WWMD (What Would Montaigne Do)?

Shawn Graham uses the keyword “History” to reflect on the essay’s function in education, and to suggest strategies and models for reinvigorating the practice of writing and learning in the undergraduate classroom. “History” as a discipline and mode of inquiry is not the focus of this entry, and it hardly makes an appearance at all, except when Graham historicizes the essay as a genre. With Montaigne’s work as a starting point, Graham restores the essay to its original form: a written exploration or experiment. Because digital pedagogy shares this exploratory spirit, it can exploit the experimental, open-ended nature of the essay to great effect.

Graham is careful to differentiate online learning and digital pedagogy from the outset. The former is primarily a matter of course management and content delivery, with little room for creativity. The latter is where things get interesting and where there is potential to engage students in a meaningful way around the practice of writing and research. I think he makes a too-simple distinction, however. Online learning=conforming to the neoliberalist agenda of the corporate university; digital pedagogy=creative, humanistic methods that redefine what teaching and learning can be, and change the power structure from the inside out. Although I agree in many ways with this assessment, it seems like Graham creates this easy binary distinction mostly for rhetorical purposes, to structure his contribution to this project. His point, that digital pedagogy transgresses the parameters of traditional education, depends on this distinction, but he doesn’t address, for instance, how the various artifacts he has curated could actually be used to transform “mere online learning.” Experimental and “transgressive” teaching models existed long before a computer ever appeared in a classroom. My question is this: while digital pedagogy has yet to revolutionize the educational system, can we still call it transgressive? If so, then when does it cease to be?

Mapping “Landscape Lit”

I had mixed feelings about Moretti’s Graphs Maps Trees after I first read it; upon a second reading, they are just as mixed. For one thing, I don’t believe he makes–or intends to make–arguments so much as offer personal thoughts and suggestions about the various methods he demonstrates to model analyses of literary history. Which is perfectly fine, as long as I remember to read it with that in mind. Most theorizing about literary or any other kind of history-writing works much harder to convince the reader, so it’s easy to forget that Moretti is taking a different approach, or assume that he is trying to convince. So I’m offering a more personal reflection on it because this is the model Moretti uses.The book’s three chapters are essentially three different demonstrations of his hobby–a version of lit-crit show and tell.  It’s hard to respond very critically when it seemed he was never out to prove anything.This is not to say I don’t enjoy Moretti’s approach. If anything, the provisional and breezy nature of his presentation is really refreshing.

In the chapter “Maps,” the results of his experiments hardly seem replicable; they depend upon particular texts in a single genre and an esoteric collection of claims in the realms of science and philosophy. Moretti’s use of geography and geometry to analyze form in regional literature does, nevertheless, open up his reading of the texts he’s working with. His maps are as much visual abstractions of narrative form as they are diagrams that illustrate “social geography,”or that plot out specific elements of the narrative.  By creating abstractions of rural/regional narrative, he takes mapping this genre to a level that previous critics of the genre, such as John Barrell, had not thought to go. However, I was never particularly wowed by this move. While it seems very smart and possibly quite useful, it doesn’t challenge me to approach the genre all that differently than before. Now I would simply read more carefully and with more attention to space and its relation to social relationships and plot.

The idea I find most provocative–because it had never before occurred to me–is Moretti’s final statement in the chapter, that there is “a direct, almost tangible relationship between social conflict and literary form.” This is an extension of his earlier riff on form and the internal and external forces that create it. But really he goes out on a limb with such a broad claim, because he’s only shown that it applies to the texts he’s been working with. Furthermore, it’s unclear whether, by “form”, he means genre or the shape of an individual narrative or collection of narratives; and whether, by “conflict,” he means strife within the world of the narrative or in that of the author. So, my question is, if we use maps to plot social geography and narrative arc in any other works of regional “landscape lit,” do you think this claim would still be be supported? Conversely, does this technique reveal such relationships in a way no other approaches can?

Hyperedition or archive?

I am a huge fan of digital humanities projects like McGann’s Rossetti archive, the William Blake archive, and others (I remember my excitement when the Blake archive was launched). Aesthetically, they’ve come a long way since 1997, and we now have the ability to create digital documents that look similar to the originals through better OCR technology and markdown. But the premise and the general operating procedure are the same now as then.

McGann’s intention was to promote hyperediting and hypertext in this essay, so perhaps it wasn’t the venue to approach these things more critically. Nevertheless, as a [former] literary scholar they raised some questions for me and I’m curious how other people in the class would respond. These pertain mostly to his discussion of individual hyperedited texts, rather than entire archives.

First of all, there is a strange irony in the idea that the most complete way to present a complex textual object, with sequential content and visual components, is as an immaterial, hyperedited set of files. His use of Emily Dickinson’s work as an example is interesting because, if anything, the handwritten, “made space” of her poems would seem to be best encountered on the physical page, perhaps in facsimile. If scholars want to get as close to what they believe to be the “author’s intent,” how can they justify an electronic edition that can only be experienced visually on a screen? Doesn’t that, in effect, completely efface whatever we can know of the author’s intent? (Considering that document markdown wasn’t yet possible in 1997, this particular example is even less convincing. I imagine it would have only been possible to present a static image of the page alongside the transcribed text.)

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For your viewing pleasure

I discovered these two films last spring while doing some research. They’re entertaining, but also extremely relevant to this week’s readings – especially Dewey, in my opinion.  This is what the progressive education he was advocating for in the late 30s might have looked like.

If you have a chance to watch these, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised. I’m very curious how others in the class would characterize the pedagogical methods in these films. Both are examples of active learning, but do they follow Dewey’s guidelines for carefully-shaped experiential education? How do they differ (if they do) from his model? Do you think they would be equally effective, or is efficacy determined by the context and educational goals being set?

School: A Film About Progressive Education (1939, short documentary on Hessian Hills School)

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Netizen Kafka?

The late Roy Rosenzweig’s review essay on histories of the internet (I refuse to capitalize it) presents so many thought-provoking opportunities for reflection and discussion, and I find it hard to narrow it down for a blog post.  He very deftly weaves his way among these ideologically disparate yet overlapping histories in a manner that creates what becomes a far more comprehensive–and far more plausible–origin story than any single account. It took on the shape of its subject: rather than a linear meta-history of the internet-as-paradigm-shift, driven by Great Men and Their Ideas, the essay created a kind of rhizomatic or collage-like narrative, governed as much by personalities, events, and ideas as by their critical intersections or juxtapositions in time and space.  As I followed him through this more “networked” history of a network, one question recurred:  at these various junctures, who had the power, how were they using it, and why?  (OK, that’s three questions.)

In fact, the subtext of this review essay seems to be all about the issue of control. And its composite history of the internet takes on a familiar dialectical rhythm around control and decentralization.  Brief and totally oversimplified, it goes like this:

The internet developed from Cold War communications infrastructure that required integration, to ensure centralized command and control over defense systems. The Department of Defense (DoD) developed tools, in conjunction with well-funded research institutions, that enabled different types of computers within its systems to communicate with each other. As these embryonic networks of computers developed, it became clear that the networks themselves needed to be integrated. ARPANET seemed to solve that problem, and once again the government had centralized control over computing-as-communication in the service of national defense. Until groups of users affiliated (or formerly affiliated) with these partner institutions also wanted in. Disgruntled hippie scientists created Usenet to be “the people’s ARPANET.” Now there was a parallel network  for information that wanted to be free. Soon the DoD retrenched, established a hippie-free private net-fiefdom,  and made the resources of ARPANET available to Netizens for further independent development. This decentralization prompted the establishment of protocols to integrate and govern a “meta network”–the internet more or less as we know it now. Yet this ultimately created new opportunities for control: highly lucrative opportunities for individual Netizens who favorably positioned themselves. Personal computing was the next big thing. It wasn’t long before the market was awash with hardware, operating systems, and software (much of them incompatible with each other).

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