Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Why PMLA should become PLotMLA; or, Using your powers for good

I'm not really a PMLA-hater in the way that so many seem to be. I feel that I've read many a good article in it, and one of the great things about PMLA is that it's ubiquitous and covers a lot of scholarly terrain that I forget that I give a crap about when not reminded from time to time. PMLA is the irregularly-appearing, late-arriving, flimsily bound, comically hyperprofessionalized flagship publication of our field. From where I stand it would be a little hard not to love it.*

But I think PMLA should fold.

Think about it. The MLA is forever passing resolutions, which are well-intentioned, controversial only to a limited subset of nerds, and nonbinding. A statement from the MLA on the ethical treatment of adjuncts is a welcome thing, but it isn't likely hiring practices or people's life situations all that much. I actually think the most awesome thing the MLA has done in recent years is open a Twitter account for Rosemary Feal.** (The MLA: it's friendly!) Prestige only gets you so far. (Please correct me if I'm wrong; I'd love to hear that the MLA made some department start adding tenure lines.)

It's a different matter, though, when it comes to publishing. The MLA does actually put out its own publications, and they're some of the most useful and central to the profession, much as we love to affectionately deride PMLA and compare the MLA Handbook unfavorably to the magisterial CMoS. As slow to update as the MLA Bibliography is, as prone to crashing as the JIL is, where would we be without these things?

The greatest virtue of being the center of the profession is being the center of the profession. Suppose PMLA were to move entirely to open peer review and open access, reconstituting itself as a Public Library of the MLA (on the model of PLoS), perhaps with the help of an NEH grant. Would its prestige disappear? I doubt it. Its reputation for stodginess might, though.

Unlike those resolutions, the move to open peer review and open access would amount to an action, not just a recommendation. Because PMLA comes with a boatload of prestige, it would solve one problem that open peer review projects often face: fear among contributors that their work won't count toward promotion and tenure. It could be a decisive move to open up the acceptance of open peer review in the humanities, and make it easier for other journals to move to such models.

I am, of course, leaving aside the logistical complications, which are legion. And in a way, I understand the value of PMLA behaving like the most conservative journal of all time. It can't really afford to make sudden moves, precisely because it's big and central and purports to represent such a broad range of scholars.*** Any move PMLA makes is likely to be consequential, whether or not it's where we want the profession to be. But that's what drives so many people nuts about it now, and that's why the switch could effect a powerful change in how we handle scholarly publication.

*One of the most regularly made criticisms of PMLA (which Gregory Jusdanis, for example, makes) is that it is insufficiently "cutting-edge" or "revolutionary." I'm already on record as being against innovation, so it will come as no surprise that I think this desideratum is misguided. This topic is worth more than a footnote, but for now I'll just say that, first, newness is not self-evidently a good, and second, that to reserve approval for that scholarship which thoroughly changes our thinking is analogous to a capitalist logic of production, in which only "growth" counts.

**I genuinely think this is awesome.

***I grant that the committee-driven compromise that could easily come out of such a proposal would probably be something like a pilot program that effectively creates two tiers: "real" PMLA and "experimental" (perhaps all-online, perhaps less valuable toward t&p) PMLA. And that would never do.

Monday, December 27, 2010

No, seriously, how am I going to squish this down into a twenty-minute talk?

Sunday, December 19, 2010

A Supposedly Fun Thing: Text-Mining and the Amusement/Knowledge System; or, the Epistemological Sentimentalists

If we could text-mine the internets of the last few days for the correlation between the words "n-gram" and "fun," I'm sure we'd get a nontrivial number. One of the most striking things about the reception of the Google Books Ngrams, largely in the form of the web tool, is the giddy delight with which people have announced how much fun it is. Exhibit A is the bit I quoted yesterday from Patricia Cohen at the New York Times:
The intended audience is scholarly, but a simple online tool allows anyone with a computer to plug in a string of up to five words and see a graph that charts the phrase’s use over time — a diversion that can quickly become as addictive as the habit-forming game Angry Birds.
But that's just one example--the fun of the Google Books Ngrams tool is almost universally noted. See, for instance, "Fun With Google's Ngram Viewer" (Mother Jones), "Fun with Google NGram Viewer" (WSJ), and "BRB, Can't Stop NGraming" (The Awl). And Dorothea Salo tweets,
What I like about the GBooks n-grams is seeing all kinds of people playing with it. Just playing. THAT, friends, is how one learns.

The prevalence of this language of play raises two questions.

1. What rhetorical work is this move (calling Google Books Ngrams a fun toy) doing?

2. What experiential dimension of Google Books Ngrams does this rhetorical move describe, and what does it tell us about the tool's epistemic significance?

Answering the first question feeds into answering the second. To call the Google Books Ngrams web tool (henceforth "GBN") a fun toy is to hedge one's bets, to express approval without necessarily venturing into the higher-stakes terrain of approving it as a research method. Any assessment of the tool's epistemic value is channeled through an expression of pleasure (or, as Patricia Cohen and The Awl's Choire Sicha rather interestingly suggest, compulsion). Play can of course be a form of learning, and very important--that's what Dorothea Salo's tweet indicates. But play is a good learning environment precisely because the stakes are low and mistakes can be made safely, as a comment by Bill Flesch suggests: "I played around with it for about half an hour. Now I'm bored." New toy, please! With respect to knowledge, the language of play is deeply ambivalent.

As I read it, the universal declaration of fun that has surrounded the release of GBN is as much about guilt as about pleasure. Those who are compulsively "ngraming," as Sicha so amusingly puts it, are often all too aware of GBN's limitations, which have been blogged extensively, all the way down to what Natalie Binder points out, in her much-retweeted post, has to underlie the whole operation: inevitably imperfect OCR.*

Why does the GBN web tool even exist? Not to advance knowledge, I don't think, or at least not directly, but rather because it's fun. Because it directs interest toward the more substantive element of the project, the downloadable data set that relatively few people are actually going to download.

There are huge problems with using GBN (and throughout I'm alluding to the web tool/toy that everybody is saying is so much fun) as any sort of meaningful index of culture, and everyone knows it. And yet.

I would argue that the universal declaration of fun is a form of confession: I am deriving epistemological satisfaction from this unsound tool, with its built-in Words for Snowism. It's a guilty pleasure, epistemic candy: the sensation of knowledge, lacking in any nutritional value.

But the guilt goes rather deeper than the simple tension between GBN's unreliability for actual research and the "gee whiz!" quality of the graphs: GBN is fun because it is so limited.

That great scholar of nineteenth-century culture, Walter Benjamin, described a mode of writing that he called "information."
Villemessant, the founder of Le Figaro, characterized the nature of information in a famous formulation. 'To my readers,' he used to say, 'an attic fire in the Latin Quarter [Paris] is more important than a revolution in Madrid.' This makes strikingly clear that what gets the readiest hearing is no longer intelligence coming from afar, but the information which supplies a handle for what is nearest. Intelligence that came from afar--whether over spatial distance (from foreign countries) or temporal (from tradition)--possessed an authority which gave it validity, even when it was not subject to verification. Information, however, lays claim to prompt verifiability. The prime requirement is that it appear 'understandable in itself.' (147, emphasis added)
What GBN delivers is information in this sense. It is near at hand, easy to use, and puts out a nice visualization that appears "understandable in itself." It's easy to deliver, in that way, not unlike a pizza. It's no good to point out, as Mark Davies does, that the Corpus of Historical American English (COHA) allows one to look at specific syntactic forms, or include related words, or track usages by the genre of the source. Such capacities only raise anxieties. (For example, what gets tagged as "nonfiction"? Where, for instance, do autobiographies go? I once, to my astonishment, saw The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas in the nonfiction section of a book store--along with Three Lives! But I digress.)

As soon as we raise such questions, the graph stops being "understandable in itself," stops being information. Conversely, when you aren't given the choice to sort by genre, how genres are defined necessarily stops being a question. It's the very fact that the toy is a black box and a blunt instrument that makes it feel immediate and incontrovertible and, in that very satisfying way, obvious. We get the epistemic satisfaction of information, and the thing that gives it to us is precisely that information's lack of nuance.

Yesterday I used the word "cheap" to describe the kind of historical narratives GBN suggests. There is indeed a kind of economic dimension to the satisfaction that GBN delivers. Of Oscar Wilde's many quotable lines, I am reminded of this one:
The fact is that you were, and are I suppose still, a typical sentimentalist. For a sentimentalist is simply one who desires to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it. (768)
Feeling, Wilde suggests, has to be earned.** Bracketing the question of whether this is a good description of sentimentalism, it's a good analogue for the epistemic candy of GBN. One receives the apparent solidity of research--the nice graph that summarizes and visualizes what might otherwise be years of labor in the making--without having to have actually done any research. This is only a cheap thrill, "fun," when it is actually cheap--that is, when we don't inquire into how the corpus was prepared, or what effects GBN's case-sensitivity is having on our results.

The analogy to sentimentalism is useful not only because it gives us a model for understanding the economy of feeling here, but also because it allows us to recognize that there is an element of feeling in the way that we encounter information. We are likely to find it ethically reprehensible when our emotions or what we believe we know are manipulated. And yet there are times when we want the cheap thrill. Most people I know will freely cop to liking a good emotionally manipulative movie or novel, whether a thriller or a romance or one of those movies where the dog dies. As the fun of ngrams demonstrates, we like a little intellectual manipulation too.

(I know, I know, it doesn't tell you anything conclusively, but...try Foucault versus Habermas!)

What does it mean, this liking it?

I mentioned Bill Brown's term, the "amusement/knowledge system," in my title above because it's another, perhaps more explicit way of describing the close interweaving of knowledge and fun at the end of the nineteenth century that so fascinated Benjamin (208). In my own work I have tried to make a case for taking seriously both the knowledge and the amusement in that system, notably in naturalist fiction, because it's often in such liminal places that the terms of what counts as knowledge are most at stake. Part of the reason experimental literature seems to be here to stay is that the amusement/knowledge system is, too.

The point is not to condemn fun as something that has no place in knowledge--far from it. Fun is central to how we vet knowledge--just think of how important it is that research be "interesting"! It is our highest (and also most common) praise.*** Indeed, play lies at the heart of our most cherished models of intellectual inquiry--a nonutilitarian curiosity to "see what happens." As I quoted Dorothea Salo at the beginning of this post: "THAT, friends, is how one learns."

So condemning fun is not at all on my agenda. Rather, I want to draw attention to the emotional content of the way we talk about knowledge, and to the ambivalence that intellectual "fun" signifies. Ours is an age of "news junkies" (again with the pleasure bordering on unpleasurable compulsion, à la the "addictive" ngrams) and "armchair policy wonks" and people who read voraciously, but only in the proverbial dubiously defined "nonfiction" category. Nate Silver and the Freakonomics dudes are minor celebrities. Lies, damned lies, and statistics are our idea of fun, as powerfully as a Victorian melodrama was ever considered fun. Which means we need to think much more about how fun operates, and why, and what that means for knowledge. And just as crucially: what knowledge means for pleasure.

*In fairness, Ben Schmidt argues that GBN's OCR is pretty accurate, given the state of the field, and also that "No one is in a position to be holier-than-thou about metadata. We all live in a sub-development of glass houses." But there's a big difference between "this is really good, for OCR" and "this degree of accuracy is good enough for supplying evidence for X kinds of claims."

**Taken out of context, Wilde appears here to be describing sentimentalism through an economic metaphor. In fact, it's rather the reverse, or at the very least something more confused than that: most of the surrounding text is taken up with Wilde chastising Douglas for his financial mooching.

***As Sianne Ngai points out, the "interesting," like the language of play, has a hedging quality, bridging epistemological and aesthetic domains.

Benjamin, Walter. "The Storyteller: Observations on the Works of Nikolai Leskov." Trans. Harry Zohn. Selected Writings: Volume 3, 1935-1938. Ed. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap-Harvard UP, 2002. Print.

Brown, Bill. The Material Unconscious: American Amusement, Stephen Crane, and the Economies of Play. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1996. Print.

Ngai, Sianne. "Merely Interesting." Critical Inquiry 34.4 (Summer 2008): 777-817. Print.

Wilde, Oscar. "To Alfred Douglas." Jan.-Mar. 1897. The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde. Eds. Merlin Holland and Rupert Hart-David. New York: Henry Holt, 2000. Print.

Previously on text-mining:
Google Books Ngrams and the number of words for "snow"
Dec. 16, 2010
Dec. 14, 2010
Google's automatic writing and the gendering of birds

Friday, December 17, 2010

Google Books Ngrams and the number of words for "snow"

As I mentioned yesterday, Google has put out a big data set (downloadable) and a handy interface for tracking the incidence of words and phrases. As many have pointed out, one can do a lot more with the raw data set than with the handy, handy online tool, but it's that latter that the New York Times called
a diversion that can quickly become as addictive as the habit-forming game Angry Birds.
(I've never heard of Angry Birds, but that's the kind of thing I'm likely to be out of the loop on, so okay.)

I said yesterday that Google Books Ngrams was a lot more sophisticated than Googlefight, and it is. But I'm troubled by the model of cheap history that's presented in the NYT article--as if to suggest that if you want to do cultural studies now, all you need to do is Google (Books Ngram) it:
With a click you can see that “women,” in comparison with “men,” is rarely mentioned until the early 1970s, when feminism gained a foothold. The lines eventually cross paths about 1986.

You can also learn that Mickey Mouse and Marilyn Monroe don’t get nearly as much attention in print as Jimmy Carter; compare the many more references in English than in Chinese to “Tiananmen Square” after 1989; or follow the ascent of “grilling” from the late 1990s until it outpaced “roasting” and “frying” in 2004.

“The goal is to give an 8-year-old the ability to browse cultural trends throughout history, as recorded in books,” said Erez Lieberman Aiden, a junior fellow at the Society of Fellows at Harvard.
I will concede that newspaper articles are necessarily glib, but it's easy to see how the fallacy that this article promotes would be broadly accepted. The first quoted paragraph above correlates the incidence of words with known historical events; the second moves on to suggest the ngrams' predictive capacity. There's a narrative implicit in each statement of "just the facts," only the assumptions that go into them are effaced.

Let's look at the first of these reports: "With a click you can see that “women,” in comparison with “men,” is rarely mentioned until the early 1970s, when feminism gained a foothold."

The implicit narrative is that nobody even bothered to talk about women until second-wave feminism came along. In fact, if you go by the incidence of the words "men" and "women" in the Google Books Ngrams data set, sure, you might be tempted to really believe that the 1970s was the time "when feminism gained a foothold." I can imagine the suffragists who fought for and won the franchise that I as a woman can enjoy annually asking, "what are we, chopped liver?"

What distinguishes the feminist movements of the 1970s, for the purposes of this data set, is its renewed attention to language. The suffragists wanted a policy change: they wanted the vote (and the freedoms that the vote could give them). The second-wave feminists wanted policy changes too (still working on that wage gap, people!) but they also wanted a deeper change: they wanted to change the way we thought about women and--here's the kicker--spoke about women. The 1970s is when it became broadly recognized as problematic to treat "man" as a synonym for "person," and I suspect that a significant percentage of the uses of "men" were and remain the "universal" usage. That's a nuance that the online Ngrams tool can't give you ("with a click").

Likewise, if you got your understanding of history through Google Books Ngrams, you wouldn't expect to hear this from 1929:
Have you any notion of how many books are written about women in the course of one year? Have you any notion how many are written by men? Are you aware that you are, perhaps, the most discussed animal in the universe? Here had I come with a notebook and a pencil proposing to spend a morning reading, supposing that at the end of the morning I should have transferred the truth to my notebook. But I should need to be a herd of elephants, I thought, and a wilderness of spiders, desperately referring to the animals that are reputed longest lived and most multitudinously eyed, to cope with all this. I should need claws of steel and beak of brass even to penetrate the husk. How shall I ever find the grains of truth embedded in all this mass of paper, I asked myself, and in despair began running my eye up and down the long list of titles. Even the names of the books gave me food for thought. Sex and its nature might well attract doctors and biologists; but what was surprising and difficult of explanation was the fact that sex--woman, that is to say--also attracts agreeable essayists, light-fingered novelists, young men who have taken the M.A. degree; men who have taken no degree; men who have no apparent qualification save that they are not women. (27)
That's Virginia Woolf, of course, giving a fictionalized, subjective encounter with the British Library. Yes, it's a bit longer than a sentence, and you have to read it; you can't just click! But it gives you much more women's history than does the Google Books Ngrams example cited by the NYT.

Google Books Ngrams is a fun tool (as everyone keeps pointing out) and, if you download the data set, even a useful one. But it can only get you so far, and uncontextualized, it encourages assumptions that it does not announce. I mention the number of words for "snow" in my title above because it's a famous fallacy--the notion that Inuit has [insert high number here] words for snow, always with the implicit suggestion that having a lot of words for something means that something is extremely important to the culture. Language Log uses this as their go-to example of stupid assertions about language widely believed by the public; it's a cheap Whorfism, claiming broad cultural significance for something incidental. We have a widely accepted term for a magical being that flies by night and runs a clandestine cash-for-baby-teeth operation. That doesn't make it central to American culture. ("Mom, is the Tooth Fairy real?" "Yes! Check Google Books Ngrams if you don't believe me!")

There's a certain Words For Snowism in the online Google Books Ngrams tool, the suggestion that the more frequently a word is used, the more important it is in a collective unconscious of which the Google Books data set serves as a convenient index. This importance is not the same thing as significance, in the sense of significant digits or statistical significance; it's not the difference that makes a difference, but rather a psychologized importance--attachment, cathexis. Which is really kind of garbage.

The web interface is, as my friend Will says, a toy. For the serious scholar, there's much more to be done with ngrams, and one can be careful as well as lazy with the conclusions one draws. But the toy has a "boom! proven with statistics!" quality, a reality-effect that's enormously pleasurable, even, as Patricia Cohen writes for the NYT, "addictive." (That's the point of toys, isn't it?) That's why I'm inclined to agree with Jen Howard, who writes that her "skepticism is mostly directed at how people will use it and what kinds of conclusions they will jump to on dubious evidence." That sort of jumping is practically built into the ngrams tool.

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

Previously on text-mining:
Dec. 16, 2010
Dec. 14, 2010
Google's automatic writing and the gendering of birds

Thursday, December 16, 2010

As a follow-up to the last few posts, I see that Google has just released the Books Ngram Viewer, which is a lot more sophisticated than a Googlefight! Questions remain about what's in the corpus, and given Google Books's well known problems with metadata, I also wonder about the dates. Still, it's a nice thing to have around.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Given that I'm a text-mining skeptic, it is only fitting that I hope to pursue a small project with Aditi Muralidharan next semester.

For any humanistic question really worth asking, text-mining can never provide an adequate answer. But it can provide supplementary evidence, or provide part of an answer, or point one toward a way of reading. Aditi is working on an interface that will reduce the up-front cost (in time, etc.) of doing text-mining, which, to my mind, will make it more natural for scholars to use quantitative evidence without feeling pressure (due to massive time-investment) to make it the centerpiece of the argument.

I'm still persuaded that text-mining, or any operation that wrings data out of discourse, is an incitement to automatic writing, a way of forcing the body of the text to reveal an unconscious that it didn't know to keep secret. There's something unsporting about it--and something naïvely idealistic, too. The hidden is accorded special powers, its occultism its epistemic guarantee. (After all, what would be the point of using a computer to do something that could easily be done by hand? The whole point is that we're not experiencing it, not actually reading it.) Despite its apparent superficiality, text-mining is a hypnosis to close reading's talking cure.

If we must make our texts hysterical, then, what better questions to ask them than questions about gender circa 1900?

That's what we're going to do.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

I think it needs to be said that Sady Doyle is a Writer To Watch (TM). I've been reading her since her blogspot days; she was hilarious then, and she's only gotten better--her voice more mature and confident, less prone to taking refuge in irony--though her irony has always been deftly wielded, too. Sady Doyle's pop culture and lit criticism is smart and infused with a healthy dose of nerd. For every close reading of a Kelly Clarkson song, she has a review of an epistolary novel by Chris Kraus; better yet, she has equally smart and engaging things to say about both. She is a Tolkien to so many bloggers' Lewis (or Rowling). You can tell she's got appendices squirreled away somewhere, and a hand-drawn map. She has English major chops, in the best sense. Her recent series at The Awl is great. Conclusion: if you aren't reading Sady Doyle, you should be.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

I was just made aware that there is a movie coming out called How Do You Know (trailer). I would dearly love for this to be an adaptation of "Melanctha," but the odds aren't looking good.

I did notice that there's no question mark in the movie title, though, which is very Stein.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Google's automatic writing and the gendering of birds

The almost meaningless faux-text-mining of a Google search on "birdlike woman" and "birdlike man" turns up the following results:

Vanilla Google:
"woman""man"ratio "woman"/"man"
"birdlike"16, 1002, 9905.38

Google Books:
"woman""man"ratio "woman"/"man"
"birdlike"1, 5206062.5

This probably tells us more about Google than about the correlation of gender and the term "birdlike." The hyphen makes a big difference in the search. This particular search also doesn't catch instances like "her movements were quick and birdlike."

I often think it would be interesting to do some small bit of real text-mining, just to have a global look at a corpus, but it's always incidental to the argument, so I never follow up.

The appeal of text-mining, which I think is actually magnified in the Google search, is that it's a kind of automatic writing, in which the body of the text (corpus) is made to give up its latent spirit. That the Google algorithm is unknown except insofar as it is known to maximize ad revenue does not diminish this appeal, the temptation to present Google hits as data. Since so much of our daily information is filtered through the Google algorithm anyway, it serves as a sort of corporate unconscious, whose essence is perhaps more compelling than truth.

The appeal of the Google search in lieu of text-mining is formalized in toys like Googlefight, which simply runs two Google searches at once and visualizes the results:


The bar graph calls on a visual form designed to represent meaningful data; although of course such forms are routinely abused (I particularly enjoy April Winchell's pie charts), the form still invites one to seriously compare the numbers. Yet the tongue-in-cheek cheesy stick-figure animation acknowledges the unseriousness of the Google fight. A Google fight is only good for settling a certain kind of argument, the confrontational flame-war variety that isn't particularly invested in actually solving a problem, not a debate but a "FIGHT." (I tried to get a screen shot of the "FIGHT" title, but I'm just not that quick on the draw, apparently.)

Yet for all that, toys like Google Fight are amusing (try Foucault versus Habermas!) and a little beguiling. I don't have time to prepare a corpus and an algorithm, but I do have three seconds to do a Google search, or make a Wordle.

Word cloud for Beatrice Forbes-Robertson Hale's The Nest-Builder (1916).

Such tools get you somewhere; they just don't get you far. It's interesting ("merely" interesting?) that the above word cloud says nothing about birds or nests, and that some of the most prominent words are "know" and "time." But of course not all words are weighted equally in a novel, and it matters that the chapters are titled "Mate-Song," "Mated," "The Nestling," "Wings," etc.--that indeed the whole marriage plot is structured around a bird allegory that disappears in the word cloud. And this may be another reason it's so appealing to let a simple Google search stand in for data, even when its unreliability is universally acknowledged. It gets you somewhere but it doesn't get you far, and in the end this is true of most text-mining, too. In the end we're fascinated by automatic writing, the possibility of forcing the body to secrete a hidden spirit, but we're also agnostic about spirit tout court. A highly sophisticated search with a known margin of error probes an ontological terrain that's suspiciously similar to the corporate unconscious, which we're tempted to say is all phony advertising anyway--or it isn't--one or the other.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Works Cited, remember the ladies edition

Look, I have a blog that's called Works Cited, so I'm going to have to just point out something that's been driving me nuts.

Rei Terada recently posted an insightful reflection on the aims and meaning of WikiLeaks, drawing on some easily available but little-read essays by Julian Assange. There are still zero comments on that blog post. My colleague Aaron Bady (or "Adrian," as Clay Shirky recently accidentally dubbed him in a Twitter shout-out) then wrote a post on WikiLeaks that I feel confident in saying would have been impossible without Terada's post. (Aaron explicitly links her post.)

Aaron's post has received 326 comments and counting and links from the likes of Jon Dresner and Clay Shirky. Granted, a large percentage of those comments come from internet armchair-policy-wonk blowhards, but that comes with the territory. While it makes sense that Aaron's post would initially attract more comments than Terada's--he has a wider readership and posts more regularly than she does--the stark disparity between the attention the two posts are getting strikes me as almost unbelievable. Three hundred and twenty-six versus zero. Without diminishing Aaron's post--it is smart, and bonus points for gratuitous Teddy Roosevelt--Terada's already contains the core insight that makes Aaron's post so interesting, i.e. that Wikileaks is less about revealing secrets for the sake of the specific information involved than about disrupting what Assange calls, with a capaciousness that powerfully reorients the way we understand legitimacy, "conspiracy."

Given these facts, it's hard not to see this as another episode of When A Woman Says It, Crickets; When A Man Says It (Later), Genius!!! There are certainly circumstantial reasons that Aaron's post would get more attention than Terada's, but there's no legitimate reason that her post would be ignored. Every professional woman has had this happen to her, and every time it happens, the ghost of Simone de Beauvoir weeps. Now, I'm sure Terada herself isn't even remotely fussed about this. What would she want with three hundred blowhards commenting on her blog? But whether or not any individual commenter or linker is thinking, "whose substantive post should I read and link, that of a dude or that of a lady? Oh who are we kidding definitely a dude!", the effect is the same: dude gets a signal boost and is credited with genius, lady disappears from the political conversation. Citation is partly about credit, and there's some credit due here.

I'm not holding my breath, though.


UPDATE. I've seen the following objections raised to the above post, and while I probably oughtn't address this gender studies 101 stuff, well, I will -- briefly.

The objections:

1. There are factors besides gender that explain the popularity of Aaron's blog post.

Response: Yes, of course there are. My point (as I explicitly state above) is not that people who read or link to Aaron are making an active choice to ignore one of his sources on the grounds of gender, but rather that this pattern (as Meg brilliantly abbreviates it, WAWSIC;WAMSILG) is pervasive, and that this is objectively speaking an instance thereof. Voilà les crickets. Voilà the attention. This post first of all an attempt to draw more attention to the earlier and very worth-while post by Rei Terada. It is, second, a remark on the attention disparity, and on the broader pattern of failure to attend to what women say that is necessarily its context. This is a gender issue irrespective of whether any individual person is consciously or unconsciously deciding that women aren't worth listening to.

2. One quite often doesn't know the gender of a blogger, and 3. one of the first and most influential bloggers to link Aaron was Digby, a woman (2, 3).

Response: Since my argument was never "people are ignoring Rei Terada purely because she is a woman," these objections aren't quite on point. But it's worth observing that, since femininity is marked and masculinity is unmarked in present culture, the blogger of unknown gender, in the absence of stereotypical feminine markers, is usually (consciously or unconsciously) presumed masculine. Digby is actually the classic example of this. Digby rose to prominence as a left blogger under her pseudonym, and was for years almost universally presumed male, until she "came out" as female by accepting an award in person in 2007. She's understood as female now, but her reputation was made when she was "ungendered," which was received by default as male. Naturally you are enlightened and truly without gender bias in all that you do. But generally speaking the world isn't.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Automatism is modern

In the q&a after Sianne Ngai's recent talk here on zaniness (which was fantastic), I pulled a classic if annoying move and asked about one of my own research interests. One of the articles I've currently got in the hopper is about affective and domestic labor and states of automatism in women in the early twentieth century. According to Ngai, the zany mode originates in the commedia dell'arte character of the zanni, a personal servant whose job it is to manage social ties. Since Ngai had remarked on the almost compulsive quality of the zany, I asked her to expand on the connection between zaniness and automatism.

Ngai's response was to distinguish between the zany and "animatedness" (from her first book), animatedness being mechanical and evidence of a loss of subjectivity, whereas the zany is an excess of subjectivity, of constantly performing affective labor of various sorts in a manner that models the labor structure of late capitalism.

The follow-up question, had I wished to pull another classic yet annoying move, would have been this:

Isn't automatism sometimes precisely an excess of subjectivity?--subjectivity bubbling up through the body whether you will it or no? I think of psychoanalysis, of automatic writing, etc.

Zaniness, as Ngai so convincingly characterizes it, is automatic in the sense that it is compulsive; it can't be stopped. But I'm also backhandedly persuaded that automatism isn't quite the right word to describe that loss of will, at least in the postmodern context that interests Ngai. It seems to me that the main problem with thinking about zaniness as, on one hand, the form of labor in late capitalism, and on the other hand, as automatic, is actually a historical problem. There's something modern, and not postmodern, about automatism. The machine is only an interestingly strong point of comparison for a human being without will when machines are understood as meaningfully different from people to begin with. That notion starts to break down somewhere midcentury. To insist that machines don't have subjectivity--or rather, to make subjectivity the question to begin with--is a modern gesture. T. S. Eliot may be horrified by the typist's "automatic hand," but, typists all, we're not disturbed in the slightest. Click. Click. A general agnosticism about subjectivity characterizes postmodernism.

The zany may have a long history, but if late capitalism is where it truly comes into its own, then the question of automatism is moot.

Friday, November 19, 2010

DeCal: Video Games as an Artistic Medium

I'm sponsoring a DeCal called "Video Games as an Artistic Medium" next semester. The students in charge of this DeCal have run the course for a few semester now; you can see their current course blog here.

Obviously I am only doing this to get cred with my teenaged brother.


Thursday, November 18, 2010

MSA 12: notes

There's still no time to post about MSA. Turns out that when you get back from a conference, there's stuff to do. But I have a suspicion I'll never actually have time to post notes before I forget, so here's a quick and dirty version.

1. Friday 11/12. Went to a really excellent panel on "Networks of the Nonhuman." T. Hugh Crawford, whose book on Williams and medicine is great, gave an interesting and pleasantly informal talk on object-oriented ontology, something on which Tim Morton has lately been posting incessantly (in a good way). I can't say I'm on board, but I'm interested.

Met my distant Twitter-friend Scott Selisker and found out that his research on automatism in geopolitical others (such as Communists) is directly relevant to my own. Am now a certified fan.

Lunched with Andrew Goldstone, whom I owed an ACLA proposal. (Yes, I did submit it on time. System: beaten.)

In the afternoon, attended the panel on "Modernism and the Machine" (it was machine day at MSA, I guess). Excellent papers by Amy Woodbury Tease, Michael North (on newness and Norbert Wiener...who, it turns out, had a lot in common with T.S. Eliot), and Mark Goble (with amazing film clips, per usual).

My own panel, with Margaret Ronda and Hillary Gravendyk and chaired by the wonderful Julia Bloch, was also that afternoon. Margaret's paper on Rukeyser and Hillary's paper on Niedecker spoke to one another particularly well. We got excellent questions in that panel and were generally very happy with it.

2. Saturday, 11/13 Attended a packed 8:30 session called "Beyond the Flâneuse: Women in the Modernist City." I particularly enjoyed Anne Fernald's paper on the taxicab as a heterotopia, but all three papers were great.

I attended a panel intriguingly titled "Modernist Failure" with Joshua Schuster, Benjamin Kahan, and Melanie Micir. I could tell there was a bit of a Penn conspiracy going on, but it was a very good panel. I was particularly interested in Benjy Kahan's paper, "The Walk-in Closet," on situational homosexuality.

Being an inveterate institutional gawker, I went to the MSA business lunch, where people were thanked. The book prize was awarded jointly to Enda Duffy and Eric Hayot for, respectively, The Speed Handbook and The Hypothetical Mandarin.

Next year's conference in Buffalo was discussed. The theme is "Structures of Innovation." "Innovation" is of course one of those terms that always sets off my "uncritical thinking!!" radar (DANGER WILL ROBINSON), so I'm contemplating organizing a panel titled "Against Innovation." Email me if interested. Or amused.

Continuing the Penn conspiracy theme, I attended Julia's panel on the "after-affects" of modernism in the afternoon. Julia's paper on Alice Notley and William Carlos Williams was absolutely great. Kaplan Harris's paper introduced me to "new narrative," with which I was relatively (and a little embarrassingly) unfamiliar.

Hillary and I may or may not have availed ourselves of the Fairmont Empress's extreme tea at the end of that panel. If we did, I highly recommend the house blend and the hotel's ability to accommodate food allergies.

All in all, it was a great conference. In addition to the unusual opportunity to hang out with old friends in a lovely city, I had a chance to meet wonderful folks and hear about their exciting research. It was particularly great to meet people whom I knew from their research or online, but had never met in person. Many thanks to Stephen Ross and all the other organizers for putting it together.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

I have a big problem with using this graphic to model the acceptance of e-lit. Can you guess why?

Monday, November 15, 2010

Upcoming events: Larry Eigner, Indivisible anthology, Leslie Scalapino, Curious George

Just a quick post on some upcoming events. Reflections on MSA to follow shortly, I hope.

First of all, a number of events associated with the Holloway Series in Poetry:

1.Friday, November 19, 6:30-8pm in the Maude Fife Room (315 Wheeler):
HONORING THE LIFE AND WORK OF LARRY EIGNER (August 7, 1927 – February 3, 1996)
When Larry Eigner arrived in this world “palsied from a hard birth” the accepted view was that the severity of his injury made him uneducable. An inspired bar-mitzvah gift of a 1940 Royal portable typewriter opened a pathway to his becoming a poet.

This event celebrates the publication in four folio volumes of the Collected Poems of Larry Eigner.

Featured speakers include:

Robert Grenier, poet and co-editor of The Collected Poems of Larry Eigner
Lyn Hejinian, poet and professor, Department of English, UC Berkeley
Richard Eigner, brother of Larry Eigner
Rebecca Gaydos, grad student and scholar of the poetry of Larry Eigner
Kit Robinson, poet and longtime friend of Larry Eigner
Michael Davidson, poet and professor, UC San Diego
George Hart, scholar of the poetry of Larry Eigner
Albert Gelpi, professor of English, emeritus, Stanford University
Hillary Gravendyk, assistant professor, Pomona College
Jack and Adelle Foley, poets
Norma Cole, poet
Stephen Ratcliffe, poet and professor, Department of English, Mills College
Robert Hass, former Poet Laureate of the United States, professor, UC Berkeley
This will definitely be worth attending.

2. Tuesday, November 30: Celebrating the first anthology of its kind:
Indivisible: Contemporary South Asian American Poetry

Indivisible: Contemporary South Asian American Poetry (University of Arkansas Press, 2010) is the first anthology to bring together American poets with roots in Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.

Since Ralph Waldo Emerson first drew inspiration from the Sanskrit epic poem Bhagvad Gita, the poetic traditions of South Asia and the United States have been intertwined from Eliot to the Beats. A seminal anthology, Indivisible brings us up to date, presenting the work of contemporary American poets who trace their roots back to Pakistan, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and who are rewriting the cultural and literary landscape of America today.

POETS/EDITORS. Ravi Chandra, Summi Kaipa, Tanuja Mehrotra, Pireeni
Sundaralingam, and graduate student poet, Swati Rana.


LESLIE SCALAPINO (July 25, 1944 - May 28, 2010) was a ground-breaking, genre-stretching author of 40 books of poetry, poem-plays, essays and fiction. Her books include; Selected Poems 1974-2006; Floats Horse-Floats or Horse Flows; Dihedrons-Gazelle, Dihedrals-Zoom; Flow-Winged Crocodile, A Pair / Actions Are Erased / Appear; and the novel Defoe. A longtime resident of the San Francisco Bay Area, she was also the founder and publisher of O Books.

POETS/SPEAKERS. Lyn Hejinian, Simone Fattal, Michael McClure, Norma Cole, Laura Moriarty, Jocelyn Saidenberg, Judith Goldman, Konrad Steiner, Tracy Grinnell, Joanne Kyger, Norman Fischer, Alicia Cohen, Rae Armantrout, Stephen Ratcliffe, Michael Cross, M. Mara Ann, and Bob Grenier.

And now for something completely different:

The Contemporary Jewish Museum in SF has a new exhibit on Margret and H.A. Rey, the authors/artists of Curious George. It looks amazing. From the website:
Curious George, the impish monkey protagonist of many adventures, may never have seen the light of day if it were not for the determination and courage of his creators, the illustrator H. A. Rey (1898–1977) and his wife, author and artist Margret Rey (1906–1996).

Born in Hamburg to Jewish families, they lived together in Paris from 1936 to 1940. Hours before the Nazis marched into Paris in June 1940, the Reys fled on bicycles, carrying drawings for their children’s stories including one about a mischievous monkey, then named Fifi. Not only were they able to save the characters, but the Reys themselves were saved by their illustrations when authorities found them in their belongings, which may explain why saving the day after a narrow escape became the premise of most Curious George stories.

After their fateful escape from Paris and a four-month journey across France, Spain, Portugal, and Brazil, the couple reached New York in the fall of 1940. In all, the Reys authored and illustrated over 30 books, most of them for children, seven starring Curious George.

The exhibition features nearly 80 original drawings of the beloved monkey and other characters, preparatory dummy books, vintage photographs, and documentation related to the Reys’ escape from Nazi Europe, as well as a specially designed reading room for visitors of all ages.
I am now very strongly considering taking next semester's class on a field trip. The exhibit runs through March 13, 2011.

Friday, November 12, 2010

MSA 12

There are many ways to get to Victoria, British Columbia, of which I took the least interesting and the most efficient, a direct United flight from SFO to YYJ. I'm pretty sure at least 80 percent of the people on that flight were headed to MSA--two were from my department alone.

It's been lovely seeing friends and colleagues here, and I'm looking forward to tomorrow's panels. Notes to follow, probably.

Sunday, November 7, 2010


I mentioned the other day that Beatrice Forbes-Robertson Hale was making me realize the connection between my research on Berssenbrugge and my research on Moore. I'm now realizing that comment probably made no sense to anybody but me, so here's a bit of an explanation.

My Berssenbrugge essay is about a book titled Nest (2003), which pushes hard on the idea of domestic spaces as nests and the analogy between human and animal dwellings. My essay recurs, quite naturally, to Gaston Bachelard's chapter on the nest in The Poetics of Space, which rather self-consciously conjures up sentimental images of cozy avian nuclear families (self-conscious because Bachelard has already admitted that anthropomorphizing birds is embarrassing and absurd).

My recent trawl through early twentieth-century books on girlhood, including Forbes-Robertson Hale, is making me realize how pervasive the image of the nest is in late discourses of domesticity circa 1900. Forbes-Robertson Hale's novel The Nest-Builder is a good example of that.

But it's not just that birds are used to describe the home; the home is also used to describe birds. What I hadn't realized earlier was the tightness of the connection. Ornithology circa 1900 (and this is where my Moore research comes in) was divided between an all-male profession located in universities and natural history museums and a thriving amateur bird-watching culture that was largely female. While there were many male amateur bird enthusiasts, the division between professional and popular ornithology was distinctly gendered in discourse as in membership.

It should not be supposed that the hobbyists were not serious, nor that their observations were inconsequential for the professional ornithologists. For one thing, the Audubon Society ladies were in many ways the public face of ornithology, since it was their writing and illustrations that dominated popular handbooks, texts for children, journalism, and the like, so the professional ornithologists had to reckon with them one way or another. One of the most amusing parts of researching my Marianne Moore chapter (and there were many amusing parts) was reading the spluttering reviews of popular bird books in The Auk, the organ of the American Ornithologists' Union, circa 1900. For another thing, the hobbyists were quite as serious as the professionals, and often observed specimens and behaviors in the wild before their professional counterparts did. Since the first observed specimen carried (and still carries) a good deal of importance in nomenclature, this meant that professional ornithologists, to their chagrin, sometimes had to cite the amateurs' findings in publications with hilarious titles--and by hilarious, I mean domestic.

Here are a few titles by the popular writer Olive Thorne Miller (pen name of Harriet Mann Miller): Little Brothers of the Air (1892); Four-Handed Folk (1896, on mammals rather than birds); The Bird Our Brother (1908); and of course, In Nesting Time (1888). Birds and other animals are consistently described in generally anthropomorphic and specifically familial terms. The book flap text for In Nesting Time is revealing:
These fifteen papers have such tempting titles as "Baby Birds," "A Tricksy Spirit," "A Stormy Wooing," "Friendship in Feathers," etc.; and give such wonderful revelations of bird ways and bird character as no one but a close observer would ever even imagine that our feathered friends could develop, or hardly even possess. That Mrs. Miller has given much attention to these subjects is well known; and all readers of her articles in current magazines must likewise be aware of her pleasant mode of arriving at the information which she gives so charmingly, with such sympathy, and a vivacity suited to the nature of her little companions. It has long been her wont to domesticate wild birds for a time, that she might study their dispositions and idiosyncrasies--if a bird may be said to have such; and the things that happened, the deeds that were done, the petty spites, jealousies, loves, manoeuvrings, exhibitions of craft and almost of forethought on the part of goldfinch, mocking-bird, bluebird, thrush, and others, as set forth in these pages, are as entertaining as a book of adventures. It is a most loving record, and we are assured that the sketches are "scrupulously true in every particular."
Birds here are not merely anthropomorphized; they are domesticated, made into home-dwelling creatures with "petty spites, jealousies, loves, manoeuvrings...." Moreover, this is a textual record, we are told, of literal processes of domestication, as Miller takes wild birds into her home for observation. The book flap text oscillates between enthusiasm for the domesticated quality of Miller's textual birds and Miller's "sympathy" with them, on the one hand, and skepticism that Miller's domestic language has anything to do with the reality of birds, on the other, so that the blurb ends on a strange deflection: a claim that the contents of the book are "true," distanced by quotation.

Okay, so it comes as a surprise to nobody that amateur ornithology circa 1900 anthropomorphizes animals. I mean, we still anthropomorphize animals all the time. And it's also totally unsurprising that descriptions of animals are used to naturalize human social structures; that, too, still happens all the time. What's striking is the specificity with which birds and nests are used to figure human domestic life in particular, and vice-versa, through a branch of the sciences that was distinctly feminized. Birds are also, by the way, the first specimens that museums used for "life groups," the lifelike dioramas of specimens posed in simulacra of their habitats ("homes"?) that are now the norm. (This is owing to the ease of stuffing them in a lifelike way in the later nineteenth century; I found out way too much about taxidermy researching Marianne Moore.)
Cuthbert Rookery diorama, American Museum of Natural History
The language of nests, when applied to humans, is always about regulating family and femininity, naturalizing a configuration of affective, social, and spatial bonds. But it can never not be about animals at the same time. What Marianne Moore in one way and Mei-mei Berssenbrugge in another way do is reinsert the animal as such into that discourse. For Moore, the animal introduces the alien into human life; for Berssenbrugge, that the animal is all too familiar--a pet, or even a "furry child," as Donna Haraway puts it--lays bare our embarrassing willingness to conscript animals for our emotional satisfaction. They place the animal at the scene of gender-making, but they also point toward the way that the animal, too, is made by (human) gender--that we do not know a nest that does not remind us of capital-H Home, that we are never not "dressing up our pets."

Friday, November 5, 2010

Beatrice Forbes-Robertson Hale shuts down Susan Faludi's whole matricide thing avant la lettre:
Girls of America, your ways are not our ways. We do not always approve them, as our mothers did not always approve ours. We do not like your careless manners, your minor sexual freedoms, your powder and rouge, your indifference toward the old, your neglect of pleasing. But we like your courage, your self-confidence, your honesty and your intelligence. We think perhaps your faults lie more on the surface than ours did, but that it may be ours were none the better for being hidden.

     --Beatrice Forbes-Robertson Hale, What's Wrong with Our Girls?, 1923 (157-8)

The nest returns

One [school of thought] sees it [the women's movement] at an end, feels that its object was attained when women won their share of democracy, and that nothing now remains for them but to use their opportunities as men do, to further whatever aims they as individuals may happen to have at heart. This school says: "Women are as various as men; they are now free to express, to compete, as men do.[...]"

     --Beatrice Forbes-Robertson Hale, What's Wrong with Our Girls? The Environment, Training and Future of American Girls, 1923 (ix-x).
Two observations.

1. People were floating this "feminism is over!" stuff as early as 1923. Wow.

2. Beatrice Forbes-Robertson Hale wrote a novel, and it's called -- wait for it -- The Nest-Builder (1916). Suddenly my Berssenbrugge essay is indissolubly tied to my Marianne Moore research.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Prison in African American Literature, live webcast 9am PDT tomorrow

I received this notification today from the good folks at Duke:
‘Office Hours’ Conversation on Prison in African-American Literature, Nov. 5
It’s a live, interactive webcast on prison in African-American literature, with Professor Maurice Wallace and graduate student Patrick Alexander. Anyone can watch tomorrow (Friday) at 9 a.m. Pacific time here -- And, anyone can send in a question at any time by email ( or Twitter (#dukelive). Questions from viewers are what animates the conversation!
Check it out if this is up your research alley!

Monday, November 1, 2010

No time for blogging lately, but here's a roundup of recent humanities-defendin' links.

Here's a bit from the first link, an Inside Higher Ed piece about Cornell president David Skorton's recent call for national support of the humanities:
For a start, he said that it was time for university leaders to push for a halt to the erosion of the budgets of the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts, and to articulate a vision for the importance of the humanities.

With regard to the budgets for the cultural agencies, Skorton noted that they survived attempts in 1994-5 to eliminate them, but had their budgets cut severely. In inflation-adjusted dollars, the endowments are today one-third below where they were in 1994, while the budget for National Institutes of Health has almost doubled and that of the National Science Foundation has more than doubled. The budget for the last fiscal year for the NEH was $167.5 million, and President Obama proposed a small cut, to $161.3 million for this year. (The total NEH budget would be a rounding error in the NIH budget, which exceeds $30 billion.)


Noting the current budget picture, Skorton said he would start with "modest" goals: first halting any cuts in absolute dollars for federal cultural agencies, then seeking money to cover losses to inflation, and then seeking meaningful gains. But he said it was important to start making a case on why the humanities need more support -- and to make that case based on national needs, not just the extent to which such investment would help higher education.

More support. That's refreshing!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Gendered souls in The Golden Compass

I'll be lecturing on Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass (1995) in Katharine Wright's children's lit course tomorrow (Wednesday) at 2pm in 159 Mulford.

I'll be making three main points.

  1. The Golden Compass is very self-conscious about its relationship to other literature. When you have an epigraph from Milton, you are not playing around. The book is situating itself in a specific, very eminent, masculine literary tradition, even as it tries to intervene in that tradition. Pullman’s hero is Milton by way of Blake; his enemy is C. S. Lewis.
  2. The Golden Compass is obsessed with gender. It can’t help being obsessed with gender given the literary tradition it’s taking on. Pullman is explicit about this, and he specifically sees himself making a feminist intervention. I argue, however, that Pullman’s anti-Lewis intervention is subsumed by the logic of the very tradition he’s interrogating.
  3. The tradition into which Pullman inserts himself is variously Christian; consequently The Golden Compass constructs a complex (and somewhat garbled) theology. Part of this theology involves imagining souls as separable from, and gendered complementarily to, the body.
These ideas are related to some of my recent musings on the relationship between children and animals (1, 2) and on the idea of a child whose soul is separable (e.g. in Pinocchio).

Should be fun!

Monday, October 25, 2010

Moral panic in the profession: two cases

I was recently asked to serve on a panel for graduate students on applying for grants and fellowships. It was pretty fun, and I distributed useful arcana that no one else will tell you. (For instance: the left margin on the department letterhead is 0.65625 inches. The more you know!)

But here's the thing about useful arcana that no one will tell you: it freaks people out when somebody decides that, hey, maybe somebody should tell you--somebody like your peers. Not about the margins on the department letterhead; no one cares about that. I'm talking about two oddly powerful sources of fear and moral panic in our profession: Rate My Professors and the wiki.

I get the impression that in the minds of many academics, these--as much as, if not more than, the budget cuts and casualization of academic labor that are endemic everywhere--pose a threat to the integrity of the university. What we have to fear, many insist, are underinformed undergraduates and underinformed job-seeking junior scholars. In other words, people who are almost completely powerless. The puzzling thing is why anybody would give a crap about either site.

Now, it would be foolhardy to take the contents of either Rate My Professors or the Wiki purely at face value. (This is also true of anything on the internet, on the air, or in print, as trained researchers know perfectly well.) But let's look a little more closely at each of these web sites, both aimed at allowing a relatively underinformed, institutionally marginalized, almost universally young population to share impressions, opinions, and (yes, sometimes unverified) information. What's so threatening about them?

Let's look at Rate My Professors first.

The thing that strikes me about it at first glance is how boring it is. It's not salacious; it's not scandalous; it's not gossipy; it's not even informative. It's boring in the way that most Amazon reviews are boring. Some students post with more or less vitriol or fan-like devotion, but basically it's "yup, this class was pretty cool" or "dude, this prof is boring." Much as a grade on an academic essay tells you next to nothing about its contents or style, a rating tells you almost nothing about what a professor's actual teaching is like. (Also, yes, the chili peppers are sexist, as are many things on the internet.) It's not a useful site. So why does it inspire fear and loathing?

Well, there's its badness. From a social science perspective, it's bad sampling; the students who post on RMP aren't likely to accurately represent the total student population or the students of any given professor. So, okay, professors are being misrepresented. And I get the sense that a lot of people think that the students posting are acting thoughtlessly or maliciously, which may be disproportionately the case given the sample. But if most students were really posting specifically to spread vicious gossip, then you'd think there'd be some funnier stuff on there.

But here's what you really see on RMP: very, very dull, vague evaluations on the basis of criteria that seem to utterly miss the point of taking classes in the first place, given by students who believe that they are performing a public service by making their unincisive opinions known.

What's threatening about that? Well, in it we see the things that really do threaten higher ed: students' apathy; their misapprehension of the academic mission; the degree to which our pedagogical choices seem arbitrary and opaque to students; the degree to which college has been sold to students as either a vocational school or a luxury cruise, or sometimes, oddly, both; the fact that high school graduates whom we have accepted to our institution of "higher learning" almost universally cannot wield a comma worth a damn. That students feel and write this way--or share those writings--isn't the real threat. It's merely a symptom of the far more serious problem: that we as a profession have utterly failed to make the case for learning per se not only to the public but to the very people who are supposed to be engaged in it.

Now you might object that to read RMP as an accurate, and damning, symptom of the structural problems in higher ed is to assume that, if we were really such good professors, students would always be on board with the project of learning and say nice things about us. And that's clearly not true.

But that may be the most unnerving thing of all. For despite the sampling problem, and chili peppers aside, RMP very closely mirrors our own internal teaching assessment tools, the ones we use for hiring, promotions, and teaching awards. The piety that the graduate teaching center at Cal preaches is that student evaluations are a wonderful, accurate assessment tool that we should take very, very seriously. Evaluate early and often, and learn deeply from every one!

But a multitude of studies (just a few of which are cited below) suggest that there's a broad variety of confounding factors that affect teaching evaluations, including gender, race, student expectations of gender norms, the "course effect" (professors teaching unpopular required courses are likely to receive lower evaluations), and grade inflation. And let's not forget the infamous chocolate study--the one that found that evaluations were higher among students who were offered chocolate before the evaluation. The evaluations on Rate My Professor are sadly familiar: the lack of specificity, the contradictions, the complaints that there was homework, the recommendations that the class not be scheduled so early in the morning, or that the prof bring in doughnuts. Let's face it: sometimes our course evaluations are quite useful, and sometimes they really aren't.

Does it mean that evaluations are worthless? Of course not, but they have to be considered with care. Our own internal teaching assessments are not much more methodologically sound than RMP. In other words, you never get an "out" for evaluating your sources, and you certainly can't just rely on a numerical score. It's no more reasonable to unthinkingly trust course evaluations than it is to unthinkingly trust RMP. The need for critical thinking is just a little more obvious with one of them, because it advertises its lack of methodological care with chili peppers and smiley faces.

So is RMP a threat? I think it's nothing compared to the threats that it reveals within the structure of the profession itself. It's depressing that such a significant percentage of students are in an academic institution for non-academic reasons, and it's chilling that one of the principal ways that we assess a central component of our jobs is a relatively inaccurate, little understood tool.

* * *

In any case, the RMP panic is old news. You know what really sends (some) faculty into fits of terror? "The wiki," as it's known. Kind of like "the whale."

Here's the story. Some enterprising junior scholars, some years ago, made a free wiki for posting information on ongoing academic job searches. As lore has it, the idea was to share information among job-seekers, in solidarity in the face of a brutal market with an enormous power imbalance.

The way I often hear faculty talk about the wiki, it's a viper's nest of gossip, misinformation, and drama, something that will poison your mind and destroy your soul. And I guess it could get to be that way if one were to read or check it obsessively. But then, if you're checking the wiki obsessively, you've already got a problem, and it wasn't caused by the wiki. Since many faculty also freely admit that the academic job market itself has the capacity to poison your mind and destroy your soul--and that also goes for those who are on search committees--one suspects that we have another case of shooting the messenger on our hands.

I don't post to the wiki, and I don't read it with any frequency, but I have it bookmarked. Why? Because nobody is more likely to ferret out obscure fellowships than a large group of desperate, underemployed junior scholars. And seeking out fellowships for which to apply is a normal part of every research academic's life, so while doing one's usual fellowship trawl, why wouldn't one check a lengthy, highly inclusive list crowd-sourced by people in a position to care? It's far more comprehensive and up-to-date than the fellowship lists published by the MLA, for instance (sorry, MLA). No one list of fellowships is ever going to suit you perfectly or be highly accurate, so if you're going to have to double check all the information anyway (and believe me: YOU DO), you may as well avail yourself of others' obsessive information-gathering.

Is the wiki unreliable? Of course--like everything on the internet, on the air, and in print. But is it a viper's nest of gossip, misinformation, and drama?

Here's a screen shot of one of the "notes and queries" (heh) sections, for a position at Baker University (Baldwin City, KS):
(From the C20-21 American wiki.)
SCANDAL! There's a ... clarification of the job posting, and a note about the department structure. Oh.

Unlike RMP, this does seem like actual information, which one could check up on if one wanted--probably pretty easily. What's so threatening about the wiki?

Perhaps what's threatening about it is that it isn't a viper's nest of misinformation and rumor--that it holds a mirror up to the irrationalities of the academic labor situation and gives the lie to the notion that there is anything that we could reasonably call a "market" with some kind of regulating invisible hand. Let me be clear: I'm not complaining about my personal situation (I currently have the best postdoc I could possibly want), nor am I claiming that the wiki is a thoroughly accurate source of information. (I mean: it's a wiki.)

But I do believe that, in the aggregate, the wiki is a testament to the lack of transparency and unreasonable burdens in the process, and the large number of junior scholars who suffer for it. I happen to know it's not a walk in the park for the hiring committees, either; it's neither fun nor actually useful to have to evaluate five hundred applications, and the most freakish part of the tight job market is that so many searches actually fail. No suitable candidate, after reading all those files and interviewing all those people, is found. The very existence of the wiki is a symptom of a much bigger problem in academic labor that affects tenured professors as well as ABDs, postdocs, and other junior scholars (and of course the perpetually lamented, rarely actually helped adjuncts). But it's much easier to condemn the wiki and run yet another search, having the already overworked faculty stay up nights exhaustedly skimming five hundred abjectly well crafted cover letters, than it is to try to effect a systematic change in the academic labor situation--a task so monumental as to be nearly unthinkable.

I'm not saying anything new or even, I think, controversial about the structural problems in higher ed. The job "market" barely functions and exacts a lot of collateral damage, and undergraduate teaching faces an significant crisis of legitimacy because the public is neither clear on what learning is nor convinced that undergraduates actually ought to do it. What the moral panic around the Websites of the Frustrated (that's my new umbrella term for RMP and the wiki) tells us is that we'll do anything to avoid addressing either problem at its root.

Algozzine, Bob et al. “Student Evaluation of College Teaching: A Practice in Search of Principles.” College Teaching 52.4 (2004): 134-141. Print.

Baldwin, Tamara, and Nancy Blattner. “Guarding against Potential Bias in Student Evaluations: What Every Faculty Member Needs to Know.” College Teaching 51.1 (2003): 27-32. Print.

Chism, Nancy Van Note. “Teaching Awards: What Do They Award?.” The Journal of Higher Education 77.4 (2006): 589-617. Print.

Eiszler, Charles F. “College Students' Evaluations of Teaching and Grade Inflation.” Research in Higher Education 43.4 (2002): 483-501. Print.

Laube, Heather et al. “The Impact of Gender on the Evaluation of Teaching: What We Know and What We Can Do.” NWSA Journal 19.3 (2007): 87-104. Print.

Romney, David. “Course Effect vs. Teacher Effect on Students' Ratings of Teaching Competence.” Research in Higher Education 5.4 (1976): 345-350. Print.

Youmans, Robert J., and Benjamin D. Jee. “Fudging the Numbers: Distributing Chocolate Influences Student Evaluations of an Undergraduate Course.” Teaching of Psychology 34.4 (2007): 245. Web.

Friday, October 22, 2010

1. If you find yourself declaring, "mine is the only subfield in which creative, interesting work is taking place, and anyone who is not interested in my subfield is stupid and bound for obsolescence," you might want to stop and reflect.

2. If it is a frequent refrain in your subfield that the aforementioned subfield is the only one in which creative, interesting work is taking place, and that anyone who is not interested in that subfield is stupid and bound for obsolescence, you might want to stop and reflect.

This has been a PSA.

This is a redacted version of a rant I didn't post yesterday.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Spring 2011 teaching

Next semester I'm teaching a course on early twentieth-century American poetry:

Didactic Modernism: American Poetry, 1915-1945

This course will provide an overview of American modernist poetry, addressing key concepts in modernism including impersonality, the crisis of representation, and abstraction. Among these, however, the course will take as its primary area of investigation modernist American poetry’s manifold attempts to refashion the way people read, casting readers as pupils requiring instruction. This course explores the ways in which modernist poets construed literary change as demanding a return to “the basics”: a revision of the literary canon, new demands on the reader’s education and attention, and a reconsideration of what it means to read--or to learn to read. We will approach this topic from two critical angles: first, by way of theories of language advanced by Saussure, Austin, Derrida, and Wittgenstein in a philosophical return to the basics; second, through a consideration of the history of pedagogy and childhood in America. This course will prefer lingering over longer bodies of work to reading single poems by many authors; as always, coverage cannot be comprehensive. Students will write two short papers and take a final exam.

I've already had a few people email me about the wait-list. In case anyone reading this is thinking of emailing me with the same: it doesn't matter what you registration status or class standing is; unless you're actually at this moment registered, I have no idea whether you'll get in. English majors and students with higher class standing will be given priority, but I won't be the one making those calls; it will be the arcane Tele-Bears system that does it. I also have no idea how many registered students will drop; that's ESP territory, and I'm not psychic.


I sympathize with students' frustration with the uncertainties of the registration process. This is why it matters so much that students make themselves aware of the administrative policies at their own universities, and, at public institutions like Cal, aware of state politics. This is your university, if you care to help shape it.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Dressing up our pets and/or children (as one another)

In Nest, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge invokes the horrors of cuteness in a poem titled "Dressing Up Our Pets," a poem that, as I posted in August, reminded me of the inappropriate weirdness of a Regretsy post.

Now my sister Maria has alerted me to what I can only describe as a similarly horrifying crime against taste, and probably against animals in some states, in the name of cuteness: a photo gallery of pets dressed up in Halloween costumes, courtesy of the Boston Globe.

The screen shot below of "Madison Yee in a bee Costume" [sic] would seem to show an animal costumed as a different animal. But since it's a "Halloween costume," and dressing up for Halloween is specifically a children's tradition, it's actually a dog costumed as a child costumed as a bee.

I can only feel sorry for this animal. It had no choice in the matter.

What motivates the decision to dress a pet up like a child, or to dress a child up like a pet?

In A Christmas Story Ralphie is forced to wear an atrocious bunny suit sent by his aunt; his mother forces him to put it on and then, when he does, can't suppress a laugh as she exclaims, "Isn't that cute!" (His brother just laughs openly.)*

Sianne Ngai argues that the cute creature is defined partly by its unthreatening aggression. Cuteness has a "capacity to convert a subject's veiled or latent aggression toward a vulnerable object"--like a child or a pet--"into an explicit aggression that seems to be directed toward the subject" (828). Like Ralphie miserable in his animal suit, like the animals miserable in their child suits, the cute creature is on the receiving end of aggression and is visibly dissatisified, but can't do anything about it.

In the abstract that makes plenty of sense. But it seems like there's more going on here, because of the special symbolic connection between children and animals. Haraway points out that we are particularly prone to speaking of pets as if they were "furry children." To dress a child as an animal is an act of aggression that renders the child particularly cute.

Why is it that dressing a child up as an animal, and apparently vice-versa, according to the Boston Globe, constitutes a privileged special case of cuteness?

Perhaps it is precisely the symbolic closeness between animals and children that makes it so very aggressive and uncomfortable (therefore cute) to persuade (or force) one to masquerade as the other. This is the sort of thing that makes me think we need to think much more carefully about the relationship between animals and children.

Image by Yoshitomo Nara

*The humiliation of being dressed up in something awful is, oddly, not associated with being identified with an animal in the film, but rather with the ultimate humiliation: being "perpetually four years old [and] also a girl." It's not that the costume is appropriate for a girl or that a girl could look dignified in it (who could?) but that the indignity would somehow make sense for a girl. It is the father who protects Ralphie's masculinity by urging him to take the costume off. (Uh, and gives him a gun that can really shoot. But I digress.)

Haraway, Donna Jeanne. The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2003. Print.

Ngai, Sianne. "The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde." Critical Inquiry 31.4 (Summer 2005): 811-47. Print.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Humanities Are Not a Luxury

This talk is just one more reason--as if we needed it--to adore Martha Nell Smith.

Mark Twain, blogger

It's been observed before (I made the link myself recently) that in dictating the Autobiography, Mark Twain was essentially blogging. A recent CBS story on the release of the Autobiography quotes Bob Hirst putting it like this:
"Mark Twain wants this autobiography to be random," Hirst said. "You know, he's going to talk about what he wants to talk about on this day, change his mind and move onto the next thing."

You heard that right . . . talk. One of the greatest writers in American history decided the best way to tell his own story was NOT to write it, but SPEAK it.

Daily dictations over four years, about whatever he found interesting that day.

So was Mark Twain the first BLOGGER?

"I would say that is exactly right," Hirst said. "Partly a journal, partly a diary, and partly recollection. So yeah, I think of it as a kind of blog, a blog without a web!"
The thing about blogs, though, is that whether or not they are particularly plugged into the Zeitgeist, they're timely by virtue of the way they're parceled out in time. A post today, a post tomorrow. But the Autobiography's dailiness actually isn't so clear, for a number of reasons.

This was a guy, let me just say, whose sense of timeliness was very different from the rationalized, homogeneous empty time of the RSS feed. As you'll find out if you read the Autobiography (and I'm pretty sure I've blogged about this before, it's so incredible), Twain thought it would be brilliant to have a periodical devoted entirely to old newspaper articles. It would be called The Back Number, and it would publish an assortment of news articles of yore without comment or context. In a way that's just what the Autobiography is like as well. Newspapers to Twain aren't "one-day best-sellers," as Benedict Anderson cleverly put it; they're more like flies in amber--interesting, enduring, a little gross. How do we square that kind of mentality with the logic of blogs?

Let's put aside the fact that the Autobiography is over a hundred years old (the dictations in Volume I, the only volume that's out, are mostly from 1906, I believe). Quite often one day's dictation will leave off and pick up immediately the next day. Sometimes Twain spends five days' dictation telling one story, and the dates are no more than interruptions. This obscures the sense of parceling out that we get from blogs.

Moreover, these dictations are mostly reminiscences, progressing day by day but alluding to different points in time. Like a blogger, Twain is talking about whatever he feels like talking about on that day, but because he's also recounting his life (in a very haphazard way), the day-by-day progression of his dictations butts up against the scrambled chronology of their contents.

And finally, Twain's dictations aren't actually always produced day by day. For one thing, he does edit, introducing the recursivity always implied by editing. His stenographer, Josephine Hobby, would make a typescript, which Twain would then edit and Miss Hobby would re-type. Often this process happened twice. And the dictation itself? Well, it wasn't always dictation. Sometimes he would instruct Miss Hobby to insert an old newspaper article, or a letter. And not infrequently, he would instruct her to insert an old piece of writing. For instance, most of "In Memory of Olivia Susan Clemens. 1872-1896," a piece written in memory of his daughter Susy not long after her death, was inserted into the February 2, 1906 dictation. Which is to say that he did not compose the 2/2/1906 dictation on 2/2/1906 at all, but rather decided it was the right point in his writerly timeline to introduce an older piece.

I'm sure this is noted in the explanatory notes (I don't have the volume on me at the moment; it's in my office, being too heavy to schlep around casually), but you wouldn't necessarily know it from reading. Sometimes Twain points out when he is quoting himself, usually when presenting and commenting on funny set-pieces. Sometimes he doesn't. In other words, I think the blog comparison makes sense for the book as published, but it breaks down in the archive.

The temporality of blogs is complicated, but the temporality of Twain's Autobiography is more complicated still.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Everything sounds better

The tag-line for the Gregory Brothers' Autotune the News series is "everything sounds better."

I'm fascinated by the internet principle that there is almost nothing that cannot be improved by a dance beat. The Gregory Brothers (a misnomer--they are actually the Gregory brothers and sister-in-law) capture the highly mediated, corporatized medium of television news and mediate the hell out of it, editing, remixing, inserting themselves into the videos, and of course turning media and political celebrities into American Idol-like singing contestants. (Each Autotune the News video ends with awarding the unwitting participants "best accidental singer" rankings.)

In reappropriating the news, the Gregory brothers trivialize it, but perhaps not more than it has already been trivialized by the news media itself. There's a way in which Autotune the News performs the same work as the classic spoof trailer of The Shining, which pitches the horror film as a goofy family comedy:

It reveals the extent to which music and framing tell us what to think about the film we're watching. But Autotune the News doesn't just reframe; it also insists on a particular kind of reframing through music--patently derivative but joyous nonetheless. The "serious" news--where seriousness has been produced by grave tones and facial expressions, music, and infographics--becomes an occasion for catchy pop play.

This ethos seems to find the ultimate expression in the "Bed Intruder Song." The song is based on real news footage--a moment of the same kind of outbreak of human passion that Autotune the News celebrates. Regular guy Antoine Dodson delivered a brilliantly enraged rant on the news in response to a terrifying home invasion and the attempted rape of his sister Kelly. Breaking out of the dampening mediation of the interview format, Dodson addressed the public and the fugitive attempted rapist directly, expressing his righteous rage and heaping indignant insults on the criminal. The Gregory Brothers autotuned and edited the video to create the Bed Intruder Song:

Tellingly, Dodson was surfing Facebook at the time of the invasion, and later took to the Bed Intruder Song with glee ("it's my ringtone!", he acknowledges with some joy). Dodson himself is a part of the internet culture that believes that "everything sounds better" autotuned and set to a dance beat. And why not?

In the only logical turn of events, Dodson later performed the Bed Intruder Song live (but still autotuned!) at the 2010 BET Hip Hop Awards, with a Gregory backing him up on keyboard:

(Various other remixes and covers were inevitable.)

Even Carl Sagan sounds better with a beat, as one obsessive musician has demonstrated:

Perhaps naïvely, I see the "everything sounds better" ethos as a resistance to the corporatization of art and media and the utilitarianism of the information age. Students are increasingly trained vocationally; they're made to feel guilty for taking courses that don't feed into their pre-med requirements, or for (heaven forbid) majoring in music or theater or German (or French, Italian, Russian, Classics, or theater, the programs being cut at SUNY Albany, or philosophy, which is on the chopping block at, of all places, Howard University). Making art and engaging in critique, they're told, must be left to those who can make a living at it, and the people who can make a living at it are those who work for the major media corporations.

But people can't live without making art and engaging in critique; more to the point, they don't want to. Ordinary citizens who aren't going to win American Idol (one of the Gregory Brothers--sadly I haven't had time to research this in any detail--was briefly a contestant on one of these shows, I believe), at a time when everybody knows that breaking into sanctioned corporate art depends on luck and popularity with focus groups, rebel by reappropriating corporate media, often flirting with copyright violation in the process. Corporate media becomes everybody's media; CNN cannot do better than I can do, because "everything sounds better"--and a little funny--with a dance beat. Supposedly utilitarian information, routed through the infamous 24-hour news cycle, is revealed as entertainment--entertainment that now "sounds better." Sometimes it's creative and original (I think the Carl Sagan song definitely qualifies as original) and sometimes it isn't. But it's pop culture, and it's ours.