Sunday, December 30, 2007

I Resolve...

Professors have a theory or methodology of everything, including such things as New Year's Resolutions. Here's mine:

I think most resolutions fail because they are either resolutions about things out of your control, or they are so vague as to be meaningless. These kinds of resolutions aren't so much guides for our future behavior as they are wish-lists for the coming year. For an example of the first, many people will resolve something like, "I resolve to lose 15 pounds this year." A nice idea, but you have no direct control over whether you lose weight or not. For example, I've run 5k three times per week for the past 6 months, and I've lost only 10 lbs.* The losing of weight is the desired result, not really the thing you can control. Instead, I think people should resolve to do things that they CAN control. Also, too many are things are are so vague, the commitment cannot be measured in any meaningful way. An example of this would be something like, "I resolve to improve my relationship with my spouse" -- again, a nice sentiment, but HOW? Here are a few examples of what I think are self-defeating resolutions, followed by what I think would be a better version:

I will lose weight vs. I will visit the gym three times per week
I will eat healthy vs. I will eat two servings of fruit and veggies at each meal
I will improve my relationship with my spouse vs. I will go on at least one date night per month with my spouse
I will spend more time with my kids vs. I will volunteer to be assistant coach of the tee-ball team
I will publish two articles vs. I will submit two new articles for publication
I will be a better teacher vs. I will completely re-vamp my syllabus for this class
I will be a better researcher vs. I will apply for at least one grant this year

Get the idea? Whenever possible, you should first decide what your goal is, then think of a realistic and concrete step that will bring you closer to that goal.

So, what about me? I'm resolving quite a few things, but most of them don't have anything to do with medievalism. A few of them, however, do, and so I give you here my medieval resolutions for 2008, in the hope that you Wordhoarders can encourage/chastize me to keep them as needed.

  1. I resolve to organize at least one popular medieval event on campus. The Big Beowulf Bash was a huge success, enough so that I think we wouldn't even need a film to make such an event work. I know the nearby SCA group wants to come do a weapons demonstration, so that's what I'll likely organize.
  2. I resolve to submit a request for a Selected Topics course on learning Old English for the fall semester. Four years ago I taught it, and rumors of that still swirl among our English majors even though all the original students have graduated. Several have asked me to offer it, so I'm going to put in for it.
  3. I resolve to apply again to be a White House Fellow. This one might seem to have nothing to do with medieval literature at first glance, but my goal here is to spend a year working with federal government agencies so that after my year is up I can use that experience to find opportunities to advance medieval studies. I made it to the interview phase last year, so I think I have a realistic chance, even if it's a slim one.
  4. I resolve to offer myself to speak to popular audiences on medieval topics at least twice this year. Up until now, I've mostly been waiting for others to come to me to ask. When I examine my own passivity in this area, I realize that it comes from a sense that contacting others out of the blue to arrange something stinks of crass self-promotion. That's just dumb pride speaking. If I want to promote medieval studies, I'm going to have to swallow my pride and put myself out there. If some book club leader or fantasy convention organizer thinks I'm a crass self-promoter, so be it.
  5. I resolve to try to transform the MediEvolution Project from an internal project to a collaborative project. If MediEvolution were a baby, it would be diagnosed as "failure to thrive." I've given a lot of thought to what's wrong with it, and I think my major error has been to try to do everything myself in-house at Troy University. This year, I'm going to solicit other scholars to produce content. Until now I've been running it as the sole proprietor -- I think I'm going to transform myself into Project Director and see what others' creativity can produce. If anyone (including graduate students, by the way) is interested in working on the MediEvolution Project, let me know.

So, those are my medieval New Year's Resolutions. If any of you have medieval-oriented resolutions you're making, I invite you to unlock your own wordhoards in the comments below.

*Yes, I know I don't look like I run that regularly, but I really do. Even though I'm still heavier than I'd like to be, I'm also way healthier (especially in endurance) than I was, so it's worth it even if I never lose another ounce.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Lost in a Cyber-Wilderness

I had so much delightful medieval Christmas blogging planned -- a post on the relationship between X-mas and Chi-Rho, pictures of the wonderful Fisher-Price castle I got from Santa many decades ago (my parents still have it), the traditional re-run of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in Old English, etc...

... then a big windstorm came through the Midwest and fried my parents' computer. No computer = no internet unless I drive into town to use the internet at the library. A library that doesn't permit use of the computers for e-mail and whatnot (so I'm a cyber criminal at the moment)>

So, blogging will generally be interrupted between now and when I get back home. Until then, a belated Merry Chi-Rho-Mas and a Happy New Year. If y'all see me at MLA, say Hwaet!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Heroic Dreams

I love being able to promote new medievalist blogs, but every so often one comes to my attention and I think, "Hey, how come I never heard of that 'til now?"

Heroic Dreams is just one of those. It's going straight onto my blogroll and subscription list. h/t Quid Plura?

Morning Medieval Miscellany

For your Thursday morning reading pleasure:

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Dæræk thæ Ænglicæn and mæ

Yesterday, sometime between losing and recoving the now legendary thumb drive, I drove up to Emory, where I met Derek the Ænglican and one of his current students, Paige, who also happens to be one of my former students. I learned many things from this meeting:
  • Trying dress Goth while simultaneously trying to dress like a professional just comes off as dressing conservatively.
  • Derek knows so much about the Church calendar, he should take a crack at the Maya calendar.
  • Paige had an epiphany about Epiphany.
  • English departments are much more fun to work in than schools of theology.
  • Greek and Latin are best taught by those who don't know the languages very well.
  • If you get the spinach/artichoke dip at Everybody's pizza, skip the dip (which was mediocre), and go straight to the breadsticks, which were wonderful.
  • My son is literate only through the efforts of Paige.
  • Being rejected is worse than being stalked. I would have thought the reverse, but I came around to the consensus view.
  • Years ago, my World Lit class was considered a terrible amount of reading, followed by a horrific amount of writing. Not much has changed.
  • The class "United Methodist Polity" would be more accurate if entitled with scorn quotes: "United" Methodist Polity.
  • Just because you're in graduate school doesn't mean you know how to write.
  • I'll be "Dr. Nokes" to Paige long after she's old and grey ... which is fine by me, since I still "Doctor" all my former professors through undergrad and grad school.
  • I am the Karl Rove / James Carville of Charles Henderson Middle School.
  • Peavine parking structure isn't spelled "Peevine," but it should be.
  • The Bermuda triangle lies somewhere between Atlanta and Decatur. I got so, so lost trying to get home.
Anyway, I had a great time meeting Derek. Indeed, I don't think I've ever had an unpleasant experience meeting other bloggers. If anyone wants to meet up at MLA in Chicago, let me know!


Huzzah! Huzzah! Huzzah! This morning, when the sun came up, I showered and prepared to go to the University to search the parking lot for my jump drive. While I was in the shower, my wife looked in our driveway ... and saw it in the grass!

I've never loved her so much as at the moment she showed it to me.

After waiting a couple of hours to be sure all the dew had tried off it, I popped it in, and it worked perfectly. My first act? Backing it up on my fresh new hard drive.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007


A terrible thing happened today. I lost my flash memory drive ... it apparently fell off my key chain.

Normally, this would be simply an annoyance -- after all, what fool doesn't back up his files every so often? Sure, I would have lost a few weeks of work, but I would have survived.

The reason this is so catastrophic is that I just changed the hard drive on my computer, and got it back yesterday. Before taking it in, of course, I burned many of my files to CD ... but many, many of them I backed up on my thumb drive, intending to re-save them today.

So, basically, in the tiny window of vulnerability, I lost BOTH the data on my hard drive AND my thumb drive. Some of it I will be able to reconstruct from paper files and old data on my work computer, but much of it is lost forever.

And THAT, my friends, is why I despair. If Santa wants to bring me a gift this year, he'll bring me my old drive back.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Morning Medieval Miscellany

I've had lots to write of late, but no chance to do it. Tonight I'm scheduled to be on the Geekerati radio program (where we'll be talking about Christmas fantasy) and I'm supposed to be writing the keynote address for the Areopagus Lectures in Orlando this February, so I've got lots of things flitting about my head, pestering to be blogged about.

The good news is that I haven't written much lately because I was getting my computer upgraded. The bad news is that the sound doesn't work on it now, so that's what I've been doing with all my free time -- loading applications, patching applications, and trying to get the sound working.

Here are a few things I almost missed:

Friday, December 14, 2007

Reading Medieval Allegory

Part of being a professor is making pronouncements. No, not pronouncements, pronouncements ... all in bold and everything. Most of the time, these are things that aren't really all that new or exciting, but they're new and exciting when you're a 19-year-old student in the class. Things like, "Meaning does not necessarily reside in the intention of the author," or "Deluge myths are a universal archetype," might bring a yawn to the professor, but they can send bright young students in a tizzy.

Every so often, though, we get to make pronouncements, the kind that earn the rage of our colleagues, and leave us with a self-satisfied feeling in our hearts. Sometimes these pronouncements are carefully planned moments, but just as often they are a sudden crystalization of something we've been thinking about for a long time. In my medieval lit class last semester, I had one of the latter moments, when an idea I had long-since worked out but had not yet properly formed into a sentence suddenly emerged from my head fully-formed, like Athena:

The inability to understand allegory is the great failure of 20th-century criticism

Hear that? That's the sound of professors around the world sputtering. Still, I present this pronouncement to you because so many Wordhoarders are lovers of medieval history who have a great deal of trouble appreciating the literature. They want to appreciate it, but when then encounter an allegorical text like Everyman, the tale feels juvenile and simplistic.

As I often tell my students, texts are hard for two different reasons: Some are hard because they seem so hard, and they make you want to give up right away. You feel demoralized by the challenge of the work. Other texts are hard because they seem so easy, and you feel like they have nothing more to give you. Allegory falls into this latter category.

Allegory seems easy. Let's take, for example, the Romance of the Rose. The Lover/Dreamer meets many different characters, but identifying them seems easy: Reason represents, er, reason. Covetousness represents ... covetousness. Lady Idleness represents ... well, you get the idea. It all seems so easy, too easy to be rewarding. Most students confronting the Romance of the Rose will be frustrated because there doesn't seem to be anything more to say, so instead they write vapid (and false) papers about how women were treated "in medieval times" or how no one had sex because of the Church.

It's not really the fault of the lay reader. In the early 20th Century, one very influential school of literary theory was called "New Criticism." Basically, New Critics argued that the text should not have outside material brought to it, but every word found within the text itself was important. Though New Criticism has long since fallen away, the main tool of New Criticism is still important, the tool we call "close reading." Essentially, post-New Critical scholars rejected the idea that you shouldn't bring outside stuff into the text (such as the author's biography, the historical context, the response of the reader, other similar works in the genre, etc), while still accepting the second part: that every word in the text is important.

Today, even those professors who have rejected New Criticism still tend to teach a version of it in their undergrad classes, for two reasons: The first is the importance of close reading as a skill. High school taught you to worry about setting, plot, and characters, the kinds of things you can pick up from skimming. Those things, though, are only on the lowest order of textual understanding. To move beyond, you have to read closely, to consider every word as important, to consider the subtle nuances of meaning in a word.

For example, consider the Jim Croce song, "Operator." In it, the speaker tells the operator that his former lover has run off "with my best old ex-friend Ray." That phrasing is weird: "best old ex-friend." Wouldn't we normally say something like "old ex-best friend Ray?" Or even "my ex-old best friend Ray?" Either works OK with the meter of the line, and it ends with "Ray" regardless, so it doesn't affect the rhyme. So, why this odd "best old ex-friend?" In that phrasing, we hear that he still cares for Ray as well, but their relationship is finished just as is his relationship with the woman. He's calling to tell "them" (not "her") he's fine, because the person he would normally confide in about woman troubles is Ray, and the person he'd normally confide in about friend troubles is her ... and now he has no one to talk to except a telephone operator. That's how close reading works.

The second reason we treat New Criticism as the default critical form is that our students don't know anything. Seriously: you'll never find someone so ignorant, yet so convinced of his own brilliance, as a freshman. Literature tends to deal with big issues like sex, money, and religion, but undergrads typically know very little about these things, and just as they begin to understand them, they graduate. How can a reader understand the intention of an author if she's never written anything herself? How can a reader understand the historical context of a poem if he's getting a C- in Western Civ? How can a reader understand how Oedipus Rex fits into the genre of Greek tragedy if it's the only tragedy she's ever read? In other words, New Criticism not only offers the important tool of close reading, but in many cases it's the only kind of interpretive work a student is ready to do.

The way in which we train undergraduate readers, then, keeps them from having ideas of any sophistication about medieval allegory. For non-allegorical texts, most try to talk about the historical context by making broad generalizations: "In medieval times, people didn't know about sex because the Church repressed them, which is why Sir Gawain doesn't know what to do when Lady Bertilak gets into bed with him..." Stupid, yes, but at least it's something. Allegory, though, resists these simplistic applications of historical context, so we fall back into the easiest forms of identifying symbols.

For allegory, though, identifying what represents what is only the beginning of interpretation, whereas we often think of it as the end. I sometimes tell my students that if an author has already interpreted the text partially for you, it's an invitation to dig much deeper. In Moby Dick, for instance, just at the point that a professor might start pontificating about the symbolic meaning of the whiteness of the whale, Melville suddenly interrupts his story and spends a chapter talking about white as a symbol. Basically, he's saying, "Hey, don't get stuck on the whiteness of the whale. Yes, that's important, but I'll do that work for you, so you can dive deeper." When the Gawain-poet stops to tell us what the five fives on the pentangle represent, he's basically telling us, "Yup, the pentangle is an important symbol. Now that I've already established that for you, where are you going to take this poem?"

So, when an allegory already tells you that the names of the characters are Hope, Sweet Talk, Sweet Thought, and Sweet Looks, this shouldn't be the end of our understanding of the book -- it's just the beginning. In the case of The Romance of the Rose, the authors are writing before our modern taxonomy of psychology. So, how do you describe what's going on inside a mind of a character, and go so deep that we are past what that character even understands about himself? You create representations of the various bits and pieces of that person's identity, whether you call them Id and Ego and Superego, or Conscious and Subconscious, or Jekyll and Hyde, or Hope and Idleness and Diversion.

So, Wordhoarders, next time you pick up a medieval allegory, remember that the symbolic representations of the characters are only the starting point. The Romance of the Rose, for example, is really about the psychology of falling in love written for a society without our modern Freudian terminology, but with a greater familiarity with Ovid, and a greater sophistication regarding allegory. Keep that in mind, and works like Mankind and Everyman will be much more rewarding.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Come Sit on Fæder Krystemasse's Lap

Last night I was in Toys 'R Us* when I saw the Schleich World of Knights series, and decided to post this morning about good gifts for the medievalist at Krystemasse.

Lo, this morning, however, I find that Jeff Sypeck** has already assembled such a list, and Jennifer Lynn Jordan has already added to it.

Rather than compete with them, I'll dress up as Fæder Krystemasse, and invite all the Wordhoarders out there to sit on my lap and tell me what medieval-themed gifts they'd like for Krystemasse in the comments thread below. If you've been nice, perhaps I'll unlock my gifthoard and leave something in your hose in your meadhall on Krystemasse. If you've been naughty, I'll send my elves to shoot you with their arrows, and my Green Knight will come chop your head off.

*A store that, if the name is any indication, sells toys to children with poor grammar and spelling, as well as an odd self-image. Maybe Richard Pryor was one of the original investors?
** In which he included these Bayeux Tapestry Collection. If I were to mention that the entire collection would look great adorning my office, and that there might just be enough time to get it if you order now, I wouldn't be hinting or anything.

Cheerful Pratchett

Terry Pratchett, author of the popular and pseudo-medievalist Discworld series, has been "diagnosed with a very rare form of earlyonset Alzheimer's." He is resolved to remain cheerful, and appears to be working on finishing at least two more books. h/t Mythusmage Opines

I assert and aver that Discworld's Unseen University is the most spot-on depiction of academic life ever, with the exception of Richard Russo's Straight Man and Kafka's The Trial.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Morning Medieval Miscellany

As regular Wordhoarders know, I've been trying to find an alliterative way to do my little link round-ups without stealing thunder from Jennifer Lynn Jordan's Weird Medieval Animal Monday. I give you my new, semi-regular feature, "Morning Medieval Miscellany!"

The idea here is to have all those things that I had no time to post much about, or just had nothing to add. Though today it's a little late, I'll generally try to post it early in the day, so it can be your first stop that takes you to most of the places you want to be. It'll be semi-regular; if there are only one or two links, I'll hold off a few days until more build up. My hope is that this will free up some of my linking duties, giving me more time to write more original content without cutting into my usual scholarly writing/editing activities.

Think of it as your morning mini-Carnivalesque.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

An Open Letter to a Student

Dear Student Who Called Me at Home to Complain about a Grade,

Don't. Do. That. EVER. Again. If a student calls me at home, she'd better be damn sure I wanted to hear from her. If you're calling to complain about a grade, you can be damn sure I don't.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

We Temporarily Interrupt this Grading...

... for some actual programming. Sorry about all the late linking and lack of original posts of late; I'm swimming in a sea of freshman prose, at the moment, and think my brain may have been permanently damaged. Here are some things I want to write extended posts about, but can't because of brain exhaustion:
As a personal favor to me, I would appreciate it if no one does or says anything interesting about anything medieval for the next couple of days. You people keep distracting me from my grading with all your cool stuff!

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

A Special Weird Medieval Treat

Jennifer Lynn Jordan at Per Omnia Saecula offers a special treat in addition to Weird Medieval Animal Monday: Weird Medieval Tribe Tuesday! Her first tribe is the Blemmyai or Sternophthalmoi.

I wonder if Scott Eric Kaufman is from this tribal ethnicity ... or does the face placement mean that they are not technically Acephalous?

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

CfS: Hollywood in the Holyland

If you agreed more with Karl Steel's comments to this post than with my own description of Kingdom of Heaven as a two-hour-long sermon, here's an opportunity for you to prove how right you are! In the Middle is hosting a Call for Submissions to a volume entitled Hollywood in the Holyland: The Fearful Symmetries of Movie Medievalism. You can get all the details here.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Non-Monday Non-Medieval Non-Miscellany

A few months ago, I was thinking of instituting a Monday Medieval Miscellany, but then JLJ over at Per Omnia Saecula started her Weird Medieval Animal Monday, and I didn't want to compete (the Worhoard is all about promoting medivalia on the internet).

So, even though it is Monday, and what follows is a miscellany of various medieval stuff I neglected to talk about over the weekend, this is definitely NOT Monday Medieval Miscellany. If you want a regular Monday feature, go read Per Omnia Saecula.
  • In Gardnerwulf, Steven Hart asks why Roger Avery thinks he has done something outrageous by treating Beowulf as a "send up." I don't have anything nice to say about Roger Avery, so I'll not comment beyond endorsing Jeff Sypeck's comments on the post.
  • Speaking of Jeff Sypeck, he's just posted online his own *.pdf edition of "The Tale of Charlemagne and Ralph the Collier." I haven't commented on it yet because I haven't yet read it; I'm saving it for pleasure reading this week as I'm grading freshman composition papers.
  • Wil over at Moyen Age explains the origins of the twelve days of Christmas. Strictly speaking, this is late classical rather than medieval, but since I was actually wondering about this very issue over the weekend (with the start of Advent), I thought I'd post it.
  • On the medieval history side, Heavenfield has an account of St. Wilfrid raising a British boy from the dead, and discussion of the questions it raises.
  • Filed under the heading of "Small World," last week my former student assistant discovered that her Church Calendar instructor is my "Derek the Ænglican" from Haligweorc. By the way, that former student assistant, Paige Swaim, worked very hard helping me. She studied Old English, learned basic paleography to do manuscript readings, etc. In fact, she did so much that I bumped her up from "assistant" to "co-author" in “Kingship in Alfred’s Meters of Boethius,” Carmina Philosophiae, 13 (2004): 61-74.
Well, during the writing of this post, two students have already come in to beg for extensions. I now prepare to become an academic anchorite, withdrawing from the world to grade in my cell. If I don't emerge in a few days, send paramedics. If I still don't emerge, send gin.

The Dangers of Being My "Friend"

In non-medieval news, I'm quoted in the Chronicle of Higher Education story, "For Professors, 'Friending' Can Be Fraught" (which is behind the subscriber firewall at the moment). The story is about the dangers of being a Facebook "friend" with students. For those of you who aren't academics and desperately need to see the reference to me in the article, here's an excerpt*:

Richard Scott Nokes, a professor of English at Troy University, in Alabama, knows how that goes. A student once approached him late in the week to ask for an extension on an assignment. He said he was going to a relative's funeral. Mr. Nokes happened to sign on to Facebook a few days later, and something in his news feed — the site's voyeuristic compilation of friends' updates — caught his eye.

There was a new picture of the bereaved student, posted by a friend, on the beach in Panama City, Fla. Mr. Nokes, who had suspected as much, decided not to say anything. "I guess it's not the first time I've been lied to by a student," he says. But "it was the first time I had a photograph."

A little clarification here -- in this story, the student was at the beach, not on the beach; i.e. he was at a bar on the beach, and the photo had a caption identifying it. The confusion is probably my fault, however, not Sara Lipka's, because she called twice, and the second time I spoke to her I forgot about which incident I had told her, and started telling her a slightly different story. In fact, variations on this story have happened a couple of times -- usually it's students at Panama City Beach claiming to be sick or at a funeral. When I switched stories midway through (and at one point I think I started talking about a female student, when the original had been a male), Lipka and I had a moment of confusion. I think for a moment she thought I might be making it up. Alas, I was not.

My only regret about the article is that she doesn't call the News Feed by its more common epithet (around my campus, anyway): the stalker feed. Whether you want to be a stalker or not, Facebook is going to force that status on you.

*If you are an academic and don't read the Chronicle, what exactly is your major malfunction?

Saturday, December 01, 2007

The Right Hand of Beowulf

As a counter-point to "The Left Hand of Beowulf," I offer Raymond Ibrahim's "Anti-Christian Crusade" from National Review Online. I would suggest that the anti-Christian themes in Beowulf are muddled, and not nearly so clear as Ibrahim is arguing, but since Ibrahim can be used as ammunition against Jeffery Hodges, I will instead take the position that the article is unassailably brilliant.