And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

onsdag 27. februar 2013

The Liebster Award

A few days ago I was surprised to learn that my friend Sarah had nominated my blog for the Liebster Award, an award given to bloggers by other bloggers whose writings they like and contents they find interesting. I'm very grateful to Sarah for this nomination, and I gladly accept the obligation further this nomination according to the Liebster Award rules, which are as follows:

1. Thank your Liebster Blog Award presenter on your blog and link back to the blogger who presented this award to you.
2. Answer the 11 questions from the nominator, list 11 random facts about yourself and create 11 questions for your nominees.
3. Present the Liebster Blog Award to 11 blogs of 200 followers or less who you feel deserve to be noticed and leave a comment on their blog letting them know they have been chosen. (No tag backs)
4. Copy and Paste the blog award on your blog

     Anglophilia and history: Exhibition Square in York

My questions from Sarah

What is your favourite book, of all time?

This is practically an impossible question to answer, as I have many favourite books of such a great variety that it is difficult to choose between them. However, two of the books I've re-read the most are Alistair MacLean's World War II thriller
Force 10 from Navarone and Geoffrey Hill's recent collection of poems Clavics.

Which five historical figures would you invite to your fantasy dinner party?

Edward the Confessor, Edmund Spenser, Jesus, Pelagius and Patrick O'Brian.

Do you have any bad habits?

Too many to enumerate. One of the worst is the tendency to sometimes forget what people say to me only minutes after it has been said, which makes me sometimes come off more arrogant than I really am.

Facebook or twitter?

That depends entirely on purpose. For keeping up with friends I prefer Facebook. To connect with like-minded people from all over the world and share ideas and knowledge, twitter is by far the better alternative.

Do you have a pet hate?

Several. The two biggest are anachronisms in novels or films and hipsters. Hipsters ruin so much for me.

Hipsters have been a problem for a long time (c) Kate Beaton

Has there been a book, song or movie that changed your life? How?

I find it difficult to assess which moments or experiences have been truly life-changing, largely because there are so many factors which compel us to take the roads we end up on, and in most cases we are not aware of these choices until long afterwards. Accordingly, there have been many books, movies and songs that have changed my life in various ways, but one I would like to point to is Umbert Eco's marvellous novel Baudolino, which I read when I was 19. The book really opened my eyes to the Middle Ages and gave a fertile ground in which the later exposures of academia could blossom into an enamoration.

Are there any historical fiction ‘crimes’ that really get on your nerves?

Anachronism is a major problem for me, but also cynicism. It's too easy to depict historical agents according to some objective mechanics we construct with hindsight, rather than embracing the idiosyncratic humanity of people inhabiting ages past. This is particularly the case in the depiction of the medieval religious. What is your greatest achievement to date?

My MA thesis.
Commemorative photo of me at my reading desk, taken after I had recieved the printed copies of my thesis

Can you tell us about one of your goals for the future?

I would very much like to write a book at some point. Novel, non-fiction, poetry collection, it's pretty much all the same.
What is your favourite thing about blogging?

First of all that I can share a wide variety of things and thoughts with like-minded people. Secondly, I like blogging because it inhabits a middle-ground between gossip and academia, meaning that when I write on historical or history-related subjects, I need some of the rigour of academic writing, but at the same time I'm much more independent.

And finally, have I annoyed you by nominating you for the Liebster?

Not in the least, so thank you again!

York Minster, picture taken from the city walls
Eleven facts about me
1) My favourite band is Dire Straits and has been since I was at least fourteen years old.

2) I'm a committed anglophile.

3) I actually like British cuisine, or at least great parts of it, but I will never understand why sausage rolls are so popular.

4) I sometimes spend hours on end stalking Italian cities on Google Maps. Usually on the wrong side of midnight.

5) Despite having visited Schiphol several times, I have not properly been to the Netherlands.

6) I find the Dutch language to be a charming one, although completely unintelligible when spoken.

7) I have a fascination with small countries, particularly Nauru, Andorra, San Marino and Liechtenstein.

8) I didn't know I wanted to be a medievalist until my second year at university.

9) I grew up on a farm in Western Norway.

10) I aspire to become a turophile.

11) I like dogs.

My dog, taken on a boatride on the fjord back home

My questions for my nominees

1) What prompted you to start blogging?

2) Name three of your favourite books.

3) Name three of your favourite travel destinations.

4) Name three travel destinations you would like to visit.

5) What is your oddest fascination?

6) TV-series or movies?

7) What TV-series are you currently watching regularly?

8) Which architectural style do you like best?

9) Name three subjects in which you would like to become more fluent.

10) Name one yet unamed phenomenon or concept which needs a name.

11) Which is your favourite band?

Grotesque dragons
Dragons from The Queen Mary Psalter, because dragons are fun

My nominees:

A Clerk of Oxford - wonderfully eclectic medievalist, literature scholar and Oxford resident writing about a wide array of subjects.

Art History with Caroline Quintanar - art historian specialising in Spanish medieval art and architecture.

General Grier's Civil War - letters from Brevet Brigadier General David Perkins Grier, of the 77th Illinois Volunteer Regiment, transcribed and made accessible for the reading public. A fascinating source to Civil War history.

In the Middle - a joint venture of medieval scholars presenting articles, extracts, musings and tidbits from their academic work.

ivry twr - concerned primarily with digital humanities, ivy twr presents articles, podcasts and videos embracing a wide variety of academic subjects with the digital age as its vantage point.

medievalfragments - the blog of a project concerned with medieval manuscripts, led by twitter's Erik Kwakkel.

Text Technology - with a medieval focus, this blog is concerned with text technologies throughout history.

The Cantos of Mvtabilitie - An Oxford don's infrequent musings of a wide variety of subjects. This was the blog that inspired me to start My Albion.

The Early Modern - a scholar presenting selections from the period 1500-1800.

The Monstrous Middle Ages - medievalist focussing on the monstrous in medieval texts. How can that not be fascinating?

Meshalim - multilingual medievalist presents fascinating snippets from academia.

fredag 22. februar 2013

Disappointment Day

I try to see through the clouds
On one more rainy day
- One more rainy day, Deep Purple

In the course of my three years as a teaching assistant I have grown accustomed to the rhythm of the essay weeks, and today was what I've come to term Disappointment Day. This is the deadline of the final essay, which ideally should contain all the corrections they've been asked to include in the feedback sessions. Ideally, the final essay should be a coherent text which tackles the assignment without any trace of hesitation of lack of control, and which is structured so neatly the reader has no difficulty following the flow of the arguments which culminate in a well-wrought conclusion. But this, as stated, is the ideal world.

The truth, as I've come to learn the hard way, is drastically different, and this is the day when you discover how little the students have actually done about the corrections you lined up for them. I take this somewhat hard because I commit very strongly to providing a clear standard that they should follow and pinpoint precisely where they tread falsely and what they need to change or omit. It turns out, however, that I'm not the only one who make commitments. The students appear to commit very strongly to the idea that their first drafts are filled with great ideas and nice phrases which must be retained in the final paper. At least this is how it seems to me. Of course, I can understand that very well. I, too, become very attached to texts I write, and I didn't learn humility in this regard until somewhat late in my bachelor, so I've stood in their shoes myself. After all, my MA degree was an exercise in textual revision, the only major difference being that I had by then acquired much more experience than my students currently have.

Being sympathetic to their situation, does not sugarcoat the disappointment. Nor have the three years entirely deprived me of that sense of hopefulness I experience the days prior to Disappointment Day. I have pretty high expectations of my students, and since they have chosen to walk the university road I expect them to take the challenges they encounter. Naturally, I do not expect equally much of everyone, nor do I treat everyone the same way. A part of my job is to attempt evaluating each student's character to such a degree that I can see whether he or she belongs in academia or not, and those who appear to do are of course given greater challenges.

However, since this is a freshman's course and many of the students have embarked on their first year in higher education, the bar is set extra low on Disappointment Day. Since we are student assistants we do not have the mandate to fail any of the students unless they do spectacularly bad, and sometimes even they they are allowed to pass. Indeed, there have been times when I've genuinely felt bad for not failing a student. For instance, there was this one girl who handed in two pages, which was only halfway to the mandatory minimum page count. I gave her a few days to rework the paper and even offered to give her a new date for the feedback session, as she had failed to show up to her allotted time. A few days later - on the very day of the new deadline - I finally heard back from her and found she had managed to expand her opus into three pages. Since I had no more time to give her - this was close to the deadline for sending the lists of candidates to the exam office - I decided to let her pass, and immediately felt bad for doing so.

This time, since it is spring and not late in the autumn and close to the exams, I do have more time to give them, but not without infringing upon the time they need to write the next essay, which is due next friday. Since I'll be correcting these papers, too, I want them to write as well as they can, and they can't do this with more work hanging over them. However, so far I have failed four of ca. 10 or 15 papers, all of whom because they missed the point of the assignment, and three of whom I really expected to do better. The fourth I really don't expect that much from, but I hope at least he will be able to make it to four pages.

When I woke up today there was a warm rain of the kind that was really too early for February, and the world grey and white. It was one more rainy day in Norway, and one more Disappointment Day in my career as a student assistant.

Sisyphus, painting by Titian

torsdag 14. februar 2013

A Trial of Two Days

Ferret conducting a choir of geese, taken from the liturgical MS known as the Gänsebuch (1503-10), the Book of Geese, named after this particular illumination. The picture is taken from this website.

(...) and the sword with the belt was taken from the altar, and, turning to the king, the bishop said: "Receive this"
- The Deeds of the Kings of Saxony, Widukind of Corvey (my translation)

This week began very roughly. For two consecutive days I sat down with students to give them feedback on their assignments in a freshman course in ancient and medieval history. The assignment is an essay meant to prepare them for writing their exams, and as a teaching assistant it is my job to correct their papers and give them constructive criticism. It is a heavy job as it involves a lot of textual work and a lot of repetitive work, seeing as many students tread falsely on the same steps. The task grows into a certain monotony when you read the fourth paper in a row where the student fails to properly establish a foundation for the argumentative part of the assignment. It is, despite certain grievances, a great job, and it is also a duty I have to fulfill to my students. I wish, however, they would fulfill their duties to me by writing complete drafts.

Most of my students are freshmen and freshwomen, straight out of the Norwegian equivalent to senior high and unaccustomed to anything the university throws at them. They have of course been through a similar situation in the first term, but one autumn is not enough time to get used to the ways and means of higher education. Some of my students are more experienced, but they come from different disciplines - predominantly arcaheology - and are not entirely adjusted to the style of history. For two group sessions I tried to prepare them for the big test, and I laid down some very simple and fundamental guidelines for how to write a good essay, and presented a few things to avoid in order to keep me happy while correcting their papers. I had rather high hopes as they seemed to take it all in, but it turned out most of the first drafts were far from how I had expected them to be, since they failed to use the structure I had given them or, even worse, had only jotted down a handful of points for future work.

I have 25 students who signed up for my classes, and so far there has been an attendance of 15-19, which I'm quite happy about. In addition, I've graded roughly 13 papers for external students who received their feedback via e-mail. As you understand, I've read a lot of text dealing with the same material, and I would be lying if I said the repetition never got to me. The corrections eventually culminate in the feedback sessions mentioned earlier, and while they are the most challenging aspect of the job, they are also the most rewarding.

The sessions usually follow the same pattern: the students knock on my door or are spotted through the open door, invited in and asked to sit down in a rather comfortable chair. I usually begin with allowing them to comment on their own work, so as to gauge the expectations. I then commence to point out the various flaws or shortcomings, while making sure to commend them for what they have done well. Finally, after approximately ten to fifteen minutes I hand them their papers like a bishop gives a king his sword and conclude my sermon with "do you have any questions?" The whole ritual is very orderly and uncomplicated, and I have so far never had any unpleasant encounters or reactions.

Some sessions are of course a greater delight than others, and this depends entirely on the student. Some students are more engaged in the subject than others and are very eager to discuss the topic or to ask questions pertaining to the task ahead of them, the final draft. In some cases - and although they are rare, I highly appreciate them - the students want to shake hands as a sign of thank you, and that is an extraordinary feeling.

Not every student is as comfortable as that in my presence, or as enthused about learning and receiving criticism. Some students ostensibly take this course as a one-year engagement, either to scoop up what they consider easy points or to take a year doing something they believe is easy while making up their minds about what to do with their lives. This does not automatically make them disinterested - indeed, some do go on to take a bachelor's degree - but it is in this demographic one finds the less receptive students. Other students - freshmen or freshwomen - are so new to what they partake in that they are uncomfortable with the arrangement. This was especially so with one of the youngsters in my group, who positively shook with nervousness for the entire session. I felt really bad for him, poor lamb, and I tried my best to be calm, soothing and positive - which was not an easy task as he had handed in a very poor draft.

In sum, Monday and Tuesday constituted a trial for me, a series of sessions where I had to engage with a very varied lot of people and repeat myself over and over again, since they generally struggled with the same issues and had the same shortcomings. These sessions are situations in which I have to be at my clearest, both in my mind and in my words, and I have to evaluate the students as I speak to them and adjust my sermons accordingly. This goes on for hours on end, broken only by lunch and Latin classes, and at the end of the day I have either talked or been talked to so much that the greatest bliss is silence.

The job is, as I've said, a challenge. It is a very rewarding challenge, but it is also very draining on your faculties. Not only because of the repetition and monotony, but because it demands very much of you as a textual critic and a fellow human being. You have to deal with the frustrations that occur when students have ignored your advice or let themselves be derailed into a cul-de-sac through a careless reading of the assignment text. You have to be critical yet supportive, all-knowing yet humble when you actually do make mistakes and you have to be constantly present in both body and spirit. In a certain way, this is why I find the lovely image from the Book of Geese a suitable illustration of my plight: just as challenging it must be for a ferret to conduct a choire of quaking and quacking geese, so, too, is it a challenge for me to conduct the bewildered students through a maze of technical issues and obstacles largely of their own making.

In a few weeks' time it will all commence again as the students prepare themselves for yet another compulsory assignment. I just hope I am prepared to the task by then.

Image taken from MS. Royal 20B XX, f.1, courtesy of British Library

mandag 4. februar 2013

The Greyfriars Skeleton - A Case for History

 Richard III's motto, photo taken at the Richard III Museum in York

From 10.00 to 11.00 AM GMT today there was held a press conference in Leicester presenting the verdict on the so-called Greyfriars Skeleton, which was unearthed in an archaeological excavation beneath a Leicester car park in September last year. The excavation was organised in a joint venture by Leicester University, the Richard III Society and Leicester City Council, and its specific purpose was to find the remains of King Richard III, who was said to have been laid to rest in a church now lost. When the skeleton was found, its spinal curvature prompted speculations on whether this could be the infamous king, immortalised by William Shakespeare as a monstrous hunchback, and it seemed indeed as if the excavation had found exactly what it sought to find. On today's press conference, the team of archaeologists from Leicester University - headed by Richard Buckley - presented their skeletal evidence, the historiographical evidence and ultimately the DNA results in an orderly and sober fashion. The academic verdict of the team was that the skeleton "beyond reasonable doubt" belonged to the last Plantagenet king.

The conference attracted great attention both in the UK and abroad, and it was a much-anticipated event for historians and lay enthusiasts alike. The case is - by the time I write this - the most viewed news-report on BBC's homepage, and on twitter Richard III has been trending for hours as a consequence. Following the verdict, the University of Leicester launched a new website about the excavation, and I'm confident we will see many more activities pertaining to the unearthed king in the foreseeable future.

 Greyfriars, Leicester. Map taken from wikimedia

The resounding enthusiasm has, unsurprisingly, found its counterpart in certain sceptical and/or dismissive voices. This is of course a natural reaction, and academics are, after all, required by their work description to be sceptical about these things. Charlotte Higgins of the Guardian, for instance, commented that this was "not really history, not in any meaningful sense ", and that the ultimate importance of the "jamboree" was raising awareness of the university, attract interested people to the discipline of archaeology by showcasing how experts work and, finally, to secure funding.

Personally, I believe Higgins's article, while raising an important concern, is too insistent upon its own scepticism to comprehend the big picture. That the three points she mentioned were achieved is - like the identity of the skeleton - beyond reasonable doubt, and they are all three truly important. However, the fact that we now have identified the remains of a historical person, allows us to realign the facts we knew and the myths we believed into a picture more fitting with the most recently unearthed facts. This is indeed history in a meaningful sense.

However, I also believe that the verdict concerning the identity of the Greyfriars skeleton was not the most important aspect of today's conference. During the conference, as the experts presented the various facts they had discovered - tacitly and carefully tying it into the big question of whether this was Richard, while still withholding the ultimate verdict - it struck me that regardless the end result of the conference, this event had already proved its big importance. The most important aspect of today's conference was not the identity of the skeleton, but rather showing how much people actually care about history and that history is not merely a thing of the past.

Today's verdict may be refuted in times to come when technology has become even more refined, and people will eventually grow accustomed to the revisions and confirmations of historical facts today's verdict has provided. However, to my mind the conference is a firm proof that historians and archaeologists are needed in today's society, that they play their roles and that their endeavours are justified by the enthusiasm of both professionals and layfolk alike. In an age where there is a demand for solid and tangible results in academia, events like this show that not only do humanists achieve results, but that the populace eagerly anticipates and show enthusiasm over these results. There is, in other words, sufficient interest in history to not only justify but necessitate professional historians and archaeologists, in order to unearth and ultimately make sense of new facts. Whatever the duration of today's verdict in Leicester, this particular aspect will stand the test of time.