Monday, August 28, 2006

Where do research ideas come from?

Odd days on campus, these. My university is engaged in a most dramatic re-structure of its entire curriculum; my faculty is re-organising itself; and we are all, all the time, being asked to think about how and what we teach, at every level, while also engaging in some delicate rapprochements with other parts of the faculty who will be our colleagues in the new disposition of departments into schools next year. We are all preoccupied with committees, working groups and taskforces; we all spend hours in meetings working out how to teach fewer subjects, better, to a wider range of students (all, in the "new generation" degrees commencing in 2008, will have to take 75 points out of 300 undergraduate points over three years in a different faculty). "Change fatigue" has set in; and we have barely begun to work through the implications of this brave new design. On Friday I had one meeting from 9.00 till 11.00; another from 11.00 till 1.00; a meeting with a student from 1.00 till 1.15, followed by some grateful grazing on three gargantuan food platters someone had left in our department kitchen. Glossy kalamata olives; spiced roasted almonds; and an extraordinary vine-leaf and chicken compressed concoction: truly, comfort food for the gods (where did this divine home-cooked food come from? I suspect the hand of Jenny Lee...). Then another meeting from 1.30 till 3.15, before carefully climbing on the bike (first day back commuting after my tumble; and dangerously lopsided with too many papers in the pannier) to get home to my boy, already hard at work, twenty minutes home from school, in making animations out of Lego on my Mac. Thank goodness for our Friday night ritual of pizza with beloved friends. Perhaps especially in the absence of the globalising partner (currently in Kuala Lumpur), these rituals are even more dearly cherished.

But today, beset by committees and workshops on all sides, I taught my honours class, and had a revelation. My next research project (once I have finished the book on the Order of the Garter, the book on medievalism with Tom Prendergast, and various other smaller commissions) will be on the idea of the 'masses' in pre-print England. I must soon turn to working on the grant proposal for this project. Today, though, we were reading three fourteenth-century chronicles of the "Uprising" of 1381; and the first chapter of Steve Justice's Writing and Rebellion. What an extraordinary piece of writing that is. Medieval Woman has an entry on her 'critic crush' on Joan Ferrante. Of course, for coolth, no one can beat Paul Strohm (check out the comments at In the Middle), but really, this is quite an amazing book. Such a wonderful way of working in, through, and around the material, letting it speak, but also helping it speak.

What struck me, and what has stuck in my mind all day, though, is the passage in the Anonimalle Chronicle, where the chronicler describes Richard meeting the rebels at Mile End. According to this chronicler, Wat Tyler and the others petition the king to arrest the traitors (his advisers), and abolish serfdom. "They asked also that no one should serve any man except at his own will and by means of regular covenant." And then it says, "And at this time the king had the commons arrayed in two lines, and had it proclaimed before them that he would confirm and grant that they should be free, and generally should have their will." Of course Richard later reneged on this agreement, but what an extraordinary thing to write: "the king had the commons arrayed in two lines..." Like Madeleine's school, perhaps! I suppose it is a strategy of containment, of minimising the idea of the unruly (dangerously unruleable) mob. Elsewhere this chronicler, like Walsingham and others, describes the "mob" in dehumanising animal imagery (they are like sheep who need to be herded; they are the limbs of Satan; they bleat like peacocks). Another dominant theme for the Anonimalle chronicler is the incapacity of Richard's knights and counsellors to act, or advise him. So the passive voice — "he had them arrayed" — is perhaps a corrective to this flaw in the ideology of feudalism. Another moment I like to ponder in this chronicle is that of the man "standing up on an old chair above the others so that all could hear". I guess if an old chair can make a difference, the "mob" can't be all that big. Has Pearsall written about this chair? I seem to remember Tom Prendergast talking about this; the mysterious "whatness" of the material object.

Clearly, I have some more thinking to do about this, and haven't even begun to look at the critical literature to see if anyone has written about this surreal moment of the rebels being marshalled into two lines. For me, today, one of the chief thrills was finding myself finding time to run to the library to find the original. It says — and it's not much help — " Et en celle temps le roy fist arrayer les comunes en deux raunges et fist crier devaunt eux qil vodroit confermer et graunter a eux destre free et toutz lour voluntes generalment ... "

If a king *could* organise a mob of rebels into two lines it would be masterful indeed, but it seems so unlikely. I put this story to my son as we were waiting for the bus this afternoon and he was of the view that it was 'metaphorical'. I guess that's right. An extraordinary moment of wish-fulfilment in the text? It's cleary inappropriate here, but I also can't help thinking of the idea that the Order of the Garter was constructed of two teams, led by Edward III and the Black Prince respectively, who could then engage in practice tournaments with each other. Construct the crowd of rebels as two teams to fight each other? Not really; the French says "en deux raunges", and this really does seem like two columns, or two rows.

Either way, and however I come to think about this moment, it was a lovely thing to happen today. It feels — though I'm not sure I'm using the word correctly — like a Roland Barthes "punctus", the little moment that makes us pause and re-assess everything around it in the text (visual or verbal). Perhaps I'll be able to use this in the grant application or the writing I hope, one day, to do on this. Ultimately, in all the meetings and reports and all the other stuff, there is, in the end, the mysterious moment in the text that can haunt us for days and that can, if we are lucky, drive our research for years. Blessed, then, today....

Friday, August 18, 2006

Slippery when wet ... or, how to make a long day longer

Over the course of this year I am undertaking a leadership course called Headstart. It's designed for people facing the prospect of becoming head of department. There are twelve of us doing the course. Some are doing it in hopes of enhancing their chances of becoming head; others, like myself, are doing it because becoming head, or similar, seems inevitable, and they want to be able to take on these jobs without making too many mistakes. It is without doubt the best such training program, for anything, I have ever done. Unlike selection committee training, which was shamelessly about how to avoid being sued, or performance development training, which was built entirely around a laboratory-based structure of supervision by senior academics, Headstart is geared brilliantly to its subjects, and is both intellectually engaging and personally challenging. Some of the sessions on university governance have seemed a little arcane (though many of the university's structures ARE arcane), but most of the sessions with current heads, deans, deputy vice-chancellors, and so forth, have been interesting. We get to sit in on high level meetings and get debriefed at length by the vice-chancellor afterwards; and later in the year I will be 'shadowing' some lucky senior figure for a couple of days. There is also space for one-on-one sessions with the wonderful Antony, the external consultant who leads the program.

I missed a whole day session on 'difficult conversations' when I was in New York having fun conversations about Chaucer, medievalism and why the Boston Red Soxs hate the Yankees so much (thanks, Frank!), and it became quite clear on Monday, when we had a whole day session on 'managing change', that Antony has taken off the gloves with which he was handling us all in the first half of the year, and by which he has been able to develop the reasonably safe and supportive environment that makes most of us, I think, actively anticipate and enjoy the sessions. One of the beauties of this course is that we get to work with people from different disciplines (I'm working on a project, for example, with an art historian, a botanist and an economist; and this has been great fun for me).

'Managing change', in 2006, is something every single member of the university is doing on a daily basis. We are undertaking a radical re-structure of our curriculum, shifting several areas (law, medicine, etc.) into graduate courses, abolishing concurrent combined degrees like arts/commerce, and ruling that all students must take 75 out of 300 points of their degree from some other Faculty. My own Faculty of Arts is also undertaking its own re-structure, so the Department of English will disappear at the end of 2006 and become something like the discipline of English Literary Studies in a school of Culture and Communication. We are also revising our entire undergraduate curriculum, and I must find a way of rationalising my smaller Chaucer subject with my larger Medievalism in Contemporary Culture (I'm thinking of a subject called Medieval Temporalities that would read, say, both Chaucer and Malory and post-Chaucerian and post-Malorian texts, plus work on medieval understandings of time and modern understandings of periodisation, etc.: watch this space). But it's a measure of the dramas unfolding every day this year that relatively calm committees are having fiery debates; issues are put to the vote where normally silence is taken as consent; and the budget for this Sunday's Discovery Day, when prospective students and parents come on campus, is about seven times bigger than usual.

Monday's sessions involved a very canny kind of role-play. Like most academics, I hate the idea of white-paper sessions and full-on role play (and Headstart is brilliant at flattering academics by saying they know what they can and can't do with us). Our sessions involve not so much 'playing' at taking on some other personality, but rather performing (in a quasi-Butlerian way, almost) a position. We took as our example one of the Faculties that has really had to agonise over some of these changes, and all took turns at seeing the issues from the perspective of the vice-chancellor, the dean, a head of department, and a member of the teaching staff. Sometimes there would be three or four of us being the v-c, sometimes all but one of us were lecturers. We rehearsed the 'no-holds-barred' meeting where the v-c, dean and head met with the department to answer their queries, and learned how to give straight answers, addressing concerns without adding spin, or patronising the questioner. Antony would occasionally intervene and ask us to do question and answer again, or provoke debate by caricaturing what one of us had said, and even personalising his remarks to a degree. The dramatic high point came when one of the group had to sit in the middle of the room as head, and have the vice-chancellor, the dean and the whole of her department literally shouting at her with demands, questions, needs and desires.

It was at this point that I realised how far the group had come over the course of the year, since as far as I could tell (and I hadn't, it's true, had everyone shouting at me), everyone seemed perfectly cool and fine with this. None of it led to any kind of breakdown or resentment; it had been done as a well-managed intellectual exercise in assembling a range of perspectives.

At the end of the day, we were all exhausted, but not, I didn't think, wrung out. I went back to my office, gathered my things and climbed on my bike. It had just started to rain, but not heavily, and I was looking forward to getting home (my son had had his first music exam that afternoon and I was keen to hear how he went, and relieve the friend, his accompanist, who had brought him home; my partner was away in China). Coasting along the brick path, I must have taken the corner awkwardly and skidded on the slippery path. I did the classic thing: put out a hand to steady myself as I fell, and ended up with a sprained wrist, a patch of skin missing from one hand, and a bunch of bruises up and down both legs that are still, four days later, emerging. Some students helped me up and true to form, I reassured them I was fine before sitting down to have a bit of a cry in the rain, half hoping someone I knew would come by, half hoping they wouldn't! I then numbly rode home, fired by adrenaline and desperate for warmth and comfort. There was time enough the next day for the doctor and the x-ray.

Now, I know what klg over at Fugitive Phenomenon will say about this: typical Aries, racing around too fast, no wonder she cuts and bruises herself. The scientist might observe the customary slipperiness of the wet road. This is the third time I have come off my bike in years of commuting and cycling: it's my characteristic luck in the world that I've only ever made contact with roads, paths and barriers, never vehicles. But was I more affected by the day's events than I had thought? Was this spinning out of control an indicator of what the day had done? I'm going to send an email to the group inviting them to read this blog and see how the rest of their day went on Monday ...

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Speaking and writing ... to whom?

Whom are we addressing when we write and speak from the academy? Each other, of course: our colleagues and students; those we want to impress and persuade; and especially those we want to persuade to give us jobs, scholarships and grants. More specifically, there is a range of programs currently sponsored in Australia and, I'm sure, elsewhere, teaching and exhorting humanities academics to write in a more accessible way. And heaven knows, we have all read enough execrable academic prose to acknowledge that many of our colleagues could afford to lighten up substantially.

But it has become a new imperative on both the humanities and the sciences: a new kind of professional development; and another skill set to master. A common feature of such seminars is to encourage participants to ‘pitch’ their work to a prospective publisher, or newspaper features editor. Today’s Australian newspaper reports on the 'Bright Spark' Challenge of the ‘Fresh Science’programme. The candidate who can best explain their work in — can this be true? — 40 seconds can go on to win a two-week cadetship at the Australian’s newsroom, helping to put together the national newspaper.

So it isn’t just humanities researchers who feel this pressure to redress the stereotype of academic work as incomprehensible, and by implication, irrelevant, and to communicate their ideas more broadly than to the ‘peers’ who might referee their work.

As it happens, the auditions for the latest series of ‘Australian Idol’ are currently being broadcast. Isn’t there a kind of ghastly parallel between these hopeful attempts to win the attention of the judges and the idea that you might have 40 seconds (singing solo, without the accompaniment of footnotes and qualifying remarks) to explain the difference between medieval studies and medievalism, or the nature of subaltern discourse? I wonder what effect these imperatives will have on our work?

My own feelings on this are all at sixes and sevens. On the one hand, I’m genuinely pleased if anyone comments that they found my academic writing pleasant or easy to read. And I am currently struggling hard to finish reading a book directly related to my current research that is so poorly written I can barely understand the gist of some sentences, so that I find myself compulsively scanning for the worst examples, and reading them aloud to whoever’s around. And yet I have sufficiently internalised convention academic decorum to be a little shocked if an editor suggests, as one did recently, that I might try to re-write the chapter drafts I had shown him so that they might appeal to a broader audience. I’m supposed to be pleased, I know, to think that my work might reach more than a handful of specialists (and I can see that a cultural history of Order of the Garter is exactly the kind of topic that might lend itself to such presentation), but it’s quite hard to let go of the sense that the best work is work that doesn't make any kind of compromise; or work that fits neatly next to other work in the field that we admire. This is presumably Chaucer’s impulse at the end of Troilus and Criseyde, to see his little book in the company of his classical masters.

On the third hand, as it were, academic blogging does have the potential to open up different kinds of spaces and voices for reading and writing. It’s certainly a very pleasant space in which to read and write. I think perhaps its immediacy might give literal expression to the conventional readerly desire to hear the voice of the author, unmediated by print and mass circulation; and the conventional writerly desire to communicate with readers. This is something I have written about in the history of Chaucer studies; the desire to come into the presence of the poet in the margin of a manuscript or book, or on a horseback pilgrimage. Much of the excitement over Linne Mooney’s recent identification and naming of Adam Pinkhurst as Chaucer’s scribe derives from the license it seems to offer to get close to Chaucer all over again.

It’s perhaps not surprising that the first blog I started reading regularly was Chaucer's. Chaucer not only keeps up his blog, but also addresses his readers individually in the comments box; more than one reader then comments on the sheer pleasure of getting a letter from Chaucer. It reminds me of Leigh Hunt’s comments in the margins of his copy of Troilus and Criseyde, at V. 270, where Chaucer says, ‘Thow, redere, maist thiself ful wel devyne’. Hunt comments, ‘There is something singularly pleasing, flattering, and personally attaching in finding one’s self thus personally addressed by such a man as Chaucer, even under an individual designation so generalizing’. And, yes, I’m thrilled that Chaucer has now included a link to this blog, as ‘Humanitees Resercher’; ok, these words don’t go so well into Middle English as others!

Perhaps I’m using this blog, then, to rehearse some of these undeniable pleasures. But I will still have to think hard about how to write this book.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

The multiple temporalities of the long-distance conference-goer.

Just back, a few days ago, from the New Chaucer Society conference in New York. What a blast! and what a joy to attend a conference where the papers are nearly always all interesting, accomplished, and pointed. This biennial event is the highlight of my work as a Chaucer scholar and a medievalist. It’s the conference where I know most people, and know the work of most of the people I meet. It’s the audience I write for as a medievalist, and it also includes some dear friends and collaborators. It’s also widely acknowledged as a very convivial, friendly group that makes a point of being welcoming to graduate students. The program was crowded with good things; the analogy of the cake shop comes to mind…

It is tough, of course, to get there from Australia, especially since the conference was a little later than usual this year, so I had to meet my honours students once, then climb on the plane and absent myself for a week, with precious little time for doing anything but going there and coming back almost immediately.

My own panel, “What is happening to the Middle Ages?” was scheduled on the first afternoon. James Simpson, Philip Thiel and I spoke about questions of periodisation and disciplinary boundaries, and Carolyn Dinshaw was the respondent and last speaker. She spoke quite movingly about Dipesh Chakrabarty’s ‘multiple temporalities’ as they might apply to the life of the medieval in the middle ages and beyond. This concept then chimed throughout the conference, and it’s something I want to think about a lot more in the work I’m doing now, both on the long history of the medieval aspects of the Order of the Garter, from 1348, the year of its founding, up to the present; and also on the relationship between the medieval and the medievalist. This is a distinction that isn’t always meaningful beyond the disciplinary boundaries of medieval studies, but one which is often rigorously policed amongst medievalists. In subsequent discussions it became clearer that this distinction is legible as a distinction between high and popular culture.

Of the many highlights (and not least was the cruise around Manhattan on Sunday night: ordinary food, but on the upper deck, a yellow crescent moon, a scattering of unfamiliar stars, a balmy breeze and lively conversations), a panel of historians talking about medieval peasants confirmed my sense that my ‘medieval popular culture’ project might have legs. It was fascinating to hear the historians say they were always interested to hear what literary scholars could do with texts: it didn’t seem to me that this was a curious fascination with how much we could ‘read into them’; rather, a sense of what we could find that they might miss.

But another reflection upon ‘multiple temporalities’ came to mind as I pondered the ridiculousness of travelling so far (and burning up heaven knows how much fossil fuel) for these pleasures, and the disruption to time and space they involve. The fifteen-hour flight to LA is one thing (and I confess I scraped together enough frequent-flyer points to upgrade — literally, up the stairs to business class); and the transition (fingerprinting, baggage check, security screening) was quick; but the five hours to JFK in sunlight, when the body is convinced it’s 3 a.m. and everyone around is bright and excited, and when the seat reclines perhaps 3 centimetres, is enough to induce deep existential torment. What time is it? Melbourne? LA? New York? I’ve changed my watch so much I can’t remember. Have I been in the plane 30 minutes or 3 hours? Why do I do this? Why is the ipod on a different time zone to either the US or the Australian cell phone? (where does it think it is?) Didn’t we touch down a while ago? What does it mean when my deepest sleep of the whole trip – a good forty minutes – comes between the plane arriving at the gate and the officials at JFK letting us dock? Oddly, the flight home was better for sleep: must have been the over-the-counter sleeping pills that blocked the angst and let me curl up in my economy window seat. Oddly, now that I’m home again, with almost no jet-lag, I find I can, after all, contemplate another trip...