That’s a lot of words; or, scholarly editing by the numbers

As I have mentioned here before, I have co-edited an anthology of medieval literary texts and am currently working on an offshoot of that anthology, a stand-alone edition of one of the major works associated with that body of texts. And I have reached a milestone in the work of that stand-alone edition: I have finished the main body of the text! Woo hoo! All I have left are some contextual documents to go in an appendix.

If you’ve ever had a modern edition of Shakespeare in your hands, what I did is similar to what Shakespeare editors do — especially for those plays only in the First Folio, since my play survives in only one manuscript text. The product is similar, too: a student-friendly text that presents the text in modern spelling, glosses obsolete or difficult words and phrases, adds stage directions where there are embedded cues in the dialogue, and provides historical or contextual information in footnotes for tricky bits, allusions, etc. I also wrote a general introduction. And since my play is a collection of shorter episodes, they each got their own headnote, too.

Anyway, I decided for some reason to quantify the work I’ve done on this edition. I thought it might be useful to have such numbers for future reference in our increasingly (and irritatingly) quantified world of reports and justifications. Plus people outside of the literary disciplines have NO idea what goes into an edition (and even some *inside* don’t), and students certainly don’t. So next time you’re using a scholarly or critical edition in your classroom, say something about the editor and the work of editing to your students.

So, here’s what I’ve been doing over the last three and half years to produce this edition, at least according to the Word word-count function and some judicious selection of text. I have produced:

  • 70,443 words of modernized-spelling Middle English words (modernized by me, word by word), their glosses, their explanatory footnotes, and their rubrics (speech headings, stage directions, etc.) for 20 individual plays that are part of a larger collection or cycle of plays. (They were perceived as one play in their day.)
    • The nerd in me wishes I could separate out categories for Middle English words I modernized, Latin and French I translated, glosses I added, and word count for the footnotes and the rubrics I added, but who has time for that?! This number comes from adding up the total word-counts of the complete, edited text without headnotes.
  • 10,400 words of original headnotes for individual plays in this cycle of plays
  • 5,757 words of original general introduction
  • plus revisions of 9 previously published plays and related documents (from the anthology that I co-edited)

In comparison, my first monograph was just under 90,000 words, including bibliography and notes. So in terms of sheer interaction with and creation of text, the two tasks are equivalent.

I’ve written about the issue of how to value/count scholarly editing before (somewhere on this blog, but I’ll be damned if I can find it now!), and this makes me think about that issue again. Why is it that at some of the fancier institutions, editions don’t count as much as “original” work?  (My department, I’m pleased to say, gives them the weight they deserve — at least they have so far.) Note that above I referred to my headnotes and introduction as original, because they are — that’s how *I* would teach/introduce the text to anyone new to it. Yes, that includes a kind of synthesis of the scholarship under-girding what I say, but doesn’t all of our work do that? And yeah, the truly original part is only just over 16,000 words (“only” — that’s a journal article and a half!), but the modernizing, glossing, and noting was also an act of close-reading and interpretation. Then there’s the sheer labor-intensiveness that goes into something that’s meant to be really useful to the field. And finally, editions probably bring our names — and therefore our departments’ and institutions’ names — into more notice by more people than our other scholarly work does.

In short: scholarly editions are a buttload of work. You’re welcome!


Yes! Mankind on video!

In 2015, I had the pleasure of seeing the excellent and hilarious all-woman production of Mankind, directed by Matthew Sergi (University of Toronto) for the Poculi Ludique Societas and performed at the PLS Festival of Early Drama. I took TONS of pictures to show my students, but didn’t realize someone had made a video of the whole thing and Matthew had posted it on YouTube. Hooray! I may start my medieval drama classes by having students watch this before they read Mankind and go deeper with it.

If you want to watch it and/or share it with your students, it’s here.

Also, listen to Dr. Sergi talk about the significant of medieval morality drama today on this podcast.

>Slow and steady: my new motto for teaching

>I crammed too much into my Chaucer class this semester. I expected students to do close-reading assignments without modeling enough of that in class. Oh sure, I’d pick out passages to look at closely and then we’d build out to the tale or prologue or the book of Troilus as a whole, but then most of class was spent thinking in big, conceptual modes. Those modes have their place, too, but if, three quarters of the way through the semester you realize from multiple students’ papers that they’re misunderstanding the very basics of given text, then you’ve got a problem.

Case in point: one bright and enthusiastically engaged student this semester wrote that the mourning women at the beginning of the Knight’s Tale were selfish and whiny. I suppose, on some level, all mourning is inherently selfish, but he wasn’t thinking on that level. Instead, he took at face value Theseus’s charge that they must be jealous of his triumph, rather than understanding that that was Theseus’s own selfish misreading of the situation, or seeing that Theseus’s changed understanding after they had pleaded their case exhibits how he learns to be a more appropriately compassionate ruler through showing sympathy for the pain and suffering of his subjects. In class I took all of the above as a given and started a discussion about the troubling nature of that lesson, and the ways in which even Theseus’s compassion remains selfish, how he turns it into an opportunity for his own glory and heroism, how it’s all predicated on war and the suffering of others (and whether or not the text was aware of that or if we were reading against the grain). But my student had missed the basics; he’d misinterpreted the tone of the women begging and crying for compassion, because, of course, it’s presented in formalized, poetic language, and would seem off-puttingly melodramatic in a narrative today. We don’t tend to have positive associations with the act of begging or with the idea of “pity,” and so medieval texts presenting such scenes are ripe for such misreadings. (Likewise, the entire class found Troilus off-putting; but in that case, I spent some time explaining the rhetorical of the medieval lover, and explaining that he’s *supposed* to put himself in his beloved’s power and beg for her pity. But maybe it didn’t stick or this student couldn’t then translate that similar language to the situation of the mourning women.) He also, apparently, missed that they were mourning and begging for the sake of their husbands’ honor, not their own, and he didn’t realize how very different the relationship between kings and subjects is (especially in its medieval idealized forms) from the relationship between citizens and elected governments. (There were bits of American individualist rhetoric in his paper.) And heck, in a world where Glenn Beck hates 9/11 victims’ families and the poor stranded in New Orleans after Katrina, it’s no wonder my student couldn’t muster up compassion for a group of unnamed, fictional, historical distant women who were, after all, mere words on a page.

But I’m not blaming my student for that failure. I’m blaming me. There were lots of misreadings like this during the semester, from various students, including misreadings of the critical texts they read for various assignments. If the benefits of reading difficult literature from the past include learning how to read and interpret difficult texts, as well as learning that the assumptions of some texts may not align with our own assumptions (whether it’s the meaning of a word like “pity,” or what makes a satisfying read, or bigger cultural and political assumptions), and through those lessons learn simply to recognize difference (and perhaps even become more sympathetic to it), then I failed to teach those lessons, to give my students those benefits.

And so, in the future, not only am I going to alternate Troilus and Criseyde (plus dream visions and/or bits of The Legend of Good Women) with The Canterbury Tales, and teach them in separate classes, but I’m going to sloooooooow the pace down. We’re going to do some serious close reading together, and we’re going to start with issues of diction, tone, and style before we proceed to anything else. I do this in my lower division intro to literary study (although not slowly enough), but it needs to be reinforced in the upper level classes, especially with texts as difficult as Chaucer, and with poetic texts in general. And as a participation element of my class, I’m going to require students to come to each class with a passage that they think needs to be looked at closely, along with written notes concerning their own interpretation of the passage. I’ll model this for them in the beginning, and then I’ll call on students — different ones each time — to share their passages. I might structure classes so that the first day on a given text or part of a text (say, Book III of Troilus and Criseyde), we do nothing but that, drawing on our knowledge of the rest to provide context for understanding. And then on the second day we’ll broaden the discussion, and show how we move from close reading to “far” reading. And yes, we’ll spend two days on every text or part of a text, unless it’s something very short (for example, “Adam Scriveyn”).

And we’ll do this with at least one secondary text, too. I found this semester that students claimed that perfectly well-written articles that I had them review on their own were “unclear” or “disorganized” because the students didn’t know how to follow a complex, multi-part argument and see its organization. They weren’t marking up their texts and noting the underlying structure, or they were getting lost in the details and forgetting where they’d been. So, I’ll assign an article that we’ll all read *and* discuss together. I’ll ask them to outline it, to find both the global organization (including the thesis) and the topic sentence or idea of every paragraph. I think I might use Mary Carruther’s “The Wife of Bath and the Painting of Lions” for two reasons: 1) It’s a classic text that changed the way we read the Wife’s Prologue and Tale, and that will also allow a broader discussion of critical history and reception; 2) it’s a model of organization and argument, good for teaching students what a well-wrought argument looks like, without being too intimidating. If anybody has any other suggestions — perhaps an article that *doesn’t* rely on historical evidence so heavily, to provide a different kind of model — I’d welcome them.

In a 2008 whitepaper (link opens PDF file), the MLA recommended that the curriculum of the English or foreign language major should offer courses of the following types, and I think in my proposed re-design of my Chaucer course(s), I’m meeting, in part, the bolded suggestions:
courses that develop literacies in reading and writing
at least one course devoted to slow reading and in-depth study of an artistically great work or works
• at least one small seminar to develop individuals’ capacities to their fullest
• at least one team-taught or interdisciplinary class
a course on disciplinary issues and scholarly debates
• the opportunity to study abroad

I think my redesign would also do a better job of teaching Chaucer! What do you think?

>Changing up Chaucer

>This post is in part a follow up to the post before last, in which I lamented my boredom with doing the same-old, same-old in the big medieval class. It is also, in part, for Meg, who asked, in another context, for ideas for new stuff to do in her Chaucer class.

Now a class on Chaucer is hard to change very easily. Your big questions are: Do I try and do a little of everything (Troilus and Criseyde, a dream vision or two, a selection of The Canterbury Tales, maybe even some of the short poetry or a single legend from The Legend of Good Women)? Or do I stick to The Canterbury Tales? (This is your choice unless, that is, you’re teaching at a school with separate Canterbury Tales and Troilus-and-everything-else courses. Oh, and I suppose you could just do the Troilus-and-everything-else course, but I can’t bring myself not to do the Tales at least in part.) I alternate between those two options, and in the little-bit-of-everything version, I change the Tales or the selections from the other works when I get bored.

But now I’ve been doing that and I’m bored again. So now I’m futzing with *how* I teach it all — from the emphases I give the course to the assignments I give. Last year I borrowed and adapted a writing assignment sequence from Jeffrey Cohen that builds skills from comprehension of Middle English (through translation) to analysis of passages, to arguments with other critics. To that I added one of my own favorite assignments, in which I ask students to write a modern imitation of a Chaucerian dream vision (albeit in prose), which is an exercise in genre analysis in disguise. I think I may keep most of that this time around, though I may be getting rid of the dream visions this time around, so no imitation. And in the last go-round, I assigned the passages for translation and analysis, but I may let students pick their own next time, because trying to figure out what’s worth talking about in close detail is an analytic and interpretative skill, too.

But the big change I’m thinking about making is kind of wacky. And I’m wondering what you all think. I’m thinking about focusing on transmission and adaptation, from the manuscript to early print editions to later imitations and adaptations of Chaucer’s work (and also Chaucer’s adaptation of his sources), and so I’m thinking of having the class read Henryson’s Testament of Cresseid and Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida after we’re done with Troilus and Criseyde. And I’m thinking of giving a day over to discussion A Knight’s Tale; of using some or all of the BBC’s fairly recent adaptations (I have the Wife of Bath episode on VHS); of playing some of Baba Brinkman’s hip-hop Chaucer along the way; and of utterly traumatizing students with a bit of Pasolini’s Racconti di Canterbury at the end of the semester, if I can get my hands on either a tape or DVD of it. Or maybe instead of Pasolini at the end, we could read one of the 15th century continuations of the tales in the TEAMS edition edited by John Bowers. But I’d also assign critical articles as “adaptations,” too, because part of the point of this would be to talk about adaptation as interpretation — and so, interpretation as adaptation. And in the writing assignments and other discussion we’d be talking about translation as adaptation and interpretation, too.

Out of 16 weeks, this would take away three weeks (six classes) from Chaucer “proper” — the rest would be blended in and done in excerpt alongside Chaucer “proper.” It would mean a lot of reading, but I think it might enrich the discussion of Chaucer’s own works immensely, and put them in broad context of reception and interpretation. And that might also help students put themselves and their interpretative activities in context and in a greater conversation, too. I worry, often, that when I teach Chaucer only in his 14th century contexts — as cool and interesting as that can be — that students consciously or unconsciously feel justified in filing him away as “classic.” Shudder. That’s such a deadly word. Although I bring in the present or the very recent past all the time in all my classes, I think maybe a smattering of adaptations from the centuries immediately following Chaucer and our own age would make the point better that “Chaucer” is not confined to the 14th century.

What do you think?

>A request for transubstantiation clarifications

>I’m confused about something. It was inspired by recent blogospheric events (as recounted here, where you can see some of my confusion in the comments), but also, more importantly, by a medieval text I’m thinking about in other contexts. And it all has to do with the ritual practices of transubstantiation in the medieval church. The concept I get — it’s the practice I’m not clear on.

Let me put it in terms of the medieval text, because that’s more germane to this blog and to my interests than the brouhaha that PZ Myers has stirred up. In The Croxton Play of the Sacrament, a Christian merchant named Aristorius procures a eucharist wafer for a Jew named Jonathas. Jonathas wants the wafer to test whether it’s true that, as he’s heard told, that “Cristen men… /beleve on a cake… / [and] seye how the prest dothe it bind, / And by the might of his word make it flessh and blode /…how that it shuld be He that deyed upon the rode.” (For the non-medievalists reading this, I think that Middle English is mostly clear, but in case you don’t know this, “rode” means cross, so the last phrase is “died on the cross.”) Once he gets it, he puts it to all sorts of tests that mimic and parody Christ’s Passion as well as the mass. Then grotesque and slapstick violence ensues — the host bleeds, Jonathas loses his hand — Christ appears and heals Jonathas, the Jews convert, and the whole thing ends in a Corpus Christi procession into the church, headed by the Bishop.

Suffice it to say it’s a weird and disturbing play. My questions, though, are about the status of the eucharist wafer at the point when Aristorius procures it for Jonathas. The merchant gets his personal chaplain drunk, takes the church key, and gets the host while the drunk priest sleeps. In doing this, Aristorius says, “Ser Isodere [= the priest] shall nott know of this case, / For he hath ofteyn sacred, as it is skill. / The chirche key is at my will; / There is nothing that me shall tary.” Bevington, whose edition I’m quoting from, glosses “sacred” as “consecrated the host.” One other thing that pertains to my question is that in this play, prior to the grotesque bleeding of the host, Jonathas and his friends enact a parody Last Supper/mass in which Jonathas speaks the words of the mass (and the Gospel), “Comedite, [hoc est] corpus meum” — eat, this is my body.

OK, so here are my questions, which I know I could get answered by re-reading Rubin’s Corpus Christi, but it’s more fun to ask the blogosphere. Besides, I don’t want the answer for research reasons right now, I just want to clarify my own muddled head.

In medieval doctrine, at what point is the eucharist host the body of Christ? Is it Christ’s body when it’s in reserve, ready for the mass, or is only Christ’s body at the re-enactment of the words of the Last Supper during the mass — the “hoc est corpus meum” moment? In the play, is Aristorius stealing Christ’s body or something not-quite-yet Christ’s body? And what does “sacred”/”consecrated” here mean in context? And, for the record, is there any difference in modern Catholic doctrine?

And if you’re thinking, “You’re a medievalist! You should know these things!” Well, I’m a medieval *literature* person, and even when I’ve studied and written about religious texts, it’s often been through the lens of lay people’s social and devotional practices, which don’t always align with official doctrine (contrary to the popular notion that medieval people only could or did believe what the Church told them to believe). Plus, having been raised Catholic, I think I have some kind of Pavlovian response to the “this is my body” moment of the mass. That’s THE moment — the eucharist is raised, bells ring, incense is sometimes wafted (it’s all very dramatic) — and I’ve never thought about the status of the wafers before that moment. It’s not really that important for anything I’m thinking about this play — I just want to get it straight. I’ll go back to Rubin when I have time, of course, but for now, you can help.

And the other reason I’m blogging this is that I may not have time to blog in the next few days as I get ready to leave for the UK, and I don’t know if I’ll have much time to blog over there. So I thought I’d put something serious and medieval-related at the top of my blog, even if it means admitting my lack of knowledge of something so central to the period I study and the religion I was raised in!


>Yesterday in Chaucer class, my students and I discussed Book V of Troilus and Criseyde. I pointed out that the word “remembraunce” is used 8 times in that book and we discussed what it meant and why that might be important. Was it only “memory” or did it have then the connotations it has for us now, of memorial and loss? (It did.) And we talked about the reliance on the “apostrophe” (a direct address to an absent or inanimate addressee) in this book, as well as the appearance of letters to and from Troilus and Criseyde, and the somewhat surprising appearance of the “ubi sunt” motif, that mainstay of Latin and Old English elegiac poetry. We put this all together and pondered whether this wasn’t primarily a love story after all, if maybe Chaucer had used the love story as a vehicle for getting at the inevitability of death, loss, and mourning.

It all seemed rather depressing and inappropriate for Valentine’s day. But unfortunately death and “remembraunce” was a truly and terribly appropriate theme for a university classroom in the midwest on Valentine’s Day 2008.

My heart goes out to the students, faculty, and staff of Northern Illinois University, and their families, particularly to those who now have the responsibility of remembrance for the 6 students and the gunman who are all now dead.