Thursday, July 31, 2003

How Not to Write an Article

I offer this little piece as a reminder for myself as well as a hint for other scholars.
Background: A student of mine works for the department secretary here at Wheaton. This is one of those jobs that alternates between total boredom and manic overwork: for days at a time no faculty are in the office except for me, and then all of a sudden everyone shows up with forty piles of work that all need to be done immediately. To try to keep the students who have this job from losing their minds, the department secretary asks me to come up with projects that can keep them both busy and interested. These projects have had a tendency to take on a life of their own. The Tolkien Bibliography began one summer when I asked a student (who was in high school at the time) to start ILL-ing Tolkien articles. This is now a gigantic project from hell that will never end.

So I decided to ask the current student to first collect a complete bibliography of scholarship by Albert S. Cook. I did a dissertation chapter on him that is past due to be turned into an article, but I want to nail down loose ends, etc. After the student finished that, she wanted more work (and is getting good at biblio), so I've asked her to gather all the articles ever written about the Ruin (a poem in the Exeter Book).

I hope L doesn't read this blog, because after she gathers all the Ruin articles, I'm not going to read them. And that's my connection to the title of this post. The worst thing you can do when starting an article is to go read all the bibliography. You will almost certainly fail to produce anything really original or interesting because you will be sucked into whatever the critical debates were in the articles that you read. To be original, you need to interact with the poem first on your own, then write down your ideas, then read the bibliography and work your argument into the critical conversation. This is not to say that there aren't some basic critical problems that are inherent in particular poems. For example, in the Seafarer you just can't get away from the argument about the number of speakers and (if there are two) where to divide them. But if you read all the arguments first your own inchoate ideas, which might be original, will be magnetically attracted to what has gone on before. Reading all the bibliography and not immersing yourself in the poems themselves is the biggest mistake graduate students make. I always know when someone has fallen into this trap when he or she begins a conference paper with four minutes of summary of scholarship.

So to avoid this fate I'm doing my translation of the Ruin, working as closely with the manuscript as possible, before I read any criticism. Should be fun.

Wednesday, July 30, 2003


Way back in April or May I promised to write something about Kalamazoo. Now I'm just getting ready for leave for ISAS (and just got asked to chair a session... hellooo reimbursement!). Let me explain.

Because the academic world is so specialized, it's pretty unlikely that you'll have another person at your college or university who works in exactly the same area. So scholars go to conferences like pilgrims to Canterbury (and act like some of the pilgrims, too, but that's another story) to share their work, get new ideas, see old friends, and drink a lot.

For general medieval studies, the two big English-language conferences are at Western Michigan University (Kalamazoo) and the University of Leeds in England. Kzoo is always in early May, Leeds in July. Both are huge conferences, with hundreds of papers; there are always at least twenty sessions (with three papers each) going on at any one time. There are different strategies for getting the most out of the huge conferences. You can rush around, trying to get to all the papers relevant to your sub-field (what I usually do), or you can allow for some serendipity. One year I just stayed in the same room for the whole conference, listening to every paper presented there, regardless of topic. It was interesting.

ISAS, the conference I'm off to in a week, is very different. First, it is really specialized: Anglo-Saxon stuff only. Second, there are no separate sessions; one paper at a time is delivered to the entire conference (probably 200 people or so). So it's very competitive to get papers accepted and there are some rather arcane rules for balancing sub-sub-disciplines, geographic regions, etc.

Whether because of these strictures or in spite of them, ISAS is by far the best conference I ever go to. It's only held every other year, on alternate sides of the Atlantic, and I'd estimate that over 80% of the papers are eye-opening and brilliant. I always walk away excited about Anglo-Saxon and ready to dive into new projects (which is actually the real reason to go to conferences; you can learn things when the publications come out, and you can keep in touch with friends by other means, but nothing charges you up like a good conference). It also helps that, for whatever reasons, the people at ISAS are the least phony and most collegial in academia. They would fit in very well at Wheaton (and that's a serious compliment)

Thus, while I'm not totally thrilled about the idea of Arizona in August, and I don't want to leave wife and daughter for a week, I can't wait for ISAS.

Monday, July 28, 2003


So much for the resolve to blog daily. How Glenn Reynolds does it is beyond me. But there is some pretty big good news to share. First, Beowulf and the Critics won the Mythopoeic Scholarship Award for Inklings Studies for 2003. It's a big honor to be chosen for something like this, particularly since the people doing the choosing are those best qualified to evaluate my work. Since I put so many years into B&C, it's even more gratifying. And best of all, I get a statuette!!!

Then, out of the blue last week, I was called by National Geographic TV & Video to be an expert talking head for a show/video, "Beyond the Movie: The Return of the King." It all happened very quickly: from a call one day to a meeting at the airport the next, to flying to Princeton to be interviewed on Wednesday. The TV people work quickly and don't mess around! It was very cool, though. I really got along well with both the producer and the tech people; they were incredibly efficient and professional, but also friendly and up-beat. The show will air sometime in either October or November, and since I talk between each of the segments, not all of my jabbering will be likely to be cut out. Fun.

There's more news, also, but I have to keep quiet about it for a while longer (nothing huge, but another pretty cool thing).

What I want to do now is to try to keep pace with my Anglo-Saxon stuff, because in another eight months, none of this media attention, etc. is going to exist. On the other hand, I'll always have Beowulf, and the fact that I had such a great time teaching the poem to inner-city kids from Brockton (kids who were awesome, by the way), suggests that I'll never get tired or burned out, the way I'm starting to feel about Tolkien stuff.