Research Progress Notes: Week of April 29th

This week I finished my research trips to LA. It feels like a real relief.

It’s a good sign that there is an end in sight that this week was my last trip to LA, after a month at the Huntington and 6 weeks at UCLA back in the Fall. When I came home from Europe in March it didn’t feel like an ending because I was already looking ahead to my next two trips back. But finishing up at the Huntington marks the end of my planned research within the US. When I wrote my budget for the SSRC, I was required to distinguish between domestic and foreign research because I had a minimum time requirement for both. That’s bled into how I think about my research generally, and so finishing this portion feels like real progress. It helps that I’ve gotten a lot done.

Ironically, I don’t feel that I did a whole lot at the Huntington. I saw two really useful manuscripts, and I did a lot of networking (I’ll get to that), but it doesn’t feel like a ton of progress this time around. What this stint really did for me was help solidify my thinking. My other archive ventures have been extremely directed – I was looking for something very specific in a sea of relevant material. Here, I was looking for anything relevant in a pond of randomness. It helped me articulate what is and isn’t in the purview of this project and to nail down aspects of my timeline and geography that I’ve been avoiding so far. Because my project is interdisciplinary, and especially because I’m dealing with questions that a lot of other people have addressed using a new method, it’s really easy to get sidetracked. I have to be sure of my purpose and my interests, because other people’s ideas of what I should be doing are valid but will lead me away from what I really want to be doing. What makes that even harder is that my archival sources are all from different time periods than my actual focus is – the Cairo Genizah documents are 11th century, the Genoese notarial records are very late 12th/early 13th century, and the articellas are mostly late 13th/early 14th century, when what I’m interested in is what happened between ca. 1090 and 1190. The difficulty of the sources is kind of my point – there’s a textual black hole on Norman Sicily, which is why people don’t tend to write about it, and I’m trying to figure out why and what we should do instead. Seeing material that isn’t quite what I want or sits just on the border helps me explain what it is that I do want and why it’s important that it isn’t available.

This week was all about networking. I met with Catherine Hess, the curator for European art at the Huntington, and she put me in contact with a few people at the Getty as well as someone at the University of Messina (finally, a Sicilian contact!). I think making connections like these has been one of the most important aspects of my research. It’s rare that someone will tell me something entirely new or help me get access to materials that I could not have found on my own, but that’s not really the point of academic networking. Academic networking is, for the most part, about knowing what other people think of what you’re working on. What comes to mind when they hear about my topic? How should I be prepared to respond? Is there a specific scholarly work or contemporary source I should be expected to know? Sometimes this helps me to find research resources faster or more easily, other times it really does open doors or give me information I couldn’t have gotten on my own, and a lot of the time it gives me a sense of how I should write or what avenues I should pursue. Especially because my project is interdisciplinary, I don’t know everything out there that’s potentially relevant to my topic. I know medieval Mediterranean material culture and science – but when something crops up that’s western European, or Early Modern, or literary, or even just an aspect of art history or archaeology that I haven’t touched on before, it’s a mystery to me. Talking to people outside of my immediate field (which, honestly, is just about everyone) helps me home in on what I should be reading about. That being said, I didn’t necessarily find out anything project-altering this week. But I did get some meta insight and maybe made one connection that could make a big difference down the road.

Some sights from this week:


The view from the San Mateo County History Museum.

Did I mention I’ve been volunteering part time at my local history museum? I really love it. I’m becoming increasingly convinced how important it is for academic historians to engage in public history, and on top of that the work is really varied. Sometimes I’m cataloging items in the museum’s collection and discovering mini histories, like the story of the salt harvesting industry in the San Francisco Bay. Other times I’m spending the day on a ladder unscrewing display cases, or sewing ID labels onto Girl Scout uniforms. And it doesn’t hurt that the museum is the center of downtown Redwood City, in the old courthouse building, right across from Fox theater. There’s a local organization that tries to keep this plaza interesting. This week it was chairs and umbrellas – last week, it was 10′ tall wooden beach chairs.


Chicken kebabs with cumin cauliflower and jeweled couscous.

I’ve been getting back to my cooking roots. Pregnancy, stress, and a very tight travel budget have destroyed my taste buds to the point that I have the preferences of a 5 year old – mac n cheese or barbecue sauce is pretty much all I want (although, unlike a 5 year old, I do have regular cravings for kale and broccoli, so there’s some hope for my arteries). When I’m home I have a little more headspace to relax and make something interesting. Chicken kebabs and the like are some of my earliest comfort foods. There used to be a hole in the wall falafel restaurant in my neighborhood called Eden Rock that my family basically lived at because the owner (and sole employee) liked us and didn’t care if my brothers and I ran wild in his establishment. At the time, all I wanted was a pita filled with salad (no tomatoes) and drenched in tahini, and in my opinion tahini is still the best part. I made these kebabs very simply in the broiler, making sure to turn them frequently and suspend them over a deep pan so they would get a good crust and not dry out. I dressed up my normal roast cauliflower with tons of cumin and some coriander to round things out – normally I use cumin pretty sparingly, but cauliflower can take a lot of it because its mild, nutty-sweet flavor goes well with that smoky-burnt flavor. And I pretty much always throw some dried cranberries in with my couscous for a sweet surprise to break up the monotony and texture. I poured on some tahini (probably too much) diluted with water and lemon juice, and a tiny bit of pomegranate molasses. If you’ve never had pomegranate molasses, do yourself a favor an pick up a bottle. Use it anywhere you would use balsamic vinegar – it’s equally tangy and sweet, but it has a more complex (slightly bitter, even) flavor, and even the cheap stuff is thick and syrupy so it stays put.


Waiting for the tram at the Getty.

My day at the Getty was bookended by the tram ride, which is equal parts Disneyland and Talos Principle.


I took half an hour after my meetings to check out this exhibit on medieval visions of the cosmos at the Getty. I found it a little underwhelming – it was a theme without an argument, and the little argument that was there relied on the same tropes of medieval superstition that I’m already sick of. But here were some amazing manuscripts, and the curation was actually pretty great – full descriptions in the wall cards and images of other pages from the manuscripts that weren’t on display. Definitely worth the trip for me, but I can’t say that it did medieval science (or manuscripts) justice.

What’s next? Since I’m done at the Huntington I’ll be posting more complete articles for a while, rather than research notes. My next trip is to Sicily (with stops in Rome, the area around Naples, and Vienna), but not for another month. Until then I’ll hopefully be writing more of my dissertation and figuring out more and better ways to complain about what people don’t know about history.