Sustainability, History and Math

(Originally posted a few years back, thought I would share it again)


 For the past few weeks, I have been working on a project in Ontario, Canada that is looking into the future sustainability of digital projects in Canada as a part of the federal governments policy on Canadas Digital Advantage.

Because the project is based in Canada and addressing specifically Canadian concerns, we are coming to conclusions regarding sustainability that are radically different than, say, our American or British colleagues might.  For example, one of the holes in our knowledge on the digital academys influence economy comes from the sheer lack of quantitative studies regarding the cross pollination between what are (or start as) academic projects and the broader economy.  That is, no one has done any studies on the Canadian milieu, looking at specifically Canadian projects and how much those digital projects have contributed to the Canadian economy.

 The present project, which is funded by SSHRC (the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council), is working on an incredibly, almost laughably, short time frame.  Though we expect to have a white paper ready for December 1, 2010, we are only really scratching the surface of what is out there in terms of scholarship on sustainability and are more often than not discovering that what is not out there is just as interesting as what is.

But that isnt exactly what I want to talk about

Neurotic Imaginings

All while doing this project on sustainability, I have had a recurrent image in my head.

 See, in my other life I am an early modernist.  Actually, I think of myself primarily as an early modernist who has only a tangential interest in DH and the possibilities that it offers.

 Im not so hip as to be a DH evangelical, but I do realize that the future of our discipline will involve closer integration with the digital world, to the point that those who do not stay at least partially abreast will be as antiquated in the future as bibliographic index card catalogue users are today.

 Thus, sustainability is a problem not because things will be lost it is inevitable that things will be lost but because we have the opportunity to intervene in the process of forgetting, hopefully for the better.

The image that keeps coming into my mind in this project is here.

Rithmomachia BoardThis is a game from the medieval period called Rithmomachia.  For those of you with small Latin and less Greek, , means number and the suffix derived from , meaning battle.

 The game itself is devilishly complex to a modern mind if only because it relies on knowledge of the relationships between whole numbers.  Gameplay involved moving pieces that designated whole number across a board that was twice as long but just as wide as a chess board.  One player could take the pieces of the other player by arranging the pieces/numbers in an arithmetic, geometrical or musical harmony (or any combination of them).

It was called the Philosophers Game partially because it was only played by the erudite and partially because Rithmomachia was supposedly created by Pythagoras, though that genealogy is highly doubtful.

Throughout the early modern period, the game was associated with hermetic magic and was played by some of the more well known figures of the European renaissance.

Of course, we dont know about it anymore.  It has been totally forgotten by the culture in general and by all but those few interested scholars.  Why?

Well, you see, there was another game that was introduced to Europe at about the same time as we start seeing descriptions of Rithmomachia and that game was Chess.

Both games are roughly as old as each other and both games were equally popular in the later middle ages, but only one of them has continued in cultural memory.  You can argue that the reason for that is that Rithmomachia is just inherently more difficult as a game describing musical harmonies of numbers is not as easy as, say, your pawn can open with a two space move or a one space move.

I am not convinced by that, however.

I think that the real reason for Chess living in our cultural memory and Rithmomachia as being forgotten comes down to the fact that the first universities took on Rithmomachia as a strategy by which to teach basic numeracy skills.

Its a strategy we are seeing today in the move to bring games (video games and otherwise) into the library system and into the classroom, and it is perfectly sound insofar as it does work.

If you engage students, through games, through active learning principles, then students are more likely to retain the information or skills that you are trying to teach.  So I cannot fault the medieval scholastics who decided that they would put Rithmomachia into the curriculum.  They were only doing what modern scholars are trying to do by using Mass Effect as a way to explicate narrative non-linearity.  The theory, such as it was (and is), is sound.

The thing is, as the years turned into decades and the decades turned into centuries, the university ossified, and with it, so did the game.


Universities are inherently conservative institutions as bureaucracies, they are specifically designed to make it difficult to change things.

When you have an institution such as a university taking on a new technology, like a game or a communications system, not only will it be difficult to integrate into the prevailing administrative structure, but there is always the threat that once it has become integrated into that administrative system, it will ossify.

The administration of knowledge will weave its way in and around the new technology of knowing to the point that it becomes either culturally irrelevant and forgotten (Rithmomachia) or culturally irrelevant and clung to out of a mere sense of tradition (Im looking at you, robe and mortarboard).

The point is that the cultural amnesia regarding Rithmomachia brings up some of the most fundamental aspects of sustainability insofar as we have to ask, how much can we trust universities (these incredibly conservative institutions) to sustain digital projects that are by definition ongoing sources of knowledge?

The Oxford English Dictionary is one of the longest running continuously developing projects in the academy, but it is predicated on a very conservative model of knowing that there are words out there as objects of definition and that they will be described.

No one would possibly suggest that the OED is not invested in what Bakhtin called the centripetal force, that works to bring language and meaning together under an objective umbrella.  Despite its yearly updates and continual re-editing, the OED is presenting an ossified image of the English Language and that is partly to do with the fact that it is housed under the auspices of a university.


So if we are looking to investigate long term sustainability, we have to ask the question of what are we willing to trade off?

If we want sustainability within the present institutional settings, then we have to accept the possibility that eventually, our beloved digital tool or project (be that project as genuinely useful as the Walt Whitman Archive or EEBO), will ossify and be forgotten.

If we dont change the university culture a culture that has existed for a thousand years then we are likely to simply end up with projects that are snapshots of what was rather than producers of the new knew.

If we do change the university culture, then that is a project that extends well beyond the individual institution or individual nation and demands a rethink of what it is we do in the academy, from the ground up.

Of course, in the writing of a small white paper, due in such a short time, I doubt that we will come up with anything that will possibly answer how the university as an institution can be rebuilt.

So which is it?  Or perhaps I am being reductive?

[Cross Posted on HASTAC and Sustaining Digital Scholarship for Sustainable Culture]

1688 Quakers Protest Slavery

Today in 1688, a group of Quakers in Germantown, Pennsylvania  staged one of the first formal protests against slavery in the “New World”. Celebrate this fact by reading up about #blacklivesmatter and who the freaking Black Panthers were before you start going off on Beyonce being disrespectful to the hallowed, sacred temple that is the freaking Superbowl.

Slavery may have been a part of many human societies going back to ancient times, but the way slavery developed in the west following the Renaissance was unique, if only because of the industrialization of oppression and the sheer scale of the movement of peoples. After all, Anglo-Saxon culture was rife with the use of slaves, which only came to an end when the Norman French invaded England in 1066. Theoretically between 1100 and the early modern period, there weren’t supposed to be slaves in the English sphere of influence, save exceptional cases such as when a diplomat brought in their “servant.”

That isn’t to say that there weren’t people of African descent in Elizabethan England. On the contrary, we keep finding more and more of them appearing in the records. The vision of Tudor England as a land awash in white faces is simply wrong. For more on this, look at the work of Duncan Salkeld and Imtiaz Habib and their work on the historical trace left by the Reasonable family in Southwark just around Shakespeare’s time.


African Musicians 1522
Drawing of African Musicians in Lisbon, Portugal, ca. 1522

Henry VIII had black trumpeters playing at his court and they were paid as a part of the regular groups of musicians. Less than 100 years later however, as a part of his marriage celebrations, James I watched African dancers perform acrobatics in the snow. Something had obviously changed. Personally, I blame John Hawkins, who was the first English man to get involved in the slave trade.

That said, by the time slavery was being abolished in the English speaking world, there were not just a handful of exceptional cases, but literally millions of individuals, mostly of African descent, who served as slaves in homes, on plantations, in manufactories, and elsewhere. To give you an idea… Census figures in the US don’t really exist for the early days of settlement, but there are some stats on the populations of slaves following the Revolutionary War:

# Slaves # Free
Total US
% black
of total
1790 697,681 59,527 757,208 7.9% 3,929,214 19%
1800 893,602 108,435 1,002,037 10.8% 5,308,483 19%
1810 1,191,362 186,446 1,377,808 13.5% 7,239,881 19%
1820 1,538,022 233,634 1,771,656 13.2% 9,638,453 18%
1830 2,009,043 319,599 2,328,642 13.7% 12,860,702 18%
1840 2,487,355 386,293 2,873,648 13.4% 17,063,353 17%
1850 3,204,313 434,495 3,638,808 11.9% 23,191,876 16%
1860 3,953,760 488,070 4,441,830 11.0% 31,443,321 14%
1870 0 4,880,009 4,880,009 100% 38,558,371 13%
Slaves aboard Ship 1868
Slaves aboard ship 1868

In short, please take some time today to remember that the history of race relations in the English speaking world is far more complex than the rather bone-headed narrative of “Things were bad back then, but they’re just fine now!” There are deep histories of suffering and integration that we are only just beginning to understand. Let’s explore them.

1609 Burial of Edmund Coote

On this day in 1609, Edmund Coote was buried next to his wife. Who was Edmund Coote you ask? Well, let me tell you…


In 1596 Coote wrote The English Schoole-Maister: Teaching all his schollers, the order of distinct reading, and true writing our English tongue. This text would go on to become the most popular pedagogical manual of the early modern period. Along with Roger Ascham The Scholemaster, it went through twenty six separate editions between 1596 and 1656 and was still used as late as the mid-1700s, with the (ASTOUNDING) 54th edition produced in 1737.

I like to think of Coote as a bit of a controversial teacher, if only because of the mysterious circumstances surrounding his resignation from the King Edward VI Free School in Bury St Edmunds. He started working there as the school master in June 1596, produced and published his book, and then resigned for some reason the next May. Exactly why, scholars still don’t know.

He begins the book with something of a manifesto. Personally, I’m particularly fond of the part where he says that the schoolmaster shall “ease the poorer sort” and help them in “buying many Bookes”:

I Professe to teach thee that art vtterly ignorant, to Reade perfectly, to Write truely, and with judgement to vnderstand the reason of our English-tongue with great expedition, ease and pleasure.

I will teach thee that art vnperfect in eyther of them, to perfect thy skill in few dayes with great ease.

I vndertake to teach all my Schollers, that shall be trained vp for any Grammar Schoole, that they shall neuer erre in writing the true Orthography of any word truely pronounced: which, what ease and benefit it will bring vnto Schoole-masters, they best know: and the same profit doe I offer to all other, both Men, and Women; that now for want hereof, are ashamed to write to their best friends: for which I haue heard many Gentlemen offer much.

I assure all Schoole-masters of the English-tongue, that they shall not onely teach their Schollers with great perfection, but also they shall with more ease and profit, and in shorter time teach a hundred Schollers sooner, than before they could teach forty.

I hope, by this plaine and short kind of teaching, to incourage many to read, that neuer otherwise would haue learned. And so more knowledge will hee brought into this Land, and moe Bookes bought than otherwise would haue beene.

I shall ease the poorer sort, of much charge that they haue beene at, in maintaining their children long at Schoole, and in buying many Bookes.

Strangers that now blame our Tongue of difficulty, and vncertainty, shall by mee plainly see and vnderstand those things which they haue thought hard.

I doe teach thee the first part of Arithmeticke, to know or write any number.

By the practice therunto adjoyned, all learners shall so frame and tune their voyces, as that they shall truely and naturally pronounce any kind of stile, eyther in prose or verse.

By the same practice, Children shall learne in a Catechisme the knowledge of the principles of true Religion, with precepts of vertue, and ciuill behauiour.

I haue made a part of a briefe Chronologie for practice of reading hard Words, wherein also thou shalt bee much helped for the vnderstanding of the Bible, and other Histories: and a Grammer Scholler learne to know when his Authors both Greeke and Latine, liued, and when the principall Histories in them were done.

I haue set downe a Table, contayning and teaching the true writing and vnderstanding of any hard English word, borrowed from the Greeke, Latine, or French, and how to know the one from the other with the interpretation thereof, by a plaine English word: whereby Children shall bee prepared for the vnderstanding of thou∣sands of Latine words before they enter the Grammer Schoole, which also will bring much delight and judgement to others. Therefore if thou vnderstandest not any word in this Booke, not before ex∣pounded, seeke the Table.

If I may bee generally receiued, I shall cause one vniforme manner of Teaching: a thing which as it hath brought much profit vnto the Latine tongue, so would it doe to all other Languages, if the like were practised.

Finally, I haue giuen thee such Examples for faire Writing, whereby in euery Schoole all bad hands may be abandoned, that of thou shouldest buy the like of any other (which thou shalt seldome finde in England,) they alone will cost thee much more money than. I aske thee for my whole Profession.

If thou desirest to bee further satisfied, for the performance of these things; reade the Preface, where thou shalt also see the reason of some things in the first Booke, which thou mightest otherwise dislike.

WLU Early Modern Play Reading Group

I’m Dr Andrew Bretz and I’d like to try to put together a reading group for the Winter Semester.
My plan is simple: Let’s get together in Wilf’s around lunch once every month and read an early modern play together while having a pint.
This is not a requirement for any particular course; anyone can come, English student or not; there will be no attendance; you can come by late or leave early; it’s all just for the fun of reading a great play together! Funny voices and silly accents will be encouraged.
All texts will be provided on the date of the reading. You don’t have to read it ahead of time – in fact, I encourage you not to. It might spoil the joy of discovery.
If you want to just blow off some steam or if you want to read a play you probably won’t get a chance to read otherwise, then this is probably for you!
The schedule of events is below. Circle the dates in your calendar and I hope to see you there.

Reading club flyer

imageTamburlaine the Great

Author: Christopher Marlowe

Reading Date: 29 January @ Wilf’s


Tamburlaine the Great was Marlowe’s first great foray onto the public stage as a playwright and it is arguably his most influential play. It tells the true story of Timur the Lame, the shepherd who, through conquest, became the most powerful despot in central Asia since Genghis Khan. Over the top, full of bombast and stupendous arrogance, Tamburlaine is a larger than life character who influenced a whole generation of Elizabethan and Jacobean writers. This was, after all, the play that pioneered the use of blank verse on the stage and established the theatre as a site where great poetry could be performed.


Location: Wilf’s

Date: 2/26/2016


The barbarian queen who cowed the Romans into submission, only to be destroyed by those closest to her. The story of the flame-haired Celtic queen Bonduca revenging her daughters’ rapes by laying waste to the Roman occupying forces resonated in the years following Elizabeth’s death.


The Roaring GirlRoaring Girl

Location: Wilf’s

Date: 3/18/2016


She drinks, she smokes, she swears, she ROARS! Based on the actual historical figure, Moll Cutpurse, the main character in this City Comedy was a swaggering woman in breeches, fighting her way through a world that would really have rather much preferred if she would please put on a skirt… I mean, think of the children!

arden_pageArden of Faversham

Location: Wilf’s

Date: 4/8/2016


An Elizabethan era true crime story! The murder of the middle class Thomas Arden by his wife and her lover was not merely a cautionary tale for the period – it was a salacious scandal that rocked the nation!


Who to contact:

Andrew Bretz  OR

Social Media Policy for My Courses

So, I’ve tinkered with my Social Media Policy a little more in recent months. Anyone out there have any suggestions on what I should do with it to make it better?

Social Media Policy

As you can see, you are perfectly welcome to add me to your Twitter, facebook, tumblr, and Skype, as a courtesy to make myself easier to contact. You ought to be aware, however, that this comes with certain caveats.

  1. Replying: Turn-around time for electronic contact is usually about 48 hours, though it may be more. Whether that contact be an email, direct tweet, or what have you, I reserve the right to take my time to get back to you. This is partially so that I can protect my privacy and partially so that I will be able to answer your questions to the best of my ability.
  2. Manners: Etiquette online is always necessary. I am not your friend. I am your friendly professor. Please ensure that all communications, whether with me or with your fellow students (through online discussion boards, etc), maintain a professional level of decorum. Success or failure to do so will reflect in your participation grade.
  3. Following Me: If you follow me on twitter or what have you, I will follow you back, so as to ensure that you are able to send direct messages.
  4. Professionalism: The fact is that your social media account is already a professional account. 90% of hiring managers will go through your social media footprint before bringing you in for an interview. What any of us do or say online is not private or anonymous. I am just as subject to this as you are. That doesn’t mean that you can’t use it for personal announcements anymore or to put up pictures of yourself at a party, but it does mean that you should be judicious about the things that you post. Remember, you are always subject to the Student Code of Conduct, even online. If I discover instances of behavior online that breaks the Student Code of Conduct, I am obliged under university policy to report it. From previous experience, I would strongly suggest that you avoid such content as the following:
    1. Posting racist or sexist content (or any content that violates the Student Code of Conduct);
    2. “Oversharing” your personal life (ie. I don’t need to hear about your sex life);
    3. Posting links to free essay sites or other sites devoted to aiding students commit academic misconduct.

Remember, regarding professionalism… both you and I are in the same boat. As you are being policed by me, so I am being policed by you. I promise you that I will behave on social media with both professionalism and tact; I expect nothing less of you.

Please remember that any online material in contravention of the Student Code of Conduct will land you in front of the appropriate authorities. Any online material that suggests Academic Misconduct may be used against you in an investigation of misconduct.

That said, I’ve found using twitter and other social media to be a remarkably useful tool for pedagogy.  Basically, so long as you treat the online world with the deference that you would treat the real world, it is a wonderful place. If you don’t, it descends into YouTube comment feeds with startling speed.  Treating each other with deference doesn’t mean not having fun, it just means, to quote Bill and Ted, “be[ing] excellent to each other.” 

I Don’t Want to Be Your Friend (Unless I Do): Emotional Labour in University Teaching

Some friends of mine do a podcast called Witch Please, about the world of Harry Potter. They are scholars out of the University of Alberta and much of what they end up talking about it related to teaching and pedagogy at Hogwarts. I often completely agree with them (for instance, that Hufflepuff is the only house that really values education); I often completely disagree with them (honestly, I may be a monster, but Cedric Diggory’s death was just SO contrived). Nevertheless, they have recently been talking about emotional labour in their podcasts and somehow it has got into the back of my head.

Seriously, go check it out.  I’ll wait.

Emotional labour is one of those feminist issues that I’ve never really dug into before. No real reason I guess, just never really thought too much about it. Over the past few weeks, however, I’ve been thinking a lot about assessment, universal course design, students with disabilities, and my increasing sense of frustration and exhaustion and I’m wondering if the concept of emotional labour might help me to articulate what it is I’m feeling regarding teaching.

“That is, when a professor’s ability to assess a student’s capacity to participate in the discourse or discipline is removed or hindered by the administration in a misguided (mis-)application of universal instruction design — in other words, passing a student because the student will be emotionally traumatized by failure — the course ceases to be about participating in a discourse or discipline and becomes instead infantilizing, othering, and disenfranchising.”

In some of the studies I’ve been reading regarding education and working with students with learning disabilities, I’m not surprised to see that students who feel that their instructor is empathetic and approachable end up doing better. For instance, 

  • Ouellett (“Faculty Development and Universal Instruction Design” in Equity and Excellence in Education 2004) notes that there are many advantages to profs knowing their students, not least of which is tailoring appropriate supports to students who may need extra help.
  • Rose and Meyer (Teaching Every Student in the Digital Age 2002) argue that “affective networks” are necessary for engaging and motivating students, especially students with disabilities. Getting to know your students allows you to communicate your passion for the material and thereby motivate them to do well.
  • Another study (Elacqua et al Perceptions of Classroom Accommodations Among College Students with Disabilities 1996) came to the somewhat unsurprising conclusion that, for students with disabilities, the experience of asking for accommodations can be stressful. Such stress is reduced when students feel that the professor is empathetic and supportive.

I know, none of this is terribly surprising to me, either. Teaching is a very personal thing, predicated on individual relationships that sometimes last an entire lifetime. 

There’s a big distinction in my mind (at least at the moment) regarding setting up a classroom in which everyone is respected and reasonable accommodations are met for a wide range of disabilities and setting up a classroom in which the professor is asked tacitly or explicitly to take on the emotional labour of the students. I worry that the latter is the conclusion that some university and school board administrations are coming to from studies like the ones I just quoted (and others). That is, when a professor’s ability to assess a student’s capacity to participate in the discourse or discipline is removed or hindered by the administration in a misguided (mis-)application of universal instruction design — in other words, passing a student because the student will be emotionally traumatized by failure — the course ceases to be about participating in a discourse or discipline and becomes instead infantilizing, othering, and disenfranchising.

Students with strong social networks and well-developed relationships with professors will tend to do better in classes, this is true. It’s one of the reasons why I give my students access to my Facebook, my Twitter, my YouTube, and whatever other social media I belong to. I want students to use me as a resource. If you want to learn about Shakespeare or poetry or theatre or what have you… I’m here to help!

That said, I can’t be anyone’s friend while they are my student.  Obviously. 

Montaigne probably put it best. One cannot be friends with someone who has power over you because you will always be beholden unto that person. Students want something from professors – to pass the course. It is perverse to demand both a hierarchical organization of power and a distributed organization at the same time about the same topic. It’s not that professors are like princes were to Montaigne – better than their subjects. It’s that when it comes to the particular topic at hand (for me, Shakespeare), the professor is the expert in the discipline who is judging the student’s capacity to participate in that discourse. Yes, I’m always judging you. That’s my job.

Further, I maintain the right to choose my friends based on my own personal inclinations and desires. I don`t think anyone will judge me too harshly for keeping that right to myself.  Friends do emotional labour for other friends. We cry on each other`s shoulders and we get drunk with each other when one of us goes through a break up. It`s a labour that is unpaid, that is shitty, that is hard, and it is incredibly difficult. You can`t pay people enough for genuine emotional labour. It has to come from a choice.

In the attempt to set up a classroom that is empathetic and supportive, I worry that it is too easy for those terms to slip over into emotional labour. It isn’t always the case, but it can certainly happen that administrators and even professors themselves can start to see themselves more as the student’s advocate and friend than as the person who is assessing them. A professor can be a part of a student`s “affective network” – but only so much. At some point we have to step back. We have to assess them, after all. We have to say, “Yes, you have mastered this discourse,” or “No, you have not the skill yet.” 

This is further complicated by the fact that, for many students, failure to master the material in a course or to satisfactorily participate in a discourse represents a statement about their personal self-worth as a human being. Obviously this too is not true. I mean, I’m only telling a student that they did poorly in Shakespeare – I have no idea if they are a decent human being or not!

“Friends do emotional labour for other friends. We cry on each other`s shoulders and we get drunk with each other when one of us goes through a break up. It`s a labour that is unpaid, that is shitty, that is hard, and it is incredibly difficult. You can`t pay people enough for genuine emotional labour. It has to come from a choice.”

Nevertheless, I worry that the 20+ years of educational theory’s focus on changing the role of the professor away from the “sage on the stage” and towards being a part of an “affective network” can be (mis-)understood as being the role of the professor to be the friend of the student as the student sees their academic worth as being inexorably tied to their self-worth as a person. Friends worry about friends’ self-worth as persons. As a professor, I’m only paid to worry about a student’s capacity to participate in a discourse. To ask more of me is to ask me to engage in emotional labour for free.

It’s something of a two-pronged problem. On the one hand, students are brought up with an expectation of their own academic sufficiency such that failure to navigate the terms of a discipline is met with overwhelming emotional distress — just look at the droves of students who are being treated for anxiety disorders.  On the other hand professors are being encouraged to take on a culturally feminized position of caregiver and friend, while not being compensated for the emotional labour that position entails.

Please note, I’m not of the Snape school of pedagogy. I’m not saying that the other role that is available to teachers is to start humiliating our students and belittling them, like Snape does to Harry Potter. Rather, what I think I am saying is that we have to, of course, 

  1. create syllabi that are universal in design; 
  2. help our students to recognize that failure is always an option and that doesn’t mean the end of the world, and; 
  3. protect ourselves from being forced into emotional labour that we don’t want to do, in the name of a job that doesn’t repay us for such labour.

In the end, I’ve made friends with many of my former students. Some are quite close friends now (though I haven’t cried on any of their shoulders, that may say more about my propensity to cry in general). That said, I like to think we chose our friendship, rather than having such a relationship forced upon us by the mandarins of educational theory.

I don’t know – maybe I’m just sour at the moment. I’m certainly open to having my mind changed. What do you think? Am I just being a privileged, white, male prick/Snape-wannabe? Or am I missing something altogether from my reading of the problem? Please let me know in the comments.