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Preview: caught in the snide

caught in the snide

"I said, and said, and said those words. I said them. But I lied them."

Updated: 2018-03-06T04:11:06.351-06:00


De Breeze's First Theorem of Kalamazoo


Sometime early Friday morning, I had a vision. As I struggled to open my eyes enough to turn off my alarm clock, the following appeared to me in symbols of flame:


My head was throbbing, and if I didn't get out of bed soon, I was going to be late to the blogger breakfast meetup, so I didn't think much about these symbols. In the middle of the 10:00 session on Friday, as I began to feel a little better, understanding dawned on me. I immediately realized that this equation was an attempt to predict and quantify the most appropriate way to enjoy oneself at Kalamazoo, represented by x, where:

b = the total number of alcoholic beverages consumed,

p = the total number of papers attended (probably only valid for papers during which you do not fall asleep), and

d = the total number of days spent at the conference.

Ideally, x should fall somewhere between -1 and 1. A number higher than one reveals questionable moral fiber. If, for example, you attend six papers on day one but then consume eight beers that evening, x would be equal to 2.0, outside the acceptable range. A negative number suggests admirable restraint but questionable joie de vivre (it is also interesting that numbers less than -2 are exceedingly rare among medievalists).

When I went to bed Thursday evening, my x was floating (literally) right around 10. I had only been at the conference for half of one day, arriving too late to attend any sessions, but then I had about five drinks before finally getting to sleep sometime around 1:00am (i.e., (5-0)/0.5=10). At present, my x is slightly below zero, since, in an attempt at recovery, I did not really go out last night (though I did hit the wine hour--not sure how the watery stuff they serve there counts). Unfortunately, I have dinner plans tonight with a bunch of grad school colleagues. I fully expect, then, the value of b to soar by the end of the evening. To make matters worse, my flight out of Kalamazoo is at 5:45am on Sunday, so I can't really count Sunday as a day at the conference. All of this means, of course, that I need to get off my ass and go to the afternoon sessions. Hopefully Mary Kate Hurley's paper on time in the Old English Orosius will have an ameliorative effect.

I'll give a full account, complete with the final value of x (assuming I can...umm...recall all of the values accurately) once I'm back home.

See all the monkeys, scritch-scritch-scratchin'


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It must be getting close to time for Kalamazoo, as I'm spending a large amount of my time composing and replying to emails about dinner plans, get-togethers, and general conviviality of the medievalist type. I should be spending this time writing my paper, but, hey, I still have three days, right?

I'm planning on posting while at the Congress, if only because I've so enjoyed living vicariously through other bloggers' K'zoo posts the last few years. I may be spending much of Thursday and early Friday in my room writing my paper, but if not, I'll try to post a bit about the sessions I attend.

Can't wait. Now what was I doing, again? Oh yeah, the paper...



Yesterday's New York Times contains an interesting review of the off-Broadway play Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage. While I'm not exactly a devotee of experimental theatre, the play sounds like a lot of fun to me. I have a feeling that a few of my colleagues may not relish a play poking fun at Beowulf scholars, but I'm of the general opinion that any mention of the poem in popular culture is good news for medievalists.

One small complaint, though: the review refers to the scholars who appear to be the butt of the play's joke as "stuffy academics." It's a cliche, of course; for many people the term "academics" is just naturally preceded by "stuffy." But you know what? Most of my academic friends, maybe especially the medievalists among them, are decidedly non-stuffy. The American Heritage Dictionary defines stuffy as "not receptive to new or unusual ideas and behavior; conventional and narrow-minded." That definition seems to me to be more applicable to the students I teach than to my colleagues, some of whom are pompous and self-interested, yes, but not stuffy.

So I'd like to call for an end to this kind of libelous characterization. Maybe we need to hire a publicist or something. Let's redefine the cliche and be known for what we are: "dorky academics," or "poorly dressed academics," even "boring academics," but not "stuffy academics."

Take that, New York Times.

Kalamazoo 2009


So the program for this year's International Congress on Medieval Studies is now available online. For the first time since 1997 (I think), my name is to be found among the 2500 or so presenters (though you find "DeBreeze" in the listings). It's a weird feeling to going back to Kalamazoo. I've been going to conferences all along, of course. I've attended either the SEMA (Southeastern Medieval Association) or TEMA (Texas Medieval Association) conferences almost every year for the past twelve, so it's not like I've been completely outside the community of medieval scholars. But I know that I've missed something as a result of being absent from Kalamazoo for so long. As a friend of mine put it once, Kalamazoo is the one must-do event for an American medievalist each year. So in at least one way, I feel as if I haven't been a full-fledged medievalist for the past decade. It's kinda like I've been on the Junior Varsity team. And probably not a starter even there.

But now I'm going back, though it's to a very different Kalamazoo that I'll be returning. The last time I went, I was still in graduate school, still pretty starstruck by the big names, still very much figuring out what medieval studies were all about, and still unsure about my own place in that world. I was shepherded by my professors, introduced around by them, maybe even fed by them on occasion. But as I looked through the program this morning, I realized that none of my former professors, most of whom are nearing or past retirement age, will be presenting this year (though they may still be attending, of course). A few of my good friends from grad school will be there, some of them shepherding students of their own now. And while I'll be having a great time, no doubt, I'll also be missing my wife and kids. I imagine that I'll be in bed by the time the Saturday night dance gets underway.

Still, I can't wait. I'll spend the next few months dreaming about the book display and planning meet-ups with my friends old and new.

Oh, and at some point I'll need to reread my proposal, so I can remember what my paper is supposed to be about.

I must have nodded off for a moment...


A couple of weeks ago, a non-academic friend emailed me, asking what I thought of the new Burton Raffel translation of the Canterbury Tales. I hadn't looked at it, so I did a quick Google search, read a few excerpts, and then handed down my judgment. The translation was not that bad, I told my friend, but I had some qualms about translations of Chaucer in general. The importance of Chaucer's contributions to English, the beauty of the original, and all that. We had a brief email conversation on the subject of translations and general readers, at the end of which my friend said: "You should blog about this."Blog? I thought. What is this blog of which you speak?I'm not a big fan of blog posts about why there haven't been any blog posts lately, but since a little while (cough...three months...cough) has passed since my last post, I feel an excuse is warranted. So here, in bullet points, is as little explanation as I can manage:I'm serving as President of our Faculty Council this year.We had to fire (yes, actually fire) a faculty member in the middle of last semester, with the result that I taught six classes for the last couple of months of the Fall. It exhausts me just to remember it.My daughter started kindergarten in August. For those of you with kids, enough said.Did I mention that I'm serving as President of our Faculty Council? Suffice it to say that I've had little time, energy, or, frankly, inclination to blog recently. The Faculty Council thing is an absolute time pit. I have monthly meetings with the President and with the Board of Trustees, bi-weekly meetings with the VP of Instruction, and countless committee meetings (since the head of the Council is an ex officio member of about 400 different committees). Add in the time spent listening to various and sundry faculty complaints (all of which are pressing, extremely important, and not at all frivolous or petty, of course), and you're left with precious few hours to actually do your friggin' job. It's been disappointing to give up blogging, but not nearly as disappointing as it's been to give up being a medievalist. Working at a community college means that scholarship of any kind has to take place in the little time left when all other aspects of the job have been satisfied. For the past several months, that's meant that I've had to give it up altogether. I still read my regular blogs, of course, and I've glanced at an article or two when I've had a few spare minutes, but my scholarly productivity, always dicey, has fallen off completely. There may be light at the end of this particular tunnel, though. Or, rather, two lights. A couple of exciting developments will soon force me back into the world of medieval scholarship. Well, exciting for me anyway. First, I'll be going to Kalamazoo this year. First time in a decade, if you can believe it. I'm a little nervous about my paper, however (and by "nervous" I mean "panicked"). I have a tendency to write conference paper proposals in the middle of the night when hopped up on cough medicine, and, as a result, they are often wildly ambitious and well above my actual skill level. The upside is that I always learn a lot while writing the paper. In my room an hour before the session. After I stop hyperventilating. But the conference is still three months away, so all is well for the moment.The second development is something I'm seriously thrilled about. In the fall, I will be teaching a Medieval Literature survey course for the first time. To those of you who spend your afternoons conducting doctoral seminars on the idea of the body in tenth century poetry, my excitement probably seems a little pathetic. But since my courseload is normally restricted to lots of Freshman composition, made tolerable only by one or two British Lit survey classes per semester, the opportunity to teach a real medieval literature class is nothing short of monumental. I've alre[...]

Because New Kid is too busy with law school these days to skewer Chronicle articles


I don't know how many of you have read this piece on the Chronicle website this week. In it, the author highlights problems with the tenure system in American colleges and universities and suggests some sort of fixed-term contract (he argues for 30 years) to make sure that aging professors eventually retire and open up spots for new faculty. I'm not going to respond to his idea (mainly because my school has no tenure system and offers only one-year contracts to faculty), but I will respond to one example he cites. One of the problems with tenure, the author claims, is that departments often get "tenured in"; that is, they reach a point when all members of the department are tenured and likely to stick around for many years. The result is that departments find themselves not flexible enough to cover all of the areas they need to. Then he says:

"Does, for example, an English department with 30 members really need three medievalists?"

[pause for laughter]

I just want to know where these schools are. Where are these English departments that are terribly overstaffed in the area of medieval literature?

I also love the way he pulls "medievalists" out of the air as an appropriate example of obsolescence. Would he ask whether the same department "really needs" three Americanists? Three people covering the twentieth century? Probably not. But three medievalists? The absurdity! The waste of taxpayer dollars!


Okay, I feel better now. Back to grading papers.

Irony out west


Scene: a group of academics, including an academic dean, sits down at a local eatery.

Waitress: Can I get your drink orders?

Academic #1: I'll just have water.

Academic #2: Iced tea, please.

Waitress: (turning to the dean) And you?

Dean: (sighing heavily) I don't know. Hemlock?

Waitress: (without missing a beat) I'm sorry, sir, we just have Pepsi.

My only question: was she was one of our students?

And we have a winner!


Well, kind of.As of 8:00 this morning, I had received five comments on my previous post. Two commenters wanted me to finish the "teaching post," two voted for the "research post," and one expressed a preference for the "meditations on the profession" post. Since there was a tie, I decided to finish both the teaching and research posts and to start with the teaching post, since it was closer to being finished.Before I could get it posted this afternoon, however, I received an additional comment from Carrie K, who voted for the research post. I considered throwing out her vote on procedural grounds (a la the 2000 Supreme Court decision), but in the end I relented. So the official winner of the contest is the reasearch-oriented post, which I will finish in the next couple of days. Until then, you can read the runner-up below.******************************************I've worked here in Hawtch-Hawtch for almost ten years now. I grew up about 25 miles away, and I've lived in the state for all of my life, excepting seven years in grad school. In other words, I know this place. I don't agree with most attitudes I encounter 'round these parts, but I'm rarely surprised by them. At times, however, my students (most of whom grew up approximately 25 miles in the other direction from the college) say things that I have trouble even processing. It's not that I can't believe they think this way; I just can't believe that they say it out loud.When I walked into class a few weeks ago, I was greeted with a question. "Why did you make us read those articles?" a particularly burly student asked before I had gotten all the way through the door. I asked if he had a problem with the articles. "I sure had a problem with the second one," he responded. I looked at him innocently, though I was pretty sure I knew what he was talking about. The first article I had assigned to my composition class for the day discussed the challenges faced by families in which the wife works while the husband stays home with the children. The second article discussed the similar challenges faced by homosexual parents. Again, I know where I work, and I know that homosexuality is still something of a novelty to these students. A critical reading assignment I often use in my comp classes, for example, asks students to question whether the word "couple" has to refer to a man and a woman; my students usually greet this question with giggles. Actual giggles. So, yeah, I know what I'm getting into when I ask them to read an article that treats homosexuals as...well, normal. But I decided to play along. "What kind of problem did you have with the article?" I asked.Looking back, I probably shouldn't have asked that."Gay people are disgusting," my burly student said in a loud and matter-of-fact tone.Well. Okay."Are you sure that you want to start class with a pronouncement like that?" I asked him."What do you mean?" he replied, looking genuinely confused."Well," I started, "you don't know everybody in this class, do you?"He just looked more confused."What I mean is," I continued, "do you really want to start class by making this kind of blanket statement about a group of people, when you don't know whether some people in the class might belong to that group?"But he knew he had me beat on that score. While it was certainly possible that some people in the class might be homosexual, he knew, as I did, that it was extremely unlikely that any of them would be stupid enough to admit it. Especially now.Earlier this week, I attended an information session administered by our Institutional Research department. The subject was our campus results of the Community College Survey of Student Engagement, a national instrument designed to measure student attitudes and experiences at the CC level. One particular result jumped out at me. When asked how [...]

Are you ready to play our game?


I know what you've been thinking. No, the tarantula did not eat me alive. Summer school almost did, though. Teaching two classes while working on an article and a proposal for Kalamazoo, beginning a Latin translation group with a colleague, and deciding whether my oldest child would be starting Kindergarten next week left with very little time for blogging over the past month. I know, I know, there's always time for the things you put first, right? But as much as I enjoy the blog, it often comes in very low on my list of priorities.I haven't been absent from the blogosphere, however. I've been reading all of my favorite blogs regularly, almost all of which have had interesting things to say. I've been following the In The Muddle controversy (though I admit I came to it rather late and was only tipped off to the now-defunct blog's existence by a mention of it on Unlocked Wordhoard). I don't really have anything to say about it that hasn't already been said, by Larry Swain among others. I will say that, though I've publicly admitted that I'm not much of theory person and that I often have difficulty following the more esoteric posts at In The Middle, I have found the bloggers there, particularly Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, to be exceedingly generous and welcoming. I have little respect for those who pick on nice people (especially when those nice people are doing good work).And it's not really true to say that I haven't written anything here in the past month. In fact, I've written quite a bit, though none of it has made it into a publishable post. I've started three different posts, only to be interrupted by work, children, or sleep. As a result, I have three fairly substantial but unfinished posts sitting in my Drafts folder. I had planned on just ditching all of them--returning to a piece of writing after a long absence is always difficult for me--but Miss Goddess had a better idea (as she often does). Instead of letting these poor, orphaned pieces of prose pass into oblivion, I'll give those few remaining of my readers a chance to save one. I'm posting below the first paragraph of each of the three posts in question. If you would like to see one of those posts finished, please say so in the comments. Whichever potential post gets the most votes will be finished and posted in its entirety later this week. Here goes:Contestant 1 (the teaching post):I've worked here in Hawtch-Hawtch for almost ten years now. I grew up about 25 miles away, and I've lived in the state for all of my life, excepting seven years in grad school. In other words, I know this place. I don't agree with most attitudes I encounter 'round these parts, but I'm rarely surprised by them. At times, however, my students (most of whom grew up approximately 25 miles in the other direction from the college) say things that I have trouble even processing. It's not that I can't believe they think this way; I just can't believe that they say it out loud...Contestant 2 (the research post):One of the great joys and frustrations of being a medievalist involves having to face head-on the pervasive misconceptions held by the general public about the Middle Ages. Mary Kate Hurley recently asked medievalists about times when they have found themselves using their knowledge of the period in unexpected settings, but surely the most common, almost clichéd, scenario begins with the question "Did they really...?" Did they really burn witches? Did they really believe in magic? Did they really eat dirt? And so on. It is our privilege, nay, our duty to correct these misconceptions, no?...Contestant 3 (the meditations on the profession post):I've been thinking a lot recently about my approach to scholarship: why I do it, what I get out of it, etc.. As I've mentioned before in this space, I feel like I'm something[...]

No words


Okay, so I was in the middle of writing a long post about the future of online scholarship a few minutes ago, when Older Monkey came out of her bedroom and told me she was going to the bathroom. A few seconds later, she came back into the living room and told me that she saw a spider in the hallway that scared her. I did the good dad thing and got up from the sofa to help her, though I assumed that the probably tiny spider she had seen was already long gone. Imagine my surprise when I saw not just a spider but a TARANTULA!!! In. My. Fucking. House!

I just don't even know what more to say about it. I mean, Miss Goddess and I got it out of the house, in a low-comedy procedure that involved luring it into Older Monkey's cardboard-box-cum-pinhole-camera from last month's Art Camp. I'd like to say that I behaved throughout with the detached grace and calm befitting a scholar, but that would be a lie. I'm just thankful that I didn't wet myself.

Tarantula, with Younger Monkey's right Croc for purposes of scale.

Snakes in the water and other discoveries


Sorry to have been so long without posting. We've been extraordinarily busy around here. Miss Goddess decided that, as a birthday gift, she wanted to completely redo our kitchen. The kitchen now looks absolutely beautiful, though we had to neglect the rest of the house (and both of our children, to some extent) for more than a week to get it that way. Last week was Older Monkey's sixth birthday, an event which we celebrated by taking her and two of our nieces to see Kit Kittredge: An American Girl, followed by a trip to the American Girl Boutique and Bistro. I was dreading this stop, but I have to say that the American Girl operation is quite impressive. The stuff is crazy expensive, of course, but the attention to detail (aesthetic and historical) is remarkable. Too bad the dolls are taken only from American history. I found myself wishing for Aethelflad: A Mercian Girl, but, alas, it was not to be. I also started teaching summer classes last week, so I had to play like an employed person again. I wasn't really ready for long pants again so soon.Though I haven't been posting recently, I have been reading. Specifically, I've been rereading Heinrich Henel's edition of Aelfric's De Temporibus Anni, a text which I posted about a few weeks ago. It's been a strange experience going back to this work after such a long hiatus from it. The last time I looked carefully at it was before I even chose a dissertation topic, probably twelve or thirteen years ago. At the time, I was just learning Old English, just learning how to be a medievalist, in fact. Now I'm still learning Old English, still learning how to be a medievalist, but returning to this work has shown me that I have at least matured somewhat in my understanding, and what little I have learned has colored how I read De Temporibus Anni, raising some interesting questions about the work and about Aelfric's approach to it.In the first section of the text, for example, Aelfric attempts to explain the relationship between the sun and the earth, leading to a fuller discussion of the concept of day and how the earth is lit by the sun. He begins by recounting the first six days of Creation, in language close to that used in his own Old English translation of Genesis. That's not a surprising strategy for an early Medieval writer, I suppose, but it is a bit surprising for Aelfric, I think. Perhaps the best-known piece in all of Aelfric's works, a piece often anthologized in introductory Old English textbooks, is his Preface to Genesis, in which Aelfric expresses his deep concerns about Biblical translation, explaining that he undertook the translation of Genesis with great reluctance and that he was careful to translate as exactly as possible. He specifically says that he "did not dare to write any more in English than the Latin has, nor to change the order of words, except in the case in which Latin and English do not have the same way of expressing" (my translation).So I found it a little surprising that Aelfric includes what is essentially a translation of much of the first chapter of Genesis here at the beginning of De Temporibus Anni. I was even more surprised by an apparent error in this section, however. When discussing the fifth day of Creation, Aelfric states:On ðam fiftan dæge he gesceop eal wyrmcynn and ða micclan hwalas and eal fisccynn on mislicum and menigfealdum hiwum.[On the fifth day He created all reptiles and the great whales and all kinds of fish in various and manifold forms.] The problem, of course, is that Genesis does not say that God created reptiles on the fifth day. Or at least I don't think it does. The situation is actually a little complicated. See, Genesis 1:20-21 in the Vulgate reads as follows:Dixit etiam Deus: Producant aquæ[...]



Twenty-two years ago today, I went to a birthday party that changed my life. Actually, I missed the party proper because I was at work, dutifully bagging the groceries of the soccer moms of 1986. And I hadn't planned on going to the party at all, which meant that I didn't have a gift. At the urging of my friends and a little voice inside my head that would not be ignored, I decided I'd head to the party after work. I did my best with a last-minute gift found mainly on the toy aisle of the large supermarket where I worked. I don't remember everything that I put in that little brown sack, but I do remember one item in particular: a thin rubber bracelet that spelled out the word "WONDERFUL." When, after my shift, I drove to what was left of the party and gave that bracelet (with assorted and sundry other items) to the newly 16-year-old girl who was later to become my wife, I couldn't have known how appropriate a gift it was.

Of all the words I could use to describe the woman whose birthdays I've celebrated (and agonized over) for 23 consecutive years now, "wonderful" comes closest to the mark. She is full of wonders even now, even when you'd think I've seen them all, even though she secretly worries that she's become just another harried Mommy at the park. It's not just that she's crazy smart (though she is) or crazy beautiful (though she is). And it's not just that she has that thing that my mother insists on calling "creativity," making it sound like she spends her free time thinking of things she could hot-glue sequins onto. She's incredibly talented, of course, which never ceases to amaze me, since I've got plenty of skill but not much that could be called talent. Her sense of humor is so good it's actually frustrating, since I spend large parts of every day wishing I had said whatever she just said. And she's the coolest person I know, mainly because she doesn't really care whether other people think she's cool. But none of these descriptions are sufficient. What makes her so wonderful is the intangible whatever that is created by the combination of all these things, as processed by her whacked-out head that sees the world in a way that nobody else I've ever met does. Her whole, in other words, is much more than the sum of her parts.

What's great is that I figured all of this out (or intuited it, at any rate) that night in 1986, when I came late to her birthday party and gave her a ridiculous gift made up of items bought on a grocery store toy aisle. She smiled when she opened it, ad it was all over for me. Within two weeks we were officially an item, and I finally understood what being in love meant. Twenty-two years later, I still can't believe my luck.

So Happy Birthday, Miss Goddess. In the words of the Moldy Peaches, I don't see what anyone can see in anyone else but you.

Little-known literature: Aelfric's De Temporibus Anni


As she often does, New Kid has me thinking today. Thinking, specifically, about my blogidentity, to coin a term.When I first had the idea to start this blog, my motivations were pretty simple. I read blogs regularly, especially places like Unlocked Wordhoard and Quod She, and I wanted to get in on the fun. I also liked the idea of using a blog to compensate for some of the professional isolation I experience (i.e., not only am I the only medievalist on my campus, I'm just about the only person interested in British literature). Plus, I had long wanted to use the name Caught in the Snide (taken from Dr. Seuss, for those of you who don't know), just because it's such a great turn of phrase. What I didn't know was what the blog would be about. Should the blog focus on medieval content, like, say, Heavenfield does? Should I talk about the intersections of my career and my family life, like Confessions of a Community College Dean? Should it just be about the minutiae of my academic identity, like so many blogs that I won't name?In the end, I decide not to make the decision. I've posted about my personal life a bit, about my teaching, about life in the world of community colleges, about stuff that's just bugging me. What I haven't done much of, however, is write about strictly medieval content. Larry Swain, over at the Ruminate, has just started what he hopes to make a regular feature that focuses on little-known medieval works. I won't tread on the ground he's marked off for himself (though there's doubtless plenty of little-known medieval works to go around), but I do want to write some posts that deal with specific medieval texts. Hopefully, the posts will be somewhat interesting to readers and will serve at the same time as a space for me to think out loud about actual literature. Hell, if nothing else, maybe I'll make it into Scott Nokes's Morning Medieval Miscellany.I want to start with a series of posts about the text that, more than anything else, is responsible for my vocation as a medievalist. No, not Beowulf, not The Canterbury Tales, and certainly not Lord of the Rings. No, the text that I hold responsible for my decision to enter the world of medieval scholarship is...[drumroll]...Aelfric's De Temporibus Anni. No, seriously. Let me explain. I discovered this text as a student in a compulsory Introduction to Old English course that I was trying to get out of the way during my first semester in grad school, having applied to said school with the intentions of studying 19th-century American literature, specifically Thoreau and the Transcendentalists. I ran across De Temporibus Anni in the process of completing a reading notebook for the Old English class, which was already my favorite course. The title of the work, which translates as "On the Times of the Year," spoke to a long and abiding interest I had in the conception of time throughout history (in fact, my most successful paper as an undergraduate was a discussion of concepts of time and eternity in Augustine, Boethius and Aquinas). I started looking at the text and at some of the scholarship surrounding it, and by Christmas I had decided to leave the Transcendentalists to bespectacled bourbon drinkers and throw in my lot with the Anglo-Saxons. My first conference paper was on De Temporibus Anni, and it was my interest in this text that led, through a series of convolutions, to my dissertation topic, which had absolutely nothing to do with that text in the end. So I feel, in a sense, like I owe Aelfric something.De Temporibus Anni is among Aelfric's least-known and least-studied works. The standard edition is the one produced by Heinrich Henel for the EETS in 1942, and very little has been w[...]

Update on pleasure reading


I've found the secret to getting more pleasure reading done: completely avoiding work. Well, that and Miss Goddess taking the kids to a friend's house for several hours on Friday. Turns out I still can lie on the couch for hours at a time reading a book. I finished Foucault's Pendulum this morning, with very much the same feeling I predicted would accompany that feat: a sense of accomplishment, but not a sense of being fundamentally affected by the experience. Don't get me wrong; it's a good book, and I have no doubt that some readers are engulfed by it the way I am by other books. It just didn't do much for me, specifically. Still, 641 pages is worth something, right?

I'm now eagerly awaiting my next novel, the one I've chosen to take with me on a brief vacation we're taking with Miss Goddess's family in a few days. I've chosen The Solitudes, by John Crowley, whom I consider to be one of the great overlooked American writers of the past few decades. I actually read this novel fifteen or so years ago, but didn't really get into it. I'm hoping that the intervening years (and the fact that the main character is a professional academic) will have rendered it more to my tastes. I'll let you know.


Outside of a dog...


Flavia's recent post about the consolation provided by books (which is itself a response to a thoughtful post by MeanSomething) has gotten me thinking about how my attitude toward reading has changed over time. In a comment on her post, I listed a few books that I consider consolatory in some way. To be honest, though, I've never thought about these books (or any others) in this way. Maybe the term New Kid has used in her posts on the subject, "comfort reading" comes closer, since it evokes the idea of "comfort food," that is, not necessarily the food that comforts us, but the food that makes us feel comfortable. The books I listed in my comment, books like Brideshead Revisited, Death Comes for the Archbishop, and John Crowley's Little, Big, are books that I've read many times. I used to wonder what it was that drew me to these books and then drew me back again. It wasn't the plot of the books or even for the characters, and it certainly wasn't some kind of abstract academic appreciation of literary skill, though I do believe that all of these books are excellent examples of 20th-century literature. If I had to put a specific label on it, I guess I'd say that it's the tone of these books that is so appealing to me, the feeling that permeates them and that they convey to me when I read them. In fact, now that I think about it, tone and feeling may be what attract me to reading in general. And by reading here, I'm talking, of course, about reading for pleasure and for leisure. One of the greatest joys in life, am I right?At least that's how I remember leisure reading. The truth is that I don't get much chance to read for pleasure anymore. The combination of my teaching job and two small children has made it very difficult to spend those hours on the sofa lost in a book, hours that I only knew had passed after I looked up at the clock. That's not to say that I don't read for pleasure at all, of course. Some of my favorite days each year, in fact, are those first days after a semester ends, when I agonize over the choice a book to read. And I do read those books. Right now, for example, I'm reading Foucault's Pendulum, by Umberto Eco. I read The Name of the Rose last year and liked (not loved) it, so I thought I'd give Eco another try. I'm about 250 pages in so far, and it's not bad. But here's the thing: it's taken me more than two weeks to read those 250 pages. Two weeks! I can remember times when I was younger, when I'd read an entire book in a day. I once read a trilogy of novels over a 3-day weekend. Age and children can change all of that.But to some degree, that's a copout. Sure, I have less time to read than I used to, but I have more than the 20 minutes or so each day that I allot to pleasure reading. I spend a lot more time than that reading blogs each day, or checking for the nineteenth time before lunch. I could get up early and read for an hour or so before the kids wake up. I could read after they go to bed (instead of watching Californication online with Miss Goddess). And, of course, I could read instead of writing long posts on why I don't have time to read. But I usually don't.Why don't I read more? Maybe it's an inevitable by-product of a career that relies almost entirely on reading. Saying I don't read for pleasure is not the same thing as saying I don't read at all. Like all other English professors, I read almost all the time. Literary works for survey classes, articles for Freshman Comp, loads and loads of student essays. My professional life is full of reading, and much of it is fairly pleasurable. Well, not the student essays so much, but I do enjoy the rea[...]

A clarification


In my last post, I said that I don't really "get" postmodern approaches to medieval literature. After reading this tired and, at times, insulting (even to me) critique of the "po-mo desert" of this year's Kalamazoo, however, I'm sorry I said anything of the sort.

Let me be as clear as I can: sometimes I find the excesses of postmodernism to be silly. Twenty years ago, I found the excesses of New Criticism to be silly. And, like all normal people who spend any time at all with medieval thought, I find the excesses of scholasticism to be a downright hoot. It's the excess that I object to, in other words, not the postmodernism. I have no doubt that some of the papers that Allen pokes fun at in her article were as ridiculous as she thinks they are; in a conference of more than 1500 papers, some are going to be pretty bad. But I have a feeling that Allen is taking cheap shots here, finding titles that more traditional scholars (and, especially, non-scholars) would laugh at easily. The paragraphs on "waste studies" are good examples. Allen seems to be saying, "Can you believe that these crazy scholars spend their valuable time talking about shit?" But though I'm not particularly interested in the medieval attitude toward waste, I can think of no good reason to--pardon the pun--dispose of it a priori as a topic of study.

And I was borderline offended by some of the insinuations in the article. It's fine to point out that the "superstars" of medieval studies don't come to Kalamazoo (though I question the accuracy of the statement; I've seen many scholars I consider to be superstars at Kalamazoo). But Allen seems also to be saying that what she sees as the poor quality of the papers at Kalamazoo is a reflection of the mediocrity of the scholars who present there, people she refers to at one point as "bottom-feeding assistant professors and at-sea graduate students." Nice. She also argues that the proliferation of papers in the area of medieval literature (as opposed to medieval history, apparently) is a big part of the problem. As a scholar of medieval literature working at a (shudder) community college, I can only imagine what Allen thinks of me. [NOTE: as others have pointed out, Allen, as a Ph.D. student at Catholic Univeristy, is hardly one of the "superstars" she seems to be miss at Kalamazoo].

The most interesting thing about Allen's article, however, is the effect it had on me. Granted, I'm not part of her target audience (which consists, I suppose, largely of casual, non-medievalist intellectuals of a conservative bent), but I found that the article had exactly the opposite effect to the one she intended: it made me wish I was there. Much of Allen's characterization is dead on, of course. The number of papers at the conference is ludicrous. The dorm rooms are torturous. The dance is absurd. But these are the things that make Kalamazoo what it is. It's unlike any other conference in the world. And it's ours.



First, let me apologize for the radio silence around here recently. Suffice it to say that the end of the semester absolutely ate my lunch, as it tends to do. Grading end-of-semester papers and exams for six classes can really wipe you out. I actually tried to write a post after turning in my grades last week concerning my feelings about not attending Kalamazoo. By the time I got around to finishing it, however, everybody had been back from K'zoo for several days and the post felt very much like yesterday's news. If I don't go again next year, maybe I'll recycle the post.I've been busily avoiding work since finishing the semester. I have ambitious goals for the summer--at least one article, maybe two; start planning out a possible book project; lots of catch-up reading; etc.. Working at a CC means that scholarship is relegated largely to the summer months, so you have to use that time as fully as possible. To be fair, I know that many who work at four-year schools face much the same schedule. If anything, my situation is easier than most, since I don't have to produce any scholarship at all, if I don't want to. But I do want to, so I need to get to work.Originally, I had planned to start my summer work by cranking out a quick conference proposal. I try to attend SEMA whenever possible, and this year's conference in St. Louis sounded like fun, so I thought I'd piece together something from my ongoing work (which focuses on a specific genre of Old English prose) to send in. I like writing conference papers, and I can usually throw together a proposal in a couple of hours. This one has been stumping me, though. A couple of reasons, really. First of all, the stuff I've been working with most recently is very textual, if you know what I mean. It's the kind of stuff that works fine in an article, where you can lay out passages in parallel for comparison, but it's not particularly well suited for a conference paper (at least not one that stands much chance of holding an audience's interest). It's interesting how some research works much better in either oral or written form. I've written a few conference papers that could never really be expanded into articles, just because of what I chose to discuss and how I chose to discuss it. Now, I'm working with the opposite kind of research.The second reason this proposal has been difficult has to do with me. In an attempt to make the presentation less strictly textual, I've been trying to work up a specific angle for this paper which, while certainly not postmodern in the strictest sense, would definitely tread into an area usually traveled by "theory people." My use of quotation marks in the previous sentence undoubtedly makes the problem all too clear: I don't really get Theory.Don't get me wrong. I'm not a crusty New Critic railing against the nonsense of postmodern criticism. I admire those who work in Theory (well, some of them; scholarship informed by literary theory is like all scholarship--a mixed bag, in terms of quality). I just...well, I just don't really understand it. And it's not like I haven't tried. My undergrad curriculum was extremely traditional (more than one class I took used textbooks written by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren). So when I got to grad school, I knew that I needed work in theory. I signed up for a Cultural Studies course, taught by a brand-new Assistant Professor hired in from Yale, in my second semester. I bought all the books, did all the readings, and attended all the classes. Inevitably, though, by the time the class was fifteen minutes old, I was lost. I[...]

Into the lion's mouth


Earlier today, I was elected President of the Faculty Council at HHCC for the 2008-2009 school year. We have no union and no Faculty Senate, so the Council serves as the representative body for the faculty at large. As President of the Council, then, I am now the primary spokesperson for the faculty. I'll be meeting weekly (at least) with the Senior Vice-President for Academic Affairs and monthly (at least) with the college President. I'll also be attending all Board of Trustees meetings, as well as meetings of a couple of college committees on which the Council President serves in an ex officio capacity. And the part I'm most looking forward to is the inevitable regular drop-ins to my office by disgruntled faculty members [read "cranks"], of which there is no shortage at HHCC.

So all in all, I'd say it was a good day. Sigh.

Oh, by the way: my guess is that the content of this blog may, from time to time, reflect the, shall we say, concerns of my new office. I'll try to keep the rants to a minimum, but I can't promise anything.

Nine kinds of wrong


Near the beginning of my career in academia, I used to worry about administrators who seemed out of touch with the classroom. Every fall, the faculty here at HHCC would file into the auditorium to listen the then-President's "State of the College" speech, in which he would outline the exciting changes happening or about to happen on our campus. One of my most common complaints about these speeches was that they rarely mentioned classroom instruction at all. The President would talk about construction plans, retention strategies, and reorganizational schemes, but he never really talked about teaching. What we needed, I would claim, was a President who was directly engaged with what goes on in classes, with the real work of the college.

Oh, to be that young and naive again.

I have since realized the truth that the faculty at the University of Toledo is living through at the moment: administrators with opinions about teaching are a faculty's worst nightmare. I have to say, though, that the claptrap coming out of the head and mouth of UT President Lloyd Jacobs surprised even me.

Look. I'm a fan of student-centered learning. I can buy into the concept of Distance Learning. I even said, at the interview for the position I've held for the past ten years, that failure to embrace instructional technology was "unconscionable"(remember, I was very young then). But when a college President starts throwing around phrases like "extreme student-centeredness" (remember when "extreme" meant going too far?) and "mass customization" (to be honest, I still can't make this phrase make sense), somebody needs to pull the plug.

If you haven't heard yet, you can help pull this particular plug by signing an online petition created by those interested in saving the idea of the Liberal Arts (the initials of which should always be capitalized, like the names of other religions) at the University of Toledo. Signing the petition is a statement that you oppose the Burger King approach to education ("have it your way"), the diminution of the Liberal Arts, the continued fetishization of assessment as panacea for all of academia's ills, and, most importantly, phrases like "mass customization." Still can't get my mind around that one.

I have arrived


I feel like an honest-to-goodness grown-up blogger today. The reason: this morning I received my first spam comment!!! I feel a bit like Sally Field accepting her Oscar: they like me; they really like me! Or at least they see my tiny corner of the blogosphere as a worthwhile place to try to sell paper shredders. In Portuguese.

The comment, which I haven't deleted (and which I bet a few of you have seen before) reads as follows:

Hello. This post is likeable, and your blog is very interesting, congratulations :-). I will add in my blogroll =). If possible gives a last there on my blog, it is about the Fragmentadora de Papel, I hope you enjoy. The address is A hug.

There are many points here worth exploring, it seems to me. There's the obviously fractured English, not surprising given the Portguese origin. There's the unusual ending, in which a complete stranger with an apparent fixation on paper shredders offers me a hug. There's the slightly offensive suggestion that I should be congratulated on being interesting; perhaps I'm immodest, but I like to think that I'm interesting on a fairly regular basis and that being so is hardly reason for congratulations.

But what I really find fascinating is the fact that, for just a second anyway, I thought the comment was genuine. My Portuguese is pretty weak, sure, but I have to admit that I originally guessed that the "Fragmentadora de Papel" was some kind of early Medieval Spanish manuscript fragment. Maybe about...the Pope? I was actually kinda excited to read the blog. Imagine my disappointment.

Be honest, now: this episode marks me irrevocably as a Medieval Geek, doesn't it?

Oh, and I almost forgot.

A hug.

How much medieval is too much?


Gosh, has it really been two full weeks since my last post? Guess grading jail lasted longer than I thought. And, of course, I'm not really out yet. In fact, I just picked up an additional class. Yes, three weeks before the semester ends. A colleague of mine is unable to finish out the semester due to illness, so I have to teach one of his classes for the next three weeks. And grade all the resulting papers. On the positive side, the college is compensating me. I think I'll receive almost two hundred bucks for what will almost certainly be in the neighborhood of forty hours work. Almost minimum wage! And people say that the administration doesn't really care about the faculty...I've been teaching for about fifteen years now, so I've become pretty proficient at finding ways to avoid grading. One of my favorites involves planning for future classes. At the planning phase, a class is all potential; it can still be perfect. Once you add actual students into the mix (and once I enter the room for the first time), that potential has largely been sapped. I always enjoy teaching, mind you, but it's not nearly as fun as planning the class.I remember when I was in graduate school, a good friend and I used to prep for the job interviews we hoped to get when we finished our Ph.D.s by answering the "dream class" question. You know the one. If you could design a class without worrying about how it fits into a larger curriculum, what would it look like? I remember dreaming about classes devoted to medieval expressions of time or to ridiculously specific timeframes (Old English Prose: 975-1008). Teaching at a community college consigns such dreams firmly to the realm of fantasy, of course, but I still enjoy planning new courses or finding ways to significantly overhaul old ones.Which brings me to a question I deal with almost every year. One of the classes I teach is a standard British Lit survey. I actually teach both halves of this sequence, but I spend a lot more time thinking about the first semester (Medieval through 18th Century) than the second (1800 to the present). [NOTE: someday I'll post a rant about the way this sequence is broken up. Let's see, there's approximately 1400 years of British literary history. Obviously we should spend one semester on the first 1200 and the second semester on the last 200. Seriously, WTF?] What I struggle with each time I plan this class is how much time to spend on medieval literature. On the one hand, I think that survey classes should be designed to meet the students' needs, not the instructor's. If the point of the class is to survey British literature from its earliest days to the end of the 18th century, then the texts chosen should not focus unduly on one period but should...well, survey the overall range of periods. Sure, I especially like medieval literature, but that shouldn't be the guiding principle for the course. On the other hand, I have a certain amount of expertise in medieval lit, expertise that I don't have in the other periods studied in the class. Okay, so I work at a community college, and everyone is generalist at a CC, but surely the students could benefit more from my knowledge of things medieval than from my relative ignorance concerning Restoration Drama. Right?So how much medieval literature should be included in a Brit Lit survey class taught by a medievalist? All the mainstream anthologies divide the big period into three (Medieval, Early Modern, 18th Century), though in te[...]

Trying to escape the inevitable


What I had not foreseenWas the gradual dayWeakening the willLeaking the brightness away-Stephen Spender, "What I Expected"So it appears that I'm getting old. Inevitable, I know, but still somewhat surprising when you realize it. In general, I don't mind getting older. I have no plans to buy a sportscar anytime soon, and my hair remains free of gray at present, so I'm good for now. But I do have to admit that my body is beginning to show signs of, well, decay. What I didn't really expect, for example, was the dramatic change in metabolism that tends to show up in the late thirties. Before I was thirty, I often had trouble putting weight on. At one point in grad school, I weighed 119 pounds (on a 5'7" frame). And even though my father had been somewhat overweight throughout my childhood, I kinda assumed that I had dodged that particular bullet.But apparently not. Fifteen years, two kids, and fifty pounds later, I find myself in what I sometimes refer to as "medievalist shape." It's not just that I'm growing somewhat thick around the middle; I'm also sedentary to a fault. I get winded taking out the trash (mind you, they're big bags). I can feel my body slowly falling apart. And though I do sometimes fall into the academic trap of, as Sir Ken Robinson has put it, considering my body as little more than an elaborate system of transportation for my head, I would like the bus to keep rolling, if you know what I mean.So it was in a contrite spirit that I headed to the YMCA last night. Okay, so I wasn't really that contrite. But I went anyway, if only because Older Monkey was scheduled for a KidFit class. Since I was there, however, I decided I might as well get in some exercise. I don't enjoy exercise very much, but I do like walking and running, so I ran/walked around the track above the gym where OM was playing a strange form of baseball with the other kids. By my tenth lap, an old idea had reoccurred to me. It's an idea that I never thought was very realistic and which seems even less realistic to me now. But it still has significant appeal to me, so I've begun to entertain it. It's the kind of idea that I'm very reluctant to share with others, lest I have to face them when (in about a week or so, I would predict) I give up on the idea entirely and admit that I am a person of no substance, at least in the world of physical exertion. But I realized that, thanks to the shield of pseudonymity, I can talk about it here with very little risk. So here goes:I want to run a marathon.Don't laugh, Dr. Virago. I am fully aware that the mile-and-a-half I completed on the track last night represents only about 6% of a marathon. I am also fully aware that the last time I so much as walked briskly around the block (before last night) was before Christmas. In fact, I had to wear really heavy hiking-type athletic shoes last night because my normal running-type shoes (i.e., the closest I have to real running shoes) were left at another athletic club where I sometimes play squash with a friend. That sounds at least a little impressive, but the last time we played was well over a month ago. So let's just say that I've got a long way to go, in more ways than one.But what's weird--and why I considered this space particularly appropriate for my secret pronouncement--is that I somehow feel more qualified to take on this task since completing my dissertation a few years ago. I remember the feeling of impossibility, the recognition [...]

Getting it Wrong


A few weeks ago I spent an hour or so cursing the name of Scandinavian scholar who was active in the 1960s and 1970s. See, I was working with a minor Old English text, the only edition of which was produced in 1968 by the Swede in question. One sentence was giving me a lot of trouble, mainly because it contained the word "or," a very uncommon form for which I was unable to find a suitable translation. In situations like this, my first instinct is to doubt my own translation skills. Maybe this form represented some kind of dialectal variant that I wasn't familiar with. I tried substituting similar forms for a while, but to no avail. I was just about ready to throw in the towel when I thought of checking my facsimile copy of the MS, just in case the editor's reading was off. Sure enough, there in the MS, clear as day, was "of" rather than "or." It was so clear, in fact, that it couldn't really be considered a mistaken reading. It was, quite simply, a typo. Happens to the best of us, I know, but in this case the typographical error in question caused me some significant trouble. And I may not be alone. Though the edition in question (which appears in an fairly obscure Swedish journal, if that's not too redundant) probably hasn't been read by more than a generous handful of people, the error has persisted into the Dictionary of Old English electronic corpus. Which means that someone searching the corpus can find this hit for the word "or"...which does not exist in Old English at all. I assume some one will catch the error by the time the DOE team gets to the letter O (which may or may not be in my lifetime, if current progress rates continue), but until that time, there's the possibility, however remote, of scholars being very misled. By a typo.It occurs to me, however, that medieval scholars, such as myself, should be fairly sympathetic when encountering mistakes like these. We are, after all, intimately familiar with the concept of scribal error. Error is just a fact of life for medievalists, though not one that we're always very happy about. Few things about medieval literature are as frustrating as scribal error. I mean, it's one thing to try to analyze a text written in a foreign (and dead) language, a product of a culture that we can do little more than guess about. But when you add in the possibility that the words on the page are not just foreign but may be simply wrong, it can be discouraging, to say the least. The text I was working with a few weeks ago, the one edited by the careless Swede, contained several apparent errors (apparent in the sense that they resulted in meaningless, or at least obscure, sentences). What drives me nuts is that I likely won't ever get to know for sure what was meant in some of these cases. Editors can propose emendation, of course, and after a while those emendations can start to feel like the real thing, but we'll never know whether the emendation reflects the intention of the author of the the text. Our modern understanding of Beowulf, incidentally, is particularly rife with these kinds of emendations, so much so that scholars sometimes base elaborate arguments about the meaning of the poem on words that do not appear in the single manuscript version of the text. Surely this is not good.On the other hand, errors, or at least the concept of scribal error, can sometimes be a scholar's best friend. First of all, of course, they are the closest[...]

Reason #171 for academics staying indoors


As part of our Spring Break festivities (which have thus far consisted of a trip to the local used bookstore, that's all), Miss Goddess and I decided to take the monkeys today to a state park about 45 minutes away. We spent the morning in a light hike, followed by a picnic on a beachy area at the shore of a medium-sized lake. A wonderful time was had by all, especially by the two parents, who were feeling not a little self-satisfied at concocting and successfully pulling off this encounter with nature.When I replay the day in my head, this is where I wish we had decided to go home. Instead, we agreed that a nice way to cap off our day would be a relaxing canoe ride around the lake. Before I go any further, I should explain that, while not a big fan of boats in general, I've always liked canoes. As a child, I was in YMCA Indian Guides (now more appropriately called Adventure Guides) and spent many pleasant hours ambling around placid lakes (not to be confused with Lake Placid) earning patches of various kinds. Even as an adult, I was (don't laugh) Red Cross certified in Canoeing. I think, in fact, that I blame the Red Cross for what happened today. The thought of that certification card in my wallet made me cocky. The fact that the card expired eight years and two children ago did not cross my mind.So you've already figured out that the canoeing did not, as we say, go well. Younger Monkey backed out at the last minute, taking Miss Goddess with him. That left me and Older Monkey, who had never seen a canoe before this afternoon. The first few minutes were actually very nice. We decided to head across the lake to the opposite shore and then turn around and come back. We made great time across the lake, mainly, it turns out, because of a deceptively strong wind at our backs. We found out just how strong the wind was when we turned around and headed directly into it. Now here's an important tip for any of you who might one day make the serious mistake of heading into the natural world, away from the comforts of wireless internet and university libraries: don't go canoeing on a windy day. The experience was actually very interesting, from an intellectual perspective. No matter how and how hard I paddled, we either stayed still or, even worse, turned away from the direction of our destination. It felt, actually, like reading Derrida, if you know what I mean.Apparently, Miss Goddess was observing our situation the whole time and trying to get us some help. Older Monkey and I were not privy to this information, since I had stupidly left my cell phone in the car (where it was doing a lot of good). Things on our end were actually getting worse by the minute. The wind had picked up even more, driving us into the shore (though not the shore we needed) and creating pretty choppy waters that rocked our frail vessel in ways that were beginning to distress the five-year-old on board, whose confidence in her father was eroding by the second, despite his best efforts at reassurance. Eventually, it became clear that we were going precisely nowhere, so I made a snap decision. I steered the canoe (really, just let it go in the direction it wanted) toward the rocky shore. There were no good landing spots, but I found a space near some large rocks. Older Monkey was able to climb out of the canoe without too much difficulty, and I quickly followed. We were both glad,[...]