Turning digital distraction into dissertation action:

Its that time of year again- the days are long, parks and pavements overflow with people lounging in carefree, sunny idleness and my study self pity-o-meter rises in time with the mercury and surrounding sense of good times being had by all. Autumn is coming and with it my dissertation deadline and time spent away from research and writing is imbued with a hazy sense of guilt.

The crisp new notepad and fancy stationary once filled with so much hopeful potential, languish hidden under non-research books and thrashy magazines. Microsoft Word’s blank document lies minimised and accusingly under multiple social media and news tabs. Its like a never ending Sunday evening-school in the morning-no homework done-Glenroe theme tune on a loop nightmare.

I just want to punch myself in the face but instead I breathe into a brown paper bag and remember there is a way out. I can break the deadlock of crippling guilt and procrastination by sneaking up on the project sideways.

So I’m back writing again by using google docs, twitter and generative writing as a placebo to combat my delayed writing syndrome. Fellow dissertation detainees, there is hope, you too can emerge blinking briefly into the sun by breaking down the task into bite size pieces.

If (like me) you are spending most of your time talking, thinking and dreaming about your research then you can write a brief paragraph containing even very disordered thoughts. Or think of it as a note to remind yourself to look in to something/refer back to an argument. Short notes that hold no weight are much easier to motivate yourself to write but have a handy tendency to clarify a point of thinking or to generate something that turns out to be somewhat more than a short note (hence generative writing or stealth writing as I like to call). It won’t write your dissertation for you or get you out of the tedious editing process but it is a relatively painless way to combat an inability (or more accurately in my case, a refusal) to write. Think of it as like applying a local anesthetic to your procrastination. You don’t have to make friends with the pain, just try to out fox it!

This blog post was brought to you by a note I was e-mailing myself to get back into a ‘little and often’ style of writing.

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Reflections on Collaboration in a Digital Humanities Context:

Although at the heart of digital humanities scholarship is the use of digital tools to enhance and compliment both traditional humanities research and its subsequent dissemination, there can equally be found a strong ethos around the promotion of an open source, collaborative and co-operative research methodologies. Coming, as I do, from a traditional academic background (whilst also being an active citizen of the digital age) the challenges of incorporating a collaborative element into my work and research practices proved a significant stumbling block to my transition from Arts graduate to Digital Humanist.

Intellectually the concepts of open access, copy left and collaborative conversational approaches to research questions were easy to grasp and held the easy appeal of a move towards the democratisation of information and the potential for enhanced results and problem solving generated from widening the pool of scholars included in any one debate, in a sort of organic, on-going, crowd-regulated process of informal peer review. Emotionally, however, informed by the regulations of traditional humanities scholarship the concept of ‘collaboration’ retained the flashing red warning signal that placed it, almost synonymously, alongside plagiarism as the ultimate in academic transgressions.

My approach to lifting the stigma and unease unconsciously attached to the notion of collaboration absorbed from five previous years of academia was twofold; first to attempt to bring about a shift in my thinking around what collaboration is and the role it plays in scholarship and secondly to demystify the process of collaboration in a more practical way i.e. by undertaking collaboration projects.

In regards the former, a useful tool for me proved to be as simple as conceptualising online collaborations as taking class room based discussions that are a familiar part of the student experience and re-imagining them as taking place with the limitless scope of online discussion. A conversation, a negotiation towards understanding seems a lot less in need of censure. Similarly discussing concepts with scholars, mid-research, working in similar or complementary fields around the world isn’t, on reflection, all that different from passively consuming the journal articles or books of published scholars in any given field.

The latter, more practical approach, to changing my relationship with the concept of collaboration came a bit slower but it is something which I hope to continue to build on and which has certainly contributed materially to a shift in my work process and learning environment.

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Collaboration Project

The following was written as part of a collaboration project proposed and curated by Jessica Jones .

Do I own this sentence? Can I claim to be its author? Technically I suppose I went through the mechanical process of arranging the symbols that represent the words in the agreed standard code that is used to define modern English in a written format but there’s nothing special about that, is there?.

Admittedly the example sentence isn’t very interesting. It is mundane, formulaic, functional. Why would I, therefore, feel in anyway proprietorial about it? The truth is of course that I don’t. Why would I? It is just an arrangement of symbols on the page in a basic, agreed form of communication, an external manifestation of my internal thoughts composed of passed down alphabetical symbols encoded to contain shared semantic values within a given culture. The process, the vessel, that is language itself, is infinitely more interesting. I don’t even know you and by some magical voodoo I can conjure up ideas, images in your mind. Gorilla! See, I’m doing it right now.

Language belongs to the blurry area of communal property (a bit like lighters and umbrellas). No one would claim outright ownership to such a living, evolving, shape-shifting organism. It is everybody’s and no-one’s. It is passed through generations, across ages, sometimes forcibly, sometimes lovingly. It is shaped by countless tongues and pens, some more insistent than others, it can hold a trace of the zeitgeist to a hipster-ish second and the serene steadfastness of the eternal age.

What strange alchemy then occurs to turn the functional into an art form, something that says ‘this is me, this is my unique vision and it deserves to be held in higher esteem than countless other similar but somehow lesser writing, I own this, because I alone could have wrote these words, in this order.’ Something that says ‘I am Literature’

The boring answer is ‘I don’t know’. Nothing of beauty or worth exists in a vacuum, great prose cannot exist without the shared system of writing and language and wrapped around that a cultural, political and historical heritage. You don’t have to have read all the works of Shakespeare to have absorbed something of their essence through some strange process of cultural osmosis. You don’t have to read author A because authors B, C, D have and they in turn inspired author E who got to you at a crucial time in your life and will forever remain an authentic and original voice to you.

What I do know is that I adore prose, I will put up with bad characterization and shaky plot if I can find beauty in the arrangement of words on the page. Equally, a riveting story is not enough to keep me reading if I find the language dull and uninspiring. I don’t know what the formula for this is, I just know that sometimes, unexpectedly in the middle of the paragraph, I’ll come across a sentence so beautiful that, for a minute I’ll find it hard to breathe. And in the minute, it isn’t the author or even the book that is singing to me, it is the words.

Some background to the project: ……………….And so the fight against inertia continues. The wonderful Jessica Jones gently prodded, persuaded and eventually dragged some words out of me by cooking up a collaboration project that was sure to intrigue me and sprinkling it liberally with flattery.

The brief was To contribute either; a) a short piece on “Changing Notions of Authorship” or “Is the Power in the Text or the Author? (they’re just thinking prompts, not titles) – (this could also be about music / dance / theatre and the collaborative element in making it, for instance)

b) a few sentences / film / image / music that somehow responds to ideas about how we create work (preferably thinking of textual work) and the sense of ownership we have over that work. This could be almost anything as there is a second part of the project to make an interactive little piece involving sound – kind of like an art project – with it.

I put my tick firmly in the box marked a) and proceeded to marinate once more in ideas around authorship, text, language and ownership for a few weeks. I had some interesting dreams and composed many a grand opus writ large on the ceiling at 4 a.m. but the actual blog post failed to materialise. Finally, I forced myself to just write something, anything and although I departed fairly far from my internal compositions at least I got something done and the ship called Horses of Meaning didn’t sail without me.

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The obligatory ‘What is Digital Humanites Anyway?’ post:

We’ve been discussing this since the start of term, reading the debates surrounding the issue and doing our best to give personal renditions of what digital Humanities is to us. It lightens the load a bit when seasoned academics in the field can’t agree on a strict definition of digital humanities (or indeed who is in and who isn’t in the tent!) and practical sessions such as the editing workshop this post was written for really help to focus back in on the main issues and questions. None of this, however, helps me when the dreaded question arrives, unbidden, in the pub – “So, what is Digital Humanities anyway?”

‘Erm, it’s, like arts but you have to do stuff, I mean not just read and write essays…………’ which segues into vague mutterings about digital presence, blogging and collaboration accessorized by a pained expression and a rapid wilting of confidence and digital buzzwords.

This is not to make light of a genuine problem because whenever I or anyone else try to conceptualize a particular theory or thought process into a coherent, easily explainable narrative, it is often suggested to row back from the rabbit hole that you have been threatening to disappear into, bring it back before the light, dust it off and ask; how would you explain it to someone in the pub?



Overtime, I have developed coping strategies in the form of trying to have a succinct and snappy sound-bite in my back pocket, ready to be deployed at a moment’s hesitation. My current favourite is ‘It’s about using new technology to examine old questions’ (followed by a quick change of topic). It kind of does the job, in the vague way that all sound-bites do, in that it sounds pleasingly meaningful whilst ultimately not delivering any real explanation.

Clearly this situation cannot continue. I need to go back to the digital drawing board in search of a more satisfactory response if my twin interests of digital humanities and enjoying a hassle free pint are to co-exist peacefully together. I don’t think there’s an algorithm or piece of code that can get me out of this one…………..

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The author is dead! Long live the citizen army of readers.

As a way of linking up my previous life as an analogue academic of French literature and theory with my current foray into the muddy waters of digital arts and humanities, I became interested in looking at the changing notions on authorship and the role of the reader in the digital age. To do this I wanted to look at Roland Barthes ‘Death of the Author‘ as a starting off point for examining the relationship between authorship and readership and seek to assess whether the emergence of digital writing challenges or reinforces these ideas. Mainly inspired by Katharine Viner’s excellent ‘The rise of the reader: journalism in the age of the open web’ I’m starting to conclude that perhaps the theory is starting to become reality through the emergence of web 2.0 and the medium of the digital.

When Roland Barthes famously declared the death of the author in 1967 it was hard to imagine the future of digital writing and the open web would later come to once again destabilise the position and very notion of authorship. What was started by the post-structuralists in the 60’s is being augmented by the re-engagement of the reader in the post-print, open source digital age. Barthes deconstruction of the author has thus far been mainly theoretical and therefore didn’t really have much material impact on the status of author and reader or the flow of meaning between them. Digital writing and the open web have given the reader the tools to reassert themselves in relation to the text and even influence it directly. Being aware of your audience increases in importance when they have a platform to answer back.

In ‘intertextuality’ Graham Allen draws parallels between Barthes theory and the action now being witnessed around online texts or hypertexts. He states that ‘whilst theorists such as Barthes, Kristeva and Derrida attack the traditionally dominant idea of the work’s isolation, individuality and authority, the new computer-based systems seem to embody such critiques. For those who write on this new form of textuality, poststructuralist and postmodern theory seems to be merely that, a theory directed towards an object, books, which appear to resist notions of relationality, difference and intertextuality. What to many might seem counterintuitive in Barthes’s treatment of literary books becomes obvious, inevitable and even ‘natural’ when dealing with hypertext systems’.

As Barthes argued that giving the text an author imposes limits on the text and by extension the reader then perhaps the fluidity of writing on the open web could offer a way to further decenter the author and empower the reader. Authorship as a single, definitive voice doesn’t allow for intertextuality and the text as being situated within a cultural and historical framework. Similarly Viner argues that open web journalism triumphs over the fixed rigidity of the print media by embracing the reader even if it is at the cost of the ‘all-seeing, all-knowing’ status of the journalist.

The hierarchy of author over text and the reader which Barthes’s ‘Death of the Author’ sought to deconstruct is now being digitally undermined in a tangible way through the open web. In relation to the authority of the journalist and their previously passive readers, Viner explains how ‘Digital has wrecked those hierarchies almost overnight, creating a more levelled world, where responses can be instant, where some readers will almost certainly know more about a particular subject than the journalist, where the reader might be better placed to uncover a story’.

The text derives meaning from the reader not the creator so that every act of writing is in itself an act of re-writing as all readers are the authors of their own subjectivity. There is a reciprocal relationship between reader and writer that serves to blur the lines between the two, neither can exist independently. If agency flows from the author to the reader almost instantaneously through the immediacy of the digital it is just a speeding up of the cyclical relationship rather than a radical redefinition. This accelerated reciprocal relationship between author and reader in digital news holds the potential to be beneficial to both parties as it can allow for what Viner describes as ‘a multi-layered encounter which helps readers and writers alike refine their points of view, hone perspectives, acquire useful new information’.

The digital has allowed for the breaking down of hierarchical structures which place the author and text in a position of unquestioned authority and the reader as passive consumers and enabled a freer flowing engaged agency for readers. The text no longer contains the finality of the full stop and is open for debate and re-interpretation. Certainly in relation in open web journalism often the so-called below the line comments are where the text really comes to life. Reader’s comments give an article a life beyond the dead end of the full stop. If giving writing an author imposes a stop clause on the life of the text, giving it to a reader can allow it infinite scope for further iterations.
Digital news is not fixed, it is according to Viner ‘living, evolving, limitless, relentless’. It offers a return to a more discussion orientated culture that existed before print media became widespread. Viner explains that ‘many believe that this move from fixed to fluid is not exactly new, and instead a return to the oral cultures of much earlier eras. Danish academic Thomas Pettitt’s theory is that the whole period after Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press – of moveable type, the text, the 500 years of print-dominated information, between the 15th and the 20th centuries – was just a pause; it was just an interruption in the usual flow of human communication. He calls this the Gutenberg Parenthesis. The web, says Pettitt, is returning us to a pre-Gutenberg state in which we are defined by oral traditions: flowing and ephemeral’. Much like Barthes sought to distance literature from the individual author, the digital news movement seeks to redefine the relationship between journalists and their readers, to offer a certain amount of authority back to the reader.

All of which is not to negate the fact that allowing absolute open access where everyone is allowed a voice can lead to anger, frustration and even online bullying or harassment. The reader having renewed authority and greater power is mainly a positive thing but as the old cliché goes ‘with great power comes great responsibility’. The onus is now on each individual reader to behave in a respectful and responsible way online and perhaps key to this would be simply knowing when to walk away from an internet argument.

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Digital humanites

This is just a brain storming clip I put together in order to:

A) Get past the blank page

B) Try out some new technology

C) Avoid putting my face on youtube.


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