Archive for category Academics
I’ve been quiet of late, mostly because I’ve had several projects all coming to fruition more or less at the same time, followed by the end-of-term throes that I’m slogging through right now.
Managing to get it all done put me in shut-up-and-work mode for a few months.
The last of those items to manage is the first one I’ll talk about here:
The Livingston Paleography Traveling Show
As an academic I’m a medievalist: I study the culture of the Middle Ages. All aspects of medieval culture are subject to my examination — history, literature, theology, philosophy, language, etc. — for one could hardly examine any of those cultural phenomena without an awareness of the interplay among all of them.
Nevertheless, one must specialize. And to date my primary specialty has been in the editing of medieval texts: making them accessible by moving them from manuscripts onto the printed page. All of my academic books — including this next one, just finished, that I’ll discuss in a later post — have found me reading and editing manuscripts.
And to do that, folks, I have to engage in paleography: the study (and thus the ability to read) old handwriting and abbreviations.
I was incredibly fortunate during my first Master’s degree (at the Medieval Institute) to learn paleography at the feet of Tim Graham, who has since gone on to head-up the medieval programs at UNM and to write what may be the best modern introductory textbook on manuscript studies. I then honed my skills in a Master’s thesis (editing the Kingis Quair) before doing manuscript work for the Middle English Texts Series (eventually joining the Advisory Board) and publishing my own scholarly editions. Even as a graduate student I was teaching graduate courses in paleography and editing, which was pretty cool.
All of which leads me to my Spring Break. No, I wasn’t lounging about a beach somewhere. I was at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, teaching a week-long paleography workshop.
I received my undergraduate degree from Baylor in 1998, and I hadn’t been back since. So when Tom Hanks invited me to come to campus to give this workshop for the Medieval-Renaissance Research Seminar — with funding from the departments of English, History, Modern Foreign Languages, and Religion — I jumped at it.
It is a rare thing for me to get nervous, but I’ll admit to a little pre-game jitters to run a workshop for a mix of graduate students and faculty from four departments at my former undergraduate institution.
Happily, things could not have gone better.
The graduate students I met were incredible. Passionate and interested, they willingly spent two hours every evening — from 7:30 to 9:30 — learning codicology and paleography. Just wonderful. I also had the opportunity to give an hour-long public lecture — on Tolkien, of course — that seemed to be very well received.
And of course I was able to revisit many old haunts and former professors. It was remarkable that so many folks remembered me — and many with good memories even! The chance to thank those who helped me get where I am was priceless.
So it was a splendid workshop, a splendid remembrance of times past, and hopefully only the first of many more similar opportunities.
School started today, which meant a number of students coming to my office to ask what I thought about the new Hobbit movie. The short answer is I liked it.
. . .
The long answer — indeed, the long-winded long answer of a scholar who publishes on medieval literature, Tolkien, and fantasy in general — follows.
[In what follows there will be spoilers concerning both book and film. You've been warned...]
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was a good movie, and I mean that in all sincerity. If you like this sort of thing at all — and if you don’t, why the hell are you reading this review? — then you’ll enjoy it. It’s fun. It’s entertaining.
That said, Unexpected Journey is not a great movie.
And, truth be told, it never could be.
Read the rest of this entry »
It’s been a busy month, but that’s not news.
What is news is this: Last Monday I was awarded the Citadel’s Award for Faculty Excellence in Scholarship, Teaching, and Service. It’s a new award, and it’s pretty darn nifty honor to receive it.
Even better, my parents — who are on a cross-continent trip-of-awesomeness — surprised me by showing up for the little presentation ceremony.
Well, truth be told they were coming to surprise me for my birthday, which was the following day, but by chance that meant they were able to be there for my award and a celebratory dinner afterward.
Quite the great few days, to be sure.
Things are otherwise moving along in this neck of the woods. I’ve sent two articles off this past month, and I have two more on the desk awaiting a spare hour or two to polish them off for submission. The Owain Glyndwr Casebook moves along — steady as she goes — and the end of the term approaches.
It seems like time goes faster and faster these days, and I’m sure hoping science can put a stop to that. I have work to do, damnit!
My next academic book is a “casebook” about Owain Glyndwr. It’s shaping up to be a terrific volume, with a number of great essays and (most importantly, I think) the primary medieval and early modern sources about his life, presented in their original languages (mainly Latin, Welsh, Anglo-Norman, Old French, and Middle English) and facing-page translations.
In some ways this is a much easier project than the casebook for the Battle of Brunanburh. I have a co-editor this time (Welsh scholar John Bollard), and there are fewer languages and fewer essays to deal with. On the other hand, Brunanburh only had 53 sources, and I was only responsible for 14 of them. This time, there are (at current count) 88 sources, and I am responsible for 31 of them. Since I am also (as with the Brunanburh book) doing all the formatting and book design myself, this means I’m sorta kinda busy even when I’m not teaching and grading and what-not.
What’s been fun, though, is that many of those 31 sources I’m editing and translating are in Anglo-Norman, a language I’ve dabbled in but never had to utilize extensively. No longer! This morning, for instance, I will spend most of my time in the office translating a letter written by Hotspur to King Henry IV in November 1401.
Don’t even try to tell me my life isn’t pretty cool.
If there’s one thing I rant and rave about in class, it is this: Think Critically.
I’m always after this elusive beast. I prod and provoke, invect and invoke, all in the name of getting my students to stop wearing the blinders of ideology … to stop starting with conclusions rather than facts … to take advantage of the enormous capacity of the human brain and … Think Critically.
I ask, beg, and plead for them to look at the world with open eyes and a rational mind, even if it might (or might not) mean rethinking some of their most cherished compartments of identity. What true value, I tell them, is there to be found in an untested life, a faith of blind acceptance? Imagine the far greater rewards of the reflective life, a faith made stronger by rigor! Think Critically!
Seriously, it’s like a chorus in my classes. I’m borderline unreasonable about being reasonable.
It came up last week in my Mythology class when we were talking about some ancient cosmological beliefs and a student said something to the effect of this: “But that doesn’t make any sense. Why did they accept it was true? Why didn’t they question it?”
My answer: “Well, for the same reason that you probably don’t question the system you’re in, either. Very few people ever do.”
I then tried to explain to my young student that the brain actually likes to not think critically. It likes to go with the flow, to be one more face in the crowd. It’s evolutionary: the brain likes to accept the crowd-sourcing of information in order to more efficiently process the vast data set that is the world around it.
My student stared at me like I was crazy.
So I tried again, and this time I used video. ‘Cause that’s what the kidz respond to these dayz.
This clip is from the excellent three-part series Head Games, which aired on the Discovery Channel this summer. It isn’t the best sequence in that show — the snake in the tree bit was terrific, though I think my favorite was the follow-the-blue-line hilarity — but it worked for my purposes.
“You see?” I told my students. “We’re not so different from Pavlov’s Dogs. Few of us question. Few of us think. We accept what we’re told — by our parents, by our pastors, by our politicians, by our media, by our friends, by our teachers … by whatever system we hold dear. We don’t think critically.”
It’s a sad conclusion to make, I suppose, but it’s one borne out time and time again by the facts (and those who choose to ignore them).
A sobering thought, is it not, as Election Day approaches?
Four times in the past four days someone has contacted me about publishing some academic idea or theory or bit of information that he has. In three of the four cases, the individual was planning to (or already had) “published” said work online — uploading it to a website of some sort or throwing it onto a personal webpage (like this one).
So I thought I might say a few words here about the fundamental difference between this kind of upload publishing and traditional publishing.
The one is good, the other one is bad.
There. A few words. Done.
On Friday I was flown to New Haven, CT to tape an interview for a special on the Yale Vinland Map, a disputed document that purports to show North America and to date from around 1440 — around a half-century before Columbus “found” the place.
To say that being interviewed was a surprise would be an understatement. For one thing, it was a rather sudden development: I was first contacted by the television folks eight days before they were flying me off to New Haven. For another thing, though, it was surprising because, well, I don’t consider myself a great expert on the Vinland Map. Not in the way that I think myself an expert on other subjects, to be sure.
So why was I being filmed?
Well, that’s an interesting story.
It’s interesting that quite suddenly, a year after I posted my summary explanation of the necessities for locating Brunanburh — and longer than that since the publication of The Battle of Brunanburh: A Casebook — I’m receiving a number of emails a day on the subject of the battle site, in addition to replies to my posts here on the website.
Some of these notes are very supportive. Others, however, attack the Bromborough theory for the battle’s location that is argued by several contributors of the Casebook — though by no means all the contributors, and by all means a minor point in terms of the worth of the book, which is a goldmine of material for any Brunanburh researcher. This dissenting voice sounds most loudly when connected with a belief that the one guy who gave us the truth about the location of the battle is John of Worcester, a monk who lived a couple centuries after the event, a long way away, and is by no means known for his reliability as a historian. I responded to one of these recent objections with a post yesterday.
Today it’s time for another response: Not the Humber entry this time (at least not directly), but the theory that Brunanburh happened at Burnley in Lancashire.