Eric J. Harvey Receives PhD in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University

By Yael PerlmanEric Harvey
(with contributions by Professors Marc Brettler, Jessie DeGrado, and David Wright)

Eric Harvey, a remarkable student and scholar, received his PhD in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies (NEJS) May, 2020. Throughout his studies he has amassed knowledge of over a dozen languages in their original scripts as well as in Braille. He joined the NEJS Bible and Ancient Near East PhD program in 2011 with plans to study parallel texts in the Psalms. He recently finished his dissertation, entitled “Sing to the Lord a New(-ish) Song: The Psalms of the Egyptian Hallel across Two Thousand Years.” On top of completing the challenging task of finishing his dissertation, Eric has slowly become blind over the past 9 years of his studies.

Harvey’s dissertation is praised by many colleagues and advisors for its contribution to the field of Ancient Biblical studies. David Wright, one of Harvey’s advisors notes that his dissertation, “is a substantial contribution to our understanding of these psalms and the collection of the Psalms in general.” Jessie DeGrado, another Professor in the NEJS department says, “Eric writes about a highly complex and technical subject in a way that is not only clear but enjoyable.” Not only an accomplished scholar, Harvey is also a stellar student who former teacher and advisor Marc Brettler claims was his “go-to student—whenever no one wanted to answer my question, he would jump right in.”

Harvey began noticing unusual visual phenomena while working on an archaeological excavation in 2012 and learned upon returning home that his eyesight was significantly deteriorating. Unsure of how quickly he would lose it fully, Harvey continued his studies and began to adjust to new methods of learning and researching. He says there was no real crisis moment with his eyesight, and luckily he was able to take time to adjust. A PhD under any circumstances is difficult to complete, yet despite having to learn an entirely new research method, Harvey was able to finish within three years of his projected graduation date. He says, “Support is key to finishing a Ph.D., and I was well supported throughout the process by my advisors, the Brandeis library, my friends, and most especially my family.”

Harvey is also thankful for other blind colleagues who have provided him the resources and advice he needed to continue. Through an email listserv which serves as an informal collective of blind academics, Harvey connects with a few hundred scholars for advice on academic and campus life. While these academics span numerous fields of study, they are able to help each other navigate difficulties such as how to moderate a panel while reading questions or how to tell prospective employers about their disability. Universities are meant to be equal opportunity employers; however, academia is often not as welcoming or accessible as Harvey and colleagues would hope. While accessibility is expanding in teaching, publishing, and the digital humanities, there is still much to be done. Harvey notes that things are changing but not as fast as they could or should be.

In 2015 when he crossed the threshold into legal blindness, Harvey began to learn Braille. He was able to pick it up quickly and soon began to learn how to read in the other languages needed for his research. While Hebrew and Greek have both had Braille codes since the 1930s, several of the other ancient languages he works with did not have an existing Braille code. Thus, in 2017 and 2018 he worked with a small group of other scholars to create a Braille code that could represent the Mesopotamian languages of Sumerian and Akkadian. Harvey employs other technologies such as screen readers to help him as well, however working with many languages often proves difficult for software to process. He continues to advocate for better accessibility for these resources and is thankful for those sites (like Sefaria) that make it a priority.

After presenting his dissertation proposal later in 2015, Harvey moved to California with his family. In preparation, he undertook the large task of turning almost all of his books into digital files which would allow him to continue to read and research for his thesis. Digitization is especially difficult in his multilingual field, with up to 3 or 4 different scripts on a page creating problems for the scanning software. Despite these difficulties, Harvey was able to resort to creative methods in order to get his materials into a digital format. Harvey has become well versed in the digital humanities through his research and often shares that knowledge with others. Jessie DeGrado, one of Harvey’s advisors notes, “I've learned much from him about the potential of digital humanities and accessibility.” Marc Brettler notes, “he has taught me much about Psalms and persistence.” Harvey’s passion and persistence for academia and digital humanities is evident for everyone who knows him.

Since his move west, Harvey has spent the past few years raising his two daughters, writing his dissertation, and reflecting on his blog: blindscholar.com. He says that his blog started as a way to process changes in his life as well as to display his scholarship. His blog has connected other students and scholars especially from the blind community who reach out to him for advice on how to find resources for accessible learning or reading of certain languages.

Moving forward, Harvey hopes to find an academic job in the increasingly competitive market but for now is enjoying his time in quarantine. He also plans to continue his research and publish his dissertation as a book. Future research topics include how blindness is portrayed in the Bible, which he has so far enjoyed reading and learning more about. On top of that, he is an adored father, husband, and friend. While Harvey will not be able to attend an in-person graduation, his accomplishments are greatly celebrated by the entire Near Eastern and Judaic Studies department who wish him much luck in his next endeavor!

To read more about Eric’s journey, go to www.BlindScholar.com