Scholarship Online

In this age of COVID-19, one of the few bright spots has been that many academic talks and meetings have moved online, which means that anyone, anywhere can access them. Here’s some of the ones that have caught my eye!

(Yes, I’m writing this as much for me as it is for everyone else … )

Coming up on June 11, Aaron Jakes (Assistant Professor of History and Co-Director of Capitalism Studies, The New School) will be talking about “A World of Disasters: Famine, Plague, and Crisis in Global History”

The profound upheaval wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic has, understandably, invited a wide array of comparisons with past disasters. Of course, societies across the globe have grappled with unexpected, cataclysmic events throughout all of recorded history. But the character, meaning, and experience of such destructive phenomena have varied greatly across world regions and historical eras. In this talk, we will consider together how disasters might be “good to think with,” and how, more specifically, they might allow us to discern and map the movement of large-scale socio-historical transformations.

The always fabulous Nükhet Varlık, Associate Professor of History at Rutgers University – Newark and the University of South Carolina, gave a talk for Harvard University’s Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Islamic Studies program called “Rethinking the History of Plague in the Time of Coronavirus,” where she discussing plague in European and Ottoman historiography, questioning Eurocentric narratives and epidemiological Orientalism, and reflecting on how we can understand this history in light of the current pandemic. 

I still can’t quite believe I got to follow her in this series, talking about The ‘Spanish’ Influenza in Egypt” on May 6.

Khaled Fahmy (Cambridge) had a conversation with Mezna Qato (Cambridge) about archives and quarantines in 19th century Egypt for the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Science and the Humanities on May 8.

Elaine Van Dalen, Assistant Professor of Classical Islamic Studies at Columbia University, gave a talk on “Medieval Islamic Medical Perspectives on Pandemics from the Ninth to the Fourteenth Centuries” for Vanderbilt University’s Islamic Studies program.

The British Egyyptian Society hosted an online conversation called Eat Like an Egyptian! I enjoy food history a lot and can’t believe I missed this one …

I know there’s other stuff out there, so check back! I’ll keep updating.

A Tale of Two Contagions: Science, Imperialism, and the 1883 Cholera in Egypt

Proving that I can write about things other than the Spanish flu …

In the summer and fall of 1883, the newly-installed Anglo-Egyptian government faced its first public health crisis when cases of cholera were reported in the Nile Delta and rapidly spread throughout the country. The government’s response was based in part on long-standing European prejudices about the “Orient” as the origin of plague and pestilence and “Orientals” as people who did not understand health, science, or hygiene, and were unconcerned—even fatalistic—in the face of life-threatening illnesses.

To the contrary, Egypt had, over the course of the 19th century, developed a basic national health system, which had earned praise from European observers prior to the British occupation in 1882. The prejudices expressed by British occupation authorities also elides the British government’s own stance in ongoing debates among European scientists about contagion and the appropriate methods for preventing the spread of diseases like cholera.

The Anglo-Egyptian government’s response was based on imperial policies, racial prejudices, and scientific understandings that failed to adequately deal with the pandemic at the cost of 50,000 Egyptian lives.

Go read the rest at: A Tale of Two Contagions: Science, Imperialism, and the 1883 Cholera in Egypt — Islamic Law Blog

The myth of the “Alt-ac” career

I honestly didn’t mean to turn into An Angry White Man on Twitter over the weekend.

It started, innocently enough, with me perusing my social media feeds first thing in the morning on Saturday, and noticing that the institute where I’ve spent the last year as a postdoc had posted an article highlighting what former internal postdoctoral fellows have gone on to do with their careers.

What got under my skin and eventually led to … I won’t say I had a full on meltdown, I was just rather unhappy … was that the headline triumphantly announced that “84% of our internal postdocs went on to get jobs!”

You see, as of right now I am in the other 16%–that is, among the ones who don’t have a post-postdoc job lined up.

I’m afraid that, particularly on Twitter, my initial unhappiness sounded like I was throwing myself a pity party for not having gotten an academic job this year.

I really wasn’t, or at least, that wasn’t my intention.

GIF: "I'm a grumpy old man!"

I made my peace with the poor academic job market some time ago — you see, while it’s true that I did not get a single interview or expression of interest from any of the academic jobs that I applied to (nor did I even get a formal rejection letter from 2/3 of them), the simple fact of the matter is that I applied to a grand total of six jobs.

Count with me here: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.

Three of them were outside my immediate subfield (world history rather than Middle East history), and one was a one-year visiting position.

One of the two that did send a rejection letter–not the one that sent the typo-laden form letter on December 23–mentioned that over 100 people had applied for the position. You can be the best candidate on Earth and have problems making the cut with those kinds of odds.

No, as I said in my tweet above, my bigger issue with the market is that it’s been this way for some time, and while there’s a lot of lip service to this reality, there is a huge amount of structural indifference to it, and this, honestly, is where my patience wears thin.

Let me explain.

The myth of alt-ac.

First, let me be clear I’m not blaming my specific department or institution, nor am I trying to single them out for specific criticism. I started down this road because I thought this release was a bit tone deaf, especially at this particular moment when everything has ground to a halt because of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, this is a systematic issue that’s bigger than one specific place, and it can only be dealt with by rethinking the entire concept of postgraduate education.

In the immediate aftermath of my initial sarcastic tweet–“Gee, it’s fun to start the morning by being reminded you’re among the 16% of postdocs who didn’t get an academic job”–a number of friends, colleagues, and followers contacted me to express empathy (or a shared series of concerns). In more than one case, many of us had side discussions that basically wound up going to the same place.

Namely, that this whole “alt-ac” or “career diversity” thing is some serious bullshit.

GIF: "This is bullshit."

For the uninitiated, “alt-ac” and “career diversity” are buzzwords that essentially mean the same thing: those of us in graduate programs, especially doctoral programs, are statistically unlikely to land what used to be considered the gold standard for those with that particular academic credential, specifically the tenure-track (TT) job at a four year institution of higher learning.

I don’t mean that “alt-ac” as an idea is bullshit. Of course we should be looking at career options beyond the tenure track.

My husband reminds me constantly that my original plans had nothing to do with being an academic, at least not until I discovered I actually liked research and teaching.

(Why my plans changed is a different post in and of itself. I originally had textbook consulting in mind when I started down this road, but I don’t know if I can deal with the futility of working with anti-intellectual organizations in positions of power–ones like the Texas State Board of Education.)

The issue–the bullshit, if you will–is that most academic professional associations seem to think that repeating the phrase “alt-ac” or “career diversity” enough times does … I don’t know what.

It’s become shorthand for “jobs we don’t have to train you for and can’t–or won’t–help you find.”

This is where the disconnect comes in.

GIF: "That's not my problem."

Case in point. The American Historical Association recently released a database of everywhere that people who got Ph.D.s in history between 2003 and 2014 are working. They’ve been publicizing the hell out of it, and it is somewhat of an impressive piece of work.

That said … as a recent Ph.D, myself, I am utterly mystified as to what I am supposed to do with it.

Should I use it to find someone whose job seems neat and follow them around until they seem like they’re ready to retire? Is that it?

Practically speaking, what does this exercise in data management prove, exactly? Yes, historians are working everywhere. Good for them. How did they get there? What additional training did they need?

For example, there’s much discussion of how history Ph.D.s work in archives and museums. I have neither archival nor curatorial training. How did those people make that leap?

The other thing, in case you were wondering, is that the job board on their website almost exclusively lists academic jobs.

They give lip service to alt-ac careers, encourage their student members to consider pursuing them, they even fund graduate students to be “career diversity fellows,” which involves funding a student for two years to hold brown bag lunches and brainstorming sessions.

For the last year, these sessions were held at a seminar table outside my office where, every few weeks, students would meet and come up with perfectly excellent ideas about what they needed in order to start pursuing the alt-ac angle of their degrees.

All ideas that will never be implemented because, and I know this from my 20 years on the admin side of things, there’s not a single person in the department –staff or faculty–with the time or resources to do any of them.

But when it comes to actually helping history Ph.D.’s find any of these alt-ac jobs …

GIF: empty scene, labeled "... crickets chirping"

For the record, I point to AHA because it happens to be one of the professional organizations that I am a member of. I don’t mean to single them out as though they’re doing a worse job than anyone else, as I am not aware that any of the professional associations for any other fields–English, Anthropology, Sociology, etc.,–are doing productive things toward helping their membership adjust to the new reality in which “Ph.D. does not equal TT job.”

The problem is systemic and deep rooted in higher education itself.

More than anything else, what I’m frustrated by is the visible (audible?) disconnect between the following two things that doctoral students in the liberal arts now know to be true:

  1. We must all consider “alt-ac” our mostly likely employment option; and
  2. Your doctoral program will prepare you for a TT position, which you won’t get.

In order to fully realize an alt-ac career, we need to be trained to do things other than teach (and, in a moment of praise, I will say that one of the things that my specific program and department does do is mandate a pedagogical training seminar for graduate students).

But, where is the investment in a practicum to help us get some of the skills we need to make the alt-ac leap?

GIF: women taps microphone and asks "Is this thing on?"

See, Colleges of Arts and Sciences, or the Liberal Arts, or Humanities, or whatever they’re called … they could work collectively with professional schools to deliver such training for their graduate students.

My university has a huge Information Sciences program. An art history program. A business school. We have people on our campus who give the kind of training graduates need to purse this so called “alt-ac” career track.

This would, of course, work best if all of the departments in the liberal arts came together to offer this sort of training to their students collectively. But right now, departments compete for funding, faculty lines, and limited resources within their colleges. They don’t collaborate.

Or, rather, if they do, it’s the exception more than the rule.

Then, of course, colleges compete with each other for the attention of the provost. And so on down the line. Students only get “counted” once, in the college of their particular major. Why, then, would they waste time and (here’s the kicker) money training students from a different college?

The issue is that this problem would only be solved by rethinking postgraduate education entirely, and changing how universities operate. And that …

GIF: man sitting by the side of his road, looks at his watch, and sighs.

That, ultimately, is the basis of my unhappiness.

It’s not that I didn’t get an interview for any of the jobs I applied to that each had hundreds of applicants.

It’s not that I will be unemployed come August 31.

It’s that no one has guidance on how to do anything else.

How to use Google Docs to OCR Arabic text

I discovered by accident that Google Docs has the holy grail for people who work with Arabic and Persian: Optical Character Recognition. It’s a little cumbersome, but I’ve been using it to produce translations of newspaper articles in about as much time as it would normally take me to try to skim them.

Is this cheating? Probably. Also, don’t care. My productivity has gone up substantially.

Let’s take this column I’ve been working on out of Al-Muqattam, an Egyptian newspaper, from 1918. The scan of microfilm looks like this:

The problem–as anyone who works on this period immediately understands–is that the original was handwritten on hard wax, printed onto paper, and then photographed. The writing is inconsistent, and (especially for a non-native speaker) hard to decipher. Is that a smudge or the letter ق? Is that a bump or an initial م as rendered in the ruq’a script?

Someone clued me into the fact that the camera function on Google Translate does a passable job of reading Arabic with its camera function — which it does, and if you need a quick (usually really bad) translation, it will suffice. But it only works on your phone or tablet.

The problem is for those of us who are more interested in getting a clean version of the original Arabic text. The camera function isn’t perfect, and it’s hard to edit. Further, trying to transfer it from your device onto a computer is difficult, since the main function of Google Translate is … well, to translate.

Just when I had resigned myself to holding up my phone to my computer screen, I found that there is another way.

A better way.

1. What you need.

  1. You need a Google account.
    Sorry, if you’re anti-evil-corporate entity, this won’t work. I appreciate where you’re coming from, but you need Google docs for this.
  2. A computer.
  3. A file in the target language.
  4. A screen capture program, preferably one that has a crop function (the Windows 10 Snip-and-Sketch program is perfect for this).

2. How to start

(note: if you’re working with a document where the text is already in one column–like a letter or printed report–you can skip this step.)

Open your document and get it on the screen. My screen looks like this.

Since I’m working with a newspaper, I do this one column at a time.

Take a snip of your document — here’s what the snip I’m working with looks like:

It’s a regular old JPG called, inventively, “November 27-01.jpg” because I’m working with the issue from November 27 1918, and it’s the first image.

Okay, here’s where the fun starts.

3. Open Google Drive

  1. This is important: open Google Drive, not Google Docs.
  2. Upload your images.
  3. Right click on the first image you want to work with. In the popup menu, select “Open with > Google Docs”

This is the important part. You cannot open a blank Google Doc and insert the image. I mean, you can, but the part that you really want to happen next — the OCR magic! — doesn’t happen if you do that.

4. Wait for it …

When you open your new Google doc (it’ll happen automatically), you’ll see this.

In the words of Parker Posey from the otherwise forgettable “Superman Returns” (2006), “Gee, Lex. That’s really something.”

Yeah, there it is. Your image. In a Google Doc. Just like I told you not to do yourself.

But wait … scroll down.

You see that microscopic text at the bottom? Let’s zoom in a bit.

Why, if I didn’t know any better, I’d say it’s Arabic!

So, usually what I do is copy and paste it into a new document, enlarge it, and choose a more attractive font (under “more fonts” you can select Arabic as the language and have your pick).

Here’s the end result:

Now, as you can see … there’s some errors in there. The article’s subtitle is أو الحمى الاسبانية, not او الحي الاسبانية. So, usually I put them side by side like this and start proofing:

But proofing text that’s already been rendered by a program that knows a much wider range of words than I do is so much quicker than trying to figure it out on my own. This took less than five minutes:

أو الحمى الاسبانية

 علم القراء مما نشرناه قبلا من هذه الوافدة انها توشك أن تعم العالم بأسره وانها تكاد تحرم الناس الشعور بالفرح من جراء عقد الهدية بها تلبسهم من ثياب الحداد على احيائهم وان الخوف الأكبر من الاصابة بها انما هو المضاعفات التي تصيب المريض إذا لم يعن به العناية الكافية وأشد هذه المضاعفات خطرا ذات الرئة وقد نشرنا ما يلي مقتطفات من صحف أوروبا من سير المرض فيها ونشرت جريدتنا السودان في عددها الأخير فصلا بعنوان “الانفلونزا على الطريق” قالت فيه “لا يكاد أحد يعود إلى السودان من مصر هذا السيف الاوصاب بالانفلونزا أو الحمى الإسبانية قبل وصوله إلى الخرطوم أو حال وصوله اليها.”

Now, you can leave it here. Honestly, just having the text in a much clearer and easy to-read format is a huge boon (and reminded me that, hey, I can read Arabic!).

You can also take the next step and get a quick and dirty translation by running the result through Google Translate:

Or Spanish fever

Readers learned from what we published earlier from this invader is about to pervade the entire world and that it almost deprives people of the joy of holding a gift by wearing them from the clothes of mourning for their neighborhoods and that the greatest fear of injury to them is the complications that afflict the patient if he does not mean adequate care and more severe These complications are a pneumonia hazard, and we have published the following excerpts from the European newspapers about the course of the disease in it. Our newspaper Sudan published in its latest issue a chapter entitled “Flu on the road” in which it said: “No one returns to Sudan from Egypt. This sword is infected with flu or Spanish fever before arriving. To Khartoum or if and He reached it. “

Is this even remotely ready for publication? Hell no. I’m a little embarrassed that this is the passage I chose to show here, but it’s been a long day and I’m too tired to do a different series of screenshots.

What I did do was put both the Arabic and the quick-and-dirty English into a note attached to the Zotero entry for this particular article, so I have it at my fingertips. The most useful function here is that the quick and dirty can help me find a reference to something i missed. But if it yields material I want to quote or highlight, then I can do my own translation since GT isn’t quite there yet.

The one quibble I have is that, for some reason, Google Translate doesn’t like the Perso-Indic numbers used in Egypt and the Mashriq. You’ll have to do those manually, but that’s a small price to pay to have GOOGLE FREAKING DECIPHER OLD ARABIC TEXT.


I am told by people who’ve been experimenting with other languages that this works pretty well for Persian, Kurdish (in the Arabo-Persian script), Urdu, and even Ottoman Turkish.

I’ve also been told the equivalent function in Hebrew works in the literal sense but produces much poorer results.

Update update

I’d quite forgotten about this post until Alex Mallett tested the technique and posted it on Digital Orientalist, and I will say I quite agree with his conclusions. Machine translation is still very clunky — to me, the most useful part of this whole exercise, and the one I still use regularly, is getting a transcribed version of the original Arabic scan. My Arabic typing is slow, and Google does a better job since it knows all words I don’t know. But for English? Yeah, I’ll do it myself!