Thursday, June 29, 2006

No Funny Comments

I've been trying to think of funny comments to make about this Onion story, but each time I come up with one it is either lame, or potentially offensive if people don't get the joke. Therefore, I give you the link without an attempt to amuse you myself.

The sad thing is that tenure-review paranoia is so common in academia that the story isn't implausible.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

More Lemming Pushing

In the category of "My Favorite Blog Not on My Blogroll" is The Lemmings Were Pushed, which has been re-activated the last month or two after a lengthy hiatus. I figure along with announcing blog retirements I ought to announce a resurrection, too.

Arthurian Lit Class

For those Troy students who read this blog, there has been a change in schedule. I will now be teaching Arthurian Literature (ENG 3362 TSARA, technically called "Arthurian Themes" or something similar) in the Fall semester, TTh 11:30.

I haven't finalized the schedule, but we'll probably split it between medieval and modern Arthuriana, so the tentative reading list is expected to include:
  • Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain
  • Tennyson, Idylls of the King (maybe)
  • Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court
  • White, Once and Future King
  • Sklar, King Arthur in Popular Culture (a critical text)
  • Chretien de Troyes's Romances
  • Malamud's The Natural (maybe)
  • Excalibur (film, maybe)
  • Monty Python and the Holy Grail (film)
All this is subject to change, of course. I have already decided that there will be no Malory or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, mostly because life is short and I prefer Chretien to Malory, and because everyone gets SGGK in Brit Lit I, and often in World Lit I too.

In any case, the class wasn't on the schedule for early registration, so please spread the word that it will be offered.

Monday, June 26, 2006

My Missing Sword!

They've found my missing sword! Apparently that jerk Brian Hope-Taylor broke into my boudoir and stole it, then buried it in Bamburgh Castle. Upon "finding" it, he apparently hide it in an old suitcase, probably afraid that I'd find out he had it and come kick his butt.

Seriously, though, such a great find, and some poor archaeologist is quoted in the papers as saying it had "serious bling factor." God forbid that the word "bling" be associated with the high point of my career.

h/t Gypsy Scholar, Muhlberger's Early History

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Goodbye, AwS

It seems like a lot of bloggers are retiring nowadays. Arguing with Signposts is sort-of retiring, in that he is going to be blogging in his own name elsewhere, and so will be retiring his anonymous blog.

Signposts has been blogging for more than 3 years, making him a Methuselah by blogosphere standards. He's one of those guys who never added me to his blogroll, but I kept him around anyway. Good luck in your new project, Signposts.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Flop 'n' Bawl Soccer

Because I'm surrounded by Koreans, I've been wrongfully subjected to soccer of late. Four years ago it was worse; I happened to be in Korea while they co-hosted the World Cup, an experience rather like walking into the room and seeing a beloved aunt half-naked, wasted on the floor from freebasing. Ugly in every possible way.

I was complaining to a colleague about my need for succor from soccer, and he asked why I hate soccer so much. I launched into a long rant about sportsmanship and the lack thereof in professional soccer. I pointed out that their jerseys are intentionally designed to be extremely stretchy because grasping the jersey of your opponent is both cheating and a common tactic. I told him that if he watched a World Cup match, he would, within five minutes, see one of these supposedly-world-class players faking an injuring. He did and, of course, they did.

Jonathan V. Last has expressed my objections more succinctly: the flop 'n' bawl. I hate soccer because it breeds cheaters and drama queens -- two things sports could do without.

Tolkien and Myth

Here's a discussion of Tolkien and myth with a history prof. from the Hillsdale College Tolkien Society. I think it is a little old -- from a couple of comments made, it sounds like the interview was done shortly before the release of Peter Jackson's Two Towers -- but the discussion isn't about film, really. Quite nice.

h/t Nihil Fit

Friday, June 23, 2006

On Trinity Metaphors

As you probably know by now if you follow religious news at all, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has recommended new language regarding the Trinity, specifically referring to the three aspects as "Rock, Redeemer, Friend" or "Mother, Child, and Womb." Not surprisingly, a big bruhaha has developed over the desire to emasculate the Father and Son. You can find a .pdf of the original document here.

Joe Carter has an interesting post on the metaphor of the "Mother, Child, Womb" language that discusses it as a conceptual metaphor.

Aside from the doctrinal issues, I share the assessment of my colleague who, upon hearing the new Trinity language, simply remarked "Parallelism issues." Note to Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.): if you are going to try to come up with new names for the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, at least try to come up with a triad that will pass freshman comp. I mean, not every use of language can be John's "In the beginning was Logos," but surely you can do better than this!

Update: I've been thinking about some of the triads, and while most of them are ridiculous, I rather like "Speaker, Word and Breath," because the last two can at least be justified by the Greek. I still find the desire to re-name God and emasculate Christ disturbing (especially since Jesus was, you know, male), and these impulses suggest, along with linguistic silliness, a problem with priorities.

The Poetics of Tolkien Europop

Let's face it. No good music has come out of Europe since the Baroque period ... until now. The drought it over, and "They're Taking the Hobbits to Isengard," while not to the level of JS Bach, might be to the level of JC Bach.

On the just-as-fun-but-more-interesting front, The Valve has a discussion of the prosody of the tune.

hat tip What's the Rumpus?

Thursday, June 22, 2006

How Common is Plagiarism?

The L.A. Times is reporting that "about 30% of papers are plagiarized, either totally or in part." As far as I can tell (the writing is poor, but hey, it's the LA Times), they are claiming to have gotten that figure from I'm calling BS on that.

Regular readers of this site will know that 1.) I hate plagiarism, and 2.) I think it is far too common. But there is no way that 30% of papers are plagiarized. I would guess that about 10% of the papers I see contain some form of plagiarism.

Not that the L.A. Times would just make up a figure (*cough*), but by attributing that figure to "Those programs" that elsewhere in the article are identified as "software such as [Turnitin] that scans work for plagiarism," the reporter makes me rather suspiciousabout the figure. That weaselly separation of the source from the statistic is the kind of things students do when they are are making stuff up, or at least playing fast-and-loose with the figures.

Indeed, that figure is apparently contradicted by other statistics in the same article, such as a "2003 study by Rutgers University found that more than a third of college undergraduates had cut and pasted passages from the Internet without attribution. " OK, let's do the math here: if 30% of all papers are plagiarized, and over 1/3 of all college undergrads had plagiarized at one time or another, that is going to require that nearly every plagiarist is plagiarizing every single time. This doesn't say all "freshmen," this says "college undergraduates." While you do have the hardcore plagiarists who will simply plagiarize every paper, those folks tend to flunk out by the end of their college careers. I think the 1/3 of undergrads figure makes sense if we include the desperation plagiarists ["I've got three papers due in the morning, and there's no way I can get them done in time. Of course, if I just go on the internet, just this once..."].

Since I use Turnitin, and my plagiarism percentage is far, far lower than that presented in the article, I'm left with one of three conclusions: Either Troy students are far, far less likely to plagiarize than those in the rest of the country, that Turnitin just made up the figure, or that the L.A. Times just made it up.

By the way, in case anyone is wondering, I fed the L.A. Times article into Turnitin to check for plagiarism. It came up only 3% non-original material, one of which was a quote and the other of which was the phrase "said Nancy Willard, executive director of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet use," a phase likely to reoccur naturally. At least insofar as this article runs, Terril Yue Jones is not a plagiarist. Hooray!

h/t Bourgeois Nerd

Origins of "Leech"

I'd always thought this, but didn't think anyone else out there was sufficiently interested to bother writing about it: very likely, the word "leech" to describe the blood-sucking animal comes from the Old English word for "physician," not the other way around.

When I first began studying Anglo-Saxon magic and medicine, I wondered why the big compendia like Bald's Leechbook and Leechbook III (both in MS Royal 12 D.xvii, for those who care about manuscript stuff) didn't have cures that involved the physicians applying blood-sucking leeches to the patients; it was only later that I realized that the use of the wormy leeches in "leechcraft" only came much later.

Looking at the OED evidence, my best guess is that the two words happened to be very similar in the Old English and, depending on the dialect, were homophones or near homophones. Later, in the very Early Modern period, when physicians started bleeding with leeches (a return to a classical Mediterranean practice), the similarity between the two words combined them.

By the way, I would just like to point out that this is another example of Modernist anti-medieval stupidity. Moderns like to elevate the classical era as a golden period, and the Modern era as the "Renaissance" from the "Dark Ages" -- but bleeding to balance the humours is a classical practice that seems to have been largely suspended in the medieval era, even though medieval practitioners knew about Galen's four humours, and that was only resurrected in the Modern era.

So, in conclusion, the Modern era sucks (blood), and the Medieval era rules.

h/t Moyen Age

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The Kinkade Code

Now that all the DaVinci Code sturm und drang is settling down, I can finally reveal that Leonardo isn't the only great artist to have hidden, occult messages in his work. Behold, the work of Thomas Kinkade, the "Painter of Light!"

So, who is the figure in the image? With his back to us, it can only be the apostle Peter, who thrice denied Christ, here turning his back on us as well. We can also see that, like Peter, the image is a fisherman, and also, like Peter, he has a penchant for wearing plaid.*

Peter here, though, is rejecting Jesus, probably mad because he had the hots for Mary Magdalene himself (I'm just guessing). Anyway, here is Peter, standing right next to a body of water, and he is refusing to walk on it! Even worse, he has tucked his pants legs into his boots, in a show of defiance -- kind of like saying, "Hey, I don't trust you to keep my pants from getting wet this close to the water." He's also wearing an ugly hat, which is a way of saying, "Hey, I'm wearing an ugly hat ... whatcha gonna do about it?"

But what's this up above him? It looks like a bright light in the sky, surrounded by dark clouds ... the wrath of the Almighty! Look out, Peter! Run, boy, run!

Of course, the rest goes without saying, but I'll belabor the patently obvious for the slow-witted out there. Obviously, Kinkade is Leonardo's heir in the Order of Scion (and their splinter group, Order of Fries With That). He is revealing to us that God hates popes, since Peter is supposably** the first pope. So, don't stand too close to any popes, or you might get zapped, because the popes keep puttin' the moves on Mary Magdalene.

Soon, I will reveal also the Norman Rockwell Code ... unless they get to me first.

*Most people don't know that Peter was a big plaid wearer. He had a line of plaid clothing second-to-none in the Galilee fashion district.
*Take that, Dr. Virago!

Christmas Eve Is Coming, Anna

Before I go off to bed, I just wanted to share that Norman Blake and Peter Ostroushko's "Christmas Eve Is Coming, Anna" is one of my favorite songs. It's not particularly Christmas-y, though, so it's good in any season.

Go buy the CD, Meeting on Southern Soil, immediately -- or at the very least download the single (iTunes has it).

Monday, June 19, 2006

Waving Goodbye to Gill

He told me he was going to post a goodbye message, but I forgot to check for it for 3 weeks! Here it is, belatedly: Dr. Glen Gill (a colleague here are Troy) is giving up blogging.

It is a strange moment for me, since it was Gill who first came up with the idea that we might start blogging. You can tell, too, from his comments that he and I have had strikingly different experiences, when he writes:
I have two books and about five articles in the proverbial pipeline, and
blogging has done little to assist this process.

As for me, the time I spend blogging would probably not be spent on any productive process -- more likely, I'd spend it watching the latest Strong Bad E-Mail (this is why, as many people have noted, my posts tend to be early in the morning or late at night). His bone of contention seems to be that blogging doesn't do much for the creation of ideas, but I would argue that it is more about the transmission of ideas. I've had far more people ask for off-prints of my scholarly work through my blog than I ever had from conferences. In other words, blogging doesn't much help me write scholarship, but it does help put that scholarship in front of others. And frankly, I just don't have time to edit books and write articles that no one will ever read.

In any case, though I'll probably still see him every day, in an odd way I'll miss seeing him hanging around the blogosphere. I guess I'll have to harrass Dr. Steven Taylor more often.

So long, Dr. Gill!

Don't Critisize Bozo

According to one commentor, I'm a bozo because I "critisize" [sic] season four of Spongebob without having seen all the episodes.

In an unrelated note, here is a picture of my reaction to the critisizm.

Friday, June 16, 2006

"Beowulf & Grendel" Reviews

Some folks at AnSaxNet have pointed out two reviews of Beowulf & Grendel from Seattle, neither of which is particularly good. One calls it a "treat" visually, but "potty-mouthed," while the other calls it "limp." By the way, who in Hollywood decided that the word "and" must always be replaced by ampersands?

Of course, no one could expect it to rise to the level of Christopher Lambert's Beowulf, the viewing of which has been proven to cause sterility in laboratory mice.

Happy Birthday, Wordhoard!

Today the Unlocked Wordhoard is one year old! It all began with a post that was supposed to be entitled "Hwaet!," but since I was still fumbling with how to blog, I accidentally left the post un-entitled, and "Hwaet!" is the first word. By total coincidence, the Wordhoard's Birthday happened to coincide with Bloomsday -- a fact that is unfortunate, since it would have been better if the Wordhoard's birthday coincided with an important day in medieval literature.

Then came the first month milestone. I had set a goal of at least 500 hits the first month and, if I didn't receive them, I wasn't going to continue with the blog. The days of having only 500 or so hits seem quaint, now -- as of this writing I've got 20,772. Small potatoes compared to some who get more than more than that every week, but since I don't blog about political topics, pretty good, I think. For a while, I was the first hit when you Googled "Medieval Blogs," but as of this writing I'm not any longer. In any case, I'm not interested in being the biggest blog out there, but I am interested in being a place where people can go and find smart stuff from me and commentors on the medieval, on literature, and on culture generally. So long as that's going on and I'm getting at least 500 hits per month, I'm happy.

Still, I was a blogging rube (some would claim that any blog still on Blogspot is amatuerish, but I poke such people in the eye). Steven Taylor wrote his Seven Deadly Sins of Blogging, and then a couple of people chided me for my miscreant ways -- no pinging the blogroll, no trackbacks, no nothing. Now I'm a good boy, and always ping. I trackback less, mostly because I'm finding fewer and fewer sites offer that option. It must be going out of style.

One big failure was my Unlocked Wordhoard Google Group, a service whereby all posts are instantly e-mailed to subscribers. My friend Les asked for the service, so I set it up ... and lo, all these months later, it's still just the two of us. Les and I are in a very exclusive club!

September 2005 was a strange month for the Wordhoard. When hurricane Katrina hit, the Wordhoard was briefly turned into a clearinghouse for service opportunities in the Troy area. It is hard to tell how much impact it had -- for example, a couple of people who showed up to renovate a house for refugees had seen my post on that, but I don't think anyone in Montgomery got involved in my church's efforts because of the Wordhoard. Now, nearly a year later, one of the few predictions I've made on the Wordhoard has come true. I don't personally know a single Katrina refugee who has gone back, but I do know some who have become assets to their new homes.

One of the most embarrassing errors came in October, when I conflated buckyballs with smartpaper. I still get hits for people interested in buckyballs, and no doubt mislead a few ... so I've linked the buckyballs here in this post to the correction, not the original post.

Now, for a few random things:
  • My post on Paraguay graffitti earned an angry comment from someone who either doesn't have good command of English, or doesn't understand irony. Every time I read this, it makes me laugh. Interestingly, after posting this, that stall exploded with ironic graffitti, with people writing in dark marker, and with attempts at cleverness. Others in my department have commented that it seems after reading my post, people thought I would be blogging regularly about toilet graffitti, and were auditioning their texts. I have stubborned refused to do it thus far.
  • My open letter to David Horowitz started an e-mail conversation between us. I found him personable over the e-mail, though I can't claim to know him, or even to have physically met him. He sent me a copy of his book, so I like him -- I like anyone who gives me free books (*hint to anyone out there with free books to distribute*).
  • I'm still mulling over the idea of podcasting. We need more good medieval podcasts.
  • I think my first plagiarism rant was about Joe Biden. Now, a year later, I'm sick of ranting about plagiarism. Now I recognize why Glenn Reynolds had trouble getting worked up about Biden. Just one year of writing on occasional plagiarism, and I'm exhausted!
  • As a result of this post on Rate My Professors, The Chronicle of Higher Education interviewed me for an article. Unless I missed it, it still hasn't come out.
  • As of today, my post with the most visible Google profile is "On Blogging Job Seekers."
So, that's it, the year in review. Sing "Happy Birthday," I'll blow out the candles, and we'll eat cake!

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Coulter Plagiarism

The Raw Story is putting forth a claim that Ann Coulter's latest book contains plagiarism. I'm in too good a mood tonight to deal with this properly, so...


Now that makes two things she and Ward Churchill have in common -- both are plagiarists, and both have the same hair.

h/t Poliblog

My New Job

I've accepted a position as a Professor of Medieval Literature and Occult Practices at Miskatonic University. Or maybe it was at the other Miskatonic University. Or, maybe the other other Miskatonic University.

Actually, if Miskatonic were a real place and advertised a job in my field, I'd have to apply for it. I couldn't help myself. Sure, I would eventually slip into insanity, if I did not first fall victim to an unspeakable fate ... but the research I could do first!

Of course, I would have to keep copious research notes in spidery handwriting in a leather-bound notebook, so that after my successor found the notebook with my remains, my research could go on unabated.

Go Fighting Cephalopods!

Why Isn't Comedy Central Funny?

[The following is not medieval nor literary, but I've had too much ice tea and can't sleep.]

I love the idea of a network devoted to comedy. Waaaaay back in the day, there were two comedy networks -- The Comedy Channel, and Ha! I used to watch them both. As I recall, one had mostly old sitcoms, and the other had strings of stand-up. I liked the fact that I could turn on the TV and, if I had only 5-10 minutes to kill before doing something else, I could watch a stand-up routine.

Then they merged into Comedy Central. Now, the parent channels were nothing to brag about -- they swung wildly between very funny and very lame -- but Comedy Central seemed dedicated to the proposition that mediocrity is hilarious. We're probably 15-20 years into Comedy Central's life, and they have thus far only had two funny series -- Mystery Science Theater 3000 (which required viewers be both relatively smart and relatively well-versed in pop culture, so it wasn't for everybody), and Chappelle's Show (which, to be fair, died from no fault of their own). Except for those, they've had a few shows that were mildly interesting or slightly droll (like Battlebots) and some non-original programming (like The Critic, Futurama, Monty Python, and The Tick), but Comedy Central seems mostly dedicated to running hip but unfunny shows -- rather more like MTV than a channel devoted to comedy.

Let's consider their three big earners:
  • South Park: I used to complain that South Park wasn't funny -- then came Family Guy. Then I would say things like, "Well, it's not funny, but at least it isn't Family Guy, a show apparently aimed at audiences with severe head injuries." Then came American Dad, the airing of which should be considered a violation of the Geneva Convention. So, putting it in perspective, it is no Simpsons, but as long as the Family Guy group of adult cartoons continues to be aired, South Park will seem funny by comparison. And, unlike the other two big earners, South Park has occasional funny moments. It is at its best when it is being satirical, and at its worst when we're supposed to laugh at singing turds and kids saying bad words. Yeah, that stuff was funny ... when I was six years old.
  • The Daily Show: At one time, The Daily Show was mildly amusing, waaaaaay back when Craig Kilborn was the host. It wasn't laugh-out-loud funny, but some of his bits were good enough to make the show something to watch if there was nothing else on and you really didn't want to get off the sofa. Then Jon Stewart became the host, and the show immediately got dumber. Actually, for a show to get dumber after Craig Kilborn left it is an achievement of sorts, I guess. In any case, Jon Stewart is apparently the love-child of Dennis Miller and Keith Olbermann. He combines Miller's style, which is to pander to people who like to think they are smart because they are smart-assed, and Keith Olbermann's smug stupidity. I'll watch The Daily Show about once or twice per season, in the vain hope that something funny might happen (hey, I'm an optimist). It never gets any better, only worse and worse as Jon Stewart's sycophantic studio audience tries desperately to laugh in the hopes that they too will be considered cool and hip some day. In their worst seasons, Saturday Night Live's "Weekend Update" was funnier than Jon Stewart at his best. The only way to save the show would be to exile the cast and writers from planet Earth, burn the set to the ground (and salt the earth to prevent it from ever growing back), and hire the writers of The Onion. Political humor ought to have some, well, HUMOR.
  • The Colbert Report: I remember well that moment of watching my first episode of the Colbert Report. I remember it in the way one remembers being in a car accident -- everything is in slow motion, all screams and tears and terror. The first 3-5 minutes were a little funny, as I recall. "Hmmm, he's parodying Bill O'Reilly. That's a little funny." Then, we return from the first commercial break, and he's still parodying Bill O'Reilly. Now it is like a sketch comedy routine that has gone on too long. Uncomfortable, and not funny. Thirty minutes later, I'm huddled in the corner in a fetal position. Now, a year later, he's still parodying Bill O'Reilly. Hey, Stephen, let's hit the punchline and move on to another joke, shall we?
So there we have it -- the big three on Comedy Central. Why, then, isn't it funny? The common thread here is that their shows that are making money do so by convincing viewers that to watch them is to be smart and cool. Ironically, by forgetting to be funny in the process, the shows actually reveal their fans to be a little slow-witted and lacking in humor.

Guess it just goes to show that Mencken was right about how not to lose money.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

My Association with Adult, er, Devices

Despite my attempts to prevent this site from becoming associated with a particular device intended to please women by providing a substitute for the male organ (and if you still don't know what I'm talking about, you're probably too young to be reading this), this post has resulted in me being the first resource offered by Rogers Yahoo's Answer Man for dealing with the origin of the word.

To my friend Nick, who originally asked me the question about the origin of the word in question: You will pay for this, my friend. Oh, yes, you will pay!

"Societal" -- Yuck!

I hardly ever read Timothy Burke's Easily Distracted even though he's on my blogroll, because I'll often neglect those blogs that don't ping Blogrolling when they update [*clears throat and raises his eyebrows meaningfully to chasten other bloggers guilty of this sin*].

Catching up on old blog reading, then, I discovered that I'm not alone in my hatred for the word "societal" (as opposed to "social"). Stop using it!

Other things that are societally unacceptable:
  • Stop utilizing things. Use them.
  • Don't cease and desist. Either cease or desist.
  • Don't exist in this day and age. Existing either in the day or the age is sufficient.
  • If you are praying, don't ask God to "just" perform one miracle, then immediately ask Him to "just" perform another. If I were a god, multiple requests combined with "just" would lead to lightning bolts.
  • Nothing is "very unique." There cannot be different degrees of unique-ness.
  • "Obviously" needs to be followed by something obvious -- and then you had better be able to justify wasting my time by pointing out the obvious, or obviously I may have to punch you in the face.
  • Literally killing me by using the word "literally" to mean "figuratively" (ah, the "literally" rant. An old favorite...)
  • Don't say something is easy by comparing it to rocket science. Of all the hard things in life I could tackle, rocket science doesn't appear particularly challenging. I mean, it's not like it's theology, learning a foreign language, or teaching a dog not to jump up on the couch -- those things are hard.
  • Don't ask me if I have a "smoking preference," unless you are inquiring about my brand.
  • Until someone manages to improve something without changing it, "new" is already implied in "new and improved."
  • Don't bother telling us that something is "In my opinion" unless you have a habit of otherwise giving the opinions of others.
  • Don't criticize someone for having a "mentality." Only the unconscious have no mentality.
  • "The fact that" had better be followed by a fact, or else the fact that you are trying to pass off your unsupportable opinions as facts will be obvious to everyone with any kind of mentality.
In my opinion, it is a fact that if we make these very unique societal changes, and we just ask God to help us cease and desist and just ask Him to literally utilize the mentalities of people in this day and age to adopt new and improved behaviors, we can do this. I mean, it's not rocket science.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Misplaced Sanity

We finally put Global Perspectives on Medieval English Literature, Language, and Culture to bed; it goes to the publisher tomorrow.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'll finally have time to look for my misplaced sanity.

July 1st Public Presentation

I've talked to some people in the Midwest who wanted to come hear me speak at InConjunction, but didn't want to pay the conference fee. Well, good news! I'll be doing a free public presentation on July 1st, entitled "The Lord of the Rings in Film and Literature." It won't be the same material that I'm giving at InConjunction, so if you can't get enough Nokesification and want to come in InCon, you won't get any re-runs. The details:

The Lord of the Rings in Film and
1 PM -- July 1st, 2006
Henry F. Schricker Public Library
Knox, Indiana


Monday, June 12, 2006

Grendel Opera

I you asked me, "What books would make good opera?", I certainly wouldn't name John Gardner's Grendel. Yet that's the source material for an LA opera running now.

Medievalists seem to be uncertain whether to be amused, pleased, or horrified at the prospect. Me, I'm horrified. Word on the virtual-street is that Allen Frantzen will be writing a review for the Old English Newsletter, which will no doubt be better informed than about any other review of the opera. As of this posting, it isn't up, but if you are reading this a couple of months after it was posted, try searching the OEN site for his review.

Until he does so, though, let me to the LA Opera's site, and the LA Times review.


In addition to Xoom's review, A Fool in the Forest also has a review. Just to clarify, Fool reports that I have said medievalists are "alarmed" ... no, no, I said "amused," "pleased," and "horrified," but not alarmed.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Textbook Price Primer

In response to this post on Blog-Her, textbook sales are a complicated and dirty little business. Without knowing the specifics of the text and class on the receipt, I can pretty much tell you why her book costs so much.

First off, book publishing isn't good business. The margins aren't that great, so the publishers are always looking for ways to squeeze a few more pennies out of consumers. Bookstore margins aren't that great either, but they get to double-dip with book sales. Let's say you buy a book for $100. At the end of the semester, you sell it back to them for $50, and they re-sell the next semester for $75. That's $25 profit without taking into account the mark-up. Publishers, though, don't see profit from this re-sale market, and it drives down the sales of new books.

So, in response, publishers have come up with lots of ways to force you to buy new books. One way is to produce a new edition every couple of years, on the theory that faculty will require you to have the most recent edition (more on this below). Another way that they do it is to create books that are not re-usable, such as lab books (and, from the context of her post, I’ll bet that was a lab book). Since you are required to buy a lab book, but your lecture text might end up on the re-sale market, the publishers charge an outrageous price to make up for what they will lose elsewhere. The bookstore, on the other hand, makes money either way.

Universities don’t always have clean hands here, either. Publishers will often encourage departments to mix-and-match their own editions of work. If you see a textbook entitled “The My University Name Introduction to Basic Whatever,” that probably means you are paying a premium for an edition that is put together by the department. The department gets some kind of kick-back (er, they don’t call it a “kick-back,” they call it something else), and they are encouraged to create a new edition (i.e., slightly revise the content and/or introduction) in order to force students to get new editions of books, thus increasing profit for both the publisher and the department.

Individual professors are on your side, though, right? Wrong. You know all those lectures that your professors spend hours preparing? Well, in certain fields (the sciences particularly), publishers will bundle prepared lessons (complete with scantron tests, PowerPoint slides, etc) for an entire semester. In other words, some lazy professors prepare little of their own lectures, instead relying on pre-packaged lowest-common-denominator stuff from the publisher. I have a friend who likes to point out that if he wanted he could completely automate every aspect of his class, from the clickers to the pre-packaged online tests, so that the only bit of work required would be his lecture, which would be him reading from a prepared script, and the lab, performed by his graduate students (in my friend’s defense, he uses his own lectures / slides / tests, but he is in the minority in his department).

Of course, there are often other compelling reasons to use pre-packaged tripe: Some departments use them as quality control when most of the general education classes are taught by part-timers, some want to create their own editions because the general editions are bland and don’t meet that department’s specific needs, etc.

In English, it is all about composition books. Though sometimes you get a little pre-packaged stuff with the literature anthologies, publishers know full-well that you can get a perfectly good new copy of about any classic work of literature for less than $10, so they don’t put too much effort in that area (who would pay an extra $30 to have the most recent edition of the same old translation of Homer?). For composition, on the other hand, we have one book rep or another roaming our department every couple of weeks, schmoozing the faculty and trying to buy free lunches for department and committee chairs. About once or twice per semester, some book rep wants to demonstrate some new service or product, and so they have a “demonstration” that is, of course, a sales pitch with lots of free food (by the way, in our department we always loot the food afterward, put it in the faculty lounge, and open the lounge to the starving students for the next day or two).

Oh, and, by the way, students in my composition class who wonder why I don't require them to buy the rhetoric -- now you know the reason. By requiring my students in Composition I to have only a copy of a handbood (a basic reference work everyone should have and keep anyway), Strunk & White's Elements of Style (available free online and used for under $5 everywhere), and the Bible (available free from all sorts of places), I can keep the costs for my class down to under $20, rather than approaching $100, as would happen if I assigned a standard rhetoric, reader, and handbook.

So, in short, why do they charge so much? Because that’s what the market will bear; you’ll pay nearly any amount if the professor requires it.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Monday, June 05, 2006

I Fail in My Civic Duty...

For the first time in a long time, I'm going to miss the primaries. I'm leaving home before they begin and returning long after the polls close.

I'm a big believer in primary voting. I have even gone to the polls to vote in the primaries when all local elections were uncontested, and the national nomination was in hand (since I figure I'll give my guy a little more clout when it comes to the party convention). I have even voted in elections in which I knew my vote would be thrown out (not in the primaries, of course -- general elections).

So, for your election day entertainment, an absolutely true dialogue from my first election day --

Me (18 years old): Here's my voter ID card.
Woman at desk (who knows me): Oh, hi Scott. Lemme just mark you out...
Woman at desk: That's funny, your name isn't on the list.
Me: But I'm registered. Here's my card.
Woman at desk: Yes ... there must be some kind of mistake. Go see the county clerk.
County Clerk (who already knows I've been working for the other party -- it being a small town and all -- doesn't look up and doesn't look at the registration card): You have to vote in Washington Township.
Me: Huh? But I live in Center Township.
County Clerk: No, you live in Washington Township.
Me: How could you even know that? I didn't give you my address.
County Clerk (sighing, looking up for the first time): OK, what's your address?
County Clerk: Washington Township.
Me: No, that is Center Township. I should know; I live there. Anyway, if I go all the way out to Washington Township, they'll tell me I don't live there, and by the time I come back here the polls will be closed.
County Clerk: You live in Washington Township.
Me: Look, this is my father. He lives in Center Township. He votes here.
County Clerk: Just because your father lives in Center Township doesn't mean that you do.
Me (having long since lost patience): But I live with him!
County Clerk (apparently familiar with Kafka): Maybe the line bisects your house.
Me (having turned very red. My father puts his hand on my shoulder to prevent homocide. I take a deep breath): Well, that can't be true either. My bedroom is right below his.
County Clerk (without missing a beat): Maybe it bisects your house horizontally.

At this point, I break free from my father's grip and start to go over the counter. Someone I went to high school with (from the Clerk's party) comes at me from the other side and helps my father bum rush me to the door. "Just vote! Just go vote! I'll take care of this!" he shouts. As I leave, I can hear him arguing with the County Clerk.

So, I voted. Even though I can't vote tomorrow, you should vote if you have the chance. Win or lose the election, you always win if you live in a society where you CAN vote.

Saturday, June 03, 2006


My chair put me on to a site called "Quickmuse" today, one of the neatest poetry ideas I've seen in a long time. At Quickmuse, they give a poet 15 minutes to write a poem on a randomly selected subject. That's not particularly original ... but what is cool is that they record the individual keystrokes so that you can see how the poem was written. Just click on the "Play back the poem" option for any of the poets, and you can watch the process of composition. You can even see where the poets typed in one thing, then deleted it for another.

BTW, you don't need a full 15 minutes to play a poem -- they skip through long periods where the poet is just thinking.

Biblical Literacy for English Majors

If you have read about this study, but have not yet read the details, you should. The study surveyed 39 English professors and asked them about what incoming freshmen need to know about the Bible. No big surprise here -- they overwhelmingly agreed that every educated person needs to know about the Bible, that Western literature is steeped in references to the Bible, and that it is important for students who take their classes to be familiar with the Bible.

Interestingly, one person disagreed with the last two. OK, that it is important for students who take their classes to be familiar with the Bible -- I suppose if you were a pre-Christian classicist, you could reasonable say "no" to that. But disagreeing that "Western literature is steeped in references to the Bible?" Any English professor failing to agree with that either didn't understand the question or is incompetent (they list the professor's name in the text. I'll not mention it here, under the assumption that she did not really understand the question and does not need the embarrassment.) Everyone else seems to roll their eyes at the question, with such responses as:
  • Some scholars? Any scholar...
  • A truism.
  • Incontestably true.
  • It's everywhere.
  • Absolutely. Who could deny it? [....] I cannot imagine such a position.
  • It's not an opinion. It's just a fact.
  • I don't know of any field of English literature you can teach -- or American literature-- that it's not key.
My favorite page is the one listing "Literature that professors specifically mentioned for which Bible literacy is advantageous. The professors cited examples, not an exhaustive list." No kidding. An exhaustive list would have been a lot shorter: "Damn near all."

I found the listing of particular books useful. About a third of them listed Genesis by name, 10 listed Matthew, 9 listed Exodus Luke and Mark, but only 6 listed John, Revelation, and Psalms. If I were ranking the Gospels according to importance in studying literature, I'd have ranked them:
  1. Luke
  2. John
  3. Matthew
  4. Mark (distant fourth)
Not that I strongly disagree with their rankings ... it is simply that this is one of the few parts I found surprising.

In any case, it is a far more engaging read than you might think. You should read it.

The real question to me is this: Why do we even have to discuss this issue? I know that secular American culture tends to be hostile to faith (especially Jewish and Christian faith), but has our culture gone so mad that we debate the question, "Should we teach the Bible as literature?" Shouldn't we instead be asking, "HOW should we teach the Bible as literature?"

hat tip Chronicle of Higher Ed

Friday, June 02, 2006

Bertrand Russell, Idiot

Bertrand Russell has always struck me as a Rorschach test -- people's reaction to him tells you more about them than about him.

It is undeniable, though, that Bertrand Russell was an idiot. The evidence is overwhelming. Consider this quote from Impact of Science on Society:
Aristotle maintained that women have fewer teeth than men; although he was twice married, it never occurred to him to verify this statement by examining his wives' mouths.

Only an idiot would ask his wife to examine their teeth; this is a good way to get bitten. Your daughters you could examine without fear, and, in the right mood, perhaps your mistress. But your wife? Never. Just another example of why Aristotle is smarter than Russell.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Intimidating Professors

I know I've mentioned it many times before, but one of the annoying surprises I got when I became a professor was the intimidation factor. I'm not sure whether it was the PhD or the professor appointment (since I got a job about a month after defending), but people suddenly found me very frightening.

Some faculty find this satisfying, and take a perverse pleasure in seeing people bow and scrape before them. Me, on the other hand -- I hate the way it prevents intimacy.

Nearly all of my friends where I live now are professors. This isn't because I prefer the company of professors (it has both its pleasures and its pains), but because as soon as people find out what I do for a living, they suddenly become very awkward. I think in people's minds, they fear I might don my cap and gown, stand behind a podium on a raised dias, and (while being backlit) point an accusing finger down upon them, shouting "Ignoramus! Certifiable ignoramus!", thus prompting government officials in white coats whisk them off to a lab where medical experiments are performed on mental defectives.

Of course, this scenario is total nonsense. Where would I find such good backlighting?

Today I had a conversation with a woman who knew me as a child (you know, when I spake as a child and understood as a child), and who (by wonderful coincidence) is now in the position of making arrangements for me to give a public presentation. I could feel her ill-at-ease on the telephone with me. I suspect she was wondering, "Should I call him Scott? Professor Nokes? Dr. Nokes? Will he be offended if we have low turn-out?"

I guess this is a small price to pay. It could be worse -- everyone could disrespect me. Still, just once in a while, I'd like to meet someone new, and when they ask, "What do you do?" and I reply "I'm an English professor," I'd like them to respond, "Oh, yes? I'm in insurance, myself" rather than "Er, I guess I'd better watch my grammar" before slipping away.