Tuesday, April 29, 2014

A Wikipedia Dissent

There's been a lot of talk lately about the value of scholars participating in Wikipedia editing.

There were some declarations of victory from the digital humanities community when this obituary appeared, fronting the work of its late subject in editing tens of thousands of Wikipedia articles. To me, though, it didn't seem like a great victory for DH nor a great way for a scholar to be remembered.

I have to question the tact of declaring academic-disciplinary victory on the basis of an obituary, especially one of someone who died so young, but I might also be saying that out of a sense of my own discomfort about likewise using an obituary, especially one of someone who died so young, to make a point. I should just add that fundamentally, I'm critical of the priorities of the obituary and the positive response to it in the digital community, and not of the work of the scholar memorialized. I probably wouldn't even have written about this were it not for the proliferation of scholarly Wikipedia write-ins that have been happening this year, the next one I'm aware of being scheduled for Kalamazoo. Details are here.

I absolutely believe that as scholars we have a responsibility to disseminate our knowledge the general public but I don't think that Wikipedia editing is a worthwhile focus.  The inherent structure of wikipedia is such that this endeavor is, in effect, shifting sand from one pile to the other and hoping that it doesn't get moved back. One could spend four days or a career editing entries with no guarantee that one's work won't be overwritten or undone. It might be a striking metaphor for life and humanistic endeavor, and it might even be just a very extreme version of what all of us are doing, but the degree of difference seems important. Or, as my late mentor put it aphoristically: The only things that last are books and children. That's not to say that I believe only in books or that I do not believe in digital work; rather that Wikipedia editing is neither digital scholarship nor good public outreach.

And what's more, having scholars edit articles, either in an organized or disorganized fashion, in an order or at random, still does not make Wikipedia a scholarly resource. Wikipedia is still always going to be the thing that I tell my students they can't use. There's no reliable way to identify which articles have been fixed by scholars, whether the fixes haven't been edited by somebody else with a less-than-scholarly agenda, and I can't identify which scholars have written which articles. Add those to all the existing reasons — the obvious one about it being something that anyone can edit; the more existential one about what it means to call an article "scholarly" within a digital work that is itself not scholarly; and perhaps the one that should most bother all of us and especially the people spending their time on this: Wikipedia does not allow editing based on primary sources.

The account of one historian's attempt to edit the entry for his own subject matter is very instructive of all these problems.

Finally, the current iteration of Wikipedia writing-in requires the physical presence of medievalists at the big national conference in Kalamazoo, MI, a place that is difficult and expensive to get to for a meeting that medievalists who don't work in very traditional areas of scholarship often don't find to be useful. Several people have asked on the listserves whether they can participate remotely and have been told that no, they must be present in Kalamazoo to watch a demonstration. The preposterousness of requiring that Wiki editors be physically present at the edit-a-thon seems to cut at the heart of a digital enterprise and seriously talks down to medievalists as a group. There are people asking to volunteer at a distance; presumably those are the ones who are comfortable reading through documentation that, theoretically, anybody should be able to read through — after all, isn't that the point of Wikipedia? — and getting themselves started. What does it mean for a digital project to be catering, on the production end, to technophobes?

Briefest of updates, added 5/4/14, after the jump:

Interstate Book Commerce

I went to Philadelphia yesterday for the material text colloquium at Penn (the talk was on library lists from late-medieval Aragon) and I bought material texts while I was there.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Editors of the Book*

I had the chance to attend a workshop at the NYPL on the Complutense Polyglot, a multilingual bible composed in early sixteenth-century Spain. The workshop was led by a colleague I know from #medievalTwitter (and it was really nice to finally meet him in person this week) for two classes of students at Yeshiva University and Stern College. In addition to learning about the book, it was also a great opportunity to observe someone who is a very lively teacher and has developed an effective way of teaching history of the book for beginning-level students.

The really poignant thing, a completely unintended** and subtle irony of the talk was that one of the themes was the extent to which major institutional early modern library collections that are still intact even today in Spain are instrumental in being able to reconstruct the editorial process that created the Complutense Polyglot. Scholars are able to make determinations about what was read in conjunction with what else and which editors, based on what is known about their travel and living patterns, would have had access to what kinds of sources; and that says an awful lot. And here was the value of institutional library collections as collections being lauded in a library that is on the verge of dismantling its own.


*I briefly thought of entitling this post 'And the Word Was Made Flesh' but ultimately that seemed more kinds of inappropriate than kinds of appropriate.
**I'm reading a strange critique of the internationalist fallacy this week. More on this soonish.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Week+in Links (Coming Up for Air Edition)

I'm still alive. I just have nothing to say right now. Here are some links in the meantime:

Other people might have known about this already, but I've only just found out about it — a site that lets you search Lane and Hans Wehr simultaneously. It's very spiffy.

Al-Mawrid Reader

A proposed alternative to blind peer review:

Origins of Courteous Review


Apparently there is a Moorish-revival palazzo in Italy. I require additional information about the restoration history of the building — was the painting an imaginative over-restoration in the 19th century as it was at the Alhambra? — and a trip to Tuscany:

Amazing Technicolor Castle

A scathing review of Arabic poetry in English:

Adonis, Mistranslated

Jewish medievalists on Twitter celebrate Passover by sharing links to illuminated Haggadah manuscripts. Here are a few that have been going around:

45 Hebrew Manuscripts Go Digital

The Prato Haggadah

Two museum exhibitions in New York are displaying art of Jews in the Islamic world:

Centuries of Judaica From Life and Rites in Muslim Lands

A colleague of mine is doing some interesting work on the incorporation of Arabic materials into chivalric romances in Spain, and is presenting it for a more general audience:

Boy Meets Girl...


It has been a couple of really bad years for my field, with really prominent people dying really young. Remie Constable will live on in the profession not only through her meticulous scholarship but because she edited the sourcebook we all use to teach undergraduates. I had the privilege of getting to know her a bit last year at the Katz Center, and she was just a lovely, generous senior colleague: 


The British Library has updated its 2011 guidelines about not wearing white gloves while handling manuscripts, though the upshot is still the same — don't — even if medieval scribes (like the one in MS Hunter 36) appear not to have followed that admonition.

White Gloves or Not?


Finally, the tweet of the Week+, because  I'm sure that I'm weird enough that if I had been a kid now rather than in the 80s, I would have been medicated into normalcy:

Sunday, April 6, 2014

New Vocabulary Sunday

New words and definitions:

Nonceword: A hapax legomenon that appears in the corpus of Shakespeare's work.

Anthropodermic bibliopegy: The practice of binding books in human skin.

New etymologies

Shrapnel: So called in memory of British army Major General Henry Shrapnel, d. 1842.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Pulp, Theory, and History

I was miserable and tired and upset this week and so, shamefully, I bought books. They are cold comfort, in the end, but I'm looking forward to reading them all the same.

This week's damage:

Tuesday, April 1, 2014


I often think that writing without a lot of clutter and footnotes is the ideal for readable academic prose, but I'd be lying if I didn't say that I also derive a lot of pleasure from really top-notch championship-level footnoting. These are my notes from chapter three of my book, which I'm presenting at Cornell next week. It's not quite done — there's a little bit of chapter to be fleshed out and a few footnotes to be fixed before I submit three chapters to the publisher — but it was done enough to circulate before the colloquium; and the footnotes are deeply satisfying.


130 Ḥasan ibn Rashīq al-Qayrawānī. Kitāb al ‘umda fī maḥāsin al-shi‘r, ed. M. al-Dīn. Beirut: Dār al-Jīl, 1967.
131 For a setting of Ibn Ezra into an Arabic poetic context, see Raymond P. Scheindlin. “Rabbi Moshe ibn Ezra on the Legitimacy of Poetry,” Medievalia et Humanistica 7 (1976): 101-15.
132 Judah al-Ḥarīzī, who will factor into the next two chapters, left a similar literary footprint in prose composition, using the full range of Arabic literary models to defend and elevate writing in Hebrew.
133 This is not meant to suggest that Judah Halevi and Moses ibn Ezra represent anything like the totality of Arabizing Hebrew poetry or poetics — or even the totality of the form’s responses to the condition of exile and the status of a minority culture. However, as poets who were also authors of some of the most significant works of poetic theory to have emerged from the Andalusi milieu, both in situ and as they contemplated religious and cultural exile, they are apt as reference points for contextualizing the Tibbonim as poetic thinkers within both Andalusi and exilic contexts.
134 For notions of local knowledge and culture, see Clifford Geertz. Local Knowledge. New York: Basic Books, 1985. For the foundational statement of polysystem theory (also referred to as Tel Aviv post-structuralism), see Itamar Even-Zohar. “Polysystem Theory,” Poetics Today 1 (1979): 287-310. It was Rina Drory’s work Models and Contacts: Arabic Literature and its Impact on Medieval Jewish Culture. Leiden: Brill, 2000 (originally published in Hebrew in 1988) that specifically applied polysystem theory to the Iberian context. In general, I find polysystem theory to be somewhat more productive than other current theories used for framing and contextualiziang and organizing our understanding of the cultural history of medieval Iberia. In particular, it demands particular attention to the elements that make up the polysystem, thereby yielding precise and detailed text-based readings that can account for broader cultural phenomena, moreso than theories of cultural hybridity that draw upon the work of Homi Bhaba in postcolonial studies. As a branch of post-structuralism, polysystem theory is particularly devoted to breaking down the binary oppositions of center-periphery and canonical-noncanonical, pairings that are particularly detrimental to the material within traditional study of both Semitic- and Romance-language literature in the Maghreb. Entanglement and itra-actional theory have also become increasingly popular as ways to account for cultural contact, borrowing, on the basis of the writing of Karen Barad, from particle physics for metaphyiscal purposes; however, the use of this theory for explicating cultural contacts outside the realm of the study of material and manuscript culture is, to my mind, unnecessarily elaborate and its utility and the benefit of its utility questionable.
135 Qur’ān 12:2, trans. N. J. Dawood.