Preface: Knowledge and Information
Shall I compare thee, human, to a machine? Thou art more critical and more intemperate (Shakespeare, Sonnet 18).
But seriously: how do human readers compare to machines? I ask because I want to define how literary critics can use machines to augment and extend our readings. Figuring that out depends on an understanding of how our readings compare to the machine’s abilities. Sure, they’re faster: but faster at what, exactly?
I’ve just finished teaching 58 first-year students the adult short stories of Roald Dahl, the 20th-century English writer better known for children’s books. (Here’s the course outline in PDF.)
From 1944 to 1988 Dahl, who died in 1990, wrote and published stories for adults: beginning with memoirs of his RAF service during the second world war, and covering a range of topics and settings: suburban English and American life; dysfunctional marriages; country pastimes in his rural Buckinghamshire (dog races, pheasant poaching); pick-pocketing, rat-catching, and human taxidermy.
Apparently I’m in the 20% of YouTube’s 1.3 billion users who don’t watch it regularly. But I am among the 50 million who upload content to it. Since 2010 I’ve produced just five videos, whose collective 84 minutes is a drop in the ocean compared to the 300 hours of video uploaded each minute. It would take you 60,000 years to watch YouTube’s entire back catalogue.
“I’ll bet you think you know this story. You don’t. The real one’s much more gory.” Roald Dahl wrote this about the tale of Cinderella in Revolting Rhymes, but it also applies to the stories he wrote for adults from 1944 to 1988. “Nobody in their right mind would want to be a character in a Roald Dahl short story,” writes Anthony Horowitz (2.x). This author of beloved children’s books was known as ‘the master of the macabre’ for the twisted imagination he reveals in stories abounding with cruelty, lust, madness, and murder.
The history of reading begins with the invention of written language and culminates, like all histories, in the present — in the seminar room of this course, among other places. Here we will study that history and the theorizations of reading practices, and consider how cultural and material circumstances have influenced historical readers. And we will see the present and future of reading as equally subject to our own intellectual habits and technologies. But we will also examine our practices of reading two novels in 18 — novels from the 1760s and the 1990s. Both are “thick with the presence of other books” (in A.S. Byatt’s words), and with an awareness of their own status as books, of both the limits and potential of written language.
We read today in an age of abundance, when Google Books offers searchable access to 12 million books in 300 languages (so far). Digital tools help us navigate and analyze these texts quickly, but human expertise must apply qualitative judgement to all of this quantitative data. This course will explore the possibilities and limitations of what Stephen Ramsay calls “algorithmic criticism,” or the use of computers to ask empirical questions of texts, and to visualize their linguistic features using word trees, heat maps, and other deformations. Ramsay has addressed the limitations of this criticism, which aims “not to constrain meaning, but to guarantee its multiplicity.” To this end, the course aims primarily to teach and to theorize a critical toolkit, and to understand how it originates in or differs from past reading and interpretive practices.
In a hypothetical alternate universe, imagine that you have to teach a class in ten minutes and just finished reading the book. You favour “just-in-time” teaching methods – out of habit, if not principle – so you tend to lecture from a list of ideas, quotations, questions, and classroom exercises, accompanied by a good slideshow. But today, as I said, you just finished the reading and teach in ten (now seven) minutes. What do you do?
First, let’s drop the alternate-universe fiction. Over the years my lecture notes have thinned considerably. I used to go in with every word scripted, in mortal fear that I would run out of material. But I’ve come to realize two things: students retain far more from interative knowledge-creation than from knowledge-delivery; and each class gives you an opportunity to make knowledge together, in ways you can only do together. In your limited time, in this room, with these minds, what knowledge will you produce?
This is an edited version of the talk I gave in the Faculty of Arts Teaching and Leaning Workshop series at the University of Calgary on 20 October 2016.
I delivered it for university faculty, but I think it could apply equally to all classrooms — maybe even beyond.
UPDATE (28 November 2016): I’ll give another version of this talk to the wider university community on 20 January 2017. Click here for details.
Here’s the abstract:
Most of us use slideshows like Powerpoint or Keynote to accompany our lectures and illuminate our points. But what principles and habits are we following when we write our slideshows? Are we showing students the right information, in the right way, at the right time?
In this workshop, you’ll design slideshows to match your teaching goals to students’ learning needs. You’ll critique some slideshows that just don’t work. You’ll learn about some features of these two programs, like text animations and embedded media. And you’ll learn how slides can tell stories and provoke conversations, not just deliver information.
For my English 311 course this term, I’ve been watching Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 full-text of Hamlet while I read the play in Robert Miola’s Norton edition.
That edition includes an excerpt (176-82) from Kenneth Branagh’s introduction to the play, in which he describes the full text as offering more contextual richness than typically abridged performance versions: the background story of Polonius and his agent Reynaldo, and the plotting scene between Claudius and Laertes that sets the stage for his climactic duel with the prince.
The latter is an intense, whispered, conspiratorial conversation in which the grief-stricken Laertes (Michael Maloney) delivers the line “Thus didst thou” (4.7.55) as “Thus diest thou” — through gritted teeth, and with steely resolve. And when Claudius (Derek Jacobi) ruminates on their backup plan to kill Hamlet, it’s his upraised glass that makes him think of the poisoned chalice (4.7.155-61).
In short, this scene in the film made me appreciate how choices of text, of setting, of props, and of performance can influence my interpretation of a line like this one.
Shakespeare is hard
Reading Shakespeare is hard, especially if it’s your first time. It’s hard because Shakespeare writes plays and poems in unfamiliar language, making unfamiliar cultural references – and because his meanings are buried beneath two layers, of historical distance and of poetic style. So readers in 2016 need to excavate Shakespeare’s meaning from beneath his idiom and his syntax.
But reading Shakespeare in 2016 is hard for a third reason: because reading anything in print in 2016 is hard. It’s hard even for seasoned academics, but it’s particularly hard for each new generation of our students. I mean the difficulty of focusing on one thing in the era of distraction, of concentrating our mental resources to read books in the era of screens.
Henry V, 1.2.260-98: A Close Reading
This passage consists of thirty-eight pentameter lines, unrhymed except for two couplets (ll.288-89 and 296-97). King Henry addresses an ambassador from the Dauphin, who has sent a gift of tennis-balls and a rebuke of Henry’s claim to the French crown.