Tuesday, May 30, 2006


Either TTLB Ecosystem is broken again, or people got really mad that I called for the cancellation of SpongeBob, because I dropped overnight from the upper-end of reptile into the lowly-indeed category of Lowly Insect.

Of course, Lowly Worm was always a favorite Richard Scarry character, so that's not too bad.

Authenticity in Travel

Last night, I had a conversation with a Saudi student about travel. He made the common complaint (as advisor to the International Student Cultural Organization, I hear it at least once per week) that he is disappointed to be in Troy, and would prefer to be in Boston (it is always New York, LA, or Boston) because that is "the real America."

I've got to admit, I've always found this perspective puzzling. Oh, I understand why young people want to live in cities -- well, OK, I don't understand why they do, but I understand THAT they do -- but why do young people think that a) those cities are more authentically American than other places, and b) that those places are good places to travel?

I've spent a decent amount of time living and travelling abroad. Every time I travel, I find myself trying to escape from the capital city, especially in search of authenticity. When I lived in Korea, after my contract in Pusan was up I looked for a job in any other place except Seoul. When I lived in Lithuania, I made only two trips from Klaipeda to Vilnius -- one to go to the consulate, and one to pick someone up at the airport. When I was in Guatemala last, I was very irritated at every day spent in Guatemala City, and impatient with every day spent in Antigua.

It has always struck me as ridiculous and stupid for people to go abroad and immediately rush straight toward their ethnic ghetto. I had a colleague in Korea who absolutely had to live just outside the military base, because it was more "American." My response -- why not go back to America? It would be even more American!

Not me ... next time I'm abroad, send me to some small town in the middle of the boondocks. I don't know whether such places are more "authentic" or not, but surely authenticity doesn't reside in the city with the highest concentration of TGIFridays.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Medieval SpongeBob

I finally saw the medieval SpongeBob Squarepants episode (entitled "Dunces and Dragons"). All I can say, as an afficianado of both medievalism and SpongeBob, is that Spongebob should have been cancelled at the end of season three. It has lost most of what made it fresh and entertaining.

Basically the only "medieval" joke is ending every verb in "eth," such as in the phrase, "I bloggeth about SpongeBob and expresseth my horror at how bad the episode was." I suppose I could have put the word "joke" in scorn quotes too, since it isn't really funny. Other "jokes" are referring to the king's fool (Squidward) as the king's "doofus," and Plankton's evil laugh ending in a coughing fit.

It may be the worst of all SpongeBob episodes ever (though I still haven't seen all of the fourth season), and it is made even worse by the fact that it runs 30 minutes long rather than the usual 15 minutes. Yes, it is only 30 minutes long, even though it feels like months.

So, in conclusion, SpongeBob Squarepants medieval episode: Not funny. An insult to both SpongeBob and the Middle Ages.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Why Seuss Creeps Me Out

When my daughter was about two years old, she hit that phase in which toddlers need to experience the same thing over and over -- you know, watch the save video three times per day, hear the same song a thousand times per day, or in this case, hear the same story three or four times per day. The story she fixated on was Hop on Pop.

About the time I was finishing up my MA coursework, then, I read Hop on Pop aloud three or four times every day. I had it memorized well enough that I could recite it to her on long car trips to keep her entertained. In those circumstances, it is almost impossible for the larval English professor to avoid deconstruction, so deconstruct I did. And what I found gave me the creeps.

First off, the phrase "Hop on Pop" struck me as having a potential pedophilic implication. Fortunately, the picture in the book shows something a lot less creepy -- two kids jumping on their fat father's stomach like a trampoline.* The behavior of the children is expressly forbidden, though, when after they proclaim "We like to hop. We like to hop on top of pop," a mother-figure pokes her head in the frame and commands them: "Stop! You must not hop on Pop." If it had stopped there, I probably would have thought nothing of it.

But let us consider the case of Mr. Brown, who is having an affair, cheating on his wife with Mr. Black. You doubt me? Look into the book, and you will find the caption "Mr. Brown, Mrs. Brown," with a picture of the couple. Both are smiling, but they are showing no physical intimacy at all. They are not even touching. Why not? Well, in the facing page, we see "Mr. Brown, Upside-Down," and a picture of Mr. Brown standing on his head. Something isn't right with Mr. Brown. Something about him is quite upside-down.

Later (after he has been catapulted through the sky by a puppy on a seesaw), Mr. Brown has a little sexual adventure. We first read the question: "Where is Brown? There is Brown! Mr. Brown is out of town." So far, so good. Then we read "Back, Black, Brown came back. Brown came back with Mr. Black." This time, Brown and Black are pictured holding hands, in a pose of intimacy denied Mrs. Brown. In fact, Mrs. Brown seems banished from the book, as later on Mr. Brown and Mr. Black have a picnic, and she's not invited.

So, first, we have the example of the children's inappropriate behavior with their father, then we have Mr. Brown who, on a trip out of town meets and becomes intimate with Mr. Black, returns home with him and seems to displace his wife altogether. Tsk, tsk.

I'm not sure what to make of the rest of it. There is the puppy that gets into bizarre situations, such as being in a giant cup, perhaps a racist slight against cultures that consider dog a form of sustinance. There is the unidentifiable "Thing," that, regardless of its other shortcomings, can sing, but eventually sings too long (a prescient critique of American Idol, perhaps?). Also, the father who is being hopped upon is chronically depressed, as we learn when we read "Dad is sad. Very, very sad. He had a bad day. What a day Dad had."

Yes, I learned that Dr. Seuss needs to be approached with caution. And don't even get me started on Fox in Sox, with its critique of high fashion and its belligerent Tweedle Beetles. No, definitely not for children.

*I am going mostly from memory here, so my apologies if I get a quote or two wrong.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Carnivalesque XV

Siris has Carnivalesque XV up, the Ancient/Medieval edition. Head on over there for a look.

Oooh, I don't feel so good...

According to this article, "very, very" heavy eaters of kimchi are at risk for stomach cancer. I hope by that vague measure they mean heavy relative to Koreans, not heavy relative to your average human. If it is heavy relative to Koreans, I'm fine. If it is heavy relative to average humans, I may be in trouble.

Not that it's going to change my kimchi eating habits. Yum!

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Lit and Myth in Video Games

On the postmodern medievalism front, Douglas Perry has a fascinating article entitled "The Influence of Literature and Myth in Videogames," which talks about how medieval literature and mythology makes its way into video games, mostly mediated through Tolkien, Robert E. Howard, and the like. My favorite quote, mostly because of the blatant postmodernity of it, is by Amy Hennig, designer of the Soul Reaver series (which I've not played):
In the Soul Reaver series, I focused on a handful of core ideas -- but the main
theme revolved around the question of free will in a universe apparently ruled
by fate. I saw both Kain and Raziel as Oedipus figures (Sophoclean, not
Freudian), being railroaded by fate and all the while fighting for their free

If you don't understand the distinction she makes between Sophoclean and Freudian Oedipal figures ... well, guess you should have stayed awake in World Lit class. But, hey, all those classes you took in computer science (while neglecting your math and English) will prepare you for an exciting career in writing code, or maybe even data entry!

h/t Bourgeois Nerd

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Possible Indy Nokes Sighting

I've been invited to give three sessions at InConJunction Science Fiction & Fantasy convention on July 7th and 8th. If anyone plans to be in the Indianapolis area that weekend, I'd love to meet you at the convention.

The three sessions:

Friday (July 7), 6PM -- "The Lord of the Rings: Christ, King Arthur, and Middle Earth"

Saturday (July 8), 2PM -- "Sam’s Family Tree in The Lord of the Rings"

Saturday (July 8), 6PM -- "Real Medieval Magic, Medicine, and Religion"

Those of you who've read this page often will recognize this as part of my public outreach project.
  • The "Christ, King Arthur, Etc" paper will be an altered version of the one I gave at the Troy University Mythology Symposium, and is a sneaky attempt to get people interested in Arthuriana.
  • The "Sam's Family Tree" paper will be a popular version of a scholarly paper I gave at PCA last month (and am currently whipping into publishable shape), and a sneaky attempt to get people interested in Old English.
  • I'm not 100% sure what I'll be doing with the "Real Medieval Magic" presentation yet. I'm strongly considering talking a little about Bald's Leechbook and the Lacnunga, then walking them through the dozen metrical charms found in the Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records (translated, of course).

For those interested, the presentation part of these sessions will only be about 15-20 minutes. The rest will be discussion time during which you can ask questions or tell me that I'm wrong. I'll probably also use PowerPoint to show some facsimile images of the Leechbooks and Lacnunga, too. Don't worry -- It'll be cool, not boring.

Friday, May 19, 2006

I'm an Academic Celebrity!

It is only a matter of time before there is a segment on me on VH1's "Best Week Ever." Soon, Joan and Melissa Rivers will be asking my wife about the dress she is wearing on the red carpet (I, of course, will be wearing a tweed tuxedo). The paparazzi will soon be camped out on my doorstep. Why?

Because I am an academic celebrity.

How do I know I am a celebrity? I have been interviewed twice this week about subjects that are not in my academic specialty -- and no one has shown any interest in my actual research.

The first time it happened this week was when NPR contacted me for their Weekend Edition story on the Astor Place Riot. Now, I did research on the riots in graduate school, but I cannot be called either a Shakespearean nor a theatre historian. I'm not really sure where they got my name from. Eventually, when the interviewer asked me if I would mind being interviewed on the air, I said I would be willing, but suggested it might be better if they got a theatre historian (they finally ended up interviewing Bruce McConachie on the radio, and he did a better job than I could have). When I added that I would be more than happy to talk to them any time they did a story on the medieval or literature, all I got on the other end was an uncomfortable silence.

The second time it happened, I was interviewed by the Chronicle of Higher Ed for a piece they are doing on Rate My Professors. This time, I know where they got my name ... they were interesting in a blog post I did on the subject.* I knew what I was talking about, more or less, this time, but of course it had nothing to do with my scholarship.

So, I am an academic celebrity. No autographs, please.

[* By the way, the post is a good example of memory failure. In the blog post, I say that there were already two or three ratings of me when I put on my own rating. In the interview, I told her that there were no ratings of me whatsoever, and that I added my own name and "primed the pump" by writing the first rating (and giving myself a chili pepper). Clearly, these two versions cannot be reconciled, and I must have mis-remembered at one point. The trouble is, now that I read both accounts, they BOTH seem accurate to me. All I can say in my own defense is that I'm now as confused as anyone else.]

Thursday, May 18, 2006

In Crisis!

Sometimes I think our writing center needs to send students to this room.

Getting an Academic Job

My parents would very much like me to get a job closer to them (well, OK, they really just want the grandkids close to them. Where I am or my job is matters not), so they find it mystifying that I don't come work near them. They say things like, "Why don't you get a job at Tiny Nun-Run College a Few Minutes Away?" and when I reply that they don't have any full time faculty (and it would be a step WAY down for me, anyway), they look puzzled. Then they say things like, "Have you put in a resume at Extension Campus of Large State School, or at Famous Private School?" and don't understand that I can't just send my resume around to schools that don't have open faculty lines.

No, my parents aren't stupid. It's just that the whole academic hiring cycle is such a bizarre and counter-intuitive dance, no one would believe it who hasn't seen it. The practical result is that when you need a job, there aren't any out there (or you are competing with literally hundreds of other applicants), and when you are hiring, there aren't any qualified candidates. As my department chair Bill likes to say, "It's a wonder anyone ever gets a job." Having been on both sides of the hiring process, I have to agree.

The account Mark Bauerlein gives in his misleadingly-entitled "Systematic Indoctrination" is about as accurate as any I've seen. My favorite part:
There is no more miserable creature on earth than the post-doc looking for a job. You’ve spent your twenties reading books and writing papers, taking classes from advisors who wonder when you’ll be off their hands. You have no prospects, and you can’t do anything else. You can barely pay your rent, but every hour at a part-time job derails your ambitions. At the annual scholarly convention, you join a thousand other wannabes scrambling for a few plum appointments. Your clothes are a bit threadbare, your posture slouches as if you aren’t sure of getting a rebuke or a reward. Your face is wan, but your eyes dart.

Yup, that about describes it.

In an unrelated note, does anyone out there know of any other non-academic magazine that keeps a blog on education, or is National Review the only one?

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Churchill, Horowitz, Plagiarism, and Academic Freedom

The University of Colorado has found that Ward Churchill is guilty of plagiarism and other serious academic misconduct. You can find a short article and Churchill's response in the Chronicle of Higher Ed, a more detailed article in Inside Higher Ed, and various documents at the University of Colorado at Boulder website.

What disturbs me, however, is the academic freedom debate. In this post responding to David Horowitz, I argued that issues of academic freedom need to be decided by faculty because faculty are competent to make judgments about the creation of knowledge (the context of that debate, however, was political bullying by professors). I wrote that:

Horowitz objects that academic freedom is whatever faculty says it is. I agree
that this situation leaves room for cronyism and enforcement of political
consensus [....] but it must be, however the situation changes, that judgments about the proper use of academic freedom are left to professors. [....] In the great majority of cases, non-academics are not competent to make that judgment, because they don't understand how knowledge is created.

So, here we have a judgment rendered by academics, with damning evidence that Churchill committed some of the worst academic sins possible. In my mind, the debate is over. There are cases in which apparent plagiarism or academic honesty can be excused -- editors accidentally removing citations or quotation marks, small record-keeping errors, slips of the memory, dishonest co-authors, etc.-- but Churchill's appears to be a career of dishonesty. Game over, case closed. He's out on his ear, right?

Wrong. Academics, who should be on the forefront of calling for Churchill's ouster, are among those looking for possible ways to keep him from suffering consequences, all in the name of academic freedom. Only one of the committee members is calling for firing him, with recommending more weaselly sanctions -- a suspension of either two or five years. Um, I don't know about the rest of the world, but being suspended for two-or-more years would be akin to firing me, since I can't exactly go without income for years on end. Even more absurdly, the report says that revoking his tenure is "not an improper sanction," (in clear violation of Orwell's not-un construction ban). Uh, by "not improper," don't you mean, "proper?"

But they don't want to be said to have called to fire him ("No, no, I only called for suspension"), and they don't want to be said to have called for revoking his tenure ("No, I never said it was proper. I just said it wasn't improper"). Reading around the blogosphere, I find other academics wondering if we should be defending Churchill as a defense of academic freedom (read the comment section here).

OK, time for a reality check. Academic freedom does not mean freedom to plagiarize. It does not mean freedom to falsify sources. It does not mean freedom to make stuff up. Is it true that Churchill would never have been investigated if there had not been a public outcry against his politics? Almost certainly. But the sin here is not that he has been subject to a politically-motivated investigation; the sin is that he was never subject to an academically-motivated investigation.

I think some people are worried that if administrators don't like their politics, they will have their own publications searched. So what? I wish some administrators would read my publications! If we find situations in which such review falsely concludes academic misconduct, then we can react with outraged cries of "academic freedom."

I argued in my post responding to Horowitz that academics have to be the gatekeepers for academic freedom. Horowitz, in his writings, suggests that academics have proven themselves too irresponsible to police themselves. Please, let's not shame ourselves by proving that verdict right.

[Update -- Steven Taylor's distinction among three different issues -- Churchill's qualifications, Churchill's academic freedom, and Churchill's plagiarism -- is exactly right, I think. Wish I'd have written it so clearly in my own post]

Monday, May 15, 2006

First and Last Words

Blogos has a post about last words in dissertations. When I began writing my dissertation, I became obsessed with the first word. I spent a week trying to figure out what it should be. The first word of the diss, I figured, was the first word of my professional career, and would symbolize the whole. After much thought, I decided on "Extreme." A bit overly dramatic, perhaps, in retrospect.

I didn't know my last word, though, so I looked it up. The last word of mine is "interesting." I hadn't thought about the last word being significant, so when I looked it up, I was surprised at how the entire last sentence sums up my career: "And, strangely enough, we also learn what one man found interesting."

h/t Inside Higher Ed

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Squire (and TORn)'s Academic Adventure

In a recent e-mail I received from N.E. Brigand (of The One Ring.net's discussion boards), he responded to a question I asked him by directing me to squire's account of how a non-academic navigated the shoals of academic research.

I found the account really fascinating. In addition to reminding me of my own difficulties and insecurities when doing my first research as a graduate student (my friends are probably wearied of the tale of how Arthur Marotti justifiably disemboweled my first Shakespeare paper because of my misuse of the term "Petrarchan"), it also reminded me of how opaque academic culture can look from the outside. It's worth the read.

UPDATE: squire appears to be serializing his TORn post on his blog, starting here.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Chaucer, Making a Quick Buck

Geoffrey Chaucer, as many of you know, not only hath a blog -- he also hath a line of t-shirts.

Apparently, probably because this blog is super-awesome, Chaucer thinks there is a market for Unlocked Wordhoard apparel, as he is selling an Unlocked Wordhoard t-shirt.

I don't get any money from it, but it would warm my heart to see people wearing Unlocked Wordhoard t-shirts.

A Surprisingly Smart Analysis

Reuters (of all places) has a suprisingly smart analysis of why MI3 isn't doing as well as expected at the box office: it has rejected its own mythology.

Though the analysis is smart, it is wrong; the entire Mission Impossible film franchise is an artistic failure because it rejects its own mythology. The box office failure cannot be attributed solely to that cause, otherwise the first two films would have lost money.

I haven't seen anything but the first one. It sucked rotten, sulfur-stinking eggs. Bad. I went in skeptical of the whole built-in-audience-from-a-TV-franchise marketing element, and ended the film wishing it had pandered more to the TV audience. Killing off the buddy-caper element at the outset of the first movie not only severed the film from its TV heritage, but it also created a situation that demanded some development of character or world.

No development was forthcoming, though. In fact, I submit to you that if you randomly selected scenes from action films and digitally inserted Tom Cruise's face onto the heads of the protagonists, you would end up with much of the same movie. Expecting explosions and car chases to save a bland movie is like expecting rainbow sprinkles to save a cheap vanilla ice cream cone.

It seems to me that the positive reviews of MI3 implicitly concede the artistic failure of the first two films. First, everyone talks about Philip Seymour Hoffman. Yes, I like Hoffman a lot, too, but as he was not in the previous films, that implies to me that no one is particularly looking forward to repeat performances by Cruise or anyone else. Second, we keep hearing about how in this film we get character development of Cruise's character. Ummm ... shouldn't we have gotten that, oh, I don't know, two films ago? Or perhaps inMI2? According to IMDb, the first film was 110 minutes long (I should sue for my time), and the second movie was 123 minutes long. So the franchise has used up 233 minutes of time, or 3 hours and 53 minutes for those of you playing at home, and hasn't bothered to develop the main character?

Plus, they named the protagonist "Ethan Hunt." They might as well have named him "Dirk Squarejaw."

Thursday, May 11, 2006

K'zoo Round-up

Generally, I try to get in at least three days worth of the International Congress on Medieval Studies -- this year, I got in less than six hours of conference proper, and one dinner. Unfortunately, this drive-by conferencing meant that I missed a lot of people I really look forward to seeing every year, especially Elizabeth Sklar, Kate Laity, and Leslie Lockett (who got a brief hug as I sprinted by her) ... as well as many others.

Still, the Kalamazoo Congress always leaves me feeling pumped and ready to take on the world -- and as always, I committed to working on more projects than any one man could possibly do. Just to give you a sense of it, I agreed to host a medieval Carnivalesque (in principle only, so I don't know when I would do this), agreed to attend TWO international conferences abroad (with only the small matter of not having enough time or money), agreed to work on a vaguely-conceived "East meets West" project (so vaguely conceived that I'm not really sure what I agreed to), and agreed to turn the Global Perspectives in Medieval Literature and Culture book into a series. All in one afternoon. I had a friend ask me this weekend how it is possible to write a dissertation on a topic no one has researched before; hasn't everything already been done? I laughed and laughed.

So, how will I get all this done? I won't. The truth is, most academic initiatives die in the cradle, so I won't have to do most of these. Still, by the time the Congress rolls around next year, I'll have done a lot of them -- at which time, I'll foolishly agree to do more. When I die, I expect I'll have a whole career's worth of work done, and a whole career's worth of work undone.

What you readers really want to hear, though, is about the blogging session. The blogging session had decent attendance, and ran over time without anyone realizing -- which is the sign of a good session. First, about the presenters:

Shana Worthen, at Owlfish, moderated over the session. During the session, she resisted the urge to talk about her own blog, and instead asked questions that were informed by her own blogging. At the time, I appreciated her sensitivity, because it would be easy for a moderator to dominate the session. In retrospect, though, I missed hearing her take on the issues raised, so, Madame Owlfish, I hereby formally request that you respond to your own questions on your blog. I'm sure I'm not the only one who would like to read what you think.

Michael Tinkler, the Cranky Professor, was a delight with his good-natured crankiness about students. Besides having a lot of interesting things to say about using blogging in pedagogy, it was just really fun sitting next to him. Next time I walk into a session and Tinkler is there, I plan to position myself right next to him and exchange snarky comments -- er, I mean cranky comments.

Elisabeth Carnell, Another Boring Academic, had a really interesting perspective juxtaposing the political blogging of her husband with academic blogging. She seemed to have a really grounded view of the blogosphere generally (probably because of her husband's prolific blogging), and so had the ability to see the forest for the trees. I'm hoping she posts a bit more on that topic in the future.

Michael Drout, of Wormtalk and Slugspeak, finally cleared up for me the allusion of his title. Hooray! I'm a true insider now! He said the most provocative and crowd-pleasing things. My favorite Drout response was to a question about why there are so many medieval bloggers as compared to other fields: "Because we're better than them." Damn straight!

Alison Tara Walker, the moderator of the Medieval Studies Livejournal, combined two necessary perspectives: the grad student, and the moderator of a more-or-less open blog. She brought up the ways in which blogs can introduce graduate students into the academic culture, by answering such questions as, "I'm going to my first conference. What should I wear?" My answer: Pretend it is a job interview. If you are a grad student, it just might be one.

Finally was Lisa Spangenberg, the Digital Medievalist. Contrary to her blog title, she wasn't digital -- she was flesh-and-blood. Perhaps the Analog Medievalist came in her place. In any case, she was the most knowledgable about the nuts-and-bolts of blogging, and offered some sobering advice to anonymous bloggers about the difficulty in maintaining anonymity if someone REALLY wants to find out who you are.

Other issues:

Pseudonymous bloggers really are a shy lot. Only two "came out" to me at the session, though I was told that several others were there. I had expected more people to sidle up next to me to say: "Psst. I'm Blogger So-an-So." Of course, they would have had no guarantee that I'd keep their secret, so perhaps I should not be surprised.

The Blogosphere as meat market. A couple of female bloggers mentioned to me the problem of men hitting on them (electronically) because of their blogs. I gotta admit, that one blindsided me. I had no idea such things were so common. How does one craft that e-mail? "Dear Miss Blogger, I have been reading your blog for several months now, and it is clear to me that you've been flirting with me though coded messages in your posts. I think we should get together and knock some very sensual boots. If my font arouses you, please reply privately via e-mail. Please also include a nude photo and a copy of your CV..." I myself have had no proposals through my blog, but then again, I have posted an accurate picture, which no doubt frightens away potential mates and small children.

I wanted to hear more from non-academic users of medieval blogs. I met one non-academic pseudonymous poster, and really wished I had time to pin him down and talk to him about his community. I also wanted to hear more about how people have used their blogs as a form of public outreach. I think Drout and I are pretty much in agreement that such public outreach could invigorate the field, and I had a conversation with a VIM (Very Important Medievalist) at dinner that night in which the VIM (not a blogger) also declared the the field needed more things like blogs for public outreach. Perhaps in some future year we should have a session about how to use blogs as public outreach, or how to do public outreach generally. Hmmm, now there is a session idea: Non-Academic Public Outreach for Medieval Studies. Get a blog paper in there, as well as a couple of other ideas, and we're in business.

In any case, I enjoyed the session, and enjoyed meeting people in the flesh. At future conferences (both K'zoo and regional), let's get together, drain a bottle of gin, and plot the future of medieval studies.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Regaining my Equilibrium

After all that driving, I'm finally back. I've still got to regain my equilibrium before returning to blogging. Maybe I'll post my own belated K'zoo roundup later today if I come back to my senses.

On a personal note, my grandmother is out of the hospital. Many thanks for all the prayers.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Crackpot Medieval "Facts"

As regular readers of this space know, the International Medieval Congress is held at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo every year, so among medievalists we simply call it "Kalamazoo," "K'zoo" (pronounced like "kazoo"), or "The 'Zoo." When I talk to our medieval historian and ask him "When are you going to the 'Zoo?" it has a very different meaning than it would mean if I asked someone else.

The 'Zoo is now officially underway ... and I'm still stuck in Troy. I'm planning to spend all day preparing for the trip (laundry and whatnot), and I won't even leave until bright and early tomorrow morning. Then, because of family issues in Indiana, I'll be driving, which I estimate will take about 15 hours. I won't even get into the conference until Saturday.

Today is the big blogger gathering, and I won't be there! I plan, therefore, to spend part of my afternoon pouting.

Of course, on the other hand, I may very well be the only medievalist blogging today. Perhaps I could use this monopoly to spread around some crackpot ideas since most of those qualified to debunk them are currently freezing/sweltering in the non-airconditioned dorms at K'zoo. Oh, yes, the power!

Therefore, without further incipit, let me present these crackpot ideas in Courier font, the favored font of crackpots around the world:

Some Little Known Medieval "Facts" (that I just made up)
  • The DaVinci Code is absolutely, 100% true, and not a bunch of boilerplated nonsense.
  • The "Dark Ages" really were dark. Sunlight wasn't invented until 1634.
  • The Round Table was more of an oval, because Arthur had a leaf insert to give the knights more elbow room.
  • After Marcellus uttered the line "I'm gonna get medieval on your ass" in Pulp Fiction, he offered his captors mead, then they danced around the Maypole. Unfortunately, this scene was cut from the film, creating some confusion about what he meant.
  • Viking ships (at least those from Denmark) were made out of legos. Of course, legos weren't as advanced in those days, so they were duplos.
  • Axe body spray was invented by sexy german woodcutters in the thirteenth century.
  • Because his workout was unbalanced, Chaucer had a huge, powerful upper body, and weak, teeny little spaghetti legs, as this manuscipt image proves. We do have some evidence, though, that later in life he got a Bowflex and corrected this problem.
  • Eleanor of Aquitaine was a fanatical SCUBA diver. In fact, the word "aquitane" is a corruption of the Middle English word for "aqualung." It is also rumored that she was a groupie following around Jethro Tull on tour, but this remains speculation.

There. Now you know some facts about the Middle Ages to amaze your friends.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Starting the Conversation...

The folks organizing the Kalamazoo Roundtable on blogging medievalists sent around a list of questions we'll most certainly address. I thought I'd start the conversation early by responding to them here first:

Starting the Conversation…

Who are you?
What an existential question! I’m the bald guy with the bowties, a tenure-track assistant professor of English at Troy University.

How did you get started blogging?
It began with a conversation I had with Glen Gill at Logo Kai Erga about the role of the public intellectual. I detail much of that start here. Dr. Gill has since stopped working on his blog, but I still update mine regularly.

How did you get started blogging about things related to the Middle Ages?
My first posts weren’t much about the Middle Ages at all, focusing on general intellectual stuff and art. My first post on the Middle Ages came pretty quickly, though (only four days into the life of the blog), being a post on the 2007 Beowulf movie and Seamus Heaney’s translation. Despite the title, I didn’t really intend the main focus of the blog to be on medieval literature, but it has naturally drifted that way, since the bulk of my own intellect is hard at work in that field anyway.

What is your goal in blogging?
That’s a good question; every so often I re-assess to make certain I’m not still blogging out of inertia. My goal is to create a space for use of the public intellect, where academic-types (like me) can talk about things in a smart way without the barrier of academic cant, and where smart non-academic types can enter into a conversation that is perhaps above the level of the water cooler at work, but not restrictively professionalized. We’ve got e-mail lists (like Medtext and AnSaxNet) for purely professional discussions, but I want a space where the public and the academic interact.

What is the focus of your blog?
Primarily anything medieval, medievalist, or literary. I like to write about popular culture because that is a good arena of engagement between the public and the academic. In the final analysis, though, I focus on whatever interests me at the time.

I do have one forbidden topic: politics. I’m sick of blogs that are people screaming vapid, thoughtless, political slogans at each other; indeed, I’ve become convinced that political blogs, while the most popular blogs on the ‘net, tend also to be the stupidest. Occasionally, though, the blog ends up hitting on political topics tangentially, but politics is never the focus. Since I’ve had people accuse me of being both liberal and conservative, I guess I must do a good job at keeping the politics out.

Why is blogging important for the field of Medieval Studies in particular?
Medieval Studies has a strong “geek” factor. Yyou find a lot of medievalists who had really precocious intellects as kids (I suspect science-fictiony fields like rocket science probably have similar geek factors). As a result, there are a lot of frustrated medievalist-wannabees in the world, people who love the medieval and medievalism, but whose lives have followed other paths. I’m often surprised at how many of my dedicated readers are non-academics who are just in love with the real medieval and fantasy medievalism. I find that they appreciate having a place where they can think about and comment on these things without the fear of being shut out by the professionals.

What does the medium of blogging do better for Medieval Studies than forums, discussion boards, and other types of web-based interaction?
It opens the discuss up to non-academics. If my favorite listservs, like AnSaxNet, started to be dominated by non-academics, I would be miffed, since that is a great forum for scholarly, professional discourse. I’m among those who get irritated when those discussion boards get posts that read:
Hi, I’m writing a research paper on Chaucer. Can someone recommend any
sources for me? Thx!
Luv ya!

On the other hand, the Middle Ages aren’t the private property of the academic world, and so blogs offer a better space for public discourse.

Does blogging provide an effective form of personal publicity?
I’m not sure, since I’m not really sure how people who don’t know me perceive me through the blog. Sometimes I’ll have a friend tell me that, if they didn’t know me, they would have understood a particular post a different way. I’m sure I must have developed a public persona, but I’m not sure what it is, or if it is effective (or even what “effective” means in this context).

As for publicizing my work, I've had a lot of people ask for off prints of my articles since I started blogging.

Do you wish you'd chosen to blog anonymously instead of under your own
name? Advantages vs. disadvantages

Some people have a real problem with anonymous blogging; I don’t. If people are jerks, I won’t link to them regardless of whether they are blogging under their real name or not. People worry about professional retribution, but I actually think that concern is an advantage to blogging under my own name. The knowledge that everything that is said here remains public encourages me to blog courteously. There is only one blog post I’m ashamed of, in which I savaged the research of someone else in another field – while I stand by my assessment of that research, my tone in the initial post was unfair and cruel. That person wrote to me politely, and I learned my lesson. Nowadays, whenever you see me writing something nasty about someone, it is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, and is usually someone I know well enough to be sure they will get the joke.

Another advantage is that I don’t have to hide my identity, so I can do things anonymous bloggers can’t. For example, during Hurricane Katrina I temporarily turned the blog into a clearinghouse for announcements of service opportunities in this community, something I wouldn’t have been able to do anonymously.

Of course, openness has its disadvantages. I rarely blog about my university or my department, out of fear of someone misreading my posts and thinking I’m talking nasty about them in a public forum. If I were anonymous, I wouldn’t have to worry about such things.

Has blogging had any positive impact or influence on your career?
Positive, I think. Of course, such things are hard to measure, but as I said above, I’ve had more requests for off prints of my scholarly articles from people who “met” me through my blog than from people who met me at conferences. My university has been encouraging blogging, too; I’ve been interviewed twice by University PR organs for puff pieces.

Has blogging had any negative impact or influence on your career?
If there has been any, I haven’t noticed it. Every so often someone will misunderstand a post (such as when, through sloppy writing, I made it sound like I’m against teaching medieval women writers), but the nature of the blog allows me to correct such posts later.

Why are there so many medievalists bloggers compared to other fields?
I addressed that already here.

'Zoo Update

For those who are going to the 'Zoo, my own plans have changed abruptly. Because my elderly grandmother is in the hospital again, I'll be driving up so that I can spend a few days visiting her after the conference. The only day I'll be at Kalamazoo, then, is on Saturday, so I won't be able to attend the blogger gathering. In fact, I might not be able to attend anything other than my own session and a private dinner for international-types I attend every year. On the plus side, since I'll have my truck it will be easier to haul home all those back issues of the Old English Newsletter I'm planning to buy.

Anyway, my apologies to all those I planned to meet on other days.

You Know You're a Textual Scholar When...

... you're channel surfing, flip past the Discovery channel, and in that split second you recognize the image as the first page of the Beowulf manuscript.

Me: Hey, that was the Beowulf manuscript!
Jason: How can you tell?
Me: Well, it was Old English, and I recognized the initial "H".
Jason: What?
Me: The big "H" at the beginning. I recognized it.
Jason: *looks at me with a mixture of contempt and pity*

Gads, what a geek I am.