Thursday, January 26, 2012

The lemur-student can see
   that an aye-aye is not
an angwan-tíbo, potto, or loris.

—Marianne Moore, "Four Quartz-Crystal Clocks," Complete Poems 115-16
Let's talk about children. I don't trust them. They are just biding their time until we're gone, and then they get our stuff.

—Stephen Colbert, interview with Maurice Sendak, 1/24/2012

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Since [Rousseau's] time, and largely thanks to him, the Ego has steadily tended to efface itself, and, for purposes of model, to become a manikin on which the toilet of education is to be draped in order to show the fit or misfit of the clothes. The object of study is the garment, not the figure. [...] The manikin, therefore, has the same value as any other geometrical figure of three or more dimensions, which is used for the study of relation. For that purpose it cannot be spared; it is the only measure of motion, of proportion, of human condition; it must have the air of reality; must be taken for real; must be treated as though it had life;—Who knows? Possibly it had! (7-8)

— Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams

Sunday, January 15, 2012

My name is Acutifolius: having sharp edges. Underside of each frond like a powdery line of Braille. (19)

—Hillary Gravendyk, "Botanica" (I), Harm

Friday, January 13, 2012

Hello, students.

My analytics inform me that a bunch of people from around the country are googling me at the moment. I'm fairly sure I haven't become famous, so I can only conclude that the googlers are my new students. So this is a post for them.

Hi, students. I'm looking forward to meeting you on Wednesday, bright and early at 8:30 am. As far as I can tell, there are only seven of you. We should be able to have excellent discussions with such a small group. A small group also poses some challenges, though; in particular, you all have to be pretty well on your game, because there's no room to hide. (Translation: if you don't do the reading, I'll definitely know.) Keeping me posted on problems that come up should help the class go smoothly; because we're a small group, we can be extra nimble and reassess as needed.

You may have noticed that I'm not regular Emory faculty. I'm a postdoctoral fellow at the Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry, that charming house on North Decatur Road, across from Glenn Memorial. I've been here all year doing research, but this is the first and very likely last course I'll teach at Emory. Previously I was a fellow in the English Department at the University of California, Berkeley, where I also did my Ph.D. Although this is a temporary appointment, I take teaching at Emory very seriously; I'm still in touch with many of my former students, and hope I'll stay in touch with you too.

At Berkeley I taught a number of courses in poetry and fiction, mostly American lit, but some British and French too. My most recent course was a delightful upper-level undergraduate seminar in American poetry called "Didactic Modernism." I miss Berkeley students, but I hear Emory students are pretty great too. You can read some of my thoughts on teaching here.

Are you wondering whether you need to fear me? You don't. I'm not an "easy" teacher; I have high expectations for you. But I also want to help you meet those expectations.

There are a few things I expect you to have nailed down on your own, of course—basic grown-up stuff like doing the reading, showing up to class, and keeping track of the course schedule. If you have a high school diploma (and you do), then that stuff should be no big deal. We will be doing some genuinely challenging work, however, and I expect to need to walk you through a few things. Because I'm old and decrepit (compared to you), I sometimes forget which concepts and readings are hard. If I seem to have forgotten, do me a favor and remind me.

While you'll meet me in my capacity as a teacher, it's important for you to know that I'm also—indeed, primarily—a researcher. Although it may not be obvious in class, my research is an important part of my teaching; it lets me design courses that have never been taught before, and integrate the most recent and interesting scholarship into your education. I don't just want to dump facts or concepts into your head; I want to draw you into the process of making knowledge—i.e. research—that I find so exciting. I want you to come out of this course knowing some new things, but just as importantly, I want you to come out equipped to find out things that no one else yet knows or has been able to describe.

I think this course is going to be a lot of fun. Do you have questions? Lay them on me; I'm at I'd be happy to hear from you.

See you Wednesday!

Sunday, January 8, 2012

In defense of transforming DH

This is a reply to my Emory colleague and THATCamp Theory collaborator Roger Whitson's post "Does DH really need to be transformed? My Reflections on #mla12." Roger's post registers some thoughtful reservations about the aims and rhetoric of the #transformDH group, to which I'm sympathetic. I detect in the oppositional rhetoric of #transformDH, however, a history that makes me appreciate the kind of transformation for which they are calling. I hope that by briefly discussing that history, I will be able to elucidate what it is that I appreciate about #transformDH's efforts and, yes, their rhetoric too.

Roger writes,
Do we really need guerrilla movements? Are war metaphors, or concepts of overturning and redefining, truly the right kind of metaphors to use when talking about change in the digital humanities? It seems to me that the word “guerilla” reappropriates the collaborative good will of the digital humanities, making it safe for traditional academic consumption and inserting it into the scheme Stanley Fish and William Pannapacker highlight. Yeah, we see the cool kids at the theory table, but we want to be the cool kids, so we’re going to fight them until we can be the cool kids. But if my experience with the MLA is any indication, the digital humanities doesn’t need to be changed. I can already see it changing the atmosphere of the MLA, making it easier for people to connect with each other, enjoy their time together, and conceptualize new and exciting work. It’s not perfect – as the job crisis still lingers, humanities programs are still threatened with cuts, and too many adjunct teachers suffer from job insecurity, a lack of benefits, and too much work for too little pay. But, the MLA I saw this year gave me hope that more people were interested in working together to deal with these issues in a productive way – rather than worry what table they were sitting at.

This is an instance in which vocabularies collide.

The valuation of the guerilla, the oppositional, the maroon, and the fugitive that characterizes #transformDH is, as I see it, clearly indebted to the legacies of queer theory and critical race studies (I'll focus on the former for now). Bill Germano, in his recent retrospective of Duke UP's Series Q, usefully quotes the introduction to the landmark Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader (1993): "Like women's studies, lesbian/gay studies has an oppositional design." Michael Warner's piece on Series Q similarly notes the insistence on self-difference that has characterized queer studies, observing that in 1990, the very term "queer" was "manifestly provocative."

This language, then, has a history that draws not only on the sometimes aggressive affects of the much-deprecated Theory but also the activist dimensions of the little-t theories (gender, queer, critical race, disability) that have emerged from it, and which have been associated with personal and professional risk and often literal bodily harm.

It's true: this is not a language that comports very well with the dominant rhetorics of digital humanities, which emphasize openness, collaboration, and inclusiveness—which are, in short, liberal. But as I understand it, that's really the point of #transformDH. A liberal, inclusive, always-collaborative, never-oppositional digital humanities is a digital humanities that can afford to be above the fray, a digital humanities for which theory is, well, theoretical, mere yack, and not a tool for activism or indeed survival. Such a digital humanities can imagine that the stakes of cultural criticism are really as low as getting to sit with the cool kids at lunch in a high school; or rather, it does not acknowledge (despite the shocking mortality rate among queer adolescents) that not getting to sit with the cool kids is ever anything but a metaphor, that its stakes are ever other than trivial. And that is "the (raceless, sexless, genderless) technological" that the #transformDH ASA roundtable quite rightly set out to critique.

Despite the liberal rhetoric of digital humanities that currently circulates most widely—a rhetoric, I might add, that has the qualified virtue of making digital work seem congenial and unthreatening to corporate and government funders—I don't think digital work does necessarily think of itself as above the fray. "The Real Face of White Australia" is just one example of important digital projects that aim to actively transform perceptions in the social sphere. Lauren Klein's wonderful work on what social network analysis can tell us about otherwise invisible ghosts in the archive likewise engages in a powerful form of recovery.*

In that sense, I agree with Roger. Digital humanities doesn't need to stop doing the critical work it's already doing. But #transformDH suggests, to my mind rightly, that the jolt of the oppositional can be powerful, when it is rooted in a critical activism that builds on the little-t theories that have preceded and exist alongside it, rather than manifesting as nerdy beleagueredness.** Germano reflects that "[s]omeone once remarked to me that scholarly publishing in gay studies was a conflict between the nerdy and the naughty." This conflict seems to me to have re-emerged in #transformDH's invocation of oppositional rhetorics, in a way that I believe to be productive. Sometimes we need collaboration, and sometimes we need solidarity. And perhaps even such fine adjustments require some transformation in the way we understand our work.


*The version of this work that Lauren presented at MLA this year explicitly engaged Alan Liu's MLA 2011 call for a renewed commitment to cultural criticism in digital humanities.

**"Nerdy beleagueredness" alludes to an argument I have made previously, that digital humanities occasionally appropriates the rhetorics of oppressed groups by self-identifying as "nerdy." I have never fully fleshed out my thoughts on nerdiness, but it is an ambivalent formation, to say the least. After all, as C. J. Pascoe has shown, it is a thin line between "nerd" and "fag." But this brings us again to the issue of lunch tables, which are not always metaphorical.

Germano, William. “The Q Factor.” The Chronicle of Higher Education 1 Jan. 2012. Web. 8 Jan. 2012.

Liu, Alan. “Where is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities?” 7 Jan. 2011. Web. 8 Jan. 2012.

Pascoe, C. J. Dude, You’re a Fag : Masculinity and Sexuality in High School. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007. Print.

Warner, Michael. “Queer and Then?” The Chronicle of Higher Education 1 Jan. 2012. Web. 8 Jan. 2012.

Friday, January 6, 2012

I can't believe it—I almost let an MLA go by without posting the annual link to that seasonal classic, "Margery Kempe at the Feeste of MLA."


Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The days are wonderful and the nights are wonderful and the life is pleasant.

—Gertrude Stein, "Portrait of Mabel Dodge at the Villa Curonia," 1913