Failing badly, failing well

When I go to conference panels on the digital humanities or public humanities, I find that many presentations begin with a dismissal of the kind of assignment where a student writes a paper merely for the audience of a teacher. In many ways, I share this suspicion of the two-person academic conversation; though it has value as a means of practicing formal writing and receiving a careful response, we can replicate and add to that value in collaborative, public-minded projects.

As a community, however, we may not have fully appreciated another advantage of the traditionally graded paper assignment: it fails well.

Students, of course, encounter all kinds of obstacles, from false starts in their research to personal or medical problems to competing priorities. When I assign a traditional paper, I can respond to these situations with a set of tools that I have learned to handle reasonably well: extensions, incompletes, a B-. Whatever has gone wrong, and however I respond, the problem remains mainly between the student and me.

The more I create assignments based on teamwork, editorial practices, and audiences beyond the classroom, the more I find I create models that fail badly. One student depends on another meeting a deadline; mistakes become public; the boundaries of the semester limit my ability to alter deadlines and other expectations for collaborative groups.

Now, as I encourage colleagues to try new kinds of tools and practices, I feel another layer of responsibility here: I need to be able to help develop pedagogies that both succeed and fail well. How have you worked to make collaborative and digital projects fail better?

Locating faculty offices

Here’s a question I’ve been pondering lately, in the space planning process that commands much of my time and attention these days: should we organize faculty office spaces by department?

In almost every academic building I know of, members of a given department have contiguous offices, or as close to contiguous as possible. I see the benefits of contiguity: a sense of departmental identity and ownership of the space around the offices, easy navigation for students and others looking for a member of a given department, smoothing of department-based logistics such as a student getting signatures from an advisor and chair from the same department.

On the other hand, if we want to encourage collaboration across disciplinary boundaries, departmental contiguity seems, on its face, the worst way to represent and encourage such work. Furthermore, the traditional arrangement reinforces the sense of alienation often felt by faculty members who do not have colleagues in their discipline, perhaps especially at small institutions. Even if we assign such people to departments administratively, arranging offices by department can remind such people daily that they do not have a disciplinary fit: I’m in the sociology building, one might have to say, even though I’m not a sociologist. This year, I have heard high-level people at two colleges saying that if they could assign offices from scratch, they would do so by lottery, letting biologists and poets mix in a literally random arrangement.

In my building, we have happened upon a third way that I like a lot. In a fairly small building of twentysomething faculty offices, we have the faculty serving three majors: English, History, and Gender, Women’s, and Sexuality Studies. Anyone with even a little sense of the campus’s academic geography knows where to find those faculty, but within the building, we are shuffled; any given office can belong to any faculty member, and we even move around once in a while. We thus combine the benefits of geographical identity with those of a mild version of mixing.

In our current space planning process, we are contemplating a new building that will house the faculty of the social studies division and humanists except for those in the fine arts. I wonder whether we might attempt office assignments by cluster, capturing some of the fluidity of interdisciplinarity while retaining a general sense of campus locality. I wonder whether any readers have experiences, good or bad, with office arrangements other than departmental blocks.

Awarding credit for online courses is not optional.

A point came up in a recent meeting that I had not yet considered. I was told that the issue of whether to award transfer credits for online courses came before one of our committees. The registrar told the committee that we’ve probably awarded such credit already, because in most cases there’s no way to tell from a transcript whether a course was given online.

Well, then. Ready or not . . . .

A thought about the pedagogy of group work

Every job I’ve had–in education, the corporate world, or bureaucratic administration–has relied heavily on work done by teams of employees. None of them has organized those teams in ways that look much like the “group work” many of us foster in college classes. Is teamwork the opposite of group work?

More on Jane Austen and stylistic signatures

Ted Underwood responded to my post on Jane Austen’s style–pointing out the prevalence of adverbs, “to be” constructions, and terms of certainty–by raising the issue of baseline comparisons: “I’d like to know whether this is something about Austen in particular, or whether it’s a characteristic feature of a period/genre. I don’t intuitively know which is more likely.”

Let’s explore! I’m again using Ted’s corpus and software, comparing a given author’s work to the whole corpus. This file is a transcript of the commands and output I’m interpreting below.

I thought the most conventional guess of an author to produce results similar to Austen would be Maria Edgeworth. Here’s the list for her:

1	understand     	0.937	271	
2	recollect      	0.923	309	
3	talking        	0.916	127	
4	know           	0.916	523	
5	could          	0.913	754	
6	provoking      	0.912	41.9	
7	nonsense       	0.911	62.3	
8	perfectly      	0.905	119	
9	explain        	0.903	192	
10	continually    	0.889	95.4	
11	tired          	0.888	76	
12	going          	0.888	205	
13	do             	0.884	586	
14	dear           	0.88	792	
15	sorry          	0.879	79.5	
16	satisfied      	0.879	93.8	
17	yesterday      	0.879	48.9	
18	liked          	0.875	48.1	
19	spoiled        	0.874	19.6	
20	directly       	0.869	77.2	
21	quite          	0.869	136	
22	please         	0.868	182	
23	you            	0.868	2467	
24	repeated       	0.868	233	
25	decide         	0.866	101	
26	afraid         	0.864	148	
27	repeating      	0.862	52.7	
28	thank          	0.862	115	
29	manage         	0.86	44	
30	guess          	0.86	97.8	
31	sure           	0.859	290	
32	ashamed        	0.857	35.4	
33	put            	0.856	140	
34	admiration     	0.855	90.5	
35	disappointed   	0.855	44.8	
36	surprised      	0.855	75.6	
37	tiresome       	0.853	37.2	
38	especially     	0.853	76.3	
39	not            	0.853	802	
40	reading        	0.853	80.1	
41	dressing       	0.852	9.04	
42	said           	0.852	2783	
43	formerly       	0.851	50	
44	understanding  	0.851	103	
45	possible       	0.85	157	
46	because        	0.85	261	
47	really         	0.85	125	
48	any            	0.85	632	
49	saw            	0.85	183	
50	think          	0.85	173	

My unsystematic eyeballs see no forms of “to be” and far fewer adverbs than populated Austen’s list. Terms of cognition seem especially prominent:

1	understand     	0.937	271	
2	recollect      	0.923	309	
4	know           	0.916	523	
9	explain        	0.903	192	
25	decide         	0.866	101	
30	guess          	0.86	97.8	
44	understanding  	0.851	103	
50	think          	0.85	173	

What about Charlotte Lennox? Her list has “extremely” and “wholly” in the first and sixth places, but only one other “-ly” adverb (“instantly” at #29). Lennox’s vocabulary emphasizes the dynamics of sociability. Highlights:

2	civility       	0.97	117	
7	amiable        	0.959	353	
8	accompany      	0.959	55.8	
11	conversation   	0.957	258	
12	behaviour      	0.954	419	
13	mortified      	0.949	34.6	
14	mortification  	0.948	113	
15	received       	0.945	119	
18	amusements     	0.939	32.3	
19	entreaties     	0.937	54.9	
20	apprehensions  	0.937	89.4	
21	attentions     	0.936	70.9	
27	conduct        	0.929	195	
28	insisted       	0.928	80.6	
29	instantly      	0.927	209	
30	countenance    	0.925	123	
31	situation      	0.924	260	
33	visit          	0.923	107	
35	arrival        	0.922	83.5	
36	acknowledged   	0.92	53	
37	reception      	0.92	46.8	
38	circumstance   	0.919	98.7	
41	relations      	0.917	84.3	
42	letter         	0.916	312	
43	politeness     	0.916	110	
44	shocked        	0.914	89.2	
45	accident       	0.913	74.1	
46	inform         	0.913	74.8	
47	acquaintance   	0.912	131	
50	ordered        	0.91	66.6	

Walter Scott’s list of 50 (using only his fiction for the sake of comparison) includes only three adverbs, none in his top 30, and the highest-ranking is an adverb of action: “hastily.” Scott’s list evokes military contexts and especially hierarchies of authority:

1	answered       	0.958	2519	
4	warrant        	0.944	501	
8	risk           	0.93	263	
13	permit         	0.914	247	
14	trusty         	0.913	169	
19	weapon         	0.905	235	
22	boot           	0.902	127	
23	followers      	0.898	505	
27	domestics      	0.897	122	
30	commanded      	0.895	222	
32	courtesy       	0.894	262	
33	quarrel        	0.893	183	
34	kinsman        	0.892	432	
35	assistance     	0.892	248	
37	saddle         	0.891	109	
43	displeasure    	0.89	123	
44	attendance     	0.889	162	
47	willingly      	0.889	170	

Hannah More’s list (again, using only her fiction) is unsurprisingly packed with religious terminology, and I see little overlap between her list and the others.

If you want motion in your novel, open your James Fenimore Cooper:

1	movements      	0.979	903	
3	movement       	0.97	576	
4	direction      	0.961	579	
6	commenced      	0.958	374	
8	companion      	0.952	645	
18	distance       	0.915	552	
20	quest          	0.913	190	
21	returned       	0.913	829	
27	companions     	0.902	268	
37	disappeared    	0.894	137	
38	preparations   	0.893	93.3	
39	placing        	0.893	74.7	
40	position       	0.892	168	

At this point, I think we have at least a preliminary answer to our question: the prevalence of adverbs and so forth in Austen’s works is indeed characteristic of Austen herself, rather than her period or genre.

This little exploration was great fun for me, as the results returned a mix of new insights–particularly about Austen and Edgeworth–and reassuring common-sense confirmation that the tool identifies the characteristic thematic emphases of Scott and More. In a follow-up post, I’ll offer some quick thoughts about other uses of this kind of word-frequency analysis, from the perspective of a beginning user with a pedagogical emphasis.

Jane Austen and contemporary prose style

I’m on leave this semester to do work in the Digital Humanities, so I’ll be posting a lot about that. My interest in DH is not–or has not been–quantitative, but I am expanding my range by dabbling in quantitative methods, currently with the help of Ted Underwood’s wonderful introduction to the topic.

At the end of Ted’s post, he provides a dataset and a program he wrote to find groups of words that form something like stylistic signatures in authors and genres. I’ve been playing with the program, with fascinating results. I’ll share one here. This is the list of overrepresented words in Jane Austen’s works according to one of the measures Ted uses:

1 very 0.985 3283
2 wishing 0.984 154
3 staying 0.982 176
4 satisfied 0.977 188
5 fortnight 0.975 152
6 herself 0.973 1553
7 agreeable 0.973 350
8 be 0.971 2645
9 smallest 0.971 182
10 any 0.971 1112
11 really 0.968 555
12 acquaintance 0.967 462
13 excessively 0.967 91.8
14 nothing 0.967 639
15 assure 0.965 268
16 settled 0.964 261
17 marrying 0.964 196
18 much 0.964 841
19 attentions 0.962 212
20 encouraging 0.961 51
21 directly 0.96 290
22 deal 0.96 329
23 warmly 0.96 96.3
24 must 0.96 1141
25 sorry 0.958 198
26 certainly 0.957 323
27 not 0.957 2023
28 tolerably 0.957 95.9
29 handsome 0.957 136
30 quite 0.956 765
31 been 0.956 899
32 exactly 0.955 248
33 invitation 0.955 194
34 being 0.954 699
35 obliged 0.954 280
36 seeing 0.954 206
37 always 0.953 470
38 pleasantly 0.952 37.8
39 delighted 0.951 107
40 talked 0.95 342
41 perfectly 0.949 283
42 distressing 0.949 61.5
43 solicitude 0.949 89.7
44 comfortable 0.948 167
45 walking 0.948 129
46 continuing 0.947 39.1
47 engaged 0.945 120
48 enjoyment 0.942 122
49 dislike 0.941 86.7
50 talking 0.941 194

The list is interesting in many ways, especially in comparison to the corresponding lists for other authors, but I want to emphasize a side point. “Very” tops the list, and it may also top the list of words I discourage my students from using in their papers. (Mark Twain: “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”) And that’s not all: I push students to minimize adverbs, intensifiers, terms of certainty, and “to be” constructions. Such words infuse Austen’s list:

1 very 0.985 3283
8 be 0.971 2645
11 really 0.968 555
13 excessively 0.967 91.8
21 directly 0.96 290
23 warmly 0.96 96.3
26 certainly 0.957 323
28 tolerably 0.957 95.9
30 quite 0.956 765
31 been 0.956 899
32 exactly 0.955 248
34 being 0.954 699
37 always 0.953 470
38 pleasantly 0.952 37.8
41 perfectly 0.949 283

I’ve thought many times about writing a handout on style that outlines the conventional guidelines of modern, essayistic style with counterexamples from great literature. (What would Hamlet do without “to be”?) But this list encourages me to take such thinking a step further: Austen’s case alone could become the foundation of a unit on voice, style, and convention.

Research after writing

Here’s a question that has bugged me for a long time: how can we teach research skills at the introductory level? Or, even trickier, how can we teach research in a non-disciplinary skills course at the introductory level? This semester, I’m trying out a new answer: teaching research by having students research papers they’ve already written.

Every first-semester Grinnell student takes a class we call the Tutorial: a content-based introduction to college-level skills in writing, reading, discussion, presentation, information literacy, and more. (The course is famously overloaded with priorities.) My versions of the course emphasize writing skills, and in the past, I have chosen not to do much with research beyond quotation and citation skills and an introduction to our library facilities; that is, I have covered information literacy rather than independent research skills, leaving the latter to upper-level courses. In thinking about adding a research component for Tutorial, I have always gotten stuck on the problem of assigning research when students cannot read enough to get a strong sense of a research field. Under such circumstances, how can I avoid turning the “research” into the reading of a few semi-random sources, chosen for their vague relationship to a developing paper topic?

This semester, I will try a new approach: building research into the revision of papers. The students will assemble annotated bibliographies of secondary sources for the course’s final portfolios, and they will choose the readings based on issues that arise in my initial responses to their papers. Because the course is portfolio-based, we can identify areas in which secondary sources would help amplify and refine a given argument. The students’ research will thus have a sense of purpose often lacking in preliminary bibliographies: they will go to secondary sources to solve specific problems. Here is the assignment. Comments are most welcome. If this approach works well, I will work to generalize its application to other introductory courses.

There’s something I need you to do.

Charles Baxter came to Grinnell and, in addition to his reading, did a roundtable discussion for students yesterday. It was terrific. He talked about his realization that many pieces of fiction gain their momentum from a “request moment,” an interaction in which one character asks another character do so something urgently or within a limited time, and the second character either accepts or refuses the request. As soon as you hear this idea, you’ll see it everywhere. One of the first examples it brought to mind for me was this:

STANWYK: “I want you to murder me.”

FLETCH: “Sure.”

How’s that for getting a plot moving?

Then I read Coleridge’s “Christabel” for today’s class. Bingo: the action takes off when Geraldine makes a request of Christabel: “Stretch forth thy hand . . . And help a wretched maid to flee.”

Baxter said that his insight into this pattern came from Shakespeare, for example in Hamlet’s ghost coming to make requests of Prince Hamlet, and that comment made me realize how thoroughly the play is driven by request moments:

[pre-history] Claudius asks Gertrude to marry him, though she knows it’s too soon.

[pre-history] Claudius asks some of the men of the castle to stand guard, though they don’t understand why.

The guards ask Horatio to come talk to the ghost.

Laertes asks Claudius for permission to leave the country.

Hamlet asks Claudius for permission to leave the country; Claudius and Gertrude ask Hamlet to stay.

Polonius and Laertes ask Ophelia (more or less) to break up with her boyfriend against her will.

THEN the ghost asks Hamlet to avenge his father.

Hamlet asks the other guards to swear their secrecy and allegiance.

Polonius asks Reynaldo to spy on Laertes; Claudius asks Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to spy on Hamlet; Polonius asks Ophelia to set up an observation of Hamlet, etc.

Holy moly. I’ve said to my students for years that the key phrase of the play may be Laertes’ description of Hamlet: “His will is not his own.” In these request moments, we can see why that phrase is so important: the characters’ wills are never fully their own, as they are always inflected and constrained by the demands placed on them by others, and the others often have a lot of structural or emotional power.

What other request moments come to mind for you? Or, I should say: Will you tell me—and soon!—of other request moments in fiction?

Caliban’s dream: On Danny Boyle’s London opening ceremonies

Some people have started to notice how weird it was to have Kenneth Branagh, in the garb of a Victorian industrialist, speak in the voice of Shakespeare’s Caliban during the London Olympics’ opening ceremonies.  Columbia professor James Shapiro, for example, noticed the “odd choice,” but he does not even attempt to explain it: “The lines are quite beautiful, and I guess they wanted to rip them out of context and talk about how magical a place the British Isles are.”

I admit that I had the same reaction to the passage at first: Caliban as a costume-drama oppressor, pounding out his speech in smiling ignorance?  Seriously?  And this after opening with “Jerusalem” by William Blake, England’s great poet of the double edge?

But as the ceremonies went on, I saw that Danny Boyle had been many steps ahead of Shapiro and me.  The ceremonies were about protest and dissent, as Alex Woolf argues in a perceptive Sports Illustrated piece.  With a pointed celebration of the NHS, a tribute to suffragism, even a Beatles-linked nod to 1968, Boyle used the occiasion to turn the pageantry of the Beijing ceremony against itself: “he outstripped the previous Olympic host city by flaunting what the Chinese actively suppressed.”

Woolf is right, but Boyle’s work also involved a presentation of British cultural history that embraced the double-edged weirdness of Branagh’s Caliban moment.  I’ll return to that.

The opening song, the anthem “Jerusalem,” takes its words from William Blake’s Milton.  It’s at the bottom of this page.  Often pounded out as if a resolute celebration of the “green and pleasant land,” it is a poem of questioning and longing, of uncertain truths and hopes unlikely to be realized in the contemporary England of “dark Satanic Mills.”

The darkness of Blake’s words give substance to another recent, celebrated London theatrical production: Jez Butterworth’s wonderful Jerusalem, which likewise opens with a haunting rendition of the anthem.  Butterworth’s hero, Johnny Byron, a force of chaos who limps like his poetic namesake, faces down real-estate developers by drumming and chanting an appeal to ancient forces of the British woods.

Boyle’s piece, too, involves a drummer (noted for her physical disability, even) unleashing drumbeats that resemble and oppose the machinery tearing up the wilderness and wildness of British myth.  And in this context, Boyle’s emphasis on labor as well as protest—the nurses of the NHS, those Victorian workers who gave the forging of the Olympic rings a Blakean darnkess—the use of Caliban’s speech makes sense.

Caliban celebrates his island’s music to protest Prospero’s land grab.  Productions and criticism of The Tempest have for centuries supported readings of Prospero as a benevolent reformer or as a cruel imperialist, Caliban as a force of nature and authenticity or of crude violence needing external government.  Putting Caliban’s words in the Prospero-like form of the Victorian industrialist adds another layer: is Branagh’s businessman a clueless appropriator of words as well as labor?  Or does Branagh’s blank smile mask his knowing, ruthless suppression of the bleak truths of industrial progress?  Either way, the invocation of Jerusalem and The Tempest places the 2012 Olympics in a history of wealthy men’s machinery reconstructing the places claimed by British citizens and colonial subjects.

(And was it also a devilishly clever takedown of Branagh as a popularizer of British cultural heritage, or was Branagh in on the joke?  I can’t tell, and I love the ambiguity.)

Then Rowan Atkinson entered to provide Boyle’s most playful set piece, the parody of Chariots of Fire.  As you’ll remember, the scene was centered on Atkinson’s dream of beating the Chariots of Fire runners in a beach race, a victory enabled by some foul play and the use of a motorcar.  The moral of the story, as I take it, was this: British beach-training doesn’t win running races anymore, but cleverness, humor, and the odd elbow might achieve some victories.

The first part of the ceremonies then wrapped up with the relentlessly referential song-and-dance sequence surrounding the aggressively brainless story of young love and a lost cell phone.  “How does finding a girl’s cellphone enable you to call her?” you might have asked.  I sure did.  But there was a clever answer: you can call her, or do pretty much anything you want, if you have Tim Berners-Lee behind the curtain creating the magic, his technology altering the nature of the scene as fundamentally as Rowan Atkinson’s car.

The sexiness, drive, and visual slickness of the big performance really come not from the notably ethnic young people and their electric grins but from the middle-aged nerd with a fast computer and a net worth of $50 million.  Are we supposed to receive that sequence as silly or devastatingly clever?  Fabulously multiracial or uncomfortably controlling, with Berners-Lee a modern Prospero?  About British ingenuity or big-money Big Brother?

Such questions create the unsettling, self-undermining effects of Boyle’s opening ceremonies, which used the tools of art to wriggle free from simple nationalist celebration and pompously Olympian self-congratulation.  They culminated with rings of fire echoing the Victorian millwork, as the torch was lit to the tune of “Caliban’s Dream,” an angelically innocent song by a band called Underworld.   I think Blake would approve.  I know I do.