Sunday, July 29, 2012


I know that I do not update my blog regularly or often, but I do think it important to note that there is going to be an even greater irregularity than is usual in my posting.  Tomorrow, I will be heading out to Ireland and England.  I am unsure about my ability to access the Internet during the month-long trip (whether as a technical issue or as an "I'll be busy as all get out and may not have time"), and since I am not diligent in writing blog posts even at the best of times, it is likely that there will be quite a gap between this (admittedly paltry) entry and its successor.

May all that opposes you falter and fail.

Sunday, July 15, 2012


A few days ago on another blog I "maintain," I discussed a recent experience of rejection, not of the once frequent in my life romantic variety, but of the still too common in my life publication type.  In the discussion, I note that I relate my own failure as a learning experience, and I hope in doing so that I am modeling the kind of writerly behavior the results of which I want to see from my students.

Putting the piece together reminded me of some of the reading I did a while back, and when I finally went to my office at work,* I was able to pull up the article which writing my blog entry had brought to mind.  It is Lad Tobin's Opinion piece, "Self-Disclosure as a Strategic Teaching Tool: What I Do--and Don't--Tell My Students," from College English 73.2 (November 2010), pages 196-206.  In the piece, Tobin makes the case--convincingly, to my mind--that teacherly revelations of personal experience should not be exempt from the same evaluations applied to other teaching tools and rhetorical maneuvers; that is, invocations of the self ought to be used in the classroom only when effective in illustrating particular concepts or developing the necessary ethos to teach.  He also points out that the risks inherent in revealing personal experience differ for instructors based on their own positions--something that comes across as obvious once stated but that needed to be laid out just to have it in the open.

In relating his own experience in employing various depictions of himself to his classes, he presents something of a paradox--although he is careful to say that his anecdotal experience ought not to be taken as Truth, so that the difficulty in resolving it is somewhat mitigated.  The conundrum is this: the exposure of the self can be a markedly effective teaching tool, but it can just as easily undermine the ability of a teacher to teach.  With this in mind, and knowing that the students I expect to have when I return to work are largely of lower socio-economic status, educationally disadvantaged (many dropped out of high school or have been away from formal schooling for quite some time), and in many cases immigrants or the children of immigrants, I have a question to pose: Is my relation of my own failure to get a piece published likely to aid my teaching (by presenting me as grappling with many of the same issues as my students, so that I am not asking them to do things that I do not demand of myself) or hinder it (by showing me up as someone who cannot do and thereby according with the old saw about those who teach)?  Or are there other options which I have not considered?

As ever, I look forward to input from others.

*I am on leave during the Summer 2012 term.  That only means that my classroom teaching is on hold.  I am still academically active, if not so much as I could otherwise hope to be.

Monday, July 9, 2012


My dissertation has quite a few footnotes in it--although that is to be expected from dissertations generally.  In one of the footnotes, I make an offhanded comment about a possibility that there is something else going on in the text than what I discuss in the bulk of the text.  It appeared largely because I did not want to fail to acknowledge other perspectives on and avenues of approach to the text; I do not think that it is academically responsible to not at least gesture toward other ideas.

That footnote, though, stuck with me.  When I could (and I have discussed not being able to do so), I started to develop the idea hinted at in the footnote (and I have discussed that, as well).  I had thought I was making progress in the matter...until I started to do some other research, looking at how the text compares to its contemporaries.  I had thought that it was distinct in one particular regard, but when I began to look at texts printed around the same time, I found that such was not the case.  In fact, the text is remarkably in line with its contemporaries in that regard.*  Accordingly, one of the major underpinnings of the idea I wanted to work up is shot.  At the very least, I shall have to rework the paper (I do still think that the central thesis is sound, even if one of the premises is not).  At worst, I shall have to abandon it (I could be wrong).

It is part of the scholarly life that evidence proves ideas wrong, and those engaged in scholarship are obliged to adjust their opinions and interpretations to suit the best evidence available.  I know that and accept it, and I am thankful that I found out I was wrong before I got further into the paper than I did.  That does not mean, however, that I am happy to have been in error.  I do not think that anyone is pleased to be wrong.  The distaste for mistakes is worse for those involved in the many types of research, however, since researchers must justify their work by having and supporting good ideas.  While it is very much part of the process of doing so that bad ideas are identified and discarded, to have a line of inquiry end in the recognition of a mistake is a bit embarrassing, and it all too often leads to questions about the utility of the work of the mind in any event.

There are already entirely too many things in the world that try to undermine the ability of thinkers to spend the time, and devote energy to, thinking, and they work very much to the detriment of all humanity.  They therefore need nothing to aid and abet them, and lest it be thought that I am arming them by admitting my error (albeit with some circumspection), I offer the following:

By identifying where I am at fault, I can work on ways to correct the fault.

By admitting the error, I show that I am secure enough in the ability of my mind that I do not always have to be right to merit attention.

By admitting the error, I do a bit, even if only a small bit, to ease the burden on those who live a life of the mind.  Too often, they are compelled by those around them to always have the answer, to always know what to do--and they internalize those expectations.  In the sense that they are driven therefore to increase their knowledge and understanding, it is a good thing.  In the sense that they are likely not to be able to forgive themselves the faults that they, being human, will make is far, far less so.  And it need not be the case that they are thus bound (those who are thus bound).

*I'll not say which text or which regard.  Those who have read, or read about, my dissertation will probably be able to make some guess about the former.  They may be able to figure out the latter, too.  Why should I ruin people's joy in solving a puzzle?  (Maybe because I'm a hateful person, but I'm still not going to give the answers.)

Sunday, July 8, 2012


I have not made a secret of the fact that I am a church-going man (even if I am not as observant or knowledgeable about my denomination as I perhaps ought to be).  Services today focused on baptising two of the congregation's children and issues of the hometown.  I am not about to elaborate here as to what a hometown is, but I will explicate and expound upon one of the comments made by the senior pastor during his sermon.

His talk, "Hometown Religion," worked from Mark 6:1-13, in which Jesus is confronted by those who knew Him in his youth, and who reject His divinity and power therefore, before sending out the Twelve with the instructions about not taking two coats and shaking the dust off of their feet in repudiation of those who turned them away.*  As the pastor, a consecrated bishop, discussed it, the thought occurred to me that I am not certain I blame those in Nazareth for their doubt; in my own experience, I find that I am still looked at as being a child in many ways by the people who, literally and metaphorically, changed my diapers, despite having a PhD in hand and a household of my own.  The bishop phrased the idea differently (and if I am not quoting, I am closely paraphrasing): "In your hometown, people always know you when."  They remember stupid youthful events--or at least enough of them to make certain situations uncomfortable.

The bishop repeatedly used the phrase "know you when," situating the knowledge of the hometown crowd as a current phenomenon, and the juxtaposition of present-tense construction and the implied past being referenced struck me.  The repetition leads me to believe it was a choice, deliberately made rather than a mis-speaking prompted by the extemporaneous nature of the sermon (particularly as performed at the United Methodist Church of the Village), and so I thought about it a bit on the train ride home.  (There is some value to having idle time, and the train ride usually does not demand much from the rider.)  It seems to me that the comment is a variant on the concept of the "always-already," which is to say that it works in much the same way as does the idea that the way things are now is the way that they always have been; in the case of "know you when," the situation is reversed, so that the way things once were is the way that they still are.

I find that there is some truth in both.  Certainly, there are things about humanity that have not changed from place to place and time to time.  And it is just as certain that there are things people do for many, many years without actually paying them any attention.  I know of places and people that make every effort to remain as they imagine themselves to have been in decades past (as I may have mentioned).  Some of them even enjoy some success in those efforts, for worse and for better.

Some of what we imagine ourselves to have been would be very good to really be.

At the same time, neither is completely true.  The problems in the idea of "always-already" have been laid out time and again; they summarize (with admitted simplification) as "It has not always been as it appears to be, and there is more to the appearance than, well, appears."  The bishop rightly pointed out in the sermon that the "know you when" is also flawed because it does not admit the possibility of change.  Whether that is, as the bishop posited, because of low self-esteem on the part of those acting on the concept, or for a more benign reason--something such as "Things were good when we left off, so let's go back to that"--it fails to acknowledge the great fluidity of people.  For although there is much that remains constant in human nature, there is much about each person that does not stay as it is from moment to moment, let alone across the spread of years and the many events of a person's life.

We do not do well to ignore it.

*There is the curious issue of the text, in the King James Version linked above and in the New International Version, noting that Christ could not work miracles in that place.  Here, I betray that I am not a theologian; I am sure that the seminarians and clergy among my fellow congregants, or the pastoral staff at my church, could walk me through the implications of a stated inability on behalf of Jesus, or could at least direct me to useful commentaries about the same.

Saturday, July 7, 2012


I have been doing some reading, albeit not as much as I ought to be doing, in the hopes of getting some paper ideas together.  It had not been going entirely well (as I think I may have mentioned), but today, I was able to get some work done on one idea that has been clamoring for release from the dark and depraved confines of my head into the significantly brighter confines of the page.  I am pleased by the development, and I mean to follow up on it.  If I can make things work, or get them to work, the way I want them to, I will be in good shape.

But I am not going to talk about that paper.  Instead, I'll talk about something only barely tangentially related to it, and that through more removes than Hollywood is from Kevin Bacon (on average, maybe).*  No, I am going to talk about something that occurred to me when I was reading Vladimir Brljak's "The Books of Lost Tales: Tolkien as Metafictionist" (Tolkien Studies 7 [2010]: 1-34).  In the article, Brljak traces changes in Tolkien's conception of the Middle-earth narrative arc as a redaction from a received translation of older histories and asserts that the metafictional narrative--that is, the frame of the tale as the redaction--serves to highlight the unattainability of the story, simultaneously making it a valid work of sub-creation and reinforcing the removal of the sub-creation for the observable reality of the readership.  Brljak employs a substantial amount of textual evidence from the primary Middle-earth narrative arc (The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings) and from subsidiary sources (namely the History of Middle-earth series) to support his point, doing a fair job of it, although there is certainly more that could be done.

As I read Brljak's article, I was struck by the parallels between what he identifies as the presentation of the metanarrative frame within The Lord of the Rings and that identified as being present in the excellently-named Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain.  On my bookshelf, I have a translated edition of the text (my Latin is really rusty, okay) carried out by Michael A. Faletra.  He remarks, as others have, on the Galfiridian comment that the History is a translation of a yet older text given him by another scholar (15); in the translation, the comment appears in the second paragraph of the dedicatory epistle (41).  In discussing the gift from the older scholar, Walter, Faletra notes that, if the book exists, it "contained not the continuous narrative that Geoffrey presents but a collection of miscellaneous historical materials" (15).  Faletra has more to say, as might be expected, and I have been interested in it for other reasons, but those other reasons are not what I want to address now.

It was the assertion of the likely-never-to-be-found-because-likely-never-existing book from Walter as a collection of diverse accounts and bits of lore, to which Brljak's depiction of Tolkien's metafictional frame struck me as parallel.  Just as Faletra is skeptical that Walter's book will ever emerge (21), Brljak reminds his readers--who are presumably also Tolkien's--that there is no actual Red Book (the source-text identified in The Lord of the Rings as being the ultimate source of its narrative) (9).  Just as Faletra asserts that Geoffrey "was dealing with a surplus of information and that he added, deleted, compressed, embellished, and rearranged" it (21), Brljak notes that "the most drastic of the quantitative changes [to the narrative of The Lord of the Rings from the metafictional Red Book] were those of subtraction" (10) and that qualitiative changes were necessary to take the text from its partial origin in diaries to a third-person narrative that encompassed more action and information than that to which the characters who contributed most to that narrative could provide (11-13).  And just as Brljak asserts that "A key element in Tolkien's fiction is an elaborate metafiction...about the way in which parts of a heterogeneous 'chronicle' came to be transformed into literary narratives" (21), Faletra asserts that Geoffrey gives us "history, as we might put it today, as literature" (30).  In the views of both critics, both texts employ their presentations of themselves as reworked from earlier sources to secure a hold on the reader's imagination, thereby securing for themselves something approaching permanence.

I am certain that more can be done regarding the two critical commentaries, and I may, in time, return to them.  But for now, I will point out only that if Brljak and Faletra as correct in their assertions as I think they are, we have one more point of correspondence between Tolkien's work and Arthurian literature--and there is some work to do in that line of inquiry.

*The link is where it is on purpose.  I promise.

Works Cited
~Brljak, Vladimir. "The Books of Lost Tales: Tolkien as Metaficitonist." Tolkien Studies 7 (2010): 1-34. Project Muse. Web. 21 June 2012.
~Faletra, Michael A. Introduction. The History of the Kings of Britain. By Geoffrey of Monmouth. Ed. and trans. Michael A. Faletra. Peterborough, Ontario, Canada: Broadview, 2008. Print. 8-34.
~Geoffrey of Monmouth.  The History of the Kings of Britain. Ed. and trans. Michael A. Faletra. Peterborough, Ontario, Canada: Broadview, 2008. Print.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012


Happy US Independence Day!

Yesterday, my wife and I were in New Jersey (yes, New Jersey), where we met with a good friend.  With that friend, we took a trip to Washington's and the Revolutionary Army's winter quarters in Morristown, New Jersey (yes, again, New Jersey).  While there, our friend (who is from New Jersey) was reminded, and my wife and I were informed, that the winter of 1779-1780, during which time Continental troops were bivouacked in Morristown and nearby Jockey Hollow, was far and away the worst winter, in terms of weather, seen by the Revolutionary War combatants (and since).  Yet it is little heralded in mainstream media, overshadowed by the gentler winter of Valley Forge.

The reason that the US Park Rangers give for the lesser general popular knowledge of the Morristown winter encampment is that Valley Forge was far more destructive...not because of the weather, but because of the folly of the commanders, who had their men set up in the low-lying areas with their poor drainage and poorer hygiene.  Morristown quartering was set up on the upper slopes of the area hills, so that runoff would flow away from camp.

What does it say about the United States and its people that a failure, neither of fighting spirits nor of tactics but of logistics and the understanding that successful farmers (the very same people trumpeted by the Founding Fathers--you know, those folks whose ideas we are told we ought to take as Gospel*) have to have about how water--and what it carries--acts, is enshrined in the collective national memory as a high point of its natal narrative?

I well understand the annoyance that the Morristown folks feel.  There is something of it in the assertions of excellence made by a number of Texans (including myself, in all honesty).  And I do not know anyone who does not, at least on occasion, indulge in the "Oh, yeah?  Well, I've got X" behavior that often gets called dick-wagging or a pissing contest.**  But my question still stands; why do we so enshrine failure, rather than the successful display of having learned the lesson from the failure?

*Of course, the Founders, the Framers of the Constitution, openly acknowledge that their efforts and the document which encapsulates them are imperfect...

**Okay, "often" in my experience, which is admittedly not the most representative that can be found.

Monday, July 2, 2012


For some time now, I have kept a journal.  While I have not always been as diligent in making entries into it as I ought (really, it ought to be daily, and I have fallen far short of that over the term in which I have kept my journals), in the past year and a half, I have devoted at least a certain amount of writing to each day.  (For the most part; I have not, as I said, always been as diligent as I ought.)  The practice in writing has not done much for my penmanship, as those who have been abused by it can amply attest, but I have benefited from the practice in putting my ideas on the page.  And it has helped me to work out a number of ideas for such projects as conference papers, conference panels, and sections of my finally completed dissertation.

Recently, however, I have not been able to take advantage of that particular phenomenon.  I still make an effort to write a minimal amount each day (and am getting a better success rate in it), but I am having trouble getting my more scholarly ideas hammered out.  It is quite frustrating, really.  I am accustomed to being able to sit down with pen or keyboard and hammer notions into shape, finding support for them as needed (and often more than is really necessary).  Now, I have theses for a couple of papers and ideas for a few more, but I cannot seem, somehow, to get the papers going.

The situation vexes me, and I do not know what has caused it.  A couple of the folks I know have suggested that I am in some ways a bit burnt out from school, and I can understand that it might well be so; I went straight from high school to undergraduate work to graduate work to doctoral work, hardly taking time off between stages (even going from undergraduate to graduate work, I studied hard over the summer).  Twelve years of running full-tilt towards an academic honor I was finally able to reach could certainly be having other effects on me at the moment.  But I somehow do not think that it is the whole problem.

That does not mean that I have any idea what is going on.  But I really ought to be used to that by now...