Trespassing Across the Curriculum or My Semester Abroad in a Land Without Idols

Exactly one week before classes were to begin this term, I was notified that the two sections of ENG 126, “Writing About Literature,” I was scheduled to teach at another CUNY campus had been cancelled due to under-enrollment. In that instant, my dream of a fall flush with dinners and drinks, theater and full-priced opera tickets, morphed into a nightmare of cold leftovers in the 6-hour long rush ticket line at the Met. But such is the life of an adjunct.

My prospective income and peace of mind were partly restored when The Department offered me a single section of WRIT 303, “Research and Writing in the Professional Programs,” as a replacement. I wasn’t much concerned about the migration from “writing about literature” to “writing in the professional programs,” which, at York College, include nursing, occupational and physical therapy, community health education, and a range of other health, social, and behavioral sciences fields. After all, I wasn’t always an English major: I have a BA Human Service Advocacy and an M.Ed. in Secondary Teacher Education. It’s been some time since I’ve worked in either field, but surely I could pick up APA citation style again. More important, I’ve spent the last two years as a CUNY Writing and Communication Fellow, immersed in the language and culture of WAC, WID, and CAC–those unhappy and ungraceful acronyms that name our field and proclaim our identity as citizens of the (academic) world, able to construct persuasive arguments in any discipline-specific language.

It took until the third week of classes for my serenity once again to be disturbed. It happened at the point in my syllabus where I confidently instruct my students in the art of introducing sources. Never, I commanded, drop a quote or paraphrase without identifying the author, title, and genre of the work you are citing: T.A.G. your citations! And that’s the minimum respect you owe to your sources; you might even add a little something about how influential (or controversial!) the work has been in your field. For example:

In the widely read [groundbreaking, ubiquitously cited, still controversial, etc.] first volume of his History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault argues that, while prior to the mid-nineteenth century “[t]he sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species.” (Foucault, 1978)

I’ve used this same lesson (with different sources, depending on the course content) as long as I’ve taught college writing, and it’s what I do in my own writing as a Ph.D. student in English.

I sensed something was amiss when students looked from the board to the reading and doubtfully back to me as they tried to reconcile what I was telling them to do with what they were reading. My sense was confirmed as I circulated around the room during the exercise and saw students writing things like

In a recent article in The Journal of Individual Psychology, “Cultural Competence: A Primer,” Len Sperry defines “cultural competence” as “the capacity to draw effectively upon cultural knowledge, awareness, sensitivity, and skillful action in order to relate appropriately to, and work effectively with, others from different cultural backgrounds.” (Sperry, 2012)

Too much information, I thought. What does it matter where it was published or even who wrote it beyond the perfunctory parenthetical citation of last name and year of publication. Why not simply write “Cultural competency can be defined as,” insert quotation, cite and be done with it? And, in fact, that’s what the articles I assigned were doing: “Culture can be defined as ‘the values, norms, and traditions that affect how individuals of a particular group perceive, think, interact, behave, and make judgments about their world’ (Chamberlain, 2005).” Does anyone jump to the reference list to find out just who this “Chamberlain” is? Or feel deprived that we aren’t even provided a page number so we can more fully contextualize the passage quoted? I didn’t.

And yet, as an expatriate English person abroad in the social sciences, I miss the intimacy with which the Humanities engages with sources. We’re taught that writing with secondary sources is like entering a conversation (a cocktail party, even!), listening to the other speakers, and jumping in confidently with our own “intervention.” Writers in the social sciences can sometimes seem to treat sources like faceless statisticians without even first names. Citation in literary theory and criticism, on the other hand, often looks like idol worship–or else the smashing of those idols. In any case, the work is frequently as much about the sources cited as it is about the common object of writer and source. Think of the the complex and fraught legacy of Michel Foucault, whom I quoted above, in the field of queer studies. Simply to cite him, parenthetically, without discussion, without even the courtesy of a first name, in a work of literary criticism would be akin to seating him at a back table with the second cousins. That’s no way to host a party.

Close Encounters of the Library Kind

I’m going to piggyback (okay, outright copy) from Catherine’s passionate communiqué and write briefly around an image from a recent archival trip. My experience of archives is less passion– although I think I’m getting there– and more tentative fumbling through books and papers. However, as I get more proficient, I’m finding that research is turning into a process that’s very different than I expected it to be.

Woodcut image from "“A lytell treatyse of the horse, the sheep and the ghoos” with sketch

This is the bottom portion of a woodcut from A lytell treatyse of the horse, the sheep and the ghoos by John Lydgate, printed at Westminster by Wynkyn de Worde about 1499. It’s in the Rare Books collection at Cambridge University Library, where I had the great fortune to go in March of this year. I went specifically to look at another small book printed by de Worde, a 1501 pamphlet excerpting portions of The Book of Margery Kempe.  Cambridge was the third archive I’d been in for my dissertation research and by far the most intimidating. I felt far from home, a novice researcher who hoped she didn’t look too much like a clueless American. I decided that while I was there I should look at as many examples of de Worde’s printing as possible.

This image, particularly the rough ink drawings underneath, charmed and comforted me.  Was it evidence of a previous reader who wanted to learn to draw animals?  Incontrovertible proof of a timeless obsession with cats?  I have to admit that I have no idea who made these little sketches — they also appear in a 1906 facsimile published by Cambridge University Press– but they remind me that books are objects with their own lives and personal histories, used for purposes well beyond what may have been intended by their producer. My dissertation considers how encounters/performances with medieval objects (construed broadly) shape the way later periods understand the Middle Ages.  This image made me think about the (casual?) intimacy with books and their contents that may have developed as they became more accessible, wide-spread, and portable.  My work is preoccupied with people’s relationships to material objects.  As my own relationship to archival material changes and deepens, I am challenged to think more broadly about how others may have related to these objects, in the past and today.

Unbridled Archival Passion

I’m in love with archives. This is why.

photo (5)

When I found it in the Michael Shea Papers at Buffalo State College in Buffalo, NY, I squealed audibly and clapped my white-gloved hands. It is a letter from the animal trainer Leon Morris to Mr. Shea, a vaudeville impresario in Buffalo. Before there was a developed system of agents and managers, performers booked their own gigs so it was necessary to promote themselves constantly. Hence, this stationary’s representation of Morris in formal equestrian garb bordered by striking illustrations of monkeys, dogs, and horses.

Sometimes I’m in archives and I don’t want to leave. Even when the microfilm spinning past my eyes is giving me a headache or I’ve developed “archive elbow” by turning the pages of a giant ledger for eight hours in a row. Real professionals will tell you that you need to “get in and get out” or risk becoming lost in the archive. I’m still trying to temper my passion.

Notes on Writing Across the Curriculum at BLSCI

This piece serves as a reflection and elaboration of my current work as a Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) Fellow at BLSCI. I would say that the WAC principle of scaffolding assignments in the classroom—that is, breaking work into smaller, skills-specific exercises that link together as a meaningful whole—holds true for developing and rethinking curricula. During this academic year, I navigated the various (and exciting) pedagogical initiatives at BLSCI by identifying a small set of questions to think about across different contexts and learning communities (i.e., faculty members as a group, one-on-one development with a professor over a semester, one-on-one sessions with students, in-class workshops). Specifically, my inquiries and energies were directed towards experimenting with ways to get CUNY undergraduates to simultaneously synthesize course content while exercising a skill that develops and sustains their individual, intellectual interests. This is an extension of what I try to do with students who work with me: students simultaneously rehearse the skills of the discipline and (ideally) gain familiarity with practices that would encourage them to continue producing knowledge that’s meaningful to them, beyond the space and time of a class. What follows, I hope, is a contribution to the ongoing conversations that my BLSCI colleagues have maintained—conversations that inspire me to actively integrate into my own work the value of syncing the uniqueness of one’s voice with a personal commitment to a learning community.


I helped facilitate the “Why the Research Block?” Faculty Roundtable in October 2013. Professor Louise Klusek and Professor Stephen Francoeur led an informative discussion on how to teach undergraduates the structure of and the various approaches to academic research. They illustrated the importance of stressing to undergraduates that academic research is an exercise of multiple skills over a period of time. For example: strategically identifying keywords, locating the proper databases, evaluating the quality of sources, and synthesizing those sources are all constitutive of the research process. The roundtable discussion left me with this question: how do we get students to creatively, critically engage the source materials of their chosen discipline, whether that may be a passage in a novel or a set of numerical data? This inquiry became the motivation behind my pitch for the “Writing About Numbers” Faculty Roundtable.

The “Writing About Numbers” Faculty Roundtable, which I co-ran with Professor Bill Ferns about a month ago, is informed by my experience as a student and instructor at CUNY. I developed variations of teaching a tripartite structure to critical thinking. The three parts include: a claim, evidence to support the claim, a narration of how the selected evidence relates to the claim (the analysis). This is a version of my own approach to research writing and it is an approach that I learned from reading Kate L. Turabian’s A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations before I started my doctoral studies.

I developed “Writing About Numbers” from my experience in teaching content-heavy courses while modeling for students techniques of argumentation. During class, I frequently ask students to engage directly with the course content, the evidence if you will, and then we build claims together based on an assessment of the evidence (i.e., its textures, effects, and utilities). The evidence and methodology varies from discipline to discipline, but there is an obvious overlap between the disciplines: a shared value of teaching our chosen discipline’s techniques of synthesis and critical thinking. My sense that writing and mathematical reasoning as mutually reinforcing skills comes out of this notion and Toby Fulwiler’s observation that: “Writing and arithmetic provide general tools for manipulating and expressing ideas and information.” The citation for this source and the outline of my presentation can be found here.

Working and co-presenting with Professor Ferns has been generative, especially in opening up a conversation about how instructors can guide students in clearly narrating and effectively visualizing data through communicative models (i.e., graphs, maps, charts).


I provide support and collaborate with faculty in developing writing assignments for their courses. In the fall, I helped a Great Works instructor in preparing students for their term papers. I gave an in-class workshop on how to draft for papers on literature.

I’m currently working with David Gruber, who is a professor of Biology and Environmental Science, and we’re collaborating on scaffolding a few assignments that relate to symbiosis and microbes for his upper-level course “Microbial Ecology.” Two weeks ago, to prepare students for their final research project, I gave an in-class workshop where students and I discussed the structure of scientific prose. Professor Gruber had assigned a chapter from Paul de Kruif’s Microbe Hunters. Microbe Hunters is a stylishly-written, narrative-driven popular press book and I walked students through a conversation about how de Kruif’s style is reflective of his research content. We talked about writing to different audiences. We also discussed how to strategically position, and reposition, the topic of a research paper in order to develop ideas. George D. Gopen and Judith A. Swan’s “The Science of Scientific Writing” was instrumental in my framing of the workshop.


Throughout this academic year, I meet with students for one-on-one sessions.  For an hour, I work with a student on an assignment from their Great Works course. These sessions are incredibly instructive in getting me to think about my own pedagogy. Because I frequently work with faculty at Baruch, these sessions serve as a reminder that each student’s learning process is characterized by a different set of particularities and struggles.

These sessions give me a sense of what works (and what doesn’t work) when creating an assignment or essay prompt (specifically in how questions or prompts are framed). Additionally, last semester, when I joined BLSCI Director Suzanne Epstein for a grading session of student writings in aggregate, it was useful to think about my sessions with individual students in connection to Baruch’s English Department’s rubric and standards.


I just want to note that participating in the ongoing conversations at BLSCI has pushed me to think more broadly about public humanities, the various genres of scholarly labor, and the technologies that shape those forms of scholarly labor. In particular, I’ve been thinking through Tressie McMillan Cottom’s blog and Brooklyn College’s Professor Corey Robins’ piece on Aljazeera.

On Haunting and Inhabiting

The Docks, Port-au-Prince, Haiti (1921), NYPL Digital Collections

The Docks, Port-au-Prince, Haiti (1921), NYPL Digital Collections

The past is present on the internet. Specters of the past, particularly those that are marginalized or ignored in traditional historical narratives, dwell in digitized open-access archives. Websites like The Public Archive: Black History in Dark Times, Digitizing “Chinese Englishmen,” and People of Color in European Art History curate texts that challenge conventional knowledge and reveal other contexts for understanding the world. By attending to difference and nuance, these archives bring obscured histories to the fore. Dissatisfied with the uneven production of knowledge and histories about certain regions and communities, individuals from within, and outside of, academia foster digital spaces for critical inquiry.

The accelerated speed of internet communication seems to encourage a tendency to reduce or compress information into smaller parts. Sound bites, gifs, images, and excerpts effectively draw attention and mobilize political sentiment. There is a risk, of course. This speed can reproduce damaging assumptions, for internet users might rely on old habits of thought in order to make sense of fragmentary information. But archival projects like the ones listed above enact a critical exercise that shatters any simplistic, one-dimensional representation of a community, region, or historical period. For example, The Public Archive was born out of a frustration with the mainstream media’s depiction of Haiti after the the earthquake in January 2010. Professor Peter James Hudson  explains the digital humanities initiative: “As professional historians with laymen’s interests in Haiti, we thought that we needed to make some small, however limited, intervention in the coverage of Haiti, and we agreed that the best way to do it was by mobilising the research skills we had as historians in an attempt to provide some context for understanding Haiti’s history, and how that history was constructed and represented in the media.”

In culling freely accessed texts, The Public Archive composes a fuller, more intricate, picture of Haiti. The Public Archive does history in a way that is legible for a wider audience without compromising the assertion that rigorous study is still necessary. Its entries oscillate between past and present, text and image, still photographs and videos. The website also offers extensive dossiers, interviews with scholars, and recommended reading lists. In this curatorial move, the archive allows visitors to briefly inhabit the grammar of places, historical periods, and connections that we may have not been conscious of before. Take, for instance, a published post entitled “The National City Bank of New York & Haiti” that sheds light on U.S. military occupation and corporate involvement in Haiti during the early twentieth century. Plural perspectives, multiple genres, and temporalities come together in one post: a Bloomberg blog entry from 2012, a Haitian newspaper printed in 1927 that announces the arrival of National City Bank’s president, an academic article published earlier this year, a pamphlet printed in 1920 that critiques U.S. presence in Haiti, the National City Bank’s rationale in 1920 for its ventures into Haiti.

Marketplace, Port-au-Prince, Haiti (1919), NYPL Digital Collections

The critical attitude that is “discontent with reified objects” and “impatien[t] with guilds, special interests, imperialized fiefdoms, and orthodox habits of mind” can flourish in public, digital spaces. This critical attitude, exemplified by The Public Archive and other similar projects, invigorate the sense of a knowledge commons. It seems to me that while the internet may disorganize traditional approaches to acquiring information (i.e., the physical space of a classroom, a codex textbook), knowledge is being reorganized in emergent, sometimes unrecognizable, shapes on the internet. The process of disorganizing and reorganizing knowledge and its politics, I suspect, is activated by collective desires to dilate the space and time allotted to learning.


Note:  This  blog is, in part, inspired by the “Why the Research Block?” Faculty Roundtable discussion that I helped Senior BLSCI Fellow Meechal Hoffman organize earlier this month. Also, see this recent NYT Op-Ed piece by Laurent Dubois for a discussion on Haiti and economic history.

Grad School Year’s End Blues

Like everyone, I am looking forward to the end of the semester. After the last two weeks packed with teaching, oral presentation rehearsals, meetings–let alone my own writing deadlines and classwork–I’m right there with everyone else hailing the approaching summer. As much as I love the work I do, I know that in a mere month I’ll get the rare privilege to sleep in on a Saturday without anxiety. For those of us who are lucky enough to get to slack a bit in the summer, it’s sometimes all we can use to keep us going. Administrators right on down to students–we’re all singing the same poppy song. It’s about sunshine and sleep and freedom.

Photo ©Bahman Farzad /

Photo ©Bahman Farzad /

However, I’ve also been feeling something unique this year as the last weeks of the term arrive: I’m calling it the Grad School Year’s End Blues. You may be familiar with it. The Grad School Year’s End Blues comes sliding in with the deadlines pulsing just in the distance. It floats around as that residual senior-itis brushes off the folks who are actually leaving. It comes (to me at least) along with the swelling acknowledgement that “my summer off” will be a write-a-thon punctuated by expensive conferences and exams.

But it’s not all about disappointment or anxiety, these blues. That’s the chorus, to be sure–the hook. I want to sing one particular verse, one that I’m just learning for the first time this year: the verse about the end of a one-of-a-kind teaching experience.

I tend to surround myself with teachers who love to teach, and I’ve heard them each hum a line of this one in their time: about the honors capstone course they got to teach that once, or the totally blog-based integrated learning environment they’d finally perfected after years of tweaking. The last lyrics always end, “but who knows when I’ll ever get to do that again!”

That’s my situation this year. I ended up getting a repeat gig as a first-year composition instructor for the honors engineering program at City College. Two falls in a row now, I’ve taught honors engineers with a curriculum I adapted from the department’s template. I’ve experimented wildly, and received decent support and encouragement from my supervisors. I gave it a few injections of comp/rhet methodology (process work, freewriting, revision, collaboration) and technology (wikis, blogs, multimodal assignments). The really special thing is that this year I got to teach only these students: the two sections of the honors English 110 course from the fall followed me almost wholesale to the 210 course I’m teaching this spring. For the first time in my teaching career, I got to see how a writer develops over more than 15 weeks. It’s been tremendously instructive.

I’d be lying if I didn’t say I feel a hokey kind of pride for how far these particular students have developed. They’ve grown tremendously in their understanding of writing, both as a practice and as a discipline of study. But that’s not the feeling in this song. This is Nina Simone, not Sarah Vaughan. There’s a snarl behind those tears.

The reality is, as an adjunct teacher who studies composition pedagogy, I benefit professionally from the chance to experiment on a wide variety of writing curricula, student demographics, and physical spaces (this year in a computer lab for the first and probably last time). I know that this was probably my only chance to study this kind of pedagogical situation, at least until I’m in a full-time job. The truth is, I got lucky just to get this kind of experience the first time: most people get very little freedom in the courses they teach. And I might get lucky enough to get another go at it, to see if the successes I had here are actually repeatable. But I probably won’t.

Experience working in diverse teaching spaces matters.
Photo by Mike1024 via Wikimedia Commons.

For me, and a lot of pedagogy folks out there I know, access to a free range of courses to teach is like access to lab space. The reality for most of us who adjunct at CUNY is that it’s usually the luck of the draw whether we land in departments that give us access to a variety of teaching opportunities, or those that reserve the more challenging courses for full-time faculty. If we want to push our scholarship as compositionists, to produce innovative work that will lead to publication, or to ensure a wide and impressive teaching portfolio for when we enter the job market, we need access to new and challenging teaching experiences. From my experience in English departments, at least, the keys to that lab space are guarded pretty tightly (tell me in the comments if it’s different elsewhere).

So, I’m sure I’ll enjoy my summer when it gets here. I bet I’ll have a great time at that conference, and I’ll learn Spanish, and I’ll write a ton and still somehow have fun in the sun. But for now, I’m still here reading student papers, trying to enjoy the last good bits of the term, and singing these Grad School Year’s End Blues.

More on Mettā

Last week, Sarah contributed a review of a NY Times op-ed by Barbara L. Fredrickson on the Buddhist practice of Mettā (Loving-Kindness) and its physiological benefits on your vagal tone, “a subconscious process that controls [your] heart rate.”  The post was especially interesting to me as a four-year practitioner of Vipassana meditation and Mettā.  To say these practices have been hugely beneficial for me would be an understatement, and certainly I feel their interpersonal, mental, and physical effects.  When I am actively practicing I am less prone to anger or irritation, my mind is sharper, my muscles are less tense, and I don’t take things as personally.  That research might point to a tangible connection between “physical health” and “mental well-being” validates my own experience.  However, as Sarah also points out, Fredrickson takes a leap when she suggests that electronic devices might “take a toll” on our “biological capacity to connect.”  Here, Fredrickson doesn’t have data to back her up but is alluding to potential results of research in process.

Actually, I don’t doubt that there are biological (and not just social) effects of the widespread use of electronic devices — anything we do with our minds and bodies also transforms our minds and bodies in ways big and small.  So my dubiousness about Fredrickson’s assertion differs a bit from Sarah’s.  Here’s the thing: I don’t know how useful such research questions are.  First, they restate what we already know — in other words they prove the obvious (there’s a mind-body connection!) — as so many scientific studies these days seem to do.  Second, they take as a given (rather than as something to be analyzed) that the spiritual is a pristine realm within us that must be protected from the other parts of ourselves.

The notion that something can “take a toll” on our capacity to connect assumes this capacity is ideal and autonomous rather than ever shifting and embedded within the context of a differentiated and power-laden social world and multi-faceted personal life.  Life is a complex process of loss and gain.  As modes of communication change, so do our skills and physiologies.  Humans are social beings by our very definition; I think it’s impossible for us to lose our biological ability to connect.  It’s a different thing to recognize that we can make choices about how we want to connect, how we want to develop our capacities to communicate, and how we can do that in a manner that prioritizes social justice.  Because that’s the other thing we humans have going for us: we’re conscious beings.

Also, context matters.  To put it anecdotally: earlier this year I was texting on the elevator at Hunter College and a professor made a comment to her student – in a slightly derogatory tone — about how “people’s elevator behavior” would be good to study.  I guess I seemed like one of those folks who had lost my capacity for human connection.  In reality I had just finished teaching and was reaching out to a friend who was in the midst of a painful medical procedure and was feeling really down.  So maybe I’m not such a lost soul after all?

If being an anthropology doctoral student has taught me anything, it is the value of asking research questions that get at the lived realities and nuances of social life and moving beyond polarizing discourses of good/bad and hurt/protect.  In this case, it might mean asking how our minds, bodies, and relationships change with different modes of communication — for different groups of people in a diversity of social/economic/geographic settings — and with what effects.

(Unintended) Research Discoveries

The winter break brought a particularly heavy period of work on my dissertation, “Drop Dead: Municipal Crisis and the Geographies of Performance in New York City, 1972-1982,” so I thought I’d share some of the fun of the process– and maybe you’ll share your own errant discoveries back. My topic is centered in the world of 1970s theater and performance, which means I’m well-positioned here in New York to visit landmark archival research centers, like the NYPL Performing Arts Library and the Schomburg Center. I’ve  consumed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches outside of them all, as I researched the crannies of performance in New York City during one of the largest fiscal crises on record. Then there’s the added benefit (distraction?) of tools like YouTube to add layers of multimedia to my searches. That’s a lot of information, tucked into desktop files and overflowing drawers. But some of the fruits of the process are truly random and not at all destined for inclusion in the final draft. Here are some recent noteworthy and unintended discoveries:

1) This music:

I love people who put their records on YouTube– it’s a treasure to hear the crackle of the needle, to think of the devotion that prompted this person to record and upload their LP collection. And to discover something out of print, too– I boast an electric typewriter, but no record player, and New York is rapidly losing its record stores. Type “Novella Nelson” into Spotify, and nothing will come up. But thanks to some fan in Austria, this isn’t the case on YouTube. Here’s another one:

I hadn’t previously been aware of Novella Nelson’s acting career, but I came across her work in downtown theatre during the 1970s in a 1973 Black World/Negro Digest article that described Nelson as a tireless advocate for black playwrights, even bullying the (brilliant!) bully of the Public Theater, Joseph Papp, into presenting a series of one-act plays by seven black playwrights. Is that story true? Who knows. It may not make the cut of the dissertation chapter, but her music certainly will.

2) In 1969, the New York State Council on the Arts collaborated with Columbia’s Medical School to present 150 children from disadvantaged neighborhoods with an “inside look at the medical profession.” How? By demonstrating the removal of an appendix from a dog, which the elementary school students– shocked!– watched “up close” as five medical school trainees described their surgical process in an old auditorium. The photos look like a Diane Arbus rendering of a reality TV medical drama, and I would post them here if my copy didn’t have “restricted” stamped all over it.

3) The travesty to New York-area studies that is our Municipal Archives. Maybe some altruistic billionaire will step forward, anxious to have his name attached to an ambitious undertaking like the overhaul of our municipal library? A billionaire interested in both his legacy as a public steward, the archiving and maintenance of urban history, and the ethics of public information? Let’s give the history of the city a better vault.


4) Head shots were both different and not-so-different forty years ago.

Headshot: Julie Bovasso

Headshot: Julie Bovasso

5) But the dismal street-crossing etiquette of New Yorkers was not.


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 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

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.”


I’m not astonished by the hatred of fatness currently present in our culture, or by the extent to which it has intensified over the past few decades. Cultures go through phases and cycles, and there are always scapegoats and victims of shame and blame. What shocks me is how fully this hatred has been adopted into public discourse.

I’m not going to rehearse the critique of anti-fat discourse in any depth here. Suffice it to say that statistical correlations between fatness and illness have nothing to say about the causes of such illness or how about how to avoid it. It is impossible to isolate the health effects of fatness in a context of rampant dieting, since dieting itself seems to be very unhealthy. Even if fatness were shown to be a predictor of certain kinds of illness, losing weight wouldn’t necessarily be a solution. And even if it were, a predisposition to illness is the last thing in the world that ought to provoke anger or scorn.

[Read more…]