Wednesday, December 17, 2008

General Exams IV: Orals

Yesterday I came to the final part of my general exams, the oral section. Orals consists of being put in a room with all four professors on your committee and for two hours they get to ask you whatever they feel like. I would describe the experience of having orals with Dr. Matt Goldish, Dr. Daniel Frank, Dr. Robert Davis and Dr. Daniel Hobbins as being in the center of a free-wheeling conversation with four people who are way smarter than you, but are being very nice about it. Most of it was a blur to me. I passed so I guess I did a good job. Here is my attempt to present my orals based on what I can remember.

I started off with a brief introduction, where I gave a survey of my intellectual development as a historian up to this point. History has been a major part of my life since I was in second grade. The area of history that interested me has changed from time to time. In middle school I was a big Civil War buff. Later, in high school, I moved to World War II and the Russian Revolution. Going into college I was convinced that I wanted to do nineteenth century European political history. Then I came under the influence of Prof. Louis Feldman, the classics professor at Yeshiva University. I guess I turned to the medieval and early modern periods as a compromise between being a modernist and a classicist. This turn nicely dovetailed with another interest of mine from high school, the biblical commentary of Isaac Abarbanel. Abarbanel proved to be the main subject of most of the papers I wrote while I did my MA at Revel. When I came to Ohio State I intended to do a dissertation on Abarbanel, focused on a close textual reading of his work. Either I was going to work on the issue of his relationship to Kabbalah or his relationship to Maimonides. Dr. Goldish nixed both of these options, insisting that whatever I did, it should be more than just textual analysis and involve myself in examining the general context of whatever I wrote. In this regard Dr. Goldish has been a tremendous influence on me. For Dr. Goldish the major thematic in dealing with European Jewry is always how what we see with Jews is part of some larger trend that encompasses Christians as well. (His book, the Sabbatean Prophets, is a good example of this.) My fondest moments with him remain, sitting in his office talking about various Christian mystics and how they compare to what we find in Judaism. That should give you and idea of the sort of thinker he is.

The first to go was Dr. Hobbins. We started by talking about the issue of female mystics, which was one of the papers I wrote in the written exam. He noted that when I first came to him about preparing a reading list we talked about doing something about medieval universities. This topic disappeared and the reading list was taken over by Christian female mystics. He asked me if I thought that any consensus had been reached as to the nature of Christian female mysticism and if so what. I responded that the big issue that everyone seems to come up against is whose voice are we dealing with in the texts, the female visionary or her male priest. We next talked about discretio spirituum, particularly as it involved Dr. Hobbins’ dissertation topic, the early fifteenth century French theologian Jean Gerson. I supported Rosalynn Voaden’s contention that this whole process of discretion spirituum was a discourse that could be used to ones benefit depending on ones ability to play to the politics of the situation, not all that different from knowing how to handle Inquisition censorship in the early modern period. This brought Dr. Davis into the fray and we ended up talking about Richard Kagan, who he once studied with, and his work Lucrecia of Leon. In her case it was her blaming her priest and painting herself an innocent, ignorant girl and her priest saying that she duped him. Dr. Hobbins next went to the issue of the fourteenth century Scientific Revolution. Norman Cantor advocated that position; Hobbins was interested in knowing who else held this. I pointed to Charles Homer Haskins and the classic example of someone who put the Scientific Revolution into the Middle Ages. There is also the example of Amos Funkenstein, Dr. Goldish’s late mentor, who saw there being a direct continuity between the late Middle Ages and the early Enlightenment. Underlying all this was Dr. Hobbins’ interest in the late Middle Ages as not being an era of decline. (An issue that I had wisely taken a supportive stance on in the written part of the exam.) I ended up having to defend the notion that astrology presupposed a mechanized view of the universe in light of the fact that astrology did not all of a sudden enter Europe at the end of the Middle Ages. I explained that this is a latent sort of issue. There is that element to astrology, waiting for someone to bother to use it. The other thing is, and this I should have been more forceful on, is that it is precisely in the early modern period that astrology becomes a major issue.

Dr. Davis, for his turn, opened by asking me about the difference between the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance. We had some difficulty getting on the same page with this question. I assumed that he talking about periodization, something with little intrinsic meaning. We break times into given periods to suit our own convenience. The point that he was trying to make, which eventually came out, was that, yes, during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries many of the things we are used to associating with the Middle Ages and many of the things we are used to associating with the Renaissance are going on at the same time so we have the Middle Ages and the Renaissance going on simultaneously. He then when on to the topic of Jacob Burckhardt and civic ritual, which I discussed in the written exam. Dr. Davis, noting with a smile that Burckhardt was a free gift since he was not on my reading list, wanted to know how, in light of the very structured nature of civic rituals in the Italian city states, one could see this as promoting individualism. This line of questioning put me in a difficult situation since I do not support Burckhardt. Dr. Davis then went to the issue of the introduction of Greek into Italy during the fifteenth century. He managed to trip me up a bit here since my knowledge of the whole process is a bit vague. We next got onto the topic of magic, particularly within the context of the scholarship of Keith Thomas, Francis Yates and Stuart Clark. Here I got jumped by Dr. Frank for blithely remarking that Jews were not all that different from Christians. He managed to really back me into a corner on this since our sources when it comes to Jewish magic are basically all point to rabbinic magicians and not to lay magicians and we do not have an internal Jewish literature on Jews engaging in black magic.

Dr. Frank and Dr. Goldish led the final round of discussions. I was expecting Dr. Frank to bring up Karaites since I spent a good chunk of this past quarter in his office studying about them. He did not bother. Instead he asked me about comparing the Jewish reaction to Islamic culture as opposed to Christian culture. One of the major issues is the fact that Jews in the Islamic world were fluent in Arabic while Jews in the Christian world were, by and large, not using Latin. This got me going on about my memories of Dr. Haym Soloveitchik’s class and him attacking Yitzchak Baer; “he turns himself over backwards to show how Rashi knew a word of Latin.” This led to a general discussion of Christian influences on Jews and I ended up talking about Baer’s argument that the Hasidai Ashkenaz were influenced by the Franciscans. Of course Dr. Soloveitchik hates this essay as well. (There is a funny story that I did not mention; those familiar with Dr. Soloveitchik might appreciate this. I asked Dr. Soloveitchik where Baer got the idea that Hasidai Ashkenaz were interested in animals just like the Franciscans were. He turned on me and said: “there is one person (Baer) who knows and he is upstairs. There is one reference in the entire Sefer Hasidim.”) Dr. Goldish next asked me about the issue of conversos, which I had written about and were there any other major historiographical issues besides for the one that I wrote about, whether they were actually practicing Judaism or not. I brought up Richard Popkin, Dr. Goldish’s other mentor, who argued that conversos played a major role in the rise of skepticism within European thought. I could not come up with anyone who actually disagree with Popkin so that was a dead end.

So that ended my orals. They sent me out of the room for a few minutes before Dr. Goldish invited me back in and congratulated me on becoming an ABD (All But Dissertation.)


RVA said...

Congrats on passing your orals. I've been reading you General Exam series with great interest. It has provided great insight into the types of issues and sources a history-grad-student deals with, and the manner in which he analyzes them.

I had considered doing a history phd after undergrad, but have gone another route. So it's definitely interesting reading your blog, especially when you talk about your coursework, or general gripes (e.g. Whig narrative).

On another note, as a fellow sci-fi fan, have you read any Phillip K Dick? I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts on Dick's treatment of history and theology (e.g. novels like VALIS, Divine Invasion, etc).

Izgad said...

Thank you.
I have not read any Phillip K. Dick, though he is on my reading list. I have seen the movies Bladerunner and Minority Report, good movies, though I assume they do not do the source material justice.