Monthly Archives: February 2012

Why I study reception: methodology(ish) edition

Still blocked on this chapter. I’ve resolved not to fight it too much, but to get some other things done, too, while I wait for things to work themselves out. In the meantime, what it is I’m doing when I study reception:

As I noted earlier, I want to know what people said about novels when they were first published, and what sort of strategies they had available for reading them. To be honest, that’s often enough for me—if my committee would let me stop at description, I’d read a whole bunch of reviews and describe away. But that generally falls a bit short of an actual argument, so the most important part of my job (and what’s been holding me up for a while on the new chapter, just like it did on the last one) is showing what it is about the reviews that’s significant to our understanding of the novel, the criticism, or some other broader issue.

In order to do that, the first thing I do is find every review I can of the book and read them all, labeling each one with the major themes that I see recurring. Scrivener is particularly good at handling the practical side of this, but that’s a different post. Then I read them again, and again, paying attention to the different strands running through them, and then I keep reading them until I have some sense of the story they tell. Then I try to tell it.

Not very systematic, right? It generally takes a whole lot of re-reading and writing a bunch of crappy notes before I figure out what it is about the reviews that’s interesting and significant. Once I see the seeds of the argument, it gets a bit easier. Then I’m putting together a case and providing evidence to support my claims that we should interpret the reviews in the way I’m proposing.
The evidence I provide is textual—direct quotation, paraphrase, and analysis of the reviews. And this is where it starts to get sticky, because how much evidence is enough evidence? None of the patterns I point out are going to be present in all the reviews. The impulse then is to count—tally up how many review deal with x theme and offer some percentages. But there are lies, there are damn lies, and there are statistics. What would the numbers actually show? That 36% of the reviews that I have available evidence this trend? My data set is “reviews I am able to find.” I’m able to find enough reviews that I can make some fairly confident arguments about the patterns and trends I see across them, but that doesn’t make them a statistically significant sample size of all the reviews of the book that were published. In this case, statistics would be damn lies, provided to give a sense of significance that mostly just takes advantage of our cognitive biases about certain types of data.

And that’s why the “so what” part of my argument is so important. I need to find compelling connections between the reviews, the novel itself, the historical context, and the criticism. If I can do that, then I don’t have to rely on some false sense of quantitative significance to justify my argument. Unfortunately, finding those connections takes a lot longer than crunching the numbers.

All of this puts me on the fringes of DH work and debates about quantitative analysis in literary study. I don’t do quantitative analysis, and despite the hypotheticals above, I’ve never attempted it, but I can’t say I haven’t thought about it. Most of the time, I have trouble seeing what data mining actually adds to the conversation, but in the face of curmudgeonly responses like Stanley Fish’s, I sometimes want to try it out just to be ornery. I’ve got some more thoughts on data mining that I want to work through at some point, but until then, Ted Underwood has a pretty thorough response to Fish’s grumpy rant.

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Frustrations and false starts

I’ll get back to reception some time soon, but right now I’m forcing myself to write something, anything, and publish it to the interwebs, because it has been a day full of denial and procrastination over here. I have a writing group deadline on Wednesday that I’d very much like to make, but right now all I have are some barely-strung together summaries of the relevant criticism and document after document of stream-of-consciousness notes.

Generally speaking, that’s about par for the course in the early stages of my writing process. As long as I continue to work consistently, the stream-of-consciousness notes will proliferate, but eventually I’ll reach a point where I see how to turn them into a coherent whole. The problem is that I’d like to hurry this process up. I’d like to get some feedback before I have a complete zero draft. But what I have now is not so much, and it’s not so good, and the anxiety-ridden perfectionist in me does not want to send it out to my writing group, even though they’re not going to think the less of me for sending them an incomplete, mediocre draft.

The advice I want to give myself is, “Just write.” That’s what I say to students, colleagues, overwhelmed consultees in the writing center: Just write, and deal with making it good later. Get something down, because having written something, even if it’s not perfect, always feels so much better than having something you need to write.

But there are points in my writing process, like right now, when what I’m writing is just dreadful. Not rough and in need of polishing, but bordering on useless. I must have scrapped twenty or thirty pages of potential introductions for the last chapter I wrote. And even if that’s necessary in the long run, it’s frustrating when you’re in the middle of it.

That’s all that I have to say. Just that things are going like molasses in January here, and it’s frustrating.

Why I study reception: teaching edition

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the work I do and what it has to offer—partly because the isolation and hyper-focus of trying to work on the dissertation all day, every day may be getting to me, partly because it’s a question I need to have a compelling answer for as I get closer to the job market, and partly because what I do is in many ways so removed from the sort of work most other graduate students in the department do that I sometimes feel as if I must be going about things all wrong.

That last part makes it sound like I’m some sort of iconoclast or innovator, which could not be farther from the truth. But I work on late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century reception, and I spend a lot more time looking at what people had to say about books when they were first published than I do putting forth new or challenging readings of a novel. To some people, that looks very little like literary study.

My interest in reception is two-fold. The first and most important reason is that I want to know what readers and reviewers had to say about books, particularly novels. It gives me a better sense of how novels fit into nineteenth-century American culture (plus, people had some crazy and hilarious things to say). Novels and book reviewing had a different status at the turn of the century than they do today. In 1902 Frank Norris declared (with more than a little self-interest, of course), “The Pulpit, the Press and the Novel—these indisputably are the great moulders of Public opinion and Public morals to-day. But the Pulpit speaks but once a week; the Press is read with lightning haste and the morning news is wastepaper by noon. But the novel goes into the home to stay. It is read word for word, is talked about, discussed; its influence penetrates every chink and corner of the family.” It seems worth knowing, then, what kind of public opinion novels were molding.

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On the importance of pleasant spaces

One of the major benefits of being on fellowship is being able to write from home every day, rather than in my tiny windowless basement cubicle on campus. I know there are a lot of people who aren’t able to write at home, either because they don’t have enough space or a space that feels sufficiently work-like, or because they need people around them when they’re working. The latter folks tend to work in coffee shops and often find that the presence of other patrons, even if they are strangers, provides a sense of accountability that keeps them working. The former folks work in on-campus offices, even on days they don’t have to be on campus.

I don’t want people around when I’m working. I don’t even want music, or noise of any kind. The only company I’m willing to tolerate when I’m writing is the cat, who doesn’t really give me much of a choice:

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As I’m fortunate enough to have an office at home, that’s where I prefer to work—it’s where the books are, after all. But when I only worked at home once a week, my desk would be piled with books, papers I’d brought home to grade or file, bills that needed shredding, and a sizable accumulation of cat fur, since both cats think the desk is placed where it is to provide them with a prime outdoor-viewing spot. And when I had only one day a week to work at home, there were always pressing things I needed to do with that time, so cleaning the desk, not to mention the office, was never much of a priority.

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Aiming for quiet(er)

I find myself constantly drawn to articles like this about the benefits of silence, meditation, reflection, getting away from screens, and so on. Drawn to them not out of some belief that a quieter, lower tech life is more virtuous or healthy (a belief that’s often the first step toward some elitist, first-world-problems kind of crap that sets my teeth on edge), but rather because the idea of turning the devices off, even for a short time, strikes me as so nearly impossible that the people who do it must be in possession of superhuman quantities of willpower. My compulsive tendencies mean I pick up habits easily and have a hard time breaking them. I check all the things all the time—Twitter, email, Google Reader, the comments to a blog post I’m interested in, everything—and feel a very insistent mental tug when I try not to.

It’s equally difficult for me to give up working on a computer in favor of pen and paper. I type very quickly and have to slow down significantly when I write things out longhand. You might argue that’s an advantage, as it allows for reflection, but I actively try to work against an overly-reflective drafting process. My goal is to get everything out on the page and then refine, but my natural instinct is to refine as I write, so I try to structure my drafting process to fight that instinct.

The result of all that is a lot of time spent in front of the computer—writing, reading, taking breaks—pretty much my entire day is spent interacting with some kind of screen. And though I think there’s a fair bit of unnecessary hand-wringing over what technology is doing to kids these days, I do recognize that I’m fairly dependent on the Internet to engage me whenever I’m not doing something else.

That being said, I think back to my pre-Internet days, and it wasn’t much different, except that instead of having the Internet on hand for all of my idle moments, I had a book. Sure, I was twelve, but I think it’s possible I’m just not cut out for contemplative silence and reflection. I’ve been conditioned by technology, yes, but not the Internet—the written word.

Still, print dependence is about as bad as Internet dependence, and I could probably benefit from a bit more deliberate reflection in my day-to-day workflow. The first step is to replace Internet breaks with sitting-and-relaxing breaks. See if I can get myself to think of restful contemplation as a reward for working hard, instead of reading yet another post on productivity techniques. If I can do that, then I’ll start thinking about step two, but I’m not holding my breath.