Monthly Archives: June 2013

Topical Readings

For me, South Africa is oddly and relatively firmly linked to the Cotswolds for largely circumstancial reasons, with a side of inaccurate memory. When I was in sixth grade, my mother and grandmother took a trip to England. They spent some time in London, but also got out of the city for some jaunts to various other places, including Stratford upon Avon (my grandmother had been a public school English teacher and had an intimidating repertoire of Shakespearean quotations for any situation), and Herefordshire, where they spent a few days staying with Hilda and Rusty Bernstein at their home in Dorstone (this is where memory is inaccurate: for years I’ve thought of it as the Cotswolds, but it wasn’t). I think my grandmother knew them from political circles; my grandparents were both active in leftist politics in New York, and knew all kinds of impressive people.

I first read Hilda Bernstein’s book, The World That Was Ours, after my mother returned from that trip, with stories that mixed the calm of the Cotswolds with the activism and talent of the Bernsteins. Neither I nor my mother can remember how we got that book. It seems equally possible that she brought it back with her, that Hilda sent a copy after they got back, and that we bought it later.

At this point, I also can’t remember whether I already knew anything about South African history when I read the book. If I didn’t know much, I’m sure I knew at least what my mother told me in describing the Bernsteins and talking about visiting them. She wouldn’t have failed to mention their activism, nor would she have sugar-coated the political situation of South Africa. However much I knew, however, it is Bernstein’s book that I remember as my introduction to apartheid, the Rivonia trial, and the activists of the 1960s, including Nelson Mandela.

I must have read Bernstein’s book at most a year and a half before Mandela was elected President. Over the years, I learned more. I participated in my local school branch of Amnesty International, wrote letters, read books. But still, when I hear about South Africa, Robben Island, the anti-apartheid movement, and Mandela, I always remember that book. I think that perhaps it is time to reread it.


A related item of interest:

The “Robben Island Shakespeare,” a copy of Shakespeare’s plays owned by Sonny Venkatrathnam that was passed around among the political prisoners on Robben Island, is on display at the Folger Shakespeare Library until September 29.

Logic, Literature, and Defending the Humanities

There are a lot of defenses of the humanities out there, so I’m not really going to embark on my own. A propos of my last post, however, I wanted to post a link to an article that does defend the liberal arts education.

The article isn’t revolutionary if you’ve already been following discussions of the value of higher education. The summary: Employers want candidates who have good communication skills, problem-solving abilities, good judgment, integrity, intercultural skills… The ability to change and grow with a job and to be flexible with new skills and ideas. They don’t want (or don’t need as much as many people seem to think) specific majors, crammed information, good test scores.

I’m posting this mainly because it seems relevant to my logic puzzle post, and because I think I might add it, along with the logic puzzle, to the early part of some of my general education courses. It’s part of the reason we insist that general education courses are valuable, and explicitly dismisses some of the reasons my students seem to think that gen ed courses are a waste of time. It’s an argument that I’m only willing to make part of the time, because I think that we run the risk of losing the idea that learning is also fun and that culture is enjoyable in its own right, but there is also quite a bit to be said for helping people find jobs, especially in this economy.

So here’s to learning, the kind that endures (and gives pleasure).

Logic Puzzle

It’s a lovely Monday and I’m getting back to work after a few days of vacation where I walked until my legs hurt and read a book about lobsters. Back at my desk, a job application awaited. Having rewritten my cover letter, and before contacting one of my referees, I thought I’d post a quick little thing here.

To celebrate summer, here is a logic puzzle for anyone who likes that kind of thing. I loved the GRE logic section, if that gives you any indication of where I stand on this. I’m also thinking about assigning this to students as an extra credit challenge, except that the solution is online, and so I don’t know how many would actually do it. I came across this puzzle years ago (possibly passed along by my father), and I drag it out again every so often to play with. There is a (unique) solution that can be reached without any guesswork.

The puzzle.

As a fun pedagogical exercise in an era when many students seem not to read carefully or logically enough to find logical problems with their own writing (or that of others), this might be worth a try. Or just do it because it’s fun, it’s summer, and it’s a different challenge than a jigsaw puzzle.

Digital Recreation

This week’s topic is the product of serendipity: a chance encounter with two projects that reminded me of each other, combined with a project I’ve had my eye on for a while. The broad theme that unites these projects is the possibility of using digital means to reassemble or recreate texts or collections that have been separated.

The first one that I came across recently was the case of the Otto Ege Manuscripts. The Special Collections of the University of Massachusetts Amherst (my own institution) has a nice little description of Ege’s work here, but briefly, Ege (1888-1951) was a manuscript collector and bibliophile, one of whose lasting contributions to the manuscript world was the dismemberment of 50 medieval manuscripts and the sale of sets of individual pages, one from each manuscript. Eventually, forty sets of pages were sold, to collectors and institutions all over. (Julia Bolton Holloway has a page on her website that is subtitled “Towards a virtual and interactive reconstruction of fifty dismembered manuscripts,” and consists partly of a list of known owners of Ege sets. No date is included, so it is unclear how updated this list is.)

I was in the Smith College Mortimer Rare Books Room the other day while the curator, Martin Antonetti, was putting away the leaves of Smith’s set. He mentioned the Five College Digital Manuscripts Project, which involves the digitization of all of the medieval manuscript holdings of the Five Colleges (Smith College, Amherst College, University of Massachusetts Amherst, Mt Holyoke, and Hampshire). He added that one of the side effects of this project would be that we could contribute two sets of scanned images to a project out at the University of Saskatchewan to digitally reassemble the manuscripts from which the leaves of the Ege collections were taken. (Both Smith College and UMass own sets.) Peter Stoicheff, one participants in the Saskatchewan project, has a lovely article in Digital Studies / Le champ numérique (Vol. 1, No. 3, 2009) that describes some of the motivations behind the project in human, historical, and bibliographical terms.

The second project came, as so many interesting news tidbits seem to these days, through my facebook feed (my facebook is liberally peopled by academics, so my feed is mercifully light on certain aspects of pop culture and heavy on international politics and the kinds of news that shake the literary world). This particular link was for a New York Times article about a digitally recreated museum exhibition. The project is titled “What Jane Saw,” and is the work of Professor Janine Barchas of the English Department at the University of Texas Austin. Barchas and her team used a combination of digital and manuscript art to recreate both the setting and the layout of the 1813 exhibition of the work of Sir Joshua Reynolds, an exhibition that goes down in history not only as having been attended by Jane Austen, who lends her name and prestige to the project, but also as historically significant in its own right. The first single-artist exhibition staged by an institution, the British Institution’s Reynolds show was a document of social and political life that up until now had survived only as commemorated in its catalogue.

The last project is one that I came across last year, while copyediting the Fall 2012 issue of Digital Philology. One of the articles, “Digital Devotion from Carolingian Reichenau and St. Gall,” by Richard Matthew Pollard and Julian Hendrix  [preview], discussed the impact of a digitization project that recreates the plan for the Carolingian monastery of St. Gall in Switzerland. The article approaches the question of how the plan for the library illuminates Carolingian thought on spirituality. Although the plan does not seem to have been implemented (the website notes that “the design does not fit the actual terrain of the river valley in which St. Gall is located, nor does the Carolingian church of St. Gall reflect the design of the church on the Plan”), the website provides a beautiful way to access the contexts and material aspects of the monastic culture that produced it. In particular, the project includes a digital recreation of the libraries of Reichenau and St. Gall, including digitized manuscripts from across Europe that have been identified as having been at Reichenau and St. Gall in the ninth century based on library records.

I’m drawn to all of these projects because of their use of digital media to remediate different types of loss. Obviously there are still holes in the records that may ultimately prove impossible to fill. I don’t know as I write this, for example, whether all 40 Ege collections have been identified or whether the owners will all participate in the University of Saskatchewan project (in 2009, Stoicheff writes that 32 had been found). And yet this seems one of the wonderful powers of digital work– reassembly and recreation. These projects permit a kind of communication between objects that seems connected to the power of the internet to facilitate human communication.

Works cited:

Barchas, Janine et al. What Jane Saw. N.d. Web. 7 June 2013.

Carolingian Culture at Reichenau & St. Gall: Manuscripts and Architecture from the Early Middle Ages. UCLA Digital Library. 2012. Web. 7 June 2013.

Holloway, Julia Bolton. “The Otto F. Ege Paleography Portfolio. Fifty Leaves from Medieval Manuscripts, XII-XVI Century: Towards a Virtual and Interactive Reconstruction of Fifty Dismembered Manusripts.” 2009. Web. 7 June 2013.

Otto F. Ege, “Fifty original leaves from Medieval manuscripts” (MS 570). Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries. 7 June 2013.

Pollard, Richard Matthew and Julian Hendrix. “Digital Devotion from Carolingian Reichenau and St. Gall.” Digital Philology 1.2 (2012), 292-302.

Schuessler, Jennifer. “Seeing Art through Austen’s Eyes: A Preview of the Exhibition ‘What Jane Saw.'” NYT. 24 May 2013. Web. 7 June 2013.

Stoicheff, Peter. “Putting Humpty Together Again: Otto Ege’s Scattered Leaves.” Digital Studies / Le champ numérique 1.3 (2009). Web. 7 June 2013.