Last-Minute Gift Ideas for Academics (or what to get with your holiday Amazon giftcards)

My department has recently introduced these two books to the grad students through reading groups and classes. Both give great professionalization advice for various stages in the studying, working, and writing processes.
Semenza, Gregory Colón. Graduate Study for the 21st Century: How to Build an Academic Career in the Humanities. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.
This is a book that practically anyone involved in graduate studies, from newly-accepted students to scholars about to defend their dissertations, would find an invaluable resource. As its introduction boasts, it’s geared towards students who have already made the decision to dedicate their time and energy to graduate school, studying with faculty in order to become faculty themselves, thereby bypassing any discussion of applying to grad school or whether or not grad school is for you. The first three chapters focus on providing insight into aspects of the graduate education we deal with every day but that are rarely taught in any official capacity: how to negotiate department politics, how to field questions and misconceptions from those who don’t understand academia, how to use the different stages of the process wisely instead of just getting by, and how to structure and organize your time. Though the advice is detailed and helpful, the tone of the book is in no way warm or sanguine: Semenza does not sugar-coat anything. He knows the job is tough, and the process of getting there is even tougher. He talks about problems we all know about: the highly-competitive job market, the numbers of grad students admitted versus jobs available, the hiring of adjuncts instead of full-time faculty. He also criticizes the structure of graduate school itself, placing a lot of responsibility on advisors and faculty, who, even with the very best of intentions, simply treat their grad students as they, themselves were treated in grad school, thereby perpetuating the system. He offers his book as an extra advisor to supplement their guidance.
Chapters four through eight discuss, in-depth, the different stages of graduate school—the graduate seminar, the seminar paper, teaching, exams, and the dissertation. Some of the advice is simplistic and may already be part of your academic practices, like note-taking and organizing folders, but other advice simply helps you make sense of what you’re doing and why. Though Semenza recommends not reading these chapters selectively, I read the exam chapter and the section on the dissertation proposal while studying and writing for each, before I read any of the other chapters, and I still found the advice helpful. The next three chapters cover activities we engage in throughout our graduate career: conferences, publishing, and service. Some of the advice in the seminar paper and publishing chapters I even found useful for teaching writing in my own classroom, something that I found with the Belcher book discussed below, as well. The appendix includes several “professional documents,” such as C.V.s, job letters, abstracts, syllabi, and other important formats to guide you through seeking publications, conference presentations, and jobs.
I do highly recommend this book for individual academics, but I think the way that my department handled it was particularly effective: we gathered the grad students and a few faculty who were interested and formed a reading group, where we discussed one or two chapters per session. As I said, the book does not ease up on the harsh reality of the academic state of the humanities, and the dooms-day tone, though completely realistic and necessary (and appreciated for the respect it gives academics), could easily send grad students already on the edge into a serious panic. Reading the book as a group allowed for conversations that quelled this kind of panic and allowed us to measure our own experiences against Semenza’s and to make the most of the tough-love approach. This could be a book to hold onto through grad school, graduation, and even when we (fingers crossed) have grad students of our own to advise.
Belcher, Wendy Laura. Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks: A Guide to Academic    Publishing Success. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc., 2009.  
Belcher’s book, on the other hand, offers a more optimistic “you-can-do-it” approach to one single aspect of being an academic, both for grad students and established scholars: publishing an article. This workbook-style text demarcates a chapter per week, giving you specific activities to do each day for a specified amount of time, ranging from half an hour to about two hours. For example, the chapter for week 5: Reviewing the Related Literature opens with this list of tasks:
Day 1, Read through the pages in the workbook, 60 minutes
Day 2, Evaluate your current citations, 60 minutes
Day 3, Identify and read related literature, 8 hours (this is very unusual)
Day 4, Evaluate the related literature, 60+ minutes
Day 5, Write or revise your related literature review, 120+ minutes
Theoretically, if you are able to stay on task for every day (only five days per week, so there is some flexibility), you should be able to complete and polish up an article and follow Belcher’s advice for choosing a journal and submitting your final draft. My department offered a one-credit class that followed this book like a syllabus, completing the tasks for each day and spending about half an hour per week workshopping one another’s work along the way. The book does seem to work best if you have a piece of work already in mind, like an old seminar paper or conference paper. There really isn’t a chapter that guides you through starting from scratch, which is obviously the most time-consuming stage of the process. For me, the most effective part of Belcher’s method is just setting time aside everyday to work on my article and sticking to a schedule (though, to be honest, there were many weeks were I was barely able to fit in an hour or two). Belcher is both adamant and realistic: she insists that you should be able to find at least fifteen minutes per day to work on your article, even if it’s just on the back of an envelope in an airport. In a section in which she addresses common obstacles to writing, she bluntly states that, “If you really are too busy to fit in fifteen minutes of writing a day, then this workbook cannot help you. I recommend that you plan, in the very near future, a weekend away from it all where you can really think about your life” (26). On the other hand, she begins many of the later chapter with the concession that it is very possible that you haven’t been putting in your time every day or every week and offers some (shaming) encouragement: if you haven’t been working, now is a good time to start—it’s never too late!
I think my fellow grad students would agree that this book is very helpful in just getting you to work and write every day towards one specific (and necessary) goal and that it provides some really solid writing advice and techniques. I personally found the chapter on structure the most helpful. Some smaller sections within the chapters, however, I suggest taking with a grain of salt at times to determine whether they are really helpful for you. Some of the anecdotes seem slightly unrealistic and out of context at times and may discourage rather than encourage, as I think happens in many of these academic advice books. Like Semenza’s book, Belcher’s book also seems to underestimate the extent to which academics make themselves visible electronically, through blogs, online journals, etc. Semenza mentions almost nothing about these venues, and Belcher treats them fairly condescendingly. Nevertheless, her book offers guidelines and tips that could also extend beyond article-writing to teaching and other types of writing, like the chapters on editing sentences and on presenting evidence. Also similar to the Semenza book, this text is another useful tool that I think is best read amongst a group of students and faculty in order to make the most of its advice through further discussion and personal experience.
You can access some of the forms and schedules, like this weekly schedule, at Wendy Laura Belcher’s website:

Scholarly Collaboration in the Humanities

Technology Makes It Simple

I think this post dovetails quite nicely off the previous one and its discussion of the Digital Humanities. We are all pursuing graduate study during a time of great transition and change. Technological advances have allowed scholars to broaden their scope. The term “distant reading” is gaining more and more traction as databases and new research tools allow us to map continuity and change more precisely over greater periods of time.
One of the opportunities that technology facilitates, however, has received slightly less attention: collaboration. I am currently working on a collaborative article with colleague of mine and thought it may be useful to share my experience with the NASSR community.
Last week I spent a considerable amount of time editing a draft version of the article. We have been having Google Docs parties on a regular basis for several weeks now. We are able to see the changes each of us makes as well as have a quick little chat alongside the document in a handy dandy side bar. As a bit of a technological dunce, this all amazes me.
In the past, scholars in the humanities have collaborated in order to examine longer periods of time. This is indeed true for myself. My colleague specializes in the long eighteenth – century and I am, of course, a card – carrying Romanticist. We have both made use of the databases and research tools available to us. Therefore, technology has broadened both of our individual scopes and in turn lead to a project that is very ambitious.
Spend Time With Someone Who Thinks Differently Than You
Over the course of my career, I have been accused of burrowing into texts; I love me some close – reading. Naturally, beginning to think of ways of entering scholarly discourse and writing a dissertation that A) is relevant B) engages numerous texts required some significant adjustments. I am still learning the best ways to combine my intense interest in individual texts with larger trends / questions / queries.
My esteemed colleague, coincidentally, thinks in broad and ambitious ways. He asks questions not in terms of texts or authors but tropes / genres / representation. Having regular conversations with such a thinker and being asked to use specific texts in order to talk about these larger categories has been immensely productive for me. Likewise, engaging with a fiercely intense close – reader has made my colleague more aware of certain nuances in literary works. Also, I am pleased to say, my dissertation has benefited greatly from my collaborative endeavors.
Collaboration Saves Time
With the demands that coursework, dissertation writing / research, teaching, reading groups, outside jobs, and crime – fighting make on our time, we Romanticists are left with little to spare. Oftentimes we turn to coursework essays or our dissertations for potential publications. This only makes sense: those documents say much about our interests and methodology. However, writing an article with someone else broadens those interests while also requiring a reasonable amount of time. Writing an article on the side may seem impossible to an individual. Writing an article with a colleague allows you to divide and conquer. Whether you find, like me, that those pesky and often contested period boundaries provide a convenient way to find a partner in arms or you grab someone inside your period with a different set of interests, collaboration allows you to enter the scholarly fray for half the anxiety.
Good For The Old C V
How many times have you claimed that you enjoy working with others? If you are like me, the answer is 27. A collaborative piece of writing allows potential employers to see that you not only like working with others, you actually have! What we do is by nature incredibly isolating. The group of authors we have chosen to focus on make that isolation seem oh so sexy and cool. However, Wordsworth and Coleridge worked together, Shelley “dosed” Byron with some Wordsworth, Blake “spoke to” Milton,  and even Keats had Joseph Severn. I am just saying, that without collaboration, Wordsworth would not be able to put Lyrical Ballads on his poetic C V.

End of the Semester Writing Woes

As the end of the semester approaches (ASU’s last day of class is April 24th!) so too does an intense dose of anxiety and stress. As graduate students we have a LOT on our plates. Not only does the end of the semester signal grading a lot of composition papers and assigning final grades, but it also signals something even more treacherous: PAPER WRITING. A non-graduate student friend of mine called the other day and asked me if I was so excited that classes were almost over, my response: Excited?!? No, I am not excited, the fact that classes are over in a week means I need to write two seminar papers AND grade. Although she definitely did not deserve my tirade, it made me recognize how unique our situation as graduate students is. We love what we do, I LOVE WHAT I DO, but around this time of year I tend to forget that I am supposed to be enjoying this time of my life. I started thinking about why I feel this intense anxiety and pressure at the end of the semester, and from talking with so many of my peers, I know I am not the only one who feels this way. I know (or pretend to know) I am a competent writer and beginning scholar, right? I mean we all are in a graduate program so we have to have done something right along the way to get accepted. But why do we forget this come the end of the semester?
While sitting with one of my professors and talking about my final semester paper, I just said, “Ahh! I am so anxious about this paper that I don’t even know where I am going to start!” And, like all great professors, he recognized my high level of stress and calmed me down. He reminded me that the point of a PhD program is to produce scholars, the future of the field. He emphasized the word “produce”, and that no one expects us to be perfect right away. All of the work we do should be aimed or have the ultimate goal of being useful in the future, but all papers, seminar papers that lead to portfolio papers, papers that hope J to lead to publications, papers that lead to chapters in a dissertation, all papers have to start somewhere. And more importantly, they are never perfect on the first try REGARDLESS of the level of the writer. Everyone, even those untouchable Gods of Romanticism we work with on a daily basis, has to review, revise, and rework papers. My professor reminded me that this is a “first draft” of a paper and to give it my best, but relax.
Relax…as much as I wish I could relax, at least I walked away from the conversation with a much better perspective about the end of the semester paper writing rollercoaster. We are all students working incredibly hard to master our trade and each semester is a stepping-stone towards the ultimate goal. But it is just that, a step towards the goal, not the goal itself. So as I prep and begin to write my two seminar papers I am remembering (or attempting my best) to breathe, relax, and enjoy the process of becoming a scholar knowing that my papers will not be perfect by the time I submit them and that is okay because ultimately, it is only a “first draft” of something that can be so much more.
(My first fun read of the summer will be Daisy Hay’s biography of the Shelleys, Byron, Keats, and friends called Young Romantics, and I am excited to tell you all about it next month ☺)

Exploring the Genre of the Dissertation

During the hours that I assigned for my dissertation yesterday, I had a bit of a genre-identity crisis. I was editing and revising parts of a chapter in the morning when I discovered that I have been following no more than an idea *in my imagination* of what a dissertation should look like. Of course my prospectus outlined my chapters and my proposed argument, and has already been approved by my committee, but that piece of writing did not require me to think about the dissertation from within its draft or its guts.
I sought a model to consult — a concrete finished dissertation product to admire, toggle/flip through, and to orient my work in both form and content. Though I have read a small library of books and articles on the path to where I am now in my PhD, I have yet to read an entire dissertation. In fact, I haven’t even read a full dissertation chapter. In other words, yesterday I felt as though I was trying to compose a genre I knew nothing about and was not prepared to write. (Not true, I’ve since learned!)
The genre-identity crisis manifested in a swarm of questions. How much space should I allow to record the current critical conversation in which my argument intervenes? What belongs in a footnote and what belongs in my body paragraphs? Should my chapters be about 50 pages long and framed as long arguments/explorations of a single topic, or divisible into two articles of about 25 pages each, in order to make it easier to (try to) publish diss chapters as articles (the latter was my plan)? But is it prudent to write chapters as if they are articles, or multiple articles sewn together? How long should the arc of each chapter’s argument and investigation be? Why do I feel like I’m spelunking? Can I get away with writing shorter chapters that are the length of articles that I might submit to a peer-reviewed journal? In other words, what should the genre of the dissertation look like?
To prevent prolonged worrying and inefficiency during this busy part of the semester, I wrote to my dissertation committee co-chairs right away and posted some related questions on Twitter. I have received a collection of thoughtful and useful responses that I think are important to share.
I’m not writing a dissertation; I’m writing a book. This isn’t as pretentious as it sounds, I promise–I have no illusions about being able to produce a publication-quality book quite yet. However, I was advised to see the dissertation as the incunabulum, so to speak, of my first book project. “The dissertation,” I was told, “is a dead-end genre” and my future as scholar depends on my ability to write a good book. Furthermore, many scholars revise their dissertations to complete their first book project as a tenure-track professor.
Importantly, I was also cautioned against trying too hard to actually write a book –that is, a book both in form and content quality — while finishing my doctorate (see my disclaimer in the above paragraph). Efficiency and timely completion of my degree and entrance into the job market are important to me. While I strive to write a beautiful, organized dissertation that offers new ideas supported by a wealth of research in my field, I am also realistic about the time it would take (not to mention the learning curve) to do so as a proper book project and I’m cognizant of that fact that my funding will not last forever.
Numbers: The statistics I was given are the criteria for a book published by a university press: 75,000 to 90,000 words in length, and 4-6 chapters in length in addition to an introduction. Each chapter in typescript should run between 35-50 pages in length — I will lose about a third of my manuscript’s length when the book is typeset.
Chapters: Each chapter should focus on one major issue. Thus, it is unlikely that I will be able to derive two articles from a single chapter. Building this book project draft by thinking about each chapter as one slightly long article is a good idea, I was told. The difference between a chapter and an article is that a chapter allows for more exploration of a topic (so this is why I’ve been feeling a bit like an explorer, which I love).
Models: Find published books for models, not articles, dissertation chapters, or complete dissertations. These don’t necessarily need to be the books whose arguments I admire most–though they may be. Rather, they should be books that I would like my own book project to resemble when it is finished. The big questions are how do I want my project to resemble these works and how will my project differ?
The Department/Committee Factor: Each department has its own unique standards and each dissertation committee has its own set of expectations and criteria for what a good dissertation will accomplish within that department. These factors are more palpable during revision processes but it will pay off to consider them in advance as much as is possible and pragmatic. The expectations and precedents set by of the dept. and committee are also important when considering how to include or align work with digital projects or components of the dissertation. I do a lot of digital work on electronic texts and archives and will be putting a lot of careful thought into how my digital projects dialogue with my dissertation and how best to treat those projects to convey my argument and work as well as meet requirements.
Audience: One respondent on Twitter who is finishing her dissertation wrote that “a dissertation is for 3 people, a book has an audience.” At first, I found this depressing to say the least, but after some thought I have decided that I disagree and am therefore no longer depressed by this idea. Though the dissertation committee is the first audience that this project will see, it is not the only audience. As chapters will become articles and the work as a whole is an early draft of a book project, the dissertation’s components all “cook” together and will emerge to a larger readership than those on the dissertation team within the department. Furthermore, dissertation chapters are also the groundwork, potentially, for insightful conference papers as well as job talks.
Having solicited and received such useful advice, I have some reframing and planning to do with my current draft and I am on the hunt for five or so books that I hope to model my project on. What books would you pick as your models? How have you been conceiving of the form and content of your dissertation? As our department chair so cheerfully says, “Onward!”
Maze Image: By xOneca (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Itinerant Scholar and a Bit of Sage Advice

Prologue: Advisor to Student
“You should apply to do research at the Huntington next summer, or at the NY Public Library.
Don’t you have family in LA, and New Rochelle? Or was it Manhattan? Both?
The Huntington is an amazing place to get work done—not just research but also writing. Everyone goes to the BL [British Library] but the Huntington also has outstanding holdings for scholars working on Romanticism.”
“Yes, I do have family near LA, but they live in Orange County. And you’re right about my relations on the east coast, too. My great aunt has a place on the island and her son, Michael, lives in New Rock City with his wife.”
“Ok, great. Draft your fellowship application materials and send them to me this weekend. Let’s start with the Huntington. If you get money, perfect, you’ll go there; if not, let’s shoot for NY since residing in OC would mean a commute. That’d be a waste of your time.”
Actual Log: Goodwill Huntington
The advisor was right. The rare books I consulted during my time as a fellow and reader at the Huntington Library’s Munger Research Center have proved invaluable to my dissertation project. However, from my first day on the Huntington’s sweeping and gorgeously curated grounds, the congenial spirit cultivated by the reader services staff impressed me most. After hearing a handful of stories about graduate students enduring long waits or general disregard at renowned research institutions, the Huntington handedly dispelled this academic urban legend.
Given my enduring interest in both Romanticism and science and the history of science and technology, I punctuated my visits to the Ahmanson Rare Books Reading Room with trips to the Burndy collection. The Burndy Library and Dibner History of Science Program house fascinating historical documents and artifacts that allowed me to supplement my archival research with necessary secondary readings.
When I needed to take a break from the reading room, I walked through my favorite of the Huntington’s botanical gardens. Otherwise, I strolled through the many beautifully curated exhibits on display. True to form, I was captivated by the permanent exhibit “Beautiful Science: Ideas that Changed the World” now showcased in the newly renovated Dibner Hall of the History of Science. Additionally, during the month and a half that I was in residence at the Huntington, I was also lucky enough to explore various rotating exhibitions, many of which catered to my broader interests in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. First, I visited “Born to Endless Night: Paintings, Drawings, and Prints by William Blake Selected by John Frame” and “Revisiting the Regency: England, 1811–1820.” Just before my time there ended, I took special pleasure in frequenting the exhibit “Pre-Raphaelites and Their Followers: British and American Drawings from The Huntington’s Collections,” which was curated by my friend and colleague Matthew H Fisk.
All such glorious distractions aside, I’ll leave my reader with one very sage piece of advice. Returning again to borrowed words, I would like to share with you the most valuable and counterintuitive information my advisor imparted to me before I made my first foray into the Munger Research Center.
Epilogue: “Try not to spend everyday at The Huntington performing research”
“It will be tempting to spend your allotted time (in the Ahmanson Rare Books Reading Room, from 8:30 to noon, and more, from 1-5) on nothing but transcription, research, reading. I battle the same impulse myself. But I would never write a page if I left this impulse unchecked.
Break up each day. You have a dissertation to finish. Research is of course an integral component and necessary to the completion of your project, but keep in mind that mining the archive is only part of what you do, and thus should only be part of your daily routine during your 6 weeks on fellowship. This time will give you the opportunity to forge habits that will help you to remain productive and to lead a balanced life after graduate school.
If you still work well in the morning, settle into a schedule where you write in the productive atmosphere of the Huntington during the am, and then, in the afternoons, gather your documents as ye may.”

And the Beat Goes On: STS 2011

I returned last Friday night 3/18, well technically 1am Saturday morning, from the Society for Textual Scholarship 2011 International Conference, hosted by Penn State University. The conference was a very positive learning experience for me in terms of my scholarly disciplines (Romanticism and digital humanities), writing process, professional community, and social media use. It was the first conference at which I tweeted (i.e., posted comments on twitter) about panels and at which I knew my own talk was tweeted out, the first time I participated in Day of Digital Humanities (DH) blogging (here’s my blog), and a welcome opportunity to meet and learn from other dh’ers and textual scholars that in some cases were also Romanticists. (See Paige C. Morgan’s wonderful blog post about the STS twitter feed, and about tweeting at conferences in general.)  Continue reading “And the Beat Goes On: STS 2011”

The Critic as Genius?

In a recent edition of English Studies in Canada, Margery Fee writes that “we often talk about the importance of good writing without explaining what it is or how we know what it is… our knowledge of what makes good writing is tacit.”
I’ve found this rings true for me on both sides of the classroom. As an undergraduate, I mucked my way though my university’s English department, aping the conventions of scholarly writing well enough to get into grad school; as a grad student, I’ve TA’d classes in which the professor’s advice to me—after I asked what my students needed to do to achieve a good mark on a final essay exam—was a shrug and the words, “Be smart.” I was annoyed, but only because it rang uncomfortably true. All the rubrics in the world can’t do justice to “smartness,” that je ne sais quoi. It’s the ineffable quality in writing, both our students’ and our own, that can tip good into excellent or nudge mediocre to good—and whose only recognizable hallmark is that we’ll know it when we see it.
I study Romantic theories of genius, and the critical consensus seems to be that while genius was a key concept for an age obsessed with artistic originality, we academics no longer “really” believe in it. I’m not so certain. Continue reading “The Critic as Genius?”

Call for new bloggers extended to Wed., Feb 9

If the NASSR abstract deadline got extended, we thought the call for new bloggers should, too!
We’re looking for graduate students in Romanticism *at any stage* in their studies, and from different kinds of universities both in the U.S. and Canada, to help us create online conversation about our field and our unique place in it as students, teachers, and new professionals. It’s also a great way for you to demonstrate who you are as a scholar and have your creative, energetic, intellectual voice heard echoing throughout the blogosphere. (Okay, perhaps a modest quadrant of the blogosphere–but it’s OUR quadrant.)
We ask that bloggers post 1-2 times per month on any aspect of your life as a graduate student Romanticist. We hope you’ll join us and continue the conversation. To apply, send a short letter of interest and your CV to [You do not need to be a NASSR member to apply.]

Call for New Bloggers!

We are looking for new regular contributors for the NGSC WordPress blog on If you are interested, please send your CV and a brief letter of interest (no longer than 1 page) to by January 22.

Bloggers are responsible for publishing at least 1-2 posts per month. New bloggers will start February 1, 2011.

We hope writers will address the issues that affect, inspire, and rile them as novice professionals learning to navigate the field and establish how they will contribute to it. There are no preset categories or topics on which to write, so we encourage interested bloggers to let your interests drive your content. Topics might include questions, challenges, and solutions to pedagogical issues as well as research, reading, and writing methodologies. You might also blog about what you’re teaching and how you’re teaching it, what you’re reading or re-reading in the field that you find useful and exciting, as well as what professional activities you participate in (reading groups, planning conferences, attending conferences, trying to get published, etc.). The posts already published on the blog serve only as a guide and we hope new voices and interests will expand the array of topics and content. Most of all, we hope contributing to and reading our blog will be fun and rewarding! We hope you will apply to blog for us!

Note: You do not need to be a NASSR member to apply.

Adult Swim & "The Future of the Book"

Last night I attended Johanna Drucker’s talk entitled “The Future of the Book.” Looking for the new Visual Arts Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder, I followed a line of people through a set of doors and thought I was there. As I held the door for an older gentleman who seemed to be following his grandson, I asked him if he was going to hear The Future of the Book lecture. He giggled and replied, “We’re going to young scholars’ night. You’re in the chemistry building, dear.” Whoops. Some zig-zagging later and I found the VAC, my academic-looking crowd, and my seat.

I had never heard Drucker talk before, and knew only generally about her work and her most recent book, SpecLab: Digital Aesthetics and Projects in Speculative Computing, but that was enough information to charm me to the presentation. Her presentation attracted a somewhat-diverse humanities crowd: I saw several of my peeps from the English department (among them a Chaucerian who also studies comics; a Renaissance scholar; a new media scholar; a postmodernist; and a poet), and detected groups also from the visual arts, history, education, media studies, and librarians and archivists. Individuals ranged from professors to grad students to elderly members of the public to sub-ten-year-old children accompanying their parent. One little girl came with a mini suitcase of organized markers and paper, and colored quietly and diligently for the entire talk.
The little girl coloring seemed to have her marker-smudged fingers on the pulse of Drucker’s talk, as did the Young Scholars’ Night crowd I accidentally joined. Though the speaker’s material presented a very serious look at the history of the book and used that information to make a prediction about its future (or rather how we humanists can shape its future), her style was playful and, in fact, provided a serious message of the importance of “play” to the evolution of authorship, readers, and texts.
Drucker folded examples of play, humor, entertainment, and recreation into her talk with a subtlety that seemed not to phase the scholarly vibe of the majority of the audience.
The first slide showed Keanu Reeves in The Matrix–in order to illustrate the fantasy of a disembodied virtual utopia. Juxtaposing the intelligent virtual and Keanu drew chuckles round the house, and Drucker was just getting started. She also showed slides of e-readers in different shapes, including the form of newspaper pages large enough to shield the privates of a guy on the john. She then addressed the history of print and dove backward in time to Gutenberg’s press and figures like Tyndale, where she made the requisite “he had a lot at stake” joke. We then saw slides of early playing cards and learned how printers were asked by the church to stop producing them, as the populace took too easily to gambling. After other examples, she ended with a vision of the way a “novel” of the future might work: Drucker describes a narrative that seems folded into news in realtime that reaches you through mobile devices and that changes as you make decisions about how to interact with the narrative. It is multimedia, multi-player, and multi-platform. It sounded a bit like the Michael Douglas movie The Game, and also a little bit like Stranger Than Fiction. Serious play, in which our concepts of fiction and real life blend and disrupt each other in new ways.
Maybe I’ve just been studying for comps for too long and neglecting proper recreation, but I couldn’t help but find the message of seriously play–or “adult swim”–in Drucker’s talk about the future of the book. Her presentation suggested to me that the meaning of play, play-ers, play media, and conversely the definition of “work” (noun and verb), have a giant impact on the way we treat reading technologies now and will treat new reading and authoring technologies in the future.