Monday, June 30, 2008

We will resume our regularly schedule programming shortly

One of my favorite people in the world is coming through town tomorrow for about 24 hours, so I won't be posting for a few days. And since I haven't been posting for quite a few days already, it'll just be more of the same.

In the meantime, I'll try to think of something substantive and academic to write about. So here's a question: if a blog post that annoyed the heck out of me is weeks old by the time I get around to posting about it, is it too 'old news' for me to post about it? Discuss. (And no, it wasn't by any of you.)

Friday, June 27, 2008

Costco muffins are dog crack

What the frak are they putting in those Costco muffins? Whatever it is, Pippi finds it abso-frakin-lutely irresistible.

Now that may not seem all that unusual, but you have to understand that Pippi is probably the best-behaved dog ever when it comes to food impulses and behavior: she doesn't beg and under normal circumstances doesn't counter-surf. I can sit on the couch and eat over my lap something as seemingly irresistible as a salmon burger, and she'll lie politely at her end of the couch without so much as sniffing my way. (And believe me, she absolutely loves salmon.) We can even set our dishes down on the coffee table, with food on them, and she won't disturb them. She sits to receive her own food and won't eat unless she has sat and then been told "OK." (We get some of the credit for this, but I think we lucked out in terms of her eager-to-please and quick-to-learn personality.)

But when it comes to the Costco muffins, we have to guard them with our lives. Her one instance of counter-surfing came in the first weeks we had her and involved a lemon-poppy seed muffin which she managed to get out of the still partially plastic-covered tray and then devoured in seconds. And then last night, Bullock left the mere wrapper from his just eaten blueberry muffin on his plate on the coffee table, and the second we got up from the couch, she snatched it from the plate. I had to pry her mouth open to fish it out. (We haven't worked on "drop it" yet, though I was repeating the phrase as I forced her mouth open, hoping she'd start to pick it up.) Thank god she's a gentle soul who lets me pry around in her mouth like that.

Seriously, what's in those things? Why does Pippi have such an uncontrollable impulse for them? It's a little troubling!

Monday, June 23, 2008

RIP George Carlin, 1937-2008

When I was in junior high, my best friend Maria and I used to sneak off to a corner of the playground to listen to a cassette tape (on an office tape recorder) of George Carlin's then current HBO special, which her older brother had made with the same the recorder, microphone held up to the TV.

We would listen to that show over and over and over again. We loved it. It was the one where he expanded the 7 dirty words into a list of 100. We were fascinated by that list, partly because we weren't even sure what some of those words meant, at least not in their dirty versions (I think "jellyroll" was on there). But mostly we just liked the sheer rhythmic, poetic quality of it, and its taboo qualities. We would chant parts of it on our Catholic school playground as if it were a jump-rope song, and our teachers never seemed to notice.

And that wasn't the only bit we liked. We loved his screed against the word "nice" or his "football vs. baseball" bit ("Baseball is played on a diamond; football is played on a gridiron"). We loved his fascination with language, its oddities, and our odd attitudes about it. In many ways, I think George Carlin is responsible for my having becoming an English professor. I'm pretty sure he's responsible for why I love the medieval play Mankind so much. And he definitely gets credit for my willingness to say "ShitPissFuckCuntCocksuckerMotherfuckerandTits" -- onetwothreefourfive...just like that Jesus* -- in class when I want to talk about issues of register. (Truthfully, I haven't done the whole string in awhile...I usually stick to the first three, especially "fuck." It's enough.)

*OK, that bit between the dashes is from e e cummings, "Buffalo Bill's defunct." He's also someone responsible for helping me, at an impressionable age, to hear poetry in ordinary speech and expletives.

In Carlin's honor, I'm including a clip from about the same time as my introduction to him. It's about the 7 dirty words, but they don't make an appearance until the end. But it's definitely about language and language taboos. And because of the end it's NOT SAFE FOR WORK!

RIP, George Carlin. I hope no one is asking you to "Have a nice day" and no one is telling your mourning family that you've "gone to a better place."

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Still here, but a little scattered and dysfunctional

Sorry for not having posted in over a week. Bullock and I have both been in one of those states where you find yourself having a hard time motivating to work or do much of anything, but you feel too guilty not to work or get other things accomplished, and so then you deprive yourself of the things you think distract you from the work and household tasks -- like the internet -- but you *still* don't get anything done because the root problem is something other than having things distract you. And so then you feel worse because you still aren't getting back in the swing of things, but you're also not giving yourself your usual leisure activities.

You know what I mean? It's bad enough when you live by yourself and it happens, but when it's two of you going through the same vicious cycle, the other person's presence and guilt -- usually vocalized, at least in both our cases -- just makes you more anxious about your own guilt cycle.


Bullock is now trying to snap himself out of it by working in his shop. I am blogging the problem. And then I'm going to clean my wreck of an office to feel like I've accomplished *something* this week.

I know it's Sunday, btw. But I didn't work on Tuesday because I'd had a bout of insomnia the night before, so I'm making myself make up the lost time. Except that I'm not getting much done. This is f'ed up, isn't it? I should cut myself some slack, right? But I'm all stressed out about the fact that I have all of the following due in July and August:

  • A conference paper
  • MS research in the UK that I have to accomplish in a timely manner (which means being really, really prepared to do it)
  • An article (drafted, but needs much work)
  • A book review
  • A PhD defense
  • An MA defense
  • Countless little grad-director tasks
And school starts again at the end of August! And June is almost over! Ack! Ack!

You can feel the anxiety oozing from this post, can't you? God, even my personal life feels like an untackled to-do list right now. What do I need to calm the frak down and get back in the swing of things? Chamomile tea? A 10-mile run? (Yeah, like I'm in shape for that right now -- another source of anxiety is the fact that in the last 6 months I've run as many miles as I used to run in a single week!) A short-break holiday?

And is this somehow related to post-tenure depression? Does Bullock's similar state have something to do with the fact that he's got a year's sabbatical in front of him?

All advice and anecdotes welcome!

Friday, June 13, 2008

Oh, so *this* is what tenure is about

I may be part of a committee meeting next week with the highest official in the state university system. And, more locally, I'm on the department's Personnel Committee next year, which means, among other things, I'll be voting on my friend Victoria's tenure application.

Associate Professor powers, activate!


Apropos of nothing, btw, I've now done over 500 posts and had over 100,000 visitors to the blog.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Graduate student authority

Every now and then when I can't concentrate on my research work, I start fiddling again with my syllabus for my Research in English class. Btw, thanks again to all who gave article suggestions in an earlier post. I think I'm using at least one suggestion from everyone who made one, plus a few more articles of my choosing and my colleagues' recommendations. I've now got a nicely eclectic mix of well-written articles that students can choose from for various practical bibliography assignments on writing annotated bibs, paraphrasing and quoting, etc., as well as for use in class discussion about what a journal article does and how it does it, and even about the history of the journal in the academy.

My major goal in this class is to teach students how to do basic research in English well, in particular, how to find and judge secondary sources, how to emulate their structure and rhetoric in their own papers, and how to quickly get up to speed in the highlights of a critical conversation. But along the way I also want to teach students not just to find and use the "authorities," but how to build their own authority in the process. I've been trying to do this since I took over this class two years ago, but I'm not sure I'm entirely successful. I see students in subsequent classes who still say to me that they have a hard time understanding why anyone would care what *they* thought, for instance. Or, they say something like this graduate student at the blog Meanderings wrote in a post called "There's a different me inside this student":

Those ahead of us in academia--farther down the road, however you want to put it, tend to be rather intimidating....I don't know where this complex comes from, but it must be part of the mandatory bipolarization of a graduate student--to be completely humbled by our professors and published authors, yet able to enter in and converse with them intellectually.

I'm not sure that I want my students to be humbled by me in any way, though I do want them to recognize the hard row to hoe ahead if they want to go on to the Ph.D. and hope for a tenure-track job. And so I assign Semenza's A Guide to Graduate Study for the Twenty-First Century, which pulls no punches in letting you know what it takes to get through grad school successfully, and I give them the scary statistics (beginning with how competitive Ph.D. admissions are -- many of my students don't know that). So I tell them my path to the Ph.D. and job -- including numbers of applications at every stage -- but I also tell them others' stories, including those who got MAs at institutions like ours, since I didn't -- I want to them to know there's hope for them! My favorite pair of stories is about two real life people I know, one who went to Fancy Pants U but couldn't get a TT job (partly because he's a smug bastard, but never mind that!) and one who went to an MA program like ours and then a solid Ph.D. program and has a TT job she loves.

But mostly, I want them to understand that I wasn't born a medievalist with a book and some articles and a good knowledge of my field. Heck, I was pretty much an idiot in my first year or two of graduate school. Everyone is. The ones who think they aren't are smug bastards and often they're the ones who make deadly mistakes along the way. (Learning how to recognize the smug bastards and not following their example is a life skill in and of itself, but a subject for another post.) What I try to teach them, anyway, is that building knowledge of one's field -- both of the primary texts and the critical conversations about them -- takes time and work and dedication. It doesn't happen by taking a class or two. You have to keep at it. And you do that because it's the knowledge and the creative thinking about your subject that gives you authority -- not your place in the hierarchy. I think one of the best examples of that is the kinds of conversations that happen on blogs -- so I suggest students read some of them, too.

But still, I see too much shyness, too much deference, too much fear of asserting their ideas with authority. So clearly I need to do more. Tell me, oh wise readers, how it is you developed your own authority, and how you seek to teach students how to develop it.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Local color

This weekend is the big festival weekend for my old neighborhood, Rust Belt Historic District. Weirdly, I don't think I've blogged about it, even though I lived in the midst of it three years in a row and have gone back for festival every year since.

Anyway, I love festival weekend. There are home tours of the Victorian and Arts and Crafts homes of the neighborhood; fantastic street fair food at both the official vendors and the many unofficial church and individual barbecues around the neighborhood (and some of those guys have the most enormous semi-portable smoker-barbecue set-ups you've ever seen); and a crafts fair that seems to be getting disappointingly smaller every year but always features a booth with gorgeous fabric purses to which I'm utterly addicted (I now own three of the same small but functional size: one in various shades of eye-popping green polka dots, one with an autumnal pattern of nearly-abstract flowers with a bubblegum pink lining, and now one with a black/gray/neon orange/electric blue striped pattern and an electric blue lining).

There's also a parade, which I missed this year, that's the trippiest, most homemade, bizarro parade you've ever seen. One the "decorated" cars that's in the parade every year is this doozy (picture from last year):

Click on the picture to "embiggen" it and get a closer look at the bizarre doll heads glued all over the thing. We saw it at a gas station on the way to the festival this year and the doll heads have multiplied.

The home tours are a little less bizarre (though one house one year had a basement room dedicated to the guy's Star Wars toy collection) and tend to be all about the owners' loving refurbishment of their old homes, either to restore original characteristics or to adapt it to modern living. Some of the home owners take Victorian or Arts and Crafts "authenticity" a little too far and their homes look like museums. I don't like Victorian style myself, so the Victoriana-obsessed homes don't do it for me, but even the shrine-like Arts and Crafts ones are a little sterile to me, and I *like* that style. Who wants to live in a museum? But Bullock and I like home tours for getting design ideas or just oohing and ahing over the exquisite details of original woodwork or molding or what have you. And this year we saw the Most. Awesome. House. Ever. It was a 3500 square foot 1912 Arts and Crafts style stucco house with an English country/Tudor-ish exterior, and it had been beautifully and expensively re-done in all sorts of good ways without messing up its original details.

Here's the outside (the tile roof is original):

There was some painted woodwork inside, but only the door jambs on the second floor. Everything else looked like the oak it was made of, including the center hall staircase, the window seats throughout the house, and the door jambs and other oak on the first floor. And the improvements and additions they did were to die for -- a Florida room with a heated tile floor, and a wall removed between the den and the formal living room to make one great room, plus bumped-out "green house" windows in the kitchen and the "studio," which used to be an attached garage.

Here's the Florida room, which was the owner's addition in place of a side porch, I think (note wet bar in the far right corner):

And *oh* that kitchen! The guy who currently owns it is the head designer of a famous kitchen-ware company -- the kind that serious foodies buy from -- and his kitchen was full of professional and industrial quality stuff. It was also a *helluva* lot bigger than the original kitchen, the walls between old cold porches (for the iceman) and breakfast nooks having been removed, and more heated tile floors put in in parts of it (not the parts showing in the picture).

Here's one shot of the fabulous kitchen:

Add 5 bedrooms, all of decent size (unlike the older Victorians), plus two full baths -- one of the first floor and one still with the original pedestal sink and gigantic tub, as well as original subway tile (and an impressive size, too) -- and the most gorgeously landscaped, private, fenced-in 1/3 acre backyard, complete with an amazing outdoor kitchen, herb and vegetable garden (cleverly hidden from the more decorative parts of the garden and yard), and intimate nooks and crannies, and this house is the most fabulous thing I've ever seen, especially in Rust Belt.

Here are the bathroom with the original fixtures, one part of the park-like backyard (they must have hired a professional landscaper), and the outdoor kitchen (the table was made from re-claimed floor boards from a warehouse, with legs made of re-claimed porch columns!):

And get this: it's for sale. And since this is Rust Belt, it's under $300,000. I kid you not.

I heart the Historic District Festival. I heart Rust Belt.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Wuthering - wha?

Via The Cranky Professor, here's an interpretation of Kate Bush's "Wuthering Heights" that is so very wrong it's *hilarious*. (If you don't know the original, you might want to watch it first -- it's below.)

This is another video posted in part for the Pastry Pirate. Back in college, she and I and another one of our friends had a love-hate relationship with this song. It gave us all the creeps. The Pirate could send shivers down my spine just by chanting in a high-pitched voice, "It's meeeee, Catheeeee, let me in" (especially effective if she was knocking on my dorm room door) or saying she was "soooo cooooold" in chilly weather. Brrrrrr. Creepy.

Now, I'll admit, the Puppini Sisters here are borrowing all their silly gestures straight from Kate Bush, but in the context of Andrews Sisters style close harmony (and those hair nets!) it seems all so much more cheery and full of imitation American can-do spirit (especially on "let me grab your soul"), much less spectral and melodramatic. For your further viewing pleasure, here's Kate's video for the song, with its own quality of camp creepiness and melodrama (not unlike the novel itself, actually):

And now for something completely different, the semaphore version of Wuthering Heights, by Monty Python:

Hmm...There seems to be a similarity of gestures here.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

My job is cool

I mentioned in an earlier post that while I'm doing my scant three days of research in London this summer, I'm going to add in a trip out to Windsor to look at a manuscript there. I am now totally psyched to do this.

First of all, with a little research detective work I was finally able to track down more about the manuscript and it's chock-a-block full of the sub-genre I'm looking at (not just the one piece I knew about), so even if it doesn't quite have the provenance I think I'm concentrating on, it's an interesting manuscript and so I'm still going to go see it, and look at the bits that haven't been edited. At this point I'm not sure where this project is going, but now that I'm tenured and feel less pressure to produce a certain outcome, I feel the leisure to follow leads and tangents and hope that they'll end in serendipitous discoveries.

But what's really cool about this is that I'm going to be spending the day with a manuscript in a freakin' castle, which also still happens to be an active royal residence. How awesomely cool is that? I mentioned before that I have to pay for entrance to the castle, but I'm not entirely sure that's the case anymore. But I did have to fill out a day pass application form in advance so that they can do a security check on me (because it's a royal residence and all), and on the day of my visit, my pass will be waiting for me with a police officer. OK, I know it's not top level intelligence classification, but I still feel kind of wickedly special. And did I mention it's a castle? And the archives are in a part of the castle called the "Vicar's Undercroft." And the archivists all have very English names of the Rupert Giles type. And work in a castle. In a castle!

So next time some random person asks me what I do for a living, I'm going to say I read medieval manuscripts in castles. And if they want to think I slay vampires, too, that's cool with me.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Medieval "Catholics" part 2

Thanks for the comments on the last post. After seeing references to medieval "Catholics" in *two* scholarly books, I thought maybe I was the only one who thought this was wrong. But now I see that it's not just me. And Janice's comment summed up nicely why it's problematic.

Richard Scott Nokes linked to the post and mentioned that it's one of his pet peeves, as well as something his students commonly do. My students do it, too, but usually it's only one or two per class. This may have something to do with the large Catholic population of Rust Belt; if the students went to Catholic school, they probably got some church history (well, I did in Catholic school). But at any rate, one or two students per term is enough to notice. Usually it's in papers and I write in the margins that the term is anachronistic for the period, that it's not used until much later, that "Christian" is the appropriate term.

But maybe I should bring this up earlier? I spend all semester referring to "medieval Christianity" or "medieval Christians," and yet "Catholic" still pops up every now and then. Meanwhile, once in a while (although not often) an evangelical Protestant student assumes that medieval people were also evangelicals since for some people "Christian" has a narrower meaning (one not operative in the Middle Ages). Or they get confused in some other way because I keep talking about "medieval Christians."

So...I'm wondering if there's some way I can head this off at the pass. Every now and then I point out that medieval Christianity was different in many ways from modern Christianity in any form, so no one should feel at either a disadvantage or advantage if they come from a Christian background or not. So I tell them to think of it the way they would ancient Greek or Roman religion -- as narrative. I do this mostly for the non-religious students and for the students who've been anesthetized by too much religious school (as I was), to free them from their discomfort or knee-jerk aversion. Too often the non-religious students either don't think they have standing to talk, or else are too automatically dismissive. But also, I want the Christian students, whatever their denomination, to know that they may have some useful knowledge, but their beliefs and practices are not exactly the same as medieval ones. I want them all to see things fresh.

But anyway, now I'm wondering if I need to make that talk a regular feature and elaborate in some ways about the continuities and discontinuities between medieval Christianity and later forms, including why we don't talk about medieval "Catholics." Or should I just deal with it when it comes up? What do you all think?

In the meantime, I'm reviewing one of the books I mentioned, so now I feel more empowered to bring the issue up in the review if there's space.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Medieval Catholics or Christians?

I'm reading two scholarly books right now that refer to the religious practices and beliefs of the Middle Ages as Catholic, capital C. [ETA: I want to add some information to clarify a few things, partly in response to something a friend ask via e-mail. Both books are dealing only with medieval English culture and literature, so there's no pressing need to distinguish the Eastern from Western Christian Church in this context. But they do have to sometimes talk about early modern English culture, and one of them is talking about present day manifestations and uses of medieval texts, so the need to distinguish pre- and post-Reformation English Christianities *is* necessary in some way.]

In one case, the book is by a British scholar writing for a British press, and I suspect the practice is standard to both, and reflects all sorts of legacies of the Reformation still alive and well, if muted, in England. In this case, the word signals something like 'In the Middle Ages, they were Catholic. Now we are proper English Protestants."

In the other case, the book is published by the Catholic University of America Press, so if it's house style, it's of a different ilk, claiming continuity rather than difference. But actually, flipping about, I see this author uses the generic "Christian" more often and seems only to rely on "Catholic" when needing to distinguish it from Reformation denominations and practices.

But I have to say, I've always found the use of "Catholic" with a capital C anachronistic for the Middle Ages, especially if all or most of what you're talking about in a work is the Middle Ages, so both of these examples strike me as wrong in some way. Not hugely, grossly wrong, but wrong in the way a slightly out of tune piano note is wrong -- something's off.

But maybe that's just me. What are your preferences and practices?