Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Oft-Mislaid History of Alexander of Macedon

I spent yesterday afternoon at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript library at Yale.

There's a really good post past the jump, so keep reading:

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

In the Laundromat Forest

The Laundromat Forest: It sounds like it could be the setting of a children's book.

My priorities are definitely not normal. I'm in the city that witnessed the birth of my country. There are three major museums on the route between my apartment and the grocery store. And I'm out photographing a laundromat with trees and a sky.

There are certain plants, like the Alexanderleaf, that are native to the ruins of English monasteries. I wonder if there is anything similar that grows natively only in the ruins of American laundromats.

The phone books stacked in a corner were dated September 1982-August 1983, so this ruin and I are of the same vintage. I'm pleased to be in much better shape.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The [unit of time] in Links (The I've Just Moved House Edition)

The last few weeks have seen me keeping a links roundup only sporadically both because I have been moving to Philadelphia where I'll be on a fellowship this academic year and because, since I've started using Twitter to share links, I don't feel as compelled by this format anymore. It may or may not continue to be a regular feature. I'm thinking about adapting it so I only share links that I want to comment upon substantially. But for now, here's a regular old collection of links on the Middle Ages and academia:

I've been thinking a lot about the adjunct question lately, and the conclusions I'm drawing are well outside the mainstream. It's such a contentious and awful problem that I've decided that it's just best for me to keep my mouth shut on this particular issue. But here is an article on the consequences of increased hiring of adjuncts:

The Closing of American Academia

I really, really shouldn't be thinking about teaching since I shan't be doing any for the next year. But I've completed my graduate course syllabus for fall '13, am reading a few books that I wanted to read this year in conjunction with my intro undergrad course but didn't get to, and am thinking of ways I could incorporate these two things into a future course:

Teaching Students to Lie: Historical Method Through Hoaxes

My Syllabus is a Quarto!

And a nice blog post on medieval students and their note-taking practices:

New Evidence of Note-Taking in the Medieval Classroom

The translator's note appended to this newly-rediscovered story by Isaac Bahsevis Singer is almost medieval in the ways in which the translator writes essayistically about how his own education informed his work and about the textual problems that the work posed:

Job (Translator's Note)

And likewise medieval (or not, depending on the theories) is this very broad construction of translation:

Anne Carson 'Translates' Antigone

Some resources for the study of Hebrew manuscripts have recently been made available online:

National Library of Israel's Catalogue Available Online

Hebrew Codicology by Malachi Bet-Arie

Just a week or so after reviewing a book that considered wether Einstein's genius might be related to the fact that he was Jewish by using a very nebulous definition of genetics, heredity and intellectual legacy (and succeeding to not be totally offensive or racist, according to the review, though I've not read the book and shall remain skeptical until I do), the New York Times published a memoir-style piece in which a reporter considers whether memory can be sort of genetic. Has something gotten into the water over there? Strange, but still worth a read, especially for folks teaching on Spain and Jews:

In Andalusia, on the Trail of Inherited Memories

Monday, August 20, 2012

Farewell, New York

"On his bench in Madison Square Soapy moved uneasily... He strolled out of the square and across the level sea of asphalt, where Broadway and Fifth Avenue flow together. Up Broadway he turned, and halted at a glittering cafe where are gathered together nightly the choicest products of the grape, the silkworm, and the protoplasm."

— "The Cop and the Anthem," O. Henry

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Translation Diary, Entry #14

My grand translation project is the English version of a popular work of history in my area of expertise. Thus, the poor, battered English text that will ultimately result will inevitably mediate not only the author’s relationship to the subject but mine, as well. It is, of course, my task not to interfere in the former relationship, but that is not as clear-cut a task as it seems. Does it make my responsibility to the text, to the author or to the subject? How do I interpret not just the text, but the mandate, charged to me by the author, not to take liberty with his text? Perhaps this is a lesson in humility, a reminder that there is no single interpretation; perhaps it is a reminder that even a disagreement over a point of fact can be between two valid points, when the audiences for that fact are divergent. It’s not about the text, the author or the subject. A translation, maybe even more than the original composition is for its audience, for the purpose of making the text available to a wider audience. The text is just the instrument, but it is also a sterling instrument that must make it through untarnished.

My first instinct with this project was to research. But ultimately, surprisingly, the instinct to research is one that I’ve tamped down and not given into because it gets in the way of the finest details of the text. A careless translator could allow research to flatten out the fine-grain details and run roughshod over the nuances of the text, hitting the reader over the head with the information at the cost of the lyricism of the writing and the subtlety of an argument built up detail by detail. This text I am translating, early on, makes reference to a short story by Borges that purports to quote from the work of the French Orientalist Ernst Renan. I know Borges and I know Renan, but I don’t know if this particular reference is one of the ones that Borges invented from whole cloth and stuffed into the mouths of his literary versions of flesh and blood men. I had thought I would look into it and perhaps tweak the translation a bit, while remaining faithful to the text, depending on whether this is a real quotation from the real Renan or a made-up one from Borges’ Renan. But the ambiguity of not knowing whether the author of the quotation was Renan’s Renan or Borges’ is apt because the reference comes in the course of a discussion about the relationship between novel-writing and history-writing, a discussion that holds that the two are not all that different. In the space of this work, it doesn’t matter if this is a historical memory of Renan or a fictional invention because the two men are no different. Research, here, would eliminate an ambiguity that is not unimportant to the text.

There are other things external to the text within it. Turning to them is, I suppose, research, though of a different sort. There are quotations from the Qur’ān and from Arabic poetry that I am looking up and retranslating straight from the Arabic. This research does serve the English-language audience, giving them the same experience of reading a quotation translated directly from an Arabic text, rather than one distorted through an intermediary, that the Spanish-language audience has; it brings the experience of reading the translation in line with the experience of reading the original. There are also allusions to all sorts of other texts. The author writes in very long sentences which are perfect and undetectable in length in Spanish but just seem long in English. It bothered me until I returned to the Faulkner that the author refers to. If he was reading Faulkner while writing this book and thinking about characters whose lives are one long sentence consecutive to the next, then the phrasing choices have a significance greater than the stylistic differences that constitute good writing in one language versus in the other. This modified sort of research bears out in the more explicit details, as well: I don't like the first version of a sentence I transposed into English in which Joe Christmas is mentioned. There are a few possible ways I could revise the sentence to make it more euphonic but keep it faithful to the original. But to do that, I must have a better understanding of the analogy the author is making to Joe Christmas' experience, so I’m reading Faulkner as part of my translation project.

The research that a translator needs or ought to do is much less what is required of a scholar; I thought that this would make me feel hamstrung, but in fact, it's liberating in the way it allows the focus to be all on the text and on rendering it, unvarnished, for the reader.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Another Fortnight's Worth of Links

This is a devastatingly sad story — really, physically painful to read — made much stranger when you recognize the names of the vast majority of the people involved.

I officially love Mary Beard. Still. Or again. Or wherever I left off loving her the last time she was fantastic and forthright about the academy in public. There's a lot of academic writing that happens just for the sake of performance and not because it actually improves things. Here she argues that we should put a little less effort into looking smart and just get on with being smart:


Those are the highlights. Here are some more:

Theme and variation on Spain-and-the-Jews:

Black Hats for Brooklyn

Two new web sites:

The Monastic Manuscript Project

Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam

I wish I'd thought more carefully about these things this time last year:

Goals for First Year on TT?

It's the zombie apocalypse of grammar! Run!:

Nominalizations are Zombie Nouns

Some more writing on writing:

How to Write Great (this is one of four that can all be accessed from this link)

Do We Need to Write and Publish So Much Theory (part I)

My Life as an Editor (part II)

And a different genre that I love:

The Lost Art of Postcard Writing


I thought there were more that I'd come across this week, but I suppose not.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Yea, Though I Picnic in the Valley of the Shadow of Death

This is likely to become a regular feature. If I were a medievalist in Europe, I'd spend my weekends out photographing castles and I wouldn't have to explain why I was posting the pictures on my medievalist blog. Obviously we don't have great old medieval ruins in America, but the aesthetic pull of the decrepit things that people used to inhabit is still great. So I seek out more modern ruins, though it's not totally separate from my intellectual life.

The New York City Marble Cemetery is one of two so-called marble cemeteries at the top of the Lower East Side that were built entirely from the marble quarried at Tuckahoe, NY. The one on 2nd St., a 19th-century non-denominational site, held an open day today; the strangest thing was that many people treated it like just another green space in the city and picnicked there.

I'm still still getting used to the camera, and the hours for the open day (11-5 in the middle of the summer) made the lighting conditions a challenge. In fact, there are a few images that I'll post here that will do well with a light touch of the dodging tool in photoshop. So with all the usual caveats, more photos after the jump.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

In the iScriptorium

I read a really nice post recently by Medieval Bex in which she thinks about the St. Cuthbert Gospel manuscript relative to modern e-readers, and not just because the whole thing has been digitized (well, digitised, as it's in the British Library). It particularly caught my attention because I, like MB, see parallels between the medieval and the modern all over the place and even moreso because this is exactly the issue I've been thinking about in terms of developing digital materials for my intro course in the hopes of getting students who are not particularly interested in the Middle Ages or even literature in general excited about manuscripts. So I thought I'd jump in with a post of my own on the topic. (And fortuitously, another related post showed up on Twitter between the time I finished this post and got my links and images together before publishing.)



As I mentioned in an earlier post, I had the somewhat disturbing realization this past spring that the one week that I happened to show a video (and a video that connected the ancient and medieval worlds to pop culture, to boot) was the one week that my students really got into the material, and that I should probably start showing more videos and incorporating more technology into my course, even if it's not strictly necessary for what we're doing. (Scratch the even-if. It really isn't.)

The next time I teach the course, I think that for the week that paper and parchment is the commodity topic, I'm going to do a much more hands-on activity in recitation. My paper and parchment lecture focuses on instances in the Libro de Alexandre in which the text talks about itself as a text, in other words, where there's an awareness of this tale as a written document. Next time, though, I'll start with the Alexander the Great video in lecture and allow some time for discussion of the Alexander as all things to all men issue before launching into the discussion of paper and parchment (since it's important that the students do learn more about the texts each week than just the ways in which they intersect with trading commodities, even if that is the organizing principle of the course), which I'll have to scale back, but not too badly.

When they arrive in recitation, they will have already thought about the literary figure of Alexander in his Iberian setting and they will have basic information about the text as something written down. They will (theoretically/hopefully/inshallah, at any rate) have read the relevant excerpts from the Libro de Alexandre, as well as the Andalus/Maghreb chapters of Jonathan Bloom's Paper Before Print.

At the beginning of section, I will ask them to read this short article from the popular press. They will then form small groups in which they will come up with a list of verbs that they use to describe the act of reading on a computer or e-reader. What actions do you do when you read with a Kindle or an iPad? Then once they have that list, I will ask them to see how many of those they can apply to reading in an analog medium and to think about how the actions described by the same verbs differ. What do you do when you scroll on your computer versus when you scroll in a, well, scroll? Does flipping through images on an iPad differ from flipping through pages in a book?

It has been my experience the last two semesters that enough students here have iPads that the next piece of the exercise should work: Still in small groups, with at least one iPad per group, I will ask students to look at some manuscript images on their iPads. (This is one piece of the course that I've been developing this summer with NYU Humanities Initiative funding.) The reason for doing this is two-fold: First, it gives them the experience of holding a facsimile manuscript image at a reading distance rather than just on a screen projected from a powerpoint in lecture. And I do actually think it's important to see the images as they were meant to be seen. Imagine seeing a picture of a page of the Wasteland projected up on a wall at a distance of twenty feet, versus holding it (even a copy on a metallic, glowing e-reader) in your hands, in your lap, sitting in a chair. The experience is very different, and I want to drive home to my students that these are books that people read, and not just things that get stuck up on walls because they are pretty. First and a half, this also very much drives home to students that each new development (paper, parchment, the codex) is actually a technological advance in the same way that an e-reader is a technological advance. And second, I'm in the process of selecting and digitally accentuating (altering sounds a little too dramatic) some manuscript images (which I will email to students before class and ask them to load them onto their iPads) to give them a sense of some of the challenges that manuscripts present, both as they did in their original context and as they do now. One way that I will illustrate this is by asking them to try to read a manuscript image (and for this I'll use a very legible image — easy hand, clear writing, no major damage to the page, good photograph, fairly late, in early modern Spanish or English, perhaps even the image below, from Beinecke MS 633) with the iPads on the table, no hands. The reason for this is that the tablets will dim over time, hopefully simulating the experience of being in a scriptorium as daylight wanes.  With other images, I'll use light and drawing filters to create different versions of the same page to show how different types of damage and lighting can alter the legibility.

Then I will give them about 15 minutes to do a medium-stakes writing assignment: Using your knowledge of medieval reading and writing practices, your experience with manuscript pages, and the list of verbs you came up with in your group, write a scene in which someone is reading or writing in the 12th century. Then write an updated version of the same scene for the 21st century.

Finally, I will introduce the one unit of material that I will have cut out of lecture in favor of showing the video then rather than in section, namely a letter from Judah Halevi in which he makes mention of sending five hundred sheets of paper to a business partner:



Goitein has this to say about that remark:
"In my collection of Geniza documents on the India trade there are many instances of paper sent as presents, but the quantities involved were always limited, between 12 and 36 sheets, although the donors and receivers were substantial businessmen. Thus, a consignment of 500 sheets must have been on a commercial basis, which is also implied by the text" (A Mediterranean Society, vol. 5, p. 457).
After giving the students a moment to review the letter, I will tell them that I am going to send around an important artifact of modern life, at which point I will pull out a ream of paper. I will ask them to examine it and share what they notice in light of having read the letter from Halevi. What I'm hoping they'll see is that a ream of paper in modernity is still 500 sheets, that is, that a commercial unit of paper has been the same size that it is now for almost a thousand years.

I've not yet determined what the formal writing assignment will be that uses these in-class reading and writing exercises as their scaffolding, in large measure because this is, after all, a team-taught course and so I will need to coordinate which research and academic writing skills I will be in charge of and which my co-instructor will be in charge of; but this will all lead to more in-depth critical thinking and writing work, as well.

So that's a brief overview of my iPad-as-medieval-manuscript pedagogic concept.