About Dr. Virago

Dr. Virago is the pseudonym of an academic who works at a regional public university in a medium sized town that she affectionately calls Rust Belt. Dr. Virago is a medievalist, a humanist, and a professor of literature, and blogs at Quod She 2.0.

Happy New Year!

2013 wasn’t a bad year or a particularly notable year, though Bullock and I did celebrate 10 years together, and I was named Humanities Institute director. Otherwise, it was a kind of normal year, I guess. We didn’t quite end the year in a particularly good way, though — Bullock had a root canal and Pippi had to be taken to the vet for a foot injury, both on the last days of the year. My two gingers are recovering now.

Professionally, 2013 was solid. The anthology that I co-edited technically came out in 2012, but Spring 2013 was the first semester it was used in classes, and it did pretty well for such a specialized volume. So that’s cool. And I taught our gen-ed poetry class three times in a row (well, two consecutively) to reasonable success. Since this was the first time I’d taken on this particular class, that was good. (But I’d forgotten how much non-majors balk at having to learn technical terms. Seriously, guys, when in Rome!) Oh, and I *finally* finished the Article That Wouldn’t Die (or whatever I called it last) and submitted it to Dream Journal. This is the first time I’ve blindly submitted an article since my very first article submission — everything in between has grown out of something else (like a conference) or been invited in some way (but often still peer reviewed). Scary! Fingers crossed!

2014, however, is already shaping up to be a little more eventful, at least professionally. Here’s what I have planned so far, a list of bullet points I offer in lieu of resolutions.

  • A presentation later this month at a selective, by-application workshop for manuscript scholars that I *hope* will jump start where I need to go next on my in-progress not-quite-a-book-yet research.
  • A trip to Hong Kong for the Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes annual conference. I’m looking forward especially to the workshops for directors and for the public humanities, and to being in Hong Kong! I last visted HK in the early 90s, but got sick on the way from Guilin to HK and spent the whole three days of our visit in the hotel room. So I added three extra days in the city — one before and two after — to just be a tourist. The conference and thus the hotels are in Sha Tin, which is outside of the city center in the New Territories (where the university hosting the conference is), but I’m actually kind of looking forward to getting around on public transportation and off the beaten track a bit.
  • A trip to Iceland for the New Chaucer Society. I’ve never been to Iceland, so I’m especially psyched to visit a new country. NCS has arranged a lot of excursions of the kind I might have taken anyway, so I’m only adding on two extra days for being a tourist on my own, especially since, holy crap, hotels in Iceland are freakin’ expensive in high season! Strangely, Hong Kong is cheaper. Even at the non-conference rate, I’ll get to stay in a *swank* high-end hotel with a Tolo Harbor view in Hong Kong for about the same as I’m paying for a two-star, bare basics Reykjavik hotel at the conference rate! (Yes, yes, I realize that the Yuan is artificially controlled and that the hotels in Chinese cities like Hong Kong are probably also partly subsidized to encourage tourist and business travel. But still, it kind of surprised me.) Bullock was going to go to Iceland with me, but when we realized that the two of us could take a non-work-related trip somewhere else less expensive for the cost of taking him to Iceland with me, we decided I’d go solo.
  • And I’m excited about what I’m doing/presenting at NCS, too. My anthology co-editor and I arranged a seminar (something relatively new for NCS — I’m interested in seeing how it goes) on a text near and dear to us both. And I’m presenting on a teaching panel about something I’m doing in my medieval lit class this spring, which brings me to…
  • My awesome medieval lit class this spring! I haven’t been this psyched for a class since I did that awesome ASNaC class in 2011. (That’s Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic, btw.) It really deserves its own post. Maybe the next one. Anyway, this time I’m focusing on manuscript collections and anthologies from the Exeter Book to the Morte Darthur (which I’m reading, somewhat atypically, as a collection of sorts), with a bunch of miscellanies in between (Harley 978, with Marie de France’s Lais and Fables — collections in a collection! — and “Sumer is icumen in”; Laud Misc. 108 with Havelok and Horn and saint’s lives; the Auchinleck MS; and so on). I’ve arranged the syllabus by MS collections and paper assignments are all going to be about how we read such collections (e.g., read a work not assigned for class from one of our collections and write about how it fits the whole or works in tension with it). There will be lots of digital resources, too, to give students a sense of the material book. And I think I finally figured out how to give the grad students in a “slash” course a more graduate student worthy experience — they’re going to present their research projects in the two-hour time slot reserved for the final and the undergrads will be their audience and interlocutors (something I can totally repeat in future classes).
  • And the Humanities Institute will be up and running soon! Our first event is the first of our Humanities Happy Hours. I’m still trying to get a big speaker for a major event — important people are bad at answering emails! — but I’m actually more excited for the Triple-H (as I call it) series, which will showcase *our* humanities scholars in a public-friendly way.
  • I’m also going to write and submit my first big organizational (as opposed to individual) grant for our HI. I’m going to start with a regional one and then if that’s a success, maybe aim higher next year. I’m kind of looking forward to this. Yes, I know I’m weird.
  • I’m also writing a short essay on “managing down time” for a collection of essays that Greg Semenza is co-editing as a companion to Graduate Study for the 21st Century. So, um, first I must manage my down time! 🙂  (Seriously, no big plans for the personal life — just the usual making time to relax and exercise and all that. And maybe get back to teaching myself Italian, which I started last summer and then dropped.)

So what are your plans for 2014, professional or personal, or both?

What do your essay assignments look like?

Yesterday I was putting the finishing touches on an assignment sheet for one of my classes and I looked down at the word count: 1,003 words.  Hm, you’re probably thinking, that seems like a lot, but it depends on the assignment.  The assignment, my friends, was for two 500-word short essays.  That’s right, I wrote as many words *describing* the assignment as I expected the students to use in *doing* the assignment!

Is this bad?

On the one hand, I feel like I should point this out to students and say, “Look, if I can write this many words just telling you what I expect, you should be able to produce this many words on the more substantive topic of your essay. Easy peasy!”

On the other hand, maybe I’m overwhelming students. And yet, I’ve had students praise my assignment handouts because I lay out my expectations so clearly. But still, there are students who are almost certainly reading only every other bullet point (and sometimes reversing what I say there even when they do read it, despite the big DO NOT in bold and all caps, or whatever), and least judging from the work they turn in. So, for them, it’s too much, or overwhelming, or confusing.

Part of why my assignment sheets are so long is that often my assignments are as much about the process as the product, and I lay a lot of that process out. I want students to learn from the assignments, to learn from doing, as much as I want them to demonstrate the skills and knowledge they’ve developed. And sometimes I want to teach them more effective processes. So, for example, if I want students to do a close reading of the interaction of form and content in a poem, I tell them explicitly NOT to consult any other sources (other than, say, the OED, or other reference works), and especially to stay away from the internet. Instead, I tell them, read the poem over and over, first all at once, then section by section, word by word. Make multiple copies of the poem and mark them up, I tell them. Use what you’ve learned in class, I say, and consult your book and your notes.  Sometimes in a set of directions I’ll give them short examples of effective and ineffective methods or argument or whatever (so, for example, an effective thesis and an ineffective one; a smooth quotation of a poem and an awkward one, etc.). And so on.

To be clear, they are *not* anal-retentive checklists of things that must be in an essay.  For as much guidance in the process I give, I leave a lot of openness to content and its organization. (A frequent exchange I have with students: “How should I organize my essay?” Me: “That depends on your argument.”) Often, in fact, my essay prompts raise a number of questions and then I say, “You do NOT have to cover all of these questions in your essay. They are here to generate your thinking.”  For example, here’s a passage from the assignment I was writing yesterday for my upper level undergrad/MA level Old English class, in which one of the essay topics was “What got lost in translation [in the class’s collaborative translation of Judith]?”

Write a thoughtful and detailed essay about what your new knowledge of Old English language and literature lets you see in this poem that you would not have seen from reading it only in translation. Tell me about some of the choices you had to make (or that others made) that shut down multiple possible meanings, or that lost meaningful structural or grammatical forms of the Old English, or that obscured significant qualities of the poetic form and its conventions. (Or maybe even discuss points of confusion.)

Words that have multiple possible translations are a good place to start, but try not to limit yourself to that. Think also about poetic form (the structure of alliterative line and its beats), sound effects (look for “noisy” scenes in the translation and then look at what the OE is doing), poetic conventions (including compounds and kennings, but also variation, poetic vocabulary, the OE love for litotes and other irony, and the conventional motifs of poetry), ambiguity, and also the effects of the flexible word order of OE poetry.

You don’t have to cover it all, but a successful essay will dig into the subtleties of what’s lost. It will also put its discussion in context of understanding the poem Judith as a whole.

In other words, my assignments and their focus on process are an extension of my teaching, where I also try to emphasize the processes of reading and interpretation (and research, too) rather than single readings. And they are so because many (perhaps most) of my students need to be taught *how* to do these things well (where “these things” vary by the level of the class). When I was in college (at a more selective college, with a very different student body, I realize — also back when dinosaurs roamed the earth), instructions for essays in all sorts of classes from the freshmen core classes to advanced classes in the major amounted to a line on the syllabus that said: Essay due.  I don’t want to return to that, especially since that wouldn’t suit my students. I need to teach them where they are.

But maybe I should simplify?

Oh wise citizens of the intertubes, what you do you think?

A National Arts and Humanities Month announcement

So, I just learned today, half way into the month, that October in the US is National Arts and Humanities month. Who knew?

Well, from now one I will know, and it will be my business to know, because…drumroll please…I have been named the new Director of the Humanities Institute at Rust Belt University.

Our HI was founded in the 80s, but it’s been defunct for about 5 or 6 years now, so I’m essentially presiding over a “reboot,” Humanities Institute 2.0, an HI for the 21st century. I think I’ll take Doctor Who and Sherlock as my models (though with less of Steven Moffat’s disappointing sexism, thankyouverymuch), since the old HI was pretty beloved here and I want both to do it justice, but also to make it new, to make it useful for the humanities at RBU now. I’m meeting with my college’s dean this week to start the ball rolling — including putting together a steering committee, etc.– and I’m going to work on a draft mission statement today. We’ve only got a small budget to start with, so for our first semester of events and activities, I need to keep things realistic as I also seek out other funding. But my general vision for the Institute is one that makes connections: across humanities disciplines (and with those scholars who do humanities-type work in non-humanities departments), of course, but also between RBU and the wider community. I also primarily want the Institute to be an engine of advocacy and support for the humanities, both within the university and in our community.

So, internet hive mind, if your university were just starting up a Humanities Institute, what would like to see it do?

Woah, I got “Reddited”!

Wait, is “Reddited” a word yet? Well, it is now. What I mean is, I got linked at Reddit. OK, so it was only in linguistics subreddit, but sure enough, it seems the whole point of linking me was to tell me I was wrong. Well, at least it wasn’t one of those parts of Reddit where a person gets called worse things.

Anyway, the joke’s on them, because most of the commenters misread my post entirely. (It was my post about Anglo-Saxons ‘getting’ teaching by using a double accusative for both the subject taught and the person taught.) They thought it was actually a post about linguistics. Sigh. Only one person commenting realized it was really just a pretense — a hook — to talk about teaching. This smart Redditor, shadyturnip, even did me a solid by elevating my musings to a metaphor. Thanks, dude!

Anyway, even though only 6 people commented, thanks to them and the original person who shared it, I got my *highest* number of daily hits (478!) since moving the blog to WordPress. And that was over what was pretty much a throw-away, thinking-off-the-top-of-my-head post.

The internet is a weird place.

Dr. Virago – bicycle commuter?


Maybe not.

So yesterday I didn’t have to teach my Thursday 8 am class (I gave them the day off to break up the intensity) but I did have to go to campus for two meetings with departmental colleagues. So I thought, “Ah, perfect opportunity to try out riding my bike to campus from the new house” (which I’d been meaning to do since we moved in last year). Now, I occasionally rode my bike to campus from the old house, but not nearly as much as I should have. I think I gave up on making that a regular thing because it didn’t really provide *any* fitness benefit — we were only a mile and a quarter away from campus. But now we’re 6 miles away by direct route and 8 miles via the protected bike trail (which is what I took — no way am I ready to ride in traffic).

So yeah, I did a 16-mile round trip yesterday. Yay me! Physically it wasn’t that taxing (although I *really* need a gel seat cover — ouch!) and it was really pleasant to be outside (it was muggy, but in the 70s). But I found out that doing this has its drawbacks and I’m not sure I’m going to become a regular bike commuter, as much as the idea appeals to me on many levels, unless I work out some of the problems here.

First of all, even though I was riding at what I thought was a gentle, easy pace, I arrived a sweaty mess, mainly where my body was making contact with the bike or my backpack. So that means my back was sweaty — and not just a bit of a “glow,” but *dripping* *wet* — as were other areas that I’m sure you can imagine. (Luckily, nothing showed through my clothes — I had on a loose cotton blouse with a really loud print that disguised the sweat on my back, for instance.) OK, so how do bike commuters avoid this? Do they bike in one set of clothes and towel off and change at work? I know they don’t all do this — I remember seeing tons of Londoners and Parisians biking in their work clothes. (Btw, the scenes of crowds of Londoners and Parisians biking everywhere is part of what appeals to me about being a bike commuter. I’m such a Europhile that I’ll take any opportunity to pretend to be European. Shoot, I get excited because our Bosch dishwasher with its little pods of detergent make me feel European!) Anyway, unless I can solve the sweat problem, this isn’t going to happen.

The other problem is that I’m not sure this is a time-efficient way to commute and/or exercise, and I can burn equal amounts of calories with shorter runs. (Though it *is* a fossil-fuel-efficient way — another reason why it appeals to me.) According to various calculators on the intertubes, I probably burned about 340 calories on each leg, and the trip each way took me 50 minutes door to door. I burn the same amount of calories in an easy 30 minute run (so 60 minutes would give me the equivalent of the round-trip bike ride). Of course, running doesn’t get me to my destination, but it takes up less of my day than an hour and forty minutes of round-trip biking. Meanwhile, my *driving* commute is only about 20 minutes door-to-door. So it all kind of breaks even in terms of time spent in the abstract, if you combine everything: 40 minutes of driving + 60 minutes of running vs. 100 minutes of bike-commuting, both burning about 680 calories. But I don’t normally run 60 minutes on a day I’m going to campus (I usually squeeze in 30 on weekdays when I run), so in reality, by biking I’d be spending *more* time on those days.

Of course, in reality, if I’m going to do this, it will only be on Tuesdays after my 8-week class ends, because there’s no way I’m going to be out there biking to work on days I have to teach an 8 am class. So maybe I can afford the extra half hour of combined exercise and commute each week.

But that still leaves the sweaty mess issue. I can bungee-cord my backpack to the rack I have on the back of my bike, but what about the rest of me? Is carrying a change of clothes (and a towel) the only option? Is it me – am I exceptionally sweaty? Or does it get less sweaty in cooler, less muggy weather? What would a Parisian do??

The Anglo-Saxons totally ‘got’ teaching

So I’m teaching Old English again. And I’m doing it in a quasi-flipped way which requires the students to do a lot of intellectual heavy lifting before they come to class, which, for the moment, has some of them freaked out. But I’ll report on how that has actually worked when more of the course has gone by.

In the meantime, I wanted to share a sentence from one of the exercises on Peter Baker’s terrific, interactive web site, “Old English Aerobics.” And I want to share it because I’m kind of fascinated by it and I think it says something about conceptualizing teaching and what teachers do.  First, a bit about this web site: I’ve been using this site in its various incarnations over the years, but it recently got even better when Baker turned his old PDF exercises into interactive online exercises compatible with multiple platforms (and especially nice looking on an iPad). Students (and I!) can now do the exercises and immediately find out if they’re wrong or right, and sometimes, if the answer is “it’s complicated,” a little pop-up gives a further grammatical note. [Note: when I first started teaching the course 10 years ago, he had an older version of these exercises with technology that had its problems even in 2003 — it was very browser-dependent. I think it was made with Java? I don’t know enough about applet programming to know, but I do know it seemed already a little creaky and dated already in 2003. Great concept, but it took the latest version to work out the execution problems.]

Anyway, there was a question and answer recently that gave me such a hard time that I actually had to contact Baker about it. It was an exercise on pronouns and case, and here’s what the sentence looked like:

Se lārēow onfēng þone esne and lǣrde ________ þā Engliscan sprǣce.

For those of you who don’t read Old English, it says:

The teacher took (or received) the young man (or slave or servant) and taught _________ the English language (lit: the English speech).

OK, in Modern English, the blank would be filled with “him” and I think we should analyze that as the indirect object and “the English language” as the direct object. (Although I should say that syntax is *not* my greatest strength.) Here’s how I think of it: Taught what? Taught the English language. Taught it to or with respect to whom? Taught it to him. Are you all with me now?

Let me explain a little more. Bear with me — this is necessary for the point I’m trying to make (although those of you who know Old English can skip this paragraph). Old English had cases — inflectional forms of nouns, pronouns, and adjective that marked their grammatical function in a sentence (subject, object, possession, indirect object, object of a preposition, etc.). We still have this in Modern English pronouns, although (in standard English) we use the same form for both direct and indirect objects (and also for objections of prepositions) and generally call it the “objective form” — me, us, you, him, her, it, them. Old English had a few more distinct forms (although not in first person — those look much like ours) especially in the third person. In the third person, “him” is the dative form of the masculine singular — used for indirect objects and objects of most prepositions, among other uses — and “hine” is the accusative form for masculine singular, used for direct objects.

Still with me? OK, given that little bit of knowledge, would you chose “him” (the form for indirect objects) or “hine” (the form for direct objects) for that blank? I chose “him”….aaaaaand the system told me I was wrong. The correct answer, according to the computer, was “hine.” What? But isn’t “þā Engliscan sprǣce” the direct object?? (It’s feminine accusative singular, for those who care.) Stymied, I contacted Baker, and even he agreed it was odd, but a check of the Bosworth-Toller dictionary showed an example sentence for the verb “lǣran” (to teach) with both the person taught and the content taught in the accusative case. So Old English does it differently and “hine” was indeed the correct answer.

And that got me to thinking: maybe Old English does it *right*. The Modern English possibility of saying “…taught the English language *to* him” sounds a lot like the “banking” model of education, as if we take a student and fill him or her up with the content of what we’re teaching. But the way Old English expresses it, the student receives the action of “to teach” directly, not indirectly. What do we teach? We teach students. And actually, this sense of direct object *is* still there in Modern English in the very sentence I just wrote: we teach students.* We shape students, educate students (draw things *out* of them rather than depositing knowledge into them), and influence students. The *students* are the object of education, in more ways than one. This especially makes sense if/when you realize that “lǣran” also means to exhort, advise, and persuade, which we also often do where students are concerned.

Now, that’s not to say that the content of what we teach isn’t important, whether it’s “þā Engliscan sprǣce” or something else. It is *also* the object of education. Both the student and the content area are our objects. We teach students but we also teach [fill in your specialty]. And our teaching lives, from syllabus design to what we do each day in the classroom to creating assignments and grading them, is often dominated by trying to maintain a balance between those two objects — what we want them to learn (or what the skill or topic requires to be learned) and what the students can reasonably achieve in a given setting.

So, the Anglo-Saxons got it. They understood that the student and the content of what we teach are both our direct objects, and cannot be easily divided.



*The more I think about it, maybe in the sentence “I teach students medieval literature,” both “students” and “medieval literature” are direct objects even in Modern English. But since we don’t have cases, it’s not obvious. Eh, the Old English still got me thinking about this and that’s what matter for the rest of this post.

Requiescat in pace, Seamus Heaney

I just learned that Seamus Heaney died today. I realize that much of Heaney’s acclaim and fame is as a contemporary poetry, as one of the most important Irish poets since W. B. Yeats — and rightfully so — but he’s also near and dear to the medievalist’s heart for his translations of medieval poetry. On that score, he’s most known for his Beowulf, of course, which has allowed us medievalists the rare opportunity to teach a New York Times best-seller. But his Beowulf wasn’t just popular; it was beautiful and as moving for the modern general reader as for the studied medievalist. (Indeed, a friend of mine, who regularly claims she hates poetry, is a fan of his Beowulf, and wrote on Facebook: “I actually said out loud ‘oh no,’ when I heard on NPR this morning. I don’t usually do that for poets.”)  As many of my medievalist friends on Facebook have been noting, in many different ways, he realized that fidelity to the past and attentiveness to the present are not mutually exclusive positions. Here are his words from part of the funeral of Beowulf, which now seem fitting for Heaney himself:

They extolled his heroic nature and exploits
And gave thanks for his greatness; which was the proper thing,
for a man should praise a prince whom he holds dear
and cherish his memory when that moment comes
when he has to be convoyed from his bodily home.

But Beowulf isn’t the only medieval work Heaney translated. More recently, he produced a volume of the work of the late medieval Scottish poet, Robert Henryson. And one of my favorite of his translations has always been his “Pangur Bán,” a 9th century Irish poem that has been translated again and again by many a modern Irish poet. In fact, in his translator’s notes on the poem (which you can read here), Heaney talks about how it’s one of the canonical poems upon which Irish poets try their hand as part of their work to have “learned the trade.” And of course it is, because it’s a poem about writing — and what poet doesn’t like a meta-poem? — and it also might suggest a translator, or at the very least an interpreter, of ancient texts (although the speaker could also be a scribe who copies texts). So any translation of it adds another layer to the textual community across the centuries. Heaney’s translation seems to be acutely aware of that connection across time, that mirroring, mise-en-abyme effect. It’s that meaningful connection with the past that I want my students who study medieval literature to have for themselves, so I have sometimes started off the semester of a medieval lit class with Heaney’s “Pangur Bán.”  Strangely, Heaney says he might not have tried his hand at it if he hadn’t been commissioned to for Poetry magazine, which surprises me a little, because it seems so suited to him. Certainly, now, the final couplet — “Day and night, my own hard work / Solves the cruxes, makes a mark” — seems a fitting epitaph for his work as both a poet and a translator, solving the cruxes of medieval Irish, English, and Scottish poetry and life in Northern Ireland alike, and certainly making a mark.

But enough from me. Let me leave you with “Pangur Bán,” as translated by Seamus Heaney (although I can’t get the formatting right — either I lose the spaces between the stanzas or I lose the way Heaney indented the final two lines of each stanza):

From the ninth-century Irish poem

Pangur Bán and I at work,
Adepts, equals, cat and clerk:
His whole instinct is to hunt,
Mine to free the meaning pent.

More than loud acclaim, I love
Books, silence, thought, my alcove.
Happy for me, Pangur Bán
Child-plays round some mouse’s den.

Truth to tell, just being here,
Housed alone, housed together,
Adds up to its own reward:
Concentration, stealthy art.

Next thing an unwary mouse
Bares his flank: Pangur pounces.
Next thing lines that held and held
Meaning back begin to yield.

All the while, his round bright eye
Fixes on the wall, while I
Focus my less piercing gaze
On the challenge of the page.

With his unsheathed, perfect nails
Pangur springs, exults and kills.
When the longed-for, difficult
Answers come, I too exult.

So it goes. To each his own.
No vying. No vexation.
Taking pleasure, taking pains,
Kindred spirits, veterans.

Day and night, soft purr, soft pad,
Pangur Bán has learned his trade.
Day and night, my own hard work
Solves the cruxes, makes a mark.

Beginnings, endings, and anniversaries

I just learned that a couple of blogs I’ve read more or less since their inceptions are closing up shop — Dame Eleanor Hull (which Dame E began writing in 2007) and A Ianqui in the Village (Ianqui’s been blogging for 10 years!) — and it got me thinking about time, beginnings, endings, and cycles in my life. No, I’m not closing up shop here — not yet anyway — but I am nearing my 8-year blogiversary (on September 5, at least by the old blog’s first post), which makes this blog pretty long in the tooth! My dog and my blog are about the same age, but my dog is middle-aged, while my blog is elderly. (“Blog years” totally should be an idiom, just like “dog years.”)

Meanwhile, in other markers of time, 10 years ago I just finished teaching my first week of classes here at Rust Belt University.  My picture on my campus ID is still the picture from 10 years ago and I looked so damn *happy*. I had a tenure-track job! I was finally grown up! 11 years ago I was about to file my dissertation (which also made me happy, but there’s no picture to go with it). 19 years ago I was just beginning graduate school (my pictured self on that ID also looks pretty happy). In the personal realm and also a subject of happiness: Bullock and I are looking forward to our 10-year relationship anniversary next month. (Yes, we started dating a month after I started working here. We met early after my arrival — my colleague Victoria had a little get-together to introduce everyone. So she kind of set us up without our knowing it. Smart lady.)

On the phone with Virgo Sis the other day, I realized that by my age, my mother was the mother of one college graduate (Virgo Sis — Ms V and Fizzy would follow after), and in three years she’d be a grandmother to Ms V’s first born. Just thinking that I could have a college-age kid freaks me out. The idea that I could theoretically be a grandmother within a few years is just *crazy*. Also, thinking about the fact that my mom and Ms V both had their first kids at age 22 also makes me think “That’s crazy!” Yes, people have kids even younger, but in no way would my 22-year-old self have been ready for it. And the guys I was with then…well, I’ll just point out that they either only just started having kids in the last few years or also still don’t have kids, so clearly they wouldn’t have been ready back then, either. Or else we just all thought we weren’t. But yeah, in a parallel universe, it’s totally possible that I could have grown-up or nearly grown-up kids, and I get that my traditional-aged students sometimes look at me as parent-aged. But then some of them think I’m younger than I am, because I don’t look/dress/act like their parents. (If I didn’t dye my hair to cover the gray, they might think otherwise!) You know how in the media they say things like “40 is the new 30”? In Rust Belt, sometimes 40 is the old 50. Hard lives or growing up too fast can age you, and there’s a lot of that around here. So can the sun, and people seem to still purposely get tan around here (and to still use the expression “to lay out” — meaning to lie purposely in the sun in order to get a tan — which I hadn’t heard since I was a teen). But whether they think I’m closer in age to their parents or them, most of the younger students still grant me my authority.  Most of the non-traditional ones do, too, but a couple have talked to me in their “mom” voices (so far I haven’t gotten any “dad” voices, thank god). I want to say to them, “In academic years, I am *your* elder, thank you very much.” And yet sometimes I feel like I just arrived out of graduate school.

Time seems very much elastic to me these days — wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey, as The Doctor might say:

For that reason, I like to remind myself of its passing now and then. It’s good to keep in mind that any of my students applying to a graduate program this year would be doing it 20 years after I did, and the world of those programs (whether academic or professional) is very different. (And yes, I do give them all the warnings.) That gap and difference is only going to get wider. And though it’s fun to mock the Beloit Mindset List (and it deserves that mockery), it is sometimes a helpful reminder that what seems like a “current” pop-culture reference isn’t. (Though just like I was into the 60s in the 80s, the kids today seem to be into the 90s. Well, some of them. And have you noticed that the whole boho, flippy, floral dress with combat boots look is back? Kelly from 90210 and Lisa Loeb would be so pleased!)

I know it’s normal for time to blend together more as you get older, but I can’t help but think it seems intensified for someone like me, who repeats seasonal/academic cycles — the students don’t age! — and who doesn’t have kids of her own to mark the time more obviously. Of course, at least we *have* seasons here (the weather kind, that is) — in LA I didn’t notice time passing, either, but that’s because the weather was always the same! Or that was my theory, anyway. Or maybe I should just blame graduate school. At any rate, while some things do seem emotionally/psychologically/experientially far back in time to me (applying to graduate school, for example), when I put a number to them (20 years ago), that’s when it seems impossible. I think, also, having not really started my career until my 30s (unless you count graduate school, which I do in some ways and don’t and others), I feel like I shouldn’t yet have reached an age where anything I did as a grown-up could be 20 years ago. According to this Salon article, this may be a common feeling for a segment of “Generation X,” since so many of us, regardless of profession, started our “grown-up” lives later than generations before us. (As my students would say, I found that article really “relatable.” As they say on the interwebs, though, YMMV.) Or maybe it’s just about being 40-something.

I have no idea what I’m trying to say here. Clearly this *post* has gone all wibbly-wobbly. To sum up: 10 years at Rust Belt University and 10 years with Bullock, 8 years as a presence on the intertoobs, and 19 years since I started the graduate program that made it all possible. Oh, and it’s been 6 years since my first book came out and people are still reading it! W00t! Here’s to many more years of successful professional activity and happiness in personal relationships! And maybe I have at least another year of blogging under my belt.

The end (but not really).

Descriptivists vs. Prescriptivists

Have I mentioned how much I love harm-less drudg-ery, the blog of Merriam-Webster lexicographer, Kory Stamper? I think I have some kind of girl crush on Kory. Or I want to be her. Well, no, I don’t want to be her, because then I’d have to deal with insane prescriptivists on a mission every day. (Lordy, the e-mails she gets!) Maybe I just want her to be my BFF. Anyway, her latest post is advice about how to be a sane and reasonable prescriptivist. (Nicole and Maggie, are you listening? Ha! I kid!) Go check it out and you’ll get a sense of her style and humor.

When you’re a medievalist who teaches Old English and Middle English, it’s really hard to be a prescriptivist, but there are some things that just plain irritate me. Note that I did NOT say “aggravate me,” though I’m getting over that one because someone near and dear to me (hint: it’s not Pippi) says that regularly, as do many other astonishingly smart and educated people I know. There are other things that bother me more (example: the developing “accusative I,”  as in “between you and I” — nails on a chalkboard!). But as Kory advises, it’s important to remember that such predilections are preferences and opinions, not necessarily facts. (Some linguists, for example, think the accusative-I is here to stay. But for pete’s sake, we were doing so well with the pronoun case system for over a thousand years, and I’d like to hold on to *some* truly Old English! Sigh.) And when I “correct” many student papers, I’m careful to say that words like “impactful” are non-standard; I never write things like “not a word.” (And, oh, by the way, I am certainly not immune to non-standard usage; apparently, all British-trained and some American-trained copy editors would have a fit over my using “like” to announce an example, rather than “such as.” I’ll happily change that in my formal writing, but this a blog and I don’t want to sound stilted.) But juggling the “isn’t language change fascinating?!” version of me with the “no, your career did not just literally shoot into the stratosphere — unless you’re an astronaut; and also, the stratosphere is not very high” version of me is sometimes difficult.

All of which reminds me of the time one of my senior colleagues, a(n)* historical linguist named Dorothy, wrote to me in an e-mail that she didn’t know how to balance her training as a(n) historical linguist with her inclinations towards prescriptivism in reference to student writing. My reply was two words long. Want to guess what those word were? They were:


Yeah, I know that’s not the first time someone used that phrase in reference to her, I’m sure, but in the circumstances it was just too, too perfect. I had to do it.

Anyway, for those of you who work with older texts (literary or otherwise) in English (or, hey, other languages) and are acutely aware of how language changes, how do you balance a recognition of that with a need to hone student writing to what is generally and broadly considered standard English (or another language), especially for writing?

*See what I did there? I tried to make everyone happy with that “a(n).”

The difference class size makes

I may come back and revise this after I’ve taught more than one week of classes this semester, but so far, I’ve seen a striking difference in the two sections of gen-ed poetry I teach, and I think a lot of it has to do with class size. One class is an experimental 8-week section that meets four times a week, and so I’ve essentially taught two weeks of it already; the other is a conventional 16-week class that meets twice a week, so I’ve only seen them twice. But still, I’m seeing differences in the two classes and what the students and I can accomplish in them, and that has a lot to do with the fact that the 8-week class has only 5 students in it, while the 16-week class has 33. (NB: normally the administration wouldn’t let a 5-person class run, but the whole 8-week thing is part of a program the dean and higher admins are keen about, because it’s meant to allow students to get three-year degrees, so they’re letting the small enrollments slide. Why they’re all gung-ho about three-year degrees, since our students pay per credit hour and not per academic year, I don’t quite understand. [Edited to add: Which is not to criticize the program — I’m just expressing my puzzlement.] I guess it saves students a year of opportunity costs? [ETA: Bullock tells me they actually worked out a tuition savings, too. OK, now I get it.] So far it doesn’t seem very popular, but maybe it will grow?)

Anyway, the five students and I in the 8-week class are so far digging deeper into the poems we discuss. We get further with them than we do in the bigger class. Part of that is because this is a self-selecting group of ambitious students, I’m sure. But it’s also because with only six of us in the room, people are quicker and more willing to speak up, conversation is a little less intimidating — it’s conversation and not discussion, in a way — and so things move faster. And in this class we already know each other and feel comfortable with each other — I can tell you all their names and majors! — and the students talk to each other. This means already if one of them thinks the other is a little misguided in how they’re interpreting something, they’ll actually jump in and gently respond to the misguided reader (and then I can say, “So and so is right” if the misguided student doesn’t buy it). If the other students are doing some of the correcting and not me (except to reinforce it), the misguided person is less intimidated, and continues to talk later — they don’t do that shutting down thing. So conversation continues apace. Or they reach different but equally valid interpretations of something, and they are not afraid to say so — that gives me a “teaching moment” to talk about interpretative ambiguity, the possibility of different readings, etc.

Now, there are plenty of students capable of this in the other section, too. In fact, I can tell I’ve got some really sharp students in there. But I also get the sense that I’ve got students getting lost already. But I’m not really sure, since they don’t talk and I haven’t given a quiz or paper assignment yet. And no one talks to each other — they face forward and talk to me. I can encourage them to respond to each other, but it’s not going to happen as easily, naturally, or quickly as it has already in the other class. Meanwhile, in the other class, I know exactly who is really getting things and who might be struggling a little bit more just from our conversations, and I even know the different things they struggle with. Since *everyone* talks, I’m getting a sense of where they all are already, after only 4 class meetings.

Now, I’ll sooner or later understand where each student is in the bigger class, but they won’t get the personal attention that the 5 students in the other class will get. Yes, I’ll spend the same amount of time on each student’s papers and other assignments in both classes, but it’ll be spread out over time, and have less of an impact than the personal attention that happens daily in the smaller class. And yes, I can do things to make smaller units in the big class — group work and the like — but it won’t be as sustained as the class that’s essentially a small break-out group every day, and I won’t be able to observe every small group all the time, as I can with the small class.

I’m not saying that all college classes should be 5-person classes. I know that’s not realistic. But I think those schools that advertise their small classes are absolutely right to do so, and I think it’s a “feature” worth paying a premium for if you’re a bill-paying parent or student. This isn’t really news to me (or to you, I assume) — I’ve seen the difference from one class to another because I teach a range of classes, from MA seminars to big general ed classes — but this is the first time I’ve had two sections of the same exact course with such different enrollments. So far the effects of those enrollments are subtle, but they’re noticeable. We’ll see how things pan out by the end of the semester. Maybe the other class will catch up, or maybe the small class will always get something more out of the class.

Have you ever had substantially different enrollments across two different sections (or terms) of the same course? Did you see a difference?