#Digiwrimo; or, November is the Cruelest Month for Public Intellectualism

I don’t know what’s more sad: the image of thousands (if not millions) of abandoned blogs, laying by the side of the digital highway, carrion for web vultures; or the fact that, after more than a year, I myself may have forgotten the finer points of constructing a blog post.
Either way, sometime at the end of October, I was reminded of the venerable tradition of Nanowrimo, the increasingly popular use of the month of November to join a community of writers in the pursuit 50,000 words–a draft of a novel–in 30 days.  I’m no would-be novelist, for sure, but I couldn’t help but admire (and envy, a bit) the challenge and sense of camaraderie that I imagine has to develop over the course of Nanowrimo.  I imagine that it’s akin to the moment in a triathlon when you find yourself chatting with the person running next to you.  You may be strangers, but you have everything in common for this measure of time.  But what is a non-novelist to do with November, I ask you?  Thankfully, the good people at Marylhurst University in Portland have come up with an answer for the rest of us: Digiwrimo, a month of digital writing—in all of its manifestations (see “What is Digital Writing?” for more details).  November=50,000 words, novel or no; and by no, I think I mean no excuses, and no reason not to address the sad of the abandoned blog, the loss of blogging skills.  All right, Digiwrimo.  Let’s do this thing.

Reason #1:

When I stop to consider why this kind of challenge is worth the commitment, I don’t have to dig too deeply. First and foremost, I should note that I’ve been requiring my students to keep class blogs for almost 10 years.  It’s a practice that I believe promotes a sustained engagement with their coursework, asks them to think of their writing and thinking as public acts, and knits them into a community of thinkers who are considering similar questions and approaches to texts.  Over time, I’ve come to applaud the students who develop their blogging and commenting as a sustained and dependable practice.  “It’s hard to be consistent, and consistently thoughtful,” I recently wrote on a student’s midterm.  And it is.  Life for students, for professors, for parents, for people is complicated; it’s the easiest thing in the world to put off the complex cognitive work of thinking and writing.  But the payoff can be wonderful, and there is a set of pleasures that develop both from the practice of writing as well as from seeing an ever-growing archive of your work over time.  What patterns emerge?  What persistent concepts, questions, ideas appear across a number of posts?  What do these reveal about your own predilections, and how do you intend to follow those?  Fine questions for my students, but for myself as well.  No one wants to be the professor who embodies the “do what I say, not what I do.”

Reason #2:

A year ago, I put together a list of links for a colleague who was sorting through the complicated questions that surround contemporary scholarship.  What does it look like in the digital age?  What counts, and what doesn’t? If we are reading, writing, and thinking differently with and through the internet, then how do scholars and intellectuals begin to identify the practices that matter to them, and consider the ways that these practices can occur in new forms?  The argument for the scholarly use of blogs has been building for some time; it may have reached its fever pitch in and around 2011.  A cavalcade of prominent intellectuals in a variety of fields had been blogging for years by that point (any list of these will be perspectival and incomplete, but I’ll just throw out a few here.  You have The Leiter Report in philosophy; Pharyngula in the sciences; Kristen Thompson and David Bordwell in film; Henry Jenkins in media studies; Michael Berube’s now sadly defunct blog, which covered cultural studies and politics).  These, of course, are just the blogs by individuals, and leave out the impressive blog collectives.

Out of this history of practice, then, came a debate (now much rehearsed and rehashed) about the place and value of these blogs.  One flashpoint in the “conversation” occurred during the 2010 MLA convention, when then-graduate student/adjunct professor Brian Croxall was unable to attend the conference because of financial constraints and instead posted his paper on his website.  Dave Parry’s post sums up the conundrum that resulted:

Let’s be honest, at any given session you are lucky if you get over 50 people, assuming the panel at which the paper was read was well attended maybe 100 people actually heard the paper given. But, the real influence of Brian’s paper can’t be measured this way. The real influence should be measured by how many people read his paper, who didn’t attend the MLA. According to Brian, views to his blog jumped 200-300% in the two days following his post; even being conservative one could guess that over 2000 people performed more than a cursory glance at his paper (the numbers here are fuzzy and hard to track but I certainly think this is in the neighborhood). And Brian tells me that in total since the convention he is probably close to 5,000 views. 5000 people, that is half the size of the convention.

And, so if you asked all academics across the US who were following the MLA (reading The Chronicle, following academic websites and blogs) what the most influential story out of MLA was I think Brian’s would have topped the list, easily. Most academics would perform serious acts of defilement to get a readership in the thousands and Brian got it overnight.

Or, not really. . .Brian built that readership over the last three years.

Parry’s take on the brouhaha that emerged is a useful one; it identifies the kinds of markers that scholars use to identify the value of their work (here, translated into eyeballs and influence).  But Parry goes on to note that the dismissal of Croxall by those who were devoted to a strict view of the historical means by which scholars captured eyeballs and built influence: presence at conferences, publications in peer-reviewed journals, etc.  Parry refutes this model, citing the kind of careful work that Croxall had done up until this point, utilizing social media to forward his scholarly and pedagogical interests.  He ends his piece by linking this kind of work—the mobilization of a number of digital media forms and their attendant functions to circulate research—to “public intellectualism.”

I now ask my graduate students to read Parry’s blog post before they create their own blogs and start tweeting for our class.  It’s the narrative, I think, that brings home to them the way that the world of scholarship is changing, and the ways that they need to consider how their own work might circulate both in long-standing print formats and also online.  In addition, I hope that it encourages them to think carefully about how they want to straddle that divide.  For me, however, the argument about social media as public intellectualism is compelling, particularly at the moment when colleges and universities are imperiled by their rising costs, shrinking state and federal budgets, and perhaps most troublingly, their inability to make the case that what they offer is worthwhile.  Better scholars than me are making the argument that the self-same media that some view as chipping away at the foundations of education (e.g., social media will be the death of reading and bring on the zombie apocalpyse, etc.) may actually be the grounds for re-invigorating it.  Dan Cohen, director of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, is such a believer that he’s posted a draft of his book chapter dedicated to this argument on his blog; meanwhile, Kathleen Fitzpatrick, the Director of Scholarly Communication at the MLA addresses the complexities of academic publishing (in both print and digital forms) in her most-recent book, Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy.

It goes without saying, I should hope, that both Cohen and Fitzpatrick are consistent bloggers, and by Parry’s definition, public intellectuals.

Quite frankly, I’ve drunk the Kool-Aid on this one; I’m convinced by the arguments that, while academic publishing in journals remains an important way for experts in academic fields to talk to each other, we also have a responsibility to make our interests and passions and discoveries known to other audiences, and to model forms of engagement with the objects that we love the most.  And for that kind of work, nothing beats a blog.  (I’ll save my thoughts about Twitter for another day.)

So, thank you, Digiwrimo, for reminding me why I believe in digital writing, and why I need to make room for it, to develop and practice the same habits that I ask my students to develop every semester.  Let November begin.  (It’s going to be a long month.)

President’s Day 2011: Technology and the Teaching Learning Process

What better occasion to return to the blog than a spring semester President’s Day devoted to “Technology and the Teaching Learning Process”?  Below are a few links that I’ll discuss bright and early tomorrow in the Lally Forum with my colleague Michael Brannigan.

The New York Times on Digital Humanities: “Digital Keys for Unlocking Humanities’ Riches

The Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project “Teens, Video Games and Civics

The It Gets Better Project on YouTube, and on its own site

And while I won’t get a chance to talk about these, they’re also great examples of smart people thinking in sophisticated ways about the learning potential of new media technologies:

USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism: Project New Media Literacies

HASTAC: Humanities, Arts, Science and Technology Advanced Collaboratory

MacArthur Foundation Spotlight: Digital Media and Learning

Wallace and Ellis?

There are any number of literary allusions in Infinite Jest.  In addition to the ubiquitous Hamlet references, we get glimmers of everything from Joyce’s Ulysses to Wittgensteinian logic (Stephen Burn tracks these like a pro).  And while I’d like to note the classics, now and again, I’m slightly ashamed to note that the probable allusion that caught me was to one of Wallace’s contemporary, namely, Bret Easton Ellis.

In the last half of the novel (pp 538 or so), we get spend an extended amount of time with Randy Lenz, one of the residents of Ennet House.  [Spoiler Alert!]  Lenz, the narrator tells us, “has found his own dark way to deal with the well-known Rage and Powerlessness issues that beset the drug addict in his first few months of abstinence” (538).  In the following section, we watch Lenz stalk and kill first rats, then cats, and move on to dogs.  The apotheosis of his process (and a crucial plot point for the Gately narrative) is a blow-by-blow description of Lenz luring and then slitting the throat of a dog.

Sound familiar?  Lenz, in his dress shoes and his Polo top coat, with his raging coke addiction only needed to add animale torture to his character profile before he began to sound a lot like Patrick Bateman in Ellis’s American Psycho. In this Google books Link to the novel, you can see versions of Bateman’s own rage and powerlessness issues, despite the fact that they stem from very different causes than Lenz’s.  It’s not an exact description-for-description fit, I grant you, but Wallace did have some choice comments about Ellis’s work that make it clear that he’d read the book and it left an impression.

I think it’s a kind of black cynicism about today’s world that Ellis and certain others depend on for their readership. Look, if the contemporary condition is hopelessly shitty, insipid, materialistic, emotionally retarded, sadomasochistic, and stupid, then I (or any writer) can get away with slapping together stories with characters who are stupid, vapid, emotionally retarded, which is easy, because these sorts of characters require no development. With descriptions that are simply lists of brand-name consumer products. Where stupid people say insipid stuff to each other. If what’s always distinguished bad writing—flat characters, a narrative world that’s cliched and not recognizably human, etc.—is also a description of today’s world, then bad writing becomes an ingenious mimesis of a bad world. If readers simply believe the world is stupid and shallow and mean, then Ellis can write a mean shallow stupid novel that becomes a mordant deadpan commentary on the badness of everything. Look man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is? In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it. You can defend “Psycho” as being a sort of performative digest of late-eighties social problems, but it’s no more than that.

[from Larry Mcaffrey’s 1993 interview with Wallace, first published in the Review of Contemporary Fiction]

Ouch.  Suppose, for a moment, that Lenz is a kind of reference, if not homage, per se, to Ellis’s character or worldview.  What I like about the possibility is, of course, the way that Lenz—as a feature of Ellis’s blank, black world—works to catalyze Gately’s struggle with violence and recovery.  Allegorically, it positions a dark and stupid world, and the cynical attitude that accompanies it, as a potential vehicle for a struggle to be responsible and human, and to make choices that bring people into the difficulties of the world, rather than standing outside of it.  In other words, Lenz a la Ellis sets up the conditions in which an “illumination of the possibilities for being alive” can occur.

I’m not sure that I fully buy Wallace’s assessment of American Pyscho, for the record.  But I do like the idea that their characters might exist and affect each other in the same literary universe.

Not-so Infinite Summer

So while the good people over at Infinite Summer are sedately working their way through David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest at the reasonable pace of 75 pages per week, the students in my ENG 590 class have committed to reading all 1079 pages of the novel in three weeks. Where’s their prize for the speed round?

In keeping with their hard and earnest work with this behemoth (which they’re assiduously blogging and wiki-ing as well!), I thought I’d try to keep up with them, so here are my rather scattered thoughts on pp. 198-299. Primarily, this section gives us detailed information about Joelle Van Dyne and the lead up to her suicide, as well as Hal’s reaction to his father’s suicide. [Basically, there’s a whole lot of suicide going on.] In addition, however, we get the back story on Orin—his shift from tennis to football, his relationship with Joelle; we also get our first clear look at the culture and rhetoric of AA at Ennet House. From a pedagogical perspective, I had a brief moment of panic: what are we going to talk about in class?!! Not much “happens” in this section. Needless panic, of course. Judging from the blog posts, the students are off and running with their own theories about characters and relevant themes and the overall reading experience of the novel itself.

For my part, I find that I now want to go back and re-examine prior passages to see if new information lends them new significance. In particular, I can’t get this description out of my head:

“locating beauty and art and magic and improvement and keys to excellence and victory in the prolix flux of match play is not a fractal matter of reducing chaos to pattern… a matter not of reduction at all, but — perversely—of expansion, the aleatory flutter of uncontrolled, metastatic growth—each well-shot ball admitting of n possible responses 2n possible responses to those responses, and on into what Incandenza would articulate to anyone…as a Cantorian continuum of infinities of possible move and response, Cantorian and beautiful because infoliating, contained, this diagnate infinity of infinities of choice and execution, mathematically uncontrolled but humanly contained, bounded by the talent and imagination of self and opponent, bent in on itself by the containing boundaries of skil and imagination that brought one player finally down, that kept both from winning, that made it, finally, a game, these boundaries of the self.”

Since we’ve been talking a bit about form and the experience of reading the novel, and since some of the students have pointed out the ways in which tennis can stand in, on a meta-level, for reading strategies, I wonder if there isn’t room to think a bit about how the quote above outlines a model of an infinite text. For all that we’re encouraged to see the deep structure of the novel (e.g., Sierpinski gasket, etc.), here we see a “game” that’s both infinite and contained by the self and its own boundaries—the infinities of choice and reactions to those choices. Incandenza spectrally speaks to the aesthetics of expansion without pattern—unmappable excess that can still have limits. Readers certainly find their own reflections of their own proclivities in this novel and its encyclopedic tendencies. Is it a text that promotes reading as a system of choice? If we’re good readers, we’re bound by the limits of the text, and yet have choices and responses to those choices that guide our interpretations, our foci within our individual experiences of reading. The self bounds the text, as the text reciprocally bounds the self?

Postmodern Listy-ness

It’s really all about the list, no?  Somewhere, someone is articulating a complex theory on our media fascination with the list.  In the meantime, however, I couldn’t help but post a link to the LA Times list of “61 Essential Postmodern Reads.

The list is interesting for a number of reasons.  First and foremost, it’s annotated!  With graphics!  And while my punctuation here might indicate a sarcastic appreciation for the aforementioned qualities, it is an easy way to understand why a particular book made the list, and also a quick and dirty representation of their criteria for inclusion.  I’m a bit surprised to see that all of the criteria focus on form (e.g., “author is character,” “includes historical falsehoods,” and the needing-of-more-detail “plays with language”).  Formal criteria allow the lister, Carolyn Kellogg, to include a number of intriguing picks that don’t always get included in the postmodern canon—Tristram Shandy, for instance, which gets a hearty “amen!” from me—or The Metamorphosis.  But it also allows for a couple of real head-scratchers—The Scarlet Letter, anyone?

As any of my poor, put-upon students in the postmodernism seminar can tell you, I’m highly suspicious of a postmodernism defined solely on the basis of form.  You don’t have to worship at F. Jameson’s feet to consider the idea that content might be part of the postmodern equation.  And you don’t have to buy everything Linda Hutcheon ever thought to mull over the notion that an attempt at political/ideological  intervention can be part of a postmodern aesthetic movement.

Those caveats (or screed.  call it what you will) aside, however, the list does what many good lists do: it provides a basis for readers to debate inclusions, exclusions, and criteria.  A look at the ever-expanding comments is a testament to Kellogg’s work.  Take a look-see.

Not So Triumphant Return

What’s this?  A blog?  Who left this thing here?  [blows dust off it.]  Why, with a bit of attention, this might be usable!

It’s been awhile, folks, and for that I’ve got no big excuses, rationales, or apologies, really.  Sometime in the lead up to the tenure process, it just seemed like I had very little to say.  I’m not sure that I have brilliant things to say now, of course, but writing has to start somewhere.

Once upon a time, I had a little series I liked to call “Whatcha Gonna Do With That?”, which highlighted the multitudinous vocational and existential possibilities of an English major.  So as a celebration of my return to the blogosphere, I give you this excellent addition to WGDWT: “In Defense of the English Major” by Alex Tunney, recent Saint Rose grad, writer, blogger, jack-of-all-trades.