Wednesday, February 24, 2016

ITM Readers: We're proud to bring to you this guest posting from a very important person!

Maken Melodye on #WhanThatAprilleDay16


Goode Friendes and Readers of Yn The Middel, 

Yt doth fill my litel herte wyth gret happinesse to invyte yow to the thirde yeare of a moost blisful and plesinge celebracioun.

On the first daye of Aprille, lat us make tyme to take joye yn alle langages that are yclept ‘old,’ or ‘middel,’ or ‘auncient,’ or ‘archaic,’ or, alas, even ‘dead.’ 

Thys feest ys yclept ‘Whan That Aprille Day.’ For thys yeare yt ys: 'Whan That Aprille Day 16.' #WhanThatAprilleDay16

Ich do invyte yow to joyne me and manye othir goode folk yn a celebracioun across the entyre globe of the erthe. Yn thys celebracioun we shal reade of oold bokes yn sondrye oold tonges. We shal singe olde songes. We shal playe olde playes. Eny oold tonge will do, and eny maner of readinge. All are welcome. We shal make merrye yn the magical dreamscape of 'social media,' and eke, yf ye kan do yt, yn the material plane of the 'real worlde' as wel.

Ye maye, paraventure, wisshe to reade from the beginning of my Tales of Caunterburye, but ye maye also wisshe to reade of eny oothir boke or texte or scroll or manuscript that ye love. Ye maye even reade the poetrye of John Gower yf that ys yower thinge. 

What are sum wayes to celebrate Whan That Aprille Daye?

Gentil frendes, yf yt wolde plese yow to celebrate Whan That Aprille Daye 2016, ye koude do eny of the followinge. Be sure to use the hasshe-tagge #WhanThatAprilleDay16 on yower poostes of twytter and facebooke and blogge.

• Counte downe to Whan That Aprille Daye wyth postes and readinges.

• Maken a video of yowerself readinge (or singinge! or actinge!) and share yt on the grete webbe of the internette.

• Planne a partye at yower classroome or hous to celebrate oolde langages, and poost pictures to the ynternette.

• Read auncient langages to yower catte, and the catte shal be moost mirthful.

• Make sum maner of cake or pastrye wyth oold wordes upon yt, and feest upon yt wyth good folke and share pictures of yower festivitee. (And yet beware the catte that shal seke to ruin the icinge.)

• Yf ye be bold, ye maye wisshe to share yower readinge yn publique, yn a slam of poesye or a nighte of open mic. (Bringe the catte?)

• Yf ye worke wyth an organisatioun or scole, ye maye wisshe to plan sum maner of event, large or smal, to share writinge yn oold langages.

• And for maximum Aprillenesse, marke all tweetes and poostes wyth the hashtagge #WhanThatAprilleDay16 – remember the ‘Whan’ and ‘Aprille.’

What ys the poynte of Whan That Aprille Daye?

Ower mission ys to celebrate al the langages that have come bifor, and alle their joyes and sorrowes and richesse.

Ower mission ys to remynde folk of the beautye and grete lovelinesse of studyinge the wordes of the past. And eke ower mission ys to bringe to mynde the importaunce of supportinge the scolership and labour that doth bringe thes wordes to us. To remynde folk to support the techinge of paleographye and of archival werke and eek, ywis, the techinge of thes oold langages. To remynde folk of the gret blisse and joye of research libraryes and the gret wysdam and expertyse of the libraryans that care for them across the centuryes. To call to mynde the fundinge of the humanityes, the which ys lyke the light of the sonne on the plantes of learninge and knowledge. For wythout al of thes, the past wolde have no wordes for us. 

Ower mission ys also to have ynogh funne to last until next Whan That Aprille Daye. 

Note that thys event doth also coincide wyth Aprille Fooles Daye, the which ys fyne by cause we do love thes langages and alle who love are yn sum maner also fooles. 

Ich do hope wyth al myn herte that that sum of yow good folke will joyne me on thys April first for readinge and celebratinge and foolinge. Lat us maken melodye on #WhanThatAprilleDay16

Wyth muchel love and admiracioun

Le Vostre

P.S. Some other links for hose who might be interested:
  • Inaugural Whan That Aprille Day (in 2014): roundup at the Global Chaucers blog [with the General Prologue's opening lines in twelve modern languages]
  • Middle English Texts Series (METS) countdown to Whan That Aprille Day in March 2014 [full twitter archive]
  • Recitations in Old English, Latin, and Middle English by some of the bloggers at In The Middle on Whan That Aprille Day 2014 [listen online]

Saturday, February 20, 2016

“Unto the Bottom of Those Gulfey Waves”: Steve Mentz’s Shipwreck Modernity


In the Naufragocene, the "Age of Shipwrecks," catastrophe awaits. Or engulfment and drowning. Or swimming.

Mentz’s materials emerge from the new era of circumnavigation and blue-water global trade, an era of enormities, genocide, catastrophe, imponderable chance, of wreck upon wreck. “Representing disorder is not easy” (150), writes Mentz, but this is what his texts, mostly, try to do.

These are – inter alia -- those concerned with the disaster of the São João; Grotius’s legal mobilization of the ocean, liberating it from (Iberian) ownership; a pair of superb poems by Donne (“The Storm” and “The Calm”), where we might catch “calenture,” a tropical fever under whose effects sailors leapt into the sea, “thinking it was a green field” (153); Marvell’s “Bermudas” – there's a chapter for these isolated islands, stormy and wave-swarmed, more hostile a refuge than Marvell wants us to believe; a pair of seventeenth-century mariner’s journals each gets a chapter: one, a puffed-up officer and astrological crank, died on land; the other, Edward Barlow, probably did not: but he held on long enough to pass on what became Mentz's crashy green cover (and the poem that gave us "gulfey waves" and this post's title). 

Up bubble the mostly inept piscatorial pastorals of English poets, though Diaper’s first underwater eclogue is, shockingly, good (“A faintish light shines through the watry green, / And lets us see enough, but — not be seen"). Mentz takes on Hardy’s “Convergence of the Twain” (and his memory of thrilling in 1997, almost despite himself, to the poem’s blockbuster adaptation), Wallace Stevens on the sea surface, and Bob Dylan’s late waltz on that big, dead ship. If you know Steve, you know Steve loves poetry, and he does well by it here. He also teases us with a glimpse of an “Ishmael-driven interpretation” of Moby Dick (200 n44; 207 n4).

Interrupting the book’s smooth progress are historical wrecks, mutinies, disappearances, arrhythmic but inevitable catastrophes. Here’s one:

On June 22, 1611, mutineers placed Henry Hudson, his son John, and six others into a small shallop, towed them to open water, and set them adrift. No trace of them was ever seen again.

And through it all blows the Great Storm of England, the “landed shipwreck” (167) of November 26-27, 1703, whose victims include some 8,000 (!) sailors (167).

At least in my reading, this ecocritical book's surprising central conflict is that between mariners and God. It’s not that Mentz is calling for us to find our way back to piety. In Mentz’s salty hands, God is ecological. Immanent. God is the doom of the world, a sentence that, in the Naufragocene, must be read in both ways. God here is a power far beyond our comprehension, now, in this century, perhaps beyond our help.

Mentz discovers how his early modern texts use the divine to figure overwhelming Aeolian, thalassic, or cetacean forces, disinterested but still no less implacable for all that.  As I’ve written elsewhere, about the otherworlds of Pearl and the Vision of Tundale:

God offers a chance to get totally inhuman. He’s so much more than a sovereign. He—or the divine it—operates at a scale that no human action, no human conceptualization, could ever satisfy. And yet this It still takes an interest, condemning us or saving us according to its own unlimited schedule, far beyond anything that we could think just.

Accounts of shipwrecks are laden with reasons, or excuses. There are "empirical" reasons: sails too weak or too strong, a greedy overstuffing of the hold, departing just in time to meet the ambush of a storm, the interference patterns of disharmonious, overlapping command, like the failed Islands Voyage of 1597. These record what could have been managed. And there are "providential" reasons, if they can even be called reasons, which record what cannot. “They’re like the weather, you never know what’s coming,” as [x] once said to me about [x], “and like the weather, they have no shame.”

Providence is the name for a plan that no one can ascertain but God; at sea, “what [storms] mene, God shal knowe alloone.” The existence of a plan may be a comfort. Or it may not. Is it better to be in the hands of an angry god, or an indifferent one?

Wrangling with providence, there is metis, that seamanship practiced by Odysseus and other able sailors. Mentz builds on Margaret Cohen’s The Novel and the Sea to argue that metis is not instrumental reason, not merely “exploiting the difference” between “word and thing” (Dialectic of Enlightenment 47). For Cohen, and then for Mentz, metis is a whole body skill, the “expert labor of the mariner in these extreme situations” (77), “an embodied technopoetics” (81), on occasion an alliance with, sea, waves, wind, and the sometimes begrudging accommodation with our supposedly human technologies of sail, rope, and hull.
Overall, Mentz wavers too: one view - “The lesson of ecological globalization and the Naufragocene is that rescue never lasts. Landfalls are temporary” (39). Another – “Swimming does not represent a permanent solution to environmental catastrophe, only a temporary survival tactic, preserving life until sand appears under our feet, even if that sand may conceal further dangers. Shipwreck ecology clings to that desperate hope” (176).  That "until" goes both ways, towards the bottom or towards another, temporary shore.

Between the split of the ship and the hope for land, the book is at sea, which here, of course, I mean as praise.

Friday, February 19, 2016

On Believing Students

a guest post by Adam J. Dexter

I must open this essay by admitting that I am probably the least qualified person to write an essay on teaching anyone: my teaching experience is scant and largely unremarkable and, besides an A in a tedious pedagogy class that I was required to take, which was taught by a professor who would talk sweetly about her children and mark your paper with smiles but never give you any practical feedback, I have not studied pedagogy or pedagogical issues seriously. Yet I have been in undergraduate and graduate classes almost regularly since George Bush was president and I must confess that I know a lot about being a horrible student: though certain professors did much to nourish me intellectually, most of my college courses — the normal roster of sciences, mathematics, and psychology courses — went by in a sludge of depression, alcoholism, self-harm, physical and emotional abuse, and suicide attempts that I would prefer to forget. My nineteenth year, for example, was one of such struggle and torment that, even now, I am genuinely surprised I made it out alive.

When I later started teaching, halfway to thirty and supposedly wiser, I found myself completely unable to lecture my young, smiling students, none of whom remember major events like September 11 or when Britney changed the world by stripping to a nude ensemble on the 2000 VMAs, on the importance of regular attendance. It felt hypocritical to enforce a strict attendance policy, complete with points off for every absence after four, when my own college attendance had been, to use the words of my mother, piss poor. Colleagues responded that teaching is usually a do-as-I-say, not-as-I-do kind of thing but I wondered: how will that help me truthfully impact their lives and leave them inspired, as I so desperately wanted? Is meting out punishments for attendance really the most effective way of ensuring that students will come to class and learn? Apparently, I had a lot of grand misconceptions about why people get into teaching.

My time in college was very difficult and my grades often suffered. I hardly attended class. Of course, I wrote the papers, took all the exams, but weeks would go by without my setting foot in class; one embarrassing example returns to me now, freshman statistics, that damnable scourge of college students everywhere, whose classroom I saw twice: once on syllabus day and once for the final exam. I was (still am) suffering from bipolar disorder and insomnia and was crippled by anxiety and a desire to die (or, at the very least, a desire to feel very numb). I self-harmed; I drank so heavily that I would be hungover until two p.m., at which time I would start drinking again; all of this left little time for class. Later on, when I stopped drinking, I was so lonely and sad and miserable that I would often skip class just to drive home for days at a time, where I would spend twelve hours in bed.

Even now, many years after walking the stage to get my diploma, this is surprisingly embarrassing to admit. When I am around fellow graduate students, I find myself shy to talk about my own undergraduate academic achievements, partly because I am so ashamed by what had transpired in those four years.

But shame can be productive and instructive. I realized something about those of us who enter graduate school, for whatever sick and masochistic reasons: people expect you to have been a flawless student with impeccable grades and an unblemished record. And perhaps some graduate students were exemplary; I was not; this does not mean I am less deserving of my success.

The issue here, and this is where I get to the heart of the essay, is that, if any of my professors noticed my struggle, they did not care enough to do anything. Getting poor grades because of attendance and participation was certainly not unusual but some professors were more cruel in administering them: one of them called me into his office and told me he was failing me and that I should abandon all dreams of graduate school. In this manner I skated through four years of not going to class, sidelined by depression, and when I graduated, and my father looked at me and, ever the kind, supportive father, asked me if I had earned at least cum laude, I hastily ignored the question because I could not tell him the truth: my sickness had forbidden it; it had kept me bedridden, laid me low, made me sicker than any other disease I've ever had (except for a nasty staph infection, which turned my urine the color of Coke and which caused me to hallucinate).

The son whom my mother and father, a minister and an accountant, love so dearly had failed. I beat myself up over it for years; the illness that ravaged my brain was similarly unequivocal in its condemnation of my shortcomings: you are responsible; it's in your head; you're crazy; you should just kill yourself; it's not a real sickness; you're lazy; you're stupid; you'll never get into a good grad school; your parents are smart and hardworking and successful and you've failed them; you can't afford care; it's easier to die. Twice after seriously harming myself with a dull butter knife, incidents I kept from my parents (hi, mom!), I went to student counseling (which is horrible at every school, no matter what admissions tells you, but this is another issue for another essay) and was bluntly told by the kind counselor there that my problems were too big for their office. I was referred out to a psychiatrist, who charged me $ 350 for fifteen minutes of his time (a bill I still have not, proudly, paid), and to whom I never returned because South Carolina is a horrible state to be crazy in.

I tried to remember this experience I've just recounted when I started teaching. The only training we as new instructors received on how to handle the kind of student I had been was: Make them aware of the resources; include a line on your syllabus. This was all. We were bluntly told by a professor that we were not there to be their therapists; we were not to get involved; we could tell them where counseling services are but nothing else; you're not their friend or their mother. This is how, we were told, good teachers taught. I knew instantly that if this apathy made one a "good" teacher, then I, again to borrow my mother's words, would be a piss poor teacher.

I first started seriously thinking about writing this essay when I read Dr. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen's post on In the Medieval Middle entitled "On Becoming a BetterTeacher." In it, Dr. Cohen writes of struggling to help his students in an environment which seems to forbid reaching out to students beyond issues of papers, exams, and due dates; as Dr. Cohen notes, non-involvement is the law of the land when it comes to academics and their students' mental health. Yet Dr. Cohen is not only affected by his own students but also relates his son's own struggles with anxiety, and he wonders how to become the kind of teacher he would want his son to have.

Dr. Cohen's words made me weep when I first read them and every time I read them now, I feel a lump in my throat. I feel a strange sense of pride when I think of his son, who, at eighteen and willing to ask for help, is far wiser than I had been at that age. This essay, to put it simply, is brilliant and changed my life because it made me feel unafraid to talk about my own past. I am not normally prone to such hyperbole, especially where academics are concerned (Beyoncé, yes; academics, not usually), but I first conceived of this essay as almost a thank you to Dr. Cohen and his son, a response to assure him how much students likewise yearn for a professor like him, even if they do not show it. Students often act disinterested and impetuous, like they can't be bothered (I did, my students do) but a professor who looks past assignments and due dates and page lengths and citation styles to see that students are young and struggling and sometimes need a little help and a little understanding is indispensable. I did not need my professors to be mental health professionals; I did not even them to be my friends. I needed them to be human beings who gave a damn about the lives they were teaching four times a week.

The first semester I taught, I had a student I will call B. She rarely came to class and when she did, she was disinterested, sullen, looked sleepy, and did not answer any questions or participate in group activities; she barely did any homework and on quizzes and exams, she did poorly, usually scoring 70 or below. I did not know how to handle this student and sought help from people supposedly wiser than I: a colleague, the woman who was supposed to guide us graduate students through our teaching, told me that each student's success in the class was in their own hands; I wasn't a babysitter. She wanted to impress upon me the belief that this student, and any issues she had, were not my problem. This is probably how many of my professors handled me: they trudged to class, they read their lecture notes, they gave out assignments, they sat alone during office hours grading papers, then they went home at five; if they had any concern that I was thinking about harming myself, or was skipping class because I could not get out of bed, because my body ached with the depression, they did not view it as part of their job description to say anything.

To state plainly, without any sort of nuance or exception, that "each student is responsible for their own success and to blame for their own failures," however true such a statement may be, is more than a little problematic. We had had to put clauses in our syllabi excusing long-term illnesses (illnesses we could see and test for, perhaps?); why were we not willing to do the same for mental illness? Furthermore, we were legally obligated to insert a sentence informing students that they were entitled to special accommodations for any condition that might cause them to miss multiple classes, but I knew that most professors took this to mean things like sporting events or Crohn's Disease or chronic migraines; I however went out of my way to state that, in my class, this meant mental illness as well.

I told them them that this was not a classroom of shame and that I had gone through all of the things that a college student experiences: homesickness, anxiety, depression, self-harm, alcohol abuse, among other things. I wanted them to think me honest and open — above anything else, I wanted them to know that I was interested in their well-being, both emotional and academic. I also stressed that they certainly did not have to tell me, or anyone else, their entire medical history, that there was a legal precedent to be as private about your health as you wanted. Even your dog doesn't have to know, I joked. They could tell me anything they wanted, if they wanted, but I was not going to require it of them nor was I going to demand excuses for absences. They could tell me as little or as much as they wanted, so long as they kept me in the loop. If they needed to miss class, or do an alternative assignment because of anxiety or depression, I was simply willing to believe them, to accept them at their word, to tell them I understood, and to not punish them by failing them, gestures which mean more than we think they do.

On their midterm grades, I expressed my concern to B that she was falling behind in the course. I explained that I was not trying to humiliate her or scold her, but I openly and honestly voiced my concerns with her — and encouraged her to do the same. I also told her that I was available if she needed to see me. After checking in with her a few weeks later, she emailed back to ask if she could come to my office hours on Monday morning. I invited her to come at 9 and when she came, she told me a lot of things: she was struggling with the transition to college and had recently been diagnosed with clinical depression, which made it difficult to get out of bed, as depression is wont to do; on top of all this, she was suffering from panic attacks and the thought of speaking in class left her frozen with fear.

I sat with her a while and we reviewed some of the grammar and vocabulary points until I was sure she understood it, giving her some at home exercises, including watching a French TV show that featured people who come back from the dead (not a bad homework assignment, right?) I also told her that I was using my discretion to forgive a lot of her absences, if she could prove to me that she had really worked to understand the material. I gave her an extra credit activity wherein she could produce a poster of famous celebrities who spoke French. I told her that in class the next few weeks, I would ask her simple questions that only required a Yes or No answer but she could give me a signal if she was not feeling up to it or felt too nervous. If she needed to miss class, she could send me an email before or after. Keep the communication open, I said, and I'll believe you. I also talked with her honestly about the shortcomings of mental health, and she asked me how to talk to parents about her struggles, which is never an easy topic to broach with parents. But she followed through on her end and I forgave some of her absences. In short, I showed faith in her, I did not punish her because she had missed class, I respected what she was saying, I believed her.

Was I duped by a student? Later, someone, when I recounted this tale, would insinuate as much. According to this person, I was probably naive and had fallen to prey to a freshman's tricks. "It's not your place to diagnose and treat anxiety disorders," they said angrily, even though I had made no effort to diagnose or treat B. I had simply accepted her at her word, had not questioned her or doubted her, and worked with her on assignments that suited her. Perhaps I was naive: firstly, I do not think a student would go that far in the hopes of tricking a professor; secondly, and most importantly, I did not really care if she was faking. Why? Because too many mentally ill people are told they are faking, or that it's all in their head or to just get over it; I would not be another voice condemning them for an illness they had not asked for but which nevertheless assaulted them every day.

I never demanded that this student "prove" her diagnosis, any more than I would have asked a cancer patient to do so. When one student told me early in the semester that she would miss class because of migraines that left her sick and unable to see, I did not step back and say, "Sorry, I am not a trained medical doctor, I can't do anything for you," I did not uphold any strict attendance policies, I did not punish her for her illness; so why should we do it when our students are struggling with mental illness? Instead of washing my hands of her, or writing her off as lazy or careless, or outsourcing her problem to another ineffective department, I said to her, "I understand that and I sympathize" and we talked about what she should expect at mental health services, and I told her about some breathing and relaxation exercises that soothe me when I am gripped by anxiety and depression.

This student scored an 89 on the final exam and, eventually, a B+ in the course. I certainly do not believe that this story confirms my skill as an educator nor am I wholly sure if my decision was even the best one. I know very little about teaching anyone or working with students; I have not read thousands of pages of dense pedagogical theory; I have not earned a degree in counseling or working with mentally ill students. But I do know how I would have wanted to be treated: I would have wanted someone to listen to me, to understand, to sympathize with me in my struggle — most importantly, I would have wanted someone who believed me, who did not punish me, who saw past my failures as a student and instead saw my possibilities as a human.

Now that I have been both professor and student, I must add that, as professors, we do not need to be impenetrable; we do not need to be perfect, we do not need to prove how strict we are, we do not need to intentionally fail our students or make our class unusually difficult to confirm our own fragile ego. Furthermore, we do not need to be mental health professionals, or priests, or parents. We do not even need to be friends. As a former student who struggled through college, and who literally had to convince himself to stay alive day after day, believing students when they say they are mentally ill, not forcing them to jump through inhuman, confusing, tiring, and ineffective hoops, is not only radical but necessary. As Dr. Cohen concludes in his essay, "I am not saying I have got it right. I am only saying, I know I cannot cease to try."

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Object Oriented Environs: Now in Print!

by J J Cohen

Object Oriented Environs is now in print.

The volume offers a weird archive of an event that included bloody fountains, a seminar taking a sudden walk up and down escalators and through the forbidden catering section of a hotel, and 21 of the smartest, most creative collaborators imaginable. This project is the product of a mad scheme hatched with Julian Yates (Starsky to my Hutch). Chris Piuma's design of the book is just radiant.

Julian and I are donating all proceeds from sales of the book to punctum. Please consider buying a copy so that more oddball and inventive projects like this may flourish.

Purity is a Proud Toad's Game, a Fable from Jacques de Vitry

La Fontaine, Book I, Fable 3. Chauveau illustrations, 1668.

While doing some philological noodling with the word "fabulous" (because what else does one do on sabbatical?), I found, in this entry in the Middle English dictionary, a citation from a Middle English translation of Jacques de Vitry's Life of Marie of Oignies:
"I telle a fabil not fabulos and sey fals not falsly."
I was hooked. Yesterday, I responded to copy edits for my entry on "Beast Fables" for the Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Medieval Literature in Britain, where I write:
The obvious fictionality of fables, as well as the youth of their first audience, inspired debates over their utility: Seneca thought them frivolous and William of Conches meaningless, and Conrad of Hirsau and Boccaccio thought them suitable for teaching only rustics and children. While the word “fable” itself comes simply from the Latin fabulor, “to talk” (which eventually provides, for example, the French parler and the Spanish hablar), it also came to stand in for fiction as a whole or even, with the sense of moral condemnation, as a false story, a use that appears even in fable collections themselves. 
"A fabil not fabulos"! What treasures awaited me in Marie? What had I (dammit) omitted from my encyclopedia entry? Read on. My translation from Carl Horstmann's edition with some help from the Latin (because I don't have Brown's on hand: lo how lapsed copyright preserves old scholarship!): the story of a monk first led to anhedonia, then depression, and then, for a monk, the worst sin of all, disobedience. If only the monk had been a happy toad, content in its batrachoidal squalor.
It happened that Cistercian monk had such a great zeal and love of innocence and purity, but not of wisdom, that he strove with a fervent spirit come to the same state as the first father, Adam.
And when after much vain effort, tormenting himself in fasting, vigils, and prayers he could not recover the first state of innocence, he fell first into a heaviness and sloth (that is, he became depressed). For he would eat his food, but would feel no sensible delight; he devoted himself not only to refraining from, but also from fully quenching the first stirrings of sensuality and bodily feeling; and so he devoted himself to keeping his life in perfect purity without any venial sin.
And so by the temptation of the noonday demon, he aspired to impossible things, but no matter how much he had labored, he could not in any way have what he wanted: at last in sorrow he slid into the ditch of despair, so much so that he expected he could not be saved at all in the state of corruption that he was in, as he counted venial sins as deadly — and venial sins cannot be avoided in this life. Therefore he would not take the Eucharist on those days his order ordained for this. Behold to how much misfortune and how much and what manner of wretched ruin that ancient enemy dragged a simple soul under the color of the good [Ecce ad quantum infortunium, ad quantam & quam miserabilem ruinam, sub specie boni hostis ille antiquus simplicem illam traxerat animam], so that the sick one fled salvation, and he who had once forsook his own will, took off the yoke of obedience. 
And about that I tell a fable that is not fabulous, and say something fictional but not false [Ut autem fabulam non fabulose referam, nec falsa non fallaciter interseram {such a nice metaphor for tale-telling!}]:
This monk who tried to come to the same state of the first father, he is like a toad that in seeing a handsome and strong ox, wanted to become like that very ox; she tried with great force to stretch and to inflate herself; but in vain, for even if she had burst, she might not have taken on the quality of that ox.
And so that brother, while he would have enhanced himself above himself, fell wretchedly into despair under himself [the Latin's sharper: Frater autem ille dum se supra se extollere voluit, infra se miserabiliter per desperationem corruit]
[Hit happenyd þat a monke of Cisteus ordyr hadde so grete 3ele and loue of Innocens and clennesse, þof not after sciens, þat hee enforced and bisyed hym wiþ feruour of spirite to come as to þe euenlik state of the firste fadir Adam.
And whan longe wiþ ful myche laboure, but veyne, turmentynge hym-selfe in fastynge, wakynges and prayers hee myghte not recuuir þe firste state of Innocens, he felle firste into an henynesse and slouþe. For hee woldde ete his mete, but he wolde not fele no sensible delite, while he eet; hee studyed not oonly to refreyne, but to qwenche fully þe firste stirynges of sensualite 7 bodily felynge; he studyed als to kepe his lyfe in parfite clannes wiþ-outen any venyalle synne.
And so by entisynge of þe myddaye fende, while he desyred impossibil, nor, how so mykelle he hadde labored, he myghte on no manere haue hadde þat hee wolde: atte laste for sorowe hee slode in to þe dyche of dispaire, in so myche þat hee hopyd to gete saluacyone no-wyse in þe state of corrupcyone þat hee was in, as he þat countid deedly synnes þoos þat are venyalle -- þe whiche wee maye not wante in þis lyfe. Wherefore hee wolde not receyue Crystes body any-maner, not þoos dayes þat were ordayned þere-to in þe ordyr. Lo, to how grete unhappe and to how mikel and how myserabil fal under þe coloure of gode þat olde enmye drowe a symple soule, þat was sieke and fledde salue, 7 þat onys hadde forsaken his owne wille, putte aweye from hym þe 3ok of obedyens.
And, atte I telle a fabil not fabulous and sey fals not falsly, 
þis monke þat assyed to come to þe euenlike state of þe firste fadir, to whome is hee like but vnto a paddoke, þat seynge an ox of grete strengthe and fayre quantite, wolde haue comen to þe gretnnesse of hym and hane be like to þe same ox; þen she bygan wiþ grete enfors to streke hir and blowe hir-selfe abrode; but in veyne: for þos she hadde brosten, she myghte not haue taken þe quantite of þe ox.
And so þat broþer, while hee wolde haue enhaunced hym-selfe aboue hymselfe, felle wrecchidly be dispeyre vndir hym-selfe.]
The lesson of the fable is as conservative as usual (from Caxton's version, "The poure ought not to compare hym self to hym which is ryche and myghty").

I'm struck less by the strangeness of comparing an overfastidious monk to a toad than I am by the greater lesson: this life here demands not purity but a reasonable accommodation with corruption. Impurity can only be managed.

Maybe it's just because I'm an ecocritical crank, but with Jacques de Vitry, and with a good awareness of enmeshment in this Naufragocene (more on Steve Mentz's great new book, later), I think the lesson of the toad and ox fable, secularized, could be: "The corruptible ought not to compare hym self to hym which is incorruptible."

The conservative lesson of the fables, so seemingly poisonous from a gender, Marxist, or sexuality studies perspective, is, from an ecological perspective, the key lesson: you must make do, but don't expect miracles. Don't expect an escape. As our friend Steve writes:
Shipwreck is not something to prepare for, something that is about to happen. It is happening. Now. We are inside it,  not waiting for it. Castaways, that name belongs to our present and our future both. (163)

So, hello fellow toads! Let's do what we toads can.

Friday, February 12, 2016


by J J Cohen

I am posting here in more enduring form a collation of thoughts I've been disseminating on Facebook and Twitter. The issue is an important one -- at the heart of the future of the university, in fact.

Among the "innovations" dreamt by Simon Newman, chief-executive-and-entrepreneur-turned-president of Mount St. Mary’s University, is a freshmen survey that without revealing its purpose asks students intimate -- and one would thereby have assumed confidential -- questions about depression, financial worries, and learning disabilities. Despite its seeming humane concern for the well being of those newly transitioning to college life -- a bumpy period that deserves all the sympathy that staff and teachers can muster -- the survey was actually to be used to cull the student population and thereby better the university's retention rate. Those students to be escorted to the door of an institution where they had just arrived were described by President Newman as bunnies to be drowned or shot in the head. For questioning the ethics of such methods two Mount St. Mary’s University professors (one a tenured philosopher, the other the untenured advisor to the student newspaper that broke the story) were fired. That's the entrepreneurial, lean-and-efficient, business world spirit we hire university presidents to bring these days.

But wait, there's more. In "a first step of reconciliation and healing in the season of Lent and the Year of Mercy" (yes that is an actual quote from an actual university communication) the two fired professors have been told they may well be reinstated. Because, mercy. And Lent. I love this quotation from the InsideHigherEd piece: "President Newman called [fired professor Thane Naberhaus] and told him he would be reinstated in part because the Roman Catholic Church has [declared] a Year of Mercy." Even more, I love Professor Naberhaus's response to that offer by email: "Hell no." Naberhaus is not returning until Newman is gone. And for some additional context for President Newman's pious embrace of the Roman Catholic Year of Mercy, it is worth noting that he has also allegedly declared that the campus contains too many crucifixes and that "Catholic doesn't sell well."

Sell well.

Universities are not businesses. Students are neither customers nor products. Being a CEO or an entrepreneur likely disqualifies you for the job of university president rather than makes you the attractive candidate the advisory board stocked with rich donors believes. Universities exist for the intensification of the life of the mind, the betterment of the future, and the humane care of students, not as avid practitioners of the cult of the dollar. Colleges and universities are therefore best run by intellectuals. If you do not possess a PhD and have not composed some excellent books or articles that most people will never read, then you are woefully underqualified for the job. If your best claim to fame is that you amassed millions in riches without sharing that wealth immediately and widely, then enroll in an ethics or philosophy course and start again. But do not think that you are worthy to run an institution of higher learning -- or that you should be allowed anywhere near eighteen to twenty-one year old women and men.

Simon Newman demonstrates exactly where the belief that a successful business background qualifies one to lead a university leads -- and that destination, full of intimidated faculty and threatened students and a university losing its reputation, is nowhere good: not for young people, professors, staff or society. And yet I fear that President Newman, the man who would "drown the bunnies" and dismiss the students with financial and emotional needs, is both the present and the future of higher ed in the United States -- which is to say, the harbinger of higher education's end as a straightforward social good. Students with depression, financial anxieties, and learning disabilities should earn a college's care, not culling.  Comparing at risk students to bunnies to be drowned or shot with a gun is never acceptable. Metaphors matter (enroll in an English literature class, President Newman: I will let you audit mine, if you'd like). It is the obligation of tenured faculty to call out an administration like Newman's for its ethical violations. To do so is not actionable disobedience; it is not disloyalty; it is an affirmation of the utopia that higher education must strive always to become, even if in that striving it will always fall short. 

President Simon P. Newman of Mount St Mary's University is unfit to run a university and should resign. No university should henceforth hire a former CEO or entrepreneur to run the institution like a business. That refusal would be a significant step towards higher education becoming a place in which no student is shot, drowned, or shown the door because they are poor or having a tough time or because they are simply human.