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Saturday, October 24, 2015

A New Post at the New Site

After a long hiatus, I have *finally* written a new post on Netanyahu Pere, Netanyahu Fils, and European historiography. It's over at the new site, and you can find it by clicking here.

Friday, July 17, 2015

No, really. I'm blogging elsewhere now. There's a new book review over there.

I'm still getting a lot more site traffic over here than I am at the new blog, so I guess for a while I can post links here to new posts there while reader feeds, clicking habits, blogrolls, etc., get updated.  I posted a new book review (and a totally relevant picture of a Minion action figure) over there yesterday:

Al-Andalus Rediscovered: Iberia's New Muslims

Thursday, July 2, 2015

I've Moved.

I'll be blogging at WordPress from here on out, in conjunction with my academic web page. There's an explanation of why and the slightly new focus of the blog at the new site.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Why Tenure?*



This past semester, I lived in an academic residence in Madrid called the Residencia de Estudiantes. I knew that in its early days it had been a residence for young students who had gone on to be the leading intellectual lights of Spain’s 20th century, but I didn’t know all that much about the background of the place until I brought my cultural history students there for a field trip that the original professor had planned for them. As it turns out, the development of the Residencia was a poignant and practical response to clear, present threats to academic freedom and free expression that came about in the late nineteenth-century in Spain, restrictions that sound an awful lot like many things that the American academy is facing today, such as the proposal in Wisconsin, which would enshrine in state law the abolition of tenure and the intellectual protections that tenure affords.

A cleverly FERPA-compliant photo of my students on their tour of the Resdiencia site, guided by a student from the modern languages program at the University of Exeter, working there as part of her Erasmus year exchange program.

An 1875 Spanish law stipulated that nothing that was taught in a degree-granting university could contradict the tenets of the Catholic Church or demean the monarchy, the kind of broad, overarching, blanket prohibition that could be used to stifle virtually any kind of dissenting or “dangerous” or unpopular idea. Almost immediately, a group of progressive academics fled Madrid’s historic Complutense University and founded a kind of independent college called the Institución de la Libre Enseñaza, the institute of free education. The institute was based on the educational principles of Karl Kraus and promoted the idea of free, unfettered, and broad inquiry. By 1915, the ILE had opened a residential center, which was inhabited by the students who would become the vanguard in scientific and humanistic fields in Spain for more than a generation, including Federico García Lorca, Miguel de Unamuno, Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel. During the Spanish Civil War, the director succeeded in having the Residencia declared to be a neutral zone in Madrid, and so it attracted many more intellectuals, dissidents, and liberals who used it as a base camp from which to plan their escapes from the country.

Government agencies meddling in the curriculum and the broad principles of research and teaching, and religious organizations seeking to tailor curricula to suit their dogmas, necessitated the creation of a separate institution where open-minded people could teach and learn. I am doubtful that, in our credential-obsessed society, such an endeavor would work today in response to threats to free inquiry. Nevertheless, it is an instructive model to keep in mind as a radical way to respond to threats to academic freedom, and perhaps also useful as a reminder that nothing is ever really new.

*The title of this post is drawn from a conversation that is ongoing on Twitter in response to the Wisconsin situation and all the potential implications, with the hashtag #WhyTenure. This post is clearly not a defense of tenure or an exact response to the question, but is an ancillary issue.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Our Colonies, Our Selves


 These are some images from the Museum of America, which is not so much an anthropological museum that covers American civilizations, but rather a museum that is an inadvertent anthropological study of how Spain views the Americas. It's another one of these museums that began its life as a cabinet of curiosities (part of the royal one, in this case) and very much maintains that outlook.


Friday, May 15, 2015

Culture at People's Expense: Convivencia and Anti-Semitism in Contemporary Spain

The university city of Alcalá de Henares, most closely associated with the personal confessor to Isabel I, is now a suburb of Madrid that, like many other small Castilian towns, presents itself as part of the heritage of the "tres culturas" of Spain, a place where Jews, Christians and Muslims forged a kind of coexistence, uneasy and inconsistent, but also vibrant and fruitful.
 

There is even a badly-proofread plaque in the "trilingual patio" of the historic site of the college commemorating a "three-faiths" encounter there.


But there is also this anti-US, anti-war mural that buys very directly into the Jewish-cabal-behind-it-all conspiracy-myth, right in the heart of the historic barrio judío. It's quite striking in its details, with a six-pointed Jewish star in the upper right-hand corner of the American flag where the 50 five-pointed stars (or even one large five-pointed star standing in for the tiny ones) should be.

 

It is a striking contrast as civic art in a city that is actively playing up its Jewish heritage, perhaps cynically to encourage tourism or perhaps in earnest as a real embrace of its past. But it is also a contrast that draws attention to the phenomenon of Jew-as-historical-artifact. Society at large is happy to embrace its Jewish past. After centuries of a different kind of national narrative, it has suddenly become a bit of a cool thing to do, and a path of liberation from the country's own fascist 20th century history. But it doesn't particularly seem to know what to do with actual, flesh-and-blood Jewish people.

Madrid itself is a city covered in swastika graffiti. I'd estimate that there are just about as many that are Xed out as a statement of general anti-fascism as there are that are painted on in earnest support of neo-Nazi or general fascist ideology, but that small and diffuse gesture doesn't inspire a lot of confidence against such an onslaught. It is a city that is, at a minimum, deeply ill-at-ease with its own position in relation to the whole of the twentieth century.



Sunday, May 10, 2015

Alcalá de las Cigüeñas


There are cranes that nest all over the roofs of Alcalá. That is pretty much all. (Except for the fact that I think I did a pretty good job, if I don't say so myself, of taking photos of wildlife with a long lens and no tripod.)








19th-Century Kitsch in Alcalá de Henares


 My first stop in Alcalá de Henares was the Palacete de Laredo, the former home of the Duke of Laredo, done in the monstrously wonderful neo-Mudéjar style that was popular at the end of the nineteenth century in Spain and in England (and, in a largely more restrained way, in the United States as well). The only way I can think to describe the aesthetic is to say that it is a compete hoot. 



Saturday, May 2, 2015

Images from the Cervantes Dig

There is a small exhibition of photos from the Cervantes dig currently being displayed at the Museo de la Historia de Madrid.  So these aren't my photos. Well, they're my photos of somebody else's photos. Jaime Balaguer was the photographer with the archaeological group and they are his. 






It's really too bad that the museum didn't even see fit to mount this as proper photography exhibition and show real, good prints of the images; it gets back to what I said earlier about nobody wanting to be bothered about cultural patrimony but wanting everyone else to be super excited about it.


The exhibition is presented like a philological exercise: the photos are organized by lemma — niche, exhumation, laboratory, etc. — and each begins with a dictionary definition of the term, explaining how the concept it names was an important part of the exhibition with that depressingly misleading tactic of making it seem like the dictionary is the artiber of all meaning.


This one reads: "Even though the convent isn't the ideal location for this purpose, since the terms in which it is defined specify that it is is the 'the place that is set up with the necessary equipment to carry out investigation, experiement and scientific and technical work,' the crypt and sacristy had to be used as make-shift laboratories." The convent isn't an ideal location for investigation not because the dictionary says that a lab is something else, but for all the actual practical reasons that a lab isn't an ideal location for that kind of work. It's a small distinction, I know; but it betrays a very rigid approach to things. An approach that says that the dictionary is the final arbiter of meaning isn't the kind of approach that makes concessions to practical usage or public concern.

The consequence of this is that I saw some cool photos (and realized that the room I was kicked out of the convent for entering is the one with the trap door down to the crypt) but still don't really have a good sense of what the real purpose of the dig was or what the scientists believe that they have accomplished. It still seems like disturbing human remains for the sake of a badly mishandled PR whim.


Saturday, April 25, 2015

Historical Memory in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

1) Photography is permitted throughout the Reina Sofia museum except in the galleries that that exhibit Civil War art.

2) On either side of the canvas of Picasso's Guernica now sits, on a high white metal stool, a guard specifically tasked with scanning the crowd and making sure that everyone complies.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Survivor: Iowa State

An Iowa state senator introduced a bill to turn the public universities in his state into a horrifying, multi-campus episode of Survivor: Under Senator Chelgren's proposal, tenure would effectively be eliminated and student evaluations would be the only measure of the faculty's worth and the ultimate deciding factor in who gets to keep their jobs. Anyone who didn't meet the minimum numerial threshold on the student evaluations would be automatically fired. Then one of the lowest-performing five professors above the minimum threshold would be voted off the island by all the students at their campus, whether they had taken a class with the professors in the stockade.

The senator thinks that since we are earning "a couple hundred thousand dollars" each year, we should be more accountable.

Is Iowa paying its professors six figures? I'm certainly not earning anywhere even close to six figures and certainly not multiples of six figures. And that's part of the trade-off, as I understand it: The job security of not being put through the Hunger Games on a regular basis that allows me to take my time and do thoughtful, meaningful research and writing of the kind that can only be produced over time and with deliberate, careful thought, in exchange for a lower salary.

The senator's ignorance of the most basic details about the finances of a university system he claims to be so concerned about is the outrage-headline point. But really the rest of it is more serious.

The bill has, fortunately, died in committee, but it's one more troubling reflection of current attitudes in government towards higher education: that there is no connection between research and teaching, that students are customers, and that faculty just aren't working hard enough. It is also reflective of a conviction that college students have enough perspective to be able to write meaningful evaluations of their professors, an idea that, at least in the academy, is being increasingly recognized as flawed. Gender and race biases are rife in teaching evaluations, and despite protestation to the contrary, many students do rate more highly their professors who are less demanding.

Yet the senator thinks that "students who range in age between 18 and 30 years old, who are spending thousands of dollars to get an education, are qualified to make those decisions."

I had been vacillating about whether to write about a particular discussion that I had with my cultural history students early on in our time together this semester, and the resurgence of this discussion tipped the scales in favor because it illustrates the problem with letting college students assess their professors and giving absolute weight to those assessments.

When I took over the cultural history class and transformed it into a research seminar, I selected several topics to assign to students based upon the original syllabus that I inherited. One student complained that she didn't want to read any more work by one of my NYU colleagues, whose extensive bibliography had featured heavily in that syllabus; and then she added: "And she looks so scary, too!" I let that slide, but within a minute or so the discussion had somehow turned to all four of them having Googled a picture of my colleague, and all four of them chiming in with negative comments about her appearance — especially about the fact that she's not smiling in her photo on the department web site, and about her hair, a la the kinds of comments Mary Beard got in the wake of her Pompeii documentary. And at that point I decided that the time had come to put a stop to it.

I framed my comment by highlighting the fact that our seminar is made up entirely of women — all four students and me — and that especially because of that, and because any of us could find ourselves on the wrong side of it, I wanted to point out some of ways in which that kind of assessment of people is very gendered. I didn't say anything that would surprise anyone who is aware of the issue or has thought about it, but the idea that their slagging off a professor's looks might be unfair and shaped by deeply-rooted social expectations of women was totally new to these students. I cited studies that have shown that women are more often evaluated based on our looks or personality traits even where our male colleagues are evaluated on their teaching ability and perceived brilliance. I further framed the conversation as being a way of helping them to advocate for themselves by helping them realize that this kind of discourse is a big part of the reason why universities are starting to take student evaluations less seriously and that if they want their opinions to be heard, which they should be, they need to stick to relevant topics.  I shared with them that one of the challenges that I face when I walk into a classroom is that I often have students who expect a kind of bubbly friendliness and nurturing when they see a female professor in her early thirties that is simply not a part of my introverted personality; and because of those expectations, I have had to work doubly hard to counteract student evaluations that conflate friendliness and an outgoing personality with professorial accessibility.

They definitely didn't quite get it at first. One of the students pulled up a picture of one of her professors, a man, and said she thought it was the creepiest picture in the world. Another student wanted to make sure that I knew that that she's not sexist; but they were quickly catching on, and before I could even respond, a third jumped in to reiterate what I had already said: that this was in no way a personal accusation, but rather a looking at how we've all internalized social messages and values about women in public, in cultural life and in the marketplace of ideas.

I love this group of students. They're thoughtful, enthusiastic, and hard workers. But they're still not totally equipped to evaluate me or my colleagues in productive and professional ways. Part of my role as a professor (or as their not-professor, in this case) is to help them begin to identify and interrogate the kinds of issues that are at play in real-world interactions where human judgment is still the final arbiter. But they're just starting out, just beginning to be able to see the issues, and just beginning to develop the critical thinking skills, the compassion, and the temperance to allow them to make decisions on sound bases. And as highly as I think of these students, they'd need years practicing those skills and of hindsight perspective before I'd put my professional future in their hands.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Richard and Miguel: Some Additional Thoughts on Getting Kicked Out of Church

This is a modified and expanded version of a comment I made in the FB thread discussing my earlier blog post; I'm sharing it here because it does allow me to flesh out a little bit some of the issues of handling cultural patrimony that were encapsulated in that bizarre encounter in the church:

***

There are two problems, really. One is that this convent really is not in any way equipped to deal with the wave of Cervantes-tourism that is about to descend upon them; and that's not really excusable because this wasn't a case of a child digging under a tree in some rural little backwater town, finding a finger, digging deeper, and discovering that the other arm is missing a hand and the world suddenly descending. The exact grave was unmarked, but we have always known where Cervantes was buried because it was his last wish to be interred in the convent that ransomed him from Algiers. The location and the significance of the find were known before the first spade-full of earth was ever turned.

This was not the hunt for the lost remains of Richard III. That dig was preceded by an impressive amount of investigative work to determine the location of a church that no longer exists, and then followed by hoping that a highly polemical historical record might not lead them astray.  In this case, though are talking about a man who died 200 years after Richard III, with legal documentation, and a peacetime burial by allies rather than enemies. There was never any real question that once the archaeologists started pulling up the floor they'd find a one-armed skeleton in a coffin marked "M.C." The scientific institute and the convent should have had a plan in place for the interest that this was going to generate — the interest that they were clearly trying to generate by timing the dig to coincide with the 500th anniversary of the publication of the second part of the Quijote.

Except that in a lot of the really important ways, Madrid is a total, little backwater. In lots of ways it isn't, of course: the Prado, the national library, the great places to eat, the bookstores, the boutiques. But in a certain aspect of peoples' manner and way of being and perspective, Madrid is still proudly the sleepy, uncultured little town it was before the royal court was permanently relocated here in the middle of the sixteenth century; and so why on earth and how, even, would they treat something like this as being of national significance and prepare accordingly? It's proof of Madrid still not seeing itself on the national cultural stage or seeing the broader implications of its own cultural patrimony.

That's where the second problem starts: In sites of cultural patrimony — especially but not exclusively Church-run or -owned ones — people take their jobs and responsibilities not just seriously but really personally. It's their own little fifedom and the resources under their custodianship belong to them and not to researchers or citizens. On the one hand it's great and lovely for a librarian to feel a bit proprietorially in love with his library collection, but on the other, it means that if you come to see something or use it for teaching and research, the response, as often as not, is basically going to be: Get out of my room and stop touching my stuff. It's just the prevailing attitude here.

Mounting a dig for the remains of one of the best and most historically important writers of the modern period and completely neglecting to think ahead to the draw that this will have for readers in Spain and worldwide — or even worse, not caring — is very much trying to have the best of both, selfish worlds: The convent is asking for renewed acclaim for being the burial site of Cervantes while keeping all the acclaimers at an arm's length.

(The right arm.)

The One Where I Get Kicked Out of Church

This church, to be precise, the one in the Convent of the Barefoot Trinitarian Sisters:


 As part of my "you're stuck with the cultural history students for the rest of the semester" plan, I'm taking the class on a few field trips to take advantage of what's unique to Madrid and also to make it a little bit simpler to prep classes on topics that are well outside my area of expertise. Yesterday I took them to the archaeological museum, which was brilliant. I think they got a lot out of it, asked good questions, all the good things that you want to have happen on a field trip. I had them read a chapter of Maryam Rosser-Owen's Islamic Arts from Spain (conveniently available in Spanish translation) and we talked about the 19th-century cabinet of curiosities as a way of looking back at the past. We'll have one more field trip, and I was thinking it would be interesting to go to the convent  where they've just discovered Cervantes' body and use that as a springboard to talk about the reception of Cervantes in the 20th century, about the role (physical and metaphorical) of the author, and about concepts of national patrimony.


Our program's admin assistant called to make a reservation for the group to visit. She was told that since the archaeologists are still working on the site they are not having regular visiting hours right now; however, she was told, we were more than welcome to come during the half hour before morning Mass and look around. I went this morning to see in advance how feasible it would be and whether it was really worth taking the students there when they might or might not be able to see much of the archaeological site.

I went this morning at 9, when the church opened, sat for a few minutes and took it all in, and then walked around the chapel a bit. It's exactly what you'd expect from a convent of that period: a lot of gold, nails, and blood.


 There was a room off to the left of the altar and through the grate you could see one of the priests putting his vestments on to prepare for the mass; and to the right of the altar, there was a door that opened onto a room with a few chairs. The door was wide open, so I went into it, thinking that perhaps I would be able to see the dig site in or from there.


But the next thing I know, the woman who had opened the church, a lay person, was standing right behind me, demanding to know what I was doing there:

Me: Nothing, just looking.
Her: No, there is no nothing. What are you doing in here?
Me: I'm not doing anything.
Her: You opened this door. You can't just open doors and go into places.
Me: I'm sorry — I didn't know that I couldn't be in here, but I did not open the door. It was already open.
Her: Yes, you did open this door. I never leave it open. It is always closed. Like this. [She closes the door to demonstrate.] The minute I wasn't looking you came over here and opened the door!
Me: I'm sorry I was in there, but the door was open and I didn't know I couldn't go in.
Her: There is no sorry! This is unforgivable! And unbelievable! You have to leave right now!

Suffice it to say, I will be taking the cultural history students on a walking tour of important sites from the filmmaker Luis Buñuel's life instead.

I think that the most absurd thing is that it's a sixteenth-century wood building. Everything creaks. If you walk across the floor, it creaks. When the woman closed the door, it creaked. If I had opened it, that woman would have heard it creak, and presumably come running rather than just finding me there. That and the fact that if they're telling people that they can come look around during the half hour before mass, they do have to expect that people who don't necessarily know the norms of that particular church will come to visit, and should post signage accordingly (or actually be careful about closing doors they don't want open).

I feel terrible because it's not like I ever want to be disrespectful in somebody else's sacred space; it's also the first time, though, that I've been somewhere where there was no clear indication, either by the floorplan corresponding to what I know to expect or through signage, that I was about to enter a space where I wasn't supposed to be.

There's more to say about sacred spaces and national patrimony and the fetishization of authors' dead bodies, but I'll leave that to another post. I'm feeling a little too rattled to be thoughtful right now. I shouldn't feel bad about it, but I still take getting shouted at kind of personally. Perhaps that's the point, though — an illustration of fostering obedience through intimidation?