Category Archives: dissertation

Pamphlet #3

I’m very excited to announce that a version of my essay on David Foster Wallace has just been published online as the Stanford Literary Lab’s third pamphlet. Here’s the lead-in:

If there is one thing to be learned from David Foster Wallace, it is that cultural transmission is a tricky game. This was a problem Wallace confronted as a literary professional, a university-based writer during what Mark McGurl has called the Program Era. But it was also a philosophical issue he grappled with on a deep level as he struggled to combat his own loneliness through writing. To really study this question we need to look beyond the symbolic markets of prestige to the real market, the site of mass literary consumption, where authors succeed or fail based on their ability to speak to that most diverse and complicated of readerships: the general public. Unless we study what I call the social lives of books, we make the mistake of keeping literature in the same ascetic laboratory that Wallace tried to break out of with his intense authorial focus on popular culture, mass media, and everyday life.

A Fresh Chapter

The funny thing about milestones in life is that they are not evenly spaced on the road. Rather they seem to appear in clusters, as they have for me over the past month or so.

The first milestone actually felt more like ten or twenty millstones that I hadn’t noticed around my neck they were lifted off one by one. After much frantic writing, revising, formatting, proofreading and emailing, I completed and submitted my dissertation! As of now, I am a bona fide Doctor of Philosophy. If you are injured and require assistance, I will read you a poem. “The Social Lives of Books: Literary Networks in Contemporary American Fiction” is currently in processing but should be available from the Stanford libraries website soon.

Second, I am very pleased to announce that I will be joining Arizona State University as a University Innovation Fellow this July. This is an unusual position and I am very excited about the opportunity. My primary focus will be supporting and developing ASU’s New American University initiative, which is an effort to redefine public higher education for the twenty-first century. I’ll be working in the Office of University Initiatives and I am looking forward to getting to know my new colleagues.

Nearing the Finish Line

I just sent off the last new chapter that I’ll be writing for this dissertation to my committee. What remains is an introduction and a lot of revision, but it’s very exciting to be approaching the end of a long, lonely road.

The chapter looks at two younger writers, David Foster Wallace and Junot Díaz, and argues that they both have carved out special positions for themselves through style. Each engages with the idea of the “nerd,” which is a figure I’ve had trouble finding a lot of secondary literature on. There’s some overlap with fans and media studies work on online communities, but the nerd is different, and it’s a word Díaz in particular has used to describe himself and his work. What’s interesting is that the two writers started with the same basic objection to the problems of what Wallace calls “Standard Written English” and came up with radically different solutions. Wallace pushed the envelope with footnotes and postmodern stylistic games; Díaz broke new ground in integrating English, Spanish, and many other cultural and genre dialects, making what he calls the bedrock fact of “unintelligibility” a central part of his fiction.

Stanford Dissertation Browser

While I’ve had the dissertation specter floating before me for several years now, it has never looked so beautiful. Created by two Stanford graduate students in Computer Science, the Stanford Dissertation Browser uses topic modeling to graph recent dissertations by their disciplinary affiliation. The visualization was created with Flare, successor to Prefuse, which I was using for my own visualizations for a while (this being Stanford, the guy who created all of these visualization tools, Jeffrey Heer, is advising the project).

I’m looking forward to adding my dissertation to the mix next June. I wonder where it will line up?

London Dispatch

I’ve once again fallen way behind in my blogging, but fortunately I have much to report. I’m writing from Digital Humanities 2010, where I’ll be presenting my latest research on Saturday. The conference is in London and it’s been exciting and a little befuddling to wrestle jet-lag amidst an exciting array of panels and posters.

The paper I’m giving is on Toni Morrison, the subject of the recently completed Chapter 2. It’s in its fourth iteration now, after a trial run among the friendly brains at Stanford and great panels at ASU’s Southwest English Grad Students conference and ACLA. At each point I’ve been refining my methodologies and slides (lesson one: visualization is endlessly finicky).

As before, this is a case study where Morrison’s work is really a jumping-off point for an exploration of her reading publics and the nature of literary fame. When I presented at DH2009, I was still working out how to approach these questions and adopted a kind of shotgun strategy, using every data set and methodology I could think of to see what worked. That paper, on Thomas Pynchon, had a lot going on: networks of Amazon recommendations; Wordle images based on word counts of book reviews; bar graphs of library copies; graphs of MLA citations and comparisons of MLA, Amazon and newsgroup publications by year.

Most of these ideas were interesting, but only some of them ‘stuck’ for me. The cyclical nature of academic and other kinds of publication, for example, was revealing to see but a point that probably only needs to be proven once. This year I’ve decided to focus on the richest results from the past and push the envelope. My paper will look at the social lives of Morrison’s novels, and the ‘social’ networks they inhabit online. I’ve worked hard in the past year to create collocation-based networks and to use network analysis to identify the most significant nodes and clusters in Morrison’s ideational networks online. These are the most interesting, and the messiest, of my datasets, and network analysis has revealed some surprising patterns that I’ll be sharing on Saturday.

So that’s the major news. I have a couple of other projects cooking that I’m going to write up when I have some solid bulletins to report.

A Big Year

2010! Where is my jetpack?

It’s been a busy year so far, and I’m hoping to keep up with this new, futuristic energy. After a bit of a slow autumn (we use the term metaphorically here in Phoenix) and the usual distraction of the holidays, I finally got to check a few major items off my list this week. Yesterday I completed a funding application for the Stanford Humanities Center–they offer a few dissertation fellowships each year. Today I finally–FINALLY–finished revising a paper submission based on my Pynchon chapter and sent it back for round two.

Now it’s time to buckle down and return to data analysis. I’ve assembled a great pile of book reviews and recommendations in a MySQL database, and I have a few discrete challenges ahead of me:

First, I need to come up with an effective way to identify and then tag proper nouns in book reviews. This is easy to do badly and then clean up by hand, which is what I did for the last chapter. But there are a lot of Morrison reviews out there, so now I really need a computer for this. As a first pass/proof of concept I’m hand-editing a little “dictionary” of all the proper noun literary references made in professional reviews of Morrison’s work. Then I’ll write some kind of program to search for and tag those references in the reviews.

Once I get that figured out, the second trial process is going to be creating network graphs of these literary references based on collocations. I think I’ll probably start by defining links as “in the same paragraph,” but this might change depending on how useful the graphs end up being.

If I can get all this working in the next week or two, hopefully I will get some kind of epiphany for how to do automate the process elegantly for a much larger, and badly proof-read, set of consumer reviews of Morrison. It’s 2010…where is my artificial intelligence research assistant?

I have arrived

It’s been quite a while since I updated this blog, so here’s a rapid review.

I’ve completed a draft for my dissertation chapter on Thomas Pynchon.

I’ve got a messy first half of an introductory chapter too, but I’m trying hard not to think about just how much revision that’s going to need.

All of this has snapped into close focus with the end of the academic year and my presence this week at the University of Maryland for Digital Humanities Conference 2009. After months of solitude interrupted mainly (if regularly) by the dogs, I find myself surrounded by people thinking about the same questions I’ve been wrestling with. Cool!

I’ll be presenting on Thursday and panel-hopping for the rest of the time. I’m also looking forward to meeting and re-meeting luminaries of my Twitter and podcast world.

More Culture Maps

The images linked below are two more examples of the material I’m generating for my dissertation. The first is a visualization of the authors and literary references (in proper noun form) made by New York Times reviewers of Pynchon’s books. The second image is the same, only drawn from Amazon customer reviews of Pynchon’s books. Comparing the two, you can see how different sorts of cultural reference (and different levels of density of reference) exist in the sets of text.

Both images were created using the wonderful web gizmo Wordle, which allows users to upload their own data and create custom visualizations.

Culture Map: NYT Reviews

Culture Map: Amazon Reviews