Category Archives: Writing

The place of beauty in scholarly writing

[Update: Cross-posted on the Scholars’ Lab blog]

I’ve just returned from two thought-provoking days of conversations about assessment and authority in new modes of scholarly production, the second in a series of three SCI meetings on the topic. We’ll synthesize the key outcomes and insights into a report very soon. For the moment, though, I want to think a little more about a question that occurred to me after the meeting: What is the place of beauty in academic writing? While this wasn’t something the group discussed directly, it did seem to be an undertone of certain threads of conversation.

I got home from CHNM on Friday evening feeling pretty brain-dead from the hybrid (and quintessentially #altac) work of wrangling meeting logistics and absorbing stimulating and thoughtful discussion. Ready to relax, I sat down to watch Pina and was entranced within minutes; the film is stunning. The clips of Pina Bausch’s dance company, Tanztheater Wuppertal, are mesmerizing; they are made even more compelling by Wim Wenders’ directorial work. Something about the visual beauty of the film and the dance it portrayed helped me to think about the preceding conversations about scholarly work in a new light.
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Now at ProfHacker: “Turning Up the Volume on Graduate Education Reform”

The last couple of weeks have seen a great deal of news and conversation about graduate education reform. I have a lot to say about it (unsurprisingly!); you can find my take on it over at ProfHacker. The piece includes some discussion of SCI’s latest work, the Praxis Program, and the budding Praxis Network, so I hope you’ll take a look!

I’m also happy to note that I’ll be talking more about all of this at the upcoming MLA Convention in Boston—if you’re interested the topic, consider attending this roundtable on Rebooting Graduate Training. There will be ample time for discussion at the session, so come ready with questions and ideas.

Playing with visual text analysis using Voyant

As I’ve started to dip my toes into the DH current, one thing I’ve been excited to play with is visual presentations of text analysis. Until I hadn’t had a strong need for it, but with the approaching SCI survey of alt-academics and the analysis it will entail, I finally have a good reason to start exploring what’s out there.

The first tool I’ve checked out is Voyant (developed by Stéfan Sinclair and Geoffrey Rockwell as part of their hermeneuti.ca project), which allows you to upload a document, point to a URL, or copy text; it can analyze a single document or a corpus. I uploaded my dissertation as a sample and, after stripping out articles and such (which the tool makes very easy), I got a nifty word cloud:

Below it, Voyant displays a list of words by frequency. Checking boxes next to one or more words gives a distribution of word appearance in the document or corpus. Here are three commonly appearing words charted through the diss:

I found it interesting to see that while I clearly used the word “trauma” a ton, the places where it appeared the most were in the intro and conclusion–suggesting that I relied on the term when I was pulling my argument together, but much less in the actual analysis. A section below the chart shows the context of the selected words in a table that can be sorted in a variety of ways. All the data in each section can be exported in a number of formats, too, for use in other sites or documents. (More than ever, I’m feeling pinched by having my blog hosted by wordpress.com, which doesn’t support things like iFrames; I hope to get a more flexible set-up going before too long.)

There’s a lot more that Voyant can do, and I’m looking forward to playing with it (and other tools) a lot more as I get a clearer sense of what kind of analysis I want to do. More soon!

On not fully understanding Anne Carson

I received an absolute treasure of a book in the mail this past week: Anne Carson’s new translation of Antigone (called Antigonick). The hardcover book is hand-lettered by Carson, and many of the pages of text are preceded by sheer vellum pages with gorgeous and beguiling illustrations by Bianca Stone. It is a beautiful, beautiful book. (There’s a good preview of it here.)

And I do not fully understand it. I don’t really understand many of the illustrations; I don’t always understand the changes Carson has made to the text. The effect is no less captivating.

This feeling is not isolated to Antigonick; I often feel a sense of disorientation from Carson’s work. Looking through some notes on Autobiography of Red (which I simply loved), I realize the same feeling occurred there: I was utterly puzzled by certain elements and choices. (Especially the final “interview” with Stesichoros–I would love to know how people read that.)

But I relish this feeling of confusion. Carson’s work is so deliberate and intoxicating, that each choice she makes feels like a stone to be worked over in the palm of the hand–slowly, slowly. Not many writers make me feel this way. More often, readerly confusion is indicative of sloppiness on the writer’s part, or else of ego and purposeful obfuscation. The confusion I feel reading Carson draws me in, rather than pushing me away.

So, Antigonick. Why that red spool of thread unwinding over a page that lists “Kreon’s nouns” (“Adjudicate Legislate Scandalize Capitalize”)? Why the domestic images of stove, kettle, rug when Kreon sentences Antigone to death? Why Kreon’s arrival by powerboat? Why, for that matter, Nick? I’ll confess, I don’t know. But I will keep turning those questions over and over in my mind, as I do with so many of her works.

Luckily, I now have a great excuse to spend a lot more time thinking about Carson’s writing, since my paper proposal for MLA13 was accepted. I’m looking forward to giving her work the serious attention it deserves.

The ups and downs of daily writing

My new year’s resolution for 2012 is to write something or take a photo every day (which, in all honesty, is a bit of a cheat; I’d love to reach a point where I do both daily). I’m setting out to do this for a number of reasons; for one thing, my current position is not one in which I generate much creative work, so I feel a significant lack (which was a big part of why I started this blog in the first place). I also know that engaging in creative work every day eliminates the fear of the blank page, and leads to better work simply by dint of volume. It’s highly likely that in a stack of a thousand photos, at least one of them will be great. In a stack of ten, it’s not so certain.

Sustained engagement in creative activity also makes the process more fluid. With photography, the more photos I take, the better my eye for detail, and the better my muscle memory for creating the perfect settings. With writing, my voice becomes clearer and less forced, and I find that I have more and more that I want to say. I finished my dissertation relatively quickly in part because I wrote every day, and I have had many conversations with students, colleagues, and friends (especially @ekfletch) about treating creative projects as work (rather than as mysterious flashes-of-genius that somehow flow through one’s passive fingers). Still, it’s not easy to do, especially when the goal is more nebulous than a dissertation and has no clear endpoint.

I now have at least three (four?) posts that I have started and not yet finished. I started each because I needed to write something, or because I had finished reading something and wanted to jot down a few thoughts about it, but I haven’t felt committed enough to them to really figure out what I want to say. The unfinished posts are unsettling to me: I like to finish what I start, and I don’t like letting projects linger untouched. What I suspect I need to learn now is which ideas are worth working on, and which ones to drop.

I just read this Wired post by Jonah Lehrer on how we identify our good ideas, and it was a helpful reminder that time away from the thing is one of the most useful tools for separating good work from garbage. It’s something I’ll try to keep in mind, maybe by allowing an extra day between finishing a post and hitting that “Publish” button.