Musings of a domesticated scholar

Category: teaching

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 Onus of Ownership

I’ve enrolled in Fiona Somerset’s “Radical Textualities” at Duke this spring, and I’m thrilled to have an opportunity to get some real manuscript experience!  This week we are reading about variance, censorship, and the “great editions” of multi-layered medieval texts.  In an article resisting the bibliographic obsession of previous Wycliffite scholarship, Somerset writes: “In lollard textual culture’s mood of radical variance, every version of a text interpolates, excises, or modifies the content they have in common, or else lifts part of it into a different setting.  Often it is impossible to trace how the work developed, in its remaining copies.” She focuses on different kinds of books than others working in lollardy usually have; she therefore appropriately hones in on different modes of book production, “that began in the earliest phase of the [lollard] movement, but persisted when the more organized activity that produced large-scale collaborations in England had come to an end”whose “products are more idiosyncratic and decentralized… [and whose] most common venue of assembly is the personal or household anthology…” which was truly piecemeal.
As most of you know, I’ve had a hard time pinning down a dissertation topic/genre/century, but I do keep returning to manuscript work.  As most of you can imagine, this presents any scholar with the genuine issue of accessibility.  Although Duke and UNC have great collections, getting to them can be more difficult than first supposed.  I’ll come back to the accessibility problem soon.

We spent the first couple of classes hashing out ideas about cutting and pasting, remixing, refiguring, re-apropriating (and no, that’s not redundant here) manuscripts, printed books, and digital media.  Where do processes overlap?  What do reworking poetry or biblical exegesis, say, have to do with remixing music or other media?  And how does any of this matter now, and to whom?
A visual break from, to prevent any rabbit-hole vortex of crushingly deep ponderings on this topic:

Of course, central to these questions of remixing is ownership, which I like to distinguish from authorship.  Somerset articulates resistance to a bibliographic impulse in literary studies that coincides with a lesson I taught last week.  I assigned Hegel to my freshmen (muah-ha-ha) to get them into an appropriate mindset about the nature of the course.  I intentionally left off the title and the author so they wouldn’t just say “hey, this is boring/difficult/whatever– I’ll just Google it.”  Some of them, I found, had pasted in parts of the passage in order to identify the author, and we had an open conversation about this urge to know about the author in order to feel equipped to read the work.  Incidentally, this was the same day as the Wikipedia blackout– a coincidence whose coolness was sadly lost on some of them.  
Nevertheless, it seems that authorship is visiting some sort of vengeance upon me for all those papers I wrote that “killed the author.”  In a time when so much information is free, freely edited, and freely exchanged across different media, what does it mean to be an author, a commentator, a cut-and-paster, a plagiarist?  Authorship isn’t always ownership, and that could create great demands on all the other stewards of texts.  What do we owe to audience?  To the text’s author? And how much do economic elements of textual production affect its “authenticity” or reliability?  What does the author owe the rest of us?  How influential is money-making to text-making, and why?
Moreover, what are we to make of our transition from this:
No CTRL + C here.
to this?
Is free and full access even conceivable?  At what cost? 
How do we move between prosperity of resources nearly impossible to find (or even to know exist) in our world’s best libraries and responsible, equitable accessibility?
Bodleian curator, looking far too cool to let us see this book from the Mary Shelley exhibit.   

Could it be that those Stanford professors have it right after all?

On Chaucer’s Pardoner and Joe Paterno

In The Canterbury Tales, our dear friend Geoff Chaucer tells the story of others telling stories (about others).  It’s a text rich in material for study, especially on narration and authority.  One of the most memorable characters/narrators is the Pardoner, a man whose job is collecting extorting money from penitents.  The Pardoner introduces his tale with a confession, admitting that he is a phony driven by avarice and listing some of his most egregious misdeeds, including peddling false relics.  His actual tale is a story that illustrates how destructive avarice can be, so this confession ultimately builds his credibility as its teller, establishing him as an expert on the issue.  But the sticking point for so many readers (and scholars) is the claim that links his confessional prologue to his tale about three greedy thieves seeking Death:
“For though myself be a ful vicious man,
A moral tale yet I yow telle kan” (460, 461 in Bevington).
He knows that he is a “vicious man” yet maintains that he can tell “a moral tale.”  He’s been perfectly up-front about his cheating, stealing, and ostensibly unrepentant self, so it seems unlikely that he’d lie in this instance.

I find myself trying to redeem the Pardoner here.  “He’s at least honest; that’s a start,” I say.  But is it?  What happens when someone who does bad things does something good? Do we always see these notions as either withdrawals or deposits into our human-ness account, looking for good deeds to undue past cruelties, and expecting all our meannesses to undo that volunteer work we did in high school?

Regardless of the speaker, what’s at stake here is really the difference between being a good person and doing good things.  We all think, say to ourselves, say to our loved ones, “good people can do bad things, and bad people can do good things.”  This is certainly convenient.  But what this assumes is that what a person is, fundamentally, is static.  To assume that a good person can do bad things doesn’t seem to account for the possibility of transition from “bad person” to “good person”– or any mutability or boundary-blurring between.  One simply is good or bad, and is allowed (even expected?) to deviate from time to time.

How easily we as students, teachers, parents (of pets or people) hear and say that we meant better, that we’re really not like that, that our actions this one time define or express us less than better moments.  Are we so involved in a culture of disclaimer that we can’t even fathom being a bad person, if only for a moment?  And is it so impossible for someone to be bad one day and good the next?  Why must we couch all devious actions in the context of our personhood?  When do actions speak for themselves?

I saw the resurgence of a Taylor Mali poem about conviction on Twitter last night.  The youtube clip is here, and I encourage all to check this, and his other work, out frequently and thoughtfully.  Here is an excerpt from the poem that examines a trend of decreasing responsibility in writing and speech (my favorite bits are in bold):

What has happened to our conviction?
Where are the limbs out on which we once walked?
Have they been, like, chopped down
with the rest of the rain forest?
Or do we have, like, nothing to say?
Has society become so, like, totally . . .
I mean absolutely . . . You know?
That we’ve just gotten to the point where it’s just, like . . .
And so actually our disarticulation . . . ness
is just a clever sort of . . . thing
to disguise the fact that we’ve become
the most aggressively inarticulate generation
to come along since . . .
you know, a long, long time ago!
I entreat you, I implore you, I exhort you,
I challenge you: To speak with conviction.
To say what you believe in a manner that bespeaks
the determination with which you believe it.
Because contrary to the wisdom of the bumper sticker,
it is not enough these days to simply QUESTION AUTHORITY.
You have to speak with it, too.

During a week that’s been particularly hard for me as a teacher (and therefore also as a student, wife, sister, and everything else), I’m thinking a lot about personal responsibility and open-mindedness.  But I’m not thinking about open-mindedness in terms of throwing the first stone, or living in a glass house.  I’m thinking about what it means to turn the gaze inward and see something ugly, or scary, or cruel, or BAD.  Are we, as Americans, less likely to do that than to excuse, or sugar-coat, or justify?  And if this is the case, what might be the cause of such resistance?  Is the internet world of celebrity divorce, rehab, madness, fetishes, and scandal somehow also one enmeshed in dissolving culpability?
Certainly,  the Penn State rape cover-up has been horrifying, disheartening, and strange.  Please notice that I used the word “rape” instead of sex scandal.  As Tommy Christopher points out in his awesome article for Mediaite found here, “Sandusky is not accused of ‘having sex’ with little boys, he is accused of raping them. In our civilization, ‘sex’ with a child is not possible, since a child cannot consent to sex” (Dear Media, It’s not a ‘Sex Scandal’…).  Watching ESPN and reading other news coverage of what was disclosed to a grand jury has shown me that perfectly articulate, professional men and women, working with the same knowledge-base about the accusations, are still not decrying Paterno outright.  There is a lot of “great coach, but this is horrible” and “he admits he should have done more, which tells us something” floating around.  I would like to think that I wait to hear all the facts before making a judgment, but the media seems to be suspiciously cautious about this case.  This unusual delicacy leads me to a question that renders Paterno a contemporary Pardoner:
over half a millennium after Chaucer, why is it still so difficult  to reconcile a horrible deed with an old man committed to promoting a cult of false relics and superstition, even after he admits to exploiting the ignorance of others?
Until next week, my fellow authorities. 

Halloween for Kids

We had a great Halloween here in suburbia!  Our tricker-treaters were all adorable, and we got great feedback on our decorations.  I changed out all the lights in the study with orange bulbs (not on in the photos) to backlight a ghost costume in the window and made crooked all of the prints hanging on the walls.  I was afraid no one would notice the prints, but  our first set of parents complimented the attention to detail.  A win, and a legacy of Mom’s impeccable taste in lightbulbs over the years.

We hung Walt on our front porch, whose light we had also exchanged for an orange bulb.  He was originally out on a flagpole but had to seek cover because of the rain.  What’s great about Walt is that he screams and shakes when he sees or feels anything (although we had this setting off because of all the little, little kids we got).  Quite frankly, he was really frightening; his desperation seemed so sincere that we could only assume he had been falsely imprisoned.  And so, the namesake: Sir Walter Raleigh.

Doubleday, 1902

And now to another set of kids: my class.  I showed them clips on Halloween morning of the 1931 and 1992 versions of Dracula and assigned excerpts for homework.  While their responses were less than stimulating, I’m looking forward to teaching a subject I enjoy. If you haven’t read the book–now’s the time!  It’s a great read, regardless of the time of year.
I will almost certainly post on the secondary sources we’re reading, so get excited for some crazy writings about just how interdisciplinary monsters really are.

Until soon, readers.

Let’s do this thing

I’m determined to make this blog work.  Here we go again.

The semester has begun, and I’m on UNC, but not Duke, fall break.  At least I have Friday off!

Some non-academic highlights of the semester:
trying to get involved with Second Chance Pet Adoptions
helping pups get adopted through Middle Mutts (love-out to Nicole Fisk!)
chatting with Brianna about dresses
an amazing weekend in the mountains with Emily, etc.
planning a trip to DC (now postponed until December)
celebrating Tabitha’s first birthday with best sister-in-law of ALL time and Drew
started allergy shots– in a year my eyes might not be puffy all the time!

Teaching this semester has been rough, not least because my class starts at 8am.  And we all know how much of a morning person I’m not.  But I’ve also tried a lot of new things which have proven less productive than I’d hoped, like my visual analysis of comic books unit.

William Morrow Paperbacks, 1994

I had expected the rhetoric of news unit, which we’re in the middle of right now, to be better than it is, but it’s an improvement for sure.  Also, we’ve had our first round of conferences and I always feel like I have a little better grasp on things once I speak to everyone face-to-face.
Sadly, some of my students have had some serious issues, whether personal or physical, and that’s been hard to keep track of.  Nevertheless, they are all great, great kids who are tolerating this class admirably.

M Nagle, New York Times

I’ve really enjoyed my 17th century class at UNC, which is a total shock.  We started with Donne, who usually drives me crazy.  But somehow he was different this time, and that is no doubt due to Dr Barbour’s teaching. Un-freakin-believable, this guy.  I could listen (and watch– his lectures are highly dramatic) to him talk about anything.  He’s electric. Even our meetings are awesome.  He is the most thoroughly engaged, inspiring professor I’ve ever had, and has done more than accommodate me in a class that’s so many centuries ahead of my own interests.  I’m totally, totally stoked that he’ll be on my minor committee!

The Duke class is challenging, which I love.  Dr Aers leaves it all to us– here’s a recommended reading list, do what you will– and there’s a lot to be said for that kind of self-starting scholarship.  The seminar has warmed up a bit, though it’s still a bit awkward at times.  The biggest perk so far is that my new hero, Michael Cornett, gave a presentation on ALL the English (or Latin, written in England) confessions.  I emailed him to follow up and the man replied by sending me his entire nearly 900-page dissertation.  At this point in my career, every book I want to buy is close to $300, so getting his unpublished but invaluable research over my computer rocked my life.  He just sent me this damn thing, and then recommended a seminar paper topic!  Here’s the real closer, though.  He scanned a 16th century confession manuscript that follows quite closely an 8th century confessional prayer by Alcuin.  He sent me the images and I’m transcribing it now.

Speaking of book accessibility, I received my Kindle (and its burnt-orange cover) and am loving it!
More details on what I’m reading, how I’m cleaning up a massive, massive pen leak (courtesy of Tabitha) on two carpets, and how we’re spending the weekend to come.

Page 2 of 2

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén