Friday, October 23, 2009

Is there a Methodology in this class?

by Mary Kate Hurley

I was sitting quietly in my library carrel (where I spend approx. 20 hours of every day) when a friend sent me a Gmail chat, asking “Are you going to the talk?” I was feeling a bit tired, and a bit confused – “what talk?” I typed back, thinking that there was very, very little that would get me to leave the library that day. “Stanley Fish!” he answered. “12.30 in 523 Butler. Only Grad Students and Faculty invited.” Since I didn’t have to leave the library to walk downstairs, and it was even on my side of the building, I figured I didn’t have much to lose.

I was curious, and that was the major reason I wanted to go. I’ve had my share of disagreements (one-sided to be sure) with Prof. Fish. I’ve taught him in class and read his NYTimes blog when I manage to get past my email backlog while procrastinating. I don’t always agree with him. In fact, I actually don’t think I agree with him much at all – as he’s a Miltonist, this hasn’t really been a central facet of my increasingly Beowulf-focused life in recent days (as a side note: Hi, everybody! It’s been ages!). But I’m always interested in hearing what another “giant” of the field is like when giving a talk – will he be well-spoken? Dismissive of grad student questions? Funny? Irascible?

Thus I found myself at Stanley Fish’s talk, on “Milton and Theory.”

I have to say: I was quite impressed. I found his analysis of other Miltonists quite amusing at times, and enlightening at others, if often a bit harsh. His central claim revolved around how theoretical readings of texts tend to turn the literary works they treat into “allegories” which simply prove the reader’s point, again and again. As a medievalist, I found this assertion quite interesting: I hate allegory with a firey passion, mostly because I often have trouble finding where the allegory ends and where whatever takes its place begins. Fish was speaking on a very specific kind of reading of Milton, Deconstructionist with a Capital ‘D’. Again, it’s a theory I’ve largely lost interest in as I’ve gotten further into my own work. Deconstruction is fascinating, and an important theoretical tool, but I’ve never been able to see it as more than just that, a tool.

In the end, Fish’s talk made a single claim with three major points, beyond his annoyance with other interpreters of John Milton. The claim was about “what to do with John Milton and Paradise Lost,” a question to which Fish gave three answers:

  1. Find out what the author meant. (Find the author’s intention).
  2. Find out how other critics have read the author, for example, how the Romantics read Milton.
  3. Find out what you can make with the text in question.
For Fish, the only one of these which was really worthwhile as a literary endeavor was the first: an avowed intentionalist, he defined his premise as believing that the text means what its author says it means. He ended the talk with a call for what he termed “professional humility,” which if I read him correctly, meant that remembering that the endeavor of the literary critic is to treat the text in a way that is limited to the text itself: in short, that we should not pretend we’re saving the world here.

I was curious about Fish’s point here. In college, while working on my senior thesis, a biweekly colloquium convened to help us work through the difficult task of writing a paper longer than anything we’d ever written. I remember one colleague, struggling with the awesome difficulty of beginning to write on Shakespeare (the details of her argument are fuzzy now) who was petrified of beginning. With everything others had said already, she explained, what could she do? What if she was wrong? I vividly remember turning to her, saying the single thing that I would give anything to be sure of now: “Shakespeare will be fine. There’s nothing you or anyone else can do to him that will ‘mess up’ the plays.”

At 21, apparently I knew something that I have trouble remembering at 27: the critics rarely become anything more than just critics. That is to say: while literary criticism is difficult and beautiful and life-changing, the consequences are perhaps more humble than our highest aspirations (or deepest fears) would have us believe.

But, returning to Fish’s talk, I was very interested in the three theses he proposed. So, like all good sixth year graduate students do at such events, I asked an evenhanded but still (I hope) engaging question. Explaining that I was a PhD candidate working with Old English texts – a tidbit of personal information that I hoped would contextualize the question I went on to ask – I inquired as to Prof. Fish’s ideas about Methodology. Is it possible to ask a fourth question of a text? I asked. Is it possible what a poem or other literary work does -- that is to say, not what does it mean so much as how does it construct this meaning? Could we productively raise a question of methodology here, and might the methodology literary scholars seek to employ also determine (or pre-determine) what types of evidence is admissable, and does this have ramifications for our enterprise?

To begin a response, Prof. Fish acknowledged that these questions were very complicated – and I’m sure they were more so when constructed on the spot during the question and answer session. But what it seemed to come down to, in his response, was that being an Intentionalist meant that one believed the text meant what its author said it meant. It is a critical affiliation, to be sure, but it is not a methodological point. Fish averred that our best option is using the “usual empirical way” – interpretation, for Fish, is an empirical activity, not a theoretical one. There is no methodology that attaches to it. This accumulation of empirical research may “take too long” – but there it is.

I’ve been mulling over this since Tuesday: what does it mean, if we are to be empirical in the pursuit of literary studies? On some levels, I suppose, it means what I always tell my students: use textual evidence. But at the same time, aren’t close readings also a form of methodology, and doesn’t empiricism hold its own theoretical rather than interpretive troubles? To wit, can’t empiricism itself proceed from a single (and allegorizing) premise? That everything is both explainable and reproducible, and moreover, that steps taken in an orderly proceeding will inevitably point us to an explanation for – well – everything?

Fish raised some important questions, and I was glad to find him humorous and erudite, and very much accepting of questions from all levels of scholars. I want to engage the points he raised, but in part I don’t know how to begin: all I know is that some of the evidence I accumulated while writing my most recently completed chapter was taken very well, and some of it was deeply disliked and disapproved of. There are, it would seem, certain ways that It Is Okay to Read Beowulf – and stepping outside those is difficult, if not impossible. How, then, to define a literary endeavor? How do we accumulate evidence to interpret a text – what tools do we have to use, and can we use them as tools rather than allegory?

What, dear readers of In the Middle, do you think? What is Methodology, and how does it relate, or not relate to Interpretation? Or to the study of Medieval Literature? Is there a difference between interpretation done in pre-modern and early modern/modern texts? And as regards literary criticsim, is there a methodology in this field?


Sunday, July 05, 2009

by Mary Kate Hurley

[Iceland -- the best layover ever]

One of the myriad things I'm doing this summer is researching Aelfric's Saints Lives in London at the British Library. Yes: I am actually consulting manuscripts, which is a new and exciting research prospect for me. I've been extremely lucky in terms of funding the trip: the Medieval Academy of America generously awarded me the E.K. Rand Dissertation Grant, one of several dissertation grants which they award each year.

Of course, I'll have a lot to say about the actual process of consulting the manuscripts (and I hope to blog a bit about Leeds, which I'll be attending next week, as well). But for now I have a quick question that I'd like to put to all you Norse specialists out there.

On my way over to London, I had a 10-hour layover in Reykjavik. Just enough time to trek all over the city (I was there mostly for the landscape -- museums and manuscripts are always interesting, but I was more intrigued by the land than the stuff from those who've lived on it), and then to head back for a short stay at the unofficial waiting area for Keflavik Airport travelers.

What caught my attention, however, was on the bus rides to and from Keflavik, where I found myself intrigued by these bizarre rock formations:

Now, I've tried googling them, and although I've found a few references, finding something specific about the structures is a bit difficult. So: anything strike you, dear readers? Some half-remembered fragment of a story from graduate school days past (long past or recently past...)? These seem like a lovely addition to the many other stones we've discussed here at ITM.

cross posted toITM


Sunday, May 31, 2009

A Short Ode to the Concordance

by Mary Kate Hurley

Before you do anything else, make sure you read the fantastic news about the progress on Postmedieval from Eileen. Then you can read this, if you want.

There may be readers who are wondering just where I've been for the past few months. The long answer will follow, in a kind of summary reflection on teaching the Introduction to the Major course that I was assigned this semester. The short answer:

Yes, you read that title right. It's an Excel Spreadsheet. Of pronoun usage in Beowulf. Every plural pronoun, and believe me, there are a bunch of them. I have been, in short, very much an Anglo-Saxonist this semester. More on that soon, too.

What I want to write about today is the hard-working Anglo-Saxonists who gave us the Concordance to the Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records and A Concordance to Beowulf. These amazing -- and hefty -- volumes do for the ASPR and Beowulf what the online Dictionary of the Old English Corpus search function does -- albeit for fewer texts and set words. Essentially, these concordances provide every occurrence of a word in the corpus of Old English poetry or Beowulf, respectively. In short, they are a quick and relatively easy way to see the relative frequencies and usages of specific words in Old English. Although there are other concordances which I may speak of at a later time, I want to focus, just for a moment, on these two texts.

Both texts were compiled by Jess Bessinger, with the programming assistance of Philip H. Smith. What's so fascinating about Concordances is both their limitations and the advantages they give to the careful reader. Highlighted in their pages are the difficulties of Old English language -- the words that are written similarly but have different meanings, or a different word-history, for example. But also highlighted in the nearly 2000 pages of these two concordances is the kind of meticulous work that graduate students like me could not get by without. These aren't the only two concordances to Old English -- they just happen to be the two I'm using at present. Which even in my work-oriented scholarly moments, I find quite awe-inspiring. I suppose that what I mean to say is that sometimes it's the work I could never have the patience for (editing a concordance, compiling statistical data about half-line usages in OE poetry, etc) that makes my work possible, and for that, I'm exceedingly grateful.

cross posted at ITM.


Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Drawing a Dissertation

Readers at ITM and Old English in New York may remember that the topic of my first chapter is the Old English Orosius. You may remember, way back in November, when I revising my chapter on the Orosius, I was having a bit of trouble straightening out the terms with which I spoke of the various voices in the text.

I'm working, again, on revising that same old text. You can see a small snippet of what I've been doing with it here. However, in the past few weeks or so I've been trying to tap into my formerly quite creative side, which sometimes gets sublimated by both a lack of time and a lack of interest. I don't have time to draw anymore, for example. But in the past couple weeks, I've taken to literally sketching out some of my arguments in the chapter, to help me keep straight the number of elements, levels, or names that appear in the essay.

The fruits of today's labor? The following diagram. Please note that, should it make it to the final copy of my dissertation chapter, I'll redraw it and make it a bit cleaner:

The "legend," if you will, is the following. 

ASE = Anglo-Saxon England
Rep of HAP = Representation of the Historiarum Adversum Paganos in the Old English Orosius.
Cwæð = The "cwæð Orosius" construction in the Old English Orosius. 

Essentially, I'm trying to represent, albeit somewhat simplistically, the levels of interaction of the Latin and Old English texts.   So they intersect where Latin historical texts are present in Anglo-Saxon England.  The first level of that intersection is the Latin versions of the Historiarum present in Anglo-Saxon England at the time of the translation.   At that point, the attribution of the text can still be to Paulus Orosius, as these are texts in the original language, copies.  The next level, then, is the Old English translation.  The "voice of authority" is no longer Paulus Orosius himself -- if such a thing is possible to think of, to borrow the Derridean line, and in light of having *just* taught Death of the Author to my undergraduates  -- so I'm calling that level of narration/authority the "Translator/Narrator."  

This next level is where things get a bit messy.   For various reasons, in order to understand the way the source text (the Historiarum Adversum Paganos, by Paulus Orosius) interacts with the translation, the Old English Orosius, I find it useful to suggest a distinction between the parts of the Old English text which are specifically meant to represent the Latin text and those which can only be departures that are the results of an explicit choice on the part of the translator.   The majority of the text falls into the first category.    Certain sections of the text, like the part in the geographical preface which relates the travels of Ohthere and Wulfstand, fall into the second.  These are clear departures from the Historiarum.   To express the identification between the translator and the voice of Orosius, I've chosen Orosius-translator.  This category is distinct from the explicit, reported speech citations of Paulus Orosius that occur where the text inserts the first person or, more explicitly, the cwæð Orosius  (a phrase which occurs fifty times in the text, and means "Orosius said").   To mark the distinction, I'm using Orosius-narrator. 

That's a lot of information, particularly for folks who perhaps aren't as familiar with the Orosius.  However, the question I have for you today dear readers, is about the use of diagrams in dissertations.   Are they a good thing, where they help lay out your thought process in a way that makes your prose that much clearer?  Or are they a crutch I should dispense with, and use merely in the draft stages, to help my mind keep track of the many "facts" of the text?   Has anyone out there written a book/dissertation/article that makes extensive use of diagrams?  Or that uses diagrams at all?   How did that work? 

cross posted to ITM


Wednesday, February 11, 2009

A Digital Codex

by Mary Kate Hurley

[illustration from the Lindisfarne Gospels -- thank you, BBC!]

Within a few hours of it being posted on the Valve last night, as a result of Scott Eric Kaufman's reading of a blog called "Readin" -- a number of my friends were emailing me about this. I haven't had the time to fully explore the website, but it would seem that UCLA has put together a page that allows for the easy browsing of all MSs that are digitally available online. Granted you may have already noted its existence through a post at ITM all the way back in December, but given that I noted it only in passing at the time, I thought it worth a second look.

From this article on the website:

Highlights of the virtual holdings include:

• The largest surviving collection of the works of Christine de Pizan, one of the first women in Europe to earn a living as a writer. The manuscript was commissioned by Queen Isabeau of France in 1414 and is now held by the British Library.
• An Irish copy of the Gospel of John, bound in ivory and presented to Charlemagne sometime around 800, now in the library of the monastery of St. Gall in Switzerland.
• The Junius manuscript, one of only four major manuscripts preserving poetry in Old English. Dated to around 1000, the book is now among the holdings of Oxford's Bodleian Library.
As an Anglo-Saxonist, I got no further than the Junius Codex. Along with Exeter, Vercelli, and the Nowell Codex, it houses Old English poetry, including Genesis, Exodus and Daniel. It was also my first Anglo-Saxon codex, which I saw at In the Beginning at the Smithsonian back in 2006. I'd be curious: do other medievalists out there remember their first manuscript? I mean, I'd seen other MSs here at Columbia's RBML, and at various museums and such. But to see the Junius, in person, even if I didn't get to "read" it more closely than through the glass protecting it -- that was pretty amazing.

I also couldn't help but think about the materiality of the codex. Of course I've gone on about this before. After a full semester, however, of one class on paleography and another on medieval book culture (the latter with Chris Baswell, who is part of the team that worked on assembling the UCLA site), I can't help but think about the objects themselves. Perhaps it's the lingering questions raised by Jeffrey's Weight of the Past talk last week, but I do tend towards feeling rather strange about digitized manuscripts. As teaching resources, they make the kind of intense paleographical work I did with Professor Dutschke possible in a way that before it would not have been outside of a few select places ten years ago.

However it also raises the question that all digital technology raises: that is, access. In this case, it's a question of access to the past. I'm working on a cataloging project with Prof. Dutschke for a few hours a week (along with several colleagues) -- and what I've realized is that there is so much to a manuscript that perhaps no digital reproduction, however fine, can represent. For example, I've often felt too squeamish to be a medievalist -- the thought of reading books that are written on animal skin often makes me hesitate to touch a manuscript. This Monday, for example, I sat in the Rare Books reading room and looked through a Chronicle written on parchment. The material of the text was utterly beyond my comprehension -- in addition to being in what was one of the worst late medieval hands I'd ever seen, the text was in German, a language I am slow to read when it's legible. However, the materiality of the book, the object itself, was exceedingly clear. Vellum, like un-moisturized skin, wrinkles. Yes, wrinkles. Texts age, and do so visibly. It's oddly similar to human skin in that regard.

This all tied in quite nicely to my Intro to the Major class, which I also taught this past Monday. I was introducing some of the ways medieval poetry thought about language, and the authority of the speaking or writing voice. After I gave an "introduction to Old English culture" that made me cringe slightly with its brevity -- we worked with one of my favorite of the Old English Riddles, Number 47:
Moððe word fræt. Me þæt þuhte
wrætlicu wyrd, þa ic þæt wundor gefrægn,
þæt se wyrm forswealg wera gied sumes,
þeof in þystro, þrymfæstne cwide
ond þæs strangan staþol. Stælgiest ne wæs
wihte þy gleawra, þe he þam wordum swealg.

A moth ate words; a marvelous event
I thought it when I heard about that wonder,
a worm had swallowed some man’s lay, a thief
In darkness had consumed the mighty saying
With its foundation firm. The thief was not
One whit the wiser when he ate those words.

Trans. Richard Hamer
When a poet in the Middle Ages looked at a book s/he didn't see something pristine, like my copy of Klaeber's Beowulf, which is still too new to be dog-eared and worn. Rather, books had long histories already, even when new -- it was not, as it were, their first life. And books were not safe from the ravages of time or even of the worms that also rend human flesh after death. Perhaps its worth remembering that even digital materials have worms which feed on data. Transience, it would seem, was and is part and parcel of textual experience. Rightly so, given that humans create them.

In part, and as always, it seems I've come back around to where I began when I started my musings: materiality and the medieval. We're always dealing, in some fashion, with what's left -- never an established whole, never a static object-of-knowledge. The medieval, it would seem, is always contextual, and therefore always contingent on the kinds of contexts we can find for it. It seems obvious, I suppose -- but every time I open my web browser and look at my first Anglo-Saxon codex, I don't know that I'll always acutely feel the absence of the codex Junius (given that it's not at my beck and call -- or even on this side of the Atlantic). But I do sense another kind of absence -- albeit one that is paradoxically full of lives and ideas and cultures that are always just beyond our ability to recall fully. I'm sure someone else has already said this -- but maybe we're always missing the Middle Ages?

Thanks to Scott Kaufman of The Valve for bringing this back to my attention, and to all the friends who forwarded it to me.

Cross posted at ITM.

More on something Beowulfian -- the conference for which it is intended -- on the morrow.


Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Sarah Maclachlan and the Old English Orosius

So my monster of a first chapter has been in the revision stage since sometime in August. It's on the Old English Orosius, which might have been my first mistake: the Orosius is a text that is endlessly fascinating in the abstract, but the moment one starts actually close reading all six books of Old English prose, one realizes that it's very difficult to talk about -- not only because of its size, but also because of its relationship with the Latin Historiarum Adversum Paganos.

I've been told a part of the problem with the first chapter of a dissertation is that there is still an immense degree of fluctuation between what's necessary to a chapter and what will eventually become a part of the introduction to the dissertation as a whole. I've found this to be overwhelmingly the case. Confronted with the whole of Orosius criticism plus a large chunk of translation theory, it rapidly becomes very difficult to decide what piece of information goes where, and what should be left until I go back to the beginning in a year or so, and write the "big I" introduction. I'm still not quite clear on what the relation is, though I've made the breakthrough that needed to happen in terms of both my thinking and my writing. More on that another time.

There is, however, one thing I'm certain of on this day of wintry-mix, sleet and snow that makes me understand the Wanderer far too well: music. I don't normally work with music on in the background, because I find it vaguely distracting (a result of too much work towards a music minor in undergraduate). Today, however, I realized that my favorite music from high school -- Sarah Maclachlan's Mirrorball album -- is apparently the key to getting into a writing groove. And there you have it. It's not just for emo teenagers anymore.


Friday, January 23, 2009


[figure 1: A view of Lake Erie, from Hamburg's public beach. I took this photo on a chilly day this past November.]

Despite the chill in the air and the snow on the ground here in New York, spring semester always puts me in mind to think about beginnings. Spring reminds me that when it comes to my medieval interests, it all started in the spring – in this case, spring 2002. My first Old English class started seven years ago this past Wednesday – and every year, I’ve grown more certain that if the course caught my interest, it was largely because of how difficult it was. I’d never learned a language before, truth be told – French had been part of my growing up, present both in and out of school thanks to my mother’s background as former French professor. And anyone who’s been through the American school system knows that it’s a rare thing to really learn English grammar. I joke about it, but I think I really did learn modern English grammar in my Old English class – I wonder if others have had that experience? I certainly didn’t know the difference between a nominative and a genitive (in terms of what the words meant, at any rate), and I don’t think I’d ever heard of the dative before. It was like a revelation, really: modern English just made so much more sense after taking Old English, from the past tense of verbs to the use of apostrophes to indicate possession. Grammar rules had reasons – who knew?

So awhile back, Jeffrey invited us to talk about what we're teaching this semester -- and now, finally, I can make my contribution to that discussion. This semester is pretty exciting for me, as I’m beginning my career in teaching literature, after five semesters teaching freshman composition. If you're familiar with my academic preoccupations, the way I plan to begin the semester won’t surprise you.

Columbia’s English department has recently instituted a new course for graduate students to teach. It functions as a kind of introduction the English major. Essentially, we cover various genres of literature (the triad of poetry, drama, prose), and critical methodologies for understanding and interpreting them. It’s a wide ranging class, in which a professor lectures for an hour once a week, and then graduate students teach a section of seminar that meets for two hours, also once a week, and covers more material than the lectures do. It’s a big course, and looks scary from the outside, but it’s not meant to be an in-depth study of any one period or method – it’s just introductions, making acquaintances, and learning to engage with texts in ways that are meaningful to current critical discourses.

All that aside, I wanted to start with something that would put everyone on the same level. I can’t teach literature without finding some way to put something medieval, or even better Old English, into it. I couldn’t even teach writing without using medieval references to illustrate writing points (like the idea of “auctoritee,” borrowed happily from Chaucer). My opening class? I think I’m going to start with something I know intimately, but am utterly unable to understand (yes, one honors thesis, one masters thesis, and countless translations later, I still don’t understand this poem – I doubt I ever really will). The idea here is to start from a place where there is no background information, to look closely at what can be understood without a sense of the context of a piece. So I’ll start with the manuscript: what can we tell just from looking at this text, as it appears on the page? Then, I hand out a modern edition of the poem (in old English, of course). I’m assuming no one will be able to read it. But if you know that it’s an edition of the MS we’ve been looking at, then what can you say about the text now? With a little luck, I’ll be treated to a rousing chorus of “It’s poetry!” The fun part will be discussing why we can say that now, if we couldn’t tell before. It allows discussion of editorial practice, and will hopefully allow us to talk a bit about assumptions concerning how poetry “looks.” Also: a great moment to point out alliteration, caesurae and the like.

From there, we move to a translation (I’m still deciding which to use, so any suggestions would be appreciated!), and what becomes an exercise in close reading of what the poem says, and how we arrive at conclusions about the techniques it is using to do so. Of course, I’ll close the class with a mini-lecture on the cultural and historical context of the poem, and hopefully that will spur a few more minutes of discussion and questions about how we can understand the poem in its literary and historical contexts. Ideally, it’ll be a fun exercise to think about how we approach poems, what we bring to the table in analysis, and how to think about a poem without immediate reference to the author’s biography or even any historical context. Most of all, I’m hoping it will get everyone talking early on in the class, as they will presumably all be coming in at the same level of knowledge concerning the poem in question.

In a class about introductions, you see, I’m planning to introduce them to the poem I’ve spent far too much time reading, thinking, writing and talking about, on ITM, OENY and elsewhere. My first real literature class? I’m teaching The Wanderer.

cross posted at ITM.


Thursday, January 15, 2009

New Year, New Me (?)

So one of my "New Year's Resolutions" is to stop making resolutions that I don't follow. I will probably never be a person who can write extensive posts on the blog every day. The very idea of saying "I will write before I eat breakfast or do anything else, and I shall do this everyday" makes me cringe. Whenever I think about that part of the Writing your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day book I move immediately to indignation. "You can't rush writing," I think to myself "I write when I am moved to do so -- I do not write on command." I also don't do much in the morning before breakfast and at least one cup of tea. Usually two. Or coffee.

Then this morning, after a friend from college left *absurdly* early to take a test for a fellowship, I started reading some of the blog posts I've missed over the past few weeks. Lo and behold, my dear friend and colleague Marina had a post up over at Ink and Incapability that was of particular interest to me, a weary wanderer in a strange dissertation-filled land of revisions and vague fear of not "doing justice" to Beowulf, the topic of the chapter I'm currently writing. Entitled simply Write!, Marina's post is downright inspiring. It reminded me that although I love the creative aspect of writing and the thrill of getting "in the zone," I really need to set aside the time to do new writing every single day, or the dissertation really will never be finished.

So I made my tea, I sat down at my computer, I turned off my internet -- and I wrote until I had two full pages. I didn't know what I was going to write, but as it turns out, I appear to have something of an introduction to the chapter on Beowulf. Even more interestingly -- the last paragraph outlines the four aspects of the text I want to address. Meaning I have a way to go forward. Finally.

All that goes to say: Thank you, Marina!