Learning by destruction

In preparation for my first THATCamp, I’ve been breaking things. I’m new to the DH world, and only recently have I been dipping my toe into the “hack” side of the hack/yack divide. Enchanted by why’s (poignant) guide, I explored a bit of Ruby; then, like many others, I tried (and, by the end of February, failed) Codecademy. Most recently, I’ve been learning a little bit about HTML and CSS (I’m mainly using this book by @jcmeloni).

While the first two attempts to gain concrete technical skills didn’t take me very far, this latest effort is yielding some real results. The difference, I think, has to do with motivation and goals. My first attempts at Ruby and Javascript stemmed from a sense that learning a programming language was something I should do. Though the DH community has taken care to emphasize that coding isn’t everything, my thinking about it hasn’t changed–it’s an increasingly important literacy, and a basic level of knowledge is already important and will become more so, if for no other reason than to understand which problems are hard and which are easy. (My spouse, a programmer, is continually dismayed when he describes some cool new innovation, and I fail to be impressed, not realizing that it solves a very tricky problem.)

I didn’t abandon the lessons because I found them unimportant. I just couldn’t dig into them. This confused me; after all, if I’m good at anything, it’s learning things! Plus, why’s (poignant) guide and Codecademy take such different tacks that if one didn’t work for me pedagogically, it seemed the other should have. But still, I walked away from both of them.

What I’ve come to realize is that without an actual problem that could help me contextualize and apply the new skills, I was having a hard time making the connections I would need to really learn and understand what I was doing. Weeks in, I still didn’t really know what Ruby or Javascript looked like in the wild, and so while I was enjoying making little snippets of code that did things (enjoying it a lot, actually), my interest in both tapered as other priorities came up.

I cracked open the (e-)book on HTML and CSS for completely different reasons. I had been working on the census of #alt-academics that I’ve written about before, as well as the not-yet-public survey that will be its more rigorous counterpart, and I was hitting some roadblocks. Most of these were stylistic: I wanted the logo to appear here, not there, and I wanted it to link back to the site (well, Wufoo wouldn’t let me get past that hurdle, but it wasn’t for lack of trying–and I succeeded on the survey); I wanted a wider margin around the text. In short, I wanted to have more control than the visual editing interface allowed. I picked up the lessons in HTML and CSS because I had a problem I was trying to solve, and that has made all the difference in the way the instruction clicks for me.

My pre-THATCamp efforts have been similar. I’m at a point where I want to start having more control over my site (I am an Order Muppet, after all), so I want to learn more about what I could do with WordPress beyond its ready-made themes; I also want to start doing more with visual and other multimedia materials in my research, so I want to learn more about Omeka. For both of these things, I need to know about web servers and FTP clients, both of which I’m sure are second nature to a ton of THATCamp participants, but they’re new for me. So I have been tinkering, with the guidance of ProfHacker and my stellar colleagues in the Scholars’ Lab.

And along the way, I’ve been breaking things. I had a single triumphant moment in which everything seemed to be working as it should–and then, I went one step further, and managed to completely lock myself out of MySQL, rendering the whole setup unusable.

Here’s where things got tricky, and a little interesting. I had to find a way to dig myself out, and I had no idea how to do that. Most of the troubleshooting instructions I found on involved the command line–which I do not know how to use, much to my chagrin. (Again, following Prof Hacker’s lead, I’ve learned how to do the simplest of tasks–but really, knowing how to create a text file wasn’t going to get me out of the trouble I was having!). I went down a time-consuming and frustrating rabbit hole. As I tried to figure out what to do, I realized a lot of things–among them, I didn’t totally know what MySQL was, why I needed it, or what had gone wrong.

That sounds bad, but it has actually been energizing. The risks for me are still low at this point, but the potential reward is high. I’m finally starting to get a sense of what I don’t know–whereas before, all I saw was an abyss of confusion. My questions at this point are still incredibly basic (and, to be honest, I’m not always comfortable asking them), but I feel like certain elements are slowly coming into focus.

Breaking things has given me problems to solve, which is where the opportunity and desire to learn seem greatest. This is not new news to most of the DH community–@samplereality has argued compellingly that DH is about destroying things, and @jessifer tweeted about giving his students a problem without giving them the tools to solve it. As a pedagogical strategy, it makes sense: that’s how we learn when we’re doing things on our own–with a sense of urgency and a problem to solve.

As I continue to think about reforming humanities graduate training, my own experience of trying to learn, failing, and then needing to learn and (at least partially) succeeding, will remain at the front of my mind. I still haven’t really figured out what all went wrong, but I managed to get things working again (that counts as hacking, right?) and have a much better sense of what questions to ask my fellow THATCampers. Had everything gone smoothly, I would have learned so much less.

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Teju Cole’s Open City

One of my favorite Brooklyn events is BAM’s Eat, Drink, and Be Literary series. When I was  brand new to NYC (still recent at three years ago), I convinced my not at all literarily-inclined spouse to check it out with me, and it remains one of the only bookish events he can stomach. Not only that, but the communal tables and delightful atmosphere foster such lovely conversation that we ended up meeting someone who has remained a good friend ever since. This same friend invited us to check out Teju Cole in this season’s line up, and I decided to read Open City before the event so that I could get more out of the evening.

I was initially in two minds about the book, though I’ve come to like it more upon reflection. I love the way the narrator’s city walks set the story’s rhythm. I know those walks: wandering, dreamy, alone, till miles pass and you’re nowhere near where you started, as measured either by your thoughts or the street signs. It feels like a natural rhythm for a story, even if many more threads are opened than ever get closed.

At the same time, the narrator, Julius, is detached and a little cold, often impatiently dismissing those that open up to him. At times his personality was so unlikeable that it became difficult for me to enjoy his first-person account. It’s easy to mis-attribute the narrator’s qualities to Cole himself; I caught myself doing so when I started reading, and at the BAM event, I realized I was far from the only one. When we discussed the book before Cole took the stage, some of my table mates remained convinced that the book was an autobiographical account. (They described Cole as a “Renaissance man” who was not only the writer, art historian, and photographer that he is, but also the trained and practicing psychiatrist that he creates in Julius–an awful lot for one person to do!) While clearly a mistake, such thinking also highlights Cole’s skillful writing–he narrates through Julius’s eyes so seamlessly, convincingly, and beautifully, that readers have a hard time recognizing the work as fiction.

I was particularly touched by a moment when the narrator, traveling in Brussels, finds himself in a club filled mostly with African immigrants, whom he assumes to be Congolese. After talking with the bartender, however, he learns that the majority of the clientele is Rwandan, and the revelation sends him reeling (accablé is the word that first comes to mind). The presence of so much suffering, endured and inflicted, becomes overwhelming for him. “It was as though the place had suddenly become heavy with all the stories these people were carrying. What losses, I wondered, lay behind their laughter and flirting?” –and yet, he notes, “They were exactly like young  people everywhere” (139).

The book ends with Julius attending a performance of Mahler’s  Ninth Symphony, and though I’m unfamiliar with the piece, Cole’s depiction of it is so finely wrought that I found myself holding my breath when he describes the silence at its conclusion:

The music stopped. Perfect silence in the hall. Simon Rattle was stock-still on the podium, his baton still in the air, and the musicians, too, were still, their instruments up. I looked around the hall, at the illuminated faces, all flooded with that silence. The seconds stretched on. No one coughed, and no one moved. We could hear the faint sound of traffic int he far distance outside the hall. But inside it, not a sound; even the hundreds of racing thoughts stopped. Then Rattle brought his hands down, and the auditorium exploded with applause. (254)

Still, at times Julius’s detachedness is hard to get past. One character levels an accusation of sexual assault against him, and we see no emotion whatsoever: he obliquely denies the charge to the reader, but doesn’t respond to the possible victim in any way, instead drifting off to the next city block and the next train of thought. Such absence is troubling, and makes Julius seem at times to be sleepwalking.

Cole turned out to be fantastic at BAM, and much warmer than I expected based on the book and his Twitter feed. I thought the evening would be much more politically charged, and I thought Cole himself would be more combative. Cole made a bit of a splash recently for his Twitter response to all the attention on Kony, which Atlantic Associate Editor Max Fisher included in his piece, “The Soft Bigotry of Kony 2012.” Fisher recognized the validity of Cole’s main point, but critiqued the resentment that seemed to permeate his perspective; an update on the piece suggested that Cole had not responded well to the criticism. Before hearing Cole speak in person, I was a little put off by his Twitter persona; he comes across as overly self-assured and closed to dialogue. I no longer think that’s the case–again, he was open, thoughtful, and warm at the BAM event. I look forward to reading his work in the future.

Teju Cole’s Open City

One of my favorite Brooklyn events is BAM’s Eat, Drink, and Be Literary series. When I was  brand new to NYC (still recent at three years ago), I convinced my not at all literarily-inclined spouse to check it out with me, and it remains one of the only bookish events he can stomach. Not only that, but the communal tables and delightful atmosphere foster such lovely conversation that we ended up meeting someone who has remained a good friend ever since. This same friend invited us to check out Teju Cole in this season’s line up, and I decided to read Open City before the event so that I could get more out of the evening.

I was initially in two minds about the book, though I’ve come to like it more upon reflection. I love the way the narrator’s city walks set the story’s rhythm. I know those walks: wandering, dreamy, alone, till miles pass and you’re nowhere near where you started, as measured either by your thoughts or the street signs. It feels like a natural rhythm for a story, even if many more threads are opened than ever get closed.

At the same time, the narrator, Julius, is detached and a little cold, often impatiently dismissing those that open up to him. At times his personality was so unlikeable that it became difficult for me to enjoy his first-person account. It’s easy to mis-attribute the narrator’s qualities to Cole himself; I caught myself doing so when I started reading, and at the BAM event, I realized I was far from the only one. When we discussed the book before Cole took the stage, some of my table mates remained convinced that the book was an autobiographical account. (They described Cole as a “Renaissance man” who was not only the writer, art historian, and photographer that he is, but also the trained and practicing psychiatrist that he creates in Julius–an awful lot for one person to do!) While clearly a mistake, such thinking also highlights Cole’s skillful writing–he narrates through Julius’s eyes so seamlessly, convincingly, and beautifully, that readers have a hard time recognizing the work as fiction.

I was particularly touched by a moment when the narrator, traveling in Brussels, finds himself in a club filled mostly with African immigrants, whom he assumes to be Congolese. After talking with the bartender, however, he learns that the majority of the clientele is Rwandan, and the revelation sends him reeling (accablé is the word that first comes to mind). The presence of so much suffering, endured and inflicted, becomes overwhelming for him. “It was as though the place had suddenly become heavy with all the stories these people were carrying. What losses, I wondered, lay behind their laughter and flirting?” –and yet, he notes, “They were exactly like young  people everywhere” (139).

The book ends with Julius attending a performance of Mahler’s  Ninth Symphony, and though I’m unfamiliar with the piece, Cole’s depiction of it is so finely wrought that I found myself holding my breath when he describes the silence at its conclusion:

The music stopped. Perfect silence in the hall. Simon Rattle was stock-still on the podium, his baton still in the air, and the musicians, too, were still, their instruments up. I looked around the hall, at the illuminated faces, all flooded with that silence. The seconds stretched on. No one coughed, and no one moved. We could hear the faint sound of traffic int he far distance outside the hall. But inside it, not a sound; even the hundreds of racing thoughts stopped. Then Rattle brought his hands down, and the auditorium exploded with applause. (254)

Still, at times Julius’s detachedness is hard to get past. One character levels an accusation of sexual assault against him, and we see no emotion whatsoever: he obliquely denies the charge to the reader, but doesn’t respond to the possible victim in any way, instead drifting off to the next city block and the next train of thought. Such absence is troubling, and makes Julius seem at times to be sleepwalking.

Cole turned out to be fantastic at BAM, and much warmer than I expected based on the book and his Twitter feed. I thought the evening would be much more politically charged, and I thought Cole himself would be more combative. Cole made a bit of a splash recently for his Twitter response to all the attention on Kony, which Atlantic Associate Editor Max Fisher included in his piece, “The Soft Bigotry of Kony 2012.” Fisher recognized the validity of Cole’s main point, but critiqued the resentment that seemed to permeate his perspective; an update on the piece suggested that Cole had not responded well to the criticism. Before hearing Cole speak in person, I was a little put off by his Twitter persona; he comes across as overly self-assured and closed to dialogue. I no longer think that’s the case–again, he was open, thoughtful, and warm at the BAM event. I look forward to reading his work in the future.

Joan Didion with Sloane Crosley at NYPL Live

I’m hesitant to post about the NYPL Live conversation between Joan Didion and Sloane Crosley, because I was pretty disappointed with it. I really love these NYPL events, but the thing I love most about them–the chemistry in the interview–was missing this particular night. I don’t know Crosley’s work and haven’t heard her interview anyone before, so I don’t know if perhaps she hasn’t had a lot of experience with it yet, or if she was nervous, but she seemed a little overprepared yet unable to listen. It was disappointing, because I would have loved it if she could have drawn Didion out a little more.

The interview did get me thinking about style and subject matter, though, and how readers engage with them. Didion clearly had no interest in talking about mourning, loss, or (especially) catharsis–or even the genre of memoir, really. And yet, the subject matter of her two most recent books, Blue Nights and The Year of Magical Thinking is so intimate and emotionally charged that people can’t seem to see anything else. Didion said tonight that for her, style was everything; that she wrote about these things because they were things that happened to her, and because that’s the way she tries to understand things, but that the main difficulty (of Blue Nights in particular) was getting the style right.

People don’t seem to want to hear this message. Didion responded bluntly to questions about the emotionally difficult subject matter of her latest books, event complaining gently of readers who approached her to discuss their personal tragedies. While I suspect part of her reticence may be a way of conserving some privacy over her quite public mourning process, I wish people had listened for openings and asked questions along lines that Didion was more open to discussing. Didion’s remarks tended towards sharp, understated wit, and it felt like riches were waiting just behind her stubbornly brief replies–if someone could just open up the dialogue in the right way.

Oh, well. Not every event can be a hit. NYPL Live’s season is winding down, but BAM’s Eat, Drink and Be Literary is just beginning, so I hope there will be another good interview or two in the not-too-distant future.

Umberto Eco with Paul Holdengräber at NYPL Live

When I’m missing the mountains and open skies of Colorado, there are two bookish things that always make me appreciate being in New York: BAM’s “Eat, Drink, and Be Literary” series, and the New York Public Library’s Live series. (Good food will usually do the trick, too.) BAM has the advantage of food, drink, and a more intimate venue, while NYPL has the upper hand on interviewing excellence–I simply love the way Paul Holdengräber engages his guests. A few days ago I went to hear him interview Umberto Eco, and from the moment they kicked things off by talking about books they haven’t read (à la Pierre Bayard), I remembered why I love being in a big city. The conversation was full of gems, and I particularly enjoyed thinking about the idea that hatred and stupidity are boundless, whereas love and truth are limited and predictable. (Love is exclusive, after all, and two plus two always equals four; whereas hatred can be shared and multiplied among any number of people, and the number of wrong answers to two plus two is limitless…)

Somewhere between declaring that the ability to lie sets humanity apart from animals, and avowing that “discombobulated” and “flabbergasted” are his two favorite words in English, Eco asserted the importance of contraints–rather than freedom–in the creative process. This is the essential idea of OuLiPo (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle); while Eco is not a part of OuLiPo, he does have strong affinities with the group, as is evident from this event at the Louvre. The OuLiPo project has fascinated me since my first (or second?) year as a grad student, when my advisor, Warren Motte, introduced me to some of the group’s work. Deeply playful and rigorous, writers of OuLiPo embrace the role of form in the creative process to an unusual degree, setting arbitrary limits and rules on their work to see what comes out of it. One of my favorite examples is Jacques Jouet’s Poèmes du métro, in which each line was written between metro stops as he traveled along a pre-determined route that he had carefully mapped to maximize the metro stops that he visited while minimizing backtracking and repeats. Other writers, like Jacques Roubaud, rely on mathematical formulations to set constraints. Georges Perec famously wrote a novel without using the letter “e” (La disparition, 1990), then followed it up with a novel that used no vowels other than “e” (Les revenentes, 1997). Not all the works that are born of these constraints are fun to read, but the successes are truly magical.

I like the argument for limits quite a lot. I’ve seen it to be true personally with regards to my photography. I have a good camera and live in a photogenic city, but the times that I get the most interesting shots are when I have really specific assignments (like one, from a recent class, to capture blurry motion, silhouette, and deep depth of field in the same frame. This was one result of that task; here is another.) Freedom is not so useful in sparking creativity; set limits, though, and the creative mind comes to life. This is one reason I was interested in silence and the “unsayable” in my dissertation–what can more sharply limit language than silence? When writers work through and around silence, the results can be remarkable.

Returning to Eco after this OuLiPo rabbithole, I’ll mention that the only disappointment of the evening was nonetheless a substantial one. Closing out the interview, Holdengräber asked Eco, who professes to own 50,000 books, whether libraries have a role to play in the increasingly digital future. Eco responded that of course they do! They will be the museums for the lone copies of printed books; they will be like the tombs that preserve the mummified pharaohs.

Having spent a great deal of time lately thinking about this very question, I am convinced that the future role of libraries has far less to do with the physical form of the book (much as I love my real books), and far more to do with the careful and dynamic curation of works in all their forms. I think libraries have the potential to become even more living and vibrant as the expertise of librarians comes to the forefront. Museums, tombs, dusty archives–I think these are absolutely the wrong images to have in mind as libraries adapt to a quickly changing environment. I wish there had been a bit more time for discussion after Eco made these remarks, because I would love to know Holdengräber’s reaction. His usual opening remarks reflect a desire to bring lightness and liveliness to a sometimes heavy institution, so I’d like to think that he would agree with me on this one.

This post touches on some topics related to my work at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, so I will note that all views are my own and should not be taken to represent the organization.