A call for the quantified vita

Lately, I’ve been dabbling with becoming a “quantified self.” That is, I’m trying to keep closer tabs on the time and resources I use to do the things I do. I’ve started to use a program called RescueTime to log my time spent on writing, websurfing, and emailing. So far, the results are mixed. I feel guiltier when I’m on Facebook, but I haven’t figured out how to make the data RescueTime collects particularly useful. For instance, I’d like it to communicate with my schedule to see when I’m teaching and in meetings, and be able to break down blocks of teaching, research and service (all of which involve emailing and word-processing, which RescueTime keeps track of). I’m working on it.

A plot of the over 300,000 emails Stephen Wolfram has sent since 1989
A plot of the over 300,000 emails Stephen Wolfram has sent since 1989

I’m presenting at CCCC on a related topic–the time and resources it takes to do digital pedagogy–in a session with Madeleine Sorapure and Joanna Wolfe. And Stephen Wolfram’s recent post on his quantified self, cataloguing email volume, paper scraps, and time since 1989, is an inspiration if an intimidating and somewhat scary one.

My forays in quantification, plus some recent academic service work and my upcoming 3rd year review, has got me thinking: what if academics had quantified vitas? The vita is already a document of quantity–a list of publications, educations, organizations, conferences, and classes, arranged by categories and dates. Quality and time values are implicit: when reading a CV, we can gauge that a book likely took longer to write than a conference presentation, and that this publication was in a more influential journal than that one.

But can you tell from my courselist that I spend a great deal of time and attention on my feedback to students? Perhaps student evaluations offer an oblique measure of this, but we all know how those are affected by levels of courses, types of students, and curricular necessities. And student evals are generally left off of the CV anyway.

Even more difficult to assess is service. Two people can be on one committee and devote wildly different amounts of time to it. Time ≠ productivity or effectiveness, of course. But doesn’t it mean something? On my own CV, I could point to the in-name-only committees– those that only met once or didn’t do much. I could also point to the committees that met often and for which I (think I) did sustained and effective work. For my “honors,” I could indicate the awards that weren’t particularly competitive, and those that were. But I lived my own vita, and I don’t have that level of access to others.

I know there are significant limits to a quantified vita. I’m leary of the quantification-uber-alles value that’s implicit here. We can’t count everything. For instance, in the sciences, a journal’s impact factor is an attempt to measure influence, but this practice is viewed askance in the humanities because of issues of interdisciplinarity, circulation, and a general skepticism about numbers as a form of representation. And although I can catalogue the time and resources I spend teaching my students, it’s impossible to count the ways I love them. The best parts of my life are unquantified, and I’d like to keep them that way.

But what value might there be to counting certain things in certain ways? Certainly, the Digital Humanities is working on answering that question. Distant reading doesn’t replace close reading, but still tells us some interesting things about texts (e.g., Witmore and Hope’s work on Shakespeare’s corpus, or Google’s Ngram viewer). And statistics on salary and promotion disparities between faculty of different races and sexes can give us tools to fix real problems. The often mentioned challenges of women faculty in service work and work-life balance is, in part, an issue of quantity: how much time is spent by whom?

CVs are already standardized information delivery systems, albeit imperfect ones. To repeat a mantra of computer programmers, might the best remedy for low information be more information?


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My Remarks at MLA 2012: “Composing New Partnerships in the Digital Humanities.”

Here are the remarks I made for a MLA 2012 roundtable on “Composing New Partnerships in the Digital Humanities.”

Session info:

Presiding: Catherine Jean Prendergast Univ. of Illinois, Urbana

Speakers: Matthew K. Gold, New York City Coll. of Tech., City Univ. of New York; Catherine Jean Prendergast; Alexander Reid, Univ. at Buffalo, State Univ. of New York; Spencer Schaffner, Univ. of Illinois, Urbana; Annette Vee, Univ. of Pittsburgh

The objective of this roundtable is to facilitate interactions between digital humanists and writing studies scholars who, despite shared interests in digital authorship, intellectual property, peer review, classroom communication, and textual revision, have often failed to collaborate. An extended period for audience involvement has been designed to seed partnerships beyond the conference.

My remarks

The overlapping questions asked in writing studies and digital humanities right now are primarily in the institutional issues both fields are addressing, such as the role of the digital in our writing courses and our tenure portfolios and the value of digital production and coding in scholarly projects. And while these issues are critically important to the vitality of the academy as well as our livelihoods, we can find also find compelling questions outside of our classrooms and departments and universities—questions that concern digital writing and people outside of the academy. In other words, I’m saying that public digital writing is an underexplored nexus between writing studies and digital humanities—one that will yield exciting and interesting questions relevant not only to humanists but to all of us reading or writing in public digital spaces.

Because our values shape the kinds of questions we ask and, I think, suggest the way forward for collaboration, I’ll briefly outline the central values I see in the digital humanities and writing studies.

From projects funded by the NEH’s Office of Digital Humanities and the most referenced projects in DH, we can see that DH values include:

  • large pools of quantitative data that indicate patterns in culture
  • scholarship on born-digital materials
  • canonical literary works and authors
  • complex databases in which to collect and codify humanities data, and the building of those tools to store and codify
  • large collaborative projects

The most recent ODH report on funding says, almost as an aside that: “the stuff that humanists study ([is] books, newspapers, music, images).” And while we may agree that humanists study these things, conspicuously absent here are humans, more specifically from a writing studies’ perspective—students, and their composition processes and practices.

(Bill Hart-Davidson recently alluded to this issue in DH, suggesting that we “put humans back in the Humanities” through looking at the ways people interact with objects and texts.)

Writing studies’ values, as manifested in the central journals of the discipline, include:

  • processes and practices of composing, especially of everyday writers: such as government employees, immigrants, scientists, non-native English speakers, and college students of all levels
  • writing pedagogy and the learning of writing and reading
  • institutional support structures for writing in higher education
  • rhetorical factors in writing such as ethos, audience, delivery, and memory.

To oversimplify: DH can scale up, look at the big picture to ascertain larger patterns in writing cultures, it can build tools to do this work, and it can provide the structures for collaboration that are necessary to do this work. In writing studies, the long history of attention to humans, culture, motivation, circulation and composition processes can provide thick description, a lens into what larger cultural patterns look like when embodied in specific people and groups.

At the intersection of these values in digital humanities and writing studies, we might be able to find some productive theories of what’s been called “the middle range.” Theories of the middle range are neither top down nor bottom up, according to sociologist Robert Merton and writing studies scholar Charles Bazerman. They involve broad and specific questions and strategic research sites where we can find robust and yet manageable evidence. DH has changed what we may think of as “manageable evidence” in that it provides tools to help us distantly read vast corpus of texts and to see larger patterns. But writing studies can contribute a more local perspective—an attention to the how and why of these larger patterns. The intersecting questions and methods between writing studies and digital humanities can enable us to shuttle between people and data and writing products and processes to understand larger trends in public digital writing, as well as the influences those trends have on individual writers.

In other words, I see the study of public digital writing as a rich space of intersection, where we can take the large-scale interpretive questions of digital humanities and the person and process-based questions of writing studies to help us understand illuminate this important writing space.

I’ll close with just two questions to illustrate how we might shuttle between the research interests of DH and writing studies:

  • How has the writing on Twitter circulated from the Arab Spring to the Occupy movement, and how has this circulation affected the motivation of participants in those movements?
  • How do we identify the shift from cultures of mass reading to cultures of mass writing, typified by online forums, and what does it mean for literacy amongst participants and non-participants?

I know some of this work is already being done in Internet studies, sociology, and certain areas of DH and writing studies. But I think the emerging and established disciplinary perspectives of writing studies and DH might offer new and productive ways of thinking about this public digital writing.

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