Wednesday, December 31, 2014

My 2014 in Books

What follows is a brief overview of my year in books. Please do feel free to leave recommendations (or non-receommendations, or anything in between) that are a snapshot of your reading this year, categorized however you'd like, in the comments section.


Book that walks the fine line between post-post-structuralism and nihilism in the perfect way to reassure you when you start to be plagued by the nagging suspicion like the humanities might possibly be a waste of time as a profession: The Past as Text by Gabrielle Spiegel

Yale flashbacks: rereading Cien años de soledad

Dissertation flashbacks: rereading "the task of the translator"

Book that most suffered for lack of a sufficient documentary apparatus: El diccionario privado de Jorge Luis Borges, Blas Matamoro

 Book written by an author with the most Crusading surname: El diccionario privado de Jorge Luis Borges, Blas Matamoro

Best book about Entanglement Theory: Entanglement by Ian Hodder

Worst book about Entanglement Theory: Meeting the Universe Halfway by Karen Barad

Work of theory that really didn't go where I was expecting it to: The Cult of the Factish Gods, Ian Hodder

Best book reread for a course: Don Quixote. (If this is feeling like deja vu from last year it's because there's simply not going to be a lot of competition in this category any year that I use DQ in a course.)

Books I'm reading in Spanish translation for teaching purposes: Los judíos y las palabras, Amos and Fania Oz; Harun y el mar de las historias, Salman Rushdie.

Current academic reading (all of which is curiously late for me): Poetic Trespass: Writing Between Hebrew and Arabic in Israel/Palestine by Lital Levy; and The Censor, The Editor and the Text by Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin.

But enough of the obligatory, work-related reading (of which this is only a fraction, anyway) and on to the fun stuff:

Special World Cup reading subsection. Because I actually, inexplicably, really enjoy reading about football.

Book that reminded me why I want to write literary non-fiction for an audience of normal people: Among the Thugs, Bill Buford

Book of essays about football not written by Etgar Keret that most reminded me of Etgar Keret's writing: El futbol a sol y a sombra, Eduardo Galeano

Additional football book bought but not read: Fever Pitch, appropriately written by Nick Hornby, self-appointed king of the books bought but left unread


I returned to the James Bond novels with: Diamonds are Forever by Ian Fleming

Character in an everybody-dies murder mystery whom I was hoping would get killed off but didn't: Mrs. Roscoe, The Jewel That Was Ours, Colin Dexter

Character in an audiobook who was read as the most successful impression of the actor who played the same character in the TV show based on the book: Dr. Bartlett, The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn, Colin Dexter (read by Kevin Whately, who plays Lewis in the TV show)

Audiobook in Progress: Last Bus to Woodstock, Colin Dexter

Spy thriller I was going to read before I saw the movie, didn't get to the book in time and so didn't see the movie: A Most Wanted Man by John LeCarre

Murder mystery that didn't have interesting-enough potential villains for me to actually care about who had actually done it: The Silkworm, Robert Galbraith

Book to which I affixed an "I didn't buy it on Amazon" sticker: The Silkworm, Robert Galbraith

Other books I didn't buy at Amazon: Lexicon by Max Barry; The Pope's Book Binder by David Mason

Book that I'm trying to buy as a gift for someone but can't find a print copy for less than $350 $185: Medievalism and the Monsters of Modernity, Michael Camille

Academic roman-a-clef that started out funnier than I was expecting, based on the generally terrible judgment of the reviewer from whom I learned about it, but finished up just about as tedious as that reviewer is: Dear Committee Members, Julie Schumacher.

It totally doesn't count and I can't even try to pass them off as graphic novels because they're comic books plain and simple but I also read: Ms. Marvel #1-#10.


I finally got into listening to audiobooks beyond my favorite audiobook ever (Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, fabulous as much because it is read so well by Stephen Fry as it is for the original text written by Douglas Adams) and that's a good remedy to being too tired to look at the printed page once I get into bed after looking at the printed pages all day for my academic work. It's a little fiddly to find the place where you were when you fell asleep and start there again — fiddlier than just picking the book up off your face in the middle of the night and folding down the corner of the page — but I'm liking it.

Final analysis: List confirms what I felt all year, which was that I wasn't doing enough reading for pleasure. I wasn't keeping careful track of my reading in the first half of the year, but there's not much that I missed, I don't think. A goal for next year.

And so to conclude, a few of the books I'm planning/hoping to read or listen to in the year to come, including some of the ones I had intended to read this year: The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel; the collected Sherlock Holmes novels and stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; A Strange Death by Hillel Halkin; probably quite a lot of poetry by Yehudah Amichai; Carlota Feinberg by Antonio Muñoz Molina; Fields of Exile by Nora Gold; Dead Certainties by Simon Schama and that book that it's sending up, The Armies of the Night, by Norman Mailer.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Peeps on the Edge

It's not really seasonally appropriate — more of an Easter thing than a Christmastime one — but I was talking with one of my civilian (i.e., non-medievalist) friends about her plans to put some oddly anthropomorphized marshmallows in the microwave, armed with tiny toothpicks to see which can overtake the other when the heat causes them to inflate and expand: Peeps jousting. And I started doodling while we were talking, a picture of two classic bird-shaped marshmallow Peeps approaching a movie-franchise Minion Peep, all brandishing their toothpick lances. I drew it on whatever happened to be on my desk while we were talking, and what happened to be on my desk was an essay on medieval war poetry.

The total coincidence got me to thinking about what a book like Image on the Edge — lauded for its breakthrough in relating the goofy, whimsical, weird marginalia in medieval manuscripts to the texts with which they appear to have nothing in common — would do with this scrap of paper.  This marginal drawing and its juxtaposition against a discussion of literary representations of war, and even of the weapons of war, has nothing to do with my being a medievalist or reading about medieval war poetry and instead has everything to do with the fact that I am a medievalist who happens coincidentally to live in a culture that has a pervasive fetish for neo-medieval kitsch. An art historian of the future who found this page might pick it up and, a la Michael Camille, come up with a playful, innovative reading of what she would be seeing on the page, namely some silly looking characters brandishing weapons next to a serious text about weapons of war. And yes, it would be a sound interpretation of what was left on the page, but it would also have absolutely no connection to the historical, cultural, or personal context in which the artifact was made.

It's not a totally idle or solipsistic exercise — reproducing pages, documents, texts or drawing parallels with modern modes of production is not evidence but can offer some insight into medieval modes of production or at least, in this case, serve as a caution against the dangers of over-interpreting. (I have colleagues who work on paleography who practice calligraphy in their spare time and are grateful for the insights it provides them in their professional lives, for example.)

Or it's pointless and just some doodles on a page. Which is kind of the (circular) point.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Still Here!

My academic life is all a bit unbloggable right now. I'm suddenly playing my intellectual cards a little closer to my chest than I have in the past (which I don't like but which is necessary for the moment — but lots of good, if cryptic-for-now stuff coming down the pike/out soon). I wasn't teaching this semester. And everything else I'm doing university-wise can't really be discussed without breaking confidences or the bounds of propriety. So this is all to say that I'm still here despite the lull in posting and will hopefully have something that is somewhere in the realm of interesting to write about in the general vicinity of soon.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Onomastics for Copy Editors

"It's not right, but people will rip you to shreds if you're not careful about transliteration."

Verbatim that's something my doktorvater has told me, and in slightly different forms it's something I've heard from other senior mentorly-type people as well. Because truth be told, I'm often not careful about my transliteration even though I recoil in the same way as many other Arabists do when I see someone else's transliteration mistakes, wondering whether it was a typo or whether the person never looked all that carefully at the original text.

I don't think it's just the major and puzzling transliteration issues that made me loathe the new article (unfortunately behind a paywall) on Hebrew and Arabic poetry just appeared in one of the British journals of Islamic Studies. There's quite a lot wrong with the content. In addition to ignoring the vast majority of the scholarship on its very subject matter that's been done in the last twenty years (and in fact predicating the value of its "intervention" on the fact of the work not having been done) it shows some real insensitivity to the types of source materials and does not engage directly with the texts, instead using the fact of their existence to make the point. It leaves out well-known history and texts that would help to contextualize the subject, but at the same time doesn't manage to say anything new.  It's really frustrating to see the material that one loves badly handled and, less so, the state of one's field so very badly misrepresented; it is especially frustrating when such work appears  < peer review hobbyhorse rant > in a publication that is supposed to adhere to high academic standards and have procedures in place to ensure that the high standards are met < /peer review hobbyhorse rant >.

A colleague of mine once posited that peer review works at least in as much as however much you might disagree with methods, theories, corpus definitions, etc., only very rarely does something truly awful or wrong end up in print. This? Truly awful and wrong. A genuine failure of the review process.
However, flaws in copy editing and particularly in transliterating and in rendering names certainly prejudiced my reading even further. It's not a good article, but the range of errors made it worse.


The really strange error comes when the authors of these two books are cited as Cheindlin and Baran.

Note, too, the misspelling of compunctious. It's not the only misspelling. Forget about transliteration for a moment. Nobody — not the authors and not the editors — ran spell-check. What happened here?  

It's not as though the authors misheard and mistranscribed two names; presumably they were actually looking at the books they were citing. Nor is it that they had to transliterate names that belong in non-Latin letters. (Have you ever tried to look up anything written by Nehemiah Allony? I don't know that I've ever seen his name transliterated the same way twice.) The only explanation that I can come up with for the rendering of the two surnames like that involves positing that the authors were reading the secondary literature in some kind of unauthorized, pirated Arabic translation, where the book authors would have been identified as BRN and ŠNDLN, forcing the article authors to vocalize the names as they saw fit and to choose a French transliteration system for the consonants rather than an English one. There's plenty of piracy of secondary sources, but this seems like an extra and puzzling step. Who is out there pirating and translating secondary literature on Arabizing Hebrew poetry? And, really, what kind of demand is there?

I suppose the question of why this kind of mistake throughout the text of the article is beyond the existential scope of the present discussion, why even if the copy editors weren't checking references, the peer reviewers didn't make note of something as significant as the Arabizing misspelling of the two leading figures in the field.

Maybe it's a sly commentary on cultural and linguistic Arabization that is appropriate in a discussion of an Arabized literary form?

In a way, it's reminiscent of the Paul is Dead Meatballs fiasco (though admittedly with much, much less comedic or gross-out potential) in that it requires an excessive amount of rendering a text back and forth through translation and transliteration.

Saturday, December 13, 2014


The protest march against the Staten Island grand jury's failure to return an indictment against the police officer who killed Eric Garner began in Washington Square Park. Since I do occasionally post pictures of the goings-on on campus, and this is a going-on that is both very important and has resonances with other aspects of American religious history (of particular interest to me is the evocation of Heschel marching with King), I thought I'd share some of the images I made.

Click to embiggen. And note, especially, the protester writing her social security number on her body just in case.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Translation Diary #17: On Terrorism Medieval and Modern

Source text: "Desde la otra orilla del Éufrates, que nunca volverá a cruzar, Abd al-Rahman presencia la degollación de su hermano y escucha, como paralizado en sueño, los gritos finales de su agonía y su terror."

My translation: From the far bank of the Euphrates, the one he would never cross again, ‘Abd al-Raḥman can just discern the beheading of his brother and hears his last cries of agony and his terror as though they were a nightmare in which he was trapped.

I'm going to continue to play with the clause about being sleep-paralyzed because I don't really like it as it is. (The editing is, I'm discovering, the biggest part of translating, but that's another issue.)

The reason I'm calling attention to this sentence now is because of how current it sounds: beheading emissaries of rival empires on the banks of the Euphrates. Might as well be ISIS. And it is that currency that is making me question my initial decision — which was not even a decision, really, as much as a reflexive resource to a cognate — to translate the Spanish terror as English terror rather than as any of the other synonyms I might use because of the way it doubles down the invocation of the modern "war on terror" and all its trappings.

Does changing the word make me less faithful to the original? Or perhaps more faithful, because it will not distract the reader by evoking the present day in the middle of an 8th-century history?

Friday, November 21, 2014


I had a love/hate relationship with the Don Quijote class that I took as an undergraduate. Love because, well, what's not to love; and hate because as an undergraduate I was mostly put off by professors whose personalities were forces of nature. I could be as guilty of hero-worship as the next star-struck undergraduate being taught by the go-to authorities on their topics, by the laureates of the Pulitzer and the National Book Award and the Guggenheim and the MacArthur,  but my heros were often not the usual ones.

The one lecture in that class that has stuck with me for a decade was the first of the semester. I remember much of what I learned in the class (although my reading of Quijote has matured considerably since then) but that first lecture is a complete unit in my mind's eye and ear. It walked us through the title page of the first edition of Don Quijote; as a college senior, I was astonished at how much detail and information my professor could pull out of a single page that came before what I then imagined as "the book" even started.

One of the themes of the course was the idea of desengaño. The word is often translated into English as disillusionment but it doesn't carry the same kind of negative connotation; it's a word with more neutral and wider possibilities that represents not a loss of illusion but an increased awareness, a lifting of the curtain from before one's eyes. It's an idea that comes from a very classically-constructed field of Hispanic literature (that's a nice way of not coming right out and calling it a bit outdated), and Otis Green is the scholar most closely associated with developing a vision of that trope within the classically-constructed canon. (Citing Otis Green is another way of not explicitly calling the framework old-fashioned.)

Imagine the desengaño that I would feel ten years thence — unexpectedly and by necessity becoming something of a book historian — upon opening Roger Chartier's The Order of Books to find this spread, a discussion of the title page of the editio princeps with special attention to the relationship between the author and patron named on the title page and the author and patron identified from within the pages of the book: the ultimate source of that lecture.

My the persisting memory of my inner Yale College senior was, if briefly, devastated by this realization that the best bit of that class was cribbed from Chartier, that I had stood in awe of my professor for something that he had not done. Of course, from the other side of the table I know better. Or, "better," because we all cite the scholarship of others when we teach; and when we teach undergraduates we don't necessarily give them the full chain of transmission. Because it would be disruptive to the flow of a lecture for information that won't be meaningful to 99% of them? Because we never expect that one of those students will grow up in her professional life to accidentally open the book that was our source? Because for the most part most of us don't draw so heavily upon a single piece of scholarship as the backbone of a lecture?

Of course, the evidence before me forces me to wonder whether that was actually ever what happened.

The class seems to have changed since then. Thanks to the dubious miracle of the internet and open-online education, I can go back and read a full transcript of the first lecture of that class, a lecture that no longer makes any mention of the shape of the title page or the dedication to the duke or the name of the printer. Perhaps it is appropriate that it should be a lecture on Quijote called up shockingly suddenly from the hazy memory of an undergraduate not yet professionally trained in the study of literature, that should make me question my own judgment, perception, and memory, and wonder whether the lecture occurred as I remember it or whether I myself somehow previsaged my later reading of another scholar's work.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Medieval PSA: "The Allah Ban"**

It's the part of anti-Muslim sentiment in America that makes every last academic Arabist, regardless of his political leanings, cringe:* Some political commentator or politician will bemoan those Moslems who don't pray to God, but to their own special deity, Allah.

Allah. It's just the Arabic word for God.

Arabic-speaking Christians (you know, the ones being massacred in Iraq along with the Mandeans and the Yazidis?) use the word in their liturgies and Bibles, and we even have it (less commonly, but still) in Jewish texts written in Arabic. Because if you speak Arabic, when you want to say "God," you say "Allah."

If you would like to insert the word Allah into your speech in English when talking about God in an Islamic context, be sure to do it when you are talking about the practice of any other Arabic-speaking monotheist. Oh, and don't forget to say Deus when you're talking about the beliefs of Latinate Christians. That's the parallel.

It's an issue that plays out in an anti-Muslim, anti-Arab arena in American discourse; but it's also playing out conversely in Malaysia, where the courts have again upheld a law that forbids anyone but Muslims or people talking about Islamic practice from using the word Allah when they mean to refer to God.

One of the things that concerns me (as a scholar, as a feeling and thinking human being, as someone who admires an awful lot about Islam, as someone with friends and colleagues who are Muslims) is that hateful elements in this country will make hay out of that and use it as "evidence" that Muslims really do consider their God to be a whole separate deity rather than a vision of the God of Abraham that supersedes and abrogates those beliefs of Jews and Christians.

As a medievalist, it calls to mind another instance in which people took the word Allah and went to town with exetegicizing in ways that defy linguistics. This was a different case, a population of Muslims who were forced to practice and secret and did not have great access to books and teachers, namely the crypto-Muslims or Moriscos of early modern Spain.

This passage was written by an early Muslim anthropologist known to us only as the "young man from Arévalo" who recorded the customs and beliefs of his community and other crypto-Muslim ones in Spain. In this piece of his report, he distinguishes between what we recognize as the word Allah in the nominative and genitive cases (subject and object, for readers who aren't familiar with languages that decline like that) with explanations based on how he has seen them used in various contexts without really understanding the structure behind the distinctions; and so intend of identifying grammatical function as the thing that determines when one says Allah, Allahu or Allahi, he identifies other distinguishing features between the times he has heard those different terms used. It's not exactly the same thing as saying that the word Allah refers to God only in an Islamic context, but it does represent an attempt to regulate the use of the term Allah with invented frameworks and in order to distinguish oneself and one's own group from an outside group. Instead of using the Spanish word for God, he continues using the Arabic one to emphasize his hidden religion and struggles to account for how to use a term in a language he does not really know.

So, this is a public service announcement from the Middle Ages: It's a really convenient thing to latch onto when you want to make a theological point about yourself and about others, but in the end Allah just means God.

*To be fair, a good many of us are horrified by far more than just this.
** A slightly belated PSA, owing to the fact that I am basically living in a news vacuum trying to finish my book manuscript.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

This is not a book.

The glee of seeing such book-minded Arabic on a billboard foregrounding the New York skyline is tempered somewhat by realizing that it describes a freighted situation.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Guest Lectures, Omissions, and Dumb Visigoths

A really terrible account of Islamic Spain was posted to the academic blogosphere a couple of weeks ago by a modernist. (Not going to link to it.) It basically read like a parody of what critics of Ornament of the World make that book out to be. One medievalist (not me) responded and the author replied with ad hominem attacks against her and against medievalists in general and defended her post in an argument that boiled down to, well, it's a blog post and not a doctoral dissertation (And also: Not all cultures are equal so how dare you call me out for saying that the Visigoths were dumb? I really wish I were kidding, or even exaggerating.)

The blog post =/= dissertation formulation was on my mind this week because I was preparing a guest lecture to give in a colleague's class. It's a "presidential honors seminar," part of a program for the best and brightest NYU freshmen that includes extra access to advising and enrichment, and participation in a seminar that meets every other week and culminates in a trip  to the part of the world that they are learning about. My colleague is teaching the "Spain" seminar, and my guest lecture was the only thing that these students were going to hear about the Middle Ages. It's the guest teaching equivalent of writing a single blog post or teaching one single session on the Middle Ages in a big survey course.

To be sure, I couldn't do more than give a sledgehammer overview of the period. There's even a decent possibility that the group of students I met now think that the red-and-white alternating vouissoir is the single most important cultural development in the Middle Ages — because the Great Mosque of Cordoba is a really nice encapsulated way to talk about interreligious cultural relationships at that time and place; and because it's concrete, it works well under limits of time and continuity. I did a lot of that kind of shorthanding. I compared the mythology that grew up around the Cid to the mythology that grew up around George Washington because it was an analogy that allowed me to say a lot in just a minute or two, even though it's never an analogy I'd use in a semester-long class. I used the word multicultural, which I hate. And I used the world hybrid, which I spend a lot of time unpacking when I use it in seminars.

I showed these slides and did not once mention the word Almohad (an omission that should be abhorrent to me as a cultural historian of 12th and 13th century Spain), instead explaining that artistic and architectural tastes changed over time and that synagogues and palaces, just as much as mosques, kept up with the times.

But all of the shorthanding and all of the omission was done in the service of conveying the one main idea that I wanted them to take away: That religion is one factor amongst many, including economic interest, taste, desire for power, that goverened people's behavior in the Middle Ages; that they gravitate towards what is familiar to them without regard for its complex history; and in this respect, people in the Middle Ages weren't all that different to us. I thought that was a good takeway for a bunch of college freshmen I'd only ever meet once before they were loosed on the historic Toledo which survives unscathed in name only. It's not how I'd talk to my own students and certainly not how I'd talk to my colleagues (it's also not how I'd shorthand it for my own blog post or even for a general public talk to an older lay audience outside of a university setting) but there's still a certain integrity and logic to the talk that I gave.

So I've really said all of this to hopefully start a conversation.

We all make judgment calls and omissions and elisions when introducing material in introductory classes, and even moreso when we're stepping into someone else's class for one session or giving a public talk. I'm curious to hear what kinds of judgment calls other people make? What do skip when you're pressed for time? What would you unpack in a seminar that you leave at face value in a one-off talk? What kinds of principles or ideas or guiding frames help shape your thinking about what to leave in and what to take out?

Okay. Go.

Close-Reading the News

I spend a lot of time dissecting text, and sometimes it's hard to turn that part of my brain off just because I'm reading the newspaper or listening to NPR.  So an odd extended metaphor caught my attention this morning because it is an odd combination of slightly offensive, badly constructed and just wrong.

NPR ran a story about the Supreme Court hearing a case about whether US citizens born in Jerusalem can say they were born in Jerusalem, Israel, or whether they just have to list Jersualem with no national modification in their passports. It's a labeling issue and has no bearing on dual citizenship.

But it described the scene in court with the following two paragraphs:

Inside the Supreme Court chamber, it was a weird day from the get-go. The hands on the clock were so out of whack that at one point, they were literally spinning. And when the justices walked to their places on the bench, Justice Sonia Sotomayor had to move aside Justice Stephen Breyer, who was about to sit in her seat by mistake.
It was an omen of an even stranger argument. The court's most conservative members, all of whom made their professional bones in Republican administrations aggressively advocating for executive power, seemed now quite hostile to executive powers that date back to George Washington's time. And the court's three Jewish justices seemed pretty unsympathetic to the Jewish plaintiffs.

The reporter seems to be expressing surprise that the Jewish justices should seem skeptical of the Jewish plaintiffs. First of all, there's nothing strange about that. Jewish people disagree with each other all. the. time. It's such common knowledge that it's the source of a variety of well-known jokes. Second of all, it's also a pretty well-known phenomenon that people who belong to religious or ethnic minorities and occupy positions of power will take care not to give the impression of being overly sympathetic to their own community. She's expressing surprise about something that is, on many levels, not surprising.

The construction of the metaphor itself is flawed, too, and doesn't actually bear out the shock that the reporter is trying to convey. I don't know about Nina Totenberg's clocks, but my clocks and watches malfunction or stop or run out of batteries not constantly but with enough regularity that it's not really a surprising thing. So in effect, what she's saying is that Jews disagreeing with each other is an occurrence similar to clocks malfunctioning, that is, a common one. To my mind, that is the correct analogy; but, as evidenced by her opening sentence — "It was a weird day from the get-go" — the commonplace was not what she was trying to express. So she is expressing surprise about something that is not surprising and doing so with a metaphor that, once you actually look at what is comparing, doesn't illustrate "the unusual" very well.

Hey, if Jimmy Fallon can slow-jam the news, then I can close-read it.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

A Very Brief Guide to European Visa Applications

I am theoretically supposed to be teaching at NYU's Madrid study-away site this spring. The university is trying to cycle the New York faculty through the sites with more regularity, which is great in theory; in practice, they haven't really ironed all of the glitches out of the system yet. As a citizen of the United States and nowhere else that would be even remotely useful in terms of spending more than 90 days in a country in the Schengen Area (the designation that the EU takes when talking about passports and visas), there are a lot of hoops to jump through; and so I'm compiling a checklist of things I need to do/have that I wish I had known about well in advance rather than just a little bit in advance.

— Get fingerprinted by the NYPD.
— Get a local police background and clearance certificate.
— Submit fingerprints and a request form to the FBI for a federal criminal background check.
— Medical certification that you are free of yellow fever, cholera, black plague (and not just if you're a medievalist, either), drug addiction, and mental illness. (The guidelines do not yet say anything about being certified as being free of ebola yet.)

The average processing time from submission of all of the documentation (which includes the above, plus a whole host of more expected things, like extra passport photos, a copy of your driver's license and passport, etc.,) is 45 days. Prepare for extra delays when dealing with the federal government. For example, this is the warning at the top of the FBI page with the information and forms for requesting a copy of one's criminal history:

Realistically, this isn't going to happen in time for me to go in the spring, although we're collectively whistling into the wind at this point. It seems like it would be easier to make curriculum and staffing adjustments earlier rather than later, and I would certainly prefer not to have to waste a ton of time playing along with jumping through bureaucratic and paperwork hoops for something that's not going to happen while I'm supposed to be finishing my book manuscript, but I'm not in a position to put an end to what seems to me to be a complete folly. For now, we're working on the assumption that the university will have some kind of workaround.  (Plus, as much as I was initially ambivalent about uprooting my life twice in two years, I'm disappointed that I likely shan't be going.)

In any event, the point is that I wish I'd had a lot more lead time in getting all of this together, hence the beginnings of a checklist, to be updated as I go through the process,  both for myself the next time I have to do this and for any of my colleagues who are also US citizens as we start to cycle around the "global network university."

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Textual Corpora and the Digital Islamic Humanities, Day 2

Following up on the Qaddafi-hunt by regular expression of day 1 of the workshop on digital Islamic humanities, here is Maxim Romanov, demonstrating a regular expression to search for terms that describe years within a text corpus that hasn't been subjected to Buckwalter transliteration but is rather in the original Arabic script.

More below the jump:

Friday, October 17, 2014

Reverse Anthropology

I popped into the anthropology museum on the Brown campus en route to the workshop. One of the special exhibitions is on the symbols of the university. My initial reaction was that it was a sort of cheap appropriation of the anthropology museum to promote school spirit during homecoming season (which happens to be this weekend here). But in fact, by subjecting academic regalia and ritual to the same scrutiny as the kind of objects one would more conventionally expect to see in an ethnographic collection, it posed a serious question about the place of this sort of thing and about why the viewer should consider a Brown University robe any less strange than the personal adornments of various groups from central America and Africa.

Textual Corpora and the Digital Islamic Humanities, Day 1

I'm in Providence, at Brown, for a digital humanities and text corpora workshop geared towards people working in Islamic Studies fields.

A bit of a conference report follows the jump.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Two Poems for Two Years

From the diwan of Samuel ibn Nagrilla, trans. Peter Cole

Be glad, she said,
that God has given you
fifty years
in this world —
though she didn't know
there is no division
between, as I see it,
my days that have passed
and Noah's
of which I've heard.
In the world I have nothing
but the hour I"m in,
which stands for a moment,
and then like a cloud moves on.

Excerpted from "Adonais," Percy Bysshe Shelley

O, weep for Adonais!-The quick Dreams,
The passion-winged Ministers of thought,
Who were his flocks, whom near the living streams
Of his young spirit he fed, and whom he taught
The love which was its music, wander not,-
Wander no more, from kindling brain to brain,
But droop there, whence they sprung; and mourn their lot
Round the cold heart, where, after their sweet pain,
They ne'er will gather strength, or find a home again.

And one with trembling hands clasps his cold head,
And fans him with her moonlight wings, and cries,
"Our love, our hope, our sorrow, is not dead;
See, on the silken fringe of his faint eyes,
Like dew upon a sleeping flower, there lies
A tear some Dream has loosened from his brain."
Lost Angel of a ruined Paradise!
She knew not 'twas her own; as with no stain
She faded, like a cloud which had outwept its rain.

One from a lucid urn of starry dew
Washed his light limbs as if embalming them;
Another clipped her profuse locks, and threw
The wreath upon him, like an anadem,
Which frozen tears instead of pearls begem;
Another in her wilful grief would break
Her bow and winged reeds, as if to stem
A greater loss with one which was more weak;
And dull the barbed fire against his frozen cheek.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Anonymous Ism?

Divided Time

I really feel like I ought to have something really intelligent to say to make up for the previous post about social media for academics and cat photos (and to get it off the top of the page) but every ounce of the fairly minimal amount of brainpower that I am finding myself able to muster is going towards finishing a first draft of the last chapter of the book, a draft that I know isn't very good but just needs to be put on paper, integral and complete-ish, so I have something to start working from, something that I can transform from its boring and derivative beginnings into a final chapter that's more fitting to the rest of the book. I really envy people who manage to blog thoughtfully and regularly and at length while getting work done.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Sad Cats of (A Tale of Customer Service in No Way Worthy of T.S. Eliot and Edward Gorey)

Especially since I have complained about in this space before (and especially especially, because that post, depressingly, is my most popular post ever, if site stats are to be believed), I wanted to make a point of publicly complimenting the organization on a good interaction that I had with them.

With no warning, spontaneously changed the layout of their web site and I hate it. The low contrast makes it hard to read, the full listing of everyone's activity in small white boxes makes for a lot more scrolling through screens with no sense of visual hierarchy, and it seemed like change for change's sake, a la Facebook, rather than change in the interest of functionality.

I tweeted my dismay:
The first reply I got was a picture of a sad cat from one of their developers. Maybe not the most professional response on the planet, but whatever mood I was in meant it struck me as really funny.
But then I got two more sad cats from from their developers. (I swear. I'm eventually getting to the part where they act like responsible human beings attending to a user complaint.)
By this point I was getting a little big concerned that I was going to go to sleep and wake up with a feed full of sad cat photos from developers.
In fact, a colleague tweeted to thank me for sending him a PDF offprint of my new article, and I replied that it was good that he had it, since I was fully expecting my page to be full of sad, terrified cats by the morning, too.
In the narrative structure of the anecdote, you may identify this moment as the turning point.

What I in fact woke up to was an email to my NYU account  from the operations manager, apologizing for the loopy cat antics of the night previous and asking if I wouldn't mind putting my concerns about the new layout into more than 140 characters, with copy to one of the company VPs. I figured that if they were going out of their way to solicit feedback, then I had a responsibility to provide it rather than just engage in short-form griping, so I did.  I got a rather lengthy reply from the VP, thanking me for my feedback, explaining why they made the changes that they did and what their planned next phases of development are (which include increasing the contrast between the white background and light gray text!). It seems like the kind of thing that they should have made more public before changing the site on people, but I was pleased that they were willing to take the time to tell their end users what's going on. It's certainly far more than Facebook does with even more serious issues at stake.

So, kitten' around aside, nice job on this one, guys!

(And now a return to your regularly scheduled cat photos, namely ones of my own cat sitting on my own book manuscript and mostly looking bored.)

Saturday, October 4, 2014


The job market is bad again this year.

In other news, the Pope is Catholic.

There is a lot of justifiable anger and anguish about the state of affairs, but one line of complaint I don't understand. I first noticed it last year, and it is the one that rails against language and literature jobs that ask for teaching and research competency in more than one language. The most recent example of the genre is, perhaps unsurprisingly, Rebecca Schuman's:

She reads an ad that asks for "“Ph.D. in English required, with an emphasis in Medieval literature. Ability to teach German courses required (graduate coursework in German)." to mean that "So German is now such a dying discipline that they are willing to allow people with no degree in it whatsoever — who’ve taken a graduate reading course or a single German lit course taught in English — to teach it in college. Meanwhile, there are hundreds of people with degrees in German who can’t get hired to do a damn thing."

I read it differently. A scholar of English with interest in German is a totally different, and no less legitimate thing than a scholar of German only. You're going to get really different applicants and really different work, but it doesn't mean that they'll be half-assed or that they'll only have taken one class or that it'll have been in translation. This search committee isn't looking for a Germanist. And it's a little bit reactionary to condemn interdisciplinarity that way, saying that someone whose attention is divided across traditional disciplines won't do anything as well as someone whose attention isn't. In any case, it's a medieval job and modern university disciplinary boundaries have never really suited medieval work to begin with. 

Another ad is this one: “The Department of Modern Languages and Literatures seeks an energetic and engaged full-time Lecturer (non-tenure-track) to cover at least two–preferably three–of the following areas: Chinese Studies; Japanese Studies; Cultural, Art and Film Studies; German Studies; Korean; Italian; Arabic; Vietnamese; Translation Studies; Hispanic Media, and other related fields. This appointment may be renewed one or more additional years.”

Yeah. It is a weird ad, and clearly it means that they have no idea what they're looking for, but the idea of picking two or three things from that list? Not actually so strange in and of itself: Chinese and Japanese cinema? Art, film, and other media in the Hispanic world? Italian and German translation? There are a lot of sensible combinations to be made. Lots of work on medieval Sicily could fall under Italian and Arabic cultural studies. (I even have a colleague here at NYU whose work mainly utilizes what might seem like one of the harder or more distant pairings on this list, Arabic and Chinese, as he writes about Muslims in medieval China.) The fact that it's not a TT job and might not be renewable is a separate issue.  It seems to be short-sighted to say, in effect, "If you're not going to give me a proper job, I'm only going to work in one language." And now that Schuman's said it, it's starting to reverberate in conversations about the state of job market things.

But another example is from last year and was so strange that I still remember it and found it called to mind when I read Schuman's post. These two posts condemn, in outrageously strong and dehumanizing terms, a search committee with the audacity to try to hire a candidate who could teach both Russian and the obviously completely totally unrelated and alien language of German.

I'm not sure what it means to say that German and Russian aren't related to each other. They are both Indo-European languages, even if they don't belong to the same language families under that broader umbrella. But if linguistic proximity is the standard, then it would also be preposterous to advertise a job for someone who works in colonial Latin American literature and ask him to have Spanish and Quechua, or someone who works in medieval Spain and ask her to have Spanish and Arabic, or someone who works on modern Francophone North Africa and have the audacity to think that he should be competent in both Arabic and French, or a historian of translation with Greek and Arabic and Latin, or a student of the enlightenment with French and German, or any of a whole host of Ancient Near East folks with Akkadian and Sumerian, or an Islamicist with Arabic and Persian and Turkish (a bog-standard expectation for Islamic Studies jobs, by the way), or anybody working on Korean in anything other than total linguistic isolation. These are languages that are related to each other by virtue of their sociocultural and historical circumstances, and there is plenty of literature that reflects those circumstances. If you're doing your job right when you're working on any of those times or places, you are de facto working in multiple languages, whether comparatively or polysystemically.

Even if this German-Russian job at Bates were limited strictly to language teaching, that doesn't make it an impossible order nor should we assume that the person filling the post wouldn't have his or her own active research program (because most language lecturers these days are research active because there aren't enough TT jobs) in which those languages relate.

There is also plenty of scholarly, academic precedent for jobs that require multiple languages. For example, this position at Yale, which is a long-standing one (and had been a proper job for a very long time before it was downgraded to a lectureship sometime in the last decade) is in Semitics. The person who gets this job will end up teaching various Aramaic dialects, Ugaritic, and Hebrew. The ad says there's a preference for candidates who could also teach Ethiopic. That's a very traditional, oldest of the old-school kind of job, one in Semitic philology. (Don't tell, but they'll probably end up hiring somebody who turns out to have competency in Greek, too.)

It's not a question of hiring someone with a PhD in French who happens to be a native speaker of Arabic and so can randomly teach Arabic 101 even if it has nothing to do with her work. Nor is it a question of hiring somebody with a PhD in Spanish who has taken one course on Arabic literature in translation to sex up his CV. Or if it is a question of that, then that's actually a very different problem, one of terrible judgment.  Wanting scholars who work in multiple languages and multiple literary traditions (or a single tradition that is carried out, coherently, in diverse languages), per se, is not a problem. There is so very much wrong with the job market right now that inventing non-issues to complain about  seems to be a deflection or a need to prove that *everything* about the job market is wrong rather than just so very many things that it's badly broken. The job market is bad, the system is bad, even if one or two things here or there aren't totally, irredeemably lost.

There are nowhere near enough jobs now, and nowhere near enough tenured and tenure-track faculty to be able to sustain a broad-based, widely accessible system of higher education. However, I don't believe that hiring somebody who can work in Russian and German or Chinese and Korean is a symptom of that problem. Rather, it is an indication that scholarship is moving in an ever-more interdisciplinary direction and no longer being guided by twentieth-century nationalism as its organizing principle.  Literature and language jobs that expect expertise in more than one language are actually a good thing.

Edited 10/5/14, 3:24 pm, to addA colleague of mine shared this post on her Facebook page, and a long discussion ensued. With her permission, I am reproducing that conversation here below the jump...