Saturday, December 31, 2005
Friday, December 30, 2005
A Preview of Coming Attractions
And that grindstone is spinning fast and hard. December is rarely any kind of real break for English profs ... we're working like dogs from Thanksgiving to the end of semester, followed by the frantic attempt to catch up on personal things (such as Christmas shopping and decorating) before the holiday, and immediately after Christmas each year we've got the MLA conference -- then back to the office to prepare for the new semester.
So, looking ahead at the coming semester, what sorts of things can you expect to find me blogging about? With what is on my plate now, likely topics will be:
- Applying study of the history of the English language to TESOL studies. I'll be lecturing on that in Korea in about two weeks (at Pusan University of Foreign Studies). For my Korean readers, I'm not sure whether or not the lectures will be open to the public, since I am giving them to graduate classes. I'll primarily be speaking in English -- sorry to disappoint those who wanted a chuckle at my poor Korean.
- The relationship between medieval literature and the postmodern. I'm writing an article dealing with that issue for Global Perspectives on Medieval Literature and Culture (which I'm also editing with Noel Kaylor).
- Medievalism in the Harry Potter series. I'm talking with my old friends at Backstage at the Theatre of the Mind right now on delivering a paper (popular, not scholarly) at InConJunction -- which will be Harry Potter themed this year. This is all part of my attempt at re-shaping what it means to be a "public intellectual."
- Undergraduate research. I'm chairing the Chancellor's Fellowship Committee again, and we reward money to undergraduate and graduate students for research. Note to junior faculty: if you ever get a chance to get on a committee that gives out money for student research, take it. It is very rewarding.
- Discussing the relationship between pre-Columbian literature and medieval literature. This is an article idea still in formation, so we'll have to see what it grows into, if anything.
- Tolkien and medieval philology. I'm giving a paper on the topic at PCA.
- -Blogging and medieval studies. Well, OK, I know I'm always blogging on that at least indirectly, but I'll be on a panel on the topic at the International Medieval Congress this year, so I'll probably blog at bit on it both to get my ideas together, and to provide fodder for discussion there.
- -Topics arising. One likely topic -- how to avoid a nervous breakdown while pursuing this vigorous a schedule. Yeesh!
Anyway, feel free to comment on which of these issues you'd like to hear more about.
Friday, December 23, 2005
Thursday, December 22, 2005
Unemployment Low According to Nokes Standard
I have therefore developed the Nokes Standard for measuring economic health. Simply stated, the Nokes Standard is: The health of the economy has an inverse relationship to the quality of service I receive at restaurants.
Here's the way I figure it: When the economy is poor, you may have lots of people unemployed or underemployed. In this situation, otherwise diligent people can find themselves taking service jobs to make ends meet. These people tend to offer a better quality of service, partially because of their work ethic and partly because of economic anxiety that causes them to fear for their jobs.
When the economy is in good condition and unemployment is low, employers at the food service end of the spectrum have to scramble to keep whatever employees they can. People who are slow, surly, lazy, and unkempt might otherwise be fired, but employers hold on to them simply because they need another warm body. This principle has already been well established by the Looney Toons cartoon "A Pest in the House." Therefore, in a good economy, the labor at the bottom end tends to offer poor service.
Given the quality of service we received while travelling up I-65 all day yesterday, the economy must be very, very good indeed -- at least in the South and Midwest. The only way the economy could be demonstrably better would have been if the waitresses had actually spit in our faces.
Monday, December 19, 2005
Hooray! I'm a porn site!
While I cannot promise unlocked teen sex (whatever that might be) here in this blog, I can promise that no locked teen sex will be found herein.
Just so people will not be disappointed, I'll provide this link to some descriptions of sexual dialogue between newlyweds. Actually, I recommend reading the whole book, not just the dirty parts.
Coconut Monkey Re-Run
Writing for Non-Native Speakers
I always forget how much harder it is to write for non-native speakers of English. When I'm writing for Korean medievalists, I can be more free-wheeling, since you don't become a professor of medieval or early modern English unless you are already pretty proficient in modern English; I don't know of any other organization in Korea with English as good as MEMESAK (the Medieval and Early Modern English Studies Association of Korea), for example. The least of their members has English far superior to what my Korean could ever be.
Speaking to an audience of people not long past their BA's, though, is another proposition. Things to avoid: narrow cultural allusions, phrasal verbs, academic jargon, long clauses, etc. It makes writing a lot slower going -- I'm working at about one hour per page, when (in the right mood) I can usually double that rate for an English-speaking audience.
On the plus side: I get to talk about the Korean gangster movie Chingoo. Somehow I doubt I could make reference to that film to many other audiences.
Sunday, December 18, 2005
More on Evil American Stem Cell Researchers
As I said here, the allegations need only be possible, not plausible. It need not survive Occam's Razor, it merely needs to offer a figleaf to the country.
I once had a student who turned in a plagiarized paper. When I confronted her, she claimed to have written it herself. When I showed her the identical published version, she still claimed to have written it herself the night before. I asked if she was suggesting that somehow a columnist had hacked into her hard drive the night before and stolen her paper, she agreed that it must be the only explanation. When I pointed out that the article had been published some years before she claimed to have written it, she still asserted that the columnist must somehow have stolen it from her. When I asked if she was claiming that he had somehow stolen it from her in the future, she confirmed that the time-travelling columnist hacker must be what had happened. When I suggested that she might want to find a lawyer to sue the time-travelling-hacking-plagiarizing columnist, she proclaimed that it was exactly what she was determined to do. She strode out of my office with the ostensible purpose of filing a lawsuit against the columnist.
It does not matter how stupid the story is: "That's my story and I'm sticking with it" is a powerful lie through which liars enable others to pretend to believe them. There's nothing particularly Korean about that reaction -- in my own experience, I've seen it in every country in which I've lived. If Hwang can somehow get around his previous accusation of another Korean (Roh) and find some way to blame Americans (or even better, Americans and Japanese), enough people will convince themselves it is true that he might be able to escape most negative consequences.
Friday, December 16, 2005
Cloning, Nationalism, and Faked Data
Questions about whether or not the data was faked seem to now be over, and now the fingerpointing begins about who faked the data. For more on all of this, Gypsy Scholar has several posts, and here are a few English-language articles from The Korea Times, The Korea Herald, JoongAng Daily, and Chosun Ilbo, which should give a flavor of what the debate is like in Korea.
The complicating factor here is nationalism. The Korean press and politicians both highlighted Hwang's research as a sign that Korea was on the forefront of biological research. Hwang was transformed into a national hero, with his own fan club and all sorts of celebrity perqs. Every political figure in Korea wanted to be photographed with a cute baby on one arm and Hwang on the other. He is regularly referred to as a "national treasure." In other words, speaking ill of Hwang in Korea was rather like calling for the outlawing bald eagles, baseball, and Mom would be in America.
Even before the total meltdown last night, it was clear to all non-Korean observers that something was terribly wrong. Koreans, though, refused (and many continue to refuse) to believe that Hwang had done anything unethical. I heard breathless talk of American conspiracy to discredit Korea, mostly focused on the fact that the American co-author was the first to pull his name from the article. Korean news organizations that reported on the controversy were chastized as muckrakers and rumor-mongers, possibly under the influence of foreign conspirators.
Hwang could have gotten away with it, even now, except that he made a terrible miscalculation: he blamed another Korean. Now that fingerpointing is primarily one Korean pointing at another. The country feels a terrible wound to its national pride.
If Hwang really wants to get out of trouble, he'll have to start blaming some of the foreign scientists who worked on the project. It doesn't matter whether or not such allegations are plausible; all they must be is possible. Korea needs a way to save face, and blaming foreigners jealous of Korean success is the most natural way.
In the end, it seems to me, Korea will find some way to salvage their pride. If he's not careful, that way might be the public flogging of one Hwang Woo-Suk.
Wednesday, December 14, 2005
Charlie Brown Christmas
Though the show aired before I was born, here is evidence that CBS has been run by idiots long before Dan Rather was king there. According to this USA Today article, CBS execs didn't like it because it had no laugh track, used real kids voices, had Guaraldi's jazz soundtrack, and had a longish Scripture quotation.
Newsflash! These are the things that make it great. Now tell me, really, who can hear the song "Linus and Lucy" without smiling? [BTW, I know the link there is slightly syntho-lame, but it's all I had.]
The genius of the show is to allow Charlie Brown to be as lost about Christmas as everyone else. His cry, "Isn't there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?!" is a beautifully crafted double-entendre, standing in both for the frustration of those who are lost and depressed during the holiday, and those who know what it is about but see no representations of Christmas in the culture.
Watch A Charlie Brown Christmas before heading out shopping again.
Monday, December 12, 2005
The Big Questions
Of the four possible reasons he suggests, I suspect the third is the primary reason, though I wouldn't go so far as to call it the "third rail." I don't think dealing with such questions will kill your career, but it won't get you anywhere either. Connor writes:
Senior colleagues don’t encourage it; professional journals don’t publish
it; deans don’t reward it and a half dozen disgruntled students might sink your
tenure case with their teaching evaluations.
While there are no rewards, I'm not sure that dealing with "Big Questions" is likely to leave one with disgruntled students. Connor's own research suggests that the students aren't the problem -- all the professors and administrators are:
But there was wide agreement that other big questions, the ones about meaning,
value, moral and civic responsibility, were in eclipse. To be sure, some
individual faculty members addressed them, and when they did, students responded
powerfully. In fact, in a recent Teagle-sponsored meeting on a related topic,
participants kept using words such as “hungry,” “thirsty,” and “parched” to
describe students’ eagerness to find ways in the curriculum, or outside it, to
address these questions.
I think this thirst is very real, as I mentioned here. And I try to deal with the Big Questions in class. For the most part students respond well, and why not? When you are nineteen years old, there seems to be no reason to learn the plotline and major characters of The Odyssey -- but the need to understand Telemakhos's struggle to learn "What does it mean to be a man?" seems pressing indeed. They are often moved when they learn that the answer Homer gives is that a real man leaves the sex nymph behind and returns home to his wife and kids.
Saturday, December 10, 2005
More on Maugrim
Well, ask and ye shall receive. Regular reader Ian M. Slater wrote in about that history:
The substitution of Fenris Ulf for Maugrim is an interesting example of a
highly specific, externally verifiable, allusion, replacing Lewis' own
invention. (There is apparently no source for "Maugrim," although I was once
under the impression that a version of "Reynard the Fox" had something
There were a few others, plus some other changes, all of which are
documented in (the successive editions of) Paul F. Ford's "Companion to
Narnia" (1980 and following). The 1994 edition decried the announced change
from the American to British texts, and he continued to protest in the new
(2005) Fifth Edition.
Ford makes a good case that (barring some actual errors) the revisions were
made by Lewis in galleys, and were deliberate improvements, in some cases
responses to observations by readers; and worth preserving.
In connection with Fenris, he points out that Norse material was injected
into LWW at another point -- a substitution of "the World Ash Tree" for "the
fire stones of the sacred hill" in one of the White Witch's comments. The Norse
element in the whole book seems to have been made a little more overt, as if to
counterweight the existing, very obvious, classical material.
Not everyone agrees that any or all of the changes in the American editions
were improvements. See Ford's note to his "World Ash Tree" entry for a defense
of the original reading there.
I think that they were; or most of them. And it is not as if Lewis was given
to second-thoughts, and frequent tampering!
My opinion in favor of Fenris and the World Ash is probably shaped by the
fact that I read the American text while in sixth or seventh grade, and
recognized and enjoyed the allusions. I recall being surprised a bit later that
they were not present in the Puffin paperback, which was otherwise far and away
the most attractive edition I had seen, and checking against a library copy to
be sure that I had remembered correctly.
And it wasn't as if I was giving Lewis the sort of close reading I did with
the Ace and Ballantine texts of "Lord of the Rings." Ford points out at
least one textual corruption in the Puffin "The Last Battle" which changes
the whole impression of a passage, and which I never noticed. (Lucy's
typically compassionate appeal for the "poor, stupid, dwarfs" became just
"stupid dwarfs," which is much less effective as a plea for mercy, if not
Just to add one small note, "Maugrim" might not have a specific source, but it seems to me an obvious conflation of the germanic words "maw" and "grim." Maw might be a bit archaic nowadays; in the Anglo-Saxon leechbooks "maw" seems to refer to the stomach more than the mouth, though I take it to mean the digestive tract from mouth to stomach. The allusion, then, is more philological than mythological.
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe Review
LWW, happily, was a genuine pleasure for all of us. If you have children and want something to do together, this is perfect. My six-year-old was literally on the edge of his seat for the entire film. And, yes, I'm using the word "literally" correctly here -- he spent more than two hours perched at the very front edge of the seat, leaning forward, mouth slightly open. While the rest of us managed to sit in a more dignified position, we all took a similar degree of delight.
Comparisons to LotR
OK, let's get this out of the way -- no doubt people are going to be asking whether it was of the quality of Jackson's Lord of the Rings adaptation. No,it is not, but this should not be taken as a particular criticism, since I regard LotR as the most important film(s) of this century, and the best film series ever. Yes, better than Godfather or Star Wars. Saying that LWW isn't at the level of LotR is like scoffing at Warren Buffett because he doesn't have as much money as Bill Gates. LWW is not LotR, but it is very good.
Quality of Adaptation/Changes to the Storyline
The film is quite faithful to the storyline. Most of the changes are aimed at bringing the pacing in line for the film: for example, the children spend quite a bit more time barely escaping wolves than in the book, where the White Witch's minions are generally hours behind them, rather than seconds.
Interestingly, the film opens with a bit in London during the blitz. At first I thought that it was intended to explain to children (and uneducated adults) why this un-orphaned children were going off to the country to live with an eccentric professor, but instead the film parallels the war in Narnia with WWII. The allegory of the film, then, acts on two levels -- the Christian allegory of redemption, and England's struggle in WWII. There is even a very faint salute to the RAF when the first line of defense for the forces of good turns out to be griffins.
One really interesting change (for Americans) -- Fenris Ulf's name has been changed back to "Maugrim" as it was in the original British editions. I don't know the history of why the name was changed for Americans; it seems an odd change to make.
Oh, yes ... my friend Les will be happy to know that they kept the description of Aslan as "not tame" but "good," though they moved it to a much different part of the story.
The overall look of the film was a little uneven -- more on the level of the recent Star Wars films than on the level of LotR. A couple of shots were obviously "green screen" shots. Peter and Edmund's weapons and armor stayed remarkably bright and clean throughout the battle, while Susan and Lucy's clothes showed signs of being worn all night during their vigil over Aslan.
The creature effects were well done. They tended to approach photorealism when the creatures were not doing anything extremely un-animalesque; e.g. when the beavers are running, they look like beavers, but when they grin, they look like cartoon characters. The centaurs were really very impressive, and I found myself anticipating a confrontation between a centaur and a minotaur -- a confrontation that eventually took place, though too briefly for my tastes.
I was surprised to find that my favorite "look" was that of the White Witch. In the first half of the film, I was unimpressed. She did not appear to be Jadis to me. She looked like ... well, like a pale actress in costume. Not that I wanted terrified children screaming from the theater, but she didn't look scary to me when she was angry.
In the battle scenes, though, it is clear what they are going for -- she is a Valkyrie. At one point I half expected her to start humming Wagner. Her dual-wielding is believable enough that we share in the expectation that anyone stupid enough to come near her will be cut down. If Dorothy tried dropping a house on this witch, the house would come out on the losing end. The Germanic Valkyrie look brought my mind back to the WWII allegory again. Very, very well done.
The Witch is great ... but I just went over that.
Georgie Henley, who plays Lucy, was just cute enough without lacking authenticity. IMDb lists Narnia as her only credit -- let's hope that fame doesn't turn her into Haley Joel Osment. She gives probably the best performance in the film. Skandar Keynes does well with the difficult role of Edmund. Anna Popplewell, who has a last name that is fun to say, seemed like she might be about two years too old to play Susan -- no matter how many 1940's children skirts they put her in, they couldn't quite hide the fact that she's pushing adulthood. I thought her more the age of Susan in Prince Caspian -- just on the cusp of womanhood. William Moseley does a passable job as Peter, and looks young enough -- even though IMDb has him being born in 1987, he doesn't seem old enough to shave.
I found the look of Professor Kirke a little personally disturbing, since I suddenly realized that I had pictured him in my mind's eye as looking exactly like Kurt Vonnegut Jr. Why Vonnegut? Dunno ... I'm sure neither Lewis nor Vonnegut would be thrilled by the association.
I thought Liam Neeson was very weak as Aslan. First off, his voice sounded neither particularly lion-like nor Christ-like to me. Second, he seemed to be phoning in his performance. Fortunately, Aslan has very few lines, so viewers aren't likely to notice that he's not putting forth much effort.
I've made a few references to allegory already, but let me close by talking about the ways in which the Christian allegory is handled. The film allows the allegory to be carried in the plotline, without inserting a lot of visual cues to the Christian themes -- so you don't have a lot of things like Aslan's body in a crucifiction pose or the Stone Table casting a cross-like shadow or anything. Some may take this as an attempt to soft-pedal the Christian themes, but I thought it a wise decision; contemporary audiences have a limited taste for bold allegory. Anyone too dim-witted to see Aslan as a Christ figure isn't going to "get it" because of a few shots -- heck, if you still don't get it in the end, you probably wouldn't get it if Aslan wore a sign reading "Christ." The light touch seems the best way to go.
Tuesday, December 06, 2005
English as a Field
I'm not sure I share in her pessimism. The old ways are collapsing, and I can't tell you how many young scholars have told me that they have a sense that something new fresh is in the air. True, Theory often acted more as a stake driven at the heart of the discipline rather than thoughtful discussion about the nature of critique ... whether the age of High Theory did more good or ill to literary studies remains to be determined by not-yet-born scholars of the future. The post-Theory era will, I suspect, not be a return to the pre-theory era, but will instead follow a more Hegelian path, being a synthesis. In words, I suspect we are entering an era that is post-Theory but not post-theory.
Soltan quotes Andrew Delbanco as saying,
The even sadder news is that although students continue to come to the
university with the human craving for contact with works of art that somehow
register one’s own longings and yet exceed what one has been able to articulate
by and for oneself, this craving now, more often than not, goes unfulfilled,
because the teachers of these students have lost faith.
I would expand this idea to the culture at large. People want to talk about art; they need it. Scholars often bemoan film adaptations of books (e.g. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe) as dumbed-down culture, evidence of a degraded society incapable of grappling with non-visual media. But I'm not so sure. Oh, of course there is a dummy Cliff's Notes element to some of the audiences for these films, but for the others: where else is someone going to find a sustained an accessible critique of a work if not in film?
Too often by writing and speaking in Literary Cant scholars have made their scholarship inaccessible. The problem is not hyper-specialization per se, because we need specialization to express new ideas to other specialists. The problem is that too many scholars are incapable of dealing with subject matter in which they are not specialized. We have drawn the line between the generalist and the specialist too boldly; the ideal scholar is both.
So we shut people out from literature, telling them, in effect, that they are too dumb to get it. People have to find their critique in places like Oprah's Book Club and film adaptations.
Still don't believe me? Let me point out that the most viewed pages on the Unlocked Wordhoard of late have been dealing explicitly with issues of literary critique. The commenters are primarily not English-professor-types -- they are just smart folks out there who want to be involved in extended discussion of literature without being shut out by Literary Cant or condescended to by babytalk.
The hunger for the discipline is out there; I see it every day. When English departments can remember that our job is to feed minds hungry for the language, we'll turn the corner into something fresh and exciting.
More details on "Beowulf the Legend"
What I'm wondering is how long it takes to run through 36 episodes. I think I can find people to play it with me if a game lasts no more than 30-45 minutes, but if it is always a 6 hour+ Risk or Monopoly type of game, there's no point in me getting one.
Monday, December 05, 2005
Beowulf the Legend
Maybe I'll ask Santa for one.
[Update: I just heard an oblique reference to this blog on the audio commentary. Number One included this haiku by Angelie Sailor-Anderson (if I'm spelling it right):
Open wide, Wordhoard
Wake fame of that hero
whose heart burst in the fire
You read Beowulf 3 times? Really...?
Now, I don't really care whether she likes it or not -- there's no accounting for taste, as the cliche goes. What I find irritating is that after three readings of the book, she STILL gets it wrong. Two of the answers that are supposed to lead to Beowulf shouldn't. For those of you not so good at math, that means that if she were to have taken her own test on the book she would have scored only a C.
The two wrong question/answers:
pick a setting you like:
england in the middle ages
Please note that Beowulf is not set in England, none of the action takes place in England, and it contains no characters from nor any mention of England. How about "denmark in the middle ages" or, more accurately, "scandinavia in the middle ages?" It is written in English, but that's not the setting.
The other wrong answer:
if you were a book, who would most likely read you?
students in brit lit I (middle english to 1600)
Since the book is written in Old English (not, in fact, Middle English), a class from Middle English (1066) to 1600 would not study Beowulf.
Those are the questions that are objectively wrong. Two that are subjectively wrong:
why do people hate you?
... because I find that most of my students struggle with the digressions more than any perceived repetitions, and
what would make you WORSE?
if i were not translated out of my original language
... because Beowulf is much cooler in the original language -- especially since it contains my favorite pun in Old English. No matter how many times I read it, I always laugh when Hrothgar commands his people to decorate Heorot Hall "with hond."
So, Laura, sorry, but you still receive a C-. Try reading Liuzza's edition of Beowulf, and maybe you'll like it better. Give Beowulf another chance. Fourth time's the charm!
Sunday, December 04, 2005
An Office Surprise
Well, not naked. He had socks, shoes, and a bandanna on his head.
Friday, December 02, 2005
A Great Place for a Supervillian Lair
If you live in a town called Rattenberg (pronounced "Rottenberg") that has no sunlight because the sun is blocked out by Rat Mountain, and someone comes up with a scheme involving giant mirrors -- it's time to move.
Really, now. Rottenberg? Rat Mountain? No sunlight? A mayor named "Wurzenrainer?" Not even Montgomery Burns would live there. I mean, this town is just over the top.
Thursday, December 01, 2005
Fresh Metaphor, Refreshing Simile
Carter and Wittgenstein must be ganging up on me, because just yesterday I took note of Wittgenstein writing "A good simile refreshes the intellect."
Let's treat simile as a sub-species of metaphor (which it is); I find the metaphor in these pronouncements on metaphor fascinating. I get the sense of metaphor as food and drink, both "fresh" and "refreshing."
Yes, that's it exactly. Metaphor is the food and drink of the mind.