In praise of notebooks

Its not even the end of term and I’ve filled just about every page of this year’s Leuchtturm1917 notebook. Usually its not until May or June that I’m scrambling to find a series of blank pages to work in but this year its not even April and most pages look like this:


Ok, its a wall of words. Its old-school, its archaic, its not searchable, minimal tagging function, and even to get these images of the notebook onto this blog I had to employ my phone’s camera, email the pictures to myself, and then upload them to this blog. So why use such an old format? Why insist on actually “writing”, with a pen no less, in a book!?!? To quote “The Plague”…

Creolization and Chimera Topics

Over the past year I’ve been working on a number of things. One exciting piece of news is that my book is finally coming out (yay!), another is that I’ve been working as a Postdoc at McMaster on a Digital Humanities project focused on Austin Clarke. I’ve been treating this postdoc as an opportunity to stumble around,  think about, and experiment in digital humanities. From both technical & hermeneutic perspectives, in what ways does DH transform our notions of reading, writing and canonicity? Big questions…

Clarke provides a useful test case for thinking about DH not only because his archives are so extensive but also because he writes about humanities, humanism and who gets to count as human in a broad sense. Clarke writes the slave past within the multicultural present – he shows how the social constructs of the colony and the plantation continue to structure life for black people even in post-colonial (post-national?) Canada. In this sense his work brings to bear the postcolonial critique of the black Atlantic onto the discourse of digital humanities. Whose humanities? Whose humanism? This topic – of the latent forms of humanism that lie at the heart of DH – has been raised by Tara McPherson but requires far more discussion and I’m hoping that Clarke’s work will open new ways of thinking about the category of the human within DH.

Where is the Nation in Digital Humanities?

*Image credit: Editing Modernism in Canada The organizers of “Decolonizing DH: Theories and Practices of Postcolonial Digital Humanities” at the most recent MLA have raised critically important questions about the intersection between postcolonial research and digital humanities work. In what…

Canada Reads … Hinterland Who’s Who

The unnamed protagonist in Pasha Malla’s short story, Being Like Bulls, works in his family’s Niagara Falls gift shop long after the falls have been devastated by environmental destruction and are now mere carrion for raiding American corporations. He is faced with a choice: preserve this mausoleum of Canada’s past, full of Skylon Tower erasers, Terry Fox wigs, Niagara Falls snow globes, and smiling beaver press-on tattoos, or sacrifice this inherited national chachka in the pursuit of a new identity in the present? Canadians today are faced with a similar choice.

When Patrick deWitt and Esi Edugyan stormed Canada’s literary awards this year, John Barber asked in The Globe & Mail if “Canadian Writers Are ‘Canadian’ Enough?” Barber joins a long list of critics who have rushed to their battle stations to defend Canada and Canadian Literature as soon as a novel that purports to be Canadian is not set in the Ottawa Valley, doesn’t describe the muted anxieties of a small town, or conclude with a staring competition between a Francophone farmer and Louis Riel, reincarnated in beaver form. From George Grant’s lament for Canada in 1965 to Douglas Coupland’s enshrinement of Canadian kitsch, to John Metcalf’s insistence that the only real Canadian books are scotch-inspired reflections on Anglo-Canadian malaise, Canada has a long list of those who would preserve the trinkets of our national heritage. The Leonard Cohen bobble-heads and Irving Layton urinal pucks are in good hands. Yet these critics and artists merely attempt to stem national and individual change, enshrining a notion of Canada that is no longer relevant to a growing number of Canadians.

Canada Reads

Expanding Human Factors

I’ve recently landed in a position teaching Engineering and technical Communication to Engineering and Science students. This is a really enjoyable position and has allowed me to uniquely combine my background in Computer Science with my English research. Furthermore, there are a number of unique and effective pedagogical methods that I’ve learned in Engineering Communication that seem to really resonate with students. I’m convinced that English Departments, particularly the more traditional ones, could gain a lot from seeing how Engineering is developing language and critical thinking education.

In our program we teach from the perspective that the design process — the way in which Engineers turn a problem or challenge into a science or math-based solution — shares a number of parallels with the critical thinking process. So as we teach the design process, and the writing and communication that goes with it, we are also teaching elements of critical thinking: the ability to understand a problem from multiple perspectives, to write using neutral and bias-free language, to generate multiple possible solutions, to form arguments to defend one’s solution, and to assess the relative strengths and weaknesses of those solutions.

As I continue to teach in this department I am trying to assess what forms of critical thinking students are being taught and what some of the challenges are to teaching critical thinking in an Engineering environment. My thinking is largely influenced by theories of critical pedagogy developed by Paolo Freire and Henry A. Giroux. Freire’s work is especially relevant to Engineering education, particularly as his notion of pedagogy requires that we critique ‘instrumental and technical rationality.’ In what ways does Engineering education, particularly with its heavy emphasis on technical knowledge, insist on a kind of ‘technical rationality’? In what ways can Engineering education imbue students with a sense of critical thinking and critique that challenges this instrumental form of rationality?

Coonskin: Redux

What I find surprising in the critical and personal responses I’ve heard to Django Unchained is the unwillingness to discuss what notions of race the film traffics in. What is Tarantino’s vision of blackness and whiteness and how does his aesthetic mode of borrowing from every movie he’s ever seen contribute to his notion of race, cultural difference, and racism?

The feud between Quentin Tarantino and Spike Lee is one point of entry for discussing Django Unchained. Lee refuses to see the film arguing that “American Slavery Was Not A Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. It Was A Holocaust. My Ancestors Are Slaves. Stolen From Africa. I Will Honor Them.”

At the heart of Lee’s critique, and much of the debate over Django Unchained are the questions of historical appropriation — who has the right to tell particular stories — and the question of realism. The latter question really asks, how can we tell particular stories? Is it disrespectful, irresponsible, or racist to depict slavery as a spaghetti western or in an unreal fashion?

I find it interesting that the question of race and the representation of racial difference always seems to gravitate around notions of realism. First of all, these forms of representation are haunted by the question of whether race, itself, is real. If we agree that race is not, of course, a scientific reality, then what is it? Secondly, what forms of cultural representation can do justice to the very real historical and contemporary practices of racism without affirming race itself as somehow real?