Tag: medieval technology

Pastiche Fantasy in Song of Ice and Fire

There’s much to like about what George R.R. Martin does in his juggernaut of a fantasy franchise: his juggling of a ginormous cast of compelling characters, his willingness to kill and maim those characters in horrible ways, and his relentless critique of the way that high fantasy handles class and gender.

I appreciate that there’s something barking mad about demanding ‘realism’ in fricking high fantasy, but medieval Europe was not populated by well-fed and endearing freeholders, chivalrous knights, and free-thinking warrior-maidens. And let’s not even get started on whether the political economy of feudal society is compatible with low-cost extra-dimensional energy sources.

Given all of the ways in which Martin breaks with tropes found in the bulk of high fantasy, it can be easy to forget the degree to which his underlaying fantasy architecture is dungeons-and-dragons level pastiche — complete with Dire Wolves, cliché “barbarian” steppe nomads, pseudo-vikings, and other flotsam and jetsam from Advanced Dungeons and Dragons.

The series even refers to the undead as “wights.” We’re in pure Monster Manual territory here. Our good friend Colin Wight’s last name does not mean “sinister undead dude.” The etymology of “wight” as “undead creature” derives, as I understand it, from a misreading of Tolkien. 
In the early part of the Fellowship of the Ring (in a section that gets cut in the major audio and film adaptations) the Halflings face an undead creature called a “barrow-wight.” This simply translates as “barrow man” or “barrow creature.” So what we have is kind of metonym that developed within the fantasy genre and diffused down to Martin.
There’s nothing wrong with this.* Much of the “breakout” high-fantasy series of the last few decades, such as Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time and Eddings’ Belgariad, were arguably even more pastiche — and not even remotely subversive. 
I suppose we could make a case that its pedestrian fantastical elements enhance the critical dimensions of A Song of Ice and Fire. Perhaps it might turn out that Martin’s subversive instincts extend not only to issues of class, gender, and power, but also to the so-far ambiguous status of the distant history of Westeros. But still… the underlying world-building is glaringly bereft of imagination given the other strengths of the books. 
… And, of course, after I finished writing I searched for “song of ice and fire pastiche” and found this ground well-trodden. Here’s an example: a thoughtful discussion in the context of computer role-playing games
*Heck, I wish I could find people to play tabletop fantasy rpgs with!

Are our courses easier than sleeping?

Yes. Your students have less observable brain activity during
lecture than when they’re asleep.

Updated for the humorless. See postscript below.

A new paper in IEEE Transactions in Biomedical Engineering suggests so:

Long-term assessment of EDA [a measure of nervous system activity] revealed interesting trends in the participant’s sympathetic modulation over a week-long period. Intervals of elevated EDA frequently corresponded to times when the participant was studying, doing homework, or taking an exam. This is possibly due to the increased cognitive stress associated with these activities. The characteristic peaks occurring during sleep have been associated with slow-wave sleep [40] and remain a subject for future studies.

What’s telling, by the way, is that coursework did not increase cognitive stress. (Via.)

So what does this mean for our classes? Well, it means that we now have Science (granted, n = 1) to back up our intuition that lecturing is a terribly inefficient way of conveying information.

What is to be done? It’s time to scrap the lecture.

I’ve been a convert to anti-lecturing for a while, but Eric Mazur helped me put intellectual muscle on a skeleton that I’d gotten from reading Ken Bain’s What the Best College Teachers Do.

The basic idea is straightforward: Any communication that requires passive acceptance of the material by the student is bad. The idea is to generate active engagement on the student’s part with the material–whether by asking questions, generating discussion, or, from time to time, coercing (gently!) participation.

Easy in seminar. Hard in lecture. But technology–especially in-class clickers (as publicized here by Professor Matt Carnes of Georgetown and probably by a colleague or a mentor in your department; see also the first pages of Brad DeLong’s intro lecture) allows for scalable participation much more easily.

Lectures are more a ritual and a convenience than a pedagogical tool. But in the absence of tutorials and seminars for all, we should at least make them more challenging than napping.

Postscript: I should have learned by now that there is no joke so obvious that some pedant won’t get it. The paper I linked to, the post I linked to, and this post that I wrote all made it clear to varying degrees that we understand that (a) this is not a perfect or even a good measure of cognitive effort and (b) that this is a very small (“n=1″!) sample. So, thanks to the Twitterers who pointed out that this is not Science!!!!1!.

Mazur’s lecture (cheap irony alert) is both long and well worth the time. I suggest that the truly interested take the time to watch it. This post, after all, was nothing more than an excuse to link to it.


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