Tuesday, October 31, 2006

What's next? Bubonic plague?


Oh, I'm sorry, was that supposed to be a rhetorical question?

My post title is the headline of an article at Inside Higher Ed (linked in the post title) about the recent outbreaks of mumps, whooping cough, and tuberculosis at college campuses. And as the second commenter at IHE points out, bubonic plague does indeed still exist (ETA: right here in the United States, in fact -- see that commenter and also my first commenter below). I don't have a link for this, but I remember hearing a story on NPR in the last year about miners in South Africa contracting it, and in some it developed from bubonic to pneumonic -- and as I understand it, that's where things can get really scary.

Just a friendly reminder that the past is with us.

Oh, and PS -- Happy Halloween! Nothing like the threat of infectious diseases to make this holiday especially spooky!

Sunday, October 29, 2006

American aristocracies, academia, and bad sermons

So I went to Latin mass again, this time taking a few students from my graduate seminar. It wasn't as pleasant an experience this time, in part because the church was packed, mostly with young families teeming with crying babies and cranky toddlers.

[Totally tangential comment: there were multiple familes with five or more kids, one of them with seven. It's like they all woke up one morning and said, "You know, I'd like to be a walking stereotype of a Catholic family -- let's start breeding!" Seriously, when did this happen? I went to 12 years of Catholic school in the '70s and '80s and most families had 2 or 3 kids; we thought the unusual ones with 5 or more were serious throw-backs. Mine had 4 kids, but I was a big fat accident, 14 years after the last of the other three, and anyway, that's still under 5. This church was *filled* with families of 5 or more kids. How do they afford them all??]

Anyway, the priest's sermon also wasn't as good -- or rather, as useful for my purposes -- as the last one. Last time he talked about the World, the Flesh, and the Devil, as if he knew I was teaching medieval morality plays that very week! Too bad the students weren't with me that time. But this time, since it was the feast of Christ the King, he talked about metaphors of kingship, but not in a very interesting way, or in any usefully medieval way. He bulit up this awkward analogy of the aristocratic entourage that surrounds a king to the followers of Christ. (However, as awkward as it was, it did remind me a bit of medieval romance, where *everyone* is a king, queen, prince, or princess of some sort. But I digress.)

The most awkward part, though, was the vast middle section, where he assumed that none of his audience would know what an aristocracy was (well, maybe he's right -- I dunno, I prefer to err on the side of overestimating my audience) and so made less than effective analogies to three groups he called "American aristocracies": powerful CEOs of large corporations, wealthy people, and academics. Huh??? OK, first of all: which one of these things does not have the stock portfolio of the others? Great, so now all those people who don't know what an aristocracy is (he presumes) may now assume that academics are rich like CEOs and miscellaneous rich people. I was also thinking, "Hm, we must be those land-rich, cash-poor kind of aristocrats, because I'm not getting any of those aristocratic perks."

But then it got goofier. When he talked about all those groups, he talked about how they surround the king (not sure who the king is in each of these scenarios) and only associate with each other. When he got to academics, he even said, "They live with each other." Um, OK, well I live with an academic, but that's because he's my partner. But I assure you, I do have non-academic friends. I mean, I may usually scare them away from this blog with all the 'inside baseball' talk (as one friend once put it), but I can talk about other things! Really! And I don't think I'm too good for 'regular' people, either, which I was worried is what he was implying. After all, he was calling academia an aristocracy, and since I just saw Marie Antoinette last night, I was thinking, "How isolated and insular does he think we are? And when is the mob coming for our heads?" It smacked slightly of that anti-intellectual, pseudo-populism whereby educated people, and especially the people who educate them, are a despised and evil elite -- a kingdom of this world, versus Christ's kingdom of heaven. That spooked me. (And never mind that the populations of his congregation and of academics might even overlap!)

But the "they live with each other" really cracked me up. Because if we all lived in some academic group home, cut off from the World, associating mainly with each other except in our official capacities as teachers and advisors, wouldn't we be just like...priests and religious?? Project much, Father? (And of course, there's a historical connection between the university and religious education, but never mind that for now.) It was a confused sermon, to say the least. Really, I should've gone up to him after mass and said, "Hi Father, I'm Dr. Virago. See, we do get out sometimes!" Te-hee!

Friday, October 27, 2006

On boundaries

Compared to some of the curmudgeons who have been the Graduate Director before me, I'm as warm and cuddly and approachable as a puppy. But that's not saying much, because some of those guys just loved playing the part of austere authority gazing down on the students' puniness. It's easy to seem approachable compared to that. I also think part of my approachability is illusion; students assume it because I'm young(ish) -- and look younger still -- and female. And also, when students come to my office, at first my back is to them -- vulnerable, an easy mark -- and then I turn to them, welcome them in, and offer them a seat that's practically in my lap, all because I have an office that's 7' x 7' (I'm not kidding). The old guys have big offices where they can sit behind their desks, which serve as a visible sign of the social boundary between them and the students. And the one guy who takes the middle ground -- a desk perpendicular to the door so that he can turn face-to-face with the visiting student with no physical barrier between them -- has a voice so booming, no matter how conversational, that he couldn't avoid being intimidating if he wanted. Heck, even his "soft voice" is a stage whisper that could carry across an unamplified theater.

So, in contrast, students find me approachable. I've been told this, but even if I hadn't, I'd know because I seem to get an inordinate amount of student unloading their troubles on me. This happens with the undergrads, too, but it is especially true of the graduate students. This is a good thing for many reasons, not least of which is they give me a heads up about problems and conflicts before they get too far out of control and nothing can be done about them. And they ask me questions, rather than floundering or getting bad advice from their peers. All good. But then they start coming to me with personal life stuff and sometimes, "just to talk." When it stays on the level of things like time management or dealing with family members who think that they have Friday "free" because they don't teach or have classes, then I'm fine, because it's all about professional advice. But when I start hearing the stories of addiction, abusive relationships, or things like that, I have to admit, I get a little uncomfortable. And a lot of them feel like they can talk about their spiritual lives with me, because I can do the Jesus talk, it's true, and I'm probably the single most sympathetic liberal atheist they'll ever meet. But still it makes me uncomfortable.

It's not that I'm a cold and unfeeling person. It's not that I think that students should be brains-on-a-stick with no personal lives. And it's not that I have some abstract principle of distant professionalism in mind. It's because it makes me, Dr. V., uncomfortable. Why? Well, because I have them in classes, and I administer exams, and I sign off on petitions for exceptions and course substitutions, and sometimes I have to give them grades and responses they don't like. And then they feel betrayed and I feel like shit. It's not personal and it's not a judgment of them, but they read it that way. And it seems like the only way to prevent it from getting to that point it to be cold and distant and unapproachable, which I don't really think I can be. When they come to me in tears because their partner of five years has suddenly moved out or because their father is dying or because they've just lost it trying to juggle their overburdened lives, I am sympathetic, and I give them kleenex and comfort (no hugs, though -- I'm not huggy by nature and that gets into sticky legal territory, anyway). And shit, although I never cried to a professor, I did cry a helluva a lot in graduate school, mostly from loneliness, sometimes from stress, and so I know what it can be like. (Though when it starts to get into addiction and abuse type seriousness, that's when I pull out the numbers for student psych counseling, because I am not a professional mental health counselor and that's beyond my ken.) So I can't help but be sympathetic.

And yet I know where it might lead -- to that feeling of betrayal -- and so I remain uncomfortable and completely torn. Should I steer it back to concrete academic issues? Should I say, "How can I help you?" whenever it gets too personal and just refuse to let them keep talking about things I have no control over? Or should I let them talk because that's probably what they need?

What do you do in situations like this (with undergrads or grads)? Do you have boundaries? Where do you draw them?

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

So much for the supposedly pernicious influence of Ward Churchill on the academy

Some of you with elephant memories and too much time on your hands may recall that I'm teaching a first year graduate course on research methods in literary studies, or, as I like to call it, "How to be a Graduate Student." I kind of wimped out on making it really tough and rigorous -- mainly because I needed to test the waters and see what one of our typical first year groups could and couldn't do, what they did and didn't need -- and while I have really useful, practical assignments (which I might talk about in another post), most of the class after the first 3 weeks has consisted of visits from my colleagues who introduce their fields, current work in it, and the most important resources for research in it. (I have to say, this is so much fun for me. It's like I get to be a student, too! Weeeeeee!)

Anyway, yesterday one of our Native American lit. scholars came to visit and, among other things, did a hilarious riff of the character Billy in Predator. But also got serious and talked about the shape of the field and current trends, etc. He also talked about major scholars in the field. And then he got to vexed issues of identity and authenticity among authors and critics, and talked about various fraud cases. And, of course, Ward Churchill came up.

As my colleague brought up his name, he looked a little sheepish, as if he regretted even having to invoke the man. But then he noticed the blank faces of my students. And so he asked, "How many of you have heard of Ward Churchill?"

*crickets chirping*

Not a hand went up. Not a head nodded. Not a look of recognition so much as flitted across a student's face. Out of a class of 18 students in a master's program in English literature, not a one had heard of Ward Churchill.

I'm not sure if that's a good thing (he doesn't deserve to be known) or a bad thing (they're unaware of controversies in their chosen profession) but it's not a surprising thing. A year ago they were undergraduates (well, most of them); or else they've been busy public high school English teachers. Undergraduates are busy trying to keep Jane Austen and Jane Eyre straight and my brilliant high school teachers (and they always are some of the smartest ones in the bunch -- they rock) are busy trying to get their struggling students to write an intelligible paragraph or two. I'm not saying they should remain ignorant of such controversies; I'm just saying I'm not surprised they are.

As for my colleague, as soon as he realized they hadn't heard of Churchill, he looked relieved. I'm sure that everyone he encounters who has heard of WC wants to know what his opinion is. And many of them probably ask in that most annoying way: "How do you feel about Ward Churchill...you know, as a Native American yourself." I think he was thrilled not to have to do the distancing dance for once.

Maybe there's something more to be said here -- about the insularity of our controversies, perhaps? -- but maybe I'll leave it for the comments. All I know is, like my colleague I'm happy to let Ward Churchill slip into oblivion.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Chicago, it's a helluva town

[Updated below]

So a couple of weeks ago, Bullock and I went to Chicago to see a couple of friends of his. We had *stunning* weather and walked all over downtown from the Navy Pier to the museum campus. But we also decadently splurged on a huge and outrageously expensive (for us) meal at Topolobampo, Rick Bayless's fancy restaurant (we got reservations months in advance). (If you go, I recommend the tasting menu -- and they will redesign it for vegetarians or people with dietary restrictions -- though the matching wine tasting menu isn't a very good deal. Still, it's nice to be able to try different wines and have them suit your food.) At any rate, I'm sure those decadent calories outweighed all our walking and museum touring. But oh, it was sooooooo good!

My brother Fast Fizzy, on the other hand, is in Chicago today, and he's not eating a rich meal and sitting around with his belt-buckle undone. Oh no. Guess what he's doing. Yup, that's right, he's running another marathon, the Lasalle Bank Chicago Marathon. (He will soon have 6 to my 5.) I won't live-blog it like I did his past races, except that I will update this when his final result is in. He's hoping to average 7 minutes/mile and finish in 3:03, which would be a PR for him (currently his PR is 3:06). So far, the only results I have are for his time at the 10K mark, and that puts him at an amazing 6:43 pace -- though he does have a tendency to start fast. If the wind and the rain don't wear him out, he could break 3 hours. Go Fizzy Go!

Holy crap! Fast Fizzy broke 3 hours! He finished in 2:57:48, with a pace of 6:46 minutes per mile. Way to go Fizzy!!!!!

Friday, October 20, 2006

Friday *Jane Austen* Blogging

OK, I'm not really starting a new blog meme. It's just that in lieu of Friday Poetry Blogging, I'm telling a story involving Jane Austen (not in person -- that would be weird and disturbing).

So one of the grad students who's set to take the MA exam tomorrow admitted to me that she hadn't read Pride and Prejudice. WTF? It's on the list! And the list is only a little over 30 books long! She's not supposed to skip *any* of the texts on there, but not reading Jane Austen was especially surprising in the case of this graduate student. (She's an Americanist, but the 19th c. novel is one of her interests.) So I was shocked on many professional levels, almost as shocked as I was by the Spark Notes guy.

But, more important: how can *anyone* with an avowed interest in literature skip over Pride and Prejudice??? Come on! It's smart, it's funny, it's pure reading gold!

And that's exactly how I reacted to her. I couldn't mask the shock and the horror. I may have even said, out loud, "what the fuck?!" (Granted, I have a comfortable relationship with this student.)

Well, it turns out that I shamed her into reading it. She e-mailed me today to say she's reading it cover to cover this morning and almost done. And of course she's loving it. And I'm kind of glad she's zipping through it and not studying it ponderously with a mind towards the exam. Not that it's not worth studying deeply -- it's a complicated, rich book -- but on a gray Friday morning, on the day before a stressful exam, it's good that she's curling up with a wonderful book and getting pleasure from it (even if I had to shame her into that pleasure).

And there's something a little radical in that pleasure in a university environment that intimates that the woeful state of the region's economy is all because the best and the brightest are sitting around reading books -- and liking it! -- instead of industriously toiling to patent new products that make our lives faster! more convenient! more active! healthier!

And now (she says with bitter irony) back to work with me!

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Data collection guinea pig -- that's me!

I'm in the Sister Study. If you don't know it, it's a longitudinal study of the sisters of women who have or have had breast cancer. My sister Ms. V. died of complications due to breast cancer in 2002, having been diagnosed four years earlier.

So far I've done the two phone interviews, I've filled out all the questionaires and I've done the seemingly weird things like clip toenail samples and collect dust samples from door jambs in my home (ew!). This morning I was supposed to have a home visit by a technician who would pick up all those samples and forms, as well as collect a urine sample I produced early this morning (ew again!) and draw blood from me. But she didn't show up and there was no answer at the phone number she gave me. I called the Sister Study main number and left a message after waiting on hold for 10 minutes. They haven't called back. When I finally do get in touch with them, I'm sure they'll have to send me a new "Last 24 hours" kit and I'll schedule a new home visit. And I probably should redo the toenail and dust collection steps, too, since I originally completed those way back in March, when I lived in a different home. I then set up a home appointment for May -- the earliest available -- which was then cancelled because they didn't have enough trained technicians in Rust Belt, despite the fact the study works with subcontractors. As it is, the technician who did eventually call me and set up this morning's failed appointment works full time in a local hospital and the reason we had such an early morning appointment was to work around her schedule.

I'm not telling you all this to bitch and moan, or to malign Sister Study. I think it's a fantastic study and I'm happy to stay in it for as long as they need me -- decades even. And I marvel at even the idea that they could collect the amount of data they are collecting and analyze it in any way that's meaningful, not because that can't be done, but because it's just conceptually beyond me. You should see the pages and pages of questions we answer, and that's in addition to two hour-long phone interviews. So many variables! So many potential correlations that aren't causation! It's mind-boggling! More power to the researchers.

But I'm getting the feeling that the study is struggling a little bit with the practical end of things, either to manage an operation of its size, or, just as likely, simply to find and pay the number of people it needs to reach all the participants -- whether it's enough technicians for home visits or operators to answer the phones. Though it's funded by a behemoth like the National Institutes of Health, that's still a government agency, and in the current administration, I wouldn't be surprised to find out that the Institutes in general are woefully underfunded. And this is research science. What's more, it's epidemiological and long-term. There's no immediate "business application" to their findings, and even though anyone with half a reasoning mind knows that there are economic benefits to a healthier populace, and that prevention is a good part of health, and that education is a large part of disease prevention, there's no drug being manufactured here or new surgical procedure with expensive technology to market to hospitals. So it's probably not as well funded, relative to its complexity and the number of people involved, as a basic pharmaceutical study is.

Of course, I don't know this. Maybe it's an organizational management problem. But everyone I have encountered with the Sister Study has been polished and professional and eager to see things works smoothly, so my guess is that there just aren't enough of them to make it work as smoothly as they wish, and that that's a funding problem. It's just an educated guess. But given my own state's taste for funding only that research that has "real world," "practical," and "economic" benefits, and the state's call for universities to turn their collective research interests to "patentable" products,* to be incubators for the state's economic turn-around, I don't think my guess about the federal government's current research funding habits is completely off-base. And my experience in retail and service industries, and in social services, on both sides of counter, so to speak, suggests the people involved in the Sister Study are doing the best they can with what they've got.

*My idea for a patentable, medieval literature-related product is the "Johnny Jouster" (all rights reserved, Dr. Virago). Modelled on the Johnny Jump-Up, the Johnny Jouster helps your young child develop hand-eye coordination, balance, strength, and the ability to win tokens of love from the unobtainable object of his or her heart's desire.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Finally, an updated blogroll!

So I've finally updated my ancient and out of date blogroll. And in order to keep it updated, I've subscribed to Blogrolling, so that if I want to add something, I need only click the "Blogroll It" button I put on my browser. And if a link is old and out of date, to erase it, I need only go to my Blogroll account and delete it, without having to go into the headache of manually editing my template.

But of course, this means no more categories. That, too, is a good thing. Too many blogs fell into multiple categories (Bitch Ph.D. -- academic blog? feminist blog?) and I didn't have a "multi-topic" category (though I supposed I could have). So now they're simply alphabetical -- though Blogrolling annoyingly doesn't ignore "the," "a," or "an." I may move the various carnivals out of the blogroll, since they're homesites, but other than that, I'm pretty pleased.

If I've forgotten anyone -- epsecially if you regularly read and/or comment here and have a blog -- please let me know!

Friday, October 13, 2006

Friday Poetry Blogging: Old English Edition

The following is one of my favorites from the Old English riddles in the Exeter Book. You can read more – including the naughty ones (one of which HeoCwaeth once posted) – at this site, which presents them in Old English and in translation (based on Craig Williamson’s 1977 edition, so with a numbering system different from Krapp-Dobbie, for those of you who care about those things). For those new to Old English, the ð character is equivalent to the modern th. And now I present it, in Old English and in translation (by John Porter, Anglo-Saxon Riddles, Norfolk, England: Anglo-Saxon Books, 1995, rpt. 2003), without further comment.

Riddle 69

Wundor wearð on wege; wæter wearð to bane.

Wonder formed in wave; water turned to bone.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The end of the world as I know it? (Updated: Maybe not!)

Update: Thanks to all for the good wishes and words of advice. I put the following in a comment below (among other things said there) but I thought it was worth posting here.

I think I'm going to go with Dr. Crazy's advice. The situation lends itself well to more general, theoretical pieces about things like the value and use of the humanities in the "real world;" the importance of the liberal arts as including the sciences, the humanities, and the social sciences under one umbrella; the utlity of consensus-building in running a large and public organization; the importance of faculty governance; the idea and value of having a "vocation" in the deepest sense of the word; the place of the study of the past in our supposedly rapidly changing, technology-infused world; and all sorts of other good stuff. And writing on such topics appeals to me. Such topics also have application to other universities, because what's going on here isn't completely unique in its general character, only in its specific *characters.* I can couch a lot of it in terms of general trends. Of course, writing on such topics also takes a lot out of me, so expect maybe one of these topics a week!

Also, last night I actually briefly toyed with the idea of getting out job applications to two universities that are in 3-4 hour driving distance from here and would each be a small step up from here in prestige (and whose deadlines were in November and would give me time to pull an application and letters together). Bullock and I talked about how we could buy our vacation home and land in between here and those places and spend weekends at it. (In this plan, Bullock would stay here for the time being.) But then we realized that would seriously disrupt our lives, that there weren't all that many universities around those two where Bullock could then get a job comparable or better than the one he's got, so we decided together to go back to the wait-and-see-and-maybe-go-on-the-market-next-year-if-things-get-worse plan. It didn't seem worth it to let one administration's bad ideas -- which may not even be implemented -- ruin our lives.

And if you saw the premiere of 30 Rock last night (I *heart* Tina Fey), I have to say I identified very deeply with that entire episode. Translate it into academia and you've got an idea of what's going on here. If you didn't see it, you missed something pretty funny (and, as our students would say, "relatable"). My new motto now, every time I feel like fleeing, is "Don't buy all the hot dogs."

Original post:

Sorry for the unexplained silences lately, but Bullock and I traveled over the weekend, and you know how it is when you go away – everything else gets backed up. But the other reason I’ve been a little light on the content here is because I’ve been weighing the decision to blog about something that would really compromise my anonymity, and in doing so, could potentially jeopardize my chances of tenure at Rust Belt U (not on the department level, or even the college level, but at those levels over which faculty have less control) – but only if the parties concerned happen to find my blog. If I make sure what I write isn’t readily found by a Google search, then I doubt very much the parties concerned will find it, since I doubt they read blogs, but students might. And so it might come to other people’s attention. But those are big maybes and mights, so I think the chances are slim. More important, I really need to write publicly about the disturbing changes my university is undergoing – at the hands of a deeply misguided new administration – because these changes make me angry and frustrated and depressed. And if my university is headed in the direction that the administration wants it to go, then I’m not sure I want tenure here. I didn’t go on the job market this year because Bullock and I are incredibly lucky to already be in the same institution, and Bullock is up for tenure this year. I was thinking of possibly going up for tenure early next year (instead of the following year), and throwing my energies into what I could contribute here now and in the future, but now I may be going on the market next year instead. (It's too late to pull it together for this year, and even more so for Bullock's field.) It remains to be seen. The administration might meet resistance from the students and community as well as the faculty (it deserves to) and might be stymied, so some wait-and-see might be worth it. And of course, Bullock and I have to define what we want for ourselves.

I know I’m being incredibly vague and it’s not clear what’s at stake. I’m going to post about this and with more concrete detail – I just have to figure out how. Perhaps in the meantime I can post other things, but I’m finding all of this to be consuming a lot of my mental energy at the moment.

Monday, October 9, 2006

Sign of the times

According to SiteMeter, the largest group of hits I've had lately were from many different people searching the phrase "in nomine patris, et filii, et spiritus sancti" or some shortened version of it (such as "in nomine" or "in nomine patris") or the phrase plus the word "meaning" or "translation." Except in the latter cases, I'm not sure if they're searching to find out what the phrase means, or if they're looking for a blog called "Catholic Convert" which has the entire Latin phrase as its URL, or if they're seeking another site with the entire phrase as its name (but a different URL), whose owner happened to advertise in a comment on my blog (which I've left up because as spam goes, at least it's related to the post), or if they want this goth-y bracelet. In all of these various searches my post on the Latin mass comes up on the first page.

At any rate, I find it kind of surprising that people don't know what the phrase means. Or that they can't figure out it means "in the name of the father, the son, and the holy spirit." Certainly those kids from Spellbound would be able to rattle off English words related to all of those Latin words (nomination! patriotic! affiliation! spiritual! sanctity!), and in my high school they told all of us that learning Latin would help us on the SATs, but I guess most people don't even make the connections between such foreign words and the English words they've spawned.

But I'm especially intrigued that it's the most common set of hits for my blog right now. Are the Googlers themselves Christian? Are they conservative Christians -- and if so, what must they think when they land on my blog (the horror! the horror! -- or perhaps, more relevant, it burns! it burns!)? Or are they people curious about Christianity and its history, or more specifically Catholicism? What are their motives? And what are they looking for? But most of all, why do they think my blog, of all places, has the answers they're looking for????

Thursday, October 5, 2006

How much Middle English spelling can students take? Or: on choosing an edition of Malory

OK, folks, once again I’m asking for your input in designing my classes for next term.  No, I’m not lazy – I just think I’ve reached the limits of my own bright ideas and need fresh thinking.

Last time I taught my upper division medieval survey class, I taught Malory’s Morte Darthur from the Norton Critical Edition, edited by Stephen H.A. Shepherd.  (That link takes you to the Amazon page, and it’s worth a whole ‘nuther post to discuss the baffling ways in which Amazon thinks one edition of a text is the same as the next.  The “search inside this book” function takes you to the Penguin edition and the customer reviews discuss other editions as well.)  While you can’t see it on the Amazon page, Shepherd’s edition for Norton is really, really cool.  Not only is it in Middle English, but it tries to reproduce the visual experience of the Winchester manuscript by reproducing the marginal decorations and the rubrications of proper names, albeit in black and white (he uses bold and a slightly larger font).  There’s something really stunning about the pages where battles and feast take place and lists of names are invoked, because when one looks at it without actually reading it, one is confronted by a sea of ink that turns the epic catalog into a visual effect instead of a rhetorical one.  I’m not sure what the theoretical import of that is, but I think my students get it more immediately than they would by simply reading the lists.  And the marginalia is interesting as a way of finding one’s place in the text and also perhaps seeing what Malory or his scribe thought was significant.  In addition to the marginalia and the tricks with bold, Shepherd has used something along the lines of the so-called Old English font for the entire text.  Of course, that doesn’t really reproduce the hand of the manuscript, and a modern typeface/font is thoroughly anachronistic, but then the Morte Darthur is itself an anachronistic feast of nostalgia, so on some meta-commentary level, I think it works.

But here’s the deal.  It’s certainly a lot harder work for the students to read.  Malory’s Middle English is much easier than Chaucer’s, but when you add that funky typeface, even familiar letters get hard to discern.  In some ways, that’s good.  I like students to be a little defamiliarized from a story that’s been replicated so much they think they know it and they think they know what it’s “about.”  But, practically and realistically speaking, it’s rough going for them.  That was especially true last year when I assigned Malory in chronological order – thus, at the end of the semester – and assigned a lot of the work, just when they were overwhelmed with papers and projects in other classes.  So next time, I may start with Malory.  There are theoretical reasons as well as practical ones to do this.  Malory’s text is the only one on my syllabus that had an immediate print life and was circulated and read continuously from its own day to ours  – whereas all the other texts we discuss disappeared for centuries at a time.  So Malory is a direct link between our reading world and the medieval one.  (Chaucer, let me remind you, is a separate course at my institution.) And I can use it to emphasize what print did, how it affected what we read and how we read, and contrast it with the Norton’s simulacrum of a manuscript (not to mention the ways Caxton shaped the text, and the way modern editors, including Shepherd, shape it as well).

But – and here, finally, are my questions to you – should I assign an easier-to-grasp edition?  One that doesn’t make the very letters and words difficult to perceive?  When we assign Middle English texts with original spelling, are we mystifying rather than illuminating the Middle Ages?  And more practically speaking, are we turning off legions of students who can’t get past the intimidating surface of Middle English?  Will I turn students off of Malory and thus risk turning them off of my course in general if I start with the Norton edition?

Monday, October 2, 2006

That honking jerk from yesterday's post is ON NOTICE!

(And he's got a lot of other company there!)

Make your own "On Notice!" board here.

Sunday, October 1, 2006

Sometimes I wish I were teaching composition...

...because I often find inspiration for assignments from my daily experiences.

For example, today on my long run I came up with two ideas, one for a paper topic and one for an in-class discussion (small groups or full class - your choice). For preparation for the paper topic, students would look at map of my working-to-middle-class neighborhood in Rust Belt, with its easy-to-navigate N-S and E-W grid, and compare it with a map of Rust Belt's version of Beverly Hills, where the streets wind and curve, double in on themselves, and have confusingly similar names. (I mean, really, *must* Riverview and Riverside cross each other?!) And then, after that part of the excercise, they would go to each of these neighborhoods and catalog the physical properties of the streets (wide or narrow? sidewalks or not? where are the street signs? How easy are they to read?), the landscaping and lots (size and character), the houses, the proximity of the houses to the road and each other, the number of cars parked on the streets, and the visibility of the garages. Then they'd come back with all of that and do a semiotic reading of the two neighborhoods' geography, planning, and architecture in light of class and power.

Yes, this is really what I do with my time when I run. Can you tell, btw, that I got a little lost?

The other idea came more suddenly, less leisurely. In this assignment, students are first given a "case":

A woman runner is waiting at a corner for her crosswalk light to say "walk." The cross-traffic has an increasingly stale yellow light and she's getting ready for her turn to go. Just as that stale yellow light is about to turn red and her light turn to "walk," a guy in a beat-up muscle car hits the accelerator to "make" the yellow, honking at the woman and whistling at her through his open window at the same time. She mutters "Asshole!" and continues on her run after the guy has cleared the crosswalk and gone through the now-red light.
First, students must discuss how many signs are involved in this "case" and how they signify to each of the parties concerned. Then they are to debate whether the two parties' interpretations of those signs are "correct." Who or what determines what's correct in each case (law, social mores, ethics, common sense, etc.)? How might some of these signs have multiple meaning from different points of view? If the driver had good intentions (warning, not catcalling) might the runner still have the right to think he's an asshole?

Te-hee. Yes, I *do* see my life in terms of a series of "teaching moments," why do you ask?