Monday, December 31, 2012

Exciting Things on my iPad

I downloaded a PDF-reader app in order to load digitized copies of incunables that are scattered at the corners of the earth onto my iPad so that I can read them more easily. I find that being able to hold something like a book makes reading on a screen a lot less onerous than having to crane forward or down to read on a desktop monitor or laptop screen. Even so, I wasn't planning on doing anything other than extending the time period and the technologies covered by my iPad-as-high-tech-primary-source-reader general approach to things. But then I had to read a dissertation, and rather than lug it around and juggle 300 unbound pages, I just decided to try reading it on my iPad. Just to see. Since I had the app, and all. 

And it turns out I'm loving it!

I'm finally able to organize my PDFs in a way I haven't been able to get my head around in the past, and having the touch screen better approximates the experience of taking notes by hand than trying to annotate on a computer does.

Plus, the Metropolitan Museum has recently digitized a bunch of its exhibition catalogues, including the legendary Al-Andalus: The Art of Islamic Spain, a seriously hefty tome that's out of print but one of the most important . In addition to making it easier to find reliable digital images and assign chapters to students in classes, I can tote the whole volume around with me, along with other relevant ones

Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Week or So In Links (The Mummers' Edition)

Two links on the cost of academic publishing. One newer, one older:

Against $100 Books

Want to Change Academic Publishing? Just Say No.

More in chatter on the profession, a few posts on choosing to go the grad school or not. I think the one from Slate is uniquely problematic:

Thinking About Grad School? NYPL Can Help!

Should I go to Grad School?


Google Maps for the Middle Ages:

Caminos de Sefarad

Also, a way to find your way around them:

Jewish Astrolabes

And some theorizing about teaching and digital medievalism:

Literature Compass 9:2


Lots of good year-end writing on manuscript studies and the art of writing by hand in general:

A Winter Day in Jerusalem

The Conservation of Codex Alexandrinus

The Lost Art of the Handwritten Note

Codex in Crisis

A 16th-century (not what most people would call medieval, but nevermind) Spanish castle, reassembled, totally appropriately, in California:

Medieval Church Finds Home in California

The medieval year in review:

One Step Ahead of the Shoe Shine...

Top 10 Medieval News Stories of 2012

Oh, and just in case anyone was still wondering:

Mystery Solved

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Academic Blogging Etiquette Question

This has only happened to me once before. I'm having one of those "someone is wrong on the internet!" moments.

Duty Calls

The fact that I'm even casting it in these terms tells me that I should just step away from the keyboard. But instead — oh, academic training!* — I'll turn it into a quandary: How and to what extent does someone jump into a conversation on a blog where she has some expertise in a related area, and clearly more expertise in it than the people who are blogging, whose expertise is ostensibly a) in the field of the blog topic but not in the ancillary cultures, and b) masters' and early-PhD level?

It was kind of a running joke in graduate school that I was "Capital-N, Capital-A, Not an Art Historian." After my qualifying examinations (all of which I passed easily, a caveat that is worth making given where this anecdote is about to go), one of which was in Islamic art history, the examining professor commented that it was as though I was doing art history by deliberately sidestepping as much of art history as possible.

With my art history issues disclosed, I pose the quandary again, this time in more concrete terms: A blog has been advertised on one of the list-serves that I'm on; specifically, they were calling for guest posts. It's a medieval art history blog written by what looks to be a group of students mostly at the University of Edinburgh. Don't get me wrong. I'm not picking on students. I think that what they're doing is pretty cool and a great way for them to write in a low-stakes forum but for a public audience while still in grad school, something I definitely wish I'd had as a student. The kinds of questions they're asking when they write about Islamic art are definitely not the sorts of questions I'd ask, but then again, there's room for all sorts of questions in this world, and plus,  I'm a Not an Art Historian.

There's one post, though, that sort of alarmed me, but I'm not sure what the etiquette would be in commenting on it. It's funny. I'm not quite but almost part of the digital native generation, a perch that gives me the unique perspective of being totally comfortable with technology like the natives but also actually understanding pretty well how it works rather than just expecting it to work, like the non-natives, especially those who used, say, early DOS machines. In spite of this, digital etiquette is something I still struggle with. I'm as unclear on protocol for as I was when I wrote this post a little more than a year ago. And in this situation, I'm not sure whether it would be okay to just randomly comment on this blog. It's a students' forum, so I'm inclined to say I don't really belong. Plus I'm not sure whether one can just start commenting on a blog to which she has no prior connection.

And yet... there's this post about teaching Islamic art to high school students in the American south, a region where I think it's particularly important to reduce some of the "othering" of Islam and Muslims that often happens in American discourse about the faith and its practitioners, particularly in more conservative and less diverse circles. I would really want to encourage this person not to, even implicitly, teach her students that Muslims worship a god called Allah, which just happens to be the Arabic word for God and is used by Arabic-speaking Christians as well as by Arabic-speaking Muslims. I'd want to encourage her not to use to define technical terms in Islam and point her, perhaps, instead, to the Encyclopaedia of Islam and to some specific scholarship that was written less than 100 years ago.

So. I'd love to hear from some of you who write and/or comment on academic blogs: Do I weigh in or let it go?

*Well, it's being an academic combined with the fact that I'm up in the middle of the night combined with the fact that I just haven't had all that much to say here of late that's turning this into the subject of a full-on post.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Accessioning Ephemera

Knowing that the library here keeps a file of paper ephemera found in books — notes and scraps left behind by past fellows, past students and faculty of Dropsie College, and past owners collections that were donated upon their deaths — I offered this carnival ticket to the librarian when I found it in a book on tenth-century Arabic poetics.

"Oh," he said. "That doesn't count for very much here."

He proceeded to explain that when the library had to catalogue a large collection that it had just acquired, they used a roll of tickets to keep track of which ones they had entered and which ones they hadn't. And since the tickets were already there and so conveniently and sequentially numbered, those became the accessioning and call numbers for those books. It's unorthodox, to be sure, but only became a problem when they realized they had more books than tickets. Unable to get a different colored roll, they bought a second one of orange tickets and instituted a series of additions and substitutions so that each book could have a ticket and still have its own unique number. Apparently, to really make good use of this collection, you have to understand the system of substitution. It seems like a weirder system of organizing books than most, though alphabetical order, as Borges pointed out, is no less weird, yielding a collection that, when fully and optimally organized, sees hippopotamuses next to Hippocrates.

I love finding bits of paper in library books; better yet is when they have a great, quaint, improbable story to go with them.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

More at the Intersection of Maimonides and Technology

Why, yes, this is the second-ever print edition (Venice, 1551) of the first Hebrew translation of the Guide of the Perplexed. On my iPad.

Girly Rhetoric

The shootings in Connecticut are not relevant to the subject matter at hand. This is not a post about the shootings in Connecticut. The ways in which academics are talking about that event, however, is very relevant. And that's what this post is really about, as much as it might seem otherwise.

The New York Times' Philosopher's Stone series is very hit-or-miss. Some of the columns are great and about interesting topics, and other times they're — well, not.

This week they are running a series of pieces about ethics, philosophy and morality in the wake of the shootings in Newtown. And one of them was just appalling, made worse by the fact that it's written by an assistant professor at Princeton, one who studies essayistic writing for a living, to boot. It's the sort of piece of writing that gives me pause every time I've just about screwed up enough courage to return to writing for a general audience. It is well crafted in its awfulness, though, in very specific ways that mean it will be useful in class as an example of how to handle content and rhetoric together.

In the column, the author argues that public rampage shootings are on the rise because young white men are releasing the pent-up frustration they feel at not being universally adored for being young white men and for not being quite as many heads and shoulders ahead of women and minorities when it comes to subtle and not so subtle advantages in all of the arenas in which humans interact with each other. And apparently we women are meant to sit around swooning and making the men in our lives feel heroic and virile and desperately needed. And then they won't feel the need to shoot twenty first graders.

We should act more helpless and googley-eyed. It's okay because we can vote and make many of our own medical decisions. And it'll stop mass homicides.

As far as public policies go, I think this one is a loser.

I feel like each and every one of us simply choosing not to shoot first graders is probably a better one.

Even knowing that I was going to write about rhetoric and qualifiers, I've just caught myself automatically starting the sentence above with the qualifier I feel. It's something that women tend to do in writing and in speech more than men. And it's not unrelated to the kind of horrible rationalization that says that if only women could take it upon themselves to be unobtrusive in their success, and to nurture men more and be responsible for their self esteem, that if only that, then nearly thirty people wouldn't have died, hundreds of gunshot wounds between them. Qualifiers come into play in prose when the author lacks confidence or wants to couch a point or lessen the risk that a reader will take offense or push back hard. The waffling text of the column — "This is merely anecdotal evidence, not social science, but I believe that it is indicative of a sort of infection spreading in our collective brain, one that whispers to the American subconscious..." —  is the rhetoric of someone who thinks that the unidirectional interaction of women making men feel better about themselves is an effective gun policy.

The message in this op-ed piece, like the seriously qualified medium, argues for the passivity of women. It is such a startlingly effective pairing of rhetoric and content that I'm probably going to use it for writing workshops when I return to teaching undergraduates next year. (I  happen teach in a department that overwhelmingly enrolls female students in its classes, which makes it that much more salient for my teaching.) The column demonstrates why using qualifiers is bad rhetoric in a way that is related to a perceived role in society. At the same time it shows that a piece of writing is that more more compelling, for better or for worse, when the style and the content of the writing support each other. That the subject matter — guns and the role of women in society — will catch students' attention might make it an especially effective exercise.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Becoming the Spanish Inquisition

Let’s just get all of the Monty Python monologuing out of the way now if we can, please:

Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition! Our chief weapon is surprise: Surprise… and fear. Fear and surprise. Our two weapons are fear and surprise!... and ruthless efficiency! Our three weapons are fear, and surprise, and ruthless efficiency… and an almost fanatical dedication to the Pope! Our four — oh, no.

Let’s come in again, shall we?

Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition! Except if we don’t expect it now it’s because its successor institutions — the customs, the habits, the thought patterns whose regularity come to be its defining features — are growing  up around us so slowly and so well-camouflaged that they are fully in place before we’ve even realized. It’s much easier to spot when there are men in red robes tying old women down to comfy chairs… oh —

We are becoming the Spanish Inquisition.

Spain is, naturally, taking the lead. After reading with some interest about the relaxation of immigration requirements for Sephardic Jews whose families were driven out or expelled from medieval Spain, I was more than a little dismayed to see how the policy is (not) being extended to the descendants of those who were forcibly converted during the same time. Anyone who falls into that category is going to be required to convert to Judaism before being given access to this same new fast track to Spanish citizenship. The Spanish government is telling the children of its exiles, more or less, "Well, if we were successful in making your ancestors convert from Judaism, we're going to make you convert back. Want to live here? Convert because we say so." The Spanish government is once again forcing conversions and compelling people to prove the "oldness" of their names. But nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.

This episode is such an explicit, literal demonstration of what I'm arguing is a wider trend that it's less the subtle, nuanced sort of evidence one might hope to bring to bear and is more akin to the guy selling pirated DVDs on the street doing it while wearing an eye patch and shouldering a parrot. What is really remarkable about it, though, is that there is nothing remarkable about it; because nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition. We are somehow inhabiting a universe where that more subtle sort of ferreting out of Jews and adjudication of practices is becoming normative, both attitudinally the individual level and organizationally.

Over drinks with colleagues someone raised the question of how many of us in Jewish studies are, like I am, Jewish. Another someone mentioned the name of a colleague whom you might not automatically assume to be Jewish, since he hails from a country that is famously Catholic. That first someone said that the colleague's mother had converted  as a young woman and so (and I quote) "yeah, he's Jewish, sort of." That is not the sort of of halakha or even of the internal, communal definitions of Jewishness that don't depend wholly on Jewish legal reasoning. That's an Inquisitor's hedge.

Not everyone at the Katz Center this year identifies academically as being in Jewish Studies. I certainly don't. But spending a year with many people who do and in a context where that is meant to be one of the threads that unifies our disparate academic projects, I have gotten to thinking about our own modern, liberal, academic Inquisitorial practices more than usual. The whole field is an Inquisition. That's what makes me uncomfortable about it. It's a relief to be able to articulate why operating in  a Jewish studies context and with Jewish studies methodologies makes me feel* like I'm trapped in some unholy, overly-legalistic, smarmy, paternalistic cross between a ghetto and a shtetl.

I don’t do Jewish studies because I am not an Inquisitor. If there are Jews or “Jewish issues” in my work, it’s because I’m asking questions that can sometimes be answered by looking in places where there happened to be Jewish philosophers and translators, not because I have sought them out on the basis of their faith.

It would be facile (and more than a little reactionary) to connect this trend in the academic world simply to the trend of the voyeurism of the web and reality TV in the wider world. And it would be wrong because it's not just an unhealthy obsession with watching people as they live; it's a need to intervene, to impose categories from outside, to meddle, to change. It's as though some academics have picked up on the worst of the paternalism and the interventionism that's playing out on the national stage, absorbing the most problematic elements of what is quickly becoming the American culture of limiting the control over their own lives that can be exercised by people who are not exactly like those in charge, be it because they are women or religious or ethnic minorities or disabled. Obviously it's not the only factor, because the weird insularity of the field long pre-dates any aspect of 21st-century American culture, but I think it's telling that the two are now running parallel. It's become sort of a weird assimilation issue, like the way in which yeshiva-bochers fetishize baseball to a degree that is almost unparalleled amongst any other group. It's participation in the modes of thought that are practiced dominant culture as a way of belonging, despite serious outsider status.

It's an assimilation so quiet that it's nearly impossible to see happening, and is even a challenge to discern its contours once it has set itself into place. In other words, it's structural and endemic for the Spanish Inquisition to be so unexpected.

*Just to clarify not this year, not here at Penn, but definitely in wider Jewish Studies contexts.

The Fortnight in Links (The Multimedia Edition)

First, three posts on the status of the Arabic language in totally different contexts:

An interview with the prominent medievalist Maribel Fierro, in which she advocates including Arabic and Islam as a more central part of the academic study of the Middle Ages. Unfortunately this is still a fairly radical and controversial position:

El árabe se debería enseñar en los departamentos de Historia Medieval

More in a non-written format from two more senior luminaries in my field:

The Qur'ān and the Discovery of Writing

On what constitutes linguistic normalcy for writers in diglossic situations:

I'm Not Interested in Preserving the Beauty of the Language


Next, lovely pictures of mostly medieval books:

A Bible with Curtains

Creatures of the Medieval Mind

Specs inside the cover!

And detritus in the cover:

Medieval Flower Time Travels (probably used as bookmark)

And roughly relatedly (and I can't believe I missed this when it first appeared), using damage to pages to study zoology:

Holes in Art Prints Help Map Beetle Populations in Europe

And finally, some digital resources:

Cambridge Digital Library

Documents from Colonial Mexico
(The link is to one document in particular that deals with accusations of Judaizing.)

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Tofu, Semiotics and Sweeping Generalizations

Or, how Hallmark imagines that scholars celebrate the season. Frankly, I think more printed material should have a check-box for scholarly footnotes.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Long Thirteenth Century

A really interesting conversation began a week or so ago in the blogosphere about periodization and the value of "early modern" as a label:

A Periodization Collation

However, it turned into a debate on the merits of Stephen Greenblatt's newish book, The Swerve, after he was given an award by the MLA. Many medievalists took issue with his construction of a world in which first there were the dark ages and then *boom!* there was modernity:

Why Stephen Greenblatt is Wrong and Why it Matters

The Swerve and the Prize

Modernity is Not History

I'm not sure I fully agree with the characterization of the book (about which, incidentally, I've had a post in the works for a while now, hopefully to be completed over the winter). Besides that, though, I get the impression that the swerve towards The Swerve is as much about popularization as it is about periodization. Greenblatt is an easy target not necessarily as much for what he writes as much as for the audience for whom he's writing. Loads of academics look down upon popularizers, that is, people who write for a general audience in addition to writing for an academic one. And I think that when popular writing comes into play, people tend to be less than honest about what's really at stake in any given debate. There tends to be a lot of huffing and puffing about inaccuracies and distortions and flattening out and omission as though it were a scholarly work and seemingly without any recognition or awareness that writing for different audiences requires different sets of priorities. In my immediate field, books like these two, just to choose the two that come immediately to mind, have been subject to that treatment.

Please don't get me wrong. I'm not advocating bad history, even though I am, I suppose, fundamentally a literature scholar. (I reject the polarity of the distinction between literary and historical writing — although that's an issue that deserves a separate post — and am defending myself against the anticipation of a charge, that people who read literature don't care about historical narrative, that I hear made all the time.) It just strikes me that there's a lot under the surface to the effect of how dare he write for the uninitiated?! that it might be worth unpacking before continuing a debate.

It might also be worth considering that discussions like this one tend not to happen until there are awards in play.


Returning to the issue that is explicitly at hand, though, periodization has been a topic near the front of my mind this whole year. The fellowship that I'm holding is thirteenth century-themed. At the start of the year, there was a round-table discussion amongst the most senior of the fellows about the extent to which . The bottom line, at least from that brief discussion was that from an institutional and intellectual history perspective, the thirteenth century does cohere as a unit, but from a social-cultural history perspective, it doesn't.

Even as an intellectual historian, though, the thirteenth century doesn't totally work for me. When I first wrote my proposal for the fellowship, I was pretty sure I'd be discounted out of hand with a project that begins in 1150 and is basically, in its continuity, wrapped up by the middle of the 1230s. But when I arrived in the fall, I started to realize that my "long" thirteenth century was just about the shortest one in the group. We have thirteenth centuries that begin in the eleventh and some that end in the sixteenth. Say "the log thirteenth century" amongst this lot and you tap into what has become a running group gag. The more the year has worn on, the less it seems (unsurprisingly) that "the thirteenth century" isn't really a sensible period of time to talk about.

I don't have something really good to fill in the narrative void, though.

I wish I had more to say about this or a real and concrete conclusion to arrive at beyond saying that an arbitrary numerical system isn't going to map very well only any trends in history or literary production,  but I don't. Perhaps at some point in the future I'll have a dramatic flash of insight about the value or lack thereof of the thirteenth century. But until then, I at least wanted to jump into the discussion while it's still current-ish

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Presentation

This is going to be one of those tail-between-the-legs posts. I gave a presentation yesterday that fell completely flat on its face. It probably (maybe) wasn't as bad as it seemed from where I was sitting (at the head of a table that seems a lot longer from that perspective than from where I normally sit), but be that as it may, it got me thinking more about the state of the profession along the lines that I already have been.

This was a forum where the fellows get together once a week and somebody presents unfinished or unformed work and we sit and discuss for an hour. It's an institution called the "shadow seminar," and it's taken this form this year because we don't all have one language in common between us, so it wasn't like we could sit and read a text together or something along those lines. The disadvantage is that it's very disjointed and we're not mostly in a great position to offer feedback on subjects we don't know well that we haven't had a chance to think about in advance. I'm going to suggest strongly that in the spring we pick a few theoretical texts in history of religion and read them — even though people, perhaps rightly — don't want to create extra work for themselves. I'd rather do some extra reading than kill an hour a week; and if we do it the same way, I'm pretty much not going to attend.

Be that as it may, I was presenting something that was seriously unformed. I think that might have been my first mistake. I'm never believing people again when they say that something is a friendly opportunity to present unfinished work. It's going to be pretty damned close to finished in the future.

My presentation was of two manuscripts that, to me, seem to have a lot of similarities relating to a particular historical moment in the thirteenth century despite coming from radically different and later contexts. And so the problem that I was presenting was this: Is there a productive way to talk about these two manuscripts together?

The answer turned out to be a resounding no, which was actually helpful, because it sort of gives me permission to stop trying to untangle this problem, with which I was getting nowhere. But it felt like an hour's worth of torture on top of that, with all of my premises being picked apart, the earlier scholars I was referencing being challenged, pieces of my translation being called into question that weren't even relevant to the discussion at hand and that I didn't respond to well not because I haven't thought about this issues or don't realize I'm handling some of the material in an unconventional way but just because I wasn't expecting to have to talk about that and not being quicker on my toes, and everybody just generally not being on my page. I think it may have been karmic revenge for my giving the presenter two weeks ago a hard time when he presented something seriously unformed that juxtaposed texts that didn't belong together.

It was also a little strange because I got a lot of really useful feedback after the seminar had adjourned: One colleague gave me a reference to a book that I didn't know but that does a lot of what I was trying to do, which is to look at manuscripts with an odd assortment of contexts and argue that there is meaning there. (Admittedly, by that methodology, I still have to drop the comparison between the two MSS, but it means that I wasn't totally, totally out in left field and that yes, there is a methodology for doing what I was trying to do — which was my question to begin with); he also pointed out that if I had sort of owned the historical setup more, rather than relying so explicitly on the work of other scholars, that people would have had less to challenge and might have actually been more on board. Certainly something to keep in mind for the future. And another colleague was genuinely curious about what I was doing with the unconventional bit of my translation and I sat with him and walked through it and said all the intelligent things that I should have said when I was challenged during the seminar (like that yes, there is precedent for using this one particular verb with a variety of shades of meaning in a single sentence) and he had an interesting take on the whole thing. And another colleague pointed out that one of my most vociferous critics during the seminar was really trying to force the idea in a geographic direction that it doesn't make sense to go.

So the discussion after the seminar was interesting and helpful, but the actual time in the hot seat was kind of pointless and hugely disheartening and has me awake at 3 in the morning mentally shouting a list of expletives at the void of the universe.

The thing that's really bugging me about it all is this, though: I know when I'm pushing it in terms of plausibility, and this was a case where I was definitely pushing it. I needed a smackdown to get myself out of this rut, I deserved a smackdown for pushing it and for not articulating my ideas as clearly as I could have, and all in all, the smackdown was productive. This was wild-eyed and cosmically-big-picture and a long-shot. But I am getting the impression that even the nit-picky little points, where all the evidence lines up neatly and is painstaking and all of that — that even those points are hotly contested. This point wasn't one that I could "win" but I'm not sure that I can "win"on the little-picture points either. There are always going to be people who say that the things I'm sure of, that I know I'm not pushing it on at all, that those things are mere speculation. And how is there room for the huge leaps and the wild-eyed, prophetic progress when we're — not so much bogged down in the details, because I don't want to give the impression that I don't think that the details are important, but — mired in the minutiae to the point that even the possibility of a big picture gets lost?

Monday, December 3, 2012

I'm Sorry. Did You Say *Resurrect* the Dead?

That's essentially the response I got from Google, via the autocorrect feature in the search engine within Gmail while I was trying to find photos I had emailed to myself of a manuscript of the Maqāla fī teḥiyyat ha-metim, or Maimonides' Treatise on Vivification of the Dead: Tehiwhat ha-metim? Classic.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Week (or Four) in Links

It's been a weird month. So here's a roundup of the best things I've read and viewed on the internet but failed to post amidst the strange. Update about two minutes after posting: I double checked and see that it's actually been about six weeks since I've done one of these. So there.

I'm not the only one cranky about the state of the profession these days:

Bunch of Rankers

And Sometimes There's the Perfect Response

But in news from the more menschlich branch of the Soloveitchik family, one of their rank is the new president-designate of Yale. We've come such a long way from quotas to having a Jewish president of the university. He's a good guy, to boot. Take a look at his comment in the thread:

Salovey's Rabbinic Legacy

Spain has eased the procedure by which Sephardic Jews can (re)claim Spanish citizenship. There are more details in the link in Spanish, which makes the parameters sound so broad that I think that I (American Spanish-speaking Jewish medieval historian of seriously Eastern European extraction) could just about qualify. I'm not sure what this all accomplishes in the way of restitution, in any event:

El gobierno reactiva la concesión de la nacionalidad española a los sefardíes

Spanish Citizenship Process Eased for Sephardic Jews

John Green's Crash Course, which posted wonderful, humorous and pedagogically useful videos about the history of the world has now taken on literature. Very exciting:

I have such fond memories of my summer as a curatorial intern at the Brooklyn Museum, so I was especially pleased to see this video. It makes me more than a little nervous to see people dancing in a conservation lab, but not as nervous as the assault on free speech that they were protesting:

There's nothing new here if you are in the know, but it's still cool to see this treated by the popular news media (even if, speaking of free speech, it's only there because they can't speak out about what's happening on the ground in Egypt presently):

Yet another fantastic post from the British Library's Medieval and Earlier MSS blog. This one was particularly resonant for me because I'm dealing with other types of medieval book lists and library catalogues right now in my research, and there seems to be a tendency to want to compare medieval English booklists with Provençal Hebrew-language ones (like the one's I'm writing about). So this was just a nice, refreshing little tidbit to mull over. Plus it's a good detective/academic puzzle story. Plus plus, how great is the name of the Reading Abbey Library?

Slapstick comedy for the internet age, from my home institution. I don't fault the tech guy so much for the mistake as I do for his subsequent attempt to coin the term replyallpocalypse and (one of my biggest language pet peeves) his misspelling of queue as que:

Those are the highlights. Normal service as they say (where they = John Cleese as Basil Fawlty) has been resumed as soon as possible.

A Tour of the Sausage Factory

I'm finding myself totally disheartened by the various academic review processes these days. Spending lots of time around other academics in a sort of artificially summer-campy setting ends up being the publishing equivalent of visiting a sausage factory. You're aiming for the heart, to steal the words out of Upton Sinclair's mouth, and hit the stomach by mistake instead. And you never want to eat again.

I have one colleague who openly boasts about knowing the identities of the authors whose manuscripts she reviews for journals that are supposed to have double-blind peer review and using those reviews to further her own career, giving a positive review — perhaps not undeservedly, but still — to a senior scholar who she feels is in a position to help her get a job, or to compel a friend-and-colleague to listen to methodological critiques she had ignored in the past. I hope it's all bravado.

And then there is the matter of Haym Soloveitchik. It doesn't really matter that I'm naming names because anyone who knows his reviews will know it's him anyway and because he has publicly declared that blog posts are beneath him. I'm just a twerp with too much time and the ability to type. It's sort of a liberating position to occupy.

Soloveitchik is really famous for his scathing book reviews, one of which was even quoted in the movie Footnote, placed into the mouth of one of the characters who berates a student, as Soloveitchik berated Peter Haas, for being "apparently unaware of the writings of Yitzhak Baer, Salo Baron, Eliezer Bashan, H.H. Ben-Sasson, Menahem Ben-Sasson, Reuven Bonfil, and Mordechai Bruer, to mention only historians whose names begin with B." 

He has taken his most recent potshot at a member of the Penn faculty in a review that is so over the top, so nasty for nastiness' sake alone, so clearly and explicitly the articulation of a personal vendetta of the How dare she ignore me?! variety, that it can't carry any weight. The notion of comparing the knowledge of a tenured member of faculty at a major research institution unfavorably to that of a day school graduate is risible. The suggestion that a text written in one language cannot mimic the usage of a text written in a different language with different syntax is plain wrong and (yeah, I'll say it), there is something deeply distasteful about an old white Jewish guy from Brooklyn mimicking Creole to score a cheap point. I don't know rabbinic literature well enough to have a truly educated opinion, but I'm inclined to accept every last point that the book makes simply because the critique is so unbelievable. Nobody could possibly take it seriously.

Except —

Except that the same colleague who mentioned that when he submits work for review he (and, he claims, everyone else in the fields of Talmud and Rabbinics) attaches a note to the effect of Don't you dare send this to Soloveitchik seems to be taking delight in this takedown and seeming to accept it more or less on its face. The hubris required to try or claim to manipulate the system in such a way, to have one's critical cake and eat it too, to talk out of both sides of the scholar's venerable, articulate, over-educated mouth is vast. It's all so slippery, and it's so clear that religious observance and gender are factors in ways so subtle that they can't be addressed productively, and it cowers behind a screen of allegedly rigorous standards and honest processes. We are scientific, it intones, in spite all evidence to the contrary.

To be sure, part of my reaction to all of this is displaced anxiety over my own (lack of) success so far in the publishing sausage grinder — a long silence that almost assuredly means the rejection of an article from a journal that has published much worse (which is admittedly not the standard I'm ideally shooting for, but still) and a bunch of things held up in press for ages where there's nothing I can do about it even though I need them to be out in print before my third year review. Rejection by a cliquish new academic publishing gambit that sounds a lot cooler in theory than it is in practice but that is still too cool for me.

So, yes. I'm feeling sorry for myself and need to get a grip, put my butt in the chair, keep writing, and just avert my gaze from all the grossness that truly is out there. But in as lonely an endeavor as scholarship, it's sometimes a challenge to push away human contact and engagement even when it's one big proverbial train wreck. That's what has to happen, though. To draw in the words one final colleague, one who is planning on getting out of the game completely unless something miraculous occurs by the end of this job-market cycle: If we don't have the intellectual honesty of our work, then we have nothing. This isn't just a game.

It's not a game. It's our own lives and our obligations to the lives of the long-dead writers we study and the future ones our work might inform. So if I'm going to pretend that I can still take this seriously and try to play by the rules, I guess I'd better get back to it.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Bodleian MSS, This Time with the Atlantic Ocean on the Right

I had to be back in New York this week for a Humanities Initiative meeting, so I took the opportunity to visit two museum exhibitions: Crossing Borders at the Jewish Museum and Doris Duke's Shangri-La at the Museum of Art and Design.

While the objects on display were exquisite — they are, after all, the treasures of the Bodleian collection and a real contrast with what I'd just spent time looking at, the ugly and the messy and the practical — the exhibition itself was something of a disappointment.

This exhibition comes on the heels of (or echoes or piggy-backs upon or rides on the coat-tails of) two other fairly recent exhibitions on medieval manuscripts of the three faith and three major linguistic traditions, Sacred at the British Library and The Three Faiths, the exhibition that the New York Public Library put together from its own collections when the BL pulled permission at the last minute for Sacred to travel to the US. On the one hand, it's amazing that these manuscripts are getting exposure with the wider public; on the other hand, it seems like the Abrahamic faiths has just become the trendy framework through which library collections can exhibit some of their finest works.

It was the second trend that really obtained in this exhibition; the theoretical framework was very poorly articulated and the didactic materials were seriously wanting. I don't think that a non-expert would be able to walk into these gallery rooms and really understand, even at a cursory level, what is going on. (To be fair, I didn't use the audio guide since those tend to drive me up a wall, and there may have been some very good narrative and information there.) I also overheard a docent giving seriously incorrect basic information to a group ("The cartographer is the person who writes the manuscripts by hand" — and no, she wasn't standing in front of a hand-drawn map).

They did make some use of technology, though nothing really cutting edge or innovating, putting iPads in the gallery so that people could "page" through the manuscripts and see images of other pages beyond the ones that the books were open to in the cases.

Coincidentally, I'm in the process of writing a review of the exhibition catalogue for one of the medieval studies journals. There's a real gulf between the value of the catalogue for both lay and specialist audiences and the inattention to those same standards in the actual exhibition materials.

I'm glad I went. I might even go back the next time I"m in New York. But I was also quite disappointed. These manuscripts deserved a lot better.

The Shangri-La exhibition was a swing of the pendulum apart. It was small, occupying just one gallery room, but the conception of the exhibition was as sharp as the objects were fine.

The exhibition offers the viewer much information about the architecture and architectural history of the Shangri-La site, contextualizes the objects both within Islamic art and within the Duke collection, and also contains several new works by contemporary Muslim artists who were responding to the Shangri-La collection as resident fellows there. This last aspect of the exhibition also very neatly echoed what seemed to be Doris Duke's collecting ethic: I don't know if this was representative of the collection as a whole, but I was really surprised to see that most of the pieces were made in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which means that when Duke was buying them up, she was really purchasing contemporary Islamic art rather than pursuing older pieces.

Photography wasn't allowed, so I can't offer a preview, but if you are in New York and have time to see one museum exhibition that's vaguely three-faiths/Near East-related, make it this one.