Thursday, February 23, 2006

Arghh! I'm Affected

It's just been pointed out to me that I spell "plowing" as "ploughing," and that this is an affectation, adopting the British spelling for a word that is fully within American English.

It does look pompous, doesn't it?

In my defense, I had no idea that I was doing this. I just typed " I am ploughing through the Science Fiction lectures as quickly as I can." It just came naturally.

Damn you, William Langland. Damn you to hell!

[Update: It gets worse. In my own Vita I have an article on Piers Plowman. Yes, spelled that way. I'm not just affected, I'm newly affected!]

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Terrible Writing

No, not the student papers I've been grading (some of which have been excellent). My own writing in the (sadly, not so distant) past.

Orin Kerr at Volokh Conspiracy in this post writes about finding an old article and being embarrassed at how wordy and convoluted his writing was. I have had exactly the same experience in the final editing of How Tradition Works (final proofs are in transit as I write this).

It's hard to do a lot of editing at the galley stage, and I probably drove my editor crazy, but, well, what was I thinking???? There were so many sentences where I actually had to stop and re-parse the entire thing to make sure that the subject and the verb agreed. They were that really so complicated that it wasn't obvious. And everything was hedged six ways from Sunday, with multiple subjects and multiple objects in some kind of hideous mis-mosh. Ugh.

Partly this is a problem with academic writing and dissertation writing in particular (although HTW isn't my dissertation, a lot of the basic research grew out of the diss, which clearly contaminated it). It's not that I was trying to seem smart (I don't think), or that I thought obfuscation was a good idea (my original goal, even way back at the dissertation stage, was to write a book that would fit both the popular and the academic audiences, a la Stephen Jay Gould). It was more that even five years ago I wasn't as confident about my ideas and my research as I am now. And when you're not confident, you go to extreme lengths to make sure that you dot every i and cross every t, not only in terms of content but in terms of form -- you try to show, in every sentence, that you've considered the complexities of every question.

I think I've slashed out the most horrendous of the tangled sentences, but, well, just ugh!

On a related note, I have now, through consideration of my own writing, formulated several rules that may be of help to those just entering academia:

Anything that follows "of course" is almost certainly questionable and in fact likely points in the opposite direction of the way the author is using it.

Likewise, if a sentence begins "clearly" or "obviously," you can be pretty darn sure that what follows will not be clear or obvious.

If you reach the phrase "that is to say," stop and skip to the next paragraph, because everything that follows was just covered in the prevous sentences.

Rhetorical questions are a sign that the author doesn't want you to consider what he or she has just written very closely. Rhetorical questions are now my pet peeve. If I can convince my co-editors, I am going to ban them from Tolkien Studies and I am now forbidding my students from using them. In the past eight weeks (since I have been thinking about this), I have yet to find a single situation in which a rhetorical questions is more logically effective than the answer to that rhetorical question. Why do people use them? Because they are on weak logical ground and they want to shove the reader along before he or she notices that there is something wrong.

Ok, back to other work.

And for those three family members who are interested:

The J. R. R. Tolkien Encyclopedia is done as of Monday (until page proofs come in, of course).

Tolkien Studies volume 3 is done except for editing one article and page proofs (If you owe a person a beer for a small favor, I owe Marcel Bülles something like four kegs for the bibliography, and I'll probably have to get a pony for my research assistant, Rebecca Epstein).

The fantasy course, Rings, Swords, and Monsters: Exploring Fantasy Literature for Recorded Books is done and at the printer.

The final proofs of How Tradition Works are FedExing their way to me and will be back to the printer in ten days for late April delivery.

Still to do:

Faculty lunch talk: "Beowulf: Is it really the greatest English poem?" March 2.

Hosting (and now, running the supertitles) of Benjamin Bagby's Beowulf, March 9 at Wheaton.

Fourteen Science Fiction lectures to write for Recorded Books by March 13.

Paper/Book Chapter “Possible Instructional Uses of the Exeter Book 'Wisdom Poems: The Benedictine Reform Context,” Universitá Udine, Italy, April 6-8 at the Leornungcræft conference.

Kalamazoo Paper: “Albert S. Cook and the Invention of Cynewulf: The Origins of English Studies in America.”

Thursday, February 09, 2006

I H8 Publishers

I really, really do right now.

What other industry can sit on something for -- I am not making this up -- three years and then give you surprise a 10-day deadline?

What other industry can insist that going over what was once a purely hypothetical deadline by a couple of days (not me going over, I might add, but others) is now a matter of life and death, even though the production schedule for the book says it will not be ready for ten months?

What other industry could get away with having someone resubmit a book proposal to them, sit on it for seven months, and then write back that they had decided to accept another book in the same vein that just happened to be submitted while they were holding up your proposal. Oh, and the author of said book just happens to be from the university at which the press is located.

I could go on, but won't. Let's just say that in the next month I have to:

Finish indexing one book.

Proof second set of galleys on that book.

Proof blue-line galleys on another book.

Make all final edits and decisions, write a style guide and do final editing on a third book.

Finish editing / galley proofing another volume.

Write 14 35-minute lectures on Science Fiction (but they can't be written in such a way I can read from them).

Turn 14 lectures into a course book.

Then by April 1 I need to write a book chapter / lecture.

Then by May 1 I need to write my Kalamazoo paper on Albert S. Cook and Cynewulf.

Oh. Also hosting Benjamin Bagby's Beowulf performance and giving a talk to the Wheaton faculty on Beowulf.

Probably some time before then I will be dropping dead.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Modern Philology Rules!

A while back I wrote about a lame journal that took five months to send me a one-line email rejection. At the end of that post I noted that I had now submitted the article to the journal I originally thought would make a better home.

Well, Modern Philology accepted "A Note on the Style of Beowulf 1864a" today, so I'm very happy.

But I want to praise MP not just for having the wisdom to like my scholarship [well, in my mind it's "wisdom"!], but also for operating the way a journal should.

I submitted (electronically!) the Note to MP on 11/30. I immediately received an email saying that the article had been received and that I should have a decision in 90 days. On 1/4 (so just over a month after submission), I received a reader's report and the absolutely most encouraging "revise and resubmit" request I have ever read. The tone taken by Prof. Richard Strier made me want to rush to the library and immediately track down the few loose ends. I re-submitted the article on 1/23 and received the acceptance (with a few additional suggestions from the outside reader) on 2/1. So that's two months from submission to acceptance even with a revision in there.

That, Notes and Queries, is the way you run a journal.

This excellent management is good for MP in so many ways: even if the article hadn't been accepted, I would definitely submit my next article to the journal, and I would spread (and am spreading) the word that Prof. Richard Streir is a good human being and an excellent colleague and his journal is efficient, supportive and comes up with first-rate reader's reports. Hopefully others will hear of my experience and submit their best work. More people, one hopes, will then subscribe individually to the journal (i.e., not just take the library copy out)--because, remember, the most likely reader of Modern Philology is the kind of person who at some point in a career will submit an article of MP.

My larger point is this: good professional practice, from politeness to all deliberate speed to meeting deadlines, could do so much to pull unnecessary angst out of the profession.

And Modern Philology rules!