What’s Op-Percy, Doc?

I have spent a couple of years tracking what I thought was an obscure, unpublished text through the labyrinthine byways of manuscripts and their catalogs, like some dim Pellinore after the Questing Beast. And now I find it in the Percy Folio, edited and published for lo these hundred and forty years. I would feel like a prize idiot, except that the few other trackers in this forest also failed to step in these particular fewmets. Oh dear, I shouldn’t refer to the Percy Folio as fewmets. This is what happens when the untrained embark on extended metaphors. At any rate, I keep muttering to myself, “Percy Folio!” in the same tone Bugs Bunny, in “What’s Opera, Doc?” uses on “Magic helmet!”


One of my graduate students has decided she no longer wants to write a medieval dissertation; another field calls to her more strongly.

You’ll live with your dissertation topic for a long time, both while you’re writing it and afterwards, when you’re turning it into articles or a book. It’s how you learn to do real research; it forms the basis for everything that comes afterward. So it’s important that the topic move you, excite you, trouble you in a good way. If my student feels more excitement about her new field, then of course she should go and plow it, sow it, tend it, harvest it. And I said so, while also saying that should the new field not work out for any reason, she’d be welcome to come back to the old one.

There are two “buts,” one for her, one for me. For her: I hope this isn’t just last-minute panic. She was about to defend her dissertation proposal. It seems to me this change came about very suddenly, though she may have been thinking about it much longer than I’ve been aware of. And sometimes of course it is only when push comes to shove that you realize what really matters to you.

For me: I don’t have that many students who want to write medieval dissertations. People don’t come to Large Regional U to study the Middle Ages, usually. Our best students are here because they are place-bound; many students don’t come in with a clear idea of what field they’d like to work in. Even if they enjoy their classes in medieval literature, few of them have the languages to write a dissertation on it. And my other medievalist colleague and I do hold the line on languages. So it was exciting to have this student come in a few years ago with a declared interest in the Middle Ages and with adequate language training. She has taken several classes with me and been my research assistant; I was her teaching mentor when she taught a literature course. We have always got along well. She is smart, conscientious, organized, and in many ways a kindred spirit. I was looking forward to supervising her dissertation.

At a different sort of school, this would not be a big deal. At a different sort of school, an advisor might even be glad to have one fewer dissertation to read. But I am not likely to get two or three students in every in-coming class who want to be medievalists. I have another student further along in the process, and I am on a committee for one who has a medieval component to her work. After the student who has just decided to change areas, there’s no one else likely just now. In fact, it took 10 years to collect these three students. Having them made me feel I was in a golden age, one I knew would pass . . . but hoped it would not pass so quickly.

I’m as sure as one can be that it’s not a personality clash or problem between us. I’ve encouraged her through exams and papers for other classes, I’ve found her opportunities to present at conferences, I’ve read work in a reasonably timely manner (not so fast as would be ideal, it’s true, but not so slow as to cause problems). She has consulted me on various academic problems and on the work-life balance. At the same time, we’re in no way enmeshed; we are both married and have satisfactory personal lives.

So this is professional. I’m a little disappointed on the personal level, but she’ll still be around; we can continue to chat about our cats. What I want is partly (I admit) the department status that comes from successfully supervising a dissertation to completion, partly the experience of watching someone’s ideas develop, finding the ways that her work can spark insights for me as well as the ways that I can support her growth as a scholar. At its best, supervising a dissertation creates a sort of study group, with useful feedback for both sides.

Primarily I want my student to be happy in her work as I am in mine, able to form the kinds of ties with her dissertation committee that I made and still enjoy with mine. It’s pure selfishness to want her back, and to hope that maybe this is the sort of wobble I went through in my third year of grad school, when I started taking classes in another area entirely, only to decide after a few weeks of them that I could not bring myself to do that work, even if it might have been more sensible. I don’t think she’s trying to do the sensible thing. I think she just realized where her heart really lies; and better now than after struggling through a chapter or two.


I should be grading, but since I’ve been browsing blogs for the past hour and some, I’m giving in . . . maybe writing my own post will provide a transition to getting back to work.

At Large Regional U, we don’t get fall break. Since it’s a long haul from Labor Day to Thanksgiving, I wanted to build in some sort of break around mid-semester. However, because of Labor Day and Thanksgiving, there’s one less week of instruction in the fall (at least if you teach MWF) than in the spring. So the “break”had to include some serious course content.

Since I mainly teach texts written before the age of print, I arranged a week of Medieval Writing. We started with a movie about manuscripts, then had a day of writing with quill pens, and ended with transcription from medieval facsimiles. I didn’t make a serious attempt at teaching paleography, but on Quill Day I gave out handouts with Gothic Book Hand alphabets for students to try to copy, thinking that that would be some preparation for transcription. Many of my students found it inadequate preparation (but I didn’t grade their attempts; I just wanted them to have some experience reading a manuscript hand, rather than a tidy printed edition). I haven’t had this reaction on previous uses of this assignment, when the goal was to produce an edition of 10 or so lines; there may be some shift in attitude depending on whether students are working toward a grade or not. They were encouraged to work in groups.

I prepared all the quill pens myself. While I believe you can buy pens, I was not up for the expense of supplying commercial pens for both my medieval classes. (Of course LRU isn’t going to help with such an expense; there have been years when faculty didn’t even get printer paper, though I’m glad to say things have been better lately.) Originally I hoped to cut enough to let each student take a quill home as a souvenir, but I delayed too long in starting the project and had to settle for re-using the same set of pens in each class.

I’d cut a few quills before, but some time ago, and didn’t really have a sense of how much time and effort it would take. It wasn’t as bad as I’d feared, but my hands were tired by the end.

I relied on these two sites for instructions: Liralen, and Regia Anglorum. They are both helpful. However, I have some commentary on my experience . . . partly because I am the sort of person who wants both clear, simple instructions AND an explanation for why you do it this way. I found out the hard way why you should follow instructions. Oh well.

I bought cheap dyed feathers from a craft store. To save time, I didn’t strip the shafts (also I thought students might enjoy the Romantic Experience of writing with a colored plume, which they did. Some of them trimmed the plumy bits off themselves, in class).

Since I wanted to be able to re-use the pens, I went whole hog in tempering them: soaking first, then heating.

Neither last time nor this time was I able to make any headway with a knife. This may be because I’m a bit shy of knives, or because my hands are weak, or because (due to the first two), my technique is lousy. The mini-scissors on my Swiss Army Knife worked great, though. I need to get them sharpened before the next time I do this.

Here’s the step-by-step process–see Liralen’s page for pictures:

1. Soak your feathers overnight in water. Keep out of reach of cats.

2. While they are soft, make the initial cut, at an angle, on the opposite side of where you will finally want the nib to be (this is Liralen’s step 3, “opening the tube”). You do it this way in order to facilitate making the split in the part of the shaft that will become the nib. You need to be able to press against the rest of the shaft to get the recessed part of the shaft to split.

3. Strip out as much of the junk inside the shaft as you can. A crochet hook, knitting needle, and toothpicks can all be useful here. It’s good to do this while the tube is soft so it’s less likely to split while you mess around inside it.

4. Heat-temper the quills in hot sand. Clumping kitty litter works fine, though of course you’ll get some little clumps where the wet quills hit the litter. This also helps get out the last bits of interior stuff when you brush off the litter or sand. I poured kitty litter into empty soup cans and heated them in the oven for 25 minutes at 350 degrees. Then I took the cans out and stuck feathers in them. Again, keep out of reach of cats.

5. When the sand has cooled, rescue your feathers and start the hard part. The shafts are now much harder than when you started. Take a sharp knife (this is the only part I did with a knife), rest its back on the sticking-out not-nib piece of shaft, and press up with the sharp edge against the recessed part of the shaft till it splits a little way up.

6. Shape the nib. From here, directions from Liralen and Regia Anglorum are quite clear. I found this much easier with the little scissors, which allowed me to cut the nib shape I wanted relatively easily. I felt like it was cheating, but I needed at least 40 quill pens by the next day, so authenticity went out the window.

Someday I’d like to take a workshop that would teach me how to do this properly. Also how to make ink from oak galls and other authentic medieval ingredients. Also how to cut nibs at different angles to suit different scripts. But my focus this semester was just on getting some pens for my students. In an ideal world, they’d make their own pens, but 2 classes of students wielding knives, in the current campus climate? Not happening.

The full tempering process made it easy–maybe too easy–to get a very narrow nib, good for writing a smallish, even hand, like that in Hengwrt or Ellesmere (not so small as the 13th-c Bibles that are so ubiquitous that even I have a fragment of one). I didn’t have time to experiment with different angles and so on, though I wish I had done, because my students were interested in how you got heavier lines, hairlines, and decorative effects, and the pens I cut were not so good for those things.

I bought ink, too. Calligraphy ink can get pricy, so I didn’t get individual bottles, but decanted ink into plastic glasses from a party store. I had some colored ink, too. I suggested that students practice a bit on newspaper or lined paper, and then take some better paper and try making a greeting card or sign of some sort, which they could then decorate with flowers or whatever in the colored ink. Some did this. Some just played around, I think, but that was okay with me. I played medieval lyrics in the background while they worked, and considered the whole week as an opportunity to take a break from heavy reading and writing assignments, to do something hands-on rather than abstract, and to get a little insight into the material conditions of some aspects of life in the Middle Ages.

We did this in week 9 (or was it 8?) of a 15-week semester, and a couple of my students went out of their way to thank me for the break, which came at a time they really needed some respite–“Listening to music and writing with quills was sort of meditative and really nice.” Others said they learned from the experience how hard a medieval scribe’s life was, and that it was hard to be a writer in the Middle Ages: you didn’t just have to think up the stories, you also had to go to considerable effort to write them down. Nobody complained–at least not yet–that it was busy-work or kindergartenish; that may turn up on the course evaluations, though I’m hoping not. I kept saying that you can read all you like (or see all the movies you want) about paleography, and manuscripts, and so on, but there’s no substitute for hands-on experience with medieval writing techniques. I think they got it; and being English majors, they don’t get such a lot of hands-on experience in most of their classes, so it made a nice change.

The first post

About a month ago, there was some discussion about workload and expectations at Notorious Ph.D.‘s , inspired by a post at Reassigned Time (but Dr Crazy no longer has older posts available). My first post seems like a good place to talk about those issues, to give readers a sense of who I am.

I am a tenured professor at a large regional university. I teach 5 courses per year. Teaching, research, and service are weighted at 40%, 40%, 20%, though that’s not really how time typically breaks down in any given week or even month.

Teaching eats time; perhaps I’m just not efficient enough about grading, or have overly high expectations about the amount of writing my students should do. I regularly teach a course that introduces undergraduates to the major, 2-3 undergraduate courses in my field, and 1-2 graduate courses, usually in my field, sometimes the introduction to research methods. I also serve on some dissertation committees.

My department tries to spare junior faculty heavy service; the university has a strong self-governance structure; these points together mean that tenured people have a lot of committee work. We post-tenure profs are expected to serve on at least one “major” committee every year, and to have other “minor” appointments, as well. “Major” means meeting for at least two hours a week, with homework. I have served on governance committees at department, college, and university levels; on curriculum committees at department and university levels; and on hiring committees at department and college levels.

Research is expected and important, and we have regular debates about what counts: is editing a journal research or is it service to the profession? If you edit a collection of texts that can be used for teaching but which also form part of your research, is that edition teaching or research? How much do editions count, anyway? The safe thing to do is publish at least one essay per year (how many pages? How much do we count this venue as against that?) or a book every 4-5 years.

At the same time, as a regional university rather than a flagship, we have to stress teaching, especially when dealing with budget issues. Many of our students have no idea what “research” is, or why it is important that professors do it. Most of our students enroll because this school is convenient for them, not because they want to study something in particular (or with someone in particular) or even just because this is “a good school.”

Compared to other people who answered this question, I have a terrific position. I appreciate that, and I love my job. And yet I probably have a lot of the same complaints you do about too much grading (though we assign it ourselves) and not enough time for research, and not enough money to go to conferences, and the effort to balance work and life.

I hope to use this blog to talk about general issues in teaching, research and service (no identifiable student or colleague stories), and to make contact with other medieval and early modernist bloggers.