Thing which pleases me.

I’m not sure what tickles me more: that Peter the Hermit is quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald, in a reasonably sensible way; or that I recognised the quote before Nina Funnell attributed it to him.

We’ll leave aside the hand-wavy use of ‘Victorian ideals’ as a general descriptor for prudish and reactionary moralisations. That’s for the 19th-century scholars to get upset about.

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Things that really annoy me

1. Bogus arguments about the origins of chivalry as a behavioral code.
2. The use of said arguments to advocate particularly 20th/21st century gendered behavior.1

I just. Aaargh. Open doors, or don’t. Bemoan the emasculation of teh mens, or don’t, as you please. Just don’t try and tell me that It’s no accident that the word chivalry comes to us from cheval, or horse. Women love horses for the same reason; the deep sex appeal of great power under equally great control.

Aside from the odd implication that women are sexually attracted to horses,2 can we please remember for a minute that chivalry comes from the word cheval in the same way that chevalier does, namely, because knights used horses for fighting and killing things. Which practice they expected to also impress women and get them laid. But. Fighting and killing things. Not necessarily in any relation to women at all.

Remember Enide? Remember the bit where Erec stayed home being nice to her, instead of hanging out with other knights, and she ends up bemoaning the fact that he has “abandoned all chivalry for me”? She certainly seemed to think that chivalry was something you do with other men, not primarily in relation to women.

*Frustrated hands* We could have all kinds of arguments about the state and future of gender roles in the 21st century! But I can’t talk to you with all this bogus chivalry business.3

~

1. I feel terribly conflicted about Chivas Regal. On the one hand, delicious delicious whiskey! On the other where’d he leave his horse, then?.
2. Universally, all of us, right?
3. Yes, yes, I do understand that I can’t mount an actual argument about the Meaning of Chivalry based on one line from one romance, and there are probably plenty of other examples out there placing the concept of chivalry bang smack in the middle of m/f relationships. And yes yes fine, semantic drift and ideological change and whatever, things can have valid meanings now which have nothing to to do with their historical origins. It still causes me great distress

A few pixels of history

Quick word association game for you, folks. Cathedrals are…
1. Awesome (both senses)
2. Big
3. Pretty
4. Solid
5. Permanent

Wait, scratch numbers four and five.

I was in Christchurch, NZ, just over two weeks ago.

Christchurch Cathedral exterior

The good thing about travelling with medievalists is that, generally speaking, a medievalist is tolerant of one’s compulsion to look at *every* *single* church you pass.1 Many medievalists can even carry on a conversation about neo-gothic cathedral design and stained glass windows. Or – and this is what happened in Christchurch – your fellow medievalist will apologise to Cathedral tour guides when your questions about the interior get too complicated.2

Ch'ch cathedral altar

Christchurch Cathedral was beautiful on the exterior. In the inside was an odd space, wavering between High and Low church depending on where in the building you were. The overall effect was gorgeous, but the detail level left me confused. Above all, perhaps, it was a building which had been used and changed to meet the needs of its congregation.

It had the elaborate High Church chancel, above. It had a chapel of St Michael and All Angels on the north side, damaged from the Sept ’10 quake.

chapel of st michael and all angels - damaged from Sept '10 quake

On the south side, though, no Lady Chapel – instead, there was this chap:

Henry John Chitty Harper, first Bishop of Christchurch

Back on the north side of the nave, some less traditional examples of church decoration:

Menorah-like installation in Ch'ch cathedral, under stained glass window

Pacific Chapel, Ch'ch cathedral

The cathedral was – is – so very bound up in the history and philosophy of the city and its founders. Christchurch is the most extensive exercise in Anglophilia I’ve ever seen3. Most of the streets, we figured out whilst wandering about, are named after Anglican bishoprics. Not English cities – although of course many of them are cities – but dioceses. As with the Scots who founded Dunedin, the Englishmen who settled the Canterbury region were fired with that odd mix of nostalgia and independence, hoping not so much as to transplant Englishness as to improve on it.

Dedication plaque, Ch'ch cathedral

I climbed the spire of Christchurch cathedral two weeks to the day – almost to the hour – before it collapsed. I browsed the historical display at the foot of it, read the history of the spire – about the times it had fallen down in the past, the debate the congregation had had over whether or not to rebuild it, and the eventual erection of the latest spire with the help of Japanese engineers.

Lower tower staircase, looking down
Upper spire staircase, ch'ch cathedral
Plaque on the spire staircase, Ch'ch cathedral (Dean and canons of Christchurch Oxford)
Churchbells in Ch'ch cathedral

For some reason, it never occurred to me that it might fall down now.

Cathedral Squire from the spire, looking at a building with a bilboard reading 'CAMELOT'
View from the spire, looking over the city to low hills beyond

I knew, wandering around Christchurch, that I was taking photographs of a particular moment in time, one which would soon be gone.

Scaffolding outside a church in the city centre - features dummy humans on bikes, kayaks, etc hanging from scaffolding

I thought that when I talked to people about Christchurch in the future, I’d be saying “ah, yes, I was there a few months after the big quake, when they were in the middle of rebuilding”.

I was there a few weeks before much of the city centre pancaked.

I have no claim on Christchurch, aside from having acquired very sore feet trekking about there for a couple of days. But I have photographs on my camera of places that don’t exist anymore, or will never be the same again. I went blithely up and down the spire, thinking only about vertigo and churchbells; two weeks later people will have died in that same tower.

I don’t know what else to say about it, aside from the NZ Red Cross exists and takes donations.

~

1. It is possible to get church-fatigue, after a while. I didn’t go to a single church in Wellington! We tried to snoop around Old St Pauls, but there was a function on, while the new cathedral was a salmon-coloured monstrosity so we went elsewhere instead. Parliament, in fact. Ladies and gentlemen, the citizens of NZ have installed a Dalek in their parliamentary precinct.
2. And by too complicated, I mean ‘show any knowledge of high church design principles’. The unfortunate tour guide in question didn’t know what the altar was.
3. And I’m saying this as someone whose institutional motto is ‘Sidere mens eadem mutato’ and I like it that way.

Still about clothes

Academia - I'm in it for the outfitI have this problem with clothes: I am a perverse person. I object, just on principle, to being stuck with one sort of outfit (unless it’s a uniform. I like uniforms, they make everything easier). I object even if it’s my own decision that I am now going to dress in such-and-such a way. Every time someone gives me sensible advice for developing a wardrobe of durable basics and developing a Personal Style, I get disgruntled at the idea of locking down to one genre of clothing. Plus, when I was working in the Real World it didn’t take me long to figure out that developing a professional wardrobe was largely about ‘doing’ one’s gender right. Combat boots: too butch (hmph. If it’s good enough for Natasha Stott Despoja it’s good enough for me); lace on my neckline, too frilly.

Going into my first teaching assignment wasn’t convinced that my students were going to care. If anything, I thought it more likely that I’d get funny reactions for turning up looking too dykey than for turning up looking too casual. And I didn’t actually fancy excising all my men’s shirts from my wardrobe monday-thursday for eleven weeks.

So, in the spirit of curiosity, I wore all the things. Screw having a cohesive sartorial aesthetic: I wore pretty much every type of clothing I had, and a range of different registers of formality. I had four classes on four different days, so I mixed them up across the week as well as over the semester, and paid attention to see if I was getting any noticeably different reactions.

The constants were that I never wear makeup to class1. I have a small spike in one ear and it doesn’t change. I kept the same short haircut, although I did put a red rinse through it halfway through semester. And I prefer to wear outfits which meet the arbitrary standards of hem/neck/sleeve lines set by my high school uniform skirt and mufti day rules.2

Types of outfits I have:

The ones with men’s shirts. With tie, without tie, with trousers, with jeans. These ones are my go-to outfits: the ones I put on when I don’t want to think about clothes; the ones I wear for public speaking; the ones I wear for family Christmas. Most of them are not actually very masculine, because I tend to shop in places like YD.
Nice but non-frilly ladieswear. Fairly nondescript, quite like what I was wearing to work in 09.
– A small number of more feminine business-casual type clothes, of which I have no photos. There’s a panelled black Amy Pond in tophatskirt with a brocadey sort of pattern on it, a long flowy brown skirt, and a couple of tops with puffed sleeves and whatnot. I actually discovered that the black skirt and one of my light cotton men’s shirts went very well together, and was a whole lot cooler than my equivalent ladies’ blouse would’ve been.
– an assortment of casual outfits. Sample: this one looks a bit like Mrs Geriatrix, and this one a bit like Amy Pond .

I had great fun playing dressups with all these.

Here’s the thing, though: so far as I can tell, my students did not give two hoots. The class who met me first when I was wearing a shirt and tie and combat boots didn’t treat me significantly differently to the class who met me in a ladylike skirt (there were massive differences in the personalities of the students, but nothing seemed to be me-specific). I have no idea what they were actually thinking, if anything, about me or my clothes, but I had absolutely no sense that what I was wearing was affecting their overt reaction to me. This includes the point, about week five, when there was a sudden warm change and I gave up on the long-sleeved shirt I had paired with jeans, in favour of the threadless tee I had underneath it.

Nor did I succeed in dressing a notch or two ‘up’ from my students. My tuesday class out-dressed me, every single week.  Mostly distancing myself from my undergrad wardrobe helped me, I think, but in every class group there were a couple of people better-dressed than me. None of them seemed to care.

I did wear one or two things which felt *too* formal – there was a cool day when I grabbed my suit jacket instead of a different coat, and that felt all kinds of wrong to me. The tie is also overkill, but I happen to like ties, so they can stay in my teaching wardrobe for that reason.

I had a great time last semester. So far as I could tell, none of my students hated me and some of them really enjoyed being in my classes. Lots of things I did or didn’t do seemed to affect how well the classes ran, but my clothes weren’t one of those things.

I do think there may be some value in my admittedly eclectic approach to Teaching Clothes. That value is absolutely secondary to things like subject knowledge, the ability to communicate that knowledge, enthusiasm, patience, compassion. But it might be there, all the same.

A while ago now, A-dubs blogged about the relationship between her femme presentation and her work in gender theory and the way that runs against people’s expectations of gender studies in general and feminists in particular. The same could be said – and surely *has* been said, by someone whose blog I don’t read – about butch fashion in any field. Ruffling some feathers, causing some people to rethink their assumptions, and maybe providing a role model for a few others.

I appreciate the leeway I have as a teacher in a university setting, leeway granted to me by my students more than by the system as a whole. Since my students were willing to accept any of the sorts of women I present as, on any given day, it seems to me that the best thing I could do is reinforce that. To keep being the same person – a giant goof with a Spock wears a Weasley sweaterHarry Potter fixation, a grammar nerd and medievalist – regardless of whether I’m wearing frills or combat boots or, heaven forbid, both at once. To dress on the basis that clothes are a fun and important mode of self-expression, but not the standard by which I expect students to judge me as a teacher. I’d like to think that, for some people sitting in classrooms in front of me, the range of things they see me in over the course of a semester might work against any ideas they have about boxing and categorising their expectations of people on the basis of their clothes.

Or maybe it’s not just that none of them care. Possibly no one even notices. I’m OK with that, too; in that case, it’d be only my own business what I wear, and that’s perfectly fine by me.

~

1. Or to job interviews or to work in offices or to give conference papers. The only professional setting where I wear makeup is conference dinners and the like, and not always even then. I used to wear makeup occasionally, when the whim took me, but now I reserve these whims for outside of work. People react really strangely to makeup/no-makeup fluctuations. If I wear makeup and then suddenly stop, people assume you’re lazy/disorganised/cranky or something similar. If you don’t wear makeup and then suddenly do one day, people assume you’re trying to Make An Impression, or that you’re sad or stressed and covering it up. Apparently people really want my face to look consistent. As I generally prefer not wearing makeup, that’s what I stick with.
2. Not because I’m invested in the shitty gender politics which underpinned the administration of these rules. Or because I think they’re particularly effective in discouraging people from checking you out (I’ve been known to check out women, hemlines and necklines are not all there is to it). However, you have to draw an arbitrary line somewhere and I might as well stick with the arbitrary standards I’ve already internalised. For whatever reason, I don’t feel like I’m in a formal educational setting if my skirt doesn’t brush my knees.

The post about clothes

Potterpuffs- Minerva Mcgonagall sometimes thinks hogwarts would be better with no kidsSo. One of the reasons I haven’t had much medieval-lit related content to put up is that last semester, vast amounts of my brain got sucked into my first-ever teaching experience. And I wasn’t teaching medieval lit. I have lots of thoughts about teaching, some of which I’m not comfortable putting up here because There Are Boundaries pertaining to responsible blogging, and some of which is too confusing for me to talk about coherently yet,1 and some of which are just profoundly boring to anyone who’s not me.

Something I can talk about, and haven’t been for fear of being thought frivolous, is clothes. But this is the internet, we’re all frivolous here. So let’s talk about clothes.

One thing which was obvious to me, when it came to starting teaching, is that there’s a lot more fuss and angst about Teaching Clothes amongst Americans than there is in Australia, at least as it pertains to tutors/TAs. I read Academichic and a handful of other style blogs2; a number of my LJ-friends are TA’ing in the States. Teaching Clothes are a big deal.

From what I’ve gleaned, people’s Teaching Clothes concerns come down to several factors:

Academia - I'm in it for the outfit1. Establishing authority in the classroom, which means dressing at least one register above that of your students.
2. Projecting a Young Professional image to peers and superiors within the university.
and in some cases
3. Modesty and Standards.

Points one and two apply equally to male and female teachers; point three mostly to women.3

Between style blogs and my American peers, though, I started getting a sense of disconnect. The teaching wardrobes under discussion here seemed to be all a notch or two more formal than what I see on campus at USyd. I have a Young Professional wardrobe, I acquired it while I was working in 09. It consists of a simple grey trouser suit, black trousers and a black jacket which don’t quite match well enough to be called a suit, and a brown skirt suit which is too big for me now. I had this feeling that if I turned up to teach wearing what I’d worn to work in an office, I’d look ridiculous (and boring. I wore the most boring tops possible with these suits. Protective camouflage, I guess).

Maybe our institutional culture is just different? I, as a student, certainly wasn’t rating my tutors on the formality of their dress. Their ability to be interesting while talking about grammar, yes. Not that clothes don’t make *impressions*, but, well, the teacher who had the biggest impact on me in undergrad taught in jeans. She was easy to engage with and approachable and it was easy to imagine that I could be like her, not in some distant future but in the achievable future. On the other hand, a big part of the impression my current supervisor first made on me was to do with the fact that she presented as an a well-dressed professional grownup who gets paid to talk about Lancelot. More of a long-range aspirational example to a second-year.

So I went around asking my Australian and NZ peers – postgrads in tutoring positions, mostly but not all medievalists, and all female – how they picked out their teaching clothes.

Answers I got included:

Cheshire cat - we're all mad here* I try to wear shoes
* Make sure to wear thick tights if your skirts are shorter
and
* What? We all wear jeans and t-shirts.

That more or less confirmed my suspicion that we’re just that bit more laid-back in Australia and NZ. But it didn’t tell me what to wear. And, although no one I asked seemed to be, I was concerned about asserting some sort of teacherly persona. I’m young, and generally I act like a giant goof. I was taking first-year classes concurrently with teaching first-year classes. Given that some students in first-year classes are second, third, fourth year double-degree students, it was entirely likely that a handful of my students aside from the mature age entry students would be my age or older. In my previous job I’d been noticeably talked down to until I went out of my way to age up my appearance (cutting my hair helped a lot); I didn’t know how students might respond if I rocked up to class wearing the same clothes I’d been wearing as an undergrad.

Next post: stuff I wore to class, and how much (if any) impact I thought it had on my teaching.

~

1. Not anything specific to USyd or the course I was teaching on, and nothing bad happened to me personally. There was a rash of discussion on the intertubes about something which hit too close to home, is all.
2. There’s an entire blogging subgenre for academic fashion, populated, it seems, mostly by humanities scholars. I mentioned this blogosphere recently to a friend of mine who’s in palaentology, and her response was “are your hiking boots waterproof? Yup? Great, you’re in good academic style!” This is not to say there aren’t sciencey types doing fashion blogging – Fashion for Nerds is one of my favourites – but they seem to be outnumbered by humanities scholars.
3. Bear with me here. I know there are codes relating to how much of a guy’s skin we get to see, too, but generally that’s framed in terms of not being too casual (shorts, singlets, unbuttoned shirts, and so on) and there seems to be less of an implication that if he Gets It Rong his students will be distracted by his sexy sexy collarbones. Which is odd, because it’s entirely possible to be distracted by the collarbones of a suitably attractive man.

Published in stuff!

None of it academic, and all of it slightly old news. However, I have some creative stuff published! A short story, The Same River Twice, which ran in Semaphore Magazine, is also featured in the Semaphore 2010 anthology (hard copy; file copy and New Zealand edition).

And I had a short poem, New Bones, published in Sandstone, the 2010 Anthology put together by Masters of Publishing students at USyd. I haven’t got hold of a copy of the Semaphore Anthology yet (I’ve been waiting on the international edition), but I’ve read most of Sandstone and found the stories and poetry to be intriguing and varied.

So, there you go, if anyone’s desperately looking for anthologies to read, I recommend those two.

The meaning of Vikings, and other things learned in New Zealand (part one)

Dear interblogotubes: I am in a foreign country! This is cause for considerable excitement, not least because I have somehow never managed to be in a foreign country before in my adult life.

The foreign country in question is New Zealand, which looks like a mere hop skip and jump across the puddle, and yet somehow took me all day to get to. And the reason for this Tasman-skipping adventure is – or was, initially – ANZAMEMS, which wrapped up a few days ago.1

1. To be recognised en route to conferences, wear a Chaucer blogger T-shirt

The flight experience was deeply entertaining – if you’re entertained by medievalists and early modernists scrambling every which way in airports across eastern Australia and all over New Zealand. All the New Zealand bound flights out of Sydney on the 1st between about 10:30am and middday got scrambled. So there’s a somewhat confused Highlyeccentric, who’s only been through Kingsford-Smith once, and that nine years ago under the supervision of schoolteachers, wandering about trying to reconcile the gate number on her ticket with the gate number on the board and the total lack of Christchurch-bound flights in evidence at either of these gates – and whom does she bump into but fellow medievalist D., who’s supposed to be on a flight via Auckland with an entirely different airline and has likewise misplaced her flight. We did manage to get ourselves sorted out (although I didn’t see D. again until late afternoon on the 2nd, and was slightly concerned that she may have been lost in transit). 2

Mid-air across the Tasman, on my way to the airline bathroom, I bumped into another Sydney postgrad whom I had not known, until that moment, was also a medievalist. We proceeded to terrify everyone in her seat row by talking about late-medieval cornish plays until someone came along and made me sit down again. Christchurch airport was swarming with ANZAMEMS delegates – and pretty much no one else: for a major domestic airport it was almost deserted, and strangely lacking in fast food – and my hitherto-unknown colleague and I distinguished ourselves by going twice through domestic security before realising that small turboprop flights in NZ don’t get security screened at all.

Now, as it happens, I was wearing my “I’m impossible to date – like Beowulf” t-shirt (not on purpose; it was just the nearest halfway respectable t-shirt when I rolled out of bed), and on the turboprop flight down to Dunedin I discovered that this worked as a sort of medievalist-magnet. My seatmate turned out to be an Old French scholar from Canberra (given how few Old French scholars there are kicking around Australia, that’s slim odds), someone from UWA helped me wrestle my recalcitrant carry-on luggage, and someone else whose name I never actually learned spotted me in baggage claim.

I was not wearing a Chaucer blogger t-shirt during the conference but I found internet-people anyway. zcat_abroad loomed up in front of me on my way into the first plenary session and declared “I know you!”, which was how I came to meet the Auckland contingent, who were lovely. And Stephanie Trigg I discovered, or she discovered me, in the question slot for kayloulee’s paper on SGGK on the very last day of the conference. Fortuitous blogger encounters = good things.

2. The Meaning of Vikings

What Do Vikings Mean? – Kim Wilkins (UQ), Thurs. 3rd February

I had only a moderate interest in a panel on ‘Influences of the Medieval in the Modern World’, but I couldn’t pass up the chance to find out – once and for all – what Vikings mean.
Perhaps fortunately, Kim Wilkins did not actually purport to have codified the meaning of Vikings from any perspective: instead, she posited a new set of ways of thinking about Vikings, and especially the roles Vikings play in modern pop culture and subcultures.

I liked this paper. It began with a clip from How To Train Your Dragon and ended on the Viking Kitties flash animation, and it got from a. to b. via Playmobil, Mel Gibson, Marvel Comics, True Blood and Viking Death Metal. What’s not to like about that? Moreover, Vikings in pop-culture medievalism are something I’ve been aware of but never really invested in. Arthuriana has always been what intrigues me, when it comes to modern adaptations – ever since I was fifteen and just starting to get my head around the fact that this Arthur chap probably didn’t exist. So it was interesting to have Kim Wilkins walk me through another line of popular representation, some of it right out of my usual haunts (I’m not in Marvel fandom, I’ve never seen True Blood, I don’t listen to Death Metal).

Kim’s paper was also a really useful paper for me, in that she also walked us through the basics of adaptation theory – most of which weren’t new concepts for me, but concepts I’m more used to seeing in blog format than academic texts. She put forward the argument that we need to stop judging adaptations primarily on their fidelity to the source. For one thing, that leads to strange tangles, like the fan who commented on Facebook expressing the desire to see the forthcoming movie Thor accurately represent Norse mythology – apparently either disregarding the Marvel comics entirely, or expecting the movie to somehow ‘correct’ the errors of that canon.

Kim argued – and backed her argument up with citations which I copied down but have buried in the bottom of my suitcase since then – that an adaptation should be regarded as a process as well as an end product, and that thinking about the work of adaptation, the choices made in re-representing an original text or idea, can lead us to a whole new set of questions. Not “aaargh, why must the likes of Mel Gibson persist in talking about Vikings as brutal monsters????”, but “why do the likes of Mel Gibson represent Vikings as brutal monsters?” What does that tell us about Mel Gibson? About us?

Kim made a few suggestions about the function of Vikings in popular culture:
– that the horns are good for something, in that they’re iconic and therefore memorable. You try asking a non-medievalist to draw a Saxon or a Norman – they can’t. And yet Vikings? Their memory sticks around as long as the horns do.
– that the figures of Vikings are fascinating as the “them” in a them-and-us equation: that sometimes you need brutal monsters, and Vikings are there to fill that slot in your story.
– that sometimes Vikings are not them, they are us – that sometimes we like to identify with Vikings, and some of the traits they can embody include aggressive masculinity, sense of adventure, and courage.
– that subculture associated with Viking Death Metal relies on both the scary-threatening idea of Vikings and the admirable heroic ideals, and that furthermore ideas about Viking group identity and loyalty lend themselves well to the formation of a death-metal subculture which is highly performative but not designed to be immediately comprehensible to those outside of the subculture.

So that, folks, is the meaning of Vikings!

And I’ll leave you with this totally not-Viking-related at all photograph of the main entrance to Larnach Castle, built in the 19th century by an Australian banker who’d come to Dunedin to set up a bank when the gold rush hit there.

Larnach castle: steps framed by stone lions; tower above them

It’s a very beautiful Victorian home, influenced by Australian design as well as English – you can see there the verandah which surrounds the first floor; Larnach had to glass it in after the first winter, since he and his wife discovered, much to their discomfort, that Otago is a whole lot colder than Melbourne.3 The current owners have managed to reclaim and restore a lot of the original furniture, and replace others with similar Victorian-era pieces, as well as restoring the spectacular grounds. And they serve really good tea and scones.

The place tickled my fancy for Victorian-era colonial history: it’s a priceless time capsule in that respect. As a medievalist, the only thing I have to say on the matter is that that castle wouldn’t withstand a good seige.
~

1. In theory, this could be a multi-part post summarising all the interesting papers I heard at ANZAMEMS, but in practice, it’s liable to be a one-or-two parter consisting of however many papers I can summarise in the time between now and getting to Wellington for a friend’s wedding.

2. Meanwhile, my colleague-and-housemate kayloulee flew via Brisbane, and apparently so too did vast numbers of ANZAMEMS delegates, because customs stopped her on her way out to ask why there were so very many people on the direct flight to Dunedin today. Apparently she had been immediately preceded by a crowd of professors, and customs found this slightly odd.4

3. Other things William Larnach had in his castle: very early double-glazing, and a methane-powered chandelier. And his own methane production plant to go with the chandelier.

4. If some of this crowd were the UQ contingent, I can confirm that they are slightly odd. Lovely, very entertaining, interestingly clever people, but slightly odd. Especially when drunk, which was the state in which they were when I met them. One of them gave a paper on the Dante’s Inferno video game, which I’m sorry to say I missed.