Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Confession of Plagiarism

This blog post may well be the end of my career. After reading the account of how a Harvard student unconsciously plagiarized a novel, and then this account of a newly-discovered Beckett play in the most trustworthy news source in America, The Onion, I realized that I too am guilty of unintentionally plagiarism.

I confess: I have unconsciously plagiarized this Beckett play. According to this account, the newly-discovered Beckett play consists of 23 blank pages. Surely it was my subconscious feelings of guilt that drew my eyes to my very own printer, which, even at this very moment, contains 23 blank pages. In fact, my malfeasance runs even deeper; the printer has more than 23 blank pages in it, suggesting that I may have also plagiarized some of Beckett's shorter works.

Just as the narrator of "The Tell-Tale Heart" was tormented by the sound of the beating heart beneath the floorboards, I am shamed by other reminders of my sin: un-graded papers, un-expanded conference presentations, and one un-written poem. I am even mocked by a stack of blank post-it notes.

I retreat now to bed, where I will weep in a fetal position, alone with my shame.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Understanding Syllabi

First of all, let me just say regarding the word syllabus that I once had a linguistics book that pointed out that the proper plural would not be "syllabi" but rather "syllabontes." I used to annoy all my fellow grad students by insisting on referring to them as "syllabontes."

I woke up the other morning to two different pieces on syllabi ... er ... syllabontes ... er, syllabuses. One is Michael Drout's tale of how he evolved from innovative syllabi to conservative canonical ones ... a tale that is almost exactly my own. I could simply cut & paste his post into my own blog, and it would fit perfectly. The other is about spelling things out in syllabi. Shari Wilson in Inside Higher Ed talks about her journey toward finding a syllabus that students don't un/willingly mis-read. I too made the same journey she made. Now I find I'm journeying back.

There is a certain type of student I call the "syllabus lawyer." Actually, many students have an inner syllabus lawyer that pops out when then need it, but a few move beyond invoking eye-rolling annoyance in me, and cause me to fantasize about a new volcano suddenly erupting under their feet. The syllabus lawyer sees the syllabus as a contract, not as a plan, and they seek loopholes in it. For example, Wilson discusses those students who claim not to understand that when, say, "Paper due" is written on the syllabus, it means that the paper is due ON THAT DAY, and claim that they misunderstood, thinking that they were to begin work on the paper that day ("due" being ambiguous and all). Oh, yes, I too have had those students.

See, here's the thing about the full-time syllabus lawyers, and those students who employ them as part of an over-all whining campaign: they lie. They understood perfectly. Their "misunderstanding" is willful, in the hopes that the professor will be lily-livered enough to back down. And, if you back down, they don't appreciate the break ... they push harder, don't respect you, and don't respect your class. I learned this the hard way. Try to close one loophole, and the students will find (or pretend to find) another. No, legalistic syllabi create more problems than they solve. Now I'm moving to syllabi that simply spell out my expectations. At the end of the day, the only legitimate question the students have is "what does the professor expect out of me?" All other questions are either off-shoots of that one, or are silly.

Let's consider an example. If a student says to you "It says here that the reading for today was Beowulf. I thought that meants I was supposed to begin reading it today," slap the student with the appropriate penalty. If the student is so dumb (unlikely) that she really can't understand so simple an instruction, you have offered her a lesson in Reading Syllabi 101. If she still doesn't understand the lesson, she's so dumb that she'll never graduate anyway.

If, on the other hand, she understood the syllabus (likely) but figured that if she faked misunderstanding you so that she could go to a frat party with her friends, when you slap her with the penalty, you've taught her an even more important lesson. In my experience, she won't resent the penalty (though she'll complain). In fact, she'll appreciate the penalty, work harder in the class, learn more, be happier, and recommend the class to her friends. I think I get more students coming on the recommendation of students who flunked my classes than on the recommendation of those who passed.

It comes down to this: Yes, the students were in high school just a few months earlier, but this is adult education. Treat them like the adults they are, and they'll act like it. Treat them like dumb kids, and they'll act like that.

In a final note on my own hypocrisy, some of you who have seen my syllabi might note that the syllabi, while indeed shrinking, and still long and legalistic. Unfortunately, rules coming down from the state capitol about what has to be on the syllabi of English education majors now accounts for MOST of my syllabus. Though my own material is less and less, material mandated by the state government is more and more. Perhaps some day I'll blog on the stupidity of THAT situation.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Evaluations Shmevaluations!

As I was handing out the fill-in-the-bubble course evaluation sheets to my students today, I suddenly realized that I didn't care about them. Not even a little. I also realized that this feeling was not new; I must have slowly stopped caring about them long ago.

I do my best. I'm not new to the education game, so what appears in the evaluations is unlikely to have any bearing on how I teach my classes. Up until this point in my life, students have found my classes challenging and enjoyable, so if I suddenly started getting bad evaluations it would take a decade or so for them to affect my teaching.

It isn't that I don't care how much students learn, or how much they like the classes ... it is the evaluations I don't care about. Of how much value can a scantron sheet I receive months later be in self-reflection?

So, my dear students, if you liked/hated some aspect of the course, or you found some part particularly fascinating/remedial, by all means fill out the form ... but more importantly, tell me to my face. Soon. BEFORE the summer when I will no doubt forget all the little details of the class. Constructive, face-to-face critique will likely have an effect on how I teach my classes, but a fill-in-the-bubble numerical score probably won't.

Thursday, April 20, 2006


Sorry about the format troubles, folks. I haven't done anything to my template at all, so I'm having a bit of trouble figuring out the cause. Thanks for your patience.

When Will I Get to See It?

Alliterative has a review of the Beowulf & Grendel movie. It has a few spoilers, but not much to anyone who has read Beowulf.

Most frustrating is that the blasted thing has been confined to Canada and film festivals. The closest scheduled showing I can find will be in Tampa in August.

K'zoo Blogger Gathering

The final plans for the big medieval blogger gathering at Kalamazoo (the annual International Medieval Congress, for non-medievalists out there) have been finalized! It will be 5-8 p.m., Thursday, May 4, and to get the location you'll have to e-mail Dr. Virago (address provided in the above link) so that anonymous bloggers need not worry about getting outed.

Unfortunately, it is pretty unlikely I'll be there. My last final exams come in the afternoon before, so I'll have to arrange my flight plans with an eye to getting those graded and entered into the system before I leave. That doesn't mean YOU shouldn't go, though. Plus, I'll be in the Saturday session on blogging, so if you desperately want to meet me, you can do it then.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

A Trend I Want to Encourage

According to this article, swords are making a comeback. Ah yes, an elegant weapon of a more civilized age ... the days when you couldn't didn't cap someone from across the street, you did it up close and personal. Unless, of course, you had a longbow, but I haven't seen any stories about an uptick in longbow sales.

In a perfect world, I'd wear my academic regalia to class, with a sword concealed beneath. The first time a student turned in a paper with subject-verb disagreement, I'd go Belushi-samurai on his desk. Now THAT'S education!

h/t Decorabilia

Monday, April 17, 2006

No Lack of Guthlac

JJ Cohen has a longish and interesting excerpt from Medieval Identity Machines on Guthlac and Anglo-Saxon colonialism. Normally a bit more history-oriented than my tastes run, but given how much like I Cohen's writing, added to the quality of this piece, I might have to interrupt literary reading for a peek at his book.

Crazy Margery and Authority

Dr. Virago has an interesting post about teaching Margery Kempe and dealing with students dismissing her as "crazy," ultimately determining that Kempe wins either way. Pretty neat.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Horowitz and Academic Freedom

In my earlier post, "When Public Intellectuals Have Enemies," I promised a subsequent post critiquing Horowitz's view of academic freedom. Here 'tis.

The weakest section of The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America is the section on academic freedom. It's a shame, because that's where the center of the argument should be, not in the arena of ad hominem nonsense between Horowitz and the likes of Ward Churchill. Unfortunately, much of the debate on all sides has been marked by intellectual dishonesty, rabid name-calling, and bad-faith arguments. So far, the only arguments I've seen that specific charges by Horowitz are false could be be characterized as extended efforts at gnat-straining and camel-swallowing. The asinine comments following this report are a case in point -- anyone who argues that academics are not primarily left-of-center is not a serious person. Now, one could argue that the leftist ideology of most professors is a good thing (that it reflects thoughtfulness, that it is preferrable for research/teaching, that it is more in line with the work of a university, etc), but to argue that such a tilt does not exist is like arguing that the Earth is flat.
I don't disagree with Horowitz on all the facts. Let's start with the points of agreement:

  • Most professors are left-of-center. Not even open to discussion in my view.
  • Some professors behave badly.
  • Because of the overwhelming leftward tilt of academe, professors who bully their students politically are more likely to be from the left (some have argued that per capita rightwing professors are more likely to be political bullies than leftwing professors. That hasn't been my experience, but let's allow that it is possible. Nevertheless, the sheer difference in numbers would make rightwing bullying much, much rarer).
  • Also because of the practical political consensus, leftwing bullies are less likely
    to face repurcussions from their actions. I think someone could reasonably
    disagree with this observation, but it jives with what I've seen.

OK, so I agree on all of the above. Where I think Horowitz goes wrong is in pinning the problem to academic freedom. My two main objections:

  • I don't think academic freedom is primarily about what goes on in the classroom.
  • I think academic freedom needs to be determined by the faculty.

Most of the discussion of academic freedom in his book deals with issues of the classroom. My understanding of the upshot of his Academic Bill of Rights is that students have the right to be free from political intimidation in the classroom, not that students have the right to be taught by professors who agree with them politically. Yet many of the public statements by the "dangerous" professors in his book are statements made in the public, non-classroom arena. The ideas expressed by the professors may be odious, but they do not necessarily represent a form of bullying. Of course, a student might read a professor's comments in the newspaper and worry about repurcussions for opposing ideas in papers, but professors do not give up the right to have ideas simply because they sometimes enter the classroom (indeed, the opposite is true). So, I would say that while it is fair game for Horowitz to call professors to task for their public statements, it is not always fair to say that they are bullying or intimidating their students.

Furthermore, this places the idea of academic freedom squarely in the classroom ... but academic freedom is just as much about research. In the realm of research, academics need to be able to go where their instincts or hypotheses take them. This need is not only, or even primarily, political. In some sciences, for example, there are pressures on scientists to engage in research that will likely end in patents for the university. While there is nothing wrong with such research, other basic research needs to take place. Since the private sector isn't likely to engage in research that won't result in profit-earning in the near future, that job is up to Academe. Even in fields in which there is little chance for a school to profit (my own field is among these), academic freedom often means the freedom to pursue some risky line of thought that mind not bear fruit at all. For example, I've often wanted to study Korean literature contemporary with medieval Europe, but in order to do that, I would have to spend at least a year working on my modern Korean (to be able to read the critical history), and at least a year working on reading medieval Korean. That would mean I would spend about two years publishing very little, and although what eventually came of it could be of intense interest to the medieval scholarly community, it could also receive a big yawn. I once asked a mentor about whether I should purse this, and he replied, "It's a great idea ... after you've got tenure." In other words, academic freedom means the freedom to pursue high-risk, low-profit research.

Not every academic uses their tenure well. Some who abuse it retire on the job, treating it as sinecure. Others (the focus of Horowitz), use it to pursue political agendas. Who, then, should judge whether academic freedom is being used properly?

Horowitz objects that academic freedom is whatever faculty says it is. I agree that this situation leaves room for cronyism and enforcement of political consensus. Yes, it conjures of metaphors of foxes guarding henhouses -- but it must be, however the situation changes, that judgments about the proper use of academic freedom are left to professors.

Why? Because professors are (or should be) at the forefront of the creation of knowledge. In the great majority of cases, non-academics are not competent to make that judgment, because they don't understand how knowledge is created. Yes, it sounds arrogant -- yet still true. Administrators need the existence of peer-reviewed journals, because the acceptance of one's peers (i.e., other professors) helps confirm for them that proper research is being done in the various specialties in a typical university. How is a provost that came out of business supposed to judge the merits of both faculty in the classical languages department and the physics department? Since no one can possibly be expert in enough fields to make competent judgments about them, administrators simply look for peer-reviewed publication, which is another way to express acceptance by other professors.

What are some legitimate ways one might try to reform the system? Policing faculty political statements in the classroom is the wrong way to go, I think. It does not recognize the value of a good example (I used to use the examples of Perot/Clinton/Dole to explain logos/pathos/ethos), it doesn't recognize the necessary political investment of some work (like much in political science departments), and it leads to "gotcha!" style culling through classroom lectures (by the same students who would be better served trying to master the discipline). A good reform would recognize the need for academic freedom, would allow faculty to be judged by other faculty in their fields, and would protect students from abusers. Some ideas might be to involve more scholars from other, comparable schools in the tenure & promotion process, so that the peers that are judging one's work aren't necessarily the same ones that are mad because you slighted them at some school function. Tenure and promotion might possibly even be moved outside of the universities altogether, such as with accrediting bodies.

I'm not calling for using any of the methods I've cited above; I just offer them as examples. Legislating change will not work -- we are already burdened by excessive legislation (particularly in the area of teacher education), yet none of it ever seems to improve either our teaching or our research. Instead, changing the academic culture is the surest way to bring about effective reform ... and culture is notoriously difficult to change. To that end, Horowitz's book is counter-productive. He makes famous the professors found therein; indirectly prompts others to heap accolades, book contracts, and speaking engagements on them; and offers legitimacy to the likes of Ward Churchill, who most scholars would have previously considered laughable, by positing him as the champion of faculty and their freedoms.

So, Horowitz, you want to change the academic culture to something more conservative? Create more conservative academic presses. Fund named chairs on campus. Invite conservative professors to give public addresses, and pay them honoraria. Give out grant and research money to the kind of faculty you like. Host conferences showcasing conservative ideas. Create credible academic journals to publish conservative thought. Believe me, if the research dollars, publication opportunities, and accolades started flowing from the other directions, a lot of scholars would throw away their portraits of Che Guevara and replace them with portraits of Ronald Reagan.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Generic Blog Post

I haven't been posting the last few days because a.) I'm on two tight deadlines, so I'm getting four hours sleep a night max, and b.) I'm writing my promised post against Horowitz's view of academic freedom, which is turning out to be a little longer than expected. I'm either going to have to cut it back or zoom through it, typos and all, and I'm too tired to make that decision at the moment.

So, for your viewing pleasure, a generic blog post.

h/t Poliblog

Saturday, April 08, 2006

I know I'm a medievalist because...

... I had a dream involving Marie de France and a friendly werewolf (presumably Bisclavret), and I'm not teaching or researching about Marie at the moment.

Eleanor of Aquitane also was a character in this dream, but I can't quite remember her role. I know it must have been Eleanor, though, because she looked like Katharine Hepburn.

So, I'm writing about the Popol Vuh and Lord of the Rings at the moment, reading The Iliad and The Prince, and my dreams are like a Terry Gilliam version of Marie's lais. Yup, I'm a medievalist.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Rate My Professors

In response to this post on RateMyProfessors, most of the comments have to do with the possibility of "tampering" by professors giving themselves high ratings or chili peppers.

I openly admit that I posted one of my own ratings. I had gotten on and saw that I only had two or three ratings (all good at that time), no chili peppers, and no comments.

Clearly, there was some sort of catastrophic computer malfunction, as it is simply not possible that any student (with the possible exception of a seriously deranged person) could rate me without offering me a chili pepper. My hotness, after all, is of a magnitude that it must be measured on a special scale. You know how zero degrees Kelvin is absolute zero? Well, one hundred degrees Nokes is absolute hotness.

In response to this problem, I decided to write up my own evaluation, complete with comments and chili pepper, as a public service. Can you folks out there spot my own evaluation of myself?

By the way, my favorite rating of me is not a positive one -- it is the one in which a student says all the bad things she can think about me, then tops it off with "and he's a Yankee!" I can't deny it.

While readers are looking through my ratings to spot my self-evaluation (it isn't that hard), I want to encourage you to feel free to rate me whether you've had a class with me or not. Good or bad, I don't care, just as long as it's amusing.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

The other WordHoard

FYI -- Unlocked Wordhoard is not to be confused with the scholarly tool WordHoard.

In Praise of Paul Szarmach

Big news in the world of medieval scholarship -- Paul Szarmach is leaving Western Michigan (where he is the Director of the Medieval Institute, as well as head of the International Medieval Congress) to be Executive Director of the Medieval Academy. I've known about it for a little while, but I kept my mouth shut until the announcement was made public. Today Elisabeth Carnell broke the news to the blogosphere.

I can't say anything about what kind of boss he is (since I've never worked for him), but Szarmach was the outside reader on my dissertation committee, and I took a course from him at the Newberry library. To give you a sense of how nice a guy he is, as head of the International Medieval Congress he came down from on high to work on the diss committee for some unknown little punk from Wayne State. He wasn't just "on the committee," either; he went over each and every chapter thoroughly, with comments down to the most minute issues of wording. He was patient with my frequent stupidity. Not every academic would perform such an act of faith for an unknown, politically unconnnected grad student from another school.

As a professor, he is one of the best. During the class I took from him at the Newberry library, he demonstrated an astounding memory of textual details. For example, in response to a question someone asked him (not a prepared part of the lecture), he replied, "Well, in the right margin of the verso side of leaf 23 in such-and-such a manuscript, right next to line 12, there is a hole in the manuscript which ..." I can't remember that level of detail on manuscripts I've worked on extensively. In addition to his mind, he has a lecture style that a colleague once referred to as "a stream of drolleries." Some people take copious notes during lectures; during his I chuckled copiously (if one can chuckle in a copious fashion).

Finally, as head of the Congress, Szarmach (affectionately known as "Paulus" to the medieval world) has worked hard on internationalizing medieval studies, a subject near-and-dear to my heart. He has worked hard to bring peripheral groups into the fold, offering support in such areas as Eastern Europe (particularly Poland) and east Asia (particularly Korea and China). In fact, the Global Perspectives book I am editing is very much a product of Szarmach's legacy in internationalizing medieval studies.

Paul Szarmach -- scholar and gentleman.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

The Best Introduction To...

The headless Scott Eric Kaufman over at Acephalous is putting together a list he calls "The Best Introduction To..." and he is soliciting help on the project, which needs more input from medievalists.

I've been trying to think of good suggestions for the "Anglo-Saxon" heading, and I've come up with several:
Greenfield and Calder's A New Critical History of Old English Literature
Katherine O'Brien O'Keefe's Reading Old English Texts
Godden and Lapidge's Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature

Of course, inherent in making any such list is the nagging feeling that you are leaving off some really important stuff, like Blackwell's encyclopedia, etc.

UPDATE, April 5th -- There is a good discussion of this topic over at New Kid on the Hallway, with some really good comments, and mentions of a lot of other good texts I didn't think of off the top of my head.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Take THAT, Ivan Tribble!

Not every school disapproves of blogging professors. My own school is promoting it among their own faculty and staff in this article in Troy Today entitled "Blogging on." As promised, here it is.

Unfortunately, the article doesn't contain the URLs for the other blogs, but you can find them on my "Troy University Links" to the right.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Moi? 500 wds. per hour?

In this post at The One Ring, N.E. Brigand said that I commented that I write "papers at about 500 words per hour."

Who, me? Five hundred words per hour? OK, let me clarify ... if I get in a real groove, I can write 500 words of academic prose per hour for about one hour. After that, I tend to fall off a cliff. I can write about 500 words of blog post per hour pretty readily, but that's off-the-cuff kinda stuff.

In the post he's alluding to, I'm talking about writing a presentation to an audience. That, of course, goes faster than writing papers, since oral presentations don't include footnotes or other apparatus, and really dense stuff has to be omitted too.

So, just in case anyone was wondering, writing papers (for publication) comes much slower than blog posts or presentations to students or non-academic audiences. Contrary to the rumourmill, I write papers at the normal human rate. Only when writing blogposts or oral presentations can I sustain the 500 word per hour rate for an extended period.