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I blog in various places inside the Geneseo wiki. Here's a selection...

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From Practicing Criticism

We've moved!

English 170, The Practice of Criticism, is now English 203, Reader and Text. The new course is part of the completely revised English major at SUNY Geneseo.

The collaboration space for Reader and Text is a website in the network. Find it here.

Making more sense

In my previous post, The English major makes sense, I was silent about one of the points I tried to bring out this semester, for fear of seeming to contradict myself. But I've changed my mind and resolved to make the point as best I can, because that post, if left to stand by itself, is really misleading. In addition, to overlook this point is to overlook an important reason that the English major is valuable — indeed, invaluable.

This point is that much of our vocabulary for examining "literature" and other aspects of "culture" is also, and inevitably, necessary for understanding everything about our lives that isn't strictly a matter of biological necessity. If, as we saw Barbara Hardy and Alasdair MacIntyre maintain, we actually experience our lives as narratives; if symbol and metaphor pervade our ordinary speech and structure our cognition; if, as Alva Noë argues, to be alive and aware is to have a world "show up" for you that is meaningful only because of stories, symbols, metaphors, and other kinds of "background" knowledge you've been acquiring since you first became conscious; then no bright line can be drawn between the "works" or "texts" on a syllabus like ours, and "life" itself.

But, I hear you ask (sensing, as I predicted, a contradiction between this point and a theme of the list in the previous post, of some of my comments on your essay draft, and of many of the things I said in class), "Didn't you insist that English majors don't study 'life' or 'human experience'? Haven't you just gotten through explaining that English majors study 'made' things — artifacts — representations — in short, a particular, restricted domain of human activity that only mirrors or models 'life'"?

Well, yes, that's indeed what I've been saying, but when saying these things, I've meant something very particular by "life" and "experience." If I explain that particular meaning, the contradiction that you sense will, I hope, drop away.

My point in drawing a contrast between "life" and "culture" was to push back against the widely held (you might even say, "common sense") notion that there is anything we might call "just life" or "just experience." According to this "common sense" notion, life is full of experiences that we call by names such as "love," "ambition," "jealousy," "hate," "disappointment," "happiness," etc. Literature (more common sense) is a body of writing about these experiences: experience put into words. Reading literature (yet more common sense) is a way to engage with these experiences, to "live" them vicariously and to learn about them directly. I read Shakespeare's sonnets, common sense tells me, to learn about something called "love" that has an existence prior to and outside of narrative, metaphor, and symbol: something "universal," "enduring," and "real." There is love, there is what Shakespeare writes about love, there is what I learn about love by reading Shakespeare. If common sense is right in this regard, the English major, in reading Shakespeare, studies love.

But common sense is wrong. When it comes to love, ambition, jealousy, hate, disappointment, happiness, and everything else in life that we experience as meaningful (which is just about everything other than raw sensations: itches and hunger pangs), the experience itself (if Hardy is right) is in most cases already narrative; and from our earliest years, that experience is shaped by the particular plots, symbols, metaphors, images, and so on that pervade the stories told to us, read to us, and watched by us at home, in school, in theaters, and elsewhere.

One reason I put Carroll's Alice books and Dickens' A Christmas Carol on the syllabus is that they've played such an outsized role in contributing to the stock of characters, plots, symbols, metaphors, and images through which people in English-speaking — and other — societies experience "life."

Another reason is that they represent, themselves, a determined effort to expose as artifice that which their readers took to be simple, naked "reality." What Scrooge (following Thomas Malthus) regarded as an ordinary numerical fact — "surplus population" — Dickens shows to be an artifact of a particular story about the relationship between individuals and society, a story in which "Want" and "Ignorance" are merely "natural" and unavoidable byproducts of letting individuals pursue, undisturbed, their "natural" propensity to seek their own interest. But Want and Ignorance are not at all natural, the Ghost of Christmas Present instructs Scrooge. "They are Man's." They are made.

And so with many of the other works on the syllabus. Marge Piercy's "Barbie Doll" is such a powerful poem because it dramatizes, through one invented character's brief life-story, the tragic (note the word) consequences of having your "experience" of "life," as a woman, mediated by the narratives, images, metaphors, etc. that circulate through our commercial culture (drawing, in part, from that "other culture" which includes Shakespeare) to constitute a still prevalent notion of what it means to be a "woman."

Tolstoy's "The Death of Ivan Ilyich" tells the story of a man who discovers, too late, that the narrative he's been living as a minor bureaucrat isn't the one he should have been living, that he has authored himself as the shallowest kind of character imaginable. He's been reading a script that someone else wrote, unthinkingly playing the part defined by an ideal called "decorum."

Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest invites us to consider the ways in which experience is always already not only narrative but dramatic. There is no scene in "life" in which you don't perform a role, inhabit a character, constitute yourself for yourself, and for others, through speech. Alert to what a modern-day literary critic might call the "performative" nature of selfhood, no doubt in large measure because "gay man" was not a role he could openly play in 19th-century England, Wilde queers our sense of what it is to have an identity. It was important (within the confines of his play) to be Ernest, but perhaps not so important, perhaps not possible, to be earnest, if what the latter means is to "just be yourself." You can no more "just be yourself" than you can learn, through literature, about those non-existent entities "just life" and "just experience."

So as it turns out, the English major does study "life" and "human experience" in some sense — just not the common sense. Again, according to common sense, life just "is," whereas culture is "made." But if life itself is "made" — if experience itself is inseparable from models and representations, stories and symbols — then the English major, in making sense of culture, makes sense of life.

Dear Students of Engl 170-01, Fall 2012:

I'm extremely pleased with the your essay on the English major as the final product of this semester's bold experiment in collaborative writing. I'm even more pleased with the quality of conversation that the process of writing engendered, both online and in person.

From the initial brainstorming and collection of relevant references and quotations, through the drafting, revising, and polishing, to the final, heated debates over quotations from "The Yellow Wallpaper," the process was one in which your collective self-definition as English majors became, on the whole, increasingly focused, concrete, detailed, and meaningful.

It wasn't all progress, all the time. The essay had some features in earlier versions — such as a clear emphasis on the idea of criticism as a "practice"  that English majors are learning to join, and an effort to move logically from a working definition of literature to the nature of critical practice — that eventually lost prominence. In addition, a number of excellent suggestions offered in comments — for example, to say something significant about the English major's engagement with "culture" — remained in the margins, never making it into the argument's main flow.

But when, at the end of a typical term, I read a pile of individual essays, one thing I never get to see is the ideas that don't make it into this or that person's finished version. And one thing the individual writers don't get to see is the way their fellow writers would have answered the exam questions. Your collaborative essay showed me much more than I usually get to see about what the class, as a group, gained from the course. I hope, too, that by seeing what some of your classmates got out of it, many of you were able to continue learning right up to the end.

Seeing what you learned as a group also gave me insight, of course, into which ideas, among those I tried to emphasize this semester, didn't "stick." I'm sure that some if not all of these ideas did register with individuals here and there, but if my goal is to make at least the majority of the class walk away thinking of these ideas as central to the major, I clearly still have work to do.

Here, very briefly, are some of those ideas. Some of them, especially the last few, I realize that I never articulated clearly this semester until our conversation in the closing minutes of the final exam. By pushing me to do so, you've helped the next group of students that takes this class from me:

  • That what makes criticism a "practice" isn't simply the fact that many critics use the same analytical toolkit, but also the fact that they engage continuously in a lively, often contentious conversation about what they do, why it matters, and how to do it best.
  • That in this conversation, the definition of even the most basic terms — including "literature" and "criticism" themselves — is always up for grabs, and the value of any particular critical activity — "interpretation," for example — is always open to question.
  • That as critics, English majors study stuff that human beings make — mainly stuff that they make from words, but also stuff that they make from images, sounds, numbers, bytes, etc.
  • That in studying made things, English majors study a domain of human life and activity that might be called (though all such definitions are always up for grabs!) "culture."
  • That insofar as English majors study something we might call "life" or "experience," or particular aspects of reality such as "politics" or "society," they do so through the things that human beings make — that is, through culture, which consists in large part, but not entirely, of models or representations of life or experience or reality.
  • That at least one reason to value the study of culture — the whole of it or any single piece of it, such as a poem or a film — is that it's through culture that human beings engage in an ongoing conversation among themselves aimed at making sense of politics, society, love, beauty, death, and all other aspects of life and reality. (But of course any answer to the "value" question can always be contested!)
  • That to say that English majors study culture is to say that they follow a variety of methods — all of them always up for debate! — for making sense of individual bits of culture — a novel, a play — making sense of how those bits fit together, and making sense of how — in bits and as a whole — culture continuously remakes itself.
  • That because this is what English majors do, and because, if culture has value, studying culture must have value, we might well summarize all of the above by declaring, The English major makes sense.
RIP Dave Brubeck

Jazz great Dave Brubeck has died at 91. New York Times obit here.

In addition to recording the legendary "Take Five" (above), written by his saxophonist Paul Desmond, Brubeck covered the theme to Disney's animated film version of Alice in Wonderland (1951):

In our discussion of A Christmas Carol in Engl 170-01, I mentioned Ruth Richardson's Death, Dissection, and the Destitute, which tells the story of the 1832 Anatomy Act, under which the dissecting table could become the destination of those who died in the workhouse.

Richardson has a new online exhibition on the website of King's College, London titled Dickens, Scrooge and the Victorian Poor. The site provides useful context for understanding Dickens' view of poverty, individuals, and the state in early Victorian England, including information about the Anatomy Act and the Poor Law Amendment Act.

Studying Alice

Ben Brantley's New York Times review of "Then She Fell" — an interesting immersive re-mix of Lewis Carroll's Alice books, currently "on stage" at Brooklyn's Greenpoint Hospital — comes just in time to be useful to you Engl 170-01 students brainstorming and drafting the fall 2012 final exam.

Brantley writes that he has "returned often to Carroll’s masterpieces; I even studied them in college."

His review of "The She Fell" shows that he understands some of the most important ideas to which the Alice books give, as he puts it, "fantastical shape": ideas, for example, about "the thoughts, fears, confusions and uncanny knowingness of children."

But there is a big difference between studying child psychology and studying how children's thoughts, fears, confusion, and knowingness are given "shape" in a work of literature.

Studying the first doesn't require a special vocabulary for discussing how human nature and experience get expressed in some kind of representational form: oral tale, book, play, film, video game, etc. Studying the second does.

Here's another way to think about the difference. Ask yourself why a work like Abrams' Glossary of Literary Terms would not be particularly useful to someone studying psychology but might be indispensable to someone studying English.

Students in Engl 170-01 Fall 2012: You'll find the main page for the final exam here. I'll be sending you a survey that we'll use to put people into teams, but meanwhile, get started on the Brainstorming page, to which everyone should contribute. And have a Happy Thanksgiving!

Hat Trick

In recent weeks in Engl 170-01, we've talked, at different times, about science fiction, copyright law, and the defamiliarization achieved by seeing ourselves through alien eyes.

Apparently all three come together in the newly published Year Zero, by Rob Reid. There's no room in my schedule to read it now, but if one of you is a helpless scifi fan and gobbles it up, please report to the rest of us.

In my previous two posts (here and here), I suggested that the diversity of interpretations that literary works provoke from critics does not, for the most part, reflect differences of subjective response. Without question, different critics react differently to what they read, and some of this difference certainly does stem from idiosyncrasy. The emotional resonance of a word will differ for readers depending on personal experience. So will the resonance of characters, situations, and images. But these differences play a minor role in producing interpretive variety compared to those that stem from what I referred to previously as "publicly shareable knowledge."

What I mean by that somewhat awkward phrase is the whole domain of ideas and information with explanatory power — historical facts and theories of history; theories of character (including but not limited to those articulated by psychologists); the categories and definitions of philosophy; explanatory models from linguistics, anthropology, biology, politics, economics, and gender studies; moral and ethical codes, religious or not; and so on.

This way of understanding literary works — through the lens of publicly articulated, publicly available ideas and information — isn't practiced only by academic and other professional critics. What sets the professional critic apart from the ordinary reader is merely the professional's penchant for relying on academic theories and the accompanying (perfectly reasonable, from an academic perspective) obsession with citation. For everyone else, folk psychology and rough ideas about truth, good, and evil are generally enough.

To borrow a phrase from Alva Noë (remember him?), bringing different explanatory ideas and information to bear on a literary work — whatever their source, and with whatever degree of rigor — will cause the work to "show up" for you in different ways. If you were to walk into an art gallery without some background ideas and information of this sort, Noë maintains, the paintings hanging there would be nothing more than meaningless flat panels on a wall. The paintings only begin to have a "presence" for you by virtue of the knowledge, ideas, and — he adds — skills that you bring to them.

When different critics bring conflicting explanatory models to bear on a poem or a novel, or when they disagree about the right way to relate a character or event to the same model, they end up with conflicting interpretations. Some interpretive diversity takes this form.

But much interpretive diversity is non-conflicting or minimally conflicting. It takes the form of what Graff and Birkenstein would call "agreeing with a difference." It springs from the simple fact that the work will "show up" differently against the background of different ideas and information.

Conveniently, our wiki contains a very concrete example of what I mean. The four of us who taught Engl 170 in Fall 2010 tried an experiment with Yeats' poem "Easter, 1916." Have a look (and a listen) here. Four readers. Four readings. Agreement with a difference: not because Yeats' words mean four drastically different things to four differently constituted private minds, but because the different explanatory tools and information we bring to the poem make it show up in four distinctly different ways.

Carroll's Glory - Part Two

In my last post, I suggested that Alice's conversation with Humpty Dumpty calls into question the view of mind and meaning that sees meaning as a subjective experience.

The alternative view offered by Carroll is a game-changer for the practice of criticism. Literally.

Humpty maintains that he can "make a word mean just what I choose it to mean" — and he's right. All I need do to make "glory" mean "a nice knock-down argument" is to say or write, "In all that follows, let 'glory' mean 'a nice knock-down argument.'" As you listen or read, you'll make the substitution. It's this sort of move that makes encoding possible, from secret messages to software.

The move is itself made possible by the arbitrary relationship between words and what they signify. Anything can mean anything, as long as we both follow the same rules. And unlike the rules for trials (see the King's "Rule Number Forty-two" in Alice's Wonderland trial), rules about meaning can be invented on the fly. It doesn't matter if I "made it up just now." The substitution rule is itself a "regular rule" — that is, it's already there in the general rules for language. "To make a new word, give the new word and define it." Done.

But the substitution rule doesn't represent permission to live in a world of private meaning. "Let 'glory' mean 'a nice knock-down argument'" is a public declaration. Once I make the declaration, and you agree to follow it, the word's new meaning is not an artifact of my subjectivity or yours; it exists out there in the social space between us.

In this respect, a word is very different from a blue square on the wall. What the square lacks is just this irremediably social quality possessed by the word. When we both hear or read a word like "glory," we may have different cognitive and emotional responses keyed to our different experiences, our different subjectivities, just as we may see the square's color differently. But these responses are not all, or even most, of what we're normally talking about when we talk about a word's meaning.

Alice implicitly understands this, which is why for her, "The question is … whether you can make words mean so many different things." Yes, you can (as we just saw), but in another, equally important sense, you can't. Privately willing a word to have a certain meaning doesn't give it that meaning, since meaning, even when established by the substitution rule, is social. Moreover, most speech and writing don't include special declarations about word-meanings. In most speech and writing, we're relying on the meanings already out there in social space.

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein famously likened language to a game. To know how to speak or write in a given language, he observed, is to know how to play the game. "Wittgenstein, man," writes Eric in response to Sarah. Precisely, man.

It's not only in the Humpty Dumpty chapter that Carroll the gamer perceives this game-like quality of language. As I noted in this post about "Jabberwocky" as an illustration of "pure form," Carroll clearly sees that making intelligible sentences consists of following rules about syntax and word endings. You can follow these rules with invented words as easily as you can with the ones in the dictionary. The result — whether it's Carroll's wonderful poem or Noam Chomsky's Colorless green ideas sleep furiously is "nonsense" — words with no meaning that take the form of meaningful speech.

If meaning itself exists "out there" in social space, rather than "inside" my head or yours, what does this mean for the practice of criticism?

It means that the question of how my subjective experience bears on the meaning of a poem or novel is a red herring. It means that if we look at the arguments that practicing critics actually have about works of literature, we shouldn't expect their differences to spring from "what the words mean to them." Instead, we should expect those differences to spring from disagreements about how to relate the words of the poem to a host of shared understandings — beginning with the meanings of the words themselves — that reside in social, not subjective, space.

The practice of criticism isn't, for the most part, a conversation about competing private visions. If it were, there would indeed be little if any point to the conversation. Criticism is a conversation about objects created in an inherently public medium — language — in which one rule (perhaps, as Alice would say, Rule One) is this: Offer the explanation of the object that does the best job of drawing on publicly shareable knowledge to make publicly shareable sense.

But why, when they follow this rule, do critics end up saying such very different things about works?

I'll offer an answer in my next post.

Carroll's Glory - Part One

One topic I'd hoped to get to in Engl 170-01 yesterday is this exchange between Alice and Humpty Dumpty:

"I don't know what you mean by 'glory,'" Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. "Of course you don't — till I tell you. I meant 'there"s a nice knock-down argument for you!'"

"But 'glory' doesn't mean 'a nice knock-down argument,'" Alice objected.

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less."

"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master — that's all."

Maybe it's just as well that we didn't get to this in class. The issues I wanted to discuss through Alice and Humpty Dumpty would have taken a lot of time to address. Maybe blogging is the better way to go. In fact, this is going to take more than one post. Watch for the sequel.

The question raised by the Alice-Humpty exchange — What's the relationship between mind and meaning? — looms large in the theoretical conversation that runs continuously behind the practice of criticism.

Sarah Rusnak's September 10 post on The Power of a Word gave rise to some extremely thoughtful comments on this question from Eric, Meghan, and Brendan. Let's consider, for a moment, Eric's suggestion that words

. . . really mean different things to each person respectively. The word plum may mean a lot more to an ardent fan of plums versus someone, like me, who has never once bitten into one. I think the same goes for words like 'love', 'happiness', 'garbage'; they all mean something drastically different and unique for each person.

Eric here is in territory similar to that which Sarah more recently explores in a comment on Michael's post, The Importance of Perception. Sarah writes,

According to recent scientific studies, we all have our own ways of seeing the same thing. Take, for instance, looking at different colors. Though we all recognize something deemed "blue" by society as "blue", are we actually seeing the same shade of hue when we look a so-called "blue" object? Scientists in the UK (link below), claim that our sensory perceptions are controlled by neurons that are not predetermined. In other words, we all have a distinct, individual shade of color in mind when we hear the word "blue".

She then goes on to wonder, "if the same principle applies to literature. An author, artist, etc. has a specific idea in mind when creating their work. Yet even though this idea may be articulated to us through comments in the margins, research into the creator's life, or even by the creator himself, do we perceive something just a bit differently when we look at the same work?"

Let me try my hand at summarizing the problem as Eric and Sarah have posed it.

Basically, we have a mind on either side of an object. The object is a physical entity that reflects light from the part of the spectrum roughly designated as "blue," or a word, or a work of literature. There's a mind on either side of it. In the latter two cases, one mind speaks the word or writes the work, the other mind hears the word or reads the work.


So, the problem: Are the latter two cases parallel to the first one? Are two readers of a poem like two people looking at a "blue" square on a wall, undergoing slightly or perhaps even "drastically" (Eric's word) subjective experiences as a result of their different neuronal wiring or past experiences (for example, of eating plums)?

If we suppose that the cases are parallel, then there would seem to be two options for criticism:

  1. Make every effort, as a critic, to line up your subjective experience with that of the writer. Try to figure out what the words meant to him or her.
  2. Decide that (1) is impossible, and simply describe what the words mean to you.

Critics who follow the first path will find themselves on a quest towards the "right" interpretation of a poem. Critics who follow the second are likely to say — as many non-critical readers say — "Since we all experience the meaning of words differently, there can't be a 'right' interpretation." It's easy to see how the second option might lead you to doubt the value of practicing criticism at all. If there's only my meaning of the poem, your meaning of the poem, and her meaning of the poem, if we're not talking about the same thing, why bother talking at all?

But what if the cases aren't parallel? How does that change the options for criticism?

The Alice-Humpty exchange shows why the cases are, in fact, different, and why critical options 1 and 2 therefore present a false choice. As I'll explain in the next post.

Re-imagining the imaginary

The movie whose name I couldn't recall in 170-01 today is Last Action Hero. It's longer than it should be but still a lot of fun, I think. By far the best minute-and-a-half or so is this clip, in which the protagonist, a young boy named Danny whose hero is the action-movie star Jack Slater (Arnold Schwarzenegger), is watching the Laurence Olivier film version of Hamlet. Impatient with Hamlet's indecisiveness, he fantasizes how a particular moment in the play might have unfolded with Slater in the lead role.

We're seeing here the power of the imagination to overcome the restrictions of a reality that is itself a product of imagination. I suspect Carroll would like that.

A particularly nice touch: Danny's fantasy is realized not in an ad hoc way but through the conventions of a particular cinematic genre: the trailer.


Blogpost full of words

Even if you don't follow politics, you're probably familiar by now with the Internet meme "binders full of women," which took off earlier this week after Mitt Romney used the phrase in his second presidential debate with Barack Obama.

The rapid circulation of variations on that meme, exemplified by the Tumblr blog of the same name, is a superb illustration of how the Internet has unleashed new forms of rip-mix-burn creativity.

I still think the best entry in the lolcats genre of binder-humor is this one, which superimposes the words "Trap Her Keep Her" over a Trapper Keeper notebook. Lewis Carroll might not have approved the ironic message here, but he might well have admired the wordplay.

Speaking of words, the phrase "binders full of women" turns out to be a beautiful illustration of something else we've discussed: the dependence of meaning on context. This dependence, in fact, is part of what made Romney's use of the phrase so vulnerable to humor. The phrase has no meaning apart from the particular context in which it's used. It doesn't by itself mean, for example, either "binders containing information about potential female job candidates" or "binders containing female bodies." Take the phrase out the context in which Romney used it to mean the former, and a variety of meanings become possible, including the latter, which, once visualized in lolcats form, in turn takes on a symbolic meaning of its own — a symbolic meaning that is itself activated by the context of the way many women today feel about their status in our particular cultural moment.

As it happens, the dependence of meaning on context was the topic of a recent blog post by the literary critic Stanley Fish, who used this fact as an argument against literalist interpretations of the U.S. Constitution.

As Meghan recently observed in a post on her own blog, words really do matter.

Update: Egads! It's The Yellow Wallpaper!

Acts of Remixing

In Engl 170-01 yesterday, we looked at Thomas Jefferson's letter to Isaac McPherson regarding the "peculiar character" of ideas. Unlike physical property, an idea can be transferred from one person to another, claims Jefferson, without being lost by its originator: "no one possesses [it] the less, because every other possesses the whole of it." This — an economist would say — "nonrival" character of ideas is fortunate, Jefferson suggests, because it permits ideas to "freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition."

Lawrence Lessig and other advocates of "free culture" similarly see the free (as in speech, not as in beer) circulation of culture as essential to humanity's forward progress. They emphasize how the stuff of culture is continually remixed to make new culture. As we move ahead in our class to Lewis Carroll's Alice books, we're beginning to ask how these books remix bits and pieces of the culture Carroll knew.

Before we leave Jefferson behind, though, we should note a bit of subtle remixing that he introduces directly into his explanation of why ideas must circulate freely. In the quotation below, note the words I've flagged in boldface:

That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation.

Compare these words from the King James version of the Bible, Acts 17.28:

For in him we live, and move, and have our being.

Jefferson hasn't exactly quoted, hasn't exactly alluded to, but has certainly made very intentional use of this characterization of the deity.

What do you think he hopes to accomplish by doing so?

From Digital Humanities

As the academic year concludes, the pace of mainstream commentary on the coming revolution in academia seems to be picking up. Here are a few recent things worth reading:

And finally, here's something good on the related question of publishing's future:

As described here:

... Thoreau ... meticulously observed the first flowering dates for over 500 species of wildflowers in Concord, Massachusetts, between 1851 and 1858, recording them in a set of tables. When Richard Primack, a biology professor at Boston University, and fellow researcher Abraham Miller-Rushing discovered Thoreau's unpublished records, they immediately realized how useful they would be for pinning down the impact of the changing climate over the last century and a half. The timing of seasonal events such as flowering dates is known as phenology, and the phenologies of plants in a temperate climate such as that of Massachusetts are very sensitive to temperature, say the scientists. Studying phenology is therefore a good indicator of ecological responses to climate change.

Here's a story that speaks both to the changes in how people interact with media and creativity discussed by, among others, Yochai Benkler and Clay Shirky, and to the question of copyright's effects on culture explored by Lawrence Lessig. Examining the world of Star Trek fan fiction (fan television?) could be an interesting way to arrive at your own thesis about some of these matters; it could also make for a good Storify.

The Supreme Court has ruled on whether the company Myriad Genetics can patent two genes connected with breast and ovarian cancer, a case I blogged about in 2010 and again last year. (At least, they've sort of ruled, telling the appeals court that reversed a lower court's ruling invalidating the patent to give the case another look.)

This case, together with the larger question whether some intellectual property claims represent an attempt to patent Nature itself, would make interesting material for a Storify or a conventional essay.

The Department of Justice's investigation of possible collusion between Apple and five major publishers to fix e-book prices has raised some interesting issues.

Here's our old friend Scott Turow, President of the Author's Guild, which brought suit against Google's Book Search project in 2005. Earlier this semester, we looked at Turow's NY Times op-ed (co-authored by Paul Aiken and James Shapiro), "Would the Bard Have Survived the Web," which argues that the kind of "cultural paywall" erected by copyright law is essential to the flourishing of literary art such as Shakespeare's.

At techdirt, Tim Cushing is more than skeptical of Turow's argument.

At Slate, Matthew Yglesias steers something of a middle course; he sees the Author's Guild as unwilling to face the inevitable but also thinks the DOJ's case against Apple and the five publishers as "borderline absurd."

Anyone interested in assembling web resources and providing perspective on this developing story in Storify?

Fish on DH

Earlier this month, Stanley Fish, one of the most influential literary critics of the past 50 years, devoted two of his blogposts at the New York Times to digital humanities.

In the first, he described what he characterized as the "vision" of DH as "theological":

The vision is theological because it promises to liberate us from the confines of the linear, temporal medium in the context of which knowledge is discrete, partial and situated — knowledge at this time and this place experienced by this limited being — and deliver us into a spatial universe where knowledge is everywhere available in a full and immediate presence to which everyone has access as a node or relay in the meaning-producing system.

In the second, he concludes that

whatever vision of the digital humanities is proclaimed, it will have little place for the likes of me and for the kind of criticism I practice: a criticism that narrows meaning to the significances designed by an author, a criticism that generalizes from a text as small as half a line, a criticism that insists on the distinction between the true and the false, between what is relevant and what is noise, between what is serious and what is mere play.

A question to keep in mind as we explore DH this semester in Engl 390 through the lens of Thoreau's Walden, and subject Walden to some of the methods of DH: How fair is Fish's critique?

From the New York Times:

The folklorist and ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax was a prodigious collector of traditional music from all over the world and a tireless missionary for that cause. Long before the Internet existed, he envisioned a "global jukebox" to disseminate and analyze the material he had gathered during decades of fieldwork.

A decade after his death technology has finally caught up to Lomax’s imagination. Just as he dreamed, his vast archive — some 5,000 hours of sound recordings, 400,000 feet of film, 3,000 videotapes, 5,000 photographs and piles of manuscripts, much of it tucked away in forgotten or inaccessible corners — is being digitized so that the collection can be accessed online. About 17,000 music tracks will be available for free streaming by the end of February, and later some of that music may be for sale as CDs or digital downloads.

More here...


UCLA just won a court case over DVD streaming of Shakespeare plays, but the decision is actually a bigger victory for another school the University of Michigan which is being sued by the Author’s Guild over its ambitious project to scan and preserve millions of library books.

The significance of the UCLA case is not, as many have reported, about what consumers can do with technology, but instead about universities’ immunity from federal lawsuits.


At the University of Washington, the Project on Information Technology and Political Islam, aka P ITPI, has released a new study titled, "Opening Closed Regimes: What Was the Role of Social Media During the Arab Spring?".

"After analyzing over 3 million tweets, gigabytes of YouTube content and thousands of blog posts," the investigators concluded "that social media played a central role in shaping political debates in the Arab Spring. Conversations about revolution often preceded major events on the ground, and social media carried inspiring stories of protest across international borders."

You can download the report here.


'But "glory" doesn't mean "a nice knock-down argument,"' Alice objected.
'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean neither more nor less.'
'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you can make words mean so many different things.'
'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master that's all.'
(Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass)

Linguists agree with Lewis Carroll's Alice: You can't make words mean "just what you choose them to mean" because word meanings are the product of collective behavior. A given word could mean absolutely anything — "glory" could indeed mean "a nice knock-down argument" — but do mean only what people use them to mean. If, tomorrow, everyone started using "glory" to mean "a nice knock-down argument," that would become one of the word's meanings.

The internet hasn't changed this basic fact about language. But because it has changed the speed with which any one person can share an idea and persuade others to adopt it, it has moved us closer to the point where, in principle, I could invent a new word or decide on a new meaning for an existing word and transform my desire into reality.

That, after all, is essentially what blogger Dan Savage has done with the word santorum. For a fuller explanation, see here.

From the Indiana University News Room ...

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. and URBANA, Il. — The world's great libraries and archives use specially designed rooms, cases and vaults to protect and organize books and records so they may continue to be studied and understood for years to come. As an ever-increasing amount of our cultural record is created and stored digitally, we face the new challenge of how to ensure our digital cultural archives are easily accessible — both to contemporary researchers and those working long in the future.

A new collaborative research center launched jointly by Indiana University and the University of Illinois, along with the HathiTrust Digital Repository, will help to meet this challenge by developing cutting-edge software tools and cyberinfrastructure to enable advanced computational access to the growing digital record of human knowledge.

The HathiTrust Research Center (HTRC) will enable open access for nonprofit and educational users to published works in the public domain (as well as limited access to works under copyright) stored within HathiTrust, an extensive collaborative digital library of more than 8 million volumes and 2 billion pages of archived material maintained by major research institutions and libraries worldwide.

Leveraging data storage infrastructure at Indiana University and computational resources at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the HTRC will provision a secure computational and data environment for scholars to perform research using the HathiTrust Digital Repository. The center will break new ground in the areas of text mining and non-consumptive research, allowing scholars to fully utilize content of the HathiTrust Library while preventing intellectual property misuse within the confines of current U.S. copyright law.

From the SUNY Geneseo website...


GENESEO, N.Y. - SUNY Geneseo graduate Joel Dodge has won SUNY's 2011 Benjamin and David Scharps Award, conferred upon a student who demonstrates analytical skills in a legal opinion essay. Dodge is the second Geneseo student to win the award in the past three years.

SUNY Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher announced Dodge's award, established through the will of Hannah S. Hirschhorn. The student competitors were asked to submit an essay on the topic "Peer-to-Peer File Sharing," identify the legal issues and defend a position in a scholarly manner. The essay must be carefully reasoned, well-researched, authoritatively documented and precisely written. Dodge's essay is available to read online.

"Joel's essay presents a comprehensive and thorough examination of peer-to-peer file sharing on college campuses," said Chancellor Zimpher. "We are pleased to be able to recognize his hard work with the Scharps Award."

Dodge, from Liverpool, N.Y., received a check for $1,500 and a certificate of award from SUNY. He majored in international relations and economics and plans to attend law school. He was an Edgar Fellow in the college's honor program and also a member of Phi Beta Kappa.

The previous Geneseo graduate to win the award was Megan Darlington, who received it in 2009.

The Fracking Song

I'd love to see some "explainers" like this for topics in the humanities.

... easily, at least. For now, at least.

Highlights from Library of Congress builds the record collection of the century (LA Times):

... according to a 2005 survey conducted for the [Library of Congress'] National Recording Preservation Board, of 1,521 recordings made from 1890 to 1964, only 14% has been made available to the public.


Matthew Barton, the recorded sound section curator of [the Library of Congress' $250-million Packard Campus for Audio-Visual Conservation, a 45-acre vault and state-of-the-art preservation and restoration facility on Virginia's Mt. Pony], points out: "Anything else from before 1923 — a book, a movie, a published song, sheet music — is public domain now." Not so for the music in that same time period, and as a result, many recordings, even those that have been digitized, can't legally travel beyond the library's walls unless a morass of ownership issues can be unraveled. "The whole idea of copyright," DeAnna said, "is that eventually it does become public domain."

DeAnna points to so-called orphan works, for which the rights holders are not readily identifiable, as evidence of the confusion. A prime example is the Savory Collection of nearly 1,000 live recordings made by recording engineer William Savory in the late '30s, discs now residing with the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. They encompass previously unknown extended performances by such musical luminaries captured in their prime as Ellington, Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Judy Garland, Artie Shaw and Chick Webb.

Museum director Loren Schoenberg said, "My goal is to have all of it, every last second of it, available on the Internet. If it was up to me, I'd just throw it on the Internet, let everybody sue each other and happy new year. But you can't do that, because you're dealing with [musicians'] estates, labels, record companies and publishers."


Whether a curious researcher will actually be able to play back what's stored in the vaults depends not only on copyright law, though, but also on the format.

"I love to give the example that the cylinder from 1900 may be easier to play back than the DAT [digital audiotape] from 2001," sound curator Barton said. "Seriously. There are a lot of DATs that just won't play now." ...

The most enduring formats? Not CDs or MP3 digital files.

"Vinyl discs properly stored will last hundreds of years," Miller said. "Shellac too."

Producer T Bone Burnett, a vocal champion of analog vinyl over digital audio, visited the library not long ago to discuss the issue. "He testified in front of us and said, 'I would encourage the Library of Congress to preserve to vinyl,'" DeAnna recalled. "We all kind of leaned forward, and my colleague said, 'So, Mr. Burnett are you preserving your own collection to vinyl?' He said, 'Nah, I'm doing all digital.'"

... though "heard" isn't quite the right term, is it?

BBC: Bin Laden raid was revealed on Twitter

From this space

Wow! Just learned about the Brontë Sisters Power Dolls. Where have I been?!??! Thank you, Alice Rutkowski!

Just in time for our reading of Rudyard Kipling's Kim in Engl 315, NPR has launched a blog to record the journey that some of its correspondents are taking along India's Grand Trunk Road:

This road is older than independent Pakistan or India, which gained their freedom in 1947. It's even older than the British Empire, which ruled the subcontinent for two centuries. It dates back to the Mughals — India's rich and powerful rulers to whom we pay tribute every time we refer to some wealthy person as a "mogul."

A new generation is growing up along that ancient road. India's median age is 25. Pakistan's median age is below 21 — meaning half the population has not yet reached adulthood. The population of both countries is exploding; and their importance is growing too.

That link above is to the blog's initial post on April 14. The most recent post is here.

As we begin to immerse ourselves in Virginia Woolf in English 170, you may find it useful to look at this 2008 blogppost on "the stream of consciousness".

In our class discussions about "genetically modified literature," culture, and copyright, our focus has been on intellectual property law (IP law) — in particular, copyright law — and works of the imagination such as poetry, novels, films, and music.

We've used genetic recombination as a metaphor for the way writers and other artists take the cultural material around them and splice and dice it to make new, creative works of imagination. Some critics argue, we've seen, that an intellectual property regime that is too tight — that too severely limits the free circulation of cultural material — that requires artists to seek permission constantly before using the genetic stuff or "code" of culture — is a threat to culture itself.

But did you know that 20% of humanity's real genes have been patented? That's right: private entities own patents on human genes themselves. Not just methods for isolating or working with genes: the genes themselves.

However, as the New York Times reports today, a federal district judge has issued a decision invalidating "seven patents related to the genes BRCA1 and BRCA2, whose mutations have been associated with cancer."

The implications of the case, and of intellectual property law regarding nature (as opposed to culture), are huge. The case is certain to be appealed. Since the Supreme Court ruled, 5-4, in 1980, that it is possible to patent a new living organism (for example, a genetically engineered bacterium), the defendants in the cancer-gene case have some degree of precedent on their side. On the other hand, there's arguably a difference between patenting manufactured living things and patenting the already existing natural world around and within us, such as our genes.

As the Times points out, "the [district court] decision, if upheld, could throw into doubt the patents covering thousands of human genes and reshape the law of intellectual property."

It will be one to watch.

Pocahontas and Avatar

Here's some GML worth thinking about...

In class yesterday I referred to linguist William Labov's analysis of "natural narrative" into component parts that are also useful in analyzing literary narratives.

You can find a handy chart of these components (in pdf) here. As you'll see, the term I should have used yesterday for the brief summary that speakers usually provide at the beginning of their everyday stories is "abstract," not "exposition." Labov's analysis of narrative is an excellent starting point for thinking about the structure of Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado," which begins with a one-paragraph "abstract" and ends with a Latin "coda." It's particularly interesting to consider where the component that Labov calls "evaluation" is located in the story.

Wikipedia offers this biography of Labov, whose work in sociolinguistics has been enormously important in advancing our understanding of the nature of dialect. In particular, Labov's research established that African American Vernacular English (AAVE), earlier known as "Black English," far from being a "deficient" variant of Standard English, represents a coherent, consistent, logical lingusitic system.

In yesterday's discussion, I also took off on a brief digression about The Little Engine that Could as a narrative that realizes, in its own geography, the metaphor A NARRATIVE IS A JOURNEY.

I blogged about this aspect of The Little Engine back in fall, 2008. You can read that blogpost here.

Mad as a Hatter

Should have caught this other Alice-related Times article, too, from Friday.

Alice and Algebra

An op-ed in today's New York Times by a doctoral candidate at Oxford University reads Alice's Adventures in Wonderland as an allegory about nineteenth-century innovations in algebra.

More on this to come.

We are such stuff

As we discussed in class yesterday (Engl 315), Alice"s exchange with Tweedledee in chapter 4 of Through the Looking-Glass seems to evoke Descartes' famous proof of existence in his Discourse on Method (1637): I think, therefore I am.

"Well, it no use your talking about waking him," said Tweedledum, "when you're only one of the things in his dream. You know very well you're not real."

"I am real!" said Alice and began to cry.

"You won't make yourself a bit realler by crying," Tweedledee remarked: "there's nothing to cry about."

"If I wasn't real," Alice said — half-laughing through her tears, it all seemed so ridiculous — "I shouldn't be able to cry."

That the question of Alice's reality should be framed as a question about the difficulty of distinguishing reality from dream points us, as well, toward the first of Descartes' Meditations (1641), where he explains his intention to throw out all his current beliefs because they are built on the misleading foundations of sensation. Isn't it the case, he imagines his reader objecting, that some sensations are beyond the range of doubt?

4. But it may be said, perhaps, that, although the senses occasionally mislead us respecting minute objects, and such as are so far removed from us as to be beyond the reach of close observation, there are yet many other of their informations (presentations), of the truth of which it is manifestly impossible to doubt; as for example, that I am in this place, seated by the fire, clothed in a winter dressing gown, that I hold in my hands this piece of paper, with other intimations of the same nature. But how could I deny that I possess these hands and this body, and withal escape being classed with persons in a state of insanity, whose brains are so disordered and clouded by dark bilious vapors as to cause them pertinaciously to assert that they are monarchs when they are in the greatest poverty; or clothed [in gold] and purple when destitute of any covering; or that their head is made of clay, their body of glass, or that they are gourds? I should certainly be not less insane than they, were I to regulate my procedure according to examples so extravagant.

5. Though this be true, I must nevertheless here consider that I am a man, and that, consequently, I am in the habit of sleeping, and representing to myself in dreams those same things, or even sometimes others less probable, which the insane think are presented to them in their waking moments. How often have I dreamt that I was in these familiar circumstances, that I was dressed, and occupied this place by the fire, when I was lying undressed in bed? At the present moment, however, I certainly look upon this paper with eyes wide awake; the head which I now move is not asleep; I extend this hand consciously and with express purpose, and I perceive it; the occurrences in sleep are not so distinct as all this. But I cannot forget that, at other times I have been deceived in sleep by similar illusions; and, attentively considering those cases, I perceive so clearly that there exist no certain marks by which the state of waking can ever be distinguished from sleep, that I feel greatly astonished; and in amazement I almost persuade myself that I am now dreaming.

Of course, Tweedleedee's taunt is not that Alice herself is dreaming, but that she is "only a sort of thing" in the Red King's dream.

Descartes goes on to suggest that perhaps the truths of "Arithmetic" and "Geometry," which don't really on sensation, are beyond doubt, "for whether I am awake or dreaming, it remains true that two and three make five, and that a square has but four sides; nor does it seem possible that truths so apparent can ever fall under a suspicion of falsity."

And yet,

Nevertheless, the belief that there is a God who is all powerful, and who created me, such as I am, has, for a long time, obtained steady possession of my mind. How, then, do I know that he has not arranged that there should be neither earth, nor sky, nor any extended thing, nor figure, nor magnitude, nor place, providing at the same time, however, for [the rise in me of the perceptions of all these objects, and] the persuasion that these do not exist otherwise than as I perceive them? And further, as I sometimes think that others are in error respecting matters of which they believe themselves to possess a perfect knowledge, how do I know that I am not also deceived each time I add together two and three, or number the sides of a square, or form some judgment still more simple, if more simple indeed can be imagined?

This possibility — that my perceptions, which I had assumed to be of real objects, are simply placed in my mind by God — sounds rather like the idea that the world itself (including me) is nothing other than a projection of the mind of God: that I (along with everything else), am "only a sort of thing" in God's dream.

That there is no material world at all — that the cause of our perceptions is not mind-independent objects but God — would be precisely the position taken by the Anglo-Irish philosopher and Anglican bishop George Berkeley (1685-1753).

"Life, what is it but a dream?" is the question raised at the end of Carroll's two Alice books. What looks real to me might be a dream — my own or someone else's. If I mistake my dream of a life for reality, I begin to look like those "persons in a state of insanity" to whom Descartes refers. ("We're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad," the Cheshire Cat tells Alice in Wonderland, chapter 6. See update below.) If I'm only a sort of thing in God's dream, should I worry that He might wake up? Should I be troubled by what seems like a consequent loss of free will?

Of course, it's important not to overemphasize the frightening possibilities of Carroll's question. Insofar as it perhaps points toward the ideal or spiritual as the only true reality, it seems to echo Romantic protests against the materialism of the Enlightenment and modern science. Good to remember Carlyle here, whose Teufelsdoeckh, in Sartor Resartus (in a passage unfortunately dropped from the 8th edition of the Norton Anthology, though still available in pdf on Norton's website), announced (with a nod toward Shakespeare's Tempest),

So has it been from the beginning, so will it be to the end. Generation after generation takes to itself the Form of a Body; and forth-issuing from Cimmerian Night, on Heaven's mission APPEARS. What Force and Fire is in each he expends: one grinding in the mill of Industry; one hunter-like climbing the giddy Alpine heights of Science; one madly dashed in pieces on the rocks of Strife, in war with his fellow: — and then the Heaven-sent is recalled; his earthly Vesture falls away, and soon even to Sense becomes a vanished Shadow. Thus, like some wild-flaming, wild-thundering train of Heaven's Artillery, does this mysterious MANKIND thunder and flame, in long-drawn, quick-succeeding grandeur, through the unknown Deep. Thus, like a God-created, fire-breathing Spirit-host, we emerge from the Inane; haste stormfully across the astonished Earth; then plunge again into the Inane. Earth's mountains are levelled, and her seas filled up, in our passage: can the Earth, which is but dead and a vision, resist Spirits which have reality and are alive? On the hardest adamant some footprint of us is stamped-in; the last Rear of the host will read traces of the earliest Van. But whence? — O Heaven, whither? Sense knows not; Faith knows not; only that it is through Mystery to Mystery, from God and to God.

     "We are such stuff
As Dreams are made of, and our little Life
Is rounded with a sleep!"'

Update (March 5)

In connection with the Cheshire Cat's provocative suggestion, Martin Gardner, in The Annotated Alice (New York: Bramhall House, 1960), points us to a February 9, 1857 entry in Carroll's diary:

Query: when we are dreaming and, as often happens, have a dim consciousness of the fact and try to wake, do we not say and do things which, in waking life would be insane? May we not then sometimes define insanity as an inability to distinguish which is the waking and which the sleeping life? We often dream without the least suspicion of unreality: "Sleep hath its own world," and it is often as lifelike as the other.

How did I miss this?

As reported by the LA Times, yesterday was John Tenniel's 189th birthday. Tenniel died in 1914 at age 93, eleven years after the first film version of Alice — which, according to the Times article, he actually saw.

Wrapping up metaphor

As we wrap up our discussion of metaphor in English 170 this semester, I'd like to call your attention to an effort I made to "take stock" of a similar discussion in a previous semester.

In this blogpost from fall, 2008, I sum up some of the "metaphors we live by" that appear in poems on the 170 syllabus and in poets' and critics' discussions of poetry itself.

Hey, Victorianists. Here are some resources that you might find useful in conjunction with Lewis Carroll's Alice books. Some of the links below point to earlier blogposts. (The Alice books are usually on my syllabus for English 170 as well as English 315.)

Boingboing founder Cory Doctorow has posted a podcast of a new steampunk story titled "Clockwork Fagin".

Update (9-2-14): The Fathom website has been discontinued, but Patten's seminar is still available, for now, through the website of the New York Public Library.


Robert L. Patten, a distinguished Dickens scholar and expert on the history of authorship and publishing in the nineteenth century, offers a concise yet comprehensive online "seminar" on the question, "When Is a Book Not a Book?" centered on Oliver Twist.

The seminar is in five parts on the website of Fathom, Columbia University's online archive of learning resources.

The seminar takes up many of the themes we've explored in our discussion of Oliver Twist in English 315: the special relationship to audience created by serial publication; the multiple voices or discourses that speak simultaneously in Dickens's narrative; the relationship of Oliver Twist to traditions of moral story-telling and melodrama; the novel's various dimensions of comedy, thriller, and political tract; and the complexity of Dickens's characterization.

But the special value of Patten's seminar lies in his demonstration that a full understanding of these matters requires us to see the continuity between Oliver Twist and the other content appearing alongside it in Bentley's Miscellany, where it first appeared. Thinking of Oliver Twist as a "book" is misleading, because our concept of the book imposes borders on Dickens's content that simply didn't exist for his readers.

For precisely this reason, Patten's analysis is of equal importance for our discussion, in English 170, of the New Criticism. New Criticism theorizes the work of literary art as a free-standing, self-sufficient verbal object; under Patten's inspection, Dickens's Oliver Twist looks very different from that description.

It's not long at all, and it's highly illuminating. Have a look.

Resources for Oliver Twist

Here are some sites that can help enrich your reading of Dickens's Oliver Twist:

  • Judaism in Nineteenth-Century England: A Chronology — a brief but useful chronology from the excellent Victorian Web
  • Newgate novel — Wikipedia entry on a genre of novel popular at the time Dickens published Oliver Twist, a genre with which Dickens's novel has some interesting similarities but also important differences.
  • Plan of the gradual abolition of the Poor Laws proposed — excerpt from the 1823 edition of Malthus's Essay on the Principle of Population (first published in 1798). Malthus's view of the poor laws was a crucial influence on the creation of the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, to which Dickens was responding with Oliver Twist.
  • The story of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10 (29-37), indirectly invoked by Dickens in his description of a button on Mr. Bumble's coat in chapter 4 (37-38).

Also, here's a connection between the stark opening of David Lean's 1948 Oliver Twist and Dickens's novel. As Oliver leaves the baby farm to return, with Bumble, to the parish workhouse, the narrator remarks, "Wretched as were the little companions in misery he was leaving behind, they were the only friends he had ever known; and a sense of his loneliness in the great wide world, sank in to the child's heart for the first time" (24). It's the "loneliness" of Oliver's mother "in the great wide world" that Lean chooses to depict in his opening sequence — an interesting choice — and Lean drives the point home not only through the image of a tiny figure dwarfed by the natural landscape (about 1:50 in), but also through the earlier image (just after 1:25 in) of that single leaf dropping from the barren branch. Give it another look:

From Academic Program Assessment

Assesstivus 2013

Ephraim Schechter gave the keynote address at the 2013 Assesstivus. You can download the PowerPoint slides from the address, titled, "Assesstivus: So who (and what) is it for?"

SUNY Assessment Update

Here's the latest update on assessment from the SUNY Office of the Provost, presented at the AIRPO winter conference and containing the "latest news from System Administration about the University's assessment policies and practices, resources for campuses, and questions for campus assessment leaders to consider."

Robert Connor, president of the Teagle Foundation, on how he started down the slippery slope from, as it were, litotes to learning outcomes:

When I left a research center for the humanities and started work in a philanthropic foundation over five years ago, I wanted to know if a foundation could make a difference to the extent and depth of student learning in the liberal arts. To answer that question, I had to learn as much as I could about how students learn and how we know about their learning. Before long, I was studying reports such as the one produced by the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ Liberal Education and America’s Promise initiative (LEAP) that argued that liberal education ought to be understood not as exposing students to certain fields of knowledge, but as helping them to develop long-lasting cognitive and personal capacities. When I started using that phrase, I was on a slippery slope.

The next thing I knew, I was asking whether colleges and universities were translating that understanding of liberal education into clear learning outcomes.

Read the rest of Connor's story here.

From Nancy Willie-Schiff, Assistant Provost for Undergraduate Education, Office of Academic Affairs, State University of New York:

TO: Chief Academic Officers and Assessment Contacts
RE: Administrative Changes to Streamline the SUNY Assessment Initiative

I am pleased to inform you about administrative changes designed to streamline the SUNY Assessment Initiative. They include updated web pages and simplified reporting procedures and forms. These changes respond to the Board of Trustees' Re-engineering SUNY initiative and preliminary feedback from an audit conducted by the Office of the State Comptroller and were developed in consultation with assessment coordinators on campuses in every sector as well as representatives of the University Faculty Senate and the Faculty Council of Community Colleges.

Updated Web Pages

The Provost's web site for assessment has been updated to serve as a one-stop location for the SUNY Assessment Initiative. It has links to policy and procedures pages, new reporting forms, email addresses and external web sites. The URL is

Pages on SUNY's online policy and procedure library have been updated to clarify policies and procedures, explain new reporting procedures and provide links to new reporting forms and background information. You can reach them from the Provost's page (above) or, where you can search for them using the term "assessment."

A new survey out from AAC&U shows that "nearly 80% of colleges now have a broad set of learning outcomes for all students and more than 70% now assess outcomes across the curriculum beyond the use of course grades."

The VALUE Project

The new issue of Peer Review, published quarterly by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), focuses on the Association's "VALUE Project," an effort to develop national standards for assessing essential learning outcomes without resort to standardized tests.

VALUE stands for Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education. As explained in this overview of the VALUE Project, the "essential outcomes" for which AAC&U seeks to develop valid assessment tools are those of its LEAP initiative. (LEAP is an acronym for Liberal Education and America's Promise.) The outcomes, listed here, are broad, in accordance with the broad effect on students that the best liberal education, taken as a whole, is meant to yield. In other words, they're outcomes not of this or that degree program, nor even of a general education currciculum, but of the student's entire undergraduate experience.

Two noteworthy features of the VALUE project are, first, the effort to build "metarubrics" based on the accumulation and study of rubrics developed at various individual institutions, and, second, the promotion of e-portfolios as a method of storing and documenting student performances.

As AAC&U notes,

There are no standardized tests for many of the essential outcomes of an undergraduate education. Existing tests are based on typically nonrandom samples of students at one or two points in time, are of limited use to faculty and programs for improving their practices, and are of no use to students for assessing their own learning strengths and weaknesses. VALUE argues that, as an academic community, we possess a set of shared expectations for learning for all of the essential outcomes, general agreement on what the basic criteria are, and a shared understanding of what progressively more sophisticated demonstration of student learning looks like.

Metarubrics aren't simply a compilation and distillation of best practice at various institutions; for campuses that adopt them, they move the entire assessment process in the direction of shared expectations and standards, thereby increasing the validity of learning measurements.

E-portfolios benefit both institutions and students. For the former, they constitute a repository of performances useful for evaluating and tracking insitutional effectiveness; for the latter, they represent an archive of accomplishments that can be shared with graduate insitutions and prospective employers.

Copies of Peer Review Vol. 11, No. 1 (Winter 2009) are available from AAC&U for $8 to members. Geneseo is a member institution.

Here's a nice web resource on rubrics courtesy of Howard University. H/t Bruce Spear.

At, there's a good article today about AACU's most recent statement on assessment (pdf).

AACU is holding the line against "assessment for accountability," insisting that the real imperative in higher education is to conduct "assessment for improvement," and maintaining, as we've done at Geneseo, that the latter is itself an accountability measure that should strengthen public confidence even if (because?) it does not produce numbers purporting to make possible cross-institutional comparisons of effectiveness.

At Academe Online, James Berger, professor of English at Hofstra University, has posted A Mission Counterstatement, which he characterizes as "an intellectual defense against the mission statement-outcomes assessment ideology." While I share Berger's distate for the way higher education has adopted various forms of corporate-speak in its efforts to communicate its purposes internally and to the public, I find his argument anything but "intellectual." In fact, it's anti-intellectual not only in form but in spirit.

What I mean by calling it anti-intellectual in form is just that it's a bad argument. Berger believes that the "current emphasis on mission statements and outcomes assessment is part of a political struggle over the status of the humanities. It's part of an effort to denigrate our values and methods." The methods of social science, he goes on to explain, are fundamentally different from those of the humanities. Whereas "the social scientist stands (or believes he or she stands) outside his or her data sample," in literary analysis the "scholar is always and necessarily implicated in the thing he or she studies." Setting aside for the moment the question whether all social scientists would recognize themselves in this characterization, consider the conclusion to which Berger's distinction leads. It isn't, as he seems to suppose, that outcomes assessment is a fraud, only that it can't be applied to the humanities. That leaves a considerable portion of the curriculum - well, most of it, in fact - where assessment might still be supposed to have some relevance. The inapplicability of assessment to the humanities - accepting for the moment that it's indeed inapplicable - isn't an argument against the validity or usefulness of assessment, much less an argument that assessment is part of a nefarious plot to turn the academy into Microsoft with dorms.

But Berger's argument is bad for other, perhaps more interesting reasons, too. "The knowledge conveyed by literature does not employ abstract models," he writes. This would come as a surprise to novelists, poets, dramatists, screenwriters, and so on interested in abstractions, whether moral, political, or scientific. It's also neither here nor there with respect to whether abstract models might be of some use in understanding what and how students learn - about literature as well as other things. But from asserting that literature itself conveys no knowledge of abstract models, he goes on (it appears) to argue that abstract knowledge of literature is unattainable. Narrative in particular is proof against modeling (don't quit your day jobs, narratologists!). But it's odd that this hostility to abstraction finds expression in so many abstract claims about the nature of literature and literary study. ("Literary study tries to understand what literature is and does...Literature imagines alternatives to the world as it is...Even the result of randomness in a literary text is the result of a decision by an author...Literature depicts lived experience.")

What's even more odd is the feeling one may have, reading Berger, of being transported back in time to the theory-wars of the 1970s and 80s, when impressionist and formalist literary critics who imagined themselves to be practicing an art neither requiring nor informed by theory inveighed against structuralist, feminist, Marxist, deconstructionist, and other systematic efforts to think in abstract terms about texts, readers, and the relationship between them. In practicing the occult art of "sensitive" close reading, all those traditionalist professors of English had turned themselves into a kind of literary priesthood. The theorists threatened to rob their practice of its mystery. It's Berger's similar attempt to protect the mystery of humanistic expression, scholarship, and learning that I have in mind when I say that his argument is anti-intellectual in spirit.

At the end of the day, though, all this is beside the point because Berger is working with an understanding of outcomes assessment apparently dervied from nothing more than the particular assessment initiative on his own campus - which, for all one knows, he may not have fully understood.

Good outcomes assessment in literature involves doing what we've always done in evaluating student work but doing it in ways that make our thinking more explicit to our students and ourselves. Like the anti-theorists of a quarter-century ago, we're only deceiving ourselves if we believe that our evaluation of our students' work isn't informed by a theory of what consitutes good, mediocre, and poor performance. Assessment simply asks us to (1) spell out the theory in some simple descriptions (e.g., "uses appropriate evidence to support conclusions," "provides necessary transitions between ideas") so that students understand what we expect of them, (2) check our students' work regularly against these descriptions so that we can see just where they're succeeding or failing to implement the theory of good performance we're teaching them, and (3) feed the information we get from this into discussions among ourselves about how to improve the likelihood that more students will succeed more of the time.

It's easy to advertise that our academic programs - whether in the humanities, the social sciences, or elsewhere - do this, that, or the other thing for our students. Be an English major! You too can learn to unweave the woven object that is the text! You too can learn to read critically!

Advertising makes the corporate world go round.

By contrast, what makes the academic world go round is theorizing practice and making practical decisions based on evidence.

Assessment is the opposite of advertising.

On the Modern Language Association's website, Gerald Graff, 2008 President of the MLA, explains that he has "become a believer in the potential of learning outcomes assessment, which challenges the elitism of the Best-Student Fetish by asking us to articulate what we expect our students to learn - all of them, not just the high-achieving few - and then holds us accountable for helping them learn it." He goes on to assert that "By bringing us out from behind the walls of our classrooms, outcomes assessment deprivatizes teaching, making it not only less of a solo performance but more of a public activity."

Update: Graff's essay is also available at It will be interesting to watch reader reaction as reflected in the page comments. Why not record your own reactions right here? Just click "Add Comment" to attach your thoughts about Graff's essay to this blogpost. (You must be logged in to add a comment.)

Higher education accreditation agencies play an important role in setting expectations for student learning-outcomes assessment. As this December 14 article from makes clear, the U.S. Department of Education can exert pressure on regional accrediting agencies as one way to force colleges and universities to extend and standardize their assessment efforts. Next week, NACIQI - the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, which advises the Secretary of Education and oversees the accrediting agencies - will be meeting in Washington. As points out,

In its last several meetings, dating to late 2006, the advisory panel has aggressively challenged accreditors to insist - arguably as never before - that colleges measure how well their students learn, and threatened to rebuke agencies that are perceived as failing to hold member colleges accountable enough, and to set minimum levels of quality.

Looks like this will be an important meeting to watch. claims to have reviewed a leaked version of a new document on assessment arising from a joint effort by AAC&U and CHEA. According to the Nov. 20 article,

The aim of the draft was to have numerous college associations sign on to the framework outlined, with the idea of then encouraging their members to join in "a compact" to commit to the document. Some higher education leaders have strongly backed the efforts, arguing that the best way to fend off government intrusion is for academe to set its own standards.

But parts of the document are controversial. While education groups agree that colleges should have goals and that they should consider how to improve the education they offer, many fear that moves to measure student learning will inevitably lead to the use of standardized testing and to facile comparisons of institutions.

The U.S. House of Representatives has passed a bill re-authorizing the Higher Education Act. It includes an amendment from Rep. Robert E. Andrews, (D-NJ) removing language that would have given campuses primary responsibility for determining how to measure student learning outcomes.

From the Chronicle of Higher Education: "Accreditors ambushed colleges and universities with the Andrews amendment last night, which unravels months of hard work to get language into the Higher Education Act acknowledging the right of institutions to establish their own student-learning-outcome measures," said Becky Timmons, assistant vice president for government relations at the American Council on Education.

The most recent development in SUNY-wide assessment is the participation of some SUNY campuses in a national project known as the Voluntary System of Accountability. The project is a joint undertaking of the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges (NASULCG) and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU).

VSA has been covered by the _Chronicle of Higher Education and As the latter reports here, the project became public in the wake of news that Education Secretary Margaret Spellings' Commission on the Future of Higher Education was discussing the imposition of a nation-wide standardized testing regime designed to assure quality in higher education.

Campuses that participate in VSA will post information about themselves using a common template, called the "College Portrait." Each campus will post its College Portrait on its own website; the portraits will not be collected in a central location. However, a list of participating campuses is to be made available at the VSA website. (The list doesn't appear to be up yet, but the site does have additional information about the project.)

One section of the College Portrait template is for information related to the assessment of student learning, and the requirement for participating campuses to complete this section using standardized test scores is generating some understandable controversy.

VSA campuses must measure students' critical thinking and written communication skills using one of the following standardized instruments: CAAP (College Assessment of Academic Proficiency), CLA (College Learning Assessment), or MAPP (Measure of Academic Proficiency and Progress).

Currently, there appears to be no plan on the part of SUNY system administration to require state campuses to participate in VSA. However, a number of SUNY campuses have independently signed on to the project. Geneseo has not joined them, and according to Provost Conway-Turner, there is no prospect of our doing so.

At the October, 2007 Plenary Session of the University Faculty Senate, there was concern that over time SUNY-wide participation could become mandatory or expected. The following resolution was therefore proposed and approved:

Resolution on the State University and the "Voluntary" System of

  • Whereas the University Faculty Senate has indicated through a number of
    different resolutions that it opposes the collection and public
    distribution of standardized measures assessing student leaning outcomes
    that would allow for invidious and inappropriate comparisons among SUNY
    units, and
  • Whereas each campus of the State University has an assessment process that
    is the result of agreements between that campus and the System
    Administration, the singular purpose of which is the improvement of
    undergraduate education, and
  • Whereas the Voluntary Assessment System recently fostered by AASCU and
    other educational organizations inappropriately uses such data as
    marketing tools rather than for the improvement of undergraduate
    education, and
  • Whereas eight State University campuses have "volunteered" to pilot the
    Voluntary System of Accountability with little or no consultation with
    local faculty governance bodies,


  • Be It Resolved that the University Faculty Senate strongly opposes any
    move to implement the Voluntary System of Accountability as a State
    University-wide requirement.
  • Be It Further Resolved that the University Faculty Senate urges a
    prohibition of additional campus involvement in the pilot process without
    explicit and meaningful consultation with local governance bodies.

For information on the history of SUNY-wide assessment, see the page on Campus-Based Gen Ed Assessment for SUNY and SUNY-wide Assessment - Timeline and Documents.

I just came across this article from the August 14 edition of by Donna Engelmann of Alverno College. It's a thoughtful description of how learning outcomes assessment works at a campus that has earned a national reputation for effective assessment, and a spirited defense of the benefits of locally developed assessment processes as opposed to nationally normed standardized testing.

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