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!