On being a medievalist

Our department chair stopped by my office this morning to ask me to identify and translate the text that appeared on the front of the Christmas card he’d selected for us to give to our departmental administrative assistant. So, I poked around and identified it as a response from Vespers on the first Sunday of Advent, then I wrote a translation in the card, added my own greeting, and handed it back to the chair.

The reason I deem this worthy of a blog post is that the exercise of doing this – digging out my copy of Harper’s The Forms and Orders of Western Liturgy from the Tenth to the Eighteenth Century, pulling out a copy of the psalms, reminding myself of what it is like to read medieval Latin, especially medieval liturgical Latin, transcribing from a lovely German manuscript (Mainz, 15th century) with square musical notation – has made me homesick for life as a medievalist.

Sure, I have been teaching Old English this semester, but it is very different teaching Old English literature for mostly English majors than reading it with people who also read Latin, Norse, and possibly also Welsh or Irish. I usually define myself as a medievalist when it comes up, not as an English person, but I miss both the companionship and the greater erudition of my medievalist peers. It is all too easy to let my disciplinary knowledge slip away when there is rarely any demand for it. I am extremely lucky to have an academic job, with generous colleagues, and I feel painfully aware of the predicament that most of my grad school friends are in, with full-time jobs hard to come by, even for those who are eminently qualified for them. So, this post is meant as a reminder to myself to make decisions that will allow me to do the work I love. It is easy to forget that I have agency and can do a lot to shape my job satisfaction.

I did fairly well this semester on my plan to start my day in the office with at least an hour of my own research-related work or other professional tasks, although the last few weeks have been a bit dicey in that regard. (In many regards, frankly.) I intend to continue with this scheme in the spring semester, but I think I’m also going to concentrate on finding projects (whether for research, professional development, or for teaching) that let me tap into my broader training as a medievalist.


Quiz ethics

No, no student cheating, at least not yet. In fact, I’m taking a dialect quiz that seems to be making the rounds, but in some cases, I’m not sure how to answer the questions. There are a few questions where I’m not sure how to answer because I’ve heard several of the options, but I’ve never been in a position to use any of them in my own daily life, such as the various words for a groundhog or a roly poly. More interesting, though, are the questions where I’m not sure how to answer because the question makes me think of my childhood, where I was more exclusively surrounded by one usage than I’m aware of now.

For instance, the all-around athletic shoes that you might put on for, say, PE class – it was definitely not “gym class” where I grew up – would absolutely have been “tennis shoes.” In the last ten or fifteen years, my only use of such shoes has been for my own long-distance running, so I am more likely to say the words “running shoes” now, but I view that as a very specific usage, particularly since I don’t use my current running shoes for anything other than actual running. So, I felt relatively comfortable responding that the generalized term for athletic shoes was “tennis shoes.”

On the other hand, I felt more conflicted when faced with the question on electric-powered rail vehicles that run on city streets. After six years in a city whose transit system includes “streetcars,” I have used that word an awful lot, but it is a usage that I associate particularly, though not exclusively, with that city. I think that I would have used “cable car” when I was growing up, and, in a sense, that is my sort of “generic” word when there’s no city-specific usage in the discussion. (Though I suspect this comes from a certain city-specific usage, but for me, it would have been “the” term, growing up.) How to answer these sorts of questions?

Any time I take these kinds of quizzes, I find that one complicating factor is my (sometimes subconscious) wish to wave my Western flag, which often happens, whether I’m talking to people who live in the city where I live (and who are not usually from the same part of the country where I grew up) or whether I’m responding to a linguistic quiz.

And what should I do about those idioms that I consciously affected at one point in my life, in response to books I was reading or to people I knew? One example would be that I sometimes say, “A quarter to five,” not the “five-forty-five” that I grew up with and that I still think of as the more natural expression in my own variety of English. I’m not suggesting that people in England, for example, speak unnaturally; it’s just a different variety than the one I use, even though I have borrowed from that variety on occasion.

In any case, the full 140-question quiz (to which I tried to respond with what I think of as the most “natural” option in the list) places me eerily close to where I was born. Eerily close, as in, a far greater match with that region than with the region where I actually lived for more of my childhood, which was still very much in the West. I would have expected my speech to “look” more like the latter region than like my birth region. Old habits die hard? Of course, both of my parents were from the region where I have the greatest overlap, and we visited family and friends there fairly often, but I’d have expected to have picked up some usages that would place me slightly closer to where we lived for most of my childhood. I don’t think I gave any answers that would have skewed my results away from where I lived for most of my childhood; I was actually expecting to see a greater overlap where the part of the continent where I attended school. I’ve mentioned before that my students seem to think that I sound like I’m “not from around here,” so I didn’t expect any major overlap with this specific region, but I did expect to see more from the areas where I went to school. Was I suppressing any usages that would have shifted my results? I’ll have to give it some thought, but this sort of complexity and resistance to simplistic prediction is part of what fascinates me about language study.


In preparation for next spring’s course on English in the World, I finally sat down and read Robert McCrum’s Globish: How English Became the World’s Language this summer. Norton sent me this book as a freebie, of possible interest for my History of the English Language course, but it would have caught my eye in any case, dealing not only with the history of the language but also with sociolinguistics. In spite of that, I spent most of my time with this book feeling frustrated by it, and as a result, it took me far longer to finish this book than it should have done.

There are some serious inaccuracies, at least in the sections of the book dealing with the medieval period – I can’t be certain that I know enough about the later periods to be sure in those cases, though I was frequently skeptical of McCrum’s claims. I’ll give a brief example, from page 24: “Albion [an old, probably Celtic, name for Britain] was a place of chalky giants, primitive sorcery, sun worship and sea monsters.” The prose is a bit purple for my taste, but I have a more serious quarrel with this claim. I suppose sun worship is possible, and I’m not sure exactly what he has in mind when he refers to “primitive sorcery” and “sea monsters,” but the chalky giants simply aren’t there. In fairness, I hiked past what might be termed a chalky giant in Sussex last month, but it’s probably not even medieval, let alone pre-Roman. That particular “chalky giant,” the Wilmington Long Man, cannot be shown to have existed earlier than 1710. (I would like to have a look at the scholarship that suggests that these figures might have been Tudor or Stuart political satire!) The same thing goes for the Cerne Abbas Giant and the Westbury White Horse. Most other “white horses” in England are known to be modern, except for the Uffington White Horse, which is the one “chalky giant” that can be proven to have existed before the seventeenth century. One chalk horse hardly makes a prehistoric summer.

It is similarly inaccurate to claim the following: “The cultural revolution of Christianity both enriched Old English with scores of new words (apostle, pope, angel, psalter) and, just as importantly, also introduced the capacity to articulate abstract thought” (p. 31). Yes, it is true that Old English got lots of new words from Latin after Augustine’s mission arrived in 597 (and probably earlier, in some areas, from Irish Christians), but are we now to believe that people who are not Christian are also not capable of abstract thought? Or that people who do not have access to Latin (since most Anglo-Saxons would not have read or spoken Latin, after all) are not capable of abstract thought? McCrum does acknowledge that pre-Christian Anglo-Saxons had “cumbersome and elaborate German-style portmanteaus [sic]” at their disposal, but he doesn’t seem to accept that this could be an equally valid way of expressing complex ideas. Apparently, he has not read much Old English literature.

Having mentioned purple prose, I will also note something I see as a frequently correlated phenomenon, namely, the tendency of many people to attribute character qualities to languages. On page 230, McCrum declares that, “as we have seen, English has always had this subversive capacity to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds, to articulate the ideas of both government and opposition, to be the language of ordinary people as well as the language of power and authority, rock ‘n’ roll and royal decree.” Earlier on that page, he refers to English as a language that remains “contagious, adaptable, populist and subversive.” This phenomenon makes no sense to me. Why is this true of English and not of other languages? Could you actually show me a language where it is not possible for speakers or writers to use the language in subversive ways? Certainly, Latin, that standard of rectitude for so many schoolchildren, had its share of subversive writings. Or, just as we use different registers of formality in English when we speak about, say, pop music or the Constitution, why is it so hard to believe that other languages might also have multiple registers in which speakers can take on both “rock ‘n’ roll and royal decree”? Even the remarkably “book” Stephen Fry falls into this sort of romanticized rhetoric about the English language (though most of what he tries to communicate in this clip is spot-on), but it always perplexes me when anyone wants to make this kind of claim that English is uniquely capable of wondrous things. It is true that a number of historical conditions and events have shaped English in a way that is highly unusual, but the idea that this comes from some sort of life force within the language itself is one that I find incomprehensible.

In spite of these inaccuracies and vagaries (and my indignation about them!), there is a lot of useful and intriguing material under discussion in Globish, but I’m uncertain about some of the large-scale ideas that drive the book. Most importantly, it’s not clear to me just how McCrum is defining “Globish,” since he sometimes seems to use the term to refer simply to English as spoken by someone from a non-Anglophone country. If “Globish” is defined in terms of the sociolinguistic situation in which it is being used, then perhaps that is an example of Globish, but if “Globish” is defined in terms of the actual linguistic units coming out of the person’s mouth (or pen or computer), in the way that we normally define different varieties of a language, then what if that person actually speaks English much as a native speaker would? (Someone who studied in the States or in Britain, say.) It’s not that “Globish” can’t be defined rigorously or that the concept isn’t productive and useful, but McCrum doesn’t offer a rigorous, nuanced discussion of his use of the term to answer questions like the one I’ve raised here.

In several spots, McCrum appears to be conflating the fall of Soviet Communism with a shift in the sociolinguistic matrix for Globish. I don’t doubt that these phenomena are related in some way, but I am skeptical that it can be captured accurately and fully in a glib statement that after 1989, “this new global culture would morph into the worldwide cultural revolution that would become Globish” (p. 225). I suspect that the connections are complex and perhaps not always what we would expect.

So, my quarrels with this book are mostly to do with execution and with the examination (or not) of the fascinating and pressing linguistic and sociopolitical ideas that it raises, rather than with the value of the material itself. This is a hugely important topic, not just for our understanding of history, but also for our sense of where our cultures, our economies, and our political systems will move in the coming decades. What is needed is a book that treats the topics, questions, and possibilities raised in Globish with more rigor. I always enjoy reading about the history of the English language, but I wonder if perhaps it would have been wise to have trimmed down some of the very lengthy history recounted in this book, in favor of a more detailed and rigorous discussion of the current sociopolitical and sociolinguistic situations and questions that McCrum discusses fairly swiftly in the final section of the book.


I recently returned from spending two and a half months away, mostly for professional activities, about which I will blog in due course. Actually, I hope to blog about them soon, but here’s a quick post on a different topic.

Our guide to the English major here includes a section where faculty members list their must-read books and epiphanic moments related to literature. For the first time since I’ve been here, revisions are being made this summer, so I had my first opportunity to provide a must-read list. I found it difficult to know what should be on that list, as I was trying to avoid having it simply be a list of five books I’ve read recently. I didn’t entirely steer clear of that trap, but I’m confident that each item on my list is a book that I will continue to recommend:

Studs Terkel, “The Good War”

Anthony Trollope, The Warden and Barchester Towers

Alan Paton, Cry, the Beloved Country

Rudyard Kipling, Kim

H. H. Munro, The Complete Short Stories of Saki

It would seem that I salute the British Empire. But there’s more to my list than that:

Studs Terkel’s “The Good War” was an important book for me when I was a sophomore in high school. Although I considered including John Hersey’s Hiroshima on my list, for its searing look at a different set of painful results of WWII, I kept old Studs on there because of my fondness for him and because I suspect that there won’t be a lot of oral history or autobiography in the lists that people send in.

I included the two Trollope novels because I think every student should be exposed to his agile, witty play with words and rhetoric. I also love the humor of his books and the way that he seems to be laughing at all of his characters, mostly with at least some degree of affection or acceptance. This seems to me to set him apart from the wit of an author like Jane Austen, for instance, but you’ll see below that I haven’t entirely neglected Miss Austen.

Both Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country and Kipling’s Kim are on my list (in spite of the fact that I read both of them for the first time in the last several years) for their evocation of particular places: intoxicating, heartbreaking, and lovely. On reading the first sentences of Cry, the Beloved Country (“There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hills are grass-covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing of it.”), I was lost, even before I had read enough to realize how compelling the story itself was. With Kim, however, I had been resistant to reading the book, largely because of my frustration with some of Kipling’s other works, but after reading a novel by Laurie R. King (another author worth reading, at least for the sheer intelligence of her prose) that seemed to be nodding to Kim, I finally picked up the latter. It was well worth reading!

I listed the Saki short stories because I have enjoyed them since I was a kid and because I periodically recommend them to people as a largely unknown but highly entertaining collection. In addition, I’m not sure how much short fiction is likely to make its way onto the list.

Now, my list may have covered an impressive number of former British colonies, but you’ll have noticed that this list does not include any work written by a woman, nor by an author who is not white. Here are a few works that I thought about including on my list, even though I ended up being swayed by my regard for those books that did make the cut:

When I was in middle school, both Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre were formative for me, but I suspect most students will have been exposed to these books one way or another. I also suspect that the very personal nature of the formative qualities these books had for me might make it difficult for me to anticipate what might be their impact on other readers.

I also thought about suggesting any poem written by Emily Dickinson, but since she is already represented on other lists, I kept that slot open for other books I really wanted to be able to add to the listings. All three of these authors would have given me a female representative, but Zora Neale Hurston very nearly stayed on my list because she would have allowed me to champion both authors who are female and authors who are not white. I bought a copy of Their Eyes Were Watching God in an airport bookstore after I interviewed for what turned out to be my first job out of grad school, because in the immediate aftermath of an interview, I couldn’t quite stand the thought of getting down to the work I’d brought with me. The book turned out to be moving and meaningful, but I left it off of my list simply because I think I will be less likely to revisit it than to revisit some of my other titles – I think this might be one of those ones that came to my mind partly because I only read it a few years ago.

In spite of the caveats I’ve just given for all of these also-ran titles, I’m feeling again, as I type this, that it might have been a good thing to be a voice for literature written by authors other than white men. I’ll have to give some thought to my next revision, I think. If any of you have a shortlist of must-read books, please share!

English in the World

I am very excited because, after putting in a last-minute application for a course development grant, I learned on Friday that I have been awarded that grant and will be teaching a new course as part of a major, multi-year grant that JCU is using to increase global learning on campus, particularly through faculty learning groups and undergraduate courses in various aspects of globalization studies.

So, in Spring 2014, I will teach EN 299 English in the World, in which the students and I will “examine the close connections between language and identity, as they play out in economic, political, and cultural exchange,” as I phrased it in the application. As is probably clear, we’ll be dealing with quite a lot of sociolinguistic material (“Seeking out both the global within English and the signs of English around the globe, we will necessarily tackle concerns over language survival or revival, as well as the types and mechanisms of language contact”), and I am really looking forward to that!

I’m hoping that this course will get a healthy enrollment, boosted by some of our education-track English majors. I am fortunate enough to be able to teach a course on the history of English every fall because the education-track majors are required to take a course on language (either HEL or a contemporary grammar course), and this “English in the World” course will be designated as another option for satisfying that requirement.

I still need to work out precisely what readings I will assign to the students, but I am very much looking forward to the preparatory reading I’ll be doing this summer: David Crystal’s Language Death, Robert McCrum’s Globish, Lawrence Rosenwald’s Multilingual America, Ardis Butterfield’s The Familiar Enemy, assorted sociolinguistics textbooks, Lawrence Venuti on translation and “an ethics of difference,” sections from The Empire Writes Back, and various other books. While I’m at it, I will probably revisit Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, which launched my first forays into more sustained academic thought, after my wonderful ninth-grade history teacher recommended it to me. I’m also planning to assign a few literary and autobiographical texts, perhaps Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies and Francisco Jiménez’s Breaking Through, although I’d love to hear other suggestions, if you have any, especially anything related to East Asia (Peter Hessler?), since I know we’ll have South Asia, Europe, and Africa represented, one way or another. It would also be nice to get something specifically South American on the list, too.

I know that we are going to discuss some analogous theories and situations from earlier periods of history (e.g., Isidore of Seville’s seventh-century argument that nations arise out of languages, rather than languages out of nations), but aside from demonstrating that the Middle Ages are actually au courant, my hope is that we will come to a greater appreciation of the fundamental importance in human societies of these questions of language and identity and of the larger patterns of language flux, rather than falling into the trap of viewing this “global English” phenomenon as a uniquely modern phenomenon.

Throughout the course, students will maintain logs of current news items or other items of interest, probably through the Evernote app. (I am still thinking about using blogs or a single course blog, but one advantage of using Evernote would be that I would have distinct submissions to a single folder from each student, rather than having to go and count entries.) The items in these logs will form the basis for much of the group work that students will do during our class sessions, but they will also be the basis for the students’ work towards their final projects. I’m still deciding what those final projects will look like. I know that there will be a significant writing component, but I would also like students to think creatively and rigorously about multimedia possibilities, and I’m open to interviews or other experiential projects, and to proposals for collaborative work.

As you can see, this course is still taking shape, but I’m very, very pleased that I will be able to pursue it, even though I’m likely to have a very harried semester in Spring 2014, trying to stay on top of this course and another course that I’m very excited (though also very nervous) about developing. More on that second new course soon!


Bah. I am in the middle of another, more upbeat post, but I am also in the middle of some marking that is taking way too much time because I’m feeling annoyed by this sadly common phenomenon: It is extremely frustrating and irritating when students submit proposals or drafts for comments, only to ignore those comments. I’m comfortable with the idea that a student might disagree with my comments, but I would strongly prefer that such a student express that to me than that I have to waste my time simply reading the same material again and making (or, at least, thinking) the same comments again. There is also the possibility that the student just ran out of time for revisions, but I’d much prefer the student to ask for an extra day or whatever would be necessary.

It’s an interesting problem because I suspect that it arises from some combination of a lack of communication and a lack of trust. So, when I say that I’m offering some thoughts and that I hope the student will contact me with concerns and questions, I’m trusting the student to do so. At the same time, I suspect that, no matter how many times I invite disagreement and debate in our in-class conversations, many students retain the false idea that the teacher knows (or believes that she knows) “the” right thing to say about anything and that, therefore, it is not acceptable to challenge what the teacher has written …even if you’re going to ignore what the teacher has written. (I’m thinking here of a situation some time ago when I received a proposal for an essay based on what I saw as a fundamentally problematic non-argument. I gave some specific suggestions about how the student might arrive at an essay that was logically and intellectually feasible, but the final essay I received was precisely the one originally proposed. So, the student either did not read my comments or did not choose to either act on them or consult me about them.) So, it’s partly a question of whether or not there are things I can do (with in-class discussions, with assignments, or during private consultations) to help make my more benevolent and tolerant view of student work more clear. I have no problem with the idea that a student have a different viewpoint on a text than I do, as long as it is well supported by evidence, but my job is to try to help when I see logical flaws or places where evidence is being ignored or contradicted in some way.

I was just talking last night with some non-academic friends about the frustration of dealing with any plagiarism case, which frustration is partly (for me) to do with what, again, feels like a lack of trust that I really mean it when I talk about wanting to learn their thoughts and see the arguments that they can put forward, when I talk about how much more interesting they are than some essay off of the internet. (Okay, I know that this is probably not all, or even any, of what is going on in most plagiarism cases, but it’s hard for me to escape the sense that this is at least implicit in some of what is going on.) Of course, this is all to say nothing of our in-class conversations on the purposes of classes that ask students to practice articulating their thoughts and to apply a small amount of discipline to the appreciation of materials that might not be their first choice.

I don’t have time at the moment to try to rehearse the possible responses to these situations, and I’m pretty confident that there’s no silver bullet to begin with. Still, I wanted to air these thoughts. Anyone with other thoughts should feel free to weigh in!

Working like Bach?

I interrupt my regularly scheduled (if not regularly completed!) posting to contemplate J. S. Bach for a few minutes. Today is his birthday, and since I cannot remember a time when I did not love his music, I always take the excuse to listen to even more of his music on this day than I do on other days. (You could sample some of his choral, orchestral, or keyboard music as a bit of a celebration, too!)

I got to thinking on this date in 2011 (nearing the end of my first, terrifying year as a Visiting Assistant Professor) about how Bach provided an interesting set of analogies for those interested in literary criticism. I know this because I cleverly sent a series of e-mails to myself to record those thoughts before they had a chance to slip away in a sea of good intentions, lack of direction, and even more severe lack of time. This blog will, I hope, solve the problem of a lack of direction, for these and other homeless thoughts. Perhaps I can also use the impetus of another celebration of Bach’s birth to overcome the other two difficulties.

If there is anyone who understands the pressure on academics to regularly produce work of a certain quality, it is a Cantor or Kapellmeister from eighteenth-century Leipzig! Anyone who wrote a cantata for each Sunday and every other holiday in the Lutheran calendar for at least three years running (plus at least two other complete cantata cycles from other periods of his life) surely knows the demands of producing high-quality work under extreme pressure.

I have to admit, I quite like the idea (conceit?) of this professional affinity, but leaving that aside, it seems to me that there are some interesting lessons to be learned from Bach’s music and the legacy of that music. It is true that Bach had a remarkable output, but some of that output in fact consisted of reworkings of earlier pieces. In some cases, this was in fairly strict transcriptions, but at other times, such as when he used what is now known as the “Passion Chorale” as a unifying element within his St. Matthew Passion, the reworkings were truly reworkings. The Passion Chorale is developed throughout the course of the St. Matthew Passion, with different harmonizations (and different keys) each time it is utilized for a different text.

Now, I cannot expect to earn tenure by simply revamping one article over and over, but I, for one, am perfectly content to have more opportunities to hear some beautiful music, even if I’ve heard something similar before. I was thinking, having just attempted to craft a narrative of a coherent research program as part of the dossier for my annual pre-tenure review, that perhaps this is the wrong way to think of the analogy. Perhaps, in the context of a research program whose coherence is based more in a related set of questions than in a single chronological period, the reharmonizing is the application of that intertwined set of concerns to a distinct and more focused topic in a particular article. (Hmmm, is it too late at night for me to be trying to articulate this? Is it just a terrible and silly idea to begin with?) I’m at the stage of my career where the harmonies (or at least the relations between different harmonizations) are still tentative, contingent upon the success of a couple of specific “reharmonizations.” I’d like to think that there will come a day when my reharmonizations will have achieved the degree of creativity shown in the reworkings of Bach’s music by some other musicians – if you don’t feel anything when you listen to Nina Simone improvising in the middle of “Love Me or Leave Me,” well, then I’m not sure that you have a soul – but I suspect that it will take me some time to even come close. For now, here’s a heartfelt “Alles Gute zum Geburtstag” to the greatest of them all.