What We Have Wrought and Whither We Go: Some Questions about the Public Humanities

Currently, I fear, the digital humanities are not ready to take up their full responsibility because the field does not yet possess an adequate critical awareness of the larger social, economic, and cultural issues at stake. The side of the digital humanities that descends from humanities computing lacks almost all cultural–critical awareness, and the side that descends from new media studies is indiscriminately critical of society and global informational ‘empire’ without sufficient focus on the specifically institutional – in this case, higher education – issues at stake. (Liu, “State of the Digital Humanities” 11)

It would be difficult to deny that the Humanities are in some distress at this particular juncture of their history, and face an imposing and worrisome array of challenges — economic, political, and cultural — if they are to survive in some recognizable form into the next decade or so. The Humanities have not faced this threat quietly or complacently, but have also, I think, not been terribly effective in formulating a response. Reactions have varied, from ideologically-driven (and utterly unrealistic) demands for a simple turn-around in government funding policies and attitudes, to enthusiastically naive (or perhaps exceedingly cynical) calls for techno-utopian solutions such as MOOCs.

The most promising response, I think, has been one that steers something of a middle course, and imagines ways in which a dynamic collaboration of the Public Humanities with the Digital Humanities can both revitalize our fields while at the same time answer in an effective manner the strident critiques being levelled against the Humanities from outside the academy. There a number of obstacles to be overcome if such as an approach is to succeed, as the epigraph citing Alan Liu at the head of his post suggests. But there have also been some imaginative and thoughtful attempts to negotiate such an approach, by such scholars as Liu, Julia Flanders, and others. (I’ve listed just a few in “References,” below.) This post, and a few that will follow on it, are an attempt to make a modest contribution to this task.

If the Humanities are in some disarray at the moment, this in part because we have been forced onto the defensive. We have become reactive and, perhaps inevitably in that context, somewhat conservative. And having conceded the initiative, our responses have also become confused, ineffective, and often contradictory or counterproductive.  Part of the problem is that I think that this is an unnatural place for the Humanities to be: ours has, historically, been an evangelical and outward-looking movement, and I don’t think we are as effective when we are instead circling the wagons. So, I am not going to deny the facts of the criticisms being levelled against the Humanities, but I am, for the most part, not going to address them directly. I do so for strategic reasons, and not because I am in denial.

Another reason the Humanities are having such a difficult time marshalling an effective defence is that this assault from without coincides with the turmoil instigated by a powerful new force that is reshaping (some might say distorting) our disciplines from within. I refer, of course, to the so-called “digital turn” that is profoundly transforming not merely our fields, but our entire educational system, and indeed our very culture. To many Humanists, the advent of new computational approaches within our traditional fields seems profoundly “anti-humanist.” Others may be unable to clearly distinguish the upheaval that digital technology and approaches are bring about from the damage being done the Humanities by external forces. And indeed, we are wise to be vigilant that the digital turn, or at least its rhetoric, is not co-opted by the besiegers.

From a historical perspective, this fear within the Humanities of the change wrought by technology is an aberration. In fact, historically, the Humanities have been the beneficiaries, and not the victims, of new communication technologies. The volumen and the marvellously versatile codex were both technological innovations that helped preserve and disseminate the products of humanistic endeavour. This is even more true, of course, of the printing press: one of the most successful early exploiters of this new technology was Desiderius Erasmus, who actively engaged with the technical aspects of printing:

Erasmus was acutely aware of the role that the printer played in the success of a volume. Throughout his career he gave close attention to the production process, seeking out the best printers and working closely with them to ensure that the text was both elegant and accurate.  (Pettigrew 83)

Had Erasmus lived today, he might perhaps have become a Digital Humanist. He would certainly have been eager to make use of these new ways of disseminating knowledge and ideas. It would be odd, therefore, if the Humanities did not choose to exploit the power of a new technology to engage with our society, just as the Renaissance Humanists did before us.

Map of More's UtopiaAnd engaging with our society, rather than with the politicians, bureaucrats, and corporatists who have taken aim against the Humanities, is precisely what I propose to do. Personally, I am tired of feeling defensive, and of fighting this battle on grounds of the enemy’s choosing. It is time to take the offensive, and, moreover, to do so by engaging directly with those who are not being consulted in this debate, the “public.” It is time to resuscitate what I have called a militant Humanities, one that proves its cultural value not merely by force of argument, but by our choice of weapons. The best response to those who claim that the Humanities have become valueless is to demonstrate how vital and important a component of our culture they actually are. We can best prove that we are dynamic and relevant by actually being dynamic and relevant, and to show that we are a vital and positive cultural force by impacting, in positive ways, upon our culture.

In other words, I’m less interested in “advocating” for the Humanities per se (as important a task as this is) than I am in weaving it back into the fabric of our public culture in a way that makes it, ultimately, inextricable from the whole. I want to see the the Humanities made public, but that is only half of the equation: it is more important, ultimately, to make the Public humanist.*

What I am talking about is, of course, a particular version of what we have come to know as the “Public Humanities.” While, as I have suggested, my own interest is in the intersections and possible collaborations of Public Humanities with Digital Humanities, I will actually have relatively little to say about the latter below. This is because I want first to establish the nature and scope of the challenges that a Public Humanities faces, in order to better identify the role that I think the Digital Humanities can play in overcoming those. I have therefore begun by asking a series of questions about our field. These can be thought of as a series of reference points on a sort of conceptual map of the Humanities: taken together, I hope that they provide a useful (if of course limited) perspective on where the Humanities are now — “what we have wrought” — while gesturing towards what we might become — “Whither We Go.”

In a few future posts, I will build on these questions, and the answers that I think they demand, to discuss in more detail the actual role that DH might come to play in a “militant Humanities.”

Whom do we think we mean when we talk about about a “public” for the Humanities?

By and large, academics live, I think, an existence that produces a rather odd perspective on “public.” On the one hand, our on-campus jobs, in our classrooms, seminar rooms, and offices, are in some regards already very public. We are in some sense performing before a kind of public, albeit a rarefied one, every time we teach.

On the other hand, the work/personal time distinction for academics tends to be rather fuzzy:  we don’t generally work 9 to 5 hours, but we also usually do a great deal of work outside of those times: in the evenings and on weekends, for instance. (I wrote most of this blog post on a Sunday morning.) So, just as the public sphere tends to intrude upon our working time on campus, so too does our working time intrude upon the lives that we lead at large, “in the public.”

What this may mean is that we do not, perhaps, always have a very clear sense of what we mean by “public.” Understandably, we tend to think of the public, or at least our “public,” as comprised of people like ourselves, or like our students, except not quite so. Our public tends to look a bit like our classrooms, except that it congregates in museums and libraries and art galleries. It is generally pretty well educated, and reads a lot. And, most importantly, it is already interested in what we have to say. It likes and admires us, and is quiet and respectful when we speak. It asks intelligent questions when given the opportunity (at a time of our choosing), and doesn’t need to be told that what we are telling them is terribly, terribly important.

This all sounds very cosy and intimate, and this is a good thing. Unfortunately, however, this sense of cosiness and intimacy may largely be an effect of the fact that “our” public is also terribly, terribly small.

There is nothing at all wrong with reaching out to those who already wish to engage with us. But if we truly wish to communicate the values represented by the arts and humanities to those who don’t already share those values with us, we need to find new venues for engagement. And to do that, we have to be willing to step outside of our comfort zone more than just a little.

So we must identify new publics, and in so doing, make note of what it is that makes each distinct. We must learn how each sees itself with the context of the larger cultural matrix, and how it might see itself in relation to the Humanities. And, in order to engage with and serve each of these new publics, we must accommodate ourselves to them in a manner that is both sensitive to them, and true to our own values.

Where is “the public” to be found?

This question relates in fairly obvious ways to the one above, because there is an obvious correlation between whom we address and where we find them.  Or, more pertinently, where we look for them, because the size and nature of the publics we address will be a function of where we seek them out.

So, where do we look for our public?

There is a book, a collection of short essays, by Canadian writer Sheila Heti (with Misha Glouberman) entitled The Chairs Are Where the People Go. I’m not actually a particular fan of the book, but the title essay (which is, in fact, about arranging audiences for public lectures) might almost have been written for most academics. We tend to look for our “public” where the chairs are. And the chairs are mostly on campuses, or in libraries, or at museums.

Where do the people mostly go? Well, actually, most of them don’t congregate in such places, in chairs or otherwise. They are instead in a great many other places. And an awful lot of them are, as we know, online. Social media is very often where the people go.

Are we in the Humanities online, in social media, too? Well, yes, some of us, some of the time. But are we really employing the digital public sphere to engage a public, or do we mostly use it to network among ourselves? To answer that question, we all might glance over our Facebook “friends” list, or the lists of those we follow, and those who follow us, on Twitter. How many of these constitute our “public” . . . and how many are really “us”?

What is it, exactly, within the Humanities that we want to “make public”?

When faced with criticisms of the utility of the Humanities from the public media, it has become a reflex to speak about the importance of “critical thinking.” We tend to say this as though critical thinking was self-evidently at the heart of what we actually research about and teach (is it, really?), and also as though critical thinking were the exclusive preserve of the Humanities — a claim that I know that those in other fields would challenge.

One of our tasks then should be to interrogate what we mean by “critical thinking,” and to analyze the ways in which the particular flavour of such thinking in the Humanities differs (if indeed it does) from that offered by other fields in the sciences and social sciences. What, in other words, do we have to offer that is unique to our disciplines?

Stepping back from that fundamental question, we also need to ask ourselves what it is that we actually deliver to “our” public. When we give public lectures, place our research in the public domain, or blog and tweet about what we are doing in a publicly available venue, are we really offering insights into critical thinking?

Well, sometimes perhaps we do. My own perception, however, is that most often what we offer up is not an insight into humanistic modes of perception and thought, but rather what I will call, for want of a better word, “content.” By content, I mean something rather like “facts.” We lecture on the life and oeuvre of a particular poet, or talk about the evolution of an artist’s aesthetic vision, or we discuss the philosophical and ethical implications of a particular public policy.

This is all good stuff, I believe, but it is for the most part communicating the fruit of our own critical thinking and research, rather than demonstrating how we think and research. It tends to be built around a narrative that we have already constructed, rather than around the power and implications of building narratives.

So the question is this: if we believe (as most of us do) that it is more important that our students learn how to read (in all the multivalent senses of that word) and think critically than that they remember the dates of such and such an author or work of art, then why do we not think that this same set of intellectual priorities should apply to our non-academic public as well? If we believe (as most of us probably do) that the Humanities have a transformative power, and that they are of inestimable value to the thinking citizen of a democratic society, why do we think that we are performing an especially valuable service by lecturing on materials that we would probably relegate to secondary status in evaluation of student progress?

Do we believe that our broader public is less capable of, or less interested in, learning how to think in humanistic ways than our students?

Do we apply what we have come to know about teaching to our engagement with the broader public(s)?

This question in some ways follows naturally upon the one immediately above. We have, as a profession, expended a fair amount of thought over the last decade or more on learning and teaching strategies.  The advent of digital teaching tools and resources over that time, ranging from the homely Powerpoint slideshow to the might MOOC, has done much to change the way that we approach pedagogy, and these new resources have become, to greater or lesser degrees, an accepted part of our arsenal of teaching tools.

And, because tools change what we do, and how we think about it, as much as they transform the way in which we do things, our pedagogy has changed in interesting and (mostly) positive ways. Blended learning, peer-to-peer teaching, visualizations and project-based learning are among the more important new strategies we employ because we have come to believe that they are effective ways of communicating and instilling the skills and information that we wish to impart to our students.

But how many of us employ these when interacting with a public not comprised of our peers or our students? The Powerpoint (or Prezi, or Keynote) has certainly become ubiquitous, but what other tools do we use to engage with a broader public?

More importantly than the technology, have we sought to introduce new and innovative strategies for engaging with such publics? Have we thought about how blended or collaborative learning, or project-based interactions might assist us in such engagements? Have we tried to empower our public, to treat them as equals in dialogue with the Academy, to learn from them as they (we hope) will learn from us?

Do we listen to our public?

For whom do we build?

Looking beyond, for a moment, the perpetual debates within Digital Humanities about who is “in,” and what constitutes “building,” we can say truthfully that all academics “create” things, whether those things are monographs, articles, works of fiction or art, or digital tools. We create all of these things for particular audiences or communities of potential users. The classic scholarly monograph or peer-reviewed article, for instance, are invariably written for those who are like ourselves: for specialists in this or that field. Books and articles written for a popular audience — the latter might include, for instance, guest columns in a newspaper or a magazine article — are obviously produced for a larger audience, while a novel, poem, performance, or work of visual art is intended to appeal more broadly still.

All of these, whether of broad or narrow focus, seem to me to one degree or another to be cases of preaching to the choir. This is not to say that they are not useful, or valuable, or relevant, or even that they are not, sometimes, “public humanities.” But, because the forms that they take delimit the intended audience, they are all, by generic definition, addressing those who are already engaged with the humanities. Volumes of poetry, for instance, tend to be purchased or borrowed, and read, by lovers of poetry. Art exhibits are viewed by art lovers. Popular histories attract people who are interested in, yes, history. (The sole exceptions here might be newspaper articles. Or maybe not.)

As for digital tools — well, I can imagine the occasional non-academic having some fun playing around with a tool like Voyant, or Orbis, for a short while. But the vast majority of our digital resources, be they research tools, or electronic editions, are produced for a highly specialized use by people who closely resemble us.

Can we imagine what we might build for a different kind of audience? What sorts of tools might engage with those whom we have not already narrowly defined as peers or allies?

Who, exactly, are “we”?

Throughout this post, I have been writing as an academic, with a presumed audience of other academics (which I would take to include graduate students and librarians at least). Perhaps this is telling? Possibly the tendency of academics (including, evidently, myself) to think of ourselves as a very distinct group, rather than as a part of a larger community, is symptomatic of the reasons why all Humanities are not yet Public Humanities?

Definitions of the Humanities abound of course, but I particularly like this one from the 4Humanities project because of its focus upon the notion of community and contribution:

[T]he humanities contribute the needed perspective, training in complex human phenomena, and communication skills needed to spark, understand, and make “human” the new discoveries.  In the process, they themselves discover new, and also very old, ways to be human.  They do so through their unique contribution of the wisdom of the past, awareness of other cultures in the present, and imagination of innovative and fair futures. (“Mission,” 4Humanities)

The Humanities are a very broad and (ideally) inclusive community. We “do” the Humanities in universities and colleges, but surely we should acknowledge that we are not the sole custodians of and advocates for the many and diverse range of intellectual and creative activities that are denoted by that term. Public librarians, K-12 teachers of all sorts, artists, musicians, filmmakers, and writers, community leaders, fundraisers, and members of an enormous variety of creative, artistic, or generally humanistic ventures in the public sphere: these are all more than merely potential allies. They are, in a sense, another important facet of who we are.

And establishing who we are is a vital first step in communicating the values for which we stand. Acknowledging our membership within a much larger community of practitioners of the Humanities is important for that reason if for no other.


* I am aware, of course, of the dangers potentially inherent in conflating “the Humanities” with older and frankly problematic forms of “Humanism,” and I use the term “humanist” somewhat guardedly for that reason. It is possible, however, to envision a newer, more diverse and nuanced form of “Humanism” that takes into account new understanding of globalism, sexuality, identity, and the other issues that now make the older ideology seem so out-of-date and untenable. See for instance Diana Brydon’s call for a more expansive humanism in “Do The Humanities Need a New Humanism?Centre for Globalization and Cultural Studies, Winnipeg: U of Manitoba, 2013.



4Humanities: Advocating for the Humanities. Web. Accessed 5 May, 2013.

Brydon, Diana. “Do The Humanities Need a New Humanism?” Centre for Globalization and Cultural Studies, Winnipeg: U of Manitoba, 2013. Web. Accessed 5 May, 2013.

Draxkler, Bridget, Jentery Sayers, Edmond Y. Chang, Peter Likarish, et al. “Democratizing Knowledge,”HASTAC, Forums, 2009.

Flanders, Julia. “The Literary, the Humanistic, the Digital: Toward a Research Agenda for Digital Literary Studies.Literary Studies in the Digital Age: An Evolving Anthology. Ed. Kenneth M. Price and Ray Siemens. MLA Commons. New York: Modern Language Association, n.d. Web. Accessed 6 May, 2013.

Heti, Sheila, with Misha Glouberman. The Chairs Are Where the People Go: How To Live, Work, and Play in the City. Faber & Faber, 2011.

Liu, Alan. “The State of the Digital Humanities: A Report and a Critique.” Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, 11.1 (2012): 1-34.

Marcotte, Sophie, Ichiro Fujinaga, Susan Brown, John Unsworth, Laura Mandell, Bênoit Habert, and Ray Siemens, “Public Digital Humanities,” Digital Humanities McGill, McGill University. 30 April, 2012. [Podcast]

Pettegree, Andrew. The Book in the Renaissance. New Haven and London: Yale, 2011.

Image Credit: Ambrosius Holbein. Utopiae Insulae Tabula, from Thomas More, Utopia (Basel, 1518). Wikimedia Commons.

Glen Worthey (Stanford University) Speaks at Western on “Margins of Error”

Announcing the first of this year’s IDI in Digital Humanities Speakers Series!

Glen Worthey
“Margins of Error”
Thursday Jan 24th
Lawson Hall 2270C.


Image Dr. Worthey will also be teaching a graduate workshop on TEI on Friday Jan 25th to be held at the CulturePlex Lab (UC114) 10:00am

Glen Worthey is Digital Humanities Librarian in the Stanford University Libraries, and head of the Libraries’ Digital Initiatives Group. Glen has been active in the digital humanities since about 1995, was a co-host of the international “Digital Humanities 2011” conference at Stanford. He’s currently a member of the Executive Board of the Association for Computers and the Humanities (ACH), the Steering Committee for the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations (ADHO), and the Board of Directors of the Text Encoding Initiative Consortium (TEI-C).

Glen’s library work is focused on the selection, creation and curation of digital resources for humanities research and teaching at Stanford, and he is a member of the Stanford Literary Lab. His academic background and interests are in Russian literature (in which he is currently ABD at the University of California, Berkeley), Spanish language, translation theory and practice, and children’s literature and culture.

With thanks to Elika Ortega and Kimberley Martin for the work on this!

The Great Lakes THAT Camp! What to Do, What to Do?

Great Lakes THATCamp 2012

Online registration for this year’s Great Lakes THATCamp (The Humanities and Technology Camp) at Western University (as we now apparently call ourselves) is open!

This is really exciting news, and not least of all for me.  Years and years ago, I did a “Summer Institute” course at the University of New Brunswick Fredricton on electronic texts – it was where I first cut my teeth on XML and TEI – but I have never attended a THATCamp before.  For that reason, I’m honestly not sure what to expect.  I do, however, love the premise of this kind of “unconference,” and the kind of dialogue and intellectual exchange that it is designed to encourage.

I am slated to lead a workshop on “Hypertext and Digital Archives,” which will be very cool.  I need to think of ways of making this both useful in a practical “hands-on” sense, but also flexible enough that participants are able to determine the direction that we take.  Ideas as to the best way(s) of going about that are more than welcome!

Seriously.  How does one go about this?

Morris Zapp and the Playful Fish

Stanley Fish is an important critic.

Let’s begin with that essential statement of fact, because it is a truism that seems to have escaped some of those who have responded, on Twitter and elsewhere, to his recent critique of the digital humanities with a (facetious, one hopes) assertion of Fish’s irrelevance.  While it is true that we are no longer so “surprised” by his critical insights as we once were, that is surely because, like all worthwhile criticism, they have been quietly absorbed into our understanding of what texts are, and how they work; what was once shocking now seems commonplace precisely because he made it so.  To suggest that he has nothing new to say is  a bit like accusing Shakespeare, Pope, or Tennyson of writing clichés.  He is no more “irrelevant” than, say, Matthew Arnold, or Cleanth Brooks.  He is one of the reasons why we are where we are.

For that reason, if for no other, we need to take seriously what Fish has to say about the digital humanities in three columns written for the New York Times, most recently in a post entitled “Mind Your P’s and B’s: The Digital Humanities and Interpretation.

We need, as I say, to take Fish seriously. But not, I want to suggest, too seriously.  Fish’s winking allusion in his second column to the absolutism of Morris Zapp, David Lodge’s caricature of him in the novels Changing Places and Small World, is one means of asserting his own theoretical position.  Fish readily confesses that he, like Zapp, seeks after “pre-eminence, authority and disciplinary power” by covering a topic “with such force and completeness that no other critic will be able to say a word about it.” This assertion is probably accurate enough, but it is also sufficiently arch and “meta” to leave us wondering how seriously we are meant to take it:  the very circularity and ludic quality of the allusion should alert us to the fact that Fish is being at least somewhat playful here. At the same time, while it is not too difficult to credit Fish with the overweening hubris that he seems here, and elsewhere in the columns, to exhibit, we would do well to remember that we are dealing with the critic who changed our understanding of Milton’s über-rhetorician, Satan – and should accordingly respond with a requisite degree of caution.

Fish asks questions, and provides some answers.  The questions are – and always have been – worthwhile.  What are the real contributions that digital humanities has to make to our understanding of literature?  What are the full implications of our methodologies, and of the way in which we think of texts?  And what does it mean, what are the responsibilities that accompany, being the “next big thing” in the humanities (if this is indeed so)?

His answers, on the other hand, are enormously reductive.  It is rather amusing to watch someone critical of the digital enterprise resort to binaries, but this is very much what Fish does.  The notion of a “text in process,” a term he gets from Kathleen Fitzpatrick, comes for Fish to signify that there is no text at all for digital humanists, as though we were all Heraclitus, unable ever to dip a toe into the same text twice.  Text mining becomes (if you’ll forgive the pun) a sort of critical fishing expedition, as though digital humanists never formulate hypotheses.  A focus upon “big data” becomes a negligent attitude towards detail, as though text miners never refined their data to a more granular level.  The ludic quality of such a methodology becomes a “lack of seriousness,” while the acknowledgement of the multivalence of meaning becomes, in Fish’s analysis, an acceptance of all meanings as equally “right,” with the result that the distinction between “truth” and “falsehood” is entirely elided.

And so on.  Fish’s “answers” to the legitimate questions he asks are less a critique of the digital humanities than they are a caricature of its premises and methodologies.  This is not criticism or theory:  it is satire and parody – as is again hinted at by Fish’s playful evocation of the phantom critic Morris Zapp, who is at one and the same time both a fabrication, a parody, and a real life critic. How should one respond to an assault launched by fictional comic character?

Digital humanities needs to answer Fish’s questions, but not by means of responding to his answers, for to do so would put us in the ridiculous situation of Thomas Shadwell responding to the satirical use of “Mac” in the title of Dryden’s Macflecknoe by plaintively asserting that he’d never so much as set foot in Ireland.

We don’t need to respond to Fish’s criticisms seriously – although some clarification of his characterizations might be worthwhile, if only as a public relations exercise – because Fish isn’t really concerned about critiquing the digital humanities in the first place.  These three columns (or “blog” posts, as he smirkingly labels them) aren’t about criticism, theory, the future of literary studies, immortality, religiosity, or indeed any of the issues, themes, and metaphors that Fish evokes:  they are about Stanley Fish.  Everything we need to know about Fish’s real point, and his intention, is revealed in his final paragraph:

But 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. Nothing ludic in what I do or try to do. I have a lot to answer for.

If we consider Fish’s remarks in the terms of the criteria he himself sets out here, we will discover, I think, that he’s been playing with us, for Fish’s own remarks are transgressions of this mini-manifesto: they generalize where they should engage, they produce a great deal of noise and not much substance, and they are, ultimately, ludic and self-referential.

The real question for digital humanists should be whether this is a “game” that we want to play.

Is this Textbook Really Smarter than Your Prof?

I read this morning Lawrence Summer’s editorial in the New York Times with a mixture of fascination and horror.  Entitled “What You (Really) Need to Know,” the piece contains some motherhood-and-apple-pie truisms — the world is changing rapidly, students need to be “engaged” through “dynamic” educational practices, collaboration is a Good Thing, etc., etc., etc.  But I was stopped short by these two paragraphs:

New technologies will profoundly alter the way knowledge is conveyed. Electronic readers allow textbooks to be constantly revised, and to incorporate audio and visual effects. Think of a music text in which you can hear pieces of music as you read, or a history text in which you can see film clips about what you are reading. But there are more profound changes set in train. There was a time when professors had to prepare materials for their students. Then it became clear that it would be a better system if textbooks were written by just a few of the most able: faculty members would be freed up and materials would be improved, as competition drove up textbook quality.

Similarly, it makes sense for students to watch video of the clearest calculus teacher or the most lucid analyst of the Revolutionary War rather than having thousands of separate efforts. Professors will have more time for direct discussion with students — not to mention the cost savings — and material will be better presented. In a 2008 survey of first- and second-year medical students at Harvard, those who used accelerated video lectures reported being more focused and learning more material faster than when they attended lectures in person.

To begin first with Summer’s last point here:  do we really believe that “accelerated video lectures” are superior to attending lectures in person?  Or could it be, just maybe, that the other activities in which students engaged alongside the video lecture (small group discussions, for instance) were what actually made this a better learning experience, and that these were sufficiently effective to make up for the stultifyingly dull experience of watching a video lecture?

The irony of advocating passive video lecturing (and thank goodness he doesn’t “mention the cost savings,” because that of course has no bearing on his argument, right?) in the same editorial in which “Active learning classrooms” are lauded seems lost on Summers.  I can well imagine how a digital lecture, fully integrated with interactive and dynamic elements and features, might produce an excellent learning experience, but that’s not quite the same thing as plunking students down in front of a video of a talking head (however brilliant a head it may be) discussing the causes of the American Revolution.

However, I primarily want to address Summers’ first point about textbooks, which he suggests have been “written by just a few of the most able” pedagogues and scholars.  To begin with, I’m far from sure that this is really an accurate characterization of the way in which textbooks have been produced, but for the moment I’ll accept the premise that current practice is to rely upon the “excellence” of our textbook authors and editors so as to free ourselves up for other “more important” things.

Summers is clearly thinking about, even if he doesn’t directly mention, the new iBooks Author application from Apple;  a link within the paragraph refers readers to an index of NYT stories on that tool.  As is suggested by his segue to video lectures, Summers believes that the “old model” of textbook production is a good thing:  let’s have the “most able” in our disciplines produce the texts, just as we should leave our lecturing to the best lecturers.  Now, however, the “most able” can create these textbooks in iBooks Author, and thereby produce more engaging and interactive texts for our students.

This approach, this acquiescence to the notion that we should let the “most able” build our textbooks for us, seems to me to miss out on an important element of the potential power of iBooks Author, or at least of what that tool represents.

How many of us are truly happy with our textbooks?  I take some care to choose anthologies for my course that are the best available (bearing in mind, however, cost to the student as well), but I still find myself in the not-infrequent position of apologizing to the class for the text.  An error here, an omission there, and on occasion a glaringly awful misprint — I’ve had to direct students’ attention to all of these.  On one memorable occasion, my students were thrown into confusion because a very popular textbook we were using had managed to run parts of two Seamus Heaney poems together, producing a sort of inadvertent monstrous poetic pastiche.

And of course there is the question of availability: I often have to drop from a syllabus a literary text that I’d love to teach simply because it is not available in a cheap modern edition.

Surely part of the appeal of easy-to-use tools like iBooks Author is that they can, in theory, allow us to create our own customized teaching texts?

By this, I don’t mean to suggest that we need to reinvent the wheel every time we teach a course:  I am, by and large, still pretty happy with the Broadview Anthology of Restoration and 18th-Century Literature as the core text for my survey course covering that period, despite some serious cavils here and there.  But what would be really great is an easy way to build on such core textbooks with custom-built texts that allow me to teach literary works or contextual materials not otherwise easily available.  It would be wonderful to enable a more engaging, complete, and dynamic contextualization of the ones that are already in the prefabricated textbook.  So, if I want to teach Daniel Defoe’s The Shortest Way with Dissenters (and I do), or John Dryden’s “Preface” to Fables, Ancient and Modern, neither of which are in the Broadview Anthology, I can do so by creating my own eText versions of these, complete with any media or contextual materials that I think might be worthwhile. Increasingly, textbooks are being offered to us in “modular” form by publishers; what I am suggesting is that we can build some of these modules ourselves.

Such an approach to course texts would, of course, demand a fair amount of work from instructors, and would, as things currently stand, disadvantage those who lack the technical skills to produce their own digital texts. But what I think that iBooks Author potentially represents is a significant move towards a day when there are cheap and easy-to-use tools available to build just such custom modules.  Imagine, for instance, a web site into which someone with the most basic technological knowledge could simply input text and multimedia content, click “Submit,” and receive an ePub-compliant HTML5-encoded text (and maybe XML too) as output?

We’re not there yet, but surely iBooks Author gives us glimpses of a future in which we can all become as smart as our textbooks, because our textbooks are built by us.

PIPA, SOPA, and Coffa; Or, It Didn’t Work in the 17th Century Either.

My attention was directed a few days ago by a friend (via Twitter) to a post on Common-Place, a history-themed blog sponsored by the American Antiquarian Society.  The post, by Joseph M. Adelman, is entitled “By Securing the Copies,” and draws some interesting parallels between two 18th-century American cases concerned with copyright and censorship, and the war that has been raging over SOPA and PIPA, as well as the recent judgement by the US Supreme Court that returns the protections of copyright to foreign works that had been in the public domain:

Putting modern debates into context is important. Laws restricting the circulation of information and publications have not been warmly received. Copyright has been an instrument to limit that circulation. And lastly, it was never intended to be permanent or retroactive.

The parallels that Adelman draws between SOPA/PIPA and the Stamp Act of 1765 reminded me of a rather different parallel to these two proposed bills that had occurred to me a few days ago.  In terms of social phenomena, probably the most comparable thing that 17th-century Britain had to the modern web was its coffee houses.  I have long thought that there were interesting parallels to be drawn between the function of these two phenomena; in fact, I wrote a few years ago an abortive paper (titled “You Have Been Poked,” or something equally inane) that treated coffee houses by way of analogy with online social media.  I should probably consider resuscitating that one.  Or not.

A coffee house, ca. 1674, from "A Brief Description of the Excellent Vertues of that Sober and Wholesome Drink, Called Coffee"

“Coffa” was an exotic Turkish drink viewed, initially, with some suspicion by patriotic Christian Englishmen, but it was a matter of only a few years following the erection of the first coffee house in London, sometime between 1652 and 1654, that similar establishments sprang up all over the city.  Restoration coffee houses were, first and foremost, social venues, and they differed from modern coffee shops in that customers sat not at small tables that could accommodate only a few friends, but on long benches that forced interaction with a diverse and broad variety of other patrons.  Conversation was general, and social interactions promiscuous.  As one broadside dating from 1674 put it:

First, Gentry, Tradesmen, all are welcome hither,
And may without Affront sit down Together:
Pre-eminence of Place, none here should Mind,
But take the next Seat that he can find:
Not need any, if Finer Persons come,
Rise up for to assigne to them his Room
(A Brief Description)

These lines suggest (even if they somewhat exaggerate) the degree to which coffee houses functioned as social sites that leveled or even “democratized” the highly-stratified society of late 17th-century Britain. In practice, coffee houses served as hubs in the literary and news networks of the time: they were clearinghouses for gossip, rumour, scandal, political news and discussion. More than this, however, they also functioned as dissemination centres for literature of all kinds, including manuscript poetry, newssheets, periodicals, and printed codices.  When news, poetry, or gossip went “viral” in the Restoration period, it was mostly usually through the agencies of the coffee houses.

This function of the coffee houses did not go unnoticed by the government of Charles II, which was concerned that these were becoming centres for the articulation of anti-government sentiment and even sedition.  In 1671 Joseph Williamson, who functioned essentially as chief intelligence officer for the government, opined “Pull down . . . coffee houses, and nothing can be more to the establishment of the government” (CSPD Charles II 11: 581), while Thomas Player, one of Williamson’s agents, commented in 1673 that “These sober clubbs produce nothing but scandalous and censorious discourses”  (Christie 2: 68).

The government had good reason to be concerned.  Opposition to the King’s ministers and his policies had been growing steadily since the mid-1660s.  In 1672, the same year as a Stop of the Exchequer signaled the government’s dire financial situation, Charles issued a Declaration of Indulgence, extending religious freedom to nonconformists; it was perceived as an attempt to sanction Roman Catholicism, and was so fiercely contested that Charles was forced to withdraw it the next year.  Parliament riposted in 1673 with a “Test Act,” which required of all office holders an oath disavowing the “truth” of transubstantiation, the immediate effect of which was to out the King’s brother and heir the Duke of York (the future James II) as a convert to Roman Catholicism.  This revelation sent shock waves of alarm through the kingdom.  The Third Dutch War, meanwhile, had concluded in a most unsatisfactory way in 1674, and rumours were beginning to circulate about the “secret” provisions of the 1670 Treaty of Dover, by which Charles II received secret funding from Louis XIV, thereby enabling him to rule without the assistance of Parliament.

By 1675, dissent had grown to alarming proportions, and was reflected in a growing tide, not merely of seditious talk, but  of anti-government satire (mostly in manuscript form) and pamphleteering.  And the focus for this increasingly vocal dissent was, as the government was beginning to recognize, the coffee houses.

At last, on 29 December 1675, the government moved, issuing A Proclamation for the Suppression of Coffee-Houses.  The proclamation took a number of swipes at coffee houses, but in particular asserted that they were places where “divers False, Malitious and Scandalous Reports are devised and spread abroad, to the Defamation of His Majesties Government, and to the Disturbance of the Peace and Quiet of the Realm” (Proclamation for the Suppression).  All such establishments were ordered closed by 10 January, 1675/6.

The government’s move to shut down coffee houses caused, understandably, a great deal of consternation.  One private newsletter, written little more than a week before the measures announced in the proclamation were to take effect, noted that there had grown “a mutinous condition in this towne upon the account of coffee-howses” (Hatton Newsletter,  1 January, 1676, quoted in Ellis 92).  One probable reason for the sharp public reaction may lie in the relative effectiveness of the government’s measures to control the flow of information in printed form:  with the assistance of the Stationers’ Company, Roger L’Estrange, the Licenser of the Press, had done a fairly effective job of controlling the conventional press.  For this reason, most expressions of public dissent were circulated in manuscript, and the coffee houses had an absolutely central function in that process. Shutting down the coffee houses would have seriously fettered a public discourse that was already very tightly managed by the government.

Meanwhile, those with an economic stake in the coffee houses had began to mobilize. Led by Thomas Garraway, the proprietors of coffee houses in London issued a petition against the suppression on or about January 5. Two days later, Garraway, a “Mr. Taylor,” and Sir John Duncombe, the Chancellor of the Exchequor, but here acting as spokesman for the coffee houses, met with the Privy Council in Westminster to present their case. As Markman Ellis has noted, they argued that the proclamation caused undue hardship to law-abiding and tax-paying merchants:

The coffee-men cast themselves as merchants who obediently, legally and merely sold coffee. It was for this purpose, they reminded everyone, that they held the ‘licences’ from the magistrates, guaranteeing the payment of their Excise dutes. The law, they reasoned, recognized their place within the commercial world. As they further observed, the coffee trade paid a great deal of money in taxes and their trade was a lucrative source of revenue for the King. All this, they argued, was jeopardized by the proclamation. Furthermore, the proposed suppression of their trade would leave these poor and hard-working tradesmen in some considerable hardship: they would have great stocks of coffee left unsold, the price of which would collapse. (94)

"An Additional Proclamation Concerning Coffee-Houses."  London, 1676.

"An Additional Proclamation Concerning Coffee-Houses." London, 1676.

In the face of a mutinous public, legal and political opinion that suggested that the proclamation’s revocation of licences was unworkable or illegal, and pressure from the major “stakeholders” in the trade, the Privy Council began to reconsider  its position.  Within little more than a week of the original proclamation, on 8 January, the government issued a new Additional Proclamation Concerning Coffee-Houses. The new proclamation effectively revoked the order to close coffee houses by extending permissions for these establishments for an additional six months.  (As events transpired, the 6-month deadline passed without any further action from the government.)

However, the proclamation did enact new conditions to which all proprietors were to be subject. The coffee house owner was directed to “use his utmost endeavour to prevent and hinder all Scandalous Papers, Books or Libels concerning the Government, or the Publick Ministers thereof, from being brought into his House, to be there Read, Perus’d or Divulg’d,” as well as to suppress discussion within his premises that might similarly be said to be a “Scandalous” reflection upon the government. What is more, proprietors were directed to report instances of the above to “one of His Majesties Principal Secretaries of State, or to some one of His Majesties Justices of the Peace” within two days of its appearance in the coffee house. As surety for this behaviour, coffee houses were held in recognisance to the sum of £500.

This last provision is particularly evocative of the measures proposed by SOPA and PIPA.  Like those abortive and largely unlamented attempts to control and censor the internet, the Additional Proclamation would have called upon those who most fervently opposed the law — in this case, the coffee house owners themselves — to enforce it.  Similarly, PIPA and SOPA, as some have observed, would have required Google, Facebook, and other opponents of these bills to police them.  How effective, one wonders, would they have been at doing so?

That this kind of self-regulation would have been largely unworkable is suggested by the actual experience of the coffee houses in the decades following the government’s proclamations:  there is very little evidence that these venues became any less “seditious” than before.  Indeed, by the summer of 1676, the coffee houses were once again the focus of political dissent, as the Earl of Shaftesbury and Duke of Buckingham began to employ them to organize opposition to the King’s administration.  Their success in producing a coherent oppositional voice, one which would eventually coalesce as the Whig party, is in some measure testimony to the role of coffee houses as conduits and network hubs for the exchange of ideas and information.  And the survival of the role of coffee houses in fulfilling just this function is compelling evidence that, even if it is not necessarily true that “information wants to be free,” it is certainly the case that attempts to muzzle or control decentralized information networks are likely to prove difficult at best.


Print References

Christie, W. D., ed.  Letters Addressed from London to Sir Joseph Williamson While Plenipotentiary at the Congress of Cologne in the Years 1673 and 1674.  Camden Society N.S. 8 and 9.  2 Vols.  London:  Camden Society, 1874.

Charles II. A Proclamation for the Suppression of Coffee-Houses.  London, 1675.

—–. An Additional Proclamation Concerning Coffee-Houses.  London, 1676.

Greenwood, Paul(?), A Brief Description of the Excellent Vertues of that Sober and Wholesome Drink, Called Coffee, and Its Incomparable Effects in Preventing or Curing Most Diseases Incident to Humane Bodies. London, 1674.

Ellis, Markman.  The Coffee-House: A Cultural History. 2004. London: Phoenix, 2005.

Public Record Office.  Calendar of State Papers, Domestic Series, of the Reign of Charles II.   Eds. Mary Anne Everett Green, et al.  28 Vols.  London:  Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1860-1947.

Apple iBooks Author vs. ePub3: What If We Let the Tail Wag the Dog Just This Once?

John Gruber has an interesting new post on Daring Fireball in which responds to criticism of Apple’s new iBooks Author file format by Daniel Glazman, Co-chairman of the W3C CSS Working Group.  Glazman dislikes the fact that Apple has extended the CSS for that format beyond the standards set by ePub3:  “All in all, Apple has worked entirely behind the curtains here. If someone tells you that iBooks format is EPUB3, don’t believe it. It’s not EPUB3, it’s only based on EPUB3.”

The result — and I’ll take his word for this, as I don’t myself have access to the iBooks Author tool — is that “[b]ecause of these extensions, editing or browsing the html documents with a regular wysiwyg editor (BlueGriffon or DreamWeaver for instance) or a browser (Firefox, Chrome or even Safari) shows a total mess on screen. It’s not readable, it’s not usable, it’s not editable. Just forget it, Apple (re-)invented the Web totally incompatible with the Web.”

Glazman enumerates the nature of the particular extensions to CSS (and hence to ePub3):

  1. Template-based layout including special areas (gutter)
  2. Extended underlining
  3. Ability to control the size of each column and column gap in a multi-column layout
  4. something equivalent to Adobe’s Regions and Exclusions.

Now, again, I don’t have iBook Author, so I can’t speak with much assurance about what these extensions “mean,” except to say that they sound like rather good things.

Gruber’s response to Glazman is pretty unsympathetic, but both logical and reasonable.  Glazman feels that Apple should have proposed these extensions to the W3C CSS Working Group before implementing them — an unsurprising opinion coming from Co-chairman of that committee.  Gruber responds that

. . . if Apple had taken this route, the books generated by iBooks Authortoday wouldn’t have any of the layout features Glazman cited above. The iBooks format isn’t different just for the sake of being different, it’s different for the sake of being better — not better in the future, after a W3C review period and approval, but better today, in the textbooks you can download and read in iBooks right now.

Now, I’m a strong believer in open standards, and in standards compliance.  And I don’t particularly like, even if I understand, the thinking behind changes to standards that make a particular format proprietary rather than open.

That said . . . Apple has apparently produced a beautiful product here that employs format features that are better than could be produced through rigid compliance with ePub standards.

So what would happen if, instead of merely complaining about Apple getting the jump on standards-compliant eBook publishers or undercutting the attempt to produce such standards, the co-chair of the W3C CSS Working Group had additionally said something like:  “But wow.  They shouldn’t have done it this way, but we’re glad they did, because now we can see that these are extensions that should be added to the ePub specifications!  We can all benefit from Apple’s decision to innovate and push the envelope here!”

Even better — what if those creating the open standards for things like ePub3 were to take the same kind of imaginative approach, and had the same kind of concern for the overall excellence of interface design, that Apple’s designers and engineers apparently have?  What if the w3C CSS Working Group were itself producing these kinds of forward-looking innovations, and in so doing making it more attractive to be standards-compliant?

Wouldn’t that be cool?

Stop SOPA and PIPA

This blog will be joining other vitally important internet sources of information — including Wikipedia, Reddit, Mozilla, WordPress, and BoingBoing — in a blackout tomorrow to protest SOPA and PIPA.

My apologies in advance to the two or three people who may actually notice.

For a good discussion of the reasons for this protest, please see Michael Geist’s post, “Why Canadians Should Participate in the SOPA/PIPA Protest.

Mark McDayter

(Actually, I have no idea how to “blackout” this blog.  So I’ll just not be writing anything here tomorrow.)

Postscript:  It has come to my attention that I have in fact posted something here today.  As it seemed counterproductive not to, I would ask that my shocked readership forgive me, remembering that it is the “thought that counts,” and that “to err is human, to forgive will no longer be an option if SOPA and PIPA pass.”

Thank you.

The Prodigal Returns. Slaughter an Electric Sheep!

*SPOILER ALERT* — If you don’t want to learn whether our dauntless hero gets the girl, DON’T read below!

". . . gave him a gentle push that sent him flying down the hole . . ."

Once upon a time, there lived an unassuming English professor, electronic text editor, and digital humanist. A sometime craftsperson of what in those far-off and benighted days were still most often referred to as “hypertexts,” he laboured industriously, if mostly quietly, in his tiny little digital workshop, working from dawn to dusk — well, more truthfully from after breakfast to just before dinner — creating modest but lovingly-fashioned electronic editions and digital interfaces.  Sometimes, when a neighbour or villager was so foolish as to inquire about his day, he would rattle on for hours about his craft.

All went on in this modest but productive manner until at last one day  an old crone came by his workshop, and promised to show him a strange cave, a place where he could make his fortune.   Foolishly, the electronic editor followed the old woman deep into the forest, where she showed him a deep, dark, hole . . .  “Venture down into that darkness, and you will find a whole new world,” she said, “A virtual world, a Second Life, full of wonder, ready for exploration, and pining for electronic texts. It is the world of the future, and it awaits you!”

Tentatively, our hero made his way to the edge of the hole, and peered down into the gloom.  Could this be a brave new world in which to make his fortune?  He was still pondering the choice that lay before him when a white rabbit employed by his university’s ITS division stealthily crept up behind him and, giving him a gentle push, sent him spinning down the hole . . .

“Curiouser and curiouser,” he thought to himself as he fell . . .

". . . a strange and whimsical land . . ."

And so for four strange years he dwelt in a bizarre and whimsical land of pixels, plying his trade in three dimensions in a land marked both by terrible kitsch and real beauty, and inhabited by vampires, nekos, furries, tinies, and librarians.  He built things — a printing shop, a coffee house, a theatre — and he produced electronic texts that were read by a surprisingly large number of people.  He learned much that he had not known, and discovered many things of which he had never conceived, yet alone considered.

At last, however, the professor found himself homesick for his old workshop and his old world.  And so it was that, at last, he re-emerged from the hole.  Blinking in the harsh glare of the sunlight as he surveyed the land about him, he was disconcerted to see that, while much remained comfortably familiar, much else had changed, sometimes subtly, and sometimes so completely as to become all but unrecognizable.  The humble “hypertext,” upon which he had once lavished so much care and attention, was sadly out of fashion; in its place, people paraded glossy “digital media” packages through the streets of the villages and cities.  All but gone too were the unwieldy desktop computers for which our hero had once designed his electronic texts, replaced by sleek notebooks, laptops, and, strangest of all, tiny eReaders, tablets, and smart phones.  Data mining, it seemed, was no longer the sole preserve of the hungry capitalist and the entrepreneur, but was now also a tool of the academic. And, most strange of all, he discovered that his fellow craftspeople now sang strange bird-like songs to each other in 140 characters or less. Could he also train his thumbs to sing such songs to his former friends?

Cautiously, but still undaunted, the professor returned to the web-haunted scene of his former days as a craftsman; resolutely and with bold purpose he dusted off his workbench, and took up again the tools of his trade — the XML editor, the WYSIWYG interface design programme, the Javascript and PHP manuals. And with a few only slightly tentative taps upon his keyboard, he announced his return to an online world that was (truth be told) largely indifferent.

Yes, dear reader: that professor was I.

Did you miss me?

PS. There is no “girl” in this story.