February 8th, 2013 § § permalink
When does service become scholarship?
When does anything—service, teaching, editing, mentoring, coding—become scholarship?
My answer is simply this: a creative or intellectual act becomes scholarship when it is public and circulates in a community of peers that evaluates and builds upon it.
Now for some background behind the question and the rationale for my answer.
What counts as the threshold of scholarship has been on my mind lately, spurred on by two recent events at my home institution, George Mason University. The first was a discussion in my own department (English) about the public humanities, a concept every bit as hard to pin down as its two highly contested constitutive terms. A key question in the department discussion was whether the enormous amount of outreach our faculty perform—through public readings, in area high schools, with local teachers and lifelong learners outside of Mason—counts as the public humanities. I suggested at the time that the public humanities revolves around scholarship. The question, then, is not when does outreach become the public humanities? The question is, when does outreach become an act of scholarship?
The department discussion was a low-stakes affair. It decided the fate of exactly nothing, except perhaps the establishment of a subcommittee to further explore the intersection of faculty work and the public humanities.
But the anxiety at the heart of this question—when does anything become scholarship?—plays out in much more consequential ways in the academy. This brings me to the second event at Mason, the deliberations of the College of Humanities and Social Science’s Promotion and Tenure committee. My colleague Sean Takats, whom some may know as the Director of Research Projects for the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media and the co-director of the Zotero project, has recently given a devastating account of the RPT committee’s response to his tenure case. Happily, the college committee approved Sean’s case 10-2, but what’s devastating is the attitude of some members of the committee toward Sean’s significant work in the digital humanities. Sean quotes from the committee’s official letter, with the money quote being “some [committee members] determined that projects like Zotero et al., while highly valuable, should be considered as major service activity instead.”
Sean deftly contrasts the committee’s impoverished notion of scholarship with Mason’s own faculty handbook’s definition, which is more expansive and explicitly acknowledges “artistic work, software and media, exhibitions, and performance.”
I absolutely appreciate Mason’s definition of scholarly achievement. But I like my definition of scholarship even more. Where does mine come from? From the scholarship of teaching—another field, like digital humanities, which has challenged the preeminence of the single-authored manuscript as the gold standard of scholarship (though, like DH, it doesn’t exclude such forms of scholarship).
More specifically, I have adapted my definition from Lee Shulman, the former president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. In “Taking Learning Seriously,” Shulman advances a persuasive case for the scholarship of teaching and learning. Shulman argues that for an intellectual act to become scholarship, it should have at least three characteristics:
it becomes public; it becomes an object of critical review and evaluation by members of one’s community; and members of one’s community begin to use, build upon, and develop those acts of mind and creation.
In other words, scholarship is public, circulating in a community that not only evaluates it but also builds upon it. Notice that Shulman’s formulation of scholarship is abstracted from any single discipline, and even more crucially, it is platform-agnostic. Exactly how the intellectual act circulates and generates new work in response isn’t what’s important. What’s important is that the work is out there for all to see, review, and use. The work has been made public—which after all is the original meaning of “to publish.”
Let’s return to the CHSS committee’s evaluation of Sean’s work with Zotero. I don’t know enough about the way Sean framed his tenure case, but from the outside looking in, and knowing what I know about Zotero, it’s not only reasonable to acknowledge that Zotero meets these three criteria of scholarship (public, reviewed, and used), it’d take a willful misapprehension of Zotero, its impact, and implications to see it as anything but scholarship.
Sean notes that the stance of narrow-minded RPT committees will have a chilling effect on digital work, and I don’t think he exaggerates. But I see this as a crisis that extends beyond the digital humanities, encompassing faculty who approach their scholarship in any number of “unconventional” ways. The scholarship of teaching, certainly, but also faculty involved in scholarly editing, the scholarship of creativity, and a whole host of public humanities efforts.
The solution—or at least one prong of a solution—must be for faculty who have already survived the gauntlet of tenure to work ceaselessly to promote an atmosphere that pairs openness with critical review, yet which is not entrenched in any single medium—print, digital, performance, and so on. We can do this in the background by writing tenure letters, reviewing projects, and serving on committees ourselves. But we can and should also do this publicly, right here, right now.
January 12th, 2013 § § permalink
Like the pair of mice in Leo Lionni’s classic children’s book, I had a busy year in 2012. It was a great year, but an exhausting one.
The year began last January with a surprise: I was mentioned by Stanley Fish in an anti-digital humanities screed in the New York Times. That’s something I can check off my bucket list. (By the way, my response to Fish fit inside a tweet.) Ironically, had Fish read my chapter in Debates in the Digital Humanities, which was published the very same week, he might have seen some strange correspondences between his stance toward the digital humanities and my own. This chapter, “Unseen and Unremarked On: Don DeLillo and the Failure of the Digital Humanities,” has recently become open-access, along with the rest of the book. Hats off to Matt Gold, the Debates editor, as well as his crew at the Graduate Center at CUNY and the University of Minnesota Press for making the book possible in the first place, and open and online in the second place.
In January I also performed my first public reading of one of my creative works— Takei, George—during the off-site electronic literature reading at the 2012 MLA Convention in Seattle. There’s even grainy documentary footage of this reading, thanks to the efforts of the organizers Dene Grigar, Lori Emerson, and Kathi Inmans Berens. I also gave a well-received talk at the MLA about another work of electronic literature, Erik Loyer’s beautiful Strange Rain. And finally in January, I spent odd moments at the convention huddled in a coffee shop (this was Seattle, after all) working with my co-authors on the final revisions of a book manuscript. More about that book later in this post.
All of this happened in the first weeks of January. And the rest of the year was equally as busy. In addition to my regular commuting life, I traveled a great deal to conferences and other gatherings. As I mentioned, I presented at the MLA, but I also talked at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies convention (Boston in March), Computers and Writing (Raleigh in May), the Electronic Literature Organization (Morgantown in June), and the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts (Milwaukee in September). In May I was a co-organizer of THATCamp Piedmont, held on the campus of Davidson College. During the summer I was a guest at the annual Microsoft Research Faculty Summit (Redmond in July). In the fall I was an invited panelist for my own institution’s Forum on the Future of Higher Education (in October) and an invited speaker for the University of Kansas’s Digital Humanities seminar (in November).
If the year began the publication of a modest—and frankly, immensely fun to write—chapter in an edited book, then I have to point out that it ended with the publication of a much larger (and challenging and unwieldy) project, a co-authored book from MIT Press: 10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1));: GOTO 10 (or 10 PRINT, as we call it). I’ve already written about the book, and I expect more posts will follow. I’ll simply say now that my co-authors and I are grateful for and astonished by its bestselling (as far as academic books go) status: within days of its release, the book was ranked #1,375 on Amazon, out of 8 million books. This figure is all the most astounding when you consider that we released a free PDF version of the book on the same day as its publication. More evidence that giving away things is the best way to also sell things.
I was busy with other scholarly projects throughout 2012 as well. I finished revisions of a critical code studies essay that will appear in the next issue of Digital Humanities Quarterly, and I wrapped up a chapter for an edited collection coming out from Routledge on mobile media narratives. I also continued to publish in unconventional but peer-reviewed venues. Most notably, Enculturation and the Journal of Digital Humanities, which has published two pieces of mine. On the flip side of peer-review, I read and wrote reader’s reports for several journals and publishers, including University of Minnesota Press, MIT Press, Routledge, and Digital Humanities Quarterly. (You see how the system works: once you publish with a press it’s not long until they ask you to review someone else’s work for them. Review it forward, I say.)
In addition to scholarly work, I’ve invested more time than ever this year in creative work. On the surface my creative work is a marginal activity—and often marginalized when it comes time to count in my annual faculty report. But I increasingly see my creativity and scholarship bound up in a virtuous circle. I’ve already mentioned my first fully-functional work of electronic literature, “Takei, George.” In June this piece appeared as a juried selection in Electrifying Literature: Affordances and Constraints, a media art exhibit held in conjunction with the 2012 Electronic Literature Organization conference. A tip to other scholars who aim to do more creative work: submit your work to juried exhibitions or other curated shows; if your work is selected, it’s the equivalent of peer-review and your creative work suddenly passes the threshold needed to appear on CVs and faculty activity reports. Another creative project of mine, Postcard for Artisanal Tweeting, appeared in Rough Cuts: Media and Design in Process, an online exhibit curated by Kari Kraus on The New Everyday, a Media Commons Project.
My own blog is another site where I blend creativity and scholarship. My recent post on Intrusive Scaffolding is as much a creative nonfiction piece as it is scholarship (more so, in fact). And my favorite post of 2012 began as an inside joke about scholarly blogs. The background is this: during a department meeting discussion about how blogging should be recognized in our annual infrequent merit salary raises, a senior colleague expressed concern that one professor’s cupcake blog would count as much as another professor’s research-oriented blog. In response to this discussion, I wrote a blog post about cupcakes that blended critical theory and creativity. And cursing. The post struck a nerve, and it was my most widely read and retweeted blog post ever. About cupcakes.
Late in 2012 my creative work took me into new territory: Twitterbots, those autonomous “agents” on Twitter that are occasionally useful and often annoying. My bot Citizen Canned is in the process of tweeting every unique word from the script of Citizen Kane, by order of frequency (as opposed to, say, by order of significance, which would have a certain two syllable word appear first). With roughly 4,400 unique words to tweet, at a rate of once per hour, I estimate that Citizen Kane will tweet the least frequently used word in the movie sometime five months from now.Another of the Twitterbots I built in 2012 is 10print_ebooks. This bot mashes up the complete text of my 10 PRINT book and generates occasionally nonsensical but often genius Markov chain tweets from it. The bot also incorporates text from other tweets that use the #10print hashtag, meaning it “learns” from the community. The Citizen Cane bot runs in PHP while the 10 PRINT bot is built in Processing.
Alongside this constant scholarly and creative work (not to mention teaching) ran a parallel timeline, mostly invisible. This was me, waiting for my tenure decision to be handed down. In the summer of 2011 I submitted my materials and by December 2011, I learned that my department had voted unanimously in my favor. Next, in January 2012 the college RPT (Rank-Promotion-Tenure) committee voted 10-2 in my favor. It’s a bit crazy that the committee report echoes what I’ve heard about my work since grade school:
Mark Sample presents an unusual case. His work is at the edge of his discipline’s interaction with digital media technology. It blurs the lines between scholarship, teaching, and service in challenging ways. It also marks the point where traditional scholarly peer review meets the public interface of the internet. This makes for some difficulty in assessing his case.
In February my dean voted in favor of my case too. Next came the provost’s support at the end of March. In a surprise move, the provost recommended me for tenure on two counts: genuine excellence in teaching and genuine excellence in research. Professors usually earn tenure on the strength of their research alone. It’s uncommon to earn tenure at Mason on excellence in teaching, and an anomaly to earn tenure for both. By this point, approval from the president and the Board of Visitors (our equivalent of a Board of Trustees) might have seemed like rubber stamps, but I wasn’t celebrating tenure as a done deal. In fact, when I finally received the official notice—and contract—in June, I still didn’t feel like celebrating. And by the time my tenure and promotion went into effect in August 2012, I was too busy gearing up for the semester (and indexing 10 PRINT) to think much about it.
In other words, I reached the end of 2012 without celebrating some of its best moments. On the other hand, I feel that most of its “best moments” were actually single instances in ongoing processes, and those processes are never truly over. 10 PRINT may be out, but I’m already looking forward to future collaborations with some of my co-authors. I wrote a great deal in 2012, but much of that occurred serially in places like ProfHacker, Play the Past, and Media Commons, where I will continue to write in 2013 and beyond.
What else with 2013 bring? I am working on two new creative projects and I have begun sketching out a new book project as well. Next fall I will begin a year-long study leave (Fall 2013/Spring 2014), and I aim to make significant progress on my book during that time. Who knows what else 2013 will bring. Maybe sleep?
[Header image: A Busy Year by Leo Lionni]
November 3rd, 2012 § § permalink
On November 2 and 3, George Mason University convened a forum on the Future of Higher Education. Alternating between plenary panels and keynote presentations, the forum brought together observers of higher education as well as faculty and administrators from Mason and beyond. I was invited to appear on a panel about student learning and technology. The majority of the session was dedicated to Q&A moderated by Steve Pearlstein, but I did speak briefly about social pedagogy. Below are my remarks.
This morning I’d to share a few of my experiences with what you could call social pedagogy—a term I’ve borrowed from Randy Bass at the Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship at Georgetown University. Think of social pedagogy as outward facing pedagogy, in which learners connect to each other and to the world, and not just the professor. Social Pedagogy is also a lean-forward pedagogy. At its best a lean-forward pedagogy generates engagement, attention, and anticipation. Students literally lean forward. The opposite of a lean-forward pedagogy is of course a lean-back pedagogy. Just picture a student leaning back in the chair, passive, slack, and even bored.
A lean-forward social pedagogy doesn’t have to involve technology at all, but this morning I want to describe two examples from my own teaching that use Twitter. Last fall I was teaching a science fiction class and we were preparing to watch Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Since I wasn’t screening the film in class, students would be watching it in all sorts of contexts: on Netflix in the residence hall, on a reserve DVD upstairs in the JC, rented from iTunes, a BluRay collector’s set at home, and so on. However, I still wanted to create a collective experience out of these disparate viewings. To this end, I asked students to “live tweet” their own viewing, posting to Twitter whatever came to mind as they watched the film.
In this way I turned movie watching—a lean-back activity—into a lean-forward practice. And because the students often directed their tweets as replies to each other, it was social, much more social than viewing the film in class together. Over a 5-day period I had hundreds of tweets coming in, and I used a tool called Storify to track rhetorical and interpretative moves students made during this assignment. In particular, I categorized the incoming tweets, bringing to the surface some underlying themes in my students’ tweets. And then we began the next class period by examining the tweets and the themes they pointed to.
My next example of a social pedagogy assignment comes from later in the semester in the same science fiction class. I had students write a “Twitter essay.” This is an idea I borrowed from Jesse Stommel at Georgia Tech. For this activity, students wrote an “essay” of exactly 140 characters defining the word “alien.” The 140-character constraint makes this essay into a kind of puzzle, one that requires lean-forward style of engagement. And of course, I posed the essay question in a 140-character tweet:
Again I used Storify to capture my students’ essays and cluster them around themes. I was also able to highlight a Twitter debate that broke out among my students about the differences between the words alien and foreign. This was a productive debate that I’m not sure would have occurred if I hadn’t forced the students into being so precise—because they were on Twitter—about their use of language.
And finally, I copied and pasted the text from all the Twitter essays into Wordle, which generated a word cloud—in which every word is sized according to its frequency.
The word cloud gave me an admittedly reductivist snapshot of all the definitions of alien my students came up with. But the image ended up driving our next class discussion, as we debated what made it onto the word cloud and why.
These are two fairly simple, low-stakes activities I did in class. But they highlight this blend of technology and a lean-forward social pedagogy that I have increasingly tried to integrate into my teaching—and to think critically about as a way of fostering inquiry and discovery with my students.
[Crowd photograph courtesy of Flickr user Michael Dornbierer / Creative Commons Licensed]
July 9th, 2012 § § permalink
This fall at George Mason I’m teaching a special topics course called ENGLISH 442: 21st Century Literature. My department reserves the 442 course number for “American Literary Periods” and this usually means some recognizable—not to mention canonized—era of American literature, comprised of works that share certain stylistic and thematic characteristics. Nineteenth century naturalism. Twentieth century modernism. Post-war postmodernism. But what is 21st Century literature? What are its defining narrative modes and concerns?
The hell if I know.
I’m not going to answer these questions in ENGH 442. Beyond looking at publishing dates, it’s futile, I believe, to make any claims about the distinguishing features of 21st century literature. The simple fact is this: 21st century literature is whatever people are writing in the 21st century.
Yes, the first 12 years of the new millennium have been marked by September 11, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and a crippling, never-ending recession. But the new millennium has also been marked by the rise of YouTube, Justin Bieber, and Minecraft. What 20 novels best reflect the spirit of the 21st century so far? What 10 novels? And, given that my goal is to teach for uncoverage rather than coverage, what 5 novels?
It’s an almost insurmountable challenge to come up with a representative reading list of 21st century literature.
So I didn’t.
Instead, to assemble my reading list I came up with a rather arbitrary criterion, which is no more arbitrary than any other criterion would have been. I’ve decided to focus my 21st century literature class on works that are somehow reworking or engaging with earlier works of literature and film. I’m not talking adaptations. I’m also not interested in classic works of literature, rewritten with vampires. And I don’t mean retellings from an existing minor character’s point of view.
I mean deep entanglements in a web of intertextuality.
I’m delighted with the list I came up with. It spans genres and formats, and ranges from the comedic to the elegiac. The reading list includes some of my favorite texts to teach as well as some I’ve long wanted to teach. And here it is:
In addition to these six works (which are not all works of fiction, though they certainly are all works of literature), I will have some short stories, as well as historical and theoretical pieces scattered throughout the semester. Plus, a few tricks it is not yet time to reveal.
All in all, ENGH 442 should be an excellent class, and I’m looking forward to kicking off the fall semester.
May 17th, 2012 § § permalink
I recently described a new mode of scholarship that I called the deformed humanities. The idea is simple: take apart the world, deform it, and make something new. Or, as Donna Lanclos summarized the deformed humanities in a tweet: “Break things, leave them broken, learn stuff.”
As an example of the deformed humanities I offered up my work Hacking the Accident. But what would the deformed humanities look like in other fields? It’s one thing to imagine a scholar who already studies fiction creatively destroying existing texts. But it’s quite another to imagine a scholar who owes a certain debt to facts working in the deformed humanities.
A course taught by my George Mason colleague Mills Kelly provides an illustrative case of the deformed humanities in the field of history. Mills’ class “Lying about the Past” explores the social role of hoaxes throughout history—the Piltdown man, Hitler’s diary, and so on. For the class’s final project, students design their own hoaxes and then unleash them upon an unsuspecting public. In 2008 students created a hoax about Edward Owens, the so-called last American pirate. Students created a Wikipedia page with false sources, a blog detailing a fictional student’s discovery of the last American pirate—which the class backdated to make it look like the blog had been written over a four-month period, and other faked primary and secondary sources. When Mills revealed the hoax at the end of the semester (and students copped to it on Wikipedia), his IP address was banned from Wikipedia and the page was marked for deletion.
Mills faced a barrage of criticism in 2008 for having his student “lie” about the past. With the most recent version of the class just finishing up, Mills has come under fire once again. As Mills notes, he’s been receiving a flood of hate email. He’s being called everything from irresponsible to “sociopathic pond scum.”
There’s no need for me to defend the ethics of creating a hoax as a class project—Mills himself has persuasively made that case. All I want to say is that this is an example of the deformed humanities. And with a purpose too. Mills has described his pedagogical intent using a riddle:
Q: What happens when you teach students how to lie?
A: They learn how to be historians.
Call him a cynic, but Mills is dead on. History is comprised of lies. And if not outright falsehoods, then half-truths, exaggerations, and omissions.
The Deformative is Political
When I first began to think of creative and critical work in terms of the deformed humanities I hadn’t focused on the political dimensions of the concept—aside from self-consciously reclaiming a potentially troubled term, deformity. But I’ve quickly come to believe that the deformed humanities is a political humanities, a politicized humanities.
As a number of scholars and public intellectuals have noted, the humanities are under attack. One particularly cogent response to the attacks comes from then-American Historical Association president Anthony Grafton. Writing in the January 2011 issue of Perspectives on History, Grafton argued that perhaps the most vital argument one can make in favor of the humanities is “the argument that scholarship matters.” Historians and other humanists model “honest, first-hand inquiry” and an “austere, principled quest for knowledge.” Such clear-headed and rational scholarship, Grafton believes, is especially needed to combat the misrepresentations of the past and present that pervade our mediated world.
Mills’ example—and the deformed humanities—suggests that while Grafton goal’s is noble, it is the wrong approach. Or at least not the only approach. Why fight lies with the truth when you can fight them with other lies? Lies that reveal the truth. Scholarship ought to be rooted in knowledge, not necessarily facts.
Looking beyond a few undergraduate hoaxes, such a strategy—outlying the liars—is a particularly potent response to attacks on the humanities. It’s one, however, that Progressives are likely to avoid.
One of the unfortunate lasting legacies of the Bush era is that Progressives automatically discount anyone who strays too far from objective perspectives or evidentiary reasoning. In the face of Bush’s dismissal of the “reality-based community,” Progressives have enshrouded themselves in facts and statistics and studies. This is what Grafton argues for as well. And it’s exactly the wrong way to fight narrow-minded, unjust, subjective and self-serving beliefs. Fight truthiness with truthiness, something Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert long ago figured out, but which the humanities have forgotten.
Truth is not relative, but it is overrated.
[“Lies” image courtesy of Flickr user Simon Law. Creative Commons Licensed.]
September 10th, 2011 § § permalink
On September 8, the DigitalCultureBooks imprint of the University of Michigan Library and University Michigan Press released the online edition of Hacking the Academy. Conceived of by Dan Cohen and Tom Scheinfeldt at GMU’s Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, Hacking the Academy is an experiment in publishing. It’s a crowdsourced book, in which contributors had merely one week (May 21-28, 2010) to come up with and submit material. It’s also heavily edited, with Dan and Tom shaping the mass—the mess?—of possible submissions into a cohesive, coherent work. Authors include professors, graduate students, journalists, archivists, and alternate academic career visionaries. (Full disclosure: I’m in there too.)
As Jason Jones notes on ProfHacker, the book has been coming out in stages. From the first, a unedited, raw collection of all the submissions was aggregated at Hacking the Academy. Now, the edited online volume has been released. In 2012, a print edition will be available as well.
Because the book is being published under a Creative Commons non-commercial license, anybody is free to share or remix the work, as long the original authors and editors are properly attributed. This license is another way the book is an experiment—a major academic publisher is giving free license to anyone to shape, circulate, or reimagine the book.
Here, then, is my initial contribution to the Hacking the Academy ecology: I’ve compiled and formatted the online edited volume into ebook form, suitable for reading on Kindles, Nooks, iPads, and so on. (Hat tip to my colleague Mills Kelly for giving me the idea.)
- Hacking the Academy epub (for Nooks and iPads)
- Hacking the Academy mobi (for Kindles)
- Hacking the Academy PDF
May 12th, 2011 § § permalink
Classes are over, final projects are coming in, and I’ve just wrapped up another year of my high-flying, jet-setting lifestyle. Which is just a sexier way of saying I commute. Which is just shorthand for: every Tuesday I wake up at 5am, drive 30 miles to Charlotte Douglas International Airport, fly at dawn to Washington Dulles International Airport, get myself over to George Mason’s campus, where I teach, advise, write, collaborate, work, eat, and occasionally sleep until Thursday at 7:45pm, when I fly back to Charlotte, making it home in the best of times by 10:30pm. And then I repeat the following week. And the week after that. And so on.
Minus one year my wife was on sabbatical from her institution, when we moved the entire family up to Fairfax, and minus another year when I was half on sabbatical and half on personal leave, I’ve been doing this Tuesday through Thursday commute since 2005. It seems that every year I attempt to make sense of commuting in a new way. Last year I tried to be practical about it. Another year I tried to be funny. Once I wrote poems assembled from the caution signs on airplane wings.
This year I’m simply going to be honest.
The commute is costing me the one treasure I can never get back: time.
Friends, families, and colleagues often say to me, You’re away from home two nights a week? That’s not so bad. It could be a lot worse.
Dear friends, families, and colleagues: this is the worst possible thing you could say to me, my wife, or my children.
Two nights a week? It could be a lot worse.
To those who mean well but nevertheless end up minimizing the difficulty of my weekly commute, let me do some math for you.
I have two semesters. Each semester is fifteen weeks long. I’m away from my family three days and two nights every single one of those weeks. Throw in a couple of other nights when I’ve had to be away for flight cancellations, extra travel time, and extraordinary commitments bringing me to campus early or keeping me late. Add it up, and I’ve been away from my home just over ninety days and sixty nights since August 2010.
Now look me in the eye and try to minimize the pain and sorrow of missing two months of my sons’ lives. Three months, if you count the days. Three months is hard enough to be apart from my wife, but we’re adults, and we made the decision together to be an academic commuter couple, at least for a while. But three months means something entirely different when children are involved, a four- and six-year-old, making great physical, cognitive, and social leaps in a matter of weeks—even in a matter of days. Imagine missing crucial milestones, the kind we usually celebrate with hugs and kisses, joy and smiles. Imagine leaving behind your most cherished loved ones two or three months out of every year. Compound this absence by four, the number of years I’ve had to travel, and I’ve missed an entire year of my children’s daily lives. A year when I was not there.
Certainly there are people who are away from their families more than I am. Soldiers on extended tours of duty, businessmen and women traveling across the globe. Diplomats, spies, the pilots of the planes themselves. But I am neither making a sacrifice in the name of my country nor earning a generous salary that allows me to buy figments of happiness. I’m a poor English professor, teaching and studying words, images, and ideas.
That I love my career—working with kind and collegial people, teaching engaging and challenging courses— only makes the commute harder. Sweet as well as bitter. Several months ago, in the dead of winter, the bitterest time of the semester, I wrote on Twitter:
Commuting every week is hard enough already, but in the cold dark days of February and March the hard enough grows harder.
Now it’s spring, now it’s May. And there is the summer to rejuvenate, to be present. But the shadow of another semester already looms ahead, and my mind is soaked through even now with work and writing that calls me away from my family though I’m still home. The hard enough grows harder, and it never gets easy.
[Crazy Sad Face Drawing by my son, Niko]
April 10th, 2011 § § permalink
Often dismissed by its critics as low-brow pulp, science fiction is nonetheless a rich, dynamic literary genre which deserves our attention. In this class we will move beyond the stereotypes of science fiction in order to examine novels, stories, comics, films, and videogames that question the global commodification of culture, the fetishization of technology, and the dominant ideologies that structure race, gender, and class relations. Drawing upon works from North America, Europe, and Asia, we will ultimately challenge what counts as “human” in our increasingly inhuman world.
(Amplified Body Diagram courtesy of Stelarc, 1995)
July 14th, 2010 § § permalink
[Note: See also the MLA 2011 version of this post, which I gave at panel discussion on "The Open Professoriat(e)"]
“Skilfull in both parts of War, Tactick and Stratagematick.”
From Herodians of Alexandria: his imperiall history of twenty Roman cæsars & emperours of his time. First writ in Greek, and now converted into an heroick poem by C.B: Stapylton (London: Printed by W. Hunt for the author, 1652)
I’ve always had trouble keeping tactic and strategy straight. And don’t even get me started on tactick and stratagematick, cited by the Oxford English Dictionary as very early forms of the words in English. I knew that one was, roughly speaking, short term, while the other was long range. One was the details, the other the big picture. But I always got confused about which was which. I’m not exactly sure what the root of my confusion was, but the game Stratego makes as good a scapegoat as any. The placement of my flag, the movement of my scouts, that seemed tactical to me, yet the game was called Stratego. It was enough to blow a young game player’s mind.
Even diving into the etymology of the words, which is how I tend to solve these puzzles nowadays, doesn’t help much at first:
- Tactic, from the ancient Greek τακτóς, meaning arranged or ordered
- Strategy, from the Greek στρατηγóς, meaning commander or general
A general is supposed to be a big-picture kind of guy, so I guess that makes sense. And I suppose the arrangement of individual elements comes close to the modern day meaning of a military tactic. (Which leads me to dispute the name of Stratego again; the game should more properly be called Tactico. Unless your father breaks in, commandeering your pieces, as shown on the original game box. Then you’re back to the strategematick.)
In any case, I’ve been thinking about tactics lately. More to the point, I’ve been thinking about the tactics of collaboration. And to make an even finer point, I’ve been thinking about tactical collaboration.
This line of inquiry began in May, amidst the one-week creation of the crowdsourced anti-collection, Hacking the Academy, edited—though curated might be the better term—by Dan Cohen and Tom Scheinfeldt at the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. The idea of crowdsourcing a scholarly book (to be published, it’s worth nothing, by Digital Culture Books, an imprint of the University of Michigan Press and University of Michigan Library) generated much excitement, many questions, and some worthwhile skepticism incorporated into the book itself.
It’s one of these critiques of Hacking the Academy that prompted my thoughts about tactical collaboration. Jennifer Howard, a senior reporter for The Chronicle of Higher Education, asked three key questions that “the forces of change” should consider during the course of hacking the academy. It was Howard’s last question that resonated most with me:
Have you looked for friends in the enemy camp lately? Or: Maybe you will find allies where you don’t expect any. As a journalist, I’m no stranger to generalizations. Still, it’s disconcerting to go to different conferences and hear Entire Category X—administrators/university presses/librarians/journal editors/fill in the blank—written off as part of the problem when at least a few daring souls might not mind being part of a solution. It may not be *your* solution. You might have to venture a closer look to find out. I can’t say what you will discover. It may not be at all what you expect. It might be exactly what you expect. Let me know.
The enemy of your enemy may be your friend. But your enemy may be your friend as well.
Have you looked for friends in the enemy camp lately? We all know that the enemy of your enemy may be your friend. But your enemy may be your friend as well when you want to be a force for change. I read Howard’s question and immediately began thinking about collaboration in a new way. Instead of a commitment, it’s an expedience. Instead of strategic partners, find immediate allies. Instead of full frontal assaults, infiltrate and disseminate. In academia we have many tactics for collaboration, but very little tactical collaboration:
Tactical Collaboration: fleeting, fugitive collaboration that takes place suddenly, across ideologies, disciplines, pedagogies, and technologies.
I’m reminded of de Certeau’s vision of tactics in The Practice of Everyday Life. Unlike a strategy, which operates from a secure base of its own, a tactic, as the Jesuit scholar writes,
must play on and with a terrain imposed on it and organized by the law of a foreign power. It does not have the means to keep to itself, at a distance, in a position of withdrawal, foresight, and self-collection: it is a maneuver “within the enemy’s field of vision,” as von Bülow puts it, and within enemy territory. It does not, therefore, have the options of planning general strategy…. It operates in isolated actions, blow by blow. It takes advantages of “opportunities” and depends on them, being without any base where it could stockpile its winnings, build up its own position, and plan raids. What it wins it cannot keep…. It must vigilantly make use of the cracks that particular conjunctions open in the surveillance of proprietary powers. It poaches in them. It creates surprises in them. It can be where it is least expected.
Now I understand what a tactic is. Strategies, like institutions, depend upon dominance over space—physical space as well as discursive space. But tactics rely upon momentary victories in and over time, a temporalization of resistance. Because tactics are of the moment, they require agility, nimbleness, feigned retreats as often as real retreats. And they require collaborations that the more strategically-minded might otherwise discount. Recalling some of my recent writings on the state of academia, such as my underconference manifesto and my eulogy for the digital humanities center, I realize that what I have been thinking about all along are tactical collaborations. As I wrote in March,
Don’t hope for or rely upon institutional support or recognition. To survive and thrive, digital humanists must be agile, mobile, insurgent. Decentralized and nonhierarchical.
Stop forming committees and begin creating coalitions. Seek affinities over affiliations, networks over institutes.
I was speaking then specifically about the digital humanities, but I’d argue that my call for mobility over centralization is crucial for any humanist seeking to hack the academy, any scholar seeking to poach from the institutional reserves of knowledge production, any teacher seeking to challenge the ever intensifying bureaucratization and systematization of learning, any contingent faculty seeking to forge success and stability from contingency.
We need tactical collaborations, and we need them now. And now, and now. The strategematick may be the domain of emperors and institutions, but let the tactick be the ruse and the practice of you and me.
[Stratego Family image courtesy of Frederick Bauman, Creative Commons Licensed]
April 14th, 2010 § § permalink
Here’s the course description for my Fall 2010 graduate class on graphic novels (ENGL 685:003):
This course considers the storytelling potential of graphic novels, an often neglected form of artistic and narrative expression with a long and rich history. Boldly combining images and text, graphic novels of recent years have explored divisive issues often considered the domain of “serious” literature: immigration, racism, war and terrorism, dysfunctional families, and much more. Informed by literary theory and visual culture studies, we will analyze both mainstream and indie graphic novels. In particular, we will be especially attentive to the unique visual grammar of the medium, exploring graphic novels that challenge the conventions of genre, narrative, and high and low culture. While our focus will be on American graphic novelists, we will touch upon artistic traditions from across the globe. Works studied may include Nat Turner by Kyle Baker, Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, Black Hole by Charles Burns, Sand Man by Neil Gaiman, Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli, Exit Wounds by Rutu Modan, Watchmen by Alan Moore, Uzumaki by Junji Ito, In My Hour of Darkness by Wilfred Santiago, Maus by Art Speigelman, and Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware.
(Image: Wilfred Santiago’s In My Darkest Hour)
March 6th, 2010 § § permalink
Yesterday Dan Cohen, the director of the Center for History and New Media and my colleague at George Mason University, posted a thoughtful piece describing a major problem of scholarly publishing (and of book publishing more generally). Dan suggests that while the “supply” of written work has changed with the advent of digital collaborations, academic blogging, and interactive projects, the “demand” side—what readers, publishers, and rank and promotion committees expect—remains stubbornly resistant to change. To illustrate the dominant attitude of “most humanities scholars and tenure committees” toward digital work, Dan quotes a fantastic quip from John Updike:
The printed, bound and paid-for book was—still is, for the moment—more exacting, more demanding, of its producer and consumer both. It is the site of an encounter, in silence, of two minds, one following in the other’s steps but invited to imagine, to argue, to concur on a level of reflection beyond that of personal encounter, with all its merely social conventions, its merciful padding of blather and mutual forgiveness.
I love this Updike passage. It’s so perfectly stated that I find myself nodding in agreement even as I recoil on the inside. We need go no further than the second sentence to see some of most pernicious misconceptions influencing what Dan calls the demand side of the publishing.
Reading a book, Updike says, is an encounter, in silence, of two minds.
Look at each of these three phrases. (1) An “encounter”? Well, that’s a nice vague noun and seems to include all sorts of interactions between reader and writer, but at its heart it’s an empty word that tells us nothing about the many ways this interaction can proceed: it can be sly, brutal, coy, frustrating, angry, joyous. The encounter can be all of those things, sometimes all at once. But more importantly, in new forms of publishing, the encounter can be something that you wouldn’t call an encounter at all. It can be a dance, an assault, a performance, a collision, a celebration. Using “encounter” to describe what can happen between reader and writer privileges one form of interaction, the most staid, monologic, conservative one at that.
Now what about (2) the “silence” in which this encounter supposedly occurs? Okay, yes, that’s how a lot of people read, but again, “silence” elevates one form of reading above all others. Let’s call it “polite” reading. What Updike really means by “in silence” is that any argument or meaning-making on the reader’s part must occur silently, safely firewalled far away from the writer. Safely firewalled far away from the rest of the world for that matter. The idea of a writer who either coaxes or bludgeons his or her readers into submissive silence would be abhorrent to most academics, yet that is the way the current social contract of scholarly publishing works. Peer review and letters to journal editors are merely other forms of polite reading. We applaud them as civil discourse, but in fact they are mechanisms to maintain a tolerable level of noise—by which I mean relative silence.
Finally we arrive at (3) the “two minds” involved in the silent encounter. Let’s break this phrase down even further. Two? Two? I’m not even going to bother to mention the value of collaborative research and writing, let’s just focus on Updike’s romantic vision of the relationship between a novelist and his or her reader. Two minds? What a sad, impoverished view of the world of letters. Even when it’s a single author and a single reader, more than two minds are always involved. Reading is a social activity. It is always a social activity, even when done quietly at night in an empty house. There are social contexts to writing, social contexts to reading. They are both situated activities—situated within a broader world, both requiring a wide range of supporting structures in order to exist in the first place. As for “mind,” I can appreciate that Updike sees reading and writing as intellectual endeavors, abstracted from our daily existence in the physical world. But I also couldn’t disagree more. We all know that writing is a physical activity, but we forget that reading is one too. Reading is an embodied activity. We read from within our bodies, our itching, bleeding, aging, page-turning, button-clicking bodies. Updike’s focus on the mind merely reflects that common scholarly view of the “life of the mind.” Which is just a way of ignoring the physical world.
I’d like to suggest that one way to begin changing what readers expect from scholarly publications is to deliberately invert each of these aspects of Updike’s formulation. We need texts that are loud, crowded, and out of control. We need to recognize the richness of what could count as a scholarly “encounter.” We need to encourage the opposite of silence—clamorous, public, raucous, messy discourse. We need to remember that two minds means essentially never mind; the true power of scholarly discourse lies in multiple voices, multiple bodies.
Are these changes even possible? Ian Bogost recently notoriously faulted the humanities for despising humanity, but I personally have hope. Even if it’s due to deeply ingrained habits of self-preservation, the humanities will have to change. But doing so requires an engagement with all those facts of the real world that most of us read books and retreat to libraries to escape from. Most of us don’t despise humanity so much as fear it, especially our own humanity. In an odd turn of events, it’s the affordances of the digital world that may help us renew our presence and involvement in the analog world. We have the means now to write in ways scholars could only ever dream about. So, write to be heard, write to be written back to, write to readers who are living bodies with voices of their own. Write to the crowd and let the crowd write back. Write publicly and publicly write. Write.
November 8th, 2009 § § permalink
The folks at the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH) have posted an audio podcast of my recent Digital Dialogue presentation, “The Open Source Professor: Teaching, Research, and Transparency.”
As entertaining as it might be to hear me talk for thirty minutes, I thought it would be better to see the visuals that accompanied my presentation. So I’ve put together a screencast combining the audio and my slideshow. I shaved off the 30 minute Q&A session that followed, not because it wasn’t interesting (it truly was), but because I didn’t have a handy set of visual adds to go along with it. Perhaps I’ll create a screencast for the discussion part of the day, once I have time to put together some scenes that make sense.
In any case, here it is, “The Open Source Professor” as presented to MITH on October 27, 2009 (click the light green arrow under the slide to get started):
August 7th, 2009 § § permalink
My previous post about making my teaching evaluations public generated some thoughtful commentary, both here and elsewhere. Brian Coxall’s post on Prof. Hacker and the ensuing comments raised some key questions, and I’ve briefly responded there, saying:
[Regarding who owns the rights to the evaluations] …in my case I think that answer is easy: it’s the Commonwealth of Virginia, who has already made the quantitative part of the evaluations public (but very hard to actually access). As I mentioned in my original post, many other aspects of my job (including my salary) are already public information, so it makes since that my evals, upon which my salary is somewhat based, are too. Also, because the anonymous written comments are given back to me with no further instructions, I consider it a kind of “fair use” to make them public.
The possibility of degrading comments gaining a wider audience is something I hadn’t considered. I’ve been lucky that most of the comments I receive actually do pertain to my teaching (I’ve received the more personal comments about looks or clothing on RateMyProfessor). Still, an occasional personal attack is something I can live with and I don’t believe the public airing of it would give any legitimacy to the offensive remark. On the contrary, I’d see it as something to address in the reflective scaffolding I aim to build up around the teaching evaluations.
Meanwhile Julie Meloni writes about making her own evals public, from the perspective of a graduate student (who doesn’t want to be remembered as “that grad student doing weird stuff with her evals”). I’d hazard to say that regardless of one’s position — graduate student, visiting professor, adjunct professor, assistant, associate or full professor — there’s some risk involved with making your evals public. If your evals are outstanding, you might look like a self-serving braggart. If they’re awful, then everyone will know. But regardless of the actual scores, some of your colleagues are likely to be, at best, bemused, and at worst, threatened. My only response is that I don’t teach for my colleagues, I teach for my students. I realize that not everyone is in a department where my seemingly cavalier attitude (coming from a junior faculty member no less) would be tolerated, but luckily, I am.
Finally, in response to my question of how teaching evaluations could be remixed, George Mason IT and English student Aram Zucker-Scharff proposes turning the evals into more graphical visual representations of data. It’s a great idea and one I’d like to pursue as my dataset grows deeper.
August 4th, 2009 § § permalink
I recently wrote about why I’m making even the earliest scraps of my research public. It’s a move, in theory, that most academics would not object to. Nobody is going to give me funny looks for suggesting we share our research problems. After all, scholarly collaboration is something we’re almost all willing to profess a belief in.
So here’s something that may send a few strange looks my way. In addition to my research, I believe the other half of my job — teaching undergraduate and graduate students — should be as public as possible. Even if I weren’t an employee of the Commonwealth of Virginia, working in a publicly funded state university, I would still argue that virtually all aspects of my job — what I earn, what I teach, what my students think about my teaching — should be transparent.
One of these areas — what I teach — has long been public, as all my syllabi, reading lists, and assignments are online. In the latest version of my videogame studies course I even used the class wiki to document and explain any changes I made to the syllabus during the semester.
RateMyProfessor.com tells us what a few self-selected students think about a professor, not what they think about a professor’s teaching.
Finding out how effective a teacher I am proves to be more difficult. Many professors and most students know about the informal ratings out there. MTV’s RateMyProfessor.com (I bet you didn’t know MTV was so dedicated to pedagogy) is the most popular site, but there are others. More often than not, though, these ratings are based upon a professor’s charisma or workload, rather than any kind of systematic statistical data. (Is a chili pepper statistically significant?) These sites tell us what a few self-selected students think about a professor, not what they think about a professor’s teaching.
My university’s own course evaluation system — salmon-colored forms students fill out anonymously at the end of every semester — is rigorous, qualitative, archived, and — happily for many faculty — almost completely invisible. I get these evaluations back, of course, and I have to share them with my salary and reappointment committees. But after that? In theory, George Mason makes the numerical score sheet for each set of teaching evaluations available to a wider audience.
Good luck going to the university website and finding out information about the score sheets. Tracking down these evaluations reminds me of the scene early in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, when Arthur Dent discovers the plans to build a highway bypass through his property. Dent eventually uncovers the designs on public “display” in the cellar of the local planning office, “in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard.’”
Here is George Mason’s own equivalent of the “Beware of Leopard” sign:
The above message is what any off-campus visitor sees when he or she attempts to access the database of teaching evaluations. On campus, the wiew [sic] isn’t much better:
To be fair, I’m hoping that the typo has been corrected since I captured this screen shot in May. But I wouldn’t know for sure. You see, it’s August and I’m off-campus right now, as are most faculty and students, and I can’t even electronically access my own teaching evaluations, let alone those of other professors, unless I’m physically there.
In short, my teaching evaluations are all but hidden to the world. Off campus they are firewalled. On campus, you might be able to find them, but only if you know where to look (and have a Mason ID and password). And once you get past those hurdles, the university only provides the numerical scores — not the written comments students may have left.
So I’m moving beyond my professions of faith in scholarly transparency into clear, deliberate action. And this is where I start getting funny looks, if not totally horrified ones. I’m releasing all of my teaching evaluations, complete with every single enthusiastic or blistering or apathetic student comment, to the public under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike license.
I’ve begun with the most recent set of evaluations I have, from Fall 2008, and as soon as I have the Spring 2009 batch, I will upload those as well. And I’ll begin working my way backwards in time, adding teaching evaluations from every semester I’ve been at George Mason University. You’ll find the evaluations online at Scribd (“The YouTube for Documents”), but since they are embeddable, I’ll post them here as well.
Below are the evaluations for ENGL 343, a new media class dear to me but which encounters resistance from students who discount electronic literature. By the end of the semester I have many stragglers, evidenced in the thirteen students missing from class the day I distributed the evaluations.
And here are evaluations for ENGL 414, a small seminar for exemplary undergraduate majors that focused on American Postmodernism.
I’ve discussed the lofty minded “why” I’m doing this, and I want to end with the more practical “what” — What can someone do with these evaluations?
There are obvious answers: prospective students may find them valuable, other teachers of similar material might learn what works and what doesn’t, and my own colleagues may gain a better sense of what goes on in my classroom. But I’m interested in the less obvious answers. For instance, I can use the evaluations as the basis for a teaching portfolio, in which I perform my own reflective analysis of the students’ feedback. Or, more experimentally, because the evaluations are under a Share Alike license, they can be remixed. I have no idea what remixed teaching evaluations might look like, but I would love to see what someone comes up with.
Such transparency can be intimidating at first, as I am surrendering control over what many professors dread reading themselves when the forms are returned in their sealed envelopes weeks after classes are over. But it is also liberating. Both the public and myself can only gain from the availability of my teaching evaluations. Think of it as open source teaching.
June 19th, 2009 § § permalink
Here’s the official reading list for ENGL 459 on Disaster Fiction, along with a quick breakdown of the class’s organization:
Part I: The Disaster Novel
Part II: The Postmodern Disaster Novel
Part III: Apocalyptic Journeys
Part IV: The Disaster of History
You can find a more visual display of the reading list as well.