Moving the Cheese

Many years ago, when I was still working in educational outreach, I consulted with the state of Texas on a curriculum project. The project was poorly managed, and run in the most baffling manner imaginable, neither of which is relevant to the story here.

For some time, after the new product was rolled out, we would occasionally be asked to respond to questions from the field — that is, to say, the teachers who actually used the curriculum in their classroom. And some of the questions were, quite frankly, hostile.

When I commented on this to our contact, she laughed and said, “Oh, don’t take it personally. You moved the cheese, is all.” She then went on to explain that teachers have their favorite subjects–now with several years in a classroom under my belt, I understand this–and, with standards- and test-driven education, sometimes when the lessons are changed or removed from the curriculum, people get upset. Ultimately, she said, it was a bit like what happens when you’re training a mouse to run through a maze, and then you move the cheese.

Inasmuch as I recognize that comparing teachers scrambling to address ever changing standards to mice in a maze is both inappropriate and weirdly apt, the phrase “you moved the cheese” has stuck with me.

I’ve tried to keep it in mind as I have observed some of the goings on in higher academia, much of which I’ve witnessed in the format of reviews. As I advised students preparing to write their own first book reviews, a good reviewer needs to approach the text on its own terms, not on the basis of “I wouldn’t have written this.” This may be true, but you also didn’t write it. Someone else did who isn’t you, and it’s not fair to punish them for the crime of not being you.

My very first peer reviewed article (still forthcoming, a year after acceptance) was a lesson in reminding myself not to take things personally. And this was hard. My proverbial Reviewer 2 sent a three-page single-spaced critique of my article (which, confusingly, had been accepted with revisions).

The major problem, as I realized, was that in editing it for the submission I had cut the literature review out to move it earlier in the piece, and had forgotten to paste it back in. Reviewer 2 started off by pointing out that I did not engage with the literature. Fair point. Of course, I actually had, but he (for the tone makes his gender clear) didn’t know that.

Reviewer 2 then proceeded to inform me which books I should look at. It was clear that Reviewer 2 was not in my subfield and had done a very quick library catalog search, for the titles were temporally or geographically irrelevant to the topic of the article (or both).

Reviewer 2 then went on to excoriate me for the lack of Arabic sources (which I had addressed in the text), and, by way of insinuating what a lazy, sloppy researcher I must be, informed myself and the editor that “these things are all available online now.”

Having spent most of the process of writing my dissertation attempting to psychically will such online resources into existence, this was news to me (it was also incorrect). Now on a roll, Reviewer 2 then proceeded to list three issues of a journal which were online and that I had looked at as further evidence of my laxness.

By this point, of course, I was nearly breathing into a paper bag. Eventually, when I examined said online journal, I realized that I had been correct–the articles cited by Reviewer 2 did not say what he claimed they had, and were of only marginal use–mainly to address the major bugbear about not the article not having enough sources in Arabic.

Further correspondence with the editor revealed that he, also, didn’t find Reviewer 2’s comments particularly helpful (hence the acceptance with revisions). It was also clear that, despite his insistence that I had not engaged with the literature on the topic, Reviewer 2 was not in a place to provide any qualitative guidance on that front, either. Within a month, I had restored the the literature review to its rightful place, made a few other tweaks, got my final acceptance, and the article moved on to the land of the never-ending production queue.

I don’t know which block of cheese I moved to earn Reviewer 2’s ire, but I found the episode instructive, if not particularly useful. First, being courteous is always a plus. Reviewer 1 managed that, with equally deep but constructive criticism that I employed quickly and without much fuss.

It also made me more aware of what happens when the cheese gets moved.


Recently, a Twitter-friend, Sarah Pearce (NYU), published a review essay that focused on Geraldine Heng’s much-lauded The Invention of Race in the Middle Ages. I admire Pearce’s work — she is nothing if not thorough and thinks about things in a way that I can only dream of (perhaps not pleasant dreams, as I have never been one to think about how people think about things, but that’s what makes academia interesting).

Pearce knew going into this that she was fighting an uphill battle. Heng is a medievalist; medieval studies has been plagued with problems relating to race, racialism, and racism, with no less than the likes of Milo FakeGreekAlopoulos “weighing in” on the matter (because if our middle ages weren’t lily white, then what do we have? I guess?).

The review essay is quite detailed, and it’s worth reading — I was fortunate to be able to read it in draft form. Some of the language is, admittedly, a little harsher than I might adopt on my own, but I’m also both conflict-averse and don’t have a permanent job.

Pearce’s argument boils down to this: Heng’s work is a notable first attempt at trying to rethink race and race-stand-ins in a medieval context, but when it came to the way she represents Jews in her book, she does not successfully decolonize her own approach — in short, medieval studies is a field that peers out at the rest of the world from English Christendom, and the book’s framing of English Jews is, in Pearce’s opinion, unable to escape this Christian-centered framework.

To continue with my analogy: Pearce recognizes that Heng has correctly identified the need to move the cheese, but argues that the framework Heng proposes wasn’t entirely successful.

When Pearce put the essay out on Twitter, reaction was fairly swift and rather polarized, as one might expect. Heng, herself, is a bit of a polarizing figure. A number of other colleagues have described her as wonderfully supportive, especially of junior colleagues. A number of other colleagues have also described her as difficult to work with and impervious to criticism.

The Invention of Race arrived at a critical moment in the field, and was able to provide a focus for much of the conversation; Pearce argues that the book’s timing and lauded effort shouldn’t overshadow critical review of certain structural arguments in the book.

At no point does Heng’s ethnicity or gender enter the context of the review (nor should it have done). The review is meticulous about engaging with the text. However, much of the early criticism–I shan’t name names–revolved around the idea that Pearce was arguing for the silencing or erasure of a colleague of color (Heng is from Singapore).

One particularly adamant critic suggested that Pearce was only able to publish such a lengthy review because she is white, and went on–whether this was deliberate or thrown out in the heat of the moment, I cannot say–to imply, if not state outright, that white scholars should not be allowed to critique scholars of color. Fortunately, most of the critical commentary was less hostile than this, but the conversation was lengthy and lively.

The question of race–ironic, given that it was brought up regarding a review of a book about race–is, obviously touchy. What struck me about the adamant tone of this particular critic is the degree with which they self-identified with Heng’s work, and needed the way that Heng had moved the cheese to be perfect.

And it is the need for perfection–and the absolute unwillingness to consider the possibility that there might be imperfection or further adjustments necessary–that I found perplexing. Because, of course, once again, the issue isn’t about what’s on the page, it’s about emotional reactions to challenging those ideas.


This whole episode resonated with me because so many of the foundational works–the cheese movers, if you will–in my field have been problematic. Books need not be perfect in order to be important. Sometimes the most important books are flawed–sometimes even on purpose–in order to generate conversations about opening new lines of scholarship or taking a different approach to a long standing core narrative.

Edward Said’s Orientalism, for example, was almost universally panned when it was first published (and not just by people named in it). Said, a professor of Comparative Literature, took on nearly every subfield in the humanities and social sciences, and was roundly scolded for not having stayed in his lane. The book, quite frankly, also isn’t that readable: I’ve pretty much made it through the introduction and I paraphrase the argument for students because I can’t bear to assign a text I’m fairly certain no one will read.

Still, some people absolutely adore the book, and the message contained within. At a plenary session at the 1998 Middle East Studies Association’s (MESA) annual conference, which coincided with the 20th anniversary of the publication of Orientalism, Said–after slyly pointing out that he’d had MESA in mind when he wrote the book (cue laughter from “woke” audience)–sheepishly admitted that he had intended the book to be a conversation starter, and had been a bit surprised that so many people adopted it as a functional paradigm for the field.

Indeed, some of his critics who were in the room that evening (most of whom split off to form a second association shortly thereafter) delivered thunderous denunciations from the floor, until Homi Bhabha clapped back … it really was a once in a lifetime event for so many reasons. It even inspired me to try to re-read Orientalism, which I quickly gave up on, because the book really is one dense puppy.

Similarly, Patricia Crone and Michael Cook’s Hagarism was also hugely influential in the field of early Islamic studies, even if most of the people who wrote negative reviews took it seriously. In this case, it was kind of a shoddy book on purpose, intended to demonstrate that the narrative of Islam’s origins could be substantially altered if one applied the same level of source criticism to the narrative that, as Crone stated in the introduction to Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam are applied to nearly every other historical subfield. The book was resoundly trashed by the same scholars across whose bow it was intended to fire, most of whom excoriated the two young upstarts for daring to suggest that the cheese even needed moving, let alone how to move it.

Four decades later, however, the challenge has been taken up. Very few people read Hagarism anymore — I tried once and gave up on page 3 — it achieved its purpose in throwing down the gauntlet to scholars in a field that wasn’t moving in the right direction. The reason people don’t read it anymore is that it’s been supplanted by actual scholarship that proves, disproves, and leaves open to question parts of the traditional narrative, which was the intent all along.


Some of you may remember that I originally posted this, and then it vanished for a bit. In this section, I discussed the controversy that has since become known as Selimgate, which now has its own Wikipedia entry. I have withdrawn my comments, under duress, after having been contacted by one of the parties involved. I will refrain from further editorial comment.

And I emphasize that this goes against every single instinct I have, because this is a story that I am itching to tell. But given that other colleagues have been thrown under the bus by their institutions for exercising their rights of free speech and observation, I must bear in mind that I don’t even currently have an institution that could do so. I must protect myself … and believe me, that is the only reason I am doing so.

I will simply quote the venerable Natalie Zemon Davis here:

Reviewing always rests on assumptions about community, about what persons we define as engaged in a common task, about what books should be included in our historical exchange and with what standing, and about shared criteria or evaluation.

For quarrels to hold a community together and innovate, much depends on the frame and the language.this means recognizing and embracing the diversity of stances within the membership, …  so that we can talk as allies in the common task of Donna Haraway’s engaged criticism.

I wish I had a clearer way to wrap up this lengthy piece, one that I haven’t said before, over and over, but ultimately, I find myself back in the same place that I, and others, have been time and again. Academia is rife with pettiness and drama. Scholars hoard their research for fear of it being stolen–I, myself, have been very resistant to sharing any of my pre-press work with people I don’t know. This is the world in which we live and work, and, yes, some times I do wonder why.

At the same time, however, our fields have methodologies and established means of “doing” scholarship for a reason: these are the criteria upon which our work is judged; more to the point they are the criteria upon which we expect our work to be judged. When we stray outside of these — that is, to say, when we pile on the cheese movers and refuse to legitimate their efforts by focusing on everything but the product presented for review — we ultimately wind up making ourselves look foolish and petty.

There are too many foes out there waiting in the wings to discredit, de-legitimate, and defund. The last thing we need is to be doing it to each other.

Crowdsourced Syllabus on the Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1920

In the same vein as the wildly successful Humanities Coronavirus Syllabus, I’ve started a crowdsourced Syllabus on the Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1920.

It’s an annotated bibliography that aims to bring together books, journal and magazine articles, websites, documentaries, etc., about the experiences of the global Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1920 (popularly known as the ‘Spanish flu’) from fields in the humanities, social sciences, hard sciences, and medicine in one place.

Anyone can add to it – just click on the link and get started! At the moment, edits must be done using the “add comment” function.

Links to full text PDFs would be ideal; please supply URLs or DOIs where available, especially for articles or other pieces from regional publications that may be difficult for others to locate.

I’m also looking for someone to serve as a co-editor of the hard sciences / medicine section, because I’m not as familiar with that area and those who work on it.

I’m hoping this experiment will yield some nice results! (By the way, if you haven’t checked out the Humanities Coronavirus Syllabus, you should. It’s an excellent example of the collaboration that’s taking place in scholarship right now!)

Middle East History in the Time of COVID-19

I did another thing with people who are smarter than me: a feature for Jadaliyya: Middle East History in the Time of COVID-19: A Roundtable on Disease, Environment, and Medicine.

Historians often demure when asked what concrete lessons can be drawn from the past. Meanwhile, purported irrelevance threatens the place of the humanities in higher education. That crisis of confidence, made more urgent by the COVID-19 pandemic, calls for a renewed engagement with practical questions and public audiences. What lessons can be drawn from the interrelated histories of disease, environment, and medicine? This roundtable invites four scholars of Middle East history to reflect on a series of questions to illuminate the current moment–in the region and beyond–with their research.

The roundtable consists of me, Joelle Abi-Rached (Columbia), A. Tylor Brand (Trinity College, Dublin), and Seçil Yılmaz (Franklin and Marshall). Definitely worth checking out if you’re interested in the history of medicine and how it plays into environmental history.

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.