Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Open the Gates of Righteousness for Me, and I Will Enter Through Them into a Surrealist Museological Comedy Sketch

I've been reading literary material from the Cairo Genizah with my students in my upper division seminar, particularly the literature of and biographical sources for Judah ha-Levi. Coincidentally, a beautiful exhibition (co-curated by the Walters Museum in Baltimore) has just opened up that features the ark doors from the Ben Ezra Synagogue in old Fustat, the building where the Genizah was kept.

The exhibition is gorgeous and really does a nice job contextualizing a sacred Jewish artifact in its Islamicate cultural context by, for example, comparing the geometric designs on the door to those on contemporaneous book bindings.

But when I arrived at the gallery, it turned out that it was closed that day for docent training. I was a little panicked that my plan for class was going to fall through, but I managed to talk my way in. The folks at the museum were really gracious and allowed my students to join the trainee docents; and so they got a really unusual gallery tour.

Almost all of the trainee docents were middle- or retirement-aged Orthodox Jewish women. This is an exhibition co-curated by a secular museum and a museum affiliated with a religious institution; and we were getting the religious iteration.

The few cringe-worthy moments that I observed were more to do with the tour being led by someone who's not a scholar and not totally up-to-date on the state of the question, and not to do with the fact of this being a religious institution. That said, they did use a lot of terminology and references freely that assumed a Jewish audience and the docents, in particular, conversed and asked questions in a way that (as is to be expected) made it clear that this was far more about their own heritage than anything else. The gulf was perhaps not as wide as one might have expected; and stopping to think about it, if a group of people is claiming an intellectual figure who comes from a completely different cultural tradition, lots of the blind-faith issues are going to be pre-resolved.

It touched on something I've been thinking about a lot lately, namely the place and role and activity of Jewish scholars in Jewish studies topics. This didn't make a clear case one way or another for me, but it was an interesting thing to file away for later. I'll be really curious to see what my students have to say next week. In a certain respect, I had more in common with the docent trainees than with my students despite superficially coming more from the same perspective as the latter group, and despite the fact that  I'm trying to train my students to think in a modern, western, academic, secular mode. Yet what excites me as icing on the intellectual cake — like the fact that we have autograph exemplars of Judah ha-Levi's handwriting — were religiously exciting and meaningful for these women and a lot less impressive to my students.


Visually, the scene was a bit surreal. The above photos are from the exhibition web site (which I would definitely recommend taking a look at). These two were snapped on my cell phone during the docent training tour:

The door can be seen, in situ, on the far right of this photo.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Separated by a Common Language and Some Healthy Skepticism

I was googled today from a place in the UK called Towcester.

I wondered aTwitter whether the pronunciation of the name of this town could be extrapolated on the model of Leicester /lester/...

...and then had a disbelieving conversation with an alternative Shakespeare troupe.

I don't think this is how meant to connect people.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Medieval Vanity Plates

In a famous letter to his Hebrew translator Samuel ibn Tibbon, Moses Maimonides (the Rambam) concluded a letter explaining how he wanted to see his theological summa, The Guide of the Perplexed, translated from the original Arabic. The letter is best known, though, for Maimonides' postscript, in which he describes his hectic life in medieval Egypt:

"I dwell in Fustat and the Sultan resides in Cairo. My duties to the ruler are very heavy. I am obliged to visit him every day, early in the morning; and when he or any of his children, or any of the inmates of his harem, is indisposed, I dare not quit Cairo, but must stay during the greater part of the day in the palace. It also frequently happens that one or two of the royal officers fall sick, and I must attend to their healing the entire day. Hence, as a rule, I repair to Cairo very early in the day, and even if nothing unusual happens, I do not return to Fustat until the afternoon... I dismount from my animal, wash my hands, go forth to my patients, and beg and entreat them to bear with me while I partake of some slight refreshment... Patients go in and out until nightfall."  (Jacob Rader Marcus, The Jew in the Medieval World, p. 349.)

Perhaps his commute between Fustat and Cairo would have been improved by using a Toyota with vanity plates, like the one spotted today outside of the Bobst library, instead of an animal.

(Please feel free to leave ma'aseh merkavah jokes in the comments section.)


ETA 10/26: I may have totally overthought this. A colleague offers a more Occam's Razor-friendly read on the license plate:

Monday, October 14, 2013

A Tenth-Century Verbal Tic

I overheard this summer in Jerusalem two men talking about business and observed that they sounded an awful lot like a Genizah document. Apparently it's a verbal tic I brought back with me:

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Imagined Communities

The friend I'm visiting and I took a break in the library cafe, and at some point in the course of talking about teaching politically charged topics, the conversation turned to British imperial ambition in the 19th and 20th centuries. After discussing the state of the Commonwealth and the mess that the British and the French made in the Middle East (as we are both products of a Near Eastern Studies department), we reached the Falkland Islands. This was a completely lighthearted conversation, albeit on a serious topic, but mostly focused on the absurdity that imperialism has unleashed on the world. We were definitely mocking the British position on the Falklands and all the military might they had extended to enforce that position. (And, as it happened, we both commented in the course of the conversation on the natural beauty of Argentina; I mentioned the stunning landscape, and my friend commented on the varied bird species and the verdant cattle-grazing land.)

And next thing we know, there's a guy — must have been a graduate student — standing next my friend's chair, oddly looking only at her even though she and I were on the same page in this whole conversation, declaring: "I was raised in Argentina and if you are going to talk about certain things, you must do so respectfully."

And on the one hand, without knowing anything about this guy or his particular brand of nationalism, I can understand how this might be a sore point for him. On the other hand, if he had actually bothered to eavesdrop on us rather than pulling a few key words out of context, we all might have been spared a somewhat bizarre interaction. And if his intention was to win us over or make us see his point of view, this definitely wasn't the way to do it. I was made more curious, in the end, about the psychological profile of the individual than I am about imperialism or nationalism or even Argentina.

I mentioned this all later to another friend, who suggested that I should have invoked Cornell's own Benedict Anderson and told the guy that all the communities we were talking about were imagined. By coincidence I happen to be rereading that book now as I'm writing the introduction to my own book, and I can't imagine that having gone down well at all.

As I'm preparing my third-year review dossier and trying to explain my work to non-specialists, non-medievalists and non-Arabists, and to situate it within a Department of Spanish and Portuguese, it doesn't take too terribly to get me started wondering about the imagined community of the Hispanic world at large and especially the academic entities that are charged with studying its various facets, because those entities are fantastically imagined, too. 

Ithaca Friends of the Library Book Sale

This is the first weekend of the Ithaca Friends of the Library Book Sale, a twice-annual, fairly self-explanatory event. The selection this time around was (fortunately for my budget and for repacking my suitcase) rather disappointing; but it was still an enjoyable outing. 

In addition to the "10th-16th Centuries in Translation," another entry in the "unexpected categories" category was the dedicated "Teach Yourself German" section.

Now back to writing my own book, which was the real purpose of this long weekend...

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Academic Socializing

NYU's fall break is this week, and so I decided to spend a few days up in Ithaca. I'll be socializing academic-style, which means I will be working on my book manuscript in proximity to my friends as opposed to working on my book manuscript alone.

My phone is getting into the mood, too. This is what happened when I tried to touch base about logistics with the friend I'll be staying with:

The Week in Links (Fear and Loathing in the Academy Edition)

I'm not sure whether I feel better or worse knowing that this sort of feeling doesn't seem to go away even as one progresses in one's career. But this is a really good post that captures some very familiar feelings and approaches (or lack thereof):

The Many Stages of Self-Loathing — I Mean Writing

And some practical tips. Although I have to say I really disagree with this column's position on who/whom. It is often very useful to have the oblique case marked.

10 Grammar Rules You Can Forget

This is irresponsible. If the author thinks that any given (or even most) of her students aren't qualified for what they are applying for or that she can't write them a good letter, then she shouldn't write for those individuals; but to blanket refuse to write letters because she doesn't approve of the program to which the students are applying is a deeply unfair power trip. My general feeling is that it's the place of recommenders to be supportive or unsupportive of their colleagues or students who are applying for things (jobs, fellowships, whatever) but not to dictate the trajectory of their careers by cherry-picking which applications they will or won't support.

Why I Stopped Writing Letters of Recommendation for Teach for America


Katie Roiphe has written before about how having a PhD in literature made her a better journalist because it made her a better reader, and she proves it in this next link with a deft critical reading of the documents of the most recent academic sex scandal.

I've been lucky enough never to have been in a situation in which I could have become involved with one of my professors, and I'd like to think that even if I had, I'd be smart enough to walk away. But, too, the first great love affair of my life was an end-in-disaster dalliance with a senior colleague, though the disaster was of the personal, not the professional, and not at all to the same scale. Nevertheless I have good working knowledge of the murkinesses and fuzzy boundaries and ambivalences and contradictions that Roiphe talks about. On the basis of my own experience, this rings true:

"Colin’s description of Nicole is that she was “original, quirky, highly intelligent, strong willed.” He said, “It was impossible she was manipulated by me.” Ben’s description of her, on the other hand, is filled with stories of her weakened, anxious, often “bawling her eyes out,” of him stepping in, protective, outraged, and her vulnerable, injured. After I talk to both of them, it is hard to reconcile Colin’s Nicole with Ben’s Nicole. In the emails, however, you can read conflicting feelings. At times, she seems exuberant, clever, playful, eager, warm. At other times, she seems to be pulling back, apologizing, making excuses. Colin now says he did not see it, but a bright strand of ambivalence is clear in moments of stiffness, a return to formality, a psychic retreat. This is not surprising to me: a 26-year-old with a boyfriend, intrigued, flattered, weirdly drawn to a 61-year-old man, yet not wanting to go further, to enter a fully fledged sexual affair. Can one be attracted but wary, invested but anxious, warmly engaged but freaked out, intrigued but put off?"

The Philosopher and the Student

There has been some criticism of this reading as misogynistic and victim-blaming but I think that the paragraph I cited above really gets to the heart of it. This shows how she was the victim. She was Colin's Nicole and Ben's Nicole and never just Nicole; and she was in over her head even as there were intriguing or titillating elements in the lake that was drowning her. This paragraph in particular read sympathetic to me.


Because this is at least nominally a medieval blog, here is a nice post on marginalia:

And for people who need to work on texts in non-Roman alphabets, these have been archived for use during the government shutdown:

Library of Congress Transliteration Tables


And finally, an amusing hashtag to follow on Twitter this week is #IndianaJonesAcademicMovies for amusing if predictable puns like "Indiana Jones and the Graders of the Lost Ark" and "Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Archive" and then more amusing, less predictable and more non-sequiturious like "Indiana Jones and the Judicious Sprinkling of Compound German Nouns."

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Avoiding Panic Through List-Making

As you may have gathered, I'm feeling a little overwhelmed on the verge of an all-out panic attack with what I have to accomplish this week. I am giving two talks (and am wasting a lot of energy being angry with myself for agreeing to one of them, which will be happening in between teaching my two classes on Monday, which is already a long day for me). My master to-do list is such a mess of my impossible handwriting, cross-outs, additions, and strange vector annotations that I'm just going to make a nice, clean, black-and-white list for myself for tomorrow and the rest of the week.

Must happen today:
[[Grade 16 8 4 3 2 1 freshman essays]]
Prep freshman seminar (general plan done, just need to annotate texts for quick reference in discussion)*
Prep senior seminar
Finish writing Vanderbilt guest lecture (what was I thinking?!)*
Change the cat litter
Clean kitchen

*waking up early Tuesday to finish these.

Must happen this week:
Write Friday colloquium talk
Practice giving friday colloquium talk
Prepare spreadsheet for department budget committee meeting
Compile writing plan for writing group
Make work plan for fall break
Submit AOS abstract
File research account paperwork

Would be nice to have happen this week:
Read/translate Halevi's Risala on Arabic meters
Return to work on poetry/poetics book chapter
Finish medieval women for non-academic readers piece

Things that need to happen related to this week's work but don't necessarily need to be finished this week:
Transform colloquium talk into Gedenkschrift article (for a general medieval audience)
Polish book chapter related to colloquium talk for distribution to the Mediterranean Seminar (for a specialist medieval audience)
Grade seniors' essays

I'll leave making plans for the rest of the stuff encroaching in on me until Wednesday or Friday. Can only do so much at a time.

Friday, October 4, 2013

The Enemy of the Good

I suspect that in this profession we're all plagued by perfectionist tendencies. I know I am. It's what makes for good philology and for a reputation of being the sort of person with total, detailed command of a variety of archival sources. I'm good at what I do because I can put on the blinders and completely immerse myself in one thing until it's completed to my satisfaction.

And so even though my main focus is research rather than teaching, my basic personality is having a hard time letting go and just doing a good enough job on my teaching rather than shooting to do the ideal job. There's that old saying, "Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good." That's my goal for grading this set of essays.

At Cornell, there is a really well-developed, well-thought-out freshman writing program with an intensive six-week course and hands-on practicum for the graduate students who teach in the program and a very detailed set of guidelines for how to grade and comment upon essays that includes making minimal annotations in the margins and a long narrative comment on separate paper that engages with the student's work in the same way (if not at the same level) one would engage with a colleague: discussion rather than prescription, guidance rather than correction, response rather than reaction. That's where I learned how to write really thoughtful assignments and how to comment effectively on the responses to those assignments. It's good and it works and it's super time intensive and I'm having a hard time letting it go.

But you know what? I'm giving two talks this week, including one on Monday between teaching my two classes. I have four — count 'em — articles all with deadlines before the end of the term. They would be totally manageable if I didn't also have to have a draft of the book finished by January in order to stay on schedule to get the book out in time for my tenure review. And if I try to write a page of comments on each of sixteen freshmen's papers, I'm not going to have a second left to write the talks for next week let alone even look at the book manuscript.

So this time, even though I know it's not as pedagogically sound as it could be, my students are going to get comments in the margins of their papers. They'll be thoughtful, but they'll also be mainly corrective. I'll aim for full-page narrative engagement next time. If I try for perfect, the grading isn't going to happen until after the next assignment is out, and that's a real failure. Good is what I can swing right now; perfect is going to have to wait.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Spam on

It took me a while to get used to, especially to having random people I'd never met or who weren't even in my field following me, to the etiquette for following senior scholars, and to some of the inefficiencies of the internal search engine. Eventually I stopped having the reflex reaction of looking over my shoulder when I got an email that said that someone was following me; I even grew to like the statistics (although those have been offline more than not lately).

But a new issue has cropped up and I'm pretty unhappy with how they're handling it. I'm all of a sudden being followed by a very obviously fake profile: "Que Ball" from Amherst, MA. No academic affiliation. A few interests are listed that coincide with mine — it's tailored spam, but it's still spam. It's not following anybody else, and nobody is following it. Posted by one of those people who doesn't know the difference between cue, que, and queue. Honestly I'm equally weirded out by the possibilities that somebody is playing a joke on me or that such a level of spam sophistication has made it through onto

This is meant to be a professional site, and I think it looks really unprofessional and jokey to have such an obvious fake following me. Nothing happened in response to my flagging it as spam and as fake. (In fact, I wouldn't mind if other site users were also to flag it as fake; perhaps a critical mass will get their attention.) After I reported it manually by email,  some support person wrote back to me and said that there was no activity on the account; I wrote back to her saying that seemed like all the more reason to remove it as fake and mentioned how unprofessional I felt like it made my profile look by association.

To their credit, they wrote me back. Demerits for the answer, though:

"Due to privacy reasons, we cannot go into a user’s account and change his settings without justification. I apologize for the inconvenience, I understand that it must be frustrating to have an unwanted follower. We currently do not offer a way to block/ hide fake followers, but our team is brainstorming ways on how we can include this feature onto our platform!"

It seems to me that being so obviously fake (Que Ball?!) is a justification; what's the point of having a "report fake profile" option if it doesn't lead to anything being done? As for ways to allow users to block followers, fake or otherwise, the technology obviously exists: Facebook and Twitter both offer that option.* I could understand a professional site wanting to make it harder for users to block legitimate followers: it becomes a less useful service if, say, for example, some hot-shot full professor were to block all followers whom he deemed not worthy of his status. But there has to be a happy medium to allow users to "force-unfollow" obvious fakes.

It's not that big of a deal in the grand scheme, but it's also a bit more than frustrating. The fact that this is a professional site makes a difference. And as a young, new, female professor, professional image matters and I'm trying to keep mine as polished and as much in my control as possible.

I'm not like I'm asking them to dump an undergraduate off the site or somebody whose work I disagree with. I'm not even asking them to dump this fake person off the site; just to make him stop following me.

It's not enough for me to quit the site yet, because I do think it's useful. But I'm uncomfortable and unhappy about the situation, and, as somebody who is perfectly comfortable with creating a basic web site on her own with any number of digital publishing sites, it won't take much for me to find reason to leave, only use my own personal professional site, and keep track of the current research in my field on my own.

*ETA, 8:30 pm: As if to make my point for me, a Twitter account called @NYUhotties just started following me. Even though I tweet more informally, my account is related to my teaching and research life here at NYU and so it would be dramatically inappropriate for me to be anywhere near that account: not even not following it, but also having it not follow me. (Nevermind that it's gross and creepy and I wouldn't have wanted such tweeters following me regardless.) In two clicks, the problem was solved and I had blocked the account.