Dissertation Progress Notes: Week of August 3rd

I was able to get more done in the past week than in the past several months combined, thanks to a little thing called childcare.

Thanks to a lot of luck and vigilance, I was able to secure regular childcare recently, giving me three days a week entirely to myself. While my kids’ nap schedule has made it possible for me to get work done, the starting and stopping of it makes it hard to take on larger tasks or hold a thought for long periods of time. So it’s not so difficult to do things like write a job application, where the documents tend to be short and contain information I already know. But it’s much harder to focus on reframing an entire chapter when it takes me over an hour to read that chapter out loud to myself (which is an essential part of the editing process and I highly recommend it to anyone who writes). I’ve also been putting off – or, really, having a hard time completing – tasks that less obvious answers. Which brings me to what I did this week.

I figured out the word for “spices” in Judaeo-Arabic. A big chunk of my dissertation is about the trade of raw materials used for both crafts and medicines, which trade documents in medieval Sicily referred to as spices. I relied on two sources for my analysis in this chunk – Genoese shipping contracts written in Latin, and the Cairo Geniza, written in Judaeo-Arabic. If you’ve never heard of the Cairo Geniza, you can read up on it here and here. The important thing to know to understand where I was running into trouble is that Judaeo-Arabic is not Arabic, and I can read Arabic, but that ability does not directly translate to Judaeo-Arabic. Judaeo-Arabic is not one language, but in most of the documents I’m interested in, it’s a dialect of Arabic written using the Hebrew alphabet as well as some Hebrew vocabulary. I once learned the Hebrew alphabet, but it’s been a while. The hard part, though, is that even though the Hebrew and Arabic alphabets are directly related, they don’t have all the same sounds. For instance, Arabic doesn’t have an equivalent to the letter P, but Hebrew does. Hebrew has G but not J, Arabic has both J and a guttural G represented by Gh. And then words that are effectively the same in Arabic and Hebrew are often written with different equivalent letters, swapping Kh (guttural H) for H. The result of all of this is that even knowing Arabic and being able to figure out the Hebrew alphabet, it’s hard to read Judaeo-Arabic because it’s not always clear what the words even are.

To deal with that, I read most of these documents in English translation and checked specific vocabulary in the original language when it was important, based on the assumption (that I still think is correct) that the person who translated these documents has a better understanding of both the language and the documentary context than I will. But I managed to read dozens of documents without identifying the word that was at the center of my inquiry: spices. I think the excuse I made to myself was that the word spice was pretty straightforward in the Geniza documents, and so I could just rely on the translation and leave it at that; spices were elastic goods, primarily raw materials, that had multiple purposes and weren’t inherently tied to the textile trade (I won’t go into where that definition came from, that’s about a quarter of chapter 3 right there). In the Genoese documents, on the other hand, spices had a less obvious definition, so I spent a lot of time focusing on the word itself, where it came from, and how it was used. But by the time I actually wrote the chapter explaining spices, I of course realized what should be obvious from reading that definition, which is that the meaning of spices in the Geniza is actually pretty complex and requires some very specific analysis of the language. Now, I thought this would be a simple task – I would just find the word that had been translated as spices and see whether it was the same across the various documents I used to derive that definition. But when I got to the documents, I couldn’t figure out what the word was. I couldn’t make sense of whether the word was Hebrew or Arabic, and if it was Arabic how it should be written in Arabic.

What I did this week was mine the secondary sources for an explanation of this word. The nice thing about working with the Geniza is that there is so much scholarship explaining the mechanics of it as a source. That’s not typical for medieval sources; usually only a couple other people have worked with a source, and their published writings on it tend to explain their analysis, but not their methods. The Geniza, on the other hand, is itself the subject of historical study, so not only multiple individual scholars, but multiple research projects and institutes exist to explain what these documents are and how to read them. Unfortunately, as far as I know, these projects haven’t compiled an accessible Judaeo-Arabic dictionary. I did have the opportunity to take a class on Judaeo-Arabic about three years ago, but it wasn’t really feasible at the time.

Instead, to hunt down this word, I had to go back to the father of Geniza studies, Shlomo Dov Goitein, and his 6 volume guide/encyclopedia/analysis of the Geniza (volume 6 of which is just a general index for the other 5 volumes). Thanks to emergency library measures put in place during the pandemic, this entire work is accessible online. I had to skim through all 6 volumes to find Goitein’s definition for spices in the Geniza, even though he uses the word spices a lot, and pair it with the equivalent word in Judaeo-Arabic. And then I needed to cross-reference that information with a different work, by Werner Diem, which compiled all of the Judaeo-Arabic vocabulary from Goitein’s work into something approaching a dictionary. And that finally gave me a definitive answer. The typical word translated into English as spices is bahar, but what threw me off is that sometimes Goitein also translates the word haja as spices as well. Bahar directly means spices, and it’s for that reason that there is now a spice blend called baharat. Haja, on the other hand, means something along the lines of “ingredients”, and so sometimes, contextually, it refers to spices.

That work was an entire day and resulted in a single paragraph, but boy was I glad to do it.

I reframed Chapter 4. Chapter 4 has been tickling the back of my mind for a while. Chapters 3 and 4 started as an article on spices and dyes that I wrote for a historical textile journal. While the article was under review, I realized that I needed to divide it up and have a full chapter deriving the definition of spices, and that became Chapter 3. For a while, I felt that Chapter 4 was a lot of words that didn’t have a purpose, but I knew the information in it was still useful. So I kept the thesis of the article as the thesis for Chapter 4, even though I felt it was a bit of a detour from the rest of the dissertation. And then I got into a long argument with the editor of the journal, which ended in the editor telling me my article was garbage (even though they had accepted the article with revisions and personally advocated for including it in the next issue), and me pulling the article. I then submitted it to another journal, where it was soundly rejected, though with very thoughtful criticism. This left me feeling pretty raw about Chapter 4, and I had a hard time looking at it critically, caught between wanting to defend what I had written and wanting to incorporate the criticism.

This week I was finally able to go back to Chapter 4 and reevaluate it. I still couldn’t actively read the reviewer comments while working on it, but I remembered them enough to know what needed to be fixed. The biggest change was modifying the thesis to move the topic away from textiles (which was a useful lens, but ultimately not my main focus) in order to make the chapter flow more from Chapter 3. Chapter 4 is now more of a contextualization of the materials of scientific practice (such as the ingredients used to make medicines) within the political economy of Norman Sicily. My dissertation has mostly shied away from that “traditional” historical lens of politics, which is otherwise the topic of the vast majority of, and certainly the most important, works on Norman Sicily. It’s still not about politics, but I needed to address why things changed under the Normans. The political aspects of this chapter were pretty much incidental to the original article – they were there as background for a readership that is unfamiliar with this history – but as I was considering the “so what”, the significance, of the economic material that was actually the focus of the chapter, I found that the political aspects were really useful. Ironically, what started as my most non-standard chapter, a study of science entirely through material exchange, has become my most traditional. But it works, and it’s still true to my methodology.

Oh, also I wrote my introduction. I’ve been compiling the introduction piece by piece as I’ve written other chapters. Every time I run into a concept that runs through every chapter, like the geography I’m working in or what I mean by “transmission”, I write it down in my introduction document, and eventually I go back and write an explanation. This week I consolidated these and streamlined them into a cohesive explanation of the framework for my project as a whole. It’s not completely finished, especially since I still need to footnote most of it, but most of what needs to be there is there and now I’ve articulated what my dissertation is and does.

A lot of this week was taken up with worrying about university policy. As universities continue to plow ahead with plans to bring students to campus, despite a general public awareness that this is a bad idea, Columbia in particular has been putting pressure on its teaching staff to return to campus. First the university sent a bizarrely passive-aggressive email to faculty, staff, and graduate instructors telling us that it was disappointed by how few of us had opted to do any in-person teaching and that we should reconsider. Now, this week, the university first subtly and then explicitly indicated that it would not pay teachers or researchers as long as they remain outside the country. This began when campus health services sent out a mandatory survey for all members of the community to indicate whether they would be returning to campus and the exact address where they would be living. Graduate students rightly picked up on the fact that this information could potentially be used to withhold pay. When pressed on the issue, the university sent an email insisting that for reasons related to visa status, neither faculty nor students could be paid for jobs requiring service (teaching or research) if they did not have a US address. But in the same email, they indicated that they would pay students attending classes or writing a thesis, and maintain their visa status, even if they were unable to enter the country. What’s so peculiar about this is that most of the students who remain abroad are unable to return to the US, whether because of travel restrictions, family circumstances, or personal health concerns.

It seems like Columbia’s motive is both to force more on-campus teaching to justify charging undergraduates such an absurdly high tuition even during this year, and to avoid paying higher taxes that would come from overseas labor. Which also gives me some insight into why Columbia has put so much money into its union-busting fight, seemingly more money than they would actually lose by increasing grad student pay and benefits. Currently, Columbia disburses my payments in two forms: a stipend, and a paycheck. The stipend is disbursed directly as part of my “financial aid package”, which is routed through my department and also includes my tuition, a large amount that is written in my student account but is never actually transferred to my bank. The paycheck is disbursed through university payroll, but no taxes are withheld and no contributions are made to social security. Even though I am paid the same amount every semester regardless of whether I am teaching or not, during semesters when I am only taking classes or only writing my dissertation, I am paid only the lump sum stipend, not the paycheck. Columbia gives students no concrete guidance on how to report this income on our taxes, and supplies no tax forms for it, encouraging us to declare it either as freelance income (taxed at a very high rate) or scholarship income (taxed at a lower rate but more complicated to declare). I have suspected for years that the reason for this financial juggling is so that Columbia does not have to shoulder the tax burden for the income of its graduate students, and that this is also the reason they insist we are not employees. If we were, then all our payments would have to come through the payroll system, they would all have to be reported on tax forms, and they would all have income taxes and social security deducted from them. If that happened, the payment of taxes would come through Columbia, not the grad students. But more importantly, Columbia would no longer be able to hide tens of thousands of dollars per student every year as “tuition”, which is undoubtedly a ploy to move money around internally without paying taxes on it, since this is money that the university transfers to itself. So, while any increases to student payments would be minimal, the university’s tax burden would jump, likely by millions of dollars a year, and its endowment might fall by a large number as well, depending on what that “tuition” money actually is.

Anyway, I spent a lot of time and mental energy this week trying to make sense of what the university is doing and what I should or shouldn’t do in response.

Next week: I’m continuing to work on Chapter 4. I fixed the framing, but now there are a couple of sections that need fleshing out, including at least a paragraph on trade during the Byzantine period and more detailed discussions of how individual spices show up in the Geniza. I’ll then move on to Chapter 5, which is in much more of a state. Chapter 5 probably has all the content it needs, but it, like Chapter 4, seems to be missing an argument that makes sense in the context of the larger project. I think I know how it needs to change, but I have a feeling I’ll need to cut a lot to get there.