Tuesday, November 29, 2005

George W. Bush Made Me Plagiarize

In this pseudonymous article in the Chronicle, the author offers a kind of apologia for his attempt at plagiarism -- and attempt that was aborted because the plagiarized material wasn't very good, not because (as will become apparent), the author had any integrity.

Summarizing the reasons he plagiarized:

1. He wasn't paid enough.
2. He thought academic life was becoming a rat race.
3. He felt like he wouldn't get the kind of academic job he wanted.
4. Famous people are sometimes dishonest
5. Honesty is outdated.

Despite the author's claim that "I do not seek to excuse mself on the ground that I live in an imperfect world," that's exactly what he does. The entire article is as dishonest as his plagiarized chapter. Let's examine his five reasons:

1. He wasn't paid enough -- This is just an excuse to gripe about TA pay. It is abysmal? Of course ... but it isn't like you are paid by the word or something. TA pay has nothing to do with plagiarism.
2. He thought academic life was becoming a rat race -- Again, possibly true, but why would you react to this by plagiarism? Why not dropping out? Is the philosophy that life is a rat race so you need to be the biggest rat out there? This is the reasoning of about every comic book supervillain.
3. He felt like he wouldn't get the kind of academic job he wanted -- See point 2.
4. Famous people are sometimes dishonest -- More on this disgusting section later.
5. Honesty is outdated -- Ah, relativism. If patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, relativism is the last refuge of an academic. Don't try to burden me with all your bourgeois "morals" and "ethics" and "standards," man. I'm a freebird!

The famous-people-are-dishonest section is possibly the most self-delusional part of the entire article. He tries to tie his plagiarism to some sort of political propriety on his part. He writes:

But there were other, deeper problems. The culture at large seemed pretty grim. Did it really reward integrity? Did the social institutions that we once considered sacrosanct still value honesty, hard work, fair play? Were politicians not manipulating the truth to persuade voters to support spurious causes, like unnecessary and poorly planned wars? Were business leaders, the mass media, or the clergy any better? It might seem like avoiding responsibility to blame my plagiarism on society, but we all take our cues about what is right or wrong from the people at the top of our worlds.

George W. Bush made me do it! Dan Rather made me do it! Bill Clinton made me do it! In other words, our pseudonymous friend wants to claim that his clear-sighted recognition that he is the moral superior of these famous people gave him the right to sin just a tiny bit.

I had a professor in graduate school who, when confronted with dishonesty, used to like to say "liars lie to themselves first." Before lying to others, people usually try to convince themselves that what they say is the truth, or could be interpreted as the truth, or represents the Higher Truth. Our pseudonymous plagiarizer still wants to justify his dishonesty as a kind of fidelity to a higher truth.

If any of my students are reading this -- sorry, the "I'm not paid enough," "life is a rat race," and "Duke Cunningham took bribes" defenses aren't going to work for you, either.


I just noticed that when TTLB's Ecosystem changed the way it does its rankings, I dropped overnight from an "Adorable Rodent" to a "Crawly Amphibian," without even stopping at "Flappy Bird" or "Slithery Reptile."

The new system is supposed to curb inaccuracies due to trackback abuse. All know is that I've developed a taste for flies.


Hitchcock and Adult Sexuality

Kate Marie over at What's the Rumpus? has a post building on my comments regarding the lack of adult romance in contemporary films. In an aside she notes:

Though I think Nokes is dead on about Notorious, I might quibble with his characterization of Hitchcock in general. Yes, the characters in Hitchcock's films -- as opposed to characters played by DiCaprio -- act like adults, but often the relationships they form are stunted in some way.

I'll have to partially disagree with that. Yes, I think the characters very often have deep flaws in their sexual relationships, but these flaws are not merelystunted childishnessless; they are the kind of difficulties adolenscents are only beginning to grasp. Let me run through just a few of my favorites:

Shadow of a Doubt -- An interesting tale of a vampire doppleganger, with almost no supernatural element. More to the point, the incestuous sexual tension between Young Charlie and Uncle Charlie is far more palpable than that between Young Charlie and her FBI boyfriend. Hitchcock wonderfully opens with shots of Young Charlie and Uncle Charlie in beds in separate cities, simultaneously suggesting the psychic connection between them and the sexual attraction Young Charlie has for him -- after all, they are "in bed" together. Very few filmmakers can deal with the Electral attraction adolescent girls feel for older males in a way that is as tasteful as this film, yet still communicate the threat such attraction poses. Hitchcock gazes with an adult eye at adolescent infatuation.

Notorious -- I mentioned this one in the previous post, so in brief -- Cary Grant has utter contempt for Ingrid Bergman's character, and visa-versa, yet they cannot help falling in love. Even when hearing others refer to Bergman's reputation, Grant can only respond bitterly; he can't muster a defense of her. We also see the familiar Oedipal theme here with Claude Rains (as the Nazi) and his mother. And, I might note, Hitchcock actually manages to make us feel bad for the Nazi in the end.

Rear Window -- The voyeurism, of course. Throw in a little kinky bondage (the result of Jimmy Stewart's condition), a highly sexualized unmarried adult relationship (in 1954), AND they way that voyeurism distracts Stewart totally from his sexy girlfriend -- like football widows.

Psycho -- Oedipal threat, duh. The phallic knife in the shower, etc. Actually, I always find the sexuality in this one a little TOO over-obvious, and of course it gave us a whole genre of facile teen sex slasher films.

The Birds -- Of course, the Oedipal relationship between Rod Taylor and Jessica Tandy. Suzanne Pleshette has this interesting (non-sexual) relationship with Tandy that can only arise when she is no longer a romantic possibility for Taylor. The semi-obsession of Pleshette's character is fascinating too -- obsessed enough to move out to the boonies chasing this guy, but not enough to do more than still carry a torch for him. Tippi Hedren plays the lead as a rich girl completely infantilized -- so we again look at her childish behavior with adult eyes. I think there is an argument to be made the the film is more about the women clustered around Rod Taylor (including his sister) and they ways in which they negotiate their relationships than anything about birds.

...etc. These are just a sampling, and I haven't included such obvious ones as To Catch a Thief, Vertigo, and so forth. The only reason Hitchcock would have included someone like Meg Ryan in a film would have been to render her ridiculous. Yes, there is plenty of "stunted" characters (like Tippi Hedren in The Birds), but Hitchcock uses an adult eye to gaze at them.

You know, perhaps the whole "male gaze" buzzphrase in feminist film studies years ago would have been more interesting if it had been about the "child's gaze" or the "adult's gaze."

Monday, November 28, 2005

Tristan and Isolde on the Horizon

Number One over at Cinerati requested my comments on the forthcoming Tristan and Isolde film and the legend. I promised them too him, then got too busy with the holidays to write about it.

As of this writing, there is very little official about the movie. One of my students got a free poster that she passed on to me, and there is a fan site, but the official site is very short on detail. Much, then, of what I have to say about the film here is going to be partly speculative, and should be taken with an appropriate-sized grain of salt.

After having viewed the trailer and other marketing stuff, I'm not too hopeful about the film. It appears as if it is going to strip all of the interesting adult material out of the tale and make it simply another dog-tired movie about true love overcoming disapproving authority. Perhaps if I were a sixteen-year-old girl I'd find that exciting and fresh, but as someone old and jaded I recognize it as cliche and childish.

[As an aside here, why can't we have filmmakers today who portray ADULT romantic relationships, like Hitchcock used to do? Watch Notorious and see if you can stomach seeing Meg Ryan or Leonardo DiCaprio on the screen again]

Of course, the versions of Tristran and Isolde vary (as do the spellings of their names, e.g. Tristram, Iseult, etc), so I am sure the filmmakers can make a case that their particular movie is a relatively accurate adaptation of one version or another. My favorite versions of the tale deal with issues of the difficulties of love between two people, rather than the difficulties of love in the face of external opposition.

The McGuffin at the center of the Tristran and Isolde myth is a love potion. Generally, the pair drink the potion while Tristan is escorting Isolde to meet her fiance King Mark, and naturally trouble ensues. What differs is what happens before and after. Most of the time, Tristan has been (apparently) mortally wounded when he meets Isolde, and she nurses him back to health. In some versions, they fall in love, but their love is severely tested with Isolde discovers that Tristan has killed one of her kin.

In my favorite versions of the story, though, Isolde and Tristan do not fall in love then, and Isolde is filled with hatred for Tristan when she discovers he has been the enemy of her family. Also, in some versions of the tale the love potion isn't permanent -- it only lasts for a particular period of time, such as seven years. The temporary love potion is also my favored McGuffin.

Why? Because if they are not in love before they drink the potion, and the effects of the potion are known to be temporary, we get a much more interesting and adult exploration of love. Image you are one of the lovers and you drink such a potion. Now you are really and truly in love with the other person, and are unwilling to help yourself. Intellectually, however, you know that the love is drug-induced, not natural -- but that doesn't stop it from feeling real. Yet you cannot simply shrug, say "oh well," and abandon yourself to the love of the person, because you know that in seven years the potion will stop working and presumably your love will die. Your love has an expiration date.

These versions of the tale intrigue me more because they deal with real adult issues. Who among us hasn't ourselves (or seen a close friend) loved someone whom they knew to be bad for them? Intellectually, you understand that the object of your love is someone you should hate -- and yet you do not. By the same token, how many of us have entered into a relationship with a lover that we knew could never last?

Sometimes the Tristan and Isolde myth is silly and trite, while other times it is powerful and adult. I fear the coming film may be the former.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Hooray! I'm Livier than the Dead!

I just realized today that my ranking on TTLB Academy is still at 16, but that Public Brewery has fallen below me.

Why should I care about being above Public Brewery? Because Brewer has been on hiatus since October 15th, and it is rather embarrassing to be ranked below a blog that hasn't been updated for over a month.

Of course, by linking to Public Brewery in this post, I'll probably knock it back up a notch above me.

Intention: What Did He Know, and When Did He Know It?

I'm a bit surprised by how interested in authorial intentionality people are; I posted "Intentionally Omitted" primarily to clarify what Drout, Hodges and I were dancing around for the One Ringers. The comments have been interesting, especially as a window into how minds work when they are grappling with intentionality.

I wanted to address the issues raised by Chris of Nihil Fit in one of his comments. Chris wrote:

Although it may be the case that it is difficult to determine the author's intent, it does not follow that such a project is impossible, nor does it follow that the author's intent is irrelevant (a strong claim probably not intended by Nokes). Can't we infer something about intent from examining the original context/audience?

First off, let's give Chris points for cleverness in questioning what I "intended" in my post -- he made me laugh harder than anyone else that day. I do think, however, that the intent of the author is almost irrelevant -- i.e., it can tell us a few things about meaning, but those things are not extraordinarily important (more about this in a bit).

I find that, in general, epistemological concerns often result in unwarranted skepticism and even worse, metaphysical conclusions. [...] Just because we can't have Cartesian certainty about a matter doesn't mean there is no truth about that matter. We should apporach each work on a case-by-sace basis, asking what we can discern about intent, rather than embracing a paradigm that dismisses such concerns altogether.

My first post primarily dealt with epistemology and intention (for those of you playing at home, epistemology is the theory or study of knowledge -- basically how we know things). Chris is right to protest that Cartesian uncertainty tells us little about whether or not a matter is true (plus, as a medievalist, I'm not particularly beholden to de Cartes anyway).

Let's grant, though, Cartesian certainty. Let's say that scientists at MIT have come up with an Intention-o-meter (patent pending) that is able to detect and measure authorial intention to an exactness of four decimal points. We have absolute Cartesian, epistemological certainty, right?

Well, not really, because our Intention-o-meter (patent still pending) only tells us what the author intended -- it does not follow that the author's intention determines meaning for a text. In other words, even if I know EXACTLY why the author of Gilgamesh decided to make him 2/3 god and 1/3 man instead of some other fraction, it probably doesn't affect the meaning of the text significantly. I take from it the idea that Gilgamesh was more god than man, regardless.

Let me give you another example. The other day one of my colleagues was telling the tale of a freshman essay he received, describing a child afflicted with "Attention Defecate Disorder" [sic].
Now, I can state with reasonable certainty that the author intended to write "Attention Deficit Disorder," and simply made an error. OK, so why did I laugh why my colleague told me? Why did you laugh when you read it?

Because we recognize that meaning is not held in the author's intentions. The meaning of the text is that the child has some sort of bizarre disorder, perhaps an inordinate interest in scatology. If we challenge the writer, she's probably argue, "Yes, but what I meant to say was...", conflating the idea of meaning with intention. If meaning were actually held in intention, though, the phrase "Attention Defecate Disorder" wouldn't be funny; it would just be a spelling error. We laugh because intention and meaning are radically disconnected.

Of course, intention is not always completely irrelevant. I assume my colleague wrote a wry comment next to the error and proceeded as if the paper had expressed the idea correctly. Manuscript study relies often on figuring out scribal intentions by using errors in the copying of texts to determine a manuscript's geneology. Still, when we edit a text we often correct it -- the very act of correction implying that the meaning of the text can be disconnected from the author's intention.

Rather than belabor the point any further, let me simply offer an example of two very similar texts: Frankenstein and Dracula (the books, not movies). Frankenstein works best when Shelley know exactly what she is doing; Dracula works best when Stoker loses control of what he is doing and lets his anxieties take over.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Daly, and Adjuncts as Professors

This is news? Though the academic blogosphere hasn't exactly been a-buzz about it, cable and radio news has made a fuss of late about John Daly's nasty e-mail to a student about her politics.

In case you missed the story, Professor John Daly of Warren Community College sent a nasty e-mail to freshman Rebecca Beach about her involvement with a lecture by some Iraq War veterans. Some of the dirtiest bits come at the end, in which he writes:

I will continue to expose your right-wing, anti-people politics until groups like your won't dare show their face on a college campus. Real freedom will come when soldiers in Iraq turn their guns on their superiors and fight for just causes and for people's needs [...]

If the "professors hate America" storyline weren't enough, Daly essentially calls for acts of treason and murder. It doesn't hurt either that Beach is very attractive and telegenic. Nevertheless, it seems to me that this story is far too trivial for the coverage it has received. The media is behaving as if Daly were the next Ward Churchhill. Hardly -- at best he's a Ward Molehill.

Daly is a professor, all right -- he's an adjunct professor. For those who aren't in academe, let me explain what this means: Daly is a part-time employee with an M.A. teaching a few freshman writing classes ... at a community college. In other words, he's very, very, very far down the academic totem pole. Making a news story about this e-mail is roughly the equivalent of calling hell-and-damnation down on all Do-It-Yourself projects because one Home Depot clerk made a snotty comment to you. Is it unprofessional? Yes, of course. Is it worth much concern? Not really; you can find hateful kooks on any streetcorner.

Now the above might sound like an awfully snobby dismissal of adjuncts (the majority of whom work their butts off) and community colleges (which too often get denigrated because of the word "community"), but my point is that this wasn't any angry e-mail from the president of an opinion-making school. 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.

By the way, the real scandal is that an English professor produced such a poorly-written e-mail. I mean, my e-mails (and blog posts) have their fair share of surface errors, but the e-mail is just rhetorically horrific.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Fahrenheit Moratorium

I plead with Hollywood (and the Sundance-types too):

Let us declare a voluntary moratorium on the use of the word "fahrenheit" or "celsius" in titles of films or descriptions of them. And, just in case you are considering trying to weasel around the moratorium, let's throw in "centigrade" as well, just in case.

While we're at it, let's declare a voluntary moratorium on more Rocky films. Please!

Friday, November 18, 2005

Don't Fear the Blogger

Since Blogrolling isn't working (again), for your surfing pleasure I send you to Poliblog where Dr. Taylor has revised a Blue Oyster Cult classic.

Don't try singing it aloud -- the meter is messed up -- so just enjoy the satire.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Kleinman on Philology and Tolkien

I just realized that my post of a few days ago linking to Scott Kleinman's comments about the "Wapentake" and philology thread somehow got lost in the wilds of the internet.

So here, again, is a link to Scott Kleinman's post entitled "Tolkien's Use of 'Weapontake'" from his blog Mern ├×onke.

Sorry, Scott. I didn't mean to snub you.

Barriers and Academic Blogging

Slate has an interesting article on academic blogging entitled "Attack of the Career-Killing Blogs." The piece is largely pro-blog (at least the academic variety) arguing that "academic blogging represents the fruition, not a betrayal, of the university's ideals."

One of the quotes that most interested me was from John Holbo, who argued that the problem with blogs is the lack of peer-review, stating, "It is utterly absurd to propose giving someone credit for activity with no barriers to entry."

I'll have to disagree with his claim that it is absurd; in fact, the absurdity lies in the idea that credit may only be given to things that have barriers to entry. He has (apparently unintentionally) hit upon one of the primary problems of academic publishing: that the barriers are more important than the ideas. Ideally, the quality of the arguments should be judged by, er, the quality of the arguments, not how hard it is to get published.

Take, for example, the PMLA (Publication of the Modern Language Association). Publication in PMLA is relatively prestigious, since the article will be widely distributed to all MLA members. Grad students would love to have their High Theory piece published in PMLA. As a result, the barriers to entry into PMLA are very, very high. You'd think, then, that articles in the PMLA would be some of the most influential in the field, wouldn't you?

But, no, they're not. Don't get me wrong -- PMLA publishes lots of very, very smart stuff. But no one cites a PMLA article in their papers. I've never cited one in any paper, whether orally delivered in a conference or published. I've done lots of editing (both medieval and modern), and have never seen the PMLA cited. Presumably someone, somewhere, has cited the PMLA. The stuff in the PMLA is often smart, but it doesn't have an influence on par with its distribution.

In fact, although tenure and promotion committees rely on peer reviewers to vet the arguments of individual articles (T&P committees have neither the time nor the field expertise to do so themselves reliably), barriers to publication tend to be as political as intellectual. When you reach a certain point in your career, scholarly barriers to publication fall away and are replaced by the limitations of time.

Take my own case. I have three book projects at the moment, in various levels of completion. One is sitting on my desk in camera-ready form ready to go to the printer, one is in the process of having the individual articles edited, and for one the deadline for articles hasn't yet arrived. In all three cases, I was approached by someone else asking me to do the project with them. The only barrier is that of time (a 4/4 load doth not lend itself well to editing three books). The only articles I am working on at the moment were all requested, either as a request for a conference presentation or a request for a submission. The barriers to entry are all on the level of reputation -- once someone knew my reputation, they asked me to do some work for/with them.

Let's say someone publishes in a blog (or perhaps just on his own website) an article he has written. Let's then go on to say that the article, which is not peer-reviewed and is entirely self-published, becomes very influential. Should the scholar receive no credit for that?

Ideally, we would get credit for the quality of our ideas rather than the percieved barriers for publication. Of course, in the world of the practical, Holbo is right. My blog has more readers every day than the sum of readers of my articles in widely-distributed publications like Anglo-Saxon England and The Old English Newsletter. Yet I have no plan to put my blog on any T&P application, even under service; I recognize that although Unlocked Wordhoard is a key component to what I see as my academy duty to be a public intellectual, the academic community as a whole sees it as irrelevant.

Holbo's statement is absurd, and the absurdity is that it is true.

h/t Poliblog

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

North Korea's Motives

I had always suspected, but it took the Onion to confirm it.

Intentionally Omitted

In a post about error in texts, Drout points out that I seem to be talking obliquely (if one can talk obliquely) about authorial intent. Of course, he is right ... the original version of the post had a paragraph about authorial intent, but I omitted it from the final version because I wasn't sure it was fair to bring it in to a discussion involving The One Ring folks (who aren't really trained to know what "authorial intent" means, nor why it is out of favor). Since Drout brings it up, though, I'll address it here.

One of the folks over at The One Ring has an interesting post differentiating between serious study and serious reading, which he ends with "Tolkien put it there for his reader." My only suggested revision of his main argument is to consider serious study and serious reading merely two different points along the same line, rather than two entirely different things, as I am trying to get at here (in a post that was primarily critiqued by the blogosphere as being homoerotic in its use of "fanboy" -- not my "intention").

The second and lesser point, though, is that Tolkien intended his work for non-philogists, a claim that I'll grant for the sake of argument. The next question should be, do we care? Does Tolkien have the final say over his text? We call this appeal to what the author intended "authorial intention," and if you visit your library you can find shelf after shelf on the subject. Let me smush the argument down into something bite-sized here.

Intention seems to make sense at first glance; when I entered undergraduate school as a geeky young English major, I was an intentionalist (though I didn't know what to call it). I liked to point out that if the author were unimportant, why did some authors have multiple great works? Are books foundlings? Are they not crafted by authors? And, as such, shouldn't the author have final say over the meaning of the work?

When you start to examine intention more closely, though, you can see that it isn't held together all that well. For one thing, we might not know who the author is. Or perhaps we have a name, but know little else -- for example, other than a few legends we know almost nothing about Homer. We know very little about Shakespeare, and certainly not enough to know what he intended in such-and-such a line. Even though we have no practical connection to the intention of the author, we don't throw up our hands and claim that we can't figure out what the text means.

What about an author about whom we know a great deal, though? Even in this case, the "intention" can change. Let's take C.S. Lewis, for example. Publishers have recently re-ordered the books so that The Magician's Nephew is the first in the series (a stupid decision, if you ask me). The argument between the two sides is laid out here. The decision to re-order the books was justified by the intention of the author, primarily growing out of this quote:

'I think I agree with your order for reading the books more than with your mother's. The series was not planned beforehand as she thinks. When I wrote The Lion I did not know I was going to write any more. Then I wrote P. Caspian as a sequel and still didn't think there would be any more, and when I had done The Voyage I felt quite sure it would be the last. But I found as I was wrong. So perhaps it does not matter very much in which order anyone read them. I'm not even sure that all the others were written in the same order in which they were published.

This quote, though, rather than supporting the change, actually undermines the idea of intention. Lewis writes that the serious "was not planned beforehand," that he "did not know" he would write more, that he thought Prince Caspian and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader each would be the last, etc. The sentence But I found as I was wrong shows us that the intention of the author can change over time. The author may not even know what was intended.

Lewis isn't an odd case -- he's the norm. Walt Whitman kept revising and re-publishing Leaves of Grass over and over. William Blake (who is one of the few authors who could make a claim that his works weren't sullied by editors, except possibly Mrs. Blake) would move poems back and forth between Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. Tolkien (to take the author dearest to The One Ringers' hearts) didn't seem to know himself what "hobbit" was when he began The Hobbit, nor that Biblo's ring was really really really really eviiiiiil.

Of course, for the student of medieval literature, authorial intention isn't as much of a draw, because we often don't know who the author of a given work was -- which is the reason we refer to them as "the Beowulf poet" or "the Pearl poet." What do we know of Cynewulf beyond a name? Even when we know a great deal about an author, we are confronted with different ideas about authorship.

As I am fond of saying (my colleagues must be getting sick of hearing this), medieval scholars weren't as surprised to hear about the "death of the author," since we operate before the birth of the author.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Scholars and Fanboys

I've had a lot to write of late, but little time to do it. One of the books I'm editing has finally started moving again, so I've been able to turn attention to the individual articles. The last day for revisions of freshman composition papers was Friday, so I was buried under a stack of them. Finally, I wanted to use the three day weekend to make some repairs around the house. Progress on all fronts.

So, now I have time to blog again. In a post a little over a week ago, I made the following comment:

I can't think of another single modern author [other than Tolkien] for whom a deep understanding of medieval language or culture is a prerequisite to serious study.

Some folks over at The One Ring took exception to the idea that one has to be a philologist to study Tolkien. Drout weighed in; his comments can be reduced to "it takes all kinds to have a successful and living debate and discussion about the works of a dead author," though the larger argument is more nuanced than I've just made it out to be.

The original idea of the post was to defend modernists against the charge of snobbery against Tolkien; I felt that even though there is some justification to the charge of elitism, inexperience with philology was a more charitable interpretation.

The discussion over at The One Ring, then, seems to be less about the idea of philology, but more about the potential suggestion that those without training in philology should sit down, shut up, and listen to the Annointed Priests of Philology and Literature. Of course, that was not my intention -- though I can easily imagine some folks in academe taking that position.

What I meant by "serious study" could be teased out to mean "writing articles that will make a tenure and promotions committee happy" -- in other words, it was meant to underscore the distinction between literary scholarship and literary appreciation.

But is there a distinction? In the world of scholarly publication, such a distinction exists -- so if I say "such-and-such an author creates cool ways of looking at the world," I'm not going to get published, but if I say "such-and-such an author actualizes an ideology in conversation with the zeitgeist," I stand a better chance of publication, even though I'm saying essentially the same thing both times. Instead of "serious study," I probably should have written "serious professional study." Of course, now that medievalists have given sufficient cover to modernists, the modernists can publish on Tolkien without delving into philology at all.

But back to the original question: Is there truly a distinction between scholarship and appreciation, or is it simply a matter of being professionalized? When Drout writes,

we can differentiate between readings generated by the Philologist, the Fanboy/girl, the Modernist, the High-Culture Reader, the Movie-Obssessed Fan, the Film Critic, etc., etc. Each will bring something different to the table, and each will work within a different interpretive community and follow a different set of interpretive practices

... he seems to be talking about discursive communities. The model I prefer isn't a patchwork of communities, but a spectrum of appreciation, with the professional on the one pole and the amateur on the other.

When a Fanboy says, "I really liked that book because the hero seemed just like me," we recognize that as appreciation. When a professor says, "the text transgresses the generic norms to such a degree as to form a new genre," we recognize that as scholarship. Yet, in the end, both are saying the same thing: "The text works for such-and-such a reason." In fact, I think most scholarship boils down to this thought process:

-- Wow, that was cool.
-- Gee, I wonder what made it so cool?
-- Hmm, now that I think about it, I know what made it cool.
-- But how does that coolness work?
-- Ah, some guy has a theory for why things are cool. When I apply it here, you can REALLY see how cool it is.
-- Maybe I should write this down so other people can see how cool this is and enjoy it more.

Do that enough in an organized setting, and they'll give you a Ph.D. in literature -- but you are still a Fanboy at heart.

So, fear not, One Ringers ... we're all Fanboys here.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Pope and the Canon

No, not THAT Pope nor THAT canonization ... I mean Alexander Pope and the literary canon. As I'm re-working my lecture notes on Pope, I'm struck by how surprising it is that Academe still tolerates him. Pope always makes me laugh, but since the main thrust of his important works is to condemn things that happen to be the defining characteristics of Academe, I'm surprised more professors don't ignore him.

Take, for example, The Dunciad. At first glance, we might assume that Academe would applaud any poem puncturing dunces -- but the word "dunce" seems to have changed its meaning. When I think of a "dunce," I think of a stupid boy sitting in the corner of a one-room schoolhouse with a pointed cap on his head. A dunce in The Dunciad, though, seems to be more of a narrowly-educated pedant, unable to take a broader understanding of Knowledge. In other words, a dunce is ... a hyper-specialized professor, the very same type of person graduate schools tend to churn out intentionally. Regardless of whether Pope is right or not (and I think he is), why do we continue to teach someone who points out that we are dunces?

Or take Pope's comments on postmodernism. Well, ok, he wasn't really writing about postmodernity (unless he owned a time machine -- not an impossibility for Pope), but he may as well have. Take the opening of the fourth epistle of An Essay on Man:

Go, wiser thou! and, in thy scale of sense,
Weigh thy opinion against Providence;
Call imperfection what thou fanciest such,
Say, here He gives too little, there too much;
Destroy all creatures for thy sport or gust,
Yet cry, if man's unhappy, God's unjust;
If man alone engross not Heaven's high care,
Alone made perfect here, immortal there:
Snatch from His hand the balance and the rod,
Re-judge His justice, be the God of God.

Ouch! So Pope basically condemns the postmodern perception of truth -- a perception upon which not a few academic careers are (de) constucted. In a sense, this is not true relativism, since judgment is still possible, and opinions can be weighed against one another, but the stanza still ultimately condemns practical application of relativism.

So I like Pope, and plan to continue teaching him, but I wonder when Academe is going to realize that parts of it are condemned by Pope, mandating either a response or exile from the canon.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Mourier, Petrarch, and Me

In a post today over at Inside Higher Ed (which you folks in higher ed should be reading anyway), Scott McLemee comments in an introduction about the Mourier Hoax. He offers a slight revision, however, to my version of events:

But if you go to the archives of the departmental listserv in question, a slightly different picture emerges. Searching “Mourier,” you find no messages by unwary poseurs dropping Mourier’s name. One or two puzzled souls do confess that they’ve never heard of the author of Murmurs in the Cabaret: Finding Language through Noise (1951). Everybody else, however, is plainly goofing.

I stand by my account, but McLemee is right that some of the e-mails appear to be missing. I have paper copies of a few (bound into a humorous volume by a friend) that I can't find on the archives, and I clearly remember a few others (though they may be either phantoms of memory or simply direct e-mails). Perhaps the data is corrupt and lost, perhaps the thread heading changed ... who knows? McLemee was right about the point of the post, that it's "a cautionary tale about the danger of craving the au courant, even at the cost of making yourself ridiculous."

Just in case someone digs up some of the more embarrassing e-mails, though, let me offer a defense of the victims of the Mourier Hoax. I have been careful to excise names of people who were the worst offenders, having only mentioned the name of the guy who admitted he didn't know who Mourier was, since that frank admission demonstrates his intellectual virtue. I think it is important, however, to remember that the dupes were nearly all MA students, still finding their footing in theory. My guess is that many of them would not have made the same mistake if they were just a little more experienced.

So, in defense of them, let me offer up a story in which I play the fool -- the story of my first paper in graduate school.

That first semester, I took a class on Shakespeare from Arthur Marotti, a man who (as I was about to learn) doesn't suffer fools gladly, though he appears glad to make fools suffer. We had to write a short response paper on Shakespeare's sonnets. I worked very hard on the paper, wanting to make a good first impression in grad school. I don't remember much about the content of the paper, but I will take to my grave the memory of a single adjective buried in the paper: "Petrarchan."

In the first couple of classes, Marotti had referred to "Petrarchan imagery" and "Petrarch" several times, so I decided to throw in a reference to something being "Petrarchan" in the middle of the paper. It was not important to the paper, or even (really) to the sentence; it was just some filler that I thought sounded smart.

So, in the next class, Marotti went around the seminar table critiquing these papers. Some he praised, others he derided. When he got to mine, I swelled with pride, confident that he would recognize my genius, demand immediate publication of my paper in PLMA, and beg to be on my dissertation committee (hyperbole, but you get the idea of what a fool I was). Instead, he asked only one question: "Here on page two, you refer to this image as 'Petrarchan." What do you mean?"

The problem was that I had never read Petrarch. Not one word. Nothing. Nada.

So I decided to compound posturing with posturing. I tried to bluff my way out. Stupid move.

"Well, what I meant to say was that the image is reminiscent of Petrarch."
"How do you mean?"
"Er, well, if you look at the elements of Petrarch's poetry, and that of Shakespeare's poetry, you'll find they use similar imagery."
"What kind of imagery are you talking about here?"
"Um, well, I mean, see this image? It looks like something Petrarch would do!"

... and on and on. Soon, it became clear to everyone that I had no idea what I was talking about. Even the stupidest student in class that day could take comfort in knowing that he had made an honest mistake, and looked pretty good next to my transparent attempt at faking it. Finally, after about five full minutes of this, Marotti looked at my paper, looked at me, shook his head in disgust, and slammed it down on the table, moving on to the next student.

Two things came out of that incident. The first is that when I returned to the next class meeting, I knew a whole lot about Petrarch. The second is that I stopped trying to fake knowledge I didn't have. Of course, I made plenty more mistakes (and still do), but these are now honest mistakes. The lesson Arthur Marotti taught me was probably the single most important of my academic career, and I thank him for that.

So, if you go rooting through the listserv archives and find some less-than-brilliant emails by hoax victims, try to be charitable. Remember that they were still early in their education, and were just trying very hard to make a good impression. I know that I had a tendency to fake it early in my education, a tendency that I grew out of. I'm sure many of them did too.

[One more thing regarding McLemee's piece: I forgot to mention that "Henri Mensonge" was an occasional poster during the Mourier Hoax. And no, I was not Mensonge.]

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Porn for English Profs

OK, I admit it. Someone accused me of posting the books I wanted banned with the hidden agenda of creating a booklist without seeming like I was jumping on the bandwagon.


Booklists are pornography for English professors. If you invite an English professor to your home and leave the room even momentarily, our voyeuristic eyes will immediately stray to any bookshelves in that room. We'll begin to peruse the books, drawing judgments about you and your character from what is there ... or what is missing. If you are gone long enough, we'll begin to open the books and try to ascertain more about your character:

Ah, he highlights books. I always suspected he was of shallow character.

Hmm, writing in the margins. Lots of notes about Providence and free will. A deep thinker about religious matters.

Dog-eared many, many pages in this book ... perhaps she's a slow reader ... no, wait, it is Milton -- all the dog-eared pages means she savors her poetry.

Tsk. All leather bound books, bindings unbroken. And, look! The pages uncut!

Most of these books have stamps from used bookstores ... probably a voracious reader who can't satisfy his appetite on his budget.

The only Shakespeare is a copy of "Coriolanus?" Perhaps far more interested in political philosophy than religion.

Malory and Chretien de Troyes mixed in with Marion Zimmer Bradley books? What a delightful combination of high and popular culture!

... and so on. So you see how delicious it was when Joe Carter over at Evangelical Outpost listed his "50 Favorite Works of Imaginative Literature (20th Century)." From there, he had a link to a similar list at the Thinklings. Ooooh, and the trackback to someone commenting and re-categorizing Carter's list! Yes, I have Googled the phrase "favorite books list" many times.

So, English majors, when I step out of my office and leave you there, I know perfectly well what you are doing alone in that room. I know what the guilty look on your face means. You too are a book voyeur. I know because I share your perversion. The moment I stepped out of the room you were at my shelves, leafing through the pages, seeking insight into my soul. I too have peeked through the keyhole to gaze at the intellect displayed on the bookshelves of my family, friends, and colleagues. The compulsion defies resistance.

Let us gaze upon one another's bookshelves with pleasure undisguised and unashamed.

Drezner Update

Unsurprisingly, Daniel Drezner already has a new job. I'd like to repeat my plea to the University of Chicago to please hire me and deny me tenure -- just so long as it turns out for me as it did for Drezner.

Absent the extremely unlikely scenario that U of C will hire me for the express purpose of denying me tenure, I guess I'll have to go on writing articles and books and such. It's a lot of work, but at least it keeps me off the streets.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

More on Tolkien and Wapentake

My aside on Tolkien's use of wapentake has led to some really interesting and substantive posts at Gypsy Scholar and Wormtalk and Slugspeak. In an academic atmosphere that derides philology, we can easily forget its value. I wonder how much of that derision is a considered theoretical position, and how much of it is bravado obfuscating insecurity about philological ignorance?

That's why I'm thankful guys like Drout and Hodges are around -- it's nice to have company.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Reason on Eggheads

Reason magazine has an article entitled, "When Eggheads Gather" questioning whether the role of public intellectuals has diminished. Since I'm too tired to do a cogent analysis, let me just point out that in this paragraph ...

As intellectuals oscillate, they are just one cog in a complex series of media interactions influencing people's general attitudes: that between bloggers, between blogs and mainstream media outlets, between network stations, between network and cable stations, between tabloids and mainstream papers, and so on. The chafing is endless; the rivalries intense. Prospect's effort to focus on the top 100 intellectuals seems a tad anachronistic. Sometimes useful, sometimes irksome, the world's leading public intellectuals are not always that necessary.

... Michael Young seems to be folding public intellectuals into the general class of pundits. While that is not necessarily wrong, I think it reveals less than it intends, since in the above quote you replaced the word "intellectuals" with "bloggers," "blogs," "media outlets," "network stations," "cable stations," "tabloids," or "mainstream papers," the sentence still makes sense in exactly the same way. If we are going to be critiquing the role of public intellectuals at all, a more fruitful examination would treat them distinct from other forms of punditry. All he really ends up saying is that the influence of pundits waxes and wanes, and as a segment of the punditry so also does the influence of various public intellectuals.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Mmmm ... Kimchi is Parasit-o-licious!

An update on the Chinese ban on South Korean kimchi that Scribal Terror mentioned a couple of days ago:

It seems that about 3% of South Korean kimchi products contain parasite eggs. My two comments regarding this are,

1) Good. The less kimchi the Chinese eat, the more there is for me. My favorite kimchi is the more sour tasting from the South (Kyoung Nam Province area), so I'm considering starting a rumor that there are more parasites the further south one goes; and

2) Considering some of the things that Koreans (and for that matter, the Chinese who are doing the banning) eat on purpose, I hardly think parasite eggs are the most questionable. Live octopus, roasted larvae, sea squirts ... and we're worried about a parasite eggs?

I plan to be in Korea this December, and while I'm there, I plan to stuff my face with parasit-o-lious kimchi while downing large quanties of insects and questionable sea creatures -- Chinese ban or no. Take that, Beijing.

Defending the Tolkien Snobs

A couple of days ago I was discussing the semi-permeable membrane between "high" and "pop" culture with someone, and he brought up Tolkien. He restated the conventional wisdom that the reason it took so long for Tolkien to be taken seriously was because of snobbery about fantasy.

Very likely snobbery had something to do with it, but I think there might have been other, more influential reasons. The primary reason, I think, is simply that medieval scholars felt restricted from leaving their field.

Until the era of "medievalism," in which modern representations of the medieval came to be considered fair game for medieval scholars, Tolkien's fiction was not a proper subject for a medieval scholar to study -- not because he was producing fantasy, but because he clearly falls into the modern era. A quick perusal of the MLA areas will reveal that even today the study of literature is balkanized by period to some degree. A medieval scholar who wanted to get tenure or promotion needed to produce serious scholarship, not play dilettante in the modern era.

OK, you might say, fair enough ... but then why didn't the modern scholars do more work on Tolkien? Why didn't specialists in 20th century British literature canonize him?

The problem is that Tolkien's fiction taps into a deep well of philology that almost no modernist can dip into. How many modernists have a working knowledge of Old English? Old Norse? Any of the other medieval Germanic languages? How many know what the futhark is, and how it differs from the futhorc? How many understand what Tolkien means by the wapentake, and how Tolkien's use of the term indicates what he thinks it must have meant?

Of course, some modernists have these skills, but not many ... and why should they? In this regard, Tolkien is unique; I can't think of another single modern author for whom a deep understanding of medieval language or culture is a prerequisite to serious study. Most modernists would have difficulty understanding the rich foundation of learning upon which Tolkien's fiction rests, and those that do understand it aren't enough to make produce the critical mass necessary for canonizing an author.

Don't blame the modernists; blame us medievalists. We took a long time to decide that it was OK for a medievalist to study modern authors. Not everyone can be Tom Shippey.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

What Is an Internet Community?

What does it mean to be a member of an internet community?

I caught myself wondering last night if I am a good neighbor in the blogosphere. Mostly out of the kindness of Dr. Taylor over at Poliblog, I'm a member of The Truth Laid Bear Academy Community. Presumably, being a member at TTLB's community implies that I am involved in some sort of conversation with the other members of that community.

Except that I've never really engaged any members of that community. Oh, I've posted a few links to Poliblog and Drezner and a couple of others, and have had a few links from those and Protein Wisdom and a couple of others, but I've never really engaged in a dialogue (unless you count discussions of Battlestar Galactica with Taylor).

Of course, I have engaged in lots of dialogues, but mostly with others outside of that community, such as Drout at Wormtalk and Slugspeak or Gosnell at A Knight's Blog and Pro's and Con's. Rarely, though, with those in my only "official" community. And when I look at the details of page referrals here, I have only one person who regularly visits this page from TTLB Academy.

I don't think the problem is the other members of The Academy, though. I think the problem might be me. I have a rather stubborn insistence that the Wordhoard will not become a political blog. The Academy seems to be primarily law and politics professors who, unsurprisingly, are interested in topics of law and politics. Those who specialize in other subjects nonetheless tend to blog about politics as well. When politics is a subject in the Wordhoard, it is generally only of secondary importance leading to a primary topic.

I think we can go too far with the idea of internet communities, though. If I'm not engaged in a conversation with others in the community, then the difference between "blogosphere community" and "blogroll" becomes nil. On the other hand, I recently had a discussion with some other bloggers about a particular group blog, the participants of which seem not to read any other blogs -- a true echo chamber. Neither idea of a community satisfies me.

So I've made a commitment to myself to try to comment more on the non-law&politics posts in TTLB Academy. It is mostly an experiment that I will abandon as soon as it becomes unfruitful (or boring), but I wanted to let the regular readers know why those changes are happening. I'm trying to be a better neighbor.