Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Pretty Amazing Conference
(and I got to eat whale).

Last week I went to the most intellectually high-end conference I have ever attended. The Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of Bergen, Norway, has got to have the most intellectual firepower in medieval studies that is assembled in any one institution, anywhere. The only place I've ever been that was similar is the Santa Fe Institute, but I was the only humanities scholar there at the time, so there's a bit of an apples-to-oranges comparison, and this was all medievalists rather than physicists and theoretical biologists.

But enough with the qualification, this conference was awesome! "Tradition and the Individual Talent: Modes of Authorship in the Middle Ages," was the theme. It was by invitation, with only 25 papers, so everyone went to every paper and there was discussion that continued throughout the conference. I was the only person from an American institution (though there are several American scholars at Bergen now); the majority of the scholars were from Scandinavia, and my Old Norse got a workout reading the handouts. But there were plenty of papers on Latin as well as Old Norse (I was the only Anglo-Saxonist). Some of the papers (mine, Slavica and Milos Rankovic's, Atle Kittang's, Lauri Harvilahti's) were more theoretical than others, but all took the theme of the conference seriously.

It was particularly gratifying that a few people picked up some of my ideas from my paper ("'I am large, I contain multitudes,': The Medieval Author in Memetic Terms") and connected them to their own work. A real eye-opener for me was Aidan Conti's amazing paper on "Scribes as Authors? Detecting Acts of Composition in the Process of Transmission." This was one of those instances where you've had an inchoate idea and then find that someone else has done a paper on it. I started out feeling mildly resentful, because I had never gotten around to doing the cool research that Aidan had done, but as the paper went on, and it became clear how creative and rigorous he had been, my grumpiness turned into complete admiration. I don't want to spill the beans on Aidan's work before he publishes it, so I'm sorry to be so opaque here, but basically he demonstrated how "distributed authorship" and iterated, interpreted, selected and reproduced error could create textual improvements. I was practically bouncing up and down in my seat by the end of the paper.

It was also wonderful to learn about how Rune Stones were produced, to get to meet Gísli Sigurðsson (whose book The Medieval Icelandic Saga and Oral Tradition: A Discourse on Method influenced me a lot), and to talk to Lauri Harvilahti again--he spoke to my graduate seminar in 1993 at the University of Missouri-Columbia. Really, my head is completely full right now.

What summed up part of the experience for me was one of the nights when a group of us were sitting at the bar and talking and Dr. Harvilahti said "last year, when I was talking to a shaman..." "Was this in Karelia?" I asked. "No, Siberia."

And, I got to eat whale carpaccio one night. It was delicious!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Medieval Literature: Not Dead Yet (Feeling Much Better... thinks it might go for a walk...)

This year, because I am department Chair, I only officially teach three classes (because I am a doofus, I'm actually teaching four, one as an unpaid overload, and I'm directing an honors thesis, but I digress). And because I'm going to be on research leave all of next year, I had to get in some key classes in now, so I'm teaching Chaucer (in ME), Medieval Literature (in translation), and J.R.R. Tolkien all in one year. Normally I'd be teaching a First Year Seminar or a Senior Seminar or an English 101.

You'd think, with only three classes, I would not have that many students, especially since medievalists are so superfluous and medieval literature isn't popular.

So here are the enrollment totals for my official classes:

Fall 2008: J.R.R. Tolkien: 62
Chaucer: 35

Spring 2009: Medieval Literature: 37.

Keep in mind:
The average course at Wheaton enrolls 19 students. We are, after all, a small, liberal arts college. (Though that number is skewed due to small courses being mandated for first-year and senior seminars and English 101).

But also, because I knew how swamped I was going to be this year,

I deliberately scheduled these courses MWF to keep down enrollments (as you can imagine, T Th courses are more popular. Students don't like classes on Fridays).

I deliberately schedules these courses at the 10:30 and 11:30 time slots so that they would come up against a lot of other courses.

Yet the enrollments are the highest they've ever been. Even setting aside the Tolkien course, the pure medieval courses are averaging nearly twice the college average. And it's not due to my sparkling personality: there are a ton of students in these classes whom I've never taught before and wasn't able to recruit out of English 101 or First Year Seminar.

So whoever says that medieval studies isn't popular has no idea what he or she is talking about.

(I could be a real jerk and point out which other courses in which specific time periods medieval is out-drawing, but I don't need to, because it is out-drawing all of them.)