State of the Field
When I was in graduate school, a spate of "The Current State of Old English Studies..." articles came out, inspired, no doubt, by the criticisms of the field made in Allen Frantzen's Desire for Origins. Allen (who directed my dissertation) had argued that Old English Studies needed to reinvent itself and come into dialogue with other sub-fields in the profession by investigating contemporary literary theory. Not surprisingly, not everyone agreed that this was the way to go. Some scholars argued that the problems in Old English Studies were indeed there, but had other causes, and that engagement with contemporary theory was not likely to solve them. Of all these responses, I thought that Tom Shippey's was the best (but then again, I agree with Tom about an embarrassingly large number of things). Tom argued that many of the problems in Old English (a steady reduction in the number of positions, increasing marginalization of the field) could be credited to the bad teaching that was generated by compulsory Old English at elite institutions (and, following their example, elsewhere): since teachers had a captive audience, they were able to be really, really bad. Thus a new generation came to hate Old English. When they got into power, they dismantled as much as they could, putting the resources towards things they cared about. (There's actually a lot more to Tom's argument, and he looks some what prescient in places, so you should read it).
But a great many other scholars argued that nothing was wrong at all in Old English Studies. 'Old English is in much better shape than its 'detractors' would admit: Look, X was hired at Y, and Z got a grant from the A agency, and Q university just paid M all that money, and look there's a new project, and three new grammar books, and an edition of V, and ooo, a database..." The idea is that the field was/is in good shape. If I'm feeling cynical, I note that many of the people who wrote those articles already had elevated positions at elite institutions and, when I'm feeling even more cynical, I start to note that many of them made jumps into administration or even more elite places, suggesting that for them times were indeed good. But for the field as a whole, well, I'm not so sure.
This is a long set-up for a disappointing ending to a post, but my plan is to revisit this topic multiple times over the next year, so I'll be pulling out specific data that support my idea (which is really a gut feeling) that, although the free-fall may have stopped, and although in some ways we are positioned very well, there is a still a lot of trouble in Old English Studies and in the related Old Norse Studies (I can only really speak informedly about America, though I have a few ideas of the situation in the UK; obviously, when it comes to Old Norse, Rome is in the North, and the real heart of the field is not England or America but Scandinavia--I don't know the situation there).
Today's data: The Tools for Scholarship are Becoming Impossible to Get
My Professorship at Wheaton carries with it a nice little stipend that has one stipulation: I don't just get the money, I have to spend it on something. So, because I am not yet ready for Japanese lessons (for a long-term project dealing with the Tale of Genji), I have been buying books, filling out my library. This has been, as you might imagine, a lot of fun, and I've now got my Old English bookcases in good enough shape that I don't really have to leave the house to do most of my research. Two weeks ago I finally got a Ker catalogue (N. R. Ker's Catalogue of Manuscripts Containing Anglo-Saxon), an essential book that has taken me at least five years (and $300) to buy. My own college's library didn't have one, so I had to drive up to Boston College when I needed to consult it. A number of years back I was able to snag a Bosworth-Toller dictionary off of eBay (before too many Anglo-Saxonists learned about eBay, and yes, I got a complete, 2-volume BT for $120 dollars). And this is my point: although one can patch together a decent research library (the ASPR, Beowulf, the EETS editions of key prose texts -- and I hope to do a post on what a basic library for Old English Studies would be), some of the fundamental tools for research are not just out of print, but are impossible to get. Bosworth-Toller is, wonderfully, now on line, but the Ker catalogue isn't, and in Old Norse the Cleasby-Vigfusson Old Norse/English Dictionary is impossible to get (though I found a beat-up one for $300 and a good-condition one for $600), and half the texts and editions one would want in ON are out of print as well.
This is, I would suggest, evidence of a field in trouble. Not simply because beginning scholars can't get essential research tools (because they can, especially if out-of-copyright texts migrate to on-line versions), but because of what that lack says about the relationship of our field to other studies: presses can't be bothered to keep things in print because there is not enough demand. That is not a comforting thought. In future posts I'll try to discuss why this is, but for now I just want to try to establish this one particular point.