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.

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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.