Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Wooty Woo!!

Hey, now you can guess why I chose the ol' ruminate as the title of my blog:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iVjE_fS-plg

Monday, May 16, 2016

Kzoo 2016

"Well, I'm back." Truly some of the saddest and most profound words to end a novel. For this post, "Well, it's over." will do just as well. And it is over. Kalamazoo 2016, the 51st International Congress on Medieval Studies is over and in the books.

 Thank you denizens of the Medieval Institute and Western Michigan University for once again putting this shebang on!! The currents of Kalamazoo pulled as they are wont to do, and I saw and caught up with old friends, other old friends I was able to shake hands with as we passed each other before the currents whisked away, still others I did not see at all. People I follow on Facebook and had yet to meet in person I still did not meet in person. But I made new friends too. And to continue my loosely Heraclitian observations, no one can have the same Congress experience twice; each is different than the last, each is a truly great experience. Our tagline should be: Congress: We work hard, We play hard, We dance hard, We clean out the book exhibit! Or something.....

 My Congress is as follows. I decided a few months ago to do something different. I decided I would fly or mostly fly. The last time I flew to Kalamazoo or even part way was 1999. I was able to find a good deal on a flight from Bemidji, MN to Midway, Chicago, and then opted for the rental car. I waited for the always delightful and wonderful Yvette Kisor who rode with me to Kalamazoo. We then, as is our way and because we were both hungry and thirsty, went to Bilbo's pizza for pizza and beer, picking up Chris Vaccaro along the way. Then Yvette convinced to do the most amazing thing: get water. Smartest thing I've for years! I bought a gallon of water for my dorm room!!! What a god send! Capital idea Yvette!! To bed, then.

 Thursday morning I was at the Sources of Anglo-Saxon Literary Culture meeting at 8:30 AM. Fred Biggs is instrumental in taking the project in a new direction and things are getting published and will be coming out! Woot!! Thursday morning's session was The Lone Medievalist round table at which I heard from others about their experiences; and from my former students who gave advice about how to form a medieval club on campus. Thursday noon was the Lone Medievalist business meeting, so we talked about the project, its future, and how to help each other. I skipped the next session to finish my paper. I have to say being chair and teaching 4/4 and everything else is really not conducive to doing good scholarly work, hence the finishing of the paper at the last nute. SIGH. Hoping to change that. Anyway, that brought me to my session at 3:30 on Manuscript Layouts of Germanic Poetry where I met and heard Rachel Burns looking at spacing and graphotactics, and Professor Awesome, known as Richard Scott Nokes in increasingly smaller circles, who looked at the dwarf charm and posited it as two charms, which would make a heck of a lot more sense. We all had pretty pictures. I like pretty pictures.

Thursday night was typical of a Congress: wine hour with colleagues, dinner with colleagues--this year at the wonderful Saffron Indian place--, and then receptions to discuss more loverly medieval stuff.

Friday, I rose, got coffee at the shop in the book exhibit and skipped the morning session to spend time shopping for books. For lunch, Wendy Hennequin and I went to Shwarma King! I love that place!! In the first afternoon session, I attended one of the Bede sessions, with three good papers that I am still digesting. I "learned" a fact there that I am embarrassed to admit I did not know, and changes some things I thought about the early 8th century. Always good. The second session of the afternoon was a bit difficult. As many know, Steven Cartwright died this past year. Steve was always generous and kind and a good scholar. He is missed. He was to preside over a session about Abelard and I was asked to take over. So,we talked about Steve, dedicated the session to him and read 3 Abelard papers. Very interesting material, and this was my "not in my field" session for the year.

 I will say something too. Steve's work should be carried on. Get in touch with Liz Teviotdale who was going to check about access to Steve's computer and work if someone would like to step forward and see it to completion.

Friday evening I attended the Anglo-Saxonist dinner for the first time in several years. I had a good seat and good company, the wine was very good and food was tasty. We were going to go to Bell's afterward, but by the time I played taxi and we got down to Bell's there was a line to get in, it was raining, and there was no parking, so we just came back to the receptions Friday.

Saturday morning after some lovely coffee, I attended the roundtable The Business of Old English which I thought was handled well and discussed important issues of the academic business side of things. Saturday lunch was at Olde Penninsula brewpub...no brew for the driver but I did have a loverly burger and salad. Afternoon sessions included at 1:30 The Afterlives of Bede where I heard 3 very interesting papers, including Breanne Leake whom I have at last now met face to face. The 3:30 session had me at Anglo-Saxon Law in honor of the taken way too early Lisi Oliver. Friend Bruce Gilchrist was in that one with 111 slides and even more mandibles!

Saturday evening, after a meeting of the Heroic Age minds (and possibly recruiting another set of hands in the person of David Carlton) at the wine hour, I attended the MEARCSTAPA business meeting, a more interesting and engaged set of academics would be difficult to find. Then off to my traditional Saturday night dinner and drinks at London Grill finishing the meal off with STICKY TOFFEE PUDDING. Delicious! Because we were so late getting to the restaurant, we had a wait, so we didn't get to the dance until about 10:30. But we closed the place down, and then met up with other people to continue the conviviality.

Sunday....well, I always feel guilty about Sundays. I've read Sundays, I've presided Sundays, but as much as I have good intentions, I rarely make a Sunday session. And I didn't this year either. I hadn't been in the book room save a smidge Friday morning, so I wanted to go there and look through the rest of it before the end. Another post will follow on that. For the first time ever though, I took advantage of the shipping guy and will have some of my purchases sent to me. Last but not least, I finished my Congress by having lunch with the incredible and old-friend (emphasis on friend) Dot Porter at good ol' Food Dance!

And that was it....I packed up, moved to the Radisson for the night and am now fixin' on checking out, getting brunch, and taking a leisurely drive to Midway airport. That is my Congress report 2016.

A couple of last observations: one of the things that speaks highly of our field is that making a choice of what to attend at a given session block also means NOT attending several other desirable sessions! While it is disappointing not to be able to get to everything, it speaks well about how vibrant and active we all are. Second, my generation is becoming the old guard. That is scary. I

reencountered old friends, some more deeply than others, and I made new ones. I am grateful for each and every one. I won't mention names, because undoubtedly I'd leave someone out that should be mentioned. But many offered shoulders and support for my current crises and for that I am grateful. I hope I provided the same.

I declare the 51st International Congress on Medieval Studies a success....but it won't close for awhile as all that information simmers in our brains and influences our teaching and research.

Sunday, May 08, 2016

Swain's 12 Rules for Good Reviewing

 Some time ago on Facebook, I promised or at least intimated that I want to do a quick little guide to how to be a good reader for a journal. This is in part based on my own experience on both sides of the academic publishing business. As an author myself, I have been the victim of some scathing reviews of my work.  That is not to say that my work is above criticism. Nor is it to say that I have not benefited by remarks from reviewers of my work. But it is to say that when the reviewer for a journal is overly harsh, or compares a  paper to something published on a related topic by one of the largest and most significant names in the field and remarks  that the author, that is me, has a very long way to go before he will be like X.   Yes I received such a comment put far more abrasively in a review of an article that I submitted to a journal.

 Also as an editor, I have asked various people to be reviewers for articles,  and what I've received back from said reviewer I have had to  significantly tone down the language in fact rewrite the review, because the reviewer had been so unnecessarily harsh on the author.  Being hyper critical isn't the same as offering a critique.

 So with that said here is my short guide to becoming a good reviewer/reader  for a professional journal or academic publication.

 Rule I

 This is not about you! Being a reviewer is not a platform to show the world how great a scholar you are. It is not an opportunity to showcase your vast knowledge of the subject. It is not a platform  from which you can demonstrate to all and sundry how much better you are than the author of the article or book that you are reviewing. So the first rule of becoming a good review were is to check your ego at the door.

 A good reviewer puts scholarship ahead of their own individual needs. This means that when approaching an article or book for review, it is about the contents of the article or book. How it is written, how  it is constructed, does it add to the field, does it handle evidence well, is there secondary literature, and other types of important questions that we can ask about  an article.

To be a good reviewer, then, first means a very important shift: it's about the scholarship, not about your scholarship.

Rule II

It's a teaching moment.   Reviewing an article or book is not unlike assessing student work, i.e. grading.   This is an opportunity for the reviewer to teach and help the one reviewed, or the very least collaborate if the writer is someone more senior.  Suggest revisions, suggest bibliography (that is appropriate!): always approach this with the goal of building a better paper/book rather than seeing how much you can tear down.

Rule III

When suggesting revisions make certain that they are good revisions.  I had a recent reviewer tell me that an Old English word did not say what I said it did, yet every lexicon and glossary of Old English (Bosworth-Toller, DOE, etc...even the Dict of ME) agreed with me.  Before the reviewer suggests revisions, make certain that you the reviewer are actually correct!

Rule IV

When suggesting bibliography, also make certain that you know what you are talking about.  I had a reviewer reject an article for publication.  Among the reviewer's criticisms was that I had not quoted Big Name's Very Important Book nearly enough.  But, Big Name in that Very Important Book mentioned the issue my paper was addressing once, made one point on that issue and talked about it for about a page.  I cited that page, examined his point and explanation and took it apart.  It was unnecessary to cite Big Name in that book any further because he was dealing with other things not germane to my own paper.  The same reviewer also said that my paper's argument had been made by Other Big Name in Very Big Article 30 years previously, except that Other Big Name in Very Big Article never mentioned the texts I was working on nor the chronology or causation.  In short, do not do this!  If you the reviewer refers the author to bibliography, make certain the bibliography actually fits.

Along the same lines, avoid suggesting bibliography just to suggest bibliography.  Just because an article mentions Unferth but does not in fact mean the author needs to cite every article that has examined Unferth, Reviewers should always ask themselves the question whether the bibliography they want to suggest is actually necessary to the paper's argument and examination, or is it just a case of "my bib is bigger than your bib."

Rule V

If you accept an assignment to review, make sure you actually can.  I have committed this sin far too many times.  A recent book review I am ashamed to admit took me a year and a half to do....life kept getting in the way.  On the other hand, as an editor I've had to chase down reviewers all too often too.
We all have a tendency to view what we can do with optimism...thinking we can do more than we really can. And life has a way of throwing us curveballs...and I for one am rarely prepared for the sudden curve ball of having so much to do suddenly that I had not planned on.

All that said means have a care when volunteering.  Don't be a Larry.

Rule VI

Do not take the opportunity of double blind or anonymous reviewing as an opportunity to be snarky and rude.  Like the now ancient cartoon, "On the Internet, no one knows you're a dog."

It is easy to be high and mighty and look down one's nose at a paper or book and be absolutely snarky about it with no consequences whatsoever.  This is, however, not only rude and unprofessional, but extremely unhelpful.  I am not saying, to quote Thumper, "if you can't say something nice, don't say nothin' at all."  A review, after all, is an assessment, and sometimes that means being negative (this is circular reasoning, a non sequitur, etc).  But when comments like this need to be made, use a professional voice, not a snarky one....and refer back to Rule I.

Rule VII

Write reviews that you would like to receive.  I suppose one could say that upon this rule hang all the others.


The worst or best rejection I have ever received was "Great paper" accompanied by a rejection.  This still puzzles me: why the rejection?  Do both the editors and the author a favor and be specific on why suggesting rejection or revisions.  If you don't, then the editor has to deal with distraught author and that eats up editor's time.

Rule IX

If the submission needs cleaning up, (typos, grammar errors, citation errors) simply say so with a few examples of the problem rather than a list of everything.  This makes everyone's life more pleasant.

Rule X

Along with Rule V above, do not undertake a review that you have no or little expertise in.  If one has to study to be able to do a good review, then really the reviewer is doing a disservice rather than a service.  So if asked to do a review, be honest if it is not within your expertise areas.

Rule XI

This should go without saying, but I'll say it anyhow.  Um, the reviewer should actually read the submission....more than once is desirable.  Do not turn in a review that is based on having not read or only partially read or merely skimmed the piece.

Rule XII

Stick to the major issues!  It is easy to discuss at length a minor point in the submission, but if it isn't a major issue, touch on it lightly or not at all.  The devil is not in the details on this one.

Keep in mind that doing reviews has a dual audience and dual purpose.  First, the review and reviewer is collaborating with the editor(s) and helping the editor make a decision about the manuscript.  Second, the review is to aid the author in improving the manuscript.

As a last comment, this is about you.  No, I'm not changing my mind about Rule I!  What I mean is that the best reviewers are those who approach doing a review as a learning opportunity for him/herself as much as a service opportunity to the editor/journal/press/field and a teaching opportunity for the author.  But for yourself as a reviewer, be ready to learn.

Additional thoughts are welcome in the comments!!