Final Project Proposal

For my final project, I was originally interested in investigating new ways that publishers are “doing things with novels,” in particular, how they are trying to attract consumers of social media to narratives themselves as well as to the act of social reading. The New York Public Library, for example, launched in August a new series of InstaNovels—classics that have been repackaged for an Instagram audience. Their first offering, a two-part Alice in Wonderland series, was fun and light with some innovative creative design and a little interactivity, albeit somewhat forced. On October 3rd, NYPL launched another InstaNovel, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” an 1892 short story that I hadn’t read. (I am truly embarrassed to say I hadn’t read it, given its status as a feminist classic and my enjoyment of Gilman’s novella Herland). So, I opened up Instagram and read it.

Gilman’s story is impressive—tight, short, unnerving. In it, a woman suffering from mental unease is brought by her husband to what seems a tranquil, private country retreat to recover. Far from curative, the place, particularly the bedroom with its visually disturbing wall covering, exacerbates the illness (or at least symbolizes the subjugation and social captivity that drives her closer to madness). Further, and particularly relevant to our DH720 studies, material text plays something of a character itself in the book: the narration is a first-person account relayed through journal entries (which the narrator calls “dead paper”) that the protagonist has been asked not to write to spare her mental health, and the wall-paper’s patterns at moments in the story become imposing, shifting lines behind which a spectral woman seems trapped.

It is a tale clearly born out of the era that brought America Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville. But it is also shockingly relevant in the era of #metoo and the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, with thoughts such as, “If a physician of high standing, and one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression—a slight hysterical tendency—what is one to do?”

The InstaNovel of the story is highly disappointing, with a low-effort attempt at rendering the titular menace as section dividers and with virtually no interactivity. Yet, the story practically proposes its own interactivity: why not have the paper begin to creep over the words, requiring the reader to mimic the protagonist’s actions of trying to scratch and peer behind it, to liberate what is trapped there? Further, why not have the digital paper alter itself in some way, as the wall-paper does throughout the story?

Doing a little digging, I learned that the publication history of Gilman’s piece has been wallpapered over itself, with agenda-laden scholarship and significant misprinting and misattribution of the text over time. One particularly intriguing article comes from Julie Dock et al, in 1996, entitled “‘But One Expects That’: Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ and the Shifting Light of Scholarship”—an article Dock followed up with a published book on the matter two years later. The original publication of Gilman’s story in the January issue of the New England Magazine is available online, so deviations from it are easy to spot. Other intriguing resources available during some of that publication history include a defense of the story by Gilman both in the Forerunner in 1913 in response to over a decade of negative reception by the medical establishment (whose methods are portrayed in the story as harmful) and in her 1935 autobiography.

This digging convinced me that “The Yellow Wall-Paper” is uniquely ripe for a digitized environment that could offer layers of both scholarship and simulation. For my final project, I’d like to research the story’s early reception and publication history and create an annotated and interactive version of the text. One that explores that history in a way parallel to the protagonist’s experience—perhaps where lines move within a fixed, barred space. For that, I’ll also need to do a little reading into simulations that mimic the psychological atmosphere of literary spaces, such as a recent VR game on Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” (also made into an InstaNovel, by the way).

For my platform, I’m hoping to continue working with Manifold. I envision a brief introduction to the story’s initial reception and publication history, an annotated, resource-rich version of the story that focuses on its publication history, and either links to home-grown interactivity or embedded content for visitors to experience in a provocative way the misprintings and publication errors. Given the constraints of time and my novice status with the text, I know that the product will be a little rough. However, I’ve already played around with some simple tools—just html, css, and javascript—to create a rudimentary scratch-off interface to force users to uncover words, and that’s a start. If the interactive tools fail me (or I them), I’ll create a companion to the annotated version in Steller that at least provides the shifting visuals described in the text.

Manifold Critical Responses to “Benito Cereno”

It’s hard to throw a polished hatchet around without hitting someone familiar with Marshall McLuhan’s line that the medium is the message. And our group began this project thinking that Medium would be our medium. We loved it for its unstuffy, modern feel that invited conversation—real social reading. But, our lens for the project was critical responses over time, a focus perhaps better suited to a more intentionally academic platform. After a brief experiment with MIT’s Annotation Studio (which had some useful hypothes.is-esque features such as tagging), we found Manifold—a gem of a close-reading environment largely fashioned by CUNY’s Digital Initiatives group. We loved it for its elegant design, ease of annotation, and, perhaps more vital to our intent, the ability to connect multimedia resources both directly in the text as well as outside of it.

Looking to uncover a broad swath of critical opinions, we each chose interest-driven angles such as Travis’s legal slant and Patrick’s psychological one. Culling responses from 1856 to 2014, our annotations formed something of a social dialogue over time, revealing as much about the critics as the story itself. The responses sometimes differed radically with one another challenging the seemingly authoritative nature criticism and suggesting, perhaps, that, just like reader marginalia reveals much about its writer, so too critical responses reveal much about the critic’s times—not a ground-breaking thought, but one brought to the fore through our process.

Both our individual choices of what critical strands to follow and the critical responses themselves hearkened to Schact’s thoughts about power of collaborative annotation that can “build community, empower students to speak, and underscore the inherently collective nature of creativity and interpretation.” Our findings also supported Barthes’ ideas in that the Text generated by Benito Cereno across these 160 years truly has a unique relationship with the sign: the relationship between Melville’s signifiers and the seemingly signified changed significantly through the decades. The sheer variety of critical responses suggests that this Text has unlimited symbolic, stretching even beyond the knowledge base of Melville who both did not directly understand the Muslim identity of the slaves about which he wrote and could not have had a 20th-century understanding of mental illness or queer theory.

My particular focus, driven by our in-class discussions, was to investigate black and white responses for different audiences over time: an 1856 review in a women’s magazine under a female editor, a white man writing for the New York Times in 1927, an African-American critic writing in the Journal of Negro History in 1956, and Greg Grandin and Toni Morrison writing in the Nation in 2014.

Two of those responses were particularly profound, both on their own and juxtaposed. The first was from Herbert L. Matthews, the white, male reviewer writing in May of 1927 for the Times who was giddy about the publication of a new, stand-alone edition of Benito Cereno, complete with powerful illustrations. Matthews pitches the story solely as a thrilling, maritime mystery, not once mentioning anything about race despite the illustration that accompanied the article: an exaggerated image of a knife-wielding, mid-revolt slave, with others menacingly in the background. While slavery, at that point, had been legally abolished for over 40 years, the Times had since been covering the legacy of enslavement: horrific accounts of lynchings and the push for anti-lynching legislation. In fact, it had covered such topics over 20 times in 1927 in the months before Matthews’ review. His blindness to the racial dimensions of the plot, let alone the undercurrent and context of the tale, is fairly astounding. As a critic, Matthews is, in many ways, Delano—a perhaps well-intended liberal missing the reality of racial struggle around him.

In sharp contrast, Sidney Kaplan, an African-American male writing thirty years later for the Journal of Negro History, not only addresses the racial implications of the story, but takes head-on Melville’s culpability in perpetuating a dehumanized view of the black world. Kaplan points to Melville’s decision to elevate to near martyrdom the real-life, and by legal reports, morally bankrupt Cereno, kowtowing more to a public fear of slave insurrections than to whatever abolitionist tendencies he might have displayed in Moby Dick. Though literally a century separated their writing, Kaplan and Melville both were writing a decade before decisive events in American racial history, and both experienced the fomenting struggles. In such a parallel time, and while still praising Melville’s writerly craft, Kaplan indicts Melville as a near contemporary. For a tale that in many senses ends with the words “the negro,” BC’s reception by the Journal of Negro History, is both aware of Melville’s text and context, as well as its own, and that awareness makes the conviction all the more poignant.

The wide range of critical responses begs the question, who is the implied reader of Melville’s text? A commercially desirable one? One who, like the Times reviewer, is hungry for a good mystery regardless of moral implication (which, by its original serialization in 1855’s holiday season, certainly seems plausible) ? One who is looking for a political commitment, just years before the Civil War, to either abolition or enslavement? One looking for a lesson on human nature, like those in the tales of ancient storytellers? More than what’s truly going on in the San Dominick, that may be the real mystery of Benito Cereno.

To see our project, make an account at https://cuny.manifoldapp.org


Vannevar Bush: The Blind Seer of the Digital Humanities

Soothsaying is a risky business. Often, visions of the future expose the limits of the prognosticator rather than the possibilities of invention. Remember Octave Uzanne’s 1894 The End of Books? He muses, “Who might tell us, in effect, what will be the state of Bibliophilia in the year 2000? Will the art of typographic impression still exist at that date, and will the phonograph…not definitively replace printed paper and illustration with some advantage?”1 Even giving science a century of growth, Uzanne still imagines the phonograph as a key player.

Johanna Drucker speaks to why so many futurists miss the mark: they base their vision on the current forms of technology rather than on performative functions. Of electronic texts, she laments, “The icon of the ‘book’ that throws its shadow over the production of new electronic instruments is a grotesquely distorted and reductive idea of the codex as a material object.”2 She urges a refocusing on the “program” of the material book—what books allow readers to do—explaining that “if we shift our approach we can begin to abstract that functional activity from the familiar iconic presentation.”3

Sixty years before Drucker and a year before the realization of ENIAC (the first computer), Vannevar Bush then is dazzlingly prescient. He shrewdly bases his predictions squarely on the program of scientific thinking rather than its forms. He considers the history of what scholars do—taking field notes, recording data, analyzing, consulting previous works, writing, and publishing—and considers how new scientific tools such as photocells and thermionic tubes might transform, rather than replicate, those processes. In doing so, he predicts the future of technology with powerful accuracy.

The list of devices he imagines with precision is astonishing, from computer components such as monitors, RAM, and CPUs, to branded products such as iPhones and GoPros (walnut-sized, head-mounted cameras). He anticipates a coding language with dichotomous branches and Boolean logic to facilitate the compression of published texts and a means to search them. More broadly, he also imagines the credit card, point-of-sales software, and even Siri and Alexa who he says will “certainly beat the usual file clerk.” Understatement indeed.

His visionary piece de resistance, however, is the memex—a hyperlinked, albeit local, internet. The memex enhances the program of intellectual discovery: the human brain’s capacity for associative indexing “whereby any item may be caused at will to select immediately and automatically another.” Calling to mind Seth Lerer’s historical reference to the Sammelband, Bush depicts such indexing “as though the physical items had been gathered together from widely separated sources and bound together to form a new book.” But, outstripping the material confines of the Sammelband, the mimex “is more than this, for any item can be joined into numerous trails.”

In addition to the worth these associations have for the creator of them, “the inheritance from the master becomes, not only his additions to the world’s record, but for his disciples the entire scaffolding by which they were erected.” Bush believes that the associative indexing itself, in addition to the discovery it yields, is valuable. (And as I copied and pasted that quotation from Bush’s archived Atlantic article into my own notes, having just searched my Word doc for the Sammelband reference, I was struck by how Bush, 75 years ago, was describing my experience in 2018.)

He extrapolates the uses of the mimex to a range of occupations, from the legal to the medical, as well as to unimagined ones. He believes there will be “a new profession of trail blazers, those who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record”—the passion of us Digital Humanists who, just this week, have been establishing such useful trails to and from Benito Cereno.

And, like many prophets of ancient literature, Bush is also, in a sense, surprisingly blind. Despite his enormous capacity for predicting the future of technology, he glaringly misses the future of society.

Appearing only twice in his detailed vision, women exist merely as technological courtesans. He describes a stenotype in the 1940s as if the operator were a prostitute on opium: “A girl strokes its keys languidly and looks about the room and sometimes at the speaker with a disquieting gaze.” Imagining computers in the future, he writes, “Such machines will have enormous appetites. One of them will take instructions and data from a whole roomful of girls…” While he wasn’t far off his near future, as ENIAC was originally programmed by a team of women, his anthropomorphic description here is more reminiscent of Sardanapalus in his bedroom than a machine in a lab. The omission of women is striking given female scientists such as Edith Clarke at GE, where Bush had worked a decade earlier, who published celebrated papers about Bush’s invention of the differential analyzer well in advance of his writing this article.

Bush’s view is also surprisingly limited in scope. He envisions assistive technologies such as speech-to-text, text-to-speech, and audio, but, unlike his predecessor Edison, he doesn’t imagine what those affordances can do for the disabled. He eagerly awaits freedom for the mathematician so lofty that he cannot compute numbers himself, but he doesn’t extend the liberating capacity to those more visibly impaired or to academics weeded out early in their educations precisely because they couldn’t do elementary math.

He’s also missed the humanities, relegating photography to data gathering and never once mentioning, even in his litanies of professions, the realm of literature, despite his admonition that “specialization becomes increasingly necessary for progress, and the effort to bridge between disciplines is correspondingly superficial.” While he sees the capacity for the technology to connect material, he has missed its perhaps more important ability to connect people to each other.

While unbound in his scientific imagination, he remains a prisoner of his social one: his world of the future is that of continued isolated and individual achievement by members of an elite that is distinctively male and abled and presumably white and well off. And yet, he has impressively envisioned the very tools that now invite much of the world to contribute, collectively and from myriad walks of life, to the “general body of the common record.”


1Rubery, “Canned Literature,” 238-239.
2Drucker, “Virtual Codex from Page Space to E-Space,” 220.

Digital Annotations: Tugging on the Thread of Text

Written in 1971, Roland Barthes’ “Work to Text” is an argument presented in the era of the material book. Computers, up to that point, were merely giant number crunchers, albeit highly useful for calculating trajectories of rockets or missiles. In that print-centric context, the hard distinction between the titular terms is easy to see as he explains his first proposition: “the Text is not to be thought of as an object that can be computed.” He clarifies further still: “The difference is this: the work is a fragment of substance, occupying a part of the space of books (in a library for example), the Text is a methodological field.” Simple. The work is the product of the author, and the Text is what we make of it, academically, culturally, and personally—how it resonates with other readers, other texts, and in other times.

Barthes goes on to propose five more characteristics of the Text. It has no bounds (neither physical nor hierarchical nor taxonomical). It has a unique relation to the sign, mutating beyond the original signified as it moves in space and time. It is plural, nay infinite, in its forms and meaning. It is an object of play. And it gives us self-replicating pleasure that lasts far beyond the act of consuming the work. Barthes’ Text seems a radiant cosmic force, or perhaps a democratic one: of all, by all, and for all, expert and novice alike.

However, it’s hard to tell how pure his vision of the work is. Barthes seems to delineate it quite clearly as whatever the author originally offered as the finished work. He goes so far as to say, “It is not that the Author may not ‘come back’ in the Text, in his text, but he then does so as a ‘guest’.” Are choices made by editors, publishers, and book sellers the end of the work or the start of the Text? If an author provides explanatory notes—an introduction, footnotes, an afterword, or edits in another edition—has she changed the work or contributed to the Text?

His distinctions get hazier still when it comes to annotation. Certainly, scribbled marginalia fit the bill for Text—unlimited, interpretive, filtered through unique lenses, playful in their interactivity, and, for most of us, quite pleasurable. Similarly, in the digital world Barthes could not have imagined, exercises like ours on hypothes.is seem to be Text as well—an organic conversation of us all comparing our experience with the oued of his theory.

But annotation as scholarly commentary seems to buck some of these criteria, especially when codified the way Matthias Bauer and Angelika Zirker propose to do. Barthes lauds the expansive nature of the Text: “The Text, on the contrary, practises [sic] the infinite deferment of the signified, is dilatory.” Bauer and Zirker seek to constrict it, to narrow it with the aim of making it useful, seeing a “risk of the loss of information through the overabundance of information.”

Bauer and Zirker propose a brilliantly practical scheme: to identify categories or fields of scholarly annotation and to leverage the infinite space and hyperlinked nature of the digital realm to offer it at three different levels. Barthes may find that their linguistic, formal, intratexual, and interpretive fields are part of the work’s Text, springing, as they all do from the work itself and part of the response to it. But he might consider the contextual and intertextual fields too close to what he calls the “myth of filiation.” In fact, he may reject them altogether, noting that “the citations which go to make up a text are anonymous, untraceable, and yet already read: they are quotations without inverted commas.”

Bauer and Zirker might argue back, claiming that their codification is intended to be heuristic—part of the seemingly open and democratic nature of the Text, allowing more to contribute to its plurality. They might also argue that scholarly annotation is one way to stimulate the vitality of the Text, to keep it alive, as they explain, ““[These levels] manage the amount of information presented, encourage plausible interpretation, and show the dynamic aspect of annotation. This aspect is seen in the digital format in particular: a digital annotated edition may become an ongoing working platform.”

With the elapsing of 44 years of technological development on their side, Bauer and Zirker are certainly able to counter Barthes’ first proposition, at least in part. By categorizing and leveling scholarly annotation on a digital platform, that segment of the Text can be computed. They offer, “The quantitative levels are not exclusively reader-oriented; they are also text-oriented, showing us, at the same time, a text that virtually speaks for itself (with just a little help from us) and that is situated in a network of many linguistic, cultural, and historical interactions.” In fact, computing the Text is growing easier and easier, from quantifiable, geo-mapped “likes” and hashtagged Twitter feeds.* But, while he may take issue with the idea that a text requires help to speak for itself, paradoxically Barthes may find that such computing, is actually part of the Text itself. In other words, while we weave the tapestry of the text, we can stand back to analyze or admire the patterns therein, which may guide where and how we place our next weft.


*I’ve recently been stunned by page-by-page analytics available to lay users on digital publishing platforms like issuu. Below is its reporting on how many readers headed to page 7 in a collection of poetry my students wrote over the summer.


I Prefer To: A Convert Speaks of Narration

After last week’s work, I had begun to agree with Rubery that audiobooks had the power to turn us all into listeners. Turns out Rubery might be right about the their second capacity as well: to turn more of us into narrators. While listening brought the text from the page to me, creating an audiobook brought me back to the page, deep into the page.

As our group prepped for project, the mere act of imagining the audio brought out elements of Melville’s text that I’d missed such as frequent alliteration and hilarious slapstick. Our attention was largely on Bartleby himself—how we might represent him as both passive and powerful. Our idea of layering additional narrators to his spoken lines as the story went on seemed both promising and wonderfully menacing, especially when he is ultimately silenced in the Tombs.

But, treating the text as a script and re-recording passages forced me to explore more profound possibilities. I found myself (I hope) doing what both Liu and Rubery had described as co-authoring—interpreting to offer something new.

For example, the story seems, by virtue of its title and eponymous, enigmatic character, really about Bartleby. And given our class discussion of parallels between Bartleby’s occupation and Melville’s life, that reading makes sense. As the oldest and weariest of our group, I’d volunteered for the first two and last eight pages–the times when the narrator himself is his oldest or weariest. In those pages, I found equally significant the disintegration of the narrator—of big business—in the face of Bartleby’s unmoving movement. Melville’s punctuation and fragmented sentences suggested an almost dissociative disorder besetting the narrator on page 27—a Poe-esque one—as he argues darkly with his own conscience and desire. Trying to voice that split, that unraveling, I felt the fever brought on by the what the narrator subconsciously sees as the contagious disease of Bartleby’s passive defiance—one fatal to an industry reliant on unthinking workers—which explains the absolute and dark necessity, in the narrator’s mind, to cure himself of the scrivener.

The dissociation became so intense (and I used GarageBand effects to capture the internal voices) that I entertained for a moment whether Bartleby was even real. I thought perhaps he may be a projection of the narrator’s psyche—a freedom he longed for in himself that he externalized and then murdered through neglect to protect the comfortable life of ease to which he had grown accustomed. (Farfetched, yes, but fun to kick around.)

That reading brought the truly baffling last two lines into greater clarity: they seem to be the reconciling of the dissociative mind. “Ah Bartleby!” the narrator cries just after blaming the Dead Letter Office for what seemed the scrivener’s predestined course for death—a course that, if truly predestined, removes the narrator from all culpability. “Ah humanity!” he adds, ruing the state of the very world that he feeds and that feeds him financially and necessarily sends all unproductive fluff to the flames.

While I value a recording that strives to be faithful to the text, this experience made me long for time to play around, like a jazz musician with a riff, to see what else “Bartleby” might yield—to try exaggerating the humor, to imagine Bartleby’s inner monologue, to see the story from Nippers’ or Turkey’s eyes. Ah the due date! Ah full time jobs!

Listening to W.E.B. Du Bois

For this assignment, I chose a LibriVox recording of W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk. Having already heard some commercial audiobooks, I wanted to try an amateur production. I chose Souls not only because I know it well, but because it presents two big challenges to narration: the chapters are a mix of genres, from critical essay to fiction, and each begins with an epigraph followed by musical notation of part of a Sorrow Song, the music of enslavement.

The quality of the production is excellent. The narrator, known simply as toriasuncle, has what Rubery calls “verbal muscularity” (67)—a resonant, warm voice that could easily belong to an African-American man like Du Bois. (I listened to a recording of Du Bois himself, and toriasuncle’s voice is nearly identical in register and in his slightly slushy s sounds.) The recordings from chapter to chapter were impressively consistent aside from an occasional variation in volume and one chapter where the reader was so close to the microphone that it picked up the breath of aspirated consonants.

Toriasuncle is the sole narrator, and with impressively well-chosen pauses, he takes to heart the LibriVox manual’s hope of “controlling the pace in order to engage the listener.” He makes effective choices to modulate his voice for different characters, whether historical or fictional, and his treatment of female voices is particularly noteworthy, as he softens his voice rather than changing his pitch—a technique Rubery notes, explaining, “male narrators often have more success speaking female parts in a whisper rather than a falsetto” (67). This softening reinforced the diminutive role of women in Du Bois’s collection of thoughts on black life at the dawning of the 20th century. Because I knew the printed text well, I did a lot of what Rubery called “prooflistening” (68) and found that only one character—white John in chapter 13—didn’t speak as I had imagined.

Impressively, just as toriasuncle shifts his voice to reflect the speaker, so too he changes instruments (in what seems to be a digital program like GarageBand) as he plays the bars of the sorrow songs, seeking to reflect their “characters” and to match the tone of the chapter. For example, a lone, plaintive guitar picks out the notes opening chapter two, which speaks to failed Reconstruction. Chapter three is a scathing critique of Du Bois’s philosophical arch-enemy, Booker T. Washington; Toriasuncle plays its opening bars with clipped, plucked strings despite the legato marks—an abrupt departure from the more fluid bars of the first two chapters. This license he takes with the musical notation is the only evidence of him “editing in the guise of auditing” (67). Otherwise, toriasuncle stays true to every line of printed text.

Overall, listening to this edition Souls was ear-opening.* The most striking contrast from the print edition was hearing the music that opens each chapter. It highlighted what had become for me a forgotten last chapter—“Of the Sorrow Songs”—where Du Bois traces the contribution and evolution of music from Africa to popular minstrelsy. Similarly, in reading the text on paper, I had skipped the German Du Bois peppers throughout. Hearing the language underscored Du Bois’s scholarship and worldliness powerfully juxtaposed with the white perception of black academic potential at the time—a perception Du Bois addresses directly in the text. It also helped me make connections to his reference in chapter 13 to Wagner’s Lohengrin and to an alliterative line in chapter 14, “to Queen and Kaiser,” as well as to hear how white audiences might have received Du Bois himself as an intellect in 1903. By contrast, I was jarred by white characters’ use of the n-word—a markedly uneducated and base term and one that seems more contained on the page than when spoken in the ear. Toriasuncle rightfully imbues it with all the superiority and hate with which it was spoken then and now.

One true revelation of the listen was the continuity it gave the text, broken up only by the boilerplate librivox language at the start of each chapter. Since Souls binds together chapters of many genres, the narrative voice for each sounds different to me in print. Toriasuncle kept the autobiographical tone of the forethought and first chapter throughout, even in the chapter that is fiction, “Of the Coming of John.” That consistency knit together the variety of threads through which Du Bois looks at the African-American experience and made it feel, as it of course was, intensely personal to him.

The audio experience had far more perks than I imagined, and I’m already planning to listen to more, starting with the only other toriasuncle recording, a collection of poetry. Yes, I had to take notes on paper or my phone, and yes, arriving and departing subways made me miss what may have been important sentences, but the ability to read while moving through the city on my commute or, as I did twice, taking a long walk in McCarren Park, did make the text feel immediate and alive.


*If Rubery can make bad puns, so can I.

Hayles’ Missed Opportunity

In “Hyper and Deep Attention: The Generational Divide in Cognitive Modes,” N. Katherine Hayles urges professors to anticipate a shift in the way rising, media-steeped students think and to evolve accordingly. She presents her argument in unambiguous, binary structures, with two types of attention, two generational sides, and ultimately, two inevitable solutions: “change the students to fit the educational environment or change the environment to fit the students” (195). Perhaps out of rhetorical necessity—she is, after all, writing in 2007 to the largely deep-attention readers of the MLA’s Profession magazine—she oversimplifies both the “divide” and the research that evinces it, obscuring some of her keenest observations and their pedagogical import.

She defines deep attention with a direct connection to the discipline of her peers and an example likely to be beloved by many: “Deep attention, the cognitive style traditionally associated with the humanities, is characterized by concentrating on a single object for long periods (say, a novel by Dickens), ignoring outside stimuli while so engaged, preferring a single information stream, and having a high tolerance for long focus times” (187). By contrast, she defines hyper attention more clinically, as “characterized by switching focus rapidly among different tasks, preferring multiple information streams, seeking a high level of stimulation, and having a low tolerance for boredom” (187). Her audience, both by generation and occupational predilection, might place greater value (even ascribe superiority to) deep attention. But she argues that there is merit and weakness in both. Deep attention, she notes, while essential for solving complex problems, lacks awareness and the ability to adapt quickly to change—skills her audience may need to recognize this generational shift and accommodate it. Inversely, hyper attention is great for navigating quickly evolving environments but struggles to sustain energies when the task demands it—energies a student might need to read an article like this one.

Again perhaps to placate her audience, she presents the modes as seemingly mutually exclusive, and springing from history and evolution. Where deep attention is the product of luxury, of a society (or a sliver of society) that needn’t battle constant threats to survive, hyper attention was (and perhaps may be becoming again) a survival strategy when humans responded to persistent and unpredictable threats. In conjuring an image to clearly depict the modes, she segregates them almost pejoratively but certainly stereotypically: “picture a college sophomore, deep in Pride and Prejudice, with her legs draped over an easy chair, oblivious to her ten-year-old brother sitting in front of a console, jamming on a joystick while he plays Grand Theft Auto” (187-88). Of course, life requires both: from the hyper attention needed to drive in traffic to the deep attention that solves moral dilemmas. And the college sophomore is as likely to be glued to her phone later that night as the ten-year-old is to enjoy a bedtime book.

Further, the root of the generational shift lies in kids’ unfettered, unchaperoned access to a wide variety of media that gives rise to a hunger for multi-channel stimulation which, at its extreme, presents as AD/HD—a term likely to instill fear in deep-attention readers.

But within her pared-down and somewhat alarmist model are exciting revelations that present real opportunity. Analyzing a study of the effects video games have on executive function in kids, she concludes, “The results suggest…that media simulation, if structured appropriately, may contribute to a synergistic combination of hyper and deep attention—a suggestion that has implications for pedagogy” (193). This seems huge. To wed the two types of valuable and desired attention is not only a goal for the rising generation, but educators themselves and serves as a true call to investigate ways to scaffold the use of media in the classroom.

She also references a study of older gamers who “found the opportunities offered by the games for achievement, freedom, and in some instances connections to other players even more satisfying than the fun of playing. Stimulation works best, in other words, when it is associated with feelings of autonomy, competence, and relatedness—a conclusion with significant implications for pedagogy” (195). The study reveals that these games require “active critical learning” (195) to progress, motivating players to learn new things incrementally. Designing curriculum with these natural incentives seems less modern age than just plain effective.

Hayles’ Facebook example is wonderfully prescriptive, as students use an accessible, relevant example (societal forces at work that shape online personas) to tease out truths they can immediately apply to a more deep-attention piece, The Education of Henry Adams. Greater still, students can reinforce this insight every time they encounter a digital profile or read another novel. Harnessing that “active critical learning” also engages learners in their own assessment, giving them a stake in their education. While creating audio books, Allred’s “students also noted issues of readerly competence and affect: one student noted, ‘I came across a few words I had never seen in my life nor had I known how to pronounce them out loud’” (Allred, 121), something she may have dismissed in reading simply to write a paper.

Both approaches help students harness hyper attention in service of deep attention. Both harness digital relevance to bring students to more remote, but perhaps equally universal or resonant texts. The 2007 readers of Profession who missed this insight may be among the very faculty that Brian Croxall described as the “absent presence” (Kirschenbaum).