Tuesday, November 27, 2007

When Ideas Hit

Have you ever wondered why some ideas hit, and some don't? When you're doing a steady stream of research, you get lots and lots of ideas. A few see print, slightly larger number are blogged, and a slightly larger number than that find their way into lectures as deadend asides -- but the vast majority die an ignominious death in the back of the mind.

Since the scholar's life is short and learning long, we can be very stingy with what ideas we invest our time on. Usually, I only develop an idea into print if it fulfills one of two criteria (and often both):
  1. I have to believe the idea will hit, and will influence other scholars.
  2. A friend or scholar I respect has asked me to develop the idea into an article.
Of course, there are still lots that fulfill these requirements but do not see print. For example, I've had an idea for a book on Anglo-Saxon charms in my head for about six years now that will likely never see print, because to research it adequately I would have to spend several months bumping around Europe looking at manuscripts (held libraries in five different countries, as I recall) ... research that my current employer cannot bear either in direct travel costs or in indirect costs of giving a junior faculty member 1-2 semesters off.

Of all the articles I have written, the one for which I've gotten the most requests for offprints is “The Several Compilers of Bald’s Leechbook".* I'm not surprised, since the article is published in the prestigious annual Anglo-Saxon England, since it is the most thorough study of the manuscript context of the charms, and since it is often highly technical stuff that most people would rather someone else did. Actually, I also have a companion piece on the Lacnunga manuscript (Harley 585) that I've still not published for a variety of reasons, even though I have strong reason to suspect that too would "hit."

Here's the surprise, though. The article for which I've received the second greatest number of requests is “Teaching Grendel as a Villain in a Post-Modern Age.”** Why does that surprise me? The history of that piece is unusual. Back in 2003, as a brand-new faculty member, I was asked to present a paper at a student symposium. Now, at this point in my career, I've done enough public speaking to general audiences that I could simply print out an old lecture and give it 10 minutes later, but at that time I had to write one up. Knowing that this would barely be one step above classroom lecture, I took an idea that had been in my mind for a while and wrote it up as a 20-minute presentation.

I thought that would be the end of it, but then a colleague asked me to submit it to Alabama English, a journal with a circulation that isn't exactly in the millions. Well, Alabama English needed good articles, and I hadn't planned to do anything more with this paper than let it rot on my hard drive, so I sent it in to them with only the slightest revisions, they published it, and I thought that would be the end of it.

I think I received my first request for an offprint of that article before it actually appeared in print, from someone who had seen it in the "Forthcoming" section of my CV. I sent it off with a long letter of apology: The piece was written to be presented orally, and for that reason had fewer than a half-dozen citations, and those weren't very scholarly. Then came another request. Then another, and another ... and now I think it is my second most-requested article.

If I had realized the idea was going to hit, I would have spent a lot more time researching it, and I probably would have given Alabama English a different article. No doubt one of the reasons "Teaching Grendel" is requested so often is that it's very difficult to lay hands on a copy of Alabama English outside of, well, Alabama. Still another reason is that it deals with pedagogical difficulties with a commonly-taught text ... though the requests are usually from college instructors, rather than high school teachers.

I suppose every scholar must have an article or two like that. Most of us probably have an article that we think is great, but no one seems to take notice. Hey! Look at this great article! Look at my wonderful turn of a phrase here! Look at how I've completely revolutionized our way of looking at this issue! Can't you all see how brilliant it is?!?!?! On the other hand, we've probably also each got an article that hits for no discernible reason. Huh? You like that article? Well, yeah, I mean, I took the time to write it, so obviously I think it's good, but it's hardly my best work.

So, here as a public service to all the scholars out there, I want to offer this chance for shameless self-promotion. In the comment thread below, feel free to post the title of that one medieval article of yours that no one seems to notice despite its painfully-obvious genius. If it's in print, give us the MLA citation for it. If it hasn't seen print, give us the title and a one-sentence description of the contents. Maybe we can light a lamp, sweep the house, and recover a lost pearl of great price.***

*“The Several Compilers of Bald’s Leechbook,” Anglo-Saxon England 33. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2005: 51-76.
** “Teaching Grendel as a Villain in a Post-Modern Age.” Alabama English 14 (2004): 6-17.
***Yes, I know I'm mixing two different parables, dangit.


  1. I'm shameless...

    Matthew Gabriele, “Asleep at the Wheel? Apocalypticism, Messianism and Charlemagne’s Passivity in the Oxford Chanson de Roland,” Nottingham Medieval Studies 43 (2003): 46-72.

  2. I'm going to flog a *book.* For some reason my third book, *Deeds of Arms* has shown up in few academic libraries (in contrast to the earlier *Jousts and Tournaments,* which is held by a reasonable number). I suspect some trouble between publisher and distributor. It's a more wide ranging book, would be enjoyed by general readers and useful to scholars in a variety of fields (gender studies, even) and is a careful piece of scholarship.

    It's in print and cheap in hardback. Have your library order it today!

    Matthew, I think I'll look up yours before teaching my chivalry seminar again next year.

  3. Dr. Nokes' Sister12:36 PM

    I wrote a paper once back in sixth grade. Miss Little really liked it. She even read it aloud to the whole class. It was about how much I liked my little sister. I *might* be able to get a copy of it for anyone interested.

  4. Tammi,
    As I am familiar with the characters of our various little sisters, I'm sure your 6th grade paper must have been a work of fiction.

    Do you have offprints of the article available? Is it possible to lay hands on that journal in the States?

    Oh, and if anyone is interested in Steve's book, ABEbooks has eleven on sale in the US and Europe, ranging in price from $24.18 to $82.42.

  5. Dr. Nokes, I do indeed have a couple of offprints left that I'll be happy to pass along. Although the journal is around in the states, it's not widely available. I was living in England at the time it was published and (from what i understand) is relatively well-respected there. Not so much here...

  6. Darnit, I can't participate since I'm pseudonymous, and I'm not going nymous (onymous?) until my tenure case is finally decided. Oh well. Let's just say this: I've got two really great articles and a book currently in print. One article is very visible and has already been reprinted (yay!), but the other article is just is good, but appeared in a less visible collection. And the book, which is brand spanking new, is *awesome*. So if you know my name in real life, do a couple of searches and get your library to order the essay collection and the monograph!

  7. How come I don't have a copy of that Grendel piece? I guess because I haven't asked for one. I can trade an offprint of my article, "Translating Saint as (Vi)king: St. Olaf in the Heimskringla" if you want. Includes free typos!

  8. This is no time for shame :-)

    I don't really have many disregarded publications, because of not having many at all yet, and I'm told at least two people have read my EME paper so who am I to want more, etc. ;-) but! I would like to try and plug one paper I can't get accepted anywhere that I think deserves better. I've presented parts of it at Leeds, and done several drafts, but in its most recent form it's called "Bishop and Brother: Church and kindred in a medieval family" and it centres on Bishop Sal·la of Urgell and his brother Viscount Bernat of Conflent, who were around in the 970s-990s in Pyrenean Catalonia. We have an unusual amount of information about them, although much more about the bishop, and though most of it's charters there's still a definite possibility of getting impressions of personality, and of plotting their dynastic strategy and also their disagreements.

    The problem is that it doesn't really contribute much to our picture of bishops, or viscounts, or even families, except unusually rich data, so I've had it rejected a couple of times with comments that amounted to, "this is very knowledgeable, but doesn't change our views about anything". This is nearly fair but misses how great the stories are, how useful a bunch of anecdotes it would provide future researchers, and how rare it is to be able to depict a family operation from this period in this much detail. So I mention it here in case, I don't know, anyone happens to be compiling a volume of essays on medieval bishops in the world, cooperation between lay and ecclesiastic nobles, or medieval land swindles (of which it has two, and I could find you more :-) ) and would like to consider it. And to vent spleen. But mostly the former I promise. I have my own blog for spleen after all...

  9. Dr. V. raises the important issue of anonymous & psuedonymous commenters. If any of you anonymous folks out there want to send me a copy of something you wrote, I'll mention it myself so that you don't have to fear it being traced back to you. That way, you'll only be outed as a reader of this blog, not necessarily as a writer of any other particular blog.

    You can e-mail it to me at rsnokes AT troy DOT edu, or snail-mail to:
    Richard Scott Nokes
    Dept. of English
    246 Smith Hall
    Troy University
    Troy, AL 36082