Wednesday, 30 April 2008

A positive speech, but an opportunity missed.

The Irish Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, addressed the joint Houses of Congress in the USA today. I've always been a fan of Mr. Ahern; there have been recent allegations of corruption but frankly I don't care whether they are true or not. I'm also proud that he has been honoured with the opportunity to make today's address. I'm a little disappointed, however, having read a brief summary of his speech, with what he chose not to say.

Bertie did the right thing, and thanked the USA for it's positive role in the peace process in Ireland in the 1990's. They really did play a big part in the process (especially under the Clinton administration) and I think we can all be grateful for the role they played. The RTE news site summarized this as follows:

Mr Ahern said he always had faith in the Good Friday Agreement and was proud after so many decades of conflict to be the first Irish leader to tell America that 'Ireland is at peace'.

He thanked President George Bush and all his administration for their help, and in particular Senator George Mitchell for the role he played.

He said that peace in Northern Ireland was also part of a greater American legacy thanks to the support America gave throughout the peace process.

He reminded Americans not to forget that and to 'feel glad' for what role it had played.

But did Bertie say enough? The world is tired after a few years of the 'war against terror' and the associated invasion of Iraq. America must also be tired after what has been a difficult occupation of Iraq. But I'm tired of leaders who fail to point out the obvious to America: when they act positively and intelligently, as they did in Northen Ireland in the 1990's, the outcome tends to be successful. When their actions are more drastic, however good their intentions might be, the outcome can be disastrous (there seems no point in providing an example here - the most obvious one will overshadow any history of this decade). I hope they don't forgot how much good they can do, and I hope they can 'feel glad' about they way they choose to deal with their current problems in the Middle East.

Martin Kettle recently commented on Gordon Brown's efforts to influence US foreign policy during his visit to the USA. Kettle warns that Brown must not think that he can have any real influence on US thinking and should instead focus on reforming the UK's role in world politics. I'm inclined to agree with Kettle on this one, but at least Brown made an effort.

The current violence in the Middle East is not in Ireland's interests. Mr. Ahern's speech in Washington was a great opportunity to express the country's gratitude to the USA for their help in Northern Ireland, and our good will towards their nation. At the same time there is much unease in Ireland about the implications of current US foreign policy, and it's a shame that he didn't express some support for those in the US who might like to change it, and work towards the kind of peaceful resolution that has been achieved in Ireland. Plenty of people in America envision a positive role for their country in world affairs - we should let them know that they have our support should they gain more control over their country's affairs in the future.

Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Powerless Point

I try not to be a Luddite, but while I'm happy to embrace new technologies, I've had most difficulty accepting the usefulness of technology for teaching purposes. I would refer you to this article as an example of the new wave of teaching methods that seem to be sweeping across Britain. Having spoken to some friends in Ireland, the arrival of techno-learning is a little slower, but it is coming all the same.

I love technology. I love gadgets. I love the internet. (I love... lamp).

Why do I feel the need to apologise for what follows? I spoke at a school recently, and the two-hour session was to take a new format; on this occasion students would be accompanied by their parents. I had never spoken to parents along-side their children, and was distinctly nervous about the idea (I should explain that my sessions usually involve a lot of games, of the non-technical variety, and a level of openness about how students interact with their parents and teachers in the learning environment). I am a great believer in games, but my games usually involve coloured markers and some A3 paper - little technology is required. It seemed likely at the time that parents would be happy neither to jump around as I expect teenagers to, nor to draw colourful posters. The solution, a teacher at the school assured me, was Powerpoint.

Powerpoint? Oh I was quite sure that wouldn't be necessary. But oh, the school was quite sure it would. So, I prepared a Powerpoint presentation for one of the first times; I don't even use it at conferences. It's not that I don't see how it could be useful, but I tend to find it distracts from what I'm actually saying. As it turned out, the Powerpoint slides provided useful handouts aftewards, but I was saved from using it by projector failure. The gods of technology (Bill Gates et al?) smiled on me that day. The parents learned to jump around.

I prefer blackboards to electronic whiteboards. Again, this is not because of a hostility to technology, but simply because I don't think the technology works that well. I find writing on electronic boards cumbersome and slow. I prefer games that involve the manipulation of material objects to those that require the movement of objects on a screen. Again, it's a question of results and flexibility than anything else. If a poster game isn't working, I can change the 'rules' simply by issuing new instructions to the students. If a computer game proves ineffective, I am limited by my own programming ability (negligible) or the preprogrammed flexibity of the game.

Here's a thought. Perhaps learning technologies should be focused on precisely that; learning. I can see how technology can be useful to students as they learn independently. I do not believe that technology is all that useful for teaching, however, because in my experience it tends to limit the teacher's creativity rather than release it. If you know of teaching technologies that provide the kind of flexibility I'm looking for, I'd love to hear from you.

Friday, 25 April 2008

The Nun Who Grew Wings

This is one of my favourite poems. It's by a Franciscan friar who was very good to me when I was young, and gave me many public speaking lessons. I hope he'll forgive me for publishing it online; it's from his book, Face the Music:

The Nun Who Grew Wings
by Iain Duggan

Having appeared ordinary all her life,
Sister Perpetual Motion,
On the cusp of old age
Developed gargantuan wings,
Which sprouted from her back almost
Overnight and looked anything but angelic;
More like two ginormous trotters,
God bless the mark!

Next thing she began knocking sparks
Out of an old fiddle that
Had lain dead as a dodo in its case
For the best part of forty years.

The she was then
Outside the Permanent TSB,
Winding herself up like a spring,
Tackling a humoresque, arching her torso,
Busking for peanuts in her green enamel habit
Like nobody before or since.

Thursday, 24 April 2008

People writing on library books

Under normal circumstances I'm a bit of a library fascist. I hate when people write their notes on library books, I hate when people underline bits of library books. Frankly, I hate when people do it to their own books but I'm willing to admit that perhaps they can do what they like with their own property. People often tell me it's the easiest way to take notes, and that they use pencil, which they then rub out afterwards; I'm not convinced and I can see the pencil even after it has been erased.

There is one fantastic exception to the rule: when the comments are funny. Over the years I've had the great privilege of reading the cynical and snide remarks of many a reader, and I love it. Today is a special day because I think I've found the best one of them all. I'm reading Middle English Lyrics edited by Luria and Hoffman. Each section takes its title from the first poem in that section. So, section three is entitled: 'I have a gentil cok'. What did our glosser say right beside it?

"That's what they all say".

If you've come across any better scribbles than this, please let me know in the comments box below.

PS: I dog-ear library books. Is that worse?

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Conferences Conferences...

I'm very much at the beginning of my career, so reading this article was a glorious reminder that even those much further up the ladder can be fairly cynical about conferences. It is usually the duty of the young (and perhaps the very old?) to think conferences are a farce - this article certainly tears the whole notion of them to shreds.

I don't feel qualified to disagree with Gloria Monday about conferences; I've only been to a few. I have to say, though, that I'm much more optimistic about the next few that I'll be going to (including the International Medieval Congress in Leeds in a couple of months), and can't imagine too many old leches having a go at me, as was Gloria Monday's experience (I'm a man in my mid-twenties, so it seems a little unlikely). At the end of the day her comments are probably all true - they are part of the terrible race to the top of the ladder, they will include a mix of things I'm interested in and things I'm not, and of course there is always somebody who is a bit forceful with their questioning. Does any of this really matter, though? I'll get to meet some new people who might share some interests. It does count as work, so it's a few days away without any guilt. And I've never been to Leeds, or most of the other places I'll be conferencing at, so hopefully it will just be a bit of fun.

If this blog keeps going for a few years I may feel differently about the conference scene - but for the moment I'm happy to hit the road with my powerpoint.

Thursday, 17 April 2008

Kiss my a*

The "motif of the misplaced kiss", as Eve Salisbury calls it in Select Secular Lyrics of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries, is one that I had only ever come across before in Chaucer's Miller's Tale. In that poem Absolon famously kisses Alison's naked 'ers', which she has stuck out the window of her house.

Well, apparently this is a common enough joke in medieval poetry (although I wonder will I come across more instances of it!). Below is the lyric that Robbins has entitled Old Hogyn's Adventure:

Balliol Coll. Oxford MS. 354

Hogyn cam to bowers dore-
hogyn cam to bowers dore,
he tryld vpon the pyn for love,
hum, ha, trill go bell -
he tryld vpon the pyn for love,
hum, ha, trill go bell.

Vp she rose & lett hym ym-
vp she rose & let hym yn,
She had a-went she had worshipped all her kyn,
hum, ha, trill go bell-
She had a-went she had worshipped all her kyn,
hum, ha, trill go bell.

When thei were to bed browght-
When thei were to bed browght,
The old chorle he cowld do nowght,
hum, ha trill go bell-
The old chorle he cowld do nowght,
hum, ha trill go bell.

Go ye furth to yonder wyndow-
Go ye furth to yonder wyndow,
And I will cum to you with-in a throw,
hum, ha trill go bell-
& I will cum to you with-yn a throw,
hum, ha trill go bell.

Whan she hym at the wyndow wyst-
Whan she hym at the wyndow wyst,
She torned owt her ars & and that he kyst,
hum, ha trill go bell-
She torned owt her ars & and that he kyst,
hum, ha trill go bell.

Ywys, leman, ye do me wrong-
Ywis, leman, ye do me wrong,
Or elles your breth ys wonder strong,
hum, ha, trill go bell-
Or elles your breth ys wonder strong,
hum, ha, trill go bell.

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

stereotyping love

Most people are aware that there are some pretty standard features to the beautiful beloved woman of most medieval and early modern poems. The basic features are to be found everywhere, and one often gets the impression that they are mentioned as mere signs of beauty rather than an attempt at anything like accurate description. The similarity of such descriptions can seem boring at times, but it is an important tradition, as poets like Shakespeare subvert it ironically (see Shakespeare's Sonnet 130, "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun...", for an example of this).

But despite critical leanings in the last thirty years or so, the beauty of a tradition is not just in its subversion - this poem by Charles d'Orleans from Harley MS. 682 (and to be found in Robbins' Secular Lyrics of the XIVth and XVth Centuries) is quite a traditional description of the beauty of the beloved, but manages to be graceful rather than stale:

The Beauty of His Mistress

The smylyng mouth, and laughyng eyen gray,
The brestis rounde, and long smal armys twayn,
The hondes smoþe, þe sidis streiyt & playne,
yowre fetis lite - what shulde y ferþer say?
hit is my craft when ye are fer away
To muse þeron in styntyng of my payne -
The smylyng [mouth, and laughyng eyen gray,]
The brestis [rounde, and long smal armys twayn.]
So wolde y pray yow, gef y durste or may,
The sight to se as y haue seyne;
fforwhi þat craft me is most fayne,
And wol ben to þe howre in which y day -
The smylyng [mouth, and laughyng eyen gray,]
The brestis [rounde, and long smal armes twayn.]

Friday, 11 April 2008

"neurospeculation, not neuroscience"

Raymond Tallis makes short work of 'neuro-criticism' in this TLS article [ ]. He is particularly critical of A.S. Byatt's reading of Donne's poetry as a brain event, which she thinks is explicable using neuroscience. I'm convinced by his arguments; I think we need to be very careful when approaching literature from an inter-disciplinary perspective, and Byatt does seem to place too much trust in the science. As Tallis points out, her reading is in this instance, overly reductionist. It seems that the neuroscience itself is not advanced enough to explain our experience of art, and for my part, I hope that it will never be able to.

I think such mistakes are bound to be made, and it is important that critics play with different disciplines in order to create something new. Byatt has gone too far, but I think she deserves praise for trying. 'Interdisciplinarity' should not be abandoned simply because it doesn't always work, although I wonder whether the sciences are better placed to help us understand the structure and logic of language rather than our personal experience of art.

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

And what will you do with that?...

From time to time I get asked the obvious question. "Oh, so you're a medievalist. And what will you do with that?" Without getting all romantic about it, it is the kind of subject that you study for it's own sake. I plan to use it, whether that be in academia or in the 'broader knowledge economy', but I hope that it will stay with me no matter where I wind up. It isn't often that I read a good response to the question, or any similar question, along the lines of why one would work in the arts as an academic. Paul Zumthor was a Swiss medievalist with many many publications (only one of which I have read so far). This passage, explaining how he sees his career as a medievalist, is beautifully written and is as good an answer as any:

That is the domain [Medieval Studies] in which, almost without interruption, I have taught and pursued my modest course of research. I have had fun doing it; I have also known hours of deep pleasure. These circumstances concern only me, and I attach no general value to them. Nonetheless, they have allowed me, little by little, a slow and delightful experience whose effect, on the level of imagery and ideas, was so marked that I would be untruthful not to acknowledge it now in whatever I say: from the place that was mine by choice and by profession, windows looked out in all possible directions; one gesture sufficed to open the shutters; all things were offered to this appetite for seeing, for experiencing - and, if possible, for understanding.
Paul Zumthor, Speaking of the Middle Ages

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

The pendulum swings back...

I've enjoyed Umberto Eco's books for many years, but I started with Foucault's Pendulum rather than The Name of the Rose, which seems to be first book that most people read. As a result, I've never had as much affection for The Name of the Rose as many others, and I've never forgotten just how exciting it was to read Foucault's Pendulum. I hadn't forgotten the excitement, but I realised recently that I had, in fact, forgotten most of what happens in the book. My memories of it are at best an impression rather than details of the thing itself; a feeling rather than a memory. It's not so long since I read his Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, and while I've found Eco disappointing from time to time, Queen Loana reminded me of the depth and humour that attracted me to his work in the first place.

I'm rereading Foucault's Pendulum; here's just one passage which captures so much of why I love Eco when writing at his best: rather than

There, indiscreet reader: you will never know it, but that half-line hanging in space was actually the beginning of a long sentence that I wrote but the wished I hadn't, wished I hadn't even thought let alone written it, wished that it had never happened. So I pressed a key, and a milky film spread over the fatal and inopportune line, and I pressed DELETE and, whoosh, all gone.
But that's not all. The problem with suicide is that sometimes you jump out the window and then change your ming between the eighth floor and the seventh. "Oh if only I could go back!" Sorry, you can't, too bad. Splat. Abu, on the other hand, is merciful, he grants you the right to change your mind: you can recover your deleted text by pressing RETRIEVE. What a relief! Once I know that I can remember whenever I like, I forget.
Abu, if you haven't already guessed, is the modern word processor, the tool that we all use from day to day, and that has probably effected the process of writing more than we might guess. I'm sure the internet has increased the number of words written globally per second by some figure which has already been estimated (lets call it a squillion words per second), but how many words and thoughts have been lost by the new ability to delete? A colleague was writing recently about digital literary studies, and I asked them whether features of word processing like progress tracking will prove to be the literary critic's tools of the future. If T.S. Eliot were writing today, we would perhaps be able to see more clearly Pound's editorial input, as each edited draft is recorded by Word.

I worry that my own writing would be more succesful were there no DELETE key. It is a commonplace to suggest that the arrival of the written word reduced man's oral memory; Eco seems to suggest that the word processor is another step towards record and another step away from memory.

Friday, 4 April 2008

There was an eerie familiarity to Donna Tartt's The Secret History [ ] from the very start. Set in a liberal arts college on America's east coast, the characters reek of privilege and ennui, both counterfeit and genuine. With all the characters apart from Richard, the story's narrator, the reality of their privilege seems unquestionable, then uncertain. Early on I felt I was reading about some poor cousin of Gatsby, and indeed we find The Great Gatsby explicitly mentioned before too long.

This is an unsettling book, not just because it is a narrative of murder, but because it fools the reader into a sense of boyish companionship with its early 1950's feel. Gatsby has his own problems, but one tends to read his story alongside The Catcher in the Rye as a teenager - they form part of your development as a reader. Tartt takes advantage of this - this tradition allows her access to a vulnerable place in our consciousness, but her novel changes, and pulls us from the familiar decay of a 1950's style narrative into an all too modern world of flat screen televisions and destroyed glamour. I actually thought that the book was set in the 1960's until after the central murder which acts a fulcrum for the story's events. In the early sequences, we are immersed in a world of cocktails (or 'highballs' as Gatsby and Caulfield might know them), over-expensive suits, and snobby intellectuality. It is not pleasant, but it is exotic. The world which emerges after the murder is our own - this is the fallen paradise in which the murderers must face up to what they have done. I finished this book wishing I could have stayed in the book's first half, and in that sense its chilling conclusion is particularly effective.