What about Blogging Keeps Me from Blogging

Yesterday in Facebook Killed the Feed I highlighted the way Facebook and Twitter have contributed to the decline of scholarly blogging. In truth though, those specific platforms can’t take all the blame. There are other reasons why academic bloggers have stopped blogging. There are systemic problems, like lack of time in our ever more harried and bureaucratically-burdened jobs, or online trolling, doxxing, and harassment that make having a social media presence absolutely miserable, if not life-threatening.

There are also problems with blogging itself as it exists in 2018. I want to focus on those issues briefly now. This post is deeply subjective, based purely on an inventory of my own half-articulated concerns. What about blogging keeps me from blogging?

  1. Images. Instagram, Facebook, and the social media gurus have convinced us that every post needs to have an image to “engage” your audience. No image, no engagement. You don’t want to be that sad sack blogger writing with only words. Think of your SEO! So, we feel pressure to include images in our posts. But nothing squelches the mood to write more than hunting down an image. Images are a time suck. Honestly, just the thought of finding an appropriate image to match a post is enough to make me avoid writing altogether.
  2. Length. I have fallen into the length trap. Maybe you have too. You know what I’m talking about. You think every post needs to be a smart 2,000 word missive. Miniature scholarly essays, like the post I wrote the other week about mazes in interaction fiction. What happened to my more playful writing, where I was essentially spitballing random ideas I had, like my plagiarism allegations against Neil Gaiman. And what about throwaway posts like my posts on suburbia or concerts? To become an active blogger again, forget about length.
  3. Timing. Not the time you have or don’t have to write posts, but the time in between posts. Years ago, Dan Cohen wrote about “the tyranny of the calendar” with blogging, and it’s still true. The more time that passes in between posts, the harder it is to start up again. You feel an obligation for your comeback blog posts to have been worth the wait. What pressure! You end up waiting even longer then to write. Or worse, you write and write, dozens of mostly-done posts in your draft folder that you never publish. Like some indie band that feels the weight of the world with their sophomore effort and end up spending years in the studio. The solution is to be less like Daft Punk and more like Ryan Adams.
  4. WordPress. Writing with WordPress sucks the joy out of writing. If you blog with WordPress you know what I’m talking about. WordPress’s browser composition box is a visual nightmare. Even in full screen mode it’s a bundle of distractions. WordPress’s desktop client has promise, but mine at least frequently has problems connecting to my server. I guess I’d be prepared to accept that’s just how writing online has to be, but my experience on Medium has opened my eyes. I just want to write and see my words—and only my words—on the screen. Whatever else Medium fails at, it has a damn fine editor.

Individually, there are solutions to each of these problems. But taken together—plus other sticking points I know I’m forgetting—there’s enough accumulated friction to making blogging very much a non-trivial endeavor.

It doesn’t have to be. What are your sticking points when it comes to blogging? How have you tried to overcome them?

And if you say “markdown” you’re dead to me.

Facebook Killed the Feed

There’s a movement to reclaim blogging as a vibrant, vital space in academia. Dan Cohen, Kathleen Fitzpatrick, and Alan Jacobs have written about their renewed efforts to have smart exchanges of ideas take place on blogs of their own. Rather than taking place on, say Twitter, where well-intentioned discussions are easily derailed by trolls, bots, or careless ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. Or on Facebook, where Good Conversations Go to Die™.

Kathleen recently put it more diplomatically:

An author might still blog, but (thanks to the post-Google-Reader decline in RSS use) ensuring that readers knew that she’d posted something required publicizing it on Twitter, and responses were far more likely to come as tweets. Even worse, readers might be inspired to share her blog post with their friends via Facebook, but any ensuing conversation about that post was entirely captured there, never reconnecting with the original post or its author. And without those connections and discussions and the energy and attention they inspired, blogs… became isolated. Slowed. Often stopped entirely.

You can’t overstate this point about the isolation of blogs. I’ve installed FreshRSS on one of my domains (thanks to Reclaim Hosting’s quick work), and it’s the first RSS reader I feel good about in years—since Google killed Google Reader. I had TinyRSS running, but the interface was so painful that I actively avoided it. With FreshRSS on my domain, I imported a list of the blogs I used to follow, pruned them (way too many have linkrotted away, proving Kathleen’s point), and added a precious few new blogs. FreshRSS is a pleasure to check a couple of times a day.

Now, if only more blogs posts showed up there. Because what people used to blog about, they now post on Facebook. I detest Facebook for a number of reasons and have gone as far as you can go without deleting your Facebook account entirely (unfriended everyone, stayed that way for six months, and then slowly built up a new friend network that is a fraction of what it used to be…but they’re all friends, family, or colleagues who I wouldn’t mind seeing a pic of my kids).

Anyway, what I want to say is, yes, Google killed off Google Reader, the most widely adopted RSS reader and the reason so many people kept up with blogs. But Facebook killed the feed.

The kind of conversations between academics that used to take place on blogs still take place, but on Facebook, where the conversations are often locked down, hard to find, and written in a distractedsocialmediamultitaskingway instead of thoughtful and deliberative. It’s the freaking worst thing ever.

You could say, Well, hey, Facebook democratized social media! Now more people than ever are posting! Setting aside the problems with Facebook that have become obvious since November 2016, I counter this with:

No. Effing. Way.

Facebook killed the feed. The feed was a metaphorical thing. I’m not talking about RSS feeds, the way blog posts could be detected and read by offsite readers. I’m talking about sustenance. What nourished critical minds. The feed. The food that fed our minds. There’s a “feed” on Facebook, but it doesn’t offer sustenance. It’s empty calories. Junk food. Junk feeds.

To prove my point I offer the following prediction. This post, which I admit is not exactly the smartest piece of writing out there about blogging, will be read by a few people who still use RSS. The one person who subscribes to my posts by email (Hi Mom!) might read it. Maybe a dozen or so people will like the tweet where I announce this post—though who knows if they actually read it. And then, when I drop a link to this post on Facebook, crickets. If I’m lucky, maybe someone sticks the 😡 emoji to it before liking the latest InstantPot recipe that shows up next in their “feed.”

That’s it. Junk food.

Assistant Professor of Art and Digital Studies

Digital Studies and Digital Art students at Davidson making cyborg interfaces with Makey Makeys and toys.

The Digital Studies program at Davidson College is growing! We now offer an interdisciplinary minor and, through our Center for Interdisciplinary Studies (CIS), an interdisciplinary major. Last year Digital Studies and the History Department partnered on a tenure-track search—leading to Dr. Jakub Kabala joining Davidson as a digital medievalist with a background in computational philology and digital spatial analysis.

I’m delighted to announce that Digital Studies is collaborating once again on a tenure line search, this time with the Art Department. Along with Jakub and myself, this position will form the core of the Digital Studies faculty. My vision for Digital Studies has always emphasized three areas: (1) the history, practice, and critique of digital methodologies; (2) the study of cultural texts, media, and practices made possible by modern technology; and (3) the design and creation of digital art and new media, which includes robotics, interactive installations, and physical computing. Roughly speaking, I think of these three areas in terms of methodology, culture, and creativity. This latest tenure track search addresses the last area, though of course the areas blur into each other in very interesting ways.

Here is the official search ad for the digital artist position. Please share widely!


Davidson College invites applications for a tenure-track Assistant Professor of Art and Digital Studies, with a specialization in interactive installation, transmedia art, robotics, data art, physical computing, or a similar creative field. Artists must demonstrate a distinguished record of creative work and a commitment to undergraduate education. Preference will be given to artists with a broad understanding of contemporary trends in Digital and New Media Art, including its history, theory, and practice. MFA by August 1, 2016 is required.

This tenure-track position is shared between the Art Department and Digital Studies Program. Art and Digital Studies at Davidson explore the contemporary technologies that shape daily life, focusing on critical making and digital culture. The successful applicant will teach in both Studio Art and Digital Studies. The candidate’s letter of application should highlight experiences that speak to both roles. The teaching load is 5 courses per year (reduced to 4 courses the first year). Classes include introductory and advanced digital art studio courses, as well as classes that focus on digital theory and practice.

Apply online at http://jobs.davidson.edu/. A complete application includes a letter of application, CV, artist’s statement, teaching philosophy, and a list of three or more references. In addition, submit links for up to 20 still images or up to 7 minutes of video in lieu of a portfolio. The application deadline is December 1, 2015. Do not send letters of reference until requested.

Davidson is strongly committed to achieving excellence and cultural diversity and welcomes applications from women, members of minority groups, and others who would bring additional dimensions to the college’s mission. Consistently ranked among the nation’s top liberal arts colleges, Davidson College is a highly selective, independent liberal arts college located in Davidson, North Carolina, close to the city of Charlotte. Davidson faculty enjoy a low student-faculty ratio, emphasis on and appreciation of excellence in teaching, and a collegial, respectful atmosphere that honors academic achievement and integrity.

“Warning: Infected inside, do not enter”

On Saturday, April 18, I gave the following talk at Bard College, as part of Bard’s Experimental Humanities Mellon lecture series. Sorry if it doesn’t read as an “academic” talk. It’s written to be told.

I’m going to tell you a story today about zombies and the liberal arts. There are a lot of places I could begin—say, the huge number of classes in the humanities that focus on zombies, or the burgeoning field of zombie scholarship. But I’m going to take a more circuitous route, a kind of lurching, shambling path to connect the dots. The story begins in 2013. That’s the year the film adaptation of Max Brook’s World War Z came out. It’s the year The Last of Us became a bestselling game for the Sony Playstation. It’s also the year Pat McCrory, the North Carolina Governor—my home state governor—was a guest on Bill Bennett’s radio talk show to talk about his vision for the North Carolina public university system. Chapel Hill. NC State. UNC-Charlotte. McCrory told Bennett—who, if your memory goes back that far, was Reagan’s Secretary of Education, he told Bennett that “If you want to take gender studies that’s fine, go to a private school and take it. But I don’t want to subsidize that if that’s not going to get someone a job.”[footnote]Kevin Kiley. “North Carolina Governor Joins Chorus of Republicans Critical of Liberal Arts.” Inside Higher Ed, January 30, 2013. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2013/01/30/north-carolina-governor-joins-chorus-republicans-critical-liberal-arts.[/footnote] Continue reading ““Warning: Infected inside, do not enter””

What crisis in the humanities? Interactive Historical Data on College Majors

A History of College Degrees over time

If you’re an academic, you’ve probably heard about the recent New York Times article covering the decline of humanity majors at places like Stanford and Harvard. As many people have already pointed out, the article is a brilliant example of cherry-picking anecdotal evidence to support an existing narrative (i.e. the crisis in the humanities)—instead of using, you know, actual facts and statistics to understand what’s going on.

Ben Schmidt, a specialist in intellectual history at Northeastern University, has put together an interactive graph of college majors over the past few decades, using the best available government data. Playing around with the data shows some surprises that counter the prevailing narrative about the humanities. For example, Computer Science majors have declined since 1986, while History has remained steady. Ben argues elsewhere that not only was the steepest decline in the humanities in the 1970s instead of the 2010s, but that the baseline year that most crisis narratives begin with (the peak year of 1967) was itself an aberration.

Of course, Ben’s data is in the aggregate and doesn’t reflect trends at individual institutions. But you can break the data down into institution type, and find that traditional humanities fields at private SLACs like my own (Davidson College) are pretty much at late-1980s levels.

Clearly we should be doing more to counter the perception that the humanities—and by extension, the liberal arts—are in crisis mode. My own experience in the classroom doesn’t support this notion, and neither does the data.

Building Digital Studies at Davidson

I am thrilled to share the news that in August I will join the faculty of Davidson College, where I will be building a new interdisciplinary program in Digital Studies. This is a tremendous opportunity for me, and my immodest goal is to make Davidson College a model for other liberal arts colleges—and even research universities—when it comes to digital studies.

This means I am leaving George Mason University, and I am doing so with much sadness. I have been surrounded by generous colleagues, dedicated teachers, and rigorous thinkers. I cannot imagine a better place to have begun my career. At the same time, my life at GMU has always been complicated by the challenges of a long distance commute, which I have written about here and elsewhere. My new position at Davidson will eliminate this commute. After seven or so years of flying 500 miles to work each week, it will be heaven to simply bike one mile to work every day.

And a good thing too—because I have big plans for Digital Studies at Davidson and much work to do. Students are already enrolling in my Fall 2013 courses, but more than individual classes, we have an entire program to design. I am thrilled to begin working with my new colleagues in both the humanities and sciences. Together we are going to build something both unique and uniquely Davidson.

When Does Service Become Scholarship?

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.

Tactical Collaborations (2011 MLA Version)

Tactical Collaboration Title[I was on a panel called “The Open Professoriat(e)” at the 2011 MLA Convention in Los Angeles, in which we focused on the dynamic between academia, social media, and the public. My talk was an abbreviated version of a post that appeared on samplereality in July. Here is the text of the talk as I delivered it at the MLA, interspersed with still images from my presentation. The original slideshow is at the end of this post. Co-panelists Amanda French and Erin Templeton have also posted their talks online.]

Rather than make an argument in the short time I have, I want to make a provocation, urging everyone here to consider the way social media can enable what I call tactical collaborations both within and outside of the professoriate.

I’ve always had trouble keeping the words tactic and strategy straight. Or, as early forms of the words appear in the OED, tactick and the curiously elongated stratagematick.

Tactick and Strategematick

This quote comes from a 17th century translation of a history of Roman emperors (circa 240 AD).

History of Roman Emperors

I love the quote and it tells me that tactics and strategy have always been associated with battle. But I still have trouble telling one from the other. I know one is, roughly speaking, short term, while the other is long range. One is the details and the other the big picture.

I’ll blame the old board game Stratego for my confusion. The placement of my flag, the movement of my scouts, that seemed tactical to me, yet the game was called Stratego.

Stratego

Even diving into the etymology of the words doesn’t help much at first: Tactic is from the ancient Greek τακτóς, meaning arranged or ordered.

TaktosWhile Strategy comes 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.

Strategy

All of this curiosity about the meaning of the word tactic began last May, when Dan Cohen and Tom Scheinfeldt at the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University announced a crowd-sourced book called Hacking the Academy. They announced it on Twitter on Friday, May 21 and by Friday, May 28, one week later, all the submissions were in. 330 submissions from nearly 200 people.

Hacking the Academy

The collection is now in the final stages of editing, with a table of contents of around 60 pieces by 40 or so different authors. It will be peer-reviewed and published by Digital Culture Books, an imprint of the University of Michigan Press. As you can imagine, the idea of crowdsourcing a scholarly book, in a week no less, generated excitement, questions, and some worthwhile skepticism.

And it was 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, posed several questions that would-be hackers ought to 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?

Have you looked for friends in the enemy camp lately? Howard cautioned us that some of the same institutional forces we think we’re fighting might actually be allies when we want to be a force for change. I read Howard’s question and I immediately began rethinking what collaboration means. 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.

And this is how I defined tactical collaboration:

Tactical Collaboration Definition

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, a tactic, as de Certeau writes, operates “in a position of withdrawal…it is a maneuver ‘within the enemy’s field of vision’” (37).

People Running from Police

De Certeau goes on to add that a tactic “must vigilantly make use of the cracks….It poaches in them. It creates surprises in them. It can be where it is least expected” (37).

Guernica Billboard

So that’s what a tactic is. I should’ve skipped the OED and Stratego and headed straight for de Certeau. He teaches us that strategies, like institutions, depend upon dominance over space—physical as well as discursive space. But tactics rely upon momentary victories in and over time. Tactics require agility, surprise, feigned retreats as often as real retreats. They require collaborations that the more strategically-minded might otherwise discount. And social media presents the perfect landscape for these tactical collaborations to play out.

Dennis Oppenheim Artwork

Despite my being here today, I’m very skeptical of institutions and associations. We live in a world where we can’t idly hope for or rely upon institutional support or recognition. To survive and thrive, humanists must be fleet-footed, mobile, insurgent. Decentralized and nonhierarchical. We need to stop forming committees and begin creating coalitions. We need affinities over affiliations, and networks over institutes.

Dennis Oppenheim Artwork II

Tactical collaboration is crucial for any humanist seeking to open up the professoriate, any scholar seeking to poach from the institutional reserves of knowledge production, any teacher seeking to challenge the ever intensifying bureaucratization and Taylorization of learning, any contingent faculty seeking to forge success and stability out of contingency.

We need tactical collaborations, and we need them now. The strategematick may be the domain of emperors and institutions, but like the word itself, it’s quaint and outdated. Let tactics be our ruse and our practice.

Stratego Board Game Box

Bibliography

Certeau, Michel de. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984. Print.

Herodian. Herodians of Alexandria his imperiall history of twenty Roman caesars & emperours of his time / First writ in Greek, and now converted into an heroick poem by C.B. Staplyton. London: W. Hunt, 1652. Web. 14 July 2010.

Image Credits

(1) Chase, Andy. Stratego. 2009. <http://www.flickr.com/photos/usonian/3580565990/>.

(2) ;P, Mayu. f1947661. 2008. <http://www.flickr.com/photos/mayu/4778962420/>.

(3) Unger, John T. “American Guernica: A Call for Guerilla Public Art.” <http://johntunger.typepad.com/studio/2005/10/the_guernica_pr.html>.

(4) Oppenheim, Dennis. Reading Position for Second Degree Burn. 1970. <http://www.artinfo.com/news/enlarged_image/21237/14781/>.

(5) Bauman, Frederick. Stratego Family. 2007. <http://www.flickr.com/photos/livingfrisbee/1499088800/>.

Original Slideshow

Tactical Collaboration: or, Skilfull in both parts of War, Tactick and Stratagematick

[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.

[pullquote align=”right”]The enemy of your enemy may be your friend. But your enemy may be your friend as well.[/pullquote] 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]

Fight Club Soap, Sold by SD-6

Bethany Nowviskie has aptly summed up the current standoff between the University of California system and the Nature Publishing Group as a case of fight club soap. Bethany explains the metaphor much better than I can (I urge you to read her post), and she boils it down with even more economy on Twitter: “Fight club soap = our own intellectual labor sold back to us as a costly product.” As Bethany elaborated in another Twitter post, it’s an allusion to “overpriced soap [in the movie Fight Club] marketed to rich women, made from [the liposuctioned fat of] their own bodies.” In the case of Nature and other scientific journals with premium subscription models, it means “universities buying back the labor they already paid for.”

As news about the conflict was making the rounds, Tom Scheinfeldt noted that the “Nature Publishing Group is a division of Macmillan, the company that played hardball w/ Amazon over ebook pricing.” Inspired by Bethany’s pop culture metaphor and Tom’s observation about the corporate structure of the NPG, I recalled a scene from the first season of JJ Abrams’ television series Alias. Secret agent Sidney Bristow has begun working as a double-agent for the CIA, trying to take down SD-6, the spy organization Sidney works for and which she thought was a legitimate government entity—but which, it turns out, is a criminal organization. In the second episode, “So It Begins,” Sidney draws a map of SD-6’s structure for her CIA handler, Michael Vaughn:

Sidney naively believes her diagram represents the entirety of SD-6. To Sidney’s dismay, however, Vaughn reveals that her legal pad rendering is a tiny piece of a much larger organization:

This is honestly the only scene I remember from five seasons of Alias. For some reason it stuck with me through the years. Perhaps because I see that larger map as a metaphor for all of JJ Abrams’ work—incomprehensible conspiratorial structures bound to collapse under their own weight.

Why am I digging out the metaphor of SD-6 now?

Because this is how the publishing industry looks (minus the criminal activity, mostly).

If we were to draw a corporate map of the Nature Publishing Group, it would look more like Michael Vaughn’s intricate diagram than Sidney Bristow’s crude—I’d say quaint—sketch.

The Nature Publishing Group is owned, as Tom points out, by Macmillan. But who owns Macmillan? The answer is Verlagsgruppe Georg von Holtzbrinck—the Georg von Holtzbrinck Publishing Group. I won’t list all of what Verlagsgruppe Georg von Holtzbrinck controls here, but it includes many of the biggest names in publishing: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Palgrave Macmillan, Picador, Tor, Bedford/St. Martin’s, and of course Nature and a host of other academic journals.

Aside from realizing after all these years that Alias was a send-up of corporate America rather than some post-Cold-War spy drama, there is an important conclusion to draw here.

[pullquote align=”left”]We have privatized the distribution of knowledge. We have blackwatered knowledge.[/pullquote]

Thinking about the relationship between Nature and the sprawling multinational corporation that owns it reveals the extent to which we have privatized the distribution of knowledge. We have blackwatered knowledge. Knowledge that should belong to the people and universities that produced it.

The government has increasingly outsourced many services to private outfits like Blackwater, KBR, and Halliburton; in the same way, universities, colleges, and libraries have let go of whatever tenuous grasp they once held over their intellectual property. Public and private institutions of higher learning have ceded control to profit-driven enterprises like the Nature Publishing Group, EBSCO, and Reed Elsevier. And like SD-6, whose tentacles are wide-reaching yet difficult to trace, these publishers ruthlessly dominate their respective markets, leaving students, researchers, librarians, and journalists few alternatives.

Yes, I have just likened the publishing industry to a fictional criminal organization. The real question is, what are you going to do about it?

On the Death of the Digital Humanities Center

Two or three years ago it’d be difficult to imagine a university shuttering an internationally recognized program, one of the leading such programs in the country.

Oh, wait. Never mind.

That happens all the time.

My own experience tells me that it’s usually a marginalized field, using new methodologies, producing hard-to-classify work, heavily interdisciplinary, challenging many entrenched institutional forces, and subject to an endless number of brutal personal and professional territorial battles. American Studies, Cultural Studies, Folklore Studies. It’s happened to them all.

Sometimes the programs die a slow death, downsized from a department to a program, then to a center, and finally to a URL. They’re dismantled one esteemed professor at a time, their budgets and their space shrinking ever smaller, their funding for graduate students dwindling to nothing. Sometimes the programs die spectacularly fast but no less ignobly, the executioner’s axe visible only in the instant replay. The recession makes this quick death easy to rationalize from a state legislator’s or university administrator’s perspective. Today’s cutting edge initiative is tomorrow’s expendable expenditure.

Indeed, financial considerations seem to have driven a provost-appointed task force’s recommendation that the renowned film studies program at the University of Iowa be eliminated. Such drastic cutbacks make me wonder about innovative programs at my own university, where the state is sharply curtailing public funding. (The state has funded up to 70% of George Mason University’s budget in the recent past, but now Virginia only provides 25%, a figure that is certain to fall even lower in the years ahead.) And then I wonder about innovative programs and initiatives at other colleges and universities.

And then I fear for the digital humanities center.

There is no single model for the digital humanities center. Some focus on pedagogy. Others on research. Some build things. Others host things. Some do it all. Regardless, in most cases the digital humanities center is institutionally supported, grant dependent, physically situated, and powered by vision and personnel. A sudden change in any one of these underpinnings can threaten the existence of the entire structure.

Despite the noise at last year’s MLA Convention that the digital humanities were an emerging recession-proof, bubble-proof, bullet-proof field in academia, I fear for this awkward new hybrid. Funding is tight and it’s only going to get tighter. Sustainability is the biggest issue facing digital humanities centers across the country. Of course, digital humanities centers are often separate from standard academic units. I don’t know whether this auxiliary position will help or hurt them. In either case, it’s not unreasonable to assume that some of the digital humanities centers around today will ultimately disappear.

The death of the digital humanities center. It’s not inevitable everywhere, but it will happen somewhere.

Let me be clear: I am a true believer in the value of the digital humanities center, a space where faculty, students, and researchers can collaborate and design across disciplines, across technologies, across communities. I cut my own chops in the nineties working on the American Studies Crossroads Project, one of the only groups at the time seriously looking at how digital tools were transforming research and learning. I’m grateful to have friends in several of the most impressive digital humanities outfits on the East Coast. I have the feeling that the Center for History and New Media will always be around. The Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities is not going anywhere. The Scholars’ Lab will continue to be a gem at the University of Virginia.

There will always be some digital humanities center. But not for most us.

Most of us working in the digital humanities will never have the opportunity to collaborate with a dedicated center or institute. We’ll never have the chance to work with programmers who speak the language of the humanities as well as Perl, Python, or PHP. We’ll never be able to turn to colleagues who routinely navigate grant applications and budget deadlines, who are paid to know about the latest digital tools and trends—but who’d know about them and share their knowledge even if they weren’t paid a dime. We’ll never have an institutional advocate on campus who can speak with a single voice to administrators, to students, to donors, to publishers, to communities about the value of the digital humanities.

There will always be digital humanities centers. But not for us.

Fortunately even digital humanities centers themselves realize this—as well as funders such as the NEH’s Office of Digital Humanities and the Mellon Foundation—and outreach has become a major mission for the digital humanities.

And fortunately too, a digital humanities center is not the digital humanities. The digital humanities—or I should say, digital humanists—are much more diverse, much more dispersed, and stunningly resourceful to boot.

So if you’re interested in the transformative power of technology upon your teaching and research, don’t sit around waiting for a digital humanities center to pop up on your campus or make you a primary investigator on a grant.

Act as if there’s no such thing as a digital humanities center.

Instead, create your own network of possible collaborators. 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.

Centers, no. Camps, yes.

David Foster Wallace, Don DeLillo, and the Littlest Literary Hoax

Jay Murray Siskind is Don DeLillo’s only recurring character, having first appeared in DeLillo’s pseudonymous Amazons and later as a kind of Mephistopheles character in White Noise. Now, Siskind has broken out of the realm of fiction and entered the real world.

I am referring to “An Undeniably Controversial and Perhaps Even Repulsive Talent,” a review of David Foster Wallace’s work that appeared in the prestigious journal Modernism/Modernity, published by The Johns Hopkins University Press. Found in the Volume 11, Number 4 issue (2004) of Modernism/Modernity, the review focuses on Wallace’s last collection of short stories, Oblivion, and is attributed to a certain Jay Murray Siskind, Department of Popular Culture, Blacksmith College.

Anyone familiar with White Noise should recognize the clues that the supposed reviewer is DeLillo’s character and not some real live scholar with the same name: there’s the fictional Blacksmith College (which, while not the college portrayed in White Noise, is a name of one of the neighboring towns); there are the fake footnotes in the review referring to other characters and details from White Noise, including narrator Jack Gladney and thuggish Alfonse Stompanato); and finally, there are the decidedly non-reviewish interjections by Siskind in the middle of the seemingly serious review:

It is at this point that I must confess to missing something in Wallace, namely the presence of women nearer the center of the narration (setting aside Lenore Stonecipher Beadsman, Jr., the protagonist in Wallace’s first novel, The Broom of the System). I admit that I’ve always been partial to them, i.e. women. I fall apart at the sight of long legs, striding, briskly, as a breeze carries up from the river, on a weekday, in the play of morning light. And what fun it is to talk to an intelligent woman wearing nylon stockings as she crosses her legs. Wallace, I suspect, shares these predilections and could write wonderfully complicated women.

This is pure Siskind as DeLillo imagined him (and for some reason it reminds me of the hilarious scene in White Noise where Siskind pays a prostitute to perform the Heimlich maneuver on him).

I first noticed the fake review in 2005, when one of my students unwittingly cited the review as real research. I had puzzled over it and decided that if I waited long enough, somebody (in Modernism/Modernity circles, in Wallace circles, in DeLillo circles) would come forward and take credit for something I’m sure they thought nobody would be fooled by. Time passed and I forgot about the fake review. Until recently. I’ve done some digging around and discovered that the hoax has gone unnoticed, though the review hasn’t. The review is only ever considered as serious, peer-reviewed research. For example, in addition to my embarrassed student, I’ve found the review cited in several graduate theses, with no acknowledgment that the review is fake. The troubling blindness to contextuality and intertextuality (how could any 20th century Americanist, whether modernist or postmodernist, fail to see the references to perhaps one of the most important novels of the past fifty years) — this troubling blindness on both students and their advisors’ part turns a fun fake review into something much more telling about the state of academia.

This isn’t a hoax on the same level as the Alan Sokal/Social Text affair, nor is it obviously parody, as when The Onion attributes a blog to DeLillo. It is somewhere in between, minor, but noteworthy. I am 100 percent certain that DeLillo was not involved and 95 percent certain that Wallace was not involved; DeLillo is much too subtle and Wallace was far too clever. So I wonder on what level was the hoax perpetrated? Who was in on it? Were the editors of Modernism/Modernity aware? Did some sly book review editor slip it in? Did any regular readers of the journal ever even read, really read, the review? At what point will the real writer blink? Or wink? And what can “An Undeniably Controversial and Perhaps Even Repulsive Talent” teach us about scholarship, publishing, peer-review, and mentoring?

UPDATE (23 July 2009): The editors of Modernism/Modernity have responded.

Reading Lists for Fall 2008

My course descriptions for Fall 2008 have been up for a while, but here are the specific reading lists for both classes (cross-posted from my official university site):

Reading List for ENGL 343 – Textual Media

Reading List for HNRS 414:003 – American Postmodernism


Let Us Now Praise the Tater Tot

Tot Bomb
Creative Commons License photo credit: JaseMan

I’ve always suspected that Tater Tots were the ultimate comfort food. Something about them calls us back to childhood, back to the deep fried goodness of elementary school cafeterias. Even full grown adults are susceptible, drawn to the warm potatoesque mush inside and the crunchy, flaky shell outside. Some salt and some ketchup, and we’re in heaven.

My theory was confirmed today at the campus cafeteria. One of the a la carte lines had a hot batch of tots, fresh from the fryers. I helped myself, of course. It was the best thing that happened to me all day, maybe all week.

And as I was walking to a table, no less than four total strangers stopped me, asking where I had found the Tater Tots. They wanted them too. They wanted the comfort, the serenity, the salvation promised by each tiny perfect little tot. All across the cafeteria today were delighted students and professors, as eager for each new tater morsel as my grandma was for her Sunday Eucharist.

A Mouse on a Treadmill or a Rat in a Maze?

I’m torn between which metaphor best describes my life: either I’m a mouse on a treadmill, running in place, getting nowhere, or I’m a rat in a maze, going blindly down random paths in order to get that cheese, which, face it, isn’t much of a prize.

Consider this: I work a high-prestige, low-paying job in order to pay for my children’s preschool so that I have time to work in my high-prestige, low-paying job. So I can pay for school. So I can work. On and on it goes, etc.

Mouse on a treadmill or rat in a cage? I don’t know, but either way I’m a rodent.