A Review of Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts (Part 1)

When you are a former librarian of the Parker Library at Corpus Christi Cambridge and worked at Sotheby’s, you probably know a few things about old books. What Christopher de Hamel does in his book Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts is describe twelve of the most famous books in medieval Europe in ways that you don’t need much special training to understand. He provides the physical description of the book, the script, the decoration, the possible and known history of the book, and why any of it might matter. And he occasionally says things even scholars think, but are unlikely to say in public like calling an illustration in the Book of Kells ugly, or comparing a scribe’s flourish to a love-sick teen girl’s doodles in her notebook.

The one complaint I have from the first half of the book is that while the author acknowledges the difficulty in accessing the books each chapter is dedicated to, you have to be Christopher de Hamel on a lucky day to get to touch these particular manuscripts, even if you have the credentials and training to work with such things. The problem is that one of his goals is to convey “what pleasure you can have in looking at manuscripts” (8). While this is a laudable goal, he’s chosen 12 of the most inaccessible, famous things, and why couldn’t the same be done with something more accessible and less famous? Very few people would be able to touch the same things, and work with books with such fame attached, and it sounds like talking about the famous stuff is part of the fun.

The author’s personal voice is dominant in the book which is unusual for a scholarly discussion of a manuscript. There is real scholarship behind this book, although as the author points out, it’s all in the notes which most people don’t read (unless you’re a manuscript nerd) and thus relegated to the end of the book. He makes the decision to treat each chapter like an interview (his word) because interviews aren’t just about facts, many of which are likely known beforehand; interviews are about the surprising details in terms of presentation as well as the words, and the meaning that can be gained from them. A de Hamel says, “Listen to them, and let them speak.” (1)

The first chapter is dedicated to Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS 286, one of the oldest known books in England (it dates to the late sixth century and was most probably in England by the seventh), and a copy of The Gospels of Saint Augustine.  One of the more noticeable features of this first chapter, and one that continues throughout the book, is that de Hamel also includes a description of the reading rooms and how he gets access to the valuable book in a collection. Before he really starts to discuss the manuscript he first discusses the owner who had put it into its current collection, Matthew Parker, the sixteenth century English bishop who lived through the reigns of Henry VIII, Mary, and Elizabeth. He then provides the history of Parker’s library, which is interesting because it used to be impossible to access because of how the college had interpreted a stipulation Parker had included about how if a volume was ever lost, the whole collection would be sent to a neighboring college. Then he describes the book in terms of general appearance, contents, collation, script, size, and decoration. In the process, he also considers connections the book has to history and to other manuscripts.

Two more features in this chapter set up the overall tone and character of the book as whole: the pictures, and the personal stories. There are a lot of colored images in this book, most of the manuscripts and features of interest. On the one hand, it makes things even easier for the everyday reader to understand, but on the other, it’s not always easy to tell which picture goes with what description. The chapter ends with the story of the book’s trip (with the author who was the librarian of the collection at the time) from Cambridge to Westminster Abbey, London for mass with the Archbishop of Canterbury and Pope Benedict XVI. de Hamel hints at this episode in the beginning of the chapter by baiting the reader a little with “At the end of this chapter I will recount how Pope Benedict XVI and the Archbishop of Canterbury both bowed down before me, on live television, in front of the high altar of Westminster Abbey.” (10) Naturally the episode has to do with the manuscript, but it’s still a good hook.

Chapter 2 considers Florence, Biblioteca Laurenziana, Cod. Amiat. 1, better known as the Codex Amiatinus. This chapter begins with some archeological history in England, and then a question: why would Bede (as in the Venerable) want 3 new Bibles made for the 2 monasteries of Wearmoth and Jarrow in England, and what might have happened to them? The answer of course, at least to the latter, comes partially in the form of the manuscript, which is “the oldest surviving entire manuscript of the Vulgate and it is still the principal witness for establishing the text of the Latin Bible.” (61). But before the book itself is introduced, there is a description of how de Hamel got to it (physically and permissorily).

This chapter in particular highlights de Hamel’s habit of not directly stating the key point about the manuscript on hand until presenting all the details about it. This is usually the reverse of how a lot of scholarship is presented; often it’s the point first, then the evidence, followed by or interspersed with the reasoning. Only after about 20 pages of images and descriptions does he finally get to the likelihood that the Codex Amiatinus may have been edited and commentated on in the margins by Bede himself. The chapter ends with some speculation about how the book may have gotten from England to Italy.

Chapter 3 presents what is probably the generally most recognizable manuscript to the general public: Dublin, Trinity College MS 58, aka The Book of Kells. The chapter opens with an illustration of the books fame and importance, noting “The Book of Kells has been reported stolen twice.” (96) The second incident occurred in 1874 and was more misunderstanding than theft; the first time the book disappeared was in 1007 and probably was actual burglary. Of all the manuscripts in the first half, this is probably the least accessible for direct study, and the description of how de Hamel got access takes a while, although how he got permission is not included. Some of the special rules include the fact that he himself is not allowed to touch the two volumes he was allowed to see (the librarian would do it for him); the other two were on display for the day. This fact (the 4 volume existence of the book) easily leads into a discussion of how the manuscript ended up in that form.

Once he begins the discussion of the contents, a lot of time is understandably spent on the decoration, the Book of Kells’ most notable feature. This is where he makes the comment, “I shall probably have my permission to visit the Republic of Ireland revoked for ever, but the picture is dreadfully ugly” (113) referring to the first full page illustration in the entire book, an image of the Virgin with her child. While the image is itself reproduced in full color, his description of it does make it sound unattractive, and after some consideration, I have to agree that this is not a very pretty Mary or Christ. de Hamel also considers KS 58’s relationship to other Gospel books of its time and place, and its use and reputation from the 1500s into the 20th century. The final observation notes that the most Irish work of art of all time was probably made in Scotland, but then again, Finnegan’s Wake was written in Paris, and no one really argues about that not being totally Irish.

Chapter 4, on Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, Co. Voss. Lat. Q 79, the Leiden Aratea, is framed as an example the practices of copying as applied to antique and medieval manuscripts. The basic premise is that while now in modern times, copying with or without acknowledgement is looked down upon, medieval writers and scribes considered it a sign of quality to be directly and openly based on a recognized example or exemplar. The particular example, in the Leiden Aratea is a discussion on ancient astronomy in poetry, but is discussed more in terms of it being a nearly identical duplicate of its exemplar which would have been centuries old in the ninth century when this version was made. After reviewing the classical renaissance in England under Charlemagne and Alcuin, there is the story of how de Hamel got access to the book and the reading room in which he saw it. Apparently, the Dutch are pretty easygoing. The description of the book focuses on the script (rustic capitals) and the illustrations with some consideration of the symbolism and meaning involved.

After reviewing the transmission and translation of the original Greek into Latin, there is digression into the shape and construction of the manuscript, which leads into de Hamel’s work being interrupted by a group of curious PhD students who are interested in seeing the manuscript, and one asks how he can tell the book is actually late 9th century, not a late-Roman era original. The response that follows concentrates particularly on the relevance and meaning of a planetarium diagram towards the end of the book. Back in the reading room, de Hamel reveals how in direct sunlight he notices that many of the images in the book have deep impressions, suggesting the book in front of him may have been used as an exemplar, but he’ll come back to this. The images themselves are similar to those in a copy of the same text at a library in Boulogne, but not identical. The final discussions of this Aratea look at tracing the ownership of the manuscript from the sixteenth century onwards, and the chapter ends with a discussion of the evolution of reproduction techniques.

Chapter 5, on NY, Morgan Library and Museum M 644, a collection of interpretations of the Apocalypse by a monk named Beatus in Spain in the 8th century (this copy is ninth century), opens with the observation of a non-standard reading room rule, concerning the prohibition of finger nail polish. Then comes the author’s comparison of the manuscript’s most notable feature (images and description of the Apocalypse) with his walk through NYC to get to the library. He also considers the history of how people thought about the end times, and then begins his discussion of the building and reading room.

Before describing the manuscript itself, de Hamel describes how it got from Spain to NYC, and its connection to the notorious nineteenth-century book collector/forger/thief Count Guglielmo Bruno Icilio Timoleone Lirbi-Carrucci dalla Sommaia, Libri for short. Other famous names involved with the manuscript include M.R. James, Yates Thompson, and J.P Morgan. He describes the foliation and collation, and the contents. After discussing the use of diple to indicate Scriptural quotations, he makes the comparison between the scribe’s “use of rows of little red hearts” to “those in a love-sick teenage girl’s exercise book” (209). HE then discusses, at greater length than prior chapters, the script used, Visigothic miniscule and its connections to cursive. From here he moves into the page design and the contents.

He spends a considerable amount of time describing the images in the book, which are in a style called Mozarabic and has connections to Christian, Jewish, and Islamic traditions. He asks if it is good art, and ends up deciding that the style is appropriate for the subject and uses the comparison to Picasso’s Guernica. The final section discusses what de Hamel labels as “one of the most remarkable features of this famous manuscript” (224), namely the certain knowledge of its painter, and the likely when and why the book was made.

The sixth chapter, at the midway point of the book, presents the late 11th century Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Bodley 717. The chapter begins with a review of the role and importance of riddles in literature from the Exeter Book to The Hobbit. The connection comes from the Exeter connection, since the manuscript by Hugo Pictor was probably originally part of the same library as the Exeter Book. Content-wise the manuscript is St Jerome’s Latin commentary on the Book of Isaiah (Old Testament), but that’s not the important thing here. After reviewing how the manuscript physically got to where it currently is, de Hamel describes the old Duke Humphries reading room that he worked in as a graduate student, and lamented that it was now no longer in use as such, having been closed to scholars in 2011, and replaced by 2015 by the new Weston Library. After describing the external appearance of the manuscript, he turns immediately to discussing the painter’s self-portrait on the last page of the manuscript which is likely the codex’s most famous feature. He describes some of the other ornamentation of the book as well as some of the marginal additions and commentary, and the meanings of some of Jerome’s interpretations.

After moving on to describing some of the features of the parchment used, he reviews the unusually certain provenance of the manuscript and the general history of the time period, and how the two factors are related. The Anglo-Saxon heritage and the Norman effects are the main features of focus in this regard. De Hamel also notes the textual family this manuscript belongs too, since the Jerome commentary has multiple surviving copies, and the features that allow for such determination. This discussion includes trips to Salisbury and Durham, as both were medieval cathedral cities that had manuscript connections with Exeter. The relationship that connects Bodley 717 does not concern the text or contents, but rather the artist Hugo, whose work de Hamel points out bears strong similarities to manuscripts in the other libraries.

As he returns to Bodley 717 itself and its scribes and collation, de Hamel spends a good bit of time considering whether or not the fourth and final of the scribes who worked on the manuscript might have been Hugo himself. As he points out, a benefit of working with such old documents is the acceptability of some degree of speculation. He concludes with a more in-depth review of the self-portrait and what it might have to say about scribal practices, both in Jerome’s time and 700 years later in Hugo’s.

Stay tuned for Part 2.

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Leaning towards the Digital this Summer for Myth and Folklore

Early to mid-October is the time when faculty at my institution are faced with deciding on textbooks for the Spring and Summer terms. This of course means at least partially planning courses, or objectives at minimum, in order to determine the sort of book required, and then finding what’s available that mostly closely resembles the need. I find myself faced with an interesting challenge and an opportunity to really start designing a course with a strong digital component.

I will be teaching for the first time this summer “Myth and Folklore for Literary Studies” in a 5-week half-term hybrid format.

The two main base textbooks for such a course would have to be either Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, or Bulfinch’s collected text of the same title. In either case, digital sources are necessary for more story and character and context, especially beyond the basic Greek and Roman stories. Hamilton only briefly covers Norse mythology, and includes nothing outside of Europe. Bulfinch covers more range but less depth of story, although he does include later references or allusions in major works of literature which is the main reason why I chose his anthology over Hamilton’s.

Given that the course is a major-level elective, an anthology with some theory would be ideal. I’ve encountered 2 issues. First, I don’t want to only use Jung (ie-Campbell), so those paperbacks won’t work as supplements to something like Bulfinch. Ideally, I want at least some Structuralism to add to the psychologically based ideas, and some approaches to folk and fairy tales including feminism and YA backgrounds. Second, I found a promising textbook of stories and theory but, being from OUP, it was too expensive ($100+) to reasonably ask for a 5 week summer course even as the sole textbook. My options are either pillage short segments from various textbooks as pdfs and course reserves or/and find quality articles online. As of right now, it’s looking like a mix of all of the above.

The Bulfinch paperback covers most major myths but I still need folktales. For these, I think the Internet will work fine because these were originally popular tales and not scholarly material, so finding a variety of versions and stories online will actually be more faithful to the spirit of the folktale anyways. For the Greek, it’ll be the likes of:

https://books.google.com/books?id=fHt6Jqnmkv0C&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false

http://fairytalez.com/author/gianakoulis-and-macpherson/

http://fairytalez.com/region/greek/

and for the Roman: https://www.worldoftales.com/Italian_folktales.html

Concerning Norse myth, neither of the standard myth anthologies go into as much depth as I’d like, so I’ll be supplementing the range of the stories with online sources. Again, like the folktales, the sites may not be scholarly but they have the stories and since the material was not originally inherently scholarly, the sites need not be either. So for now:

http://norse-mythology.net/

https://norse-mythology.org/

For the Celtic traditions, both myth and folklore are needed. Bullfinch covers some Arthurian stories and excerpts from the Mabinogeon, but again I feel that’s not enough. I’m planning to add Yeats for folklore, and the Tain for myth. Thankfully there’s some decent online sources for both of these texts. See:

http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/yeats/fip/

http://www.csun.edu/~hceng029/yeats/funaro.html

http://www.yorku.ca/inpar/tain_faraday.pdf

The situation is much the same with European folktales. Bulfinch covers some Robin Hood, but very little of the fairytale collections that make up most literary knowledge of folktales such as Perrault, Grimm, and Anderson. Again, those are located online in a variety of forms, including:

http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/perrault.html

https://www.cs.cmu.edu/~spok/grimmtmp/

http://hca.gilead.org.il/

http://americanfolklore.net/folklore/myths-legends/

 

Particularly for more contemporary literature in English, I want to spend a little time with Africa, India-Middle East and Asia. These days will have sources almost entirely online for all with the exception of one short chapter on India in Bulfinch. So, this means places like:

http://www.aaronshep.com/stories/036.html

http://africa.mrdonn.org/anansi.html

http://www.yesterdaysclassics.com/previews/barker_folktales_preview.pdf

http://www.thisafropolitanlife.com/2015/10/19/african-folktales-introducing-anansi-stories/

 

Thankfully the course doesn’t start until the end of May, so there’s time to work on the details, and it’ll be interesting to see how a more digital-text-based course goes.

Suggestions would be welcome.

A Digital Research Project Outline

After an interesting conference panel on digital teaching ideas, discussion turned into a gripe-fest against giant corporate owners of journals and software and certain textbook companies, which then led to discussion of who owns online content created by professors, the professor who created it or the school (the answer is often the school). Intellectual property rights sound complex, and given how important such things are becoming, I was a little surprised at how little I knew.

The professional development workshop I went to a while back focusing on copyrights ended up being more on using digital sources (and citing them), not as much on creating your own; I admit, I may have dozed and thus could have missed something. While I recognize the importance of that aspect of law, I ended up mentally going back to students, and how much they might know or understand on the subject.

I ended up thinking back to the history professor who’d presented on the panel, talking about how to teach basic research techniques in an online class. The assignment he described that he’d developed to help students work with primary sources sounds like it would be easily adaptable to other subjects, like literature, especially the medieval. I’m not sure exactly when or how I’ll use this, but I do think this assignment would be really useful for helping students learn about primary sources, and some basic research techniques. NB: The following is based on a presentation titled “”Defining Good Research: Using Digital Resources in British and European History Surveys” by Dr. John Krenke, presented at the 64th Annual Midwest Conference on British Studies.

Step 1: Assign students a primary document. Have them analyze who the author was and consider any bias on the author’s part towards his or her subject.

Step 2: Have students consider the author’s goal and maybe do some general rhetorical analysis.

Step 3: Link the document and its details to the macro-context of the time, place, and situation of the subject. This final step would likely require students to do some research using tools provided by the instructor, including databases or textbooks or other reference sources pertinent to the subject.

This assignment would work with documents on a subject that covers multiple sides, such as the slave trade. Sources for documents include places like the Internet History Sourcebook, or on the literary side, any number of library digitization projects and Early English Books Online (if your institution has access- the free version only allows access to some documents).

In a more medieval option, questions like ‘should the Bible be translated into the vernacular?’ or ‘should women be allowed to own property?’ might work well.

Assignments like this have several benefits to my mind. First, they help students learn about digital resources. During that panel’s discussion segment, it was observed and universally agreed upon that most students, being of the Millenial generation, are perceived as tech-savvy, but really are not when it comes to learning how to navigate new (academic) tools, sites, and systems. I can personally attest to this. Not only does every fall involve a 2 week learning curve as new students learn how to navigate the D2L/Brightspace system, but even more advanced students can struggle with more specialized tools. For example, the online Middle English Dictionary requires some fairly detailed search knowledge to be able to navigate easily and efficiently. Boolean operators are a must-know, as are the different places one can search (head-words as opposed to entries, etc). The irony of all this is that while data suggest that online and technology based classes are where enrollment is keeping steady or rising in general, it’s harder for students and professors both to engage with each other and with the material.

Another benefit of this type of assignment is that it breaks down the process of primary based research into manageable pieces: focused background information research, close reading, and secondary research on the broader issue or context.

This assignment also presents the opportunity to blend digital tools and techniques with more traditional library and literary (or historical) methods. I maintain that no matter how good the digital catalogue of a library may be, it still can’t beat browsing the shelves of a decently-stocked research library for finding potential sources. That said, if students don’t have easy access to such a library then it’s all the more important for them to learn how to conduct focused and broad searches using digital resources with as much efficiency and efficacy as possible.

Going back to the original thought about intellectual property in the digital world, breaking down the assignment like this also makes it easier for students to keep track of their sources and citations in a way that makes sense. Students can get the idea that smaller assignments, like homework, don’t need the kind of attention to citation that larger, longer written work like essays require, and an assignment like this could be used to highlight the need to always cite any source that is outside of your own head..

Irma instead of Sir Orfeo

I’m facing a preemptive weather day off school thanks to Hurricane Irma. The announcement was made Friday, for classes the following Monday. While Tuesday remains a question, my guess is there might be a delayed opening, but no full cancellation. Although given that both my classes Tuesday-Thursday are in the morning, it might effectively be a second day off. We’ll see. I bring this up because it got me thinking about how technology has changed the logistics of how these things work.

On the plus side, the announcement went through quickly, as opposed to ye olden dayes when a phone tree might have been used to ensure the message got out. I got both an alert on my phone and an email. The cancellation also features prominently on the university website, and you can’t even go to the email log-in without the red banner near the top of the page informing you of no class Monday. Similarly, through digital technology I can quickly and with relative certainty notify students of both the cancellation and of what to do instead of class. In this case, I posted on class D2L/Brightspace pages an alternative online assignment. It’s not ideal, but it ensures that we can keep moving on with the calendar instead of having to rewrite it or move everything back a day. I also sent out an email alert to the classes telling them where to go for further information.

In the downside, if power goes out, as it certainly will in some areas, then students may lose the ability to see further communications and access certain materials. No power of course equals no wi-fi, and while it’s possible a smart phone might still work, doing a full class assignment on one strikes me as unreasonably difficult. Unless the student does the assignment by hand, takes a picture, and then uploads it onto the D2L dropbox, but I doubt anyone will be thinking that creatively. This does not solve the problem of accessing online lecture outlines or in the case of my British Literature class, the annotated TEAMS version of Sir Orfeo. Most people should have it in the textbook, but a few students with older editions may have to use the online version, which, again, may be difficult to not possible without power.

It’s also a little disappointing that I won’t be doing my manuscript demo in class, since that involves being in person and having access to a digitized pages of Ashmole 61, and pages of the Auchinleck manuscript. The Ashmole manuscript is especially fun to bring up in class because of the scribal signatures, both the name and doodle of the fishy that show up after most of the texts. Students usually have some fun speculating what the fish means and why the scribe draws it. It doesn’t fit to push this back until Wednesday because we’re doing Chaucer that day, which is a whole new set of manuscripts and related issues which don’t’ really lend themselves well to brief class presentations or discussions. If I ever get the chance to teach a full Chaucer course, then heck yes, we’re going there, but this is a Brit Lit 1 survey; it’s just not really feasible. I might have to wait until two weeks from now when we get to the Second Shepherd’s Play (our representation of medieval drama) to bring in manuscript context, and by that point, there’s no guarantee anyone will remember the courtly romances in enough depth. Plus, the questions and manuscript situation for the mystery plays is just plain different.

The final possible inconvenience that technology might cause is not entirely a bad thing. If there are widespread losses of power and therefore access to digital resources, I would guess that students will email questions using their phones. This means I either have to use phone battery life or wait for a backup of emails when I next get into my office. The downside is getting behind in email and students potentially getting worried or frustrated; the plus side here is the forced unplug. While I recognize it just means putting things off in some ways and facing more work when tech is back up and running, for the while it lasts, going old school with paper and pen/pencil is good for a person, or at least for me. Then again, I have the benefit of being from the window of people who experienced a childhood without digital technology, but experienced it early enough in life to be relatively at ease with it now. It’s possible that students, most of whom are from the first generations to grow up with digital technology, may not share this sentiment, but who knows? I’ve seen reports and studies suggesting that even later Millenials recognize the value of getting away from tech every now and again.

 

Double-date Conference

A few weeks ago I attended a conference that marked a couple of firsts for me. It was the first combined conference I’d been to (that is 2 different groups co-hosting) and the first time I’d been to either association’s get-together. I came away thinking that this sort of thing really needs to happen more often. Both the John Gower and Early Books Societies are smaller organizations, which makes sense given the specificity in focus of their interests. It also makes sense for two smaller organizations to combine resources. What made the conference a really good experience was 2 related factors: first, its size, and second, the collegiality.

There was one question that was almost sure to come up when first meeting someone: are you a Gower person or an early books person? Frequently the answer was something like “I’m really more of X, but I’m presenting here on Y.” People would often open their talk with some kind of apology for not being as expert in their topic as the audience, but the great thing here is that people were trying new things, not just sticking to the areas they were comfortable in. It also meant that the audience was already primed to get into discussion during and after the sessions. Most academic conferences are parodied for containing “questions” like “You make an interesting point about X. I work in Y (and spend a lot of time detailing my own work here). Have you considered that?” There were noticeably fewer speeches framed as questions here, and more actual discussion both with panelists and among the audience members.

The size was another great benefit. Because this was a smaller conference, there weren’t 20 potential sessions to choose from at any given time; at most, you had 3 choices. This means that every session had a fair number of audience members. For the record, I define ‘decent audience’ as more people in the audience than the panel. A smaller conference also means you have a better chance of meeting and getting to know people you didn’t before you arrived. During the remarks at the opening reception, one of the conference planners mentioned that a lot of the student helpers (all 5 or so of them) were excited about meeting their footnotes, and could everyone please be nice about it if approached for that reason. The thing is that it wasn’t just the undergrad helpers who were meeting their footnotes; it was some of the graduate student and junior professors (attendees) who got to do that too. There’s also finding out that you and your former professor now know some of the same people independently. It feels a little like growing up again.

The professional networking possibilities at a smaller conference are actually really good, something that surprised me a little bit. There’s also just the random ending up together at a table moments, such as when I ended up having lunch with a post-doctoral fellow from Oxford, and a late career graduate students from the University of Victoria. When you have an American, a Brit, and a Canadian together, the conversation gets pretty interesting when the subject turns to institutional structures. The university systems in the 3 represented countries are really different, which I hadn’t realized before. I’ve done some reading on British universities, but I hadn’t realized the Canadian systems was as different from either the UK or US as it is.

One of the nice things about a lot of academic conferences that I’ve been to that are non-generalist is that they include time for exploring the area and sightseeing. In this case that meant tours of Durham Castle and Cathedral (both of which have medieval components) and the associated libraries. It was during these tours that I found out that some iconic bits in the early Harry Potter movies were filmed in these locations. There’s a hallway in the cathedral cloisters that was used as a part of Hogwarts, and in the Cathedral library nearby, they had Professor McGonagall’s inkwell. Apparently a producer noticed it, and asked if they could borrow it. Supposedly it’s clearly visible in the first movie when Harry and friends are in her office about to be scolded for hijinks. I may need to re-watch those movies to look for this stuff. We (meaning myself and a few fellow conference-goers) also considered the possibility that the Great Hall in the Castle might also have been used as the Great Hall of Hogwarts. We never could decide for sure, and none of us felt like trying to look it up (I did that later when I got home, and it’s just the similarity between medieval great halls; Hogwarts was modeled more directly on Christ Church college at Oxford, which makes sense because part of the Bodleian (Oxford’s library) was the used for the Hogwarts library). The second option for exploration was a bus trip to Alnwick Castle, also used in Harry Potter filming, most notably the flying lessons and Quidditch playfield. The outside of the castle and the gardens were more interesting to me than the interior which didn’t have a lot of medievalness to it. There was also a large used bookstore nearby, although I didn’t find anything I needed to have.

The tours weren’t all just fun though; the Palace Green library had some unexpectedly cool stuff to show the tour group, including a holograph of Thomas Hoccleve’s Complaint and Dialogue with a Friend. It was a pretty basic looking codex, but it had some pretty gold initials, and it was actually, physically written by a fairly well-known medieval literary figure. It was also pretty cool to get to visit not only St Cuthbert who I knew had a connection to the area (his tomb is in the Cathedral), but also Bede. I hadn’t realized his tomb was in the Durham Cathedral, or rather in a side chapel.

This trip turned into something of a Harry Potter pilgrimage without my actually intending it to. I flew into Edinburgh, Scotland and did do some of the requisite Harry Potter visits, including the Elephant House café (where interestingly, the most visibly Harry Potter connection is in the ladies restroom), and the graveyard at Greyfriars Kirk (where you can count on at least one or two groups trying to find the relevant headstones). I just hadn’t realized the Harry Potter connections to Durham. I was a big fan of the books, although I only got into them right as the third novel came out, so the trip wasn’t all work and no play.

I heard on NPR a while back a discussion of Jane Austen’s opening line to Pride and Prejudice, and how it’s often repurposed without retaining the original snark and social commentary; there’s something to that. It’s like the difference between “It is a truth universally acknowledged that the conference book seller room will tempting” and “It is a truth universally acknowledged that professors don’t go on vacation; they go to conferences”. The first statement is true and probably mean sincerely without irony. The second statement is also true, but could be interpreted in a lot of different ways, including the point that a conference may be travel to somewhere interesting, but it’s also work. And then there’s the expectation of doing research (ie- work) at the relevant historical sites and libraries that might happen to be in the general area. I bring this up because this particular conference did indeed mean some expected research in either the Edinburgh or London libraries (the 2 nearest international airports to Durham), and nearly everyone I met was indeed planning on researching after the conference was done. I myself had some research to do at the University of Edinburgh library, and I discovered some interesting potential resources at the conference. As it happens, the Durham Palace Green library is in the process of digitizing its manuscript collection which may prove useful in the future for research or classroom applications, or both. I do find it a little funny that in both libraries we were warned not to touch anything, even though the group of us were professionals trained to do just that.

Challenges of Research and Teaching It

July means 2 things for me: conference presentations and starting to think about fall syllabus prep.

Prepping a conference paper is its own unique academic exercise. It’s a research paper but at the same time, it’s not. Often, one leads to other, sometimes both. There are challenges every step of the way, which isn’t surprising, but what is interesting to me is that many of the issues are very similar to what students run into, just at different levels. My thinking is that by considering the same difficulties and challenges that professional academic scholars face and how we solve or address them, maybe that’s where more useful or promising possibilities for helping students can come from.

The first step is generally the same, whether you’re drafting a researched paper or article, and a conference paper. The research reading and drafting comes first. Two common issues here are getting hands on sources, be they digital or paper. It’s not just getting sources you know you need though; this is also when finding all the sources that you should look at. This is as much a process as the developing of ideas and writing. You have to maintain and build a list of titles and authors to find, so that you cover previous scholarship as thoroughly as possible.

Bibliographies and annotations are a step in this direction, but I’m still working on finding a method that gets students to actively research what fits their topic or thesis best, not just what they find first and seems to work.

Near the end of this part, comes the usual struggle with introductions and-or conclusions. It’s not only coming up with the concise and precise statements of argument and intention that can be difficult here; it’s also about making sure that the ideas match without repeating. These issues are a struggle for introductory composition students on up, and they don’t seem to go away.

The standard advice seems to be to work out a good strong thesis, and build the introduction around that. Generally, this seems to work. The conclusion though is another story, and the question becomes how to review your key ideas without copying and pasting your introduction with a few minor vocabulary changes, as seems to be a favorite technique. I’m planning to try the following prompt: what did you learn in the process of creating your argument and why might it be useful or valuable to know? We’ll see how this goes.

With conference presentations, or presentations in general, there’s the usual time and visual restrictions to consider, but also the audience. When teaching composition using rhetoric as a major factor, audience analysis is something students need to do, but the question is how to get them to really consider their target audience. This is more a problem in a composition class than a conference though, because you already know what kind of person will likely be at the conference. I was recently at the combined meeting of the John Gower Society and the Early Books Society, and someone joked how nice it was to be at a conference where you didn’t need to summarize the Confessio Amantis as a part of your presentation. Another benefit of this level of presentation is that arguments need not be fully developed or even complete, as many scholars use these gatherings as places to get feedback and advice on how to proceed or improve.

Since a presentation based paper from a student needs to be fully developed and polished at the time of presentation, and doing dress rehearsals or peer review of presentations can get boring for students who then get stuck seeing the same or very similar talks given twice, I’m thinking I might do small group presentations with mandatory Q & A as peer review, and then have the final version be turned in as a standard essay. This idea needs more work, so we’ll see what ends up happening.

Even at the professional level, feedback can get tricky. It seems like, on a standard panel of 3-4 papers, 1 or 2 almost always get more questions and attention than the rest. It’s also often the case that certain people ask the questions almost every time. These are factors I’m going to try and circumvent with presentation peer review, but again, to be continued…

With professional conferences and even with advanced student project/presentations, the final challenge comes when you’re faced with adapting a 5-8 page essay into a full scale research project, or vice versa. The challenge of re-finding sources and citations, or choosing what to keep and take out as the case may be, is more one of time than anything else, and time management is a tricky thing to teach well. Even I sometimes forget to cite as I go, and I almost always regret it later; but no matter how much I remind students and tell them my own horror stories, it doesn’t seem to get through. Finding new sources to include is also a reality, though one more for the advanced student or scholar than an introductory type composition course.

Extending the time frame for a major research assignment, and breaking it down into a series of smaller steps seems to be the best option, but keeping students interested and challenged as they go becomes harder.

Coming at the challenges facing introductory composition from the perspective of a writer and researcher seems promising, but for now as there are more questions than answers, I’ll leave things with one final to becontinued….

Reminders Related to Teaching Middle English

I’m in the middle of teaching an upper-level English course on Middle English Language, Literature, and Culture. It’s a 5-week session, which means 12 3-hour class periods (we lose one day off for Memorial Day), some in-person, some online, and 1 needed for a mid-term, and a second needed for a final exam. More on how things went later.

What I mean to consider today is what preparing for this class has reminded me about studying language. It has been nearly a decade since I taught anything that could be labeled ‘foreign language’, and in some senses Middle English qualifies; a native speaker of modern, current English needs considerable help on grammar, syntax, and vocabulary to work with texts in most any form of Middle English.

Reminder 1: Just because a word looks familiar does not mean it is, aka beware the false cognate. I remembered this myself, but when I started to review some of the texts I was planning to use for class, I was surprised at how often,  when I looked something up, it didn’t mean what I was expecting. This of course makes me paranoid, and I spend possibly longer than I need to double checking vocabulary. I don’t regret that though, because I do find difficult forms or unusual vocabulary with enough advance warning to know it’s coming in class and therefore be able to explain the origin of the form or word.

Reminder 2: Inflections can be important. Middle English is not as inflected as something like Old English, and it is less inflected than modern English. But still, sometimes those spelling variations can matter. This is proving confusing for students sometimes, since they also have to try and deal with the lack of standardized spelling.

Reminder 3: I remember hearing once that a basic rule of thumb for designing a test was to take it yourself (a good idea for proofreading purposes anyways) and then double that time for your students. This rule doesn’t quite work so well with translations, at least not in the first half of the course, when students are still getting used to the textbook, resources, and the language itself. The first full day of class, we barely finished the text with me taking some of the translating to speed things up, and ended up with less than 5 minutes to discuss interpretive possibilities. I don’t regret the length or the text, as I do believe that the more exposure you get to something, the easier it gets to understand and work with.

Reminder 4: The problem with using lots of exposure to learn something, as I did with Middle English, is that you don’t always get a strong grasp of the intricacies of grammar, syntax, morphology, etc. This means that I had to learn the basics rules of Middle English inflection in order to teach it. Similarly, I never really formally studied the syntactic or metrical rules for poetry, and therefore had to learn some of that as well. This is not a bad thing, but it does illustrate the difference between learning a language by the grammar and learning it by exposure.

Reminder 5: Pronunciation and reading aloud are at the same time important and troublesome. Troublesome because if you want to correct most (not even all) mistakes, it takes a very long time to get through a short segment of text. Important because it provides another means of exposure to the language. Plus, when dealing a language that survives in a lot of poetry, you need pronunciation to understand rhyme, and stress to help understand meter. Speaking is one of the best practices for learning these elements.

Reminder 6: Just because a rule makes sense to you, doesn’t mean students will always agree. I’ve long thought that Middle English sounded more familiar in many cases than it looks on paper. However, some students have directly said that for them, the opposite has been true so far.  Part of me wonders whether this was a ploy to lessen the amount of reading aloud, but still it remains true that different people have different learning styles, and every teacher needs a reminder of that once and a while.

Reminder 7: No matter how much you plan, things will go their own ways. I’m a fan of over-planning, because it’s better to have too much than not enough to do, but it can be a little frustrating to not get to something you know/hope would be interesting or fun. This is especially sad when you had a really cool way to tie the literature into something related to the history or culture of the time.

Reminder 8: Technology has a mind of its own. I was assigned a new classroom for this class. This is a good thing in that the room the class is in is considerably nicer than the one I had first though. But the tech is touchy. The computer restarted on its own in the middle of class, the smart-board doesn’t always like all the markers, a key website proved uncooperative during a demo, etc.

Reminder 9: There’s always a student or few who is hard to integrate into the rest of the class. It’s not that a student may not want to participate, but maybe they are shy, or learn better on their own, or have lower confidence. When the class is small though, as many summer and major-level courses can be, it’s hard to let someone hide.

Reminder 10: Teaching a class for the first time is hard work. There’s a lot more advance planning with lectures and lesson plans, and there’s more trial and error with assignments. On the other hand, it’s also pretty rewarding when students actually seem to enjoy the material, and it’s easier to remember to ask for feedback about reading assignments, in class work, or pretty much anything else.