Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Alistair Cooke 

Today I want to take a moment to mourn the passing of Alistair Cooke, who died yesterday at the age of 95. Cooke was the host of Letter from America, broadcast weekly on BBC Radio 4, which ran for a staggering 58 years from 1946 until his retirement at the beginning of this month. Cooke began his broadcasts at a time when Britain and the United States were about to begin their most profound journeys along different cultural trajectories since American independence. Cooke served as a bridge between the two cultures, keeping his British listeners informed about the latest developments in the increasingly strange phenomenon that was America. (His very first broadcast included a translation of the American ‘corn’ to ‘maize’, a translation few Britons would require today.) Although Cooke eventually became an American citizen, he never lost his connexion with his British audience, and his unique dual perspective allowed him to speak with a voice that reflected both the shared and the divergent characters of the two cultures. Further, the sheer number of his broadcasts over such a great length of time makes Letter from America a profoundly valuable historical resource. Currently, you can hear and read samples (including his last letter) on the Radio 4 web site, but I sincerely hope that the BBC has plans to produce transcripts of all his broadcasts and make them available for scholars.

Tuesday, March 30, 2004

A Little Light Research 

I spent last night putting the finishing touches on an essay for Viator on Havelok the Dane and report for Teachers of Old English in Britain and Ireland (TOEBI) on the teaching of Old English in North America. That pretty much clears up my "pending" tray until Spring Break, when I have to write a paper for the International Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo (on the textual tradition of Havelok). That's nearly a week with nothing on the agenda (except the omnipresent paper grading). Something must be wrong! Perhaps I can get a head start on writing my paper for the International Conference on Layamon's Brut in August. It would be nice to have something substantial written by the end of the semester. Keeping up my research is pretty difficult when I'm teaching four classes (some of them with double the normal enrolments). I'm walking around in a haze much more than I really like. As for exercise--not normally possible. I think I'll make it a priority for the rest of the week.

On another note, I am excited to learn that one of my graduate students is to attend the conference in Kalamazoo. The prospect of steering my students into the academic world which I so happily joined (got sucked into?) is not one that I can normally look forward to at CSUN. The portion of our jobs known euphemistically as "Contribution to the Field of Study" (aka research) is shrinking due to lack of time, but the heavy teaching load which supposedly contributes that lack of time is not making up for the difference. The university's mission is all about access--access to the institution--not to scholarly activity. Encouraging students to attend conferences is one way to do thumb our noses at this misguided direction, but at several hundred dollars a conference, how many of our students can afford to follow in our footsteps?

Modifications, but maybe not improvements 

I just added a script to list referrers--not that anybody is reading my web log at this point. I'm not very happy with it, as it registers my web log publishing page and inserts an annoying horizontal bar above the text. There's got to be another way to do this.

Monday, March 29, 2004

A Few Words on Tolkien 

Today I'm buried under a mountain of essays for my senior seminar on The Lord of the Rings. My impressions of teaching such a course are for another time, except to complain about the unavailability of resources to help the students understand what they are reading. Although there is a wealth of publication out there, even the good stuff is not held in most university libraries. Thus I welcome the soon-to-be published journal Tolkien Studies. You can see the brochure here. I look forward to the presence of a readily available scholarly journal changing the way I teach Tolkien in the future.

I spent my little "blog time" today reading the web logs of other medievalists to find out what is out there and to start engaging in some of the dialogue features of blogging. I'll be putting up a few links in a day or two.

Sunday, March 28, 2004

Hypothetically Speaking... 

On Thursday I tried for the first time to teach the subjunctive mood in English. For some years now I have noticed that colloquial English offers alternative constructions for the subjunctive forms used in educated writing, but I have never seen a grammar book that deals with this usage issue. But it came to my mind again last night when I heard on television the expression, ‘I didn’t think it would have been a church.’ Here the hypothetical scenario of ‘it’ (in this case, a building housing an emaciated dog) being a church would be expressed in writing with ‘was’. What is happening here?

The issue has to be deal with from several directions. First, the nice neat subjunctive forms of Old English ended in singular -e or plural -en. The present subjunctive of ‘be’ was singular sie, plural sien or singular beo, plural beon. The past subjunctive of ‘be’ was wære (singular and plural). In Middle English the sie forms dropped out of the language, and the singular/plural distinction was lost due the phonological erosion of the endings -e and -en. As a result, the subject forms going into Early Modern English were an invariant be in the present subjunctive and invariant were in the past subjunctive. Likewise, other the present and past subjunctives of other verbs became indistinguishable from the infinitives and past tenses. However, the present subjunctive resembled the present indicative in all cases but the third person singular, so that indicative forms appeared, perhaps from the very beginning. Hence:
If he see them, he’ll give a shout > If he sees them, he’ll give a shout.

It appears that a distinct subjunctive form was preserved only after certain ‘trigger words’ (particularly verbs or adjectives followed by ‘that’), with some variation in usage (e.g. ‘whether’ is a trigger word for some people in certain expressions). In a sense, then, the subjunctive mood is a grammatical category which is no longer active in Modern Standard English, like the distinction between singular and plural second person pronouns.

But now we come back to ‘I didn’t think it would have been a church.’ The modal auxiliary would normally translates the conditional mood of other languages, so the English construction would + verb could be considered a periphrastic conditional. Its meaning is very similar to the subjunctive implication of possible reality, rather than an actual one, and this may provide one clue to the development of what I think is a periphrastic subjunctive. It frequently occurs in parallel constructions with the periphrastic conditional:
If he would tell them what they need to know, they would leave him alone.

Here the periphrastic subjunctive would tell replaces the older told as a parallel to the periphrastic conditional would leave. Note the parallel past perfect equivalents:
Standard: If he had told them...they would have left...
Periphrastic: If he would have told them...they would have left...
Constructions like ‘I didn’t think it would have been a church’ appear to be extensions of this new periphrastic subjunctive into contexts where it is not parallel with a conditional. In other words the grammatical category subjunctive has become active again.

Is this really the correct analysis? I don’t know, since I’m merely speculating. I may adjust this if I find new information. One issue that I wonder about is the role of the expression of desire conveyed by would. Did this play any role in the growth of the periphrastic subjunctive?

Saturday, March 27, 2004

Slave-Master Data 

And now we come to it. It’s Friday, and I’ve got no great revelations, epiphanies, or even fleeting musings. I’ve been working too hard. It’s days like this which will ultimate determine the shape of this log. Will it be anything more than an elaborate record of fragments of my life, the boring ephemera of my day-to-day activities? Or will it be a forum for something actually thought provoking? I am faced with coming up with a new entry topic. I could talk about yesterday’s activities, but do I want to?

Well, for the past two days I have been occupied with formatting a massive report on the effectiveness of the English major based on survey materials collected by the Assessment Committee. My role is simply to make it look like it was put together by someone who actually knows how to produce documents on a computer. I’m also integrating graphic pie charts because the report is filled with mind-numbing statistics. The task is so repetitive and detail-centred, that I haven’t even had a chance to take in the implications of the report. Perhaps that will be a topic for a future entry.

For now, I’ll simply ask the question that often comes to my mind when faced with such documents. How can we find ways to present data in a form where it will be easy to manipulate by many different hands in many different media? On the Web XML is the answer, but what happens when you are given a text that has to be converted into such a flexible medium? This is precisely what is happening in a number of projects in the literary world. For instance, medieval texts are being marked up with tags to help in Boolean searches for online access; they can then be printed out with the tags stripped away in forms that look much like the original print editions. But who is doing the tagging? Mostly graduate student slaves, I gather. Doing this kind of work requires intelligence, and I wonder if it can ever be automated. As our society comes to rely more and more on flexible forms of data, the type of clerical work that these graduate students do, or that I have been doing, will become a perpetual need. I suppose the factory-line workers of the industrial revolution will become the data management slaves of the information revolution. The tasks may be just as laborious. But will they be more intelligent?

Thursday, March 25, 2004

Hell Day 

Today is Thursday, Hell day, the day I teach four courses and hold two hours of office hours. I arrive at work at 9 am and leave at 7 pm (arrive home at 7:30 to 8:00). I’m told we’re not technically allowed to teach four courses in a day, but it’s done regularly, probably because spreading out the teaching only means that we end up with no large chunks of time to do any work. In my case, I end up so exhausted that I need a day to recover, and the effect is the same. I wish I could do better for my students. The university wants to become more learning centred; what it really needs is for its teachers (and students) to be less overtaxed. Well, there’s time only for seven sentences; I’m off to the next task.

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

The Life of Brian 

By a curious coincidence, an item in today's news relates to my first two substantive entries, The Passion of Christ and Harrius Potter. Rainbow Pictures is to re-release Monty Python's The Life of Brian in honour of its twenty-fifth anniversary. An article in the BBC Web site quotes the distributor as expressing the hope that the film would "serve as an antidote to all the hysteria about Mel's movie". I can't help but hope that the famous "We are all individuals" scene will counteract the urge to interact with people based on generalised and stereotyped (and often ignorant) notions. Of course, the scene where Brian's attempt to write graffiti ('Romanes Eunt Domus') also highlights the dismal lack of training people get in Latin (and grammar) in this country.

This week has seen the first time that I have been separated from my wife Camille since we got married (she's on a business trip to the Bay Area). I miss her terribly. Being apart sucks. Well, I'll take a note from 'The Life of Brian: 'Always look on the bright side of life...'

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

The Passion of Christ 

This may not be the only entry concerning Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of Christ. I haven’t seen it and may not do so for a very long time for reasons detailed below. But I have certainly found the reviews thought provoking. I just read the review written by my cousin Geoff on DVDTalk.com, who, like most critics, accuses Gibson of a “myopic focus on the suffering of Jesus”. Elsewhere, he and other critics note Gibson’s emphasis on the violence of the Jews. Most suggest that the central flaw of the film is its failure to treat the broader context of Jesus’ life and to adequately examine the characters and their motivations. What has not been noticed is that Gibson’s film is not a story about Jesus but about Christ, and, as such, stands in a long tradition of depictions of the Christ-figure on its own. Comparison with historical portrayals of the crucifixion do not show the film in a good light.

The depiction I am most familiar with is the Anglo-Saxon poem The Dream of the Rood, which portrays the Christ-figure as a warrior-hero valiantly embracing his fate by actively climbing the cross. It contrasts strongly with later depictions from the twelfth century which show Christ as a pathetic figure suffering as he hangs on the cross. Gibson’s film could be seen in this tradition, but the reviewers’ comments about Gibson’s emphasis on the violence of the other people involved suggests to me that The Passion is filtered through the lens of contemporary Hollywood film making where extreme and frequent violence is a means of conveying the visual spectacle enabled by the medium of film. The lesson here is that each account of the crucifixion is a reflection of the culture that produced it. However, the turn towards an emphasis on the violence of the Jews is not new nor restricted to film; Christine Chism discusses in Alliterative Revivals how precisely this shift away from pity for the Christ-figure towards accusation of the killers reflected and fuelled a desire for revenge against the Jews in fourteenth-century literature. Those who speculate on whether Gibson’s film will provoke anti-Semitic responses need not speculate in a vacuum; they have only to look at the lessons of history. For this reason, I won’t be contributing to the film’s income, if I can possibly help it.

Monday, March 22, 2004

Upper-Level Blogging? 

Have I reached the exalted levels of knowing how to get the most out of this new medium? Not really, but I'm starting to get the hang of it. The technical details are mind-boggling and the technical support minimal. Still I've had some success in getting all the necessary details up (links to my home page, short introduction, disclaimer, and the like). The number of entries is still minimal, but I think I am ready to go public.

So as of 22 March 2004, a permanent link to this web log will go on my CSUN web site. I hope favourable responses start pouring in soon. For now I'm leaving open the "Comment" link to anyone who wishes to leave their responses. However, I may have to shut it down later if I get inappropriate comments or if the spammers find the link. But for now I'll see what comes to pass.

Harrius Potter 

Whilst walking through the UCLA bookstore I chanced to come upon a copy of Harrius Potter et Philosophi Lapis. A glance at the price on the inside cover revealed that it was an American edition, so I was surprised to see the word “philosophi” from the original British title rather than some Latin equivalent to the “sorcerer’s” of the American edition. After all the hullabaloo about the original title being changed in the American edition because an American audience supposedly could not cope with such an intellectually challenging word as “philosophy”, I found it strangely intriguing that the American Latin-reading audience (all three of them, perhaps) presumably could. I am reminded of earlier periods in history (into the eighteenth century) when Latin was the language in which higher and more arcane concepts were expressed, whereas the vernacular was considered more “workaday” and unfit for literature of the higher sort.

Of course the analogy breaks down easily, since a children's book would hardly have been considered higher literature. On the other hand, what would the translator have chosen if he had wanted to render "sorcerer's" in Latin? Magus can imply a wise man, whereas veneficus is a poisoner, and by extension a worker of magic (so found in Cicero, Ovid, and Horace). The latter--even if it did not have the negative connotations--would hardly make a catchy title since it was not borrowed into English and would be unrecognisable today. However, would not magi nicely capture both the pursuer of knowledge and wisdom in "philosopher" and the worker of magic in "sorcerer"?

Sunday, March 21, 2004

Some First Thoughts 

I won't make a habit of writing two entries on one day, but I thought it would be nice to get in some comment that reflects my intentions for starting this web log. In the past couple of days I've been agonising over world politics and got a sudden desire to re-read Tony Harrison's poem 'Initial Illumination', with its reference to George Bush's bandying of the word of God and him bombing of Baghdad. Although the reference is to the elder George Bush, the poem applies equally well to the younger. On a whim, I went to the home page of my medieval literature web site and replaced Matthew Paris's illustration of the coronation of King Arthur with the initial illumination (beginning 'In principio...') from the eighth-century Northumbrian Gospel according to St John. I then copied Harrison's poem below. Those who might like to see it can go to my medieval literature web page, though I don't know how long I'll keep the image and poem up.

Intro to Blogging 101 

This is my first attempt to enter the world of web logging. It will take some time to accustom myself to the possibilities and functionalities of this new medium of expression. My first thoughts are to remark upon the value of preserving thoughts and ideas in ways that are searchable and cross-referenceable. Of course, to make that work, I'll need to generate a corpus of web logs. The immediate task is to begin with some ruminations about the purpose of my keeping a 'blog'.

As a professor of medieval English literature at Cal State Northridge, I have long used the web as a way of giving my students access to resources about the Middle Ages which would otherwise be unavailable at an underfunded, non research-centred university in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles. However, it is in the classroom that I as an individual can give these materials meaning, relating them to the social and intellectual concerns that make the Middle Ages still a vibrant and important area of enquiry today. But I always felt that there was something missing. The classroom does not provide a forum for just any thoughts--developed and undeveloped--about the relationship between what I teach and what I observe in the world around me. The web log makes available exactly such a forum. Here I can make my thoughts available as they arise, unconstrained by the needs to achieve particular goals for my student's learning, or even by the need to produce a finished piece of research for publication. Here people can observe my thoughts and ideas in whatever stage they happen to be in.

There are certainly dangers to this approach. It must be stated first and foremost that this web log does not reflect in any way the views of the institution to which I am attached: California State University, Northridge. All views are my own. I welcome any of my students who wish to explore my ideas outside the classroom, but they should be informed that this web log does attempt to be objective, politically correct, or otherwise beholden to the restrictions I would normally consider sacrosanct when functioning in a professional context.

Two problematic issues arise from this. First, can I truly be open and uninhibited when discussing my views on my students and the university I work for? Second, to what extent can I place in the web log thoughts related to my research, which I will eventually publish. Some things must be held back, but only time and experience will tell where the lines should be drawn. This is my introduction to blogging.

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