Archive for April 2008

What would an electronic CAD look like?

April 30, 2008

In my last post I expressed regret that it looks like the CAD will not be moving to a full electronic version. I say this because Martha Roth basically said at SBL that once the U/W volume is published, they will be packing it up. Her intention is that the CAD will provide the general framework for the field, but new dictionary projects will concentrate on more specialized areas like astronomical texts, etc. Further, at a certain point they stopped collecting text references so that there will be no revision of the earlier volumes.

Let me say first that the CAD is a wonderful reference tool, and I have nothing but respect for the work done over at the Oriental Institute. Also, the initiative to get this information into the digital domain for free is generous, bold, and forward thinking.

As a series of searchable PDFs, the CAD is basically a digitized book. You can read it on your computer and search within a single volume. However, over the last day, I have been thinking about what a true electronic version of the CAD would look like. Two models come to mind first: the Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon (CAL) and the Pennsylvania Sumerian Dictionary (ePSD).

I am familiar with the innards of the CAL since it is hosted here at HUC. It is more of an electronic text repository/concordance than a dictionary at this point. The first goal was to enter a comprehensive corpus of Aramaic texts covering all dialects. These texts are tagged with information related to the lexicon, but not morpho-syntax. That is, the root and binyan of a verb are important, but not its person/number/gender/etc. Each root has a separate lexical file, which lists English glosses for each dialect. The lexical information was originally input from existing dictionaries to give a baseline, but has been updated when necessary based on the broader data from the text corpus.

As a user you can enter a root and either view its static lexical file, or you can create a dynamic concordance limited by dialect(s). The benefit of this is that it allows you to make your own lexical decisions based on the data from the concordance. The negative is that the lexical file does not include any text citations to indicate why the lexicographer made their decisions. Since the backbone of the lexicon is a text repository, you can also use the site for dictionary help in reading through an individual text.

I am not as familiar with the ePSD, but I do use it regularly for Akkadian class. The ePSD is not a concordance and does not contain searchable texts. Each Sumerian entry has a lexical file that includes a short English gloss and a list of Akkadian synonyms. Because Sumerian uses logograms, the signs are an important part of the lexicon. Each word contains a list of attested spellings along with a table of their historic distribution. Following this is a section of short text citations giving attestations of each gloss. If you are interested in concordance work, each entry has a link to the ETCSL where you can find texts.

So, it would be nice to see something similar to the CAL/ePSD for the CAD. That is, the CAD could be used to create static lexical pages for each entry (note that the CAD is not organized by root) complete with the text citations that the lexicographer based their decisions on. All Akkadian references in the text citations should be cross-referenced to their own entry, and vice versa. Further, it would be nice if each entry could also be linked to an electronic text repository in order to do the concordance work for yourself. There are already several projects underway such as CDLI to create electronic texts. If they are tagged with lexical information similar to the CAL, then the electronic CAD could be the glue that pulls them all together.

Those are my quick thoughts, and yes it would be a lot of work. Have I missed something major or been shortsighted? How would you like to use the CAD electronically?

CAD on-line

April 29, 2008

The Oriental Institute has posted most of the remaining volumes of The Assyrian Dictionary of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. I’m glad they shortened the name to CAD rather than ADOIUC. Only U/W, the print copy of which is still in preparation, remains. The volumes are in PDF format and all but the newest are scanned images with a hidden OCR-ed text that allows searching. It is unfortunate that the dictionary will not move the next step to become a true electronic dictionary.

Of course it only makes sense that the dictionary would go up on my second to last day of Akkadian class. Oh well, I guess I can use it for comps.

The end of the semester crash

April 24, 2008

Having spent the last six years in graduate school (three in seminary and three here at Hebrew Union), my body has learned the rhythm of the semester. The weekend after finals it usually shuts down on me completely, and I end up napping all weekend long (I usually never nap). God help me if I end up teaching at a school on the quarter system. However, having a baby last month seems to have thrown me off so that I completely crashed last weekend. Luckily this week is break for Pesah so I have had a chance to recover. Unfortunately, with three papers, a presentation, and a final in the next two weeks I haven’t had time to update my blog. Don’t worry, in a month or so I will be starting to study for comps, and hopefully I can start cranking out bibliography.  

WALS Online

April 21, 2008

The Max Planck Digital Library and the Department of Linguistics of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology have made the World Atlas of Language Structures freely available online. This site provides typological information on the structures of the world’s languages and maps of where the languages are spoken. Information can be found based on the type of structural feature (like word order, existence of an indefinite object, possessive constructions, etc) or by language. Each feature also has a short introduction with examples.

Applying to Grad School Part 3 – Your Personal Statement

April 20, 2008

The next step in the application process is the personal statement. The sample paper and personal statement are your two chances to distinguish yourself to the admissions committee (and you are going for positive distinction not negative). Don’t assume that the personal statement is the less important of the two.

First, being only two pages long or so, you can be sure that it will be read thoroughly. I tried my best, but it is hard to give a careful read to 30+ sample papers. This also means that it is not just the content that is important, but remember that the personal statement is also an example of your writing style. Pay attention to spelling and grammar and keep the style formal and professional. “Personal” does not mean it can be informal.

Second, since few programs have any sort of formal interview, this will be your chance to express your individuality and personality. However, your personal statement is not an autobiography, a mission statement, or a personal testimony. Keep the biographical information to a minimum and make sure that it is relevant to your main point. Think of the statement as a cover letter for a job application. It is a persuasive letter. Your goal is to convince the admissions committee that you are the best student for their program. There are plenty of websites that can give you tips on how to write the personal statement. I would also look for tips on persuasive letters and cover letters.

Finally, the personal statement is your chance to pull together all the scattered “data” from your application into a coherent narrative. Don’t assume that if something is on your transcripts it will be noticed by the admissions committee. Be sure to point out the things that you think are the most important. This is also your chance to anticipate and answer questions they might have. Do you have other interests or experience that may not be represented by your transcripts or sample paper? Do you have a good explanation for that C last semester? Who do you want to study with and what do you want to study?

Applying to Grad School Excursus – North American vs Overseas Programs

April 17, 2008

In a comment to a previous post, Jay Crisostomo asked if I planned to address the issue of North American vs overseas graduate programs. Here is a link to three essays on the SBL website concerning the issue.

I myself only applied to North American programs so I really can’t comment on the process for overseas programs. If you would like to share your experience, please leave a comment below. The reasons I did not apply overseas mainly have to do with finances and family. It was my understanding that you needed to have all of the money together before applying for a student visa, and I just couldn’t bring grandkids overseas. Also, I didn’t really have any specific ideas for research when I was beginning the process.

Hebrew Parsing Quiz

April 17, 2008

I just found this site maintained by Ulrik Sandborg-Petersen, the designer of the Emdros text-database system, which has a series of parsing quizzes for biblical Hebrew and Greek. I am proud to say that I got 20/20 on פ”נ verbs. 

Applying to Grad School Part 2 – Transcripts and GRE

April 16, 2008

The first part of your application is your transcripts and GRE. Since these are numerical measures, it seems only natural that the pool of applicants will begin to stratify based on GPA and GRE. I know what you want to know so badly – “How high must my GPA and GRE be?” Well, there is no real answer to that since it depends on who you are competing with. Anyway, your GPA and GRE scores are probably pretty much out of your control at this point.

This is partly why it is important to find out about how programs divide their pool of applicants. For instance, I would guess that Hebrew Bible is the most popular area of interest. If you are strictly interested in studying Semitics, but you are applying to a program where you will be grouped with Hebrew Bible applicants, then you will probably have much more competition than at a school where Semitics stands on its own. Of course, if a program can only take 1 or 2 people in a particular area anyway, then I guess it doesn’t quite matter as much whether there are 10 applicants or 20.

What is most important to remember is that GPA and GRE are only part of your total application. You certainly want the highest scores you can get, but there are many other factors. This means a) high scores alone are not going to get you accepted, and b) you can certainly make up for less than perfect (but not mediocre) scores with a complete application that demonstrates excellent preparedness for advanced study in your field.

There are plenty of people out there who know how to succeed at “doing school”. I can sympathize because I am one of these people. I bet I could walk into most any multiple choice test cold and pass it based on general knowledge and sheer test-taking ability. Scholarship is not about “doing school”. It is about comprehensive knowledge coupled with creative insight and (hopefully) the ability to clearly communicate your ideas. Grades and GREs basically measure how well you “do school”. Now, this is not trivial because you do need to be good at class work. However, being diligent, hard working, and prepared for class are only half of the picture. You also need to show that you are a creative, insightful, clear-thinker who can actually contribute new ideas.

You also want to make sure that you have taken classes that are relevant to your field. This is mostly an issue if you are currently at a seminary. It is nice to have good grades, but Pastoral Counseling and Homiletics do not have much relevance for historical-critical study of Hebrew Bible (you didn’t waste your time though, I think homiletical training is excellent preparation for the best/worst part of being a scholar – reading 20-30 min papers at conferences).

If you have few classes in Hebrew or Hebrew Bible (or whatever your area of interest), you may want to consider taking a year of classes at a college or university. There are many advantages to this: 1) You will add a professor(s) who can write you a good letter of recommendation 2) You can refine your areas of interest and write a better sample paper 3) You can use the time to improve your French and German. The downside, of course, is that it will cost you time and money. However, a) some of your classes may transfer, and b) if you can begin to narrow in on a dissertation topic, you may actually save yourself time in the long run.

Another thing you can do to broaden your experience is to spend a summer in Israel volunteering at an archaeological dig. It is not glamorous work, but it is an invaluable experience. By the way, HUC runs a dig at Tel Dan and funds graduate students for a six-week program during the summer. Had I not just had my second child, I would probably have taken advantage of it this summer.

Applying to Grad School Part 1 – Finding a program

April 15, 2008

This past year I followed in the footsteps of Charles Halton as the president of the Graduate Student Association here at HUC. As GSA president, I am able to sit on the Graduate Executive Committee. This has been a great experience since I have been involved in things like approving dissertation proposals and admissions. Having now seen the other side of the admissions process, I thought I would start a series of posts about applying to a graduate program in Biblical Studies and related fields. This probably would be timelier next Fall, but it is fresh in my mind now, and frankly, if you are planning on applying next Spring you better be starting the process now!

Most schools have the same basic components of the application: transcripts, letters of recommendation, GRE scores, sample paper(s), and a statement of purpose. I will talk about some of these individually in further posts, but what is of first importance is finding the programs where you fit best. There are two sides to this. You want to find a program that offers the type of subjects you are interested in studying, but at the same time, you need to find a program that is interested in a student like you! What I mean by this is that most departments have a certain mix of professors, and they need to maintain a similar mix of students (so that they all have classes to teach). Therefore, whether you get into a certain program may depend as much on how you fit into that mix as on your qualifications.

Your first step then should be to find out about the programs to which you are applying. Set up phone calls with the director of the graduate program and the professor(s) with whom you would like to study. Do not be afraid to ask them direct questions about what they are looking for in a student. Find out their interests and current research topics. Find out how many students they plan to accept (they probably won’t know exactly until the budget is worked out in the Spring). Find out how they divide students by area (ie Hebrew Bible, Semitics, Biblical Interpretation, etc) and which areas traditionally have the most applications. Your goal is to position yourself in the “sweet spot” of the program.

Then, once you have narrowed your options to a reasonable number of schools, set up visits. I know it is hard to travel on a student budget, but I cannot emphasize enough the value of seeing a school first hand and meeting people face to face. I was surprised by how few students actually visited HUC. Visiting a campus will also help you meet some current grad students who can give you a feel for what the program is really like.

Another place to meet professors and students is at professional societies. Become a member of SBL, ASOR, etc and attend the national meeting (or the regional meeting if a school is close to you AND the professors will be attending the meeting). I am an introvert and hate that sort of thing, but I wish now that I had gone when I was applying to schools. Most schools will have some sort of reception at which you can meet the professors (and size up your competition!). Again, it will be a place where you can meet current grad students and make some contacts inside the program.

Only once you have a good feel for the programs to which you are applying will you be ready to put together your application. Further, your diligence will help distinguish you as a serious student.

Hebrew Bible Audio Tracks

April 11, 2008

While pronunciation of a dead language will always be artificial, I still believe that there is great value in reading the Hebrew Bible aloud and being able to comprehend it aurally. I haven’t really spent time reading the literature on dead languages and second language acquisition, but it at least “feels” to me that using the biblical languages as languages helps me to move from a mathematical, paradigm + lexicon approach towards (limited) competency. And, as a bonus, you won’t look like an idiot at SBL when you pronounce a sin as shin! To that end, here is a site with mp3 tracks of the entire Hebrew Bible

Also, there are some native Aramaic speakers still around. Try your hand at the SemArch audio archive to get a feel for the ways dialects change. 


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