architecture with cathedrals and religious buildings, this castle-like structure features a few of those classic gothic elements, particularly the pointed-arch windows and doors. Despite being dwarfed by its neighboring buildings, its central tower does imbue it with a sense of verticality, but without the heavy, looming presence of a cathedral or castle. The decorative gables and emphasis on geometric patterns also derive from the tower’s gothic influences, and its castle-like qualities are enhanced by turrets and battlements (for more information on gothic and neo-gothic architecture, see the bibliography below).

Boyington carried the gothic style he adopted over to other structures as well. The Rosehill Cemetery entrance, for instance, still stands, and had more of his buildings survived the Great Fire of 1871 as well as other ravages of time and human destruction, even more of his medieval-inspired buildings would continue to line the city streets. Luckily, records of some of these buildings do survive in drawings and photos archived and digitized as part of the Ryerson and Burnham Archives: Archival Image Collection by the Art Institute. A number of the buildings documented here also appear in the neo-gothic style.

Rosehill Cemetery maingate. Photo courtesy of Matt Hucke at Wikimedia Commons.

Looking at Boyington’s long list of architectural accomplishments, which extend beyond Chicago to places like Philadelphia and New York, one would be hard pressed to avoid the impression that this man built a great deal of Old Chicago and shaped its architectural character in ways that have persisted despite the domination of newer, taller structures over the city’s skyline (see Carbutt for a summary of his career). His wide-ranging work includes everything from the original trade building and the first University of Chicago to his many churches and even some residences. That his buildings appear in other major American cities also indicates a more widespread influence on the nation’s landscape. Although not the only player in the formation of Old Chicago’s appearance, perhaps one reason Boyington’s Water Tower maintains its status as a monument is that, despite its potential imperfections, it embodies so much of Chicago’s 19th-century values and priorities, both as a feat of architecture and engineering. It reflects, in other words, something essential to the original spirit of the city.

The Pumping Station. Photo by Karrie Fuller, copyright reserved.

Thus, while visually the water tower might stand out as an oddity in its current location, the building more than belongs here. It provides a snapshot of a once en vogue architectural style that imports elements of medieval European aesthetics and adapts them for new uses in a new world. It also serves as a reminder of how much effort Chicago, alongside many other major American cities, put into medievalizing the American landscape in order to establish a particular national identity. However, even though this movement drew upon the European heritage of citizens who themselves came from the families of European immigrants to the new world, it is worth acknowledging the global spread of the Revival as well as the Middle Eastern influences on the original medieval Gothic style. The “global Gothic,” as Jan Ziolkowski suggests, deserves attention because “for centuries, the style has been freighted wherever European culture and commodities have been carried” (148). Moreover, as scholars have long noted, Islamic architectural and artistic influences catalyzed the original shift from Romanesque (an early medieval architectural form based on classical forms) to what we have come to know as “Gothic” (Draper. See also Ziolkowski 108-9). The history of gothic building projects, then, derives from productive (though not easy) cross-cultural exchanges that altered the course of history and, literally, shaped how the world around us looks today. From Islam to Europe in the Middle ages, and from Europe to America in the 19th century, this chain of border-crossing artistic influence pinpoints an essential factor in understanding medieval Chicago’s reliance on forms imported, reimagined, and blended into new and original settings.

Today, this historic landmark and popular tourist destination houses the City Gallery in the Historic Water Tower, showcasing the work of local artists, photographers, and filmmakers. The neighboring pumping station now contains a public library and theatre. Michigan Ave has no shortage of great shopping and entertainment, but the tower is worth a quick stop next time you visit the Mile, providing a moment of historical enrichment to break up the street’s commercialism.

As a medievalist, I feel rather drawn to the Gothic Revivalist sentiments embodied in the Water Tower, and learning about this building and its historical influences has opened up a new way of viewing the Middle Ages through a time period well outside of my own academic specialization. I will not be at all surprised should Boyington’s name pop up again while working on this series; in fact, I hope it does. But learning about the Gothic Revival has also sparked my interest in a subdivision of this movement found in the “Skyscraper Gothic” style that will more than likely lead me the Chicago Tribune Tower as we explore this gothic city.

Karrie Fuller, PhD
University of Notre Dame

Online Resources:

“Boyington, William W.,” Ryerson and Burnham Archives: Archival Image Collection, TheArt Institute of Chicago, accessed on November 1, 2018, http://digital-libraries.saic.edu/cdm/search/collection/mqc/searchterm/Boyington,%20William%20W./mode/exact.

Gale, Neil. “The History of the Chicago Water Tower,” The Digital Research Library of Illinois History Journal, published on December 3, 2016, https://drloihjournal.blogspot.com/2016/12/chicago-water-tower-history.html.

“Illinois SP Chicago Avenue Water Tower and Pumping Station,” National Register of Historic Places, National Archives Catalog, National Park Service, accessed on October 19, 2018, https://catalog.archives.gov/id/28892376.

Leroux, Charles. “The Chicago Water Tower,” Chicago Tribune, published on December 18, 2007, http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/politics/chi-chicagodays-watertower-story-story.html.

“Throwback Thursday: Chicago Water Tower Edition,” Chicago Architecture, Artefaqs Corporation, published on March 5, 2015, https://www.chicagoarchitecture.org/2015/03/05/throwback-thursday-chicago-water-tower-edition/.

Works Cited & Further Reading

Blackman, Joni Hirsch. This Used to Be Chicago. St. Louis, MO: Reedy Press, 2017.

Carbutt, John. Biographical Sketches of the Leading Men of Chicago, 215-22 . Chicago: Wilson & St. Clair, 1868. [Written in a dated style, this book is florid, grandiose, and male-centric, but contains some useful information about Boyington nevertheless.]

Draper, Peter. “Islam and the West: The Early Use of the Pointed Arch Revisited.” Architectural History48 (2005): 1-20.

Frankl, Paul. Gothic Architecture. Revised by Paul Crossley. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962, 2000.

Grodecki, Louis. Gothic Architecture. New York: Electa/Rizzoli, 1978.

Murphy, Kevin D. and Lisa Reilly. “Gothic.” In Medievalism: Key Critical Terms, 87-96. New York: Boydell and Brewer, 2014.

Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “Gothic,” accessed September 20, 2018, http://www.oed.com.proxy.library.nd.edu/view/Entry/80225?redirectedFrom=gothic#eid.

Reeve, Matthew M. “Gothic.” Studies in Iconography33 (2012): 233-246.

Schulz, Frank, and Kevin Harrington. Chicago’s Famous Buildings. 5thed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. The Juggler of Notre Dame and the Medievalizing of Modernity. Vol.3: The Making of the American Middle Ages. Cambridge: Open Book Publishers, 2018. http://dx.doi.org/10.11647/OBP.0146.