When You Present Critical Findings About Your Friend at a Conference…and She’s in the Audience

img_4375Earlier this month I presented a small part of my research at the National Women’s Studies Association conference in Montreal, Canada. The conference took place in the wake of the devastating election results.

The timing of the conference couldn’t have been better. I needed to get out of D.C. and not worry about turning on the T.V. just to hear, repetitively, that Trump will be the next president. The election results felt personal, as it did for so many of us who are marginalized in America and for those who happen to give a damn about social justice and have made a life and career out of it.

Despite heading to Montreal with a flurry of gray clouds over me, I looked forward to meeting up with Elodie—my “research subject” and extraordinary friend. But, I felt nervous about giving my presentation, “The Right Kind of Other: Multicultural Imperialism and Flexible Citizenship in Women’s Olympic Beach Volleyball.”

I was going to talk about Elodie’s relative privilege over other African competitors, who she beat out for a berth to the 2012 Olympics. I had also prepared 13 PowerPoint slides with large pictures of her…in a bikini! This was not the glorious talk she perhaps imagined I’d give one day when I first asked if I could write about her life. The talk was physically and personally revealing of her.

It wasn’t until the final sentence of my talk that I felt, versus knew, the enormity of what I was actually doing. Holding back tears of gratitude, I read aloud:

“I have to thank Elodie, who has graciously allowed me to put under an academic microscope, her complex and beautiful life. Admitting one’s privilege is exceptionally difficult. I am profoundly impressed and humbled by Elodie’s openness to speak about her systemic privilege. I am thankful for and inspired by her difficult reflections and honesty.”

Elodie was in the audience and she sat there listening to my critical observations of her journey to the Olympics. She flew into Montreal to support me. She gave me permission to write about her and her family’s life. She trusted me to tell her story (the good, bad, and complicated).

I’m overwhelmed by her generosity in sharing her life for my academic career.

For a brief moment during the conference I panicked over the risk I was putting our friendship in. And then Elodie suggested we go get foot reflexology massages, eat Chinese food, and watch a movie at some point that weekend. We hadn’t just hung out, the two of us, since my son was born a year and a half ago.

IMG_4376.JPGAs we walked the streets of Montreal, we talked about our fears, hopes, and dreams, just like we had done growing up in downtown Toronto.

It’s intense, doing a dissertation largely based on one of my best friends’ life. It’s a massive and delicate responsibility. And yet, through this experience I’ve been able to have conversations with Elodie I may not have had otherwise. As an added bonus I’m able to share with her the frustrating, arduous, and exciting process of doing academic work, which so few people outside of academia know or appreciate. This experience has been personally and professionally enriching so far.

With 2016 coming to an end, I’m looking forward to phase two of “dissertating”—travel for research in 2017. I’ll be hitting up archives at the British Library in London, England, the Olympic Studies Centre in Lausanne, Switzerland, and visiting archives and Elodie’s family in Mauritius. Elodie plans to join me for parts of these travels, so stay tuned!

The Dissertation Is My Olympics. The Olympics Is My Dissertation

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Thank goodness for the Rio Games. Just when I was falling into a rut with my doctoral work, the Summer Games begun. It’s early to feel burnt out considering I just started the dissertation journey. Perhaps defending my proposal only a few months after giving birth and then moving to the other side of the country have a lot to do with my premature burn out.

A wise auntie of mine told me recently that quitting on my PhD now would be like training hard for a marathon and stopping at mile three. She had me at the sports analogy.

With my auntie’s guidance, I gave myself the much needed permission to take this summer off with the promise to register for fall. In hind sight, I should have taken a break, A REAL BREAK, from school much earlier in the year. Instead, I inefficiently attempted to chip away at my work.

To my surprise, in the past eight months I managed to submit an abstract to the NWSA conference (which got accepted), teach a brand new (new for me) 400-level course, submit an essay to two medical humanities journals, conduct and transcribe a 90-minute interview, read a few books, analyze this FIVB video, and start a resource website for postpartum women. It’s not the most productive amount of work, considering the amount of time passed, but it’s something and I’m happy to have something.

Unfortunately, not giving myself a break—after two significant life transitions—has taken a huge toll on my ability to persevere with the dissertation. It’s work that requires so much delayed gratification and has uncertain professional and economic promises—a tough investment for a new parent. It also doesn’t help that people often find my work too abstract to sustain a genuine conversation, making it hard for friends and family to relate to why I continue down this solitary path that tests even the most resolute among us.

And just when I contemplated throwing in the towel (you like what I did there?) the Rio Games descended upon us in the most unrelenting way. I couldn’t be happier with the bombardment of Olympic news from EVERY SINGLE MEDIA OUTLET. Few people doing their doctoral work are inundated with so much “stuff” related to their research.

For the academic side of me, this Rio Olympics is especially interesting because it’s the first Games in Latin America, and it’s in a country that glorifies multiculturalism, hybridity, and mixed races as part of its national identity. Also, beach volleyball is a huge featured event partly due to its growing popularity around the world especially in regions with significant beach cultures like California and Brazil.

beach-1210567_1920The iconic Copacabana Beach, where the beach volleyball competitions are taking place, seems to be the epicenter of the sexualized representation of Brazilian women and fashion. This makes for fascinating observations on how the sport seamlessly blends into the beach/surf/bikini culture, naturalizing the heterosexiness of the players and drawing in a spectatorship different than those of other sports. (I’m talking about official beach dance entertainers.) Other really interesting things are happening in this Olympics that just scream for academic analysis include: the refugee team, the first American to compete in a hijab, commentary on the women’s Turkish beach volleyball pair competing fully clothed, the near banishment of the entire Russian team (doping related), Gisele Bündchen in the Opening Ceremony, the Opening Ceremony’s performative story of slavery in Brazil, Obama’s commentary on the cultural and political significance of the Games, the commercials celebrating diversity…There’s sooooo much!!

Really though, at the end of the day I’m binge-watching the Games because I’m so totally sucked into the glamor, excitement, and lure of the Olympics. I can discuss the inequalities of sports until the cows come home, but it doesn’t take away from my appreciation and awe these athletes and their mental and physical capabilities.

We don’t see the hours, days, weeks, and years of training that go into performing at such a high level of physical movement. We don’t always see the aches and pains or know about the athletes’ personal sacrifices and obstacles. Despite my critiques of the Games, their clichéd narratives and their unapologetic commercialization, I can’t deny (EVER) the Olympics’ amazing display of physical human accomplishment. I just can’t. Having played competitive sports through college, I only have a tiny glimpse of and resounding appreciation for what it takes to be an Olympian.

As the Rio Games continue, I’ll be glued to the TV and Internet hoping that this global event sparks the motivation I need to keep on keepin’ on with my dissertation. In a similar way these athletes trained for their moment on this global stage, I busted my ass these past several years intensively reading, researching, and writing to show my dissertation committee that I have what it takes. My “training” would be for not, if I stopped now. So let this dissertation be my Olympic debut.

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Crowdfunding Your PhD?

fundzDoctoral work is a privilege. And PhD programs are saturated with people of privilege. Despite the increasing rate of student diversity (in all manners of the word), a vast majority of us PhDing come from relative degrees of privilege. It seems oxymoronic to consider oneself an underprivileged (and I’m writing largely in terms of SES) PhD student.

Because no one needs to have a PhD to survive in this world.

Yet, having no money is the crying call for us “struggling” grad students. Unless you have a cushy trust fund or won the lottery, grad life is a hard economic lifestyle regardless of marital or parental status, age, or other categories of “need” people foreground when trying to garner financial sympathy. (This is a phenomenon I’ll probably explore in a future post. I find it fascinating.)

So when I stumbled upon this article about crowd funding dissertations, I was intrigued. The author cites kickstarter’s less than 50% success rate, but that’s hardly grim compared to the odds of getting a major scholarship that can significantly alleviate financial burdens.

Another U.K. student wrote about crowd funding his doctoral studies (including course tuition). Both articles stress how challenging this path can be, which I don’t doubt.

It also seems like science or engineering projects with everyday application, or social philanthropic projects may be more appealing to potential supporters. I don’t know how humanities dissertations would fair considering how they lean toward abstract theoretical conceptions, which can be esoteric.

Could this strategy actually work? Are students heading in this direction?

My Five Book Rule

Now that I’m officially out of the coursework and exam prep phase, I get to read for (academic) interest and dare I say, fun!

My five book

My five book “to read” pile.

I don’t buy or have a lot of stuff—an economic reality of being a grad student and hating clutter—but I do like having a lot of physical books. Over the years I’ve purchased books faster than I could read them and having a pile of unread books plague me with buyer’s remorse.

So I made a rule: I can have a maximum of five unread books at a time in my home.

The idea for this self-imposed rule came after going to a fascinating talk featuring author Minae Mizumura who recently published The Fall of Language in the Age of English. I wanted to buy this book, but then realized I had five other wonderful books I’ve wanted to read (and are probably more relevant to my research and interests).

They are:

To help curb my impulse to buy books, I’ve started a “save for later” list. It’ll give me time to assess whether I really need another book on my already crowded shelves.

What does your reading pile look like?

Loving Research Even When It Sometimes Doesn’t Love You Back

One of 133 PDFs captured and save from Le Mauricien for future analysis.

One of 133 PDFs captured and save from Le Mauricien for future analysis.

Research is really exciting.

From my undergrad, master’s, and (now) PhD programs I’ve had the privilege to dabble in several kinds of research methods: statistical analysis, content analysis, experimental design, ethnographic work, focus groups and key informant interviews, oral history, archival research, survey implementation and analysis, program evaluation, build environment assessments, and etc.

Research projects have always been my favorite part of being in higher education. I find great satisfaction in all stages of the process from an idea’s inception to writing the report or final product, and everything in between.

To be clear, however, it’s not always easy or inspirational work. I’ve found that project logistics or using certain research tools is most frequently what challenges my romantic sensibilities toward research.

This weekend I started doing basic archival work on the Internet, assembling an initial collection of articles written about my biographical subject, Elodie Li Yuk Lo, and her assent to the Olympics.

I stumbled upon an archival goldmine—Lemauricien.com.

On Le Mauricien’s website, there are over 130 articles (many brief, about

My excitement quickly faded upon realizing two things:

  • My French is rusty—and Le Mauricien is a French publication.
  • Zotero doesn’t support this website.

I spent most of one morning PDFing 133 articles that contain “Elodie Li Yuk Lo.” I spent the better half of an afternoon manually filling in citation information that Zotero couldn’t capture (which is almost everything). And then I made the HUGE mistake of assuming that Zotero would automatically back up my work because I have a Firefox-hard drive syncing mechanism set up.

Then my laptop froze and shut down. All my work had disappeared upon rebooting.

I felt deeply betrayed by technology though I know this was largely a human error. I was pushing the limits of my laptop’s capacity, I didn’t check how to properly back up my work in Zotero, and I had way too many windows open and programs running.

I know there are monumentally worse things that could go wrong with archival research. Also, I’m entirely grateful that Lemauricien.com even has articles archived, searchable, and freely accessible on the Internet.

This experience serves as a good reminder that shit sometimes happens and in the grand spectrum of this project, loosing half a day’s worth of work on the computer isn’t that significant of a setback. Plus, I didn’t need to leave my home to access articles from Mauritius, I have PDF versions saved of all them (on multiple drives), and now I know how to properly back up my work on Zotero (which is potentially saving me from a much greater software catastrophe sometime down the line).

Do you have any research disaster stories, solutions, or suggestions?

Passing the Qualifying Exams

If we analogize the PhD journey to climbing an Everest-like mountain, I’m heaving to catch my breath right now. I just passed my qualifying exam.

After reviewing two hundred (plus) books—divided into three reading lists (“Gendering American Studies,” “Body Politics,” and “Contemporary Life Narratives”) that culminated in a week long examination where I wrote three essays and orally defended them—I struggle to feel “qualified” in anything.

It’s the academic trap.

Like Einstein once said, “The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.” It was quite paralyzing to come to this realization, weeks before my exam. My exam committee reassured me that the goal wasn’t to know everything, but rather to understand and identify the trends/conversations happening in the field—a much more manageable task.

Post-exam, I gave myself a week and a half to catch up on sleep, to not read or write, and to cocoon myself in a protective bubble against thinking of other looming deadlines. These things are considered significant luxuries among graduate students.

After my brief reprise, it took very little effort to realize I’ve just climbed the first of several peaks of a seemingly infinite mountain. Remaining, I have my comprehensive exam, research/writing of a book-length manuscript, editing and defending the dissertation, attempting to get it published, and doing those things all over again–should I choose an academic career.

We know about the tortured artist who finds refuge in the act of creating art, but is there a similar romance to the tortured academic? Perhaps.

For outsiders, PhDing might seem elusive yet inspirational at best, and masochistic or self-delusional at worst. As an insider, this process is undoubtedly hard, but it’s easy to remember the privilege of my choice. I get to spend a good chunk of my days, weeks, and months absorbing the ideas of past and contemporary scholars and intellects, and then figure out how I can contribute to those conversations.

I get to geek out for a living.

I’m still planning on writing a cultural biography about my childhood friend Elodie Li Yuk Lo—the Chinese African Canadian beach volleyball Olympian.

…of course with the support of a published and well-respected team of very smart people. (Well, almost. I still need to get my dissertation proposal approved first.)

Writing About My Friend, the Olympian

UntitledThere’s nothing like signing up for a writing course to kick my ass into writing gear. Some people are self-motivated and determined to pump out pages without externally imposed deadlines and accountability.

I’m not that type of person.

I respond well to external pressure and deadlines, especially from an authority figure or someone scores smarter than me.

Before I get to write my book (dissertation), I need to write a proposal and my committee need to approve it. This is a significant milestone in my PhD journey not only because I’ll be that much closer to the end goal, but because I’ll have permission to start my research for a book I’ve been conceptualizing in my head for the past two years. As much as I love(d) taking courses and acquiring knowledge, I’m looking forward to contributing to an intellectual community. (The actually contributing part may still be a few years from now.)

I’m about 95% certain that I want to write a biography about my childhood friend Elodie Li Yuk Lo who is one of the first beach volleyball Olympians to represent Mauritius—a small African island nation. I feel so fortunate to be in an academic setting where I’m encouraged to use my personal experiences, knowledge, and connections to inform my research and writing. It still feels strange to think that personal topics can have a legitimate space in academia. Coming from a science and social science background, I’m still working on rethinking what constitutes “valid” or “authentic” scholarship.

Untitled1As I move forward with this class and program, I hope to use this blog to share my progress with the biography. To give you a little snippet of the vision, below is what I wrote for an in-class writing exercise attempting to explain (in plain language) what my project is about. Here’s an initial stab at describing the grand vision (which will most definitely change and evolve):

About fifty years ago during the Cold War, the International Olympic Committee started making a concerted effort to include and encourage newly independent African nations to participate in the world’s largest sporting event. Several sports governing bodies began introducing new rules to accommodate and encourage diverse entry of athletes from these less developed nations. About half a century later an ethnically Chinese beach volleyball player (Elodie Li Yuk Lo) took advantage of what is now known as the African Continental Trials to represent a tiny African island nation, called Mauritius, in beach volleyball. The book I’m writing examines Elodie’s journey to and participation in the London 2012 Olympics. Through Elodie’s story I explore how some athletes from developing nations struggle to compete and participate in the most elite sporting arena, demonstrating how the Olympics is an inherently unequal playing field. But Elodie’s story is more than her Olympic journey. As an ethnically Chinese woman, a fourth generation Mauritian, and a first generation Canadian, Elodie’s story is also about Asian and African migration in the 20th and 21st centuries, shattering many ideas of what we think we know about Asian or African immigrants in North America. Her story also shows us the politics of representing a nation and continent (where she is a racial minority), and how she navigates her multiple identities on a very public Olympic stage. But at the story’s core, this biography is about an athlete’s arduous journey to the Olympics fraught with roadblocks, close calls, pushing through self-doubt and injuries, media scrutiny, racial politics, lack of resources, and long training hours all culminating into one women’s experience of a lifetime.

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PhD Exam Prep: It Begins

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Easing my way into week 1 of exam prep reading. Yes, there are two popular press books on this week’s stack!

It’s time.

Since day one of my PhD program I had spent too many moments fretting over the qualifying exams and doubting how I could ever read, discuss, and write about ~200 books in time. We didn’t read this copiously in the social sciences and I wondered if switching to the humanities was too lofty an ambition.

That was two years ago, and now I’m about to embark on my six month long reading journey. At the beginning of my coursework, I couldn’t have imagined how excited I would be to start reading approximately five books per week until this December. But I totally am!

Most of my academic experience (largely since high school) seemed a kin to perpetually eating a dry salad–you knew it was good for you so you endured through it but the reward was quite delayed and kind of obscure. I was (and still am) a fairly good and consistent student, yet I didn’t always love the experience and process of learning.

I never thought I would look this forward to preparing for such an intellectually intimidating exam. For the first time in all my many years of being in school, I finally feel ownership, direction, and autonomy over my education and intellect. It helps that I can choose most of my books (albeit within academic parameters) and concretely see how most of them will serve my intellectual future.

I’ve been told by professors and friends who are now well past their post-doc years that this study period is a special privilege, and that I’ll never have this opportunity again to dedicate so much time to reading. undoubtedly, I’ll need to remind myself of this privilege when I’m eyes deep in the jungle of dense theory and I feel like giving up.

Study tips and encouragement are most welcome!

Guest Post: The One-Body Problem

Tenure, She Wrote

by @scidoctress

I hold immense respect for my female friends and colleagues who are struggling to advance their own academic careers alongside a spouse’s. I’ve watched brilliant women find a plethora of creative solutions to the “two-body problem,” as it’s termed, from negotiating spousal hires to commuting great distances to settling for second- or third-choice jobs, sometimes even leaving academia altogether. I have attended countless seminars on work/life balance where the same inevitable questions arise: How do I balance my commitment to my children with my commitment to my research career? How do I juggle my husband’s career demands with my own? How do my academic husband and I strategize to find two professorships in the same university? When someone mentions the two-body problem, a palpable sense of collective panic seems to overtake the room. I can feel the married women around me bristle with the deep-seated fear that the…

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Word Searches and Database Management

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With stop words filtered out

As we’ve entered the second half of the semester, I’m increasingly thinking about how to arrange, present, analyze and set up my project for the Digital History course. This document introducing tabular data analysis provides some interesting options and considerations. I’m working with about 30-35 magazine articles from the 1940s to 1960s. They are either photocopied, photographed, or scanned (among the ones I physically have). For this semester, I’m realistically going to set up a flat file database to put the material up. The text analysis software, is an interesting option to explore as well considering, my analysis will look at discourse and language used to describe menopause in the postwar years. However, my biggest barrier to using text analysis is the quality of my copies. When I first collected these articles, I was working on a standard seminar paper. My intent wasn’t to digitize them and build a small database. As a result, many copies are barely legible, sentences are separated into different scans and photos, and depending on my photocopying skills that day, text closest to the magazine’s spine stretches and fades. One option is to put these documents through optical character recognition anyway and see what comes up. Another option is to transcribe these articles, either through typing them or reading them into a voice transcribing software. I’ll have to brainstorm further options to move my projects beyond a flat file database.

In the meanwhile, I played around with Voyant Tools and searched words in this blog. The results are not as exciting as I’d hope. My most frequently used words tend to not be significant ones such as “and,” “the,” “to,” “a,” “my,” etc. But I do notice “women” is moderately large in the word cloud. I do find it useful to select words and trace its frequency. Perhaps this blog isn’t the most useful document to analyze, but it was an exercise worth doing to see the tool’s potential for my own research.

On Spatial and Geographical Tools

From arcGIS Server 9.3 Help

From arcGIS Server 9.3 Help

As a spatial and visual learner, I’ve been curious about GIS (Geographical Information Systems) since I first learned about it during my time as a public health program evaluator, several years ago. Although our evaluation team never built a GIS database (while I was there), we discussed its potential in relation to some of our projects. For example, how could this database system add to our project evaluating fruit and vegetable food quality in select distributors across urban Honolulu? We also looked at street walkability and measured pavement quality (if a sidewalk existed), lighting, buffers between the walking space and road, signage, among other features.

In the larger public health context, I find spatial mapping an invaluable tool. Ian Gregory brings up a sample project investigating infant mortality rates from 19th century Britain in this blog post, which compares urban and rural locations and their changing rates of infant mortality. I also remember seeing conference presentations that visually represented increasing obesity rates in America, by state, over the past century. While these “obesity maps” of America were jarring, the data served largely to visualize a health epidemic, which then served as a segue into a discussion on particular interventions to combat the situation. In these instances, the visual map, which looked at geographical and temporal factors, served little more than a shock factor. It would have been more interesting and perhaps more meaningful to layer additional variables, such as socioeconomic factors, urban versus suburban versus rural sprawl, access to types of food establishments, etc. As Richard White argues in What is Spatial History? tools for spatial history are a means of doing research, not the end point.

While statistical tools can tell us the correlation between BMI and percent likelihood of chronic fast-food consumption, a geographical relationship between communities with overweight and obese individuals with their lived environment offer additional insight. For example, it can show us the ratio between types of food establishments and grocery stores. It can also show us whether those areas are conducive for walking (safety, lighting, buffers from road, etc). A geographical relationship may also show us a historic relationship between increasing rates of obesity with increasing rates of encroaching corporate food industries. Does it matter how many blocks away you live from certain establishments? Is there even a relationship at all with BMI and fast-food restaurant proximity? With geographical datasets, a new set of questions can be asked to commonly researched projects.

For my own project, which I mentioned in my last post, I’m wondering how I can create a spatial or geographical component to it or whether that would even contribute to my research. I’m dealing a lot with language and discourse around white middle class women’s aging bodies in postwar magazine articles. I’m not entirely sure how spatial history can be part of my research tool-set (for this project) but I’ll keep open to the possibility.

“Change of Life” Pathologizing Menopause

Change of life GH 67 - 1

From Good Housekeeping September 1967

In my Digital History course we’re moving onto the “doing” or hands-on part of the course. It’s a bit overwhelming but also incredibly exciting. In many ways I feel as though my imagination is the limit for this project, and then I return to reality. Taking two other demanding courses and teaching Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays is more limiting than my humble imagination.

So I’m reaching for a low-ish hanging fruit. Not necessarily in terms of “easiness” but in terms of producing a project that would be more cohesive, build-able, and with a decent amount of data, rather than starting from scratch. I’m hoping to create a digital manifestation of a previous term paper titled, “Pathologizing Menopause: Surveillance Over Aging Women’s Bodies.”

As with many papers, after turning them in, all I can think about is how I want to change, rearrange, and further edit my work. This digital history project will offer just that opportunity in a much more creative way.

Even before sifting through my primary sources (magazine articles from the 1940s to the mid-1960s about menopause), I’m expanding and narrowing my scope simultaneously. On the one hand, I want the digital expression of this project to also address how the language to describe menopause is historically contextual and has changed since the postwar era. Tracing the language used to describe (or pathologized) a condition is especially important for my project not just for purposes of analytical inquiry, but important for data organization and search functions. On the other hand, keeping narrow my primary sources allows me to make this semester project manageable.

Back to terminology, on the simplest level, the term “change of life” was equally, if not more, prevalent in the early postwar years. For a large part, the discourse around menopause had a mysterious aura to the naturally occurring condition. Also, many articles explored the ways menopause can be adverted completely. So terms like “prevent,” “cure,” and “avoid” were pervasive. Tracing the evolution of these terms give historical context on how menopause was constructed as a disease and also significantly impact how I set up my data for visitors.

With this project, I’m primarily interested in illuminating how the postwar years was a rich time in American history when women’s bodies were scrutinized and pathologized, which appropriated a “normalizing” rhetoric that enabled heightened surveillance and medical intervention over them. My hope is to trace a fairly recent genealogy that sheds light on how society does or doesn’t pathologized women’s bodies today.

In the spirit of open collaboration, I’m going to try to set the project up to allow contributors and discussion. Depending on my level of success, I’d like to expand the time frame beyond and preceding the post war years, respectfully, as well as including other historically pathologized “conditions” like menstruation, hysteria, pregnancy, and homosexuality.

I’ll be blogging about my successes and challenges with this project along the way.

My spatial brainstorming mapmap thus far via VUE:

 

Digital Humanities and the Future of my Academic “Work”

Black face caricature circa 1928. Publisher Seibundo Shotenkaisha 誠文堂商店界社  [From the Japanese Commercial graphic Design 1920s, courtesy of the UHM Library Asia Collection]

Black face caricature circa 1928. Publisher Seibundo Shotenkaisha 誠文堂商店界社 [From the Japanese Commercial Graphic Design 1920s, courtesy of the UHM Library Asia Collection]

Although, I have problems with David Bell’s tendency to over essentialize an issue against print monographs in the academic sphere, I do find the conversation about new ways to view academic “work” exciting.

I’m especially interested in bridging the knowledge and accessibility gap between academic research with the public, so some of Bell’s arguments for the Internet’s democratizing potential resonates. But I don’t buy that digital tools are as democratizing or decentralizing as the authors of From Counterculture to Cyberculture suggest; however, the conversation about increasing public access to research and knowledge, and the notion that academics should consider a larger audience is appealing.

Bell’s essay also questions the value and feasibility of printed monographs. This is quite unnerving for a humanities academic.

“They are also passing the cost pressures on to those authors they do accept; it is becoming routine in some fields for university presses to demand subsidies of $5,000 or more to publish a book, and to insist on strict limits on length. In some fields, the printed academic monograph seems dangerously close to extinction.”

Before taking this Digital History course the notion that the academic monograph is in danger didn’t register on my radar. Isn’t this a cornerstone for tenure? I definitely want to be part of a larger dialogue within my department and the university to understand the direction in which we’re headed. My professional well-being relies on what the academe constitutes as “work.”

But how do we begin to redefine the notion of “publish or perish”? Will it look different in different fields? Arguably, digital projects vary to a far greater degree than books and printed work, so is it necessary to establish some sort of standard or protocol to submit non-monograph work? Is the notion of a standard counter-productive to the digital age’s “decentralizing potential”?

“[S]cholars are, after all, professional readers” Bell asserts. But according to this essay it seems as though “reading” is taking on new meanings as well.

I started browsing the University of Hawaii’s digital collections to get a sense of this new kind of work humanities scholars are moving toward. This project on Japanese commercial graphic designs from the 1920s caught my attention; I love looking at early 20th century advertisements and never had the opportunity to look at a collection of them from Japan.

In addition to the 1920s graphic designs, what interested me about this digital archive was this tiny little link at the bottom of the home page. I wanted to know more about the open source software the collection works with.

From the Japanese Commercial graphic Design 1920s, courtesy of the UHM Library Asia Collection

From the Japanese Commercial Graphic Design 1920s, courtesy of the UHM Library Asia Collection

This hyperlink lead me to another set of interesting digital archives and projects formerly inaccessible to the public. Streetprint.org’s goal “is to make formerly inaccessible texts and other artifacts available in an exciting new way to researchers, students, and the general public alike.”

These are the kinds of projects that make me excited about where humanities work is headed within the digital evolution. My venture to other sites via hyperlinks also speak to Bell’s (among other scholars’) argument about non-linear and infinite learning potential guided by the reader’s interests. This project also brings up questions about open source work, which seems to be a hotly contested issue within this larger conversation about academic work in the digital age.

As I addressed in my post last week, I’m overwhelmed with more questions than a definite understanding of what digital humanities is and what it means for my professional future as well as my stress level.

Information Technology: Friend or Foe?

It wasn’t until this week I really started appreciating the academic crossroad I currently exist in. This predicament is in reference to how the digital age is inevitably shaping and challenging the world of learning and what we consider academic quality work.

As a doctorate student I need to start concerning myself with publishing papers or producing a monograph (as expected in the humanities). What I didn’t consider until now is that the advent of the digital age is challenging conventional notions of “publish or perish.”

For example, in his essay “How to Read Hypertext: Media Literacy and Open Access in Higher Education” Richard Rath (a University of Hawaii history professor) juxtaposes the conventional peer review and print publication process with the growing movement for open access scholarship via information technologies. Rath foregrounds this juxtaposition in the context of struggling university presses as well as a need to teach critical media literacy. What I find exciting about this discussion is for its potential to critically evaluate how the proverbial “ivory tower” serves (or doesn’t serve) the public.

Also, information technologies potentially offer greater access to academic knowledge. I’m cautiously optimistic about the anti-hierarchical and decentralizing potential for digital tools like the Internet in academia especially.

Beyond academia, in the book From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism, Fred Turner writes a history of, and relationship between, information technologies and resistance dating back to the cold war, predating the Internet. Turner follows the careers of key pioneers such as John Perry Barlow and their approach to the digital world as analogous to westward expansion:

“By summoning up the image of the electronic frontier, Barlow transformed the local norms of the WELL, including its Whole Earth-derived communitarian ethic, its allegiance to antihierarchical governance, and its cybernetic rhetoric, into a universal metaphor for networked computing” (162).

Upon reading this I immediately think of the Indian Removal Act. Obviously, I’m not taking this analogy literally but the frontier parallel conjures questions about the digital divide. For example, who’s left out, forgotten, or eradicated in the digital landscape? Who’s writing the digital history and how does it matter? Are we adopting “manifest destiny”-like attitudes in pursuit of claiming digital space?

These questions may seem esoteric or overly meta-analytical but I’m genuinely concerned about them. An architecture friend of mine who looked at technology in elementary schools (for his dissertation) once told me that we’re not really using technology in innovative ways that drastically change our way thinking. Rather, teachers often use, lets say, a smart-board to replace the whiteboard; or instead of turning in a physical paper, it’s turned in electronically.

This anecdote reminds me that technology’s counterculture potential in academia (and to a larger extend the world) is equally met with its ability to reinforce existing structures.

Online Identity Crisis

I’ve grappled over this issue before – how to create/maintain my digital identity. In hindsight, I wish I wrestled with this online from the get-go rather than in my head and notebook (or in a course assignment requiring me to blog on the topic). For starters I would have spent more time productively blogging than feeling paralyzed over how to articulate my pseudo professional status. (Which by the way I’ve settled on “professional student,” “educator,” “PhD student,” and “masochist” depending on my mood that day.)

I first started seriously considering my online presence after joining a small word-of-mouth group called “permanent beta.” This was a few years ago. We are a group of women that gather once in a while to bounce professional concerns off of each other (I’m the only academic). Almost every meeting we chat about online presence and social media issues. Two large takeaways I got from this group are that our online identity isn’t fixed and that it’s better to actively take charge of it than passively hope we look okay in internet-o-shpere.

This Stanford piece on virtual identities had me at the first sentence, “First impressions have gone virtual.” Among two other very interesting courses (American Sexuality and Autobiographical Writing) I’m taking Digital History, which once again brings me to consider my online identity. Here are a few self-inflicted roadblocks I’ve faced preventing an active investment in my online identity (and by extension blogging more frequently):

  • I have no idea when I’m going to graduate so I assume I won’t need to worry about this for a while.
  • I’m not aiming for a traditional career path so I don’t know how to tailor my profile, “about” section, Linked-in, etc.
  • Speaking of Linked-in, I have small insecurities about having quit my full-time project management job to go back to school (read: I don’t have a “real job”) so I’ve avoided signing on and updating my profile.
  • Re: blogging. My audience and biggest fan is my husband. After that, an occasional friend. Writing into the digital abyss is taxing on the creative spirit.
  • Time! I’ve never worked so many long hours in my life. When I’m not reading or writing for school I feel guilty. It feels a bit self-indulgent to spend time building up my online self.
  • My Facebook privacy settings are on pretty high. I’m safe right?

That felt good to write.

And now the things I’m doing (or will do) to address the issues above:

  • Take a digital history course where weekly blogging and research on digital identities (practical and meta-analytical) are mandatory.
  • Make a list with all my social media accounts and update each profile. Assign a due date (within the next two weeks) and ask a friend to look at it.
  • Write a post now! (Which I’m doing.)
  • Remind myself that I can change or update my profiles anytime. Just like real identities I have many ways of being me and they’re rarely fixed one way.
  • Regularly follow other bloggers and digital historians/humanists.

Speaking of which, here are some blogs I follow that keep me interested and inspired. One relates to digital learning, the other is an interesting digital history project on American Foodways, and this last one is about being a PhD student and creative writer. And for those struggling to be an effective blogger (like I am), this article might be useful.

Rather than starting a new blog (for the Digital History course) I’ll be using this one to write about my academic experience this semester. There’s something nice about building on an existing blog instead of starting, yet another one, from scratch.

I leave you with this bootleg video of a scene from The Office. Dwight Schrute in Second Life.