Monday, May 31, 2004

Why I never wanted to teach high school English 

A recent article in The Onion on teaching English to high school students has already been commented on by Critical Mass. It remains for me to add that the captioned picture in the article contains a "teacher" holding a copy of the Riverside Chaucer. Anyway, the article provides an excellent summary of why I never wanted to teach high school English.

Sunday, May 30, 2004

An Update 

The past week has not provided much opportunity for blogging -- nor, I should say much that was thought-provoking. The major exception was the California Medieval History Seminar, which occurs at the Huntington Library several times a year. A bunch of historians (and me) from various Califonia universities, and occasional scholars visiting California from elsewhere, gather to discuss works in progress for a day. Most of the papers this time around were on subjects pretty far removed from my own research, but I did come across a few references that were valuable. I'm looking forward to following up on some of these things over the summer, when I get to focus on research full time.

For now, I am still grading. Final exams ended on Thursday, and, so far, I have one class done. I have another set of exams to do, and then two sets of essays and a set of Middle translations. If I'm lucky, I'll have it all done by next Thursday, but it's going to take some pretty intense grading sessions. This morning, I did about fifteen exams before taking the possibly more daunting task of cleaning out our closet. Camille and I finished (more or less) around 4:30, and now we're exhausted. Tomorrow is Memorial Day, and I'm going to try to take some time away from work and domestic chores. We're hoping to have some folk over for drinks in the evening, and then on Tuesday it's back to the slog.

The only other news to report is that a book project I have been involved with -- a volume of essays on The Lord of the Rings -- has been given the go-ahead by the publisher Continuum. So now I've got to think about writing my chapter over the summer. It's on models of service in em>The Lord of the Rings . I'm going to be dead busy.

Sunday, May 23, 2004

Shepherd's Pie 

I just came across an online recycling of my recipe for shepherd's pie as published in Bon Appétit. I was fairly appalled at the way they butchered it when I first saw it, but, now that I look again, it's not too bad. They took out all my Mediterranean herbs (oregano and thyme) and replaced them with parsley, and they added a ton of butter to the mashed potatoes; but, apart from that, they simply didn't give the Bisto gravy -- understandable, since it's only available in import shops in the United States. Ah, I feel like I'm revisiting an old friend.

Saturday, May 22, 2004

Site Search Engines 

As some of my earlier entries have noted, I have been having trouble getting Google site search to work. The problem, it turns out, is that Google has not yet built in the technology to search individual directories--only whole domains. However, I had to take a very roundabout route through Google's FAQs in order to find out this information. The same roundabout route uncovered a temporary workaround. You take the code that they give you at the address above and insert

<input type=hidden name=hq value="inurl:domain name/directory/">

(Replace the bolded text with the appropriate information).

This seems to work pretty well. However, there are a few drawbacks. Although Google has some customisation features, most of them are simple HTML or CSS additions which you could do yourself with a bit of coding knowledge. It doesn't give you a lot of flexibility to exclude password-protected directories, or other useful managerial functions. More importantly, as far as I can tell, it can take weeks to have your site spidered by Google (in laymen's terms--for Google's software to index your site and make it available for searching). If you update regularly, you've got a real problem. I could just about put up with that for my web site, but not for a web log.

Currently, I am trying some alternatives. Right now, I have a form for FreeFind on my web log (see the links column to your right). I like it a lot, and it's very easy to set up. I have a slightly more complicated service called PicoSearch on a draft version of my web site. Both these services work very well. Their main advantage over Google is that you can exercise much greater control over how often their spiders index your site. You can initiate the indexing if you want or even configure the spider to index your site every day. I haven't yet decided which of these services I prefer.

Of course, there are a range of technical issues about which type of service is the best, but these issues are only of interest if you're even geekier than I am. Still, it's a relief to get a site search capability working in some form. The need is not desperate for my web log (yet--although I have already made use of the search capability for something other than testing), but, as my web site has become quite large, the need is rather more pressing. The next step is to place the search form in the design of the web site, which will take some more work. Eventually, I'll want to integrate the technology into the English Department page, which is also becoming quite large.

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Major Work Crisis Almost Over 

This week I have had a major work crisis: a mountain of grading to do, research commitments, and four courses to teach. I'm almost to the end, though. Tomorrow is the last day of classes, and next week is finals. I can't wait, as this has been one of my most exhausting semesters ever (or is it just that I'm getting old?)

Sunday, May 16, 2004

Hugin and Munin 

I must take time out from the pile of grading I have before me to relay part of a story from The Economist on avian theories of the mind. The article tells of an experiment by Thomas Bugnyar of the University of Vermont published last month in Animal Cognition, which “suggests that ravens may have mastered the art of deception.” The experiment is described by The Economist as follows:

Dr Bugnyar was conducting an experiment designed to see what ravens learn from each other while foraging. While doing so he noticed strange interactions between two males, Hugin, a subordinate bird, and Munin, a dominant one.

The task was to work out which colour-coded film containers held some bits of cheese, then prise the containers open and eat the contents. The subordinate male was far better at this task than the dominant. However, he never managed to gulp down more than a few pieces of the reward before the dominant raven, Munin, was hustling him on his way. Clearly (and not unexpectedly) ravens are able to learn about food sources from one another. They are also able to bully each other to gain access to that food.

But then something unexpected happened. Hugin, the subordinate, tried a new strategy. As soon as Munin bullied him, he headed over to a set of empty containers, prised the lids off them enthusiastically, and pretended to eat. Munin followed, whereupon Hugin returned to the loaded containers and ate his fill.
At first Dr Bugnyar could not believe what he was seeing. He was anxious about sharing his observation, for fear that no one would believe him. But Hugin, he is convinced, was clearly misleading Munin.

As it happened, Munin was no dummy either. He soon grew wise to the tactic, and would not be led astray. He even stooped to trying to find the food rewards on his own! This made Hugin furious. “He got very angry”, says Dr Bugnyar, “and started throwing things around.” Perhaps ravens have something else in common with people—a hatred of being found out.

Medievalists will get the joke immediately: Hugin and Munin are the two ravens of the Norse god Odin, who probably survive in the fourteenth-century English poem Havelok the Dane as Hugh Raven, the hero’s foster-brother. Hugh Raven is the son of Grim, whose name, according to Edmund Reiss, derives from Grimnir ‘disguise’ a nickname for Odin.* To the extent that the adoption of a disguise is a form of deception, the ravens in the experiment discussed above are apparently partaking in the time-honoured tricks of their mythological name-sakes’ master. Did the ancient Scandinavians observe the same behaviours as Dr Bugnyar?

* Edmund Reiss, “Havelok the Dane and Norse Mythology,” Modern Language Quarterly 27 (1966): 115-124. For more information, see the Wikipedia entry on Hugin and Munin, which contains a quote from Grimnismal.

Saturday, May 15, 2004

Return to Normality (?) 

This past week has been something of a marathon. Four classes whom I haven't seen for a week, a mountain of grading, an essay to finish, fatigue from the conference in Kalamazoo, and missing my wife, who flew off to Boston on a business trip just hours before I got back. Throw in a couple of needy cats, and, well, need I say more?

Anyway, Camille returns today (I'm off to pick her up in a couple of hours), and the mountain of grading has undergone some erosion. The essay is done (for the moment), and I even managed to read the proofs for another essay. Just one thing: I still have to find time to talk to my family. There has been some discussion on Critical Mass about the advisability of doing a PhD. Most people are concerned about whether there's any chance of a job at the end of it, but another thing to consider is whether the working conditions when you get a job are worth it. When you teach four courses and try to do research, there really is no time for family and friends.

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Comments Enabled 

I've just enabled comments, though it wasn't a straightforward process, as Blogger seem to have introduced the technology before it was quite perfected. You basically have to insert the code into the template yourself, but this isn't a big deal. Meanwhile, I still cannot get Google's search site technology to work.

I have now introduced a meta refresh to the mBlog site so that anyone going there will be automatically re-directed here. This, I think, prompts a few words about why I switched to Blogger. It's pure coincidence that Blogger's recent upgrade addressed some of the differences between its service and that of services running with Movable Type (comments, image hosting, and the like). There are still some problems with Blogger: no (working) site search capability, advertising at the top of the page (in the free version), and no hosting of other web pages with the same URL as the web log. All of these are, I believe, addressable with a bit of work. On the immediate plus side, the most important aspects of web log maintenance are much easier on Blogger: posting (especially using BlogThis!), managing settings, and changing the template. Blogger does not have nearly the flexibility of Movable Type (e.g. multiple templates for different parts of the web log), but its template structure is much simpler and easier to edit. I've been able to get what I want done much faster.

In the end, taking the various trade-offs into account, Blogger seemed better for me.

Monday, May 10, 2004

Up and Running 

I've just posted an official notice on the original mBlog version of this web log that I am moving to Blogger. As of today, I'm supporting this web log exclusively. I will continue to develop its content and appearance. For anyone moving over from the mBlog version -- welcome!

NB. Currently, I am not supporting comments, but I expect to get them up and running soon.

Back from the Zoo 

I've returned from a successful but exhausting conference in Kalamazoo. As always, I return with a host of new references and lines of enquiry to pursue in my research--and, more importantly, a renewed drive that twelve weeks of class preparation and student papers have sapped from me. However, we still have three weeks of the semester to go, so I am going to keep things relatively short and return to the topic of my research agenda in a future post. Also, I am continuing to port log entries from my old blog to the new one. All of April is now done, and I should have the entire thing complete by the end of the week. Then I will put some attention into revitalising the intellectual content of my blogging...

Tuesday, May 04, 2004

Template Problems Postings 

The last few days have had a number of postings on template problems. These relate to my old blog on mBlog.com, which didn't work out. The reason the postings are on this blog is that I have begun porting them over. Hence there is a certain amount of overlap (I am making sure that the dates of the original postings are preserved).

More on the Subjunctive 

I'm always looking for more examples of the new subjunctive with "would". I'm recording one here so I don't forget it.

Every day I wish I would have been brave enough to reach out and find some way to get some kind of health care


Well, I'm off to Kalamazoo for the 39th International Congress on Medieval Studies, so further development of this web log will have to wait until next week.

I forgot to mention in my previous post that I am slowly removing the horrible orange colour from my template. No offence to Blogger, who clearly like it for theirs.

More Changes 

I haven't yet discovered the problem with the Google search button. I suspect that I don't know the correct domain name to place in the script, and I haven't been able to find out what it is.

Another problem with this service is that it seems to require you to host pictures and web pages on your own server and link to them. That's not so great a problem for the pictures, but it would be nice to have web page links with the same domain in the URL. Both these services are, however, available if you pay to upgrade, so that may be something to consider in the future.

On the plus side, I installed a script which writes an e-mail link from variables. This should prevent it from getting captured by spam spiders.

Also, I really like BlogThis! It makes posting a snap.

Monday, May 03, 2004

Search Capability 

I installed the Google site search button, but it doesn't seem to work. I'll have to play with this when I have more time.


I've just installed BlogThis!, which allows me to post and publish blog entries from a contextual menu. Let's see if it works.

Internal Links 

After much searching, I finally discovered that the only way of finding out the URL for blog entries is to click the "#" beneath them. Here's the one for the entry on adding titles. Right now, my main problem is that there is no blog search facility for outside users. My next step is to see what it takes to get one.


My apologies to anyone who should stumble across this blog in its nascent stages. All of its postings will be rather boring updates on the steps taken to set up the blog. Once it's up and running, they will get more interest.

Adding Titles 

My first post did not have a title. I worked out that you need to change a setting to get titles. Let's see what it looks like.


This is a test beginning post to see how this technology works -- and if I like it. NB. I have re-edited this post after working out what is necessary for adding titles.

Or was it just a false alarm? 

No sooner do I identify more template problems than they go away. It looks like the page just didn't load fully. For now on, my first resort will be to refresh the page.

The Template Problems Continue 

Just when I think everything is all right, the template problems spring up again. This time a bit of code has popped up on the screen, half my calendar is gone, and all my links have disappeared. Apologies to my readers (both of them) for these ongoing problems--and my incessant commentary on them.

The Zoo 

Just when I’m getting back into regular posting after dealing with technical problems, there is about to be another posting hiatus. This is because I am leaving tomorrow to go to the 39th International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, MI (AKA the Zoo). This annual ritual, in which thousands of medieval scholars converge on a small (and very underprepared) town in the midwest has perhaps become the defining institution in the field: where all its colour (and can you believe a conference of medievalists is quite colourful), oddity (the pseudo-society “alternative” session comes to mind), and, frankly, seriously good scholarship surfaces from the paper and print on which the personalities of medievalists appears outside the classroom. Not that anybody sees this, apart from a few overwhelmed service workers in a small midwestern town. But it’s a joy to go every year. I have only two complaints: (1) every year it coincides with my birthday, and (2) there appears to be only one working espresso machine in the town.

This year I am chairing a session on racial, ethnic, and religious identity in medieval England, a theme that I began last year and will probably make a regular event, since it seems to be quite successful. I’m also giving a short introductory paper in a session on the Middle English poem Havelok the Dane. Both sessions are on the first day, so I’m looking forward to being able to relax and have fun after that. However, I may have to do a bit of work, as I’m trying to meet a deadline of 14 May for getting an article done.

Sunday, May 02, 2004

Grade Inflation 

I have been thinking about Michael Bérubé's comments on grade inflation in response to Princeton University’s announcement that it would place quotas on A grades, limiting them to no more than the top 35% of students in any course. I am intrigued by the implications of Princeton’s actions, and of Bérubé’s solution. He proposes to take statistics from faculty grading patterns and factor these patterns into student grades. He outlines the system as follows:

Every professor, and every department, produces an average grade -- an average for the professor over her career and an average for the discipline over the decades. And if colleges really wanted to clamp down on grade inflation, they could whisk it away statistically, simply by factoring those averages into each student's G.P.A. Imagine that G.P.A.'s were calculated on a scale of 10 with the average grade, be it a B-minus or an A-minus, counted as a 5. The B-plus in chemical engineering, where the average grade is, say, C-plus, would be rewarded accordingly and assigned a value of 8; the B-plus in psychology, where the average grade might be just over B-plus, would be graded like an easy dive, adequately executed, and given a 4.7.

It should be pointed out that this would be a nightmare system for employers to read. A student who majored in chemical engineering with a GPA around 8 would look much the same as a student who majored in psychology and also had a GPA around 8. But the psychology student, having survived the ravages of forced grade deflation would be truly outstanding, whereas the chemical engineering student would merely have succeeded in a hard subject. Factoring subject matter would create such complexities as to render it uninterpretable.
But this raises a very serious point. In order for GPAs to have meaning, they must be transferable from subject to subject, but also from university to university. At my university, English courses have the lowest average grade of any subject area; whereas, to be honest, my impression is that many students choose English to avoid subjects that they think are harder. I should add that the English department services a large number of (again, to be honest) low-achieving education students, which skew the statistics somewhat. On average, I’d say that no more than 15% of my students in any class get As. On the other hand, at a very selective institution Princeton, surely a much higher percentage of As is a reflexion of the calibre of the student. What we really need, then is a way to factor this in. However, other countries have tried to enforce national standards with limited success. In the end, I believe institutional reputation serves the purpose.

Another question that arises out of this discussion is the meaning of the average grade. Does this mean the average for an individual class, the average over a number of semesters, or something else? I tend to view average as implying that a piece of work displays a certain skill set—whatever could be expected of a person with little exposure to the subject matter or to educated literary discourse who has a serious crack at the assignment. Such work tends to be somewhat lacking in the rhetorical and mechanical expectations of an educated treatment of the subject matter but shows a genuine, if not perfect, familiarity with the subject. It generally lacks much insight. Work that improves on this is above average (B range); work that improves seriously is excellent (A range). I generally award Ds to work that falls below this standard and Fs to work that is not turned in. The one exception is in my grammar courses, where students do so spectacularly badly that the scale for submitted work tips from three passing grade ranges (A, B, C) and one failing grade (D) to one with two failing grades (D and F). Student grades cluster in the B and C range for most of my classes but more in the C range for my grammar classes.
I think we need to look closely at the institutional and cultural pressures that govern grading policies in order to derive some clear notions of what an average student actually is.

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