So many changes, so little blog...

*blows dust off again*
*coughs violently*

Do people even do blogs anymore, or has it been replaced by Instagram and Twitter and other things that I no longer understand but prohibit my students from using in class anyway?

At any rate, here I am again, blogging away in my "spare" time. Things have changed significantly since the last post. First of all, I got married to a wonderful woman who is my complete equal, "stormy heart for stormy heart." Second, my position at State U ran out of funding/was deleted/I got kicked out by an uncaring administration (which story is true depends on how bitter I'm feeling). As we are all too aware of these days, the job market for white male medievalists untenured donestres is especially low, so I despaired of a job for a little bit until a friend at Charter High school in "Saxella, AR"  suggested that there might be an opening in English; I applied, interviewed, and took the job, and began teaching 10th, 11th, and 12th grade English this past August. My department chair left in November, and the Dr. in front of my name merited a quick promotion, so here I am: English Department Chair at Charter High in Saxella. So it goes.

Some of my students are smart--it's nice to finally meet the kids who will test out of your intro classes--and some of them are... well, fair warning, State U: you're getting some uninspired seniors. It's a job, and some days it's a good job, and some days it's what I call "subbing for myself" and one of my colleagues called "academic detente."  But I get to teach Arthurian legend and Chaucer and Shakespeare, as well as Maus and a whole host of other things, and when it's fun, it's fun. So there's that.

But I miss all my old friends in Faytown and State U, and I'm really not sure that this is what the rest of my life is for. My wife got a job at Resort Town Community College teaching people how to do what she spent nine years getting paid to do, and there's talk of an opening in their English department. So who knows--I may well have an out. Pray to your gods I do.


Fall 2012 Prep

*blows dust off blog again*

I will set aside the usual mea culpa here and just say that it's been a long year, and blogging hasn't been the highest of priorities. But I'll try it again, if nothing else to produce a resource that might actually be useful for someone else, if not myself.

So, you missed my first attempt at Chaucer last spring, which I thought went all right--not great, but all right--until I got a student comment that said I'd killed their interest in the middle ages. Not exactly a bright and sunny beginning for Chaucer, I'll admit. But everybody's got to start somewhere, and now all that material exists, and can be improved upon. Especially the lectures, which should become actual lectures at some point, and not just a regurgitation of notes.

The fall fast approaches, and I've got nothing new on the plate: three sections of World Literature to 1650 and one section of Introduction to Literature, both of which I've taught before. WLIT has some new surprises--I'm teaching "Bisclavret" for the first time, and Le Morte Darthur for the first time since last year's "Arthurian Lit" Course. Intro has also been revamped, after students in the spring kept asking "why are all these stories so damn depressing?" Gone are Raymond Carver ("What We Talk About"); Sherwood Anderson ("Hands"); and Flannery O'Connor ("A Good Man is Hard to Find"); in their place are, respectively, Neil Gaiman ("How to Talk to Girls at Parties"); William Gibson and John Shirley ("The Belonging Kind"); and Etgar Keret ("Healthy Start"). Keret and Gaiman appear as options for the first out-of-class paper for Intro as well; Keret's "Lieland," a moral about lies that reminded me of Italo Calvino; and Gaiman's "The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains," which feels like a Poe story written by Stephen King.

I'm also trying an exam-free semester this time around; there is no midterm, and the final exists only as an option to improve the final paper score. Both courses are also using a modified version of my research paper assignment sequence:
  1. A paper proposal, of 150-300 words
  2. A close reading paper--now with a clear explanation of how a close reading works
  3. One (or two) summary-critique-application papers, which combines a regular summary/critique of their secondary research with a final paragraph in which they demonstrate how they will synthesize their research into their essay
  4. And the final, synthetic Research Paper, which draws together all the work they've done so far.
 I tried an earlier version of this in Chaucer, and it appeared to produce better, more meaningful research papers. Here's hoping it'll go well again.

One final bit of good pedagogical news: I will be teaching "Medievalism" in the spring. It's listed as a 4000-level course, which means that I will have now taught every level of undergraduate course, from Freshman to Senior. Hurrah!


The Archival Twin Dilemma

No, we're not rehashing old episodes of Doctor Who—which, thank god, because no one needs the Sixth Doctor inflicted on them. Although, come to think of it, today's discussion does feel a bit like you're being choked by a man in a ridiculous motley jacket. That is, what we're looking at is that moment when you find your scholastic twin in the archives.

I'm talking about something I think we've all faced at one time or another, the discovery that the brilliant reading you had was conceived, polished, and put forth years in advance of you. There's nothing worse than going through a journal, an essay collection, or even (most disturbing) an entire book, and realizing that you're sunk. I was going to say "you've been scooped," but sometimes the work you're reading is ten, twenty and (in one personal case) thirty years old, and that's not so much a scoop as a . . . well, a sinking feeling.

Take, for instance, my experience this summer. After a year off from writing scholarship, I decided to spend this summer being creative again. So I spent most of June writing an essay on Sir Orfeo that was kind of a mess, set it aside, and turned to some older projects that cropped up during my dissertation. You know how it is: as you're writing, you think of some "brilliant" ideas that won't quite fit in your main project. In my case they were an essay on the sword-hilt in Beowulf and another essay on the connection between communities in Le Morte Darthur and the modern concept of "heterotopia."

I discovered in short order that there was already a great book (a whole book!) on Malory and community, namely Kenneth Hodges' Forging Chivalric Communities in Malory's Le Morte Darthur. This was a rough blow since I'd spent the previous week writing a careful discussion of how the word "heterotopia" was for Foucault more about knowledge than actually-extant communities. Armed with that hermeneutic, I'd hoped to make the case that a) Malory's chivalry is plural, and that the deliberate failure to synthesize these competing chivalries undoes Caxton's utopian call for a single community bound by chivalry; and b) the failure of that system reminds us that micro-communities are fragile without something to unify them—that essentially heterotopia is not a useful substitute for utopia. Now, b) is hard to do without a), and 50% of a) is Hodges' argument. Dammit.

Something similar happened when I turned to Beowulf. I've long been fascinated by the scene in which Our Hero returns to Heorot, Grendel-head in one hand and melty sword hilt in the other, and presents the latter to Hrothgar as a souvenir of his fight. Hrothgar's response to the hilt is a long mathelode that amounts to, "um, yeah, thanks, but we're going with Grendel's head" and, because it's Anglo-Saxon poetry, a healthy dollop of "also, we're totally doomed as a culture. DOOMED!" Now, I think the reason Hrothgar does this is because Grendel's head and arm are unambiguously a symbol of the fight with Grendel, while the hilt has its own symbolic structures that threaten to make the story of Grendel a story of something else, namely how the Danes are—all together now—DOOMED.

You know who else said that? Seth Lehrer, in Literacy and Power in Anglo-Saxon England, back in 1991. Not in so many words (I doubt, for instance, that Lehrer's Hrothgar sounds like a Valley Girl), but the reading itself is close enough.

Now, I am aware that the standard critical response to this sort of thing is to deal with the critics' work and make a slightly different case, but I have a problem with that here. While I think the Beowulf essay (or, really, conference paper) is probably salvagable and worth playing up, it will still be tough to wade through Lehrer's readings and make them substantially different from my own. In the case of Hodges' "chivalric communities" and my "heterotopias of chivlary," there really isn't any difference except that I'd be using Foucault and using the phrase "heterotopia" instead of "chivalric communities." These projects look scuttled, which is a depressing sight to say the least.

But then again, they don't. In describing them to you, my reader(s), I see where the differences lie, and how it is actually convenient, for instance, that Hodges has done a lot of the footwork on communities so that I can make what would have been a book into the essay it needs to be. Hurrah! We're back in the game.

However, I'm facing another problem, which is that it is now the 26th of July. School starts in less than a month and I have quite a lot of class prep to do. It's also the case that I'm kind of tired; writing that Orfeo essay was harder than it seemed, and I think I'm still kind of wasted from the 4/4 load I had last year (and have this year).

The final problem, though, is Catch-22: I need a job that gives me more time to write, but in order to get that job I have to have publications, which I can't produce because this job is too time-consuming. *sigh* What a frustrating profession this is.


A Meditation on Place and Growth

In preparation for the fall, I've been reading State U's One Book One Community choice, Colin Beavan's No Impact Man. One of Beavan's themes is, for lack of a better phrase, "lifestyle sustainability" (my words, not his). That is, he's asking why we in the West/North/United States are obsessed with a consumerist lifestyle that brings happiness to almost no-one and is destroying the planet as well; he is also asking how it might be possible to change some if not all of that worldview and gain a little more long-term happiness.

In that reading, though, I was reminded of this meditation from Edward Abbey's essay "A San Francisco Journal." Responding to a statement by then-mayor Diane Feinstein that "A city not growing is dying," Abbey quips:

Why not consider the possibility that a city, like a man or woman or tree or any other healthy living thing, should grow until it reaches maturity--and then stop? Who wants to live forever under the stress, strain, and awkwardness of adolescence? Life begins at maturity. A human who never stopped growing would be a freak, a mutant, a monster, a sideshow geek eating live chickens for supper and toppling dead of diabetes and kidney failure into an early grave. We passed the optimum point of urban growth and population increase many decades ago. Now we live in the age of accelerating growth and diminishing returns. (One Life At A Time, Please [New York: Holt, 1978], 60).
I've admired this quotation for a while, not in the least because of the question it doesn't ask: what does "growth" really mean? We think of growth as this physical thing, but Abbey suggests that it might be something akin to the way that we as human beings grow mentally and (again, for lack of a better word) spiritually as we age. That's the reason, I think, that many American cities don't feel so much like places but rather simply collections of buildings: we build up and out without thinking of what it means to build in, to build a community instead of a building, a home instead of a house.

And that's what's kind of exciting about Beavan's book: by eliminating a good number of the things that isolate us--television, cars, even electricity (the latter move by his own admission extreme)--Beavan discovers that Manhattan is already a distinct place, filled with parks and communities and awesome people that he in his culturally-normed isolation never really noticed. I look forward to suggesting this to my students, in part because I hope that, young and malleable as they still are, they might be able to more easily shake those consumerist habits.


Reboot, 2011-style: with sassy Texas sauce.

Sorry, where was I? Okay, so in an effort to return to more of an online presence, and to keep these damn spammers out of my blog, I'm restarting the New Donestre Social Club. Here's what I've been doing since . . . 2009? Oh, [expletive deleted].

Okay, first the good news: I did finish my dissertation and pass my defense, and took the long walk across the stage in May of 2010. I then went to Kalamazoo and delivered what was admittedly a poorly thought out paper to a semi-hostile audience. "Poorly thought out" because lit review is a) not theory and b) not interesting to listen to, and I should have realized that before I went. "Semi-hostile" because the actual questions I got were rather supportive, but one of my co-presenters was a bit confrontational. Ah well. It got me there, and I had a good time otherwise, and bought an obscene number of books with some of my graduation money.

Also good news: I am employed. Less good: said employment is at the same institution where I got my degrees. It's a 4/4 non-tenured position, but it does pay well and comes with benefits, and so long as enrollment stays high, it's mine if I want it.

This spring, I actually got to teach an entire Medieval course, which rocked. I did Arthurian Romance, and we covered everything from the early sources to Malory. That course was the trial run for a "Digital Media Project," which I'd come up with last fall in an effort to look interesting to prospective employers (why sugar-coat it?). That did okay, though it wasn't as coherent as I'd have liked, and several students said they would have liked a regular paper instead.

Now the frustrating news: The job search was just as bad the second time around; I had one institution request more of my dossier, but that was it. So . . . here's to September! I'll ride that damn horse 'till it takes me to a new home.

I've also had a hell of a time getting anything published. I have excerpted and heavily re-edited one chapter of my dissertation, and I think it's in pretty good shape. However, editors of several of our discipline's journals have thought otherwise. I keep sending it out, though. It'll find a home somewhere.

So, that brings us up to the present. After taking a year off from writing, I've been working on a few projects--class in Sir Orfeo, heterotopia in Le Morte Darthur, memory in Beowulf--and hope to get them in conference-shape soon. Actually, Malory's been presented a few times, so I'll probably just try to make that a real essay.

This fall, I'll be teaching three sections of Freshman Composition and one section of our newly-revived Introduction to Literature Course. The former are centered around sustainability, a theme suggested by No Impact Man, our university's choice for its One Book One Community program this fall. The latter I'm teaching as a course in close reading and textual analysis, because a) our students have repeatedly requested such a course and b) they damn well need it. I'm having fun putting both courses together.


Brief Return

Well, it's been a busy three months. Since July, I've written two more chapters: a completely new one on Pearl, and a revision of an older paper on Wynnere and Wastoure. Both were more of a slog than I'd expected them to be, though for different reasons. Pearl kept feeling wrong, for some reason, despite that fact that I was connecting ideology, religion, and utopia pretty well, and despite having Bowers' The Politics of Pearl as an encyclopedic, if not always coherently argued, guide. I even managed to come up with a coherent thesis for the entire dissertation: Allegory and dream-vision can open up utopic spaces to provide new places in traditional discourse where theories of social change can be articulated. Not only do I have an approach for the unwritten parts of the dissertation, but I also have a guide for revising what I've done so far—just as soon as I get some of those older chapters back from my committee.

The Wynnere and Wastoure chapter, on the other hand, was tough because I had an older document that needed a lot of elaboration. After cutting away the theory—most of which is now or will be in the dissertation's theory chapter—I had gone from 19 pages to nine. The argument in the older paper was a little scanty and primitive, too. By the end, I had moved from the argument that "Wynnere is a future the poet endorses" to suggesting that Wynnere and Wastoure is pointing its readers toward a more modern idea of the commodity (goods possessing both use-value and exchange-value). I'm not entirely sure it does, but at least I've read more Marx. And, thanks to JGB, Slavoj Žižek.

Because writing the last two chapters has been a headache, I'm taking the week off from the dissertation. With any luck, I can approach my next topic, Piers Plowman, with a new freshness, or at least without looking like Chris Farley after a ten-minute rant on "Weekend Update."

Aside from the dissertation, I've started the soul-devouring process of the job search. Right now I have seventeen prospects, some of the better than others: a few tenure-track medievalist positions, a couple of lecturer posts, and one or two postdocs. My hope is to get a job that, if it is not an actual tenure-track professorship, would at least allow me time to publish and lick the dissertation into shape sicut ursa ad infantes suas. Thankfully, most of them aren't due until the end of the month, so during this week off, I'm going to write my cover letters and ensure my CV's accurate.

In other professional news, I'm going to Kalamazoo in the spring, under the aegis of Exemplaria (if I'm allowed to say that yet). This means I've got to boil down my theory chapter into a twenty-minute, coherent talk that will minimize the number of objects thrown at my person. Around the same time, I was also asked to contribute to the new edition of Approaches to Teaching the Canterbury Tales. Also a thing needing writing, but also a thing not due until next year. The CV grows slowly, but it grows.

Finally, this last week I've been teaching my lead-in to Beowulf, which I've called "monsters and ennui." I began with a lecture that stressed the highly Christian context of the poem and the culture. The second day was a discussion of "The Ruin," "The Wanderer," and "Dream of the Rood," deliberatly in that order, on the theory that we could trace an appropriation of "pagan grimness" into a "program of Christian allegory." (I recognize that these ideas might be problematic to any genuine Anglo-Saxonists who read this blog—hence the scare quotes—as such, any guidance on how to better approach this topic would be much appreciated.) Friday, for sheer fun, was The Letter of Alexander to Aristotle and The Wonders of the East, both Orchard's translations; I asked them to consider both of them as context for Beowulf, whether directly—if a medieval reader read this anthology scarred cover to charred cover—or ideologically—as I think the poet probably did. Teaching was fun, not in the least because I could teach my world lit class with some degree of confidence for a damn change. This week was also fun because three of the people writing letters of recommendation for me were observing me teach—one every day. I think I did okay.

So, that's the past three months. That, and nearly defeating zombies in Last Night on Earth, and watching a lot of television via Netflix (The Wire is way more awesome than I had first believed), and the usual level of graduate social drinking.


Milestone Achieved

I turned in the House of Fame chapter on Tuesday, right on time. Let's hope it's right on argument, as well. After that, I'm going to take a little breathing room before I start in on Pearl, and I'm thinking I'll spend it on . . . well, I don't know about you, but when I'm doing research, I tend to pick up books—stuff people reference, books that sound good, even ones that were on the same shelf as the one I actually wanted. I tend to hang on to them on the off chance that they'll be useful. I tend to put sticky notes in the front that say "Introduction; Ch 2; Ch 7?; also maybe pp 221-245?" and so on, and then forget about them until I start the next batch of research. I'm thinking of looking through them to see if they're as useful as I'd thought.

I'm also teaching WLIT right now, which makes trying to write kind of "amusing," since the class, as they so often do, comes right in the middle of my peak alertness, i.e. the moment when the early morning metabolism is still up, and the coffee is kicking in. Still, it will be fun: I'm doing six epics in six weeks. Not only will I get to teach the Lombardo Aeneid for the first time, but I'm also teaching Beowulf again after a year's hiatus, and the "Sorhab and Rostam" section of the Shahname for the first time ever. Here's hoping it goes well.