Friday, February 29, 2008

Calling all philologists

I'm editing another text, this one a short one that shouldn't take me any time at all, but will net me $200. (Dude, I will have made $1000 this year for editing ME texts. I *knew* that Ph.D. would pay off someday!) [Maybe it's crass to talk about the money, but I really wanted to set up for that last remark! Te-hee!]

Anyway, it *shouldn't* take me any time, except there's this one weird word that keeps popping up all over the text and it's driving me nuts. The word is variably veserne(s) or vesene(s) (although more frequently the former). Other editors of this text have glossed it as "mask(s)," which makes sense in context, and I'm happy to go with that if I must, but I'd really like to find out for myself. I can't find it in either the MED or the OED (this is a text dated precisely 1433, btw, and it's from the North), but maybe I haven't thought of enough alternative spellings. For the record, though, I searched the MED for "v?rs?n*" and "v?s?n*" -- although maybe I should've used asterisks instead of question marks. All I want is some confirmation that it means or could mean "mask."

Any ideas where I should go next? Any other help/suggestions you can offer? Oh, and also, I'm supposed to modernize the spelling of the text -- what would I modernize this word to?

Thursday, February 28, 2008

That snow day was teh l4m3

I enjoyed our snow day in a sense because I got a lot of teaching-related things done that I otherwise would have put off until spring break, and now every paper topic my students will need this semester has been written.

But seriously, it was the Lamest. Snow. Day. Ever. It was hardly necessary to call it in the morning. It took me and Bullock less than 45 minutes to shovel our driveway and walks, and even though it was still coming down, it only created a dusting. I can kind of understand if they needed us out of the way in order to plow the parking lots (most of our lots are uncovered), but I really don't get why they need the *whole* morning or why they then canceled the afternoon and evening classes. That was really lame, because by then the main road were all clear and dry. I realize some of my students come from small towns around here, but I would've understood and excused them if they missed a class.

Anyone from someplace like Buffalo, where they get real snow, would've laughed at this "snow day." I think our president is strangely obsessed with safety. He thinks it's his mission -- and therefore the university's mission -- to keep people safe and healthy, and that's all that matters. I think that's the real reason why we closed. We've had three snow days since he came on as president, and none in the three years I was here prior to that.

Anyway, I now have to figure out a way to catch my classes up, and poor Victoria, because of earlier snow in which they canceled evening classes, has had 2 out of 15 once-a-week seminar meetings canceled.

Maybe the risk of a car accident isn't worth going to class for, but maybe the president should let individuals make those choices instead of making them for us.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Snow day!

Well, half snow day, anyway. Update: Yay! They closed for the whole day! I totally want to make a snowman now.

The campus is closed until noon as of the announcements this morning at 7am. That means no Chaucer class. I'm kind of bummed actually. I'm now going to have to squeeze in the end of the General Prologue (including the Summoner and the Pardoner) and all of the Knight's Tale into two days instead of three. I'll probably have to lecture to do it efficiently. Oh well.

The snow's still coming down, so it remains to be seen if they close campus for a whole day. Here's what the view outside my study looked like at 7:30 am:

In the summer all I see are leaves and the feet of people passing by on the sidewalk.

Monday, February 25, 2008

If you're not reading The Rebel Letter... should be. If not for awesome posts like this one, then for a moving personal history post like this one. Plus, she has a cute dog.

But right now, the Rebel Lettriste could use your advice about TT offers that seem too low and how to negotiate. I don't have anything to give her, since I was too naive to know I *could* negotiate.

Friday, February 22, 2008

"Behold the left flank!" and other misheard sounds

Bullock and I were both working in our respective studies, but energy gave out and we started messing around and wasting time. I'm surfing the 'net and playing with PBS's "Do You Speak American?" site, and he's playing a computer game called Empire Earth. There's something that one of the commanders keeps saying in his game and I *swear* it sounds like "Behold the left flank!" Of course, that makes no sense whatsoever, and I think it's more likely "We're under attack!" or something like that. There's also another guy who says very clearly "Prepare to die!" and the frequent sounds of anguish and pain. So I went into his office to see just what was happening in this game and what I found was some crazy and disturbing mash-up of medieval and modern warfare where stealth bombers were decimating knights on horseback. Oh that's so wrong! I couldn't help feel sorry for the tiny CGI knights and their wholly innocent horses. Poor things.

I just hope this isn't his way of getting out his unconscious aggression toward the medievalist in the household!


Speaking of "Do You Speak American?", since I've never taken a full-on HEL class (my linguistic knowledge, fwiw, pretty much stops with Shakespeare), I don't know that much about American varieties, although I knew about the Northern Cities Shift because I once saw William Labov talk about it at a conference. Given that I now live in the midst of it, it's very useful knowledge. However, I could probably stand to get some deeper knowledge of it to make teaching the sounds of Middle English to my students more effective. I made the mistake this semester of insisting on something about "midwestern" phonology as a guide to Middle English sounds that was really only true for my central midwest variety and not for my students northern cities variety. Generally when one is teaching the ME short vowels, one says they're more or less the same as now, with a couple of exceptions like the short -u- and the short -a-. I play clips from BBC TV to help them hear those sounds and explain the whole "u as in put, but not as in but" thing. But they were having a heckuva a time with the short -o- sound, which I thought was really weird. I said the short -o- was like our own, but they weren't getting it. Well, that's because for many of them their short -o- was sounding more like my short -a- and so my examples made no sense to them -- for them "cot" sounds like "cat." I knew about the cot/caught merger (which I have) and so I knew to expect some trouble with ME -o- sounds, but it turned out to be a different trouble than I expected! Yeah, it's only taken me 5 years to figure this out. What can I say -- I don't have the most finely tuned ear. But from now on I think I'll stop using the same old pronunciation guides that worked for students in SoCal (and for me) and adapt some for my NCS-ing students.

But, anyway, what I really didn't know but learned on the PBS site is that my own cot/caught merger is something that only happened in my region starting with my generation. That explains so much! See, once upon a time our next-door-neighbor's son Don was dating a woman named Dawn and I thought this was totally perplexing because I could NOT hear or articulate the differences in those names' vowels. But my Boomer age siblings -- and maybe Virgo Sis and Fast Fizzy can attest to this, if they remember -- couldn't understand why I couldn't hear the difference. Turns out I was on the cutting edge of a phonological change in my regional speech! Awesome!

Why I teach medieval literature

I know I’m coming really late to the game in this meme (which, btw, is more like a real meme in some ways than the things that are called memes, since Dr. Crazy had no intention of starting a meme when she wrote the original post that inspired it), but I think I may have something new to contribute. I admit I haven’t read all the contributions made to this discussion (here's a list of links to a lot of them), but I read Dr. Crazy’s post when it was new, and I’ve read all the medievalists’ and early modernists’ responses, including New Kid’s contribution on why she teaches history. (I've also read the kerfuffle that resulted from Dr. Crazy's post and the meme it became, but I'm not linking to that.) New Kid is the person who tagged me to respond to this discussion, and since she singled out people who do work in pre-modern eras, I’ve specified my topic as why I teach medieval literature in particular. And along the way I’ll probably also be answering, at least indirectly, a question Neophyte posed long ago about whether those of us who study the past think of it in terms of alterity and difference, or if we see correspondence and connection with the present.

Now, when the MLA held the panel that inspired Dr. Crazy’s original post, I’m sure their topic question – “Why do we teach literature” – really meant something more like “Why is literature a worthy subject of study in higher education?” But I’m actually going to take the question a bit at its face value, not because I’m an idiot who doesn’t know how to read subtext and its implications, but because in answering the question as why *I* personally teach literature – in this case, medieval literature – I also have a point to make about why students should at least have the option of studying it (note: not “should study it” – I’m not proscribing a canon here) and what I think the study of medieval literature has to offer students and teachers alike. So I’m taking a question that originally implied a desire for universal answers and giving personal ones instead because I think one of the strengths of literary studies is an aspect that is often mistakenly depicted as one of its weaknesses: its “subjectivity” vs. the supposed “objectivity” of other disciplines.

It might be surprising to some that I find personal value in teaching the oldest literature in English since it is supposedly the farthest removed from my personal experiences. But I do. And the first and foremost way in which I experience that value can be expressed in a single word: pleasure. (You really have to say it like the Scotsman in Chariots of Fire: “God made for a purrrrpose, and when I rrrrun, I feel his playzhurrrrrrre.” Hee!) All joking aside, pleasure is serious stuff. It’s part of the very social fabric of obligations to others: please, if you please, s’il vous plait, RSVP. And long ago I realized I could not live a life with a job or a career that didn’t at least afford the opportunity of deep pleasure on a semi-regular basis. That’s not to say that my life is all fun and games; pleasure is distinctly different from mere fun. In my universe a roller coaster ride is fun; but a marathon is intensely pleasurable while only rarely fun. Being grad director frequently drives me nuts, but it’s also deeply pleasurable. I found pleasure in the long years and hard work it took to finish my degree, get this job, turn my dissertation into a book, and so forth. And I find tremendous pleasure in the difficulty of medieval literature. Chaucer has perhaps gotten easier for me over the years, although there is still much to puzzle over (Melibee, for instance). But much of medieval literature is dazzlingly hard. Piers Plowman, for instance. Every time I read it, it’s like working through it for the first time again. And I’ve yet to figure out how to teach it, which is even more daunting than trying to teach it to myself. But I will keep trying, and I will take pleasure in the process.

Medieval literature is not something I simply “got” on some instinctive, sympathetic level of my imagination, the way I “got” Virginia Woolf, for example. I never felt, upon reading medieval literature, some instantaneous fellow-feeling. To use a word that’s a new favorite of students and Entertainment Weekly, I never found medieval literature “relatable.” (OK, not never; I “get” both Troilus and Criseyde on some ordinary level, for instance. I have badly dumped lovers and been badly dumped in return. But I don’t think that’s really what that poem is about.) But when I first encountered medieval literature as an undergraduate, it astonished and stunned me with its weird and wonderful beauty (really I should work in “wlonc” there, shouldn’t I?). Take the words “weird,” “wonderful,” and “wlonc.” All three are medieval, all three are native to English, going back deep into its very beginnings. But the first two have morphed in meaning more than once over the centuries, and the last disappeared before English became “Modern.” Where did it go? Why did it go? And how did we get from the Old English “wyrd” (roughly, fortune, fate, or destiny – but not quite any of those exactly) to our meaning of strange and outlandish. As an undergraduate I wanted answers to those questions not so much in a linguistic sense, but in a broader, more philosophical sense: where do words go when they die? Can the dead speak through them or are they rendered mute? Can we reach them through their words, or are we always “hearing” them through translators and interpreters, even if we are those interpreters? Were these writers using weird words essentially the same as me – humans, story tellers, imaginative creatures – or did the differences in their language, major and minor, make them a different people?

So in the beginning I was attracted to the difference, the alterity that the Middle Ages offered me. And I found pleasure in that difference. After all, why would I want to read about people or the works of people who were just like me? But that’s where I suppose I am also weird, because it seems many people like literature that’s “relatable.” And so, in the end, ironically, I guess I do identify with medieval literature: we’re both weird.

And I want students to see that: that I’m weird and that I take pleasure in weirdness. (Yes, here’s where I finally turn to why I teach medieval literature, rather than why I teach it.) I want them to see that pleasure and discovery and connection and understanding can take place in the oddest of moments, in the most unexpected of subject matters. I want them to understand that the struggle to understand can make the understanding all the more valuable and pleasurable. I want them to have the opportunity to break out of their comfortable habits and to explore what for them is uncharted territory. I want them to find their own pleasures.

And that’s really what it’s about for me: letting students find their pleasures, follow their bliss, discover what matters to them, learn what they’re passionate about. And that pleasure isn’t about some narrow sense of middle class success – it’s not about merely finding a job or being a recognizable label of a professional (doctor, lawyer, engineer) – unless that’s where your pleasure lies. And again, I don’t mean fun or contentment or entertainment. I mean deep, sustaining, satisfying pleasure. I want them to know that there are people in the world who get giddy over the third line in the Reeve’s Prologue in The Canterbury Tales – “diverse folk diversely they seyde” (it does what it says! It marks linguistic variation in the two possible ways of accenting “diverse” – the French way or the English way! It shows a French loan word with an Old English suffix in “diversely”! And all this marking the start of a tale that will showcase not one but *two* regional and generational varieties of 14th century English! It works on so many levels!) – and also that there was once a 14th century poet who probably worked hard on that line and was likely mighty pleased with it himself, and who also noticed how various and full of wonder his own world was, and who very obviously also thought about the possibility of “diverse folk” responding “diversely” to a story (in this case, the Miller’s Tale), and presumably finding a diversity of meanings and values in it. And weirdly, wonderfully, he seems to have anticipated us in a way, sitting in our classrooms responding to the Reeve’s Tale and others in ways that he may or may not have anticipated or intended.

And therein lies one of the many values of teaching medieval literature in particular: Medieval writers often seem intensely aware the presence and practices of readers across time, and the differences and diversities of texts and readers. Medieval texts hail readers across time and space: “Hwaet!” opens Beowulf – listen! Lo! Pay attention! “Herkneth!” – listen! – say too many Middle English texts to count. And Chaucer invites the reader into the Canterbury pilgrimage when his narrator-persona says that he and the other pilgrims made an agreement to get an early start in the morning, “as I yow devyse” – “as I (will) tell you.” And these writers and others freely adapt foreign, ancient, and pagan texts for their purposes – for “out of olde bookes cometh new science,” says Chaucer (a quote I should have on the top of every syllabus, come to think of it) – but also worry and puzzle self-consciously and openly over those differences and what they mean in the “now” of the medieval writer’s world, and what they might also, therefore, mean for future readers. And so we do in our modern classroom. In mine at least, I try to give equal time to puzzling out how a medieval reader might have responded to a given text – and teaching students how we judge such things through reading texts closely, by reading even more texts, or by learning what we can about their reception, etc. – but also to how we respond, and whether those responses are shared or divergent, and why. I also at least give some time and space to critical history, at least in a nutshell, to demonstrate the diversity of readings between “now” and “then.” Also, when my students try to make medieval texts too much a part of their own world, I call them out on their collapsing of difference. (Quick example: if a student tells me Criseyde is worried that Troilus will “disappoint his family” if he elopes with her, I say, no, she worries he’ll bring shame on his father, King Priam, and then ask students what the difference is.) By their very nature, medieval texts ask us to think about the connections between then and now, to raise the possibility of communication across time and space, even as they offer up their differences. They call out and say, “Hwaet/listen, what do you think of this story which I yow devyse?”

Of course, not every student hears the call. Not every student listens or cares to listen. And that’s fine with me. Diverse folk have diverse tastes. I want them to find their own pleasures, too, and I offer mine – and through mine, the pleasures medieval writers had – as merely a model, as a possibility for inquiry, study, and deep, satisfying pleasure. I offer it as something that’s both highly subjective – after all, what’s my pleasure might be your pain! – but also as something that takes students outside of themselves and their worlds. One of the most basic lessons that every student ideally should learn in college (though I know plenty don’t, or else they forget that they have) is that not everyone thinks like you. But that’s a slightly harder lesson to learn at a regional university than one that draws its students from across the country and the globe. (That’s not to say that everyone in a region thinks the same, but the differences might be less underscored when most of your classmates talk like you and have the same local references as you.) And so in an institution like mine, I think humanities and social science classes in which students encounter lives unlike their own are especially valuable for that process of forming the self that college often can be – and, I think, ideally should be. (And let’s not discount the difference that I, myself, offer standing there in front of the classroom: a nearly 40-something woman who values the life of the mind, who finds deep pleasure in it, who has a happy personal life, who did not feel it was imperative to marry and have kids in her twenties, who forged an independent and pleasurable life on her own terms.) But on a more mundane level, the humanities and social sciences, along with the sciences and the professional schools are all important for offering students a choice of visions, a choice of ways of being, a choice of pleasures. How can a student really decide who s/he wants to be if the choices are limited?

And so I teach medieval literature here at Rust Belt University and I will continue to do so even if we should become Rust Belt Institute of Technology (RibBIT? Croak U? Hee!), as seems to be in the works. If that happens, I’ll teach medieval literature of the body, medieval literature of the natural environment, medieval melancholia, “Medieval Doctors, Alchemists, Magicians, and Wizards,” or whatever I can to keep doing it. I do it now and I’ll keep doing it in the future to offer my students a view that is both broad and deep, that offers them possibilities they might not have otherwise known – possibilities for thinking, being, connecting, and living, possibilities for pleasure in unexpected places.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

For no particular reason...

...I'd like to declare that "to wing" is now a strong verb. Thus: I am winging it in class today, yesterday I wang it, and by tomorrow I will have wung it.

Just because.


In case you're wondering, yes I have gone mad. It may have something to do with the fact that my college is being ordered by the university administration to reallocate 10% of its budget to STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields and other initiatives in the cockamamie newly designed strategic plan, which is all about, you guessed it, STEM fields.

This is how professors who have ceased to care are born.

They're coming to take me away, ha ha, ho ho, hee hee...

Monday, February 18, 2008

Oh, so *that's* what the RV was there for

So I just found videos of that reality tv show mentioned in the last post, the one feature the family of "puppeteers," and in watching it I realized I go running by that house all. the. time. It's literally around the corner and down the street from us, and I frequently run on that street because it has a light crossing the main street and ours doesn't.

And, in fact, I ran by it frequently while they were filming the show. All that time I just thought they had free-wheelin' retired relatives who drove their RV home to visit the grandkids or something. This also explains why there were a mess of cables running from the RV to the house and also why a random picket fence appeared for awhile and then disappeared. (It appeared courtesy of the visiting spouse. It disappeared when Mr. Puppeteer didn't like it.)

I think it's funny that all those years of living in SoCal didn't teach me to recognize a film crew trailer when I saw one.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Ordinary people leading extraordinary lives

Bullock and I had kind of a surreal afternoon yesterday. One of Bullock's colleagues -- a very nice man and one of my favorite people in Bullock's department, but not exactly a man known for hipness, even faded Boomer hipness that so many of our senior colleagues cling to -- invited us to his house for a command performance by the former lead singer of a '90s band with moderate national success and a huge regional following.

In their living room.

We had no idea what to expect and things got weirder from there.

First of all, let's establish some key characters and settings. Let's call Bullock's colleague Mr. Smith. And since the All Music Guide describes the '90s band's music and the singer's solo music as "bittersweet," let's just call him Mr. Bittersweet. (The title of the post, btw, is a line from one of his new songs.)

The setting was a 1928 tudor home in Professorville, the neighborhood that borders the Rust Belt U campus. (We live in the 1930s-era extension of that neighborhood, btw.) The house was really cool because Mr. and Mrs. Smith bought it from the original owner (no kidding!) and she hadn't done any major "improvements" to it, so many of its original features were still there, including the crystal chandelier in the dining room, glass door knobs, beautiful oak floors in pristine conditions (because former owner had covered them in carpetting), and those ceiling-mount crystal light fixtures that look like upside-down crowns. But most amazing of all were the drapes -- they still had the original drapes! And oh the quality of vintage fabrics! Mrs. Smith told me she had them cleaned onces by professional drapery cleaners, but they told her not to do so again because they might fall apart. But really, they looked as good as new. Or better than actual new drapes because they were real brocade in a subtle tone-on-tone shades of a luxe rosy gold. Normally I don't like that "old lady" style of drape -- the kind that has all those gathers at the top, has inner and outer layers, and hang from a utilitarian rod that comes out in a rectangular shape from the window -- but these drapes were clearly purchased by a woman of style and taste in the 1930s and they were simply gorgeous. Finally, even though the exterior was tudor in style, the interior reminded me of old Hollywood. In fact, it reminded me of my 1928 Spanish courtyard apartment building in LA, or what it must have looked like before the fixtures were cheaply replaced and the trim was painted over twenty thousand times, anyway -- all plaster walls and ceilings and dark wood trim, and a sunken living room with a beamed ceiling and a fireplace surrounded by built-in bookcase nooks with arched tops.

I tell you all of this about the setting because it really didn't seem like the kind of place where a '90s post-grunge indie rocker would give a command performance. Maybe Frank Sinatra would, but not Mr. Bittersweet.

But wait, it gets weirder.

When we arrived the party seemed almost entirely populated by close friends, family, and neighbors. And many of them were 30- and 40-somethings with kids ranging in age from infant to tween. And since the house, like many in this neighborhood, was built on a circular plan, the kids seemed constantly to run around and around from living room to dining room to kitchen to hall and back again, which made it seem like there were even more than the already 8 or 10 kids that were there.

Again, not exactly the setting you expect for Mr. Bittersweet's command performance.

The connection, btw, was Mr. Smith's son, who was friends with Mr. Bittersweet. They're both in their 30s, I think -- hence the 30-something families. And some of the kids were neighborhood kids who often play with the Smiths' grandkids. So it wasn't as random as it seemed. Still, it was odd.

And then some of the grad students from Bullock's department showed up, which he wasn't expecting, and which can instantly change the mood of a party depending on whether grad students and professors socialize. And Bullock's department isn't one of those that do.

And then I got kind of grilled by a guy who's in the local running club and leads the hashers club. He was trying to convince me to take up hashing, but frankly, I run to keep fit, so I'm not sure that adding beer to the activity is really what I want to do. (If you don't know what hashing is, here's the Wikipedia entry on the phenomenon. The fact that it has been flagged for tone seems appropriate to hashing in general.) And I'm going to out myself as a snob here, but this guy was weird even for runners, and runners are a weird bunch. I think I've seen him around at the races -- he often wears a rainbow wig and head-to-toe tie-dye. He's pretty typical of the former-frat-boy and/or oddball "craziness" of the hashing crowd. Plus the main reason why I haven't stayed involved in any Rust Belt running clubs (though I tried for one year to be involved in the local Road Runners) is that in this town everyone's been involved for 20+ years and I feel immediately like an outsider. It was different in SoCal where lots of people were new to the area. And no one ever wants to organize group *training* runs, which is what I think the whole social point of a club is. This one, though, just wants to organize the races. Well, I can go to the races then, without being in the club; I don't need the discount on the entrance fees.

Anywho, while I was trapped by Mr. Hasher, Bullock was trapped by Ed Begley, Jr.'s crazy libertarian twin who regaled Bullock with his plans to take over and remake the local Republican party by bringing in edgy youth and energy. (Seriously, he looked like Ed Begley, Jr.)

And then we briefly met Mr. Smith's neighbor and his son, both of whom are minor celebrities, having appeared on a national reality show that features families trading the female head of the household. If you watch that show, the neighbor has an unusual job in the fringes of entertainment and his son is following in his footsteps. Let's just say they're both puppeteers, even though that's not really what they do. I didn't see the episode -- I've only ever seen one (the famous one with the Christian and the Wiccan) -- but I hear that Mr. Puppeteer's temporary household partner didn't think he had a real job and made him interview for some corporate gig.

Mr. Puppeteer didn't stay long at the party, but Junior Puppeteer did and he entertained us with some close-up, um, puppetry. He was also wearing a baseball cap that said something along the lines "Puppetry by Junior." I say this not to make fun of him -- he was a sweet, polite kid, the kind who likes talking to grown-ups (and so I actually identified with him) -- but to marvel at his preternatural marketing acumen. I'm pretty sure the reason he stayed was not only because the music hadn't started but because he saw it as an opportunity to advertise himself to minor celebrities and grown-ups who might hire him for birthday parties. Indeed, Junior Puppeteer was vastly superior to the kid who left the bathroom door open while he pooped. And not just any bathroom -- the downstairs one next to the kitchen in a high-traffic hallway.

Finally Mr. Bittersweet, who'd arrived late in appropriate rock-and-roll fashion, settled in to sing. And the two tween girls settled in on the couch right next to him and giggled throughout his performance. I have to say Mr. Bittersweet was tall, dark, handsome, and scruffily rock-and-roll in a way that wouldn't usually satisfy the tastes of tweens enamored of Non-Threatening Boys, but he was also supremely sweet and patient with these girls, so perhaps that or his pretty, bittersweet songs charmed them. Or maybe they too were precocious children, already developing more teenage tastes. At any rate, I bet Mr. Bittersweet didn't expect a tween fan base. Of course, they weren't always giggling in that I-don't-know-what-to-do-with-these-emotions way, like screaming Beatles fans or their ilk. Sometimes they were just being silly, like when one of the two of them grabbed a breadstick and decided to "conduct" Mr. Bittersweet while he sang. Or the other hopped up, ran around the circular plan to the open hallway behind him and did a back-up dance behind him for all but him to see. That's where Mr. Bittersweet's supreme patience came into play. Sometimes he had a hard time keeping himself from laughing.

Meanwhile, as I was enjoying the performance -- pensive, bittersweet songs, prettily sung, generally do it for me, anyway -- one of the many kids came up behind where I was standing and wrapped himself around my leg. This was not exactly the usual kind of uninvited touching that sometimes happens at a rock show! Either this kid was an openly affectionate child or else he thought I was his mommy. She and I were both wearing dark brown tops and jeans, after all, and we both have long, dark, wavy or curly hair, so if you're only two feet tall and can't see up that high or distinguish subtle differences in types of clothing and hair yet, you might mistake the two of us from behind. So I patted him on the head and then he decided to crawl into grandma's (Mrs. Smith's) lap. At any rate, it was again a weird moment in a weird afternoon.

And the short performance ended, Mr. Bittersweet left, and so did Bullock and I, as we were meeting our friend Victoria and the Playwright -- who, btw, loosely know Mr. Puppeteer and Junior Puppeteer, it turns out -- so they could help us bring the dining room table top up from the basement workshop to the dining room, so Bullock can begin the dying and staining process. After which we had pizza while V's & P's toddler daughter ran around in circles in our circular-plan house. Why do they do that??

Friday, February 15, 2008


Yesterday in Chaucer class, my students and I discussed Book V of Troilus and Criseyde. I pointed out that the word "remembraunce" is used 8 times in that book and we discussed what it meant and why that might be important. Was it only "memory" or did it have then the connotations it has for us now, of memorial and loss? (It did.) And we talked about the reliance on the "apostrophe" (a direct address to an absent or inanimate addressee) in this book, as well as the appearance of letters to and from Troilus and Criseyde, and the somewhat surprising appearance of the "ubi sunt" motif, that mainstay of Latin and Old English elegiac poetry. We put this all together and pondered whether this wasn't primarily a love story after all, if maybe Chaucer had used the love story as a vehicle for getting at the inevitability of death, loss, and mourning.

It all seemed rather depressing and inappropriate for Valentine's day. But unfortunately death and "remembraunce" was a truly and terribly appropriate theme for a university classroom in the midwest on Valentine's Day 2008.

My heart goes out to the students, faculty, and staff of Northern Illinois University, and their families, particularly to those who now have the responsibility of remembrance for the 6 students and the gunman who are all now dead.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Sunday chez Virago and Bullock

I'm about to brave the single digit temperature and the wind chill to go to a neighborhood coffee shop to do some grading. I find I have to get out of the house to grade efficiently, otherwise I mess around on blogs, read Entertainment Weekly, or what have you, and stretch it out much longer than it should take.

In the mean time, Bullock is working in his basement workshop on our dining room table. I thought I'd show you the pictures of the work in progress.

Here's the upside down base having just been glued up (hence the clamps):

Here it is without the clamps:

And below is the base right side up, in situ, with one of the chairs we bought to go with it. (Bullock doesn't do upholstery.) We were adjusting just where we want the table and rug to go because once the top's on, it's going to be too heavy for the two of us to move. And the reason for the plastic, by the way, is because Bullock is going to do the staining work on the top in place, rather than in his workshop. The unfinished top surfaces you can see will of course be covered by the table top when it's done. Anyway, voila, the base and one of the chairs:

And here are some of the rest of the chairs, patiently waiting in the corner of our living room (some are in the family room and the two arm chairs have not yet arrived -- we'll have eight total when it's all said and done). Our sage green walls look rather gray in this picture, but they're a true "dry sage" color:

And here's the top in progress in Bullock's shop. My battery was running low, so the flash didn't go off and I had to use the tiny view-finder instead of the digital screen, hence my having cut off the corner of the table top:

When it's all done, we'll have a Stickley style trestle table with six side chairs and two arm chairs. You'll have to come over for dinner some time!

Saturday, February 9, 2008

From Dr. Virago's e-mail in box

Subject: From the view of a scientist

What a wonderful way to get paid to work. Ah that I hadn't given up my Greek and Latin so early...


That's all he wrote. I think he's referring to my whole work, as a professor, and not any particular part of it described in a particular blog post (though I'm sure the recent pictures of Norwich give the impression that I'm always jet-setting around). I'm not even sure how he made it to my blog. So the precise "way" that it's wonderful is a little ambiguous.

That said....yes. It *is* a wonderful way to get paid to work. And thank you, Mr. Scientist (I'll keep you anonymous) for recognizing not only that it's wonderful but that it's work (and nice alliteration, btw). I don't think you meant it in the way that some would when they think that professors only "work" when they're in class and that we have cushy jobs. We work hard, but would that everyone could work like professors do, managing our time outside of class and meeting schedules, and for the most part setting our own agendas. Some of that autonomy might even be possible in many professions. Why is it, after all, that a lawyer working all day on writing a brief or preparing arguments has to be in the office? I remember many days in the law firm where I worked in which a given lawyer was in his or her office, but writing all day, with the door closed, and asking not to be disturbed. Why couldn't they have stayed home and worked in their pajamas?

My computer science friends in the early 90s figured out ways to work out tele-commuting deals (in the days of dial-up!) with their places of employ and were predicting that's where everyone was headed. Why hasn't that come to pass? Why do we put such a premium on being in a place called an office to be productive? I call my room where I work at home an office, too, and I'm more productive there than in the office at school, in part because the one at school is 7x7 feet and doesn't have enough room for all of my books. And yet, why do I feel guilt every time I answer the UPS guy's knock in the middle of the day in my sweats?

Or maybe you weren't just talking about the autonomy, about my ability to go to the doctor mid-day, for instance, and make up the work later, without having to ask for time off. That is, however, one of the greatest perks of this profession. It's also one of the greatest burdens, because managing your own time can make you a crueler task-master than any boss. I knew this going in. One of the reasons why I took time off from school between my BA and PhD was because I'd felt like with school there was always work to be done, and I wanted to find out what it was like to have a job that I could leave at work. In the end I decided I preferred the one that's always with me, that's part of my identity, in part because I realized all professionals take work with them (the lawyers either stayed in the office late or took it home with them), so if I was going to be a professional and work 60+ hours a week, I wanted my time and space to be more elastic. I wanted to at least choose which 60 hours and where.

But Mr. Scientist's comment about Greek and Latin suggests what he really envies is the intellectual life. (Oh, btw, if you'd wanted to be a medievalist, you don't need the Greek. Another modern language would be better.) It's not always as stimulating as one might think from the outside, especially when you're the only person in your field in a department and your students are, of course, all completely new to it. But there's excitement to that, too, because you get to see the texts and ideas and images and worlds you love intimately through new eyes. It's like when you introduce your partner to your family for the first time and they all find him delightful and charming and you remember all over again why you fell in love with him. Even the moments of confusion and misunderstanding teach you things about the reading process, about how minds work, about teaching, about changing culture and attitudes. (For example, once upon a time students thought Pandarus was funny and many thought I was "reading too much into it" to see him as disturbing. Now I can't get them to see the humor! Maybe one of these days I'll get students to see that he's *both* funny and disturbing.)

And this semester in particular I have a fabulously smart group of students in both classes. Oh. My. God. how they are blowing my mind! I ask questions that I think they'll have to mull over and hash out and one of them will blow it out of the water in a single sentence. And then I have to think fast to come up with more, to push them farther so that the conversation doesn't grind to a halt. And last night one of my students e-mailed me just to say -- I kid you not -- that he realized that the American rural regionalism "of a night," as in "when I lie awake of a night," is a hold-over of the genitive of time from Old English and early Middle English. Granted, he's a linguistics major, but still. He e-mailed me just to say this because he'd had that moment of discovery and needed to share it. How awesome is that?!

And even when I spend all day trying to figure out a solution to a problem in something I'm writing -- for instance, how to connect loosely related ideas A and B so that my reader doesn't wonder, "Hey where did B come from and what happened to A?" -- and feel like I've gotten nothing accomplished, it's a pretty amazing thing to have spent the whole day thinking. (Remind me, by the way, to tell my students that sometimes I spend a whole day thinking about a single organizational problem in a single paper!)

So yes, it is a wonderful way to get paid to work. Thank you for reminding me of that. But I'm one of the lucky ones, and I fear a dying breed. I have job stability -- again, would that everyone did; I don't think I'm the only one who deserves it. I'm on the tenure track and, it seems (knock wood), will be tenured by the end of this year. For many people -- a majority in the modern languages and literature -- the work isn't so wonderful. They knit together part-time jobs at multiple campus, often working without an office at all, running from one place to another, to teach all day long. And they make a pittance for doing so. They're adjuncts and universities are relying more and more on them. It's bad for them and it's bad for students and it's bad for the morale of the academic community as a whole. Let me give one example: my student who e-mailed me about genitives of time only started sending these kinds of excited e-mails this semester after having had me for a class last semester as well. Lots of other students have followed me from class to class as well. And while I think students should also experience many different teachers and ways of thinking -- and not just major in Dr. Virago! -- that continuity also gives me the chance to follow the development of a student and, if they need letters of recommendation for graduate school or work, to be able to say I really know this person as a thinker and responsible, serious person. With adjuncts, if a student has a fabulous professor, they usually don't have that opportunity to follow them, either because they're limited to teaching multiple sections of the same intro courses, or because they're gone after a short time. And then what happens when the student needs a letter of recommendation? And that's just one of the many problems with the exploitation of adjuncts -- I haven't even got started on what it does to the adjuncts themselves, or how it creates an egregious class system within the university. (At my own university, we don't have adjuncts, but instead have full-time lecturers hired to teach, without being expected to produce research or do service. And while their working conditions are better than the "freeway flyers" who work at multiple universities -- our lecturers teach a 4/4 load and are given offices and renewable, union-negotiated contracts -- it creates the class system of which I speak.) That's a whole other post in and of itself.

I write this to remind myself that while there's much that is wonderful about the work for which I am paid, the system in which I work is flawed, and the access to those things that are wonderful about my position is limited. So I don't want to take it for granted, especially on those days when I'd rather play online Scrabble than write. But I also want to help do my own small part about this once I have the job security that tenure brings by getting involved in the committees and councils and senates that have the ear of our administration. Because frankly, the benefits to students, the community, and the individual that come with tenure-track employment, especially in the humanities, are cheap by most measures. My salary finally just rose over $50,000 for the first time this year -- that's after 8 years of education at a top school for my field (where I also provided cheap labor as a TA) and 6 years of employment. For the amount that my university is paying for a new financial officer, in a newly created position, they could have hired 7 new assistant professors. Some financial planning, eh?

So Mr. Scientist, yes it is wonderful work. But it's got its own problems. And I know your public-sector work does, too. Believe me, I do. (I Googled you to see where you work.) I'm not really writing this to school you really, but to remind myself not to get complacent, not to become one day one of those clueless full profs who has no clue what graduate student/assistant professor/adjunct life is like. And to remind myself to see the problems in my profession and figure out ways to help work towards the solutions.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Need a roommate for K'zoo?

Hey, is anyone looking for a roommate for K'zoo? These days I usually try to stay in one of the cheaper hotels because I'll have a car and can easily get to and fro. I'm willing to play chauffeur at the beginning and end of each day. I don't discriminate on the basis race, national or regional origin, gender, sexual orientation, religion, discipline, subfield, institutional affiliation, rank, or sartorial style. However, I do prefer someone I've already met IRL.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Oy, reviews are hard

I've been working on a bleepin' review for the last month (not counting the time spent reading the work being reviewed). It's finally done and none too soon, because I now have just a smidge over a month to get a decent draft of an article to the editors of the essay collection to which it belongs. Thank god they only want a draft at this point because that's all I've got time for now. I meant to be done with this freakin' review before Christmas, but didn't finish reading until after the new year. Oy.

And then the writing of it was bloody torture. I won't go into details here, but suffice it to say that there were two camps of people I didn't want to piss off unnecessarily, even as I wanted to write a fair and thoughtful review. Scylla and Charybdis come to mind.

I know reviews are an important service to the profession, but remind me to take them on only when I'm not overloaded with projects of my own. Remind me to take them on in those times when I'm between majors stages of projects and just need to keep active. Those times exist, right?

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

More pictures of Norwich

Just because I feel like it, here are some more pictures to go with the post below.

First, three views of the world's crookedest building (or so I think), across from one of the gates to the Cathedral grounds:

A Norman keep plus a nun walking a cute dog plus a sunny blue sky = a perfect moment in Norwich (where is everyone else on this perfect day??):

The market square with the guildhall in the background:

A close-up of one of the tents (check out the sign -- is it all wireless??):

Interior shots of the great hall at Stranger's Hall (kind of dark, I know):

Seen in window while standing in Stranger's Hall's garden (creepy!):

One of the many medieval parish churches, a stone's throw from the boundary of the Cathedral close (turn around and you'd see the Cathedral looming over you):

And finally, a view of the river across from where the Pastons once lived, complete with swans and one of many, many pubs in Norwich, The Mischief (on the right at the end of the bridge):

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Sticking up for Norwich

Since Karl ragged on the churches of Norwich in the comments to the last post, I feel obliged to stick up for them. First of all, for any of you late medievalists out there, or for those of you who like to visit English cities with lots of well-preserved medieval structures, Norwich is a must-see, especially as it has not yet been overrun by tourists the way York has (though York is also a must-see, tourist crowds or not). I visited Norwich on a sunny August day in 2004 and had a lot of places entirely to myself, including Stranger's Hall (granted, more early modern than medieval) and the reconstructed cell of Julian of Norwich (rather much larger than I imagine the original to have been). And if you happen to be in Cambridge, it's an easy train ride from there (about 2 hours, if I recall, and cheap day-returns are available). Also, I will always be fond of a city where I saw the Biggest. Dog. Ever. at the foot of one of the towers of the old medieval wall:

No, that's not a pony. It's a wolfhound of some variety, but I don't know which.

Anyway, back to the churches. I remember reading in one of the guide books that Norwich has the largest number of still-standing medieval parishes of any city in England. And then on top of that there are the rebuilt Victorian gothic churches, as well. The result is that you can stand in the yard of one parish and usually see one, two, or three more from where you're standing. It gives you a very clear, tangible sense of the closeness and smallness of medieval parishes, and of the religious activity that was necessary to sponsor their existence. In contrast, many parish churches in Norwich today are being made "redundant" -- despite existing in a country with a state religion.

I don't entirely disagree with Karl that the parish churches are all pretty small and dark, but they give a sense of intimacy (and the kind of close community that implies) that cathedrals and mega-churches and the suburban Catholic church I grew up in just can't do. But the Norwich churches really show you just how wealthy Norwich was in the 15th century. Take a look at St. Peter Mancroft, a parish church on the edge of the market square and near the guildhall, which probably means that its 15th century parishioners included many a wealthy merchant. Below is a picture I took of the interior, but I don't really do it justice. The home page of the church that I just linked gives more pictures, including one of the exterior that really shows its impressiveness, and you can see a panoramic view here, courtesy of the BBC. Here's my picture:

Pretty impressive for a parish church. Apparently, many visitors mistake it for the cathedral. Speaking of which, Norwich Cathedral is a wonderful place to visit, too. Though it's not quite as lovely as York Minster, it does have a fabulous collection of painted ceiling bosses and misericord carvings in the choir stalls. Here are two half-way decent pictures I took of those elements (the bosses are from the cloisters where I could get close to them):

What I also enjoyed about the Cathedral, especially on such a lovely day, was its enormous, park-like close (the biggest in England, I think). Here's a view of the Cathedral from one of the lawns:

That's only a part of the close. It goes on forever and seems to have its very own little village inside it. I *so* want to live in one of these houses (*love* the crenelation on the pink one!):

Of course, given English real estate prices these days, I couldn't afford one, not even with Norwich's relatively more affordable real estate. So I'll have to content myself with maybe going back for a visit some day. I'd like to do some easy hiking through East Anglia (it's very flat, after all) and maybe pop in on Norwich to see the things I didn't get a chance to visit on my one day there -- for instance "Dragon Hall," a 15th century building and museum of late medieval mercantile life, was closed for renovation when I was there.

So there you go -- plenty of reasons to love and visit Norwich! Now, perhaps I should ask the Norwich Tourism Board for an honorarium or something! :)

PS - Two more reasons to visit:

1) Streets like these...

2) ...where the Pastons once lived:

(I was also going to show you a picture of the Norman fortress with a nun walking a cute dog in the foreground, but Blogger won't let me post another picture. Darn!)

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Illuminating York Minister with voices

This is so cool. Back in October and November, a group called Illuminating York did a series of art installations and performances all around the city of York, England. The first link takes you to pictures and video of Evoke, an interactive project that lit up the Minster's western facade with moving rainbow lights set to operate in response to people's voices. The pictures are great but the video is even cooler. In it, singers, screaming kids, clapping crowds, and the sound of children's feet on the steps to the entrance all send undulating light projections crawling up the face of the Minster. I love the fact that it makes tangible the idea of voices being sent into heaven through the magisterial, soaring heights of the Minster. And be sure to watch the video through to the end, where the lights change into something more eery and uncanny.

I have to say though, I don't get where the writer of the post is coming from in describing York Minster as "usually dark and gloomy." Maybe they just mean at night, because York has always struck me as the airiest and lightest of medieval cathedrals, owing in part to its light stone (is it limestone? I can't remember) and its late medieval architectural techniques allowing for greater height and more windows. It's so powerfully beautiful that my mother gasped when she first entered it back on our first trip there in 1986. Though never a fan of religious art -- though she always visited every cathedral in every European cathedral city we traveled to! -- even my atheist mother understood viscerally the potential effect of the place for someone who does believe. For her its beauty was powerful enough.

I imagine living in York it would be easy enough to take the Minster for granted, but a display like this reanimates but also repurposes its beauty and meaning. Illuminating York is illuminating in all senses of the word. Well done!

Friday, February 1, 2008

Hi students

Yes, I know you're here. More on how in a minute, but first, can I ask a favor of you? Feel free to keep reading -- heck, add me to your RSS feeder. You're totally welcome here. *But*, for the time being, please don't tell anyone outside of the Middle English class about my blog. Some people think blogging, even academic blogging, is a silly waste of time -- even though I've made all sorts of fantastic professional connections through blogging -- and some of those anti-blog folks could be the ones deciding whether to give me tenure or not. So it's important to me to remain pseudonymous, at least until the end of this year, when -- fingers crossed! -- my tenure process is complete.

Oh, and if you don't know what tenure is, just ask. But to make a long story short, if I don't get it, it means I'm fired. (But you probably knew that.)

So, here's how I know you're here. I have something installed on my blog called "Sitemeter," and it tells me how many visitors I have each day, where those visitors are located -- or at least where their Internet Service Provider is located -- and how you got here, whether directly or from another blog or web site. For instance, this afternoon, two of you -- or the same person twice -- got here from the link on the Chaucer Blog, and you did so from one of the computers in the lab in our department's building, so I'm guessing you're one (or two) of the graduate students. I'm not telling you this to freak you out, but just to let you know that you're only slightly more anonymous than I am. The first lesson of blogging is that you're never really anonymous, which is why I'm not really that bothered that I've outed myself to you. But you should keep that in mind.

So since I know you're here, leave a comment and say hi! And then maybe I'll introduce you to all the other academics that come around here, just like I would if you saw me at a conference.

Of course, if you have better or more pressing things to do, I understand. I won't be hurt if you don't stick around. Speaking of having more pressing things to do, I promise to grade your last assignment this weekend!

PS -- Also, I think it tells you something (though not everything) about the academic blogosphere that the two posts with the most comments of those currently on the front page are the one in which I talk about accidentally outing myself to you guys in class and the one in which I show everybody the boots I ordered from Zappos. Yup, that's what we professorial types like to talk about -- you guys (and what you think of us) and our shoes.

It has begun

One of my students was on my blog for an hour and 20 minutes last night at about 2 am. (Yes, students, I know when you've been here. Actually, I know when people with area ISPs have been here and I'm assuming it's you.)

I don't know everything they read, but I do know they likely read about the last time I thought students were reading the blog -- and where I assured them I don't say mean things about them -- and they also read about my Mom dying, about Kalamazoo, and about other events in my life both major and minor. They may have also read some substantive posts, like the one about calling Margery Kempe crazy, which I've always liked. So, as Bullock says, they know a lot about me now (and about him), but that's not necessarily a bad thing. One of the original purposes of this blog was to add to the voices making professors' lives more transparent, and since my students see me for only a few hours every week, it doesn't hurt them to know that a) I have a life, b) I have other responsibilities besides their class and have a lot of work in general, and c) I'm not just a "brain on a stick," as Bitch, Ph.D. says, and I have other interests, desires, and activities, not all of them cerebral. (Of course they already know I'm silly -- I showed them the pork video!)

So welcome, students. Stick around if you like and comment if you have something to say.