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.]