I finished a few other essay books this year….
The Language of the Poet, Verbal Artistry in Frost, Steven’s and Moore by Marie Borroff. Some people would, in fact, find Marie a real bore-off. Ha! This was a very difficult and dry book, literally it’s about classifying and counting words in the poems of its example poets, two notoriously difficult ones. But I actually loved this book (even though I had to read it very slowly) and came out with a deeper understanding about all of these three poets and about what the difference was between diction and syntax (which I’ve never been able to figure out before).
Diction is about word choice, the difference between the words lightness and buoyancy and what meaning changes happen as a result of those word choices or between concrete to abstract synonyms, synonyms that differ in terms of class differences and occasion.
Syntax is about sentence construction and how simple or complicated sentences can get. When someone says, “I couldn’t follow his syntax” (which I do all the time with Wallace Stevens poems), they usually mean the subordinate clause and verb layers are too complicated to make sense of. In writing class they would tell us to break those monster sentences up into shorter sentences for easier digestion. But for some poets, the fun of the thing is trying to push a sentence to its limits. And that’s okay.
This is now my favorite book on the current affairs of digital literature. It’s so concise and yet the most expansive book on the subject. And it’s so friendly and reasonable!
Hammond starts with a historical review of the criticisms and rebuttals of electronic literature (very fairly handled), then moves onto issues of digitizing existing literature (including history around Virginia Woolf’s interest in that area) and issues around accessibility, then moving over into talking about quantitative studies in literature. He ends talking with “born digital” pieces and alterations in our ideas about authorship.
If you hate this subject (kids today!) but what to be literate about it, this is the book for you. If you don’t know anything about it and are elit-curious, this is the book for you. It’s a must have for anybody studying the most contemporary literatures, including narrative video games.
Not video games! I know what you’re thinking. Hammond provided two excellent examples of literary video games, which you can view online as walkthroughs:
The Stanley Parable: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fgmIk_aOCRs
I loved this branching story, a very literate take on the absurdity of video games!
Going Home: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jXwuqG3FVNs
The walkthroughs are a big speedy which made me a bit
dizzy so I haven’t finished it but the game is full of things to read and reading is a big part of the game. It’s a story about a missing family in a big shadowy house.
I also read the mass of materials known as Building Stories by artist Chris Ware. It comes in a board-game box full of graphic stories of different shapes and sizes (see pic left, click to open in larger size). This is a story about a woman’s life trajectory and a sub-story about bees. The amazing thing is the reading order affects how you understand and "compile" the story in your head, how you decide to order and interact with all the materials, which include a game board artifact.
I decided to read them all from smallest to largest. My friend just randomly picked up booklets to read. I labeled the main character as the woman with one leg because I learned about her leg situation before I learned anything else and I learned about her accident which caused this situation at the very end of my readings. So that was the trajectory my brain designed for the story. My friend labeled the same character “the mother” because that’s what she learned first. The leg situation was never very important to her. Check out what the whole story looks like: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8uwFGU3w8Hs
Whether or not you feel resistance to non-paper-based stories or computer experiments, the truth is that many of the experiments are often the same between language poets and computer poets: randomness, parataxis, and auto generation. We get it, people matrix! My favorite experiments, however, have moved beyond matrixing or assembling meaning from collage.
Words can come to life outside of paper. Why would a story told through a series of inter-linked blogs or in a game be much different than a paper version in terms of intensity or truth telling? There’s no reason.
MOOC Update: Are Good MOOCs a Thing of the Past
I’ve completed a few new free online classes (or MOOCS) this year: one on William Wordsworth, one on scientist/poet Humprhy Davy (both University of Lancaster classes hosted on FutureLearn) and a Harvard EdX course on Shakespeare.
They were all good in their own way, but I’ve noticed a trend in MOOCs, similar to the trend of tomato sauce cans getting perceptibly smaller year after year.
The original appeal for MOOCS was two things: they could be self-paced and they were free. Plus you get access to people and institutions all around the world. Colleges benefit from showing off their wares a bit and encouraging continuing, public, adult education (especially considering most MOOC offeringss are general education classes or liberal arts (and coding probably). But no one is offering a degree as a result of MOOCs or any kind of college credit for them. But they have the opportunity to collect a great deal of data on you and how you fared through the material, what tools worked and what kind of content was most effective. They study your learning in other words. Plus they gather information through polls, papers and discussion boards.
It seems that either the cost of creating these courses has become an issue or they're just are trying to squeeze more revenue out of a once-revenue-free stream. Lately there’s been a move to monetize these courses but still making they seem free. They first tried this by offering a certificate. But at $50 most students didn’t go for it. What could that certificate be used for? Nothing. It’s just a piece of paper.
Then they started restricting access to grading and discussions (no big deal if you’re taking the course archived anyway). Now the tactic is to put a timer on the days you have access to the class, thereby removing the self-paced feature. Some give you less than a month! And once the time runs out, you lose all access to the class and prior work, including your own comments.
I’ve responded to this by skipping all the interactive features of the classes. Who has time for that? And why give up any data when all the benefits are disappearing? In the Shakespeare class there was a participation check you could only access if you paid for the class, which was absurd because as users we don’t need to verify your own participation. That feature was created for their benefit. Why would we pay for that?
Here’s the thing. I think teachers should be paid. I believe the adjunct system is bankrupting higher education. It’s signaling to everyone that teachers don’t matter. And teachers are literally the product here so institutions devaluing them in salary and benefits in institutional insanity. It also hints at some real gangrene dysfunction in the whole system.
So I’m not opposed to paying something for each class. After all, it takes labor and time to make these things. But at $50 a class, I’m close to the price point for a real live community college class. Not as convenient, sure. But it has sociability benefits and relationship building opportunities MOOCs don't have. So I wouldn't say one is more valuable than the other.
And I’m completely not interested in a monthly or yearly subscription model. Whole years go by where I don’t see classes I want to take. So a subscription plan feels like a waste of money. I want to pay as I go and retain access to work I’ve already done. Since these classes are truly massively attended, Udemy is good platform to study what price-points users will bear. A small amount ($15-25) purchased massively should pay for the creation of the class. Add that to the benefits gained from all of our data and that should be more reasonable for all of us.
But then there’s the tomato can issue, classes are getting really slim: shorter required readings, shorter videos, shorter syllabi. It all makes me wonder if MOOCs have run their course. If they’re truly not providing both students and providers with dividends, what’s the point? I surely don’t want to feel I’m giving up a lot of effort and data. I'm all for data gathering and educational improvements. I just participated in a user study for one of the MOOC to provide feedback on a very cool new tool they had developed. But if there’s no common path for all of us, I’ll just go back to the library or my local college.