The Century of the Fugitive and the Secret of the Detainee

The 21st century will be the century of the fugitive. Not because fugitives are proliferating, but because they are disappearing. And not disappearing in the way that fugitives like to disappear, but disappearing because they simply won’t exist. Technology won’t allow it.

A manhunt summons forth the great machinery of the state: scores of armed agents, ballistic tests and DNA samples, barking dogs, helicopters, infrared flybys. There is no evading it. It’s nearly impossible now to become a fugitive. And the more difficult fugitive life becomes, the more legendary fugitive figures become. As Peter Stallybrass and Allon White put it in their classic study of the grotesque and carnivalesque, “…what is socially peripheral is so frequently symbolically central.” The more marginalized and rare fugitives become, the greater the role they will play in our symbolic repertoire. In film, literature, music, art, videogames—in all these arenas, the fugitive will play a central role. Fugitives will come to occupy the same place in our collective consciousness as cowboys or pirates. And just as the Western film genre dominated the mid-20th century—while agribusiness was at the same time industrializing the west, making the cowboy superfluous—the 21st century will be dominated by the symbolic figure of the fugitive. Continue reading “The Century of the Fugitive and the Secret of the Detainee”

A Digital Hornbook for the Digital Humanities?

17th Century HornbookThe hornbook was not a book, but a small wooden board with a handle. A sheet of vellum inscribed with a lesson—typically the alphabet and the Lord’s Prayer—was attached to one side and covered by a thin, transparent layer of horn or mica. Historians don’t know much about hornbooks, other than they were important tools for primary education in the 16th and 17th centuries in England, Germany, Holland, and by way of the Puritans, the American colonies.

Shakespeare mentions a “Hornebook” in Love’s Labor Lost, and it’s not unlikely that Shakespeare himself first learned his letters on a hornbook. In 1916 the book antiquarian George Arthur Plimpton, whose knowledge of the hornbook has never been surpassed, pointed to a woodcut in Gregor Reisch’s magisterial Margarita Philosophica (1503) to illustrate the fundamental role of the hornbook in the early modern curriculum:

Margarita Philosophica

A boy stands outside the Tower of Knowledge (each level representing progressively heightened domains of learning, from the grammar of Donatus and Priscian on the lower levels, to the science and philosophy of Cicero, Aristotle, Seneca and Pliny on the upper levels). To enter the Tower of Knowledge the boy need only accept the hornbook from his teacher and master it. As Plimpton puts it, the hornbook was “the key to unlock the treasures of learning” (4).

But the hornbook wasn’t simply a metaphorical key. It answered a very real concern of material culture at the time. Parchment, and later, paper, was simply too costly to be put in the hands of young learners. With its vellum primer protected like a laminated lesson, the sturdy hornbook was a hardware solution to a social problem. On some hornbooks the vellum could slide out from underneath the translucent horn and be replaced by other lessons. The hornbook in this way was a kind of 17th century iPad. Much more durable than paper, hornbooks were apparently passed down between students, sibling to sibling, generation to generation.

What’s surprising about hornbooks, given their durability and symbolic as well as literal value in early modern education, is how few have survived into the 20th and 21st centuries. Plimpton lamented in 1916 that “the British Museum has only three, and the Bodleian Library at Oxford one” (5). In fact, the most exhaustive collection of hornbooks is probably Plimpton’s own collection, amassed over years and now housed at Columbia University.

A Digital Hornbook

I’ve been thinking about hornbooks lately. Especially after THATCamp Piedmont, an unconference I helped to organize at Davidson College on May 5, 2012. In particular, I’ve been mulling over a session my friend and ProfHacker colleague George Williams organized on Brainstorming a “Digital Humanities Creator Stick.” George’s idea was focused and powerful:

What applications and documents might be included on a “Digital Humanities Creator Stick,” a collection of tools that could fit on a USB flash drive, allowing students, teachers, researchers, and anyone else to work on digital humanities projects. An individual would plug the stick into any computer and instantly have access to what she needs to get work done. Unplug the stick and she takes those tools with her.

In my mind I’ve been comparing George’s digital humanities creator stick (or DH jump drive, as Roger Whitson described it) to a hornbook. Like the hornbook in Reisch’s Tower of Knowledge, it provides entry into a world that might otherwise be closed to the newcomer. Even the paddle shape of the hornbook resembles a USB flash drive.

Likening a digital humanities jump drive to an 17th century hornbook requires a certain amount of historical and technological blindness, but I’d like to entertain the comparison briefly, in order to find out if the fate of the hornbook gives us any insight into a similar kind of tool for the digital humanities. The hornbook arose during a particular historical moment to address a particular social problem. I called it a piece of hardware earlier, but really, it was a platform, in much the same way the Nintendo Wii is a platform. The wooden board itself and the translucent horn overlay were the hardware, while the vellum or paper lesson was the software. As platform studies has shown, however, hardware and software alone do not comprise the sum total of any technological platform. Use and social context are as much a part of the platform as the physical object itself.

And yet we don’t actually know what students did with their hornbooks or how they used them. We have glimpses—a few illustrations, some mentions in literature, a handful of advertisements. But the full scope of how teachers and students had meaningful (or not so meaningful) interactions with the tool and in what environments is lost to us. We simply don’t know.

This missing social element of the hornbook makes me think of the DH creator stick. The THATCamp Piedmont session prompted a lively discussion. But I know George was initially frustrated with the direction of this conversation, which trended toward the abstract, ranging from questions about the digital divide to issues surrounding digital fluency. George had wanted—and the collaborative notes generated during the session reflect this—to focus more concretely on assembling a definite list of tools and documentation that could be put on a USB flash drive. At one point in the session (probably after I had introduced a Lego versus Ikea approach to getting stated in the digital humanities), George compared assembling a digital humanities toolkit to a homeowner putting together his or her first toolbox. You know you need a hammer, a screwdriver, and a few other common tools. Before you head to the hardware store you don’t need to philosophize about the nature of home itself. A homeowner doesn’t ask, What is a home? A homeowner goes out and buys a hammer.

I appreciated the analogy and George’s efforts to ground the discussion. I’m not so sure, though, that we in the digital humanities have figured out what our “home” is, much less what our essential tools are. I am not ready to foreclose the discussion about what we ought to be doing with our tools, which surely would influence what those tools are. I am not ready, to use the hornbook as a metaphor, to affix a standard lesson underneath a protective laminate of horn.

And to be sure, I know very few digital humanists who would argue differently. I doubt that anyone who was in the THATCamp session would want to declare this or that set of tools to be the canonical tools of DH, or this or that set of practices to be the only valid approach to digital humanities work. This openness is one way a digital hornbook differs from the historical hornbook, which was clearly meant to be the first step in a rigidly prescribed way of thinking. I can think of some humanists a hornbook might appeal to in this regard, but no digital humanists.

A digital hornbook would avoid the monologic authority of a historical hornbook by not only including a variety of tools but also including a range of documentation and pedagogical material. George mentioned several times in the session that while we had compiled a great list of tools, we hadn’t thought about the kind of guides or tutorials that should be included on the DH stick. He’s right. It wasn’t until toward the end of the session that we added some guides—mostly standard, official documentation of the various tools and services on the list. And then, at last, a few more substantive, scholarly perspectives on the digital humanities found their way onto the ideal DH Creator Stick: A Companion to Digital Humanities, Hacking the Academy, and Debates in the Digital Humanities.

It’s the presence of these last two texts in particular that finally make the DH Creator Stick more than an inert catalog of portable apps. Hacking the Academy and Debates in the Digital Humanities fill a role that none of the other tools or guides on the proposed list do. They fill an absence that mirrors the unknown social life of the hornbook, for they tell us about the social life of the digital humanities. They model the digital humanities in action. And they do so by presenting a multiplicity of voices, a range of concerns, and most important to broadening the digital humanities audience, an ongoing and reiterative invitation to students, teachers, and young scholars to consider the impact of the digital on the questions that humanists ask of the world.

It’s crucial to have documents like these available for students and novice practitioners, but I would go farther. What we most need to include on a digital hornbook for newcomers to the digital humanities is precisely that which can never be distilled digitally. It’s an attitude, an ethos. Perhaps the closest we might come is dumping the entire contents of Day of DH onto the flash drive, all four years of blog posts about what people actually do during their daily work. This material might give aspiring digital humanists (not to mention humanists) a better entry point into the discipline than any set of tools or tutorials. Even then, though, the diverse principles that inspire us may not shine through. I’ve labeled my own approach deformative humanities, but there are many other ways to conceive of the spirit that motivates digital humanists. In any case, the real challenge we face is capturing and relaying this attitude. A 4GB (or 8GB or 16GB or 32GB) flash drive can hold a fantastic number of applications and documents, but it’s a capacity that may mislead us into thinking that the DH jump stick would be a powerful tool in and of itself. The prescribed lesson on a hornbook teaches us very little, apart from telling us what society deemed necessary to enter the Tower of Knowledge. The contents of a flash drive similarly teach us very little, apart from demonstrating what a group of people—we digital humanists—valued at a certain moment in the early 21st century. Centuries from now I would not want a media archaeologist bemoaning the utter lack of context surrounding a flash drive housed in Special Collections that was obliquely labeled “DH Creator Stick.” The digital humanities is people and practices, not tools and documentation. The real question is, can our tools and documentation convey this?

Works Cited

Plimpton, George Arthur. The Hornbook and Its Use in America. Worcester, MA: American Antiquarian Society, 1916.

Reisch, Gregor, d. 1525, “Margarita Philosophica,” in CU Libraries Exhibitions , Item #14 (accessed May 11, 2012).

Reflections on a Technology-Driven Syllabus

I’m five weeks into the new semester, and it’s time to consider how my ambitious technology-heavy Graphic Novel course is going. And I’m serious when I say it’s technology-heavy: we’re doing a blog, a wiki, Twitter, and rigorous Pecha Kucha presentations. About the only thing we’re missing is a MMORPG.

I plotted out the major components of the class back in May, and the actual implementation is surprisingly close to my original vision. There were two reasons for all this technology:

  1. I wanted to use technology to help me maintain the student-centered environment of a smaller class when I was in fact going to be teaching a much larger class (there are 40 students in the class instead of the usual 25). Let’s call this goal community-building.
  2. I wanted to use a range of smaller, low-stakes writing assignments paced steadily throughout the semester instead of two or three major assignments. My intention was to keep students continually engaged throughout the semester rather than “checking in” once mid-semester and once at the end.  Let’s call this goal focus-sustaining.

The chief mechanism of the class is The Group. My 40 students are evenly divided into five groups, and each week they rotate group roles. For example, last week students in Group 1 were responsible for the collaboratively-written class notes on the wiki, while this week they are the class’s Searchers, charged with blogging short evaluative reviews of relevant online resources. The group has next week off and the week after that, they are Respondents, commenting upon the work of another group (the First Readers) on the blog. And in the midst of all this activity, students are expected to post to Twitter using the class’s hashtag (#eng493) and prepare class presentations following the strictly defined Pecha Kucha format (20 slides at 20 seconds per slide, focused on a single page from the week’s graphic novel).

My inspiration for all these activities came from a number of sources, which I simply pulled together and stitched into a cohesive structure: the initial idea of groups came from my friend and longtime collaborator Randy Bass; the wikified class notes were based on something similar Brian Croxall does; the use of Twitter in the classroom was influenced by Dave Parry’s thoughts on the matter; and I’m indebted to my George Mason colleague Doug Eyman for introducing me to the idea of Pecha Kucha.

So how is it all working?

Preliminary evidence suggests it’s working, and working well. When it’s only the second week of the semester and a student hopes aloud that all our collaborative work will remain online after the semester’s over, that’s a good sign. When students in my other class spontaneously start their own Twitter hashtag after hearing about this class’s, that’s a good sign. When students are documenting the class discussion with photographs and adding them to the wiki, that’s a good sign. When I am seeing the most disciplined and focused undergraduate presentations of my career, that’s a good sign.

Any difficulties so far?

Oh, yes.

The primary challenge at the outset is the deluge of information I’m faced with every week. I’ve never had so many things to keep track of at once in a course. If it weren’t for a few tricks I’ve already learned, I’d be drowning in data. Here are some administrative and pedagogical hacks I couldn’t live without:

  • RSS is my friend. All of the online resources I use (the WordPress class blog, the PBWorks wiki, the Twitter hashtag) have RSS feeds, and I stream all of them into one monster-stream using Postbox, an enhanced version of Mozilla Thunderbird. You could also use Google Reader’s bundle feature or Yahoo Pipes to achieve the same all-in-one-space aggregated feed. I like Postbox because it archives my feeds on my hard drive, so they’re always there, whether I’m online or off, and they’ll continue to be there long after the semester is over. Here is what the master activity stream looks like in Yahoo Pipes:
  • RSS is my friend. Seriously. I can’t emphasize this enough. Being able to read blog posts, Twitter updates, and changes to the wiki pages all in one integrated stream is essential. Postbox is always open on my laptop and I can see at a glance how much activity there’s been with the students. Unread items are in bold, which helps me keep track of what I’ve read (and graded) and what I haven’t.
  • Grading doesn’t have to be hard. As I’ve written elsewhere, I use a simple 0-4 point scale to rate the critical value of each entry on the blog. As a matter of routine, I’ll let students know their grade on the blog if they are habitually getting less than 3 or 4 points per post. I also comment on several posts a week, to let everyone know that I am indeed reading their work. By the end of the semester I plan to have commented on every student’s work at least three times.
  • Let students evaluate each other. Though the students are divided into groups, the only time they work as a group is when they collaborate on the weekly class notes. PBWorks tracks every user’s edits, so it’s easy for me to see who’s done what (or who hasn’t done anything). But trusting in the power of peer pressure, I wanted to make the value of each member’s contributions more transparent to the rest of the group. So I ask the students to rate themselves and the other members of their group at the end of the week, with two questions about each student, one on the quantity of their contributions to the wiki and another question on the quality of their work. It’s a simple form on Google Docs, and the results are automatically feed into a Google Docs spreadsheet:
  • Redundancy is redundancy is redundancy is important when it comes to archiving. I am very aware of the ephemeral nature of online communication, especially with something like Twitter. Don’t trust the cloud. So in addition to preserving feeds in my offline reader, I use The Archivist to capture the #eng493 Twitter conversation and save it as an exportable XML file. Once the data is in XML format, you can manipulate it in all sorts of ways. The Archivist has a few inline data visualizations too. Here we can see when spikes in activity occur (usually the night before class, when students are reading and tweeting as they read):
  • #eng493 Twitter Timeline

So there you have it, some reflections on a technology-driven syllabus. These reflections are strictly from my own perspective, of course. Something I need more information about, then, is what my students think about the technology in the course. My sense is that it’s a daunting amount of activity for them to keep track of. I sometimes forget that students have three or four other courses besides mine, each with their own demands. I’m hoping that some activities, like Twitter, fit into their existing lifeflow, though I know others, like working with a wiki, can punctuate their daily lives in a disruptive way.

Then again, the kind of estrangement and readjustment such pedagogical tools precipitate can be valuable in their own right, if only they’re harnessed properly…something I’ll be writing about soon.

Southern States Web Expo and Exchange

While it seems like Web 2.0 outfits are dying left and right and venture capital for dot coms has all but dried up, I’ve noticed that there is still a market in Web 2.0 events: demos, expos, workshops, summits, conferences and so on, with tickets running $200/head. There may be no money in perpetually beta products, but there’s plenty of money in events about these beta products.

So I think I am going into the event organizing business. And I even see a niche that needs to be filled: the tech industry of the southern states. So many conferences and workshops are either West Coast or East Coast-based, but what about the south? Surely there are entrepreneurs and start-ups in the south, brewing important and innovative Web 2.0 products?

I therefore propose a Southern States Web Expo and Exchange (SSWExEx, pronounced “Swequex”). There’ll be plenty of swag, live blogging, and backchanneling. It will be fun. Techcrunch, Gizmodo, and Xeni Jardin will be there. Your name tags will be wacky colors.

If you can’t tell whether I’m joking or not, that’s okay. I can’t either.

Seriously, is somebody interested in getting this off the ground with me?

Kunzru’s Transmission and Gaiman’s Coraline

I’m not sure why I started reading for pleasure two separate novels on the eve of the new semester, but I did. Maybe I’m trying to squeeze a few more drops of summer out of the first week of classes, before my reading for work grows too heavy.

First up is Hari Kunzru’s Transmission. The book reminds me of early Neal Stephenson, with the way Kunzru adopts different styles of language to convey points of view. Here’s one of the first scenes with Guy Swift, whose vapidity becomes increasingly obvious as the novel progresses:

In a glittering career Guy had raised awareness, communicated vision, evoked tangible product experiences and taken managers on inspirational vision journeys. He had reinforced leading positions and project-managed the generation of innovative retail presences. His repositioning strategies reflected the breadth and prestige of large portfolios. His communication facilitiation stood out from the crowd. Engaging and impactful, for some years he had also been consistently cohesive, integreted and effective over a spread spectrum.

It’s clear that Kunzru is making fun of Guy, but what is so great about the passage is that Kunzru uses Guy’s own specialized language to do it. It’s what Bakhtin calls “double-voiced discourse”: using someone’s own mode of speaking — their word choice, structure, and tone — against them. The passage is an assemblage of buzz phrases from the management world and seen here, piled onto one another in a collision of corporatespeak, it is all revealed for the silliness that it is.

The second novel I picked up and tore halfway through at midnight last night, when I should have been sleeping, or at least prepping for class, is Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. Amazon says the book is for 9-12 year olds, but I don’t know. It is creepy. Extremely creepy. Verging, at the halfway point, on downright scary. Dave McKean’s eerie illustrations aren’t helping.

I’ll have to dig around in the databases to make sure, but I can’t believe that nobody has looked at Coraline in the context of other children’s gothic novels. It’s a haunted house novel, and I don’t recommend reading it at night, when you’re all alone in your own house. Or, as I was, alone in a house that isn’t yours.

My life on Random Play

So my ancient 30gb MP3 player broke, and the only buttons that work now are the volume controls and the “Random Play” button. I’m going to milk this brick-like, nearly bricked player for all it’s worth, and so I’m now cycling through the 8,000 songs in the random play, and I’m hearing things I haven’t heard for years.

One immediate observation:

Something really pisses me off about Jack Johnson’s voice. Am I the only one? It actually hurts my ears. I don’t even know why I have him on here. Every time his ingratiating, insouciant voice comes up I frantically press the “next” button–until I remember it doesn’t work anymore.

This is going to be a long 500 hours of music…

Going in for tests…

Sitting in the local coffee shop I overheard a group of fifty-ish women having their weekly coffee clutch. Their conversation drifted toward doctors and illnesses, and one of them related how the husband of a mutual friend was “going in for tests.”

I’ve never thought much about this phrase before, but suddenly today it struck me somehow as one of the key phrases of modern American society, over-medicalized, over-diagnosed, aging as we are.

The patient—well, he wasn’t technically a patient, really, because the tests were performed on an out-patient basis—underwent a “series of tests,” a “battery of tests,” and after all of them the results were inconclusive.

Again, this word inconclusive somehow seems like a metaphor for today’s America. Something’s wrong, but we don’t know what. The doctors are baffled, puzzled, stumped. The specialists are called in. The machines are fired up, foreign electrons pulsating through our flesh, our blood drawn, our tissues sampled, and all we have in return is a printout that’s inconclusive, too-soon-to-tell, let’s adopt a wait-and-see approach and come in again for tests in six months. Nobody can explain it to us, nobody knows, and we leave the sterile air-conditioned waiting room, walking dazed and blind into the sunwashed parking lot, a blast of summer air at the door, feeling Damocles’ sword above our head.