Friday, December 30, 2011

Time Management Aspirations and the Technology to (Hopefully) Achieve Them

Resolving to manage research, reading and writing time better is like the academic's version of normal people resolving to stop smoking, lose weight or go to the gym seven days a week: perennially made and perennially broken.

I'm really motivated this year, though. (I know, I know. It's what the would-be-ex-smokers and -couch potatoes say, too.) One of the biggest and most unexpected transitions from frantically-dissertating graduate student to tenure-track assistant professor has been shaking the feeling that I have to be at my desk every waking second of every hour of every day. That's not to say that I don't anticipate being really busy and overworked for the foreseeable future. I do. (I make a schedule for myself each semester, and invariably it allows for 65-70 hours of work a week.) But I do want to be able to go to the occasional social outing, movie, concert, or other random weird wonderful thing that happens just because this is New York. Such things are probably not only good for me the human being, but also for me the scholar. When I was dissertating,  I was putting in so much butt-in-chair time that it was becoming counterproductive because I was badly burned out and just spinning my wheels for a lot of that time. I couldn't allow myself to do it, but in retrospect taking a day or an afternoon off once in a while would probably have let me get the same amount of work done, if not more. So my goal for this year is to work more efficiently so I don't feel so guilty during those few fleeting hours a week that I allot to myself for photography or reading for pleasure that I end up at my desk not so much working but working myself up into a lather.

As low-tech as my semesterly schedule is (it involves a calendar printout and colored markers) I'm enlisting a few technological aides in my quest for better time management and, somewhat ironically, for wasting less time overall on the internet. Let's see how they work out over the course of this coming spring:

1) Declaration of Facebook Bankruptcy

Inspired by people who declare email bankruptcy in which they delete everything from their inboxes, read or not, and simply start over, I declared Facebook bankruptcy last week. The final straw was actually the most recent changes to their format that makes everything its users have ever posted much more readily available. Yes, their claim that it gives the user much more control over her data is true, but what they don't mention is that achieving such control may require reviewing every single thing, post by post, that's been posted since, say, 2004 to verify the privacy settings. And as much as I have always abided by a firm policy of not putting anything on the internet that I wouldn't be comfortable with my mom seeing, I'm also a very different person than I was in my junior year of college and don't necessarily want the twain to meet. So, I obliterated my FB account and started over.

What does this all have to do with time management, though?

While security concerns were indeed the final straw, I had been looking for a way to break out of the way I had been using and overusing Facebook. The details aren't all that interesting, but the bottom line is that I want to be on Facebook for a lot less time than I have been in the recent past. Every time I tried to change my patterns, though, was unsuccessful, so I thought that a really clean break might help in that posting a lot and checking a lot and commenting a lot would no longer be part of an established part of my FB identity. I'm not sure if that's exactly what's happened — I think part of it is definitely down to the fact that in starting over, I'm necessarily ending up with fewer FB friends than I had before and so there is less mental and visual clutter for me on the site — but the result is as desired.

2) Pomodoro Technique

I've seen lots of other academic bloggers rave about using a tomato-shaped timer while they work. It seemed a little silly. (Heck, it still seems a little silly.) But I reached a point where, within reason, I was willing to try anything.

I downloaded the iPhone app version of the pomodoro timer, and started using it as indicated: Writing or reading for 25 minutes with the timer ticking down, taking a five-minute break, and repeating three more times before earning a longer break. The twenty five-five combination is referred to as "a pomodoro."

I've been pretty pleased with it so far. I close all extraneous windows of my web browser because while the timer is ticking, I know I'm just supposed to be working. I'm not good at delayed gratification (in other words, just telling myself that if I work for twenty-five minutes then I can web surf for five doesn't work) but somehow the idea of tomato-imposed obligation is working well for me. I'm also finding that it's cutting down on my overall internet time-wastage because if I've been working at my desk really intensely for the twenty-five minute block, I'm less inclined to spend my five minutes web surfing because I really want to get up and stretch my legs and make another cup of tea.

One thing that I've noticed so far is that the pomodoro helps me keep from sitting at my desk and attempting to work when I'm too tired or in the completely wrong frame of mind to be productive. The logic is a little circular, but it works: If the pomodoro is ticking, I'd better be working, and if I'm not working, there's no point in setting the next pomodoro, and the pomodoro needs to be running while I'm at my desk, so I get up and refresh myself.

I wish it had a few more functions than it does: For example, while it records your completed pomodoros for the day and over the life of the app, I think that recording the number of abortive pomodoros would make it even more useful. There's something about the video-gamish aspect of it that would keep me from wanting my number of failed pomodoros to be too high that would really make me think hard about whether in setting the timer again I could really be productive or if I needed to get up and do something else. (As I'm typing this, I realize that it does run a bit contrary to the pomodoro theory of just blazing through, but I'm not totally sure that this was designed for people reading Arabic philosophy in the original, which sometimes requires a little more flexibility. Of course, my emendation would only work if you're the sort of person, as I am, who can trick herself into doing an extra ten minutes of Wii pilates in an attempt to break her all-time high score. And  I modify the plan in other ways, too. When I'm reading I stick to the 25-5 pattern, but when I'm writing, I work through the first break and write for 55 minutes and then take a short break.)

3) Mel Gibson in Blue Facepaint

Er, Freedom: Software that keeps you from going on the internet for a given period of time. It asks you: How much freedom do you want? (I love the idea that freedom comes in quantifiable units and has a scale of measurement.) The software then disables your internet connection for the time period you've specified. If you want to go onto the internet, you have to do a hard reboot of your machine, which is enough of a disincentive that it works. There is also a variation of the software called Anti-Social, which disables access to social networking sites but allows access to things like JSTOR.

I've used Freedom in the past, and in truth it makes me a little edgy. I tend to chafe when I'm told I can't do something, and I think this software presses that button just a little bit with me, so I don't use it. But that said, I'm prepared to go back to it this semester if I find the above two techniques don't have the sustained effect I'm looking for.

4) A few other tricks

I'm planning on setting aside some concrete internet time when I can read papers and blogs, since I shan't be doing that during the working blocks of my schedule. I'm also planning on setting aside one specific time to answer email during the day so that I don't get distracted by having to respond to one email here and one email there and then have to completely regain focus after each email. There's nothing so pressing in my life that waiting for a response for potentially 24 hours will mean the difference between life and death, even metaphorically, for anyone.


I guess the sum total of these techniques also addresses the problem of distraction and fractured attention as much as time management, not that the two are unrelated. It's not just a question of productivity but of the quality of thought and work. I'm optimistic that with more concentrated and focused time, both will improve in the new year.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

In Which I am Awesome

I just got an acceptance notice from a journal! The piece is one of what will be a cluster of essays (rather than articles per se) on a themed topic. I like what I wrote, and this was actually the perfect moment to write in an essayistic manner because I have the bones of a broader argument laid out, but I don't have all the details worked out yet; this was an opportunity to clarify my broad thinking about the project and at least get the idea (which is really a pretty cool one based mostly on codicology) out there while I continue to line up my ducks, research-wise. I have a few revisions to make but they're pretty minor.

(Woo hoo! A publication! Ahem. Carry on.)

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Movie Review: The Way (2010)

It is a rare movie that has the possibility of really being useful (rather than simply entertaining) in a medieval Iberia-focused classroom. I had high hopes that The Way, the newish Martin Sheen movie about a father walking the Camino de Santiago in memory of his son, would fall into that category. And while I'm definitely glad that I saw the movie, it was neither particularly good as a movie nor will it be especially useful in a classroom setting.

In the positive column, Martin Sheen gives a wonderful performance as Tom, a Ventura, CA-based ophthalmologist  who finds himself going to the south of France to collect the remains of Danny, his 40-year-old ABD anthropologist son who was killed in a freak storm in the Pyrenees during his first day of walking the Camino de Santiago, the medieval pilgrim route that goes all the way from Paris to the cathedral of Saint James in the Galician city of Santiago de Compostela. On the spur of the moment, he decides to have Danny's body cremated and trek to Compostela himself, scattering the ashes along the way.

Both the script and the cinematography really let Sheen's performance down, though. As Tom travels the Camino he collects a few other discontents and misfits and they form a scruffy hiking band, each of them trying hard not to like each other and to resolve their own issues; it's not really enough of a story to spin a whole script from and as a result, the writing is not particularly tight. So many sudden, jarring moments were naked attempts to manipulate the audience's emotions; the ones that stick out in my memory are the revelation, seemingly out of nowhere, that the Canadian pilgrim Sarah had been abused by her husband and was seeking absolution for having had an abortion rather than bear the man's child and the fleeting, unsympathetic glimpse of the Franciscan flagellants walking the Camino and bearing a large wooden cross. With respect to the cinematography itself, what should or could have been sweeping views of the landscape in Navarre and the Basque country and Galicia were fleeting and in fuzzy focus; and the stops that the group made in towns did not visually highlight life or architecture or much of anything there. Visually, the whole movie felt like a squandered opportunity.

Finally, I am not one to throw around the O-word liberally, but Tom's encounter with a Roma community, begun when a young gypsy boy stole the backpack containing Danny's ashes, was preposterously Orientalizing in the full-on Saidian sense of it. It turned out that the boy's father was the one enlightened, English-speaking member of the community and as such forced him not only to return the backpack but to carry it for Tom all the way to the edge of town on his way out, switching the boy all the way.

It's not that bad movies have no place in a classroom. In fact, one of the ones I find to be most useful is the Orlando Bloom vehicle Kingdom of Heaven. It's just that this movie was neither good enough nor bad enough for that. It's a movie worth seeing, but maybe not until it comes out on Netflix.

Postscript: In spite of all of this — especially in spite of the lack of moving scenery — the movie did make me want to walk the Camino in a way I've never been especially interested in doing before. Stay tuned.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Email Etiquette and a Contemplation of Generalized Exhaustion

I awoke yesterday, the last morning of the semester, after a week of extended office hours and in-class writing workshops, to an email from a student from my intro lecture class who had attended neither, asking if he could meet with me and my co-instructor to go over his paper (the required first draft of which he had, incidentally, never handed in). My colleague was going to be in meetings all day and I have a drop-dead deadline for a not-yet-finished journal article in two weeks and have really set working on it aside of late to be available to students in the last weeks of term; given all of that and given that the student who emailed me hadn't even bothered to come to the writing workshops and meet-with-the-professor-one-on-one opportunities that we held during and outside of class time, I felt little compunction about reminding him that we had offered many opportunities to confer with us and telling him that neither of us would be in the office to see students that day.

I received the following email (with no salutation, reproduced here entirely as-is except for replacements indicated in brackets for anonymizing purposes) in reply:

Very well then. It's just that I've had other things to attend to regarding my schoolwork and I have been trying to polish my paper so that it makes sense. It is too bad that you cannot help out and help see that this paper is exactly what you ask for.
I was going to ask you about the format of the paper, because on your instructions it says that the format is based on primary sources. The thing is that with the topic of my paper being [TOPIC FOR WHICH PRIMARY SOURCES DO INDEED EXIST], it is quite impossible to get primary sources. I was going to ask how should my paper be set up to account for that.
Thanks anyways,

After several hours in which I allowed my blood pressure to return slowly to normal, I replied:

I think you've missed the point somewhat. If a student does not fulfill some of the basic requirements for a course, requirements like class attendance on a workshop day and submitting a first draft (even a late first draft) that were put into place to ensure that all students could receive adequate face-time and  feedback on their work, and then waits until the last day of the semester to ask for help with something as fundamental as not being able to find primary sources for an assignment that requires their use, it is simply not a reasonable expectation that his professor would necessarily be able to reschedule or neglect her other professorial responsibilities to accommodate those deficiencies.
To answer your question about form, you'll find that the assignment sheet says that the sample organization that is offered is merely a suggestion, that the primary concern of this assignment is content rather than form and that students are welcome to organize their papers as they see fit. Hope this helps.

I'm just baffled. I understand that the student was frustrated that neither of us was available to meet with him. But I have trouble understanding the lack of self-awareness about the wisdom of asking for exceptions to deadlines and modifications to schedules (and ex post facto, to boot!) from a person after you've just told her that her class is a low priority for you; it's not a question of offending me (this is not something my ego is caught up in that way at all) but of making me wonder why I should make any given student's work for the class a higher priority than he himself makes it. And I do definitely understand the temptation to take blocks of "free" time and rearrange or re-prioritize the work that's meant to be done over the longue duree; but I can't see making a decision to do so somebody else's problem. Nevermind that passive-aggressive is rarely the right tone to strike with anyone. I was pretty pleased with my response.

I took a while to consider the advisability of publishing this post, and I think what drove me, ultimately, to go ahead with it is that it wasn't really just about this student. This email is emblematic of what the semester as a whole has been like. I'm so glad it's over. First year on the TT is really rugged. More on that later, though. For now, back to the article.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Sunny with Highs in the 40s, Low Chance of Blogging

Posting will be light to intermittent from now through January. Carry galoshes, prepare for delays, and please do check back in early 2012.

Friday, December 9, 2011

By George, I think she's got it!

I just saw an article entitled "The Archaeology of Irrigated Spaces in Southeast Granada during the Medieval Period." If you parse it out, what the author is saying is that the rain in Spain stays mainly on the plain.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler

I took my students to the Met today. On the right is the sticker to show that I had permission to explain things and gesticulate wildly in the medieval and Islamic* galleries. On the left is the cover of the new museum map in Arabic.

* At the desk, the girl who was filling out the info said, "That gallery has such a long name. I hope "Islamic" is PC enough."

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Not Fit for Publication in a Family Newspaper

(Prefatory note: Blogger just ate my post! What follows is a reconstruction.)

Now that I am at the point of introducing the Libro de Alexandre in my introductory course, I am reminded of an episode from my upper-division seminar last fall when I completely inadvertently taught my students to curse in Spanish in a more historically-informed and literate way:

The topic of the course was Andalusi ways of reading and writing. And so the major theme that I was hoping to convey to my students about the
Libro de Alexandre was the idea that a text can be self-conscious and tell the reader something about the circumstances of its own composition, relatively similar to the major point that I'm making about the text this semester.

In class, one of the things I asked my students to do was to break into small groups and compile a list of all the references to reading and writing that they could find in the excerpts I had assigned. One reference that did not make the list was to the fact that Alexander's journeys were so wondrous and extensive that their description would not have fit on the skin of
quinze cabrones (fifteen goats). The point, in this context, is that the narrative voice steps away from the narration to tell the reader something about the composition of the text. It came out that none of my students had understood the reference. That was completely fine and expected — truly, my main goal in that class session was that my students would walk away with a basic comprehension of the first medieval text they had ever read in the original, and with some strategies that they could use to approach the language of other texts we would read over the course of the semester. In the interest of developing the latter, I thought it might be more effective to approach the problem Socratically instead of going right in for the big reveal.

So I asked: "In modern Spanish, if you call someone a
cabrón, what are you literally calling him?"

My intention was for them to make the connection themselves between a word they already knew — an insulting swear word that is courser in usage than its literal meaning, big goat,  would suggest — and the use of goat skin in making vellum as a writing surface.

The next time I try this, I will be more emphatic in my enunciation of the word
literally, because instead of the lightbulbs going off over their heads, my students started to exchange glances until one of them gingerly raised her hand. Tentatively, and with more than a hint of incredulity in her voice that the professor should have asked such a question, she answered, "Um, a f***er?"

Nervous laughter changed to some genuine giggling, much of it on my part when I saw that I had, essentially, given a lesson in the historical development of a popular and serious Spanish swear word. I regained my composure and explained the connection I was trying to make. But I bet that nobody who was in that room will ever forget that the
Libro de Alexandre was written on vellum!

Where's Walter?

(Click to enlarge to a readable size.)

The commodity topic for the past two weeks in the intro lecture class has been paper and parchment; so for my lecture later today, I'm presenting the Libro de Alexandre as a textual locus for finding hidden references to different types of writing. So it actually worked thematically to throw a little Where's Waldo reference into the Powerpoint as a slide header. In presenting the verses here, I hope that the students will see places in which the poem refers to its own sources — including one written by a certain Walter of Chatillon — and how the text itself views those sources.

I resisted the urge to take the time to find a little picture of Waldo and make a clipping path so I could stick him in with Alexander's men.

Edited on 12/8/11: A student in my seminar, totally unbidden by me, described the Hall of Justice ceilings in the Alhambra as being like Where's Waldo?. So I've now managed to have Waldo included in both of my classes this week.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Week in Links (11/28-12/4)

I wish I had the gumption to write syllabi like the two that are linked to from this Slate story. (Of course, I also wish I were I massively successful novelist, too):

The Extraordinary Syllabus of David Foster Wallace

For knitting academics who may be on the verge of a big project-related freakout (ahem), from a blog I've seen before but don't read regularly, a post that caught my attention in Spanish Prof's blogroll:

Writing, Knitting, Teaching, Practicing

In my line of work, I'm always happy for a new and interesting take on the Jews-Christians-Muslims theme, especially one that might appeal to students who are otherwise a little resistant:

Come Together

And the New York Times fails to answer the crucial question about one aspect of life on campus: How does he get the piano down there?:

City Cracks Down on Performers in Washington Square Park

Saturday, December 3, 2011

One More #OWS Photo

From just outside the building where I teach:

(Click to enlarge to a readable size.)

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Margaret Crosby, PhD

The current exhibition at the small, lovely, out-of-the-way gallery (in other words, you've probably not heard of it but definitely should make a visit) at NYU's Institute for the Study of the Ancient World contains objects from the excavations at Dura-Europos. I'd certainly not ever seen more than one or two objects from that site displayed in isolation, so visiting the exhibition gave me a much better panorama of what was there. (All of the Dura objects had been in storage for the restoration of the Art Gallery since before I began my studies at Yale, so it's not that I was negligent in exploring the available resources; they weren't available.) Two of my favorite objects were a very rustic Hercules-and-lion statue (which also made me wonder, I guess given the juxtaposition of the Mithraic cult objects and the paintings from the synagogue, whether there was any connection drawn in antiquity between Hercules and the lion and Samson and the lion) and several Greek-Aramaic bilingual inscriptions.

What really captured my imagination, though, was this photograph, mounted in a second room in the gallery that contained many photographs from the field as well as letters and other ephemera of the scholars who excavated at Dura.

This was just a quick snap that I took in the gallery with my iPhone (before realizing, somewhat abashedly, that all photography, and not just flash photography, is prohibited). You can click to enlarge the image here or find a clearer reproduction of the image here, the fifth image from he top.

The caption identified the woman as Margaret Crosby, a graduate student in archaeology at Yale (the American institution that headed up the excavations) and the first woman to work at the site in her own right (that is, not by virtue of being the wife of one of the archaeologists). This all piqued my Gertrude Bell imagination and fantasies (truly, I was born in the wrong century!) as well as the sort of camaraderie felt by Yale women, still only a generation out* from the admission of women as undergraduates, in spite of the fact that the population is fully 50/50 now. And I wanted to find out more about her: Who was she? How had she ended up at Yale and at Dura? Did she finish her degree?

Her life seems like the sort of thing that is ripe for a fruitful archival investigation up in New Haven, but since Dura and ancient Greece, which is what Dr. Crosby ended up specializing in, are well out of my area of expertise, I shan't be the one to undertake it. For now, what I've been able to find reads a bit like what was written very one-dimensionally and matter-of-factly about Mrs. Lewis and Mrs. Gibson prior to the recent biography that really humanized them and added depth to their history. From the postscript to Susan I. Rotroff and Robert D. Lamberton's Women in the Athenian Agora (American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 2006):

"Margaret Crosby (known to her friends as Missy, a nickname she traced back to being addressed as such by a friendly English boatman, encountered on a family holiday when she was eight years old) grew up in Minnesota, where an active girlhood left her with a taste and talent for hiking and mountaineering (she ultimately bagged most of Greece's major peaks). Like Virginia Grace, she was a member of the Bryn Mawr class of 1922. Two years of study in Europe followed before she began graduate work at Yale. There she concentrated on ancient history, but a season at the Yale expedition to Dura Europos, in Syria, deflected her decisively into archaeological fieldwork. Upon completion of her degree she joined the Agora excavations as an Agora Fellow and embarked on a life almost evenly divided between the archaeology of Athens, and family duties and pleasures back in the United States. Throughout her career, her work and interests crossed unspoken gender lines. Her primary responsibility at the Agora was the supervision of fieldwork, and from 1935 to 1939, and then again from 1946 to 1955, she spent every season in the field (and field seasons in those days were epic in their duration — often as much as five months long). She also took on other duties (all the while continuing the daily excavation schedule), and oversaw the records operation in 1946, when Lucy Talbott was absent. In the realm of scholarship, it was the complex and highly technical fields of epigraphy (the study of inscriptions) and metrology (weights and measures) that particularly attracted her — interests that drew on the same powerful linguistic talents she deployed as a code-breaker in the Office of Strategic Services** during World War II. The inscription which she published is one of many found in the Agora that record leases on the famous silver mines of Athens, the material resource that formed the foundation and rise of Athens in the 5th century B.C. and continued to fuel the economic power of Athens in later years. By the early 1960s Missy had completed her excavation and publication assignments. By all accounts an unassuming and self-effacing woman, for all her scholarly abilities, she retired to a quiet life filled with travel, gardening, family and friends" (52-4).

References for some of her work:

Crosby, Margaret. An Achaean League Hoard. New York: The American Numismatic Society, 1936.

---. "The Leases of the Laureion Mines," Hesperia 19:3 (1950).

--- and Mabel Lang. The Athenian Agora: Weights, Measures and Tokens. Athens: American School of Classical Studies, 1964.

So there's at least a partial answer to the question: Who was the woman in that photograph?

*This link on the history of women at Yale is oddly, and to my mind unnecessarily, both defensive and patronizing. (Look! We've always let women serve the tea and marry professors!)
** See p. 99.

Edited on 12/18/11 to add this link: Dura-Europos, a Melting Pot at the Intersection of Empires

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Week in Links (The Abrahamic Faiths and their Texts in Translation Edition)

Two articles in the popular press this week touch on different intersections of the very interesting issues of religious identity, scholarship, authority, and the question of "canonical" translations:

A Jewish Edition of the New Testament

New Translation of Prayers is Rooted in Catholic Church's Past

And the Scottish Parliament introduced a resolution in honor of Mrs. Lewis and Mrs. Gibson (whom I've mentioned here before) and their work that allowed for a better understanding of all kinds of scriptures and translations (among many other things related to late-antique and medieval texts). Three cheers for the devolution of power! Scroll down to the fourth resolution on the page:

Motions and Amendments: Parliamentary Business of the Scottish Parliament

Sunday, November 20, 2011

More #OWS in Washington Square Park

The view from campus tonight:

(Click to enlarge.)

The Week in Links (11/14-11/20)

Something I've been thinking about quite a bit lately is the theories and practices of teaching the history and literature of religion in a secular university to students who may range from being atheists to considering themselves culturally part of a faith tradition to those who come from a robust religious background. It poses a very different set of challenges in a literatures and cultures department where students don't come in expecting to talk about religion (such as a department of Spanish and Portuguese) versus in a literatures and cultures department that is de facto also the religious studies department that attracts many students who are interested in learning the academic history of their own dearly-held faith tradition (as is the Near Eastern Studies department where I earned my PhD (though not all of them do have that same religious-studies kind of focus)). I've not formulated my thoughts well enough yet to write about it, but I was interested to see this in the Chronicle of Higher Education this week:

Finding Empathy in Religious Studies

There is a lot of really good, comprehensive work in progress on the Arabic inscriptions of Syro-Palestine. It's heartening to see the corpus continuing to expand through new discoveries and yielding additional perspectives that could alter the standard historical narratives:

Israeli Experts Decode Only Arabic Crusader Inscription Ever Found

The Lewis Chessmen are in New York. (And I was quite excited to learn that "berserk" has a similar derivation to that of the word "assassin." Read on to see.):

The Game of Kings at the Cloisters

And now for something completely different. I'm all for biopics of the great Orientalists, but this seems like it could go very badly wrong. Gertrude Bell: Tomb Raider, anyone? Just as long as Brad doesn't co-star as Lawrence:

Angelina Jolie, Ridley Scott Tackle Gertrude Bell Biopic

Saturday, November 19, 2011, which bills itself as a sort of Facebook for academics, completely weirds me out. Colloquial though that may be, it's the only way I can accurately describe my reaction to it. I don't, after preponderance, find it to be weird. No, it actively weirds me out every time it does something.

Whenever anyone googles a person with an profile and clicks on that profile as his chosen search result, the person with the profile gets notified that "somebody" has googled her. If the googlee logs into her profile it is possible to see what country the googler googled from, and what keywords got him there. It's just enough information to pique one's curiosity and be sort of agitating, but not enough to be useful. When somebody views my blog, I get a city, a service provider, the referring link, information about the computer being used to view it (OS, web browser, display properties), and even an IP address. So sometimes, I can tell exactly who's reading. (If I have only one Facebook friend in a particular city and a reader in that city has gotten to a post via my having posted it on my FB wall, then I know who it is.) And other times, I can at least tell if a consistent reader is back again or has been missing for a while. But this? Somebody in the United Sates? (Or even more puzzling, somebody in Tunisia?) Hm.

I'm also not crazy about the terminology that they use. When someone in effect adds your profile to their reader, you get an email that says "So-and-so is following you." And every time, I feel the urge to look over my shoulder.

And finally, I don't really like the fact that it posts a little thumbnail of your profile picture above the Scribd window of every paper that's been posted to the site that you've read. I like my reading to be a private act; I also so didn't like the fact that they made this change suddenly and without consultation (I did mention that they kind of see themselves as a specialized Facebook, didn't I?) that I did quit for a while.

It seems like it has potential as a tool for some of the self-promotion that I'm coming to realize is required of academics and, more importantly (when used correctly), as an aggregator for finding out about new work, so I'm sticking with it for the time being. But it wouldn't take much to convince me to drop the service, either.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Women Poets, Part II: On Not Wanting to be Pigeonholed

I was somewhat reluctant to do all of the writing about female subjects that I have done/am doing recently because I very much don't want to get pigeonholed as a "girl Arabist."*

Sometimes I catch myself thinking that I should have a really compelling and well-thought-out argument for why I don't find gender to be an interesting or useful interpretive category. But that's just it. I don't. I don't have a good reason for Why not women's lit? because it's just not something I spend a huge amount of time thinking about. I'm not actively rejecting; I'm just not headed in that direction. And the fact is that I am simply not-thinking about something that my male colleagues who don't work on gender can and easily not-think about in a way that is defensible in the framework of our intellectual socialization as academics.

I know I'm likely (or perhaps simply liable, given the small number of readers here to begin with) to take flack for failing to challenge the notion of a "girl Arabist," for not insisting that girl Arabists can write about "serious" subjects such as Ibn Sina or al-Ghazali just as much or well as a, well, plain vanilla, unqualified-with-an-adjective-of-gender Arabist can. But the idea is there. For all the really talented women Arabists I have the great good fortune of knowing, we're still several decades behind the rest of the humanities in that the question of whether a woman can make a good Arabist is still an open one in the minds of many.  And for me, the way to handle it is not to do really bang-up scholarship making use of the tools of gender studies; it's to act, intellectually, like one of the guys. I don't want to fight the problem because the fight would not be intellectually satisfying or stimulating or, for me, productive in any way. I like the intellectual landscape in this respect, even if I have more to prove. I think I might even like it better because I have more to prove; even the littlest things will always be challenges, and even the smallest victories can't be taken for granted.  If I'm going to fight the intellectual establishment, it'll be over something else, like the field-wide bias toward the literature of the Eastern Mediterranean at the expense of that of the Western Med, in other words, something that really and immediately has an impact on my ability to do my work.

(Long after I wrote the preceding paragraph, but long before finishing the whole post, I found this blog post that I think sums things up nicely.)

So I've written now about Deborah and about the woman known in the scholarship as Mrs. Dunash; I am writing more about the latter figure, too. I don't think I've done it in a way that constitutes a gender-based analysis. In once case, I looked at prebiblical prophetic functions and in the other I'm writing an economic analysis of what is, in poetry, typically described as a sentimental gesture but which is, when described in Genizah letters, clearly an economic exchange. The fact that the subjects of these two studies are both female is a total coincidence. Or is it? Will I necessarily write differently about literature written by women and the historical issues that surround the question of women writers? Will I always find those texts more appealing even if they do not form the bulk of my work?

I can blithely go about my work writing or not about women in ways that have nothing to do with the fact of them being women, and then I'm suddenly forced to confront the fact that the scholarship refers to the only woman poet to write in Hebrew in the middle ages as "Mrs. Dunash." We don't have a name for her (although as I run out of ways to circumlocute the "Mrs. Dunash" terminology, I find myself wishing I could just call her Martha or something just for the sake of concision) and so any reference will always be as the wife of her husband, a famed grammarian and poet. This somehow sounds condescending. Why Mrs. Dunash and not Mrs. ben Labrat? In other words, if we're already using pieces of the Anglo nomenclature, why not go whole hog? It's a belittling nickname that to me sounds a lot like when folks (including a lot of people whose work I otherwise respect a tremendous amount) call Mrs. Lewis and Mrs. Gibson, the women who indirectly facilitated the discovery of Dunash's wife's poem, "the Giblews." It makes them a single entity when they weren't in any way and also, well, frankly, makes them sound like the bits of chicken carcass that you throw away before making soup. Even if I don't care about (or, more carefully put, even if I don't prioritize) issues relating to women, both those who have been dead for more than a millennium and those I might meet at a conference, they still do resonate with me.

I have written before about why I chose to blog under my own name; the fact that I do means you can see it at the right in the sidebar or below this post as part of the tagline. So you see that professionally, I use the initials of my first and middle names rather than my whole given name. The impetus behind that is a very simple one: There's another woman named Sarah J. Pearce who works in a field that's closely enough related to my own that I knew of her existence even as an undergraduate, and enough that a Brill representative once collapsed hers and my records without thinking that the range of books was odd for one scholar. (I got a phone call from Brill one afternoon, with the very hesitant representative wanting to know why the billing address for my recent order was in the US and the shipping address was in the UK, where my homophone is located.) And as much as gender wasn't central to making what was, in the end, a very practical decision, I mention it here because, particularly in a male-dominated field, I  rather like the idea of someone who doesn't know me or know of me being able to pick up my work and read it without knowing that it was written by a woman. I like being able to block out and deflect my sensitivities to women's issues when it serves me intellectually.

I am not a girl Arabist.

I know that this is an issue I will continue to think about and rethink over the course of my career. But for now, excuse me while I go write about philosophy. And some wars.

*My scholarly identity is actually a bit complicated. Beyond not wanting to play up the fact that I'm a woman or let that influence my scholarly approach, I have utterly given up on trying to decide what kind of -ist I am. I don't fit neatly into any of the categories, so I've all but given up on trying to assign myself a specific label tand have just decided to let my work speak for itself and for me.

Edited on 11/20/11 to include this link: Can Well-Behaved Women Make (Academic) History?

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Mind Your Picas!

I ordered business cards today after having attended two symposia in the last week at which I was asked, repeatedly for my (as-yet-nonexistent) card. The template uses a unit of measurement (1 pica = 1/12th inch) that was, in a previous life, near and dear to my heart. Aside from the pica-induced glee, I guess this is one more of those moments when "it" all starts to sink in.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Women Poets, Part I: How I Got the Story (or didn't quite)

One of the things I envisioned being able to do in this space is to give a bit of the background into my thought process and describe and analyze things I find interesting in my research but that ultimately fall outside the scope of what is publishable or published. So here goes:

I have just had an article rejected by Vetus Testamentum. It's a straight biblical studies journal, one of the best in fact, and since biblical literature or history is not remotely close to my field of study (although of course it has implications for it and it was really useful for me to have gotten a good grounding in it in graduate school) I'm okay with the outcome. It would have been a nice-to-have kind of thing if it had worked out, but I'm not so invested in the text or the idea that I'm going to bother continuing to work on it in the interest of having it appear in print elsewhere.

But this post isn't really about the rejection. It's more about the medieval poem that brought me to thinking about the biblical text in the way that I was. My article was entirely about the biblical text (the argument, more or less, was that the representation of Deborah in the Masoretic Text is an amalgam of pre-biblical types of diviners) but it began its life as a a graduate school seminar paper on an aspect of the book of Judges that I had arrived at because of my reading of medieval poetry. What follows here was my original introduction to the paper. It would always have been too far afield to have been included in a published version of the article, and it is also not a topic I intend to return to developing more fully in this form. Even though I do have an article on the Mrs. Dunash poem in the works, this particular interpretation — that the poet becomes Deborah only in the interpretation of later readers, in much the same way that the biblical Deborah really only became Deborah through later interpretation and editing — is too closely tied to my argument about the biblical text to stand alone, and does not coincide at all with the way I am choosing to interpret the poem on its own. Furthermore, as much as I think it's a huge milestone to be able to look back at something I wrote over three years ago and not cringe and even be kind of pleased with it, my modes and methods of thinking about text have evolved pretty substantially since then (see the added footnote below that wasn't original to the text). But I became rather fond of this introduction, and of the small contribution to its interpretation that I was able to make by pointing out that the poet envisions herself as the Shulamite, not as Deborah; and so I was loathe to consign it to some electronic Genizah, never to be seen again.

There will be a part II to this exposition of the story behind the ultimate academic production, specifically concerned with the identity politics of being a woman academic writing about women in a non-gender-studies framework. (It'll be more abstract that it would have been if the article had been accepted for publication, but it's still something worth thinking through.) But for now, here goes. This is what drew me to write about Deborah to begin with. What follows was the original interdisciplinary introduction to the paper:

Among the more unwitting literary descendants of the biblical poet-prophets is a 10th-century C.E. Iberian woman known to history only as the wife of her husband: ’îštô šel Dûnăš, thought to have been the wife of Dunash ben Labraṭ, an Arabic-speaking Berber Jew who himself fathered the movement to stand Hebrew poetry upon Arabic metrical feet.[1] Because authorship of a single four-line poem conserved in two witnesses in the Cairo Genizah[2] is attributed to her, modern scholarship makes her to bear the heavy yoke of “the first identifiable woman poet in the Hebrew language since the biblical poetesses Miriam and Deborah.”[3] But in more than one way she is graceless in her assumption of that mantle.
First, her poem is perhaps more important as a historical record than as a literary triumph. It hints at the reasons for Dunash’s flight from Iberia through its allusions to a conflict between the poet’s husband and the courtier Ḥasdai ibn Shapruṭ and provides a window onto some of the domestic realities of the time and place. But as one among the first Hebrew poems written in the new arabizing Andalusi style, it falls short of what would quickly become the high standards of the form; within a century, the finest Hebrew poets would ply their trade as skillfully as their Arabic-language counterparts. At this early date, though, the meter still falters and the diction is repetitive. But she is, without a doubt, a poet as she writes:

Will her love remember his graceful doe,
     her only son in her arms as he parted?
On her left hand he placed a ring from his right,
     on his wrist she placed her bracelet.
As a keepsake she took his mantle from him,
     and he in turn took hers from her.
Would he settle, now, in the land of Spain,
     if its prince gave him half his kingdom?[4]

It is not only feminist critics like the above-cited Tova Rosen who exclaim “Deborah!” upon reading this poem. Even a more staid and descriptive account of the poem, one without an explicit theoretical agenda, contains a punctuated measure of excitement at this bridging of a multi-generational gap: “Mrs. Dunash was apparently a Hebrew poetess, the first since the days of the prophetess Deborah!”[5] But both ends of the scholarly spectrum, from the traditional to the feminist-revisionist, fail equally to note that îštô šel Dûnăš did not cast herself in the mold of ’ēšet Lapîdôt. And so second and more critically, Dunash’s wife fails to fulfill the role of Deborah simply because she did not envision herself in those terms; she has become a latter-day Deborah, an inheritor of that literary tradition, entirely at the hands of the moderns.[6] *
One of the remarkable traits of this poet is that she was educated enough to cite the biblical text in her work. That few women were so trained goes (only!) part of the way to explaining the dearth of women poets writing in Hebrew; quoting the Hebrew Bible in poetry was de rigueur in a way that citing Scripture in Arabic poetry is not.[7] She could, though; and she put her knowledge toward painting a picture of her literary self not as Deborah but as the Shulamite, drawing upon the Song of Songs in three of the four lines of her poem.[8] She does not proclaim victory, dedicate herself to the Lord or pretend to lead or speak for her nation. Instead, she aspires to be remembered by her departing husband just as the Shulamite is inscribed on the arm and heart of her lover.
Just as a medievalist’s reading of Bocaccio might be informed equally by grappling with the works of Dante, who preceded him, as with those of Jorge Luis Borges, his literary heir,[9] one perhaps better understands the song of ’ēšet Lapîdôt for having read the poem of îštô šel Dûnăš. It is this historiography — modern medievalist scholarship’s overeager thrusting of Deborah into a certain critical light — that, perhaps more than anything else, informed the direction in which I ultimately read Deborah’s own history and song, namely the text of Judges 4-5: In the body of medieval poetry, one can see Deborah and read through her as a cipher only until peering into the depths of the poem. But it seems not to be an unfair legacy for the ancient woman who, as I will argue in these pages, is so profoundly not at the heart of the standard that later redactors and lectors have made her to bear. It is precisely in the gaps where the ineffable truest identity of Dunash’s wife does not lie flush against the one we as modern readers would wish her to embody that we can glance at the traces, the beloved ruins, of an earlier Deborah.

[1] I say “more unwitting” because there were certainly those poets who gladly embraced the identity of their biblical counterparts. Most notable among these is Ismā’il ibn Naġrila — Shemuel ha-Nagid — who famously proclaimed from within his poem The War with Yadayyir (The Dream of the Poem, trans. Peter Cole, 52): “I am the David of my age!”
[2] A high-resolution photograph of the complete fragment (TS-NS 143.46) may be found at the Cambridge University Library’s Genizah research unit web site: The accession numbers for the two halves of the incomplete fragment, also housed at Cambridge, are Mosseiri VIII.202 and Mosseiri VIII.387.
[3] Tova Rosen. Unveiling Eve: Reading Gender in Medieval Hebrew Literature  (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007), 2.
[4] Trans. Peter Cole, p. 27.
[5] Genizah Fragments, The exclamation point is original.
[6] That there is near but not total unanimity of opinion that the author of the poem was even a woman at all only serves to underscore the way in which the poet has been used the service of the modern imagination.
[7] And we do, in fact, find women (both Jewish and not) who wrote poetry in Arabic. See: Abdulla al-Udhari. Classical Poems by Arab Women. London: Saqi Books, 1999; Mahmud Sobh. Poetisas arábigo-andaluzas. Granada: Biblioteca de Ensayo, 1994; and Teresa Garulo. Diwan de las poetisas de al-Andalus. Madrid: Hiperión, 1986. The medieval Arabic literary critic Jalāl al-Dīn al-Suyuṭī (d. 1505) also edited a treatise on and anthology of Arabic-language women poets: Nuzhāt al-Julasā’, ed. ‘Abd al-Latif al-Ashur. Cairo: Maktabat al-Qur’ān, 1986.
[8] Line 2 quotes from Cant. 8:6, line 3 from Cant. 5:7, and line 4 from Cant. 8:6-7.
[9] María Rosa Menocal. Writing in Dante’s Cult of Truth: From Borges to Bocaccio. Durham: Duke UP, 1991.  

*I'm adding a footnote here that was not original to this text as I wrote it just to stipulate that if I were going to expand it from long-form notes into something for publication, I would naturally develop my thoughts about the extent to which a medievalist is or is not obligated to understand text and circumstance as her medieval reader did or might have.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Food Lecture, Part II: An assistant professor walks into a classroom with a volume of Genizah documents, a volume of Inquisition testimony, a knife, a cazuela, and half a pound of manchego cheese and the bartender says to her...

... bonus points to anyone who comes up with this punchline.


An Islamic historian once told me that her best undergrad intro lectures are about Visigoths because she doesn't get distracted by all the little details that she thinks are really cool or by complicated explanations that seem simple to her but that she's sort of on some level forgotten aren't as obvious as they seem now. She tells them the bare bones of what they need to know in a clear, organized fashion and she gets done with it.

That wasn't quite what happened yesterday with the food lecture, but I did end up putting together a brilliant (in the British sense of the word) class in spite (or perhaps because) of my own lack of enthusiasm for the particular subject matter.

I walked into class and told them that the purpose of the class would be more methodological and that they should pay attention to how is that the things that I'd be lecturing about could be known or found out, and less about the content of the lecture itself.

First, we looked at a 10th-century Baghdadi recipe:

Take one kayl of wheat, husk it, par-boil it, dry it, coarsely grind it, and mix it with chickpeas. Add yeast, then knead the mixture into dough. Keep it in a sunny place for 15 days and whenever it gets dry replenish moisture by adding to it extremely sour yogurt. Finely chop mint, Persian parsley, purslane, cilantro and qirt, which is kurrath al-baql. Mix the herbs with the wheat dough and shape it into disks. Bake in the sun.

After asking a student to read the recipe aloud, I asked them what parts of the recipe they recognized, and with very little prodding, they identified the list of ingredients, the instructions for preparation and the instructions for cooking. Then I asked them what they would expect to find in a recipe that they didn't see there. The first response surprised me in that one student mentioned that technology was missing — that a modern recipe would say to use an oven rather than the sun for cooking. They also noticed the lack of precise measurements of ingredients, the lack of clarity over what happens with the chick peas (the notes in the volume in fact clarify that this refers to chick pea flour), and also the fact that some terms have so puzzled the experts that they remain untranslated and inaccessible. 

I held up some za'atar bread from Kalustyans as one possibility of what this might have looked like. (The picture is here mostly because I realized that I know more than one person who will be highly amused by the fact that I served za'atar bread to my students on a xeroxed page of Goitein. Volume 4, page 260, to be precise.)

Then I sent around a piece of manchego cheese with some quince paste. After they ate, I asked them to choose a typical form of writing that they use in the course of the day to communicate — an email, a blog post, a text, a tweet, a letter to their grandmas, a graffito on a friend's dorm-room message board — and write about what they had done during the day, right up to the present moment. I asked a few of them to read what they had written aloud, and asked other students how well they could reconstruct the snack based on their classmates' descriptions, especially the ones that just described the quince paste as "a red substance." Then I sent around some pastry and asked them to describe it in such a way that a historian who discovered their notebooks in the year 2511 could reconstruct the dessert. Again, we talked about their descriptions and what was missing even when they were very conscious of why they were writing and of their audience: Do you think they'll be using teaspoons as the unit of measurement in 2511? Yes, this has the texture of Frosted Mini Wheats, but will that be useful if they don't eat breakfast cereal in five hundred years' time?

That was all just the preparatory work; it took a little longer than twenty minutes. After that was all over, I asked them to read three texts — an excerpt from the Inquisition testimony of doña Blanca Méndez, chapter XVII of part I of Don Quijote, and a recipe and a shopping list from the Cairo Genizah.

With the first two, we looked at the descriptions of food that were written as sort of incidental description in the course of describing something else. For the first, I asked them questions like the following: How well could they reconstruct doña Blanca's family's Rosh Hashanah meal? What information could they glean from her description of preparing meat? (Kashrut.) Which details were important? What was the significance of her talking about eating so much fish? (Eating fish was a way for crypto-Jews not to find themselves in a situation where they would have to either mix milk and meat in front of others or not do so and draw attention to themselves.) I used lots of images from Claudia Roden's new book, The Food of Spain, to illustrate this part of the lecture/discussion. For the second, we looked at some images of objects that had been found in a dig at a seventeenth-century site at Plaza de Oriente in Madrid and analyzed with with Don Quijote in mind and I asked them to figure out what role each object played in the chapter.

And then with the Genizah documents, I photocopied them with all of Goitein's notes and narrative and subheads removed and asked the students to see if they could figure out what the recipe would make and what kind of meal could be prepared from the shopping list. The recipe was for wine (and really the tip-off was that at the end, it tells the chef that if he wants vinegar, then he should leave it in a jar for longer), and they guessed sauces, marinades, soups, etc. They saw that just as they had done in describing the pastry, even describing a dish in such a way that an interlocutor could recreate it isn't always as useful as one would hope when plucked from its context.

The main point that I wanted to make with these activities was that reconstructing medieval history is a challenge and requires some creative approaches. In the future, I'll beef up (no pun intended — I promise!) the information I give them on historiography and methodology, but all in all I think this was a pretty successful class session.

My co-instructor and I have really been struggling to get this particular group of students engaged in the course material, and both the snacks and the fact that this was a bit freer in style (that is, not just a straight lecture and powerpoint with a few pauses for discussion) were very effective in doing that. Now we'll see if the engagement and good will carry over to the rest of the classes this semester. This was the first time that I had lectured in this class where I didn't have the whole class pretty well scripted in advance. I don't intend to give up doing that altogether, but this was an interesting experiment in having a slightly more freewheeling class. There were too many variables in play to say that this is unequivocally a better approach, and for a whole variety of reasons I don't want to scrap the script entirely. But at a minimum, I think that it's worth doing a class like this at the beginning of the semester to get that energy going from day one. 

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Food Lecture, Part I: Writer's Block

Life and literature sometimes overlap. I think this happens for medievalists more frequently than others, simply because we are trained to see the boundaries between categories as porous since our intellectual categories are no longer the categories that are relevant administratively or to our students or to anyone else. (Arabist in a Spanish department, anyone?) I'm having one of those moments now: My teaching has revealed concretely something about myself, namely that I am not a foodie. I love to eat great, fresh produce, and I'm lucky to have lived my entire adult life in cities with farmers' markets ranging from good to great: New Haven, Jerusalem (a different sort of beast, a shouk is from a farmers' market, but nevermind) Ithaca, and now New York. (Ironically, the one in Ithaca, in the heart of farm country, is the most inferior of the lot.) But I definitely don't belong in that rarefied category of people who know many different ways to prepare every type of fruit and veggie that grows locally, are willing to taste anything and light up when talking about food.

I am currently teaching an introductory lecture course (about which I'll write in greater detail at a later date) in which we are using commodities as loci of contact between the center and the margins in literature and history. This week's commodity is food, and I'm just totally uninspired. I like good food, but I think that if I were a true foodie, this lecture would practically write itself. It's not that I'm totally uncurious about the topic — just not so moved by the answers I'm finding that I'm jumping up and down in excitement over the fact that I get to share this knowledge with my students. I don't care, but I don't not care either. A foodie would — well, a foodie would be writing her lecture instead of blogging about writing her lecture. 

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Week in Links (Non-Latin Script edition)

My friend and colleague Hamza is creating resources for learning Ge'ez (best viewed on a PC, he tells me):

Learning Classical Ethiopic

There's been some discussion about Arabic and Persian text in the new videogame Battlefield 3. I'm really pleased that the company is willing to fix the errors in its graphics.

Friday, October 28, 2011

The Week in Links (Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia and Later South Asia edition)

Two reviews of the new galleries at the Met that opened this week:

A New Vision for Islam in Hostile Times

A Cosmopolitan Trove of Exotic Beauty

Photos of the installation, including the re-installation of a muqarnas ceiling:

Behind the Scenes: Building of the Moroccan Court

Historically, it has been a huge challenge to display non-Western art in ways that befit an art museum rather than an anthropological or natural history museum. I particularly like that in this interactive feature the Times juxtaposes Islamicate art with Western European art. It forces the reader away from the very pervasive idea that Western art is Art and Islamicate art is simply craft:

At the Metropolitan Museum, a New Wing, a New Vista

And from across the pond:

New York's Met Museum Showcases a World of Islamic Treasures

I'm hoping to go myself two weeks from now, so my own impressions will follow then. Yes, I am just about falling over in excitement.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

History of the Language for Undergraduates

"Sometimes the alphabet gets screwed up," the student working at the circulation desk said to me, by way of explaining why my interlibrary loan book did not seem to be on the shelf waiting to be picked up. Yeah, I thought to myself. Sometimes it does. And that was exactly what I was hoping to demonstrate to my students with the book that had somehow drowned in the library's alphabet soup.

Amadís de Gaula.

The book of chivalry that drove Don Quixote mad would be the first text that my introductory students would encounter. Because it is so tangential to what I find compelling from this period, I hate the fact that my students' first introduction to medieval/early modern literature involved someone named Urganda la Desconocida (Urganda the Unknown) could easily spawn references in discussion to movies starring Vanessa Redgrave and possibly a good, rousing chorus of < music > "Camelot! Camelot! The winter is forbidden'till December...". < / music > Give them an astrolabe first, or a fabulous wordlist, or a work of philosophy or poetics or adab, with its own particular set of courtly values, or a great heroic epic; and let them find the books of chivalry and the daydreams of the novelesque later. I want them to understand that not only that there was science and rationalism back then (after all, watery broads handing out swords is a terrible basis for government even if it took Monty Python to point out the fact) but also that that there is an almost scientific, and certainly a logical and rational, way to approach these texts that will seem so foreign to them, in content but also in language.

Part of this is motivated by my own experience as an undergraduate in the still not-too-distant past. I don't fit neatly into a modern academic disciplinary structure. In concrete terms, it was never a sure thing what kind of department I would enter to pursue graduate study. The literature of Muslims in Spain. Does that fall under the purview of a Spanish department? Near Eastern Studies? Religious Studies? Something else? The answer is that it depends on the shades of meaning, on the narrow sub-interests and, critically, on the ideas of different departments and universities. And when I was applying to graduate school having taken hard-nosed philological text seminars in Arabic and interesting and valuable but less hard-nosed seminars in Spanish literature, that made all the difference in making my decision. It was doubtless a fault on my part, a failure to pay attention or to read between the lines or to nose around enough in the library, but I felt like in some ways, I didn't know how to read a Spanish text. In general, we were told that if we came up against a difficulty in a medieval Castilian text, that we should read it aloud and see what it sounded like. It's not bad advice, and it's part of what I included in my brief introduction to how to read an early modern text. But it didn't seem sufficient to me. What if that didn't work? On the other hand, Arabic, with its glorious tradition of poetics and lexicography and grammatical study practically inherent in the literature provided a very clear way forward. I knew where to look for answers when I (very frequently) got stuck in an Arabic text; not so much in Spanish ones. Not until I took history of the language in the last semester of my senior year, when the decision had already been made, did I realize that with Spanish there could be a there there, too.

I don't for a minute regret my decision to pursue a PhD in Arabic and Islamic Studies rather than in Spanish. I'm confident that even if I'd had history of the language earlier on in my education, I would have made the same decision. (That wasn't, after all, the only factor that went into making my decision.) But I don't want to leave students in the position of thinking that muddling through is the only option where medieval Ibero-Romance texts are concerned.

In terms of actually presenting this information and material to my students, I had thought about doing a Semitics-style text seminar, in which students would read, translate, and comment on the language, and where understanding what's on the page is the most supreme concern, at least for the first pass. I decided to hold that off until they read excerpts from the Libro de Alexandre at the end of the semester, though. For a variety of reasons, though (including the fact that the Amadís wasn't actually the central concern of that week's work) I decided simply to give them a a brief overview of some principles of language change, both orally and in handout form, and let the ones who are interested it it pursue it further on their own or, again, just know that the possibility is out there.

I made a very simple handout with some very basic guidelines. (I'm dead chuffed with it, too.)

(Click on the images to enlarge them to a readable size.)

Edited on 10/28/11 to add: A friend whose judgment about my work I trust completely (a trust forged in the crucible of us both finishing our dissertations simultaneously this past summer) offered me some useful feedback about the handout off-blog, and I just wanted to acknowledge and address her most serious concern here, namely the way I have described the consolidation of Castilian as the national language. Of the many oversimplifications that one necessarily and unhappily makes in an intro class, this was the wrong place to oversimplify  because it feeds into a variety of pernicious modern myths about the unity of Spain. The version of this handout that I use in the spring will explain this differently. Another change that the next version of the handout will incorporate is more precision in describing what was happening in the language and relating it to how the students themselves will see it.) That said, in spite of a sort of lapsus calami here, we (this is a co-taught course) are giving our students a very good panorama of all the varieties of Ibero-Romance, as well as (perhaps especially) of the other languages that come into play for the times and places we are talking about. For example, Tuesday's lecture was all about aljamiado literature, we talked to them earlier in the semester about gallego-portugués and I'm going to pick the dialect question back up when I introduce them to the Libro de Alexandre at the end of term. There's actually a lot more to say related to this, specifically about introducing students to the idea that Arabic and Latin are legitimately Spanish languages, but that should be its own post. And just one final note: Next time I post a handout, I'll give it a little more context for how I used it, but for now, suffice it to say that the Amadís and Quijote quotes actually wouldn't have seemed as random as they must here to people who had been in attendance in the related lecture and recitation.

On the one hand, I hate presenting "watch out for words that start with the letters F and H" as history of the language and leaving it at that. But on the other hand, I don't care if they will ever be able to explain the collapse Castilian of the sibilant set (or even know what the term "sibilant set" refers to — I certainly didn't even use that term with them) or ever identify the Latinizng sense of a lexical item. What I want them to know is that they could do those things if they decide that they are important and that there is a way beyond pure guesswork and reading aloud for the music of a text to ascertain very precise meaning. (Although I'd be lying if I didn't admit to being really thrilled that one of my students decided to write his research paper on phonetic change as reflected in 16th and 17th century Inquisition testimony.)

I know that we're not supposed to think of our younger selves when we're designing lessons because we are the dorks who think that the collapse of the sibilant set and its implications for writing in Aljamiado-Morisco, for example, is fascinating on the face of it. But I also don't think that we should neglect our younger selves and the current students who might either be like us or even the ones who just have a little bit of an inner dork. In fact, one of my students who isn't planning to go on to graduate study in literature said to me after class, "This is so cool because it makes Spanish just like what I love about math." I didn't design this lesson with a math or science student in mind, but I'm glad I was able to make the material appeal to him by teaching it in a way that he had never thought about it before. In a lot of cases, students will rise to meet higher expectations or be served in very unexpected ways by an unusual presentation of the material

My biggest hope for my students is that the middle ages should be full of possibility. My job, at least at first, is just to give them the tools to recognize that, even when it's the medioeve itself that has done something as basic as having screwed up the alphabet to the point where they need some help making their way through it.