Monday, June 17, 2013

Confessions of a (slightly below) average writer

I re-took the GREs last winter (my third time), partially for a lark, and partially in preparation for a harebrained scheme to get a second doctorate if I can't find a faculty post.

Anyway, despite the fact that the format has been completely revised since I last took it, and the scoring totally different, I got exactly the same results, percentile-wise, on the Verbal and Quantitative sections that I did before. But, of course, I had to wait several weeks before I got the score from the Analytical Writing test. I didn't worry about it, though, because my writing is one of my strongest skills.

And then I got the score.

4.0 out of 6.

49th percentile.

Bear in mind the last time I took the test, before my written rhetoric had been honed by five years of grad school, I scored a 5.5. My prose has never been described as anything but excellent, clear, and entertaining. As an undergraduate, I seriously considered a career writing fiction. And, not to brag, but I got a perfect score on the Verbal section the last two times I took it. So it came a something of a shock to discover that, according to ETS, my writing is (slightly below) average.

I have long known that the writing assessments of standardized tests are flawed. I had students who had tested out of their freshman comp requirement because of their writing SAT scores, but who couldn't construct an argument if they bought it from Ikea. And based on the ETS website, the written sections are only scored by a single human reader and a computer, unless the computer's score differs from the human's. Forgive me, but I am a little skeptical that language processing algorithms have reached the point that they can evaluate the quality of an argument.

My point here is not to gripe. It's to illustrate how problematic it is for us to rely on standardized tests to predict how students will perform in graduate programs. If a published scholar holding an advanced degree in the humanities only scores a 4 out of 6, the metric is useless. I assume (or at least hope) that this score is irrelevant for applicants with strong essays and writing samples, but considering the cost of the test (not to mention test prep classes), the test's failure to accurately predict one's ability to produce graduate-level writing is troubling.

For what it's worth, I shelled out another $60, in order to have my essays regraded by hand. And I got the same score. I intend to re-re-re-take them again in the fall, after I've had time to study their mechanical grading rubric, so the next time the essay asks me analyze the statement, "One should always consider the consequences before taking risks," instead of providing a well-crafted argument about the pitfalls of teleological ethics, I'll just say risk is bad because it's risky...

Saturday, June 8, 2013


I am experimentally activating ads on this blog, not out of avarice (I'm only getting a couple hundred hits per month), but in the interest of exploring alternate means of funding scholarship in pursuit of my Academic Busking project. I know some other biblioblogs are on ad-supported platforms, although I don't know if the bloggers receive to proceeds, and Bart Ehrman, of course, turns the tables by keeping his full content behind a charity-wall, making his blog into something of a scholarly benefit concert.

Advertising certainly raises ethical questions, not so much in terms of affecting my content (especially for a few pennies), but whether the ads might conflict with the message I'm trying to communicate. If Amazon's suggestions are any indication, the targeting algorithms have a hard time distinguishing between scholarly discourse about religion and popular (often conservative) religious expression. I would not want my page sullied with links to sloppy apologetics, hot Christian singles,¹ conservative politics, or even worse, Dan Brown books! We shall see once Google approves my application.

¹ I once got a targeted ad while Googling "soteriology" that read "Meet hot soteriology singles!" I also get occasional ads on Facebook saying "Do you like Plotinus? Consider a career in Homeland Security."

The allure of books

In spite of my previous complaints about the proposal and membership requirements of the Association for Jewish Studies, I am grateful to them for continuing to provide paper copies of their journals to members without additional cost. Sure, other organizations provide online access to their journals, but there is something much more compelling about getting a physical object in the mail. On my own, I'm unlikely to have randomly opened a PDF of Adam Sacks's fascinating article, "Hannah Arendt's Eichmann Controversy as Destabilizing Transatlantic Text," or a review of a book on Liberal and Evangelical Christian approaches to Zionism, and I would have been the worse for the lack. But having the AJS Review sitting on my coffee table begging to be leafed through makes me much more likely to encounter ideas I would never have thought to look for.

Don't get me wrong: I love electronic publications, especially for research purposes. I love being able to do full-text searches. I love being able to have thousands of resources as close as my smartphone. I love being able to pump e-books through a sexy Scottish text-to-speech synthesizer so I can pretend Shirley Manson is reading me An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding. (OK, maybe that's just me...) But I am also a librarian's son, and I can't imagine giving up the tactile sensation of books, even when I have to schlep nearly 1000 pounds of them (including comics) every time I move. Likewise, no e-book software can hope to match the beauty and readability of a skilled typesetter, or the feel of a good binding. (Pick up a volume from the Loeb Classical Library or one of the Penguin Classics Deluxe Editions if you doubt me.)

I suppose my ideal solution would be what the evil lawyers used on the TV show Angel: a shelf of beautifully-bound blank books that magically call forth any text in history to fill the pages. I don't doubt the technology will be feasible within a decade or two; I just hope people haven't forgotten about books qua books before then.

(This could also precipitate a scholarly excusus on the effects of the use of codices rather than scrolls on the spread of early Christianity and its interpretive approaches to scripture, but I have developed tennis elbow despite my lifelong aversion to the game, and typing is becoming painful.)

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Biblical Poop 2: Electric Burgle-Loo

[Again, I apologize for being irregular. I hope it wasn’t a strain to hold it so long.]

When we left our left-handed hero, Ehud, he had just revealed a pointy secret to King Eggroll, um, I mean Eglon, driving his sword so deeply into the king’s belly that the blade gets stuck in all the fat. And then…

Vayyetseʾ ha-parshedonah! (וַיֵּצֵא הַפַּרְשְׁדֹנָה)

Translators have never known exactly what to make of this. The whole phrase would mean “And then [something] came out,” or “And then he/it went out [something],” but we don’t know what that “something” is, because the word parshedonah (פַּרְשְׁדֹנָה) doesn’t appear anywhere else in Biblical Hebrew. (Scholars call that a hapax logomenon, because scholars like to call stuff things.) But it might be related to the Hebrew peresh (פֶּרֶשׁ), which means “feces.”¹ This reading is backed up by the Latin translation, but the Greek skips the line entirely, jumping straight to the next. And that next line, in Hebrew, sounds awfully familiar:

Vayyetseʾ ʾEhud ha-misderonah… (וַיֵּצֵא אֵהוּד הַמִּסְדְּרוֹנָה)

“And Ehud went out [something]…” Another hapax. And if you read the lines together (as I did for a memorization exercise as a grad student), they make this lovely sort of doublet, like a Kink’s song.² Misderonah is as obscure as parshedonah. The -ah­ ending on misderon probably implies direction, so it seems to be some sort of location or architectural feature; the traditional KJV translation is “porch,” while the NRSV classes it up with “vestibule,” both following the general meaning of the Greek προστάς. But the context supplies some additional clues toward the real meaning of the word.

Perhaps the funniest scene of the whole episode comes when Eglon’s servants (because the only thing more universally funny than poop is clueless servants) come to check on him, and finding the door locked, decide not to bother Eglon, concluding that mesik hu et-raglav (מֵסִיךְ הוּא אֶת־רַגְלָיו), literally, “he is covering his feet.” Now, in Hebrew, “feet” is kind of a catch-all euphemism for any of the southerly body parts, especially the genitals (Ex. 4:25, Is. 6:2, Ruth 3:4).³ Specifically, the phrase “to cover (one’s) feet” appears elsewhere (1 Sam. 24:2, with a different verb), meaning “to defecate.”

So the subtext here is that the servants (possibly smelling the parshedonah spilled by the stabbing), conclude that his corpulent majesty is “reading the paper,” as my dad used to put it. They then stand around awkwardly the way you do when someone is in the can, until they finally hit the “better see if he’s OK” threshold, and take a look inside.

Now, having established that Eglon’s chamber had some sort of en suite facilities, and with the scatological mood of the story well established, we can start to piece together what is going out where. The likely root of misderon is s-d-r (סדר), meaning “order” or “arrangement.” Given the frequency of euphemisms like “commode” (= “suitable”), “facilities,” and even “convenience,” it doesn’t seem too great a stretch to suppose that the “arrangement” involved in the misderonah was feature of the toilet. And it was something Ehud could go through to escape, perhaps a drain or ventilation shaft of some kind.

Based on this, I suggest the following emendation to the NRSV translation of Judges 3:22–23, to reflect the tone, repetition, and sibilance of the original Hebrew (my changes in red):

…the hilt also went in after the blade, and the fat closed over the blade, for he did not draw the sword out of his belly; then the poop shot out, and Ehud went down the poop chute, and closed the doors of the roof chamber on him, and locked them.4

It’s not a perfect solution (he seems to lock himself in after his escape, but that problem exists in the NRSV), but I think it does more justice to the bawdy nature of the tale. It also functions to throw the reader off balance, confronting them with the alien nature of a text they might otherwise take for granted.

Also, y’know, poop is funny.

¹ One classmate of mine, confused by the British spelling in the standard Hebrew lexicon, tried to translate this word as “faces” rather than “faeces.”
² This is the point where I typically assure my students something would be hilarious if they were 20 years older.

³ I made the mistake of telling my Intro to Hebrew Bible students this, which led them to read every reference to “feet” in the dirtiest possible manner. Sometimes a foot is just a foot.

An alternate reading could render parshedonah as parshedon with a “locative heh” suffix (like on misderon-ah), meaning that rather than being what comes out, parshedon would be what it came out of. If that’s the case, “poop chute” could be used in both verses.