Friday, May 27, 2005

Three Most Intellectually Exciting Books in the Past Ten Years

This is my version of one of those "how many books do you own, etc.?" lists that is circulating through blogland.

In the comments, or in your own blog, talk about the three most intellectually exciting books you've read in the past decade. I don't mean so much old books (in which case Nietzche's The Birth of Tragedy and the Genealogy of Morals and Darwin's The Origin of Species would be on my list), but more contemporary books. Let's say books written since 1990.

At the top of my list would be Mechthild Gretsch's The Intellectual Foundations of the English Benedictine Reform. I read this book in O'Hare Airport from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. one morning while waiting for my flight back to Boston from Kalamazoo. I was entranced. To me this book is one of the great technical masterpieces of medieval scholarship. Yes, I know, some very knowledgeable people have quarrels with Gretsch's treatment of glossography. I am not really qualified to mediate that dispute. But I am qualified to see the supreme beauty of an amazingly complex technical argument in which all the tools of philology and historical analysis are used to take a scattered mass of individual facts and weave them together into a coherent narrative.

Until I read Gretsch, my own book was a confused mess of ideas and observations. After I read Gretsch, I saw how all of the independent observations I had made fit into a larger, literary-historical narrative. I love this book and have read it three or four times (and it is not an easy read). One of the real triumphs of German philology. Also. Gretsch's work caused me to revisit the work of Michael Lapidge, in particular his Anglo-Latin Literature: 900-1066.

Next on the list is Daniel Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous IdeaDennett found ways to solve many of the problems of inheritance and culture-building that I had been struggling with, first in my notebooks and then in my dissertation. He showed how memes could work to explain culture (and, in his more ambitious formulation, consciousness). But most importantly, the book did two other things: First, it showed me how philosophy could be done without all the obfuscation and angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin circularity with which I had always associated philosophy. Second, it showed how one could make substantive scholarly contributions and also write for an audience of intelligent non-specialists. I hope my book will do the same (though, in actuality, it's probably closer to Gretsch than Dennett).

Finally, Dennett pointed me to Richard Dawkins' The Extended Phenotype. I use Dawkins' "meme" idea (which comes from his The Selfish Gene), but Extended Phenotype is such a beautifully constructed argument (and it contains almost everything that's in Selfish Gene) that it also blew me away. Dawkins quotes a colleague as saying "Richard Dawkins has rediscovered the organism." That is meant to be a criticism of Dawkins' stereotyped "gene-centric" view of life, but actually the colleague hit upon an enormously important point. After breaking down organic life and its evolution to its absolutely most simple building blocks, Dawkins is then able to build everything back up. It's what Russell and Whitehead did for mathematics (yes, Gödel squashed some of that, but we'll have that discussion another time), and it's exactly what I hope can be done with memes and culture: show how everything has to be consistent with the logical/mathematical foundations of the theory and then re-examine the much larger and more complex phenomena generated by the simpler rules.

All three books (and also Stephen Jay Gould's Wonderful Life, though I've fallen out of love with it, because I think Gould is quite wrong in important places) really changed me life. That change was in terms of intellectual practice and a knowledge of what was possible (i.e,. not a change the way Dostoyevsky's The Possessed (though they're caling it, The Devils now, which is a more literal translation of the Russian title) changed my understanding of life).

Now that I've started this, it's hard to stop, and I want to add more and more. But it's a good time to stop since we had a very long day (I had both children all day, then we went to Rhys' gymnastics, then to a farewell party for a dear colleague who is leaving Wheaton, etc., etc.) and am falling asleep as I type.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Medievalists on the Market

I have a general rule of thumb (more honored in the breach than in the observance) of not linking to anonymous bloggers because so much anonymous commentary on the internet is so nasty. But Prof. Blogger is one of those exceptions because he doesn't ever use his anonymity to be a jerk, and also because in this recent post he discusses a really serious problem in academic job searches at most institutions.

Prof. Blogger points out that the odds are that no one on the search committees for the places he is interviewing is likely to be a medievalist: we medievalists "have to face hiring committees of well-intentioned, smart people who, despite their best efforts, are not really in any position to judge the merits of the various candidates." Thus:
This lack of informed input leads to some bizarre interviews in which, despite their best efforts, the hiring committee is unable to mask their ignorance of the medieval field. For example, in one interview, the Professor mentioned an article he had written that was, at that time, under review in Speculum. Speculum is the oldest, and arguably the most respectable, journal in the field. One of the reviewers asked, "Speculum? Is that a local journal?" In another interview, Prof. Blogger was asked who one of his letter-writers was -- and the person in question is arguably the most prominent medievalist working today... In most cases, being unable to weigh the merits of various publication venues, committees are left simply counting numbers of articles. Three articles in Pudunk Journal of Stuff by Local Yokels counts for more than one article in Really Highly Influential Journal in the Field.

This is a very serious problem in hiring, for which there are no obvious good fixes. Non-medievalists are appallingly ignorant of medieval studies. It's not just the lack of understanding about the prestige of the journal, but also a basic inability to understand what is important in contemporary scholarship that creates bizarre appointments (two very high-profile ones in the past couple of years, in my field, that are clearly the result of search committees having absolutely no clue that the people they were choosing were below mediocre, regardless of their academic pedigrees). For example, it seems to be very hard to convince most non-medievalists that identifying a significant source is a big deal but that writing, say, a postmodern analysis of Beowulf is, well, pretty tired and tedious at this stage of the game (the committee will have no idea that certain things have been done to death; to them, a post-modern analysis of Beowulf will communicate the idea that the candidate isn't old-fashioned, hidebound, boring, etc. -- all qualities which they project upon medievalists and are often just the opposite of the truth).

The British system, in contrast, at least rewards people who have done something that is major yet technical. Discover a source, propose a really important emendation, edit some previously neglected Anglo-Latin texts, and the British system will (generally) reward you with a solid position. Of course there is still tons of snobbery, and one's OxBridge undergraduate college probably has too much to do with your future (or at least that what my friends in the British system tell me). But because the British system uses outside electors, major figures on the field, to nominate jobs (at least for high-profile places like Oxford and Cambridge), the recommendations for hiring are strongly influenced by people who know what they are talking about. (This does not, by the way, eliminate politics, etc., but at least those elements of the hire are leavened with actual knowledge of the field).

I would support the creation of some kind of elector system to become one part of the American hiring system (though it's unlikely to happen without, say, some foundation spending a pile of money to set something up). It's also unlikely to ever come into being because for most departments, hiring a productive scholar in medieval studies is only one of the goals of the search. Most departments are searching for someone to fit in, someone who will not make them miserable for the next thirty years. They (consciously or unconsciously) want people like them (however defined). For some this can mean politics, for others academic pedigree (look at Princeton's English department: more than half have Princeton Ph.D.s), for others methodology (all the tedious, self-involved post-modernists Stanley Fish lured to Duke before he and they destroyed that English department). For us at Wheaton it would mean a strong focus on teaching and some kind of indication that the person wouldn't be planning to ditch us in five years.

Of course all of these things are very hard to divine through an on-paper application process in which every candidate appears to leap tall buildings in a single bound (recommendation letters are rife with hyperbole) and in which every sensible candidate will attempt to tailor his or her presentation to the specific insitution. So things like the source of the letters of recommendation (rather than the letters themselves) or the academic pedigree are used as proxies for other things that aren't easy to measure.

It sure is a stupid system, but I don't know how one would make it better. Some kind of a national exam won't work: advanced graduate students and assistant professors should be adding to human knowledge. An exam can only show what has already become discovered and assimilated to the knowledge base. An exam will thus always be a few years (maybe more) out of date. A board of electors would be nice if they only gave a recommendation that could be added in to the overall application. A really great candidate from an unlikley place, or one whose technical contributions are hard to appreciate outside the field would be advantaged by such a system. But the practical problems in setting one up and keeping it from degenerating into politics are so enormous I'm not sure how one would even go about solving them.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

The Other Side of Collegiality

One of the reasons I love Wheaton is that we actually have what other places claim to have, but don't: collegiality. We eat together, we talk constantly about our teaching and our students, and even in the English department (English departments are known throughout academia as wretched hives of scum and villiany, snakepits of backbiting and intrigue), we pretty much all like each other.

And thank God (and it's also a big reason I'm planning on staying. Or, as my wife put it in exasperation: they're only going to be able to get you out of Wheaton in a box).

But the price we pay for collegiality is work. Lots of work. We have collegiality because we are not very hierarchical (which I like) because we, as members of committees, do most of the work done by individual deans at larger schools.

I was just chosen to be chair of our Education Policy Committee, and boy, am I seeing how the system works up close (I was on EdPol when we re-wrote the entire Wheaton curriculum; I was also the recording secretary, so I got the fun experience of having every iteration of the stinking Minutes word-smithed).

Today we had our final faculty meeting, where we approved the degree candidates, confirmed reports from the standing committees, approved the calendar for the next seven years, etc. I loathe faculty meetings and have been skipping them religiously for the past two years. Now it's payback time . Not only did I have to be there because people would have noticed, but I was stuck behind at the meeting for 1.25 hours.

Most of what I'm doing is listening (people who know me personally are already laughing at the poetic justice) and trying to give an honest hearing to various concerns. But it has become shockingly clear to me in the past couple weeks that one of the reasons that Wheaton works so well is the very inefficiency that makes me hate faculty meetings. If everyone gets his or her say and gets a respectful hearing, people are more willing to accept change and to try new things. I'm trying to impress this upon people new to Wheaton: yes, having a complex, open process with defined procedures is a huge pain for seemingly simple decisions, and it wastes time for all involved (and I whined ceaselessly about meetings for years).

But... process, transparency and involvement lead to buy-in across the college. So when a decision finally gets made, it's supported everywhere.

A good example is our new curriculum: we had an interminable 18 months in which we held study groups, had faculty-wide discussions and answered hundreds of emails. I thought it was a huge time-waster, and remember saying to the Provost: "why are we doing all of this? We've got the 55 votes we need; let's just vote." She, being much wiser, ignored me. And at the end of the process, despite the fact that the curriculum was a major change, and depite the fact that not everyone was thrilled, the new curriculum passed 93-3 (and I know that at least one of the "no" votes was simply to keep the vote from being unanimous--"which would make us into a bunch of sheep"). Now even skeptics work to support the new curriculum and have devoted immense quantities of time and energy.

Something to think about, particularly for administrators and chairs.

[Only 32 more papers to go and the grading is done...]

Friday, May 13, 2005


[UPDATE: Thanks to all who have commented, emailed and posted to congratulate me. Your kindness means a lot. I've been buried under grading, or I would have responded personally (which I'll still try to do)]

I've been sitting on some news that I had to keep quiet about until it was officially announced:

Last week I was awarded Wheaton's William and Elsie Prentice Professorship. The Prentice is one of the only chairs Wheaton has for which Associate Professors are theoretically eligible, but it's really nice to get a teaching award from a school that highly values teaching. The award, which lasts five years, is for outstanding teaching and so, in the beautiful logic of academia, I get to teach fewer classes each year.

But in fact I am going to use the award time and support to revamp almost all of my classes. I want to add some kind of cross-cultural comparisons to the classes, and this is going to require lots of work. For example, I will begin studying Japanese at Harvard so that, one hopes, by the end of the five-year period I'll be able to teach parts of the Tale of Genji in my medieval lit in translation course. One of my rules has beem that I won't teach anything in translation that I can't read in the original, hence studying Japanese for Genji. I also hope to be able to add Old Norse in alternation with Anglo-Saxon, and to teach an Oral Tradition course (which will violate my "have to read everything in the original" rule, since there's no way I can pick up Serbo-Croatian, Xhosa, Finnish and Ancient Greek in any reasonable amount of time (though maybe before I die...).

The most important thing (to me) about the award, more than the award itself, is that I feel as if Wheaton has continued to reciprocate in the loyalty that I have shown the institution (and that it showed to me in my tenure case). It's nice to be appreciated, and it certainly will motivate me to work harder and support Wheaton (and, as if by magic, I was just appointed to chair the Educational Policy Committee, which is one of those things that people say is "a big honor -- which is true -- but by which they really mean "is a huge pain in the butt").

Other news: I received my copy of
Tolkien Studies Volume II:
Essays Included in this Volume are:
'And She Named Her Own Name': Being True to One's Own Word in Tolkien's Middle-earth
-Richard C. West
Richard C. West: A Checklist
-Compiled by Douglas A. Anderson
Parallel Lives: The Sons of Denethor and the Sons of Telamon
-Miryam Libran-Moreno
The White City: The Lord of the Rings as an Early Medieval Myth of the Restoration of the Roman Empire
-Judy Ann Ford
World Creation as Colonization: British Imperialism in 'Aldarion and Erendis'
-Elizabeth Massa Hoiem
'Tricksy Lights': Literary and Folkloric Elements in Tolkien's Passage of the Dead Marshes
-Margaret Sinex
Tolkien and Modernism
-Patchen Mortimer
Tolkien, King Alfred, and Boethius
-John Wm. Houghton and Neal K. Keesee
A Definitive Identification of Tolkien's 'Borgil':An Astronomical and Literary Approach
-Kristine Larsen
Love: 'The Gift of Death'
-Linda Greenwood
Tolkien's Imaginary Nature: An Analysis of the Structure of Middle-earth
-Michael J. Brisbois
Obituary: Humphrey Carpenter (1946-2005)
-Douglas A. Anderson"
Plus a great many book reviews, "The Years' Work in Tolkien Studies 2001-2002" by David Bratman, and Bibliography (in English) for 2003.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005


Deathbone is my favorite birthday present this year (I received him just before I left for Kalamazoo). I had gotten tired of the saccharine characters of the My Little Ponies, so I invented Deathbone, the meanest pony of all. I told of his epic battle with Sky Wishes, Pinkie Pie and their minions and how he, and his consort, Stinkie Pie, were plotting to destroy Ponyville and send all the My Little Ponies to the glue factory.

So Raquel and Rhys made Deathbone for me. Note the bone for the "Cutie Mark." (If they ever make me a Stinkie Pie, she will be brown with a yellow mane and a toilet for a Cutie Mark). Yes, I've had very little sleep over the past few days and not only have to grade papers, but move 4 cubic yards of topsoil before garbage day. Why do you ask?

Monday, May 09, 2005

Apparently I did know the way to Kalamazoo.

And, to the joy of my spouse, who now does not have to run me over with a garden-weasel, I knew the way back as well, even with only two hours of sleep (thanks, Midnight Dance! Thanks, Loredana!!). Coming back on Mother's Day made for a lot of work, with meals needing to be cooked immediately and much dogpiling on the floor and wrestling to be done. It was great to be back to my two little monsters. And to find that Raquel hadn't been forced to duct-tape them to anything and no one had to sleep in the shed.

Kalamazoo itself was one of the better ones I've been to. Everything certainly ran smoothly, nearly effortlessly. I give credit to the two organizers I know: Paul Szarmach, who manages to run the conference, be charming, and take time to talk about scholarship even during the conference. And someone whom I was thrilled to meet because I read her blog: Elisabeth Carnell, who was one of the organizers who had organized exceptionally well. [P.S., Elisabeth, the picture on your site does not do you justice at all. You should definitely post one from the Midnight Dance].

The quality of the papers was quite high as well. As usual, the best session was the "'New Voices'" in Anglo-Saxon Studies," in which graduate students gave papers under the auspices of ISAS, the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists. Papers by Brian O'Camb, Mary-Louise Fellows, Sarah Downey, and Matthew T. Hussey were all stimulating: interesting ideas, well-presented. I was particularly thrilled when Fellows cited my "Anglo-Saxon Wills" paper, because now I know the identity of the one person who has read it.

Most of the time a paper isn't important in the sense that it gives you a powerful presentation of a major piece of scholarship: the format just doesn't allow for that kind of communicative economy. But these papers were important in the sense that they made me want to rush off and delve more deeply into what the presenters were discussing. I came up with ideas as to how Downey's paper on Guthlac can be improved, and l actually had contemporaneous suggestions for Fellows. (and, Mary-Louise, I am so happy that someone is using the corpus. You don't know how many hours I spent getting the wretched thing in order. This was before there was an electronic Sawyer at Cambridge).

So I walked out of the conference with that most precious thing one can get at Kalamazoo: new enthusiasm. New joy in the field. New connections with old friends. And also, an offer to submit a long paper for a journal and to get some other stuff into the form of a Note.

My talk itself, which I've posted here as notes and a handout in .pdf, seemed to go over well. As you read it you'll notice that I didn't bother to write down most of the important details (I just talked them), but you can probably get a look at the theory, since by Christmas, you'll be reading it!

Yes, that's right. MRTS gave me a real date: galleys in July, book to the printer in October and back to me in December. Soon you may be able to purchase How Tradition Works: A Meme-Based Poetics of the Anglo-Saxon Tenth Century for yourselves, making me, and hopefully you, immensely happy.

Well, there's lots more on Kalamzoo (my favorite quote: "there I was, sitting next to the World's Most Disgusting Couple.")
But it is late and I am tired, and I must prepare for the arrival of

[UPDATED to remove a tremendous number of typos]

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Do you know the way to Kalamazoo?

Yes, most cliched title ever for a medievalist's blog post. But on Thursday I'm off to Kalamazoo, Michigan for the 40th Annunal International Medieval Congress. Last year was the first time in a decade that I'd missed 'zoo (here's why), but I'm heading back this year to give the paper with the all-time worst title in the history of Kalamazoo: "Repetition, Pattern Recogntion and the Evolution of Traditions: Some Old English Examples." That, my friends, is what happens when you agree to submit an abstract to a session but are still too early in your research to have a catchy--or even mildly interesting--title. I'm sure my fellow medievalists will be beating down the doors to come to this paper.

Kalamazoo is a bizarre and amazing combination of huge academic conference (stand in the lobby of the conference long enough and you will meet nearly every medievalist in the western world -- "long enough" might be a couple of years, but you get the idea), graduate school reunion, and wild party. There's a midnight dance on Saturday night that really should be painted by Bosch. There are great papers, mediocre papers, dazzlingly disastrous papers. There's an enormous book area, medieval films, plays and concerts...

But mostly it is for the socializing. Yes, there's networking and schmoozing, etc., but because of the diffusion of hiring power at most institutions (often there will be no medievalist on a hiring committee to hire a medievalist), there's a lot less overt and disgusting sucking up than there is at MLA. Medievalists also tend to be nicer human beings for some reason (author excluded, of course, but the kindness of medievalists is well known), and the conference is so big that it's very easy to fall in with a group of friends and just have a good time catching up.

Western Michigan University itself is beautiful in the spring (though the weather is totally unpredictable: I've been there for snow, and I've been there for temperatures in the 90's). Medievalists with money stay in the nice hotels off campus, but I tough it out and stay in the dorms -- huge, cinderblock constructions from the 1960's. When I brought two students to Kalamazoo a few years ago, they described the dorms as "the most ghetto dorms I've ever seen." But one of those students is coming back for a third time this year, and the other emailed to say she wished she was going.

in the dorms, one shares a connecting bathroom with a stranger, which leads to sometimes strange moments. As do wide-spread drunkenness, room parties and people carrying on affairs in public (or very noisily behind closed doors. One year two friends of mine, who were just starting their relationship at the time, bought an air mattress and brought it back to the dorms. I am not making this up. It's all interesting.

I'm the lone medieval literature scholar at Wheaton, so Kalamazoo gives me a chance to catch up on what is current in medieval studies outside of my immediate subfield. The ISAS conference (which meets every two years; it's in Munich this year and unfortunately I can't go, as I'm not inflicting my one-year-old son upon trans-Atlantic passengers) is better in that the papers are all directly relevant to my work and of a superbly high quality, but Kalamazoo gives you the opportunity for fortuitous learning, for stumbling into a session and discovering a new idea or a new scholar who inspires you. That's what I'm really looking forward to.

(Ok, not quite as much as the social aspects).

Sunday, May 01, 2005

The Problem with Theory

Or maybe this should be "A Problem with Theory."

When I was discussing Chaucer's Retraction with my class on Thursday we ended up using little bits of theory here and there. For example, one student argued that if Chaucer only made his Retraction because he was worried about the Church being angry about his works, then she was disappointed in his not standing up for his art. I asked her if she thought that there was some specific priest standing by Chaucer's deathbed, pressuring him. No, she said, but it's more that he took in Church teaching and then let that teaching control him. I then brought up Foucault on the internalization of discipline. Yes, the said, that's what I mean. But isn't the point of Foucault that the imposition of that kind of discipline and its internalization produces identities? So isn't Church discipline, assuming, arguendo, that this was really the reason for the retraction (I'm not so sure), a part of Chaucer's actual identity? Why isn't that internalized discipline part of the Chaucer. I tried the following though experiment, suggesting to the student that she has been disciplined by parent, school, culture, etc., to hate racial prejudice. She agreed. Could I take away the "hating racial prejudice" part of you without taking away part of your identity? No. So can we take away internalized Christian penitential discipline without taking away from Chaucer's identity?

The student still felt that perhaps we could, and I realized that this was a perfect example of Dennett's "if you make yourself really small, you can externalize anything" comment. But there wasn't time to explain all of Dennett, so we just muddled through ourselves.

It was an excellent, deep, literary/philosophical discussion, and I wondered why such discussions don't happen enough in some of my classes, and came to the tentative conclusion that one of the problems is the use of theory. Theory, as it is taught and imbibed by students, tends to provide pre-packaged answers (yes, I know, one important reason people developed theory, was to avoid pre-packaged answers). But the way theory is written, the way students have to "master" it and "accept" it (both quotes from Profs. at Carnegie Mellon when I was an undergrad), creates an impression that the texts and the problems are the questions, and theory is the answer. There's a plague of dissertations by people around my age who just run through Anglo-Saxon poetry or medieval lit applying their chosen theory to a whole variety of texts: The Written Body in Elene, The Written Body in Wulf and Eadwacer, The Written Body in Resignation, etc. There are people in my cohort who have done this for all their published work (and it does get published). I did some of the same during my dissertation time but then stopped (thank God). I think that this approach, which shows up all over the place (Reading the Built Landscape in Morrison, Reading the Built Landscape in Faulker, Reading the Build Landscape in Vonnegut...), has re-invented exactly what everyone hated about the New Criticism (Dark, Light and Ambiguity in Beowulf; Dark, Light and Ambiguity in Andreas; Dark, Light and Ambiguity in The Dream of the Rood).

I'm not actually anti-theory, just anti- the way theory is applied. Ok, I am anti-theory, but that's because I think people should start using different theories. Like mine, which I'll discuss in another post. But first it's time to talk about Kalamazoo. Stay tuned.