Archives: DH

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).


(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.


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.


Seamus Heaney, 1939-2013

What you may not know about me is that, once upon a time, I went to graduate school fully intending to focus my efforts on Irish literature. I had the opportunity to meet Seamus Heaney on a couple of occasions, and to hear him read several times, both in the States and during my semester abroad in Dublin. So it was with some sadness that I learned this morning that he had passed away.

Here is what you don’t know. Some of this has to do with Heaney, some more of it with Seamus Deane (who was a visiting professor at Carleton one term and from whom I took a course), but most of it has to do with Irish literature in general. As an English major in college, I took plenty of literature courses, and all of that literature was mediated through the printed page, of course. And the page, it flattens things. Birth and death dates follow the names of the writers included in our Norton anthologies, important numbers, but ultimately pretty meaningless to a 20 year old. When I started studying Irish literature, it was a bit newer, certainly, but as it stretched to the current day, to authors still living, and later to authors that I was meeting, literature changed a bit for me. This is the analogy my undergraduate mind devised: as I started out, the texts I was reading were like stars in the night sky, bits of brilliance against a much vaster sea of dark. What Irish literature did for me was to flip that metaphor on its head–I began to see literature itself as the field and the textstars as intensities rather than disconnected objects.

A big part of that was that the writers I met in Ireland all knew each other, and wrote both for and to each other. It may seem obvious to me now, but they were part of an ecology, a network, a community, and something was lost when you read them in isolation from the others. They weren’t writing in isolation and so they changed the way I read–little wonder that when, in a few years, I encountered what rhetoric and composition had to say about the myth of the isolated, originary writer, I was already primed for that work to resonate with me. And while it may be a stretch from the outside to connect the 20-year old me stepping out of a Dublin pub with the me who’s focused on ecologies and networks for the past several years, for me it’s always made perfect sense.

So, below the fold, is Heaney’s “The Ministry of Fear,” written for Seamus Deane:

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CCR 733: Rhetoric, Composition, and Digital Humanities (sp14)

Next spring, I’ll be teaching our grad program’s DH course for the second time. While not a complete loss, the first time I taught the course was affected in no small measure by the fact that I had major surgery just prior to the start of the semester. It turned out that debilitating pain and medication-hazed convalescence were not especially conducive to course planning. :)

So in many ways, then, it feels like I’m really teaching the course for the first time. I’m going to paste below my preliminary outline for course readings, for which I would especially welcome your feedback. It’s not really close to done yet, but I feel like I’ve got enough now that I can finally move on and plan my fall courses (!!).  I still have several layers of research to do (bookmarks, instapaper, fave tweets, TOCs, etc.) before this will feel finalized. So if you have any suggestions for readings, please share them here, or drop me a note–this will be an ongoing process throughout much of the fall semester.

A couple of additional notes: In addition to weekly readings, I expect that I’ll ask the students to look at 1-2 online projects a week–I have a huge list of possibilities, but I haven’t sorted through them yet to match them up with readings and topics. We’ll also be spending time each week in the lab working with various tools–again, big list that needs sorting and matching. Finally, I’ll be hosting a more dynamic version of the syllabus at The static version of the syllabus will be available both there and here once I’m closer to finalizing.

Oh, and there are only 13 weeks because we’ll lose one to CCCC, I think, and because I always leave a week open for flexibility’s sake.

CCR 733: Rhetoric, Composition, and Digital Humanities

Schedule of Activities


Winter Break

This is not required, but I highly recommend you read either or both of the following over winter break–if you are new to DH, both books provide a nice introduction to some of the issues we’ll be discussing:

Robin Sloan, Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (Amazon)
Charles Soule, Strange Attractors (Amazon)

Week 1 Introduction to Course

There are no required readings for our first meeting, but I do recommend setting up some sort of blogspace (WordPress, e.g.) in advance, as well as a Twitter account if you don’t already have one. We will spend some time discussing this site, the role that blogs and Twitter will play in the course. If you have questions about this prior to the actual course, feel free to contact me.

Week 2 Definition

Matthew Berry, “Introduction” Understanding Digital Humanities
Anne Burdick, et al., “A Short Guide to the Digital Humanities,” from Digital_Humanities (PDF)
Alan Liu, “The Meaning of Digital Humanities,” PMLA 128.2 (March 2013): 409–423.
Willard McCarty, “The Future of Digital Humanities is a Matter of Words.” from A Companion to New Media Dynamics (PDF)
Part I of Debates in the Digital Humanities, “Defining the Digital Humanities” (available online)

Andrew Abbott, “The Chaos of Disciplines,” from Chaos of Disciplines (PDF)
Part III of Debates in the Digital Humanities, “Critiquing the Digital Humanities” (You should at least skim this)

Week 3 Database

Charles Cooney, et al. “The Notion of the Textbase: Design and Use of Textbases in the Humanities.” LSDA
Sharon Daniel, “The Database: An Aesthetics of Dignity.” from Database Aesthetics (PDF)
Ed Folsom, Database as Genre: The Epic Transformation of Archives. PMLA 122.5 (Oct 2007), 1571-1612 (includes responses).
Christiane Paul, The Database as System and Cultural Form: Anatomies of Cultural Narratives.” Database Aesthetics (PDF)
Geoffrey Sirc, “Serial Composition.” Rhetorics and Technologies (PDF)

Collin G Brooke, “Databases, Data Mining” and “Personal Patterns: Mapping and Mining” from Lingua Fracta (PDF)

Week 4 Archive

Casey Boyle. Low-Fidelity in High-Definition: Speculations on Rhetorical Editions. RDH
Tarez Samra Graban, Alexis Ramsey-Tobienne and Whitney Myers. In, Through, and About the Archive: What Digitization (Dis)Allows. RDH
Michael Neal, et al. Making Meaning at the Intersections. Kairos
Liza Potts. Archive Experiences: A Vision for User-Centered Design in the Digital Humanities. RDH
Jenny Rice and Jeff Rice. Pop Up Archives. RDH

Week 5 Metadata

Tarez Samra Graban, “From Location(s) to Locatability: Mapping Feminist Recovery and Archival Activity Through Metadata.” College English
Kieran Healy, “Using Metadata to Find Paul Revere.
Richard McNabb, “Making the Gesture: Graduate Student Submissions and Expectations of Journal Referees.” Composition Studies, 29.1 (2001): 9-26.
Geoffrey Nunberg, “Google’s Book Search: A Disaster for Scholars.” CHE, August 31, 2009.
Jessica Reyman, “User Data on the Social Web: Authorship, Agency, and Appropriation.” College English 75.5 (May 2013): 513-522.
Jentery Sayers, et al., Standards in the Making

Week 6 Algorithm

Kevin Brock, One Hundred Thousand Billion Processes: Oulipian Computation and the Composition of Digital Cybertexts
James Brown, “Making Machines
Paul Eggert, “Text as Algorithm and as Process.” from Text and Genre in Reconstruction (PDF)
Stephen Ramsay, Reading Machines: Toward an Algorithmic Criticism
Mark Sample, Hacking the Accident

Week 7 Microscopy

Don Foster, from Author Unknown
Matthew Jockers & Julia Flanders, “A Matter of Scale
Seth Long, “Text Network and Corpus Analysis of the Unabomber Manifesto.” Feb 12, 2013

Geoffrey Rockwell, “What is Text Analysis, Really?” LLC 18.2 (2003): 209-219.
Greg Urban, “The Once and Future Thing.” from Metaculture (PDF)

Patrick Juola, “Rowling and “Galbraith”: an authorial analysis” Language Log, July 16, 2013.
Ben Zimmer, “Decoding Your Email Personality.” NYT, July 23, 2011
Ben Zimmer, “The Science that Uncovered J.K. Rowling’s Literary Hocus-Pocus.” WSJ, July 16, 2013.

Journal of Law and Policy Symposium on Authorship Attribution (PDF available at site)

Week 8 Mesoscopy

Carol Berkenkotter & Thomas Huckin, “Conventions, Conversations, and the Writer”
David Hoffman and Don Waisanen. “At the Digital Frontier of Rhetorical Studies: An Overview of Tools and Methods for Computer-Aided Textual Analysis” RDH
Dan Wang, “Is There a Canon in Economic Sociology?” Accounts 11.2 (2012): 1-8.

Issue 2.1 of the Journal of Digital Humanities on Topic Modeling

Week 9 Macroscopy

Matthew Jockers, Macroanalysis
Nelya Koteyko. Corpus-Assisted Analysis of Internet-Based Discourses: From Patterns to Rhetoric. RDH
Franco Moretti, “Conjectures on World Literature.” NLR

Gregory Crane, “What Do You Do With a Million Books?” D-Lib Magazine12.3 (2006).
Jean-Baptiste Michel et al., “Quantitative Analysis of Culture Using Millions of Digitized Books,”Science331.176 (2011): 176-182.
Ted Underwood, “How Not To Do Things with Words,” blog post, The Stone and the Shell, 25 August 2012.

Week 10 Networks

Albert-Lazlo Barabasi. from Linked &o Bursts
Anna Munster, “Prelude to the Movements of Networks.” from An Aesthesia Of Networks
James Porter. “Rhetoric in (as) a Digital Economy.” Rhetorics and Technologies (PDF)
Duncan Watts, from Six Degrees.

Week 11 Visualization

Tanya Clement, “Text Analysis, Data Mining, and Visualizations in Literary Scholarship.” LSDA
Johanna Drucker, “Graphesis: Visual knowledge production and representation” (PDF)
Johanna Drucker, “Humanities Approaches to Graphical Display.” DHQ
Martyn Jessop, “Digital Visualisation as a Scholarly Activity” LLC 23.3 (2008): 281-293.
Krista Kennedy and Seth Long, “The Trees Within the Forest: Extracting, Coding, and Visualizing Subjective Data in Authorship Studies.” RDH
Manuel Lima, “The Syntax of a New Language.” from Visual Complexity (PDF) (Companion Site)
Stéfan Sinclair, et al., “Information Visualization for Humanities Scholars.” LSDA

Max Black. from Models and Metaphors

Week 12 Graphs

Morgan Currie, “The Feminist Critique: Mapping Controvery in Wikipedia.” UDH
Kieran Healy, “A Co-Citation Network for Philosophy.”
Brad Lucas and Drew Loewe, “Coordinating Citations and the Cartography of Knowledge.” The Changing of Knowledge in Composition
Derek Mueller, “Grasping Rhetoric and Composition by Its Long Tail: What Graphs Can Tell Us about the Field’s Changing Shape.” CCC 64.1 (Sep 2012): 195-223.
Anne Stevens and Jay Williams, “The Footnote, in Theory.” Critical Inquiry

Week 13 Maps

Scot Barnett, “Psychogeographies of Writing: Ma(r)king Space at the Limits of Representation.” Kairos
Franco Moretti, “Maps.”
Franco Moretti, “Network Theory, Plot Analysis.”

+Spatial Humanities

Embargoes, BrouhAHAs, and the rhetoric of scale

a little comic about the AHA embargo fiasco

a little comic about the AHA embargo fiasco

I am not an historian, nor a member of AHA, nor an early-stage scholar, nor a publisher, nor am I responsible for library acquisitions. But then, the same can be said of plenty of folk who have weighed in on the decision by the American Historical Association to release a statement allowing for (and by implication, perhaps, endorsing) the “embargo” of history dissertations. As Rick Anderson notes (in a Scholarly Kitchen post that provides a pretty strong overview), the AHA “smack[ed] the hornet’s nest.” I follow enough Digital Humanities and Open Access inclined historians on Twitter that this statement, and the furor that ensued, registered substantially throughout my feed. And over the past week or so, the discussion has trickled upwards to the usual suspects (and beyond!) and sideways to other disciplines. At least it has to my own, based on listserv discussions and retweets.

And it should spread, because it’s not just an issue for historians. Times for university presses and for academic libraries are tough all over, and that affects every discipline. As someone who routinely advises late-stage graduate students and untenured faculty, I think that the questions raised by the AHA statement are ones that everyone in the humanities should be thinking about, not just members of that particular organization. For a good cross-section of the various positions and issues, my best recommendation is Open History, a project that began as part of the backlash against the AHA statement, but one that I’ll be watching with interest. They’ve got a pretty thorough collection of the responses to date, and a mechanism for adding others (addressing a weakness of the link round-up posts I’ve seen). I’m thinking about using that “issue” in my DH course for next spring, incidentally.

I have a couple of thoughts, neither of which necessarily addresses the core issues at play in the Statement or the responses to it. The first is that, put simply, I think discussions like these reveal their scale-free status, or at least raise the question of scale. As I’ve been sorting through what I want to do with my network rhetorics project, I’ve been returning to some of the terms and ideas that I’ve been taking for granted, and one of those is this idea of scale. We describe random networks as having scale when you can select any of the nodes and treat them as roughly representative of each of the nodes in the network; in other words, the behavior of a given node “scales up” as typical to the network itself. In a scale-free network, however, you can’t generalize from the behavior of a single node to the network. Easy enough, right?

Whether we treat the system addressed by the AHA Statement as a single network, or see it as a set of overlapping networks of various stakeholders (graduate students, faculty, universities, publishers, libraries, et al.), those networks are scale-free, which makes framing any discussion problematic. Insofar as we can speak of a system here, it’s difficult for me to see any particular node or group of nodes as typical. I don’t think there are many among us in the academy who would be arrogant enough to describe their own writing process, hiring process(es), job histories, departmental and college relationships, publication records as typical of all of their colleagues, not in academia, their own field, nor even their own department. Part of how scale-free networks function is iterative–the status of a given network affects its future development. So, for example, highly trafficked websites are more likely to attract additional traffic–our experience of the web isn’t random (or scaled). Each stakeholder in this conversation has a variety of factors to balance, and the ratio among them is a decision that happens locally, based on circumstance, and that ratio necessarily shifts over time.

I know that this sounds painfully self-evident (different Xs behave differently!), but you can see a certain amount of incommensurability that creeps into the discussion. We can’t speak in generalized terms about the policies of academic presses, so we push for specific evidence. But because those specifics don’t scale, they can never function beyond the level of anecdote, and ultimately make it more difficult to speak in generalized terms. I work in a field where perhaps the best-selling book of all time (Cross-Talk in Comp Theory, now in its 3rd edition) is not published by a university press but a professional organization, 95% of which appeared in print prior to its inclusion in that volume, and is almost entirely available to anyone for free provided they have access to JSTOR. And that tells you exactly nothing about NCTE’s own editorial policies, much less the other presses in our field, much less academic presses in general.

In the absence of representative anecdotes, what can be done? Do arguments like this get to a point where we should just throw up our hands? Not really. I do think, though, that at a certain point, networks of arguments hit a threshold where incommensurability sets in. When that happens, a different kind of argument takes place. And maybe this is my second point: lemons are to lemonade as scale-free arguments are to scale (as in “when life gives you X, you make Y”). While a number of people have responded to the AHA Statement as a particular kind of intervention (endorsing a rapidly deteriorating and increasingly obsolete model of scholarly communication), I wonder if it’s more appropriate to think of it as an attempt to introduce scale into the discussion, to establish some kind of baseline that allows us to say certain things about the typical behavior of that system. Bear with me.

It’s an imperfect analogy, to be sure, but think about professional sports, and the effects achieved through salary caps. It’s still hard to speak of the typical franchise in, say, the NBA (the Celtics and Lakers are not representative, e.g.), but a salary cap mitigates the scale-free quality of the network of franchises, allowing Oklahoma City to compete with Los Angeles, even if the two take very different approaches to team development, talent acquisition, etc. Even though teams may appear to ignore the cap (hello, Brooklyn!), the penalties for doing so are not insubstantial (increased luxury taxes, the inability to sign players for more than the league minimum, etc.), and can’t be maintained indefinitely. The salary cap doesn’t homogenize the league nor guarantee any sort of sustained success for a franchise, but it does level the field in terms of opportunity. There are still strategies and tactics involved, but there’s sufficient scale in the network (we might argue) to allow every team to compete.

Part of the AHA Statement, then, is about scale: all graduates should be able to choose what to do with their dissertations. In this sense, the AHA Statement isn’t so far away from guidelines offered by the MLA regarding the value of digital work:

Institutions and departments should develop written guidelines so that faculty members who create, study, and teach with digital objects; engage in collaborative work; or use technology for pedagogy can be adequately and fairly evaluated and rewarded. The written guidelines should provide clear directions for appointment, reappointment, merit increases, tenure, and promotion and should take into consideration the growing number of resources for evaluating digital scholarship and the creation of born-digital objects.

If your department or discipline falls under the MLA umbrella, then this provides a pretty clear statement about the importance and value of digital work–whether or not every single department follows this Statement to the letter, MLA provides a baseline for the responsible evaluation of tenure/promotion cases that include such work. It doesn’t say, however, that you should not be tenured unless you do such work, or that folks who don’t work digitally are less likely to be tenured. If I were forced to name the difference between these two sets of claims, perhaps I’d call them policy statements and position statements. The MLA here is setting policy, or at least offering a Statement that itself can be adopted and adapted to policy on the local level.

Where the hornet’s nest gets smacked with the AHA Statement, I think, is precisely those moments when it drifts away from policy towards position:

an increasing number of university presses are reluctant to offer a publishing contract to newly minted PhDs whose dissertations have been freely available via online sources….online dissertations that are free and immediately accessible make possible a form of distribution that publishers consider too widespread to make revised publication in book form viable…

I don’t think it’s particularly controversial to note that, if your interest is in crafting policy, the phrase “tangible threat” is not the best choice. :) If nothing else, that phrase alone functions deictically, calling attention to the specific circumstances surrounding the Statement and inviting the polarization that occurred in response. It treats those circumstances not as variable or conditional (which they surely are, if others’ responses are to be trusted), but as given. And it turns the policy into an outgrowth of a position that is conjectural (and which proved to be controversial). I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say that it’s simply a matter of tone, but it’s hard for me to imagine that there would have been nearly as much outcry, if the Statement had presented the policy as a necessary update given the shifts in scholarly communication/technology. I think that the case (and the policy) could have been made without implying that OA advocates’ beliefs constitute a (tangible!) threat to their newer colleagues.

If I were to put a bow on this, I think I’m slowly articulating an idea for myself about network rhetorics: this notion of making an argument to scale is something that I find coming up again and again, one that only really emerges with clarity when you think about arguments ecologically or as networked. I still don’t quite have the vocabulary for it yet, but most networks don’t occupy either the random or the scale-free end of the spectrum; they’re semi-scaled, maybe, and maybe I’m thinking about scale as a consequence of rhetoric. That may be the next puzzle piece for me as I work on my next book. I wish I had a witty remark to insert here about my failure to embargo this post, but let your imagination run wild…

That’s all.



Stock, Flow, Field, Stream

Every once in a while, everything just seems to flow into one large conversation full of resonances, connections, and it’s like striking a tuning fork. This is a post about the challenges of graduate education, and perhaps, by extension, academic work for those of us who identify with the digital humanities. Let me see if I can gather the threads together.

There’s a little history. Jokingly, I tell people that one of my biggest academic regrets is a paper I delivered at CCCC a few years back (2010). Our session took place in a huge ballroom (the size of our audience did not do it justice), and rather than a projector and portable screen, we had like a 30-foot monitor. It was colossal, and one of the things I regret is that, not knowing about it ahead of time, I didn’t prepare a full slide deck. Instead, I gave the only talk I’ve ever given that had just one, solitary slide. Don’t get me wrong, I was proud of that slide, and I wish that I hadn’t lost it in the Great Laptop Crash of 2011. It was a screen capture of a cover of an old issue of Field & Stream magazine, lovingly Photoshopped to reflect the topics in my talk, which was called “Writing Retooled: Loop, Channel, Layer, Stream.” Keep in mind that this was 3 years ago, when Twitter was still relatively exotic for academics, but what I was arguing was that

For those of us who engage with the field through social media, though, that engagement may seem more shallow in the short term, but it is constant and ongoing. We are setting foot in the river every day, rather than waiting for the occasional, official “event” to do so.
Think of it this way: who is more likely to shape the field? The person who sits in the audience for a presentation or reads a journal article that’s already been written, or the one who participates in weblog or Twitter conversations about that writing as it is being done? And yet, if you asked 100 people at this conference whether they’d rather publish an essay in CCC or have a couple of hundred followers on Twitter, I’m pretty sure most people would choose the first option.

A couple of hundred. Heh. Anyways, I suggested that, rather than focusing exclusively on the “field” of writing studies, we needed to be building the tools and habits necessary for dealing with the “stream.” I was arguing and, not or, but my talk was certainly weighted towards the stream, given where the field was (is?) at the time.

Anyhow, someone reminded me of that talk this year at CCCC, my first trip back since I gave it, so I’ve had cause in the past month or so to remember it fondly. Over the past couple of days, it’s connected for me with a few different links. First, there’s Anil Dash’s talk yesterday at the Berkman Center on “The Web We Lost.” There are a number of things in there worth thinking about, but Doug Hesse pointed out in my FB comments something that I’m not sure we’ve all really processed:

We built the Web for pages, but increasingly we’re moving from pages to streams (most recently-updated on top, generally), on our phones but also on bigger screens. Sites that were pages have become streams. E.g., YouTube and Yahoo. These streams feel like apps, not pages. Our arrogance keeps us thinking that the Web is still about pages. Nope. The percentage of time we spend online looking at streams is rapidly increasing. It is already dominant.

In Writing Studies, I think that we still think of ourselves as being in the business of writing pages. Think about all of the infrastructure we have, from page counts to citation formats, that make this simple assumption about the “object” of our practices. Or about how vital .PDF has been in finally getting people to accept that scholarship isn’t necessarily inferior because it’s online. (None of these are particularly thrilling examples to me.)

As part of my own stream, I just came across a tweet from Jay Rosen that provides some nice overlap as well:

Screen Shot 2013-04-03 at 5.48.41 PM

Yes, that’s the same Robin Sloan who wrote Fish and Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore, which I happen to be reading at the moment. :) Sloan writes about stock and flow:

But I actually think stock and flow is the master metaphor for media today. Here’s what I mean:

  • Flow is the feed. It’s the posts and the tweets. It’s the stream of daily and sub-daily updates that remind people that you exist.
  • Stock is the durable stuff. It’s the content you produce that’s as interesting in two months (or two years) as it is today. It’s what people discover via search. It’s what spreads slowly but surely, building fans over time.

I feel like flow is ascendant these days, for obvious reasons—but we neglect stock at our own peril. I mean that both in terms of the health of an audience and, like, the health of a soul. Flow is a treadmill, and you can’t spend all of your time running on the treadmill. Well, you can. But then one day you’ll get off and look around and go: Oh man. I’ve got nothing here.

If you push on, as I did, and read the Rushkoff interview, then you’ll see Sloan’s treadmill metaphor writ large, and translated into “present shock.” This is a line from the book that the interviewer quotes:

When we attempt to pack the requirements of storage into media or flow, or to reap the benefits of flow from media that locks things into storage, we end up in present shock.

I realize here that I’m making my own talk appear far more prescient (and perhaps more sophisticated) than it actually was. I was in good shape just identifying the difference between what I was calling field and stream, I suspect.

Another thing that I talked about with several people at this year’s CCCC was how I was sometimes struggling with the presentism of social media. It’s particularly acute for me as I dip into conversations around the digital humanities, as so much of that discussion seems to happen on Twitter. You could argue variously that this is a symptom of its relative novelty but also of its dynamic energy, and even perhaps a combination of the two. Talk to me in five years, I suppose. It’s sometimes become difficult for me, though, to step back from social media and to focus instead on the page-oriented commitments that I have. The virtue of being in my position is that, if I want, I can just tone down the commitments and focus instead on more short-form work of the sort that social media energizes and provokes from me. I’m conscious that not everyone has that luxury, though.

This is not a post where I want to scold anyone. Rushkoff has a particular position that he’s promoting, to be sure, and there are hints of it in Dash and Sloan, I suppose, but my own interest is in thinking about how the balance that I was arguing for back in 2010 has so radically shifted in the other direction. But only in certain places. I’m slated to teach our Rhetoric, Composition, and Digital Humanities graduate course next spring, and already I’m thinking about how I can hack the curricular and conceptual space of my classroom to allow for a more dynamic and distributed course experience. But now I find myself in the odd position of thinking about whether that kind of course will provide enough field, enough stock, for students who (as I was arguing three years ago)

are more likely to rely on bookmarking than bookshelving. They are more likely to read an article that has well‐developed keywords than one with page numbers. And they are more likely to follow citation trails than to sit still and read a paper journal cover‐to‐cover. They are more accustomed to managing the flows of information, sorting them, and assembling them for their own uses. In short, they are much more likely today to be what  Thomas  Rickert  and  I  have  described  as  practitioners  of  ambient  research.

I’ve been deeply committed to making over my pedagogy in ways that help students work with flow, but as a colleague and I were talking about today, those students still have to go through a comprehensive exam process and to write a dissertation. Believe me when I say that I know all the arguments for reshaping those requirements, and that I agree with them. But I have to reconcile them with my own ethical beliefs about graduate education and whether it prepares students adequately for what follows. I’m not so full of myself as to think that a single graduate course with me will make the difference in a student’s ability to finish or not; however, years spent as a graduate director have made me keenly aware that every course is itself a blend of stock and flow, with obligations both to itself and to the ongoing curriculum that it is a part of.

So while the blogger in me celebrates the short-form and the streams, the academic in me starts to wonder if the shift away from more traditional academic practices doesn’t ultimately do my students a disservice–I think about whether or not I’m responsibly modeling the kind of balance they’re going to need in their own careers. I say that fully aware that it sounds like the first step on the road to rationalization, but it’s not. Really. I think that it means that I’ll think more carefully about how I hack my course next spring, not whether or not I’ll do so. It’s an issue that I’ll likely grapple with for some time, and this is really just the beginning of that process for me. That’s all.

(ps. If you’ve read the above and thought, “why isn’t he doing something about this in his research?” or some variation on the hack/yack question, then you’ve happened upon one of the driving forces behind my next major project. About which, more soon. :) )


Networked Humanities @ UKentucky (#nhuk), Spring 2013

What follows is a fairly rough approximation of the talk that I gave at the UK Networked Humanities Conference (#nhuk) in February, 2013. I don’t usually script out my talks in quite the level of detail that I have below, but this time out, I struggled to get my thoughts together, and scripting seemed to help. As usually happens with me, though, I went off-script early and often.

Also, I use a lot of slide builds to help pace myself, so I’m not providing a full slide deck here. Instead, I’m inserting slides where they feel necessary, and removing my deck cues from the script itself. I’m also interspersing some comments, based on the performance itself.

I’ll start with the panel proposal that Casey Boyle (@caseyboyle), Brian McNely (@bmcnely) and I put together:

Title: Networks as Infrastructure: Attunement, Altmetrics, Ambience

Panel Abstract:  In his early 2012 discussion of the digital humanities, Stanley Fish examines a number of recent publications in the field, and arrives at the conclusion that DH is not only political but “theological:”

The vision is theological because it promises to liberate us from the confines of the linear, temporal medium in the context of which knowledge is discrete, partial and situated — knowledge at this time and this place experienced by this limited being — and deliver us into a spatial universe where knowledge is everywhere available in a full and immediate presence to which everyone has access as a node or relay in the meaning-producing system.

Fish connects this diagnosis of DH with Robert Coover’s 20-year-old call for the “End of Books,” itself once a clarion call to practitioners and theorists of hypertext. While there is perhaps an implicit promise in some digital humanities work that we will be able to move beyond and/or better our current circumstances, we would argue that Fish’s dismissal of that work is misguided at best. The digital humanities broadly, and this panel more specifically, offers a careful revaluation of our current practices, treating the social, material, and intellectual infrastructures of the academy as objects of inquiry and transformation. Rather than seeing these long-invisible networks as given or as something to be “ended” and transcended, we follow Cathy Davidson’s call to engage with them critically, “to reconsider the most cherished assumptions and structures of [our] discipline[s].”

And here’s my contribution to this panel, titled “The N-Visible College: Trading in our Citations for RTs”

I want to start today by referencing two essays that I published last year. The first is an essay called “Discipline and Publish: Reading and Writing the Scholarly Network.” It appears in a collection edited by Sidney Dobrin called Ecology, Writing Theory and New Media, published by Routledge.

The second essay is a bit shorter, and appeared on my blog in July of last year. “Cs Just Not That Into You” was a response to the acceptance notifications from 4Cs, the annual conference in rhetoric and composition. In the space of roughly 24 hours, this essay received over 500 views, 100 comments on Facebook and my blog, and at least 20 retweets and shares.

Both essays grew out of my interest in the intellectual and organizational infrastructures of disciplines, and what network studies can tell us about those structures, but when it comes to my department and my discipline, only one of these essays really counts. I don’t think I’m revealing any great secrets when I say that only one of them appeared in my annual review form this year.

As folks who were there can attest, I actually scrapped this intro on the fly, since Byron Hawk’s presentation actually referenced “Discipline and Publish.” So instead I went meta, talking about how I was going to open the talk, right up until the point that Byron ruined it for me by citing the very essay I was going to claim would never be cited.

I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I find disappointing the fact that more people read and engaged with that blog post than will likely ever read “Discipline and Publish.” Routledge has library-priced the collection at a cool $130, meaning that it won’t be taught in courses, at least not legally. As much as I like the collection, I can hardly recommend it to friends and colleagues at that price. From the perspective of my institution, “Discipline and Publish” was probably my best piece of scholarship last year, but it’s also the one with the least value to me personally and professionally.

This question of relative value is one that has frustrated those of us who work closely in and with new media for years. There has been some progress in the form of organizational statements about the value of technology work, and some of us have pushed at the boundaries of our individual tenure and promotion requirements. But that progress has been slow, not the least reason for which is the patterned isolation that separates our disciplines, our institutions, and our departments. But I’ll get to that in a couple of minutes.

First, I want to offer one more example that raises this question of value. When Derek Mueller (@derekmueller) and I worked on the online archive for College Composition and Communication, one of the things we did was to track the internal citations of that journal. That is, whenever one essay from the journal cited another, we linked them together. So this list represents the 11 most frequently cited essays from CCC spanning roughly a 20-year period, ranked by the number of citations.

Compare that to the list of Braddock Award winners from the same time period. The Braddock Award is the prize for the best essay published in CCC in a given year. As you can see, there is some overlap between the lists, but there are substantial differences as well.


Lists of Internal Cites vs Braddock Awards

[beyond my scope today, but it’s interesting to think about how and why an essay might show up on one list and not the other, or on both lists]

For my purposes today, one of the most important differences between these lists is that our institutions are far more likely to recognize the Braddock Award as a sign of value than a handful of citations.

All of this is not to say that one of these lists is better than the other, but rather that we have different measures for value. If we think about this in terms of culture industries, this idea makes complete sense. There’s a substantial difference between the books that win literary prizes and those that top the New York Times bestseller lists. The top grossing movies for a given year don’t usually receive Academy Award nominations. We’re both comfortable and conversant with the different definitions of value that these lists and awards represent.

I had several slides here to slow myself down, with book covers and movie posters to help the contrast below between Best and Most. Copyright violations, every last one of them. So use your imagination. :)

This is horribly overreductive, I know, but I’ve been thinking about these two models of value as Best and Most. And much of our intellectual infrastructure in the humanities is targeted towards the idea of Best:

It operates on the principles of scarcity and selectivity, with the goal of establishing a stable, centralized core of recognizable activity. This model is a particularly strong one for fields in the early stages of disciplinarity–it creates shared values and history, as well as an institutional memory. On top of that, it’s a pretty easy model to implement.

But this model has some weaknesses as well. The larger a field becomes, the harder this model is to maintain. The center becomes conservative, slow to recognize or respond to change, and less and less representative of the majority of its members.

In some ways, what I’m calling Most runs counter to these principles. This model of value is collective rather than selective, focusing on the aggregation of abundance instead of scarcity. This model scales well with the size of a discipline–the more people and texts there, the better the information becomes.

If there’s a weakness to this model, it’s that it requires a lot more infrastructure and information to be productive. And it’s something of a chicken/egg problem: it’s hard to demonstrate the value of this model and to advocate for it without the model already in place.

Over the past couple of years though, we’ve seen a push towards something called altmetrics. Spearheaded by scholars in library and information studies, altmetrics is a term with several different layers. On the one hand, it refers to opening up traditional measures of value for alternative research products, like datasets, visualizations, and the like. On the other, altmetric advocates have also been pushing for measures other than the traditional (and flawed) idea of journal impact factor.

But there’s another layer to this term at well, one that gets at the questions of approved genres and recognizable metrics from a more ecological perspective. That is, altmetrics is only partly about reforming our current system; it’s also encouraging us to rethink the system itself. One of the leading voices in altmetrics, Jason Priem (@jasonpriem), gave a talk at Purdue last year where he talked about something called the Decoupled Journal.

I’m embarrassed to admit that, running out of time, I swiped three of the diagrams from Jason Priem’s slideshow. I’m hoping that the links here serve as sufficient apology. I’d hoped to adapt them to my own purposes and disciplinary circumstances, but I was putting the final movement together on the road, and took the shortcut. I also quoted (and attributed) the line that we’re currently working with the best possible system of scholarly communication given 17th century technology, which got both a chuckle from the room and a fair share of retweets.

Traditional journal system, where each journal is responsible for each stage of the publication process.

This traditional process is a masterpiece of patterned isolation — very little interaction from journal to journal — except when journals are owned by the same corporation. There’s tremendous duplication of effort, and that effort is stretched over a long period of time in the case of most traditional journals.

Thanks to blind peer review, most reviewers are isolated from each other as well, as are the contributors. It isn’t until you reach the top of the pyramid, with the journal editor, that there’s any kind of conversation or cross-pollenation of ideas and research. It’s a top-down model of scholarly communication.

I’m pretty sure I was completely off-script through here. I did remember to emphasize the idea that our current model is a “masterpiece of patterned isolation,” but I’m pretty sure that I forgot to mention at any point that PI is a phrase I’ve pulled from Gerald Graff, who borrows it from Laurence Veysey. Pretty sure I never defined it, either.

What Priem suggests is that we think about the various layers and practices independently of how they’ve traditionally been distributed. Social media in particular have opened up a number of possibilities for engaging with and assessing scholarship; rather than waiting for our journals to adopt these practices, altmetricians would have us begin exploring and applying them ourselves.

Considering that many journals treat promotion and search as somehow accomplished by their subscriber list and a conference booth or two, there’s a great deal of room for innovation. Priem describes this decoupled model as publishing a la carte. He offers an example of a writer who might place an essay in a journal, but choose a number of alternative methods for promoting it, making it findable, having it reviewed, etc.

Cheryl Ball (@s2ceball) called me out in Q&A for being too cavalier about the shift in my talk from the “Decoupled Journal” to DH Now, and she was absolutely right. What I was trying to get at here was the way that DHNow starts from a different set of questions, and thus “couples” the process in a way that accomplishes both “Most” and “Best” without buying in to the traditional model of what a journal should look like. This is also where my script simply turns into talking points.

DH Now

  • Aggregation of tweets, calls for papers, job announcements, and resources
  • Monitor the network for spikes in activity
  • Cross-post and RT the things that folks are paying attention to
  • Added layer of publication: Editors’ Choice
  • EC texts are solicited for the quarterly Journal of Digital Humanities
  • Publication is the final step of a fairly simple, but widely distributed process

Why it’s useful as a model

  • Process produces much closer relationship between the map and the territory – DH Now vs DH 2 years ago
  • Driven by engagement and usefulness to the community rather than obscure standards administered anonymously
  • That engagement occurs much more quickly, and at all stages of the process — publication becomes evidence of engagement rather than a precondition for it



Deleted Scenes

You might notice that there’s no reference at all here to my original title. As I was planning the talk, I’d intended to frame it with a three-part movement from invisible college to discipline to what I was calling the “n-visible college” (network-visible), a model of scholarly communication that preserved disciplinary memory but not at the cost of innovation and circulation. My CCCC talk from several years ago (this link is to QT movie of the talk) gestures towards that model, but to my mind Priem’s work in particular gets at it much more concretely.

Also, I didn’t emphasize enough the degree to which our traditional model has as a default the silos or smokestacks that separate us all (journals, disciplines, individuals) from each other. This may be part of my underemphasis on patterned isolation. Our current model keeps us silo’ed by default–to my mind, open access isn’t just a matter of taking down those walls, but in reimagining the system that defaults to silo in the first place. Nate Kreuter (@lawnsports) talked a little bit about this the following day in terms of considering both material and cognitive accessibility. We can make our work open materially, but without an infrastructure that makes it accessible cognitively, we’re not doing as much as we should be.

I spent way too much of my inventional time trying to figure out how to incorporate an essay from Noah Wardrip-Fruin on interface effects. It fit with what I wanted to say, which is that the “interface” of the Braddock essays fails us in that it gives very little sense of the complexity of the field that it represents. Love this line from NWF: “Just as play will unmask a simple process with more complex pretensions, so play with a fascinating system will lack all fascination if the system’s operations are too well hidden from the audience.” My point is that, at a certain disciplinary scale, holding to notions of the “Best” ends up occluding more of our scholarly activity than it reveals. It’s a point I like, but I just couldn’t get there from here. And it may be too intricate for the kind of talk that I give.

Finally, Nathaniel Rivers (@sophist_monster)asked a good question in Q&A that went something like “what happens if you succeed?” In other words, have we really thought through what it would mean if Facebook likes or retweets acquired currency. My answer was that it was less about replacing our current system with a better one than it was about opening the system up to the competing models of value that are currently neglected.

And that’s really all that I can remember. Like I said, this is a fair approximation, although not likely a perfect one. If you’ve read this far, thanks! And thanks to all those who chatted with me before, during, and after.


“No DH, No Interview” revisited

William Pannapacker published a followup to his tweet from DHSI that I responded to a while ago. I spent a few minutes weighing in on the comment thread, and thought I’d go ahead and post it here.

I think what I’m responding to here is a general sense that the digital humanities is just another “area” to be “covered.” I don’t think anyone out and says so, but the vibe I’m getting is that notion that in a generation or so, people will all use these tools, and it’ll just be part of how the humanities operates from that point forward. Maybe so, but…

I take their project to be a little more far reaching than that. Could be partly because I’ve just been reading Hacking the Academy, but I think part of the DH agenda is to move the whole academic apparatus forward. That means making room for experiments with the review process, accepting forms of scholarship that aren’t always or only words in a row, and taking on an evaluation system that currently doesn’t accommodate the kind of “making” that DH advocates. Did I convey this successfully?

“such a person never needed a distinct, interdisciplinary field called DH to do that”

Well, yes and no. It’s certainly true that such a person could succeed without DH, by publishing articles and books, incorporating those passions into his or her teaching, etc. But one of the things that DH folks are advocating for, as I understand it, is that such work doesn’t necessarily (or even optimally) take the form of print, and that is a fight that’s still ongoing. I’ve been around long enough to hear the horror stories of colleagues’ digital work being misunderstood or misrepresented in tenure reviews, for example. I know places where they still hold to some fundamental distinction between print and online publication, even in cases where the peer review process is identical (to say nothing of more experimental moves towards open review). For many departments in the humanities, if those questions are settled, it’s because they haven’t been raised in the first place.

If our geographical Wordsworthian wanted to spend a couple of years developing the tools to be able to do that work, there are a lot of departments where that would not be considered valuable academically. And that’s a place where the fallback reliance on peer review doesn’t help. Traditionally published, innovative scholarship is going to be judged by the reviewers for journals and presses, but the humanities have not traditionally held themselves accountable for the kinds of “making” that Ramsay argues are central to DH.

I don’t think that most DH folk would suggest that other kinds of work in the humanities are less valuable, but I think it’s important for everyone to understand the ways that DH work differs from that work, and may need to be evaluated differently. My first foray into the job market was when “Computers and Writing” was trending in my field, and I had a number of friends who struggled, not because they couldn’t do “traditional” work, but because they were loaded up with responsibilities that ultimately counted for little later on.

All that said, I’m pretty ambivalent about the idea of “no DH, no interview” for a lot of the reasons explained above. I also believe, though, that part of the reason for the DH zeal (some of which I share) is that it takes a lot of pushing to shift some of the mindsets that I’m talking about here. For me, it’s more of a both/and than an either/or, though.

Academic Horoscopia

Gah. I’m taking a break from putting the (semi) final touches on my contribution to the updated edition of A Guide to Composition Pedagogies. My chapter is about “New Media Pedagogy,” and it’s one of the most difficult things I’ve had to write in recent memory. I’m really hoping that it doesn’t turn out to be one of the worst things I’ve had to write in recent memory. So, fingers crossed.

One of the things that they don’t tell you as a graduate student is that there’s a special genre of writing that you get to do later on where failure is all but guaranteed. You get a little taste of it during the job search, I think, but because you’re competing against other candidates who are all faced with the same impossible task, there’s something mildly comforting about that. The best example of this is probably the teaching philosophy statement (the acronym for which should sound familiar). That statement needs to be general enough to fit into a couple of pages, and yet, the values/perspectives that operate at that level of generality are largely shared in a given community. If you asked most people in a given discipline to list 5 terms/phrases characteristic of their approach to teaching, my guess is that the overlap would run in the neighborhood of about 95%, and much of the underlap would have to do with only a few factors (early v late tech adoption, e.g.). There are strategies that we can use (examples, stories, assignments) to make ourselves somewhat distinctive, but honestly, even those are pretty generic. We are forced in the context of the old TPS Report to try and locate some middle ground between the universal, disciplinary values and the particularities of our classrooms (which often depend on factors beyond our control anyway: location, student population, time of day, curricular guidelines).

I can think of no better analogy for this sort of writing than the horoscope, and I think sometimes about what it would mean to have to actually write them for a living. You’re not allowed to be stupidly obvious (“You will wake up today.”), nor meaningfully specific (“That cutie on the elevator today will make eye contact and smile at you!”), so instead you’re stuck with this awkward language that implies specificity (“Today is an opportune time for changes and new things as long as you choose things that continue to pique your long-term interests.”) while still being vague enough to apply to roughly 1/12 of the population. So the horoscope has to try and capture both the macroscope (you’re a Pisces!) and the microscope (you’re a snowflake!), and ends up doing neither particularly well (“You might look around your house and think of some new and exciting ways to spruce it up a little, Gemini,” unless you don’t live in a house, work more than one job, need to spend that money on food and shelter, and/or are turned off by anyone using the word “spruce” as a verb.).

Back to my problem. One of the things that’s really valuable about books like GCP is its ability to distill a lot of expertise and sourcework into a small space. This is incredibly useful for folks who are new to the field. And yet, the process by which that work is published and made available is the same process that results in our specialist work. And so yes, it’s inevitable that this chapter I’m writing will be read alongside much better, more focused scholarship, and it will look like a poorly dressed bumpkin next to that work. I’m in the position of having to cover a lot of ground in a distressingly small space–pan out too wide and I’m obvious, zoom in too close and I’m pointless. If I try to be timeless, I can only speak in the broadest and most meaningless generalities; if I go timely, then I’m guaranteeing myself a six month shelf life. I remember sitting around as a graduate student, ripping apart others’ horoscope essays, taking them to task for all of the weaknesses that are built into the genre itself, not realizing until years later that maybe they weren’t such dullards after all. It’s not easy to write looking forward to that kind of reception.

It is both the best and the worst thing that horoscope essays are often read by more people than the combined scholarly audience for everything else an author has written. And yet, it’s also an honor to be asked to write them, despite the frustrating built-in failures of the genre. Gah.

For what it’s worth, I have to admit that I momentarily flirted with the idea of writing: “Today is an opportune time for changes and new media as long as you choose assignments that support your long-term pedagogical philosophy. You might look online and think of some new and exciting ways to spruce it up a little. Now, here’s a 25-page bibliography to get you started.”


(ps. If ever there were a genre that would lend itself to crowdsourcing and curation, it is this one. Don’t think for a minute that I didn’t think about that as well.)

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