Revisioning Argument?: Notes on “Theory in the Machine”

In her recent talk at Georgia Institute of Technology (February 13, 2013), entitled “Theory in the Machine: Or a Feminist in the Software Lab,” Tara McPherson described how she came to the digital humanities, her work as a founding editor of Vectors, and her current involvement in the development of Scalar, “a semantic web authoring tool that brings a considered balance between standardization and structural flexibility to all kinds of material.” McPherson prefaced her presentation with the disclaimer that it would not be deeply theoretical. Nonetheless, the talk was informative, introducing a variety of exciting new digital approaches to scholarship, and providing a wide variety of jumping off points for further inquiry.

[Image Creative Commons licensed / Flickr user FilPho

[Image Creative Commons licensed / Flickr user FilPhoto]

One aspect of McPherson’s talk that was particularly irksome, however, were common variations on the theme of “revisiting scholarly argument.”  From the perspective of screen theory, McPherson spoke about the possibility of “playing an argument like a video game,” or “watching an argument like a film.”  She talked about “refracting arguments through multi-modal lenses,” and adopting a non-linear approach. What I would like to claim here is that McPherson’s use of the term ‘argument,’ betrays a lack of clarity about what an argument is and, consequently, a failure to recognize that what is being proposed by many projects in the digital humanities is not a new approach to argument, but rather something else, a return to an old form of expression, namely the mythic.

Myth is primordial and originary. In the words of Claude Lévi-Strauss, “Myths get thought in man unbeknownst to him” (Levi-Strauss 1978, 3).  In contrast to philosophical thinking, which begins by assuming a difference between the knower and a thing to be known, Ernst Cassirer argues that myth is a function that makes abstract objective thought possible, but in a way that is in itself unmotivated either metaphysically – as if thought served to mirror some pre-existing reality – or psychologically – as a mirror of subjective psychic states or as a response to some set of pre-existing drives. In myth it is “Language itself [that] initiates such articulations and develops them in its own sphere” (Cassirer 1946, 12). The basis of mythological thought is metaphor, or the transmutation of one cognitive or emotional experience into a medium that is foreign to that experience (87). Mythical thought is not representational. It is a function by which relationships between experiences are spontaneously generated in such a way that allows those experiences to come into view. Mythological thought does not bear any relation to reality. It opens up reality, makes reality possible. It totalizes the world because it is the world.

Myth is not argument. Instead, as a mode of cognition and the distinguishing feature of Western philosophy, argumentation emerged and has persisted under a very particular (albeit long-lasting) set of conditions. First, as Marshall McLuhan observed, the written phonetic word is a crucial precondition for the emergence of philosophy. On the one hand, the phonetic alphabet served to sever the mythological identity of word and thing, thereby making it possible to map real relationships through conventional representation. On the other hand, the written word favors linear modes of deductive reasoning in a way that pictographs and strict orality do not, and that is actually alien to our lived experience of consciousness. Prior to widespread phonetic literacy, mythological thought, or what McLuhan also calls “tribal consciousness,” takes place as “an instant vision of a complex process (McLuhan 1964, 38), the communication of a tangled web of emotions and feelings (59) using metaphors meant to produce an effect rather than convey a meaning (85). With the advent of linear-sequential thinking, however, it becomes possible to map the world and determine causal relationships that allow for the prediction and control of the natural world and the progressive rationalization of the social world through the establishment of stable social institutions. With the development of electronic and digital communications technologies in the twentieth century, however, McLuhan insists that our experience is being fundamentally reshaped once again, that the increasing instantaneity made possible by electronic communication marks a return to mythical experience, but in a way that is at odds with institutions that emerged as a result of, and are therefore strongly committed to, discursive thought: “In the mechanical age now receding, many actions could be taken without too much concern. Slow movement insured that the reactions were delayed for considerable periods of time. Today the action and the reaction occur almost at the same time. We actually live mythically and integrally, as it were, but we continue to think in the old, fragmented space and time patterns of the pre-electric age” (20).

Work in the digital humanities, like that of McPherson, is exciting in so far as it is perhaps helping us to reconcile our mythic lives to scholarly modes of thought.  Put differently, revisioning standard forms of scholarly presentation might more accurately reflect the way we live the world. On the other hand, however, my fear is that the claim to ‘rethink argumentation’ may reveal a lack of reflection upon the modes of cognition and consciousness that the digital humanities claim to call into question.  More importantly, misunderstanding the history and character of argumentation is perhaps a symptom of a lack of reflection about the modes of consciousness that some work in the digital humanities are promoting.  Under the auspices of criticism, it is possible that these alternative modes of presentation may actually represent an uncritical embrace of our contemporary digital tribalism and, to that extent, function to promote and legitimate the status quo rather than call it into question.

From the perspective of teaching with technology, this can serve as a reminder of the fact that we, as teachers, are not merely shaping our students’ knowledge, but also the modes of cognition through which that knowledge is processed. If, as a consequence of their ubiquitous exposure to electronic and digital media, our students are increasingly coming to us with McLuhan’s ‘tribal consciousness,’ is it our task to embrace and cultivate a more mythological approach to sense-making? Or, is it in fact the case that the formation of a critical consciousness is important now more than ever, and that we should be more conservative in our use of digital technology in the classroom?  For all the criticisms of strictly empirico-deductive forms of reason (and there are many), what the philosophical / argumentative lens offers is the ability to put a distance between us and the technologies we use in order for use to ask exactly these kinds of critical questions.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: New American Library, 1964.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. Myth and Meaning: Five Talks for Radio by Claude Lévi-Strauss. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1978.

Cassirer, Ernst. Language and Myth. Translated by Susanne Langer, K. New York: Dover Publications, 1946.

Badges: Revisiting the Peer-Review Process

On 17 April 2012, The Faculty Advisory Council at Harvard University issued a memorandum expressing concern over the rising costs of library subscriptions to scholarly journals, and strongly encouraging faculty and graduate students to submit their work to open access journals as a way of transferring prestige away from print and other for profit journals with high subscription costs. Indeed, concern over rising subscription costs, public access to information, and often-lengthy turn-around times for submitted materials have led to the emergence of numerous open access journals in recent years, with numbers increasing almost exponentially.

As of 2013-02-05 [15:55:30], The Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) lists 8621 journals, 104 of which have been added since 1 January 2013. In order to be included in the directory, a research journal must be free and open to the public without delay, and must “exercise quality control on submitted papers through an editor, editorial board and/or a peer-review system.”[1] Since open access journals are also online journals (online content delivery significantly decreases the costs associated with traditional print publication), many journals, like Southern Spaces and Vectors, are also very interested in delivering scholarly content through a variety of alternative media. Because they are not tied to the economically motivated decision-making processes governing major print publishers, open access journals arguably have more freedom to publish and encourage alternative modes of scholarship, and, perhaps, to provide a legitimate space for otherwise marginal voices. Crucial to the legitimacy of open access journals, however, is a commitment to traditional processes of establishing authority, a ‘blind’ process whereby expert opinion is validated by expert opinion, anonymous though it may be.

So here’s the beginning of a half-baked (and somewhat utopian) idea…

[Image Creative Commons licensed / Flickr user fczuardi]

Recently, the idea of ‘badges’ has entered into discussions about assessment. Badges are a new approach to credentialing, a way of demonstrating competency, perhaps in the absence of formal training, through recognition by institutions, on the one hand, or peers, on the other. Most basically, having demonstrated some skill mastery or other characteristic (like ‘helpfulness,’ for example) an individual receives a badge (some kind of graphic) that they can display on their website and/or social network profiles that confers legitimacy to claims about skill-sets and aptitudes, by linking each back to the badge issuer. Although still in its infancy, the idea of using badges as a universal peer assessment framework has been most fully developed by the Mozilla Open Badges Project through the creation of the open source Open Badges Infrastructure. The strongest proponent of the use of badges in schools as a legitimate alternative to grades, is Cathy N. Davidson, co-founder of HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory), an international organization dedicated to rethinking the future of learning for the information age.[2]

My half-baked idea goes something like this: Why not eliminate journals entirely? Why not revisit every part of the traditional approach to academic publishing, including the peer-review process? In place of academic journals, why not encourage authors to host content themselves and self-publish their work in a way that decentralizes knowledge production?

According to the Budapest Open Access Initiative, “There are many degrees and kinds of wider and easier access to this literature. By ‘open access’ to this literature, we mean its free availability on the public internet, permitting any users to read, download, copy, distribute, print, search, or link to the full texts of these articles, crawl them for indexing, pass them as data to software, or use them for any other lawful purpose, without financial, legal, or technical barriers other than those inseparable from gaining access to the internet itself. The only constraint on reproduction and distribution, and the only role for copyright in this domain, should be to give authors control over the integrity of their work and the right to be properly acknowledged and cited.” A decentralized approach to academic publication that encourages scholars to self-publish on personal websites fulfills every condition of Open Access. The greatest drawback to this kind of approach (and a longstanding reason for distrusting self-publication in general), is that it bypasses peer-review, an 18th century system of legitimizing knowledge production. In other words, open access to scholarship doesn’t really mean much if there is no way to judge the quality and credibility of the work. This is where badges come in.

I produce a piece of scholarship and put it online. If it is found to be of merit by others in my community, or by others who discover my work organically, then they can give me a badge, a seal of approval that vouches for the quality of my work. The meaning of a badge, then, becomes a transparent reflection of the quality of the work by way of the credibility of the issuer. On the one hand, the ‘value’ of the badge is determined by the amount of recognized expertise the issuer has to evaluate the work. The fact that a badge is not anonymous means that different badges carry different weights, and in a way that is often obscured by the peer-review process (not all peer reviewers have the same level of expertise, which is why there is almost no article that is so bad that one can’t find a journal to publish it). On the other hand, the issuer of a badge will be forever tied to the life of the work, and in such a way as to put their credibility on the line alongside the original author. Consequently, issuers are discouraged from ‘badging’ willy nilly, as if they were ‘liking’ posts on Facebook. According to the scheme, assessments of the merit of a work would involve a consideration of the author and the work itself, but also the expertise of badge issuers. This additional information would also be very helpful hermeneutically, as a way of locating a work with respect to the communities it touches and the range of meanings it might have.

Okay, so maybe this idea isn’t even really half-baked, but it is an idea. Realistically, even if this or something like it were good in theory, in practice replacing the old peer-review model would require that nearly everyone jumped on board at once, lest the badging mavericks find themselves cut off and set adrift from the larger, legitimate, and legitimizing community of scholars. Implementing this kind of framework would most certainly be fraught with logistical and technical challenges as well. The point of this thought experiment, however, is not so much about proposing an alternative reality, but rather bringing to light the fact that, in challenging the hegemonic authority of major publishers as the only credible mechanism for delivering legitimate scholarship, open access approaches to publication do not at the same time challenge the notion of centralized authority per se. The world wide web offers us more than just an opportunity to share knowledge openly, but also the opportunity to challenge more basic assumptions about how knowledge is (and should be) produced. Upon re-evaluation, It may in fact be that journals continue to be the best way of delivering knowledge and ratifying expert opinion. The opportunity for decentralization afforded by the internet, however, allows us to call our standard ways of doing things into question, and in so doing, to transform passive assumptions about the way things are into active decisions about the ways things should be.

Why I Take Attendance

An interesting conversation has been taking place on one of the listservs to which I subscribe. What began as an innocent query about available apps for tracking attendance, has quickly transformed into a discussion about why attendance should be taken in the first place. There have been questions about the extent to which ‘seat time’ is really an effective way of measuring participation, and discussions of other more administrative reasons for why tracking attendance might be important (i.e. institutional policies about seat monitoring, student loan conditions, etc). What is lacking in these discussion, however, and the reason why I take attendance in my classes, is a more humanistic perspective.

attendance-logoAttendance2 and Attendance by David M. Reed

It may seem paradoxical, since more often than not attendance functions as a quantitative measure of participation (not a good measure of participation, mind you, but at least it can be determined with a reasonable amount of precision), but the reason that I take attendance has to do with establishing relationship with my students. Especially during the first few classes (okay, lets be honest…several…or more), it is helpful to perform role call as a way of learning student names, particularly in large classes when there are a lot of names to remember. Sure, this memory game can be won more quickly through other means (i.e. flash cards with photos, wither taken by the instructor or on file with the registrar), but there are several other benefits to role call, benefits that cannot be achieved strictly through study.

For the last couple of years, I have been using an iPhone/iPad app called simply Attendance, by David M. Reed. What I like about Attendance is its ease of use, intuitive interface, ability to import from *.csv, Dropbox sync, and photo integration (yes, flashcards still have their place). As of the writing of this post, however, I have become aware of a new version of Attendance, Attendance2, which was favorably reviewed by Brian Croxall in a post for the Chronicle of Higher Education here: In spite of the fact that I am relying on what is now an old version of Reed’s software, the benefit of using an app for attendance has been proven time and time again. If we accept what I have said about the more relational aspects of attendance-taking, it should be fairly obvious that the actual recording technology has little to no impact on the achievement those inter-personal outcomes. Where it does have a demonstrable impact, however, is in the reduction of the number of paper scraps floating around (not so much an environmental issue, and an issue of tidiness), and ease of record keeping. Furthermore, apps like this also enable the instructor to go beyond merely checking ‘present’ or ‘absent,’ but also make it easy to record the condition of an absence, in addition to making quick notes about a student’s participation.

In calling out each student’s name (the most beautiful word in the world, let’s recall, is one’s own name), the instructor is able to accomplish even just a little bit of rapport. In calling out each student’s name, the instructor may extend a kind of personal welcome: “John Doe?…oh, hi John. I’m glad you are here.” In this sense, attendance is not simply a requirement of success in the course, but also an extension of the spirit of hospitality. What of those students that are not present? Well, I do my best to extend my hospitality to them as well. “Jane Smith?…No?…I’m sorry she is not here. She made an insightful comment on the discussion board that I want to talk about today.” For a student to know that they are present in the teacher’s eyes, even if absent, is likely to increase, not just the chances of their physical presence, but the quality of their participation as well.

The practice of talking attendance can also function as an effective way of gauging the ‘temperature’ of the room. Asking whether a student is present is a call to which every student can respond, and respond with certainty. If the teacher pays close attention to the response of each student, and has attended to the quality each response in the past, it becomes possible to establish a baseline (albeit an anecdotal one) according to which the instructor can assess the student’s preparedness and excitement about the course material for that day, but also their mood. This is the kind of thing that more sophisticated analytics attempt to achieve by mapping performance onto dispositional and performance indicators, but that, at the end of the day, is actually exceedingly difficult to quantify. If the instructor is attuned to the moods of individual students, and to the mood of the class as a whole, then they will be better equipped to deliver their course material in a way that is optimal to that particular time and place.

All this has been to say that attendance does not need to be strictly a quantitative component of a course grade, but it may also be a way of reaching out to each student individually at the start of class, indicating that they are individually valuable to that particular classroom environment, and increasing student engagement as a result.

The Costs of Privacy

In November 2012, in response to threats of expulsion from John Jay Science & Engineering Academy on account of her refusal to wear a mandatory RFID badge, Andrea Hernandez filed a law suit against San Antonio’s Northside Independent School District. If she continues to refuse even to wear an RFID-disabled badge–an accommodation sanctioned by a federal district judge who ruled against her–Hernandez will be placed in Taft High School beginning in September 2013, the public school to which she would normally be assigned.

In refusing to wear even an RFID-disabled badge, Hernandez’s case seems to have lost its ‘bite’ (it’s difficult to justify her appeal to religious freedom once tracking mechanisms are disabled). In spite of the fact that her concerns were ultimately voiced in terms of an interest in preserving religious freedom, however, the case nonetheless draws attention to the potential costs of privacy.

As elite institutions increasingly adopt comprehensive analytics programs that require students to give up their privacy in exchange for student success, are they also strongly contributing to a culture in which privacy is no longer valued? A robust analytics program requires every student to opt-in (i.e. students are not given the option of opting out). If analytics programs are seen as effective mechanisms to increase the chances of student success, and such programs are effective only to the extent that they gather data that is representative of their entire student body, and, as such, consenting to being tracked is made a condition of enrollment at the most elite universities (universities with the resources necessary to build and sustain such programs), then students must ask what it is that they value more: an education at a world-class institution (and all of the job prospects and other opportunity that such an education affords), or the ability to proverbially click ‘do not track.’ My suspicion is that, if explicitly given the choice, the vast majority of students are willing to give up the latter for the former, a symptom of our growing acceptance of, and complacence toward, issues of electronic privacy, but perhaps also an indication that a willingness to sacrifice privacy for success increasingly forms a key part of the ‘hidden curriculum.’

Erasing Privacy

[Image Creative Commons licensed / Flickr user Alan Cleaver]

(Interestingly, in addition to gathering data from Learning Management and operational systems, universities also regularly collect data from student id card swipes. This data can easily be mobilized as part of a kind of ‘card-swipe surveillance’ program, as in fact has been done by Matthew S. Pittinksy (co-founder of Blackboard) at Arizona State University. According to Pittinsky, tracking card-swipe behavior can allow an institution to effectively map a student’s friend group, determine their level of social integration, and predict their chances of attrition.)

Learning to be Human from the Center of the Internet

Attending strictly to the more phenomenological aspects of the internet, it is easy to fall into a kind of idealism.  Zygmunt Bauman (2005), for example, has argued that the era of space has come to an end, that the extraterrestrial realm of cyberspace has broken away from the realm of places and, consequently, social life has become reconfigured in such a way as to privilege decentralization, mobility, and fluidity over the centralized institutions, rigid borders, and stable relationships.  Increasingly, it is argued, the material world is becoming irrelevant as we live more and more in a utopia, a ‘no place’ where identities are as liquid as the virtual planes they navigate.

In Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet, Andrew Blum argues that our everyday experience of the internet (as a ‘cloud,’ for example) obscures the fact that the world wide web actually depends upon a physical infrastructure that is located in space, adapted to geography, and surprisingly vulnerable to human error, environmental conditions, and general decay.  In fact, among the more shocking discoveries made by Blum is that, in contrast to the distributed network envisioned in the 1960’s, the contemporary internet is actually made up of a relatively small number of major centers connected, at times, by what seems like only the thinnest of threads. Suffice it to say, attention to the physical infrastructure of the world wide web paints a very different picture from the infinite and eternal cloud that we experience as users each time we open a browser.

In uncovering the hidden materiality of the internet, Tubes helps to raise some interesting pedagogical questions. On the one hand, there is a strong contemporary tendency to praise advances in web-based technology for allowing us to offload knowledge functions and focus, instead, on cultivating the imagination. The goals of education are less and less about delivering content, and more and more about empowering students to seek out relevant information necessary to finding innovative solutions to emergent problems. The world wide web is powerful because, like never before, it allows us to create new worlds and, explore a seemingly infinite range of potentialities. On the other hand, however, I wonder if obscuring (or simply forgetting) the physical and technological infrastructure that makes the world wide web possible doesn’t actually end up promoting a particular set of philosophical perspectives, namely, idealism.

Idealism is a philosophical perspective according to which the greatest amount of reality is given to the immaterial. For Plato, sensible things are real only to the extent that they participate in the forms. For Berkeley, all of our sense experiences are caused by God. For Kant, our knowledge about empirical reality is mediated and made possible by the basic structures of consciousness. To the extent that we ignore the material infrastructure supporting the world wide web, and as we increasingly incorporate web 2.0 technologies into the classroom that aim to be as transparent as possible (facilitating productivity and creativity without also making it obvious that we are using tools–transforming tools into prosthetics), are we tacitly encouraging an idealistic view of the world? Does a failure to educate students about the solidity and vulnerability of the internet as an infrastructure contribute to an ethics that values minds over bodies? Technology is not value neutral. The world wide web is not merely a tool for learning and communicating, but rather also actively reinforces certain world views at the expense of others. By shining a light on the material side of the internet, Tubes effectively brings the body back, reminds us that even our spiritualized identities in cyberspace are dependent on space and place. Ironically, in considering the more technical components of the internet, its vulnerabilities and dependencies, its greasy and dirty underside, we are perhaps reminded of the same qualities in ourselves, and so reminded of what it means to be human, tubes and all.

Bauman, Z. (2002). Society Under Siege. Malden, MA: Polity Press.
Blum, A. (2012). Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Active Learning and Engagement Initiative (ALEI)

Beginning in Spring 2013, I will join a group of 9 other faculty members at Emory University selected to participate in the Active Learning and Engagement Initiative (A.L.E.I.). A program that provides dedicated assistance to instructors developing technology-enhanced curricula, assessing the impact of technology upon teaching and learning with a focus on active learning principles in the classroom, A.L.E.I. is designed to explore teaching and learning strategies and technologies that can enhance the classroom experience in addition to best practices in creating and delivering course content.

“The spring 2013 program, which consists of nine faculty from various departments including Pediatric Emergency Medicine, Pathology, Pediatrics (medicine and nursing), Physician Assistant, English, Chemistry, Japanese, and Comparative Literature, is scheduled to begin on January 30 and will be held over nine Wednesdays for 120 minutes each session. Faculty who are selected to participate in A.L.E.I. spring 2013 will receive dedicated support from the Faculty Services subject matter experts to complete curriculum goals from start to finish and a letter of completion endorsed by CFDE and ECIT.” (Emory’s Center for Interactive Teaching)

A joint initiative sponsored by the Center for Faculty Development and Excellence and Emory’s Center for Interactive Teaching, this is the third time that this program has been offered. Past participants include some of the most innovative teachers at Emory University. I am grateful and excited to have been selected to join in this conversation.

Exposing Humanism: Prudence, Ingenium, and the Politics of the Posthuman

Journal of Historical Sociology CoverI am pleased to announce the publication of my article, “Exposing Humanism: Prudence, Ingenium, and the Politics of the Posthuman” in the Journal of Historical Sociology. The research for this paper was funded by the Laney Graduate School at Emory University and a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) Doctoral Fellowship. I would like to thank Professors Donald Phillip Verene, Ann Hartle, Cynthia Willett, and Debolina Roy, as well as the anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments and encouragement on earlier drafts of this article. Lastly, thank you to Samuel Timme, Sarita Alami, and Stephen Harfield for their helpful comments in the final stages of this manuscript’s preparation.


This article examines posthumanism and its relationship to humanism. First, it is argued that the term “posthumanism” relies upon an incomplete conception of humanism, and in a way that forecloses the possibility of looking to the humanist tradition for support. Addressing Foucault’s often quoted comments about the recent invention and imminent demise of man, it is argued that Foucault is not anti-humanist, but is rather critical of the use of humanism as an axis of reflection. Second, the posthumanist perspective is summarized as attending to a set of interrelated ethical and epistemological concerns. Calling into question the boundary between human and nonhuman animals, posthumanism also challenges the primacy of empirico-deductive reasoning and advocates a re-legitimization of rhetoric as a mode of thought. Lastly, using Ernesto Grassi’s interpretation of the early Italian humanists, this article demonstrates not only the compatibility of Renaissance humanism with posthumanist concerns, but also the fruitfulness of this tradition as a conceptual resource. Although the Renaissance notion of ingenium, the ability to adapt and make concrete situations meaningful without also affirming strong ontological commitments, is absent from posthumanist discourse, it is a concept that has the power to enrich the posthumanist project. Consequently, posthumanism is not actually at odds with the humanist tradition in general, but rather only with a very limited and relatively recent conception.