Category Archives: x6

Walking (Coding?) the Talk: MediaCommons

The digital peer-to-peer publishing and reviewing system that Kathleen Fitzpatrick describes in Planned Obsolescence sounds pretty incredible: she carefully considers all aspects of the system for their potential strengths and limitations (with particular regard to helpfulness— a value that, as Fitzpatrick shrewdly notes, is often dismissed in the academic world) and, moreover, she addresses the potential pitfalls in a refreshingly candid and useful way. When I read, particularly when I read about something I find engaging, I am usually a pretty prolific annotator. But as I read Fitzpatrick, I found myself without much at all to say. I realized eventually it was because it’s a little hard to imagine what these digital environments might actually look like, and how such a good idea might actually translate into a (digital) reality.

Fortunately for all of us, Fitzpatrick isn’t just talk—she is actively testing out these theories and trying to build something collaboratively that really works. Have you guys actually checked out MediaCommons? I have to just start by saying: it is, quantitatively and objectively speaking, pretty damn cool. I only explored two subsets of it in any depth: In Media Res and MediaCommons Press, and I was pleasantly surprised in both cases.

In Media Res is a project that has different scholars “curate” (i.e., find and repost) a short video clip, and they write a short (300-350 word) “impressionistic response” text to accompany it. Each posting is then opened up to comments/response from anyone in the community. It actually rather reminds me of the kind of blog post/commenting work we’re doing in 685dw. While I certainly value the development of ideas over a period of time, I think forums like In Media Res and the 685 blog offer a completely different and complementary type of intellectual exercise. The “impressionistic response” format seems to encourage an idea of writing that is not to have the definitive last word, but to write suggestively in ways that open up new possibilities for others to take up. It is concise, engaged, and timely work, and I think we need more venues for these short, lively bursts of intellectual exchange.

The MediaCommons Press is a very basic model of the peer-to-peer review system Fitzpatrick describes in her book, in that it is simply a venue for scholars to get feedback on their texts. It does not yet include any kind of “review of the reviewers” (38) as Fitzpatrick theorizes in her book, but it sounds like something along those lines is in development.

A couple of thoughts on this “press” system. First, I think that what’s great about this is the super easy, intuitive interface for commenting on specific portions of the text. And it seems that people are indeed making use of it, albeit perhaps less than in an ideal world. But you can really see the potential for allowing others’ thoughts to actually impact your work, to shape and change your thinking, and (of course) to change the product itself.

With that said, within MediaCommons Press, I’m not totally sure I understand where the line is on when such documents are “published.” Fitzpatrick might say this is a good thing, that the new motto in the digital age needs to be “publish-then-filter” (38). But I guess what’s not clear to me is how or whether the original authors are changing their text in response to the feedback they receive. As it stands, there doesn’t seem to be a place for making note of such work in MediaCommons Press. To feel like the labor of commenting is valuable, it seems to me that there needs to be some way of communicating these changes.

Something else occurred to me as I was browsing through some of the documents that have been opened to peer feedback. As the system is currently used, there don’t seem to be more than 10 comments per paragraph of any given text. But even this is quite a lot of feedback to take into account. And what if the system really catches on an draws the users it hopes for? Sometimes as a writer, getting too much feedback can be a really bad thing. I’m thinking of students who have come to the writing center over and over again with the same piece of writing, seeking out feedback from as many different tutors as they can. I completely admire the drive and vulnerability that this requires, but these students almost inevitably seem to drive themselves crazy, since no tutor is ever simply going to say, “It’s perfect. Go with what you’ve got.” With writing, there’s always more we can do, more we can revise. But at some point, we have to decide when to let projects go. Getting too much feedback can be a real hindrance to getting work done. So in that respect, I wonder if the MediaCommons Press model is really scalable.

With regard to the full-blown version of this publication system as described by Fitzpatrick: I’m not entirely sure why, but some part of me wondered if maybe we need to resist the urge, in constructing these digital environments, to try to control and account for everything. I think Fitzpatrick is smart in her analysis of why other online academic publishing sites (like Philica) have failed, and that she makes a strong case for the need to provide some mechanisms for “reviewing the reviewers.” But I found myself a little skeptical about what she calls “pay to play” systems, such as points as internal currency, or changing your “karma” through your own contributions/publications, as Slashdot does. I guess I’m a little wary of over-engineering the system.

Some part of me wants to believe that if people find a site useful, they’ll use it—that if we need to contrive an artificial internal economy, it may be an indication that we’re compensating for real value in some way. But it’s also very possible “some part of me” is just being naïve about the need to create buy-in and reward before these digital academic communities can really function as we’d like them to. Another theory/practice gap here—it will be really interesting to see how MediaCommons decides to handle this problem (or if they decide that it doesn’t need to be ‘handled’ at all).

 

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Academic Obsolesence

I’m having some struggles understanding exactly what Fitzpatrick is trying to say (and this is also more of an update rather than my thoughts on the entire book).  Plus, I’m rather outside the world of academic publishing.

One thing that stood out to me the most, aside from her excellent zombie metaphor, was Fitzpatrick’s understanding of crisis surrounding “the valuation of humanities within the university, and of institutions of higher education within the culture at large” (13).  One of the biggest complaints that I experience about academia from both ends of the spectrum is that the brilliance of the ideas are lost not only because of the communication barrier, but because of the difficulties and politics that come with publishing of any sort.  I, and apparently Fitzpatrick, felt like this communication breakdown, as well as the internally policed system of academic publishing that she describes, is really just a self-perpetuating system that keeps  academia irrelevant to the greater population.

I’m sorry this isn’t more insightful or lengthy at the moment- I’ll  hopefully update with a bit more as I attempt to decipher what exactly Fitzpatrick is saying.

 

Academic/Online Writing/Responding: A Bricolage

In reading Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Planned Obsolescence, I found myself most drawn to her chapter on authorship and the ways in which she is forwarding some of the ideas we discussed last week in relation to Lessig’s Remix.

As academics, we generally (and in turn tell our students) that there is a “right” way to critique scholars with opposing viewpoints in one’s own written work (with respect, fairness, tact, etc.). Likewise, most people would acknowledge that there is an etiquette to what sorts of comments are “appropriate” to online writing, images, video, etc. (trolls and flamers not withstanding). Yet, if we consider Fitzpatrick’s proposition that “we come to accept remix as a mode of scholarly authorship, a form of academic bricolage” (79 in Kindle), what then would the hybrid responses to such hybrid texts look like? Naturally, there are some blogs or other online publicity organs associated with scholarly journals that do allow for some amount of commenting, but I cannot think of any online journal in Victorian studies (my field) that does anything more than approximately reproduce the print journal format in pixelated form—they embrace a new technology without also embracing any of its other affordances in soliciting reader responses.

Fitzpatrick notes that it is “important to recognize that even if we never return to an article and revise it after it’s been published online, the article’s meaning will nonetheless shift and change depending on the ways that other writers interact with it” (71 in Kindle). She admits elsewhere that this is of course true of most texts, but with online texts there is the expectation that this sort of shifting, negotiating, and revising will not only happen, but will do so to a visible extent and under the eyes of a readership that will proceed to not only comment but sometimes even steer the conversation.

So then, a thought experiment: just for a moment imagine a combination of the scholarly/online modes of response, for instance, a scholarly article that allowed “comments” akin to the form of say, those on a YouTube video. Anyone would be able to see that so-and-so many people gave a piece a thumbs up or thumbs down, what people had to say about it specifically, as well as what conversations/conflicts it generated (whether thoughtful or not)—to a certain extent, perhaps this is what we have been doing all along in our class blog/Twitter feed. In any case, this approach would likely generate some productive comments, but might also…not (as is so often the case with even the most seemingly innocuous videos).

A Spirited Internet Debate
The future of academic discourse?

To give an example from YouTube (which happens to be oddly fitting in light of Fitzpatrick’s discussion of academic publishing as an “undead” form): in response to the “Bring out your dead” scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, one commenter going by the moniker TheFalafelRaptor responded “46 people aren’t dead yet but got thrown into the cart anyways,” which anyone who has spent any amount of time on YouTube recognizes as a fairly standard template response (taking the number of people who have given the video a thumbs down—46 in this case—and combining it with some statement that relates to the fact that these users did not align themselves with what most other people liked about the video). Yet, imagine the uproar if academic texts were treated in this way: “46 people aren’t ready to remix with Lessig.” I find myself halfway between horror and amusement at the thought.

Perhaps this type of mash-up is not quite what Fitzpatrick (or Lessig) had in mind in advocating for bricolage or remix, particularly as it pertains not only to the creation of texts. But what about responses to them? And why not?

Reading and Writing and Everything…Complicated in a Digital Environment

In our first discussion of Kathleen Fitzgerald’s Planned Obsolescence, Janel and I chatted briefly about its length – with me remarking that it’s just under two hundred pages, and Janel lamenting that her Kindle version gives her no page numbers. Also having the Kindle text, I was surprised (and relieved) that the version I had on my PC did indeed have page numbers – “Hallelujah” just might have rung out in my mind. Funnily enough, Kindle’s “locations” do little to locate me in a text. Even with the percentages and progress bars, clicking the next page icon (as indebted to codex construction as it is) is just not the same as the physical feel of a book when you reach the halfway point and when there are more pages in your left hand than right.

That being said, most of my reading is digital. I’m either scrolling or, if I’m on my Tumblr dash, hitting “J” to move down my infinite scrolling dash post by post. Some posts are simply too long to scroll all the way through – and I can always hit “K” if I want to move up to the start of a post that I decide I do want to read after all.

In the same fashion, as I compose this post (in Word), I have changed the font to Times New Roman and the font size to 12, even though I know this will change the instant I move the writing to WordPress. I am simultaneously both mentally chained to more traditional understandings of text and all too willing to abandon them once I open a browser. I’m also desperately trying to figure out how to work this into the zombie metaphor and struggling. (…Something about how each survivor base tries desperately to recreate pre-zombie life within those walls, only to instantly adapt to new realities when unlocking a chained up fence and blasting a way through a zombie horde…like you do).

Fitzgerald writes, “Developers of new textual technologies and publishing systems must recognize that, on the one hand, simply publishing texts online, finding ways to reproduce the structures of the book in digital form, is insufficient, because the network cannot, and should not, replicate the codex; and that on the other hand, simply moving toward a more internally networked form of publishing will likewise not revolutionize the circulation of texts, as the emphasis remains on the individual text, the individual author, the individual mind” (107).

Quick aside here, I cannot begin to express my frustration that I can’t copy/paste from a Kindle text and instead had to handwrite this quotation (it’s just one sentence that’s length only makes itself truly known when writing down each word), and then retype it into Word. I feel like technology has failed me.

Talk about older writing technologies...
Talk about older writing technologies…

But to return to the quotation. The questions of how the digital context could, and should, change the construction of reading and writing (and publishing) are of interest to me mainly as I continue to consider how I will compose a digital essay on Tumblr. It’s a public site, and I will reblog from other users invested (hopefully) in what I have to say. There will be some element of response in the piece (but I wonder how soon I will start posting what I already will, to a certain extent, have planned and written in Word). It’s a blog, so it has a reverse chronology. To what extent will I move around posts before the final deadline? And, as a blog, it is unfinished to the vast majority of my audience (again, presuming the audience ends up extending beyond everyone here – not to say you all aren’t the best audience a gal could wish for). There is some level of obligation (real or imagined) an author has to a blog’s readership that is unlike a printed text, or even an online text like Prezi, where the product is what appears.

Yet, when looking at all of these questions, even if I’m moving beyond a piece limited to codex form, I am still tethered to individualism. Everything is hooked to what “I” want to do, or what I think is best to do, in the context of this course and my scholarly project. I (there it is again) am unsure at this point to what degree I should move beyond this, admittedly imagined, construction of individual authorship, and experiment more broadly with Tumblr‘s system of reblogging, submission, and general intertextuality across mediums. But who knows – perhaps I say this safely from my base camp, and once I’m loose among the hordes on Tumblr I will fully embrace this collaborative digital environment.*

 

*I don’t think bloggers are zombies…but I had to call back the metaphor. Zombies are cool. The asterisk and italics on Janel’s post are also cool. 

Alone in the Archive, Together in Google Docs

Those of us in the Transatlantic Gothic seminar submitted our archival research papers today. The assignment asked us each to choose one of the course texts and investigate its afterlife and reception by doing research in library databases and other primary sources. We did not sign up for specific texts, nor did we discuss our research questions in the confines of the class. It was a purely private exploration, just me and the archives and digital databases.

Once the papers were safely submitted to the professor (uncontaminated by secondary source materials or, apparently, the influence of others), she encouraged us to post our completed papers in the Sakai class forum so that other students in the class can read them. Finally, we devoted a few minutes at the end of class for is to share the scope of what we found.

Even that gesture toward sharing and commenting on each other’s work is more than in some grad courses.

Although grad students are frequently together—in seminar, in our super-tight cubicle offices—we often read and write alone.

Image
Scrolling through a document, all alone.

 

In Planned Obsolescence, Kathleen Fitzpatrick argues for a significantly more open and collaborative reading and writing community. She writes about “new conversational publishing practices”* in digital forms and shows that our obsession with being original and proprietors of our intellectual property are keeping us from adopting these new means of sharing and publishing our work. We need to see that “some of the most important work that we can do as scholars may more closely resemble contemporary editorial or curatorial practices, bringing together, highlighting, and remixing significant ideas in existing texts rather than remaining solely focused on the production of more ostensibly original texts.”

I crave this. I love the open exchange of ideas on this blog, from comments and suggestions on my writing from colleagues, and from the forwarding of a link or title of an article that someone I respect thinks would interest me.

But currently, those mechanisms for collaboration and sharing my writing happen only because I seek them out, extracurricularly. I sometimes feel sheepish asking a friend (see especially the ever-compassionate Katie Wright and bad-ass Carolyne King) to take the time to read a paper I’m writing in order to give me feedback. I ask myself, How good should it be before I ask them to offer reader reaction? Some of this is pride—I don’t want to waste anyone else’s time with my shitty first draft. I want my ideas to be somewhat formed before someone other than me opens my document. And yet I don’t want to wait until I’m so far into the drafting process that a nudge or wrist slap from a reader I respect can’t shift my thoughts in a more productive way.

Image
This is a video of a cat helping a dog open a door. It’s a metaphor.

While much of the time I spend reading and writing is, by necessity, alone time, the most invigorating and momentum-building work I do comes when I am challenged by another writer responding to / critiquing / pushing back against / extending / asking me to clarify my ideas.

I resolve to seek out ways to make my writing more public (I admire scholars who draft in public like Dr. Michelle Moravec and those who blog like Frederick Coye Heard), and in doing so, making myself vulnerable to criticism. I also commit to making sure that I, too, engage in helping my peers create, strengthen, and share their writing with a broader audience.

Together, I believe that we can set a new model for ourselves of inculcating helpfulness. As Fitzpatrick writes in her conclusion, “the new communication systems that we develop for networked environments” are scary, but they’re also “generative,” and we must be willing to continue remaining open to the discomfort of “instability, of the frighteningly uncertain, of the wide-open and new.” It feels weird, it feels scary, and it doesn’t always feel good, but we’ve got to do a better job of embracing more open and collaborative/conversational means of writing, commenting, editing, and publishing.

*I have a Kindle version of the text and don’t have page numbers. I’m sorry.

The Anxiety of Influence, A New Version

Chain-reactionBy publishing The Anxiety of Influence in 1973, Harold Bloom invited both critics and authors to re-read centuries of literary creation as a reactionary act against the haunting shadow of precursors;  a reactionary act from the new author’s side to establish his own voice, already influenced by forerunners, as an original one. Bloom’s theory places a historical anxiety, caused by dead poets, in the centre of both tensions and aspirations of living poets. Each new author is a late-comer shadowed by the whole history of literary creation, haunted by all canonical works, and encircled by gigantic names that have already proved their originality. There is an endless war going on. Driven by the hidden forces of anxiety, a few late-comers succeed in establishing their authorship to become the great precursors for the next generation of late-comers, the rest would be forgotten.

Being the new late-comers of the world of words, we seem to be lucky enough to be the forerunners of an updated version of Anxiety of Influence which does not draw any chronological, linear, or hierarchical lines between subjects and objects. Fitzpatrick in Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy contemplates on the metamorphosed sense of being an author in the digital world while bearing a hidden fear of losing one’s individuality, one’s identity, and one’s distinguished voice. Interestingly enough, this new anxiety is not caused by the precursors any more, as it is the anxiety of being influenced by the contemporary fellows who are suffering from the same anxiety at the same time. This anxiety, according to Fitzpatrick, is partially caused by the fear that “someone else’s opinions might interfere with” the second author’s opinions before letting the second author establish his/her position fully (51). This is not really a pure peculiarity of digital age, even the authors of RW culture could receive influential feedbacks on their serialized or unfinished works before establishing their own intellectual position.  The peculiarity of the digital in this case is the crazy speed by which millions of ideas and words are randomly undercutting each other without establishing any enduring hierarchical orders.

I wonder if the authors’ of digital age are not suffering the historical Anxiety of Influence, described in Bloom’s theory, any more as they are all busy dealing with new fears and challenges of immediate publications and instantaneous responses. Are the shadows of great precursors, those who have been following new-comers for centuries, going to be replaced by the virtual attendance of contemporary rivals who are haunting each other in a collective anxiety? Fitzpatrick’s ideas, along with my personal experiences, imply that a digital author expects to be compared with other digital fellows rather than any non-digital precursors and wishes to establish a distinguished voice in comparison with other digital publications rather than any old canonical works. Fitzpatrick suggests that “we no longer inhabit a world in which originality reigns unchallenged” (78). According to Bloom originality is a distorted offspring of non-original ideas that truly suffered the Anxiety of Influence and tried to get rid of the haunting shadows of the past. I’m thinking about the offspring of our digital anxiety when shadows and authors are coexisting in the same circle without any hierarchical relations in between. Could Harold Bloom, a contemporary and a precursor, be a haunting figure for a blogger who is writing about literary criticism? Or other bloggers, even unknown ones, play a more intimidating role? The new medium seems to  be altering the ancient nature of anxiety.

 

 

Keep Your Paws off My Ideas

philosophers need each other or things get weird
philosophers need each other or things get weird

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.

we say “uh, stay out of my ideas-business, people”

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?