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Isaac Knapp

I am a graduate student in English Literature at Wright State University. Some of my research interests are nineteenth-century British literature, the intersection of literature and Victorian London, and the role of literature in modern intellect.

Visualizations for the Data Rich

This awesome tool takes visualization up a notch in sophistication. Palladio was designed by DHers at Stanford University and it allows complex data to be converted into maps, graphs, lists and galleries. The next time you’re working with big data sets, consider Palladio as a go to visualization tool.

Getting Your Intellectual Hands Dirty

In debates about the role of academics and intellectual publishing, a set of buzzwords gets tossed around frequently: insularity, ivory-tower, town/gown. In all of these terms there is the assumption of an inherent divide between the academic and the public, an idea that semi/public intellectual work is seeking to remedy. I would like to posit that to make further progress against this limiting binary, academics must be willing to engage with the public. Note that public engagement need not be synonymous with dumbing work down, nor does public engagement automatically exclude the possibility of publishing within the academic community. However, only once academics are willing to get their intellectual hands dirty will intellectual work start to have more of an impact in the world at large (whether large impact is the desired end goal is a discussion for another day).

Creating this public engagement without sacrificing intelligence is one of the challenges of this movement, but it is a challenge that won’t be met unless ambitions intellectuals are willing to step up, renegotiate the terms of ‘public intellect’ and take success and mistakes in stride. In, “In the Context of Infinite Contexts,” Hua Hsu suggests that, “We must leave behind the old language and precepts and build new relations with the public” (466). What does this look like? We can’t fully know yet, partially because the shifting digital plane alters the way we communicate every day and partially because any bold movement has elements of the unknown, risking the safe status quo for the hope of something better.

The inevitable pushback will come in many forms. In an article urging academics to continue publishing obscure academic work, James Mulholland suggests that his research on British colonial authors that have seen little readership since the 1790s holds value because it, “builds on themes that are important to our modern society, such as the possibilities or failures of cross-cultural dialogue, the relationship between corporations and social communities and the sharp tongue of satire in political discourse” (np). All valid points. What Mulholland fails to articulate is why this work must be cloistered within academia instead of being ported to a semipublic stance. Furthermore, his list of valid points includes few ideas for how his obscure research might spring to life down the road. Instead, his hope hinges on his currently obscure work someday becoming relevant, potentially long after he has passed.

Based on these perspectives, I see little reason why academics should shy away from public engagement. If Mulholland aims for public engagement and fails, so be it. It does not preclude his work from becoming important in a future theoretical scenario. There already exists substantial stereotyping of academics as reclusive, cryptic, and fully happy to stay that way. Unless academics are willing to engage the stereotype and get their intellectual hands dirty, that stereotype will continue to dominate and the chance for impactful academic work will remain marginal.

Works Cited

Hsu, Hua. “In the Context of Infinite Contexts.” PMLA 130.2: 2015. 461-466. Web.

Mulholland, James. “Academics: Forget About Public Engagement, Stay in Your Ivory Towers.” The Guardian. 2015. Web.

Going Semipublic

In her article “How to Talk About Books You Have Read,” Sharon Marcus links the role of the ‘semipublic’ intellectual to the profession of the teacher. She asks, “How does one do this kind of writing, which involves distilling copious research and complicated ideas about difficult texts into crystalline points that any intelligent eighteen-year-old can understand? We have a name for this in academia: we call it teaching. . .” (476). Marcus makes a well-argued point; academia is already invested in conveying complicated points to uninitiated undergraduates. Why not approach public intellect the same way? Why not become a teacher outside of academia as much as inside?

This argument handily combats the idea that public or semipublic intellectual work is inherently less rigorous and intelligent than work published in academic journals. In fact, we may even be able to view the semipublic intellectual as occupying a more difficult spot, making intelligent points that are still accessible to a general readership. Although this approach will inevitably step on some toes, stagnation is never combatted by people afraid of offending. If anything, a sort of productive offense must occur. Intellectuals must encounter and counter current publishing practices, searching for a new method for disseminating intellectual work.

I support Marcus’ stance and would like to further contend that it is important for the humanities to shift towards a more public face, not because of an attack or crisis within academia, but because the nature of the humanities should be human. Humanity is an incredibly diverse thing or project or idea, and academia, regardless of the diverse backgrounds of faculty, has remained surprisingly homogenous in its publishing mores. To reconnect the study of the humanities to the thing that fuels it (that is, the human experience), the intellectual community must cast their net further. For what use are the artifacts and studies of the humanities if they remain proudly pinned on the walls of an ivory office? Spread them to the masses and see what wonderful things may happen when you become a teacher of the many instead of the few.

Works Cited

Marcus, Sharon. “How to Talk About Books You Have Read.” PMLA 130.2: 2015. 474-80. Web.

A Shift in the Weather

Inspired by Sarah Tindal Kareem’s lecture and a following conversation with another TA, I think it’s interesting to ponder the shift in weather scale. Kareem’s lecture focused on the weather in Jane Austen and how it exerted agency over the characters; a rainstorm could fundamentally alter the days activities. However, today we find a different situation. If it rains, we simply grab an umbrella and hop in our cars.

In this way, have meteorological events shifted to meet human’s increasing ability to defy the agency of weather. We’ve talked a great deal about the Anthropocene in this course. Could we view it as the weather maintaining agency as humanity becomes more resilient to ‘lesser’ weather?

Academic Writing- The Symptom of an Aching System?

I recently spent a sunny Sunday afternoon shifting through uncomfortable positions on my couch for three hours, my eyes glued to “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Giyatri Spivak’s seminal work on marginalization in the postcolonial context. It was among the most unpleasant experiences I have had in graduate school up to this point, and at times the article made my blood boil. “How could someone devote their life to writing something this inane?!” Once I had waded through the fifty-odd page article, I completed a worksheet on the article and promptly shoved in a drawer, hoping to never see it again. The article was a parade of buzzwords and a lengthy deconstruction of Marxist terminology in translation. Each line became an active fight for meaning in the midst of buzzwords.

Perhaps the most famous example of the importance of buzzwords in academia is the article “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” Alan Sokal’s 1994 publishing experiment. His suspicion was that publication was based primarily on playing to editors’ notions and utilizing trending academic buzzwords. His article suggests, among other ludicrous things, that the material reality we interact with is ultimately a linguistic construct. However, between layer after layer of buzzwords and heavy handed references to numerous scientists and scholars, the meaning (or rather, lack of meaning) was lost on the editors: the article was published. Similar experiments have tried and had mixed success, but Sokal’s article stands as an indelible mark on the academic publishing racket. Why publish if not for meaning?

What’s scariest isn’t the fact that this article got published. It’s the fact that this article was published before I (now a graduate student staring academic publishing in its joyless face) was born 21 years ago. Over two decades later, the academic publishing field seems like it would welcome another Sokal article (albeit with updated, trendy buzzwords). Why has the academic publishing field eschewed well-written articles with clarity and favored complicated and often boring structure?

Joshua Rothman in “Why is Academic Writing so Academic?” suggests that, “the system that produces and consumes academic knowledge is changing, and, in the process, making academic work more marginal.” He goes on to explain that academics, “have no choice but to aim for very small targets. Writing a first book, you may have in mind particular professors on a tenure committee; miss that mark, and you may not have a job. Academics know which audiences—and, sometimes, which audience members—matter.” The academic career is becoming increasingly niche focused and therefore the writing becomes more ingrained in its own terminology and community—leading it further from breaching the public sphere.

So, is there a balance to be found here? Can (and should) we reverse the trend towards niche writing? Would that decrease the importance of specialization for faculty? Is there value in the ivory tower or should academics make more of an effort to connect what they are doing to the public sphere, to speak out on public issues? These questions will likely always be an ongoing battle in academia, but unless we strive for some form of debate on them, we may see academic writing retreat further and further into arcane and inaccessible realms.

 

Works Cited

Rothman, Joshua. “Why is Academic Writing So Academic?” The New Yorker. February 20th, 2014. Online.

Your Hometown Gone Historical

Since the revolution of the camera, photos have become a wonderful way to chronicle the progression of people or a location and to conjure up nostalgia. Yale University’s Photogrammar is a categorized collection of over 170,000 photographs taken between 1935 and 1945. The photos are organized by state and county on an interactive map and they offer a neat opportunity to peer into the past of your hometown. My home county had only one photo (the header for this post), but it was still neat to look backwards to an older time before diving back into the present.

 

Works Cited

Vachon, John. Grocery store, Ohio, Route 74. Digital image. Photogrammar. Yale, n.d. Web. 24 Mar. 2016. <http://photogrammar.yale.edu/records/index.php?record=fsa1992000575/PP&gt;.

Digital Humanities – Gone Postal

The Postal Service is accepted as a commonplace fact of modern day life (and even viewed as potentially on its way out). However, there once was a time when post offices were not nearly so common. The Geography of Post offers a fascinating visualization of when and where post offices operated. This is particularly interesting given that the Post Office opened nearly 14,000 new locations to meet demand between 1840-1900. Check out the Geography of Post to delve deeper into the Post Office’s storied past.

Distraction in the Digital Humanities

Distraction is a hot-button topic in the digital age. The staggering amount of information that is constantly available through laptops and smartphones is both exciting and overwhelming, and it gives rise to questions of digital natives’ ability to focus. Admittedly, even while writing this I have been tempted to glance away to my phone or fuss with my music player, effectively limiting my concentration. The question I would like to pose with this post is this: how can we make the digital humanities less distracting for the people that view it?

Nicholas Carr makes a solid case for the effects of internet distraction in his article, “The Web Shatters Focus, Rewires Brains,” published on WIRED. He asserts that, “we ask the Internet to keep interrupting us in ever more varied ways. We willingly accept the loss of concentration and focus, the fragmentation of our attention, and the thinning of our thoughts in return for the wealth of compelling, or at least diverting, information we receive. We rarely stop to think that it might actually make more sense just to tune it all out.” However, there was a certain measure of irony in reading this article as I scrolled. Almost from the start I was already distracted by the website itself. A pop-up demanded that I either whitelist wired.com on my ad-blocker or pay a subscription fee. Once I had whitelisted the site I began the article again. However, the ads that my web blocker had held at bay now flooded the right side of my screen, beckoning me to scroll through shiny watches on amazon or watch the latest trailer for a popular TV series. I found it curious that I could not find a focused space even for an article on focus.

This experience brought several interesting questions to mind regarding the construction of digital humanities. Many of the DH projects I have seen during this semester have a wealth of information, and understandable fact since the often broad scope of DH projects lends itself to great deals of information. However, the way the information is organized can be problematic. The landing page for a DH project will be crowded with links, each of them interesting trails of the project that I could follow. Oftentimes the overwhelming amount of information can deter me from further discovery because I don’t know where to start and I don’t want to take the time to figure out. Once I do dive into a project, there are constantly new pathways to follow and hyperlinks with additional information, all of which Nicholas Carr would suggest are limiting what I can actually take away from the project.

With these things in mind, how can we make the digital humanities more focus-friendly? If a project is presented in more streamlined, less overwhelming contexts does it become less intellectually sound? Can we strike a balance between focus and project depth? All of these are questions that DH scholars would do well to keep in mind, lest they continue to present valuable projects in methods that reduce audience takeaway.

Works Cited

Carr, Nicholas. “The Web Shatters Focus, Rewires Brains.” WIRED. 2010. Online.

Connection vs. Critique and the Confusion Between

As is likely the case with many literature study majors, I felt a deep connection to literature from a young age. Remember reading through every Grimms’ fairy tale that I could get my hands on at age 7. From there my love for literature only grew and I consumed any text I could get my hands on from ancient myths to modern novels. As my love for literature grew throughout high school, I began to consider careers that would allow me to pursue that passion and professorship seemed like the natural path to take. After an undergrad in English I went on to work for a masters in English Literature and embark upon the next step in a lifelong dream.

And then something happened. I realized that English academia wasn’t what I expected. I hoped for a community passionately engaged in the things that literature can do for students, how it can impact lives and inspire personal revelation. I found a community dedicated to impartial analysis, approaching literature in a surgical light. While I can see a value in the work of criticism, it wasn’t what I expected or desired. And while I had never seen the film until I began graduate school, maybe I was happily disillusioned with a Dead Poet’s Society ideal.

With these things in mind, I was interested to read “The Discipline Today” in Ellie Chamber’s and Marshall Gregory’s Teaching and Learning English Literature. Without dismissing theory Chambers and Gregory champion the idea that, “an education in literature provides the supplementary knowledge – supplementary to life itself – that there is, indeed, nothing new under the sun, no human circumstance that has not been faced by someone, somewhere, and that despite the real possibility of failure and defeat in life, good luck and victory are also possible. To study literature from the perspective of existential issues makes it live for students of all ages and circumstances” (23-24). This is the passion I have for teaching, seeing students connect their personal experience to a much broader human experience and encountering a personal edification.

So, how do we reconcile a divide between personal impact and theoretical approach, between connection and critique? While Chambers and Gregory address this problem later, they cannot reach a conclusive approach, perhaps because this issue may never reach a conclusion. Is it possible for scholars to foster both an appreciation, enjoyment, and internalization of literature while applying theoretical frameworks or must the two be compartmentalized? And should students be introduced to theory, or should we focus wholly on the personal development they can gain from studying literature? All of these are questions that I continue to mediate throughout my graduate program.

Works Cited

Chambers, Ellie and Marshall Gregory. “The Discipline Today.” Teaching and Learning English Literature. Sage Publications, 2006. Online.

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