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RhetBit: a summer mecology project

It’s always a challenge for me to shift gears once the summer starts. After a full year of just-in-time work meeting others’ deadlines (and a few of my own, to be fair), the summer often happens upon me like an infinite horizon of possible projects, the opportunity to put a dent in the “to read” shelves of my bookcases, to write intransitively, and so on. It is the worst thing to hit August 1st only to realize that none of those wonderful plans have been realized.

For years, I’ve used the metaphor of exercise to communicate to my students the importance of steady, regular writing as a key to successful dissertating. The fact of the matter is that no one can just sit down and write a book, any more than one can lose a substantial amount of weight in a single burst of physical activity. It’s a long process that involves much more localized motivation and a certain amount of faith that daily activity will ultimately allow a body to reach its goals. And it’s something that improves with practice and investment.

However, when it comes to my own work during the summer months, too often I’ve been prone to waiting “until the mood hits.” So this year, I’m going to try something a little different. I toyed with Tumblr in my grad class last semester, and while my activity there had faded by mid-semester, I liked the interface well enough to think about adding it to my toolbox. So this summer, I’m setting up a commonplace book on Tumblr as a means of keeping myself to a daily regimen of a certain amount of reading and writing. I’ll be posting quotes there daily, and as I do some writing, perhaps some excerpts from that, or at least links to blog posts.

I’m calling it RhetBit, both for the pun on FitBit (as a means of quantifying and keeping track of my intellectual activity) and because its purpose is really just to aggregate bits of what I’m reading and thinking about each day this summer. I don’t expect that it will add up to some coherent map of my brain, but who knows? At the least, it’ll give me a place to store quotes and bibliography entries for later use.

The Strength of Weak Media

There are a couple of different conversations that serve as context for this post, but rather than hail people directly, I’ll just note that it’s that time of the year (for us at Syracuse, anyway) when we encourage our dissertators to start thinking about the job market. Part of what we do in our graduate program is to set up gradual deadlines over the summer for them to share their dossier materials with each other and with faculty, so that when the deadlines start rolling in, they’re ready to go.

I’ve noticed in recent years, off and on, what has been kind of a surprising decline in the number of folks who maintain some sort of professional home page, whether a set of static pages or embedded within WordPress (or some other CMS). This isn’t to say that they’re not active online; for rhetoric and composition, at least, activity on social media has been steadily growing, I think. But as more and more of us embrace Facebook, Twitter, and the like, one of the casualties has been the individually-maintained homepage, and that’s to say nothing of blogging, which has been supplanted by its various micro- cousins. I want to make the case, though, both for my own students here and for others across the discipline, that this is a mistake. You might not necessarily know it to look at my own page (which has been in-process for an embarrassingly long time), but I think that a periodically maintained homepage may be the best piece of social media that you can invest your screen time in.

The title of this post alludes to Granovetter’s “The Strength of Weak Ties,” of course, and I want to summon one of that essay’s insights here. Granovetter’s point is that for certain social tasks, like finding jobs, a person’s weak ties are more valuable than their strong ones, because we tend to share a social horizon with those to whom we’re strongly tied. Those weak connections are more likely to yield new information to me, because if my close friends have heard of something, I’ve probably already heard of it as well. Graduate programs, whatever else they do, are a site of strong ties: as graduate students, we take lots of classes with the others in our cohort, see the same set of professors on a regular basis, and are generally surrounded by people who are invested in our success. For better or worse, it’s hard not to know what the other people in a program are doing. When students apply for jobs, they are faced with a much different audience, committees of people whose knowledge of them is minimal and mediated through the genres of the application process. To call such ties weak probably overstates them.

And yet, those are the interactions according to which these decisions are frequently made. They’re not the only ones, though. I am probably asked a dozen or so times a year if we have any students who’ll be on the market during the next cycle, for instance. And I google people in the field all the time, because I hear their name in another context, or hear them cited in a conference presentation, or I see a retweet, or whatever. In all of these cases, I’m looking to find (or to give out) some kind of professional profile. I don’t know that my own experience is representative, but it feels like, increasingly, all I’m able to locate are out-of-date department sites and/or various rate-my-professor pages. If you think the job letter and the cv are limited in their ability to provide a full picture of a person, you should see some of the search results I get. Even when they’re accurate, they often subdivide a person into a range of social media platforms (FB, Twitter, Academia.edu, LinkedIn, Pinterest, et al.), none of which quite gives me what I’m looking for.

Here’s what I’m looking for: I’ve heard your name in some context. Maybe I’ve seen it in a conference program, or I’ve heard someone mention you in a conversation. I want to know what you’ve been doing, what you’re working on, what kind of things you do. Sometimes this is in the context of a job search, but not always. I might be helping someone brainstorm possible panelists for a conference proposal, or contributors for a collection, or readers on particular topics for a journal. I’ve done each of those things in the past six months. Inevitably, I do a certain amount of searching and exploring, but my results are limited, of course, by what’s out there. What’s interesting to me is that it feels like there’s less out there than there used to be.

A certain amount of this takes care of itself in the form of reputation and professional activity. Publish a few essays, present at conferences, and eventually people will know something about you. And the opportunities to do more of those things will begin to trickle in. But getting to that point, where your name occurs to people when thinking about topics X, Y, or Z, takes a while. Maybe the single easiest step that you yourself can take is to be findable, and findable by people who don’t already know you or your work. We write our application materials for that audience already (explain your dissertation to your family members!), but I wonder if social media hasn’t reinforced our strong-tie bubbles when it comes to online presence.

And that’s the other piece of it. While it may sound like I’m imploring you to make my own life easier, the fact is that we are neither the sum total of our academic products nor our social media platforms. I blog here, infrequently as I do, because there are some things that I can’t reduce to either of those categories. I like to think that, insofar as there’s a place where I’m most fully represented, it’s here. And if I’m doing it right, this site should be appearing close to the top of folks’ search results when they look for me. (It’s #1 when I egosurf.) And I should be asking myself, more often than I actually do, what someone who doesn’t know me will see when they click that link. But I’m curious lately about the number of people I’ve seen who haven’t even provided a link, much less a glimpse of the person behind it.

Despite my title, I don’t know that I’d go so far as to say that a homepage is a “weak” medium, but it can sometimes feel that way, contrasted with the potentially dynamic nature of more contemporary social media. It’s probably better to think of it in terms of stock and flow rather than strength and weakness. Strong and weak ties do have something to do with stock and flow, though: flow is engaging, vivid, immediate, and it demands our attention; in this sense, it reinforces and perhaps helps to create strong ties. But stock is where we connect with people over the long haul, sometimes without our knowledge. As Robin Sloan puts it in his original post on the subject, “It’s what people discover via search. It’s what spreads slowly but surely, building fans over time.” It used to be that skeptics would say that you didn’t need a homepage because no one (“important”) uses the internet, so it’s odd to me to think that the reason you don’t need one now is because everyone does. Needless to say, I don’t find either argument especially convincing.

A Book of Stars #tbt

It’s been a while. My spare time has been consumed with preparing for the 2014 Rhetoric Society of America Conference (that link will take you to the online program for the conference, which did no small amount of the consuming), which happened last week. As a consequence, I haven’t had a great deal of time to spend here.

Anyhow, one of the things that I talked about with friends at the conference was the idea of recovering orphan works–unpublished essays and/or conference papers that never saw the light of publication for one reason or another. One of my own orphan works is an essay called “A Book of Stars: Slicing, Scaling, and Data Mining Our Discipline,” which I wrote (as far as I can recall) sometime not long after I taught my first course in Network Rhetorics in 2005. Interestingly enough, you can see some of the same concerns (meta/data, scale, synecdoche) that are currently swirling in my brain as I work on my second book.

I submitted the essay originally to College Composition and Communication, where it received a “revise and resubmit,” which I declined to follow up on. In part, this was because the suggestions took the essay to a place that I was ambivalent about. Part of it too, I think, was that I was experimenting with what I think of Malcolm Gladwell’s style–the progressive layering in of sources over the course of a chapter/book–an approach that I would have had to rethink quite a bit in order to publish the piece.

So in honor of our discussion at RSA, and as a variation on Throwback Thursday, I thought I’d post it to Scribd and share it here. It’s kind of fun to go back and read something that I wrote several years ago–there were some surprising resonances.

[I should also note that with this year's proposals, CCCC is finally doing something like what I suggest on pages 9-10, focusing on keywords/tags rather than categories, and good on them for that.]

A Book of Stars: Slicing, Scaling, and Data Mining Our Discipline by Collin Brooke

Textexture (#THATCampCNY)

I suppose that it might surprise a few people to learn that, before this weekend, I’d never attended a THATCamp. Surprise! It’s true. I blame this strange omission on several factors, including but not limited to proximity, awareness, and that special brand of conferential social anxiety that I bring to the table. Unconferences always sound great to me in theory, but then I realize that they’re basically designed to put participants in social situations that are my least comfortable. Ah well. I like to think I did okay this time around.

Anyhow, one of the things that these sorts of gatherings inevitably accomplish for me is to tip me onto tools that I hadn’t been aware of before. I left our Camp dead set on trying to incorporate Zotero more mindfully into my workflow this summer, and I saw a couple of other interesting tools that I may try in upcoming weeks. Chief among these is Textexture, which allows you to paste in a text to be visualized as a network (and exported as a GEXF file.

It’s pretty cool. Here’s my chapter from Dobrin’s collection on Ecology, Writing Theory, and New Media:

Network Visualization of "Discipline and Publish"

 

As you can see, the site also gives you a couple of topic clusters, which accounts for the different colors (toggling the filters restricts the diagram to that/those cluster(s)) Each of the nodes in the network can be rolled over to reveal the term and its closest friends in the text. It’s not a substitute for more robust graphing tools, but it’s a pretty nice for a web app. Here’s the full screen version of that network–more words appear as you have the room for them (you can also zoom in to portions of the graph–not here, but in Textexture itself).

Fullscreen network visualization of "Discipline and Publish"

So now you know how I’ll be spending the rest of the weekend.

 

The Work of Conferences in an Age of Social Media #4c14

This week is our flagship national convention, the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC). After having attended CCCC for many, many years in a row, I find myself once more forgoing the experience. This year, I’m spending my travel money on a couple of summer conferences (RSA and KBS), and between those and my upcoming talks at LSU and Wisconsin, that’s more than enough public speaking for me for the year.

But as rhetopians and complandians across the nation converge on Indianapolis this week, one of the things that I chatted a bit about in class last night was the role that the flagship conference plays in our field these days. I’ve thought a little about this in various places, but as the field of Rhetoric and Composition has grown (and shifted towards what I think of now as Writing Studies), one thing that hasn’t changed a whole lot is CCCC. I might even project that comment beyond the discipline to suggest that the idea of the flagship conference hasn’t changed a whole lot, but I can’t really say whether that’s correct. For the moment, I thought I’d explain a little of what I mean by this.

I’m sure that, with a little extra nuance, we could subdivide these further, but in my mind, there are at least three network models that correspond to changes in the field, with implications for how we think of the flagship conference:

centralized, decentralized, distributed

3 network models of disciplinarity

Wave 1: In the early days of the field, before there was much in terms either of graduate programs or even publication venues, I think a conference like CCCC served the very obvious function of centralization or aggregation. Folks with an interest in the teaching of writing were few and far between in most English departments. Not that there wasn’t plenty of writing instruction happening, but there weren’t nearly as many people taking rhetoric, writing, and teaching as research topics, nor were there likely large numbers of conversations about these happening. This is a very sketchy (and evidence-free!) history I’m offering here, but I think it fairly safe to say that most academic disciplines emerge this way, and flagship conferences, organizations, and journals play an important role in establishing them as discrete areas of inquiry. The conference plays an important role in establishing continuity and community, a social core of practitioners around which the discipline eventually forms.

Wave 2: As a discipline matures, that aggregative function of the conference remains, but it shifts somewhat. Graduate programs are only a portion of the story, but the “center” of the discipline begins to distribute among them. If I wanted to study this, I might look at the archive of conference programs, and look at the number of panels that consisted entirely of presenters from the same institution. I’d argue that, during the first wave, that number would be close to zero, because most places wouldn’t have “clusters” of people in the discipline yet. At a certain point, though, as RhetComp becomes a viable area of study, degree concentration, and eventually its own degree, the number of panels composed of folks from a single institution would rise. The conference, rather than aggregating geographically-dispersed individuals, brings “programs” together. When I first started attending CCCC, this was very much the case. My tongue-in-cheek way of characterizing it is that we hunted in packs. You could walk into the hotel bar, and see a social map that looked a lot like the second network above: clusters of people all from the same program gathered around their respective table or two.

CCCC was not the only site for disciplinary conversation during this wave. There were more journals, and the steep climb in masters and doctoral programs meant that conversations were happening across the country. Those conversations were not “evenly” distributed, though, and like I said, graduate programs only represent a certain portion of the organization. There were (and are) still plenty of people being hired as “the one RhetComp person” in an English department, and for someone in that position, a flagship conference still serves that centralizing function.

For those who are part of the clusters represented by graduate programs, a flagship conference helps to combat the insularity that can sometimes happen as a result. Members of the same program may develop strong ties amongst themselves—spending several years with the same, small group of people will have that effect—but the conference provides an important opportunity to venture outside of that small group, to see what conversations are happening elsewhere, to learn that yours are not the only ways of doing things. This is much of what’s meant by networking. A conference is an opportunity to see the field as broader than one’s own immediate horizon. I think of this as the development of weak ties as a complement to the strong ties (of mentorship, colleagues, etc.) that one develops as part of a graduate program.

Wave 3, then, for me begins with discussion forums and email distribution lists, but it becomes much more active and intense with the current wave of social media. I think we’re already seeing this at conferences like CCCC, where individual programs are much less centers of social gravity than they used to be. When we can have conversations with and get to know our far-flung colleagues over Facebook and Twitter, a flagship conference no longer plays that primary social role. There are lots of opportunities now for even the most isolated members of our field to interact with others who share their interests on a daily basis, via listservs, blogs, social media, etc.

(My guess, btw, is that the number of panels composed entirely of presenters from a single institution would drop a bit, although not quite disappear. Social media makes (or will make) it easier to find a 3rd person to fill out a panel topically.)

The question that comes up for me, time and again, is what role does or should a flagship conference play when the intellectual life of a discipline is as distributed as ours now is (and I can only assume that parallel developments are playing out across the academy). The pace of the conference process (requiring submissions almost a year prior to the conference itself) feels positively glacial, and conferences are no longer the privileged point of access to one’s disciplinary audience that they used to be. For me, this raises questions that I can’t really answer yet. I think it’s generational to a degree—we could legitimately argue that CCCC at least is more of a Wave 2.5 conference right now. There are plenty of people in the discipline who don’t avail themselves of social media much, and the conference itself is still working from that older model where workshops, special interest groups, and the like happen at the margins. The “typical” CCCC encounter remains the 3-4 person panel of presentations delivered to an audience.

I do believe that this is slowly changing, with genres like poster sessions, subconferences (like ATTW), and even roundtables grounded in edited collections and online projects. But as current generations of scholars mature into the field, my guess is that the conference will need to change faster. The traditional rationale for what the flagship conference does for a discipline (and its implicit justifications for institutional travel budgets) is becoming, if not obsolete, at least a little more debatable. I don’t think that social media can substitute for all of the things that a conference can do, but I do think that conferences will have to account more explicitly for social media, sooner rather than later.

Close vs Distant Readings #rcdh14

dials

Photo by cinz, CC-licensed, CGB-modified

In RCDH this week, we began the turn to a series of weeks where we look at some specific methods associated with digital humanities, and I began our conversation by explaining why I’d avoided (mostly) the idea of “distant reading” as a way to organize the syllabus. I think my explanation worked out okay, but I thought I might write through it here.

None of this is to say that I don’t use the phrase “distant reading.” I like to think that I don’t spend too much time or energy trying to close barn doors after the animals have escaped. But I also believe that the phrase itself was initially meant to be suggestive rather than particularly denotative; it’s grown heavier as it’s gotten more popular, though, and there’s a tension at its core that I don’t find especially helpful.

I’m no expert when it comes to New Criticism, which is where the idea of close reading emerges (in the US, at least), from folks like I.A. Richards, Ransom, Empson, Brooks, et al. I did a little bit of research on this (it shows up in my discussion of interfaces vs objects in Lingua Fracta), but it’s never been a real focus of mine. And I don’t know that it’s exactly something that requires that focus. “Close reading” is not a method per se. Rather, it’s an attitude, I think, where “close” actually means “closely,” implying an extra degree of care, attention to detail, expertise, etc. When we ask someone “to pay close attention” to something, we’re not asking them to invade our personal space; we use it as an intensifier, like the word “critical” in the phrase critical thinking. There’s a metaphorical sense where we might imagine scholars moving their faces/eyes very close to the text, but that physical proximity is more metaphor than necessity.

The problem, then, comes from the fact that “closeness” can mean both physically near and carefully attentive. When we speak of distant reading, even though there’s a similar connotation in terms of attention (“You seem really distant tonight…”), that is not really what Moretti and others have in mind. Distant reading is not sloppy or inattentive so much as it is an inversion or distribution of attention—instead of focusing attention on a single passage or text or author, the distant reader looks for specific features or patterns across a broad range of texts. The connotation of distance makes sense to us in terms of zooming in and out with a camera lens, taking a metaphorical step back from the individual text(s), etc., but I think this misleads us (a bit) to think that distant reading is just a matter of tuning the “proximity dial” on our reading processes. Here’s Moretti, recently,

The “lived experience” of literature no longer morphs into knowledge, as in Ricoeur’s great formula of the “hermeneutic of listening,” where understanding consists in hearing what the text has to say. In our work we don’t listen, we ask questions; and we ask them of large corpora, not of individual texts. It’s a completely different epistemology.

Now, I do believe that this epistemology can be brought to bear upon targets that are smaller than the ones that Moretti works with, even to the point of a single text. The way that I ended up organizing the course was by focusing our attention at different scales or scopes, from single texts (microscopy) to small-ish sets (mesoscopy) to larger ones or corpora (macroscopy). While I think I’d argue that the kinds of macroscopic studies that Moretti suggests aren’t really possible through close reading, I do think that the techniques associated with both close and distant reading are applicable up and down the scale, even if (in the case of large-scale corpora, e.g.) certain of them become prohibitive in terms of labor.

So this week, we looked at a few different instances of “distant” techniques applied to individual texts, from Greg Urban‘s exploration of the politics of first-person pronouns in his own writing, to Don Foster‘s rhetorico-linguistic attribution work, to Seth Long‘s application of centrality and distribution maps to the Unabomber Manifesto. Each of these projects offers a take on an individual text that isn’t necessarily accessible to the (close) reader, but at the same time, these “distant” strategies provide a reading that is somehow “closer” than close. It reminds me of the way that we require specialized techniques to capture a fingerprint, as well as a large-as-possible database for comparison. Neither operation is especially feasible at the scale of human vision, but there’s a distinction there that doesn’t really exist for reading as we think of it.

The value of a term like “distant reading” for me, then, isn’t so much that it names a specific method or technique. Rather, it’s that it introduces the “proximity dial” at the same time that it expands the possibilities available to us on the “scope dial.” (allowing it to be turned up to 11?) Certain combinations are inevitably going to be more fruitful than others—I don’t spend a lot of time with the bass and volume both maxed out when I listen to music, for example, but it doesn’t mean that I couldn’t, or that such a combo wouldn’t tell me certain things about a song.

There’s an interesting passage in the Moretti piece I quoted above, that I’ll close with, because it’s going to make some folks uncomfortable, I think:

I don’t want to answer for the humanities in general, but for those of us in digital literary studies the answer has to be, Yes: reading a book from beginning to end loses its centrality, because it no longer constitutes the foundation of knowledge. Our objects are much bigger than a book, or much smaller than a book, and in fact usually both things at once; but they’re almost never a book. The pact with the digital has a price, which is this drastic loss of “measure.” Books are so human-sized; now that right size is gone. We’re not happy about the loss; but it seems to be a necessary consequence of the new approach.

I’m of two minds here. On the one hand, I think he’s right to call attention to the notion that the book is not a natural form. The more we know about our neurological capacities for attention, the more I suspect we will find that what feels like “normal” or “natural” when it comes to the scope of our interfaces (like books) is in fact the product or consequence of enculturation. On the other hand, though, whether or not books are the only scale, Moretti’s comments feel strangely resonant with the “death of the book” nonsense from the 1990s. I don’t want to ignore the qualification he offers (“for those of us in digital literary studies”), but at the same time, a statement like this consigns this brand of study to a reactive pose. We neither write textual features nor corpora—we produce language at the scale of the human, however much we might push at the boundaries of what that means (and I do think there are some really intriguing examples of those boundaries being pushed). Perhaps, I’m being oversensitive to the difference here between literary studies and rhetoric, at least as it exists for me. But one of the questions we raised this week, after looking at several examples of rhetorical “fingerprinting,” was to ask whether those patterns are really (a) unique and (b) irrevocable. In other words, we weren’t just focused on what these techniques can help us to find (or even understand), but also what they can help us to do, as writers. If there’s an awkwardness for me here, it’s with the idea of thinking that opening up one dial necessarily means abandoning (or strictly limiting) another. I don’t want to read too much into a single passage, but at the same time, something feels a little off to me about it.

 

Algorithmic Rhetorics #rcdh14

This week in RCDH, we focused our reading and discussion around algorithms. As I mentioned last week, the topic felt kind of transitional for me—databases, archives, and metadata blend together fairly well (for me, at least), and they’re not topics that feel overwhelmingly technological for people. Whether or not we work on the back ends of those kinds of projects, the concepts themselves are not immediately intimidating, I don’t think.

That changes a bit with the shift to algorithms, which have a more machinic flavor. Whether that’s actually the case is something I was thinking about in class, and it’s persisting with me this morning. One of the things that I said last night is that, at heart, algorithms are simply procedures, and we spent a healthy chunk of our time trying to put that into practice.

Last week, we used a couple of pages from an old MLA job list, and brainstormed as complete a catalog of metadata as we could. Before class yesterday, I took that list and converted it into “variables,” such that Rank, for example, became a class with potential values like Assistant, Associate, Full, Open, Fixed Term, etc. I brought copies of that list of variables to class with me, and had the students write “programs” for evaluating job advertisements. We didn’t focus too heavily on programming languages or anything—I wanted to keep it as light as possible. The goal of the program was to generate a score S(n) for each of the sample ads I brought with me, and for the most part, the programs were simply a series of if-then-else steps that bumped up or down S based on a range of factors (geography, specialization, etc.). The students then swapped programs, and used them to score several ads.

Some of the obvious objections emerged in discussion—I didn’t provide any instructions about the value of S other than it should start at zero, and so we ended up with scores that ranged from single to triple digits. I didn’t give them copies of the ads ahead of time, so some of the variables they used weren’t especially relevant. I asked the students to execute the programs “as is,” which restricted what is normally a more recursive process. I probably should have been more careful about choosing information-rich ads and pruning down the variables to minimize wasted effort, but otherwise, it was an interesting exercise. It also turned us to some conversation about how the whole ecology of the process would need to change in order to implement this program for all to use, how search committees engage in their own procedures as they read materials, etc.

Maybe the most interesting thing for me about the exercise was the process of translating what is often a personal, value- and preference-oriented practice into algorithms. One of the pieces we read was Tarleton Gillespie’s The Relevance of Algorithms, an essay available online and also recently published in Media Technologies: Essays on Communication, Materiality, and Society, fresh off the press from MIT. Gillespie’s essay makes several points that really stuck out for me this week; among them is the idea that algorithms instantiate certain kinds of “knowledge logics,” such that it makes as much sense to study them sociologically as it does to think of them as technologies. He locates a “fundamental paradox” at the heart of algorithms:

Algorithmic objectivity is an important claim for a provider, particularly for algorithms that serve up vital and volatile information for public consumption. Articulating the algorithm as a distinctly technical intervention helps an information provider answer charges of bias, error, and manipulation. At the same time, as can be seen with Google’s PageRank, there is a sociopolitical value in highlighting the populism of the criteria the algorithm uses. To claim that an algorithm is a democratic proxy for the web-wide collective opinion of a particular website lends it authority. And there is commercial value in claiming that the algorithm returns “better” results than its competitors, which posits customer satisfaction over some notion of accuracy (van Couvering 2007). In examining the articulation of an algorithm, we should pay particular attention to how this tension between technically-assured neutrality and the social flavor of the assessment being made is managed — and, sometimes, where it breaks down (182).

It’s not simply that algorithms represent the operationalization or reification of what are social processes—there are also sociopolitical consequences to algorithms that make them our interlocutors and audiences, that place them among our available means of persuasion, and that make them rhetorical ecologies of their own. These are points that are obvious to some of you who might read this, but I don’t think rhetorical studies has quite yet gotten on board with the relationship between algorithms and rhetoric. I’m only just now articulating it for myself, to be fair.

One thing that occurred to me last night was an interesting parallel between Gillespie’s characterization and the definition of myths that Roland Barthes offers up in Mythologies. For Barthes, myths are a particular form of signification, an operation that takes the historical or the contingent and transforms it into Nature:

When it becomes form, the meaning leaves its contingency behind; it empties itself, it becomes impoverished, history evaporates, only the letter remains. There is here a paradoxical permutation in the reading operations, an abnormal regression from meaning to form, from the linguistic sign to the mythical signifier….The meaning will be for the form like an instantaneous reserve of history, a timed richness, which it is possible to call and dismiss in a sort of rapid alteration… (227)

I don’t know that I can convey to you how fascinating it’s been to read the first several pages of “Myth Today” in Barthes’ book, substituting “algorithm” for myth—in some places, the stretch is more casuistic than others, but by and large, it works. And this parallel might extend productively to Barthes’ thoughts about how to read myths: there are those of us who simply accept the results of algorithms as they are, those of us who understand their distortions, and then perhaps those who “focus on the {algorithm} as on an inextricable whole made of meaning {social flavor} and form {technological procedure},” producing an “ambiguous signification” that foregrounds Gillespie’s paradox.

There are strong parallels as well between a Barthesian “reader of algorithms” and the kind of computational literacy that Annette Vee advocates or the procedural literacy suggested by Lisa Gye:

procedural literacy entails learning, and thus being able to recognise, the procedures that enable algorithms and hence software to weave their magic but it is also a more fundamental literacy which takes into account of a range of human interactions. It allows us to model knowledge and to see the world as a system of interconnected parts.

It makes a great deal of sense to me to think of algorithms as myths in the Barthesian sense—and I wonder to what degree this parallel offers a more theoretically-inclined and/or humanities-friendly way of thinking about the issue of whether or not programming/coding belongs in our curricular core. In several ways, the arguments for the centrality of rhetoric are the same ones we might make for the importance of algorithms. I’m not sure that I’d completely recognized (or articulated) that resonance before now.

One last item. I want to write too about the other angle that our readings took last night, but I think I’ll save those for another post. I should note, though, that alongside several essays, we also read Stephen Ramsay’s Reading Machines, a book that makes much of McGann and Samuels’ notion of “deformance” or deformation:

In one sense, deformation is the only rational response to complexity. Nearly all deformative procedures (which include outline, paraphrase, translation, and even genre description) are intended to alleviate some difficulty…All textual entities allow for deformation, and given that interpretation occurs amid a textual field that is by nature complex, polysemic, and multi-referential, one might say that most entities require it. Seen in this light, deformation is simply a part of our permanent capacity for sense-making (48).

Are you ready to have your mind blown? According to Barthes, “The relation which unites the concept of the myth to its meaning is essentially a relation of deformation” (232).

Boom.

(And yes, I think I have the topic/angle for the next essay I’m going to write.)

Metadata, Procedurality, and Works Slighted

Whenever I put together a course, I like to imagine that there’s some sort of narrative thread running through, whereby early topics and readings lead to the ones that follow. Sometimes that thread is brute chronology, but most often, it’s thematic, and I suspect that more often than not, the thread is one that only I can see, although I do try to suggest it at various points during the semester. In the case of RCDH, this has been a little tricky, not least because DH is still emergent, somewhat interdisciplinary, and my own field’s engagement with it is uneven. In my head, though, after we’d gotten an obligatory week of definitions out of the way, the first “unit” of the course was a trio of weeks gathered under the headings of database, archive, and metadata. (Here’s the schedule, if you haven’t seen it.)

We’re turning now to a week that didn’t necessarily fit that well as I was originally putting the course together, a week that combines Stephen Ramsay’s Reading Machines, some work on procedural literacies, and a few pieces/performances of algorithm. It’s an ambitious little week in its own way, but as we were working our way through a discussion of metadata last night, it got me to thinking about the transition between this week and next. Some of this I raised in class somewhat tentatively, but I wanted to write through it a bit today, partly for my own memory, and also because my guess is that there are others who have written about these ideas in more detail, whose work I may not have come across. So if any of this happens to resonate with other texts, please leave a note/suggestion in that regard.

If I have a hypothesis here, it’s that there’s an important connection between metadata and proceduracy (or procedural literacy) that I haven’t thought through as carefully as I want to. My own background/familiarity with the scholarship on metadata is a little spotty, so I worry that this is obvious to everyone other than me. I’ve read some of the classics, like Sorting Things Out, and I came to the topic through the Web2 discussions (like Everything is Miscellaneous), enough so that when I was in charge of the CCC Online Archive, we billed ourselves as an archive of journal metadata with a mix of approaches (mixing established classification schemes with emergent tagging, etc.). If I had to pin down a couple of dominant themes in the literature I’ve read, there was a focus in the mid-2000s on taxonomy vs folksonomy, and I think that’s an ongoing conversation. More recently, given mass digitization efforts, the quantified self movement, revelations of deep surveillance, and the proliferation of online archives, my sense is that there’s also been a turn towards the more basic question of accuracy, both in terms of getting it wrong and getting it too right. For example, last night we discussed Geoffrey Nunberg’s critique of Google’s Book Search, which chronicles some of its (many) egregious metadata failures and Jessica Reyman’s piece in College English on user data and intellectual property (PDF). Nunberg is a pretty straightforward critique of the consequences of getting metadata wrong, and Reyman (following Eli Pariser’s Filter Bubble) might be described as an exploration of the hazy line between data and metadata. Reyman closes by explaining that

The danger presented is that the contributions by everyday users will potentially be transformed into increasingly exclusive forms of proprietary data, available to the few for use on the many.

FB and others have become so adept at collecting and analyzing metadata that “privacy settings” are increasingly an empty gesture, a point that’s also illustrated charmingly by Kieran Healy’s “Using Metadata to Find Paul Revere,” another of last night’s readings. The connective tissue for me here is referentiality–the degree to which metadata presents us with an accurate representation of the data it is purportedly about. Referentiality is also one of the goals (among others) of various metadata standards, like the work that Cheryl Ball and the Kairos folk are doing.

One of the themes that emerged for me, though, during the discussion was the degree to which there’s a tension between (to borrow the subtitle of Sorting Things Out) classification and its consequences. That’s certainly a theme in Tarez Graban’s “From Location(s) to Locatability: Mapping Feminist Recovery and Archival Activity through Metadata,” (no link, sorry) which works from the assumption that metadata makes certain activities more visible and others less so, and that recovery work can proceed from questioning and complicating the categories that we often internalize about academic work.

I think, though, that I want to push that tension into the heart of metadata itself, something more like what Curtis Hisayasu gets at in one of his contributions to “Standards in the Making“:

What becomes absolutely transparent in these intersections is the actual work of historical knowledge-making which involves not simply “digging up” artifacts and placing them accordingly in the container of linear time, but making self-conscious decisions about how that artifact is to be organized alongside others to produce a narrative and an argument about the present.  “Tagging,” in instances such as these does not so much “describe” digital artifacts as much as it appropriates them and composes them in the name of more general logics of history and identity.

I don’t think that I’m after the claims, made variously throughout our readings last night, that metadata is necessarily rhetorical, ideological, and/or political, although I do think that it is all those things. In its nature as description, all of those qualities follow for me with respect to metadata. Maybe I’m pushing at something that is obvious or implicit in those adjectives, but I feel like there’s also space to think about procedurality in ways that might not be immediately apparent. Over the past few days, a couple of Twitter “events” helped this coalesce for me. First was Anil Dash’s essay about his “experiment” in retweeting, where he made the decision to tweet only women, and the second was Sara Ahmed’s discussion of gender and citation (in my head, I think of this as an essay on “Works Slighted”):

Sara Ahmed on the gender politics of citation

Sara Ahmed on the gender politics of citation

Ahmed’s not the first to point this out, nor are academic bibliographies the only venue where this (important) discussion is happening, nor is this solely a gendered concern, but her post(s) happened to coincide for me with this sense that metadata contains, at its heart, a ratio between description and procedurality. That is, there is no description degree zero, no purely descriptive metadata, and I think that sometimes we fall into the trap of imagining that there is. It’s not enough to simply say “it’s both,” though–I think that claim is easy enough to accept. The procedural literacy of metadata lies perhaps in figuring out that variable ratio and tuning it to the task at hand.

The exercise with which we began class last night was to take a couple of pages from an old MLA job list, and to develop a set of metadata categories based upon the entries, and one of things that crystallized for me was the degree to which this ratio varied from term to term. We also were able to lean on the ratio a bit, such that a seemingly descriptive phrase like “residential campus” could be read as a subtle (seductive) means of distinguishing an institution from others (vs. commuter campuses, online delivery, et al.). And on Sunday, I’d already taken an otherwise procedural term like “postmark” and used it as a descriptor for the impact of technology on the process. The deeper into the exercise we got, the more I think we were thinking both in terms of what metadata represent and how they functioned.

That same ratio lurks at the core of the bibliography, which is both descriptive (here are the works I have cited) and procedural (presented in a consensual format for their location), but Ahmed, Dash, and many others call attention to the procedural consequences of the bibliography. What we know now about network effects and filter bubbles should attune us to those consequences, even if we haven’t personally run afoul of the disciplinary fatalism that Ahmed describes in her followup to the Twitter conversation.

With respect to bibliographies, there’s an additional, material, fatalism–the reason we have traditionally constrained bibliographies to the works directly consulted for a given piece of writing is for reasons of space of the printed page. With the notable exception of the bibliographic essay, whose works cited sometimes also concerns itself with field coverage, there is an assumption that the bibliography must be primarily descriptive–these are the texts named directly here. But that list of citational attachments is, of course, implicitly preferential. As Ahmed puts it:

There is a ‘good will’ assumption that things have just fallen like that, the way a book might fall open at a page, and that it could just as easily fall another way, on another occasion. Of course the example of the book is instructive; a book will tend to fall open on pages that have been most read.

Maybe what I want to say is that there’s a similar assumption at play within metadata, or more precisely, within the way I’ve traditionally thought about metadata. As our work migrates slowly away from the printed page, it might open up opportunities for tuning the ratio away from description, for embracing the compositional implications of tools like bibliographies. Not that there aren’t important issues of preservation and persistence if we were to replace static bibliographies with links to a public Zotero folder, for instance, but I find myself thinking more and more about experimenting this way.

Geez. There’s plenty more to say, but this is long enough as it is. I don’t suspect I’ll have the time, energy, or inclination to do this every week. And please, if you’ve made it this far, and have suggestions in mind for other things I might stir into this mix, feel free to add them below…

Mining the JIL

This week, in Rhetoric, Composition, and Digital Humanities, we’re reading a series of essays about metadata, so that’s where my mind has been as of late. And one of the things that I’m asking my students to do each week is to imagine projects that they might do based upon the readings and resources for that week. So I spent a little time this afternoon messing around with the fabulous dataset that Jim Ridolfo has shared, the OCRed archive of MLA Job Information Lists.

I wanted to do something that had some kind of hypothesis, but also that I could do fairly quickly, without too much technological overhead. I settled for the question of how the job search process has changed over the past 10-15 years with respect to technology. When I was on the market for the first time, in 1997 (!!), I don’t recall whether the online version of the JIL had been introduced yet. But certainly the job seeker’s experience, even allowing for the online JIL, was predominantly paper-based.

I don’t think it’s particularly earth-shattering to suggest that this has changed. But can we find that change reflected in the JIL itself? I tried a couple of angles. First, I tracked all mentions of the word “postmark” (including postmarked). I was working mostly with basic pagecounts, and while I tried to be good about eliminating those few occasions where it appeared twice in one ad, I almost certainly missed some of them. I also combined the October and December JILs, so if an ad appeared in both with the word, I counted it twice, I’m afraid. This is a blogpost.

A line graph charting the use of the word 'postmark' in MLA JIL ads from 2000 to 2012

A line graph charting the use of the word ‘postmark’ in MLA JIL ads, 2000-2012

The only surprising thing about this graph to me is the little uptick in 2012, after references to postmarking had dropped into the single digits rather quickly from 2009-2011. Otherwise, though, this was about what I’d expect. As more institutions set up online HR forms and began to accept materials delivered electronically, the idea of indicating a separate postmark (as opposed to a simple deadline) has been on the decline.

The second approach I took was to look into how many job ads made reference to URLs, either in the form of departmental homepages or online (HR) submission forms. Given the steep climb from 1998 to 1999, you might forgive me for deciding not to count after a certain point. Instead, what I’ve done here is in terms of percentages. The JIL has front matter that stays pretty constant, so there are no URLs on those pages, making the maximum somewhere in the 90% range. I did a basic search count for “http,” then divided the # of page hits by the total number of pages in the JIL to arrive at these percentages. I also went backwards until I found a year (1994) with zero.

JILurls

A line graph charting the percentage of JIL pages with at least one URL on them, 1994-2003.

This graph is a little misleading, though, going as it does from around one-third of the JIL pages in 1998 to nearly all of them in 1999. If I remember correctly, 1999 was the first year where participating departments were prompted to supply a homepage for their program and so, even if the ad copy doesn’t reference any URLs, the ad itself contains one. Were I to strip out those headings, the graph might be more gradual, and more accurate in its representation of the diffusion of the web into the JIL.

I know you’re curious. The five institutions that supplied URLs in 1995 were Clemson, Georgetown, Oregon State, Western Michigan, and an organization in Austria called the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Neither of these graphs necessarily lead to grand claims about the effect of the internet on the job search process. The second does suggest a point at which it was taken for granted that programs would have some rudimentary web presence. The first suggests that we’ve seen a gradual tailing-off of certain print- and postal-based assumptions about how materials circulate. And both suggest that if I wanted to claim anything more specific, I’d need to do much finer-grained work first.

That’s all.

 

The Limits of Facebacking

Last week, as part of their 10-year anniversary, Facebook released a tool that allows users to create (and later edit) movies based upon their FB usage. The “Look Back” videos offer “an experience that compiles your highlights since joining Facebook.” For a couple of days, my feed (and I suspect, most people’s) filled with “looks back” from a variety of friends, followed by the inevitable wave of parodies (Walter White, Darth Vader, et al.).

Like many of my friends, I went ahead and let FB sort through my photos and updates in an effort to set my “highlights” to music, but I didn’t end up sharing the results. This week in my DH course, we’re talking about archives, so I’ve been reading around somewhat alert to discussions of archiving, and I ended up thinking a bit about my “Look Back” and what it had to tell me about my relationship with FB as an archive of my life. I didn’t end up sharing my movie because I didn’t feel like it was particularly representative–while it did manage to hit on a couple of significant events (such as the fact that I bought a house), most of the updates and images included were pretty random. And so I’ve been thinking on why that was.

One obvious reason is that I don’t share as much of my life with FB as others do, and I say that without judgment. As FB itself notes, the content of the movie “depend[s] on how long you’ve been on Facebook and how much you’ve shared.” While I’ve been there for 6 or 7 of its 10 years, it would be an understatement to say that there are gaps in my self-presentation, the same gaps that show up in my movie. So on the one hand, I have no one to blame but myself–I can hardly be critical of a presentation when I’ve withheld the raw materials that it might draw on. And I don’t mean here to be critical of those who do share much more–I’m as fond as anyone of being able to keep up with my friends’ lives this way. But it was interesting to me just how much my Look Back ended up referencing my own attitudes toward sharing.

One of the texts we’re looking at this week is Johanna Drucker’s “The Book as Call and Conditional Texts.” It’s a compelling meditation on how we understand books, and how contemporary technologies might shift that understanding. Among other things, Drucker notes

The future book, which is already here, not just imagined but implemented in various ways in the configurable and mutable pages of the web, will be fluid, a conditional configuration based on a call to the vast repositories of knowledge, images, interpretation, and interactive platforms.

Of course, I read this article having already thought about the Look Back, and thus found echoes of it reverberating throughout. The “pages” of the Amazon website (or really, any e-commerce site) provide another fine example of this conditional configuration, a structured query whose contingent nature is disguised by “stable” terms like site and page. Of course the Look Back is a conditional text, but faced with mine, I was struck by how its conditions are really Facebook’s. I assume that its selection of images and updates is guided by the internal currency of shares and likes, FB’s way of calculating relative life-importance. And of course, the movies are shared on FB, themselves subject to the same economy that generated them.

I was especially taken with this passage from Drucker:

If ever the principles of a Heraclitan flux were embodied in the very ontology/phenomenology of an artifact, it is here, now, in the fleeting immediacies through which a document composes itself for our eyes only and for an instant’s disregard and then vanishes. Siblings and cousins and shades of resemblance may reassemble, so like the original we mistake them, momentarily, for that earlier temporary object brought into being, but then, with regret, relief, and other realization of the subtle but significant difference between the initial document and this “new” one, we realize the perils of our connection to “refresh rates.” No corpses remain.

I know that this is going to seem a little dark, but maybe the biggest absence in my Look Back was death itself. Among the life events that didn’t show up were the losses of my father and grandparents, and my surgery in 2011, perhaps the closest that I myself have come to death, at least to my knowledge. I have only really shared those things in very limited ways over social media, but collectively they represent a significant chunk of my life taken up with loss, depression, and grief. Even if I were better at sharing and dispelling those feelings, in many ways, my presence on FB was an intentional hedge against that time. If I couldn’t read or write academic prose (and there was a long time there where I couldn’t), at least I could toss up a link or a snarky observation about something or other. Nothing remains very long, and maybe for a while that’s what I needed.

Maybe what I saw in my Look Back, then, was a bearable lightness, or what passed for such at the time. If there’s something that Drucker’s discussion of conditional texts left me with, it was that, despite FB’s desire that I “become internally colonized by the form and formats of these reconfiguring texts,” something different happened. It produced just a little bit more distance between my own conditions and those that FB suggested on my behalf. That’s all.

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