Erik Champion’s WordPress site https://erikchampion.wordpress.com/ displays the form of a true digital humanist. Champion is the current professor of Cultural Visualization at Curtin University in Perth, Australia. His forthcoming work, Critical Gaming: Interactive History And Virtual Heritage focuses on game play and the digital humanities, as well as the intriguing idea of ‘critical play.’ A chapter by chapter rundown exists on the page of the same title https://erikchampion.wordpress.com/2015/01/15/looking-for-suitable-cover-image-critical-gaming-interactive-history-and-virtual-heritage/. Check out the Mindmap at the DH tab, and explore a PDF of Champion’s Doctoral thesis “Evaluating Cultural Learning in Virtual Environments.” Champion is major player in the European digital humanities field with an impressive list of work in the data visulization and digital culture areas. The work in screen warping and biofeedback are worth the visit.
The ‘Web’ is a problematic non-space, this we all know. Or, if you don’t, spend a few minutes reading Youtube comments, another non-space where racial epithets and homophobic speech seem to breed and thrive. At times it appears as if some valve holding back the flow of all the petty self-reflective hate has been cranked wide open. Natalia Cecire tackles this space, and intellectual writing’s place there, in her “Everybody’s Authority,” naming the specific concern among analytical writers that their carefully wrought arguments mix with these comments. A proverbial statement goes as such, ‘when one argues with a fool, at a distance it becomes impossible to tell who’s who.’ And it doesn’t take scads of imaginative prowess to envision an academic hesitating to publish work, real work, and risk even sharing the slightest space with the ever-present storm of irresponsible language. Quoting Jodi Dean, Cecire notes the “[b]loggers’ ability to remove certain physical barriers to access” and the “confrontation with the intractability…of other, less arbitrary barriers” (Cecire 455).
Cecire is correct in bringing attention to yet another reason why…well, everyone, not just scholarly writers, should pause before publishing anything that’s separated from anyone at any time by a mouse click, thumb tap, or Enter key. If I, for instance, speak of race, or roll around the age old question of a Mark Twain’s, or Zadie Smith’s for that matter, use of those words that feel like knives in the ear canal, will some bodiless set of ten fingers take me for some Neo National Socialist shining light, because it doesn’t understand what I’m critiquing, how I’m critiquing it, or (stay with me) WHY I’m critiquing it?
As Cecire makes a clear, “the fantasy of a universal, context free civility…is ultimately unavailable to the semipublic intellectual” (458). So this is how it is. Just as freedom means risk in the physical world, so goes the non-space, revealing itself to be more and more like the flesh-and-blood world as it evolves. An upside exists. Somewhere, amidst the flow of never-ending 1’s and 0’s, we as opponents to the illness, the anti-knowledge of hatred and persecution, need to work to discover Cecire’s new “poetics” and move forward (458).
Cecire, Natalia. “Everybody’s Authority.’ PMLA 130.2 (2015): 453-458. Print.
Recent discussion on the role of the academic is under dispute. Should they be more public? Should they be posting their latest work on Twitter and Facebook? Should academic work be more accessible? These questions do not come with an easy answer. However, there is a common trend that links a healthy number of the debates together: they remain in the middle ground.
James Mulholland addresses the topic of public engagement for academic intellectuals, demanding that “It is time for us to reassess what we mean by public scholarship.” In his argument, he explains that “popularizing research” is not the only way to make it more accessible, or more well-known. To support his claim, Mullholland gives a 2003 court case where decades of Queer Theory scholarship finally became useful to the public. Because we do not want thirty or more years to go by before our own academic works gets noticed, he states that “Humanists like myself are regularly forced to consider what the public wants … This is an important strategy that every academic should pursue” However, in the following paragraph of his article, Mullholland declares “But we must be allowed to resist this impulse, too.” Although a case can be made for both sides of the argument, Mullholland refuses to pick a side, and rather places himself in the middle, inevitably contradicting himself. If it is in fact time to “reassess” as he asserts, we need to be clear on exactly what modifications need to be made. In regards to only pursuing projects that the public wants, I feel as if there are a far too vast amount of topics that will forever remain hidden if we limit ourselves to the public scope. Just because something may not be popular, does not mean that it is not important.
Hua Hsu also discusses the work of academics and the question of whether or not their work should be more public and/or accessible. The first half of her article appears as if Hsu is an advocate of allowing intellectual work to become more open to the public through the internet and social media. However, nearing the end of the piece, the author writes, “All that said, there is something valuable about the academy’s fustiness … because it encourages the preservation of what makes scholarship a faintly utopian enterprise” (465). Thus, again we see another example of an argument that refuses to pick a side and remains in the middle instead. What can this trend mean? Perhaps, there are in fact, an equal amount of pros and cons to each side of the argument, thus, enabling the critic to remain too perplexed or frazzled to make an ultimate, concrete decision. Or rather, if a definite decision cannot be made, then maybe the need for a reassessment on public scholarship as Mllholland prescribes is not as vital as we may think it is.
Hsu, Hua. “In the Context of Infinite Contexts.” PMLA 130.2 (2015): 461-466. Print.
Pulled between engagement with the public and the insularity of the academy, many scholars must now decide whether or not to write for more than just a small group of specialists. While Nicholas Kristof asserts in “Professors, We Need You!” that academia is an exclusive club that is now shrinking, thinkers like James Mulholland argue that “popularising research isn’t the only way to make a social impact” (1). In reality, the universal, uncomplicated ideals surrounding public intellectualism may be nothing more than illusions.
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.
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.
The University of Florida’s Public Humanities projects, and others like it, work to open the apparent door between the academy and the public. As we have recently discussed, and defended in our class discussions and our own blog posts here, there is an apparent push in academia for engaging students in both academic and public discourses. UF uses a Tumblr page for one public platform. That begs the question, though, how public is Tumblr? While it is user friendly, it seems to me that Tumblr may not be the best audience for these initiatives. UF also has a Twitter account. As academics try to shift toward a more accessible, public readership, how much of that is trial and error in finding a space to occupy both within and beyond the Academy?
Evan Kindley’s article “Growing Up in Public: Academia, Journalism, and the New Public Intellectual” wrestles with the debate between relevance and accessibility that is contingent on the separation between “‘the public’ and ‘the academy’” and how a shift in the discourse, for Kindley, “provides an opportunity to help more people understand our activities as scholars and why they’re important” (468). I, myself, have recently found myself in a sort of internal struggle with this very problem. When I asked one of my mentors, “Does what we do matter?” with a genuine feeling of concern in my mind, and on my face. In turn, she shrugged and smiled. The short answer is this, it matters to us. But if we cannot share it with others, we run the risk of being obsolete. There is no real need to compete or argue over who might be better equipped to be a public intellectual, or even to redefine it. As Kindley notes, “[i]n the best case scenario, both sides are challenged to produce better work by adjusting to norms not native in their professions, thus raising the level of discourse of cultural criticism as a whole” (469). But is this just an intellectual utopian fantasy that we might never be able to actualize?
Of course, the space the public intellectual occupies is different than where the academic rests. The conventions of the academy challenge the academics ability to enter the public sphere reputably, and without stepping on anybody’s proverbial toes. More pressing for the academic in training, where, as Kindley notes, “public writing [is] not discouraged, but delayed: it [is] seen as a valuable activity, but one that ought to be pursued once one’s disciplinary bona fides were in order” (471). This is indeed a problem that us graduate students seem to face. When is the right time to bridge this gap? Are graduate students allowed to exist in both these spheres? More importantly, do they have the time and the means to do so? If the humanities academics want a more public presence, then shouldn’t that be incorporated alongside the traditional professionalization of academics in their graduate programs? We are the producers of the knowledge, the future of the disciplines, why would we hold our voices back?
Sharon Marcus, in “How to Talk About Books You Have Read,” labels the work done on the online review Public Books as being “Janus faced, attuned to the academy and to those outside it who are interested in scholarly ideas and research” (476). Before I decided to go to college in my thirty-somethingth year, I was one of those “outside it” yet still interested in the literary world. I’ve always possessed the desire to at least know what the world of literature is focusing upon or what philosophical thought is being bandied about amongst the life-of-the-mind crowd. You know, has anyone figured out this human-being business yet, that sort of thing.
As Marcus and her fellow contributors at Public Books seem to be furthering, the proliferation of public intellectualism and the Digital Humanities is filling a very specific void in the world, one that arguably has existed for quite some time. When we ask ourselves about the efficacy of the Public Humanities and the shift to readily accessible scholarly work, aren’t we being a bit short sighted? As Marcus notes the “fantasy of an indefinitely free and open Web,” sites that promote public interest in the Humanities already pull advertisers while being perused by hundreds of thousands of visitors (479).
A common myth of our atavistic society, a myth that is a symptom of our adoration of the wealthy above all, is that those that work with their hands, blue and gray collar workers, are chained to rocks they call jobs in purgatorial mind-numbing wastelands. This simply isn’t true and amounts to logical fallacy. The educated/enlightened man standing above the barely literate grunt, the vocational school certificate holder suffering from a disastrous choice, is also more stereotype than truth. In fact, we know well what miniscule percentage of the population could benefit from a little horizon broadening. The success of sites like Public Books reflects the truth about those outside of the super book-geek crowd and their need for knowledge and willingness to look in the direction of the Humanities. The human being is a curious animal, always attempting to dissect instinctively whatever can be pulled apart or pondered over, and this movement of scholarly work from the relatively small circulation of specialized-and expensive-academic journals into cyberspace underscores this willingness to learn, or at least look.
Marcus. Sharon. “How To Talk About Books You Have Read.” PMLA 130.2 (2015): 474-480. Print.
In the recording industry, certain unspoken rules govern what reaches the ears of the public. It’s considered damaging to an artist’s image to release demos and other raw forms that are, in truth, necessary steps in the creative process, steps that are rarely skipped even by those considered geniuses. Lili Looofbourow and Phillip Maciak debate in “Introduction: The Time of the Semipublic Intellectual,” whether or not this same feeling of mystique, and its power, extend to the academic and public realms, as well as where the two overlap. The Evgeny Morozov New Yorker article http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/10/13/planning-machine the one cited for its questionable reliance on Edin Medina’s research, is used to ask whether the need for detailed research in academic writing needs to be streamlined for the ‘public.’ And while Loofbourow and Maciak continue on to argue where and how the lines between academic and public scholarship exist, noting several frighteningly totalitarian instances of the guillotine blade of inoffensiveness-above-all falling on an intellectual’s professional neck, I argue that we stop at Morozov’s justification for this omission of detailed citations of Medina’s work (the link provided shows that Morozov does refer to Medina within the article), to pose some important questions.
We all, as readers, understand the mystique of genius. We would like to believe that inspiration descends upon the blessed, or perhaps we entertain our own ideas of how concepts are born or what they mean in relation to our own lives We also know the tinge of disappointment we feel when we find out that works we thought were rife with symbolism and insight are actually as literal as they can possibly be. The ‘mystique’ as it’s known in show-business terminology adds to the legendary status of the creative mind. Recently, poet Austin Cleon, during his Tedx talk “Steal Like an Artist,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oww7oB9rjgw revealed the ways we all, in one form or another, incorporate others work and the persistent voices prepared to jump at the opportunity to quickly label someone’s work as stolen, no matter the intention. As what was once cloistered becomes popular, and as Harold Bloom believes critical writing to be just as much a creative endeavor as any, do we streamline this need for painstaking citation? Do we apply the ‘immature artists borrow, mature artist steal’ logic to the realm of public intellectualism? Does the level of research and the need for ethical use of sources turn off those readers we hope to reach? Loofbourow and Maciak write of the “reactionary” stance that feels like the new normal standard regarding responses to scholars’ blog posts and nontraditional writing, leading to consequences we must address before they become standard practice (442).
If we can, at the present time, conceptualize of a future without paper or an infrastructure-free research community, now may be the perfect time to address these issues of research integrity. As Loofbourow and Maciak ask, “[c]an scholarship exist at…two speeds, can these modes be complementary?” (442). They are asking, in short, if what remains will be entertainment dressed up as true research, with the authorial mystique intact and the many hours of others spent in libraries and databases lost in the shuffle, and more importantly, is the need for–and benefit of–verifiable evidence in danger of becoming an issue of little importance.
Loofbourow, Lili and Phillip Maciak. “Introduction: The Time of the Semipublic Intellectual.” PMLA 130.2 (2015): 439-445. Print.