Audiobooks are Books, Too

Every so often, some iteration of the same debate pops up somewhere on the internet: does listening to audiobooks really count as reading?

Predictably, this takes the form of one person calling out another because they didn’t really read a book, they just listened to it. Audiobooks, in other words, Don’t “count” in the same way print books do.

Now, I’ve interacted with the written word in a lot of ways—eyes on print, fingers on Braille, and audio red by humans and synthesized by text-to-speech. So I have some thoughts about this. I wrote them out in a massive twitter thread, and a few people asked me to publish it here as well. Here it is (slightly cleaned up and with links to relevant resources).

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First Things: Words and their Jobs

First, let’s take a brief foray into linguistics and acknowledge that words do not have inherent meanings. People use and combine words to create and communicate meaning with others.

As semanticists say, “Words don’t mean. People mean.”

And in different contexts, people use words to mean different things. For the verb “to read,” there are three relevant usages to consider:

  1. reading as an ability
  2. reading as an activity
  3. reading as an accomplishment

To understand the differences and why they matter, we have to think historically. As time passes culture, technology, and lifestyles change in ways that create new communicative needs. Most of the time, these needs are met not by inventing wholly new words, but by adapting pre-existing words by analogy. The process by which this happens is seldom reasoned or systematic, tending rather to be intuitive and incidental.

Tactile writing is only two hundred years old and audiobooks are less than ninety, so it shouldn’t be surprising that our language has not fully adapted to their use. We are recycling the language of older technologies—spoken language and visual writing—to describe these new things and the ways we use them.

In the case of Braille and other tactile writing systems, the analogy with visual writing was clear and straightforward. Both used characters in a sequence to represent language across a page or other flat surface, and both were stable over time. Thus, the adoption of “reading” and “writing” language presented few problems outside of very technical contexts.

(Note—I don’t know if there were debates in the 1800s over whether the verb “to read” could be legitimately applied to Braille. If there were, that would be super interesting and I’d love to see them. In either case, reading quickly became the dominant way of talking about consuming Braille)

Controversy over audiobooks, I think, stems from uncertainty over which pre-existing technology they should be analogized to: printed texts or spoken language. The format is auditory, and thus resembles speech, but books, magazines, newspapers, signs, menus, etc. . are understood as essentially textual entities, which are read.

So in our language, do we privilege the format and delivery method, or the original/essential nature of the content?

The problem is different in each of the three usages of the verb “to read,” because each at its heart is trying to convey different information. Lets consider each in turn:

1) Reading as an ability

Basically, this answers the question “can you read?” In other words, if presented with a given physical object containing text, will you be able to decode its meaning?

There’s a lot to unpack about reading as an ability, but I’m not going to do it here. In this context, I think it’s safe to say that if you cannot read at least one print or tactile script in at least one language, you should not say you can read.

However, that doesn’t get to the heart of the debate or the ways people use the reading/listening distinction to flex on each other.

2) Reading as an activity

This answers the question “what are you doing?” Consider four answers:

  1. “I’m reading a book.”
  2. “I’m listening to a book.”
  3. “I’m listening to an audiobook.”
  4. “I’m reading an audiobook.”

If we imagine ourselves as sticklers who insist that print and audiobooks are so different that they require different verbs, then only the first and third answers make any sense at all. I mean, I suppose I could press my ear to my paperback copy of War and Peace, but I won’t get much out of it).

Now consider another scenario. I am pointing my phone at a large sign. I have the Seeing AI app up and it’s reading any text that comes into my camera’s view. You ask “what are you doing?” Two possible answers:

  1. “I am trying to see what that sign says.”
  2. “I am trying to read that sign.”

Now, you and I the imaginary sticklers know that both of these are absurd. I am not reading, in a literal sense, nor will I ever truly *see* what it says. What I should say is “I am pointing my phone at that sign so it can feed the image into an optical character recognition engine then translate the results into sound using text to speech software so that I can apprehend the information encoded on its surface.”

But the point of the first two answers is not to communicate the sum of their words. They are trying to communicate a more general point: I am trying to get the information from that sign into my head using a newfangled kind of technological mediation.

There are times when we can all turn off our inner literalists and realize that “reading” can be shorthand for getting textual information from a physical object into our heads.

So let’s not be sticklers, ok?

Of course, there may be times when it is important to specify the exact mode and method we used to apprehend some bit of text. This should be done to prevent or correct misunderstandings, but it applies equally to Braille and print.

For example, if a sighted someone asks to borrow your copy of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, you might disappoint them by saying you have it on audio, but they would probably not be thrilled if you dropped off ten massive Braille volumes, either.

And that leads to usage number 3.

3) Reading as an accomplishment

This is where it gets real, because this is where people start adding value judgments and putting each other down.

The pertinent question here is “did you read X?”

I often hear people say things like “you didn’t actually read X, you just listened to it.” What’s the point of saying this? It does more than maintain a procedural distinction, it establishes a hierarchy where reading is superior and listening is inferior. It implies that listening to a book is not an accomplishment in the same way that reading it visually or tactilely is. In some sense, it doesn’t “count.”

The foundations of this hierarchy lie in cultural notions regarding the types of material that are usually conveyed in written and oral form and the relative merits of each. Books, especially, are prestige objects because of their historical associations with education and class privilege. Historical roots notwithstanding, though,, is this hierarchy justified? Is there any inherent superiority to reading words from a page by eye or finger as opposed to hearing them read or synthesized into speech?

It depends on our goals. In my research, I use Braille for close reading (especially in non-English languages) and audio to work quickly through long articles and books. Keeping two lists in my head—one of things I have read in Braille and one of books I have listened to—would be untenable and pointless.

This is because the point of saying I have read something is to indicate that I have interacted with the information it contains and internalized it to some degree. If it could be demonstrated that comprehension and retention rates differed significantly between auditory and visual/tactile book input, then I could be convinced that we should insist on the terminological distinction. But they do not.

Neurological imaging studies reveal that listening to audiobooks activates the same cognitive and emotional regions of the brain as reading print, and tests of comprehension and retention do not show significant differences between audio and print consumption of text.

Additionally, a moment’s reflection reveals that not all visual or tactile reading leads to the same learning. Sometimes print and Braille reading are done with care and attention, and sometimes they are done while unwilling or distracted. I have learned a lot from reading print books and articles, and I have finished others and realized immediately that I could not tell you anything about what I had just read. The same can be said for audio reading. Most often, the returns we get from the time and energy we invest in reading have more to do with our focus and attention than with inherent qualities of the medium or modality.

To my mind, then, insisting on a value distinction between print/Braille and audio is baseless and counterproductive. The value of tine spent reading is in the changes it makes to your base of knowledge and depth of thought. Neither of these result directly or necessarily from the part(s) of your body you use in the process. So as a flex?? To boost your own intellectual achievements and cast doubt on those of others? It doesn’t work and it doesn’t make sense.

To sum up, here are a few takeaways:

Should we learn Braille? YES. I hope nothing I’ve said here implies that I don’t think Braille is important. Learn Braille to the extent that you are physically and neurologically able, because it gives you the opportunity to interact with information in a greater variety of ways in a greater variety of circumstances. Even if all you can do is read bathroom signs and label your medications, that’s better than nothing. And if you gain the fluency to read whole books? Go to town!

But should we enforce the distinction between Braille and audio, relegating audio always to second place? NO. Indulge your curiosity. Read widely in whatever medium is most accessible to you. Expand your perspective with print, Braille, audio, whatever. Don’t be discouraged and don’t be held back. Read read read read read!

And come on, people, if someone says they read a book and you KNOW they listened to the audio, don’t call them out or “correct” them on it. There’s no point to it and it’s not a good look.

Basically, be as precise as you want but don’t try to prove Braille is important by denigrating audio.

Braille is important.

Audio is important.

Nitpicking each other’s language to enforce a baseless distinction between the two is not.

2020: My Year in Books

A grid view of the covers of the 60 books I read this year

It’s time for year-end “best of” lists, and so here again is my annual rundown of books (see also the  2017, 2018, and 2019 versions).

2020 was strange and hard, but that did not keep it from bringing me some very good books. As I look back, i am struck by the excellent quality of this year’s reads. I would recommend nearly all of the 60 books I read and it’s not easy to choose my favorites, but I’ve pulled out some top picks below.

Let me know what you thought of these books in the comments, or which books were your favorites this year!. I’m always looking for new recommendations!

 

Top Picks

Fiction

The Daevabad Trilogy by S. A. Chakraborty

The world of this phenomenal fantasy trilogy builds upon medieval Islamic mythology from the Indian Ocean Rim. The story centers around Nahiri, a young orphan turned con artist in French-occupied Cairo. In the course of a hustle she accidentally summons the ancient jinn Darayavahoush (Dara for short), who recognizes her as part jinn herself. Together they journey to Daevabad, the jinn capital city, where she becomes embroiled in palace intrigue and the city’s volatile politics. The magical world is lush and nuanced, the characters are deep and engaging, and the writing is simply wonderful. These books will not disappoint.

 

Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib Khorram

This lovely YA read deals frankly and sensitively with topics of mixed heritage, teenage identity formation, and mental illness. Sixteen-year-old Darius Kellner lives with chronic depression, which complicates his efforts to negotiate his identity as a “fractional Persian.” He constantly feels too Persian for his white family, too white for his Persian family, and too awkward and nerdy for both. When his family travels to visit his grandparents in Iran, he struggles to find where and how he fits in the family, The saving grace of the trip is Sohrab, a neighbor with whom he develops a strong and meaningful friendship. Khorram does not trivialize or catastrophize depression, but writes a complicated main character who must live with it as one enduring feature of his life. 

 

A special shout-out goes to author Tamora Pierce. for getting me through election season. Even though she started writing her Alanna books in the early 1980s, I hadn’t heard of them until this October (thanks to M Tong and Matthew Chalmers). They were fun, quick reads that provided distraction in the days surrounding Nov. 4, and on top of it all they have aged really well over the past three decades—strong heroines, engaging characters, and imaginative world-building, combine with grand adventure to create delightful escapist rides.

 

Nonfiction 

The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism by Naomi Klein

I read this book as March gave way to April. The Coronavirus pandemic was gaining steam and government and society were weighing options for potential responses. The process was a real-time illustration of Disaster Capitalism, Klein’s term for an economic strategy pioneered and propagated by economists at the University of Chicago in the latter half of the 20th century—most notably Milton Friedman and his students. These were the vanguard of the economic philosophy that has come to be known as neoliberalism—hardline support for privatization and market deregulation, general distrust of public goods and government interventions, and the elevation of competition over collaboration as an ordering economic and social principle. 

Friedman understood the value of disaster. In 1982 he wrote “Only a crisis — actual or perceived — produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around” (cited on p. 140). He made it a point, therefore, to spread his students and his ideas to as many places as possible, where they would implement the same crisis playbook again and again until his brand of ultra-capitalism moved from fringe to mainstream and then to orthodoxy. This much happened, certainly, but neoliberalism did not bring with it the widespread prosperity and happiness that the Chicago Boys predicted. Klein uses in-depth case studies from Chile, South Africa, post-Soviet Russia, Argentina. and mid-2000s Iraq to show the pattern that unfolded in place after place: “an urban bubble of frenetic speculation and dubious accounting fueling superprofits and frantic consumerism, ringed by the ghostly factories and rotting infrastructure of a development past; roughly half the population excluded from the economy altogether; out-of-control corruption and cronyism; decimation of nationally owned small and medium-sized businesses; a huge transfer of wealth from public to private hands, followed by a huge transfer of private debts into public hands” (p. 86). In short, a pattern in which the wealthy leverage disasters to further enrich themselves at the expense of those most vulnerable to the crisis itself.

Klein’s theory of disaster capitalism has held up depressingly well since the publication of this book in 2009. The recent Rand Report on income inequality shows that fifty years of trickle-down economic policies have siphoned $50 trillion upward from the bottom 90% of the U.S. wealth distribution to the top 1%. The financial crisis of 2008–2009 created another massive wealth redistribution upward, and in 2020 America’s 644 billionaires have used the Coronavirus pandemic to increase their collective net worth by $1 trillion while pushing 8 million people from the middle class into poverty.

 Economic orthodoxy needs revision—or revolution. Privatization and competition will not save us. The problems we face now require collaboration and collective action for the public good.

 

The Surprising Design of Market Economies by Alex Marshall

Economic markets do not just happen. There is no such thing as a “free market,” proceeding in its natural state without government intervention or regulation. Governments do not only intervene in natural market processes; they set the parameters for market operation and participation from the ground up. All markets operate under sets of rules, and those rules can vary on every factor. What can be owned, and by whom? What can be bought and sold, and on what terms? Who can participate in the market and who is excluded? What obligations do the various parties in economic transactions have to each other and to society? None of these answers is fixed in stone or mandated by natural law. They are changing and changeable, as Alex Marshall demonstrates with this torrent of studies and examples from U.S. history. Investigating common law, intellectual property, the nature of the corporation, private/public partnership, and the enforcement of property rights and norms, he demonstrates the contingent nature of market behavior and the dramatic differences that changes in market governance can make. 

The analysis in some examples could be questioned, but Marshall makes his overarching point with strength and clarity. There is no neutral, unregulated form of a capitalist market economy, only different types of regulation that favor different parties in the system to greater or lesser extents. “In reality, deregulation means abdicating public governance in favor of corporate self-regulation, which tends to devalue workers and shirk responsibility for externalities. Luckily, we can choose different rules for our markets—rules that empower workers, ensure responsible production and consumption, and promote the public good.

 

How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the soul of America by Heather Cox Richardson

Caricatures of American history often focus too heavily on either its high ideals of freedom and equality or its cruel patterns of exploitation and extraction. These two tendencies—one toward the concentration of wealth and power and the other toward equal participation and empowerment of all people—have coexisted in tension from the United States’s founding, and in this book Heather Cox Richardson uses the battle line itself as a through line in American history. Beginning with the Constitution, which propounds inalienable human rights and equal treatment at a time when both were denied to the majority of the population, she traces the tension forward to its crescendo in the Civil War and beyond to western expansion, Jim Crow, and our current battles over race, gender, religion, and economics. 

In their mythical self-representation, Southern slaveowners portrayed themselves as rugged individualists—strong and self-sufficient men who asked nothing from the government except to be left alone. In reality, their wealth and position (not to mention the entire slaveholding system) were propped up by government support and intervention at every level. The three-fifths compromise in the U.S. Constitution gave white men in slaveholding states outsized influence in national policy, and local law enforcement kept enslaved Southerners in check while protecting their enslavers from harm and insurrection.

Emancipation and abolition were important steps toward freedom, but they did not usher in full inclusion or equal rights. , Following the Civil War and Reconstruction, Southern ideology did not die out but spread westward into new territories and states. Western pioneers, like the Southern slaveowners before them, cultivated an image of rugged self-sufficiency that was actually propped up by a substantial government apparatus. Laws limited  the immigration and citizenship of Native American, Mexican, and Chinese populations. Courts prioritized the property rights of white settlers, and military and law enforcement tolerated and perpetrated acts of terrorist violence against all of these groups to the advantage of the white pioneers. In the 20th century the expansion of voting rights to women and the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s both represented significant gains toward democratic and egalitarian ideals, but we are still far from embodying the highest values of a free, just, and equal society. Those striving to reduce entrenched disparities in power and status face ongoing opposition from those who would see them limited to a chosen few. Though Richardson’s framework may seem simplistic,  it helps to clarify the goals and stakes in the brutal tug-of-war of American politics. 

Heather Cox Richardson also writes an amazing daily newsletter that digests the day’s news and places it in historical context. It is an excellent way to get the news without all the frenzy, and you can find it on her Substack or her facebook page. I read it every day and you might like it too!

 

Jesus an John Wayne: How White Evangelicals corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation by Kristin Kobes Du Mez

Riffing on the title of a 2008 song by the Gaither Vocal Band, Kristin Kobes Du Mez traces the nature of masculinity and male role models in white American Evangelicalism across the past 75 years. She argues that Christian leaders and cultural icons have championed a rough and rugged male ideal defined by competition and domination. This masculinity affects all areas of life, from rigid gender roles and unquestioned male authority in the family to religious supremacy in society and militant imperialism abroad. Evangelicals have remade Jesus in the image of John Wayne, and the results have been disastrous.

I recommend this book to anyone who wants to understand the current state of evangelicalism in the United States. It does for gender what Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise has done for race—shows how unhealthy hierarchies and the pursuit of dominance are not alien intrusions upon American Christianity, but are central to its identity and functioning. 

 

The Full List

In chronological order from January to December

  • How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi
  • Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist by Kate Raworth
  • There will be no Miracles Here: A Memoir by Casey Gerald
  • Superior: The Return of Race Science by Angela Saini
  • Inferior: How Science got Women Wrong and the Research that’s Rewriting the Story by Angela Saini
  • The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
  • The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James H. Cone
  • The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism by Naomi Klein
  • From Dissertation to Book by William P. Germano
  • Moral Combat: How Sex Divided American Christians and Fractured American Politics by R. Marie griffith
  • The Hidden History of the War on Voting: Who Stole your Vote and how to get it Back by Tom Hartmann
  • The End of Policing by Alex S. Vitale
  • From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the 21st Century by William A. Darity Jr. and Kirsten Mullen
  • So You Want to be a Wizard? by Diane Dwayne
  • TheWind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
  • Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Y. Davis
  • Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred E. Taylor
  • The Surprising Design of Market Economies by Alex Marshall
  • The Deficit Myth: Modern Monetary Theory and the Rise of the People’s Economy by Stephanie Kelton
  • The Scepter and the Star: Messianism in Light of the Dead Sea Scrolls by John J. Collins
  • Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? A Story about Women and Economics by Katrine Marcal
  • TheFearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf who Became the First Revolutionary Abolitionist by Marcus Rediker
  • The Formation of the Book of Psalms: Reconsidering the Transmission and Canonization of Psalmody in Light of Material Culture and the Poetics of Anthologies by David Willgren
  • Beloved by Toni Morrison
  • Whiteness in Higher Education: The Invisible Missing Link in Diversity and Racial Analyses by Nolan L. Cabrera
  • Critical Race Theory in Higher Education: Twenty Years of Theoretical and Research Innovations by Dorian L. McCoy, et al.
  • The Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuin
  • Critical Race Theory: An Introduction by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic
  • An Afican-American and LatinX History of the United states by Paul Ortiz
  • The City We Became by N. K. Jemisin
  • Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib Khorram
  • The Daevabad Trilogy by S. A. Chakraborty (The City of Brass, The Kingdom of Copper, and The Empire of Gold)
  • Evil: the Science Behind Humanity’s Dark Side by Julia Shaw
  • The Passover Haggadah: A Biography by Vanessa L. Ochs
  • Resisting Neoliberalism in Higher Education, Vol. 1: Seeing Through the Cracks by Dorothy Bottrell and Catherine Manathunga (eds.)
  • Industrial Strength Denial: Eight Stories of Corporations Defending the Indefensible, from the Slave Trade to Climate Change by Barbara Freese
  • How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the soul of America by Heather Cox Richardson
  • The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcom X and Alex Haley
  • Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives by Elizabeth S. Anderson
  • Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation by Kristin Kobes Du Mez
  • Entitled: How Male Privilege Hurts Women by Kate Manne
  • Song of the Lioness Series by Tamora Pierce (Alanna: The First Adventure, n the Hand of the Goddess, The Woman who Rides Like a Man, and Lioness Rampant)
  • White Rage: The unspoken Truth of our Racial Divide by Carol Anderson
  • Immortals Series by Tamora Pierce (Wild Magic, Wolf-Speaker, Emperor Mage, and The Realms of the Gods)
  • Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans
  • Living a Feminist Life by Sara Ahmed
  • Seven and a Half Lessons about the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett
  • How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett
  • The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? by Michael J. Sandel
  • Metaphor Wars: Conceptual Metaphors in Human Life by Raymond W. Gibbs, Jr.
  • Ableism in Academia: Theorizing Experiences of Disabilities and Chronic Illnesses in Higher Education by Nicole Brown and Jennifer Leigh (eds.)
  • Teaching to Transgress: A Pedagogy of Hope by bell hooks

Scholar Strike 3: Race in Biblical Interpretation

As I wrote in my post yesterday, race was not a concept that influenced the composition of biblical texts.

It has, however, deeply influenced their reception and use. Over the past 500 years it has been inextricably bound up in the practice of biblical translation, interpretation, and application. Biblical scholarship—both historical and theological—has been conducted in a world where racial concepts, hierarchies, and structures permeate life at every level, and biblical studies have not been immune to their influence.

The vast majority of biblical scholarship in these centuries was conducted by white, Christian men who sat at or near the top of racial, gender, religious, and class hierarchies, and their interpretations inevitably bear the marks of those social positions. Many read race into these texts where it was not originally present, and the character of these readings have skewed white supremacist (in the broader sense)—not universally and not always explicitly, but often enough and strongly enough to be undeniable.

A number of scholars—particularly scholars of color—are working to untangle the white supremacy that has become so deeply enmeshed with biblical interpretation, and I admit freely that this is not my area of expertise. So I’ll offer one illustration and then point to some work by other scholars that will provide a more comprehensive and detailed representation of the issues.

Early in my graduate studies, I sat in on a seminar session on Old Testament ethics. The professor was white, and if I remember correctly, all of the students were too. The topic of this particular session was slavery in the Old Testament.

In a pre-circulated paper, the professor had outlined his thoughts on the nature and ethics of the topic. To be fair, the limited Hebrew vocabulary for slaves and slavery (עבד [masculine], אמה and שפחה [feminine]) do refer to many different social arrangements and situations with what seem to be quite variable parameters. They apply to Israelites sold into debt bondage (e.g., Leviticus 25:44) and enslaved prisoners of war (Deuteronomy 10:16, 20:10–15), as well as high-ranking officials in the royal court (Exodus 10:7, 1 Samuel 22:14), and there is legitimate work to be done exploring the details and particulars of individual instances and the essential commonalities that bind them together.

The seminar paper, however, admitted to little of the diversity or ambiguity, and generally presented Israelite practices in the most sympathetic light possible. In fact, the professor suggested that the relevant Hebrew words should be translated “servant” in every case, and followed that practice throughout the paper. This was done in part to distance the practices of biblical servitude from modern race-based chattel slavery. While perhaps imperfect, biblical slavery was cast as a basically ethical arrangement, nothing like the fundamentally corrupt trans-Atlantic system.

One section of the paper was titled “The Advantages of Servanthood,” and it defended the pleasant ness and even desirability of Israelite servitude with a quote from a Chinese domestic servant in early 20th-century San Francisco:

I don’t know where being a servant came into disrepute. It is the refuge of a philosopher, the food of the lazy, and, properly carried out, it is a position of power, even of love…. A good servant has absolute security, not because of his master’s kindness, but because of habit and indolence…. My master will defend me, protect me. You have to work and worry. I work less and worry less.

As the professor admitted, though, this quote came from a work of fiction. It was spoken by the character Lee in John Steinbeck’s novel East of Eden. In effect, one white man was defending ancient servitude with words that another white man had placed in the mouth of a fictional non-white servant to defend modern servitude.

I should not have to point out that this is not legitimate evidence. There is no necessary connection between a real experience of subordination and the idea of it that exists in the master’s imagination.

Consider a rosy depiction from another era, in which servants are described as

hapy, contented…Lightly tasked, well clothed, well fed—far better than the free laborers of any country in the world,… their lives and persons protected by the law, all their sufferings alleviated by the kindest and most interested care..

Here we know that reality bore no resemblance to the pretty picture. The servants, in this case, were enslaved Black Americans, and the speaker was James Henry Hammond, who said this on the floor of the House of Representatives in 1836, as part of a two-hour speech defending race-based chattel slavery as a positive social good.

First-person narratives of race-based chattel slavery in the United States, of course, attest overwhelmingly to its brutality and inhumanity. The disconnect between reality and representations by Hammond and other  apologists could not be starker. Perhaps this should not be surprising, since most of them had a vested financial interest in its continuation, and thus in its moral justifiability.

Likewise, John Steinbeck grew up in a household with maids and servants, and so had experienced servitude largely from the master’s point of view. I do not know the professor’s history or situation, but in his treatment of the topic of Israelite slavery, he showed a naive and uncritical willingness to accept the master’s point of view that was undoubtedly conditioned by his position at the top of a racial hierarchy in a society where that position aligned him more often with masters than with servants.

Just as he accepted Steinbeck’s portrayal of servanthood as ethical a desirable, so he accepted and propagated an ethical and desirable framing of biblical servitude.

In this way, I don’t think he is unique. Sympathetic presentations of biblical slavery are common, even from those who would flatly condemn its counterpart in the last century. I don’t mean to condemn this particular professor as an especially bad actor, but rather to present this paper as a glaring example of a common interpretive orientation. All of us were born into this racial caste system, and our thinking and engagement with ideas and institutions have been shaped by aspects of our identity that we did not choose. As we grow and learn, however, we can gain a critical understanding of these received structures and work to change them.

It’s difficult to admit, but at the time of this seminar I wanted to believe this framing. I wanted to believe that biblical slavery was different in kind from all other kinds of slavery, because the Bible was different in kind from all other books. Unlearning this unconscious desire to gloss over the oppressive and unjust parts of the text required reading the work of scholars whose experience was informed by the other side of the arrangement—scholars whose family stories were of discrimination and oppression, whose ethics were formed in subjugated communities burning to live free. It took scholars who would not gloss over inconvenient facts in a rush to apologize for a broken and unjust system, even if it came from their sacred Scriptures.

Some slaves in biblical texts may have been treated well and prospered, but the laws regulating the practice also left ample room for abuse and degradation. Too often, the whiteness of academic biblical studies has obscured biblical slavery’s harsher realities and mischaracterized it as a gentle and humane social arrangement. This does a disservice to African American readers of the text, for whom the fundamental illegitimacy of forced labor is immediately apparent. This is one reason why it is necessary to broaden the engagement of historically underrepresented groups in academic biblical studies and to read and teach their insights alongside the work of white scholars.

Further Resources

This post covered just one small way in which white supremacy has influenced biblical interpretation. Its reach is not limited to issues of slavery, though. If you are interested in learning more, I would point you toward the following scholars, among other.

Dr. Wilda C. Gafney has made this short Scholar Strike video surveying the many faces of white supremacy in biblical interpretation. Go ahead and watch it right now:

She has also written two books, both of which are filled with interrogations of white supremacist readings and proposed alternatives. Go buy, Daughters of Miriam and Womanist Midrash.

In regard to specifically Christian uses of the Bible in support of racist policies and practices, I recommend Jemar Tisby’s must-read The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism and the accompanying video series on Amazon Prime (linked on the book page).

See also Dr. Nyasha Junior’s Reimagining Hagar: Blackness and BibleIntroduction to Womanist Biblical Interpretation, and (with Jeremy Schipper) Black Samson: The Untold Story of an American Icon.

Please feel free to drop more resources in the comments!

Scholar Strike 2: Race in Biblical Texts

This afternoon, I’ll turn to my academic specialization: the Hebrew Bible.

What is there to say about race in the Bible? I’ll make two points:

1. There is no race in the Bible.

2. Thus, there is no racism in the Bible.

Class dismissed. Thank you for your time.

Ok, of course I can’t let you go without saying more. So let’s dig in a little deeper. What does it mean that there is no race—and thus no racism—in the Bible?

Obviously, people in antiquity had different skin colors, and the writers of biblical texts knew this. So we get verses like jeremiah 13:23: “Can Ethiopians change their skin, or leopards their spots?” This rests upon the assumption that Ethiopian skin tone differed from Israelite skin tone and was marked as different, but note the woman speaking in Song of Songs 1:5, who says

שְׁחוֹרָה אֲנִי וְנָאוָה

“Black am I, and beautiful.”

Thus, dark skin was known and admired, even if it was not the norm. Several other Israelite characters are described as אדמיני, “ruddy” or “earthy” (e.g., Esau in Gen. 25:25 and David in 1 Sam. 16:12 and 17:42). Though it is quite a bit later,the Mishnah provides support for the idea that the skin tone considered normal in Israel was a reddish mid-brown. In the 2nd century CE, Rabbi Ishmael said “The children of Israel (may I be atonement for them!) are like boxwood, neither black nor white but of an intermediate shade.” (Mishnah Negaim 2:1). 1Thus, statements that crop up from time to time saying Jesus was white are not true either in a literal or a racial sense. Credit to Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg for the reference.

Mid-brown seems to be the default for the residnts of ancient Israel, then, and darker skin tones were known, but no mention is made of white or light skin in any biblical text.

But, as I wrote in my previous post, race is not color and color is not race. The existence and acknowledgment of different shades of skin does not necessarily imply any concept of race.

To clarify this point, it will help to expand on what “race” is as a concept and what it isn’t, and how concepts of race developed. I say concepts of race in the plural, because the definitions and theoretical underpinnings of race have changed over the years, even as its function in creating a stratified social order has remained relatively stable.

What ties concepts of race together is the idea that the global human population can be divided into a small number (usually 3–5) of subpopulations according to meaningful (i.e., biological) criteria. Different theories of race have rested on varied historical models—most involve early branching of the human family tree into distinct populations, but some have held that different races were the result of separate acts of divine creation (polygenesis).

These theories began to emerge in the context of European expansion and conquest in the 15th century, most directly as justifications for slave trafficking. In Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, Ibram X. Kendi locates the first attestation of a racial theory in Gomes Eanes de Zurara’s biography of Prince Henry of Portugal, published in 1453. The prince had sought to enter Portugal into the European slave trade in earnest at a time when the traditional source of slaves—Eastern Europe—was building up defenses against Westerners. Prince Henry had shifted his efforts to the west coast of Africa, sailing south to avoid paying the premium charged by North African Middlemen who trafficked slaves across the Sahara.

In his presentation, de Zurara referred to all Africans as belonging to a single people, from the light-skinned Tuareg to the dark-skinned Ethiopians and sub-Saharan populations. They were all members of an inferior race, whom Prince Henry, according to de Zurara, had undertaken to enslave in an altruistic act of evangelism.

The reality, of course, was not so benevolent. Prince Henry had grown fabulously wealthy trading slaves, and de Zurara had laundered his reputation with assertions of his Christian charity and the Africans’ natural savagery.

Thus, the racialization of Africans arose as justification for a strategy of domination and exploitation. This is perhaps the most important thing to realize about race—it has never been disinterested, but serves always to organize groups of people into hierarchies of domination and subordination. Race did not emerge from the studies and laboratories of careful, objective scholars, but was created to defend oppression and justified with science only afterward. Even as the biological arguments for its validity have changed and finally evaporated, therefore, it has continued to serve its function stratifying society.

Thus, the statements above that race and racism do not appear in biblical texts is interesting, but it does not quite reach the heart of the issue. Biblical texts provide evidence for many kinds of oppression and exploitation.In some cases they are condemned and resisted (e.g., slavery in Egypt in Ex. 1–3, economic predation throughout the Law and Prophets, and the unaccountable power of kings in Deuteronomy, Judges, and 1 Samuel); in others they are accepted or even celebrated (e.g., rape marriages to war widows in Deuteronomy, slavery in the laws of the Torah). In each case, acts of oppression were justified by existing or invented social, legal, or political structures supported by appeal to tradition or divine mandate.

Biblical texts contain many faces and types of oppression, racism just isn’t one of them. There are several lessons to learn from this. For one, race is not eternal. It was invented and it can be dismantled. But dismantling racism will not necessarily bring about the end of systemic oppression. Racism is just one manifestation of a pernicious and persistent human drive to dominate others, to gain from others even at their great expense.

In our contemporary context, combatting racism is an urgent and necessary part of building a world that allows for the freedom and flourishing of all. Yet we ought never forget that other vectors of oppression persist alongside systemic racism—discrimination according to class, disability, sex, gender, and sexual orientation. A fully-realized anti-oppressive ethic must approach all of these in their distinct forms and logics, never imagining that there is only one vector of oppression or that more cannot be contrived.

And regardless of how oppression is enacted and justified, it is also important to remember the biblical texts that confront and resist it in any form—the calls to love one’s neighbor as oneself (Leviticus 19:18), to break the bonds of oppression (Isaiah 58), to avoid theft, exploitation, and excess wealth (Amos 8:6, Proverbs 30:7–9)), to care for the needs of orphans, widows, and immigrants (Deuteronomy. 27:19, Jeremiah 22:3, Zechariah 7:10), and to speak up for the rights of the poor and destitute (Proverbs 31:1–9). These ideals contain the seeds of resistance against unjust systems in any form, in any time, place, or society.

Scholar Strike 1: I Don’t See Color

“I don’t see color.”

We’ve all heard this line in conversations about race. It is almost a standard response to accusations or insinuations of racism or racial prejudice. It is the mantra of so-called “Colorblind Ideology,” the belief that the best way to end racism is to stop considering race altogether.

The assumption, I guess, is that racism stems directly from the perception of skin color, and simply wouldn’t be possible without it.

I have a problem with this. You see, I don’t see color.

No, but like, literally. I really don’t see color, not real color anyway. Sometimes my visual field pulses with red and blue light, or turns entirely pink for no apparent reason, but those are artifacts of my optic nerve and brain. Colors from the outside world don’t make it inside. Not anymore.

I grew up with color perception, so as a child and young adult I could see skin tone as well as anyone else. But as my vision has deteriorated, I find myself less and less able to tell the color of a new person’s skin. My color perception is nonexistent, and even my ability to tell contrast is greatly diminished. 

Often, I find myself a bit adrift, thinking that some information about someone’s racial or ethnic identity would be useful. So despite being literally colorblind, I cannot deny the importance of race.

But maybe that’s just me. Maybe I’m just used to thinking about race because I grew up sighted. Maybe I’m just missing the visual information that once came so easily. Wouldn’t people who had always been blind be free from concerns about race? Wouldn’t they “not see color” in the metaphorical as well as the literal sense?

Good question., Luckily someone did some research on that.

In his 2015 book Blinded by Sight: Seeing Race through the Eyes of the Blind, legal scholar Osagie Obasogie undertook to discover the link between the visual stimulus of skin color and the social and legal phenomena of racial classification, prejudice, and discrimination.

Obasogie was motivated by the basic question “how do blind people understand race?” (p. 1).

and he is reacting against the naive general assumption that “blind people simply cannot appreciate racial distinctions and therefore do not have any real racial consciousness” (p. 2).

This assumption rests upon a common sense view of race that he calls race ipso loquitor, or “race speaks for itself” (). That is, race is an obvious category that derives directly from salient visual markers such as skin color and physical features. If race is visually self-evident, how important can it be to the blind? In interviews with sighted participants, Obasogie found that most thought race would be irrelevant or unimportant to the way blind people live their lives.

Interviews with blind people showed something quite different.

Obasogie interviewed 106 participants from multiple racial and ethnic backgrounds who had been totally blind from birth. Unlike me, they had never had vision and thus had never experienced race as a visually self-evident phenomenon. 

It was striking, therefore, that the blind participants defined race primarily in visual terms. Despite having no direct access to visual information on skin tone and other physical characteristics, most participants initially described race in terms of color, and then supplemented that definition with other factors such as ethnicity, ancestry, geography, and genetics. Some described their attempts to use other other information—accents and speech patterns, hair texture or body odor—as proxies for visual information when trying to ascertain peoples race, but noted also the high error rate in attempts to do so.

Regarding the significance of race, understandings varied more across lines of race than across lines of visual acuity. That is, blind white people and sighted white people had more similar views on race than blind people of different races or sighted people of different races. Most notably, blind white people across the board tended toward a view of “white racial transparency”—that is, they thought of race as something that other people had, not themselves. This view has been characterized as a view of white as the default—a baseline to which “ethnic” attributes are either added or subtracted. Non-white participants, on the other hand, tended to see race as an attribute possessed by and significant to everyone. 

Blind white participants were also the only ones to use discrimination against disabled people (ableism) as an analogy for racial discrimination, and to understand the struggle for civil rights by both racially minoritized and disabled communities as essentially the same. Non-white participants, on the other hand, tended to frame disability and race as two entirely different and separate experiences and identities. As a side, note, this has long been and continues to be a common point of strife in the disability activist community, which skews heavily white and has historically marginalized the voices and perspectives of disabled people of color.

So far, the findings show more similarity than difference between blind and sighted people of the same racial background. This alone calls into question the notion that race visually speaks for itself, since blind people tend to share the same racial identities and assumptions as the rest of their racial group.

This became explicitly apparent when participants were asked to describe how and when they became aware of the existence and significance of race, and how it factors into their everyday living and decision making. Participants told story after story of parents and authority figures who made sure to instill racialized knowledge in blind children and, to some extent, in blind adults as well. 

Sighted children can pick up on racial cues non-verbally, noting in course of regular events the correlation between racial identity and adult attitudes, body language, and types of speech. Blind children cannot correlate behavior with visual features in the same way, and thus did not generally come to awareness of race on their own. Instead, many adults felt compelled to make the implicit explicit—to ensure that blind children receive the racial information that they deem necessary to live within their place in society.

Blind participants recounted common experiences in their childhood, wherein they would meet and converse with someone without knowing their race. Afterward, and adult would inform them of the person’s race and perhaps give cues about whether the person was suitable to socialize with or not. Such experiences reinforced the idea that race was an important marker not only of identity, but also of status.

White parents also made sure to highlight the racial housing segregation that still exists in many cities and towns across the United States. They would inform their child when they would cross over the line dividing white and Black sections of town, emphasizing that Black people lived in separate areas, that the conditions in these areas were inferior, and that these inferior conditions resulted from the inherent shortcomings of their race.

Racial boundaries were drawn and enforced with special vigor when it came to romance, particularly for young blind white women. One participant related a story in which she brought home a picture of her third-grade boyfriend. Her parents looked at it and said “Crystal, he’s colored.” 

Confused, she confirmed that it had been taken with color film.

They then gave her a lecture on race and the unsuitability of Black boys as romantic partners. She describes the potent mixture of bewilderment and shame that she felt, driving her to destroy the photograph and cease speaking to the boy completely.

Quite a few participants reported that these childhood lessons stayed with them and still guided their behavior. Many were uncomfortable dating across racial lines, and made special efforts to ascertain the race of the people they dated before committing. 

Blind people’s experience with race is not a mere curiosity. It cuts to the heart of the illusion that underlies colorblind ideology. It shows that race, though understood visually by sighted and blind alike, is not an obvious or self-evident characteristic. It is not learned by observation, but by implicit and explicit instruction from a very young age.

The example of the blind throws the disconnect between colorblind ideology and social reality into stark relief. The racial distinctions, classifications, and hierarchies that sighted children learn implicitly from observation must be actively and intentionally taught to those who cannot perceive visual cues.

In some cases, parents went to extreme lengths to impress the importance of race on their blind children. Leaning into the apparent impunity with which they could lie about visual matters, they said things that would be amusingly bizarre if they were not so damaging. One mother told her daughter that mixed race relationships would lead to polka-dotted children. A small blind black girl was told she should not bathe with her white friend, because her black would rub off on her. 

As strange as these lies are, they are no more strange than the counterfactual definitions of race we use without question every day. No person has truly black skin, or truly white skin. Skin tones exist along spectra of colors and tones, which do not divide neatly into clear categories. Consider how often people are described as racially ambiguous, or the recent cases of Rachel Dolezal and Jessica Krug, two white women who successfully pretended to be Black for years. If race were a self-evident function of skin color, these cases should not be possible.

Race is not color, and color is not race.

Race is a socially created and maintained classification scheme with no defensible biological basis. The social processes that construct and perpetuate racial categories are not straightforward or empirical, but they cast themselves as such. Thus, colorblind ideology manages to hide its social construction behind a veil of straightforward common sense. Race becomes obvious. It becomes what is seen, not what is made and reinforced over centuries of social relationships and representations. 

But this is an illusion. Behind the common sense of racial self-evidence, the social creation and perpetuation of racial divisions and hierarchies continue. Racism cannot be undone simply by not seeing it, or by pretending not to see it. The next time you hear someone say they do not see color, or the next time you are tempted to say it yourself, think of me. Think of those who cannot see color in the most literal sense, but still recognize that they are not exempt from the racialized system in which we live. Race is all of our responsibility, and the first step toward dismantling racial injustice is recognizing its foothold in our minds.

 ***

For further reading on the shortcomings of colorblind ideology, see here and here. Also read Part Two of Obasogie’s Blinded by Sight and Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

 

For further reading on the experience of blind people of color, see this recent piece by Anil Lewis: Being Black Helped me be Blind and Being Blind Helped me Realize that #BlackLivesMatter.”

Announcement: Scholar Strike!

 

The logo for the Scholar Strike, which includes the text

Tomorrow and Wednesday (Sept. 8–9), I will be participating in a day of solidarity and action called Scholar Strike.

Scholar Strike was inspired by the swell of protest and uprising in cities across America, as well as by the ongoing actions of WNBA athletes and last week’s strikes by several teams in the NBA. It has been organized by Anthea Butler and Kevin Gannon, and has attracted pledges to participate in some way from over 5,000 scholars and other academic professionals.

The purpose of this strike is to disrupt the regular flow of academic life and to use the specific skills and expertise of academic professionals to draw attention to forms of racial injustice and oppression in America and the urgent need for solutions.

The strike will be combined with an online teach-in. Scholars from a range of disciplines and specializations will create and share resources for education in the history, theory, and confrontation of racist ideas, practices, and structures in the United States.

The organizers have created a dedicated YouTube channel, which will air ten-minute videos produced by scholars back-to-back for both days.

Further resources, including written pieces, podcasts, and live events can be found by following the strike on social media: facebooktwitter, Instagram, and the hash tag #ScholarStrike on all platforms.

 My own contributions will appear here. I plan to publish several posts over the next two days that cover topics relating to racial discrimination from a number of different angles. 

Please follow the strike and check back here over the coming days to participate in this movement for learning and change!

2019: My Year in Books

A grid of covers from some of the books I read in 2019

In the rush to finish my dissertation, I was sad to miss writing my annual book review post (see 2017 and 2018), so I’m just going to do it now…in May.

This year I read 37 books. Nowhere near the high mark of 67 books from last year; I didn’t even get to my goal of 40 books. But that’s ok, because the trade-off was, you know, finishing my dissertation.

 So here, without further delay, is my reading list from 2019. As usual, some favorites are called out on top, and the rest are listed below in the order I read them.

Top Picks

Fiction

Octavia E. Butler. Yes, yes, I know Octavia Butler is not a book, but I discovered her last year and read three of her novels and one short story collection. If you haven’t read anything of hers, you should. From Kindred, the story of a woman who has to literally navigate the brutal injustices of her family tree as she jumps back and forth in time, to Earthseed a prescient series set in a near-future America troubled by climate change, unchecked corporatization, designer drugs, and theocratic power-grabs, Butler’s writing perceptively explores many of the disturbing undercurrents that plague American society and culture and brings them to life in gripping narrative.

Non-Fiction

Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools by Diane Ravitch

This book on education policy came out in 2012, so some of the information is a bit dated. Nevertheless, its core message is still alarmingly relevant. Movements toward school privatization have continued in force since the book was written, and are only intensifying during the Coronavirus pandemic. Reign of Error gives important background and useful, data-backed arguments against privatization and charter and voucher school programs. Once an advocate for charter schools herself, Ravitch became disillusioned by their consistent failure to deliver on their grandiose promises and now offers clear and convincing arguments for revitalization and reinvestment in public education.

I first heard Diane Ravitch speak on the Pitchfork Economics podcast, She and host Nick Hanauer discussed their former advocacy for school privatization and the process by which their views changed. It is rare to witness people who have, by evidence and experience, become disillusioned with positions for which they have advocated strongly and systems which benefit them personally. I was impressed by the intellectual honesty and personal integrity they showed as they adjusted their beliefs, acknowledged their error, and worked to make amends. 

Atlas of Moral Psychology, edited by Kurt Gray

This colossal edited volume presents a current state-of-the-field survey of moral psychology. Unlike the field of ethics, moral psychology does not attempt to ascertain what is actually right and wrong; instead, it attempts to identify the psychological and socio-cultural processes by which humans decide what is right or wrong, and how to act and react morally in specific circumstances. It is a new and messy field, but it already offers valuable insights into many foibles of human morality, from the ethical systems we create down to the inconsistency with which we embody them. I was especially happy to see that this volume made a strong effort to include investigations across class, gender, and culture, the lack of which has historically been a weakness of psychological research. 

The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism by Jemar Tisby

Tisby presents an excellent historical survey of the shortcomings of the American church as it relates to issues of race. Even when white Christians were not explicitly championing racist views or defending the institutions of slavery and segregation, their advocacy for equal rights and protections under the law were muted and weak. Few and far between were those who gave full-throated support to the liberation of Black, Asian, and Hispanic people, here or abroad. This book focuses only on the Christian church’s role in the history of racism in America, and may work best as a supplement to Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning and/or Paul Ortiz’s An African American and LatinX History of the United States.

The Whole List

  • Discovering Second Temple Literature: The Scriptures and Stories that Shaped Early Judaism by Malka Z. Simkovich.
  • Children of Blood and Bone (Legacy of Orisha #1) by Tomi Adeyemi
  • Women, Race, and Class by Angela Y. Davis
  • The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt
  • The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism by Jemar Tisby
  • A Brief History of Everyone who Ever Lived: The Stories in our Genes by Adam Rutherford
  • The New Cambridge History of the Bible: Volume 1. From the Beginnings to 600 edited by James Carleton Paget
  • Surprised by God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Religion by Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg
  • This Abled Body: Rethinking Disabilities in Biblical Studies edited by Hector Avalos
  • The Rise and Fall of the Bible: The Unexpected History of an Accidental Book by Timothy Beal
  • The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory by Jesse Walker
  • Sex, Mom, and God: How the Bible’s Strange Take on Sex Led to Crazy Politics and How I learned to Love Women (and Jesus) Anyway by Frank Schaeffer
  • The Eyre Affair (Thursday Next, #1) by Jasper Fforde
  • Atlas of Moral Psychology edited by Kurt Gray
  • A Disability History of the United States by Kim E. Nielsen
  • Late Bloomers: The Power of Patience in a World Obsessed with Early Achievement by Rich Karlgaard
  • The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Green
  • Beyond Orality: Biblical Poetry on Its Own Terms by Jacqueline Vayntrub
  • The Emily Series by L. M. Montgomery (Emily of New Moon, Emily Climbs, and Emily’s Quest)
  • Kindred by Octavia E. Butler
  • Blood Child and Other Stories by Octavia E Butler
  • Parable of the Sower (Earthseed, #1) by Octavia E. Butler
  • Parable of the Talents (Earthseed, #2) by Octavia E. Butler
  • The Big Disruption by Jessica Powell
  • Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America’s Heartland by Jonathan Metzl
  • Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools by Diane Ravitch
  • What Really Happened in the Garden of Eden? by Ziony Zevit
  • Moses Among the Idols: Mediators of the Divine in the Ancient Near East by Amy L. Balogh
  • Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson
  • White Fragility: Why it’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism by Robin D’Angelo
  • A Short History of Iraq by Thabit Abdullah
  • Divine Bodies: Resurrecting Perfection in the New Testament and Early Christianity by Candida R. Moss
  • Biblical Corpora: Representations of Disability in Hebrew Biblical Literature by Rebecca Raphael
  • The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom by Candida R. Moss
  • The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls by Mona Eltahawy

Update: Finishing Up and Starting Anew

Partial page from a medieval Hebrew manuscript of the Psalms. The main text is interrupted by an enlarged and stylized

Well, it’s been a long time since I last posted. I guess some years you blog a lot and other years you have an infant, finish a dissertation, and graduate with a PhD in the middle of a global pandemic. Every year is different!

Here’s an update to bring everyone up to speed:

At this time last year, I was finalizing the first few chapters of my dissertation so I could send them to my committee for review.  I had been working on the underlying research for a couple of years already, but the strands didn’t come together into something coherent and submittable until last May. From there, it was less than a year before I sent a complete draft—397 pages of glorious, heavily footnoted nerdery—to my advisors. The date was March 8, and my defense was set for the 20th.

It had been planned out for months. We had conscripted my parents to fly out from Colorado. They would watch the girls, while Kristin and I went back to Boston for the defense, some celebration, and our first trip away without children in more than five years.

But alas, dear reader, it was not to be.

On March 10th my department sent a note that defenses were likely to be virtualized, and to await further guidance. It was still very early in COVID times, and it was the first hint we got that life would start to be affected in the United States. Kristin’s job had recently made work-from-home mandatory, and some of her coworkers in China had not left their apartments in weeks already, but it was still largely business as usual over here.

Needless to say, things did not get better over the next ten days, and so I found myself sitting at my computer before sunrise on the morning of the 20th, defending my dissertation to a committee with members spanning two continents and nine time zones. The circumstances were surreal, but the experience itself was supportive and encouraging. My dissertation passed with enthusiastic support, requiring only a good proofreading and some  formatting corrections before submission.

Now it is done. The final version has been deposited for posterity, my email signature has been appended with the three fateful letters P, h, and D, and…

And, well, I sure picked a doozie of a year to graduate.

As I’m sure several (hundred) emails inform you every day, these are uncertain times—unprecedented times, even! This is very much the case in higher education, as universities have closed down for the semester and are now weighing when, how, and in some cases whether to reopen. Many universities have announced full or partial hiring freezes for the upcoming academic year, and in all likelihood the job market will be especially slim for years. 

So a lot of things are up in the air these days. School is canceled for the kids and we are operating without child care. I’m taking on full-time lead parent duties, though Kristin is taking the lead on their crisis schooling since most of the materials are inaccessible. In the gaps, naps, and evenings I’ll keep on keeping on—writing articles, revising the dissertation, and perhaps even posting around here some more. 

I’m glad to have you along for the ride! Let me know how you’re doing in the comments!

Music and Blindness in Babylonia: New Piece on the Disability History Association Blog

This is just a quick notice that a piece I wrote was just published on All Of Us, the peer-reviewed blog of the Disability History Association.

Don’t worry, though, there will be new content here soon! I’ve been writing and planning a few posts for the coming weeks and months, and should be posting them here in the next few days. In the mean time, check out the article, The Songbird: Linking Music and Blindness in Ancient Babylonia.