Monday, December 31, 2007

Another med-ren manuscript web resource

Many of you probably already know about this, but I was just cleaning out my file of stuff from 2007's Kalamazoo conference (yeah, OK, I've been a little disorganized this year), and I ran across a flyer for The Free Library of Philadelphia's Digital Collection of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts. The home page is here.

I don't know their collection well, but the highlights page is mostly religious and very high-end courtly works, all with illuminations, of course. (That's a topic for a post in and of itself -- the digital bias towards pretty pictures.) But what I found immediately useful was the one-page "Manuscript Basics" introduction -- good for giving students a quickie overview of how a manuscript was made (although, again, with an emphasis on religious texts).

Just thought I'd pass on the info.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Via Chicago

I'm coming home, I'm coming home, via Chicago.*

Actually, I'm already home, but I did get here via Chicago, after a whirlwind tour that took me from Rust Belt on December 19th to the land of Robber Baron mansions for the Pastry Pirate's graduation from cookin' school (detailed here, complete with pictures from my camera) and lots of fine dining, to Cowtown for a few days including Christmas Eve (which in the Virago family is the traditional time of present-opening), then to Chicago's suburbs on Christmas day to meet up with Bullock and his family, and then into the city on the 27th by way of O'Hare to pick up my bestest grad school friend D. and to eat at Frontera Grill and catch up for a few hours before heading off for the fabulous MLA blogger meet-up (thanks Dr. Crazy for organizing it!), and then back to Rust Belt the next day -- whew! (Yes, that was all one sentence. That's how it felt to me, too.)

I am exhausted. I'm also way behind on all things bloggy -- indeed, Dr. Crazy chastised me for falling down on the blogging job! Ack! -- as I had internet access only once in those 10 days, and that was on Christmas day in the Cowtown airport. I purposely got there early to use the free wifi and check my e-mail (how sad am I?) but didn't have time to blog or read blogs.

But one of my goals for the coming semester is to better organize my time, or at the very least to take control of it a little bit, and to build in more time for blogging (including reading yours). I'm going to do a little blog maintenance and get rid of some of the sillier posts from the early days, and then in a few days I'll start back in with some quality posts, which have been sorely lacking around here lately.

Our semester starts up pretty quickly and already I feel busy, so I might not be the most prolific poster, but I'm going to make my posts count more (I hope, anyway). This is all in a lead-up to my plan to move from a pseudonymous blog to a persona-based blog (where my real life identity will be known, but "Dr. Virago" will still be the author of the blog) after my tenure process is complete. (Quick update on that: all that's left in the process are the approvals of the Provost, President, and Trustees, and around here that's really just a rubber-stamp process. Knock wood, of course.) But for the rest of today all I'm doing is unpacking, straightening up for our New Year's party, and playing with my Garmin Forerunner 305 GPS-enabled trainer and heart-rate monitor (my Xmas present from Bullock) and going for a run to try it out.

*For those of you who don't get the reference, the buildings in the picture are featured on the cover of Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (as seen here), and "Via Chicago" is a song on their earlier album Summerteeth.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Teaching the critical history essay

I'm in the midst of grading the last batch of my graduate students' critical history papers from my research methods class. Given that it's 4pm and I'm leaving the house in just over 12 hours to catch an early morning flight to go to the Pastry Pirate's graduation, and I still have half a dozen things to do before I leave, including grading the last 3 papers, I really shouldn't be blogging. But the following just occurred to me and I kind of wanted to throw it out there before I forget.

Anyway, one of the recurring problems of many of these papers -- whether they're otherwise well-researched or well-written or not -- is that the writers don't do a very good job of summarizing the critics' arguments. They have a tendency to tell me the topic of an article, book, or chapter without really telling me the argument of said work. They'll even say critics X and Y address the same general topic without giving me any idea if X and Y agree with each other in their assessment or interpretation of the topic. And some of the more problematic essays don't even quite make clear what the general subject of a critical work is because they're too busy identifying a theme in the primary text and lining up a critical work that seems to address that theme. So they're putting their reading of the primary work -- usually a somewhat hazy one -- first and slotting in the criticism.

And therein lies the problem. They don't quite realize what it means to write a critical history and that's my fault. We talked all semester about entering the critical conversation, of "listening" to it for awhile before offering your own contributions. And we dissected the structure, form, and rhetorical moves of a number of journal articles. And I told them where to find models of a critical history and wrote detailed directions of what they needed to be doing in this paper, making it clear that it was summary and synthesis, but that they were the shaping force of it. *But*, I didn't explain to them what a history was. I didn't make clear that they needed to shape a narrative from the critical sources, that they were telling a story of the conversation thus far. I didn't explain that while obviously the primary text was the driving force behind what critics wrote, nevertheless the driving force behind what the students wrote would be the criticism, that that was their subject, that that was what a reader of a critical history wanted most to know about. I assumed it was obvious, but it isn't, so many of the students are falling back on what they're usually asked to do in a research paper, or the methods they've usually fallen back on -- i.e., the 'tell me about X subject in Y work of literature with research' paper. They're also ignoring the connections between the arguments; no one, not even the best students, are addressing X's influence on Y. I'm not even sure they're noticing where critics are in each others bibliographies, even though I did teach them that following bibliographies is one of the ways to tell if a critical work is being cited over and over, or to find works that imperfect electronic searches have missed.

Part of the problem is that I didn't use the term "critical history." I came up with something else that I thought would be less intimidating -- bibliographic essay -- and I did so also because I'm not expecting them to be comprehensive (I asked them to look for major trends in the criticism). But mainly I need to be more explicit about how to go about this kind of writing. I have to tell them that they must digest and explain the main argument(s) of each work they address. I have to tell them that they need to be aware of influence and argument -- that they need to look to footnotes and bibliographies for the players in the larger conversation. And that, above all, *they* are telling a history, that their major task is to interpret the interpretors and present them for their audience.

Next time I'll do this and see if the results improve. In the meantime, I'll go easy on the grades, but make some of these things clear in the comments.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Job alert: Asst. Prof. in Medieval British Literature at UM-Flint

To all of you medievalists in English on the market this year, I just got a flyer for a job at University of Michigan-Flint that may not have made it into the JIL yet. I'd like to think that my getting this flyer means that I've been invited to apply for a job, but really, I think they probably sent flyers to every medievalist in English in the Great Lakes region in the MLA directory because they're not interviewing at MLA they're trying to spread the word about a late advertisement and an extended deadline. So I'm doing my part for a fellow Great Lakes region branch campus.

If you want all the details, the Michigan system has a job posting website here. Once you're there, you can search as a "guest" without registering -- click on the "external candidates and temporary staff job search" link and the "visit as a guest" button. Search for Job ID 13109.

It looks like a good job: 3-3 load, all literature and mostly medieval, with opportunities to develop medieval literature courses for their new MA program. The online ad says the deadline is today, but the flyer I got shows January 18, 2008 as the deadline, and says on-campus interviews will be conducted in February (no MLA interviews).

Anyway, just wanted to spread the word.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

RBOC: Things that make me wanna go "Er. Um. No."

The following list of bullet points are paraphrases of things students of various levels -- undergrad to grad -- have said, asked, or told me about in the past two weeks. I offer them mostly without comment, although "Er. Um. No." serves as a fine blanket response to them all despite their very different characters.

  • I'm surprised your Chaucer class is an undergraduate class. Isn't Chaucer too advanced for undergrads?
  • I'm graduating next semester and I need a certain required course that's slightly related to the class you're teaching. Only I can't make that class because of other commitments. And I can't make yours, either. Can I sign up for yours and do the work on my own without having to come to class? And then will you sign off on my having completed the required course?
  • Hi, are you [insert mispronunciation of my first name]? I'm in Interdisciplinary Grad Program. I need to sign up for thesis credit. Please sign this form so I can enroll in English department thesis credits. [Long, painful interval follows in which Dr. Virago explains over and over that our thesis hours are for our students and I'm certain her program has its own, all while student interrupts again and again to insist that I'm wrong.] But I *am* one of your students -- my thesis is on [insert vaguely literature oriented topic]. [Another long interval of Dr. Virago explaining what a degree program is and how interdisciplinary programs draw on faculty from other departments, but have different degree programs of their own.] But my advisor said I could sign up for hours in any department I wanted!
  • I missed the workshop you did the other week, but do you have any handouts on a totally unrelated topic that I could have?
  • I know the assignment for our research methods final paper was a critical history of one of the texts on the exam list, but I was wondering, could I just write about how I think one of the most prominent critic approaches to this text is completely wrong?
  • My high school teacher said that she wasn't going to teach Beowulf, even though it was in the textbook, because we wouldn't need it, since no one reads it in college, not even English majors, except for a few who are going to grad school in English. Can you believe that?
  • Is 7 pages long enough for a critical history of the last 30 years of scholarship on a major text?
  • I just realized our final is on Friday of finals week. I was hoping to leave for home on Thursday. Can I reschedule?
Move over Cranky Professor, because I may joining your cranky ranks! I am so glad the semester is almost over. Two more days to go and then the grading commences . Then after that I can refuel for the onslaught of next semester which begins a cruel three and half weeks from now.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Insomnia + blog meme = 7 random things

I'm definitely going to have to take an Ambien tonight because it's 11 p.m. and I feel like it's about 7 p.m. But first, before I make offerings to Morpheus, Dance has tagged me for a meme. If I do it right away, I won't let it slip like I generally do all other memes.

So, forthwith, here are 7 strange and random things about me. (Note: I think that's "random" in the colloquial sense -- seemingly unrelated, perhaps quirky -- and not in the technical sense, because if I'm deliberating coming up with these things they're not random, right?)

1. I freak out when any TV show, book, or movie mentions internal bleeding or organ failure. Since I like police procedurals, this happens more often that you'd think.

2. I remember the very first moment I consciously realized what emotional intimacy was outside of a family relationship. (Or maybe it's just the first moment I remember.) I was in 2nd grade and playing with my friend Teresa. She was showing me something to do with one of her dolls or stuffed animals that only she knew -- some bald patch in its hair or something like that -- and I was suddenly struck with a sense of the two us being alone in the world, but connected. I don't remember the external details very clearly, but I remember the feeling of warmth.

3. I can't say the word "breadth" right. I can't make it sound different from "breath."

4. I have been flirted with by an orangutan named Bruno.

5. I once briefly had a crush on a friar named Brother Mike. (Hey, he was smart and funny and not at all like the butt of medieval anti-fraternal satire.)

6. I sometimes play Scrabble by myself; it's a habit picked up from my mother. [Updated to add: Not the online kind, but the old fashioned three-dimension kind with the wooden letters.]

7. I love the logic games on the GRE.

The rules of the meme:
1. Link to the person that tagged you and post the rules on your blog.
2. Share 7 random and/or weird things about yourself.
3. Tag 7 random people at the end of your post and include links to their blogs.
4. Let each person know that they have been tagged by leaving a comment on their blog.

OK, I'm going to break rules 3-4 and just say that if you haven't done this meme yet (and I know many of you have at one time or another) and you want to, consider yourself tagged.