Saturday, May 30, 2015

How Do We Write? Dysfunctional Academic Writing

by Suzanne Conklin Akbari and Alexandra Gillespie

Suzanne Conklin Akbari 
How We Write

A conversation has unfolded on Facebook over the last week on the topic of How We Write. Two of us who were involved in that conversation would like to push it forward, first offering our own experiences here, and then going on to collect the experiences of others who are also willing to share, perhaps (if there’s sufficient interest) putting together a collective resource on How We Write. (Note that this is not to be confused with ‘How To Write’ – these are idiosyncratic, self-flagellating approaches to the process.) So please add your experience in the comments, or share it in another way, and let us know if this kind of collective resource is something you’d like to read and/or contribute to.

The impetus for this conversation was a wonderful blogpost by Michael Collins on the occasion of a roundtable hosted by the School of Graduate Studies at the University of Toronto, on how to facilitate dissertation-writing groups. Michael’s thoughtful engagement with his own experience of writing – posted and reposted on a number of Facebook pages – led to an outpouring of personal accounts of the dissertation-writing years, both from those currently in the trenches and those for whom those years are very much in the rear-view mirror. What emerged was a clear sense of the diversity of writing practices that are out there: there’s no single ‘right’ way to write, and exposure to that range of practices might help those who are in the process of mastering academic writing to feel more confident in their own abilities, most of all by demonstrating that such ‘mastery’ is an ongoing – potentially limitless – effort.

In his post, Michael commented on the need for better writing support, both in the form of peer communities that provide uncritical support and shared goal-setting, and in the form of structured, scaffolded writing tasks. The first means of support can be facilitated by faculty and administrators, who can provide students with information on building student-led writing groups, good space to work in groups, and so on. The second means of support could also be provided, but would probably have to be provided in the form of supplementary instruction by teachers of writing. The reason: most of us faculty are not equipped to teach writing. Like Alexandra, I write in short bursts of productivity that punctuate long periods of frustration and distraction; I'm not sure anyone would want to learn to write the way I do. It’s possible that faculty who work in a different way, writing a disciplined page or two every morning, could provide the kind of writing mentorship that would be useful to doctoral students. But I'm coming to think that people simply have different styles of writing: the goal is to figure out what style works for you and learn to do it well.

I know that some faculty do write in a regular, methodical way – a few hundred words every morning, or even a page every day. Such writers include much admired mentors and good friends. And I have always assumed that my own inability to write in any way other than short bursts of manic activity is pathological. This poses a particular problem in mentoring students as they develop their own writing processes, because I would feel like a complete charlatan telling people to write the way I do: “Procrastinate until you're so consumed with anxiety that you go away and do something else, then let the ideas stew until you're ready to write, then don't talk to anyone for three days while you write. Voila, article draft!” This is not a sound pedagogical method.

And yet it works. As Alex Gillespie said to me, in the course of one of the Facebook threads arising from Michael’s blogpost, “Our way is a bit manic but it works right? I mean, we produce. And I enjoy the process.” It does indeed work, in the sense that it takes a terribly long time to get ready to write, to come to the point when the trajectory of the argument is clear; but when that time comes, the words pour out. When that time comes, when you’re truly in the writing zone, there's nothing like it – it’s fantastic, so exhilarating, completely satisfying. I could never get into that frame of mind through daily writing. Which means that it’s a form of addiction: the high of writing in a concentrated way, where you no longer think consciously about the words you’re writing but just hear the words out loud as you put them on the page, is absolutely intoxicating. So let me summarize a few examples of this experience, what it has felt like to work in this way. I’ll begin with an overview of my writing as it developed over the years I spent in graduate school (1988-94); the following several years, as the dissertation evolved into a monograph (1995-2003); and the very different experience of writing a second monograph (2004-08).

When I started writing in graduate school, I was lucky in three ways: 1) I had a remarkable experience of intense training in short-form (three-page) writing, in two graduate seminars on Renaissance poetry; 2) I taught in Columbia’s “Logic and Rhetoric” courses, teaching undergraduates to write (and rewrite) frequent short papers; and 3) I stumbled onto a topic in the very first semester of my MA program that would ultimately become the core of my dissertation. While this training in short-form writing – both as student and as teacher – might seem a world away from the long-form dissertation, the rapid turnaround of these short papers gave me the ability to write quickly, without thinking about it too much, as well as good training in close reading practice, both of which became useful building blocks in the dissertation. Teaching this form of writing was just as useful as writing this form, in that it required me to articulate the stakes of short-form writing in this way, and to guide students through the process. Finally, I had the good fortune to find my topic early: in the first term of the MA (in 1988), in a course on Medieval Allegory, I wrote a paper on “The Tripartite Narrator of the First Roman de la rose: Dreamer, Lover, and Narcissus.” It was a lousy paper, but its preoccupation with visual experience, mythography, and what I would later call “structural allegory” became the core of what became the chapter on Guillaume de Lorris in my dissertation and – ultimately – in the monograph that I published in 2004.

At that time, Columbia MA students were obliged to identify one seminar paper per term as having special status. This paper could be longer than the usual seminar paper, up to about 20 or 22 pages, and would be passed on from the initial instructor to a departmentally appointed second reader. The exercise was not a useful one, except in one respect: the requirement to think of writing in the longer form (not as long as an article, but longer than a usual seminar paper) asked us to think beyond the usual limits, and to imagine a still longer form of writing that might lie ahead.

When I started writing the dissertation, I was encouraged – as I still encourage my own students – to begin with the material I knew best. Accordingly, the first chapter I wrote was on the optical allegory of Guillaume’s Rose. It wasn’t a very good dissertation chapter, and it’s still the weakest chapter in the book; but it was the very heart of the whole project, the piece from which all the other parts emerged. I can remember sitting in a café in our neighborhood in the early 1990s, thinking about the Roman de la rose, reflecting on the two crystals at the bottom of the fountain of Narcissus and the way that white light would be refracted in them. As I thought about the passage, I peered into the surface of the stone in the ring I was wearing, and looked at the different sparks of color that flashed into sight. I felt like I was motionlessly seeing the object of thought; that if I only looked hard enough, I would understand how the parts of the argument related to one another, and I would see the shape of the whole.

In retrospect, that was a self-indulgent and probably silly experience. But it was absolutely central to my writing process. The protracted period of suspension, reading and thinking, doing other things – teaching, looking after children, etc. – were necessary to set the stage for the dissertation writing, which immediately took on a rhythm of its own. I could reliably write one chapter per term, and at the end of three years post-field exams, the dissertation was complete. I cannot emphasize this point often enough: the pace of writing was not because I am a disciplined writer, because I am the opposite of that. But I did have the confidence to believe that the writing would come when it was ready, and I pushed hard to get to the point when the words would be ripe and ready to fall on the page.

The same frustration and sense of deferral marked the years leading up to the ultimate publication of the book that emerged from the dissertation. On the advice of one of my co-supervisors, I put the dissertation aside after the defense. In retrospect, this may not have been good advice, because I found it very difficult to return to this project after a few years, ready to restructure and revise it into monograph form. On the other hand, the length of time that separated dissertation and monograph – nine years – may have given the work that was ultimately published a greater degree of maturity and cohesiveness would have otherwise been possible. And the tension that existed during that period between the work that I was finishing up (Seeing Through the Veil) and the new work that I was developing (what would become Idols in the East) was certainly very productive.

Writing a second book was very different from the first, in three ways. The first, and most important difference? I knew that I could write a book, because I had done it; this made it easy to be confident that I could write another one, and the only question was what shape it would take. That shape preoccupied me on and off during the period 1995-2008, most intensely in 2005-07, after publishing Seeing Through the Veil, finishing a collection of essays on Marco Polo, and finally turning completely to the task of writing Idols in the East. I had initially conceived of the book as separated into chapters focused on individual books or authors – on the model of Seeing Through the Veil – but gradually came to think of organizing it thematically, which is a much more difficult shape to control. As with the earlier project, there was a kind of epiphanic experience that came soon before the main part of the writing period: I was walking home, shortly before meeting a friend, and suddenly saw clearly how I wanted to connect the concept of orientation, understood in a polysemous way, to the theory of Orientalism. So I stopped on the street and scribbled some notes on cardinal directions and how identity might be conceived of in spatial terms. That ‘Aha!’ moment was crucial to my writing process. After that moment, it was a matter of shutting myself up in my office, not talking to anyone, eating lunch over my keyboard, and just typing out the words as I heard them.

Again, it sounds pretentious and magical, and completely implausible. But that’s what my experience has been like. And it is crucial not to lose sight of the enormous frustration, long periods of the inability to be productive, and painfully acute tendency to be distracted. I spend way more time wanting to write and not finding my way to it than I do in the act of writing. But when it’s happening, there’s nothing like it.

How can this story be useful to others? Maybe, just maybe, by letting those who are still laboring in the trenches of the dissertation know that there are many different ways of experiencing the creative process – because it is, at least in part, a creative process. Academic writing is basically simple, practical, methodical, steady work; except when it isn’t, when it’s instead ambitious and exciting and overreaching. I can’t imagine having dedicated so much of my life to this work without the rewards of this second aspect of academic writing. So what I would like to say, to those who are now writing their dissertations and feeling frustrated with their own progress, lacking confidence in their abilities to carry out their projects, is: KNOW YOURSELF. Are you able to be a disciplined writer, who puts down a couple of hundred words – or even a whole page – every morning? If so, God bless you, you are one of the lucky ones. That’s your process, and it’s a remarkably sane and productive one; I often wish I could work in that way.

But if you find yourself thinking about many different things at once – the chapter you should be writing, and the conference abstract that’s due next week, and the guest lecture on Ovid you will give next month, and the baby you have to pick up from daycare in a few hours – maybe you simply are that sort of thinker. If so, embrace your process and celebrate it, because you will be able to create the impression of remarkable productivity through the means of what is sometimes called Structured Procrastination. If the chapter isn’t coming along, write the conference abstract, even though it’s not due for another week; if the abstract isn’t coming along, write the lecture that’s coming up next month. You procrastinate, avoiding doing the task you should be doing by doing a different task that you also have to do. And the illusion is created – the magnificent illusion – of being able to do a tremendous number of things.

Alexandra Gillespie 
On Academic Writing

I only write when I have to. Because reasons. It’s just the way I write.

I used to invent the necessity in “have to.” “How will you fund the fourth year of your DPhil?” asked my Oxford supervisor in October 1997. I was 23, fresh from an undergraduate degree; I had little Latin, less Greek. (Ha ha! I had no Greek.) I hadn’t read much English literature, come to think of it. “I will finish in three years,” I told her. “Good,” she said.

And because I had said it, I did it. Well, sort of: by October 2000 my thesis existed – not great, but fully footnoted at least.

To get to that point, I needed immediate deadlines as well as deep, energizing anxiety (fear I would not keep my word, fear I would disappoint, fear I would run out of funding). I gave my first year MSt qualifying paper at a conference: high pressure but good fun. So I scheduled conference presentations for the rest of the thesis. There’s nothing like the prospect of giving a paper to “famous” academics to make you write a whole chapter about early printing on the train from Oxford to Glasgow.[1]

Now, by the time I boarded that train, I had seen hundreds of early printed books and I had a database full of notes about them. I had some super OHPTs.[2] I even had some thoughts written down. This is because my advisors would leave fear-mongering notes in my pigeonhole. “Come over for coffee” and such.[3] Terrifying. I would respond defensively, with 5,000 words.

But it was the conference-going that was most fruitful. To this day, I do all the writing that really matters to me on the eve of a talk, or while I am travelling to deliver it.

Gadding about also gave a productive shape to my academic life. I made friends. I realized how much I needed community. I joined societies, started collaborations, committed to publications, applied for library fellowships, organized a conference, and took on a big load of teaching (my favourite interlocutors are always students).

The end of October 2000 came, and I did have a thesis ready. But somehow I also did not. It still seemed a bit wrong. Moreover, I did not have time to fix it, because I was occupied with all those other ‘necessities’.

So I stalled. I worked on the other stuff for months. Eventually one of my Oxford teachers asked the question I was too scared to ask myself: “Alex, when’re you gonna hand that thang in?” [4]

Shame works like fear for me. I went straight home and revised 80,000 words in 19 days. I got about three hours of sleep per night. Towards the end I was so tired that I hallucinated a rat on a can of soup at Sainsbury’s. There he was: and then – oh dear! No rat. That was when I decided it really was time to hand the thang in.

None of this was healthy, but it was kind of . . . great. I had been thinking about problems with that thesis for six months. Solutions emerged in an exuberant rush. I wrote 3-5,000 words a day, including substantial new sections that I later published, verbatim, in Print Culture and the Medieval Author (2006).

Anyway, that was then. Now I am much older and in a privileged rather than precarious position. I have tenure, research funding, brilliant students, glorious colleagues.[5] I’ve had formative experiences. Through them, I’ve realized that fear and anxiety are less necessary to me than I once believed.

But – happier, more accepting, middle aged – I still maintain the patterns I established as a graduate student. My time is completely, deliberately filled up. I am up to my teeth in teaching, supervising, grant writing, collaborative project management, commissioned essays, reviews. (I have some principles that guide my selection of activities: (1) Remember the rat! Leave time for sleep. (2) Prioritize kids and partner. (3) Avoid assholes.)

When I can squeeze time out of my schedule, I read and think. I inflict my thoughts on members of my research lab. I visit archives, just for a day or two. I scribble ideas down in a notebook. I contribute tl;dr comments to Facebook threads.

And then I write – but only when I have to write. A few weeks ago, I wrote 6,000 words in six hours, so I could send them all to Maura Nolan.[6] This was a lot, even for me. But – Maura Nolan! I’d write 6,000 words for Maura any day.

What is to be learned from this? I’m not sure. This post is very much about me (me, me, me). I offer it mainly because, in a recent Facebook conversation, younger colleagues expressed their belief that all ‘successful’ (i.e., privileged) academics were steady-as-she-goes, 300-words-a-day people. Well, not me.

I suppose my advice about writing is not actually about writing. It’s more about being:

· Learn who you are, and then be it more, instead of thinking, always, that you are meant to be less.

· Be grateful for everything, because you have learned from all of it and you love learning.[7]

· Practice patience and empathy with yourself and others.[8] (However, do reserve a little hostility for assholes.[9] )

· You are okay, and it will be okay (or else it won’t be okay, and that will be okay too).[10] Once you truly believe that, writing and all manner of things will be well.

[1] Early Book Society Conference, July 1999, organized by the lovely Martha Driver and Jeremy Smith.
[2] A now defunct technology, remembered fondly by elderly people.
[3] My advisors were Anne Hudson and Helen Cooper, and they were unfailingly generous in every way.
[4] Those who know him will recognize the Texas twang of Ralph Hanna III.
[5] Like Suzanne Conklin Akbari, who with Michael Collins and ITM created the space for this discussion.
[6] So she could respond to my paper for the Digital Premodern Symposium, May 2014, hosted by Claire Waters and Amanda Phillips, with help from Seeta Chaganti and Colin Milburn. Thanks to them all: I had a blast and got a book chapter out of it!
[7] So, gratitude is not for everyone, but it’s how I reconcile myself to chronic illness and medications that affect my day-to-day functioning; and the injury of my daughter at birth and her mild disability. Am I grateful for the incompetent and rampantly misogynist doctors I met on this “journey”? Well, no, of course not. But I am grateful for what is. I am all good! And so is my kid. When, despite best efforts, self-recrimination and helplessness sweep over me, I turn to mindfulness practices, e.g. (H/t: the magical Andrea Bonsey).
[8] It helps to see human beings as overgrown toddlers. We’re all struggling to regulate our emotions. We’re awful when we’re tired, hungry, or in pain. Sometimes people feel shy, or need to have a little tizzy. Be gentle and wait; the tizzy will pass.
[9] True assholes are easy to spot. They are the ones whose tizzies involve dumping on people under and around them (but never above them). They are obviously in a lot of pain, but their pain takes an ugly and destructive form. Be empathetic; that will allow you to see that their assholery is not about you. But do not waste your your emotional energy on an asshole. Note, further, that many of us have internalized others’ assholery so completely that we are assholes to our Self. This makes us especially vulnerable to the asshole Other. Here is how I have learned to handle assholes, over the years:
[10] The poet Kate Camp wrote those words down for me on a scrap of paper and gave them to me as farewell gift when I left NZ in 1997. I carried it round in my wallet until I passed the DPhil, when I passed it to a friend. But it took me another decade to get her point.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

#Kzoo2015 Blogroll


[UPDATED May 30, 2015]

It's been just over a week since the annual International Congress on Medieval Studies (Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, MI) and quite a few blog posts relating to the conference have appeared online already. I'll be posting some of my own reflections on this site soon, but in the meantime check out this list of post-Kalamazoo links.

In addition to links to blog postings and transcripts of individual paper presentations, this list includes archives of tweets, public notes from sessions, Prezi and YouTube presentations ... and an alliterative poem.

Have I missed anything? Comment below or on my public Facebook thread and I'll update this list ASAP.

[Items listed alphabetically by title; each author/creator named at end of parentheses]

50th International ICMS Day 4 (curated tweet archive, Peter Konieczny)

50th International ICMS Day 3 (curated tweet archive, Peter Konieczny)

50th International ICMS Day 2 (curated tweet archive, Peter Konieczny)

50th International ICMS Day 1 (curated tweet archive, Peter Konieczny)

Best Tweets of Build IT Together (curated tweet archive, Garrett Wegner)

"Ascolat to Camelot, Guildford to Winchester: Narrative Travel in Malory's Morte d'Arthur" (paper presentation and reflections on session "Sacred and Secular Road Trips in Middle English Romance," Kristi J. Castleberry)

Bayeux Tapestry Pics from the Zoo (photos from premiere of “The Bayeux Tapestry: The Stitches Speak," Christopher Monk)

[Bayeux Tapestry] The stitches spoke! (review of Daisy Black’s dramatization of the Bayeux Tapestry, Christopher Monk)

Debatable Rule: (Re)assessing Medieval Statecraft, Power, Authority, and Gender (tweets from roundtable Session 291, Yvonne Seale)

Gower and Medicine (tweets from Session 469 sponsored by the Gower Project, M Bychowski)

I’m not dead! (blog post at The Public Medievalist, Paul B. Sturtevant)

Kalamazoo 2015 (blog post discussing Session 8, Session 153, Session 229, Session 360, and Session 535 
with links to archives of tweets from additional sessions, Yvonne Seale)

Kalamazoo 2015: Congress 50 (tweets from Old English/Anglo-Saxon sessions including Session 36, Session 63, Session 113, Session 211, Session 270, Session 325, Session 356, and Session 420; also Session 464: "What Can Medieval Studies Bring to Ecocriticism?" by Nicole G. Discenza)

Kalamazoo [2015] Friday Update - Social Time and Not Farming Naked (blog post at Medieval History Geek, Curt Emanuel)

"Kalamazoo 2015: Human-Plant Assemblages in Cornish Ordinalia Plays" (Medieval Ecocriticisms blog posting about session on "Secret Lives of Medieval Plants" with transcript of paper presentation, Rob Barrett​)

Kalamazoo 2015 Round-Up! (esp. the session on Carolyn Dinshaw's Chaucer's Sexual Poetics org. by the BABEL Working Group, Leila K. Norako)

Kalamazoo 2015 Saturday Update and Wrap-up
 (blog post at Medieval History Geek, Curt Emanuel)

"Kalamazoo has come and gone" (alliterative poem, Stephen Hopkins​)

Looking Back AND Looking Forward: The Material Collective at Kalamazoo 2015 (blog of the Material Collective, Jennifer Borland)

"Lost At Sea / Forlornly Hopeful" (presentation at the GW Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute's "Lost" Roundtable, Eileen A. Joy​)

Medieval Data: Prospects & Practices (Session 153 tweets, Kalani Craig)

#MedievalDonut (curated archive of twitter meme, Jonathan Hsy)

Medieval Materialisms Day 3 (forthcoming, Angela Bennett Segler)

Medieval Materialisms Day 2 (blog post, Angela Bennett Segler​)

Medieval Materialisms Day 2 (tweet archive, Angela Bennett Segler​)

Medieval Materialisms Day 1 (blog post, Angela Bennett Segler​)

Medieval Materialisms Day 1 (tweet archive, Angela Bennett Segler​)

Medieval Round-Up: KZOO 2015 (blog post mostly about sessions regarding medievalism in popular culture and public engagement, Sandra Alvarez)

Medieval Texts in Digital Environments: New Directions, Old Problems (Session 17 tweets, Kiera Naylor)

"Mental Disabilities and the Saint" (Prezi presentation with transcript, in session on "Disability in Medieval Saints' Lives" org. by the Society for the Study of Disability in the Middle Ages, Kisha Tracy​)

Moving Women, Moving Objects II (Session 558 tweets, Yvonne Seale)

My IMCS @ Kalamazoo 2015 (tweets from many sessions; note especially the Pseudo-Society event and "Ye Next Generacioun" roundtable featuring younger scholars, Anna Wilson)

The Nature of the Middle Ages: A Problem for Historians? (tweets from roundtable Session 226, Yvonne Seale)

"Neighboring Wastelands in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" (presentation in "Ecocatastrophes" session, Richard H. Godden)

On Owning the Word “Medieval”: My Approach (not really about the conference itself but still interesting, Daniel Franke)

Out of chaos, some sort of order: the International Congress on Medieval Studies at 50, May 14-17, 2015 (blog of the Journal of the History of Ideas, Elizabeth Biggs)

"Paradigms of Literary History" (presentation at session "Old English Language and Literature," Eric Weiscott)

"Prosthetics and the Dismodern Body in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" (presentation at session on "(Dis)Abilities in the Pearl-Poems" org. by Pearl-Poet Society, Richard H. Godden)

"The Provenance and History of the Manuscripts Formerly in the Phillips Collection" (slideshow in session "Networks of Transmission: Histories and Practices of Collecting Medieval Manuscripts and Documents," Toby Burrows)

"Source Study: A Retrospective" (public notes on Session 269, Kristen Mapes)

"Source Study in a Digital Age" (presentation at session “Source Study: A Retrospective,” sponsored by the Sources of Anglo-Saxon Culture, Brandon Hawk​)

"Students, Period" (collaborative YouTube video, in session on "Unsettled Marks" org. by the Grammar Rabble, Kisha Tracy)

"Transhistorical Transnationalism: Constance’s Conversions and the Globalization of English" (presentation at session "Transnationalism Before the Nation?" by Shyama Rajendran​)

"Unconfessing Gender: Dysphoric Youths in Gower's Iphis" (presentation at "Gower and Medicine" session sponsored by the Gower Project, M Bychowski)

Women and Power to 1100 (tweets from roundtable Session 99, Yvonne Seale)


Kristen Mapes​ offers a link to an archive of tweets using the #Kzoo2015 hashtag and an interactive network visualization of #Kzoo2015

The Material Collective's excellent list of 50 Questions for Medieval Studies (these questions were crowdsourced before the conference and also circulated at the Friday metasession "Medieval Originality: Looking Forward, Looking Back") [posting by Karen Overbey]

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Lost at Sea / Forlornly Hopeful (in the style of Lorrie Moore)


Herewith, I share the text of my short piece for the roundtable session that Jeffrey organized, under the auspices of GW MEMSI, under the rubric of "Lost." I was somewhat nervous about presenting this because of its personal aspects, but after hearing Christopher Roman, in his gorgeous and moving piece "Lost Time," reflect on the role of food and eating in relation to time, memory, nostalgia, devotion/praying, love, and sorrow via the lenses of medieval mysticism and also the narration of a break-up with a boyfriend that involved eating brownies together, I breathed a sigh of relief. And as the session ended with Anne Harris's moving tribute to her father, whose brain injury led to 9 years of a condition where he forgot nothing but it was "all forest and no trees" ("Lost in Thought"), there was an interesting autobiographical thread within the session that also showcased really smart, and also funny as hell, presentations on dual number pronouns in Old English & two-ness (Daniel Remein), the obscure and now mainly lost Middle English word steven (Randy Schiff), air pollution in West Virginia and the loss of breath (Lowell Duckert), and words that desert one lingua franca and take up covert and often subversive residence in other lingua francas, like "double agents" (Jonathan Hsy).

It will be a long time before I forget Dan Remein's impersonation of a 1940s noir-style private eye who is looking for the lost pronouns, or his handout, which included an illustration of a milk carton, with the caption "Have You Seen Me?" followed by examples of all six dual number pronouns in Old English. Nor will I forget Lowell using an Air Supply song ("Lost in Love") as his structuring frame, nor Jonathan using a rubber superball to demonstrate how some words bounce into other languages and then pop back out in ways you would never expect. Indeed, Jeffrey had organized the session by first asking us to choose/invent our own "lost" catchphrases, and then a few months before the Congress, we each received an object from the Dept. of Found Objects, which we were asked to weave into our presentation somehow. In point of fact, I never received my object. I received an envelope that had been ripped open, and some green tissue paper (Lowell suffered the same fate but chose to make the tissue paper his "object" -- quite brilliantly, in fact, as it stood in for him as lungs, as well as air). The fact that my object did not arrive -- the idea of never arriving -- thus became central to my presentation, written in the same frame of mind I was in when I gave my Harvard talk (see HERE), in which I was feeling a bit depressed about how, frankly, hard it is to keep heterotopian ventures afloat (i.e., BABEL, punctum, Studium, etc.) while the endlessly self-replicating machinery of neoliberal capital is grinding down all of us who aren't trying to monetize everything, who are trying to do something else. Being at the Kalamazoo Congress was energizing for me and personally refreshing (thank you, FRIENDS!), and thanks to intensive conversations and strategy meetings with certain persons (more about which ... later), I feel that "everything will be okay." Even though, most days, it doesn't always feel that way. Hence, my paper:

Lost at Sea / Forlornly Hopeful (in the style of Lorrie Moore)

loss, from the Old English los, “damage,” “destruction,” Icelandic los, “dissolution,” “break-up,” and Proto-Indo-European *lews, “to cut, sunder, separate,” leading at some point also to lost, the idea of not being able to be found = missing

forlorn hope, false folk etymology, from the Dutch verloren hoop, literally already lost heap” = “already lost troop”

You’ve never felt so lost, unmoored, and adrift in life as you do now, at this particular juncture in your life. And yet part of your job (which you invented for yourself and which no one asked you to do) is to spend at least part of every day pretending everything is okay, or is going to be okay, and to project that feeling out into the world at large. Because you’ve always been of a mind that, no matter how dark things get, if people are depending on you, you have an obligation, as John Irving once wrote so memorably in The Hotel New Hampshire, to “keep passing the open windows.”
            It’s probably no accident, in relation to the strains of your own lost-at-sea-ness, that the other memorable line of that novel is, “Sorrow floats.” The Old English Seafarer, stranded in the middle of a dark and stormy sea, bereft of his home and comrades, and one of the losers of history, knew this all too well, but he had the wrong plan—he imagined his soul corkscrewing out of his body and flying away into the heavens, leaving behind his frozen corpse, bound by frost and icicles, bobbing up and down in his rudderless bark, like that was a good thing. But he also spent so much of his time thinking about (and missing) his friends that he started to imagine that the sea-birds were his friends, singing to him from the sea-cliffs as if they were all still in the mead-hall together.
            You want to consider the Seafarer and his birds as a “verloren hoop,” literally, in Dutch, an already lost troop, with “hoop” here meaning “heap,” but also, in a somewhat famous false etymology, “hope.” In its original meaning, a “verloren hoop,” or “forlorn heap,” were a group of soldiers sent on a hopeless mission, one they would never return from, but which might pave the way for another group of fighters to advance the field. They were the first wave, like the guys who landed first at Normandy on D-Day, and simply got mowed down, which was actually part of some general’s (successful) plan to secure the beach. Somewhere along they way, “forlorn heap” got mis-transcribed via homonym confusion as “forlorn hope,” and you want to hang on to this meaning, which isn’t as false as it appears. False etymologies are still real etymologies.
            You want to figure out how a troop can be lost together, and, if not survive, at least have hope. You want to also travel along the other fork in this branching etymological pathway, where the meaning of “loss” as destruction, damage, dissolution, and brokenness somehow morphed into “lost” as separated, cut adrift, and gone—in short, not able to be found, out there somewhere, at large, missing, like the Scythians in Book IV of Herodotus’s Histories who so frustrated Darius and his Persians that they had to return home over the Ister River without ever engaging the battle. You want to know if it’s possible to craft a hopeful politics of the forlorn troop, the lost band, the ones who went to fight the battle they already know can’t be won, but who are also “missing in action.” This would be something like the “radical hope” formulated by Jonathan Lear in his book Radical Hope and the Ethics of Cultural Devastation, which “anticipates a good for which those who have the hope as yet lack the appropriate concepts with which to understand it.”
            It all started when you did something perverse that went completely against your usual character, although it didn’t look that way to many. You’ve always been, let’s face it, a Type-A, obsessive, nervous, anxiety-ridden, and even controlling personality who’s mainly afraid of everyone and everything. At one point, and for many years, it took a lot of Jack Daniels and valium and certain trusty talismans to get you on a plane, you shunned and dreaded travel in equal measure, and your day-to-day contentment was only possible in direct proportion to living and working in spaces of what might be called domestic calm and a certain aesthetic rigidity. You were the kind of person who, if everything wasn’t in its proper place, like a magazine set at just the right angle on a coffee table, you just simply and totally freaked out. You had stomach problems, like all Virgos do. You wanted to stay in one place where nothing would ever change. You thought you were supposed to meet the love of your life and live with them forever and plant trees with them. You were really obsessed with the tree thing. When you broke up with your partner after 17 years—the person who, when they walked into a room, even after all of the bad and horrible things that happened between you, your heart still lifted—the thing that hit you the hardest was that you weren’t going to live the rest of your life in one house and see all of the trees grow taller. It felt like a stupendous failure of a certain romantic landscape architecture, and everyone knows how long it takes trees to grow. You really fucked it up this time.
            You really hate it when people say, “a crisis is an opportunity,” but perversely, it really is. Every time you taught literature courses at Southern Illinois University, you took an almost cruel pleasure in telling your students that the greatest miracle in life was change, precisely because it so rarely happens, and that all great literature was really just about this miracle of change that almost never happens in real life (or about the resulting tragedy of those who can never change or who are not allowed, by society or whoever, to change), and that most of them would never change and that nothing really different would ever really happen to most of them and that no one ever really learns anything really true about themselves and then does something about it, and they would all grow older always making the same mistakes over and over again, even after experiences that one would think ought to obviously lead to change, and therefore, please, you would say to your students, please embrace change, but also know how painful it will be, how it will hurt like hell, yet nothing could be more necessary. And you would say this just before going back to your house where nothing ever changed and where you never changed and where you kept clinging to things that weren’t really good for you just through sheer force of obstinate will, all evidence to the contrary.
            So one day something cracked inside of you, and sometimes, as they say, one thing leads to another, and little by little, you literally chucked away or put into storage absolutely everything that belonged to you (even your entire library and all of those small objects that we all collect throughout our lives and that mean something only to us) except for one car, one small dog named Sparkles Joy, a few photographs of loved ones, and as much clothing as you could fit into one car, because whatever would happen, at least you would do it in style. You would go down swinging with flair. You quit your job, invented some new jobs that have no salary, and went on and on to anyone who would listen how freeing it all was. Except every single day entails some sort of “freak out” moment, anyway, because you really don’t have any idea if any of this is a good idea, but nevertheless you want to insist that everything really will be okay, although you have no idea, but still, it will be okay, although it may never be okay and how could you possibly really know, but still, everything really will be okay, and you get the picture, and we’re all passing the open windows together. And you don’t want anyone thinking any of this is brave because, honestly, it’s more like stubbornness, and maybe even self-destructiveness.
            You believe in your projects, and in all the people helping you with your projects (insert here: BABEL WorkingGroup, punctum books + records, etc.), but you’re also savvy enough to understand that what you and your friends are trying to make happen is designed on purpose to be weird, illegitimate, misfit, queer, vagabond, unmoored, anti-authoritarian, unpredictable, and just plain good old-fashioned anarchist, and one doesn’t get Mellon or NEH grants for such ventures. In the end, it turns out everything really is about money, and if you don’t have it, you can take your foolish utopian ideas and just stuff it. As the pages fly off the calendar like in the old Hollywood movies, more and more, you’re running scared, and like Dante in those dark, forbidding woods, in the middle of your life, it feels as if you’ve lost your way.
            And then you recall, this is how all stories begin, something else you would always tell your students. The narrative form itself, the very genre of narrative, always begins with someone being lost at sea and also stranded. Think Apollonius of Tyre, Homer’s Odysseus, Chaucer’s Custance, and so on. There’s always a family drama as well: the origins of narrative are rooted, as it were, in dysfunctional families and the havoc they wreak, especially families where parents actively seek your destruction by breaking you down mentally, piece by piece, or just outright try to maim and kill you. One cuts the Oedipal knot, breaks out or is cast out, gets lost, and then returns to their so-called rightful place.You don’t really care about the return or anyone’s, least of all your own, “rightful” place. You just know that if anything is to happen at all, you have to first be cast adrift. You have to be lost at sea. You’re not worried about the ending. You just want to be going somewhere. The other twist you want to add to the oldest story is to not go it alone, but to be lost, to be forlorn, with your heap, and your troop, which is also where the (not necessarily false) hope comes in. 
             Which brings up another way to embrace rocky and uncertain beginnings but to reject traditional endings, which is also about, finally, your new talisman, a necklace engraved with the phrase “amor fati.” In the conventional, medievally fatalistic reading, this means something like loving your fate, and especially, loving your own (untimely) death, ideally on a battlefield. But for you, it means something else. It means that while Byrhtnoth is embracing his bloody end on the field at Maldon (a sacrificial death his patriarchal culture demands of him), while also chastising his comrades for deserting the field, the rest of you should run away together. Like the English knights in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, you want your new battle cry to be, “Run away!” In this scenario, what “amor fati” means for you, and hopefully for your friends, is that, no matter what happens, you won’t hate, nor scorn, your life.

will it be possible to survive as an idealist, as a humanist, or will the endless machinery of neoliberalism really grind all of us down who aren’t focused on monetizing everything? - See more at:
will it be possible to survive as an idealist, as a humanist, or will the endless machinery of neoliberalism really grind all of us down who aren’t focused on monetizing everything? - See more at:
will it be possible to survive as an idealist, as a humanist, or will the endless machinery of neoliberalism really grind all of us down who aren’t focused on monetizing everything? - See more at:

Monday, May 11, 2015

#Kzoo2015: some suggested sessions

 by J J Cohen

This week begins the annual pilgrimage of medievalists and their friends to Kalamazoo, Michigan for the FIFTIETH International Congress on Medieval Studies. I'm looking forward to seeing many of you there ... and on behalf of the BABEL Steering Committee want to bring to your attention two events you are most welcome to attend: the BABEL Party Friday at Bells and the BABEL/Material Collective Bar&Business Meeting Thursday (see below).

Here are also some suggestions for sessions to attend. The list is to be read alongside the Material Collective's collation of awesomeness (50 Kalamazoos). Please add your own suggestions to the comments!

THURSDAY 10 AM Fetzer 1005
Carolyn Dinshaw’s Chaucer’s Sexual Poetics, 1990–2015 
Sponsor: BABEL Working Group
Presider: Bruce Holsinger
Hermeneutics as Autobiography Steven F. Kruger, Queens College and Graduate Center, CUNY
Glosynge Is a Glorious Thynge Emma Maggie Solberg, Bowdoin College
The Tex(t)ual Body Myra Seaman, College of Charleston
Materna Lingua Nicholas Watson, Harvard Univ.
Chaucer’s Deadly Text Lynn Shutters, Colorado State Univ.
Documents and Doctrine: A Case for Chaucer’s Discerning Women Elizabeth Robertson, Univ. of Glasgow
Response: Carolyn Dinshaw, New York Univ

THURSDAY 3:30 PM Sangren 1710
Critical Imperative: The Future of Feminism 
Sponsor: Exemplaria: Medieval / Early Modern / Theory
Organizer: Patricia Clare Ingham, Indiana Univ.–Bloomington
Presider: Tison Pugh, Univ. of Central Florida
Feminism beyond Skepticism Ruth Evans, St. Louis Univ.
New Materialism and the Future of Feminism: The Case of Le Menagier de Paris Glenn Burger, Queens College and Graduate Center, CUNY
Not Your Mother’s Historical Continuity: Feminism, Historicism, and the Case of Christine de Pizan Lynn Shutters, Colorado State Univ.

THURSDAY 5:15 p.m. Fetzer 1035
BABEL Working Group and the Material Collective 
Reception with open bar
Please bring your ideas for next year's BABEL + postmedieval sessions!
NOTE FROM EILEEN: we will also be giving away copies of Cohen & Co.'s INHUMAN NATURE and Kathleen Kennedy's MEDIEVAL HACKERS at this reception!

FRIDAY 10:00 AM Bernhard 158
Quantum Medievalisms (A Roundtable)
Sponsor: postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies
Organizer: Eileen Joy, BABEL Working Group
Presider: Angela R. Bennett Segler, New York Univ.
Schroedinger’s Woman Tara Mendola, New York Univ.
The Piers Plowman Uncertainty Principle James Eric Ensley, North Carolina State Univ.
Bedetimematter Christopher Roman, Kent State Univ.–Tuscarawas
Quantum Memory and Medieval Poetics of Forgetting Jenny Boyar, Univ. of Rochester
Quantum Queerness Karma Lochrie, Indiana Univ.–Bloomington

AND ALSO FRIDAY 10:00 AM Schneider 2355
False Friends: “Translation,” “Adaptation,” or “Creative Interpretation” of the Medieval Text? 
Sponsor: eth press
Organizer: Chris Piuma, Univ. of Toronto, and David Hadbawnik, Univ. at Buffalo
Presider: David Hadbawnik
The Nonce Taxonomies of Translation and Mary Jo Bang’s Inferno Lisa Ampleman, Univ. of Cincinnati
The Well of Anachronism: Experimental Translation, Medievalism, and Gender in Contemporary Poetics Shannon Maguire, Wilfrid Laurier Univ.
Return to Sender: Re-Flemishing Chaucer’s Flemish Tales in Verhalen voor Canterbury Jonathan Hsy, George Washington Univ.
“The harlot is talkative and wandering”: Conduct Literature, Medbh McGuckian, and the Postcolonial Subject Katharine W. Jager, Univ. of Houston-Downtown

AND ALSO ALSO FRIDAY 10:00 AM Bernhard 106
The Secret Life of Medieval Plants
Organizer: Rob Wakeman, Univ. of Maryland, and Danielle Allor, Rutgers Univ.
Presider: Rob Wakeman
Human-Plant Assemblages in Cornish Ordinalia Plays, Robert W. Barrett, Jr., Univ. of Illinois–Urbana-Champaign
What Makes the Cut: Selection and Omission in the Tree Catalog, Danielle Allor
The Secret Life of Dead Plants, Haylie Swenson, George Washington Univ.
“Ripeness is all”: Plants, Oedipal Myths, and King Lear, Vin Nardizzi, Univ. of British Columbia

FRIDAY 1:30 Fetzer 2030
Feeling Medieval: Teaching Emotion in the Middle Ages 
Sponsor: TEAMS (The Consortium for the Teaching of the Middle Ages)
Organizer: Thomas A. Goodmann, Univ. of Miami Presider: Thomas A. Goodmann
A Is for Affeccioun: Strategies for the History of Emotions in the Classroom Rebecca F. McNamara, Univ. of Sydney
“The folk gan laughen at his fantasye”: Contexts for Understanding Emotion in Several Medieval Genres Anne Scott, Northern Arizona Univ.
“Parzival’s Fear and Werther’s Loathing”: Teaching Emotions in Medieval and Modern German Literature to High School Students: An Experiment Ricarda Wagner, Univ. Heidelberg
Teaching Feeling: Asceticism, Critique, and Affective Piety Paul Megna, Univ. of California–Santa Barbara
Object Emotion: Inter- and Extra-disciplinary Graduate Teaching Stephanie Downes, Univ. of Melbourne

FRIDAY 3:30 Schneider 1140
Lost (A Roundtable)
Sponsor: Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute (MEMSI), George Washington Univ.
Presider: Jeffrey J. Cohen
Lost Speech Randy P. Schiff, Univ. at Buffalo
Lost Time Christopher Roman, Kent State Univ.–Tuscarawas
Lost in Love Lowell Duckert, West Virginia Univ.
Lost English Dual Number Pronouns Daniel Remein, Univ. of Massachusetts–Boston
Lost at Sea / Adrift Eileen Joy, BABEL Working Group
Lost Causes Jonathan Hsy, George Washington Univ.
Lost in Thought Anne F. Harris, DePauw Univ.

FRIDAY 5:30 Bernhard East Ballroom
Medieval Originality: Looking Back, Looking Forward (A Panel Discussion)
Sponsor: Material Collective; Medieval Institute, Western Michigan Univ.
Organizer: Maggie M. Williams, William Paterson Univ./Material Collective
Presider: Maggie M. Williams
A panel discussion with Eileen C. Sweeney, Boston College/Society for Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy; Pamela King, Univ. of Glasgow/Medieval and Renaissance Drama Society (MRDS); Martha Bayless, Univ. of Oregon/Platinum Latin; Robert F. Berkhofer, III, Western Michigan Univ./Haskins Society; James Borders, Univ. of Michigan–Ann Arbor/Musicology at Kalamazoo; and, as respondent, Elizabeth C. Teviotdale, Western Michigan Univ.

FRIDAY 9 PM onwards (some of us might still be there Monday morning)
BABEL Annual Party at Bells Eccentric Cafe 355 E Kalamazoo Ave (an easy walk from the Radisson, where the shuttle bus lets off).
Make sure you ask a member of the BABEL Steering Committee for a wristband so that you can enjoy the fermented beverages in radical conviviality. Also, if you don't know anyone who is a member of BABEL, that is all the more reason to come. All are welcome, but especially YOU.

SATURDAY 1:30 Fetzer 2016
Unsettled Marks: To #;()@?”:—*!… and Beyond! (A Roundtable)
Sponsor: Grammar Rabble
Organizer: Richard H. Godden, Tulane Univ., and Shyama Rajendran, George Washington Univ. Presider: Shyama Rajendran
☧ Chrismon “Can Be Set Down as a Sign Wherever the Writer Likes” Damian Fleming, Indiana Univ.-Purdue Univ.–Fort Wayne
Students, Period Kisha G. Tracy, Fitchburg State Univ.
In Search of Lost Punctuation: The Medieval Uses and the Modern Absence of the Paraph Sarah Noonan, Lindenwood Univ.
You’ve Been Punc’t Cameron Hunt McNabb, Southeastern Univ.
Tiro and the Druids Bruce Holsinger, Univ. of Virginia
Poetry / Chris Piuma, Univ. of Toronto, and David Hadbawnik, Univ. at Buffalo

SATURDAY 3:30 Fetzer 1035
Medieval Ecocriticisms: What Can Medieval Studies Bring to Ecocriticism? (A Roundtable)
Sponsor: Medieval Ecocriticisms
Organizer: Heide Estes, Univ. of Cambridge
Presider: Jeffrey Cohen
Medieval Reliquaries as Functionally Differentiated Environments Rachel S. Anderson, Grand Valley State Univ.
Ecocriticism and Medieval Eschatology Justin Brent, Presbyterian College
Ecolinguistics: Deep Time and Medieval Language Contact Jonathan Hsy, George Washington Univ.
Medieval Gardens Allyson McNitt, Univ. of Oklahoma
Animals and Gods without Us in Medieval Religious Literature Mo Pareles, Northwestern Univ.
The Early Middle English Alliterative Tradition: Husbandry, Class, Economics, and Ecocriticism Matthew Pullen, South Dakota State Univ.
Patience, ISIS, and the Ecological Scars of Perpetual War Rob Wakeman, Univ. of Maryland

If you make it all the way until Sunday ... well, just stay the night with the rest of us. Seriously. Enjoy a quiet transition into the ending of the semester. Starting later in the afternoon all who are still in Kalamazoo are most welcome to rendezvous, one last time, at Bells for food and drink and conviviality. AND here is a suggestion for your Sunday morning pre-brunch treat (yes! you can eat brunch with us afterwards!):
Sunday 10:30 AM Ecotastrophes (A Roundtable) Fetzer 1010
Sponsor: Oecologies: Inhabiting Premodern Worlds
Organizer: Robert Allen Rouse, Univ. of British Columbia
Presider: Robert Allen Rouse
Plague, English, and Other Natural Disasters David K. Coley, Simon Fraser Univ.
Cultivating Catastrophe in Medieval Anglo-Welsh Literature Daniel Helbert, Univ. of British Columbia
Neighboring Wastelands, Catastrophic Hospitality, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Richard H. Godden, Tulane Univ.
The Shape of Catastrophe
Jeffrey J. Cohen, George Washington Univ., and Lowell Duckert, West Virginia Univ.
Dark Skies and Black Gardens: Jessie Redmon Fauset’s Harlem Lady in the Medieval World Cord J. Whitaker, Wellesley College

(this post has been edited, with some of the comments moved into the main body to offer a more complete Kzoo list)

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

You know, the one with the Rocks – Trinity Colllege R.3.3


In last night's Chaucer class, while trying to illustrate a point about the Manciple's Tale. I found myself in Cambridge, Trinity College R.3.3, a Canterbury Tales manuscript of c. 1450-1475. This is what grabbed me, above: at 108r, you'll see the ending of the Prioress's Tale (here reading "for the reverence of his moder Marie. Amen"), followed not by Thopas, but by the FRANKLIN.
Dividing the Prioress from the Franklin, we have: "Hic incipit prologus de Frankeleyun cum fabula sua de Rokkes de Brytaine" (here begins the Franklin's prologue with his tale of the Rocks of Briton [or Bretagne]")
Forgive me if I'm repeating something someone already said: I'm not a manuscripts scholar, my paleography is weak, and various quick, morning searches in various databases for Trinity R.3.3 commentary haven't been successful, even though I know some of you have written about it: but I love this incipit. I would suspect our students, and most of us too, think of the Franklin's Tale as mostly about honor, truth, the problem of sovereignty, class conflict in narrative and rhetoric, and the indifference or nonexistence of the gods. But here's someone who, like Jeffrey (eg here and here), thinks it's a tale mostly about ROCKS.
(quick check suggests there are no other such incipit summaries in the mss (the others are just tags like "here begins the Cook's Tale," etc, but we do have this this rather self-satisfied, nonmedieval manicule at 38r)

(I don’t suppose anyone knows off hand if any of the other fifteenth-century copies of the Franklin’s Tales are marked this way?)

Sunday, May 03, 2015

Three Bits in the Canterbury Tales that Will Always Make Me Laugh

Phallus in Purse: London, 1375-1424

  1. "and forth he gooth -- no lenger wolde he lette -- / unto the west gate of the toun, and fond / a dong carte, as it were to donge lond" (VII.3034-36, Nun's Priest's Tale)
  2. "and whan he hadde pouped in this horn" (IX.90, Manciple's Prologue)
  3. "whereas the Poo out of a welle smal" (IV.48, Clerk's Prologue)
(object 14902 from the Kunera Database of Medieval Badges)