Friday, December 29, 2006

State of the Field

When I was in graduate school, a spate of "The Current State of Old English Studies..." articles came out, inspired, no doubt, by the criticisms of the field made in Allen Frantzen's Desire for Origins. Allen (who directed my dissertation) had argued that Old English Studies needed to reinvent itself and come into dialogue with other sub-fields in the profession by investigating contemporary literary theory. Not surprisingly, not everyone agreed that this was the way to go. Some scholars argued that the problems in Old English Studies were indeed there, but had other causes, and that engagement with contemporary theory was not likely to solve them. Of all these responses, I thought that Tom Shippey's was the best (but then again, I agree with Tom about an embarrassingly large number of things). Tom argued that many of the problems in Old English (a steady reduction in the number of positions, increasing marginalization of the field) could be credited to the bad teaching that was generated by compulsory Old English at elite institutions (and, following their example, elsewhere): since teachers had a captive audience, they were able to be really, really bad. Thus a new generation came to hate Old English. When they got into power, they dismantled as much as they could, putting the resources towards things they cared about. (There's actually a lot more to Tom's argument, and he looks some what prescient in places, so you should read it).

But a great many other scholars argued that nothing was wrong at all in Old English Studies. 'Old English is in much better shape than its 'detractors' would admit: Look, X was hired at Y, and Z got a grant from the A agency, and Q university just paid M all that money, and look there's a new project, and three new grammar books, and an edition of V, and ooo, a database..." The idea is that the field was/is in good shape. If I'm feeling cynical, I note that many of the people who wrote those articles already had elevated positions at elite institutions and, when I'm feeling even more cynical, I start to note that many of them made jumps into administration or even more elite places, suggesting that for them times were indeed good. But for the field as a whole, well, I'm not so sure.

This is a long set-up for a disappointing ending to a post, but my plan is to revisit this topic multiple times over the next year, so I'll be pulling out specific data that support my idea (which is really a gut feeling) that, although the free-fall may have stopped, and although in some ways we are positioned very well, there is a still a lot of trouble in Old English Studies and in the related Old Norse Studies (I can only really speak informedly about America, though I have a few ideas of the situation in the UK; obviously, when it comes to Old Norse, Rome is in the North, and the real heart of the field is not England or America but Scandinavia--I don't know the situation there).

Today's data: The Tools for Scholarship are Becoming Impossible to Get

My Professorship at Wheaton carries with it a nice little stipend that has one stipulation: I don't just get the money, I have to spend it on something. So, because I am not yet ready for Japanese lessons (for a long-term project dealing with the Tale of Genji), I have been buying books, filling out my library. This has been, as you might imagine, a lot of fun, and I've now got my Old English bookcases in good enough shape that I don't really have to leave the house to do most of my research. Two weeks ago I finally got a Ker catalogue (N. R. Ker's Catalogue of Manuscripts Containing Anglo-Saxon), an essential book that has taken me at least five years (and $300) to buy. My own college's library didn't have one, so I had to drive up to Boston College when I needed to consult it. A number of years back I was able to snag a Bosworth-Toller dictionary off of eBay (before too many Anglo-Saxonists learned about eBay, and yes, I got a complete, 2-volume BT for $120 dollars). And this is my point: although one can patch together a decent research library (the ASPR, Beowulf, the EETS editions of key prose texts -- and I hope to do a post on what a basic library for Old English Studies would be), some of the fundamental tools for research are not just out of print, but are impossible to get. Bosworth-Toller is, wonderfully, now on line, but the Ker catalogue isn't, and in Old Norse the Cleasby-Vigfusson Old Norse/English Dictionary is impossible to get (though I found a beat-up one for $300 and a good-condition one for $600), and half the texts and editions one would want in ON are out of print as well.

This is, I would suggest, evidence of a field in trouble. Not simply because beginning scholars can't get essential research tools (because they can, especially if out-of-copyright texts migrate to on-line versions), but because of what that lack says about the relationship of our field to other studies: presses can't be bothered to keep things in print because there is not enough demand. That is not a comforting thought. In future posts I'll try to discuss why this is, but for now I just want to try to establish this one particular point.
Happy Holidays

I have a post about being an academic with children in the works, and one on a minor indicator of the state of Old English and Old Norse studies, but neither is quite done, and actually having children plus end-of-semester plus Christmas has pretty much taken away all free time I might have (in a good way). If something is going to be neglected, it's going to be the blog.

So I hope to have a post in a day or two or at least when the kids get back to school and the grades are turned in.

Best wishes for a happy and prosperous new year.

(and I'm particularly happy because I finally managed to get a copy of Ker's Catalogue of Manuscripts Containing Anglo-Saxon! After more than five years of trying! (Now the big question is whether it's worth it to buy the Copus Poeticum Boreale reprint, or a Cleasby-Vigfusson Dictionary, or the Lapidge St. Swithun book... any advice?)

Thursday, December 07, 2006

More on the Research Group

In this post I talked about how we in the humanities generally do not have research groups the way that the sciences do. I got an interesting comment from Tiruncula that I hope to follow up, and a few private emails as well. So I thought it would be worth it to discuss this further (I should do that more often, but I'm not a very good blogger, as you will have noticed).

There are now on the web very good "virtual" research groups using different kinds of content-management software. ANSAX-net used to be a quasi research group before it was first hijacked by loonies and then lost a lot of steam as many of the more senior and serious people deserted it. There are groups like the Reading Room at and Livejournal collectives, etc. I am involved in different "virtual" research groups, and they are absolutely essential to my work (my co-editors for Tolkien Studies have only gotten together about five times in four years; I never met my editors for The Tolkien Encyclopedia). But there is something very different about a physical, meatspace working group.

So I have tried to build one. I don't have graduate students at Wheaton, so I decided to treat my best undergraduates like graduate students and see what happened. I'm pretty happy with the results, which include a decent pile of publications, one of my very best research assistant just about ABD in the best medieval program in the world, another recently returned from a Fulbright to Iceland, another in grad school in Kansas, another just out of law school, etc. There is no way we could have gotten Tolkien Studies up and running without the research group, and the bibliography project and few other things that we haven't unveiled yet are all due to the group.

Let me explain how it works. About five or six years ago, Prof. of Biology Ed Tong and I went to our previous Provost and proposed the formation of Wheaton Research Partners. The Provost supported--and got the Work Study office to support--assigning about 25 positions (8 hours per week at, I think, $7 per hour) to the program. The first 25 faculty who apply with a decent proposal get a Wheaton Research Partner. I find it most effective to split the job in half (i.e., 4 hr per week) and hire two WRP students each year. These are my immediate research assistants.

Then, I recruit a few more students at the job fair. I point out that I don't actually have a paid position this year (it's already filled by the WRP person), but that if someone volunteers for an hour or two per week, he or she will certainly have the inside track for a WRP slot in the future. Then I hold a group meeting and see who shows up. I have always managed to have two to four very good students working with me.

It's really important not to assign these students monkey work, but to teach them and the trust them to do real research. This takes a while, and we definitely treat it as an apprenticeship program: students start out with basic things (entering articles into the database, filing them, reading and summarizing) and move up as they get more skills to researching bibliography, requesting materials ILL, and then actually writing and proofing the final bibliography with me. The most advanced students proof each issue of Tolkien Studies with me. I also will do independent studies with advanced students who want to, and for the very most advanced seniors, an honors thesis if appropriate. So the "career path" is:

Volunteer -- gets experience
Wheaton Research Partner -- gets paid
Independent Research -- gets course credit
Honors Thesis -- gets honors

At each stage students get intellectual credit for what they do, presenting at Academic Festival, being co-author with me on something when they earn it, getting to present at a conference (and then I hit up the Provost's office for money for them to travel), etc.

The biggest weaknesses with this system are the lack of guaranteed funding, lack of space and large time committment for both administering the project and for uncompensated teaching (but I teach a ton of Independent Studies anyway). But the rewards are very great. I have six different articles and bibliographies co-published with eight students. All the research for the Anglo-Saxon medicine project was also supported by Wheaton Research Partners, and that led to a publication in Anglo-Saxon England with an undergraduate as co-author. I'm never at a loss for things to do or people to talk to about my work, and the social environment of the group is constantly energizing.

Of course things would be even better if I had the equivalent of a laboratory in biology: if I could afford to pay a Tolkien scholar from overseas (like Marcel Bülles or Gergely Nagy, both of whom were part of the group, but who had other funding) to come each year, and if I had an advanced grad student or two, and a post-doc, then we would really do something. And of course the big limitation is that the group is (mostly) limited to working on Tolkien, as undergrads just aren't quite ready, linguistically, for research in Old English until they are seniors. But I guess I have years to put such a program together, and in the meanwhile I am having a great deal of fun with some pretty incredible students: the four who are working with me this year, two freshmen, a sophomore and a junior, are stellar, and I'm hoping that with their energy, we can do even more things in the spring semester.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Missing the Research Group

In yet another recent triumph for Wheaton (the New York Times recently called us a "hidden gem" and the Boston Globe asked our president what it's like to run a "red-hot" school), a research group in the Science Center has contributed to the decoding of the sea urchin genome and were co-authors on the paper in Nature. This is, of course, great news in its own right, and Bob Morris, who led the team at Wheaton, is always good to give my daughter a nice sea urchin test (the dried exoskeleton of the animal, but he does ask her questions, also) when we visit his labs.

But it's more important because this success illustrates something that scientists do really, really well and that we in the humanities are not so good at.

Jonathan Weiner, the star science writer who authored The Beak of the Finch, also published a long examination of the unwinding of the genetics of drosophila melanogaster, the friut fly. Weiner's book, Time, Love and Memory is of course mainly the story of Seymour Benzer, who was one of the pioneers in the analysis of the molecular biological bases for behavior. But it also the story of the people Benzer assembled, for decades, in his Cal Tech labs. They formed an ongoing research group that cracked some of the most difficult problems in molecular genetics, and their group was the source of many, many successful scientists. It is still going strong today.

We don't really have research groups in the humanities. Oh, at times people to get together for a presentation or a colloquium, and there's certainly a decent amount of water-cooler chat and sending email links to resources. But as a whole, you go into an English department and you do your own work. For some this is the dream life, and for others it is what drives them out of academia: those long, lonely nights with an open word-processing file that as yet has no words in it. This is certainly the romantic image of the academic, sitting up nights in his study, thinking and writing. And there's nothing wrong with the image; I even follow it sometimes.

But scientists have something that, at times, works even better, and I think we should figure out how to steal it from them.

The Research Group, a collection of different-level intellectual workers, gathered in a single lab with a single large and complex problem (the kind that sheds smaller projects like a maple sheds leaves), can, when it works well, harness social and even physical entergies and bring them to bear on these problems. Ideas are quickly vetted and cross-fertilized. New projects bud off from the original project and in turn spawn more projects. Eventually, in the best groups, everyone from undergraduate lab assistants to visiting Full Professors, is engaged in expanding human knowledge. It is a beautiful thing to behold.

But there are really very few functioning Research Groups in English. There seems to be one at the University of Toronto, centered around (of course) the Dictionary of Old English. Some larger programs, Notre Dame, for instance, seem to develop strong cameraderie among their grad students, and they do tend to work on very similar projects, so maybe it is working there. But in general, to paraphrase a line from noted philosopher Mr. Incredible: We Work Alone!

I brought up the Sea Urchin group earlier because they did not have many of the fundamentals upon which good research groups are built. They were part of a multi-institution team, there were not unlimited amounts of money to support many labs and different experiments, communication was almost all by email and rarely (with the larger team) face-to-face. But they still managed to form a productive group that included faculty from multiple departments (and multiple faculty within Biology) and even extended to the scientist spouse of one of the professors. Their energy was enormous, and the students picked up on it as they struggled on the project as well. So for now, even at a tiny place like Wheaton, with a strong, strong emphasis on teaching and not the kinds of resources possessed by the big labs, we were able to put together an effective research group.

So what does it take, and how can we do it? I haven't been able to get running the kind of research group I'd really like, but I've had some hints of it: I've assembled students through the Wheaton Research Partner's Program and gathered additonal volunteers. Then I've hosted visiting scholars Gergely Nagy and Marcel Bülles from overseas. We therefore had some moments when we really were functioning as a research group, each engaged in both individual and communal problems, each sharing data and getting ideas from each other. We were transforming the lonely struggles of academics into communal struggles of academics. It was great.

But I don't know how to do things like this without money, a graduate program, a physical space and wide enough recognition to bring in the best students, junior faculty and senior faculty. I think I'd be good at running it, though, if there are any mysterious billionaires reading this blog who would like to make a huge contribution to the study of culture.

But we do the best that we can with the time we have, and I'm happy that my research group, rudimentary as it is this year, is accomplishing more and better work that we would have had we not worked with each other.

[How I'll ever explain to school security about the number of people with keys to my office... well, let's just say I hope I don't ever have to make that explanation.]

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Free to a Good Home: Ph.D. Dissertation Topic

The Liber Aphorismorum is the Latin translation of Hippocrates' Aphorisms, one of the most-studied texts in the history of medicine. Learning the Aphorisms, and how to interpret them, was one of the major tasks facing apprentice physicians in the Middle Ages (the interpretation, of course, was mainly through Galen). The translation was made from a “recension or archetype of the early sixth century either at Ravenna, the center of the translating activity under Theodoric the Ostrogoth, or possibly at Corbie” (Kibre, citing Beccaria 1961, 22ff). This translation was used up through the twelfth century, when two other Latin translations were made from the Greek.

There are 22 manuscripts of this first translation, scattered throughout western Europe (the greatest number are in the BN in Paris). As far as I have been able to determine, they have not been comprehensively edited. The standard editions and translation of the Aphorisms are made directly from the Greek text (which of course makes sense).

There are also a great number of commentaries on the Aphorisms, also scattered throughout Europe. Many, if not most, of these have been edited. Some have been translated.

Here's the dissertation project:

First, produce a diplomatic edition (assemble all the manuscript evidence (i.e., in microfilm, photocopy, pdf, etc., transcribe them in machine-readable form).

Then produce a critical edition of the Latin text. For six centuries this was one of the major medical texts, yet it has been ignored because the "better" (i.e., truer to the Hippocratean source) Greek text was edited. That we have a more accurate text is wonderful, but the text that was actually used would be of great interest as well.

In doing this you will have the opportunity to do the kinds of things that the editors of the PL or the MGH did back in the nineteenth century: except you'll have computers, databases, facsimiles, etc.

You'll also be able to market yourself both as a literary scholar (in medieval Latin) and a historian of medicine: there will be more and more interesting job opportunities to come out of it, and funding should be much less of a problem. Medical schools have tons of money, and the money required to support a literary scholar is peanuts compared to what it costs to do most of their research.

And if you take this project, you don't even have to pay me. Just let me have your raw transcription/diplomatic edition.

Why? Well, the project I want to do requires this information, but I estimate that it would take me five years or so to gather it, and my own Latin is probably not good enough to produce a solid edition of a medieval Latin text without missing some significant subtleties. Also, I have about ten years worth of other projects lined up, anyway.

What am I looking for? Memes, of course. It is my gut feeling--supported by the gut feelings of others who know the Aphorism tradition much better than I do--that the Aphorisms change very, very little in their transmission over six centuries or more. They are very stable memes. Yet the commentaries vary a great deal. So the transmission and copying of the Aphorisms compared with the transmission and copying of the commentaries gives us a really interesting data set on the formal stability of prose texts. I am very interesting in finding out exactly how much they vary, what patterns can be seen in the variation and what comparisons we can make to other texts (say, poetry, laws, etc.) that have a long transmission history. The Aphorisms are in some ways on the boundary of poetry and prose, which makes them additionally interesting for my theoretical work.

I would assert--and I'd like to be able to argue, even prove--that there is an inverse relationship between formal stability and interpretive stability. That is, if the form holds still, then the interpretation must continually shift (as the language and culture changes out from under the text). I think this holds true in poetry and proverbs: I'd love to test it with the Aphorisms.

So, if any grad students read this who want a dissertation topic, I'll definitely write a strong letter of support to your funding bodies (and again, this kind of research opens up additional funding opportunities).

My own tentative work suggests that it might not be necessary to scramble all over Europe to get the manuscripts either. I'm guessing that many of them might be included in Johns Hopkins' "Henry E. Sigerist Medieval Manuscript Reproduction Collection," but I won't know for sure until some ILL requests come in.

In the meanwhile, anyone who wants to set me straight about errors in the above or (even better) point out to me that someone has already done most of this work will be owed several beers at Kalamazoo.

Monday, November 27, 2006

The Dreaded (and Dreadful) Job Search

Last year I decided not to blog about the job market because we were searching. This year we are kinda searching, but not at MLA and in a really weird way, so I am blogging. (Actually, it's more because I was inspired by this post at Ancrene Wiseass about job interviews and creating the "right" image).

I've now been involved in about ten searches, once as a candidate, twice on MLA interviewing committees, and the rest of the time as part of a department that delegates only the MLA interviews to the committee (we all jointly do everything else). Of course Wheaton is weird, is a small liberal arts college, a department where people actually try to behave like human beings, etc. But I think I have a few insights into the process. I also hope that this is a good time to write, as (hopefully) my friends on the market are starting to get requests for dossiers, interviews, etc.

So, herewith, a few comments and tips.

First, the MLA hiring process is the most dehumanizing, soul-killing, loathsome job process ever invented. Cattle-call auditions for Annie, the NFL combine, and that gross scene in Showgirls are all pleasant compared to the process that has evolved for hiring for professorial jobs. From the utter bogosity of the original sorting process (in which two department members could, theoretically, decide to boot every person whose last name begins with "D", and no one could stop them unless they admitted it), to the incredibly stupid reasons that people are left in or tossed out of the MLA pool, to the ridiculous situation that is the MLA interview--all of it probably could not be worse if you hired Dr. Evil, Stanley Fish, Newt Gingrich, Sideshow Bob and Stalin to put together a process that is simultaneously bureaucratic and subject to the whims of insane people, tedious and capricious, utterly stressful and incredibly boring.

This isn't meant to be scary so much as to say that if you hate the hiring process, you are a normal human being. And if you don't hate it, please don't sit near me, k?

But that said, you need to work the process to your advantage without getting too hung up on it. And you need to recognize that despite all the intellectual effort you put in, a lot of it is a crapshoot (which is to me why the process is so horrible: we make people strive and strive and then much of the final decision is luck).

How to work the process to your advantage?

Here is my deep dark secret: Most academics like to talk. A lot. And they think very highly of their own talking. You, being an academic, probably do, too. Think about what happens when you put a lot of people who like to talk into a room and make them sit there and listen when they'd rather talk (to paraphrase Scott Adams, your mouth is much more than twice the size of your ear holes, you know). Think how you feel when forced to sit and listen to a speaker drone on and on without letting you get a word in edgewise.

Yes, you are supposed to be being interviewed, and the committee is interested in you. But think through the dynamics and play them to your advantage. It's sad but true, but the more people hear themselves talk, the more brilliant they think you are.

Prep, in advance, a pithy answer to the question: "So tell us about your dissertation/research": Think about how long you would want to sit and listen to even the most fascinating graduate student in the world talk about a dissertation. Keep your answer that short (this is a judgment call, but I would say that if you get up over 4 minutes you are heading for trouble, and if you can say what you are about in 2 minutes, you are golden).

Then, end with an entry point for another person to talk: Do you think this work would fit in with anything anyone is doing in your department? (this can be risky due to toe-stepping). You can fix it by doing research and saying "I noticed on your web site that Dr. Q published on M. I don't work on M itself, but there are some parallels--do you think Q would be able to guide me towards good resources?" This is esp. helpful if Q is on the committee.

At every opportunity, ask an intelligent question, particulalry about departmental cohesion and mentoring. Also, find out about service courses (show enthusiasm even for lower-division courses and say "that's where I recruit my majors/grad students, etc".), the path to tenure (is there an open line for this position? is the jargon term that shows you are in the know). Ask about research opportunities. Not all at once. These need to be worked into the conversation so that there is give and take. End with a question about publishing expectations and look happy about the answer, whatever it is.

When asked teaching questions, give specific anecdotes first and the principles they illustrate second. No one wants to hear "sometimes I do group work, but sometimes I lecture." Duh! We all do that. Rather, talk about a specific problem with a specific student --- I was teaching Stephen Jay Gould's Wonderful Life and had an absolutely unexpected reaction by a student who said "I didn't come from no fish"; here's how I worked that out and made that student such a close reader of Gould's work (looking for logical errors) that he managed a B+

Gamble question: "Is there a lot of political diversity in your department?" Wait for the answer from all three interviewers, if they all speak, and observe how they interact. Then, your answer is "Oh, that's a relief. I can certainly fit in there." [I'm sorry; people don't want you to be honest about your politics; they want to fantasize that you'll agree with them about everything].

But the key is to try to listen without seeming shy or overwhelmed. You will be tagged as "thoughtful" and "genuinely interested." Make sure you express that genuine interest for the actual institution and not just for the region of the country, etc.

Physical presentation: I would say "wear what makes you feel good" (though I'm a hypocrite here, and used that nasty Rogaine until the day after I signed my contract--it worked, too). But seriously, get a suit that you like and that you are comfortable in. Accessorize the way you want. Wear your wedding ring (I think). No matter what you do, it will offend a bunch of people (too stodgy, too edgy, too New York, too young, too old, too married, not married, possibly gay, not gay enough, patches on the sleeves??? But that's a Harris Tweed!! Heels too high, heels too low, tassles on loafers good, tassels on loafer bad, etc., etc. etc.) It is not possible to win, the way it might be if you were trying to get a job in the fashion industry: here, there is just as good a chance that the person interviewing you has no knowledge whatsoever of what is a good shoe or a bad shoe. I know one eminent professor who wore gardening boots with mismatched socks to a meeting with Chancellor. So make yourself comfortable, and some of that should rub off on your confidence.

More of a gamble, especially, especially for women: think about not wearing black. The MLA looks like and has the social dynamics of the funeral of a particularly powerful but child-molesting uncle. You don't want to participate in that. If you can bear it, try not to wear a black suit. You'll stand out. You might not stand out as "I wear black on the outside because that's how I feel on the insidge", but you will stand out. It may be that going in yellow or powder blue will work--if that's really you and you're comfortable in it.

Finally, roll with the surprises. I was asked at one point if I could teach contemporary American poetry. Well, I had a copy of a new Denise Levertov book in my bathroom, so I went with that. Three minutes later someone asked another question, so I was off the hook on that one (I actually read a fair bit of contemporary poetry, but I would never presume to teach it).

The best candidates I've seen (who have been the ones we've hired) are those that are sincerely interested in our college (and if you can fake sincerity, you're set) and have thought about how they can contribute to the institution.

They are not hiring you because you're a cute kid or you're top of the class or even that you're a soon-to-be hot scholar (according to the letters of recommendation, everybody is a budding superstar) . They are hiring you to contribute to the department's mission (whatever, and however poorly articulated that is) and to be their colleagues. So present yourself as yourself: a person who does certain things in English, not a person who is a certain thing in English.

Good luck on your quests. May your mailboxes fill with dossier requests and your many interviews give you no time to go to the stupid papers (no one even giggled at my Beowulf/penis joke--and it was a good one--so I shall never again present). Go, look up your friends, drink quickly but not too heavily, and try to relax as much as you can. Like a really strong bout of rota virus, it will soon be over.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

J. R. R. Tolkien Encyclopedia

[Update]. I have learned that Taylor and Francis has only printed 800 copies of the Encyclopedia rather than the planned 2,500. I don't know if these numbers make a difference to collectors or not, but there you have them. Second, if you are a contributor you can receive (supposedly) a 20% discount on the book by emailing Finally, thus far Taylor and Francis has absolutely refused to distribute any contributor gratis copies despite an original promise to do so; I am working on this, but without much success thus far.

(it wasn't my idea to leave off the definite article)

The Encyclopedia is finally out, so if you have $175.00 and a real interest in Tolkien, you should check it out. Although there are some imperfections (to say the least) I think it is a very useful resource for people interested in Tolkien at all levels.

I also want to give you the story of the imperfections.

I've been working on the Encyclopedia for three or so years now. It was a weird process, as an editor at Routledge contacted me, but then I had to write the proposal, etc., but it basically went well with only a few major glitches (some contributors bailed out at the last second--or actually beyond the last second--and there was a bit of tension when a few important articles were late and the press wanted to boot them). Then, Taylor and Francis bought Routlege and, this summer, decided to close down the encyclopedia division as unprofitable. My editors were let go (no one told me; I found out via bounced emails) and many projects were, apparently, cancelled. The Tolkien Encyclopedia was far enough along that they decided not to cancel it, so for once in my life I lucked out on the timing.

But that didn't stop Taylor and Francis from screwing things up. Back in the early summer I began to receive fascicles of the Encyclopedia for proofing. They were a hideous mess. Everything that could be wrong—from citation format to layout to basic copy-editing mistakes—was wrong, and I spent well over a hundred hours marking up the typescript. This went back to the production people and then, for a long time I heard nothing. And I was shocked to learn that there were no plans to send individual articles back to contributors for proofing: every project I've ever been on has let contributors get a final look. Not this one.

Likewise, there was an inexplicable decision not to include the 100 illustrations I had spent weeks collating. This was never communicated to me until after I asked, and I was not consulted on the decision.

Even worse, when we originally designed the Encyclopedia, there were to be many "blind" entries. So, for example, if you looked up "balrog" it would say "see Monsters." This practice was promised to me because I was asked to aggregate a great many short entries into large pieces to make it easier to find enough contributors. Routledge then refused to put in the blind entries, and though I tried to make an end run to the compositor, that was apparently blocked. So what appear to be bizarre decisions were not so originally: there is no entry on "Ancrene Wisse and Hali Mei∂had" because that article is covered in the "AB Language" and "Ancrene Wisse" and "Katherine Group" entries, but then Routledge screwed up and didn't put in the blind entry. They claim that the index and the thematic table of contents (which sucks a bit) will solve this problem. I am not convinced, and I think that the Encyclopedia would have been much easier to use had they listened to me and followed our original agreement. But at least the content is still all there, even if it takes more work to find it.

But really much worse are the problems of corrections. Although Routledge did not send final proof copies of articles to individual contributors, I personally had been contacting people and emailing back to Routledge sets of corrections that were coming in from the editorial board, various contributors, etc. As we got further into August, I began to get very worried that I was not going to have enough time to proof the entire thing again (as it obviously needed; when you are making 8-25 corrections per column you can't expect to have gotten everything). Around August 17, the entire typescript came back, and it was still a serious mess, with a lot of basic formatting errors, etc. Unfortunately, that was right when I got pneumonia (followed by my son getting pneumonia), and I was out of action for a few weeks. When I did eventually get to proofing and started to return fasciles, I was informed that "we are sending the whole thing to press tomorrow." Really. When I objected, I was told that all the errors I had found (and spent many hours on just for the A-C fasciles) would surely have been caught by the professional copy-editors (who had somehow managed to miss them the first time). The volume went to press and I never was able to see a final version. So there are lots of corrections that were made (for example, Doug Anderson had sent me a pile of corrections that I dutifully sent on but don't seem to have been incorporated). Certainly the contributors should not be blamed, as they had no idea that the press would do something as idiotic as not sending laid-out articles back to contributors for proofing.

In the end, I'm disappointed that Routledge / Taylor and Francis marched the ball down the field almost to the end zone and then decided to punt. This is still a very, very good resource, but it could have been a great one, and I'm disappointed that it's not.

But let me conclude on a more amusing note. For a few weeks I had been badgering Routledge to send me my author's copies, or at least one author's copy, so I could see how the book came out. Finally, on Wednesday, my copies arrived. This is advising week at Wheaton, so I've had students trooping in and out of my office. I showed the Encyclopedia to one, and he said "but isn't that at the library?" Yes, the library had gotten its copy and put it on display two weeks ago and I hadn't noticed it. Doh!

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Updates, Odds and Ends, Orts and Leavings

a.) Fishing story: Took Rhys fishing again. Made some beautiful casts for her, at one point bouncing the lure off of a rock wall so that is rolled gently into the very edge of a deep hole. Not a nibble. So we go downstream to explore a still, muddy part of the river. Can hardly see the water for the weeds, but I find a trail to the edge of the mud. Cast a few times. She reels. Nothing bites. Then I see a gigantic rock on the bottom of the pool get up and move. It is a snapping turtle the size of a garbage can lid. "Well," I say, "that's probably scared away any fish it hasn't eaten." "That's ok," says Rhys. "I guess I have to get skunked once." "One more cast." She reels in and splash! there's water and flailing everywhere. The fish is jumping through weeds and leaping full out of the water shaking its tail. It is gigantic. She wrestles it to the shore and we lift it up. Her new fishing scale says it weighs around three pounds. It is 17.5 inches from lip to tail. It is the largest freshwater fish I have ever successfully landed (though she did the reeling in). Took me 38 years (and its not like my dad didn't take me fishing all the time). Took her 6. She is truly the luckiest fisherwoman in the world.

b.) Thanks for all the help and comments on the podcasting. I am slowly working my way through the suggestions and figuring out how I am going to do it. And for those who don't want the pod, I'll be selling the Beowulf aloud CD set as well -- the brilliant designer who did my book cover, Jennifer Schuman (if you want to hire her) is doing the CD design right this minute.

c.) If I have seemed unlike myself in taking a long time to return emails, etc., my excuse is that in addition to all the last-minute letters of recommendation, grading, making up a senior seminar as I go along, etc., I have been embroiled in the article that will not die. It is now just about 60 (yes, you read that right) pages without Works Cited, complete footnotes, page numbers, complete appendices, etc. So in the past three and half weeks, I've written 1/3 of a book. Unfortunately, it's not evolving into a book and I may not be able to get it published. Hell. Never set out with the goal of making a comprehensive discussion of all of a scholar's work. Really. Don't do this. I'm hopeful it will be done by the middle of next week.

d.) Due to a great deal of flux with timing, revisions, etc., it is quite possible that this volume of Tolkien Studies still has room in it. If you have a piece that is ready or close to ready, you may be able to squeeze in a very quick publication (submitted now, in hard-copy in hand at the beginning of May), but you need to move really fast at this late stage.

e.) I still hope to write something about the untimely death of a first-tier medievalist and a truly great person, Nicholas Howe, but I just can't yet drag it out of me. Maybe this weekend.

Beo∂ ge, leorneras and lareowas, halan.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

All Hail the Power of the Crazy Crawler

After school today I took my daughter fishing in the oldest artificial waterway in North America. She hooked and landed a 14-inch bass and a 12-inch pickerel within fifteen minutes of each other. And it was a big, fat bass, too. I could barely get both hands around it.

"My heart is still racing" she said when we let the bass go.

We were using the Crazy Crawler, a lure that has always worked wonders for me. You get big fish with a Crazy Crawler, and it often works when nothing else will. But the best part is that both of these fish actually leaped out of the water to attack the lure. It was very exciting.

And great to see my little girl in her pink L. L. Bean fishing vest holding a massive bass and grinning from ear to ear.

I see many fishing trips in the future...

Ave, Heddon Lures. Ave, Crazy Crawler.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Beowulf Aloud

Back at the beginning of the summer, after recording a new course, A Way With Words: Writing, Rhetoric and the Art of Persuasion for Recorded Books, I went into the studio for a marathon session and recorded all of Beowulf in Old English.

I tried to read it dramatically without go so far as to adopt multiple voices, and I even sang Finnsburg. It was fun, but also one of the hardest things I have ever done. As exhausting as recording fourteen 35-minute lectures for a course is, reading all of Beowulf aloud and keeping up the energy level was even more work.

Then Matt Cavnar, the genius recording engineer and director who has done all of my courses for Recorded Books, edited the piece, taking out all of my stumbles and making me sound much better than I actually am.

Recorded Books will be publishing the Beowulf reading later this year, bundled in a special offer for one of their programs that hasn't been completely decided yet, but I retained the rights to sell it on its own, and I'm working right now to put together some kind of inexpensive and interesting package. I did a short lecture on Beowulf as well that goes before the reading itself, and the entire thing takes up three CDs.

So, you ask, where is he going with this?

I'd like to solicit suggestions for a few things:

a). What key information would you think would be useful to have on the liner notes (remembering that I have basically two small pages to work with)?

b). Do any of my readers know about podcasts and how to go about making them? I wouldn't mind podcasting some of the reading, but I have no knowledge in this area and pointers would be nice.

c). What other things do you think would be possible and interesting to do with Beowulf Aloud? How could it be useful to you in teaching or study?

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Oral Tradition Goes Online

On September 15, the journal Oral Tradition, published out of the Center for Studies in Oral Tradition at the University of Missouri-Columbia by the man who taught me Old English, John Miles Foley, went on line. OT is now twenty years old and has published some of the most interesting work in literary studies (and in anthropology of culture for that matter) in those two decades. I want to encourage you all to investigate the journal, because it publishes first-rate scholarship and it will now be freely available to all users of the web, whether you have an academic affiliation or a subscription or anything. A great democratization of information. We should, I think, support this adventure.

I also have a small ideological point to make. Here at Wheaton we are undergoing a process of "Infusion" as we seek to integrate work (academic, artistic and personal) on race, ethnicity, gender and class throughout the curriculum. I am not entirely on board with the way this project is progressing (though I was one of the people who wrote the langauge that allows the process to be directed by individual professors within disciplines, which is very, very important), but I do think that some good can come out of it if people shift their focus towards the things Oral Tradition studies.

So if you do want to bring under-studied cultures and approaches into the classroom, I can think of no better way to do it than through Oral Traditional Studies. You've got it all: a greater multiplicity of cultures than just about any discipline engages with (maybe the anthropolgists are equal, but they don't deal very much with ancient or extinct culture); the highest culture from these cultures, including masterpieces such as the Iliad, Odyssey and Kalevala as well as some of the most popular culture (and sometimes it isn't a contradiction). And you're working with both "insider" and "outsider" researchers. You're pushing new boundaries in theory and practice. You can get money to do field work, to go off to New Guinea if you want to and collect stories.

I am working up an OT course either for 2007-08 or 08-09 as the culmination of my Prentice Professorship, and I am loving doing the research. Just to give you a taste, here is the table of contents for the last issue of OT:
The How of Literature
by Ruth Finnegan

The Culture of Play: Kabuki and the Production of Texts
by Andrew Gerstle

Performance, Visuality, and Textuality: The Case of Japanese Poetry
by Haruo Shirane

From Oral Performance to Paper-Text to Cyber-Edition
by John Miles Foley

Text and Performance in Africa
by Karen Barber

On the Concept of “Definitive Text” in Somali Poetry
by Martin Orwin

My Mother Has a Television, Does Yours? Transformation and Secularization in an Ewe Funeral Drum Tradition
by James Burns

The Many Shapes of Medieval Chinese Plays: How Texts Are Transformed to Meet the Needs of Actors, Spectators, Censors, and Readers
by Wilt Idema

Textual Representations of the Sixteenth-Century Chinese Drama Yuzan ji (The Jade Hairpin)
by Andrew Lo

Now there is probably no person reading this who has the skill-set (the language skill-set alone, even) to work in all of these traditions. But OT brings this material together, and edits so stringently, as I know from experience, that the articles are readable and enlightening even if they come from outside your tradition.

So I strongly encourage all of you to check out Oral Tradition on line and read some of the many fine papers. And then next month you can check back and read a dreadful paper that somehow snuck through an otherwise totally rigorous process (maybe they felt sorry for me), my little piece "“A Meme-Based Approach to Oral Traditional Theory”; if you would download hundreds of copies and send them to your elderly realives, that would be great, too.

Monday, September 18, 2006

J. R. R. Tolkien's The Children of Húrin

HarperCollins is going to be publishing Tolkien's Children of Húrin as a stand-alone volume next year. According to the press release (which I haven't been able to find on line), the text was created by Christopher Tolkien's painstaking editing together of Tolkien's many drafts. The book will include a new map by Christopher Tolkien and a jacket and color paintings by Alan Lee.
Quote from Christopher Tolkien:
It has seemed to me for a long time that there was a good case for presenting my father's long version of the legend of the Children of Húrin as an independent work, between its own covers, with a minimum of editorial presence, and above all in continuous narrative without gaps or interruptions, if this could be done without distortion or invention, despite the unfinished state in which he left some parts of it.

It is not clear from the press release (and I have absolutely no insider knowledge) that there will be anything that was previously unreleased in the book.

Various different versions of the tale of the children of Húrin have previously been published:

1977 in The Silmarillion as "Of Túrin Turambar" (prose).
1980 in Unfinished Tales as "Narn i Hîn Húrin" (prose).
1984 in The Book of Lost Tales, Part II as "Turambar and the Foalókë," and "The Nauglafring," (prose).
1985 in The Lays of Beleriand as "The Lay of the Children of Húrin" (verse in alliterative long-lines).
1994 in The War of the Jewels as "The Wanderings of Húrin" (prose).

From the press release, it seems as if these variants will be stitched into a coherent whole in the same the way that Christopher Tolkien brought together disparate texts to create the 1977 The Silmarillion

So, The Children of Húrin will not be a "new" book, but I think its release as a stand-alone volume is a very good thing for a variety of reasons.

First, the material is powerful and evocative and goes back to the very beginning of Tolkien's writings about Middle-earth, as it was originally inspired by Tolkien's reading of the Kullervo cycle in the Finnish Kalevala. The Túrin story is the element of Tolkien's legendarium that is the most "novelistic" in form, with more dialogue and detailed action than the more sweeping, historical style of the published Silmarillion. But it has been very difficult for most general readers to get a handle on the story because of the way Christopher Tolkien had to edit and publish the texts: they were part of scholarly editions, designed in large part to provide a documentary record of J.R.R. Tolkien's work. As such, they are very difficult simply to read for pleasure, the way we read The Lord of the Rings; Christopher Tolkien had to present texts, then explain variants, gaps and contradictions. So reading any of the post-Unfinished Tales pieces is a very difficult exercise for people who do not have a lot of experience with these sorts of editions (i.e., nearly anyone who is not a medievalist).

Second, by compiling everything into a whole, Christopher Tolkien is doing exactly what his father eventually envisioned for The Silmarillion (at least as best we can tell from the published record). It was not supposed to be a "novel" like The Lord of the Rings but was instead the volumes of Translations from the Elvish by B.B. created by Bilbo in Rivendell from his translations of various books of lore. Thus the Silmarillion (the legendarium, as distinct from The Silmarillion, the 1977 text), was conceived of as a tapestry woven from materials taken from various other texts, some poetry, some prose, some fragmentary, some contradictory. Although possibly frustrating to general readers who want to get to the story, the incredibly complex layering that is generated by such an approach is what gives all of Tolkien's work the impression of immense depth (the "vast backcloths" to use Tolkien's own description). Gergely Nagy, in what I think is the best article written on Tolkien in the past decade, talks about the "Great Chain of Reading" that links together various authors, compiliers, historians and translators (Heorrenda, Pengolad, Bilbo, Frodo and Sam, etc.). The Children of Húrin should give us another example of the final effects of that Great Chain.

Perhaps as a result of the enormously unfair criticism leveled at him after the 1977 publication of The Silmarillion, Christopher Tolkien went more in a scholarly direction rather than continuing to be a synthesist and compiler. All of his work in The History of Middle-earth is incredibly valuable, but it was not the only possible approach. If The Children of Húrin volume is more like The Silmarillion, then it will be a return to something that Christopher Tolkien himself does very, very well and is perfectly in keeping with the underlying conception of the legendarium.

So even though in one sense I have 'already read' the new book, I am definitely looking forward to its release in April 2007 and will certainly enjoy reading it straight through in a way I have not previously been able to do with the Túrin materials.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Advances in Herp Care
or, odd things that I happen to know

Big Arm Woman has a highly amusing post about taking her son to a reptile show. Money quote:
There are basically two kinds of people at reptile and exotic animal shows: middle-class soccer moms with little boys who love snakes and overly tattooed goth/biker types. This makes for an intriguing mixer situation.

On the nose. Back when I was the pet store manager, it was great fun to be part of a really intense discussion about salt water fish with the huge biker guy who ran a local strip club, an orthodontist who was a fanatic about live corals, and a skinny little thirteen-year-old boy who obviously spent all his allowance on fish. These were three of my best customers: they always came into the store just before closing on Wednesday nights to see what I would unpack from the new shipments of fish. They were also fast friends, though (I'm guessing) only inside the store. Love of certain kinds of animals, and fanaticism, breeds strange interactions and friendships.

I'm writing this post because BAW say that "Hublet still won't let me buy a corn snake," and I was in the same situation for a long, long with with my lovely spouse, who finally relented after two years of pleading by my daughter.

We got my daughter (who is almost exactly a year older than her son) a corn snake for her birthday this year from Kathy Love's Cornutopia. It came FedEx.

"Pipsy" is a sweet little animal and my daughter loves her. I think handling and taking care of a corn snake is great for a little kid, because the animal itself seems to generate a lot of focused attention and gentleness on the part of the kid. Corn snakes are always on the move, so the child has to keep passing the snake from hand to hand.

But another good reason to get a child a corn snake is that "herp care" is a lot easier than it was even back in the late 80s and early 90s.

For example, nobody feeds live mice anymore, so you don't have to deal with a) live mice, b) child liking the "food" more than the snake, c) the food injuring the snake (which happened a lot). Now you get "pinkies" or "fuzzies" frozen in little plastic packages at Petco. Just thaw them out in some warm water and you're set. And the snakes you buy now have never seen live food, so they eat with no problems.

Also, some smart person figured out that if you give the snake a second, "feeding cage" (a shoebox or a tupperware container) it won't get nippy when it's in its regular tank (which is what happened to OJ, my snake -- he was named long before 1994). The snake now wants to get picked up, because it might be being taken to the food, and it doesn't think your hand is the food.

So that's what I know about herp care. Maybe in a future post I will talk about the nitrogen cycle in fishtanks and why changing the water if it gets cloudy in the first few days is a very bad idea. Or I can go back to health bulletins and possibly medieval studies at some point. We'll see.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Folk Etymology: Gomer (Medical Slang)

Medpundit prints the word "Gomer," a form of medical slang, and follows many other writers on the internet as interpreting it as an acronym for "Get Out of My Emergency Room" and meaning "an unwanted emergency room patient."

Because I just finished two days in NYC recording a new Recorded Books college course on CD The English Language, I am particularly attuned to interesting linguistic phenomena, and this is one of them. So let me talk a little about Folk Etymology.

A Folk Etymology is the creation of a false, but appealing, etymology for a word. The Wikipedia entry is actually decent and give a group of good examples. In general, the acronym theory of etymology is usually wrong, particularly for words from before the twentieth century. I always have to spend a bit of time each semester disabusing students of the idea that "rule of thumb" comes from the thickness of a rod with which a man was allowed to beat his wife (Mary Wollstonecroft is partly to blame for this error), and there are many more.

However, "Gomer" is a twentieth-century word, so it could come from an acronym. But I am as close to certain as I can be that the actual etymology of "Gomer" in medical slang is not an acronym, but from the character "Gomer Pyle." And I have some print citation to help.

In the early 1970s, "Gomer" was medical slang for a stroke-patient, head-trauma victim, or someone afflicted by senile dementia. Individually wrapped, plastic emesis basins were called "Gomer bowls" (and, expensive as they were, they were regularly used to eat Chinese take-out, since plates and utensils were forbidden, for sanitation reasons, in the on-call rooms). Although I heard the word "Gomer" used very often, I never heard the "Get Out of My Emergency Room" acronym, and if it had been invented, I am sure I would have heard it: med students, interns and residents loved that kind of thing.

How do I know? My dad was an intern and a resident at New York Hospital from 1973 to 1976 and we lived in Pason House, across the street from the hospital. That was back when internship and residency was ever more hellish than it is now, with my dad getting the wonderful "every day and every other night" schedule at least once per month, and often more. I remember how great the world seemed when he was on "every third night" (think about that, complaining English professors: you worked every day and every other or every third night for a couple of years).

One of my dad's best friends was a guy named Neil Ravin. I remember Neil as someone who liked to sit and chat with me when he came over to visit, and he was very tall and thin, so his "airplane rides" (when he would swing me around in circles) were scary and fun.

Years later, in 1981, Ravin published M.D., in my opinion one of the very best "becoming a doctor" books out there, though it is of course somewhat dated now (the very first AIDS patients were beginning to show up in New York Hospital in the mid- 1970s, but no one recognized the disease yet). Supposedly some of the incidents and actions attributed to the "Iggy Bart" character were thing that my dad did or had happen to him (though the name "Iggy Bart" comes from the real name of the guy who was my pediatric allergist).

M.D. uses the word "Gomer" and "Gomer bowl" very frequently, but not once does it give the acronymic etymology for the word. And, if you read the book, you will see that this is the sort of thing that Ravin would have almost certainly used. For comparison, one of the locations in the book is based on Sloan Kettering, the hospital for cancer treatment in New York (which Ravin renames "Whipple"); Ravin tells the dark joke, "Where's the only place where the Mets always win? Answer: Whipple." ("Mets" meaning metastic cancer cells).

It is, of course, possible that "Gomer" became a piece of medical slang from the acronym and that the name, but not the acronym, travelled to New York Hospital in the early 1970s, but this is highly unlikely.

I think that it is far more likely that "Gomer" is based on the character of Gomer Pyle and was only later folk etymologized to mean "Get Out of My Emergency Room."

By the way, despite the success of M. D., several medical mysteries such as Informed Consent and Seven North and the tear-jerker Mere Mortals, Ravin never left medicine and is apparently a practicing endocrinologist specializing in thyroid disorders in Maryland. When I discovered that, I was not at all surprised: although its kind of silly to think that you get a "read" on people you know when you are eight years old, it just seemed fitting with my old impression of Neil, who was one of my dad's friend who I was always thrilled to see when he came over to visit.

[P.S.: This post is notice that I am finally no longer sick. Perhaps illness is why I was thinking of medicine. It turned out that I had pneumonia, and then my two-year-old son came down with it. Five days of 104.5 fever (and then a hives reaction to amoxicillin) was pretty scary. God bless quick chest x-rays and zithromax. We're all better now, just in time for the semester to start tomorrow].

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Still (Barely) Alive

First of all, my thanks to everyone who emailed get-well wishes. I really, really appreciated it even if I was not able to reply.

As we discovered when my two-year-old son got really, scarily sick, pneumonia visited our house twice, explaing why I could not get well from what I thought was a summer cold. Add in a bad reaction to amoxicillin for my little one, and it was a very difficult and frankly frightening few weeks in the Drout household. But now, thanks to the miracles of modern antibiotics that don't cause horrible allegic reactions and hives, everyone is well, and we even managed to celebrate my daughter's birthday without major disruption (and she is thrilled about her new pet cornsnake and her fly rod--is she a dream child, or what?).

On the other hand, I am nearly three weeks behind on things going into a semester that starts next week, so life is pretty stressful. I may actually be late on one or two deadlines, but I intend to be caught up by the end of the first week in September. If you are waiting for a reply, and haven't heard from me by then, please feel free to noodge.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

As Soon As I Can

To anyone who is waiting on an email from me:

I've been really, really sick, sicker than I've been in quite a while, and before that I was unplugged from the internet for a couple of days, so I don't think I've really answered any email since around August 4.

On Friday I got out of the house and dragged myself down to Wheaton. This turned out to be a mistake.

I'm hopeful I'll be better soon and will be able to catch up, but at this point, and after the setback caused by Friday, I am goign to force myself to rest until I am better.

Sorry about the delay in communications.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Science Fiction Course on CD

My college course on CD, From Here to Infinity: An Exploration of Science Fiction is now available from Recorded Books. I am very pleased with the way this course came out (and I hope you will be, too). Writing and recording it also gave me a good excuse to read a lot of SF in chronological order, something I had never done for my varous 'theme' courses in SF.

We finished recording How We Do Things With Words: Rhetoric, Writing and the Arts of Persuasion, and I'm now in the process of writing a History of the English Language course. Both of those should be available in September. My fantasy literature course, Rings, Swords and Monsters should now also be available in a Barnes and Noble near you (though they have re-titled it Of Sorcerers and Men for their Portable Professor Series).

Here's the cover for the SF course. There's also a very cool Cthulhu illustration for the section on Lovecraft.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Should I Become an English Prof?

Frank at Bourgeois Nerd had decided not to go to grad school for an English Ph.D. based on his readings of academic blogs. In this post he wonders if this was a wise decision and if academic blogs are an accurate reflection of life in grad school and afterwards. These are very good questions, and because Frank is a Jersey guy, he deserves some attempt at answers, despite my insane deadlines right now.

Frank has actually received some good comments from other Profs and grad students, so I am not going to repeat all of that (just read the comments), but I want to add a few things.

First, graduate students live for complaining, so you should always discount their miserable whining by 60% (mine also). I'm not saying that grad school doesn't often feel miserable, but that is also part of being that age and having to deal with the difficulties of having no money, no prestige, etc. In retrospect, a lot of grad school is a lot of fun, but that depends in great part on the program you are in and the students around you. Professors also like to gripe, and it seems to be bad form ever to admit in public that you are fabulously happy and fulfilled in your job and your life. There's a lot of the "I wear black on the outside because that's how I feel on the inside" Emo pose in both grad school and in the professoriate.

That said, grad school with a bad advisor or terrible colleagues or a rotten department can really suck and be a true waste of time and resources. The job market is terrible and isn't getting much better for tenure-track jobs, and there can be a lot of politics in academia, which can unfairly cause tenure denial. I think you need to be very, very cautious about additional student loans for graduate school since (experience talking here) the cost runs up very quickly while the earning power afterwards isn't so great, and if you drop out just before the Ph.D., the financial cost can be enormous.


Being an English professor is a great job. You get to study what you want, read and write all the time, and, as part of your job talk about interesting, intellectual things with other people who are also interested in those things. The flexibility is very valuable, the pay isn't as bad as it could be, and the security of a tenured job can't be beat. So it's a good prize. And most importantly, you get to teach.

Which is exactly why lots of people want a professor job. Which means that getting it takes some doing.

My best friend from college is a successful Broadway actress who does concerts with Marvin Hamlish, etc. Things are going very well for her now, but when we were both getting started we used to commiserate about how hard we were working with few results to show. She passed along an actors' saying:

Aspiring Actor: I have no life.

Slightly More Established Actor: Oh! You wanted a life? I didn't realize that. I thought you wanted a career. If you wanted a life, you should have said so.

The point is that to get the prize of being a 'working actor' or a tenure-track assistant professor, a lot of sacrifice is required at the early stages. Almost all of the people who dropped out of my graduate programs were those who took graduate school as an extension of college rather than as a job that was going to require at least 40 hours per week of hard work (and usually need more than that).

As for politics, yes they are there in academia, but not demonstrably more so than in a lot of other professions. I've been lucky in that the politics at Wheaton are manageable, and if you're a good teacher, pretty much everything else is discounted, which is very helpful. But I also want to challenge the bromide that academic politics are so vicious because so little is at stake. Hogwash. Academic politics can be so vicious because it's all about status, which is the issue around which all the most vicious political battles occur in any profession. So it's not so much about being particularly political, or being a particularly good suck-up (though I've seen that work for a few people in the short run), but about producing some kind of output that can be measured and can stand up on its own (i.e., publications, syllabi, etc.) to insulate you from the more dangerous and miserable politics. There were politics at the Pet Store that I managed, and they are there in any organization that includes people, so that's not a particular reason to avoid academia.

Frank's other worry about not wanting to be a vagabond academic is more well-founded. Academia definitely rewards those who can/will hop from place to place. This is especially true at the very upper levels. If you are tied to one geographic location or to another person, academia is not very accomodating. If you want your job to be in NJ forever, you're giving yourself a much higher uphill climb for a tenure-track job (though I do know someone who desperately wanted to get a tenure-track job in North Dakota, and did, and is happy there).

So in partial conclusion, I would say that the crankiness on academic blogs shouldn't warn you away from academia, but the real problems of geography and the job market should give you pause. And most of all, I think people should not go into academia unless they really want it badly. Otherwise you will be out-competed by someone who does, even if you are intellectually superior to that person.

The academic environment is also a lot bigger than the tenured professors who have the "elite" status. Several of my former students got degrees in library science from Simmons College. Especially because they were also computer-savvy, they all had multiple job offers upon graduation in the geographic locations of their choice. And at least one of them is almost certainly making more money than I am right now, and having what seems to be a pretty great life. Library science, distance learning, academic PR and communications, development and administration are all other avenues that provide a lot of the great things that being a professor provides. They don't, however, give you a classroom and a bunch of students. To me that is the greatest benefit of being a professor, and why my job is also my calling (and thus why it is great, and I'm happy).

[UPDATE: Another Damned Medievalist in a comment below noted her rule of "don't go to grad school unless they pay you to do it." I actually had something about this in the first draft of the post but then couldn't get it to fit and so cut it. But the point is very important: I think it is very, very risky to go into debt to pay for grad school in the humanities, particularly if you are seeking a Ph.D. That debt can be crippling when you get out, particularly if you run into some bad luck and don't land a full-time position your first year (and the unfair reality of the adjunct world is that two half-time positions do not equal one full-time position). Most of the big land-grant colleges in the midwest will pay your tuition and a stipend if you can teach, and I strongly recommend having second and third thoughts about a program, no matter how prestigious, that doesn't at least cover your tuition and give you a chance to teach. The starting salary for a full-time, tenure-track job in English in the Northeast is about $50,000. That's above the median income for a family of four in the U.S., and a nice living on its own, but it would be difficult to live on in a high-cost area (like those in the Northeast) if you also had to service $50K of debt even with today's lower interest rates (and your grace period is only six months from graduation if I remember correctly).]

Friday, July 14, 2006

Science and the Humanities

My favorite magazine is American Scientist, which we get because my wife is an engineer but which I am always the first to read. Unlike Scientific American or even my beloved Natural History (which I've been reading for more than 30 years), American Scientist hasn't gone too far down the path of mere journalism and advocacy: real scientists still write a lot of the articles and the level of discourse is very high without being obscure.

So I was very interested to see an article in the past month's A S by Geoffrey Galt Harpham, a literature professor at the National Humanities Center (I didn't even know we had one!). Since my own research attempts a dialogue between scientific insights and humanistic scholarship, I was very pleased to see something from a fellow English professor in American Scientist.

[Now, before I go further, an aside: in my very first class in the Loyola Chicago Ph.D. program, we read and discussed Harpham's The Ascetic Imperative in Culture and Criticism, and I have to admit, I was not a big fan and perhaps said and wrote some things (which may be archived somewhere) that were intemperate. Some very, very good discussions came out of that seminar ("The Body in Medieval Art and Literature," taught by Allen J. Frantzen), but I found the book to embody many of the most irritating tics of late-80s/early-90s: over-citiation of the same old tedious theoriests, gimmicky uses of parentheses, overuse of antithesis ("anti-professionalism turns out to be professionalism's most typical gesture") as if the revealed "paradox" was a blinding insight, etc. And yet when Harpham was discussing the Isenheim Altarpiece in particular, he was genuinely insightful, and his linkage of ascetisim to criticism was pretty convincing.

One more point in Harpham's favor: I was able to use Harpham to at least give pause to David Halperin, who was the single most obnoxious guest speaker with whom I have ever dealt. Others have told me that Halperin is actually a nice guy, but you couldn't prove it by his behavior at Loyola, where he over did the whole "I'm angry and defensive" schtick to just exactly the wrong audience: really, you are coming to meet and talk with a bunch of graduate students in the worst job market in decades and you are whining that you don't have graduate students at a tenure-track job at MIT? We cobble together the funds to invite you to speak to us and then you act hostile and obnoxious? Also, when you've just had an hour-long discussion with 90% of the audience for your talk, you look kind of foolish when, for the actual talk, you need to put on a leather-daddy hat. Just saying. Anyway, my very pleasant moment was when I asked Halperin about the chapter, "St Foucault," in Harpham's book. Halperin went absolutely white. He hadn't read it, which was no big deal, but his own new book, which was in press, was entitled St Foucault. No big deal, actually, but it was nice to see someone squirm who had been a big jerk for the rest of the day. And lesson from this: the little people remember.]

So I didn't have particularly high hopes for Harpham's essay, and I wasn't particularly disappointed. I agree with Harpham that more connection between the sciences and the humanities is desireable, but what he actually says isn't specific enough. And the program he is running at the National Humanities Center is very laudable:

Research Triangle Park, NC. The National Humanities Center seeks scholars in the humanities, as well as those working in biological or computational science, to participate in a three-year project that will gather, synthesize, and promote new knowledge about fundamental human capacities, including such higher-order capacities as communication, imagination, judgment, and creativity. Participants in the project will pursue their own projects, but will also share responsibility for the ongoing initiative, including lectures, symposia, and, at the conclusion of the project, a Web archive of its findings. Interested scholars are encouraged to apply to the Center (see Fellowships on the Center's homepage)

But the problem with these kinds of calls (and they've been around for a while, including E. O. Wilson's Consilience) is twofold. First, the scientists involved tend to give the very strong impression that the humanists need to learn from them but not necessarily vice versa. I am obviously engaging in a little hubris here, but I think that an evolutionary biologist could also get some good ideas from How Tradition Works just as I got a lot of good ideas from evolutionary biology and even more from various literary and historical scholars.

Second, and perhaps more problematic, is that between the manifestos, theoretical arguments (and their tiresome refutation), funding requests, announcements, etc., the interdisciplinary work never seems to get done. This is a problem with academia in general, and of course for a lot of people, you can't do the research without the funding (one reason why the Sheep DNA project is temporarily stalled), but one big difference between the humanities and the sciences is that for many of our projects, we don't need to go through a multi-stage funding review: we just go to the library, sit down at the computer, and just do it. Let's hear about the results.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The Weather

You know, if I'm going to have to live in rainforest weather, I think I deserve the cool animals.

Where is my kinkajou? I want my kinkajou now!

(instead of the stupid groundhog destroying my garden)
We Are Supposed to be Better Than This

I just completed recording another course for Recorded Books' 'Modern Scholar' series, this time on Rhetoric and Composition, so I'm even more focused than is usual on logical fallacies. So it's no surprise that when I read two of the latest disasters to come out of academia (the Prof. Deb Frisch making sexualized comments and only slightly veiled death threats towards a two-year-old incident and the "Wisconsin hires '9/11-was-an-inside-job' conpiracy theorist to teach a course) I began noticing a blizzard of logical fallacies engulfing the blog world.

Where to begin?

First, with the Prof. Frisch situation, we have secundum quid, the fallacy of the "hasty generalization," when one data point is taken as indicating a large pattern. Read the comments on the Inside Higher Ed passage, and you'll see a significant number of people stampeding to the conclusion that Frisch represents the "unhinged" Left and that her (completely over the line) behavior shows how Leftists behave on-line and in real life. No. Frisch's behavior shows how Frisch behaved (abhominably); it does not prove anything about anyone else.

But, lest you think the "Left" was covering itself in glory here or that individuals on the "Right" were the only boneheads, I offer you the tu quoque fallacy, one of my favorites. Back in my youth in New Jersey we used a version of this fallacy when we would say: "yeah, well so's your mom" (usually punching followed). Continue with that comment thread at Inside Higher Ed and you'll see a whole slew of people saying "well, Frisch might be wrong, but look what 'Michelle Malkin, Rush Limbaugh, ?? Hannity [I don't know his first name], Karl Rove, etc. do." Nope. Doesn't matter. Frisch's behavior has to stand on its own. If what she did was blatantly wrong (and bringing a two-year-old into an insult fight, and using sexually suggestive and violent rhetoric about that two-year-old is blatantly wrong), then what someone else does, particularly someone who never engaged in a discussion with Frisch, is irrelevant.

Then there's my favority comment, which I didn't archive unfortunately, and which I can't be bothered to track down, but which said "Whatever Frisch said, it's not as bad as what Bush is doing killing thousands of Iraqi children, etc." This is a truly beautiful example of ignoratio elenchi, also called the "red herring," in which one injects an entirely new thesis into the argument in order to attempt to change the subject.

For more fallacies, let's go to the embarrassment of University of Wisconsin in Madison hiring someone who believes that the World Trade Center was brought down by controlled demolition (those gigantic planes slamming into the towers while we all watched? Just a cover up). That in itself just shows that this person is gullible and ignorant about engineering: he theoretically could teach another, unrelated class. But no, he intends to include his idiotic conspiracy theory in a class for University of Wisconsin students. But the fallacy I want to point out isn't in this crackpot theory, but in one of the commenters at Ann Althouse's blog who is defending him. Scroll down to some of the comments by "Christian Anarchist" and note the application of plurium interrogationum, or "too many questions," where a mass of questions -- most of them rhetorical and not answerable -- are piled on top of each other in order to give the impression that there are all kinds of doubts that reasonable people have about the question. You can raise as many questions as you like and then try to badger your interlocutor into a "yes/no" answer (Congressman John Dingell was an expert on doing this with scientists brought before his committee, absolutely smearing Nobel laureate David Baltimore), but you're still engaging in a logical fallacy.

Now, you may ask, why should I care? One line of argument in the comment threads is that these people are "just" adjuncts and therefore not representative of the academy. That's a pretty lousy approach to adjuncts, first of all, and does cast some light on why reasonable people might have significant doubts about how much academia values adjuncts: if you don't even care when they behave in reprehensible ways (Frisch) or promote goofball theories in the classroom, it's hard to believe that the institution really respects people in the same condition when they just do a solid job.

I'm even more concerned about the long-term damage that Ward Churchill's plagiarism and various other examples of academic bad behavior and/or loopiness are doing to a very important institution. I'm sure this will be offensive to a lot of people, but I really do believe that we in academia are supposed to be better. Seriously. We are not supposed to use logical fallacies, we are not supposed to engage in name-calling in place of debate, and we are supposed to uphold high standards in our professional lives. It is fine for talk-show hosts, politicians, political authors, etc. to engage in non-intellectual, boorish and stupid behavior. I could not possibly care less what Rush Limbaugh or Michelle Malkin or Al Franken have to say about various issues. They are entertainers. They aren't professors. They therefore do not have a special responsibilty to attempt to live up to the highest standards of intellectual debate (by the way, readers may think, from that list above, that I'm being too critical toward the "right," but the leaders of various "politically correct" causes at Carnegie Mellon in the 1980s were just as dishonest and intellectually flacid as those rightists I've mentioned above; their pet projects were leftist, and I criticize them, in print, with great frequency).

So I don't care about talk show hosts. But I do care very much about the ways that people like Churchill, Frisch and the guy at Wisconsin are damaging the institution of academia. A lot of my colleagues are very leftist in their politics, but none of them engage in this kind of behavior (plagiarizing, making sick sexual comments about children, teaching false theories in which they have no actual expertise --i.e., Wisconsin guy isn't an engineer). The politics that drives people to defend this stuff is mindless sports-fan ('my team, right or wrong') rooting: rather than defending 'our own' we academics should be the strongest and most intellectually rigorous critics of those who trade on the good names of universities, painstakingly built over many years, for their own selfish purposes. They are eating our seed corn, and we will not find it easy to replace the stores thus depleted.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

My Nightmare Journey
or, how an utterly terrible trip ended with a great conference

I had meant to blog about this long, long ago, but many things intervened, including the Encyclopedia proofing (which is now done) and writing and recording my Rhetoric/Composition course for Recorded Books (which is done), and recording all of Beowulf in OE (which is done), and finishing revising my paper from the conference I'm going to discuss (which is now done).

In April I had the worst travelling experience of a life that has included its fair share of awful travelling experiences (including the 8-hour plane ride that came on a day when the two-year-old developed the worst case of diaper rash in history and concluded with an additional hour wait in the parking lot of the airport as the rental car people tried to find the rental car that had been lost in said parking lot).

But my trip to Udine was particularly special.

Usually, I book with American Airlines, because we have a lot of frequent flier miles leftover from when my wife was travelling all the time. In the past I've upgraded to business class with miles. But this year, American has come up with this brilliant idea that they will charge you $250 for each leg of the trip just to use your own miles. The genius who came up with that idea should be pleased to know that we'll be using up all of our American miles and then dumping them. Morons. But I digress.

Because American Airlines now sucks even more than they used to, I decided to try the fabled SwissAir (which now has a new name). The ticket was actually the cheapest I could find, and I thought that as a courtesy to my hosts, I should take it. After all, SwissAir has a good reputation, and I'd get to fly through the Zurich airport, which is nicer than Gatwick.

So, I book a ride to the airport for 4 p.m., giving me plenty of time to get home from teaching classes, finish packing, etc. Unfortunately, at 4 a.m. the phone rings. It's the driver of the car, who is sitting outside my house wondering why there are no lights on. This call wakes up the child, scares the bejesus out of me, etc. I calmly explain the error. There is much apologizing.

Next day, bleary through all the classes, I come home to find a message on my answering machine that the flight has been delayed from 7 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. "That can't be right," I think, and call SwissAir. 45 minutes later, I finally speak to someone who says that yes, the flight has been delayed that long. But everything is rebooked and fine for when I get to Zurich. Ok, so I get dinner with my family and get to put the kids to bed.

Go to the airport. Flight is further delayed. Finally arrives at 2 and takes off at nearly 3. Get a whole row of seats to myself (obviously everyone with sense got away from this cursed flight) and would have been fine except for the old man who got confused in the dim light and sat on my feet. That wasn't so bad. Anybody could make a mistake. Except that he stayed there. For a while. I finally woke up enough to ask him what he was doing, and when I spoke to him, he nearly jumped out of his skin. I really don't understand what was going on: I mean, airplane seats are uncomfortable, but he was sitting on my feet and didn't notice.

Get to Zurich. Rushing to get to next plane. Stand in line for 40 minutes as stupid American college student tourists try to figure out what to do after losing boarding pass. Then they find it. SwissAir desk clerk informs me that Boston never re-booked me off of the 8:30 a.m. flight. "But I didn't arrive, on your plane until 1 p.m." I say. "That flight left hours ago." But I do see that there's another flight from Zurich to Venice at 5:30. "Can't put you on that one," says clerk. "It is now full." "Why didn't they put me on that one back in Boston?" "I don't know."

Now we have a problem. There is much to-ing and fro-ing. Finally, they come up with the brilliant solution of putting me on an Alitalia flight from Zurich to Rome and then another from Rome to Venice. I have a 1-hour connection at Fiumicino (and I have to go through immigration and customs). The flight to Venice gets there one hour before the last train of the night leaves for Udine. My stupid US cellphone doesn't work, so I find an internet kiosk and email my worried hosts at Udine and rush off.

Flight is, of course, late. Get to Fiumicino and get stuck behind a Japanese tour group at immigration. Sprint across airport because even though I've come in on Alitalia, I had to go through immigration at one end of the airport and the gate for Venice is at the other.

Completely drenched in sweat (and having been travelling for sixteen or seventeen hours at this point), I get to the gate, only to be told that the thing I have isn't a valid ticket. Get sent to a counter. Wait while clerks chat with each other. Woman closes window just as I get there, and, for one of the only times in my life, I raise my voice and pitch a small fit in a public place. Get on the plane as door is closing.

Get to Venice. Find bus to train station. Bus is 20 minutes late. Run through train station. All windows closed. Find automatic machine. Go through process of ordering ticket three times. Each time machine quits just before I can insert credit card or money. Sprint to train and get on anyway. Fall asleep. Get woken up by train inspector. Get lectured in Italian for not having a ticket. Get fined 25 Euro. Get to Udine. Have not eaten since 7 p.m., East Coast US time day before. Wander through town and find hotel. Get to room. Conference gift bag included gigantic cake/muffin thing with almonds in it. Eat entire cake. Don't feel so good.

But the conference itself was amazing. Entitled Leornungcraeft, the conference examined two seemingly disparate fields of knowledge in Old English studies: the study of medicine and the study of education (and it was linked up with manuscript study and a database also). At first glance these two areas did not have much to do with each other, and the organizers didn't necessarily think that they would. But what happened, maybe fortuitously, was that each paper seemed to build on the previous one and connect up the knowledge in really interesting ways. The best part, for me, was that I discovered, thanks to the work of Prof. F. E. Glaze, that medical aphorisms were transmitted unchanged for enormous periods of time and that they developed a detailed commentary tradition because they were not able to carry their exact meanings with them. It is a perfect test case for my meme theory and, from what I have been able to gather so far, it supports the theory very, very well.

Although I have recently published an article on Anglo-Saxon medicine (co-written with my friend, Prof. of Biology Barbara Brennessel), I would never have thought to look in the Latin aphorism tradition (A-S medical studies are focused elsewhere) for replication of memes and the interpretive problems created by that replication. It was really remarkable.

The rest of the conference, and the excursion to Aquilea (and having the Prof. Maila D'Aronco help me pick out a beautiful shirt-tie combination) and the hospitality and the intellectual excitement were all wonderful. Anglo-Saxon studies in Italy is (to me at least) the perfect combination of the philological and the literary and the historical, so I get along very well with the Italian Anglo-Saxonists and very much enjoy their company.

(The trip home was also, hellish, especially the brilliant tactic of rounding up very single person going to America in the Zurich international terminal and re-checking their passports and asking them where in the US they were staying. Although this was done by Swiss police, I am certain that the Department of Hopeless Stupidity [motto: Protecting Our Featherbed Jobs by Unnecessarily Inconveniencing You since 2001] must have been involved.)

But it was definitely a worthwhile trip, not only because I learned so much (and received valuable feedback on my paper) and got a great idea, and saw good friends and bought a really cool shirt and tie, but also because I now have this story, which, really, I am not making up.

Monday, June 26, 2006


There have been no posts of late because I have been desperately trying to finish three projects as well as starting a fourth.

A. Proofing the J. R. R. Tolkien Encyclopedia, all 800 pages, double columns of it. Everything is now done except for V, W, Y (which combined are only about 40 pages) and the massive L (which is something like 75). Oh, and then proofing the whole thing again, probably.

B. Writing and recording a new college course on CD, working title "The Art of Rhetoric" (though I am hopeful that they'll change the title to "How To Do Things With Words" -- because you can't copyright titles). This is a weird hybrid of a writing course and an analytical course on rhetoric. I have two entire lectures on grammar (!), as well as two on figures of speech, one on logic, one of fallacies, and one analyzing rhetorical train wrecks and triumphs. The Recorded Books people said this was my best course yet because it was funny (really. They said that. About grammar!). Recording finished Friday in NYC, at the Association for the Blind (I got to touch Helen Keller's desk!). Will be writing and recording a History of the English Language course in October.

C. Revising the lecture I gave in Udine, Italy in April into a book chapter entitled "Possible Instructional Uses of the Exeter Book Wisdom Poems." This is due Friday, which is a big problem because

D. On Friday I am heading off to speak at The Gathering of the Fellowship in Toronto. That means I have to finish my preparations for the "Tolkien's Art: Tolkien's Scholarship" talk.

But what may come across as more fun is what else I did while with Recorded Books in NY.

I have now recorded the entirely of Beowulf in Old English and, after my friend the sound engineer has finished editing the four hours of digital media down into a clean recording, I will be figuring out how to distribute the material, perhaps as podcasts, perhaps as a CD -- I just don't know yet. It was surprisingly hard to do the Beowulf recording -- I hadn't realized how exhausting it would be, even compared to speaking ex tempore for fourteen hours over two days doing the rhetoric course. But it was really fun. I did it as a dramatic reading, and (yes, this is scary), I sung Finnsburg. Certainly I am no Benjamin Bagby (and I don't have my harp yet, anyway), but at least the recording engineer didn't fall asleep or start laughing out loud, except at one moment, where immediately after finishing a very dramatic Grendel passage, I sneezed uncontrollably.

So watch this space for more info about the Beowulf recording. Other upcoming topics: What's wrong with Jerry A. Coyne's review of the 30th anniversary edition of Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene; How a certain Canadian press is the utmost in sleaze and how I am going to respond to their behavior by giving away my King Alfred's Grammar for free (in pdf form this time) so as to ruin the market for one of their books; Info about the other Tolkien convention where I'm speaking this summer (and if I get to meet Elijah Wood or not).