Category Archives: research

Dissertation Update #3: The Book of the Month Club

I’ve gotten my Bourdieu (it turns out it wasn’t poached, but misdelivered to the right house on the wrong street). It is looming rather smugly over me on the shelf.

I’ve been listening to Amy Hungerford’s undergraduate course on American novels post-1945. This is possible through a new Yale University initiative to make several of their courses available online–syllabi, audio and video. The first book she tackles is Richard Wright’s Black Boy and she tells the fascinating story of how the Book of the Month Club, which published it, dramatically influenced it editorially.

This dovetails nicely with one of my current reading projects, Janice Radway’s A Feeling for Books, which starts off with an anthropological mission to The Book of the Month Club just as the realities of modern publishing were catching up to it. At least I think that’s how things will turn out–I’m only in Part I.

Curious, I tried accessing the Book of the Month Club website. They’re still a going concern though from what I gathered on news sites the new owner, an outfit called Direct Brands, is cutting staff.

Out of the Cold

It’s been a long, dark winter of exam preparation, stressed-out reading, and gallons of tea. Parts of it were a lot of fun, and I’ve now read a lot of books that I would surely have taken years to finish otherwise. But: I am glad to be finished.

The sun is shining, the requisite post-Orals sloth and dazedness are wearing off, and it’s time to get going on some new projects. I have a few work-related tasks to grapple with, and I have a paper to polish. Then, on to dissertation planning. Time to get back to work!

//Cross-posted from Open Culture//

For a graduate student in an English Ph.D. program, the Oral Exam is one of the big milestones on the road to the dissertation. In my case this involves five professors, a list of 60-80 books, and two hours in a (rhetorically) smoke-filled room. Since I’m working on contemporary literature and new media, one of the challenges I have to deal with is how to address novels, films, television shows, video games and more as part of the same “list.” How does one put these things together? How can a video game be read as a text alongside Gravity’s Rainbow or Brave New World?

One way to approach this question is to include the work of literary and cultural critics who are already looking at new and traditional media side by side. Following that line, I try to keep up with the academic blog Grand Text Auto, which covers “computer narrative, games, poetry and art.” One of its contributors, Noah Wardrip-Fruin, is working on a book about digital fictions and computer games that looks perfect for my Orals list—and he’s publishing it, chapter by chapter, on Grand Text Auto for blog-based peer review. It will come out next year with MIT Press, but for now, it’s a work in progress.

All fine so far—I could list it as “forthcoming” and direct my professors to the link. But what happens when I start commenting on this book as I read it? What are we to do with the knowledge that this “text” will most likely change between now and next year? Does this item on my Orals list signify a draft of the book, the blog and its comments, or the experience of reading and writing into the MS myself (including, perhaps, responses from the author)?

I find the dilemma particularly interesting because it touches on a central conflict in humanities scholarship. Are we passive observers of the literary scene or active participants in it? It’s a rare academic critic who thinks of calling up a poet to ask her what she meant in a particular line, but that’s exactly the kind of connection that our hyper-conscious, digitally mediated world offers up.

P.S. After all of this hand-wringing, it’s obvious I’m not going to have time to read Noah’s book before I take my exam, so it’s off the list. But I can’t wait to dig in next month!

Stanford Open Source Lab

I’ve just made myself the newest member of the Stanford Open Source Lab, a group of people interested in bringing the ethos of open source culture and software to Stanford. I feel a bit poseurish adding myself to the wiki when I’ve never been to a meeting, but Henrik told me to do it!

The group is quite new, I believe, but I hope they continue to gain momentum. I made a (more or less failed) attempt to get my fellow grad students involved in a departmental wiki last year. Nevertheless, there are neat things happening all over campus, from intradepartmental web 2.0 at DLCL to my new favorite Web Thing, a Stanford Library search tool for Firefox. And let’s not forget Stanford on iTunes. The university is changing, people.

The Future of Collaborative Culture?

[I’m cross-posting this from Open Culture–it seemed apropos to my academic pursuits as well…]

I just heard Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, speaking at Stanford Law School today. Wales is working on some new projects that he hopes will harness the community-driven collaboration of Wikipedia. He’s already had some success in branching out from the encyclopedia idea with Wikia, which is a “wiki farm” compiling information on a variety of different subjects (some of the most successful so far relate to video games).

What Wales spoke about today, however, is a new collaborative search project. The concept is still in its early stages, it seems, but the idea would be to harness the intelligence and dedication of human beings to produce search results significantly better than Google’s. This raises a few questions:

Is Google broken? It’s amazing what Google pulls up, but maybe we’ve all gotten so good at working with an imperfect system that we just tune out the spam and misinterpretations that still crop up.

Is a collaborative social model the appropriate solution to this problem? People are good at compiling encyclopedias, but they may not be good at emulating search rank algorithms. Also, Google is powered by millions of servers in dozens of data centers over the world managing petabytes of information. In other words, this may be a technology+money business, not a people+transparency business.

These issues aside, Wikipedia is one of the most amazing things to come out of the whole Internet experiment, so I’m excited to see what Wales comes up with. Has search become a basic service? Would it work better as an open-source system?

CanonWar!

Well, maybe not, but it was still exciting to see two of my colleagues from Stanford get some Newspaper of Record facetime today for their work on video game research. Henry Lowood and Matteo Bittanti have both been involved in the study of games as cultural forms and it’s nice to see their work reaching such a major audience.

The article discusses their efforts to create a draft canon for game studies. Of course, this is just as contentious in video games as it is in literature or film, and the difference between a formal canon and a top ten list is awfully thin. However, I think both Henry and Matteo would be quick to argue that the point isn’t to isolate a few games for special treatment but to get the rest of us thinking about games as artifacts worth studying and archiving. Henry has done an amazing job of building up the Stanford Library’s collection of games, consoles and more.