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*.