Thursday, September 16, 2010

Abstract Submitted for ISAS 2011

(as soon as I dig out from a new batch of wretchedly annoying and boring department chair stuff, I will do a post explaining more about lexomics, but here's a preview of what I hope to present at the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists conference at Madison this summer)

Untangling the Cynewulfian Corpus with Lexomic and Traditional Methods

At ISAS 2009 our multi-disciplinary team (English, Statistics, Computer Science) demonstrated software that researchers can use to generate statistical profiles of Anglo-Saxon texts.  In this paper we present some of the results arrived at by using these tools, showing how, when combined with traditional approaches, lexomic methods can shed light on some long-standing problems in Anglo-Saxon studies.  Specifically, we use hierarchical agglomerative clustering to examine relationships of the vocabulary of the signed poems of Cynewulf (Christ II, Juliana, Elene and The Fates of the Apostles) with other poems that have been over the years thought by some scholars to be by Cynewulf or in some way related to his work (Guthlac B, The Phoenix, Andreas, Christ I and Christ III).  

Our software tools, whose development was supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, allow us to cut poems into sections which we can then compare to each other in terms of vocabulary distribution.  In early work on Genesis, Daniel, Azarias and Christ III, we determined that the dendrograms, or tree-diagrams created by hierarchical agglomerative cluster analysis could be used to identify sections of poems that are particularly similar to each other, such as lines 279-361 of Daniel with Azarias.  We also discovered that sections of poems cluster together by source: the chunks of Genesis B cluster together and separate from those with biblical sources; the section of Daniel influenced by liturgical texts and the portions of Christ III directly influenced by sermons of Caesarius of Arles were likewise separated. 

Recognizing the differences between sections of poems and the strong influence of sources enabled us to refine our techniques and avoid the pitfalls of previous attempts to identify digital “signatures” (effectively critiqued by Janet Bately).  Combining our more subtle lexomic methods with close reading and philological analysis allows us to determine that the signed Cynewulfian poems have significant similarities in vocabulary distribution (except in sections that are strongly influenced by direct paraphrase of a Latin source, such as much of Juliana).  This similarity does not extend to the unsigned poems, with the major exception of most of Guthlac B, which is indeed very similar in vocabulary distribution to the signed poems. The combined lexomic and traditional evidence supports the long-held suspicion that this poem is also by Cynewulf (the poem is acaudate, so the lack of a runic signature is not dispositive).  We also note that Christ I and Christ III exhibit different vocabulary distributions from each other and from Christ II, providing additional reasons to reject the one-poem hypothesis put forth so forcefully by Albert S. Cook but questioned by more recent scholars.  We then discuss the similarity and difference of sections of the other putatively Cynewulfian poems and the implications of these relationships for the poems’ relative chronology.  We conclude by noting that although computer-based and advanced statistical methods can never provide definitive arguments, they can usefully augment traditional analysis. 

Tools and software available at .

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

On Exactitude in Terminology

“A word for which everyone has a different definition, usually unstated, ceases to serve the function of communication and its use results in futile arguments about nothing.  There is also a sort of Gresham’s Law for words; redefine them as we will, their worst or most extreme meaning is almost certain to remain current and to tend to drive out the meaning we might prefer.”

-- George Gaylord Simpson
   The Major Features of Evolution (1953).

"Imbricated discourses" is a sign of in-group jargon rather than clear thinking: no one can agree exactly on what it means or how "imbricated" is distinct from "partially overlapping" (to recap earlier arguments, "imbricated" means "overlapping just like the tiles on a roof," i.e., the same amount of overlap on each tile.  No one, to my knowledge, has explained how discourses could be like this or how we would measure--or even observe--to be sure they were.  Thus "imbricated" is a bad metaphor, one that confuses thought rather than clarifying it, and it fails even as a way to avoiding repetition-- for example, saying "overlapping" again and again--because it is opaque to most readers and incorrect in its details.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Sabbatical Report: Fall 2009-Spring 2010   

(this is a copy of the report I just sent to the Provost.  The point of posting it here to see for myself if I lived up to my plan.  And doing so made me realize that I left out the solid five weeks of work to put in a new grant to the NEH.  Oops.  Will have to send the Provost a note about that).

My first research leave without a newborn baby in the house was reasonably productive.  Although my work did not end up following the exact path I had charted before the sabbatical (in part because I directed two honors theses and taught an experimental class during the leave), I am pleased at what I finished and what is near completion.

The biggest deviation from the plan, and the unexpected element that used the most time, was the need to prepare a revised and expanded edition of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Beowulf and the Critics.  I did not know that the existing print run would sell out, but when it did, the opportunity to add new material and to make substantial corrections was not one I could pass up.  This took much more time than I had anticipated, as I ended up having to proof the text against the manuscript again (for reasons I do not understand, my ability to decipher J.R.R. Tolkien’s handwriting has improved substantially even though I have not been working with it consistently since the first edition).  I was able to include much additional material in this edition, including the first ever identification of all the “voices” in Tolkien’s “Babel of voices” allegory.  The new edition is in press and will be published by Arizona Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies in late 2010 or early 2011. 

[in press] J. R. R. Tolkien’s Beowulf and the Critics. Revised and Expanded Edition. Ed. Michael D. C. Drout. (Tempe, AZ:  Arizona Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 2011).

The other unanticipated event was the surprising early success of the lexomic methods that our interdisciplinary group (Mark LeBlanc, Mike Kahn and I) developed under the aegis of our NEH start-up grant.  We had originally intended to publish a short demonstration paper.  This metamorphosed into a complete methodological explanation the ended up being 60 pages long.  To my shock and delight, it was accepted by the Journal of English and Germanic Philology, the oldest, most conservative and most prestigious journal of philology in America.  To our knowledge, this is the first time they have agreed to publish material about computer-assisted approaches to texts.  This success drove us to write another paper, with co-author Sarah Downey, using lexomic methods to re-date the Old English poem Guthlac A by nearly two centuries and explain details of the text that had been noted as anomalies but never before understood.  This paper was accepted, without revisions, by Modern Philology.

[in press] Drout, Michael D.C., Michael J. Kahn, Mark D. LeBlanc and Christina Nelson. “Of Dendrogrammatology: Lexomic Methods for Analyzing the Relationships Among Old English Poems,” Journal of English and Germanic Philology (2010).

[in press] Downey, Sarah, Michael J. Kahn and Mark D. LeBlanc, “’Books Tell Us’: Lexomic and Traditional Evidence for the  Sources of Guthlac A. Modern Philology (2010).

Other articles and essays accepted or published include:

 [in press] “Albert S. Cook’s Invention of Cynewulf and the History of English Studies in America.” English Studies.

This piece almost made it into PMLA, but, as I feared, pointing out sloppy scholarship and tendentious mis-interpretation by the recent president of the MLA was not the ticket to acceptance.  On the other hand, English Studies has a larger and more international audience than PMLA.

 [in press] "The Rohirrim, the Anglo-Saxons, and the Problem of Appendix F: Ambiguity and Reference in Tolkien’s Books and Jackson’s Films”  in Janice M. Bogstad and Philip E. Kaveny, eds. Picturing Tolkien: Essays on the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings Trilogy. (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2011).

[in press] Bloch, Bill Goldbloom and Michael D.C. Drout.  “Fair and Unfair Division in Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon.” In Jessica Sklar and Elizabeth Sklar, eds. Mathematics and Popular Culture. (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2011). 

This is the first jointly written publication to come out of Bill Goldbloom Bloch’s and my multi-year collaboration.  The paper come directly from out “The Edge of Reason” pair of connected courses. Writing it was so easy that we have more work together planned.

 [in press] “‘I am Large, I contain Multitudes’: The Medieval Author in Memetic Terms.” In Slavica Rankovic, et al., eds.  Tradition and the Individual Talent: Modes of Authorship in the Middle Ages.  (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 2011).

 [in press] “The Council of Elrond, All those Poems, and the Famous F-ing Elves: Strategies for Teaching the Hard Parts of Tolkien.” In Leslie Donovan, ed. Approaches to Teaching J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings and Other Works.  (New York: Modern Language Association, 2011).

 [in press] Rebecca Epstein, Michael D.C. Drout and David Bratman. “Bibliography (in English) for 2008,” Tolkien Studies 7 (2010): 379-98.

 [in press] “Foreword: The End of the World in Science Fiction,” In Hunter Liguore, ed. The Last Man Anthology.  (Bristol, CT: Sword and Saga Press, 2010).

[in press] “Cumulative Index: Tolkien Studies, Volume I-V,” Tolkien Studies 8 (2011); with Jason Rea, Tara L. McGoldrick, Lauren Provost, Maryellen Groot and Julia Rende.

I also co-edited volume VII of Tolkien Studies.  I sometimes can’t believe that we are closing in on the journal’s first decade. 

Anderson, Douglas A.  Michael D.C. Drout, Verlyn Flieger.  Tolkien Studies 7 (2010).  West Virginia University Press. 

I also completed another revision of my Old English grammar book, re-titled Drout’s Quick and Easy Old English, which I am using this fall in English 208 and for which I will once again be seeking a publisher after what can only be described as being shafted by Broadview Press. 

In terms of non-traditional media, I recorded and distributed podcasts of all of Archbishop Wulfstan’s Homilies (in the original Old English).  I also recorded a new audio course, this time for a new company, Crescite, which has a slightly different format (though I have not left Recorded Books, they have been proceeding more slowly with new courses).  My three episodes in the History Channel’s Clash of the Gods aired during the sabbatical year but were recorded while teaching in 2008-09.

Anglo-Saxon Aloud:  The Homilies of Wulfstan

[in press] Tolkien and the West.  Washington, D.C.: Crescite Group, 2011.

So much for the work completed, by my count a new edition, a new volume of a journal, a set of podcasts, a course on CD, a revised grammar book, and nine articles (a few more were published during this time, but they were mostly completed before the sabbatical started). 

I also have some work in progress, the most significant item of which is my technical monograph, Tradition and Influence, the follow-up to How Tradition Works.  This new book is mostly done, but I still need to complete my chapter on genre (I am probably 15 pages from the end), draft the final short chapter, “The Anxiety of Influence in Memetic Terms,” and polish the entire manuscript.  Hopeful completion date: February 1, 2011.  More realistic date: September 1, 2011. 

I also have a complete draft of my new Tolkien book, The Tower and the Ruin: J.R.R. Tolkien’s World, but this draft needs a great deal of work, as it is really just the argument itself and not the references, footnotes, etc. 

Similarly, my book on grammar aimed at a popular audience, Grammar for Fun and Profit, exists partly in draft, partly as audio recordings, but it needs a substantial amount of re-writing. 

Philology Reborn, co-authored with Scott Kleinman of Cal State Northridge, has two chapters written and a complete chapter-by-chapter synopsis.  It is currently under consideration by Oxford UP.

One more semester without Dept. Chair responsibilities, right now, seems like it would be helpful and could allow me to finish Tradition and Influence and come pretty close to finishing The Tower and the Ruin.  But that is not in the cards right now (someone has to be Chair, after all) and it’s not good to be greedy.  Indeed, I appreciate very much the privilege of being able to work on my research as intensively as I did this year and have no one to blame but myself for not finishing things more quickly.  As Leonard Bernstein supposedly said, to achieve great things one needs a plan and not quite enough time, and I think having to be ready to teach this fall did cause a number  of the items above to be finished faster than they might have been.  Teaching Tolkien and Anglo-Saxon this fall and Beowulf in the spring will help with all these projects, as I am presenting many of the ideas and arguments in the classroom, and nothing highlights a weak argument like the questions of Wheaton students.  Overall, I am pleased with the work I completed during my sabbatical year, though I wish I had been more efficient, particularly at the beginning, and of course the horrible events of late August substantially reduced my productivity for the end of the summer.  But I’ll pace myself and be more disciplined on my next research leave which, because of banked time, is the spring semester of 2012.