Adam Cohen, U of Toronto, on hidden inscriptions in MS Arundel 155 f. 133r.
spreading the word…
I am pleased to announce the formation of Summer Academic Working
Groups for the 2012 season.
I ran into an old Comp Lit prof from my first semester here today. I said hi, not expecting to be remembered 5 years later with much longer hair, but not only did she remember me, she remembered my seminar paper, said it was brilliant (I think memory may have been blurry in my favor on that bit, ’cause I could barely spell my name my first semester here), took about 15 minutes to chat with me about how things were, and told me essentially that if anybody was marketable, I was. I thanked her for the morale boost and regretted that “the market” didn’t seem to see it that way. It’s getting to the point where the compliments are starting to sting, because even if they’re true/not biased due to “I like people who cite my work” syndrome, it just *doesn’t matter.* I don’t know if I can explain that any better. The closest non-academia analogue I can think of is being an E5(P) with a 798 cutoff score. But that analogy fails quickly, ’cause you can always reclass. Or the cutoff can drop. And meanwhile you’re getting paid.
To stretch the analogy out even more painfully, a friend suggested I send out TOEs rather than resumes.
Capabilities: Provide air defense against low altitude logical fallacies; provide early warning information utilizing integrated communications platforms for assessment of student writing; capable of performing simultaneous smoke and mirror operations depending on weather conditions and funding clock; collect HUMINT on 18-24 year old demographic during periods of limited visibility in area of influence.
Basis of allocation: NGT than one per division at R1 level; may be replaced by a Generalist, Classicist, or Early Modernist at any level given mission imperatives and infrastructure or just plain whim.
Minimum mission essential wartime requirements: Zotero, Red Bull, Google, twelve bookcases with a minimum of five shelves each, a copy of St Augustine’s Confessions, a red pen, and Post-it Notes.
Items of modernization equipment due for review in next stage of cyclic review process.
This unit is dependent on BN level TOE for personnel, admin, food services, health services, planning and operations support. Adapt tables for reduced operational capability in decrements of 20% per month unemployed after May 2012.
Chaplain support: negative.
Doctrine: MLA Style Guide, 6th ed., Bosworth-Toller’s Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, March’s Comparative Grammar of the Anglo-Saxon Language, Strunk & White, What Color is Your Parachute?
I really wish I could find a better close-up of the Furness Abbey crozier than this one, which is the best I’ve found so far. Or a line drawing of the figure.
The job market this year was a complete wash, and when it became apparent that I had nowhere to go were I to finish my dissertation for a summer graduation as planned, I applied for some sixth-year funding/fellowships. Those were all a wash too, the final word having come in earlier this week. (One of the crucial criteria for fellowships seems to be so much progress on the dissertation that one doesn’t actually need the fellowship in order to finish it. As someone who totted up 28 semester hours of language study above and beyond what the graduate school or department require for PhD coursework, I’m a bit vexed that being halfway through a dissertation that involves a great deal of original translation in a thoroughly dead language isn’t good enough.) So I still have nowhere to go, but also no way to pay for the tuition and health insurance fees I’m required to pay while I’m still technically a student. So I still need to get this over with and graduate.
To that end, I need to shake myself out of this funk that has me hitting snooze on a Saturday because being asleep is cozier than solving any of the problems facing me, at the diss level or at the larger life level. I will only see my freshmen four more times this semester and once the end-of-term grading is done, I have nothing else to push the dissertation further down the priority list. Avoiding its knots and snarls will be a matter of procrastination and not competing priorities. So I’d best get on with it.
One of the things I’ve been troubled by in reading scholarship on the Old English “Soul and Body” and related soul and body works is the tendency to presume that orthodox understanding or teaching on soul-body relationships is essentially Augustinian, and, crucially, that this “Augustinian model” means the soul is inherently rational, intellectual, and immortal, pretty much equated with the essential self. Leslie Lockett has recently taken the legs out from under that default stance in her Anglo-Saxon Psychologies in the Vernacular and Latin Traditions, a terrifyingly erudite work that demonstrates, among other things, that the so-called “unitary” model of the rational, intellectual, immortal soul isn’t all that widespread for most of the period and does not fit with the portrayal of soul-body relations in most vernacular works that invite us to consider them. Rather than a unitary intellectual and immortal soul, responsible for agency and cognition and thus forming the locus of what one would call the immortal part of the self, Lockett finds that agency and cognition are associated more closely with what she terms the mind-body complex. This is necessarily an oversimplification of her argument, and I am focusing on only one facet of it since that’s what I’m working on right now, but her book is a long-overdue correction to a long-held assumption that has resulted in some injurious characterizations of Anglo-Saxon soul-and-body works: that Anglo-Saxon works of soul and body ignore theological correctness in favor of shock value, that they are incoherent, a mish-mash of competing and contradictory concepts or models, that they display disgust for or hatred of the body.  One thing her work demonstrates is that it is a mistake to think of ‘Augustine” and “orthodoxy” as synonymous in Anglo-Saxon Christianity. I do not disagree with her findings that emotion and cognition are intimately associated with the body and described in somatic terms in the corpus, nor with her conclusions that the patristic model of a unitary soul does not fit most of the literature. Lockett even acknowledges that it is reductive to assume there was a single patristic model that held sway. However, this enlarged view, informed both by semantics and anthropology, also does not fully account for the relationship portrayed in soul-and-body works, though it does a much better job than anything that has come before it, in my opinion. Sussing out what’s going on in these particular works, which sometimes do seem to contradict themselves in portraying soul-body relations, is my larger project.
But there’s a related problem/issue/concern, and that is the uninterrogated presumption that what some critics think of as “Augustinian teaching on the soul” is 1. accurate and 2. the same understanding that Anglo Saxons familiar with Augustine would have had of “Augustinian teaching on the soul.” What follows is part of what I talked about at SEMA last year (in what was frankly a train-wreck of a conference paper, largely because I wasn’t able to wrestle this stuff down to easily summarizable conclusions by the deadline), and I’m not yet sure that this is not something I’ll need to shelve for another, later project. But one larger concern might be the reduced view of Augustine that is at work in so much criticism, having as it does a tendency to assign to Augustine a simple, reductive view of soul-body relations, from those who claim Augustine identified the self as the inner man,  to those who grant that Augustine may have redeemed the body to a certain extent, but only by proclaiming it “totally subordinate to the soul.”  Augustine is often summarized as claiming that the soul = the self = the inner man, which is not precisely untrue, though it is not precisely true either. But taken in its larger context, the following oft-cited passage from the Confessions reveals a much more complex schema, one that is not reducible strictly to a dichotomous soul-body relationship, and one that is at heart not about a strict ontology so much as about a rigorous mode of self-inquiry that could seem utterly confused if misunderstood, as it inevitably is when taken out of context. Augustine writes,
et direxi me ad me et dixi mihi, `tu quis es?’ et respondi, `homo.’ et ecce corpus et anima in me mihi praesto sunt, unum exterius et alterum interius. quid horum est unde quaerere debui deum meum, quem iam quaesiveram per corpus a terra usque ad caelum, quousque potui mittere nuntios radios oculorum meorum? sed melius quod interius. ei quippe renuntiabant omnes nuntii corporales, praesidenti et iudicanti de responsionibus caeli et terrae et omnium quae in eis sunt dicentium, `non sumus deus’ et, `ipse fecit nos.’ homo interior cognovit haec per exterioris ministerium; ego interior cognovi haec, ego, ego animus per sensum corporis mei.
[And I turned myself to myself, and said to myself, “Who are you?” And I answered, “A man.” And behold, in me body and soul present themselves to me, one without, the other within. By which of these ought I to seek my God, whom before I had sought through the body from earth to heaven, so far as I was able to send messengers, the beams of my eyes? But the better is the inner. For to it, as to one presiding and judging, all the bodily messengers brought the answers of heaven and earth and all things therein, who said, “We are not God,” and “He himself made us.” The inner man knows these things by the ministry of the outer: I the inner [man] knew them; I, I the mind, through the senses of my body]. (10.6.9, emphasis mine)
Certainly, as is often quoted, the speaking “I” here identifies himself with the inner man – for a moment. But to pull this quotation out of context is to miss the movement and inquiry that led up to it.
The speaker turns himself to himself; he is clearly neither body nor soul, both of whom present themselves to him. He does not ask “which of these am I?” but “by which of these ought I to seek my God?” noting the limitations of his previous efforts in seeking God through the bodily senses and thus concluding that the inner man is the better. But nowhere does he denigrate the body; rather, he insists that what the inner man came to know, he came to know through the outer man, through the ministry of the senses. Augustine does not simply say that man is soul; when the speaker does come to identify himself with one of the “characters” in the psychological drama, he is able to do so because of this process through which he separated the parts of himself and became aware of them as separable parts; and while the anima is the inner man at the start of the passage, the “I” who says “ego” is not the anima simply at the end of the passage . The I is the animus, who has come to know that he is non-identical with either soul or body. This passage, so often cited to demonstrate Augustine’s identification of the self with the inner man, is part of a larger project which dramatizes an individual’s self-aware, self-reflexive action as a rational embodied being, the process of a thinker who turns himself to himself, and identifies the parts of himself. He is not “the inner man” by virtue of essence or inherent identity; he is the inner man because he has become the inner man. He has become the animus, once he has known himself to be non-identical with the outer man, whose information comes through the senses and the body. For soul can be rational soul, and mind can be a part of soul, but soul is truly rational only potentially. Not until that potential is realized through the act of turning oneself to oneself does that speaking “I” become identified with the inner man who knows (and presides, and judges). 
I do not mean to present this as a summary of Augustine’s thought – it too would be woefully reductive. In a larger context, Augustine elsewhere in the Confessions, in City of God, and in Morals 4 will make it clear that man is not soul or body alone but the union of both. “Not the whole man, but the better part of man, is the soul; nor is the whole man the body, but it is the lower part of man; but when each is joined to the other, that is called man” (Civ. Dei 13.24). In places he will say that he is mind, in others that he is soul.  But nowhere does he say that he is soul in any kind of simple equation. He does stress that the soul should have primacy. But the soul does not have primacy unless the whole man looks within, separates himself and then reorders himself, and knows himself as a self-aware creation. That the mere possession of a soul is not enough is clear in 4.4.9, where clouded by grief, Augustine became a “great riddle” [magna quaestio] to himself, writing, “interrogabam animam meam quare tristis esset et quare conturbaret me valde, et nihil noverat respondere mihi” [I asked my soul why she was so sad, and why she disquieted me sorely: but she knew not what to answer me].
Why, then, is he not consistent? Why would he contradict himself on on such an important matter as the locus of self? Not from carelessness in assembling his sources, and surely not because he is confused about what he believes. By dramatizing the internal process by which a self comes to know itself , he emphasizes the self as an object of inquiry who can come to know itself as an object of knowledge, that he is not identical with his life-force nor with his bodily senses. The goal is not, however, to escape any prison of the body or relegate the flesh to uselessness; it is to turn the knowledge gained through the imaginative and spiritual exercise displayed in the Confessions towards a new, different unity of being which is decisively embodied but which enables disidentification with the body. The “I that knows” is the animus only insofar as it knows itself as a creation, and that awareness of self as creation is of a piece with awareness of that self’s creator: “Hence it must know that it is a creature.”  Is this, then, a strict anthropology? No. But since when has Christian ontology, with its emphasis on potential, been strict anthropology, with its emphasis on description?
I belabor these points not because I intend to write about the Anglo-Saxon reception of Augustine, and not because I am claiming Augustine’s Confessions were a direct influence on soul and body works in Anglo Saxon England, but because it is worth noting the miniature drama which Augustine puts on here, deploying parts of the self into dialectic so that together, they may collaborate in order to 1. recognize their lack of self-sameness, to know themselves as not identical, and 2. to turn the person who has so realized that he is not identical with his senses or his body to work in cooperation with the senses in order to attain knowledge of God. This drama is one of a conscious alienation of the self from itself, and this is repeatedly the central characteristic of soul-and-body works in Old English. The works emphasize potential over anthropology, and this makes perfect sense within a penitential context. For everyone is born with lif, hyge, sawl, lic, but no one is born a Christian. One becomes a Christian, and then one must continually choose to remain a Christian. In that sense, confession is conversion; as Augustine spoke to his own soul in Confessions 4.11.17, “ut quid perversa sequeris carnem tuam? ipsa te sequatur conversam” [Why then be perverted and follow your flesh? Let it be converted and follow you]. Works of soul and body are part of a larger penitential theology which offers a method for the individual human being to enact precisely this type of constant conversion. And the works delineate a model of being that should be understood not as Anglo-Saxon psychology, but as penitential ontology.
So, I certainly don’t have all the fine points sorted out, but essentially I think that’s what I’m doing right now, trying to demonstrate what a larger view of Anglo-Saxon soul-and-body works — one that does not concern itself primarily with the question of which of the two, soul or body, should properly have responsibility for sin and salvific action in life — can give us towards our understanding of Anglo-Saxon Christianity more largely, or even soul-and-body relations more narrowly. There’s a lot of thinking still to be done, and a lot of prose still to be smoothed over (the above is certainly not my best writing), and there’s also more translation to be done than I will ever have time to do justice to. But that’s the best I can do right now to articulate the goal of the first three chapters.
 Benjamin Kurtz deems “Soul and Body” a vehicle for “calculated hatred” and judges its emphasis on the body’s corruption as unorthodox dualism betraying a belief that flesh is evil. Gifer the Worm: an Essay Toward the History of an Idea, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1929. “Mishmash” is Karen Jolly’s term (75); Jolly also proclaims the literate Anglo-Saxon worldview Augustinian (see esp 72-81), citing Benedicta Ward in Miracles and the Medieval Mind who “demonstrated that an Augustinian worldview, essentially Platonic, prevailed in western Christendom” (192 n. 2). Milton Gatch characterizes soul and body works as displaying confusion or lack of concern with consistency and structure; see “Eschatology in the Anonymous Old English Homilies,” Traditio21 (1965), 117-65. Ann Ross charges homilists with uncritical use and careless integration of source material in her dissertation “Anglo-Saxon Teaching on the Soul” (1992 Diss. UNC Chapel Hill, pp. 138, 44, and passim). Underlying much of this criticism is the presumption that the Anglo-Saxon church taught a model of a unitary, rational soul which should rightfully have responsibility for care and direction of the body, that this is an essentially Augustinian model, and that deviations from it are careless if not heterodox.
 Amity Reading: “it is with the soul that Augustine identifies the self” (54). 2009 Diss., Univ of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
 Michelle Hoek, “Violence and Ideological Inversion in the Old English Soul’s Address to the Body,” Exemplaria 10 (1998): 273.
 I am indebted throughout this discussion to Kevin Corrigan’s discussion of Augustine in “The Soul-Body Relation in and Before Augustine,” Studia Patristica XLIII 59-80, esp. at 63, 65 and passim, though I illustrate his outline with my own choice of passages and thus am solely at fault for any errors, mistranslations, or complete misreadings.
 10.6.10 “iam tu melior es, tibi dico, anima” [now you are the better part, to you I speak, anima].
 De moribus ecclesiae Ch 12.21.
I can’t get the “prove you’re not a robot” feature to work over at Wormtalk and Slugspeak, so I’m posting what I’d intended to comment here instead of there. This is in response to some musings on how a fifty-foot dragon could bite Beowulf’s neck without taking his head clean off.
The poem tells us, “heals ealne ymbeféng / biteran bánum” [his whole neck he encompassed/surrounded/seized/clasped with sharp bones] (2691-92). This is usually translated as teeth or fangs.
Two initial thoughts, then, about how a fifty-foot creature could not take someone’s head off with its teeth surrounding/encompassing/piercing that someone’s neck. Maybe there’s something to “tusks” or even fangs – in the sense that we should imagine not “things to bite/chew with” but something more like an elephant or walrus would have – protrusions with which to pierce and prod but maybe not precisely *bite*. Thing is, while I’m certainly no art historian, I don’t know that that’s any easier to picture than the big dragon with the tiny head. Those would have to be some needle-sharp fangs.. but the danger of the dragon seems to lie in his flame-breathing primarily and his poison secondarily – not his bite. I don’t see why he has to have especially significant teeth in order to be an especially significant dragon. I dunno.
The elongated snakelike creature seems more likely to me than a bulky dragon that moves about on four feet- I’m thinking of the serpents in the Nowell codex Wonders of the East, right under the Blemmye (they don’t seem to have teeth at all, but they are mostly body and that’s close to what I’ve pictured, I think). That has always fit, to me, with “scriDan” (2569) and similar slithering/coiling descriptions — while scriDan doesn’t rule out feet (see Grendel at 703), the sense has always struck me as gliding or slithering or otherwise being serpent-like (though Grendel does complicate matters a bit). I don’t think being able to glide/coil means feet are out of the question, but I never pictured the dragon as using his feet for much more than clinging to things. I’m not really sure what all has contributed to this mental picture over the years.
But what seems likelier to me is less that the poet didn’t have a clear picture so much as we are maybe taking “fifty feet” too literally – maybe it’s meant more as a number that suggests fullness, completion, or the pinnacle of something. Beowulf rules fifty winters, Grendel’s mother held sway over the mere for fifty years (1498), Hrothgar ruled for fifty years (1769) – my sense has always been that this poetic rather than literal. Then again, a poetic usage for conveying time doesn’t necessarily prove simple transference when it comes to measuring distance.
So maybe I’ve talked myself out of both my original thoughts
I got out of the Army on terminal leave in 2001, which meant I wasn’t officially discharged until 2002. Even after I was discharged, I still had what’s called an IRR commitment. That’s Inactive Ready Reserve, meaning that it’s possible to get called back up to active duty if your job is needed. That weighed pretty heavy on the minds of everybody who got discharged with less than eight years of active duty in the wake of 9/11 – in fact, in some cases, soldiers who were due to separate at the end of their terms of service got hit with what is called a “stop loss,” meaning that they couldn’t get out when their original contract said they could get out because there was too much demand for their jobs during a crisis period.
What this meant, in part, is that I found myself on a college campus surrounded by lots of students a lot younger than I was who were (sometimes vociferously) protesting “the war.” It was hard to avoid these conversations in hallways, classrooms, dining halls, and it was especially frustrating for me when I heard really ill-informed opinions about global politics, about oil, or about those in military service. But I decided it wasn’t too wise for me to go around expressing my opinion or making a spectacle of myself, since it wasn’t out of the realm of possibility that I’d end up called back to active duty – and honestly, I didn’t want to get labeled “that army girl.” I wanted to finish my degree and get on with my new career plans. I didn’t want to have to speak on behalf of the military, or on behalf of all soldiers or service members, and whenever the fact of my military service came up, I was often expected to do just that.
It was even worse when I started my PhD at Shiny Private Research School. During my MA program at a large state school, I had a few veteran classmates and eventually a few veteran students. I even found one veteran faculty member, when I gave a conference paper in Texas on Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. He was the first veteran faculty member I’d met to date (that I knew of). The most heartening thing about the entire experience wasn’t even meeting Tim O’Brien, one of my “writing heroes” — it was meeting that faculty member and hearing him say that my argument made sense to him both as a literature professor and as a Vietnam veteran, that I didn’t cheapen or oversimplify the real, lived experiences of combat veterans by “slapping some theory on it.” He understood what I didn’t have to say out loud – that an awful lot of people writing about war in the “academy” said some awfully one-dimensional things sometimes.
But at PhD School, I had no veteran professors, no veteran classmates, no veteran students. I mingled with people writing about warfare or soldiering or chivalry at academic conferences, but the conversation was usually couched in safely theoretical terms. In a class on trauma, I again found myself being asked to speak for all soldiers everywhere, to give “the military perspective.” I found myself inspected as a curiosity in a classroom in which not one of my classmates had a friend or immediate family member who had served on active duty. I had students ask me if I’d killed anybody. I had others show visible disappointment when I said I did not have PTSD. I had doctors ask me, while checking my lung capacity after a bout of bronchitis, what I thought about military deserters, or the “poverty draft,” or Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, or some aspect of the “conflict.” On one level, I was at least glad they were asking somebody. But on another, I sometimes felt like a bug in a jar.
This has all been on my mind for a while, but I bring this up now partially in response to the April 1, 2012 Chronicle of Higher Education piece on Matthew Reilly, “An Ex-Soldier Finds a New Mission.” (I’m not sure linking to it would work – I think it’s premium content.) But I’ve had a draft blog post on the back burner for almost a year now, a collection of thoughts and observations. Some are in response to academic pieces I’ve read in which scholars have claimed, for instance, that a romance — or in some cases, chivalry in general — reduces a knight’s meaning and existence to a puddle of blood. Some are in response to popular portrayals of “military ethos” in shows like The Unit and NCIS. Some are in response to comments and assumptions I’ve faced from people in academia — or even at the mall — who are fairly out of touch with the realities of modern-day military service. Some are in response to stories like those of William Miller, who died in North Carolina in January during a shoot-out with police, stories which help some people anticipate that every military veteran they meet is a ticking bomb waiting to explode. In short, I have a lot to say.
But what prompts this particular post is the fact that we in academia are not going to be able to remain largely ignorant about or unaffected by the realities of modern-day veterans forever. Soldiers, sailors, marines, and air force personnel are using their GI Bill benefits to go back to school after separation from active duty. They are in our classrooms now. There will be more of them in our classrooms soon. As Matt Reilly explains, they haven’t always had the best possible assistance in transitioning from active military duty – a life that some of us have a hard time picturing – to full- or even part-time college life. And they are transitioning back to a society that has never, in all its history, been so out of touch with what its military does. I worry some. Everyone gives lip service to the “support the troops” routine, but as more and more vets return home and leave active duty over the next few years, I worry that a society largely out of touch with military values, military culture, and military experience will ostracize them and fall prey to suspicions that all you have to do is scratch the surface to find, under every combat veteran’s shell of civility, a damaged psycho waiting to be let loose. In this country, there aren’t a lot of veterans left with experience of earlier wars on anything resembling the scope of what our armed forces have faced over the last ten years. Veterans don’t return to a society that, as a whole, understands very much of what their lives have been like, of what the military is for or what it really does. Soldiers have to be able to rejoin civilian society when they get home, and with a society that is so out of touch with military service and military life, that can be really difficult.
Admiral Mike Mullen spoke in January of 2011, perhaps not eloquently, but certainly truthfully, about this “divide” between “military culture” and “civilian culture.” I sort of hate those terms because it somehow implies that service members do not come from “civilian culture” or even society. They do. And service members can no more be characterized as a group than can American society in general – any overarching characterization is going to be something of a stereotype. I have often said that the military can bring out the best in people. I have also said it can in some cases bring out the worst. Service members are human beings, after all, and we humans are heartbreakingly fragile and fallible. We are also amazingly resilient and courageous. We are the sum of our contradictions (which is something I wish more academic criticism on war and chivalry would ponder seriously, but the giant chasm between military and civilian “culture” is partly to blame for that, I think.) [*] Some service members have more, or less, going for them from the outset, as do some civilians. But in a society in which fewer than 1 percent serve in the military, in which fewer than 8 percent are veterans, I know that this “divide” exists, and nothing Logan Penza says is going to convince me, Matthew Reilly, Heather Sweeney, or any other veteran or military family member who has faced awkward questions and assumptions, otherwise. I’m not saying this is anybody’s fault. It isn’t. I’m not saying that shows of support for “the troops” are awful. They aren’t. I’m just saying that it’s not all about waving flags at baseball games and writing papers on chivalry; there are real human beings coming back into “civilian culture.” They will be in our classrooms. They will be our coworkers. Their life experiences are in some ways quite similar to ours, and in others very, very different. I feel the need to point this out, not just as a veteran and former non-commissioned officer who still, to this day, checks up on how her former soldiers are doing through facebook and email, writes them letters of rec for scholarships, and reminisces with coworkers from “back in the day,” but also as an academic currently at a Shiny Private PhD Research Institution, who wants her current and future colleagues to know that returning vets are very often not your typical undergrad (assuming there is even such a thing). And they may be “atypical” in ways you aren’t even aware of until you get to know them.
I have a lot more to say. I’ll doubtless get to some more of it at some point. In the meantime, kudos to Matt Reilly for being part of the solution.
[*] I think Edward Tick has some valuable words on part of what is at the “heart” of this “divide,” and I think this piece is a fair intro to those. At the same time, I want to resist turning any such conversation into some reductive thing about PTSD, or turn soldiers into de facto victims, any more than I want to encourage thinking of them as de facto psychopaths.
A Common Instructor-Student Conversation:
I wonder if anybody has made one of these about peer review in writing classes? It only took me nine semesters of teaching to think of this method of addressing the usual “but my peer reviewer is DUMB and I think YOU should read and comment on all of our drafts” complaints:
In this class, we talk about communities of thinkers, about academic writing as joining an ongoing conversation, about different expectations in different disciplines, and I try to tie peer review and the writing process into all of this. But all that is still pretty vague for first- and second-semester students sometimes, I think, especially the ones who aren’t humanities majors and who are concerned first and foremost with their grades in this exact moment rather than “higher order” concerns. So I’m going to try more clearly stressing the value of peer review not just for the writer, but also for the reader. (In other words, I am going to try taking my own advice and addressing my audience’s values, attitudes, and beliefs in this rhetorical context.)
The complaining students always base their complaints on the fact that not everybody gives them consistently valuable feedback in peer review. In other words, they are coming to me as writers. But this class is also about reading rhetorically and critically, as that is a necessary component of writing rhetorically and critically. And learning to give thoughtful, constructive feedback, even in a situation in which one is not an expert, is a valuable skill regardless of one’s intended major — certainly valuable in their intended future careers (and the students here always already have intended majors and intended future careers, even as freshmen, and even the 300 and 400 level English classes are often full of non-humanities majors who are double-majoring or minoring in English but majoring in something “practical” [and parent-pleasing… tuition is steep here]). Everybody, even students who already have a lot of experience with writing academic prose, can learn something in a writing class like this. And sometimes, the most important lesson a new college student has to learn has more to do with collegiality, professional communication and interaction in a shared community, and (as I put it much more bluntly to a student a few semesters ago) basically not being a self-centered egotistical cut-throat who feels that throwing one’s peers under the bus while showing off his or her own (sense of) superiority is a good strategy for academic and professional success.
So I’m going to find a more tactful way to say that and see if that helps head off the usual complaints about the peer review process. (Tips welcome!)
With about five years of experience teaching writing now, on top of another five tutoring, I suppose that I’m (publicly at least) one of those who spends a great deal of time loudly proclaiming not just the necessity but also the value of revision, revision, revision.
But truth be told, I dread it. And for some reason, the longer I’ve been hanging around academia, the worse I feel my writing’s gotten. It’s harder to get started, harder to revise, harder to feel like “it’s done enough to let go of.” That may have to do with how much higher the stakes have gotten, though, or maybe I just have a keener sense for the awfulness of my earlier drafts — where a few years ago I was more likely to be all caught up in the rush of a new idea, now I’m spending more time fine-tuning the nuances, and frankly that is just not as much fun as sitting down all excited to work through a knotty problem in a fresh (though messy) burst of prose.
Part of the problem is likely also that I got away with murder as a undergrad and MA student. I had ideas, and I was a decent writer, and I didn’t complain a lot, so I wrote “well enough” and got my grade and moved on. And in fact, most of my PhD coursework was like that too. I don’t think I realized how much I had been getting away with until I got my first official “blind peer review” comments back and was horrified to see this prose I had worked on for three years called “stylistically infelicitous.”
I’m only now really seeing how so much of my previous work has been “me being in a hurry.” It was good enough for what it was, but I lacked the stamina, or the attention span, or the guts, or the time, or something, for the sort of deep, wholesale, engaged revision that I am always encouraging in my students. Needless to say, the dissertation process is feeling like an especially ornerous burden since I still have that deadline thing (chapter two is due by x day) *but also* can’t just say “great, that’s got to be done then because I’ve turned it in, so it will just have to do.” I have to *keep on living with it.* And it’s not the topic I’m sick of – I’m as fascinated, confused, inspired, and frustrated by medieval soul-and-body works as ever — it’s my own prose I can’t stand to read anymore.
And part of that may be that I just finished up my first foray into the job market (with predictable results – I don’t have a job) and I am sick to death of *talking about* this project. Or maybe just sick to death of having one-sided conversations about it. Or, to be even more precise, sick to death of trying to write tightly focused, succinct, clear, yet adequately descriptive and interesting paragraphs about it. Especially since I am not at all sure I’m not going to change my mind about every single claim in chapter one by the time I’m finished with chapter four.
Anyway, I turned in what should be my last application of the funding/job market season this morning (or at least the last one that requires me to try to sound smart about my research project – I will doubtless apply for whatever dregs of funding are left locally for those poor sods in the humanities who decide to spend another year on their dissertations rather than rush to complete a project and graduate in the summer just to go nowhere). I think I halfway expected that when I got home from office hours this afternoon, I would feel energized – it’s now time to *stop talking about the damned thing* and actually *get back to work on the damned thing.*
So I was dismayed to sit down, open my “note/thought dump” file on Vercelli Homily IV, and feel completely exhausted and tapped out. And then I was ashamed that I spent the two quiet hours I had before my offspring got home looking at pictures on facebook instead of working on the damned dissertation.
I don’t have high hopes for this morning’s application being in my favor – it’s terribly competitive and I did not get nearly enough feedback on the various bits of prose that they wanted (I had to write a 100 word dissertation abstract, then a 100 word interdisciplinary statement, and then a 1000 word dissertation description and timeline, and that’s in addition to submitting the approved prospectus and copies of all approved chapters, which in my case amounted to a single chapter). I am afraid I didn’t look especially great on paper this go-round (in my partial defense, I don’t think anyone on my committee ever gave any thought to approving the dissertation in bits and pieces, or to my progressing in some orderly manner by writing a chapter, having it stamped approved, and then moving on to the next. They seem to expect me to write like I’ve been writing, with some chunks having footnotes saying things like “this is complicated by x that I will discuss in chapter three at which point this whole section might just move to chapter three, so I haven’t developed all the possibilities on page 25 as thoroughly as I plan to yet”. But the people with the money demanded a discussion of which chapters were “approved” so I had to come up with something.)
But I’m hoping that as a result of all this “nutshelling” I’ve been doing since September, I won’t have to work quite as hard on applications next go-round. And I’m hoping that I will see my way to making some more progress on this thing soon instead of just summarizing it. And I hope that I never have to write another 100-word summary of my dissertation, ugh.
And what I’m really hoping for is that I can spend more time being bravely uncertain about where it’s going to end up instead of pretending that I know where it’s going to end up. I was starting to scare myself in some of these statements and summaries, because while it was pretty cool to come up with a description of this messy thing spanning 800 years of literature and have that description be something that could fit on a post-it note, it ended up sounding a lot more confident than I really feel about what I’m claiming are the main ideas. That’s a place I’ve always been a bit wary of – certainty in the research process strikes me as hubristic. I’m afraid I’m tempting fate, and I will discover some marginalia next week that invalidates everything I’ve written so far.
It will be nice to be uncertain again. (It would be nicer to have a job and/or any clue about how I will feed myself or my offspring next year, but for now uncertainty will do.)
Just for fun (heh), here’s the 100-word version. It’s not very good, but it’s done, and that’s what I had by the deadline. Please don’t hold me to it.
English soul-and-body addresses first appear in Anglo-Saxon homilies and gradually metamorphose into the Middle English genre of the debate poem. My project examines their portrayals of the relationships between soul and body, human and angel, and Christ and humanity, tracing the gradual development in vernacular religious literature of the concept of inwit, or conscience in its modern, morally weighted sense. This concept finds full literary expression in early modernity with Milton’s Paradise Lost, which marks a crucial cultural shift during which angels lose their status as mediators between divinity and humanity and rational conscience becomes integral to Christian religious experience.