Monday, March 29, 2004

Living Vicariously Through Students
I'm not actually sure that's what I'm doing, but I certainly get a great deal of happiness and satisfaction when I see my students achieve great things. The latest is my Old Norse student (the one who insisted I teach her ON even though I hadn't ever formally studied it; I stayed a week ahead for about a year, and since then we've just been working together to translate from Egil's Saga). But that brilliant student just won a Fulbright Scholarship to study literature at the University of Reykjavik in Iceland for a year.

One of my other super-brilliant students from a couple of years back is now deciding between the two best Anglo-Saxon Ph.D. programs in the world: Cambridge University and the University of Toronto.

I get great joy from their success, especially since both didn't get off to the most auspicious starts at Wheaton but then found themselves. I also really like watching students surpass me (and they really can do that in language skills, since they're starting so much earlier than I did). And finally, I love watching my students earn awards and get accepted to places that I could never have (and probably never will) earn or get into. I think I'm getting a glimpse of how great it is going to be to watch my kids grow up and achieve some of their dreams.

Sunday, March 21, 2004

Tolkien Studies volume I
The first volume of Tolkien Studies is now at the printer and should be available in April. Here you can see a copy of the brochure for Tolkien Studies I from West Virginia University Press. As you'll note from the Table of Contents, we've gotten some truly excellent scholars to contribute to this first issue, and I'm really pleased with how it all came out.

On the other hand, getting a new journal started was a nightmare that has taken years. Doug Anderson, Verlyn Flieger and I decided to found TS back in 2001 or even 2000 (that's how long ago it was; I can't really remember) and it's taken this long to get things together. The problem is one of those chicken and egg things: good scholars don't want to contribute until there is a press and a committment to publish. Publishers won't touch something, usually, until it's actually complete (this is the nightmare problem I'm having with the tenth-century poetry essay collection).

We went with the "if you build it, they will come" approach for TS, but for a long time it looked like we would either have to self-publish (with all the risks, the steep learning curve, etc.), or that the whole thing would collapse into humiliation.

Supposedly no one is starting new journals, and no one is starting single-author journals, so the publication of TS in April is a real tribute to the interest in J. R. R. T. and the quality of the best work being done right now.

Tuesday, March 16, 2004

Every i dotted and t crossed

A review for Beowulf and the Critics just came in (from Medium Ævum, sorry, no link) and it's fairly negative. No problem with that. I've gotten a bunch of positive reviews, including the Mythopoeic Society's award for scholarship, so I can't complain that someone didn't like the book. And the review is reasonable; the author (whom I don't know) has apparently no axe to grind and doesn't take me to task for unreasonable things. But it got me to thinking about some reviews that I've done, and the problem of reviews in general.

Reviews in medieval studies (and probably in other fields within English as well) are big opportunities for people to drop H-bombs on their rivals, promote their own work and play that annoying kind of "gotcha" that medievalists are so good at. But reviews are also essential, because there is so much scholarship out there and so little time to read it all (though I have to admit that I personally am not very much guided by reviews; I read the Bibliography for Old English when it comes out in the OEN, immediately ILL everything that sounds interesting, and spend the next few months working through the pile of articles and books).

Most of the larger problems of reviews simply will only be solved if people are nicer to each other, which is unlikely to happen on a large scale, but there is something that might be worth emphasizing through informal networks: it does not invalidate an entire large work of scholarship when an author (plus anonymous reviewers, editor and copy-editor) misses a typo. It's one thing to point out substantive errors (such as the typo of Richfield for Lichfield in my book that my reviewer caught) that could confuse someone. It's another to do what I did in a review where I pointed out that the author had mis-spelled the title of his own article in the bibliography. That was a petty "gotcha" moment and I now really wish I could take it back.

Yes, of course, everything is supposed to be accurate and flawless, etc. But it is very unfair (and I see this all the time in medieval reviews) to focus on tiny little jots and tittles while ignoring the big picture of whether or not the work itself is of decent quality. I certainly am a niggler. For some reason, I notice little things that no one else appears to care about, and when they are wrong they bother me, and they possibly reduce my confidence in the author or editor. But my personal quirks shouldn't be elevated to "high standards" of, say, lack of typos when they miss the point of the main argument and only tell the reader that the ankle-biting reviewer had a sharper eye for some detail.

I think a short paragraph at the end of the review that says "minor errata" or just "errata" and then lists corrections and page numbers is very useful. I tried to do this for my review of The Culture of Translation in Anglo-Saxon England by Robert Stanton (but I really only found one switch of Alfred for Ælfric in the entire book). I'd like to see people move away from the "gotcha" and stick to the substantive criticism that should be included in a good review.

This seems to be the case for the on-line Medieval Review, by the way, which suggests that having practically unlimited space in which to write actually reduces the number of petty comments: perhaps there's a connection, though it seems paradoxical.

Monday, March 08, 2004

The crapulence of academics
will continue to amaze me no matter how long I am part of this profession. If professors wonder "why do they hate us?" (and many do), they need only look at how they treat their colleagues, students, and anyone who disagrees with them. Just in the past few days I've seen such examples of the complete lack of even rudimentary courtesy and respect that I am once again embarrassed to be part of the profession.

Game theory says that these sorts of things should be responsed to, in "tit for tat" mode, but doesn't that (probably necessary policing), just end up dragging down the discourse still further? When does turning the other cheek, or counselling someone to do so (this is what I'm really worried about; I can take care of myself, but I don't want to give bad advice), just enable the jerks?