When it rains . . .

Thanksgiving weekend: 148 individual items to grade before Monday, of which 11 grad papers and 77 substantial undergrad assignments (72 items to go). Two sick cats, and associated vet visits: we very much hope this is a passing virus and not the Grammarian’s kidney disease acting up, plus something unknown in the Scot; also that, if it is just a virus, that it does not get passed on to the others. One attempt to give sub-cutaneous fluids to the Grammarian, which was not successful. Two dead or dying laptops, both Sir John’s, both work-issued, one new, with a major deadline looming.

We’re having a high old time around here, I assure you.

Call for papers: IMA/MAM

If you don’t have anyplace warmer to go in February, allow me to invite you to the Illinois Medieval Association/Medieval Association of the Midwest conference at Dominican University, River Forest, IL. A friend of mine is organizing it, and you can visit the official website here; call for papers here. The theme is “The Ends of Romance,” and although the original deadline for submitting abstracts has passed, the organizer assures me that there is still room on the program.

I will be there, and would like to contribute something; however, I am already committed to two different conference papers next spring, and the last time I did three in a semester I swore I wouldn’t do that again. So I’m wondering about a round table about exile and/in romance: if this interests any of my readers, leave a comment or e-mail either Dame Eleanor or my real-life address, if you know me. (If you don’t, come to the conference and discover the woman behind the mystery!)

An alternative idea for a round table is blogging. At the May 2009 Kalamazoo, I had to chair an in-honor-of session across the hall from the blogging session, so was tantalizingly close but completely unable either to attend or overhear. If anyone from that session would like to reprise it, again, let me know.

Traditionally, the IMA weekend is unseasonably warm and gets everyone hoping for an early spring, which then fails to appear. But at least the weekend provides a break from the usual winter weather. And hey, if you’re a cat person, you can come over and meet the menagerie: how’s that for an incentive? Basement Cat would love to co-opt some new servants of darkness.


Any time I actually go to LRU’s library, it will take me double the amount of time I think it ought to take in order to actually find what I’m there for. I resigned myself to this long ago, and in the past few years the average time has declined slightly, since if I need a book I can look up a call number faster in my office than on the library machines.

But tonight I’m trying to get a recent article online, at home, through the library database. I have obtained the exact same article twice before, at home, through the same database, and both times lost it to one of those damned “automatic updates” on my computer. I’m logged in, authenticated, the whole nine yards; but instead of loading, I get pages from the press or other institution wanting me to log in or pay. Have we lost subscriptions again, or are too many other people logged in (on Thanksgiving?), or what the hell? I am peeved. Next time I get the article, I will be sure to save it.

Um, yeah, of course I’m thankful to be employed and all that; but it really is annoying to have the library behave so capriciously. They’re dumping all hard copies to which they have (they THINK they have) online subscriptions, so the trouble I’m having REALLY makes me gnash my teeth. It’s the Franz Kafka Memorial Library: sure, you can get this article . . . if you pay for it, like any non-academic.

At least I managed to read half of it, last time I had it.


Ways of seeing

I’ve been thinking since last summer about how I recognize people, and what I identify as important details, and how this relates to ability to recognize scripts or font details. Last July, I attended a conference where I knew about three people beforehand. A very large group—forty?—went out to dinner one evening, scattered over three large tables. I sat next to an organizer who was trying to check us off a list; she knew her old friends, but wasn’t sure who many people were. After just two days with these people, I was able to fill in everyone else for her, and she said, “Do you specialize in type fonts, or something like that? You’re so good at recognizing details!”

As I’ve said, I don’t think I have a very good visual memory, and I tend to pick out the wrong details in handwriting. If, in a year’s time, I was again in a room with the people from the restaurant, I’m sure I’d have trouble recognizing about half of them. What I do is pick out details that will let me recognize and name them tonight, tomorrow, next week: this one has a cloud of long dark hair, that one has glasses like my grandfather’s, another has a sunburn. When people are animated, I identify the one who has a lively, crooked smile, another who gestures with his chin in a characteristic way,

Of these, the smile and the gesture are probably unchangeable and will help me recognize their owners next year. If the hair is cut or dyed, the glasses changed or removed, I’m lost. Unless features are really distinctive—a big nose, a pursed mouth, heavy eyebrows—I look at a face and see “Two eyes, check; nose, check; mouth, check; all present and accounted for, in the usual order top to bottom.” I have a terrible time recognizing many of my students, who are mostly young enough not to have developed distinctive wrinkles, and who tend to dress and groom themselves so as to meet conventional standards of attractiveness. The rare Goth or punk is a blessing. I always know who has the dyed black hair or the green streak, but a row of pretty young blonde women confuses me. Actresses and dancers are the worst: Sir John is constantly amazed that I can’t tell the difference between Actress X and Actress Y, and I am equally astounded that he can, even when they have cut and dyed their hair and gained or lost weight for a role.

So there are two kinds of recognizable details: those that provide present recognition (blonde ponytail, black geometric haircut, heavy glasses, dark lipstick, noticeably thin or heavy body) are often not helpful in the long term. The long-term recognizable details are things like movement (I always recognize Sir John by his walk, long before he’s close enough that I can see his face), body language, facial features that are in some way more than “two eyes, check”: particularly protuberant or deep-set eyes, a nose that is unusually small, tilted, large, or bumpy, a mouth that is especially wide, pinched, or thick-lipped. It sounds as if it’s easier for me to recognize ugly people, and in a way that’s true: but I also don’t tend to experience “ugly” as unattractive, because that face with the non-standard features is one I can recognize no matter what has happened with hair, beard, glasses, and other changeable details. I also try to look for features other people don’t necessarily look at: length of neck, breadth of shoulders, hands. These may change, too, if someone takes up or drops a weight-lifting regimen, for example; but they are less subject to change than hair.

What has all this to do with paleography? Paleographers need to be able to recognize both general characteristics, the details that let you tell Beneventan from Luxeuil, Anglicana from Secretary, and also specific characteristics, the elements that distinguish Scribe B from Scribe D when they are both writing a regular Anglicana, or tell that Scribe B is Scribe B whether he’s writing Anglicana or Secretary. I think the general characteristics are analagous to the details that let you recognize someone tonight, tomorrow, next week: the roundness, spacing and clarity that announce Insular Minuscule are like the long blond hair and flowing mustache. When the scribe switches scripts, it’s no good looking for the characteristics of Insular Minuscule; it’s as if the young man shaved his face and head. You have to look for the features and body language, the approach strokes and tendency to use ligatures (or not), in order to identify the same scribe using a different script. And if you’re stuck at “two eyes, check,” then you may note the presence or absence of feet, while completely missing something important about the ascenders; you may notice, in one sample, that the lines and letters are well-spaced, and in another, that they are crowded and cramped, without seeing that the letter shapes are identical.

This still happens to me. I go for general appearance, just as I do at conferences (so I won’t embarrass myself by failing to recognize someone I was introduced to yesterday!). I can recognize a Secretary hand, no bother; but is the tight, controlled inscription on folio 20 by the same hand that wrote the sloppier entry on folio 50? I look at letter shapes, but does that really help? Of course Secretary is going to have that funky h. Nose, check; mouth, check. Is the tight, controlled Secretary inscription on folio 20, in English, the same tight, controlled hand writing the lovely little Gothic comment in Latin on folio 35? Well, I’m like the Terry Pratchett demon who says, “That’s handwriting all right. Curly bits, spiky bits—I’d recognize it anywhere.”

It’s not that I’m always so great at the general characteristics, either (certainly not when I was in grad school). But I think now I can diagnose at least some of my difficulties as category confusion. If you’re trying to look at specific individual details (broken nose, funky h whose descender makes an unusual forward-and-back jiggle) when all you need is big-picture, recognize-tonight characteristics (blond mustache, round minuscule letters), then there will be trouble. Some of learning to see is learning your own distinct and individual approach to seeing. I know I have trouble recognizing faces, so I put a lot more analytic effort into identifying people than would someone who “never forgets a face.” I know I’m not a natural at paleography, so I try to work out ways of compensating for my weaknesses. Overall appearance counts for something; but remember to look at a, g, s, r (both after a round letter and at the end of a word). Remember that you are easily fooled by a change in size, as at the beginning of a new stint: look again at the shapes.

Maybe this is why I enjoy (a weird, perverse and often frustrating sort of enjoyment) puzzling over English Secretary hands. Gothic book scripts are a bit like that line-up of beautiful young actresses who all have big eyes, small noses, kissable mouths. Lovely, all of them. If you look closely, there are small differences, but will you recognize A when she goes blonde, or B when she becomes a redhead? Secretary hands are like those non-standard faces where the eyes are too far apart, the nose too big, the front teeth crooked. Hello! You, I know. You’re the Secretary with the flowing T, and you’re the more upright one with the special jiggle on the h. I have no idea if either of you is responsible for the Latin comment, but at least I can tell you apart when you’re not wearing your glasses.

Got better . . .

The update: the batch of papers is still present, but smaller, and I have come to a batch that were not groan-worthy. Also I devoted two hours to research today, and that made me much happier overall, and better able to tackle the grading in a charitable spirit.

I have to admit that I was not so much pushing forward with the research as consolidating my current position. I owe something to my writing group this week, and so I took the 3600 words I now have in the draft of my article on manuscripts and cut it to 2500 by taking out most of the notes to myself, questions to be filled in later, and so on. I now have a tidy-looking document, complete with endnotes rather than bracketed chunks in the text, that contains four clear sections of argument, with two more to come. (Bracketed chunks are one of my compositional idiosyncracies: when notes disappear to footnotes or endnotes, I lose track of them, can’t format them properly, and have trouble deciding whether they should be integrated into text or not. I need to keep them visible until I’ve moved them in and out of text a few times, and formatted references suitably for notes once I’ve decided they can go there.)

Although I know there’s still a lot of work to be done here (a bit more on the fourth section; all of a long fifth and fairly long sixth section; then revision, in which I know from past experience a lot of the conclusion will migrate to the introduction, and then have to be replaced), I feel very encouraged by the experience of seeing 10 pages of professional-looking essay. The argument is somewhat dispersed, but it is there (I’ll let the group mark the sentences in part 4 that need to get assembled in the paragraph that introduces that section; I can see they’re not in the right places, but they exist, and right now I’m just happy that they exist). I’m on the right track. Progress has been slow, but I have made progress nonetheless, even while teaching 3 classes and serving on a time-consuming committee (of which more anon).

And I want to note, for my own future reference, that grading is easier after I write.

Grading whine

Most of these papers are so bad, and they’re taking so long, and I know I’d get done faster if I kept my nose to the grindstone instead of reading blogs, but really, it’s hard to keep at it when the papers are so bad, and I’m eating way too many chocolate-covered cranberries to try to keep myself in the chair, so I no longer even want chocolate. I practically gave the students a recipe for How To Write A Good Paper, and with half the papers in one section done, very few are following the recipe successfully. The best papers are from the double majors (English and Philosophy, English and History) which tells me something: not something I want to hear, but something I have suspected. And actually, in some ways this message is comforting: it’s not Kids These Days, just those who major in what they think is a subject where you can get away with hand-waving and bullshit, and aren’t sure what to do when they’re given a recipe that does not include either one. But GAH. I have spent a beautiful November Saturday mainly indoors reading papers that make me want to lie on the floor groaning. And I still have 3/4 of the batch left to do. Please tell me that somehow all the worst papers are in this first quarter of those tackled. Even if you’re lying to me. I need hope. I cannot go on. I know you’re expecting a Godot-esque “I’ll go on,” but I’m giving up for the day and going to the gym.

The interesting thing is the in-class reflective writing I had the classes do on the day the papers were due. I asked them to reconstruct their thesis and argument from memory, and to write about how well they thought they’d succeeded at saying what they wanted to say, and what they would like help with or wished they had done better. Usually the thesis is better stated on the in-class paper, and they’re actually quite aware of where their biggest problems lie. Maybe next semester I’ll use this exercise in a required revision. But I have noticed before that my students are much better at getting to the point in class, on paper or in oral presentations, than when they have essays due. Is it paper vs. word processor? The need to say something, anything, NOW, rather than having time to tinker? Feeling that there’s less pressure on the in-class writing, whereas essays have to be Formal and Perfect (and therefore become horribly imperfect)?

I’m going to go take out my frustrations (and work off the chocolate-cranberries) on an exercise bike. Tomorrow is another creep in this petty pace through the papers, or something like that. Maybe tomorrow I should substitute wine for cranberries.

Not guilty

Bittersweet Girl has a question about hiring someone to clean the house.

Add me to the people who’ve done this for years, with no guilt. Even when I was single and had only one cat. I like my surroundings clean and neat (OK, non-toxic and with a good possibility of finding any given object), and I have limited time and energy, and I have far better things to do than argue with Sir John about who should do what. So we paint the housecleaning pink and slap a Somebody Else’s Problem Field on it.

There’s still plenty to do: laundry, cat boxes, dishes, picking up. I used to have a cleaner who was willing to do laundry and dishes. For awhile we had a service who wasn’t. These things might be negotiable with the current person, but we’ve got used to doing them ourselves (and of all the housework tasks, laundry is the only one I like).

Guilt? Nah. Maybe because I did a lot of cleaning while I was in college (I had a friend who was an apartment manager: have you ever cleaned the oven of people who forfeited their cleaning deposit?), or because having help was one of my mother’s aspirations for me, but before I could afford it I looked forward to the day when I could, and once I started hiring the job done, I decided I’d rather live on rice and beans than go back to doing everything myself.

It’s a job. No shame in it. Do you suppose women feel that they ought to feel guilty about it, so in groups, they express guilt, even if they don’t feel it?

Nerd humor

I can’t think of anyone in my real life who would be likely to understand what I’ve been snickering over this morning. So let’s see if any of my readers get it.

Substitute “Bradwardine,” as in Thomas (see, I just lost most of the people I know, but the medievalists are probably still with me), for “Reynardine” in the lyrics of Fairport Convention’s song (how many of you just said “huh?”?).

“Oh no,” he said, “no rake am I!”

Or adjust the lyrics a bit. “Seek me in my chapter house. Inquire for Bradwardine.”

That sly, bold Bradwardine.

OK, I’ll shut up now.

Not dead yet!

Add me to the chorus of voices objecting to the idea that the library could possibly be dead. It got better!

I’ve just spent (can’t bear to add up the number) hours putting together a library scavenger hunt for my students in undergraduate Chaucer. It involves finding out what’s in particular ranges of call numbers, finding a hard copy of an essay that is not in J-STOR or otherwise available electronically, looking up people we read about in volumes of the calendars of Close, Fine, and Patent Rolls, studying pages of facsimile volumes, and using several reference works, two of which are not available electronically; one is, and I want students to write about the different experiences of using hard copy or electronic version. They’ll work in teams, and each team has a different set of questions. In a week, we’ll have a class discussion to put the jigsaw pieces together; as we used to say in the seventies, everybody has a piece of the truth.

On Friday, I took a quick non-scientific poll of my two sections, asking what they have done in the library. They study there; they get food in the cafe (and one works there); they use reference works; they have asked reference librarians for help; they go to the writing center; they check out books. Of electronic databases, they are most familiar with J-STOR, but some have used LION and the MLA database. At least one has figured out how to get articles not otherwise available via inter-library loan; I demonstrated for everyone else how you do that. All have used the OED, since I made them do that recently. I showed them a few other databases. I don’t know how much they’ll retain, but perhaps they’ll remember to check out the database page again sometime.

One of the questions on the write-up of the scavenger hunt will be to propose a topic for a research paper that uses several of the resources from the hunt. They won’t write the papers; I just want to see whether leafing through actual books will spark some creative ideas. One of the fabulous things about using hard copy is the serendipitous discoveries. When you go straight to quoniam, you miss quamquam and quisque.

Perhaps you thought, given my attitude to old Specula, that I’d be knocking the library over the head. But I distinguish between institutions and individuals; my floor space is more limited than the library’s, and actually, after one of the comments on that post, I regretted not having made some effort to find a vampire bookseller (how?) in case someone wanted ten years’ worth of Speculum. Personally, I can’t bear to let the place where I live approach the state of my hoarder-dad’s piled-up house, but professionally, I think it’s important for libraries to hold on to hard copies of everything, even if they have to be stored off-site.

We’ll see how the scavenger hunt goes. My students seemed enthusiastic at the prospect, though this may just be delight at having a change of venue for a week. I haven’t done this with undergrads before. Grads in Introduction to Bibliography and Research Methods have hunts that combine electronic and hard-copy research. Some returning students need intensive instruction in electronic media; some younger ones need physical-library remediation; everyone complains about the parts they think aren’t necessary. It’s all necessary, I say. Anyway, I hope I haven’t made the hunt too hard for the undergrads. As is so often the case with me, I’m after the serendipitous “aha” moments, hoping that even as two different questions on the list illumine each other and some literary issue from class, that there will be other discoveries that help with questions I never thought of, perhaps questions from other classes.