Thursday, November 29, 2007

Dr. Virago: superhero, spiritual advisor, and therapist. Only not.

So Sisyphus has a post in which she worries about the job market and then distracts herself with the bizarre search strings that bring people to her blog. As you all know, "Beowulf nudity" (or its variant, "naked Beowulf") is a recently popular draw to chez Virago these days because of this post. But I bet you don't know the top three search strings that regularly bring random visitors to these here parts on a regular basis. These are the searches that show up multiple times every time I check the "referral pages" section of my SiteMeter stats. Seriously, these hits won't go away.

They are:

3) What's my superhero name? That one gives you this post as the very first hit. (OK, I was new to blogging and still amused by silly quiz things.)

2) Then there's this search string: I think I'm depressed. I'm the third hit for that one. It just makes me even more depressed that people are searching the web for advice about depression and coming to my fraking blog for advice. Man. On the bright side, I haven't felt what I described in that post in a long time.

And finally, the top search string:

1) In nomine patris et filii et spiritus sancti. That one puts my post on the Latin mass as the second hit and is the single most common way random visitors come to my blog. Kinda ironic for an agnostic chick who's only barely culturally Catholic anymore.

Seriously, these search strings are regular appearances. Yeah, I get the ones from people clearly writing papers on various medieval literature that I've talked about here, but none of them are as common as these. Weird, huh?

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

So *this* is what being a professor is like

I've mentioned before that I'm editing a couple of texts for inclusion in an anthology of literature. And I've mentioned that I've had fun doing it over the course of the semester, and that I've even discovered things about the texts I hadn't noticed and that I can use in the classroom. So all in all it's been a good experience. This is also one of those tasks where all those years in graduate school and one's expertise in a particular area really matter, and where research and teaching are connected. I was asked to do this job because I've written a book on the texts I'm editing, and the anthology is a traditional, undergraduate-driven anthology of literature, so my expertise is being used in service of student learning. Unfortunately, at a lot of places editions don't get one as much credit as original scholarly work does under the "professional activity" column of merit and promotion; but at my school it counts for something at least. And it's also the first time I've ever been paid something other than my base salary for my work, so that definitely counts for something.

But that general sketch of what this project is for and what it gets me is not what my post title is about. No, what that title refers to is the part of the task I'm working on right now. I've finished the glossing and footnoting and I've finished writing and revising the introduction. Now I'm doing something that I should've done while I was working on other elements, but which somehow slipped my notice in the directions for formatting my submission. Since this is a late medieval text, it's being presented somewhat in its original language, but the editors of this anthology have asked for modernized spelling, punctuation, and capitalization, where possible -- in the mode of what we do to Shakespeare when he's edited for students. And so I have to mark all the words that I've changed from the original. I have to highlight them on the photocopy of my base text, the scholarly edition, and bold them in my copy.

So right now here's what I'm doing: I'm clicking on words and making them bold. One after another, through 600 lines of text. God, I'm so bored. Yup, this is why I spent 8 years getting a Ph.D.

*headdesk*

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

If the DVR says so, it must be true

Last night the DVR schedule showed the following information for BBCAmerica on Tuesday, December 11:

8pm (EST) Life on Mars, New
9pm (EST) Life on Mars, New


Still no description of the episodes, but...YAY!!

Sunday, November 25, 2007

I know none of you are as excited about this as I am, but...

...it seems that the BBC show "Life on Mars" is *finally* returning to BBC America for its second and final season on December 11 (about 8 months after it finished airing in the U.K.).

I want to jump up and down and say "woo hoo!" and urge you all to watch while American shows are on strike (and before the sure-t0-be-not-as-great David E. Kelley American version of the show finally makes its debut), but I'm skeptical, in part because it was hard to find this information. But in case it's right, do set your DVRs or mark your calendars if you have BBC America and you're at all interested in shows smart about class, gender, and genre.

The Dec. 11 debut of season 2 is what all the newsgroups and tv blogs are showing. And there's an "Life on Mars: Episode 1" and an "Episode 2" listed on the BBC America schedule on Tuesday, Dec. 11, at 8pm and 9pm. I doubt they'd give over weekday prime time slots to reruns of the first season, right? But the weird thing is I haven't seen any advertisement of the show during "Torchwood" (the other BBC show we're watching right now on BBC America) and the BBC America website doesn't say *anything* to announce the upcoming season (though granted, that website *stinks*).

I really really hope the blogs and newsgroups are right. Not only do I love show; not only am I dying to see the resolution; but it's also nearly impossible to avoid spoilers when you're googling to find out air dates, given that the show ended in the U.K. in April! Argh!

So, dear BBC America, *please* tell me for sure that Season 2 is starting on Dec. 11. Run some ads! Update your web site (and hire more people to keep it up to date)! Do *something*!

And PS -- Speaking of "Torchwood," man is that show dark and, frequently, depressing. And yet I can't get enough of it. I was late to the whole new "Doctor Who" phenom, in part because I'd never watched the original shows and didn't have nostalgia to draw me in (and I'm not a natural sci-fi fan, actually -- crime is my preferred genre, so I come to sci-fi by way of crossover genres like "The X-Files") but Bullock finally got me hooked (I still have to catch up with the Christopher Eccleston episodes) and now I'm hooked on "Torchwood," too.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Thank you, Pastry Pirate

Not too long ago we thought Thanksgiving at Chez Bullock and Virago would include not only Bullock's family but also my sister Virgo Sis, which posed quite the culinary conundrum for us, since Bullock's sister is a vegan, her daughter is vegetarian, and Virgo Sis has celiac disease, which means she can't eat any gluten (the protein in wheat and barley). Add to that the complication that Bullock really, really likes to bake pies and cakes and, given his druthers, not only uses animal by-products in all his baking (eggs, butter), but also uses lard in his pie crusts. So as far as he was concerned, a gluten-free/vegan desert wasn't possible.

So the Pastry Pirate took pity on us and adopted our needs as her project in her advanced-special-dietary-needs-complicated-high-maintenance-baking class and developed a gluten-free, vegan devil's food cake good enough for a dessert purist like Bullock and sent us the recipe, modified for a home baker and the non-commercial kitchen. Wasn't that cool of her?

The result was really quite yummy -- no surprise there since she got a grade that was mere decimal points away from perfect. (I'm still wondering what lost her the less than 7/10 of a point. And my students think *I'm* an anal-retentive grader!) In the end Virgo Sis decided to visit Cowtown for the holiday instead of Rust Belt, so we didn't need a dessert that was both gluten-free and vegan, and since the Pirate gave us specific instructions of how to do a merely vegan one, that's what we did. It saved us some time scouring the local health food stores for the multiple flour-substitutes we would've had to use, and saved time in the kitchen, too. So we don't know what the full gluten-free/vegan effect was. But I have to say, in the midst of the process we were kind of skeptical of even the merely vegan cake -- in part because we thought maybe our home equipment, despite Bullock's tool addiction, wasn't producing the desired effects, but also in part because a lot of the ingredients and techniques went against Bullock's ingrained habits and experiences. The soy-based products used in it smelled kind of nasty, the flax-seed paste looked like snot (as the Pirate had warned), and the cake batter was a rather Halloween-like pitch black. It reminded me of the black gook that turns into the black Spiderman suit in Spiderman 3. Frankly, it freaked me out.

But the whole ultimately added up to more than the sum of its weird parts and the final creation was full of chocolately goodness and traditional cake consistency. And it was a big hit not only with Vegan Sis and Veggie Niece, but also the non-vegan/non-vegetarian crowd, so much so that Bullock didn't even send all the leftovers home with his sister, but kept some for us.

So thanks, Pastry Pirate!

And happy Thanksgiving Recovery Weekend to everyone!

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Last word on Beowulf

One of my students forwarded me the link to this article in Salon by Gary Kamiya, in which the author laments the failure of tone and spirit of the Beowulf movie by comparing it to Beowulf-scholar J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and Peter Jackson's movie adaptation of that text. So far this is the best analysis I've seen of why Beowulf the movie was so disheartening for those of us who love the poem; and it's a wonderful antidote to all those annoying reviews, good or bad, that start with a reference to "the poem you were forced to read in high school" or "the poem you hated in high school." Here's a sample:

"Beowulf" doesn't fail because it changes the story: It fails because it is so busy juicing up the story that it does not create a mythical universe. It has no transfiguring vision. It seizes upon an ancient tale, whose invisible roots run deep into our psyches, and uses it to construct a shiny, plastic entertainment. It takes a wild fable and turns it into a tame story. But "Beowulf" is the kind of story that is meaningless unless it is part of a cosmology. It is, in short, a myth.
Thank you, Mr. Kamiya, for an elegant and thoughtful article.

Monday, November 19, 2007

I've been reprinted!!!!!!!

I just found out, via a Google search of the name under which I publish, that one of my first two articles has just been reprinted! It's appearing in a multi-volume set that's part of a series on critical approaches to literature and cultural studies from an established academic press. The set that my article appears in is devoted to the particular genre that my first book and those early articles addressed. I'm in a chapter called "Critical Paths for Understanding [fill in the specific genre here]."

Woo-hoo! My work is a "critical path"! I've been reprinted! My name will live on! I AM BEOWULF!...er, sorry, got over-excited there for a moment. And OMG, you should see the list of names whose company I keep. OK, if you know what genre my first book addresses, think of every famous scholar ever to have written on the subject. Yup, they're all there. And so am I!

Weeeeeee!

Here's the weird post-script: I found this book, with its table of contents, on a Japanese web site. Using the ISBN, I also found it in Amazon, but I can't find it on the publisher's site. Huh. That's weird. Oh, and for those of you who might be wondering how my work can be reprinted without my knowing it: I don't own the copyright to that article; the journal where it original appeared does. Still, they could've e-mailed me, for pete's sake. I would've put the info in my tenure file! Well, that seems to be going well without it, so I'll save it for when I go up for Full Professor.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

More on Beowulf

If you want a less idiosyncratic review than mine, and one from an actual Anglo-Saxonist who likes comics, video games, and other genres of pop culture that I'm less versed in, but who still didn't like Beowulf the movie, go read Dr. Nokes' review. He also has a round-up of other medievalists' reviews here.

Updated to add: I hadn't checked my Sitemeter stats in some time and decided to check just now. Turns out I've gotten twice the normal number of hits in the last two days and all the new hits have to do with Beowulf, of course. But what's really funny is that majority of the hits are from search engine searches for the following: "Beowulf nudity." On Google, my Naked Beowulf? WTF? entry is the fourth hit for that search. So, to all of you searching "Beowulf nudity" who want to know why Beowulf is naked in the fight with Grendel and if that's really "in the poem," as Roger Avary claims, my post probably addressed your needs, right? But if you were looking to ogle either Ray Winstone or Angelina Jolie, I apologize for delaying your gratification. That is all.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

A diminished Beowulf, a shrinking Grendel, a wussy Wealhtheow, and Grendel's MILF

(Credit to Richard Scott Nokes for coining "Grendel's MILF.")

I hoped to have a hilariously good time seeing Beowulf with my students. I hoped that the movie would be of the so-bad-it's-good ilk. Unfortunately it was more painful than that, and not because it was so terribly bad, but because there were moments that were smart and interesting and effective, but they were buried in a mess of a movie. And even in the mess, I could see some of the seemingly odder choices were still informed choices -- they were attempts at doing something based on interpretation rather than the literal elements of the poem -- but in going so wrong, those choices were all the more disappointing. The movie reminded me of a smart student's B- paper. You know the type: the paper that has these wonderful moments of insight that show so much promise, but they're buried in a sloppy disaster of disorganization, hastiness, illogic, and misreading.

It's clear that Gaiman and Avary have taken the question about the interpretation of last word of the poem -- lofgeornost, "most eager for fame" -- and applied it to their characterization of Beowulf throughout. Fine. But in doing so they've also decided to ignore the other three descriptors applied to Beowulf in the last lines of the poem: manna mildust (mildest of men), monthwaerust (most gentle), and leodum lithost (kindest to his people). Gaiman and Avary's Beowulf is an asshole. He's a lying, cheating SOB who strangely likes to get naked in the dead of Danish winter (all the better to show off his six pack abs). He's also not all that impressive of a fighter. In the poem he has the strength of 30 men in his arms, and he kills Grendel by acting like a human bear trap -- clasping the monster's arm and holding him there until the frantic creature yanks his own arm off just to get away. But in the movie, Beowulf first figures out a way to make Grendel shrink to regular man size (don't ask me -- it's one of those moments in the film where I think the creators went on the "wouldn't it look cool if..." principle -- a principle operating way too often in this movie). Then he needs a combination of 2-3 simple machines to rip Grendel's arm off: a pulley-wench combo and Heorot's door used as a lever (or really, a slicing-mashing machine -- a bit more Ronco than simple machine, I guess). And then he squeals like a kid when the severed arm exhibits postmortem movement. This is also the part, shown in the commercials, where Beowulf screams the non-poetic lines, "I am ripper, thrasher, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, I am Beowulf!" The description really applies more to the door he's using.

All through the movie, especially every time Beowulf announced his own name, I thought, "I know Beowulf, and you sir, are no Beowulf." And frankly, I kept waiting for Gaiman and Avary to *really* change the plot and kill the guy off, because he was annoying me so much. A hero -- as he is called over and over in the movie (though I think they were going for some ironic ring there; it really wasn't clear) -- or even an antihero should be, above all, cool. I don't mean hip or with-it. I mean cool. Steve McQueen cool. The movie Beowulf is anything but.

Wherever the movie goes wrong it's in capturing the spirit and tone of the poem and its people. And sadly, they pretty much go wrong with just about every character, whether you're looking at it as an adaptation of the poem or just as a movie in its own right. I had a hard time figuring out why I should care about any of these people, and only once did I feel a sense of great loss -- the famously elegiac tone of the poem -- and that was when Grendel's Mother mourns for her dead son. That was one of the smart moments I mentioned above, because the poem only subtly suggests that the mother's attack on Heorot has a motivation of grief and loss and not simply monstrous revenge -- it takes a careful reader to see that -- and it's reflective of the blood feuds the humans of the poem are constantly engaged in. It's one of the ways that the poem subtly critiques the vengeful behavior of the humans, by equating it with a creature they call a monster. But that point is lost in the movie, since the plot is stripped of human feuding. (To be fair, Gaiman and Avary tried to do something with the "monster within" idea through the plot -- which I won't reveal here -- but again, they get it so tonally wrong that I wasn't moved by it, intellectually or emotionally.)

And in stripping the human feud stories -- many of them frequently referred to as "digressions" -- they also remove a number of the women characters and their stories, including Hildeburh, Frearwaru (Hrothgar in the movie has no children -- a point that's necessary for Gaiman's and Avary's re-conceived plot), and Modthryth. And since Beowulf doesn't go back to Geatland in the movie, there's no Hygd, either. Wealhtheow and Grendel's Mother are the only female characters from the poem to make it to the movie, and then a bevy of serving wenches are added for background and cleavage in Heorot, and a young hottie love interest/damsel in distress, cutely named "Ursula," is tacked on at the end. (I find it amusing, by the way, that most of the screenwriters' changes to the plot, including keeping Unferth around and introducing Wiglaf from the beginning, seemed inspired by a desire for continuity and structural unity, and yet when it comes to hot babes, it's OK to introduce one in the last act.)

But my beef is not with the lack of roles for women in Hollywood, nor is it a simplistic "images of women" critique. Rather, the changes to the women characters is one of the many ways in which Gaimand and Avary get tone and character wrong, and apply a frat-boy sensibility to the story, both as an adaptation of the poem and in the logic of their own movie on its own. Wealhtheow, Hrothgar's queen, is the first woman we meet in the movie, as in the poem. In the poem, she makes her entrance ceremonially presenting the mead cup to the king and to his guests, but not in an act of servitude; she's not Wealhtheow the waitress. My students often make this mistake, and so I turn their attention to the words that describe her: she is radiant with gold (a sign of her status and wealth), wise, mindful of customs, of excellent heart. She also speaks to Beowulf as Hrothgar does, thanking him for the service he is about to perform for their people. Later, it is her ceremonial place to lavish gifts of reward on Beowulf for saving Heorot. In other words, Wealhtheow is queenly -- a regal, dignified woman of status. Later she speaks on behalf of her sons, reminding both Hrothgar and Beowulf of their duties to them, and of the political and social ties that bind them. There's a sense of futility in that wise advice, however, since the poem hints at the destruction to come in the house of Hrothgar, including the loss of its heirs. The one other hint that Wealhtheow's life is not all that glamorous is in her name, which may mean "foreign captive." The poem certainly gives us other stories of women married off to foreigners to settle feuds, and that may have been Wealhtheow's fate. Such suggestions of what has been lost and what will be lost only makes her dignity, her "mindful[ness] of customs," all the more poignant.

Not so in the movie. She has no dignity, nor respect from any of the men. She is in turns ignored, treated a servant -- and here the cup-bearing is servile -- and ogled. She reacts petulantly, with many sighs and eye-rolling. But she suffers in silence. This Wealhtheow has no regal speeches, and her radiance exists not as a sign of her status, but as a reward for the gaze of the men in the narrative and the audience. (And the other servile women with their Ren Fest wench cleavage even more so.) I think Gaiman, Avary, and Zemeckis are tying to say, "look how badly women are treated -- don't you feel sorry for them?" But all I felt was bored by yet another cliched version of domestic drudgery. And in knowing the poem I knew all the ways in which Wealhtheow was being diminished, and how Zemeckis and company were thus actually narratively mistreating this woman. The poem is already sensitive to the price women pay for the desires of men -- for bloodlust, if not sexual lust -- and expresses much of its sense of loss through the grief of women (including, significantly, the lament of the Geatish woman at Beowulf's funeral at the end of the poem -- another woman missing from the movie). In removing most of those stories, the movie misses their point as well, and does a bad job transferring it all to Wealhtheow, who not only barely puts up with and frequently rebuffs her drunken, boorish husband Hrothgar (another character robbed of all the dignity the poem gives him), but then is bequeathed to Beowulf, who regularly cheats on her. But Wealhtheow's inarticulate poutiness through all of this does nothing to make this heartbreaking.

And then there's Grendel's Mother. It might seem at first blush that in expanding her role, giving her language and treacherous conniving, and casting Angelina Jolie, the biggest star in the movie, the creators are making her the center of the film and its most powerful figure. In the right hands this could have been really interesting, and I can tell that Gaiman and Avary are trying. There's this bit in the beginning when Beowulf talks of the sea as his "mother," and images of the dead being carried out to sea repeat throughout the movie -- an adaptation, clearly, of the extra-narrative sea-funeral of Scyld Scefing that opens the poem. And, of course, Grendel and his Mother live in a cave at the bottom of a "mere," a swampy body of water -- both in the poem and in the movie. The movie makers are very obviously trying to make the mer/mere/la mere (sea/mere/mother) connection and perhaps positing that some matriarchal/female sexual power is the most powerful force of all, more powerful than warriors, heroes, and kings.

I think that's what Zemeckis, Gaiman, and Avary think they are doing. But what they actually say is that woman is the downfall of man, especially through her sexuality. According to the movie, if men were left alone to fight naked with monsters, they'd be a lot better off, but when the woman enters and messes with things, everything gets bloodier and messier. There's some of that in the poem -- Grendel's Mother is a greater foe for Beowulf than Grendel is. She does sneak into Heorot unseen and kill, and Beowulf has a harder time fighting her than he does Grendel. But in the poem he actually fights her and she very nearly kicks his ass. In the movie she's naked Angelina Jolie, against whom men's penises are helpless (cf. Brad Pitt). In the movie she doesn't fight with Beowulf; something else happens, though it happens off-screen. And what happens has happened before, and will happen again, the movie shows us. The men will succumb to Grendel's Mother again and again. Her super-MILFness will be their undoing now and for eternity. So instead of monsters descended from Cain, we get Eve. And I think we're supposed to see this as some sort of "girl power." Great.

I think the screenwriters were assuming we'd read this downfall as the product of men's lust, not women's seduction, but it reads both ways. And the puritanical streak this element of the movie exhibits is somewhat ironic given the weird little subtext of anti-Christianity the film also inserts into the narrative. There are lots of ways the movie went wrong as an adaptation of the poem or as a work in its own right -- way too many to get into here, in this already long post -- but its treatment of the female characters exhibits a lot of the problems (and also the potential) of the film. I may even use in the classroom, not as those silly "educational" promotional item suggested I do, but as a "sample" of reading and misreading, and a lesson in the ways that women's history and the history of women in literature is not a necessarily progressive tale. Sometimes an Anglo-Saxon text is better for women than a 21st century movie.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Hwaet the hell?

Frankly, I think the three word title of this post is all the review Beowulf the Movie needs: it avoids spoilers and it perfectly expresses my disappointment in the movie as both a movie and an adaptation of Beowulf the poem. (It also features a weird mixture of Old and Modern English, as did Grendel's and Grendel's Mother's dialogue. Though my post title is missing Angelina Jolie's weird Transylvanian accent.)

But actually, I do want to say more -- I just don't have the energy at the moment and will have to save it until tomorrow. Since I'm sure there will be many other reviews across the medieval blogosphere, I'm also sure you're not waiting with 'bated breath for mine. But to distinguish mine, I think I'll focus on the movie's treatment and adaptation of the female characters. Believe it or not, there are actually *fewer* significant female roles in the 21st century movie than in the 6th-11th century (choose your preferred date) poem, and the poem gives them more dignity and importance than the movie. More tomorrow.

In the meantime, I leave you with one of my students' responses. This particular student is writing her honor's thesis with me on Grendel's Mother, Judith, and Elene. When I asked her what she thought, she said, totally deadpan:

There were moments that I thought were kind of interesting...but I'm still trying to figure out how to work Grendel's Mother's stilettos into my thesis.
Hee!

Manuscripts and the classroom *again*

(Yeah, I know I said I wouldn't be posting again until tonight. I changed my mind.)

A few weeks ago I introduced my graduate students to our rare books and manuscripts holdings and talked about why looking at a text in its original contexts might matter -- whether than means a medieval manuscript, a 19th century periodical, a first printing of a book that was later revised, or what have you.

And today I found a cool little example that I wish I'd had then. But I'll use it in future classes. The best part of this example is that it's only one little word, and yet it reveals so much about manuscript studies, reception studies, and medieval and early modern studies more largely. In a 15th century text (I won't specify which one here) that features Christ speaking about his crucifixion, most modern editions feature a line in which Christ says of certain people that they had pity of his "payns" (i.e., "pains"). But a look at the manuscript facsimile shows that the word was originally "penaunce," which has been crossed out by a later hand, with "payns" entered above it. And there in that little one-word change, you see a post-Reformation reader adapting a pre-Reformation text for his purposes, getting rid of the medieval/Catholic concept of "penance," especially in the sense of the 'satisfaction' element of the sacrament, and replacing it with a generalized suffering. None of the student-used editions of this text show that this substitution has been made, and even in the scholarly edition, it's buried in the textual notes. It's much more obvious and noteworthy in the manuscript facsimile. What a quick and easy way to show the value of manuscript studies! This one little change speaks to major historical and religious changes in the 16th century and also the practice of adapting or rewriting and reusing old texts for new purposes, which in turn speaks to the continuities of late medieval and early modern culture. Awesome!

Medieval news

Sorry for the silence, but here's a few tidbits until I can post again:

  • Give a big welcome to Dame Eleanor Hull, and new medievalist blogger. According to her "About" page, "Dame Eleanor Hull was a fifteenth century English woman who served Henry IV's wife, Queen Joan, and translated psalms and commentaries from French to English. Her present incarnation is as a pseudonym for an American woman professor of medieval English literature." Already Dame Hull has written two posts, including one chock full of ideas and information about making quills and using them in the classroom! Huzzah! Welcome Dame Hull!
  • I'm going to see Beowulf with about 12 students and their guests this afternoon. I'm so excited! I'll post tonight on the experience.
Oh, and btw, this is my 402nd post. Hard to believe.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Textual editing again - a snag

I don't think I'm going to be able to build a textual editing project into my Chaucer class. There are just too many other goals I have for the class and too many assignments to go with them. I want to make sure students comprehend the language and analyze it on a close level, but I've got translation and close reading assignments for that. And from there I want to talk about things genre, readerly expectations, Chaucer's literary world and the "conversations" he's participating in, and the critical conversations today. And I'm going to attempt to do not just the Tales, but Troilus and at least two dream visions, as well. (I have this fun exercise where students write their own "Chaucerian" dream vision, albeit in prose and present day American English. It makes them have to think about the persona of the author and about what contributes to an author's style, among other things.)

But I am going to do this in the Middle English class, where language is the focus, and textuality is important to issues of transmission. And there I'll have a lot more texts that don't have student editions yet available, or, if I choose Chaucer, they can compare multiple student editions and arrive at what they think is "best."

Nevertheless, I'm going to stress in the Chaucer class that their texts are in many ways modern fictions, and that even their medieval counterparts are slippery entities, which sits well with any number of issues and themes brought up in the texts themselves, starting, perhaps with the "Adam Scriveyn" poem. And I'll still show them lots of manuscript page images in various facsimiles.

William Shakespeare

This Dr. Virago hath a pleasant seat.

Which work of Shakespeare was the original quote from?

Get your own quotes:


Hat tip to History Geek for this fun bit of silliness. I'll leave it to you to judge what "seat" means in this context.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Deep, intellectual conversation in our two-academic household

Me: Did you see the newly redesigned Arts & Sciences newsletter?

Bullock: No, why?

Me: Well, I'm mentioned in it twice.

Bullock: Well, that's good.

Me: Yeah, but a couple of typos have made the Bodleian Library a branch of the British Library -- which I'm sure they'll be surprised to learn -- and have changed the London Metropolitan Archives into the London Metropolis Archives.

Bullock: [Laughing]

Me: I bet you didn't know London has a vast archive of Superman material, did you?

Bullock: If only Clark Kent had crash-landed in Sussex.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Textual editing in the classroom

As I've mentioned before, I've been working on a student edition of a couple of related medieval texts that are eventually going to be part of a larger anthology. And I've had a few epiphanies because of this work, which I wrote about here.

And now I've had another one, related to those earlier ones. And it's also inspired by two other incidentally related things: first, Carrie BeneŇ°'s essay in the Medieval Academy newsletter on manuscripts in undergraduate classroom, and second, Michelle Warren's article "Translation" (in Oxford UP's Twenty-First Century Approaches to Literature: Middle English, ed. Paul Strohm). The first can be found here on p. 10 of the newsletter. The latter is print only, but the part that I was intrigued most by is the final section of the article (pp. 65-6) where she argues that the Chaucer classroom would benefit from a pedagogy informed by translation theory because, as she argues, "The encounter with the medieval text is a multilingual encounter, even when one appears to be reading 'English' texts in 'English' in an 'English' classroom" (p. 66).

Anyway, all of these texts -- the one I'm editing and the two essays I just mentioned -- have inspired me to follow through on an idea I'd been toying with for many of my courses, and that is: creating a substantial assignment for each course where students have to create an edition of a text for a modern student reader, complete with introduction, glosses and explanatory notes, and a bibliography for further reading. In some classes I may even start with a digitally available manuscript and teach them to read some forms of medieval script, or at least expect them to compare the manuscript to a scholarly edition and write about what they see and find.

This makes total sense for my Old English and Middle English courses, which are courses on the language, and since the transmission of those languages to us is entirely textual, teaching and learning about textual editing is very much a potentially obvious part of the course content.

But it's not as obvious in the literature classroom. I'm not talking about returning to some 19th century style pedagogy and making the English literature classroom a form of the old Classical classroom, where it's all philology and grammar all the time, or about constructing quasi-genealogical trees of sources and manuscript transmission. I only want to make this a small part of all that the students learns, so that that they're at least aware of the work that goes into bringing these texts to them, and, more important, aware of the ways in which the text is mediation -- even if it's "in the original language." I like thinking and talking about readers, too, and making students aware that a medieval reader's experience of a book as a physical object, and a text as an abstract idea might be very different from ours even before you get to issue of cultural differences.

This is for me, in fact, part of a turn towards teaching reading, and of thinking of myself as a teacher of reading (the process) rather than or more than a teacher of literature (a thing). Apparently I'm in good company, too, since even Spivak is talking about teaching reading (as Dan Remein says here, in the third paragraph)! That "concern troll" I mentioned in passing a while back made the old chestnut of a charge that I must teach because I cannot "do," because I'm not working on my own great works of literature (for all he knows, I could be, but never mind that). But of course, I don't teach creative writing; I teach students how to read and write about literature, and that I most certainly do -- successfully, too, if you measure it by academic publishing.

But what does that have to do with textual editing? Well, as I said in the earlier post about the epiphanies I'm having from my own editing project, I'm finding the editing process allows for a more intimate relationship with the text, not merely a familiar one. I think in edition to translation assignments, close reading assignments, and so forth, it will help the student engage deeply with the text, at least for a passage or a section, and hopefully they'll realize how that engagement pays off. Such an exercise, I hope, will make them a different kind of reader, a more intense reader and perhaps an even more appreciative one. And I hope, too, that they'll realize that student editions with glosses and notes and introductions, etc., don't just grow on trees, nor are they all alike. And finally, in my medieval literature and language classrooms, they'll have to engage in a kind of cross-cultural communication, a translation of sorts, that's part medieval, part contemporary. Instead of allowing them simply to read the text as modern readers, or asking the impossible task of reading as a medieval person, I'll be asking them to meet the text somewhere in the middle, where they have to communicate with the past and then communicate that past to the potential readers of their edition (and I may even have them do peer-evaluation of each others' editions to make that even more clear).

And for my non-medieval classes -- the undergraduate intro to literature, the graduate intro to research -- I think I can still do variations on this, because even non-glossed, non-translated texts of recent vintage are edited, introduced, and mediated when they're issued in classroom editions. We have a pretty darn good rare books library here with all sorts of cool, unpublished literary stuff, as well as materials from important cultural contexts for 19th and 20th century literature, and over the summer I could work with the director of the center to create some assignments for both of those classes, which I'll be teaching next year. She's really eager to get more students in there, to be able to say that the collection is indeed a valuable resource for students, so it would be good for her, too.

I've been trying to find a pedagogical continuity between all of my classes -- a teaching philosophy, one might say (a concept and document that many bloggers on the job market and those of us doing renewal and tenure dossiers have been thinking and talking about in recent months) -- and I think this kind of tangible close engagement with the text could be it. Then the next time I say I insist that students read or engage with the text closely, I'll really mean it in a sense beyond "close reading" and "critical thinking" -- phrases that can and do have meaning but that can also be so thrown around in meaningless ways. But by requiring students to produce an edition of, for example, one of Chaucer's short poems, or "Wulf and Eadwacer," or a late medieval lyric, or Etheridge Knight poem, or of contextual reading for "The Yellow Wallpaper," or whatever (depending on the class), perhaps I'll get them closer to having the intimate relationship with at least one text, and to being more aware of the ways they receive texts, in addition to being closer readers of those texts.

Friday, November 2, 2007

I'm too young to be senile

OK, I don't know what's up with my brain lately, but it ain't right. Is this the onset of Absentminded Professoritis? Lately I've noticed the following symptoms:

  • I say or write completely wrong words that have nothing to do with what I'm saying, but sound like the words I want. For example, in an e-mail to a distinguished professor with a web site I use often in my classes, I wrote "add" for "had." In another, related, symptom, if a word has one or more words strongly associated with it because they're all related classifying terms, I'll say the wrong one. For example, when I want to say "strong verb" I'll sometimes say "weak verb" by mistake. [FYI, for my readers who don't know this and might be curious: in English, strong verbs are verbs like sing/sang/sung that form their past tense with an internal vowel change. Weak verbs are verbs that add -ed to form the past tense.]
  • Yesterday I nearly forgot a meeting I needed to attend. It was a meeting I had called because I'm the chair of the committee. I remembered with just enough time to get to the meeting.
  • A couple of weeks ago, I kept my class 10 minutes late because I thought we ended at 25 after the hour instead of 15 after. It's my other class that ends at 25 after.
  • Random songs I haven't heard in years pop into my head sometimes. This morning I woke up to that late '70s/early '80s song that goes something like this: "No matter where you are / I will always be with you / something something something / you, girl / ooh, girl / want you." Can someone please tell me what this song is?!!!! It's a guy singing, but he has a pretty high range. Harmony is involved in the bridge. Wah wah effects may be involved, too, though I can't remember the whole thing. It's driving me NUTS!
So what the hell's wrong with me?