Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Twenty-First Century Literacies: Navigating works in progress

I've seen a lot of discussion recently about 21st century literacies: at Cathy Davidson's HASTAC blog, Howard Rheingold's series of posts on "infotention," and Annette Vee's blending of programming and writing as "proceduracy."

The posts, and their comments, are better read than summarized; so I'm not trying to encapsulate them by saying that they address the ways that digital productions command and affect attention differently, and promote different sorts of interactions among readers than print productions; and that it's important to reevaluate how we define the units of production: a tweet, a blog post, an essay, a command, a method, a program...

There's one topic that I don't see being discussed; or not directly. Perhaps it's because it's a type of reading, i.e., a type of literacy, and already ingrained in everyone's thought on this issue; but to me, it seems absent when it needs to be in the foreground.

Is there a literacy for works-in-progress? At first it sounds redundant, because most, if not all, of the digital humanities projects online are "in progress" -- so many, that the Spring 2009 issue of Digital Humanities Quarterly featured a cluster of articles on "completion and incompletion in the digital humanities." Sometimes, this is the result of the creators' particular position on editing (for me, Morris Eaves' introduction of the term x-editing will always spring to mind first, but it's not the only strategy of its kind). And part of the point of electronic productions was that they were more flexible than their printed counterparts. I'm using "production" rather than "edition" because this applies whether what's being produced is a scholarly edition or an essay, or a project like the Keyword Collaboratory for the volume Keywords in American Cultural Studies. From another standpoint, all digital productions must be forever works-in-progress because they continually require funding and maintenance.

In short, we're already evaluating works-in-progress, all the time. Why say that reading them requires a new literacy?

First, because the ways that digital productions are dramatically different from print productions includes the fact that printed books are nearly always finished, Hyperion and Edwin Drood not withstanding. In discussions of authoritative sources vs. non-authoritative ones, like Rheingold's Crap Detection 101 or Clay Shirky's Speculative Post on the Idea of Algorithmic Authority, I see talk of good sources and bad sources (and often, discussion of single-author or small-author-group vs. crowdsourced sources), but not consideration of finished and unfinished productions. Can a clearly unfinished site contain authoritative (and unique to it) statements; or can it be presenting valuable ideas while obviously incomplete? Do we have ways of teaching students to evaluate authority on sites that are clear works-in-progress (an evaluation that is surely more complex than identifying the site owner, or being aware of the implications of a .com vs. a .org or .edu domain name).

I recognize that it's easy to be suspicious of clearly unfinished productions because ambition is free, and often, so is registering a blog name or putting up an index.html page on a university website. In a course I took a couple of years ago on hypertext and digital editions, a classmate pointed us to a Swarthmore edition of Tristram Shandy -- or at least, the first two volumes of it. I have no doubt that there are similar projects in existence, whether left incomplete at the close of a class, or because the creator's attention was drawn elsewhere. However, other productions are incomplete because they are in early stages. (Full disclosure: I have one such production.) Clearly there are ways of evaluating these early stage works-in-progress, because they are the recipients of grants that help advance them. But the type of evaluation done in grant giving is usually done by the most authoritative experts available. It's not quite the same as a literacy for reading works in progress that a majority of participants in a field would be conversant in.

Secondly, one of the primary goals of literacy is to promote composition (or production, if you prefer a term that is not quite so verbal). Or, even more broadly, response. What format that response takes is uncertain: a blog post, a contribution (to an exhibit-based production supported by Omeka), or in some cases, a purchase. It's fair to say that the mix of litcrit and technological skills that are involved in digital humanities makes this a challenging issue, and I have listened to those who have substantial skills in one area complaining about those who lack them (and who are usually experts in the other area.) The danger is that these conflicts tend to move immediately into evaluating end-products with little or no consideration of the literacies from which they developed. And by literacies, I'm referring to several mentioned in Cathy Davidson's post: participation, design, narrative/storytelling, among others. Several of these could also be called "standards" -- or as Mark Sample suggests in comments, "practices." But Sample's suggestion gets at a subtle but important aspect of learning: literacies, as they are gained, become practices. Standards. Techniques. But they start as something different. Nor are they entirely encompassed by any single programming language, or indeed even a group of programming languages and tools.

What I see most when I'm talking bout any mixing of technology and humanities with people who are new to DH is the assumption that they are barred from participating because they don't know any HTML (or XML) (and feel they have no aptitude for programming); or that if they could afford to hand off their research to someone with tech skills, their work could be "digitized" within a matter of weeks or months. Anyone who's started building a new tool or a new project knows that this isn't the case -- that there are decisions to be made that don't fit neatly into either programming skills or lit-crit acumen. But it's difficult to teach this sort of understanding by showing users around a fully-developed or well-advanced website.

I'm resisting writing more about this today, when it's a topic that warrants more than one blogpost. There are other reasons for thinking about a literacy for works-in-progress that are more based in constraints, such as a lack of funding necessitating that the production be developed in small parts, or a lack of time. The second is an issue that's particularly relevant to graduate students and to professors on the way to tenure, since the value of digital productions as compared with monographs and essays is still in debate. For now, I'll end on a question: how do we assess the potential of a resource as it's being developed? How do people with different levels of experience assess a project differently? And, if Matt Kirschenbaum asks "How do we know when we're done?," then I'm asking "How do we know when we've started?"

Monday, February 15, 2010

risotto alla inglese

I bought myself some cheese for Valentine's Day. I already had chocolate, c/o these cookies, which I'd made for Saturday night's party. And strictly speaking, I think I prefer cheese to chocolate.

My cheese budget is not large, but the local upscale market had a Cotswold cheese on sale, and in small enough knobs that I could feel economical and hedonistic both at the same time. I've never had Cotswold before, but it was lovely on crackers, and with tangy Braeburn apples.

Still, tonight I planned on a risotto using the shitake mushrooms in this week's farm box, and I wasn't originally thinking about cheese. But when I realized I'd forgotten to buy herbs, I thought immediately of the Cotswold, of which there was about 1/3 c. left, and which had the sort of crumbly, creamy texture that made me suspect it would work quite well.

And indeed, it did.

So, in case you've never cooked a risotto:

1. chop up an onion, and toss it in a pan over low-medium heat with some olive oil.
2. While it's cooking (stir it a bit), chop up your mushrooms, and three big cloves of garlic.
3. When the onion is getting translucent, throw in the mushrooms and garlic, and stir them around a bit.
4. Take another pot, set it on low, and pour in 1 qt of chicken broth, just so it'll be warm as you add it.
5. After the mushrooms have started to cook, but don't yet have that limp fully-cooked look yet, throw in about 1 to 1 1/4 cups arborio rice. Even though the pan seems dry, just stir them around in what little juices remain for 1-2 minutes.
6. If you've got it, pour in about 1/2 cup white wine, stir for a couple minutes while it's absorbed.
7. Now all the complexity is over. At this point, just ladle in a bit of broth, and stir while it's being absorbed. Repeat ad infinitum till your rice is nice and swollen, and your broth is gone.
8. Just after you add the last bit of broth, dump in your crumbled Cotswold cheese. Stir, so it'll have time to melt. It melts beautifully. Add some pepper, or oregano, or whatever floats your boat at this point.

And congrats, you're done! The finished risotto should be just slightly soupy. But not especially. Top it with a pinch of parmesan if you like, but it doesn't really need it.

Not all cheddar cheese melts well -- but Cotswold certainly does. And I suspect that this would also work beautifully with a cauliflower risotto, using a recipe much like Jamie Oliver's right here. Or this one, if you're looking for a veggie option.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The myth of sincerity and the life of the mind

After Friday's Finishing the Dissertation meeting, I came home to Amanda's response to Thomas Hart Benton's (aka William Pannapacker) Chronicle essay, "The Big Lie about the Life of the Mind." Besides agreeing with what she says about smart, bookish kids growing up to imagine that there's only one real career for smart, bookish adults, I'd like to add that academia is often also positioned as a sort of peaceful, utopian place where you have colleagues who share your enthusiasm, instead of co-workers with whom you compete.

This is nonsense, as the story from Friday's meeting about the people trumpeting their brilliant dissertation experience should suggest. My experience so far is that though it's not impossible to have close friends who work in the same period as you, it's a little less likely, especially during the dissertation and jobmarket process. Nor are they the only people with whom you feel pressured to compare yourself. At a party I was at last night, I heard a classmate, a couple years behind me in the program, lamenting the fact that all the other people in her cohort seemed to be doing their written exams this quarter (this weekend, in fact!), when she wasn't doing hers until the spring. Inevitably, I've wondered whether something was wrong with me for similar reasons. The national average time that it takes to complete a dissertation in English (according to the grad program director, as of Friday's meeting), is 7.8 years. Our program's average is 7.2 -- but I have two friends who are likely to finish around the 6 year mark. It's hard not to think about that.

Pannapacker writes that graduate school in the humanities works to make its students believe that it is "shameful to abandon 'the life of the mind.'" It also socializes them to believe not just that academia is a meritocracy, but that it's the only fair meritocracy in existence.

In non-academic jobs, you have co-workers. In academia, you have colleagues. Collegialism. I was well-aware of the fact that there were some long-standing disagreements being played out in essays, monographs, reviews, and speaking engagements, my impression was that in general, academia offered a fundamentally different community experience from that offered in careers such as banking, law, or real estate. And by fundamentally different I'm not referring to what is being produced: monographs and essays vs. contracts and legal documents; or book prospectuses vs. muni bond prospectuses.

What I mean is the sincerity involved in one's profession. Academia fairly glowed with authenticity; while the aura of non-academic professions reeked with the idea of faking it; of only being in it for the money; of cutting corners whenever possible. Not only did my concept of the non-academic professional world suggest that people were constantly involved in petty competitions over things that didn't matter -- I also had the idea that no one would hesitate to cheat if it meant that they could win.

In my defense, this wasn't just a completely false imaginative conception of the business world, but part of the reality that I saw in working at three different brokerage houses. Part of it. Because there was also plenty of collegiality and generosity as well. It's harder to cut corners in academia the way that they can be cut in other workplaces. Systems like peer review do help to maintain fairness -- in terms of publications. But of course, publication is only one aspect of many in the academic career.

But this post isn't about whether academia is more or less fair than business, law, or real estate. Or any other career category you'd care to name. It's about the myth that the life of the mind is a guarantee of sincerity -- that you will always be able to feel genuine as you work.

For me, there have been countless hours where I felt as though I was faking it to save my arse. Mostly, I've found that they're just part of the process of realizing that I had found something important, and simply didn't know how to fit it into the context of what had already been established. Sometimes, not. Sometimes, as one of my mentors says, "an odd fact is just odd" -- i.e., more odd than meaningful or useful to an argument.

There's a whole other discussion that could, and should, take place -- about the life of the mind in relation to subjects that don't fit into the sphere of "traditional" humanities. In terms of the myths of academia that are often recounted to prospective humanities graduate students, we need to revise them to reflect two points:

1. The life of the mind, in academia, is not separate from competition. It is characterized by it.
2. The activity of the life of the mind may involve strenuous and stimulating intellectual work. It also involves stumbling around in the dark, and is accompanied by the suspicion that you might just be creating needless bullshit.

On another blog, now taken down, I wrote that "the thing you're best at doing in life is the thing that you're also worst at doing." If you add up the mistakes you've made in whatever discipline you've devoted yourself to be it cooking or paleography, and compare the number with the mistakes you've made in any other hobby you pursue, the number you've made in your career will be higher. And that's healthy. Often, it's the mark of a good career.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

No, really, I refuse to lose track of this blog.

I miss it. And I'm more able than I've been in ages to think to myself as I walk along, "I should blog that." This tells me that I continue to recover from all the complications caused by celiac disease.

When I last posted here, I was thinking about the iPad. Since then, there's been the start (though not the end) of the Amazon/Macmillan pricing conflict; and the announcement that the British Library will be making a bunch of 19th century novels available for free download to Kindle users. I have more to say on this, but it'll have to wait.

Since that post, I have mostly been plunging forward into the dissertation, which feels a lot easier, now that I'm not dealing with celiac-induced mental fogginess. I'm very pleased, but hesitant to jinx my progress by saying too much about it here. Today I was at a meeting for Ph.C.s where four recently minted Ph.D.s were discussing the process of finishing a dissertation, and one of them identified a particular hurdle: people who went around trumpeting how great their process was*, largely to make themselves feel okay about it when in reality, they were feeling like shit about the whole thing.

I would just like to say that so far, my experience of writing a dissertation has been completely horrendous, and thoroughly wonderful. Usually, it has been both those things at the very same time.

* Now, today's meeting seemed to take a fairly dim stance on writing about diss progress at all, which I think is too extreme. But that's another post.