Friday, December 23, 2005

On Being Played by a Student

I generally love my students, and I don't have much patience with the blogs (usually anonymous) that do nothing but complain about students, but every once in a while I get a really egregious example, and this is one.

For this particular class, one paper was due Friday the 9th and the other on Monday the 12th (the one on Friday was a revision, so it's not like I was piling the work on). On Monday the 19, I received the following [n.b.: I've paraphrased the emails so as not to be posting the student's exact words, though I don't see why I shouldn't]:

Professor Drout,
Just wrtiting to make sure you got my final paper. Also, what did I get on essays X and Y, I don't remember getting them back.

Now it's very strange that a student writes on Monday the 19th to ask if I received papers from a week before. A few students, who were worried about dropping things off at my office, emailed immediately afterwards, but to be unworried enough to wait a week, but then worried enough to email was strange. Also, this student hadn't received essays X and Y back because the student had never turned them in.

Back when I was a naive paper I would have said "Oh no! Your papers must have gotten lost! Do you still have an electronic copy?" Now I write:

I have gone through all of the student papers that were submitting to my office and I have not received yours.

Student replies:
I don't know what happened then, can I email/fax it to you or something?

Note that we're still talking about a final paper (singular) although two papers were due.

I write back:
where and when did you turn the papers in?

Student replies:
On last Monday, I thought I put them in your office. Maybe I accidentially put them in the wrong office.

Notice that now (that I've reminded the student) it's two papers, not one. Notice also that they are put "in" the wrong office (implying that the student walked in. Now what's in my office is very different than what's in the office of the film prof next door and the creative writing prof on the other side, and office doors aren't left completely open any more.

So I write:
What do you mean you put them "in my office"? Where exactly did you put them? Did you turn in both at the same time, even though one was due on Friday? Why would you put them in the wrong office when office doors are marked with names?

Student replies:
I'm not sure where I put them, I did turn them both in on Monday though. That is the reason I emailed you, because I checked my binder at the end of the week, and there was nothing there. But, I didn't really remember dropping them in your office. I honestly can't tell you where I put them, I might have spaced out and put them in the wrong place, I'm not sure.

Now the papers might have been put "in the wrong place," rather than in the wrong office. So that seems to limit it to the baskets on the doors of the professors on either side of my office (again, ridiculous, as I have Beowulf pictures on my door while the door material of the other two profs is very distinctive -- not to mention the names on the doors).

I write:
Well, we'll have to figure out where you put them. I will email the colleagues in the offices next to mine to see if they received them by accident. But generally if a paper gets turned in to the wrong office, the person who receives it posts it in the department secretary's office. There were no papers there when I checked on Monday.

At this point the student stops emailing, so perhaps the student has gotten the message that I'm not going to fall for the "I turned it in, but it disappeared" story. Students used to always blame the custodian, which I found particularly odious, since he is a friend of mine and has never in his life thrown away a student paper stuffed under an office door.

Now, before you think I am too mean or obnoxious (ok, I am, but not too much) note that I could have set a trap by accepting an e-submission and then checking the "created" date in the MS Word file. There is a small chance that this is entirely a cock-and-bull story (although the attempt to suggest that two previous missing papers had been turned in is pretty sleazy), but I'm skeptical, also because this semester students have tried to pull all kinds of stunts with electronic submissions (including the famous "I forgot to attach the attachment but now I'm home on mid-term break" -- which also may be true, but which is why I don't allow e-submissions without a hard-copy submission the same day).

Memo to any students reading this: Your professors are not as dumb as you think we are. And this isn't high school -- be a responsible adult and own up to your mistakes and you'll get a lot more slack than if you're trying to weasel something.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Dan Timmons, R.I.P.

I was very sad to get the news today that Dan Timmons, best known as the editor (with George Clark) of J. R. R. Tolkien and His Literary Resonances, passed away yesterday after a long illness.

I met Dan a number of years back at Kalamazoo, before Beowulf and the Critics or his book came out, and we had a wonderful, late, long and apparently too loud (someone yelled at us to get out of the courtyard because it was after 2 a.m.) conversation about our frustrations at getting Tolkien studies taken seriously by the academy.

Dan was an excellent scholar, a talented critic, and, most of all, a warm and generous person.

About a month ago, he sent me some very large and important entries for the J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia (this led me to believe that he might be getting better, but, alas, that was not the case). His entries are testament to his excellent scholarship and, even more importantly, his essential fair-mindedness (a quality sadly lacking in too many critics -- and not my own strong suit). Dan wrote balanced and insightful treatments of controversial topics, and he combined a deep and abiding love of Tolkien's work with effective critical judgment. The field will miss the many additional contributions he would have made over the years, but even more, we will miss him.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Where are all the female orcs?

I have to admit that one of my favorite bits of speculation/inference in Middle-earth studies is the problem of the orcs, their origin and reproduction. Here's are the inter-related suites of problems as succinctly as I can express them:

To have exciting battles, you need lots of cannon fodder (which is why in FRPGs the generic term for relatively weak bad guys who are easily killed is "orcs").

Morgoth and Sauron, by theological definition, "cannot make, they can only mock," that is, they cannot generate ex nihilo free-willed (or pseudo-free-willed) creatures to serve them.

So you need a source for orcs.

The only free-willed creatures in Middle-earth are Valar and Maiar ("powers," angelic/demonic spirits), the "Children of Iluvatar" (elves and men), and a kind of special dispensation given to the dwarves, ents, and apparently the eagles.

So, I think Tolkien reasoned, the orcs were somehow transformed elves, elves who had been subject to torture until they became orcs.

But this clashes, possibly, with his reincarnation of the elves idea.

And there's an associated problem, that the production of countless orcs for cannon fodder purposes then requires a very extensive operation of elf-torture over many years, even years when Morgoth and/or Sauron are not present in Middle-earth.

So, you could let the orcs breed (and at least in LotR and Silm there are hints that Tolkien adopts this idea).

But breeding is problematic, as it includes elements of sexual pleasure (we'd assume) and even more so that someone would have to love and nurse the cuddly little baby orcs. And so when you're spearing Shagrat, you're killing some mother's beloved son.

I think towards the end of his life, JRRT was tending towards making the orcs having been men who volunteered for Morgoth's evil and were thus transformed (doesn't solve the breeding / raising innocent little cuddlesome orc babies).

But I think there might be a simpler explanation, consistent with both the origins of the word "orc" and the later development of Tolkien's thought regarding the reincarnation of the elves.

"Orc" comes from Beowulf 112; a list of monsters includes "eotenas ond ylfe ond orc-neas", usually translated as ettins (trolls), elves and animated corpses (in some of his earlier work Tolkien translated orc-neas as "barrow wights"). So we have the concept of the animated corpse.

Now, what animates the corpse? Here I turn to the philosophical essays in Morgoth's Rings. Morgoth, in his attempt to control Arda, became like a glacier of evil, calving off bits of evil throughout the world. He puts forth some of his spirit, and gets Glaurung, and when Turin kills Glaurung, that little bit of evil is gone from Morgoth. Thus Morgoth grows smaller and less powerful the longer he is in Angband, but the amount of evil in the world stays the same or grows slightly larger as his evils creations work evil into the very fabric of the world.

Now, where does the corpse come from? I think from elves. Tolkien's original ideas about elves and orcs could work if the process of elvish reincarnation that Tolkien eventually settled on were to work. There are, for elves, two components in a living creature: a Fea, or spirit, and a hroa, or body. And, Tolkien says, the Fea creates the body (he got this idea from Charles Kinglsey's The Water Babies but don't you dare steal it because I'm writing it into an article for Chris Vacarro, whom I went to high school with, but I digress...).

So, if an elf's body, his Hroa, is killed, his spirit, Fea, goes to Mandos to wait until such time as it is appropriate for him to grow a new body (Tolkien ended up rejecting the idea that the elf spirit would be borne as a baby to its parents, or to some other parents, etc).

So, if Morgoth captures an elf, and tortures it until its spirit leaves its body and goes off to Mandos to grow a new body, the old body remains in the possession of Morgoth. He can imbue that tortured body with his dark spirit, thus making a orc without creating something new.

I know there are some subtle problems still, but for the sake of argument, let's say that the above can explain the origin of orcs: Morgoth has calved off bits of himself and set them in elf bodies. It explains the "animated corpses" connection and the "not allowed to make" objection.

But once Morgoth was cast out of the Doors of Night, where did the new orcs come from? We're back to breeding in some way. I'd propose some kind of hideous rite in which the orcs hack off pieces of their limbs, which then re-grow into new creatures. These each have the same identity of the orc from whom they are chopped, so they're immediately viciously rivalrous with that orc. That way you squeeze out sexual love and familial affection. Maybe orcs force other orcs to breed because the process is so miserably painful.

So really this is just a long train of bizarre speculation set off by Emma Goldman's interesting post on the possibility of female orcs in Middle-earth.
Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

In this post, I mentioned my displeasure at a journal that took five months to reject a note with a one-line email. Such sloth and discourtesty is, it seems to me, a symptom of a very serious problem in academia that is not regularly addressed but is near the heart of the discontent that so many people (inside and outside) seem to have with academia: the keepers of many of our key academic institutions are failing in their duties.

I think this is as big a factor in the stress and discontent of junior faculty as the job crisis itself: when the keepers of important institutions (journal editorships, society presidents, press directors, chair holders) don't do their jobs efficiently, they don't pay the price: junior faculty do (when a press drops the ball and takes years too long to publish a book, it doesn't hurt my tenure prospects; if an article is out for a year, or gets accepted last year for the 2007 issue of a journal, I can wait. Not so for junior faculty).

If there is a backlog of work (which we've all had happen), then it is incumbent upon those who hold substantial privileges to buckle down and plow through the work. If there is such a backlog at presses and journals, then that fact should be made public so that we can have an academy-wide debate about what to do (rather than just letting the backlog lengthen).

Here at Wheaton there is, right now, a lot of the standard end-of-term griping from junior faculty (well, from everyone really, because it is end of term, but I've happened to notice the junior faculty griping). Because I am currently the chair of the Educational Policy Committee, I feel like I have to look into this griping to see if there are any real grievances. Almost every thing I've been able to track down has the same source: people not doing their jobs in a timely manner and thus putting more stress on others (and if you think junior faculty have this bad, you should see what faculty obliviousness about deadlines does to the staff).

Where does this problem come from? See the title of this post. There's almost no supervision (which is good) and no recourse (which is bad). The system is supposed to work because scholarly peers, also of advanced standing, put pressure to do a good job on those who are also high up in the system. But no one wants to be the bad guy, no one wants to be the heavy, and so everything just slips (and I will say that Wheaton is about 500 times better than any other place I've been).

What to do? Herewith a few simple rules of thumb.

1. The deadline actually does apply to you. [Faculty whine constantly about students missing deadlines but then constantly miss their own. And I mean all the time.]

2. Return phone calls within 24 hours and emails within 48.

3. 30 days for straight rejections/acceptance from a journal. Any later and the person gets a reader's report.

4. 90 days for rejection/acceptance with a reader's report. If your readers can't turn things around that quickly, get some new readers and fire the old ones. Book manuscripts may take a little longer, but you have to inform the person who submitted when the decision will be made.

5. Let people know when they have failed at the above (i.e., being collegial is important, but give feedback like "I'm really glad you accepted my article, but making me wait eleven months was a little out of hand, don't you think?" -- this kind of thing is hard to do, but it's essential. People respond to social pressure; the squeaky wheel gets the grease).

Or, to sum up: Do your job!

I think that following my few rules would do an enormous amount to pull angst out of the system and make people a little happier in their jobs (and to do these things is just a tiny bit easier than revising the entire academic labor system, by the way)

[Readers might reasonably ask "Drout, you have tenure. Why don't you name names?" It's a good question, and I had thought about saying that Notes and Queries was the journal that couldn't be bothered with a timely response or a reader's report. But to make specific charges against specific individuals would require a new level of research that I don't have time to do. For instance, if a journal loses an article or a reviewer takes eleven months to return a reader's report or a contributor bails out from a project three weeks before the deadline (after having eleven months to do the work), I have a right to be irritated, and I can assemble this material into a pattern and comment on it, but I don't want to blast the single person or institution and then find out that the specific example I've chosen happens to have a new baby or a financial crisis or, God forbid, a serious illness. I'm sure that not all of the people/institutions failing to do their jobs have these problems, but I don't know which ones do, and that makes naming names problematic.]