Wednesday, December 29, 2004

An inconsistency or error in Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising

Compare the following:

Gwen and Margaret came stumbling together out of the bedroom they shared, wearing nightdresses, rubbing their eyes. "There's no need to bellow," Barbara said reproachfully to Will (47)

Barbara, sitting on the floor beside her mother, took the little carved wooden T from her hand and added it to a row she had made on the carpet of every initial in order. "Tom, Steve, Max, Gwen, Robin and Paul, me [Barbara], Mary, James," she said. "But where's the W for Will?" (70).

Clearly there is an inconsistency here. Either "Margaret" in the first quotation should in fact be "Barbara," or "Margaret" in the first quotation should in fact be "Mary." Of the two, I think the first is more likely, since otherwise the introduction of Barbara is jarring.

This seems altogether too trivial to try to publish anywhere else, and I'm not up for weaving together an article around it (I guess it could go in a footnote if I ever publish on Cooper again -- Click here for my big article on Cooper(but you have to have a Project MUSE password, and I don't).

To me the most interesting thing about noticing this inconsistency the other night is that I've read The Dark is Rising probably 20-25 times since 1978 (I re-read every Christmas nowadays, though I didn't always), and I never noticed it before. That shows just how hard it is to keep everything perfectly consistent, even when you have editors and scholars looking over your work in multiple editings and proofings.

Which leads me to my next post, a discussion of errors in Beowulf and the Critics. Tune in tomorrow for that excitement.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Why I'm not a Conservative Literary Scholar, but I wouldn't mind having a few in my department

A Commenter at Critical Mass" asks:
"As a literature scholar, I'd like to know what 'conservative literary studies' would actually look like. Would it simply mean a return to the canon? But then again, conservative historians had examined tons of non-canonical literature long before the canon wars. Would it mean no longer talking about race, class, and gender? But regardless of how out of control those terms have become in the academy, it would be hard for *anyone* to deny that race, class, and gender have played a huge role in Western literature: sensational novels, slave narratives, chivalric romances -- how can you accurately talk about any of those without discussing the social effects of gender or race or class?

Well, the canon has already been returned to, if you mean the larger, ever-evolving canon rather than some particular syllabus from 1953 in Oxford. Especially if you look at undergraduate teaching, where students might take the (utterly useless) Literature in English GRE, you've really only had tinkerings around the margins of the canon.

I think race, class and gender would not stop being talked about but might be refigured. If you're talking about class, couldn't you do so from, say, an anti-marxist view that celebrated individualism and class mobility. A novel like Ken Kesey's Sometimes a Great Notion (to my mind one of the five best American novels of the 20th century) gives a great way to talk about class, but it portrays the union works as weak, pathetic, cowardly, and the wildcat family as superhuman. Critics seem to think that's bad. As a reader I thought it was good. The problem isn't so much talking about race, class, and gender, its the particular political paradigms that are imparted as part of these studies. Maybe in some situations, union workers can be rotten and strike-breakers can be good. The complexity of life and the ability of literature to engage with that complexity should allow for powerful discussion. But sadly, a great deal of the criticism on Great Notion ignores these possiblities and turns it into a just-so story about how resisting the union is selfish and anti-social.

Would 'conservative criticism' be simply a return to aesthetics? But whose aesthetics? Those of Kant and Hegel and Heidegger, three European philosophers whose work the cultural right has deplored? It's interesting that it's thinkers like Derrida and Lyotard, far more than, say, Virginia Postrel, who have sustained a rigorous conversation about aesthetics.

First of all, Virginia Postrel is a good writing and insightful thinker, but she's not a philosopher and it would be silly to compare her directly to Derrida and Lyotard. It's like wondering why Maureen Dowd doesn't write quite as well as Hayek. But I think this list begs the question. Why do we have to go "back" to some continental view of aesthetics grounded in abstract philosophy? Why not make a new aesthetics based on, say, new developments in brain psychology and biology? What about working with scientists who deal with perception, memory and the brain's pleasure centers? Or we could look at why some ideas replicate, and other's don't, and try to explain why in terms of 'fitness,' population dynamics, idea-ecology, etc. There could be formalisms based on the rhetorical structure and ability to replicate of key elements of a cultural program, and these could be empirically as well as rationalistically tests. And if, for some reason, you insist on going back to some aesthetic philosopher or other, let me suggest Schopenhauer rather than Hegel. Please.

This is, of course, where I'd like to see literary criticism go. Of course it isn't really a "conversative" criticism at all (since, you know, I'm not a conservative). I don't want to go back to the New Criticism or to comparing every work with Homer and Virgil and deciding whether or not the poet got close enough. But talking about race, class and gender has gotten old. When I go to conferences now and people start in on the jargon, I become that dog in the FarSide cartoon that just hears blah,blah,blah,blah,blah,blah,blah,Ginger, blah, blah, blah. ...

If the field is boring me. a happy partisan and unabashed defender of the importance and value of literary scholarship, well, I think that illustrates a problem for the field.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Bias in Academia

Rose Nunez (one of whose paintings I really want to buy) has a round-up of some discussion about the left-wing bias of academia and why it exists.

This is one of the problems that drives me crazy because there are some many conflations on both sides that it becomes almost impossible to compare apples to apples.

For example, there are two separate questions intermingled in a lot of the discussion about academic hiring: the first, is the problem of explicitly identified people with certain political positions being rejected for jobs. I have not seen this actually happen from the hiring side, because I have never seen a 'conservative' application submitted. But I state with utmost confidence that any applicant in English who somehow indicated that he or she was Republican would be passed over even if that word was never discussed. I think this is a really serious problem on one hand, but on the other, it's easy enough to disguise things like this and un-do the screen. The existence of the bias is so obvious that one can avoid it. I don't think it should exist, and I think it is small-minded, immature and pathetic to discriminate against members of the other political party (it shows that you take partisan politics way too seriously to ever be a good literary scholar, in my opinion), but it's not a killing bias.

No, the real killing bias is built into the graduate programs and the fields of literary study and the way they've accepted explicit, partisan political objectives as part of the field's definition. I also think this is pathetic. I don't need to justify medieval studies with the laugh-worthy claim that it is going to undermine some oppressive social order. I could undermine orders much more effectively as a politician or a lawyer than as a professor. But due to the deep, deep insecurity that so many humanities fields have internalized, it becomes necessary to make grandiose political claims for one's scholarship. There's an 'arms race' here where each succeeding Ph.D. has to claim that his or her research will overturn more of the social order. Ain't happenin.

This screen very effectively blocks out many individuals who haven't drunk the Kool Aid and don't believe that the reason to study medieval literature is to be able to deconstruct 21st century advertising or yammer about how much one hates Geo. Bush. You can learn to avoid this screen as well, 'talking the talk' of whatever is fashionable, and then, when you have your tenure, you can do whatever the hell you want. That's very difficult, and there's a lot of self-repression necessary, and of course this is unfair to students, but the system is only going to be changed by rebellion from within.

One thing that would help--and this is for another post, as baby did not take a long nap today and I'm doing the bobbing chicken right now--would be for people to start developing different models of scholarship that don't go 'back' to the new criticism or the old philology, but also reject, say, Foucault, Derrida, and the other continental philosophers and instead try to build something new. That's what I'm trying to do in How Tradition Works, which should be published soon. Then you'll see if it worked.

And since the NEA rejected my application today, I have no problem with that particular band of toadies and incompetents being dissolved and the savings used for kudzu eradication efforts.

Monday, December 06, 2004

Ssstupid sstudentses
This brilliant piece is being circulated through email right now. I resist the urge to pedantically 'improve' it and instead give it to you in all its glory.
Tricksy studentses. Hates them, precious, yesss, we hates them. Studentses, grubbing for gradeses, grubbing and ssscraping and ssneaking, and their heads sso empty-- ssssso empty, gollum, gollum. No brains. No scrumptiously crunchable brainses, no precious, jusst air and dussst. Dussst!

Hates them. Ssstupid sstudentses, don't even read the textbook, no preciouss. They writes, and writes, and sscrawls and scribbles-- our eyes, precious, we must ruin our poor eyeses on their scratchings-- but they don't think, do they, precious? They never thinksss. Gollum. No, no thinking for them, sstupid studentses. Too good for thinking, gollum But we'll show them, preciouss, yess.

Fail them. Fail them, precious. We can bleed bright red ink all over their nassssty homeworks, yesss, precious. We can fail the studentses. Make them cry. Make them weep and wail and sssob. Yesss.

Ssstudentss. Filthy, sstinking, ssstupid studentsss. We hatess them, we hates them forever!

Yess, precious. Gollum, gollum.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Groupthink in the Humanities

BAW links to this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about "Liberal Groupthink" in academia.

I've said previously that although it is undeniable that bias does exist (and I think it should be called 'leftist', not 'liberal'), I don't think in and of itself it is a huge problem (but of course it's not my conservative ox that is getting gored, or my career being damaged because I have the 'wrong' politics). Mere bias will eventually wash out, even from the humanities, because eventually too much dissonance will build up: the 'word to world fit' of the arguments will become unacceptable. (I know that's an idealized view, and that others would argue that politics can keep a stranglehold on intellectual worldviews; my counterexample is the eventual death of Lysenkoism -- which of course killed enormous numbers of people before being rejected, but was eventually rejected).
In any event, I'm in agreement with Bauerlein when he argues that the loss of intellectual diversity and counter-arguing voices is a serious problem for academia. All of the other problems that Bauerlein identified, including false consensus and group polarization are readily apparent, even (or perhaps especially) in a pretty idyllic, collegial environment like Wheaton.

In this blog I've avoided commenting very much on politics, because I don't think anyone is interested in my views, and because I'm not a partisan of either party (I follow George Washington in loathing political parties in general). But I've been reading all of the "what the Democrats have to do to win an election" and thinking how the critiques are similar to critiques of academia--and equally useless. Bauerlein's article combined two lines of thought for me:

I don't think there's any point in leftists in academia or Democrats in politics pretending that they don't believe in what they believe in, and I don't think all of their ideas are that unpopular. I certainly don't think that insincere invocations of religion are going to do anything. But I do think that there is a core problem of expression that might be addressed, and that is the assumed superiority in discourse conventions. From imposing solutions to problems via courts and regulatory agencies rather than by democratic processes to 'forced volunteerism' graduation requirements to politicized required classes, there's a really annoying tendency among leftists to assume that they are coercing people for their own good (people on the right do this also, of course, but their issues aren't at this moment as grating, I think; give them time, though...).

If both academic leftists and Democrats could try to force themselves to address their audiences not as children or inferiors (social, political, moral, educational), they would not alienate as many potential allies. And if they could finally reject the notion of the university/society as a quasi family (with superior parents telling inferior children what to do) but instead as a free association of equals, their arguments would be far more palatable.

That means of course tolerating dissent and not entering into a class with the idea that you are going to convince the students of their false consciousness. I know too many professors, even in my own department, who think that one of their jobs in a course is to break down student 'resistance,' whether that's resistance to theory or resistance to certain political ideas. Yes, they are our students, and we know more about our subjects and they less. But they are also adults, endowed with intelligence, experience and creativity of their own. Almost every question in the humanities is something about which reasonable people can disagree: we should nourish that disagreement, if only for the selfish reasons that it will make our own arguments stronger.

Unfortunately I think my above prescription is pie in the sky. Just as I can see no good method by which to solve the Ph.D. employment crisis (all the solutions end up creating as many or more problems than they solve), I can see no good method for incorporating conservative voices into academia. Look, I'm a libertarian anarchist and just barely fit into Wheaton's culture; I think a real conservative would be just miserable on campus--and that's a serious problem. The only real hope is that the my generation of young scholars will be so disgusted with the ossified orthodoxy of contemporary academia that we will overthrow it. I definitely want to do this, but I do not want to replace liberal orthodoxy with some conservative orthodoxy. Unfortunately, that we should wish to cast a system down and have no other one in its place is not a thought that occurs naturally to the academic or the political mind. The good news is that, if we do our jobs right, our own students will come along and overthrow us, just as we can overthrow the system built by our teachers.

Here's hoping.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Voter Fraud (in which a strange talent of mine would have allowed me to vote at least three times)

Took my six-month-old son to vote today (start good habits young, I say), and found no lines to speak of: the grammar school gym was empty at 10:00 a.m. The procedure was this: give you street address to a volunteer holding a big book. Then, when she's found the street address, give your name and take your ballot.

Now, I can read upside down. Very fast. It was a parlor trick in college for me to read the same homework as someone else, but reading the page upside down. This technique has also allowed me to suss out my competition for MLA interviews, etc.

Today it allowed me to see that the two guys who used to live in our house are still registered here in Dedham. I could have either called friends who vote at different precincts and asked them to vote as 'Brad' and 'Jamie', or I could probably have come back to the polling place, differently dressed, carrying different kids, etc., and voted three times.

Now I didn't want to do this, so I didn't. But the Commonwealth of Massachusetts needs to do something to prevent me from putting this evil plan into action.

Seriously, if a doofus like me, with not particular interest in voter fraud, can figure this out, it's obvious that the Mayor Daleys of the world are gaming the system big time. I don't actually think it would turn the result of a state or national election, but it allows for an enormous amount of electoral corruption in local politics.

Why don't the good government types try to solve this problem, which seems to me quite tractable? Obviously there must be something in it for them in keeping the current mess.

Monday, November 01, 2004

News: Nov 1
Blogging has been very light lately because I've been on the road, first at a conference on Tolkien at Marquette University, and then at a teaching institute at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. Both events were excellent. At Marquette, I got to meet many people I've only known from email, which is always a pleasure. I also had a lovely, long dinner with Prof. Arne Zettersten, who collaborated with J. R. R. Tolkien for 13 years working on the AB Language and Ancrene Wisse. I wish I knew 1/10th the philology Prof. Zettersten knows.

At New Mexico I got to give a talk on Tolkien to a large audience of secondary school teachers. I absolutely loved it: they were enthusiastic and smart and well-informed. If there is to be any hope for saving medieval studies for the next generation, we have to reach out to secondary school teachers. The Medieval Institute at New Mexico, under the leadership of Tim Graham, seems to me to have the absolute best approach to doing this I've ever seen. They get graduate students to work with teachers in New Mexico to come and guest-teach classes on Arthurian Lit, Tolkien and Beowulf, and other medieval topics. It's a brilliant idea, and in a year or so I hope to steal it.

In other news, I just signed a contract with Recorded Books to do 14 lectures on Chaucer to be recorded on CD and distributed by them. Now I'll be spending November preparing those lectures. Should be fun, and great prep for teaching Chaucer again this spring.

Finally, and most importantly, Halloween was a big success. Rhys went as Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz (her own idea), and looked amazingly like her. Mitchell was a lion and fell asleep in the stroller. It was a warm, beautiful day and evening for the second year in a row.

Sunday, October 17, 2004

Curriculum for a Liberal Arts Education

Scott Kleinman has been discussing curriculum and liberal education and I've meant to try to contribute a little to the discussion. A couple of years ago I was on the Educational Policy Committee at Wheaton that re-wrote our curriculum -- with what I think were good results.

Faculty members who've been through a curriculum review are probably already clicking away in horror, since curriculum reviews are notorious bloodbaths of vicious infighting. This didn't happen at Wheaton, partially because the co-chairs of EdPol and the Provost were very sharp politically, but also because we managed to avoid making the curriculum review a turf battle.

I'm not going to go through the 'quia' of the curriculum review right now. Rather I want to talk about what we ended up doing, which I think is innovative and does a good job of accomplishing the contradictory goals of a 'core' and 'distribution' that is the problem for all curricula: you want students to have some basis of shared knowledge, but you also want to give students the freedom to study their interests.

Wheaton's curriculum is divided into "Foundations" and "Connections" (and there's also a stealth "Breadth" requirement that only rarely comes into play). Foundations courses are those all students need to have: Writing 101, Mathematics (can be fulfilled either with traditional math or computer science or a logic course), two semesters of a non-English language,and a silly, politically correct "Beyond the West" course (I don't think it's silly to study cultures beyond the west; I just think it shows a lack of confidence to require it).

The real heart of the new curriculum, though, is the "Connections" requirement. Students have to take paired (or tripled) courses that are linked together across traditional disciplinary groups. Some examples of "connected" courses would include an Anatomy course that the students would take at the same time as Figure Drawing; a course in the chemistry of pigments and art materials connected with an Art History course on conservation; a course in the math of voting theory and a political science course; and (the one I teach) a course in Science Fiction with a course in mathematics (we use Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon and Borges' Library of Babel).

The purpose of the connections is to get students to take courses outside of their interest areas but nevertheless see these courses as being relevant to them. This is particularly useful for science courses, which non-science students tend to hate and avoid. Our experience thus far is that students not only report significantly more satisfaction but also perform better (in terms of attendance, grades, and subjective teacher response) than those who take identical courses without the connection (i.e., the student just takes Anatomy without the Figure Drawing).

Just as significantly, Connections allows the faculty to promote interdisciplinary work without sacrificing disciplinary knowledge: we don't have an English prof attempting to teach biology; we have a biology prof teaching Darwin and an English prof teaching Victorian culture.

To make sure that students sample the major disciplines, there is a 'breadth' requirement that causes students to take at least one science, one social science, one humanities, but thus far just about everyone fulfils these with the two Connections.

The Connections curriculm has been great for the faculty, also, as we've had a real opportunity (and some funding) to work together to produce more integrated connections, like the Math/SciFi one, in which all of our assignments are coordinated and interconnected. So, for example, as students are reading Cryptomonicon, they are doing problem sets about cryptography (including a lot of number theory); when they read Borges, they're doing combinatorics; when they read "The Infinite Assassin" (brilliant story by Greg Egan) they're doing infinities and Cantor sets.

The other elements of the curriculum are the inclusion of writing and quantitative analysis in all of the majors (rather than as separate courses), a 'capstone' experience for each major, and the "infusion" of race, gender, etc. throughout the curriculum (PC requirement, but actually being done very well, in my opinion, as it has led to a lot of faculty working up additions to their classes of high culture from, say, China, Japan, India, etc. rather than the kind of tedious whining about western culture that I had in college).

Overall I'm very pleased with how the curriculum turned out, and thus far it seems to be working. But, I'd add, there is no such thing as a "correct" curriculum. Rather, there's a match between faculty, students, institution and curriculum. If there is such a match, then the faculty and the students have the enthusiasm to make the curriculum work. So far, so good.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

Back Down to Earth

Nothing to bring back perspective than a snotty reader's report leading to a rejection letter. I'm not entirely surprised at the rejection, because the paper wasn't perfect for the journal and even if it were, I could see disagreeing with the argument, which is pretty provocative.

But really, to put in a whole paragraph on not being consistent in using single versus double quotation marks, and this not being in line with British usage (and also to complain about commas in date citations): dude, you need to get out more.

In the past I would have really worried about the stupid quotation mark thing, wondering if that had been the straw that broke the camel's back and caused the rejection. Now that I edit a journal (with Doug Anderson and Verlyn Flieger), I know that this is the most trivial nitpicking imaginable. The editing process will fix these kinds of issues.

But the important thing, when this happens to you, is not to ignore the entire, substantive report because one paragraph was so stupid.

And when you're writing reader's reports: don't waste everybody's time because you had difficulty toilet training.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Job Opening at Wheaton and Other Stuff

So, (as Seamus Heaney would say) this is apparently my 100th post on this blog and I've been thinking for a week about what brilliant thing I would write, which has, of course, blocked my attempts to write anything (except all the other stuff I've been writing). So instead I'll post some announcements and news and updates.

First, here at Wheaton (we're the Wheaton in Massachusetts) we are searching to fill an Assistant Professor position, tenure track, in Eighteenth-Century Literature. Teaching load is 5 courses per year (3/2), good research support, very collegial department. We're most interested in someone who can connect up the 18th C with earlier periods (rather than a 'long 18th Century' person who sneaks into Victorian). But the key thing is we want someone who loves to teach and is committed to teaching. Everybody in our dept, from the chair to the newest Assistant Prof, teaching first-year writing, and we actually enjoy it.

But I want to put out a word of warning, also: it would be a mistake to tailor your application to Wheaton based on what I've written in my blog. I'm on leave this semester and probably won't be reading applications, so it's important to research the department as a whole.

Also, for the duration of the search I'm not going to blog about job-searches or the job situation in academe. This is voluntary (I don't even know if my chair knows about my blog), but I think it's in the best interests of applicants and of the department.

Second: Anglo-Saxon England accepted my article on Anglo-Saxon medicine. My co-authors (bio prof. Barbara Brennessel and bio student Robyn Gravel) and I worked for over five years, testing Anglo-Saxon medical remedies in the laboratory. None of them worked. To find out why this is important, you'll have to read the article when it comes out. But I'm very excited because ASE is the best journal in our field and it's been a real pleasure working with them.

Third: I'll be speaking at the big Tolkien conference at Marquette University next weekend. My talk is on Saturday morning at 9 a.m. (so much for Friday night drinking). My talk is "The Rhetorical Evolution of J. R. R. Tolkien's "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics" -- it should be spell-binding.

Fourth: I'll be speaking at the Wrentham Public Library here in Massachusetts on January 11, 2005.

More updates later about the horned Moses.
Job Opening at Wheaton and Other Stuff

So, (as Seamus Heaney would say) this is apparently my 100th post on this blog and I've been thinking for a week about what brilliant thing I would write, which has, of course, blocked my attempts to write anything (except all the other stuff I've been writing). So instead I'll post some announcements and news and updates.

First, here at Wheaton (we're the Wheaton in Massachusetts) we are searching to fill an Assistant Professor position, tenure track, in Eighteenth-Century Literature. Teaching load is 5 courses per year (3/2), good research support, very collegial department. We're most interested in someone who can connect up the 18th C with earlier periods (rather than a 'long 18th Century' person who sneaks into Victorian). But the key thing is we want someone who loves to teach and is committed to teaching. Everybody in our dept, from the chair to the newest Assistant Prof, teaching first-year writing, and we actually enjoy it.

But I want to put out a word of warning, also: it would be a mistake to tailor your application to Wheaton based on what I've written in my blog. I'm on leave this semester and probably won't be reading applications, so it's important to research the department as a whole.

Also, for the duration of the search I'm not going to blog about job-searches or the job situation in academe. This is voluntary (I don't even know if my chair knows about my blog), but I think it's in the best interests of applicants and of the department.

Second: Anglo-Saxon England accepted my article on Anglo-Saxon medicine. My co-authors (bio prof. Barbara Brennessel and bio student Robyn Gravel) and I worked for over five years, testing Anglo-Saxon medical remedies in the laboratory. None of them worked. To find out why this is important, you'll have to read the article when it comes out. But I'm very excited because ASE is the best journal in our field and it's been a real pleasure working with them.

Third: I'll be speaking at the big Tolkien conference at Marquette University next weekend. My talk is on Saturday morning at 9 a.m. (so much for Friday night drinking). My talk is "The Rhetorical Evolution of J. R. R. Tolkien's "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics" -- it should be spell-binding.

Fourth: I'll be speaking at the Wrentham Public Library here in Massachusetts on January 11, 2005.

More updates later about the horned Moses.
Job Opening at Wheaton and Other Stuff

So, (as Seamus Heaney would say) this is apparently my 100th post on this blog and I've been thinking for a week about what brilliant thing I would write, which has, of course, blocked my attempts to write anything (except all the other stuff I've been writing). So instead I'll post some announcements and news and updates.

First, here at Wheaton (we're the Wheaton in Massachusetts) we are searching to fill an Assistant Professor position, tenure track, in Eighteenth-Century Literature. Teaching load is 5 courses per year (3/2), good research support, very collegial department. We're most interested in someone who can connect up the 18th C with earlier periods (rather than a 'long 18th Century' person who sneaks into Victorian). But the key thing is we want someone who loves to teach and is committed to teaching. Everybody in our dept, from the chair to the newest Assistant Prof, teaching first-year writing, and we actually enjoy it.

But I want to put out a word of warning, also: it would be a mistake to tailor your application to Wheaton based on what I've written in my blog. I'm on leave this semester and probably won't be reading applications, so it's important to research the department as a whole.

Also, for the duration of the search I'm not going to blog about job-searches or the job situation in academe. This is voluntary (I don't even know if my chair knows about my blog), but I think it's in the best interests of applicants and of the department.

Second: Anglo-Saxon England accepted my article on Anglo-Saxon medicine. My co-authors (bio prof. Barbara Brennessel and bio student Robyn Gravel) and I worked for over five years, testing Anglo-Saxon medical remedies in the laboratory. None of them worked. To find out why this is important, you'll have to read the article when it comes out. But I'm very excited because ASE is the best journal in our field and it's been a real pleasure working with them.

Third: I'll be speaking at the big Tolkien conference at Marquette University next weekend. My talk is on Saturday morning at 9 a.m. (so much for Friday night drinking). My talk is "The Rhetorical Evolution of J. R. R. Tolkien's "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics" -- it should be spell-binding.

Fourth: I'll be speaking at the Wrentham Public Library here in Massachusetts on January 11, 2005.

More updates later about the horned Moses.

Monday, October 11, 2004

Obituary for Patrick Wormald in the Independent

Far more detailed and eloquent than I could have been.

Thursday, September 30, 2004

Patrick Wormald, RIP

It is a sad day for Anglo-Saxon studies. Patrick Wormald, an Oxford professor and one of the truly great twentieth-century historians of Anglo-Saxon passed away at his home. Patrick was also one of the nicest people in Anglo-Saxon studies. I first met him at ISAS 97 in Palermo, where he took the time to have a long, detailed discussion about some of my ideas about the Benedictine Reform. Thereafter we chatted at various conferences and he gave me a great many good ideas for my work, directing me to sources and correcting errors. He had no particular reason to help me out other than being a genuinely kind and generous person.

Patrick was probably the greatest historian of Anglo-Saxon law since Felix Liebermann in the 19th century. His work was always beautifully written as well as brilliantly argued. I think his essay in the Barbara Yorke's Bishop Athelwold collection, "AEthelwold and his Continental Counterparts," helped me as much as any other single piece of scholarship in writing How Tradition Works.

In the past few years Anglo-Saxon studies has lost three scholars who were both academic titans and great people: Ted Irving, Phil Pulsiano, and Patrick Wormald. It's a great credit to the profession that so many people like this are in it, but it's crushingly sad to lose them.

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

How To Fix Journalism

Maybe because I was a terrible journalist, I have all kinds of good ideas how to fix things. Not "The Profession of Journalism" as such. I don't see a solution for the perpetual J-school vs. experience argument. I don't know how to reduce the political biases of the people who choose to go into journalism. I don't really see how, beyond general cultural shifts, the profession can force journalists to be more interested in and educated about science, math, history and languages.

But I have some very practical solutions that editors could use to improve their stories and squeeze out bias even when it's not the kind of bias that they notice (i.e., left-leaning editors often don't notice left-leaning bias; the same is true, of course, for the few right-leaning editors).

STEP 1 DO NOT TELL ME THINGS THAT HAVE NOT HAPPENED. Today there was a headline on Reuters (which only give three top stories) 'Debates Provide Contrast' or something mealy like that. This is not true. The debate happens on Thursday night. Stop telling me what is going to happen and tell me what has happened.
I first really noticed this trend during the Gulf War, when it seemed as if 75% of the story was explaining what the reporter thought would happen next. On the first day of the air war, all the talk was of how the ground was was going to start. It was even worse in the Iraq war. There were all kinds of things actually happening: battles, advances, setbacks. But if you go and re-read the front-page coverage, you'd get much more speculation about the next step (speculation, I might add, that was usually wrong). Predictions are not facts, and so it's very, very easy for them to become 'spun' and biased. Eliminate them.

STEP 2: FOR GOD'S SAKE, CHECK YOUR NUMBERS YOURSELF. Today there was an article in the Wall Street Journal catalogue critic section that said that an average baby wears 4000 diapers. Let's run some numbers, shall we. A baby will live approximate 800 days until toilet trained (just to use nice, round numbers). The baby will not average only five diapers through that whole time. Even at the very end, just before little precious is ready to train, you are talking about one in the morning upon wakeup, one after morning meal, one mid-day or post-lunch, one afternoon, one dinnertime, one before bed. Doctors say that the child should be making water six times a day, so unless you get a double-up with other materials, that pushes the number to seven, which means not 4000, but 5600. But it gets worse, because most infants are much closer to 15-20 diapers per day ( my champion son has gone through 27 once -- there goes his college fund). So if you make the average for the first 300 days 15, you're up to 8600, and when you figure in little tricks like peeing after a diaper is only partially on after a change, and the lovely visit of Mister Rotavirus that we all get, well. Only a fool would count on less than 10,000 diapers. See, this did not require higher math. Just some common sense -- and I did it all in my head. [and yes, this week my wife goes back to work and I become Mr Mom for our six-month-old son and four-year-old daughter, so I'm thinking a lot about diapers.]

STEP 3DELETE LEADING AND TENDENTIOUS MODIFIERS. It would be easy to write a Word macro that deleted every instance of the modifiers "ultra," "arch," "extreme". These are useless cliches. You would probably have to do the "controversial" or "much-criticised" by hand, since there conceivably could be one or two instances in which these were useful, but I suggest automating.

STEP 4NO PASSIVE VOICE, NO UNSPECIFIC PARAPHRASE FAUX-QUOTES FROM 'EXPERTS' or "OFFICIALS'. News is about saying what has happened. Active voice, so that you can't get away from who did what to whom. Also, don't be a weasel and quote anonymous 'experts.' Weak. We all know it's a group of other reporters making crap up.

STEP 5PARTY AFFILIATION OF ALL ELECTED OFFICIALS AND RETIRED ELECTED OFFICIALS must be given even in seemingly unrelated stories. Regardless of what the story is about: officials run their campaigns on their images and their 'characters.' Therefore, when Congressman Snopes is caught tipping the cow, as it were, we need to know which party.

STEP 6 . NO PHYSICAL DESCRIPTIONS OF PEOPLE UNLESS THEY ARE FLEEING THE LAW OR IT IS RELEVANT TO THE STORY. Thus if Michael Moore were to catch and eat the Great White Shark now circling Cape Cod in its quest for Teddy Kennedy, you could describe Mr Moore's girth. But not in a story about one of his one-trick-pony films.

Ok, those are six rules. Since Journalists in my experience tend to be acquainted with twelve-step programs, I'll invite suggestion and contributions.

Monday, September 27, 2004

Well, I'm back. Continuing discussion with Rose Nunez

Back from a hurricane-dodging vacation (where I finally caught some snook after eight years of on-and-off trying) and now having dug out from the accumulated email detritus, I can respond to this post by Rose Nunez. You can scroll down to find the links to the continued discussion.

I had said that Rose's treatment by some particular professors was "academic malpractice." Rose replies that
Malpractice implies an isolated violation or couple of violations of professional principles, committed by a small number of incompetent or arrogant members of the profession. Instead, I see the problem as being much more widespread, even a direct outgrowth of professional principles that are bad to begin with.

She continues by pointing out that if someone treated her with medieval medicine during the Middle Ages, this wouldn't necesarily be malpractice.

I get the point, and I don't think I expressed myself as well as I'd have liked. My point was not so much that being a predictable leftist was academic malpractice (because if that's the case, then Rose's analogy holds), but that the treatment of a student by professors that she describes--placing ideology above objective truth, especially when it comes to dealing with students--is in fact malpractice. And my evidence is exactly that Rose was discouraged enough by academia not to continue her studies in medieval literature. Obvious loss to the profession.

Look, I understand that everyone has their ideological committments. But responsible academics can be professional enough to teach students with whom they disagree. If they can't, then they don't belong in the profession.

Rose also writes: "But as long as philology and classicism were part of the mission, literary academics had to respect some minimum standard of empirical verifiability." Well, yes. I think one of the biggest problems facing not just English, but a whole host of other professions (journalism, law, history) is that at some point in the 1970's we turned a very wrong corner. Whether it is famous professors like Edward Said, journalists like Dan Rather and Jayson Blair, or Massachusetts SJC judges, we've come to a time where, apparently, it is ok JUST TO MAKE CRAP UP. This is, as I've said in other posts, a very bad thing, because the information culture we live in requires good information.

The 'solution' if there is one, is blowback: people reacting, like one of my correspondents did to the Dan Rather forgeries, by withdrawing respect and support from journalists, professors, lawyers, and comparing them unfavorably to engineers, doctors, and others who have to get things right. That's not a recipe for fast change, but academics are quite vain about their social respect, and when it starts to go, they'll notice.

Maybe it's because I'm a medievalist, but I just don't see the avoidance of concrete facts that Rose laments. This could very well be true in modernism, and I have said before that I simply can't read PMLA anymore, but, particularly in Anglo-Saxon, you can't get away with making stuff up.

Rose's point that professors don't hear other professors as much as students do is true at most places, but probably not here at Wheaton, where we visit each others classes with some frequency and where there are regular faculty lunch talks as well as our simply eating together every day in the faculty dining room. But Wheaton is almost certainly not representative. The biggest problem in the profession as a whole is the disconnect between teaching individual students and all the other stuff faculty members do. When the feedback loop is broken, bad things happen. As we're seeing at Harvard right now.

You should have feedback loops from your students, your colleagues, your non-academic neighbors, and the interested readers who read your blog. Seriously. But, particularly for famous, cocooned academics at big name universities who live in faculty ghettos like Cambridge or Palo Alto, you lose those feedback loops. Then, I think, your work becomes lousy and you end up having graduate students do your semi-original thinking for you. And the profession is set up so that we get stuck for decades with people who've done nothing of any great use since having one excellent idea in 1973 (Mr. Bloom, I'm looking at you).

Thursday, September 09, 2004

Off to see the Lizard...
I have tons of things that I want to write about, but I'll be offline for about two weeks. In the meanwhile, read my friend and fellow Anglo-Saxonist Scott Kleinman's excellent blog, maybe starting with this follow-up to one of my posts.

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Continuing the Discussion
Rose Nunez continues the discussion begun here and continued here, here and here.

Rose writes:
The excuse that over-reaching professors really just have society's best interests at heart doesn't cut any ice with me. And that's because--this is humiliating to say on a public blog--I'm really just a disillusioned teenager inside. I expected better of academics. I expected them to care about facts, to care about truth with both a big and a little "t," to not wave the white flag of intellectual surrender, the one that says "reality is ideology." I expected them to analyze their own ideologies, and to place objectivity above ideological allegiances, and to go for long hard archaeological expeditions beyond their social and political comfort zones. I expected them to be more than human, which was wrong and immature of me, and what's worse, I still expect that of them.

I think Rose (and everyone else) should expect more from academics. The academic position is a privileged one, and with the privilege should come the responsibility to make sure that when a professor opens his or her mouth in an official capacity, that professor tries to be certain that what comes out is true. And in my experience, most (not all, certainly) professors really do try to promote the truth. The problem is, what they believe to be the truth bears little resemblance to what most other people think is the truth. But professors are so cocooned that they don't often get their ideologies questioned. I consider myself extremely lucky to have gone to an engineering undergraduate school (Carnegie Mellon), lived in a fraternity full of engineers, been married to an engineering Ph.D. for 10 years, lived next door to a Chicago Transit Authority cop and a master mason and a retired nurse and two wheelchair using, self-described "Good Old Boys" from the Missouri bootheel, managed a pet store in Columbia Missouri, ... you get the point. My wife and I don't do the typical academic thing. We've never tried to live in a college town or an academic community (when she was at Northewestern, we lived in Rogers Park, not Evanston). I'm not saying this as some kind of moral superiorty: we're just comfortable in different situations than my colleagues are. But those colleagues are in a cocoon. They rarely meet people who disagree with them, and so their ideas get wackier and wackier. I still think that my colleages have good hearts: they genuinely believe most of what they say they believe, or at least give the strong impression that they do.

Rose continues:
In my last two years at the university, it became clear to me that most of my professors didn't really think hard about what might be best for society; or, more to the point, their notion of society was something abstract, removed from the world of people and jobs and striving and suffering. I heard a professor lament the end of feudalism because it cleared the way for the rise of democracy and capitalism (for readers who haven't been English majors: I'm not kidding. In class.) I heard a professor say not that the Soviet threat during the Cold War was exaggerated, not that America overreacted, but that the Soviet Union in fact did not expand--its expansion was a figment of the macho American imagination. I had a professor who was upset because a Vietnamese woman's memoirs that said unsavory things about the Vietcong might encourage readers to invest in the American myth.

Rose is, I think, the victim of academic malpractice here. And I use that term advisedly and with the intentional parallel to medicine. Medicine is an art as well as a science (like the humanities), and if a doctor get the 'art' wrong, he or she can be sued for malpractice. I don't see why humanities professors shouldn't be similarly responsible for their actions. And I'll note that the malpractice arises, at least in the last instance, is a perfect example of what I was talking about in my earlier posts: academics who don't trust the audience to handle the truth and so skew their research, their teaching and their presentations so as to manipulate the audience to the conclusions that they (the professors) genuinely believe are correct. I think that professors should categorically never do this. It is, in my opinion, source of the rot in academia.

Rose continues:
What kind of concern for society is it that refuses to look at actual people and their actual lives, but instead uses some philosophical dilettante's fractured and unfactual musings as a map? What kind of good intentions continually exalt the superior vision of the "intenders" while discounting the "false" consciousness of the objects of their ministrations? And, for God's sake, what kind of intellectual integrity is it that weaves webs of obfuscation and deceit around demonstrable, repeatable, embarrassingly pedestrian truths?

There are two indictments here. The first is of out of touch academics. I don't have a programmatic solution, but I do wish my colleagues got out more and interacted with different people. There should be empirical testing of ideas in the world, not just theorizing. In that way I am unapologetically from the Anglo-American empiricist tradition and opposed to the French rationalist tradition. But many fields, with their deference to continental modes of inquiry, don't test their hypotheses against the real world with enough regularity and rigor.

The second indictment is, I think, just another example of what happens when you cross the old bright line that used to separate academics from everyone else: the pursuit of truth no matter where it takes you. I think that the pursuit of truth is more important than being sure that the truth you find is used the way you think it should be used, and I've tried to justify my position. But it is certainly true that there are a great many people who would argue that not recognizing what the general public (or anyone, for that matter) will do with your truth is the height of irresponsibility. In some future posts I hope to answer that charge.

Another Reason Why I Critique the Leftists But Can't Join the Conservatives

Some readers of this blog take me to task for being an apologist for academia. Others criticize me for challenging the leftist bias (as I see it) of the academy. Another group gives me a hard time for 'trying to have it both ways.'

Here's an example, from National Review Online's The Corner, of why I won't join up with the conservatives even though I'm sick to death of the dominant approaches to culture in the academy:

When the week before last I asked for explanations of the horns on Michelangelo's Moses one reader of this happy Corner made an especially good suggestion: Ask Roger Kimball. Roger is an editor of The New Criterion and author of the marvelous new book, The Rape of the Masters: How Political Correctness Sabotages Art. Here's Roger's reply:

I have not pondered the question much, but I am skeptical of the 'cornu' interpretation: I suspect that the horns represent not Michelangelo's interpretation of a passage from Exodus but rather his effort to provide a visual and emotional correlative for the kind of severe religious sublimity that Moses embodied. A quality that is often discerned in Michelangelo's work is terribilit?: a term that is hard to define but that embraces the sublime. What we see in Moses here--Moses the law-giver, Moses the chap who has just had an awful (in the old sense) encounter with God--is the results of an artist's effort to represent visually something that exceeds the boundaries of the representable: the horns are a sort of objective correlative of that overwhelming moral awesomeness: forbidding, grotesque, yet commanding. That, anyhow, is how it appears to me at first blush. (The proper question here, I suspect, is not 'What does it mean?' but 'How does it feel?' That is, the issue is less one of symbols and semantics than one of aesthetic force and religious passion.)
Herewith, at last, a completely satisfying explanation of what Michelangelo was attempting. The convention of portraying Moses with horns may very well have arisen because of a mistranslation of one or two terms of Hebrew into Latin. But Michelangelo uses it not out of confusion or ignorance but for the high purposes of his art.

In a single paragraph, an entire course in art appreciation. With thanks to Roger--and to the reader who suggested I ask him."

In a single paragraph, a crapload of mystification and fuzzy-wuzzy hot air when five minutes of research would have given an answer.

As Ruth Mellinkoff shows in her book The Horned Moses in Medieval Art and Thought, the image of Moses with horns was ubiquitous in the Middle Ages due to the mistranslation of the Hebrew. Even after the scholastics had figured out the mistranslation, the image persisted for centuries because the artists were not reading the scholastic treatises, but working from a visual tradition in which everybody knew that Moses had horns because that's what he looked like. If an artist had made a hornless Moses, it wouldn't have looked right.

The reviews I've read of Kimball's The Rape of the Masters make me think I'd agree with the critique of amateur psychologizing and tedious political analysis of the artworks of the masters. But if the proposed solution is to return, as he does in the above paragraph, to the kind of gooey, unsupported assertions of greatness and sublimity, then I know that I and a lot of other scholars, who, like me, are bored with and unconvinced by deconstruction, political analysis, etc., won't be taking this path.
"The horns are a sort of objective correlative of that overwhelming moral awesomeness: forbidding, grotesque, yet commanding" -- that does not explain 'Why horns?'
"The proper question here, I suspect, is not 'What does it mean?' but 'How does it feel?'" -- well, that's convenient, since there's no arguing with how something feels. It's exactly as solipsistic as the kind of analysis that conservatives rightly deride: 'Chaucer makes me feel oppressed, so he must be oppressive.'

Look, it's great to appreciate art, and art should make you feel something. But the job of the critic is to attempt to explain what the art does and why it works that way.

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Follow Up: Rose Nunez' Critique of My Posts on Journalists and Academics

I really appreciate Rose Nunez' response at her No Credentials blog to my attempt to explain why I think academics and journalists do what they do, viz. slanting, manipulating and mis-representing news/facts.

You should go read Rose's critique for yourself, but here are the key paragraphs:
But it seems to me that many reporters--and I know firsthand that many English professors--assume they have license far beyond their fiefdoms. A deep acquaintance with Foucault's History of Sexuality and a propensity for seeing a Panopticon in every self-service supermarket checkout doesn't mean you understand the actual effects of rent control any better than my mother does. Twenty years of performing materialist analyses of novels by mentally ill writers does not etch within you a superior understanding of the DSM IV, and it most certainly does not give you a loftier pulpit from which to preach about pharmaceuticals and brain disorders.

My bookshelves sag with 1980s tomes by leftist journalists whose nuanced ideas about socialism led them to predict a long life for the Soviet Union and a short one for western capitalism. And in the go-go nineties, journalists competed to see who could produce the most hair-raising scare stories about the dire effects of welfare reform, when in fact it turned out to be one of Bill Clinton's best ideas--I know from direct experience, having been a grant writer for a county social services agency during the Clinton administration.

In short, the list of wrong-headed and unsupported conclusions reached by well-meaning intellectuals could wrap around the planet thrice--never touching the ground, of course--duck through an asteroid belt of inconvenient results, weave a macrame of knotty intangibles with the moons of Jupiter, and come back with enough left over to pat itself on the back for being such a smarty.

Readers of this blog will not be surprised to find that I am very much in agreement with her critique. Over-reaching academics drive me crazy. There are way too many people who comment on things they know nothing about. One of my earliest posts took Toni Morrison to task for ignorant comments about Beowulf. And Rose is right that being an expert in one field does not make one and expert in another. I think this is particularly true when someone is attempting to comment in areas that are politically contentious: it's very, very easy to think that because you are smart (and all academic think they are smart) and because you possess some analytical tools, you are going to be correct about anything you turn your attention to. This is mistake.

And yet. [You knew there would be an 'and yet,']. There's a sentiment lurking in the blogosphere (for example in occasional comments on Roger L. Simon's blog) that professors--at least in the humanities--are on the whole mendacious and manipulative and should not be trusted to comment on issues of current concern. I don't agree, because, as an unabashed partisan of the humanities, I believe in the immense value of the things that humanists study and in the value they add to this enterprise. If you follow Rose's (and my) critique to its logical extreme, you end up with people all inside little, specialist boxes, unable to criticize anything outside their own particular (to use Rose's word) fiefs.

This is one of those very tangled questions. Noam Chomsky, for example, claims that his political work has nothing to do with his linguistics work, but that is completely bogus and disingenuous, because no one would pay any more attention to Chomsky than to any other citizen except for his fame from his linguistics. (True, now he may be equally or more well known for the politics, but he would never have gotten that soapbox if not for the unrelated language work).

Are all academics similarly manipulative and dishonest when they comment beyond their fields of expertise? I don't think so. And because I think that the deep study of literature and culture contributes to a better understanding of humanity and the world, it is at least possible that people who have deeply studied literature and culture might have useful things to say about the questions of the day.

I do have a possible solution, though it's more in the realm of ideals than in reality: I'd like to repeal what appears to be the 'public commentary exemption' for academics. Right now, academics can say any Tom-fool thing they like on an Op-Ed or other type of public commentary, and it is always a net plus for the career and the institution. If Paul Ehrlich makes one of his idiotic population growth predictions, his colleagues and institution will say "but he's been hired as an entomologist, so who cares if he was wrong on this other major issue?" So there is no real feedback loop: the academic can trade on his legitimate expertise, but when he's wrong, nothing much happens. I'd like to see public pronouncements kept track of (maybe the web and the blogosphere can make this easier) and the quality and accuracy of these statements balanced with the technical and professional contributions of academics. That way, being a complete dolt about public issues would count negatively even if someone was a profoudly good researcher on butterflies. I think the positive consequences of such an approach would lead academics to be more thoughtful and less tendentious in their public pronouncements, and would encourage them to become as informed on areas outside of their fields as they are in their specialities.

Of course this doesn't address the problems of bias, of 'stars' who can say absolutely idiotic things with no consequences (see Harold Bloom on Harry Potter, Salman Rushdie on Tolkien, for examples), or the lack of real consquences for people whose ideas end up leading to bad consequences in the real world. But it would be a start.

Friday, August 27, 2004

Correction: I fell for a folk etymology
Reader Ian M. Slater writes:

My Latin dictionaries and grammars may be out of date, or my memories of them (since they are mostly in storage after a move) may be wrong, but I was under the impression that *propaganda* is "for the extension of...," from *propago,* "to extend, to generate," by way of *propagatio.* The resemblance of the *-anda* ending to *(pa)gani* would be coincidental -- except that they are both permitted under the laws governing sound combinations in Latin.

I am not citing English dictionaries on this, since so many of them persist in repeating dubious etymologies from nineteenth-century sources (try comparing explanations for the Latin root of "person").

Also, although the explanation of *paganus* as "rustic," hence, "not part of urban Christian culture" is generally accepted, there is an alternative explanation as "from beyond the boundary," with the metaphorical implication of "not initiated." This actually fits some contexts from late antiquity much better. Of course, both etymologies may have been current then, and invoked as appropriate.

One of the frustrating problems of philology is how one separates out real etymologies of words from 'folk etymology.' I appear to have fallen prey to this problem here, since it seems like "propagatio" is more plausible.
Now, my error isn't as bad as, say, aruging that the word "therapist" is actually "the" "rapist," but its the kind of thing that drives hard-core philologists crazy. At the last meeting of The International Society of Anglo-Saxonists, one German philologist was particular ferocious to someone who suggested that the word "fulwiht" (baptism) might have meant "full" "white" (i.e., completely pure). There's a German cognate to 'fulwiht', and so the suggested folk-etymology wasn't necessary.

To give myself a little benefit of the doubt, however, I'll point out that the kind of play on words of "for" "the rustics" would be a form of paranomasia, a rhetorical device beloved of the 10th-century, Benedictine Reform writers that are my research focus. The problem with dealing with writers who use paranomasia is that you are never 100% sure when they are using the device and when you are reading too much into a word's physical form.

This is also the case in Tolkien studies, most famously with the word "Moria," which Tolkien created in one of his elvish languages ("Mor" meant 'black' or 'dark'). Some critics read a lot into a putative link between "Moria" and the biblical "Moriah." As can be seen from JRRT's letters, this psuedo-connection (as he saw it) really drove him crazy.

This is a useful point for a larger discussion or authorial intent versus cultural resonance, but I think I've already done a good job of taking the focus off of my error in the etymology of 'propaganda.'

Thursday, August 26, 2004


Rose Nunez at No Credentials has an interesting and challenging response to some of my posts below. It's my daughter's fourth birthday today, so I probably won't be responding until tomorrow at the earliest, but I think this is a conversation worth having.

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Listen to me speak in 'The Black Speech'
by clicking this link. The producer did a great job, I think, in blending all of the material together, and the piece is pretty neat.

Back in fifth grade, my best friend Chipper and I wrote an adapted play of "The Council of Elrond" (yes, the one chapter in LotR where there's no physical action). I think our version is much better than Peter Jackson's, by the way. But in doing this I ended up memorizing the lines written on the One Ring: ash nazg durbatuluk, etc. This has come in handy many more times than you might expect.

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Knowledge Problems and the Value of Academics (and Journalists)

In my last two posts, and in some previous writings, I've asserted that the loss of cultural authority of academics and journalists, although quite likely deserved, is a bad thing for the culture as a whole. Each of those posts was already too long, so I just let the assertion hang and asked my readers to trust me. Now I need to argue for that assertion.

I'll begin by saying that I accept a lot of the critique of contemporary academia and journalism (and I've made some of it myself): I don't think it really can be denied with a straight face that journalists and profs skew heavily toward one end of the political spectrum, that this skew is self-reinforcing and that non-conforming individuals have a very difficult time in both fields. It's a little more controversial to argue that both journalists and academics have tended to present a one-sided view of the world in their work, but I think it's pretty clear from recent journalistic events and simple inspection of the titles of papers at MLA that the bias in these fields extends beyond personnel-selection and into actual scholarship and journalism.

But I don't think that the above is prima facie bad. Bias tends to wash out in the end, and I'm enough of an idealist to believe that the truth of any issue has such a great advantage in the long run that eventually it comes out. If academics and journalists all hold a certain basic set of views, and that set of views includes incorrect views along with correct ones (and obviously many views are normative and can't be broken down to correct/incorrect), I think that the correct ones will ultimately prevail.

No, I don't think the general left-liberalism of the professoriate and the press corps is a terrible tragedy. But I think the abuse of authority that has become so apparent recently is a cultural disaster in the making.

Here's why: if we do live in a 'knowledge society,' it is one in which it can be very, very hard to find out the truth of many issues. For example, between us my wife and I have seven college degrees, including two Ph.D.'s and degrees from MIT, Carnegie Mellon, Stanford and Northwestern. And yet we are completely unable to be sure that we are not making hideous mistakes in a variety of circumstances, including mortgages and fees, life insurance (in fact, I'm sure we've gotten ripped off here), safety issues,local politics, and telecommunications. The problem is, it's nearly impossible to find honest, informed and disinterested advice in these fields. Every piece of advice that you get, unless you're lucky enough to find a family member or a close friend who is knowledgeable, is potentially a trap. And my wife and I can, in fact, do the math.

Journalists and academics are supposed to be disinterested experts whose word you can trust. Seriously. Our students and readers should be able to trust us absolutely. But many people are starting to believe that they no longer can. Right now that lack of trust may only extend to national politics, but the cancer is spreading.

Let me give an example: what is the maximum safe speed to drive on any road? The posted speed limits are obviously bogus, since no one follows them. But is it really safe to take a curve at 80, or should you slow down to 70? Signs with real safety information would be useful, but the culture is such right now that we instead put up a bunch of uniform 65 mph signs. Do traffic engineers expect everyone to go 65? No, they're not idiots. But they assume that if they post the road at 75, everyone will go 90. There's been a breakdown in trust at every level (the drivers don't trust the signs; the traffic engineers don't trust the drivers). Bad information has driven out good information.

I could give another 20 examples easily. How long is medicine really good for? What are the real nutritional/health effects of various foods and drugs? How many pounds can the swing actually hold? How much does the kid really have to weigh before the child seat is no longer safe? How much life insurance do you really need? For many of these, you simply have to play it safe and accept the 'official' advice, but you get the nagging feeling you're being played for a fool.

I think my point is pretty obvious by now: if people stop being able to trust information from experts, if the experts are spinning or skewing the information for their own interests, you're working up to a collapse of, or at least immense damage to, an information-based culture. I know that people are certain that they're on the side of the angels by distorting their data and manipulating their readers. And for any given issue, this may be the case (i.e., it's a least theoretically possible that more social good could come from such a manipulation if it led people to do the 'right' thing more than the unmanipulated data would). But in the long run, once people catch on that they are being manipulated, you end up with the disaster of no one trusting any one except people they know personally. One of the great accomplishments of Western culture was to break free of the bonds of 'I only trust family,' thus allowing people to trust strangers and easily cooperate. Lack of trust of strangers is one of the great stumbling blocks to development in the third world (I speak from experience, as a dual citizen of Jamaica and the US--there is a great lack of honesty and trust in any situation in which one doesn't have personal connections).

The mass media and the professoriate had, in our culture, built up a huge reservoir of trust. But now, and this is what I meant by 'eating their seed corn,' that trust is being eroded. Each distortion or manipulation eats a little bit more, and eventually there will be none left, and we'll have to rebuild. That process will be very, very painful.

Monday, August 23, 2004

Why Some Journalists *And Academics* Do What They Do

A term from literary theory might actually be useful here [hey! stop laughing! I'm serious...].

Theory people often talk about praxis, a term right on the border between useful terminology and alienating jargon. "Praxis," in this context, means how the theory gets put into practice, or what actually get done if you accept the theory.

This is a sore spot for many literary theoreticians, because the praxis of their earth-shaking theories often ends up being banal or even invisible. What good, one might ask, is your theory of the deconstruction of everything if the only praxis turns out to be that your books gets some good reviews and you get chatted up at MLA? The larger the claims for the theory, the more problematic the praxis.
The real, practical praxis (i.e., what academics actually do) always seems to be 'vote the straight democratc-party ticket and donate to various causes.' Nothing wrong with that, but it's a bit of embarrassment for theory, since about 100 million other people in America manage to do the same exact thing without the benefit of the deep theoretical analysis. Old-school cultural materialists (i.e., honest Marxists and 'Old Left' folks), often make younger theory-people profoundly uncomfortable by pointing out that, from a materialist perspective, there's no difference in praxis from the college professor who votes the straight ticket after an exhausting Foucaultian analysis of late-capitalistic discourses and the 92-year-old retired welder who votes the straight ticket because he always has and always will.

Faced with the praxis problem, theoretically minded folks go in either of two directions: the first is what we can call "Trickle-Down Theory." The idea is that the rarified, complex analysis of the academy will eventually end up influencing policy. Thus you may have written a book about masculinist discourse in 10th-century Latin Saints' Lives that only 30 people on earth will read, but eventually you'll be helping to overturn the social order.
There are, of course, some examples of theoretical ideas being taken up by the culture--Catherine McKinnon's feminist scholarship, for example, led to a lot of sexual harrassment law. But it's hard for the average scholar to argue with a straight face that the best way to end racism is to write a hard-to-read book about William Faulkner. (That's probably why people have gotten so angry at me when I've used the "Trickle-Down Theory" description in public). If the theories are as complex and difficult to understand as they are (given the current state of theoretical discourse conventions), it's hard to believe that the bits of theory that do trickle out are as influential on the social order as, say, volunteering at a literacy center one night per week.

The second approach is to use the insights gained from theory to influence one's teaching and thus one's students. But the complexity problem rears its ugly head here as well. If theory is complex enough to require whole books written for very specialized audiences, then how are students going to master it at the same time they have to deal with difficult sources, unfamiliar concepts, etc.? Teachers try, but students often aren't ready to put the theory in context yet. That doesn't mean that they are stupid, just that there's a lot of background that has to be absorbed.

And so, frustrated professors (and journalists), end up trying to push the praxis on the students. That is, students can't necessarily engage with the theory at its highest levels, but they can at least be coaxed, even forced, to adopted the practical outcome of the theory: and that praxis is, usually, limited to having a certain set of opinions and voting the straight ticket.

So, yes, we are back in a loop. And we can give a clear label to what happens when profs and journalists get frustrated and rush to the short-cut: Propaganda. I'm going to be a pedant [oh, that's a surprise], and note that "Propaganda" means "for the pagani," "for the country people." The original idea of propaganda was to get the country people to believe the right thing -- to enact the correct praxis -- even if they weren't capable of following the argument.

I think that a great many journalists and academics have decided that the pagani really aren't ready for all of the information. Corporate knowledge-manufacture or government manipulation have, in the minds of many people, become so powerful that the pagani believe the wrong things. The only way to set them straight is to fight fire with fire, distortion with distortion and manipulation with manipulation. I don't think that academics and journalists are doing this in bad faith. Quite the opposite. Based on my personal experience I think that journalists and academics really and truly believe that the praxis they want to enact is the right thing for society and therefore the ends are worth the means.

This explains why journalists are not simply reporting the news, but figuring out how to report the news so that the pagani will draw the 'correct' conclusions. In this case, the 'correct' conclusion is to vote a certain way in November.

I have great sympathy for the honest concern for the society and culture that is, in my view, at the heart of this behavior. But I think it is a terrible mistake: the pagani aren't as stupid as they appear to be, and they resent being manipulated. The end result may be that the pagani still don't adopt the preferred praxis, but they do end up rejecting the academics and journalists who have tried to manipulate them. Furthermore the actual causes, for which there are in fact reasoned, non-propagandistic arguments, end up being tarnished by association. When people automatically discount what is said by a journalist or a professor, the culture has a real problem. Because it is often--although not universally--the case that journalists and professors actually do have a greater depth of knowledge in their specialities than do members of the general public. In these cases it is worth listening to what they (we) have to say. But if you abuse your position of trust too much, no one will believe you even when there actually is a crisis and when you (we) are telling an important truth.

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Why Some Journalists Do What They Do
Or, why the blogosphere seems to be better at digging for facts

Glenn Reynolds collects a bunch of information on Senator Tom Harkin's fake Vietnam stories, and several readers wonder what has gone wrong with journalists/journalism. One writes to Glenn: "Newspaper reporters used to know this - and they used to look for those facts. They used to check sources. They used to search for the truth in a way that would make any skeptic proud. But now they just read the press releases and change a word here or there."

I thought that maybe I could give a bit of an explanation that wasn't quite as simple as 'they are all in the tank for John Kerry' (which is probably 65% true, but doesn't explain everything).
Readers of this blog will remember that I have a journalism degree from (M.A., Stanford, 1991) that I don't use (I don't regret the time spent at The Farm, because I met my wife there, but I've never been a full-time, paid journalist).

Based on my experience at J-school, I can generalize a couple things about journalists around my age that could explain some of the problems. First, nearly all of us were in J-school not because we wanted to be reporters, but because we wanted to write. Most of us who were together at Stanford have also either gotten out of journalism or never really got in, probably because we didn't really like reporting very much. I personally hated it, and I was lucky that I learned this so soon and didn't waste a big chunk of my life trying to be a reporter.

I think a lot of reporters feel the same way, which is why they all want to become columnists. Writing is fun and gratifying. Reporting is a lot of drudgery and leg-work. Thus reporters are ripe for the temptation of press-releases: and most press-release-writing flacks are people with journalism degrees who know exactly how to write a release so that the reporter can edit out obvious promotion but still buy the overall spin.

Second, almost all of the J-school program at Stanford was spent trying to get us to think about the implications of journalism, the politics of reporting, the influence of journalists, etc. Stanford is on tri-mesters, and you take three or four courses per trimester in grad school. We had a total of 3 mandatory classes that were on reporting. Two of these, taught by two-time Pullitzer winner James Risser and then city-editor of the San Jose Mercury News, Jerry Lanson, were brilliant. The other wasn't. But the great majority of the classes we all took were about Journalism and Law, Journalism and Politics, etc. (It almost goes without saying that these classes slanted very left-liberal. And it wasn't just professors indoctrinating us: we all wanted to be crusading, Woodward and Bernstein reporters, bringing down the powerful and helping the little guy. I don't think this is automatically a bad thing, by the way)

But when you focus all your attention on the implications, you're likely to spend more time and intellectual energy trying to control those implications (via spin, etc.) than you do in unearthing the details behind the story. And when your training is in recognizing political implications rather than in leg-work, sourcing and background, you're less able to automatically do what good, non-J-school, cynical, old-school reporters used to do.

When you factor in these two things--reporters would rather write than report, and those who have gone to J-school are more likely to have spent their time thinking about 'implications' rather than actually reporting--you see how avoiding research and fact-checking is the path of least resistance. And journalist are, contra some people's beliefs, very overworked and very underpaid. Really (I had a job offer, which would have required me to live in downtown Atlanta and work 50-60 hour weeks, that paid $14,000 per year. I made more money managing a pet store in Columbia, MO).

I think this is a long-term big problem for Journalism, the profession. It has been eating its seed corn for a decade or more, and so much of its cultural authority is used up. This can be good, in that it reduces the influence of unaccountable institutions, like the big daily papers. But it's also bad, because once everyone stops believing the newspapers, you have a huge problem of vetting and evaluating information. I really hope that up-and-coming reporters, and J-schools, realize that they also have a huge opportunity: if there were a media outlet that really did hard-core research and fought to avoid bias and 'spin' (as impossible as it is to be completely unbiased), it would overcome many of its competitors: there is a real thirst for true information about a huge variety of topics [future post on this]. 'Spinning', even when done with the best of intentions (which I think is often the case), just further weakens a really important democratic institution.

Thursday, August 12, 2004

Current Project

If I had to keep one of those dreadful time sheets that my wife does for her work (where you document every six minutes of your time), surely this summer would seem unproductive, with most entries reading "changed Mitch's diaper," "carried Mitch around outside until he stopped crying." "changed Mitch's diaper again." But somehow I managed to finish off a whole bunch of lingering projects:

1. Article on Anglo-Saxon Medicine, co-written with biology professor, submitted to Anglo-Saxon England.

2. Long article on 20th century fantasy's use of medieval materials: "The Problem of Transformation: The Use of Medieval Sources in Fantasy Literature," for Blackwell's Literature Compass.

3. Long article on Beowulf: "Blood and Deeds: The Inheritance Systems in Beowulf” submitted to Review of English Studies.

4. Short (hopefully humorous) piece for Old English Newsletter: An Anglo-Saxonist Gets His Fifteen Minutes (or, what happens when the media briefly pay attention). There may be a web version here

5. And, what took the longest time, the penultimate version of the Table of Contents for the J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia. The lists of entries and possible contributors is being finished by the press, as is the project website, and I'll post details when I have them.

It's not really that bad. If you count either Tolkien Studies volume I (which we finished editing in 2003 but was published in 2004), or you count TS vol II (which we're editing in 2004 but will be published in 2005), I've had a book and four articles published thus far this year and I've written a few more articles (including one in a collection coming out in Italy) and have two more guaranteed articles (in Rob Eaglestone's Tolkien book from Continuum and in the collection that will come out of the Marquette conference. So I shouldn't feel unproductive, but, in fact, I do.

That's because I want to get back to doing reseach rather than just writing. I feel weird saying it, because obviously when I wrote all of the above, I did a lot of research, but it's not quite the same. For most of what I wrote/published, I didn't do new primary source work. Rather, I used my existing knowledge of texts to pull different threads of argument together. In the case of the Beowulf article, I'd been teaching the ideas for seven years or so, so they were quite refined (thanks to good student questions), but I hadn't put it all down on paper. That was hard, and fun, and mentally good.

But now I'm starting on a quasi-new project (only quasi, because I dealt with some of the background in my dissertation). I'm researching and writing an article about Albert S. Cook, possibly the most powerful American Anglo-Saxonist who ever lived. Cook founded the English department at Johns Hopkins and re-organized that at Berkeley before becoming a prof. at Yale. His published articles take up a gigantic, three-inch-thick binder in photocopies. He did editions of most major OE texts, and these were used for about 50 years and were the 'standard' editions even as late as the early 1980s.

But almost no one knows who Cook was or why he was important. And people who do mention him, like Gerald Graff, in Professing Literature get him hideously wrong (one reason I'm writing this article is to have the fun of showing how wrong Graff gets Cook). I've got all the pieces of the Cook side of the article, but I need to find, for want of a better word, a "hook" to link up my ideas about Cook and the history of scholarship and his particular beliefs with Cook's great achievement: his edition of The Christ of Cynewulf, which was the standard edition until Fred Biggs did one in the 1980's. I want to find a place in Christ of Cynewulf where I can argue that Cook's ideas about authorship and authority, particularly his construction of a biography and identity for Cynewulf, influenced his edition. This means working through and translating all of the three Christ poems and comparing my translation to Cook's, trying to figure out why Cook made the decisions that he made.

It's a fun project, and more importantly, it gets me back in touch with the primary material (reading and translating OE). Who knows what I'll find? My big Chrodegang article (which I think is my best piece of scholarship thus far) came out of digging into the text, translating it, and all of a sudden noticing a pattern. We'll see if that's what happens here.

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Cool Thing I Got to Do

On Friday I got to go see this exhibit at the Boston Museum of Science before it opened to the public. I was invited to do some commentary for WBUR, the local public radio station. I'll put up a link when the piece is broadcast in a couple of weeks.

The exhibit was surprisingly good. I've seen lot of movie props (my roomate at Carnegie Mellon was a drama production major and used to bring work home), and they're usually crappy: just good enough to look ok on film is the rule (and it makes sense, since you don't want to waste a lot of money). But these are really impressive: beautifully crafted and presented as if they were 'real' artifacts in a 'real' museum.

I was inwardly amused because I remember that back in sixth grade we had been given the assignment of designing a museum or something like that, and I'd done The Museum of Middle-earth, with orc skulls and palantiri on display. I'd forgotten that until just as I was walking out of the exhibit

There are also some very interesting displays that let you do interactive stuff to see how the characters, etc. were made. You can re-create the Gandalf and Frodo on the cart scene (two separate benches, different sizes, melded together on one screen), or move a plastic sword and shield to make a computer-generated warrior follow you moves. Pretty neat stuff, whether you were disappointed in aspects of the films or not.

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Arms Races, Graduate Studies and the Academy, Oh my!

I'm not usually one to write "Read the Whole Thing" (tm), but I have to say that about this post by Conscientious Objector. And also see this post, too. Objector identifies some of the problems with my position that the 'arms race' between applicants for professor jobs has led to a great improvement in the quality of younger faculty, with beneficial results for students, the academy, and society as a whole. I also mentioned that the applicants themselves suffer for this arms race, being caught up in a 'Red Queen effect," where they have to keep running faster and faster just to stand still. Objector points out a crucial point that I missed: although the arms race may create great benefits, the penalty is not only paid by the aspiring professors, but also by society as a whole, as effort that could have been put to more socially-useful projects is expended on, say, graduate studies that don't turn into careers. It's so refreshing that someone in this debate recognizes the problems of trade-offs and sees how real economic analysis (instead of crypto-marxist special pleading) could be used in social analysis, that I'm tempted to just stop there and say, "he's right," but (I'm from New Jersey; I can't resist the urge to argue), let me add a couple of things.

Although I recognize the trade-off, I'm not sure that the calculation of much traded-off effort is very straightforward. As the correspondent whom I previously paraphrased wrote, people can be better off simply from having done graduate study. That is, spending a lot of time examining Beowulf can serve to make a person wiser, smarter, or simply a happier and better person. Think of the hours people put into studying history, or science outside formal graduate studies (as an example, some of my friends in Missouri, who didn't have college degrees, knew an incredible amount of marine biology because of the effort they spent on fishtanks. Their lives were definitely enriched by this study; why wouldn't graduate work be just as good?). It's hard to know how to value this enrichment vis a vis the cost in years and dollars of a graduate degree that doesn't lead to a job, but I think that there's a lot of value for many people.

That leads me to the John Bruce, who is much less sanguine.
I do disagree with the notion that both Michael and Jay seem to agree on, that the intense competition produces a higher level of faculty even at the lowest-tier institutions. I think there's increasing recognition that when the job market is so overcrowded, it's almost impossible for institutions to make rational choices. Among other things, the perceived value of a tenure track job is so great to the applicant -- and its value as something to award is so great to the hiring authority -- that corruption is bound to enter the system, the same way it does in the "third world", where there's a greater oversupply of qualified applicants for middle-class jobs.

My own sense is that the social and institutional impacts of the graduate student oversupply include a tolerance in universities for petty corruption, especially nepotism and other back-scratching deals among faculty and administrators, which often center on hiring, retention, and promotion. The faculty oversupply can also be seen (a couple of lectures later in Econ 101) as a student shortage. The forms of price discounting now offered to students certainly include the tacit tolerance of cheating and the strategic unwillingness of faculties and administrations to enforce honor codes. The power of student evaluations (I never got to do these as an undergraduate myself, back in the baby boom when there was a student oversupply) has an impact on how rigorously professors feel they can teach or grade. What's the use of a highly qualified new professor if she can't give below an A-minus?

This is a very intelligently put version of the "lottery winners like the system" argument that some overheated commenters on Elizabeth Carnell's blog and Tim Burke's blog have made. I can only argue from experience, not from statistics or some kind of overall view of the job market, but in my experience, both in job searching and in being on a number of hiring committees, the job market doesn't seem to work this way.

There are lottery elements. If there are 150 applicants for a total of 25 jobs (the situation in medieval lit when I went on the market), then there are all kinds of things that get you bounced into the reject box that, upon closer reading of an application letter, shouldn't be disqualifications (i.e., one of my rules of thumb is that if someone applying to Wheaton doesn't mention teaching in the first paragraph of the letter, I stop reading; like all rules of thumb, it's a way of saving time at the expense of accuracy: the person who doesn't mention teaching may actually be a great teacher but didn't write a good letter, etc.). But I'm not sure it's a lottery: when you look at the people who have gotten jobs in Old English over the past five years (choosing that interval to leave myself out), for example, it's pretty meritocratic: I would have identified all of the people who got the good Anglo-Saxon jobs as the smartest, most capable graduate students. It's much more like a Darwinian competition: some luck, some inherent qualities.

There is, however, a big problem with the system the isn't cured by the 'arms race,' and that is the tendency of trendy of hot-sounding projects to stand out to a hiring committee that has no expert in the sub-discipline. The feedback from this problem tends to draw savvy graduate students towards trendy work that may or may not be what the student really wants to do or what the discipline needs. For example, it's very hard to get hired as a metricist, but we could use some young blood in that field. And on the other side, studies of violence in Saint's lives are starting to seem a little played out and tedious (though there's good work that recently published). This problem is a version of John's "corruption" argument in that hiring committees will often rely on dissertation directors making personal appeals, pulling strings, etc.

Also, again due to lack of sub-discipline expertise, hiring committees can be too easily distracted by superficial things, like overall reputation of institution. For example, Princeton hasn't produced a decent Anglo-Saxonist in a generation. Maybe the new Anglo-Saxonist will change that, but I wouldn't even consider candidates from Princeton, Northwestern, University of Chicago or Penn (just to name a few respected schools that have either lame or non-existent programs in Anglo-Saxon). And I would look closely at candidates from, say, Loyola-Chicago and Missouri (of course), Wisconsin, Arizona State, Illinois, Ohio State and Notre Dame (in fact, I'd prefer them to graduates of any ivy except, maybe, for Cornell). I agree with Objector to a certain extent that it's silly to think of one school as necessarily "better" than another in terms of general reputation. And that's true of students as well, which is why I so strongly oppose attempts to restrict the "supply" of graduate students by further restricting entry into programs. I think that the real-world application of that theory will be to eliminate students from less prestigious institutions or students with a less-than-perfect backgrounds (i.e., got a D in philosophy sophomore year). My best students at Wheaton are as good as the best students at any other school. The difference is, the ivies and other, more prestigious schools don't have matches to the bottom 50% of the students I teach (but even then, some of my best students have risen out of that bottom half).

The "oversupply" of graduate students also seems to me (and here I'm going on gut instinct) rather more upsetting to people associated with 'elite' universities, that is, people who are heavily invested in their ivy connections. In my experience, students with Yale or Harvard or Brown degrees who don't get academic jobs are much more convinced that the market is unfair or unbalanced than are students from, say, Loyola Chicago or Wayne State. It goes back to my very early post about the idea that following a particular path (A's in undergrad courses to an ivy Ph.D. program to a tenure-track job at an elite school) is no longer an entitlement to the job one wants. In that sense, the academy is just catching up to the larger society, in which credentials don't mean as much as they used to. That's not an unalloyed good, but there are some very good aspects to this change.