Thursday, January 31, 2013

Using Computers to Date Medieval Manuscripts

A recent article in the Journal of Applied Statistics by two computer scientists and a medieval historian at the University of Toronto details their work using computer algorithms to date previously undated charters from the post-Conquest period in England. The researchers used the archive of dated early English charters at the University of Toronto to devise algorithms that can offer additional tools for dating medieval documents. 

By using a data set that has dates attached, the researchers were able to compare their results with existing (and, presumably, accepted) data. They based the algorithms on specific phrases that appear in charters and that vary over time. A charter that had been dated by a medievalist as having been written between 1235 and 1245 was compared using the data from the training set, and was dated by computational methods to 1246. 

It's fantastic to see another instance of humanists and scientists working together to solve historical problems. Archaeologists, paleo-epidemiologists, and biological anthropologists have been using scientific methods to shed more light on the bacterial cause of the Black Death and the reasons for its rapid spread in the 14th century. Yet the use of computational algorithms suggests several questions that remain to be answered. A specific question has to do with forgeries. Many medieval charters are forgeries. The most famous is the Donation of Constantine, which was discovered to be a fraud by the fifteenth century. It's not yet clear how a computer algorithm could help identify forged charters. Some may betray themselves with anachronistic phrasing, but others were written with enough care or close enough to the time that they purported to be from that looking for particular words and phrases would not uncover them.

Another, larger, question has to do with the way that text-based analysis and scientific methods can work together to shed new light on old questions. The Donation of Constantine was discovered to be a fraud by using similar methods: checking the language of the document itself. Two versions of the history of the Trojan War, widely accepted throughout the Middle Ages as being eyewitness accounts of the conflict (and more accurate than Homer's poetry), were unmasked as frauds in the early modern period--again, due to the efforts of scholars who painstakingly compared the texts with other, external data. It's not yet clear if computational methods are more accurate than what we might call scholarly expertise (though, of course, the scientists writing the algorithms are experts themselves), or computational methods offer more speed, and thus the ability to examine larger data sets. Both benefits can be enormously useful to medievalists. I can imagine that scholars working on projects that rely on charters as evidence might be grateful to have tools that could confirm (or call into question) their own chronology.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

How Early Modern Animal Jetpacks Went Viral

Alexis Madrigal, over at The Atlantic, has a post up about a 16th-century German manuscript image. The image, below, is from a German manuscript, Feuer Buech, about warfare tactics and weaponry. 

The image of feline- and avian-powered incendiary devices [so sad!] has been swirling around the Twitter- and Tumblr-verses for a few months. You can see here how it was tweeted, tumblr-ed, and then eventually picked up by The Atlantic. This trajectory is a great illustration of how social media, open access policies, and the digital humanities are making medieval and early modern manuscripts available to huge audiences. Fantastic!

Feuer Buech, Germany, 1584. Ms. Codex 109, Philadelphia, UPenn Library.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

And Speaking of Exploitative & Oppressive Structures...

The IRS has just put colleges and universities on notice not to under-estimate the number of hours that adjunct faculty work. Many schools only count the number of hours in the classroom, as opposed to counting time spent preparing or grading (these, combined, far exceed the number of hours spent in the classroom; for every 70-minute lecture that I give, I spend between 8-14 hours writing it). But, thanks to Obamacare, working more than 30 hours a week for an employer makes one eligible for health insurance. 

This is so great, right?! The federal government totally gets that many college professors in this country are adjunct or part-time and that, as such, they earn minimal ducats and often have no benefits of any kind. 

Sadly, no. Some schools are already taking steps to cut adjunct faculty hours so that they will not have to shoulder the burden of providing health insurance for their employees. Which begs the question: Doesn't it seem like university professors and administrators would recognize that it is in their best interests (economic, institution-building, quality of teaching, flexibility) to support single-payer health insurance?

Friday, January 11, 2013

Undoing the University

My colleague and pal, Dom Tyranny, turned me on to The Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. Which is fabulous. Reading between the lines, it seems that an enterprising group of Columbia PhD students (and recent PhDs) have decided that the horrendous status quo of the academic job market is not in their best economic interests, and have decided on an alternative model, in which students pay a significantly reduced fee to the faculty, who keeps most of it.

The Institute "provides liberal arts educational opportunities to local communities. At the same time, it provides material and intellectual support and space for young scholars to teach, write, research, publish and, put simply, work." The Institute's website addresses directly the economic exploitation inherent in the adjunct faculty system:

"You might not believe it, but academic institutions are not always compensating their employees at what you would call – in any other industry – “fair rates.” Only a tiny percentage ever become tenured professors, and the vast majority end up either simply quitting or becoming adjunct professors. What’s an adjunct professor, you ask? Why, adjunct professors are the people who teach approximately 75% of all university and college classes nation-wide. They’re just like regular professors, but instead of getting paid a living wage, they get paid less than a fry cook at McDonald’s. How much less? Well for an average 3-credit course, an adjunct will get paid somewhere around $3000-$4000. With no benefits. To catch up with that fry cook, an adjunct professor would have to teach anywhere from 4-6 classes a year, still with no benefits. Two to three times more than the number of classes an average professor teaches.... [snip] Let’s say you and 39 of your closest friends got together and took one of these courses just for your personal education and betterment. Let’s be conservative and say you and your buddies paid $4000 for your course. Just that one class has produced $160,000 in revenue for the university. And, remember, we’re talking a non-certificate bearing, post-baccalaureate style class here. So we can’t just say its all going to the value of the degree or some other such nonsense – not that that’s such a riveting argument in the first place. In any case, depending on the benevolence of the university, somewhere around 2% of that  $160,000 in revenue is going to go to the worker who most directly contributed to making it."

The Institute's response harks back to the eleventh and twelfth centuries, before universities were around. Monasteries had schools to educate boys for the cloister; cathedrals did, as well. Cathedral schools, often located in urban centers, drew scholars (like Anselm of Laon) and students (like John of Salisbury) interested in liberal arts subjects, like grammar and dialectic (logic). The schools in Paris, especially at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame and the abbeys of St. Victor and Ste. Genevieve, were educational centers. They attracted more scholars, like Peter Abelard, who took on students of their own. Scholars taught in rented rooms in taverns, to students who paid them directly and by the piece (the lecture). There was no set curriculum, nor did courses lead to a credential; scholars and students associated at will, or at whim. The scholar's life in early twelfth-century Paris was no more lavish than in early twenty first-century New York, but it was not constrained by economically exploitative institutions, called universities. I hope the faculty at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research find their medieval experiment to be a success. 
Geometry teaches her students. I be she got paid, directly, per student.