Offline for a bit

Happy (pre)Holidays! I’ve been off campus and offline for a bit but expect to resume posting during spring 2015. Lots to report: From an online press project my sister and I are exploring to a cross-country journey to the Pacific Northwest. It’s been adventurous and challenging. Loads to think about and even more to rethink…


my digital native

I can scarcely believe it has been nearly two years since I traveled to Cameroon with my colleague Ekema and a small group of university students.

My colleague is Cameroonian, and although his students and I were in very good hands with him as our guide, at times the experience was stark. The frequent absence of running water, the common presence of mosquitoes and malaria, and the repeated occurrences of dysentery were physically challenging. The language barrier (in addition to French and English, the colonial languages of Cameroon, the country lays claim to hundreds of tribal languages and many varieties of pidgin) was at times wrenching. As a linguist, it’s my preference to speak the language of the community I’m living and working in. Often in Cameroon I could not do so, and I found the resulting sense of isolation and, at times, even distrust difficult to come to terms with.

Yesterday, my colleague caught me in the hall and we spoke briefly about starting a language preservation project in Western Cameroon. We’ve spoken of this before, of course, as he maintains deep ties to his native country and I maintain a deep commitment to language documentation and linguistic diversity. We talked for only a few minutes, but afterward, as I walked across campus to my car, it was impossible to suppress memories of roasting corn, sold streetside from rusty drum grills; droning scooters carrying families of three and four, sometimes as many as five; and the scratch of burdens (tree limbs, huge palm fronds) being lifted from the heads of the men and women who carried them, then loaded into old Toyota truck beds.

I’m more comfortable observing than being observed. Being an incongruent white in a landscape rich in verdants and browns is incompatible with that preference, and I recalled too the touch of the many rough, warm hands against the pale of my own palms, having been extended to me in cordial greeting, or perhaps more likely, in curiosity.

It’s true that the infrastructure in much of the country is un- or under- developed. Roads, where they exist, are unreliable. Road blocks, illicit or not, are set up in small towns and enforced by armed men. You must pay a bribe to pass, and it’s safer to travel with a Cameroonian who understands how to negotiate these fractured, often unfriendly transactions. A brief downpour can flood the passageway and render travel impossible, and drought conditions create great clouds of hot, thick dust which cling to your skin and hair and throat.

Americans may envy the internet speed enjoyed by Scandinavians and Germans, but the wireless I purchased from street venders in Buea was, even by American standards, intermittent and crawlingly slow. This latter detail I had shared with my son. I even showed him a photograph of the corrugated metal shed from which the twenty-something entrepreneur sold me an access code (cash only, CFA). The floor was cracked concrete; wires hung like tired tendons beneath a rickety table; chickens wandered in and out.

The drive from campus to my son’s school isn’t so far, perhaps twenty minutes. And Cameroon lingered on in my thoughts as I drove to pick him up. He must have listened, intently, when I had shared with him details of my experiences there. I was sick for weeks after I returned, and it had been impossible to conceal this from him. It wasn’t that inconvenience that gave him pause, though, when after asking about his school day and after completing our conversational rituals, I asked him if he’d travel to West Africa with me next year.

For how long, he asked. Nearly eleven, I recognized the quiet of his gears churning and of him imagining himself in the conditions I’d described… “Maybe a month,” I tried.

No. I wouldn’t like to live in a country that doesn’t have technology, he answered. I love the guileless truth in his answers, even when it’s difficult for me to accept, even when it stings a little.

He’d gotten in trouble recently and was awaiting the close of the few days ‘tech grounding’ he’d earned. Was he that attached to Minecraft, his Kindle, his iPhone (yes, he has one, and although we didn’t set it up with a line, he and his friends quickly located and downloaded apps to enable texting and voice calls)? Was he that addicted to games like League of Legends? This morning he posted an old toy he found in our attic on Craig’s List. In January he self-published a Kindle book.

He’s a self-proclaimed ‘adventurer.’ This very moment he’s trudging through the woods of our backyard with the machete I carried home to him from Cameroon. But he’ll be back in shortly, where he’ll complete his homework on his computer, check for email queries about his Craig’s List post, and try yet again to re-negotiate the terms of his grounding.

breaking up is hard to do

sometimes, despite our best intentions, relationships just don’t work out. words, much as i love them, can get in the way, and paragraphs, intended to fit snugly within an argument, well, sometimes, they muddy rather than continue the point. here’s a recent passage I was sad to excise, but, really, in the end, it was time to break it off:

In 2007 Walt Whitman Archive co-editor Ed Folsom argued for the database as the new genre, extolling its ‘rhizomorphous’ capacity.[1] In 2009, his co-editor, Kenneth Price, unpacked this term and others, including edition, project, archive, and thematic research collection, concluding that we need a new term and contending that “we should not strive to fit our work to one or another existing term but instead expect that, in time, terms will alter in meaning – or new ones will come into existence – so as to convey the characteristics of a new type of scholarship.”[2] Siemens et al. have written recently about the ‘social edition,’ summarizing their analysis of “the intersection of social media and the scholarly edition in electronic form.”[3] Designation can and does signify a set of project expectations, and it can and does influence whether we select a platform designed as a digital object repository, a database, a teaching and research tool, or something entirely new, and this decision ultimately shapes public as well as scholarly understanding of and interaction with the front-end deliverable.

  1. Folsom, Ed. 2007. “Database as Genre: The Epic Transformation of Archives.” PMLA, 122: 1571-1579.
  2. Price, Kenneth. 2009. “Edition, Project, Database, Archive, Thematic Research Collection: What’s in a Name?” Digital Humanities Quarterly, 3:3, accessed 13 Nov. 2012,
  3. Siemens, Ray et al. 2012. “Toward modeling the social edition: An approach to understanding the electronic scholarly edition in the context of new and emerging social media*.” Literary and Linguistic Computing, 27(4): 453.


I never, ever want to go back. But a new semester begins this week, and, despite the terribleness of having to return, it is always a little bit wonderful to start again fresh. Fall term was interesting. I taught The World According to Garp (John Irving), Americanah (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie), and Lexicon (Max Barry) in my lit class.

I confess to having been a little uncertain about The World According to Garp. It’s gripping… and incredibly bizarre (thanks to Garp, the terms farce and wtf land the top two spots on the course’s MFW list). My college-age son recommended it to me one day (he lent me the worn, page-weary copy he kept in his car in case he ever got stuck and needed something good to read… and yes, I’m feeling way happy just now that I can claim him); we’ve been engrossed in many intense literary conversations as a result. It’s strange that my guy and I found common ground in Garp, that I edged a little closer to understanding him because of that novel. And he was right: My students, somehow, despite Garp’s propensity for being a “sexual weirdo” got Garp. That Irving transcends gender and recalibrates the heroic, my son must have intuited I’d love.

I selected Americanah for a number of reasons, among them my experience in Cameroon a few summers ago and the opportunity to coordinate our reading of the text with a visit by colleagues from the University of Buea, BU’s Cameroon Study Abroad partner institution. Because Adichie is Nigerian and because Nigeria and Cameroon share a common geographic and cultural history, Americanah introduced familiar themes and offered opportunity to invite two colleagues from the University of Buea to speak with my classes. These conversations – like so many we had last term – illustrated the deep and important connections between literature and society. My students read. And I have some hope that they’ll do so again.

Lexicon I selected to offset the weightier subjects which largely defined the term, though the novel is provocative in its dystopian perspectives on technology, privacy, and education. My class was especially chuffed when Barry took time to respond to an email query I sent following a particularly good class discussion which raised questions about the ethnicity of a character, a question that ultimately only he could (and did) answer and even contextualize.

Happily, I also managed a few reads over the break:

Wave. A haunting account of loss by Sonali Deraniyagala. Stark in its truth. Incisive. Raw.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, one of my favorite authors. It’s easy to fall in like with the tale’s Boris, and Theo is so much like The Secret History’s Richard that the two converge in my thoughts. The ending: eh. Getting there: brilliant.

Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things introduces Alma, a 19th century spinster-scientist-heroine. Alma remains at home in Pennsylvania for most of her life. Following an improbable middle age romance and its humiliating failure, she journeys to Tahiti, then the Netherlands. She is a silent (fictional) co-discover of natural selection. A curator of mosses. Her forays into self-pleasure remind that Gilbert has written before on the subject; and, as in Eat, Pray, Love, the detail is minimal but revelatory, humorous and humane.

At MBDA we’re preparing for another active spring: curricular development, a history project by one of our exceptional Berry undergraduates, and a turn toward transcription. Lots of good stuff.

My own writing has focused largely on research, but there has been some relish too. My 10 year old and I began writing together over the holiday. He’s a serious crafter. And he’s fun. I’m not certain which we’ve done more of when we’ve sat together to write: write or laugh. In either case, we’ve managed – over many, many hot cocoas and an even greater number of ROTFLs – to draft a plot and to develop more than half of it into full chapters of a short novel. Our Minecraft tale is coming along. And that child of mine has written some of my all time favorite lines. Ten is good. I wish more children would write. They’re so wholly unbridled in their cleverness.


a new soccer language (by my son and his friend)

My ten-year-old and his friend developed a very ‘simple’ new ‘soccer language’ during practice a few nights ago. It features words like widdleahoo ‘miss the shot,’ twiddleahoo ‘make the shot; score’ and twiddleahoo-er ‘scorer; striker.’ They offer an excellent window into their knowledge of productive derivational affixes (for instance, the agent suffix -er) and a consistent rule for adding the soccer language affix -idioto- to consonant and vowel initial English words (very similar to Pig Latin) . In one post-practice take on the ride home, my son offers a description:

(he took a little creative license with the website, which doesn’t actually exist… yet!)


liquidation of education?

“…one can imagine that education will be a less and less closed environment, distinguished from professional environments as from other closed environments, but that both of these will disappear to the benefit of a terrible, permanent formation where continuous control is exercised over gymnasium teachers or university staff. One tries to make us believe in a school reform, but it’s liquidation.”

In the 2003 article Archives and Power, Dag Peterson (translates and) quotes Gilles Deleuze from 1990, adding: “What is here referred to as ‘the liquidation’ of the school is not, of course, the end of education but, paradoxically its re-organization according to a new conditional power-strategy.”

crowdsourcing the archive

first paragraph of an article I’m writing which is due in September; its timing coalesces excellently with the OED’s recent quarterly update:

The noun crowdsourcing made its Oxford English Dictionary (OED) Online debut in June 2013[1] as “one of the most recent 1% of entries recorded in OED” and among “50 entries first evidenced in the decade 2000,” which include “words such as bromance, galactico, [and] waterboarding” (“crowdsourcing”). OED attributes the coinage to Wired writer Jeff Howe, who in 2006 described a rising trend wherein “Smart companies in industries as disparate as pharmaceuticals and television discover ways to tap the latent talent of the crowd” (OED, “crowdsourcing”). This story begins shortly thereafter (generations later by some technological measures) when discussions of the shift toward a more participatory culture were becoming increasingly common, and crowdsourcing, in practice as well as in parlance, was spreading beyond industry to touch even the most conservative realms of academia, including textual scholarship and archival studies.

[1] The verb crowdsource was also added in June 2013.