Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Gendered Twitter

I find Mark Sample's Twitter stream and blog invaluable for thinking about the use of new media for teaching, especially since he actually tries things that, so far, I haven't dared try (blogging and tweeting?). A while ago he posted about his technology-driven syllabus and the role of Twitter in his class. "Twitter is," he wrote, "a snark valve":
When I look closely at what my students write in and outside of class, I find that their tweets fall into one of three categories:

1. Posting news and sharing resources relevant to the class
2. Asking questions and responding with clarifications about the readings
3. Writing sarcastic, irreverent comments about the readings or my teaching

In other words, one of the most common uses of Twitter among my students is snark.

And that is a good, powerful thing.

I know critics like David Denby have come down hard on snark as a pervasive, degraded, unproductive form of discourse. I couldn’t disagree more. Snark is, I argue, a legitimate way to engage culture. It’s involved, it’s witty, and most importantly, it takes an oppositional stance — a welcome reprieve from the majority of student writing, which avoids taking any stance at all.

But today Mark tweeted:
Danah Boyd's experience with the Twitter backchannel has me reevaluating my praise for Twitter snark.

The link is to Danah Boyd's thoughtful reflection on what sounds like an absolutely harrowing experience in giving a talk. The short version is that Boyd gave a talk at Web2.0 Expo in which a live twitter feed was visible to the audience, but not to Boyd, during the talk.
Well, I started out rough, but I was also totally off-kilter. And then, within the first two minutes, I started hearing rumblings. And then laughter. The sounds were completely irrelevant to what I was saying and I was devastated. I immediately knew that I had lost the audience. Rather than getting into flow and becoming an entertainer, I retreated into myself. I basically decided to read the entire speech instead of deliver it. I counted for the time when I could get off stage. I was reading aloud while thinking all sorts of terrible thoughts about myself and my failures. I wasn't even interested in my talk. All I wanted was to get it over with. I didn't know what was going on but I kept hearing sounds that made it very clear that something was happening behind me that was the focus of everyone's attention. The more people rumbled, the worse my headspace got and the worse my talk became. I fed on the response I got from the audience in the worst possible way. Rather than the audience pushing me to become a better speaker, it was pushing me to get worse. I hated the audience. I hated myself. I hated the situation. I wanted off. And so I talked through my talk, finishing greater than 2 minutes ahead of schedule because all I wanted was to be finished. And then I felt guilty so I made shit up for a whole minute and left the stage with 1 minute to spare.

This is interesting as a media phenomenon: the backchannel is, as Boyd says, turned into the frontchannel--at least for the audience. But it's still backchannel, too, since the speaker can't see it. The Twitter feed becomes a way for the audience to talk to itself without the speaker hearing, the speaker now no more than a conversation piece.

But then I wondered whether this rather radical frontloading of the Twitter feed, at a tech conference, was really the same kind of snark as the kind going on in Mark's class. The same technology that turned Boyd's talk into a "twitter circus" was, in Mark's class, "a systematic, constrained outlet for the snipe and snark and sarcasm that smart twenty-year-olds might otherwise direct towards more civil discourse, or unleash outside of the classroom, or worse, bottle up." And it seems clear that this is because the power dynamics were radically different.

In the classroom, the professor has structural, institutional power; as it happens Mark also gets some more institutional authority from being a white male professor, and his students lose some by being young and structurally placed in the position of the less knowledgeable parties. And of course, in the classroom the teacher doesn't have the twitter feed right next to his head.

And there's one more element to it that's worth considering, which is that when we teach twenty-year-olds, the bar for engagement is set a little lower. It's our job as teachers to help cultivate those moments of snark, or misgiving, or anger, or euphoria into more thoughtful reflection, to translate the personal reaction into a more sustained critical stance. Snark is then, as Mark puts it, "a welcome reprieve from the majority of student writing, which avoids taking any stance at all," and ideally--and I think this is one of the potential strengths of classroom Twitter--a platform from which to cultivate engaged critical thinking.

But the people at Web2.0 Expo are grown-ups. They're supposed to have made it past the "any engagement is better than no engagement," "make it a teachable moment" point. They should already be able to make that leap from instant reaction to thoughtful response on their own. That's not to say that snark can't be productive for professionals, but it might not be the appropriate or most useful mode for discussion at a professional conference.

And then there's the power dynamic. At a conference, you're among peers at best. But Web2.0 Expo is not just any conference; it's a conference situated within a field dominated by men. Boyd, as a young female scholar at this particular conference, was not in the position of power vis-à-vis her audience that Mark was in. And the twitter feed, now, was not an outlet of creative engagement (sarcastic or otherwise) but a steady stream of in-group chatter that structurally excluded the speaker, and therefore functioned primarily to reinforce the sense of being an in-group.

There's a break in Boyd's blog post that puts me in mind of (because I've been teaching it) the moment in Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own, when the narrator lights on a break in the text of Jane Eyre. Jane is walking along the roof at Thornfield, delivering an interior monologue about the injustice of keeping women from traveling and finding adventure. Abruptly, the novel switches back to the plot, as Jane suddenly starts telling us about Grace Poole's laugh (well, she thinks it's Grace Poole at this point).
That is an awkward break, I thought. It is upsetting to come upon Grace Poole all of a sudden. The continuity is disturbed. (68)
As Woolf reads it, the anger brought on by inequality erupts in the text; the text's roughness is a symptom of Brontë's real, felt, justified anger.

Something similar happens in Danah Boyd's post, marked with a self-consciously abrupt transition, "Speaking of which":
Speaking of which... what's with the folks who think it's cool to objectify speakers and talk about them as sexual objects? The worst part of backchannels for me is being forced to remember that there are always guys out there who simply see me as a fuckable object. Sure, writing crass crap on public whiteboards is funny... if you're 12. But why why why spend thousands of dollars to publicly objectify women just because you can? This is the part that makes me angry.

Who blames Danah Boyd? Many, no doubt. Up to this point she hasn't said a word about sexism or insults directed at her person, but it erupts here and never leaves for the rest of the post. Nor can it: it's the suppressed element that's been here all along. Misogyny structures the entire experience, not only in the specific comments directed at Boyd's body but in the in-group dynamic of the audience tittering to itself as Boyd tries to assume authority over her own talk. The shoring up of masculine (if not necessarily exclusively male) in-groups through the violent objectification of women's bodies has been documented elsewhere.*

Which brings me to Mark's reply to me, which raises even more questions:
Definitely. It's making me think about Twitter as a gendered space, something I hadn't considered before.

Partly, I want to say that the issue is not whether Twitter is a gendered space. It wasn't the gendering of Twitter that was the problem. It was the gendering of the conference, and of the room, which was set up not only so that the audience could see everything (Boyd, the Twitter feed) but also so that Boyd could see, literally, almost nothing:
A week before the conference, I received word from the organizers that I was not going to have my laptop on stage with me. The dirty secret is that I actually read a lot of my talks but the audience doesn't actually realize this because scanning between my computer and the audience is usually pretty easy. So it doesn't look like I'm reading. But without a laptop on stage, I have to rely on paper. I pushed back, asked to get my notes on the screen in front of me, but was told that this wasn't going to be possible. I was told that I was going to have a podium. So I resigned to having a podium. Again, as an academic, I've learned to read from podiums without folks fully realizing that I am reading.

When I showed up at the conference, I realized that the setup was different than I imagined. The podium was not angled, meaning that the paper would lie flat, making it harder to read and get away with it. Not good. But I figured that I knew the talk well enough to not sweat it.

I only learned about the Twitter feed shortly before my talk. I didn't know whether or not it was filtered. I also didn't get to see the talks by the previous speakers so I didn't know anything about what was going up on the screen.

When I walked out on stage, I was also in for a new shock: the lights were painfully bright. The only person I could see in the "audience" was James Duncan Davidson who was taking photographs. Otherwise, it was complete white-out. Taken aback by this, my talk started out rough. (my emphasis)

Boyd's post opens by cataloguing the ways in which she was blinded, first by having her normal reading medium changed, then by having her substitute medium not be accommodated by the physical layout of the podium, then by having no visual knowledge of the Twitter feed, and finally with the glare of hot white lights, "complete white-out." The only person she can physically see is, in fact, photographing her, his gaze augmented by the apparatus. Spectacle indeed.

Which is to say that while Boyd's experience could not have occurred without the Twitter feed, the way in which she was reduced and objectified had little to do with the medium per se (i.e. microblogging) and much to do with its physical installment in an already-gendered social space.

And yet -- I'm still intrigued by the question of Twitter's gendering. With its cute round bird logo and the word "twitter," its marketing calls up long-held (but not true) stereotypes about women's talk, which is held to be as plentiful and meaningless as bird noises:

This is, of course, also the stereotype about Twitter.

There's no conclusion here, but it's something I'll likely think more about.


Addendum: I can't help noticing the discussion of age that keeps surfacing in this post. I compared Boyd's audience to boys by citing C. J. Pascoe's book on the performance of masculinity by high-school boys; the post also follows through on Mark Sample's original comparison between the Web2.0 Expo audience and the younger (undoubtedly coed) population of his classroom. And of course, Boyd herself brings up the maturity factor when she writes, "writing crass crap on public whiteboards is funny... if you're 12." There's a lesson here about the idea of puerility (is snark by definition puerile?) and what kinds of boyhoods we cultivate and reward, but it will have to wait, I think, for another day.


*"[T]he sexual tall tales these boys told when they were together were not so much about indicating sexual desire as about proving their capacity to exercise control on the world around them, primarily through women's bodies" (Pascoe 104).

Pascoe, C. J. Dude, You're a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School. Berkeley: U of California P, 2007. Print.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One's Own. Annot. Susan Gubar. 1929. Orlando: Harcourt, 2005.

Monday, November 23, 2009

According to people on Twitter, about a hundred students have occupied UC headquarters in downtown Oakland.
@ucbprotest Tons of cops outside, some from ucpd. The facilitated discussion began and they're letting in 10 people from outside. The bldg's on lockdown

Chancellor Birgeneau:
The images that have appeared on YouTube and videos do not reflect our values and those of our entire campus community and may not accurately reflect the whole sequence of events. As are many of you who have written to us, we are distressed at the portrayal in the media of our campus.

Portrayal in the media? Media such as the student newspaper, the Daily Californian, whence this picture comes?

I'm a lot more concerned about the health and welfare of the students who were interpellated into the position of rebels by the presence of police in full riot gear.

Sunday, November 22, 2009


"Beauty is truth, truth beauty." Taken inside the pharmacy next to the Rockridge Trader Joe's.

Best inappropriate literary reference since the Shakespearean sugar cookies.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Against the "thesis"

Imagine you'd told a bunch of students that their papers must be structured and controlled by a one-sentence statement called a "thesis."

Could they be forgiven for thinking that they are being asked to make up some trite garbage before they've even read the text carefully and hang onto it for dear life whether or not it is borne out by evidence? I think they could.

The thesis is your argument. The thesis is the thing you stand behind. Everything in the paper is supposed to lead back to the thesis. We tell students that writing is a process, but the concept of a "thesis," in my experience, encourages intellectually untenable linear, top-down writing strategies and discourages revision.

I tell my students to come up with a hypothesis, not a thesis. A hypothesis is what you think is going on, what you think you're arguing, for now. Then you look at passages that you think are relevant. You analyze them, unbiased. You're checking your hypothesis, not desperately cherry-picking support for it. And if your hypothesis doesn't receive much support from the text, then you change it.

This is completely counterintuitive to a lot of students. Change your thesis?

Yes, because it's not a thesis yet; it's a hypothesis. The point of an essay is not, actually, to defend an argument no matter what the argument is. It's to develop an argument worth defending. That's harder than coming up with a "thesis."

Friday, November 20, 2009

Here is the thing about the Wheeler Hall occupation and the protesters being charged with "burglary" for entering in the middle of the night.

The issue of access to Wheeler has come up intermittently in the department for years. Wheeler is an old-school building that the university will not pay to keep up (they want the English department to pay), so it has old-school locks as well. Grad students don't have keys to the building.

When the faculty inquired about this, they were told by campus police that grad students could not be given keys for two reasons.

1. It was a security risk to give out that many keys (we have approximately 150 grads at any given time).

2. The windows in Wheeler Hall stick, so if grads really needed to get into the building they always could.*

YES. I know.

The protesters were doing what campus police told grad students they could do in lieu of having keys.

* blithely ignoring the ADA, of course

[Aaron on the occupation]
[Twitter list]
[Oakland North's article on the protest]
Apparently Wheeler Hall, home of my department, has been occupied by some dozens of students since about 6am.

[SF Weekly blog post]

Update 9:50 am: Specifically, they may be occupying my actual classroom.

Daily Cal live blog and article

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Dante Atkins's distinction between joining a protest and sustained activism is an important one, and he is correct to note that challenges to equality have been creeping up on California for years.

That said, the accusatory tone of his open letter to UC students seems not only unnecessary but also bizarre. "Where were you when...?" just doesn't make sense if we're talking about college students and long-term policy trends. Where were they? I'm guessing junior high.

And then there's this dig:
take a minute to stop downloading whatever it is you're downloading (hey, I don't judge) and help us organize

Those crazy kids! All they do these days is download things! Get offa my lawn!


Wednesday, November 18, 2009


I tend to be very reticent about my research on this blog, perhaps due to the universal academic fear that nobody is interested. But I think I'm going to try to change that; after all, research is what I devote most of my brain to, and it is probably the most satisfying part of my life. (I mean, besides persimmon season, naturally!)

I have a few different research projects going on at the moment, but the most important is of course my dissertation. If one were to pigeonhole it, it would be called an American modernism dissertation, but the project actually resists such pigeonholing quite a bit. For one thing, one of the chapters is on a nineteenth-century French author, Zola. For another thing, the conceptual rubric of the project resists, or rather suspends, modernism as an identifying category. There is an impulse that I call "experimental" that runs through naturalism, modernism, and the avant-garde.

It's that word, "experimental," that gets me the most questions, and indeed it's the problematic nature of the experimental that most interests me.

When we talk about experimental literature, we usually mean one of two things, each inadequate yet revealing. One is an overly broad definition: that any text that is formally interesting, unusual, or, in short, literary by any number of standards may be deemed "experimental." This definition is inadequate insofar as it is too broad, nearly meaningless. It is revealing, however, insofar as it is used as a term of approval, one that, like "interesting" (as Sianne Ngai has so brilliantly explained [Chicago Journals paywall]), can express approval while evading or suspending aesthetic judgment.

Another use of the term "experimental literature," usually used in an attempt to narrow the overly broad definition above, is extremely literal: the author is imagined to have conducted a scientific experiment somewhere in time and space, and whatever appears on the page is the result, the "data," as it were. A direct and usually tenuous analogy is thus made between writing and "the" scientific method. Friedrich Kittler has a great chapter on automatic writing and the avant-garde in connection with precisely this definition, so I do not wish to say that this definition cannot be productive. But I think that it, too, is inadequate because it fails to capture, or has to try too hard to capture, a lot of literature that I think we would deem experimental but which did not emerge from amateur psychology experiments.

Moreover it presumes that we know what a scientific experiment is. Out of a desire for rigor, the second definition of experimental literature supposes that there is a single scientific method, universal, transhistorical, and fully theorized. Such an assumption might be forgiven if, in our "desire for rigor" we were to adopt scientific conventions ("assume the cow is a cylinder"; "assume zero friction"), but for good humanities scholars such an assumption would be ludicrous. It's no good to give up rigor out of a desire for rigor.

In point of fact, the definition of "experiment" and its status as a part of science has been in flux for centuries. In the period of interest to me, the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, experiment is prestigious. It is a way to bring to light hitherto unseen realities. To be "experimental" has connotations of action and heroism, in contrast with "observational," which connotes passivity and even possibly just not doing anything at all. To be experimental is to be as scientific as possible.

And the notion of the experimental is also being radically challenged by the institutionalization of the biological and social sciences.

It's taken for granted that the well established physical sciences are the pinnacle of scientificity to which all other sciences must aspire. That's exactly what Claude Bernard very explicitly does in his Introduction à l'étude de la médecine expérimentale (1865), arguing that there's a natural, quasi-evolutionary sequence that begins with physics and chemistry and proceeds to the biological sciences, such that medicine, formerly an "art," is surely next in line to become experimental. Of course, Zola piggybacks on this idea, saying that after medicine comes the novel. (Obviously.)

This notion, that there is a unified scientific method and it is defined by the methods of the physical sciences, is still very much in force today. But there is a reason that the physical sciences use certain methods: they are well suited to the things that physical scientists study. Suppose you are studying epidemiology: there's a serious ethical challenge to infecting a bunch of people with a disease in order to study its etiology under different conditions.

Claude Bernard's solution is one that we still use today. It's still experimental, he argues, to observe the outbreak of an infectious disease first in one climate and then another, so long as you're doing it advisedly, with the hypothesis in mind that climate is a factor in the disease's etiology. That nature has infected the subjects on your behalf does not, he argues, make your work less experimental. On one hand, we can see his point; on the other, we can see how this constitutes a significant revision to the idea of experiment. It's no longer as much about what you do as about what you think. This is not Bernard's only revision to the idea of experiment, nor is Bernard the only one developing methods that are suitable for studying living and/or thinking, feeling creatures. New methods are proliferating all the time, and developing the clarity-in-obscurity of professionalism.

The upshot of all of this is that the concept of experiment is being made newly capacious, that the professional sciences are invested in their own clarity-in-obscurity, best exemplified by experiment, and that that clarity-in-obscurity is thought to get at the heart of reality.

It is this sense, the sense that to access reality warrants a clarity-in-obscurity, that animates the four texts that I discuss in my dissertation and constitutes what, for me, is a better account of "experimental literature." It is defined not by a single method or set of formal devices but by this fundamental understanding of a reality alien from us in particular ways that it was not previously alien. For Zola, there is the symptomatic depth model, which he himself constantly undercuts with a horrified awareness of the power of the superficial (in every sense) to control even the penetrating scientific gaze. For Stein, there is, increasingly, a move toward abstraction and a refusal of empirical reality as inevitably disappointing. For Moore, there is the encounter with the nonhuman animal or thing that always points, indexically, away. And for Williams, there is the photograph of the far-flung primitive, which is the only way to reveal Paterson.

It is in this clarity-in-obscurity, this sense of the real, that the sciences seek knowledge; there, too, is it sought by the authors I discuss. That literature of the period is seeking knowledge, not some kind of alternate fluffy "poetic knowledge" nor an inner, personal knowledge, but something metallic and solid and alien that we would all recognize as knowledge should give us some pause. It returns us to the word "experimental" as a term of approval, with its suspension of aesthetic judgment. Why is it the duty or the pleasure of literature to produce knowledge, and what does it mean when it is? Why is it good to "experiment," to "innovate" (a.k.a. make it new)?

How is it that we can understand art as a kind of research, and why is it that we so want to do so?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Dear Letter Service,

That letter from the Graduate Chair wasn't for your internal use. Really. Please send it where I tell you to send it. Thanks.

Yours sincerely,


Friday, November 13, 2009

I've just had an article accepted for publication, with minor revisions. It's very exciting.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

More MSA

My partner in crime Jill and I were both pumped about the same panel this morning, the "Trans-Temporality" panel with Claire Colebrook, Rita Felski, Wai-Chee Dimock (she was unable to attend, but the panel moderator, Sara Blair, read the paper), and Jennifer Fleissner. I've long been a huge fan of Felski's and Fleissner's work in particular, so I was eager to go, and was not disappointed. Interestingly, Felski took the opportunity to talk mainly about Actor-Network Theory. I'd have liked to hear a little more about how ANT might alter or intersect with her previous work.

I also went to a roundtable on modernism and digital humanities that was very interesting. Jon Orwant from Google provoked a heated question about the proper treatment of books, one with which I was wholly sympathetic. (I mean, something terrible happened to a book. I would have been ticked myself.) I know it wouldn't have been appropriate to start airing my grievances about Google Books, but do they know that their scan of Geography and Plays is missing most of "Susie Asado"? (SKG, who is eerily omniscient, found me a better scan at Shana Kimball from the University of Michigan Library gave an interesting talk about collaboration between the university library and the Press, which is moving entirely to e-book/POD format. Mark Wollaeger's talk did not move me to want to use wikis in my classroom (why is it that I still mostly hate wikis?), but it did make me reconsider some of my strategies for next semester. I wonder how legal it would be to have my students put their critical editions of texts online. Kathleen Fitzpatrick's talk was mostly drawn from her book, which I've plugged before on this blog. I was able to meet her at the end of the panel, and amazingly, she recognized me from my tiny thumbnail Twitter photo.

At the panel I asked a question that I think was never fully answered, in part because I didn't really articulate the whole of my concern. It seems to me that online projects and/or infrastructures are often seen as a cheap (or even free) alternative to analog apparatuses, because the labor, because it is often diffused across a community, is rendered invisible (and unpaid). I wonder to what extent that impulse can be resisted by digital initiatives at university presses and online peer review projects, which actually do require a huge amount of labor (intellectual labor, I should say) both in starting up and in maintaining them. It seems to me that the conversion to online modes of communication obviously requires a re-valuing of that kind of work for tenure, etc. But it also requires valuing it, maybe for the first time for some people, in economic terms -- with the understanding that truly useful, coherent, and durable online projects and infrastructures require levels of funding that are perhaps not significantly lower than those of traditional formats. The real cost of publishing a book, that is, was never in the paper it's made of.

Relatedly, I spoke with Sam Alexander and Pericles Lewis about the Yale Modernism Lab, also recently plugged on this blog. Seriously, it is a cracking good idea. I think there must be some way that it could get hooked up to Zotero that would be useful, although I don't yet know enough about it to know how that would work exactly.

All in all, it was a productive conference (even if I was stuck in the ugly section of Montréal the entire time). I leave for home tomorrow. Once more into the breach -- I get a new stack of papers to grade on Monday.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Hilarious Google search string of the day: "easy R1A classes Cal."

Tip: don't take my section.

MSA 11

Some quick notes from today.

I went to a very interesting seminar on science studies and modernism this morning. The seminar was run by Anne Raine and Craig Gordon. I met some smart people, learned some new things, and wrote down the titles of some interesting-sounding books.

The thing that most struck me on reading all the papers was the diversity of possible meanings of "science studies," as manifested in people's various approaches. Most of the papers discussed a specific science in relation to modernism, e.g. environmental studies or astrophysics. Mine was one of the few papers that tried to deal with scientificity as a category (though I'm not sure to what extent I succeeded). For me, the most interesting sciences with which to deal in the modernist period are the biological and social sciences, precisely because of the way that they challenge existing notions of scientificity and/or experimentalism.

Unfortunately for my jetlagged, uncaffeinated body, the seminar was at 8am, but on the up side, the Montréal metro was a breeze.

I went to three panels today. One called "Border Conditions: Poetry at the Edge of Modernist Discourse" was chaired by Oren Izenberg and featured papers on Duncan's oracular impulse; Oppen's notion of poetry as a kind of testing of the truth, and translation and Mallarmé's refusal of voice.

A panel called "Circling, Singing, Scoring" included papers on Oppen and Stevens, Moore, and letter frequency -- what the speaker, Roger Gilbert, called "scrabbliness" (scrabbliness, roughly, is what happens when words are dense with letters that win a lot of points in Scrabble). The last paper was both interesting and comical, and this spoke to something I've been thinking about in relation to Christian Bök lately: why the act of accumulation is comical. I was most interested in Heather Cass White's paper on Marianne Moore, though (of course). She drew on the evidence of drafts to reveal a "romantic" Moore. Though I have a few reservations about how this was framed, it was an interesting and convincing talk.

In the afternoon there was a roundtable on "The Future of Women's Literature in Modernist Studies," chaired by Suzette Henke and featuring many important feminist modernists. It was very smart and illuminating. I was interested to learn, in Clare Hanson's talk, of Angela McRobbie's Aftermath of Feminism, which examines the sense of loss at the heart of postfeminism -- first, the loss of the mother as love-object, and second, the loss of a feminist ideal of liberation upon being handed a "feminism" that has been completely co-opted by patriarchal capitalism (i.e. "empowerfulness"). I'd love to read this book.

I did go to Susan Stanford Friedman's plenary talk, "Planetarity: Global Epistemologies in Modernist Studies," but it'll have to wait.

It's about 10:30 pm, and somebody in this B&B is playing very loud dance music. I really wish this were not the case.