Decisions, Decisions

Lev Grossman's recent article in Time on the form and function of recommendation engines draws distressingly close to the coda of my recently finished dissertation, and there's no doubt he's remembered his years as a Comp Lit PhD student at Yale. In an earlier post, I wrote on some of the connections between Milton's Raphael and Google's PageRank algorithm as superhuman mediators of what we would call information overload, and some of that found its way into my conclusion. Grossman's article begins and ends with nods in the direction of the eighteenth century, and the issue at stake is the same: how to select what's worth paying attention to when faced with overwhelming volume.

The question Grossman asks of recommendation engines--the software responsible for matching what you've watched, heard, bought, etc. against other things you might like to watch, hear, buy, etc. and letting you know it's available--in his openers is "can a computer really have good taste?" The matters of taste and discernment of course ring rather a large bell in the addled brain of your average eighteenth-century scholar given what several authors of the time (especially Pope and Swift) perceived as a "deluge" of impolite or otherwise pointless writing the rising tide of which threatened to sink all boats and swamp the nation. If in Paradise Lost humanity emerged from the garden dependent on their powers of discernment to know good from evil, then under the Augustan conservatorship of taste and judgment discernment became the critical faculty by which the fragments of knowledge worth keeping would be separated from those better left to what Harold Weber has described as the "'garbage heap' of memory." Plenty of other authors and editors got into this act as well; indeed, whole genres emerged to do the work of selection so the poor reader wouldn't have to. Magazines like The History of the Works of the Learned and The Present State of the Republick of Letters, for example, accounted for what they defined as the most notable or most valuable works from Britain and beyond and left the rest to descend into oblivion.

In writing of the Digital Deluge, Grossman returns to an old analogy. Online retail provides us with a lot of choice--so much choice, he says, that "we're drowning in it." The recommendation engines (like the search engines of Google, Bing, what have you, that reduce the immensity of the web to ranked lists of returns) serve as what he calls an "informational prosthesis" that winnows the potentially paralyzing embarrassment of riches down to something manageable. Whereas Pope, however, would have had you (and everyone else, I think) rely on his good taste to set out something of a curriculum, the recommendation engine relies on your taste and that of your peers to point you towards something you're likely to like. If I were feeling particularly pedantic or just outright snooty I'd try to make an argument about taste versus preference, but it wouldn't get me anywhere. Fashion, if I can dive into the late 19th century for a moment, is what one wears oneself, and you already know the rest.

Grossman ends on a note lamenting the technodetermined perpetuation of existing preferences as opposed to the more locally driven processes of truly personal recommendation and serendipitous discovery (that old chestnut) that have the power to expand rather than reify the boundaries of one's "taste." And for reasons not so far passing understanding as they seem, he notes that, among other things, recommendation engines "won't force you to read the 18th century canon."

Damn right, I say--that's my job. Like plenty of authors, poets, and critics before me, I too am an "informational prosthesis" designed to function (at least in part) as a mediator of and remedy for information overload. If you liked Pamela, you'll like Tristram Shandy. You're bloody well going to read it, at any rate.


Crisis on Infinite Campuses

Clearly my blogging impulses have waned these last two years. Perhaps as the project upon which I've been working has developed, my willingness to share it has diminished; once I decided it was worth protecting, I decided to protect it. Protect it from what, you ask? That's where the silly comes in. Rather than share early and often as part of a network of knowledge-producers, I elected to narrow the channels of communication and save my scholarship for what perhaps are too often held out as the ultimate end-products of academic endeavor. Articles and monographs still make the man, or so I've been led to believe, and while what I post here probably has the cross-section of a mosquito on the radar screen of academia, I'm still reticent to tip my hand and put other, faster, smarter, better writers onto what I hope will one day make my name. This strikes me as a shame and counter to my own inclinations; I know I'm not alone in this, and I likewise know there are those who are actually exploring new avenues and other options.

But, it seems, they do so somewhat at their peril, and perhaps it's having spent the last year (two years? five?) being churned through the machine that's left me simultaneously too frustrated to risk speaking my mind and too institutionalized to risk publishing my work five or ten kilobytes at a time or in other unconventional ways.

Or perhaps I'm just be tired of logging in to reject comments from bots, phishers, scammers, and all the other bottom-feeders of the illicit pharmaceuticals industry.

At the moment, then, I'm posting not to offer anything in the way of 18th-century interest but rather to process some emotions recollected in an unexpected because increasingly infrequent moment of tranquility.

At a recent gathering of some seriously profound thinkers representing multiple periods, disciplines, and professions, I was privy to some equally profound discussions about the future not only of literary study but of the humanities in general and the university system at large. The news, as you'd expect, is not good. The word "crisis" came up severally, and while some attempted to attach it to a sense of opportunity, I was left to confront my professional mortality without yet having been dipped by my heel in the waters of tenure. So--while we (there's only a limited kind of "we," really; within it there is an inescapable if potentially shifting "us, them, you, they" hierarchical structure based around seniority, experience, tenure, methodology, even technological know-how) have a shot at seizing the day and reshaping our brand of intellectual endeavor into something new and newly sustainable, a lot of the energy that might be put towards that goal can't be converted from potential to kinetic. Or at least, not easily.

During the course of the proceedings, a conversation came up regarding modes of publication (traditional presses, Open Book, et al.) and what present faculty would tell their graduate students about which roads to take. The question was then put to the three graduate students in the room, and I spoke rather strongly--perhaps even insensitively--as to my intentions. If given a choice been a prestigious UP or a non-traditional venue, I'd opt for the former. I should very much like to explore other options, but I don't want to risk being the Betamax (or Laserdisc, or HD-DVD, or what have you) of my scholarly generation. Not a perfect analogy, of course, but a genuine concern. One takes risks in being an early adopter of a technology that isn't currently and then doesn't become the industry standard.

As I spoke, I noticed several of the Powers present nodding their heads in vigorous agreement, as if the issue was an absolute no-brainer. Minutes later, I was encouraged by someone else not to "chicken out" of non-standard publication. The phrasing was, I genuinely think, meant to be encouraging, but it does suggest the extent to which even devotees recognize that the move requires some measure of intestinal fortitude, and while their successes demonstrate the "high risk, high reward" payoff mentioned by yet another person there, I rather think it's asking too much of people who are essentially burning off their twenties (and I daresay in some cases a good portion of their thirties) in graduate school to put their forties on the line by trying to time the market. If anything about the event cheesed me off, it was hearing from both the Digital Humanities people whose positions didn't preexist them and from the Tenured Proponents of Radical Difference delegation that the people with the least job security and the worst job prospects (graduate students) should be the drivers of change. How do you push without leverage?

Of course, we'd like to be agents of change--or at least, I'd like to, and I have a project in mind that's more in the line of database creation. There's a research question I have that can't be answered without a new tool, so I (along with, I hope, a group of like-minded individuals some of which, unlike me, actually know what they're doing) will have to build the tool. But, as I clucked at the time, first things first. No one's not going to give me tenure because I have a monograph. What, though, is the acceptance rate in the humanities departments around the country--you know, the two or three that are hiring--for people who show up with only non-traditional dissertative projects in motion and no book in sight? Sure, I thought, YOU'D hire or tenure that person, and by gum so would I, but without wholesale, system-wide institutional change, potentially excluding yourself from eight of the ten places hiring approaches either heroism or martyrdom. I'm all for heroes, of course, and certainly I sometimes find my brand of sniveling pragmatism a little cringe-worthy, but I have to believe I can find a via media between the Charybdis of radical innovation and the Scylla of academic conservatism. If I'm lucky enough to get a book published (massive, gargantuan if), I might then find myself better positioned to advocate for change. At any rate, I haven't got much of a choice in the matter if the department I join has made publish-or-perish the law of the land. And none of us has much of a choice in the matter of which departments we join.

Which brings me to another instance of what I lacked the temerity to say in the room. It's by way of recommendation, and rather more in the line of put up or shut up than was strictly appropriate for someone of my station to offer to his betters. If you are a tenured faculty member who strongly believes that the current model and modes of scholarly production and distribution are approaching or have arrived at obsolescence, that there's an emergent need to alter (or creatively destroy) our disciplinary course, that, in short, there really is a crisis on infinite campuses, I expect your most recent traditionally produced and published monograph to have been your last. Your next conference presentation will reject the premise of the academic conference; your next article (if there is another article) will not appear in a traditional journal. If you stop reifying the generic conventions of academic output, then it'll be much easier for the movement to pick up speed. One of you engaging in a new kind of collaborative work, blogging your research, or tweeting your way through a conference does more to change old genres and elevate new ones than ten of me doing the same. Well, fifty of me. Ten of someone five times better than me. This is what tenure is for. At my end of the clock, one of the speakers very poignantly argued, the system tends to produce conservative output--not only in its form but in its content. People on the other side of that perhaps too-Holy Line of Demarcation can change the system from within. You simply cannot tell your vulnerable advisees to damn the torpedoes while you continue to work on the Next Big Thing to come out of Chicago or Cambridge. Unless, of course, Chicago and Cambridge are going to change the way they do things too.

That's what I should have said. At the time, though, it seemed clear that nobody in the room had much to offer by way of a plan, and somehow the question that resulted in the above tirade -- what would you tell your graduate students to do -- managed to go unanswered by anyone but a graduate student who had already made up his mind.

We all want to believe in what we do. We have to believe that some kind of new order will emerge out of what is impossible to see as anything but chaos. I think we agree that we can't go on like this; I know we don't agree on what to do next. If you have graduate students, what are you telling them to do?