I am going away now

I am going away now. You will get some posts while I’m in a tin can in the sky. I don’t think any of them are liable to induce drama, but, y’know, pls don’t start drama.

I go into this field because it lets me hide in a basement with my books, and then you want me to *talk to people*?

[Note – post written and scheduled in advance; it should go up while I’m in transit or staggering about jetlagged.
Ed – or not. I have no idea what time schedule my WordPress Dashboard is on. Never mind.  You will get *a* post while I’m in transit. Possibly one about intimate encounters with statuary.]

Slightly twitchy star - Ursula VernonOne of the really great things about this trip has been meeting so many people. I stayed for two days with friends I’ve known since I was fifteen and yet never met until now (and their four-year-old son: I had a fabulous time on his slippery-dip and swingset).  I travelled for a while with a friend who knows all the ins and outs of my thesis woes and medical problems but had never laid eyes on me; I was hosted by another internet-friend with whom I’ve had a more distant friendship for a long time; I met up with a friend who’s a classicist on archaeology camp and we went to the Polar Museum (as you do, two medievalists and a classicist out in Cambridge for the day); and baked biscuits in a fellow blogger’s kitchen.

The internet, in short, is bloody awesome. But… odd. There’s often that period of re-negotiation where you figure out how your online rapport works IRL; or there isn’t, which is even weirder.  None of this is bad: bloggers rescued me from accommodation crises in London, let me tag along with their dinner outings, came to my paper at Leeds, and were generally wonderful people. But this has been one of those times when I notice, over and over again, how different the Intertubes are from regular social spheres, and even how different blog platforms lend themselves to very different sorts of on-and-offline friendships.

At Leeds I had the joy of meeting Jon Jarrett, who is fabulous; Magistra, whom I will probably always struggle to address by her first name instead of her blog-title; ADM; Gill PolackA Stitch In Time; and a handful of other medievalists whom I knew better from livejournal, and two of whom I’d already met at ANZAMEMS. Many thanks to Jon and Magistra for organising the blog-meetup!

Enthusiastic dragon: embrace dorkiness!Leeds was intensely social – I think because of the wide range of papers, the streaming tended to mean I saw the same faces over and over again; and the conveniently centralised coffee places and bars leant themselves toward meeting up with those new faces repeatedly. I bonded with one chap who was on my panel over our respective footwear1. I made friends with another couple of people by pouncing on them with citations. I did get up the courage to introduce myself to at least one person on the list my supervisor had given me of People You Need To Speak To.

So I guess I’m not doing too badly. I met people. I don’t think I annoyed anyone terribly much. I owe my Old English tutor a bottle of wine for impressing on me the necessity of learning to hold my liquor if I ever wanted to survive major conferences.

The IAS is much less sociable, at least for me – I know far fewer people to begin with; the Australian contingent is tiny2; and although the entire conference meets in the one place for coffee twice a day, it actually seems to be harder to find anyone I recognise, perhaps because there’s so little room to spread out. It’s great being in the centre of Bristol – easier to find food, easier to get whatever one needs to do done between sessions; but that dispersion factor has its downsides. On the one hand, Leeds was hectic and it’s really nice to have time to myself at the IAS. On the other, I’m fretting a bit about talking this over with my supervisor when I get home – she loves the IAS and keeps telling me how the people I meet here will be my colleagues and contacts for the rest of my life. What if I’m doin’ it rong?

Paranoia/Social  Anxiety = OTPHere’s the thing: it’s hard. I’m an extrovert and it’s still really difficult. I know I’m not alone in this – if you weren’t a bit socially awkward when you came into academia, academia will make you so at some point. But it’s hard.

Leeds was hard because it pushed me into social overload (or I didn’t calculate for social overload). It reminded  me of church camp when I was in high school – frenetic activity, quick-forming friendships, embarrassing disco. And with it the probability that you won’t see these people again for  a year, if ever. At least  academia offers other modes of communication. I can read people’s publications! Publish things they might read! Send them carrier pigeons!  Besides. I just checked my finances and I have, somehow, miraculously for a grad student, enough money to do this again next year.3

With the IAS, I have the opposite problem.I’ve run out of things to say to people.  And what are you supposed to do once you’ve spoken to them? (Aside from ‘start drinking’, which appeared to be the modus operandi at Leeds.) It’s not even raining, so one can’t complain about the weather. In theory, this conference ought to be easier, since it’s more specialised: but on the other hand, you can’t ask someone to explain to you obscure historical features of things you didn’t care about before and probably never will care about again. Too many specialists stifles conversation!

Someone tell me what I’m supposed to do with all these business cards I collected at Leeds? Does one follow up contact? How?

One thing I have noticed is that choice of supervisors appears to be critical. Lawrence, you’re a godsend: everyone knows you, have you noticed that? At the IAS mostly people tell me how much they miss my main supervisor, but Lawrence is much more useful as a conversation starter.

… no, this post has no argument, I just wish to express my mixture of enthusiasm and anxiety about medievalist social interactions. Comments, criticisms, commiserations, anyone?


1. I had Docs; he had Cons; we spent question time sussing each other out by our shoes. I’m not sure that I’m entirely happy with his conclusion that I came across as someone who didn’t feel at home in SRS Professional Clothes and  Situations and, like him, am better suited to alt-culture situations. I figure if Natasha Stott Despoja could wear red Docs in Parliament I can wear them anywhere I please. I’m actually perfectly comfortable in my SRS Clothes and take quite a lot of pleasure in them, now that I’ve hit on a(n ecclectic) range which works for me.

2.  I am pleased to report that while the other branches had SRS meetings, the Aus/NZ branch had a brainstorming session in a pub, appropriately named the White Harte.

3. Provided the Australian dollar stays above, oh, 50p. Interest rate rises also appreciated, for the good of my savings. Someone send a memo to the RBA.

Discuss the Role of Women in [Thing]

You know what essay question bores the pants off me?

Discuss the role of women in [Thing].

For [Thing] insert primary text, time period, historical event, whatever. This question annoys the  hell out of me.

The Lion in  Winter - We've *all* got knives.  It's 1183 and we're barbarians.And yet I wrote that essay almost every time it came up, in my undergrad. And before, actually.  I have a twenty-something-page folio which I compiled somewhere in early high school, entitled (in metallic gel pen) Women in the Middle Ages. It concludes with a one-thousand-word essay on The Role Of Women In The Middle Ages, laid out in more or less the same format as the one I’d keep re-using in uni (answer: SEXISM, BUT.  Or sometimes, ARSE-KICKING, but SEXISM).

So this question annoys me. And yet I ate it up with a spoon as a student. I remember once going to Tutor Awesome and asking her for a Question About Women because I hadn’t done my biannual Essay About Women. Essays about women, I explained to her, were a nice sideline. A bit of a break from serious stuff. She sort of went cross-eyed, bit her tongue, and set me an essay on Ælfric’s construction of female  heroism re: Judith. And I ended up wining a prize for it. And I had to deal with scholars who understand Judith Butler and Lacan, and basically Tutor Awesome kicked my arse from here to feminism. A thing which she only got to do because I wanted to write miscellaneous essays on women.

Also, there’s the part where my current thesis is based on an essay I wrote in honours on the Role Of Women In the Chevalier au Lion. And the part where some of the best tutorial papers I had last semester were students presenting on The Role Of Women in [Text].

It still annoys me, though. As a question.

Proud to fight like a girlOne of the key problems with it is that, unless you happen upon a Tutor Awesome who wants to kick your arse, you don’t actually have to learn any new critical skills to answer The  Role Of Women In  The Middle Ages. You have to assimilate new information, yes, but you can usually answer that question with Sexism, But…

As a question, it doesn’t push you toward why answers. A clever student will find why answers themselves, but they actually have to move away from the ‘discuss the role of women’ purview a bit to do it.  Compare that to, say, Discuss the development of the character of  Guinevere across X-number of texts – that question is set up for comparisons, identification of key themes, and unless you’re very very silly, a why is this so conclusion.

The standard LadyQuestion also tends not to link in well with other key themes of the course. I’ve noticed this across history and literature units, and it’s ridiculous. If you’re talking about women in medieval literature, set genre questions about the Role of Women. Make people think about the difference between epic and romance!*

Monty Python's knights, singingThere’s also the habit of talking about chivalry and women and not masculinity and femininity, which leaves out the possibility of forcing students into comparing ideas of men’s and women’s honour, and various other fun things like that.

In Ur History - emhasizin ur wimmenzThere’s also the fact that there are lots of kinds of women in medieval literature (and life), and smart students with an interest in LadyHistory often get screwed over by the necessity of covering them all.  One could, horror of horrors, set several LadyQuestions each with narrower purviews!

And yet, students like the Standard LadyQuestion. And it does provide me with great opportunities to thwack them all over the head with Simon Gaunt and Katherine Gravdal and Joan M.  Ferrante. I am torn!


* Someone did set me that question once. I have an essay on women in the Song of Roland which talks about emerging romance tropes in the treatment of women… which is bizarre, since it wasn’t like I had  any earlier comparisons than Roland, but w/ever. I tried. Or the question-setter tried.

Leeds Report #1, or, the one with dirty jokes in

BBC Merlin - Arthur with sword - Say it with Phallic Symbols

I promised to do my duty to the blogular community and write up a summary of Dick Jokes Presented At Leeds. Reviewing my notes, I am astounded to find that I attended a mere two papers featuring lewd material – I’m happy to say that conversation at the bar compensated for this terrible lack, but I didn’t take notes on that. I didn’t even give a paper with dirty jokes in it, out of concern for the Seriousness of Leeds.1 Clearly a mistake. So here we are, stuck with a mere two papers of dirty jokes!


Chronicle Stories of Accused Queens in England, Jonathan Stavsky (Dept. of English, Hebrew University of Jerusalem) – session 1314

Now, this paper was in a session entitled ‘English Romance, Nation, and (Obscene) Scribal Innovation’ – I went not for the obscene part but because I’d met one of the earlier speakers and wanted to hear him talk. Strangely, no one talked about obscene scribal innovation, and I can’t remember there being much scribal innovation at issue at all. I will report on the other papers later, hopefully – they had no dirty jokes and so are inappropriate for this post.

Stavsky’s paper was fascinating, but suffered, I think from Too Much Material syndrome. He talked about an episode in a Winchester annal (the title of which I can’t remember, and the intergoogletubes are just turning up lots of references to The Winchester Annalist, all from the one book) in which Queen Emma of Normandy is said to have been accused of adultery. Stavsky tried to do two things in his paper – firstly, analyse this passage; and secondly, link it in to narrative accounts of the trials of queens, especially Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale. I would be interested to read a written-up version, because I had trouble following the progress between these two parts of the argument in oral format.2

The episode Stavsky spoke about was one in which Queen Emma, having been accused of adultery, is exiled from her home, along with the bishop AElfwine, her supposed lover. She appeals to various bishops asking them to permit her to undergo ordeal by hot iron. However, Edward’s best-buddy clergyman, Robert of Jumièges, insists that she walk over nine red-hot ploughshares. This she does, after appealing to St Swithun for aid; after her exculpation and restoration to her home, she and Ælfwine both make donations to the church of St Swithun at Winchester.

So far, so good. There is some historical basis for this – Emma was dispossessed, along with bishop Stigand (a political ally, in this story replaced by her local bishop Ælfwine), in 1043, and rehabilitated in 1044. No good reason to think she was sleeping with any bishops, although, if you ask me, Emma of Normandy is one attractive eleventh-century lady; I could hardly blame any bishops who wanted to take up with her. For the most part, the annalist seems to be making it up, or relying on pre-existing sources; and he has a particular interest in talking up the role of St Swithun in English history, and making sure everyone knows Robert of Jumièges is Not A Nice Fellow. The annalist is also a massive fanboy of Juvenal and sprinkles his text with quotations from same.

Well behaved women rarely make historyOne interesting thing to note is that while the story is clearly fictitious, it’s well and truly in keeping with the fierce personality of Emma of Normandy. The account includes a long letter supposedly from Emma to the bishops, defending herself and her not-lover: this account is equally sprinkled with quotations from Juvenal, suggesting that the annalist didn’t think it dissonant for a woman to have the education and rhetorical skills associated with that type of writing. Stavsky notes that Emma’s letter, advocating for herself and proposing her own trial, is unique amongst narratives of accused queens. The account is false, but it’s good evidence of the survival of Emma’s badass reputation – testament to her long influence and, I would add, the skill of the author of the Encomium Emmae Reginae.

Now, let us speculate about the sex lives of bishops! Firstly, the annalist has Robert of Jumièges describe Bishop Ælfwine as one who ‘swings his bottom’ while talking about purity – another quotation from Juvenal, well-recognised as implying (passive) homosexual proclivities.3 So that was fun – it’s always nice to know the kind of slurs which might have been kicking around in the middle ages. Technical terminology like ‘sodomy’ is well and good (and easily identifiable), but euphemisms and insults give you a different sort of handle on how sexualities and (possibly?) identities might have been constructed.

To add to the interesting speculations, Stavsky noted that Robert’s behaviour toward Edward in leading him astray is consistently described by the annalist as seducere, not deducere. William Whittacker tells me that seducere isn’t particularly common (Whittacker’s Words was designed for medievalists, wasn’t it? I could be barking up a classicist tree here), and the limited semantic field he gives it suggests the annalist was probably deliberately implying something – at the very least ‘lead astray’ rather than just ‘lead’. I have a feeling this may not be a *new* observation, although I can’t think where I’ve seen it before, but it was an interesting one all the same. My hons. supervisor always did say there was something odd about Edward the Confessor.

HERE ENDETH THE DIRTY JOKE. There was an actual argument about the survival of the legend of Emma of Normandy and its influence on other accused-queen narratives, but my work here is done. Next Leeds recap – a WHOLE PAPER ABOUT SWYVING.


Princess Bride - Buttercup looking distressed1. Well, I made my standard quip about how I personally am into talkative women but Yvain prefers his chicks beautiful and crying, and what that may or may not say about his taste.1.1
2. Not necessarily Stavsky’s fault. Remember I said I don’t have the best attention span in the world anymore? Yeah. This is it in action.
3. One thing Stavsky didn’t talk about – because the dirty bits weren’t the point of the paper – was the fact that Robert of Jumièges is thus accusing Ælfwine of being *both* a (heterosexual) adulterer and a (passive) homosexual. I’d have to look more closely at the text myself, but it didn’t seem to see any difficulty with that accusation – something that deserves more investigation in the light of critical arguments that medieval sex/gender was organised along passive/active rather than male/female lines (there’s a quick summary of that in Ruth Marzo Karras’ ‘Doing Unto Others’).

1.1 What it says is that he’s attracted to women who fit the standard heroine paradigm – superlatively beautiful – and are seen to perform appropriate social functions, such as the exhibition of grief.

To help remember all your kings, I’ve come up with this song…

Another instalment in the annals of funny things I promised to show Jon:

All due thanks to my housemate K, who must have a good reason for watching this over and over again.

Also, unrelated: at the IAS I was given a copy of this book. Acroyd’s ‘The Death of King Arthur’, a modernisation and slimming down of Malory. It’s readable, and, well, I would’ve liked it a lot at fifteen, but these  days, if I must read Malory I have the Oxford World’s Classics translation and I ought to read the original. This one strikes me as good for non-specialists and especially teenagers, but my Dad’s already got a translation and no one in my family has suitably-inclined teenagers.

If anyone in England would like this book, for themselves or teenagers (even pre-teens, if they have high reading levels) they know, lemme know. It’d save me carting it back to Australia, after all.

Another note – to whomever it was who entered this post in the Down Under Feminists Carnival, ta muchly. Sorry I didn’t say anything about it before – I was in transit when the carnival went up. 🙂

A post in praise of PowerPoint

Folks, some time in the last nine years, my learning style has changed. I must confess: if you’re giving a paper without slides (or, at very least, a handout), I will struggle to listen to you for so much as ten minutes straight.

This is a bit of a shock to me, since at the end of my high school career I could take verbatim notes without shorthand for forty-five minutes at a time. As an undergrad I actively disliked lectures which relied heavily on visual material (I’m not and never will be a visual learner) and preferred the sorts of lectures wherein people talked at you for an hour straight. Even then, though, I appreciated overheads for names and dates.

Here are some great points about PowerPoint slides in academic papers:

PowerPoint as Exhibit A
XCKD crop - Citation NeededArt historians have figured this one out. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a paper where handouts were passed around with photocopied pictures of features of medieval art and architecture; yet lit and history papers keep passing their primary texts around on hard copy. This inevitably leads to the Not Enough Handouts crisis – which could neatly be avoided putting the primary text up on a screen. Those interested enough to want a copy of their own can write down the name of the text and line refs and look it up later; those who aren’t would probably chuck the handout out anyway.

Me, I use PowerPoint to display the original text, while I read out the translation. It’s a working compromise between the feeling that I ought to display academic rigour and the fact that hardly anyone reads Old French.

PowerPoint as scaffold

Some of the best papers I’ve seen over the years are ones which have only four or five slides, giving a rough scaffold of what’s to be covered. Keep it simple to avoid overloading your audience, sure, but a running guide is incredibly useful to those of us whose minds wander.

A lecture - the art of transferring information from the notes of the lecturer to the notes of the students without passing through the minds of eitherI’ve heard people say they feel like the audience pays less attention if there’s a PowerPoint, or we should all be able to pay attention for twenty minutes. I don’t know about the universe at large, but I tell you what I noticed when I got sick last semester. The week that I was a total space cadet, swinging between hyperactive and extra-dopey, I asked students for transcripts of their presentations because I didn’t trust myself to pay proper attention. But the papers where I *did* get a good grasp of what they’d said – those were the papers which had some sort of notes available on the screen. That way, when my mind wandered off with the fairies it wasn’t too hard to scrape it back in the direction of matters Arthurian.

PowerPoint as humourous marginalia

I was once told that I should never put funny asides up on PowerPoint, since the audience would get distracted. Terrible pity, since that ruled out the dot plot of comparative idiocy in Arthurian Romance. Thing is, I’ve always got a good response out of funny slides (that dot plot generated more discussion than my entire paper), and they make the process of

BBC Merlin - Arthur with sword - Say it with Phallic Symbols

paper-writing that much less horrible for me. And, coming back to that week when I was sick* – I had one student who spoke without a script, and with only the barest PowerPoint slides. I wasn’t able to get a full transcript from him, but his liberal application of humourous ClipArt and Disney figures as commentary on Tristan and Iseult served as… hangers, memory tags which meant his paper stuck much better in my head than anything else anyone said to me that week, in class or out.

So I shall return at once to my policy of illustrating Arthurian papers with BBC Merlin macros.

Not everyone in your audience is a native speaker

Today I went to a session which was held in my second language. It wasn’t on texts with which I’m intimately familiar, so I was expecting to have a hard time of it. The first paper I expect I wouldn’t have made head or tail of regardless, but the second – it sounded really *interesting*! The speaker’s accent was easy enough for me to understand; I picked up enough Two languages in one head? No one can live at that speed!of what she was describing to know that the stories would probably interest me (one was de Boron’s Merlin, and another involved hijinks with towers and someone refusing to speak to their wife). But without a scaffold up on the screen to tell me useful things like what the name of the text was and when it was written, I spent valuable time that I should’ve been using to decode the argument trying instead to figure out what the title of the text was (it’s hard to tell if a name is a name or just a noun I don’t know yet), when it was written, and how the third title which was mentioned occasionally related to either of the other two.

Slides, with names and dates and maybe key points on them – in the language of the paper, of course – would’ve given me a much-neaded head start around which I could build an actual understanding of what was being argued.



* To be honest, my attention span is still not what it used to be – partly I think due to changes in my learning style as I grow older (oh hai, internets, affecting my brains!), and partly because I’m still sick and medication makes me dopey sometimes. So yes, this is an Accessibility Issue, although I understand there are equally good accessibility arguments *against* the use of PowerPoint or any other given visual aid, and it’s not like the presence or absence of PowerPoint determines completely whether I can participate in a session. It’s a factor in how much I can learn from that session, though.

Just in case you were thinking of taking the discipline seriously…

remember: history is made by stupid people.

[Visuals are pretty crappy, but there doesn’t seem to be a music video for it. Lyrics here.]

Speaking of history, my housemate concludes that history is, essentially, gossiping about dead people. This, she reasons, explains the fantastic propensity of medievalists to gossip about anyone and anything, living or dead. [Number of conversations I’ve had this month speculating about CS Lewis’ sex life: three.] In my observation, it seems like we Australians are *particularly* good at disciplinary gossip – which I think has less to do with our training than it has to do with having fewer chances to meet and talk to those scattered across the globe.