Quick Takes From MIT5

There’s WAY too much going on here at the MIT5 conference to get it all down in some coherent way (and I think others are doing far better jobs of it than me! Hello, Technorati tag!).

Instead of overview, I want to get down some key ideas from the plenary session on collaboration and collective intelligence (description and speaker vitas here). The panelists offered three different examples: MySpace, Second Life, and Pokemon. Clearly, divergent principles underpin these arenas, yet all seem to, in one way or another, encapsulate the ambivalence of many online collaborative endeavors. Trebor Scholz called one version of this “the commercialization of social life.” He was referring most specifically to MySpace and Facebook, but it’s easy to come up with ways in which time spent in Second Life, creating digital objects to sell to others, would quickly fall into this category. Pokemon too; buy more cards, get more involved. Lather, rinse, repeat. A very clever audience member raised the question of the relationship between commodity circulation (for the sake of simplification, read: negative); and individual participation, social interaction, cultural production (for the sake of simplification, read: positive).

On a completely unrelated note, Thomas Malone, the session moderator and director of MIT’s new Center for Collective Intelligence, described social research from the 1950’s that examined participants’ reactions to different kinds of collaborative projects. I can’t re-produce these verbatim here, but he did describe one model in which a project can be atomized (i.e., participants can “do their own work” and compile their results–essentially, an additive model). His example here was that of a rope pulling contest. A second structure: one in which the success of the group is determined by its slowest member (e.g., climbing a mountain). A third: one in which the success of the group is determined by its fastest or most capable member (more difficult to bring forth an example here; relay races? Other?). For the record, all of these make me wonder if competitive reality televsion writers have been reading the same research…

My question, I suppose, is whether there is an inherent connection between these two ideas. Do different types of project design enable more or less participation, interaction, production, and likewise, more or less commodity circulation by instilling a different relationship between participants and project results?

No answers here. Off to think about authorship and transmedia narratives…

Convergence: VT and Native Speaker

Like virtually everyone in the nation, I find myself falling onto the cliche of “shock and horror” at the events at Virginia Tech this week. It’s a mix of disbelief; sympathy for the survivors, the vicitims and their families; and a serious set of questions about what it means to be a professor—particularly an English professor—at this moment in time. As more and more information comes out about Cho Seung-Hui, his writing, his behavior, and the faculty members that he worked with, it’s almost impossible not to ask: what would I have done? What should I be doing as a professor who sees student writing every day? How do we know when to be on our guard and when a student is “blowing off steam”? Moreover, what does it mean to be a Korean American professor right now?

I’ve been mulling that last question in particular since I’m in the middle of teaching Chang-Rae Lee’s Native Speaker, a novel that details the complex inner life of a first-generation Korean American man. Henry Park, the protagonist, asks himself the important question about when, and under what circumstances, an immigrant is allowed to become an American. This seems the question that the media is struggling with now as well, as it considers how to approach understanding the incomprehensible: a young man massacring his fellow students and teachers. Much has been made of Cho’s Korean-ness; he was, after all, a resident of the U.S. under the auspices of a green card. As this short piece by NPR’s Robert Seigel points out, however, Cho spent more of his life in America than he did in South Korea. Despite this, many Asian American groups are bracing for backlash, and the entire country of South Korea has issued an apology for his actions. [The truly excellent, and in other circumstances riotously funny Angry Asian Man, has continuing, thoughtful commentary on media coverage of this event.]

Is Cho Korean? Is he American? Is he both? What does it mean to be both? What are the particular privileges that come with being both, and what kind of toll does it take on you? What is expected of you, and how do you begin to imagine your place in society? These are the questions that readers of Native Speaker struggle with, and the convergence of reading that novel and the tragedy at VT begins to indicate to me the ways in which literature really can help us to see the world in ways that we wouldn’t from our own perspectives. It’s not every day that I can argue that the study of literature is relevant, as much as I’d like to. Henry Park works as a spy—one who is constantly called upon to infiltrate groups, to learn and to observe and to fit in. It’s a powerful metaphor for societal assimilation, but Lee takes it one step further: Henry can’t separate his behaviors at work from those at home. He treats his wife like his other subjects. He discerns her desires, he provides for them, and he observes her and gathers information. It’s a troubling psychological model: one in which Henry is never un-self-conscious, never authentically himself, always waiting for someone to say he doesn’t really belong, to blow his cover.

Recently, the National Instititute of Mental Health conducted the first national study of the rates of mental illness and treatment for Asian Americans. The study, conducted in 2002-2003, is still in the preliminary stages of analyzing the data. One of the first conclusions, however, is that ” NLAAS data shows that, as a group, Asian Amerians have lower rates of mental illness than whites but seek treatment less often.” The article linked above goes on to cite economic status, generation, culture, racial prejudice, and social status of some of the significant factors that affect mental health. Are these all factors that play into understanding the character of Henry Park? Absolutely. Are they, by extension, factors that can help us understand the actions of Seung-Hui Cho?

Here, I’m brought up short. I can’t bring myself to try to understand the psyche of a violent and disturbed young man, about whose premeditation of violence we hear more and more with each passing hour. As someone who studies literature, I want to believe that they give us insight into the world around us.  But is Henry Park really a useful model for “understanding” Cho?  As a professor, I want to believe that access to information can make us better citizens. Could wider knowledge of Asian American resistance to mental health treatment have shifted the course of events? As a Korean American, I want to believe that the unreedemable actions of Seung-Hui Cho will not have a negative impact on the ways that the rest of the nation perceives of an ethnic group to which he belonged. Will his individual actions have ramifications for a larger population?

As someone who occupies all of these positions, I’m left with little but questions.

Peep This!

Appropos of nothing, the bloggers at Feministe bring us this link to the Washington Post’s Peep Diorama Contest. Go look. I’ll wait.

Sadly, they don’t list the criteria for the best dioramas. Why, for instance, is “Peepman and BoyPeep” a finalist, when my favorite, “Reservoir Peeps” is a semifinalist? Is it the concept? The execution, so to speak? The freshness of the Easter candy?

We may never know how the secret cabal of judges awarded the grand prize. An enterprising soul, however, could easily turn this slideshow into a personality quiz. Which diorama do you like best? What does it reveal about your personality? For my money, it’s “Reservoir Peeps” and “Mommie Peepest,” two entries that I find far more compelling than the winner “Peeps are a Girl’s Best Friend.” Not that I have anything against Marilyn Monroe or the artistic verve that went into the piece. The other two, however, capitalize on a twofold appeal: first, there’s an obvious gesture toward the pop culture references and the necessity of a certain amount of cultural capital to “get” the joke (basically, it’s an ego thing, I admit it); second, and more indicative of my personal and theoretical inclinations, is the study in contrasts. The artists play upon the nature of the Peep, their sweet, empty innocence, their nostalgic appeal hearkening back toward childhood. They attach all of that to two of the most disturbing psychodramas of the last 30 years: Reservoir Dogs and Mommie Dearest.

Now, it would be quite a stretch to think about these dioramas as fitting into something like Adorno’s theory of negation in art (which we touched upon in the theory class yesterday).  And in addition, we can be pretty positive that Adorno would have no affection for the lowly Peep.  But in a radically dumbed down version of a negative dialectic, it would be interesting to play with the idea of the Reservoir Peeps diorama as a piece of art that refuses to resolve and justify the existence of the individual and the progress of history.  How can a Peep exist in a Tarantino world?  Where is all of that sweetness and light when someone’s ear is being removed?  Is it enough to say that “it’s hard out there for a Peep?”

In a move that’s far less out on a  limb, I hope that someone is tracking the ways that major print publications (the WaPo, the New Yorker) are coming up with ways to make their publications interactive via the internet.  In what ways do these “outreach” programs activate their current readership and/or new ones?


Due to popular demand (most of it imagined and/or based on anecdotal evidence), I hereby inaugurate a new category for this blog: whatcha gonna do with that?!

The bane of English majors everywhere, and thus to the professors who teach said English majors, “whatcha gonna do with that?!” is the battle-cry of those of little faith; those who are convinced that students studying literature, theory, philosophy, humanities of all stripes will end up starving, holding up a sign at freeway entrances that says: “will close read for food.”

For them, I offer up this category. Whatcha gonna do with that?! will chronicle the innovative and variegated mix of vocations, lucrative passions, and self-supporting hobbies taken up by erstwhile literature majors. I hope it will be a rich archive to show parents, loved ones, and “realists” everywhere.

The inaugural pair for this category will be Stacy London and Stephen Johnson.

Pop culture mavens may recognize the name Stacy London from the addictive and vexing television show What Not to Wear. It may come as a surprise to viewers that London’s undergraduate career focused on—wait for it—“20th century philosophy and German literature.” According to her biography, London parlayed her skills in Germanistik and symbolic logic into fashion, eventually becoming the senior fashion editor at Mademoiselle. Apparently neither of those courses of study asked her to consider gender normativity, but regardless, an employed literature major!

Stephen Johnson (who blogs here) is a prolific writer of non-fiction that examines connections among everyday life, science and technology. His recent book, Everything Bad is Good for You, takes a close look at popular media and traces its neurobiological effects. He makes the counterintuitive argument that, rather than functioning as evidence of the moron-ification of modern society, things like video games and television shows reflect an increasing ability in modern audiences to seek out and understand more complex entertainment. In a recent interview at Pop Matters, Johnson discusses his new book The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic—and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World. In the course of the interview, he reveals his early educational history:

“I suppose I should make a goal of trying to write one book without a reference to Dickens. It’s funny, I went to Columbia, in the English program, in a sense to do theory. I had been a semiotics major in college, and that was Brown in the late ‘80s—it was the third most popular major in the humanities. It had no faculty of its own, but it was third: history, English, and semiotics. And so I went there because Said was there, and Gayatri Spivak was going to be there, and a bunch of other folks who were in that world–it was either going to be Duke or Columbia. I got there and they actually had this weird thing where they made you read novels, which [laughs] was odd, and then I fell in with Franco Moretti, who ended up having the most influence over my intellectual life at that period. He was really doing the nineteenth-century novel, and so I took a couple of different classes with him and I just got really interested in the period. “

There it is, folks. Not just a background in literature, but also in theory. Theory!

So, the preliminary answer to whatcha gonna do with that?! is plenty.

Stay tuned for the next thrilling installment.

GoogleReader-1; Bloglines-0

In a post awhile ago, I enthused wholeheartedly about using Bloglines. Instead of spending my time combing assiduously through my carefully-constructed list of bookmarks, I could simply log in and read everything in one fell swoop. Bliss!

And then the Chuds came. Or, less metaphorically speaking, the semester hit full speed and I stopped reading anything online that didn’t relate directly to my classes, or First Year Experience, or American Studies, or electronic portfolios. All very interesting, but not quite the kind of thing I was going to add to my folders of RSS feeds.

Of course, then you know what happens: you let Bloglines go too long, and you can’t face going back in there. I had read some particular sites here and there, when I had time (because there’s always time for the Fug girls. Always.). I pictured combing through mountains of old posts for every feed I had. After all, I hadn’t logged into Bloglines since the end of February. Was it better to actually allot 3 hours to fixing all the folders, or better simply to mark everything as read and move on? I could neither face the idea of having to read everything nor could I stand the thought of missing something good by deleting it all. I can’t decide if this is a larger phenomenon in the information age, or simply indicative of my own paranoia about managing information…

This morning, I bit the bullet and logged in. Imagine my surprise to discover that many of the folders I had dreaded the most (Will Richardson’s, for instance, which is always packed with great ideas, and updated daily, if not more often) had 4-5 posts in them. Panic! Had people DIED?! A quick check of their websites calmed those irrational fears. They had been posting happily at the same pace. For some reason, however, Bloglines had just dumped the posts from the entire month of March. !!! A short tour of some blogs (done through bookmarks, of course) confirms that I’m not alone: apparently BL is particularly inconsistent with WordPress blogs.

So, that’s it. I’m jumping ship. GoogleReader has been happily capturing and holding the feeds from my students’ blogs all semester, without a glitch. Bloglines is dead to me. This does mean, however, that I’ve got to schedule some time to play with the other functions of GoogleReader. I have to imagine that it has something akin to my favorite feature in Bloglines—i.e., the clippings file (which I consider the internet’s gift to academics). But until I have time to sit down and play with it, everything’s going to have to pile up in folders. Ah, the circle of information life…

Should be Reading, Grading, Writing a Paper…

But instead, I’m taking personality quizzes on the internet. Courtesy of my colleague, Kate Laity, writer, medievalist, and pop culture maven.

So on the grand scale of goddesses, who am I?

isis card

You are most like the Egyptian goddess Isis.

The story of Isis illustrates the transformative powers of sorrow to create wisdom. When she was separated from her husband Osiris, she searched for him everywhere; she used the power of her love to bring him back to life and conceive a child of him, Horus. Isis was worshiped in ancient Egypt as the great mother goddess of the universe. Goddesses with similar attributes include Kuan Yin, Tara and Oya.

Want to try it yourself? Here’s the link.

Most of this I think we have to take as ironic; I hardly think that the power of my love for anything (with the important exception of really cute shoes) would bring it back to life. And I’m no mother goddess, that’s for darn sure. The connection to Kuan Yin, however, is an interesting one. I’m not quite sure how Isis maps onto KY as a legend; but if they are in some ways equivalent, then I can surely relate to the Kuan Yin legend about trying to save people from suffering and having one’s head split into eleven pieces. Often described as both a bodhisattva and the “goddess of mercy,” Kuan Yin has an interesting place in Asian American literary history: she is the narrator in Maxine Hong Kingston’s Tripmaster Monkey. Readers/scholars have noted that as a narrator, she’s both a gentle observer of the shenanigans of the protagonist, Wittman Ah Sing, but also an incisive critic of his internalized racism and sexism.

Now that’s a vision of goddess-hood that I can get behind.

And now, off to grade! And read! And write a paper!

Convivial Meeting, Sans Drinking

On Thursday of this week, many of the English folk—students and faculty—were here, at the second annual English Department Symposium. A traditional symposium, a la the Greeks [see above, with thanks to Michael Lahanas for the picture], would have been filled with philosophy, conviviality, discussion, and drinking. Given current American laws, we were far more interested in the first three. Oh, and having women involved. And more clothing. And no lyres.

Originally, our Symposium came about because the faculty had felicitous, but rare, discussions in hallways and at lunch about exciting things we were doing in our respective courses. Why, we wondered, wasn’t there a venue to make public the great work that our students did? Thusly, the Symposium was born.

On Thursday, an intrepid school newspaper reporter asked a few of us “what do you think the Symposium does for the students, and what does it do for the faculty?” An excellent question. When we began, we had only the vaguest intuition that this would be a good thing; that we’d get something out of it and so would the students, we were sure. But what? That remained to be seen. As I watched the performances, readings, and presentations this year, however, I was blown away by both the quality of the work and the interactions among the students. Something important happens at the Symposium, I think, and it’s only now that it’s starting to register.

I’ve had at least three students comment to me about their individual experiences this year (and I’ll give them their privacy here, unless they want to be named!). One student mentioned how nervous she was prior to reading her work, and how proud she was of herself when she had done it. Another saw the Symposium as a place to have a “reunion” of one of the best classes she’s taken at the college. Finally, another student described how the event is a “support group for English majors” that addresses the ways in which they often feel like fakers until they see others engaged in the same actions. And, of course, there were really cool t-shirts.

All of these analyses speak to the ways in which a public event can stage important individual and communal developments for the students who participate. With a few slight tweaks, I’d say the same is true on the faculty end as well; we get to witness the breadth of our involvement with a large community of readers/writers/thinkers; many of us participate, either reading, running a panel, or performing, which puts us into the same situations as the students—we’re nervous and excited, too. So where’s the tweak? I think it’s this: we get to see students that we had early on and may never have in another class. In forums like the Symposium, we get to see the ways in which students have progressed in their ideas and who they’ve grown into over time.

It occurs to me, off hand, that the Symposium might be the Platonic ideal (hee!) of a conference. All exchange and conviviality and community, with none of the showboating and judgment. (There may have been evidence of these factors at our Symposium, but I didn’t witness it. So I’m sticking to the Platonic ideal theory.)

So, onward and upward for the Symposium! Our challenge for next year: how do we get students involved early on, so that the sessions best support their interests?