Sunday, September 30, 2012

Week in Links (Followup Edition)

There seems to be something in the water up in Ithaca:

Email Impersonating Skorton May Be Criminal

And apropos of the first incident of a Cornell student impersonating a member of faculty over email, which I linked to in the last roundup, how not to apologize: Say you're sorry but that the technology shouldn't have made it possible for you to misbehave:

An Open Letter of Apology

I may end up writing a full post about this, but for now, just the link. It's an interesting possibility but I think this articulation is a bit of a reductio ad absurdum:

Friendship as a Way of Life

Joe Nocera doesn't really say anything new here, but it's worth repeating. And I do like his way of framing the issue of university rankings as being one of which model of education you want to promote, and being aware, if one is going to take them into account, that that's what's going on:

The College Rankings Racket

I'm totally late to the party on this one, although I did read a variety of irritated blog posts when they first appeared and just sort of forgot to link to them. I'll just link to one now; you can google for others. I'm not justifying the criterion, but none of the outraged blog posts mentioned the fact that the proposal to declare a lost generation of PhDs and just start hiring the newly minted as a way to ease up the job market actually grew out of a discussion at the MLA last year (the link to the report of which I, of course, cannot find right now). Not saying that makes it any better; just helpful to have all the pieces at hand when arguing.

Old PhDs Need Not Apply

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Happy Birthday, T.S. Eliot!

"Old Deuteronomy's lived a long time;
He's a Cat who has lived many lives in succession.
He was famous in proverb and famous in rhyme
A long while before Queen Victoria's accession."

(Yes, my cat fell asleep of his own accord on a Bible that was open to the book of Deuteronomy. Yes, I read loads of Eliot when I'm not reading medieval poetry.)

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Tiyyul in Philadelphia

The institute where I am spending this academic year as a fellow arranged for a walking tour, or in Hebrew a tiyyul (this being Jewish studies and all), of historic Jewish Philadelphia led by a Penn professor of American history; so I walked through the city today, looking at colonial, federal and revival architecture with a gaggle* of medievalists. If that kind of morning isn't high up on your list of the very best ways to spend a Sunday morning, you might as well stop reading here.

It was definitely a challenge to take even good tourist snaps while keeping up with a group, so these really are totally for illustrative, documentary purposes. (Although I hate suggesting that documentary photography = sloppy work.) I'll definitely walk back through this neighborhood and rephotograph it over the course of the year and visit some other sites (again, both of general and Jewish interest) that we didn't have time to visit today.

One of the sites that we visited today, shown above, was Carpenters' Hall, originally a trades-union hall  that became important as a meeting place. The most interesting thing that our guide talked about here was how a lot of the open green spaces in the historic center of town are the result of a 20th-century reimagining of what colonial Philadelphia would have looked like — idealized, pastoral and very much in keeping with William Penn's original vision for the city. But in fact, the reason this building was so important for the early revolutionaries is because it was surrounded by a warren of small alleys that were all packed full of buildings and so it was possible to come and go for meetings without anyone really noticing. Modernity has invisibly rewritten the history with a wrecking ball. Sounds a bit familiar, really.

This is the Powell House, the home of a wealthy late-colonial, early-federal family. Here we learned about the tiny details in the façade that were shows of ostentation by wealthy families like this one and those that aspired to wealth, especially the large windows and the quarried limestone bars on each floor. After the Powell family, the building was turned into a bristle factory and store by a more middle-class Jewish merchant, demonstrating the ways (economic as well as religious) that central Philadelphia was integrated. One of the major rooms of the house was removed to the Met, and so what's there now on the interior is another a reproduction; I'm looking forward to taking a lunch hour to go visit since the house is open to the public during the week.

This building represented an interesting intersection of the general national significance of the city and the sites specifically of Jewish interest: It was originally built as a fire house run by one of the private fire insurance companies that were a major innovation that was brought about in Philadelphia (and more specifically by Benjamin Franklin). Later, it was converted into a Yiddish theater; apparently the inverted onion motif on the façade of the building is characteristic of Yiddish theater spaces and other Jewish meeting places. (Incidentally, I didn't have the time to snap a photo of the former Jewish event hall that is now home to a pole dancing gym.) I didn't notice that my reflection had actually showed up in this picture of what is now the front door of a seriously swanky apartment building.

This used to be a synagogue. Now it is an antiques shop.

*This is the gaggle of medievalists in question. To the point, though, I'm open to better collectives to describe such groupings. The aforementioned gaggle (troop? congress? (no, that's reserved for Leeds) swarm? hive? drove? clutch? quiver?) is standing in front of an example of a row-house shul. These small synagogues, which served specific ethnic groups, were built to look just like the row houses that are common in the area. Apparently this is a practice that was adopted from Catholic congregations during the colonial period (and that was even more common in less tolerant colonies like Massachusetts) whereby they would make their churches fit in with the other residential buildings in the hope that  the protestant majority would, when riled up, not notice the purpose of the building and leave it and its inhabitants alone; and this simply became the architectural vernacular for religious minority groups in British North America.

In these last two photos, on the left our guide is standing on the steps of the Society Hill Synagogue, which is apparently now part of the Reconstructionist movement. Originally a Baptist church (in other words, pretty much anioconic and easy to turn into a synagogue), this became, as the legend on the lintel reads, the Great Romanian Synagogue in the mid 19th-century. Though apparently, transmitted to us on the authority of one of the greats in our field who was himself a Romanian Jew, Romanians didn't use Yiddish in the way it is used on the face of the door (die grosse romanische schul) and so that, too, is a sort of American reimagining of Eastern European Jewry.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Week in Links (Battle of Antietam Edition)

Okay. I may finally be on board with crowdsourcing. Just a little bit. In limited contexts. Like this one:

Penn Provenance Project

In further good library news: Victory! This is a fantastic development especially since, as I discovered this summer, despite their protesting too much that it would be just fine to take the research collection out of the research library in favor of more circulating copies of Dan Brown, they are not good on turn-around time for bringing in the books that are already stored off-site. There was a lot of shouting from all sorts of scholars and writers, and it seems to have actually helped:

NYPL Shifts Plan for 5th Avenue Building

On the longue durée:

What's the Big Idea?

There is a segment of the Cornell undergraduate population that I do not miss teaching at all — the entitled ones who think that the world and everyone else in it exists for their entertainment and don't get it when people "can't take a joke." I consider myself lucky to have never seen anything this egregious when I was there but it also doesn't surprise me at all. I think that the most telling line in the story is when the student  brushes it all off saying, "I figured she’d send me a nasty email back and delete it; that’s what I would have done." When Cornell switched over to Google Apps for Education, one of the touted benefits was that alumni would be able to keep their Cornell gmail addresses in perpetuity. That's probably not seeming like such a benefit now.

Posing as Professor, Cornell Alumnus Slams Student's Religion in Email

Two museum reviews:

'Crossing Borders' Opens at the Jewish Museum

The Louvre's New Islamic Galleries Bring Riches to Light

And another, an overview of an exhibition that puts a completely different take on the discourse on arms and letters:

Books with War Wounds in the Complutense Library

Since colonial Latin America seems to be accreting itself to me these days, some relevant links:

Maya Murals Discovered in Guatemalan Family's Kitchen

Treasures of the UCLA Library: Colonial Mexican Manuscripts

And rounding things out with a bit more on medieval manuscripts in university libraries:

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Aztec and Maya History (in Technicolor)

San Francisco is one of the great cities for murals. When I was there this weekend, I was really interested to see how many of them drew upon themes from the colonial and pre-Columbian histories of Latin America. This was the best example. I didn't even notice until I saw the photographs that at the bottom, the Spanish conquerers are turning into modern soldiers. This wasn't atypical; many of the images combine modern questions of social justice with colonial ones.

It was interesting to see other groupings of colonial-era and contemporary figures. I'm not sure that I would have thought to pair Sor Juana with Martin Luther King, Jr., but there you have them:

There was also a mural painting in progress. The guys who were working on it were taking a break when I went by, but it gave me the chance to overhear them explaining to another onlooker that they couldn't decide whether to honor the Aztec god Tlaloc or Huitzilopochtli, another Aztec god, and so they decided to paint both in their mural. It was really interesting, coming out of this experience of being involved in teaching these figures as part of a historical religion, to see contemporary people not just recognizing them as part of their historical past but actively wanting to honor (not worship, but honor) them as gods.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Medievalism and the Monsters of Modernity: Ahmed the Gargoyle’s Mudéjar Challenge to Contemporary Islamophobia

This is what I meant to write last year. I originally composed it in response to a call for papers that was framed in such a way that would let me explore some of the ideas that I was trying to get to then. This was the result:


I spent the morning of September 11, 2001 in a darkened auditorium in a university art gallery building listening to a long-planned lecture on architectural modernism that Vincent Scully, the preeminent theorist and historian of American architecture, was almost frantically ad-libbing and revising after the sudden and violent destruction of the buildings that would have been the centerpiece of that morning’s discussion but that had only an hour before become the symbols not of the civil, internal, aesthetic destruction of the skyline and the character of the American city but of their literal decimation by sinister, outside forces. In the space of half a morning, the whole history of art, the humanities, humane letters — all the things that make us human — had been thrown into chaos, perhaps even sundered. At the time we couldn’t tell what would become of us.
In the days that followed, little happened to restore that humanity that a few terrorists had attempted to take; we were complicitous, though only by being scared and remaining ignorant. We were told to shop, rather than to read or to learn or to reflect or to craft careful strategy. Sikhs were beaten by ignorant thugs who thought they were Muslim. Muslims were beaten by ignorant thugs who believed they were doing the right thing. Even the rousing, briefly reassuring bipartisan chorus of “God Bless America” sung out from the steps of the Capitol was, in retrospect, only a portent of all the ways in which people of every faith would take God’s name in vain in the ensuing years. The Crusades were evoked. At the kind of cursory glance that we are all guilty of giving the world as we are absorbed in the leaden minutiae our own day-to-day routines, and especially to those of us young enough to remember few meaning-rich details of the world as it used to be, the monsters of modernity have always been made out to be Muslim. Euphonically, alliteratively, though, it is medievalism that can help to draw down that equivalency.
Almost fully a decade after the fateful blue-sky morning that was no darker inside the old art gallery auditorium than it would become outside, a news item from the BBC caught my eye, once again drawing together the history of art with questions about the contemporary practices of Islam. The proverbially curious case of a French gargoyle nicknamed Ahmed is almost too perfect a study in the ways in which grappling with a thorny problem of medieval cultural history can produce, as a side effect, a more sensible way to understand situations that are presented by the fact of modernity. And likewise, sometimes an example from modernity can appear as a diachronic cipher to clarify the tangled mess of a little-understood problem of an earlier period. As much as medieval monsters can solve modernity, modern monsters talk back loudly and speak to the Middle Ages.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Time Lords in the Lettered City

This afternoon I visited the Penn Museum to see their special exhibition Maya 2012: Lords of Time. I had high hopes for the exhibition in spite of the unfortunate way in which the title evokes Doctor Who but left disappointed, even though the exhibition includes a few really stellar objects.

The exhibition is ostensibly about the Maya calendar and about debunking the dramatic misunderstanding thereof that has given rise to apocalyptic myths that predict the end of the world this December. The first gallery displays a few objects from the ancient Maya but without giving a lot of context either about the civilization or about the calendar. The lack of cultural context continues throughout such that it is possible to come out without having a particularly solid sense of how the ideas of the calendar and of deities, which are the major threads, relate to the objects on display or fit into a culture as a whole. The labels are very simplistic and ultimately the take-away message is that the Maya were a people with a calendar.

It wasn't clear who the intended audience was because the level seemed appropriate for school-aged children (or fans of MythBusters) but did not offer the clear kind of narrative that one would expect, especially for that age group.

Other interpretive materials, while illustrative, are overwhelmingly kitschy.

The use of light and video is not judicious enough for it to have a real impact even where it might, such as in this display of a calendar stele, the elements of which are, quite literally, highlighted. (I really had to drop the quality and length of both videos to be able to upload them.)

To be fair, some of the labels were quite good and I took images of them thinking I might even be able to use in teaching; and that wasn't a small part of what was on my mind today.

The major reason for my visit to the exhibition was (and apologies for what will be repetitious for anyone who has been reading for a while) the combined medieval-colonial intro course I co-teach in my department at NYU. Even though I don't teach the colonial piece of it, I was hoping to see objects related to the part of the course with which I am less familiar and comfortable and perhaps discover some new ways of connecting this material with my medieval part of the course. In that respect, I had some success.

The most effective element of the interpretive materials was a long timeline that pointed out issues of kingship in about the ninth century that were unfamiliar to me but that could be related to the roughly contemporaneous Abbasid revolution and the subsequent various Umayyad and taifa-period changes in leadership in the Muslim West. The timeline was also, perhaps unsurprisingly, the most effective place in which questions of calendar systems was illustrated; events were listed according to Gregorian and Maya dates and any event where there was a question about how the dates were recorded in the two systems were particularly highlighted. Another point of contact was illustrated in an object contains a band of pseudo-heiroglyphs, which might tie in nicely with the moment when I introduce the idea of pseudo-Arabic script as a prestige kind of decoration.


Just a final pair of images, a lovely juxtaposition that didn't occur to me until I got home and downloaded the pictures. At left are masks used in contemporary celebrations among people who still practice aspects of Maya culture and at right is a late eighteenth-century manuscript (totally out of focus because my iPhone battery died right as I took the picture) copy of the Chilam Balam, a Mayan book of prophecies.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

It is Better to Have Sculpted and Graffitied...

... than never to have sculpted at all.

The Week in Links (The Pen and the Cross Edition)

The New York Times had two articles this week on Islam and the university. The opinion piece was especially exciting for me to see because it was written by one of two top authorities in the world on the translators who are the subject of my academic work. (Plus it's always nice to see really historically-grounded analysis of modern issues.) He's a scholar who also has taken on some really fascinating, thoughtful engagements with the modern world. Well worth a read.  The news article is about Muslim students feeling more comfortable enrolling at Catholic universities than secular ones; it's a sentiment I definitely understand even if I feel conflicted about it in my own life.

In Praise of the Clash of Cultures

Muslims are Thriving in Catholic Colleges

This is another interesting article on the practical implications of religion and the study of religion in the modern world. The first thing that jumped out at me, though, was that the author translates the concept of shomer negiah literally into English which I don't think will necessarily help enlighten an Anglo audience. I know how strange it feels to have a man refuse to even shake your hand, and so I can't imagine what it's like to have your military authority undermined in this way, but I'm not sure that her flippance and resistance to understanding the basic principles (even if that's just a rhetorical device) is necessarily the way to go, either:

What Happens When the Two Israels Meet

Early medieval manuscripts meet high technology. It's like the latter day Schechter-Lewis-Gibson expeditions:

In Sinai, a Global Team is Revolutionizing the Preservation of Ancient Manuscripts

I don't normally come down on the side of the intentionalist fallacy (that is, I disagree with the contention that "the author is the greatest authority on their own work"), but when the options are that or the total officiousness of Wikipedia, it's no contest, really:

An Open Letter to Wikipedia

I did not need a news article to tell me that graduate students at Cornell are "isolated." (My department was wonderful, but still) I'm so glad I no longer am one:

Life for Cornell Grad Students a Bit More Lonely

Friday, September 7, 2012

Intellectual Infancy and a Dead Metaphor

The phrase that puts things "in their infancy" is just about a dead metaphor, but I think I can revive it, at least partially. Not only am I an early-career academic, I also happened to be hired very early on in my graduate school career. It's okay because I was both coming out of and into departments that aren't the sorts that expect you to learn everything before allowing you to leave, but are rather departments that recognize that this — learning, that is — is a lifelong project and that the PhD is simply a license to practice. I have excellent training and background, but I also haven't read nearly as much as someone who is a year into the tenure track but who spent seven or eight years in grad school; and so in a lot of ways, I feel like I'm still seeking out depth in certain areas of my intellectual portfolio. So in that very conventional respect, I am in my intellectual infancy.

But I had a realization the other day, and this is where the revival of the dead metaphor comes in. When I say I am in my intellectual infancy it's not just that I have a lot yet to learn or that my work can stand to and will mature. While it's a boring metaphor in the above paragraph, it's such an apt metaphorical turn of phrase because of the rate at which that learning and change is happening. My work and thinking are very different already than they were a year ago when I wrote the project proposal for what I'm doing this year, and I'm struggling to write a conference abstract for the end of next August because I know that my work will be that much different again. And I don't mean that in a flakey way. In the same way that you turn around and suddenly an infant can hold up its head, eat solid food, talk, run, etc., my approach to the same problem has become quickly and infinitely more refined and all the silly avenues I might have pursued that are like naive childhood hopes are pieces that I've jettisoned in the interest of producing a coherent and mature work.

Part of the challenge, of course, as in growing up, is not losing oneself to the pace and managing to retain some of  that wonder and finding ways to work with those naive, wild-eyed initial ideas that are mad and quixotic and, in some fundamental way that can only be seen by very fresh eyes, absolutely right, but do it in a responsible way that is recognizable in the academy.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Week in Links (Labor Day Edition)

On the sorry state of affairs in the National Library in Egypt, the loss of the literary, book and intellectual culture there, and how the microfilm collection at NYU was able to mitigate against it, at least a little bit:

The Tragedy of Books in Egypt

A literary grading scale, for those of you who are teaching this year:

My Grading Scale for the Fall Semester

I hope this doesn't supplant the Vatican-sponsored marches of nominal declensions through the Roman countryside:

Breathing Life into a Dead Language