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.

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.


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... 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!, 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!


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.

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 Beneš'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?

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

If you were interested in literary theory, where would you do a Ph.D.?

Hey everyone, thanks for all the comments, suggestions, and good wishes in the last post. I've been meaning to respond but, as you might guess, I've been busy putting out fires. I'm hoping to write a follow-up post on issues raised in the comments and also at other people's blogs, especially on the point of who we should (or shouldn't) be encouraging to go to grad school in the humanities (or whether we should be encouraging at all).

Anyway, in the meantime, I've got a query from a smart undergrad student who came to one of our recent "applying to grad school" workshops (to those commenters who suggested doing this: we were already in the process of doing this -- great minds think alike!). Actually, it's two queries. The first one is the question in the post title: if you were interested in literary theory, where would you apply to do a Ph.D.? I can think of some places off the top of my head, but they're all pretty competitive big guns, so ideally I'd like to suggest to this student some smaller programs that have maybe a 1 in 4 acceptance rate, rather than a 1 in 10 rate.

And here's the related question: do you think a student who started at a community college and then went to a regional public 4-year university is handicapped when applying to Ph.D. programs? This student is whip-smart and I have no doubt that he's got the chops for grad school, but I wonder if snob factors will hurt his chances. That's why I want him to apply to a range of programs.

And I'd love to hear narratives or be pointed to blogs from people who started at CCs and now are in grad school or beyond.


Sunday, October 28, 2007

Help! I don't want to be grad director any more


One of the reasons I haven't posted much of late is that I've been running around like the proverbial acephalous farm fowl trying to deal with one graduate student related thing from another. Some of it's routine but nevertheless time consuming and potentially stress-inducing, and some of it is all about dealing with grad student nightmare situations. Here's a quick run-down that gives you a sense of my last two weeks without, I hope, revealing any sensitive particulars.

  • I scared one of our part-timers away from our program. I feel completely responsible for this since a) I'm the grad director, and b) the only two classes he's taking are my classes. The real problem, I think, is that the two classes are not literature classes (one's research methods, the other's Old English), so he based his conclusion that "graduate study in English is not for me" on rather idiosyncratic courses. I feel really guilty about this. Of *course* in the research class I've been talking about the why's and how's of academic research 24/7, but I've also told them more than once that the teaching/research balance is different at different kinds of institutions. But this particular student dropped out because he wants to teach more than do research. Argh! I tried to talk him out of it, to no avail.
  • Another student stopped coming to his classes and has also decided to withdraw from the program, which is probably the right decision for him. But the problem is he thinks he can go on being a TA for the rest of the semester and collecting his stipend check. Theoretically, I think he's right, and if we saw TAs as employees and treated them as such with all the attendant legal rights, that would be the case: he'd do his job and we'd pay him for it. But our university, like most, sees a TAship as financial aid, for which only full time students are eligible.
  • The withdrawal of the student above leaves me with an unfilled TAship for next semester, which will mean the College will suck the line back up into itself, giving us one fewer TA line for next year.
  • Another student has decided to leave the literature concentration for the other concentration we offer. That's fine -- at least he's still "ours" in the larger sense, since all of our students get MAs in English. But the problem is that program is less flexible in its course sequence, so he has to take next semester off and restart in the fall. So I have his TAship to fill in the meantime or lose it, as well. (He'll get a different one next year, vacated by a graduating person.)
  • It's Ph.D. program application time and a few of our "good for us but not stellar" students have delusions of grandeur. I tried as best as I could to get them to apply to fewer extremely competitive programs and more programs with higher acceptance rates. They have no idea of their worth in this market. I think I'm being so gentle with their fragile egos that they don't get it and they'll just end up disappointed. And some of them are so freakin' arrogant without reason and they have no idea how they're coming across. I cringe to think of how their personal statements read. They have no clue and it's making me tear my hair out.
  • And those are the ones who tell me what they're up to. Half the time our students do this all behind the scenes and I never know where they're applying and/or getting in. And who knows what they're putting in their personal statements. I'm going to run a personal statement workshop ASAP just to get them to let us see the damn things. I mean, how can I help shape the reputation of our program if some of our graduate students are doing god knows what.
  • And all of our students think they're shoo-ins for the local flagship. Um. As if. It happens to be a top tier program with about a 1 in 10 acceptance rate, and in recent memory not a single one of our applicants, even our best students, have gotten in there. The phrase "familiarity breeds contempt" comes to mind. But they think because they're residents of the state that makes a difference, or because they took undergrad classes there (not, mind you, finished a degree there) they have an edge. I can't get it through their heads that state universities can be as competitive and selective at the graduate level as an Ivy League and none of that stuff matters. Indeed, some of them would prefer students from elsewhere than from their own state because it adds to their prestige. I think I may just ban students from applying there. OK, I can't do that. But I might tell them the above.
  • Which reminds me: our undergraduates don't understand that even *our* program is somewhat selective. This is because at the undergraduate level we're an open enrollment university, so all of the problems in the above bullets and here are the result of many students never having had to apply anywhere selective before and not knowing anything about the process other than maybe what they see in movies or on TV. (A number of our MA students were our BA students.) So sometimes tears, anger, resentment, and pleading are involved when someone is rejected. And often I have to deal with it in person!
  • And then there's the MA exam. I hate it. I hate dealing with it; I hate its format; I hate its reading list. But mostly I hate dealing with the students who complain the loudest about it, because they are always the ones who don't get what it's for and don't prepare well and don't do well. And there's really no excuse for not preparing well now or not getting it, because now almost all of our students have gone through my research methods class, where I also spend time on the culture of graduate school, and have them read all sorts of stuff about what typical MA/Ph.D. programs are like, and how most include some sort of comprehensive exam. I talk about how to prepare for it, including working in study groups and using the range of skills and expertise of their peers. And I talk about how to make it professionally useful beyond the instrumentalist goal of doing well on the exam. And I talk about how independent work is expected of graduate students and the exam represents part of that independent work. And still I get students who fear and doubt their ability to read something "hard" on their own (and so they skip much of the medieval and early modern part of the list and then claim they are "blindsided" by having to answer a question on those texts). Or they complain that they didn't have a chance to write on a bunch of the texts on the list, so they couldn't show off what they know (uh, you're supposed to know the whole list!). Or else they ask what was the use of their having read those other texts? And they complain that the list is too long, when it's actually shorter than the other "comprehensive" lists out there, and only longer than those exams that change the key texts every year.
  • And my colleagues aren't any less troublesome. Last year when I started a discussion about revising the exam they successfully put me off with misdirection. (Because I am so easy to manipulate. I'm an idiot sometimes.) But not this time! This time I found the history of the last discussion, when the exam was fully revised 5 years ago, and in it the faculty agreed -- they voted on this! -- to revise the exam at least every five years or when new literature faculty were hired. Ha! It's been five years *and* they've hired me and Milton, and both of our areas are underrepresented on the list. And I've got bits and pieces of 5 years worth of data for assessment -- questions written and answered -- to determine if this exam is doing what we think it should. So ha! We ARE going to have this discussion whether my colleagues like it or not.
  • And then there's the horrible way we exploit our TAs which I want to do something about, if not with more money, then with reduced or better managed workload, but I need the help of our composition people, and the chair, and we need to fight it out with the dean of the grad school for the money to do what we want to do. And given the desires of the current administration we might face tremendous resistance, which the composition people and the chair know full well, so they're not exactly eager to get cracking on it. It's all so wearying. Meanwhile, the students look me in the eye and say things like, "I can't afford internet at home, since I can't live on my TA stipend, so I couldn't complete this assignment." I have no idea how to respond to that. We actually do have a hardship fund in the department, and I tell them about that. But then what? It's not like I pulled a bait and switch on them -- the stipend amount is advertised and I tell them what it is in their acceptance letter. Like most things in this profession, it assumes the person holding it is young and single or, if they have a family, there's someone else taking care of them. And yeah, it sucks. Big time. I know that. But I don't control that. I'm trying to do something about it, but it probably won't result in more money. There just isn't much of that to go around, especially not to the humanities and the grad programs. Our priorities are not the university's priorities. But I think grad students, since they deal mostly with their department, assume that the department controls all of the things that affect the students' lives. I know I assumed that.
  • Of course, it doesn't help that I'm not yet tenured. I'm a little tentative when faced with dealing with administrators. That's why I need the help of my senior colleagues to do what I want to try to do, and they're all a little more weary of trying, with good reason. It's really discouraging.
  • And if one more of the non-traditional students condescends to me and acts like they have some kind of seniority over me (most of them are my age or, at most, 2-3 years older; leaving aside the fact that I'm a decade and a half older in academic years), or tells me I just don't know what their life is like I will freaking scream! The women are the worst. I swear next time it happens I'm going to say, "Oh, I don't know what it's like to be treated like I don't matter and don't have expertise or experience or authority? Really? Because I thought that's exactly how you're treating me right now!"
  • And finally, I had a small-group implosion in one of my classes this week. I blame them somewhat for not being grown ups and dealing with it, but I also blame myself. I stupidly assigned the non-traditional-student, pulling-herself-out-of poverty, single-mom-of-pre-schoool-aged-kids and one of the straight-out-of-college, 20-something-bachelor guys to a group together. Recipe for disaster. He didn't understand the limits on her time. She wielded them like a sledge-hammer over him. They're both bad communicators; he's the shy, quiet, studious guy who prefers to avoid confrontation than to solve problems and she's the fierce type who makes everything into a confrontation and bullies her way through life. Good one, Dr. V. I'm an idiot.
I'm exhausted. This really does take up the course release I get and then some. (God, imagine if we still had our Ph.D. program!) I'm staying on next year for sure, and maybe 2009-10, but then I'm applying for sabbatical for the next year, and so that might be a good time to put someone else in my place, and not just for the year.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Relax: let the movies explain it all to you

[Update: See Richard Scott Nokes's blow-by-blow account of one of the "activities" of this promotional item here. And he found the PDF of the poster online, so if you want, you can read the whole thing here.]

So yesterday in my campus mail I got a promotional poster/lesson plan (Meets National Standards! it says) for Beowulf the Movie. It urges me to let the fine folks at Paramount help me introduce a "classic of English literature" to my students. It has "activities" for K-12 and discussion questions for high school and college classes. I've got to scan part of this and post it here because it's too freakin' hilarious and troubling at the same time. One of my students, by the way, was outraged and offended that they'd send such a thing "to a specialist!" And it does seem that they sent it to me precisely because I'm a medievalist.

But aside from the whole problem of "Just show the movie -- they'll like it more!" issue, or the issue of the conflation of film adaptation and poem, I got fascinated by the "character description" of Grendel on this thing. They tried really hard to do an old-fashioned, 8th-grade level "character sketch" for him, which is funny in and of itself. But the weird bit was the "origin" section, which said Grendel was the offspring of Hrothgar and a succubus (a half-woman, half-demon, they said). Isn't that the same "back story" that the Beowulf and Grendel movie gave Grendel? Or no, wait, was it that Hrothgar and Grendel's human dad were friends and Hrothgar raised Grendel as a foster-dad? At any rate, I'm fascinated by the fact that both films need to give some cause-and-effect explanation for Grendel's murderous rage, a la a slasher film villain's motivation. Why? Doesn't that domesticate him a bit? Isn't he scarier without motivation other than his seething hate?

I had a similar experience when I watched the 13th Warrior* with a screenwriter friend (not the famous one, for those who know). This friend couldn't understand where the Grendel-inspired creatures were "coming from" (in the motivational sense) and found it a flaw in the film that there was no motivation for them. Given that Crichton (author of Eaters of the Dead, the basis for the movie) and the screenwriters had made Grendel into a race of proto-homo-sapien wild men, I thought it was pretty clear that they were supposed to express some atavistic quality in humanity or some primal element that we weren't as evolved from as we thought (much as Grendel and his mother work in the poem itself), but that wasn't enough for my friend, who needed a reason, preferably with psychological motivation to it.

Everyone wants to explain why bad things happen to good people, and to say that the things that go bump in the night have some logical explanation (even when it is a murderous monster). But the scariest works of literature and film -- including Beowulf the poem -- are the ones that realize our most irrational nightmares have great impossible truth to them.

*This is currently still my favorite movie inspired in part by Beowulf's plot, not counting the Beowulfian elements of Lord of the Rings. But I'm much more a fan of The 13th Warrior than Eaters of the Dead, which also has too much of that need to be deadeningly explanatory.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

I may not post very often, but I give gifts

Update 10/20 10:30 am -- All gifts from me are now claimed, but the following folks now have to "pay it forward" so you might want to pay them a visit if you want a gift (though a couple of them have fairly locked/friends-only LiveJournals):

History Geek
Heu Mihi (Age of Perfection)

Update 10/18 11:21 pm -- 1 gift left!
Update 10/18 6:28 pm - 2 gifts left!

So there's a meme-ish thing going around the interwebosphere right now, which I saw at Academic Cog. It goes like this:

By the end of the calendar year, I will send a tangible, physical gift to each of the first five people to comment here. The catch? Each person must make the same offer on her/his blog.
I will send you something that speaks of Rust Belt, its industries, and its history, which may sound not very lovely, but in the case of my female readers, I already know what I'm going to get and I swear to you no one fails to dislike this gift. (And it's not prone to rust, I swear.) For any guys among the first five posters, I'll have to think of something else, but I'll come up with something good. We have very good local attraction gift shops here.

Caveats and disqualifications: Bullock, Fast Fizzy, and Virgo Sis (and any other potentially lurking family members and also dear friends who get twice-yearly boxes o' goodies) are not eligible since I already get you gifts. If you want a gift and I don't already know your real-life identity and address, you'll have to e-mail me with it!

Monday, October 15, 2007

Because I haven't posted in awhile...

...I'm posting a quiz. I'm also posting it because I got my first hate mail from a "concern troll" who thought that erudite professors like me shouldn't waste our educations with posting fluff on our blogs.

So, where are *you* in the Time-Space-Humor continuum?

Your Score: the Wit

(66% dark, 38% spontaneous, 15% vulgar)

your humor style:

You like things edgy, subtle, and smart. I guess that means you're probably an intellectual, but don't take that to mean pretentious. You realize 'dumb' can be witty--after all isn't that the Simpsons' philosophy?--but rudeness for its own sake, 'gross-out' humor and most other things found in a fraternity leave you totally flat.

I guess you just have a more cerebral approach than most. You have the perfect mindset for a joke writer or staff writer.

Your sense of humor takes the most thought to appreciate, but it's also the best, in my opinion.

You probably loved the Office. If you don't know what I'm
talking about, check it out here:

PEOPLE LIKE YOU: Jon Stewart - Woody Allen - Ricky Gervais

The 3-Variable Funny Test!

- it rules -

Link: The 3 Variable Funny Test written by jason_bateman on OkCupid Free Online Dating, home of the The Dating Persona Test

Btw, I really, really wanted to take the Genghis Khan Genetic Fitness test, if only because I thought it might amuse the Pastry Pirate, but alas, it's no longer an active quiz.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Calling all Anglo-Saxonists - help!

So I just taught my Old English students about syncopation, assimilation, and i-mutation in strong verbs this week, and I came across something that confused me.

I thought that i-mutation only happened in short/light syllable environments -- where the root word has a short vowel + consonant, followed by an i or j in the prehistoric form. (Am I wrong?) But then why does the Class 6 strong verb 'standan' show i-mutation in its 2nd and 3rd person singular present forms (at least in the book I'm using): stendest or stenst, and stendeþ or stent(t)? I guess the real question is, where did that -n- come from, since it's not in the past tense (then or now). It's not gemination, which I know happens in this class, but what is it?

If you can help this Middle English person out, she'd be grateful. And my students will be interested to know the answer, too, since they were also curious about all the way that "standan" is weird.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Finding myself: meditations on the job market

[Note: edited to take out the Word automatic tags that screwed up how this post appeared in Bloglines.]

I haven’t talked about this on the blog yet, but in the past few weeks I’ve been actually contemplating throwing my hat in the ring for the job at Homestate U (despite Mr. Jerkwad’s presence – since he’s in another discipline, he’d be mostly avoidable, and for all I know he has reformed his jerkwad ways). I gave myself until yesterday to decide, and ultimately decided not to. Since I’ve come to that decision, I feel like I can blog about it now. Had I decided to apply, I wouldn’t have blogged about it until the process was all over, given how thin my veil of pseudonymity is.

The reasons why I thought I might apply for this job were manifold. It’s an R1 and a flagship U, and though it’s not on the top of the heap of such institutions, it would still mean a step up in prestige compared to my current job. It would also mean a bigger department and Ph.D. students, both of which have their appeal to me. And though it’s not a department with multiple medievalists – and there’s no center or institute for medieval and/or early modern studies – there are a number of early modernists in the department whose general interests overlap with mine more so than in my current department. It would also mean more money in an area where the cost of living (at least judging from the real estate – yes, I checked) isn’t any higher than here, and where Bullock and I could get a place with some acreage not too far from work, or else a house like our current one closer in. And its location in terms of lifestyle would be a step up from Rust Belt, too. It’s a very cool college town and it’s a reasonable short drive from there to my home metropolis, which has boomed in the last twenty years and become much more interesting culturally since I fled its sleepiness in the late ‘80s for the excitement of big cities. And HU’s town is really close to the western and southern suburbs of the city, where Fast Fizzy (and family) and Dad live (though farther from where Nephew and Eldest Niece live in the center of the city). And Bullock has relatives in the greater metropolitan area, too. This means I’d be more available to help out with Dad and Dad-related things (downside: dealing with Dad more!), and we’d both be closer to parts of our families. And I still know people in the area in addition to my family, including my best friend from high school.

Now, none of this would mean jack if it weren’t for the fact that the arts and sciences college of HU also has going for it an open and fair policy regarding the hiring of domestic partners in faculty positions, all posted clearly on their website. And their tenure, promotion, and hiring policies are also accessible. All of this told me that it was possible that they could hire Bullock and with tenure. Not hiring Bullock or hiring him without tenure would be a deal-breaker, because I do not want to go anywhere without him and he doesn’t want to slide back down the tenure ladder. We’re among the lucky ones: we have jobs in the same institution and never had to go through the long-distance thing like so many of you have done or are doing, and I don’t want to start doing that. (This is because we luckily met here at Rust Belt U. Of course I paid my personal relationship dues in other ways: I was unattached for 9 long years in graduate school!) But the possibility that they could hire Bullock means that I could ethically apply for the job, since it opens up the possibility that I could actually take it. Or, if were to get an offer than didn’t meet my needs – didn’t give me enough time to meet their tenure requirements or didn’t come with a tenured position for Bullock – I could have used such an offer to negotiate both with them and with Rust Belt, since I’m applying from a place of relative security and confidence. (No, I don’t have tenure yet, but I have confidence. Knock wood.) I would never, EVER apply for a job that I had no intention of taking, just to negotiate with Rust Belt, because I wouldn’t want to dick around with the prospective department. But the Homestate U job is one I could take if the conditions were right.

And I have people I can draw on for letters of recommendation without having to go back to my dissertation committee, other than my director. Had I decided to apply, I would have discussed it with the awesome chair and with Will, the senior faculty member who has been a great unofficial mentor and cheerleader for me from the hiring process through the tenure process and in between. (He has magically been on or the head of the hiring commmittee, the Department Personnel Committee at key times including this year, and also the university research committee that awards internal grants.) He’s also been a friend and he and his wife have literally fed me, housed me, and entertained me on many occasions since I moved here. I’m confident that they’d understand that the particular job offered a rare combination of professional and personal benefits that made me think I needed to apply for it, and that they would’ve written glowing letters of recommendation for me. And since both have seen me teach and give public talks, and Will knows my research and has the expertise to judge its value, those letters would have been weighty and valuable ones. And there are other people elsewhere I could have hit up, too.

Meanwhile, there are things going on at the university level here that give me pause, that make me feel like what we do in the humanities, or even in the arts and sciences in general, is not valued. I’m not sure that such an atmosphere would be different in kind at another state-supported institution, but it might be different in degree, and that would be an improvement. So would merit raises, which Homestate U gives. I work hard and I have accomplishments to show for it, only to get the same measly percentage raises everyone else gets, which ends up rewarding those with mere longevity and a stubborn refusal to retire, because their base salaries are higher simply because they’ve been around longer. And Bullock figured out that our tiny promotion bump amounts to about 25 cents per hour. Oy. That said, my problems with my current institution weren’t the primary reason I was thinking about this other job, which is a good thing: better to move for positive reasons than negative ones.

So, with all that said, doesn’t it seem like applying for this job is a good idea? Yeah, I thought so, too. Until I thought some more. And talked some more with Bullock and others. For one thing, all the reasons I gave for applying were largely about the lifestyle and conditions of work that Homestate U represents, rather than the job itself. When I saw the job, I didn’t say, “Ooh! I want that job!” I said, “Ooh! I want to live in Homestate’s town and yeah, also, that would be a good job to have.” That’s a little back-asswards. And Bullock said he could tell I was trying to talk myself into applying, which also isn’t a good sign.

Then I started to do a comparison of my job here, on a day-to-day level, with what I’d likely be doing there. Here I have a 3/2 load, but with the course release for being the grad director, that takes it down to 2/2. There, I’d have a 2/2 load and dissertating students to advise. Six of one, half dozen of the other. Here I have a lot of first-generation college students who are eager and don’t always realize how smart they are and where that could take them, and who are really struggling and working hard to make something of themselves and their lives. Yeah, they sometimes frustrate me with their fear of leaving Rust Belt, but every now and then I get to convince one to do study abroad or apply to graduate schools around the nation and get to see their worlds open up in fantastic ways. There, I’d still have some of those kids, especially from the small towns and from the working class county that’s part of greater hometown city, but I’d also have the kids from the county I grew up in, which I often refer to as a “land-locked Orange County.” Let’s just put it this way: I’m not sure I want to teach swarms of kids who drive better cars than I do. Here, I teach almost all medieval classes plus Shakespeare and intro literature and research classes thrown in, and since I’m the only medievalist, I get to run the show, teaching what I want. Maybe I’m not the *best* person to teach Old English, but I do like it and I throw myself into it. There, I’d have to share. And I wouldn’t get to teach Shakespeare again which would be too bad, because Shakespeare is *fun*! Here, I have the institutional support, resources, and time to do my research, even if it requires a month in England, for example, but I don’t have the same pressures that an R1 would, and so now that I’ve written my first book, under some pressure, I can let the next project take the time it needs to develop, and not push it out there too soon just for the sake of a second book. Here I have quick access to all the library books and research resources I need through a statewide lending system or through a quick trip to a nearby R1 with its fabulous library, open stacks, and rare books library that doesn’t care that I’m not one of their faculty. At HU I don’t know what I’ve have. Maybe just HU’s library, but even if they had a statewide system, theirs would be the best library, and without a center or institute for medieval and renaissance studies, they might not have what I’m used to.

And what’s more, I’ve got a community of medievalists here. I may be the only one in my department, but through connections I had from graduate school and the medievalist community there, I’ve become active in reading and working groups at the nearest R1, which is an easy drive away from here and includes multiple medievalists on the English faculty, as well as a scary-smart bunch of graduate student medievalists who have asked super smart questions about my works in progress. And these groups draw in the medievalist from the other regional universities and colleges that dot this part of the country, so the group is pretty big and friendly, and I never feel like a charity case given the presence of the other “outsiders.” And no one’s ever snobby about rank. Plus there’s another big, vibrant community of medievalists at the next nearest R1 a further drive away. It’s too far for me to be involved in the more informal groups, but I sometimes make it to their public talks. As for the closer one, I just spent a day there yesterday for an annual mini-conference on medieval subjects, for which the papers, presented by prominent medievalists from around the country, are pre-circulated to all attendees. It’s a fantastic event because it’s like being in the good part of graduate school again – the fantastic seminars where you learned so much from each other and from the hard but worthwhile work you did preparing for it – and then everyone goes to one of the organizer’s houses for dinner afterwards and just socializes. It’s awesome.

I really wouldn’t have that at Homestate U. Since there’s no med-ren center (as there are at both of the above mentioned R1s), there’s no critical mass of medievalists. There’s one medievalist at the other land grant university about an hour or so away, and two at the metropolitan university in the nearby metropolis, and I think that’s about it for medievalists in English. And I think I’d just feel frustrated trying to mentor English Ph.D. students interested in medieval topics without other medievalists to turn to as well. I’m fine for teaching undergrads and MA students most medieval lit topics, but not for Ph.D. students, and I’d be the only late medievalist there.

Plus, Rust Belt just hired a new person in the theater department who actually gets and likes medieval drama, and he and I are going to propose a team-taught honors course on medieval drama for Spring 2010, tied to a student production we’re proposing for the 2010 performance of the Chester cycle in Toronto. How fabulous would that be? How can I leave something like that behind? While this is all still in the proposal stage, just the thought that I’ve got a kindred spirit in the theater department who doesn’t think medieval drama is “primitive” “folk” drama is *awesome*.

So professionally, as good as Homestate U looks, I think I’ve got it pretty good here at Rust Belt. And there’s the fact that I’d potentially be trading tenure (knock wood!) for being back on the tenure-track in a department where I don’t really know their expectations and wouldn’t fully grasp them no matter how many questions I asked in interviews and visits. As for the personal, while Rust Belt has its frustrations and its sleepiness, Bullock and I do make some use of the fact that we’re near other places with more potential for excitement (not to mention better dining and shopping). And Rust Belt has its own good qualities, including a fabulous and well-endowed museum, great parks, a symphony, and an opera. We’ve put a lot of energy into trying to build a social network here and to enjoy what the area has to offer and we’re succeeding to some extent. And Bullock’s put a lot of sweat into our house, which isn’t going to pay off in the sluggish housing market here if we were to sell. Just this morning we were talking about bamboo flooring for the master bedroom (sold at our fabulous new neighborhood Costco!).

The thing is, I’m happy here. I think a lot of what was driving me to think about the market at all, and the Homestate U job in particular, was the culture of striving that I’ve been a member of at least since I took the entrance test for my private girls’ high school. Onwards and upwards. Bigger and better. Achieve! Achieve! Achieve! And though I never heard anyone at my graduate school or among my direct mentors express disappointment when their students got jobs at anything other than an R1 or a few select SLACs, I know from what people told me that it happened. (It was a big ass department. Sometimes you had to rely on reports from the various segments of it.) And so I’m sure I internalized some of that. And everywhere I’d ever been associated with in higher education prior to Rust Belt was a prestiguous R1, so it’s not surprising I picked up a lot of that ambition for prestige.

But what finally settled that slightly shrill voice in my head that was trying to convince me I was on the verge of “settling” was something Bullock told me today. He talked to his good friend from grad school who coincidentally went to the same fancy-pants undergraduate college I did (same year even, but weirdly, we didn’t know each other) and is a big mucky muck in her subfield (prestigious awards for her first book, already tenured, just got a big fat raise because another school offered her a job which ultimately she decided to turn down, etc., etc. – but unlike Mr. Jerkwad, she never called me a slut in college, so I still like her), and told her about my contemplating applying for this other job. And she said something along the lines of, “What does she need to move for, when she’s already making a national reputation for herself where she is?” And that calmed the over-achieving Lisa Simpson in me. While I wouldn’t say exactly that I have a national reputation, people I’ve never met before do tell me they’ve read my work and compliment me on it. Academia has changed. Once upon a time you had to be at an R1 to be “someone,” to contribute to the wider field. You needed their libraries and their resources and their connections. But now you can be “someone” just about anywhere. Smart research and smart teaching gets done all over the place. What matters is what place – both institution and location – is right for you. And what’s right for me now is my life, all of it, here in Rust Belt.