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.