Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Tolkien Classes

Recently I got an email from the Chair of a high-school English department who wanted to know about classes in Tolkien or fantasy literature that might be taught at other high schools.  I realized I have no idea.  

Furthermore, I have no idea how many college courses are now devoted to Tolkien.  Back in 2003, when I was making the case to WVU Press that they should publish Tolkien Studies, I did a rough survey, searching for "Tolkien" and "syllabus" on the same page and then weeding out by hand.  This is no longer possible: there are 37,000 results, and many duplications.  

So, instead of brute-force googling (though I'm sure those with better google-fu than I could narrow it down), let's try the power of distributed intelligence and social networking.  

If you know of classes devoted to Tolkien or having a substantial Tolkien component, at the high-school or college level, post about them in the comments here or email me.  I will assemble all the data and make a new post.  You don't need to write much, just something like: 

Wheaton College, Norton Mass:  English 259: J.R.R. Tolkien, English 401: Sr. Seminar: Tolkien and Le Guin.  

Of course if there's a link to a syllabus, that's even better, but not necessary.  And if you don't have specific data, but can remember something like "I had a course on JRRT at University of X in 2002," that's fine, too. 

My gut feeling is that the number of courses has perhaps even doubled since 2003.  Just recently I was partnered with someone from another New England elite liberal arts college, and he just mentioned, in passing, that one of their new faculty members "does this course on Tolkien, of all things, and it's really very good." (I just smiled).  Anecdotal evidence suggests that a lot of medievalists are now teaching a Tolkien course as well (and, yes, I'll be they are "really very good").  So I think these courses are now all over the place and are more "respectable" than they were even six years ago.  I'd like to see if this hunch is correct. 

(I'll save a description of my war with the raccoons for the next post)

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Yet another surreal moment (thanks, JRRT)

This morning my son and daughter were playing "Mama warg, baby warg."  Yes, they were pretending that they were bloodthirsty super-wolves, ravening through Middle-earth (though mostly it seems they were making "dens" by draping blankets over the furniture). 

So I asked them, "What are your names?  Bone-gnasher and Blood-fang?" 

Son: "I'm Cookie." 

Daughter:  "My name is Patches."  




The Lord of the Rings Online should definitely add these two as wandering Elite level 50s:  Cookie and Patches, Wargs.  

Friday, March 13, 2009

History Channel update

Back in December I did some video interviews for an independent production company on Old Norse, Beowulf and The Lord of the Rings.  The series they were filming has now officially been picked up and renamed for The History Channel and is entitled (at least for now), "Clash of the Gods."  I'm guessing, based on their schedule, that it will be out this summer.  As soon as I know dates, etc., I will post. 

Wednesday, March 11, 2009


Triple Nerd Score!
In which I connect Beowulf, the Rev. Walter Skeat and ornithology

In Beowulf: The Critical Heritage, Tom Shippey and Andreas Haarder quote the Rev. Walter W. Skeat on one of my favorite Beowulf controversies: does the hero's name mean "bear" or "woodpecker"?  (As I said before, the Angelina Jolie "naked philology" scene might have been even more amusing if, after she asked him if he was the "wolf of the bees, the bear," he had answered "no, the woodpecker").  

Skeat comes down on the side of "woodpecker" (first proposed by Jacob Grimm in 1836 (though Skeat didn't know it when he wrote this piece in 1877).  He writes: 

I wish to draw attention to the fact that the Old Dutch biewolf, according to Kilian, was a woodpecker.  I read that the great black woodpecker is common in Norway and Sweden, and that its food consists of the larvae of wasps, bees, and other insects.  Also, that the green woodpecker, found in most countries of Europe, has been known to take bees from a hive.  The question remains, why should the woodpecker be selected as the type of a hero?  The answer is simple -- viz., because of its indomitable nature; it is a bird that fights to the death.  Wilson says of an ivory-billed woodpecker whom he put into a cage, that he did not survive his captivity more than three days, during which he manifested and unconquerable spirit, and refused all sustenance.  This bird severely wounded Wilson while he was sketching him, and died with unabated spirit.  'This unconquerable courage, most probably gave the head and bill of the bird so much value in the eyes of the Indians.'

Shippey notes: "I have been unable to trace Skeat's reference, 'English Cyclop. Nat. Hist.' IV, 345.   'Wilson' is probably John Marius Wilson, a zoologist who produced two other 'Cyclopedias' between 1847 and 1867."

But because I'm a bird nerd, I can trace Skeat's reference, or, rather I found  his source (his specific reference remains a mystery): the great ornithologist Alexander Wilson (1766-1813), who wrote the great nine-volume American Ornithology and whose meeting with Audubon in 1810 inspired Audubon to start his great work. Reading anything about birds and "Wilson" in the same paragraph immediately made me think of that Wilson, but the European references at the beginning of the Skeat quote at first threw me off.  However, a quick check of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's page on encounters with the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker finds the section Skeat is referring to: 
Like many naturalists and painters of the day, Wilson shot his subjects, not with a camera but with a gun, in order to paint them from life (or rather, death). Wilson wrote of shooting and slightly wounding an Ivory-billed Woodpecker a few miles from Wilmington, North Carolina. He decided to keep the bird as a pet so he could study and illustrate it at his leisure. Upon capture, the woodpecker "uttered a loudly reiterated and most piteous note, exactly resembling the violent crying of a young child, which terrified my horse so as to nearly cost me my life."

Wilson took the bird to an inn in Wilmington, where he left the bird loose in his room while he took care of his horse. When he returned to the room, less than an hour later, the bird had nearly destroyed one wall of the room and part of the ceiling in its effort to escape.

Leaving the room again to search for grubs for the bird, Wilson decided to tether the bird to the leg of a mahogany table. Upon his return he "heard him again hard at work, [and] on entering, had the mortification to perceive that he had almost entirely ruined the mahogany table to which he was fastened, and on which he had wreaked his whole vengeance."

The ivory-bill died a few days later, much to Alexander Wilson's dismay. It "displayed such a noble and unconquerable spirit, that I was frequently tempted to restore him to his native woods," he wrote. "He lived with me for three days, but refused all sustenance, and I witnessed his death with regret."
I have two other connections with Wilson (which is probably why I got the idea that he was the source). First, my colleague John Kricher has been the president of the Wilson Society, the great American ornithological group.  Second, I own a print of Audubon's painting of a Wilson's Warbler (and if you'd like to buy an Amsterdam Audubon print of the Wilson's Warbler, let me know).  

It's a small world, the connections are everywhere (and still the best tool for finding them is your brain armed with a wide variety of experiences).

P.S.:  It's been a very birdy week.  Yesterday, my son and I spotted a mature bald eagle not 100 feet away from us at the Norton Reservoir, right near Wheaton.  Today there were both hooded and common mergansers in Mother Brook in Dedham (the first artificial waterway in America and a really short walk from my house). 
Well at least I won't have to kill any more widows

I've been in the process of revising J.R.R. Tolkien's Beowulf and the Critics for a revised, expanded and corrected second edition, and I have been driving myself up a tree not to do anything that would change the pagination of the edition.  Thus I've been, in journalists' jargon, "killing widows," re-wording lines or paragraphs to keep them from running over into a next line. It's frustrating work (but amazing discipline for improving your writing).  

But today I learned from the press that this work has been for naught (except that it has tightened up the writing considerably).  The only way to make the minor corrections I want to make throughout will mess up the pagination.  No way around it, due to the way the book was produced the first time around.  That means (and you have no idea how hard it is to type these words) I    will    have     to    do    a    new     index  ...............

You see, I've done five indices this year.  True, my brilliant students Jason Rea, Lauren Provost, Tara McGoldrick and now Maryellen Groot (learn these names: They are future professors, famous lawyers and captains of industry)  have been doing the code-insertion.  But in the end I'm responsible for the cumulative index for five volumes of Tolkien Studies.  And now I have to re-index a book I wrote and indexed nearly ten years ago.  It is enough to make you want to kill some more widows (or wander around a level-35 enemy camp completely nuking everything that moves in range of your level-56 crossbow. Not feeling like such a tough goblin now, are we Nishruk?).   

So that's the bad news.  The good news is now that there won't just be a new preface, corrections throughout and two (and, if I'm lucky, three) new sections added to the introduction.  I can do a much more thoroughgoing revision to the text, and I can integrate the new material (tables showing the evolution of the original Oxford lectures into the published lecture; the identification of the various voice in the 'Babel of Voices' section, and, perhaps, a previously unpublished note that relates to the text), and I can revise some of the conclusions (W.P. Ker is even more important than I had realized) .  So the "Expanded and Corrected" second edition will now be even more true than it was in the original plan and I will be able, with a clean conscience, to encourage you to buy either the paperback release or the planned "collector's edition" (we still haven't figured out the logistics of my signing all of them.  I suggested flying me to Arizona in the middle of winter.  They haven't said "no" that that yet).  

And one final note: if you are one of the rare few who are selling copies of my book on Amazon for >150.00, you suck (well, a little), because I have no extra copies of my own to sell and thus can't capitalize on the fortunes of an out-of-print book.  And the good news for you, though not for me, is that the ones you have will soon not only be a hard-to-get first edition, but a first edition that really is different than the second edition.  You're welcome.  Please send checks, fruit baskets or huge bars of gold to my Wheaton address.  

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Laying Down Markers

This semester I am the Chair of yet another committee (yes, before we go further, department Chairs are not supposed to have to chair major committees, but, this committee didn't look so major when I agreed to chair it.  Now we are meeting every single week and doing stuff.  But somehow the Committee on Committees -- of course we have a Committee on Committees, doesn't everyone? -- hasn't noticed and pulled me off).  We are having to make some potential hiring/searching decisions, and I've gotten into some debate with my colleagues.  And I realized that one thing that we medievalists need to do, is to lay down some markers. 

I'll explain.  The quasi-searches we are doing are for interdisciplinary-type, short-term positions, meant to temporarily augment college teaching offerings.  So we're looking at stuff we don't usually teach.  One very good candidate is a medievalist.  That is, he/she specializes in the medieval period of the non-traditional area we are looking for.  One of my colleagues said, "given this [in the news a lot] subject area, I think we should have someone contemporary." 

I decided not to let this go, as I'm sure everyone wanted me to.  Instead, I laid down a marker: we are not going to make this decision without a debate about this idea on the merits of the argument and its philosophical structure.   It will be a long, difficult, drawn-out debate, because I know my arguments very well and am happy to make them (and if they're not careful, I'll use rhetoric, I will...).  But I am not going to do the typical thing, the medievalist thing (I'm sad to say), and make one gesture and then roll over.  Instead, I'm going to be willing, as one of my colleagues put it in another circumstance "to die on this hill." 

And I'm going to do that every single time someone asserts that the study of the present is more valuable than the study of the past, or that medieval culture is less important than contemporary culture.  There won't be a motion on the floor of the faculty meeting or a discussion in a department meeting or a conversation in the Faculty Dining Room in which someone gets away with making the assertion that medieval studies isn't at the very minimum as valuable (we all know it's actually more valuable, but I'll throw them a bone) as any other discipline or sub-discipline at the colleage. Every single time people try to discount, denigrate or ignore the field, I am going to make them engage in a long debate from first principles.  

I am certain that after a while this is going to get old to the people who have to have debate after debate after debate about the first principles of a liberal arts education and the value of the past and its relevance.  And I am going to be relentless about this.  And eventually, for many people, it will just be easier to take the study of the Middle Ages seriously so as not to have to lose 2/3 of a meeting on a long, tedious but impassioned rant from / debate with Drout. 

[N.B.: I am not suggesting using these tactics if you are actually on the wrong side of your debate.  But since the value of the Middle Ages is so easy to defend, and I am on the right side, eventually, the truth will prevail.]
 
The bigger point is that the way medievalists can "fight" for the value of what we do is challenge every single time the absolutely brain-dead idea that what's done in psychology or sociology or urban studies or political science is more important than medieval studies . It's not even as important as medieval studies, but we'll keep that amongst ourselves.   If people make that assertion, you make them defend it with actual arguments as opposed to sighing, sneering, or going into full condescension mode.  I'll bet they can't if they're actually challenged.  

I'll keep you posted. 

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Crazy Sheep DNA Project on Video

Wheaton put together a little video on our sheep-DNA project.  It's most valuable for seeing how smart and articulate my students are. (Wish I could take credit, but they came that way). 



video

Sunday, March 01, 2009

The Secret Language of Department Chairs

This week I was an outside evaluator for an English department that is undertaking a program review. It turns out, this was a lot of work (and even more for them than it was for me). I learned an awful lot, and I plan to steal lots of good ideas.

One moment really got me:

Former Department Chair: So students can fulfill that requirement with 208, 209 or 211. 210 is on the books but is really a place-holder for the course that have run as 298. We make sure to offer 253, 255 and 256 each year, and 254 rotates in based on sabbaticals and releases. At the 300-level, we have 302, 303 and 305 that run every year, and then we rotate 304 and 306 and sometimes 309, which used to be 310.


And I realized that I understood exactly what he was talking about.