Saturday, June 30, 2007

Really Interesting Call for Papers

First, apologies for very limited posting, and thanks to those who offered condolances and support after my last post. It has been a very challenging month or so, and it is not over yet. I just got back from recording another course for Recorded Books' Modern Scholar series (A Way with Words 2: Understanding and Discussing Literature) and still have to finish that course book as well as many other things.

But I wanted to publicize this Call for Papers for Kalamazoo that just came in over ANSAX-net, both because it looks fascinating and because I think this kind of approach is exactly where the action is likely to be in literary studies in the near future. Unfortunately, my own work in this area is probably not yet advanced enough to have an abstract ready to submit (neuroscience turns out to be really hard: who knew?), but hopefully some of you readers are further along. So, kudos to Ron Ganze. I know one session at Kzoo 2008 that I will definitely be attending.

International Medieval Congress 2008
Call for Papers: Cognitive Approaches to the Medieval Texts

The use of cognitive psychology, neuroscience, and evolutionary psychology in literary criticism has increased exponentially in the last decade; several monographs and essay collections on the subject have appeared, and entire issues of journals, both in literary studies and in the cognitive sciences, have been dedicated to the study of literature using a cognitive approach. We are also beginning to see conferences dedicated to the cognitive study of literature, with at least two national conferences in 2006 alone.

This approach has important implications for the study of medieval literature and culture, as it both supplements and acts as a corrective to the predominant social constructionist model through which we usually read texts and their characters. In some very important ways, it opens the medieval texts to understandings and interpretations that the social constructionist model often closes off, and calls into question some of the assumptions made by both medievalists and theorists about the nature of the self. It also provides a useful way of understanding narrative, as cognitive psychology and neuroscience now understand the impulse to narrative as hard-wired into the human brain, and as the primary means by which we make sense of reality.

This session seeks to bring work in this area to the Middle Ages and to the attention of medievalists, who may find this new approach useful and illuminating. Papers on such topics as the neurology of narrative, the impact of cognitive approaches to literature on perceptions of medieval authorship or the medieval sense of self, and particularly papers investigating similarities between medieval psychological models and those forwarded by cognitive psychology are welcome, though the panel need not be limited to these subjects.

Email submissions preferred (MS Word—save as Word 2003 or earlier—or rich text format, please). Abstracts of no more than 250 words should be sent by September 1, 2007, to Ronald J. Ganze at one of the following addresses:

(before August 10):
Department of English
1409 Chapel Drive
Valparaiso University
Valparaiso, IN 46383

(after August 10):
Department of English
212 Dakota Hall
University of South Dakota
414 E. Clark Street
Vermillion, SD 57069-2390

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Marilyn Todesco, R.I.P.

This evening my closest friend at Wheaton College, Marilyn Todesco, passed away after a difficult and intense battle with renal cancer. Marilyn became sick back in late November, had what seemed like successful surgery, and was supposed to back to work at the beginning of June. On Memorial Day weekend we learned that her cancer had returned in very aggressive form.

The great things a person does in life should define them, not their disease, so I want to use the rest of this post to talk about how important Marilyn was to me personally, to our department and to our building.

Marilyn was the building secretary for Meneely Hall, which meant she handled the needs of English, Hispanic and Italian Studies, and German as well as every faculty member who couldn't figure out the copy machine, every student confused about classes and every other possible problem that arose.

Her office was, in the words of the poet Sue Standing, our hearth, and the fire burning in that hearth was Marilyn's personality. Always ready with a laugh or a word of comfort, always calm even in the midst of chaos, always caring even at the most stressful times, Marilyn held everything together. If our building was a remarkably collegial place, it was mostly due to her, to our desire to please her (she disliked conflict) and her ability to listen.

Marilyn was the first person I met at Wheaton after being hired there. She sent me around on all my errands across campus (locksmith, human resources, mail room, information technology), and then she chatted with me about her family, her dog and life in general. This started a pattern. Every day I would come in 15 minutes early so that I'd have time to stand in Marilyn's office and talk to her.

Her granddaughter was born about a year after my daughter, and so Marilyn and I would swap child stories and show artwork and pictures and enjoy raising kids together. Marilyn was very good on life advice. When my wife was pregnant, she and I had one of those fights that are in retrospect idiotic, but at the same time impossible to stop. I was telling Marilyn about it the next day. "Go home, unplug the electric pencil sharpener" (this was the source of the stupid fight) "and bring it down and put it in your office," said Marilyn. Her advice worked, and she always got a laugh out of telling the story.

Marilyn had me keep my eye out for students who might want to work in the office. She trained them, trusted them, befriended them, and in the end often did more good than any other individual on campus. I know of more than one student whom she physically walked over to the counseling center and into an appointment. I can think of two students whose lives, it is only a minor exaggeration to say, she saved. I saw her put band-aids on students' hands, give out water, candy and tissues, and more importantly, provide a ready ear and a mind that knew every single thing about Wheaton College.

If it weren't for Marilyn, there would be no Tolkien Studies, no Bibliography project, no high level of productivity. If it weren't for her, I don't think I would have survived my first few years at Wheaton. If not for her, I might not have gotten through the really difficult months of adjusting to a new child and then, later, to a second child.

My children loved Marilyn and couldn't wait to see her. She was one of the first adults outside of the family with whom they had a relationship, and she was the first person at Wheaton I brought my kids to meet when they were only a month old and I carried them in the baby bucket.

She loved the college, and she loved each of us, "her professors." She knew us, understood us, and took care of us. Only her family was more important.

I joked once to Marilyn, about three years ago, that there were only four people on campus who were impossible to replace. Everyone else, all the faculty, the administration, etc., could go, but there were four people Wheaton couldn't do without. She was number one on that list. No one in the room disagreed.

I don't know how we will go on without her. I think we have already learned how much of a difference one person can make, and it will only get worse as we realize that she really is not coming back. Now we will have to try to live up to the standard she set.

I am heartbroken, but also grateful that I got to spend 9 years of my life with such a good, true friend. I will always miss her.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

The Dream of the Rood and other things

Posting has been light here due to workload and also because the person who has probably been my closest friend at Wheaton for the past ten years has been diagnosed with terminal cancer and is rapidly slipping away. It's a very difficult time. She has been such an important part of encouraging me with my work and helping me along, and I'm at a loss.

But I am trying to keep up with my projects. Over at Anglo-Saxon Aloud, I've posted The Dream of the Rood. It is one of the most beautiful poems in Old English, and I know it very well, so I think that the recording isn't too bad. If you haven't listened to an Anglo-Saxon poem yet, this might be a good one. It is about 11 minutes long.

This past weekend I gave an invited lecture, "Engineers as Heroes: Science Fiction from the 1930s to Today" to the Sigma Xi (the Scientific Research Society) chapter at General Motors in Warren, Michigan. This one of of the most well-informed, intelligent audiences I've ever spoken to, and I had a great time visiting the Tech Center and giving the talk. Great people (and one of them was a Wheaton alum from 1978--in anthropology!).

Also, I'll be giving a research seminar at the Santa Fe Institute next week. And, it turns out, I will be presenting at the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists' conference in London at the beginning of August (despite what I told everyone at Kalamazoo).

But before then, I have to write all fourteen lectures for A Way with Words Part II: Understanding Literature for Recorded Books. I think it's funny that I, a Theory skeptic who thinks Derrida is wrong about many things because he didn't read his Wittgenstein, got hired to write a Theory-related course. But I'm really happy about working with Recorded Books again, not the least because my colleague in Biology, John Kricher, has agreed to do a course on Dinosaurs for them and I will get to be in the studio when part of that is recorded. Dinosaurs! So cool.