Monday, August 8, 2011

Review: Texas Gothic, by Rosemary Clement-Moore

I snatched this up after The Book Smugglers alerted me to the fact that it was like a cross between Nancy Drew and Scooby-Doo. Texas Gothic sounded perfect for Friday night reading, in between helping guests at the historic building where I work as a history docent. While I love the serious and thoughtful portrayals of real-life issues that YA authors provide, sometimes, I just want to read about colorful characters bumbling around and getting knocked on the head.

Don't get me wrong -- I'm not saying that either Amy Goodnight, or her sister Phin, are incompetent -- they're very competent in their own areas of specialization. Phin is an amateur paranormal scientist; Amy, who's the featured protagonist, is learning that her area of specialization is holding things together. But they're also very realistic college-age characters, rushing from one thing to another, thinking ahead, but not quite thinking of everything.

Nancy Drew and Scooby-Doo are entertaining in part because they're ensemble works, full of characters who each have their own foibles, and Clement-Moore excels at creating a similar ensemble here, made up of the Goodnight family, their neighbors, and a group of archaeology grad students. Everyone is briefly and concisely sketched out; they're distinctive enough that there's no chance of mixing them up; and their quirks are what advance the plot. It's very smooth.

My one criticism is that it was far too easy to tell exactly who one of the eventual villains would be, and the other one was only half-surprising: I knew that s/he would be a member of a particular group, and s/he was. That said, I would be utterly delighted to see more novels featuring the other members of the Goodnight family, or in which we learn more about Amy, as she develops her understanding of what it means to be the one that holds it all together.

Oh, and +10 for the reference to The Mystery of Udolpho.

Read if: you like wisecracks about Nancy Drew, you enjoy books that want to alternate between suspenseful and wacky, and you like reading about hijinks more than disturbing suspense.

Avoid if: you're looking for creep-factor more than fun, you want a really challenging mystery, or if you're looking for a story that digs deeply into magic, rather than just a pair of kids solving mysteries who happen to be magical.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Thoughts on HP 7.2 (minor spoilers)

I remember vividly that I found the very first film rigid and dull, and joked afterwards that it would have been much more entertaining had I been gently buzzed on Oban. When did I start to like the films? I certainly thought that HP2 was an improvement. Nos. 1 and 4 remain my least favorite. Having seen the final film, I would like to go back and watch all the others in a row.

I can't sort out at all how much my reaction to the final film is based on the film itself, and how much based on having watched a large group of children grow up, and then to see them fighting for their lives. (of course, not really fighting for their lives; but it's as Dumbledore says: "of course it's happening in your head-- that doesn't make it any less real" -- and that's certainly true of watching Harry, Ron, Hermione, Neville, Fred, George, and Ginny-- and Luna, too.

Things that made me tear up: exit, on dragonback (and the dragon's quiet cry of relief? Joy?), and the sight of Thames-threaded London. Professor McGonigal readying Hogwarts; Snape; and Neville. and Fred and George. It's unusual for a film to provoke that sort of response in me.

I wished that it had been longer-- or no, perhaps that's not right , because I thought it well cut. I suppose I mean that I wish I had watched the first part directly before the second part. I was hoping that theaters would do a double feature, showing part 1 at 9p.m. and part 2 at midnight. Though I've never been a midnight showing person, that would have gotten me into the theatre.

I was delighted with Neville Longbottom's featured moment in the spotlight, though it made me sad that his status, as explained in the books, did not make it into the films.

The Snape/Dumbledore confrontation was wonderful. Was it just me, or was the edit of Dumbledore amplified so that he was an even darker figure than he had been in the books? Speaking of which, Harold Bloom and A.S. Byatt can kvetch all they like: I used to half agree with them, but the developments and revelations surrounding Dumbledore and his relationship with Harry, and Grindelwald elevate the series into a far more adult storyline. Though Rowling handles the dark complexity more subtly than the YA authors who were mentioned in last month's Wall Street Journal scrimmage, she's dealing with equally difficult, and important, territory.

Scattered questions and observations:

And was there a rather unexpected development in Neville's feelings for another character? I had thought that Rowling established something else as canon, but I was delighted by the line, if I heard it correctly.

It's a little strange watching a film where characters can and are dying, when at the same time I'm watching Torchwood: Miracle Day, which is about a world in which people stop dying.

And speaking of not dying, I've been thinking all afternoon about Hermione's decision to simply leave her family-of-origin behind. I don't want to complain that it's under explored, exactly-- on the contrary, Hermione is the character with whom I can most easily identify, and her relationship with her family is part of that. I do think, however, that in a series that is ALL about family, that her actions go strangely unremarked upon. But perhaps the HP academic essayists have discussed it, and I simply haven't found the essay?

All in all, I think I'm looking forward to Pottermore...perhaps more than I was earlier.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Sunday, June 26, 2011

DRSI, Day 1 Thoughts and Questions

I'm very lucky to be a Fellow in the UW Simpson Center for the Humanities Digital Research Summer Institute, led by my recently graduated colleague from the English Department, Jentery Sayers. The other Fellows are from a range of different fields: genetics, social work, anthropology, comp lit, women's studies, and musicology.

The DRSI is a pilot program, so what each of us will take away from it is uncertain (though I have no doubt that it'll be useful). One of the points that came up in that first meeting is that reflective writing and documenting process is valuable -- not a new insight, but it's good for me to be reminded of it.

There are a few useful questions that I thought were raised just in the first session, and that I want to hang onto.

Neena's Sindhi Voices Project is working to provide an archive for narratives from Sindhi elders (defined as "individuals that, after the 1947 partition of India, left Sindh, stayed in Sindh, migrated from India into Sindh, and those that received emigrant Sindhis"), and a field kit, available in multiple languages, to help people gather those stories. The archive is ubiquitous in literary and historical studies, so I was thinking of the project as an archive, but on reflection, 24 hours later, I think I'm wrong to do that -- the field kit, and other materials like it, that the SVP produces, are central, rather than just being apparatuses that allow the archive to be created. I say this thinking of Neena's comment that one of the responses to the project is excitement from young women who have helped gather stories, because the project is helping them gain primary experience in what journalism is. However, as she herself acknowledged, one of the challenges of the SVP is finding a way to bring the stories to the elders themselves, and that will probably involve something like a traveling exhibit, or other hybrid version.

The question that this raises, for me, is how does the digital facilitate and support the nondigital?

Mary's Georgian in Seattle website is also what I think of as a community cultural site, bringing together stories, and eventually film and music. Its title ties it directly to the population in Seattle, while its eventual goal (if I understand correctly) is to present Georgian culture that informs users both about what Georgia is, and its conflict with Russia. Listening to Mary speak, I was struck by her emphasis on how many people assume that Georgian means "a subset of Russian" (-- in fact I made the same sort of careless mistake in thinking that Velimir Khlebnikov was Georgian because he'd been associated with the Futurist movement in Tbilisi). In one sense, then, the website is meant to be a repository of art that might help outsiders get a clearer sense of what it means to be Georgian. Emphasizing both Seattle and Georgia prompts me to think about the relationship between the local and the global, because the local will never go away, at least; I doubt it will in my lifetime. Can a local area become a satellite of advocacy/culture for a different local area, or for a place to which it's only connected through the technology of globalization? In regards to Mary's website, this is a geopolitical question; however, it has ramifications for the development of digital humanities resources, specifically digital humanities centers, as the landscape of academia shifts towards distance learning.

The other thing I heard, however, was how small the Georgian community in Seattle is: everyone knows everyone. And what I hear in her presentation, and see in her website, is the importance of creating a digital homestead, and I hear in that the echo of the excitement of Geocities neighborhoods, back in the late 90's. Her site, I think, will have a different meaning (and serve a different purpose) for those people who produce it, than for those who read it. When we evaluate the worth of a site, we need to look at its value for both producers and users. Sometimes those will be the same group of people -- but not always.

I'm still thinking about this, because near the end of the day, we were reading Sharon Daniel's narrative of her Public Secrets project in her article "Hybrid Practices," which appeared in Cinema Journal 48.2, as part of a thematic section on digital scholarship and pedagogy. In the article, Daniels writes that "the women who have participated in Public Secrets are highly politicized and are seriously committed to this endeavor. They are quite literally historians and theorists who speak out in an effort of collective resistance" (157). I reacted poorly to that statement, because Daniel was defining historian as someone who had undergone a particular experience, rather than someone who had completed a specific program of formal studies. It's the problem of evaluating the authority of primary vs. secondary sources -- and it's not a new problem to be sure, but it feels perilous when I think about it in terms of digital humanities projects, because the goal of so many technologies is to create the illusion of unmediated, raw, data. The intro to Public Secrets, in which Daniel provides the context for the project, is accompanied by a button in the lower righthand corner of the screen, inviting users to "skip sequence," as though the "real" substance of the project.

And the voices of the women who contributed are the substance of the project -- and they are historians and theorists, and anyone who says otherwise, including me, probably needs to check their privilege. I'm still struck, though, by Daniel's self identification as a "context provider" (her phrase), when the most overtly visible sign of her contextualizing is something that people are invited to skip. Every aspect of the site is part of the context that Daniel is providing, of course -- but it's a graphical context, and easy to dismiss as presentation, rather than as part of the research.

On the one hand, this reminds me of scholarly editions whose editors have attempted to minimize, or erase entirely, their editorial presence, as though they made no decisions, and came as close as possible to traveling back in time to bring you the original texts. I find these efforts disingenuous, even when having a seemingly pristine edition seems useful: the Editor(s) made decisions in producing it; and chances are, the Editor(s) got the privilege of making those decisions by exerting their authority and knowledge in overt ways, i.e., by demonstrating their comprehensive scholarship regarding the author and text.

No one has said, "oh, digital humanities is all about producing primary sources and getting rid of those nasty pedantic scholars," at least, not to my knowledge -- but in thinking about Public Secrets, and how Daniel herself presents it, I realize that it needs to be. (ETA: Or rather, I'm acutely aware that it makes me feel highly vulnerable as a young academic to describe myself as a context provider, in terms of how people might interpret that role, and its connection to the years I've spent in a formal uni program. And I'd like to feel less vulnerable, or figure out why I'm feeling vulnerable and what I can do about it.) Digital humanities methodologies are attractive because they facilitate making primary sources accessible -- but how do these same methodologies affect our standards for good secondary criticism?

This last question is probably the one that has the most relevance for my own project (link coming soon!), which involves specific mentions of prices in a wide range of different types of documents: partially, because my project, like so many, can give the illusion of magically summoning prices together, untouched, from their source texts, for users to compare -- and also, because the project develops directly from an argument that I'm making about the grounds for literary economic criticism. However, I think that needs to be its own post. Suffice it to say, DRSI is going to be a really interesting workshop, and I think I'll get a lot out of it.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Magic gadget: a review of the iPad 2 after one week of using it.

As soon as rumors started buzzing about the iPad, before it even had a name, I started thinking about how well it would work for me to be able to type on a tablet. The iPhone wasn't awful for typing, but it wasn't great, and I was sure that years of playing piano would make it easy for me to adapt to the shape of the onscreen keyboard of a tablet, if only the whole thing were larger than 3x5.

But I didn't buy one when they first came out, because my iPhone was still under contract, and what I really wanted was a device that would allow me to videochat with people. When the iPhone 4 came out, I was excited, but only in the hope that it meant that future iPads would have videochat capability.

I wanted three things:
1) the ability to be online without being dependent on wifi
2) videochat
3) a device that would allow me to do this without a contract, and without having to pay a monthly cellular minutes plan.

Even when the iPad 2 was announced, and it sounded perfect, I didn't line up the first day to get one (though I wish now that I had). I did line up at my local Apple Store a couple of times, always thwarted; and almost ordered from the website, despite having heard stories of horrendous wait times. In the end, my university bookstore, which had my name on a waitlist, called me to say that they finally had received a few internationally-compatible 3G models, and did I still want one? I did indeed.

I wavered between choosing capacity, ending up with a 32gig model. I might have gone for a 64, but it turned out that none of those had come in. I could have kept waiting -- but my 3.5 year old iPhone has been more and more glitchy; and since I use my connection both for facilitating transportation, and for checking food ingredients to deal with celiac disease, I didn't want to wait any longer.

As of this morning, I've had the iPad for exactly one week. Here's what I love, so far:

Working with PDFs: Since I'm an 18th/19th century lit/history scholar, I spend a great deal of time in Gale's Eighteenth Century Collections Online. While ECCO makes accessibility so much easier than, well, having to travel to libraries and archives, its interface is a little cumbersome: you have to click one place to turn the page, click in a separate table to scroll through the page, click another button to turn the page again...and you can't actually mark up the document. If you download it (if your school has a license for such things, as mine does), then if you have Acrobat Reader Professional, then life gets easier -- you can OCR the book, and highlight, and annotate to your heart's content -- except that Acrobat isn't really made for the landscape screen, and if you get near the bottom of one page, and click in the wrong place, then suddenly you've switched to the next page without knowing it, and .... well, it's frustrating.

Enter iAnnotate for the iPad, which automatically OCRs documents, and has a better, less buggy and more intuitive set of controls for marking them up. The pages glide by easily and smoothly, no jumping around. Working with an ECCO document on the iPad is the closest that I've come to reproducing the experience of looking at it in the BL without actually being there. NB: of course, the iPad can't replace that, nor should it -- there's a wealth of data that's only possible to access via the actual, physical copy. But it feels amazing to me that I can enhance the online experience of working with a document by viewing it in a way that feels closer to turning pages, and even reproducing the posture and angles of reading a physical book. I'm a great fan of muscle memory as a significant part of the reading experience.

ETA: Actually, iAnnotate can only enable underlining/highlighting/search functions if you've already OCR'd an ECCO document previously -- so you still need Acrobat Pro. For me, this is a tiny extra step that doesn't bother me in the least; not when I can have all six volumes of Dodsley's Poems By Several Hands in a format that permits markup.

I also have been using iAnnotate to comment on student papers; highlighting, underlining, commenting, and occasionally marking up sentences (rarely a priority for me). I can save a document, and send it back to the student -- in fact, iAnnotate and the iPad streamline this for me, because there's a button in the app that I can use to pull up an email, that has the document already attached. I'm using Dropbox, which I haven't used before, and it's made it easy for me to access essays that I commented on using my laptop, too. This last week, both my classes had student conferences. On the first day of those conferences, I brought my laptop, not having been entirely confident that I had access to everything I needed and that I'd configured everything properly. I didn't need it. And the rest of the week, I didn't bring it.*

Typing: I thought I might need to buy one of the separate keyboards and docking systems. I don't. In landscape orientation, there's not that much difference between typing on a full-sized keyboard -- or at least, I don't feel that much difference. Adapting was easy, and by my second day of working with the iPad, I wrote several students responding to paper proposals using it, without a noticeable delay in work speed. It's wonderful how much easier it is for me to type on an iPad than on a netbook like the Acer Eee PC. And of course, I'm not having to deal with the buggy mouse controls, either.

This is enough to say for now, though I'll post more as I use the iPad more. My only other significant first impression is that because the iPad has better functionality for me in terms of typing and annotating PDFs, I'm far more likely to use it for those things when I'm in transit, whereas with the iPhone, I was more likely to surf the web out of boredom or habit. I actually marked up two papers yesterday on my busride downtown! It was great!

*: The inCase backpack I've had for the last 4 or 5 years has been excellent: it's protected my laptop, and has lots of room for carrying other stuff. The problem is that I tend to fill it up; and my laptop already ways about 6.5 pounds. Last summer, the S.E.L. couldn't believe how much I hauled around with me on a daily basis. He tried to talk me into a wheelie-bag, but I didn't ever find one that met my requirements. And if I carry my laptop, I inevitably find that I fill up the rest of the backpack, too. One of the wonderful things about having the iPad is that because it's smaller, I don't bring the backpack -- and I don't fill it up. And it's wonderful being less tired from hauling it around. Strictly speaking, this is a behavior issue as much as it is a hardware issue: I *could* just decide not to carry around so many books. But it's an advantage, all the same.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Review: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In a Ship of Her Own Making, by Catherynne M. Valente

I really wish I'd had more time for blogging lately, but between my own class, and taking on a friend's class for the rest of the quarter, as she has a gorgeous new baby -- well, time is a precious commodity. I hope to be blogging more soon; and I do have a couple more reviews to get out this week.

One thing I'm pleased about: I've learned that I'm more productive when I take time for pleasure reading throughout the quarter, rather than as a vacation. Learning that meant that I read Catherynne M. Valente's The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In a Ship of Her Own Making two weeks ago, when it was briefly offered as a free download from the publisher's website. Last week, I rushed out in the middle of a very busy Wednesday, just so that I could buy it in print.

I'm already reading it through a second time. Some day, I need to post about that: how my new reading behavior involves reading the same books several times in succession. I'm not sure why, though stress and lack of time probably has something to do with it.

I haven't read any of Valente's novels before, though Palimpsest is on my to-read list, and will be bumped up now; and I even have a copy from my Hugo Voter's Packet conveniently available. What I loved about Fairyland; what made me want to take the book to bed with me for reasons entirely separate from the marvelous portrayal of feminine ingenuity and strength, was how much it reminded me of the Oz books, both those by L. Frank Baum and by Ruth Plumly Thomson. I haven't had a chance to read about Valente's own history with the Oz books; but Fairyland is clearly a descendant of them: you travel there by wind, you must pass through a perilous sea (instead of a deadly desert), and there is an established society, with a ruling monarch. But it wasn't those things that made me seek out every Oz book I could lay my hands on when I was growing up: it was the delightful weirdness of them, and the Ozian inhabitants. As soon as Dorothy, or Betsy Bobbin, or Trot, or whomever sets out to explore, for whatever reason, they're sure to encounter people who are paper dolls, or sentient rabbits, or living pastries; or whatever else the author could dream up. I wish I had time to write about the oddity of the politics in Oz: I don't tonight. I can barely articulate what it is that made me love the series so much, except that I found it absolutely believable, as a child, that all these strange kingdoms would exist, and give rise to the political squabbling that more often than not, drives the main plots of the novels.

Valente reinvents and reinvigorates that same odd and whimsical imaginative voice in this novel, and to better effect than Baum or Thomson. As I've read the columns by Mari Ness on the Oz books, over at; I've been rather dismayed to realize what I was reading. Ozma, for all that she started out in the series as a boy, and should have been the basis for a wonderfully queer existence, doesn't live up. Fairyland, however, lives up in spades.

There are lots of reasons for buying this book: because you like coming of age stories, stories about strong female characters; stories featuring creative interpretations of what dryads can be -- but for me, what dominated even beyond all those features was how much it felt like reading an Oz book -- but one that had been written for me, and for the 21st century today.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Teaching, and making mistakes, and learning from them

What I'm learning about teaching this quarter is how to work with a non-ideal situation, or rather, that engagement is something that you can't necessarily teach. It's really challenging; in fact, it feels, a lot of the time, like I'm failing. Not all of my five students come to class for each meeting. Two are in the habit of coming late. I've had classes where two have shown up, and where only one student has shown up. It's tricky to know how to adapt, on the day you'd planned to teach counterarguments and the use of textual evidence, when the four students who need the most help (based on their drafts) aren't there. I tend to teach using a library of handouts, which I upload to a course website after the class is done, but I've been a little reluctant to upload them the same way, lately, feeling that to do so just makes it easier for students to skip class.

This morning was a class group conference -- our first. I'd done a round of individual conferences with students previously, to give them a good framework. One student was absent because of a medical emergency; the other was simply absent, and had not bothered to upload a paper draft, to contact me, or respond to an email from his/her peer reviewer.

The conference went well anyway, but at the end, one of the students asked whether the others were still enrolled. I turned this, clumsily, I think, into a reminder about how writing is adaptive, and something we do in a group -- we work with the people we have -- but it was a hard question to answer.

I think that one of the benefits of this class is that it is demonstrating to the current students the importance of their participation: that the class really is a combination of their efforts and mine. It's demonstrating that the hard way, mind you, because there have been times where the energy is pretty flat. One student asked whether we could work on the papers for the linked lecture course. "We can," I replied, "but if we're going to do that, then we need to have more regular and timely attendance." To their credit, they all looked embarrassed.

I'm still worried that I'm going to get slaughtered in evals. The most challenging part of this has been handling preparation: the 3 students who attend most regularly are reticent to contribute, and see the readings as largely irrelevant. Ideally, I'd like to teach a very adaptive tutorial course, but it's tricky to do so with very quiet class members. The alternative is preparing material according to what I think they ought to know, and need to work on. This is what I do -- and then I adapt as they ask questions -- but it still ends up a bit flat. I feel like I'm moving between responding to their questions, teaching them things that they need to know, and talking with them about the material in an attempt to help them find a way into it (while acknowledging to them that part of being a student, and a reader, is committing to find a way to make something interesting, even if it doesn't seem that way.

What am I learning? I am learning that I have a knee-jerk reaction of thinking that because there are fewer students, I should be able to teach them more effectively. That's not true: having fewer students makes the differences between their experience levels all the more stark.

I'm learning that I need to make sure I keep my explanations and examples of practices brief, and become more sensitive about when to stay the course with a difficult example, and when to change tactics.*

I am learning that I need to foreground working together, and that I don't have a pedagogy that effectively does this. I'm not totally flatfooted: I provide detailed instructions for peer review, examples of what to do and what not to do; I emphasize the importance of being specific, rather than general. What I don't have is an effective pedagogy (or any formal method at all) of teaching reading and engagement as vitally collaborative skills. My syllabi include language about how writing and academic discourse are both collaborative activities -- but crikey, it's hard to turn that into activities within the classroom: to find a rich and compelling set of reasons for why it matters to think about what you are contributing to a classroom, and how you're engaging with the other people in it.

I am learning that I have to set my own standards for success, and that these standards are somewhere between "I can tell I'm teaching successfully because I'm seeing improvements from students in these specific areas" and "I believe I'm being successful because I know that this is an important aspect of writing and reading, whether or not I manage to convince the students of this." This is the hardest part, in some ways, because it's so easy to think "they're not getting it! I must need to teach it differently!" and to feel despondent. I'll be honest: I'm feeling this plenty, because teaching such a small group feels very different: if I teach informally, it feels like I risk leaving out important stuff; if I teach formally, it feels like I'm teaching too impersonally, and failing to take advantage of the intimacy of the small group.

The classroom is a collaborative environment. I've always believed that, but I haven't understood it as I'm coming to understand it this quarter. I feel like I've made mistakes, but then, so have my students. We have 4.5 weeks left, in which they'll write 3 papers (two for their linked lecture course, one more for me). From that perspective (3 papers, instead of 4.5 weeks), we have a chance to do really productive work. I'm nervous, but I hope that articulating where I am now will help me use my classtime effectively; and perhaps even more importantly, will help me remain focused and thoughtful about my teaching, even when I'm working with students who are not as actively engaged as I would like.

* To some degree, I think this is my inner perfectionist telling me "be better, be smarter, be more perfect!" -- but I think that it's good for me to think about the value of brevity.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Review: Barbara Hambly's Those Who Hunt the Night

Several of Barbara Hambly's novels have been released in eBook format recently; and I didn't hesitate to offer to review a couple in exchange for a free copy. I haven't read any of Hambly's novels, but I've been hearing about them for years, so I was excited to have a reason to put them onto my official to-do list.

Those Who Hunt the Night is the story of Oxford don James Asher, a one-time player in the Great Game (can you ever really leave?); and the circumstances that lead to his being coerced to investigate a series of murders among the vampire population of London in 1907. I say coerced because Asher is no paranormal enthusiast; he has to be convinced by Don Simon Ysidro, the vampire who is certain that only a human can help -- and who does not scruple to threaten Asher's wife Lydia, in order to provide motivation.

Certain aspects of this novel are exactly what you would expect: Don Simon is elegant and arrogant; Asher is thoughtful and poised as befits a member of Oxford's New College; his wife Lydia is courageous and intelligent and beautiful.

But Barbara Hambly is not a lazy writer, and so she doesn't stop with what you would expect. I especially appreciated how much thought had gone into the complexity of vampire society, mores, and existence -- and how important the worldbuilding was to the central mystery itself. I have problems with authors who characterize all vampires as arrogant and predatory; problems, too, with authors who are content to characterize all vampires as old and world-weary just to dazzle readers with the prospect of a 926-year-old being whose perspective we can barely imagine. I have never thought as much about vampires, and what questions might arise from their existence as I did while reading Those Who Hunt the Night, and last night I went to bed shuddering at the scenario that had been presented.

Truly, I can't remember the last time I actually contemplated vampires as frightening, rather than dark/tortured/sexy.

I found James Asher, the chief protagonist, a little dull in comparison. He's very appealing in that he's intelligent and capable without being an alpha male, and that his affection, respect, and admiration for his wife Lydia are an important part of his characterization, rather than just trimmings. He has a backstory that I'd like to know more about (maybe it will be explored in the other two James Asher books?), but which doesn't surprise me. Hambly is careful, I think, to write him so as to be appealing, but to not make him so progressive as to be terribly anachronistic.

Lydia Asher is more interesting -- though really, she and her husband are both secondary to the details of the vampires. I didn't mind that at all, given that the vampire plot was so interesting. What we learn about Lydia is integral to the main mystery plot, and I had enough of an introduction to her to want me read about her in more books. She is somewhat myopic, and I was delighted that the novel takes into account the stigma against wearing spectacles in the early 20th century; also that her choice to study medicine (and the controversy that such a choice entails for a woman) is treated frankly, and without being overdramatized as a narrative of Enlightenment For Teh Wimminz.

In short, Those Who Hunt the Night is that rare phenomenon: a cracking great mystery which you can enjoy without having to bite your tongue at thoughtless writing, or social hierarchies that make you wince in displeasure.

And this is an especially great time for it to be reborn as an e-book -- it's the perfect story to read if you're playing Echo Bazaar -- in fact, as I was reading it, I thought that it could well have been part of the inspiration for Fallen London, since the atmospheres in the game and novel are wonderfully congenial.

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Classification Essay: what happened

This is one instance that makes me wish I had a larger class, just to have a greater range of students. On the first day, when I gave the assignment out, one student stopped afterwards to say how excited he was, that he'd read some Aristotle in a previous class, and had all sorts of ideas about what he might do. Then he dropped, but my sense was that his excitement was genuine. When I posted the assignment on Facebook, it got an energetic response from academic colleagues, but more than that -- it seemed like wherever I went that week, other friends outside of the academy said that they'd been thinking about it. In church on Sunday, the homily referenced sorting things, and one of the other choir members turned around and said that she'd been thinking about it all week.

I think I explained in my previous post that this was an assignment that I gave with little accompanying prep, other than the detailed instructions and rubric. If I had paired it with readings, they'd have been from Weinberger's Everything is Miscellaneous, but I thought that if I gave the students a run-through of the various systems of classification, that it'd be enough to get them going. What I introduced were examples of binary classifications, materialist classifications, systems centered around a particular type of object (i.e., books -- so, Dewey Decimal and Library of Congress), and systems ranking a specific quality (biggest, best, scariest, etc.)

This assignment was intended to show me what they could do: I was not expecting perfect results. The students were aware of the fact that though I would fill out the rubric in determining what their formal grade might have been, that they would get full points for completing the homework. I wanted them to see how I approached grading.

I would call the results mixed. Rather than devise an original system of classification, the majority framed their essays around the question of what to take with them if their home was on fire. One student wrote about the system of organization dictated by a particular type of residence, and one classified only one particular set of objects -- the equivalent of baseball cards.
One thing I didn't ask them to address is functionality. If they were developing the system because the Singularity had occurred, or if constraints on space (because of flooding, population growth, etc.) had made it necessary for possessions to be uploaded to the web, could they devise a system that they could use to retrieve things? Would that have made the stakes of the classification system more clear? Maybe, but maybe not. No one in the class has much of a web presence, other than on Facebook, so sorting and tagging is pretty new to them.

Because I could respond with specific questions about the choices they'd made, and because there were motions and starts of useful insights and questions, I think the assignment was at least partially successful. One of my primary goals in assigning it was to learn something about the students' personalities and writing styles, and I also think it was effective in that regard.

However, I'm not sure that the assignment itself was especially useful as the students responded to the question. Classifying possessions according to the "what would you take out of a burning building?" question is the equivalent of coasting; and I specifically asked students to devise a system, rather than write about the one that they'd always used. The point (as I intended it) was for them to create a system, rather than simply describe a conventional question or sorting mechanism -- the idea being that arranging things differently would make them consider their property in a new light; and also think about organization and classification as activities that are part of everyday life -- not just part of academic essay writing.

Preliminary findings:
I think I gave out this assignment too soon, and fumbled it in wanting it both to be a personal essay, and an analytical one. Without doing at least a little more reading in the genre of political theory, the significance of classification -- and its relationship to politics -- doesn't come through. It's too foreign a question for students to answer in the way that I hoped they would. I should have started by asking students to write about what mine did write about: their stuff, and how they organize it (or don't) right now -- and then, I should have asked them to think about how to develop an original system of classification. I probably should also have streamlined the assignment sheet. In trying to make things clear, what I achieved was clutter.

That doesn't mean that the assignment can't work. At least, I don't think it does. I remain committed to the idea of an assignment that can be both personal and analytical. Two articles in Inside Higher Ed, by Dan Berrett and Barbara Fister only make me more certain that it's worth experimenting with this further. To summarize, (though both are worth reading in their entirety), Berrett describes the findings of the Citation Project: that students copy chunks of texts and use them in their papers without a solid understanding of the quotes' relation to their originary texts, or the underlying arguments and contexts. Fister looks at various findings discussed at the 4Cs conference, and the energy that she sees students bringing to writing outside of academic contexts -- in "everyday research" -- and argues that the way forward is to "abandon the traditional research paper," at least for students who are inexperienced with academic work.

What I'm doing next:
I think there's got to be a useful way of building on this assignment. It didn't work perfectly -- but despite that, my sense is that the students liked writing about their stuff, and what's important to them.

The question is, how do I turn the classification paper into an assignment that also helps my students engage with Locke, and Marx in detailed ways; and with the specific subject of political theory?

I'm not going to try to do this immediately, especially because I'm planning to hand out the second essay sequence on Thursday of this week, and I have a prompt question that, while fairly traditional, is a question that any student in political science, and especially in political theory, needs to consider.

I would like to make a revision and expansion of the classification essay my third essay sequence for the quarter, and in that sequence, I'd like to ask students to develop a system of classification for their possessions according to Locke's principles in the Second Treatise of Government or Marx & Engels' in the Communist Manifesto, and to explain their rationale for categories; and to describe how their classification alters the meaning of their property. I'd like to do this partly because both Locke and M&E are writing materialist arguments. This isn't just my view; it's also the way that the lecturer is presenting them. It makes sense to me to develop a way into them through property. It also makes sense to me to attempt to find a more personal, and more concrete, way of asking students to engage with Marx. I've taught the Manifesto before, so I know, that could backfire -- I think it might if I didn't emphasize personal and concrete.

I anticipate that completing this assignment will involve thinking about 1) what defines ownership, and different types of ownership, 2) objects that facilitate their participation in the political sphere, or public life, as opposed to private life, 3) objects for which the use is governed by law, or which is regulated or dependent upon higher powers (Comcast, Amazon, Apple), 4) objects that can be said to increase power, (depending on how power is defined), 5) objects which are both concrete, and abstract. These are what occur to me today, as I consider this.

I'm certainly thinking about the texts when I name those five areas of thought, but more than that, I'm thinking that this assignment would prompt students to determine what ideas and principles their chosen author prioritizes and why (in order to determine what their classification style should be); and how those priorities advance an argument (i.e., what are the results of organizing life according to these priorities). I'm also planning to encourage them to think about what sort of scheme of organization the authors themselves use; and what they're trying to represent by adapting that scheme. Most of all, I'm hoping to find ways to build bridges between the abstract and the concrete, and back again.

If you have questions or comments, or critiques regarding this assignment (both the original form, and what I'm planning to do next), I would not only welcome them, but would be grateful for them. So, most likely, will my students.

* But is this an artificiality that is a good part of academic work? Or is it pernicious navelgazing?

Thursday, April 7, 2011

In which I attempt to catch up, at least on blogging about teaching

I'm finally coming out of the most ghastly bronchitis bug that I've tangled with since my sophomore year of college. 16 days, and I'm still dealing with a lingering cough, altered voice, and an inability to function in polite company without Kleenex handy.

I've never been so ill at the start of a quarter, and so it's both a blessing and a curse that I've ended up teaching a writing course linked with a political theory course, and which has only 5 students in it. (The writing links were underenrolled, and my section was the earlier of the two offered, and the professor teaching the poli sci course emphasized how hard the writing load would be. I can't say I'm surprised that some students shied away from both his class and mine, since we both have separate essay assignments (even if they are oriented towards the same readings).

I planned a number of things for this quarter: perhaps most importantly, a course website, and the intention of having the students blog throughout the quarter. In the past, I've had them use Catalyst GoPost, and I'll say up front that I haven't been all that smart about how I used it -- both in terms of thinking about making it a mini-knowledge site; and in terms of creating useful and specific assignments for the students. Instead, I wanted them to respond to each lecture, and A) that's too much, and B) it's not effectively goal-oriented -- so it didn't succeed in creating a genuine conversation between my classroom and the lecture classroom.

This time, I used and added to several of the blog assignments linked to in this Profhacker post; and used a rubric. I've encouraged the students to use the blog in the way that helps them -- i.e., as a space to talk about the more formal writing assignments, and as a space to apply the political theory texts that they're reading to current events, or other situations as they see fit. The rubric still dictates that they have to display a high level of engagement with the text, but I'm hoping that the blog will give them the space to engage with Aristotle, Locke, etc., in multiple ways (which they are explicitly not encouraged to do in the formal essays for either the lecture course, or mine.

In my case (and I suspect in the POLS professor's, too, but I can't speak for him), it's not that those alternative methods of engaging with a text aren't valid, but just that the focus of the course is to have them practice a very specific style of essay writing that is widely demanded in academia, and in poli sci specifically. I explained that. Rather than have them write texts that were supposed to be about practicing academic writing, and which I would have to constantly nudge them back towards more focus and seriousness, I'd much rather say that the blog is a space where they have more freedom, and that their goal is to demonstrate a range of engagements with the course subject matter.

I'm doing everything I can to make the course website a good knowledge site as well -- posting answers to questions that I get asked each quarter; posting links to sites like Memidex and Natural Readers under a writing hacks tag. I only have two so far; I need more, but I think if I keep posting steadily, that part of the site will get better and better.

I've asked the students to tag their posts (in fact, I've made it a requirement for them to get credit). None of them had blogged before, so I wanted to avoid overloading them with new tech, but I did want the site to be a useful tool, in some way other than merely making it searchable. So far, it's working. The first week, only 3/5 students posted in time to get points, and I had to remind them all to tag their posts. This week, they all posted on time, and I didn't have to do any reminding about tagging.

But I don't like asking students to do random stuff, so I'm trying to make tagging and classification a major subtext of the class. That's where my personal property classification assignment comes in. To give credit where credit is due, it was inspired by a comment by Johanna Drucker, who said that she asks students to develop such a system in her classes -- but that was all she said, and I didn't get a chance to ask her more.

I wanted to develop it for use with political theory partly as an interesting personal essay (more interesting than the literary autobiography that I've used in the past with comp classes), and as an introduction to the idea that classification is an inherently political act (whether arbitrary, material, or any one of numerous binary organizations), and suggest that thinking about texts in terms of the authors' classification schemes is a useful way of making heavy content more clear, and breaking it into manageable chunks.

I also really wanted to have the students develop something that was their own thinking, but was not a traditional argument.

The essays have been turned in, and I'll look at them tomorrow, and report back in terms of what I've got. I think that classification is helpful in terms of reading texts, but it's a little hard to say. The Nicomachean Ethics are hard no matter what you do with them; and I think that it'll take a little while for classification as reading to catch on (and no doubt, I can learn to teach it more effectively) -- but I'm excited to keep working on that.

And today, Susan Brown, of the Orlando Project, visited and gave a wonderful, 2-hour demo of the textbase, and then, after less than an hour's break, another talk(!), and I probably don't need to tell you, but I will anyways, how exciting it was to read the scholarly introduction, and see the following statement, and feel like I'd made exactly the write choice in deciding to work on foregrounding classification in this course, and in future courses:

We observe simply that while the work of recovery made a broader literary history both newly possible and newly necessary, the unanswered criticisms of the genre contributed to the continued absence of integrating histories of women's writing, or of revised general histories that take women's writing into account.

But the Orlando Project, and why it's important to me, deserve a whole separate post, and I think I need to save it for later this weekend.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Using Twitter at #sts11, and at academic conferences in general

On the last day of the conference, Barbara Bordalejo was gleefully tweeting about showing Twitter to Paul Eggert and Peter Shillingsburg, and then Marta Werner, which is excellent — I wish I’d thought of showing them myself, because they’ve certainly all shown me amazing things, and it would be only courteous to return the favor. But I can still do that. This post, then, is written for an audience who haven’t used Twitter before (at all, or who use it, but not within a conference.) It’s long, but broken up into sections; read one, or all, as you like. I want to avoid asserting baldly that everyone should be on Twitter when they attend a conference. Different styles work best for different people. But if you're curious about it, then this post may be useful to you.

Tweeting to promote, and document
Tweeting to interact
Twitter can make conferences more professionally useful
Too big to tweet: Peter Shillingsburg’s Presidential Address
Twitter and conflict; or, Twitter isn’t enough — but sometimes, neither is spoken discussion.
Tweeting in a textual context
But can’t you get ADHD from Twitter?
What I don't know

Tweeting to promote and document

This was my first time tweeting at a formal conference (as opposed to at a THATCamp); which meant I had to figure out what I wanted to say. At the first session I attended on Wednesday afternoon, How to Do Things with NINES, there were only 3 people, including me, and tweeting wasn’t especially conducive to interacting fully with them; but I did send out a couple of messages describing what we were doing; knowing that people in the other sessions would be doing the same. And Typewright, which we ended up discussing as much or more as NINES itself, is worthy of more buzz: it’s a tool for crowdsourcing OCR correction in databases like ECCO, and one of the most exciting features of it is that once a user has corrected a full text, Gale will give him/her the rights to it. (My podcast scholarly edition, which I spoke about at MLA 2009, languishing in part precisely because of rights issues), should finally become a reality, once Typewright goes live).

On the chance that other people hadn’t heard about Typewright I wanted it to become part of the #sts11 tweetstream; and also briefly think, publicly, about how users might be credited/identified with their work. (The creators haven’t decided how the attribution system will work, and there are still issues with Typewright to be worked out — for example, what if some lines are partially corrected, but not fully? How will their status be recorded in the system? One of the lines we looked at had a word with an ink blot at the beginning, and as far as we could tell, it said “bish’d” — so though that line has been mostly fixed, it isn’t entirely legible.) Andy Stauffer is excited about the potential of using Typewright in the classroom, and so am I, but I’m also excited about it as a potential gateway drug for more intense work using digital tools. It’s simple enough that it should feel accessible to scholars who are leery of using a computer for anything more than word processing, it’s accompanied by definite rewards in the form of the textual rights (though I wonder how much people will be motivated to work on editions of Pamela and/or Clarissa.

I also want to know what happens once an edition has been corrected. Once someone’s claimed the first edition of Swift’s “The Lady’s Dressing Room,” by correcting it, will it no longer be possible for anyone else to do the same thing? What if I find that someone has corrected half of a pamphlet, and I finish up the other half? Do I have to make a distinct change in every line, or only click the button to show that I’ve reviewed it and it’s correct?

Enough about Typewright, for the moment — back to tweeting.

Tweeting to interact

In the panels themselves, I tweeted to describe content and approach (which seemed especially important in the more non-digitally oriented panels, to break down any assumptions that there was a straight-up divide between the digitalists and textualists. I tweeted to capture any single phrase, idea, or question, quoting it if possible, given space. And I tweeted to ask questions; sometimes questions that I planned to ask the panelist, but which seemed more widely applicable, and sometimes questions that someone else might answer.

I marked when someone said something that thrilled me, or that captured something of the reasons that I have been drawn to this work. Is this any different than complimenting someone less publicly, at the end of a panel, or when you encounter them in the hallway at a conference? No, not in one sense, if the person is on Twitter, and yes, in another, because in order to make that compliment public, I needed to at least attempt to articulate it in a form that would be coherent for others. I think of this sort of complimenting as akin to exchanges that I’ve heard offline among academics, where someone praises a book, or a scholar, and this is where I sound cynical, because sometimes the praise sounds like namedropping, and what I like about reading people’s tweets about something that impressed them is that I often get a much more particular than general, non-specific sense of “X is so great.”

I met people through interacting via Twitter whom I wouldn’t have met otherwise. And because I met them through Twitter, I’m more likely to be in touch with them in future months, rather than depending on remembering to email them (and trying to say something intelligent in said email).

Twitter can make conferences more professionally useful

Every time there’s a meeting at my university for dissertating (or about-to-be-dissertating Ph.C.s who are preparing for the job market, someone asks “should I go to conferences?” And without fail, the Placement Committee says, “no, probably not. Conferences aren’t really useful at that stage.” You may or may not end up at a panel at 8:30 a.m. on the first day, or at 4:00 p.m. on the last day; you may or may not have an opportunity to meet senior scholars. To be maximally successful at conferences (especially those labelled as “important,” which are usually large), especially as a graduate student, you need to be adept not only in producing intelligent content for your paper, but also at self-presentation. This includes the ability to be involved in cogent, concise conversation, and to respond with provocative questions. Neither of these are skills that are taught in graduate school in most humanities departments (excepting theatre); they’re part of what’s often thought of as natural talent or charisma, or an aspect of mentoring. Oh, and speaking of mentors, that’s something else you often need to succeed at an important conference: a senior scholar who knows you and gives you introductions, and credibility. And just to be in the right place at the right time, poised for an interaction with someone who is not rushing to another panel, or to meet someone else.

A digital forum that’s simultaneous with an academic conference (be it on Twitter, or changes that, because your interactions with other people, be they senior or junior, take place over a few days, rather than in 5 minutes, and more likely, when the people you’re interacting with have enough energy to be social.

Too big to tweet: Peter Shillingsburg’s Presidential Address

Sometimes it was easy to draw out single thoughts for repetition, but tweeting the STS banquet, and Peter Shillingsburg’s presidential address, was extraordinarily challenging, because the address was beautifully written, and bold and cogent, and yet most of Shillingsburg’s points would not have fit within 140 characters, and his words were so carefully chosen that I could not entirely feel comfortable trying to paraphrase him with shorter synonyms. I tried to condense occasionally, because I did think it important to amplify his voice to an outside audience, who might not encounter the speech when it is (I trust) published in the Textual Cultures journal. I think it will be an address that is remembered and studied in years going forward, but studying textual transmission has taught me just how much transmission (or transformission) and preservation is the work of many, rather than one, and it is precisely because of that learning that I found it important to tweet.

Yesterday morning, at 5 a.m., I encountered Peter in the hotel lobby, as we were both on the way to the airport, and as impressed as I was the night before, I was even more impressed because he was articulate enough at the arse-crack of dawn to say that he’d read the tweets attempting to capture some of his ideas. “Some of it seemed like transcription,” he said, “and some questions, and some misunderstandings.” I had acknowledged that it had been challenging to capture, though both Barbara Bordalejo and I had felt that it was important to do so. Peter said that he wasn’t sure whether he should get in and start clarifying, or let it be; and I didn’t have an immediate answer that I could give as I headed out the door to the shuttle. As I thought about it more, I’m inclined to say that while he could respond by joining Twitter, it’d be more effective for him to respond with a post on a website. He could even use Storify to do so. The primary purpose, though, of tweeting, was to accent the address as the finale of the conference, both to pique interest in it immediately, and later, when anyone searches the #sts11 tweetstream, and eventually, when it’s published in print. The secondary purpose, at least for me, was to think actively and respond, as I would in a classroom or in conversation; because I articulate differently when I am doing so publicly than privately*. I don’t think anyone reading the tweetstream would ever think to formally quote Peter via @paigecmorgan, @bordalejo, or others; the tweets serve more as constellations — navigational guides twinkling in the dark (but beware of will’o’wisps, which conceivably exist.) And I note that no one, including me, made purely descriptive statements, like: “Shillingsburg is discussing the intersection of bibliographical criticism and McKenzie’s sociology of texts, and the issues that arise for scholarly editors from their intersection.” It would have taken two tweets, but we could have — and chose not to. Why is that?

Twitter and conflict; or, Twitter isn’t enough — but sometimes, neither is spoken discussion.

There was a great moment in the end of the spatial technology roundtable on Thursday afternoon, when @samplereality tweeted “Data visualizations are a symptom of screen essentialism.” This comment might have stayed submerged in the backchannel if @mkirschenbaum hadn’t asked him about it directly during the question-and-answer/discussion section. And I’ve been thinking about the exchange ever since, and not just because it raised interesting questions for me about the approach of digital humanists vs. traditional textualists (about which I’ll say more later), but because I think it captured a certain richness of dialogue that’s only possible with both backchannel and spoken discussion. Sample’s statement was so compact that it sounded dismissive; whether to sound dismissive was his intention or not, I won’t speculate. But his point about the danger of uncritically accepting data visualizations is quite valid. If I recall correctly, he was on the point of leaving the room when Kirschenbaum called attention to his statement; but as a result, the panel, and the rest of the room, had a chance to respond to it.

I don’t know why Sample was only willing to issue his critique on backchannel, rather than vocally, but I also don’t know whether, if he had phrased it as a spoken question, the statement would have had the same compactness and weight that it did, which for me, helped to characterize the urgency of the critique. It would have been a different discussion if it had been conducted entirely audibly, not least because I think that it would have been much more challenging to articulate a potential problem with data visualizations while effectively managing vocal tone. When voiced, it sounded less barbed, because Matt Kirschenbaum was reading it, rather than Mark Sample saying it. If he'd spoken, rather than tweeted, we would have had a different version of the discussion — and I think I prefer the one that we had.

Tweeting in a textual context

I’m sure that someone before me has made the connection between Jerome McGann’s radial reading, as discussed in ch. 5 of The Textual Condition, and Twitter, even though I don’t see any blog posts on it in a preliminary search. For any non-lit-crit readers, radial reading, in McGann’s own words, “involves decoding one or more of the contexts that interpenetrate the scripted and physical text” (119), and it’s associated with intertextuality and allusion, which have long been foundational tools in academic writing, especially in the humanities. It’s the idea that no text exists in a vacuum, and that in many cases, authors intentionally direct readers to read other things.

To tweet at a conference, which often involves reading (albeit quickly), the tweets arriving in the hashtag stream, is to read radially. Is it to write radially, as well? Transcribing and summarizing isn’t what I’d originally conceived of as radial writing, but I think that’s because my preconception is that radial writing has to involve a more brilliant/exalted response than just repetition. Some radial writing does, obviously. However, I think to dismiss the value of transcribing and broadcasting through repetition or paraphrase is to uphold the bias towards solitary authorship (and implicitly, against collaboration) that’s been longstanding in the humanities. McGann acknowledges that radial reading is “the most advanced, the most difficult, and the most important form of reading because radial reading alone puts one in a position to respond actively to the text’s own (often secret) discursive acts” (122). Tweeting at a conference is advanced, not because it uses technology, but because it requires decision making about what to type, and how to type it (this should be familiar to writers everywhere), and that’s difficult to do. I haven’t heard any discussions about conferences as texts, and I’d bet that’s because the discursive acts that they represent often are secret, or rather, secreted — in electronic files, which may be forgotten, or may appear in journals and books months or years later, and may or may not be available at an affordable economic price, and may or may not be found by conference attendees.

From reading tweets, throughout the conference, I gained a sense, sometimes very specific, sometimes not, of what was going on in other panels. I didn’t always read these tweets as they were being sent; checking the hashtag was something to do at breaks, lunch, and in the evening. Sometimes I found it difficult to tweet and focus at the same time; but other times, the listen-and-transmit mode wasn’t an obstacle at all. I know that there are things that I missed; that tweets don’t adequately substitute for the experience of being at a panel. But I could hardly help but be appreciative of them. Some of the things that I’m thinking about as a result of the #sts11 twitterstream that I would otherwise have missed:

1) Platform studies, which I’d never heard of, via @mkirschenbaum: Editing is platform studies and platform studies is editing. This seems obvious in retrospect. #sts11

2) How location affects reading, via @samplereality: How can we talk about books without talking about where we are when we read them? The location and posture of our physical bodies. #STS11

3) via @KLeuner: martha nell smith: Is it a fantasy that texts are more dynamic in the digital world? #sts11

4) via @KLeuner: Marta Werner notices there are only women at Editing Digital Feminisms panel #sts11

5) After the discussion about data visualization started in the geospatial tech roundtable, I was wondering how crowdsourced data might affect the degree of trust we put into it. But I wondered if I was being silly to ask such a thing. @mattlaschneider encouraged me to do so, and also reminded me of Randall Munroe's crowdsourced color survey.

I haven’t seen very many statements trying to define what Twitter is for, in the context of a conference. Maybe that’s because no one wants to try and limit what micro-blogging can do — but here’s an alternative reason: it’s controversial to suggest that Twitter is useful because saying so calls attention to the weaknesses in current academic infrastructure and culture. By weaknesses, I mean not only the factors that have made conferences less productive in the past, but also economic constraints that I’ve heard referenced that make it less common to have teaching appointments funded by more than one department; and the often intense workload that non-tenured faculty members face. It calls attention to the common tendency to assume that only faculty and graduate students hoping to become faculty are scholars, while staff members aren’t.

In short, the discomfort surrounding Twitter, and the potential advantages of using it (whether using means actually tweeting, or just reading) are entangled with the social structure and customs of academia (and probably broader literary culture, as well.)

But can’t you get ADHD from Twitter?

The concerns I’ve seen raised most often about Twitter-use during conferences (and at other meetings, too, but for this post, I’m not addressing those other settings) is 1), that users who are tweeting aren’t listening to the talk, and 2), which follows that concern, that users who are tweeting are being disrespectful. The first is a little tricky, because users who are new to the platform will certainly find the multitasking of tweeting and listening challenging. Then again, when I’ve relied on writing notes at conferences, I’ve often heard the speaker say something that flashes in my mind, and sets off a whole chain of other ideas and questions. In those situations, I have to choose whether to try and write them down before I forget them, sacrificing my attention to the speaker; or keep focusing, and hope that I can remember what started the domino chain of ideas. In short, this multitasking problem has existed for as long as we’ve been taking notes, no matter in what format. Furthermore, short attention spans are hardly endemic only in tech use — if anything, the traditional conference format, with concurrent panels and minuscule breaks between sessions, does far more to promote brief encounters that are never followed-up on than a site like Twitter, where anyone who adds me as a result of what I said at #sts11 will keep seeing what I say (or drop me for posting too much about sci-fi and cats).

As for the idea that tweeting during a session is disrespectful, even when the tweets are positive — well, I haven’t heard that particular judgment from any of the textualists that I know, and I’m glad, because it would be just as easy for people to question the respect or disrespect arising from the work of producing critical apparati, and emphasizing the collaborative authorship of single works, or whole oeuvres. I’d stake a lot on Jack Stillinger’s Multiple Authorship and the Myth of Solitary Genius being unwelcome to at least a few of its subjects. I also think that the idea that tweeting during lecture is disrespectful is not a new conflict. Long before Twitter, I heard teachers expressing either perturbation that their students were frantically writing notes without looking up, or alternatively, that their students stared at them, and never wrote anything down. In that sense, Twitter really is just the pen and notepad in a different shape. **

It would be interesting to talk more about the ethics of radial reading on the internet, and our habits in doing so, because the choices that people have made in radial reading, and continue to make, have considerable force in arenas outside of academia. When I say this, I’m thinking about everything from radial reading habits as they effect our consumption of news (especially political content) to situations where people produce content both under their own name and under a pseudonym, and the controversies that arise therein.

What I still don’t know

I hardly think that this post is definitive on the subject of tweeting at academic conferences; so here are the things I don’t know:

1. Do you have to be participating as a Twitter-user in order to get the benefit of a conference stream? Does it work as well if you’re just reading? (As someone looking forward to reading the #asecs11 stream, I think that reading is valuable — but that’s partly because I can respond to the Twitterers if I choose to. Someone without an account can’t.

2. A question especially for people like Peter Shillingsburg, Paul Eggert, Marta Werner, and Martha Nell Smith, all of whom had remarks tweeted throughout the conference — but this goes for anyone whose work is talked about in Twitter, but doesn’t have an account. What does the discussion look like to you? And if you decide to respond, what format might you take?

ETA, a restatement of the above question from Kirstyn Leuner, which I think is more effective and direct at what I was trying to get at with question #2: Are all conferences and conference papers equally public? And is it *always* ok to tweet out conf papers, as convention?

3. Who do conference tweeters see as their audience? And what choices are they making in order to serve that audience? (Links, non-links, use of twitlonger, etc.

4. Is there a minimum number of people who need to use Twitter in order to make a conference twitterstream useful? How do we say when a stream is helpful and when not?

*This is not to say that one is better than the other; or that what is true for me is true for anyone else, but I find that when I am thinking privately, I tend to be documenting, and when thinking publicly, I tend more towards constructing. I wanted to be constructive at STS in general, and with the Presidential Address in particular, because I find I am often able to reach new heights when I do, in a way that I cannot always do in private.
** Also, though I’m saying so flippantly, I can’t help but think about what it would look like to compare the rudeness of tweeting during a panel with the rudeness of the printed matter created as a rivalry between Alexander Pope and Edmund Curll.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Book Review: Bumped, by Megan McCafferty

When a virus makes everyone over the age of eighteen infertile, would-be parents pay teen girls to conceive and give birth to their children, making teens the most prized members of society. Girls sport fake baby bumps and the school cafeteria stocks folic-acid-infused food.

Sixteen-year-old identical twins Melody and Harmony were separated at birth and have never met until the day Harmony shows up on Melody’s doorstep. Up to now, the twins have followed completely opposite paths. Melody has scored an enviable conception contract with a couple called the Jaydens. While they are searching for the perfect partner for Melody to bump with, she is fighting her attraction to her best friend, Zen, who is way too short for the job.

Harmony has spent her whole life in Goodside, a religious community, preparing to be a wife and mother. She believes her calling is to convince Melody that pregging for profit is a sin. But Harmony has secrets of her own that she is running from.

When Melody is finally matched with the world-famous, genetically flawless Jondoe, both girls’ lives are changed forever. A case of mistaken identity takes them on a journey neither could have ever imagined, one that makes Melody and Harmony realize they have so much more than just DNA in common.

From New York Times bestselling author Megan McCafferty comes a strikingly original look at friendship, love, and sisterhood—in a future that is eerily believable.

Apparently, the inspiration for this upcoming teen dystopia was the question "What if teenagers were the only people who could have babies?" It's an idea that has the potential to be gimmicky, but in a lot of ways, the book (first in a trilogy, I suspect) manages to dodge that bullet. It dodges it, or did for me, because McCafferty's Harmony is a pretty accurate portrayal of vociferous Christian adolescence, obsessed with using this life to prepare for the next one, and spouting an inner monologue that I believed. That makes this particular dystopia a bit different from other recent ones, like Matched, because the conflict between the two sisters' ideologies takes center stage, and the story is as much about the two struggling with each other as it is about each sister struggling with the larger societal rules and standards.

I found both Melody and Harmony believable, despite niggling annoyance with the need to saddle them with names that scream cliché -- at least the characters themselves explain that, and actually, now that I think about it, the names serve another purpose during the story. Melody is ambivalent about her position as a professional reproducer, but surrounded by friends who have different positions and views towards professional pregnancy, and McCafferty is thoughtful in her worldbuilding enough to allow the teenage mothers to take a number of different paths, most of which are acceptable, and don't lead to chilly, dystopian euthanasia, or anything like that. And the society does have certain rules that can't be broken, and when Melody's friend Malia breaks one of those laws, Melody's reaction to her is somewhere between sympathy and condemnation. It's painful to read this, but it feels true to the portrayal of someone who's been socialized to believe in a world working a particular way. Nor does the narrative linger too much on the melodrama of Malia's situation, and Melody's rejection of her.

Harmony is equally complex, ping-ponging between excitement and nervousness as she tries to keep track of her own intentions, which are by no means set in stone. There's one part of her character development that I was a little uncertain about, but it's something that confuses me when I see it in life, too -- so this just meant that I had to revisit that little pocket of mental controversy.

Since there are two female characters, there are two main male characters, both imperfect in different ways. I'm fairly certain, at the end of this volume, who's going to end up with whom, but I wasn't sure throughout, and I'm not 100% positive. Neither of the male characters is perfectly secure and knowledgeable; in other words, no danger of either becoming the enlightened source of knowledge to whom the poor, confused, stupid female characters have to run to.

I wish we'd seen more of the world outside the lives of the two protagonists. McCafferty makes the vocabulary of pregnancy part of the worldbuilding: terminate, fertilicious, barren -- all are ubiquitous in everyday conversation, with slightly tweaked meanings from their usage now (well, not fertilicious!). And we see how pregnancy affects the already complex social networks of teenage girls and boys, and how the Facebooking of the world has advanced further and further. But I did find myself wanting to know more. According to the book, the spread of the disease causing infertility by age 18 had become evident four years earlier. Having the culture of teen pregnancy develop so quickly seems a little fast, but that's partly because I don't know how else the world was different prior to the discovery. There's no mention at all of STDs, which I was willing to accept, and suspend disbelief for, but which strikes me as a bit handwavy. There's no mention of homosexuality, which seems like it ought to still exist.

As you can see, I'm not without quibbles. That said, was it a dystopia that made me think? Yes. Did it dodge stale gender characterizations? Absolutely. Am I curious about what will happen in future volumes? Without a doubt.

On a score of 1 to 10, this gets an 8. Bumped at Amazon.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Late Eclipses, by Seanan McGuire

When I learned that there was going to be a series about a changeling detective named October "Toby" Daye, I thought that it sounded like a weird mix of things that didn't work, plus a healthy helping of Mary Sue, and ZOMGeleventy!, I was so wrong, and I am so glad.

The series has changed with every book. The first one was noir-ish, and the second was an Agatha Christie-style country house mystery. Except that Dame Agatha never thought about the possibility of writing about a dryad, who, losing her forest, ended up in a server tree. The third book managed, improbably, to be a story about the boogey-man that was also a thoughtful meditation on female strength and sexuality, and about the difficult boundary between healthy and unhealthy self-reliance. I thought it was a little heavy the first time I read it, but that's more because it was about stuff I'd rather not think about, and the second, and especially the third time I reread it, I found myself appreciating the fact that it was precise and spare: McGuire doesn't mince words when she's dealing with dark stuff -- she gets right there, and then doesn't wallow.

The new book, Late Eclipses, shouldn't be read unless you've read the other three first. You could make sense of it if you really needed to -- it has those nice little cues to catch up new readers, and +10 to Seanan McGuire for making them reflect the character development that's happened since the series started, so that readers who aren't new still learn new things in the "Previously in..."

But you wouldn't enjoy it the same way, because most of the action (both dramatic and subtle) in this volume has been built up in the previous three, and because I understand how the world works, I can think about the story as I read in a way that I couldn't otherwise.

One of the things that I like about this series is that each volume so far has had a different pace. This volume moves extraordinarily fast. A lot like one of Lee Child's Jack Reacher books -- or like Die Hard films -- except that neither of those are about complex fae politics, family conflicts, and serial poisoners, all at once. In short, it's like a Jack Reacher book, except that it's SO MUCH BETTER. By better, I mean that I can think about what's happened, and how it might relate to my own life, and how it affects the world in the books; and also that I've only read one Jack Reacher book, and it was fine, but it didn't make me want to reread, or rush out and get the others.

The Toby Daye series is like the best episodes of the new Doctor Who series: when Russell T Davies wasn't faffing about; or more recently, like Steven Moffat's weeping angels two-parter. Here's what Publisher's Weekly said:

In October "Toby" Daye's fourth outing, following 2010's An Artificial Night, the half-Fae private detective is once again run through the wringer when problems plaguing the San Francisco Fae community strike home on a personal level. First, in an unprecedented, unexpected move, the Queen of the Mists promotes Toby to countess. Given that the Queen hates her, it's quite obviously a trap, but not something Toby can refuse or avoid. Subsequently, several of Toby's closest friends are struck down through poison and illness, and she's accused of murder. Has an enemy from Toby's past resurfaced, or is she losing her mind? Physically, emotionally, and magically drained, faced with tragedy and despair, Toby's forced to deal with the long-hidden truth behind her Fae heritage. In this tightly plotted adventure, McGuire mixes nonstop action with a wealth of mythology to deliver a wholly satisfying story. (Mar.)
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
I still have questions (as well I should, because the series isn't over yet), but with each book, I've felt like plenty is revealed, and plenty of new developments are introduced. There aren't awful cliffhangers. (Unless you count the scene that's included at the very end, as a preview of the next book, which manages to be both tense, and hilarious in a way that reminds me both of James Bond and Doctor Who.)

Read if: you like mysteries, action films, stories that are subtly about family/growing up/broken relationships but that don't put those conflicts in the main spotlight, romances that develop slowly, main characters who make mistakes, series where the overarching story is revealed bit by bit in multiple books.

Avoid if: you can't stand it when characters die, you require romances to have lots of hot and heavy sex, or you need the Massive!Overarching!Story to be revealed in one volume.

I try to avoid broad statements about the BestBookEver, because I don't believe there's only one, but this series is in ppbk for 7.99 each, and 6.99 on Kindle, and really, I can't think of another set of books being published right now where you're getting so much bang for your buck.

Get it at Amazon -- or better yet, go to your local brick and mortar.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Welcome to the future!

This week I have mostly been dissertating and engaging in social activism. I might have reason to get into the latter in more detail, but perhaps not yet.

I have also been shopping, however -- well, I purchased two things that have made my week.

The first was a Possum umbrella. I have a fraught relationship with umbrellas, as I am prone to abandoning them on the bus after setting them on the floor; and umbrellas are likewise prone to betraying me by turning inside out or simply snapping a rib or two at slight provocation. The fact that I am in the habit of buying cheap umbrellas does not help, so the abandonment and betrayal is an endless vicious cycle.

Possum's design is brilliant in that the umbrella comes contained in a small zipper pouch. Lots of umbrellas do, of course -- but this pouch, after you take the umbrella out, also contains a small canvas tote -- dimensions about 10" x 10". The zipper part, which is still its own pocket, and which can be closed, is at the bottom of the pouch.

This means that when I'm running errands in the rain, I can unzip the umbrella, and then, as I go into buildings or onto the bus, collapse it and stow it in the tote bag, which stays safely on my shoulder.

I can also stick 4 or 5 books in the tote, and zip the umbrella into the bottom, and trundle off to the coffee shop, safe in case of rain. (But this is only a good solution when I'm only going to one destination; otherwise I might be in a situation where the tote bag was the only carrier for both the books and the wet umbrella.)

I'm extraordinarily pleased. I've also tested the umbrella in a storm with 36 mph gusts, and though it reversed a couple of times, it snapped back just as quickly, and apparently with no damage.

Most people wouldn't think of the future as heralded by an umbrella that's harder to lose. I do.

The other purchase was a Livescribe Echo Smartpen. I'd heard of smartpens before, but somehow I imagined that they were strictly smart because they had a convenient tiny recorder in the head of the pen. Only in the last week have I found out more about what they can do, specifically that they allow your handwriting to be easily digitized, and with an additional application, transcribed into plain text.

I don't think I've written here about my ongoing dilemma regarding iPhone vs. iPad, and which one will meet my needs better. I won't go into that, because it's mostly personal minutia, but one of the issues that's kept me off the iPad bandwagon is that I think best by writing in longhand. On paper. Ideally with BIC mechanical pencils, but pens will work -- the important thing is the feel of the paper, as opposed to a stylus on a flat screen. I've thought about whether it might be possible to become comfortable thinking through typing with my fingers on the iPad screen, but I'm not certain, and one of the major issues that's bugged me in regards to the iPad is that I'm worried that I still won't be able to think as clearly typing on it as I can when I write things out.

I write things out all the time, hence the massive stacks of paper that make up each dissertation chapter, and through which I often scrabble, searching for the paper on which I made notes on any given date. It's not entirely messy, because I can almost always remember the color of the ink, the style of script I was using -- but it's not especially efficient, either. And if I want to do something with the notes, then I have to type them into the computer. Sometimes that creates an opportunity for revision, but often, it just adds a delay that I don't especially appreciate.

And yet, though I've adapted tremendously to the net in so many ways, I've never stopped feeling like I can think better through writing things down than I can by typing them. I spent most of today being increasingly frustrated, feeling like my argument was unraveling as I tried to integrate ideas from Jameson's Political Unconscious into it. It took less than 30 minutes of working with the smartpen to regain my footing.

I'm annoyed that the transcription application is separate rather than being included, and I would love it if the pens were rollerball, rather than ballpoint, but that doesn't dampen my enthusiasm in the least. This solves all sorts of problems, not least making it easier for me to go off to the coffee shop without taking my laptop and the temptation of the whole internet in large screen format with me.