Middle English Dictionaries Scavenger Hunt

I love dictionaries. This is probably fairly common among people who study dead languages and teach courses like History of the English Language. I try to introduce students to dictionaries throughout my teaching, but historical dictionaries can be a very unfamiliar beast to people for whom dictionaries serve the simple function of defining modern words. One of the things that helps, I think, is to introduce students to dictionaries with small tasks. As we move into Middle English in HEL, I have created something of a scavenger hunt that breaks dictionary searching tasks down into smaller bits. It’s a work in progress, and feedback from my current students will shape changes that I make for next year, but I’d love to get some suggestions from people who are actual scholars of Middle English. What am I missing? What challenges do you face in using the MED and the OED? Are there cool features that I’m missing out on? Are there words with especially fascinating entries?

Here is my scavenger hunt, as it currently stands (minus the spaces I left for students to write in answers, as the formatting does not translate especially well to the internet:

Middle English Scavenger Hunt for the MED and OED

MED: http://quod.lib.umich.edu/m/med/ (free to access anywhere)

OED: http://www.oed.com/ (easy access on campus, need to login through the library off campus)

To begin with, let’s simply look up a relatively common word: lord.

What are some examples of Middle English spellings of Lord in the OED?

What changes have occurred in the word lord between the 1175 Cotton Homilies and the 1325 (for 1250) Genesis and Exodus (see quotations for sense I.1).

In the MED, you can search for lord by either doing a lookup or doing a Boolean search, which will search the entire text of the dictionary (under search the MED entries).

When you do a Boolean search for lord, how many total results are there?

In the basic lookup, you can use * as a way to search for wildcards, which is especially useful if you don’t know the exact spelling/ending of a word, but it can also be a great way to find compounds.

Use the basic lookup and type *lord to obtain results that end in –lord. What three compounds appear as results?

Use the basic lookup and type lord* to obtain results that begin with lord-. What are some of the results obtained from this kind of search?

Do you get any different results by looking up *lord*? What are they?

In the MED entry for lord, sense 7c gives “In not so pious interjections or exclamations”. Read the quotations and pick your favorite example of a not so pious interjection with lord.

Next let’s consider the word turd.

What medieval spellings does the OED give for turd?

How many results do you get in the MED with a simple lookup for turd?

One of the most common uses of the * at the end of words is to allow for variant endings. Use the list of spellings from the OED and the * to play around with different ways of doing headword lookups. What search do you find most effective?

Now let’s try a Boolean search for turd. How many entries do you get?

Back to the OED. Let’s play around a bit with the advanced search, which should be a link immediately below the search box.

Use the drop-down menu to change the search from Full Text to First Quotation.

Do a First Quotation search for Chaucer. How many results do you obtain where Chaucer is listed as the first quotation? How about Langland? Margery Kempe?

Go back to advanced search and switch to Quotation Author. How many results do you obtain for Chaucer? Langland? Margery Kempe?

What accounts for the differences in the two types of searches?

Back to the advanced search screen, change the search to Language.

Do a language search for Norse. How many results do you get?

At the top of the search results, click on the option that allows you to view the results as a timeline. This sorts the entries based on first appearance of the word. This can give a sense of when loanwords enter English, but you have to be somewhat careful, as we will see in a moment.

The largest bar in the timeline is for 1049 and before. Click on it to view the results for that time period. Examine the etymology section for some of these words (answer is a good starting point). Is there anything that explains the large numbers of pre-1049 words?

Why would you not call the pre-1049 results loanwords?

Go back to the timeline for Norse words. Other than the pre-1049 words, what is the next major time interval for the appearance of Norse words?

Click on it. If you picked the right interval, the fourth result should be anger. How does the etymology section for anger differ from the etymology section for answer?

Now let’s try French. Go back to advanced search and do a language search for French.

Whoa! How many results are there?

Which medieval (pre-1500) period sees the greatest influx of French words?

That’s enough of the OED. Let’s go back to the MED. One of the benefits of doing wildcard searches is that it allows you to search for individual morphemes in words. For example, the word parliament entered written English from Anglo-Norman circa 1300 (you can check it with the OED). This might cause you to wonder what other –ment words entered Middle English.

Go to the lookup page in the MED, and do a headword search for *ment. How many results are there?

Click on the result for adubbement. What poem is given as the source for all three quotations?

That’s probably enough for now. Hopefully you have a much better sense of your way around these dictionaries. If you have any questions, please ask me, whether in class, in office hours, or over e-mail.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

History of the English Language Readings

One of the things I am most excited about this term is teaching a graduate course on History of the English Language (HEL for short, or HotEL if you feel like making it more friendly). I’ve been a TA for Carol Percy’s HEL class at the University of Toronto several times, and co-taught a yearlong undergraduate HEL class at Glendon College, and it’s probably my favorite class, just because it’s a real opportunity to learn from students. It’s such an expansive course that inevitably I am as much an amateur in some areas as my students, and there is a real possibility that they will know more than I do about certain areas. I’m taking advantage of the all-graduate nature of the course to do a whole lot of reading. We’re using David Crystal’s The Stories of English as the backbone, but we’re supplementing with a ton of interesting secondary material as well as frequent reference to primary sources. I’m a little worried that it may be too much, but I also think that learning how to read secondary sources quickly is an important one for graduate students. Mostly I just get way too excited about the material and have a hard time omitting anything (goodbye essay on Jane Austen’s English! Goodbye essay on slang! I hardly knew ye!). In any event, I wanted to share the schedule with the internet. The grade for the course is based on a short Indo-European presentation, three short essays covering the DOE, MED, and OED, and a long essay on a topic of the student’s choice. Some things are still in flux (especially as concerns primary sources), but for the most part I’m set.

Schedule (MW) History of the English Language

 

Week 1

Jan. 12th:

Introduction and the International Phonetic Alphabet

http://www.yorku.ca/earmstro/ipa/index.html

Jan. 14th:

Calvert Watkins, American Heritage Dictionary, “Indo-European and the Indo-Europeans,” 2023–2031

John McWhorter, “Why Save a Language?” http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/07/opinion/sunday/why-save-a-language.html?smprod=nytcore-ipad&smid=nytcore-ipad-share&_r=0

Vyvyan Evans, “There Is No Language Instinct” http://aeon.co/magazine/culture/there-is-no-language-instinct/

Week 2

Jan. 19th: MLK DAY NO CLASS

Jan. 21st: INDO EUROPEAN PRESENTATIONS

Student Presentations on early Indo-European languages (choose between Old Irish, Hittite, Old Iranian, Sanskrit, Tocharian, Latin, or Old Norse. Students who don’t mind reading about something in a different alphabet could also consider Greek or Old Slavonic) http://www.utexas.edu/cola/centers/lrc/eieol/

  1. P. Mallory and D. Q. Adams, The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World, Chapters 1–3, 1–53

Verner’s Law (three parts), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aal9VSPkf5s

Week 3

Jan. 26th:

Crystal, tSoE, “Introduction” and Chapter 1 “The Origins of English,” 1–28

Barnes, Runes: A Handbook, 1–25 and 37–53.

Dumitrescu, “Bede’s Liberation Philology: Releasing the English Tongue,” 40–56

Bede, Historia ecclesiastica

Jan. 28th:

Lapidge, The Anglo-Saxon Library, 63–90

Aelfric’s Colloquy

Week 4

Feb. 2nd:

Crystal, tSoE, Interlude 1 “The Celtic Language Puzzle” and Chapter 2 “The Old English Dialects,” 29–53

Liuzza, “Who Read the Gospels in Old English,” 3–24

West Saxon Gospels

Feb. 4th:

Crystal, tSoE, Interlude 2 “The Rise and Fall of West Saxon” and Chapter 3 “Early Lexical Diversity”

Foot, “The Making of Angelcynn: English Identity before the Norman Conquest,” 25–49

Alfred the Great’s Introduction to the Pastoral Care

Week 5

Feb. 9th:

Crystal, tSoE, Interlude 3 “Understanding Danes”

Frank, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being a Philologist”

Thrymskvida http://www.alarichall.org.uk/teaching/thrymskvida.pdf

Feb. 11th:

Crystal, tSoE, Chapter 4 “Stylistic Variation in Old English”

Niles, “Compound Diction,” Beowulf: The Poem and its Tradition, 138–51

Walkden, “The Status of Hwæt in Old English,” 465–88

Beowulf

Week 6

Feb. 16th:

Frank, “A Scandal in Toronto: The Dating of ‘Beowulf’ a Quarter Century On,” 843–64

Fulk, “Beowulf and Language History,” The Dating of Beowulf: A Reassessment, 19–36

Weiskott, “Making Beowulf Scream: Exclamation and the Punctuation of Old English Poetry,” 25–41

Beowulf

Feb. 18th:

Crystal, tSoE, Interlude 4 “Grammatical Transition,” 101–4

Ælfric, “A Translator’s Problem (Preface to Genesis)”

Week 7

Feb. 23rd:

Crystal, tSoE, Chapter 5 “The Transition to Middle English,” 105–16

Horobin and Smith, “Middle English in Use,” An Introduction to Middle English, 26–39

Ancrene Wisse

Feb. 25th:

Crystal, tSoE, Interlude 5 “Two Peterborough Chronicles,” 117–20

Smith, “The Use of English,” 47–68

Peterborough Chronicle

Week 8

Mar. 2nd:

Crystal, tSoE, Chapter 6 “A Trilingual Nation,” 121–39

Parkes, Pause and Effect, 65–96

Orm, Ormulum

Mar. 4th:

Crystal, tSoE, Interlude 6 “Lay Subsidy Dialects” and Chapter 7 “Lexical Invasions,” 140–62

Horobin and Smith, “The Lexicon,” An Introduction to Middle English, 69–88

“Second Shepherds’ Play”

Week 9

Mar. 9th:

Crystal, tSoE, Interlude 7 “The First Dialect Story,” 163–8

Machan, “Chaucer and the History of English,” 147–75

Parkes, Pause and Effect, 97–114

Chaucer, “Miller’s Tale”

Mar. 11th:

Crystal, tSoE, Chapter 8 “Evolving Variation” and Interlude 8 “Well well,” 169–93

Williams, “Glossing Over the Lamb: Phonaesthetic Gl– in Middle English and Aural Scepticism in Pearl, 596–618

Pearl

Week 10

Mar. 16th: SPRING BREAK

Mar. 18th: SPRING BREAK

Week 11

Mar. 23rd:

Crystal, tSoE, Chapter 9 “A Dialect Age” and Interlude 9 “Where did the –s ending come from?” 194–221

Machan, “Robert Henryson and the Matter of Multilingualism,” 52–70

Cannon, “From Literacy to Literature: Elementary Learning and the Middle English Poet,” 349–64

Lerer, “The Great Vowel Shift and the Changing Character of English,” Inventing English, 101– 14

Henryson, Fables

Mar. 25th:

Crystal, tSoE, Chapter 10 “The Emerging Standard” and Interlude 10 “Complaining about Change,” 222–53

Grund, “The ‘Forgotten’ Language of Middle English Alchemy: Exploring Alchemical Lexis in the MED and the OED,” 575–95

Week 12

Mar. 30th:

Crystal, tSoE, Chapter 11 “Printing and its Consequences” and Interlude 11 “The First English Dictionary,” 254–84

Lerer, “Chancery, Caxton, and the Making of English Prose,” Inventing English, 115–28

Malory, Morte Darthur

Apr. 1st:

Crystal, tSoE, Chapter 12 “Early Modern English Preoccupations” and Interlude 12 “Choosing thou or you,” 285–310

Nevalainen, “Towards a Standard Language,” An Introduction to Early Modern English, 29–44

Tamburlaine

Week 13

Apr. 6th:

Crystal, tSoE, Chapter 13 “Linguistic Daring” and Interlude 13 “Avoiding Transcriptional Anaemia,” 311–37

Nevalainen, “Old Words and Loanwords,” An Introduction to Early Modern English, 45–58

Stallybrass, “Against Thinking,” 1580–7

Midsummer Night’s Dream in Original Pronunciation, http://www.paulmeier.com/shakespeare/

Apr. 8th:

Crystal, tSoE, Chapter 14 “Dialect Fallout” and Interlude 14 “A Beggarly Portrayal,” 338–64

Nevalainen, “Language in the Community,” An Introduction to Early Modern English, 134–48

primary text????

Week 14

Apr. 13th:

Crystal, tSoE, Chapter 15 “Stabilizing Disorder” and Interlude 15 “Delusions of Simplicity,” 365–91.

Finegan, “Style and Standardization in England: 1700–1900,” 101–30

Lerer, “A Harmless Drudge: Samuel Johnson and the Making of the Dictionary,” Inventing English, 167–80

Johnson, Preface to A Dictionary of the English Language

Apr. 15th:

Crystal, tSoE, Chapter 16 “Standard Rules” and Interlude 16 “Glottal Stops,” 392–18

Matto, “English, Latin, and the Teaching of Rhetoric,” 323–33

Proposal for the Publication of A New English Dictionary by the Philological Society

Week 15

Apr. 20th:

Crystal, tSoE, Chapter 17 “New Horizons” and Interlude 17 “Tracking a Change: the Case of y’all,” 419–52

Mufwene, “Creoles and Pidgins,” 553–66

Errington, “Between Pentecost and Pidgins,” Linguistics in a Colonial World, 93–21

Joseph and Newmeyer, “‘All Languages are Equally Complex’: The Rise and Fall of a Consensus,” 341–68

Apr. 22nd:

Crystal, tSoE, Chapter 18 “Linguistic Life Goes On” and Interlude 18 “The Grammatical Heart of Nonstandard English,” 453–83

Kachru, “The Second Diaspora of English,” 230–52

Gonzalez, “The Transplantation of American English in Philippine Soil,” 313–22

Week 16

Apr. 27th:

Crystal, tSoE, Chapter 19 “And Dialect Life Goes On” and Interlude 19 “Dialect in Middle Earth,” 484–513

Lerer, “Ready for the Funk: African American English and Its Impact,” Inventing English, 220–34

Zeigler, “Migration and Motivation in the Development of African American Vernacular English,” 509–20

Apr. 29th:

Crystal, “The Future of English,” 6–16

Crystal, “The Future of Englishes: Going Local,” 17–25

Pollock, “Future Philology? The Fate of a Soft Science in a Hard World,” 931–61

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Becoming Dr. Buchanan

Tomorrow is my first day of class, and I’m not used to people calling me Dr. Buchanan.

For those who don’t know, I’m starting a new job as Assistant Professor of English at New Mexico Highlands University, specializing in English language studies, but of course sneaking in medieval stuff whenever possible. However, as recently as April of this year I assumed that I wasn’t going to have an academic job at all. It’s my hope that by sharing some of the past year, I can help other people.

The day before my thesis defence (or defense depending on your country), I had an interview at Barnes and Noble for a job I wouldn’t get. I’m not entirely sure what did me in. It may have been the fact that I’ve never used an e-reader before. Not out of technophobia or anything like that. I just spend a lot of my life staring at a screen already, and I like the tactility of books. It may have been the fact that preparing for a defence makes it weirdly difficult to answer the question, “What have you been reading lately?” in an accessible way. I’m not sure that phenomenology, Old English, my own dissertation, and a novel called I am not a Serial Killer made for a very compelling answer. Really, it’s probably best to avoid using the words “serial killer” in a job interview. Or just avoid job interviews entirely the day before your defence. Or it may have been the fact that I haven’t had a customer service oriented job since I was a teenager.

Or have I? There was a flurry of internet chatter about Texas A&M-Kingsville incorporating the language of customer service into all of their job postings. David Perry was skeptical of what simply seems to be an attempt to import the language of business into the world of education without thoughtful reflection about what service means in the context of universities. But unlike him, I think, I have been in the position of having to explain how teaching at a university is like customer service, because it was one of the questions I was asked at that Barnes and Noble interview. I don’t have a compelling answer, primarily because customer isn’t the right word for student, but I think service is. And universities often fail to serve their students’—psychological, educational, financial, whatever—needs.

One of the other job interviews I had shortly after my defence was for a job packaging baked goods. It actually paid pretty well and offered health care. The major downside was that my hours would have been from 5pm to 2am. I’m actually glad that I wasn’t offered the job. I would have felt like I had to take it, and it would have meant that Renee and I only saw each other on weekends, which kind of defeats the purpose of living together after two years of long distance dating.

I didn’t hide my graduate degrees during those interviews, although I know some people who have. But I also didn’t insist on being called Dr. Buchanan. It would have seemed bizarrely hubristic to insist on the title while spending an hour doing a practice shift heat sealing packs of brownies while wearing a hair net.

I ended up working at a tutoring center, where my coworkers were people like me, the educated and underemployed, and teachers, the educated and underpaid. Other than my boss, I was the only person with a doctorate. I typically would tell students my educational background when I first started working with them, but I also introduced myself as Peter. The youngest students I worked with would sometimes call me Mr. Peter, but for the most part I worked with sophomores and juniors. And they respected me and thought I was intelligent. One said that he thought I was smarter than his teacher, and I had to remind him that she had a full time job with healthcare while I was in the process of negotiating the Obamacare system. I still am, for that matter, as it turns out cancelling your healthcare coverage is complicated when they’ve lost all record that you signed up for it in the first place.

A lot of the past year was spent dealing with failure and uncertainty. I applied to creative writing programs and was rejected by every single one. I reread my college calculus book and skimmed a statistics book. I also went through a couple months of intensive language practice on duolingo. Who has time for anxiety when you’re learning/refreshing your knowledge of four languages at once?

Of course, I applied to academic jobs, including adjunct jobs in the area. I also spent a lot of time thinking about what I would do when I didn’t get an academic job. My plan was to apply to jobs teaching English at private schools, and if that didn’t work out set to work next year on obtaining either a teaching certificate or an MLS degree, since I want to be around learning and books no matter what. I wasn’t sure whether or not I would apply for academic jobs in the next market.

I’ve been on the job market for three years (Y1, Y2, Y3). Y1 was primarily about dipping my toes in the water. In Y2 I was finishing writing everything up, and I had a full draft of the diss. ready to go by MLA. Y3 was my post PhD year. In those three years I had first round interviews for four jobs. In Y1 I had a phone interview for a VAP-position. In Y2 I didn’t have a single interview. If anyone’s wondering whether you should go to MLA even if you don’t have an interview, the answer is no. Everyone assumes you are there to interview, and as a result you end up having the exact same demoralizing conversation with every person you meet. There’s a weird kabuki dance in which your lack of employment prospects elicits great sympathy while preventing any actual networking. This year I had one MLA interview. Because I haven’t been teaching outside of tutoring, this year’s MLA was the first time I’ve had an opportunity to be Dr. Buchanan in a professional context.

Then I had two first round interviews in rapid succession after Kalamazoo and my first campus visit at the beginning of June. Now I’m very definitely Dr. Buchanan. What’s interesting is that even though I have been qualified to be Dr. Buchanan for a year, the honorific only works now that I have an appropriately professional context to use it in. This became especially clear for me when I was having dinner with my brother- and sister-in-law-to-be right before the move down to New Mexico. They were congratulating me and teasing me a little bit about the new position. They went out of their way to introduce me to our overly solicitous waiter as Dr. Buchanan.

It’s easy to try to draw lessons from individual experience on the job market. One of the lessons I don’t want people to draw from my story is that good people get jobs. Anyone who is familiar with the caliber of people on the job market should be aware that the number of well-qualified individuals far outstrips available positions. The last two interviews I had were for positions that were not very widely advertised, and the only reason I knew to apply for them was that friends directed the postings to my notice. It’s conceivable that both positions could have completely escaped my notice, in which case I would have only had two first round interviews in three years on the market.

I’ve been fortunate to be supported throughout the experience of looking for a job by people I love: professors, other struggling early-career academics, friends, and family. My biggest supporters, of course, have been my partner and soon to be wife Renee and my parents. It’s not an easy thing having to confess your failures to the people you care about, especially when your failures seem so frequent.

I’m still not entirely sure how to introduce myself to my students tomorrow. Dr. Buchanan? Professor Buchanan? Dr. B? Am I really a Dr. B type of person?

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

BEGIN FISHER’S EXACT TEST EXPLANATION

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

Totals

liked it

a

b

5

didn’t like it

c

d

15

Totals

8

12

20

 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

Total

liked it

2

3

5

didn’t like it

6

9

15

Total

8

12

20

 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

Total

liked it

5

0

5

didn’t like it

3

12

15

Total

8

12

20

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

Total

liked it

3

2

5

didn’t like it

5

10

15

Total

8

12

20

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%.

END OF FISHER’S EXACT TEST EXPLANATION

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

p=9.718×10^(-61)

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

p=9.051×10^(-33)

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

p=1.998×10^(-10)

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

p=2.376×10^(-23)

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

p=1.728×10^(-182)

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

p=1.946×10^(-132)

3 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

6 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized