Monday, June 22, 2015

An Account of David Hoover's DHSI 2015 Keynote: Performance, Deformance, Apology

David L. Hoover of NYU gave the opening keynote during week 2 at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute (#dhsi2015) this year. It was an intense event, partly because Hoover used certain euphemisms about the poet Joyce Kilmer that some members of the audience perceived as homophobic or transphobic. Another issue was perhaps a bit less urgent, but certainly at least one audience member noted it publicly and it struck home for me as well: Professor Hoover, throughout his lecture, adopted a somewhat comic and facetious tone when describing the ideas and methods of scholars whose work he was criticizing: Jerome McGann, Stephen Ramsay, and Stanley Fish.

As a service to those who weren't in the room, I'll try and summarize the controversy a bit briefly here. I did take notes at the event, but there were limits as to what I was able to record on the spot and my memory of some of what happened may be imperfect. (If anyone reading this wishes to correct my account or offer an alternative version of events, please do so in the comments below -- or send me an email at amardeep at gmail dot com.)

I should also say upfront that despite its flaws, I actually learned a lot from Hoover's lecture; it was, in fact, the first time I had ever seen a lecture strongly oriented towards this type of stylistic analysis. I have been thinking quite a bit about the contentious parts of the lecture, but the more 'bread and butter' arguments and analyses have been thought-provoking for me as well, as I'll describe below.

Hoover has a really impressive CV and extensive credentials in the stylistics (stylometry) subfield in the digital humanities. Here is his page at NYU: among other things, he recently edited a volume for Routledge called Digital Literary Studies: Corpus Approaches to Poetry, Prose and Drama, with two of his own essays in that collection. He also published an essay using cluster analysis to analyze the evolution of Henry James' style in an issue of Henry James Review (accessible via Project Muse presently). Most directly salient for our purposes, however, I would recommend readers look at his essay "Hot Air Textuality: Literature After Jerome McGann." Many of the rhetorical moves Hoover made in the talk he gave are worked out at greater length and with greater care in that published paper (indeed, one of my biggest problems with Hoover's talk is that he seemed to be skipping important steps in his critique of McGann in particular -- he at times came across as contemptuous of McGann; the published critique is actually more respectful of McGann's main arguments).

The most controversial parts of Prof. Hoover's lecture were related to his critique of two essays by Jerome McGann now printed in Radiant Textuality: "The Alice Fallacy; or, Only God Can Make a Tree," and "Deformance and Interpretation" (co-authored with Lisa Samuels). In "The Alice Fallacy," McGann pays considerable attention to Joyce Kilmer's poem "Trees," This is a poem that was denigrated by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren in the classic New Criticism-oriented textbook Understanding Poetry as a textbook case of "a bad poem" that is (unfortunately, in their view) incredibly popular. As part of a larger argument that close reading can be a highly subjective and idiosyncratic project, McGann uses the methods of New Critical close reading to show here that in fact there are complexities in Kilmer's poem that perhaps Brooks and Warren simply hadn't noticed, specifically a hint of a sexual narrative that comes to a climax in the fourth and fifth couplets:
I THINK that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
  
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the sweet earth's flowing breast;
  
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
  
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
  
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
  
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.
It's easy to overlook the word "intimately" here, as well as a possibly sexual connotation to the last line of the poem ("Only God can make a tree"; McGann, following the developing anthropomorphic metaphor of the poem, suggests there might be good reasons to read "make" as a metaphor for "have sex with").

In his comments on this essay of McGann's, I did not hear Prof. Hoover really address the larger argument McGann is making here -- that New Critical methods are highly subject to error, especially if we couple close reading strategies with contextual information. One of the key moves McGann makes in his reading of the poem entails bringing the 'paratext' of Kilmer's original dedication "To Mrs. Henry Mills Alden," as well as biographical clues regarding Kilmer's possible connections to his dedicatee. In effect, McGann strongly implies an attraction on the poet's part to this "charismatic" older woman). At least in the talk he delivered at DHSI, Hoover's main response to McGann's reading of Kilmer was effectively to say that he saw McGann as "showing off with the text": "My own definition of literary criticism is 'showing off with the text.'”

Hoover also made his most controversial comment at this point. After showing a slide showing an image of Kilmer's face, he suggested that a person could also read a certain seeming effeminacy in his facial features that might be seen as rhyming with Kilmer's decision to drop his first name ("Alfred") for his more feminine-sounding middle name ("Joyce") when he started to publish. He also showed us a slide containing the text of a parody of "Trees" authored by Hoover himself (this shows up on Prof. Hoover's CV as: "'Trees,' an Interpretive Parody of Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees'" -- the text does not appear to be online). Somewhere in here Professor Hoover made a comment suggesting that if we were to think this way we might be inclined to connect this to Kilmer's propensity to dress up in women's clothes.

(Incidentally, if anyone has a more exact transcription of this part of Hoover's talk in their notes, I would welcome it... I did not put this comment in my notes, and my recollection of the exact wording used here may be imperfect.)

As I heard it, Hoover was not saying that this is what he really thinks about Kilmer, but rather, if we're going to read a silly, chaste little poem like "Trees" in a sexual light, we might also be inclined to "show off" in those types of ways as well -- we're subject to a generalized interpretive excess. However, as I said above, the tone of Hoover's comments here was a bit slippery, and in the Q&A period and from the Twitterstorm that erupted amongst attendees while Hoover was speaking, it seemed that many in the audience saw this whole line of thought disturbing and offensive ("transphobic" was one word I heard used to describe it). I have to agree: these aren't matters to joke about.

Several questions were raised about Hoover's comments about Kilmer in the Q&A, and when it became clear that a sizeable constituency in the audience found Hoover's comments about Kilmer troubling, he forthrightly and unequivocally apologized. I also heard from friends that in the reception that followed elsewhere on campus, Hoover apologized further and again for the tone of his remarks. Finally, Hoover apologized on Twitter as follows:

(All that said, I also heard that one senior scholar in the room later grumbled in response to this critique that the new generation of academics is overly politically correct and obsessed with "beating up on straight white men." So the response to these comments of Hoover's was by no means unanimous...)

I personally think these remarks of Prof. Hoover's were a mistake and a distraction, but I am comfortable with the attempt at remediation represented by his immediate public apology. Unfortunately, they fit into a larger pattern of critique of McGann, Ramsay, and Fish that was a bit too jokey and familiar for my taste. At the time I heard this talk, I had not yet read "The Alice Fallacy"; now that I have, I tend to think that Hoover was in some ways missing the forest for the trees by dwelling at so much length on McGann's comments on Kilmer's "Trees"; McGann's point is that even the most established and familiar of New Critical interpretations can be questioned or, indeed, totally reversed with no loss of analytical rigor. I don't think McGann cares all that much about whether "Trees" is a good poem or not, nor is it particularly eccentric of him to imply that there might be a sexual connotation in the final stanzas.

I have similar misgivings about Hoover's parodic approach to McGann and Samuels' main arguments in "Deformance and Interpretation." Again, the main point of this essay co-written by McGann and Samuels is to extend the performative ideas in Bloom's "anxiety of influence" to critical practice. If every poetic composition can be seen as a revision of an earlier poet's work ("misprision"), every performance is in a way a "deformance." We as critics can engage in our own acts of deformation intentionally and heuristically rather than in an attempt to show up the poets whose works we attempt to interpret.

Admittedly, the examples of critical deformance that McGann and Samuels give (in "Deformance and Interpretation") in the service of a reading of Wallace Steven's "The Snow Man" aren't always entirely persuasive. But even if the examples of deformance McGann and Samuels adduce (i.e., showing a diagram with just the nouns in the poem, and then just the verbs) aren't that impressive, I don't think they're silly or ridiculous, as Hoover seemed to suggest in his talk (Hoover created his own parodic deformances that were patently absurd, and showed us these as slides in his presentation). McGann's deformances of "The Snow Man," at the very least, do give us an idea of certain internal patterns in the syntax of Stevens' poem that might not be superficially evident.

In his essay, "Hot Air Textuality," Hoover spells out his issues with McGann and Samuels' approach to "The Snow Man" more methodically and at greater length than he did in this talk. That said, there's a broader point in this essay that seems important and correct even if the examples might raise questions. The key idea McGann and Samuels are attempting to convey might be this one:
A deformative procedure puts the reader in a highly idiosyncratic relation to the work. This consequence could scarcely be avoided, since deformance sends both reader and work through the textual looking glass. On that other side customary rules are not completely short-circuited, but they are held in abeyance, to be chosen among (there are many systems of rules), to be followed or not as one decides. Deformative moves re-investigate the terms in which critical commentary will be undertaken. Not the least significant consequence, as will be seen, is the dramatic exposure of subjectivity as a live and highly informative option of interpretive commentary, if not indeed one of its essential features, however neglected in neo-classical models of criticism that search imaginative works for their "objective" and general qualities. (Jerome McGann and Lisa Samuels, "Deformance and Interpretation")
Here again McGann/Samuels are insisting on the slipperiness of interpretation -- even when using their own inventive tools. And again, I didn't hear Hoover acknowledge that self-deprecating (self-deconstructing?) element in the McGann/Samuels essay.

In the talk itself, it sounded as if Hoover found McGann and Samuels' approach to "The Snow Man" flawed at best, silly at worst. In fact, in "Hot Air Textuality," Hoover makes clear that he isn't opposed to this kind of textual alteration; in fact, he's performed it himself on numerous occasions in his published works (see p. 79 of "Hot Air Textuality"). If I had known about any of that, I might have understood Hoover's relationship to McGann and Samuels' idea of deformance a bit differently -- this is not a practice that he thinks is silly at all (he is only taking issue with McGann's execution of it). But even in the published version of the critique, Hoover's criticisms of McGann and Samuels' deformance of "The Snow Man" come across as somewhat nitpicky: should "himself" be counted as a noun? Is the poem actually "noun heavy," as Mcgann implies? Hoover disputes it -- and goes to extraordinary lengths to do so, going so far as to conduct an entire study of modern poetry quantifying noun frequency. (According to Hoover, Stevens is only in the mid-point in the scale with regards to noun frequency amongst modern poets, in case you were wondering. Hart Crane is the most "nouny," while Edna St. Vincent Millay is the least.)

The long section of Hoover's talk on McGann (and McGann/Samuels) was followed by a much briefer (but to me, fascinating -- and math heavy!) section on Stephen Ramsay's Reading Machines: Toward an Algorithmic Criticism. Hoover's focus here was on some of the claims in the introduction to Reading Machines regarding the voices in Virginia Woolf's The Waves.

It is natural for a Modernist critic to pursue patterns of difference amid this apparent unity, in part because, as [Miriam] Wallace points out, subjectivity is a major concern for "the historic moment of Modernism:' Are Woolf's individuated characters to be understood as six sides of an individual consciousness (six modalities of an idealized Modernist self?), or are we meant to read against the fiction of unity that Woolf has created by having each of these modalities assume the same stylistic voice? (Ramsay, Reading Machines, 10)
Ramsay goes on to do word frequency analyses of the six characters in the novel using the TF - IDF formula. He finds that the voices of the male characters and those of the female characters appear statistically pretty different, and makes certain other claims about the stylistics similarities and differences of Woolf's six characters. Ramsay's broader point might be this:
If algorithmic criticism is to have a central hermeneutical tenet, it is this: that the narrowing constraints of computational logic-the irreducible tendency of the computer toward enumeration, measurement, and verification is fully compatible with the goals of criticism set forth above. For while it is possible, and in some cases useful, to confine algorithmic procedures to the scientific realm, such procedures can be made to conform to the methodological project of inventio without transforming the nature of computation or limiting the rhetorical range of critical inquiry. This is possible because critical reading practices already contain elements of the algorithmic. (Ramsay, Reading Machines, 16)
If I am understanding Ramsay's approach correctly, he is saying that both traditional literary critical interpretation and quantitative methods can tell us valid things about literary texts. However, many of our intuitions and "sense of the text" (i.e, the general or gestalt question we might consider as we read: how different are these six voices in Woolf's novel from one another?) are themselves roughly based on quantitative evidence that may not always appear as such. Statistical methods can help confirm or deny those intuitions. As he did with McGann, in his critique of Ramsay, Hoover focused on what seemed like smaller points of method rather than those big-picture types of questions (i.e., the question of the value of stylistic analysis).

By running Ramsay's numbers using his own methods and configuration, Hoover did put forward a strong case that some of Ramsay's conclusions about the voices in Woolf's novel could be questioned. For one thing, the seeming disparity between the words Woolf's female characters have in common and the words her male character have in common ought to take into account the fact that Woolf gives much more time to her male characters than she does to her women. Hoover also looked closely at Ramsay's specific number counts, and raised questions about whether his "tokenizer" settings might have been off (i.e., whether you tell your counting software to count "beast" and "beasts" as a single word or two separate words; this is called tokenizing). Even slight adjustments in tokenizer settings can have statistically significant implications when you're looking at stylistics issues in a single novel. Hoover showed, persuasively, I thought, that there are potentially serious problems with Ramsay's results tied to the way he delimited his word counts. Hoover also ran his own stylistic analyses of the different voices in the novel, and suggested that the apparent gender-linked differences between Woolf's various characters might not be as telling as the differences linked to the ages of those characters. Hoover then showed us, very quickly, a series of dendrograms showing us exactly that.

Hoover's broader lesson for literary critics dabbling in stylometry might be this: if we're going to pay attention to numbers, we'd better be prepared to nitpick about them as Hoover does with Ramsay's numbers.

Another thing I couldn't help but feel watching slide after slide with different kinds of statistical visualizations was a certain amount of envy: I want to be able to produce dendrograms with R! (I may have to go back to DHSI next year to learn a little bit about how to do that -- perhaps from David Hoover himself, if he is inclined to return...)

So: much food for thought (and for me, many new concepts and terms). Unfortunately, the compelling statistical analysis -- especially the critique of Ramsay -- towards the end of Hoover's talk did not become the story of this event. Instead, Hoover's unfortunate comments about Kilmer and the odd, facetious use of humor turned off many listeners.

The open challenge to Hoover along those lines from the audience at the talk itself was impressive to see, and necessary. I do hope that that challenge is seen by all parties as it I believe was intended: as a request to Hoover to be more respectful and inclusive in his language and method in the future, not as an attempt to shut out "straight white men."

Monday, June 15, 2015

DHSI Notes Part 3: Electronic Literature and the Problem of Platform Obsolescence

Let me begin by thanking the excellent teachers of the course on Electronic Literature I took at the DHSI last week, Dene Grigar and Davin Hickman. Dene and Davin, I learned a lot from you -- thank you so much for volunteering so much of your time and intellectual energy to help a "noobie" like me get grounded in your field.

I'll organize my thoughts into three sections below, roughly corresponding to the three parallel things that were happening in my head last week as I took this course: 1) the problem of Platform Obsolescence and closed platforms in general, 2) Whoa, some of this stuff is really cool!, and 3) many of the participants in this community are pretty invested in an experimental, postmodernist aesthetic -- not so much the social issues that I tend to gravitate towards in my own research and teaching.

Issue #1: Platform Obsolescence

One of the most thought-provoking elements of my experience in the Electronic Literature seminar at DHSI last week was the revelation that large amounts of material considered important to the genre is actually no longer playable on many devices. Projects completed as Java applets (popular a decade ago) are banned by modern browsers like Chrome, making them extremely difficult to access. Other projects are in Flash, which is still technially 'alive' -- but not accessible on mobile devices. It's highly possible -- likely even -- that since Flash is no longer being updated by Adobe, it will eventually also eventually fall into the category of a disallowed plugin.

Moreover, many of the influential works of "hypertext" literature from the late 1980s and 1990s are no longer readily accessible. Works such as Shelley Jackson's Patchwork Girl (1995 -- a queer, feminist Frankenstein adaptation) were published as Storyspace texts. Storyspace is, of course, out of business, and Eastgate systems, which owns the rights to the text, have refused to modernize its mode of distribution. The text cannot be purchased for digital-to-digital reading; rather, the only way we can access it is through purchasing a USB drive that is delivered via conventional mail -- for the rather absurd price of $24.95.

Let's spend a moment longer talking about platform obsolescence. In the past decade, the Electronic Literature organization has made two major collections, first in 2006, and then in 2011. A third collection is currently being compiled and is scheduled for release in 2016. The first collection can be found here:

http://collection.eliterature.org/1/

The second here:

http://collection.eliterature.org/2/

From these collections, quite a number of works are either difficult to access or already non-functional. Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern's Facade is, for instance, currently non-playable. Other texts, like Emily Short's Galatea, require the user to download and install proprietary software that many contemporary users might find discouraging.

These texts seem to be a minority; most texts are still accessible with a little patience. Still, the vast majority of the works in the two ELO collections should probably be seen as "endangered" since they were programmed in Flash -- a platform that has been slowly dying since about 2007.  So we may one day soon lose the ability to "play" Jason Nelson's intriguing anti-game, Game, Game, Game, and Again Game. The same for Juliet Davis' feminist work Pieces of Herself. And for Kerry Lawrynovicz's Girls' Day Out. And Sasha West's gorgeous kinetic poem, Zoology.

So one lesson from this is that platform matters. A large number of participants in the electronic literature movement have found the potential reach of their works stymied by technological changes and by their reliance on closed platform systems. With Google's new Swiffy tool, there is some scope to make Flash projects accessible on mobile devices and the next generation of web browsers, but it's not clear how effective that will be at preserving these works.

For the long run, it seems imperative that Elit practitioners going forward make an effort to find open platforms that are at least non-proprietary. So we aren't subject to the vagaries of negotiations between large corporations like Apple and Adobe -- neither of whom really care much about fringe artists using their technology.

Issue #2: Here are some things I really liked.

Just in terms of technical accomplishment, it's hard to beat Sasha West's Zoology, though I don't feel that the text of this kinetic poem is as compelling as the stunning visuals and sound (assembled by Ernesto Lavendera).

Another work of Elit that I thought was pretty magnificent is Christine Wilks' Underbelly (this one really requires sound: you can't find the text any other way). Wilks' project explores the early 19th century history of women working in British coal mines, using a mix of poetic speculative imagination and actors reading aloud scripts derived from testimony of actual women who worked in the mines in the 19th century.

A third project I think is wonderful is Jason Nelson's "Nothing You Have Done Deserves Such Praise." While Nelson's other anti-game project (mentioned above) has an abrasive, confrontational feel, this game is a commentary on the user's emotional investment in the simple sprite that moves across the screen. What makes the user of simple arcade games feel satisfied and happy? Often it's performing something tricky or difficult (a jump that has to be timed just so...).

Finally, I was really impressed by the work of J.R. Carpenter, particularly her two major Montreal-oriented works, Entre Ville and In Absentia. "In Absentia" uses parallel narratives and a Google Maps API interface to tell a story about gentrification in Montreal. As part of a class assignment, I wrote a blog post about the lovely urban poetry of Entre Ville here.

We did explore a couple of Ipad Elit projects that look really interesting. One is Jason Edward Lewis' P.O.E.M.M. Another is Erik Loyer's Upgrade Soul, which is a kind of mobile-oriented graphic novel. I haven't downloaded Upgrade Soul myself yet, but hope to spend some time with it soon. (As a side note: these apps., which are only playable via Apple's Itunes store, are exactly the kind of approach to Elit I cautioned against above: will they still work in five years on the version of IOS Apple will then be using?)

We also read some pretty interesting theoretical essays over the course of the week. One was Sandy Baldwin's "Ping Poetics." This essay begins with a look at the metaphorics of the Ping -- a basic command that can connect any two points in the internet -- and the Traceroute command that can be used to track the path of a Ping.  Later, Baldwin discusses the workings of other fundamental elements of internet architecture, including TCP. About TCP, he writes:

TCP is writing that implies a textual model of reading order and hierarchy, of packet segmentation as annotation, and packet length and format as closure of the book. The writing of TCP is a contractual relation. The segments and packets, addresses and check digits, are dedicated and written towards the other. TCP creates virtual circuits between nodes that are listening and ready for association. It is a philosophy of alterity, where “I write” means “I listen for the other, I wait for your reply.” 
"Ping Poetics" inspired me to develop my own project, using Jim Andrews' "Stir Fry" poetry concept in Javascript.  Jim Andrews was kind enough to come to the Thursday session of our class and talk about his project. He also stuck around for the afternoon part of the session while several of the students in the class made modified versions of his Stir Fry poem; this required us to go into his Javascript code and make some modifications in the file to reflect our own particular interests and ideas.

My project was called "Seven Layers"; it imagines a troubled internet romance and uses the architecture of the internet (there are seven layers) as a metaphor for the different levels of connectedness in the digital media / social networking era. You can see the Stir Fry version of the poem here: http://dtc-wsuv.org/dhsi2015-elit/b/index.html. I also posted a linear version of the poem here. That said, I am still trying to decide how I feel about the stir fry version of the poem -- and Andrews' general embrace of cut-up aesthetics, non-linear narrative, and postmodern play. (More about that below.)

Issue #3: The Elit Aesthetic vs. Social Realism (Thematics of Race/Class/Gender/etc.)

As I mentioned immediately above, I am not sure how I feel about some of the more esoteric works in the Elit genre. Works like Jim Andrews' Enigma N do not, I must admit, do very much for me. I have a similar reaction to many of the "sound poems" of Joerg Piringer. These are often clever little text/sound/graphics experiments, but their lack of investment in narrative is something I find limiting.

Taking this class reminded me just how much I am -- despite my occasional noises about being a postmodernist - invested in works of literature that have some investment in social realism. That isn't to say that I will only engage works that are strictly linear and conventionally framed and plotted. But I do feel the strongest connection to literature that explicitly engages with social issues, whether they are instantly recognizable themes (race, class, gender), or complex social and multi-tiered phenomena like gentrification.

(That said, I did find Andrews' work "The Club", which uses his DBCinema visual synthesizer tool, quite haunting and beautiful. Of course, this is one of the few works by Andrews that is clearly representational -- and that seems to have a clear politics behind it. And I admire his willingness to develop advanced tools and then open them to other artists and writers to play with -- whether with the StirFry idea, or with DBCinema.)

In our in-class discussions we went back and forth about some of these issues a couple of times. A couple of students in the class noted their disappointment that the big Elit repositories and the developing search engines (The Cell, ELMCIP) do not have thematic organization. Thus, it is currently impossible to use these state of the art databases to find works authored by, say, black women, just as it is impossible to search by geographical information (i.e., works just by Elit authors in the Philadelphia area, or which thematize the city of Philadelphia in some way).

That isn't to say that no Elit writers are concerned about these issues. There has certainly been a long and sustained group of Elit writers who have been interested in issues of gender and sexuality (starting with Shelley Jackson's Patchwork Girl, and continuing through a very recent project like the Twine project Even Cowgirls Bleed). Another social justice oriented work of Elit might by Sharon Daniel and Erik Loyer's Public Secrets.

But what does strike one about the dominant aesthetic of Elit as it has developed is that it is 1) clearly deeply committed to avant-garde, postmodernist aesthetics, including non-linear narrative frameworks, linguistic cut-ups, and pastiche, 2) the practitioners and theorists of Elit have been most interested in formal and technological aspects of Elit work up to this point. The social "message" of particular works is seen as somewhat secondary in determining value to the question of a work's formal innovations and investment in experimentation.

Along those lines, the manifesto by Eugenio Tisselli, "Why I Have Stopped Creating E-Lit," is required reading. Another important work that strikes a critical chord is Florian Cramer's "Post-Digital Writing."

If it is possible for me in the coming months and years to write more about Elit and perhaps aim to publish something in one of the journals devoted to criticism and  theory related to Eliterature and Net Art, I will probably be interested in trying to talk about what I have been calling the "message" of particular works of Elit that I find powerful. (A starting point might for me well be a full-length essay on the works of J.R. Carpenter...)







Saturday, June 13, 2015

Notes on DHSI 2015 (part 2): Focus on Tools and Gadgets, #DHPOCO, TEI

I picked up a lot during my week at the DHSI, and it will probably take some time to process all of it. This week, I attended two keynotes, three colloquia (often with younger scholars talking about their work and teaching), three 'unconference' lunch sessions on different topics, two poster sessions, and of course my week-long class on Electronic Literature.

Working through my thoughts on electronic literature, as well as the controversial first keynote address by David Hoover, will take some time -- and I'll save those topics for subsequent blog posts. For this post today, I'll summarize some of the tools I encountered people talking about and using, either as pedagogy tools or in their research.

Tools: Mapping, Social Annotation, GIS, Scalar...

John Maxwell (whose keynote I described earlier) talked about using Wiki writing projects in the classroom. (I've actually done this a little -- last fall I asked my students in "Writing for the Internet" to work together on a collaborative Wiki project on Gender and the Media, with mixed results.) Maxwell's idea is that the openness of the Wiki writing format could be empowering to students and useful in teaching them to think about their writing.

At a colloquium talk, Juliette Levy talked about a teaching tool she had come up with, Zombies.Digital. This is a little like a digitally enhanced treasure hunt to get students to actually go into the library, explore resources, and talk to living librarians (one of the exercises actually asks students to take selfies with librarians; another involves using geotaggging...).

I saw a couple of different talks from people who are working on social annotation tools using Commons in a Box. One is of course the MLA, whose Nicky Agate talked about the new components of MLA Commons that are being built. (The MLA is hoping scholars will upload draft papers to MLA Commons for comment and peer-perusal along the lines of what has already been happening at Academia.edu. The difference being that Academia.edu is a for-profit company, while MLA is of course non-profit and specifically focused on literary scholarship. MLA can also help with intellectual property issues by assigning people who post their works to MLA Commons a DOI.

A second social annotation project is afoot with the Digital Thoreau project. In one of the colloquia, Paul Schacht talked about how his project has moved from simply providing digital editions of Thoreau's works, to enabling complex annotation frameworks that would work better for students looking at Thoreau's works on their site. They earlier used Digress.it, an offshoot of CommentPress, but received a grant to develop a more sophisticated tool called BuddyPress Groups, that which allows "many to many" annotations and structured admin control appropriate to college courses. (Schacht mentioned that he has a forthcoming article in Pedagogy where he talks about his work on Digital Thoreau).

I saw a short colloquium talk by a librarian from U-Vic. named Corey Davis. Davis talked about the troubles libraries are having figuring out how to archive digital artifacts. An earlier generation of web artifacts could be archived by simply scraping and making copies of files, but the current generation of database projects that generate content dynamically are much harder to grab and hold. U-Vic. uses software called Archive-It (developed by Archive.org) to do this kind of archiving currently, but in the future web archivists will need to change their focus to archiving data objects rather than the 'front end' of web projects.

In another interesting colloquium talk, Josefa Lago-­Grana and Renee Houston (both grad students at the University of Puget Sound) talked about some of the digital tools  they use while teaching. These looked excellent:

1. Timeglider. This allows you to make visualized timelines. Perfect for class projects where you might assign students to add entries around a particular literary historical period (say modernism). It could help students see relationships between different kinds of publication events and news events, as well as get a sense of the density of literary periods.

(Another Timeline app. that someone mentioned in another colloquium: TimelineJS. I have not played with these yet to find out which might be the better one to use.)

2. Voyant-Tools is a text analysis tool that does simple word cloud and most frequent word scans on text files that you can upload. This might allow a stripped-down version of a discussion about issues in stylometry. (For more advanced stylometry, involving cluster analysis, you would need other tools.) But it's super-fast and easy, and definitely a step up from something like Wordle.

3. Among other things, Thinglink allows you to easily create clickable objects on maps. Again, the pedagogical value is pretty obvious (see for instance this probably student generated map of Pennsylvania).

The tool CartoDB, also mentioned in a different colloquium talk I saw, looks like much more powerful and sophisticated mapping software. The array of examples of enriched maps created using this tool is pretty vast (some very cool projects). Here's just one example of a site that used CartoDB to give users a sense of the sights and sounds of 1940s New York.

The list of tools I heard people talking about just goes on and on. In my notes I simply have the words "Piktochart" and "JuxtaCommons" -- more tools. (So many tools... *sigh*)

Shawna Ross, at Arizona State, is another modernist (see my earlier post) doing DH stuff. In a colloquium talk, she talked about some of the digital projects she has afoot with Henry James in particular. James made nineteen transatlantic ocean voyages, and Ross has done archival research on each of the voyages, looking at things like the size of the ship, the length of the voyage. She's also been looking closely at the stories James wrote where the ship setting is relevant, as well as James' letters mentioning the transatlantic experiences. This line of research follows a track similar to the line of thinking behind my courses on Transatlantic modernism. Ross has several other DH projects underway, which are documented at her blog and in her research statement here .

The final keynote at the DHSI was given by Claire Warwick, of the University of Durham in the UK. Warwick talked about the rapid institutional growth of DH as a field in the past fifteen years, showing a map of DH centers around the world (as a side note: there are two centers in the middle east, but none that I know of in South Asia... hm!!). Warwick also spent some time revisiting women pioneers in humanities computing, and talked about some of the reasons their names aren't better known to us (some of them were librarians -- and library science in general has suffered from being seen as a 'feminized' discipline). Warwick particularly mentioned Muriel Bradborough of Cambridge University, and Susan Hockey. Hockey is probably best known as the author of a pioneering book called the History of Humanities Computing. (Her essay on the History of HC is also chapter 1 of the 'essential' Blackwell Companion to Digital Humanities from 2001.) But as I was Googling, I was surprised to discover that Hockey also did pioneering work developing software for displaying non-western characters, back in the early 1970s.

Then there's Scalar, which I had already been exploring a bit on my own as a possible alternative to using WordPress as a teaching tool. I attended an "Unconference" session led by Paige Morgan and Cathy Kroll introducing Scalar. Paige Morgan showed us some of the advanced visualization capabilities of Scalar using her "Visible Prices" project -- a pretty awesome idea, where the visualization plays an obvious and incredibly valuable role. For her part, Kroll has used Scalar to create a media-rich, teaching resource on Things Fall Apart (though I can't presently find the actual Scalar project online).

#DHPOCO

Finally, I came to DHSI having already heard quite a bit about the debates in Digital Humanities regarding issues related to gender, race, and colonialism. My friend Roopika Risam was one of the originators of the the DhPoco.org project, and I knew coming into the event that this was something I myself wanted to think about while here, even if the class I had signed up for wasn't explicitly focused on this topic (though we did talk a bit about Jason Edward Lewis; more about that later). My department also has a specific focus on "Literature and Social Justice," and I'm hoping to bring LSJ concerns to the forefront when I co-teach Digital Humanities (for the first time!) this coming fall with my colleague Ed Whitley. Along those lines I was happy to get to know Alex Gil and Padmini Ray Murray a little bit and hear about some of their projects. (While on the subject of LSJ, I was also happy to meet George H. Williams in person for the first time, and talk to him a little about his Accessible Future project.)

At DHSI this year, Alex was teaching a course oriented towards Minimal Computing. Minimal computing is a philosophy and a methodology that might be summarized as follows:

This dichotomy of choice vs. necessity focuses the group on computing that is decidedly not high-performance and importantly not first-world desktop computing.  By operating at this intersection between choice and necessity minimal computing forces important concepts and practices within the DH community to the fore.  In this way minimal computing is also an intellectual concept, akin to environmentalism, asking for balance between gains and costs in related areas that include social justice issues and de-manufacturing and reuse, not to mention re-thinking high-income assumptions about “e-waste” and what people do with it.
Concretely, Alex's class worked on designing web publications systems that have the equivalent functionality of today's content management systems (i.e., Wordpress), but which generate static web pages that demand considerably less internet bandwidth as well as less computing power. This is a social justice / critical globality issue: many people in the developing world access the internet over 2G//Edge connections on mobile devices as well as cheap Android / Linux laptops. Platforms such as WordPress, Blogger, and Tumblr run quite slowly in places like India, making them much less useful than formats that might use static HTML (in previous trips to India I have noticed that my own blog takes forever to load, even over relatively decent broadband connections at the houses of relatives... Factor in all of the other DH projects using dynamic HTML and you'll see the problem...).

The Minimal Computing idea involves programming skills and context that I don't really have at present; I might come back and take a course with Alex if I come back to DHSI again. That said, I do have some new ideas about #dhpoco type projects I might want to do -- the next step is to get home and get to work!

TEI

I didn't see any talks about the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI), a kind of framework widely used by people creating digital editions of literary texts. I did however talk informally with a student in the TEI class offered this session by DHSI; I was able to learn a little about what she was doing and how she was doing it.

There's a very helpful summary of what TEI is and its relationship to XML in this essay by Sarah Ficke here:

The final stage of the digital humanities unit, tagging texts using Extensible Markup Language (XML), continued our focus on the intersection between the work of digitization and interpretation. XML tags are used to describe the data (text) that they surround. For example, I could use the tag [title] to identify the words Moby Dick as a book title in this way: [title]Moby Dick[/title]. XML is called Extensible because, as Julie Meloni writes, “the structure of the document and the language you use to describe the data being stored is completely up to you” (“A Pleasant,” par. 6). This means that instead of using [title] to describe Moby Dick I could use [very_long_book] and it could be equally valid under the rules of XML. Tagging plays an important role in the digitization of texts for analysis because, as Thomas Rommel points out, “[w]ithout highly elaborate thematic – and therefore by definition interpretative – markup, only surface features of texts can be analyzed” (91). Tagging allows for thematic indexing, the conceptual linking of different groups of words, and many other operations, and often (as in my [very_long_book] example above) involves an act of interpretation. Although XML tags can be entirely self-created, many humanities scholars and organizations use the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) guidelines to design their projects. The TEI is an evolving set of standard tags and practices that enable scholars to create their digital works in a format that is readable and accessible to others—a kind of common language, as it were. Though TEI provides structured guidelines, there is still opportunity for invention and dissention within those guidelines. 
Source: http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/cea_critic/v076/76.2.ficke.html 
The grad student I talked to (she was kind enough to show me her work) was working on a TEI-encoded version of a novel by Anne Radcliffe. First she had gone through the novel with color-coded sticky notes indicating different topics and themes. This past week, the student had been working through a digital version of the text page by page and line by line, putting in the appropriate tags. The end product would be a fully-indexed database version of the digital text that could be searched thematically as well as for actual snippets of text.

Stylometry? 

I also had some conversations with people about new ways to use stylometry (traditionally stylometry focused more on authorship attribution questions, but new kinds of analysis are opening up the possibility of using statistical methods to answer different kinds of questions). More on that if and when I get around to putting down some notes on David Hoover's keynote address. 

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Notes on J.R. Carpenter’s "Entre-Ville" (a work of interactive fiction / Net Art)

[These comments below are for the course I am taking at DHSI on Electronic Literature taught by Davis Hickman and Dene Grigar]

[Start by looking at J.R. Carpenter's Entre Ville ]

J.R. Carpenter describes herself as a “Canadian artist, writer, researcher, performer, and maker of maps, zines, books, poetry, short fiction, long fiction, non-fiction, and non-linear, intertextual, hypermedia and computer-generated narrative.” The multiplicity of modalities she ascribes to herself is instructive – those various skills and interests are also reflected in the complexity of her 2007 project Entre Ville. This project might be described as a multi-media work of electronic literature that uses still images and video as well as interactive exploratory elements.


When the user begins to interact with the page, she first sees an image resembling a notebook, with a poetic text on the left side and images of a house or apartment building on the right. The windows and doors of the house are clickable, and take the user to videos and snippets of text from the poem. The overall gestalt upon first experiencing Entre Ville is of digital emulation of handmade culture: the spiral notebook, the hand-drawn images, the almost collage-like jumble of decontextualized images. This attention to hand-made artifacts is reflective of the author’s own investments in non-digital media (zines and so on). The discourses of analog / anti-digital culture (i.e., the privileging of vinyl and hand-made artifacts), on the one hand, and the contrasting pro-digital and pro-virtualization culture, on the other, are clearly in conversation in this project.

Upon further exploration, the user discovers that there are in fact two primary textual artifacts that seem to have equal importance. One is a sequence of short poems reflecting the perspective and voice of Carpenter herself. The other is a third person meditation that focuses on the dog. The two characters, one human and one canine, share and explore the city in parallel.  

An essential bit of context from Carpenter (from one of the "stamps" the user can click on on the right side of the screen: "the city between us") helps frame Entre Ville:

Entre is the French word for "between," as in: entre nous, "between us". Ville is the French word for city. Driving into Montréal, all signs point to centre ville, downtown. I live north of downtown in a neighbourhood called Mile End. I work at home. My office window opens onto a jumbled intimacy of back balconies, back yards and back alleys. Daily my dog and I walk through this interior city sniffing for stories.

Here Carpenter introduces for us several of the key ideas that are reflected in the work – the idea of betweenness, the strong sense of rooting in a particular neighborhood space (which itself is a repository of diverse experiences, characters, and indeed, narratives), and the sense of “jumble.” The interface and navigation of Entre-Ville requires a degree of exploration and a certain amount of patience with different elements that are organized non-hierarchically and indeed non-linearly. In other words, the site itself is a jumble, and our exploration of it mimes the Carpenter’s exploration of her neighborhood and the city more broadly.

In an intimacy
born of proximity
the old Greek lady and I
go about our business.
Foul-mouthed for seventy,
her first-floor curses fill
my second-floor apartment;
her constant commentary
punctuates my day.

[…]
Always civil,
the old Greek Lady and I
wave to each other.
To each her own. Undies,
bed sheets and bras
dance on the line -
a delicate curtain
to separate
her balcony
from mine.

The second stanza of “Saint Urbain Street Heat” offers a vivid image instantiating the “betweenness” Carpenter alluded to in the paragraph above. Here, the author’s neighbors and her spaces are intimately – and often uncomfortably – intertwined. She hears her neighbors profanity through the thin walls of an old house. She sees the neighbor's underwear on the clothesline daily; these are both a window into the intimate life of the neighbors but they also serve as “a delicate curtain/ to separate / her balcony / from mine.”  

The second narrative Carpenter gives us is “Sniffing for Stories.” This one only becomes visible to the viewer if she clicks on the image of the dog (presumably an image of the author's actual dog, which we see in a video elsewhere on the site). The dog becomes a character and a recognizable fixture in the author’s neighborhood – from the poem, we learn that the dog is more visible and recognizable than her owner in some ways. The “dog with the orange ball” is known to the neighborhood children and even to strangers.


The physical needs of the dog require the author to walk through her neighborhood and encounter the multitude of its diverse residents. The dog’s desires – its need to “sniff for stories” -- is thus a proxy for the author’s own yearning to reach out and encounter her neighbors, to absorb their stories into her own account of her experience of the Mile End neighborhood of Montreal. “We walk as if intent on studying every scent.”

Finally, it’s worth mentioning that Carpenter has a section of the site that links to other authors’ works: “entre guillemets” (French for in quotations or between quotations). Here the user can access a rotating selection of quotes from poets and novelists such as Nicole Brossard, Anne Carson, Leonard Cohen, David Fennario, and Heather O’Neill, among others. Many of the passages directly speak to life in Montreal (including a passage from Defoe’s Moll Flanders that directly alludes to the Mile End neighborhood, which in the 18th century at least was a place where a prostitute and her john could be “as wicked as we pleased”). Others invoke the conceptual framework that structures both the content and the form of Carpenter’s project. The overall effect of these intertexts is to add an additional dimension to the “in-betweenness” to Entre Ville. We are in-between spatially, socially, and textually.

Monday, June 08, 2015

DHSI 2015 Notes 1: Pre-conference on "Social Knowledge Creation"

I'm here in Victoria for week 2 of the DHSI; I might try and post a few brief notes along the way for myself and any others who might be interested.

There were two pre-conferences meeting at the same time on Sunday. One was on maximizing accessibility in DH projects -- especially for users who are sight-impaired -- and the other was on "Social Knowledge Creation."  It was a tough decision, but I decided to go to the Social Knowledge Creation session.

The keynote, on the history of the Wiki idea, was given by John Maxwell. He started with a quote from Ivan Illich from 1973, on "Tools for Conviviality." I'll just post the whole quote, since it's interesting:

“Convivial tools are those which give each person who uses them the greatest opportunity to enrich the environment with the fruits of his or her vision” Industrial tools deny this possibility to those who use them and they allow their designers to determine the meaning and expectations of others. Most tools today cannot be used in convivial fashion.
In effect, a highly open-ended tool like a Wiki is a 'convivial' tool, while other, more strictly hierarchical, means of structuring knowledge are more "industrial."

Maxwell talked about the creator of the first Wiki, Ward Cunningham. Wikis were named after the Hawaiian "Wiki-Wiki Bus," and initially written using the early Mac HyperCard software. Cunningham went on to create the first Wiki website, called WikiWikiWeb, focusing mainly on creating a base of knowledge about software development.

Cunningham defines a Wiki as "a body of writing that a community is willing to maintain." Maxwell, in his comments, expanded on this, describing Wiki writing as "the textual embodiment of a community of inquiry" and as "collective autoethnography." What he finds remarkable about the Wiki framework is that it's a software system "that has no features"; it's effectively just a system of writing. Maxwell also talked about some of his own experiences using Wikis in his research ("Coach House Technological History").

At the end of his talk Maxwell talked about Ward Cunningham's fascinating recent shift away from his own creation -- the idea of a community-edited, but still centralized, body of knowledge. Ward has now invented a new model of a distributed Wiki system that he calls a "federated" Wiki.

Cunningham talks about the reasons for the shift in this article in Wired

But there is one thing about the wiki that he regrets. “I always felt bad that I owned all those pages,” he says. The central idea of a wiki — whether it’s driving Wikipedia or C2 — is that anyone can add or edit a page, but those pages all live on servers that someone else owns and controls. Cunningham now believes that no one should have that sort of central control, so he has built something called the federated wiki.
This new creation taps into the communal ethos fostered by GitHub, a place where software developers can not only collaborate on software projects but also instantly “fork” these projects, spawning entirely new collaborations.
To me, it seems like there’s an unresolved contradiction here: Cunningham started out wanting a centralized index with multiple authors. When that worked -- almost too well -- he changed his mind, and wanted to decentralize his own index, achieving multiplicity not just of authorship but of web domains.

I think many people share Cunningham's ambivalence about centralized knowledge. On the one hand, don’t we want there to be authoritative references out there? The feminist DH critique of the male-centered tendencies in Wikipedia (who edits it, who contributes “knowledge? see this) is in a way accepting the premise that Wikipedia is a powerfully central site for knowledge production and distribution. Insofar as centralized knowledge production is still a widely felt social need, perhaps we need a better, more diverse Wikipedia, not a decentralized, confederated Wiki system where everyone creates and curates their own bases of knowledge.

Moreover, if a decentralized mode of knowledge production really does take off, it likely won’t be led and scripted by Ward Cunningham. The decentralization might also have a price that maybe we haven’t anticipated: the decentralization of knowledge and history can be as empowering to conservative revisionists as much as to progressive thinkers.

During the break, I said as much to a faculty member from a University of Wisconsin campus (I didn't catch her name); she mentioned to me that this debate over the centralization of knowledge was in fact happening in the 18th century as the first Encyclopedias were being compiled. She mentioned a book that sounds relevant, Seth Rudy's Literature and Encyclopedism in Enlightenment Britain

The lightning sessions had many interesting papers. Because these are works in progress, I won't say too much here. I will say that the papers I was personally most interested in were both by graduate students from the University of Victoria itself, and both involved applying various mapping visualization techniques to works of literature. Alex Christie's Z-Axis 3D maps are far enough along that he's collaborating with Modernist Studies Asociation members and planning a session at the MSA that will showcase the methodology at MSA 2015 later this year. Randa Khatib has, in conjunction with colleagues in computer science at the American University of Beirut (which has its own Digital Humanities Center!), developed an installable tool called Topotext, that automatically annotates text files, using natural language processing to extract geographic data. 

On my own, I installed Topotext from the version I found on Github at the link above, and played around with a .Txt version of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man


The concentration of location on the east of Ireland should be obvious for those who know the novel. But what's interesting are all the references in the southwest of Ireland. It's easy to forget the trip Stephen takes with his father early in the novel to Cork, and think, instead, of Portrait as first and foremost a Dublin novel. But that trip to Cork is of course important, both to Stephen's development of his sense of space, and to the concept of Irish space in the novel more broadly. There's more we could say here, but suffice it to say for now that it seems like the Topotext tool has justified its existence here by getting me to think about Portrait's relationship to space in Ireland a little differently than I had before. 

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Spring Teaching Notes: Asian American Literature

This spring I taught an introductory Asian American Literature class for the first time (the proper title for the course was "Asian Americans in Literature and Popular Culture"). To my knowledge, this is the first time a course with this title has been taught at Lehigh University. Below I am posting an overview of the course with some commentary added here and there.

Here are the required texts I put on the syllabus:
John Okada, No-No Boy (1956; not published until 1971. Get the 2014 edition.).
Gene Yang, American Born Chinese (2006. Graphic novel.)
Chang-Rae Lee, Native Speaker (1993. Still my favorite Chang-Rae Lee novel.)
Eric Liu, The Accidental Asian: Notes of a Native Speaker (1998. Surprise sleeper text.)
Eddie Huang, Fresh off the Boat (2013)
Jhumpa Lahiri, The Namesake (2003)
Amitava Kumar, Bombay, London, New York (2003)
From the above list, I was pleased with my students' response to books like No-No Boy and American Born Chinese. Native Speaker was a bit of a challenge for them (one student complained that she didn't understand what was happening in the plot), though I do think in our class discussions that we got to the core of this strange but still very powerful novel. But the standout winners from the syllabus were Eddie Huang's memoir along with Eric Liu's The Accidental Asian. I'm contemplating writing a longer piece about their respective concepts of "whiteness," perhaps for an academic journal, later this summer.

I should also acknowledge some significant omissions. Other Asian American Lit. syllabi I consulted as I was putting the readings together last fall typically include books like The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston. Here I tend to side with Frank Chin, who leveled a pretty devastating critique of Kingston in an influential rant called "Come All Ye Asian American Writers of the Real and the Fake." For related reasons, I nixed Amy Tan from the syllabus as well as my own personal pet peeves from the Indian American side, Bharati Mukherjee and Meena Alexander. I also opted not to try and do Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's Dictee, though it's widely popular in Asian American Lit. syllabi, mainly because I worried it might simply be too difficult and abstract for students in this intro-level course to follow.

One consequence of these decisions is that the syllabus is a bit more male-centered, at least with regards to literature, than I would have liked; I'll try and correct that skew next time I do this course. (I am a big fan of Susan Choi in particular, but none of her novels -- at least, none of the novels of hers I've read -- seemed precisely right for this particular course.)

And here are some texts in secondary criticism I assigned:
Ronald Takaki, excerpt chapters from A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America. These chapters helped provide a glimpse of the early history for Chinese and Japanese American immigrants, beginning in the 19th century and continuing through the World War II period.

Susan Koshy, “The Fiction of Asian American Literature” This essay looks closely at the ‘ethnocentrism’ of Asian American studies in its earlier phase. If the field was earlier dominated by Chinese American and Japanese American scholars, is it possible that our understanding of “Asian American” identity as it has emerged has been skewed? Are we sure that South Asian Americans and Southeast Asian Americans fit under the same umbrella as east Asians?

Robert G. Lee, from the book Orientals. We looked at a chapter on the Model Minority myth, and a close reading of the film Sayonara.
I didn't assign anything by Indian American historians like Vijay Prashad or Vinay Lal, but I easily could very well have done that. One of my students is currently writing a final project on the Model Minority myth, and I've asked her to look at some chapters of The Karma of Brown Folk that deal with that subject. 

Films, TV, Popular Music

I thought by underlining the popular culture component of the class that I would draw more students and make the course more fun and lively. The first assumption turned out not to be true -- I only had five students enrolled in the course this go round -- but the second did play out as expected (the course was fun for me to teach, though we'll see in a few weeks whether my students thought so as well). Certainly the fact that this spring we saw the debut and first season of the ABC sitcom Fresh off the Boat gave our discussions of that show (in connection with Eddie Huang's memoir) a special currency. I should also add that I have been working on a book on the filmmaker Mira Nair for a long time, and our discussions of two of her films gave me an opportunity to talk about something I have thought about a lot in terms of research -- but rarely taught.

TV: We spent a fair amount of time talking about Eddie Huang’s memoir in connection with the new ABC TV show, Fresh off the Boat. We also looked at a couple of episodes of The Mindy Project, and talked about the controversy over her main character's choice of love interests (all white men) in the first season.

We talked about about the growing profile of Asian American actors in Hollywood films and on TV, especially for roles and screenplays written by non-Asians for mainstream audiences. We discussed the ongoing careers of Asian American actors like John Cho (from “Harold” in Harold and Kumar to “Sulu” in the new Star Trek movies), Kal Penn, Archie Panjabi (The Good Wife), Aziz Ansari (Parks and Recreation), and a number of others. In connection with our reading of The Namesake, I asked students to think about Kal Penn's own use of a pseudonym in his career in Hollywood. 

While there’s been quite a bit of progress from the early days of Charlie Chan, I also suggested to my students that Hollywood still produces occasional racial / ethnic caricatures that we need to think about and be able to critique. Along these lines, a new Netflix show called The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is the latest show to provoke a controversy over the portrayal of an Asian character. In the old days we had examples like the character “Long Duck Dong” in the film Sixteen Candles, and a whole history of Orientalist caricatures of Asian people in early Hollywood (from the 1930s through the 1970s). Today the caricatures, when we see them, are a bit more subtle. 

Stand up comedians: We listened to clips from comedians like Margaret Cho, Russell Peters, and Hari Kondabolu. Again, there seems to have been some evolution here in recent years. There’s definitely a pretty sharp difference between how Russell Peters handled ethnic material about a decade ago and how Hari Kondabolu does it now. My students found the Russell Peters material stale-sounding and corny (he's trying too hard to be "universal"), and they adored Hari Kondabolu's sharper-edged and more particular orientation to talking about race and cultural difference. (Hari Kondabolu for the win.)

We also struggled a bit with Margaret Cho -- someone who is a personal hero to me and many other Asian Americans of my generation -- in large part because her stand up is simply so sexually explicit and raunchy. But we did at least touch on the "weirdness" of the way she handles Asian accents, especially the character of her mother that played such an important role in her early comedy. 

Popular music: I mentioned and played for my students clips by Far East Movement, Jin, Psy, Awkwafina, Heems/Das Racist, and MIA. My approach in general was to stress that until fairly recently, Asian Americans were essentially invisible in popular music, but that’s changed in a big way in the past decade. I did an extended sequence looking at the evolution of the "Knight Rider" sample, from the original TV show, to Busta Rhymes, to Panjabi MC, and finally to mainstream radio "re-re-re-appropriation" via the Jay-Z/Panjabi MC collaboration. Part of the point here was to show the constant and intense connection in Indian diaspora popular music with African American hip hop and R&B. This dovetailed nicely with our discussions of Eddie Huang, who is invested in Hip Hop in rather the same way. (In the future, could I perhaps do an entire course on this subject? Call it: "Afrocentric Asians" -- a nod to the famous lyric from Nas.)

Film: We looked at early Hollywood representation of Asians in some excerpts from Charlie Chan movies on Youtube. We also looked at the post-World War II film Sayonara (which goes well with John Okada's No-No Boy). We also had dedicated sessions on Justin Lin's Better Luck Tomorrow, Mira Nair's Mississippi Masala, Mira Nair's The Reluctant Fundamentalist, and finally, Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino.


Modified Opening Day Spiel

On the opening day I presented to my students a series of general questions that I hoped the course as a whole would be able to explore. Here are those questions in brief.

1--How are Asian Americans defined vis a vis other ethnic and racial communities in the United States? What is the distinction we need to make between “race” and “ethnicity”? Is being Asian (in America) a “racial” identity? How does the concept of race work for immigrant communities (like Asians and Hispanics), in comparison to the concept of race in the African American community? Can race and ethnicity categories change (i.e., many people might casually see Asians as effectively “white” in American society)? Given the large number of cross-cultural marriages and bicultural/biracial people who have some Asian ancestry, what happens to Asian identity in the context of increasingly complex, multicultural family dynamics?

We had some assigned essays specifically dealing with these topics. But for the moment we can start the conversation by looking at the definition below. I pulled the text from the internet, but it matches pretty closely the way most people tend to use these terms:

The traditional definition of race and ethnicity is related to biological and sociological factors respectively. Race refers to a person's physical characteristics, such as bone structure and skin, hair, or eye color. Ethnicity, however, refers to cultural factors, including nationality, regional culture, ancestry, and language. An example of race is brown, white, or black skin (all from various parts of the world), while an example of ethnicity is German or Spanish ancestry (regardless of race). (source: http://www.diffen.com/difference/Ethnicity_vs_Race )

While these are the ‘standard’ usages of the terms, I think it’s immediately clear that there’s some slipperiness and overlap between the terms that can give rise to a certain confusion. For instance, would “Chinese-American” be a racial or an ethnic category, or both? Also, how significant do we think these the “physical characteristics” really are? What do they actually signify about a person, if anything? Aren’t the cultural factors where real (meaningful) differences between us might be found? Why then does race seem to remain so important in American life?

It might also be worth mentioning that a key difference between race and ethnicity in practice might be that the idea of race, because it is founded on (superficial) biological traits, seems permanent, while ethnicity might be malleable. It may be that ethnic identification runs quite strong amongst first generation immigrants (Chinese immigrants who still speak fluent Chinese; Italian immigrants who speak fluent Italian), but doesn’t that begin to shift in the second and third generations? That’s the meaning that I see in the cartoon from Gene Yang above: as a second generation Chinese American, the boy (he is the protagonist of a book-length graphic novel we will be reading later -- American Born Chinese) is interested in self-transformation and self-invention. He doesn’t want to be Chinese like his parents and grandparents; he wants to reinvent himself as an American boy and distance himself from “Chineseness.” On the surface he’s referring to actual “Transformers” (as in, the toys, television cartoons [in the 1980s] etc.), but unconsciously he is actually thinking of his own ethnic identity. This desire to become something else is problematic -- but still important to think about.

2--Does “Asian American” make sense as a category, given the real cultural, linguistic, religious, and even complexional differences amongst different Asian communities?  When people use the word “Asian” in casual conversation, are they really referring to people from Eastern Asian countries (Korea, China, Japan), not South Asians (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh)? [A friend of mine, Manish Vij, felt so passionately about this issue some years ago that he even started a website devoted to the topic: indiansareasian.com!] And what about Southeast Asian countries (Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos…)? On the other hand, perhaps there are commonalities in our experiences as immigrants and children of immigrants that might lead us to find value in even a pretty loose concept of Asian American identity. If so, what are those commonalities?

There’s a really nice thread at the Question/Answer website Quora.com that works through some of the issues, though not from an academic perspective:

One of the people responding to the query about whether Indian Americans should be included under Asian Americans posted this helpful quote:

     In the American vernacular, "Asian" usually refers to someone of East or Southeast Asian descent.
     In the British vernacular, "Asian" usually refers to someone of South Asian descent.
     The U.S. government categorizes peoples of East Asian, Southeast Asian, and South Asian descent as "Asian".
     The U.S. government categorizes peoples of Central Asian or West Asian (Middle Eastern) descent as "white".
     Historically, Indian Americans have been classified as white, "Hindoo", "Other", and currently, Asian American.

On the first point, the thing to probably keep in mind is that the common (vernacular) usage of a term doesn’t have to line up with a more academic or  sociologically precise usage of a term. Just because most people use the word  a certain way doesn’t mean  we have to. 

On the last point in the bullet-list above, it is true that in earlier periods there wasn’t a category on the U.S. census for "Indian American." Many early (pre-1952) Indian American immigrants understood themselves as “white” and tried to argue that status in immigration-related court cases. But actually, to correct the poster at Quora, the U.S. government would reject this claim, starting with a famous case in 1923 (U.S. vs. Bhagat Singh Thind). In that case, the justices in the ruling decided that a person with a brown skin complexion from the Indian subcontinent was not, in fact, to be legally understood as “white.” At the time, this question had major legal ramifications:

In its decision in the case of U.S. v. Bhagat Singh Thind (1923), the Supreme Court deemed Asian Indians ineligible for citizenship because U.S. law allowed only free whites to become naturalized citizens. The court conceded that Indians were “Caucasians” and that anthropologists considered them to be of the same race as white Americans, but argued that “the average man knows perfectly well that there are unmistakable and profound differences.” The Thind decision also led to successful efforts to denaturalize some who had previously become citizens. This represented a particular threat in California, where a 1913 law prohibited aliens ineligible for citizenship from owning or leasing land. Only in 1946 did Congress, which was beginning to recognize that India would soon be independent and a major world power, pass a new law that allowed Indians to become citizens and also established a small immigration quota. But major immigration to the United States from South Asia did not begin until after immigration laws were sharply revised in 1965.


3 --What role have Asian-American communities played in American history and cultural life more broadly? What is the story of the Chinese immigrants from the mid-1800s who helped build the western American railroads? What is the story of the Japanese communities who were rounded up during World War II and held in internment camps because of worries they might sympathize with Japan during the war? (We will look at some historical materials for Thursday that will go over some of this. And the first novel we will be reading, No-No Boy, deals with the status of the Japanese community during and after World War II.)

4--What role are Asian Americans playing in American politics today? There are currently ten Asian Americans in the Congress, the majority of them Democrats from California and Hawaii. Here's a snip from Wikipedia:

There are 10 Asian Americans in the House and one in the Senate, in the second session of the 113th United States Congress.[28] Representatives Mike Honda, Doris Matsui, Mark Takano, Mark Takai and Senator Mazie Hirono are all Japanese Americans; Representative Judy Chu is Chinese American; Representative Grace Mengand Ted Lieu are Taiwanese Americans; Representatives Bobby Scott is a Multiracial Filipino American; Representative Tammy Duckworth is Thai American; and Representative Ami Bera is Indian American. (Wikipedia)

Two of the country’s fifty state governors as Indian Americans – interestingly, both of them are Republicans (though most Asian Americans are democrats), elected in southern states (Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal and South Carolina’s Nikki Haley). Is their election significant?
What role do Asian American elected officials play, both within Asian American communities, and more broadly? Does it matter how many elected Asian American officials there are? Why do Asian communities tend to skew Democratic?

5--Are Asian Americans at the present moment still a minority deserving of privileges and accommodations along the lines of those that are given to “underrepresented” minorities like African Americans and Hispanics? Or does the fact that many (though definitely not all) Asians come from economically privileged backgrounds mean that Asian Americans need to be understood as a “non-oppressed” minority? Can one be in a relatively privileged social and economic status within American life and still be on the receiving end of racism? A growing number of Asians identify as white or effectively white. (One prominent person who identified at one point as white is South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley; in a census some years ago she marked herself as white. Both of her parents are ethnically Indian.) Under what circumstances might we come to understand Asians as white (or at least effectively white)?

One site where this issue is particularly fraught right now is on college campuses, where affirmative action policies continue to be discussed and debated. I remember being surprised when I learned -- around the time I was applying for college -- that affirmative action doesn’t apply to most Asian Americans (some Asian American groups, specifically Filipinos and Cambodians, can be included under affirmative action policies). Especially in California schools, but also at many elite universities (i.e., ivy league schools and top-tier state universities like the University of Michigan) there is currently a statistical over-representation of Asians. Some colleges are thought to have an invisible and unspoken “max quota” for admitting Asian students (there’s currently a lawsuit against Princeton University initiated by a group of Asian Americans that makes this exact claim). This puts Asian American students in an odd position vis a vis African American and Latino/Hispanic students, who are under-represented at many of those same institutions (they certainly are at Lehigh). Many Asian Americans are in fact opposed to Affirmative Action because they feel it goes against their self-interest. These issues are discussed in this New York Times article from 2012: 


Asian-Americans, who make up 5 percent of the population, are the fastest growing racial group, with three-quarters of adults born abroad, according to the Pew Research Center. And they are tangled up in the affirmative action issue in complicated ways.
On the one hand, some ambitious and disciplined students from India, South Korea and China see themselves as victims of race-conscious admissions, their numbers kept artificially low to keep a more demographically balanced campus. A lawsuit pending against Princeton alleges discrimination on grounds that applicants from other ethnic or racial groups were admitted with lesser credentials. The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights also received complaints last year against Princeton and, since withdrawn, Harvard.
On the other hand, Filipinos, Cambodians, Pacific Islanders and other Asian-Americans continue to benefit from policies that take ethnicity into account.
Polls show Asian-Americans divided fairly evenly on the use of affirmative action.

There is even an advocacy group called the 80-20 Educational Foundation that has taken as its mission the elimination of Affirmative Action:


I would encourage you all to read that entire New York Times article I linked to above at some point.

6--How is the role of Asian Americans in contemporary popular culture changing? How are Asian American writers, actors, and other performers bringing the complex and diverse cultural stories of our various traditions into the American mainstream? What might be the significance of the popular rap / EDM group the Far East Movement? Does the fact that ABC has a new show about a Taiwanese-American family called Fresh Off the Boat suggest that Asian culture is now mainstream? Have we made progress in the twenty years since another Asian American sitcom was tried (Margaret Cho’s All-American Girl, which was cancelled after a single season)? Asian actors appear with growing frequency in the movies and on TV – how do we understand this shift (thinking of John Cho, Kal Penn, Lucy Liu, Margaret Cho, Aziz Ansari, etc.)?