Should I tweet this? Campus visit edition

Yesterday, there was a minor squall that swept quickly across my Twitterological system. One of the departments in my field that maintains its own, somewhat official Twitter account trumpeted the names and schools of the finalists for a senior search in their department. I do have a screen shot of the tweet, but figured that I’d have to redact so completely that there wasn’t a lot of point in sharing it here. But it read:

Delight! Our job search found exceptional candidates: [candidate1]- [school1], [candidate2]- [school2], [candidate3]- [school3]. Job talks coming up!

The post has since been removed, appropriately, but not before it was linked and critiqued by some folk with pretty substantial numbers in terms of followers. I don’t want to name, shame, or blame here; rather, my point is a broader one about social media and the search process, and why folks reacted so strongly and so negatively to what was in all likelihood a genuine expression of excitement and appreciation.

I think that many of us often assume that everyone in a department will know where to draw the lines when it comes to social media. And yet, the landscape changes fast enough that we don’t always have time to think about how they might interact with what may be tried-and-true procedures when it comes to things like job searches, which are not exactly everyday occurrences, particularly in the humanities. And the intricacies of the search process can be opaque, for anyone who hasn’t experienced it from every angle. There are parts of it that I know nothing about because I have neither a partner nor a family, for instance.

Whoever was responsible for the tweet, then, may not have understood some of those intricacies. In the case of a senior search, candidates aren’t always public about their applications, particularly within their home departments. It may not be a secret (although in some cases, it can be), but the fact is that an interview (and even a campus visit) is no guarantee of departure. Candidates don’t stop working or mentoring because they have a campus visit elsewhere, and they may wish to be relatively quiet about the fact that they are looking. The ethics of who to tell and when is a complicated one, and much more involved than “Are you leaving? YES NO (circle one)”

For junior searches, the issues are different, but no less important. Different schools operate according to different timetables, and broadcasting the names of finalists can affect their chances at other schools (“If that person’s a finalist at X, there’s no way they’ll come here. Next.”). It can affect their ability to negotiate other offers, and in some cases, it might even affect their strategy as they approach that campus visit.

It’s tricky. Social media accustom us to a certain level of sharing, to making a certain portion of our everyday lives public, but in the case of searches, campus visits, and the like, there’s a disjunct. A campus visit is a fairly “public” event on the campus being visited, but for the candidate, the campus visit is the final stage of what is supposed to be a confidential process. I’ve seen departments put the names of finalists on publicly-accessible calendars, announce them by name on their homepages, etc., for probably close to 15 years now. But that’s often an issue of one person making a mistake that’s easily correctable. With FB and T, every single person in a department has access to a more-or-less public audience.

At the campus visit stage, the membership of the search committee grows to include the entire department. All of a visitor’s interactions should be treated as “meeting with the (expanded) search committee.” Don’t post finalists’ names anywhere online. Err on the side of caution when it comes to tweeting or updating anything that happens in the context of the visit. Don’t tweet job talks. I’d even be hesitant to friend or follow a candidate until after the process was complete–even something as innocuous as that can be aggregated into privileged information if, say, several members of the same department happen to follow/friend the same person at the same time.

I say all this as someone who’s generally in favor of transparency when it comes to academia. But there are varied and complicated reasons for confidentiality during the application and interview process, and while I believe that hiring programs should be open about the stages of the process, candidate confidentiality isn’t ours to break.

Moretti, Franco. “Operationalizing: Or, the Function of Measurement in Literary Theory”

[It occurred to me that, after sharing my Reading Notes assignment, I should be doing more of this myself. I don't know that this will last, but in the interest of walking my talk, I'm going to try to contribute some entries to my class's shared bibliography. I'll post them here and at the course wiki, and I'll be covering essays that I wasn't able to include in the syllabus itself. My goal is to average an essay a week for the semester--I doubt that I'll do this evenly, but we'll see. I'll probably work ahead a little this weekend.]

Moretti, Franco. “Operationalizing: Or, the Function of Measurement in Literary Theory”

Moretti, Franco. “Operationalizing: Or, the Function of Measurement in Literary Theory.” New Left Review 84 (Nov/Dec 2013): 103-119. (paywall)

Abstract: Moretti suggests “operationalizing” as the bridge between the quantitative study of literary works and the theoretical concepts with which critics approach them. He demonstrates this by operationalizing Alex Woloch’s concept of “character-space,” testing it via word counts and network centrality maps. But Moretti also argues that this kind of operationalization must do more than simply provide additional detail or precision if it is to have value. In the case of character-space, he argues that “Two conflicting criteria for protagonism emerge from the two types of measurement…[and this] shows that the ‘protagonist’, far from being a fundamental reality of dramatic construction, is only a special instance of the more general category of ‘centrality’” (109, 112). Character-space as a concept “produced more than the refinement of already-existing knowledge: not the protagonist, improved, but an altogether new set of categories” (113). The second half of Moretti’s essay turns to Hegel’s concept of “tragic conflict,” testing it against a small corpus of Greek tragedies. Focusing on Antigone, Moretti suggests that operationalizing tragic conflict/collision reveals a mistake on Hegel’s part: “Face-to-face confrontations do occur in tragedy, and find a memorable expression in the rhetoric of stichomythia; but stichomythia does not convey the ‘ethically justified pathos’ that Hegel had in mind” (118). He closes by suggesting that computational critical methods may change our relationship to literary theory as it has begun to affect literary history.

Keywords: operationalizing, measurement, literary theory, digital humanities, literature, criticism, falsifiability, concepts, data, word counts, centrality, network mapping, character space, protagonism, tragic conflict, Hegel, Kuhn, Woloch


  • Alex Woloch, The One vs the Many: Minor Characters and the Space of the Protagonist in the Novel (2003).
  • Graham Alexander Sack, ‘Simulating Plot: Towards a Generative Model of Narrative Structure’, Papers from the AAAI Fall Symposium, 2011.
  • G. W. F. Hegel, Aesthetics (1975).


Operationalizing means building a bridge from concepts to measurement, and then to the world. In our case: from the concepts of literary theory, through some form of quantification, to literary texts (104).

Measurement does not lead from the world, via quantification, to the constructions of theories; if anything, it leads back from theories, through data, to the empirical world (106-107).

Computation has theoretical consequences— possibly, more far-reaching than any other field of literary study. The time has come to make them explicit (114).

Digital humanities may not yet have changed the territory of the literary historian, or the reading of individual texts; but operationalizing has certainly changed, and radicalized, our relationship to concepts: it has raised our expectations, by turning concepts into magic spells that can call into being a whole world of empirical data; and it has sharpened our skepticism, because, if the data revolt against their creator, then the concept is really in trouble. A theory-driven, data-rich research programme has become imaginable, bent on testing, and, when needed, falsifying the received knowledge of literary study. Of this enterprise, operationalizing will be the central ingredient (119).


Moretti raises 2 questions in a footnote on p. 114: “As will become clear, I assume that Hegel’s theory can be operationalized. This leaves open two further questions. First: and if it couldn’t? Would the theory lose all its value, and deserve to be forgotten? The second question is almost opposite in nature: if applied too loosely and widely, wouldn’t operationalizing lose the strict falsifying potential that had made it so valuable in the first place? In principle (though a full motivation will have to wait for another occasion), my answers would be, No to the first question, and Yes to the second.”

Another, more immediate question for me is the different relationship between concepts and practice that (may) exist in rhetorical studies. I don’t think that rhetorical figures are necessarily the same as literary concepts–they are empirically verifiable on the one hand, but their consequences seem less determined on the other. And yet, I can think of several writers who have at least dabbled in what Moretti describes as operationalizing, myself included.

Reading Notes

There’s a phrase that I got from Laurence Veysey, via Gerald Graff (although it appears in other places as well): “patterned isolation.” Veysey uses the phrase to explain the growth of the modern university and the way that disciplines grew without engaging each other, but I tend to apply it on a more “micro” scale. That is, there are many things we do as teachers and scholars in patterned isolation from our colleagues, tasks that call upon us to reinvent wheels over and over in isolation from one another. Fortunately, with the Internet and all, much of that is changing, as folks share syllabi, bibliographies, and the like online.

But I’m constantly on the lookout for ways to short circuit patterned isolation. For me, reading notes are one of those sites. I’m not a great note-taker and never have been–I’m too reliant on visual/spatial memory and marginalia. Disconnecting my own notes from the physical artifacts that I was processing didn’t make sense. Now, of course, I’m lucky sometimes if I remember having read a book, much less what I scrawled in its margins, so I wish that I’d been better about taking notes and I admire those people who have already internalized the lesson that it took me 20+ years to figure out. So one of the things that I like to do in my graduate courses is to aggregate the note-taking process. Rather than asking or expecting each student to take a full set of reading notes for the course, I rotate the function among them. There’s nothing to stop a student from taking more detailed notes on his or her own, but I want all my students, when they leave the class, to be able to take with them a full set of notes that they can refer back to later.

For me, the trick to this is making the notes relatively uniform–there’s a part of me that resists this, because different folks/strokes and all that, but I think it’s important to make the notes themselves scannable and consistent. Also, I think that the process needs to be sustainable–part of the challenge of reading notes is that they tend to shrink or expand based on available time, and they shouldn’t. The notes should be brief enough that one can execute them quickly (when time is short) but elaborate enough that they’re useful 5 or 10 years down the road when the text has left one’s memory. For me, this means keeping them to about a page, and doing them in a format that should take no more than about 15 minutes for an article or chapter. So here’s what I’ll be asking my students this semester to do for their reading notes:

  • Lastname, Firstname. Title.
  • Full MLA citation of article/chapter (something that can be copy/pasted into a bibliography)
  • Abstract (50-75 words, copy/pasted if the original already has an abstract)
  • Keywords/tags (important terminology, methodology, materials, theoretical underpinnings)
  • 2-3 “key cites” – whose thoughts/texts does this article rely upon
  • 2-3 “crucial quotes” – copy/paste or retype the 2-3 most important passages from the essay
  • 1-2 questions – either questions that are answered by the text, or questions it raises for further exploration

And that’s it. I’ve futzed around with different categories, but these are the ones that have stuck with me through multiple iterations of this assignment. The notes aren’t meant to be a substitute for reading, but they should provide the basic info about the article as well as some indication of how it links to others. And it’s meant to be quick.

This seems really obvious to me now but I can tell you that, when I was in graduate school, it wouldn’t have been. I can’t tell you how happy it would make me now to have taken notes like these on everything I’ve read since grad school. Especially for all those things that I’ve forgotten I’ve even read.

Penumbra & Digital Humanities

In a little less than 24 hours, my spring graduate seminar on Rhetoric, Composition, and Digital Humanities will begin (syllabus). I’m not typically the kind of professor who gives his students assignments to complete prior to the first course meeting–it always struck me as a little mean-spirited to bite into what little break we have between semesters. This year, however, I broke form, and suggested to my students that they read one or both of a couple of “fun” reads: Charles Soule’s graphic novel Strange Attractors and Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. I may talk later about Soule’s book, which shares some features with Sloan’s, not the least of which is the apprenticeship that form the social core of each, but far more digital humanities folks that I’ve seen recommend Penumbra as the DH novel par excellence. As I finished re-reading it this evening, I thought about why exactly that recommendation is so prevalent.

Not that I disagree. On the surface, though, there’s really only a small part of the book that feels like a recognizably DH moment (whatever that is, I know). I’ll try to do all this without spoiling too much, but it’s the early scene in the book where data from Penumbra’s logbooks are mined and digitally visualized. Digital tools play various roles throughout the book beyond that scene, helping to propel Clay forward, but there’s also some irony in that a microscope and an audiobook on cassette tapes (arguably) play as large a technological role in the book as anything else. To say much else about the relative significance of various tech would be to drift into spoilerville, so I’ll trust you to take my word for this. (Or to argue with me obliquely, at least.)

In preparation for tomorrow’s night class, then, I wanted to be able to do more than simply send to page 94 to read the passage about metadata and visualization. At the risk of making this sound a little like a sophomore literature paper, I browsed some of the more popular definitions of DH, and thought about how Penumbra does or doesn’t reflect them. I do think that there’s a point to be made with respect to technology, and not simply novelty. There are a few places in the book where Clay reflects on the sophistication of technology (“Books used to be pretty high-tech, back in the day. Not anymore” (90), for example), and it’s not always the shiniest, most advanced piece of tech that ends up providing solutions. Sometimes, it’s a matter of thinking about old tech in new ways; mostly, it’s about not falling into the trap of assuming that there’s only a narrow field of use for technology (or that technology is of no use). So while Kirschenbaum writes that DH is “a field of study, research, teaching, and invention concerned with the intersection of computing and the disciplines of the humanities,” that definition has opened up onto broader inquiries into the relationship of media, materiality, and the humanistic disciplines in a way that the digital provokes, but may not completely capture. More recently, the collaboratively written Digital_Humanities volume from MIT describes DH as both transhistorical and transmedia.

The authors of that book also observe that

[Digital humanities] asks what it means to be a human being in the networked information age and to participate in fluid communities of practice, asking and answering research questions that cannot be reduced to a single genre, medium, discipline, or institution.

For me, this helps to open up what we might mean in calling Penumbra a DH novel–from the library of the Unbroken Spine to Kat’s efforts with Google Forever, there is a great deal of speculation in this book about what it means to be human, and what it means for our more traditional institutions (such as bookstores) to think in terms of networked information. And much of the book is driven by Clay’s ability to negotiate some fairly disparate communities of practice (even if these are sometimes plot conveniences). There’s a crucial moment for me, one that I think avoids any sort of spoilage: at one point late in the book, Edward Deckle tells Clay, “You seem very resourceful,” and this feels very resonant to me. Clay drives the plot forward, but he also functions very explicitly as a weak tie among many of the other characters (and disciplines, and institutions) in the book–the communities of practice ultimately coalesce around his efforts. So, he’s also resourceful in the sense that he’s able to fuel the collaboration necessary for the story.

[If I wanted to go full-on lit paper here, I'd probably talk about the etymology of penumbra, and the way that Clay bridges a number of tensions--property/piracy, human/machine, nerd/cool, natural/artificial, etc. Be relieved, because that's all I'll say on that.]

He’s also the one person (although Kat comes awfully close) who has access to the material resources necessary for all of this, and that’s a piece of it, too. Some fairly impressive resources are marshaled on his behalf in the book. I mean this in the economic sense, but also in the physical sense, because I was a little surprised, this time through, how often I thought about “making.” Perhaps it was having glanced back at Stephen Ramsay’s infamous claim that “Digital Humanities is about building things.” Most of the characters in the book are builders–even the minor ones like Ashley, who comes “alive” in their kitchen, or Grumble, when he holds the shrooms. Like Ramsay’s, Sloan’s is a capacious definition of building, I think.

I think I’ve probably said enough. I’m sure that there will be other novels that fall into this odd, little DH category — there are already pieces of some out there: my first introduction to text mining as a reading strategy came more than 20 years ago when I read Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler in college! But I think that Penumbra is more than a novel that happens to make use of metadata, visualization, and high-end computing as plot devices. In its accounting of network fluidity, collaboration, resourcefulness, and media consciousness, Sloan’s novel embodies for me a lot of the curiosity and energy that I associate with DH. Ultimately, that was probably the main reason I suggested it to my students.

We’ll see how it goes tomorrow.

Telescopic Text

So I’ve been slowly reading S by Abrams and Dorst, and slowly expanding my Twitter horizons with respect to bots, and today, I came across a really interesting app/tool that crossed the streams, so to speak.

It’s called Telescopic Text. Not unlike Tapestry, it’s an application that lets you write and store texts. Those texts, though, are like that word game where you create a ladder of words by adding a letter at a time (a, an, pan, plan, plane, planet, etc.). You start with a tweet-length sentence, highlight particular words, which then “unfold” as they’re clicked on. It’s like drilling down into a text to find more and more details.

The TT site itself starts with an example:

The tools for building one, and saving it, are at:
(registering for an account is free, which you’ll need to do if you want to save your efforts)

I ended up finding the site from a link to Tully Hansen’s “Writing,” which is located here (you’ll need to scroll down):

It reminds me too of Jon Udell’s classic screencast about the WIkipedia entry for the heavy metal umlaut:

I’m not entirely sure how I’ll be using this, but it’s been a lot of fun to play with this afternoon…

(x-posted from Facebook)


Apropos of positively nothing:

I was thinking just now about -aholic as our kludgy suffix for addiction, as in workaholic, chocoholic, danceaholic, Brookaholic (okay, that last one isn’t real). I figured that it must have come originally from alcoholic, but alcohol doesn’t match up with my spotty recollection of Greek and Latin. Briefly, I wondered (given the al-) if the word wasn’t originally Arabic.

Lo and behold, it is. It comes from the Arabic al-kuhul, or “the kohl,” which was ground ore used as mascara. Later it generalized to mean something like the pure substance of anything, including liquids, and it only acquired its modern sense in the 18th c or so.

Kohl comes from kahala, to paint or stain. Given the aversion to rhetoric as a merely decorative art that stretches back to antiquity, I begin now to understand certain rhetors’ obsession with beer.

from Facebook

I went to the beach

A beach

I went to the beach

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Some video please

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Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.

Steve Jobs
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Some shots from the beach

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