:: By Lydialyle Gibson

:: Photography by Dan Dry

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One letter at a time

As the final volume of the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary goes to press, Martha Roth, its editor for the past 11 years, heads to the Humanities dean’s office

The room looks foreign now to Martha Roth. Empty, orderly. A week ago the sprawling, odd-angled space on the Oriental Institute’s third floor was still home to the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary project. Piles of papers smothered desks, and windowsills acquiesced to coffee mugs, Post-it notes, jumbled stacks of books. But with the effort to document every word of ancient Akkadian nearing completion after 86 years, Roth, the dictionary’s current editor-in-charge, is consolidating. She’s culled countless duplicate index cards and consigned dozens of filing cabinets and yellowing binders to a janitor’s closet across the hall.

“The Assyrian Dictionary,” Roth says, “has occupied an expanding and shrinking number of rooms at the OI for decades.” The latest withdrawal is permanent: the U/W volume—the 26th and final installment—goes to press by the end of August. Roth describes the exodus as a strange unburdening: “like cleaning out your parents’ house while they’re still alive.” Now awash in gabled sunlight and a fresh coat of pale blue paint, the space looks bright and tidy. Not for long, though: tomorrow the Hittite Dictionary staffers move in from down the hall. Only 32 years into their project, they’ve still got half a century to go. Walking the length of the room, Roth traces the linoleum grooves left behind by long rows of filing cabinets. She takes off her glasses and smiles.

A twinge of nostalgia?

“No,” she says, looking faintly puzzled at the idea. “No.”

Roth, who on July 1 succeeds classics professor Danielle Allen as dean of the Division of Humanities, believes in getting on with things. Her students in Near Eastern languages & civilizations, the department in which she has taught for 27 years, describe her as eagle-eyed but unpatronizing, an enthusiastic coach. As the University’s deputy provost for research and education from July 2004 through this past June, Roth helped push through a long-needed overhaul of graduate-student aid, and she proved “crucial,” says Regenstein Library Director Judith Nadler, in negotiating with faculty to solidify plans for the library’s westward expansion. “She’s very direct,” Nadler says. “She doesn’t walk the cat around the milk pot.”

Her directness is one of the first things those who know Roth mention about her. “She makes decisions,” says Linda McLarnan, AM’82, an Assyrian Dictionary staff member for 20 years. “It’s like steering a battleship. Each manuscript is thousands of pages long. There are hundreds of entries, tens of thousands of details. You just can’t let it get bogged down.” Since 1979 the dictionary has been the central focus of Roth’s career. That October she dropped off her doctoral dissertation at Penn’s Oriental Studies department and walked outside, where her husband picked her up in a moving truck, and the two of them set off for Chicago. Roth started work at the OI the following Monday, a “dictionary slave,” she says, helping to input corrections to galleys and page proofs. (By the following autumn she was also an assistant professor.) In 1996 then-editor Erica Reiner, PhD’55, passed the reins to Roth, who promptly repeated a prediction made by almost every editor since 1921, when James Henry Breasted hired five people to begin compiling Akkadian etymologies in the basement of the Haskell Museum: the dictionary, Roth said, would take only another ten years to complete. It took 11. “Almost made it,” she says. “Now it’s time to move on.”

For Roth, moving on entails tackling the complexities and conundrums of Humanities, a division encompassing Caribbean studies and Slavic literature, ancient philosophy and contemporary cinema: 21 departments, committees, and degree programs in all. Roth formulated no specific agenda before assuming office—getting the lay of the land, she reckons, will take six months or more—and she’s disinclined to “change things just for the sake of change.” She does, however, express an overarching objective: “to grease the wheels.” Professors need to teach, scholars need to do research, and students need to finish their degrees. The dean’s task, Roth says, is to “clear the hurdles.” Mostly that means getting faculty and students “the resources they need: the libraries, the press, classrooms, computers.” She offers Regenstein as an example. “Colleagues come from all over the globe to work here because our books are actually on the shelves,” she says. “You don’t have to hand somebody behind a desk 17 slips of paper and then wait three days. You can just go to the stacks and get everything in ten minutes and then get back to writing your book.”

Teaching, she says, should be similarly unencumbered. “We will almost certainly,” she predicts, “have to make the case for more faculty.” As the College’s enrollment climbs, professors find themselves with more papers to grade. Last fall 4,790 undergraduates registered for classes; ten years earlier the number was 3,616. “There are some faculty members”—particularly in English and Romance languages & literatures—“who are advising dozens and dozens of BA papers every year,” Roth says. “We need to look at that.”

In many ways Roth’s deanship may be more a continuation than a change. During her tenure as deputy provost, she became known as a collaborator who worked with faculty and students even as she led them. Cooperation is certainly part of the job, but Roth undertook it with particular zeal. “No matter how busy she is, Martha always sets everything aside and says, ‘I’m available to you,’” Nadler says. “And it’s not just a shallow mannerism; it’s true.” Planning for Regenstein’s $42 million expansion, Nadler enlisted Roth’s help in coaxing faculty members to accept compact storage of some library materials. Researchers feared losing the open-stack serendipity of encountering a crucial book by chance. Administrators argued that building open stacks for every volume would cost more than $70 million. Eventually holdouts on both sides agreed to a compromise, thanks in part, Nadler says, to Roth’s powers of persuasion. Under the current plan, monographs would stay on the shelves while some serials and archival materials head to “high-density storage.” “Martha appeals to traditional scholars because they respect her judgment,” Nadler says, “but she also has an understanding for the younger generation of faculty. Both groups know that she is their advocate.”

She is an equally reliable advocate for graduate students. Ask her about the faculty or research or the Humanities division’s $65 million budget, and the conversation eventually circles back to graduate students. In particular, she’s concerned about how long they linger on campus. Too often and too easily, she says, doctoral work engulfs entire decades. Nationally humanities students spend an average of 11.3 years getting their PhDs. At Chicago it’s 8.25 years (excluding those who spend two decades or so on their doctorates). But a PhD is not a life’s pursuit. “Being a graduate student in the Division of Humanities is a stage, a stepping stone—it has to be seen that way,” says Roth, who at 27 earned a doctorate that takes most Assyriology students ten years or more to complete. “Nobody says undergraduate life should be open-ended.” The same principle should hold for graduate students.

Easier said than done, she knows. Roth calls it “ironical and unfortunate” that most postcollegiate study coincides precisely with young adulthood’s rush of responsibilities: marriage, children, making ends meet. “If you have to spend all your time worrying about where you’re going to get the rent money, you can’t study for your comprehensives,” she says. Recently she’s been corresponding with a graduate student whose wife is expecting their third child. “It’s very, very hard.”

Roth has had practice mitigating such ordeals. She’s also had practice enduring them. The mother of two high-schoolers and a 25-year-old, she jokes that she had “an assistant-professor baby, an associate-professor baby, and a full-professor baby.” Academic life didn’t make room then for maternity leave. Roth plowed through anyway, a wife, mother, teacher, and scholar who sometimes lived on very little sleep. “I don’t know how much I’ve shortchanged any of the parts of my life,” she says, “but I think I’m a better person for doing more rather than less. Somehow I just refused to make a choice.” Refusing to choose between family and work should be less arduous, she believes. From the provost’s office she helped forge a University policy that offers leaves of absence, academic extensions, and course-work “modification” to student-parents. “As a working parent, you’re always juggling,” she says. “You work yourself silly.”

Paying the bills is another juggling act. The effort to enhance graduate students’ financial footing proved Roth’s most difficult and colossal task as deputy provost. She spent months coordinating an initiative to enlarge the Humanities and Social Sciences divisions’ graduate stipends and benefits. “The problem now is that every student has a different package,” Roth explains. “You could be sitting in class next to someone doing just as well as you, but although you have full tuition and $18,000 a year for five years, the other person might only be getting tuition and $3,000 a year for three years. And there’s no rhyme or reason to it.” In February President Robert J. Zimmer announced a remedy: Chicago would spend an additional $50 million over six years to support incoming graduate students, 250 new matriculants each year. Beginning this fall, a basic five-year package includes tuition, health insurance, a $19,000 annual stipend, and two summers of paid research.

The DC–based Council of Graduate Schools applauded the decision, as did faculty and administrators across campus. Current students found less to cheer about. Their dilemma clearly troubles Roth, but she doesn’t see a way out of it. “It’s difficult for them,” she says. “They feel that they’re here and we should support them rather than throwing our support to people who aren’t here yet.” She adds, “I understand that position.” The University has committed $1.5 million to extend health benefits to those enrolled since 2003, Roth says, but folding them into the new package would be prohibitively expensive. Still, she emphasizes, “Graduate students need to be attended to. They have not always been attended to sufficiently at this university, and we’re going to try to do better, across the board.”

Getting graduate students out the door isn’t only a matter of policy; it’s also a question of personal attention. Jake Lauinger, AM’01, PhD’07, a graduate student for eight years in ancient Near East history and Roth’s Assyrian Dictionary research assistant for the past year and a half, recalls that when he began interviewing last year for teaching jobs, Roth gave him some advice. Knowing that campus interviews typically consist of several meetings and a sit-down meal, she asked him, “What are you going to order for lunch?” Lauinger was puzzled; she explained: “Order something you can eat with a fork, nothing that you have to pick up with your hands. Nothing messy.” He got the quiche. “Who would think to tell her graduate student that, besides   a pro?” he says. Later, when the faculty-hiring committee at Virginia’s Roanoke College invited Lauinger to teach a lecture, Roth helped him settle on a topic—the invention of writing—and loaned him her collection of cuneiform-tablet casts: a shard from the epic of Gilgamesh, a 3,000-year-old will, a court document, a writing lesson with a student’s loopy scrawls on one side and the teacher’s upright script on the other. “It was a great hands-on addition to my lecture,” Lauinger says. “Everyone came up after class to ask questions.” He starts work at Roanoke College this fall.

By turns Roth’s student, assistant, and dissertation advisee, Lauinger has spent years at her elbow. He calls her scholarship “selfless.” Sacrificing other research, she devoted herself to the dictionary, a project whose legend will always belong more to Breasted, who launched it, and A. Leo Oppenheim, who published the first volume in the 1950s, than to anyone else. “Academics is big egos crashing into each other,” Lauinger says. “But not Martha. She is giving herself up to something much bigger—which is what scholarship is supposed to be about, right? Contributing to the big flow.”

Roth doesn’t mind the minutiae. Her career is built on taking the long view, delaying gratification, constructing order out of bits of chaos. “Jake and I can spend six weeks trying to figure out a problem,” she says, “and it results in my changing a single comma or a semicolon in the dictionary. Nobody will ever know.” The same goes for her deputy-provost duties, in which she’s worked closely with the registrar’s office, the dissertation office, the student-disciplinary committee—“all things that remain invisible until you need them.” At home she devours crossword after crossword, and she weaves on the loom her husband gave her five years ago to revive an undergraduate pastime. (That the words “text” and “textile” derive from the same Latin root is a fact not lost on Roth.) “It’s all little pieces that get put into place,” she says. Crosswords, weaving, the dictionary, even committee work—they’re all threads from the same fabric.

Which isn’t to say Roth hasn’t been able to put her name to a few books. Over the past three decades she has become an expert on Mesopotamian marriage and family law, and she hopes the dictionary’s homestretch (final page proofs won’t clear her desk for another two years) will allow her to finish two other projects. One, a book on Mesopotamian lawsuits, trials, and depositions, needs only “an uninterrupted month of work before it’s done.” The other is a study of religion’s role in legal proceedings. “Every loan document in Mesopotamia, every deposition, has a religious element,” she says. People swore oaths by the gods and called curses upon themselves for violating agreements. They took legally binding pledges at the temple. “When you borrow barley and you swear by the gods that you’ll pay it back by a certain date, why are you invoking the gods in this, and what power does that give to this transaction?”

During the eighth week of spring-quarter classes, Roth—named the Chauncy S. Boucher distinguished service professor of Assyriology in January—puts those same questions to the three graduate students in her Friday morning translation seminar. They sit in Roth’s OI office around a table strewn with brittle hardbacks and Xeroxes of cuneiform tablets that resemble misshapen maps more than decipherable script. The students have been examining legal records from the ancient city of Nuzi, near modern-day Kirkuk, Iraq, and most of the texts concern quotidian problems: 3,500-year-old disputes over an irrigated field, a borrowed donkey, a widow’s rightful inheritance. But each lawsuit also involves a “river ordeal,” a procedure Mesopotamian courts resorted to when witnesses or evidence were lacking. The tablets don’t spell out what lay in store for those sent to the river—“An oath?” Roth wonders. “A dunking, a test of endurance?”—but ordeals were a way of leaving justice to the gods.

Andrew Dix, AM’06, leads off, decoding part of the first tablet. “Asha-u-ru-shimi-na,” he reads, sounding out the Akkadian syllables. “Sha-geri-zu-oor-ree-edu.”

“Good, yes,” Roth answers. Legs crossed, she leans on an elbow, three books open in front of her. She gives the impression that this two-and-a-half-hour class is the only thing happening in her life, that she might just sit here all day with Dix and his classmates, analyzing the intricacies of minor legal quarrels more than three millennia old. As the students translate the cuneiform into English, the text reveals that when one claimant to a piece of land called for a river ordeal, the other petitioners abandoned their suit. “Just the threat is enough to make them back down,” Roth declares, looking up from her notes. Comparing the river ordeal to the American practice of swearing in trial witnesses on the Bible, she says, “Nobody is going to know if you’re lying, so you’re turning it over to a higher authority. But it only works if you believe it. That’s the real ordeal—it’s what you believe will happen when you say the oath.”

She pauses a moment to let the idea sink in. Then, turning the page, she says: “OK, let’s move on.”