Saturday, March 27, 2010

My Dream: Professor Drout's Academy of Wisdom and Learning

I have an idea about how simultaneously to improve high school education for some kids and help out with the job crisis in academia. Here it is.

Just down the street from my house is an empty school building that was for a long time St. Mary's School in Dedham and then housed the British School of Boston and then the Rashi School (or vice versa) before these moved to new buildings. If a benevolent philanthropist or someone with the political and legal skills to create a charter school were to help me, here's what I would do:

I would open a school staffed entirely with new Ph.D.'s, probably mostly from local New England universities, who wanted to get teaching experience. It would pay $42,000 per year with full benefits on two-year contracts. The idea would be that faculty would teach at the Academy as a way-station on their academic careers, kind of a teaching and research post-doc. They would receive intensive on-the-job training about how to teach (because there is no tougher audience than high-school kids), though even if they weren't great teachers at the start, they would have energy and excitement about their work and would become good teachers.

Everyone would be expected to do research as well. We would have weekly colloquia and presentations, part of the benefits would include Interlibrary Loan and access to academic databases, etc, and time would be set aside each week and within each day to do and present research. The headmaster (me, to start) would advise and support the staff in interdisciplinary research efforts, bring in speakers, etc.

The "catch" would be that the students would have to be included in this research in various ways--you'd have to design your projects so that students could help, and this working on cutting-edge research projects would be a way to focus student learning. If a student was helping, for example, on a 19th-century history project, then the teacher would be teaching the students the background they needed to understand the project and contribute to it.

There would be no entrance examination for the school, and we would take students who were struggling and students who already were academically excellent (so much so that their parents wanted them to be taught by 100% Ph.D.'s.) The only requirements would be an entrance interview with the headmaster for both student and parents. Ideally the benevolent philanthropist or clever political and legal person who helped me set this up would have made it so that there was no tuition, but there would be some contribution expected from every family--volunteering, raising money for field trips, etc. (rather than writing checks, which some families can't afford).

The faculty in the school would be happy and fulfilled because they would still be doing their research and in fact might be producing more as part of an interdisciplinary, close-knit scholarly community. Taking a two-year position at the Academy (note, I would be happy to name it after anybody who wants to endow it) would be a way to improve one's career prospects, research productivity and financial bottom line. Instead of rushing from one adjunct job to the next, teachers would be in one place, earning a fair wage under good working conditions and where they were respected.

Students would have the benefits of an all-Ph.D. faculty who would every single day model for them the value of intellectual effort. The faculty would make up for in energy what they might lack in experience, and students could count on being as entertained as they were challenged (because we know how new Ph.D.s are about their research projects). Students who had been bored or isolated in the traditional school environment would have an opportunity to devote themselves to intellectual pursuits and to go as far and as fast as they wanted. Students who had struggled would suddenly have a peer group that cared deeply about academics.

I know there are a million problems with this dream, most of all that I lack the political and legal skills to bring it off, and I don't have any money to start the school. But I also think that within this crazy idea there might be the core of a way to address two very significant problems: the failures of the educational system (particular for kids who want to be intellectual) and the job crisis in academia. I think that a lot of faculty who tried it, and didn't see taking a job like this as a year or two lost to research but instead an opportunity to learn some new skills while earning a living wage, would discover how much they loved teaching. I think the students would learn more in a few years at the Academy than nearly anywhere else, and I think I could create the kind of intellectual community that we would need.

So, if any benevolent philanthropists or charter school experts are reading, please get in touch.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Prototype of the Manuscript DNA Extractor Now Sits on My Desk

On Tuesday I went to Northwestern University of meet with the team of engineers* who have worked for the past twenty weeks to bring into being my idea of a device to non-destructively extract DNA from medieval manuscripts. Working at the Segal Design Institute under the direction of Professors Stacy Benjamin and Barbara Shwom and advised by Kiki Zissimopoulos, and with some occasional input from me, Caroline Dougherty, Rahul Jain, Regan Radcliffe and Mimi Zou designed a simple machine that can insert a tiny needle into the edge of a manuscript leaf without leaving any marks that can be seen by the naked eye.

It was really a great, great experience to work with these students over many weeks and then to head out to Northwestern (where my wife did her Ph.D.) and see their presentation. The design is simple but sophisticated, and the final report includes testing data, complete drawings and a beautifully written explanation of how they arrived at the design, why it is a good one, and where it might go in the future. I was blown away not only by the quality of the engineering, but by how incredibly professional these students are. If I were recruiting for a company right now, I would hire them all, in a heartbeat. The prototype is elegant, and it's one of those well-made little machines that you can't keep your hands off. Considering that my first drawing was literally done on an envelope, and that I didn't even scan if for them but took a digital photo and emailed it, their ability to see the good idea at the heart of the mess I gave them and refine it over multiple iterations shows that they really learned their craft, and that Northwestern taught them well.

What Northwestern has done with their engineering program is remarkable. From a freshman design course that is completely integrated with their writing requirements (which may be why these students are good writers and communicators as well as good engineers), to the Ford design building, in which a complete shop floor, with bandsaws, lathes, etc., etc., is not only the center of the place, but visually the center of everything... It makes me want to go back to school to be an engineer (and if you have a kid thinking about going to college for engineering, you owe it to that kid--and to yourself--to check out this program; it integrates 'hands on' work with all the math, computer-assisted design, etc., you expect from engineering, and the students all seemed to be having a blast).

As for the extractor, plus the rest of the Sheep DNA project, we are getting pretty close. Now that we have a prototype, we need to figure out how to refine it and to manufacture it inexpensively (I'll be working with another team of engineers next year, I hope). And, from the biochemical side, we are about half an order of magnitude away from where we want to be: We thus far seem to need about 10 mg of material, and we really would like that to be 5 (though the extractor could extract 10 mg without too much trouble; just iterate the sampling).

Now I think my next job is going to be convincing librarians that a set of 40-micron diameter holes in the edge (even the binding edge) of a MSS is acceptable. I think what I will do is to sample my own manuscript leaf, hand it to librarians, and ask them if they can figure out, even using a magnifying glass, where the samples were taken. If they can't maybe they'll be willing to let me sample one folio from each quire in a MSS or two.

This plan assumes that we can get the biochemistry working (and if anyone has a contact with a "Clean Lab" that handles ancient DNA, let me know, please). If we can, we will be pretty close to being off to the races, especially since the team of computer scientists I'm working with are well on their way to having the manuscript database and visualization tool going.

The collaboration with Northwestern got started because Prof. Greg Olsen, of the Steel Research Group, asked me for specifications for the sword that would be required to slay a dragon. The Dragonslayer sword (which when finished will be the hardest in the history of the world, and will also contain meteorite iron) is coming along, as is a Beowulfian Seax, which the group made this year. And in return for some minor consulting about the Seax, Prof. Olsen connected me with Prof. Benjamin and the Segal Design Institute. I'm really grateful to him, and to all the people that have contributed to this insane project, which may well just end up working. Keep your fingers crossed, though, because there are still a lot of challenges ahead of us.

* Doing transdisciplinary research is worth it solely for being able to write "...a team of engineers" in relation to one of my projects.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Tolkien Bibliography Online

For the past nine years or so, my students and I have been creating a bibliographic database of scholarship on J.R.R. Tolkien. For a long time this database was on Filemaker and thus not accessible outside of the Wheaton campus. Now, thanks to Patrick Rashleigh and others, the database is available on the web, and I encourage you to use it at

There are over 600 entries right now, with at least 100 more scheduled to go up between now and the end of the summer. Most entries include full citation information, a summary of the article, and keywords for ease in searching (the 'location' information is usually just to our own very large collection of photocopied articles). You can therefore, at least hypothetically, search for all articles about the Anglo-Saxons, or the problem of evil, or eucatastrophe.

The bibliography is copious but not exhaustive. It has been compiled by students, though checked by me, but sometimes what happens is that a very enthusiastic student takes on a big pile of articles to read and summarize, then things come up, and the articles never do get into the database. So there are many lacunae, particularly in some of the more recent work. I would highly recommend cross-referencing your searches with the yearly bibliographies in Tolkien Studies, which are not precisely part of this project (though there has been some overlap).

Other gaps in the bibliography come from my own work mostly not being there. For internal purposes only (i.e., not for the web), students graded each article A-F. I did not think it was a good idea to put them in the position of having to rate my work, so it did not end up in the assignments.

Some day this may be the complete bibliography that Tolkien studies needs, and until then I hope it is a useful resource both for scholars and for students writing papers.

This project began when the late Marilyn Todesco asked me to find some summer work for her work-study student. "Search for 'Tolkien' in MLA Bibliography and then print out, ILL, copy everything you find," I said to Beth Affanato, having no idea how much that was. Nearly ten years and 600 articles later, we see yet another way that Marilyn contributed to the life of Wheaton College. She is still sorely missed.

Finally, I would like to thank the many students (and two doctoral students from Europe) who have contributed to the bibliography. They include:

Beth Affanato
Hilary Wynne
Kate Malone Hesser
Laura Kalafarski
John Walsh
Christopher Scotti
Shawn McKee
Melissa Higgins
Melissa Smith-MacDonald
Stefanie Olsen
Kathryn Paar
Jason Rea
Lauren Provost
Tara McGoldrick
Julia Rende
Rebecca Epstein
Marcel B├╝lles
Gergely Nagy
Namiko Hitotsubashi