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).