Friday, December 17, 2010

Beowulf Aloud and Anglo-Saxon Aloud Greatest Hits

My stockpile of the Beowulf Aloud and Anglo-Saxon Aloud: Greatest Hits cds had nearly run out, but I have now gotten some more.  It's very close to Christmas now, but I send them first class, so they should still get there in time if there's someone on your list who really wants a 3-CD set of all of Beowulf in Old English (plus an introductory lecture) or a 2-CD set of some of the greatest poems in Anglo-Saxon (including the Wanderer, Deor, Caedmon's Hymn, The Wife's Lament and the Dream of the Rood) in both Old and Modern English, with commentaries. 

To hear some Anglo-Saxon Aloud, you can go to Anglo-Saxon Aloud and listen to just about any poem in the entire corpus (without the translations and commentary, though). 

Beowulf Aloud is $20.00 plus $5.00 shipping in the US ($8.00 for overseas)
Anglo-Saxon Aloud: Greatest Hits is $25.00 plus $5.00 shipping in the US ($8.00 overseas). 

Monday, December 13, 2010

Best Seller (!) on Audible: Understanding Poetry

Imagine my surpise when I got an email that one of my Modern Scholar courses on CD is currently a "best seller" on  Not only that, it's a course on poetry

You can read the story here.  They have nice things to say about the course and provide handy links to a number of my courses on as well as a link to a free excerpt.

This was the course that was a finalist for an Audie award (which I lost to Paula Poundstone), and I'm very pleased that people are enjoying it.  However, I don't think it is my best course.  That's probably either A Way with Words: Rhetoric, Writing and the Arts of Persuasion or A Way with Words III: Grammar for Adults.  And I'm also rather partial to the newest course, The Anglo-Saxon World.   

I've also done courses on The History of the English Language, Fantasy, Science Fiction, Chaucer and Approaches to Literature. 

(I think I get something like 25 cents each time someone downloads an Audible course, so I have a tiny financial interest in promoting these.  But I do think readers of this blog might enjoy some of the courses). 

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Foreword to The Last Man Anthology: Tales of Catastrophe, Disaster and Woe (a memoire of my being a department chair -- just kidding)

I wrote a Foreword to this anthology of science fiction stories and poems.  I ended up surprising myself and saying that in the end they are tales of hope (the title is "A Paradox: Tales of Hope").  You can read the essay and a sample of works from the anthology at Sword and Saga Press.  

Comment from my daughter on the title:  "Daddy, who on earth is going to buy a book that says 'Tales of Woe' on the cover?"

That's a good question, but it's a good collection of pieces, some classic and some brand new, so I guess the answer is "I would."

(please ignore the grotesque grammatical infelicity that I of course didn't notice in the entire editing process but saw immediately when I opened the book).

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Frivolous But Fun Piece in the Washington Post

On Wednesday the Washington Post emailed me and asked for a short OpEd piece on the labor politics of Middle-earth (really).  This is what I came up with on short notice: Dept. of What If: Would hobbits go on strike?

I started out with all kinds of in-depth analysis, but settled for cheap laughs.

There was a lot of back-and-forth with the editor (at one point I was trying to make a joke about the Shirriffs, and the editor put in something like "...the bourgeois is concerned with finding stray beasts, not oppressing the proletariat" and I wrote back "well, it would be the police apparatus of the State, not the bourgeois who were doing any oppressing..." and then realized I was actually being more nerdy about Marxism than I was about Middle-earth). 

But I think it ended up in a form where I can justify all the claims, even though at times it is a stretch.

For example, I wanted to hedge a little more on possible lack of upward mobility among the elves but also keep the joke about being stuck in a dead-end job for 1,000 years because nobody dies or retires.  We obviously don't know that for sure, though there might be hints in Laws and Customs Among the Eldar.

For the dwarves, I was thinking of the way they drive hard bargains for excavating elf caverns, and then how they change their minds about the price of re-fashioning necklaces (or promising to pay Bilbo gold, silver and jewels in the letter but only offering gold and silver to Bard).  Don't really know that there weren't wildcat strikes in Moria, though that's probably not a huge stretch.  The gold standard joke was a cheap laugh, but really, can you image dwarves using fiat money for any reason?

Otherwise I think I'm on solid ground.  Perhaps no one but Sauron goes into the Sammath Naur, but if he were running a smithy in contemporary America, he'd still need to put up handrails, lay down non-slip coatings on the floors, and post an MSDS for the boiling lava.

[update: thanks to those who pointed out the faulty link.  Fixed]

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

So What's Up with the Not Writing and Everything

I began this blog in June 2002, so it's been more than eight years (which is a millennium in internet time, I think).  The past two months has been the most protracted dry spell for posting that I've had. 

A few things are going on. 

The biggest happened at the end of August.  But (and I hate it when people do this on the internet, but oh well*), I am not ready to discuss it publicly.  The family members involved have already had their privacy violated about as much as is possible, and they don't need me piling on.  Suffice it to say that the situation involves people I love and the legal system in both its necessity and all its iron cruelty, and that it's more awful than anything I imagined could happen.  Some day I will write about it, but not now.

It's strange how something traumatic changes you.  I couldn't honestly say that (beyond the first few weeks) inordinate amounts of my time have been taken up, but there's been a subtle and very damaging shift in my ability to concentrate.  Moments of solitude hurt, because that's when you think too much (mowing the lawn has tended to be the worst time) and so I've found myself filling those moments with as much buzzing as possible: answering email, flitting from one blog post to another, following comment threads.  This takes up time but does not produce writing, and so when I've been able to concentrate, I've tended to spend that limited focus on my new book (now called Tradition and Influence) which was almost done.

Additionally, I am in what I had thought was my final year as department Chair, and there have been a variety of crises in the department.  I never kept this blog a secret from my colleagues, but a few times previously something I had written here was brought up to me or complained about.  I didn't care too much at that particular point, but given the nastiness that has overtaken my department recently, it has seemed like a good idea to self-censor.  One of the things I dislike most about being Chair has been the requirement to think about how what I say or write isn't interpreted as only my personal opinions, but that's the way the world is, and there's not much that can be done about it. 

Finally, "It is ever so with the things that Men begin: there is a frost in Spring or a blight in Summer, and they fail of their promise." I've become increasingly disillusioned with the world of blogging and with internet communication in general. Scott Nokes suggests that the good discussions have migrated to Facebook or other places, and he's probably right, and it's even more likely that I'm just old and cranky, but it feels to me as if the conversations that sprung up around blogging have devolved either to partisan sniping or to coterie-focused back-scratching.  Since neither of those interest me, I've been withdrawing.  (Again, this most likely says more about me than about what anyone else is doing). 

So I've done a couple of things.  The first, which I did this summer when the events referenced above happened, was to plonk all of my Wheaton, departmental and academic acquaintances from my Facebook friends.  Sorry about that.  Given what was going on, it just wasn't appropriate to have Wheaton people or fellow academics on there, and I think for the forseeable future it will stay that way.  Nothing personal in the plonking, believe me, but it was something I needed to do.

Second, I have avoided posting things to the blog about policy, administration or chairing.  But since these things have been taking up a substantial part of my days, that has reduced the material for writing.

Finally, I have been focusing more on producing pieces for publication rather than on bloggy ephemera (though I guess in some ways the internet is more "forever" than JEGP or English Studies).  I actually don't like writing with that much focus, as I've always preferred jumping from one project to another when I get stuck on the first, but I feel like I have to husband my limited reserves of concentration.

So really this post is an apology to those readers who have stuck with me so long and are no doubt irritated by the lack of content.  I hope to do better, but don't know when I will. 

* This does read like one of the cliches of internet drama.  I'm sorry for that, but not sorry enough to make it too easy for someone to ferret out what I'm referring to.  My most immediate family is thankfully not involved.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Abstract Submitted for ISAS 2011

(as soon as I dig out from a new batch of wretchedly annoying and boring department chair stuff, I will do a post explaining more about lexomics, but here's a preview of what I hope to present at the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists conference at Madison this summer)

Untangling the Cynewulfian Corpus with Lexomic and Traditional Methods

At ISAS 2009 our multi-disciplinary team (English, Statistics, Computer Science) demonstrated software that researchers can use to generate statistical profiles of Anglo-Saxon texts.  In this paper we present some of the results arrived at by using these tools, showing how, when combined with traditional approaches, lexomic methods can shed light on some long-standing problems in Anglo-Saxon studies.  Specifically, we use hierarchical agglomerative clustering to examine relationships of the vocabulary of the signed poems of Cynewulf (Christ II, Juliana, Elene and The Fates of the Apostles) with other poems that have been over the years thought by some scholars to be by Cynewulf or in some way related to his work (Guthlac B, The Phoenix, Andreas, Christ I and Christ III).  

Our software tools, whose development was supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, allow us to cut poems into sections which we can then compare to each other in terms of vocabulary distribution.  In early work on Genesis, Daniel, Azarias and Christ III, we determined that the dendrograms, or tree-diagrams created by hierarchical agglomerative cluster analysis could be used to identify sections of poems that are particularly similar to each other, such as lines 279-361 of Daniel with Azarias.  We also discovered that sections of poems cluster together by source: the chunks of Genesis B cluster together and separate from those with biblical sources; the section of Daniel influenced by liturgical texts and the portions of Christ III directly influenced by sermons of Caesarius of Arles were likewise separated. 

Recognizing the differences between sections of poems and the strong influence of sources enabled us to refine our techniques and avoid the pitfalls of previous attempts to identify digital “signatures” (effectively critiqued by Janet Bately).  Combining our more subtle lexomic methods with close reading and philological analysis allows us to determine that the signed Cynewulfian poems have significant similarities in vocabulary distribution (except in sections that are strongly influenced by direct paraphrase of a Latin source, such as much of Juliana).  This similarity does not extend to the unsigned poems, with the major exception of most of Guthlac B, which is indeed very similar in vocabulary distribution to the signed poems. The combined lexomic and traditional evidence supports the long-held suspicion that this poem is also by Cynewulf (the poem is acaudate, so the lack of a runic signature is not dispositive).  We also note that Christ I and Christ III exhibit different vocabulary distributions from each other and from Christ II, providing additional reasons to reject the one-poem hypothesis put forth so forcefully by Albert S. Cook but questioned by more recent scholars.  We then discuss the similarity and difference of sections of the other putatively Cynewulfian poems and the implications of these relationships for the poems’ relative chronology.  We conclude by noting that although computer-based and advanced statistical methods can never provide definitive arguments, they can usefully augment traditional analysis. 

Tools and software available at .

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

On Exactitude in Terminology

“A word for which everyone has a different definition, usually unstated, ceases to serve the function of communication and its use results in futile arguments about nothing.  There is also a sort of Gresham’s Law for words; redefine them as we will, their worst or most extreme meaning is almost certain to remain current and to tend to drive out the meaning we might prefer.”

-- George Gaylord Simpson
   The Major Features of Evolution (1953).

"Imbricated discourses" is a sign of in-group jargon rather than clear thinking: no one can agree exactly on what it means or how "imbricated" is distinct from "partially overlapping" (to recap earlier arguments, "imbricated" means "overlapping just like the tiles on a roof," i.e., the same amount of overlap on each tile.  No one, to my knowledge, has explained how discourses could be like this or how we would measure--or even observe--to be sure they were.  Thus "imbricated" is a bad metaphor, one that confuses thought rather than clarifying it, and it fails even as a way to avoiding repetition-- for example, saying "overlapping" again and again--because it is opaque to most readers and incorrect in its details.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Sabbatical Report: Fall 2009-Spring 2010   

(this is a copy of the report I just sent to the Provost.  The point of posting it here to see for myself if I lived up to my plan.  And doing so made me realize that I left out the solid five weeks of work to put in a new grant to the NEH.  Oops.  Will have to send the Provost a note about that).

My first research leave without a newborn baby in the house was reasonably productive.  Although my work did not end up following the exact path I had charted before the sabbatical (in part because I directed two honors theses and taught an experimental class during the leave), I am pleased at what I finished and what is near completion.

The biggest deviation from the plan, and the unexpected element that used the most time, was the need to prepare a revised and expanded edition of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Beowulf and the Critics.  I did not know that the existing print run would sell out, but when it did, the opportunity to add new material and to make substantial corrections was not one I could pass up.  This took much more time than I had anticipated, as I ended up having to proof the text against the manuscript again (for reasons I do not understand, my ability to decipher J.R.R. Tolkien’s handwriting has improved substantially even though I have not been working with it consistently since the first edition).  I was able to include much additional material in this edition, including the first ever identification of all the “voices” in Tolkien’s “Babel of voices” allegory.  The new edition is in press and will be published by Arizona Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies in late 2010 or early 2011. 

[in press] J. R. R. Tolkien’s Beowulf and the Critics. Revised and Expanded Edition. Ed. Michael D. C. Drout. (Tempe, AZ:  Arizona Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 2011).

The other unanticipated event was the surprising early success of the lexomic methods that our interdisciplinary group (Mark LeBlanc, Mike Kahn and I) developed under the aegis of our NEH start-up grant.  We had originally intended to publish a short demonstration paper.  This metamorphosed into a complete methodological explanation the ended up being 60 pages long.  To my shock and delight, it was accepted by the Journal of English and Germanic Philology, the oldest, most conservative and most prestigious journal of philology in America.  To our knowledge, this is the first time they have agreed to publish material about computer-assisted approaches to texts.  This success drove us to write another paper, with co-author Sarah Downey, using lexomic methods to re-date the Old English poem Guthlac A by nearly two centuries and explain details of the text that had been noted as anomalies but never before understood.  This paper was accepted, without revisions, by Modern Philology.

[in press] Drout, Michael D.C., Michael J. Kahn, Mark D. LeBlanc and Christina Nelson. “Of Dendrogrammatology: Lexomic Methods for Analyzing the Relationships Among Old English Poems,” Journal of English and Germanic Philology (2010).

[in press] Downey, Sarah, Michael J. Kahn and Mark D. LeBlanc, “’Books Tell Us’: Lexomic and Traditional Evidence for the  Sources of Guthlac A. Modern Philology (2010).

Other articles and essays accepted or published include:

 [in press] “Albert S. Cook’s Invention of Cynewulf and the History of English Studies in America.” English Studies.

This piece almost made it into PMLA, but, as I feared, pointing out sloppy scholarship and tendentious mis-interpretation by the recent president of the MLA was not the ticket to acceptance.  On the other hand, English Studies has a larger and more international audience than PMLA.

 [in press] "The Rohirrim, the Anglo-Saxons, and the Problem of Appendix F: Ambiguity and Reference in Tolkien’s Books and Jackson’s Films”  in Janice M. Bogstad and Philip E. Kaveny, eds. Picturing Tolkien: Essays on the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings Trilogy. (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2011).

[in press] Bloch, Bill Goldbloom and Michael D.C. Drout.  “Fair and Unfair Division in Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon.” In Jessica Sklar and Elizabeth Sklar, eds. Mathematics and Popular Culture. (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2011). 

This is the first jointly written publication to come out of Bill Goldbloom Bloch’s and my multi-year collaboration.  The paper come directly from out “The Edge of Reason” pair of connected courses. Writing it was so easy that we have more work together planned.

 [in press] “‘I am Large, I contain Multitudes’: The Medieval Author in Memetic Terms.” In Slavica Rankovic, et al., eds.  Tradition and the Individual Talent: Modes of Authorship in the Middle Ages.  (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 2011).

 [in press] “The Council of Elrond, All those Poems, and the Famous F-ing Elves: Strategies for Teaching the Hard Parts of Tolkien.” In Leslie Donovan, ed. Approaches to Teaching J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings and Other Works.  (New York: Modern Language Association, 2011).

 [in press] Rebecca Epstein, Michael D.C. Drout and David Bratman. “Bibliography (in English) for 2008,” Tolkien Studies 7 (2010): 379-98.

 [in press] “Foreword: The End of the World in Science Fiction,” In Hunter Liguore, ed. The Last Man Anthology.  (Bristol, CT: Sword and Saga Press, 2010).

[in press] “Cumulative Index: Tolkien Studies, Volume I-V,” Tolkien Studies 8 (2011); with Jason Rea, Tara L. McGoldrick, Lauren Provost, Maryellen Groot and Julia Rende.

I also co-edited volume VII of Tolkien Studies.  I sometimes can’t believe that we are closing in on the journal’s first decade. 

Anderson, Douglas A.  Michael D.C. Drout, Verlyn Flieger.  Tolkien Studies 7 (2010).  West Virginia University Press. 

I also completed another revision of my Old English grammar book, re-titled Drout’s Quick and Easy Old English, which I am using this fall in English 208 and for which I will once again be seeking a publisher after what can only be described as being shafted by Broadview Press. 

In terms of non-traditional media, I recorded and distributed podcasts of all of Archbishop Wulfstan’s Homilies (in the original Old English).  I also recorded a new audio course, this time for a new company, Crescite, which has a slightly different format (though I have not left Recorded Books, they have been proceeding more slowly with new courses).  My three episodes in the History Channel’s Clash of the Gods aired during the sabbatical year but were recorded while teaching in 2008-09.

Anglo-Saxon Aloud:  The Homilies of Wulfstan

[in press] Tolkien and the West.  Washington, D.C.: Crescite Group, 2011.

So much for the work completed, by my count a new edition, a new volume of a journal, a set of podcasts, a course on CD, a revised grammar book, and nine articles (a few more were published during this time, but they were mostly completed before the sabbatical started). 

I also have some work in progress, the most significant item of which is my technical monograph, Tradition and Influence, the follow-up to How Tradition Works.  This new book is mostly done, but I still need to complete my chapter on genre (I am probably 15 pages from the end), draft the final short chapter, “The Anxiety of Influence in Memetic Terms,” and polish the entire manuscript.  Hopeful completion date: February 1, 2011.  More realistic date: September 1, 2011. 

I also have a complete draft of my new Tolkien book, The Tower and the Ruin: J.R.R. Tolkien’s World, but this draft needs a great deal of work, as it is really just the argument itself and not the references, footnotes, etc. 

Similarly, my book on grammar aimed at a popular audience, Grammar for Fun and Profit, exists partly in draft, partly as audio recordings, but it needs a substantial amount of re-writing. 

Philology Reborn, co-authored with Scott Kleinman of Cal State Northridge, has two chapters written and a complete chapter-by-chapter synopsis.  It is currently under consideration by Oxford UP.

One more semester without Dept. Chair responsibilities, right now, seems like it would be helpful and could allow me to finish Tradition and Influence and come pretty close to finishing The Tower and the Ruin.  But that is not in the cards right now (someone has to be Chair, after all) and it’s not good to be greedy.  Indeed, I appreciate very much the privilege of being able to work on my research as intensively as I did this year and have no one to blame but myself for not finishing things more quickly.  As Leonard Bernstein supposedly said, to achieve great things one needs a plan and not quite enough time, and I think having to be ready to teach this fall did cause a number  of the items above to be finished faster than they might have been.  Teaching Tolkien and Anglo-Saxon this fall and Beowulf in the spring will help with all these projects, as I am presenting many of the ideas and arguments in the classroom, and nothing highlights a weak argument like the questions of Wheaton students.  Overall, I am pleased with the work I completed during my sabbatical year, though I wish I had been more efficient, particularly at the beginning, and of course the horrible events of late August substantially reduced my productivity for the end of the summer.  But I’ll pace myself and be more disciplined on my next research leave which, because of banked time, is the spring semester of 2012. 

Monday, June 28, 2010

Call for Papers: Computational Approaches to Medieval Literature
Kalamazoo 2011

The development and dissemination of electronic editions has opened up new possibilities for the computational and statistical analysis of medieval texts and corpora.  Comprehensive collections like the Dictionary of Old English Corpus (for Anglo-Saxon texts) and digital editions of individual works not only serve to disseminate widely and inexpensively various medieval texts, but also provide machine-readable data that can be analyzed using mathematical methods that previously could not easily be applied to medieval texts.  Scholars have in recent years used hierarchical agglomerative clustering methods, principle component analysis and other advanced statistical techniques to investigate authorship, influence and the structure of medieval texts.  Other methods, such as those pioneered by John Burrows, have been applied more to texts from later periods, but these approaches may also have value for the study of medieval literature in various languages. 

In this session we seek to gather together papers on computational approaches to medieval texts so that workers in this new and rapidly developing field can share results and methods.  We hope thus to disseminate ideas and methods across research groups and inform the wider scholarly community of the ways in which computational and statistical methods can augment existing work.  We also welcome papers that critique computer-aided and statistical methodologies or that modify standard approaches with more traditional methods.  Our goal is to see where matters currently stand and encourage other scholars to adopt, modify, engage with and critique the methods themselves and the methodological approach as a whole. 

Specific topics may include the types of pre-analysis processing done to texts, the problems of using editions that combine readings from multiple manuscripts, the value of and problems with lemmatization of words, and the possibilities for using computational and statistical methods across as well as within languages.

Send abstracts to

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Lexomics: Gaining Acceptance

[UPDATE: and our Old English Newsletter item which gives explanations and links to the Lexomics website, where you can play with it or download all the tools, is now up on the we here at the Old English Newsletter]

Our huge methodological paper on lexomic analysis was accepted by JEGP a while back. Now, just before leaving for the Kalamazoo conference, I learned that our paper that uses lexomic methods to analyze Guthlac A was accepted by Modern Philology. So at some point in the future you'll be able to read:

Drout, Michael D. C., Michael J. Kahn and Mark D. LeBlanc. “Of Dendrogrammatology: Lexomic Methods for Analyzing the Relationships Among Old English Poems,” Journal of English and Germanic Philology.

Downey, Sarah, Michael D.C. Drout, Michael J. Kahn and Mark D. LeBlanc. “’Books Tell Us’: Lexomic and Traditional Evidence for the Sources of Guthlac A. Modern Philology.

I am in the very home stretches of the final proofing and indexing of the new edition of J.R.R. Tolkien's Beowulf and the Critics but I notice that the publisher has put 2011 as the copyright date, so I guess it will be out after Christmas. It will be printed primarily in paperback, but I'm trying to convince the publisher that there would be interest in a collector's edition if they can make it leather bound or otherwise really nice looking -- the last time I checked the out-of-print edition was selling for over $150.00 on Amazon (and what's really sad is that I have no extra copies to take advantage of this price).

Also, the new technical book is going well and, with a lot of luck will be done and off to a reviewer by the middle of June. Right now the title is: Tradition and Influence: Memetics, Literature and Tenth-Century Anglo-Saxon Culture. It includes chapters on the problems of genre, influence (and uses lexomics), aesthetics, authorship and the "anxiety of influence." Right now I'm struggling to draw "adaptive landscapes" and could really use a pointer to a cheap or free tool that can draw wire-frame terrain (by hand, not by inputting a bunch of data).

The Tolkien book, The Tower and the Ruin, is moving along in parallel, and I'll be switching to a primary focus on that one soon. As part of the process of writing it, I'm going to be recording a new Tolkien audio course, significantly different from my Rings, Swords and Monsters (also sold as Of Sorcerers and Men) that I did for recorded books. The new course will be called something like Tolkien and the West and I expect to do the recording in the beginning of July. Then I'll teach Tolkien this fall, testing out the chapters of the new book in class, so that that book will probably go out for review in December (though it could go earlier).

And Tolkien Studies volume 7 is mostly at the printer and needs only final proofing of some sections. We had some snags this year and are a little late, but hopefully we will still be out in July as we usually are.

Too much stuff! And I'm heading off to NY for the Audie awards next week (though I don't expect that I'll win, it's great to be a finalist in such a big group). But it's better to be busy than be bored.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The argument of the new book, Tradition and Influence

A meme is a replicated bit of human culture. Memes evolve through Darwinian processes of differential survival and replication mediated through the human perceptual and cognitive systems. Memes combine into meme-plexes, which are then subject to selection as groups. One meme-plex has influenced another when a significant portion of the second meme-plex contains sub-units that have come from the first. A tradition is a special case of influence in which some elements of the structure of the meme-plex have caused it to be preserved substantially in the same form across multiple generations (i.e., the subsequent meme-plex contains all or nearly all the sub-units of the antecedent meme-plex and no others). The structure of traditional meme-plexes includes three components, recognitio, actio and justificatio, with the justificatio component either in the process of becoming or having become the Universal Tradition Meme: ‘because we have always done so.’ Each of the three aspects of a tradition is subject to different selection pressures. The presence of the Universal Tradition Meme produces selection pressure for traditions to link up with each other. The stability caused by traditions enables certain cultural phenomena, including traditional referentiality and communicative economy. Text-based traditions operate somewhat differently from traditions that are not textual, but the underlying processes are the same. The details of these processes and their interaction with the ever-changing physical and cultural world is the subject of the rest of this book.

Good question by John Cowan below: How is this different from my How Tradition Works. What I've presented above is the core argument of the theory, and it has evolved somewhat substantially since How Tradition Works, since I have refined and extend it in a variety of areas and tweaked the argument throughout. The most significant changes are my recognition that I could not just keep waving my hands at the problems of the perceptual, congitive and mnemonic systems, that instead had to go and try to learn a bunch of material about cognitive psychology, and that the variation and mediation imposed by these systems is responsible for both change and stability in memetic population.
Also, the big thing about this book is that we can see influence in action, even though that action behind the scenes in a way. We've developed "lexomic" techniques to detect influence, and we can even explain, statistically and mathematically, how we can do this. So the ideas (somewhat changed) of the old How Tradition Works are in Tradition and Influence, but the new book is a much-more-developed approach.

Monday, April 26, 2010

"Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics": The Brilliant Essay that Broke Beowulf Studies

I have an essay up at the Scholars Forum of Lotplaza: Link Here.

I discuss some of the negative effects of Tolkien's great essay. Usually they have very good comments at Lotrplaza. To see them you click on the "scholars forum" link at the top of the page and then select the discussion thread.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Catching Up

I seem to have this tendency to write a provocative post just before I leave for a place where I don't have internet access. In this case, it was the post about my dream school and a spring trip to hike in Shenandoah National Park. With the dog and his short little legs, we went up and down mountains, splashed in waterfalls, and I caught my first few brook trout on a fly (of course it took me many, many years and my daughter caught one on her first try). Now I'm off to give a lecture at Washington College in Maryland, and I arrive back just in time for my son's sixth birthday party and a bunch of relatives arriving for that and because my brother is running the Boston Marathon.

So I'll just use this post to tie up some loose ends and clarify a few things.

First, one reason I haven't posted much is that I was in proofreading hell. But the new edition of Beowulf and the Critics is now proofed and back to the publisher, so that's moving along. It may be a while, though, before it actually gets printed, as we still have to index (though I can in some ways just mod the old index), but it's much closer now, and there's a 2010 date on the copyright page.

This is a completely corrected, revised and expanded edition. The expansions include the text of a previously unknown note by Tolkien that was part of the drafting of Beowulf and the Critics (found by Christopher Tolkien and included with his permission in this volume), an identification of all the voices in the "Babel of Voices" allegory, and a discussion and illustration of the structural evolution of "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics." The corrections are thoroughgoing: I proofed the entire thing against the microfilm (my reading of Tolkien's handwriting has inexplicably gotten better) and received help from many scholars as well.

Now, on to Professor Drout's Academy of Wisdom and Learning. I received many interesting comments and emails, which I will try to address at some point. But at this time I just want to say this: I agree that it's not always the case that people with Ph.D.'s are better teachers than people without them. That wasn't the point of the post or the plan. The point was to suggest a model of an academy that would create an educational atmosphere that would be highly beneficial to certain students (and certain teachers). I think a place where the teachers were all new Ph.D.'s, all starting on the academic career path, all wanting to learn how to teach, and all part of a research organization would produce such an environment. I specifically designed the plan not to be a permanent career for anyone. The point is for people to flow through the system, share ideas, get energized, provide their own energy, and inspire some students, and then go off and do great things elsewhere. That's also why I chose the salary base of $ 42,000 per year. It's competitive for adjunct pay, but not something that a professor would stay at for more than two years (and it also illustrates, by the way, how bad the pay is for adjunct teachers, when 42K is considered a pretty good one- or two-year position by people who have on average 11 years of higher education).

There are surely weaknesses in the plan, and a school would probably be better served in some ways (not all) by long-term, experienced teachers who stuck to the institution. But I think that the flow of new talent through the system, the chance to do research in an interdisciplinary environment and involve high-school students in that research, and the chance to create an environment in which teaching and research were shared and valued and which in turn would show the students that their intellectual contributions were valued, well, I think it would have been a cool place to go as a student, as a teacher and, now, as the head of school (if some philanthropist wants to give it a shot).

Now to finish that lecture I'm giving tomorrow...

Saturday, March 27, 2010

My Dream: Professor Drout's Academy of Wisdom and Learning

I have an idea about how simultaneously to improve high school education for some kids and help out with the job crisis in academia. Here it is.

Just down the street from my house is an empty school building that was for a long time St. Mary's School in Dedham and then housed the British School of Boston and then the Rashi School (or vice versa) before these moved to new buildings. If a benevolent philanthropist or someone with the political and legal skills to create a charter school were to help me, here's what I would do:

I would open a school staffed entirely with new Ph.D.'s, probably mostly from local New England universities, who wanted to get teaching experience. It would pay $42,000 per year with full benefits on two-year contracts. The idea would be that faculty would teach at the Academy as a way-station on their academic careers, kind of a teaching and research post-doc. They would receive intensive on-the-job training about how to teach (because there is no tougher audience than high-school kids), though even if they weren't great teachers at the start, they would have energy and excitement about their work and would become good teachers.

Everyone would be expected to do research as well. We would have weekly colloquia and presentations, part of the benefits would include Interlibrary Loan and access to academic databases, etc, and time would be set aside each week and within each day to do and present research. The headmaster (me, to start) would advise and support the staff in interdisciplinary research efforts, bring in speakers, etc.

The "catch" would be that the students would have to be included in this research in various ways--you'd have to design your projects so that students could help, and this working on cutting-edge research projects would be a way to focus student learning. If a student was helping, for example, on a 19th-century history project, then the teacher would be teaching the students the background they needed to understand the project and contribute to it.

There would be no entrance examination for the school, and we would take students who were struggling and students who already were academically excellent (so much so that their parents wanted them to be taught by 100% Ph.D.'s.) The only requirements would be an entrance interview with the headmaster for both student and parents. Ideally the benevolent philanthropist or clever political and legal person who helped me set this up would have made it so that there was no tuition, but there would be some contribution expected from every family--volunteering, raising money for field trips, etc. (rather than writing checks, which some families can't afford).

The faculty in the school would be happy and fulfilled because they would still be doing their research and in fact might be producing more as part of an interdisciplinary, close-knit scholarly community. Taking a two-year position at the Academy (note, I would be happy to name it after anybody who wants to endow it) would be a way to improve one's career prospects, research productivity and financial bottom line. Instead of rushing from one adjunct job to the next, teachers would be in one place, earning a fair wage under good working conditions and where they were respected.

Students would have the benefits of an all-Ph.D. faculty who would every single day model for them the value of intellectual effort. The faculty would make up for in energy what they might lack in experience, and students could count on being as entertained as they were challenged (because we know how new Ph.D.s are about their research projects). Students who had been bored or isolated in the traditional school environment would have an opportunity to devote themselves to intellectual pursuits and to go as far and as fast as they wanted. Students who had struggled would suddenly have a peer group that cared deeply about academics.

I know there are a million problems with this dream, most of all that I lack the political and legal skills to bring it off, and I don't have any money to start the school. But I also think that within this crazy idea there might be the core of a way to address two very significant problems: the failures of the educational system (particular for kids who want to be intellectual) and the job crisis in academia. I think that a lot of faculty who tried it, and didn't see taking a job like this as a year or two lost to research but instead an opportunity to learn some new skills while earning a living wage, would discover how much they loved teaching. I think the students would learn more in a few years at the Academy than nearly anywhere else, and I think I could create the kind of intellectual community that we would need.

So, if any benevolent philanthropists or charter school experts are reading, please get in touch.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Prototype of the Manuscript DNA Extractor Now Sits on My Desk

On Tuesday I went to Northwestern University of meet with the team of engineers* who have worked for the past twenty weeks to bring into being my idea of a device to non-destructively extract DNA from medieval manuscripts. Working at the Segal Design Institute under the direction of Professors Stacy Benjamin and Barbara Shwom and advised by Kiki Zissimopoulos, and with some occasional input from me, Caroline Dougherty, Rahul Jain, Regan Radcliffe and Mimi Zou designed a simple machine that can insert a tiny needle into the edge of a manuscript leaf without leaving any marks that can be seen by the naked eye.

It was really a great, great experience to work with these students over many weeks and then to head out to Northwestern (where my wife did her Ph.D.) and see their presentation. The design is simple but sophisticated, and the final report includes testing data, complete drawings and a beautifully written explanation of how they arrived at the design, why it is a good one, and where it might go in the future. I was blown away not only by the quality of the engineering, but by how incredibly professional these students are. If I were recruiting for a company right now, I would hire them all, in a heartbeat. The prototype is elegant, and it's one of those well-made little machines that you can't keep your hands off. Considering that my first drawing was literally done on an envelope, and that I didn't even scan if for them but took a digital photo and emailed it, their ability to see the good idea at the heart of the mess I gave them and refine it over multiple iterations shows that they really learned their craft, and that Northwestern taught them well.

What Northwestern has done with their engineering program is remarkable. From a freshman design course that is completely integrated with their writing requirements (which may be why these students are good writers and communicators as well as good engineers), to the Ford design building, in which a complete shop floor, with bandsaws, lathes, etc., etc., is not only the center of the place, but visually the center of everything... It makes me want to go back to school to be an engineer (and if you have a kid thinking about going to college for engineering, you owe it to that kid--and to yourself--to check out this program; it integrates 'hands on' work with all the math, computer-assisted design, etc., you expect from engineering, and the students all seemed to be having a blast).

As for the extractor, plus the rest of the Sheep DNA project, we are getting pretty close. Now that we have a prototype, we need to figure out how to refine it and to manufacture it inexpensively (I'll be working with another team of engineers next year, I hope). And, from the biochemical side, we are about half an order of magnitude away from where we want to be: We thus far seem to need about 10 mg of material, and we really would like that to be 5 (though the extractor could extract 10 mg without too much trouble; just iterate the sampling).

Now I think my next job is going to be convincing librarians that a set of 40-micron diameter holes in the edge (even the binding edge) of a MSS is acceptable. I think what I will do is to sample my own manuscript leaf, hand it to librarians, and ask them if they can figure out, even using a magnifying glass, where the samples were taken. If they can't maybe they'll be willing to let me sample one folio from each quire in a MSS or two.

This plan assumes that we can get the biochemistry working (and if anyone has a contact with a "Clean Lab" that handles ancient DNA, let me know, please). If we can, we will be pretty close to being off to the races, especially since the team of computer scientists I'm working with are well on their way to having the manuscript database and visualization tool going.

The collaboration with Northwestern got started because Prof. Greg Olsen, of the Steel Research Group, asked me for specifications for the sword that would be required to slay a dragon. The Dragonslayer sword (which when finished will be the hardest in the history of the world, and will also contain meteorite iron) is coming along, as is a Beowulfian Seax, which the group made this year. And in return for some minor consulting about the Seax, Prof. Olsen connected me with Prof. Benjamin and the Segal Design Institute. I'm really grateful to him, and to all the people that have contributed to this insane project, which may well just end up working. Keep your fingers crossed, though, because there are still a lot of challenges ahead of us.

* Doing transdisciplinary research is worth it solely for being able to write "...a team of engineers" in relation to one of my projects.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Tolkien Bibliography Online

For the past nine years or so, my students and I have been creating a bibliographic database of scholarship on J.R.R. Tolkien. For a long time this database was on Filemaker and thus not accessible outside of the Wheaton campus. Now, thanks to Patrick Rashleigh and others, the database is available on the web, and I encourage you to use it at

There are over 600 entries right now, with at least 100 more scheduled to go up between now and the end of the summer. Most entries include full citation information, a summary of the article, and keywords for ease in searching (the 'location' information is usually just to our own very large collection of photocopied articles). You can therefore, at least hypothetically, search for all articles about the Anglo-Saxons, or the problem of evil, or eucatastrophe.

The bibliography is copious but not exhaustive. It has been compiled by students, though checked by me, but sometimes what happens is that a very enthusiastic student takes on a big pile of articles to read and summarize, then things come up, and the articles never do get into the database. So there are many lacunae, particularly in some of the more recent work. I would highly recommend cross-referencing your searches with the yearly bibliographies in Tolkien Studies, which are not precisely part of this project (though there has been some overlap).

Other gaps in the bibliography come from my own work mostly not being there. For internal purposes only (i.e., not for the web), students graded each article A-F. I did not think it was a good idea to put them in the position of having to rate my work, so it did not end up in the assignments.

Some day this may be the complete bibliography that Tolkien studies needs, and until then I hope it is a useful resource both for scholars and for students writing papers.

This project began when the late Marilyn Todesco asked me to find some summer work for her work-study student. "Search for 'Tolkien' in MLA Bibliography and then print out, ILL, copy everything you find," I said to Beth Affanato, having no idea how much that was. Nearly ten years and 600 articles later, we see yet another way that Marilyn contributed to the life of Wheaton College. She is still sorely missed.

Finally, I would like to thank the many students (and two doctoral students from Europe) who have contributed to the bibliography. They include:

Beth Affanato
Hilary Wynne
Kate Malone Hesser
Laura Kalafarski
John Walsh
Christopher Scotti
Shawn McKee
Melissa Higgins
Melissa Smith-MacDonald
Stefanie Olsen
Kathryn Paar
Jason Rea
Lauren Provost
Tara McGoldrick
Julia Rende
Rebecca Epstein
Marcel Bülles
Gergely Nagy
Namiko Hitotsubashi

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Some of my summer faculty/student research this year
(if we get the funding)

Lexomic Analysis of ‘Winchester Vocabulary’ Texts

We propose to use Lexomic methods of analysis to try to determine relationships among prose texts from the Anglo-Saxon period. Lexomic methods, developed by Wheaton Professors Mark LeBlanc, Mike Kahn and Mike Drout, employ computer-based statistical techniques to find the structures within and the relationships between texts. The Lexomic Project at Wheaton has already published significant research on the interrelationships of Anglo-Saxon poems and the significance of divisions within poems. This summer’s project will focus on the next frontier: the large corpus of Old English prose texts, in particular those associated with the tenth-century Benedictine Reform.

The culture of tenth-century England was shaped in large part by the political, cultural and religious movement called the Benedictine Reform. A small group of monks led by Dunstan (eventually Archbishop of Canterbury) and Æthelwold (eventually Bishop of Winchester), assisted by a series of sympathetic kings, took over religious life in England. In the 1970s scholars Helmut Gneuss and Walter Hostetter identified the “Winchester Vocabulary,” a set of words that the Benedictine Reformers used in specific semantic contexts. Hostetter showed that the Winchester Vocabulary spread from Æthelwold’s Winchester to other major reform centers and eventually ended up influencing late Anglo-Saxon throughout England. In the late 1990s, Mechthild Gretsch demonstrated that the roots of the vocabulary came from Glastonbury in the 940s, when Æthelwold and Dunstan, in internal exile, spent years studying the work of the early Anglo-Saxon writer Aldhelm, in particular his de Virginitate. Gneuss, Hostetter, Gretsch and other members of the “Munich school” of Anglo-Saxonists identified multiple Winchester Vocabulary texts, but their methods are extremely time-consuming, somewhat subjective, and require many educated or even inspired guesses. Lexomic methods are not subject to these same constraints. The computer does not get tired or bored, and our screening methods can process many texts to look for subtle clues which we then follow up using traditional philological methods.

But there is a significant hurdle we must pass before we can use Lexomics to examine the full range of the Winchester vocabulary. Unlike the poetry, nearly all of the major prose texts exist in multiple copies. When the manuscripts were edited to produce the versions that are now used in electronic corpora like the Dictionary of Old English corpus, editors produced “best texts” by collating manuscript witnesses. Thus the electronic edition of an Anglo-Saxon prose text can often represent no single manuscript. Our lexomic methods are considerably hampered when they do not have the raw material of spelling and grammatical variation to work with. Thus the edited prose texts are difficult to use, as editors have squeezed our variability in order to make single, consistent texts.

Phoebe’s work this summer will be to mitigate this problem by converting the “best-text” electronic editions to multiple versions that are consistent with the manuscripts. To do this she will begin with the electronic file of a given text and the scholarly edition from which it is drawn. Then, using the apparatus criticus of the edition, she will modify the file to make it like one of the major manuscript witnesses using a set of mark-up conventions developed by Prof. Scott Kleinman of Cal State Northridge. Phoebe is familiar with mark-up conventions from Prof. LeBlanc’s “Computing for Poets” course, and she understands the medieval cultural context of the Winchester vocabulary texts from Prof. Drout’s “Medieval Literature” course. Once the files are marked up to be consistent with their original manuscript witnesses, Phoebe will work with Prof. Drout, Prof. LeBlanc and Prof. Kahn as part of the Lexomics Project. She will attend our weekly or twice-per-week meetings, suggest and run experiments, and help write up the final results in one or more jointly authored papers.

Student’s Statement ###

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Balance Problem

(I was going to call this "The Balance Fallacy," but that's too strong a term, though I think there is a flaw in the logic).

In my previous post I quoted The Chancellor of the Pennsylvania state system who wrote: "if rising scholars need to give up any semblance of a normal life to obtain a doctorate or tenure, then that program's values are out of alignment. I, for one, do not want institutions full of people who sold their souls for a degree or for tenure. I want balanced, well-rounded scholars."

I criticized these sentiments, pointing out that if you have one tenure line to award, it seems to me that it would go to the scholar with five excellent articles and two innovative classes rather than the more "balanced" scholar with three excellent articles and one excellent class. Tom Elrod at Wordisms disagrees, stating:
Maybe, but if we develop an academic culture where the maximum "success" is pursued at all times, we end up with universities filled with people with little or no "life" outside of their job. That's not good. It ultimately gives us less creative scholars and less dynamic universities. Humanities scholars have to be in touch with "the human experience" beyond their subject. A hyper success-driven academy also encourages only a certain type of person to enter academia: usually single, white, and male. It's just not good for demographic or intellectual diversity.

I understand what people are trying to get at, but I don't see how you can use that to award scarce resources to people. Let me give a hypothetical.

Let's say the me and one of my colleagues are up for the same endowed chair. The committee can't give it to both of us. Let's say that the deadline for that chair is Friday, and I'm not done with one more essay that I could include in the application packet. My colleague is in the same situation, and, as of now (Thursday afternoon) our applications are basically equal. She decides to stay at the office, work all night, finish the essay and include it in her application materials. I, however, being 'balanced,' decide to pick my kids up from school and drop off the skateboard-based parade float representing Alaska (instead of asking my wife to do it), cook dinner instead of ordering pizza, walk the dog all the way down to the river instead of just around the back yard, take the kids rock climbing after dinner and then watch the Olympics for a while. She turns in the extra essay. I don't.

How can the committee (which, by the way, doesn't know what I chose to do Thursday afternoon and evening) fairly award the endowed chair to me instead of to her? (Remember we've defined the application packets as being equal before this point). I may be happier, I may be more balanced, but I just can't think of a way to see it as fair that I would get the chair and she would not.

This is what seems to me to be missing from most of these arguments about 'balance.' How do you measure it as a contributing factor in a fair way? How are you going to award scarce resources if not by productivity? I never get anything but the most nebulous answers, which makes me suspicious, suspicious that underlying the idea of balance is a desire to have scarce resources awarded based on factors like demography, seniority, collegiality or politics. I'm not so keen on that.

And I wonder, sometimes, if the 'balanced' argument isn't a disguised way of denigrating the efforts of those who, because they don't have advantages of pedigree or attractiveness or easy sociability, are a threat to those who do and want to keep the advantages that come with those gifts. If you don't have some quasi-objective (and it will only ever be quasi) way of measuring the contribution to the institution, won't all resources just be awarded to members of a in-group, a coterie? Is that the hidden agenda behind the 'balance' argument: give things to people who are more like 'us' rather than to driven people who aren't content with their current estate? Again, forgive me for being too Foucaultian (though I've been reading Nietzche--more of a nutbar than I'd remembered--lately, not Foucault), but I do wonder about the deeper motives. There's at least a whiff of people, under the guise of 'balance,' wanting to keep the wrong kind of people (the grinds, the immigrants, the people from non-wealthy background) from doing extra work so as to move up. For their own good, of course.

Now, if you'll excuse me, even though I haven't finished my essay I have to pick up my kids, drop off Mt. Denali, walk the dog, cook dinner and go rock climbing. I may bump the Olympics from the queue, however, so that I can do some work later.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Cutting Through a Little BS About How Tough Tenure Is

If you want to be really depressed about academia, read these reactions to the Huntsville murders in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Let me try to boil things down to the simplest possible terms:

(1) There are not as many paying tenured positions in colleges and universities as there are people who want those positions.

(2) Because of this mismatch in numbers, there must be some way of allocating those positions.

(3) You can either fully allocate at the time of hiring or later in the process.

(System A) If everyone or nearly everyone you hire 'automatically' gets tenure, then you've decided to make a very significant allocation decision based on on-paper materials and a brief interview. The hiring process will therefore become extremely high stakes (even more so than it is now), and therefore getting hired will be exceedingly difficult.

(System B) If, on the other hand, you allocate positions based more on post-hiring performance, then getting hired will be somewhat less difficult but getting tenure will be much harder.


Because of the mismatch noted above, in either system the requirements for getting hired or getting tenure will continue to ratchet up until the number of people 'qualified' matches the number of positions. This means that simply having earned a Ph.D. will not be the sole 'qualification' for a position (note my use of scare quotes) and additional "qualifications" will evolve (these will of course include luck, political connections, etc).

This situation cannot be fixed as long as there exists the mismatch of the number of people who want to be professors with the number of paid positions to be a professor.

There is no solution that can solve this problem, just as there is no solution to solve the 'problem' of the number of people who want to be famous authors, movie actors, rock stars or professional athletes being far greater than the number of job openings for authors, actors, rock stars and athletes.

Making it easier to get tenure once hired does not solve the problem, it only pushes the decision back from the tenure process (where the candidate is known and has a six-year track record) to the hiring process (where the candidate is less known and has only a grad school record).

The desire to make it easier to get tenure once someone is hired may seem kind to the particular person (whom you know as an individual), but it is unfair to the many, many other people who would like that job, who may be more qualified, but who haven't had a chance, possibly because they were passed over in the hiring, possibly because they entered the job market a few years later, etc. So by reducing the requirements for tenure--whatever they are--you are doing an injustice to all of these people.

Reducing the number of Ph.D.s awarded, a proposal mooted frequently (usually by people who already have Ph.D.s; people applying to grad school who want to get Ph.D.s. are usually less keen on the idea) does not solve the problem, it only pushes the decision process back from the hiring process to the graduate school entrance process, where the candidate has even less of a track record.

If the number of Ph.D. slots were radically reduced, a person who did not go to an elite institution and compiled a stellar record while there would not be able to pursue a Ph.D. and become a professor.

That in turn means that very significant decisions with long-term ramifications will be based in large part of the performance of students when they are juniors in high school. The choices you make when you are sixteen or seventeen years old--or maybe when you are eighteen or nineteen--would shape your permanent employment possibilities in ways even greater than they do today.

As long as the demand for a thing--professor jobs--is greater than the supply of that thing, the 'cost' of it will increase. The Chancellor of the Pennsylvania state system writes: "if rising scholars need to give up any semblance of a normal life to obtain a doctorate or tenure, then that program's values are out of alignment. I, for one, do not want institutions full of people who sold their souls for a degree or for tenure. I want balanced, well-rounded scholars."

Nice sentiments, but I would ask Chancellor Cavanaugh how he is going to allocate scarce resources: to the person who has a "semblance of a normal life" or the person who works the hardest for it? If I am willing to put in only 40 hours per week of work to get a tenured position, should I really take that position away from someone who is willing to put in 50 hours per week?

What should the allocation be based on, then? Where I went to undergraduate? Where I went to graduate school? People pay lip service to the 'quality' of research being better than quantity, but aren't two excellent articles better and two innovative classes better than one excellent article and one innovative class?

And let me tie this back to the murdering freak, Dr. Amy Bishop, who had very serious issues (such as killing her brother, beating people up in IHOP over a booster seat, and possibly mailing bombs to people). I am probably not the first to have dealt with the entitlement mentality of people who went to extremely elite institutions for undergraduate, continued for grad school and then are shocked and offended that they ended up not back at those elite institutions, but at "lesser" places and then found themselves, even at the "lesser" place not as good as someone with a humbler pedigree. These people, because they are not criminally insane, don't shoot anyone and, thankfully, settle for sneering, griping and politics. But the root sense of entitlement festers there.

Forgive me for being too Foucaltian, then, when I say that calls to restrict the number of Ph.D.s produced, for example, or to lessen tenure requirements so as to make the hiring decision carry more weight, come in part from a desire to remove competition from people from humbler backgrounds who want a professorial job very much indeed and are willing to put in the hours to get one. The system is extremely flawed, but putting more weight on the earlier part of the process seems like it will have the effect of making certain elites have an even greater advantage than they do now.

I don't think that the current system is good by any means, only that it is marginally better than the proposed alternatives. At least people have freedom and a chance as opposed to being locked out of a career because, hypothetically, you turned down admission to the Ivy school so as to live closer to a girlfriend in college (or, more seriously, as happened to one close friend, your mother died from cancer your junior year in high school and so your previous straight-A grades suffered significantly, causing you to get into Rutgers instead of Princeton).

The current system is wasteful and cruel because people put in years of effort to give themselves a chance at a job but then don't have a good place to turn if the chance doesn't work out. But this is not the slightest bit different from the entertainment, publishing and sports industries. Yet we don't hear calls to keep kids from practicing their music or their acting or their writing or their baseball skills, even though the chance of their making a living in these fields, and the financial payoff for years of work, might be even lower than in academia.

And here, I think, is the psychological root of the problem. People in entertainment, art, sports, politics and publishing tend not to have achieved nearly all of their early success mostly by being dutiful even though the successful ones work extremely hard. Academics, on the other hand, since grade school have been rewarded for being dutiful. When dutiful is not enough--when talent in multiple areas, and, most significantly LUCK--becomes a very large variable in the equation, the academic personality revolts and thinks things are unfair and need to be change.

Things are indeed unfair. I'm not the starting second basement for the Boston Red Sox, people have not filled Giants Stadium to hear Mike Drout sing and play guitar for the Tattered Remnants, and none of my books are best-sellers yet. There weren't enough of these jobs to go around, just as there are not enough professor jobs to go around. Yet no one is calling for professional baseball or the recording industry or the publishing world to discourage people from playing Little League or taking guitar lessons or writing novels. We should think about why the same situation in academia is seen as a failing, and we should be exceedingly careful that attempts to fix the system don't end up imposing one that is even more unfair and destructive. Freedom needs to include the freedom to take risks that don't pay off: when you want something very valuable, that a lot of other people want, there is unlikely to be a clear path to getting it.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Unexpected Good News: An Audie Finalist

Just heard from Recorded Books that:
"We’re thrilled to announce that our Modern Scholar course "A Way with Words IV: Understanding Poetry" by Professor Michael D।C. Drout of Wheaton College has been named as a finalist in the "Original Works" category for a 2010 Audie® Award. The Audies, sponsored by the Audio Publishers Association (APA), is the premier awards program in the United States recognizing distinction in audiobooks and spoken word entertainment. Professor Drout has been one of our most popular lecturers with 9 courses in our archives, including three others in the "A Way with Words" series. The Audies will be awarded at the Audie Gala on May 25 in New York City."

I really wasn't expecting this, so it was a great boost on an otherwise difficult day (arguing for people's jobs in front of the Provost--keep your fingers crossed, but I think she understood the situation). I'm really happy with how this course came out, so I'm glad other people enjoyed it also.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Give the People What They Want

Feeling particularly cynical about academia, I was thinking about how sometimes a particular essay ends up making a reputation for someone, and then, many years after the reputation has been made, the elite positions attained, you go back and reads the essay, and you realize that it wasn't all that great, that there were major flaws, and you wonder, why did this essay do so much for this person's reputation?

The answer, I think, is that the essay gave the people what they wanted. And for doing that, the author was rewarded.

Sometimes this is done is a relatively small-scale way: the critical establishment doesn't like a claim and so the board of a major journal decides to reinforce the orthodoxy. For example, Patrick Conner makes some very significant claims about the Exeter Book. These are never published in Anglo-Saxon England, but Richard Gameson's "refutation" of those claims is published at exceedingly great length. Likewise, and much more egregiously, Tom Shippey writes a critique of some of Walter Goffart's theories about Beowulf being influenced by a specific Latin text. Almost immediately Goffart's critique of Shippeys' piece appears in Anglo-Saxon England even though other articles, already accepted but not published, had been languishing for (literally) years.

But sometimes the "establishment" is just about everyone in a field. An inconvenient set of facts has come to light, or a new theory has challenged some significant orthodoxies, or a revisiting of historiography has shown that a foundational claim is problematic. When it is not just a minor conspiracy of editors, but the sense of the field as a whole, an essay can become immensely influential and its author celebrated for doing the job that the field wanted done, even though the essay, in hindsight, wasn't particularly good.

Larry Benson's "The Literary Character of Anglo-Saxon Formulaic Poetry," PMLA 81 (1966): 334-41 is the perfect example of such an essay. Enormously influential at the time, this essay is embarrassingly bad when you actually read it as opposed to mindlessly citing it to show that Anglo-Saxon texts derived from literary sources have the same 'formulaic density' as those that might be oral compositions. Setting aside the fact that formulaic density is a terrible measure of orality (a point that had been made by Albert Lord in the 1960s), Benson's essay still fails to do anything more than assemble some clumsy statistics that clump together all different kinds of formulas and quasi formulas without reasonable differentiation. Even worse, Benson is essentially searching for Homeric formulas in Anglo-Saxon texts, even though the Anglo-Saxon system works much differently. The essay may be useful as a counterpoint to the somewhat over-the-top cheerleading for orality done by Francis Magoun, but as an argument on its own, it should have been convincing to no one.

Yet it was convincing, not because of its intrinsic merit, but because it gave a lot of literary scholars in the 1960s exactly what they wanted: a reason to ignore all that new, confusing oral tradition stuff. Benson was rewarded for this with publication in PMLA (which really doesn't publish much medieval scholarship any more, though it did back then) and widespread citation.

There are other examples, but this is just the most egregious that I know. Efforts to locate Beowulf firmly in time of the manuscript (I'm not really talking about Kevin Kiernan's work here, even though he does this, because Kevin isn't giving anyone what they wanted) might be an example. I think that in another ten years people will see that Spivak's "Three Women's Texts" and Said's Orientalism are also examples of giving people what they wanted (a reason to rush as fast as possible to postcolonialist political readings) but aren't particularly well done in themselves.

The elephant in the room, though, would be J.R.R. Tolkien's "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics". This text, so dear to my heart and which I've worked on for so many years, could be the ultimate example of giving the people what they wanted. The field didn't know it, I think, but it dearly wanted Beowulf as a literary work rather than something historical. Tolkien gave them this, and so in that sense I would have to damn him like I do Benson, Spivak or Said. But there's something different about "The Monsters and the Critics," also, because Tolkien wasn't only giving the people what they wanted. Yes, they got their literary Beowulf, but Tolkien also wanted them to see how the literary rose out of the historical. Tolkien thought that the Beowulf-poet knew his history, that references, as Tolkien saw them, to the Heruli or to Scedelandum in, or to the Heathobards or to Hengest were basically historically accurate. That wasn't what the field, at the time, wanted from "The Monsters and the Critics," and so it didn't take that path (and to be fair, Tolkien was not exactly clear about the specifics of his views; see Finn and Hengest, where the nearly the whole story has to be pieced together from footnotes). It took what it wanted and rewarded Tolkien for providing that.

The lesson seems to be that if you want to be influential and eventually powerful, give the people what they want.

(And if you care about the intellectual quality of your field, you might want to strongly question--even stubbornly resist--getting what you think you want).

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Crazy Sheep DNA from Medieval Manuscripts Project: Update

For quite a number of years now I have been involved with a long-term interdisciplinary project to extract DNA from medieval parchment and use the information so retrieved to help figure out relationships between manuscripts.

The project started back in 2005 or so, and for a while was more speculation and planning than anything else. Then I got some summer funding and trained a student in paleography while she simultaneously learned how to do Polymerase Chain Reaction work in Biology (she was a Bio major who has since gone on to medical school). A second student followed up and extracted more DNA from medieval parchment (I bought a leaf and a fragment at Kalamazoo for this purpose).

But we always had fears about contamination: although we did get what looked to be ovine DNA, we had some issues with our controls, making it seem like we might have had a contaminated room or contaminated reagents. Which is why I didn't rush into print or publicity like some other groups (who shall remain nameless, and really could have been more polite about priority and public discussion, but let that pass): we had the data a long time ago, but we just couldn't be sure.

Today, however, we confirmed as closely as we could that the apparent contamination was from human, not ovine, DNA, and so the previous results (success in extraction) will most likely stand up. We are running tests again, and today got confirmation that we got sheep DNA from modern parchment (thanks, Pergamana!). The two next steps are to go back to the medieval parchment and to see how small a sample we can use. Our results on modern parchment were done on 25mg of material: about 3x5 mm, which is too large to use on a lot of manuscripts (though might be useful for binding fragments, etc.). Librarians just aren't going to let you snip off even a corner that small (and rightly so). However, if we can reduce the necessary sample size to 2.5 mg, that's another story.

At the same time, we need a good way of getting samples that isn't destructive. That has been the project of a bunch of amazing engineering students at Northwestern University, with whom I've been working to design a Sheep DNA Extractor (a more accurate description is that I throw out crazy ideas and give them sketches on cocktail napkins, and they make cool prototypes that seem to work).

Hopefully these two strands of effort will come together in the next two weeks, when we finally get some data on the minimum sample size and the Northwestern students then choose which of their cool designs work.

The next step will be designing the database into which this information will go and a user interface both for inputting the information and for retrieving and manipulating it. That's where the Computer Science majors at Wheaton come in: for their senior seminar project, I am their "client" and they are going to work with me to design and program all the software.

The overall plan is that at the end of this year, we can present an integrated project, from procedures for sample-taking that is not visibly destructive, to the biological work to extract the DNA, to the database for storing it, to the software which looks for patterns and then allows readers to access the information.

This is one of the harder things that I have done, because I'm coordinating a number of disparate efforts, each of which has a different timetable, different problems and and different priorities: it reminds me of trying to cook a big meal, rushing from pot to pan to over to chopping block, juggling things frantically. But that's also what makes it fun.

And who knows, once I write this all up and present the still-secret extraction method and the interface and the plan for going forward, maybe some funding body or wealthy philanthropist will give the project some support.

In any event, and even before finishing (and of course any part or parts could still crash and burn), this has definitely been worth it, because it has given me an excuse to hang out in the Science Center and worth with biologists, computer scientists and engineers. All because I gave Scott McLemee a crazy answer to a question in 2005.

(by the way, as far as I know the first person to have the idea of tracing manuscripts through sheep DNA was Greg Rose, who told me about his idea in September 2001).

Monday, January 25, 2010

Sabbatical Update

My apologies, dear readers: this post is more for my benefit than yours. As a way of making sure I am being productive, I figured I would keep track of what I've been doing on my sabbatical, which I am counting as having started on July 1. Since then:

Things Completed

1. New edition (revised, expanded) of Beowulf and the Critics: completed and to publisher.

2. Article written and accepted: "The Rohirrim, the Anglo-Saxons, and the Problem of Appendix F: Ambiguity and Reference in Tolkien’s Books and Jackson’s Films” to be published in Janice M. Bogstad and Philip E. Kaveny, eds. Tolkien in Fiction and Film. McFarland, 2011.

3. Essay revised, accepted, in press: “Survival of the Most Pleasing: A Meme-Based Approach to Aesthetic Selection,” tbp in John M. Hill, ed. On the Aesthetics of Beowulf and Other Old English Poems. (Toronto: U of Toronto Press, 2010) 111-34.

4. Essay revised, accepted: “‘I am Large, I contain Multitudes’: The Medieval Author in Memetic Terms.” In Slavica Rankovic, et al., eds. Tradition and the Individual Talent: Modes of Authorship in the Middle Ages. Accepted for collection (I think), but collection still in negotiations with publisher.

5. Article written, accepted, to be published, but minor revisions needed: Drout, Michael D.C., Michael J. Kahn, Mark D. LeBlanc, “Dendo-Grammar: Lexomic Methods for Analyzing the Relationships Among Old English Poems.” Journal of English and Germanic Philology

6. Article written, revised, passed by outside readers, awaiting editorial board decision: “Albert S. Cook’s Invention of Cynewulf and the History of English Studies in America.” PMLA.

7. Grant proposal written, submitted, awaiting decision: Untangling the Web of the Old English Corpus:Developing Lexomic Methods for Textual Analysis, NEH.

8. Invited Lectures given: “Fantastic Language: Tolkien and Philology” Bowdoin College, October 1, 2010.
“Memes and Memetics.” Bowdoin College, October 2, 2009.

9. Anglo-Saxon Aloud: Completed, the Homilies of Wulfstan.

10. Conference Presentation: “Lexomics for Anglo-Saxon Literature,” with Mark LeBlanc, Michael Kahn and Christina Nelson (Wheaton ’11). International Society of Anglo-Saxonists, July 26-August 31, Memorial University, St. John’s, Newfoundland.

Things in Progress:

1. Article being revised: Downey, Sarah, Michael D.C. Drout, Michael J. Kahn, Mark D. LeBlanc: "'Books Tell Us': Lexomic and Traditional Evidence for the Sources of Guthlac A." [submit on 2/12/10]

2. Essay in progress, but accepted: Bloch, Bill Goldbloom, Michael D. C. Drout, “Information and Disinformation in Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon.” In Jessica Sklar and Elizabeth Sklar, ed. Mathematics and Popular Culture. MacFarland, 2011.

3. Article in progress. Research ongoing. Drout, Michael D.C., Michael J. Kahn and Mark LeBlanc. "'The Devil Talks Like a Preacher Man': Where Anglo-Saxon Poets got their Satanic Speeches."

4. Research in progress: "Untangling the Cynewulfian Corpus: Lexomic Analysis of the Similarity if Vocabulary.

5. Essay accepted; need completing and revision: "“The Council of Elrond, All those Poems, and the Famous F-ing Elves: Strategies for Teaching the Hard Parts of Tolkien,” in Leslie Donovan, ed. Approaches to Teaching J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings and Other Works. Modern Language Association.

6. Invited Lecture: “Whole Worlds out of Single Words: Tolkien and Language.” Washington College, Chestertown, MD. April 15, 2010.

7. Book in Progress: From Tradition to Culture. Drafted: Introduction, Ch 1 (theory of tradition), Ch 2 Genre ('Is Vainglory a Wisdom Poem?'), Ch 3 The Author; Ch. 4. Aesthetics. In progress: Ch. 5 Lexomic Methodology and Memes. To do: Ch 6. Crossovers and Influences. Ch 6. The Anxiety of Influence in Memetic Terms.

8. Book in Progress: Grammar for Fun and Profit. Whole Book rough-drafted. Only Ch 1. polished.

9. Book in Progress: JRRT. Completed: Intro.; Silmarillion chapter, scholarship chapter. To do: Chapter on Hobbit, one chapter for each LotR volume. Ch. on on-line gaming ("I'm a level 63 hunter, Don't you mess with me, hunter); Ch. Ret-Conning and the Evolution of Lore. Conclusion.

10. Book in Progress: Philology Reborn. With Scott Kleinman. At proposal stage, but with 2 chapters drafted.

11. Minor revisions of King Alfred's Grammar.

12. Cumulative Index to Tolkien Studies volumes 1-6.

13. Bibliography for Tolkien Studies volume 7.

14. Editing Tolkien Studies volume 7.

Possibilities: Requests for contributions to 3 Tolkien books; possible new Tolkien course on CD;

If I can finish these things before July 1 (which would be a minor miracle), it will have been a good use of what is probably the only year-long sabbatical I'll have.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Devils Talking

I'm compiling a list of places in Anglo-Saxon literature where devils, demons or the Devil himself speak. Off the top of my head I have:

Genesis B -- the Devil in that whole Fall of the Angels and then Fall of Man thingy.

Juliana -- the devil that Juliana captures and forces to confess.

Christ and Satan -- the Devil.

Guthlac -- the devils who torment St. Guthlac by showing him monks being bad (oh, and dragging him to the hellmouth and threatening to throw him in).

Andreas -- when the devil shows up to convince the men to attack Andrew and later encourages them when they are torturing the Saint.

Elene -- devil shows up to stir up the people to go against Judas. (I had forgotten this. Thanks Jason Fisher)

Are there any I've missed in the poetry? Can you think of any in the Prose?

Yes. Gospel of Nicodemus (thanks Vellum)

Also, possibly, sermons for first Sunday in Lent because the text is Matt 4:1-11 (thanks Derek).

LS 14 (MargaretCCCC 303) 16.7: se deofol hire to cwæð: Sathana urne cyning, hine gewræc drihten of paradises myrhþe (cf. Pass.Marg.[Par] 10.7 tunc demon dixit). (thanks Hilary)

Other possibilities:
Mark 5:12
Acts 19:15
thanks (Eutychus)

And I will check out Peter Dendle's book (Thanks Dr. Virago).

Looking through Saints' Lives and using the concordance to find references to Satan and Devil will certainly be a way to go as well, but I am mainly looking for long speeches by the devil or demons rather than things about them.

Updates: Vellum points out some devil talking in prose: Gospel of Nicodemus. Jason Fisher reminds me that the devil makes an appearance in Elene as well. Derek suggest sermons for the first Sunday in Lent. Dr. Virago points to Peter Dendle's Satan book (you know he also wrote a book on zombies. How cool is that?). Eutychus points out places in Scripture that would work and Hilary notes the Life of St Margaret.

Friday, January 15, 2010

On Productivity

My apologies for the blog's being quiet lately. For one thing I've been busy with interesting work that has taken a lot of my time. For another, I've (not yet terribly successfully) been trying to spend less time on the internet, and finally, I'm feeling a little bit discouraged about the whole blogospheric thing right now. I haven't yet decided to nuke the blog and the whole web 2.0 thing yet but am at least considering it.

But, that said, I did get a couple of interesting questions from readers over break, and I thought a modified version of my answers might be useful to one or two people. The questions were about how to be productive after graduate school and about how to maintain research productivitywhile not neglecting your family. I don't think I live up to my own answers here, but as I have managed to maintain a slow trickle of articles and books while raising two young children, I have a few "well, it worked for me -- at least sort of" suggestions.

The single most important thing that I discovered about productivity is so stupid that is probably shouldn't be written, but it was an eye-opener for me when I figured it out:

(1) Your academic work is a job.

One of the reasons many of us go into academia is that we love the structure (or lack of structure) of the system: you have to be there for classes, but after that you're on your own in many ways to do what you want to do and when. It's one of the best things about academia that you don't have to punch a clock, that you can do a lot of work from home if you want and that you can define your own goals.

That's all great. Now put in 40+ hours per week. Every week. And make up hours lost to vacations, etc.

We all think we work long hours in academia and go out of our way to tell people that it is not a cakewalk. And that, to some extent, is true. Hours in the classroom take up far more energy per hour than hours in many other jobs. Just as a Broadway actress can use a whole day's worth of energy in a three hour show, you can blow a lot of your energy budget for a day with a couple of big classes that need to be kept awake and enthusiastic. But if you actually check up on yourself and keep track of how much time that you are working (as opposed to half-working while alternating between grading papers and Facebook), you'll find that you can probably do more to get to that 40-hour level of productivity.

But there's a more positive side to "treat your job like a job" as well, although this is extremely hard to do in academia: When the job is over, it's over. Get to your 40 hours however you need to, and then do something else. (I am absolutely terrible at taking this advice, but when I do, I'm happier and over all more productive).

(2) Un-divide your attention

(I am terrible at this, also) A stack of papers that should take two hours to grade will take six hours to grade if you've got Facebook open while you do it. Walk away from the computer and plow through the papers. Also, don't cherry pick: the amount of time you waste paging through the papers looking for a good one to grade adds up to an enormous amount of wasted time. You're going to have to grade the bad paper anyway, so just discipline yourself into grading from the top of the stack down to the bottom. I recommend physically unplugging your ethernet cable when you're writing. Yes, it's a pain when you could easily google a citation but is worth it when you are just slightly prevented from flipping over to Firefox for a second to check on junk. Keep your focus.

This applies in spades to your family and is perhaps the one area where I've been having a little more success. Your family won't begrudge you your work time if, when you're not working, you're giving them your undivided attention. I am still working on this, but I have tried to make it a rule that from the minute I pick the kids up from the bus to the minute they go to bed, I don't do academic work. That doesn't mean that they are getting undivided attention all the time, because there's cooking, dog walking, cleaning, errands, etc., but at least I'm not zombified at the stupid computer. Undivided attention is much more effective than trying to do multiple things at once, badly.

(3) Push forward in multiple directions

This next principle of productivity seems like a contradiction to the previous one, but really what I mean there is not to try, say, to write an essay and surf FB at the same time. When it comes to running projects, I am a very big believer in having more than one thing going on at a time. Some of the projects will be long-running, others quick. I started co-authoring a paper on Guthlac on Dec 28 and we are going to be ready to send it to a journal by Feb 1 (it isn't just a note but is about 30 pages now). On the other hand, the paper that may or may not get published by PMLA has gone 14 years and uncounted iterations between original research and now (and it still has to get approved by the editorial board). Having a lot of different things in different stages is good as long as you can also finish them off when the time comes. This usually involves a transition between regular, steady work and a crazy push to get to the end.

(4) Read, and read way outside your field

This has been the area where I've been relatively successful lately: instead of staring blankly at a word processing window, walk away from the computer and read something. Read it in hard copy, in a book if at all possible. Too often after we finish our dissertation research, we stop reading. I remember the exact moment when I figured out how to make How Tradition Works fit together: I was sitting on the floor of O'Hare Airport at 6:20 a.m. on the way back from Kalamazoo, and I was reading Mechthild Gretsch's The Intellectual Foundations of the English Benedictine Reform and a light went on. I really think, if it's at all possible, that you should take the semester before a research leave or a sabbatical and do no writing at all: just read. It not only catches you up on what's going on in the field, but it inspires and encourages you in a way that writing doesn't.

Also, read not only in your field and not only what other members of your field are reading. This has been my biggest boost to productivity: reading mathematics, seemingly unrelated philosophy (i.e., not 'literary philosophers'), books about beekeeping, the Shakers, people living on islands, biology, engineering, medicine -- break out of your bubble. It's useful not only because you can see how other people solve problems, but because you will be less of a lemming than the other people in your field (and, if Facebook is any guide, English professors are pretty lemminglike when it comes to political opinions, idiotic Farmville or the meme of the day). There's an enormous amount of really interesting stuff out there, and it's incredibly valuable to see how smart people think. Reading in other disciplines also helps you to avoid being colonized by "single answer" memes: you'll be a lot better at being skeptical about whatever today's tedious orthodoxy is if you come across people addressing related problems in different ways. For example, it's hard to take "the social construction of the body" as seriously as you did after you read some books about developments in surgery and see how much effort, technique and creativity has gone into solving problems that were, not long ago, impossible to address: the "physical construction of the body" seems awfully more important. Reading widely has the very salutary effect of reducing some of the English professor's tendency towards hubris.

(5) Use your deadlines

My final piece of advice is to use deadlines to manipulate yourself. The problem with our academic research is that although we operate with inflexible deadlines all the time (the class has to be taught, which means you have to be there and ready to teach it) the deadlines for our research are often far away and flexible. An inflexible deadline will always beat a flexible deadline, and so your research time gets swallowed up by class prep, meetings, etc. But you can overcome some of this if you use deadline flexibility to your advantage. For example, let's say I have to write three syllabi and also I want to get a paper finished. The syllabi have to be done before the semester starts. The paper? Well, it would be nice... But what I do is refuse to allow myself to work on the syllabi until the paper is finished. This takes all the stress of the syllabus deadline and transfers it to the paper deadline. I know that I'll get the syllabi done, because I have to, so if I make myself get the paper done first, I'll end up with it all done. (I don't think, by the way, that this is an entirely healthy way to live because it can be extremely stressful, but it gets the job done).

So those are my five principles for productivity. And now I am going to put some of them into play by unplugging the stupid internet and trying to crank out a page or two before I have to pick up the kids.