Multiple Moles

In George Saunders’ 2012 short story “The Semplica-Girl Diaries,” an overextended father warding off an encroaching psychotic break starts keeping a diary, addressed to the future. In one entry, he compares the Sisyphean task of parenting to a game of Whac-a-Mole:

Family life in our time sometimes seems like game of Whac-a-Mole, future reader. Future generations still have? Plastic mole emerges, you whack with hammer, he dies, falls, another emerges, you whack, kill? Sometimes seems that, as soon as one kid happy, another kid “pops up,” i.e., registers complaint, requiring parent to “whack” kid, i.e., address complaint.[1]

I am, I suspect, not the first person to feel just this way about the task of teaching first-year college students how to write, perhaps especially in the fall semester: the sense of an unceasing escalation of tasks, the breathtaking speed with which fifteen weeks evaporate, the impossibility of accounting for when and where the next mole will pop up. Within the time of any class period, too, there are these unforeseeable emergences, more questions than can ever be answered.

I have been thinking a lot about one piece of advice for how to manage such moles (perhaps less a piece of advice than a utopian ideal): Make Everything You Teach Multiply Motivated—i.e., whack more than one mole with every hammer.

Below, I sketch out how one very short text—a chapter from Walker Percy’s 1983 Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book—allowed me to address a lot of topics within the space of less than a full class period. (Click through for a pdf of the chapter—highly recommended.)

(To contextualize a bit: my students are beginning to draft essays about a text that they have been working with for about the last four weeks. The essay calls for them to assess the reliability of the primary text’s central claim against its own evidence—and to import other “secondary” texts that discuss a related idea, using those secondary texts as lenses for thinking about some implications of the primary text. My main focus for this class period was to get my students thinking about their respective primary texts in terms of the questions posed by those texts, and to consider how their secondary texts provide ways of responding to – or pushing back against – those questions.)

Here are some of the moles that the chapter allowed me to whack:

  1. It models a strong introduction.

The chapter, titled “The Fearful Self: Why the Self is So Afraid of Being Found Out,” begins:

A recent poll asked people what they feared most. A majority of respondents agreed in ranking one fear above all others, above fear of sickness, accidents, crime, war, even death. It is the fear of speaking before a group, stage fright.

Yet, in the conventional objective scientific view, man is an organism among other organisms and a man should therefore not be terrified to be surrounded by his own kind, other like organisms who are not merely not hostile but by the very nature of the occasion well disposed, and to open his mouth and speak in a language he has learned from his fellowmen. A wolf howling alone in a wolfpack doesn’t get stage fright.[2]

Two principles of introductions that my students recognized and were able to name were Percy’s engagement with his reader, and his setting up of a problem or question by “turning back against” a received way of thinking (i.e., It is reasonable to have stage fright, since it is the most common fear –> Is it reasonable to have stage fright?).

  1. It demystifies what we mean by “essay.”

Because my students are working on essays, I liked this chapter for the way it literalizes some of the essential moves of essayistic writing: after the two-paragraph introduction, Percy goes on to write a multiple-choice question and answers, and two thought experiments. These formats, which Percy borrows from the self-help genre he satirizes in Lost in the Cosmos, perform a kind of strategic oversimplification of the process of writing an essay: you begin with a question, and you test out many possible responses; or, you experiment with following your digressive thoughts in order to see where they eventually lead you.

Take a look at what he does with the multiple-choice question format/genre:

Question: What is so frightening to so many people about speaking to an audience?

(a) Is it because the ever-present chance of making a fool of oneself before one person is multiplied by the number of listeners, so that an audience of 50 persons is 50 times more terrifying than one? Is an audience of 50 million a million times more terrifying than 50?

(b) Is it because, since one person, friend or stranger, is often difficult to deal with, 50 people are 50 times more difficult?

(e) Is it because you know that what you present to the world is a persona, a mask, that it is a very fragile disguise, that God alone knows what is underneath since you clearly do not, perhaps nothing less than the self itself, and that if the persona fails, what is revealed is unspeakable (literally, because you can’t speak it), like what was revealed when the Phantom of the Opera had his mask ripped off, a no-face, a vacancy, a hole which is much worse than the ugliest face—so frightening, in fact, that you remember, as a child, crawling under the seat in the movie?

Only by going through the process of “testing” multiple answers to his initial question is Percy able to arrive, in option (e), at what seems to be his central idea. (I also admire the way the multiple-choice format implies that its answers are always somehow congruent, whereas Percy reveals in his answers the essentially incongruous “turn” his thinking has taken.)

  1. It lends itself well to imitation.

Before showing them this chapter, I had asked my students to write out a question that they were still reckoning with in the primary text they are writing their own essays about. After we read Percy’s chapter aloud as a class, I asked them to write out several multiple choice answers to the initial question they had written down, and to retain the question form in their mutliple choice answers—in other words, to use Percy’s form as a springboard for thinking further about their own questions and ideas.

  1. It demonstrates the work that a good title accomplishes.

The title of the chapter (“The Fearful Self: Why the Self is so Afraid of Being Found Out”) seems straightforward enough for a chapter that is, ostensibly, about the fear of public speaking. Yet, by the time we reach the middle of the chapter (see multiple choice response “e” above), it becomes clear that the title in fact refers to the idea that Percy is developing implicitly: that when we speak before an audience, we are less afraid of others, and more afraid of our own selves.

  1. It enacts thinking as play.

The chapter continues,

Thought Experiment: If you are a shy person, which of the following situations is the most terrifying to you? Which is the least terrifying?

In the first, you are a mid-echelon executive in the sales division of a large company in which you are both successful and well liked. You are scheduled to deliver a speech at the annual banquet, an honor. You have months to prepare.

In the second, you are the character Richard Hannay in Hitchcock’s The Thirty-nine Steps. Pursued down a street by his enemies, he ducks into a doorway which happens to be a stage door and finds himself on a stage at a political rally where he is mistaken for the guest speaker and introduced. He has not the faintest idea what he is supposed to talk about.

In the third, the world’s population has been destroyed by nuclear wars. Only you have survived. The earth is invaded by extraterrestrial beings. They capture you and haul you up before a large tribunal and make it known to you that you must give an account of yourself, what you are dong here, why you should be spared, etc.

Explain your choice.

This section again reinforces a principle of essayistic writing: that the reader needs to think with you, to follow a train of thought. It also demonstrates a principle that could be transported to other kinds of academic writing: that effective argument need not be, necessarily, pugilistic; it can also be playful.

  1. It introduced the term “thought experiment” into our shared discourse.
  1. It foreshadowed a theme that will, undoubtedly, become prominent in an upcoming class, when I ask my students to read parts of their finished essays aloud in front of their classmates.

Of course, I could list an equal number of things that this text did not accomplish for our class, moles that went by the wayside. (Percy’s screwball humor, sadly, did not resonate with everyone.) But the text did, at least, for this particular moment in the semester, alleviate some of the pressure of trying to Do Everything, and I fully intend to keep asking my students, ad nauseum, to think beyond answers (a) and (b); to remind them that, until they’ve arrived all the way at answer (e), there is further work to be done.

[1] George Saunders, “The Semplica-Girl Diaires.” The New Yorker. October 15, 2012.

[2] Walker Percy, Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1983.

What I learned in my international archival research

This break, I spent time in Moscow, conducting dissertation research. This archival trip has been useful, not only for my dissertation research, but in a way I never expected: helping my pedagogy seemingly unrelated to my research topic.

(requisite image of St. Basil's for any post about Moscow)

(requisite image of St. Basil’s for any post about Moscow)

As a foreigner in Russian archives and libraries, I expected some bureaucratic red tape, therefore I planned ahead. However, no matter how much you try, bureaucracy will always find a way. Even with very helpful librarians and archival specialists, I faced multiple forms, access requests, and unexpected hurdles. This post is an attempt to record my experience.

I won’t go into the forms needed just to enter Russia, as there are many websites dedicated to helping with that. But I will just say that you must begin preparations months—six months would be ideal—in advance. Once you arrive, make sure that you have all of your documentation: Passport, Visa, Migration card, Visa registration, Letter of introduction from your home institution, Russian phone number, Russian address where you are staying. Got all of those? Good, you are ready to head out to your research site.

Beloved Dostoevsky guarding the entrance to the main Lenin Library in Moscow.

Beloved Dostoevsky guarding the entrance to the main Lenin Library in Moscow.

In a nice bit of Gogolesquery, in order to enter most libraries and archives you will need your propusk [pass]. In order to get this propusk, you have to register with the library past the guard’s station where you need to show this propusk. For some libraries, the process is simple as telling them that you are a new reader and going to register. Other places require calling the librarian on duty to come and escort you to the office where you apply for the propusk. The good news is that the librarians in charge of issuing these propuski are generally very helpful and quick. So it shouldn’t take more than an hour or so to get your privledges.

Despite a national set of “Rules for the Reader,” (a multipaged set of bureaucratic rights and privledges that you either are asked to read or given a copy of at each location), every library or archive has its own system for carrying out those rights, registering its readers, requesting materials, and requesting copies. Since you will be asked to read over these rules so quickly, best to familiarize yourself with them well ahead of time.

Hand over your letter of introduction, printed on official letterhead and specifically stating the subject and dates of your research topic. Turn in your passport, visa, migration card, and visa registration. Fill in the registration form, which could be as simple as a notecard or as long as a couple pages and require an attached photo. And hope you filled everything in correctly. You will then, if all goes well, receive your official propusk with a blue official stamp.

Good to go!
(image by Damian Yerrick cc-by-sa)

Next comes the request for materials. While collections are starting to be indexed on computers, the main way to find documents is still an extensive collection of handwritten and typed (but not digital) indexes (putivoditeli). These are similar to finding aids you will find in US archives, but the yellowing pages and corrections entered in pencil cultivate a sense of history I have rarely felt when working with the more familiar MS Word docs and slick websites or even the physical card catalogues. Each collection (fond) has its own putivoditel or shelf of putivoditeli that indexes the sub-collections (opisi), files (dela), date of deposit (data), and number of pages (listi) in the delo. Some archives vary slightly in what these elements are called, but these are the elements you will need to request a file. Depending on the archive, you may also need the (very lengthy) description of the delo. (In my research, many of the descriptions would not fit in the space provided on the requisition form. We will see if my attempts to abbreviate worked.) Be prepared to fill out the forms multiple times. The smallest mistake can cause you to have to fill out the whole form again. But the archivists are very helpful in checking for you and will let you know if anything is out of order on your request. Turn in your requisition form, and then wait. Anywhere from one to three days. According to law, they aren’t supposed to make you wait longer than three days, but I have heard stories of requests that took longer because the files had been sent into storage outside of the city.

Remember how I mentioned the date of deposit? This seemingly unimportant piece of archival trivia is indispensable for researchers hoping to access “personal files” (lichniye dela). Personal files and files containing potential state secrets have been sealed for a period of 75 years from the date of deposit. This is something that is not well publicized on the websites of the collections, but which the archivist at RGALI was very helpful in pointing out. Supposedly, you can request access earlier than this date with the permission of the subject or the subject’s family.

When you finally receive the files, personal photography (a real time- and money-saver in my previous archival research) is usually prohibited. So be prepared to take your copious and extremely detailed notes or cough up for the $1-$3 per page copying service.

No cameras

After this experience, I definitely have a greater understanding of what my students must feel going through a completely new bureaucratic system like our libraries here in the US. I knew that I needed to provide support to my students when requiring research for class projects, otherwise I would just get a lot of Google-search-based papers. But I thought providing links to the helpful guides already provided by our libraries would be sufficient. However, my experience attempting to navigate an unfamiliar library system showed me how beguiling (and contradictory) mere documentation can be when encountering a new library for the first time. My contextual knowledge of how to navigate US libraries and archives was of limited use. My ability to “speak library” stopped at the border, and I had to learn a new way of maneuvering through these collections.

[Navigating library catalogues doesn’t have to be scary]

Rather than merely pointing my students to online resources that outline what services our libraries provide, scheduling a class period to meet with the subject area librarian no longer seemed like pedantic overkill. For students who are not used to navigating the idiosyncrasies of multiple databases, physical and digital collections, as well as the technology resources available in our libraries, just learning where to start can be confusing. And this is without the hurdles due to class, linguistic, and past educational background biases faced by many of our students.

Be Interested?

A few weeks ago, at the SUNY Council on Writing Conference, I heard Richard E. Miller give a fascinating keynote called “Who’s this for?: Audience in the Classroom without Walls.” What I found most exciting about his remarks was his description of an assignment he gave a creative nonfiction class: Be Interested. My understanding of what this means is that Miller  asked his students to “produce a research project that others would read willingly.” My first reaction was of the “I want to steal that assignment” variety.  But as I thought more about the prompt, I began to wonder if a student would be as excited as I was. Miller mentioned that he had students who grappled with questions like “How do you become interested in anything?” and struggled with finding a way to experience curiosity in a moment when information is “superabundant.”

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The more I toyed with this kind of assignment, the more I found myself wondering more about what I’d actually be asking students to do, what it actually means to genuinely be interested in something, and what that might look like in writing. A cursory glance at the OED shows that the word “interest” is defined using terms like “concern,” “curiosity,” and “sympathy.” But, interestingly, one definition also lists “to share in something.”

The idea of “sharing” seems central to composing, at least to me. But, often, I think it is this component–that of engaging and collaborating with an audience outside of the “teacher”–that I think might be lacking for many students (and here I’m thinking specifically of the freshmen I work with). To return to Miller’s prompt–I suppose the “assignment” is really to be interested and to be interesting. And, I also suppose that in an environment where students are perpetually in some kind of rubric quest, this probably feels very very scary.

But, on the flip side, this kind of opportunity is one that we should hope students encounter more and more. As Gardner Campbell points out:

We might begin with a curriculum that brings students into creative, challenging contact with the history and dreams of the digital age, perhaps in a first-year experience that asks them to reflect critically on their own digital lives as well as begin to shape and share their own digital creations, both intramurally and publicly. Research into the neurobiology of learning, building on decades of educational research, has shown that students learn deeply when they are asked to narrate their learning, curate their creations within the learning environment, and share what they have curated with a wide and, when appropriate, a public audience. As students understand that they are not simply completing an assignment at a professor’s behest, but in fact beginning their life’s work, they will necessarily become more engaged and produce more authentic work reflective of their own growing interests.

This excerpt is from part 4 of Gardner Campbell’s excellent series of posts on “The Road to Digital Citizenship,” this one subtitled, “Fluency, Curriculum, Development.” Campbell connects student investment in their own work with developing a pedagogy that allows for rigorous reflection on what it means to live a digital life. Campbell also makes the important connection between “sharing” and “publicness,” an important link where the truly interesting might occur through the kinds of conversation digital compositions enable.

Asking students to approach this kind of inquiry marks an important shift in the definition of what it means to write an “academic essay.” I wonder if what is actually happening is a return to Montaigne’s sense of the essay as a “series of attempts,” or Francis Bacon’s “dispersed meditations.” By encouraging students to “be interested” and “curate their creations,” the usual chore of the “paper” becomes more of an experiment in invention or “making.”

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It is no coincidence that “Composition as Explanation,” Gertrude Stein’s sonic exploration of what it means to “create a composition,” employs the verb “to make” as one of its central repeated words. For example: “This makes the thing we are looking at very different and this makes what those who describe it make of it, it makes a composition, it confuses, it shows, it is, it looks, it likes it as it is, and this makes what is seen as it is seen.” This work is also the first time that Stein refers to her sense of a “continuous present” which was crucial to how she thought of her own process.

steintokEducation writer Audrey Watters lists “The Maker Movement” as one of the “Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2012″ and describes the importance of this kind of pedagogical approach as, “we need more learning by making, through projects and inquiry and hands-on experimentation.” When we actually ask students to physically invent something, to take objects and turn them into something that did not exist ten minutes earlier, this is a very different kind of learning from writing a 3-5 page paper. It marks a return to the kind of “learning by doing” that John Dewey advocated for–“Give the pupils something to do, not something to learn; and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking; learning naturally results.” In other words, when we are engaged in the act of “making” or “doing,” that is when real learning occurs, and that is also when I think the sensation of “being interested” is rediscovered.

In many ways this post feels like its own experiment in what Stein might describe as “beginning again and again is a natural thing…”–I wanted to think about this idea of “being interested,” which consequently was so interesting to me that only now have I realized what the connection is to my own recent experiences in the classroom. Meechal recently wrote about one of my latest forays into technology in the classroom, one that I am still processing. When given the chance to use the MaKey MaKey with my 2 composition 2 sections (thanks to Mikhail & BLSCI), I jumped at the chance, trusting a gut feeling that “making” something physically might teach us something about what happens when we “make” academic essays.

Picture1In small groups, the students were given MaKey MaKeys, a number of different materials that conducted electricity, and access to a laptop and told to “make” and “invent.” As a teacher, what was interesting to me was to watch the groups’ progress–many began by seeming a little confused, admittedly not knowing what to “invent,” and feeling at a loss for ideas (or “interest”). But, I also got to watch each group work collaboratively and experientially and ultimate discover the spectrum of things they  might do.

And, after the class session, students blogged about what they experienced through “making.” A few sample responses:

  • “If we just looked at the surface of today’s session, we would see that we were just playing around with the Makey Makey and doing things that are totally unrelated to our English class. However, if we think more deeply, we will see many similarities, especially with the process of writing. At first, we need some ideas to invent something amazing with Makey Makey; if not, we will just be playing and there will not be any creation. It is like writing our essays; we need a specific thesis to write a good essay based on the thesis.”
  • “Making something with the Makey Makeys very musch resembled the writing process. In class on Monday we were supposed to “outline” our plans and ideas for what we wanted to make today in class. An outline plays an important role in essay writing so that the writer has their thoughts and ideas organized and ready to be written down and explained. Each invention also required several “revisions” and “rewrites” in order for it to reach its “final draft” stage. I know that my group changed plans, inventions, and strategies a few times throughout the class period.”
  • “For a good portion of our time we were bouncing back and forth between these questions and sitting there thinking about what we should do. I felt frustrated at the fact that with all these tools we were just stuck, it was like our creativity was at a standstill. However after revisiting the objectives of using the Makey Makey and playing around with it, things made a turn for the better. With developing a greater understanding and applying that understanding to ideas we had, we were able to center on one idea and go with it…Relating to writing, when have that moment where you know the message you want to communicate and gather all your information; everything comes together and flows. Centralizing your idea and making attempts towards it can assist in your creativity. Whether is be the next groundbreaking IT program or your final paper, the initial beginning may prove to be the most difficult; but after you overcome that, you will have your masterpiece.”

3D Research Writing

On November 15, 2012, as part of “The Seminar on Innovative Teaching” series, the Bernard L. Schwartz Communication Institute hosted a talk by Tim Owens titled “3D Printing and Making Across the Curriculum.” Owens, Instructional Technology Specialist at the University of Mary Washington, invited us to join him in an exploration of how the ability to use 3D printers to create real physical objects impacts the way students (of any level in many disciplines) come to understand their own agency, particularly the agency of producing. I was particularly interested in Owens’ Makerbots and Mashups course, a freshman seminar style course where students were immersed in the process of “making” (on a number of levels), and even more interested in the self-reflective blog his class kept chronicling their collaborations, experiments, and valuable missteps.

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I left that seminar feeling particularly charged about the possibilities that 3D printing presents for the first year writing class. I kept thinking about the way that Owens spoke about using the process of 3D printing as a way to “problem solve”—to enable students to explore what it might mean (and look like) to actually create something that could “represent a solution.”

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For the past few years I’ve assigned a “digital essay” project that parallels the 7-10 page research paper students in Composition I and II write. My logic behind adding in the mysteriously vague digital component was that I was curious if student writing would noticeably change when the somewhat traditional research/argument driven paper joined hands with something visual and much more abstract. And, student writing did change—thesis statements were articulated through the process of creating the digital project and overall, the research papers were/are noticeably better. Students were/are excited by and invested in their own work in a way they hadn’t been before, or at least I hadn’t seen this level of enthusiasm in previous papers.

 

I can’t say that I was surprised by these results. I expected student work to change, and I keep working on this project because I love watching how writing grows and changes. Cynthia Selfe discusses the “use-value” of the “digital story” as “we’re not going to teach students to be Spielbergs or anyone like that. We’re going to teach them to be good rhetoricians who can deploy any number of modes of expression and media to make meaning. We’re going to teach them to use all available means to accomplish responsible rhetorical ends.” And, by encouraging students to be proficient in these multiple modes of expression, we are also opening up a space for the digital to speak to the written and vice versa.

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Much of the writing about pedagogy and 3D printing focuses either on engineering majors or art/design students, although it is clear that the process of creating, designing, editing, and actually making an object mirrors many of the talents we want to foster in first year writing courses. As Angela Chen points out, “nearly every discipline could benefit from the ability to easily create objects from customized designs.”

So, when I learned that there was a Makerbot on campus, I felt certain that even if I didn’t fully understand what 3D printing meant, it would present students with another tool that might change their relationship to writing. And, after Tim Owens’ talk, I felt even more sure that 3D printing should be a crucial part of Composition I because the creation of an object seemed to parallel the research paper composing process in a way that I’m still not sure I can fully articulate.

My research paper assignments are always quite scaffolded, with the idea that the assignment can be hugely broad and that students can discover their own research questions along the way. I was curious to see if the process of drafting a physical object would influence the discovery and development of the research focus, or vice versa.

Some Student Work:

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The above is a student’s “first draft” of his project. Once he realized that he needed to “scrap” this idea, he also realized a number of things about his paper (and thesis statement)–mainly that his argument could be more specific and that he actually wanted to take some more risks with his analysis of the relationship between cognition and physical identity.

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This image is a snapshot of this student’s process presentation–he decided to teach himself how to really “sculpt” and alter the original brain model he was working with. The process of carving symbols into a brain ended up mirroring his writing process–he had a solid first draft, and ended up realizing that he needed to really explode that draft–carve into it more specific analysis, focus on one case study related to his larger topic, etc.

EricaCUNYIT2012

The above is a series of images of another student project, which he describes as: “Iron Man’s arc reactor is a symbol of his life and ability to stay alive. I wanted to take the arc reactor and see what would happen if I built a virus that envelopes it. What originally happened was I got something that looked like a globe. So, I flattened out the virus and now you can look through the virus and see the center of the arc reactor…” This student’s paper began as an extremely vague meditation on technology and evolution. But, he was also very interested in learning the software to create his own 3D designs. What happened was that this student became very interested in creating his own original virus–which then led to the realization that his paper might really specifically focus on the current influenza situation–the way the virus overcomes the vaccine and the implications of that.

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This post is meant to just be a snapshot of what happened last semester, as I begin to prepare for the coming semester’s classes, where I want to do more with 3D printing and am trying to figure out how to revise my approach. Any ideas, experiences, suggestions would be helpful and appreciated!

I fucking hate blogs, but I’m obliged to do this 5 times for reasons I’ll explain later. So, for my first one, I thought I’d just introduce some questions.  No one’s watching, so if you’re bothering to read this, you might as well be honest with yourself (though seriously, don’t bother).

We’ve heard a lot of nonsense here and elsewhere about who’s to determine taste, who’s to say Mozart’s better than a McDonald’s jingle, blah blah blah. Typical, but let’s leave that off till next time. For the time being, let’s just talk internet:

We say it’s good that everyone has a chance to express himself. Why? Think about it for a minute. Why is a democracy of expression good? Why is everybody having the right to talk and feeling perfectly comfortable talking necessarily good? Might blogs be harmful?

Is it a good thing for everyone to speak his mind at all times?

Now suppose you heard two melodies, one from a great symphony, one from a commercial jingle. You then were asked to name whether the first was Beethoven, Schubert, or Brahms, and whether the second was McDonald’s, Modell’s, or Verizon. Which do you think you would have a better shot of identifying?

That is you. That is what you are.

Same thing with two sentences. Is the first by Milton or Keats or Wallace Stevens. Is the second the motto for sprite or pepsi.

That is you. And yet you write.

            Or, would you be more capable of explaining the ideas of Kant, or Schopenhauer, or Heidegger, or describing Modern Family, or American Idol, or Lost? And are you more familiar with those shows or our political system? our economy? I think you get the idea.

            Two questions now: What percentage of the population is like you? And, do you think you arrived at your sterling identification skills freely? I.e. did you choose to know what you know?

But hey everyone, express yourself, right? Everyone does. Who can sift through all this shit? How much shit there is! And who can sift through it all?

Why is this a problem? Well, suppose there’s something really good out there.  Who can sift through all the stupid shit and find the good things?

Oh, you’ll find it! But will you? Maybe you couldn’t even spot it if you saw it. Remember what you’re like, from the questions above.

And what happens when generations of people like you express themselves, and other generations listen? When whole generations are drowned in the flood of your slavish inanities? Won’t they become more like you, but even worse? How will those people identify anything? How will they make anything? How will those who make exist among them?

Doesn’t it just all turn into white noise, billions screaming stupid shit at once?

Does anything get through the white noise? Does a melody sail over it? Does the white noise accompany a melody?

If it does, do you think that melody will be Mozart, or the McDonald’s jingle?

I repeat, did you choose to know what you know, to like what you like, to think the things you write about?

Do you think your incessant talking makes you free?

Now I only did this because it’s mandatory for me in order to get my fellowship check—believe me or don’t, I don’t care. Why do most other people write blogs? Here, I’ll answer my own question; I think it’s generally a safe rule that people with the least to say cannot stop talking.

Later tools,

F. Scott FitzStalin

Economies of Communication

We just don’t read like we used to. More often than not, I skim through books, I skim through newspaper articles, I even skim through celebrity gossip blog posts that are about 200 words long. As a doctoral student, I have more supposed leisure time than the average American. I also have access to scholarly databases and conference presentations. This means that I am privileged in the form and quantity of media I can consume. Still, I find myself moving more and more quickly through most texts. I even have the ability to record TV shows and fast forward through the commercials. Sometimes I’ve seen a show so many times that I skip through the introductions as well as the transitions that come right before or after the commercials. I wouldn’t call the above behavior a shortening of attention span. No, I think it’s actually a narrowing of focus, a kind of info expertise.

Every form of communication is positioned in an economy of attention–the 30 second elevator speech, the graphic novel, the comic strip, the 30 minute newscast. And I don’t think one can talk about economies of attention without considering the role of privilege as a multidimensional variable encompassing items such as a person’s education, leisure time, and access to various technologies. For instance, I posit that the type of media that people consume on the subway can be largely predicted by their degree of privilege. Unfortunately we do not live in a utopia where the New York Post and the New York Times share the exact same readership.

In response to this tendency that I and other consumers of media have to skim text or to fast forward through TV shows, media has further economized itself. On Reddit, for instance, there is an abbreviation–TL;DR. Fittingly, TL;DR is shorthand for “Too Long; Didn’t Read.” Often, at the end of a paragraph-long Reddit post, the poster will put TL;DR and write a line summarizing the post for those who couldn’t be bothered to read it:

There is also a section on Reddit that is called TL;DR. This section is used to summarize an entire day of Reddit posts in one line of text. Somewhere between November 13, 2009, when this section first appeared, and July 15, 2006, which was the opening day of Twitter, I guess the whole internet realized that most everything was just too wordy.

Ironically, though, I still can bury myself in a book, but it has to be a book that is hard to put down. From what I’ve personally heard and read, literary agents are increasingly looking for page-turners, for the truly “immersive” and “accessible” read. No longer can books get away with too much exposition, no longer can they afford to let you walk leisurely down the road with Jude the Obscure, observing his thoughts about earthworms. Now the characters have to grab you, throw you in a car trunk, and drive off with you to Mozambique.

I wonder, though, how such pressures to economize the delivery of information might affect academia. Academic discourse has always been a discourse of privilege…even, I suppose, when some of the recipients of Phds are living on food stamps. Now that forms of communication are potentially economizing themselves, does academic discourse appear even more distant, more unrealistic? Is academic discourse guilty of alienating larger and larger swaths of the population? What might be the consequences of such alienation?

Recent years have already witnessed an increased diversity in the forms, or, one might say, the economies of academic writing. These diverse forms include summarizing one’s thesis in a single tweet, academic blog posts, the traditional academic article, word visualizations of conference speeches, and everything in between. In this negotiation of form one might wonder whether a real balance can be achieved between efficiency and the maintenance of academic rigor and integrity. Are there some cases in which an academic  argument can only be introduced in 30 pages or more?

TL;DR: Communication is economizing itself. How will academic discourse adapt?

Knowledge Politics #2: What Universities Do

This is my second post in a series on the politics of knowledge. My goal with these posts is to consider a basic question of critical university studies: How do universities differ from other kinds of social organization such as government agencies, corporations, and cause-oriented nonprofits? What is the importance of higher education? What kind of constituency does it present? What does it mean to build a social institution around the transmission and discovery of knowledge? What is “knowledge” in this context and what are its politics? [Read more…]

The People’s Research Library

My post is an appeal to readers, writers, and scholars who use the New York Public Library’s 42nd Street central research library. That is, all people who make use of this amazing, impressive democratic institution. The NYPL’s proposed Central Library Plan (CLP) calls for a fundamental transformation of the 42nd Street space whereby the Mid-Manhattan Circulation Library (across the street at 40th Street) and the Science Industry and Business Library (SIBL, at Madison and 34th) would be incorporated into the 42nd Street location. Up to 3 million books from the central library’s research collection would be sent to an offsite storage facility in New Jersey and the seven floors of stacks that formerly housed these books would be demolished to make room for the circulation library, SIBL’s research collection, a multitude of public-access computers, and an internet café. The CLP will adversely alter the way the public can use the central research library and strike at the very heart of the research library’s egalitarian mission. In his recent article, “Stop Cultural Vandalism,” Scott McLemee rightly declares, “the CLP needs to be stopped” Together we need to decide how we will accomplish this goal.

Public Library

cc photo credit: Paolo Rosa

Implementation of the CLP will impair the ability of writers, readers and scholars to conduct research at the NYPL’s central research library. Patrons organize their library time around heavy, often complicated schedules. We therefore must maximize the time we spend in the library. My requested materials typically arrive together, allowing me to hunker down and get to work. Under the proposed plan, it is impossible to guarantee that all of one’s requested items will arrive together—a significant impediment to maximizing time in the library. What if a few books arrive one day and the rest trickle in over the next couple of days, but a patron cannot be back at the library for another week? And what about the patron who has traveled from outside NYC, and thus has a very limited timeframe in which to conduct research? Or the student who is striving to write a research paper under deadline? Architects of the CLP claim that requested materials would be available within 24 hours. In a piece titled “Improving a Treasured Institution,” NYPL President and CEO Anthony Marx argues that “24-hour turnaround is made possible by major enhancements already in the works, most notably by bar-coding every item.” Upgrading the means by which books are tracked makes sense. Moving the books offsite does not. Current turnaround for most materials is roughly less than an hour and that is because most of the collection is located in the stacks or in storage under Bryant Park. Touting a projected 24-hour turnaround as a benefit underscores a major flaw of the CLP and the myopia of its supporters: researchers should not have to wait 24 hours—and probably more—for their materials. Indeed, due to time constraints and deadlines, they often cannot.

A sectional view of the New York Public Library. (1911)

A sectional view of the New York Public Library. (1911) by leiris202, on Flickr

The CLP also fails to take into account the serendipitous aspect of research. While reading a particular text, I have often been guided to additional sources via footnotes and bibliographical entries. I then request those texts and receive them in an hour or so. Threads of thought have the best chance of coming to fruition when they are unbroken, when one can engage with several texts at the same time. Trying to hold on to a thread—before it even becomes an idea—for days before one can consult a needed text is difficult, if not impossible. A keyboard or a pen and paper are often not enough to keep an idea going. A book is vital to the development of an idea and, if the flow of research is impeded by having to wait longer for materials, then the quality of one’s research will suffer. Given the logistics of peoples’ schedules, many day readers may simply forego by necessity the opportunity to read the books they want to read. Books that people cannot find in circulating collections, books that are out of print, books that are unavailable digitally in their entirety, books that are unaffordable for personal purchase. Circulating and research collections are completely different from one another and one should not be the sacrificial lamb for the other. In response to a query on what will replace the stacks, the NYPL cheerfully declares, “Books!” Does anyone else see the cracks in this veneer?

It is disingenuous to argue that, after the NYPL’s largest circulating library has been folded into the nation’s second-largest public research library, research activities won’t be compromised. They will. Whether one is involved in a years-long research project or has devoted a day to read up on a topic of personal interest, the patron of the research library is there not only because of the collection, but also for the overall environment that the research library provides. The expansive Rose Main Reading Room, whether on a weekday morning or mid-afternoon on a Saturday, provides a conducive place to work. That is because people are there to read and write and this engagement is wonderfully palpable and inspiring. The anticipated spike in traffic from combing three libraries into one is enormous. Lauding this increase, the NYPL boasts, “[t]he number of visitors to the new Schwarzman Building will likely triple, and the percentage of people using the collections will soar.” Try conducting focused research under those conditions! Researchers working on long-term projects may apply to use the Allen Room or the Wertheim Study. There often is a waiting list, though, and access is limited. The CLP calls for the allocation of “dedicated spaces for up to 500 NYPL-affiliated writers and scholars,” however that will still leave the vast majority of research library patrons to try to function as researchers in overcrowded, mixed-use space.

The price of this overhaul is estimated at $300 million. The cost of this overhaul is well beyond dollars. One does not upgrade a world-class public research library by turning it into a glitzy, overcrowded facility. Nor does one upgrade the city’s largest public circulation library by shutting down its current location and reconfiguring it within an existing library. Public access computers can be added without gutting the stacks. Of course money is an issue. It always is. However, if the CLP is the best that the library’s executives can do in light of objectives and budgetary concerns, then they have failed in their stewardship of the NYPL. The library has a page on its website titled “Join the Conversation” through which the public can communicate its concerns. Yet, since comments are not shared through the site, a “conversation” never really materializes and how the comments are handled behind closed doors remains unknown. There is also a Facebook campaign dedicated to stopping the CLP. But we need to do more than “like” it. If we want to assure that the people’s research library continues to operate as such, then we need to collectively, vocally, and tirelessly speak out against the Central Library Plan until it is stopped.

Knowledge Politics #1: Critical University Studies

Following my last post, I had a bit of a heated exchanged with a commenter named Ryan. What came up for me from that was a desire to more fully articulate the relationship between knowledge and politics. I attempted to do something like this back in October, but as usual I bit off more than I could chew and wrote a long and probably esoteric-sounding post. I want to try again, so in the coming weeks I will attempt a series of posts that focus on the politics of knowledge from a few different angles. I hope this will be a place to work through some of my questions, and I eagerly welcome comments and feedback.

There has been much discussion recently of how to make teachers more “accountable” through measurable data, and of how and when to involve new technologies in the classroom or even to develop internet-based courses and degrees. These are important issues but, as with so many things, public debate surrounding them is for the most part superficial and shortsighted. Instead of having a real conversation about the politics of knowledge, we are distracted by reductive ideas of accountability and shallow notions of technological advance.

CUNY City College of New York

[Read more…]

The Academic Call to Code and the Networked Self

A few months ago, Cathy N. Davidson wrote a blog post on HASTAC in which she argues that all schoolchildren should be taught computer programming in order to achieve a “basic computational literacy.” She laments the lack of demographic diversity in programmers and wonders “What could our world look like if it were being designed by a more egalitarian, publicly educated cadre of citizens, whose literacies were a right not a privilege mastered in expensive higher education, at the end of a process that tends to weed out those of lower income?”

USC Phd student Alex Leavitt followed her proposal by inviting other academics to make 2012 their “Year of Code.” Numerous people across the twitterverse are also participating in Codeacademy.com‘s #codeyear.

Davidson and Leavitt’s calls to code, both of which espouse a leftist politics of democratic or Do It Yourself coding, make me reflect on the different values that are currently competing in the software programming and academic spheres; proprietary models v. open access/open source models. In particular, the academic debate about open access to academic knowledge recently reared its head in Congress, when in December of 2011 the Research Works Act, an act that would block mandates of public access to federally-funded research, was introduced to the House of Representatives. This act is likely a response to recent moves on the part of the Obama administration toward better access to scientific publications (see the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010 and the subsequent Request for Information on Public Access to Digital Data and Scientific Publications). While the Research Works Act will probably not pass, it speaks to the conflict inside and outside academia between privileging information and disseminating information, between profit and public interest.

What, one might wonder, might code coming from within the academy, produced, as Davidson envisions, by an educated public, look like? And, in terms of student grades or professional tenure, how would it be evaluated?

It is an interesting exercise to compare Google and Facebook with academia. Google and Facebook are widely successful because they are a contradiction–they are free to the public and friendly to the non-expert, yet their code is secret and they make money from said public through ads.  They are open but closed, profit-making but free. American academia, on the other hand, makes its “secrets” available, but only to those who pay large amounts of money and who strive to become experts.

Traditional academic tenure and evaluation is alien to the kind of collaborative (and proprietary) code farming that Google encourages. How could a tenure committee evaluate one coder out of a team of hundreds? Even with a trail of changes made by each individual, it would be almost impossible to separate that person’s work from that of others. Of course, not all coding is done collaboratively, but I would argue that most large scale projects with major impact are. As more examples of academic coding emerge, the tenure process will hopefully adjust to accommodate new modes of authorship in the digital age.

One high-profile academic seems frightened at the prospect of academia’s descent into the digital. Stanley Fish calls “‘blog'” “an ugly word” for its impermanence.  As someone who wants his critical insights to be “decisive” and “all [his],” Fish dislikes thinking of himself as a blogger–a figure who seems so interconnected with everything around him that he ceases to exist. Fish is disturbed by this possible loss of identity and “linearity,” by the web’s tendency to move “into a multi-directional experience in which voices (and images) enter, interact and proliferate in ways that decenter the authority of the author who becomes just another participant.” Poor Stanley Fish experiences this every time he opens his browser.

Fish goes on to quote Kathleen Fitzpatrick as affirming this death of the author:  “all of the texts published in a network environment will become multi-author by virtue of their interpenetration with the writings of others.”

I would argue that coding and other digital forms of authorship do often invoke this sense of the networked self to an even greater extent than traditional scholarship. In part that is probably because online social networks allow scholars to continually mix and concentrate their ideas with the ideas of others. Seeing one’s own voice as just one tweet in a tsunami of tweets can be a bit humbling. But then again, when people band together and find like ground, their accomplishments can be even grander than what one can do alone. There is a happy medium that can be found between solo pursuits and selfless proprietary software. I am optimistic to note that a vast amount of software developed through academic institutions is open access and open source, including as Sakai, Weka, and Stanford NLP software.