Recently in rhetworks Category

If you're like me, there's a hole in your aggregator where Clay Shirky used to appear regularly. In a lot of ways, he and the rest of the Many2Many crew helped to spark my interests in social software, web2, and network studies. So it's been a little lonelier at Google Reader without him. The hiatus, though, had its consequences: this week, Clay's book, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations (Amazon) was released. I was lucky enough to be quick on the draw when Clay posted an offer to bloggers for a free, advance copy in exchange for blogging it, and although I'd hoped to do so before its release (thereby proving my Relevance and insider status), the sad truth is that the crossword tournament and other things got in my way. But here I am now. And here you are. Here we go.

This book will be largely familiar to those of us who have been reading Clay for a few years, and equally familiar in tone and style to those of us who read Gladwell, Johnson, Anderson, etc. There's a genre that's emerged in the past few years that I think of as PopTech (although perhaps sociologists would correct me, since I think these book "intrude" on their territory more than any other)--books that translate both sociological concepts and the technology industries for the more casual reader. I don't think of PopTech as a bad thing--my own attitude is a more open sociology/rhetoric of knowledge kind of thing. So it's interesting to me that these kinds of books are where "my work" is being done most actively. Okay, that's neither here nor there, except to note that the book works hard to be engaging to those who have little stake in the conceptual end of things. Again, not a bad thing.

The about part: HCE is about understanding the changes that are happening as a result of the net, web2, etc. "These changes are profound because they are amplifying or extending our essential social skills, and our characteristic social failings as well" (14). The big change that this book narrates is the move from institutions/organizations as the primary site of social interaction to a more bottom-up activity. In a sense, this is an answer to what Clay calls the "institutional dilemma"--we need institutions to direct our group efforts, to act collectively, but a certain margin of those institutions is devoted to actually directing those efforts (19). "New social tools are altering this equation by lowering the costs of coordinating group action" (31).

One of the profound shifts that this book examines is the move from scarcity to abundance, a theme that you'll find in Anderson's Long Tail as well. But while the original thesis of the Long Tail dealt primarily with commerce and economics, Shirky's focus is on a more interpersonal scale. In an age of media scarcity, where access to publication and broadcast is limited, the "professionals" are those whose job it is to filter our media pre-publication. With social tools, more and more, it's instead "publish, then filter." But Shirky's careful not to suggest that utopia is just around the corner: "The limiting effect of scale on interaction is bad news for people hoping for the dawn of an egalitarian age ushered in by our social tools" (95). And that's one of the nice features of this book, overall, the fact that Shirky doesn't fall victim to the temptation to try and discuss these tools outside of their social context. It recalls for me his discussion of A-lists, power laws, etc., from the good old days. These tools may address technological or media issues, but that doesn't mean that our social or cognitive limitations have somehow vanished along with them.

One of my favorite posts from Shirky's site is "The FCC, Weblogs, and Inequality," which has my favorite subtitle of all time: "Diverse. Free. Equal. Pick two." He goes into a little more detail in the book, of course, but of particular interest to me was his discussion of power laws, motivation, and collaboration in Chapter 5, where he notes that "imbalance drives large social systems rather than damaging them" (125), which I take to be a gentler translation of that original point. The book shifts at this point to talking about collective action, flash mobs, political action, cultural capital, and small worlds. And that's an awfully skate overview of those latter chapters, I fear.

What happened for me as I read through the book was that by the final couple of chapters, it felt like all of the narratives and terms really coalesced into the overriding message of the book. And the final chapter pretty well sums it up: "Promise, Tool, Bargain." Only one of those is technological, you'll notice, and each is as essential as the other two. According to Shirky, "The promise creates the basic desire to participate...After getting the promise right (or right enough), the next hurdle is figuring out which tools will best help people approach the promise together...Then...A successful bargain among users must be a good fit for both the promise and the tools used" (261). Of these, the bargain was the trickiest for me, and it's the trickiest of the three in general, I think. But really, it's everything from explicit contract to implicit, phatic exchange.

I'm not sure that there's a formula, though. In fact, let me change that around: I'm sure there's not a formula, but one of the things that Shirky discusses in the second-to-last chapter is how these new tools make failure "free"--if no one's interested in your obscure Wikipedia page, or your Meetup group, or your Flickr account, or your blog post, then if that's not part of your bargain, you just drop it/them. In traditional organizations (pace James Dyson), there's not a lot of room for failure, which translates into lost resources, or adds to that margin of costs. Online, though, if your group doesn't fly, or your discussion list fades, or enough people don't pay attention to you, then you just go on to do other things. Failure is free.

And this may be the most interesting part of the book to me. "Cheap failure, valuable as it is on its own, is also a key part of a more complex advantage: the exploration of multiple possibilities" (247). In other words, as much as this is a book about organization and about social tools, I left the book thinking of it as a book about social and organizational invention, and I mean that more in the rhetorical sense than in the corporate sense of innovation. It's a nice bridge between the more technical ideas (power laws, e.g.) and the concrete, practical examples thereof. And it's a book that would be accessible to those of my colleagues who don't think of technology as something they "do." The tools are only part of the equation; in many cases, we're part of it ourselves.

As a close, I think this book would/will be valuable for those who are looking to connect up rhetoric of social movement kind of work with technology and/or the language of networks (which is getting full-on buzz in my field right now, I think). Donna mentioned something to this effect last week, and I think she's right to call for this kind of cross-pollination. It's definitely worth reading, and it's a good entry point for folks in my field to some of these issues.

That's all.

If you've been paying attention in the last day to the RSS feed in my right-hand sidebar, then you are surely the single most obsessive reader of this blog in the world, bar none.

However, if you take this entry as an opportunity to look at it, you will notice that I have finally gotten off my tail and begun making up some ground over at Rhetworks. In addition to blogging about Duncan Watts's piece from last Sunday's NYT magazine, I've got a series of Kathleen Carley's work from the 90s that I've read, but not blogged.

At any rate, that's where my precious blogging time is going right now. I'll post an entry here every once in a while, but I'm trying to get myself back into the habit over there. I've noticed that it helps when I have digital copy to sample, rather than having to type in everything myself, but I'm trying to push past that.


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I'm in the midst of preparing another of this year's endless series of presentations, but I thought I'd take a short break in my preparation to address Lindsay Waters' latest offering for the Chronicle. I'd link to "Time for Reading," but the CHE has it firewalled currently. Pretty soon, Waters is going to deserve his own category if I'm not careful.

At any rate, I thought I'd respond chiefly because it will be entirely possible for a member of my upcoming audience to raise a hand and ask whether or not I've read this piece and what my response to it is. You see, in this essay, Waters criticizes the work of Franco Moretti among other things. Moretti is guilty by association with, among other things, fast capitalism, the sinister forces of bureaucracy, speed reading, Cliffs Notes, and in a slightly bizarre reading, outsourcing:

But Moretti is now promoting what he calls "distant reading," which seems to me to suggest that scholars of literature outsource reading of books to lower-level workers.

Lest we think it a momentary metaphor, Waters continues it later, faux-apologizing for running the "risk of sounding like the commentator Lou Dobbs going on about outsourcing jobs." You see, this kind of outsourcing "is more dangerous in the long run. It's like killing the plankton in the ocean."

Umm. Okay. Waters objects to Moretti's efforts to tabulate data across centuries and countries and languages, a collation of data that might provide us with broad-scale insight into the rise and fall of particular genres or literary strategies. Fair enough. But it's odd to see this work contrasted with his earlier "superb analyses of literary works," when you actually go to the bother of reading a book like Signs Taken For Wonders. STW analyses literary works, yes, but it does so under the sign of rhetoric, viewing literature not simply as a triumph of linguistic and aesthetic expression, but as strategic interventions into culture. The former would be the "wonders" and the latter "signs." At no point in Moretti's work have I personally detected the assumption, which seems to underlie Waters' contempt, that Moretti is arguing for signs at the expense of wonders.

Waters is clearly hostile to Moretti's work, and in such a case, one might justly assume that such criticism deserves some sort of evidence. In an essay where Waters attacks the notion of distant reading, the apprehension of literary work through the distillation of that work into themes or keywords, the only citation of Moretti's work that appears is a parenthetical reference to the subtitle of a talk that Moretti delivered in Germany: "How to Talk About Literature Without Ever Reading a Single Book." Yes, that's right. A subtitle. The parenthesis is preceded by the mock-horror of Waters' characterization of Moretti: "What we need to understand is the system. The professor need not read books at all!" Apparently, the critic need not actually attend the talk to know that the subtitle "says it all," either.

Am I getting a little snippy? Perhaps. Perhaps it's the irony of Waters' own distant reading getting under my skin. Anyhow, he continues:

It is impossible to understand the rationale for such a relegation of reading to graphs and charts except as a way of institutionalizing large-scale bureaucratic analysis of literature. That is poison.

There's an invitation to dialogue for you. But here's my attempt. If you read Steven Johnson's Ghost Map, you'll learn the story of John Snow and the Reverend Henry Whitehead. What's cool about the story is that the two of them approached the problem of cholera from different scales of activity, and each played an invaluable role in changing the way society understood that disease. Whitehead knew the people of Soho in the same way that Waters here urges us to understand literature, by taking interest in and savoring individual words, lives, texts, events, at ground level as it were. Snow, on the other hand, approached the problem from the large-scale analysis of death records plotted against location plotted against London's various water suppliers. He used the same methods that made him London's premier anaesthesiologist, the relentless gathering and interpretation of data. And at one point, it is not difficult to imagine Whitehead making the exact same objection to the work of Snow--at one point, he argues that it is impossible to understand people's lives by looking at charts and maps. Whitehead's convictions play an important role in confirming Snow's hypothesis, eventually, and the "felicity of scale" that blends the two men's work is, for me, one of the most interesting and important points of Johnson's book.

This proves nothing, but it suggests that a difference of opinion, mapped across what is instead a difference in scale, might not be a difference at all. Another point I'd raise about STW, and that's that its subtitle is "Essays in the Sociology of Literary Forms." And there's a strong case to be made that Moretti should be read not alongside other literary scholars, but with others working in the sociology of knowledge, those same writers (Merton, Urban, Collins, Abbott, et al.) that Waters takes Stevens and Williams to task for ignoring. This critique of Moretti, honestly, feels more like a category error than anything else, poison, plankton, and outsourcing aside.

The problem with reading and literary studies is not and never will be the work of Moretti or speed reading. The problem that Waters never really discusses is that the kind of literary experience he advocates is fundamentally incompatible with the institutional demands that are politically expedient right now. I love reading, but schooling did its best to beat it out of me. And it's far worse now than it ever has been. You can't test for love. But you can sure test a love for reading out of us. The "graphs and numbers" that Waters should be railing against are the ones generated annually by the national testing oligopoly, not the products of a single research team at Stanford.

So if someone raises hir hand on Friday, to ask me about Waters' assault on Moretti, that's my answer. At its very best, the inclusion of Moretti here is misdirection, a strangely distant read of the situation.

That's what I got. Light blogging over the next few, most likely.

[x-posted at Rhetworks]

It's been too long since I tended to Rhetworks, but one of the first essays I took note of (and took notes on) when I started the site was Anne Stevens' and Jay Williams' "The Footnote, in Theory." My notes on the essay are hardly complete, but I do cite the essay with some approval and interest. At a time when I was exploring the disciplinary implications and applications of Franco Moretti's "distant reading," FIT was for me a nice example of what could be accomplished by aggregating what is a fairly occluded feature of academic prose, the footnote.

Stevens and Williams begin their essay with what I find to be a manageable and worthy set of goals:

We set out to determine, first and most simply, who and what works are most often cited in our pages. Second, we wanted to track trends and fashions, as well as constants. Over the past thirty years, theory has seen any number of upheavals and innovations, so we wanted to see if certain writers remained touchstones for our authors. Third, we wanted to investigate a related question, the question of the status of the footnote in our pages. Elaborating upon Anthony Grafton’s book The Footnote: A Curious History, we sought to investigate how theory is transmitted through notes, what sorts of conversations are held below the main text, and to thus discover in a different sort of way the identity of our journal, a journal that has been identified with theory for so long.

I quote their introduction at length for a reason. My main qualm with this essay is not a methodological one, although I think that their method does have its limits. As I commented in my entry on FIT, my biggest reservation is that there are a lot of visualization possibilities in a data set like the one that Stevens and Williams generate, and their article only scratches the surface of those possibilities. But this is one of those critiques that has its roots more in my interests than in any necessary shortcoming in the essay itself.

Little did I know, back when I was jotting down my thoughts, that Lindsay Waters, he of the Eclipse of Scholarship (Amazon) fame and Executive Editor for the Humanities at Harvard UP, had already provided a pithy, pop-culture-laden putdown of Stevens and Williams, some 3 or 4 months before I even found it, at the Chronicle: The Lure of the List. (I have Scott to thank for pointing it out today.)

The lure of the list refers to the temptation that "klutzes" like Richard Posner and "clowns" like David Letterman yield to, but above which we in the humanities should hold ourselves. Lists are, and I'm quoting variously here, like pornography, bogus social science, hocus pocus, pseudoscience, a Trojan horse, and so forth. I'm not sure "wastage" is a real word, but it's the cost of an article like this apparently, as is our neglect of scholarly "fruit wasting on the vine, whose cultivation might have benefited us all." It's hard for me to recite this giant list of mixed metaphors without rolling my eyes, just a little. It's really over the top.

And I say this as someone who genuinely appreciates the efforts of Waters to shake loose some of the entrenched assumptions about the relationship between the publishing and tenure industries. Even so.

I'll restrict myself to two criticisms and one compliment. The first criticism deals with Stevens' and Williams' introduction, which in Waters' review, becomes the following:

But my heart sank when I saw that the premier egghead journal of the land, Critical Inquiry, published an essay last winter that purported to rank the greatest literary theorists in its pages (and, by implication, the world).

Maybe there's a history here that I'm not privy to, but wow. I'm afraid I take the authors at their word when they say they're interested in charting the trends that occur in the pages of their journal. The master list of citations (and one should add, citation in footnotes) is only one of the charts provided, and the information it provides hardly translates into The Greatest Theorists in the World!!™

Maybe I'm just defensive here, but one of the things that we're trying to do with the CCC Online Archive is to provide this kind of information. We're not trying to generate tenure industry kinds of information, though; rather, we're interested in providing newcomers and veterans alike with new pathways into the scholarship collected in the journal. We're proud of pages like this one, which dynamically tracks the self-citation in the journal. Are these the "most important" articles, and their authors the Greatest Scholars in Our Discipline? Not at all. But it tells you something about the journal that would be hard to glean even from years of reading, unless you're particularly fond of bibliographies and have a particularly mighty memory.

My first criticism, then, is the cavalier way that Waters attributes motives to the Stevens and Williams, thereby doing the work that they actually do a great disservice. My second criticism is related: I'm not sure that Waters actually read the article, or made any effort to understand that work. His description of their method, once you get past the snottiness of "very likely bogus social-science tools," is curious. Why "very likely" in a review that is not exactly notable for the application of kid gloves?

Waters' only real critique of their methods is to smack at them for neglecting the work of sociologists like Robert K. Merton. Now as it turns out, Merton's work is on my Rhetworks list, and in my pile, so I actually have read it. Scott notes that

The casual, condescending quality of his dismissal fails to embody the standards it claims to uphold.

Merton's "Matthew Effect," which Waters cites approvingly, is in part a discussion of the reward structure in the sciences, where famous scientists receive disproportionate attention and reward for their efforts, and non-famous scientists get the shaft. The Matthew Effect is a rich-get-richer notion. But there's more to it than that. Merton also emphasizes the communication system; if attribution is the currency of the reward system, then visibility is the currency of the communication system. Famous scientists, he explains, may receive disproportionate rewards, but they also are able to make their ideas visible and diffuse more quickly, contributing to the development of knowledge.

What's interesting about Merton's original article on the Matthew Effect (.pdf from UPenn) is his interviews with various Nobel Laureates, who are acutely conscious both of their struggle to gain recognition and the privilege that accrued to their position once they did. What's interesting to me are the various strategies that they discuss for using their disproportionate visibility to help younger scholars. In other words, there's an ethical component here to the Matthew Effect, one felt strongly by many of those that Merton interviews.

What I take Scott to mean is that Waters, as the Executive Editor for the Humanities of Harvard Press writing for the Chronicle of Higher Education, might himself reflect upon the ethical dimension of the Matthew Effect. Were he to do so, he might rightly conclude that reviewing an essay by misreading its intentions, distorting it, and calling it all sorts of names, is exactly the kind of disservice that Merton might find less than kosher. Whether or not Scott means it, that's my second criticism.

Now for a compliment. There's a legitimate argument lurking beneath all of the verbage and vitriol that characterizes Waters' column here. After recalling the top ten or so (and making note of all on the list who are affiliated with Harvard (??)), Waters writes

[The authors] note that "Benjamin's works are cited nonargumentatively," which I think is a nice way of saying his ideas are just window dressing, not engaged with. That must be why he ranks high as one of the most perfectly citable authors of all, because you can cite him reverently without having to figure out what he said. With Benjamin a citation is the academic equivalent of the purely ritual move, like a ballplayer's sign of the cross.

This is a genuinely interesting thesis, and speaks to the flux located just beneath the smooth surface of any list. At another point, Waters accuses the authors of "substitut[ing] accounting methods for critical judgment," and yet, just a few paragraphs later, Waters demonstrates that it's possible to generate critical judgment out of the evidence provided by these so-called "accounting methods."

And that's the real point here. Our institutions may indeed be on a quest to reduce what we do to numbers, and the tools are out there for them to do that. But in the humanities, we've avoided these kinds of evidence and these methods, out of a misplaced faith that if we simply close our eyes to them, they can't affect us. But the Nobel Laureates that Merton interviews are very conscious of the asymmetries attendant upon their activity, and it is that consciousness that allows them to try and redress them. There's a great deal of knowledge that we could be generating and building upon if we were to turn to information design, visualization, and yes, even some of these "accounting methods," not as ends in themselves, but as starting points for the kinds of critical judgments that Waters advocates.

For me, this kind of knowledge is far more likely to be the fruit that withers on the vine, at least in the field where I work.

That is all.

Isn't data "beneath the metadata"?

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For the most part, this is just a placeholder for links to Elaine Peterson's Beneath the Metadata: Some Philosophical Problems with Folksonomy, to David Weinberger's reply and Tom Vander Wal's reply as well. I've got some work and at least one meeting before I can turn to them, but turn to them I will. It shouldn't take too much sleuthing to figure out where I'm going to weigh in...

Keepin on

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Paul has a nice reply to my earlier post, Derek's, as well as the comments that Jeff and I left over at his place. A couple of quick things I wanted to mention, maybe to pick up later:

I also feel that reading the professional literature has become much easier. I know what to read carefully (and several times) and what to skim through quickly because I can often predict where I might find certain arguments or pieces of information because of my genre knowledge. Sometimes I can even predict what the text is going to say before reading it based on my knowledge of what's been said and done; in those cases, reading is a matter of confirming my predictions and noting any discrepancies.

That's something that I should have mentioned but didn't, the fact that it does get easier. The advantage of any relatively closed network of texts is that we read for content, yes, but we also read for the strategies and tropes that frame that content. I like "genre knowledge" as a description of it. While it may be somewhat disconcerting to realize that there really aren't all that many ways to say what we have to say, I've always found that it makes my reading easier, too.

And lately, in the past year or two, I've really become interested in the kinds of mental mapping that we inevitably do as scholars. My personal crusade has been to think of ways that this mapping can be aggregated so that we aren't each reinventing the wheel, but on a smaller scale, I've been asking my students (in the last 3 grad courses I've taught) to really think explicitly about mapping as knowledge production.

And that's part of what I mean by managing the collection of academic texts and ideas. I think that there are intermediate steps between reading on the one hand and writing on the other, steps that can, if not shorten the distance between the two, at least allow us to make the transition with more certainty.

The tools that we're using to put together CCC Online are almost all available to anyone with a web browser, and I think they're scalable to the individual user pretty easily. Paul's right to note at the end of his entry that it's crucial to reach a critical mass, though, which is the flip side of the sustainability argument that I make. Any system must be simple enough to accomplish on a regular basis, and done often enough that it achieves critical mass. I look at the tag cloud emerging from our work with, and while it's only a map of 11 or so years of the journal, I feel like it gives me a pretty good idea of that span. And when you add in the fact that the tags themselves link out to specific essays, it's a pretty darn useful little "paragraph." Imagine having a cloud like this for each of several exam lists, for example:

I'm going to be doing some experimenting over the next couple of weeks to try and make our own process even more useful and streamlined. With a little luck, I'll be posting about it soon enough. But this is one of the ways that a collection might be managed to a scholar's advantage, emerging or no...

That's all.

Collections vs Conversations

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Derek's citation of an entry over at Paul Matsuda's blog tripped a bit of a switch for me this evening, and the result is probably going to be a sizable post. Buckle your seat belt.

What I want to take issue with, ever so slightly, is the tried and true bit of wisdom that entering academia is a matter of "joining the conversation." We're fond, in rhetcomp, of Kenneth Burke's passage from Philosophy of Literary Form, as a metaphor for disciplinarity:

Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally's assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.

There are critiques of the Habermasian character of the Burkean parlor, but that's not my concern. My concern is with the ease with which "putting in one's oar" is translated into the nominalism of "publication." As in, I need a publication, or to get a publication, or I don't have enough publications. I'm being somewhat specific here: I'm objecting to "publication" as a thing you have as opposed to "publishing" as an activity you engage in. And thus my concern is also with how we translate "listen for a while," because I think that's key for publishing (and perhaps less of an emphasis in publication).

For the past couple of years, I've been handing out Paul Matsuda's chapter "Coming to Voice: Publishing as a Graduate Student," from Casanave and Vandrick's Writing for Scholarly Publication (Amazon). In fact, I wrote about it, almost exactly a year ago, in the context of a discussion about the ongoingness of blogging. So it was kind of cool to see Paul repeat some of that essay in a blog entry a couple of weeks back. And it reminded me about why I hand out his chapter in the first place.

I wrote a year ago that "What's important about the essay is that it narrates a process that's not about acquiring disciplinary content so much as it is learning about the conversations, about seeing publication as an ongoing process," but I want to amend that statement slightly. I'm now beginning to wonder if even the metaphor of "conversations" pushes us too quickly towards the "publication" end of things.

As I mentioned early on, over at Rhetwork, the idea of collection has been gathering steam for me for a while. And so I want to contrast collection with conversation as a guiding metaphor for academic/intellectual activity, particularly at its early stages, i.e., in graduate school.

I'll add some citations to this eventually, but this summer, at RSA, I gave a paper where I suggested that collection, as Walter Benjamin describes it in "Unpacking My Library," operates as a hinge between narrative and database, in part based upon our affective investment in it. I may look at my big wall of books and see all the various connections among texts, in terms of their content, chronology, and my own encounters with them. In short, I may perceive it as a big wall of conversations, of disciplinary narratives. Someone else may happen upon it, and simply see a library, a database of rhetoric, critical theory, technology studies, et al.

The value of the collection, of having all these books here, is that I'll never know what's going to be useful. I can't predict, when I begin an essay, what will find its way in and what won't. I have the luxury of being able to work my way through my collection, following up on dimly perceived connections, my own added marginalia, etc. And the wall enacts on a material scale what's going on in my head as I constantly add articles, books, ideas, etc., to the collection of disciplinary knowledge that occupies a certain portion of my mind.

It probably feels like I've wandered from my point. My point is that we tend to think of our disciplines largely in terms of the narratives we construct, stories of the field's progress from point A to B to C or as conversations among certain luminaries occurring in the pages of journals and books. To treat the discipline as a database (where, a la Manovich, it's just "an infinite flat surface where individual texts are placed in no particular order” ) is to foreclose, initially at least, on the narratives that we tell ourselves about our fields.

But of course, disciplines are neither one nor the other; they're both. From the outside, the publications in a given discipline comprise a growing mountain of discourse that no one person could possibly master. From the inside, even a single article may yield all sorts of narrative information about where the writer's from, with whom she studied, to whom she's responding. We become quite adept at reconstructing conversations from a single voice, and the occluded genres of footnotes, citations, and bibliographies can only help us do so.

And when faced with the conceptual metaphor of a discipline as a gathering of conversations, as a parlor, our response is to want to join it, to enter the conversation. The uber-competitive job market only fuels this desire, as if it needed feeding. When faced with a conversation, there aren't a lot of other options.

I want instead to think about collection as an alternative metaphor for what we do, or an earlier stage of a longer process. In part, I'm prompted by Brendan's Katamari Interface and by Jeff's comments about DJs as researchers. When I think of the tools that I use most often, I can see them in terms of collecting:

  • blogs, collecting my thoughts and notes
  •, collecting my bookmarks
  • Library Thing, collecting my books
  • Bloglines, collecting my feeds

and so on. In talking about why it's important to "read it all," Paul explains:

I then scan through [the library] to explore the intertextuality--which sources get mentioned more frequently and how. I then collect more sources if I don't have them handy. Without this process, it wouldn't be possible to come up with viable research questions or to know what questions or concerns reviewers and readers might have.

This is exactly the kind of data mining that we become proficient at as academics, but it's awfully tough to accomplish unless you have that collection to begin with. As we gain experience, we learn how to read articles for their intertextuality, for the differences between primary and secondary sources, etc. But the conversations emerge from collection, not the other way around. And in fact, I want to suggest that the discipline as database also emerges from collection, but that's a different essay.

I'm most certainly not trying to sneak around the back way to saying that "grad students these days are too focused on publication blah blah blah," although there are probably hints of that here. To take a course is to engage in collection, as you read texts and add them either to your active memory or your shelves. It's something we all do, period. To read a journal is to add to your collection.

I'm doing a guest shot in our gateway course this week, and what I'll be talking about, what I'm interested in here, are the logics of thinking as a collector. There are all sorts of tools, not to mention plenty of great examples, for the process of managing your collection, but it's important, I think, to make the figural leap. That is, it's important to understand that what we do in graduate school is to collect.

When I was a kid, I collected baseball cards. And for the first couple of months, I would buy the random packs of cards, always with the assurance that there'd be at least a few cards that I didn't have. As that number began to shrink, I'd start trading my doubles for friends' doubles, of ones that I hadn't gotten yet. And it would get to the point where I'd need only a few to complete a team or even a season, and so I'd go and pay premium prices at the card shop for the one or three that I needed. As a collector, it was important to have the whole set, of course. Reading the journals in a field is a lot like buying store packs, and I don't mean that as an insult. But their output is constrained by their input. Some journals are like being able to buy a store pack with the guarantee that the cards are all from the same team. That's also what taking graduate courses are like, I think. At some point, though, you have to get really specific, and spend your time strategically, to find the key elements missing from your collection, and that means going beyond course work or journals, and tracing bibliographies, asking experts, etc. It means thinking like a collector.

On the one hand, thinking like a collector means just accumulating, rolling your brain/katamari over everything and anything it can pick up. But it also means thinking about how you're going to manage it, how you're going to be able to use, in two years, what you're reading now. I can tell you from experience, "Well of course I'll just remember it" won't work. Seriously. It was just about a year ago that I was coming off of a discussion of note-taking (I taught our gateway course last year), and wrote:

One of the things that I emphasized in class today was the need to develop systems that are sustainable, things you can do (and keep doing) after the initial motivation has passed and the glow has faded.

And that's what I'll end with this year. And probably this week in that course. Use folders, notebooks, blogs, whatever, but build sustainable collection practices that you can engage in tomorrow as well as two years from now. Collect, collect, collect.

Told you it'd be long. That's all.

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See now, this is what I like: blowing a few hours doing a dual-screen tweak to a design. Heh.

Thanks for the comments, all, on yesterday's post. In local news, I've added a new category to the sidebar at the right--I've set it up so that new posts over on my book site will be sidebarred here as well. There's a really wide range of tools for doing that kind of thing--after having looked at 17 or 20 of them, I thought FeedRoll was the best, primarily because it allows you to get their CSS, install it on your own stylesheet, and then match it up to your own. It's not a perfect fit, but it's a lot closer than most of the others could provide.

If'n there's anyone interested in setting something like this up for themselves, but who needs a little assist with the CSS (particularly in the mangle that is MT 3.2 CSS), let me know. I've always thought that something like this would be a good way to manage departmental news on an otherwise static dept homepage, for example, and I can think of other potential uses as well...

Update: I definitely want to add top-level links here to Barbara's entry, which quotes me from yesterday and moves off in all sorts of smart directions, and of course, to Jeff's new book site, Digital Detroit. This all has the feel of something cool to me.



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