Friday, March 30, 2007

Anglo-Saxon Aloud: Genesis

I have now posted the final lines of the Old English Genesis over at Anglo-Saxon Aloud. That means that very soon (hopefully when you read this) the entire poem, all 2936 lines of it, should be available on iTunes.

I was thinking about posting an interpretive lecture on Genesis, but that's going to have to wait a little while until some other things get cleared out of the way (though my bizarre Kalamazoo paper on Vainglory is now done). I do think I learned a lot about the poem from recording and editing and summarizing it: I've never worked on Genesis before, so I don't know if the things I've noticed are critical commonplaces (probably), but it was certainly illuminating to work on the poem in this particular way: you get a good feel for the rhythm and pace of the poetry (even though I tried to read it inflected as a narrative rather than emphasizing alliteration and lineation). Most Anglo-Saxonists focus on Genesis B, the section of the poem that includes the Fall of the Angels and was possibly an inspiration for Milton's treatment of Satan in Paradise Lost (Milton knew Francis Junius). But Genesis A has a lot of interesting stuff in it, and the way that the poet deals with some of the problems of the biblical narrative (in particular Lamech and circumcision) is probably worth some discussion, which I'll try to get to.

Exodus starts on Monday. It is worth noting that J.R.R. Tolkien thought Exodus to be closer to Beowulf in language, style and date of composition than any other poem. You can see what you think; I'll be posting Exodus from Monday April 2 until Monday April 9 (if all goes well), and Beowulf Aloud should finally be ready for sale by that time.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The 'Partridge' is a Phoenix

Finally, my article, The Partridge is a Phoenix: Revising the Exeter Book Physiologus [link fixed now] has appeared in Neophilologus (my apologies if the above link only takes you to the abstract; if you have an institutional subscription, you get the whole paper; if you want to read the paper, click on the "text" link over in the right margin).

It's sad to think how long ago I first formulated the argument that went into this paper: at least as early as February or March 1993. So fourteen years from idea to publication. Don't let anyone ever say again that I work too fast. The paper actually grew out of research for my M.A. thesis from the University of Missouri-Columbia, directed by John Miles Foley with Martin Camargo on the committee (see, I had great teachers even at the M.A. level). Then it sat fallow for almost a decade, coming up a few times in ANSAX discussions and occasionally being talked about with my students. In the summer of 2004, when my son was very, very little and being very difficult, I would sit up nights in the living room while my wife fed him. I had the laptop, and I started working on the paper.

I'm particularly fond of this little beast because there's something classically Anglo-Saxonist about it: it's an argument about a poem that doesn't exist except for a couple fragmentary lines and some additional bits that may or may not be related. Even if we could identify the bird of the poem, we have no poem to discuss. So of course nearly all the of the published discussion (and there's not much) is on this issue. I love Anglo-Saxonists!

A summary of the paper is in the abstract, but in case you don't want to click:

There's a break in the text between folios 97v and 98r in the Exeter Book, and at least one leaf is missing. On 97v we have the first line and a half of a poem about a bird. This immediately follows the Panther and the Whale and is assumed to be an additional part of the Physiologus. The text on 98r could be the end of the bird poem, or it could be an unrelated moralizing passage.

Pat Conner divides the Exeter book into Booklets II and Booklet III exactly between 97v and 98r, so if he's right (I think he probably is), the fragment on 98r is unlikely to be part of the bird poem begun on 97v. So we would really have 1.5 lines of bird poem and then an unrelated fragment (which does, unlike any other piece in the Exeter Book, end with a large "Finit").

Others suggest that the passage on 98r is consistent with a poem about a partridge and could in fact serve as the summation of a 3-animal Physiologus.

I show that there really is no case for the bird being the partridge, and it is far, far more likely to have been the phoenix. This is the case whether or not the fragment on 98r is part of the bird poem, though if it is, then the charadrius is at least a more reasonable possibility than the partridge.

It turns out that most of the argument for the bird being the partridge rests on a series of dubious assumptions made in the 19th century. But you'll have the read the paper to find out the whole story.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Professor Drout: Should I Come to Wheaton?

It is getting to be college decision time, and I've had a bunch of emails from prospective Wheaton students that basically ask the question given above.

Let me start with a quote from my high school swimming coach, Mr. Wishart, that has always stayed with me. I told him that I had decided to go to Carnegie Mellon. "That's a name school," he said. "And that's good. But college is completely what you make of it. Even the worst college in the US can teach you everything you need to learn if you decide to try."

At the time I was a little deflated, but he was right (and also right that the IM should have been my best event, no matter how much I hated the butterfly leg). College is what you make of it. If you don't get into your top choice, you can make that not matter by how hard you apply yourself. Even the lowest-ranked college has resources that will allow you to educate yourself if you decide to do more than the minimum.

But, let's say that you're one of the lucky few who has been accepted to Wheaton. Should you come here?

The short answer is "yes." I believe in this college. I have seen it change students' lives. I have put my students into the best Ph.D. programs in the world (Cambridge, Toronto) and seen them go to top law and business schools and succeed. I've had students win international scholarship, publish papers in peer-reviewed journals, and get into their top choices for med school. I've seen really troubled students turn their lives around and become happy academic superstars. I'm sure these things happen at other places, too (I know they do, because many happened for me at Carnegie Mellon), but here I see it all the time.

I believe in Wheaton's "Connections" curriculum. Yes, I was one of the people who wrote it, but in the end the entire faculty came on board and designed an innovative curriculum in which classes are linked across disciplines. This is not half-assed interdisciplinarity, with English professors trying to teach biology. The brilliance of the curriculum is that the students, become interdisciplinary by taking real classes in different disciplines that that faculty have linked together. So, for example, the students in Figure Drawing are taking Anatomy for a Connection. The Students in "Race, Empire and the Victorians" are taking "Darwin and Biology" for the Darwin Connection. The students in Studio Art are taking Art, Color and Chemistry.

I believe in Wheaton's committment to teaching. I've never seen a bad teacher get tenure. I see the faculty as a whole constantly talking about teaching, working on improving our teaching and figuring out how we can adapt ourselves to the learning styles of our students as these change over time. 80% of the discussion in the Faculty Dining Room is about teaching: "Did you see John in class today? He looked out of it. Do you know if he is ok? His first two assignments were excellent, but then he tailed off. Who is his advisor? I'll give him a call." Is a typical lunchtime conversation. For the exhorbitant fee of over $40,000 per year, you are getting close attention for your child from multiple Ph.D.s who know your kid's name and tendencies, who can spot your kid on the other side of campus and say 'hi.' Who remember a good English 101 paper four years later and mention it on graduation day.

I believe in Wheaton's students. Every time I push them, every time I treat them like graduate students, every time I give them work harder than they think they can do, they have risen to the challenge. Wheaton students are less arrogant than their peers at the Ivies, and thus they actually learn more, because they listen. Wheaton students are basically kind and generous. In nine years there I've had exactly one discipline problem in one single class. Wheaton students are generally honest: they may screw up, they may not do the work, but they (generally) don't lie about it.

I believe in the Wheaton faculty. The faculty is genuinely devoted to the students and to the college. We have very different ideas about the best possible practices and the right way to go about our goals, and we fight about these, but nearly every single professor loves and believes in Wheaton. When I was a Ph.D. student at Loyola Chicago, nearly all the junior faculty thought that they deserved to be at a "better" institution. They didn't respect the University, they didn't respect the grad students, and they didn't respect each other. This is not the case at Wheaton. We don't all agree (if you have 10 Ph.D.s in a room, you'll have 11 opinions), but we seek the same goals of better student education. We think we belong here. We're devoted to the place.

I believe in the Wheaton administration. You have never seen a "flatter" or more efficient administration at a college. I don't always agree with the decisions they make, and I'll fight back when I have a chance and I think something is wrong, but the administration has, in my experience, prudently and effectively continued to improve the college. The administration respects the college, the students and the faculty. And any place where an Assistant (ok, now Associate, but I was Assistant then) Professor and another colleague can wander into the Provost's office and have an impromptu meeting in which a new research partnership program is developed, and that program is implemented in only a few weeks.... that's an administration that can improve the place.

Professor Drout, what you describe sounds like heaven on earth. There have to be drawbacks. What are they?

Good question. We don't have enough money to do everything that we would like to do. Our endowment is small, which is why our fees are big. We don't have enough room in the buildings. We don't have enough faculty to teach everything that we'd like to teach (there are work-arounds, including classes at Brown). Like nearly all faculties, we're too much of an intellectual mono-culture, and like all faculties, we have a tendency to be arrogant about things we are not expert about. Norton is isolated and somewhat boring. There is no Starbucks around. You need a car or a bus to get to Boston or Providence. Nightlife revolves around the dorms. Having faculty members know you by name can be a drawback when you want to sleep through class and then, terribly hung over, you see you professor in the mail room. People who go to Brown or Harvard or Amherst have more doors opened for them whether they deserve them or not. If you are interested in super-specialized research, we probably don't have someone who does it (i.e., if you plan on becoming the world expert in horseshoe crab taxonomy, Harvard is probably a better bet, though we do have a leading termite parasitologist).

I wouldn't go to Wheaton if I wanted to be an engineer or a concert violinist or a nuclear physicist. I wouldn't spend that much of my parents' money if I just wanted to doze through a big lecture a few days a week and then come out at the far end with an easy degree and some cool sweatshirts. I wouldn't go to Wheaton if I already knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life.

But I intend to send my own kids to Wheaton (if they want to go, of course), because I think--for kids who take advantage of it--the institution really works to develop individual potential in a way I've not seen elsewhere throughout my travels in higher education.

[P.S.: If you're coming to Wheaton to study Tolkien with me: 1). I'm flattered, and I'll do my best. 2). The official Tolkien course is only offered every other year, but in between there is Anglo-Saxon, Beowulf, Medieval Lit. in translation, etc. 3). I will be away doing research Fall 2009 and Spring 2010. 4). It would be wrong for me to promise that I'll always be here. I have no plan for leaving and I intend to to work at Wheaton until I die or they wheel me out the door for being too senile (though who knows how I'll feel after becoming Dept. Chair in July), but it's dangerous to predict too far into the future when one's life is intertwined with others' and their needs, jobs, etc.]
R. W. Chambers and the Laws of Edgar

Recently I've been re-reading R. W. Chambers' Beowulf: An Introduction to the Study of the Poem with a Discussion of the Stories of Offa and Finn. This is a great, great book, but one that I read straight through only once, way back in graduate school, and have since used as a quarry for information. This time I've just been thoroughly enjoying reading it, but I came across a very interesting tidbit that I didn't remember from before and which, to my knowledge, isn't addressed very much in contemporary Anglo-Saxon studies. I'd be interested in comments if you happen to know or just have a guess (I may post this query to ANSAX, also, when I get a chance):
Everything seems to show that about 700 an atmosphere existed in England which might easily have led to a scholarly Englishman, acquainted with the old lays, to have set to work to compose an epic. Even so venerable a person as Bede, during his last illness, uttered his last teaching not, as we should expect on a priori grounds, in Latin hexameters, but in English metre. The evidence for this is conclusive [cite to Letter of Cuthbert to Cuthwine]. But, at a later date, Alcuin would surely have condemned the minstrelsy of Aldhelm [cite: "quid Hinieldus cum Christo"]. Even King Alfred seems to have felt that it needed some apology. It would have rendered Aldhelm liable to severe censure under the Laws of King Edgar; [cite discussed below]; and Dunstan's biographer indignantly denies the charge brought against his hero of having learnt the heathen songs of his forefathers. [cite to Vita Dunstani by B in Stubbs, ed]

Here is the cite from the Laws of Edgar, converting thorns and eths to th: "thaet aenig preost ne beo ealuscop, ne on aenige wisan gliwige, mid him sylfum oththe mid othrum mannum" --Thorpe, Ancient Laws and Institutes of England, 1840, p. 400 (Laws of Edgar, cap. 58).

[I'd translate this as "that no priest be an ale-poet, nor in any way perform minstrelsy with himself or with other men." ]

Here's my question: what has Chambers gotten wrong here that causes him basically to be ignored when it comes to discussing religious contexts for 10th-century poems? Because this argument, which to be fair, isn't made in any detail, is as far as I know completely ignored in a vast quantity of criticism about 10th-century (i.e., manuscript-era dates) for poems. At the bottom of the note on the Vita Dunstani, Chambers asks "were these songs heroic or magic?" (i.e., the ones Dunstan wasn't singing). But how has this chapter of the Edgar code been interpreted? Are we assuming that an "ale-poet" was not performing/composing texts like Beowulf? What about Widsith, in the Exeter Book and having thus some kind of monastic context?

Does anyone know why (outside the usual Beowulf dating squabbles) Chambers has been ignored here?

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Best Comment Ever

One of the things I regret about this blog is that I'm not very good at responding to comments. I read every one avidly, but because they can't be replied to directly, I often don't send the emails that I compose. I should probably just post below, but very long blog coment trails remind me too much of Usenet, circa 1989, and I know what a time-killer that used to be. So, first, my apologies for not being a better interlocutor, but please know that I really do value the comments and read all of them immediately.

And now I have to quote the best comment I have every received, It came on this post about my new project, Anglo-Saxon Aloud , which is now up past line 1000 in Genesis. It's by Mearcstapa, who said...
I can't wait to be bumpin' down the street in my sweet ride, crankin' the 'wulf on my i-Pod!

I have not laughed so hard in a long time. Thank you, Mearcstapa!! (and to everyone for your comments).

Monday, March 05, 2007

Crazy Sheep DNA Project Lives!

Way back in the summer of 2005 I wrote about wanting to extract DNA from medieval manuscripts in order possibly to discover relationships among MS that might otherwise be completely opaque. I was pretty surprised at the response. People seemed really interested, and I got a lot of useful suggestions.

But saying that you want to extract DNA from a medieval manuscript is one thing; doing it is quite another. I personally do not know how to do polymerase chain reaction work, the biologists weren't about to give me free run of the lab, and when I spoke casually to the Art Historians about snipping off some bits of their new Book of Hours... Well, you can imagine the reaction (I'm surprised I don't get patted down for hidden scissors when I go over to the art history department).

Now, however, in my best tradition of juggling six projects at once, the Crazy Sheep DNA Project is moving ahead. I was just awarded an Arnold Summer Fellowship (courtesy of one of our particularly far-sighted benefactors at Wheaton) to work on a pilot program to see what we can do.

Supposedly the Parker Library at Cambridge was going to do this (but there's been no word since the announcement), and a Greek group was able to extract some caprid (goat) DNA from ancient parchments. But everyone is running up against the same problems, I think: how do you test without destroying the manuscripts?

Well, we think we've come up with some ways, and, with my brilliant student Amanda Shorette, we'll be working on them this summer and continuing through the fall. Our goals are:

To demonstrate non-destructive testing.

Assuming this non-destructive testing works, to prototype a simple extraction method that others can replicate. This will probably require the design of inexpensive jigs that can be mass-produced.

To design a database into which all parchment/vellum DNA information from any group could be placed (to facilitate collaboration--there's no way that any one group could do all the testing, but if every group can pool data, interesting relationships can arise).

To design an interface for that database and a visual representation of the data (for related work, see this post.

To identify the most promising manuscripts for testing (i.e., which manuscripts would potentially give us the most valuable information).

Our plan is to make Amanda (who is a Biology major) as fully interdisciplinary as possible in manuscript studies and DNA sequencing (and this gives me an excuse to become a fully interdisciplinary as possible in the same fields). To this end, I'll be teaching her paleography, how to use the Ker catalogue and Gneuss handlist, etc., and we'll be doing an extensive literature search for ovine/bovine DNA sequencing.

And best of all, I get a really good excuse to hang out in the Science Center not just all summer, but all next year. Because when fall comes around, we'll be collaborating with Prof. Barbara Brennessel, with whom I co-wrote my ASE article on Anglo-Saxon medicine (summary: it didn't work very well).

I'm really grateful to Trish Arnold, who has done so much for Wheaton, for her visionary approach to unusual, long-shot interdisciplinary research.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

New Small Feature on Anglo-Saxon Aloud

I've just gone back and added very brief descriptions of the action for each passage that I've posted on Anglo-Saxon Aloud. So if you're listening to the podcasts as a way to improve your Anglo-Saxon, you'll have some idea of what is happening in each particular passage. Eventually, then, there will be a summary of each poem as well as a recording of the poem in Old English.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

When You've Never Taught it Before

The Prentice Chair that I currently hold is given in part to encourage innovation in teaching, and back when I applied for the Professorship I came up with a set of proposals to enhance my teaching and incorporate new material in my work. And although, due to departmental needs, I wasn't able to take any of my course releases until last semester, I have actually managed to do quite a bit of work developing new courses (one of History of the English language hasn't actually managed to make it onto the books yet, but it is done) and revising my old ones.

I'm teaching one of those old ones now, English 207: Medieval Literature: Beowulf and Others (I inherited the ending of the title and, although I thought I killed it off a few years ago, it snuck back into the course name somehow). I have a rule--which I try to persuade others in my department to follow--that I shouldn't teach anything in translation that I can't read in the original language. We do, after all, have departments of Russian, German, French, Spanish, Classics, etc., and it seems to me that the professors in those departments are better qualified to teach Don Quixote or Faust or Madame Bovary, even in English translation, than I am. I've bent this rule a little bit for Dante--I don't read Dante's Italian very well, but having medieval Latin as a background, I can figure out enough to at least answer student questions about individual words, especially since we're using the Robert Pinsky edition with the facing-page translation--but I've generally stuck to it (which is why it will be some years before I teach The Tale of Genji in this class the way I want to). But this year I finally felt that my Old Norse was good enough to teach some Icelandic materials in translation. I put in a few of the Eddic poems (Voluspa, Havamal and Vafthrudnismal) a bit of Gylfaginning (Thor and Utgartha-Loki), plus Hrafnkel's and Egil's Sagas.

Monday and yesterday we did Hrafnkel's Saga (and I highly recommend this as a starter if you've never read any sagas). When I walked into class I got a kind of shaky, nervous feeling that I haven't had in a classroom for a long time (too long, perhaps): I had no idea what was going to happen. And I realized that a big part of the confidence one has in teaching comes from having been a student first and remembering how your teacher taught the material. That's certainly the way it is for me with Chaucer, when I still hear Peggy Knapp's voice in my head when I'm discussing the Wife of Bath or the Clerk's Tale, and I had the good fortune of having several excellent teachers (Peggy Knapp, John Miles Foley, Allen Frantzen) for Beowulf and Anglo-Saxon in general.

But there's a great freedom in having no real deep idea (obviously I'd read some criticism, etc.) of where the discussion of a work of literature should go (not that I always follow these prescriptions, and of course classes go in their own directions). It was scary, but it was incredibly liberating. We had a great discussion of violence and social position in Hrafnkel's Saga, and students agreed that the "moral" was not so much "Sam should have killed Hrafnkel when he had the chance instead of torturing him by hanging him by his achilles tendons," but was instead "See what happense when you try to look like a powerful person when you're not" (i.e., because Sam's letting Hrafnkel live in humiliation, although it was intended to build Sam up, was a step too far for someone of Sam's weak inherent power). We also concluded that the Saga does not so much celebrate violence as it is fascinated by violence: that's an important distinction that I probably would have brought to the class if I'd had a detailed existing agenda.

I don't want to oversell the experience. We have had some better discussions in this class, particularly about Beowulf (which, obviously, I've taught many times), and there was some hesitation in our talking about Hrafnkel's Saga (in part because the students were nervous about pronouncing the names). In fact, I won't even say that it was one of our very best discussions. But it was great in an entirely different way because I hadn't already built in a mental map of how the class was going to go. That tells me that shaking things up, although scary, is good. I'm really looking forward to Egil's Saga (or, as I've tried to sell it, the saga of the world's first poet/serial-killer) and to the other texts I've never taught before. I can't always answer students questions as quickly or easily as I can with other texts, but there are, as you can see, other compensations.

Scott Nokes mentions how busy he's been, and it must be that time in the semester, because I've been so busy that it's taken me this long to thank him for mentioning my new project, Anglo-Saxon Aloud. I'm working on recording the entire Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records and posting it, 100 or so lines at a time, in the form of podcasts to the Anglo-Saxon Aloud site. The podcasts are also available on iTunes. So far I think it's gone pretty well. Doing the editing is much more boring than reading and takes more time, but I think I may be able to keep up the 100-lines-per-day pace. So if you want to listen to the first 500 or so lines of Genesis, it's at Anglo-Saxon Aloud. And more Old English poems will follow. Relentlessly.