Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Go, Speed Researcher, Go!

12 manuscripts in 3 days.

Granted, I wasn't reading or transcribing large chunks of any of them -- this nascent project is all about bits and pieces added in margins, on blank pages, and on flyleaves. But still, 12 manuscripts in 3 days is pretty good, especially considering it wasn't 4/4/4, but 5/1/6.

And I'm really proud of the fact that I managed the BL MS request system perfectly: I ordered three MSS in advance by e-mail for the first day, and another three on Monday afternoon for Wednesday, and whenever I was down to 2, I put in additional orders, so I was never sitting around waiting for one.

And can I just say one of the gentlemen working the request desk has a prodigious and impressive memory. When I came in on Wednesday after not having been there since Monday, he simply handed me my pre-ordered manuscripts with asking for my name or my reader card. Wow!

But now, having spent the last three days squinting at mostly 15th and 16th century amateur handwriting, I'm ready to go home. Of course, if this nascent project turns into something bigger -- just what, I'm not yet sure -- I'll have many hours of such squinting in my future. Maybe then I should slow the pace down just a wee bit. Because if I spent four weeks here, for instance, and saw an average of 4 manuscripts a day, that's 80 freakin' manuscripts, and only if I take Saturdays off. The mere thought makes my head explode.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Castles and manuscripts and semi-automatic weapons, oh my!

I made it to Windsor today to look at an eight-line poem written in the fifteenth century in a blank space in an earlier manuscript. And though a small bit of text, it was a fruitful trip in many ways. Yay for successful fact-finding missions, however marginal they may at first glance seem. But my, what a process to get there! For eight lines!

To get where I was going at Windsor Castle, I didn't have to go through the usual tourist entrance, but instead was told to enter through the Henry VIII gate and ask the policeman there to direct me to the pass office. Easier said than done. I will spare you the detailed story about how just getting to Windsor was an adventure because I stupidly took the wrong Tube line and so missed the 08:23 train from Waterloo and got to Windsor a half hour later than intended (it involved the Northern Line -- I now loathe the Northern Line, for it is wicked), and skip to arriving at the Henry VIII gate to be faced with a kevlar-armored police commando holding a semi-automatic weapon across his chest. It's bad enough to enter through the Henry VIII gate -- will I be divorced? beheaded? or will I survive? -- but *you* try explaining to a heavily armed policeman that you're here to look at a medieval manuscript. It's rather intimidating!

Actually, he was very nice, as was his less armed partner, and they both directed me to a yet kindlier policeman inside a vestibule, who seemed to be the Copper with the Answers. It was a bit like a set of nesting dolls -- you had to get past the big imposing one, then the medium sized one, to get to the adorable one at the center. And the ones on guard in the afternoon were equally friendly: when I "surrendered" my pass, one made sure I wouldn't be coming back, and when I said yes, he said, "Well, our loss then!"

And once I was directed to the pass office and came back with my pass and showed my passport for ID (which the man with the gun had trouble with because apparently US ones have the picture in a different end than UK ones -- "trust you lot to be different," he said in a jovial way), everything went smoothly until I was confronted with a chain across the stairs leading to the archives. What with the heavily armed policemen around -- not to mention all the ceremonial swords on all the traditional guards -- and, I'm sure, CCTV covering every nook and cranny, I didn't really like the thought of ducking under it. So I went back to the kindliest of the three bears, er, policemen, the one with the Answers, and asked him, "Yo, dude, what up with the chain?" OK, not in so many words. Kindly police officer that he was, he left his post and walked back with me to figure out what was going on, and undid it for me, telling me it was just to keep the general public out. Awesome -- I'm not the general public! (Do you now have "Tenderness" [Link = YouTube clip] going through your head? Yeah, me too.) Later, when I was exiting that part of the castle, yet another chain was up across another space, but that time, knowing that I was not the mere general public, I very cavalierly undid the chain myself and walked out, as curious tourists wondered who I must be. OK, maybe they didn't care, but I thought I was pretty special.

It's not like I saw anything fabulous that tourists couldn't see from other vantage points, but I was in a part of the castle that's its own little world, separate from the tourists and State Rooms and changing of the guard and all that royal ceremony hoo-ha. In the Horseshoe Cloister, which I passed through to get to the Vicar's Undercroft, it seems there are living quarters, presumably for residential castle staff. I took a picture of the unusually curved building (hence the name "Horseshoe Cloister"), but as you may recall, I can't upload my pictures at the moment. It's a half-circle building in the style now called "Tudor" (only here it was obviously the real thing) -- brick on the bottom, beam and plaster on the top -- and has a continuous covered walk around its length over the entrances to all the residences (hence "cloister"). I know it was residential for two reasons: there were signs that said "Residents Only on Grass"; and as I left I caught a glimpse of the inside of one of them. They reminded me of the "rooms" (that is, apartments) that some Oxbridge dons have "in college." And beyond the Horseshoe Cloister, near the Vicar's residence and on the back side of St. George's Chapel, a whole little village seemed to open up. As I was leaving, a man and woman with a baby carriage were entering, presumably to go home.

In other words, I was in a living modern-medieval castle, bustling with life and activity on a grand scale, and not just because of the mad swarms of tourists. I know the traditional guards have horses somewhere, but here there were cars parked in reserved spaces in the Horseshoe Cloister and in the next court yard. The castle was guarded by modern versions of knights and infantry - some with swords, some with guns. The tourists were the courtiers and visiting statesmen, while the residents and staff and various and sundry went about their daily business, and I and the other "clerks" were busy doing things with manuscripts, and, in this case, microfiche, photocopies, Word texts, and PDFs, too. Meanwhile, the royal household was a presence without actually necessarily being present.

Plus ca change...

Post script: given all the fire power and other security (I had to apply for my pass in advance, presumably so they could look me up on watch lists and also see if I had a record), I was pretty surprised that there was no bag check. Nope, not one bit. In the *archives* I had to leave my bag in a vestibule inside their locked door (entrance by buzzer only), but no where outside of the archives was my bag a problem. After the archives, I even wandered around the tourist parts of the castle for awhile. (No one asked to see my entrance ticket -- there was 12 quid wasted on the discount ticket I bought with my train fare. D'oh!) I went in and around St. George's Chapel with my bag strapped to my back, and wandered around the middle and lower wards with it as well. Very strange.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Conference paper title changes -- or not

In his final post on NCS, JJC writes:

The typical NCS performance began by announcing a change in title. The speaker would then make reference to the very long version of the paper from which this tiny and insufficient piece was being extracted. He or she would last apologize for not having a sufficient number of handouts.

The pique"mildly amused observationalism" with which Jeffrey writes this explainsfails to explain something to me. At my own presentation, I cheerily pointed out, to my own great amusement, that on my handout I had *accidentally* changed my title. There was a word that begins with M that was different from the original title, but made just as much sense -- hence the reason why it found its way into my handout without my catching the mistake. I thought this was kind of hilarious, given the rampant purposeful title-changing at the conference, but my audience didn't even seem to smile.

But for some reason they absolutely guffawed when the next speaker crowed triumphantly that he had not changed his title. Hmph, I say, hmph!

Oh, and for the record, I did worry out loud that I didn't have enough handouts, but actually I did, and I finished my paper *under* time. Ta-da!


In other news, I've settled into London now -- in the world's narrowest hotel room, not counting those "pod" hotels -- after visiting friends in Yorkshire. Blogging may be light as I've got to make good use of my scant three days here to do massive manuscript consulting. But I do want to revisit some things I've been thinking about all that posing, posturing, and prestige-chasing that I perceived at NCS and why it annoys and bores me so much. It may not be until I get back to the States, though, that I'll have time to write that post.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Drat! - Plus how I did NOT steal a famous medievalist's credit card

I forgot to pack my USB cable for my camera, so I cannot yet post pictures of cliffs, castles, sheep, or a friend standing in the "privy exit," or video clips of sheep baa'ing hundreds and hundreds of feet below a castle or of the charming Welsh men's choir singing in Welsh. So go look at Jeffrey Cohen's pictures, one of which I took.

So instead, I'll tell you the story of the Incident of the Purloined Credit Card, which features the only crabby Welsh person I've ever met.

So. At a castle called Carreg Cennen, there's a dark and slimy passage into the mountain that takes you to a rather small and anti-climactic cave. The journey is more fun than the destination -- and will definitely give you the willies if you've seen The Descent -- although it's kind of cool to see graffiti from 19th century tourists who were there before you (I'd show you a picture, but...well, you know why not). To get down there you need a flashlight. If you don't have your own, you can rent one from a hut at the base of the castle, or the tea and gift shop at the foot of the castle's hill if the hut is closed.

My friend G. and I attempted to rent one at the tea shop and were told to go to the hut. At the hut we were told that they were all out. And I swear on my mother's ashes this is what that lady then advised: she told us we could gather with a group going down or wait for someone to come up and use theirs. Ultimately, we did the latter, borrowing a flashlight -- a rather shitty one, by the way -- from someone who had borrowed it from someone else.

Somehow I ended up with the custody of the flashlight because G. is a smooth operator and knows when a menial task is too menial for him. Typical. When I got back to the hut, it was closed, with a sign directing us to return all "torches" to the cafe. I followed the directions. I always follow directions. Refer to the paragraph above and remember that one of the instructions I received was to borrow someone else's torch.

When I got to the cafe, I dutifully queued up (my English ancestors would be so proud) to return the flashlight. It had a number, which corresponded to a page in a notebook of plastic sleeves, which contained, to my growing horror, credit cards left as deposits. (Why anyone would want to steal a crappy flashlight of awkwardly large proportions when there are awesomely powerful ones that fit in your pocket is beyond me. But I digress.) As I got up to the front of the line, I said, "I don't know who this belongs to. I borrowed it from someone who borrowed it from someone else."

The crabby lady behind the counter screeched at me, "That's NOT allowed! You owe us a pound fifty!"

"What? But, but, the other person paid the pound fifty."

"It's a pound fifty PER PERSON," she exclaimed angrily.

"But, but, the lady at the hut told us to do this -- they were out of torches."

The lady wasn't completely mollified, since she kept rather dramatically flipping through the credit cards, although she stopped demanding payment (which I would have given, actually -- I was more horrified at having accidentally broken the rules). Finally she found the right card and slapped it down on the counter.

"But that's not mine! I don't know what to do with it!" I protested.

"That's your problem, isn't it?" the woman snarled at me.

I looked at the card. I recognized the famous name (indeed, I own at least one of her books) -- hooray! -- but to my chagrin realized I had no idea what the scholar in question looked like.

I asked Jeffrey what she looked like. He suggested I buy a round of drinks for the house, or something to that effect. And then he gave some ridiculous, obviously untrue description of the scholar in question. In effect, he was starting to remind me of my annoying big brother, teasing me instead of being helpful. Sigh. Boys. Finally he relented and described her.

At that very moment she was coming down the hill from the castle, coincidentally in the company of G., so I went up to her, told her it was a pleasure to meet her and I was an admirer of her work, and then presented her with her credit card, to her great relief.

But I have to say, I'm still traumatized by the fact that there's a crabby woman in Wales who thinks Americans are petty, rule-flouting thieves cheating castle tea shops out of their pound fifty! Or worse, she just thinks that of "that American girl with the Medusa hair who came with that otherwise lovely group of scholars."



I'm now in Yorkshire visiting friends and while in Ikley today I was reminded of a glorious thing called the Clarks' semi-annual sale. I heart Clarks for their combination of funkiness and comfort. And today I scored a pair of gladitorial/80s punk-style sandals for 15 pounds.

That's right, I said 15 pounds. That's even cheap in dollars! Woo-hoo!

Tomorrow I will walk around in their funky comfort at Kirkstall Abbey and the Royal Armouries.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

This conference

This is the first time I've been a participant at this particular conference, though I was once an outside-ish observer (the very green grad student assistant for the campus organizing it), and I'm noticing something about it that may or may not be characteristic of it. Perhaps those of you more in the know can tell me if I'm wrong or right.

While there are lots of very good things about it, it's also very full of anxiety, insecurity, and posturing. It's as bad as MLA, and yet there are no job interviews here. But for some stupid reason, people are acting as if there were, like they have to be "on" all the time. Not everyone (not any of the friends of this blog), but a lot of people.

I don't think I want to come back. Even Medieval Academy is mellower than this (especially when it hooks up with the Medieval Association of the Pacific -- then it *rocks*).

But still, there's one very awesome thing about this conference this year: castles. Got to climb all over two of them today. I'll post pictures when I get them up.

PS -- More small world stories: on the first morning at breakfast, I tried to sit and eat alone because I was still very, very tired, but I was joined by a complete stranger, and so had to make small talk. Turns out she was born and raised in Rust Belt! So small talk was easier than I thought it would be. Hooray for Rust Belt -- bringing strangers together!

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Train station blogging -- it's an even smaller world edition

OK, now I'm blogging from Paddington Station, where I'm sitting around with time on my hands because I was over-anxious in allowing for time between my plane's arrival and my train's departure, since the last time I did the plane-to-train thing it took me nearly 4 hours to get from Heathrow to King's Cross. But of course this time, having planned ahead for all possibilities, I got here to Paddington in nearly record time. Sigh.

But back to the small world of plane trips from Big Rust Belt to London. Not only was Grad School Colleague on the same plane, but she was sitting right in front of me! So we chatted and caught up while waiting for the rest of the passengers to board. And later I noticed that she and I both chose to watch The Devil Wears Prada on the in-seat entertainment system. I have no idea what that says about us except that, obviously, neither of us saw it when it came out.

And then, if that weren't coincidental enough, who should sit in front of GSC, but Medieval Woman and the Dutchman! Now *that* was a little weird and unexpected, because I can assure you, MW lives *nowhere* near Big Rust Belt. I could not see what MW or TD were watching on their little TVs. MW - care to share? Perhaps your taste is more highbrow than either mine or my GSC's?

OK, I'm feeling very sleepy now and it would be bad if I fell asleep in Paddington with all my stuff. I think I better get up and walking around a bit.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Airport blogging - it's a small world edition

I'm in Big Rust Belt airport, at the gate for my flight to the UK, and who do I see a few rows away? Grad School Colleague from the nearest R1. Once I saw her, I thought, "Of course, this is her airport, too, and I know she'll be at the same conference." But for a split second it surprised me. There I was, in my own little world, saying goodbye to Bullock a few moments earlier and expecting a trip to a land far away on a plane of strangers. It's a little weird seeing someone you know in an airport, but it has actually happened to me many times in my life, in far more unlikely and coincidental circumstances. I also ran into someone I knew on a ferry from Dover to France once.

Anyway, I notice GSC from the R1 is reading a fun book. At least, from this distance, it looks like a general market paperback. Stupid me, I brought work and only work. So I'm blogging to make up for the fact that fabulously successful and ambitious-in-a-good-way GSC is reading for fun, and so should I! Maybe I'll go buy a paperback at the Borders 20 feet away. Then again, maybe I really do need to be reading that book I'm reviewing! (See previous post.)

Well, I shouldn't be blogging and using my battery just to say obvious things about fellow medievalists who are *of course* on the same plane as I am. In fact, I just turned on the computer to turn *off* the wireless. Besides, double chocolate Milano cookies are calling my name (thanks, Bullock).


Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Not looking forward to August

On the day before I leave for the UK for two weeks of Famous Medieval Author conference, visiting with friends, and whirlwind manuscript consulting, I am getting anxious about what faces me upon my return, one item of which I just learned about 10 minutes ago.

As you read the following August to-do list, keep in mind that our school year begins on the 25th. Thank god I got my syllabuses done at the beginning of the summer (though details need to be fine-tuned).

So here's what my August will look like:

  • Re-write article due August 15th according to feedback from collection editors -- some of which feedback I got orally at Kalamazoo, and have been working on, but most of which I just got about a week ago.
  • Finish academic book (on planes and trains while away) and write review for - gulp! - Speculum (my first ever for them).
  • Read dissertation and prepare for as yet unscheduled August defense. Thank god I'm the outside reader. Note: my first dissertation committee position ever.
  • Read MA thesis and prepare for early-August defense.
  • Correct proofs of article (possibly with stolen time at Famous Author conference if editors won't give me a 5-day extenstion). I just got the PDF of the proofs 10 minutes ago and they're due July 25th. I'm leaving tomorrow and I'm still fine-tuning my paper, doing laundry, packing, etc.
  • Prepare for and organize department orientation for non-TA students.
  • Meet with colleague with whom I will be the dramaturge for a 2010 production of medieval drama (he needs to plan the season this far in advance and we have to settle on which plays and what form of text -- simply modernized or truly translated).
Oy. Feel for me.

But right now I have to take Pippi for her walkies and get back to getting ready to leave. Expect little to no posting in the next two weeks. Happy July to you all!

Sunday, July 13, 2008

A request for transubstantiation clarifications

I'm confused about something. It was inspired by recent blogospheric events (as recounted here, where you can see some of my confusion in the comments), but also, more importantly, by a medieval text I'm thinking about in other contexts. And it all has to do with the ritual practices of transubstantiation in the medieval church. The concept I get -- it's the practice I'm not clear on.

Let me put it in terms of the medieval text, because that's more germane to this blog and to my interests than the brouhaha that PZ Myers has stirred up. In The Croxton Play of the Sacrament, a Christian merchant named Aristorius procures a eucharist wafer for a Jew named Jonathas. Jonathas wants the wafer to test whether it's true that, as he's heard told, that "Cristen men... /beleve on a cake... / [and] seye how the prest dothe it bind, / And by the might of his word make it flessh and blode / that it shuld be He that deyed upon the rode." (For the non-medievalists reading this, I think that Middle English is mostly clear, but in case you don't know this, "rode" means cross, so the last phrase is "died on the cross.") Once he gets it, he puts it to all sorts of tests that mimic and parody Christ's Passion as well as the mass. Then grotesque and slapstick violence ensues -- the host bleeds, Jonathas loses his hand -- Christ appears and heals Jonathas, the Jews convert, and the whole thing ends in a Corpus Christi procession into the church, headed by the Bishop.

Suffice it to say it's a weird and disturbing play. My questions, though, are about the status of the eucharist wafer at the point when Aristorius procures it for Jonathas. The merchant gets his personal chaplain drunk, takes the church key, and gets the host while the drunk priest sleeps. In doing this, Aristorius says, "Ser Isodere [= the priest] shall nott know of this case, / For he hath ofteyn sacred, as it is skill. / The chirche key is at my will; / There is nothing that me shall tary." Bevington, whose edition I'm quoting from, glosses "sacred" as "consecrated the host." One other thing that pertains to my question is that in this play, prior to the grotesque bleeding of the host, Jonathas and his friends enact a parody Last Supper/mass in which Jonathas speaks the words of the mass (and the Gospel), "Comedite, [hoc est] corpus meum" -- eat, this is my body.

OK, so here are my questions, which I know I could get answered by re-reading Rubin's Corpus Christi, but it's more fun to ask the blogosphere. Besides, I don't want the answer for research reasons right now, I just want to clarify my own muddled head.

In medieval doctrine, at what point is the eucharist host the body of Christ? Is it Christ's body when it's in reserve, ready for the mass, or is only Christ's body at the re-enactment of the words of the Last Supper during the mass -- the "hoc est corpus meum" moment? In the play, is Aristorius stealing Christ's body or something not-quite-yet Christ's body? And what does "sacred"/"consecrated" here mean in context? And, for the record, is there any difference in modern Catholic doctrine?

And if you're thinking, "You're a medievalist! You should know these things!" Well, I'm a medieval *literature* person, and even when I've studied and written about religious texts, it's often been through the lens of lay people's social and devotional practices, which don't always align with official doctrine (contrary to the popular notion that medieval people only could or did believe what the Church told them to believe). Plus, having been raised Catholic, I think I have some kind of Pavlovian response to the "this is my body" moment of the mass. That's THE moment -- the eucharist is raised, bells ring, incense is sometimes wafted (it's all very dramatic) -- and I've never thought about the status of the wafers before that moment. It's not really that important for anything I'm thinking about this play -- I just want to get it straight. I'll go back to Rubin when I have time, of course, but for now, you can help.

And the other reason I'm blogging this is that I may not have time to blog in the next few days as I get ready to leave for the UK, and I don't know if I'll have much time to blog over there. So I thought I'd put something serious and medieval-related at the top of my blog, even if it means admitting my lack of knowledge of something so central to the period I study and the religion I was raised in!

Friday, July 11, 2008


First, the kind of crankiness you might expect: I am vexed, terribly vexed by continued craziness at my institution and by a certain electronic output by some of my colleagues, which has devolved into something from the bad old days of the UseNet. It's embarrassing. I wash my hands of it. I will no longer read or comment on it (in my lame attempts to raise the level of conversation to, uh, actual conversation about the subject of the posts). Oh, and some of you may remember that I held a last minute workshop for the parties involved to help them make it better -- more readable, more useful for their message, more interesting to a wider audience. ONE person showed up. And that person thought that only the registered bloggers could see it, so you can imagine the learning curve I was facing there.


Can I just say, for those of you who know what I'm talking about, that there are a lot of fantastic people at my institution among the students, faculty, and staff -- fantastic thinkers and creative artists and teachers and scholars (from students to faculty) and researchers and visionaries and organized minds who keep it all going. But it's always the squeaky wheels who get heard.

In other cranky news, but not my *own* crankiness...

Did you know there are *two* Cranky Professors? Seriously, there's the medieval art historian, The Cranky Professor, whom I already knew. And then there's one in English, too! But she goes by the shortened nom-de-blog of Cranky Prof and blogs at Cranky Epistles. Who knew? Did you?

Why are we all so cranky?

Btw, the word "cranky" has now become completely weird to me. Does that ever happen to you -- that is, you say or write a word over and over and it becomes alien in the process?

Tuesday, July 8, 2008


If you're looking for that post about the thing that annoyed me that I was promising to post about, I stupidly posted it over the holiday weekend. It's four posts down, or here. I draw attention to it in case you missed it, and because, these days, a substantive post from me is a rare thing.

UPDATE: Another PSA: Carl at Got Medieval is asking people to sum up the Middle Ages in a list of seven words (or phrases -- some of us are cheating, including me, as "flying buttress" and "trial by jury," both on my list, are more than one word each) in a kind of word-association game. It's fun and informative -- go play!

Monday, July 7, 2008

Tales from Rust Belt

Bullock and I spent the evening of the 4th of July eating ribs and drinking fine wines on the front porch of Will and Beck's place in Rust Belt Historic District.* Being a Historic District of 19th and early 20th century homes, a lot of them have huge, room-sized front porches (although the one I posted about here does not). W & B frequently have dinner and drinks out there. The friendly neighbors two doors down, who are also the Eyes of the Neighborhood, have a beer keg on theirs and frequently invite passers-by up to imbibe.

And while we were eating, the family next door came home from the official fireworks. Everyone exchanged greetings and Will said he missed their old ritual of unofficial neighborhood fireworks. But alas, neighbor dad is now a VIP employee of the city and a public figure, so he has had to mend his law-breaking ways. He seemed a little grumpy about it. I don't know why, but this cracks me up, in part because the fireworks are probably the *only* skeleton in VIP's closet in a town full of politicos with shady pasts and wheeling and dealing. It's like the big bangs and pyrotechnics were an explosion of Mr. VIP's id all at once, and now he's got to keep it all contained. I don't usually approve of launching fireworks in residential neighborhoods -- not to mention ones full of historic Victorians! -- but I felt a little sad for Mr. VIP.


The other day I was walking from my office, backpack in tow, across the main drag that serves as the boundary of campus, when something shiny caught my eye. I knew it was a lavish and fancy car bejeweled with chrome, but I wasn't sure which kind, so I took another look. I'm not usually good at identifying cars, but the tell-tale hood ornament told me it was a Rolls Royce. That's not something you see around Rust Belt very often, so then I snuck a glance at the driver. Given the fact that I grew up down the street from the founder of Rival Manufacturing (the Crock Pot people), who lived in our neighborhood to keep an eye on his grand-daughter and great-grand-daughter, and was driven around town in a huge Rolls, I tend to associate Rolls Royces with super old white dudes with "help." So I was a little surprised to see a Boomer-age black guy driving this one.

It pleased me, so I grinned. He saw me checking out his car and he saw me grinning. So he caught my eye and said, "Can I carry your books for you?"

I have to say, that's the most innocent sounding non-innocent come-on I've ever heard, so I gotta give him some credit. I laughed and said, "No thank you, but you have a lovely car."

I heart Rust Belt.

*Will and Beck are pseudonyms I haven't used in a long time. I named them after William Shakespeare and Samuel Beckett because it suits their professions and specialties and tastes (though Beck is actually a woman).

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Blog roll updating

I've finally spent some time updating my blog roll. Since I use Blogrolling and have a "Blogroll It!" button on my browser, it's really easy to add blogs, but I have a tendency not to keep up on cleaning out the defunct and discontinued links.

But while deleting dead links has a kind of satisfaction to it, it's not nearly as fun as adding new ones. So, if you read this blog -- even if you don't comment here -- and you've got a blog of your own and it's not my blog roll, leave me a comment with your URL and I'll add you. Likewise, if you've moved and I haven't found your new blog, or if there's something wrong with the way your blog is listed here, let me know.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Say what? Or, the tiresome tussle of linguistics vs. literature

So. About that blog post that annoyed me...

Way back in the ancient time of June 17, Mark Liberman at Language Log wrote a post in which he said the following:

In fact, in my (admittedly limited) experience, English departments are among the last places on campus where you're likely to find any indication of interest in any form of linguistic analysis whatever.

I'd be very happy to find that I'm wrong about this.

Mark Liberman, you are wrong about this. There, happy?

The problem with Liberman's broad generalization (aside from being a broad generalization -- not usually a persuasive move in argumentative writing), is that he then proceeds to back up his claim with the example of the Yale English department and what he could find on their web site.

OK, before I go further, can I just announce to the world at large that using Yale (or Harvard, or Stanford, or Oberlin, or any other elite school) as a stand-in for academia at large is poor evidence, no matter what the subject of your argument is. American higher education has a plethora of institutional types with an equally diverse set of missions, funding sources, student bodies, faculties, curricula, and organizational structures. And we do not all even aspire to be or model ourselves on the elite private universities and colleges. Heck, institutions like Yale aren't even in the majority of types of institutions in the country, let alone anything like an average model.

But back to the people-in-English-don't-care-about-linguistics thing. I'd reckon that in the majority of 4 year colleges and universities in the country, the linguists are actually IN the English department. Again, Yale is a poor example, because it's elite and wealthy enough to support an entire linguistics department. Oh, and look, Prof. Roberta Frank, renowned Anglo-Saxonist has a dual appointment in Linguistics and in English at Yale. Liberman didn't mention that, for some reason (although a lone medievalist commenter did). But I'll come back to the medieval angle in a minute.

Most places, however, aren't as lucky as Yale to have a well-staffed and independent linguistics department. At my own university, most of the linguists are in my department -- including people who don't necessarily work on specifically *English*-related issues -- and some are in the foreign language department (yes, we just have one -- they're all lumped together). So actually, our English department is either the first or the second place on campus where you'd find people interested in linguistic analysis, depending on where you decided to start your search.

And it's not just the people who are identified as "linguists" and specialists in linguistic fields who are interested in linguistic analysis. Hello! {Raises hand} Medievalist here! I teach Old English and Middle English, both of which are cross-listed with Linguistics, and the students in there are a mix of English majors, linguistics majors, various foreign language majors, and English graduate students. We use the IPA and talk about all sorts of heady linguistic goodness like phonology, morphology, syntax, and the like. And I bet this year's crop in particular will never forget the genitive of time in part because it was a recurring obsession of mine across Old and Middle English, and at the end of the latter, I came into class one day and triumphantly announced that the final scene of No Country For Old Men featured an American example of it. (You should've seen how giddy I was about it.) See, medievalists have always needed a knowledge of and interest in linguistic analysis, and always will, including those of us who are interested in all sorts of other theoretical developments in the field. Are we not part of the English department?

What's more, our English major here at RBU requires an intro to linguistics class. Why is that? Aside from all the good, sound reasons that the study of literature may have something to do with the study of language, many of our English majors are also Education majors, and the state requires language arts and English teachers in the public schools to have had an intro to linguistics class. I bet that's true in a lot of states. Our MA then requires history of the English language, again because we feel that a knowledge of language enhances the study of literature. Cuz, you know, literature is made of language. (I know! Whoda thunk it?!)

But where Liberman's post really, really gets my goat -- or rather, the writing teacher goat in me -- is the way he uses Yale as his example. After noting that "transformational grammar" doesn't appear on their web page, he adds:

also among the missing are phoneme, vowel, consonant, Lakoff, Whorf, "noun phrase", transitive, adverb, iamb, trochee, dactyl, pentameter, hexameter, and metrical.

(To make it clear that Google has actually indexed some text there, post-colonial occurs 22 times.)

Oh for goodness sake. Why would most of those terms appear on the freakin' web page of the department? Take out "Lakoff" and "Whorf" and the remaining words are all terms that have come up in my classes -- including many of my "purely" literature classes -- but they don't appear in any of my course descriptions because they're all too specific. I even have one forthcoming article on historical linguistics issues that involves both prosody and phonology, but none of Liberman's words are in its title.

But the parenthetical claim makes it clear what the real subject of Liberman's complaint is: you English lit people pay too much attention to the post-colonial. Oy. Are we really still fighting the culture wars? Really? Look, you can care about *both* the political forces that shape literature *and* the linguistic ones that do. They are not mutually exclusive. And in terms of the logic, Liberman's complaint is problematic: "post-colonial" is a much bigger category than "adverb." It's also a theoretical approach that would apply to a multitude of literature courses in a way that "hexameter" wouldn't. I bet the verse writing courses that Yale offers (intro and advanced) include discussion of iambs, trochees, etc. And the description of the "Renaissance Lyric" course says it will focus on "poetic forms." I bet meter has something to do with that course, too. (Oh, and if you search "verse" on the site, it comes up 19 times.)

In the comments to Liberman's post, only one medievalist speaks up, as I recall. And one person from a regional comprehensive points out that linguistics is within their English department. And I don't think Liberman responded to either of them.

So as an English department medievalist at a regional comprehensive, who teaches linguistics courses and linguistic issues, I felt I had to pipe up on behalf of my many identities: Hey, what about us?