Thursday, August 6, 2009

Winding Up and Down

It's finals week for our summer session and that slightly tense exam-week pheromone is in the air. It's been a busy summer and we are now in the countdown time to fall semester--looking ahead to our upcoming lectures (Robert Somerville, Sarah Kay, John Marenbon) and MI research colloquia (ND Professor Maureen Bolton and MI Librarian Marina Smyth) that will bring us up to 2010. September will bring the Midwest Medieval History Conference to the MI and the program looks varied and interesting.

We're also saying hello/goodbye to new faces and well-known stalwarts. Recently arrived from Rome are two patristics scholars: Marco Conti and Gianluca Pilara. Joining us from Beijing is historian Cheng Liu from Capital Normal University. And on his way back to Catholic University after his annual stint teaching paleography and medieval Latin to our summer students is Frank Mantello. (Frank's summer boot camps have become a rite of passage for many ND medievalists as he gives our photocopier a workout providing numerous texts for translation and paleographic detection.) Our 2008-09 Mellon Fellow Susan Dudash has moved eastward back to her home base at Fordham, and good wishes from the MI follow in her wake.

As circumstances permit, I will post updated info on our MI activities. For now, it's back to a typical day for me which will include cleaning up mailing lists (in progress), directing a visitor to the Arabic department (done), and buying a phone for the rental property we maintain for visiting researchers (tbd).

Thursday, July 23, 2009

I Heard Your Call

There once was a blog that fell silent.

Its readers (at least one) were defiant.

They poked and they wheedled--

with haiku entreated--

until finally they got what they needed.

The blogger was shamefaced and blue,

and once again started to spew

occasional gleanings

or contemporary meanings

for si(gh)t(e)s both medieval and new.

So, welcome old friends and new visitors

(and all sorts of other inquisitors)

who want Institute news

and personal views.

May I say “gaudeamus nunc igitur”?

A Voice Cries Out

mournful piteous blog laments its long lingering languish

no one writing @

alas! alone, unsolaced, in cyberspace!

ubi sunt, etc.!

2259 visitors since June 3, 2008

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Stormy Weather

It's Saturday and I'm sitting in my office doing a little catching up on postponed tasks while waiting for the right time to set out for the stadium.  Yes, it's a "game day" and in an effort to secure free and proximate parking, I coerced my significant other into rising at 6 a.m. to follow me to the parking lot and give me a ride home after dropping off the car.  Later, he continued the personal limo service by dropping me off on campus.  TIP:  for 2 weeks a drop-off at the campus post office has worked nicely as a means to get relatively close and find a spot to stop without incurring the ire of the traffic lords.

There's nobody here in the MI at the moment--quite a switch from Friday when students were busily working on homework assignments in the reading room and one of our senior faculty was happily ensconced behind a giant foam pillow that was cradling a book she was perusing with beatific intensity.

Downstairs in the lobby of the library, there is a lot of casual meandering going on since the torrential (in the words of the local weather reporters) downpour that has been going on since last night abated.  During the cease-water, all of the grills on the quads sprang into action and got their charcoal blazing to take advantage of the hiatus.  I availed myself of what is arguably one of the finest game day delicacies--the steak sandwich prepared by the Knights of Columbus.

I have pretty much decided that I will go for a "cluck-and-moo" combo.  In other words, prior to the game, I'll visit the Nelson Port-a-Pit barbecue outside the stadium for some of their chicken.  Tried their boneless rib sandwich last week and found it less satisfying than the chicken; however, they had small roasted potatoes (done in the same style as their roasted chicken, I was assured) and found these delicious, although pricey.

As you can tell, I have certain food fancies that form a significant segment of my personal game day ritual.

The fans (including those of ND's nemesis Michigan) are decked out in all sorts of foul weather gear.  ND ponchos, Crocs, knee-high waterproof boots, and umbrellas of all sizes and shapes abound.  The humidity is 93% and the chance of precipitation is 80%, with thunderstorms a distinct possibility.  Some flooding has been reported in White Field and I have donned a bathing suit under my outerwear in order to prepare for a thorough drenching.  (Many years of following the Ohio State team around the Big 10 has given me some practice in gearing up for all sorts of football weather--as well as another reason to view Michigan supporters as demon spawn when considered en masse.)

Last week's game against San Diego State had perfect weather and I enjoyed introducing our new Mellon Fellow, Susan Dudash, to ND football rituals.  The win was scratched out of some dismal first-half play, good special teams work and a good 4th quarter.  Luckily, SD St had no passing game, or we'd have gotten shellacked.

Well, gametime is approaching, so GO IRISH!

Monday, August 18, 2008

Growth Through Teaching

As we close in on the beginning of our semester, I thought it might be appropriate to mention an article I read for the first time back in the spring entitled,  Growth Through Teaching, by Rabbi Noah Weinberg.  It is a very down-to-earth discussion about the benefit to oneself from teaching.  The rabbi seems to be addressing the "non-professional" teachers, i.e., all of us who don't spend part of our working day in a classroom, however, I think his message is a good one for the "pros" as well.  Basically, he argues that teaching is a moral obligation.  To quote: 
To attain wisdom for living, teaching needs to be a basic way of life. . . . By reaching others, you will reach yourself. . . . When you reduce ignorance in the world, even by a little bit, you give a great gift to mankind. . . . Help cure the international ignorance problem.  Teach wisdom.
At some point, even the most brilliant teachers worry that they are not reaching their students effectively.  (Repeated misspellings on student papers, e.g., "mid evil," do have a daunting effect on even the hardiest educator's ego.)  In some institutions of higher learning, the duties of teaching become merely the scut work that keeps the REAL business of research chugging along by bringing in the paying customers.  And the shortcomings of students can always make cheap fodder for cocktail party stories.  

So, now is a good time to consider WHY we teach and how it changes lives--both our own and others.  Click on the link above and read the article.  It comes from a web site called which describes its parent organization this way:  "Aish HaTorah is a non-profit, apolitical network of Jewish educational centers, with 25 branches on 6 continents. Aish provides opportunities for Jews of all backgrounds to discover the beauty and meaning of their heritage in an atmosphere of open inquiry and mutual respect."  Rabbi Weinberg is the founder of Aish HaTorah and the article comes from his book, "48 Ways to Wisdom."

And don't forget--teach wisdom.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Back in the Saddle

Long time no blog. Yup, I've been doing "real" work like cleaning up mailing lists to send out posters announcing our Conway Lectures in September and the SIEPM conference in October. My labors have been aided by a couple of helpful young grad students. However, for those of us working in the second half-century of our existence, it is a bit of a shock to realize that today's graduate students do not know how to use a typewriter. The delight I still get from using the automatic "white-out" correction key is an unknowable emotion for those to whom "white-out" mean a climate-based visual condition. Can I really have learned to type (and on a manual typewriter at that) before my grad student helpers were born? Worse yet, can I really be older than some of their parents? Yipes. I even have clothes older than some of these whippersnappers.

While I have been doublechecking zip codes and codifying our editorial label style, I've also been mulling over topics for bloggability. A number of things have come to mind, and one thread in particular has been recurring in the back of my head. It's the theme of entitlement. Lots of disparate connections have been forming in my head. One piece comes from the experience of a first-time college-level instructor who was going through the angst of teaching his students that "class participation" required more than mere classroom attendance during a discussion period. He bemoaned the fact that some of the students seemed to carefully limit their discussion responses to a minimal one comment per session, in order to get the requisite "checkmark" for participation. In the course of my commiseration with him, we talked about the apparent misperception that doing the minimum amount of required work was sufficient to garner an "A." The proposition that one had to do MORE than the minimum AND do it exceptionally well in order to earn an "A" grade did not seem to be a commonly held principle among his students.

"Earning" the grade, rather than being given the grade seemed to be the basic issue. Now, of course, we weren't talking about anything that hasn't been debated and discussed many times in current essays about trends in higher education. Yet, it did come home in a very visible way because summer session also brought a young scholar to our Reading Room who quite happily spent long hours poring over his paleography studies into the double-digit evening hours (and perhaps into the single-digit really early hours, too, I suspect). What a striking difference in attitude! Admittedly, the comparison here is between undergraduates taking a course to fulfill a requirement and a highly motivated graduate student, so the contrast was probably exceptionally pronounced, but it was a vivid dichotomy, nevertheless.

In thinking about the difference I observed, it occurred to me that, like the never-before-experienced manual typewriter, the undergrads probably didn't see people actually struggling to educate themselves very often. For most of the students, a college education was an acquisition like a car--something presented to you by your parents for meeting a minimal set of requirements (or maybe not exceeding a minimal number of school suspensions/fistfights/or drunken post-party hangovers). A "present" rather than an "achievement."

As I move farther into that second half-century I mentioned before, I find myself understanding more clearly my Depression Era parents' sense of mystification about the factors motivating me and my peers. I listen to National Public Radio pretty regularly and I especially like their weekly tales from the StoryCorps project. These wonderful vignettes frequently make me tear up and force a pause in my morning routine so I can blot and smile. Many of the stories deal with "then v. now" contrasts in lifestyle, upbringing, and all sorts of matters taken for granted about the norms of behavior. In a great many of the stories, the speaker talks about an "achievement" that is almost beyond the comprehension of the listener--working 3 jobs to keep a family together, travelling to a new country with one's worldly goods in a satchel, foregoing a holiday break in order to earn money for a child's college education. In the same way, the daily tragedies of war, violence, and natural calamity being reported during other parts of the broadcast sound unimaginable to those of us with jobs, housing, and caring social networks.

All this mulling on entitlement and achievement really seems to hinge on our degree of familiarity with environments outside our own. If all one has known is joblessness, warfare, or at the other extreme, surfeit and excess, one has a hard time properly calibrating one's expectations of "normal" or "typical" or "proper" behavior. My father used to quote something he'd heard that seems apropos here: "experience is what you get when you don't get what you want." Not getting what we want can put us in the position of having to look for a way to get it that enlarges our capacity to "think different" and come up with strategies to achieve our desires. Perhaps there is something more than workout encouragement to be had from the "no pain, no gain" philosophy.

My goodness, I feel like some Late Antique Roman bemoaning the passing of the Republic. Well, I guess that's what we second-half-centurions do. Interesting. I had no idea that I really WOULD understand when I got older, just like my father said I would.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Let Knowledge Grow

I was in conversation recently with one of our faculty who observed that "medieval studies is a difficult field." The context concerned the chances of a particular student "making it" through exams, and I began wondering whether a mediocre pass might be reason to counsel against continuation in the program. This train of thought got me making connections to a couple of other random comments I've noted. A visitor bemoaned the fact that as the only medievalist in the department, it was difficult to impress non-medievalists with a tenure dossier when much of the evidence offered would fail to elicit the oohs and ahhs that ought rightly to accrue to work produced through intense manuscript research in several languages. Colleagues used to working on a text in a language they speak every day and reading secondary sources in the same language (albeit with postmodern meta-language incursions), were unlikely to grasp the inherently more difficult process of accurately transcribing and translating, much less analyzing, a single sentence in Middle English and comparing it to versions of the same thought in Anglo-Norman French, Latin, or Middle High German.

I also recall discussing the importance of overseas archival research for our medieval history students with the departmental graduate studies director (a specialist in colonial America) and finding him astonished by the odd opening hours, strange usage limitations, and general technological intransigence of some European document repositories. He opined as how it was probable that such peculiarities might, indeed, make it more difficult for a medievalist to complete a dissertation on the local economy of the Loire Valley in the same amount of time allotted to a graduate student using 20th century newspaper and magazine accounts to demonstrate a shift in the political sentiments of the urban middle-class.

One more point that fell into my mental melange was the notorious article about the Kalamazoo Congress, written by Charlotte Allen, that appeared in the 6-2-08 installment of the Weekly Standard. Postmodernism and waste studies came in for some serious satiric stabs in the story. In among the jibes is the reasonable question of whether the world needs 3,000 medievalists with varying degrees of academic erudition. At what point is "good enough," indeed, good enough?

And my last bit of cogitational stew focuses on the amount of effort required to maintain a flourishing undergraduate medieval studies major. My fellow discussant and I agreed that, even in an arts-and-letters-friendly environment, it was harder to make the classic liberal arts case for medieval studies click in the minds of prospective majors, than to do so for English or History. (Those who teach a medieval field at schools with weighty science programs may feel free to laugh at the "degree of difficulty" to be found in a liberal arts institution, but I still think my statement holds its subjective truth.)

So, what IS the point (or points) I'm trying to make? I guess it's something like this. Medieval studies IS a difficult field and you have to like it very much in order to do all the things that you must in order to be a first-rate medievalist. As with most endeavors, everyone is not going to be a superb practitioner, but perhaps enthusiasm does count for quite a bit in stimulating the interest of students who may have what it takes to surpass the academic accomplishments of their teachers.

This gets back to the beginning issue: does one encourage an "average" student to pursue a degree in a demanding field of study where excellence is both hard to achieve and often overlooked. As an ABD with an M.A. in medieval history, my conclusion may be a reflection of my own desire for self-worth, but nonetheless, I would argue that the likelihood of future career success as a medievalist should not be the primary benchmark in determining a student's worthiness to pursue a course of study in which he or she may never becoming a leading light. Rather, the stick-to-it-iveness of the average student should be rewarded by the chance to do the thing he/she loves. In no way do I advocate lowering standards or cutting more slack to the eager but inept, or in some other way decreasing the value of the degree earned. What I do advocate is setting the bar of "good enough" at a level that shows reasonable competence, without the added demand of brilliance.

I would add that all students need good counsel about their career aspirations and the odds for or against achieving the goals they set for themselves. The actual likelihood of success must be clearly (and compassionately) spelled out, so that with mature reflection, students can make their life choice based on a realistic assessment of their skills and with full knowledge of the challenges their career path is likely to hold.

My final answer is: yes, there is room for 3,000 medievalists in the world, even those with a "B" or two on their transcripts or a passion for waste studies. Crescat scientia vita excolatur. ("Let knowledge grow from more to more, and thus be human life enriched." Motto of the University of Chicago)