Three things

I am on sabbatical again. That means, for the third time in my career I have an extended period of time in which I am in completely in charge of my own time, which also means that for the third time in my career a vast abyss in space and time has open up in front of me, completely terrifying me.  (The first two times being my dissertation fellowship period and the first time I was on sabbatical). But that’s not the three things of my title. I will get to that. (Side note: The Third Abyss would make a great band title. Punk? Metal? Norwegian Death Metal? Anywho…)

Everyone keeps asking me how sabbatical is going (after less than a month!) and I’m all like: (Darn, that gif showed up itself in the editor. Oh well. Click on the URL — it’s worth it, I swear!)

Last time I was on sabbatical, I had a kind of concrete list of stuff to do, because I spent it tracking down every instance I could of a particular variety of Middle English verse that I was interested in. Originally I had wanted that research to tell me what exactly it was going to turn into during that first sabbatical, but mostly all of my time was taken up with the “data gathering.” And since gathering that “data” meant going to manuscript libraries all over the place, that’s mostly what my sabbatical consisted of: making lists of possible “verses of interest” (groan…I read too much detective fiction and like puns too much), making plans to go see them, traveling to see them,  then transcribing a ton of manuscript pages, and then organizing what I found.

It took a long time for that bunch of information to start to turn into something interesting, so here I am seven years later looking at forming that raw material into my second book. Eek! Do I even remember how to write a book? My last one came out ten years ago! And its genesis was *twenty* years ago — gulp! (Duuude, I am old.) A book that’s just an idea is such an amorphous thing, a big, gaping hole that I need to fill. *Shudder*

I’ve got another project I have to finish this summer, too, and it’s a little more concrete — the edition of the York Corpus Christi Play that I’ve contracted to do and really should have finished last year, but got an extension on because it’s taking me much longer than anticipated. As concrete as it is, it’s somewhat tedious work, and thus causes me to procrastinate and get distracted. So while I should be able to edit a page in an hour, sometimes all I accomplish in a day is editing two pages and ordering shit on Zappos and SocksAddict (because the perfect shoes and socks *will* make your life better, right?).

Clearly, I need some kind of system to a) give a graspable shape to the abyss and b) to focus the work of the edition to get through it more quickly and efficiently. Those are two different problems to solve, so it wasn’t clear that one system was going to solve it, but I finally chanced upon one that I think will help. At least it helped me make a plan.

The system is the “three things” system — Notorious Ph.D. actually talked about it awhile back — hence my post title. I’ve also seen it called “The Rule of 3,” which I like because of its nod to all sorts of aesthetic and mnemonic and cultural rules of threes and thirds. And hey, 3 is a Magic Number, right? Anyway, according to the productivity gurus who invented or use this system, you’re supposed to start with the day and make a to-do list of three things to accomplish that day, and *then* move to bigger units of weeks and months and years. While I understand the concept of “one day at a time” for some things, that ain’t gonna work for a book project and a sabbatical. So, instead, like Notorious, I started with the time left on my sabbatical (which technically started in mid-May, but I took some time to ease into things), which is from now until mid-August, 2018.

So here are my “three things” for sabbatical:

  1. Finish the edition of the York Corpus Christi Play.
  2. Revise a big 45-minute presentation that I gave — and also workshopped elsewhere — into an article and the first chapter of my new book project.
  3. Do further research for and draft Chapters 2-5 of the new book project. (OK, I suppose that’s 4 things, but collectively it’s “research and draft the rest of the book project.”)

Then, with that list in mind, I got out academic calendars for the rest of this year (this summer) and next year (fall, spring, and summer), and apportioned weeks to the bigger specific tasks that needed to be done for each of these things. So for Thing 1, I’ve got weeks for editing the remaining play texts themselves, writing introductions, editing contextual material, and so on. I also counted how many pages of editing I have left, and figured out how many pages a day I need to finish to reach these goals. For Thing 2, I still have some details to work out, but there’s a much-neglected action list from earlier this year that I can turn to for that. The work on it is going to be simultaneous with finishing the York edition. For Thing 3, I had 45 weeks of my calendar left, so I gave each of the chapters 9 weeks and saved the final 9 weeks for further research, revising, and writing.

And then I opened up my planner — yes, I use a paper one, in a lovely red leather zippered case, because handwriting helps me remember — and wrote down my daily “three things” for tomorrow, Thursday, and Friday on their respective days in the planner. Tomorrow’s three things are 1) Edit three pages of “The First Trial Before Pilate,” 2) Revisit “action plan” for article project and update it, and 3) Begin reading the secondary material listed on that action plan. And I will continue to make a “three things” daily list from now on, at the beginning of each week (or maybe each Sunday night — a friend and I were at one point using the “Sunday Meeting” method, which I might still use here), and update/revise it as needed as the week progresses.

And yes, there are more than three things I usually have to or want to do in a day — but the “Rule of 3” method is about prioritizing those three things. Everything else goes on the regular “to do” list and gets done after that.

OK, that was all a bit boring, but really, this is just an accountability post. It will be interesting to me to go back to it later at various points in the sabbatical.

How do you manage your time when you have vast, unstructured amounts of it (and I count summer as vast)?

>Calling all philologists

>I’m editing another text, this one a short one that shouldn’t take me any time at all, but will net me $200. (Dude, I will have made $1000 this year for editing ME texts. I *knew* that Ph.D. would pay off someday!) [Maybe it’s crass to talk about the money, but I really wanted to set up for that last remark! Te-hee!]

Anyway, it *shouldn’t* take me any time, except there’s this one weird word that keeps popping up all over the text and it’s driving me nuts. The word is variably veserne(s) or vesene(s) (although more frequently the former). Other editors of this text have glossed it as “mask(s),” which makes sense in context, and I’m happy to go with that if I must, but I’d really like to find out for myself. I can’t find it in either the MED or the OED (this is a text dated precisely 1433, btw, and it’s from the North), but maybe I haven’t thought of enough alternative spellings. For the record, though, I searched the MED for “v?rs?n*” and “v?s?n*” — although maybe I should’ve used asterisks instead of question marks. All I want is some confirmation that it means or could mean “mask.”

Any ideas where I should go next? Any other help/suggestions you can offer? Oh, and also, I’m supposed to modernize the spelling of the text — what would I modernize this word to?

>Manuscripts and the classroom *again*

>(Yeah, I know I said I wouldn’t be posting again until tonight. I changed my mind.)

A few weeks ago I introduced my graduate students to our rare books and manuscripts holdings and talked about why looking at a text in its original contexts might matter — whether than means a medieval manuscript, a 19th century periodical, a first printing of a book that was later revised, or what have you.

And today I found a cool little example that I wish I’d had then. But I’ll use it in future classes. The best part of this example is that it’s only one little word, and yet it reveals so much about manuscript studies, reception studies, and medieval and early modern studies more largely. In a 15th century text (I won’t specify which one here) that features Christ speaking about his crucifixion, most modern editions feature a line in which Christ says of certain people that they had pity of his “payns” (i.e., “pains”). But a look at the manuscript facsimile shows that the word was originally “penaunce,” which has been crossed out by a later hand, with “payns” entered above it. And there in that little one-word change, you see a post-Reformation reader adapting a pre-Reformation text for his purposes, getting rid of the medieval/Catholic concept of “penance,” especially in the sense of the ‘satisfaction’ element of the sacrament, and replacing it with a generalized suffering. None of the student-used editions of this text show that this substitution has been made, and even in the scholarly edition, it’s buried in the textual notes. It’s much more obvious and noteworthy in the manuscript facsimile. What a quick and easy way to show the value of manuscript studies! This one little change speaks to major historical and religious changes in the 16th century and also the practice of adapting or rewriting and reusing old texts for new purposes, which in turn speaks to the continuities of late medieval and early modern culture. Awesome!

>Textual editing again – a snag

>I don’t think I’m going to be able to build a textual editing project into my Chaucer class. There are just too many other goals I have for the class and too many assignments to go with them. I want to make sure students comprehend the language and analyze it on a close level, but I’ve got translation and close reading assignments for that. And from there I want to talk about things genre, readerly expectations, Chaucer’s literary world and the “conversations” he’s participating in, and the critical conversations today. And I’m going to attempt to do not just the Tales, but Troilus and at least two dream visions, as well. (I have this fun exercise where students write their own “Chaucerian” dream vision, albeit in prose and present day American English. It makes them have to think about the persona of the author and about what contributes to an author’s style, among other things.)

But I am going to do this in the Middle English class, where language is the focus, and textuality is important to issues of transmission. And there I’ll have a lot more texts that don’t have student editions yet available, or, if I choose Chaucer, they can compare multiple student editions and arrive at what they think is “best.”

Nevertheless, I’m going to stress in the Chaucer class that their texts are in many ways modern fictions, and that even their medieval counterparts are slippery entities, which sits well with any number of issues and themes brought up in the texts themselves, starting, perhaps with the “Adam Scriveyn” poem. And I’ll still show them lots of manuscript page images in various facsimiles.

>Textual editing in the classroom

>As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been working on a student edition of a couple of related medieval texts that are eventually going to be part of a larger anthology. And I’ve had a few epiphanies because of this work, which I wrote about here.

And now I’ve had another one, related to those earlier ones. And it’s also inspired by two other incidentally related things: first, Carrie Beneš’s essay in the Medieval Academy newsletter on manuscripts in undergraduate classroom, and second, Michelle Warren’s article “Translation” (in Oxford UP’s Twenty-First Century Approaches to Literature: Middle English, ed. Paul Strohm). The first can be found here on p. 10 of the newsletter. The latter is print only, but the part that I was intrigued most by is the final section of the article (pp. 65-6) where she argues that the Chaucer classroom would benefit from a pedagogy informed by translation theory because, as she argues, “The encounter with the medieval text is a multilingual encounter, even when one appears to be reading ‘English’ texts in ‘English’ in an ‘English’ classroom” (p. 66).

Anyway, all of these texts — the one I’m editing and the two essays I just mentioned — have inspired me to follow through on an idea I’d been toying with for many of my courses, and that is: creating a substantial assignment for each course where students have to create an edition of a text for a modern student reader, complete with introduction, glosses and explanatory notes, and a bibliography for further reading. In some classes I may even start with a digitally available manuscript and teach them to read some forms of medieval script, or at least expect them to compare the manuscript to a scholarly edition and write about what they see and find.

This makes total sense for my Old English and Middle English courses, which are courses on the language, and since the transmission of those languages to us is entirely textual, teaching and learning about textual editing is very much a potentially obvious part of the course content.

But it’s not as obvious in the literature classroom. I’m not talking about returning to some 19th century style pedagogy and making the English literature classroom a form of the old Classical classroom, where it’s all philology and grammar all the time, or about constructing quasi-genealogical trees of sources and manuscript transmission. I only want to make this a small part of all that the students learns, so that that they’re at least aware of the work that goes into bringing these texts to them, and, more important, aware of the ways in which the text is mediation — even if it’s “in the original language.” I like thinking and talking about readers, too, and making students aware that a medieval reader’s experience of a book as a physical object, and a text as an abstract idea might be very different from ours even before you get to issue of cultural differences.

This is for me, in fact, part of a turn towards teaching reading, and of thinking of myself as a teacher of reading (the process) rather than or more than a teacher of literature (a thing). Apparently I’m in good company, too, since even Spivak is talking about teaching reading (as Dan Remein says here, in the third paragraph)! That “concern troll” I mentioned in passing a while back made the old chestnut of a charge that I must teach because I cannot “do,” because I’m not working on my own great works of literature (for all he knows, I could be, but never mind that). But of course, I don’t teach creative writing; I teach students how to read and write about literature, and that I most certainly do — successfully, too, if you measure it by academic publishing.

But what does that have to do with textual editing? Well, as I said in the earlier post about the epiphanies I’m having from my own editing project, I’m finding the editing process allows for a more intimate relationship with the text, not merely a familiar one. I think in edition to translation assignments, close reading assignments, and so forth, it will help the student engage deeply with the text, at least for a passage or a section, and hopefully they’ll realize how that engagement pays off. Such an exercise, I hope, will make them a different kind of reader, a more intense reader and perhaps an even more appreciative one. And I hope, too, that they’ll realize that student editions with glosses and notes and introductions, etc., don’t just grow on trees, nor are they all alike. And finally, in my medieval literature and language classrooms, they’ll have to engage in a kind of cross-cultural communication, a translation of sorts, that’s part medieval, part contemporary. Instead of allowing them simply to read the text as modern readers, or asking the impossible task of reading as a medieval person, I’ll be asking them to meet the text somewhere in the middle, where they have to communicate with the past and then communicate that past to the potential readers of their edition (and I may even have them do peer-evaluation of each others’ editions to make that even more clear).

And for my non-medieval classes — the undergraduate intro to literature, the graduate intro to research — I think I can still do variations on this, because even non-glossed, non-translated texts of recent vintage are edited, introduced, and mediated when they’re issued in classroom editions. We have a pretty darn good rare books library here with all sorts of cool, unpublished literary stuff, as well as materials from important cultural contexts for 19th and 20th century literature, and over the summer I could work with the director of the center to create some assignments for both of those classes, which I’ll be teaching next year. She’s really eager to get more students in there, to be able to say that the collection is indeed a valuable resource for students, so it would be good for her, too.

I’ve been trying to find a pedagogical continuity between all of my classes — a teaching philosophy, one might say (a concept and document that many bloggers on the job market and those of us doing renewal and tenure dossiers have been thinking and talking about in recent months) — and I think this kind of tangible close engagement with the text could be it. Then the next time I say I insist that students read or engage with the text closely, I’ll really mean it in a sense beyond “close reading” and “critical thinking” — phrases that can and do have meaning but that can also be so thrown around in meaningless ways. But by requiring students to produce an edition of, for example, one of Chaucer’s short poems, or “Wulf and Eadwacer,” or a late medieval lyric, or Etheridge Knight poem, or of contextual reading for “The Yellow Wallpaper,” or whatever (depending on the class), perhaps I’ll get them closer to having the intimate relationship with at least one text, and to being more aware of the ways they receive texts, in addition to being closer readers of those texts.

>The (lost) art of textual editing

>I’ve recently taken on a smallish editing task — that is, editing in the sense of producing an edition of something — involving two short Middle English texts to be included in a future printing of an anthology of English literature. They’re texts I consider myself intimately familiar with, they’re short (just under 700 lines all together), and their introductions won’t require any new research from me. And as a bonus, the accepted scholarly edition, which I’m using as my base text, is available electronically, so I don’t even have to retype those 700 lines (so I do have to clean up formatting). So the task is relatively simple for me to do, plus I have until December to do the first one and until June for the second one. And I’m also getting paid for the job! Cool!

But that’s actually not the best part. Turns out that I’m finding the task much more fascinating that I thought it would be (I thought it would be relatively rote — easy money for a tedious task). The texts I’m editing are each unique — no multiple manuscript versions with conflicting text, so no complicated job of deciding what’s the “most true” reading — and they’ve been edited many times before without controversy, as far as I know. But still, I’m finding some little differences between the scholarly edition and the next-most-scholarly classroom editions. Most of the differences are in the glosses (or glossary), but sometimes the classroom editions silently edit things suggesting that the editor thought the manuscript reading must be a mistake (although often there’s no mention of it, not even in the textual notes in the back). When I find these differences, I could just go with the scholarly edition — that’s my base text, after all, and I’m editing for a student anthology, not a scholarly edition of my own — but I find myself drawn into figuring out the choices the different editors made and their (implied) reasons for doing so. It’s fascinating and sometimes puzzling to see the editing and glossing choices made by serious and impressive scholars and to realize that sometimes I have good reason to think they’re wrong. And it makes me realize how opaque all of this is to our students, how they read one edition of an older text and think of it as “the” text, authoritative and complete. I try in all my classes to give them some idea of how The Riverside Chaucer and other such editions are total fictions, the work of editors trying to determine the Platonic Form of Chaucer’s oeuvre based on many multiple manuscripts, but I may start bringing in more concrete details to show them. (I also may start doing translation assignments like Jeffrey Cohen does, instead of the usual ME reading comprehension quizzes I used to give.) And I’m going to do the same with select texts in the medieval survey class, too. I’m definitely going to bring this up more in my Old and Middle English classes (though I already do some of this).

There are other ways this little project has become fascinating to me. Like I said, I took this on because I’m intimately familiar with these texts. But as I go through them literally word by word, deciding what needs glossing, I come upon details and moments of interest that I’d overlooked before: plays on words, multivalent meanings, regional linguistic variations that give life to the text’s moment in time and place, and so forth. I also realize that to gloss and to edit — including providing punctuation — I have to think about the syntax, grammar, and structure of the language in a microscopic way that I hadn’t done before. And sometimes that’s led me to moments of interpretative richness as well. And so hence this post’s title. It’s kind of a shame that the dissertation that edits and presents a previously unavailable text has gone the way of the dinosaur, because there’s a lot to be learned in a task like that. The intimacy I thought I had with this text was only just familiarity. And I’m thinking that next time I do the graduate research methods class, in addition to having a session and an assignment on determining what the scholarly edition of a given text is, I’ll create some kind of assignment where they have to edit a passage of something, or do a more micro-level comparison of editions.

By far the biggest challenge in all of this is meeting the requirements of the anthology publishers that I modernize and regularize spelling. I’ve looked very closely at the other Middle English texts in the current version, and there’s a variation in how this is done — a very telling one. Chaucer is only lightly regularized — “hym” is changed to “him,” for example, but all word final -e’s seem to remain, even when they’re not needed for the meter. But in anonymous poetic texts, especially ones with a variable meter (and not Chaucer’s careful iambic pentameter), final -e’s are mostly gone. Archaic spelling is preserved in rhymes, however, when modernizing it would disrupt the rhyme. But even that can’t always be helped, since “food” and “good” are often spelled that way in Middle as well as Modern English, but doesn’t tell the uninitiated reader that they rhymed in ME. Anyway, the special consideration that Chaucer gets in these editing techniques — and that the anonymous writers don’t get — just goes to show how much we still fetishize the author on some level, despite Barthes and Foucault and the “intentional fallacy.” (Wikipedia links provided for my non-academic, non-literary readers’ quick reference.)

Word final -e’s are just one challenge I have to face — do I change “muste” to “must” throughout or only when it doesn’t disrupt the meter? Or in this particular piece does that even matter? — but there are others. One of the recurring one is how to “modernize” an archaic word. Often enough these words survived the Middle Ages and have early modern and modern spellings that are pretty regular. House style for the publishers is to use the OED, so if the OED has an entry for the word, I use the spelling of the entry heading, where, again, it doesn’t disrupt anything like rhyme or meter.

But what about a word like “nemely”? I hit it just before beginning this post. It means “quickly” or “nimbly” and in the OED it shows up as a variant spelling for the head word “nimbly.” Changing it to “nimbly” wouldn’t actually disrupt the meter since “nemely” in the original must scan as two syllables, with the second -e- syncopated: nem’ly. And it won’t disrupt the alliteration, either. But I feel like “nimbly” loses some of the flavor of the time and place. This is a Northern English text and “nimbly” sound too fastidiously Southern English to me, too posh and prim. (Those colorings of class and culture between the south and the north are just beginning to develop in the 15th century — if the Towneley Second Shepherd’s Play and the character Mak, who puts on a “southern tooth,” claiming to be a yeoman of a lord, is any witness. And my text is a 15th century text. If it were any earlier, I might be anachronistic in wanting to avoid the hint of the posh privilege of the south. And even as it is, it says more about my own predilections than anything else!) I’ll probably be a rebel and retain “nemely” but gloss it as “quickly, nimbly.” In other cases I’ll submit, changing “werk(e)” to “work,” for example, even though in Middle English that -er- would be a distinct sound from -or-. But some sound needs to be preserved; this is a poetic text after all, and poetry lives in sound.

I need to bring details like this to my students’ attention more often, let them know how much comes between them and the manuscript versions of these texts. I do this kind of thing plenty when we read texts in translation, giving them passages from the original or multiple translations to compare. Although at least once a year there’s a student (sometimes even a graduate student!) who stuns me by demonstrating that they think reading a translation is the same as reading the original, I think I manage to get through to most of them that translation is always interpretation. But so is editing, especially when you’re talking about medieval and early modern texts, and I need to make that clearer to them. I don’t have to focus on it all the time, but I should plan at least one exercise around it in each pertinent class.

I’m so glad I took on this project — even if I weren’t getting paid for it!