Thursday, July 28, 2005

Drout's First Law of Studying for Ph.D. Orals

In this post, Natalia discussed the stress of studying for Ph.D. orals. It is one of those nightmare situations where, no matter how much work you have done, you still can think of much more work you should have done.

Along that path lies insanity and exhaustion.

So I offer for Natalia and others Drout's First Law of Studying for Ph.D. Orals:

If you read a stack of books as high as you are tall, you will pass.

I came up with this law at Loyola Chicago, and, as far as I have been able to tell, there have been no exceptions. My friend Bryon Grigsby (now Dean Grigsby at Centennary College) is well over six feet tall and was not happy about the way Drout's First Law applied to him, but he read his stack, and he passed.

So, cheer up, Natalia. You now have a metric to use for your studying.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

How Much Information is Too Much Information?

For the past couple of weeks I have been doing a major revision of King Alfred's Grammar, the grammar book I wrote to teach Old English when I became dissatisfied with the existing grammar books on the market. King Alfred's Grammar has had some success, I think: one of the students taught with the book has gone on to absolutely elite M.A. and Ph.D. programs and others have had success in Old English during their Junior Year Abroad study in British institutions. A fair number have gone on to success in translating Beowulf in independent study with me.

King Alfred's Grammar goes along with the King Alfred computer program, which is undergoing a complete rebuild this summer. King Alfred gives students a sentence to translate, provides help through the translation (by giving students, say, the case of a word, the gender, the number, the definition and, finally, the translation), tracks all of the student work and then provides customized feedback (i.e., "King Alfred suggests that you go over the Accusative Case" and then gives a link to a discussion of the Accusative). The original version of King Alfred worked, but it was hacked together using Filemaker and a whole bunch of proprietary cdml code and javascript and so hasn't held up very well to the changes in the web since 1999. The new version runs on a MYSQL database and is being written by a Computer Science professor and so is much more elegant and efficient.

At first the program and the grammar were intended solely for my students. Then I started giving away the html version of the grammar to anyone who wanted it (and it is on my website: ). But last year a press got interested in the grammar book, so I put together a prospectus, etc., and began collaborating with a scholar from the University of Toronto program, Bruce Gilchrist (who had emailed me out of the blue with an incredibly detailed and helpful critique of the grammar).

The press ended up not offering a contract for the grammar due to some equivocal readers' reports. These reports, I should add, were on the whole very helpful, and the press encouraged me very strongly to revise and re-submit, which suggests that someone on the editing staff is serious about publishing the book (a good sign). But the readers' reports also pointed up the biggest problem I have had in writing and revising the book: how much is too much?

The reason I wrote King Alfred's Grammar in the first place was that existing grammar books had too much of certain kinds of information and not enough of other kinds. My students did not need a short course in Anglo-Saxon dialectology, but they did need an explanation of what a direct object is. I wanted a book that was as stripped down as it could be (not the least because I had to photocopy the thing myself and front the money for books for the entire class) and I managed to get it down to 110 pages, generously spaced (thanks to MS Word's hideous layout capabilities and my desire not to re-lay-out the book in InDesign).

But as I am revising in light of the readers' reports, I am coming under pressure to add in more exceptions, more explanations, more details, which is making the book more like, say, Mitchell and Robinson's Guide to Old English (though even if I tried, my book couldn't be as confusingly organized as theirs). The whole thing that separates King Alfred's Grammar from everything else out there is its laser-like focus on the needs of beginning students. If I start providing all of the phonological details, if I try to go over syncope and breaking and i-mutation, I will no longer be able to get through Old English grammar quickly enough that we can translate Seven [Eight] Old English Poems by the midpoint of the semester and lines from Beowulf by the end.

But the readers for the press wanted something that works as a complete reference even as they very much liked the fact that I explained what a noun is. So I am stuck trying to cram things in or write appendices. Frustrating.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Bard of the Middle Ages: The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer

Back in November I recorded a 'college course on CD' for Recorded Books. It was a great deal of fun, though I learned that standing in a booth and speaking for eight hours is a lot more exhausting than I had imagined.

A few people have written to say that they had been able to check out the course from their local libraries. Now it is available on the Recorded Books website, if you'd like to order it: Drout's Chaucer Course.

It's actually an expanded version of the Chaucer course I teach at Wheaton, which only covers the Canterbury Tales. Here I work through the complete Chaucer canon. There are seven CDs, each with two 35-minute lectures, and a course book that I wrote that includes summaries, essay and discussion questions and some really nice illustrations (which the Recorded Books people picked, and which, I have to say, are better than anything I would have come up with).

One of the important things I learned while writing and recording the course is how much time I spend in class on discussion. Student speaking takes up, if my calculations are right, more than 50% of each class. That's why we only cover the CT in a whole semester. I think that the students learn much more that way, and having to speak a lot keeps them awake (I hope).

By the way, I was only allowed two pages of notes for each lecture, so the talks are ex tempore rather than just read aloud. I think that makes them easier to listen to. Please let me know what you think.
On Productivity

(Setting aside the obvious irony of writing about "productivity" instead of, well, actually doing something productive like finishing the revision of King Alfred's Grammar).

For me the secret to productivity is keeping a lot of balls in the air. This approach has both positive and negative effects (some of which I'll discuss in more detail in an upcoming post on "Is is bad to have an 'eclectic' publication record?").
If one project runs into a stumbling block or a delay (such as having to wait for Interlibrary Loan books or articles), I can just move on to the next instead of waiting in frustration. But if one project gets hung upon a genuinely difficult intellectual problem, it's very easy to give in to temptation and move on to something else. This is particularly difficult when I have a lot of things to do around the house. Example: last week, when I was having trouble re-writing the section of the grammar book on word order and cases, I went down in the basement and built some shelves. It was certainly fun to do some carpentry (and my five-year-old now knows the difference between and rabet and a dado), but it did very little to get the grammar book revised in time to use it in the fall.

(I also lost some productivity points when I spent big chunks of Saturday and Sunday--well, when the children were napping or at birthday parties-- finishing Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince -- but I really enjoyed the book and thought Rowling mostly avoided bogging down the way she did in Order of the Phoenix. Two future posts on Potter: "Rowling 'Technologizes' Magic'" and "My Prediction: Draco Malfoy = Gollum").

Overall, I think the standard model of humanities work--the professor sitting alone in front of a stack of books and a computer, wrestling the recalictrant material into a book or article-- is a productivity-killer. The Research Group, as done in the sciences, seems to me to be a far better spur to productivity. My wife was in a science/engineering research group (the Steel Research Group--although she worked on polymers) at Northwestern and I saw first-hand how such groups provide social and intellectual support. True, they can bog down in politics (usually over lab space and funding) and waste time like any other group of people, but in general they seem incredibly successful.

I have consistently tried to set up such research groups since I have been in graduate school, with varying degrees of success. At Loyola the attempt at a research group fell apart, wrecked on the shoals of Ph.D. student anxieties, egos and personality conflicts. At Wheaton I had one fairly large group of students that lasted for a couple of semesters, but in general I've had my best results working with one or two students on a specified project and with science faculty and students on longer-term projects. But I'm still trying to get a self-perpetuating research group going rather than having to re-start every year.

So, for example, I wrote a single journal article with my student Laura Comoletti; wrote an article and started a long-running bibliography project with my student Hilary Wynne; founded the journal Tolkien Studies with Prof. Verlyn Flieger and independent scholar Douglas Anderson and edited the first issue with students Melissa Higgins, Laura Kalafarski and Mariah Herbst; compiled another bibliography with my student Melissa Smith-MacDonald; started the Anglo-Saxon Medicine Project with Biology Prof. Betsey Dyer and student John Walsh and recently published in Anglo-Saxon Englandthe results of that five-year project with Biology Prof. Barbara Brennessel and her student Robyn Gravel.

In each case the collaboration spurs productivity not only by having someone else contribute to the work but also by forcing me to meet deadlines (i.e., have something to talk about at meetings). More importantly, the collaboration is great fun because two brains are better than one, and having someone to talk to about a project helps weed out stupid ideas. Also, the science approach to having to sketch out all the research in advance so as to ask for funding helps enormously in taming open-ended humanities projects.

I'm now working on the Sheep DNA in Parchment project with Biology Prof. Shawn McCafferty and exploring a cognitive neuroscience project (using EEG to try to better understand how people read poetry -- specifically poems with apo koinu constructions) with Psychology Prof. Rolf Nelson. I'm also compiling the next year's Tolkien Studies bibliography with my student Vaughan Sherrill and, if she decides to join the research group, my student Lindsey Ford. And I'm revising and expanding King Alfred's Grammar with Bruce Gilchrist from Univ. of Toronto.

For my own "productivity", I have to finish the grammar book, write an article on the construction of elvish, immortal bodies in Tolkien, revise my syllabi (for Math/SciFi; Rings, Swords and Monsters: Tolkien, Wagner, Beowulf; and Anglo-Saxon), re-do all of my websites, create an errata page for Beowulf and the Critics, record Beowulf as an mp3,write my lecture on Tolkien's medieval scholarship for Hillsdale College, revise my prospectus for The Dark is Rising Companion in light of Ms. Cooper's comments, write my own entries for the The JRRT Encyclopedia, and, if they ever arrive, correct the galleys for How Tradition Works, and...

Now I am so tired just thinking about all of this that I am going to go watch the Red Sox.

So much for productivity.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Tolkien Encyclopedia: Many Fewer Remaining Entries

**UPDATE, 7.22.2005: List below updated to reflect most recent acceptances, etc. "NEW" means 'new to the list', not 'new to the Encyclopedia'**

That was fast! The response to my post on the remaining entries was fast and furious, with people just snapping them up. I'm really impressed by the quality of work that people sent via links in order to support their bona fides. There is so much good on-line Tolkien material (the problem is separating it out from the less good when all most folks use is the blunt tool of Google).

Since the list below was getting cluttered with cross-outs, here is a new, revised list (I've added a couple of categories, in particular one for parodies--including Bored of the Rings and The Soddit,).

NEW Artists and Illustrators' Influence on Tolkien 700
NEW *Carolingians 250
Cumberlege, Geoffrey 250
*Danish Language 500
*Denmark: Reception of Tolkien 500
NEW Dramatizations: Stage and Spoken 1000
German Folktale: Deutsch Mythologie 600
Grammar 500
Greece: Reception of Tolkien 500
Grove, Jenny 250
Old High German Literature 500
Parodies: Bored of the Rings, The Soddit, and others 1000
Penance 1000
Priestman, Judith 250
*Russian Language 500
NEW *Taniquetil 500
NEW Television: BBC Specials 750
Vale of the White Horse 500

Entries marked with an asterisk have been offered to someone but I haven't heard back from the person yet and so it is likely that these will open up. Other entries may open up as people who have accepted change their minds. Deadlines for entries are generally going to be in the early to mid fall.

Also, if you have suggestions for illustrations, I would love to hear them. There are to be 100 illustrations in the Encyclopedia, and I want them to be useful as well as beautiful. For example, there is going to be a map of Oxford with Tolkien's colleges, homes, Eagle and Child pub, etc. marked. There will be pictures of Pembroke and Merton colleges. There will be an illustration of hemlock umbels (not the coniferous tree, by the way) so everyone will finally know what Luthien was dancing under. Obviously there will be beautiful Ted Nasmith paintings and important illustrations, but I would love suggestions for materials that would help people improve their understanding of Tolkien's primary and secondary worlds, both England in the 20th century and Middle-earth.

Monday, July 18, 2005

On NPR Tonight, July 18, 2005

I'm going to be on WBUR's "On Point" tonight talking about Harry Potter and Tolkien from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. Eastern (they tell me I'll actually start talking around 8:20 if you'd like to listen). I don't know if there's a streamcast, but here's a link to the show On Point : J.K Rowling's Literary Work ['nother update: that link gives you both wmv and realplayer options to hear the piece. even though they didn't put my name on the page, I'm on the program]

UPDATE: I've figured out the streamcast now: go to the main page of WBUR and then click on the "Listen Now" icon at the top left.

UPDATE AGAIN: Well that was fun. And it was very cool to be paired with another Anglo-Saxonist, Seth Lerer, who is a prof at my old school. I don't think the host knew we were both Anglo-Saxonists, though.

What's also very funny is that my dad, after finishing listening to my Chaucer course on CD, started listening to Seth's History of the English Language course on CD. So it must have seemed to him that the once-and-future commute had arrived...

I'll post a link to the archived show when it comes up.
Tolkien Encyclopedia: A Few Entries Still Unassigned

UPDATE: Please see post above for more timely information: Click Here. Entries below have been crossed out to show the state of things at approximately 10 p.m. on Wednesday, July 20.

UPDATE: I've crossed out those entries that people are offered to do. I also have a few more that aren't on the list, either because I was hoarding them for myself, or because I've just come up with them:

Valinor 1000
Towers 700
Penance 1000
Glorfindel 600
Morgoth's Ring 1000
Vale of the White Horse 500
Parodies: Bored of the Rings, The Soddit, and others 1000

To my immense surprise, the preparation of The J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia -- Scholarship and Critical Assessment is right now going relatively smoothly. Entries have been pouring in, and they are of very high quality.

I still have a few entries left. Some because people turned them down, others because people didn't respond to emails or (and this happened in a number of cases) I just couldn't track down a functioning email address. So, if you are interested, drop me an email.

Herewith the list of the few remaining entries, followed by planned word counts:

Alcuin 250
Artists and Illustrators' Influence on Tolkien 700
Class in Tolkien's Works 750
Cumberlege, Geoffrey 250
Danes: Contributions to English Culture 250
Danish Language 500
Denmark: Reception of Tolkien 500
Elements 500
Elendilmir 500
Finwë and Miriel 500
German Folktale: Deutsch Mythologie 600
Grammar 500
Greece: Reception of Tolkien 500
Grove, Jenny 250
Koivënéni and Cuivinen 500
Latin Language 1000
North Borneo, Reception of Tolkien 500
Obituary for Henry Bradley 500
Old High German 750
Old High German Literature 500
Priestman, Judith 250
Rhyme Schemes and Meter 1000
Rhyming Poetry 500
Russian Language 500
Thingol, Elwe, Elu Singollo 500
Tolkien Scholarship: Institutions 2000
Viking Raids 250
War of the Jewels 1000
War of the Ring 1000
Wolvercote Cemetery 250
Health and Medicine 500

[An update on Sheep DNA -- which, I know, is all you really want to read about, will be coming later today or tomorrow after I finish reading some more scientific papers.]

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

The Crazy Sheep Project

You know, I've devoted a big portion of my scholarship to trying to understand how traditions work. Does anyone care? Noooo. But mention some crazy project about extracting sheep DNA from parchment and suddenly I'm getting all kinds of amazing suggestions and encouragement.

Spouse: "You're going to be known as the Crazy Sheep DNA Guy."

She's probably right. But anything that this many people respond to (and which, honestly, I find really interesting), is worth pursuing a bit. So I'm conferring with my friends in Biology (one of whom does molecular phylogenetics for fish, so he knows about extracting DNA and figuring out the relationships implied by shared error, etc--which, by the way, textual scholars invented independently and hundreds of years before biologists began using the same techniques for phylogenetics). I'm also talking to my boss, Wheaton's Provost, and the Grants Office.

This, by the way, is one of the amazingly great things about Wheaton. I can mosey over to the Science Center and chat with friends and put together a proposal not only with no resistance, but with excitement and encouragement. When I mentioned to a friend who was working on a large-scale research project in England that the biologists at her institution might be able to help with some of the data analysis, she responded: "But they won't respond to an email and have no interest in meeting with us."

I understand how busy the biologists generally are (at Wheaton, they all seem, like me, to have three or four research programs going at once). But to assume that they won't return emails or phone calls and have no interest in collaboration.. weird.

Back to Crazy Sheep Project. I've done a little research and have found that ovine DNA has been extracted from parchment. There is a research group a Gottingen who have done some work (they are cited in this paper (in pdf) on DNA Recovery from 10th and 11th Century Cattle Bones. I'm waiting for things to come in ILL or through the electronic search process (I can't get my VPN to work with Mac Tiger, so I have to go on to campus and do the e-lit searches for the science databases).

The real limiting factor will be whether or not you can get sheep DNA from a "non-invasive" test. If I can rub a sterile probe on a few follicles or run a stick down the edge of a leaf and then use RAPD-PCR and get good data, then I think the project can work. But there is no way that any of the libraries are going to let me remove any amount of material from the leaves. And they'd be right not to. Those manuscripts are held in trust for future generations, and we can't nibble off bits of them.

I've pasted in below the brief description I've thrown together to show colleagues, Provost, grants office, etc. Obviously much more will have to be done, and I'll be pestering those of you who made such good suggestions for more help if the project progresses.

Manuscript Relationships from Ovine (and Bovine) DNA

Medieval manuscripts are made from tanned sheep hides (parchment) and cow hides (vellum). Ovine and bovine DNA has been recovered from similar materials. After the DNA was amplified using RAPD-PCR, individual animals were identified using STR profiling. Animal populations were also characterized using mtDNA and STR allele frequencies (Burger, Pfieffer, et. al. 1999).

Using ovine and bovine DNA sequencing, it should be possible to determine relationships between various manuscripts dating from the Anglo-Saxon period (c. 500-1066, with most manuscripts dating from between 700-1066). The animal DNA of each leaf of each manuscript (and leaves of single-sheet charters) would be sequenced and the identifying information entered into a database. This data could then be used to identify relationships between various manuscripts. Individual animals that were used in multiple manuscripts would imply either that these manuscripts were copied in the same scriptoria or that there was a central supply of pre-prepared parchment made from the same herd. Manuscripts that have not previously been known to be related could be identified, and previously unknown connections established. For example, although the existence of a “royal writing office” is no longer doubted, study of manuscript linkages could demonstrate if that writing office produced materials other than charters and writs, and if there was any connection between the production of literary manuscripts. It may even be possible, depending upon what the data demonstrates, to determine a provenance or date for the Beowulf manuscript or the Vercelli Book.

Untangling the relationships between individual sheep and composite manuscripts would be a multi-disciplinary effort that includes mathematicians, biologists, paleographers, historians and literary scholars. I would also like to propose developing a graphical representation of manuscript information (including the identity of the individual animal source for each leaf) that would be similar to that developed for the Human Genome Project by Ben Fry at the MIT Media Lab . Such a representational convention would be useful for researchers even before the DNA data is assembled as it would allow much easier visualization of manuscript contents.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005


On Thursday night I was having a discussion with my wife about the next "chapter book" that our daughter might read.
"I think she'd really like The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet," I said.

Friday was library day, and for the first time in a while my wife was able to join us. In the foyer there is a shelf of donated books for sale for a quarter each. "Look," I said, holding one up.
It was The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet

"Another one of those weird coincidences that follow you around," she said. "Remember last year when you mentioned The Phantom Tollbooth, and it was right there in the pile the next day. The library knows what you're thinking."

Next morning, I read Glenn Reynolds: "THE INSTA-DAUGHTER is sitting next to me on the sofa, reading The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet, a book that I liked a lot when I was 9."

Yes, just a weird little coincidence or two. Not statistically significant. But interesting all the same when you're caught up in it.

Blogging will hopefully improve tomorrow. I mailed off one new article (making that two new for the summer thus far) and did a set of proofs, then met with a former student, trained a new student how to order books for me from bibliographies, and tried to catch up on email. And cooked meatloaf, played baseball with 15-month-old son (who seems to bat lefty -- yay!!), read Lord of the Rings to daughter and watched the first two innings of the All-Star Game with her.

Monday, July 11, 2005

When Reality TV Has Penetrated Too Far Into the Culture

Spouse: [handing child a Boston Cream doughnut] This is a Boston Cream Doughnut.

Child: Where is the cream?

Spouse: Inside. Where the stink-beetles would go.

If you've had to watch Fear Factor with your child, you'll understand. If you haven't, count your blessings.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Scott McLemee's Meme

I normally have very little interest in this use of "meme," but the person who tagged me, Edward Pettit of BibliothecaryBlog, had such interesting answers that I decided to play along:

1) Imagine it’s 2015. You are visiting the library at a major research university. You go over to a computer terminal (or whatever it is they use in 2015) that gives you immediate access to any book or journal article on any topic you want. What do you look up? In other words, what do you hope somebody will have written in the meantime?

I look up the results of my insane "Manuscripts and Sheep DNA Project," which, miraculously, a whole slew of libraries have supported. (I got the original idea from Greg Rose and have expanded it since). Libraries holding Anglo-Saxon manuscripts agreed to allow scrapings of each leaf to be taken. DNA in the scrapings was amplified using Polymerase Chain Reaction and then sequenced. Comparison of sequences showed which piece of parchment came from which sheep and, furthermore, which sheep were related to each other. Untangling the relationships became a multi-disciplinary effort that included mathematicians, biologists, paleographers, historians and literary scholars--and people who knew a lot about sheep. The entire insane project was led by an obscure professor from a small New England liberal arts college after some foundation with more money than it knew what to do with --and lots of good connections to British and Continental libraries--decided to support it. The project demonstrated new links between manuscripts and monastic centers and paid huge and controversial literary and historical dividends when it demonstrated that yes, there was a "royal writing office" (they were using sheep from the same herd for their materials), and that the Beowulf manuscript has a leaf that came from the same sheep as a leaf from the Blickling homily manuscript.
[n.b. For some reader from a foundation: this is the kind of interdisciplinary, long-shot project that could sounds like a total wash out, but if it isn't, it will pay gigantic and unexpected dividends. Swing for the fences and help me get those sheep hides sequenced! ]

(2) What is the strangest thing you’ve ever heard or seen at a conference?

At my very first Kalamazoo I registered late and had to stay in French Hall, where they put the visiting athletic teams (you can imagine the condition of the rooms). At Kalamazoo, you share a bathroom with a connecting room. I did not (and still do not) know who was in that connecting room. One night, coming back from drinking at Waldo's, I went into the bathroom to brush my teeth and heard loud noises coming from next door. Unmistakeably, the people were spanking each other. There was counting and "may I have another" involved. They appeared to be having a great time, and I've always thought that perhaps the next day their papers had a special quality of some kind.
The next year at Kalamazoo, obviously mindful of my previous year's experience, I opened the door to the connecting bathroom, wondering what this year's sexed-up medievalist neighbors would be up to. There was a glass of water alongside the sink. In the water were a set of dentures.

(3) Name a writer, scholar, or otherwise worthy person you admire so much that meeting him or her would probably reduce you to awestruck silence.

I've had the opportunity to meet some of my academic heroes, such as Mechthild Gretsch, Simon Keynes, Patrick Wormald, Michael Lapidge, Tom Shippey, and Joyce Hill, and none of them were intimidating (and I guess I wasn't too puppy-dog-ish). I'd be in awestruck silence in front of Ed Wilson, J. G. Ballard, Ursula Le Guin, Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins. Then I'd immediately corner said persons and try to get blurbs for a book...

(4) What are two or three blogs or other Web sites you often read that don’t seem to be on many people’s radar?

That Rabbit Girl: Tales of an Art Librarian was a student in classes I TA'd back at Loyola Chicago. Always interesting.

Sweat Flavored Gummi a possibly insane person who puts dead squirrels in her freezer and writes hilarious blog posts about paper mache hams. Her "angry letter of the week" feature is a thing of beauty.

Elyse Sewell's LiveJournal. My wifes' and my one pop-culture pleasure is ANTM. Elyse was a contestant on the first run of the show but was too smart to win. Her journal is witty and well-written as she describes her xenophilic life as a model.

Tiruncula, Mad For Caffeine Bourgeois Nerd, and Unknown Strains are all academics who don't seem to be jerks and can write well. That's good enough (and rare enough) for me.

I'm not going to officially "tag" anyone, but if I've linked you above, consider yourself invited.