Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Ferrets are HOTT (or: A Cautionary Tale about Plagiarism)

Okay, I know I'm hardly the first to post a link to this, but just in case you missed it, a tale about how entire passages from a semi-scholarly article about black-footed ferrets appeared nearly verbatim in a bodice-ripper, making for some of the worst postcoital chatter of all time.

I'd like to make some of my students read this, as an object lesson in how, when they plagiarize, there are jarring shifts in prose style that give them away. But I suppose I should just be grateful that, after lifting entire passages from an online article on Hildegard von Bingen, they don't immediately shift to her and Volmar having hot monastic sex up against the cloister wall.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Hard on the heels of triumph, despair.

First of all, thanks to all who congratulated me on hitting the halfway mark. I can only hope that today's post doesn’t make me seem ungrateful for the support. But here goes:

Sometimes I wonder whatever made me think that revising the dissertation into a book was going to be a straightforward process.

Here's what I told people: Since completing the dissertation, I had figured out what the analytical framework tying it together should have been, and I'd done a bit more research in the archives, adding substantially to the data. My revision work would involve four things: 1) Rearranging the extant material into a new chapter framework that foregrounded the Big New Idea; 2) Incorporating the new materials; 3) Smoothing out the chapters to make sure that Big New Idea was threaded through all of them; and 4) Writing one chapter from scratch that went in depth into Big New Idea. Seemed pretty straightforward.

Except that it hasn't been. The chapters have been blocking me at every turn, being balky, and far from the "easy rewrite" I had assumed. If I don't keep a close eye on them, they wander far, far away from Big New Idea, and then I have to spend time herding them up again. Material that I spent months gathering for the dissertation is completely out the window (though I'm saving it in a "potential articles" file), and I keep waiting for the easy part to begin.

I know for a fact that nobody writes effortlessly. But does it really have to be this fucking hard?

Friday, January 25, 2008


Check out the word count, folks.

That's right: as of 11:17 a.m., I am officially HALFWAY DONE WITH MY MANUSCRIPT.

((happy dance, happy dance, happy dance!))

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Why do all that medieval stuff?

Anyone reading in the historical (and especially medieval) blogosphere over the past week or so has probably seen the meme out there on "Why teach history" (examples here, here, and here). There have been a lot of really excellent responses out there, to which I can add very little, except to say that I teach it because it's what I love. But I want to call attention to a piece in the recent issue of Perspectives, AHA President Gabrielle Spiegel's essay on "The Case for History and the Humanities."

Spiegel nicely summarizes the usual justifications: that studying the Humanities helps us to understand "what it means to be human," and the updated version of that: the emphasis on critical and reflective thinking that is central to the study of the Humanities. But then she says this:

"Given the current situation of the world, I can't think of anything more important than reaffirming the intrinsic humanity of all peoples, however different ethnically, religiously, politically, or even medically. The great and abiding task of the humanities is to cultivate appreciation for the immense variety of the ways that peoples and societies live and think. […] The humanities teach this most importantly of all the disciplines, in that they require an imaginative, not merely objective or logical, investment in their investigations."

So how does this relate to research in Medieval Studies, a field that I love, but that I sometimes feel can be a little self-indulgent? Spiegel points out that the medieval world is the West's very own historical Other, alien to our own society in many ways, yet intrinsically tied to us. As such (and this is my own musing on the subject now), it informs us that we cannot responsibly interpret our past through the lens of the present; even more importantly, we cannot take a teleological approach and assume that our present is the result of an inescapable evolutionary process. It forces us to exercise that historical imagination that Spiegel speaks of, and then – hopefully – to apply the results of that imagination to ourselves.

I would never suggest that we look to the medieval past for precise parallels or solutions to our own problems of, say, relations between church and state, between members of different religions, or between men and women. But these are persistent questions, and thinking critically about how our own historical Other addressed these issues can shock us out of presentist thinking and the sometimes disastrous complacency it can produce.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008


[posted a day after writing, due to crappy internet service at home]

Slowly, getting back into it. 499 words on chapter three today. Only about half of them are new. But it's still words on the page. And a little momentum will carry me forward into tomorrow, when I'd like to write about twice as much.

I think I have a handle on part of what this chapter's going to be about. So far, it doesn't look like it's going to be the most interesting chapter – I'll have to blog about that later. But for now, it's two minutes to midnight, I'm tired, and I WROTE WORDS.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Does size matter?

(Quick work update: I've just finished reading for the first section of the next chapter. Tomorrow: new words, I swear.)

I've been reading some of Interesting Development's dissertation chapters, in part to offer commentary, but also so I'll understand more about his work (all together now: auww!). One of them that I've seen is rather long – over 20,000 words, not including notes.

I know there's a lot of variation in how long or short a writing project of any kind is. But it got me thinking about how my own work measures up. Seems that most academics feel either that they write "too short" or "too long." I'm one of the former. My dissertation was about 250 pages long; I've never published an article that cracked the 20-page mark in print. And yes, I have feelings of inadequacy about this.

On the other hand, I've heard plenty about how publishers in the humanities want shorter book manuscripts – fewer than 100,000 words, they say. And you'll notice that my little word counter (stubbornly unmoving, lo these many weeks) is calibrated to an MS of 95,000 words. But sometimes I wonder if I'm really writing a book, or just a pamphlet.

Of course, at the 44,500 words I've got so far, I won't even have that. Crap. Time to get writing.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Attractions and distractions

I promise that this blog, which I started out to ruminate about the first-book process, will not become a chronicle of my personal life. But indulge me for one post:

A couple of weeks ago, I noted that there had been some Interesting Developments in my life that were keeping me from blogging. As I write this post, one of those Developments is sitting three feet away, working on a writing project of his own.


With the exception of one protracted and very long-distance relationship, my entire academic career (including grad school) has been more or less as an unattached person, which was fine. I wasn't sure how I could have fit another person into my schedule anyway. That, however, appears to have changed at present. The distractions are manifold, and I won't go into them in detail. But I have to say, sitting at my desk and working while someone is near you doing the same thing has a nice, companionable feel to it, and I'm actually getting more work (though less blogging) done this way. It's strange, but who knows? I might just be able get used to it.

(Next post will return you to your regularly-scheduled non-personal stuff.)