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After Meaning

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The machinery of meaning is tiresome. Or there is something annoyingly youthful about it–and if not youthful, then pathetic.

I write to myself of two decades ago. An age in which all art was aligned in one of many ways to forces beyond it–crusaders and anti-crusaders. Or so it seemed, or so I received it from better minds. And before that, to myself of three decades ago, struggling to understand and in not understanding thus presuming a meaning I could not grasp.

Reading now, Moby Dick is a rambling beauty of sentences, lubber rich in the details, and a flight of the homeless, of men from women and into the oceans. The Great Gatsby was written by a man who feared women less, but hated them more. Nick’s bitter narrative is but a tale of hopelessness, against all dreams and loves–sooty, brash and grim. Bishop’s “At the Fishhouses” shimmers, piercing in perception, unforgiving in the celebration of shore, tide, and the grime of a place. And not wallowing in it either, but holding it out like the diamond-hard mystery of life.

Even so, as good as they are (and truthfully, I’ve never cared for Gatsby; yes, capitalism be-dammed, but Gatsby’s just a nasty bit hate), they all wind up and deliver a contrived load of ulterior meaning. Bishop slams into her’s, as if she realized the poem was coming to an end and readers would need something profound to distract them from what might be judged a fragment. Melville keeps returning to his, as if he forgets it (and I think he does) in the act of writing, in the clear obsession of fact and syntax–but he hurries back with vengeance. Fitzgerald back-writes his “meaning” into the book. His clock faces, eyeglasses, and smoking guns spliced in with big flashing lights: signifier, signifier, signifier.

The best narratives are larger than meaning; the best lyrics are beyond paraphrase. But some survive themselves anyway.


Written by Jere

January 31, 2016 at 6:41 pm

How Many Repositories Do We Need?

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Last month Kathleen Fitzpatrick announced the launch of a new open access repository for the humanities, CORE. I love repositories and I love open access; so, I’m happy to see it. As a new repository, CORE has the advantage of an existing collection of users, members of MLA Commons–an academic social network that hopes to grow into a larger network for the humanities. MLA Commons/CORE is not the first academic social network to enter the repository space, but it’s the right direction for repository development. Even so, it’s a reactionary development and it’s about a decade too late. and ResearchGate (RG) have proven that scholarly authors want academic social networking–these authors might poo-poo the notion in department meetings, but when they return to their desks they succumb to barrage of promotional emails from RG and and create profiles on the sites. Now that the sites have active users, luring a portion of them into uploading a few articles or book chapters (copyright be-damned), is not so hard. In this context, the work of uploading an article is akin to posting a nice family photo to Facebook or posting your latest promotion on LinkedIn. It’s not a challenge to the predatory pricing of commercial publishing; it’s not an altruistic commitment to sharing knowledge with a world of readers; it is, rather, a moment for celebrating professional accomplishments.

I wish that library-supported institutional repositories (IRs) had invested more effort in facilitating social networking, but libraries have a long history for quiet spaces and shushing. Libraries like metadata and preservation; social networks are full of chatter. Metadata and preservation are good things, but they do not attract active users–people interested in building an online connections.

So, should IRs scramble to build social-networking features into their software platforms? Probably not–the market-share is elsewhere and one’s academic social network is much broader than the members of a single institution. It would make more sense for IRs to work seamlessly with the social-networking platform of choice. I know that there are some efforts to make this happen, but they are limited by the technical specifications of the many IR software systems and social-networking platforms. If we could start over, would it have been advantageous to pool resources to develop a universal IR system? One that would be exposed, so to speak, to easy ingest in the social-networking tool of choice? Or if not building the one IR to rule them all, why not adopt technical standards that would make it easier for other sites to use our IRs? Wasn’t that part of the point of all that careful metadata people have been creating? And what about the OAI-PMH?

I think the IR software development game is in a world where less is more–competing platforms, new tools for uploading and managing content, dueling disciplinary sites … these are all developments for people that are focused on the wrong customer, the repository manager. These well-intended efforts–efforts that, as a repository manager, I encourage–are ignored by most authors. For most authors, the IR is just another website and kind of an ugly one at that. IRs were designed, like many libraries, on the assumption that content is king–it is not. People, also known as “users,” rule the Internet. IRs do not collect users, but social networks do! So, a social network that moonlights as a repository (even a poor repository), is likely to outperform most IRs. Less would be more: fewer ways to run a repository; fewer teams of people developing new tools; more collaboration across all existing repository platforms; more effort on non-profit, open source systems that focus on people first and content second.

The IR is a powerful tool for increasing open access to scholarship–as such, I’m proud to use it. But, it just might turn out that the social network is the real engine of open access–and if it is, now what?

Written by Jere

November 13, 2015 at 4:58 pm

Some Notes on the Loneliness of “Literacy”

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Keller-Cohen, Deborah. 1993. “Rethinking Literacy: Comparing Colonial and Contemporary America.” Anthropology & Education Quarterly 24 (4) (December 1): 288–307. doi:10.2307/3195932.

Keller-Cohen wants to have her cake and eat it too. She observes that the concept of “literacy” is over applied, that the word has become merely metaphorical (if not cliche); but then, she would use the power of this metaphor to advocate for the role of reading, writing and speech (I believe this was once called “rhetoric”) in culture and education. Keller-Cohen ends with four things to think about, but I’m not entirely certain what she would have us do. Her “directions for refiguring literacy” include:

1) “Clarifying our conception of what people need to know and what role literacy plays in it.”

As I have said, here, she really wants to have her cake and eat it too. She does not like “sexual literacy” … but she does want us to think “in more heterogeneous ways about what people need to know.”

2) “Placing more emphasis on literacy as a collaborative practice.”

I think this is the most interesting and problematic part of the story that Keller-Cohen tells about literacy in America. On the one hand, posters from the American Library Association do not mark the birth of reading and writing as a solitary activity. For those of us who can read and write, the act will often be solitary … I think this has always been the case — St. Jerome had some rabbits, a squirrel, a bird, a lizard and a lion to keep him company — and often will be. I will share what I am writing (now) online, but I write this in a room, by myself.

Giovanni Bellini, St. Jerome Reading in the Countryside

On the other hand, this article from the early 90s includes one footnote about “electronic mail” — the “pressure” it brings upon one’s notions about the difference between written and spoken language. And, thus, one may read such an article with some nostalgia — which is fitting, given that it is a very nostalgic article — for the mere decades past in which the practice of reading mainly involved a paper medium. I don’t think this detracts from the argument of the article, but one might wonder what the author thinks about the social space the internet now provides for readers and writers. One seldom hears good news about the internet and its role in fostering “literacy” — rather, it’s typically that the youth are going to hell on a cell phone and tweeting all the way.

3) “Examining the relationship between the speaking and writing skills of students.”

Sure. Why not? I call this “rhetoric” and, when thinking about my kids, “language skills.” In graduate school I started reading my papers “aloud” prior to submitting them — the practice typically resulted in a few hours of revision. Does anyone teach dictation? Were I to dictate this post, how would the prose differ? Many of the great prose and verse stylists dictated much of their work: Milton, Wordsworth, Yeats.

4) “Broadening the sites for literacy acquisition.”

I note, here, every summer my daughter begs me to sign her up for the library’s reading program. So, it’s not just the schools that have been working to promote “literacy.” But, it’s a noble sentiment nonetheless and I think that Keller-Cohen is right — we do need more reading in America. (Would it be possible to have too much?) Even so, if we’re to extend literacy beyond the school setting — where else could we get as much bang for our buck? Truancy laws, more or less, make the school years one of the truly shared experiences of our culture. If one wanted to intervene on the behalf of “literacy” is there any better place?

Written by Jere

July 5, 2013 at 4:17 pm

Posted in Libraries, Reading

Tagged with , , ,

Moby-Dick: Hunting for Newer Readers

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As a pilar of American literature, as the true “great American novel,” Moby-Dick is really only a century old. (One hundred years isn’t so long or is it?) The book was dismissed at publication and it wasn’t until 1917 or so that critics began to promote it.

Will it retain its place as a literary standard for another century? Assuming the English language survives, yes. If for nothing else, it will survive another century as a rumor of itself–much like it already is. (Moby-Dick belongs in that special class of novels that people “know” even if they have not and will not read them. Its cohorts in this honor include Don Quixote and Frankenstein.) As for its actual readers a century from now, I’ll not be their witness. Nonetheless, I have done my part, here at the waning end of its century of fame. I have finished a first reading of Moby-Dick, if for nothing else, to have met a story at first hand–one I’d heard so much about. I can testify that it is as masterful as anyone might suppose, but I must also admit that I will not read it again.

Life has its temperaments and Moby-Dick goes well with brooding, dogged individualism. (And, regrettably, testosterone.) It’s no fault of Melville’s that this is the case. We all have our seasons and seasons have their place. (And I, suppose, one shouldn’t fault him for not putting a woman on the boat? Or should we?) But this book is all March–wind and rain beating into the face of the lonely reader. The sentences are beautiful; the manipulations of allusion and allegory are (as they should be) complex; the racism is (but only sometimes complicated) racism; and the marvelous and the sublime are everywhere to be found.

As a lifelong reader, one eventually grows tired of the sublime, but the marvelous has more staying power. For the marvelous in Moby-Dick, see the Melville’s dissections of whale and boat and the interrelated mechanisms of life at sea. In contrast, the sublime in this story may be found in the faces of Fedallah and Ahab–their otherworldly visages–and in the more standard tropes: storms, vast seas, mountainous whales. In this season of my life, I prefer the marvelous and if I were to reread anything it would be those long passages about whales and whaling.

But I will not reread them–or so I think. Life is short, yes. But why? Why am I ready to push aside a deservingly famous story? Maybe this is the answer: take the key characters from the three books that I mentioned above: Ahab, Don Quixote and Dr. Frankenstein. Mad men all, but two were filled with loathing and one was driven by a fool’s love. Two were selfish and one was generous to a fault. Spare me the-pride-that-goes-before-the-fall; at midway, I’ll have the fools.

Written by Jere

June 23, 2013 at 9:15 pm

Posted in Reading

Tagged with , , , ,

Support “Academic Freedom” – Let the World Read Your Peer-reviewed, Taxpayer-subsidized Article

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Now and then one needs to vent. In two days I’ve twice encountered the same objection to supporting open access publishing. In short, the objection goes: OA is bad for academic freedom. (Society publishers in the UK recently provided a well-written example of this logic.) As arguments go, I think it shares something in common with the notion that campaign finance reform is an assault on free speech. Opponents of OA latch on to a cherished virtue of the academy and contort it to take aim at the very thing that would give (by retaining copyright) the scholar more freedom with how they share and use their work.

First, retaining your rights and depositing your article in an open repository, seems to me to be a very deliberate act of academic freedom. On the other hand, giving your copyrights away to a publisher that then restricts what you can and cannot do with your work is very much the opposite. Some kind of self-inflicted (or, at best, hapless) loss of academic freedom.

While the first is misaligned, the second, the idea that source of funds to support article processing fees will create undue influence over what is and is not published, is naive. Yes, money is the root of all evil, but doesn’t financial influence drive the direction of research already? Should the NIH stop funding health research? Should universities give up their endowed chairs and the philanthropy that supports them? Money is everywhere, without it much of the scholarly enterprise would shrivel up and die. In fact, money is already a powerful influence in the “traditional” academic publishing market.

Hiding from the inevitable shift to open access publishing because one fears corruption, doesn’t solve anything. It doesn’t correct the corruption that is already a part of the system and it doesn’t protect a new model from that same undue influence. For those that worry about how funds for article processing fees will be managed and distributed, this is the time to get creative. Be a part of the solution.

Written by Jere

January 31, 2013 at 9:39 pm

Moving the Beast: Open Access and the Market

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With Open Access Week approaching, I have been flipping through articles and dreaming of solutions to the economic troubles facing academic libraries. Needless to say, I believe in the cause–information should be widely accessible; knowledge should be “free.” This assertion, however, does not help us answer the question of who is going to pay the bills.

Along these lines, at the end of an article reporting the results of a large survey of editors (n=998) using Open Journal Systems, Edgar and Willinsky make a rousing gesture toward a radical change in the market. After noting that “$8 billion [is] devoted annually for science, technology, and medicine journals alone,” the authors conclude:

Such an investment may appear better directed toward underwriting, for the benefit of humankind, universal access to the scholarly literature. Were the academic community willing, there is enough money on the table … to make this a reality in the years ahead (Edgar, B. D., & Willinsky, J. (2010). A Survey of Scholarly Journals Using Open Journal Systems. Scholarly and Research Communication, 1(2). p. 18. Retrieved from

Well then, let’s do it. Or, to be less to the point, what would it take for the academic community to be willing to make this change in how it pays for scholarly communication? Why do universities subscribe to over-priced titles from commercial publishers? I have always assumed (and I would be gladly corrected) it’s a matter of reputation–in large part, it’s keeping-up-with-the-Joneses at the research university level. True, expensive journals do (often?) publish important research and scholars do need access to this research, but why do we need an expensive journal for this job–why not an open access journal? When people stop using expensive titles (to read, to publish, to evaluate faculty productivity), universities will be free to spend their money elsewhere. This sounds like a long term, economic and cultural revolution–perhaps it’s coming, but I expect a lot of disgruntled faculty on the way. See, for example, how dropping an expensive point-of-need, clinical reference tool quickly produces outraged patrons in the medical library. Imagine this battle waged title by title or bundle by bundle!

If change is coming, and I hope it is, it’s time for libraries to get prepared. In my opinion, libraries have a long way to go if they want to compete a publishers. Institutional repositories and open-source journal software have come a long way in recent years and are now trusted tools. But imagine what we could do with a little more support! Perhaps small chunks of the subscription budget could be redirected (without too much screaming from faculty) to develop prototypes to compete with commercial publishing platforms. The money would support better marketing (if it makes you feel better, call it “advocacy” or “outreach”) and slicker interfaces. If reputation is a key driver of faculty adoption, we need scholarly communication services which fit the bill.

Written by Jere

October 10, 2012 at 5:57 pm

Struggling to Build a Digital Repository for Community Engagement

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In “A university library creates a digital repository for documenting and disseminating community engagement,” William A. Miller and Marilyn Billings describe an effort to use the institutional repository in a win-win for community engagement (CE) initiatives and for university libraries (JHEOE 2012;16(2):109-21). The equation was meant to be: universities want to measure community engagement + faculty want to get credit for engagement activities -> the repository becomes a record of both. Thus, differing but aligned incentives from two key stakeholders would provide sufficient support for sustaining the project. The authors do not say so outright, but it seems that the project died: “Staffing for the initiative was redirected … when the Outreach Division at UMass Amherst was eliminated in 2010. It is clear that the community engagement section of the repository will be very difficult to maintain and impossible to expand without the benefit of dedicated staffing” (117). That’s right: “impossible to expand.” Today, it looks like portions of the CE section are an empty shell; see, for example, Photovoice.

What happened? Well, the university ditched a CE program. Why? I’m certain U. Mass Amherst would insist that its commitment to CE is unwavering, but walk-the-walk, people. More specifically, the project likely hoped to benefit from a number assumptions about the academic culture: 1) that the university values CE, 2) that promotion and tenure (P&T) committees at the university would value CE activities, 3) that P&T committees would value self-archived gray literature as a record of these activities, and 4) that faculty would seize the opportunity and spend a significant amount of energy to develop and then submit materials. (In my experience, even if 1-3 are proven, faculty are shy about submitting–partly, I think, in fear of embarrassing themselves or of overexposing their community partners, while also hoping to save their best work for peer-reviewed publication.) Although a university may value CE in its mission and even in its funding of programs (1), changing the culture of P&T (2-3) is another matter; thus, the faculty (4) are slow, very slow, to follow.

Nonetheless, I read Miller and Billings with great personal interest. I am currently involved in developing a similar open-access repository, and, truth be told, would have preferred to use an implementation of DSpace, as did the authors with ScholarWorks@UMass Amherst. My team, however, opted to use a software that was not developed with digital libraries in mind. The CE side of the team wanted something with data fields to capture key tasks and activities in CE programs. They also wanted something that would look-and-feel “community friendly.” Now we are laboring with a system that is easier to customize, but less stable, less interoperable, beyond the reach of OAIster, and difficult for new contributors and administrators. On the other hand, we still have staffing and, for a little while, funding too!

Written by Jere

May 30, 2012 at 4:58 pm