Musings of a domesticated scholar

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Teaching Epics and Speaking Greatness

I began the first unit of “How Literature Happens” with Gilgamesh— perhaps the oldest complete poem known to humanity. And despite this honorific, we know that the words carved out in cuneiform on those ancient tablets had been cobbled together from  fragmentary poem cycles written centuries before. And the subject of those poems was a historical king of Uruk, who had lived centuries before they had been written down. So the oldest story humans have is one that already possessed almost 1000 years of transmission history– a divine, beguiling wink at the editors of today from the earliest poets of our species.

My students loved Mitchell’s “version” of the ancient epic, in part because his poetry is so relatable and fluid. But some were frustrated by the fact that he made no indication to the reader where he had rearranged the order of the original tablets and manuscripts, or when he made something up to fill in longer passages lost to the torments of time. An unannotated text made for smooth reading, of course, but it was cumbersome to handle the endnotes without so much as a corresponding asterisk in the main text.

For a short assignment I asked each of them to type out their favorite and least favorite passages, and explain what they liked or objected to. Then I checked out George’s scholarly edition and translation of the tablets– a two volume set that runs around $400 and weighs more than all of the Beowulfs put together. With considerable effort, I managed to find each of their least favorite passages in this massive work, and I brought in copies of the “official” transcription, translation, and notes so they could compare the philological project with the creative one. Then they did something really, really cool: they each rewrote their least favorite bits in a shared Google document. By the end of the hour, they had re-written a majority of the text, and in doing so had participated in the grand and noble process of making literature their own [NB: the site crashed a million times and it was wildly frustrating for everyone, but I do think they had a good time, and the end product is really, really lovely].

From there we went to Fulk’s prose edition and translation of the Beowulf Manuscript– one of two codices in Cotton Vitellius A xv. Including the entirety of the codex’s contents– an incomplete Life of St Christopher, The Wonders of the East, Letter from Alexander to Aristotle, Beowulf, and Judith– Fulk’s facing-page prose translation seemed dry and distant. Some students eventually warmed up to his Beowulf translation, but the many felt stymied by what they called plotlessness in its predecessors.

Heaney’s illustrated version was met with more enthusiasm, not least because his introductory and prefatory materials showed him to be a *human*– a distinctly different impression from the mechanical and jargon-ridden pages of Fulk (I should say here that I really like and appreciate Fulk’s work, and would love to teach with my favorite translation, by Liuzza). As an early medievalist, I don’t often spend time thinking about authors; the writers and scribes behind of most of what I research are anonymous. As a result, I was particularly struck by how moved my students were by Heaney’s description of how moved he had been in the course of his extraordinary undertaking. By writing about why the project mattered to him, Heaney made his efforts matter to them.

And it is this very notion– the empathetic connection forged by disclosure– that is changing how I feel about these epics, their transmission histories, and my own role as “authority” in the classroom.

That Gilgamesh and Beowulf have been preserved for us is nothing short of miraculous. To be honest, the history of the material survival of these works is far more remarkable and commendable than the Otherworldly adventures and beast-slayings of their protagonists. And I suspect that sharing similar subjects– men who are larger-than-life, these epic heroes– is not quite coincidental. There must be something about the tales of power and pride, fantastical feats of strength and almost unbounded wealth, that appeals to humanity. Yet my students were quick to see that both these stories end ambivalently at best: Gilgamesh fails to procure immortality and returns to his beautiful city with the Greatest Secret for which he has no use; Beowulf’s death leaves his people dispossessed of a ruler, poised precariously on a cliff overlooking their future as a doomed race.

So how have these stories resisted the forgetfulness and folly of humanity, the broker between the productions of the past and posterity of the future?

Epics hold some of our oldest stories; they keep the tales of the “greatest” alive in our minds, and in certain passages (for me: Enkidu’s death; the dragon scene) in our hearts. But we should not neglect the issue of orality: speaking the  names of these figures, the descriptions of their monsters, and the lessons of their deeds– as we do in our classrooms, as we do in our offices, as we do in our homes– allows us to access the past, reuse it for the present, and prepare for our future. Spoken language is more adaptable, fluid, and in many cases more powerful than the written word.

As I reconsider how tales of greatness echo in my own life, I can’t help but wonder what works will be read and discussed by students thousands of years from now. There’s no way to know, of course, but I’d like to think that someone in the far more recent future will hear these names and be moved.


Happy April, good readers!

Today is many things (April Fool’s among them, so be on your guard), but best of all, today is the day that begins Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. You can read –AND LISTEN TO– the beginning here:

a 'wel-faringe' knight and his 'lady bright'

a ‘wel-faringe’ knight and his ‘lady bright’

There’s plenty to say about why Chaucer matters– he was enormously prolific; the Canterbury Tales are the backbone of the English canon; he was the father of English (or is that Shakespeare? Or Milton? Or Mark Twain?); etc, etc, etc.

But for me, Chaucer is important in the same way that most authors are: he shows me that people are generally the same throughout time and across place. He teaches me that humor is the best instructor (and the most restorative salve); his words make me fidget, and struggle, and laugh, and google, and wonder, and write “WTF” in my margins.

And as a medievalist, I am drawn to Chaucer not just because he’s “part of the field,” but because his works transcend our field so well. We’ve all heard about Richard III’s reburial and the Anglo-Saxon cure for a modern-day superbug, but as I’ve written about already, Chaucer’s works recast our present-day scenarios in ways that allow us to reflect critically and meaningfully on our own lives.

With that in mind, I’d like to toast all the participants in #whanthataprilleday15 and encourage all of my friends to find out a little bit more about these important cultural legacies that dumb luck and genius librarians have bequeathed to us:

Chaucer’s Manuscripts and Books on the Web 

Medieval Manuscripts Blog

Best Blog: A Clerk of Oxford

And speaking of bequeathing, I thought I’d practice my own preaching and share – with you and my son – part of my favorite of Chaucer’s poems, The Book of the Duchess. I wrote about it in my master’s thesis a zillion years ago, and, even after doctoral exams, I still love it. The story is GOOOOOOOORGEOUS and sad, funny, complicated, dream-like, life-like, and – most important to my purposes here – it involves a puppy.

Our narrator (the dreamer) has fallen asleep reading a book, and wakes up to a new but eerily familiar world. He witnesses a great hunt, the escape of the hart, and the recall of the hunting party. He now finds that he is alone in the woods, but not for long:

Until next time, sweet dreams!

Fly to Faustus!

A short and urgent post, kind readers.

I’ll begin by recalling the inscription that appears on Faustus’s arm after he signs away his soul: “Oh man, fly.” 
Faustus wonders “whither” and even if he can fly, but you shouldn’t have to suffer from the same directional despair. 
I know exactly where you should go: the movies.
I’ve JUST THIS SECOND returned from seeing the Globe’s production of Dr Faustus on screen. That’s right, The Globe
Dr Faustus is one of my favorite plays to read, but seeing it (especially with a friend who studies Early Modern drama) has sent me over the moon.
Some points of extraordinary awesomeness:
Mephistopheles: portrayed differently from how I read him, but the actor is so compelling, so moving, so authentic, even, that I found myself nearly overcome by his performance. 
Robin: I usually skim the comic interludes, but the actor who plays Robin is simply brilliant. 
costumes: right for the stage of the Globe, the costumes are period-appropriate with the perfect amount of contemporary ingenuity. 
props: fantastic– a couple of elementary magic tricks, a few trap doors, and some damn-near-War-Horse puppets take advantage of the setting without getting carried away. (nb: COOLEST DRAGONS EVER).
it’s the feckin’ GLOBE, yet the director for the screen is as gifted as that for the stage. This was no “stick a tripod in the corner” production. The camera gives great balance between zooming in and letting us see the stage as a whole; watching it on screen didn’t feel inorganic or forced.
The next **and only other** showings seem to be on November 13. 
You can look for screenings in your area here:
Until next time, readers, may you fly closer to the theater than to the sun

On Beowulf, Unferth, and the Lance scandal

I was lucky to begin teaching my first literature sections with Beowulf and some smaller Anglo-Saxon poems this morning. Teaching at 8 and 9am can be rough, but the students can be quite promising—they are, after all, those who signed up for class at 8 or 9am. And yet, not all of them are the go-getters that we’d all love to teach; some are the slack-asses who forgot to look at their sections, or who registered so late that they ended up here on accident. There’s really no telling what will happen.
I was THRILLED by my 8am class. It started slowly, as it should, but an attentive and interesting group emerged as the time passed. I got some thank-yous and follow-up questions at the end, which bodes well for a group of curious students.
Beowulf manuscript

My 9am class was brutal. Very few were responsive; very few were engaged; many looked annoyed. None of my warm-up strategies worked—it was difficult to get them to talk about what they didn’t like in the poems and impossible to get most of them to loosen up, chuckle, or seem engaged. Of course, there were the “happy few” who jumped in, but the vibe was all wrong.
And I didn’t help myself, either. After asking them to find an example of synechdoche (which I mispelled on the board), I waited through a few minutes of predictably awkward silence. When I broke it, I pointed out that no one could find anything because no one had marked in the book; I explained that reading without reading actively was a waste of time. I showed them my oh-so marked up text, and we all agreed that it’d be easier for me to find an example because of my annotations.
A hand went up.
I called on its student, who asked:
“Can you find an example for us?”
So much for establishing my credibility in a class full of skeptics!  I actually ended the class with, “Well, I hope your weekend will be better than your morning.”

Thankfully, a thoughtful student came up after class with a question she’d brought up in an email. She asked why, in a warrior society like Beowulf’s, Unferth’s envy of him was so big a deal. Competition drove much of their culture, so why was the man who challenges Beowulf portrayed as such a bad guy?

Some brief background: when Beowulf arrives in hopes of killing Grendel, he introduces himself with a series of boasts to 1) establish his lineage and identity, and 2) show justification for the Danes to trust him. An introduction like, “Hey, I’m Beowulf. I’m soooooo good at what I do—I’m such a badass. I’ve killed tons and tons of creatures because I’m awesome. By the way, my family tree is ridiculous. Do you know who my dad was?!” is a bit off-putting to contemporary readers, but one can see the usefulness of the verbal CV to a community plagued by invasion.
Sea monster on Viking longship

In any event, when Beowulf arrives, Unferth is a bit moody. In Seamus Heaney’s words, Unferh “spoke contrary words” because he was “sick with envy” when he suggests that Beowulf’s swimming match with Brecca was motivated by vanity rather than glory. Moreover, Unferth protests, Beowulf didn’t win the race as he claims; Brecca “made good on his boast upon you and was proved right.”
Beowulf responds by bringing something new to the story—sea monsters. He claims to have killed nine of them in the race and, marked by fate, was shown to be the stronger swimmer. Rendering his opponent’s rhetoric as silly, childish brattiness, Beowulf notes: “The fact is, Unferth, if you were truly as keen or courageous as you claim to be Grendel would never have got away with such unchecked attrocity, attaks on your king.”
Can you feel the sting?
It seems, then, that competition is important to Anglo-Saxon society and their continental kin, but equally important is what we might call sportsmanship. If someone beats you, fine—give him the gold (or horses, or kingdom, or whatever) you promised and get on with it. There’s very little room for bitterness in a world so marked by interdependence and so desperate for safety. Yes, the hero gets the goods, the fame, the earthly (and perhaps heavenly) glory, but that’s something to celebrate and, even more importantly, something that is likely to benefit the entire community.

But is this the same today? When I saw that Lance Armstrong had given up his fight against doping claims, I wondered if he’d been just run down by thousands of Unferths bitter about his successes and their own weaknesses. But perhaps they are right; there’s certainly some evidence of Armstrong’s drug use. As an ex-runner, I’m still upset by Marion Jones’s abuse; I had looked to her as a great female role model. As an Austinite who saw Lance bring together a community, open up the sport of cycling, and help my friend dying of cancer, this news is even more upsetting. 

If, like the Anglo-Saxons, we benefit from our heroes’ successes, in what way to we reap the reward? If they don’t compete for fame, for glory, why do they compete? More importantly, for whom do they compete? Don’t they know the risks their taking with our trust, our pride, and our support? Does unity forged in a lie keep its bonds, or will it unravel with the truth?

In this literature, the hero is welcomed and rewarded by the community he helps to save or he is buried by those he fails. In either case, there’s no cheating—especially not fate. 
Gold from Staffordshire Hoard


On thingness and stories

News Headline and corresponding mini-article, via iPhone, via Twitter, via Gawker:

Encyclopaedia Britannica Dies Under Its Own Massive, Printed Weight

Alas, yet another sign that yet another era is ending. The New York Times is reporting that after 244 years, the Encyclopaedia Britannica is going out of print. While it’s easy to imagine that we’ll survive just fine without it—in this age of Wiki everything—we also know that life will never be the same. Now knowledge-starved children will be tasked with googling something to learn about it rather than turning to those beautiful, if obscenely heavy, bound volumes. (That gold lettering! The randomness of topics allowed by alphabetical entries!) Nevertheless, all is not lost. We will still have online access to the rock solid information once contained in the encyclopedias. Though until they find a way to recreate the experience of holding the weighty tome in one’s hand and inhaling the almost ancient smell of the Encyclopaedia Britannica through your electronic device, we can still rightly sulk about the death of these classic books.

And here’s an excerpt from another article on the encyclopedia’s crash, written by a former employee of for Inside Higher Ed:

[Explains, somewhat long-windedly, the reason for the failure]
Those of us who work in higher ed will need to make many transitions to stay relevant in an increasingly global and digital economy. We will have good ideas about how to evolve traditional higher education away from the bundled, place-based, discipline centric institutions that we ourselves were educated in, have spent our lives working for, and that we love. Our success in evolving our institutions, however, will not be determined solely by our ideas for change – but instead by our abilities to execute on these ideas. Will we have the wisdom and skills necessary to evolve our institutions in a global, digital economy?

The rest of the article here.

Although I didn’t love the article, I could relate immediately to its points.  At the cartography workshop hosted by GlobalWork(s) Lab, we discussed the frustrations of having ideas about mapping projects but lacking funding, access, and programming help. Many of us were trying to bring the humanities into digital media but felt like we needed a degree in computer science.  Our interests are interdisciplinary, but are skills are not. Even more attendees– especially faculty– brought up issues of funding, availability of faculty or student support, pressures of tenure, whether or not a project could count as a publication, and what happens if a project fails.  This rather promising conversation came at the end of the day, so very few answers were put forward, but I was relieved to know that I was not alone as someone flailing about and failing to cross borders between fields.

Not mentioned in the workshop, but something I find rather fascinating, is the exhibit of Salman Rushdie’s Archive (ended in 2010).
From the curator:

A World Mapped by Stories showcases Rushdie’s belief that reality and the world leave a lot to the imagination, committing the vigilant writer to the task of mapping. For Rushdie this involves a global mindset, creativity with a strong historical sense, the integrity to defend multiple worldviews, and the courage to “point at frauds.” Mapping captures Rushdie’s philosophy of engagement with a storied world, the writer’s creative role in shaping it, and the importance of guarding the freedom to do so. Borrowed from Rushdie’s account of his travels with writer Bruce Chatwin, the title of the exhibition offers a simple but profound message: stories are powerful because we know the world through them. Rushdie’s stories reinvent a world made cynical by injustice and suffering.
Article here.

Elaine Justice quoted Richart E Luce in her publication about the exhibit:  
“The Rushdie archive signifies two major trends of our time: the globalization of arts and letters, and the digital world in which contemporary writers and artists, such as Mr. Rushdie, are now composing their masterpieces.”
Article here.

Yet through the constant talk of future digitalization and present globalization, a voice speaks up for the artifacts of the past. Physical objects matter, perhaps now more than ever.

In July of 2011, Neil MacGregor (author of A History of the World in 100 Objects and Director of the British Museum, nbd) spoke at TED about a 2600 year-old, cuneiform-inscribed cylinder as “a powerful symbol of religious tolerance and multiculturalism.” I would have included words like “site” and “memories” in the little blurb, but oh well.  I highly recommend watching the talk:

It’s a rather large, heavy object.  Daunting and illegible to the vast, vast majority of us, it hosts stories spanning over two and a half millennia; its meaning has been made and remade through its inscription and provenance. As an object, as a thing, the cylinder tells a story of civilization.  Its voice rings out, perhaps ironically, via my laptop, via google search, via the website of TED–short for Technology, Entertainment, Design.

Miscellany and Money

It has been too, too long since my last post.  Some updates:
I’m still mapping
My sisters, husband, brothers-in-law, and I surprised my dad for his 70th birthday in Austin thanks to the mad coordinating skills of my stepmom, Heather

For those of you interested in the intersections between digital and print worlds, here is a link about the “listsicle” of Thomas Nashe, who wrote in the late sixteenth-century on “Eight Kindes of Drunkennes” Listsicle Article

For those curious about how exercise can “change your DNA”– can you smell the spin?– check out this little ditty about what we already know: working out is the best thing ever, and people who don’t do it are lame. Feeling guilty? You should!

[skip transition] I’ve noticed– in news and in recent articles floating about my laptop– an increased curiosity in changing perceptions of wealth.  For instance, Mitt Romney seems rather unapologetic about his gazillions, and his wife doesn’t consider herself wealthy at all (see abc article here). 

Mitt and Ann Romney, image from The Telegraph

But according to Michael Dean Crews, The US would not be the first nation to pull extraordinary wealth from the flames of socio-religious condemnation.  In his master’s thesis, he examines “the various ways that the perception of bankers and banking in Florence changed from the 13th to the 15th century” within “three categories, scholastic attitude, law, and public image, and utilizes a socio-intellectual style of historical inquiry.”  
He continues:

Dante in Florence

“The purpose of this study is to demonstrate that the positive acceptance of banking from a formerly profane vocation was due to a more advanced understanding of industry and economics, a more relativistic interpretation of theological and juridical sources, and an aggressive campaign by the humanists to redefine moral values and to reshape the Florentine culture and urban landscape in order to bring esteem and power to the elite bankers. ” The rest of the article is here.

Sounds familiar, no?  Allow me to be clear– I’m passing no judgment on Romney or the Florentine bankers; I’m only drawing a parallel.  

Yet banking isn’t the only arena to benefit from the reworking of wealth’s righteousness.  In 2007, John R. Black published an article called “Tradition and Transformation in the Cult of St. Guthlac in Early Medieval England” in The Heroic Age: A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe.  In it he finds that: “[a]nalysis of the variations introduced into the hagiographic corpus, both textual and iconographic, for a saint’s cult over the course of the medieval era demonstrates the vitality of that corpus, reveals the cultural significance of the variations introduced, and offers insights into (re)conceptualizations of sainthood.” 
St Guthlac and Demons, Guthlac Roll (13th century)
Fascinating? Yes. Relevant to this post? Almost.  
Here’s the good part: “Such analysis elucidates, for example, the ‘evolution’ of St. Guthlac from ascetic solitary to promoter and defender of a wealthy religious establishment.” Article here.
I wonder, then, if the Republican voters, and later, the larger body of American voters, will reorder the narrative of Romney’s wealth (if they need to).  What other forms might his money-making take in the public eye?

Until soon, patient readers!

Miscellany, wishful thinking, and a teaser or two

Hello again, and sorry for the hiatus.  I should be back in full once-weekly-post swing in a week or so.
My next post will likely be about historiography, insularity, and dinosaurs; I hope to follow it with reflections on attending the UNC-UT basketball game with my parents, hosting my in-laws for Christmas, and taking a New Year’s trip to Galapagos.

While working through my last week of this semester, I’ve increasingly missed blogging.  Instead of putting it off until I could write a longer piece with in-text citations and everything, I thought I’d take advantage of the urge to write and shoot for  a shorter post.  Several topics have come to mind– the background of Christmas traditions, the Jesus v. Santa dialogues, the UN climate talks, and various, public moments of extraordinary bravery, but I don’t have as much time to spend on them as I’d like.

So, I’ll spend what little time I have on myself– and you, hopefully– by sharing some Christmas wishes:

1. (you knew this was coming) That at least one of my friends sponsors, fosters, or adopts a shelter pet. Read common misconceptions about shelter pets here, but know one thing: I am pro-adoption, not particularly anti-breeder.
2. That some trees are spared by people wrapping amazing gifts are in even more amazing gift-wrap scarves, like this (there are totally awesome, less expensive alternatives as well).
3. That Santa, whoever he may be, drops the keys to my #1 gift of all time down the chimney.

I’ve provided some scholarly links, some news articles, and a bit about dogs.  It seems, then, that I’ve got no excuse for not returning to my schoolwork.

Until soon,  friends.

PS: Today is the last feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe– a tradition I hope my grade / middle school in Austin keeps up.  Vive la virgen!  (google for more info on a great story; NPR had a very cool interview with a Franciscan friar on the topic, as well)

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