Monday, July 31, 2006


Last night, I was watching "Who Wants to Be a Superhero?" on SciFi channel -- a show that was hysterical. In any case, at the end of the episode, Stan Lee asked the "superheroes" if they knew what "excelsior" meant. When they said they did not, he told them it was an "Old English word."

Now, he could have been saying it was an "old English word," but the captioning on my TV showed it as "Old English." Stan might know comic books, but his etymology needs work. "Excelsior" pretty obviously comes from Latin, not Old English. Could it be, though, an "old English" word? The Online Etymology Dictionary gives word as being of Latin origin, and doesn't give any earlier uses than the 1778 motto for New York state -- not very old, and not very English. I would argue, though, that we can't consider that the entry of the word into the English language, since the state motto of New York is intended to be a Latin motto, not an English motto. Instead, we have to use Longfellow's title of "Excelsior" in 1841 as the real entry of the word into the English language -- which the Oxford English Dictionary also lists as the earliest use in English (except for the state motto). Again, not very old, and not very English.

So, Stan, it is a Latin word adopted into modern English, next time someone asks. Etymology Man, away!

Many thanks to Gail from the Scribal Terror for e-mailing me the Oxford English Dictionary entry.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Citations and

A search on a word etymology (which I'll finish next time I lay hands on the OED) led me to Interestingly, I discovered that also gives proper MLA, Chicago, and APA citations at the bottoms of their entries. I've tried several, and all came out accurately, so it seems pretty reliable.

As an example, let's look at the entry for "Beowulf." Scroll to the bottom and you'll see a box with "Copyrights" and little bubbles that say "Cite." If you click on one of the bubbles, such as the one for "Literature Information about Beowulf," you'll come to this page. Note also that you can change the citation style ... and it even reminds you to use a hanging indent. Nice!

If I were a freshman, and needed to cite some general information, I'd probably use this site just to be sure I had the citation correct. It probably doesn't have the ethos for anything beyond basic, general info, but at least it offers a good model.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

My CoHE "First Person" Essay Formula

The Little Professor offers a multiple choice guide to writing an essay for the "First Person" column in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Since the CoHE has not seen fit to contact me and request a "First Person" essay yet (probably just an oversight), I will volunteer the following essay. Though it does not fit my situation perfectly, one must adhere to the rules of the genre.


Thank you for your attention.

I Can't Leave You People Alone for Even a Minute, Can I?

The light blogging of late has been because I took my family on a little vacation. Now I come back to find all heck has broken loose. Let's start with the medieval news:

There's been a lot of Sturm und Drang at AnSaxNet over the use of the word "apartheid" to describe Anglo-Saxon social structure in "Evidence for an Apartheid-Like Social Structure in Early Anglo-Saxon England." I read the posts with (very) mild interests at first, then put them on my mental "delete immediately" list as one of the sillier debates Anglo-Saxonists have had for a while -- but it's summer, so I guess we can cut ourselves a little slack. You can find some of the debate at In the Middle, Heo Cwaeth, and Old English in New York ... or you can search the AnSaxDat.

I suspect there are two reasons people might object to the use of the term "apartheid." One is a kind of Anglo-Saxon nationalism. Me, I don't really have a dog in that fight. By current American cultural definitions, I'm an Anglo-Saxon in the White-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant formulation, but by actual descent I'm far more Anglo-Norman and Irish (at least if Uncle Mike's genealogy is accurate). I find it mystifying that anyone today might derive their personal self-worth from the politically-correct racial attitudes of ancestors dead for a millennium, but then again I don't understand a lot of things that must be obvious to other people. I myself am (supposedly) descended from John Chandos, but if tomorrow I found out that I'm not, or that he was the most evil man in the history of Western Civilization, who cares? It would be slightly interesting, but I'm not culpable -- after all, he begot me, not the other way around.

The other reason I suspect is that people want to demonstrate their political virtue by showing that they oppose apartheid in the previous century and in the medieval era. One of the ugliest elements of academic life are the frequent pageants of political virtue. Even when I agree with the political stance taken, I find these tiresome. Perhaps it would just be quicker if people were to post images of their Labour Party membership cards online.

Enough of tempests and teapots. The real interesting news comes out of a bog! An Irish construction worker found a Psalter from c. 800-1000 AD in a midlands bog. Naturally, it is fragmentary -- you try leaving a book in a blog for a thousand years and see how much is legible -- but it is still a wonderful find. I can think of at least one Briton who'd be happy to know about the survival of the psalter. Unfortunately, I don't have much more to say about this find, since we don't have a lot of detail yet. Maybe more will come later.

Other non-medieval issues arose while I was away, but I'll deal with those later.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Unlocking the Chinese Wordhoard

I'm not sure what to make of this: Someone went to the trouble of translating one of my posts (and the comments that followed) into Chinese. Hope they enjoyed it.

Friday, July 21, 2006

How NOT to Defend Your Alma Mater

In the days since the scandal broke, a lot of Auburn graduates/dropouts/fans have been rushing to Auburn's defense. For a while, it was the main topic of every sports radio show in the area, though it seems to be dying out now. Though the immediate subject of this post is the Auburn fake courses scandal, it isn't really about that, but about how to react when your alma mater is caught in scandal.*

There's nothing wrong with the urge to defend your alma mater. Loyalty is a virtue. Even if you aren't a virtuous person, the value of your own degree rises and falls with the reputation of your school, which is why schools with successful alumni like to invite them to speak at commencement. I myself am proud of the success of my friends from Butler, because that reflects well on the school, which in turn reflects well on me.

There are smart ways to defend your alma mater, and ways that are ... let's just say "not so smart." In the local scandal, the not-so-smarts have dominated the discourse (Sorry to pick on Vodkapundit -- I wish I could link to local radio shows somehow). The problem is that otherwise smart people get caught up in the rhetoric and then find themselves having to back away; e.g., witness how this blogger started with one position, but when confronted, had to admit it was a red herring (read through the comments).**

OK, so you find that your alma mater is under attack, and risks having its reputation sullied. How do you defend it? The first principle to remember is this: Do not defend your alma mater in any way that further sullies its repututation! When you do this, you aren't helping the situation any. So, then, some defenses to avoid:
  • "It wasn't just athletes." Obviously, this one is specific to athletic scandals. If you are a student athlete, this defense isn't great, but is acceptable. If you aren't an athlete, then what are you suggesting ... that all the the students at Alma Mater University take fake classes? If I were a grad, I'd keep the fact that it wasn't just athletes very, very quiet.
  • "That major is known to be very easy." Sure, some majors are more difficult than others -- but do you really want to say that some of the majors at Alma Mater are so very easy that there is no distinction between fake classes and real ones?
  • "The professor is evil/stupid." So, the professors at Alma Mater University are evil/stupid? What does that say about students who successfully graduated?
  • "Other schools do it too." Look ma, I'm the lowest common denominator!
  • "That student was always evil/stupid" Limited to scandals involving students. This is an acceptable defense if the student in question flunked or was expelled. If they graduated, then you are implying that being evil or stupid is no barrier to getting the same degree you hold.
Alright, these are ways NOT to defend your school. How, then, can the loyal graduate defend the alma mater? There are a few different ways, depending on the situation:
  • If the scandal appears to be very minor, ignore it. Don't give it extra press.
  • If the scandal appears to suggest real wrong-doing at your school, try this: "Well, if true, that is certainly shocking. I never saw anything like that when I was a student there. I hope the administration investigates and holds people accountable. After all, Alma Mater University cannot give up her high standards, can she?"
  • If the scandal appears to be a fake scandal manufactured on a slow news day, or by a rival institution, try this: "Pffft. I don't believe it for a second. We should investigate, to uphold our high standards, but I find it hard to believe such a thing could happen at Alma Mater U."
  • If investigations show wrong-doing, try this: "Well, his head should roll. Alma Mater University can't tolerate that kind of behavior. We sure didn't put up with it when I was a student there!"
Please note that the virtue of each of these defenses is that it does no damage to the reputation of the school (or to its degree-holders), and instead reinforces the idea that the norm at your school is high academic/ethical/professional standards. Of course, these defenses require that the defender hold his school to a high standard, but I don't see that as a negative thing.

*By the way, please don't accuse me of being a University of Alabama homer. As a yankee, I find the whole Alabama/Auburn rivalry as mystifying as the Arsenal/Manchester United rivalry.

**Kudos to John Hay ... not for agreeing with my position, but for having the guts to back away from a previously blogged position after reconsidering it. Too many other bloggers would have dug in their heels.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Making Adjuncts Visible

I have had a double standard for dealing with academic scandals -- I have treated scandals involving tenured (or tenure-track) academics as legitimate, and scandals involving adjuncts as pointless media events. This double standard was not unconscious; I knew what I was doing. I simply thought that it was wrong to hold adjuncts and part-timers to the same standards as full-time faculty.

I explained my double standard first in the scandal involving a Warren Community College adjunct who wrote a nasty e-mail to a student. I explained my dismissal of the story like this:
This was from an adjunct at a local community college who had been working there for only about a year. Usually, adjuncts suffer a great deal because of their invisibility, and are treated like they are not "real" professors. OK, fine.
Let's say adjuncts aren't real professors. If they aren't real professors, though, can we stop treating Daly like a "real" professor?OK, let's say they are real professors. In that case, shouldn't the story be about how a real professor is so poorly paid for his real work?This story seems to want to have it both ways. Just this once, couldn't we let the adjuncts' invisibility work in their favor? Just let Warren Community College quietly decline to re-hire him next semester because of his unprofessional behavior.

Ward Churchill, though, I held to a higher standard (though he seems unable to meet even the lowest of standards). Thomas Petee, too, I held to a higher standard. On the other hand, I haven't blogged even once about Deborah Frisch bizarre threats.

I've been thinking a lot about these choices, though. On the one hand, adjuncts are basically without voice in academe -- and since we ignore them when they do quality teaching and carry on with professional deportment, why not let it work to their benefit once in a while by ignoring the kooks and jerks?

Michael Drout's post on Frisch starting me re-considering my position, though. He wrote, "But I do care very much about the ways that people like Churchill, Frisch and the guy at Wisconsin are damaging the institution of academia."

"The insitution of academia." I know that Drout was talking about Academe as a whole, but it started me thinking about the academic institutions whose reputations had been soiled by adjuncts. Most people don't know the difference between an adjunct and a full-time faculty member. When I was a TA, most students called me "Professor Nokes," and when I objected and tried to explain to them that I wasn't a professor, they got confused, so eventually I stopped bothering to correct them (and focused on the dissertation to make their error correct). So, if most people see adjuncts in the same way as full-time faculty when it comes to scandal, it stands to reason that they also see them so when it comes to quality work.

Universities are more than happy to take credit when they've got a really good adjunct, working his tail off for a pittance. So long as that is the case, they need also take responsibility when their faculty, full or part-time, behave badly.

In the future, I'm going to be more sharply critical of wrong-doing by adjuncts and the schools that employ them -- not because I think adjuncts deserve any more grief than they already get, but because if schools find themselves being held to account for the behavior of their adjuncts, they may find it valuable to take more of an interest in them. I think by not treating adjucts as "real" faculty in scandal, I have participated in allowing schools to treat adjuncts as not "real" faculty in other ways that would be to their benefit. Mea culpa.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Idiocy as Disease

Excerpt from Terry Pratchett's Hogfather (p. 172):

"What's going on?" said Ridcully, as the others pushed in behind them.
"I know it sounds stupid, Archchancellor, but we think it [a malfunctioning magical computer] might have caught something off the Bursar."
"Daftness, you mean?"
"That's ridiculous, boy!" said the Dean. "Idiocy is not a communicable disease."
Ridcully puffed his pipe.
"I used to think that, too," he said. "Now I'm not so sure. Anyway, you can catch wisdom, can't you?"
"No, you can't," snapped the Dean. "It's not like the flu, Ridcully. Wisdom is ... well, instilled."
"We bring students here and hope they catch wisdom off us, don't we?" said Ridcully.
"Well, metaphorically," said the Dean.
"And if you hang around with a bunch of idiots you're bound to become pretty daft yourself," Ridcully went on.
"I suppose in a manner of speaking ..."
"And you've only got to talk to the porry old Bursar for five minutes and you think you're going a bit potty yourself, am I right?"
The wizards nodded glumly. The Bursar's company, although quite harmless, had a habit of making one's brain squeak.
"So Hex [the magical computer] here has caught daftness off the Bursar," said Ridcully. "Simple. Real stupidity beats artificial intelligence every time."

... which goes a long way to explaining why I get more daft the more freshman comp papers I grade. Perhaps I should wear latex gloves.

Monday, July 17, 2006

The Shock and Horror

Gentle Readers,

Thank the Lord tonight before you go to bed that you do not have to endure the shock and horror of seeing me at your local eatery. It might cause sudden loss of appetite.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Understanding the Auburn "Directed Readings" Scandal

The Chronicle of Higher Education and New York Times are reporting on a scandal involving an Auburn University sociology professor who allegedly taught fake "directed readings" for atheletes in need of credit hours. As I read the NY Times version (which is more detailed), I realized that some of the readers might not understand why teaching a lot of directed readings could be considered an ethical violation.

First of all, people should understand that directed readings are not, in and of themselves, unusual. In my own department, they are called "Guided Independent Research and Study," and students theoretically are limited to 12 such credit hours, but the practical limit is much lower, being at the most two classes (or six credit hours). Most students take none. I myself took none as an undergrad, though I took several as a graduate student. The reason the practical limit is low is that professors generally do not like doing directed readings, since it requires a high commitment of time for no extra pay, and for a single student. It also can mess up a department's curriculum, but how that works is a little complex, and unimportant for understanding this story. The main point here is that most professors will avoid doing any directed reading if they can.

So, why would a professor teach a directed reading? Generally, there are two valid reasons. One reason is that a particularly bright student has a project they want to work on, but there would not be enough interest or ability among the general student population to justify creating an entire class. This reason usually involves a motivated student who has moved beyond the abilities of his classmates; for example, I once taught a directed reading for a student who wanted to do a project on the Popol Vuh even though we didn't have a class at that time which he could do such research (obviously, I was the one to do it because of my Fulbright research on the text).

The other reason is one of bureaucratic snafu. Sometimes, from no fault of the student, they will be caught in a Catch-22 curriculum bind. For example, we might have a transfer student who needs a class as a prerequisite to another required for graduation, but that class is only taught every two years or so. Rather than forcing the student to stay another couple of years for the cycle to repeat, a professor might allow that student to take the course as a directed reading. Other things can happen as well -- for example, internships fall through, the legal requirements for teaching secondary education may change faster than the curriculum, etc. In other words, this second use is meant to be a steam valve to reduce pressure on the curriculum to prevent buronic circumstances.

You'll note that neither of these reasons is to save poorly-performing students. The first is to offer opportunities to stellar students, and the second is short-term fixes to curricular problems. If the reporting is correct, neither was the case for Auburn.

Let's assume, though, that the reasons were legitimate. Were the directed readings themselves legitimate?

According to the reporting, the professor* dropped the number of directed readings down to 24, and one semester taught as many as 152 -- in addition to teaching his normal courseload (probably a 2-2 courseload, which means about six hours per week in the classroom, and at least six hours per week of prep. Let's call it 12 hours of regular coursework per week). When I teach a directed study, I usually spend an hour per week with the student (not counting prep). Let's assume, generously, that the professor only spent an average of 30 minutes per week on each student, with absolutely no prep. That would mean that with his reduced workload of only 24 directed readings, he would spend an extra twelve hours per week, or 24 hours total, without including any research or service. So assuming the professor taught a 2-2 load, did absolutely no prep, research, or service, it might be possible (though implausible) that he could have taught such a load.

Let's now apply the same formula to the semester he taught 152 directed readings. That would mean 76 extra hours per week, not including his normal, full-time workload. Assuming his department is closed on weekends, he would have to spend more than 15 hours per day meeting with students -- again, ignoring his normal teaching, research, and workload schedule. I can't think of any way this would be possible.

OK, so it isn't possible ... perhaps he never met with students at all (stretching the meaning of the term "directed" in the phrase "directed reading"). Maybe he just said, "Here, read one book and turn in a paper at the end of the semester." Naturally, that should not be considered enough work for a 3 credit hour class (or even one credit hour), but for the sake of argument, let us assume that it would be OK. What about when the papers come in? Assuming he spends only 30 minutes grading each paper, it would take him more than three full days to grade them all, assuming he eschews grading for his regular classes, eating, sleeping, and all other things necessary for human life. Auburn's academic calendar list 5 days between the beginning and end of exams, so let's assume 6 days for deadlines for grades -- directing 152 readings is a physical impossibility.

It is possible that things are not as bad as they look for Auburn. After all, the reporting could be flawed, or there could be some other factor that I don't know about (like the professor having an army of graduate assistants meeting with students and grading papers). As the story sits now, though, it looks pretty damning.

*Out of courtesy, I have avoided naming the professor here, though obviously his name is available in the linked articles. If further reporting/investigation continues to show that he is likely guilty of wrong-doing, I'll refer to him by name in the future. I just don't want to participate in the potential making of another Richard Jewel.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

SF&F Research Database

Others have probably known about it for years, but I just discovered the Science Fiction and Fantasy Research Database.

h/t I Shush

What's a "buron?"

A neologism introduced to me by Tom, who works for the State of Indiana. The definition is as follows:

bu·ron (byoor’-ŏn) n. 1. An official of a bureaucracy having a mental age between 7 and 12 years or an intelligence quotient between 50 and 75. 2. A remarkably stupid official who insists on rigid adherence to rules, forms, and routines. [Fr. bureau, office + Gk. mōron, neuter of mōros, stupid.] –bu·ron·ic (byoor-ŏn’ĭk) adj. – bu·roni·cal·ly adv.

Apologies to The American Heritage Dictionary for my scandalous abuse of their definitions.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

More "Beowulf and Grendel" Reviews

Rotten Tomatoes has a round-up of "Beowulf and Grendel" reviews. Right now, it is scraping baaaaarely into the "fresh" category with 56% positive. Their "Cream of the Crop" reviews, though, are far less kind, putting it at 33%.

As for my own review, I've already got it saved on my Netflix queue. The availability is listed for September, though, so I guess I'll have to wait a couple of months to make my own judgment.

Chaosium Digest Blog

For the H.P. Lovecraft fans out there, Chaosium Digest has been dying a slow death in its form as an archived e-mail list (rather like the way The Medieval Review does it). The e-mail subscription medium seems to be fading against blog competition generally, I think.

When I was in Indianapolis, I had a chance to meet with John Thompson (editor of CD, and an old friend), and he talked about the problems CD was having with the old format. We discussed some of the options available to him, and John apparently didn't waste any time, as now Chaosium Digest has been re-born in blog form. It looks like current issues will be posted as blog posts, and archived on the main site. It also looks like they will be keeping the e-mail subscription option available for those who prefer it.

In any case, Chaosium Digest is calling for submissions of everything from product reviews, to scenarios for Chaosium Cthulhu games, to fan fiction. If you are a Lovecraft fan and would like like to contribute something, I would encourage it. I think it's one of the few fanzines out there that has a professional copy editor on staff (John's delightful wife, Christy), so you can be assured your submissions will be treated with professional respect.

Nerdtalk and Geekspeak: My Life Among the Fans

First of, apologies to Drout for spoofing his blog title. OK, now for the round-up of my expedition into the Midwest to talk about medievalist stuff for popular audiences.

My university certainly got their money's worth out of the trip. They gave me a handful of free t-shirts and folders to give away, and I rationed them out so that I'd have a bit to give at each session I did. At every session, at least one person (usually more) asked, "Where's Troy University?", allowing me to give my Troy-rah-rah speech several times. So, from the perspective of raising Troy University's profile, a success.

The talk at the Henry F. Schricker Public Library was a limited success. There were only about two dozen in attendance at the most, but they seemed very engaged. Perhaps most interesting were two little boys who had detailed knowledge of The Lord of the Rings and asked the kind of questions that are a little naive for adults, but are charming when they come from children (e.g., "How could Shelob stab Frodo if he was wearing his mithril coat?") Anyway, it was nice to meet children so literate that they would drag their father out on 4th of July weekend to hear some guy talk about books.

The talks at InConJunction went quite well, I thought. The first talk started with only five people in the room, and I feared that it was going to be a looooooong weekend. By the end of the session, though, we had about 25 people in the room. The questions were good and interesting, too. At the end of the session, we had about a half dozen people gathered at the front of the room for more, but I had to cut that short for the opening ceremonies.

The second talk didn't go as well. Only about a half dozen people came, and they didn't ask much. Many of the questions were reprisals of issues from the first session. After I left the session, I probably had a dozen people come running up to me to say that they hadn't made the session because the charity auction ran long. In other words, a scheduling conflict meant that high interest didn't result in high turnout.

The third talk, though, on medieval magic and medicine, was a roaring success. The room was packed, the questions were good, and people hung around for about 45 minutes later to discuss the issues. In fact, the after-session probably would have run longer than the actual session itself, but I had to make an appointment on the south side of Indianapolis.

Perhaps more importantly, I found that my experiment in speaking at a science fiction/fantasy convention was a success. I was afraid that all my nerdtalk and geekspeak would be lost in the wilds of fandom, either avoided by people afraid of the difficulty, or embattled by people unclear on the difference between fiction and reality. I needed not worry about the former, though. People didn't approach the subjects as trained medievalists; they approached them from their own positions -- as physicists, midwives, high school teachers, etc. Their questions often led us in directions I didn't expect. I would say that I probably over-prepared for the sessions, because there is no way to know who will come to your session, and what their interest will be.

While I didn't face the problem of people not distinguishing between fiction and reality and InConJunction, it was a real potential difficulty. I went to a Harry Potter session in which it was in full force. Many of my prejudices regarding Harry Potter were confirmed; people who had obviously spent much of the last nine years thinking about the series had still never developed even the most rudimentary critical apparatus. The children at the library were thinking about literature in a more sophisticated way. Nevertheless, I spotted some of the same people at other sessions, where they exhibited normal intellect. What is it, I wonder, about Harry Potter that makes otherwise intelligent people incapable of thinking beyond an elementary school level?

Regardless of the Harry Potter silliness, InConJunction had a lot of interesting things. I was surprised by the high quality of fan films. The "Weird World of Science" section was absolutely packed. Even the Filking Guest of Honor was good -- and I hate filking. By the time the convention was over, I had been asked to submit programming to three other conventions. Given the right circumstances (availability time and money, mostly), I'd strongly consider it.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

More on Tradition and Reason

Of all the things I've written in my life (and as an English professor, I've written a lot), I think that my post entitled "Tradition and Reason" is the most misunderstood. Joe Carter over at Evangelical Outpost seems to have understood what I was saying. I'm sure my writing is partly to blame for the misunderstanding, but the ideas expressed there are subtle for people who aren't often confronted with the messy ways in which knowledge is created. It's funny that I've only gotten two comments on the original post, because I will still occasionally get an angry/dismissive/puzzled e-mail about it. For some reason, as well as being easily misunderstood, people don't seem to want their reaction in the comments section.

Let me add two more cents to what I have already said.

Many of the e-mails I receive are confused about what I mean by "reason" in this case, and people will sometimes say things like, "Huh? How can reason be part of a tradition? Don't we reason all the time? Even babies reason, right?"

This confusion stems from a kind of sloppy use of terms that has its roots in the original article. We sometimes use the word "reason" as synonymous with the word "thinking." In this use, of course, my blog post doesn't make a lot of sense. My post, however, is reacting to "The Future of Tradition" by Lee Harris, and the way that Harris uses the term "reason" is not as "thinking," but as the system of Western rationalism, as evidenced by his first use of the term in the sentence:
In every culture war the existing customs and traditions of a society are called to the bar of reason and ruthlessly interrogated and cross-examined by an intellectual elite asking whether they can be rationally justified or are simply the products of superstition and thus unworthy of being taken seriously by enlightened men and women.

The use of the words "rational" and "enlightened," of course, refer to particular ways of thinking that grow out of 18th-century philosophy. My point (and my objection to the use and abuse of much post-Cartesian thought) is that you cannot undermine the foundations of an intellectual tradition using the tools of that tradition without calling into question the validity of those same tools.

How does all this fit into Christian thought (Joe Carter's concern)? In some ways, Christianity grows out of certain intellectual traditions that pre-date it, and in other ways, the teachings of Christ (and Paul) are a cataclystic re-direction. I don't think I can accept arguments that the teachings of Christ are ahistorical; presupposing an omniscient and omnipotent God who could have placed the Resurrection at any historical moment He saw fit, God would naturally choose the most advantageous moment for His plan. In other words, my suspicion is that God combined and redirected the Jewish and Hellenic intellectual traditions in a way so profound as to leave Hegel scratching his head.

With this in mind, we can look at the philosophy of someone like Boethius, for example, and see a Christian philosophy without seeing lots of references to the Church or Scriptures -- but we see that his thought grew out of and contributed to Christian thought. It was this very same Christian thought (particular ways of reasoning) that developed into the Western rational tradition.

Does this mean that Western reason is somehow God-ordained? Of course not. Other ways of thinking that also grew out of Christianity compete. Put a Baptist pastor, an Eastern Orthodox bishop, and the Pope in a boat, and not only will you get three different opinions on certain issues, but also three very different ways of reasoning about those issues.* Neither am I certain that one of those particular ways of reasoning must by necessity be better than the others, since I see very different writers like Matthew, Luke, Paul, and John reasoning in very, very different ways, yet each arrives at the same place.

I remember realizing in high school math that I could use either algebra or geometry to come up with the answer to a problem for which we had to show our work. When I asked the teacher which he wanted us to use, he just answered "whichever is easiest for that problem." This was, to me, an important insight -- that I could use different ways of reasoning in different situations to come up with the same answer. Using algebra to get the right answer for a geometry problem was better than using geometry poorly to come up with the wrong answer for a geometry problem.

So, to clarify, I hope people don't read the original post and assume that "thinking" and "reason" are meant to be the same thing. Neither do I want them to think that I'm claiming Western rationalism as the end-all-and-be-all of thought. Furthermore, I'm not suggesting that truth is relative, but rather that there may be several different ways to work out the truth. By the same token, I'm not suggesting that every way of thinking is good, since some ways never seem to lead to the truth, or perhaps lead to the truth so inconsistently as to be practically useless (narcissistic relativism is a good example of this). What I am suggesting is that trying to use Western rationalism to denigrate the traditions that birthed Western rationalism is a bit like trying to walk away from your own legs.

*You'll also get the makings of a potentially funny joke.

While the Cat's Away...

I just can't leave you alone with this blog for one minute, can I? Here I am, on my tour of the Midwest talking about medievalism (mostly Tolkien and magic), and we've got people snarking in the comments and Evangelical Outpost re-posting an analysis of an old posts.

If you kids can't play nice, I'm going to turn this blog around and take you all home. I mean it!

Seriously, I'm not sure when regular blogging will resume. For now, I'm having to squeeze in a teeny bit of internet access for this post. I'll try to have some substantive posts as soon as I'm able.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Talking Loud in the Library

I'll be giving a presentation on entitled "The Lord of the Rings in Film and Literature" today at the Henry F. Schricker Public Library in Knox, Indiana at 1PM. If you miss this, I'll be giving several talks on Tolkien and medieval magic at InConJunction next weekend.

One Ringers welcome, of course.