Friday, December 29, 2006

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.


Lisa Spangenberg said...

What I'd love to do, in my heart of hearts, is make these books available again, on and off-line, in quality affordable editions. I've deliberately gained both traditional typesetting skills and experience and scholarly digital publishing experience specifically so that I can do this sort of work. I feel strongly that if we make the languages and literatures available, and the tools to read and understand and find the texts, that readers will come. I was seduced from music history to medieval literature because of a love for the language; I don't think I'm unusual, and I know from teaching that the languages and the words and the stories are just as powerful now.

Prof. de Breeze said...

I think you're right on most counts here. Certainly the lack of current, accessible tools is a major problem in OE studies. I was recently lamenting the fact that the only edition of the Book of Cerne (a volume that is cited with surprising frequency in OE scholarship) is over 100 years old and available at only 25 or so libraries in the U.S. We need to find ways of making these tools available again, whether online or in new, inexpensive editions (like those produced for the OE Newsletter Subsidia series).

I also agree that the problem runs deeper. If there were more interest in the field, those volumes would likely stay in print longer. I'm reluctant to put too much of the blame on the compulsory OE requirement, however. Sure, it frustrates some people, most of whom go to grad school to study 20th century lit, but I doubt that many of them would study OE even in the best of circumstances. And the requirement occasionally reaps great benefits. I went to grad school planning to study 19th century American lit, but after a (required) semester of OE, I was hooked. Without the requirement, I never would have looked at Old English.

Narya said...

Entertainingly enough, Allen Frantzen was teaching at Oberlin when I was a student there--I took a class with him my first semester there. (this was at least a million years ago . . .)

theswain said...

*SIGH* I want to avoid this topic, since I'm on the job market in the field right now and don't like being depressed! But I think you raise some good points, Mike.

Related, some readers will be aware of Wipf and Stock Publishers who for some time now have displayed at Kalamazoo. I've thought about approaching them concerning some of these out of print and essential tools and seeing how much it would cost in reprint. Ker's catalogue is at the top of my list, but if readers and Mike will send me a wish list (or post one here), I'll send the list on to Wipf and Stock; they'll be more inclined to look into it if they know they can sell their run of 20 copies or better yet, more.

Tiruncula said...

Interesting post! Thank you for the link to Tom Shippey's essay, of which I had been unaware. I find very little there that doesn't ring just as true today - though I would say that the situation in basic language pedagogy looks a lot brighter than it did a dozen years ago. I'm looking forward to your further instalments on this topic. Meanwhile, I've posted a rather different take on the state of the field over at Practica.

Viqueen said...

Interesting blog but wrong on one point - Cleasby Vigfusson is indeed available online (with various other things). Have a look at