27 April 2010

Garden angst

The Thing With The Taproot is back. Apparently for two years it has been growing back from whatever remained in the subsoil.

Grading angst

I really, really wish I could make my students read their papers aloud before turning them in. I mean, before correcting stupid errors and then turning them in. I urge this course upon them, but mostly to no avail. And it's too late now. Too late in the semester: I need to get this batch graded and back to their writers. So said writers will have to live with their extra words, missing words, wrong authors' names, and so on.

I don't have much patience with sloppiness. There is a clear difference between the occasional typo, which I may forgive, and regular patterns of error, which I do not. And while you can't correct problems you don't recognize as problems (semi-colons are not commas! and vice versa!), surely a run-through could fix a sentence like "I wish could make my read their papers."

I want my students to get good grades, I really do. So I hope some of them make it possible.

25 April 2010

Paleographer Barbie

Apparently there is now a Computer Engineer Barbie. I learned about this from a set of letters in the Wall Street Journal yesterday. One said, "Even though Barbie is a computer engineer this year, she is still a Barbie with a a disproportionate body type and plastic must-have 'career' accessories. In a time when young women need better self images, this Barbie still doesn't convince me that Mattel is on the leading edge of engineering images . . . . " Um. I really hope you're not saying that women (or men, for that matter) with disproportionate body types can't be computer engineers. To put it bluntly, people with big breasts can be smart, too. I had very much hoped that the stereotype of women in STEM fields being mousy nerdish un-sexy types had passed. But perhaps not.

Aside from that, of course you need the accessories. Barbie is a toy. When you play with toys, you either have or make stuff that goes with whatever imaginative adventure is at hand. Artist Barbie can have a palette and easel; Physician Barbie a stethoscope and syringes; Chef Barbie a whole array of miniature cooking implements. But as Sir John said, "What does this one do, sit in front of a computer and complain about her aching neck every once in awhile?" I thought it would be hard to tell Computer Engineer Barbie from Mathematician Barbie or any number of Barbies engaged in work that mainly takes place inside one's head. I suppose English Professor Barbie and Historian Barbie would have big piles of books as well as the laptop, but really, it's hard to tell one intellectual worker from another by the accessories (now that the day of slide rules has passed).

And then I thought, "Oh, hey: Paleographer Barbie!" Besides the laptop, she can have a ruler, a magnifying glass, and sheets of lovely writing: a page of Insular Minuscule, a page of a tidy Gothic book hand, and a page of Italic (let's not frighten the children with fifteenth-century English Secretary Hand. Time enough for that when they're older). Clothing includes a big woolly sweater, since most libraries and archives are freezing, and a blazer with huge pockets, since you often aren't allowed a bag of any kind (Yale wouldn't even let me have my glasses case, though en revanche, the Beinecke is at least warm). Since some libraries provide clear plastic bags for one's belongings, there's another possible accessory.

Anything else you think Paleographer Barbie should have?

23 April 2010


You know how when you put something off it becomes harder and harder to do, even if it's a little piddly thing that will take 5 minutes or a medium-piddly thing* that will take an hour?

I've been working through a batch of those this week. I hoped that as I started knocking them off, it would get easier to do the remaining ones, as the total guilt load diminished.

Not so much. It appears that a Thing is a Thing Unto Itself, whether or not it has company.

*not to be confused with cat-things, though some of them are piddly, too. We hope antibiotics will take care of that.

16 April 2010

Famous last words

So much for getting anything done on yesterday's flight. I was exhausted—hardly slept, after a small electrical fire in my room very late the night before. It was too late to roust anybody unless I was sure we needed to evacuate. As soon as the sparks flew and smoke poured from the socket, I turned off and unplugged everything, then stayed up for a couple of hours making sure that the socket and wall stayed cold and there was no more smoke and so on. At any rate, the house did not burn down, and when I reported it in the morning the landlords were shocked and distressed, and didn't charge me for that night.

And my flight did leave on time, despite the volcanic eruptions that were causing many other flights listed on the monitors to turn from city names to cancelled.

But the relief of not burning in my bed, and not spending unanticipated time abroad, combined with the fatigue, removed that edge of anxiety that usually makes work so absorbing on long flights. I spent the flight napping and reading my novel, after all.

Came home and finished off the tax forms. Mailed them off (yes, I'm a dinosaur).

They came back today: I didn't affix to the envelope the label hiding at the back of the tax booklet. Maybe next year I'll join the 21st century and file electronically.

Le sigh. Et le weekend plein de travail.

14 April 2010

where my thought's escaping

Home tomorrow! I've uploaded the last of the term's study questions and downloaded half the grad students' paper prospectuses (prospecti? prospectus, 4th declension?); the others, apparently, are risking turning them in later and only probably rather than definitely getting them back next Monday. I was hoping to get all of them to read on the plane. I guess I can always work on the undergrads' final exam.

Or on research. I could either try to work on my Zoo paper, or play around with how the just-given conference paper fits into the book chapter it's supposed to be part of.

Or, I remember now, a piece of writing for a committee.

I do have a book I could read. But although I know people who say they only read novels on airplanes, I march (as usual) to a different drummer. I read novels at home, on the couch, when I'm comfortable. Traveling makes me irritated, bored, and anxious in precisely the right amount and proportion that work becomes soothing and absorbing; on airplanes and in airports, I can get through quantities of work with amazing concentration. Sometimes I think that to get my book written, I should book several cross-country flights on routes that have a low rate of getting in on time.

11 April 2010


Conference paper: finally got it to lie down, roll over, sit up, etc., on command. That is, it is no longer being recalcitrant. It is done, and I think it is good. Of course, I still fear that someone senior here will attack it, but at the same time I feel confident about what I'm saying. All the grappling with the evidence and the argument has got me to an interestingly nuanced view.

Grading: finished all the undergraduate papers before I departed (whew!) and left them with a colleague to return next week. Quizzes will have to wait till I'm back.

Taxes: numbers figured out, including expenses for business travel; but when I get back I will still have to fill in the forms in ink & check numbers, download & print one last form, copy & mail everything. I get back midday on the 15th. No problem!

Jet lag: not too bad. It helped that I was so exhausted before I even left: all I wanted was to lie down, in some time zone, any time zone. (But last night I went to bed, then had a final inspiration about my paper, so got up and polished it off; woke up early this morning anyway. Hello, tea!)

Current weather: foggy! I love fog. Mornings are supposed to have fog. (Despite the time stamp, it's a normal getting-up time of morning where I am.)

Conference itself: Exciting. Ideas flowing. A real community of people who care about the same things I do. Totally inspirational. I wish I could get straight to Real Work when I get back, instead of taxes, quizzes, more grading, etc. But at least this year, my final grades will be in before Kalamazoo (not sure that has ever happened before), so K'zoo can be my inspiring, I'm-going-straight-to-my-desk-for-the-summer conference.

(How long will it take to get the K'zoo paper to learn its tricks? And why do I think of writing in this dog-training metaphor?)

06 April 2010

One thing at a time

Conference paper: about 3/4 there.

Leaving: Thursday evening.

Grading: not sure how that's going to happen before the next thing is due. Bad teacher, bad.

What I like about doing the taxes: looking over receipts from last summer's travel and remembering a good trip.

What I don't like (aside from the obvious tediousness): seeing the receipt for a charitable donation in memory of a colleague.

Service-writing: will be done on the flight home.

Putting it all in perspective: three of our friends were fired yesterday.

02 April 2010

Two types of ambiguity

I still remember my confusion in a tenth-grade English class when a teacher asked what the technical term was for exaggeration. No one else knew. I raised my hand and said, “Hyper Bowl.”

The teacher said, “Pronounced correctly, please.”

No one said a thing. I had no idea. And I still think I should have got some credit for knowing the term, which I could spell even if I couldn’t pronounce it. It would have been far better pedagogy to have said, “Yes, hyperbole.” But I had already got up that teacher’s nose, two weeks into the semester, so that was his way of getting back at me. After correcting his grammar publicly and obnoxiously the following week, I suddenly got transferred into the class I wanted to be in, but which The Powers That Be claimed was full, when I asked about transferring. I felt I’d had the last laugh.

At a certain point in education, one's public errors may have more to do with gender problems than with pronunciation. From listening to professorial chat when I was in grad school, I have “always” known that Jan Ziolkowski is a man. Because I met her at a conference before seeing her name in print, I knew Dorsey Armstrong is a woman. But I remember being astonished when a professor informed me that Hardy Long Frank was female. Until Women Medievalists and the Academy, I didn’t know James Bruce Ross was a woman (really, how would you?). I have several times had to inquire about British scholars who publish under initials only, before referring to them in conference papers.

With age and time on the conference circuit, you figure out people who are active scholars now, but the past is not always an open book. If you know that names like Ashley, Brooke, Courtney, Evelyn, and Shirley were once masculine, then when you run across a citation from, let’s say the 1940's, then you know you should inquire, if not simply assume a masculine gender (Shirley got to be female after the Bronte book; Ashley and Courtney are more recent changes; I know Shannons of both sexes, in my generation). But what if you don’t know? And what if the last name is of ambiguous nationality, and you don’t know if you’re dealing with Jean, nom masculin francais, or Jean, a Scottish lass? Or if the first name is from a language unfamiliar to you: is it obvious that Miceal is a man?

I think it’s part of my job to make sure that my students know who’s what, when I know myself. Certainly I try not to embarrass them when I make corrections in either gender or pronunciation. I always say something like “There’s no shame in not knowing, but actually it’s . . . ” I would like to be more subtle, but when I try, I run into the problem of listeners who don’t take hints: I have had students who believe that the WICKliff of whom I speak is some other writer than the WYEcliff they are talking about. So I figure I had better be blunt (not sharp), and better they feel embarrassed by me, now, in my office or in the relative privacy of class (where probably everyone else was wrong, too), than later, at a conference or some other public forum. And speaking of those, I have also explained that yes, the Tony Edwards you just met is A. S. G., and Pete Wetherbee is not just related to Winthrop, they are one and the same.

What ambiguous names have you had or observed trouble with, O Gentle Readers? How do you handle corrections?

01 April 2010

The Marriage of Research and Teaching

It's funny that Dr Virago should have mentioned this recently. Because I've been trying to decipher a very difficult couple of pages I found in a manuscript last summer, written on white space between two other texts, and not mentioned in any catalogues I consulted. Here is what I have come up with so far (I've supplied punctuation):

On a nyht in November, nyh upon midnyht,
I slumbered into slepeing and slipped into swevenes,
mette wyth maistresses of mervelous lerning.
Teching hyht that one, Reserche that othere;
hond in hond fared thei over hyh hilles,
disputed and debated ther drawing togideres.
"Can we consorten?" quod Teching, ac "Contra!" quod her comrade.
"Sikerer is that we semen as sistren,
for the world ne weneth that we go a-wooing;
Turpitudinem sororis tuae non revelabis."

Of course, it will probably turn out that what I've read as "Reserche" is actually "Vnferth" and this is some late-medieval re-working of Beowulf.

If I figure out the rest of the page, I'll let you know.