Posts Tagged 'Well-Intentioned Academic Mistakes'

Spring break at last: in which the author returns from blogslackdom

The end of January and beginning of February were crazy because I was catching up on work after the extracurricular activities I had going on in the second half of January, and then the first week of February I also had to prepare for a workshop I was helping with at St. Nicholas Church in the Urbana-Champaign area. Megan was flattened with the flu that week as well, but I seemed to be okay.

As I was driving to Champaign Friday night, I started to feel a little tickle in my throat. When I woke up Saturday morning, I could only pray that I would make it through the day. I did, sure enough, but as soon as Vespers was over and it was time for me to head home, it was as though a metric ton of unfinished brick was dropped on my head.

I got home, went to sleep, and woke up long enough Sunday morning to croak voicelessly at Megan, “I don’t think I’m going anywhere today, let along singing anything.” (Actually, it came out more like “CHHHHccckkkkAAAAAAAaaaaHHHHHhaaaaaeeeeeeeeecccccchhhhhiiiiiick”, but she got the point.) I then proceeded to not leave my house until the following Friday.

Let me tell you, losing an entire week when you’re in grad school suh-HUCKS. I was out of commission enough that I really couldn’t do anything productive, so come Saturday, when I actually felt like I had some life in me, I really did have the entirety of the previous week as well as the coming week to prepare in order to catch up.

And, as can happen, I missed something.

As I sat down in my seminar on democracy in Ancient Greece on my first Tuesday back after being sick, the professor said, “…and today we’re going to hear from Richard on whether or not the generalship in Athens was a democratic institution…” and my heart jumped out through my throat. I had managed to miss an entire presentation. Had I written it down? Yes. I just didn’t catch it when I was reviewing what I needed to do post-illness. In four years of taking graduate courses, I had never just not done something; of course, this particular professor didn’t know that. That said, he wasn’t a jerk about it, and it will be made up somehow, but this is somebody who will probably be on my committee and this isn’t exactly the kind of impression I like to make on people. Since it was a faculty member in my home department, I thought it probably would be a good idea to drop my advisor a line, saying, “Just because I’d rather you hear this from me…” This appears to have been a good call; he wrote back saying, glad you told me, don’t let it happen again, produce at your usual level from here, and this should fall under the category of “no harm, no foul.”

Thus, I had to make sure I was on my best behavior, and how, for my next presentation, which was this last Tuesday. That involved reading German, French, and Greek; this was my first shot at actually reading academic German, which is tougher than it looks. However, I managed to misread the syllabus for this particular assignment in a way that worked in my favor; I understood the reading to be a 15 page German article or a 15 page French article, and then one way or the other a 50 page French chapter of a book. Still, as I was wrapping up the German piece, I realized that the “or” was rather ambiguously placed, and I asked the professor for clarification. “Oh, good Lord, I didn’t imagine that somebody would be able to read both German and French,” he told me. “Tell you what — read the shorter French piece along with the German and I’ll be happy.” So that’s what I did.

In addition to that, I’ve also had two book reviews to write for another class, and we also took a long-delayed trip to Arizona last month to see my dad and stepmom for a few days.

Oh yeah, and it’s Lent.

I haven’t had time to exercise in the last six weeks, let alone blog. Yesterday was my last day of classes before Spring Break; I promptly came home and hopped on the treadmill. (And yes, today, I’m sore as hell. Heading back to the treadmill as soon as I wrap up this post.)

I’ll say it again: losing an entire week in grad school sucks. It really has taken me this whole month to catch up, and Spring Break really could not have come soon enough in terms of giving me a much-needed breather.

I need to wrap this up for now so that I can go exercise before Akathist, but one update I’ll give for now: Pascha at the Singing School has hit an interesting phase of development. I had been waiting until John finished all of the illustrations before sending it anywhere, but I looked at the submission guidelines for one of the publishers I’ve always envisioned as being ideal, and found that it wasn’t necessary to have them all done before sending them a proposal. So, I went ahead and fired off a book proposal, and two hours later got an invitation to send them the manuscript and sample illustrations.

Two and a half weeks after sending it to them, I got an answer.

It wasn’t “no,” but neither was it an unqualified “yes.”

Essentially, what they said was positive but that they would want to see certain revisions before they considered it any further. Once I’ve made those revisions, we’ll go from there. And, in all truthfulness, the feedback they had was all legitimate and useful. So, one of my goals over the break is to rework the manuscript based on their suggestions. My assumption is that they wouldn’t have bothered with this level of feedback if they didn’t think it would be worth their time; rejection slips are usually what one sees, not thoughtful suggestions. So, I’m taking this as a positive, and we’ll see what happens there.

More later.

When people who are supposed to know what they’re talking about, well, don’t

About a week and a half ago, I attended a lecture by a visiting scholar. I’m going to be intentionally vague about the details, mostly out of professional courtesy, and also because, not being certain exactly what happened, I feel I need to assume that there’s an honest mistake that occurred, one for which it is not my place to pillory anybody publicly.

Anyway, the lecture was fascinating. In the Q&A portion of the talk, I asked a question which was, perhaps, somewhat outside of the scope of the talk, but certainly relevant regardless. The visiting scholar gave a great answer, providing a patristic quote which really piqued my interest, and I walked away really impressed and with what seemed to be a potential avenue of research.

The trouble: I’ve been unable to verify that the quote actually exists anyplace. An initial perusal of some references when I got home yielded nothing. I e-mailed the visiting scholar and asked where the quote came from; this person replied saying that it had been encountered while dissertating (twelve years ago), and gave the name of an article that they thought might be where they encountered it. If I couldn’t find it there, this person suggested checking looking at a particular work in the PG, but didn’t know where exactly it might be.

I was able to look at the article yesterday. The reference isn’t there. There’s a section which discusses a part of the work in the PG that seems like it might be a likely place to look for the quote in question, but the article itself doesn’t have it. (Frustratingly, the article — published in 1992 — does make reference to a forthcoming critical edition of the work we’re talking about, but it seems to have never actually been published, sixteen years later.)

I e-mailed the visiting scholar again, saying that it wasn’t in that article, and that I’ll check the PG to see if it’s there, and the answer was, pretty simply, “Sorry I couldn’t be more help! Let me know what you find!”

I don’t mind checking the PG; that’s good Greek practice for me anyway. Still, something about this seems fishy. It’s possible that my question was one this person wasn’t expecting, and they just tossed out the first thing they thought they remembered. It happens. The subsequent wild goose chase for a quote which I’m now wondering if it even exists, however, is bothering me. It’s okay if I asked something that was outside this person’s field of expertise; no biggie. If that’s the case, though, their attempt to improvise an answer has, for me anyway, made me question my impression of the rest of their presentation.

A similar incident, and here I don’t mind naming names because the event was far more public with the audio being widely available online, occurred at Fr. Richard John Neuhaus’ talk at the Fellowship of Ss. Alban and Sergius Conference. As I reported months ago, he told a very touching story about Fr. John Meyendorff’s response to the papal encyclical Ut Unum Sint — “[W]ith tears in his eyes, [Fr. John Meyendorff] said, ‘This is the great tragedy. For a thousand years… we have been waiting for a pope to say what John Paul says in Ut Unum Sint. The great tragedy is that we have not found any way to respond.'” You can listen to him saying that for yourself right here. It’s at the 27:13 mark.

Here’s the problem — there is no way it could have happened. Ut Unum Sint was promulgated in 1995. Fr. John Meyendorff died in 1992. Unless Meyendorff was privy to a very, very, very early draft, Fr. Neuhaus was quite mistaken.

I asked a couple of people about this, and got a not terribly satisfying answer — something to the effect that he probably had a senior moment and tossed in the first name he could remember. I suppose I could see that if it were in the question and answer portion, but it wasn’t — it was in the prepared and read portion of his session.

I don’t know what happened. Maybe he really did mean somebody else. I certainly don’t mean to disrespect the departed, so I’m not trying to imply that Fr. Neuhaus knowingly pulled a fast one — but you can listen to the talk for yourself, and then go look up the dates for yourself. It’s a pretty big error, an error I’ve not heard anybody else address, and it seems like it would be important to address, given that it was clearly intended to have a lot of resonance with the location and theme of the conference.

It’s a pretty obvious point, but an important one — sometimes the people who should know what they’re talking about, don’t. It happens to everybody, even them. Don’t let bedazzlement get in the way of fact-checking.

The Gospel of Judas and the need for languages

I’m late to this party, but Prof. April DeConick of Rice University has gotten a decent amount of attention lately with her critique of last year’s National Geographic story on the Gospel of Judas. Mollie over at GetReligion has some interesting things to say about the warning journalists should take from this:

When going for a scoop, reporters risk sacrificing the quality of their work. This revelation about the allegedly shoddy work of National Geographic couldn’t get a fraction of the publicity of the original story, which is why we should be careful the first time around.

It seems to me that there are a couple of important things underscored here for academic wannabes like me, too. First off, it strikes me that the popular media is a questionable initial venue for scholarship, and the central reason is that the aims are different. The goal of an academic book or journal is to disseminate research; the goal of a popular publication is to make money. Along the same lines, exclusivity, a hallmark of commercial publishing, appears to work at cross-purposes to peer review, a necessity of academic publishing. To this end, signing non-disclosure agreements preventing peer review and publishing photos of a manuscript just large enough to prove you have it but not large enough to be useful for other scholars in verifying claims is, to put it charitably, not exactly best-practice scholarship.

Something else this communicates to somebody like me—and doubtless this will be a point so obvious to somebody who’s been in grad school for any length of time, me saying it is going to be like a three year old proudly shouting, “I’ve discovered one and one make two!”—is the importance of knowing the languages for your primary sources. If you don’t know know the language well enough to not only translate a text but to be able to discern where colleagues may have made errors, you’ve got work to do, and the published translations of other people are no substitute for putting in the work yourself. As Dr. DeConick says here, acknowledging that Coptic is not as accessible a language to New Testament scholars as Hebrew: “Okay. But so what. Learn Coptic.”

An object lesson from my own past brings both of these points together. A couple of years ago, when I was first coming to the conclusion that I’d make a better scholar than an opera singer, I saw a call for papers for a graduate student conference which was going to be relatively nearby. The theme looked interesting; I brainstormed some ideas, did some preliminary research, wrote an abstract, and submitted it. Lo! and behold, they accepted it, and now I had to actually write the paper.

First of all, I’ll point out the obvious mistake: I submitted an abstract for a paper which I had not yet written. I’ve since been counseled that, in practice, this is a horrible way to go. It’s not that it doesn’t happen, I’m told, but it’s a bad idea.

The two real problems, however, were that I had to rely exclusively on translations from Welsh, Latin, Greek, and God only knows what else, rather than being able to look at those texts for myself, and that one of my main sources was a popular book rather than an academic work. I didn’t realize the importance of the former, and I had no idea at the time that there was any real distinction regarding the latter. In other words, what I did would probably have been okay for an undergraduate, at least in some classes, but it was not acceptable by any means for somebody trying to present what they do as graduate-level research, and I have no doubt it made me look bad to people too kind to tell me so. I still have a hunch that some of the things I noticed in that paper might be valid, but until I’m able to read Welsh (since now I can at least muddle through Greek and Latin), I don’t feel qualified to talk about the texts. Not only that, but until I can independently verify the claims made in the popular work I used through my own examination of the sources involved, I’m not going to use those arguments (which is part of why I’m not talking at all about the topic of the paper itself).

By contrast, I wrote a paper a few months ago that deals with sources in Greek and Syriac. I was able to successfully avoid using popular books as sources, but I had to deal with the Syriac text in translation, which the professor said was all right, but having learned my lesson with the other paper, I agreed that the paper wasn’t going to be used for anything outside of the classroom until such time as I could at least verify that textual arguments I made based on the translation weren’t rendered specious by the actual Syriac text. Spot-checks like that are within my reach at this point (as long as I have Jessie Payne-Smith by my side), so I’m going to submit the paper to a conference.

The moral: Learn Coptic. And Greek. And Latin. And Syriac. Maybe Ge’ez, too, and Arabic and Armenian and Welsh and Anglo-Saxon and Gothic. Is it a lot of work? Sheesh. Um, yeah. On the other hand, as my dad used to say, the cheapest way to do anything is to do it right the first time. The overhead you think you’re saving by going with a translation won’t actually be a benefit if you’re relying on the efforts of people who have signed non-disclosure agreements and who are rushing to meet a deadline.


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