Using digital media to communicate ideas is too often looked down upon by those in the humanities. It makes perfect sense. After all, creating digital things which aren’t just “fluffy” or “empty” takes a lot of work and thought. I can’t just take an essay and make it into a blog and then expect the blog to become well-read. Though some of us humanists have been bumping around with this concept awkwardly for a while—still debating over issues like “is technology a good thing for academia”—philosophers have transitioned really successfully online. My website examines how philosophers have managed to do this so successfully, with hopes that those of us in other, related fields can take hope and think about how we can do the same.
I began with a conversation with my partner (a philosopher) about why philosophers are all over the internet. He knew how to find out all sorts of field-gossip, as well as what universities to avoid applying to (for jobs), and he had a really sophisticated sense of some of the important issues in academia. I wanted this for English, but it’s not really there in the same way.
I did lots of consulting David for important sites (and discussing them with him) during my conceptual process. The actual writing was mostly done in two days (I never felt really ready to write this website), but I’ve been tinkering with the website since before spring break.
Affordances and Constraints
The medium of the website is one of my favorite things about this project. As a person who loves having control over certain things (creative projects ESPECIALLY), it was really important for me to be able to, say, change the font size or pick the exact color scheme I wanted. The website allowed me to do this. I also like the flexibility of adding/subtracting pages at a whim, or even making pages invisible while I work on them (also, I can put them in any order I want!).
There were two constraints which really bugged me, though. First, I could not get the header to look exactly the way that I envisioned (stupid search bar). Second, I haven’t figured out yet how to get a blog to post as one of my pages (I want to avoid the whole “click on this link to see my blog” thing). This will be a summer project.
I love ‘traditional’ (read: 19th century) novels. In my most angsty teenage years or the most alienating months at my first “real” job, my best days were gobbled up by absorption in Dickens, Hugo, Tolstoy, and Doyle. I’ve also broadened my reading horizons to include other living authors, too, such as Zadie Smith, Muriel Barbery, and Alice Munroe, most recently [shameless name-dropping!]. But despite this broadening, just pass me Anna Karenina and leave me alone to read in peace (gosh-darn-it!). I don’t like technology-novels or Twitter novels. Those are not novels.
And then there are two inescapable, contrary things to my love of “traditional” reading materials: (1) my uber-accepting stance on open media and (2) my digital essay (a WRITING project). In these two things, I advocate: free materials! Open education! Unhampered access to learning! Embracing all the digital things but think about how to do them well! Abandon paper publishing for the present and future! Write and communicate using online mediums and language!
But the deckled-edged novel in bed with tea all day.
NOT Tweetbooks. NO. THOSE ARE NOT NOVELS.
I decided to learn more about the way that authoring texts (literary, in this case) is changing since I recognized that I needed to come to some sort of conclusion about what I really thought about this subject before I could both address the potential arguments against my project and stare my ideologies in the face. I came across Alex Clark’s article in the NewStatesman (online, appropriately), “Anxiety of influence: How Facebook and Twitter are Reshaping the Novel,” which promised to be the sort of thought-piece I needed.
Clark brilliantly takes on those among us who fear that the Twitter-novel might replace the ‘real’ novel (really, a 19th century construction) by addressing the issue of the “essential self.” This self is influenced by the digital world that we live in, and it is what makes us both accept new technologies and fear the erasure of old technologies. This essential self is troubling:
“We know that our apprehension of things isn’t inherently stable – consider the way time seems to speed at some points and drag at others, for example, or how our emotions can suddenly flip-flop – but we hold to the idea that there are as many ways of processing the world as there are people in it and that our subjectivity is what separates us from one another.”
Clark continues: “It is foolhardy to define the purpose of the novel or the job of novelists or, more accurately, to suggest what the novel and novelists have, so far, been like.” Instead of defining these terms, Clark determines three ‘poles’ which comprise interactions in the digital world that novelists are trying to trace: “ourselves, our society, our language.” Instead of panicking and wondering what we’ve ‘lost’ or how we’ve ‘lost’ it—which, it seems, are always worries connected to our understanding of how the self develops and maintains identity—Clark asks us to consider: “What happens if the poles get uprooted, knocked over, repositioned?” (emphasis is mine).
Perhaps, Clark contends, those who are worried about this infiltration of digital technology into the novel and loss of the old forms are worried instead about technology just becoming another gimmick or obvious plug in the pages that we know and love. Perhaps we will just mold the old novel-forms to fit some new or flashy ideas. This is not the case, though. Instead, the novel is being re-formed.
Clark goes on to list several ways that technology becomes an actress or plot-point in novels, how writing online has created a new language, and how the structures of the novel have adapted to platforms like Twitter. These things are scary, Clark says, but scary things are not always bad things. Novelists have always (are always already) created within these three poles as they create the thing that we think of as novel. Novel is reshaping culture at the same time as it is being reshaped by culture:
“Cultural Jeremiahs have tended to see that reshaping as a threat to the novel. Yet we have not ceased to produce stories; we have yet to dispense with metaphor and make-believe to explore what can’t be encompassed by straightforward documentary record. The novel of the future will be different from the novel of the past but the same heart will beat behind the screen.”
We’re not losing ourselves (or our strange sense of selfness) in this changing novel. People still write these things, people still read these things, ideas are still created and distributed, communities still exist around them, lives are still changed. It’s okay to love these old forms, too, but just to claim that they are the best way of creating novels and disseminating ideologies is reacting in fear.
Instead, it’s better to consider “how” and “why” writing is changing/is changed by the digital world. Let’s also consider what kind of place we—and our projects—can take in this digital space, which will also require our willingness to change the way that we think about reading and writing and creating practices.
While humanities programs in the university are worried about their future, philosophy as a subject has quietly, but successfully, moved online. There are, of course, those who abstain from the public sphere, but philosophy has done really well online. The pages on this website are divided by method, in hopes that they can give an overall picture as to which methods work well (and for what reasons). It is also my hope that other fields can look to these public philosophers as they learn how to embrace and engage the public. My current sections are: Simulation, Illustration, Community, and Failures. Each page is divided into two sections: (1) an overview of several key online players and (2) an analysis.
Gaps or Problems:
So right now I am still drawing all of these sources together. I’ve fleshed out the pages on Community and Simulation (as well as the main, overview page), but I’m not sure that all of the pieces are working together. It seems to me that I need some process-education research or something to give my observations a framework. I mean, I can do all of the analysis that I want but there does sometimes need to be something I can tie my analysis to.
I really want to know the following:
First, how do you like the layout of the pages? Is this working for you? Why or why not?
Second, am I doing enough analysis? Should I add more examples from these works? Do I need more reasons?
The Overview worries me the most, because I feel like it’s not as interesting as I would like it to be. Any suggestions?
Also, it feels to me like I need some sort of concluding idea somewhere on the website. Does it also feel like that to you? I might be reading too much into this feeling because I’m envisioning an essay and working with a website (two very different genres).
When I began teaching ENGL110 last spring (has it really only been one year?), I had in mind a teaching persona and classroom ethos that I was going to cultivate:
Me: Strict, but kind; witty but magical director of discourse; organized; gives cool assignments
Classroom: Erupting in huge debates (directed by me); happy and inspired; students in my office hours every week, desiring my knowledge and wisdom
Then I actually became an ENGL110 teacher.
In my fifth section, this is currently my persona and classroom ethos:
Me: sets out rules but constantly breaks them; compassionate to the point where I know I get taken advantage of; often forgetful; constantly changing my teaching style to reflect the needs of each class; constantly betraying my excitement about writing concepts
Classroom: extremely engaged, though often not willing to talk in the large group setting (very willing to talk in groups and one-on-one with me); open to ideas; embracing difficult concepts and lessons; regrettably suspicious of their peers and their peers’ comments; desiring (and fearing) creative assignments; avoiding my office for “fear of taking up your time” (!!)
One of my initial slight disappointments with Adam Banks’s Digital Griots: African American Rhetoric in a Multimedia Age is the lack of teaching anecdotes or advice on teaching as a DJ griot. He does give us an idea of what his own community courses looked like, but this didn’t seem helpful for the UD teacher of a (mostly white) ENGL110 classroom. “Give me methods and systems so I can craft the right identity,” I cried in my head. “How can I teach this in the correct way?”
Then Banks asked us to consider teaching in the community as preachers rather than wisdom-imparting-intellectuals in Chapter 2 “Mix.” At this passage, I paused to reflect:
“These processes of collaboration and identification, of call and response and building shared knowledge, of code switching, finding, and using shared language, for Moss lead to the creation of a shared text. In other words, the preacher is no longer a sole author, and the congregation can no longer be said to play the role of mere listening or receiver. They create text together” (51).
My inclinations as a teacher were originally to control and create a strong queendom (with me at the head, of course). I discovered very quickly my first semester of ENGL110 that this would not work for two reasons: (1) in making myself a figure of absolute authority (without vulnerability), I was creating a person that my students didn’t care about and thus resisted; (2) in my personal ideology (as this class has seen in my former responses), I am extremely open-sourcy, championing free knowledge and anti-establishmentisms.
In my own teaching life, these two realizations led me to be more vulnerable with my class (sharing opinions about long-established writing rules, sharing my own failures as a writer, being honest about what I knew and didn’t know). They also led me to adopt a policy of consistent dialogue in drafts, in groups, in the large class, and one-on-one with my students. This kind of dialogue creates a sense in my classroom that each student has valuable ideas and messages, which is shown in how seriously I take them.
That said, I still don’t think that my class has the aurora of “creating together” that Banks mentions. There is a sense that each individual is creating a text with me, but there is not the same sense of community creation in my class. I really want to get to this point of community collaboration, though, and I also really believe that digital media is the place where this can be done the best. So I’m going to propose some things to try for the next class that I will teach, and I would also welcome feedback and ideas from others.
Proposals for Co-Creating Digital (and/or Public) Text
Class blog/discussion forum (outright stealing this from our 685 class, where I feel it has been extremely successful).
Creating some assignment together; perhaps a collection of narratives (with visuals) with a discussion about how to organize and group them
Public feedback; perhaps beginning with a text created by me and then easing them into presenting their own work for the public eye.
I was recently reading a book review in the Atlantic Monthly (online, of course) called “Playing with Plato.” This is a review of a new collection of ‘modern’ imagined dialogues between Plato and various characters of our time (a Google engineer, for example) in a book titled Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away. The author of the review (philosophy professor Clancy Martin) reminds us that the sorts of questions that this book asks (What is progress? What is morality?) are the same questions that the ancient philosophers entertained and are the same questions that still motivate people—both philosophers and non-philosophers—to try and understand the world.
I was impressed with the review, in which Martin traces his own journey to the welcoming arms of philosophy, but I was dissatisfied with the end result. This is a review published in a digital magazine about a text that engages the engineers of modernity … and the book is printed as a physical book. There is a Kindle version and an audio version, of course, but like nearly every book published in print too, the digital version is a for-purchase, mimicry of the physical text.
Though philosophers often publish academic work like the rest of us in cumbersome, paper journals and university presses (tenure march!), many of them also pride themselves on the free dissemination of their ideas to students and the public through lectures, conversations, and small discussions. “The beauty of philosophy,” these scholars argue, “is the fact that anyone can—and should—engage in these important questions.”
“Surely philosophers can do better than this,” I complained to my own philosopher. “How can philosophy adapt these new forms of media to participate in the necessary exchange of questions and dialogue?”
I could hear the surprise in his voice, “Well, they already have.” Then he flooded my inbox with links to podcasts, videos, and blogs.
Some of these digital texts are extremely popular with non-philosophers. Something like Philosophy Bites—a free podcast—has hundreds of thousands of hits. Further, philosophers have developed really creative videos which illustrate difficult concepts (and fun thought experiments) like David Harvey’s animated video “Crisis of Capitalism” and a video that my own philosopher uses to teach experimental philosophy in his own classes (“Experimental Philosophy”). Philosophers have also experimented with some very popular Yale Open Courses and Open University courses (one set of which sparked a large controversy). Also see The Partially Examined Life, which is terrifically awesome.
Question or Problem:
My essay will examine how philosophy has used digital media to further the public nature of the discipline (I am not interested in academic philosophy). I hope to explore what kinds of sources work well, identify the factors that are the most successful in these sources, and propose ways that philosophy can continue to be a presence in the public discourse. I hope that the information I compile and dissect will be useful for discussions about public humanities in the future.
I’m interested in this subject for many reasons, but the primary one is that there are lots of awesome ideas that the public would love to engage with so how do we make these ideas free and as accessible as possible? Philosophy is doing this, therefore let’s look to philosophy.
Texts and Materials:
– Free philosophy sources (videos, podcasts, blogs, open courses) – if the sources are not free then they are not relevant to my study.
– I need to read sources about teaching philosophy, I think.
– Interviews with philosophers (including mine).
I’ve already created a Google website, which I imagine to be divided into pages in a creative way (not just by an exploration of different media, but by concept perhaps?). This will be a compilation of videos, links, posts, (hopefully) an experimental podcast/interview, and cats.
Text(s) to Imitate?:
I have no idea. I’ve seen nothing exactly like this, though I imagine that there is some sort of educational website in this format.
1. Do you think that a website is the appropriate medium?
2. I’m afraid that this might be lingering too much on the cusp of a study and less an argument. What do you think I should anticipate in order to keep this from being a “look, I have cool stuff” website?
3. As educators in the humanities, what sorts of questions/branches/side trails about this potential study are the most interesting or would be the most helpful for you?
Last semester, my philosopher was granted a semester free of classes and teaching responsibilities so that he could finish his dissertation and apply for jobs. He decided to spend this semester in Delaware with me, which removed him from his extremely vibrant and collaborative philosophical community. Now that he’s back in his department this semester (at the bitter end of his graduate student days) his hours are completely taken up with conversations, papers to review, class discussions to lead, and discussion-heavy events with other philosophers.
“You can’t do philosophy in a vacuum,” my philosopher always tells his students.
As his statement implies, at the heart of analytic philosophy is the idea that our ideas must be constantly shared and butted up against the ideas of others. Analytic philosophers delight in the process of examining each other’s’ argument bits: they call for definitions and redefinitions, challenge premises, test out thought experiments, and figure out each other’s’ philosophical lineage of beliefs (is this person an ethical Kantian? If so, this influences all of the arguments they will make within ethics). To the non-philosopher, these exchanges look like heated, super-intelligent battles over very strange bits of premises.
When I contrast this with my own experience in English, I see why Kathleen Fitzpatrick challenges us humanists to think differently about collaboration and authorship in Chapter 2 of Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy.Fitzpatrick notes the anxieties we feel as academics in the humanities when it comes to the concept of collaboration through a series of questions: “What, exactly, will we be given credit for—or held accountable for—when our texts form part of a larger network, when other authors’ responses appear within the same frame as our own writing? How will the multivocal nature of such texts transform our sense of authority?” (82, in my e-text).
Without being deliberately condemnatory of English departments in general or of this department in particular, I will say that my experience in the process of creating papers has been either extremely isolating or semi-collaborative (and semi-collaborative only during the research process). Perhaps part of this is my own fault (the perception that one’s peers will suddenly realize how unintelligent one is), but to my eyes we don’t really have this same sort of community most of the time that philosophers do.
Now, there are times, especially after classes, when we do get together and discuss ideas from class. There are also times when we meet up somewhere and write together (sharing researching experiences along the way!). There are even times when we share bits of our work with people. These times are so sweet but so limited.
To go a step further, even many of our sources are isolating in nature rather than welcoming discussion. When I see something awesome like the Dickens Serial Novels Collection, I just want to share bits and pieces of the cool stuff I find there with other Dickens-folk. Now, technically I can do this if I find out who these secretive beings are and connect to them though social media sites, but the Dickens-folk are often closeted or hiding behind another institutionally acceptable designation (19th century periodicals). Further, removing the content on this site from the ability to comment also creates the illusion that these are untouched by the eyes and interest of others. I feel like I’m coming to these texts for the first time. Wouldn’t it be awesome if I could comment right underneath, say, the first Pickwick number with an observation or a connection to another recently posted article on Victorian societies?
This said, I can’t help but consider this proposition of reimagining authorship as a collaborative practice—not necessarily writing papers together but sharing ideas together—as an absolutely fantastic idea. Yes please, let’s talk about our ideas! Let’s give up our dusty ideas about ownership and authority and create digital (and physical, please?) communities of idea-sharing!
Any additional thoughts about collaborative writing/speaking/publishing? Has anyone come across a digital archive that allows for comments? What are you most afraid of in collaboration?
When I was fourteen-years-old and working on my first “novel” (a fantasy book written in a series of notebooks, usually during classes I didn’t like), my programmer-brother showed me how he could download free books on his TI-89 calculator to read during class. This was 1999; there were no e-readers. My brother was really into Linux and open source software and stuff like that. After gushing for a while about these free books, he asked me if I would ever consider publishing my book online for people to access for free: “So many people would read it, Katie! Plus you’re supporting information-sharing!”
He was completely baffled at my refusal to even consider this option. “How will I make money off of it if I make it available? I want to be a writer for my career, so I’ll need to make money in order to survive. Plus, people will steal my work and make money off of it by publishing it as their own,” I argued vehemently.
Charles Dickens, my first Victorian love, was also really concerned about ownership and the property of one’s work. His travelogue American Notes and novel Martin Chuzzlewit both vehemently attack the US for various reasons, but one of them was due to the really lax copyright laws over books which led to all of his being pirated all over the place. Dickens was concerned both because writing was his way of life and because the pirated editions often twisted things in a way that he wasn’t comfortable (if Dickens loved anything, it was control).
But fast-forward to four years ago. My fantasy novel career ended in high school, when I became a more serious writer (and then got writer’s bloc and couldn’t write worth anything). I was an office staff person in a philosophy department and insanely bored most of the time (excepting certain seasons when I got to advise students or build the course schedule).
Due to this boredom coupled with a desire to be helpful, I created a fun blog for non-philosophers about how to understand philosophers. After all, I married a philosopher and worked with philosophers all the time, so why not use my observations to help others? The blog exploded with readers, and suddenly I was beset on all sides with emails (asking ME for advice), angry comments from philosophers who were under the impression that they were special snowflakes, and discussion in the comments sections of each entry. I kept my name off of things, and I tried to make it easy for others to use my blog posts in other things (papers, blog posts, emails; whatever they wanted).
That said, my opinion about copyright law has changed dramatically in the past fifteen years. I went from being adamantly for it to slightly-adamantly against it. Lessig discusses this phenomenon in his chapter “Cultures Compared” in Remix. Lessig quotes Victor Stone’s (of ccMixter) comments to him, which I am going to reproduce here: “You know … this discussion will be over in ten or twenty years. As the boomers die out, and they get over themselves by dying, the generation that follows … just doesn’t care about this discussion, and it’s part of the process and that’s it” (97).
I just want everyone to use my material and alter my material and add their own material. I wonder, though, if I also think this way because I am a liberal-liberal (non-democrat liberal). My value system is such that openness and sharing with others—without expecting payouts—is a really great thing. I have several friends who are still very pro-copyright (and very conservative), so I’m not sure that Lessig is completely correct in that my generation will be cool with less control. I am pretty sure that most of my pro-copyright writing friends* (none of who have actually published anything) are also deluding themselves into believing that they will be able to make a living by writing.
Of course, they also won’t be able to make a living by writing because there are people like me who want to constantly undermine the system with my free-words-for-everyone approach.
It’s not for everyone, though. I’m not sure it’s even a good system. What do you think? Do you have any good arguments for the copyrighting of writing?
P.S. Apologies for anyone who was looking for substantive material in my blog post and stumbled into “Katie’s reflections on her ideology of copyrighting journey.” It happens.
*This is excluding Janel. I’m thinking of my college friends who aren’t close to getting anything published for many reasons (vision, for one).