Wednesday, February 29, 2012

A Leap Post about Leap Papers for Leap Day has decided that since there has been an extra day added to this month, I have been exceptionally productive. To wit:

Apparently, I have also completely retooled my field of study, areas of competency and professional expertise and interests. Because the 98 papers I may have written* have titles like:

(Both images will enlarge upon clicking for your absurdist enjoyment.)

In a certain way, this utter failure makes the site a little less creepy than I previously thought because it means that even if it's meant to monitor my every move (and I did have to re-write this sentence three times to avoid using a locution that would have attributed sentience, thought, agency or motivation to a web site) it's not doing a very good job of it. These aren't even papers that my homophone would have written.

*May have written?! Is this the equivalent of Schroedinger's cat?

Thought of the Day

Grant applications are really just like highly stylized, socially acceptable stick-up jobs.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Week in Links (Yale Club: Tel Leilan Edition)

As far as classes of individuals go, two that I most admire are war correspondents and the women in the first classes at Yale. This week saw the on-the-job death of a woman who was both; may Marie Colvin's memory and legacy be a blessing:

Two Western Journalists Killed in Syria Shelling

This is a lovely tribute to libraries, and in particular to my favorite libraries; I recognize part myself in part of this:

Bucket List: Library Science


In the wake of the violence this week in Afghanistan, a popular-press version of the classic, "Genizah and Genizah-like Practices in Islam":

Don't Burn After Reading

In related news, though not, strictly speaking, from this week (or even this century), encountered through some idle Googling (because Googling genizah-related terms just to see what pops up is always preferable to folding laundry):

Count Riamo d'Hulst

And some mostly harmless Latin and Anglo-Norman paleography fun — with bibliography! — made even better by the fact that it was send out via the Cornell medieval studies list with an allusion to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy:

Reading Old Documents

Anglo-Norman Palaeography Index

"The story of a kid with a scribble that looked like a mustache, who almost killed a man with an umbrella that looked like a rifle, on a covert operation that looked like a war" by an author I really like:

A Mustache for My Son

Saturday, February 25, 2012

A Surrealist Morning in New York City

I took the presence of hyacinths and leeks in the Greenmarket this morning to mean that it is just about springtime. As I was walking back through the market en route home, I saw I guy wearing a baseball cap with the Spanish flag on the back of it. At first I only heard him shouting "superman! superman!" and didn't think much of it. As I got closer, I noticed that he was, in fact, goose-stepping, and stopping to give a Nazi salute and shout "Heil Hitler!" to each merchant. Perhaps this guy thought it was not springtime as much as springtime for Hitler?

I returned home with the bunch of magenta hyacinths I had bought (which, speaking of musicals and dictators, happen to be a variety known as Miss Saigon). I got into the elevator with a couple and their dog, and the wife asked me, "Are those churros?" "No," I replied. "They are hyacinths." I am almost certain that this is the same woman who asked me, when I got into the elevator some time in the fall with a bunch of blue strawflowers, if they were scallions.

A Query about Titles and an Excursus on Pseudonymity

I have a student who keeps calling me "Ms. Pearce." I'm ashamed to admit it, but it's driving me up a wall. I'm pretty uncomfortable with titles in general, and it's taken me this long not to cringe every time someone calls me "professor." (One of my own professors started to do that, jokingly, right after I was hired, and stopped when she realized I had was starting to twitch every time I saw her.) I've been told that at Yale in the 1950s and earlier, everyone — faculty and student alike — was simply called "Mr. Lastname," because the presumption was that if  you were teaching, you had a PhD, so why flaunt it? I actually like that model of more egalitarian title-usage and implicit respect. So this case really is just an issue of me not being used to yet another title rather than of my ego demanding that I be called by the titles I have earned. Even though we've not invited the students to call us by our first names some students do. It bugs me that they presume, but even that is preferable to my ears.

I'm totally confident that this student is doing it because she just doesn't know any better. She's a mouselike freshman. She's quite shy, quite timid, not at all passive-aggressive in the way that some students can be and have it come out in the forms of address they use. She really seems to want to do well in the class, and not in a grade-grubby way. I think she just hasn't fully transitioned out of high school in certain respects. It's as if I'm her eleventh-grade world literature teacher. It's not even a question of her having subconsciously internalized a certain kind of sexism that leads some students to call their female professors "Ms." and their male professors "Dr." as she's calling my co-teaching colleague "Mr. Vazquez."

So the question is this: I know how one would address this issue with a student who was being deliberately disrespectful. But what is a kindly-worded way to ask this sort of student to call me "Dr." or "Professor"?


This request for advice actually does raise another issue, namely: How and when is it acceptable to write about students online?

There have been a few moments when I have found myself wishing that I had made the decision to blog pseudonymously, when I wanted to write about something going on in the office but obviously couldn't; pretty quickly though, as I got over these one or two things (just one, really — my department is actually a pretty awesome, sane and humane place to work) I was glad that my blog was set up in such a way that I have to write about the substance of my intellectual life, rather than just whinging about the day-to-day of academia. Another instance was when a pseudonymous blogger had written a post about a topic that was very relevant to me but whose pseudonymity I might have compromised by linking to it or responding to her post, simply because the nature of my interest would have given clues about her real-life identity that she herself hasn't revealed online.

Last winter break, I had a conversation with a high-school friend who had just started his grad-school teaching, and one of the directions the conversation wandered was just this: if or when — or where: Facebook? A blog? A forum? —we would ever be comfortable posting about students on the internet. I had only just recently posted a really rude email from a student. I was comfortable posting that because I wasn't writing about student deficiencies or bemoaning student performance, but rather writing about having to deal with someone who was failing at basic human decency, and that was the limit of it. I anonymized the essay both out of a sense of fairness and to comply with the Federal Educational Records Privacy Act, and that was that. I told my friend that I wasn't quite sure where I drew the line with respect to posting about students, but that this was far off to the right side of it.

Since that conversation, I've been better able to refine the location of that line in my own mind. Recently-ish (and I don't want to be more specific than that about the timeframe so that on the odd chance that the student in question were to stumble across this blog, s/he would not be able to identify him/herself as the source of the particular email in question), I've received a series of increasingly rude emails from a student in one of my classes (blaming me for his/her inability to find the required readings, "helpful" suggestions about how to make the course run better that looked suspiciously like dumbing things down, etc.). I've shown them to a few friends who are also in academia just out of my own sense of incredulity and, yes, anger. But this is a different case. It's not a student blaming me for his own failure to complete work or for not completely rearranging my life to schedule an appointment on the one specific day that it is convenient for him to meet. No, this series of emails has come from a student who is very deeply confused, and certainly seems to be less capable than the student who wrote to me last fall. It strikes me that s/he probably does not even realize that s/he is being rude. So as frustrated and irritated as I am by those emails, I'm not going to post them, because it would, at least in part, be making a spectacle of someone's ignorance rather than simply of his or her terrible manners.

This new post that I began to write above strikes me as okay because while there is a student involved, it's entirely about me seeking advice about how to handle a situation to which I don't know to respond, and a situation where the student is in no way at fault, to boot. Even so, I struggled with how much description it was acceptable to include in order to indicate that I didn't hold the student responsible for this uncomfortable situation without revealing too many details about her.

While I am a little bit freer on Facebook — because, despite its periodic security breeches, I don't pretend that my profile is my professional face, I also don't post anything that I wouldn't be comfortable with my mom seeing that I had posted just as a general rule of thumb, I'm not friends with colleagues, and it seems much more like a place where I can digitally sit around and gripe or shoot the breeze or do any of the other things I might do in real life with my real friends (and I do observe a policy of only friending people on FB people who are my friends in real life) — my line for this blog, then, is drawn well clear of any interaction, incident or anecdote that has to do with a student's understanding of the material, performance as a student or his or her intelligence.

This may be a resolution that is forced by the fact that the public attachment of my name and university affiliation to this blog makes it much more possible for students to be identifiable if I were to write about them. But I like it. If I were writing pseudonymously, I think it would be much easier for me to give in to that very delicious temptation to gripe about students. This way, I am forced either write or ask about seeking a productive solution to a specific issue, or to just let it go. No dwelling. No stewing. Deal with it, or drop it. I suspect that this is a good outcome both for my humanity and for my teaching.

Friday, February 24, 2012

A Few Classroom Victories

Scenes from recitation this week:

1) When my students were working in small groups, I overheard one group cracking jokes about the Normans in Sicily. I take it as a really positive indicator of their comfort with the material that they were finding humor in it.

2) Two of my students thanked me for not telling them in advance that they would be doing a peer critique of their first essays and would then have the option of taking the weekend to rewrite on the basis of that critique. Both of them said that they wouldn't have produced a polished draft if they knew they weren't going to be required to turn it in, but that they knew they got better feedback for their peers having read something they considered to be turn-in-worthy. This is, of course, precisely why I did it. (And thank you, John S. Knight Institute for Writing in the Disciplines and Writing 700 (now Writing 7100, but nevermind) for that particular tool in my pedagogical arsenal.)

Thursday, February 23, 2012

(Sometimes I Buy Books)

Even though I mentioned in a recent post that book review-writing is one way to build one's library collection at no cost, it's not very effective, nor is it meant to be. And books are something worth spending on. This week brought the following* via Amazon, after sadly failing to find all of then at the Strand**:

José Cárdenas Bunsen. Escritura y derecho canonico en la obra de fray Bartolomé de las Casas. Iberoamericana Vervuert Verlag, 2011.

David M. Freidenreich and Miriam Goldstein, eds. Beyond Religious Borders: Interaction and Intellectual Exchange in the Medieval Islamic World. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012.

Joseph R. Hacker and Adam Shear, eds. The Hebrew Book in Early Modern Italy. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.

Antonio Muñoz Molina. Carlota Fainberg. Madrid: Alfaguara, 1999.
(Edited on 2/29 to add: I ordered this one through one of Amazon's associated used-book merchants, Books Squared. It was listed as being in very good condition, which according to Amazon means that the physical condition of the spine and pages should be excellent, minimal markings and no writing in the book. Unfortunately, it arrived with marginal comments and underlining in pen on virtually every page. The company issued a refund almost immediately, but it was still a really disappointing experience and I think I shan't buy books from that particular merchant again.)
*I think I'll regularize the posting of information about books I acquire, a little bit a la Nick Hornby, not so much the week in links, but the week (only not that frequently!) in damage.

**And yes, this does mean that I successfully walked into a bookstore containing 18 miles of books and left without purchasing anything!

Well, now that you mention it...

Most academic journals, both print and digital, contain a section of reviews of relatively new books in the academic area about which the journal publishes. Journals receive books from academic presses, distribute them to qualified reviewers, and then publish the reviews. Writing book reviews is an expected part of academic life. It happens to be one I'm not totally crazy about. Reviews tend to be short, (>1000 words, in general), so it's a bit more like writing a glorified book blurb than an engaged, in-depth analysis, and for a book blurb, it takes a disproportionate amount of time. I have heard many people describe the writing of academic book reviews as "the most expensive way to get free books." But since one is expected to participate in the scholarly discourse in this fashion, and since it's not too terribly onerous, one makes do and carries on (not to mix two plucky British wartime mottos, or anything like that).

The reviewers are selected through a process in which the journals, at certain intervals prior to publication, publicize the list of books they have received from academic presses and solicit reviewers. You write in, you explain why you're qualified, so do twenty-five other people, and the journal editors choose one of them. I've only written one book review so far (it's not yet appeared in print), and that came about after I requested a certain book, it was given to someone else, and then during the next cycle, the book reviews editor for that particular journal wrote to me, said he thought that based on my stated interests in qualifications that I might be a good reviewer for a different book, and was I interested? I said yes. I hadn't really thought twice about not being assigned the original book, and thought it was actually quite considerate and well-organized of the editor to keep track of people to whom he hadn't assigned books to give them first crack at the ones in the next set.

Another set of books for a different publication was recently circulated, and one in particular was pretty much in my wheelhouse; it's a book that I'm likely to have to own because it's something I'll refer to frequently. (And, to be completely frank and to name names because their practices are so egregious, it's published by Brill, so it's exorbitantly, usuriously, preposterously expensive, and so I wouldn't mind receiving a copy at no charge.) I sent my little blurb of information off and really hadn't thought about it again; I figured I'd hear one way or the other and take it from there. No big deal. 

Today, I received the following email:
Dear Dr. Pearce,

Thank you for your recent offer to undertake a review for [PUBLICATION]. We received several requests to review the book in which you expressed interest and have made the decision to assign it to another reviewer.  We hope that you will not take this as a comment on your qualifications and interests; we encourage you to respond to future postings of "Books Received", and we have noted your interests for our use in assigning future reviews.
Thank you again for your support of [PUBLICATION].
The Editors

I find this to be an odd sort of rejection letter. Because many people are vying to review the same books, it never would have occurred to me to take an instance of not being offered a specific book to review as "a comment on [my] qualifications." It's just a numbers game. But now that they've put it that way, I find myself thinking, "It's just a numbers game... right?" I would never have taken it personally until the editors suggested that perhaps I might or should.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Staying Organized Despite the Siren Song of the Blackboard Fallacy

(Edited on 2/22 to add a quick question: I'm getting quite a lot of hits on this post from readers in countries where I don't know people (Indonesia, Malaysia, France, Germany) and from whence I've never gotten pageviews before (Portugal, Russia, the Ukraine), only the statistics aggregator isn't giving me information on how they're getting here. Has this post been linked to somewhere? If you've gotten here by clicking on a link from elsewhere, would you let me know in the comments section? The curiosity is getting the better of me.)

Using course management software (CMS) seems much more prevalent here at NYU than it did at Cornell. It seemed like a good idea at first, but I'm realizing that it is contributing — for me, anyway — to greater disorganization in my course preparation and I'm going to rely on it much less heavily in future semesters.

The first semester that I was here I made a course packet for my seminar that students bought at the campus bookstore; when I realized just how expensive the course packet would be for them, I also scanned individual articles and readings made them available on Blackboard. It worked out just fine because I had everything pre-copied and pre-scanned before the semester started. I made the decision to use Blackboard to distribute readings from then on out. We used Blackboard to distribute readings the intro lecture class in part because of cost and in part for flexibility's sake as we were were developing a new core course; and since the site is set up now, I imagine that I and whoever else teaches it in the future will continue to use it for that. In that case —where  the scanning and posting was only a small percentage of the overwhelming amount of time we spent developing the course, its theoretical framework, our lectures, assignments that would work well as assessment tools and skill-building exercises, etc., and also developing our own rapport as a teaching team — the flexibility was worth it; but that truly was a special and exceptional case.

For seminars and for any lecture course I might teach solo in the future, though, I'm done with Blackboard as the readings clearinghouse. I realized that I have succumbed to the fallacy that using the CMS allows for flexibility in designing a course and tweaking it as you go — and that that flexibility is unequivocally a good thing. Yes, it does allow for change and adaptability. But in reality, courses don't need that much tweaking midway through, and if I want to add or change one reading here or there once or twice in the semester, I can still send out a PDF (or, with graduate students, send them to the library). And the downside of leaving it that open-ended and doing the scanning week-to-week is considerable. It's amazing the extent to which the prospect of spending an hour or two (and yes, it really does take a while) each week at the copy machine looms large in my mind. It puts me in a cranky frame of mind with respect to my class, and that's not productive for me or for my students. So instead of several hours a week, I'll sacrifice an entire day or two before the start of the semester and get all of my copying done and send it off to the bookstore to be course-packetified. And as an added benefit, in this way I'll force myself to be more prepared at the start of the semester, which will also be better both for me and for the students in that the trajectory of the course and its aims will necessarily be more clearly articulated because I"ll be committed wholly to what I've put on the syllabus. I won't succumb to possibility. By using Blackboard, my sense of overwhelm at all wonderful options out there and how I might integrate them into a course gets telegraphed into the classroom. At the moment, that's happening, and it needs to stop. Working week-to-week and using Blackboard seem great in the abstract and much less great in practice.

Yes, I could post everything to Blackboard before the start of the semester. And I think on some level, I had sort of assumed that once I had a good selection of courses under my belt, I'd also have pre-prepared Blackboard sites ready to go. But I'm not willing to wait that long and have this onerous task of scanning and copying eating hours out of my week every week and weighing heavily on my mind. On top of that, add CMS that has a really clumsy interface that not infrequently eats PDFs or sends them down the memory hole. So it would be particularly onerous to try to post them all in one sitting. I know it's going to mean extra cost to my students, but at the same time, it's not as if they come into a class not expecting to spend money on books and course packets; all it means is that I don't get to be the heroic good guy anymore who tells them that they can spare on one of those expenses. And it's not as if there won't be a copy of the packet on reserve in the library for students for whom the cost is prohibitive.

I'm still finding my sea-legs as a teacher. I want to spend that energy doing things that will make me more effective in the classroom, not battling with technology and incessant, recurring piles of paper.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Midweek in Links (The Dead Shall Be Raised Edition)

I hate to sound like I have no sense of humor, because in a vacuum this really is actually pretty funny, but given events of the last year or seven, I hate even more to see people joking about looting museums as the logical response to unrest and strife. Couldn't they have just presented these as the best zombie-defense tools at the Met without suggesting that looting the place would be the best course of action in case of zombie invasion?

The Top Four Zombie Defense Tools at the Met

The funniest, most lyrical theme park review I've ever read: "'Dickens-loving flume-ride-enthusiasts' seems like a small, sad demographic." Humor aside, the review segues into a tackling of some serious questions about the relationship between authors and literature, and the history of literary tourism:

The World of Charles Dickens, Compete with a Pizza Hut

Two videos, one new this week and one not (but catchy, lovable and destined to be a classic), about Mesopotamians, just for a little variety:

Crash Course on World History: Mesopotamia

The Mesopotamians

There's a theme taking shape here, and martyrs fit into it very nicely, so, happy slightly belated Valentine's Day to all, with love from the middle ages, via the Cornell medieval studies list:

Two Letters from Margery Brews, 1477

ArtStor Blog: Valentine's Day

and NPR:

The Dark Origins of Valentine's Day


Bonus Themed Postscript: Writerly Transgressions

I know that the blog to which I am linking below belongs to someone who is an established senior scholar and well-respected in the Hispanic studies blogosphere, and the follwoing post has helped me further delineate an explicit *ahem* set of guidelines for myself with respect to the ways in which I will and won't use blogging as a tool. There will, for example, be no topless photos of academics here. Ever. Least of all me. Under any circumstances. Not even if human lives and the fate of nations hinge upon it. Not even if I were trying to be entertaining or humorous. (Not in the rain. Not in the dark. Not on a train. Not in a car. Not in a tree. Not in a house. Not in a box. Not with a mouse. Not with a fox, and not even with apologies to Dr. Seuss.) This was so not what I wanted or expected to see when I woke up on Tuesday morning and went to read the latest tips about writing productively on a blog with which I am now finished as a lurking reader:

Muscling Through It

A transgression of a truly different magnitude (though infinitely more read-about-able):

A Plagiarist's Tale


And finally, for some really excellent news: The full runs of the journals Ginzei Qedem and Pe'amim have been digitized!

Monday, February 13, 2012

A Query

At what point in the editing process can/should one post a prepublication typescript of an article online?

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Week in Links (2/6-2/12)

Can anyone identify the manuscript in the portrait of Queen Elizabeth II (long may she reign) for 1988? I can't believe the caption left out the most important piece of information:

The Queen's Diamond Jubilee

And speaking of illuminated manuscripts, this is very cool! And potentially really useful! (I actually applied for a job with this project, knowing it was unlikely I would get it because they were legally bound to consider EU candidates before they could even look at the applications of non-EU candidates):

Illuminated Hebrew Manuscripts Online

A really good intellectual and academic detective story:

The Mystery of the Millionaire Metaphysicist

This seems like an exceptionally poor idea:

Medieval Hot Pants? Surely, You Joust

It aggrieves me that I contribute (willingly, for sure, but not unambivalently) to a world in which it may well be impossible to write a similar book 400 years from now:

New York Diaries: 1609-2000

Pages from New York's History

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Total Identification With the Academic Subject, Part II: Literal Translation Versus Literary Translation

A large portion of my academic work concerns two of the most important Hebrew translators of Moses Maimonides' Guide of the Perplexed, one, Samuel ibn Tibbon, who translated from Arabic into Hebrew in a very literal way, and the other, Judah al-Harizi, who translated from Arabic into Hebrew in a more holistic way, thereby producing a text that is much more readable as a work of standalone Hebrew prose. In that our academic work always tells us something about ourselves as much as it tells us something about our subjects, thinking about beginning my literary translation project has given me some insight into  my academic interest in these two translators and the ways in which it has stemmed very naturally from my own intellectual formation.

I had the great good fortune to begin my study of Arabic in the grand philological tradition of classical Oriental studies. In Arabic classes, the goal was always to show that you understood the function of single word on the page — every single letter, in fact. If you had to make a choice between rendering something in idiomatic English and rendering it in a way that didn't obscure any function of any part of the Arabic, you erred on the side of the latter, the literal translation. If a single letter made your verb causative, you'd better have translated the verb into English sounding very causative, even if that might have made the phrase unidiomatic-sounding. If you really wanted, after you'd translated your sentence, you could offer an interpretation into English that sounded like English. So for example, if you came across something that is known as a mā-min (literally, what-of) construction in a phrase like 'atanī yūsufu 'aindahu min al-kutub, you might start out by saying: "Yusuf gave me what he had of books," or if you were feeling really poetic, "Yusuf gave me what he had in the way of books," and only after that adding, "in other words, Yusuf gave me the books that he had." You would never simply go to the idiomatic English because then it wouldn't be clear that you really understood that this was this particular kind of grammatical usage rather than a straight-up relative clause.

I have found that this style of translation and that particular motivation behind it (rather that, say, Samuel ibn Tibbon's reasons for translating literally, which had to do with a need to preserve the peculiarities of Arabic syntax in Hebrew) have stuck with me when I am doing academic translation. It's as if there's a little translation demon sitting on my shoulder telling me that if I don't prove that I understand how every piece of the original is functioning automatically, then whoever is sitting in the "professor" role — editors, for the most part — might think I don't really know the original language very well. I recently translated two articles from Spanish into English for a volume on architectural history, and the editor wrote back to me to comment that they still sounded a little like Spanish; and she was right. In a sense, I learned Arabic by fear. I learned to translate by fear. There's something to be said for that pedagogical method and its effectiveness. I learned the rules of Arabic grammar well. But the terror remains and pervades.

Literary translation frees me from that fear, though, and from the constraints that it imposes. Translating a work of literature opens up the sense of play that one finds in Judah al-Harizi's translations, and the sense of pure enjoyment of the languages and of the challenge.

A short essay written in memoir mode by the Yiddish author Yossl Birstein describes an incident in which the young Yossl wrote a story containing the sentence, "The man died and was buried in the ground." Young Yossl proudly read the story to his mother, who asked, upon conclusion of the reading: "If he was buried, doesn't it go without saying that it was in the ground? Why do you need to say 'in the ground'?" Young Yossl answered that he liked the way it sounded, to which his mother replied, "Are you writing stories for the sake of the sounds, or sounds for the sake of the story?"

That little anecdote has stuck with me for a long time, and it captures what I love best about literary translation: It's like writing, but all for the sake of the sound.


I suspect I could elaborate upon what I've written here. I suspect I might very well do that at some point in the future. But, once again, I'll leave this as it is, as a bloggy first draft of ideas that are still forming themselves.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Book Review: Habibi by Craig Thompson

I was brought a copy of Craig Thompson's graphic novel, Habibi, by a dear graduate school friend of mine. (If you're at all interested in archaeology, technology, sci-fi and fantasy or comics and graphic novels, she's a prolific and really interesting tweeter to follow @girlarchaeo.) I had seen the book and had been hoping to read it, but had apparently missed out on the (perhaps predictable) critical storm surrounding it. She filled me in and said she'd be curious what I'd think about it as both an Arabist and a habitual reader of graphic novels. So here goes:

The short answer is that as a slightly misanthropic Arabist, I love the way in which the book honors and beautifies the language and the script.

I know that it speaks much to my failings as a lay reader — that is, when I've taken my critic hat off and am simply reading for the pure hedonism of it — and to the one-dimensionality I sometimes inadvertently permit myself that I find the musings about writing to be so tactilely pleasurable that I'm not sure I care about the sexualization of the female character or the orientalization of the made-up kingdom; but that sort of reaction is also the fault (whether you want to understand that as a good or bad thing) of the author/artist. In a way the objectification of the female protagonist within the story is merely an allegory for her objectification in or reduction against the notion of book-as-thing or book-as-art. If the written word is the ultimate art form, then why do we need the three-dimensional beauty of the human form? Look at what man has wrought. Hubris, perhaps, but still... it's there on the page.

Where a certain brand of orientalism does bother me, it is in the idea of a writer copying out words he does not understand: Several published interviews have reported that Thompson learned the Arabic script but nothing else. It is not a problem without historical precedent, though: In the course of my academic work, I have read accounts of eighteenth-century debates at the Spanish Royal Academy of History over whether the inscriptional heritage of the country would be better documented by someone who did or someone who did not read Hebrew or Arabic; they debated whether someone who didn't know what he was looking at would render the inscriptions more faithfully than someone who could read and might then represent what he thought he was recognizing. It also dovetails really beautifully with questions about why Arabic calligraphic decoration is placed so high up in building as to render it illegible, or why it is sometimes rendered as simple squiggles, even for an Arabic-literate population.

The Guardian recently published images from Thompson's sketchbook:

Craig Thompson: Craig Thompson sketchbook

Craig Thompson: Craig Thompson dictionary

(Click to enlarge; follow the link above for more.)

In a way, these drawings are as evocative to me as a student of Arabic as one of my dissertation texts, in which a Hebrew translator marvels at the strange rules of Arabic grammar. ("Sometimes when we would use the plural, they use the singular feminine," my translator half-marvels and half-complains.) There is a strong kinship among all of us who have struggled to learn the language — and this one is always a struggle. But at the same time, these words are all art for Thompson. He draws Arabic rather than writing it. The book becomes, at once, a glorification of literacy and a total strike against it.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Listserv as Text

A request from a scholar at a British university went out over one of the listservs a few weeks ago for American literature that deals with Iran or the Persian and Persianate world in some manner. I wasn't particularly impressed with the request, which rather explicitly made it seem as if the individual were compiling the text corpus for his forthcoming project based entirely on what "teh internetz" had to say, but that's really none of my business. Suggestions have flown across the listserv, and I've paid only minimal attention, keeping one ear to the proverbial ground in case there was anything I might be interested in reading.

The query was informally closed today, when the questioner sent out a list that he had compiled from the responses received, with a message that included the sentence:

Although I was looking for American texts, amongst your replies were many hyphenated works produced by the émigré community of Iranians all over the world.

At first, I understood this to mean that he wasn't interested, for example, in Marjane Satrapi, a French-Iranian writer and artist; I thought that American literature could include the Iranian diaspora in America, but not the diaspora in other countries. All fine up to this point. But upon consultation with the list, it became clear that his distinction between "American" and "hyphenated" people and their works was, in fact, that white Anglo writers of Northern European heritage fell into the one category and everyone else fell into the other; Iranian-Americans are not considered to be Americans in this grouping.

If you want to write about Anglophone, Europeanish people writing about Iran, or people with no personal connection to Iran writing about Iran, then define the project in terms that reflect that goal. Perhaps that is all made clear in this scholar's project. But from the limited perspective of the listserv, and reading sola scriptura, by the text alone, the definition of this corpus struck me as an elaborate performance of a sort of time-release colonialism in the purported service of dismantling the rhetoric of Orientalism. It's not to say that British scholars shouldn't work on American topics, just that I hope that when they (or anybody else, Americans included) do so, that there is more that underpins their work than a few declarations, seeming ex nihil, about the validity of the hyphenated American. This sounds more like a parlor game to be played spoken through the nose at the expense of some former colonials than it does scholarship.

How much is worth explaining or delineating within a listserv post, though? To what extent should subscribers see it as a text, or as something else? Is it fair to critique a project description promulgated in this informal way for its lack of a thoughtful theoretical or textual or historical  or anthropological (or sensible) framework?


Postscript: I've been thinking about this idea of the Listserv as text for the last month or so, when there have been two conversation threads that have promulgated some really misguided ideas about transliteration and the relationship between Arabic and Persian

Post-postscript: I'd have added Davar Ardalan's My Name is Iran to that list.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

How Not to Travel to Columbia from NYU (A Richly Illustrated Guide)

1) Leave oneself 35 minutes to get there because, hey, it takes 35 minutes to get to the Met, and clearly W 116th St. is just like E 86th St. It's... uptown. (In the space of a year and a half, I've officially become Manhattan provincial.)

2) Take the A/C to 116th St. on the assumption that it'll be quicker to walk across at 116th St. than it will be to walk across to Christopher St. and then take the 1 local all the way up. As it happens, there's a very sketchy park in the way.

In the con column, I was almost 20 minutes late to a talk at the Casa Hispánica. In the pro column, I am not dead. (It's been that kind of day.)


The good: Get oneself to A, take train to B, walk across the Columbia campus.

The bad: Take the train from A to B, walk to C.

The ugly (bonus map): Google Maps driving directions, which is the default output, include a figure eight off Riverside Drive.

Just to clarify, I wasn't looking at the Google map when I made my poor transit choice; rather, I was looking at this subway map that gives absolutely no indication of there being any kind of obstacle or alteration to the grid between the 116th St. A/C B/D stop and the Columbia campus:

Furthermore, the subway map does show some of the city's smaller parks, like Washington Square Park down here by NYU, so I thought it was a fair assumption that no green space on the map meant no green space in reality. But map, as Jonathan Z. Smith reminds us, is not territory.

I've gotten really badly lost in Barcelona twice in my life, and ended up on those occasions wandering into two distinct bad neighborhoods. At that time, I remember thinking that it would be a good idea to have a sort of map that could reflect that information. I was reminded of that thought again last night. 

Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Week in Links (Sally's Apizza Edition)

Would that I were in Granada at the end of the month:

Owen Jones, la Alhambra y el Orientalismo

Owen Jones and the Alhambra

Of these, my favorite is the one in O Porto, thereby pushing Portugal higher up from its already-high spot on my travel list. My favorite bookshops in the world, not the most beautiful, but still, are Green Apple Books in San Francisco and Tmol Shilshom in Jerusalem. I'm also a fan of the branch of La Central located at the Reina Sofia in Madrid (the photo doesn't do it justice at all), and thought that might also have been in contention for the title of most beautiful. If you're so inclined, leave your favorites or candidates for most beautiful in the comments section:

The 20 Most  Beautiful Bookstores in the World

A bookstore specializing in books on Spain for English speakers (first spotted over at Books on Spain) looks like it might have potential (regardless of however much I might detest the substitution of the numeral '4' for the word 'for'):


My intro-lecture-class colleague and I are seriously considering writing a budget line into our team teaching development grant for a pair of these:

The Best Time-Saving Device Every Professor Needs to Have! 

A post on the Wikipedia blackout from the Stanford CMEMS group blog that is just generally much better than mine was:

When Wikipedia Went Dark

Of interest:

The Upside of Dyslexia

Since this aggregation of links will be posted automatically while I'm in Wooster Square, it is especially appropriate to note that Yale undergrads, by and large, are smart, thoughtful, curious, inquisitive and funny as all get-out. Please don't reflect poorly on all of us, ever, by deliberately misunderstanding/selectively understanding a statement on a web page and launching into a solipsistic, anti-intellectual tirade on that basis. *Headdesk*:

Kill the Language Requirement

And finally, permit me to ascend a small soap box. This came across on the Cornell Medieval Studies list and particularly because of that, because I know that people I care about personally and professionally will have read it, I must repost and declare how very much I disagree with this advice. My own experience on the job market has, admittedly, been limited and atypical and I have been unusually fortunate. With that said, from my own experience, having watched that of friends, and now from a very privileged position of being able to watch the whole thing from through the looking-glass, if you are going on the job market, please, please do be yourself. If what this columnist suggests is true — "no matter where you are in your career, but most especially if you are just starting out, or (god forbid) a grad student, you are, as an academic, insecure, verbose, defensive, paranoid, beset by feelings of inadequacy,  pretentious, self-involved, communicatively challenged, and fixated on minutiae. Consequently, here’s how you act in interviews:  rambling, obscure, petrified, subservient, cringing, disorganized, braggy, tedious, emotionally over-amped, off-point, self-absorbed, defensive, and fixated on minutiae" — then still don't pretend to be someone you're not in the interview. Try to stop being those things! In general! Not just in an interview! First of all, doing so is likely to improve a whole host of things in life in general as well as in academia. And second, you're going to be interviewed by a bunch of smart people who can generally see through an act; they may not know what's beneath the act, but they'll know it's being put on. And they're going to wonder what you're really like, what you're trying to hide, and whether they can really tell from your performed you what real you will be like as a colleague. And finally, if you are you in an interview and do get a job, it's much easier to walk into your new position and not be "insecure, verbose, defensive and paranoid" because you know that your colleagues, that the people who among other things will eventually decide if they want to keep you around, know what you're about, intellectually, as a teacher and as a colleague. You don't then have to spend the next six years keeping up a charade. If they hired you, warts and all, intellectual quirks and all, then it's okay to keep being a little quirky in your work. So if you woke up today to find this in your inbox, or even if you are reading it for the first time by clicking on the link below, please, please don't follow this advice:

*steps down from soap box*

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Total Identification With the Academic Subject, Part I: A Medievalist Above All Else

I know just about everybody in my department by now, but there are still a few people I'm meeting here and there. I met someone new this week, and he asked me, "¿Quién eres?" (Who are you?), to which I replied: "Soy medievalista" (I am a medievalist). "Ah," he replied. "No sabía que habíamos contratado a una medievalista. Pero ¿como te llamas?" It emerged that the normal-person reply to his question, as it would likewise have been in English, would have been to tell him my name and then to mention what I do professionally. I can't think of the novel (I almost fear it may have been one of the Bridget Jones books) in which a British character remarks that Americans will always ask about a person's profession before asking about his or her name; it was as if I was enacting the scene from the other side, answering that way without having been asked. My colleague refrained from saying, "Ah, entonces eres norteamericana," until after I had told him my surname, but surely he had deduced as much already from my peculiar response. Nevertheless, I'm pretty sure I want to chalk up this social gaffe not to the fact that I'm an American but rather to the fact that I'm as prone to Luftmenschlichkeit (my very favorite German* word, by the way) as the next academic and simply very, very engrossed in my intellectual life.

*Edited to add: It has been suggested to me that my favorite German word may not be a proper German word at all, and that this lexeme may be exclusive to Yiddish. (I've mentioned that my German requires improvement.) I'll have to investigate. Anybody out there know for sure?

Friday, February 3, 2012

Order of Operations

I've mentioned my co-taught introductory lecture course, "God, Guns and Chocolate: The Iberian Atlantic, 750-1750" several times already in this space.  What I'm not sure that I've mentioned, though, is that it is a bilingual class. One of the major goals of the course is to allow prospective Spanish majors to get a sense of what's out there rather than keeping literature and history as a sort of mysterious thing, under wraps, available only to people with a certain level of language skill. We're trying to get away from the traditional model that a Spanish department is a service department, the place where you go to practice  your Spanish, and that's all there is to it. However, collectively, we also don't want students who can (either because they're already majors or because they're heritage or native speakers or because they've studied abroad, or what-have-you) to not have the opportunity to practice their Spanish. It's a really delicate balancing act between teaching language and content.

To me it makes perfectly good sense because that's how things are done in Near Eastern Studies-type departments in the US: You may read in the original or in translation (depending on the level and nature of the course) but the discussion is in English.

The way that we have decided to strike that balance here is a little different: Each week, either my colleague or I lectures in English for 75 minutes on Tuesday. Then on Thursday, students have the option of attending recitation section for an additional 65  minutes either in English or in Spanish. (Just to clarify, the option is between the two sections, not attending section or not.) It takes students a little while to wrap their heads around the fact that as a native English speaker with an exceptionally WASPy name (who happens to be Slavic and Jewish in spite of the name, though they don't know that piece of it — it's personal, most of all, and why complicate an already complicated game of identity politics?), I don't always teach all the English sections, and as the native Spanish speaker with a very Spanish name (who has a likewise complicated identity, but that's not my story to tell), my colleague doesn't always teach all the Spanish sections. But we explain to them that as the expert in the medieval material, I'm in a much better position to discuss the medieval material with them, and as an expert in the Latin American material, my colleague is in a much better position to discuss that material with them. We tell them that this arrangement is more beneficial to them. We tell them that I wasn't hired by NYU because I am a native English speaker but because of my command of a certain kind of material, and my colleague wasn't hired by NYU because he is a native Spanish speaker but, again, because of his command of a different kind of material. A few students will, inevitably, not get on board with this, but most of them, after a few repetitions of that little spiel, do come around.

But this all poses some interesting questions about assigning readings that wouldn't come up in a monolingual class. Last semester, we made readings available to all the students in the class in both English and Spanish. It really didn't work: Students came to the Spanish section having done the reading and having thought about the problems in English, and familiar with little of the relevant Spanish vocabulary, both of the technical and non-technical variety.

In other words, I spent a lot of time listening to students' opinions about "los personajes en los books of chivalry" in spite of the fact that we did not make it difficult for them to figure out that libros de caballería was the term they really needed. (There were carefully crafted vocabulary lists involved.) Sentences like this always remind me of an anecdote that a friend of my parents told after spending a year living in Israel: She was in the gym one day and found herself near two Orthodox women getting dressed in a huff, and she overheard one of them saying to the other in a really thick New York accent: "I-efshar la-'asot spinning 'im gever, ve-i-efshar la-'asot spinning ba-skirt!" (It's not possible to take a spinning class taught by a man because you can't do spinning in a skirt!) Normally, I'm fascinated by mid-sentence code-switches. But if you're teaching a section of a class whose explicit purpose is to serve students who want to improve their language skills, then it's a bit irritating to have students who aren't even trying. And I don't mean I'd be irritated by a student forgetting or not knowing the right word. Lord knows it happens to me! It was just the systemic disregard of the language and the total lack of effort being put in — we had some issues with this class last semester.

So this semester, we've decided to make only Spanish readings available to the students in the Spanish recitation section, wherever possible. In other words, if there's a secondary article that one of us really wants to use that was written in English and doesn't exist in translation, we'll use it in the Spanish section regardless. Students in the English section have access to both the English and Spanish readings because some of them wanted to take the Spanish section but couldn't because of scheduling, and because others thought that maybe they'd like to try one or two readings in Spanish but weren't confident enough in their language skill level to enroll in a whole Spanish section. Next week is the first week I am teaching the class; it was my colleague's week last week. And now, I"m grappling with this split that we're supposed to be enforcing because in addition to some secondary readings, I also want my students to read a short excerpt from a late-thirteenth century enxiemplo (exemplum). But I also don't want a whole pile of them to freak out and drop the course because they are confronted with sentences like "Et acaesçió que, estando un día folgando, que tañían antél un estrumento de que see paraga mucho los moros, que a nombre albogón. Et el rey paró mientes et entenió que non fazía..." and don't know how they'll be able to manage in a course that would throw material such as this at them all term. (And actually, I think they're only going to read three short excerpts of medieval Castilian texts in the original this semester; but there's a method to that madness.) So what I'm thinking about doing this week is distributing that piece of the reading in lecture on Tuesday (in other words, not even putting it up on Blackboard where they might or might not see any directions that I'd post up along with it), make some time during class for them to read it in English and have a little preliminary discussion that fits in with the lecture, and then admonish the students in the Spanish section that they must attempt to read the Castilian version for class on Thursday, and that it's going to be really hard, but it'll be hard for everyone and that we'll go over some tricks and tips in class to make it easier. I'm worried they won't do it and that then I'll have to fill an hour+ of time. In a language of which I'm not a native speaker.

That last bit is a little daunting but not actually a problem. It's more the principle of the whole thing: What's the optimal order in which to give students access to texts to ensure that they read optimally?

Thursday, February 2, 2012

mi she-nolad hirviach/ yechi ha-melech ha-mashiach*

Strictly from an anthropological perspective, I'm really pleased that I went home for lunch when I did, to be able to see this scene from my living room window:

(Click any of these to enlarge.)

For the moment, I'll simply observe that there are grammatical/lexical mistakes that one is prone to making in Arabic when one approaches it solely from the perspective of it being a cognate language to Hebrew. And I'll  reserve all other observations, even about the Spanish van.

*I'm also not going to explain the title of this post. Either you will recognize the musical-cultural-literary reference or you won't, ve-ha-meyvin yavin.