Where Would I Sit in DH at Lunch Tomorrow?

Our term is winding down, and the time to post my final blog entry has come. I thought that I might offer a general reflection this week on my perception of DH and how it has evolved over the course of this semester. My deliberations on DH, of course, are heavily influenced by its practitioners, and these remind me of characters from Mean Girls (2004) or any other dramatic interpretation of our most tumultuous formative years. That cafeteria could be a scary place. So, the important question (in a fun, not so important kind of way) becomes: where would I sit in DH at lunch tomorrow?

Reading Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (2012) was, for several reasons, the ideal way to open this course. As many of our most memorable teachers have preached, this novel taught us that “different” is not synonymous with “wrong.” Distant reading and close reading both have significant purposes; lone scholarship and collaborative scholarship do not necessarily need to butt heads; and balance, harmony, or moderation can go a long way. Next, we first walked into that DH cafeteria, and was it ever flavourful. All the cliques were there, chatting: Marché and the DH naysayers, Nowviskie and the feminists, Underwood and the pragmatists. We were not there for a minute, however, still gathering our food trays, that the cool kids strutted through the door: Drucker and those other California-tanned alphas, claiming DH from under their elevated noses, bullying the humanists as useless in a world moving too fast. Bueller could have dealt with them, but we did not have Bueller. We had Franco Moretti.

Moretti was that kid with the motorcycle, flicking a cigarette to the curb as he walked in, always late to class yet never in trouble. Everybody talked about him, but nobody knew what to make of him. Needless to say, he sat wherever the hell he wanted to in the DH cafeteria. His presence alone seemed to jeopardize the elite position of the Californians and spark up some debate. Ultimately, even little Scheinfeldt stood up and asked “where’s the beef?” Then Ed Folsom bravely compared the database to the archive before some of the elite fought back and threw their tatter tots at him. They would not be defeated so easily.

The tide was turning, however, and it was too late. Those business boys bustled into the DH cafeteria and made off with almost all the data. Jockers, that geek, took what was left and got on a motorcycle of his own, flipping off those paying attention as he rode off. Moretti grinned, Ramsay applauded. The cafeteria was a disaster in the wake of these developments. I could sit anywhere I wanted to, today, but tomorrow, I would have to make a choice, deal with the aftermath of the events. So, where would it be?

I pondered.

Marché and his followers were spoiled brats. If they had any dignity, they would sit outside at the picnic tables tomorrow. Drucker and those others were not all bad: they raised some highly important issues in DH. They just brought it too far – or not enough. Moretti and Jockers were the cool kids, but they were anarchists. Following them blindly would be unwise. Ramsay tried too hard. Folsom was taking a victory lap. So, where to sit?

Since I was in doubt, why not sit with the doubters and hold the fort? Yes, that would be wisest. Not that taking a position is bad, but, if I am not sure of my position, what is the harm of sitting with the people asking the right questions? I put my tray back on the counter and started towards the doors. I would eat at home. As I got to the door, I gave little Scheinfeldt a wink. He smiled and dipped into his pudding.

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Knowledge is Power, or Power is Knowledge

Our reading of and subsequent discussion on Big Data (2013) last week pushed me to think both publicly and privately, as our classes always do, and this time about power distribution. Shada especially, via her interests in copyright issues, made strong arguments about data and to whom it belongs, or should belong. To me, these concerns echo Francis Bacon’s now familiar claim that “knowledge is power,” and those words could not be any more frightening than they are today.

Alongside our concerns about data, who uses it, and how it is used surfaced the topic of “business ethics” and how the writers of Big Data oppose these to the villains that are governments and their ethics, or purportedly lack thereof. Generally, we agreed that large corporations more often than not run governments, and so we would all rather see our data in the figurative hands of our governments rather than in those of these corporations. The second wave, led by Sahar, I believe, counter-argued that governments are not the most trustworthy of institutions, either. I think therein lies the key word: institutions. Institutions and their use of power in the pursuit of knowledge or their use of knowledge in the pursuit of power. The question then becomes: where do we, the public, fit into this dynamic?

Ethics come back into play here; not “business ethics” but “institutional ethics” in general. On the opposite side sits the public, desperately trying to hold onto its vulnerable data. These are the two players in the power struggle, with knowledge at stake: institutional ethics and the public’s responsibility for its data.

Imagine a teeter-totter: if the institutional ethics and the public’s responsibility toward its own data are balanced, the stakes are equal for both sides. The less ethics are involved on the institution’s end, the more the public must be wary of the protection of its data, and it ends up “hung out to dry,” as they say. Unfortunately, this dynamic seems to be the trend today, and the reciprocal benefits of knowledge and power seem to be almost unstoppable from the perspective of the institutions. Fortunately, however, digitization of the world has also made communication among humanists, of all people, much easier. Through awareness as well as small and large scale battles, beginning with those taking place in our class, humanists might be able to be the big kids that lend a hand and balance out the teeter-totter.

Now, shifting from the public to the private: never forget that universities are also institutions and, as a result, have a particular interest in sitting opposite to you on the aforementioned teeter-totter. Our recent discussion in class with Professor Quamen with respect to what your actual goals are in writing a dissertation, as well as my own recent experiences in these matters, make me realize that these power struggles are much closer to home than we (or I, at least) would like.

Since our blog format allows me to do so, I will digress from the public sphere to my particular situation and talk about these power struggles and how they directly affect us. As some of you know, I have to fly back home to New Brunswick next week to defend my MA thesis. My MA is of a comparative nature, and the stipulations are, essentially, that my thesis engage with primary texts in both French and English (a bit odd, since a comparative project should by no means be reduced to this type of condition), that its length be of approximately one hundred pages, and that I provide a ten-page summary of the thesis in the other language than the one I have chosen to write it in. (A considerable amount of work to be done in under one calendar year, so I hope you all will not judge too harshly that I am only defending now.) Evidently, I must also defend this thesis in front of a jury. My defence consists of a thirty to forty-minute presentation of my thesis, oscillating between both languages, of course, followed by a question period from my jury. Before my defence, I am to know whether I failed, passed, or passed my thesis with distinction, as well as receive the commentary from my jury members in order to prepare for and anticipate questions at the defence itself. The jury has four weeks to read my thesis and pass along their evaluations to me.

These stipulations are quite fair, especially considering those final lines. Except that, due to the power dynamics, I am the only one actually constricted by these rules of engagement.

I am not certain how one fails a thesis: your supervisor must approve every step of the way, so unless he or she missed a fairly blatant bit of plagiarism, failing is hard to imagine. If I did fail, though, whatever intellectual property I owned is almost out of my hands. The power would sweep up my knowledge and I could, in reality, probably not do much about the fact.

I followed the rules in submitting my thesis. My jury, for its part, does not seem too invested in rules when suitable to its timeline. My thesis has been in their hands for five weeks, and I have yet to hear of my “passing,” never mind of any comments that would help me prepare for my defence, even though they are my right. I defend in nine days, and the clock keeps ticking. Again, the power is definitely one-sided.

Money is, as always, another issue of power. I must pay out of my own pocket (a lot of money) to fly back to New Brunswick and defend this thesis. Of course, this fact is not my current university’s problem, nor is it my past university’s problem: it did not choose to study across the country, right? Students, evidently, are not allowed to defend their thesis via video conferences: only professors that are part of the jury may do so. Power sticks with power.

I could go on and on with respect to this topic, and you can presumably tell it is close to my heart (and my thoughts, and my wallet), but I feel that we do a proper job of keeping academia and its institutions in check during our classes. I only hoped to remind you to not take anything for granted: yes, our university is progressive, relatively-speaking, but we as humanists in the big, bad age of knowledge as power and power as knowledge can never let our guards down.

Keep on fighting the good fight.