Wednesday 11 September 2013

Ernest Hartley Coleridge: Proto-Proclaimer

I won't lie to you: there is a reason why Ernest Hartley Coleridge is not as famous a poet as his grandfather, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Ernest is mostly remembered for editing STC's works, from the earliest publication of selections from the notebooks in Anima Poetae (1896), through a detailed reprint of Christabel (1908) and on to the Complete Poetry in 1912. He published one volume of his own poetry in 1898, and it's not a collection that really deserves poetic fame.


In the poem below, Ernest describes to his lover how far he would go for her. He's walk 50 miles. Later, he says he'll walk 250.

Then, skip forward 80 years, and we find the Proclaimers walking 500 miles:

And now, for all your Victorian-geeky-pleasure for the week, sing Ernest's poem along with The Proclaimers tune. (If anyone uploads a video of themselves doing just that, I will think of some sort of prize. Probably sweet-related.) The 1st and last stanzas work especially well:

Love in Absence

If I could travel fifty miles,
Then cross a stream and mount a hill,
(I've done it mad for joy erewhiles),
I know that I would find her still.

She's sitting in the window seat,
Her face is resting on her hand;
She's looking out onto the street,
The fairest maid in all the land.

She does not note the passers-by,
Some vision of her own she sees;
Some grief she hath which makes her sigh,
But doth not make her ill at ease.

Her cheek is like the rose in May,
Her hair is gathered off her brows,
Her wistful eyes look far away,
Her soul hath left its pleasant house.

I see her thus when I am near,
Albeit she is far from me,
And could I stand beside my dear,
This self-same maiden I should see.

And could I touch her face once more,
I know where all the dimples hide;
And that dear land I've travelled o'er
Is yet in all its virgin pride.

And I would travel fifty miles,
Or five times fifty could I know,
My love would welcome me with smiles,
Nor til I kissed her bid me go.

Friday 5 July 2013

JISC: Open Access Monographs in the Humanities and Social Sciences

So you spend three or four years chained to your computer. You read so many books and articles that your dreams start to conform to the MHRA style guide. You have moments of pure excited joy and (usually longer) moments of unadulterated despair. And at the end of it all, you produce your thesis, your article, or your book.
And no one reads it. No one can, outside a very small group of fellow-academics whose institutional affiliations mean that they can access your work. Even institutions are not operating on a level playing field; say half of your colleagues are from small institutions whose libraries just don’t have a big budget, or they specialise in a subject area very different to yours. A huge proportion of your intended audience is already locked out from being able to discover your work. The problem is even more acute if you’re publicly-funded. Almost everyone you walk past in the street is contributing something to your research – but they can’t read it, unless they’re willing to pay extortionate amounts of money to access it. And, remember, they’ve already paid for it; their taxes are the reason you could carry out your research to begin with.
The open access debate is not a new one; it’s been brewing for nearly two decades. But, to talk specifically to the UK context, at a time when we’re being increasingly asked to demonstrate the worth of our research to a wider audience which reaches outside the academic bubble, the conversation about open access is heating up. This week’s JISC conference, ‘Open Access Monographs in the Humanities and Social Sciences’, amply demonstrated why this is not an issue we can ignore, and why it’s a conversation that should and must be engaged with across all subject disciplines and about all academic publishing.
The conference, held at the British Library on July 1st-2nd, provided a rare opportunity for academics, librarians, publishers and policy-makers to come together, providing a space for dialogues which seem long overdue. If open access is, as several speakers suggested, based on collaboration, this conference set the right tone; the very active Twitter feed indicates the kinds of conversations being had, and the need for these dialogues to continue as the open access movement progresses.
It’s nearly exactly one year since the Finch report suggested how open access publishing might work in the UK. (See this blog post from Helen Rogers for an idea of some of the issues this report raised.) It identified two routes by which open access publishing would work: gold, where the author or institution pays the publisher for open access rights, and green, where the work is subject to an embargo for a set time before it is made open access. Open access policies so far have only applied to journal articles, but the conversation now is beginning to consider the future of monograph publishing. Although HEFCE confirmed at this conference that there is unlikely to be a formal requirement for the next (c.2020) REF, they are in the beginning stages of a consultation to consider how open access monograph publishing might be brought into effect.
At the heart of this conference was a dilemma: how appropriate are monographs for publishing research anyway? Jean Claude Guédon asked this question in his opening keynote, suggesting that we now need to find ways to go beyond the monograph. He argued that we need to recognise that all of our research is collaborative; even the monograph is not the work of one lone researcher, but is instead one document entering into a society of texts. The concept of the author-centric text is, he suggested, flawed; it implies ownership over an idea that was, in fact, not developed in a solitary mind, but in conversation with others – whether that be with other academics, or with your partner, your friend, your mum, all of whom will contribute something to your thinking. And anyway, he continued, the single-author thesis does not train us sufficiently for the jobs we’re likely to get after it, when we will be working collaboratively with other people. Why not collaborate on your thesis, then?
Guédon was openly indebted to Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s study Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology and the Future of the Academy (2011), and indeed she reiterated many of Guédon’s points in her own keynote later that day. Fitzpatrick went further to suggest that the academy is organised by a vertical hierarchy, whereby established scholars self-propagate their own ideas. In other words, if all our new work is being assessed by the same outdated ideas, it will never get very far. Fitzpatrick argued for a move towards a ‘horizontal’ order, whereby we are all assessed on our trustworthiness and skill rather than out credentials. She stimulated the discussion on the peer review process by comparing the two peer review methods undergone by Planned Obsolescence: ‘traditional’ review, and open access, some examples of which you can see here. She was not arguing for a complete switch to open access peer reviews, but she did demonstrate how the two approaches might work together to produce a better final product. She also indicated how this approach might be used for teaching at all levels; students from across disciplines and institutions can comment side-by-side on the same text, diversifying their conversations and engaging them with a much wider social and critical field.
These keynotes highlighted the broader issues at play in humanities and social sciences publishing in the international market, and the sessions between them illustrated the specific ways in which open access publishing might be approached. As chair Martin Hall noted as he introduced the first panel, ‘to Finch’ might not yet be a recognised verb, but it’s role as a noun has certainly expanded since last year’s report. Panel 1, ‘HSS after Finch’, provided an opportunity for a diverse range of companies and policy makers to articulate their responses to open access publishing of monographs. Rupert Gatti, the Director of Open Book Publishers, received a lot of Twitter praise for his enthusiasm over the course of the conference, and he asked the event’s key question: how can we prove our relevance if our main outputs are not being read by the majority? It was a question with which HEFCE are demonstrably struggling; they confirmed that there would be no mandate for open access publishing in the next few years, despite the growing support for it at government level in the EU, as Carl-Christian Buhr, member of cabinet of the Vice President of the European Commission, explained. As Caroline Edwards suggested in the afternoon session, we risk falling into a ‘prestige trap’, whereby young scholars can’t publish open access because it isn’t as well-recognised – but it never will be if there are no mandates for it. These dialogues seemed to indicate that policy makers and academics are stuck, to a degree, in a loop, whereby academics won’t publish open access until there’s equal prestige attached to it, and policy-makers won’t mandate it until academics are seen to be doing it.
The majority of day 2 saw delegates split into three different strands: one for researchers, one for librarians and one for policy-makers. The researcher strand explored practical ways researchers might explore the possibility of publishing their monograph open access. Ed Pentz, the Executive Director at CrossRef, introduced us to ORCID, an online researcher identity; Ernesto Priego guided us through Creative Commons and CC-BY licenses; Janneke Adema suggested how to find a reputable open access publisher; Ellen Collins explored issues surrounding funding, mandates and embargoes; Will Brooker made the case for actively promoting your work; and Lucy Montgomery provided an introduction to altmetrics. The main message from this strand is easily summarised: you have the power to control your research destiny. Get on ORCID – provide your own information so that people looking for you know who you are and what you’ve published. Get keyed up about Creative Commons so that you know how, and where, to publish open access. If you don’t ask for funding, you won’t get it (publishing OA with Palgrave currently costs £11,000), and you should discuss your own embargo lengths too. Don’t leave it all to the publisher or institution to promote yourself, and get online to track the impact of your work. Open access may put more emphasis on collaboration, but it also highlights the need for self-determination. Your work isn’t finished just because it’s published.
The practical difficulties of open access – where do you get the money, how do you make sure it’s sustainable – may seem unconnected to your concerns. In a traditional publishing landscape, you’d probably be right. But this isn’t a problem that’s going to be fixed by the older generation of academics: this is a problem that we will need to solve. It’ll be our generation implementing this solution, building on the work done by the likes of OAPEN or Knowledge Unlatched. And it’ll be us having the conversations with HEFCE towards making sure that our research can be read by the majority, and can be read for a long time to come. This isn’t a conversation to eavesdrop on; this is one to enter into.
We’re doing our PhDs at a small university. There are a ton of advantages – and there are a ton of ways to eliminate at least some of the disadvantages. Our library cannot buy all of the research platforms that we each need to perform on a world-class platform. The debate at this conference was, in some ways, getting ahead of itself: it asked how we can make our research available to the public when it’s not yet equally available to academics. We’re running before we’ve fully worked out how to walk. But this is the kind of debate that somewhere like Keele needs to make its voice heard, because it’s somewhere like Keele that is going to get the most out of open access publishing. If we don’t have the resources to buy our way onto a world-class research stage, then we need to go by a different route. Open access will bring our work more into the wider public community, yes – but it will also help us to engage with the world-class research community that we deserve to be a part of.

Useful Links:
Here’s just a few of the resources mentioned at the conference. For a more in depth idea of the content and context of the event, check out the Twitter feed at #oabooks or the Storify of that feed for easier reading.

Wednesday 10 April 2013

Bloomin' Bioshock Infinite #1

"This game has loads of bloom in it."

So declared my boyfriend, as he watched me play his new computer game Bioshock Infinite (Irrational Games, 2013). I turned around, somewhat dumbstruck. "Why, yes... it has," I replied [NB: some expletive expressions of shock have been edited out of this conversation], "I didn't know you'd been listening to me talk about him."

Confusion ensued, until we realised we had crossed our wires somewhat. He was talking about bloom, the lighting effect used in some video games to mimic the effect of a bright light on vision as experienced through a camera. I was talking about Bloom - Harold Bloom, the [in]famous theorist whose most well-known academic legacy is the always-contentious theory of the 'anxiety of influence' (all poets are influenced by a previous poet, and they're all unhappy about it) and whose best-known extra-academic legacy is his 1994 publication The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages, and with whose works I've been spending an inordinate amount of time lately.

Bioshock Infinite: a potentially Coleridgean vending machine
When applied to this game, the two ideas are not so disparate as they might at first seem: in fact, one bloom often signals the presence of the other. But it's the theoretical Bloom I want to focus on here. In a lot of ways, this post follows on from my last, in which I read the Romantic sublime into Bethesda's 2011 release Skyrim. It could, in fact have been more closely connected; Bioshock Infinite contains humanoid vending machines which quote from Samuel Taylor Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and warn you to mind the proverbial albatross - and this is only the most blatant Romantic reference - and a lot of the views could certainly be described as sublime. Connections have already been made between Bioshock Infinite and its hidden literary influences, such as to The Wizard of Oz here. But what about its literary-theoretical ones? In this post, the first of two in which I'll explore this theme, I'm going to look at one of the trailers for the game.

At this point I should say: ***SPOILER ALERT***

Zachary Hale Comstock -
from the Bioshock Infinite wiki

The historical
Anthony Comstock
(source here)
The Bloom connection in Bioshock Infinite is almost as blatant as the Ancient Mariner one; in some ways more so. The main character's names - Booker DeWitt or Comstock depending on which temporal dimension you happen to be in - are loaded with histories:
Bryce DeWitt (1923-2004) was a theoretical physicist who, appropriately for Bioshock's needs, advanced Hugh Everett's many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics; Anthony Comstock (1844-1915) was quite literally post-Civil War New York's morality police - George Bernard Shaw coined the term 'comstockery' after one of his plays was censored by Comstock - and the fictional Comstock is something of an Evangelical moralist who consistently reiterates similar morality laws in his floating city of Columbia. Historical influences pervade the narrative, from the anti-abolitionist rhetoric of Columbia's ruling classes to the echoes of the French and Russian Revolutions found in the that of the Vox Populi here. But, as the article linked there suggests, 'Columbia is both the setting and the ultimate threat to be averted at all costs'. And it is in Columbia itself, in the setting, that we can find the most obvious, visual Bloomian tropes. Columbia is a stage: it's a stage on which to talk about influence, historical, literary and, most importantly, familial.

Now, Bloom's theories, on the surface, are all about the temporal - except that, time and space are not dichotomies for Bloom. Bloomian time and space is more like the Doctor Who timey-wimey-spacey kind - all mixed up. If time changes, so does the space, and spaces affect what goes on in time. And that is what we find in Bioshock Infinite. The historical influences are undeniably important - you need a decent grasp of transatlantic nineteenth century history to follow the nuances of a lot of the plot - and the game is supremely self-conscious about it. This isn't a game which is anxious about its influences, as such; on the contrary, it flaunts them.

The mocumentary trailers released before the game introduce several strands of influence that will remain present throughout the game; the title - Truth from Legend: A Modern Day Icarus? - suggests the elision between historical fact and game, between 'fact' and legend in the narrative itself, and the classical/literary references which underpin so much of the game's plot and imagery - most importantly, Biblical allusions. The documentary itself is reminscent of that cheap 1980s kind 90s kids got shown in school: scratchy prodution company music; the deep, serious voice of a neutral-accented narrator; unsteady graphics. It's an audiovisual scrapbook of the 'history' of the floating city, Columbia, from it's beginning in 1893 to its cessation from the United States following a diplomatic crisis (in China - you're right to think of the later Manchurian crisis) in 1901. The narrator asserts that this city - the star exhibit at the Great Exhibition-esque 1893 World Columbian Exhibition, 'a gathering of the greatest technological feats the world had ever seen' - was the result of the vision of 'one man'. But the narrator is clearly wrong, as his own name suggests: the city arises as the monstrous result of a collaboration between characters within the game, and with the game's developers and diverse social, cultural and historical sources outside of it.

The fact that our narrator's name is A. Bloom surely cannot be coincidence. The unusual spelling of his first name suggests that this is something we should be paying attention to.  Firstly, Alistar is introduced after the viewer has been drawn back through a galaxy of stars; the cosmic/legendary/scientific tensions explored in the game are already evident here.  Secondly, the name invokes allusions to another contemporary game: Alistar is a Minotaur in League of Legends, the online multiplayer role playing game launched in October 2009. According to his Wiki page, Alistar the Minotaur was 'initially unwilling to cater to his celebrity status as a champion' until he 'discovered that there is power in fame, and he has become a vocal advocate for those whom the Noxian government treads upon'. This emphasis on vocality is important here; both Alistars are, in different ways, oral advocators of truth in the face of something hidden. The Bioshock Infinite trailer narrator's surname reinforces that the viewer - and the future player of the yet-to-be-released game - should be paying close attention to the game's external references, whether they be extra-textual (I'm including literature, film and game here), theoretical, or historical.
A screenshot of the opening of the Bioshock Infinite 'documentary'
 In the next post, I'll move on to look at the themes developed by the second part of this mocumentary, and into Bioshock Infinite itself; in particular, I'll follow the trailer's lead in bringing the game into the academy by quizzing the two dominant images - the angel and the songbird - in terms of Bloom's theory of the 'anxiety of influence'.

Monday 10 December 2012

The Modern Sublime? Gaming and the Romantic Imagination

Edmund Burke
Perhaps the best-known definition of the sublime is from Edmund Burke's 1757 work A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. Here, Burke described the now-familiar dichotomy between the "feminine" beautiful and the "masculine" sublime. Beauty is found in objects or landscapes which are visually 'smooth' (rolling hills, for example); beauty is "that quality or those qualities in bodies by which they cause love, or some passion similar to it". The sublime, on the other hand, is accessed through experiences of the 'terrible'; that is, objects, landscapes or experiences which invoke fear or notions of vastness: "it is impossible to look on any thing as trifling, or contemptible, that may be dangerous". Felix Baumgartner's recent jump from space may be identified as a sublime experience: his view from the top of the jump incorporated the vastness of the globe, and the jump itself was undeniably sublimely terrifying.

Clearly, not all of us - not even most of us - are able to access sublime experiences in this way. Like the Romantic poets before us, we must find more everyday ways of locating the sublime. Unlike the Romantics, however, we are not looking to the natural world to access it, but to a virtual one. Jane McGonigal, from the Institute for the Future, describes in her 2010 lecture "Gaming can make a better world" how "we" currently spend 3 billion hours per week playing online games like World of Warcraft. She argues that the reason that spending such vast amounts of time in virtual worlds is appealing is because it is in those online landscapes and as part of those gaming communities that we can become "the best version of ourselves". Games like World of Warcraft, so McGonigal suggests,  allow gamers to experience deep bonds of trust as part of a collaborative community who work together to achieve world-changing goals, or an "epic win". In light of the 10,000 hours it is estimated many gamers will have already been interacting within such gaming communities by the age of 21, McGonigal asks how the skills learned in these virtual worlds may be applied to solving real-world problems like climate change and global hunger.

Part of the map of Skyrim.
World of Warcraft first came into existence back in 1994. It has since constructed (and continues to expand  upon) an "epic story"; players of WoW have accumulated a staggering 5.93 million years of gameplay, and have contributed to the second largest Wiki after Wikipedia. It is this vastness of time and resources that make WoW a sublime experience: as Burke suggested, "when we go but one step beyond the immediately sensible qualities of things, we go out of our depth". If the player's individual experience is that "immediately sensible" quality, then the huge virtual world, and its vast number of inhabitants, is something "out of our depth". Gameplay on this scale is in itself a sublime experience.

Game designers now are increasingly exploring the sublime possibilities of gameplay. Bethesda's 2011 game The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim is the latest installment of The Elder Scrolls series which, like WoW, also emerged in 1994 (although this is not an online multi-player game). Like WoW, The Elder Scrolls series is formed around a central epic narrative which stretches back thousands of years. Like WoW, too, it has its own impressive Wiki. Skyrim takes advantage of the rapid graphical developments of the last few years; the player may go almost anywhere on the vast map, and the mind of the Skyrim player is, in Burkean terms, "bounded by the bounds of the object" - in this case, the map. Skyrim re-imagines the sublime mountainous landscapes of the northern hemisphere into this virtual world: the natural experiences of the Romantic poets are transfigured into the virtual experiences of the modern gamer.

Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer above a Sea of Fog.
This image became iconic for Romantic explorations
of the sublime.

Ikmik the High Elf surveying the Skyrim landscape.
Arguably nothing encapsulated the Romantic sublime experience more than the re-imaginings of the mountain experience. Whether it was Percy Bysshe Shelley's Alpine descriptions, Frankenstein's polar excursion, or Wordsworth's climbing of Snowdon, the Romantics almost universally located the sublime in the ice-tipped peaks of the highest regions of the world. Wordsworth described his ascent of Mount Snowdon in The Prelude (1850):
There I beheld the emblem of a mind
That feeds upon infinity, that broods
Over the dark abyss, intent to hear
Its voices issuing forth to silent light
In one continuous stream; a mind sustained
By recognitions of transcendent power,
In sense conducting to ideal form,
In soul of more than mortal privilege.
One function, above all, of such a mind
Had Nature shadowed there, by putting forth,
'Mid circumstances awful and sublime,
That mutual domination which she loves
To exert upon the face of outward things,
So moulded, joined, abstracted, so endowed
With interchangeable supremacy,
That men, least sensitive, see, hear, perceive,
And cannot choose but feel.
 The awe-inspiring landscape ignites similarly vast thought's in the poet's mind; his imagination becomes "mighty" through its contemplation of this "awful and sublime" sight. The mountain is sublime because it excites sentiments of eternity: the mind "feeds upon infinity", and the poet can look into "the dark abyss"; that is, his mind can reach inestimable heights and unfathomable depths, and the fear inspired by both is sublimely terrible. The poet's mind is formed through its experiences of the natural world.

More scenes from Skyrim.
Similarly, in Skyrim the inhabitants are frequently described as being necessarily hardy: their approach towards romantic love and marriage encapsulates the effects of the inhospitable landscape on their lives. The people of Skyrim, we are told, marry quickly once they have decided on a mate, because lives are precious in a land of extreme weather and unstable politics. The player is, then, submerged into a narrative predicated upon this imagined landscape, but the game goes further than this. The game seeks to enthrall the player through its use of the virtual, visual sublime; the player who remains stationery inside can nevertheless vicariously experience the "awful" natural world. Just as the Romantics seemed to retreat into the natural world, the modern gamer, according to Edward Castronova, is partaking in "a mass exodus to virtual worlds and online game environments". If McGonigal is to be believed, these gamers, like the Romantics, may use their experiences in these imaginative or virtual landscapes to impact upon the real world.

If, as McGonigal suggests, gamers partake in these worlds because there they can become the best they can be, then they can also use these worlds to engage in experiences they will probably never have in their own, real lives. The modern gamer does not need to leave their home in order to experience the "mode of terror" which, Burke argues, "is always the cause of the sublime". Games developers can involve them in a world whereby they can access both the vast landscapes of the natural world, and those of their own "mighty mind[s]".

Thursday 8 November 2012

'In the family': living with the Coleridge surname

In her memoir In Pursuit of Coleridge, Kathleen Coburn remembered her first visit to the then Lord Coleridge in 1930. Lord Geoffrey Coleridge (a descendant of Samuel Taylor’s elder brother James and nephew John ‘Justice’ Coleridge) was less than enthusiastic about the memory of his famous ancestor. Coburn recalled his somewhat intrepid response:
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1795
Old Sam was only a poet, you know, never did anything practical that was any good to anybody, actually not thought much of in the family, a bit of a disgrace in fact, taking drugs and not looking after his wife and children. Of course STC must have been a wonderful man – in a way – he was somehow clever enough to take in so many great men – but why a young girl like you should spend your time on the old reprobate, I can’t think! All those badly-written scribblings – couldn’t even write a decent hand that ordinary people can read – full of stuff and nonsense. But all you pedants live on this sort of thing. Useless knowledge, perfectly useless. Now I at least know something about beef cattle... 
Lord Geoffrey unwittingly encapsulated the trouble with his great-great-uncle: simultaneously ‘a bit of a disgrace’ and a ‘wonderful man’, Samuel Taylor cannot be an easy ancestor to bear the brand of. His surname could act as a powerful talisman for the Coleridges who followed him. His daughter Sara suggested that they would be of interest to posterity only as ‘psychological curiosities’, and that is, perhaps, still where the interest begins, even if it is not where it ends up. Literary agent Gill Coleridge, a descendant of Lord Justice Coleridge, kindly spoke to me about her experiences of her surname. ‘When she set us poetry to write for homework, my English teacher used to say to me, ‘I shall expect something extra special from you,’’ Gill remembered. ‘Of course, she completely put me off.’  Gill’s childhood experiences of the expectations invoked by her surname recall Sara’s complicated responses to it; because of her surname, Gill, too, became another Coleridgean ‘psychological curiosity’, for her English teacher at least. ‘But it was not a curse,’ Gill is careful to reiterate; for her and other family members it has been far more a blessing than otherwise.
Lord John 'Justice' Coleridge

Anthony Coleridge, whose career titles are diverse enough to rival his polymathmatical ancestor’s, includes in his Twitter description the titillating accolade ‘Poet Relation’, and has blogged under the title ‘The Proclamations of A Young Opium Eater’. Here, of course, the drug-taking Samuel Taylor is invoked as a point of something like pride; Anthony, we can assume from this title, has inherited the visionary, artistic side-effects which allegedly resulted in poetic masterpieces like ‘Kubla Khan’ and ‘The Pains of Sleep’. In the dual invocation of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Thomas De Quincey, Anthony self-consciously styles himself as a modern Romantic, moving through an artistic scene just as his ancestor did two-hundred years ago.

Jacques Derrida suggested that a surname,
risks to bind, to enslave or to engage the other, to link the called, to call him/her to respond even before any decision or any deliberation, even before any freedom.
A surname – any surname – can trap the individual, can ‘bind’ them to a specific idea that is constructed even before they are born; it is this nominal slavery that Sara and Hartley Coleridge’s critics responded to; that, in the 1890s, responses to Mary Elizabeth Coleridge continued; and that, well into the twentieth century,  Gill Coleridge’s English teacher persisted in maintaining.  It is, then,  other people who use the name as an enslavement; for the bearers, it is a site of engagement, a place of recalling and reinterpreting past associations of the name, and challenging them until they become, once again, individual.

Monday 15 October 2012

Wikipedia and Academia

Wikipedia: the undergraduate essay marker's nightmare. How many of us have been reduced to tears of anguish at seeing a bibliography full of citations derived from that capricious source?

Wikipedia can be a really great resource; who hasn't Googled an unknown fact, and clicked on the first link to find out more? Inevitably, that first link will be from Wikipedia. Which is fine, so long as we never admit to it in a professional or academic setting.

Photo: Jo Taylor. The British Library - just as proof that the sun
has shone a bit this year.
But - and those of a nervous disposition should look away now - times are changing. At least, so hopes the British Library's "Wikipedian in Residence," Andrew Gray. Andrew is the first to fulfill a post that reveals much about the new directions being explored research institutions: this AHRC-funded position reveals not only the British Library's interest in the potential of Wikipedia, but also funding councils' awareness of its ever-increasing importance for individual researchers and academia more broadly.

On Friday afternoon, I attended the AHRC's Wikipedia workshop, run by Andrew and held at the British Library. It aimed to introduce arts and humanities researchers into the somewhat daunting arena of Wikipedia contribution. As well as an overview of the history of Wikipedia, and providing a sense of the project's immense scale in 'real', numerical terms, the workshop helpfully guided us Wiki-beginners through the process of constructing a profile, engaging with other users and contributing our own knowledge to that vast compendium of knowledge, useful and otherwise. Several issues were thrown up: the construction of that all-important online identity; communicating (nicely) with our fellow Wikipedians; and disseminating our own research in that increasingly-important public-friendly manner.

The online identity is an issue well explored by several others (see, for example, this Guardian article or this post by Charlotte Mathieson), and all that should be added to these already great discussions is a reminder (and one stressed throughout the workshop) that Wikipedia is completely open access - so, if you're going to use a name identifiable with your real one, make sure that you're happy for anyone and everyone (including potential employers and funders) to read your contributions. Even if you delete something later, the action will be visible in the site's easily accessible history. If that sounds scary, it should; to quote an old cliché, everything you say can and will be used against you.

A screen-grab of the edit history page of Samuel Taylor
Coleridge's Wikipedia entry.
Don't, then, fall into the trap of disrespecting your fellow users. Yes, of course it will be frustrating when someone changes something you've added. It may be something that you're an expert on; you may be completely certain that you are right, and your new Wiki-nemesis is not. Nevertheless, be nice. Be sympathetic. That goes, too, for the way you write your posts: Wikipedia may be a uniquely helpful resource for the academic looking to hone their pubic engagement skills. If you write something incomprehensible to the average reader, it will be changed - often, quickly. (As Ben Fenton noted on Twitter this morning, it took 90 seconds for the news of Alvin Roth's Nobel prize to make it onto Wikipedia.) Wikipedia entries are dynamic texts: they are constantly changing, revised by contributors the world over. It's not difficult to imagine Wikipedia being used as a resource for the academic of the future; the changes made to those pages can reveal much about changing attitudes towards institutions, people, or ideas. They can reflect general attitudes towards knowledge as much as the growth of that knowledge itself. Don't assume, too, that your topic will already be there, or that there won't be something you can add - in all likelihood, you will be able to contribute something new.

Anyone wondering who actually cares about their research, head to Wikipedia; you may be surprised by who is already engaging with your area of interest. And if no-one is already, make a page - they soon will be.

Monday 8 October 2012

The short Romantic

"I am brief myself," Hartley Coleridge declared, "brief in stature..." It is enough to make the short researcher rejoice - "Hurrah!" I cried (or should have), "I have something in common with my researchee!" - until we read on: "...brief in discourse, short of memory and money, and far short of my wishes." "Li'l Hartley", as he was called by his Grasmere neighbours throughout his adult life, was a part of that select group of nineteenth-century writers: those who, in John Keats's words, were "five feet hight." Derwent Coleridge recalled in his "Memoir" of his brother that
The singularity of his appearance, by which he was distinguished through life, and which, together with the shortness of his stature, (possibly attributable in some measure to his premature birth,) had a marked influence on the formation of his character, was apparent from the first...
Hartley Coleridge - possessed of a
"singularity of appearance"
Samuel Taylor Coleridge noted this "singularity" of appearance, writing to a friend after his wife had told him of the similarities between his own looks and the baby's that "in truth, I have received finer compliments in my time." Hartley was not destined to be the looker of his family (that accolade was left for his younger sister Sara, a renowned beauty in her youth). That his looks affected his life Hartley was in no doubt; he was painfully aware of the affect of his appearance on women. But Derwent's suggestion that they affected his character from a young age is telling; it is an early indication of the self-conscious connections between his body and his mind that Hartley was to acknowledge increasingly as he got older, and which others were to notice more and more as his alcohol consumption increased. For Hartley, as for his relatives, his short stature was taken as a metaphor for his disappointing creative output. Echoing his brother's essay, Derwent Coleridge suggested that "all who knew my brother with any degree of intimacy, are agreed that his written productions fall far, very far short of what he might, under happier circumstances, have achieved."

For John Keats, too, this sensitivity about his short stature was self-consciously bound up with his anxieties regarding women. As he wrote in July 1818,

I am certain I have not a right feeling towards Women--at this moment I am striving to be just to them but I cannot--Is it because they fall so far beneath my Boyish imagination? When I was a Schoolboy I thought a fair Woman a pure Goddess, my mind was a soft nest in which some one of them slept though she knew it not--I have no right to expect more than their reality. I thought them etherial above Men--I find them perhaps equal.... I do not like to think insults in a Lady's Company--I commit a Crime with her which absence would have not known--Is it not extraordinary? When among Men I have no evil thoughts, no malice, no spleen--I feel free to speak or to be silent--I can listen and from every one I can learn--my hands are in my pockets I am free from all suspicion and comfortable. When I am among Women I have evil thoughts, malice spleen--I cannot speak or be silent--I am full of Suspicions and therefore listen to no thing--I am in a hurry to be gone--You must be charitable and put all this perversity to my being disappointed since Boyhood–. . . I could say a good deal about this but I will leave it in hopes of better and more worthy dispositions--and also content that I am wronging no one, for after all I do think better of Womankind than to suppose they care whether Mister John Keats five feet hight likes them or not.
John Keats: just "five feet hight"
However, Keats's concerns about women seem to be a cipher for his height-related anxieties about his creative abilities. When he was young, before his shortness upset him, women could sleep in the "soft nest" of his mind; that young mind was then a willing receptacle, open to divine inspiration. This older, self-consciously small poet is affected to his creative detriment: the "Goddess" of his youth resided in his imagination, producing "fair", fruitful thoughts; the real women he meets as an adult inhibit this creative process. It is not a process which men can help him with: although men enable him to "speak" or to "listen," they do not engage his mind in an active process of poetic creation. Keats's poetic power is, it seems, androgynous; a feminine aspect is necessary. His identity as a man, too, is bound up with his awareness of his perceived unmanly height: "five feet hight" seems almost an addition to his name, as if it is both of these attributes which defines the poet to both himself and to "Womankind."

Fortunately, perhaps, for those short people who long for an extra few inches, neither of these men are remembered predominantly for being short, just as Byron is not remembered for his height. It is those other connotations of brevity which are far more damaging. Hartley's complaints of his shortness are from a rather long essay entitled "On Brevity", which Hartley cuts short from an awareness that he has already exceeded his point. It is a playful essay, and indicates the extent to which this creative or professional "brevity" lies entirely in the writer's hands to solve.

(Brevity of money, on the other hand, he provides no answers for. Sorry.)