Bartleby, new and oldish

You might enjoy an early 2000s Bartleby hypertext edition that I’ve rediscovered via the Internet Archive’s invaluable Wayback Machine. It starts with Bartleby’s blank wall and goes from there: cute, no?

Pretty cool version of Bartleby edited by a Slate writer, Andrew Kahn, last year. It’s richly illustrated and contains a wide range of notes that provide historical context and a sense of some of the diversity of critical opinions on the text over the years since its publication. And there’s even an audiobook version on the site for good measure.

As such, it also points towards our second collaborative project together, in which we’ll be doing something similar (though with much lower production values!) with Benito Cereno, so as you check it out, think about what Kahn did to make this work. Or not.

Finally, although it sometimes seems like ancient history, Bartleby played a starring role in the Occupy Wall Street movement in and around Zuccotti Park in 2012. I’ve collated a few pieces from that time that capture the flavor of the way Bartleby haunted that space and that time:

  • Jonathan Greenberg riffs on the use of “occupy” and cognate concepts like self-possession, property, and vocation in Melville’s text, in Zuccotti, and on campuses.
  • Lauren Klein thinks about the politics of language in both Melville’s text and the movement.
  • Jac Asher examines the way Bartleby dismantles the logic of homosociality that underpins Wall Street from within.

GROUP PROJECT #1: audiobook version of Bartleby (due 9/27 in class)

Whether or not you prefer to, you will collaborate with peers in the production of an audiobook version of Melville’s enigmatic novella, Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street (1853). Each student will be assigned to a team, and each team will decide on how to divide up the work. I suggest that, at a minimum, each team have:

  • reader/s: readers will read/record the text (duh). Each team will decide whether to have one voice read the entire text (it should take about 1:20 of continuous reading, excluding breaks) or whether to assign parts in a “radio play” format. More experimentally, a team could deliberately shift the voice of the narrator, having numerous actors voice one character.
  • editor/s: editors will compile the audio files into a format that is listenable. This could involve a single long track or several chapters (though the original does not have chapters, you could create them); it could involve mixing in a soundtrack or sound effects as well. You could use Garage Band for Mac or the free/open Audacity; if you have the skills/software, you could use more sophisticated software. The key is not to have a product with high production values, however: I’m more interested in the process and how well you reflect on it.
  • presenter/s: each group will present its a-book to the class on the due date of 9/27. Presentations will be brief (max 15 mins) but focused. Presenters will play a sample of the a-book and walk us through the process and the product: how the team divided the work, what strategic/aesthetic decisions were made, what worked well and what didn’t, how the final product speaks to (sorry) the secondary readings we’ve been doing.

The last requirement is that you compose a brief post for the blog (500 words max) reflecting on a) the process/product as a whole and b) your specific role within it, with an emphasis on what the experience taught you that merely reading about audiobooks (or, of course, merely reading Bartleby!) would have missed. The post is due on 9/27 as well.

You will be evaluated on the following criteria, which I will not boil down to a simple rubric, since they all interact with one another in subtle ways:

  • adventurousness: does the text take risks, or just play it safe? Is the audiobook a straight reading of the text, or does it do something strange/experimental in some way? Does the audiobook transform Bartleby radically or merely transpose it to a new medium?
  • quality: is the product accessible? Does it sound good? Did the voice actors review the text and look up the pronunciations of unfamiliar words? Did the editors smooth out problems with the files, maintain steady audio levels, reduce noise where feasible, etc.?
  • reflectiveness: does the presentation reflect the group’s careful thinking about the project? Did the secondary readings by Rubery, Allred, Benjamin, etc. feed into the conception of the project?

All group members will receive a collective grade for the group’s work. This can be unfair, I realize, and a given member can be uncooperative or unresponsive, but that’s also true in postgraduate life, so it’s good practice. Each of you will receive individual grades for your reflective post, as well. And all of the group projects will be folded into one grade (20% of total grade), so each project is “low stakes.” If your group is having problems (or has one problem member) you are encouraged to contact me privately for help.

As you plan your attack on this project, feel free to be a bit zany. It may be that “quality” and “adventurousness” are somewhat at odds (since it’s easier to have good quality if you know what you’re aiming for and easier to experiment if you’re not worried too much about quality), so consciously decide what you’re going for, go for it well, and have fun. I’d be tempted to play with the following (not a list for you to copy, necessarily, but a springboard for dreaming about it):

  • representing Bartleby’s famous silences and repetitions: what if you used a whispered second track mixed in to represent B’s inner thoughts? Or played with very different vocalizations of the “same” statement that haunts the book (“I prefer not to”)?
  • What about a crude video version, using photos or drawings or puppets along with the audio to capture the tensions at work in the text?
  • Since the Occupy movement very consciously drew from Bartleby for inspiration, what about a transposition of the tale to a more recent setting to capture this connection in some way? Or even a montage (drawing from the above idea) of imagery of Occupy to accompany the original text?

The overarching theme here is to embody the ethic of “serious play”: there is truly no wrong way to do this, and we will all learn from your efforts, very much including the mistakes or the parts you wish you’d done differently. And I don’t know whether this is an incentive or not, but I will post the finished products to the blog so future students (or anyone who is interested) can enjoy your work.

And here are the two resulting books from the above project: enjoy!

ASSIGNMENT: “found” audiobook + presentation

For our next meeting on 9/13, I want you to write a blog post and report on it with a very brief (max 5 min) presentation on any audiobook version of a fiction text that you can get your hands on. Sources might include:

  • free/open texts read by amateurs on librivox.org (which Rubery mentions in his article)
  • texts you download/check out from your local library or the GC’s library
  • texts you buy from iTunes or Google Play or audible.com
  • texts you own or discover at flea markets/secondhand stores

I’d like you to think about and comment on some of the following:

  • production values: how much went into the recording, in terms of vocal training, editing, recording technology, etc.?
  • style: is there a single voice or multiple voices? Does the narrator (or do the narrators) do “voice characterization,” modulating the voice for different characters, or not?
  • fidelity: is the recording abridged or unabridged? Does it stick rigorously to the text or deviate from it?
  • affect: what does it feel like to “read” this text? How does it differ from reading a printed work of fiction?

Why Blog? What makes for a good post?

A central feature of this course will be the writing we do on this site. In what follows, I will outline three things:

  • a rationale for why I ask you to blog in the first place, rather than write traditional essays
  • a quick primer on how to create your first post
  • a simple rubric to guide your writing + an example of a good-looking post

First things first: why blog?

  1. Blogging is sharable: rather than have a private circuit between you and me, we have a much more dynamic conversation across the entire class.
  2. Blogging is public, sort of: I like the idea that we are responsible for our ideas in front of broader audiences. In practical terms, I doubt anyone is listening in most of the time, but I think it’s important that we roll up our sleeves and defend our arguments in an open and public forum as often as possible. And of course, you can show your family/friends/pets what we’ve been up to in class. For those who have reservations about privacy, note that a) I have configured the blog to request that Google et al. not crawl it, limiting the number of casual visitors; and b) you are free to delete your posts at the end of class. If anyone has serious reservations despite all this, feel free to contact me: I respect anyone’s concerns on this topic and take very seriously your (our) control over our intellectual work and data.
  3. Blogging is sturdy: rather than forget the piece of paper once it’s been handed back, we can link back to prior statements or observations, or to each others’. If you like, you can leave your posts up for future 720ers to see.
  4. Blogging is responsive: rather than only getting comments from me, you’ll comment on and get comments on each other’s work.

So how do you post? Once you get enrolled as an “author” on the site, it’s really easy. Here’s a step-by-step with screen shots from Evan Cordulack at William and Mary. I’ll also note that WordPress gives you several other ways to initiate a post, so feel free to explore the dashboard and find your own best way.

What makes for an excellent post? For this class, posts should:

  • contain at least 500 words (use word count in WordPress or your word processor)
  • explain a given text’s argument (for secondary readings) or analyze its form and themes (for primary readings by Melville), using quotations and paraphrases of the text with page numbers in parentheses
  • engage a text critically, noting its limitations, its links to other texts we’ve read, its unstated assumptions, etc.

Here’s a simple rubric, adapted from Mark Sample, that I will use to evaluate your work (see how the academic blogosphere encourages sharing and exchange? I told you so!):

Rating Characteristics
4 Exceptional. The post is focused and coherently integrates examples with explanations or analysis. It moves beyond summary to engage the text critically, articulating weak points or dubious assumptions (for secondary texts) or giving a sharp, original close reading (for primary texts). It makes useful connections to other texts and raises novel questions.
3 Satisfactory. The post is reasonably focused, and explanations or analysis are mostly based on examples or other evidence. It provides a compelling summary of an argument (or dutiful reading of primary text) but fails to engage the argument/text more than glancingly. The entry reflects moderate engagement with the topic and/or rehashes what was said in class.
2 Underdeveloped. The post is restricted to summary, without consideration of alternative perspectives, and may contain misreadings of the argument at one or more points. The entry reflects passing engagement with the topic.
1 Limited. The journal entry is unfocused, or simply rehashes others’ comments; it fails to grasp fundamental aspects of the argument.
0 No Credit. The journal entry is missing or consists of one or two disconnected sentences.

Last but not least, here’s an example of a good-looking post. It’s not perfect–no such thing–but it is a high 3-low 4 in terms of the above. It paraphrases and quotes the text frequently, takes a stab when it isn’t quite sure what the (very difficult) text is getting at, and it speculates on how the text (written in the 1930s) might relate to our own moment and the study of “digital humanities.” Extra bonus: you too will be reading Benjamin’s essay soon!

 

How to post on this blog

Just wanted to give a quick guide to posting on WordPress for newbies. It’s super easy once you figure it out the first time. So here goes:

1. LOG ON: anyone can see the blog site, but only those logged on as “authors” can post. If you simply click on the link you received when I invited you and join the Commons, you should able to log in as an “author” with permission to post. Two helpful hints:

a) you can always tell when you’re logged in, since there’s a slim black bar across the top that looks like this:

Screenshot 2015-02-06 14.06.48

and b), if you ever want to go straight to the “back end” of the site (called the “dashboard” in WP parlance), throw “admin” on the end of the URL. So, allred720fa18.commons.gc.cuny.edu takes you to the site, whereas allred720fa18.commons.gc.cuny.edu/admin takes you to the “dashboard.” Try it.

2. START A POST: there are several ways to post. Here’s the easiest: click the <+ NEW> icon in the top middle of the screen and select “post.” It looks like this:

Screenshot 2016-01-27 22.00.33

3. WRITE SOMETHING: “New Post” will take you to a basic text editor. So write something. If you want to get fancy, you can add italics, bold, indentation, insert images or other media, and whatnot. But most of the time you’ll just try to write some reasonable sentences. When you’re done, click PUBLISH on the right (see image below). Or, if you’re not quite ready, you can save it as a draft and reopen it later, via the “POSTS” section of the dashboard. Helpful hint: WordPress autosaves your work every few seconds, so it’s very, very rare to lose stuff. Nonetheless it’s not a bad idea to compose posts on a word processor and then paste them into WP just in case. I personally live dangerously most of the time and have never lost anything, but your call.

We’re good, right? Happy blogging.

Happy Trails

Just a quick note to say that I’ve just finished evaluating your final projects (and everything else). It was a real pleasure to see the amazing, creative work many of you did at the end of the course. I hope everyone has a great summer and look forward to seeing you around campus in the fall (and perhaps even in English 390, “ABC of Modernism”?).

A couple of notes:

  1. You’ll get a link via Google from me to the same doc I’ve been using to share evaluations with you. There you’ll see comments on the final project and on other aspects of the course. In some cases, you’ll get links to essays with marginal comments or comments via hypothes.is. Feel free to get in touch if you have any questions. There’s a final grade at the end (or there will be by about 2pm).

  2. I’d love the liberty to post or link to your projects on our course site. If you want to OPT OUT of this, feel free to do so via email. Otherwise, if I can get organized, I’ll put together a little showcase of your work for future students to see.

  3. Speaking of opting out, remember that our course site and our hypothes.is feed are open to public view. If you like, you are welcome to delete any or all materials from those platforms. If not do not do so, that’s great, and I might even share your brilliance with future students now and then.

That’s all for now. Good luck with the end of the term!

No Title

Enjoy the videos and music you love, upload original content, and share it all with friends, family, and the world on YouTube.

Blog post #6 prompt: due Tuesday, May 17th before class

For your sixth and final post (yay), you will reflect on the data visualization exercise we’ve been working on. In a post of the usual length (500-800 words), please reflect on the following:

–Process: What did I personally do to contribute? What were some of the challenges of the process? How did I figure out what to search for, how to categorize items, etc.? How does this kind of work compare to the customary work in an English course?

–Product: What do you think about what we made? What light does it shed on literary history? What surprises emerge from visualizing Melville’s revival in this way? What problems exist with the data set in terms of accurately reflecting the re-emergence of Melville?

–Possibilities: Knowing what we now know, what would you change? What kinds of metadata did we omit from our search that would have been useful? What other modes of visualization might we have used? Given bigger budgets of time, what else might we look for in revising this history?

Presentation on final project (for last class on Tues. 5/17)

For our last class, we will have a festive (I hope) session in which we’ll talk about our final projects. I don’t expect anything time-consuming or formal, just a three-minute sketch of your project, knowing full well that a few of you might have procrastinated and have work to do prior to the Friday 5/20 due date. If you’d like to add visuals (purely optional) feel free to add a slide to this presentation, and I’ll handle the AV while you talk. Here’s what a good presentation will cover:

  • WHAT I found: the research question I posed to myself and the answer/s I discovered to that question. For an essay, this will be a quick thumbnail of the argument; for a more expository or creative project, this may be more descriptive: what I did with the source text to transform it or make it mean something new.
  • WHERE I found it: the sources or examples that were useful to me in my research/work. Again, for an essay this is straightforward, though it might be interesting to describe any pitfalls or barriers you ran into. For a creative project, you might note other artworks/projects that inspired you or provided a model (positive or negative).
  • WHY it matters: why should peers care about your project? What do you hope readers take from it? How has the project changed the way your think about your topic or, better, some aspect of your life?

The final project will be due by midnight on Friday, 5/20. This is a non-negotiable deadline, since I’ve given you extra time and since I don’t want to let you carry things into exam week. Late projects will be docked one letter grade per day they’re late.

James’s audiobook reflection + Benjamin post

[posted for James]

[reflection on audiobook]

Audiobook Reflection

The idea of a do-it-yourself audiobook struck me as very much within the scope of an English class seeking to both honor its roots in a certain literary tradition but to extrapolate vastly forward into the technological age we live in. I have perused LibriVox only a handful of times, once having downloaded a few dry works of Continental philosophy like some kind of self-help serum that goes down easier through the ears. However, my time with the works was fairly short lived, and I recall their quickly serving me more as a sleep aid than anything else. In my younger years, though, I once had a very positive experience with an audiobook in the car of an English teacher who took me on a summer camping trip—this one, as I recall, had a single narrator who very deftly took on voices of various characters, considerably unlike the tone of the narrator in the LibriVox work I encountered. Anchored in this positive memory, and also recalling the juvenile eagerness with which I always volunteered to read out loud in elementary school, I was pretty enthused at the idea of working on an audiobook.

Like many others in the class, I felt considerable alarm at the prospect of a group project. I scratch my head, but fail to recall the last instance in which it was necessary to collaborate with others on schoolwork. Like many others noted as well, I quickly became aghast with the sound of my voice—it is probably good that I waited till all my takes were done to listen back to any single one, because I fear that the anxiety induced by a single listen would have tainted the quality of the work moving forward. Surely, this feeling is not unique. However, upon listening to the work of my group mates, I felt greater pleasure at the quality of their narration than of my own, and hoped perhaps someone in the group might have a parallel sentiment as a way of soothing myself.

The editing work was probably the most fun part of the entire process. I enjoyed the multitude of bodily sounds—gurgles, slurps, throat noises, phlegm—that had been afforded by the very sensitive iPhone microphones we opted to use. Luckily, cleaning these kinds of things up was fairly simple—in a digital rendering of the sound files, little bumps in the wavelength corresponded to these minor disturbances and a quick scan made it easy to locate and eradicate the unwanted byproducts. I contemplated amplifying them and embracing the absurd humor of such an act, but I figured the rest of the class might not find it as funny as I do. After several rounds of cleaning, I proceeded to check that each portion of audio ran comfortably (meaning, no awkward pauses within a single file, or uncomfortable gaps between portions of text, and smoothly running transitions between narrators), and lined everything up. Finally, I added a track by Nils Frahm to augment the emotional weight of Ezra’s reading of the book’s conclusion.

All in all, a fun attempt at a forward thinking exercise that hit mark in remediating a traditional text that benefited from its sonic treatment.

[post on Benjamin]

“This patient process of Nature… was once imitated by men. Miniatures, ivory carvings, elaborated to the point of greatest perfection, stones that are perfect in polish and engraving, lacquer work or paintings in which a series of thin, transparent layers are played one on top of the other—all these products of sustained, sacrificing effort are vanishing, and the time is past in which time did not matter. Modern man no longer works at what cannot be abbreviated.”

In his discussion of oratory tradition, Benjamin makes this note about a fundamental way in which temporality and artistic process has changed. I can only take guesses as to what has contracted modern man’s patience, but my best guess will be something about a shift in the mode of production, and one’s relationship to land.

Benjamin’s notion of the storyteller is bimodal, being the combination of the land-bound artisan who stays permanently in place (on the land: fixed spatially but thus hyperaware temporally) and the sea-farer who brings with him stories of far-away (here, the temporal dimension is somewhat suspended but the spatial changes are what engender the storytelling). But the scale of time they are working with seems to be pre-modern, or of antiquity. Just as a craftsman prior to industrial-mechanized-automated labor worked as a lifelong process of improvement, the oratorical traditional was like, as Benjamin figuratively describes, many thin transparent layers of lacquer culminating in an organic enrichment of the story. Works handed down over generations (religious texts strikes me as a good example) seem to engage a passing of time that feels supernatural in scope—in the Biblical voice, the feeling of time is somewhat timeless, a procession of events that cannot be pinned to any temporal marker comfortable to our modern minds. The works handed down over the years exist in relationship to their setting, where the craftsman has been fixed, subsisting from the Land to whom these stories belong.

When Benjamin notes that “modern man no longer works at what cannot be abbreviated”, it feels like a jibe, and disingenuous dismissal of modernity (even he, later in this essay, seems to concede that literary time enables, like a Futurist or Cubist artwork, the colliding of multiple time-perspectives). The relationship to the land (or at least the immediacy of that feeling) seems to be lost; humans no longer think or feel out in the world—perhaps labor alienation has caused them to withdraw deeper into their own psyche, where I feel the realm of the novel is situated. And a more inner, psychological assessment of time feels timeless (not in that monumental Biblical sense mentioned earlier), all senses and scales of time compounded and folded into a single point of access within one’s mind, from which one can travel back, forth, and dilate at will. I would argue that perhaps it is not that modern man fails to have patience at anything that can’t be truncated (though I would argue that perhaps over time, our attention spans have narrowed—and this discussion is more than pertinent to Digital Humanities if it seeks to grapple more with our relationship to technology), but rather that modern man no longer sees the need to conceive themselves in sweeping arches of time that emanate from Earthly posterity. In conceding to the thought of Lukacs and his idea of “transcendental homelessness”, it feels that Benjamin does certainly grasp this symptom of modern man and thus the novel, in which “the meaning of life”, and its unity, can be “compressed in memory”.