Leornungcræft and Tæcing

Starting in September I'll be a lecturer at Thorneloe University. Over the past year I was a lecturer at the University of Toronto at Missassauga in the Department of English and Drama, where I taught first-year courses on Narrative and Forms of Literary Expression. Before that I was a lecturer at Mount Allison University in both the Department of English, for which I taught Literature, the Arts and Humanities and Literary Periods 1800–Present, and the Department of Classics, for which I taught Introductory Latin. And before that I was a lecturer at the University of Toronto Department of English, where I taught Old English Language and Literature and Chaucer. I have also taught Effective Writing at the U of T. Have a look at my Academic Work page for links to my course web pages, an abstract of my dissertation, and lists of my conference papers and current research. Below are all the blog entries I've written on the subjects of academia, research, and teaching.

July 11, 2007

Scip-gefere: Paddle your own canoe (part III)

(This is a continuation of these two posts.)

Though Gulliver can sail anywhere in the world, sailing is still a risky business and he is frequently stranded. Both Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and the outer frame narrative of Walton’s arctic exploration in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein sound a note of danger in unbridled exploration. This is perhaps somewhat comparable to Dante’s perspective of Ulysses. While mankind is more and more able to govern his own destiny, there are some things he shouldn’t meddle with. If the sea voyage is a metaphor for man’s place in the world and man’s relationship with God, then trying to control your own destiny rather than following God’s guidance is a problem.

With the 19th century we enter the modern era, and the biggest technological advance which changed seagoing was the steam engine. Suddenly ships were no longer dependent on wind at all. Even if there wasn’t any wind, a steamship could still go. The technological progression of the square sail to the triangular sail is completed with the advent of the steam engine. This is dramatically demonstrated in Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, in which just such an incident happens. When the winds die down, the steam engines are fired up, and at one point Phileas Fogg nearly burns up the ship itself in an attempt to win his race against time. This is the ultimate expression of man’s desire to control his own fate. Fogg overcomes all obstacles thrown in his way in order to win the bet, and that includes the obstacles of the natural world and the elements. This is reflected of the Victorian elevation of man’s ability to control his world. In this world-view man has a special place in the world, he is at its pinnacle. He even sought to have mastery over nature — nature was something to be tamed or controlled. And it is in the late 19th century that science is really beginning to challenge religion, with the realisation that the geological age of the earth is vastly longer than the Bible accounts for, and Darwin’s evolutionary theory challenges the Biblical creation story. The Victorian man did not adapt to his surroundings, he adapted the surroundings to suit himself, and this is subtly commented upon in Verne’s novel with the description of the British Empire which sought to impose its customs and organization (often unsuccessfully) upon the world. Furthermore, there is a shift from the age of exploration to an age of tourism. The world has been largely explored by Europeans, and Fogg is really more of a tourist than an explorer. The world is a much smaller place, and this makes man’s stature seem the larger. Instead of defining himself in relation to the world, man redefines the world in his own image.

At the dawn of the 20th century, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness stands out as the most striking example of the travel and exploration metaphor. But now, instead of a journey outwards, it is a journey inwards. Instead of defining his place in the world, man is defining himself. Man’s relationship with his world becomes his relationship with his own inner psyche. Man’s attempt to control nature and the world around him becomes his attempt to control human nature and the world within him. But his sense of control is an illusion since he has no real self-control. Yet again the metaphor is redefined for a new era which is so self-referential and solipsistic.

And so I leave you with this little bit of obscure though apropos verse which explains the post-colonic part of the title:

Leave to Heaven, in humble trust,
All you will to do:
But if you would succeed, you must
Paddle your own canoe.
Posted by Mark at 07:28 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

July 10, 2007

Scip-gefere: Paddle your own canoe (part II)

(This is a continuation of yesterday’s post.)

But back-tracking to the middle ages for a moment, we can see a similar metaphor, only the characterisation is different in the Christian world view. For instance, in the Old English elegies “The Wanderer” and “The Seafarer” harsh exile is pictured in terms of a lonely journey in a boat, and the homiletic implication of this exile/pilgrimage is that the Christian soul’s ultimate destination is back to God. God is the only course to steer towards. Similarly, in the later middle ages, in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, in the Man of Law’s Tale, Custance, who is set adrift at sea by her antagonists to get rid of her, puts her faith in God: “In hym triste I, and in his mooder deere, / That is to me my seyl and eek my steere”. God is her sail and her rudder, her means of propulsion and steering. Again, this is a metaphor of the relationship between the Christian soul and God, and therefore of man’s place in the world. Though as in the ancient world, man does not control his fate, it is not a capricious god to whom he is subject.

Known as great sailors in the earlier part of the middle ages, the Vikings, who really only had the square sail, cheated a bit by lowering one end of the sail to allow for greater manoeuverability. But for the most part they made do with very simple means and no sophisticated navigational equipment. Here’s a picture of a Norse knarr (click to enlarge):


They were often blown off course, and as described in the Vinland Sagas, it was often due to accident that they made discoveries such as Greenland and Vinland. Interestingly, there’s quite the mix of chance, fate, luck both good and bad, pagan, and Christian in the Vinland Sagas.

As for the advance in sailing technology, in the late middle ages or early renaissance, the triangular lateen sail began to be used in Europe. Here’s a picture of a lateen sail:


The triangular sail, of course, works like a wing — high pressure on one side and low pressure on the other — and it allows a ship to sail almost directly into a headwind. And so by tacking in a zigzag pattern ships can sail go in any direction and are no longer at the mercy of the wind, as long as there is wind, as seen here (click to enlarge):


(You can read a good explanation of all this here.) Ships also started using sternpost rudders rather than steering with an oar hanging off the right side (starboard, literally the steering side, as opposed to the left side called port which was the side towards the dock, also known as larboard or loading side). The stern mounted rudder made it possible to steer larger ships, and larger ships could carry more provisions, including most importantly fresh water. These along with the old square sail (to take efficient advantage of favourable winds), as well as improvements to navigational technology allowed for real exploration to begin at the end of the middle ages and throughout the renaissance, kicking off the European age of discovery. Here’s a picture of the complete package:


Note both the square sails and the triangular lateen sail.

These advances too are reflected in the imaginative literature of the period. This is of course the age of humanism, when the cultural focus shifted from the purely religious to the world of man. People began to define their place in the world in terms other than purely spiritual ones. The eighteenth century, for instance, is full of travel literature, perhaps most famously Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Gulliver goes out into the world ostensibly to discover things about other people and places, but in fact learns about his own country in the process. Mankind defines itself through its exploration of the outside world, through its own ability to direct its own course in the world. This is a radical shift from the medieval seagoing metaphor as demonstrated most clearly in Chaucer’s Custance, who is really only defined by her relationship to God. The humanist shift in cultural focus goes hand in hand with the seagoing technological shift.

Though Gulliver can sail anywhere in the world, sailing is still a risky business and he is frequently stranded. Both Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and the outer frame narrative of Walton’s arctic exploration in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein sound a note of danger in unbridled exploration. This is perhaps somewhat comparable to Dante’s perspective of Ulysses. While mankind is more and more able to govern his own destiny, there are some things he shouldn’t meddle with. If the sea voyage is a metaphor for man’s place in the world and man’s relationship with God, then trying to control your own destiny rather than following God’s guidance is a problem.

(Continued tomorrow)

Posted by Mark at 06:12 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

July 09, 2007

Scip-gefere: Paddle your own canoe (part I)

I’ve recently become interested in the relationship between science and technology on the one hand, and literature and culture on the other, and I’ve been working this into my lectures a bit. Here’s an example of a kind of neat idea I came up with for one of my classes. Since this has turned out to be a very long post, I’ve divided it up into three segments, so check back for the continuation. First a little background:

One of the courses I taught this past year was Narrative. There weren’t many stipulations for this course other than that we were to consider narrative from fairly broad terms. I was quite excited at the prospect of teaching this course, since my own research was moving in this direction, what with my work on discourse analysis and pragmatics, and having just given a paper at the Narrative Matters conference I was full of ideas. I decided to divide the course into two parts. First we would survey the major narrative genres of western literature — myth, folktale, legend, etc.; epic and saga; romance; the novel; the short story — and then we’d spend the rest of our time on thematic units. I wanted to consider narrative broadly speaking as a way human beings tend to organise information and make sense of their world. Starting off with myth was a particularly good way of introducing this idea. We compared parallel stories such as creation myths, destruction myths (like flood myths), and so forth from the Bible, Greek myth, and Norse myth. This also gave us the opportunity to do a bit of comparative mythology and consider the differences in religious beliefs and some of the different world views these reflect, for instance the very personal relationship between humans and God in the Judeo-Christian world and the relationship based on fear in the Greco-Roman world.

I also wanted to spend some time on some of the fundamental narratives of western culture, and the first thematic unit that I settled on was travel and exploration. As I was prepping my lectures on this topic it occurred to me that there was an interesting parallel pattern between the travel and exploration literature and the world views reflected by this imagery on the one hand, and the development of sailing technology on the other. I suggested to the class that the travel and exploration metaphor could be seen as reflective of cultural change from the ancient world to the modern. This narrative metaphor often describes man’s relation to the world in which he lives — the narrative is symbolic of man’s place in the universe. And the use of this narrative metaphor changes over time to reflect different beliefs about man’s place in the world.

In the Odyssey, one of the oldest recorded travel narratives in western literature, we see human beings at the mercy of the elements, and by extension the gods. Odysseus and his crew are constantly driven about against their will by the elements. And as we had already discussed in our mythology section, this reflects a common idea in Greek mythology that humans are at the mercy of capricious gods — a common Greek view of man’s place in the universe. This of course is entirely consistent with ancient sailing technology. The ancients had square sails. Here’s a picture of a square sail:


Ships with square sails are not very manoeuvrable. Essentially you go in the direction that the wind blows you. If the wind was blowing the wrong way, you were out of luck, so you’d have to wait for a favourable wind. Sure, you had oars to row, but that wouldn’t take you very fast or very far. If a storm blew up, you’d use the oars to row quickly to shore, as happens at one point in the Odyssey. Thus sailors were at the mercy of the wind, hence the sense of helplessness in the Odyssey.

As a side note, it’s interesting to compare the attitudes towards sea travel in Homer and in Virgil. While Odysseus is certainly trying to get home, he appreciates his journey and learns many things along the way. Aeneas, on the other hand, is much more focussed on the final destination. While the Greeks were a seafaring culture who lived on a peninsula with many small islands and relied on sea travel for their economy, the Romans were a much more land-based culture who hated and feared the sea, though they were practical enough to become proficient at it when required to do so.

It’s also interesting to see what later writers did with the Homeric story of Odysseus. The same story has three different meanings for Homer, Dante, and Tennyson. Homer’s Odysseus is simply at the mercy of the gods. While he does take some interest in the things he sees along the way, his journey is not his will — in fact he’s against it. His journey and his life is determined by the Fates and the prophecies about what will happen to him. In the Greek mythological world, man can’t control his own fate. In the Divine Comedy, in contrast, Dante places Ulysses in hell. For Dante, Ulysses journey was an act of will — Dante wasn’t familiar with Homer first hand. From Dante’s Christian viewpoint willfulness is sinfulness. Man shouldn’t try to control his own fate, as that was up to God. And finally, for Tennyson, in his poem “Ulysses”, the hero’s journey is also an act of will, but it is more positive. Tennyson exalts his purposefulness and striving. Man should try to control his own fate. Thus for Dante sailing out into the ocean is bad and Ulysses is placed in hell for it, but for Tennyson it is good and he is lionised for it.

(Continued tomorrow)

Posted by Mark at 02:29 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

July 02, 2007


It’s been almost a year since I’ve blogged regularly, and I apologise for that — it has been a busy year, what with the birth of my son, teaching new courses at a new university, and moving back to and away from Toronto again. But I’ve been missing the outlet, especially over the summer when I don’t have the captive audience of a class of students, so I’ve decided to give it a go again. One of the reasons I stopped writing was that I got bogged down with writing lots of posts about life updates and other mundane topics. So in this latest attempt at blogging I won’t be doing much of that. Instead I’m going to focus on the original purpose behind this blog, which was to freely write about the random little ideas that occur to me about “language, literature, music, food, culture, history” as I wrote in my first entry. So, gone is the day-to-day stuff (for the most part), the food blogging (except for perhaps exceptional circumstances — not that I have that much time for fancy cooking these days), and all the photos.

Having said that, I’m going to briefly break my own rule and give a brief rundown on my life at present. Over the past year I taught at the University of Toronto at Mississauga in the Department of English and Drama. I taught two first-year courses, Narrative and Forms of Literary Expression, not courses in my field but I had quite a bit of leeway with them and enjoyed the experience. I would be teaching at UTM again next year, but my wife got a job at Thorneloe University, so we’ll be moving to Sudbury and I’ll be teaching there as well.

As I’ve mentioned already, our son was born last fall — he’s eight months old now. While neither my wife or I have been blogging much on our own blogs, we did start a separate blog for our son (send me an e-mail if you wish to read the baby’s blog).

Since term ended I’ve attended the Kalamazoo conference, worked on an article which is now just about ready to send out, and planned for our move to Sudbury. So life is pretty busy, but I’ve got lots to write about. By the way, though I’ve been absent from my own blog over the past year, I have been keeping up with reading other people’s blogs, and now that I’m back at writing my own blog, I’ll get back to posting comments on other blogs as well.

So stay tuned for posts about such ideas as the connection between the development of seafaring technology and humans’ sense of their place in the world, some reflections on Byronic heroes, teaching time travel literature from ancient to modern, some ideas about the future of literary scholarship, and other half-baked ideas. It’s good to be back!

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July 05, 2006


I haven’t be able to post over the past week and a half as I’ve been out of town. The reason for my trip was to look for a place for us to live in Toronto, where we’ll be moving as of August. And the reason we’ll be moving to Toronto is that I’ll be teaching at the University of Toronto at Mississauga in the Department of English and Drama for the year. (I’ll write more soon about my teaching next year.)

As for the house hunting itself, it was a gruelling experience, but finally a successful one. Throughout the process I e-mailed photos of the various places to my wife, who couldn’t be there, and in the end we settled on the final place we looked at. It was only a last minute decision to look for a place in East York (we were originally thinking Etobicoke), but we were quite happy with the place and its proximity to the subway. Here’s a picture:


It’s quite a relief to have that settled. Now we just have to pack all our things…

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June 20, 2006

Amicus Curiae

A quick look at my reading list in the side bar and my reading post archive will indicate how far behind I am in blogging about my reading, so I’ll try to catch up a bit.

First of all, there are some new books on my bed-side reading pile. For my birthday, my wife gave me the three follow-up books to Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization (about which I have yet to write): The Gifts of the Jews, Desire of the Everlasting Hills, and Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea. She also gave me Alton Brown’s Gear for Your Kitchen as a Father’s Day present. So I have a lot of reading to do!

Next up, Jeffrey Miller’s Murder’s Out of Tune, one in a series of mystery books about a crime-solving cat named Amicus Curiae (‘Friend of the Court’). Having the narrative centred around the cat was in interesting technique, though it seemed a bit precious at times. I’m not sure if Tigger was inspired to go around solving crimes with me either. The novel is set in Toronto, and while I at first found it fun to catch all the Toronto references, I think Miller overdid it a bit — he seemed to revel in the local detail. The plot revolved around the murder of a member of a jazz quartet obviously based on the Dave Brubeck Quartet. The fictional quartet was led by the piano player who received all the fame in spite of the fact that the alto sax player wrote their most famous number, a relationship clearly modelled on Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond. I found the writing style a little distracting at times, a little too self-conscious. So all in all, I don’t know if this book is for everyone. If you like cats, if you live or have lived in Toronto (especially if you know the Toronto legal buildings), or if you’re a jazz fan, you might get a kick out of this book, but otherwise I don’t think it will change your life.

The next couple of books on the list, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and M.A.C. Farrant’s Altered Statements, were for one of the classes I was teaching this past term. I hadn’t actually read Mrs Dalloway before; as an undergrad I read To the Lighthouse and some of the Virginia Woolf selections in the Norton Anthology. And I had never heard of M.A.C. Farrant before. Though I didn’t find Mrs Dalloway personally resonant, it’s an excellent book for exemplifying early 20th century prose fiction style and stream of consciousness writing, and I certainly intend to continue to use it in survey classes. As for Farrant, she is a British Columbia-based post modernist writer. Altered Statements is a collection of short narrative pieces bordering on the surreal, sometimes funny, sometimes shocking. While it was an interesting example of post modernism, again I’m not sure that it resonated with me.

Well, that’s all for now. I’ll write more about my reading later.

Posted by Mark at 04:44 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

June 19, 2006

Silver bullets

Almost a month has gone by since my last post, so I’d better fill in some of the gaps. Here’s a quick run-down, some of which I’ll expand of later:

  • I’m not teaching this summer (the first time since graduating), so theoretically lots of time to get stuff done. But of course as is inevitable when you have so many things you’ve been putting off, progress is slow…
  • As mentioned in my last post, May was mostly taken up with conference going and the attendant conference paper writing. Both conferences went well.
  • I’ll be teaching at UTM next year, so at the moment we’re planning for our move back to Toronto.
  • I’ve been watching a lot of the FIFA World Cup recently. International tournaments are very addictive.
  • This past weekend we’ve finally started taking advantange of living on the East Coast. We drove along the coast, bought seafood for from little seafood shacks, and spent some time on the beach.

That’s all for now.

Posted by Mark at 10:32 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

March 11, 2006

Cnawlæce Webb

It occurs to me that I haven’t written about my reading in a while, and I’m several books behind in my sidebar list, so now seems like a good time for a post. One of the books my wife gave me for Christmas was James Burke’s The Knowledge Web. James Burke is, of course, best known for his television documentary series Connections and The Day the Universe Changed, and he is also the author of a number of books. He focusses on the history of innovation, how one idea leads to another, often in surprising ways. Here’s an example from one of his previous books (quoted from James Burke’s K-Web site):

Question: How was Napoleon important to the development of the modern computer?

Answer: Napoleon’s troops in Egypt buy shawls and start a fashion craze. In Europe the shawls get made on automated, perforated-paper-control looms. This gives an American engineer Herman Hollerith the idea to automate calculation using punch cards. Which get used to control ENIAC, the first electronic computer.

—From The Pinball Effect, by James Burke, Back Bay Books, 1996

In The Knowledge Web, Burke experiments with a cross-referencing system which functions much like hypertext links, directing the reader from key persons, events, or things to all the other points in the book that discusses that person, event, or thing. It’s sort of like distributing the index throughout the margins of the book. The idea behind this cross-referencing system is to theoretically allow the reader to read the book in a non-linear fashion: at each cross-reference the reader can then jump to one of the other such points in the book, thus following a different path through the web. It’s an interesting experiment, though I don’t imagine many readers would actually flip through the book in a random order that way. But it is interesting to occasionally flip to one of the other points in the book, and of course it’s interesting when the thread folds back on a section you’ve already read. And in any case, it is a fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable book to read, even in a more traditional linear way.

Naturally this interconnected mode of organization would lend itself well to an actual hypertext set up—indeed I think it would work better that way. And that indeed seems to be what James Burke has in mind. His current project is the KnowledgeWeb Project, an electronic database which allows one to explore the various different links and threads.

This book came at a very synchronous moment for me, as I had just come off teaching a course which looked at the relationship between literature and the other areas of the arts and humanities (see my previous entry on this course). Indeed my thinking recently has been very much along these lines, the interconnectedness of all things. To understand a literary work fully, one must undrestand the way it fits in with everything else. But this is detailed topic that deserves a post of its own…

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February 02, 2006

Tæcende boccræft

Well, I promised an entry on my English teaching at Mount A, so here it is.

Last term I taught a course called Literature, the Arts and Humanities. It’s a first year course aimed at students not (necessarily) intending to continue on in English, and relates literature to other areas of the arts and humanities, such as history, philosophy, music, or what have you. Beyond that I had no other limitations in terms of what I included in the course, so it was very fun to teach. And given my background in medieval studies, I’m quite in favour of interdisciplinary approaches. Basically the way I approached it was to teach what I thought the students should know if they took no other English course, which I think accords well with Mount A’s quasi-liberal arts set up. I covered the literary periods in turn from Anglo-Saxon through modern, and gave special attention to the ways in which the literature reflected the cultural world in which it was produced. I found it particularly interesting to make the connections between trends in literature and other areas of the culture. And in general I encouraged the students to look for the connections and patters, the way all things are interconnected, adopting the symbol of Sir Gawain’s pentangle, the endless knot. I’ll write more of this soon, as I’ve been thinking very much along these lines lately.

Some of the major works we looked at include Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Faerie Queene, The Tempest, Paradise Lost, Gulliver’s Travels, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Frankenstein, Northanger Abbey, The Lady of Shalott, and The Goblin Market. But equally interesting was to include texts not traditionally referred to as literary, which provide interesting insight into the periods and the other more major texts. Thus, for instance, Robert Hooke’s (of the Royal Society) writings on observations with a microscope adds depth to the size-distorting descriptions in Gulliver’s Travels. I find the Longman Anthology of British Literature quite good for this sort of thing.

This term I’m teaching a second year course called Literary Periods 1800—Present. I wasn’t originally supposed to be teaching an English course this term, but due to an emergency I’m stepping into this class already three weeks in. Since I didn’t start the class off, I didn’t initially create the syllabus (though I’ve slightly adjusted the readings), which will make the class somewhat more challenging than it might otherwise have been, but it should be an interesting experience. And useful to have the chance to teach something so far removed from my area of specialisation. I’ll write more on this class once I get into it a bit.

In the spring session (May/June), I’ll be offering Literature, the Arts and Humanities again, should there be any takers, and I have some further interesting plans for the course…, but more on that later as well…

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January 07, 2006

Doceo linguam Latinam

Way back I posted that Aven and I were about to move to Sackville, New Brunswick to teach at Mount Allison University. Well here we are already one term in, and I haven’t posted at all about my teaching here. I’m teaching in both the Classics department and the English department, so this entry will focus on my Latin teaching, and later I’ll post about the English course I taught.

For the Classics department I’m teaching first-year Latin. Anyone who knows me will know that I’m not actually a classicist, but in fact a medievalist. However, the rigorous Latin training one receives at the Centre for Medieval Studies is well known, and so here I am teaching first-year Latin. Besides, I’m a philologist, and so language is a particular interest of mine, and much of my work, including some more recent avenues of investigation, focus on Latin translation (that is, translation of Latin into medieval vernaculars), so I’m quite enjoying the opportunity to teach Latin.

The departmental choice of textbooks, Ecce Romani, would not have been my first choice — personally I prefer a more rigorously grammar-based approach rather than the reading-based approach. Of course the other popular choice for an undergraduate Latin textbook is Wheelock, which it must be said has its own drawbacks. Nevertheless, I think it’s a better textbook. But I haven’t had a look at the latest edition of Wheelock, so I’d be interested in hearing from anyone who had seen it, or even taught from it. The CMS favours Moreland and Fleischer, Latin: An Intensive Course for the baby Latin course. This works very well for graduate students who are highly motivated to learn Latin grammar as quickly as possible so as to be able to move on through the programme, but it might be too intensive for undergraduates. Any other options?

In the first semester, the final enrollment was 50 students—quite large for a language class, but consistent with the class sizes I had with Old English. This term I have about 12 at the moment, which is a definite luxury. These students will get quite a good class with all the individual attention I’ll be able to give them. We had a good time last class, talking about the Roman delicacy of stuffed mice.

We also discussed the concept of relative clauses, not in itself the most difficult topic—I described relative clauses as giant mutant adjectives of course—but what is initially difficult is the fact that relative pronouns agree with their antecedent in gender and number but not in case. I’ll start the next class with a continuation of this topic, and I think I’ve come up with a better way of explaining it. Rather than starting with a sentence with a relative clause in it and taking it apart, bracketing off the clause, I’ll start with two separate sentences and show how subordination can combine them. This way I can show how a relative pronoun functions like any other pronoun. Hopefully this will make it all clear. I do find relative clauses to be a tricky concept for many students. Still, it’s much more straightforward in Latin than in Old English, which uses an indeclinable relative pronoun, sometimes in combination with other pronouns. Old English was just not made to subordinate that much. In any case, it’s interesting to compare teaching the two languages.

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August 17, 2005


Well, it certainly has been a long time since I’ve blogged. And this is a bit of a tease really because one of the reasons for this post is to say that I may not be able to blog much over the next few weeks. I’ve also taken this opportunity to update the sidebar. But first of all, an update…

In just over a week, my wife and I will be moving to Sackville, New Brunswick to teach at Mount Allison University. I’ll be teaching in both the Department of English and the Department of Classics. I’ll try to write more about my teaching in a later post, once we’ve installed ourselves in our new place.

In any case, suffice it to say that I’ve been very busy this summer preparing to move, getting ready for my new courses, teaching a summer session of Chaucer at U of T, and generally enjoying Toronto and seeing my Toronto friends before we leave.

Anyway, I’ll do my best to keep everyone updated through this blog as we move and get settled, and hopefully once things are back to normal I’ll get back to blogging on matters medieval, linguistic, academic, gastronomic, etc.

Posted by Mark at 04:31 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

April 09, 2005

Dreamas and deaþ

I started this entry a while back in the midst of teaching Chaucer’s dream vision poems. Here’s the completed entry…

Reading all these dream vision poems by Chaucer recently has made me really want to teach a class in medieval dream visions more generally, starting with the Old English Dream of the Rood and including the Middle English Pearl, one of my all-time favourite poems, and William Langland’s Piers Ploughman. One could also include excerpts of various saintly dream visions (such as from Bede) and various background texts such as Cicero’s Somnium Scipionis, Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun’s Roman de la Rose, and Dante’s Divine Comedy. One could even get into medieval dream theory a bit, looking at Macrobius’ commentary on the Somnium Scipionis and other medieval treatises on dream theory.

Another grouping of texts that would make a good seminar class is poems dealing with death and bereavement in the Middle Ages. It would include Old English elegies like The Wanderer and The Seafarer as well as Middle English poems such as Pearl and Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess. It’s kind of a depressing idea, I suppose, but it would be very interesting. I wonder what other texts would be good for such a grouping…

NB — A cookie for the first person to point out the problem with this entry’s title.

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March 10, 2005

The lyf so short, the crafte so longe to lerne

As I posted earlier, I’m also currently teaching Chaucer this year for the first time. This has been a very rewarding, if very busy, experience. It’s been a lot of work, but I’ve now built a Chaucer course, so the dividends should continue to pay off.

As it turns out, those dividends will be paying off this summer, as I’ll be teaching Chaucer again here at U of T as a summer evening course (Tuesdays and Thursdays 6 to 9). I’m quite looking forward to this, since I’ll already have most of the hard work done and can enjoy myself and the texts more. Chaucer students seem to be really good at in-class discussion.

Of Chaucer’s literary works, The Canterbury Tales was what I had the most experience with prior to this course — actually I’ve probably worked most with Chaucer’s translation of Boethius, but one doesn’t usually teach such a text in an undergraduate course. We covered the Tales in the first term and this term we started off with Troilus and Criseyde, a poem which fascinates me greatly, both in terms of its Boethian content and its generic manipulation, as well as for many other reasons. More recently we’ve been working through the dream vision poems. We recently finished The Book of the Duchess and are now in the middle of The House of Fame.

I have to say that The House of Fame is the Chaucer poem that I feel least able to make a final pronouncement upon. Sure I have plenty to say about it, but I don’t know if I have a final statement about it. This may in part be because the poem is in fact unfinished, but it’s also a complex and slippery poem. I guess my take on it is that it is Chaucer’s anxiety attack. Welcome to the wonderful world of Chaucer’s neuroses! In addition to the more minor sources of anxiety such as the classification of dreams — which it must be admitted is likely a merely rhetorical stance on Chaucer’s part — Chaucer seems to be deeply concerned with dealing with inconsistant or potentially ureliable sources. The dreamer/narrator in the poem is taken to the House of Fame to learn “tidings” to use in his poetry, but true and false tidings are mixed up together, and how can one distinguish them? The poem exudes uncertainty and anxiety, and I think this adds to my own uncertainty about it. It’s funny but I find this poem more troubling than some of Chaucer’s longer and ostensibly more complex works such as the Tales or Troilus and Criseyde. I think I’m going to have to live with this one for a bit longer before I fully come to terms with it.

Soon we’ll be on to The Parliament of Fowls, which can be seen as almost a sequel to The House of Fame, as Chaucer continues his quest for some sort of knowledge or information about love for his poetising.

Posted by Mark at 05:10 PM | Comments (1)

March 04, 2005


I haven’t yet posted on my teaching since my blog rose from the ashes a few weeks ago, so now seems like a good time. As I posted a long time ago, I’m teaching two full year courses this year, Old English again and Chaucer, and both have gone quite well. Today I’ll post about the Old English class and soon I’ll do another about the Chaucer class.

I tried out a new Old English grammar textbook this year, Peter Baker’s Introduction to Old English. While I like the idea behind the arrangement of the book, I’m not entirely satisfied by the execution. The main problems with the old standard textbook for Old English, Mitchell and Robinson’s Guide to Old English, are that it isn’t user friendly, it presumes that the students already have some grounding in at least modern English grammar if not another inflected language like Latin, and it isn’t arranged in a pedagogically useful manner. Thus, it is up to the instructor to provide the necessary structure and explanation, as I did last year when I used the book. Baker’s book, on the other hand, is an attempt to make up for this lack. The material is arranged in such a manner so as to allow the students to progress through the grammer in a somewhat graduated fashion, while slowly introducing them to simple short texts. Unfortunately, there are a number of errors in the book and some of the explanations are rather vague or incomplete. Perhaps these issues will be addressed in future editions, but I don’t think I’ll use this textbook again. Instead, I would go back to Mitchell and Robinson, which is far more reliable, and supplement this with a photocopied package of materials which I would put together myself. This proposed package would include what is essentially an interface to Mitchell and Robinson, arranging the material in a pedagogically sound manner with accompanying readings and exercises. This way I would have the reliability of Mitchell and Robinson’s treatment of the grammar with an arrangement more like the old warhorse Latin texbook by Wheelock in graduated sections. Well, it’s a bit of a pipe dream now, as it would be much work to put such a thing together, but I do think it would be worth it.

Otherwise the class is going well. The enrollment dropoff is a little higher than in recent years, but those who are sticking with it are talented and keen. We just finished with The Wanderer, which seemed to really catch the students’ interests and produced some good class discussion. Before that we looked at The Dream of the Rood. I become more and more fascinated by the poem every time I read it. One of these days I’m going to have to sit down and put together an article on it. Now we’re on the Deor, which is always fun because it gives me the opportunity to tell all the stories behind the allusive (and often elusive) references to Germanic legend in it. By the way, it’s interesting to note that my entry from exactly one year ago today has much the same comments.

Posted by Mark at 03:33 PM | Comments (0)

February 18, 2005


Well, I’ve registered again for the International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo. At this year’s conference, I’ll be giving a paper entitled “Pragmatic Markers in Old English Narrative” in session 230 Old English Language on Friday, May 6th at 10 am (see schedule). Now all I have to do is write the thing…

Posted by Mark at 06:39 PM | Comments (0)

August 14, 2004


Well, it’s getting to that time of year when I have to prepare for the new academic term. At the beginning of the summer term, after over a month of not actually being in front of a class, I was quite excited at the prospect of teaching again. I guess it’s the performer in me. I have the same feeling again, though somewhat tempered by the thought of all the things I have yet to do.

This year I’m teaching Old English again, as well as, for the first time, Chaucer — and not Effective Writing again, which is a very time-consuming course. It will be great to teach Old English again because I’ve already built the course, and I’ll be able to fine tune it. All the fun but not too much work. I’m both excited and a little nervous about teaching Chaucer for the first time. Since my main area of research is Old English, not Middle English, I don’t have the same comfort level yet in Middle English as I do in Old English, but I’m having a great time reading up on Chaucer and preparing the class. And it will certainly be a great addition to my resumé.

I’ve ordered my textbooks now, with a few changes from last year. In the past, for Old English I’ve used Mitchell & Robinson’s A Guide to Old English, as most Old English teachers do. The biggest problem with this text is that it is very difficult for those who don’t have much of a background in language and grammar to use. If the students already had somewhat of a background in, for instance, Latin, it would be no problem, but the reality is that most students today have little formal training in Modern English grammar, let alone an inflected language like Latin. So instead, this year I’ve decided to try out Peter Baker’s Introduction to Old English, which has an accompanying website. This text is more geared to students who have no prior linguistic knowledge, but unlike Bruce Mitchell’s An Invitation to Old English & Anglo-Saxon England, it has a structured approach to learning the language. To supplement the anthology of texts contained in Baker’s text, I’m also using Pope & Fulk’s Eight Old English Poems, mainly because I also like teaching The Battle of Brunanburh and Deor, which aren’t included in Introduction to Old English. As supplements, like last year I’m also using The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature, as well as translations of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Beowulf, specifically Michael Swanton’s and Roy Liuzza’s translations respectively.

As for the Chaucer class, the main text is The Riverside Chaucer, really the only choice. Apparently there is a soft-cover version, but it’s only available in the UK. I would love to have used it, to protect both the students’ wallets and backs from this weighty tome. Ah well. I spent a lot of time considering what supplementary text(s) to use and finally settled on Robert P. Miller’s Chaucer: Sources and Backgrounds, which contains excerpts from parallels and sources to a variety of Chaucer’s works. I also wanted to use some kind of commentary volume, but given the expense of the two other texts, I only added a recommended text, The Cambridge Companion to Chaucer. I’d be curious to know what others think of these textbooks.

Now I have to put together the syllabus for each of my classes, so there’s still a lot of planning to do. It’s funny, I’m almost as excited as I used to be when I was a student about to start new classes. I enjoy teaching — being in front of a class is so much fun — and I love the material I’ll be teaching this year. Now if only all my other work would fall into place…

Posted by Mark at 03:27 PM | Comments (0)

July 07, 2004


Well, after a break of more than a month, I’m finally getting around to making another go at this. I found the first half of this summer even more busy than I thought I would.

The source of this busy-ness was the summer course I was teaching, a section of the Effective Writing course that I taught in the last term as well (more on this later). It was the amount of marking that really made it so time-consuming. Although one would think that since I had already taught the course it would be a relatively easy matter to teach it again, the class prep isn’t the time consuming thing about this class — it’s all the marking. Because of the compressed summer schedule, there was an assignment due almost every class, so since I had about 30 students (instead of the much more manageable 20 I had in the last section I taught) I had about 60 essays to read every week. And strangely, I find it much more time-consuming to grade these Effecting Writing essays than literary essays because of the focus on every little technical detail; the comments and feedback on all the small points is rather tedious. As important as this course is, I somewhat relieved that it looks like I won’t be teaching it again next year.

In any case, for now I have some time off, since I’m not teaching for the rest of the summer. I’ll be spending my time catching up on various things I’ve let slide, including my own research — I intend to work on a number of articles for publication in the remainder of the summer — as well as my blogging, and preparing for next year. Soon to follow are blog entries about my teaching, researching, reading, and cooking. And if nothing else, I should at least have a greater variety of things to write about now. My apologies to anyone who has lost interest in the meantime.

Posted by Mark at 06:32 PM | Comments (1)

May 17, 2004

From Kalamazoo to...

At long last an update on my activities during the last two weeks. As I mentioned before, I attended the 39th International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

My paper, “Verbal Constructions and the Structure of Old English Narrative”, went well, though there weren’t many people attending that session; this may have been because the room had been changed, and there were only two papers in the session. In any case, those who were there seemed to enjoy the session, and there was some good discussion after the papers were given. I guess I’ve delivered enough of these conference papers now — not to mention the fact that I’m used to performing in front of a class on a daily basis — that the whole process was particularly smooth and enjoyable for me.

I didn’t get to as many other sessions as I would have liked because I had to bring exams to grade with me to Kalamazoo, but I did see at least a few good papers (as well as a few not-so-good papers). I also attended quite a number of receptions with open bars — the real reason people go to Kalamazoo. And I managed to pick up a few books at the exibit hall. I bought mostly editions, and fairly inexpensive ones at that, so I didn’t spend too much money. And of course the crowning glory of the weekend was the Saturday night dance. There is little that is more surreal than seeing a room full of medievalists letting loose on the dance floor.

All in all, it was a good Kalamazoo. I’m always lethargic about going just before leaving, but I always enjoy myself. And I’m sure I’ll feel it worthwhile to submit another paper for next year.

Posted by Mark at 11:51 PM | Comments (0)

April 25, 2004

To writenne spell

In about a week and a half, I leave for Kalamazoo, Michigan for the 39th International Congress on Medieval Studies where I will be delivering a paper entitled “Verbal Constructions and the Structure of Old English Narrative”.1 I’m still working on the paper.

When I submitted my proposal, way back in August or September, I was shortly about to sit my thesis defence, so at the time the only thing I had on my mind was the material in my dissertation. While the title of the paper is suitably vague enough, I am bound somewhat by the contents of the proposal. I’ve got plenty of new material that I’ve been working on since then (as well as some unused material from when I was writing my dissertation) which could be worked into the paper (more interesting for me and potentially more interesting for the audience), but there is only so far I can stretch it, and only so much material I can fit into a 20 minute talk. Also, I find myself needing to balance the desire to talk about my more recent material against the exigencies of presenting a coherent and unified paper. Hopefully I’ll find the right balance…

1 The session I’m speaking in, Ideas of Style in Old English, is on Thursday May 6th at 3:30 pm, but instead of the location printed in the programme it will take place in Schneider 1355, or so I’m told.

Posted by Mark at 06:13 PM | Comments (2)

April 22, 2004

And gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche

As I mentioned earlier, I’m in the midst of grading Old English essays at the moment. While this is a fair amount of work — though I fortunately do have a teaching assistant to help mark the 41 eight to twelve page essays — it’s actually quite enjoyable work. For the most part, the essays are really quite excellent, far more sophisticated than one might expect in a second year undergraduate course. This is largely due to the fact that many of the students are actually in upper years, and many are going on to do graduate work. Also, as I wrote earlier, I’m quite pleased with the essay topics. Assigning essay topics is quite fun: you come up with all these interesting topics, don’t have to do all the work, and suddenly all these great essays appear! Indeed, from the very best essays I’m learning new things myself. Not a bad return on the teaching.

Posted by Mark at 05:33 PM | Comments (0)

April 17, 2004

Dissertatio: Back to the Future, or The Future is Now (available)

My dissertation, The Conceptualisation of Futurity in Old English (abstract), is now available for download from UMI ProQuest Digital Disserations (free for those with academic affiliations and with a charge, which doesn’t go to me, for the general public). Strangely enough, it is not yet available in the U of T Library — they seem to be very slow to catalogue new items — but it is available in the PIMS library. It’s about the development and usage of futural verbal constructions in Old English.

Now anyone who wishes can have relatively easy access to it. This is a good thing, I think, since I don’t think I’ll be trying to have it published as is. Instead, I plan to suck all the marrow out of its bones and publish a series of articles based on the best parts of it. Chapter 1 could probably be expanded into a monograph and published on its own, and the rest of it would make sense as shorter articles, also expanded and revised. I think the material will be more approachable that way, and, to be mercenary about it, I’ll get more lines on my résumé that way. But what do others think of the relative merits of publishing a dissertation as a book or as a series of articles?

Posted by Mark at 06:13 PM | Comments (1)

Melior est finis orationis quam principium

As I mentioned before, last week was the end of term. In the last class of both of my courses, my students showed their appreciation with a round of applause — very sweet of them! Is this a common practice? I don’t seem to remember this custom from my undergraduate years, but my memory could be failing me. It was very encouraging in any case. In addition to the applause, a number of students paused after class to shake my hand or thank me in person, so I guess I’m doing something right.

I also recently found out that I now have the dubious honour of having made it into the RateMyProfessors.ca database. While I don’t put much stock in this website, it was nice to see that my rating was generally pretty positive. However, I do believe that student feedback is very important, especially for less experienced instructors, and I look forward to seeing the official U of T class evaluations from my students.

In addition to being useful for improving my grasp of pedegogy, such evaluations are also useful in putting together a teaching dossier. At the moment, I only have evaluations from my teaching assistantships, but by the time I’m applying to jobs next fall, I’ll have this year’s evaluations.

As a teacher, I think I have improved enormously over the course of this year — a trend common to most instructors in their first or second year, I imagine — to the point where I would consider my teaching abilities one of my strongest assets. And it’s not just the in-class skills but all levels of organization and planning. Like anything else, teaching takes practice and experience.

Posted by Mark at 04:31 PM | Comments (0)

April 16, 2004


In the last week of term, I covered riddles with my Old English class. I figured it would be a fun way to end the term. We started with the a couple of basic riddles from the textbook and then moved on to some riddles that I prepared as a handout. Mitchell & Robinson’s A Guide to Old English doesn’t contain any of the double-entendre riddles, riddles which seem to suggest a rather salacious solution but in fact have a perfectly ordinary and polite solution, so I had to make up a mini-edition of some good ones (with glossaries) to use in class. I think the class quite enjoyed them and were only a little traumatised by the experience.

The riddles are also quite interesting for a variety of reasons in addition to the use of humour in Anglo-Saxon literature, as they give an insight into the Anglo-Saxon cultural commonplaces and reflections on the natural world.

Here for the entertainment of my readers are (translations of) some of the riddles we looked at in class. A cookie to the first one to guess the solution to each of the riddles. The first two are polite riddles, the second two are suggestive:

Riddle 46
A man sat at wine with his two wives and his two sons and his two daughters, beloved sisters, and their two sons, noble firstborn; the father of each of those two young men was there with them, uncle and nephew. In all there were five of those men and women sitting there.
Riddle 86
A creature came going where many men sat in an assembly, wise in mind; it had one eye and two ears, and two feet, twelve hundred heads, a back and a belly and two hands, arms and shoulders, one neck and two sides. Say what I am called.
Riddle 44
A wonderous thing hangs by a man’s thigh, under the man’s garment. In the front is a hole. It is firm and hard, it has a good place; then the man lifts his garment over the knee, wishes to touch with the head of his hanging object that familiar hole which he regularly before often filled.
Riddle 45
I heard something grows in a corner, swells and is erect, raising its covering; a bride groped that boneless thing with proud hands, the lord’s daughter covered the swelling thing with a garment.
Posted by Mark at 01:06 PM | Comments (2)

April 05, 2004

Awendednesse Beowulfes

In answer to this question from Blinger I can recommend three translations of Beowulf, actually.

For a very literal, accurate translation, the one in S.A.J. Bradley’s Anglo-Saxon Poetry, which contains translations of the majority of Old English poems, is a quite reliable prose rendering. Bradley is usually the first translation I reach for for Old English poetry.

On the other hand, for a more entertaining verse translation, there is always the recent version by Seamus Heaney. Heaney’s version is quite interesting as a poem in and of itself, but he does take some liberties with the text. There is a handy dual language edition with facing page text of the original Old English poem. Or there is a critical edition from Norton, which has a number of useful extras such as commentary and a collection of important Beowulf scholarship.

R.M Liuzza’s verse translation is quite a successful compromise between these two ends of the spectrum. I quite like Liuzza’s version, actually. It is an accurate representation of the text, and it is interesting to read. It also contains a slew of useful materials in appendices, such as translations of various analogues to the poem and sample passages for a number of Beowulf translations for comparison.

It’s quite interesting comparing these three versions. Bradley and Liuzza are both Old English scholars, and Heaney, of course, is a famous (Irish) poet. Heaney has certain goals in his translation which he explains in his introduction. One of the essay topics I set for my Old English students was to compare two different translations of an Old English text. In addition to the translations of Beowulf there are some quite interesting versions of Old English poems by otherwise famous English poets, such as Alfred Lord Tennyson’s The Battle of Brunanburh and Ezra Pound’s The Seafarer. I’m quite looking forward to what my students come up with.

For those who have read any of these translations, what did you think?

Posted by Mark at 09:46 PM | Comments (0)

April 04, 2004

Ex tempore

A little while back, Blinger wrote an entry about the importance of being over-prepared for teaching, a sentiment I certainly agree with. However, there are times that improvising in the classroom can be very effective.

Last week I gave a lecture (acually part of a lecture) that I thought was quite good, which was done without full preparation. In my Old English class (as I’ve mentioned before), we were looking at a passage from the poem Judith. I’ve been working on the poem in my own research recently, and I had done some additional work with the aim of making some introductory remarks on the poem in class, but I decided that there wouldn’t be time for a lengthy introduction, so I never actually wrote up my notes for class, opting only for some brief remarks.

As it turned out, we finished the passage from Beowulf more quickly than expected, so there was a good 20 to 30 minutes or so at the end of one class for me to do my introduction for Judith, so I just improvised on the subject off the top of my head. I think it was one of my more successful recent lectures actually. It even inspired one student to change his essay topic. Admittedly, I had done a lot of research beforehand, but I wasn’t working from a set of notes. Perhaps the best method is to make the notes and then throw them away. In any case, I certainly couldn’t do a lecture by just reading from a set of notes. I much prefer actually talking to my class and being able to read the expressions on their faces as I go.

Well, I’ll finish off this entry with the Beowulf joke I told my class last week (not my joke originally, by the way): “Beowulf is the story of how the hero Beowulf comes to Heorot to stop Grendel from eating all the Danishes.”

Posted by Mark at 09:28 PM | Comments (1)

March 26, 2004

Sartorial habits

Should I be worried that my students notice and discuss what I wear? I suppose it’s not surprising that people would notice the beautiful sweaters I wear, which are hand knit by my wife (you can read about some of them and see some pictures of me wearing them on her blog here, here, and here, along with a more complete gallery here). Indeed, several of my students have complimented me on the nice sweaters I wear (several of my students being knitters themselves).

Yesterday, however, the hat I was wearing was commented on since it wasn’t the usual hand-knit black toque that I wore over the winter; with the warmer weather it was time to switch to a spring hat. I don’t know if I should be flattered or worried. I think I’ll go with flattered.

Posted by Mark at 02:49 PM | Comments (4)

March 25, 2004

Webbstowa be stæfcræfte

I’ve added a number of new links on the sidebar to language blogs that I read.

The first language blog I started reading was the excellent On English, which I’ve had listed on the sidebar for some time and have mentioned before.

There is an interesting discussion in Language Log (here and here) about case and military prowess in the ancient / early medieval world. As was pointed out, the actual conquerers of Rome were in fact Germanic speakers, specifically Goths, who had nearly as many cases to deal with as there are in Latin. They did, however, have a simpler tense/aspect system. Hmm…

Blinger has a useful entry on putting together a teaching dossier, a process that I’m going through at the moment.

Languagehat has a posting on the Englisc List, an e-mail discussion group about composition in Old English of which I am a lurking subscriber. There is also a review of Simon Winchester’s The Meaning of Everything that is rather more critical than my own. Languagehat makes some valid points. I guess my reaction to the book wasn’t as critical because my expectations were somewhat different; I was expecting a light, entertaining history of the OED, and that’s what it is.

Also worth a read are Tenser, said the Tensor and The X-Bar, which both have excellent titles. Click over to all of these blogs if you’re interested in peculiarities of language.

Posted by Mark at 02:00 PM | Comments (2)

March 22, 2004

Underðeodendlic gemet (Be he live or be he dead...)

Another cross-over between my Old English class and my English writing class.

There’s a line in The Wife’s Lament that has a particular use of the subjunctive forms of the verb ‘to be’: “Sy æt him sylfum gelong / eal his worulde wyn, sy ful wide fah / feorres folclondes” which can be very literally translated ‘be all his joy in the world dependant on himself, (or) be he very distantly outcast from his far country’ or perhaps more smoothly though freely translated as ‘whether all his joy in the world is dependant on himself, or whether he is very distantly outcast from his far country’.

This use of the two subjunctive forms to form a correlative construction with the sense ‘whether … or’ survives into Modern English (though somewhat archaic) in Jack and the Beanstock: “Be he live or be he dead, I’ll grind his bones to make my bread”.

Interestingly, I’ve noticed that some of my English writing students have a tendency to use this construction. I wonder if they do so in an attempt to sound more formal. I generally suggest they change it to ‘whether … or’, which I feel is more common in Modern English, but perhaps the construction is fine in current usage. Does anyone else use this construction in their writing (or speech, I suppose)?

Posted by Mark at 10:35 PM | Comments (1)

March 21, 2004


We got most of the way through The Wife’s Lament in my Old English class this week. Next week we’ll finish it off and read the fairly short Wulf and Eadwacer. I’m saving the last week of term to do Old English riddles with the class, but that leaves a good week open, so I put it to a vote as to what text to read next. The group decision was to read parallel exerpts from Beowulf and Judith, so the sections I chose were the dismemberment passages: Beowulf’s fight with Grendel and the tearing off of his arm (ll. 809-836), Beowulf’s fight with Grendel’s mother (ll. 1557-1590), and Judith’s decapitation of Holofernes (ll. 94b-121). It should be both fun and thematically interesting. Indeed, I’m quite happy with the passages I settled on.

I’m also pleased with some of the topics I’ve got my students working on for the final essay. In particular, I’ve got a couple of students working on word studies, a topic close to my own heart. One is working on the word uht, a word that means ‘dusk, the period before dawn’, and its various compounds (such as uhtcearu ‘sorrow at dawn’). Another might be working on compounds such as eorþscræf ‘earth cave’ and eorþsele ‘earth hall’, which might have also have the connotation of ‘grave’. These are interesting words and should produce good essays. I’m really looking forward to reading what my students come up with.

I’ve also been getting much encouraging feedback from students lately, from both my Old English class and my Effective Writing class. At least I know I’m doing something right. I’m glad to hear that I’ve been able to make my classes both useful and interesting.

Posted by Mark at 12:46 AM | Comments (2)

March 13, 2004


A few weeks ago, I got some examination copies from the publishers (as one often does), in this case of two History of the English Language books, C.M. Millward’s A Biography of the English Language 2nd ed., published by Thomson, and Thomas Pyles and John Algeo’s The Origins and Development of the English Language, 4th ed., published by Harcourt. These are two of the most commonly used HEL textbooks.

Well, more recently I got a copy of John Algeo and Thomas Pyles’s The Origins and Development of the English Language 5th ed., published by Thomson, which raises a few questions.

I’m confused about the publication situation of the Pyles and Algeo (or Algeo and Pyles) book. It seems that Harcourt still has the rights to the 4th edition (which is dated 1993), but Thomson has the rights to the new 5th edition (which is dated 2004). That seems like a rather odd situation. Would there be any market for the older edition? I’ll have to sit down with the two and see how they actually differ.

The other odd thing is why the switch in the order of the names: the 4th edition is Pyles and Algeo, and the 5th edition is Algeo and Pyles. Did Algeo just decide to take top billing in the new edition, or is there some sort of editorial purpose behind this change?

Finally, it occurs to me that Thomson is really cornering the market here with both the new edition of The Origins and Development of the English Language and A Biography of the English Language (not to mention the many other English textbooks they publish).

Posted by Mark at 11:56 AM | Comments (0)

March 10, 2004

Werlic cynn and wiflic cynn

It occurs to me that I haven’t blogged about a linguistic topic in a while, so I thought I’d write about the issue of gender in language as it became an issue in both my English Writing class and my Old English class this week.

The grammar topic I covered with my English Writing class this week was agreement (subject-verb and pronoun-antecedent), and this brought up the problem of the lack of a gender non-specific singular personal pronoun in English. Of course it has become pretty much standard usage in spoken language to use they for this purpose as in: ‘Every doctor has outdated magazines in their waiting room.’ I had to convince my students that it wasn’t correct to use their that way in written language.

My students weren’t terribly happy with the rather clunky solution of using he or she or s/he (‘Every doctor has outdated magazines in his or her waiting room’), but there really isn’t any way around that is there (suggestions welcome).

Historically, most languages (or at least the Indo-European ones I know) use the masculine gender to cover both (‘Every doctor has outdated magazines in his waiting room’), but this no longer as acceptable, not only for the sake of political correctness, but also for logical correctness; with respect to my sample sentence, a hundred years ago one might be more or less safe in assuming that all doctors are male but that’s certainly not true now.

While it isn’t correct to use they as a gender non-specific singular personal pronoun in written English now, I’m sure that in a hundred years or so it will be (unless some other pronoun is developed to fill that void). I’d be interested to hear from anyone who might be able to enlighten me as to how other languages not familiar to me handle this problem.

On a related topic, I find it stunning how often scholars have tried to interfere with the gender expressed in the Old English poem The Wife’s Lament. The poem is a first person monologue, with no name given for the speaker. It is clear from the first sentence of the poem that the speaker must be female because of two adjectives referring to the speaker which have unambiguous feminine endings (geomorre and minre sylfre). A surprising number of Old English scholars have suggested emending those inflectional endings so as to take the speaker as male. It is a testament to the systematic misogyny of 19th century scholars, I suppose. What is perhaps even more surprising is that even as late as the 1960s such arguments were still being floated. And it is remarkable the lengths that these scholars went to explain away the gender expressed in the text and how inventive some of their arguments were. It’s a shame, because it is such a compelling poem and such a powerful female voice.

As a final note, if you enjoy reading about language, click over to On English (also linked to on the sidebar), a very entertaining and interesting blog written by Rethabile Masilo, who enjoys punning neologisms as much as I do.

Posted by Mark at 10:31 PM | Comments (1)

March 05, 2004


The academic job market has, of course, been very much on my mind lately. And this insightful posting by Michael Drout has inspired me to make this my topic today.

Having defended my dissertation in September 2003 and spending the 2003-2004 academic year as a part-time sessional instructor at U of T teaching Old English and English writing, this was the first year that I was really on the job market. Now realistically I know that one must often expect to be on the marked for a few years before landing that much-coveted tenure-track job, but it seems like a steeper climb than I had originally thought.

As Michael Drout pointed out in the aforementioned posting, graduates of the Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto have often been quite successful in getting jobs, but I’m not so sure that’s as true recently as it has been in the past. There were a number of Centre students on the market this year, myself included, who didn’t get jobs in this round of hiring. I think there are some more general reasons for this as well as some specific ones in my case.

I suspect English departments may have a general bias against medieval studies. Students from medieval studies programmes have a lot of specialist knowledge. The Centre for Medieval Studies places a lot of emphasis on languages and skills such as textual criticism, Latin, and palaeography. Many English department hiring committees, however, may be looking for candidates who will teach medieval literature in a way more in keeping with the ways other areas of English literature is taught.

Am I suggesting that a PhD from an English department is better than one from a medieval department? Not at all. In fact, I believe in many ways a medieval studies graduate is on the whole often better prepared to produce solid scholarship on medieval literature than a graduate from an English department, but the English department graduate still has an advantage when it comes to the job market.

I think it’s particularly difficult for Old English specialists. As a friend of mine pointed out to me today, medievalists often have to position themselves as early early modernists. And there often seems to be a (wrong-headed) belief that it’s better to hire a Middle English specialist who can teach Old English than it is to hire an Old English specialist who can teach Old English.

In my case specifically, I imagine I am somewhat disadvantaged by the fact that the focus of my research is philological. I know that many people would suggest that one’s thesis topic should be chosen with a hiring committee in mind, but I simply refuse to sell out just to get a job. A trendy topic may garner attention in the short term, but fifty years from now it’s the philology that will still be relevant. Besides, one has to enjoy what one is researching, otherwise it probably won’t get done.

I had initially thought that my teaching experience would be a big advantage. I had had a lot of TA positions and was applying as a current sessional instructor. But I now think publications are far more important. As Michael Drout pointed out, an article in the right journal can open a lot of doors. So now my priority is getting published, and hopefully for me that will make the difference in the next round of hiring.

Well, that’s enough ranting for today, I guess. Though I may sound a little bitter, I guess it’s just because I’m venting a little. I haven’t by any means lost hope, but it is a little discouraging.

Posted by Mark at 04:16 PM | Comments (0)

March 04, 2004


It occurs to me that I haven’t writting anything about teaching my Old English class yet. This week we finished up the poem The Wanderer and are now in the middle of Deor. Reading these poems again, I was again struck by how fascinating they are (though for very different reasons). I’m enjoying teaching these poems immensely.

For a poem ostensibly about a wanderer or eardstapa (literally ‘earth-stepper’), it’s striking how solipsistic The Wanderer is. Certainly the poem contains much description of the physical realities of the wanderer’s situation, but so much of the poem is about his internal psychological state. Indeed the poem is quite a sophisticated examination of the psychology of despair and consolation, it seems to me.

Deor, also a poem that examines despair and consolation, is fun to teach because it gives me the opportunity to talk about Germanic heroic legends (as well as Classical mythological analogues). And while some scholars back away from the suggestion that there is Boethian influence on the poem, I find the parallels quite striking, particularly when taking into account King Alfred’s translations. Aside from the passage that parallels the refrain in Deor, most of the legends referred to in the poem are also referred to in Alfred’s version or are paralleled by a Classical analogue.

But the main reason why I’m enjoying teaching this stuff so much is how keen my class is about it. They seem to be as fascinated by it as I am. It’s very encouraging to get that kind of response.

Posted by Mark at 11:04 PM | Comments (0)

February 27, 2004


A certain grammatical point I was teaching to my English writing class started me thinking about the place of writing in people’s day-to-day lives. First the grammatical point itself.

I was teaching my students about when to use that and when to use which to introduce a relative clause. The rule of thumb that is oft repeated is to use that if the relative clause is restrictive (restricting the meaning of the noun it modifies and thus essential to the meaning of the sentence) and which if the clause is nonrestrictive (adding additional information and thus not essential to the meaning of the sentence). Of course this is a prescriptivist rule that can be traced back to Fowler. In practice the distinction is not so clear cut. But what I told my class is that if they follow this rule they’ll never be wrong. It’s an arbitrary rule, but written language is filled with arbitrary rules that have nothing to do with the deeper structure of language.

Although the human brain seems to be wired to learn spoken language automatically, written language is an artificial skill, and thus we must follow artificial and often arbitrary rules in order to communicate effectively in writing. Indeed, I constantly have to remind my students not to write in spoken idioms. They very naturally write in an almost conversational tone.

This made me speculate about the perception of the different registers of language. My theory is that people of a younger generation (at least younger than me) are in many ways better able to express themselves in writing, or at least they are less intimidated by it because they grew up in a world of the internet, e-mail, blogging, instant messaging, etc. If nothing else, they are more naturally prolix. However, they have a harder time differentiating between spoken language and written language, because communications such as e-mail and blogs exist in a liminal state between speach and writing. The boundary between spoken language and written language is much fuzzier. People of my generation or older probably didn’t write as much when younger, certainly not as much in informal contexts, because we didn’t have an output like e-mail. For this older generation, written language was more restricted to formal contexts. Certainly there was letter writing, but not in the same quantity as there is e-mail, and I imagine that letter writing was already in decline long before e-mail anyway. Thus, while those in the older generation may not have as natural approach to writing, they are more aware of the difference between spoken and written language.

Well, that’s my theory anyway. I’d be interested to hear what others thought, particularly those who write blogs. Do you write in the same register that you speak in? I find it very difficult to bring myself to write in anything other than a written idiom.

Getting back to the starting off point for this train of thought, how do others use that and which in spoken and/or written contexts? I’d be particularly interested to know if usage guides like Fowler are still used by magazine or newspaper editors (a question that perhaps Alasdair or Sue could answer for me). Or is this sort of thing just left up to the individual writers? Is a breakdown in the diffentiation between spoken and written language being felt in such written contexts?

The irony of all this is that one of my lines of research that I’m particularly working on right now is discourse analysis which is essentially taking a theory linguists developed by studying spoken language and applying it to written text. It is particularly applicable to medieval literatures because they are closer to their foundations in oral traditions, again in a liminal state between spoken and written language. It’s sort of the reverse of e-mail, but with perhaps similar results.

Posted by Mark at 02:46 PM | Comments (2)