Dec 012013

Or: PhDeviation as a way of life

Almost a month ago, I posted here that I was going to try to start “VersatilePhD” meetup. I had no idea how positive the response would be! Almost as soon as I started organizing it, I realized that I wanted it to be bigger than a meetup. Not that there is anything at all wrong with the general model of a meetup–they serve great purposes in building community and sharing experiences about, well, shared experiences. But I realized that, especially in the age of the internet, there are tons of outlets where people with #altac, #nonac, and #postac experiences could share their stories. Of course, in person human contact is different, and I hope that this group will provide a lot of community building and support to those who come.

But other ideas started brewing in me. As I gathered resources for the group, I saw as many great but unfulfilled ideas as I did great resources. I won’t talk about all of them here, but there is one I will, and full credit for the idea goes to Tobias Higbie, who blogs at Bughouse Square, but to the best of my knowledge, has only written about it here, in a comment to a blog post by Miriam Posner. (Apologies if he has written of it elsewhere! I’ll be happy to update with links!)

The idea: The “Alt-Ac Workers Center that combines advocacy, research and organizing.” I’ll let him use his own words:

Worker centers have become a vital new trend in the labor movement. Typically they develop in sectors that have little hope of unionizing in the traditional sense: day laborers, undocumented workers, restaurant workers, etc. Like some of these workers, Alt-Ac and cultural heritage workers generally have precarious employment situations. They might be highly contingent/part time, or if they are lucky enough to have a full time job, their pay and benefits are woefully inadequate because their employers are under-resourced. Meanwhile, they’ve acquired debt in order to gain their credentials. So even if their pay is technically high, their income to debt ratio is unsustainable and unhealthy. Of course, they have their status as highly educated white collar workers–but you can’t eat status.

He points to a lot of the problems that we are seeing as a result of the “precarious practices” of the current university system. (The link is to a U.K. example, but it’s startling how many similarities exist!). There are at least two businesses I know of providing services to PhDs (or soon-to-be) PhDs wishing to leave academia or leave the professoriate. I’m sure, as things are going, more are soon to follow. And I think we need these businesses, indeed, I believe we need more of them, large and small, regional and not. But even with certain successes that adjunct faculty have had with unionization, these successes will not change some of the fundamental, structural problems facing PhDs off the tenure track.

Adjuncting alone will rarely keep body and soul together, but most PhDs are qualified (whether they know it or not or whether hiring managers know it or not) for so much more, as Janet Stemwedel put it:

After all, skills that are good training for a career in academia — being a good teacher, an effective committee member, an excellent researcher, a persuasive writer, a productive collaborator — are skills that are portable to other kinds of careers.

Yet, there’s so much more to the idea of a worker’s center than that! What if a place could serve as a place to locate the intellectual workers that various industries need? What if that place could help adjuncts supplement (because after all in spite of the pay, “many adjuncts… love teaching college-level courses and find great personal fulfillment in their work”) or even replace, their adjunct wages?  What if such a place could provide (member supported) collaborative resources?

So, this is just one of the several things I’m hoping to build with this new group (which drew TWENTY attendees on its first meeting!). Our next meeting is on the Harvard campus this coming Tuesday, and if you’re interested in reminders, details, or just generally to be on the mailing list, fill out the interest form here. We’ve also got our own message board for introductions and the like.

May 212012

Help me out!

My research, as you know if you’ve been here before, is in Puerto Rican literature written in the States. None of the books I worked on for my dissertation were 100% monolingual. I’m working with a definition of bilingual on a continuum where one extreme of the continuum is a text that has a roughly 50/50 language split, OR where lack of knowledge of either language prevents reading the book with comprehension. On this end of the continuum, I place Giannina Braschi’s Yo-Yo Boing! I don’t think that book can be read successfully by anyone who doesn’t read both English and Spanish relatively fluently.

On the other end of the continuum are books that are primarily monolingual, with occasional code-switching, loan words, or other types of inclusion. These books are bilingual to the extent that someone not knowing the less common language can read the book with comprehension but will also miss out on shades of meaning. Having just taught Down These Mean Streets, by Piri Thomas to two classes of students in which I only had one student who spoke English and Spanish, I can say that shades of meaning are lost, but the book as a whole can be read successfully.

So, for now, what about a 3 point scale?

  1. Can be read successfully by a monolingual reader. Slight shades or nuances of meaning lost because of lack of knowledge of secondary language. Minor glossing can reduce or eliminate difficulty. E.g. Piri Thomas, Down These Mean Streets
  2. Very difficult for monolingual reader. Can be read only with significant glossing or other apparatus, or by skipping/missing large segments of meaning. E.g. Cherríe Moraga, Loving in the War Years: Lo Que Nunca Pasó Por Sus Labios
  3. Impossible for monolingual reader–fluency (or near-fluency) in both languages required. E.g. Giannina Braschi, Yo-Yo Boing!

So, I ask you: Where else in the world do we find texts on this continuum? I am looking to compile a list of texts (books, poetry, drama, fiction, especially) that reside somewhere on this continuum. Submit your suggestions! Individual texts, authors, locations, periods–all welcome. Flanders? Quebec? South Africa? Indonesia?

Some suggestions I’ve heard from Twitter:

Via @muziejus: [Lithuanian] literature (from LT) of the XIXth C. is now printed with glossaries to cover all the Polish terms that have been expelled.

—–Well, czarist Russian lit has plenty of French, often untranslated.

Via @runlolarun: In Western Poland– until recently Germany– it’s common to see German & Polish translations in pub space instead of Pol/Eng

Feb 012012


The hashtag #transformDH has taken on a life of its own, and pretty soon I hope to have my chronicle of how it came to be up and readable, but for now, let me say that the mission statement of the #TransformDH Collective (as we have taken to calling ourselves) is “To use the methodological insights of queer and ethnic studies to produce a transformative effect on the digital humanities and produce a digital humanities that is itself transformative.” It was born out of a desire for more of a number of separate but interrelated things:

  • A wider diversity in the people who do DH
  • A wider diversity of topics and areas of DH inquiry
  • More communication and connection between people doing queer or ethnic studies DH work
  • And more…

For my own part, my interest was sparked by conference attendance. At MLA, ASATHATCamp and other conferences I’d been to, I had grown, over time, accustomed to seeing panels tweeted. I grew to appreciate the ability that twitter offered to follow some of the great moments, even if they were just textual soundbites, from panels I could not attend. When I got to the Puerto Rican Studies Association conference in 2010, tweeting conferences had become second nature to me, and tweet I did.

I was almost the only one. PRSA hadn’t chosen a hashtag, hadn’t coordinated, and we just didn’t create the online splash of even a regional THATCamp, despite being a conference several times the size. I started wondering why. This led me to propose the THATCampSoCal session “Diversity in DH.” We talked about a lot of things there, and some great things have sprung from that session, but I still haven’t been able to bridge the divide I see in two of my fields of interest.

Call for Participants

Together with some good twitter friends, I’m putting together a roundtable for the upcoming Puerto Rican Studies Association conference. (I moved at the last meeting, by the way, because #PRSA is taken by the Public Relations Society of America, the Puerto Rican Studies hashtag is now: #PRStudies.)

I’ve set up another google doc and would like to begin a large conversation. I have been working on the theories and practices of bilingual digital representation for a while–I am interested in how we represent bilingual texts online. Inspired by a conversation with Aurora Levins Morales, I realized that while my own project is important, it has a much more important place in the context of a larger project. Puerto Rican Studies, as a field, needs to have real and practical conversations about the digital projects that exist, and about the digital projects that need to exist. Let’s start talking about a digital museum and library of puertorriqueñidad.

Building a Team

I’ve been in contact with a few people with great Puerto Rican Studies digital projects, and I’m looking for more (do you know some? send them my way!). I’ve been in contact with people about the overlap between such a project and an even larger project–Latino/a? Latin American? The Americas? Please, if you are interested, leave a comment here, or send one through the comment form on the home page, or email me, or tweet @PhDeviate. If you’re interested in participating in the roundtable at the Puerto Rican Studies Association, let me know that as well, and I’ll give you edit privileges to the google doc.

Back to #TransformDH

This is the kind of project that we in the #TransformDH collective are envisioning. In this case, how can Digital Humanities transform the ways we publish, archive, disseminate, make available, and even translate Puerto Rican cultural production? And how could this project change the ways that Digital Humanities thinks of itself?

Jan 042012

Somehow recently, I’ve been reading a lot of blog posts about blogging, like this one. Setting aside the obvious mise-en-abyme meta-ness of reading any, not to say many, blog posts about blogging, I’ve noticed a theme: excitement. Today (while getting a pedicure, what of it?) I was reading the introduction to Antonio Viego’s Dead Subjects: Toward a Politics of Loss in Latino Studies. As happens so frequently to me when I read really good scholarship, I have several aha! moments in rapid succession. These are the ones that came to me today. I hope you enjoy my excitement. I’ve been away from blogging for a while. I want to be back to it. Here we go–

It can be terribly destructive to declare movements “over”

Like a lot of literary-minded folks, I read with interest Stanley Fish’s recent piece in the New York Times about the upcoming (and about to start!) Modern Language Association Annual Convention, or as I will call it by its affectionate (at least to me) hashtag: #MLA12. He was talking about Digital Humanities, mostly, a topic about which I have strong opinions and feelings, an area of scholarly discourse and production with which I strongly ally myself. But in his text was a note that I found troubling at the time, and only in reading Viego did I identify my trouble. Fish writes:

Also absent or sparsely represented are the topics that in previous years dominated the meeting and identified the avant garde — multiculturalism, postmodernism, deconstruction, post-colonialism, neo-colonialism, racism, racialism, feminism, queer theory, theory in general.

It’s an interesting list he generates there. I shudder to think about what “racism” when placed in parallel with something like “deconstruction” might mean as a theoretical lens. (I imagine a more parallel term might have been “critical race theory.”) But that list compiled as it is reminded me, in conjunction with Viego’s passionate invocations of Lacanian psychoanalysis: I’m not done with theory yet. And I frankly don’t think I’m alone. The idea, prevalent throughout Fish’s piece that the various movements of theory have entered, left their marks, and then departed strikes me as profoundly troubling. (The idea that Digital Humanities is the next movement to start down this path strikes more scholars than myself as troubling.) It’s not because I want to cling desperately to an affection for de Man, or Lacan, or Freud, or any particular theorist. Nor is it because of a particular affection for theory itself, but for something I’ve felt deeply ever since I have known of the existence of theory:

Theory Saves Lives

Let’s accept, at least operationally, one of the basic theses of Viego’s book:

Critical race and ethnicity studies scholars have developed no language to talk about ethnic-racialized subjectivity and experience that is not entirely ego-and social psychological and that does not imagine a strong, whole, complete, and transparent ethnic-racialized subject and ego as the desired therapeutic, philosophical, and political outcome in a racist, white supremacist world. (4)

Now, I know that some of you out there are thinking that I’ve violated a lot of the laws of blogging here by including that long and “jargony” blockquote. But that’s one of my points here. This kind of articulation is precisely what fires me as a scholar. This is where my passion lies. And still, I frankly don’t think I’m alone.

Within this one quotation are a few things I find important:

    1. As critical race scholars, as scholars of race and ethnicity, as scholars of gender and sexuality, as scholars of any field of literary or cultural studies that values subjectivity, we must remember that no matter the strength of the hold of ego psychology, it’s not the only psychology out there.
    2. The reliance on the concept of wholeness is not only, as Viego continues, “the notion of subjectivity that [racist discourse] needs in order to function most effectively” but it is also the notion of subjectivity that keeps many of us distracted from issues of social justice, economic opportunity, and even scholarship in our search for it.
    3. The lack of engagement with psychoanalysis of most branches of critical race theory–and Viego gives an excellent list of exceptions (244n10)–is part of what allows a Stanley Fish to declare these things past

The ability to think new ways of thinking, to my mind, is one of the most important things that the humanities offers us. And one of the most important things that humans do. Theory enables us to think our lives, and thus, to live our lives.

I don’t know about you guys, but I need theory

My good friend S. Bear Bergman and I used to have wildly heated debates about theory. Ze would insist that nothing articulated in Judith Butler could not be derived from lived experience, and I would insist that if that point was true then I had never lived. Because it may be that I’m hopelessly cerebral (and surely that is a unique situation in the world of academia!), but I need theory–I need to read it and write it–in order to situate myself in the world at all.

Rarely has a book captured me so thoroughly with its title, and rarely has one delivered as thoroughly as this one on its promise. Thank you for reading.

 Posted by on January 4, 2012 at 7:57 pm
Jun 102011

I both hope and sincerely intend to write a longer post about my activities of this week. This week I’ve been at the the Digital Humanities Summer Institute. I took a weeklong seminar entitled “Digital Editions.” The quickest thing to say about it is that it was wonderful. I have had a project fomenting in my head ever since I went to THATCamp New England. It took me a while to name that project as a digital edition. But now I have named it. The amazing instructor, Meagan Timney helped us lay out all of the various things we should be thinking about moving into designing a digital edition.

We talked about project planning and design and the things one should be thinking about before ever starting. This part immediately made me feel at ease, since my chief concern coming in was that I wasn’t far enough along to make taking a course useful. She offered us a large range of questions which, she suggested, when answered, would usefully begin a grant application. (Tricky! And awesome!)

We then went into the various other elements–project planning and design, technical implementation, site design and usability, and other things like that. We were introduced to Islandora which is a tool being developed at the University of Prince Edward Island. This tool, in a sentence, makes a drupal front-end coordinate with a fedora commons repository back-end. For those of you reading this for whom that is unparseable, here’s my analog explanation: The fedora commons repository is a filing cabinet, which you can fill with many many sheets of paper. Drupal is a bulletin board on which you might like to display pieces of paper. Islandora will pull the correct sheets from the filing cabinet, and pin it to the bulletin board for you. Okay, it does more than that, but that’s my working analog explanation.

There will be more, but I’m trying to braindump just a little here. If you are interested in anything I’ve written here and would like to here more, ask questions!!

Nov 292010

I’m giving a talk at Suffolk University on Thursday. 1PM. I hope to see you there!

They made a lovely flyer. Click here to see or download it (pdf).

For the quick facts:

“My Dreams is Censored”: Poverty & Women in Black Artemis’

Picture Me Rollin’

Thursday, December 2nd at 1:00 p.m.

Poetry Center, Mildred F. Sawyer Library

From “Fallen Women” to the “Welfare Queen,” women living in poverty have often been stereotyped as causing their own poverty. Popular media portray poor women as all living on welfare, having too many children, and cheating the system. Black Artemis’ novel Picture Me Rollin’ tells a story of an ex-convict and her sister trying to avoid these very things—and finding themselves cheated by the system at every turn.  This talk will discuss Black Artemis’ novel in the context of several systems:  criminal justice, public assistance, and public education.

Refreshments will be served.

Oct 192010

But, a dissertation chapter is a dissertation chapter.

The Sunday New York Times struck fear into my heart this week. This doesn’t happen every week, though goodness knows, more often than I’d like. This week brought us this headline:

‘Culture of Poverty’ Makes a Comeback

The problem here starts with the title: if the “Culture of Poverty” is making a scholarly comeback, then it is really time to start yelling in loud and boisterous protest. The quotation marks are important. Why?

“Culture of Poverty” vs culture and poverty

Or the cultural aspects of poverty, or the various behavioral contributory factors to poverty. Why are these rephrasings important? The “Culture of Poverty” is a phrase that was coined by Oscar Lewis, around 1959. In spite of what Laura Briggs suggests were his good intentions — “The full tragedy of this event was that Oscar Lewis was a socialist who favored government policies to ameliorate the lot of the poor and challenge colonialism” (Briggs 78) — Oscar Lewis’ theories and work have given rise to some of the most egregious attitudes of blaming the poor for their own poverty that the 20th century saw. Thus, to hear that his work is returning in the 21st fills me with horror.

I certainly don’t mean that behavior has nothing to do with poverty. And frankly, I’m neither an anthropologist nor a sociologist and have done no fieldwork on the issue. But this: “behavior affects poverty” is not Lewis’ thesis. His thesis was closer to, “sexual immorality and licentiousness, as well as a willful disregard of the excellent advice of their betters causes poverty.” I should think that any cursory glance through the celebrity tabloids would remind us that lots and lots of really wealthy people lead dissipated and licentious lives. And Lewis’ work, among others, helps obscure the fact that lots and lots of grindingly poor people lead lives of scrupulous sexual morality–many of them, I’d wager, just in order not to be branded with Lewis’ iron.

The problem with Lewis’ thesis was not that he was looking for connections between behavior and poverty–it’s that all of his answers were presupposed in his questions.

The good news

The good news is that this article finally got me around to posting a dissertation chapter, which I’d been meaning to do for a while. It’s not perfectly digitized (I was just reminded that links back from the footnotes would be nice), but it’s a start. This is my chapter on Piri Thomas’ Down These Mean Streets which I read alongside Oscar Lewis (among others). I welcome comments, critiques, and other types of thoughts. This New York Times article tells me that I really do have to get that chapter ready to publish somewhere, because we need to remember that the “Culture of Poverty” was debunked almost the moment it was first theorized by people in Lewis’ own field. Unfortunately, it was picked up mainly by politicians to promote the agenda they had in mind already: demonizing the poor.

So, yes, please study poverty! Examine it closely, and leave no stone unturned. But let that study not be a return to Oscar Lewis, except as a useful example of how scholarship can go painfully awry.

Sep 142010

Third in a three-part series: First part. Second part.

Those of my readers who are in English or the other modern languages can’t help but know that this is The Week. Whether or not you’re on the job market, the buzz has started and we know that on Thursday, September 16, 2010 this years MLA Job Information List comes out. Not its final form, of course, it will be updated until the season is over. But we can feel it in the air, in the wind, in the precise amount of antacid we require, the job list is coming. And so it seems appropriate to wind up my three part series on the profession–my own sorting out of why I want to do this work and what I think this work is.

A moment on grad school

Someone said in my graduate school orientation that we should be certain to think of graduate school as professional school: that we were in training to be scholars no less than our peers in medical school were in training to be doctors. Call me young, call me naive, but that got to me. I liked it. I wonder now, though, how realistic that is. Can a person really be trained to be a scholar? At one level, this is a silly question–as silly as the errant first-year here and there over the years who has brazenly come up to me after the first class to announce that they “don’t really need” this writing class because, after all, writing “can’t be taught.” But at another level, I think that it’s a question we ought to take seriously.

What can be taught?

There are skills of research, and writing, and critical thought that can be taught. There are content areas of the history of our fields and our professions that can be taught. We go to graduate school under wonderful professors because there are many things that can be taught.

What can be directed?

What I mean by “directed” is that there are a lot of ways of scholarship that good mentors can point us at, but we have to go. @veek tweeted today: “It occurs to me that nobody ever taught me, in grad school or else-formal-where, that the academy is a participatory culture.” The participatory nature of academia cannot be taught, per se, but mentors can talk about how to participate in the communities of academia, and direct students or junior colleagues towards resources or forums (or fora!) for participating in academia. But the precise nature of that participation cannot be taught directly.

Ultimately, though, I think that scholarship is something one has to make a commitment to, and one has to renew that commitment often. Good mentorship helps this immensely, but the choice to do it is individual.

Wait, are you making a religious argument?

No. I don’t think scholarship is like faith–and I’m not here to debate the nature of faith. But I do think it’s a choice. Because the stuff of scholarship is too complex for anyone to offer a student a formula for success–and, I suspect, the avenues to success are to varied and individual to have any one avenue provide a guarantee. Additionally, no one student can do everything. Perhaps I’m about to inscribe a blasphemy, but I don’t think you can read every journal, cover to cover, even in your subfield, while also familiarizing yourself with archival material, while also learning new scholarly technologies and keeping up with the old ones (microfiche? still? yes.). Of course this list goes on. Trying to learn all this, to become a professional, while also in coursework, or reading for exams… the sumtotal is impossible. So one of the techniques we learn is how to chart the course through the sumtotal of work we  could do, to find the amount that works best for us to do. No one can teach us exactly what that is–whether skimming this article is sufficient or whether you should read it and take notes, even if you don’t precisely know how it’s applicable to something you’re working on yet. Whether you should attend this lecture or that one, whether you would do better to skip this conference and attend that one, or, while attending this conference, go to this concurrent panel or that one. Any panel you skip at any conference could be the one where you ask the question that gets the attention of the person with whom you network and it leads to a publication. But before you go, so could that other panel. There’s a degree of guesswork, of instinct, and of luck…and maybe just a little faith after all.

Scholarship: more than just a fancy hat

It is more than a hat, and yet, those who know me know I love the hat. And a particularly antediluvian part of me regrets that we no longer wear them around campus to demonstrate by our attire that we do this thing. This professory thing. This scholarship thing. Perhaps it’s just the voice of my kindergarten teachers still exhorting me to put my thinking cap on, but somehow the hat, more than the piece of paper that has the words of my degree on it, and some how more than the sturdy, material presence of my bound dissertation symbolizes that my job has a place in the world. We neither enter graduate school, nor do we exit it with an unerring ability to produce the perfect article, design the perfect project, think and express the thought that changes everything all at once. But what I wish for each of us that make it through to the hat stage, is that we get the chance to do this work of scholarship, this designing of projects, this writing of pieces, this thinking, this analysis, this continual process of learning. I believe that only when we get this chance to steep ourselves in that which we have come to love, yes, even sometimes when we hate it too, are we able to bring and share that love with our students and spark something of the scholar in each of them.