Another riddle

Why is learning to be a medievalist like going back to kindergarten?

Because you have to learn to read all over again. Letters are strange shapes, easily mistaken for one another; you struggle with the alphabet. And there’s a lot of cutting and pasting as you make alphabets of scripts.

I started my graduate Chaucer course on this process yesterday, giving them a facsimile of the opening folios of the Chaucerian Text of the Week, along with an alphabet I made up for them (there went any chance of grading yesterday). “You were lucky,” I said at the end of class; “when I was in graduate school, we had to get up at half-past two to make up our own alphabets, before cleaning the bottom of the lake with our tongues.”

They did quite well, considering it was their first time looking at any medieval script. I made them work with books closed, though they had read the text in our edition. When they didn’t know what to do with a word, they moved on, and came back when they recognized more letters. They learned to use rhyme to help recognize letters at the ends of words. They learned about the similarities of u/v/n. During their first attempts, I went around the room making suggestions to each pair (“That’s two letters . . . What other letter looks like n? . . . You had this word in the first line . . . That’s not e; what letter looks like e, in this script? . . . Look at the shape of the letter: does it extend above or below the line?”). At the end of an hour, each student was able to read out several lines, going around the room, one line at a time, even when they wound up reading at sight, not having got that far in their pairs.

I am pleased with their progress. And so, since the reward for a job well done is another job, each of them got a page of Hengwrt to play with before next week, when we will meet in the Rare Books Room to look at all the CT facsimiles my library can come up with. I hope they’ll make their own alphabets.

It was instructive to see the kinds of errors they made, too. An important part of teaching is being able to anticipate trouble, and learning how to ward it off, to avoid student frustration. I should remind student paleographers that rhyme is their friend, and that it may be easier to begin with longer words rather than short ones. As usual, good vocabulary helps with everything: if you don’t remember that sweven means dream, it will be hard to recognize sweuynys when you see it.

I no longer remember my initial attempts at paleographical transcription with any clarity. It was during my second year of graduate school, a time of considerable personal turmoil; and in any case, we studied Latin paleography, beginning in the classical period and giving very little attention to anything after the twelfth century, which is about when I come in. The history of letter shapes was certainly useful, as was learning the commonest abbreviations (and how to use Capelli); but applying what I learned in class to my own research, later, was a bit like learning classical Latin and then being turned loose to deal with medieval Latin—or maybe I mean proto-Romance—on my own.

And so starting students directly on vernacular paleography from a late period means there’s nothing from my own schooling that I can re-use. I can only follow my instincts: work on something directly relevant to their studies. Do transcription in class, both to demonstrate that this is important (worthy of class time) and to teach how to go about it. Start with the hands-on time with facsimiles, and fill in history and theory later, if there’s time, after students have discovered for themselves the questions that the history and theory may answer.

I’m not really sure how this work fits into the education of, say, someone who intends to specialize in 19th-century American literature, or 20th-century Caribbean poetry. But the point of education, surely, is that it does not need to be immediately and directly relevant. If it is, it’s vocational training. I suppose that’s what paleography is for me! And certainly one of the things I love about it is that it is concrete, with clear applications, and there are right and wrong answers. But looking at the variability of medieval manuscripts is a way of approaching literary-theoretical issues, as well: mouvance, for example, is not an abstract concept for medieval literature. Any given scribe is a reader responding to a text.

I wish I could provide my students with access to real manuscripts, not just facsimiles. I had very mixed feelings, last summer, when I heard talks about Otto Ege’s biblioclasty. All my training makes me recoil in horror from dismembering even an already-damaged book; a mansucript need not be perfect to convey important information about its use. At the same time, I sympathize completely with the urge to get manuscripts, even fragmentary ones, into the hands of as many people as possible. I cannot condone biblioclasty, but I really wouldn’t mind if my university owned an Ege portfolio.

But if facsimiles and digitized manuscripts is all we have to work with, then we’ll work with them, and hope that some of my students will someday get their hands on the real thing.

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Accomplishments

Amid the pressure of having assigned a lot of material to grade (what was I thinking?) and serving on a committee with a heavy workload, I am rediscovering the pleasures of crossing things off a list of items to do.

Friday I got up at 5:15 to start grading papers from one section, which I managed to hand back at 11:00.

Today I have successfully avoided grading the grad students’ papers (what was I thinking?) in favor of crossing off a whole batch of Life Stuff items: re-potting house plants, ordering two different sets of tickets online, ordering new swimsuits online (I usually try to hit local early-summer sales to stock up, but didn’t manage that this year, and I’m on my last suit: if you spend as much time in the pool as I do, they only last about 3 months), ordering a pair of trousers online, beginning to tag old posts, talking to a neighbor about possible roof problems and window replacements. It doesn’t sound like that much, but all this took me about 4 hours.

Tomorrow may be awful, but it makes me feel good to get some of these things crossed off the list. Many of them have been on it for a long time, and most of them are things that will Stay Done (unlike grading—what was I thinking?).

Teaching close reading

I think it’s important for students to learn to read closely, to notice word choice and tone, the ways words interact with each other to create images and other literary effects. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked in class, “What’s the general feeling of this passage?” and everybody says, quite accurately, “Sad!” or “Joy!” or “Skeptical!”

Then I say, “And where does that feeling come from? What words create it?”

. . . . .

. . . . .

Even the crickets are silent.

So I teach them to figure this out. Over the years, my instructions got longer and more detailed, as I tried to include all the advice that various people had found useful, until the instructions were as long as the paper I was asking for. (2 pages, that’s all.) Clearly that is overwhelming.

Here’s how I’ve cut back, this year. Instead of explaining the process in detail, I’ve short-circuited it by doing some of the work for them, in a first close-reading assignment. I pick the words and phrases I think should get attention, and ask the students just to do the analysis of how they work. In a second assignment, I will underline just one set of words, and ask students to find two more sets that go together. Here’s what the first assignment looks like:
__________________________________________
Virgine, that art so noble of apparaile,
And ledest us into the hye tour
Of Paradys, thou me wisse and counsaile
How I may have thy grace and thy sucour,
Al have I been in filthe and in errour.
Lady, unto that court thou me ajourne,
That cleped is thy bench, o fresshe flour,
Ther as that mercy evere shal sojourne.

Read these lines several times, carefully. Notice that some words are underlined, some are italicized, and some are in bold. Some words belong to more than one group.

Write a one-to-two page essay (250-500 words), with a clear thesis statement and examples from the text, explaining the importance of these groups of words in this passage. Use the following questions to help you organize your paper:

What does each group of words have in common? What images do they invoke? Which words are concrete? Which words are abstract? Look up all the words in one group (your choice) in the MED or OED: what languages do they come from, and at what period? (In other words, are they learned French or Latin additions to English, new in Chaucer’s time, or are they older words that come from the native English word stock?) What do the word choices contribute to the tone of the passage? How do these lines fit into the surrounding context of the poem?
____________________________________

In this example (not one I actually used this time), the words I have selected as important have courtly, religious, or legal connotations; some of them overlap in significance. It’s up to the students to figure out these connotations and how they interact, and to devise an argument, and to support it adequately. Instead of telling them how to find the most meaningful words, I’ve done that for them, so they can get on with the writing, rather than taking so much time in the planning.

Later, there will be in-class group work focusing on the planning stages (what words do you think are really important? are there synonyms or other thematically related words in this passage? etc.). By the end of the semester, I hope they’ll be able to take a passage, find the words that create that sense of sadness, joy, skepticism or whatever, and write an essay about it, with minimal prompting. But we’re working up to that very slowly.

Results on the first paper varied. Some just answered questions, without giving a thesis statement. That was a problem for their grades, but even working through the questions teaches you something about this skill. The best students found this assignment fairly constraining, so to anyone who came to office hours to complain, I explained my reasoning and assured them that they would face fewer constraints as the semester wears on. I’ll continue to tinker with this, as one does, but in general I’m happy with results. Given the parameters of the assignment, no essay was breathtakingly brilliant, but most were competent.

So if you’d care to adapt this approach for your own use, feel free!

Ancient History Job

A friend asked me to publicize this position.

The Department of History at Northern Illinois University invites applications for an anticipated tenure-track assistant professorship in Ancient Mediterranean History beginning August 16, 2010. Ph.D. required at time of appointment; teaching experience preferred. Ability to teach upper-division undergraduate courses in Ancient Greece, Ancient Near East, and Ancient Rome; survey course in Western Civ to 1500; and graduate courses in area of expertise. The department and the university are committed to the principle of diversity and encourage applications from candidates who can contribute to this objective. Send letter of application, C.V., official transcripts, three letters of recommendation, teaching portfolio, and a chapter-length writing sample to Professor Nancy M. Wingfield, Chair, Ancient History Search Committee, Department of History, Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, IL 60115. No electronic submissions please. Review of applications will begin on October 30 and continue until the position is closed. NIU is an AA/EEO Institution.

Brothers and devils; or, personal/political

“Emperors per se did not unnerve Miles . . . . Emperor Gregor had been raised along with Miles practically as his foster-brother; somewhere in the back of Miles’s mind the term emperor was coupled with such identifiers as somebody to play hide-and-seek with. In this context those hidden assumptions could be a psychosocial land mine.”
Lois McMaster Bujold, Cetaganda

When I read Dr. Crazy’s post about dealing with a mostly-male committee, along with its comments, and then reflected on my own experiences, I realized that these hidden assumptions have an enormous influence on how we respond to people. In situations such as Crazy describes, I tend not to even notice what’s going on.

You see, I grew up with two older brothers—a decade older—who saw it as their job to toughen me up. I often think that the most lasting result of this toughening was to leave me reluctant to spend much time with my brothers, or men like them. (Sir John is a different breed entirely.) But on reflection, they had a considerable effect on me. From the time I was about five, and allowed out of our yard if I was with a brother, I tagged along as often as I could. I played in a lot of softball games with whatever neighborhood kids could be scraped up, usually boys 5-10 years older than I was. I climbed trees, waded creeks, built mud castles, and got dragged up and down hills that were beyond my strength, sometimes getting piggy-backed home.

Now, because of the brothers and the pick-up softball games, when I’m in a room full of men who are behaving like guys (jockeying for position, baiting each other, and so on), I shift into a similar mode. They push, I push back, and pretty soon we all know where we are. Even reasonable men adopt this mode from time to time, sometimes in response to less reasonable men starting it. I once served on a mixed committee (chaired by a man) for a year, no trouble, and then at the end of the year, I headed an all-male subcommittee. When we were left alone for the first time, considerable wrangling ensued, bypassing my input entirely—until I pounded on the table and shouted. After that, things went smoothly again. But I didn’t think about how to handle it; I didn’t take offense, either. I just did what seemed obvious, and which probably is obvious only to women who have had similar early training.

I have observed that women who have spent a lot of time in male-dominated professions tend to learn how to push back effectively, no matter what their family constellation was. I have also noticed that of my close women friends, almost everyone is from a female-dominant family, most often without brothers. So I don’t think the push-back mode is my preference, even if I can do it without thinking when it seems called for.

My brothers teased and tormented me, but the result is that it’s very hard for anyone else’s efforts at insults and intimidation to get through to me. When I bought my first condo, the developer’s lawyer was a nasty piece of work who thought, at the closing, that he could bully me into not pursuing various issues. He sneered at me, and I listened politely and ignored the ad feminam attacks. He yelled at me, and I sat back with an expression that indicated I was trying not to laugh in his face. He finally gave up, unclear on why he wasn’t getting his way, and I got mine. I did notice what was going on, but I didn’t feel insulted.

Even more important than the fact of having brothers is my family position. I am The Little Sister. When I’m the only woman in a room full of men, I know (in the back of my mind, one of those deeply hidden assumptions) that I am The Mascot and I can get away with anything! So it never occurs to me that anyone is expecting me to keep my mouth shut and be good. In a fundamental way that has absolutely nothing at all to do with current social reality, I know that my brothers will defend me against all non-relatives and Mom will protect me when my brothers get out of hand.

I’m pretty sure I’m not bratty to my colleagues, and I would hate to be called on any of these assumptions, because there’s nobody around to beat people up on my behalf any more. But that early psychosocial training has certainly affected the attitude I project. Though I haven’t picked up a bat in decades and hope I’ll never swing one again, “senior dudes,” in my mind, go with such identifiers as “people to play softball with” (sandlot softball, not the tame kind with coaches). Occasionally this is a land mine. Mostly it seems to make life easier.

So credit where it’s due: my brothers’ efforts to toughen me up were not all bad.

Review, having finished the book

I think how a person feels about The Magicians might depend on how that person feels about Narnia. The main character, Quentin, and most of his friends read their version of Narnia (called Fillory) when they were kids, and some of them seem to have remained quite attached to it. At first I took Fillory more as a stand-in for Any Fantasy World You Once Loved, but in the second half of the book I started to think that the Narnia-ness of it actually mattered. And while I enjoyed the Narnia books as a child, whenever I figured out the Christian allegory (about age 11, I think), I went right off them. I still have time for Lewis as a scholar, but I do not care for his fiction. I waded through all the Silent Planet trilogy, in my late teens, because someone I thought well of recommended them, but I thought they started out bad and got worse.

I have no interest in debating whether or not Lewis could write fiction—de gustibus non disputandem est—but I am curious as to what a Narnia-Lover would think of Grossman’s book, so if you fall into that category and have read The Magicians, let me know.

[09.19.2011: It is no longer the case that the rest of my thoughts will appear “below the fold,” because something’s gone screwy with the HTML so I just took it out. I hope that by now anybody who would have minded the spoilers has read the book.] I can’t explain what I didn’t like without spoilers. What’s more, I can’t make sense of the book without getting all English-professor-y on its ass.

We meet Quentin as he’s about to take the entrance exam for a college of magic; part of what entices him to do so is having a brief encounter with what purports to be a sixth Fillory book, when there only ever were five that anyone knows of. However, it disappears before he can read it. During his years at the college, he periodically re-reads the Fillory books, thus filling readers in on their plots: English kids, a grandfather clock, talking animals, not-too-threatening villains, animal-gods who send the kids back at the end of each set of adventures, you know the drill. College is good: learning magic is very hard, but Quentin makes some friends, attracts a lover (Alice, a super-smart young woman), and passes some seriously hairy exams. The first half of the book worked, for me. There were some obvious Plot Points to Be Developed, like the missing Fillory book, the Girl Left Behind, the Beast (a Terrible Invasion from Another World, when Quentin plays a prank during a lecture), and the Mysterious Death of Alice’s Brother. But that’s okay; I know that if there’s a gun on the table in the first act, it’ll get fired in Act III. Anticipation adds to the fun.

After graduation, it’s all downhill. Quentin and his friends don’t seem to know what to do with themselves, except move to New York and do drugs. Even brilliant Alice hangs out with these losers instead of going to Glasgow for graduate school. (Alice, darling, men are like streetcars; there’ll be another one in ten minutes if you just dump Quentin. Quite possibly one with a fabulous Scots accent! Well, there’s no telling a 21-year old such things. They just say you’re a cynical old bat.) Then one of their not-exactly-a-friends turns up with a magical button that can take them to Fillory. Yes, one of The Magical Buttons that were thoroughly hidden at the end of the fifth book. Not peyote buttons. Just to thicken the plot, Quentin cheats on Alice and then she cheats on him, so everybody can be thoroughly distraught and distracted, and see Fillory as some sort of magical happy potion that will solve all their problems. (The cynical old bat says: wanting to sleep with someone else is Nature’s way of telling you it’s time to break up. Get the break-up over with first. Can’t face it? Okay, then don’t sleep with the other one. Grow the fuck up.)

Eight people from this world go to Fillory and have harrowing adventures. Bad Shit Happens. It’s all because the Beast (remember the Beast?) is actually one of those English kids from the stories who figured out a way to stay in Fillory. It involves unsavory magical practicies, and he’s after Quentin and his pals because he (the Beast) needs to collect all those Magical Buttons so nobody can ever make him go back home. This is significant: apparently staying in Fillory makes you into a monster. Okay. Alice sacrifices herself to save the others, killing the Beast; Quentin is seriously injured and passes out.

Six months later, he comes out of his coma, still in Fillory. The others hung around for a couple of months and then left him. The mysterious sixth book of Fillory turns up again; as he reads it, its author, the youngest of the English kids and sister of the Beast, appears in Quentin’s room, so they can talk over what happened. Thanks to a time-travel device, she has been trying for a very long time to kill her brother; every time she or her minions has failed, she undoes everything. This is the only time he’s ever wound up dead, so she’s not willing to go back and try to make it so Alice survives. She breaks the device. Quentin goes on a quest to find the magic beast that can grant a wish and send him home.

Back in this world, he plans to renounce magic. Uh-huh: then why accept a job through the magical school, even if it’s in a big corporation? I mean, if you’re going to renounce magic, go whole hog and get an accounting degree from Large Regional U, instead of surfing the internet and collecting a paycheck for doing it in an office in a suit instead of at home in pyjamas. He meets the woman who was involved in the Mysterious Death of Alice’s Brother; she thinks Magic is Evil. Quentin can’t quite agree.

And the next thing you know, two of his friends from the ill-fated Fillory expedition turn up, along with the Girl He Left Behind, and say they’re going back, does Quentin want to come? Yeah. Yeah, he does. The End.

And I said, “What?”

I don’t get it. Fillory was awful. The talking bunnies were violent. They had to be killed. And while it’s bad enough killing nasty orcs, killing oversized talking bunnies is worse, in my view. Apparently wanting to stay in Fillory, or at least doing what it takes to allow you to stay, turns you into a magical monster. Alice died there. Another guy lost his hands and can no longer do magic. Any sensible person would never want to see the place again. It’s not as if there’s any hope of restoring Alice, or fixing anything else. They just want to go to Fillory and be kings and queens there. In my view, graduate school would be a much better option.

So what’s going on? I have two theories. One is that the ending is “about” the powerful pull that fantasy literature has on its fans; given the opportunity to leave the ordinary world for the fictional one, they’ll go, no matter how marvellous their real lives (even if they’re powerful magicians!), no matter how awful the fictional world turns out to be. This makes the book a cautionary tale.

The other is that the ending is “about” the powerful pull of Christianity: no matter how atheistic and sophisticated people are, given the chance to enter a Christian orbit, they’ll do it. I can’t tell if this makes the book cautionary or celebratory. Sir John points out that it seems a bit odd for a writer named Lev Grossman to take the celebratory point of view, so maybe it’s cautionary. (I never put too much stock in people’s names. I used to know a Filipina called something analogous to Christmas Feinman, okay? You just never know.)

Anyway, there is a minor character, a practicing Christian magician, who is one of the few people with any sense; he helps Quentin’s pals prepare for the trip to Fillory, in practical terms, stays out of the doomed expedition, and turns up (after Quentin passes out) to get everybody else out of the maze they were in. This makes Christians look like the good guys, or at least, like the sensible, responsible grown-ups. Moreover, the fantastically irritating animal-god (a ram, get it?), who keeps telling people that there are things beyond their understanding (I cheered when one of Quentin’s friends said she’d heard just about enough about her understanding, thank you), does say two wise things before the Beast kills him: one, that Fillory is not a theme park for the Children of Earth to dress up and play with swords in, and two, how can Quentin expect to save Fillory when he can’t even save himself? Alice has said similar things to Quentin at various points, so this seems to be a theme in the book.

But I suppose it could be along the line of even a stopped clock being right twice a day: everybody from Alice to the the ram-god is telling Quentin the same thing, and he still doesn’t want to hear it.

Maybe it’s just supposed to be a dark fantasy where there are no good guys and nobody wins. Well, that’s not what I read fantasy for. And I sure don’t want to have to get all English-proffy on my brain-candy’s ass in order to make sense of it. Indeterminate endings work fine for lit classes, if that’s what floats your boat, but when I read for fun I want a clear-cut happy ending where good triumphs. If Narnia and talking animal-gods are bad, boring, unsophisticated, whatever, then let’s have Quentin & Co. grow up. If they’re good, then let’s have them take Fillory and its problems seriously.

Maybe this is a weird homage to Narnia from someone who enjoyed the books as a kid and then, though Jewish, found they were Christian allegory and that really screwed him up. Maybe.

I don’t know. The hell with it. I think I need to go read some Vorkosigan space opera to clear my mental palate. Let’s kick some Cetagandan ass.

Magical reading review

I probably shouldn’t review or recommend a book till I’ve finished it. I’m only about halfway through Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, but so far I think it’s the best thing I’ve read since Pamela Dean’s The Secret Country, which longtime readers will recognize as my highwater mark of fantasy literature.

Normally when I like a book I gallop through it, often ignoring somatic calls for food, sleep, or bathroom breaks, completely submerged in the world of the book, resentful if I have to put it down and re-engage with the world around me. Now I’m trying to slow myself down. I’m hoping not even to open the book today, to think about the first half of it and allow myself to remain suspended partway in the book-world, enjoying the idea that it will be there waiting for me tomorrow. I am, for once, acutely aware that I have only one opportunity to read this book for the first time, and I wish I were somewhere away from home so I could, in future, remember the occasion more precisely. (As, for instance, I remember reading Dracula in a friend’s apartment in New York City, with a party going on around me, because I could not put it down.)

I saw a brief notice of The Magicians in the Times’ Book Review last weekend (debuted at number nine on the hardback best-seller list), and thought I’d go to a bookstore and take a look. It might be something I would like, I thought, something like Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. But it might also be simply fun, or actually stupid: my standards are high, and perhaps quirky.

I read five pages and handed over the hardcover price without hesitation. The book does deal with the study of magic. But it’s something else entirely. Not to knock JS and Mr. N, which I enjoyed very much, and have read twice. The Magicians has a density, a gravity, a conviction that goes beyond any other fantasy literature I have ever encountered (and I include John Crowley and other masters of the fantasy novel, the novel that is a novel and not, say, a yarn, an epic, a children’s story). It belongs to what I consider the hardest sub-category to write well, the magic-enters-the-modern-world type: this is part of the reason I would rank it above Bujold’s Chalion books, which I found completely compelling on first reading and to which I have returned frequently. They take place entirely in another world, with its own laws and religion; Bujold doesn’t have to make magic square with cell phones and the Internet.

If The Magicians ends badly or clumsily, like His Dark Materials (and really, how was Pullman supposed to get out of the hole he dug himself? he probably did as well as could be expected given the set-up), I will be disappointed. This may be one reason I’m trying to spin out the reading experience; I want to live in hope of an ending that matches the build-up. But if it ends well, I have a new masterpiece on my shelf.

Please don’t include any spoilers if you comment.

Anxiety dream? Confidence dream?

Yesterday I submitted my application to the workshop at Famous Library, and last night I dreamed I got a response. Rather than a straight yes/no answer, three different reviewers (the workshop faculty) supplied their written comments on my application.

The first one gave a long critique, which boiled down to “you’re very well qualified, but I just don’t feel like working with you.” In the dream, I was very disappointed, but kept reading.

The next two were both very positive, saying basically, “Wonderful! You’re perfect for this! Please come!”

But there was no definite yes/no even at the end, so it’s not clear if two outvote one, or if the votes are weighted so there’s one person who counts extra, or if they need to achieve consensus on the applicants.

I’m still not sure what sort of a dream this was. It seems I think pretty well of myself, as even the negative commenter admitted my qualifications; but perhaps I have some doubts about my ability to play well with others.

Integrating research techniques in the lit class

Like most of you, I’m suddenly plunged deep into the whirlpool of the semester (79 students and a whackload of committee work), so I don’t have much in the way of personal musings or cute cat stories (hard to have cute cat stories when you’re not home to observe the beasts). Instead, I’m doubling up by using work as blog fodder: here’s an assignment I’m working on for my graduate class on Chaucer. Comments are welcome (especially if they’re as warm as those on the last post! thanks! but I would also like to know if you see ways to improve this).

I haven’t decided whether they have to write this up formally, or just be prepared to talk about their findings; I’m leaning toward to the latter. Similarly to my last post, I’m aiming at inculcating a certain way of thinking, not insisting on formal details. I want my students to be able to question where essays come from, literally and figuratively; to apply this knowledge in discussing and writing about criticism; and, I hope, to apply this knowledge as they develop their own writing for publication.

I have selected a set of about 20 essays on a particular Canterbury Tale, with publication dates ranging from early in the twentieth century until 2005; each member of the class will choose an essay from this list. There are fewer than 20 students in the course, so nobody’s forced into a particular essay just because of when they got the sign-up sheet.

Once they’ve chosen their essay, I’m asking the students to do the following work on it:

1. The trajectory of scholarship, and where your essay fits into this:

Look up “[Tale]” in the MLA database. Read through the list of entries (156 at the end of August 2009). Look at titles: what do they suggest about researchers’ interests or approaches? Look at journals or other venues of publication: what journals publish work on the [Tale]? Look at dates of publication: are there periods when a lot of articles on the [Tale] appear?

2. The status of your essay’s journal:

In the MLA database, look up the journal in which your essay appears. Where is its “home” (country, university)? What is its current circulation? What is its acceptance rate? How long does it take from submission to publication?

The older your essay, the less relevant is information about the current incarnation of the journal, of course. See if you can find out anything about the standing of the journal around the time your essay was published. Don’t spend too much time on this: maybe half an hour surfing the web and another half hour in the library. Possible approaches: (a) Find a hard copy of the journal (or, if it’s on J-STOR, search front and back matter) from the decade your essay was published, and see if it ever publishes information about its circulation, time to publication, etc. (Check more than one volume, as sometimes journals publish this information once a year, or at a longer interval.) (b) See if your journal has a home page that gives information about its history.

Who edited your journal at the time your essay was published? What university did the editor work at? What is the editor’s scholarly area? (Do another MLA search.) How well-published is the editor?

What can you tell about your journal’s mission or interests? Is there a clear statement about what sorts of essays it publishes? Does it have a sub-title that suggests its aims, even if there is no mission statement?

If there’s no statement, consider the editorial board: who is on it at the time your essay was published? (This information will usually appear inside the cover, in the front matter.) What are the board’s universities and areas of specialty? Do they tend to share a particular type of approach?

3. Your essay’s individual history:

Are there any footnotes in which the author thanks various readers, teachers, or colleagues for help or inspiration? If so, who/what gets thanks, and why? (What? For example, a “what” might be an NEH seminar, or an institution that supported a research leave.) Are there notes that indicate earlier incarnations as a conference paper or lecture? Does the author cite her/his own previously published work?

4. Your author:

This will be easier to answer if you have a more recent essay. Do what you can with the earlier ones, without spending huge tracts of time.

What can you find out, through the MLA database, a general web search, or reference works such as the Dictionary of Literary Biography, about your author? How long an academic career has this person had, and where in that career does your essay fall? Is this essay part of a sustained interest in [Tale], or a divergence from the author’s usual scholarly pursuits? How many academic positions has your author held, and at what kind(s) of institutions? Where was s/he educated? Who was her/his dissertation advisor? (Sometimes people thank them in notes; sometimes it’s easy to figure out because there’s only one Chaucerian on the faculty of a particular university at the right date; sometimes you may be able to guess make an informed speculation; sometimes you can find the information in Dissertation Abstracts International; sometimes you may not be able to find this out.)

5. The essay:

Read it. (Finally!)
What is its argument?
What does it assume about its audience and their abilities?
How is it organized (are there sub-heads? are they numbered?)?
How much “sign-posting” does it do? (Sign-posting = phrases like “In this section I shall argue,” “Now we turn to the problem of ____.”)
How often does it refer to and/or quote Chaucer?
How often does it refer to and/or quote other scholars?
To what extent is it informed by literary theory, and which theories?