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!