Friday, January 30, 2004

Tolkien Studies news

Things are proceeding apace with the publication of the first issue of Tolkien Studies by West Virginia University Press. It should appear in early April (around the same time my son is due to be born) and the brochure and subscription information are all being finalized. I'll post a link here and on my main page as soon as everything is out and official (and that should be in days, not weeks).

There's still a little room in Tolkien Studies volume II (yes, volume I isn't out yet and we're trying to finish up volume II. Such is publishing, I guess). So please send articles.

Monday, January 26, 2004

A Helpful Tip
When you're noting a totally obscure reference, say, a work you consulted once in the Newberry Library during the course of dissertation research back in, say, 1995, make sure to copy down all of the page numbers for the relevant quotations . I have now finished proofing / revising How Tradition Works down to the last few misplaced commas, split infinitives and transposed Latin endings. But I am going to have to drive up to the Harvard Library in the snow to get one stupid page number that I should have written down almost a decade ago. Arghh! (though I've got a request in to a friend...)

That said, if any of my erudite readers has access to the Hanslik edition of the Rule of St Benedict (R. Hanslik, ed. Benedicti Regula. 2nd ed. Vienna: Holder-Pichler-Tempsky, 1977), you could be a big help to me. Some student has my library's copy out (almost certainly one of my students) and I just need to know which pages to cite for chapter 58.

Real posts on matters of greater interest soon, I promise.

Thursday, January 22, 2004

Why the slow blogging?

A variety of reasons, most importantly that I'm in the process of going over the copy-editor's mark-up of the manuscript for How Tradition Works. She is a genius and has been improving the book immensely, but it's still my book, so when she suggests an article or a few pages of a book, I have to rush out, find the source, read it, and see if I agree that it belongs in the footnote. Tiring. And I just can't believe that after several revisions there were still this many mistakes for her to catch in the manuscript. Embarrassing.

But I did want to follow up on a few reactions to my post of the other day that was picked up by SDB and BAW and others. The level of invective that it has generated in a number of places (no, I won't feed the trolls, though you can use my site-meter referrer logs if you desire) goes a long way to proving my point. If you can't argue with people, but simply assert your superiority at having mastered some arcana, well, it's no wonder the wider public isn't influenced by your work.

But on the fun side of referrer logs, I came across some highschool or college students who were using one of my old articles, on Susan Cooper, and for whom I'd become some kind of drooling idiot who couldn't not possibly get anything right. That made my day, because I used to use that approach to articles I disagreed with in order to get me motivated to write a paper. And, as is almost always the case when there's name-calling involved, it's telling that the challenges are always focused on points of interpretation that are masquerading as points of fact (hint: since Cooper doesn't say whether or not Alfred was some kind of partially human Lord of the Light, analogous, perhaps, to Arthur, we have to infer. But whether or not the inference is correct is another story. Also, a sharp word does not equal a 'punishment'. But I digress...)
Good to see that some things never change and that people are reading my old Susan Cooper article, even if they hate it.

Saturday, January 10, 2004

This post by Stephen den Beste (of whom I am a regular and grateful reader), and this one by 'Big Arm Woman,' (ditto what I said for SDB), and this one at Invisible Adjunct seem to be somewhat different variants of a meme that is spreading throughout the blogosphere. In general it is focused on criticism of humanities academia (and in particular the Modern Language Association). [N.B.: After I began composing this post, I found this discussion at Roger Simon's linked via this post at Glenn Reynolds.' I find the comments at Roger's blog the most troubling, but haven't really changed what's below to respond directly, yet.]

Let me start by admitting that while I am a member of the MLA, I think you would find it hard to find anyone who is more embarrassed about the organization than I am. Set aside the horror that is the MLA conference (you'll never find more miserable people who aren't actually incarcerated in any one place), the unbelievably useless resolutions passed by the delegate assembly, and the elevation of charlatans, like Edward Said (who didn't know squat about Dante, but that didn't stop him from opining...). Also forget that PMLA (the journal, supposedly the most prestigious in my field) has become boring and unreadable over the past ten years. But you can't forget or ignore the fact that seemingly a lot of intelligent, well-read, sophisticated people are just disgusted by humanities academia.

This is a problem.

For a lot of reasons, I think it's a bad thing to have so many people alienated from the professional world of letters (yes, yes, you can be educated and intelligent without any contact whatsoever with the academic world. Maybe it even helps. But the whole purpose of academia is to expand and disseminate human knowledge). Obviously if we are alienating so many smart people, we're doing something wrong.

Maybe we need to ask ourselves: "Why do they hate us?"

There are any number of 'standard' answers to this question, any maybe all together they do explain it, but I'm not so sure.
The first is the political one: academics are extreme leftists who practice Leninist tactics in order to preserve the ideological cocoon they have created.

There's no doubt that there are plenty of such people, and they're the most vocal on campus, but they are also mostly ignored by everyone except politically involved people on the other side. For example, my campus passed an anti-war resolution (stupid waste of time, regardless of what you think of the war, as I doubt there are ten people on earth who care what some percentage of the Wheaton College faculty thinks of the war) this year. There was any amount of sound and fury, but a large chunk of the faculty didn't bother to attend the faculty meeting at which the resolution was passed (including yours truly: perhaps the greatest benefit of tenure is that you can skip useless meetings and no one can do anything to you). And the students didn't appear to even notice.

Now I am disgusted and appalled that there are faculty who apparently have ideological criteria for grades. And the browbeating of students discussed in many of the posts I've referenced above is totally out of bounds. But I had some of the most doctrinaire leftists one could imagine when I was a student, and I never saw that kind of behavior, and I don't know anyone in my department who would even think of acting that way (and my dept. is comprised of very politically typical left-liberals for the most part). I don't doubt that there are such people, and they should be shunned and fired, but I tend to doubt that they are wide-spread enough to engender the kind of grass-roots hostility towards academics reflected in the posts above.

Another possibility for the hostility of engineers and scientists is the one suggested by SDB and by many posters on Roger's blog: humanities students, and professors, are simply stupider than those in the sciences and so they create jargon, confusion, rigid ideological tests, etc. to keep themselves from being challenged and shown to be stupid.

The problem with this analysis is that the most jargony, ridiculous, doctrinaire academics are, truth be told, really very smart. In fact they may be smarter than me and smarter than a lot of the technical people whose company I prefer: you have to be ridiculously clever, widely read, mentally agile, etc. to deal with the kind of theory, jargon, ideology that these folks deal with. Engineering and science (and I'm not just popping off; I have my first degree from Carnegie Mellon; I'm married to an engineer with a Ph.D. and helped with her dissertation in places; I can read technical papers; I passed DiffEQs, etc.) are in one very important way easy: they describe the real world and so they have to make sense. Things might be counterintuitive (though I don't include work by EE's and ECEs who deal with quantum stuff here), but even Fluids fundamentally makes sense; it's hard, but it makes sense. The postmodern stuff doesn't (which is why I think most of it is wrong), but you do need some pretty major mental skills to play the game. [n.b.: at this point in the argument I'm not taking a position on the tripartite division of philosophy that SDB brings up; it's probably mostly correct. I'm just trying to figure out where humanities academia has gone wrong].

So what is the problem? I think, as much as anything, it is a matter of style, and that humanities professors are, on the whole, in the wrong. You only have to read the comments on Invisible Adjunct, where the academics rather pathetically try to defend the MLA, to realize that way too many humanities academics don't know how to debate. They only know how to sneer.

I've seen this first hand too many times to count, and there is a fabulous dramatization of the process in Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon, where dinner at a restaurant turns into a train wreck when an engineer dares to tell a famous academic that he's full of shit when he's talking about the "information superhighway" strictly in terms of metaphor. The academic can't directly challenge the engineer's claims (since the engineer knows much more than the academic), so instead he shifts the debate to "meta" discussion about the influence of metaphors, etc.

If academics would recognize that there are a lot of very, very smart people out there who put their considerable brainpower into trying to understand things like packet-switched networks or football formations or concert hall sound dynamics, and if they would force themselves to recognize that such things are just as important as understanding literature (though they're not quite as important as knowing the date of the composition of Beowulf. Nothing is that important), they'd be able to carry on conversations with other folks in which they didn't come off as pompous, sneering jerks.

But jerks they do appear to be. Which is sad, because I know a lot of humanities academics and as individuals they are generally not jerks. But there is a deep, deep insecurity in humanities academics that makes them over-reach with their theories and their literary analyses. Tom Wolfe (I think) makes the point that, think what you want about Jackson Pollock and other abstract expressionist artists, they never doubted for an instant that what they were doing was important and justified in and of itself. But the newer generation of 'political' artists give away, by the very lack of subtlety in their work, that they have no confidence that doing art is really justified. They have to make their art accomplish some other work such as solving the homeless problem or fighting racism.

When the art -- or the humanities scholarship -- fails to solves those problems, the artist is forced to deal with the cognitive dissonance of the claim of importance and the actual results. This kind of dissonance leads, I think, to the attitude the everyone who disagrees must be stupid. Thus, the sneer elevated to the most commonly used tool of rhetoric.

So, 'why do they hate us?' Because we tend to act superior, and people loathe people who act superior.

What's my solution? No much, sadly, though we fail to adapt at our peril. If academia continues to lose the interest and respect of people like those I've linked to above, it is a great loss for our culture, and for academia.

And that's unfortunate not only for opportunities lost, but also because what we do in the humanities actually really does matter. We are supposed to be engaged in the study of humanity and its works. A healthy self-confidence would mean that we could recognize that, well, a new theory on the dating of Beowulf ain't the polio vaccine, but not much out there is, really. That doesn't mean that my theory, or my teaching, or my research can't change people's lives in some small way. I'm proud of the bricks I've added to the tower of human understanding, small as they may be, and my goal is to do everything I can to keep adding bricks and, more importantly, to keep ushering people up the stairs of that tower. Then one day, perhaps, I'll be able to climb high enough to glimpse the far-off sea.

Tuesday, January 06, 2004

The Return of the Blogging

Sorry to have been absent for so long, but for the first time since before graduate school started, I decided to avoid doing new work between Christmas and New Years. I did grade a stack of papers and exams that was over 20 inches high, but other than that I was slack, spending most of my time playing with my daughter. No one gets into Christmas like a 3-year-old.

So I may have missed out on some good discussions of Return of the King. But Andrea Harris' review of Return of the King is pretty much what I would have written: she points to the same problems I thought marred the film (particularly the lowest-common-denominator character of Denethor; he should be a Lear, not a typical drooling villain from central casting). I think that the overall flaws in Jackson's execution are that in many places the screenwriter and the director didn't respect their audience enough: they could have left things challenging and complex, but they over-simplified. Thus the Frodo / Sam fight about the missing lembas (really a stupid 'Sam is fat' joke drawn out way too much) instigated by Gollum was far more shallow than necessary; the audience would have just understood a real fight simple about trusting/not-trusting Gollum (though, as I've said before, no one is offering me 300 million dollars to make movies). But RoK was a fine movie and I think I would have really loved it if I didn't know LotR so well.

Now, just in case you were thinking that a professor lives a life of luxury, I have to: finish entering changes in the proof copy of Tolkien Studies volume I and send to the printer; edit and re-layout my grammar book; enter the editor's suggested changes for the manuscript of How Tradition Works (and the editor is a genius so she's almost certainly given me a lot of good stuff to enter and revise); update all of my websites; revise my syllabi for Anglo-Saxon and Chaucer for next semester; write an article on Tolkien's Beowulf translations (without quoting them) that's due in three days for a collections coming out from Western Michigan University Press; give a talk at the University of South Carolina on January 15. All of these things must be done before classes start on January 27.