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On Bucking the System

. . . almost every defendant, even the most simple-minded among them, starts thinking up suggestions for improvement from the moment the trial starts, and in doing so often wastes time and energy that would be better spent in other ways. The only proper approach is to learn to accept existing conditions. Even if it were possible to improve specific details–which, however, is merely an absurd superstition–one would have at best achieved something for future cases, while in the process damaging oneself immeasurably by having attracted the attention of an always vengeful bureaucracy. Just don’t attract attention! Keep calm, no matter how much it seems counter to good sense. Try to realize that this vast judicial organism remains, so to speak, in a state of eternal equilibrium, and that if you change something on your own where you are, you can cut the ground out from your own feet and fall, while the vast organism easily compensates for the minor disturbance at some other spot–after all, everything is interconnected–and remains unchanged, if not, which is likely, even more resolute, more vigilant, more severe, more malicious. One should leave the task to the lawyers, instead of interfering with them.

— Franz Kafka, The Trial

MLA 2008 Recap: Part 1 – The Rise of the Digital MLA

“Untitled,” The Tattered Coat

(With apologies to IHE)

Three days after returning home from the MLA Conference in San Francisco, and I’m still coming down, still thrumming with the newfound sense of energy, purpose, and camaraderie that I found there.

Who would have thought? Certainly, the annual conference of literature and language professors is not renowned for its capacity to spread good cheer. As the Los Angeles Times has pointed out, the MLA conference functions first and foremost as a job market, even if that market is shrinking in scary ways. My own experience interviewing at the MLA in 2006 enabled me to see only the tension and stress of the MLA experience; I was not prepared for what I found there this year.

So, what changed in 2008? Here are some of the highlights and trends I saw:


Twitter Altered the Pre-Convention Experience
Before the conference had even started, a bunch of my contacts on twitter had begun to connect with one another. We arranged a tweetup by setting up an account on twitter. We created a wiki page and encouraged convention-going twits to list their presentations on it. We bemoaned the fact that so many of the panels we wanted to attend were scheduled at the same time. (And by “we,” I mean a loosely connected set of people who identified themselves as being members of both the MLA and Twitter. There was very little structure involved, and the community, such as it was, was very open).

Before we even arrived, then, the conference had begun.


Twitter Enhanced the Experience of the Conference Itself
It wasn’t just the tweetups (we met for the first time when we crashed the cash bar of the Electronic Literature Organization). It was the fact that twitter provided a backchannel for conference. Here, for example, are general tweets about the conference, and here are tweets specifically related to the Microblogging panel.

Such conference-related backchanneling is nothing new, but it seemed new for the MLA.


Digital Panels Reached Critical Mass
Nearly everyone I spoke with remarked upon the breadth and depth of digital panels and workshops at the convention and the ways in which that contrasted with previous years. Established academic communities that had formed around societies such as the Electronic Literature Organization mixed with newer, distributed groups that formed through blogs and/or twitter. All of the digital panels I went to were remarkably well attended, and it was particularly useful to see conversations build across several different panel sessions.

Here, for instance, is a list of sessions that were identified by the MLA search tool under the rubric “General Literature: Electronic Technology (Teaching, Research, and Theory)”:

52. Defoe, James, and Beerbohm: Computer-Assisted Criticism of Three Authors
108. Using Technology to Teach Languages
163. Scholarly Editing in the Twenty-First Century: Digital Media and Editing
174. Microblogging: Producing Discourse in 140 Characters or Less
224. Methodologies for Literary Studies in the Digital Age
271. Genre, Form, and Cultural Practice in Contemporary Electronic Literature
320. Biocultures: Closing the Science-Humanities Gap
369. Promoting the Useful Arts: Copyright, Fair Use, and the Digital Scholar
421. Digital Immigrants Teaching Digital Natives
464. Online Course Management: Friend or Foe?
497. Digital Initiatives in Early Modern English Literature
543. The Library of Google: Researching Scanned Books
617. Editing Manuscripts in Digital and Print Forms
724. E-Criticism: New Critical Methods and Modalities
796. The Audiobook

And that is only a very partial list. [update: Here, via projectjulie, is the full list of Digital Humanities panels as compiled by ACH. Hugely impressive.]

The critical mass of new-media sessions was aided by a new tool rolled out by the MLA, “My Convention Schedule,” which allowed MLA members to search for panels of interest and to compile customized panel listings.

I hope that by MLA 2009, the organization is able to take that tool one step further by making it social, so that members can share their schedules with one another and recommend panels to friends.


A Tired Meme: The Cantankerous Objector
not listening One of the most striking refrains I heard at the digital panels occurred during the Q&A periods, when a curmudgeon would invariably rise and question not just the validity of the panelists’ particular work but also the entire project of engaging digital technology in research or teaching. There was a fascinatingly similar pattern to all of these comments: he (and it was always a ‘he’) would first establish his connection to the literary field (“I’ve been teaching XYZ literature at ABC University for 25 years”), then seek to distance himself from the luddite position (“Don’t get me wrong–I love my iPhone”), before boring in with overly generalized criticism of the new generation of scholars or, more often, students (variations of “students seem more distracted these days,” “students don’t read anymore,” “students won’t stop playing with their iPhones during my overly long and thoroughly boring disquisitions on DEF’s minor ballads”)–precisely the kinds of generalized criticism, we might assume, that he would never countenance in a classroom discussion of those minor ballads.

In his post-convention blog post, my friend Chuck Tryon got to the heart of these kinds of objections:

One of my frustrations in thinking about [the course I’m designing] is the degree to which the existence of digital technologies have been used to reify an entire generation of students, to assume on the one hand that Kids Today have shorter attention spans and on the other that they are fluent in using digital technologies. These assumptions often say more about the people who articulate them and their attitudes toward digital technologies than about actual students[. . . .]

I agree wholeheartedly with Chuck, and I suspect that the kinds of objections being made to digital technologies in the academy today mirror earlier discourses around subjects such as women’s studies, queer studies, and african-american studies, to name only a few fields.

And that leads me to my last point:


Communities Grow in Marginalized Spaces
Between the Crevices Despite continuing objections to the field and to its methodologies, the strength of our union is strong (really, it is, despite that link!). As one friend noted to me, the field has now grown large enough to contain multitudes: various methodological and pedagogical disagreements played out in the panels I saw. But the field, as a whole, still faces fundamental questions about its legitimacy–something that becomes clear as soon as the words “digital publication” and “tenure review” are put together.

Recent developments, such as the emergence of large funding agencies such as the NEH Office of Digital Humanities and the MacArthur Foundation/HASTAC have undoubtedly changed the playing field. But even so, questions of legitimacy linger on.

Then again, legitimacy is overrated.

Cathy Davidson–a scholar I much admire, whose work needs no introduction–skewered the “cantankerous objector” meme in one of the terrific blog posts she wrote following the convention:

Anyone who says that “digital learning” isn’t “real learning” (yes, we had such a comment from an audience member) isn’t paying attention. Or, more accurately, is so busy defending the assumptions of the field into which they were delivered as young graduate students that they do not see, cannot see, do not wish to see, the contours of a changing world in which their field is shrinking, not because it is irrelevant, but because far too few people in the profession represented by the MLA are willing to do the deep, difficult, engaged work of thinking through what it means to be a field (any field) in the twenty-first century.

I do not believe that the dreary decline in English majors that the MLA duly reports on every year is inevitable. But I do believe it is inevitable if we, as a profession, refuse to go through the work that so many of our peers in the arts, social sciences, and natural and biological sciences have gone through of carefully examining our assumptions, our goals, and our decline in light of the Information Age that should be our finest hour, the moment which, as a profession, we are trained to attend to most sensitively, acutely, historically, rhetorically, and critically.

If we are missing the boat of the Information Age as teachers trained in the art of close reading, compelling writing, and critical thinking, then, well, sorry folks, we deserve to sink.

It’s 2009. The MLA has begun to catch up to that boat, but we haven’t reached it yet. And as Bob Dylan tells us, “It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there.” We can say that the profession is finally moving, but whether or not it will get where it needs to go fast enough remains to be seen.


==> Coming soon: Recaps of my favorite sessions at the conference.

Putting the Steam Back in the Punk

Source: kaitlyn tikkun

I ushered in the New Year in Brooklyn at Pratt’s wonderful New Year’s Eve Steam Whistle Blow. What a great event! Best wishes to you for a happy 2009!

Update: Here’s a YouTube vid of the steam whistle experience (and, yes, the people taking photos of each other combined with kids [and adults] dancing around was very much part of that experience).

Update #2: MAKE captures the event nicely. Sadly, Pratt didn’t allow anyone down into the steam control room this year.

Edupunking the NY Times

f*ck blackboard?  the nytimes approves!

This is old news, I know, but I will not let this blog begin without acknowledgment of the fact that the New York Times declared edupunk, the new-media pedagogical ethos adumbrated by my good friend Jim Groom, one of its choices for The Buzzwords of 2008. In the spirit of edupunk and all of my “instructional technologist” friends, I salute the paper of record.

(and for the record, Wired summed it up nicely, too).


(Supplied by a Sub-Sub-Librarian.)


“Perhaps the greatest of all pedagogical fallacies is the notion that a person learns only the particular thing he is studying at the time. Collateral learning in the way of formation of enduring attitudes, of likes and dislikes, may be and often is much more important than the spelling lesson or lesson in geography or history that is learned. For these attitudes are fundamentally what count in the future. The most important attitude that can be formed is that of desire to go on learning.”

John Dewey, Experience and Education (1938)


“BlackBoard makes an inferior product and charges a ton for it, but if we reduce the conversation to technology, and [don’t] really think hard about technology as an instantiation of capital’s will to power, then anything resembling an EdTech movement towards a vision of liberation and relevance is lost. For within those ideas is not a technology, but a group of people, who argue, disagree, and bicker, but also believe that education is fundamentally about the exchange of ideas and possibilities of thinking the world anew again and again; it is not about a corporate mandate to compete—however inanely or nefariously—for market share and/or power. I don’t believe in technology, I believe in people. And that’s why I don’t think our struggle is over the future of technology; it is over the struggle for the future of our culture that is assailed from all corners by the vultures of capital. Corporations are selling us back our ideas, innovations, and visions for an exorbitant price. I want them all back, and I want them now!”

— Jim Groom, “The Glass Bees,” Bavatuesdays, 25 May 2008


“just searched google for “edupunk sucks” — no results. :)”

— digitalhumanist [Dave Lester]. “just searched . . .” 9 December 2008. Twitter.


“We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us.”

— Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1845)


“”The main difficulty [in the automatic factory] … lay … above all in training human beings to renounce their desultory habits of work, and to identify themselves with the unvarying regularity of the complex automaton. To devise and administer a successful code of factory discipline, suited to the necessities of factory diligence, was the Herculean enterprise, the noble achievement of Arkwright! Even at the present day, when the system is perfectly organised and its labour lightened to the utmost, it is found nearly impossible to convert persons past the age of puberty, into useful factory hands.’ The factory code in which capital formulates, like a private legislator, and at his own good will, his autocracy over his workpeople, unaccompanied by that division of responsibility, in other matters so much approved of by the bourgeoisie, and unaccompanied by the still more approved representative system, this code is but the capitalistic caricature of that social regulation of the labour-process which becomes requisite in co-operation on a great scale, and in the employment in common, of instruments of labour and especially of machinery. The place of the slave-driver’s lash is taken by the overlooker’s book of penalties.

— Karl Marx, Capital (1867)


“As I talked to Jim, I realized that I do have a method, or methods, but in the spirit of those methods I’ve resisted writing much about them here. In my experience, the paradox of real school is that it’s extraordinarily powerful when it happens, and at the same time very fragile along the way. (Robert Frost on poetry: “The figure is the same as for love.”) As I try to get to the magic and guard the fragility, I try not to talk about either too much or too analytically. That said, and at the risk of talking both too much and too analytically, I also try in several ways to encourage the class (encourage=give heart) to blog as part of the journey to the magic.”

— Gardner Campbell, “The Reverend Asked Me a Question, Gardner Writes, 26 July 2008


“What is perhaps more important and useful, though, is the extent to which Wikipedia also preserves the debate and discourse around a particular subject. Two of the most important features that I point out to students when I teach them about Wikipedia are the history pages and the discussion pages. Unlike traditional archives, Wikipedia preserves not only its past representations, but also the discourse which produced the current entry. A strong example of this is the entry on global warming, which does a good job of dividing the controversy of global warming from the science on global warming. While the main page serves as a good primer to the science of global warming, students miss out if they do not also consult the discussion and history pages to understand how this article was produced. In prior models of knowledge, storing and recording important discursive histories was a less than transparent process; indeed, those functions were entirely unavailable. (Who decided that Pykrete was not important enough to make it into Britannica?) Now these features are relatively open to the public.”

— David Parry, Wikipedia and the New Curriculum, Science Progress, 11 February 2008


“But the humanist, revolutionary educator cannot wait for this possibility to materialize. From the outset, her efforts must coincide with those of the students to engage in critical thinking and the quest for mutual humanization. His efforts must be imbued with a profound trust in people and their creative power. To achieve this, they must be partners of the students in their relations with them.”

— Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970)


— Eric Faden, “A Fair(y) Use Tale” (2007)


“One other non-industrial institution lay to hand which might be used to inculcate ‘time-thrift’: the school. Clayton complained that the streets of Manchester were full of ‘idle ragged children; who are not only losing their Time, but learning habits of gaming’, etc. He praised charity schools as teaching Industry, Frugality, Order and Regularity: ‘the Scholars here are obliged to rise betimes and to observe Hours with great Punctuality.’ William Temple, when advocating, in I770, that poor children be sent at the age of four to work-houses where they should be employed in manufactures and given two hours’ schooling a day, was explicit about the socializing influence of the process:

There is considerable use in their being, somehow or other, constantly employed at least twelve hours a day, whether they earn their living or not; for by these means, we hope that the rising generation will be so habituated to constant employment that it would at length prove agreeable and entertaining to them . . . .

Powell, in I772, also saw education as a training in the ‘habit of industry”; by the time the child reached six or seven it should become ‘habituated, not to say naturalized to Labour and Fatigue.’ The Rev. William Turner, writing from Newcastle in I786, recommended Raikes’ schools as ‘a spectacle of order and regularity,’ and quoted a manufacturer of hemp and flax in Gloucester as airming that the schools had effected an extraordinary change: ‘they are . . . become more tractable and obedient, and less quarrelsome and revengeful’.”

— E.P. Thompson, “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism.” Past and Present, No. 38 (Dec., 1967), pp. 56-97.


“”It’s not enough to bash in heads; you’ve got to bash in minds.”

— Captain Hammer, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog (2008)

Grounds for Departure


Though neither knows where lie the nameless things of which the mystic sign gives forth such hints; yet with me, as with the colt, somewhere those things must exist. Though in many of its aspects this visible world seems formed in love, the invisible spheres were formed in fright.

But not yet have we solved the incantation of this whiteness, and learned why it appeals with such power to the soul; and more strange and far more portentous- why, as we have seen, it is at once the most meaning symbol of spiritual things, nay, the very veil of the Christian’s Deity; and yet should be as it is, the intensifying agent in things the most appalling to mankind.

Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way? Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color; and at the same time the concrete of all colors; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows- a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink? And when we consider that other theory of the natural philosophers, that all other earthly hues- every stately or lovely emblazoning- the sweet tinges of sunset skies and woods; yea, and the gilded velvets of butterflies, and the butterfly cheeks of young girls; all these are but subtile deceits, not actually inherent in substances, but only laid on from without; so that all deified Nature absolutely paints like the harlot, whose allurements cover nothing but the charnel-house within; and when we proceed further, and consider that the mystical cosmetic which produces every one of her hues, the great principle of light, for ever remains white or colorless in itself, and if operating without medium upon matter, would touch all objects, even tulips and roses, with its own blank tinge- pondering all this, the palsied universe lies before us a leper; and like wilful travellers in Lapland, who refuse to wear colored and coloring glasses upon their eyes, so the wretched infidel gazes himself blind at the monumental white shroud that wraps all the prospect around him. And of all these things the Albino whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?

— Herman Melville, Moby Dick (1851)