Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Week in Links (9/19-25)

There were some unusually interesting links that came across my (electronic) desk this week, so I thought I'd aggregate them here:

With the photographer having spent a year there, I wish there were more and better pictures, but still worth a read/view. Can't wait to go see the new galleries!: 

This came across one of the listserves that I'm on. For me it was especially salient because I'm teaching a totally reconceptualized intro survey course for the first time this semester; but it'll also be interesting to people who aren't doing that but do have to think about the relationship between canon and teaching (or, frankly, canon and anything else):

And finally, not strictly speaking from this week (or even close to it, really), but this was new to me this week via another one of the listserves.   I was very pleased to see it. I may even print out a copy to tuck in my back pocket before visiting certain American manuscript collections:

Damn you, autocorrect. Library edition.

I'm slightly down on the state of the world's libraries and even my very favorite one can't escape entirely.

I was running out of ways to transliterate the name of the subject of my dissertation so that the catalogue would bring up the record and call number of a particular edition of one of his works that I knew to be part of the collection.

Spelling his name that way never occurred to me. It didn't help any more than the others, as it happens.

And as much as I knew that I was also looking for a particular large, multi-volume work the exact title of which I did not remember, I didn't really anticipate needing a bigger boat:

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Brave New Bibliophobic Library

This isn't a complaint about the NYU library per se. Not at all. The fact that such an incident happened here is not indicative of an inherent local problem. (And anyway, how could a person not love a library whose catalogue's name (the Bobst Catalogue, or BobCat) gave rise to the university sports teams' mascot? That's just how the world of priorities and causal relationships should be ordered.)  I know for a fact that it simply a piece of a much broader trend in library, and particularly in interlibrary, policies. In fact, not only could this have happened to me elsewhere, it has:

I requested an article through interlibrary loan last month and received a message a few days later canceling my request because a PDF of same is available online. The ILL staff even helpfully included the link to the PDF in their communication:

In practical terms, it wasn't a big deal at all. Having requested just one article, I would have received it as a PDF from the interlibrary loan office once they would have received it from whichever library owns the volume containing the article, and I would have printed it out. And in fact, if this were a new experience for me, it might not even have registered as a problem. After all, a PDF is a PDF is a PDF, and the library staff did their jobs by helping me locate an item that I hadn't been able to find on my own. But I know that's not actually the end or extent of it.

Something similar happened with an interlibrary loan request I placed in graduate school. (In the interest of full disclosure, the rockiness of my relationship with the Cornell interlibrary loan office throughout my time there is now the stuff of legend in certain circles.) A request I had placed for a specific 19th-century German study and edition of the Sefer Musrei ha-Filosofim was similarly cancelled because it was available as a Google Book.** That was a problem. I hate reading on screen, and the eBook was not printable; and what's more, the scan was made from a copy whose pages had yellowed badly since 1896, making the digital reading that much more difficult.* And I couldn't have a physical copy of the book because of the existence of that electronic version.

In the all's well that ends well department, I made a fuss and the excellent and bibliophilic Judaica librarian intervened on my behalf, tracked down a copy from a university whose name I no longer recall, and prevailed upon the interlibrary loan office to request it. But the larger point still applies. I don't think I should have had to go to extraordinary lengths to have the hard copy of a book in my hand. Clearly the role of the library is changing, and I don't like it very much.

*Interestingly, in going to look for the link again close to three years later, I see that either a new digital copy has been made from a paper original with less damaged pages or Google has digitally lightened the pages.

** As a greater pen than mine once wrote: "I bear witness that the library is infinite."

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Comment Policy, Revisited

I'm starting to get some traffic here (thanks, @girlarchaeo!), but the number of comments remains at zero. I'd been wondering lately if (and now I'm pretty sure that it's the case that) I may have worded the comments policy in my first post a little too stridently. So let me rephrase here in a way that will, I hope, open up a little discussion:

I'm blogging under my own name and on topics that bear very directly on a professional life I value more than rubies. Before I started blogging, I read a variety of academic blogs, first out of interest and more lately to get a better sense of the genre. I observed that some of the bloggers from the field of Hispanic Studies* tend to get into ugly flame wars, and I wanted to avoid that happening in my space. Even if they're not made by me, I don't want a pile of ad hominem attacks sitting on my blog and associated with my name and my professional life. Hence the slightly overdetermined comment policy.

But with that said, it really just boils down to this: I''ve enabled comment moderation in order to be able to keep some control over the pertinence and tone of discussions as they develop. Comment like the literate and decent person you undoubtedly are, and I will allow (and indeed welcome) your comments.

One of the reasons I started this blog was to have a chance to talk about the profession with a broader range of people than I otherwise might. I'm looking forward to the conversation starting.


*I work on medieval Spain, so even as an Arabist by training, I consider myself to be a Hispanist; and I consider Hispanists and Arabists of the traditionally-defined sort to be my colleagues in equal measures. But that is all a subject for another post.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Writing for an Audience

Prefatory Note: Somehow I am loathe to leave my 9/11 post at the top of this page, so I scrambled to finish this one up. Hence the unusual frequency of posting. From here on out, normal service, as they say, has been resumed as soon as possible.

An article that I sent out to a fairly prestigious journal that I'll leave unnamed for the time being came back to me with a decision of "revise and resubmit" which means that the readers essentially liked the idea and the basics of the work that I had done to support the idea, but thought that the article itself still needed some additional research and restructuring before it reaches the level of being publishable in this particular journal. Given that this is my first article and I'm commensurately unfamiliar with the way this aspect of the profession works, an "R&R" was really all I was hoping for and is, I think, a good result. (The other possible outcomes were outright acceptance or outright rejection.) So now I'm busily revising, hoping to get it resubmitted before the semester really takes off. 

The most surprising aspect of this process for me has been the extent to which revising an article can, and for me in this instance has, become a exercise in writing for a curiously specific audience. The review process that leads to one of the decisions I mentioned above is meant to be double-blind. That is, the readers weren't supposed to know that I was the author of the article they were reading, and I'm not supposed to know their identities. I don't think that I'm well-enough established in the field that I could really give myself away inadvertently; but one of the reviews that I received had a number of "tells," like those of a bluffing poker player, that led me, without really trying at all, to deduce the identity of the reviewer. It's either the person I think it is or one of his students (or alternatively, he has an academic stalker). And so as I revise, even though it's a bit of a false construct, I am writing now as if I were writing to one person rather than to an abstract body of Hispano-medievalists. Dr. Reviewer (a pseudonym that shall be my concession to the ostensible integrity of the review process) has become my platonic ideal of an audience.

Writing to just one person was a practice into which I fell in grad school, where it really was a bad habit.  I tended to see my seminar papers as quasi-private conversations between me and the one person who would be reading each one. One of the biggest challenges for me in writing my dissertation, just in terms of the craft, was getting away from the idea that I was writing to my adviser. Making an original contribution to the field meant writer to a the broader scholarly community, which in turn meant assuming nothing — not basic knowledge, not sense of humor, not anything — and taking time and space to explain everything in long form, including the things I knew, the things my adviser knew, and the things that my adviser knew that I knew.

But here, in this case, it doesn't seem like a negative that I am re-writing with Dr. Reviewer in mind. Although I actually cited his work several times in my article, his academic background and approach to text are quite different to mine. And so it's forcing me to think about the audience in a different way. Rather than imagine a diffuse group of readers with all sorts of different interests, all of whom won't be satisfied by the entirety of anything that anyone does* and who, therefore, have no bearing on the specifics of my work,** I am addressing the specific interests of Dr. Reviewer. In doing so, I am pushing my research and writing farther than they had gone in that one specific direction in a way that I couldn't do if I imagined the critiques I might get from every one of the senior colleagues in my field whose opinions and work and methodologies I respect.

Saying it plainly makes it seems self-evident and axiomatic: Writing after peer review is necessarily writing more to an audience than writing before peer review is. But I hadn't thought about it in those terms before receiving my first peer reviews, and it has been an unexpected benefit — beyond the critique itself — of the process.

*How's that for a long-winded academic way of saying: "You can please some of the people some of the time, but you can't please all of the people all of the time"? 

** This is sort of like the abstract version of one of the problems I discussed with respect to crowdsourced journal article review: An excess of noise, however expert, will nearly always be a detriment.

(Edited to add: I've no idea what is wrong with the fonts and font sizes in this post.)

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Take the Way Home that Leads Back to Sullivan Street, Where all the Bodies Hang on the Air

Prefatory note: I had hoped to write a post about what it means to have grown up as an Arabist entirely in the immediate aftermath of the events of ten years ago. But this post isn't what I meant it to be. It's more concrete and narrative than analytical; I still hope to write the piece I set out to write, but the ideas need more time to develop. It turns out that with respect to making sense of it all, ten years is an arbitrary deadline. (I wrote this before realizing that more than a few commentators and historians  had come to the same non-conclusion.) This is not even really a first draft; it's more a putting to paper of some things that I needed to put to paper to free up some head space to be able to think about the bigger issues.  And really that's what this blog is for: To start to think through my ideas about all aspects of the profession and to put the little details in writing so I can really have room to think through the bigger issues. I wasn't even in New York on the day, but I still physically flinch whenever I see the photographs and I still feel this compulsion to narrate rather than analyze (a compulsion and a deficiency uniquely American, according to some other pundits). All of what follows needed to be said before I can even think about saying something that might be worthy of the gravity of the day.


My overwhelming emotion is relief that the anniversary did not fall this year on a day when I teach. At first it seems a petty, self-interested and small-minded response. But upon reflection, it becomes clear just how much of my university career was shaped by the events of that morning. For me, the aftermath has always been within the university. So the only strangeness of my first response is that I should want to mark the day out of classroom, alone, away from any student or colleague, rather than in it.


Ten years ago today, I began my third week as a university student.

Having started my days in high school between 7:15 and 7:30, I was convinced that an 8:30 am English class would feel like sleeping in every day; it didn't take me long to realize that even that was pushing it for my night owl self. And so I very, very quickly developed the custom of taking a nap between English 129 and my next class. I sleep with news radio on, and in those days my soporific of choice was WCBS. As I dozed, I couldn't figure out why they were replaying footage from the 1993 bombing of one of the WTC garages. It wasn't a big anniversary. It wasn't even the right time of year. Not long passed before I realized what was actually happening. I leapt out of bed and into the common room of my suite in Durfee Hall. The whole building was quiet except for the TVs playing in every suite, audible because everyone had seemed to have the same reflex: to open their doors. We wandered in and out of each others' suites, silently, almost as if to see if the news on anyone else's TV was different. That is what I remember most of my own experience of the day: our collective, eerie, spontaneous hospitality.

I left Durfee when it was time to go to that next class, a lecture on the history of modern American architecture. The professor was Vincent Scully, considered to be the leading light in his field and the most gifted lecturer I have ever heard speak, a man well above six feet tall whose broad shoulders belied his nearly eighty years. He began class by referring to the syllabus, to the topic of the day's lecture: modernism.  Specifically, he told us, he had planned that day to lecture on how, in ideal aesthetic terms, the Twin Towers had ruined the New York City skyline. (I wouldn't learn until later the legendary extent of his former hatred of those buildings.) Given the morning's events, he told us as he choked up, it was no longer an appropriate approach to the material. Toward the end of the lecture, when he arrived at whatever one could still say about a building that had only just become a symbol of something entirely different than the ruin wrought by glass boxes on the American city, that had only just ceased to exist, he could no longer hold back tears. It was at that moment, witnessing not the destruction of the buildings but a giant of a man and a mind weeping openly in front of three hundred students that I knew that the world had already come to an end.


I had been offered an internship at ABC news for the summer of 2002, but turned it down to begin to study Arabic. It was clear that all the Arabic classes would be full to capacity in the fall, and as a sophomore, I would have had low enrollment priority. In terms of the quality of my beginning Arabic instruction, it was a completely fortuitous series of decisions; and so in that respect, the tragic coincidence ensured that I would become a much better Arabist, surely, than I would have been otherwise. But that is not really the subject upon which I wish to reflect upon right now; it is the stuff of sheer coincidence. The rather more pressing question is this: What does it mean to have grown up as a medieval Arabist completely parallel to the Arabism, both pressing and expedient, that most of the rest of the country experienced, viewed, or in some way became aware of during the last decade?

I came into the field as its practitioners were forced to cultivate a pernicious, intentional irrelevance in order to protect the object of our study that in many supplanted the glorious irrelevance that is the entitlement of the medievalist. Many times I have had to tell incredulous interlocutors that no, I don't study medieval Iberia because I wish Jews, Christians and Muslims could all just get along. Almost as frequently I have had to explain to a wholly different kind of interlocutor that no, I don't in any way feel guilty about studying Arabic in this day and age. This, in turn, has required the cultivation of a certain freakishness, an oblivousness to the world as my friends joined up to the departments of State and Defense, and to the euphemistic Company where, in certain corridors, I am told, one can still walk and sing the Whiffenpoofs Song and fully expect someone to harmonize from an adjacent office.

To study medieval Arabic is to push the modern world as far away as possible — perhaps even farther than it would have been before Arabic and Islam emerged into the popular consciousness. Not only have I chosen to study something that is removed from the world in which I live, I have to actively remind myself and everyone else that no, I don't do that. I don't know about terrorists. I can't do more than offer a historical account of regicides and regime changes. Rather than quietly living with my head in the thirteenth century as my predecessors did, I stand and say: Yours is not my world.

Perhaps my despair is different from the despair of the people charged with remembering and with fixing. I can see the failures coming from farther away because they are the same failures of ninth century and of the thirteenth but I am as impotent as they are — even if for different reasons. (Here I refer of course to politicians and not to civil servants or soldiers, whom I have generally found to be well-read, insightful, and equally despairing.) I am no more impotent against this than the people who shouldn't be.

I could say that to pursue the matter of Araby — in the words of another daughter of Eli — is to make a stand for the values of humanism that seem to have eroded over the course of the last decade for a whole host of reasons. But that seems too neat. And the honest truth is that I still don't know. I have no great insight into what it means to be a medieval Arabist after September 11, 2001. Ten years on, and I still can't write this piece. It means nothing. The great world keeps spinning, history continues to pile on top of history, and someone has to read it all.


Several years ago I had an exceptional student who happened to be a Naval ROTC cadet; she must be just on the verge of her commissioning now. She chose to write her research paper for my class about medieval military tactics after reading some of the battle hymns of Samuel the Nagid. The presentation of her research happened to fall on a day when she was required to wear her uniform on campus for inspection. I don't know if my other students noticed, but the striking coincidence of the visual and the aural and of the academic and the practical and dangerous was not jarring, strange or even — though I note it now — especially noteworthy.

The Nagid's war poetry is, I think, my favorite of the Arabizing Hebrew poetry from Spain. Perhaps it was inevitable, under the circumstances, that the poetry of war, like the simple fact of war, should feel familiar and appeal intellectually and aesthetically. War and Arabic poetry have occupied my world for precisely the same length of time. Perhaps the towers' collapse is not nearly as far from my mind as I would like.


How could it be? It is the matter of Araby that brought me to New York, to an apartment with this view from the living room window:


Let me conclude by quoting John Adams, writing in a letter to his wife Abigail in 1780: "I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain."

I am grateful, especially today, to the students of war whose sacrifices have afforded me the right to have spent the last decade studying poetry.

Monday, September 5, 2011

A Catalyst

Only a medievalist would be reading something late at night including the phrase "fall of the caliphate," and only a medievalist could realize that it's definitely time to go to bed after misreading the same as "fall off the catapult."

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Writing Without an Editor

One of the aspects of this blogging experiment that has me on the shakiest ground in my own mind is the idea that I am writing about professional matters and then simply putting my words out there having been edited only by myself. For higher-stakes writing, I have a few trusty and trusted readers to whom I send virtually everything I write professionally before showing it to anybody else.

Currently, I'm working on revisions to the first article I've submitted to a journal for publication. (Incidentally, there's a post in the works about that revision process.) And as much as I had already showed the article to two readers prior to submitting it to the journal, and as much as I was (and still am) pretty pleased with the form in which I originally submitted it, one of the two reader reports came back with a mountain of suggestions for revisions and additions. For the most part, the anonymous reviewer was spot-on with his or her suggestions. Those comments are pushing me to do more research and interrogate my own basic assumptions; in the end, this process will make my article even better than it was. And with that being the case, I'm very glad that only five people (my two trusted readers, the two reviewers and the editor of the journal) will have seen the article in its original, acceptable-to-me-but-still-inferior version. No reason for the entire professional world to read my work not in its tip-top form.

As a result, I don't think I'd ever be inclined to submit an article to a journal that uses crowd-reviewing* rather than double-blind readership as its method of peer review. Part of the problem, for sure, is the fact that the academy hasn't quite caught up with emerging technologies. In simple terms, I have no way of knowing whether an article in a crowd-reviewed journal would count the same towards tenure as an article in a traditional double-blind peer-reviwed journal would. I'd like to think that if I were really partial to the journal or really believed in the idea of crowdreviewing that I'd submit there anyway, consequences be damned. But the bigger issues of expertise, overwhelm and discretion make that point completely moot.

The idea of crowd-reviewing is either genius or mad; for now I'm tending towards thinking the latter, though. Part of my hesitation is owed to my continued skepticism over the theory that crowds are wise. I still believe in expertise. I shudder every time I read about a project like Transcribe Bentham, and feel a certain schadenfreude every time a project like that is abandoned (specifically, see the top of page two of the linked story) because it turns out that scholarship does require methodological training.**  I have no problem, for example, with doctors polling large numbers of their colleagues when they are confronted with a constellation of symptoms they can't explain because in that case everybody in the crowd has expert medical knowledge. And the reviewers for this journal are, ostensibly, proper medievalists.

But I still don't want the great masses reading my unwashed prose. (That's why I'm so ambivalent about this blogging experiment. I think it has value in the form that it takes and in being public rather than private, but I kind of keep hoping that nobody will notice. So far, so good.) A really good, careful edit by two experts is likely to be as good, if not better, than a whole pile of comments from a crowd that may include experts but may also include well-meaning but under-informed amateurs or worse. An additional problem with a crowd is that it is a crowd. Committees are less efficient the more people who sit on them, and likewise, even if every comment made about an article by a crowd were expert and excellent, there would invariably be an excess of noise. And finally, crowd-sourcing as peer-review leaves the web and the universe littered with early drafts easily accessible. Writing — even technical, professional, academic writing — is such an intimate thing to bare to the world that to show it off unfinished leaves the writer that much more and needlessly exposed.

Edited on 9/30/11 to add: I see that I've been getting some hits on this particular post from a password-protected section of the crowdreview site. I don't know if they've written something in response or just posted the link. I'm still very much learning about blogging etiquette, but that does strike me as a little unsporting.

*The term I have written here as crowd-reviewing is, correctly, a single compound word rather than a hyphenated combination of two words: Crowdreviewing, like its predecessor, crowdsourcing. I've hyphenated here for ease of reading on a screen.

** Turns out that there's a whole blog dedicated to the subject of crowd-sourced transcription of historical records.