Saturday, May 31, 2014

Yes, #YesAllWomen

This request disquiets me.

First is the matter of it being completely, idealistically ineffectual. It's not going to work. From what I understand of the kind of misogynist who is said to be targeting her (and I am thankful that I have never experienced that kind of targeted abuse), once they've latched onto someone, they won't let go until they get bored or want to or move onto another target. Web-based misogynistic abuse is so heinous because of its irrationality. There's nothing that someone in its crosshairs can do to stop it because it's not really about her. Shutting up certainly won't stop it. Ceding ground won't stop it. And offering the substitute hashtag, #EachEveryWoman, is creating more space that will, in time, also be invaded by trolls. Will the conversation continue to flee from shelter to shelter?

Second and more important is the fact that it cuts very much at the heart of the kind of text Twitter has become.

Twitter is text and it is public text. It is conversational text, to be sure, and because of that, special consideration is due when we are interacting with people. I would even go as far as to say that we should respect the wishes of people who want their names or identities left out of a conversation. But ultimately Twitter is text. Tweets and hashtags are text. They can be quoted, read, interpreted beyond the intentions and wishes of their authors.

This is just the most recent and perhaps most extremist and far-reaching attempt of tweeters to control the reach of the tweets they write. Concerns about taking tweets out of their conversational context or their social ecosystem are valid, but it is the very nature of interpreting text that offers the solution: Anyone who cites tweets, like anyone who cites any text, has a responsibility to cite it correctly and in context, as with any other text.

The creator of #YesAllWomen wrote text. She is its author and her intentions no longer matter as we who receive it read it and modify it and find value in it, use it and, yes, even misuse it. I am currently in the process of translating a work of literary non-fiction written by a living author, a completely extraordinary experience for a medievalist. When I first met him to discuss the project he said to me, just as we were finishing up our conversation: "Don't take liberties with my text." For a long time, the admonition haunted me, even to the point where I found myself translating quite literally, adhering to Spanish syntax at the expense of English readability, all in the name of not taking liberties. The possession passed and I realized that I don't take liberties with text anyway, not out of respect for authors but out of respect for the texts themselves.

I don't know who created the #YesAllWomen hashtag. And it doesn't really matter. The text that crystalized around it was useful, interesting, cathartic for me and for many other women.

The idea of someone trying to retract a hashtag that has taken on a life of its own is antithetical to the kind of discursive community I understand Twitter to be: not top-down and completely democratic. If people are willing to play ball, then it cuts at the heart of the idea of a movement being bigger than one person and devalues the already shaky notion of hashtag activism. The whole point of something going viral online is that it's out and replicating in the world. It's not a single host person's anymore. I'm troubled by the groupthink of people who — for all the right reasons of compassion and empathy and wagon-circling — are so quick to fall into line and shut up. The creator of #YesAllWomen is getting women to shut back up because she said so. Wasn't that what people were tweeting against?

Some scholars speak of anonymity as an aesthetic choice in the Middle Ages: a deliberate and complete separation of author and text that recognizes the collaborative nature of texts that borrowed and adapted, by convention, both with and without citation. The #YesAllWomen creator's request makes sense in a discourse where people place value on taking credit for who created one hashtag or another, as if it were proprietary and as if that kind of credit were a sort of credential. This kind of request makes sense in a Twitter framework that places value on proprietary information rather than on one that functions as a set of glosses or marginal notations or dialogue.

Let the author remain anonymous, but let the text live on.


Edited June 1, 9:30 pm, to add:

These two tweets, which randomly showed up next to each other in a search for the new hashtag, #EachEveryWoman, illustrate the problems with this shift: The first uses both hashtags to ensure inclusion in the discussion, while the second uses the new hashtag to share a farcical Onion article making fun of the situation.

Friday, May 30, 2014


Atlantic poetically says: "Where nature meets the grid, we find an ancient way of meeting the cosmos." It's also a chance of a bit of us-vs-themisim, pedestrians vs motorists since photographing the alignment of sunset with the E-W grid of Manhattan's streets requires standing in the middle of 14th, 23rd or 57th St. — viewing points precisely because they are the main thoroughfares that cut all the way across the island —  at the tail end of the evening commute. 

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Separated by a Common Language

Among the things one learns when publishing in a British journal: To "table" an idea or discussion point means one thing in US English and the exact opposite of that thing in UK English. (Now all we need is a third definition that has something to do with a camel and we can conclude that 'to table' is actually a loanword from Arabic.)

Edited, 2:30 pm, to add: Modern Standard Arabic for table (n.) is ṭāwilah (طاولة). Here, in Lane's lexicon of classical Arabic, is a verb (yataṭāwalu) derived from the same root (Ṭ-W-L) to mean "to be overbearing in such a way as to drive other animals away from the she-camels." So there we go.

Monday, May 26, 2014

The Week in Links (Free Frozen Yogurt for Naval Personnel Edition)

I wish I had something to contribute to the discussion about "trigger warnings" on syllabi. I don't, except to say that I think it's a terrible idea, especially as universities are starting to institute other kinds of restrictive speech and communication policies. Here are two people who do have something helpful to add, though:

Treatment, not Trigger Warnings

Trigger Warnings and the Novelist's Mind

On balancing intellectual and economic pressures in academic publishing:

A World Digital Library is Coming True!

More on rescuing the Timbuktu MSS:

The Book Rustlers of Timbuktu

Penn's Schoenberg Institute is posting video introductions to many of the objects in their collection:

Forget about the two-body problem. Some thoughts on the one-body problem:

Wandering Scholars in Search of Tenure and Love

The homage-to-Borges is a very dangerous genre. This example of it, though, is wonderful:

Adventures in the Branch Library of Babel

This is the tweet of the week. Nice to see a historian being open to some of the fluidities between historical and literary study and writing:

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Bagpiping in the Rain

Spotted on campus, in the rain: 

Somehow, the idea of enforced bagpipe music as a punishment for forgetting one's umbrella tickled me.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Letter to an Undergraduate (who is about to make the same mistake that I did)

I posted this last week, ambivalent and on a day when I knew I would be posting pictures of pretty stained glass windows within 24 hours so it wouldn't stay at the top of the page for long. After some thoughtful encouragement that I consider the potential implications and fallout of posting something so personal on a blog that is closely tied to my professional life I took it down briefly, but after thinking things through, I have decided to re-post it because, in this case, the personal is professional. The experience that I had bears upon how I think about my own role in the pastoral care of undergraduates and in the ways I try to look out for and interact with my students. Additionally, I know that the student I am addressing here will most likely never see this letter but it is my hope that if more of us start to talk about this kind of predatory culture, she will know that she has someone to turn to when she needs help getting out of it.

Edited 6/5/14 to add:  Different professor, different department, but this is all going to get a lot worse before it gets better. What really struck me in the student's account was this: "Convert the professional relationship into a personal one. Establish trust and a close personal friendship with the person... He said that out of all his lovers, I was the fastest one to go to bed with him. He said it usually took him many months, even years, before young women went to bed with him."  That is the pattern that makes this all so pernicious. The person I'm describing here has justified his bad behavior in past instances by blaming it on a general "twisted sexual culture" at yet another ancient university, all of which raises the classic chicken-egg question.


Dear H,

Don't do it.

I didn't listen to advice when I found myself in a similar position to yours and I don't expect that you will either, but don't do it. You're at a good moment, graduating from college, to make a clean break. I know that you have a place to do a Master's degree in a place that is familiar with faculty you know and adore, but don't stay. Work for a year and reapply to different programs next year if you still want to work toward another degree. But for now, in this one very fundamental way, put yourself ahead of your professional aspirations. Turn around, start running, and don't ever, ever look back. As hard as it may seem to leave what has become familiar and comfortable and desirable to you, it will never again be this easy to walk away. 

He's young (compared with your other professors, anyway) and adorable and so terribly, charismatically charming. You are struggling with how to balance your own religious life and your academic work that touches up against it, and he seems to have that all figured out perfectly. He dotes on you. He knows how smart you are and how, with a little guidance, you'll outshine him one day. (This last bit is true: you will outshine him, but you don't need him for that.) You are even friendly with his wife, so it all seems perfectly safe. It is not safe. Run.

He will gaslight you and make you doubt grasp on reality. He will manipulate your time and your energy. He is so skilled in deception that you will believe the same lie again and again. This is a critical juncture, because if you continue down this path he will later point out that won't have made a move on you until after you'll have graduated — he'd never get involved with an undergraduate! — and you'll already be so twisted around that it'll seem noble.

I think that what he will tell you about having no sexual relationship with her is probably true, but after that it will all be varying degrees of lie. And that's just it. It's not about you, which makes it both easier and harder to take: Easier to take rejection when it will inevitably come, because it's not really about you. Harder to look back upon when you realize that a whole, intense, intimate relationship was never about who you were, but rather was about who you weren't. He doesn't value you for you, for the wonderful you whom he claims to adore for all her uniqueness, but rather he values you for being a non-her female entity.

The piece that I never realized until now, until I heard bits and pieces of your story is that she's in on it, too. I don't mean to make this sounds like a conspiracy. I'm sure they never sat down and had a conversation to set up a system; but befriending his young female students along with them, cooking with them, making them feel at ease in the situation, and then looking the other way as he does this over and over and over and over again, all of that must be her way of giving him what she herself cannot or will not.

He is a predator. He is grooming you.

Yes, you are an adult, if only just. Yes, you will consent to anything, emotional or physical, that you will do with him. But he will still be taking advantage of how young and stupid and starstruck you are; please understand that last remark sympathetically. I was that young and stupid once, too. It took the better part of a decade for the relationship to run its course and for me to finally be able to move on. I can tell you how to begin to fix yourself once it's all over. I can tell you how to start allowing men to treat you properly after the mind-and-heart-scramble you're about to take. But I don't have any practical advice for the better course of action, which is to get out of this before it's too late.

All I can say is this: Run. 

Love and live-and-let-die,

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Paleography Solution

A few months ago I posted about a set of paleography problems I was having, signatures of the owners of a manuscript I'm working on: 

I'm sharing pre-publication data because the hive mind of the web was so helpful in my getting it sorted out that it seems only fair. (And the individuals who were particularly helpful are, of course, acknowledged by name in the article.) But this is still pre-publication data and my own drawings (that will appear in a chapter entitled 'Meeting the Mediterranean Halfway: The Material Text as a Map of the Maimonidean Controversies' in an as-yet untitled book to be published by Penn Press in or around 2016). Please don't be a jerk.

The first one remains undeciphered. The second two are as follows:

זה הספר שייך להירשל בן צבי
This book belongs to Hirschell ben Ẓvi.

This was a bit disappointing because it didn't add any new information to the provenance of the manuscript, since I already knew that it had belonged to Solomon Hirschell (son of Ẓvi Hirschell), but it was satisfying to sort it out.

בר מנחם
הצ נע

This belongs to me,
bar Menaḥem
the F[rench guy whose] s[oul is in] E[den]

It's been suggested to me that the personal name for this last one should be read Yishayahu rather than Yiẓḥaq. However, the grapheme that would have to be either a letter hey or a letter quf is, in the sixteenth century when this MS was copied, far more likely to be the latter. Plus, I can identify a relevant Isaac but no relevant Isaiah.

The names only get us so far and there is more to the story — hate to be cryptic about it but I don't want to run into issues with the editors, who were very clear that the material for the book had to be all new and unpublished elsewhere. I think I'm ok sharing the images, but I may have to take them down at a later date.

So that's that. It was a lot of work and a lot of frustration and a lot of help from others for two little names. (Of course I'm still more than happy for any additional feedback or critique.)

Monday, May 19, 2014

God Sayve All The Rowte!*

(*Or, way to quote Chaucer totally out of context...)

I visited the Cloisters today for the final day of the exhibition of stained glass panels from the Canterbury Cathedral, which are traveling while restoration work is underway at the cathedral. With the caveat that tripods are allowed only on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays, here are some images of the panels:

Friday, May 16, 2014

End of the Semester in Links

NYU's new broad and vague social media policy was unveiled on the same day as a Chronicle of Higher Ed. article about how the president of the university is increasing his social media presence in order to be more "relatable." I have an awful lot of opinions about the policy and about the unfortunate media-attention coincidence, and I'm really struggling with how much it is prudent and, crucially, permissible for me to say. I don't want to behave like a coward but I also don't want to risk my job.

NYU's New Electronic Communications Policy

#JSex is Ready to Cuddle

That said, there are aspects of the academic Twittersphere that I am, similarly, unhappy with right now, but I started to write a bit of a blurb here and it was becoming full-on, standalone post length, so I'll save that for another moment. Ultimately, though, it's not up to universities to regulate the ways in which scholars use social media; rather, these are conversations we should be free to have amongst ourselves.


Abandoned manuscript libraries in Mauritania:

... and abandoned bookstores in New York City:

The Lost Booksellers of New York

Some collections try to make it impossible for the books to disappear:

Reading in Restraint: The Last of the Chained Libraries

... while others actively dump their books:

Colby College Sacks the Stacks

A Library Without Books?


This is a little too vague to really be compelling, but it raises an interesting issue:

On Not Normalizing Anti-Semitism in Medieval Studies

In further news of biases in academic work: I cannot fathom being a heritage student in a class taught by someone who could write in such an essentializing way about "Hispanics." Fancy a university telling her that she might not be effective in teaching said heritage students (and I don't think its about authority as a non-native speaker). Nor can I imagine that being a heritage student whose professor thinks she is, by virtue of her heritage, lazy with flashes of occasional brilliance would be much better than being a non-heritage student whose professor thinks she is, by virtue of her different heritage, a bit dim but a hard worker. This is a blogger who is periodically super offensive about Jewish people (claiming it's okay because she's "ethnically" Jewish) and who shamelessly bullies people who disagree with her. I should just stop reading but I keep at it because it's like a train wreck with a Yale PhD. Just can't look away.


Slate published a series of maps this week on language distribution in the US:

I was a little surprised by a few aspects, including the claim that Tagalog was the widest-spread Asian language spoken in California, but I figured that the Bay Area, where Chinese dialects are prevalent, just must not be representative of the state as a whole. But, in fact, there were some errors an Asian-American think tank presented some correctives (with a lovely nod to Slate's recent odd genre of "you're doing it wrong" pieces):

And just for good measure, here is a time-lapse historical map of Europe:


When this piece appeared, the post-ac blogger Rebecca Schuman performed an odd credit-taking rhetorical dance over at her site wherein she "passed the torch" of the anti-grad-school think-piece genre to this author; but this piece is really in a different league.  The author writes: "The library is capacious and well-stocked. The undergrads are smart, if uncurious, and generally work hard. This should have been an ideal setup. And yet graduate school has been a drag. This is because I allowed myself to get caught up in the banalities of professionalization, the most common feature of graduate education in the humanities."

Finishing School

And on the flip side of the quality spectrum in writing about the perils and pitfalls of graduate school, all I have to say about this is: HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA! (Well, that and the fact that the Guardian higher ed section seems to have lost its way quite badly. Here they are blaming the Babylonians for university lectures being so boring.)

Five Things Successful PhD Students Refuse To Do

"Night owls are more creative and smarter. Daylight-based schedules are a convention, and it takes a high IQ to think of a new way of structuring each day."

I'm definitely having my students read this in conjunction with "Death of the Author" the next time I teach it:

Speaking of the relationship between authors, their intentions, and their texts, it's shocking to me that this lawsuit had the outcome it did, given the state of the study of the novel and our current understanding of the relationship between memoir and fiction. I guess it's true what they say about the law not keeping pace with intellectual life:

An awesome resource for people interested in digital humanities and computational linguistics:


Since it's been a while since I last did one of these, here are two favorite tweets from the time period covered:

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Volumes 2, 10 and 12

This shelf of books, in the "eastern religion" section of the Strand, with its separation of three volumes of the EI from all the rest plus its juxtaposition against books about terrorism, struck me as sad:

Friday, May 9, 2014

Rhetorical Devices for NYPL Trustees

Dear Dr. Marx and trustees of the New York Public Library,

I was so pleased to learn of your decision to scrap the Central Library Plan, the proposed renovation that would have gutted the main branch of the research library. I was surprised and dismayed to learn, however, that the stacks will be left in place simply as architectural support for the reading rooms, with the books that were removed to storage sites under Bryant Park and across the river in New Jersey remaining where they are, in part because the removal was done so hastily that things are now badly out of order and there is no inventory of what is where and what items have been damaged in transit.

This — "kafkaesque," in the words of David Levering Lewis — preservation of the stacks but not the books was not what any of us who were agitating against the CLP were working towards, and I think I understand the problem. Please allow me to explain the rhetorical devices at play in the slogan "save our stacks" that appear to have created this confusion, in the hopes that a clearer, plainer communication of the issues at stake will lead to a quick resolution and a restoration of the books to the library:

Image via @saveNYPL

1) Synecdoche is a rhetorical device that names an object or an idea with its most salient component.

Example one: On a tour of a pharmaceutical company, the tour guide might point to the laboratory and say "the brains are in here." He would, of course, be referring to the scientists, identifying them by their most salient and relevant part. (There's a slight chance that there might actually also be some disembodied brains in there, depending on what is being studied in a particular laboratory, but that's neither here nor there.)

Example two: A whole coterie of award-winning and world-renowned writers and artists might, in the face of a destructive plan to renovate a world-class research library, might rally around the cry: Save our stacks! In this case, they are using the word stacks as a small component to refer to the entirety of the library, including its books and archives.

2) Metonymy is a rhetorical device that substitutes the name of an idea with an object or concept that is closely associated with or representative of it.

Example one: The phrase 'the pen is mightier than the sword' does not literally suggest that a person could succeed in jousting, fencing or hand-to-hand knife combat by arming himself with a fountain pen, ball-point, gelly roll, or Sharpie. Rather, it uses those concrete items to indicate larger concepts, in this case espousing the belief that ideas and speech will always ultimately win out over violence.

Example two: Imagine a wide range of researchers in the humanities and social sciences, some of whom are affiliated with universities and some of whom are not, using the phrase "Save our stacks!" as a watchword to guard agains the destruction of a world-class research collection that is freely open to all, regardless of whether or not they hold a university appointment. In this case, the word stacks in their slogan refers to all the knowledge, actual and potential, facilitated by the full function of those stacks as housing for the research collection of books and other archival materials.

I hope that this clears up the confusion. There may be some books about this topic over in New Jersey that you can read if you need further clarification. And if you can find them.

Love and literal-mindedness,

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Thursday Schedule

1) Teach my last class until January 2015.*
2) Go home.
3) Eat lunch.
4) Sleep.
5) Exercise.
6) Sleep.
7) Rescue my apartment from its present state of end-of-term entropy. No, really.
8) Work on my entanglement paper, hopefully to be finished by Sunday.

*Inshallah. Paperwork pending.