Thursday, December 28, 2006

RPGs and Medievalism

I spent this evening watching a group play a tabletop role-playing game (RPG) called "Ars Magica." For those of you unfamiliar with RPGs, these are basically the "Dungeons and Dragons" style games, where players create characters and run those characters through adventures. The games are refereed by someone who is not playing, generally called the "Game Master," though the GM has only limited control over how the story will play out -- if the characters decide to do something different than the GM had expected, the GM has to be flexible enough to make that story adjustment work. In many ways, RPGs are collaborative storytelling.

"Ars Magica" is set in mythical Europe, which is nearly the very same as the medieval Europe we all know, except that in this world magic is real (and the players generally play characters who are mages). Unlike games in pure fantasy settings, however, "Ars Magica" is expected to stick pretty closely to our own historical world. The game I saw (I was able to participate a little) took place in Germany, along the Rhine in the 13th century.

I was struck by how much more educational this tabletop RPG was than any MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online games are the online roleplaying games like Everquest and World of Warcraft). Because of the collaborative storytelling aspect, tabletop RPGs allow the players to be more deeply involved in the creation of the world in ways that MMORPGs cannot allow. In the game I observered, the players and GM had the following discussions about the 13th century Rhineland:
  • How does one arrange a dowry?
  • How much would a dowry cost?
  • How would one initiate contact with a high-ranking Church official?
  • How would one initiate contact with mid-ranking nobility?
  • Would a mill or a forge be more effective for starting a community?
  • How fast would river travel have been?
  • How far and fast could a medieval peasant walk?
  • If there had been mages in the 13th Century, would they have pronounced Latin in the Classical way or the ecclesiastical way?
...etc, etc. I don't want to offer the impression that this game was a bunch of people sitting around having academic discussions, nor do I want to offer the impression that they always came up with the "right" answer (I have no idea how the dowry system worked at that time, for example). These little blanks had to be filled in, though, in order for the players to decide how their characters should proceed. Not one of them was a trained medievalist, yet each showed a greater degree of understanding of the medieval era than the average person would. I'm convinced that this was largly due to tabletop RPGs, and that had this been a group of people playing a medieval-themed MMORPG, they would have shown a lesser degree of sophistication, relying more heavily on the game design and mechanics to make decisions for them.

One last note: As I mentioned to the players, I have seen real medieval codices of "magic," and they were far less complicated than the magical practices outlined in the Ars Magica books!

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Rudolph, Tundra-Wanderer

As part of my own Christmas tradition, I offer you "Rudolph, Tundra-Wanderer," a.k.a. "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" in Old English.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Medieval Tech & American History

Penn State just announced its new project, "Building Community: Medieval Technology and American History," a site that appears to be aimed at promoting the study of medieval technology among by providing resources for high school students and teachers. The site still has a lot of kinks in it (like XXXX where material is missing, and links that go nowhere yet), but they just announced it today.

It looks like the project is aimed at a non-scholarly audience, with such essays as "Who was Geoffrey Chaucer?"* If you're a history teacher, though, this should be right up your alley.

*My answer: A prominent blogger.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Hypertext II: How Electronic Texts Will Change Us

It’s been about a month now since Jeffery Hodges of Gypsy Scholar asked me about hypertext and medieval studies at a conference, and, since it was drawing close to lunch, I dodged the question and promised to answer it later. In order to get closer to answering the question, I posted an historical model to use in thinking about the development of textual technologies.

Though much has been made of the ways in with electronic literacy more closely unites visual images with text, I think the more important element of electronic literacy is hypertext.

Let’s begin with manuscript culture (my personal favorite). Because all texts had to be copied by hand, it placed a great emphasis on lack of error. The importance of error-free copying was even greater, perhaps, when copying important religious texts – after all, if you are copying the Bible and get sloppy with what HE said, you don’t want Him getting mad at you.*

No matter how accurately the words were copied, however, there would be no way that the pages would look the same. To see how this works, try transcribing the first paragraph of this blog post to paper. Then, write it again on another piece of paper. Even without error, you’ll see that the two look very different. On one, maybe the first line ends with “Hodges,” while on another, it might end in “of” or “Gypsy.” In manuscript culture, then, sameness was not a virtue; it was not even really an option. Instead, it was more important to be free of error.

Besides its low error rate, good manuscripts are marked by the way they look. Today we equate lined paper with unimportant writing such as high school essays, but in medieval manuscript culture, better manuscripts were ruled (often by creasing the lines across the page with a dry stylus or pricking them with an awl). Today, books with pictures are considered children’s books, but illuminated manuscripts, with ornate initial letters, written in beautiful hand along carefully-lined, high-quality parchment – Þæt wæs god boc. For this reason, each codex is its own unique work of art. Even codices on mundane topics would each have been unique.

Print culture, then, eliminates the emphasis on being error free, but it also eliminates the emphasis on original art. It was important for print texts to avoid error (just ask the printer of the “Wicked Bible”), but once an error was introduced, it would be replicated in each of the copies. Uniformity became the primary virtue of print culture; every copy of a book had to look as similar as possible to every other copy of that book. In fact, print culture gave rise to “editions,” that is, the same book organized in a slightly different way. As a student, my professors would often insist that we all have the same edition of a book so that they could refer to page numbers. The very idea of an edition seems silly in manuscript culture. Now the seriousness of a book was marked, in part, by its lack of illustration, in sharp contrast to medieval texts.

Hypertext emphasizes neither. On the one hand, hypertext provides the same uniformity as print text (until I update the Wordhoard, every time you hit the reload button, it will look the same), but it also allows for a close connection between image and text. With hypertext, though, the important element is intertextuality – the connections between one hypertext and other texts. In manuscript culture this could be achieved through interlinear glosses, and in print culture this could be achieved through footnoted references, but neither matches electronic culture for emphasis on non-linear reading. I would argue, in fact, that readers’ intolerance for long texts (such as long blog posts) is not, as is so often suggested, a function of short attention spans, but rather that it is the result of expectations that the hypertext should be referring away from itself more often. Someone who refuses to read more than, say 500 words on a particular page might read 5000 words in a sitting by clicking through various hypertext links.

The word “hypertext” isn’t a particularly good description of what it is. I would think something like “intertext” would be more descriptive, because of the way that hypertext promotes and redefines intertextuality. Think of all the other possible things we could ask of our computer texts – we could ask that when we click on them, the definition of the word pops up, or it is pronounced, or it is translated, or statistics on the word are provided (such as how many times it is used in a document, etc.). Though there are sites and applications that do these things, those are considered above-and-beyond the usual role of hypertext. The dominant feature of the hypertext is that intertextual link.

We had ways to provide intertextuality in manuscript and print culture, too. The dominant way in manuscript culture was the gloss or marginalia, in which someone would comment on or translate the main text. In print culture, we had the footnote or the parenthetical comment. Still, neither offered the same potential toward intertextuality because of the practical limits of the technologies.

Not surprisingly, then, as readers have become more attuned to intertextuality through hypertext, they have begun to demand more intertextuality out of print culture. Perhaps this is anecdotal, but over my career I’ve seen an increase in the number of discursive footnotes in student papers – and I find myself more likely to use them too. Textbooks are more often accompanied by CDs or websites with images or sound clips, in order that the print text not stand alone. I’m convinced that the success of the “For Dummies” series of books isn’t the presentation of basic material, but rather the non-linear presentation of the subject matter.

So, in answer to the question “how with hypertext affect medieval studies,” all we can do is speculate. It may be that future scholars are more interested in interlinear glosses and their presentation. We may also see a revival of source-text studies, particularly when the source is extant and can be linked to the primary text. We may see the death of footnotes; but then again, we may see an explosion of discursive footnotes. We may find that the new “trot” or “pony” students consult is a hypertext version that links to a translation of the text.

The difficulty of speculating is that it often relies on straight-line thinking that tends to obscure that new technologies change us. Sometimes I wonder if projects that aim at being definitive electronic editions of texts (I’m thinking of such big projects as the Electronic Beowulf Project) might not make all the wrong assumptions about what scholars in the near future will be like. As I pointed out earlier, the idea of the “edition” didn’t make a whole lot of sense in the manuscript context (with the exception of different translations), so perhaps the idea of the “definitive edition” might disappear as well. Who will need, or even want, a definitive edition, when a scholar can call up a dozen different editions with ease? Perhaps instead we should be working on definitive annotated bibliographies of electronic texts. A Google search on the phrase “definitive bibliography” today yields only about 16,900 hits, whereas a search on “definitive edition” yields 628,000. In twenty years, that ratio may be reversed.

I invite commentators to speculate on this issue of how electronic texts will change medievalists as well as medieval studies.

*By the way, a lot of scorn has been thrown at “lazy and indolent” scribes by medievalists. Have you ever tried to transcribe a manuscript? It’s HARD. Whenever I transcribe a long manuscript, my hand is curled up like a claw and I have an error rate that would no doubt get me driven out of any self-respecting scriptorium. So let’s just give those scribes a little credit, OK?

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Professor Shoeless Joe

In "End of Term Follies," I promised a forthcoming post on memorable student bribes. In an effort to distract you all from the fact that I still haven't written "Hypertext II" as promised in "Hypertext I: Textual History," I present to you the following:

After undergrad, my first three years of academic life were split between corrupt communist systems and Confucian systems. My first gig was in Korea at a language institute, which was a sort of tutoring center for college students and businessmen who needed more practice in their conversational English. We didn't do any grading or evaluation; we just taught. For that first month, I was really surprised by how often students were offering to take me to dinner or bringing me little gifts. Being a nice, ethical Hoosier boy, I politely turned them down, all the time wondering why they would try to bribe me when I wasn't grading them.

Then a more experienced colleague took me aside. He explained to me that, yes, the students were offering gifts in the hope that I would offer them special attention, but that such gifts were not only tolerated in a Confucian education system -- they were expected. Furthermore, since the language institute was a for-profit school that needed its students to be happy if it wanted to stay in business, if the institute owners found out I was constantly turning down these little gifts and dinners, I could find myself in trouble. Clearly, I had to make a change, so I decided that, since I wasn't giving any grades, there wasn't really an ethical problem with accepting the little gifts. Such gifts were simply a way to honor the teacher, and if the students also hoped to get a little extra attention because of them, that was simply human nature.

My next gig was at a university in the former Soviet Union. By this time, Lithuania had technically gained its independence, but it was still occupied by the Red Army and still flailing around trying to find its footing in a capitalist global market. This brought out the worst of communist thuggery and, while bribery had always been a big part of the communist education system, now that bribery was backed by a greater flow of capital.

I couldn't understand why my Lithuanian students, who were all failing miserably, didn't seem at all concerned. Not even the ones who were the stars of the class seemed to care. I grew more and more frustrated, until one day I confided my frustration in a colleague from the history faculty. He explained to me that the reason they weren't concerned is that they expected to offer me a bribe at the end of the semester, and from that they would each pass.

So I made a little speech in my class the next day. I gave me usual "You're all failing so you'll have a buckle down" speech, and the students were literally yawning with boredom. I ended the speech this way: "And if you think that at the end of the semester you're just going to offer me some vodka or sausages or imported chocolates to pass the class, you are terribly mistaken." You could have heard a pin drop -- it was as if I had announced that I was an alien who had come to suck out their brains through a straw. After class, the students rushed to the front of the room clamoring for extra credit.

Some though, really had no hope of passing. They had bribed their way into university and didn't have the background to catch up. Others had screwed around so long that no amount of extra work would save them. Still others simply didn't believe me, and thought I was angling for larger bribes. Many offered me bribes anyway, and some went so far as to do things like sneak bribes into my office when I wasn't there, then avoid me. A couple went over my head to bribe the dean to change the grade.

From these early days, I had to adopt a Shoeless Joe Jackson approach to student bribery. Shoeless Joe Jackson, for those of you who don't know, was banned from baseball in part of the 1919 Chicago Black Sox bribery scandal. Along with several other players, Shoeless Joe had taken money from gamblers to throw the World Series, but then batted better in the series than he had during the regular season and made no fielding errors -- clearly, Shoeless Joe took the money but didn't throw the game. So now when students start to get fidgety and see bribery in their eyes (usually about 3/4 of the way through the semester), I state my policy on bribery in class, which is this: If you offer me a bribe, I'll take it -- but it won't affect your grade. Then you'll be out some money AND you'll have failed the class.

That little speech works wonders to deter would-be bribe offerers, but some still persist. So, after that long prelude, now for a series of mini-plays entitled "Bribes I Have Known."

Student: I'll do anything to pass the class.
Me: Well, apparently not, because studying qualifies as "anything," and you didn't do that.
Student: I mean anything within reason.

Student: (pulling out checkbook) How much will it cost to make this right?
Me: No amount of money will save you. You cheated, and so you have failed the course.
Student: Are you telling me that if I offer you a large check, you won't take it?
Me: No, I'm not saying that. In fact, I will take it. But you'll still fail the class.
Student: Why would I offer you a check, then?
Me: Out of the kindness of your heart?

Student: (places final exam on my desk, along with a bag of imported chocolates)
Me: What's this for?
Student: (winking so broadly it would embarrass a Vaudevillian actor)
Me: You know this won't change your grade, right?
Student: (winking and nodding like a maniac strolls out the door)
Me: (the next day, enjoying an imported chocolate while writing an "F" on his gradesheet)

Student: I just have to get a good grade in this class. Is there anything I can do?
Me: Well, not really, because ... (have to scoot away, because the student has just scooted her chair uncomfortably close to mine)
Me: Ehm. As I was saying, not really because ... (student puts her hand on my knee and leans forward suggestively)
Me: (moving back as far as I can, and speaking as quickly as I can) ... NOT REALLY BECAUSE YOU'RE ALREADY GETTING AN "A!" You'd have to completely fail the final to get anything lower, and with your grades right now, even if you failed the final you'd still pass the class!
Student: Really? Oh. (Stand up and heads out the door)

Student: You're just failing me because you hate me!
Me: No, I'm failing you because you haven't passed a single exam all semester.
Student: Well then how come you won't take a little gift from me?
Me: Because I think an education is more valuable than that.
Student: Well, then, I'll just bribe the Dean to change my grade.
Me: Feel free. I'll bribe him more to change it back ... and I can afford it.
Student: You'd do that?
Me: Watch me.

Student: How about if I wash your truck?
Me: How about if you write a 6-8 page paper on washing trucks?
Student: (after a long pause) How about if I mow your lawn?

Me: (Opening student portfolio to find a dime taped to the front. I laugh and laugh and laugh)

Student: (Once again, getting uncomfortably close) Don't you like me?
Me: Yes, of course I like you.
Student: Then what's the problem? No one has to know.
Me: I'll know.
Student: (putting on a pouty face) So you don't like me, then?
Me: I like you fine. I just like my wife more.
Student: What's she got that I don't?
Me: A college degree.*

Student: Here, sir, this is for you.
Me: What is it?
Student: It's a book of my father's poetry.
Me: (flipping through it) It's quite wonderful!
Student: So, can I get an "A" in the class?
Me: No, but if your father takes the class, I'm sure he will.

Student: Will it help my grade if I give you a piano?
Me: A piano?
Student: It's what my father had to give for me to get into university.
Me: But you are already getting an A.
Student: And I can get an A even if I don't give you a piano?
Me: Of course, but what's with the pianos? Why a piano?
Student: I just thought you professors liked pianos.

*One of my finer comebacks, don't you think?

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

End of Term Follies

Ah, yes, the end of the semester! The time when doom finally falls upon all students. Just like Santa, I know when you've been bad or good, and many students are writing e-mails to me because they've just gotten coal in their stocking.

Here is a sampling of some of the student complaints. Some are from this semester, and some are from previous semesters, but all have lodged in my memory:

Q: Why didn't I get an A in this class?
Me: Uuuh, because I gave you a D.
Q: But why didn't I get an A?
Me: Because your grade was between an F and a D, and I decided to be merciful and give you the D.
Q: But why didn't I get an A?
Me: The highest grade you got on any assignment was a C-! Why would you think you were getting an A?
Q: (after a long silence while he mulled this over) ... I know that, but why didn't I get an A?

Q: I had an A- average! How come I flunked?
Me: You had an A- on the one assignment you turned in. You didn't turn anything else in all semester.
Q: See? You know if I had turned in those other assignments, I'd have gotten A's on them too, so you should give me an A.

Q: How come I flunked the class? I was passing!
Me: Because you missed six weeks of class. The syllabus says that you can only miss two weeks.
Q: What?! You were serious about that?!

Q: I just looked at the final grades, and saw that I got an F. I was wondering if there was anything I could do to make it up.
Me: Who are you?
Q: I'm John Doe. I'm in your English class.
Me: Which one?
Q: The English class.
Me: All my classes are English classes. Which one were you in?
Q: Uh ... freshman writing, I think?
Me: Which section?
Q: Uh....
Me: Nevermind, let me look through all my rosters .... Ah, yes, here you are, John Doe. According to this, you only attended the first two classes, and turned in no assignments.
Q: Yeah, so I was wondering, is there any extra credit or anything I can do?

And so on ... of course, another favorite is a variation on the last one, when at the end we discover that the student was in a different professor's class.

Soon to come -- memorable student bribes!

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Becoming Charlemagne

If you asked me who was the major medieval figure I know the least about, the answer is pretty easy: Charlemagne. I haven't intentionally neglected him, it's just that life is short and learning long.

Wordhoarder Jeff Sypeck seeks to change that with his new book Becoming Charlemagne, which is aimed at popular audiences rather than scholarly audiences (translation: promises not to be boring). I haven't read it yet, but you can find a review of it here.

By the way, the reason I haven't read it yet is that I don't have a copy. In a totally, completely unrelated aside, there are now only 21 shopping days until Christmas. *wink*wink*nudge*nudge*