Friday, April 26, 2013


One of the really wonderful things about the Beinecke Library's Beyond the Text symposium this weekend is the way in which it weaves together archival and poetic concerns. Tara McPherson was here earlier this week to give a talk in WGSS, and I found it so refreshing when she talked about the great students in the practice-based Ph.D. program at USC: "we cheat a little," she said, "because most of them come in with MFAs, so they have certain skills." It's so rare to hear that kind of training spoken of as a good thing. But it is a good thing. This morning Lori Emerson cited studying the Emily Dickinson archive with Susan Howe as her primary training for the media archaeology work she now does at Boulder.

In the second panel, on sound archives (Al Filreis, Jason Camlot, and Steve Evans), some conversation emerged—some spoken, some in the Twitter backchannel—around labor. It began with Jason Camlot and Al Filreis's discussions of workflows, which were largely "DIY" (I get the feeling Al spends a lot of time digitizin' away) and/or supplemented by grad or staff labor. (Steve Evans ribbed Al: "You guys aren't purely DIY—come on!")

These issues emerged more explicitly in the Q&A. One librarian noted that libraries' slowness often has to do with the cost of digitization, not in terms of equipment but of labor (because unlike the less formal structures Al had in place, libraries pay for this work). Lori noted that "DIY" often meant there was no one to whom to pass the torch when one person needed to step down, and that had much to do with the fact that this labor was uncompensated. As Jason rightly observed, this is a sustainability problem. Clearly this work is a labor of love for many people (in Al's case, visibly and wonderfully), but that does not then render it not labor.

The general consensus seemed to be that poetry and sound archives necessarily run on uncompensated labor, and that the basic question is how to get more of it. (Crowdsourcing came up a number of times.)

Jason Scott of the Internet Archive pointed out the incredible archival resource that the Internet Archive has been for a long time and continues to be, including for poetry materials (such as Naropa's archives). But this bounty was also framed in terms of volunteer labor, and in particular, the volunteer labor of young people.

This seemed to me to be a very problematic premise, especially the assumption that it's not only fine but a good idea to have young people do unpaid work—that unpaid work is somehow the natural province of youth. It's true that young people are often enthusiastic, want to learn, and have time to contribute. They may very well like doing the work. At the same time, the naturalization of unpaid or underpaid youth labor should be resisted ("it's mostly high school students": the {false} rationalization of a low minimum wage), as should the naturalization of not paying for cultural preservation work. Jason's responses to me are in the Storify, but one of them struck me as particularly interesting.

Can we take a moment to talk about mining?

Mining is perhaps now thought of as the quintessential poorly paid, dangerous, exploitative labor. There's a long history of labor conflict around mining. Getting the stuff out of the ground is a really unsavory process, but then, we also really want the stuff.

Mining is also the go-to metaphor for another often unsavory yet much-desired practice, the transmutation of "data" into usable "information." Mainly we have algorithms, overseen by humans, do the labor. Sometimes that's too hard, and you'd be better off having a human inside that machine; in that case you use Mechanical Turk. And sometimes the only thing of value that you need is labor, in which case we "crowdsource," mining the laborers themselves. The crowd's a goldmine. "So the hunter becomes the hunted, migrating from a situation in which users farm for gold, to a situation in which users are being farmed" (Galloway 137).

Is crowdsourcing "like" mining? As always with likeness: in some ways yes, in some ways no. This is less a matter of "exact resemblance to exact resemblance" than of the difference spreading. Is volunteering to digitize poetry sound recordings "like" mining? Not intrinsically—but if neither is paid, or paid sufficiently, then they are "like" in that sense, which is the only relevant sense for the comparison.

The canonical scene of mining strikes is actually not gold mining. The famous labor strikes repressed by Thatcher's government were mounted by coal miners. But gold mining looms large in the digital imagination for another reason: the phenomenon of simulacral primitive accumulation known as "gold farming." In the game World of Warcraft, the low-skill, time-intensive acquisition of "gold," which can then be sold for real currency to wealthier players, is famously associated with exploited Chinese workers, including prisoners.

As Alex Galloway observes in The Interface Effect, the figure of the Chinese gold farmer—and its installation as a racial other in ways that, as Lisa Nakamura has shown, conduce to deeply racialized social formations within the world of the game—is as powerful as ideology as it is problematic as a labor form. It serves to fashion exploitative digital labor as not-us.

And I would suggest that the eager twenty-year-old with a laptop functions similarly; in that way, too, digitizing sound archives is "like" gold mining, or rather "gold farming." Like the hypothetical minimum-wage high schooler whose income serves as pocket money, non-essential and destined for "fun," the youthful volunteer, who may very well intrinsically enjoy the work, authorizes a category of labor exploitation that is not only okay but also okay to take as the norm for the labor of cultural preservation. "I can get you a twenty-year-old!" is, in that sense, not a labor solution but its opposite: a commitment to the norm that this work will be unpaid.

Galloway, Alexander R. The Interface Effect. Cambridge, UK ; Malden, MA: Polity, 2012. Print.

See also Galloway, "Does the Whatever Speak?" In Race After the Internet. Ed. Lisa Nakamura and Peter Chow-White. New York: Routledge, 2012. 111-27. Print.

Nakamura, Lisa. "Don't Hate the Player, Hate the Game: The Racialization of Labor in World of Warcraft." In Digital Labor: The Internet as Playground and Factory. Ed. Trebor Scholz. New York: Routledge, 2013. Print.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

"Increasingly large classes"

It is never really worth the time to point out something egregious the New York Times is doing, but it's rainy out and I'm a bit ranty this morning, so.

The recentish NYT article on machine-grading essays ends thus:

Mark D. Shermis, a professor at the University of Akron in Ohio, supervised the Hewlett Foundation’s contest on automated essay scoring and wrote a paper about the experiment. In his view, the technology — though imperfect — has a place in educational settings.

With increasingly large classes, it is impossible for most teachers to give students meaningful feedback on writing assignments, he said. Plus, he noted, critics of the technology have tended to come from the nation’s best universities, where the level of pedagogy is much better than at most schools.

“Often they come from very prestigious institutions where, in fact, they do a much better job of providing feedback than a machine ever could,” Dr. Shermis said. “There seems to be a lack of appreciation of what is actually going on in the real world.”

Three things going on there.

1. "With increasingly large classes." Oh, what is causing those classes to grow? Nature? The seasons? The moon and tides? Or the failure to hire enough professors to meet the size of the student body in the first place? Shermis suggests that "increasingly large classes" are a fact of nature, not a personnel decision. The author of the article, John Markoff, does not correct.

2. Shermis notes that critics often come from "very prestigious" institutions, by which he actually seems to mean "good" ones, because "they do a much better job of providing feedback than a machine ever could." I highly doubt the software gives more useful feedback than do humans at "less prestigious" institutions. (Don't get me started on the offensiveness of his insinuation about faculty at "less prestigious" institutions.) There is a disgusting and invidious ranking implicit in Shermis's remarks that imply that "the nation's best universities" are "best" purely through Merit and Talent, and that we have no responsibility to try to get all the nation's college students a commensurately high-quality education. That used to be what the University of California was for, but I guess that's gone.

3. In a neat twist, Shermis decides that qualitatively rich teaching and helpful feedback on essays are not real. The actually existing, documentedly and admittedly better solution of hiring enough faculty to teach your students is placed outside "the real world," in a zone of unreality that makes it unemulable, and certainly not a model for broader educational policy. Whereas having software grade your students' essays is totally realistic and a great idea.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

In fact, when I asked at yesterday’s conference what the university would like without its current adjuncts, I received this reply: MOOCs coupled with a new student body of global elite students.

A wonderful post about moving beyond the "repressive hypothesis" of the corporate university, by Karen Gregory.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Dear Professor James, #YOLO :)

Any Stein scholar would be struck by this story about a Texas high school student, Kyron Birdine, who wrote "YOLO :)" ["you only live once"]* on his standardized test paper and tweeted the photo to school officials. Birdine was punished with four days of in-school suspension.

The first thing this made me think of was this famous story about Gertrude Stein:

It was a very lovely spring day, Gertrude Stein had been going to the opera every night and going also to the opera in the afternoon and had been otherwise engrossed and it was the period of the final examinations, and there was the examination in William James's course. She sat down with the examination paper before her and she just could not. YOLO :) ** she wrote at the top of her paper, and left.

The next day she had a postal card from William James saying, Dear Miss Stein, I understand perfectly how you feel I often feel like that myself. And underneath it he gave her work the highest mark in his course. (Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas 740)

The story is often quoted as evidence of Stein's whimsy, of James's good will, or both. Last semester I told the story to my American Lit students, who immediately asked me (as students always do when you tell this story) whether the same trick would avail in my class. ("Ha, ha, you can try." Never let it be said that I am not a loving teacher.)

But of course, nothing will happen to a Yale undergrad who doesn't take a final exam, except that they'll fail the exam (which, in my course, only counted for perhaps 15% of the grade, and so would have by no means have kept the student from passing the course—and you know where a C average at Yale can get you).

Nothing was going to happen to Gertrude Stein, either. She didn't even plan on taking a degree at Radcliffe until the very end, when James persuaded her to try medical school. "There were no difficulties except that Gertrude Stein had never passed more than half of her entrance examinations for Radcliffe, having never intended to take a degree. However with considerable struggle and enough tutoring that was accomplished [yes—she accomplished getting into the college she was already attending, which by the way was Harvard] and Gertrude Stein entered Johns Hopkins Medical School" (740). She later flunked out of same and went to Paris and that was that.

Contrast this charming tale of the 1890s with the artisanal home-canned pickle we are now in. Gertrude Stein took an exam when she absolutely had to, and sometimes not even then; that she could even attend Radcliffe was a mark of her privilege. Kids These Days, in contrast, are constantly subjected to high-stakes tests, consequential for them as individuals and for their school districts. Contrast Stein's story with the myriad gymnastics (figurative and, if literal, often Olympic-grade) students now go through to get into Harvard (7.9% admission rate) or into medical school anywhere (we all have our pre-med stories).

To refuse to take a standardized test is to practically refuse both present and future—even if the test doesn't really mean anything. By all accounts standardized testing is even more constant and more emphasized than it was when I was in high school (I was pre-NCLB), and even I remember how frequent the tests were, how arbitrary-seeming, and above all, how boring—the SSATs, the PSATs, the (and oh, did we laugh about it) Virginia Standards of Learning (SOLs).

Kyron Birdine's exceedingly mild rebellion and its consequences suggest, too, that if anything they are even more rigidly policed than they were in the 90s. I remember how each student was interpellated into the role of a potential cheater, a potential violator. Make sure you have the right kind of pencils, make sure you have extra, eyes on your own paper, also cover your paper in case someone else might look over because if someone else cheats off your paper you are then a cheater too. I don't know about cell phones; in Virginia in the 90s they were considered evidence of dealing drugs and banned from public schools.

But the testing is also as arbitrary as it is compulsory. From the Gawker article linked above:
As the Dallas Observer notes, Kyron are being forced to take both the new State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) test and the old Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) test, even though only the TAKS will count.

"He and any other Texas students who entered ninth grade before the 2011-12 school year are still evaluated on the TAKS test," the Observer explains. "They're still required to take the STAAR, but mainly so the state can get data they can use to tweak the test before it really matters."

"It wasn't for a grade," Kyron told WFAA's News 8. "Colleges don't see it. It didn't benefit my personal life at all."

Students in Birdine's year were, in other words, being used as a data source to help calibrate the new test. I know I had to do this too, on the SAT--I took an analytical reasoning section, but the scores didn't count for anything because it was new; they just collected the data and used it to calibrate the scoring. I'm sure that's a standard procedure now as in the 90s. It disturbs me a little, though, that it's never occurred to me before that standardized testing companies shouldn't get to waste students' time and collect their data for free—let alone compulsorily.

Kyron Birdine staged his mild protest with good humor, as his self-deprecating "#freeKyron" tweets indicate. And although in the grander scheme of things the punishment seems unjust, the four days of suspension probably won't have much impact on his life. Yet he seems aware of the power dynamic surrounding him, and the ease with which school conduces to criminalization.

"Some people are acting like I tweeted nuclear launch codes. I expressed my opinion on red lines. No more, no less," Birdine writes. He's right; it's not a crime.

A friend replies, with the brutal honesty for which we so prize teenagers, that Birdine's protest was used as a cautionary tale in a class called "MYF."


"'mapping your future you know... The fuck around class where we do nothing[.]"

Nothing could be as important for mapping your future as obediently taking whatever test is put in front of you, it's suggested. Follow the rules. Avoid criminalization.

Another friend responds by joking about the danger that Birdine poses to the Arlington school district:

Birdine jokes back, but the joke has an uneasy undertow. "don't say that. Haha. They might see that as a threat."


I often feel like that myself.


*It delights me to no end that Birdine not only uses an internet abbreviation but renders the smiley face on his paper as an emoticon, using punctuation, then tweets a photograph of the analog message. Somebody get this kid in a media theory class.

**As given in the original, what Stein wrote on that paper was "Dear Professor James,...I am so sorry but really I do not feel a bit like an examination paper in philosophy to-day."

Stein, Gertrude. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. In Writings, 1903-1932: Q.E.D., Three Lives, Portraits and Other Short Works, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Ed. Catharine R. Stimpson and Harriet Scott Chessman. New York: Library of America, 1998. Print. The Library of America 99.