Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Happy New Year!

Looks like Pippi got a head start on the revelry.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

For your distraction and entertainment needs

I've been too caught up in end of the semester madness to blog. Btw, if I could single-handedly get rid of our rolling admissions for our MA program, I would. Who on earth decides on December 15th that maybe they should do an MA in English and that they should definitely start it next month? These are the same people who are asking all of you for letters of recommendation right about now. Oh, and they need it by Christmas, btw.

Anywho, since this madness is keeping me from blogging -- and don't forget the approximately 650 pages of grading I'm doing now -- I thought I'd introduce you to a new blog. It only has two posts so far and they're pretty damn funny. I especially like the top one, "Dude Who Never Comes to Class," in which our writer wonders,

Are you the embodiment of the recurring dream we’ve all had? The one where you completely forget about a class for the entire semester and then somehow realize your horrendous mistake two minutes before the final exam? And you go to the test and have no idea how to answer any of the questions and wake up absolutely panic-stricken. Are you living that dream? If so, that really sucks dude.

It's called Acadammit and you can find it here.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

A meme for a lazy Saturday

Things I’ve done are in bold.
Things I am indifferent towards or actively would like to avoid are crossed out.
Things in normal type face are things I’d like to do.

Comments in parentheses are my addition. I got this version from Squadratomagico (though I took off her additions).

Start my own blog
Sleep under the stars
Play in a band
Own a cell phone
Visit Hawaii
Watch a meteor shower
Give more than I can afford to charity (Well, in this case, "more than I can afford" means on the credit card, to be paid next month)
Visit Disneyland / Disneyworld (both!)
Climb a mountain

Sing a solo
Bungee jump
Participate in a traditional Japanese tea ceremony
Teach myself an art from scratch (If you define "art" broadly, this is what academics do all the time)
Adopt a child
Purchase real estate
Had food poisoning
Visit Parliament / Capital Hill
Grow my own vegetables
See the Mona Lisa in France
Sleep on an overnight train
Have a pillow fight
Take a sick day when you’re not ill (but only prior to becoming an academic)
Build a snow fort
Hold a lamb
Go skinny dipping
Run a Marathon
Been on television
Ride in a gondola in Venice (how about a punt in Cambridge?)

See a total eclipse
Watch a sunrise or sunset

Hit a home run
Go on a cruise
See Niagara Falls in person
Visit the birthplace of my ancestors

See an Amish community
Teach myself a new language (Haven't done it yet, but I'm thinking Old Norse.)
Have enough money to be truly satisfied
See the Leaning Tower of Pisa in person

Go rock climbing
See Michelangelo’s David
Sing karaoke
See Old Faithful erupt
Buy a stranger a meal at a restaurant
Visit Africa
Walk on a beach by moonlight
Be transported in an ambulance
Have my portrait painted
Be arrested
Go deep sea fishing
See the Sistine Chapel in person
Go to the top of the Eiffel Tower in Paris
Go scuba diving or snorkeling
Kiss in the rain

Play in the mud
Go to a drive-in theatre
Be in a movie (but I've been on a number of sets)
Visit the Great Wall of China
Start a business
Take a martial arts class
Visit Russia (one of the few places I don't really have a burning desire to visit)
Serve at a soup kitchen
Sell Girl Scout Cookies

Go whale watching
Get flowers for no reason

Donate blood, platelets or plasma
Go sky diving
Visit a Nazi Concentration Camp
Bounce a check
Fly in a helicopter

Save a favorite childhood toy
Visit Quebec City
Eat Caviar

Piece a quilt
Stand in Times Square

Tour the Everglades
Been fired from a job
See the Changing of the Guards in London
Been on a speeding motorcycle
See the Grand Canyon in person
Published a book
Visit the Vatican
Buy a brand new car

Walk in Jerusalem
Have my picture in the newspaper
Read the entire Bible
Visit the White House
Kill and prepared an animal for eating
Had chickenpox
Save someone’s life
Sit on a jury
Meet someone famous
Join a book club
Lose a loved one

Have a baby
See the Alamo in person
Swim in the Great Salt Lake
Been involved in a law suit
Been stung by a bee
Ride an elephant

29 -- I better get cracking!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

For all *my* internet friends

Amanda French wrote this awesome song for all of her internet friends, and I'm passing it along to all of you as an early holiday gift. Click on the link to go play it and/or download it. Feel free to pass it along to *your* internet friends, since, as she sings, "all my internet friends give things away / They just really like to make stuff even when it doesn't pay."

H/T Michael Bérubé

Tuesday, December 9, 2008


Because of a torrent of invitations lately to join freakin' facebook from a bunch of people with names (first or last) beginning with J (seriously, it was weird), I finally joined the damn thing. I really didn't want to. After hours lost in early 2003 to stupid Friendster, I thought I was over the social networking thing. But I couldn't take the peer pressure any more! I feel like those idiots at REM concerts who think it all began with Monster.

I'm under my full real life name -- middle initial included -- so if you know it, feel free to friend me!

Now, could ya'll tell me what you do about students? And, um, Bullock seems to have his own fb life -- should we leave it that way? What's the netiquette here?

Monday, December 8, 2008

A holy day of obligation I'll never forget

Growing up Catholic and going to 12 years of Catholic school, I had plenty of people to remind me back then of the various holy days of obligation (the ones lay Catholic are obliged to observe). Now I often don't even know when Easter falls. But hey, it moves!

However, there's one holy day I'll never forget and that's today, December 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception (not a movable feast). And that's because it's *also* my brother Fast Fizzy's birthday (which means he always had the day off from Catholic school, the bastard!). And it is *also* his only child's birthday, who was born on his 40th birthday -- nice present, eh?

So happy birthday to Fast Fizzy and Youngest Niece, who turn 55 and 15 respectively today!

Oh, yeah, and happy Feast of the Immaculate Conception, too, if you celebrate it.

(FYI for those of you not in the know, the feast of the Immaculate Conception celebrates the conception of *Mary*, the mother of God, not her conception of Jesus. Oh, and "immaculate" means unmarked, spotless [as in sinless] -- not miraculous, though I suppose it has a touch of the miraculous. Still, that's not the primary meaning. Just think of someone's "immaculately clean" house. While the "immaculate reception" was a funny *sounding* sports pun, it actually made no sense whatsoever. I'm still trying to figure out how a reception could be spotless. I suppose, though, it could be clean in an additional metaphorical sense, but that's not what they were trying to convey. Anyway, this bothers me almost as much as the misuse of "literally" and "aggravating," for which, see below. Usually I'm not this pedantic, but for some reason these three things get to me. Oh, and the redundancy of "irregardless." Shudder. That one was made worse by the fact that I once had a boss who used that 'word' about 10 times a day, usually to mean, "Stop talking -- I don't care what you have to say," so he was both rude and redundant.)

Saturday, December 6, 2008

A snapshot from the Virago-Bullock home

On the taped episode of The Office we watched last night, Michael misused the word "literally" -- as so many do -- to describe something that was very obviously figurative. (I can't remember what it was exactly, but that doesn't really matter here.) The following exchange resulted:

Virago: I just love it when people misuse "literally" like that.

Bullock: Yeah, it's really aggravating, isn't it?


Thursday, December 4, 2008


Thanks to everyone for all the suggestions and encouragement in the posts below about my Chaucer class and my medieval lit. survey course. You've definitely convinced me that doing adaptations of Chaucer in a Chaucer course isn't crazy, and you've given me lots of ideas for the medieval lit. class. After this year, I won't be teaching either again for three years, since next year I have the Old and Middle English linguistics classes, the research methods class for the grad students, and a special topics honors seminar on the subject of my book, and then the year after that I hope to be on sabbatical for the whole year. But that just gives me plenty of time to plan for big changes.

Anyway, I suspect things are going to be a little quiet around here for awhile because of various end of the semester madness. But I'll see y'all at your blogs. And hey, who's going to be at MLA? Medieval Woman is organizing a get-together.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Changing up Chaucer

This post is in part a follow up to the post before last, in which I lamented my boredom with doing the same-old, same-old in the big medieval class. It is also, in part, for Meg, who asked, in another context, for ideas for new stuff to do in her Chaucer class.

Now a class on Chaucer is hard to change very easily. Your big questions are: Do I try and do a little of everything (Troilus and Criseyde, a dream vision or two, a selection of The Canterbury Tales, maybe even some of the short poetry or a single legend from The Legend of Good Women)? Or do I stick to The Canterbury Tales? (This is your choice unless, that is, you're teaching at a school with separate Canterbury Tales and Troilus-and-everything-else courses. Oh, and I suppose you could just do the Troilus-and-everything-else course, but I can't bring myself not to do the Tales at least in part.) I alternate between those two options, and in the little-bit-of-everything version, I change the Tales or the selections from the other works when I get bored.

But now I've been doing that and I'm bored again. So now I'm futzing with *how* I teach it all -- from the emphases I give the course to the assignments I give. Last year I borrowed and adapted a writing assignment sequence from Jeffrey Cohen that builds skills from comprehension of Middle English (through translation) to analysis of passages, to arguments with other critics. To that I added one of my own favorite assignments, in which I ask students to write a modern imitation of a Chaucerian dream vision (albeit in prose), which is an exercise in genre analysis in disguise. I think I may keep most of that this time around, though I may be getting rid of the dream visions this time around, so no imitation. And in the last go-round, I assigned the passages for translation and analysis, but I may let students pick their own next time, because trying to figure out what's worth talking about in close detail is an analytic and interpretative skill, too.

But the big change I'm thinking about making is kind of wacky. And I'm wondering what you all think. I'm thinking about focusing on transmission and adaptation, from the manuscript to early print editions to later imitations and adaptations of Chaucer's work (and also Chaucer's adaptation of his sources), and so I'm thinking of having the class read Henryson's Testament of Cresseid and Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida after we're done with Troilus and Criseyde. And I'm thinking of giving a day over to discussion A Knight's Tale; of using some or all of the BBC's fairly recent adaptations (I have the Wife of Bath episode on VHS); of playing some of Baba Brinkman's hip-hop Chaucer along the way; and of utterly traumatizing students with a bit of Pasolini's Racconti di Canterbury at the end of the semester, if I can get my hands on either a tape or DVD of it. Or maybe instead of Pasolini at the end, we could read one of the 15th century continuations of the tales in the TEAMS edition edited by John Bowers. But I'd also assign critical articles as "adaptations," too, because part of the point of this would be to talk about adaptation as interpretation -- and so, interpretation as adaptation. And in the writing assignments and other discussion we'd be talking about translation as adaptation and interpretation, too.

Out of 16 weeks, this would take away three weeks (six classes) from Chaucer "proper" -- the rest would be blended in and done in excerpt alongside Chaucer "proper." It would mean a lot of reading, but I think it might enrich the discussion of Chaucer's own works immensely, and put them in broad context of reception and interpretation. And that might also help students put themselves and their interpretative activities in context and in a greater conversation, too. I worry, often, that when I teach Chaucer only in his 14th century contexts -- as cool and interesting as that can be -- that students consciously or unconsciously feel justified in filing him away as "classic." Shudder. That's such a deadly word. Although I bring in the present or the very recent past all the time in all my classes, I think maybe a smattering of adaptations from the centuries immediately following Chaucer and our own age would make the point better that "Chaucer" is not confined to the 14th century.

What do you think?

Friday, November 28, 2008

What do Puritans and my dog have in common?

Answer: They both object to Nativity scenes.

Yesterday evening the neighbors set up their garish Nativity scene on their patio and plugged it in to glow its tacky plastic glow all evening. It's one of those molded plastic numbers that light up from inside, which brings new meaning to the Christmas song lyric, "...With their faces all aglow!" They used to put it out front, but the baby Jesus was stolen one year, so now they set it up in back. (Hmph. Serves them right for putting out baby Jesus *before* Christmas!) Last year they set it up around the concrete goose already back there -- you know those ones that you can dress up, that people often have on their front stoops? -- and gave the goose a Santa hat as it gazed upon the baby Jesus. Yeah, I know, it boggles the mind.

Anyway, this was all done while Pippi was indoors and paying more attention to Bullock's pork roast* than anything outside. But when we let outside before bed time, she quickly spied the tacky ensemble, raced over to the neighbor's fence, raised her hackles and barked at it in her "I don't like you one bit -- back off!" bark, which she usually reserves for the poor UPS men, all of whom are terrified of her. (This bark is not to be confused with her "hey you cat/raccoon, get out of my yard!" bark of mild warning or her "squirrel! squirrel! omg, squirrel! must get the squirrel!" Technicolor whine of madness.)

She has since made her peace with the set in the daylight -- thank god, for us and the neighbors (whom I like, despite their lapses in taste) -- but she still occasionally gives it the stink eye when she sees it from the corner of her eye and momentarily mistakes it for a threatening intruder.

I think my dog may be a French Huguenot (well, she *is* a Brittany). Either that or she just has good taste.

*With no kids and no old people this Thanksgiving, we chucked the whole turkey tradition. Who wants turkey when you can have pork??

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Prof, bored with course, needs new ideas

OK all you smart medievalists and medieval lit teaching early modernists out there, I need your advice.

For five out of the last six academic years, I've taught our medieval-literature-excluding-Chaucer class, which is one of those monstrous 800 years in 16 weeks kind of courses. It's like I'm the only person in the department who has to teach a real survey course, and frankly, I'm not fond of survey courses. After doing this five times I can see very clearly just how superficial our discussion of *everything* is. And there are certain texts I feel like I have to do every time, which means that even though they're texts I like very much and find something new in every time (e.g., Sir Gawain and the Green Knight), I'm still getting bored with them or with the discussions and papers they provoke. And a bored teacher is a bad teacher. One semester after winning that Awesomest Prof Ever award and I'm starting to look more like Lamest. Prof. Ever.

So I talked with Milton about this, as he's the chair of the undergrad lit curriculum committee. We discussed the possibility of splitting the class into two -- one Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic (and Latin!), and one Anglo-Norman and Middle English (and Latin!) -- or about just alternating the subject each time I taught it. See, in our curriculum, students don't have a lot of historical period requirements -- they simply have to take at least one pre-1800 lit class and one post-1800 lit class in the British lit offerings -- so it's not like I'd be gypping them on their way to their early modern class if they got the ASNaC version instead of the late medieval version. But yeah, I would be exposing them to less of the broader medieval period, of course. (An aside: I've become more and more convinced over time that specific content knowledge is less important than the broader intellectual experiences and skills learned in a variety of classes, across the curriculum and across the major. But that's a post for another day.) So Bullock suggested that in changing the course description (if I keep it a single course), I should also make it repeatable if the content is different, which will be especially important for undergrads and grad students who want to go on to the Ph.D. and specialize in medieval literature -- it will actually give them *more* instruction in the field. I'm now also thinking that I want to keep the option of doing the whole 800-year shebang so that if I want to do a thematic course across the period, I can. Plus, we all know how porous that 1066 boundary is. Finally, I want to be able to throw a bit of Chaucer in there if I want. This "excluding Chaucer" business is nutty, especially since it's not like students are definitely going to take the Chaucer class for their single author requirement, since they have a range of choices.

So here's what I'm thinking of doing. I'll keep it one course, but I'll change the title to something like "Topics in Medieval Literature" (or maybe just "Medieval Literature") and write a general catalog description that makes clear that some offerings might be ASNaC oriented, some might be about the late medieval period, and some might be thematically focused, and students may repeat the course when the content changes. (We have departmental course descriptions that give a better sense of the specific course and its expectations.) And then, starting with the next time I teach the class, I'll start developing different variations.

Now, here's where you come in. First of all, what do you think of this general plan? Am I missing any possible significant repercussions? I don't think enrollment will be an issue, since most of our students pick courses by a) what's required (in this case, that means pre-1800 lit), b) what fits their schedule, c) where the class is located, and d) who is teaching the course, so no matter what specific topic or area I'm doing in a given semester, I'm likely to get more or less the same students. I think. But is there anything else I'm not taking into account?

Second, if you were to do an ASNaC course, what Norse and Celtic literature would you assign? And are there good secondary works (guides, companions, or histories) that you have found useful for yourself or your students? One of the things, ideally, that I'd like to do in each of these revamped courses is not only give students more experience with the primary texts of a given period or genre, but also make some room for both historical contexts and the literary scholarship of the field. I'm especially ill-informed on the Norse and Celtic side of the ASNaC trinity.

Suggestions welcome!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Wanna see the rest of my office?

Long time readers of this blog may recall that I used to have a tiny (7'x'7') but brightly colored office. I posted pictures of the colors here. It had huge windows that looked onto a leafy courtyard full of 19th century medievalism in the collegiate gothic style. In fact, here are some more pictures:

Note the gargoyle-like heads in at the top of the leaded glass windows in this one:

Now, alas, I have no view. But boy do I have space! I can have *multiple* students meet with me at once (there are two chairs supplied for them) and my books shelves and file cabinet have room to grow. And I can spread my work out on the l-shaped desk. Heck, I can *actually* *work* in my office, instead of just using it to meet with students (or rather, one student at a time in the old office). Check it out:

What you're not even seeing is the space to the right of the door (from which the first picture was taken), which is *totally* *open* except for the five-drawer lateral file over against the wall. I have *open* space in my office. I've never had that before!

And how do you like my clever repurposing of one of my old curtains to get rid of the end- view of the institutional metal bookshelves, eh? (Btw, that's the rug that brought my whole day together in the old post linked above.) For those of you who like toys and humor in office decor, if you look closely (or "enbiggen"), you'll see: a toy Manx cat (she moves around); two Monty Python and the Holy Grail figures (in their boxes) surrounding, yes, a wooden grail (hand carved!), and a disco ball hanging under the cabinets above the computer desk. There's also a picture from Medieval Times, a dragon with a bell around his neck, and a Nunzilla in there somewhere.

I still have to get a high enough step-ladder to hang my beaded chain-swag lamp up above the wicker chair (it's on the top of the bookshelf now -- you can barely see it), but otherwise I'm moved in and unpacked, and I have to say it's a pretty good place to work. We'll see what it's like when the building is hopping, but my office, at least, is within the department main suite (since I'm grad director), so that may help.

Welcome to our panopticon

Things are quiet in our new building right now -- classes won't be in there until next semester -- so I took the opportunity to take a few pictures.

The following are pictures of the "town square" (or some other dumb name for the center of the building) of our new digs at RBU, including a close up view of one of the classrooms with the lights on:

I've got a suggestion for a new name:

And here's a picture of my office from outside its bars, er, window:

On the inside I've hung curtains on a tension rod, which I can close when I'm working and not having office hours, and open when I am having office hours:

Actually, I don't entirely mind the window, since it means when it gets noisy around me and I need the door closed, but I'm still meeting with a student, the window still leaves things open to view.

But the classrooms, I imagine, are going to take some getting used to.

Friday, November 14, 2008


That's Pippi running with a friend at "dog camp" while Bullock and I were in Paris last month. Our trainer/boarder took this picture and others, and gave them to us in an envelope on which was written, "What I did on my vacation..." Vacation is right! Doesn't Pippi look like she's having fun? Lisa, her trainer/boarder, has a 5-acre lot of land and the dog run is at least a full acre. I don't know the other dog, but in all the pictures s/he was either with Pippi or on her way over to Pippi. Clearly they made fast friends! And I have to say -- what a good idea to take pictures, especially for those of us who were boarding our furry family member for the first time!

Pippi's not the only department dog who goes to Camp Lisa, as we call it. We learned about it from our friend Victoria, and the department secretary -- whom I shall call Wonder Woman -- has also trained and boarded her dog there. It's a popular place -- with good reason.

Anyway, I offer this in lieu of a substantive posting, which I hope will return soon!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Three words for the Obama family on their search for the perfect dog




(Links go to the AKC list of AKC recognized hypoallergenic breeds, the AKC's list of breed rescue groups, and the Portuguese Water Dog Club of America's rescue program -- just as one example of a hypoallergenic dog available through rescue.)

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

A toast

I'm a Democrat, so I'm excited by Obama's win in all sorts of ways. And, of course, the historical significance of the first black leader of any country outside of Africa and the Carribean, but especially of the U.S., is so wonderful and amazing that I'm a little speechless.

But I know not everyone is happy about this, and as a Democrat, I know what it's like to feel deflated and bummed out the day after an election. So, apropos to this academic blog by an English Professor, here's my shot at a non-partisan toast:

Here's to at least four years of beautiful oratory; to the effective use of anaphora, epiphora, and repetition with variation; to the steady rhythms of parataxis punctuated by the soaring crescendos of perfectly balanced periodic sentences. Here's to speeches delivered with a sense of poetry and music, and a sense of the English oratorical history to which they belong, a history which crosses party and national lines.

Edited to add: My toast kind of just stops instead of ending. It needs a final sentence. Wanna make this interactive and suggest one for me?
Also: I've switched the commenting format back to the old style pop-up window since people have reported that they've had trouble with the new style.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

I voted - did you?

Last time I wrote a post on voting, back when I lived in Rust Belt Historic District, I reported on the troubles I had with my Diebold touch screen machine and the voting process in general.

This year was much better. Bullock and I didn't have to wait in line to sign in, and only briefly had to wait for a machine to be free. There was some momentary panic on Bullock's end when the card he'd just put into the machine said it had already been read and votes entered, but they gave him a freshly erased card and he was good to go. And the internal paper print-out of the electronic ballot was obvious and open to view, as well as easy to check, page by page, as you printed your ballot.

Still, there was a woman next to me who'd never encountered one of these machines -- either she moved here from a paper ballot place or is one of those people who only vote in presidential elections -- and she clearly wasn't a regular computer user either, and nothing was intuitive to her. I very nearly told her she could opt for a paper ballot instead. There were a lot of people taking that option this year.

As smoothly as our current polling place is always run, there were still three election watchers on hand. I hope that's the case everywhere. I could have used someone like that when I reported in the 2005 state and local elections that my machine wasn't actually printing hard copy ballots!

Saturday, November 1, 2008

See the professors teach! Watch the students learn! Discover the fascinating habits of scholars at their desks!

When I was in graduate school, the building that then housed the English department had a room we all called "The Fishbowl" because of its window overlooking a busy corridor. As if that weren't bad enough, many a comprehensive exam and dissertation defense was held in that room.

The Rust Belt U English department will soon be a department full of Fishbowls. Beginning Tuesday, we're moving into a brand new classroom and office building that has been constructed inside the edifice of one of the original WPA-constructed buildings on campus. I'm excited to be getting an office that's about 125% larger than the one I have now, and I'm psyched to have carpet that doesn't have a quarter century of god-knows-what embedded in it, as my current carpet does.

But I'm a little concerned about the fishbowl effect. You see, every single room in this building, including our individual offices, has windows that look out onto the hallways. There's some reason for this: because of the kind of building that's been re-purposed, many of these rooms are on interior hallways, without windows to the outside, so windows onto hallways will prevent us from feeling like we're in closets. But they also mean that we're constantly on display. I'll be putting up curtains across my window (thank god for tension rods) and only opening them when I have office hours. But when any of us teaches in that building, which we'll be doing most of the time, in many of the rooms we'll be facing not only our students, but also a big glass wall that looks out onto major corridors and places where people might congregate. It's going to take some getting used to, especially for those of us (me!) who are easily distracted.

Maybe I should change the pseudonym of our university to Rust Belt *Zoo*.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

A weird syllabus?

I'm way behind on book orders for next semester, in part because I'm doing the intro lit class for the first time in a number of years, and I wanted to change up my old syllabus in a major way, in part to fit the revised expectations and goals of the course, and in part because, well, things get boring if you don't change things up.

I always think such courses make a little more sense to students and have less of that "cafeteria curriculum" feel if you stick to a theme, even a loose one. (Though too narrow a theme and it gets boring.) So this time around I'm going with "Death and Desire." (Past themes include "Home Schooled" and "Freaks and Monsters.") It's going to be kind of a dark syllabus.

My choices for the lyric poetry and short fiction sections are pretty darn unsurprising, traditional, and canonical, and many of the works were ones that I read in high school. The students might have read some of them in high school, as well; however, these days high school have very different curricula and even if my students have had these works before, I've always been good at showing students new ways of reading and even enjoying the tried and true -- new to them, anyway. Plus, learning that there are many ways to skin a cat, er, interpret a poem, is a basic but important lesson in literary studies. But when it comes to the narrative works on my syllabus, I got a little weird. Here's what I'm doing:

Narrative poetry:
Marie de France, Yonec
Anon., Sir Orfeo

Twelfth Night
A Streetcar Named Desire (not in itself a weird choice, but paired with Twelfth Night? Maybe others do it -- maybe it's not as weird as I think)

The novel (here's where I think I'm getting really weird):
Hardy, Tess of the D'Urbervilles
Ellroy, L. A. Confidential

What do you all think? Too dark? Will my students revolt after having to read Hardy and Ellroy back to back?

Also, I'm going to end with short stories -- does anyone have any suggestions for a short story with some relation to the theme that has an upbeat ending with which I can end the course? I don't want the students to be completely bummed out just as they're doing evals!!

Sunday, October 26, 2008

City of Lights

I took this short clip on October 20, 2008, right after a lovely meal with Bullock and Virgo Sis at Au Bon Accueil bistro (also recommended, especially for its perfect execution of classic dishes), where you can see the Eiffel Tower from the sidewalk tables. (It was too cold for us that night to sit outside, so I took this video after dinner, on our walk past the tower.)

Click to play and see the pretty blinking lights.

Saturday, October 25, 2008



On both the Amazon page for my book and on the publisher's page, a new entry has been added under the "praise for this book" section. It's the blurb from my college's alumni magazine, which the bookshelf editor merely took from the jacket copy. While that's bad enough -- since it clearly repeats information that's available in the copy on both of these web pages -- what's really embarrassing are the following two details: 1) Medieval is misspelled. Badly. 2) The "review" is credited to me! (And in a sense, that's true, since I wrote the jacket copy, but I certainly didn't "review" my own book and misspell medieval!!)


I wrote to Amazon when I first noticed it, but it hasn't been removed. And only now did I realize it may originate with my own publisher. D'oh. Should I bother tracking down all manifestations of this and getting them removed? Or is life too short? Will my scholarly reputation survive?

Friday, October 24, 2008

There and back again

Hello again. We're back from France, and as soon as I get my pictures uploaded, I'll blog about it. Today we picked up Pippi from "dog camp," caught up on e-mails and blogs, and generally got ourselves re-oriented to our real life (as opposed to a life where we ate at a yummy bistro every night, including these two, both of which I highly recommend). More details later...

Friday, October 17, 2008

Brief interruption in service

I don't know why I haven't found time to blog substantively lately, but there it is. And, alas, it won't be getting any better immediately, as Bullock and I are leaving for Paris in about 15 minutes. OK, we're leaving for the *airport* in 15 fifteen minutes, but since I won't be taking my lap top, that means there will be no blogging between 15 minutes from now and when we're back a week from now.

Yes, it is our fall break week. Actually, the university only has half a week off, but I always give the graduate methods class the whole week off because it is the midpoint of the term and they need to get crackin' on their research. And in my other class the students are also writing and researching up a storm at the moment, so I gave them the whole week off, too.

Bullock and I do hope to have lots of yummy food and see some sites, but the main reason I'm going is to meet up with Virgo Sis and scatter my mother's ashes in the Jardin des Tuileries, one of her favorite places in Paris. Last time I was in that park with my mom and Sis, I was 9 years old and I left my purse on the back of a chair in an open-air cafe. I cried and cried and cried until we found it. This time I'll be crying for another reason. And then we'll go find somewhere to have good food and good wine. Mom would approve.

Blogging to recommence when I get back.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Sunday shorts: The muppets on teh internets

I love the fact that Statler and Waldorf have eased so effectively into comment thread cranks.

There are more where these came from.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Scenes from a cohabitation

Life around chez Virago and Bullock has been a little tense lately. Oh, don't worry, it's nothing relationship-threatening -- it's not even about *us*. It's just that we've both been sick lately, we're both worried about our retirement investments (like every other couple in the country), we've both got relatives much closer to or in retirement who we know or surmise have even more to worry about (we've at least got many years to try and make it up), and on top of all that we're in the midst of a tense contract vote at work that, if it passes, will gain our household a lot of income, but may hurt some of our friends on the health insurance side of things, and so we don't know if it will pass or not, and if not, what happens next.

All of that is bad enough, but then to that add election season in the household of one wonk (Bullock) and one less wonky but informed and concerned citizen (me).

And if all of that weren't crazy-making enough, Bullock is a Cubs fan. Or rather, a Cubs FAN, for I really need to emphasize the fandom part. Like all true Cubs fan, he is intensely devoted. Yes, he is really bummed right now. Honestly, I think they need to move election season away from play-off season, as there has been a LOT of yelling at the TV lately. It's freaking Pippi and me out.

So, with all that in mind, I present you a scene from yesterday morning. It was my turn to walk Miss Pippilicious and it was drizzling pretty steadily, so I grabbed an old baseball cap from my closet, a cap I had purchased in the city of my graduate studies only because it had the initial of the city prominently displayed on it, which matched the general style of the cap of the team of my youth and also the cap of the team of my college and pre-grad school years in the Big Apple, both of which caps had long since worn out. I'm big on adopting the city in which I currently live as home. I really had no dedication to this team from the grad school years, or to any of those other teams (except maybe the team of my youth), so I wasn't thinking. I was just thinking of protecting my head from the drizzle.

I walked out of the bedroom and met Bullock in the hall.

I've never seen a grown man look so sad before -- like a kid whose ice cream just fell off the cone onto the sidewalk.

"You're wearing a Dodgers cap! How could you?!?!"

I am a bad and thoughtless girlfriend.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

A reason for tenure

I think I found a way to describe concretely to myself and to my students one of the reasons tenure matters.

Here's the background. This week in my graduate research class, we read an article from about 1989 by Stephen Nissenbaum, "The Month Before 'The Night Before Christmas'" from a conference proceeding volume called Humanists at Work. We were reading it -- or rather, I asked them to read it -- to get a concrete sense about the life cycle of a research project, and about the experiential side of the "methods" of research, including the communal aspects of it (advice and leads gleaned from colleagues, conversations, and conferences) and the moments of seeming luck and serendipity (which I pointed to students really only seem lucky -- they often come as the result of experience, knowledge, and preparation). It's an article I highly recommend: it's vivid in its portrayal of how a humanities researcher works and it makes concrete the research life of an academic, and also describes a fascinating research project on a poem everyone knows, "The Night Before Christmas." Nissenbaum is a historian, I should point out, and ultimately the small project on the poem became a larger cultural history project on the history of Christmas in the US, called The Battle for Christmas (available in Vintage paperback, 1997), but the article could easily be describing a new historicist literary project.

One of the things my students took from this article is how much work and time good research takes, as well as how much of that time is, as one student put it, "sitting and thinking." Nissenbaum talks about how, in 1989, he'd already been thinking about this poem off and on for 15 years. And I pointed out that the book it became didn't come out (in its original edition) until 1996. By the time he was working on this project, he had tenure, so he had that luxury of time to sit and think, to let the project reveal itself to him.

We can do that to some extent as advanced graduate students and assistant professors -- after all, my dissertation-to-book process did take about 10 year -- but there's also a pressure to get stuff out there, to complete it and have something to show for all that sitting and thinking. That's not to say that such pressure is totally gone with tenure (after all, I do want to make full professor), but it's certainly relieved to some extent. And one of the things I vowed to myself when I got tenure was to let my next project evolve more slowly, to let it reveal itself to me. I like very much the ability to say, "I'm not sure what this research will become, but here's where I am right now" and just following the pure pleasure of the leads and even the digressions in that research.

I think that gift of time, that ability to take projects slowly, to give them what they need to develop fully -- including the permission to fail or to lead to dead-ends -- is part of what tenure is about. (This is one of the many reasons I hate the term "deadwood" for senior faculty who aren't frenetically producing, but that's a post for another day.) Take away tenure and we're all back under the pressure to produce rapidly and we lose that ability to let ideas and analysis ferment fully. That would be a loss not only to those who produce the knowledge, but to the world at large.

Now, if only we could transfer that freedom and time to the untenured as well.


I realize, by the way, that I may be contradicting or complicating my own notions of why the professionalization of graduate students is not a bad thing. Well, to that I say: I am large, I contain multitudes.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

And now I'm sick. Great.

I used to get sick only rarely, back when I was running regularly. The big exception was disastrously getting sick right before the 2007 Boston Marathon and running it anyway, in that nor'easter, and getting sicker as a result. That's the one case of running hurting my health. Usually running gives me an immune system of steel and I've joked about being the only person aside from Keith Richards who will survive the super flu when it comes.

But not any more. In 2008 I've run barely 80 miles total, which is equal to about two weeks of mileage when I'm training for a marathon (or not even two weeks -- depending on where I am in my training). That's a big difference. And so it is that I'm sick. It's just a head cold -- started with a sore throat, now consists of congestion and cough -- but it's annoying. The whole world seems distant and hazy and it's hard to think.

And so it is that I still haven't posted anything substantive. I do have things to say. Being on the DPC has been interesting, and though obviously I can't blog anything specific about that, I *can* blog about something more general that it got me thinking about: how the ways in which we imagine our professional selves is sometimes utterly contradicted by the facts of the matter. So that's a post coming up when I feel better.

But other than that I've got bupkis. Any ideas? I'm entertaining suggestions. What would you, the readers, like me to blog about?

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Pfffffft. Tenure sucks.

I'm on the department personnel committee. I'm drowning in paper work.

Substantive blogging will resume when I dig out from under the pile of merit evaluations, tenure files and renewal dossiers.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

On a lighter note: Middle English comics!

Hey, did you all know there was a blog that translates newspaper comic strips into Middle English? Well I didn't know until my friend the Funny Playwright (colleague Victoria's husband) forwarded it to me. Get this: it's called "Japes for Owre Tymes." Bahahahaha!

The top post when Funny Playwright forwarded it to me was this one, which actually manages to make Lynn Johnson's "For Better or Worse" funny. I don't know exactly why, but it's a *hoot* in Middle English. And I also dig the blogger's self-description: "I am a bad-tempered English prof who spends far too much time not writing articles about Geoffrey Chaucer. Shame on me." Te-hee!

But part of the reason I found this blog extra funny is completely accidental and idiosyncratic, but a story worth telling. This summer, when I was on the train to Windsor for my adventures in manuscript study, I sat across the aisle from a hodge-podge of 20-something travelers who had to have met in a youth hostel, given that they each came from different North, Central, and South American countries. Plus, they were clearly still in the introductory stages of "what do you do for a living" or "where or you from" conversation. Anyway, once they got the small talk out of the way, they all (or most of them) had a bonding moment over what is apparently THE biggest thing in Latin American television aside from Ugly Betty. You know what it is? It's Dennis the Menace. No, I'm not making this up. Seriously. Dennis the freakin' Menace. That's what they said, anyway. And then they argued whether the movie or tv show came first. I decided not to get involved, partly because I was too confused.

So, back to "Japes for Owre Tymes," after reading the current post, I went back to catch up with earlier ones, which is not too difficult now since the blog is nearly brand new. Anyway, the next most recent one is a Dennis the Menace panel. See, even he's funny in Middle English! Now, go read the comments and you'll see the first one is in Portuguese! Those Brazilian Dennis fans are *everywhere* man! I decided to use Babel Fish to translate what the commenter was saying, because I was curious to see if he was surprised it was a comic that's been around since the '50s. But no, this is what Babel Fish tells me he said:

… denis it is much more show in hq or livened up drawing, the film was not very legal! congratulations for posts and blog! Success!

I'm sure that's a terrible translation. Or maybe it's just spam. But it suggests to me that the Latin American Dennis is an illegal knock-off, which explains why I can't find any info on it on the 'net (though I didn't try very hard).

Anyway, I think "Japes for Owre Tymes" is hilarious, even without random references in Portuguese to the worldwide popularity of that not-at-all-very-menacing scamp Dennis. How can you not like a blog that starts its life with a Middle English version of Mary Worth??

Vexed, terribly vexed (on mergers, libraries, and mismanagement)

As of this semester, graduate students at RBU have had their library borrowing reduced to the undergraduate length of 4 weeks, where they previously could check books out for 16 weeks with one online renewal (making a whole academic year). Yes, that's right -- someone writing a thesis or a seminar paper on a literary text for which the scholarly edition is a library-bound, out-of-print behemoth can only have it for an initial period for 4 weeks. Now, they can renew it four times online, but then they have to remember to do that, because once it's overdue, they have to bring it in. And they have to return it after 4 renewals and re-check it out if they still need it.

And why was this idiotic change made? The librarians told the grad students that it was because that's the way the medical library does it -- the one belonging to the med school with which we merged two years ago. (Books? What are books? Doesn't everyone use journals, and mostly electronic copies of them?) And for some strange reason, all of our units and campus have to do things in exactly the same way -- even if there's no savings of time or money, even if there's a great loss of time in switching over.

The library issue sounds like a little thing, I know, but it's been one thing after another for the last two years, especially in the last year, and it starts to add up. This is typical of the way things go around here. Everything has to change to the way the med school does it (because the med school's former president is now the university's president), even if it makes absolutely no sense for anyone else or significant portions of the rest of the university (which, btw, is a heck of a lot bigger!). And no one bothers to find out that they way they do things isn't some obvious, universally applicable, common sense way, but rather a practice with a history and culture tied to medicine and medical schools and at best alien to the rest of us, and at worst actually a problem for the way we need to work. Next thing you know we'll all have to wear lab coats of different lengths signifying our status. Don't laugh. I wouldn't be surprised.

Saturday, September 13, 2008


So I finally got around to reading my teaching evaluations from last year. Usually I'm better at keeping up with them, especially so that I can use any constructive comments. I was actually surprised no one complained about reading Graff's Professing Literature in last year's grad methods class. Oh well, I took it off this year's plan anyway. And it seems my students did find Chaucer: An Oxford Guide useful, despite the fact that I did a poor job of integrating it into the class. That surprised me, too; again, I was expecting complaints. (Though they did say it would be even more useful if I worked it into class more often.) OK, duly noted for next semester's Chaucer class.

Overall the evaluations were really gratifying, not only because they were full of laudatory comments that made me blush and even choke up a little bit, but because people took them seriously and wrote the kinds of constructive suggestions I just mentioned. That's really cool. I mean, I love the praise and all -- as you shall see -- but the helpful ones are greatly appreciated, too.

But I have to say, my favorite feel-good comment this year was the answer to free response question that asked the evaluator to comment on any strengths or weaknesses of the teaching. This is what s/he wrote:

Strengths -- Awesomeness
Weaknesses -- n/a

The only thing that could make the awesomeness of that awesome comment awesomer is the poster from Barney's office on How I Met Your Mother. So here it is:


Saturday, September 6, 2008

Funny, you don't *look* like a medievalist

One of my students recently asked me if I have a favorite TV show. I told her that I liked too many, past and present, to name a single favorite.

She seemed surprised and replied, "I just don't associate a medievalist with television." I replied, "Well, I *live* in the *21st* century." She laughed and then we proceeded to talk about the police procedurals genre, which we both enjoy.

A few days later she was looking at me funny so I asked her what was on her mind. She said, "I just can't get over what you must have to know to be a medievalist." Since she's one of my graduate students, I reminded her that no matter what one's field is, one's goal should be to know a lot. Then she clarified that I have to know other languages and skills like reading manuscripts. So I reminded her that all English Ph.D. programs have a foreign language requirement and that even specialists in the most contemporary literature have a body of specialized knowledge and skills.

So then she got to what was really her point, I think, and said, "But you just don't seem like what I think of when I think 'medievalist.'"

Huh. "What's that suppose to mean?" I asked.

"I just don't see you when I think 'medievalist,'" she responded.

"Well, I am one." I said, getting a little bothered by where this was going.

She realized she hit a nerve and tried to back-peddle, "Well, let's put it this way: when I first started college, the medievalists in the department didn't look like you." [Note: this student has children older than I am.]

"So let me get this straight," I said. "You're basing your idea of what a medievalist should look like on the single example of Rust Belt University in the year I was born?"

"Well, now, did you have to go there? All I'm saying is they fit the stereotype." [Note: OK, maybe I shouldn't have made her feel old, but I was trying to point out that in that time, I had grown up, gone to college and graduate school, and gotten tenure. Just sayin' -- that's a long time and the world has indeed changed in that time.]

"I didn't know there was a stereotype for 'medievalist.'"

"You know what I mean."

"Old? Male? Or both?"

"See, you *do* know what I mean."

Instead of taking her to task directly for the sexism of her assumptions, I said, "Aren't you glad times have changed, then? Because now I look a lot more like the medievalists I know than I don't!"

"Yes, I am glad. And now when I think of 'medievalist' I'll think of you."

So we managed to end the conversation on a good point, but man, was I starting to get testy there in the middle. It was really depressing me to hear a woman so completely internalize sexist assumptions that even when I was gently trying to point them out she wasn't seeing them. I know age has something to do with it, but still, it was bumming me out.

And her other underlying assumptions were also pushing some of my other buttons that she couldn't have known about. I know that one thing that was probably underpinning her idea of what a medievalist looks like is the assumption that some students have that you should study what you identify with in the most obvious ways, coupled with the corollary that old stuff is only for old white men. The first point seems to defeat the broadest ideas of education, and the second point makes me want to say, "Well, even our oldest old guy in the department isn't even as old as the heyday of Modernism! So should we *start* there?" And later something came up about her vague idea of medieval lit being all about dungeons and torture. And that idea probably wasn't helped by my having used the 1137 entry from The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to lead off a conversation about what is literature and what is literary study (this was in my research methods class), since that entry is all about the torture methods used by Stephen and his supporters in their war against Maud for the throne. [Note to self: next medieval text I use in this class should be a pretty one or a funny one!] But I'm a little annoyed with myself for having missed this teaching moment, for having missed an opportunity to say, "You don't to have to be what you study!" That's something more students in the humanities need to hear -- especially the women and students of color -- because I think sometimes they think the only avenues open to them are ones that include what they already know. It's important for the vitality of any field to attract students from all different kinds of backgrounds and experiences, but I think fields in earlier periods of literature, history, art, etc., will especially suffer if too many students think those are fields appropriate only for old white guys. I think it's also a broader problem for the liberal arts at a university like mine, where too many working class students think arts and sciences majors aren't for them -- a topic eloquently addressed by Dr. Crazy recently.

I used to think that merely my presence in the room cut through many such assumptions, but clearly not! But how do you convince students that they might like something they know nothing about before they get in your classroom? I don't mean, how do I convince all my grad students to become medievalists -- because that would be kind of nutty! -- but rather, how do even begin to say to all students, about whatever subject that they assume is too esoteric for them, "Try it! You'll like it!"

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Feasting fatigue

Bullock and I have spent today lounging around the house, because we last night we finally had the medieval feast we were planning to have to celebrate my getting tenure, and we're exhausted. Bullock spent all day in the kitchen yesterday (while I straightened and cleaned the house and occasionally helped in the kitchen) and still we weren't quite ready for the party start time. The scene for the first hour and half of the party was like something out of Dinner Impossible or some other stress-filled cooking show, as we desperately tried to get everything ready *and* entertain guests -- including introducing a lot of folks who'd never met each other.

But it all ended up a success, I think. Aside from the food -- which I'll get to in a moment -- the social elements all came together. Three Western Canadians bonded with each other; the five kids of four different couples formed their own little society and pretty much spent the evening entertaining themselves; Pippi slept in her crate without a fuss and behaved herself when she was let out (and was much admired when she was); people drove from literally hours away to come, my friend the Big Teutonic Queer coming from the farthest (2 1/2 hours by car); a possible job opportunity was made; the people whom we know *don't* get along managed to be civil and avoid each other; and the aforementioned BTQ fell madly in platonic love with a certain well-coiffed medievalist from a similar institution in a neighboring state (but then who *doesn't* love her??) and my chair ooh'ed and ah'ed over said medievalist's cool jewelry. Everyone, in short, seemed to have a great time. As one person remarked, "You have some *very* cool friends." Yes I do!

I have to say, though, I always feel a little like a latter-day Mrs. Dalloway at these moments, because whenever I throw a party (not counting the smaller affairs Bullock and I have thrown together or where the guest list has consisted of our usual suspects, all mutual friends), I invite all my friends that I know from various circumstances, and it becomes clear to me -- and in fact has been pointed out to me at various times in my life -- that I know a lot of people and seem to get along with a lot of different kinds of people. Now, in this case, it was mostly academics, but there were, at least, people from different fields and institutions, and, as I mentioned, many who had never met before. And I enjoy watching them come together and get to know each other. But whenever it's my own party, I always feel a little like I'm *merely* watching, and I never get to talk to any one person for very long because I'm always flitting from one to the next. I suppose, though, that's the nature of being the hostess. Thank god it's not a role I relish taking on frequently.

Bullock's situation was even more distant from the festivities. With the madness of still rushing around to get the food going as guests arrived, the cooking duties fell even heavier on his shoulders and I don't think he got to leave the kitchen much at all. But for all his work -- and his ingenuity in overriding or adapting some of the directions in the recipe books -- we were rewarded with a slew of fabulous dishes, most of which we'd never made or tasted before (a bold risk for any party hosts!). Here's a picture of the spread and a close up of one of the pies; following that is a list of the dishes and our sources:

In the top picture, front row to back left to right, you see:

- Boiled shrimp with a cold citrus and herb sauce (sauce recipe adapted from the blood orange and sorrel sauce in Pleyn Delit)

- Saracen Stew (a Middle Eastern style beef stew from Pleyn Delit) -- this was the biggest hit of the night, even with the kids

- Two Salmon Pies which really tested people's limits for the more exotic elements of medieval cooking, because they featured the medieval taste combination of sweet and savory -- along with the salmon, they were filled with dates, figs, currants, raisins, and pine nuts (from Fabulous Feasts). People either loved or hated this one.

- Regular old loaf of bread (we cheated - we bought it and its mate). There were no trenchers involved in this feast, btw. We served everything buffet style (obviously) with paper plates and plastic utensils, including forks.

- Two Pies of Parys (beef and veal meat pies -- very tasty as cold leftovers, btw) -- from Pleyn Delit.

- Another loaf of bread next to an earthenware jug that later contained the "Creme Bastard" (a cream sauce) for the dessert that's in the back row

- Two Tarts de Bry (brie) -- the only dish I'd had before -- available in both Pleyn Delit and Fabulous Feasts, I think.

- Salat (green salad of a very herbaceous sort -- lots of mint, parsley, fennel, thyme, garlic scapes, green onions and the like, as well as leafy green) - from Pleyn Delit.

[Non food items -- sunflower given to my by my department chair and castle pop-up book given to me by the BTQ, which made an excellent table decoration!]

- Cherry Bread Pudding (read that as 'cherry pudding with bread in it' -- not really bread pudding in the modern sense -- this dish was the only real disappointment for Bullock and me) -- this was served with the "Creme Bastard" -- both from Pleyn Delit.

[Non food item - gorgeous roses given to me by a colleague and friend]

Not pictured: "Ravioles," aka cheese ravioli, which are not only medieval, but also something we knew the kids would eat. We didn't make them ourselves -- although a recipe is in Pleyn Delit -- but purchased them from Costco. Shhhh. We also served them bagel dogs -- *not* part of the medieval theme, clearly.

People brought an assortment of drinks (including a gift of Chaucer's Mead from my chair!), but we started everyone off with Belgian Trappist ales, Monty Python's Holy Grail ale, chilled mead, white and red wine, and, best of all, a Spicy Pomegranate and Gin Cocktail that we concocted by adapting the mulled pomegranate juice recipe in Pleyn Delit. Yummy!

Oh, and as a post script: my friends Victoria and Milton gave me Beowulf the Game for Play Station (yes, we now have a Play Station). Hey, it can't be worse than the movie, right?

Friday, August 29, 2008

Unintended consequences

My medieval survey class was initially scheduled in a large lecture hall on our satellite campus -- a dimly lit, echoing nightmare of dilapidated room that was terrible for a class of 20 that relies on discussion. But I wasn't going to be a diva about it because I thought if this horrible building and its crappy classrooms were good enough for my grad students and their comp classes (usually in the smaller rooms, of course), it was good enough for me.

However, it's one of those lecture rooms that slope down from the doors, with steps that are of unconventional depth and without railings. My blind student* pointed out that this was very dangerous for him. (*Note: I wouldn't normally identify him as such, but I don't want to refer to him by name or even initial on the blog. Further down I will refer to him as Funny Guy because he's got a pretty darn hilarious and corny sense of humor.) So I called Wednesday morning to have the room changed and got it immediately because of the safety issue, despite the current chaotic room shortage problem on campus. I made a command decision to have the change effective for the Thursday class and e-mailed all the students to tell them. I e-mailed them all more than 24 four hours before the class.

Our students are told they're expected to check their campus e-mail because that's the *only* way they get certain important information, including billing statements, notices of registration holds, etc. The ones who are savvy have that e-mail forwarded to their Gmail, Hotmail, or other account that they use more frequently, but, sadly, many students on our campus are kind of clueless when it comes to electronic media. (Tangent that may become a separate post one of these days: when I read Margaret Soltan's posts railing against the use of laptops in class, I think, "What planet is she living on? What planet am *I* living on? Where are these laptops?") And now I know that despite the *requirement* to use their campus e-mail, they don't check it.

How do I know this? Half the class didn't show up on Thursday. Funny Guy checked his e-mail -- I called him to make sure because I knew he wouldn't be able to see a room-change notice and I didn't hear back from him -- but half of the rest of the students did not. Perhaps I should have been calling the sighted students instead of Funny Guy; clearly they needed more looking after. (Funny Guy genuinely appreciated the call, but I now feel kind of like a condescending schmuck. However, it did give us an opportunity to chat more about textbook issues and I got those sorted out.) And, alas, the classroom management office obviously failed to put up a notice about the room change -- as they're supposed to do -- since I got an e-mail from one of the students later in the afternoon yesterday telling me that the missing students were all there wondering where the rest of us were. I should have gone there myself to put up a sign or a message on the board, but I trusted the process. Silly me.


In other unintended consequences, it seems that if you tell a fanboy that you like Tolkien and Star Wars, you will get a marriage proposal. Granted, it wasn't a serious marriage proposal, but one of my students yesterday did indeed say, upon learning that I am Tolkien and Star Wars fan, "Will you marry me?" Also, it seems I look just like a character in another student's own fantasy literature writing. That's not really a consequence of anything -- except maybe of not having bothered to get my Medusa hair cut in a year -- but I thought I'd mention it. Clearly, I'm already deeply in with the fandom crowd and it's only the first week of class. I love being a medievalist!

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Trying to accommodate

I have a blind student in my medieval survey. I just found this out on the first day of class.

He doesn't read Braille but he has a computer that will read electronic documents aloud to him. I wonder, though, how it handles glosses and footnotes?

We're using the Broadview Anthology of British Literature and I think they have the entire text available on PDF, in individual units, so I've contacted various people I know there (an editor, the sales rep) to find out about getting electronic copies, because our office of accessibility is notoriously slow.

In the meantime, for the next class we're reading a bunch of short poetry from both the Old and Middle English periods, and every poem but one that I assigned was out there on the intertubes, in the original language and the translation, so I put together a little Word document for him and e-mailed it to him. Apparently he can do e-mail, but I'm wondering how it works in terms of opening attachments. He said he could, but I'm interested in how it works. Is there a program that reads the e-mail for him and then asks, "Would you like to open the attachment?" I'm really curious about this -- I think I'll ask him. He seemed excited on Tuesday to tell me about his cool computer programs.

And next, we're doing Beowulf, so I told him to get the Seamus Heaney translation in audio format. It's abridged and it's not the translation we're using, but it will do for now, until we get the textbook for him.

But what's got me most worried is how I teach and what he'll be missing in terms of that. I use a LOT of visual aids, and I emphasize looking at the manuscripts when they're available in facsimile. Yes, I've been obsessed with sound a lot lately, and I read aloud in class a lot, so that will help. And, of course, medieval "readers" themselves received texts in multiple ways, including being read to, which I think now I'll emphasize even more this semester. But still, I don't think everything will translate for him.

Does anyone have any advice or suggestions? And yes, I'll be calling the office of accessibility today.

Monday, August 25, 2008

NO! I'm NOT ready!

I'm not ready for the school year to start. I mean, I am in some ways -- syllabuses and handouts are mostly made -- but I'm just not in the spirit yet. I'm in some kind of funk. I'm sure it will be better once my classes start tomorrow, but right now I'm filled with some kind of bizarre combination of first-day anxiety and yet also ennui. For one thing, you'd think I'd be on campus to be around for the new and returning grad students, but I'm hiding at home. I'm working on non-teaching things, and Mondays are going to be my dday at home this semester, so I'm trying to establish a routine, but I really do feel like I'm hiding. Granted, I was on campus 9-5 M-F all last week, but still, shouldn't I be there today? But I can't bring myself to get in the teaching mode.

Case in point: I'm teaching in our weird satellite campus in BFE (OK, technically it's only 2 miles away, but it seems far) that used to be a CC that we swallowed up at some point in the past, and I haven't even bothered to go check out the classroom. I haven't been there since 2005, and I'm not even sure I remember what street it's on! And I teach tomorrow!

See, I told you I'm not ready.

What's up with this? I like teaching, "Back to School" is my favorite season of the year. Why do I feel so weird this year?

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Weekend fluffy cuteness

Because Bardiac requested it and because I haven't posted since Monday and wanted to put *something* up, here's the best picture Bullock's taken of Pippi so far. If you're a digital photo freak and have your monitor calibrated for truest color, then this picture is the closest we've come to capturing Miss Pip's true color on digital film (although my amateur attempt that now resides permanently in the sidebar isn't bad). But what I like best about this picture is that he caught her in ears-up attentive mode -- I *love* it when she does that.

Bask in her cuteness!

As always, click to "enbiggen" if you wish to see her cuteness up close and personal.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Aaaaaaand cut! That's a wrap!

Remember that insane to-do list I had for the month of August? The one I posted about here? Well it's all DONE!

Yup, that's right -- since August 1 I have done the following:

  • Revised an article, doubling its length from 21 pages to 42.
  • Written a short book review (after having read the book on trains and planes during my UK trip)
  • Read a dissertation (defense not yet scheduled, but I'm meeting with the student this week)
  • Corrected proofs of an article
  • Prepared for and participated in grad student orientation activities
  • And met with my colleague in the theater department re: the medieval plays we'll be producing and teaching in 2010
In addition to that, I have also:
  • Put together my annual merit report
  • Written two letters of recommendation
  • Had minor (very minor) surgery
  • Turned in all the texts I'm putting on reserve for the fall.
The only thing I haven't done on that original list is read the MA thesis, but only because I haven't been given a copy of it yet.

Now all I have to do if finish up my syllabuses, which are mostly done, and decide what I'm going to do on the first day of my classes which start next week, and I'll be completely ready for the semester!

Saturday, August 16, 2008

What's the role of the outside reader?

Here's a question that I think any of my readers who have been involved with a Ph.D. dissertation or M.A. thesis committee -- for their own or others -- can address.

What do you think the role of the "outside" reader is (that is, the person who's either at another university or in another department)?

I'm on two committees gearing up for defenses soon. And in both cases, I was either brought in late as a replacement or else haven't otherwise been involved in the writing in progress. And as far as *I'm* concerned that's fine. I see my role as largely formal: I'm there to keep the "inside" people honest, and make sure wacky things aren't going on. In the committee where I've been involved longer, I've also made reading suggestions, in part because the work really does overlap with my own field and knowledge, and the other committee members really didn't know much about it. And actually, in the other case, it overlaps with literary studies as well, but other knowledgeable people have been involved, and I was only brought in this summer when the dissertation was already largely done. In that case, I think any advice I'd have to give would be way too late.

So, in both cases, I'll show up for the defense and ask some questions to tease out things that maybe weren't fully addressed in the writing, and some others that are kind of big picture and disciplinary ('how is this an X discipline work and not a literary studies work?' is probably something I'll ask both of them, since both really do overlap with literary studies). But I'm not looking to stymie or fail them, or expect them to suddenly meet *my* expectations. I'm the outside reader, after all, not the director.

But one of the students involved -- the one whose committee I didn't join (as a replacement) until right before I left for the UK and who's already largely done with the project -- *wants* my feedback. I'm thinking of explaining to her what I see as my role -- a pro forma one, especially given the circumstances -- and assuring her that I won't pull anything at the defense. If her director will sign off on the diss and pass her, so will I. Do you think that's fair? I barely have time to read the thing, let alone give detailed feedback.

But in more ideal circumstances -- where one is brought in from the beginning -- what is the role of the outside reader?

Friday, August 15, 2008

Medieval waste management in pictures

I imagine that when most people who are not medievalists think of sewage in the Middle Ages (er, if they do at all), they think of the line about one minute into this clip from Monty Python and the Holy Grail: "Dennis, there's some lovely filth down here!"

But medieval structures, especially the expensively built ones, had some pretty impressive systems for their waste management. Here, let me show you a couple of examples.

The first set of pictures is once again from the castle Carreg Cennen in Wales. First, you see a castle privy, minus the wooden seat that would have provided a slightly more comfortable place to rest one's bottom than what remains of the stone edifice:

If you're wondering what those white, glowing spaces on the right are, either something happened in the data transfer to my hard drive and erased a portion of my picture (most of which I cropped out), or else this is an extra-special haunted loo. I like to think the latter is the case.

OK, so that's the loo. But where does it go? Here's my friend G. to demonstrate:

Here's a closer look:

That's right, G. is being a giant piece of sh*t. Heh heh.


In this castle the outlet seems to be in the outer yard. Let's hope it was behind the horse stables or something, but it still means some poor guy was in charge of cleaning it up every so often. Ew. But the yard there slopes down towards the cliff side, so maybe the poor sap just needed to wash it downhill with a bucket.

Meanwhile, the Cistercian monks at Kirkstall Abbey, outside of Leeds, had a better system. And today's museum curators know what will get the attention of kids and Dr. Virago -- a monk on the loo! Look! --

Actually, technically he's a lay brother, but whatever. "Monk on the loo" is a much funnier phrase (though not as funny as "monkey on the loo" would be.) And no, he's not pooping on people's heads. He's on what would have been an upper floor. Where his waste goes is the clever part. The toilets in this dormitory for the lay brothers were constructed over a trench that ran between the walls. Here's a picture of fragments of those walls which I borrowed from the Abbey web site:

That trench was fed by water from further up the hill (where the monks had a mill) and ran under the entire monastery complex. Here are a couple pictures of the now exposed trench:

Eventually the trench let out in the nearby River Aire, which I realize is not all that great, but I still find the system kind of fascinating. And hey, maybe it's why the wild flowers it this final picture are so abundant!

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Verbiage and verbosity

I've spent the last week and a half editing an article I need to send off tomorrow to the editors of a collection. It's almost done -- I just need to add one discursive footnote as soon as I get a necessary text from interlibrary loan tomorrow. (Now I have to turn to a review that's technically due tomorrow. It's going to be a little late, but since it's short and I already have it outlined, I should be able to get it done by the weekend.)

I sent a draft of this article to the editors in March and they sent it back with copious comments and corrections in June. There were, in fact, so many comments (using the Word comments function) that it was sometimes hard to follow them and I'm not sure if I really responded to every last one. This experience has taught me two things I can use in teaching:

  1. When it comes to comments, you can be too "helpful." Cut down on the verbiage and the message will probably be clearer. Concentrate on recurring and global issues and use a few examples; ask the student to find the rest themselves. Too many comments definitely overwhelm, and when they become too local, it's hard to see the forest for the trees.

  2. If you assign a "draft" before the final product, keep that in mind while commenting. Chances are the writer took "draft" seriously and didn't always give the greatest care to the details. Remind the writer that they'll need to do so in the final version, and tell them what to look out for (lack of citation, sentences that ramble on, or whatever) but you needn't go over these issues yourself with a fine-toothed comb, or else you'll be making much more work for yourself, doing what the writer should be doing (and taking longer to get a response back to them). Or else, instead of asking for a "draft" and a final paper (because, as I've seen, different people interpret "draft" differently), assign a paper and a revision, which changes the expectations for the first version.
That's not to say that the editor's comments weren't helpful -- though, again, a little overwhelming -- but that at times I felt a little sorry for them and a little guilty. They put in a lot of work I'd intended to do myself. You should have seen the printout of the "final plus markup" version -- the margins were filled with comments and changes.

Meanwhile, regarding my *own* verbiage...The draft I sent them was 20 pages. The final version they're getting is close to 40. That's right, I *doubled* the essay's length in a week and a half of writing. That's because a lot of the manuscript research for a lot of the detailed points I needed to make had yet to be done, and in the midst of doing it this summer, I found *more* stuff to talk about -- pertinent stuff directly related to the subject at hand. In other words, the draft that I sent them really was a draft, a work in progress. I hope this doesn't freak them out.

Anyway, all of this writing, every day, all day, is why I haven't been doing things like participating in the ITM group (re)reading of Dinshaw's Getting Medieval, or commenting on your blogs much.