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?

Getting Listed

Ian Hsu has been hired by Stanford to bring more attention to new media activity around the campus (title: Director of Internet Media Outreach). He’s just launched one major initiative: the Stanford Blog Directory. Yours truly is up there, along with a few other students (and many more blogs by Stanford groups, faculty and staff). Hopefully as we move forward more students will join the listing, since I know there are a lot more bloggers lurking on campus. Nevertheless, it’s nice to be in on the ground floor–thanks for the listing, Ian!

The Politics of Presence

I’ve been invited to contribute to The Politics of Presence, a multi-day, multi-continental conference experience put together by new media scholars, archaeologists, and more. I’m going to give a brief PowerPoint version of a paper I worked last quarter on terrorism and new media.

Terrorism is an interesting subject because it tends to fall through the academic cracks. This has led to a fragmented professional discourse that tends to get lost between international affairs, psychology, law and politics. Thus the old saw that there are as more theories of terrorism than there are theorists.

My take is that terrorism is essentially a communicative action: without a public to terrorize and a mass medium to dominate, there’s no point. So how do new, collaborative media change that equation? How do we deal with terrorism online? Come by tomorrow to find out.

Scholarly Web 2.0?

We just had a great speaker at the Literary Studies and the Digital Library Workshop–Dan Cohen came to discuss the Zotero project, a new web research tool specifically geared toward scholars. To describe it boringly, Zotero is a plugin for Firefox 2.0. But what it really does is give you an easy way to accumulate all of your del.icio.us links, bibliographic citations, Amazon books, etc into one annotatable database that lives on your computer. No more losing your Google Docs or battling with EndNote! No more wrestling with incredibly long library catalog URLs! That, at least, is the dream.

It seems like Cohen’s team has done a lot of amazing things already, and Zotero automatically recognizes many kinds of XML in the pages you browse (like the author and title of the book you’re looking at on Amazon, for example). Then when you drag and drop that tab into the Firefox applet, you have a record that already includes the citation information you would have to type in for other reference programs. At least I think this is what it does now–I only installed it this afternoon.

I’ll report back with an update on how well Zotero works, and whether Cohen excommunicates me from the Church of the Semantic Web after I tell him I screwed up recording his talk today. You have to push the record button twice, and it looks like it’s recording after the first push. Not intuitive.

Stanford-Berkeley Togetherness

On Saturday I participated in the annual Stanford-Berkeley English Department Graduate Student Conference. This year’s “theme” was “Who Cares?”. I gave a much-abbreviated version of my Weber talk and got some great feedback from the panel and from the audience. Professor Denise Gigante gave a very interesting keynote at the beginning of the day discussing specialization and professionalization in the field of literature.

What are we studying, anyway, and does it make sense to break things down into centuries and countries? I’m not so sure…at the very least, I’ve never felt very comfortable putting myself in a temporal box.