It Was Kind of Like Teaching

Thanks, Ali Arnold, Trisha, the students and faculty who came and sorry there was no time for questions.

No one had read the Stanley Fish post I based all this on but, just like in the classroom, I forged ahead anyway.

First, check out what “digital humanities” really means—Michael Mizell-Nelson’s online database projects. Fucking awesome. Fortunately, he did a fantastic job and if only there’d been another hour. Actually, he should’ve had the whole thing.

Since I spent the time, here’s my talk-post, unabridged [I did most but not all of what appears below] if interested:

The pattern of the consonants is the formal vehicle of the substantive argument, the argument that what is asserted to be different is really, if you look closely, the same. That argument is reinforced by the phonological fact that “b” and “p” are almost identical.

The pattern noticed is not the argument, but a method, a “vehicle,” a means and not an end. The end is the argument supported by the patterns. I just want to point out that if you’re not looking carefully, or you just don’t know, you’d miss that subtle point.

To my knowledge, I am the first critic to put forward this interpretation of the sequence. However, that claim, the claim of originality, brings with it its own problems, at least in the context of literary criticism as it has been practiced since the late 1930s. Doesn’t the fact that for 368 years only I have noticed the b/p pattern suggest that it is without significance, an accidental concatenation of consonants? Aren’t I being at best over-ingenious and at worst irresponsibly arbitrary?

Yes. And no.

Yes because the digital in “digital humanities” can create a superficial impression of research and originality in a simplistic sense, that of “no one has seen it before.”

And no because you cannot assume that because no one has noticed x before that it is unworthy of notice. Some things are and some things aren’t. So you still need critical thinking and analysis skills of some kind.

The trick is to separate the patterns produced by the scarcity of alphabetic resources (patterns to which meaning can be imputed only arbitrarily) from the patterns designed by an author.

Here’s where critical thinking is useful, and where, I believe, ego is most destructive. In the race to be Original, ego tells you that anything can be supported or argued if you just pile up enough stuff and if others don’t get it, they’re just Not Bright Enough. B and p appear repeatedly in all kinds of texts and isn’t necessarily an intentional plant or manipulation by the author. Sometimes, b is just the beginning of the word “bitch,” for example.

The direction is the reverse in the digital humanities: first you run the numbers, and then you see if they prompt an interpretive hypothesis. The method, if it can be called that, is dictated by the capability of the tool. You have at your disposal an incredible computing power that can bring to analytical attention patterns of sameness and difference undetectable by the eye of the human reader. Because the patterns are undetectable, you don’t know in advance what they are and you cannot begin your computer-aided search (called text-mining) in a motivated — that is, interpretively directed — way. You don’t know what you’re looking for or why you’re looking for it. How then do you proceed? The answer is, proceed randomly or on a whim, and see what turns up.

And this is where things get weird. Because of “digital,” computing power has to be used. Instead of looking for something, and possibly simply confirming a pre-held notion, you surf until enough stuff piles up that you figure there MUST be something there—if nothing were there, there wouldn’t be so much of, it, right?

Wilkens says the amount of close reading required in his opinion is impossible therefore close reading is not the useful tool we think it is and used to be back in the day when, apparently, it was possible to read EVERYthing.

The real point?

The Shakespearian scholar Martin Mueller briskly urges humanists to “stop reading” (“Digital Shakespeare or Toward a Literary Informatics”).

Wow. Scholars in the humanities should stop reading.

The other side of this explodes meaning into unbound and “limitless” interpretations.

[Ramsay] doesn’t want to narrow interpretive possibilities, he wants to multiply them. …Ramsay makes it clear that going anywhere is exactly what he wants to encourage. The critical acts he values are not directed at achieving closure by arriving at a meaning; they are, he says, “ludic” and they are “distinguished … by a refusal to declare meaning in any form.” … The answer is not to go to the text “armed with a hypothesis” but “with a machine that is ready to reorganize the text in a thousand different ways instantly.”

Analysis as a closed door. The new digital way is a limitless number of doorways, curtains and passageways that at the same time as it sticks to surface, frequency, detail as relevant because it is a detail brings us somehow “closer” to a text or meaning through “text-mining,” computing and “distant reading.”

Each reorganization (sometimes called a “deformation”) creates a new text that can be reorganized in turn and each new text raises new questions that can be pursued to the point where still newer questions emerge….the point is to keep on going, as, aided by the data-generating machine, you notice this and then notice that which suggests something else and so on, ad infinitum.

It’s like watching a cable channel all day long with the ads and infomercials as important as the local news and moonshiners and a filibuster in Congress and a boat sinking off the coast of Taiwan and the hurricane coming your way. Everything is important because nothing is unless there’s a lot of it.

Ramsay accepts the criticism of those who say that readings of texts cannot “be arrived at algorithmically” (“Reading Machines,” 2011). This incapacity, however, doesn’t worry him, because the value of numbers for him is not that they produce or confirm readings, but that they provoke those who look at them to flights of interpretive imagination: “algorithmic transformations can provide the alternative visions that give rise to … readings” (“Reading Machines”). There is, he says, “no end of our understanding” of texts and concepts. There are “only new noticings…”


By embracing rather than warding off alternative interpretive paths, algorithmic criticism “may come to form the basis for new kinds of critical acts,” acts that do not merely facilitate literary analysis but “build a platform for social networking and self-expression” (“Reading Machines”).

Sounds like Facebook.

What this “digital humanities” seems to do is push the humanities and theory further away from texts, writing, writers, context. What’s important can only be found with significant computer power. Since humans can’t “read” as much as a computer can—which reduces literacy and literature to words put next to each other for how ever many # of pages—there’s no point for humans to keep reading and they should just dump all this “data” into a computer and crunch the numbers until something rises to the top and you can say, Eureka!

(Frequency is not an argument.)

But all this text mining makes everything the same kind of interchangeable gray pebble, one teacher is the same as another, every student is the same as the next. Which is much easier.

What you get here is, again, no authors, just “deformists.” The Author is again buried in favor of taking a text apart beyond any meaning so that the meaning comes not from the deliberation of an author and her choices but a theorist-critic who crunches the work into multiple deformations that reveal nothing about author intention—who cares what the dead intend even if they aren’t actually dead—and all about what the deformist has “made.” The deconstructor as creator. What’s important is not the work or anything in it but the deformist, the deconstructor, stop reading that novel and look for the number of compound-complex sentences on odd numbered pages.

It takes us away from the text and author and closer to the ego of the deformist who is clearly more important than the writer.

When I first saw “digital humanities,” I thought of research.

Earlier this calendar year I started some research for the novel I’m working on going through Times-Picayunes from late 2005 to mid 2006, the immediate post-Flood era. Loyola library had microfilm of the T-P. It was an extremely slow crawl. Then I went in one day and all the microfilm was gone. They’d shifted from microfilm to an online database for the Times-Picayune.

The plus—lots more was available, easier to search and archive and import and print and link to and save in Zotero, etc.

The minus—half of the old Times-Picayunes, even from a couple years ago, are missing. The context is gone, no sense of proportion or importance because the big headline in a database looks just like the smaller headline, emphasis is gone

Digital can be a great leveler and an atrocious leveler where all things look equally important and it’s easier to think, though I can’t imagine why, that reading all that stuff is so impossible it has made itself irrelevant. As if it’s the fault of data or information, not the viewer of the data

Yes, it’s FAR easier to search and catalog and archive for research BUT what about access? Digital always leads me to access.

I need to have a computer or tablet or smartphone, Internet access and money to pay for all that consistently so you don’t lose it. And decisions have to be made. If I am researching or just curious about what happened with flooded real estate records post-Flood I do not need to read, catalog, archive, save all the obituaries and suburban community news because only the use of commas can tell me what it all meant then and means now.

Some desktops at a public library or a charter school does not equal “access” for all.

Also critical to this access—literacy and critical thinking skills.

Times-Picayune headlines about Orleans parish public schools, 9/14/2005 to 7/29/2006:

State seeks $2.4 billion from U.S. to pay teachers: N.O. schools’ plans to be revealed today
Orleans public schools plan gradual reopening: Employees can collect paychecks for August
Now is the chance to remake New Orleans schools
Orleans schools’ health benefits stable for now: ‘Nobody’s having their insurance canceled’
Schools in Algiers, Uptown may get to reopen this year: FEMA will replace badly damaged ones
Students get break from LEAP this year: Passing not required for 5th, 9th grades
Franklin pushing for 2006 opening: Charter school idea being floated
School Board politics emerge intact: Division may hamper rebuilding opportunity. Local, state officials wrestling for control
Franklin wants to be charter school: Officials hoping to reopen in January: Lusher charter moves forward
State gets $20.9 million grant for charter schools: State hopes to use money for repairs
Orleans board makes 13 schools charters: East bank sites may follow later
Some private schools may reopen: But public schools on city’s east bank will stay closed
N.O. public school enrollment may be halved: Only 50-60 schools needed, Picard says
Charter schools order challenged: N.O. board blocked on West Bank plan
Board at war over school plans: Who will open them — and how — at issue
Charter schools urged for N.O. district: La. education chief cites system’s woes
La. schools have opportunity to shine: Storm blows away hurdles to innovation
17 charter schools up for approval: But when exactly they will open is unclear
Board approves charters for 20 schools: They include seven on the east bank
Blanco backs state takeover of N.O. schools: Who would run them is another question
Lusher middle to move into Fortier High: Charter school preps for January growth
State may take over 104 N.O. schools: If Blanco’s plan is enacted, School Board to control 13
Charter schools could open Nov. 28: But the eight are still far from that goal
Algiers charter schools to open Dec. 14: But that plan hinges on BESE approval
BESE to study school financing today: Proposal calls for sharp cuts in 3 parishes
N.O. schools takeover idea has legs: House, Senate panels tackle bills this week
Senate panel Oks school takeover bill: But Black Caucus, unions have qualms
Heavy budget cuts expected to spare many state workers
Algiers charter schools open soon: Job applications are now being accepted
Orleans yet to open doors at any school: Disputes over charter schools brought delays
Panel wants to cut cash for N.O. schools: Sloppy School Boards management cited: Scalise bill would grab all N.O. schools
BESE cuts money to N.O. schools: legislators complained that city got too much
Schools chief’s raise never OK’d: Watson got it without School Board vote
Orleans school state-takeover plan advances: Senate panel endorses spending scheme
Algiers expected to open five charters: But 3 schools may land in state’s hands: 2 schools bypass recovery district
N.O. school to debut on Nov. 28: Students across city accepted; registration to begin Monday—Ben Franklin Elementary
Nearly 50 New Orleans public schools devastated. Three hundred buses destroyed. Hundreds of millions of dollars in storm losses. And as officials begin filing insurance claims, ‘grossly negligent’ record-keeping has only made it worse: SCHOOLS IN DISARRAY: School system looks at where to rebuild
Mayor’s group focuses on public schools: It wants action plan in place by January
Charter schools offer opportunity in post-storm world [editorial]
State to run Orleans schools
1st N.O. school district campus opens today
Students pour in Monday as New Orleans reopens its first public school since Hurricane Katrina
Orleans schools takeover is official
Absent school employees face ax: Board also yanking health plans Jan. 31
4 join panel for charter board
1,400 enter Algiers schools
School Board considers limited role
Deficit may keep McDonogh closed: Board told N.O. can’t afford 2nd high school
Panel: Appoint School Board
Lusher postpones Fortier entry plan: Repairs delay its use until the fall of ’06
Five charters in Algiers set to open today: Academic chief promises system will be transparent and efficient
Algiers charter schools kick off without a hitch
Charter schools hit ground running
School plan gives panel oversight: It slims system, offers choices
Public schools approach capacity: McDonogh No. 35 may join charter list
La. won’t run N.O. schools by itself: BESE to start taking nonprofits’ proposals
Education efforts earn top magazine ranking: State schools, quality of teachers improve
McDonogh 35 drops charter plan: Principal still hoping to open high school
La. gets $100 million to restart schools: But aid is not for rebuilding or repairs
School Board at odds on next leader: District turned down for disaster loan
Orleans board to reopen high school: McDonogh 35 plan feasible, official says
Added hurdles toughen resolve: La. school chief faces N.O. crisis, disease
School Board insures its own workers: Orleans also votes to reopen 2 campuses
Nagin’s schools panel issues reforms: Networks would cut role of central office
LEAP policy headed for vote: Rule gives students post-Katrina leeway
SCHOOL RULES: Four months after Katrina, local high school students show their school spirit — and their relief to be back where they belong
Students see opportunity in rebuilding: Secretary of education applauds enthusiasm
Public schools are near capacity: State defers decision on opening new campuses at Ashe, Harney
Orleans schools try for FEMA loan again: Bad audits are seen as factor in rejection
Education experts to interact with public: Central City meeting will be held today
Skeleton crew left to gut N.O. system: Once-bloated school staff dwindles to 61
Court delays Orleans school firings: Orleans school firings delayed: District attorney says insurance may lapse
Fired staff to stay on health plan: Hearing scheduled on N.O. school jobs
Charter chief in ethical tangle: Charter Board chief in an ethical tangle: She also serves on N.O. School Board
N.O. schools order extended until Monday
La. high court keeps school firings on hold
Insurance aid for teachers rejected: State House finds expense too high
Teachers to get a little more time: 30-day notice needed before they’re fired
School Board to redo firings
Board reaffirms school firings: 7,500 employees set to lose their positions
Algiers charter school gets set to open: It’s the 21st in N.O. since the hurricane
Charter schools get royal treatment from krewe: Rex members help struggling educators
3 Algiers charter schools planned: Group seeks to run them independently
Teachers union loses its force in storm’s wake: When state took over schools, collective bargaining diminished
Charter board weighs ethics conflict: Trustees to consider new rule March 17
LEARNING TO CHANGE: There’s a new attitude at O. Perry Walker High School, newly reborn as a charter school. No, its problems haven’t all been erased. But for the first time in years, things seem to be improving
Moran resigns from charter board: She also serves on N.O. School Board
More schools set to reopen: Additions will bring total in city to 25
Orleans, Jefferson schools still lag: Tammany deposed from atop La. Ratings
Algiers charter school meeting set
Watson quits as superintendent: Job may be different when it’s filled again
Hynes, Moton, Warren receive charters
22 more charter schools up for OK
Orleans school-recovery chief named: She guides facilities taken over by state
Orleans School District asks state to adjust takeover law: It eventually faces default on debts
School system will be unique in nation: Parents can choose from about 50 options
International School is returning to N.O.
In newly opened charter schools, many students are thriving when they’re no longer isolated into special education classes
Who runs schools is sore spot: N.O. mayor has little control over district
School system may limit admissions: It would screen pupils at 4 it still controls
Schools’ fiscal firm gets new role: State contract OK’d for recovery mission
Orleans school meetings may answer questions: More campuses to open in August
N.O. schools try to work together: ‘It’s very confusing for a parent,’ one says
Algiers charter schools seek trustee
Nonprofit eases schools’ burdens: Fledgling group aids new charters in N.O.
School Board maintains millage
Schools form admissions standards: Plan aims to keep system competitive
Parents choosing charter schools: Early enrollment shows strong interest
BESE approves operating plan for N.O. schools
Recovery district to delay classes: 30 schools to open to students Sept. 7
Teachers union contract in jeopardy: School Board refuses 45-day extension
Algiers charter plan is OK’d by board: Association to open two more schools
Charter schools seek students: Registration starting Monday in Algiers
Interim Orleans schools chief named: Veteran of 27 years known as a unifier
School leaders assail move to charters: Many at summit see it as invasion by state
Registration opens July 10 for N.O. recovery schools: 3 sites will accept papers; first-come are first-served
Teachers union left without contract: School Board lets pact expire, era end
11 graduate from first state-run high school
BELL’S ABOUT TO RING: It’s a dream come true for many: a total makeover of New Orleans public schools. But it’s creating a nightmare for teachers waiting to hear about jobs and state officials scrambling to get ramshackle school buildings ready for the first day of class
Clinics will open at public schools: 5 opening now; 7 more are coming
Charter schools plan job fairs: The Algiers Charter Schools Association will host two career fairs to fill open positions at the eight schools it will run starting next month
Public school registration starts today: State-run program to enroll all grades
Students and parents line up to register for school in fall: Students are returning to rebuild, revive
Charter schools to hold job fair
Schools could be short on teachers: Pressed district scraps ‘rigorous’ test process
School sign-up is a nightmare [Letter to editor]
Senators see hope in retooled N.O. schools: Officials urged to make full use of opportunity
RISING ABOVE RUINS: Their school no longer stands, but teachers and alumni of the 9th Ward bedrock still have vivid memories to share
N.O. schools are righting financial ship: But some fear it could capsize again when consultants leave
4 schools full as signup revs up: But Recovery District takes cautious stance on rolls
State’s school district making hires: Recovery district names 11 principals
Total: 131

If you look at that list of headlines and just see a list, you don’t have the tools to evaluate what is or isn’t relevant to one thing or another, it all becomes “equal” in a way that drags everything down to a headline with the headline the beginning and end of understanding or, gasp, analysis.

People can be left behind. Information, subtleties, and even the obvious can be left behind.

OK, what about composition:

In a sense, here is composition and how it hasn’t changed—I took disparate parts, went through a lot of process and attempted to create a whole.

Tearing down is easy, and inordinately fun in a contrary-child sort of way, but building in any direction is hard and computing power doesn’t change that.

About G Bitch

A mad black woman in New Orleans.
This entry was posted in Floats You Missed, G Bitch Abroad. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to It Was Kind of Like Teaching

  1. geauxteacher says:

    Wow! Will spend some time think’in on this one. Wish my old boss Walker Percy were still alive. He would love to play with it. Have you read his linguistic treatise, Message In a Bottle?

Comments welcomed. Really.