Enlivening Space, Writing about Place through Digital Maps

A couple of weeks ago, I presented a paper at the annual conference of the Shakespeare Association of America (affectionately—and appropriately—hashtagged #ShakeAss14). This was one of the most rousing SAA conferences I have experienced, in great measure because it really got me thinking about the convergence of traditional and digital research methods and teaching possibilities. The seminar in which I was a participant, “Theatre and Neighborhood in Early Modern London,” had much to do with spurring me to think along these new lines, not only because of the topic, but also because several of my fellow participants are at the helm of fantastic digital projects. In the early stages of my project last Fall, I had decided that I would publish the article (that will emerge from this paper) in a digital format and then—because my project (an examination of the River Thames as an early modern neighborhood that linked London with theatres in Southwark, via a ferry crossing to an “underworld” of sorts) deals with spaces and spatial connections—I also decided that I would integrate my text with a map that peoples the Thames, locates the playhouses and related entertainment venues, and so forth. Hence my arrival in the world of navigating and creating early modern digital maps—maps that tell stories, expand upon stories, and are expanded upon by additional stories. Though I grappled with my project in the usual conference paper way (reproached it, (re)revised it, hid under furniture from it, cajoled and occasionally admired it), I also had fun working on it, not least because of its digital/interactive/play-with-me possibilities.

Of course, how could I not respond this way after I had discovered the Map of Early Modern London (MoEML)? Click on the link and you will see what I mean. Play with its interactive features. Where do you end up—not just on the map, but in your imagination? I’m seeing and thinking—imagining ways in which this process of making could be used in composition and literature classrooms. Of course, I am at the very early stages of learning how to make digital maps, but it’s an exciting stage because, on the one hand, I’m teaching myself how to make new stuff, and on the other hand, I’m exploring ways to make this material engaging (and hopefully illuminating) for audiences curious about the interactions between early modern playhouses and neighborhoods — and more broadly, about how people define and demarcate “space” and their relationship to it in particular cultural and historical contexts. As I continue to research and build this project, I am also thinking about writing assignments for both composition and literature courses, specifically what sorts of assignments to create around digital maps and vice-versa. For instance, an assignment might ask students to map a part of their city — perhaps their commutes from home to school to work. What do the visual points of the journey reveal about neighborhoods traveled through, or about the journey of pursuing a college degree while working full-time? How do these physical and conceptual dimensions mutually constitute one another? Or, by using digital tools to map a particular character’s comings and goings, students might enrich their understanding of that character. And if students interconnect their maps, they could produce a rich, interactive guide of the play or novel we are studying. As I work on my early modern neighborhoods project, I am making connections between digital maps and writing, particularly the ways in which digital map-making and writing shape each other, stir the imagination, and enhance our abilities to perceive, make, analyze, and share.

Don’t Read Your Presentation… Unless You’re a Professional Scholar in the Humanities

Last week I paid a visit to the sections of the management courses I’m supporting this semester to introduce myself and explain the logistics of how I would help students prepare to deliver polished in-class presentations. The gimmick I came up with for this exercise was to parody an example of terrible public speaking: I stuck my nose up to the sheet I was holding and proceeded to read my one-paragraph introduction word for word from the script without ever looking up, and did so while speaking at a barely audible volume and nervously hurried pace. Every word I said was also projected upon the screen behind me, which I faced during most of the time I was talking—with my free hand shoved in my pocket. After confirming the students’ suspicions that I—a representative of the communication institute—was indeed pulling their leg, I asked them to dissect my poor presentation style and tell me what I did wrong. Unsurprisingly, they identified all of the obvious flaws in my performance (though I didn’t appreciate them ripping in to my attire), beginning with the fact that I was reading my speech. I, of course, reaffirmed that while it is fine to talk from notes, they should not read their entire presentations. As in other moments of my work at the BLSCI this year, though, my thoughts in the post-presentation reflection centered around the discrepancies between what I tell students to do and what I actually do in my own academic life. And this time the cause of my hypocrisy is… drum roll please… the read conference paper.

I know that criticism of the humanities conference presentation format in which scholars read their papers aloud to one another—maybe glancing up every few sentences to show “engagement” with their audience—is nothing new. This cheeky play-by-play account of the experience of being in the audience for such a paper surely resonates with many of us. But I’ve had to develop my personal disillusionment with conference presentation style on my own terms, and it has been brought into greater relief through the presentation coaching I’ve been doing. The first thing I ask students during a session is to tell me what their main arguments are. Well-prepared students usually proceed to convey their points enthusiastically and articulately without consulting their notes much; they’ve researched their topic thoroughly and have unconsciously internalized the pertinent information. Then, when I ask them to do a practice run of their presentation, in many cases these same students start reading a prepared script; the delivery is usually halting, stiff, and, quite frankly, boring. Now, I know that texts can be crafted and recited in ways that make them sound interesting and, conversely, that presentations that don’t rely primarily on reading are not automatically mind-blowing. Defenders of the read conference paper often point these things out. Obviously, any good presentation takes plenty of preparation and practice. But I’m going to go ahead and argue that, all other things being equal, reading a paper is an inherently less effective method of sharing knowledge orally than other approaches.

Look, ma, I can read!

Don’t get me wrong: I too have perpetuated the read format in my conference talks. It’s hard to depart from deeply ingrained disciplinary practice, and the risks involved with breaking from the manuscript are high for graduate students looking to impress their scholarly seniors. Moreover, as Julia has written in this forum, preparing extemporaneous presentations is just plain harder. So here’s a challenge to myself first, and my colleagues secondly, for us to be more consistent with the standards we impose on our students. If we give lower grades to undergraduates who read through their presentations in class, why would we tolerate it from each other in professional contexts? I propose that conference applications should include, in addition to written abstracts, an evaluation of oral delivery. Indeed, this could be an interesting application of the BLSCI’s Video Oral Communication Assessment Tool (VOCAT). Preparing non-read presentations that are well-organized, compelling, and adhere to time limits will likely take more time than simply writing and reading. Maybe this would reduce the number of academic conference papers presented every year; those of us who have witnessed or participated in numerous panels at large conferences at which the panelists outnumber listeners would likely welcome this development. And for me, at least, the prospect of raised standards for oral presentation at academic conferences would make me more likely to spend my time and money to attend them.

Tearing Down the Academic Paywall

There are cracks in the great academic paywall. I’m not talking about academic article torrents, though they do exist (I will not link to them here). I’m thinking of how many humanists are cultivating online personas and attempting to bypass the paywall in a number of ways–by blogging about their research or getting permission from journals to share their articles publicly. Optimistically, this is a sign of contemporary scholars’ dedication to openness and democracy. Pessimistically, it is a sign of the pressure on the humanities to justify its existence to the public. Times are difficult when the President of the MLA appeals to CNN.com readers by insisting that “Having strong skills in another language may give you an edge when applying for a job.”

Academics’ efforts to bypass paywalls intensified following the recent suicide of programmer, Reddit co-founder, and hacktivist Aaron Swartz. JSTOR, the database whose articles Swartz allegedly tried to share freely, actually led the charge to bring down paywalls even before Swartz’s passing. In tribute to Swartz, many academics shared their previously-paywalled scholarship publicly, using the hashtag #PDFtribute (which in turn spawned pdftribute.org).

I support the ideal of open access to academic work, but I think that it is worth considering what it would mean to remove academic paywalls when most journals and databases have paid staff.


In a time when adjunctification is rampant, can we really justify de-monetizing all journals and databases? Journal contributors are unpaid to begin with, so for most academics removing paywalls translates into no monetary loss, only a gain in publicity. Yet, like it or not, academic journals, databases, and supportive software companies all make up an industry with paid staff. I personally work for an open-access journal, The Journal of Interactive Technology and PedagogyAt this juncture, our staff do not receive stipends or course release time. In an ideal world, the staff of every journal would receive some kind of support from their institution; yet, this is more likely to be possible at colleges with large endowments, meaning that the playing field could potentially be even more uneven with the removal of paywalls. Again, while I am enthusiastic about the possibilities of open-access scholarship, I also have to point out that the system of labor in the academy is already precarious, so that any new model should avoid exploitative labor practices.

Liberal education itself is broken, torn between the “the life of the mind” and the reality of stifling student debt and increased adjuntification. Fewer students are majoring in English: in 1971 7.6% of conferred degrees were in English, while in 2006 the figure was 3.7%. From a student’s point of view, at least, it seems as though the life of the mind doesn’t pay off.

Neither paywalls nor college enrollment limits can block the natural flow of ideas, especially today. Ideas are viral, they interbreed and sometimes occur spontaneously in different locations. We can see this even in the natural world when separate species independently evolve the same traits–what is known as convergent evolution. Ideas don’t really belong to anyone. They are a product of the accumulation of a variety of factors–social factors, economic factors, previous concepts/discoveries, etc. This is as true in the humanities as it is in the sciences. We often like to focus on one “genius,” one breakthrough moment, when most discoveries or inventions were many centuries and lifetimes in the making. For instance, Thomas Edison was only able to achieve so much success by outsourcing his work to others–to his “muckers.” In my opinion, in the humanities the “superstars” aren’t always the most original thinkers–often they are simply able to synthesize and express preexisting ideas in novel and exciting ways.


Academics in the humanities like to pretend that their ideas are theirs. However, there is no legal basis for such a belief. Intellectual property law doesn’t protect ideas; it only protects the specific expression of an idea. As the U.S. Copyright office states, “Copyright does not protect ideas, concepts, systems, or methods of doing something. You may express your ideas in writing or drawings and claim copyright in your description, but be aware that copyright will not protect the idea itself as revealed in your written or artistic work.”

Now that many academics have made a public turn and are on Twitter, the dissemination, adoption, and critique of ideas within academic discourse is instantaneous and publicly visible:

In the field of English, it seems as though we are already talking and interacting in public and online spaces above (or through) the paywall. The purpose of an academic paywall isn’t to protect authors’ ideas. Rather, it’s an outgrowth of academic labor. In our push to make academic discourse and higher education more open, we also have to consider what the ramifications might be for an academic system of labor that seems to be growing more unequal.

In summary, I suppose that what I’m getting at with this post is that paywalls, tuition, and the intellectual ownership of ideas are unnatural structures that are contrary to the natural spread of ideas and which have grown out of higher education, which, as much as we hate to discuss it as such, is an industry. The new openness of scholarly communication serves to highlight this unnaturalness as well as the tensions between values such as “free thought” and “fair labor,” “ownership” and “openness,” or “prestige” and “access.”

This tumblr can explain your life better than you can

I’m sure everyone has seen this tumblr by now, but I only found out about it a couple weeks ago.

Since this is a very stressful time for many of us (grading and/or writing papers while mentally preparing to see family or in-laws, etc.) and since it’s also a time of gift giving, I thought I’d indulge myself and you by linking to a few of these brilliant representations of what life is like as a PhD student.

I’m going to just drop a few of my favorites in here without any analysis (how un-grad school!). They speak for themselves. I recently sent the website to my sister to explain, once and for all, what life as a grad student is like. It worked better, I think, than all the stories I’ve told her.

Talking about grad school

When someone wants me to be more critical of Judith Butler

Me and the progress of the dissertation

When someone says something heteronormative in class

thanks to Vincent Cervantes

The circle of conference papers

Sending the abstract:


Writing the paper:


Presenting the paper:


After the paper:

Evolve or Die

Image courtesy of http://thelearningnation.blogspot.com

This year’s Symposium on Communication and Communication-Intensive Instruction, hosted by the Bernard L. Schwartz Communication Institute, was a welcome shift from the sometimes adversarial tone present during previous annual meetings.  The representatives present from both the educational and business worlds seemed, in many ways, to collectively recognize the weight and speed of the transformation we are all experiencing.  Rather than business leaders wondering what is wrong with education, and vice versa, most of the conversations I heard took a wider, more holistic approach to the rapid shifts in communication that are creating new challenges and possibilities at an almost unimaginable rate.

During morning roundtable discussions, my group concluded that, in order to successfully navigate this rapidly shifting landscape of communicative channels, today’s college students will need to develop themselves into fundamentally adaptable creatures; that is, they will have to become proficient in both rhetorical and technical flexibility.  Learning only a few forms of communication (written and oral, for instance) just isn’t going to cut it anymore.  As an example, it’s clear that students need to become more comfortable switching between casual digital interactions like text messages to the more formal writing practices required of, say, professional letter writing.  While developing this ability, they must simultaneously prepare to apply these practices to a whole host of communicative technologies that haven’t even been invented yet.

Our group decided to create a series of classroom exercises designed to develop this adaptability, settling on a series of in-class role-playing activities that ask students to summarize the same text (like a newspaper article) in different communicative registers. A brief article about Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation, for example, might first be summarized as a brief blog post, then again as a Tweet, and finally re-envisioned as a YouTube video.  Our brainstorming helped me envision this “adaptability,” or the ability to confidently shift between different registers of communication, as a fundamental skill for students to develop if they hope to negotiate an ever-expanding set of expressive outlets. In this sense, this year’s Symposium served to reveal that, in both the business and educational realms, there is a growing realization of the profound ways that technology is changing how we communicate, and that future generations will be contending with a landscape of expressive possibilities far more complex than anything human beings have ever experienced.  College students of the 21st century, much like the traditional institutions in which they are embedded, will do well to recognize this fact, and prepare to adjust themselves and their skill sets accordingly, again and again and again…

On ArtSpeak

This past weekend I was able to attend one day of the two-day symposium “Art Speech” at MoMA, organized by Pablo Helguera, MoMA’s Director of Adult Education, and art historian and critic James Elkins. Billed as “A Symposium on Symposia” it promised to “anatomize art historians’ and artists’ habits at the podium,” presenting possible models by which lectures, gallery talks, slide presentations, and other conventions of communication in the field (such as museum audio tours and multimedia presentations) might be analyzed and their effectiveness assessed.

Sounds pretty basic—at least to the WAC-oriented among us—but it generated plenty of excitement across the field from the moment it was announced, and the sold-out auditorium held a pretty diverse range of people across the field: from academics, journalists, and bloggers to artists, museum directors and curators. Since accusations of impenetrability and obscurantism are leveled at so-called “artspeak” from within and without its many and varied institutions, and have been for some time—at least since the dawn of postmodernism—an interrogation of its forms seems well overdue at this point. (Of course, there may well have been such investigations that I’m just not aware of, but not by a preeminent institution like MoMA. Somewhat embarrassingly, the only one that comes to mind was featured in the one-off parody rag November, a spoof of the entrenched art history journal October: it featured the transcript of a roundtable on the perks that roundtables afford neo-Marxist intellectuals.) As the organizers pointed out in their opening remarks, the catchall concept of “performativity,” to which discussions on the conventions of art speech are usually relegated, has thus far not been tremendously useful.

Philosopher and critic Jonathan Gilmore, in a brief historical survey of the slide lecture, read a quote attributed to a student of legendary Swiss critic and “master of extemporaneous speaking” Heinrich Wölfflin: “[He]… places himself in the dark and together with his students at their side. He thus unites all concerned and becomes the ideal beholder, his words distilling the experiences common to everyone… Wölfflin’s speech never gives the impression of being prepared, something completed that is projected onto the art work. Rather it seems to be produced on the spot by the picture itself. The art work thus retains its preeminent status throughout. His words do not overwhelm the art but embellish it like pearls.” As anyone on the receiving end of the average art history survey course cam attest, this is one nineteenth-century straw man that may, in fact, still need a bit of demolishing.

This question of audience, and the pitfalls and practicalities of imagining such an “ideal beholder” was a problem to which speakers and the audience would continually return. In dishing out interpretation to an artificially “unified,” authoritative voice to an equally constructed recipient, what happens to the cacophony of argument that comprises the field in actuality—and how do those conversations move forward, rather than being preemptively shut down? Writer, curator, and editor Monika Szewczyk, whose ongoing “Art of Conversation” series centers on the interruptions of speech in and around art, focused on this problem in the context of a prosaic form: the museum audio guide. Deconstructing MoMA’s audio text for Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon (by its chief curator of painting and sculpture, Anne Temkin), she pointed out that it “fails to ask a single question” or “provide more than one perspective.” To avoid perpetuating both the common disdain for the guide format and the dismissive, unproductive notion that one cannot pack any nuance at all into two minutes of speech, she took a stab at producing an alternate entry. Briefly, it pointed out that the work was an interpretive battleground, and touched on the Cubist struggle to present multiple points of view on a single picture plane and the picture’s confusion of feminine, masculine, and supernatural signifiers. It ended with a reference to Serge Guilbaut’s now-canonical assessment of New York’s replacement of Paris at the hotbed of the modernist avant-garde. In a discussion that followed, an audience member fantasized about furthering audio guide options to include brief examinations by other methodologies: ie, “Press “2” for a feminist interpretation of this work; press “3” for a psychoanalytic interpretation..” I, for one, love this idea—at least for some of the museum’s most iconic works.

Artist Carey Young presented the most original examination of “art speech” by inverting its context completely: instead of interrogating the speech practices of art experts, her Speechcraft project asked non-experts to engage in object analysis through the organization Toastmasters. (Toastmasters is an international club in which members, striving for greater success as “leaders” in what seems to be a primarily business context, learn to communicate authoritatively and charismatically by means of regular meetings and peer critique.) Among the objects Young had members interpret: a red candle in the shape of Lenin, a clear rubber ball encasing MoMA’s logo, and “Wall Street” brand cigarettes. Would lay persons produce more interesting critique around these objects than the artist herself might have? From the limited video I watched, sometimes yes and sometimes no. The real potential to the project, for me, is the affective explication of the values associated with the speech of a “successful” leader in “business:” clear, authoritative, and well-rehearsed—but with the impression of being absolutely extemporaneous. Laid bare in the context of an artwork, the efforts of Toastmasters members, even when wholly and charismatically competent, seem unusually, surprisingly poignant.

Much of the rest of the symposium day involved an analysis, through a sort of de-construction and re-construction, of a snippet of a talk by famed Marxist art historian TJ Clark. Swiss economics and management professor Claus Noppeney attempted to strip away Clark’s rhetorical flourishes and present his main arguments (on Paul Cezanne’s critique of his teacher Camille Pissarro’s changing style) in Powerpoint, resulting in laughably banal bullet points like: “History is Valuable; Great apprentices find unique ways to learn; and Imitation can lead to Innovation.” A fun diversion, but an unnecessary one: I’m not sure anyone present would have argued for the respective absolute autonomy of style and content. Happily, English scholar Ellen Levy followed with an insightful analysis of Clark’s style: his liberal use of value judgments in his speech (things are “wonderful” or “brilliant” and historic predecessors “surely wrong” in their analysis) as appealing to a primal desire in listeners; his use of the first person, building the impression of the art historian as primal excavator of meaning; and his denigration and characterization of the idea of artworks as harboring a single, unified idea as “lyric.” (The latter, though not meant as an actual dismission of poetry, irked at least one poet in the audience.) Levy gave a really convincing assessment of the agonism inherent to Clark’s speaking style, in which he conjures, by inference, the polyphony of debate and political superstructures that comprise the construction of meaning.

There was much touched on that was valuable and potentially useful that day. However, after Levy’s beautifully nuanced model, the conversation devolved somewhat into a discussion of the “best” art talks that the audience and remaining panel members had ever experienced: a conversation which ultimately, and somewhat uncritically, began to privilege an art-speech model of narrative surprise-fact-unearthing and case-making: art history as detective novel with a surprise twist ending. This slide from modes of analysis to modes of experience was, for me, premature and disappointing: I had hoped for more and further revealing insights on the constructions of language around art; for example, the many rhetorical crutches we all (sometimes detrimentally) rely on in the field. Levy’s insights come from the study of language and poetry; perhaps more people outside the field were needed: a linguistic anthropologist, maybe? Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to follow up on Saturday’s discussions: I’ll have to wait til the symposium shows up on MoMA’s website (or until someone enlightens me in comments).

The Qydz are alright

I suppose after Linell’s, John’s, and David’s timely and thoughtful responses to Grant McCracken’s Symposium keynote talk, it might be overkill or overdue to pitch in my inflation-adjusted 

But seeing as some of my BLSCI colleagues might be awaiting something from one who could talk some smack but still state facts, get down to brass tacks, not exactly attack but risk a lack of tact, and maybe attract fellow hacks to take a crack at McCracken. Wise-cracks and shellackings, maybe followed by retractions and being sent home packing.

Or maybe a pact. But not exactly to shack up intellectually with this jack of all trades and his tract on value-extraction.

Alack, what to make of McCracken?

I started calling myself an anthropologist not too long ago, and since Dr. McCracken does as well, I suppose we have something in common. I suppose our differences are an invitation for me to police the boundaries of our discipline. The stakes seem to be broader than just defining what a proper understanding of anthropology or ‘culture’ can or should be. In any case, for all their propensity to deploy opaque jargon, anthropologists don’t maintain a monopoly on the concepts and methodologies of their field. Ethnography is increasingly popular in business, law, design, as well as other academic disciplines. The right to talk about culture belongs to everyone. I don’t think many anthropologists would object to that sentiment.

That said, McCracken’s take-away message was that successful companies need to be hip to culture and its vagaries, especially of a certain category of people he referred to repeatedly as the ‘Qydz.’

The Qydz are, as I understood McCracken, a rather large and underexamined tribe. They actually live among us, rather than in some faraway rainforest or mountainous highland. (At least, we aren’t so interested in the Qydz residing in such remote lands.)

These Qydz are the lifeblood of contemporary capitalism. Any business worth its salt should devote its energies toward studying the values and aesthetic tastes of this people. For the Qydz are nothing else if not consumers. And oh, the stuff they consume! Baggy jeans! Flip-out keyboard texting gizmos! Snapple!

Apparently, the Qydz are not born or raised. They have no provenance, no parentage, no institutions that foster their development. They simply appear in their present form (or ‘respawn’ as they might say in their own video-game parlance), as autonomous beings arranged into ‘generations’ we can only designate as ‘X’ or ‘Y’ (no word yet on any Generation Z sightings). Qydz culture prizes individualism, but their collective will is mighty and a thing to be feared only if business does not have the products to appease them.

Three female Qydz foraging for sustenance (not such a rare sighting, actually)

McCracken is right to suggest that capitalism has been increasingly dependent on the desires of consumers as a resource to mine and extract value. (Actually, he never said this outright, but it seems central to his research agenda.) Is this a fair assessment of capitalism, Linell seems to ask in the previous post? I would add, is this a fair assessment of desire?

For McCracken, the wants of the Qydz are limited only to their own imaginations, which, he contends, are limitless. Business can only hope to track the Qydz desires by means of increasingly sophisticated trend-tracking technology and–gasp!–ethnographic methods. Yes, really getting to ‘hang’ with some Qydz is a thrilling and potentially dangerous experience.

Academics spend oodles of time with Qydz, but McCracken may lament the time professors waste speaking to them, teaching them of our ways of life, rather than listening to and observing them. Pity.

It is increasingly clear that the Qydz are a natural resource we must safeguard carefully, lest they begin to imagine and wish for things business cannot manufacture and sell to them.

Great former tribesman Qydz referred to as Qurt Qobayn (center). He is still revered on t-shirts and other sacred memorabilia as an unsatisfied customer.

How Should the University Evolve?: Debate at Baruch, 11/18/2010

Last Thursday, we at the Schwartz Institute hosted a debate between authors Anya Kamenetz and Siva Vaidyanathan, two of the most relevant and engaging thinkers about the current and future state of higher education. The discussion (billed by some as a “smackdown”) was moderated by Dean David S. Birdsell of Baruch’s School of Public Affairs. The video of the event is below in two parts: first the structured debate, and then the lively and at times confrontational Q&A:

How Should the University Evolve?, part 1 of 2 from BLSCI on Vimeo.

How Should the University Evolve?, part 2 of 2 from BLSCI on Vimeo.

The idea for this conversation emerged organically, from Anya and Siva themselves with a little help from the Twitterverse. (I tell the story of how the event came to be at the beginning of the first video, but it’s worth a quick mention here as a testament to the way public discussion on the Internet, this case in Twitter, can easily move to meat space and lead to something remarkable that will resonate in many ways for some time to come.)

In his keynote at the Digital University conference at the CUNY Grad Center in April of this year, Siva critiqued Jeff Jarvis’ and Anya’s arguments about what higher ed ought to look like. (The video of the entire keynote is here.) Several of us tweeting at the conference noted Siva’s critique. Anya, who saw that her twitterstream was now chock full of people talking about Siva’s dressing down of her argument, remarked that she wanted to know more and was up for a debate. I suggested having the debate at CUNY and both agreed (SIva publicly and Anya in a DM later).

Given everyone’s ridiculously busy schedules, it took a while to happen, but it finally did. We hope you find Anya and Siva’s conversation as stimulating and provocative as we did. Enjoy. Please feel free to comment.

A Tale of Two Conferences

Over the past week I’ve attended two contemporary art conferences: one focused on the social and collaborative process of curating, the other on socially engaged art practices. Aside from a few similarities—they both touched on a couple of the same subjects, were two days long, packed with speakers, and employed a time-constrained, but freeform presentation format—the two couldn’t have been more different in terms of both context and structure.

The first, at which I presented, took place at MACBA in Barcelona, and invited international curators to present their collaborations (undertaken over the past several months) with artists at a prominent residency program in the city. Collaborations, in some cases, resulted in an exhibition or performative project, but other participants found different ways to present the results of an intellectual exchange: read diary entries, presented an index of theoretical topics discussed over email, or yet-to-be-realized virtual exhibitions.

Aside from the jet lag, the staying up late to hone my own presentation (it happens to all of us!)  and the challenges of listening to most of the event in simultaneous translation (my Spanish is in bad shape, and my Catalan nonexistent), I had some trouble staying focused, and I wasn’t alone. For one, few of the presenters respected the time limits, and there was no attempt to enforce them. Half-hour time allotments routinely stretched into ninety minutes, and overstuffed Powerpoints gave way to tedious public meandering through iPhoto, unnecessarily using dozens of images—big images, that loaded slowly—to illustrate a project. A pair of participants decided to give their collaborative presentation simultaneously and separately, from their respective Barcelona apartments, using Skype. This was ostensibly to reflect some inability to communicate that persisted throughout their collaboration, and to enable them to humorously “swap” identities midway though their talk. Unfortunately, any self-reflexivity the medium may have promised ultimately failed to deliver: what the audience took away from the presentation was a dull march through every possible technological glitch associated with Skype, and a series of snippets of dialogue repeatedly punctuated by the Spanish equivalent of “Can you hear me now?”

In advance of a week spent coaching Baruch undergrads on presentation skills, this was particularly frustrating: however challenged some students may be at orally communicating, they inevitably recognize that their time and content need to be appropriately structured—even if this recognition is imposed by the class itself. Could I not expect a similar acknowledgement from the artists, curators, and conference organizers in my own field?

But the day after my return, I attended the Creative Time Summit that, in stark contrast, was rigorously designed to briskly move tens of speakers through two impeccably organized days of presentation and discussion. Images and video clips by presenters were seamlessly integrated into a single presentation. Talks, keynotes, and discussions were limited to 8, 15, and 25 minutes, respectively. Times were gently but effectively reinforced by a series of unique musicians—throat singers, sax players, a traditional Korean drummer—who signaled the end of the presentation by playing something compelling and making it possible, but uncomfortable, for the speaker to go more than a few moments over time. Those presenting remotely were subject to the same strictures: to boot, each presentation was made available immediately online, and the whole thing was streamed online, enabling lots of remote participation on Twitter. It might sound a bit draconian in practice, and there were people I would love to have heard more from, but having just experienced one alternative, I was one grateful audience member.

Watch live streaming video from creativetime at livestream.com

Come to the BBF with your BFF

Graduate students like me, and other bookish folks in this economy, love to find events that combine cultural cachet and entry fees of $0.00. If you like the sound of that, too, you can’t do better this weekend than the Brooklyn Book Festival, now in its fifth year, and taking place in and around Brooklyn’s Borough Hall. The main day is September 12th, but the event is ‘book-ended’ with activities on September 10th and 11th, too, and features 170 publishers and booksellers with displays filling Borough Hall Plaza and Columbus Park.

Described as “hip, huge and free,” this event has a long list of scheduled authors, including Salman Rushdie, Naomi Klein, the poet John Ashbery, celebs like Venus Williams, and people you might see on the streets of Brooklyn year-round, like novelist Paul Auster. A few of the programs center on graphic novels, one moderated by Columbia University’s Karen Green, whom I mentioned in a previous post on comics for iPhones. Another panel I want to see includes The Daily Show’s John Hodgman and Kristen Schaal. Some of the events take place elsewhere in Brooklyn and do have a fee, such as Russell Banks talking about books being made into movies (his novel The Sweet Hereafter was made into a film that really stuck with me, by Atom Egoyan) [$12 at BAM].

Sometimes I feel as if I live not only in the most culturally rich city in the world, but at the very epicenter of cool, right here in Brooklyn. There may be a lot of other worthwhile things to do on the anniversary of September 11th, 2001, but this one offers an upbeat reminder of some reasons why we live here.  This is a kid-friendly event, with children’s book authors and workshops, including one that teaches kids how to write their own comic book.

Here’s a video a friend of mine made with quick views of a number of authors who will be there.

Check out the complete schedule for the Brooklyn Book Festival here.