Thursday, May 18, 2006

How Tradition Works

My ten-year labor of hell love is finally available. Some of you saw the book at Kalamazoo, but at that point you couldn't get it. Now you can here, via Amazon.

I tried to write How Tradition Works in such a way that it would be understandable by intelligent laypeople while at the same time making a technical contribution to both Anglo-Saxon scholarship and theories of memetics. This was much harder than it sounds, and I'm pretty sure I didn't succeed at every level, but I can give you the testimonials of an English Ph.D. student, a mathematician and a biologist who all claim to have enjoyed it (or to be in the process of enjoying it).

HTW is an attempt to take an interdisciplinary look at how traditions are created, transmitted and modified. I try to develop a general theory of tradition and then test it against traditions from the tenth century. Texts examined include the Rule of St Benedict and the Regularis Concordia, the Old English wills, the Old English translation of the Enlarged Rule of Chrodegang (and if that doesn't make you want to run out and buy it, you have a heart of stone, you do), and the "wisdom poems" of the Exeter Book. There is a historical argument (about the tenth-century Benedictine Reform), a theoretical argument (about how to use "memes" to explain traditions), and a literary argument (about the meanings of various tenth-century texts). Most importantly, the book has a really cool cover illustration, done by my student, the artist Jennifer Schuman, with secret symbolic messages in it. See:

Of course I wish the price ($47) were lower, but the publisher does need to make back their investment to pay my amazing editor. I will also try my best to get gratis copies for any publication that wants to be review the book, and, if you really are so inclined, I will happily sell you an inscribed copy. I am particularly interested in the opinions of scientists, mathematicians and theorists in addition to medievalists, and I will post links to all reviews (or complete reviews if you'll allow me) at the How Tradition Works website. There will also be an errata page (which I desperately hope will be very short)

I tried my best in the years spent writing this book to get a handle on a lot of ideas from biology and math as well as from literature. One very kind anonymous reviewer called it "genuinely interdisciplinary." I'm really interested in entering into a discussion with people who are approaching problems of tradition from different angles. And since I'm just starting in on a new book (From Tradition to Culture: The Exeter Book and the Tenth Century), I'd like to get as much feedback and criticism as possible.

And if nothing else, I'm sure HTW could work as an effective sleep aid--and I guarantee that it won't make you drive around semi-comatose or eat entire packages of hamburger buns while you slumber.
Who is Really a Scholar

I've been futzing around with this post for a couple of days, trying to tie together this really interesting narrative of writing for the Tolkien Encyclopedia and the latest on That Moron Ward Churchill. It's not really working, but at this point another group of Encyclopedia entries just dropped on me and if I don't post this now, I never will. So here you go, mess and all.

In his post , Squire talks about the ups and downs of contributing to a scholarly project, the encyclopedia that has been swallowing my life for the past few years. It is very, very odd to be a character in someone else's narrative, and I can't really describe what it felt like to read: "Now it was sink or swim for poor squire, in the same meme pool as Michael Drout, Verlyn Flieger, and Tom Shippey" and even more
In a way, the entire project is Phase III of Drout’s Master Plan. Phase I was his 2000 essay/bibliography, The Current State of Tolkien Studies. Phase II was the new academic journal, Tolkien Studies, entirely dedicated to peer-reviewed, guaranteed-academic-quality, articles about Tolkien. Now he was going public: this Encyclopedia was meant for every town and gown library in the land, for researchers from high school to graduate school.

It's weird, because I don't really think of myself in the same meme pool as Tom and Verlyn (they are my friends, but way ahead of me). Even weirder, because it's a pretty good "Master Plan," but I never thought of it that way (which, now that I think of it, is pretty stupid, a better way of expressing same would be that I never articulated it as well as Squire). And it's just plain odd to have people to whom I don't give a grade at the end of the semester expressing concern about what my opinion would be about something.

But most of all there was a huge disconnect between the way Squire was describing the project and the material that I had read. Because I was just proofreading the E-entries of the encyclopedia (and can you think of anything more fun than to proofread entries in alaphabetical order?), I had just read Squire's entry on "The East." And you know what? I hadn't made one correction. Not one. Whereas I have so reddened the pages of entries done by "big names" (not, I might add, Tom and Verlyn) and well-known scholars that some of them bounced back from the publisher because too many corrections had made the page illegible.

The point is that in editing 800 pages of Tolkien Encyclopedia, I have found that I really can't distinguish the quality of the work based on the credentials of the author. I have some crap from "names" and I have some genius from people no one has heard of before. And I have a lot of very good stuff distributed among lots of other people. There is definitely a distinction that can be made between people who have a wide and a narrow view. My colleague Claire Buck, for instance, wrote an amazing entry on Tolkien and War because she really, really knows the much wider literary context and so could situate Tolkien in a matrix of other ideas, authors and books. But that's not an element of being a major "Tolkien scholar" but is instead the fruit of being widely read in a whole lot of literature. It's that latest of literary theoretical approaches, "erudition." And a lot of people have it who don't necessarily have initials after their names.

And here's the awkward Ward Churchill seque: That Moron Ward Churchill shows that having a job at a prestigious institution (though less prestigious now, thanks to him!) or having a Ph.D. doesn't stop you from being a fraud and an idiot. We in academia should be really, really conscious of this problem (and That Moron Ward Churchilll should be fired, and the people who hired him, promoted him and otherwise supported him should be punished): there are plenty of people out there who are just as smart or smarter than we are. If we're not willing to have our disciplines be disciplined, there's really no distinction: it's the collective wisdom provided by the disciplines and institutions that give academia its privileged position. We need to maintain that discipline ourselves, or others will do it for us. And if you think we are indispensible, you should note that "amateurs" can create a pretty effective peer review process and produce work that is indistinguishable from that of many "experts."

So the main point, arrived at rather precipitously due to my having to pick up children from school: Ward Churchill is not a scholar. Squire and his compatriots are. Maybe they are scholars with day jobs, but they are scholars nonetheless. And it is important that we in academia continually remind ourselves that it is the work not the credential or the institution that really matters.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Post-Kzoo Post Follow-Up

So many interesting comments and commentary on Kalamazoo this year. A couple of follow-up answers/comments from me:

"Wormtalk and Slugspeak" is most definitely not a Tolkien reference (I'm not entirely one-dimensional and fixated, you know). It is a reference to The Far Side and an inside joke shared with Prof. Beth Manolescu (who as an undergraduate was known as "Fripp."): We were talking about one of Carnegie Mellon's idiotically titled English core courses ("idiotic" because the titles--"Discourse and Historical Change," "Rhetoric and Social Interaction," gave no information about what was actually in the course), and I said that I wrote a final paper whose title was something like "Thematizing Signifiers of Lack in Six Modern Novelists: Slippage in the Hegemonic Discourse". Fripp paused, took a sip of her beer, and said "I did mine on The Far Side." Another pause. "I got an A." There was a Far Side that made reference to "Wormtalk and Slugspeak: My Life Among the Invertebrates" by some professor, and because I was always working on one novel or another during undergrad, I started to say that I was writing "Wormtalk and Slugspeak."

Tom Shippey's paper was about the search for a Plattsdeutsch epic and Karl Mullenhoff's idea that Beowulf or Kudrun might very well be that epic. As is characteristic, Tom made the history of Beowulf scholarship funny, fascinating and important. He made the Schlesweig/Holstein conflict as understandable as it can be, and was, of course, hugely entertaining.

I wish I'd been at the blogger meet-up, but I didn't arrive in Kalamazoo until nearly 9 p.m. I felt that it was important not to impose on my long-suffering spouse too much, so I took a flight that allowed me to get the kids up and off to school before I had to leave for the airport.

That's great news about Paul Acker and PMLA. I'm sure it will be an excellent article. His Revising Oral Theory is truly excellent (it was incredibly useful to me in understanding where Oral Traditional Theory is right now).

"History Geek," I would never 'out' you (and given our conversation at the airport, it's probably a very good idea for you to be pseudonymous at this stage). I really enjoyed our conversation as well. As I said, for the first time ever at Kalamazoo, there wasn't a single person that I talked to whom I didn't enjoy talking to.

And just to follow up on what I meant by those misanthropic reflections: at previous Kalamazoo's I'd always made an effort to go say hello to, say, former committee member or person who was at my defense or seminar teacher from way back. These people don't like me. I don't like them. Yet we would pretend to be pleased to run into each other and then make a few minutes of small talk. This year I didn't bother. It was great. But, I also recognize that what I'm complaining about is basic human interaction and that by avoiding it and only talking to people I like, I'm one step closer to living in the heavily fortified cabin in the Montana wilderness that is at the bottom of at least one slipperly slope...

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Kalamazoo 2006

At this year's International Medieval Congress I gathered further evidence that I am a true malcontent. And not because I had a bad time. On the contrary: it was one of my very best Kalamazoos yet, and I have been at the Congress twelve of the last thirteen.

But I had a good time because immediately upon arrival at the airport I met a good friend, Prof. Christina Heckman of Augusta State Univ. in Georgia. I used to be Christina's boss at the Writing Center at Loyola, and we've been friends for a decade. So the whole way from the airport we chatted. Then, in preparing to go out to get something to eat, I ran into one of my former students who is now ABD at UConn. A bunch of UConn graduate students plus Christina and I went out, ate, drank, and talked into the wee hours. It was great.

And it also prevented any vestigal schmoozing instinct I still might have had from ever kicking in. This turned out to be great. Because this Kalamazoo, I don't think I spoke to a single person I didn't like. Important people walked by and I ignored them--and it wasn't even an effort. I noticed, say, people from the past whom I didn't like then and don't like now, and I just kept walking. Therefore every conversation I had was enjoyable. No one bothers to schmooze me (because, really, what could I do for anyone -- although I did get a job here at Wheaton for one of the graduate students I met), so I assumed all interactions were genuine.

I therefore went only to papers in which I had a genuine interest. No "important" papers. And you know what? I enjoyed them all. Tom Shippey's was, of course, the best (I listened to it with my ear pressed against the door, because I had come to the session too late. People kept walking by me in the hall, staring. But I heard the whole paper). But besides Shippey, the graduate-student papers were by far the most interesting. "Behold a Pale Horse" showed why she won her graduate paper award [n.b.: the whole anonymity discussion has now made me leery of linking to someone without authorization] with a first-rate paper on the Wife of Bath's use of authorities and its links to medieval marriage law -- my original Chaucer professor, the brilliant Peggy Knapp of Carnegie Mellon, would have loved that paper. In the same session Merrall Llewelyn Price convinced me that the Prioress' Tale is obsessed with excrement (and setting aside the Freud, she mostly convinced me why as well). A group of papers by Loyola Chicago graduate students showed that the program there is once again very strong. And some interesting papers on Anglo-Saxon law and penitentials reminded me why I spent so much time with that stuff.

In general, graduate-student papers are better at Kalamazoo than papers by more advanced scholars. I'm sorry to say, but some of the advanced scholars are just mailing things in, while graduate students are doing their best work. But if I could convince my graduate student readers of just one thing, it is this: Stop wasting your time quoting people. Look, for the purpose of a seminar paper, it is very important to show that you've got all your theoretical and critical ducks in a row. But for a twenty-minute paper, your audience (except for your director in the audience) does not really care. It's fine to point out that you are integrated into the critical dialogue. But really, the likelihood of your quoting anything of particular interest to the audience from a secondary source asymptotically approaches zero very quickly. What we want is more you. And if you can squeeze the paper to eighteen minutes by deleting every Judith Butler, Elaine Scary and Homi Bhaba quote, all the better. As one of my teachers once said, 'there's a spare beauty to the very short paraphrase of the ungainly quote.'

On internal, personnel grounds (i.e., who is coming through the system) the future of medieval studies is in good shape. The problems will come not from the new people who, in particular in the case of the Torontoids, seem to be exquisitely trained, but from the profession's failure to engage with the wider culture (and I don't mean the 'wider culture' of 'maybe if we kiss their butts enough, Critical Inquiry will let some medievalists publish or PMLA will once again grudgingly publish a piece on Old English).

This brings me to one of the subjects of the Blogger's Roundtable. It certainly felt weird to be up there, knowing that in the audience were people like Ancrene Wiseass, Another Damned Medievalist, Heo Cwæth, New Kid on the Hallway, Tiruncula and other people whom a.) I read; b.) are better bloggers than I am; c.) have some pretty strong opinions about matters in which I might not entirely agree with them.

Well, it turned into a pretty interesting discussion, moderated wonderfully by Shana Worthen who advanced the agenda but let the panel do most of the talking.

I am right now falling asleep and losing focus [uncorrected typos had proliferated so that I went back and edited this morning], so I won't try to summarize the whole panel, but the big things I drew out of it were:

a. nobody recognizes the allusion in my blog title.
b. although we're all nervous about creepy internet obsessives, none of us has yet had a significant blog-based or blog-caused problem.
c. the greatest personal value of the blogs is that they create communities (and ones that are harder to hijack than usenet was), and that the insights and techniques developed in these communities (while rewarding in and of themselves) might be harnessed for the improvement of our lot and status: just the reduction of isolation and fragmentation could lead to improved conditions brought about by political change.
d. the greatest professional value for the blogs is that they promulgate your work to a wider audience. You never know who may be interested. It's actually part of that "long tail" phenomenon much discussed in management fads. A blog reaches out into that long tail and is read by an unusual group of individuals. Your name and ideas will be distributed among those (very smart) people. The results should very much be good.

After the panel came a really lovely dinner at the fancy-schmantzy restaurant at the Radisson (delicious food, and an unbelievably strong straight-up manhattan that introduced quite a few moments of Korsakov's syndrome for the next hour or so).

Then, the Dance. A few years ago I was one of the BOMPs (Boring Old Married People) who sat around the tables and made little mental blackmail notes. This time I eschewed the easy pleaure of mocking one's older, coordination-challenged colleagues (as I am likely to become one all too soon). Mostly because I very rapidly was dragged into dancing.

I didn't wound anyone as far as I know.

[this in response to discussion of lechery at the Dance and elsewhere]: I am, of course, by acclamation, the most clueless man on the face of the earth, so I might have missed something, but I did not see any attempted pick-ups at the Dance, and not a single person hit on me. They never do. So I didn't observe the general air of lecherousness that others describe. I do wonder, though, why anyone would want to potentially damage his own marriage or reputation at a conference, and, honestly, anyone who can't do better than "Do you know, What Happens at Kalamzoo, Stays at Kalamazoo" really shouldn't trying to be picking people up in the first place.

But the dance was a lot of fun this year. Not too hot, not too cold, and no one vomited near my shoes, so it's all good.

So, my strategies for a successful conference:

Don't bother with anyone you don't like.
More papers, less schmoozing.
Aim for graduate-student or new assistant-professor papers
Go to the dance and dance with your friends, then attempt to dragoon in other people who might like to dance.

See all you next year.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Post-Kzoo Post Tomorrow

But today I have news!. I returned from Kalamazoo to learn that I've been awarded a Millicent C. McIntosh Fellowship from the Woodrow Wilson Foundation.
I really wasn't expecting to get this, but I guess Woodrow (being a Jersey guy like myself) was smiling down on me.

And this came after I had the pleasure of being the outside reader for a really great Philosophy thesis defense (attempting to apply Kant to animal rights issues), in which we spent an hour and forty-five minutes in spirited argument (the candidate, three philosophy profs, one physicis prof, one German prof, four other students and I). I heart out Philosophy department at Wheaton, which has three profs who are all brilliant and just love to argue and seems to be filled with brilliant, argumentative students as well. Boy was it fun! And then I went and picked up my mail!

And it was a particularly great day, because for me, it's always "Post Kzoo, anima est triste." Not today.

(that might be the nerdiest thing I've ever written on this blog; and it would be even nerdier if I took time to decide how to decline "Kzoo").

So I'm going to buzz around the house like a hummingbird on espresso for a while. Post-Kzoo Post will be tomorrow if son and grading cooperate.

Thursday, May 04, 2006


Off to the International Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo. I will be on the blogging medievalists panel on Saturday, and my own paper is Friday morning. Unfortunately, I'll miss the medieval bloggers' meeting tonight, as I'm on the last flight in.

This is my twelfth (out of the past thirteen years) Kalamazoo. It comes at the worst possible time of the year in my schedule, but I love it anyway.