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.

London: The Conference Part

Some things about academic conferences never change, including:

The age old conference problem: the struggle and irritation that comes with trying to choose which sessions to attend when several that run at the same time look equally interesting/valuable.

The eternal temptation: the discounted books at the publisher displays, many of which are fairly new publications.

The not-totally professorial one-liners: “Showing the contents of your flash-drive {on the big lecture hall screen} is like showing your underwear”, “sexy pictures of text pages”, “The Aeneid is equivalent to flatulence”, and “he’s either a bad poet or the Stephen Hawking of meter”.

Most importantly, the one thing that doesn’t change is coming home with all kinds of new ideas to research-write about-work into current projects, things to look up, and teaching possibilities. I had never thought of using gender and queer theory to analyze manuscript layouts before, had never heard or seen the term ‘mise en page’ before, and never thought of marginal manuscript illustrations as “click-bait” (image of women with mirror = selfie, monkey riding goat = Youtube hits, cats = cats, etc.). I also got some useful information about a manuscript I’m working on and some good ideas about how the written manuscripts might relate to some early printed editions. And as usual, I also have a long list of books that might be useful to try to find which may or may not be useful.

Some things are unique to a given conference and venue, like the lecture hall right on top of a Tube line, so you could hear the periodic rumble-rush of trains throughout the panel. I can only imagine having to teach in that hall. Others have to do with the nature of the conference itself. Only at a focused gathering like the New Chaucer Society might the following be funny: you are out for a walking tour of Chaucer’s London with a group of experts, mostly PhDs, and run into a basic question like “who was St Botolf”? That’s relevant because there was a parish church in London, St Botolf’s Without Aldgate, that Chaucer may have attended. This church still exists, although not exactly in the same form as the original. None of the dozen or so medieval specialists knew the answer (including the walk leaders, eminent historian and literary scholar though they were), so Professor Google was consulted by one of the younger scholars present (me). It turns out St Botolf was a 7th century English abbot and saint (not martyr) who watches over travelers and some elements of farming. His feat day differs depending on whether you’re English or Scottish (it’s in June either way- 17th or 25th).

There will always be technology problems. We were on a campus that used PCs and it seems like most of the scholars were used to Macs. I personally am a PC person, so it didn’t bother me as much, but I was a little surprised at the degree of struggle some people were having. The more standard problem was when one scholar had to give her paper via Skype, and there were issues getting that set up, and once she was up onscreen, someone from the next room came over to see if we could turn the volume down.

Technology also factored into the conference in ways that are becoming the norm. I allowed myself to get a little distracted at one panel watching the graduate student in front of me Tweet the whole panel. The closing keynote also included a few references to contemporary digital culture, including a Youtube video “Chaucerian Pubbe Joke” (I looked it up; it’s funny for about a minute then gets irritating) and the original LOL Cat “I can haz cheeseburger?”. The talk itself was actually a textual analysis of Chaucer’s use of “the speaking face” trope, particularly in Troilus and Criseyde and Book of the Duchess. On a side note, I found it interesting that people who were taking notes during this final lecture were almost exclusively younger, probably students.

Lastly, there is the blessing/curse of GoogleMaps. We were in a part of London not included on a lot of published maps, so I (and a lot of others) needed a way to figure out getting around. It makes sense on the level that QMUL is not in a touristy part of the city’s East End. Even in more tourist parts of the city, I ended up relying on my phone which can be really frustrating when it doesn’t want to work. I spent a good half hour around Tower Bridge panicking over my phone telling me it had no GPS signal while trying to find a specific pub meeting point. Because of a lot of construction on one end of the bridge and some not well posted signs, I had gotten lost, and the area was not mapped in the level of detail I needed on the map I had with me. After 2 restarts and almost running out of battery, I eventually did get the app working and find the place I needed. The route was not very straightforward, but I got where I needed to be just about on time.

An Inspiring Thing Happened on the Way to the Panel

Conferences are always a good time for a lot of reasons, but one of my favorites is getting inspiration, both academic and personal. Two weekends ago, I attended the Medieval Academy of America’s annual conference held this year at the University of Notre Dame. This is a story of how some inspiration led to more work (in a good way).

On the personal side, I got to see and hear in person a scholar with whose work, my dissertation would never have happened, Professor James J. Murphy. He was presenting a team talk with another scholar (Alex Novikoff) who was born in the year the article Professor Murphy was referencing was published. Professor Murphy’s point was that his 1978 article on The Owl and the Nightingale as modeled on medieval disputation practices was met with silence from contemporary scholars. Professor Novikoff recently published a book (2013) on the subject of how medieval disputation affected social and cultural elements outside of the academy. My second dissertation chapter deals with many of the same ideas these two scholars covered, so it was nice to see that I was not the only one who thought the connection was worth looking into. There was some internal fan-girl geeking out at that panel.

On the academic side, I admit I was guilty of a little thing that lots of scholars seem to do: getting ready to present a paper to which I did not yet have a thesis. The abstract I submitted was taken out of my dissertation work concerning marginalia in the manuscripts preserving Middle English debate poems. Taking it out of that context meant that I had to reframe the research into a self-contained argument. I managed to do it the night before my presentation was scheduled when I had a realization that I could actually connect this older research with my current Gower project.

What I had to explain was why, when most Middle English debate poems have little to no marginalia in their manuscripts (a feature shared with most lyric poetry), did John Lydgate’sDebate of the Horse, Goose, and Sheep”  (HGS) has consistent speaker notations in the margins? Two obvious potential reasons, that the poem had a famous author and that the poem is more narrative both in length and content, don’t work out. Chaucer also wrote some debate poetry (“Fortune”, “The Parliament of Fowls”) and was the attributed author for centuries of another debate poem (“The Cuckoo and the Nightingale”). None of the Chaucerian poems have anything near the consistent manuscript marginal notation of Lydgate’s work. In terms of length, Lydgate’s other debate poem, “The Churl and the Bird”, is similar in terms of narrative content, although it is 20 stanzas shorter than HGS. This second debate has nothing of the consistent marginal speaker guides like HGS.

My brilliant (if I do say so myself) hypothesis is the possibility that Lydgate was following in the path of John Gower’s Confessio Amantis (which I also think has debate poem connections, but that’s another story). Gower oversaw some of the early manuscript production himself, and himself was the author of a lot of the marginalia that is consistently present. Gower manuscripts certainly were added to in terms of commentary and marginal notations, but Gower’s own use of the convention of marginal commentary seems to have ensured some degree of preservation throughout the following centuries. Lydgate knew of both Chaucer and Gower’s works, so the possibility that he had seen an early copy of the Confessio is not a stretch.

Proving this of course means doing a study of equal depth of Confessio Amantis manuscripts. Thanks to the digitization of manuscripts, this will be an easier task than it would have been even a decade ago. This is one great advantage to digital scholarship. Manuscript catalogues are not consistent in terms of describing marginalia, which is why the manuscripts themselves are going to be critical evidence. Even scholarship on Gower manuscripts (of which there is plenty) is not consistent in terms of contemplation of Gower’s influence over the marginalia as a manuscript feature, preferring often to focus on the interpretive suggestions of the notes.

This issue brings up one problem with the digital humanities. Although there is a lot more access than there used to be to manuscripts, scholars no longer have to practice taking notes of manuscript descriptions as they can easily go back to the images. The problem here is that without practice in describing the particular paleographical or codicological features of a text, the actual descriptions of the unique features of interest becomes a struggle when it comes to presenting an argument based on physical evidence.

So, now what? I am planning to finish working on and drafting the original Gower paper, then switching over to the pastoral project while starting the manuscript work on the Lydgate-Gower connection with aid from facsimiles both digital and print. I am hoping by the time I get to the manuscripts that I will have to see ‘in person’ I’ll have some time and resources to actually make the trip to the UK where many of them are kept.

Research (Paper and Digital): 3 Rules and 2 Laws for Success

The Craft of Research is ever bit as much an art as a science (and yes, I do recommend the book by that title linked here). Every person has to find the method that works best for them and their particular situation.  A lot of people think they know how to do academic research by the time they finish high school, but as an instructor of intro to college writing, I am firmly of the opinion that the majority of these people are wrong.Looking back at some of my papers even during my senior year of college, I’m pretty sure I didn’t really understand real academic research until graduate school.

With the rise of digital technologies there has been an incredible rise in the amount of things that can be easily accessed and the speed at which such info might be obtained. This is sadly accompanied by a rise in minimal to non-existent attention spans which causes serious problems for true academic research. Research takes time. It requires in-depth and detailed attention to potential sources and avenues of inquiry. I can’t think of many people who have the patience to comb through fifty pages of database hits to find the perfect source. I have done this. It is painful, but worth it for a stronger paper. The standard ‘first-three-items-that-show-up-on-Google’ does not work in the long term. Let it be known that I have no problem with Google or Wikkipedia. I use them myself. But these types of resources work best for finding basic information and locating resources; they are not great sources themselves.

This problem is not limited to the digital realm. The same applies to academic books that might be potential sources for a research project. Reading the Table of Contents, Introduction, and Glossary are a start, but the book should actually be read. If the topic of the research is narrowed down enough, certain chapters or sections might be skimmed but should not be skipped. Like digital sources, books are not simply sources for soundbites. Many student who are just now beginning college do not realize this but there are databases on paper; they are called ‘Indexes’ of journals and generally cover the year’s contents of a given journal or publication. They often contain possibilities that are not available online. Yes, people, there are materials out there that have not yet been digitized (and may never be).

In addition to misusing digital resources and not taking enough time to sort through the material, problem number two is failure to keep records of research. One of the worst possible feelings when half-way through a project is to remember a citation that would suddenly be perfect, but not remembering where the fact-quote-reference was from.  To that end, I introduce K’s Recommendation 1: Keep records of searches, and notes on what has been read. This will save time in the long run, no matter what the scope of the project. I promise.

Also keep in mind the following:

Machan’s Law: Thou shalt not begin a project with a specific outcome (ie-thesis) in mind. This is the mark of an amateur. Begin with a question and possible answer, but be willing to change thy mind if the research so dictates.

Curran’s Law: If, in the course of a project, you are not wasting time chasing red herrings, you aren’t doing research right. In order to be thorough, you will run into dead-ends. This is not only ok, it is a sign that you are narrowing your focus. This is a sign of progress. Whine and cry if you must (I know I do), but embrace it.

In light of these two laws, based on some of the best research advice I got as a student, I also present K’s Recommendation 2: Be ready to find out that someone else already had your initial idea (or something very close to it). When this happens, do not panic. This is almost a moment of pride. As the old cliche goes, “great minds think alike”. You just had an idea that you share with a published scholar.  Keep working, and you will find a new, original angle. For example, you might find a different reason or way to reach the same conclusion. You might find other evidence that proves the same point, etc.

And finally, K’s Recommendation 3: Listen to your professors, students who have been in your program longer, and to each other. Go ask for direction; discuss your project with others. If someone recommend a title, it is probably for good reason. You are not obligated to use said recommended title, but you should at least look at it. Even if you don’t end up citing it, you might use it to locate other sources or directions from which to approach your topic.