Monday, April 30, 2012

How To Write an Email: The Handout

I've put together a completely cathartic handout. It allowed me to be productive and address a situation in a professional way while simultaneously feeling like I could subversively, covertly unmuzzle myself a bit and, frankly, respond to some student inappropriateness in the way that I would have liked to with the individual students in question. I was motivated by catching myself, one too many times, being really irritated by an impertinent student email and thinking, "Well, one of these days somebody is going to read them the riot act." And I realized that I can step in and say something, without it being a riot act, so that I don't have to read so many bad emails and so my students don't get read the riot act by somebody else in the future. I'm still toning down the language a bit as I edit this for the final version to be distributed, but as something between a distributable version and a fantasy version, I rather like the state of it now.

You can access it in Google Docs by clicking here.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Week in Links (Cool Women Academics Edition)

It's a short list this week not to represent a lack of cool women academics but rather because I've been mostly offline due to two major deadlines, a minor deadline (totally blown), senior honors thesis advising and a seriously large pile of grading.

Mary Beard is now officially my hero:

Too ugly for TV? No, I'm too brainy for men who fear clever women.

More on early women at Yale:

Woman, Fighter, Philosopher

I frequently talk about the end of the Middle Ages as a very fluid thing. I put it in the early 17th century, realizing that, even for Spain, that's not very conventional. This is either an argument for putting the end of the Middle Ages, for medicine, in the 19th century or another questionable use of the term medieval:

The End of the Medical Middle Ages

And from the great Arab poet and playwright, Sheikh Isbeare:

Montague and Capulet as Shiite and Sunni

Thursday, April 26, 2012

How Enlightened!

I was really curious about how John Green was going to handle the Middle Ages. I now have my answer: Very well. (Although Maimonides wasn't actually *expelled* from Spain, per se.) His thesis is that, yeah, the Middle Ages is a bit of a dark age if you're a eurocentrist, but there was the whole rest of the world out there. Very excited to be able to use this in class.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Pernicious Homophony, a Typo, and a Trip to Spain

I was supposed to be in Spain this week on NYU business, but owing to a spectacular, self-inflicted scheduling cock-up and my own inability to warp the time-space continuum to suit my needs, I am still here in New York. I know that this is a tragedy only to an academic with a good job in a civilized part of the country. First worldiest of first world problems. Or, as a friend of mine put it, "Wait, you're complaining about having to be either in New York or Madrid?" Nevertheless, I'm truly unhappy about the not-in-Spain aspect of my week.

But to add insult to injury, someone in Great Britain (and not, apparently my doppelganger at the University of Southampton but rather yet another homophone, this one London suburbs-based) is not only going to Spain but seems to have forgotten what combination of first, middle and last names she uses as her email address and entered, instead, the combination that I use as my email address such that I am receiving her itineraries and suggestions for lovely side trips and other things to do whilst in Spain.

I followed the link in one of the emails to try to take my email address off the account, but it turns out that won't let you just remove an email address. Rather, you can only edit and can't leave the field blank. And obviously that's not going to work since I don't *know* this other homophone's email address (although to be fair, neither does she, apparently).

For a moment I considered canceling the reservation, in large measure because I'm a little alarmed by the sort of backdoor lapse in aviation and personal identity security. I have access to this other Sarah's home address, telephone number and other personal information (which I'm not posting screen-grabs of here), and I suppose that if I were the wrong sort of person, it wouldn't be too difficult for me to step in as her.

And for another moment, I thought about printing out the e-ticket, getting myself to Stanstead, and taking this second Sarah's vacation myself and hoping that her traveling companion, apparently named Neil, wouldn't notice the switcheroo. Ibiza looks awfully nice in this picture, and I could probably reroute myself back through Madrid for a few days at the BNE.

A girl can dream. And then she can exhort everyone, whether they have a common name or not, to double-check the details that they've entered when they book travel and buy stuff online.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Week in Links (Misunderstanding Scripture Edition)

I really wanted this to be interesting, but it just isn't:

The Naked Truth

This looks like it will be useful in teaching, and a good read, too. On the list for once the semester is over:

Interpreting Shariah Law Across the Centuries


*Finally!* (Frequent emPHAsis on the wrong syLLAbles, and he almost makes it through without confusing Muslims and Arabs but does it once at the very end. But still.):

Islam, the Qur'ān, and the Five Pillars: Crash Course World History


Great though John Green is, it is Mary Beard who is quickly becoming my new-media role model:

The Saturday Interview: Professor Mary Beard

I have no problem with artifacts being in private hands as long as they are catalogued well and made accessible to scholars (at a minimum) and the public (ideal). And good for this guy for doing something really worthwhile with his fortune. But I'm not sure what I think about explicitly Jewish artifacts of Bible readership (13th-century Spanish Torah scroll, images two and fifteen; 11th-century Karaite book of prophets, image three; 16th-century cover for a copy of Megilat-Esther, image twelve) being included in an exhibition and possibly eventually a permanent museum collection "aimed at showing the ties that bind all denominations of Christianity." One has to wonder what angle will be played:

Hobby Shop Magnate's Own Passion is the Collection of Bible Artifacts

And in news of the completely-forgivable-misuses-of-the-world-medieval variety, the Children's Medieval Band cover German metal music:

Meanwhile in Germany...

Revising a Book Chapter as a Short(ish) Talk

I'm giving a talk on Thursday at the Kevorkian Center here at NYU that will hopefully (in the newly-approved sense of the word) lead to my becoming affiliated with the Department of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies. It's the first time that I'm giving a talk based on a longer work that I've had to cut down and re-edit as a talk rather than being purpose-written as a talk based on a smaller project, or even just a talk based on something written that was just about the right length. The talk's not short — 45 minutes! — but it's still less time than one would need to simply read aloud a whole chapter of a book aloud.

And that's what the longer work in question is: the first chapter of the book I am writing roughly based on my dissertation work. That chapter concerns a study of three texts in which the progenitor of a translation workshop writes about reading the Hebrew Bible in Arabic translation. The text that I discuss second in the chapter is the one that is most exciting to me; it's freshest in my mind and it's also the least studied of three very understudied texts. And so I thought I'd pull it out and present that text. But as I started to do that, I realized that I wasn't going to be able to present that text without doing more rewriting and reframing than I have time for between now and Thursday. My first, brief reaction was to see this as a failure — of my ability to explain my work to a more general audience succinctly, to edit my own work, what-have-you. But all of a sudden, I realized that, while this was a problem for the talk, it was actually really good news as far as the book is concerned. It means that each section of the chapter builds upon the previous one and that the whole chapter coheres: that you can't just pull out one chunk and have it stand on its own. The argument is complex and requires all the pieces to be in place.

The talk will be fine. And finally, I'm feeling cautiously optimistic about the book, too.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Movie Review: Footnote

I just saw a movie entitled Footnote that has already been open and running (and apparently generating a profit) in the United States for six weeks the moral of which is: Don't try to pull one over on a philologist.

Restores just a bit of one's faith in humanity.

I can't say "what's not to love?" because it is, in fact, a flawed film. Narratively there's no real there there, and a lot of intriguing threads are left badly dangling. (Who did steal Uriel's clothes, anyway, and why?)

However and in spite of those flaws, it is the single best movie I have seen in a good long while. The character studies are just genius. I know versions of all of the characters in the film. Down to the details it's a good, honest, humane portrayal of homo academicus. There was something so familiar about the repeated treks back and forth through the library (all the moreso because it was shot in a library in which I've had the privilege of working) that I have to imagine would have been tedious to a lay viewer but were spot on to those of us in the know. I know very senior scholars who scan publications to make sure that they were cited and circle their own references, as Eliezer does. And the references within the film to scholars whose work I know in real life alternate between hilarious and cutting.

The movie traces the lives of father and son Talmud scholars Eliezer and Uriel Shkolnik in the weeks between Uriel's induction as a fellow into the Israeli Academy of Sciences and Humanities, an honor never bestowed upon Eliezer, and the awarding of the Israel Prize, which was meant to go to Uriel as well, but which is mistakenly awarded to his father. Eliezer considers his son to be a scholarly lightwieght and is increasingly bitter over having been passed over for accolade upon accolade, after a career marked by a a thirty-year philological project that was scooped in an instant by a colleague (now, not coincidentally, head of the Israel Prize jury). Upon being informed of the mistake, and after a brutal argument over the value of truth relative to humanity that turns into a fisticuffs in a tiny windowless room where the chairs have to be rearranged and handed over people's heads any time anyone wants to get up (been there, too!), Uriel hammers out a compromise by which his father will be allowed to keep the prize and the mistake will never be revealed as long as Uriel himself writes the citation for the award and never submits or allows to be submitted his own name for consideration for the prize. While Uriel struggles to write the citation, realizing as he goes that his hero father's career really hasn't amounted to all that much, Eliezer gives an interview to the press in which he unequivocally rubbishes his son's career. When the citation is made public, he begins to realize that there are similarities between its language and his son's writing and no similarities at all between it and the writing of the head of the prize jury, who should have written it. His own skills bring him to the awful truth but also allow him to revel in his misanthropic disdain for all the dilettantes who otherwise populate his field.

At the end of the film we see Eliezer struggle what to do with this knowledge, although we never find out what happens: the biggest hanging thread of them all. Would he even know enough to realize that he had been bested by his son, who allowed idealism, family ties and "niceness" to govern his actions, or would he see that as a flaw, even if what he would have perceived as the correct course of action — admitting and fixing the mistake — would have devastated him? The film exposes as pitiable the high and mighty of our fields. They know the bark of the trees and expect to be adored for it by a word that has stepped back a bit, not wrongly so, to see that there is a forest, as well.

But for all of that, the trees are beautifully illustrated in the film, too. The flipping of pages, the detail of the print and the different types of books, even the imprint of the Magnes Press on the spine of the books on Eliezer's desk mean that the film is not rendering judgment about a school of scholarship, but rather about how scholarship is practiced by men.

I began by saying that the movie had restored my faith in humanity. That's not only because it allowed me to learn that I apparently inhabit a universe in which enough people go to see a movie entitled Footnote about philologists and Talmudists to justify it staying open for over a month. It restores faith itself by being a popular movie about the powers of philology (as Gumbrecht might have had it) but also about the value of writing as a human being, without a library and without footnotes. They're both necessary.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Vanity of vanities! All is vanity!

I taught Judah Halevi this week, and several of my students kept referring to him mistakenly as "Haveli." We're at the point in the semester, though, where that actually seemed totally appropriate.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012


I'm very excited for this. I'm going to bring my copy that has the Dalí series of illustrations.

Sunday, April 22, 2012
Columbia / NYU
Lectura completa de Don Quixote (en voz alta)
/ Complete Reading of Don Quixote (aloud)


1a parte: Columbia University Havemeyer Plaza (118th and Broadway) 11am-5pm
(en caso de lluvia/in case of rain, Casa Hispánica, 612 W. 116th St.)
2a parte: New York University 19 University Place 6pm-11pm

Trae tu propio Quixote. ¿No tienes un Quixote? Te proporcionamos uno. /
Bring Your Own Quixote. Don't have a copy? Extras will be provided.

Todos son bienvenidos: hablantes nativos y estudiantes de español,
lectores de Cervantes y los que no conocen el texto /
All are welcome: native speakers and Spanish students,
Cervantes readers and strangers to the text.

Ven cuando quieras, quédate cuanto quieras/
Come when you wish, stay as long as you like

FAQs after the jump.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Bibliophiles, Please Pack Your Knives and Go

Having only relatively recently discovered the full extent of wonder of the world that is the New York Public Library, I was dismayed to learn of a major restructuring that is afoot that would lead to loss of jobs among staff and would take some books offsite and allow others to circulate (and be dropped in puddles and lost in the backs of closets). It would fundamentally change the character of the institution.

A letter in opposition to the plan is being circulated for signatures; and while I generally make a point of not signing petitions (in fact, I never have), I have added my name to this one. The most compelling part of the letter, to my mind, makes a distinction between a democratic cultural institution and one that has been dumbed down:
One of the claims made about the CLP [Central Library Plan] is that it will “democratize” the NYPL, but that seems to be a misunderstanding of what that word means. The NYPL is already among the most democratic institutions of its kind. Anyone can use it; no credentials are needed to gain entry. More space, more computers, a café, and a lending library will not improve an already democratic institution. In fact, the absence of expert staff will diminish the accessibility of the collections to those who aren’t already experienced researchers, narrowing the constituency who can profitably use the library. They will be able to borrow books, to be sure, but they won’t be inducted into the world of archives and collections if staff aren’t there to guide them.
In other words, NYPL is already democratic, elite without being elitist. The possibility of such a distinction is almost totally lost already amidst all the bashing of expertise in the public sphere. It is a question of preserving knowledge and access and also of remembering that the English language allows for shades of gray, for elitists and for elites. Seems like a library would be a great place for all of that.

Monday, April 16, 2012

A Translation Most Foul (Or, Shakespeare May Have Invented the English Language, But He Probably Never Saw This Coming)

The early seasons of the Fox comedy Bones were quite enjoyable: the writing had its moments, and in spite of some pop-culture-y type misconceptions about what constitutes intelligence, I could rather empathize with a main character who understands dead people better than live ones and can navigate a complicated field of study much better than human relationships. I realize that I can't have the following conversation, transcribed from one of the episodes, as the epigraph of my book (topical though it may be); I feel like I could probably make a solid academic case for it, but it would be completely preposterous. (Just because I can make an argument for anything doesn't necessarily mean that I should.) So simply on the basis of it still having the capacity to make me laugh raucously, I'm going to reproduce it here.

Aside from the odd juxtapositions that result from using "translation" as a code word for "murder" (involving the coroner in the former, for example, or adjectives that have never been seen paired with that word before in the history of the English language), I find it very funny to see characters on a major, mainstream TV program deadpanning a completely absurdist conversation about translation.

The setup is that forensic anthropologist Temperance "Bones" Brennan has realized, while attending the funeral of a colleague with her partner, FBI agent Seely Booth, that the decedent did not die of natural causes. I'm not sure it'll play as well in written form, but unfortunately I couldn't locate a clip online of this particular scene:

BRENNAN: We should remain clear-headed so we can solve the murder.
BOOTH: Code word, okay, for murder?
BOOTH: I want you to say "translation," you understand? Translation, got it?
BRENNAN: Okay. Someone translated Dr. Reilly, and we have to find out who.
BOOTH: Bones, is there any chance you just feel bad about not knowing this guy like the rest of us did? So, now you're just making it about you in saying that he was translated instead of, I don't know, dying of natural causes?
BRENNAN: No, there is no chance of that.
BOOTH: What makes you think he was translated?
BRENNAN: Okay, the rose that his assistant placed on his chest had fallen to the side. So, I reached in to put it back and I touched him….Booth, we are talking about translation.
BOOTH: Bones, did you ever think that, I don't know, if there was evidence of foul translation, that the coroner would have spotted it?
BOOTH: Fine, so, I'll tell you what. Tomorrow morning we will go find the guy who did the autopsy and we'll ask him questions.
BRENNAN: No, Dr. Reilly's scheduled to be cremated this afternoon. All the evidence will be destroyed. We have to get an injunction so that we can examine the remains.
BOOTH: Now? You want me to take the body now?
BOOTH: That family will be scarred for life.
BRENNAN: Booth, the man has been translated.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Week In Links (The I'm Kind of Sorry to Knock the NYPL Post off the Top of the Page Edition)

I simply cannot say enough good things about this video:

An articulation of the value of human knowledge in linguistic pursuits, and another chapter in the history of Hebrew lexicography:

Israeli Scholars Set Out to Compile the Ultimate Hebrew Dictionary

A little meta for someone attempting to write well about poetics:

Yes, Even Professors Can Write Stylishly

This isn't from this week (though it's new to me this week), and it contains several really serious methodological flaws, but it's sort of interesting to see a blogger attempting to puzzle out this particular question. (I'm also looking forward to taking time to read his posts on S.D. Luzzato, at least for the bibliography.):

How Should We Pronounce "Ibn" as in "Ibn Era"?

This is kind of lovely, though:

Piyyut and Modern Hebrew Poetry

An art-historical detective story in Spain:

Prado Researcher Finds Insights Beneath Copy of Mona Lisa

Much to my chagrin, I realized after my class last week that maybe I am going to have to use more (and more tangential) videos in class to get and keep students engaged. Along those lines, I was thinking that I might use forensic science as a way in, showing a clip from a CSI episode to illustrate a medieval point about the utility of paper versus parchment in legal documents. And then this article, related and kind of heartwarming, showed up:

Police Save Words of Blind Author Who Wrote 26 Pages After Pen Ran Out

This totally wasn't where I was expecting an op-ed column with this headline to go, but in fact it's part of Joe Nocera's excellent series on academics and the NCAA:

Football and Swahili

More on open access:

Wellcome Trust Joins 'Academic Spring' to Open Up Science

A new university without departments, founded by a former Columbia professor who declined tenure. There's a lot to disagree with here (I think that tenure encourages risk-taking, for example, and I don't think that the reasons he gives for dismantling the department system are the right ones, as much as I do agree with the end result), but it's an interesting proposition:

David Helfand's New Quest

A different issue with respect to bounded disciplines:

Professional Boredom

An interesting and critical take on how one university is going about attempting to increase its research reputation and profile. Plus, why doesn't any of my professional associations have such a puerile abbreviation?:

Success, Ambition, Energy and the Class. Ass.

While the intellectual environment of my department was second to none, there are lots of things wrong with Cornell. More than at Yale and more than at NYU, there seemed a constancy with which students died. A review of one of the most high-profile recent deaths:

When A Hazing Goes Very Wrong

Monday, April 9, 2012

When we last left our intrepid young assistant professor, she had just discovered that the two books she thought she needed to consult were indeed owned by her friendly, local world-class public library...

... In this installment we learn of the conclusion to her research emergency.


Today I spent the day up at the main branch of the New York Public Library. It houses its collection in a gorgeous beaux-arts building, which made it feel rather like I was on some fantastic European research trip rather than a mere two miles from my office:

Upon my arrival, I discovered that there is currently an exhibition on loan from the Bodleian about Percy Bysshe Shelley, an Oxford man who was sent down (which I knew) for promoting atheism (which I didn't know). Since I was there to track down the sole printed edition of a manuscript contained at the Bodley, I took this as a positive omen.

The marble lions guard the outside of the building, and the Lego lions guard the door from the other side.

I set up shop in the sun-drenched Judaica reading room.

It is so sun-drenched, in fact, around 11am, that I had to move away from the windows because I was starting to feel snow-blind because of all the glare from the pages.

But what could be bad about sitting next to this guy for the remainder of the day?

I was thrilled to discover that both the edition of the main text as well as the catalogue that accounts for the second manuscript to which the translator's note is appended contained the full text of that note. The books were both in really bad shape, though, so I wasn't allowed to photocopy the pages I needed. 

I copied out the translator's note by hand (it was less than two pages in a 12mo-sized book). And then I decided that, just in case and in the interest of fiddling with technology, I'd try to photograph the pages of the volume as well. I had managed to leave the battery for my fixed-lens digital camera with macro mode in the charger at home, but I decided I'd try it with my iPhone camera to see how it would work. All the photos in this entry were taken with my iPhone camera, which, photographically speaking isn't very good at all. But it was definitely sufficient for taking very legible photos of pages. They're not publication quality, but without a tripod (prohibited) and studio lighting (impractical) I wouldn't have gotten publication quality images with my camera, either. All things considered, I was really impressed with the results and now have a photographic copy of the whole volume. The edition is a little problematic, so I'm definitely going to have to look at the two manuscripts before my book appears in print, but this is definitely enough to get me through the workshop respectably.

Once I finished my work, I took some time to look at the special exhibitions. Photography wasn't allowed in the Shelley exhibition, but there is an online version. The best thing by far was the first edition of Frankenstein signed by the author to Lord Byron. Well, actually, maybe that was second-best to the autograph draft pages of same. The exhibition also features also the only surviving copy of an 1811 pamphlet that PBS had published anonymously in support of an Irish dissident who had run afoul of the libel laws. It's only been recently re-disovered; it had previously been thought to have been completely lost to posterity. There were also some fragments of Shelley's skull (apparently Shelley-relic keeping was common in the wake of his death). I was also really interested to learn that there is actually a reason why Mary Shelley's middle name is Wollstonecraft. I'd always assumed that it was an homage, but in fact it was a family name; her mother was the Mary Wollstonecraft.

The library had letter-press printed cards with quotations from PBS's poetry. They were placed in old-fashioned file drawers around the exhibition, with encouragements to take them.

I also went to see the Rose Family Haggadah, which was on display for passover. The mix of iconography is quite interesting.

And I finished off the day by stopping in on Christopher Robin Milne's friends.

All in all, a total success and a very enjoyable day: the best of all worlds! To celebrate, I think I shall watch the marvelous Shelley episode of Lewis tonight before getting back to work first thing tomorrow.

Random Bullets of Metablogging

1) I'm hosting the ancient/medieval edition of Carnivalesque in July. More information and a call for nominations will follow closer to the date.

2) Somebody on the NYU campus read my blog yesterday. I'm kind of waiting for the other shoe to drop.

3) In other news, this is my 100th post, a truly dubious distinction.

Using Blogs in Class


Another person started following me on creepy, creepy

I was curious about who he was, so I looked at his profile. And lo and behold, he seems to use blogs as a tool in his teaching. It's something I hadn't really thought about doing (although I do know that people do such things) but for some reason, this got me to considering it. Perhaps it was just enough of a reminder that it's an option to kick me into gear now that I'm paying more attention to the electronic underbelly of academia. I'm not quite sure how I'll implement it or for which course, but I'm thinking I might give it a shot once I'm back from leave. One thought that occurs to me immediately is that, at least the way we have it structured now, students in the intro course do presentations most weeks during recitation that include introduction of new material that they have read in texts beyond what their classmates have written as well as leading discussion about the required readings; perhaps it would be useful to have the presentation groups post beforehand to a group blog with discussion questions and other presentation materials so that the other students can come to class more ready to engage with those in the hot seat that week? I'm not sure what the effect would be of doing something else, namely having students blog weekly reading responses and comment on each others' posts. Maybe blogging would be a useful way of scaffolding small assignments for a research paper — or, no, for a digi-hum final project?

Anybody out there used blogging as a component of a semester's assignments? How did it work out, and what would you do differently (or the same) next time?

To be continued.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Week in Links (Formerly the Cultural Imperialism Edition, Now Just The Gosh-This-List-Got-Long Edition)

Apparently it's been a long week.

Say it ain't so, Lord Melchett:

Stephen Fry Lends Support to Greek Calls to Return Elgin Marbles to Athens

An illustrated history of Syria could be better:

A Plot in Syria

But it doesn't really matter since Palmyra's been looted:

Experts Sound Alarm over Syrian Archaeological Treasures

Dot, dot, dash, dash, we're Morse College, kiss our axe:

A Behind the Scenes Look at Gmail Tap

Speaking of Google's April Fool's Jokes, this is completely unrelated to the topic at hand, but is kind of brilliant:

Google Maps 8-Bit for NES

And speaking of Morse College, this has been out for a while but I didn't see it until this week. There's something very universal about it, of course, which is why it works, but there's also something so familiar and Yale-y. Feels like home:

The Twists of Fate that can Mean Everything to an Untogether Student

I have consistently regretted not having taken this class as an undergraduate, so I'm excited that I'll have now a chance to sit the lectures as and when:

AMST 246: Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald

Seven New Open Yale Courses 

Dear Class of 2012, 
Please stop complaining. You've got nothing on us.  
Love, proofreading and time machines,  
A member of the Class of 2005.

Barbara Walters Not Good Enough For Yale Seniors, As It Turns Out


Elsewhere in the Ivy League, I can't believe that the editors at NPR looked at the headline they had written and didn't jump at the opportunity to change it to "Docs in Socks":

Fox in Socks! Dartmouth Names its Medical School after Dr. Seuss.

The methodological and ethical problems of publishing a book that purports to rank America's top 300 college professors based on the rankings can hardly be enumerated. SpanishProf, much to her credit, takes more of a stab at it than I'm willing to:

Princeton Review Ranks Top 300 Professors

A banjo duel at the Chronicle of Higher Ed on the ethics of academic book reviews:

Why Bother Writing Book Reviews?

The Endangered Scholarly Book Review

Speaking of ethical problems (of a completely different magnitude) it is a very dubious distinction to have risen to a level of moral turpitude, so early in a career, that would justify stripping even a full professor of tenure:

MIT Researcher Busted in Undercover Sex Sting

To end on a happier note, Thomas Milo's work makes both my inner wannabe-graphic designer and not-so-inner Arabist very, very excited:

An Archigrapheme Analyzed

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Research Emergency!

At a cocktail party at the end of last semester, the husband of a colleague was telling me about a new emergency fund that NYU has made available for faculty to dip into for totally unforeseen research expenses. I joked with him for a few minutes about what, exactly, would constitute a "research emergency," since particularly as a medievalist, the concept seems a little foreign to me. As I tell my students when they fall behind and need some reassurance: These guys have been dead for the better part of a millennium, a few more days isn't going to make a difference one way or the other. Of course, research emergencies are things like Egyptian sociologists suddenly needing to go to Tahrir Square, etc. or meteorologists needing proximity to unexpected weather conditions.

But I think I'm now having a genuine medieval research emergency. It hinges on there being a clear difference in the early 20th-century sense of the word "published" and the contemporaneous sense of same. And I think it's worth laying out here:

The book chapter that I'm working on right now explores the relationship between devotional and professional reading in the thought of the head of the translation workshop that is the subject of my book. This is one of the places where I'm needed to beef up what I did as part of my dissertation work, when I thought I'd only write about the son of this particular translator, himself also a translator. Late-ish in the game, I realized that the question that I wanted to answer  with my project required a study of the father as much as of the son. So that's a long way of saying that even though this will be my so-called dissertation book, there's a lot of totally new work going into it.

To write this chapter, I wanted to consult with all of of the prologues that the patertranslator appended to his translations, and thus began pulling every relevant edition that is held in the Bobst collection and requesting the missing ones from inter-library loan, especially if we were missing what is considered to be the authoritative edition of a given text.

One particular text, called The Improvement of Moral Qualities, has proven to be a bit of a rattlesnake. There are historical reasons for this boondoggle. The problem that I'm having is that, as I am coming to realize, most modern editions don't contain the translator's preface; the reason for this is that it is appended to only two of the extant manuscripts and so it was not included in most of the early modern printed editions. The printed Hebrew version  that Bobst owns (Jerusalem, 1966) doesn't contain the translator's letter. The English translation (New York, 1902) does, and contains the following footnote:

"Appended to the manuscripts (Neubauer 1402.2, Michael 401) of the Hebrew translation of the 'Ethics.' Steinschneider published it for the first time (pp. 366, 367 of the 'Katalog der Michael'schen Bibliothek,' Hamburg, 1848); it was reprinted in the Lyck edition, 1859; cf. St. (H.U. p. 381) and H. Gross, Gallia Judaica (Paris, 1897 p. 280)."

Much to my dismay, it turns out that to say in 1902 that something was "published" means that its existence was publicized in in some kind of catalogue.  It does not mean, as I assumed that it did, that the text is transcribed and edited out from one or many manuscripts in such a way that one can study the text. (In other words, it is more likely conform to definition 1 found in the OED rather than the definition 2.) The references mentioned in the Hebraeischen Uebersetzungen and Gallia Judaica are, similarly, references to the existence of the text and not the text itself.

Since Wise distinguished between "reprinting" and "publishing," I'm optimistic that I'll actually be able to read the original text once I get my hands on the 1859 edition. The 1807 edition, as I discovered, much to my dismay, is not just a reprint of the 1859 edition. Yale seems to own a copy of the 1859 edition, and I'm also hopeful that either the Jewish Theological Seminary (shorter train ride) or the Hebrew Union College (no train ride (literally around the corner)) may also have a copy. (Edited a bit later to add: Victory! Both JTSA and NYPL (longish walk, shortish train ride) have the book in their holdings! Now all that remains to be seen is whether the prologue is actually in the book.) I'll also spend some quality time with the Bodleian Library web site to see if the relevant MS in their collection has been or could be digitized (or, I should say, digitised).  (The Michael'schen Bibliotek is a rattlesnake eating another rattlesnake, so for the moment I'm going to focus on the Bodley MS, although of course I'll look at both before doing a proper edition or even publishing the book.)

I'm still a little panicked, though.

This whole research emergency has really driven home the point that a lot of the texts that were edited in the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries really, really need to be re-edited now, according to modern scientific standards. In a way, it's kind of reassuring that there's still loads of manuscript work to be done even where there are, ostensibly, editions of things. They're not typically very good and they're definitely not easily available. I do love a good puzzle. I'd just rather not have to solve it under a time crunch.

I'll get it eventually. But the truly pressing, emergency part comes from having to present this work in Tel Aviv at the end of May, and having to circulate a written paper a month beforehand. And it was my own naiveté that really provoked the emergency, assuming as I did that "published" meant "published" and not getting started earlier on getting a photograph of the manuscript from the library. So depending on the success of my edition-hunting and whether I can take the time out from working on other aspects of the project to get to the Bodleain before then, not to mention convincing some university committee that this is a Genuine Research Emergency (tm), I may have to circumlocute and leave things a little more speculative than I'd be happy with. Fortunately, it's a workshop, so everyone will know that this is work in progress and not necessarily hugely close to being publishable. But still.

At least the Bodley isn't being looted. Even if I don't get there before the workshop, it's not like I'll never have the chance to see the manuscript. Count me grateful for small favors.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Libro de Alexandre: Just like Kim Kardashian's Sex Tape!

It is the rarest of opportunities that a medievalist has to compare epic poetry to The Jersey Shore. Yet that was exactly what I did today, and it worked even better than I was expecting.

Having become a fan of John Green's World History Crash Course (thanks to @girlarchaeo, who put me onto this series) I was very excited that the Alexander the Great installment was framed in such a way that it would be very easy for me to incorporate it into my class on the commodity-topic of paper, which I introduced by way of the most famous Ibero-Romance version of the life of Alexander the Great.

The video is well worth a watch:

And here's how I set up the discussion for the students in the recitation sections:

(Click to enlarge to a readable size. If you've not watched the video, the handout won't make sense, regardless of how much you enlarge it, though.)

What was especially, unexpectedly successful about this lesson was that since the students were already in a frame of mind containing Kim Kardashian, they were also more open to relating to the material. The commodity topic for this week was paper and parchment; the Libro de Alexandre is relevant in such a context in that it is a self-aware text that makes reference to the materials on which it was written. So, as with many of the lectures in the course, the commodity topic is a jumping-off point to discuss other issues in history and literature, including Alexander's all-things-to-all-men-iness. But since the students were already in a sort of contemporary frame of mind, they seemed to be much more engaged with the commodity material, eagerly drawing analogies to their favorite e-readers and digital indexing strategies.

Monday, April 2, 2012

A Canticle for Daniel, Part II

This is the second of three parts. The prologue to the series is here and part one is here.

Even if there were nothing else to it, I would think that a request to stop forced conversions from a people that has lived for more than two thousand years under the threat of forced conversions ought to be respected.

But there is more to it.

For people to suggest that we are just being angry, over-sensitive Jews reeks of the kind of gaslighting that would never be acceptable if it were done, for example, to women as a class of individuals. Imagine: I don' t understand what you women think is such a big deal about rape jokes; nobody's actually getting raped, and it doesn't affect anyone's body or physical safety. You're just being pissy; get a grip. Don't be so sensitive about it. Rape jokes are a big deal because they make light of an important issue, namely women's safety and autonomy.

Posthumous baptism in the Mormon church makes light of my beliefs and denies me and my ancestors the autonomy to make our own spiritual decisions. It treats us like children who chose not to become saved in our lives, so it's going to be done for us whether we want it or not. Rather than letting us go, according to their own belief system, and letting our eternal souls live with whatever the consequences might be — even if they are very negative in terms of Mormon beliefs — they hunt us down and force us into their vision of salvation. To baptize me as a Mormon doesn't actually make me a Mormon as far as I'm concerned, as far as my family would be concerned or as far as God is concerned. It doesn't mean, though, that I don't want my choice to remain not-a-Mormon to be respected. Your right to throw punches ends at the edge of my cheek; your right to religious actions ends at the edge of my religion.

I'm writing as if there is a monolith. There isn't, of course. For dissenting views, see this Slate roundtable discussion amongst its Jewish staff writers about whether they'd object or not to being baptized posthumously. I don't agree with him, but I do like Matthew Yglesias' formulation of his position as: "I feel that the Mormon view that they should posthumously baptize me so I go to heaven is better than the orthodox [sic?] Christian view that I should just burn in hell forever." But as for me, I prefer the flip side. There is a material distinction between a Catholic praying for my soul or for my conversion and Mormon acting to effect it, and the distinction lies in the respect for autonomy.

It has been argued in the blogosphere that since only our names are implicated, we shouldn't be so worked up about it. But the sanctity of our names is everything. People can and do desecrate our graves and our bodies — even today and even in the United States — and so our names are the only thing that we ever truly and fully possess. Man is not remembered by his corpse but rather by his name; names are central to mourning rituals and to remembrance. A typical honorific that is said of a dead person is "may his memory be a blessing." It is frequently also given as, "may his name be a blessing." We honor our dead not by mourning them, but by remembering them and by sanctifying God and studying in their names. We read out the names in synagogue of those whose death anniversary fell during the previous week in order to honor their memories. We observe Holocaust Remembrance Day by reading out the names, for twenty-four hours straight, of Hitler's victims. To curse someone in the strongest terms, we say: "Let his name be erased!" The sacred name of a dead Jew is anything but a triviality.

By the by, doesn't everyone want control of his or her name? Witness the trademarking, for example, of variations on Jeremy Lin's name, to cite only the most recent of celebrity examples. Take a look at the famed British libel laws. And as Juliet learned as she implored Romeo to "doff thy name" and begged to understand "what's in a name," for however trivial a name may seem, its power is inescapable. We may have specific cultural and religious reasons to object to the co-opting of our names, but it's not as if the rest of the world can't understand it.

Writing about this issue has forced me to better articulate the reconciliation between the day-to-day secularism of my lived life and the belief system that is at the core of my identity. I live assimilated, but still believe. I think that a lot of secular writers dismiss religion as a lot of hokum. Even as I used to, as well. One of the things that really changed my mind was reading Madeleine Albright's memoirs, and specifically the section in which she wrote about realizing that taking people's religious claims seriously had to be part of the Middle East peace negotiations. You couldn't just tell Christians that their claim to the Holy Sepulchre was a silly attachment to a building or Muslims that they should swap out the Temple Mount for more land in the West Bank because what's a rock, anyway? You might think it's silly. I might think it's silly. Madeleine Albright might think it's silly. But it is still real in that it is going to govern how people behave, and that must be accounted for. This kind of dismissal is practiced, then, by people who will never be able to understand why it is upsetting and who will never be able to be compassionate to the suffering that this kind of practice causes. Religion is something to be accounted for even if you don't believe it fully or at all.

Even though I have come around, perhaps it is still hubris and secularism that allows me to say that I'd rather be damned, thanks. But even if I were deeply religious, I would come to the same conclusion even though the reasoning is different: You believe that you are right and I let you; I believe that I am right, so let me. And let God sort it out in the end.

It's real even though it's not real. It doesn't change things. As Daniel Pearl's parents said when the news broke, with more grace than I would ever be able to muster, he died as a Jew and his eternal fate is as a Jew. But that also doesn't mean that it's not important or that we're wrong to be disgusted by the practice. It's one of those sensitive, cracked-up paradoxes to be held only by a first-rate mind: This thing that doesn't matter at all is everything.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Week in Links (I Sing the Body Electric Edition)

An interesting interview on the topic of how the NYU library and university press relate to each other:

Are you a press or a library?

And in this world of increasingly electronic publication even bibliomancy keeps up with new technology:

Sortes Virgilianae and the future of the book

A little more on open access:

Experts Debate Public Access to Scholarly Research at House Hearing

And two digi-hum conferences:

Textualities in the Digital Age Symposium

The Past Has Arrived: The Digital Middle Ages and Renaissance

Technology arranges hugs for medievalists:

International Hug a Medievalist Day

After all the digital, a throwback in several significant ways:

The Babylonian Talmud, Now in Arabic

And another throwback. I really can't stand Jonathan Safran Foer's work, but I did rather love this quotation in an otherwise problematic op-ed piece: "In the absence of a stable homeland, Jews have made their home in books."

Why a Haggadah?