Thursday, October 23, 2008

Because New Kid is too busy with law school these days to skewer Chronicle articles

I don't know how many of you have read this piece on the Chronicle website this week. In it, the author highlights problems with the tenure system in American colleges and universities and suggests some sort of fixed-term contract (he argues for 30 years) to make sure that aging professors eventually retire and open up spots for new faculty. I'm not going to respond to his idea (mainly because my school has no tenure system and offers only one-year contracts to faculty), but I will respond to one example he cites. One of the problems with tenure, the author claims, is that departments often get "tenured in"; that is, they reach a point when all members of the department are tenured and likely to stick around for many years. The result is that departments find themselves not flexible enough to cover all of the areas they need to. Then he says:

"Does, for example, an English department with 30 members really need three medievalists?"

[pause for laughter]

I just want to know where these schools are. Where are these English departments that are terribly overstaffed in the area of medieval literature?

I also love the way he pulls "medievalists" out of the air as an appropriate example of obsolescence. Would he ask whether the same department "really needs" three Americanists? Three people covering the twentieth century? Probably not. But three medievalists? The absurdity! The waste of taxpayer dollars!


Okay, I feel better now. Back to grading papers.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Irony out west

Scene: a group of academics, including an academic dean, sits down at a local eatery.

Waitress: Can I get your drink orders?

Academic #1: I'll just have water.

Academic #2: Iced tea, please.

Waitress: (turning to the dean) And you?

Dean: (sighing heavily) I don't know. Hemlock?

Waitress: (without missing a beat) I'm sorry, sir, we just have Pepsi.

My only question: was she was one of our students?

Friday, August 22, 2008

And we have a winner!

Well, kind of.

As of 8:00 this morning, I had received five comments on my previous post. Two commenters wanted me to finish the "teaching post," two voted for the "research post," and one expressed a preference for the "meditations on the profession" post. Since there was a tie, I decided to finish both the teaching and research posts and to start with the teaching post, since it was closer to being finished.

Before I could get it posted this afternoon, however, I received an additional comment from Carrie K, who voted for the research post. I considered throwing out her vote on procedural grounds (a la the 2000 Supreme Court decision), but in the end I relented. So the official winner of the contest is the reasearch-oriented post, which I will finish in the next couple of days. Until then, you can read the runner-up below.


I've worked here in Hawtch-Hawtch for almost ten years now. I grew up about 25 miles away, and I've lived in the state for all of my life, excepting seven years in grad school. In other words, I know this place. I don't agree with most attitudes I encounter 'round these parts, but I'm rarely surprised by them. At times, however, my students (most of whom grew up approximately 25 miles in the other direction from the college) say things that I have trouble even processing. It's not that I can't believe they think this way; I just can't believe that they say it out loud.

When I walked into class a few weeks ago, I was greeted with a question. "Why did you make us read those articles?" a particularly burly student asked before I had gotten all the way through the door. I asked if he had a problem with the articles. "I sure had a problem with the second one," he responded. I looked at him innocently, though I was pretty sure I knew what he was talking about. The first article I had assigned to my composition class for the day discussed the challenges faced by families in which the wife works while the husband stays home with the children. The second article discussed the similar challenges faced by homosexual parents.

Again, I know where I work, and I know that homosexuality is still something of a novelty to these students. A critical reading assignment I often use in my comp classes, for example, asks students to question whether the word "couple" has to refer to a man and a woman; my students usually greet this question with giggles. Actual giggles. So, yeah, I know what I'm getting into when I ask them to read an article that treats homosexuals as...well, normal. But I decided to play along. "What kind of problem did you have with the article?" I asked.

Looking back, I probably shouldn't have asked that.

"Gay people are disgusting," my burly student said in a loud and matter-of-fact tone.

Well. Okay.

"Are you sure that you want to start class with a pronouncement like that?" I asked him.

"What do you mean?" he replied, looking genuinely confused.

"Well," I started, "you don't know everybody in this class, do you?"

He just looked more confused.

"What I mean is," I continued, "do you really want to start class by making this kind of blanket statement about a group of people, when you don't know whether some people in the class might belong to that group?"

But he knew he had me beat on that score. While it was certainly possible that some people in the class might be homosexual, he knew, as I did, that it was extremely unlikely that any of them would be stupid enough to admit it. Especially now.

Earlier this week, I attended an information session administered by our Institutional Research department. The subject was our campus results of the Community College Survey of Student Engagement, a national instrument designed to measure student attitudes and experiences at the CC level. One particular result jumped out at me. When asked how often they had engaged in conversations with people of different race, ethnicity, or economic status while on campus, almost half of our students said "Never." Not "Rarely." Never.

On my good days, I see a statistic like that as an opportunity. I start thinking about ways of increasing diversity, or at least awareness of diversity, in my classes. And it often works. I had a pretty good conversation with the burly homophobic during the break in our class that day. He admitted that his attitudes are a product of his environment, that his father would "beat the crap" out of him if he ever let his future wife work for a living while he stayed home with children (I didn't ask what his father would do if this kid announced he was gay). By the end of the class, I think he was at least thinking about why he has such strong feelings on this subject.

Which is all I want, of course. I firmly believe that it's not my job to change these kids' values, or even to "broaden their horizons." Mostly, my job is to make them better writers. To achieve that goal, all I ask is that they try to understand why they believe what they believe.

Oh, and if they believe something really nuts, like that gay people are disgusting, I also ask that they keep it to themselves.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Are you ready to play our game?

I know what you've been thinking. No, the tarantula did not eat me alive. Summer school almost did, though. Teaching two classes while working on an article and a proposal for Kalamazoo, beginning a Latin translation group with a colleague, and deciding whether my oldest child would be starting Kindergarten next week left with very little time for blogging over the past month. I know, I know, there's always time for the things you put first, right? But as much as I enjoy the blog, it often comes in very low on my list of priorities.

I haven't been absent from the blogosphere, however. I've been reading all of my favorite blogs regularly, almost all of which have had interesting things to say. I've been following the In The Muddle controversy (though I admit I came to it rather late and was only tipped off to the now-defunct blog's existence by a mention of it on Unlocked Wordhoard). I don't really have anything to say about it that hasn't already been said, by Larry Swain among others. I will say that, though I've publicly admitted that I'm not much of theory person and that I often have difficulty following the more esoteric posts at In The Middle, I have found the bloggers there, particularly Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, to be exceedingly generous and welcoming. I have little respect for those who pick on nice people (especially when those nice people are doing good work).

And it's not really true to say that I haven't written anything here in the past month. In fact, I've written quite a bit, though none of it has made it into a publishable post. I've started three different posts, only to be interrupted by work, children, or sleep. As a result, I have three fairly substantial but unfinished posts sitting in my Drafts folder. I had planned on just ditching all of them--returning to a piece of writing after a long absence is always difficult for me--but Miss Goddess had a better idea (as she often does).

Instead of letting these poor, orphaned pieces of prose pass into oblivion, I'll give those few remaining of my readers a chance to save one. I'm posting below the first paragraph of each of the three posts in question. If you would like to see one of those posts finished, please say so in the comments. Whichever potential post gets the most votes will be finished and posted in its entirety later this week. Here goes:

Contestant 1 (the teaching post):
I've worked here in Hawtch-Hawtch for almost ten years now. I grew up about 25 miles away, and I've lived in the state for all of my life, excepting seven years in grad school. In other words, I know this place. I don't agree with most attitudes I encounter 'round these parts, but I'm rarely surprised by them. At times, however, my students (most of whom grew up approximately 25 miles in the other direction from the college) say things that I have trouble even processing. It's not that I can't believe they think this way; I just can't believe that they say it out loud...

Contestant 2 (the research post):
One of the great joys and frustrations of being a medievalist involves having to face head-on the pervasive misconceptions held by the general public about the Middle Ages. Mary Kate Hurley recently asked medievalists about times when they have found themselves using their knowledge of the period in unexpected settings, but surely the most common, almost clichéd, scenario begins with the question "Did they really...?" Did they really burn witches? Did they really believe in magic? Did they really eat dirt? And so on. It is our privilege, nay, our duty to correct these misconceptions, no?...

Contestant 3 (the meditations on the profession post):
I've been thinking a lot recently about my approach to scholarship: why I do it, what I get out of it, etc.. As I've mentioned before in this space, I feel like I'm something of a special case here. Because I teach at a community college, my scholarly output has absolutely no bearing on my job security. In a way, I suppose, I'm a bit like an independent scholar, though I've never thought of myself in those terms. Because I went to grad school at a big-name R1 program, I've always conducted my research and writing as if I were on the tenure track, in that I plan to write one or two conference papers each year, and I then try to turn those papers into articles to be submitted to journals (though I admit that I often abandon those projects once they get to the article-writing stage)...

It's now up to you, faithful readers. If I get no comments, all three of these posts will die a painful death and never be heard from again. But if you're the type who tears up watching Extreme Makeover, who can't pass by a kitten without smiling, you'll reach out to save one of these paragraphs. The clock is ticking...

Sunday, July 20, 2008

No words

Okay, so I was in the middle of writing a long post about the future of online scholarship a few minutes ago, when Older Monkey came out of her bedroom and told me she was going to the bathroom. A few seconds later, she came back into the living room and told me that she saw a spider in the hallway that scared her. I did the good dad thing and got up from the sofa to help her, though I assumed that the probably tiny spider she had seen was already long gone. Imagine my surprise when I saw not just a spider but a TARANTULA!!! In. My. Fucking. House!

I just don't even know what more to say about it. I mean, Miss Goddess and I got it out of the house, in a low-comedy procedure that involved luring it into Older Monkey's cardboard-box-cum-pinhole-camera from last month's Art Camp. I'd like to say that I behaved throughout with the detached grace and calm befitting a scholar, but that would be a lie. I'm just thankful that I didn't wet myself.

Tarantula, with Younger Monkey's right Croc for purposes of scale.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Snakes in the water and other discoveries

Sorry to have been so long without posting. We've been extraordinarily busy around here. Miss Goddess decided that, as a birthday gift, she wanted to completely redo our kitchen. The kitchen now looks absolutely beautiful, though we had to neglect the rest of the house (and both of our children, to some extent) for more than a week to get it that way. Last week was Older Monkey's sixth birthday, an event which we celebrated by taking her and two of our nieces to see Kit Kittredge: An American Girl, followed by a trip to the American Girl Boutique and Bistro. I was dreading this stop, but I have to say that the American Girl operation is quite impressive. The stuff is crazy expensive, of course, but the attention to detail (aesthetic and historical) is remarkable. Too bad the dolls are taken only from American history. I found myself wishing for Aethelflad: A Mercian Girl, but, alas, it was not to be. I also started teaching summer classes last week, so I had to play like an employed person again. I wasn't really ready for long pants again so soon.

Though I haven't been posting recently, I have been reading. Specifically, I've been rereading Heinrich Henel's edition of Aelfric's De Temporibus Anni, a text which I posted about a few weeks ago. It's been a strange experience going back to this work after such a long hiatus from it. The last time I looked carefully at it was before I even chose a dissertation topic, probably twelve or thirteen years ago. At the time, I was just learning Old English, just learning how to be a medievalist, in fact. Now I'm still learning Old English, still learning how to be a medievalist, but returning to this work has shown me that I have at least matured somewhat in my understanding, and what little I have learned has colored how I read De Temporibus Anni, raising some interesting questions about the work and about Aelfric's approach to it.

In the first section of the text, for example, Aelfric attempts to explain the relationship between the sun and the earth, leading to a fuller discussion of the concept of day and how the earth is lit by the sun. He begins by recounting the first six days of Creation, in language close to that used in his own Old English translation of Genesis. That's not a surprising strategy for an early Medieval writer, I suppose, but it is a bit surprising for Aelfric, I think. Perhaps the best-known piece in all of Aelfric's works, a piece often anthologized in introductory Old English textbooks, is his Preface to Genesis, in which Aelfric expresses his deep concerns about Biblical translation, explaining that he undertook the translation of Genesis with great reluctance and that he was careful to translate as exactly as possible. He specifically says that he "did not dare to write any more in English than the Latin has, nor to change the order of words, except in the case in which Latin and English do not have the same way of expressing" (my translation).

So I found it a little surprising that Aelfric includes what is essentially a translation of much of the first chapter of Genesis here at the beginning of De Temporibus Anni. I was even more surprised by an apparent error in this section, however. When discussing the fifth day of Creation, Aelfric states:

On ðam fiftan dæge he gesceop eal wyrmcynn and ða micclan hwalas and eal fisccynn on mislicum and menigfealdum hiwum.

[On the fifth day He created all reptiles and the great whales and all kinds of fish in various and manifold forms.]

The problem, of course, is that Genesis does not say that God created reptiles on the fifth day. Or at least I don't think it does. The situation is actually a little complicated. See, Genesis 1:20-21 in the Vulgate reads as follows:

Dixit etiam Deus: Producant aquæ reptile animæ viventis, et volatile super terram sub firmamento cæli. Creavitque Deus cete grandia, et omnem animam viventem atque motabilem, quam produxerant aquæ in species suas, et omne volatile secundum genus suum. Et vidit Deus quod esset bonum.

[And God said: Let the waters produce the creeping live things, and those flying over the earth undter the firmament of heaven. And God created the great whales, and every living and moving creature, which the waters produced in their kinds, and all flying creatures according to their kind. And God saw that it was good.]

The crux here is the Latin word reptile, which does not really mean "reptile" in its English sense, but rather "creeping" (though it is, of course, the source of our modern word "reptile"). In fact, the word appears again in verse 24, which covers the sixth day of Creation:

Dixit quoque Deus: Producat terra animam viventem in genere suo, jumenta, et reptilia, et bestias terræ secundum species suas. Factumque est ita.

[And God said: let the land produce the living creature in its kind, cattle and creeping things and beasts of the earth according to their species. And it was made so.]

It's not difficult to imagine how Aelfric may have been confused by the appearance of "reptile" in Genesis 1:20. Really, (and I'm soooo not a Biblical scholar, here) the Hebrew word that the Vulgate translates as "reptile" appears to mean something more like "swarming things" than "creeping things," so Aelfric may be getting it no more wrong than the Vulgate before him.

But here's the thing: Aelfric knows better. I know he knows better, because he doesn't make the same mistake elsewhere. In his translation of the first part of Genesis, for example, Aelfric renders verse 20 as follows:

20 God cwæð eac swylce: Teon nu ða wæteru forð swymmende cynn cucu on life and fleogende cynn ofer eorðan under þære heofonan fæstnysse.
21 And God gesceop ða ða miclan hwalas and eal lybbende fisccyn and styrigendlice, ðe ða wæteru tugon forð on heora hiwum, and eall fleogende cyn æfter heora cynne; God geseah ða ðæt hit god wæs.

[20 And God also said: Let now the waters bring forth swimming creatures that are alive and flying creatures over the earth, under the firmament of heaven.
21. And God created then the great whales and living and moving kinds of fishes, which the waters brought forth in their forms, and all flying creatures according to their kind; God saw then that it was good.]

The substitution of swymmende ("swimming") for Latin reptile ("creeping") is not, I think, evidence that Aelfric doesn't know how to translate the word. Probably he just thought that swimming creatures made more sense coming out of the waters than creeping creatures did. His willingness to make this change, however shows a certain thoughtfulness on Aelfric's part regarding this word, a thoughtfulness that makes it even harder to understand his treatment of the fifth day of Creation in De Temporibus Anni.

There are, I suppose, a few different possible explanations for the discrepancy between De Temporibus Anni and Aelfric's translation of Genesis. It's possible that one of the two texts is corrupt, the result of a scribal error. I can't speak to the textual integrity of the translation of Genesis (mainly because I don't have Crawford's edition of the text before me at present). Considering the text in question (as well as Aelfric's explicit warning to copyists not to make any changes), however, a scribal change there seems unlikely. We're also on pretty firm ground regarding the text of De Temporibus Anni, which appears in a manuscript that may have been supervised by Aelfric himself (or based directly on another manuscript so supervised). So I'm reluctant to take the easy way out and blame the scribe here.

The more interesting possibility, and the one I favor, is that what we see in these two different interpretations of Genesis 1:20 is a development in Aelfric's own understanding of the verse. The chronology of Aelfric's works is a question of some debate, and it's not known where in that chronology De Temporibus Anni fits, but scholars generally believe it to have been written early in Aelfric's career, some time before he wrote his translation of Genesis. In the intervening years, his Latin must have improved. Or maybe he just came across the more orthodox view in his own reading. In his translation of Basil's Hexameron (also a later work), for example, Aelfric says that on the fifth day, God created fish, whales, and birds, but resigns the "creopendan wyrmas" ("creeping reptiles") to the sixth day. For whatever reason, Aelfric seems to have abandoned the idea that reptiles were created on the fifth day not long after writing De Temporibus Anni.

I've now gone on much longer than I intended to about what is an extremely minor textual point in this relatively minor text. But I have to admit that I love this kind of thing. To me, scholarship is only really fun when you're making discoveries, no matter how small they may be. And this kind of discovery, the kind that can give you real insight into an author's development, is especially rewarding. I'm reminded of the first time I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, when I was still a teenage and something of a novice at art museums. I remember standing before a huge Matisse painting and being blown away by the fact that the pencil lines were visible beneath the paint. Those lines made that painting and Matisse much more real for me. For just a minute the painting became something more than an artifact; it became a particular product of a real live person. I could imagine Matisse in his workshop actually drawing those lines, planning the eventual painting. It was a very cool moment to my seventeen-year-old self and changed, at least a little, the way I view art even today.

And that's why I love medieval studies in general, because those glimpses happen all the time when you're studying such old and little-known stuff. The first manuscript I ever worked with, for example, was a collection of booklets from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, bound together in the early fifteenth. The booklet I was particularly interested in was really just a quire and had, at least for a while, been carried around in somebody's pocket (or the medieval equivalent thereof). I know this because the booklet was clearly creased across the middle, and the back leaf was heavily worn from being folded against itself. The moment I figured that out was the moment that I became hooked on manuscript work.

Anyway, sorry for going on at such length. I still plan to post more about De Temporibus Anni, but I'll try to make future posts about more than a single word.

Now I have to go back to Freshman papers. In July. There ought to be a law.

Monday, June 23, 2008


Twenty-two years ago today, I went to a birthday party that changed my life. Actually, I missed the party proper because I was at work, dutifully bagging the groceries of the soccer moms of 1986. And I hadn't planned on going to the party at all, which meant that I didn't have a gift. At the urging of my friends and a little voice inside my head that would not be ignored, I decided I'd head to the party after work. I did my best with a last-minute gift found mainly on the toy aisle of the large supermarket where I worked. I don't remember everything that I put in that little brown sack, but I do remember one item in particular: a thin rubber bracelet that spelled out the word "WONDERFUL." When, after my shift, I drove to what was left of the party and gave that bracelet (with assorted and sundry other items) to the newly 16-year-old girl who was later to become my wife, I couldn't have known how appropriate a gift it was.

Of all the words I could use to describe the woman whose birthdays I've celebrated (and agonized over) for 23 consecutive years now, "wonderful" comes closest to the mark. She is full of wonders even now, even when you'd think I've seen them all, even though she secretly worries that she's become just another harried Mommy at the park. It's not just that she's crazy smart (though she is) or crazy beautiful (though she is). And it's not just that she has that thing that my mother insists on calling "creativity," making it sound like she spends her free time thinking of things she could hot-glue sequins onto. She's incredibly talented, of course, which never ceases to amaze me, since I've got plenty of skill but not much that could be called talent. Her sense of humor is so good it's actually frustrating, since I spend large parts of every day wishing I had said whatever she just said. And she's the coolest person I know, mainly because she doesn't really care whether other people think she's cool. But none of these descriptions are sufficient. What makes her so wonderful is the intangible whatever that is created by the combination of all these things, as processed by her whacked-out head that sees the world in a way that nobody else I've ever met does. Her whole, in other words, is much more than the sum of her parts.

What's great is that I figured all of this out (or intuited it, at any rate) that night in 1986, when I came late to her birthday party and gave her a ridiculous gift made up of items bought on a grocery store toy aisle. She smiled when she opened it, ad it was all over for me. Within two weeks we were officially an item, and I finally understood what being in love meant. Twenty-two years later, I still can't believe my luck.

So Happy Birthday, Miss Goddess. In the words of the Moldy Peaches, I don't see what anyone can see in anyone else but you.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Little-known literature: Aelfric's De Temporibus Anni

As she often does, New Kid has me thinking today. Thinking, specifically, about my blogidentity, to coin a term.

When I first had the idea to start this blog, my motivations were pretty simple. I read blogs regularly, especially places like Unlocked Wordhoard and Quod She, and I wanted to get in on the fun. I also liked the idea of using a blog to compensate for some of the professional isolation I experience (i.e., not only am I the only medievalist on my campus, I'm just about the only person interested in British literature). Plus, I had long wanted to use the name Caught in the Snide (taken from Dr. Seuss, for those of you who don't know), just because it's such a great turn of phrase. What I didn't know was what the blog would be about. Should the blog focus on medieval content, like, say, Heavenfield does? Should I talk about the intersections of my career and my family life, like Confessions of a Community College Dean? Should it just be about the minutiae of my academic identity, like so many blogs that I won't name?

In the end, I decide not to make the decision. I've posted about my personal life a bit, about my teaching, about life in the world of community colleges, about stuff that's just bugging me. What I haven't done much of, however, is write about strictly medieval content. Larry Swain, over at the Ruminate, has just started what he hopes to make a regular feature that focuses on little-known medieval works. I won't tread on the ground he's marked off for himself (though there's doubtless plenty of little-known medieval works to go around), but I do want to write some posts that deal with specific medieval texts. Hopefully, the posts will be somewhat interesting to readers and will serve at the same time as a space for me to think out loud about actual literature. Hell, if nothing else, maybe I'll make it into Scott Nokes's Morning Medieval Miscellany.

I want to start with a series of posts about the text that, more than anything else, is responsible for my vocation as a medievalist. No, not Beowulf, not The Canterbury Tales, and certainly not Lord of the Rings. No, the text that I hold responsible for my decision to enter the world of medieval scholarship is...[drumroll]...Aelfric's De Temporibus Anni.

No, seriously. Let me explain. I discovered this text as a student in a compulsory Introduction to Old English course that I was trying to get out of the way during my first semester in grad school, having applied to said school with the intentions of studying 19th-century American literature, specifically Thoreau and the Transcendentalists. I ran across De Temporibus Anni in the process of completing a reading notebook for the Old English class, which was already my favorite course. The title of the work, which translates as "On the Times of the Year," spoke to a long and abiding interest I had in the conception of time throughout history (in fact, my most successful paper as an undergraduate was a discussion of concepts of time and eternity in Augustine, Boethius and Aquinas). I started looking at the text and at some of the scholarship surrounding it, and by Christmas I had decided to leave the Transcendentalists to bespectacled bourbon drinkers and throw in my lot with the Anglo-Saxons. My first conference paper was on De Temporibus Anni, and it was my interest in this text that led, through a series of convolutions, to my dissertation topic, which had absolutely nothing to do with that text in the end. So I feel, in a sense, like I owe Aelfric something.

De Temporibus Anni
is among Aelfric's least-known and least-studied works. The standard edition is the one produced by Heinrich Henel for the EETS in 1942, and very little has been written about it since. That's a shame, because it's actually a very interesting work. As the title implies, the subject is ostensibly the makeup of the year, a fact which has led many scholars to characterize the text as a translation or adaptation of one or more of Bede's computistical works, which to some degree it is. The first few chapters clearly point to this aspect of the text. Early chapter titles include "De Die" ("On Day"), "De Nocte" ("On Night"), "De Anno" ("On the Year"), and "De Primo Die Saeculi, sive de Equinoctio Vernali" ("On the First Day of the Year, or the Spring Equinox") [NOTE: Good old bilingual Aelfric, who understands and exploits the relationships between Latin and the vernacular better than perhaps any other Anglo-Saxon author, leaves chapter titles in Latin, though the text is entirely in Old English]. But Aelfric soon broadens his scope (and leaves Bede's computus behund) to include basic information about the earth ("De Mundo") and heavens ("De Diversis Stellis"), as well as a number of meterological phenomena ("De Pluvia" ["On Rain"], "De Nive" ["On Snow"]). As a result, De Temporibus Anni is much more than a computistical crib; it provides an extraordinary and very accessible insight into the way Anglo-Saxons understood the physical world in which they lived.

Aelfric begins De Temporibus Anni with a very brief prologue that states his intentions:

Her æfter fyligð an lytel cwyde be gearlicum tidum þæt nis to spelle geteald ac elles to rædenne þam ðe hit licað.

[Here follows a brief discourse concerning the times of the year, that is not intended as a sermon but rather for reading by them whom it pleases.]

It is interesting that Aelfric specifically marks off this work from the sermons for which he is so well-known (and which often directly precede De Temporius Anni in the manuscripts in which it appears). The word he uses to describe his treatise is cwyde, a word that can mean "utterance," "discourse," "saying," "testament," etc., and which obviously derives from the Old English verb cweþan, meaning "to say." The noun has clearly separated from its root verb by the early eleventh century (when DTA was written), since Aelfric goes on to say that this "cwyde" is "to rædenne," for reading. Much has been made of Aelfric's awareness of the uses to which his writings were put. The Catholic Homilies, it is often argued, were intended primarily for oral delivery, while the Lives of Saints were more suited for private reading by clerics. While such a division is likely overstated, the sentence above does seem to support the idea that Aelfric saw some kind of distinction between works intended for different modes of reading.

But what has always interested me most about this prologue, what interests me most about the whole work, in fact, is Aelfric's intriguing statement about his intended audience, the idea that De Temporibus Anni is to be read "þam ðe hit licað," by whomever it pleases. I mean, I'm all for inclusiveness, but Aelfric's ambiguity here strikes me as problematic. Or, rather, it seems to me that the ambiguity in this statement highlights the unusual nature of the text as a whole. Who would have found this text useful? Aelfric provides a very quick overview of Bedan computus and the reckoning of Easter, but his treatment is hardly sufficient to stand on its own. Anyone wanting to calculate the date of Easter would still have to turn to Bede. And that person would, of course, need to know Latin, while Aelfric is presumably writing for those who could not read Latin, chapter titles notwithstanding. But whom, specifically? The secular clergy? The educated laity? Young monks in school? In my 1995 conference paper, I argued that Aelfric should be taken at his word, that he wrote De Temporibus Anni with the aim of appealing to the broadest possible audience: anyone who was interested in learning more about the world. I'm not sure I still agree with this assessment, but I'll be damned if I can figure out what kind of audience would need both a relatively lengthy chapter devoted to the astronomical explanation for leap year and a one-sentence chapter that proclaims hail to be "raindrops that are frozen in the air and then fall." Gee, thanks, Aelfric. Never coulda figured that one out on our own.

So in the next few weeks, I'll spend some time here discussing what I think are some of the more interesting parts of De Temporibus Anni. Betcha can't wait to find out what the twelve different kinds of wind are!

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Update on pleasure reading

I've found the secret to getting more pleasure reading done: completely avoiding work. Well, that and Miss Goddess taking the kids to a friend's house for several hours on Friday. Turns out I still can lie on the couch for hours at a time reading a book. I finished Foucault's Pendulum this morning, with very much the same feeling I predicted would accompany that feat: a sense of accomplishment, but not a sense of being fundamentally affected by the experience. Don't get me wrong; it's a good book, and I have no doubt that some readers are engulfed by it the way I am by other books. It just didn't do much for me, specifically. Still, 641 pages is worth something, right?

I'm now eagerly awaiting my next novel, the one I've chosen to take with me on a brief vacation we're taking with Miss Goddess's family in a few days. I've chosen The Solitudes, by John Crowley, whom I consider to be one of the great overlooked American writers of the past few decades. I actually read this novel fifteen or so years ago, but didn't really get into it. I'm hoping that the intervening years (and the fact that the main character is a professional academic) will have rendered it more to my tastes. I'll let you know.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Outside of a dog...

Flavia's recent post about the consolation provided by books (which is itself a response to a thoughtful post by MeanSomething) has gotten me thinking about how my attitude toward reading has changed over time. In a comment on her post, I listed a few books that I consider consolatory in some way. To be honest, though, I've never thought about these books (or any others) in this way. Maybe the term New Kid has used in her posts on the subject, "comfort reading" comes closer, since it evokes the idea of "comfort food," that is, not necessarily the food that comforts us, but the food that makes us feel comfortable. The books I listed in my comment, books like Brideshead Revisited, Death Comes for the Archbishop, and John Crowley's Little, Big, are books that I've read many times. I used to wonder what it was that drew me to these books and then drew me back again. It wasn't the plot of the books or even for the characters, and it certainly wasn't some kind of abstract academic appreciation of literary skill, though I do believe that all of these books are excellent examples of 20th-century literature. If I had to put a specific label on it, I guess I'd say that it's the tone of these books that is so appealing to me, the feeling that permeates them and that they convey to me when I read them. In fact, now that I think about it, tone and feeling may be what attract me to reading in general. And by reading here, I'm talking, of course, about reading for pleasure and for leisure. One of the greatest joys in life, am I right?

At least that's how I remember leisure reading. The truth is that I don't get much chance to read for pleasure anymore. The combination of my teaching job and two small children has made it very difficult to spend those hours on the sofa lost in a book, hours that I only knew had passed after I looked up at the clock. That's not to say that I don't read for pleasure at all, of course. Some of my favorite days each year, in fact, are those first days after a semester ends, when I agonize over the choice a book to read. And I do read those books. Right now, for example, I'm reading Foucault's Pendulum, by Umberto Eco. I read The Name of the Rose last year and liked (not loved) it, so I thought I'd give Eco another try. I'm about 250 pages in so far, and it's not bad. But here's the thing: it's taken me more than two weeks to read those 250 pages. Two weeks! I can remember times when I was younger, when I'd read an entire book in a day. I once read a trilogy of novels over a 3-day weekend. Age and children can change all of that.

But to some degree, that's a copout. Sure, I have less time to read than I used to, but I have more than the 20 minutes or so each day that I allot to pleasure reading. I spend a lot more time than that reading blogs each day, or checking for the nineteenth time before lunch. I could get up early and read for an hour or so before the kids wake up. I could read after they go to bed (instead of watching Californication online with Miss Goddess). And, of course, I could read instead of writing long posts on why I don't have time to read. But I usually don't.

Why don't I read more? Maybe it's an inevitable by-product of a career that relies almost entirely on reading. Saying I don't read for pleasure is not the same thing as saying I don't read at all. Like all other English professors, I read almost all the time. Literary works for survey classes, articles for Freshman Comp, loads and loads of student essays. My professional life is full of reading, and much of it is fairly pleasurable. Well, not the student essays so much, but I do enjoy the reading I do for my Lit classes. In the past year, I've read The Good Soldier, Mrs. Dalloway, and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, all for class and all for the first time (not to mention the scores of shorter works and criticism). So maybe I'm just burned out on reading by the time the end of the semester rolls around.

There may be other reasons, too. Trying to remain active in scholarship while teaching five or six classes per semester means that the bulk of my scholarly work gets done in the summer. Time spent on research is time not spent in leisure reading, and since, as we've already established, I have a limited amount of time to begin with, that often means that pleasure reading simply doesn't make the cut. When I do decide to read for fun rather than for work, that monastic guilt often kicks in, telling me that I'm wasting valuable time that could be spent more profitably. Re-engaging in scholarship after a few months absence (due to grading, etc.) makes that guilt worse. Furthermore, when I'm working on my own research, I'm often reminded of how little I actually know about my field, convincing me that I should spend any extra time boning up on my Latin, on my German, on Anglo-Saxon history, on the exciting new scholarship that I didn't have time to read during the school year, etc.. I rarely follow through on these goals, of course, but that doesn't stop my from feeling guilty when I'm doing other things.

And who knows, maybe it's just the books that I choose to read. Like many academics, I've gotten to the point where even my pleasure reading has to meet a fairly high literary and intellectual standard. That trilogy I read over a 3-day weekend? I was twelve, and the books were the first three in Piers Anthony's Xanth series. Today, I couldn't make it past the first page of those books. I don't mean to sound like a snob, and I don't mean to suggest that I sit around reading Ulysses every summer, but the fact of the matter is that I only enjoy books if they are reasonably well-written. The problem is that some reasonably well-written books are less, well, engaging than trashy genre fiction. So while I'm enjoying Foucault's Pendulum, which is complex and moderately intellectual, I'm not loving it. More to the point, I'm not getting lost in it in the way I used to get lost in fiction. I don't find myself thinking about it when I'm not reading it. I don't steal away to a hidden corner just to squeeze in an extra chapter. I doubt I'll experience that strange mixture of joy and melancholy when I finish it. Accomplishment, maybe, but not sadness that it's over.

So is it the books I now choose to read, or is it me? Have I reached an age where the mermaids of fiction no longer sing to me the way they did in my youth? I have a friend, a former literature grad student, who hasn't read any fiction for more than a decade. He claims to have outgrown fiction, that it just seems silly to him now to read all those made-up stories. I'm not to that point. I still love fiction, at least the idea of it. And occasionally, I still find a novel that engrosses me completely, a novel like Haruki Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (but, I have to admit, I read that book almost a decade ago). They just don't crop up quite as often as they used to.

What do you think, loyal readers? Have you experienced similar shifts in the role reading plays in your life? Alternatively, if your summer reading is still transformational (or at least transportational), what are you reading? Maybe in the items on your current reading lists, I'll find a little bit of reading salvation.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

A clarification

In my last post, I said that I don't really "get" postmodern approaches to medieval literature. After reading this tired and, at times, insulting (even to me) critique of the "po-mo desert" of this year's Kalamazoo, however, I'm sorry I said anything of the sort.

Let me be as clear as I can: sometimes I find the excesses of postmodernism to be silly. Twenty years ago, I found the excesses of New Criticism to be silly. And, like all normal people who spend any time at all with medieval thought, I find the excesses of scholasticism to be a downright hoot. It's the excess that I object to, in other words, not the postmodernism. I have no doubt that some of the papers that Allen pokes fun at in her article were as ridiculous as she thinks they are; in a conference of more than 1500 papers, some are going to be pretty bad. But I have a feeling that Allen is taking cheap shots here, finding titles that more traditional scholars (and, especially, non-scholars) would laugh at easily. The paragraphs on "waste studies" are good examples. Allen seems to be saying, "Can you believe that these crazy scholars spend their valuable time talking about shit?" But though I'm not particularly interested in the medieval attitude toward waste, I can think of no good reason to--pardon the pun--dispose of it a priori as a topic of study.

And I was borderline offended by some of the insinuations in the article. It's fine to point out that the "superstars" of medieval studies don't come to Kalamazoo (though I question the accuracy of the statement; I've seen many scholars I consider to be superstars at Kalamazoo). But Allen seems also to be saying that what she sees as the poor quality of the papers at Kalamazoo is a reflection of the mediocrity of the scholars who present there, people she refers to at one point as "bottom-feeding assistant professors and at-sea graduate students." Nice. She also argues that the proliferation of papers in the area of medieval literature (as opposed to medieval history, apparently) is a big part of the problem. As a scholar of medieval literature working at a (shudder) community college, I can only imagine what Allen thinks of me. [NOTE: as others have pointed out, Allen, as a Ph.D. student at Catholic Univeristy, is hardly one of the "superstars" she seems to be miss at Kalamazoo].

The most interesting thing about Allen's article, however, is the effect it had on me. Granted, I'm not part of her target audience (which consists, I suppose, largely of casual, non-medievalist intellectuals of a conservative bent), but I found that the article had exactly the opposite effect to the one she intended: it made me wish I was there. Much of Allen's characterization is dead on, of course. The number of papers at the conference is ludicrous. The dorm rooms are torturous. The dance is absurd. But these are the things that make Kalamazoo what it is. It's unlike any other conference in the world. And it's ours.

Saturday, May 17, 2008


First, let me apologize for the radio silence around here recently. Suffice it to say that the end of the semester absolutely ate my lunch, as it tends to do. Grading end-of-semester papers and exams for six classes can really wipe you out. I actually tried to write a post after turning in my grades last week concerning my feelings about not attending Kalamazoo. By the time I got around to finishing it, however, everybody had been back from K'zoo for several days and the post felt very much like yesterday's news. If I don't go again next year, maybe I'll recycle the post.

I've been busily avoiding work since finishing the semester. I have ambitious goals for the summer--at least one article, maybe two; start planning out a possible book project; lots of catch-up reading; etc.. Working at a CC means that scholarship is relegated largely to the summer months, so you have to use that time as fully as possible. To be fair, I know that many who work at four-year schools face much the same schedule. If anything, my situation is easier than most, since I don't have to produce any scholarship at all, if I don't want to. But I do want to, so I need to get to work.

Originally, I had planned to start my summer work by cranking out a quick conference proposal. I try to attend SEMA whenever possible, and this year's conference in St. Louis sounded like fun, so I thought I'd piece together something from my ongoing work (which focuses on a specific genre of Old English prose) to send in. I like writing conference papers, and I can usually throw together a proposal in a couple of hours. This one has been stumping me, though. A couple of reasons, really. First of all, the stuff I've been working with most recently is very textual, if you know what I mean. It's the kind of stuff that works fine in an article, where you can lay out passages in parallel for comparison, but it's not particularly well suited for a conference paper (at least not one that stands much chance of holding an audience's interest). It's interesting how some research works much better in either oral or written form. I've written a few conference papers that could never really be expanded into articles, just because of what I chose to discuss and how I chose to discuss it. Now, I'm working with the opposite kind of research.

The second reason this proposal has been difficult has to do with me. In an attempt to make the presentation less strictly textual, I've been trying to work up a specific angle for this paper which, while certainly not postmodern in the strictest sense, would definitely tread into an area usually traveled by "theory people." My use of quotation marks in the previous sentence undoubtedly makes the problem all too clear: I don't really get Theory.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not a crusty New Critic railing against the nonsense of postmodern criticism. I admire those who work in Theory (well, some of them; scholarship informed by literary theory is like all scholarship--a mixed bag, in terms of quality). I just...well, I just don't really understand it. And it's not like I haven't tried. My undergrad curriculum was extremely traditional (more than one class I took used textbooks written by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren). So when I got to grad school, I knew that I needed work in theory. I signed up for a Cultural Studies course, taught by a brand-new Assistant Professor hired in from Yale, in my second semester. I bought all the books, did all the readings, and attended all the classes. Inevitably, though, by the time the class was fifteen minutes old, I was lost. I received an Honors grade in the course, but I'm fairly sure it was an act of mercy on the professor's part. He had to know, after reading my paper on Althusserian ideological apparatuses in Beowulf, that I had no idea what I was doing. Ironically, I parlayed that paper into my Master's Thesis, but the theory was gradually whittled away from each successive draft until all that remained was one mention of Althusser in a footnote. I tried to blame my thesis advisor (a very traditional scholar) for the change, but the truth is that he simply recognized that I was out my depth when discussing Marxism. He was right.

I still try to understand postmodern theory. I recently read through (well, most of the way through) The Postmodern Beowulf and enjoyed much of it. In fact, one of the articles in that collection inspired a conference paper I presented last fall on compositional techniques in an Old English homily. But when working on that paper, I studiously avoided drawing on theoretical concepts or, god help me, terminology. I just knew that some eager young grad student in the audience would ask me a question about the Levi-Strauss quotation I considered including, and I would be screwed, to put it lightly [NOTE: as it turned out, there were precisely two people in the audience, and one was a good friend of mine, so it didn't really matter]. I've resigned myself to the fact that my mind doesn't work the way it needs to in order to get theory, and certainly not the way it needs to in order to produce theory-based scholarship. I'm just a philologist, and not a particularly New one.

I'm glad I got that off my chest, but Confession was not the intended purpose of this post. I'm stuck with a quandary. Should I continue to work on this proposal, finding a way to ease it out of the borderlands of postmodern theory while still trying to have Something To Say, or should I cut my losses and just focus on one of my other pending projects? Remember: I have no tenure-track expectations to meet, so I can do whatever I want. Obviously, articles trump conference papers in the academic world, so reason says I should work on finishing one of the two articles I have in mind, but I was really looking forward to SEMA. Conferences are the best remedy for the isolation that I (like many others) experience as a result of working at a place where virtually nobody else is engaged in scholarship, so I try to go to at least one per year. I suppose I could just attend the conference without presenting a paper, but I don't much like doing that. Makes me feel a little like a stowaway, and since some people already look askance at the institutional affiliation on my conference namebadge, I don't need any further reminder of my outsider status.

So I put it to my friends and blogleagues: how should I spend my research time for the next couple of months?

Friday, May 2, 2008

Into the lion's mouth

Earlier today, I was elected President of the Faculty Council at HHCC for the 2008-2009 school year. We have no union and no Faculty Senate, so the Council serves as the representative body for the faculty at large. As President of the Council, then, I am now the primary spokesperson for the faculty. I'll be meeting weekly (at least) with the Senior Vice-President for Academic Affairs and monthly (at least) with the college President. I'll also be attending all Board of Trustees meetings, as well as meetings of a couple of college committees on which the Council President serves in an ex officio capacity. And the part I'm most looking forward to is the inevitable regular drop-ins to my office by disgruntled faculty members [read "cranks"], of which there is no shortage at HHCC.

So all in all, I'd say it was a good day. Sigh.

Oh, by the way: my guess is that the content of this blog may, from time to time, reflect the, shall we say, concerns of my new office. I'll try to keep the rants to a minimum, but I can't promise anything.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Nine kinds of wrong

Near the beginning of my career in academia, I used to worry about administrators who seemed out of touch with the classroom. Every fall, the faculty here at HHCC would file into the auditorium to listen the then-President's "State of the College" speech, in which he would outline the exciting changes happening or about to happen on our campus. One of my most common complaints about these speeches was that they rarely mentioned classroom instruction at all. The President would talk about construction plans, retention strategies, and reorganizational schemes, but he never really talked about teaching. What we needed, I would claim, was a President who was directly engaged with what goes on in classes, with the real work of the college.

Oh, to be that young and naive again.

I have since realized the truth that the faculty at the University of Toledo is living through at the moment: administrators with opinions about teaching are a faculty's worst nightmare. I have to say, though, that the claptrap coming out of the head and mouth of UT President Lloyd Jacobs surprised even me.

Look. I'm a fan of student-centered learning. I can buy into the concept of Distance Learning. I even said, at the interview for the position I've held for the past ten years, that failure to embrace instructional technology was "unconscionable"(remember, I was very young then). But when a college President starts throwing around phrases like "extreme student-centeredness" (remember when "extreme" meant going too far?) and "mass customization" (to be honest, I still can't make this phrase make sense), somebody needs to pull the plug.

If you haven't heard yet, you can help pull this particular plug by signing an online petition created by those interested in saving the idea of the Liberal Arts (the initials of which should always be capitalized, like the names of other religions) at the University of Toledo. Signing the petition is a statement that you oppose the Burger King approach to education ("have it your way"), the diminution of the Liberal Arts, the continued fetishization of assessment as panacea for all of academia's ills, and, most importantly, phrases like "mass customization." Still can't get my mind around that one.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

I have arrived

I feel like an honest-to-goodness grown-up blogger today. The reason: this morning I received my first spam comment!!! I feel a bit like Sally Field accepting her Oscar: they like me; they really like me! Or at least they see my tiny corner of the blogosphere as a worthwhile place to try to sell paper shredders. In Portuguese.

The comment, which I haven't deleted (and which I bet a few of you have seen before) reads as follows:

Hello. This post is likeable, and your blog is very interesting, congratulations :-). I will add in my blogroll =). If possible gives a last there on my blog, it is about the Fragmentadora de Papel, I hope you enjoy. The address is A hug.

There are many points here worth exploring, it seems to me. There's the obviously fractured English, not surprising given the Portguese origin. There's the unusual ending, in which a complete stranger with an apparent fixation on paper shredders offers me a hug. There's the slightly offensive suggestion that I should be congratulated on being interesting; perhaps I'm immodest, but I like to think that I'm interesting on a fairly regular basis and that being so is hardly reason for congratulations.

But what I really find fascinating is the fact that, for just a second anyway, I thought the comment was genuine. My Portuguese is pretty weak, sure, but I have to admit that I originally guessed that the "Fragmentadora de Papel" was some kind of early Medieval Spanish manuscript fragment. Maybe about...the Pope? I was actually kinda excited to read the blog. Imagine my disappointment.

Be honest, now: this episode marks me irrevocably as a Medieval Geek, doesn't it?

Oh, and I almost forgot.

A hug.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

How much medieval is too much?

Gosh, has it really been two full weeks since my last post? Guess grading jail lasted longer than I thought. And, of course, I'm not really out yet. In fact, I just picked up an additional class. Yes, three weeks before the semester ends. A colleague of mine is unable to finish out the semester due to illness, so I have to teach one of his classes for the next three weeks. And grade all the resulting papers. On the positive side, the college is compensating me. I think I'll receive almost two hundred bucks for what will almost certainly be in the neighborhood of forty hours work. Almost minimum wage! And people say that the administration doesn't really care about the faculty...

I've been teaching for about fifteen years now, so I've become pretty proficient at finding ways to avoid grading. One of my favorites involves planning for future classes. At the planning phase, a class is all potential; it can still be perfect. Once you add actual students into the mix (and once I enter the room for the first time), that potential has largely been sapped. I always enjoy teaching, mind you, but it's not nearly as fun as planning the class.

I remember when I was in graduate school, a good friend and I used to prep for the job interviews we hoped to get when we finished our Ph.D.s by answering the "dream class" question. You know the one. If you could design a class without worrying about how it fits into a larger curriculum, what would it look like? I remember dreaming about classes devoted to medieval expressions of time or to ridiculously specific timeframes (Old English Prose: 975-1008). Teaching at a community college consigns such dreams firmly to the realm of fantasy, of course, but I still enjoy planning new courses or finding ways to significantly overhaul old ones.

Which brings me to a question I deal with almost every year. One of the classes I teach is a standard British Lit survey. I actually teach both halves of this sequence, but I spend a lot more time thinking about the first semester (Medieval through 18th Century) than the second (1800 to the present). [NOTE: someday I'll post a rant about the way this sequence is broken up. Let's see, there's approximately 1400 years of British literary history. Obviously we should spend one semester on the first 1200 and the second semester on the last 200. Seriously, WTF?] What I struggle with each time I plan this class is how much time to spend on medieval literature. On the one hand, I think that survey classes should be designed to meet the students' needs, not the instructor's. If the point of the class is to survey British literature from its earliest days to the end of the 18th century, then the texts chosen should not focus unduly on one period but should...well, survey the overall range of periods. Sure, I especially like medieval literature, but that shouldn't be the guiding principle for the course. On the other hand, I have a certain amount of expertise in medieval lit, expertise that I don't have in the other periods studied in the class. Okay, so I work at a community college, and everyone is generalist at a CC, but surely the students could benefit more from my knowledge of things medieval than from my relative ignorance concerning Restoration Drama. Right?

So how much medieval literature should be included in a Brit Lit survey class taught by a medievalist? All the mainstream anthologies divide the big period into three (Medieval, Early Modern, 18th Century), though in terms of page count the medieval period gets short shrift, probably about 20% of the total book. Chronologically, of course, the medieval period (which I'm defining as approximately 700-1500) represents about 75% of the overall time period covered by the class. In the past, I've devoted as much as 50% and as little as 30% of the course to medieval stuff. Then there's the related question of what to cover in the medieval period. I'm an Anglo-Saxonist, but even I have difficulty justifying very much beyond Beowulf and a handful of other poems ("Caedmon's Hymn," "The Wanderer," "The Wife's Lament," etc.) in a class like this. Still, I don't want to fall into the normal pattern of teaching just Beowulf and Chaucer and saying that I've covered the medieval period.

I'm putting this question out to what Richard Scott Nokes has recently called the "blog-o-web-net-sphere-thingy." Those of you who teach British Lit surveys: how much medieval literature do you cover in the class? And, if you don't mind sharing, what works do you normally include?

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Trying to escape the inevitable

What I had not foreseen
Was the gradual day
Weakening the will
Leaking the brightness away

-Stephen Spender, "What I Expected"

So it appears that I'm getting old. Inevitable, I know, but still somewhat surprising when you realize it. In general, I don't mind getting older. I have no plans to buy a sportscar anytime soon, and my hair remains free of gray at present, so I'm good for now. But I do have to admit that my body is beginning to show signs of, well, decay. What I didn't really expect, for example, was the dramatic change in metabolism that tends to show up in the late thirties. Before I was thirty, I often had trouble putting weight on. At one point in grad school, I weighed 119 pounds (on a 5'7" frame). And even though my father had been somewhat overweight throughout my childhood, I kinda assumed that I had dodged that particular bullet.

But apparently not. Fifteen years, two kids, and fifty pounds later, I find myself in what I sometimes refer to as "medievalist shape." It's not just that I'm growing somewhat thick around the middle; I'm also sedentary to a fault. I get winded taking out the trash (mind you, they're big bags). I can feel my body slowly falling apart. And though I do sometimes fall into the academic trap of, as Sir Ken Robinson has put it, considering my body as little more than an elaborate system of transportation for my head, I would like the bus to keep rolling, if you know what I mean.

So it was in a contrite spirit that I headed to the YMCA last night. Okay, so I wasn't really that contrite. But I went anyway, if only because Older Monkey was scheduled for a KidFit class. Since I was there, however, I decided I might as well get in some exercise. I don't enjoy exercise very much, but I do like walking and running, so I ran/walked around the track above the gym where OM was playing a strange form of baseball with the other kids. By my tenth lap, an old idea had reoccurred to me. It's an idea that I never thought was very realistic and which seems even less realistic to me now. But it still has significant appeal to me, so I've begun to entertain it. It's the kind of idea that I'm very reluctant to share with others, lest I have to face them when (in about a week or so, I would predict) I give up on the idea entirely and admit that I am a person of no substance, at least in the world of physical exertion. But I realized that, thanks to the shield of pseudonymity, I can talk about it here with very little risk. So here goes:

I want to run a marathon.

Don't laugh, Dr. Virago. I am fully aware that the mile-and-a-half I completed on the track last night represents only about 6% of a marathon. I am also fully aware that the last time I so much as walked briskly around the block (before last night) was before Christmas. In fact, I had to wear really heavy hiking-type athletic shoes last night because my normal running-type shoes (i.e., the closest I have to real running shoes) were left at another athletic club where I sometimes play squash with a friend. That sounds at least a little impressive, but the last time we played was well over a month ago. So let's just say that I've got a long way to go, in more ways than one.

But what's weird--and why I considered this space particularly appropriate for my secret pronouncement--is that I somehow feel more qualified to take on this task since completing my dissertation a few years ago. I remember the feeling of impossibility, the recognition of the vastness of the task at the beginning. I remember thinking that I was a fool to think that I could ever complete such a project. And I remember how I did complete it: one page, one paragraph, one sentence at a time. Now I'm considering a book project (more on this later, and props to Michelle of Heavenfield for the idea and encouragement), and it doesn't seem impossible at all.

So who knows? I'm not treating this as some kind of official life goal yet, but I am thinking about it, and, while part of me laughs at my naivete for even suggesting such a thing, another part of me thinks maybe it's possible after all. Tonight I'm going to run a little bit farther. If I never mention running again on this space, you may safely assume that I've retreated happily into advancing age and physical decrepitude.

At least you won't be able to watch it happen, though, right?

Friday, March 28, 2008

Getting it Wrong

A few weeks ago I spent an hour or so cursing the name of Scandinavian scholar who was active in the 1960s and 1970s. See, I was working with a minor Old English text, the only edition of which was produced in 1968 by the Swede in question. One sentence was giving me a lot of trouble, mainly because it contained the word "or," a very uncommon form for which I was unable to find a suitable translation. In situations like this, my first instinct is to doubt my own translation skills. Maybe this form represented some kind of dialectal variant that I wasn't familiar with. I tried substituting similar forms for a while, but to no avail. I was just about ready to throw in the towel when I thought of checking my facsimile copy of the MS, just in case the editor's reading was off. Sure enough, there in the MS, clear as day, was "of" rather than "or." It was so clear, in fact, that it couldn't really be considered a mistaken reading. It was, quite simply, a typo. Happens to the best of us, I know, but in this case the typographical error in question caused me some significant trouble. And I may not be alone. Though the edition in question (which appears in an fairly obscure Swedish journal, if that's not too redundant) probably hasn't been read by more than a generous handful of people, the error has persisted into the Dictionary of Old English electronic corpus. Which means that someone searching the corpus can find this hit for the word "or"...which does not exist in Old English at all. I assume some one will catch the error by the time the DOE team gets to the letter O (which may or may not be in my lifetime, if current progress rates continue), but until that time, there's the possibility, however remote, of scholars being very misled. By a typo.

It occurs to me, however, that medieval scholars, such as myself, should be fairly sympathetic when encountering mistakes like these. We are, after all, intimately familiar with the concept of scribal error. Error is just a fact of life for medievalists, though not one that we're always very happy about. Few things about medieval literature are as frustrating as scribal error. I mean, it's one thing to try to analyze a text written in a foreign (and dead) language, a product of a culture that we can do little more than guess about. But when you add in the possibility that the words on the page are not just foreign but may be simply wrong, it can be discouraging, to say the least. The text I was working with a few weeks ago, the one edited by the careless Swede, contained several apparent errors (apparent in the sense that they resulted in meaningless, or at least obscure, sentences). What drives me nuts is that I likely won't ever get to know for sure what was meant in some of these cases. Editors can propose emendation, of course, and after a while those emendations can start to feel like the real thing, but we'll never know whether the emendation reflects the intention of the author of the the text. Our modern understanding of Beowulf, incidentally, is particularly rife with these kinds of emendations, so much so that scholars sometimes base elaborate arguments about the meaning of the poem on words that do not appear in the single manuscript version of the text. Surely this is not good.

On the other hand, errors, or at least the concept of scribal error, can sometimes be a scholar's best friend. First of all, of course, they are the closest thing we have to a true window into the psychology of those responsible for medieval texts. The thousand years or so that separate us from the texts we study can create a very real wall between us and them. Speaking only for myself, I can say that I often find it difficult to relate very directly with medieval texts. They're just so old, and the language is just so weird, that I feel very much outside the world of the text, especially when I read texts in printed editions. Interacting with the manuscript directly can help create a more immediate connection with the text, in that you know that you're touching (if only metaphorically; don't get your greasy prints on the manuscripts, kids!) the same object that the scribe touched. But to really feel that connection, nothing works like scribal error. If nothing else, such errors humanize medieval texts for us modern types.

And scribal errors also open up texts to greater possibilities. The same lack of determination that is so frustrating when you're just trying to figure out what the blasted thing says can also be very liberating when you're trying to determine what the blasted thing means. I'm not really talking about the "openness" of texts in a postmodern sense (though it's true that nothing brings home the idea of play in a text like scribal error). I just mean that it's fun, from a scholarly perspective, to try to work through the errors in a text. In the text that I was working with, I'm pretty sure that a very obscure sentence, in which it appears that fasting should be considered sinful, makes a lot more sense if the scribe intended to write a form of "æfste" (Old English for "envy") instead of "fæstene" (OE for "fasting"). I can't guarantee that the reading in question is an error, but it's exciting, nevertheless, to think that I may have "figured out" this sentence in a way that goes beyond what's written on the page.

Now if I could only feel a similar sense of excitement when working through the varieties of "scribal error" that I see in my students' writing.*

*NOTE: my wife suggested that I discuss a few of my favorite student errors in this post. Because I assume that most of my readers have their own such lists, I won't bore you with specifics. Except to say that at the top of such list would have to be the paper I received last semester which, in the context of discussing scenes between Gawain and Lady Bertilak in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, kept referring to the "gentle care" expressed in the scenes. Except she misspelled "gentle." In a really unfortunate way. By the time she referred to the kisses in the scene being conducted with the same kind of care, I knew I had a classic on my hands.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Reason #171 for academics staying indoors

As part of our Spring Break festivities (which have thus far consisted of a trip to the local used bookstore, that's all), Miss Goddess and I decided to take the monkeys today to a state park about 45 minutes away. We spent the morning in a light hike, followed by a picnic on a beachy area at the shore of a medium-sized lake. A wonderful time was had by all, especially by the two parents, who were feeling not a little self-satisfied at concocting and successfully pulling off this encounter with nature.

When I replay the day in my head, this is where I wish we had decided to go home. Instead, we agreed that a nice way to cap off our day would be a relaxing canoe ride around the lake. Before I go any further, I should explain that, while not a big fan of boats in general, I've always liked canoes. As a child, I was in YMCA Indian Guides (now more appropriately called Adventure Guides) and spent many pleasant hours ambling around placid lakes (not to be confused with Lake Placid) earning patches of various kinds. Even as an adult, I was (don't laugh) Red Cross certified in Canoeing. I think, in fact, that I blame the Red Cross for what happened today. The thought of that certification card in my wallet made me cocky. The fact that the card expired eight years and two children ago did not cross my mind.

So you've already figured out that the canoeing did not, as we say, go well. Younger Monkey backed out at the last minute, taking Miss Goddess with him. That left me and Older Monkey, who had never seen a canoe before this afternoon. The first few minutes were actually very nice. We decided to head across the lake to the opposite shore and then turn around and come back. We made great time across the lake, mainly, it turns out, because of a deceptively strong wind at our backs. We found out just how strong the wind was when we turned around and headed directly into it. Now here's an important tip for any of you who might one day make the serious mistake of heading into the natural world, away from the comforts of wireless internet and university libraries: don't go canoeing on a windy day. The experience was actually very interesting, from an intellectual perspective. No matter how and how hard I paddled, we either stayed still or, even worse, turned away from the direction of our destination. It felt, actually, like reading Derrida, if you know what I mean.

Apparently, Miss Goddess was observing our situation the whole time and trying to get us some help. Older Monkey and I were not privy to this information, since I had stupidly left my cell phone in the car (where it was doing a lot of good). Things on our end were actually getting worse by the minute. The wind had picked up even more, driving us into the shore (though not the shore we needed) and creating pretty choppy waters that rocked our frail vessel in ways that were beginning to distress the five-year-old on board, whose confidence in her father was eroding by the second, despite his best efforts at reassurance. Eventually, it became clear that we were going precisely nowhere, so I made a snap decision. I steered the canoe (really, just let it go in the direction it wanted) toward the rocky shore. There were no good landing spots, but I found a space near some large rocks. Older Monkey was able to climb out of the canoe without too much difficulty, and I quickly followed. We were both glad, I must say, to be out of the canoe and on dry land, but our situation was still not good. We were standing on the opposite side of the lake from the rest of our family, with no easy way to contact them. I wasn't even sure that they knew we had run into trouble. Plus, we were about to abandon a rented canoe. I stood for a long minute staring down at the canoe in the water, trying to figure out a solution to these various challenges. When I glanced toward my daughter, standing a few feet above me on the hill, I could see the very real fear on her face for the first time. She seemed to know as well as I did that we were screwed.

I took a deep breath and made some decisions. I pulled the canoe as high on the shore as I could, figuring that the same wind that had pushed us so insistently toward this side of the lake would at least discourage the boat from drifting back the other way. OM and I set off up the hillside through some nasty brush that scratched the hell out of me. We had walked no more than fifty feet when I heard voices and ascertained that we were right off a hiking trail that was, in turn, right off the main road in the park. By the time we had walked twenty steps down the road, I saw the lovely grille of our Subaru approaching, with a happy Miss Goddess at the wheel and Younger Monkey asleep in the backseat. All was right with the world. As it turned out, MG had persuaded a nice guy with a motorboat to head across the lake to rescue us, but when she saw us get out of the canoe, she decided to drive around until she found us. One of the many reasons I am crazy about this woman is her knack for knowing just what to do in times of trouble, which, I'm sorry to say, she has more than her share of as a result of being married to me.

I was somewhat pensive as I walked back down the hill a few minutes later to meet the very nice man with the motorboat. He assured me that he had already rescued several other people and that it was "really bad out there," but that didn't lessen the sting of watching him pull away from the shore with my rented canoe safely in tow behind him. I thought I detected a hint of a smirk when I glanced back at him over my shoulder, but possibly it was just my imagination. Nevertheless, as I walked back toward the Subaru, I comforted myself by deciding that, of the two of us, only I knew the differences between the seven classes of strong verbs in Old English. It didn't help much, but at times like these, every little bit helps.

Monday, March 17, 2008

In which I become one of those people

First, let me apologize to the 4.2 people who read this space regularly. Sorry to have been silent for so long. I'm not dead, though I certainly haven't been just resting. Nor have I, despite the indignation and frustration of my last post, been fired after telling the VP of academic affairs just what I thought about his policies. No, I've been a good boy; I've just been occupied with other things, foremost among which is the massive amount of grading that accompanies midterms for a CC English teacher. As long as I've been teaching here, you'd think that I'd be able to predict the effects of five classes all turning in papers or exams within a week of each other and plan accordingly. But no, every semester it takes me by surprise, and I spend a couple of weeks in midterm grading jail. I can see daylight now, not because I'm done with all the grading but because it's Spring Break and I'm telling myself that I now have plenty of time to catch up. We'll see.

I've also been occupied with personal matters, and though I think of this space mainly as a professional outlet, it seems disingenuous not to mention the things in my personal life that affect my professional and bloggish output. So here's the deal (and sorry for the length of what follows):

Before Older Monkey turned five last year, Miss Goddess and I wrestled with the decision of whether and where to send her to school. First of all, OM's birthday is in the summer, which means that we didn't have to send her to school at all last Fall. We had no worries about her academic abilities; she is, as would only be expected from one of my progeny, brilliant. But we worried about her emotional and social maturity. She's always been a little young for her age, if you know what I mean, and now she'd be among the youngest kids in her kindergarten class. And there was also the question of school choice. We weren't at all happy with the local public elementary school, but we couldn't really afford private school (though we thought long and hard about the possibility of Catholic school, which was less outrageously unaffordable). We were relatively excited when we found out about two "schools of choice" affiliated with the local ISD. These are public schools that are open to anyone in the district, and which offer alternative approaches to education. In this case, one of the two schools (our favorite) followed the Applied Learning philosophy, and the other (which we still liked) was a Montessori school. Students at both schools are chosen by lottery. We applied to both and were accepted at our second choice. We were fairly happy with the turn of events, but we still wondered whether we should wait a year before sending her off. In the end, it was Older Monkey's enthusiasm for kindergarten that made up our minds. Near the end of August, we drove her to the school that we assumed she would attend for the next several years.

Things didn't work out that way. OM really liked kindergarten at first, but trouble signs appeared by the third week. She became very anxious about various aspects of school, ranging from trouble relating to some of the other kids to worries about schoolwork. Because she'd never really been an anxious kid, we were surprised, but we chalked it up to the transition to full-day, five-days-per-week school. Things didn't improve with time, however. By Thanksgiving, she was having full-blown panic attacks at school and we were spending lots of time with her teacher, the school counselor, and the district psychologist. To make a long story only slightly shorter, we decided to pull her out of kindergarten the first week of December. We really didn't know what our next move was, but we knew that a five-year-old with panic attacks was not part of our long-term plan.

Three months and two play therapists later, we still didn't fully understand where OM's anxiety had come from, but at least she appeared to have gotten over the worst of it. Now we faced a different problem: what to do next year. We were, in other words, back where we had started, except that now we had a legal obligation to send her to school (well, sort of, as we shall see) as well as the knowledge of her trouble last fall hanging over our heads. We applied again at the "school of choice" that we hadn't gotten into the previous year, and though we hoped for the best, we knew that it was a longshot.

What else could we do? Since removing her from kindergarten, we had started to research homeschooling options. Before the objections start, let me say: I know, I know. As both a professional educator and a good liberal supporter of public education, I had been opposed to homeschooling for years and had raised most of the usual arguments against it. Now, faced with dwindling options for my own child, I had to confront my own philosophies. For a time, I remained very suspicious. There are actually a very large number of homeschooling families in this area, but most of them (my sister's family included) have made this decision for religious reasons. To say that we don't fit in with this crowd is an unbelievable understatement. I had encountered quite a few of these kids in my own classes (in fact, I had become a favorite instructor of the the homeschool crowd), and though they were generally strong and serious students, their philosophies and approach to learning were...well, let's say not very academic.

As I learned more about the possibilities that existed, and as we met homeschooling families who were more like ours (yes, they do exist, even in Hawtch-Hawtch), my own resistance to the idea began to soften. In fact, I became rather excited about the prospect of giving my daughter the education that I wish I had received when I was her age. We would study Latin...hell, we would study Old English! She would be reading Beowulf in the original by the time she was seven, and from there, who knows? College at eleven? The tenure-track position I always wanted by the time she was sixteen? Luckily, I'm married to a woman who knows how to pull me back in when I leave on these flights of idealism. Nevertheless, by the time we received the letter telling us that Older Monkey had not made the lottery at our school of choice, we had already essentially decided to give homeschooling a try. For the past few weeks, we've gone from casual research into the varieties of approaches to homeschooling (and there are many) to serious consideration of what we'll be doing in a few months. And I've gone from reading academic blogs to reading homeschool blogs (but don't worry friends, I still read the academic ones as well).

My concerns haven't evaporated entirely. I still worry about the social aspects of Older Monkey's education. I still worry about how this decision will affect Miss Goddess, who has put her own interests largely on hold while the kids are small but who, I know, has had her eye on the day when those interests could be pursued again in earnest. And mostly I still worry about Older Monkey. We may have solved her immediate problem by removing the cause of her anxiety, i.e., school, from the equation. But we still don't know why the anxiety appeared in the first place, and we're still trying to figure out how to help her deal with it. We realize, after all, that she can't go through life simply avoiding the situations that cause her anxiety. I'm not entirely sure, in other words, that the path we've chosen is the right path for any of us, especially in the long run. But here's the truth about parenting: all you can do is the best you can do.

So I hope you understand why I haven't posted much recently. I'll be returning to regularly scheduled programming now, and I'll do my best not to change from Community College Man (a role I never wanted) to Homeschool Man (a role that scared the hell out of me). But don't be surprised if, a few years from now, you read an article in the Chronicle about a remarkably precocious sixteen-year-old medievalist joining the faculty at Penn. Or, you know, Chapel Hill. I'm not picky.

Friday, March 7, 2008

We is good, they is bad

I'm currently working on a longish and (I hope) thoughtful post on scholarly mistakes and scribal errors, but I'm having a hard time focusing on it because I'm so, well, pissed off. Yesterday I found out that a simply fantabulous colleague is getting the shaft in a royal way from the college administration, who has decided, three years after hiring her, that her qualifications are not sufficient to justify her continued employment here. Basically, the problem is that she went straight from a B.A. to a Ph.D. program, where she is currently ABD and tentatively scheduled to defend this summer. The Hawtch-Watchers now feel that her lack of an M.A. is a serious problem (despite the obvious fact that ABD status puts her essentially much higher on the academic scale than a simple M.A. would). They told her last week that if she doesn't defend by August 1, she's out. The colleague in question is a wonderful teacher and an active scholar (rare enough around here) and has a sterling record of service to the department.

So why fire her? Because they can.

The few of us who know about her situation have offered the same advice: f*ck 'em. We've told her to finish her dissertation and then run as fast as possible away from here. She was planning on going on the job market next year anyway, so the end result was more or less inevitable. But still...

I try to avoid the typical "administration-evil" mindset. I understand that they have to run a college and that their concerns are not always the same as faculty concerns and that that is as it should be. But today, I feel like I'm sitting at the bottom of a well. And the thought that I'll be down here for the next thirty years or so is not, right now, a happy thought.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Every person you can know and every place that you can go

Like most Americans of my generation, my childhood was defined by popular culture. Sesame Street was a personal favorite. Many a night I was serenaded to sleep by the Bert & Ernie Sing-Along album (though all I remember about that album now is that it contained "John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt"). Though my wife did not share my bordering-on-obsession with Sesame Street, she is, nevertheless, a full member of my generation, so she remembers the day that Mr. Hooper died, for example. It's a part of the bond that we share with each other and with almost all other Americans who grew up in the 1970s.

A funny moment in grad school made the generational bond all too clear to me. There were about twenty of us in a class on Beowulf. Because most of us had just started learning Old English the previous semester, we spent a good part of every class parsing words. Once we got kind of stuck on a particular conjunction in the text. The professor, trying to help us out, asked what the function of a conjunction was. Virtually in unison, we said "Linkin' up words and phrases and clauses." The professor, who was European and a good twenty years older than we were, stood speechless at our sudden collective understanding. We, on the other hand, realized that, whatever our regional differences, wherever we had completed our undergraduate work, whatever our various fields of interest, we were one. At least where Schoolhouse Rock was concerned.

So you can imagine the warm feeling I had the other day seeing my two small children watching and enjoying the Schoolhouse Rock DVD we had ordered from Netflix. It felt very much like passing the baton. But the pièce de résistance, the moment when my nostalgic love for Saturday morning cartoons intersected with the career that forms a large part of my identity, occurred when I heard Older Monkey (who is 5) saying "I'm a noun!" which was then parroted by her 2-year-old brother. My two kids jumping around the living room, exclaiming themselves to be nouns while the strains of "Lolly, Lolly, Lolly, get your adverbs here" filled the air...well, this is what it means to be truly alive.

Oh, and by the way, Happy Birthday to me.

Friday, February 29, 2008

To the rescue!

When I started (technically, restarted) this blog a couple of months ago, I said that I wanted to use it partially to come to terms with a decision I had made to commit myself to staying at the community college level more or less permanently. I really saw it as a way to compensate for the fact that I don't get much real professional interaction here. The blog would, as I saw it, give me an outlet for the part of my life that isn't nourished by my community college career and a chance to take part in larger conversations about the academic life, conversations that few of my colleagues seemed very interested in.

Something weird has happened over the past couple of months, however. Somehow I have turned into a community college apologist, a de facto spokesman for community college faculty. This is a role I have never actively pursued. I've always tried to be honest about the benefits and particular problems of teaching at a CC, and I've rarely felt very dissatisfied with the path I happened to follow, but I've never seen myself as a cheerleader for community colleges. [NOTE: such people absolutely exist, of course. Some of my colleagues see universities as the enemy and see themselves as saving (or at least salving) those students who either have been or will be mistreated by the cold, uncaring world of 4-year institutions. But I digress...] After all, the impetus for this blog was my own failed attempt to break into the 4-year ranks, and I'll admit to sometimes being envious of my friends who inhabit that world.

So I've been surprised recently to find myself writing posts (and especially, it seems, comments on others' blogs) advocating and defending community colleges. Somewhere, somehow, I have become Community College Man. I'm still working on the logo, and the position of sidekick is open.

My main mission appears to be saving community colleges from the low expectations of both students and the academic world at large. In comments to posts by the Rebel Lettriste and by New Kid on the Hallway, I have argued that CC jobs offer a viable alternative to the staggeringly difficult 4-year job market. This is actually a tune I've sung before. I've watched too many friends throw themselves on the mercy of the job market, only to land at an institution far away, geographically, culturally, or academically, from where they really want to be. And, of course, I've watched too many others land nowhere, except in a depressive, self-hating funk. And usually, these friends never even glanced at community college jobs. It's not all their fault, of course. I went to graduate school at a top-tier R1 institution, where all roads were meant to lead to a tenured position at a 4-year, similarly research-oriented school. The option that CCs offer was never mentioned by the faculty or by the students. I landed where I am essentially by accident, and it was assumed by all involved (including me) that it was just a temporary sanctuary on my path toward a "real" academic job. Now that I'm here, essentially tenured (though we have no tenure system) and making a comfortable living, it seems irresponsible not to spread the gospel a bit. Can't find a four-year job? Look at community colleges. Don't like the jobs that you have been offered? Consider a community college job. Secretly wish that you didn't have the specter of publishing requirements hanging over you for the next seven years? Have I got a job for you.

See, there I go again. I don't know where this compulsive desire to preach the virtues of community colleges comes from. I suppose part of it may be that, as a result of wider interaction with the outside world of academia, I'm seeing fresh the kinds of attitudes about CCs that you sometimes forget about in the insulated (and often insular) world of community colleges. Blame the blogs, in other words.

Occasionally, though, I'm reminded of these attitudes even within the world I've chosen to inhabit. Yesterday in class, a student asked me why someone like myself, with a Ph.D. from a respected university, would want to teach at a place like HHCC. My first instinct was to redirect to the material I had planned for class (and I suspected that the question was partially intended to divert me from those plans), but, probably because of the comments I've been making in the blogosphere, I decided to face the question head on. I briefly explained the realities of the academic job market and admitted that I had chosen to work at HHCC in order to be close to my family. But I stressed the fact that I had chosen this job, that until last fall it was the only academic job I had ever applied for. And then I addressed the self-defeating attitude that the question carried with it. It's one thing, I said, when people at four-year institutions or even people in the outside world at large think of community colleges as havens for the not-quite-good-enough. It's something else entirely when those who have chosen to work at or attend community colleges hold the same attitude. By the end of the class, I was in full-blown savior mode. I was offering hope and a compelling vision of student potential. I was Barack Freakin' Obama.

So if you see Community College Man rear his idealistic head, either on this space or in the comments of your own blog, cut me some slack. I'll do my best to remain honest about community college jobs and community college students, and I'll try to keep the preaching to a minimum. But sometimes, duty and the American Way simply cannot be ignored.