Professor Christina Christoforatou first came to CUNY as an undergraduate. Though she admits that, at first, she thought that Brooklyn College would be a stepping stone on her way to another four-year institution it proved such a good fit that she finished her BA and went on to pursue her MA there. Then she moved on the Graduate Center to complete her PhD. While at the GC she was exposed to Writing Across the Curriculum pedagogy as a WAC Fellow, and so she knew she ultimately wanted to teach writing and literature.
What drew her to Baruch was the Great Works program. Unlike many programs with set parameters for what constitutes the literary canon, Great Works is open to a broad range of world literatures and provided an opportunity for Christoforatou to expose students to her own specialty, Byzantine literature. As a scholar of Greek secular romances, Christoforatou has devoted much of her scholarship to making the genre available to English language scholars. Her interdisciplinary, comparative, and intertextual approaches are a natural fit for the challenges of teaching in Great Works. Her current scholarship mirrors the breadth of the 2800 course; in it she is concerned with issues of power and sovereignty in the writings of authors spanning from Pindar to Machiavelli.
Christina was among the first Great Works instructors to go through the hybridization seminar at the Center for Teaching and Learning, and to try her hand at teaching Great Works in the hybrid format (for this course, meaning one in-person and one digital class meeting per week). Though her first foray into teaching hybrids was not a satisfying experience, she eventually chose to return to the format and has found it to be rewarding.
In addition to teaching Great Works, First Year Writing (ENG 2100 and 21050), and upper level electives in her areas of expertise, Christoforatou has also had the opportunity to use her Writing Across the Curriculum training as interim coordinator for the Graduate Center-based WAC fellows at Baruch. More recently she has served the English department by running an assessment of majors and minors. Taking a wider sample size than in previous assessments, Christoforatou and her colleagues assessed student writing to compare specific skill sets of majors, minors, and non-majors in a variety of English department courses. Her findings will help shape curriculum recommendations for future students.
Five Questions with Christina Christoforatou
1. What drew you to Byzantine literature as a field?
A fondness for words and interest in creative storytelling! My earliest encounters with literature came through other forms of expression—singing, chanting, dancing, acting—all of which tell interesting narratives of their own. I spent my formative years in rural Greece, where people participate in local festivals and community celebrations that engage the whole community in performance. Poets, artists, actors, and local story-tellers keep the past alive through narration and imaginative storytelling; it is not unlikely for travelling theatrical troupes to stage original plays of their own creation or for artists to deliver memorable performances through creative improvisation. In hot summer nights, shadow puppeteers offer entertainment using flat, cut out figures (shadow puppets) which they hold between a source of light (usually oil lamps) and a translucent screen propped up on stilts. The concept is simple, but the effect surreal. Events like these offer many opportunities for discovery and experimentation; they also introduce creation and improvisation as meaningful pursuits.
In terms of influence, I was well into my graduate studies when I discovered the intellectual heft of these experiences. The folktales and fables I had grown up with were woven into many, many other forms of expression, including fiction—such as pottery, woodcuts and the textile arts. This late discovery fueled my interest in Byzantine literature and directed my attention to intertextuality and intermediality, which I continue to study.
2. If you could recommend one Byzantine text to students at Baruch, what would it be, and why?
Because I enjoy a good satire as much as I relish a good romance, I have two recommendations— An Entertaining Tale of Quadrupeds, a beast fable that doubles as a political allegory, or parody, depending on one’s view; the other, a collection of four romances that survive from twelfth-century Constantinople, Drosilla and Charikles, Rhodanthe and Dosikles, Hysmine and Hysminias and Aristandros and Kallithea.
Collectively, the romances represent the rebirth of creative fiction in the form of the novel in Byzantium after a hiatus of some eight centuries. They also exhibit the most creative and inventive qualities of the genre since late antiquity and are thought to have had an influence in the development of the genre of romance in western Europe. Their composition coincides with the visit of the great patron of the arts, Eleanor of Aquitaine, to Constantinople in 1147, during which she had the opportunity to hear two of the romances, Rhodanthe and Dosikles and Aristandros and Kallithea, recited in the imperial court of the Komnenoi.
The plots of all four compositions revive the ancient Greek world with its pagan gods and beliefs, yet also reflect customs and beliefs of their own time. Because storytelling in Byzantium was transmuted into stories about holy men and women—into hagiography, not fiction—the authors of the romances are pivotal figures in the transmission of fictional writing from the ancient to the modern world. Writing of romantic fiction in Byzantium was not a standard element in literary culture. In terms of influence, Eustathios
Makrembolites’ novel, Hysmine and Hysminias, enjoyed a later revival in connection with the narrative tradition of Apolonius of Tyre. Makrembolites’ scene of the storm at sea, where the heroine is offered as a sacrifice, is adapted in Book VIII of the fourteenth-century, Confessio Amantis of John Gower and by way of Gower’s poem forms a portion of the plot of William Shakespeare’s Pericles, Prince of Tyre (Act III).
A fine edition of all four romances is available in English by Elizabeth Jeffreys—Four Byzantine Novels: Theodore Prodromos, Rhodanthe and Dosikles, Eumathios Makrembolites, Hysmine and Hysminias, Constantine Manasses, Aristandros and Kallithea, Niketas Eugenianos, Drosilla and Charikles. Trans. Elizabeth Jeffreys. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2012.
The Byzantine satire, An Entertaining Tale of Quadrupeds, is a fourteenth-century vernacular poem of just 1,000 lines that narrates a political meeting of animals which ends with a battle between herbivores and carnivores. The poem is rife with irony and sarcasm and offers a fascinating glimpse into the neglected literary and political world of late Byzantium as the animals make lavish claims, insult each other, bicker, and finally come to blows. The boar declares, “Even my hair fulfills a major mission / Within the Western Church, deserving mention: / The padres bless the folk during Asperges / Using a sprinkler made from hair of mine.” At the end of the composition, the victory of the herbivores—the prey—over the carnivores is a comment on class war. A dual-language edition of the poem with excellent commentary is available by Nicholas, Nick and George Baloglou, eds. An Entertaining Tale of Quadrupeds. New York: Columbia UP, 2003.
Figure: Illustration from An Entertaining Tale of Quadrupeds, MS C. gr. Seraglio 35. Furious, the boar charges against the lion and wounds it.
Source: Hans Eideneier επιμ., Μεσαιωνικές ιστορίες ζώων. Διήγησις των Τετραπόδων Ζώων & Πουλολόγος, κριτική έκδοση. Ηράκλειο: Πανεπιστημιακές Εκδόσεις Κρήτης, 2016.
3. What are one or two works that you always want to include on your Great Works syllabus, and what keeps you coming back to them?
Confucius’s, Analects (475-221 BCE) and Niccolὸ, Machiavelli’s, The Prince (1532 CE) are staples on my Great Works syllabus. I usually pair up Machiavelli’s political treatise with excerpts from his more substantial, Discourses on Livy, and balance Confucius’ anecdotal wisdom with thematically relevant excerpts from Euripides’ Antigone and the Hindu, Bhagavad-Gita, which advocate discipline, non-violence and principled action. Separated by well over a millennium, Confucius and Machiavelli’s literary compositions are as important today as they were during their respective times. The ideals they project continue to inspire and polarize contemporary readers, offering many opportunities for discussion and debate. Confucius has remarkable faith in human goodness and a person’s potential to affect political change through the cultivation of virtue and knowledge. Machiavelli, on other hand, has very little faith in either virtue or goodness since neither can ensure the permanence of the state and the welfare of its citizens in times of political unrest.
4. How does your experience as a CUNY alumna inform the way that you approach teaching here at Baruch?
After graduating from CUNY, I knew I wanted to teach in a public urban university and CUNY is as good as they come. I find the diversity and multiplicity of perspective CUNY students offer exhilarating. It is not unusual in any given semester to have several students in Great Works classes who can read the assigned literature in Greek, Chinese, Sanskrit, Arabic, French or Hebrew. One semester I had six students who recited excerpts from the Old Testament and the Qur’an in the original Hebrew and Arabic; from the Odyssey in Ancient Greek; from Dante’s Inferno in Italian; and from a collection of Buddhist folktales from the Jātaka in Pali. The latest student was also a former Buddhist monk who proceeded to correct our collective interpretation of two Jātaka tales armed with evidence from the text and knowledge of the original language!
Prior to joining the faculty at Baruch College, I had the opportunity to teach literature and writing at Brooklyn College and New York City College of Technology, where I also served as a Writing Fellow. At NYCCT I introduced Writing across the Curriculum in collaboration with the departments of Architecture, Mathematics, and Human Services. At Baruch, I continue to experiment with different pedagogies that allow more meaningful encounters with literature and writing; I also mentor students who have an interest in Medieval Literature.
5. If you could offer one piece of advice to students who are struggling with reading and writing about difficult texts, what would it be?
Don’t give up! No writer feels validated after producing his or her first draft of writing. Apropos, no reader experiences great exhilaration following a first-time reading of a medieval literary text. One must be ready to read, and read more than once. You may start by analyzing aspects of the text that seem intriguing or confusing to you; then read select passages carefully and out loud to understand the tone of the composition, the heft of the words, the view of the narrator. Critical editions also help, so opt for them whenever possible. Aside from reliable transcriptions and translations, critical editions offer informative introductions that help the reader understand the composition in context and produce informed and reliable interpretations. With respect to writing, be ready to revise—rethink, simplify (or amplify), reorganize and reconsider, even when the final product seems polished. It’s a messy business, but rewarding and validating in the end.