On Attentiveness

Wendell Berry in an essay entitled “Preserving Wildness” collected inHome Economics makes the case for what may be called an economy of attentiveness (as opposed to an economy of mere attention).

The good worker loves the board before it becomes a table, loves the tree before it yields the board, loves the forest before it gives up the tree. The good worker understands that a badly made artifact is both an insult to its user and a danger to its source. We could say, then, that good forestry begins with the respectful husbanding of the forest that we call stewardship and ends with well-made tables and chairs and houses, just as good agriculture begins with stewardship of the fields and ends with good meals.

How It Feels to Be Copied

I wrote this some time ago, in 2015, I think. I thought it was published here, and when I discovered it lying in an archive of notes on my computer, I thought it was only right to put it where I intended all those years ago.

It begins with whispers and occasional sideways glances among the people who know what is happening, and with very odd questions among the people who don’t know — I remember someone from across the university remarking that I should check out the other project, since it too was on the same topic. Then, someone finally steps forward and points out what others have known, or suspected, for a while. They show you a website, and I was confused because the prose, while not exactly my own, was so much like how I wrote, how I thought, and the title of the project was remarkably similar to my own, and, in fact, was fairly close to a phrase I had used in an essay that I had published out of the larger research project. Finally, when I kind of stumbled back to my office, unsure of what to think, a hallmate sticks his head in to say that the other person has been asking about the topic. My hallmate tells me that he kept telling the other person to talk to me, but …

But what? How do such things happen? As a student of culture, I am fully aware that there is such a thing as zeitgeist, that ideas have their moments. I have also chosen to pursue a scholar’s life in the humanities, which means I have chosen to sacrifice greater economic opportunities for the ability, I hope, to serve the greater good, to make a contribution not only to the domain of human knowledge but also to make a difference in the lives of individuals students and the life of my community. And so, the first thing I feel is betrayal. Someone else has done something to me.

But, really, the other person doesn’t really need to care that much.

As for the other project. It takes my idea, which is to examine creativity through a clearly creative object, and focuses on an old wooden boat form that is only made by a few antiquarians for other antiquarians. It’s not a terrible thing to spend time with someone older than you making antiques, but call it that. Don’t call it scholarship. It’s a memoir.

The difficult part is when universities begin to confuse this kind of work with the actual work of scholarship and science, which is probably going to happen more often in more places as universities allow themselves to be run by professional managers and not academics.

This has always been a risk, of course. The great mass at the center of almost any university is the spread of abilities. One of the central tensions in the academy has always been between those who prefer to research, and do it well; those who prefer to teach, and do it well; and those who prefer to manage things, and maybe they do it somewhat competently. But the pay hierarchy goes: administration, research, teaching.

As bean counters take over, not only will they count butts in seats but they will also count publications, without any sense of what matters and what does not. A colleague of mine reported that in her conversation with our dean, when she pointed out that she felt like her work, published in the top journals in her field, was largely being undervalued, our dean replied, “that quantity matters, not quality.” (If he was being ironic, there was no later action he took to reveal that subtle dimension: floggings continued with hopes of morale improving.)

Annual Performance Evaluation Response

At the end of the tedious online performance evaluation process faculty are allowed to make a statement of sorts. Please note that my final evaluation was 4.8 out of 5: I was assessed at 5 for research (55% of my evaluation), 4.5 for teaching (35%), and 5 for service (10%). Here is what I submitted:

Why are we embarked upon a process which the provost himself has described publicly as “inane”? What does it mean for a faculty member to receive a grade of 4.8? Moreover, what’s the point of seeking to distinguish oneself when the only thing at stake is a cost of living adjustment misnamed as a “merit raise”? And this in a year when there will be no adjustments, no raises? Mr. LeBlanc can shake his head in sympathy that my salary will, in effect, be diminished by 3.5%, and maybe the dean will, too, but they both are comfortable in their 6-figure salaries and I have to decide, once again, how much of my savings I will divert to send my child to school, to effect meaningful home repair, and/or offset other expenses which grow each year even as our salaries do not. I am lucky to hold an endowed professorship, but it is only ever temporary, and I know that all I have to do is stumble professionally or annoy the wrong person and that will be taken away and things will be as bad as they are for everyone else in the department. (Or, worse, its removal could be the outcome of an under-considered process possessing no strategic focus nor even a sense of the variance in values of publications to an institution that claims to aspire to higher status.) The evaluation of performance in the absence of any meaningful reward and only the ever-present damoclean threat of punishment is not evaluation but a constant reminder that the administration always holds a knife to faculty’s throat.

Python and PDFs

Real Python has a tutorial on How to Work With a PDF in Python. I subscribe to Real Python because I find their tutorials well-written or, in the case of video tutorials, well-presented. The focus of this tutorial is the PythonPDF module, which can get metadata from a PDF, rotate pages, merge or split a PDF, and/or encrypt it. While the tutorial mentions “extract information” it does not mean PythonPDF can get text from a PDF that does not have a text layer already embedded on its pages — you could argue that the unintuitive nature of PDFs reveals their brokenness but that’s for another time. If you want to get text where there is no text layer, but you still want to use Python, it looks like you have to turn to PDFMiner — though a quick skim of its GH page doesn’t reveal if it has OCR capabilities backed in. Sigh.

AFS 2019 Abstracts

Seymour Chatman’s diagram of narrative

The short abstract (97 words):

With an understanding that no text is composed, or received, in a single “mode of discourse” (description, narration, exposition, etc.), this paper explores the nature of non-narrative elements found within folk narrative, pursuing a path first begun by literary critic Meir Sternberg and linguist Carlota Smith. While Sternberg and Smith used literary texts as the basis for their study, this paper draws, like the previous one, upon folk narratives collected by a number of folklorists, including myself, in order to see if there are consistent structures of discourse present and at what level those structures lie.

The long abstract (492 words):

Save a few exceptions, folklorists have largely approached folk narrative as given, with occasional considerations of non-narrative elements. Our close readings of texts tend to focus on the topical and not the formal, on the contextually meaningful and not the structurally significant. This paper is part of a larger project to understand the nature of the components that make up a folk narrative text in order to explore what structures might emerge, and which, if any, are general and which might be cultural. The project is founded on the work of literary critic Meir Sternberg and linguist Carlota Smith, each of whom pursued parallel paths in trying to discern modes with a given text. Starting in the late seventies and working through the nineties, Sternberg attempted to extend narratological considerations to include non-narrative moments and passages in texts. Pursuing similar research but apparently unaware of Sternberg, Smith developed the notion of “modes of discourse,” based on her own work on temporal aspect, in which she explored how languages encode time and how they encode the way events happen over time. Both Sternberg and Smith, however, draw upon literary sources for the exploration and application of their ideas and methods. What would a consideration of folkloric texts bring to the table, and what role would dialogue—long established as a central feature in oral text-making—play in a possible revision of any typology of discourse modes? This paper only briefly outlines Sternberg’s work, as well as referencing the work of Labov and Waletzky which has had some role in folkloristic considerations of narrative (as outlined in a previous paper), in order to provide a backdrop for a consideration of Smith’s work to folkloristic considerations of text. In a previous paper I argued that folklore studies is as guilty as other domains in proclaiming anything narrative. In this paper, I explore other modes of discourse and then consider just how little the narrative mode has to be present for it to be received as narrative in its entirety. All examples are drawn either from my own fieldwork or from colleagues who have entrusted me with examples from their own work.

Labov, William, and Joshua Waletzky. 1967. Narrative Analysis: Oral Versions of Personal Experience. Proceedings of the 1966 Annual Spring Meeting of the American Ethnological Society, 12–44.

Smith, Carlota S. 2003. Modes of Discourse: The Local Structure of Texts (Cambridge Studies in Linguistics). Cambridge University Press.

Sternberg, Meir. 1981. Ordering the Unordered: Time, Space, and Descriptive Coherence. Yale French Studies (61, Towards a Theory of Description): 60–88.

———. 1982. Proteus in Quotation-Land: Mimesis and the Forms of Reported Discourse. Poetics Today 3 (2): 107–56.

———. 1990. Telling in Time (I): Chronology and Narrative Theory. Poetics Today 11 (4, Narratology Revisited II): 901–48.

———. 1992. Telling in Time (II): Chronology, Teleology, Narrativity. Poetics Today 13 (3): 463–541.

———. 2001. How Narrativity Makes a Difference. Narrative 9 (2, Contemporary Narratology): 115–22.

Re-thinking the Business Case Study

Ever since I worked in executive education and was exposed to the role of the business case study in both undergraduate, MBA, and executive education, I have been fascinated by its power to generate insight and blindness. I have followed the re-consideration of the case study, as well as of the MBA in general, over the past few years, but only from a distance. So it was great to come across Lila MacLellan’s review of work by Bridgman, Cummings and McLaughlin on “Restating the Case: How Revisiting the Development of the Case Method Can Help Us Think Differently About the Future of the Business School” (DOI: 10.5465/amle.2015.0291). They note:

years after installing the case method, Donham sincerely believed it was too indifferent to larger societal ills, too insensitive to the labor market, and thus to economic prosperity and equality among workers.

As it turns out, some of that re-consideration may have been prompted by Donham’s long-term friendship with Alfred North Whitehead. MacLellan concludes:

Part of the problem with decision-forcing exercises alone is that they ask students to work within the existing system, without examining its failures. Bridgman’s paper suggests that business professors could use cases to look at how managers think, rather than to teach students how to think like a manager.

There’s apparently also a Youtube animation.

Mystery Ranch 3-Way Briefcase

I got one of those automated prompts from a vendor for a product that I had purchased. I decided to write a review. By the time I was done writing the review, I thought it was substantive enough to post it here: because if you are searching for a bag and about to spend a bit more than you are comfortable doing, you do a lot of web searching first, in hopes that someone will describe the bag sufficiently that you get a better sense of whether it’s worth your time and hard-earned money to buy the thing

I bought an Eagle Creek Convert-a-brief bag in the late 90s, and I used the heck out of that thing, only eventually setting it aside for other bags that offered more functionality in various ways and leaning more and more towards backpacks. I bought the MR 3-way briefcase because I found myself wanting a bag looked more like a briefcase and less like a backpack recently and the old Eagle Creek just does have much left in it. There’s a lot to recommend the MR 3W: it’s compact in height and width and offers a lot of organization. The backpack straps stow neatly. And it looks good.

Would I buy it again? Yes. Do I wish I could change a few things? Yes. Starting from the front: the magnetic buckle seems cool, but then you realize that it often, if not almost always, latches when the front flap falls down, leading a casual inspection to suggest that the bag is closed when it isn’t: things fall out. Given that the things in the front pocket are sometimes really expensive things to lose, like wallets and phones, another zippered pocket would be useful here.

In the middle of the bag, I wish the padding/insert between the laptop and middle pocket were removed: the rest of the bag provides padding and structure enough to protect electronics in the back pocket and the padding/insert only adds undesired weight and thickness — and the bag would only be better if lighter.

Finally, while the padded backpack straps are easy to stow and remove, the lower half of the straps are not, making it difficult, and time-consuming, to switch from backpack mode to briefcase mode. If the bottom of the pack, when the pack is is in backpack mode, were a velcro strip, this problem could be easily solved without otherwise ruining the lines of the 3W.

Buying through Sierra was simple and fast. The bag itself mostly delights, but some of the wonkiness described above does detract from that delight.

Semi-Automated

As part of our hand editing of the TED talk data we had to retrieve missing information for, luckily, a small subset of the speakers. This meant Kinnaird splitting off two CSVs, one for the TED main event speakers and one for the other TED-sponsored event speakers, and then me trudging row by row and cell by cell, working back and forth between the CSV and a web page. Copy and pasted and two CSVs filled in. Yes.

Then it was time to fold these filled in rows back into the main CSVs from whence they came. Each smaller CSV had between 15 and 20 rows, so it didn’t seem like a task worthy of firing up a Python session and writing something in pandas to replace the rows with missing information with the filled-in rows.

I started doing the work by hand: copy a row from the missing.csv and paste it below the matching row in the speakers.csv and then deleting the matched row. Oi! Sure it was only 17 rows, but, still, there has to be a somewhat faster way!

So I decided to merge the two files using cat and then simply finding the dupes in Easy CSV Editor and deleting the row with missing data. Semi-automated?

Found note

Found with the date 26 July 2016:

Books/master notes for a class on “Folklore and Psychology” as well as, looking backwards, perhaps the same thing for Louisiana Folklore. The idea being that the book would also be interactive with questions and guided experiences as well as case studies.

Why I Hate Moodle

Or at least my university’s implementation of it.

Let me begin with two assertions about what I see as the strengths about the nature of the web, so that people who see things another way do not need to bother themselves with either reading further or in arguing with me.

The first thing I want to note about the web is something I, and thousands of others, have observed in countless other ways and places and that is that the web is the platform without parallel for the delivery of content. Let me emphasize content, which I do over and against the delivery of an experience. The content itself may involve the user (or viewer or reader or listener) in some kind of experience, but the web itself is less about the delivery of experiences.

The second thing I want to observe about the web reveals my age: the web is at its best when it is semantic, when the way content is structured is part and parcel of its meaning. And I mean semantic in a deep sort of way, with UX/UI at the surface but reaching all the way down to <tag>s.

So, let me walk you through the way Moodle is set up at my university and you can begin to understand why I think its anathema to the promise of the web. And we can begin with the way I begin, which is to click on a link to a course that I am teaching in order to manage some aspect of it:

Screen Shot 2019 01 31 at 5 11 49 PM

There are two things that I find difficult to accept with this: first, the content, the actual content of the course, is squashed between a whole lot of navigation and other matters that amount to little more than unnecessary cognitive overhead. Sure, I could customize the interface to get rid of all the extraneous blocks, but I use the default setup because it’s what I see most, if not all, of my students using and their experience of the course is my concern. If I design things based on my tweaked-out setup, and those things do not look the same for them, then I have failed them.

The second thing seems obvious to me: I’m a teacher. I’m coming to Moodle to do things, but in order to do things I have to click a button. And I can’t tell you the number of times I have scrolled down the page to start something only to realize I have to scroll back up, click on the edit button, and, then, scroll back down to the section I want to edit and click on the Add an activity or resource button.

And speaking of too much scrolling and clicking, when you do click on the Add button, you are greeted with the following pop-up:

Screen Shot 2019 01 31 at 5 12 22 PM

Congratulations if you want to add one of a dozen of Moodle’s “activities” designed, one supposed to “enhance the educational experience” — because what undergraduate doesn’t want to use Hangman, or a Hidden Picture!, to learn about speciation or topic modeling? So more scrolling in order to get to ways to add actual content: URLs, pages, files, etc.

Perhaps the most fundamental, the most basic form of content there is is a web page. Setting aside that this web page is a column squished between a whole lot of other material, if you attempt to paste it into a text box, your formatting options look like this:

Screen Shot 2019 01 31 at 5 28 16 PM

Forget meaningful things like H1 headings or passages of code, because you aren’t getting them here. For a while, if you dug deep enough into Moodle’s bowels you could enable a Markdown filter, so that you could write and maintain pages as semantic plain text, but they have moved that switch around so much that it’s clear they don’t want you to write structured prose, just roll back to the 1980s and WordPerfect for DOS and stick to one-off formatting of text.

Moodle is ugly, takes too many clicks to do anything meaningful, and it undoes everything that was once semantic about the web. Which is kind of like Facebook, which I guess makes sense.

David Rumsey Map Collection

The David Rumsey Map Collection is a pretty impressive accomplishment. According to the site, the collections “contains more than 150,000 maps. The collection focuses on rare 16th through 21st century maps of North and South America, as well as maps of the World, Asia, Africa, Europe, and Oceania. The collection includes atlases, wall maps, globes, school geographies, pocket maps, books of exploration, maritime charts, and a variety of cartographic materials including pocket, wall, children’s, and manuscript maps. Items range in date from about 1550 to the present.”