Slow-reading; practice reading difficult texts on paper

I listened to this audio excerpt from WNYC’s New Tech City about reading on screens versus slow reading on paper. It’s hard not to conclude that digital media (like this blog?!) is an enemy of our brains insidiously dulling our comprehension.

Digital reading leads us to skimming and jumping around on the screen. The current thinking is that this changes our brains and the ways we think. Research shows that people reading on e-readers miss important details about sequence and cause and effect.

Slow-reading means reading closely and reading on paper. I prefer this kind of reading, and, unlike Popova of Brain Pickings who is interviewed in this piece, I am not challenged by the note-taking and annotating process from paper texts. The physical and material quality of a book helps us focus our attention on difficult and demanding texts. By pushing ourselves daily to try reading challenging and deep texts on the page, we can re-gain and hone the skills and cognitive abilities to do this kind of reading. It’s like exercising the other parts of our bodies—we improve doing things by continually and daily practicing it.

The assumption in this analysis is that reading on paper is somehow normative, when really it’s only been a dominate practice for humans for about 500 years (or a few hundred years more if you count papyrus and parchment manuscripts.) Sure, I’m a medievalist and 500 years seems like it was almost yesterday, but really, if you put this in to context within the 200,000 years our species has been in existence, 500 years is almost no time at all.

The physical operations involved with holding at text, moving our eyes across the page, and processing the visual data about where words are placed on a page and within the book are all fundamental to the cognitive processes of comprehension and retention.

I wonder if anyone is doing research on the changes in cognitive processes 500 years ago when printed books emerged as a new dominate way of reading? Do you have a bi-literate brain that can jump between skimming and slow-reading? I remember things better when I read them on paper, do you?



Why visit the Aga Khan Museum and learn about Islamic art?

Today, Toronto has the first and only museum of Islamic art in North America. This excellent collection art from around the globe of over 1,000 years of Islamic culture belongs to the Aga Khan, who is the Imam of the Nizari Ismailis. This is a hereditary title currently held by Karim al-Hussain Shah. The museum and surrounding gardens are breathtaking spaces that reflect the Aga Khan’s interest in the arts. It is an honour to live in a city distinguished by its diversity and pluralism, and these aspects of our urban community are why the Aga Khan and his foundation chose to build their museum in Toronto.

Perhaps the idea of Islamic art is intimidating and confusing? It encompasses all art made in Muslim-dominant countries, including art made by non-Muslims, and art by Muslims living in non-Muslim-dominant countries. This expansive definition emphasizes broad cultural traditions, not the spiritual or religious aspects of the art. Because the collection spans such a range of human achievement and activity, it is impossible to generalize about it except to say that the works in the Aga Khan fundamentally bear witness to our common humanity. This is art made for and used by people who loved their families, hoped and dreamed for a better future, and sometimes suffered deep loss and grief.

I’d like to direct the rest of my comments to fellow Christians who may be reluctant to make a visit or who are ambivalent about the museum’s importance within our city. There are two main reasons why Christians should make an effort to visit the museum. First, we love others by learning about them. Educating ourselves about others’ histories, beliefs, languages, and cultures is essential for us to love others, which is the greatest commandment that Jesus gave his disciples. Fearing others, however, makes it impossible for us to reach out and accept their invitation to meet and share. The reality is that although we fear terrorist organizations like ISIS, that group has distorted and corrupted Islam for their own purposes. ISIS is fundamentally different from the beliefs and practices of the 1.7 billion Muslims in the world.

Second, learning about Islamic art opens our minds to the bigness and interconnectedness of our history. It’s no surprise that many Christians tend to cherry-pick the key historical moments that shape their world views: Jesus’ lifetime in the first century, Luther and the Reformation in the sixteenth century, the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, and the twentieth century with wars, feminism, and rock ’n’ roll. Learning about Islamic art highlights different key moments in history, from the seventh and eighth century emergence of the Islamic caliphate that spread from the Arabian peninsula across north Africa to the Iberian peninsula, to the fifteenth century when Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks, the beleaguered Byzantine Empire ended and European Renaissance scholars revived maths and sciences by reading the ancient Greek sources preserved for centuries by Arabic-speaking scholars. The interconnectedness of Christian history with cultural developments among Islamic and other non-Christian groups throughout Europe, the Middle East and Asia is only beginning to be more fully explored by scholars. Recent exhibitions, notably the show in 2012 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC called Byzantium and Islam, highlight some of these connections especially in the ways Christianity and Islam responded and shaped one another.

Our world is constantly changing in unexpected ways. While many North Americans are moving further away from religious practices and beliefs, and while many have assumed that we would eventually “mature” as a modern society and “outgrow” our need for religion, around the world we see that religious practices and adherence to beliefs are increasing. Obviously, you can see in the way I use scare-quotes around mature and outgrow that I disagree with this assumption, that modern societies are nonreligious societies. Evidence from the developing world shows us a different picture, and the sooner we come to terms with this, the better able we are to build productive and enriching relationships and institutions. Now more than ever our openness to and curiosity about other cultures is the way forward as we grow and deepen our connections with one another.

As a student of Byzantine art history, I am thrilled with anticipation for my first visit to this new institution in the city where I live. We are only beginning to scratch the surface in our research about the connections between Islamic  and Orthodox communities. For a long time, our understanding of the ever-changing relationships between these groups was (and, frankly, continues to be) distorted by our contemporary political sphere. Even obtaining access to Byzantine monuments and archaeological sites was made difficult. We are not yet in a utopian world of full-access and cooperation among international institutions and scholarly projects, but changes such as the opening of this museum in Toronto signal a turn toward sharing and openness.

Now is the time to open our minds and imaginations to the manifold expressions of beauty and love from around the world brought here to our doorstep. See you at the museum!

Automator Workflow: Images Linked from Webpage into iPhoto

Lots of blogs these days—must be procrastinating something big!

Have you ever wanted to speed up the process of importing a bunch of images from a website into iPhoto? I have. Sometimes when I find a page of 5 or 10 thumbnails that link to great images, I have to deliberately stop and think to myself: can I afford the time it takes to add amy of these to my image library? It takes time to do all those clicks and of course to add the labelling data and image source to the description window in iPhoto.

I figured out the workflow in Automator that makes grabbing a bunch of linked images and importing them into iPhoto much faster and easier. Combine using this workflow with the shift-command-b batch change, and you have an improved time-saving process for building an image library.

Here’s the Automator flow:

1. Get current Webpage from Safari

The top window in Safari should be the one you want to use as your source for images. It should be a window that has a bunch of thumbnails that link to higher-res images you want to bring into iPhoto.

2. Get Image URLs from Webpage

Choose “linked from these webpages.”

3. Download URLs

The destination folder needs to be specified. I typically create a folder in my Pictures folder, but because I delete the images after they’ve been added to iPhoto, it doesn’t really matter where they are stored as long as there isn’t anything else in that folder that may confuse Automator in the next steps.

4. Get Specified Finder Items

Again, the folder needs to be specified. This is the same folder you specified in the previous step.

5. Import Files into iPhoto

I usually create a new album so that I can easily find these images in iPhoto. Here, I usually choose the option to delete the source images from my pictures folder so that I don’t end up cluttering my hard drive with duplicates of images. Keep in mind, I often end up exporting images from iPhoto in my current research folder so that I have those images ready to open and share.

5 Steps to get linked images from Safari into iPhoto
5 Steps to get linked images from Safari into iPhoto


Icon of the Crucifixion, 8th century, Mt Sinai

Icon of the Crucifixion, 8th cent., Mt. Sinai (image: Cormack: Byzantine Art, p. 69 , 2000)

I was asked to write a piece to spark discussion on this icon for a new Byzantine History forum on the American Historical Association Communities website. Here’s what I wrote:

This is one of the most important icons that survive from Byzantium’s “dark ages.” Images of the Crucifixion were central in the debates about how Christ could be represented and venerated in Christian imagery (Corrigan, for example). It makes sense that many art historians position this work against the backdrop of imperial sponsored iconoclasm and emphasize its isolated and protected location at Mt. Sinai. Because this region of the Sinai peninsula was no longer part of the Byzantine Empire after the Islamic conquests of the seventh century, we use the works of art preserved there like relics from a time unspoiled by the destruction of images that (almost) erased history in other places like Constantinople.

Specialists are still digesting the recent reevaluation by Brubaker and Haldon of the primary sources that tells us about imperially-sponsored iconoclasm. I am curious how could we re-imagine our theologically-driven interpretations of this icon in light of their deemphasis on the role of image theory and theology in this period? What if we interpret this work as one of many religious images made in an uninterrupted production of images from this time? Would such a reading take pressure off of this work from being an almost isolated icon on the vanguard of a newly defined and proscribed cult of images?

Crucifixion and Three Marys at the Tomb, Rabbula Gospels, Syriac, 586; now in Florence, Laurentian Library (image:

In the icon we see Christ crucified with his eyes closed which probably signifies he is dead, or more specifically, that his human body is dead.  A comparison with an earlier depiction of the Crucifixion in the Rabbula Gospels (Syriac, 586 AD) shows a similar depiction of Christ on the cross wearing the purple colobium, or long sleeveless tunic, the two thieves crucified on either side of Christ, and the soldiers below the cross debating who should take Christ’s special garment. On the icon, the thieves’s names are inscribed in gold, Gestas and Demas, whereas in the manuscript, only the name Loginos (Longinus) is written in Greek characters over the head of the Roman soldier thrusting his spear into Christ’s side.

In contrast, the nearly contemporary fresco of the Crucifixion from Santa Maria Antiqua, Rome (741–52), shows Christ again wearing the colobium, but no thieves crucified at his side, and no soldiers fighting at the foot of the cross. Again, this image was produced in a region no longer under Byzantine control and therefore not subject to the destruction of images. Rather, this work again repeats Christ’s striking and all-knowing vision with piercing eyes. The icon-like fresco was painted in the chapel to the north of the main apse, and this church was managed by Greek monks in Rome with connections to various popes.

Crucifixion, fresco, Santa Maria Antiqua, Rome (image: Stella Arena, Maria et alia. Roma dall’Antichita al Medioevo Archeologia e Storia. Vol.1. 2001)

Although the Sinai icon does show a shift in the focus of crucifixion imagery from his everliving divine nature to his human death, it offers a complicated and potentially problematic solution to the problem of representing Christ’s dual natures. Our eyes are brought to Christ’s side through the gaze all of the other figures and angels who are steadfastly focused on the dreadful outpouring of blood and water from his body. Their attention to this sign of his death is reinforced by the bright contrast of the whites of their eyes indicating their unwavering focus on the cross. Barber suggests this depiction of his death verged on heresy by showing the death of both his human and divine natures through the two streams of blood and water. The parallel connection between this direct stream of water and blood and the water and wine transformed through the Eucharistic liturgy is self-evident. Following the flow of these elements from his body to the Virgin, we see her left hand raised, pointing to her face, and holding what appears to be a strap or chord—perhaps from her legendary girdle? Her gesture and prop need to be explained.

In the other two crucifixion images I mentioned, Longinus is shown with his name inscribed immortalizing his spearing of Christ thereby fixing this apocryphal legend into the central Christian narrative. Why not evaluate this icon in terms of its relationships with Biblical and apocryphal Crucifixion narratives? And why not probe this image to see what it tells us about sight-lines, the veneration of images, relics like the Virgin’s girdle, and Eucharistic rituals? Finally, on this icon the decoration of Christ’s robe and nimbus, and the nimbi of the angels were originally gilded. Does this evidence add anything to our understanding of this work’s function as a holy image and icon?

Works cited:

Barber, Charles. “Catalogue 4, Crucifixion with Two Thieves.” Holy Image, Hallowed Ground: Icons from Sinai. Edited by Robert Nelson. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2006.

Brubaker, Leslie and John Haldon. Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era c. 680–850: A History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Corrigan, Kathleen. “Text and Image on an Icon of the Crucifixion at Mount Sinai.” The Sacred Image East and West. Edited by Robert Ousterhout and Leslie Brubaker.  Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995.


Finding Free Images for Art Historians

This is a page I started compiling several months ago of websites that make available images that are either in the public domain or are open access and therefore free for us to use in our teaching and publications.

I recently learned about a similar effort by Asa Mittman on the Art History Rules! website. His site gives more info on each link because each institution has its own way of thinking about these policies.

Higher Education Reform

Stanley Fish, Opinionator for NYTimes and Prof of Humanities & Law at Florida International University

Stanley Fish has written another essay on education reform for the NYTimes. He is especially focused on higher education reform, which is also on my mind these days. So many schools are letting their humanities programs dwindle in size and scope while they seek development in the STEM and business/finance fields. The financial theories about the costs of running higher ed programs is that the fees from students in STEM fields and business/finance programs subsidize the costs of programs in the humanities and social sciences. I’d like to see more evidence about these costs before I affirm this theory. Since when is a classics program any where near as expensive as a biology or computer science program that requires major annual investment in laboratory equipment and technology upgrades?

A recent report by Derek Bok from Harvard, the Higher Education in America, highlights the divided conclusions of those who try to explain how education works. Yes, there are aspects that can be assessed and measured, but there are also many other aspects of education that cannot be effectively assessed. Some may call these ineffable or intuitive. I hope to engage with the Harvard report more fully in the coming weeks…

By the end of his article, Fish turns to a short review of a recent book by Daphne Koller, co-founder of Coursera, one of the many successful MOOC providers. What Fish finds in her book and in the world of online education more generally is that the online model eschews the ineffable and immeasurable benefits of physically being on campus in a university or college setting. And with this critique comes his fear that modern life with all our texting and online interactions will turn us into isolated bodies with only digital contact mediated through electronic devices. While Fish teeters close to the edge of curmudgeon-speak—”these kids today! When I was in school…,”—he affirms that the quality of education has much to do with knowledge, wisdom and insight, not just facts, skills, and information. And these qualitative aspects of education are what motivates him to turn and return again to poetry, literature, Melville.

PS-1. I love Fish’s list of anathema words and phrases: learning outcomes, stakeholders, imbricate, aporia, and performative; he even pulls critical thinking closer to the list than anyone else I’ve read!

PS-2: The feminist in me is keenly interested in embodiment. We learn and understand more in the world through our experience than perhaps we previously thought. I am somewhat surprised that our education-reform debates are beginning to engage the role of bodies in education, although, God-forbid <sarcasm> we would ever spell out  feminist pro-embodiment theories of knowledge and personhood in the same article as an education-reform proposal that deals with real money and real institutions of power.

Open Content

The Getty Museum announced today (12-Aug-2013) that they will start sharing freely and without restriction high-resolution digital content of their collection via their website. This is great news for the museum and for the world of art history where getting high-quality images for research, teaching, and publication can be very difficult and expensive. This is also great news because it adds some momentum to the movement that is trying to make open access the standard for museum and library image collections.

The current release of images includes the Getty Museum’s image collection. In the coming months they plan to release images from their special collections including documentation from their field projects from around the world and other knowledge resources.

Although their message underscores the social responsibility behind sharing resources freely, research has shown that the more museums make digital images of their collection available to the public, the more people will *visit and pay* to see the real thing in the museum. I’ve made some edits to my list of Open Access / Public Domain images page. We’ll see if anyone notices it.