Hwæt’s Up With Statistics

Not too long ago a paper on Old English linguistics swept the internet, garnering write-ups in major British newspapers and popping up on numerous websites. “We’ve been getting the first word of Beowulf wrong!” blasted the headlines, which of course led many non-Anglo-Saxonists to ask, “Have we been getting the first word wrong?” and many Anglo-Saxonists to answer, “We’ve never really known what the first word is…so maybe?”

The paper, for those who don’t recall, was George Walkden’s “The status of hwæt in Old English,” published in English Language and Linguistics and available on Walkden’s website. There was a fair amount of skepticism as well, since newspapers are not exactly the most reliable source for academic claims. For those who dug into the story a little bit, it began to seem like it was, perhaps, not such a big deal. Instead of being an interjection, hwæt was now being considered an exclamative. What exactly an exclamative is and how it differs from an interjection is, I think it’s fair to say, not immediately clear to most people.

I think Walkden’s article is of great importance. It’s the kind of work that all future scholarship on the subject will have to take account of, and (presuming that I am able to get a job that will allow me to teach Beowulf) will change the way that I teach the important opening lines. Most scholars could only dream of publishing something that influential. What’s also remarkable is that Walkden is drawing on really current research in linguistics to make his argument, most of which I think is great. Time has only improved my opinion of the overall work and its importance.

The basic claim is that we’ve been misreading Hwæt, translating it as a stand-alone interjection, when it should be more properly understood as a part of the following clause. This exclamative sense would be rendered in English as “How much we have heard of the might of the nation-kings in the ancient times of the Spear-Danes.” To take possibly the other most famous Anglo-Saxon hwæt, in “The Dream of the Rood” it becomes in Walkden’s reading, “How I want to tell you of the best of dreams.” Key to this understanding of hwæt is the idea of gradability, that there needs to be an element in the following clause that can be understood in terms of degree. We have heard so much about those kings; I so want to tell you about my dreams. The genius of this approach is that it allows hwæt to be quite flexible in its uses while also being consistent. I think this is a really great reading. How I want someone to translate Beowulf with this in mind!

That said, I don’t think that Walkden’s argument is completely convincing. For one thing, I don’t think the objections to the status quo raised by Eric Stanley are as significant as Walkden does. But the main thing I take issue with is Walkden’s statistical analysis, which I think has some pretty major flaws in it.

Let me pause for just a second to mention my familiarity with statistics. If you read my dissertation or hear me give a paper at a conference, you may be left with the impression that I have very little to do with math. It’s all about questions like, “How is a saint’s life like a swamp?” “How is a manuscript like Christ?” and other things in a similar vein. However, before I went all touchy-feely (quite literally), I was primarily a math person. I started college studying Mathematics and Chemistry, and as a first/second year student did graduate coursework in probability and statistics. I have forgotten a lot since then, so I also talked over Walkden’s statistics with my dad, who is a professor of Animal Science who specializes in population genetics. Basically, he’s Gregor Mendel with beef cattle.

Walkden’s statistical analysis uses Fisher’s exact test to examine word-order in clauses preceded by hwæt (or huat in the case of Old Saxon). Before I go on I want to explain what this test is, as it’s my default assumption that most people who study Old English do not take classes in statistics and understanding what a statistical test does is important to understanding how to interpret the results. This gets a bit long, so this explanation could be completely skipped without too much harm done, as I’m going to use a made up example to illustrate how the test works. I’ll put a big “End of Fisher’s exact test explanation” down below so that the non-mathematically inclined reader will know where to skip to.


Fisher’s exact test is a tool for evaluating contingency tables. As a very silly example, let’s imagine that twenty people watch the Norwegian zombie movie Dead Snow. Five out of twenty like it and the other fifteen dislike it. Furthermore, eight out of the twenty have curly hair and the other twelve have straight hair. We could construct a table for this data that looks like this:

Table 0

Have seen Dead Snow

have curly hair

have straight hair


liked it




didn’t like it








 The totals set up constraints, but there are a whole bunch of possible ways the table could be filled out with the group of twenty people, and for the moment I’ve left it blank. If you pick a certain value for a, it will determine the other three values, because everything will have to add up to the totals. For any given set of values, there are multiple possible combinations. Like when you roll dice, you can roll a seven by rolling any of the following combinations: 1+6, 2+5, 3+4, 4+3, 5+2, and 6+1. By contrast, there is only one way you can roll a 2: 1+1. The greater the number of ways of getting to the total, the more likely a certain number is to be rolled, as anyone who has played Settlers of Catan knows.

Contingency tables are a bit more complicated than dice; however, the basic idea is pretty easy to grasp. Values that are close to the proportions of the totals are more likely than values that aren’t. In this table the values are exactly proportional.

Table 1

Have seen Dead Snow

have curly hair

have straight hair


liked it




didn’t like it








 One fourth of the people like the movie (5/20), and this matches up with one fourth of the curly haired people liking it (2/8) and one fourth of the straight haired people like it.

Now, contrast that with this table:

Table 2

Have seen Dead Snow

have curly hair

have straight hair


liked it




didn’t like it








Here no straight haired people like the movie, a result that would seem kind of strange if we went along with the null hypothesis that hair type and love of Norwegian zombie movies have nothing to do with each other. It makes sense, then that the probability of this result would be pretty low.

Of course, when doing statistics, gut feelings (especially gut feelings about made-up examples) don’t count. This site gives a fairly simple tool for evaluating these types of problems, and I would highly recommend trying it out for yourself if you want to understand where these numbers are coming from.

To do the calculations for Table 1, input a=2, b=3, c=6, and d=9.

The calculator returns several values as well as a graph. The first value is the hypergeometric probability, 0.3973. This is the probability of producing this particular table with the given totals. The column graph on the right shows the probability of different values of a. The column for a=2 is the highest one, indicating that this is the result with the highest probability.

This tells us how rare something is, which is what we’re interested in with probability, but it doesn’t tell us how weird something is, which is what we’re interested in with statistics (these are not technical terms). If I had a die with one million sides, getting a 227 on my first roll would be very rare, but it wouldn’t be especially weird because every number has an equal possibility of being rolled.

Instead, we’re interested in the second value to the left of the graph, the two sided (or tailed) p-value. This tells us how likely it is that we would get a result as, or more, weird than the result for the selected value of a. The two tails refer to the tapering on either side of the distribution. In order to calculate the p-value, you take the probability of the desired a, and then add the probability for every other less probable event. Since a=2 has the highest probability, you have to add every other probability, which will give a value of 1.000. Statistical significance is only achieved for p<0.05, so we fail to reject the null hypothesis, which is that the values in the contingency table are the result of chance.

You can also see that a=5, which would be Table 2, has the lowest hypergeometric probability at .00361 (hover over the columns in the graph to get the exact values, although it’s a little bit tricky for this column because of how small it is). Since no other probability is smaller, the two-sided p-value will just be equal to the hypergeometric probability, which you can verify by inputting the values from Table 2 into the calculator.

My two example tables represent the most and the least probable results, because I artificially constructed them to show these extremes, but most of the time you are dealing with something in between. Let’s say that I used a=3, which would give the following table:

 Table 3

Have seen Dead Snow

have curly hair

have straight hair


liked it




didn’t like it








Inputting these values into the web calculator gives a hypergeometric probability of .2384 and a two-sided p-value= 0.3473. The graph of hypergeometric probabilities shows that a=1 and 2 are both more likely, which means that the two-sided p-value is found by adding up all the other probabilities. The 0.3473 comes, then, from adding the probabilities of a=0, 3, 4, and 5. The two-sidedness of this probability comes from the fact that you have to take account of probabilities at both extremes of the graph. We would still fail to reject the null hypothesis because random chance would result in a contingency table as weird as this one 34.73%.


When Walkden calculates statistical significance, he uses tables that compare verb placement in hwæt clauses to verb placement in main clauses and subordinate clauses, running a separate Fisher’s exact test for each comparison. The null hypothesis is that the ratio is the same, and the hypothesis is rejected for p<0.05.

One misconception that is easy for non-statisticians to fall into is that failing to reject the null hypothesis is equivalent to accepting it, but this is not the case. In my dad’s words,

 A lack of significance does not mean that the null hypothesis is accepted; it just means that you fail to reject the null hypothesis.  The null hypothesis in this case is that the ratios are similar for both situations. It is a subtle point, but an important one. The conclusion is not “no difference,” the conclusion is “not enough evidence to suggest that there is a difference.”  In that context, describing the reason that there is no difference can be somewhat dicey.

On the other side of this, rejecting the null hypothesis does not mean accepting whatever alternative hypothesis is offered. It is very important to consider multiple possible explanations for results, and jumping to a particular cause can be very misleading. For example, someone might conclude that ice cream consumption causes shark attacks at beaches, when in fact both are simply more likely in hot weather.

Walkden conducts analyses on three texts: the Old Saxon Heliand, the Old English Bede, and the Ælfric’s Lives of Saints.

1)  He begins by comparing verb placement in main and huat clauses in the Heliand, and gets results from Fisher that show the differences are statistically significant. This leads Walkden to assert:

For anyone who takes huat to be clause-external, this result must surely be a mystery: if huat influences the constituent order of the clause that follows it, it must be a part of that clause, and hence not an ‘interjection’ (472).

However, this demonstrates a real lack of imagination when it comes to developing alternative explanations for statistically significant differences. Given that verbs appear in multiple positions in Old Saxon, it seems reasonable to think that stylistic considerations, whether unconsciously expressed or consciously chosen, could influence verb placement, and the rarity of huat clauses certainly makes them stylistically significant. It is not at all clear to me that anything that influences word order within a clause must be a part of that clause. It seems like a kind of arbitrary rule, and I could with just as much justification assert a rule that clauses following huat used as an interjection will tend to have verbs in later positions.

2)  Continuing on, Walkden then compares huat clauses in the Heliand to subordinate clauses, and Fisher reveals that the difference is not statistically significant, with p=0.2545. Walkden then says,

This suggests that we should hypothesize that these two types of clause pattern together; in other words, clauses introduced by huat have the word order of subordinate clauses.

As mentioned above, a failure to reject the null hypothesis is not sufficient grounds to accept it. I also feel like Walkden lapses into some very imprecise phrasing. All the test allows us to say is “clauses introduced by huat have a word order that is not different in a statistically significant way from the word order of subordinate clauses.” It does not actually say that they are the same.

3)  Walkden then moves on to a consideration of his two Old English sources. He begins his discussion by stating, “Similar results are found for Old English,” and echoes this sentiment by introducing the contingency tables with, “The results of contingency tests based on these data are clear.” The problem is that the results are only similar for one of the two Old English texts.

The results from Bede are consistent with the results from the Heliand. The null hypothesis is rejected for main clauses and fails to be rejected for subordinate clause.

The issue is with the results from Lives of Saints, in which hwæt-clauses significantly differ from both main and subordinate clauses rather than just main clauses. This means that Walkden has to reject the null hypothesis with regard to subordinate clauses, meaning that hwæt-clauses and subordinate clauses do not pattern together, which is acknowledged, briefly, but as soon as the paragraph is over Walkden seems to erase all memory of it. He begins the next paragraph by asserting that “broadly the same results are obtained for Old English and Old Saxon” and concludes the statistical analysis statement with the following paragraph:

To recapitulate: in terms of constituent order, clauses introduced by hwæt in Old English and Old Saxon generally pattern statistically with subordinate clauses (including dependent questions and free relatives), rather than with root clauses as would be expected if hwæt were a free-standing interjection. The constituent order data presented in this section therefore give us strong reason to doubt that hwæt had such a syntactic role or status.

The problem here is that Walkden is using the adverbs broadly and generally to paper over inconsistencies in his statistics. Clauses introduced by hwæt don’t “generally pattern statistically with subordinate clauses.” You can’t generally statistically pattern. It’s not actually too far off from Anchorman. “Sixty percent of the time it works every time,” except here it’s “67% of the time it works every time.” People who throw down the gauntlet with their use of rigorous statistical analyses and challenge critics to explain their results—as Walkden clearly did when he said that the results in the Heliand must be a mystery to interjectionists—would benefit from casting the same critical eye at their own arguments when they are not supported by the statistics rather than reverting to “generally” and “broadly” hand-wavy type statements about percentages. He compounds this issue by later writing, “Rett’s claim that exclamatives pattern morphosyntactically with free relatives rather than questions fits perfectly with an account of Old English (and Old Saxon) hwæt-clauses as exclamatives, since, as I demonstrated in section 3, hwæt-clauses pattern with embedded clauses in terms of verb position.” As I hope is now clear, Walkden did not demonstrate this, and ignoring the results from Lives of Saints doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

The key thing that I find missing in Walkden’s article is a serious consideration of alternative explanations for his statistical results. I see three possibilities (although it is certainly possible there are more):

1)      Walkden is right that hwæt-clauses pattern with subordinate/embedded clauses, in which case the results from Lives of Saints are anomalous. This makes it vital to test more texts in order to determine whether or not Lives of Saints is anomalous and, if so, offer an explanation as to  why it is, especially as Walkden introduces it as a good example of Old English prose.

2)      Hwæt-clauses have their own pattern characterized by a preference for later verb position that sometimes, but not always, appears similar to the verb placement in subordinate clauses. Again, it would be important to examine more texts. If Walkden had argued for this position rather than the first position, I would find it much less problematic.

3)      Hwæt is an interjection which exerts a stylistic pressure pushing verbs later in following clauses. Walkden takes it as a given that anything that influences word order must be a part of the clause, but this is not at all clear to me, especially in a language like Old English where multiple verb placements are perfectly grammatical and may be influenced by stylistic considerations. Examining more texts would again be useful.

The key to distinguishing between explanations 2 and 3 is the idea of gradability that Walkden takes from Jessica Rett. If every instance of hwæt appears before a sentence containing a gradable element, it would be powerful evidence for hwæt as an exclamative rather than an interjection.

In any event, Walkden’s statistical results need much more testing. I’m especially curious about whether or not Ælfric’s other texts will behave in a similar fashion. The main issue is that an experimental unit of three texts is not really sufficient for secure conclusions. As my dad says,

It would be akin to trying to compare varieties of apple trees when you have only two trees.  Measuring 40 apples from each tree does not eliminate the fact that you only have two trees.

The tests Walkden runs allows him to reject the null hypothesis for verb placement within each text, but this is not enough to generalize about verb placement in Old English, nor is it actually sufficient for drawing conclusions between texts, as Walkden does not run any tests to determine how verb placement compares across texts. In order to rectify this, I used Walkden’s data to compare root verb placement for the pairings Heliand/Bede, Heliand/Ælfric, and Bede/Ælfric, and also subordinate verb placement in the same pairings. The null hypothesis then would be that any differences in verb placement would be due to chance. In every single case, the null hypothesis is rejected. There are statistically significant differences in both main verb placement and subordinate verb placement for every pairing. This is not especially surprising for the Heliand comparisons since Old Saxon is a different language, but it does raise some questions about how well we currently understand the factors that influence verb placement in Old English. Walkden chose Bede and Ælfric because he felt that they were not overly dependent on Latin word order, but the differences in verb placement between the texts must have other explanations, such as conscious style, dialectal differences in verb placement frequency, individual preference in different types of clauses, or something else entirely. I’ve included the contingency tables for each test below.

I like statistics and think they can be a powerful tool in historical linguistics, provided that scholars make a serious effort to understand them. I also really like Walkden’s argument in favor of the exclamative hwæt, although I am not entirely convinced of it.  I hope the criticisms brought up here don’t detract from the arguments made in the rest of the article. However, I think his small sample makes it very difficult to generalize to Old English as a whole, which is something he is clearly interested in doing, and the results he obtains in the article don’t actually support the claims he is making about hwæt-clauses patterning with subordinate clauses in Old English, although it does offer a, to me, more exciting possibility of clauses with their own unique behavior.

Heliand/Bede Root V1/V2 V-later Total
Heliand Root 2078 270 2348
Bede Root 1898 819 2717
Total 3976 1089 5065


Heliand/Ælfric Root V1/V2 V-later Total
Heliand Root 2078 270 2348
Ælfric Root 3204 969 4173
Total 5282 1239 6521


Bede/Ælfric Root V1/V2 V-later Total
Bede Root 1898 819 2717
Ælfric Root 3204 969 4173
Total 5102 1788 6890


Heliand/Bede Sub V1/V2 V-later Total
Heliand Sub 567 1629 2196
Bede Sub 1863 3067 4930
Total 2430 4696 7126


Heliand/Ælfric Sub V1/V2 V-later Total
Heliand Sub 567 1629 2196
Ælfric Sub 3467 2168 5635
Total 4034 3797 7831


Bede/Ælfric Sub V1/V2 V-later Total
Bede Sub 1863 3067 4930
Ælfric Sub 3467 2168 5635
Total 5330 5235 10565


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Nostalgia and Old Urine

For land disease or nostalgia, boil wormwood so dry (or) so green, as he hath there, in oleum infirmorum, the oil of extreme unction, till a third part of the oil is boiled away, and smear all the body at the fire with it, and a mass priest shall perform the leechdom, if a man hath means to get one.

Wiþ londadle wyl wermod swa drigne, swa grenne swa þer he hæbbe on oleo <infirmorum> oþ þæt þæs eles sie þriddan dæl bewylled & smire mid þone lichoman ealne æt fyre & mæsse preost sceal don þone læcedom gif man hæfþ. (from Cockayne, T.O. Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft of Early England,)

While I was in grad school, I worked off and on as a research assistant at the Dictionary of Old English, where my job largely consisted of proofreading entries and double checking manuscript variants. It was a great way to get experience reading a wide variety of Old English texts outside of my research interests. One day I was proofreading the entries for hland, stale urine, and hlandadl, a disease of the urine, which I like to imagine was a urinary tract infection (although I am not an expert on Anglo-Saxon diseases).

In addition to the innate hilarity of urine, hland had also captured my interest for its ability to, apparently, be used to counteract necromancy. This made a weird kind of sense to me. If I were a medieval person who saved my urine, I’m sure I could use it to ward off all manner of malefactors, magical or not. In checking the citations for hlandadl, however, I was surprised to come across the translation above, in which Cockayne translated the word as nostalgia. His mistake derived from a variant spelling, in which the h is omitted, leading him to misinterpret the first element as a variant of land.

There were a few things that struck me about the way Cockayne proceeds from a land-disease to nostalgia. For starters, it privileges place rather than time, which is what I associate with nostalgia. But I also thought it was curious that Cockayne pathologized nostalgia as something requiring medical treatment (especially when the treatment was having a priest rub oil all over your naked body). That curiosity was eventually satisfied by an article in The Atlantic, “When Nostalgia was a Disease,” by Julie Beck:

These were some of the treatments proposed for nostalgia during the 17th to 19th centuries, when it was considered a psychopathological disorder–rather than a blanket term for fondness for anything that existed more than thirty minutes ago.

Swiss physician Johannes Hofer coined the term in his 1688 medical dissertation, from the Greek nostos, or homecoming, and algos, or pain. The disease was similar to paranoia, except the sufferer was manic with longing, not perceived persecution, and similar to melancholy, except specific to an object or place.

I’ve been thinking about nostalgia a lot lately. I have a reason to call a number of places home: Stillwater, Lawrence, Toronto, Fargo, Detroit. This makes it difficult when people ask where I’m from. Oklahoma, but I’ve only been there once since my parents moved. I’ve also been thinking a lot about the way time, place, and people are all intertwined. Since I moved to Michigan back in June, I’ve gotten to know a lot of Renee’s friends and I’ve become friends with the people at the tutoring center where I work. But I’m not connected with an academic community here, and I miss having people to wrangle with about metaphor, form, perception, and translation.

I love wrangling. I like people who have strong feelings about mutual passions, especially if their opinions don’t match my own. But it’s also hard to feel that connection in writing, where wrangling without a personal context feels more like attacking. This is one of the reasons I’ve struggled with updating this blog more frequently. As a result, most of my posts have been inspired by something that annoyed me so much I had to write out my opposition. And that’s fine, although I don’t want every blog post to begin with “(fill in the blank) said something that really bugged me.” I want to talk about nostalgia and urine too! And other things that are less puerile. I’ve actually been meaning to write this post since August when that Atlantic article came out.

I’m still negotiating what it means to not be in grad school anymore, One thing it means is that I can split infinitives with impunity, According to the WordPress stats, over a thousand people viewed my post about Nicholas Kristof, including apparently Nicholas Kristof who tweeted it. I’m pretty sure that’s more than the total number of readers for everything I have ever written. I don’t think most of my posts will be interesting to that many people, although this particular post might garner some interesting google results, but I feel like I’m finding my feet a bit with this putting things out there on the internet for strangers to read thing.

Now I just need to find an open fire and a mass priest for this nostalgia.

Bonus facts: Cockayne was a philologist and school teacher who was sacked for explaining the dirty bits of the classics to his students. The section containing the instructions for treating a londadl also discusses how to ward off an elf and a strange visitor, how to treat the bite of a gang-weaving spider, and how to treat diarrhea. I think it’s more likely, though, that sipping horse gall and black snail boiled in milk would be more likely to induce diarrhea than treat it.

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Nick Kristof Needs Me!

Well, to be fair, I doubt he needs me specifically. I’m one of the many PhDs currently without an academic job. And since my PhD is in medieval studies, it’s not clear that he would want me even if I were a professor, although I could at the very least let him know that medieval monks were often active figures in their world, preserving and transmitting knowledge, producing art and literature, and serving as public intellectuals shaping the course of local and international political affairs (of course, not always for the better).

Still, I agree with Kristof’s broad strokes, that academics should be engaged in the world, that they should participate in public debates more, and that they should publish in venues likely to garner a wider readership than academic journals stuck behind prohibitively priced pay-walls.

So why does his column leave such a bad taste in my mouth?

Part of it is the complete lack of consistency. Right after he lambastes academics for relying on theoretical models that are incapable of predicting events of extraordinary unrest like the Arab Spring, he praises economics for its empiricism and rigor. Hah! Does Kristof not have any memory of 2008? Is he ignorant of the fact that many prominent economists actually argue that not only can economics as a field not accurately predict crises, but they also shouldn’t be expected to predict them? I think that’s idiotic, and fortunately many other economists do too. The fact of the matter is any prediction about future events has to be based on models created from data about past events, and when models fail to predict uprisings and crashes, the way forward is to gather more data about possible triggers, rethink old assumptions in light of new observations, and possess some measure of humility that allows you to recognize mistakes.

Another thing that bugs me is the way that Kristof demonizes quantitative data, and I say this as someone whose entire dissertation is about the subjective experience of reading early medieval poetry. Kristof takes specialization and quantitative data as signs that academics are marginalizing themselves and presents TED talks as a model of academic engagement. Ugh. It’s just such a false choice. You know what policy prescriptions, sociological debate, and economic forecasting would be without loads of quantitative data? Bullshit. Unfortunately, that’s what a lot of TED talks are. They perfectly epitomize the Malcolm Gladwell approach to academic research: willfully misconstrue other people’s research to create an engaging, counter-intuitive narrative that “makes you think” and has absolutely no basis in reality. Unfortunately this is the case with a lot of journalistic coverage of social science research, which leads to breathless reportage about the mysteries of humanity unlocked in studies in which only modest statistical effects are observed. This is nothing more than seductive misinformation.

The solution has to be finding a balance of substance and style. I don’t see why it’s a bad thing that academic writing can’t be understood by non-academics. An academic article on tenth century manuscripts will require an understanding of Latin palaeography, one on the Heisenberg uncertainty principle an understanding of partial differential equations and statistical mechanics. It takes years of learning to accumulate that knowledge, and really important work, such as a catalog of every manuscript in Anglo-Saxon England may make for quite dull reading material. But this isn’t the problem. The problem is the pursuit of academic publishing above all else. Academics of all kinds should take advantage of opportunities to address wider audiences about their work and to make the best insights of their fields accessible to people without specialized knowledge.

Part of this will require changing how academic work gets published. Most academic publishing in the humanities is so slow that the field is incapable of quickly responding to current issues and even when it does get published it sits behind pay-walls that ensure limited readership. Academics should take advantage of publication opportunities in newspapers, magazines, blogs, twitter, popular books, and everything else. But they should also expand the readership of academic work, not least because the number of people with PhDs and without institutional affiliations that give them access to the latest research is growing.

Another part of this will be reconceiving of the idea of service. When people talk about service, they usually mean the fairly narrow sense of serving on departmental and university committees as a part of their job or they may even include a larger sense of service to their field through the organization of conferences or serving on executive councils of academic societies. But service should include so much more, and I think it should especially include more than just doing more popular writing. Academics need to cultivate connections with their communities in more ways. We need to do a better job of outreach to high school students and local communities. We need to be willing to go to others and also hold public events that let them come to us. The walls of the academy shouldn’t be barricades but points of contact.

My own experiences have given me a somewhat idiosyncratic view of things. My dad is an animal science professor, and I grew up around the university. But the world of animal science is very different from other disciplines. For one thing, most academics have a clear sense of allegiance to a community of farmers outside the university. They publish academic research in journals that are every bit as difficult to read as in other fields, but they also typically produce research reports aimed at people in industry and people working on family farms. As the person responsible for proofreading multiple years of the Oklahoma State Animal Science research report, I can say that the degree of success people have in translating their research into accessible language varies, but the effort is there. And don’t even get me started on livestock shows as a form of high school outreach. Most major animal science departments have faculty members whose job is organizing these types of events. Extension and outreach are the first tab in the department webpage, even before research and teaching.

There is a mistaken sense that non-academic writing and outreach are great things for academics to pursue in their own time, as long as they don’t distract from research. But research should always go hand in hand with outreach.


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Literature and the Historical Understanding

This originally started out as a response to my dad, who is a professor of animal science and general enthusiast for things scientific, religious, and US-historical. That I got a PhD in medieval literature (after going through most of life as a serious math nerd), is a matter of great pride and amusement to him, and when I visit he often asks me questions trying to figure out what the similarities and differences are between teaching genetics and, say, Shakespeare.

My dad sent me a two word message, “Your thoughts?” with a link to Heather Mac Donald’s article. in the Wall Street Journal arguing that a curricular change at UCLA was emblematic of a loss of a historical understanding of literature in order to promote narcissistic area studies courses. The article has been blazing through the internet. I saw it linked by one of my undergraduate professors, and then a heap of my grad school friends linked to Natalia Cecire’s great defense of current methods in humanities and as I was going over my thoughts just now I see that Rebecca Schuman, taking a break from raking search committees over the coals, wrote her own take down of Mac Donald. I like both posts a lot. Schuman is at her finest eviscerating Mac Donald’s arguments and Cecire offers a rousing defense of expertise in current humanities research. But I also think they are incomplete.

You see, Mac Donald is definitely wrong and creates a straw-man that is fairly easy to knock down. But if you ignore everything she writes about UCLA then you’re left with a stirring defense of the humanistic study as practiced by tons of people today in universities today, including most of the people she is criticizing as narcissistic. Mac Donald writes eloquently about the value of Cicero, Quintilian, the Carolingians, Petrarch, Bracciolini, Rabelais, and others. Somewhat oddly, given that she is writing in defense of Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton, Mac Donald says next to nothing about them.

Mac Donald’s biggest sin by far is that she omits any mention of the fact that UCLA still has a historical breadth requirement. An overly trusting reader of her article would come away thinking that a UCLA undergraduate could get a degree entirely by taking classes on multicultural feminist and queer literature written in the last fifty years or, worse, that a student who wants to read great authors will be subjected to an unrelenting stream of contemporary mediocrities inappropriately elevated by left-wing ideologues who only teach authors who look like them. Both students are complete fictions. Every single English student has to take a medieval course, an early modern course, and an 18th/19th century course, and courses on Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton are on offer every year as far as I can tell. Unfortunately, the same can not be said for Beowulf and Old English. Seriously UCLA. What gives? Hire an Anglo-Saxonist already.

Mac Donald also misrepresents the area studies requirements she disparages, mostly because she just lists their names without exploring very deeply what they mean. The title of each category is stultifyingly wordy, in the way that things named by committee inevitably are. But Mac Donald uses this opacity to mislead her readers. The three offending categories are: 1) Gender, Race, Ethnicity, Disability and Sexuality Studies; 2) Imperial, Transnational, and Postcolonial Studies; 3) genre studies, interdisciplinary studies, and critical theory.

Going in reverse order, three is the least offensive to the culturally conservative critic. Sure, you could fulfill it with a course on Marxist theory, but you could also fulfill it with a course on any literary genre of your choosing. You could fulfill it with a class on modern novels or Romantic poetry or Renaissance drama (because Shakespeare wasn’t the only game in town), none of which I assume is offensive to Mac Donald’s sensibilities.

Two is getting closer to Mac Donald’s chief complaint. But you know what? The English empire stretched across the entire globe, and there are plenty of brilliant writers in English who didn’t happen to be born in the US or England. There are authors from the Caribbean, Nigeria, South Africa, India, and other places who are fantastic writers who deserve study, and an English student who doesn’t spend any time at all exploring the richness of these traditions only has a narrow understanding of literature written in English. What’s more, these authors aren’t working complete independently of the Western tradition. Like Derek Walcott in Omeros, they’re drawing on it and reinterpreting it to fit their time and place, writing back to the literature they love in much the same way that Petrarch wrote back to Cicero. Literature is wonderful because it’s not static. Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “Questions of Travel” means something new to me each time I read it as my idea of home shifts from one city to the next. How wonderful it is to be able to see Homer through the eyes of a poet with mastery of a completely different idiom. Walcott isn’t a minor author, nor does the study of his work turn people off of literary study if the hundreds of people packed in to see him at the University of Toronto a few years ago are anything to go by. I don’t think it’s too much to ask that students take a course that will challenge them to conceive of English lit as a vibrant, transnational tradition. That’s not ahistorical at all.

And at last I come to category one. This is what earns the lion’s share of Mac Donald’s ire and when cultural conservatives gnash their teeth about English departments as the home of Marxists, anarchists, feminists, queers, pagans, and other malcontents, this category is what they are thinking of. I should say at the outset that I have friends who fit into every one of those categories. I also have friends in the humanities who are as conservative as the previous pope. Some of them are even friends with each other! What is annoying is that Mac Donald’s article (and others written in a similar vein) makes it seem like these areas are the only thing English majors do nowadays, when nothing could be further from the truth. Even at UCLA, students only have to take one class from any of the five areas of race, gender, ethnicity, disability, and sexuality. Not one of each or one that somehow combines all five (a class on Afro-Chicana queer ASL feminism?). One total that addresses any area. And sure, not every class will be everyone’s cup of tea, but if you can’t choose one course you would enjoy out of the eight to ten options on offer every term (including apparently a course on Milton last spring), then you aren’t taking a historically informed approach to literature.

This is where I find Mac Donald most incoherent, her loftiest hopes most at odds with her attack on UCLA. She laments the loss of a department which practiced “the historically informed study of great literature, uncorrupted by an ideological overlay,” but the two halves of this statement are fundamentally at odds. You can’t have historically informed study of great literature without an understanding of ideologies, those of the time in which the work was written and the time in which it is read. You would do considerable violence to Chaucer divorcing the Canterbury Tales from any discussion of gender and class, given that the entire thing is people of different occupations, social classes, and gender telling stories that differ according to those categories. What kind of discussions about Chaucer’s female characters like the Wife of Bath, Alisoun, Griselda, and May does Mac Donald imagine ensuing? She herself celebrates the “radical difference” of the past. Part of the good teaching of medieval literature involves explaining how these representations of different gender roles interact with ideas about class in terms of who tells the tales and what motivates them. The goal isn’t to establish Chaucer as some kind of time-traveling feminist from the 21st century, but if students appreciate it the radical difference of the past has the capacity to transform the present. If a student is capable of making connections between Chaucer’s depictions of class and gender and present day interactions, then I think that’s a powerful thing.

And Chaucer isn’t some isolated example. One of the very first things all Shakespeare students learn is that all of his actors were men. As a result, you get men pretending to be women, and since Shakespeare’s comedies often involve female characters disguising themselves as men, you get men pretending to be women pretending to be men. To misquote a line from, T.S. Eliot, O O O O that Shakespeherian Drag. Historically informed interpretation would have to discuss questions about women’s legal and social status in early modern England. And here’s the real kicker. Representations of gender on Shakespeare’s stage can never map onto contemporary audiences’ viewing of his plays. How cool is that? Neither same-gender nor mixed-gender productions of Shakespeare’s plays would capture what he was up to, because he was writing for a specific time and place that was different from ours, and the historically informed critic has to recognize that the interpretation of literature requires not just an understanding of past horizons, but of present ones too, and that the act of interpretation occurs in the continual meeting of these horizons that are never really separate to begin with. Every day and in everything we read we’re gaining understanding of different ideas, people, and cultures, and discovering something radically different in the past but also something that powerfully shapes our present. Lots of great literature may be old but it’s not inert. It stirs things up, and any attempt to bind it too closely contemporary ideologies without an understanding of its provenance is problematic. But the past isn’t an ideological vacuum giving birth periodically to great authors.

All these things considered, I can’t think of any approach that would be more ahistorical than reducing vast historical periods to single authors. Chaucer is great, but so is Beowulf, Marie de France, Pearl, Piers Plowman, and Julian of Norwich. I would think an undergraduate rather poorly read if they had read every one of Chaucer’s major works and not a single other piece of medieval literature. They’d have the words, but they wouldn’t have much of the context for interpretation. in the early modern period you’re missing out on metaphysical poets, all the other playwrights, The Faerie Queene, Queen Elizabeth, accounts of the first English journeys across the Atlantic, and Margaret Cavendish. It seems mind-boggling that Mac Donald is seriously asserting that the path to developing the ability to draw on a wide range of historical and literary sources consists of spending four courses reading only three authors.

When that’s the case, you end up making pretty narrow judgments about which authors get included, and these of necessity represent a contraction of your historical understanding and range of sources. In America generally an understanding of the African-American experience is crucial, and for Mac Donald’s sake there are also plenty of first rate African-American authors to choose from: Frederick Douglass, WEB DuBois, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and more. It should hardly be surprising if these authors have different ideological views from commentators who think black students are narcissistic for taking classes on black authors and black professors are trying to indoctrinate their students. But different viewpoints are good! How boring would literature be if everyone thought the same thing about it? And how on earth are the people who are giving tons of options that could appeal to people any ethnicity and gender the ones doing the indoctrinating when your option is literally to make everyone read the same books by the same set of authors? That’s not literature sans ideology, it’s literature with a rigid ideology stressed to near the breaking point. All you have to do is watch James Baldwin debate William F. Buckley in 1965 and it’s pretty easy to see whose ideological position became dated more quickly. When Phil Robertson described the lot of black men in Louisiana before the civil rights period as a time of uniform happiness, it was from a position of near inexplicable ignorance of Louisiana’s history of lynchings and literacy tests that made it a terrorist state for black people in the early 20th century. Slavery, segregation, and civil rights is one of the most significant historical arcs in US History, and it’s reflected in some of the greatest essayists and novelists we’ve had.

That’s of course just for America in general. It’s worth thinking about the context of California specifically. Los Angeles is 49.8% White, 9.6% African American, 48.5% Hispanic, and 11.3% Asian. If you look at enrollment data, UCLA has essentially equal numbers of Asian and White students, with large numbers of Black and Hispanic students as well. By offering classes in African-American, Asian-American, and Hispanic literature, UCLA is serving both local and student constituencies, and charging them with narcissism for even offering classes in these areas seems quite strange or using them as the basis for asserting the decline of English seems quite strange. These communities make important contributions to literature in California. Why wouldn’t they appear as one way (of many) of fulfilling the area studies requirement.

I’ve rambled quite a lot. Basically, what it comes down to is that Heather Mac Donald wants English curricula that encourage deep and wide ranging interactions with literature, to which I say yay. She wants to do this by mandating very narrow requirements that cover a limited number of authors and limiting the number of acceptable ways of interpreting literature, to which I say huh? I’m in favor of flexible programs that give students chronological and cultural range to explore new literatures while also cultivating areas that they are passionate about. That’s what I think UCLA does.

PS. Though not without faults UCLA. Where’s your Anglo-Saxonist? And why couldn’t I find any disability courses? Is it only included in the rubric to be fashionable? It seems a sad kind of irony if disability courses are not actually accessible.

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Serious Male Authors and Contract Status

Like many members of the UofT community, I was dismayed at the pair of interviews given by David Gilmour and then buoyed by the immediacy and humor of many of the responses that were unfolding on Facebook throughout the evening and into the early hours of the morning. The second interview, in which Gilmour attempted to contextualize what he was saying and combat the view that he is a narrow-minded, sexist, self-obsessed teacher, was even worse than the first. Reading it, I felt a bit like I was watching Aziz Ansari talk about how poorly R. Kelly responded to questions about his scandal.

It shouldn’t have been a hard interview. All he had to do was make it clear that he respects women and is capable of appreciating their contributions to literary culture. This really shouldn’t be a difficult task for a well-read novelist in his sixties. Instead he disparages the motives of his interviewer, Emily Keeler: “And this is a young woman who kind of wanted to make a little name for herself, or something.” We are also supposed to understand that he was taken out of context because: “Quite frankly, I was speaking to a Frenchman, so I was more concerned with my French than I was with what I was saying to this young woman.” But the easiest question in the entire interview is the one he flubs the worst. David Medley asks Gilmour, “Who are some of your favorite female authors?” and the result is bad. At first Gilmour can only think of Virginia Woolf, who, as Medley points out, was the single female author mentioned in the original interview. Gilmour dredges up Alice Munro as the only other female author he loves, an answer that rings false given that three questions earlier he said that he can’t teach Munro passionately and in the original interview he said that he doesn’t love any Canadian authors. He was a film critic for crying out loud. Surely he’s capable of talking intelligently about books by women, even if he only likes them and doesn’t loooooove them. People would still rightly be upset, but he would have done some damage control and placated those who were most inclined to forgive, instead of just adding more fuel to the fire.

As I said, the thing that has been most heartening has been the humor of some of the responses to Gilmour. I especially like the protest that Miriam Novick created jokingly titled, “Serious Heterosexual Guys for Serious Literary Scholarship.” My own contribution to the facebook discussions was to imagine a class I would teach on silly heterosexual guys, where we would read Mark Twain, P.G. Wodehouse, Dr. Seuss, and Terry Pratchett. And Virginia Woolf, of course. If I were actually to teach a class only on the things I passionately love, it would be a kind of strange class. We would read Daphnis and Chloe, Beowulf, the Life of St Guthlac, Pearl, Jonson’s Bartholomew Fayre, H.D.’s Trilogy, something by Rabindranath Tagore, GRRM’s A Storm of Swords, Ursula Le Guin’s Annals of the Western Shore series, and Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red. Finding a way of rationalizing it would be hard, but if anyone wants to give me a job teaching this course I’d do it in a heartbeat.

The most prominent person from UofT who has spoken out against Gilmour is Holger Syme, a professor of early modern drama. I should say here that while I have been in the same room as Prof. Syme a number of times, most recently during job talks at UofT this past year, and have read his blog on many occasions, I don’t think we’ve ever talked to each other. But in general I like the cut of his jib. His rant is epic and is well worth reading in whole. However, it touches on one thing that I find very discomforting about many of the professorial responses to Gilmour, and that is the way in which they go out of their way to deny him the title of Professor.

Before I continue, I want to pause a moment and clarify something about the structure of university departments, from my vantage point. People who teach university courses tend to fall into one of four categories: 1) tenure-track professors; 2) vanity hires; 3) graduate students; and 4) adjunct instructors.

  1. People in group one hold almost all of the institutional power. They decide who gets hired and what courses are taught. They also constitute the pool from which university administrators are chosen (although relations between administrative and non-administrative faculty are frequently tense).
  2. The people in group 2 are people like Gilmour. They’re novelists, journalists, politicians, lawyers, bureaucrats, and businessmen who through some combination of personal success and connections to people in group 1 get asked to teach courses. Their level of education and effectiveness as teachers vary considerably, and they are often given license to be very idiosyncratic in how they teach. There is typically no pedagogical support, although the most famous will often be given a considerable level of graduate student support, as is currently the case with David Petraeus at CUNY and was the case for Chuck Hagel at Georgetown. They hold relatively little institutional power, but their prominence outside of the academic sphere ensures some protection, provided they don’t leave any “dog doodle” on the carpet, as Gilmour said.
  3. The people in group 3 do most of the grading in large research universities, and in many universities teach first year courses. They have virtually no power, but do at least have security in the form of the guaranteed funding package on offer for the first four to six years at most of the top PhD programs in the North America. It is worth noting, though, that this guaranteed funding is often inadequate for covering living expenses, as is the case at UofT.
  4. The people in group 4 hold about as much power as those in group 3–that would be no power–and also have minimal job security. Their classes are the most likely to be cancelled, sometimes with no warning, leaving them with thousands of dollars of lost income. They have little recourse when universities take actions that adversely affect them. And they usually have PhDs (or possess ABD status).

I’ve been a member of group 3 at the UofT English department for the past six years and of group 4 at the Glendon campus of York University for the past year and a half, although I am no longer a member of either group as I have relocated to the US to live with my partner (and I hope to be joining group 1 or 4 at another university sometime in the near future). I have gotten to know many wonderful colleagues at both schools who have treated me as an equal, but I also experienced many things at both schools that made it clear that I was a second class colleague.

Back to David Gilmour. Prof. Syme and others, all of whom I respect, are at pains to make it clear that Gilmour is not a professor of literature at UofT. Their case is pretty solid, and depends on a few points. The first is that UofT is completely anomalous in terms of University structure. It’s an odd mix of Oxbridge style colleges, overlaid by a North American research university, along with satellite undergraduate campuses. Gilmour’s position is within a particular program at Victoria College, and he has no administrative connection to anyone outside of his college, nor can he teach any students who are not in that program. As such, he is not a member of the Department of English or any campus wide department that teaches literature. As for the title of professor, the argument depends on the ambiguity of Gilmour’s position. In promotional materials he claims to hold the Pelham Edgar Visiting Professorship. However, as some have pointed out, this is properly the Pelham Edgar Visiting Lectureship, and it’s only a one year gig that Gilmour held when he first started at Vic. Prof. Syme simply points out that is simply an novelist who teaches a few classes. So, David Gilmour is not a literature professor at UofT.

Except, of course, for the fact that he teaches multiple courses a year on literature at UofT. And this is what bothers me about it. If you haven’t heard of Margaret Mary Vojtko and you care about university education, do yourself a favor and read this. Vojtko was an adjunct instructor at Duquesne University, where she had taught for a couple decades who died with no money and no access to institutional benefits, still trying to make ends meet while teaching courses with no job security. Given the rising adjunctification of universities, it is a very real possibility that there will be more stories like hers in the near future. James Donahue wrote a wonderful post responding to this tragedy. In it, he spoke of the need for tenure track faculty to recognize that adjunct faculty are a part of their community, and one example was still fresh in my mind when I read the responses to Gilmour:

Refuse to participate in the subtle but very real common indecencies that enforce the second-class situation of contingent faculty.  To give another local example, last year one of my tenured colleagues sent a scathing email to my department, insisting that we stop using the title “Prof.” when referring to adjunct faculty (and that we use the “more appropriate”^^^ “Mr.” and “Ms.”).  Her reasoning was that the title “Prof.” is something that is conferred to people with doctorates who are part of the tenure stream.

I’m not too concerned about Gilmour’s ego. He can seek solace in the words of his favorite male authors. And Virginia Woolf. But what of other contingent faculty spread amongst the many colleges and campuses at UofT? There are numerous instructors at the various independently administrated programs at UofT colleges, many of whom have PhDs from Toronto. Would Professor Syme and others rail against calling them professors of literature and deny them as colleagues? I would hope not, especially given how prevalent such individuals are and the likelihood of their numbers growing (and the anomalous institutional structure of UofT). Gilmour can be criticized without establishing lines that exclude people without much power from membership in the academic community at Toronto. Whenever we exclude people from community, we think about who else we are excluding.

Postscript: Since writing this I have been asked by the Toronto Review of Books to post an edited version of the second part of this. Many thanks to Jessica Duffin-Wolfe for this invitation, as well as those I’ve had conversations with since.

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Phoenix Translation

I recently had the novel (to me) experience of having a piece of creative writing published. David Hadbawnik and Chris Piuma put together a special issue on “dystranslation” for David’s journal, Kadar Koli. I feel quite privileged to be published amongst the people there, including friends like David and Chris, Jonathan Hsy, and Dan Remein. If you want to see the whole issue, I’d recommend heading over to David’s website, where you can order a copy for $7. I think the key to what they are conceiving of as dystranslation is nicely put by Chris’s introductory poem, “that translation / offers an opportunity to add poetry, / that poetry can be that which is gained in translation.” Their call came at a time in which I found myself trying to rekindle the sense of wonder that initially animated my dissertation, which begins with a similar premise, that our senses add things in translation.

One of my chapters is about the visual imagination surrounding the phoenix, which appears in a fourth century Latin poem that served as the point of departure for an Old English poem. I found the poems singing together and wanted to add my voice to the song, as well as that of Gaston Bachelard, who wrote about the origin of the phoenix in the language of poetry in words practically fitted to my two poems, in spite of never having read them. My method was to pair as closely as possible lines from the Latin and Old English, accompanied by translations and followed by tercets of my own composition. The diction of my tercets owes a debt to Gerard Manley Hopkins, who taught me to love alliteration before I had any clue how to read Old English. Snippets from Bachelard’s essay were juxtaposed with the sets of poems, so that they appeared in the form of a commentary to it. I’m not entirely sure how to create the effect in WordPress, so I have presented them within the text of the poems themselves at roughly equivalent locations, but it is best to not think of them as anchored to any particular part of the text.

As I was preparing to leave Toronto my friend Emily presented me with a visual representation of the phoenix in the form of a collage, whose composition of disparate elements drawn together into a single being seemed the perfect encapsulation of this magnificent bird, and I have included it after the poem.

Phoenix Dystranslation from Latin and Old English with Commentary by Gaston Bachelard

 mirandam sese praestat praebetque verendam:

     tantus avi decor est, tantus abundat honor.

It offers and presents itself to be wondered at and venerated:

so great is the beauty of the bird, so does its honor abound.

Wonder and awe,

beauty and honor,

the bird gives itself.

The Phoenix of the poets, exploding with flaming and inflammatory words, finds its place at the center of a boundless metaphoric field. An image of this sort does not leave the imagination undisturbed. It is ever born again of the detritus of its spent expressions.

primo qui color est malis sub sidere Cancri,

     cortice quae croceo Punica grana tegunt;

qualis inest foliis, quae fert agreste papaver,

     cum pandit vestes Flora rubente solo:

First, its color is the fruits under the constellation of Cancer,

which cover the Punic grains with saffron-colored skin;

it is as the foliage, which wild poppies bear,

when Flora spreads out her garments on the reddening ground:

Is se fugel fæger    forweard hiwe,

bleobrygdum fag    ymb þa breost foran.

The bird is fair    in form in front,

adorned with variegated-colors    about the front of the breast.

Fair-formed bird,

shadings of poppy and pomegranate,

fresh fire-coal freckles.

Admiration … serves as a substitute for belief—belief not in a real creature but rather in a creature born of heightened language, a poetic creature.

hoc humeri pectusque decens velamine fulget;

     hoc caput, hoc cervix summaque terga nitent.

the shoulders and breast becomingly shine with this covering;

the head, the neck, and the upper back shine.

Is him þæt heafod    hindan grene

wrætlice wrixleð    wurman geblonden.

His head is    green in back,

variegated splendidly,    mingled with purple.

Shoulders shine,

the emerald head

adorned with amethyst.

It is through language that the fabulous takes flight most fully. Fabulous images need to be told time and time again, variations at each telling always contributing something new.

caudaque porrigitur fulvo distincta metallo,

     in cuius maculis purpura mixta rubet.

The tail is stretched out, distinguished with tawny metal,

in whose spots mixed-in purple blushes.

To imagine the legend of the Phoenix sincerely I must always become the Phoenix of myself!

Þonne is se finta    fægre gedæled,

sum brun sum basu    sum blacum splottum

searolice beseted.

Then the tail is    beautifully variegated,

parts brown, parts crimson,    parts with shining spots

cunningly covered.

Dappled spots of purple and brown,

stippled and interleaved,

cover its shimmering tail.

To look for the cause behind an image is to lose touch with what is most essential about it, and to forego the opportunity to experience the immediacy of its psychic powers.

alarum pennas insignit desuper Iris

     pingere ceu nubem desuper aura solet.

albicat insignis mixto viridante zmaragdo

     et puro cornu gemmea cuspis hiat.

Iris marks the feathers of the wings from above,

just as she is accustomed to paint a cloud from above.

The distinguished bird is white, with green emerald mixed in,

and its bejeweled beak of pure horn gapes.

All of us have experienced moments when the mind, empty of thought, is filled with syllables which come to form a very ancient word with no relation to our life today, a word of which we were not thinking!

            Sindon þa fiþru

hwit hindanweard    ond se hals grene

nioþoweard ond ufeweard    ond þæt nebb lixeð

swa glæs oþþe gim,    geaflas scyne

innan ond utan.

The feathers are

white in the back    and the neck green

below and above,    and the beak shines

like glass or a gem,    the jaws shining

within and without.

Wings of white and green,

couple-color clouds;

beak of gemmed glass.

The bird in full flight constitutes a center of poetic space. If its wings are ablaze with color it is property of the poetics of fire.

ingentes oculi: credas geminos hyacinthos,

     quorum de medio lucida flamma micat.

The eyes are huge: you would believe them twinned hyacinths,

from the midst of which bright flames glitter.

              Is seo eaggebyrd

stearc ond hiwe    stane gelicast,

gladum gimme,    þonne in goldfate

smiþa orþoncum    biseted weorþeð.

The nature of the eye is

hard and in form    most similar to a stone,

to a sparkling gem    when it is placed in a

gold-setting    by the art of smiths.

Fire lights in the eye—

sparks flash from stone—

wonder-work of smiths.

A Phoenix then has nested in a human eye. This Phoenix, as experienced by a poet, expresses in the form of a retinal drama the immensity of human longing to possess a fiery eye. Although it is an eye languishing somewhere between blindness and illumination, shadowed with despair, it constitutes a renascence of light and represents the courage of renewal.

aptata est moto capiti radiata corona,

     Phoebei referens verticis alta decus.

A radiated crown has been fit to its moved head,

suggesting the lofty decoration of Phoebus’s peak.

Is ymb þone sweoran,    swylce sunnan hring,

beaga beorhtast    brogden feðrum.

Around the neck    is also a ring of the sun,

the brightest of treasures    set in feathers.

A radiant ring

encircles the head,

flickering light.

A creature has surged from the text in its eagerness to be, a psychological shock which takes the writer unawares. A Phoenixical instant has come to superimpose itself upon the flatness of existence.

Wrætlic is seo womb neoþan    wundrum fæger

scir ond scyne.    Is se scyld ufan

frætwum gefeged    ofer þæs fugles bæc.

The stomach below is beautiful,    splendidly fair,

bright and shining.    From above the crest is

gloriously joined together,    over the bird’s back.

Wondrous the womb.

Its comb crests

above its back.

What a pleasure it is to read and experience the poem in two languages, twice imagined, twice conceived, twice freeing itself from the constrictions of sclerosed literary tradition!

crura tegunt squamae fulvo distincta metallo;

     ast ungues roseo tinguit honore color.

Scales cover its legs, marked out with tawny metal.

But color tinges the claws with rosy honor.

Great images communicate with one another, bolster one another, and melt into one another, growing together in magnificence.

Sindon þa scancan    scyllum biweaxen,

fealwe fotas.

The legs are    covered in scales,

the yellow feet.

Copper scales

tinge the legs

and fallow feet.

The Phoenix is the sum total of its poetic expressions, a play of multiple correspondences: fire, balm, song, life, birth, and death. It is nest and infinite space.

effigies inter pavonis mixta figuram

     cernitur et pictam Phasidis inter avem.

Its image is seen mixed between the figure of a peacock

and the painted bird of Phasis.

Se fugel is on hiwe

æghwæs ænlic,    onlicost pean,

wynnum geweaxen    þæs gewritu secgað.

The bird is in form

utterly singular,    most similar to a peacock,

blissfully grown up,   as writings say.

The Phoenix, a creature born of the mighty contradiction between life and death, is sympathetic to all contradictory beauty.

Singular in expression,

most like a peacock (or pheasant?),

the phoenix surges into being.


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Fetishizing the Book: My MLA (Part 1)

After much delay and deliberation, here at last is the post (I’m going to make it two posts, because this one ended up going quite long) about my experience of the MLA. Over the course of four days I attended ten sessions, spent an unconscionable amount of time browsing the book room, and saw and made many friends.

My struggle in writing this post was motivated by a couple of things. The first is that the range of things that I saw was so enormous that doing a paper-by-paper summary would quickly feel tedious to write and even more tedious to read. The second is that I had not considered thoroughly enough how to deal with things that I disagreed with. This is something that I think everyone working in the digital humanities has to deal with at some point (and I think Ryan Cordell has a great post reflecting on his own twitter missteps here). I’m especially conscious of this because I feel a great deal of anxiety over the things that I send out into the world, and I want to make sure that the tone I maintain on the blog is one that is always welcoming. I don’t mind a good argument, but I want it to be the type of argument that I have over a few pints down at the pub. I also want to be careful because I think that conferences present a unique opportunity to try out new things, and I take the opportunity to experiment, which sometimes works well and sometimes not, usually both in the same paper. I’m also aware–having once been asked a half hour before I gave a paper to add an extra ten minutes because the conference was running way ahead of schedule–that conference presentations are very much works in progress, temporary congealments of ideas. As scholarship conference papers are significantly different in kind than articles or books, so I want to be mindful of that going forward. My goal is to take ideas seriously, but also not be shy about expressing my disagreement with them. I would ask that anyone who may comment on my blog (now or at any point), would do the same.

The sessions I attended at the MLA were as follows: A More Capacious Conception: Digital Scholarship and Tenure; Anglo-Saxon Legalities; Dirty Chaucer; Convergent Histories of the Book: From Manuscript to Digital; From Imagism to “Amygism” to Vorticism; Eliot, HD, and New England; Early Medieval Materialisms; Humanisms Old and New; Digital Dictionaries; Anglo-Saxon Futures.

By far the best attended of my sessions was Convergent Histories of the Book: From Manuscript to Digital, which in spite of being first thing in the morning was packed, with people sitting all over the floor. It was a superstar panel of people: Sarah Werner, Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Martin Foys, Matthew Kirschenbaum, Stephen Nichols, and Kathleen Tonry. Everyone was provocative, and I suspect that the audience was glad that they had made it to the early session. However, this was also were my largest disagreement of the conference came. As a prologue to his talk, Stephen Nichols talked some about a graduate student seminar he had participated in last year, where he was shocked to hear these graduate students talking about what was lost in the digitization of manuscripts. What was lost, in their words as transmitted by Nichols, were things like, “aura, presence, tactility.” Nichols then said that these students were “fetishizing” the book and that this fetishization was especially inappropriate because medieval book producers didn’t fetishize the book and continually embraced new technologies. By talking about what was lost, the graduate students were aligning themselves with those who want to keep books locked away. There were a number of things that bothered me about this, not least the fact that none of these anonymous graduate students were there defend themselves against the charge of fetishization. But what bothered me most was that Nichols was wrong. Of course, I also think the students, at least as presented by Nichols, were wrong too.

My biggest issue is that, whatever the fetishization of the book means, it seems pretty clear to me that medieval book producers and consumers did it. I’m not saying that they all did it, but I think we should get away from the kind of totalizing ideas about the medieval that Nichols was employing. It was a big period, both temporally and geographically, and even individuals living in the same time and place could be engaged in a multiplicity of practices. I don’t especially care to touch the term aura, but that Nichols dismissed presence as a modern anachronism seemed odd. For the cults of early medieval saints, establishing the presence of the saint was crucial, especially in a time when the practices surrounding the veneration of saints was very much in flux and their bodies could be stolen by rival communities (see Peter Brown’s The Cult of the Saints and Patrick Geary’s Furta Sacra). Accounts of the saint’s life, miracles, and the translation of their bodies were crucial for demonstrating their presence, and were included as a part of the cult of the saints. The St Cuthbert Gospel was placed in Cuthbert’s coffin when his remains were translated, and would seem to provide a perfect example of a text that was venerated but not read in a way that could be called fetishistic.

Tactility would seem to simply be a cipher for the importance of embodiment more generally, and this is where I part ways from both the students and Nichols. I’m all for emphasizing embodiment, but it’s not like digitized manuscripts are disembodied, as N. Katherine Hayles has emphasized in her studies of digital literature more generally. Moreover, I think that the focus on what is lost with digitization obscures how much things have already changed. Manuscripts have already been remediated in the 20th century in the form of the facsimile edition or the microfilm of a manuscript. What’s more, the form of manuscripts changed pretty radically in the medieval period itself with the transition from parchment to paper. What is at issue is a kind of uncanny valley. Robots that seem too human, like the false Maria in Fritz Lang’s technological dystopia, Metropolis, are unsettling; so too, digitized manuscripts may have the potential to be unsettling due to the (unfounded) fear that the digitized form will come to replace the manuscripts. I’m not terribly interested in bemoaning what’s lost, but I do think that the things that have been lost are interesting, and if the present historical moment serves to bring them into sharper relief, then I think that’s for the good. I think the animal nature of the medieval book, for instance, is especially important, and examples of medieval authors who fetishize the form of the book because of its animal nature are abundant. One personal favorite is the Anglo-Saxon Riddle whose solution is book or Bible, in which the construction of the book is detailed as a form of torture, resulting in an object that is like Christ, the Word made flesh or, as Dieter Bitterli has described it, the flesh made Word. The rhetoric used is especially violent, and you might even call it booxploitation if you were feeling especially anachronistic.

Nichols’s dismissal of the embodiment of manuscripts is interesting given that he recently began a guest post on Bruce Holsinger’s blog by noting: “how the mass digitization of medieval codices has radically altered the object of study.” The whole post is a good read, and I don’t have time to get into it fully here, but I think what is notable is the sometimes eschatological fervor with which the digitized manuscript is treated. This put me in mind of how Gadamer ends the preface to Truth and Method: “But though the will of man is more than ever intensifying its criticism of what has gone before to the point of becoming a utopian or eschatological consciousness, the hermeneutic consciousness seeks to confront that will with something of the truth of remembrance: with what is still and ever again real.” I want Nichols to be a part of the conversation of what manuscripts mean: he’s a provocative and insightful thinker. But I also want medieval book producers and consumers, whose codicological practices varied considerably and who were capable of fetishizing the book, to be a part of the conversation too, as well as graduate students for whom manuscripts need to be studied in both digital and physical environments.

(I ended up writing far more than I thought I would, and so will defer discussion of the rest of the MLA to a subsequent post to come in the next couple days. Promise!)

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