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!"