Stanley and Stephen and Stommel and Me–Midway at DigiWriMo

One thing that I’ve discovered with DigiWritMo is that I do a lot of virtual writing—that is to say, reading and thinking—in my research into DH at the CC. My daily discipline in this past year has been to go to my DH list and see what scholars are tweeting about, to find something substantial and read it and then to tweet about it. So in a given day I might read 5000 words and tweet 140 characters. That discipline has suited me just fine in this past year, as the 140 word count is a surprisingly good mnemonic tool. Coming up with some kind of a tweet about something I’ve read, even if it’s an MT of someone’s original tweet, provides a focus for reading, and I think I have developed a broad understanding of some of the major DH work being done currently and some of the debates in the field. I ’ve observed important continuities with the theoretical frameworks that I studied intensely in grad school (cultural studies, feminism, etc.), and also seen genuinely new turns.

Reading Jesse Stommel’s post today on “The Horrors and Pleasures of Counting Words” prompted me to return to Stephen Ramsay’s “Stanley and Me” from yesterday (which I had merely retweeted, which isn’t very disciplined of me—but I had nothing useful to say. So I just went back now to tweet this quote that I loved “Is there a humanistic way to generate and understand data that licenses the kind of leaps we want to make?”)

What I thought when I read Stommel’s post on DigiWriMo and NaNoWriMo is that both of these word counting events fit snugly and well into the discursive formation of DH that Stanley Fish and Stephen Ramsay are debating at the theoretical level.  I enjoy watching this emergent field reach this critical stage: Seeing words as data and mining texts for patterns prompt new interpretive questions and even new practices. Reading Stommel’s breezy post about the purpose of word counting led me back to Ramsay and then back again to my own word counting. Digitally prompted textual interpretation seems to gall Stanley Fish and delight Ramsay.  What characterizes Ramsay’s response but not Fish’s is a generosity of spirit and self-reflective public intellectualism that is not just refreshing (to say that would be, as Ramsay would put it, “pompous”) but a genuine and necessary rhetorical balm. As DigiWriMo and Stommel illustrate, DH is a field that relies on collaboration and welcomes failure for its untapped discovery, and that was simply not true of literary or humanistic study in the past—even if human collaboration and failure through the ages have always been central topoi in humanities research.

Back to word counting: so those of us trying to reach 50,000 words by November 30th are participating in the same discursive practice that Fish and Ramsay are. I find this exhilarating—to be producing word piles that we can then churn through the tools of our trade. Like Stommel, I see that we’re all also participating in the same practice that we’ve asked our students to dutifully participate in for decades, pre-DH—that is, counting words as a measure of completion/adequacy/depth/achievement. How many student essays have we returned to students unmarked for rewriting because they were under the word count by some arbitrary percentage? I know in my 20 years of teaching it’s been many—and I’ve always counted myself as kind for not simply giving F’s.

Like the Christmas bird count , DigiWriMo isn’t really about the count itself, but what that count can tell us. The ritual of paying attention for one month—or one day—to words-in-numbers allows for us to ask interesting questions. I really like the word-processing that Stommel takes his October word production through—counting emails, tweets, retweets and looking at the emotional valences therein.  Concluding that one probably writes 50,000 words a month anyway—but not intentionally, just as part of one’s automaticity in the workplace of intellectual and pedagogical life—this conclusion and the month of intentional counting that follows, can ironically be a pause that refreshes.

Stommel quotes Elizabeth Kate Switaj who has a “problem with NaNoWriMo.”  She suggests it puts too much pressure on artists to produce numbers, turning art into production. For those of us who are language workers but not necessarily writers, writing is always production.

What I have enjoyed about DigiWriMo at the almost mid-way point, is my raised consciousness about the purposes of writing and the choice of reading over writing and the role that writing plays in reading. While I really want to get to 50,000 (and believe me I’ll be cutting and pasting emails into WordCounter too at the end of the month), I have made conscious decisions over the last two weeks to read rather than write. I have to ration my discretionary reading and writing time, because so much of my reading and writing is for “production” as Switaj puts it; it’s part of my “knowledge work.” So the “play” for me as a community college teacher, is finding what others—those, perhaps, whose teaching and service schedules gives them more time, or whose production work is explicitly DH work—have to say.

Some of this reading is easy and fun, as with Jesse Stommel’s “horror and pleasure” of word counts. Some of it stretches me and I have to constantly make decisions about how much I need to understand about the history of computational stylometry, for example, to fully comprehend what Ramsay is getting at. I work hard to not be a dilettante, but at the same time I am not in grad school and my community college work puts light emphasis on faculty developing new knowledge (we count things such as FTE, asses in seats, etc.). And so I try to both be scholarly and strategic.

Speaking of which, I must now take my son to the park before he explodes with five-year-old energy, and so for now, 990 words will have to do.


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