Undergrads Reimagine the Humanities

Last month, I was honored to be a keynote speaker at Re:Humanities, an undergraduate conference on digital media in academia organized by students at Haverford and Bryn Mawr Colleges. It was an extraordinary two days of presentations and conversations, thinking with a cluster of energetic young scholars from about 10 different schools about how digital texts and digital practices might transform the undergraduate educational and research experience.

The organizers are now at work on a manifesto for undergraduate digital humanities, which they hope to circulate in January. In the meantime, they’ve put together a video about the conference, its driving questions, and its outcomes. It’s worth a watch.

On the Impossibility of Naive Reading

The recent New York Times Opinionator column by Robert Pippin, “In Defense of Naive Reading”, has had me thinking for the last week or so. I knew I wanted to respond right away, but I wasn’t sure how, exactly; there’s an awful lot in the post that I’m quite sympathetic to, and yet something in it rubbed me exactly the wrong way.

Part of the irritation arises from the degree to which the humanities as they’ve been studied for the last several decades are under attack. Again. (Including from within.) Pippin himself begins with the culture wars of the 1980s, a grim reminder of the repeated cycles within which academic practices within the humanities, and particularly within literary studies, come under scrutiny, especially in times of economic crisis. There’s no doubt a degree of “here we go again” in my annoyed response.

But there’s more to it than that, because I think there’s more at work in Pippin’s critique than any kind of simple attack on those silly humanists. “In Defense of Naive Reading” bears deep connections to a proliferating set of arguments calling for a revaluation of amateur experiences of literary reading, arguments for which I have a tremendous amount of sympathy; Ted Striphas’s The Late Age of Print: Everyday Book Culture from Consumerism to Control and Jim Collins’s Bring on the Books for Everybody: How Literary Culture Became Popular Culture are two of the most thoughtful texts in this category. Even more broadly, however, Pippin’s argument connects to the anti-institutional “outta my way, prof!” rallying cry of Anya Kamenetz’s DIY U and YouTube’s An Open Letter to Educators. And it’s a precariously fine line from valorizing extra-academic reading experiences to dismissing scholarly work on literary subjects as wasteful, pointless, and worthy of elimination.

So I find myself in the somewhat perplexing position of wanting to make a strong argument on behalf of public engagement with the materials of humanities research, and especially literature, while at the same time defending the importance of scholarship in the field, including that scholarship that involves a kind of discourse of the sort that might exclude the uninitiated. I want to defend the kind of close reading that Pippin celebrates, but I also want to defend the theory that he dismisses. The question, of course, is how to do both of these things at once, which then turns into a larger question: What is the function of literary scholarship, and how does it inform or distinguish itself from reading-in-general?

A key aspect of literary scholarship, and the part that perhaps most informs what goes on in the literature classroom, has to do with making what seems to be obvious instead appear strange, to require the reader to step back from something that seems familiar and look at it from a new angle. The point is less to get the reader to think in some particular different way about the object than it is to get her to think differently about her own perspective with respect to that object.

And the key aspect of that endeavor is getting her to recognize that she has a perspective in the first place, one that is, by definition, non-neutral. And it’s this that makes me most want to argue with Pippin: not that I want to dismiss or displace the close, careful wrangling with primary texts, but instead to insist that no such reading can ever be naive, except in a not-so-faintly pejorative sense.

Every reading presupposes a theory, even where that theory is about the transparency of representation or about the existence of a text with defined borders. “Close reading” isn’t just careful reading with attention to detail; it’s a theoretical argument about where a text’s meaning is to be found, how it can be understood, and, perhaps most importantly, who is responsible for having put it there.

In that sense, the refusal of theory is not just a refusal of difficulty or abstruseness, but instead a refusal to lay perspective bare, or even to admit that there is perspective involved in the reading process in the first place. And lest it need be said: the admission of perspective in the reading process is not a slippery slope to some mythical anything-goes mode of postmodernist free-for-all. There is still evidence, analysis, and argument required in defending any particular interpretation of a text. But the point is that there is no singular, correct, perspective-free interpretation of a text.

In that sense, the value of literary theory has been in helping scholars and students tease out not how to read, but how they do read, how a lifetime of encounters with particular kinds of representations train us to understand future texts. And, not incidentally, to help students think about other potential readings, and what they might reveal about the default positions of our culture.

The challenge for literary scholars, I would argue, is not to return to the kind of naive, untheorized reading that Pippin seems to espouse, but instead to find ways to express the significance of theoretical insights to a wider audience. That is to say that we should neither dig in our heels on the issue of difficulty, nor give up the kinds of work that we have taken on, but instead that we need to find better ways to convey — to our students, of course, but even more importantly to the reading public at large — why the work we do matters, and why the ways that we do that work matter as well.

In a time of crisis such as we now face, dismissing that public as anti-intellectual would be an enormous mistake — but so would be giving up on the kinds of rigor that much theoretical discourse can produce. The trick lies in finding ways to bring a broader audience into our arguments, and finding ways to make those arguments that demonstrate to that audience why they should care about them, and about the future of our fields.

[P.S.: Just as I finish this, I see that my friend and colleague Kevin Dettmar has posted about the same article. Great minds, etc.]

To Read: How Not to Run a University Press

In the category of things that I used to post to the blog that now land on Twitter instead: the link. In an effort to maintain a better archive for myself, I’m experimenting with moving these things back here again.

Today, Chris Kelty’s post on Savage Minds, “How Not to Run a University Press (or How Sausage Is Made)”. In this post, Kelty thinks through the reported demise — or, more accurately, the institutional doing-in — of Rice University Press. Among the issues he raises, perhaps the most significant is the university’s refusal to understand that publishing requires actual labor and financial support:

If you judge the experiment in digital publishing on these facts, it’s sure to look like a failure, but the failure is not in the vision or ideas articulated by the press, but a simple failure to maintain good business judgement. It speaks volumes about how university administrators and many others (including many academics) see academic publishing: as something where no labor is required, only a great big print-a-book machine, a warehouse and some stamped envelopes.

This assessment resonates strongly for me, as in chapter 5 of Planned Obsolescence I focus on the role of publishing within the university, and the university’s responsibilities with respect to publishing. My fear is that universities will take on this responsibility without committing resources to it, assuming (as Rice appears to have done) that because the new mode of publishing is digital, it must be cheap.

The fact is that while the costs involved in publishing can be reduced in some areas, the costs of labor cannot — and, if anything, digital publishing requires more, and more kinds of labor.

This is perhaps not the moment at which institutions want to hear that they have to make additional investments in something that feels optional, but they really need to hear this:

  • If you expect your faculty to publish, you must provide the means for them to do so.
  • If you expect scholarly publishing to turn a profit, or even break even, you may want to stop holding your breath.
  • If you allow commercial entities to take over scholarly publishing, because they can afford to do so, you must expect their predatory, monopolistic practices to encroach on the access you have to your own faculty’s work, and to diminish the impact that their work can have both inside and outside the academy.

There is no solution to this conundrum except for institutions to recognize that they must become responsible for supporting scholarly communication, and that this support will require treating the technologies and the labor involved in publishing as part of the institution’s infrastructure.

Five Years Post-Tribble

My “five years ago today” feature reminds me that the aforementioned time has spanned since the uproar over Ivan Tribble’s infamous screed hit the Chron (now available at a new URL). There are certainly many more academic bloggers than there were in 2005, and there are even some whose blogs are taken seriously as the key venues in which they’re publishing their work. But I’m curious about the degree to which attitudes about blogs have changed — both whether they have, and why. Is it only the rise of social networking systems that privilege immediacy (c.f. Facebook, Twitter) that have lent the relative leisureliness of blogs a kind of seriousness? Is it that we’re using blogs differently, now that we’ve got other outlets for the top-of-the-head thoughts that used to land in venues like this one?

Open Access Publishing and Scholarly Values (part three)

There’s a fascinating exchange around open access publishing and the reasons scholars might resist it developing right now, beginning with Dan Cohen’s post, Open Access Publishing and Scholarly Values, which he wrote for the Hacking the Academy volume, a crowd-sourced book he and Tom Scheinfeldt are editing (to be published by the University of Michigan Press’s Digital Culture Books). Dan argues for the ethical — as well as the practical — imperative for contemporary scholars to publish their work in openly distributed forms and venues.

Stephen Ramsay then published a response, Open Access Publishing and Scholarly Values (continued), in which he points out that the ways we substitute what we now understand as “peer review” for real evaluation and judgment by our peers, particularly at the stage of tenure and promotion reviews, so overwhelms this ethical/practical imperative that we never even really get to the stage of deciding whether publishing openly could be a good thing or not.

I’ve left a comment on that response, which got lengthy enough that I thought I’d reproduce and expand upon it here. Steve writes, in the latter paragraphs on his post,

The idea of recording “impact” (page hits, links, etc.) is often ridiculed as a “popularity contest,” but it’s not at all clear to me how such a system would be inferior to the one we have. In fact, it would almost certainly be a more honest system (you’ll notice that “good publisher” is very often tied to the social class represented by the sponsoring institution).

My response to this passage begins with a big “amen.” At many institutions, in fact, the criteria for assessing a scholar’s research for tenure and promotion includes some statement about that scholar’s “impact” on the field at a national or international level, and we treat the peer-review process as though it can give us information about such impact. But the fact of an article or a monograph’s having been published by a reputable journal/press that employed the mechanisms of peer review as we currently know it — this can only ever give us binary information, and binary information based on an extraordinarily small sample size. Why should the two-to-three readers selected by a journal/press, plus that entity’s editor/editorial board, be the arbiter of the authority of scholarly work — particularly in the digital, when we have so many more complex means of assessing the effect of/response to scholarly work via network analysis?

I don’t mean to suggest that going quantitative is anything like the answer to our current problems with assessment in promotion and tenure reviews — our colleagues in the sciences would no doubt present us with all kinds of cautions about relying too exclusively on metrics like citation indexes and impact factor — but given that we in the digital humanities excel at both uncovering the networked relationships among texts and at interpreting and articulating what those relationships mean, couldn’t we bring those skills to bear on creating a more productive form of post-publication review that serves to richly and carefully describe the ongoing impact that a scholar’s work is having, regardless of the venue and type of its publication? If so, some of the roadblocks to a broader acceptance of open access publication might be broken down, or at least rendered break-down-able.

There seem to me two key imperatives in the implementation of such a system, however, which get at the personnel review issues that Steve is pointing to — one of them is that senior, tenured scholars have got to lead the way not just in demanding the development and acceptance of such a system but in making use of it, in committing ourselves to publishing openly because we can, worrying about the “authority” or the prestige of such publishing models later. And second, we have got to present compelling arguments to our colleagues about why these models must be taken seriously — not just once, but over and over again, making sure that we’ve got the backs of the more junior scholars who are similarly trying to do this work.

It comes back to the kinds of ethical obligation that both Dan and Steve are writing about — but for the reasons Steve articulates, the obligation can’t stop with publishing in open access venues, but must extend to working to develop and establish the validity of new means of assessment appropriate to those venues.

A Little (Self-)Promotion

As I’ve mentioned around here a few times, I’ve been in the midst of a review this spring, and now that the results are official, I can finally say out loud and in public that, as of July 1, I’ll be a full professor.

Needless to say, I’m happy with the outcome, but a little dazed by it, too. I’m not sure where the last twelve years have gone, exactly, but they seem to have gone well. (I’m hoping against hope that the next twelve will go more slowly, but I’m not exactly holding my breath on that one.)

Anyhow, I’ve got a lot of thoughts stemming from the review, and I’ll hope to sort out that jumble and be able to write about some of what I’ve learned soon.

In the meantime, yay!

This One Goes to 11

As I’ve mentioned around here before, I’m in the midst of a promotion review, and am in the anxious waiting phase: everything I can do is done, things are taking place behind the scenes, and I’m trying not to think about it. I was having a conversation with a couple of friends last night, and one asked, “are you nervous?” And I immediately said no. Oh, no. Well, not really. Not very. Maybe a little. Honestly, I’m not sure. I don’t think so.

I’m also in the middle of scoring a bunch of applications for a Thing in My Field. We have a five-point scoring scale. This will shortly become relevant.

So I go home after that conversation last night, and go to bed a little too late, and then wake up at 4 am — literally, 4 am — with my heart pounding, having launched myself out of a most disturbing dream:

I was sitting in some faculty meeting in an enormous 70s-style science auditorium, with the seats with the curved wooden backs and extremely raked seating. There’s no one sitting to either side of me for several seats, and no one in the row behind me. Until a full professor whom I like a lot but haven’t had much contact with lately (but who came up in conversation in a whole other context a few days ago) sat down in the row behind me, several seats to my right. And said:

“Hello, Kathleen. You know we’ve been discussing your case.”

At which I thought, hey, that’s great, I forgot she’d be involved, she’ll be supportive of me, awesome! But she leaned slightly toward me and added:

“You know anything two or lower is not a passing score.

I was too stunned to respond — and couldn’t have, anyhow, as a disembodied voice somewhere to the left of me immediately chimed in:

“For her, anything ten or lower is not a passing score!”

And then I woke up, heart pounding. Thinking, well, okay, I guess I am a little nervous about it after all.

I had a hard time going back to sleep afterward, perhaps needless to say. The vast majority of the review thus far has been extremely positive, but there’s one smallish bit of it that was, well, not. And my assumption was that the disembodied speaker to my left was a representative of that not, determined to ensure that there was no room on the scale for me to pass this review.

But a conversation I had with someone this morning leads me to believe that the disembodied voice (which came from slightly behind me, as I was facing right when it spoke on my left) may have actually been me. My unconscious, at least. Not being afraid I wouldn’t pass the review so much as not being satisfied with merely passing, needing somehow to blow the top off of the scale, to make that last little holdout bit of this process see my awesomeness, too. That I won’t be happy unless, as dooce might say, I am named the valedictorian of promotion reviews.

There are only a few weeks left. I really don’t know how it’s all going to turn out, but I’ll know soon enough. In the meantime, I’m going back to scoring those applications, and to believing I’m not nervous. And to finding a way to be happy with passing, if I do, wherever on the scale I may fall.

The Stakes of Disciplinarity

There’s been a lot of discussion in various internet settings over the last week, some of it pretty contentious, about the definition of the Digital Humanities and its relationship to digital media studies. (See, for instance, the debate started by Ian Bogost’s post, as well as that provoked by Dave Parry’s first and second takes on the issue.) Some of this debate arose, I think, from a sense of annoyance among folks who’ve been working in DH for years that suddenly, now, with the rise of social media and the visibility of those working in and on those forms, a bunch of attention is being paid to something called “digital humanities” — but the thing going by that name isn’t quite the same thing that it’s been for the past few decades, and the thing that DH has been is now being overlooked (or worse, dismissed) in favor of this new interest in digital media.

As someone who works in digital media, but feels a profound connection to the idea that I have of the digital humanities, I’ve found myself a little puzzled at moments, both by the debate and by the emotion behind it. I’ve intermittently had that sense of realizing, mid-argument, that you and the person with whom you’re arguing are using exactly the same words but are nonetheless speaking two different languages. And as Matt Kirschenbaum noted — correctly, I think — the fact that these battles over the definition of such terms are based in stereotypes indicates that they’re nearly always, and certainly in this case, institutional turf wars.

This is not at all to say that such battles don’t matter — in fact, for those embroiled in them, institutional turf wars often matter enormously. But what I’ve spent the last few days pondering is why — what the real stakes of such wars of definition are, and whether there’s a better way of thinking about the questions of institutional structure that underwrite them. The result is an awfully long and somewhat rambly blog post, safely tucked below the fold, in which I work through my thoughts on these questions.
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