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.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

My new baby

As recent posts (like this one and this other one) at New Kid's and elsewhere have made clear, medievalists are not simply a bunch of stuffy, bookish types who live for dust and historical recreations. No, as it turns out, we're also technology geeks who can experience signficant "squeeage" (New Kid's word, not mine) when we get a new techno-toy. Such was the case at my house last night, after I came home with a new scanner/copier/printer. The scanner part is what I'm excited about. The last (and first) scanner I had was a handheld model (ca. 1994) that was roughly as useful as having my five-year-old daughter simply draw me a picture of the page I was interested in preserving. And OCR at the time had a lot in common with the "infinite number of monkeys at an infinite number of typewriters" model; I suppose it was possible for the recognized text to be the same as the original text, but I think it would have had more to do with coincidence than efficacy.

The new model is, by comparison, pretty spiffy. I can scan hardcopy articles and save them as PDF files (to be used in Scrivener, naturally). And I can also scan some of my MS facsimiles for better and more convenient viewing. The example above is a scan of a printout of a microfiche of a 10th-century MS. Not the same as spending the afternoon in the Reading Room of the British Library, I know (and I certainly would never suggest that viewing the MS fourth-hand is the best way to work). But I can see the words. I can zoom in on individual letter forms. I can bring up the image whenever I want it. And I can do all of these things without carting two small kids across the ocean (or even walking to the library, for that matter). I love the digital world.

Sure, it's not like having my very own microfilm reader sitting on my desk, but I can't help but feel proud.

Monday, February 25, 2008

A round of chocolate milk for all my friends, barkeep!

It's a momentous day in the DeBreeze household. Today is Younger Monkey's second birthday. Hurray! Here are some things I've learned in the past two years:

  • Kids do funky things to the space-time continuum. On the one hand, it seems impossible that two whole years have past since YM was born. On the other, I can't believe it's only been two years. Parents will know exactly what I mean.

  • Having two children is not twice as hard as having one. It's four times as hard. It's a geometric progression.

  • Gender is not purely a social construct. I swear he came out of the womb different from his sister, and many of those differences play into traditional gender stereotypes. He's already had significantly more injuries than his five-year-old sister, for example. At present, he has a black eye, a brownish-yellow knot on his forehead, and a nasty looking burn on his upper lip that makes him look a bit like a street tough. And Miss Goddess and I are certainly not ones to willfully reinforce those stereotypes. I do all the cooking, there are no sports channels at our house, and yesterday we painted YM's room a nice lavender color. But still...

  • A parent's love comes from some weird inexhaustible supply located who-knows-where. I thought I had used all mine up with Older Monkey, but apparently not.

Please join me in wishing the little guy a happy day and an injury-free year. And, if you happen to be in the Greater Hawtch-Hawtch metropolitan area, join us at the zoo this afternoon. We'll be the tired looking intellectuals following around a two-year-old kid with a black eye.

[NOTE: actually, it's a momentous day in our house for another reason as well. Today Miss Goddess makes her worldwide media debut. Well, maybe not worldwide; she's a guest on a local college radio show about architecture and design. Still a big deal, though. She's a brilliant muralist and decorative artist and a charming conversationalist as well, but she's pretty nervous. I, on the other hand, am confident that she'll dazzle them the way she has dazzled me for the past twenty years.]

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Numbers everywhere

Everybody’s got some kind of weirdness, right? So here’s mine: I’ve got a thing about numbers. Lots of people do, apparently. For me, it takes a variety of forms. I like things to add up, for example. And I don’t mean that I like for things to make sense; I mean that I like for things to literally add up. When I see a group of numbers, I have a compulsive need to turn them into an equation of some kind. License plates are the worst for me. I spend an hour on the freeway every day adding up the numbers on every license plate of every car in front of me. Some are easy, of course. 521 NLB can easily be rendered as 5*2=10 (with the zero implied). Some are more challenging. 237 1EF can, with a little work, become 2^3=7+1. The letters, strangely enough, don't interest me at all. The really weird part, however, occurs when there isn't a clear equation to be made from the numbers at hand. At that point, I fall back on my other numerical compulsion: finding nines. I have no idea why nine interests me. In fact, it doesn't interest me at all, at least not in the traditional sense. But it's somehow a special number in my whacked-out head. So if I can make the numbers equal nine somehow, I will. In the examples above, 521 would be 5*2-1 (which equals nine). The second example would take some creativity. I would probably work 237 1EF out in the following way: I would multiply the 2 and the 7, which would give me fourteen. I would then add the digits of 14 together to get 5, which would be added with the remaining numbers (3 and 1) to get to nine.

I know, it's completely nuts.

[NOTE: I only recently explained this compulsion to my wife of 15 years, not because I was keeping it secret, but more because it usually lurks just beneath the threshold of my consciousness. In other words, I don't really notice when I do these number tricks. It's just a part of my mental makeup that I've come to take almost completely for granted. Needless to say, my wife, whom I'll be referring to on this blog as Miss Goddess, was a little bit freaked. Now she finds it vaguely charming, which works to my advantage.]

But the place that numbers hold in my consciousness is deeper than is represented by these compulsions. Many numbers resonate in my mind for emotional or memorial reasons. I was just reminded of this fact last night, when I passed a clock that read 10:37. Immediately, and without any volition on my part, I thought about the house where I lived until I was about six years old, the street address of which was 1037. Now I've lived in many, many places since then, and, in fact, I can't even remember much about that house, aside from the address. And I see the numerical combination 10:37 twice almost every day. It just struck me as bizarre that this number, which played a relatively small role in my early life (after all, you don't even know your street address until you're four or five years old) continues to be important enough to some part of my mind, more than thirty years later, to trigger this association. Weird.

Because I'm an Anglo-Saxonist, this coincidence made me think about Beowulf. There's been a discussion on ANSAX-L in the last few days about numerological (for lack of a better word) interpretations of Beowulf. The basic point of contention has to do with certain theories which argue that some of the structural divisions in the poem (the arrangements of the fitts, for example, or even the total number of lines in the poem) are based on obscure numerical patterns. Did the author of the poem structure it in such a way as to reflect (with lots of obscure calculations) the number of hexameters in the Aeneid? Is the number of lines in the poem (3182) somehow related to the figure pi (it's awfully close to 3.141, after all, and medieval folks may have rendered pi with a figure even closer to 3.182)? These arguments are not new on ANSAX-L (David Howlett's prolific arguments in this arena in the 90s spring to mind), and I've generally discounted them all as examples of scholars finding what they set out to look for, as all too much Da Vinci Code. If you decide that the number nine is important, in other words, you'll find ways to get to the nines in any set of data. Trust me.

But that moment last night, when the number 10:37 suddenly gained great significance for me, made me think about these theories in a different light. Though to anyone else, the number 1037 (which, I can't help but point out, is also 10=3-7) lacks any inherent significance, it apparently resonates loudly in my own consciousness. Is it possible that our distance from the medieval period keeps us from seeing the significance of numbers that would have been immediately apparent to at least some proportion of the poem's audience? I'm reminded of D.W. Robertson, who claimed (at least this is what I was told in grad school) that every garden in every work of medieval literature would have been symbolic of the Garden of Eden, simply because it would have been virtually impossible for a medieval reader to encounter a garden in a text without the association to Eden emerging. Maybe numbers work the same way. I've read a fair amount of medieval computistical texts, for example, and I wonder whether monks who were immersed in the computus would have seen immediate significance in any use of numbers like 19, 84, or 532 (all key figures in Easter cycles). If such a monk, reading Beowulf in the eleventh century, say, noticed that certain kinds of words appeared in lines 19, 38, and 57 of the poem (let's say eafera/son in l. 19, gegyrwan/clothed in l. 38, and heah/high in l. 57), might not that monk associate those words with the 19-year Easter cycle and come up with an interpretation that hinged on the idea of Christ (the son) being "clothed" (with the new garment of life, perhaps) on high as a result of the Resurrection? Sounds very far-fetched to us, sure, but so would my association of a random time on a random clock with a house where I lived as a child, especially to someone who had never experienced house numbers or digital clocks.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that we know that numbers meant something to medieval people. There are just too many works about numbers that survive to argue otherwise. [NOTE: if you really want to have a good time, try reading Bede's De Temporum Ratione, or, better yet, Alexander de Villa Dei's Massa Compoti. Those guys were paaartay animals.] What we don't know is what specific numbers would have meant to, for example, readers of Beowulf, or whether the general concern for numbers would have bubbled over into something like poetry at all.

I, for one, am going to keep an open mind. The tag on my keychain, which originally hung on an old hotel key, and which I chose because of the engraved "32" (3^2=9, of course) pretty much dictates that I do so.

Monday, February 18, 2008

It's about objectivity, g*d damn it!

Unquestionably the largest obstacle to successful teaching that I face is the gulf of difference that separates my students from me. I'm not just talking about the "stranger in a strange land" syndrome that many academics face when teaching in areas with different political, social, or cultural assumptions than their own (though I certainly experience that, here in Hawtch-Hawtch). What I'm really talking about is the difference between students (or, at least, most students) and faculty. Students in general are, I would argue, different from their instructors because the assumptions that guide the one group are often very foreign to the other. And, of course, it works both ways.

One of my standard assignments in Comp II is a detailed analysis of a film. I always have a difficult time choosing a film to show in class, for both pedagogical and cultural reasons. I want to show a film that will lend itself to the kind of analysis I expect students to engage in, but I also want to avoid films that might offer...shall we say, cultural difficulties. Because I know, for example, that sexuality is something of a hot-button issue around these parts, I generally avoid showing films with much nudity or explicit sexuality. I also would probably avoid, say, the films of Michael Moore. It's not that I'm afraid of exposing students to ideas that challenge their worldviews; it's just harder to analyze a film if you have a strong, negative personal reaction to it or to the ideas in it. So I generally end up with relatively antiseptic films, and this semester was no exception to that rule. I brought in a film that I had shown before in previous semesters. The film is rated PG-13, mainly for mild language and very mild violence. You'd think I'd be on pretty safe ground here.

So I was pretty surprised when a student got up in the middle of class and asked to speak to me outside. He explained that he was very uncomfortable viewing the film because he found the language in it "very offensive." I've been teaching in Hawtch-Hawtch long enough to know what he was talking about. The film contained several uses of the phrase "god damn," which, alone, were apparently enough to set off the alarms in this kid's head.

Now, I'm not in the business of changing students' belief systems. If the student found that word offensive, who am I to argue that it's not that big a deal. Still, whenever I'm faced with a problem like this one, I'm a little uncertain about how to proceed. I don't want to make the student watch a film that he's uncomfortable with, but I also want him to understand that you don't always get to pick and choose the subject matter you study in college. In the end, that was the line I took. I let the student choose a different film, but I spent some time explaining to him why I thought it was important to be able to approach an object of analysis dispassionately. I told him that one of the most important skills I can teach him is to be able to look at things objectively, without letting those things be colored by his personal value system. I talked about the difference between critique and personal response. I even brought up the example of my very close friend, whom I consider to be a brilliant person, even though I disagree with virtually everything he says.

I may as well have been talking to the wall. And I think the difficulty the student had grasping what I was trying to say is simply a result of his being a freshman, probably the first in his family to attend college, in an area that doesn't prize intellectualism very highly (to say the least). In other words, he couldn't understand my academic argument because he doesn't share any of the assumptions that underly the academic world. Maybe he'll get there eventually (though he'll need to stop leaving in the middle of class), but right now, he and I are just different.

NOTE: Here's the punchline to the story above. The student chose to write his analysis over a film that is rated R and which includes lots of graphic violence and a little sexual content as well. Oh, and the film also contains several uses of the phrase "god damn" (along with other such--and worse--profanities). I guess the over-the-top violence somehow renders that phrase less offensive in this particular film.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

A job well done

A former student came by yesterday to tell me that she's been accepted into graduate school for the fall. For a community college instructor, this is roughly equivalent to winning the Nobel Prize. My initial excitement was only slightly tempered when she told me that she's decided to enroll in a graduate program in history, not English. While I wasn't really disappointed, I was curious, so I asked her about her decision. I knew that she had left HHCC a couple of years ago to major in English at Humble State University (not to be confused with Humboldt State U) and had then transferred to Slightly Less Humble State University, where she plans to graduate in May. She told me that she had grown disenchanted with the study of English, mainly due to her experiences at SLHSU.

"What happened?" I asked.

She paused. "Well," she began with obvious trepidation, "I really enjoy literature. But at SLHSU it seemed like they weren't particularly interested in teaching literature. They were really teaching...I don't know...philosophy, I guess."

I smiled. "You mean theory, right?"

She was clearly relieved that I knew what she was talking about. "Ohmigosh," she said, "we spent an entire semester reading Barthes." She looked like she was in physical pain remembering it, and I tried to look as sympathetic as I could.

"I'm sorry," I said with real conviction.

"And it seemed like the professors were biased against me because I had transferred from HHCC and HSU. One of them, in fact, when he found out, said, 'Well, I guess we'll just have to reteach you everything.'" It got to where I was afraid to wear my HSU sweatshirt to class."

"Well," I said, grasping for some comforting words, "it takes all kinds..." Somewhat less profound than I was hoping for.

"Anyway," she sighed, "I don't think I ever want to study English again. The people in the History department were a lot nicer, and I can at least understand what they're talking about."

So it looks like our field is healthy and in the good hands of the caring, competent professionals who are its appointed stewards.

Good work, everyone.


Sunday, February 10, 2008

On Teaching, Research, and the Academic Class System

There's a great post over at Quod She, in which Dr. Virago discusses the joys and burdens of the academic life. Her discussion is especially valuable, it seems to me, because of its honesty. Dr. V admits that we academics have it pretty good in terms of self-management and the enviable ability to spend large chunks of time just thinking. She also refuses to gloss over the fact that not all academics have it quite as good as she does. She has not only a full-time position with (I assume) a relatively light teaching load, but she also has the hope of imminent tenure. Perhaps the most significant admission in the post is that the academic world is based on a pernicious hierarchical system, with tenured profs (preferably at R1 schools) at the top and adjuncts, lecturers, and, it must be admitted, community college faculty at the bottom.

Anyone who works in academia is aware of this class structure, and very few people are happy about it. Even those at the top of the pile will bemoan the exploitation of adjuncts, who often teach an impossibly large load with extraordinarily little pay and no benefits. The common line is that the adjunct-ification of higher ed is the work of unprincipled administrators who approach academia from a business-model perspective and thus prize the bottom line over educational quality. That reading is largely true, of course, but it occurs to me that there are many other factors at work, some of which implicate the very faculty who make these complaints.

To explain, let me offer my experience: whenever I attend conferences, I'm always somewhat wary of the inevitable moment that happens whenever some of my colleagues find out that I teach at a community college (this fact is not immediately apparent from the name of my institution). I'm glad to say that I've almost never faced outright disdain for my academic identity, even from colleagues at top-tier schools. They seem genuinely grateful for the work I do, though I suspect that gratitude is tinged with more than a little "there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-I" schadenfreude. But almost universal in their responses is utter amazement that anyone could teach a 5-5 load, much less try to produce scholarship while doing so. When I tell them that I often end up with a sixth class and that I almost always teach classes in the summer as well, they virtually swoon. And, following in the spirit of Dr. Virago's honest appraisal, I have to admit that I often approach these more "privileged" academics with bemusement. What would I do, what could I do, with a 3-2 load? How do these people fill their days?

The answer, of course, is that they engage in research and writing to a far greater extent than I ever could hope to. I read about their "research days" on blogs like Dr. Virago's. For that matter, I read the scholarship that they produce on such days, and my own understanding of my field is constantly enriched by their work. I believe in scholarship, though I'm well aware of the arguments against it. In fact, I consider it a point of pride that I remain active in scholarship despite the fact that it has no real bearing on my career. Not that it's easy. I have to be content with a very slow research schedule, producing one or two conference presentations each year, along with an occasional publication. If I had a lighter teaching load, obviously, things would be different.

But would things be better? Would my time be better spent in research than in teaching? I'm not sure. While I can conceive of arguments on each side, one point is certain: if my institution offered me a 3-3 load to accommodate my research agenda, it would have to hire adjuncts to fill the classes I would otherwise be teaching. At present, adjuncts teach less than 10% of the classes in my department (and, of course, we have no graduate students to serve as glorified adjuncts), a number far below the national average, as I understand it. Essentially, we only hire adjuncts to cover classes that are added late in the registration period, after the full-time faculty have already been assigned their requisite five classes apiece. The 5-5 load, in other words, allows an institution like mine to rely almost exclusively on full-time faculty, a fact which I see as a plus for almost everyone involved.

Institutions that offer tenured and tenure-track faculty significantly lower loads, then, have to rely on adjuncts to a somewhat greater degree. Oh, I suppose they could simply raise tuition dramatically so that they could afford to hire plenty of tenure-track faculty (or they could start paying adjuncts a wage comparable to that earned by full-time faculty), but the only realistic solution is to hire cheap, available labor to cover those extra classes. In a manner of speaking, we subsidize scholarship and research on the backs of extremely low-paid teachers.

I don't blame those folks on the tenure track directly. Most of them, I know, feel bad about the situation faced by adjuncts and many work to remedy or at least improve that situation. Some of them, in fact, probably wouldn't mind shifting a little bit of their focus to teaching instead of research, but they're up against ridiculously high tenure requirements and so have little wiggle room. I know I was shocked when I found out that some top schools require the equivalent of two books for tenure (as if one book weren't enough). Again, I have no philosophical problem with the idea of academics writing books instead of teaching classes. I'm simply trying to point out that there are costs to priorities like these, and the academic class system that Dr. Virago discusses is one of those costs.

What would I do about it? I certainly wouldn't argue for the community college model across the board. Professors at research schools should be engaged in research, those at teaching-oriented universities should be less so engaged, those at community colleges should focus on teaching almost exclusively. But could we make relative shifts in focus that might at least alleviate some of our current reliance on adjuncts and the like? Maybe. What would happen, for example, if every professor with a 3-3 load moved to a 4-3, with a concomitant decrease in scholarship expectations? We'd need slightly fewer adjuncts, and we'd have slightly fewer articles. Is that a worthy trade off?

Some may argue that the loss to the world of scholarship in such a model would be significant. I'm not sure I buy it, though. As much as I believe in research, I also know that some percentage of scholarship is produced because it has to be, because those who produce it need another line on their CV. Surely I'm not the only one to have read multiple articles by the same author that make closely related arguments. Surely I'm also not the only one to have wondered whether these two articles could have been combined into one, had the author not felt the need to have a certain number of articles published before tenure time. I won't even mention the practice of publishing bits of a forthcoming book as individual articles. Could we do with a 15% reduction in the number of scholarly articles or books published each year? I think we probably could.

Some may argue that increasing teaching loads will result in a loss of quality in the classroom. This argument is especially insidious. The idea that classes taught by faculty with a 2-2 load are, by definition, better classes than those taught by faculty with a 4-4 load simply reinforces the hierarchy of the existing class system. Community college faculty get it at both ends in this argument. Since we don't do much research, we're scholastically inferior to our colleagues at research universities. But our massive teaching load also apparently means that we're inferior teachers, since we couldn't possibly devote as much attention to each class as our colleagues with lighter loads do. And adjuncts come off even worse, since they often teach more than five classes, with no time for scholarly activity.

My suggestion is unlikely to get much traction, I know (and I also know that I'm jumping into the lion's mouth by even making the suggestion). So maybe a better place to start is simply to realize that, to some degree at least, the emphasis on scholarship, the luxury of having those "research days" during the week, contributes both to the economic system that exploits adjuncts and to the hierarchical structure which implicitly denigrates those who can't afford that luxury.

That doesn't sound bitter, does it?

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Old Habits Die Hard

In a marked departure from both the non-partisan stance and general intellectual purpose of this blog, and at the risk of outing myself to the handful of people who might be able to put two and two together:


That is all.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Aelfric vs. Wordsworth

Friday was a happy day: I received the latest issue of the Old English Newsletter in the mail. I'm always excited to get the OEN, which reaffirms my slight connection to the larger world of Anglo-Saxonists (and is usually an interesting read, to boot). I particularly enjoyed Mary Clayton's student edition of Aelfric's "Letter to Brother Edward," though a comment she made in the introduction did raise some interesting questions in my mind. In discussing Aelfric's style, she points out that scholars have long debated whether to characterize Aelfric's later works as prose or poetry and that the most recent pronouncement on the topic (by Thomas Bredehoft, in Anglo-Saxon England 33) declares Aelfric to have been, "Anglo-Saxon England's most prolific poet."

None of this was particularly new to me; all Anglo-Saxonists are aware of the blurred boundary between prose and poetry in (especially) the late A-S period. On this day, the idea particularly resonated with me, however, because I had just finished teaching Wordsworth's "Preface" to Lyrical Ballads, in which he argues for the removal of the barriers between prose and poetry. Actually, I made the connection between Wordsworth and Anglo-Saxon poetry in class (like all good medievalists, I find ways to bring the period into almost all discussions). I told my students that Wordsworth's complaint that the traditional language of poetry is markedly different (and less useful) than the language of prose could, in some ways, be traced back to the unique poetic vocabulary of Old English. My point was simply that the idea that poems should sound different from prose was not an 18th-century innovation, however much Wordsworth may have wanted to blame poets like Thomas Gray for it.

What didn't occur to me in class, what Clayton's introduction made me realize, was the strange relationship between Wordsworth's project and Aelfric's apparent decision to consciously blur the lines between prose and verse. The authors move in different directions across this line, of course--Aelfric is incorporating the rhythm and, to some degree, the vocabulary of poetry into essentially prose works, while Wordsworth is employing, again to some degree, the language of prose into self-consciously poetic works. And the rationales behind these moves are also very different. Wordsworth argues that elaborate poetic language unnecessarily distances poetry from "the language really spoken by men," by which I assume he means that it makes poetry essentially elitist. Wordsworth's interest in blurring the lines between poetry and prose, then, is just another part of his larger democratic project (like his insistence that poetry should deal with "low and rustic life"). For Wordsworth, the distinction between prose and poetry is related to class distinctions. Poetic language and elevated diction is an obstacle to understanding for "ordinary" people, Wordsworth seems to be saying.

I've never thought about the distinction between Old English poetry and prose in these terms, probably because literacy in Anglo-Saxon England was essentially an elitist phenomenon in the first place. If anything, I've always kind of assumed that poetry would have been more accessible to the lower classes (obviously a problematic term when applied to Anglo-Saxon England) simply because of the idea of oral delivery. If (a big if, I admit) Beowulf was ever performed orally, presumably illiterate people may have heard it, while a work like the OE Pastoral Care, for example, would have been known only to those who could read it.

Aelfric's works appear to complicate this neat distinction by virtue of being largely made up of sermons, which probably were delivered orally. What's interesting, though, is that the work of Aelfric's which makes the most use of poetic language and rhythm is his Lives of Saints, which was apparently intended more for private reading than oral delivery. Maybe it's possible to suggest that Aelfric used a more prosaic form when writing sermons to be delivered to the public and a more poetic form when composing works intended for the literate clergy. Frankly, I don't think we know enough about Aelfric's audience(s) to make such a claim with any certainty.

But I do think that the way we view Aelfric's works has a lot to do with the question of "status" if not class per se. The search by scholars for poetic elements in Aelfric's oeuvre has bordered on the obsessive at times, and a large part of the appeal of Aelfric seems to be the way he straddles the boundary between poetry and prose. Maybe we think that Aelfric is a great author because he was able to draw effectively upon both traditions in his writing. But I suspect that what we're really saying is that Aelfric is a great author because he writes prose that sounds like poetry. After all, it's no secret that scholars of Old English have been and continue to be much more interested in poetry than in prose. And of course, we continue to privilege poetic language over prose in general, as our terminology makes clear. Even I winced when I wrote in the previous paragraph that Aelfric used "prosaic" language.

So maybe Wordsworth is on to something. Maybe we do use some of the trappings of poetry as an exclusionary device. Certainly our students think so. They groan when I tell them that we're reading more poetry because, to them, poetry is purposefully obscure. Interestingly, though, they're not convinced that Wordsworth is really their champion. He says he's writing in the language of the "common man," but students usually find him especially difficult to understand. They have less trouble with Beowulf (in translation, of course) than with "Tintern Abbey." Maybe the implication here is that my students have more in common with a small segment of Anglo-Saxon society than with the "common man" of 1798 England.

Or maybe it's just because there are no monsters in "Tintern Abbey." Other than Wordsworth, of course.

Friday, February 1, 2008

I love the classical roots of education, but...

Greek rhetorical terms sometimes push me to the limit. Could we possibly come up with a harder way to describe the way words work? I'm sitting here trying to decide whether a particular specimen of paronomasia is to be considered polyptoton or antanaclasis. Jeez. Somebody hand me a souvlaki.

By the way, is it just me, or does Polyptoton sound like the name of a Spinal Tap album?