Saturday, June 29, 2013

The Poet in New York in New York

I visited the "Poet in New York" exhibition at the New York Public Library this weekend. It contained a variety of his letters, drafts, and personal effects, such as his passport and his Columbia University library card.

A number of his drawings were on display, and the exhibition served to set those into the history of Spanish visual culture.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Week in Links (The Yogurt Culture Edition)

I've been scooped (pedagogically speaking)! In this blog post, a colleague describes his new plan for teaching medieval Spanish literature as a philological seminar, and it's something that I've been percolating every since I got to NYU. I know that for myself, part of the reason I chose to do my graduate work in Arabic rather than in Spanish was that even as an undergraduate, I knew what it looked like to work through a difficult text in Arabic, whereas I didn't know what that looked like in Spanish — I knew how to use the research tools for the one and not the other, and so I could envision doing real research only in one. Of course, most students are not going to go to graduate school in a literature field, but I still think it's a good idea: It gives students a greater sense of mastery over the text, and draws in students who might not be totally disposed towards literary analysis.  Usually I'll do one class session in which I go over just the most pronounced features of language change and ask students to read and modernize four or eight lines of the Libro de Alexandre. It's always gone down really well, and so I'm actually optimistic about how a whole class session would go, but I'll be curious to hear how it works for someone else before I actually try it:

And it's not like there's no room for philologists (and linguists and computer scientists):

This isn't a particularly in-depth (or even thoughtful — the military analogy, though a common enough phrase, here is just a throw-away) piece of writing about Arabic dialectology, but it's always nice to see this particular question of diglossia getting some attention in the popular press:

Arabic: A Language with Too Many Armies and Navies?

Are there too many or too few medievalist conferences? What should be the goals and scope of these conferences? How can we best find good groups of interlocutors to discuss our research? This week, Modern Medieval tackles some questions about being medievalists at conferences:

Conferences and the Medievalist Community

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

I'll Never be Worth $5.7 Million to Anybody

An article in today's New York Times headlined "NYU Gives Its Stars Loans for Summer Homes" has generated a lot of buzz in the twitterverse and blogosphere, as well as here on campus, where the topic has been the subject of some discussion for a while already. The article contains more details than I'd seen previously on the topic, including the $5.7 million loaned by the university to the dean of the law school to buy two homes, one in the city and one outside of it.

With the caveat that I'm sidestepping the real point of this article, which is about executive compensation in universities relative to other expenses (including faculty salaries and student financial aid packages) and about transparency in university spending, I found myself most preoccupied by the extent to which this article demonstrates that the university values us not for any merit inherent in our work but to the extent that other people or institutions value us. The article quotes a university spokesman as saying that "certain loans help retain faculty members who 'can easily pursue a financially rewarding professional career instead of choosing the path of university scholarship and teaching.'"

Let's concede that in an ideal world, intellectual endeavors would be valued on their own terms. But let's also concede that we don't live in an ideal world. Assume that in every other area of human activity, people are valued for what they produce and its market value, and that academics are valued for the opportunity costs they incur for being in the academy rather than plying their trade elsewhere. Professors in the law school are compensated on the basis of what they would earn as lawyers; engineering and physics professors earn salaries commensurate with engineers and physicists working for the space program or making sure that buildings don't collapse. And in the humanities? We have virtually nowhere else to go (and certainly nowhere higher-paying), so there are no astronomical salaries or glitzy perks to be matched.

To be sure, this is in large measure because American society, by and large, looks at pure knowledge, at history and literature, with disdain; there are all sorts of measures that indicate this. But to what extent have we in the humanities contributed to our own undervaluing? Have we hamstrung ourselves?

In the hard sciences and in law, not only do university faculty have other career options, but they also routinely do some work outside of the university walls: in consulting, in government, etc. In the humanities, though, when someone dares to write for a general audience — say, to try to explain that maybe there's something to be learned from the Middle Ages, or to tell a little bit of an early-modern Indiana Jones story that is simply going to grip people, fascinate them, and maybe, just maybe, make them want to learn more, read more and see more —a full-on Greek-tragic chorus rings out in condemnation and foreboding at the simplification and the dumbing down, even if that's not what's really happening. In contrast with the sciences and the legal academy, when scholars in the humanities work outside of the ivory tower, they often stop being taken seriously inside it. Is it any wonder we can't make a better argument for our own value, however true or just or right or self-evident that argument may indeed be?

I'm not even going to try to argue that it shouldn't be the case that we have to talk to "normal people" about what we're doing, to wring my hands and lament such extramural contact as a necessary, unfortunate side effect of the declining place of the humanities in the academy as well as in society at large. I don't actually think it's a bad thing. If we start making our work accessible to general audiences as well as to academic ones, everybody wins: These obscure, esoteric topics that we all believe in so passionately can interest and benefit a much wider range of people; and maybe as a side effect, we ourselves can become more valuable.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Row, row, row your boat. On the piano. Literally.

Spotted on campus. Oddly enough, the juxtaposition of the dingy and the piano viscera didn't strike me as all that strange; it was the life jackets dangling from the top of the rig that really made me wonder.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Week in Links

This one's a little late, but I was pleased to have found it this week. I saw this performance of Arabic shadow-puppet plays in April. And while I was please that medieval Arabic theater was finding a performance outlet, even without the text in front of me, I thought that the translations were really problematic. Far be it from me to criticize translators who have to make certain choices, but it was the nuance that must have been there in the original text was so flattened out; I kept finding myself thinking, "this is probably really funny in Arabic." This review deals with another set of problems in the performance: "Throughout the conversation, there seemed to be an implied equation at work that obscene means secular."  I had to leave to catch the train back to Philadelphia before the Q&A was over. I'm kind of sorry I missed it, but kind of not:

First as Shadow, then as Farce


Has YBZ taken over publishing the Genizah series? Or are people just not publishing with Brill if they can at all avoid it? In any case, two new Genizah books out from YBZ. And if I may just be permitted: Woo hoo! The Halfon archive has *finally* been published!

The Weekday Amidah in Cairo Genizah Prayerbooks

The India Book, vol. 4

This new digital Genizah project looks smashing:

The Rabat Genizah Project

Project Narrative

This highly polemical argument against digitization (or, rather, digitisation, since it appears in the TLS) has generated a lot of conversation on Twitter and in real life. Yes, there is value to learning from the real things, but better digital than nothing, no?

And if you needed any proof that digitization is both good and good for scholarship, take a look at this, which is part of the Endangered Archives Project at the British Library, the target of most of the vitriol in the previous piece:

Historical collections of manuscripts located at Al-Jazzar mosque library in Acre


Who is going to reshelve all of these?

World Record-Breaking Domino Chain Falls

Why bother resolving, though, when you can just throw out everything that was published before 2003?

Do you read any of the books you weed?

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Sunday, June 9, 2013

The Week in Links (Back in the New York Groove Edition)

I am now accepting bets that some time next year I will have an academic integrity case in which the student attempts to defend his/her handing in of the same paper to two courses with this columnist in which the New York Times ethicist says that it's okay. I'm a little surprised that he didn't check that there wasn't a set of ethics that govern practices in a specific profession.

Can I Use the Same Paper for Multiple College Courses?

Enough people called the ethicist on it that the NYT ombudsman got involved. I don't buy the ethicist's explanation that he stands by his response because it's not his job to advocate adherence to policy; he completely ignores the fact that there is an ethical principle that underlies all those policies.

Who Does the Ethicist Think He Is?

This column appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Ed. to all the predictable clucking about how horrible it is that someone should be teaching who doesn't love to teach. I don't really want to weigh in on the issue itself except to say that I think that the distinction between loving doing something and caring about doing it well could be really useful to people who are just finding their sea legs in the teaching part of the profession.

I Don't Like Teaching.

A colleague I've gotten to know via Twitter has started a Tumblr with lots of interesting marginalia and other illustrations from medieval manuscripts. It's well worth a look if you're into that sort of thing.

Two Kickstarters are raising money for the conservation of the manuscripts in Timbuktu:

Timbuktu Libraries in Exile

333 Saints

Two new Near/Middle East collections being hosted by Cornell (one tangibly, one virtually):

Glazer Collection of Zunz Materials

Waguih Ghali's Unpublished Papers

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Using Technology in Manuscript Studies, Part I

One of the techniques I have used to try to identify a problematic owner's mark was a query in Google Image Search. GIS, for those who many not have used it yet, is a search engine that looks for images rather than (or in addition to) key words. I was not expecting this to offer a solution, necessarily, to the problem that the paleography of the signature poses, but at least to see if it exists in any manuscript other than the one I'm working on. So far, it's not proved to be a hugely useful tool.

This is the image, a Hebrew signature about which I'll write in the next post.

And this is a selection from the first page of results:

Just to summarize the results: Not only did Google Image Search not find another exemplar of this insignia, but it seems to think it is a cross between the strokes of Chinese calligraphy and the curvature of a toilet seat. Partly this is a problem of the image just not having been uploaded to the internet for Google Images to find. But it's also clear to me that the visual search engine needs a good bit of tweaking before it can be useful for paleographic or codicological searches.

To be continued.