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Thoughts on our 2014 AAS Roundtable, Part II

As I mentioned in my general ramblings on our AAS roundtable, the general theme was “access.” Although Alan & Nick in particular focused on issues of accessibility in regards to sources (mostly for teaching), Amanda & I riffed on the theme of accessibility of sources (mostly for research). I spoke for a very short period of time – hoping, I think, that there would be more discussion in the comments period of some of the points raised regarding research (and there was a comment – tied, actually, to Nick’s discussion of the Japan Disaster Archive – about issues related to IP). As it turned on, the teaching portion was apparently of much greater interest to everyone, but I wanted to scribble down some thoughts beyond my short comments at the panel.

In speaking of access, I was specifically referring to the problem of getting into important, subscription-based repositories of digitized sources, databases like Duxiu, ChinaMAXX, China Academic Journals (CAJ), and the like. In some respects, this is the dullest manifestation of anything related to “the digital”: we’re talking about paper sources that have been scanned, OCR’d, and put up on subscription-based sites. We’re not talking world-changing, discipline-transforming use of technology here, are we?

Not exactly, no, but you’d be surprised. During our research seminars in grad school (and at other points, of course), my advisors would occasionally comment on the changes the field had undergone since they did their research decades ago. The ability to do keyword searches of Chinese-language materials has changed the way we research – for one, it means that you (very easily) can find references in the most scattered of places. The example I usually point to is my discovery of a poem one of my playwrights, Meng Chao, published in Xin tiyu 新体育, the premier sports & physical culture magazine of the 1950s and 1960s. I’d been thinking of getting something going on Chinese mountaineering, but turning up this little gem while running a usual search (in hopes of turning up something from one of the theatre or literary journals) really made me sit up and take notice. Now, I did have a similar experience after I purchased a 1967 newspaper article on ghost opera off of the second hand book website, kongfz.com (I’ve written about the glories of online book shopping in China before). There, I noticed a strange line about a 1962 spoken language drama titled Mount Everest. But that was happenstance on a whole different level – the kind of thing that is tremendously difficult to replicate.

My advisors commented on the change – the ability to really drill down on a narrow set of terms or people and have hundreds or thousands of articles at your fingertips is quite different from spending ages paging through paper documents by hand, looking for scattered references. On the one hand, there’s a lot that can be gleaned from perusing hardcopy sources while you look for references here, there, and everywhere. On the other, databases can turn up references in the least likely of places – like Meng Chao in a magazine that I would never otherwise pick up while researching opera!

The accessibility of these databases, with enormous stores of documents, hasn’t lessened my reliance on hardcopies; for instance, I own a fairly complete run of Theatre Report 戏剧报 for the years between 1955 and 1966. This is one of the primary sources for my work on opera reform & it was a fairly expensive (and space-consuming) thing to purchase. I did so because I like being able to browse hardcopies, and it is different from “browsing” digitized issues on CAJ, or doing specific keyword searches on Duxiu. I also own a lot of very minor regional drama publications from the 1950s, most of which don’t exist in libraries or digital archives. But there’s simply no denying that one reason I managed to cough up a dissertation that was reasonably solid is because I had the tools at my disposal to make wading through thousands and thousands of articles feasible. These tools are simply part of doing research these days – important parts of research.

And unfortunately, because I didn’t land at a school that has a large Asian studies program & the resources to devote to it, it’s access I’m scrambling to maintain after this year. Access that my work in large measure depends on. Before this gets taken out of context as a “poor me, I didn’t land a job at an Ivy” whine, let me say that I’m quite happy where I am, and this is problem that extends to what I suspect is most of us in this field (at least in the US). I realized that this was a bigger problem than I had first thought when a friend, who is installed at a very well-respected private institution (although one with – again – a relatively small body of Asianists) emailed to ask what I was doing about access; I was shocked that my friend’s school didn’t subscribe to these kinds of resources. So even places that look like they have more money to fling at research sources than my land grant institution often can’t justify it for a handful – if that – of faculty members.

My advisors may have commented on the way this changes how their grad students approached research topics, but no one is talking about how access – or not – to these sorts of materials are important for the field as a whole. Most of us don’t wind up at institutions with a large population of Asianists, and anyone in academia can speak to the trimming of budgets that make every penny really count. In today’s climate of reduced funding for libraries, and the fact that many more schools have at least one Asianist (if not more) on the faculty than was probably the case forty years ago, what happens to those of us outside the realm of a relative handful of institutions that can afford subscription services?

Here’s what I sort of feel like my field is telling me, mostly by not saying anything at all (that’s Duxiu, by the way, my most oft-used database):

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This is a really, really important issue, and it’s something I feel like our (inter)national organization dedicated to Asian studies could actually facilitate discussion on – and maybe even solutions. Database companies are not set up to cater to individual scholars seeking access; they negotiate contracts with individual universities and consortiums (many UC campuses, for instance, buy in to online resources together). Some companies, like East View (which handles CAJ and other Chinese materials, as well as databases of Russian & Arabic sources), specifically request you go through your libraries – and based on their pricing structure, my university would fall into the same category as, say, Harvard or Berkeley (which certainly have a lot more Asianists than we do!).  I am definitely exploring my options, including getting in contact with institutions that have (in theory) service to neighboring areas like Montana as part of their mission. But wouldn’t it be nice if people – including independent scholars, and people in more populated areas – had an easy way to buy in to subscription services?

In my presentation, I mentioned the German system, which is brilliant, wonderful, and inclusive. Individuals – and institutions – can subscribe to CrossAsia, which provides access to a wide variety of subscription services. All an individual needs is a Berlin Staatsbibliothek card (which is acquired for a very reasonable yearly fee); those affiliated with institutions can get access in that way. Over dinner, Hilde explained a little more about how CrossAsia came into being – basically, an individual librarian marshaled the entire effort and managed to pull all German universities into the system. For small outposts, it actually made it affordable to get their Asianists access to a huge number of databases. For much bigger programs, it wound up being cheaper for them to both maintain access to the things they already subscribed to, and gain access to new resources. Put into American terms, it’s a system that made sense for the Montana States or Mary Washingtons of the world and the Harvards and UC systems.

It would be delightful if this could be replicated nationally, but the US isn’t Germany. Still, I can’t help but feel there’s more we collectively could do as a field to make inroads in ensuring access to vital resources. I chatted with a colleague after this panel, and mentioned the access issue – he said that it was funny (though not surprising) that a lot of the promise of digitization & popularization, etc. has wound up reinforcing old elitist boundaries (this is someone who left one of those Old Elite Schools to come to a land grant institution, so it’s not bitterness on his part). No institution could afford to replicate today the kinds of collections found in the bastions of area studies – not even the bastions, as the price of (print) sources is simply astronomical in many cases. And yet, very often, access to these things which should help spread the wealth around a little more is still limited to places that can afford to cough up very expensive yearly fees, negotiated by individual institutions. It’s just gatekeeping of a different manner.

I’m not asking to simply leech off schools with better endowed libraries than my own, for free; I would cheerfully pay my own money – far more than the cost of a Berlin Staatsbibliothek card – every year to ensure I had access to materials to continue doing my research with a minimum of muss and fuss. At the same time, I am not in a position to negotiate as an individual with CAJ, with Duxiu, with the People’s Daily database. If the German case proves anything, it’s that not just smaller institutions won by coming together in a consortium: even the big, elite Asian studies institutions got something out of the deal (the same thing smaller institutions got, actually: more & better access, cheaper). The more people – or institutions – you have bargaining with database companies (who really have a lot leverage in this situation, just as companies like JSTOR have in providing access to academic journals), the better.

Bigger programs are already subsidizing my research, to some extent – every time I order materials on inter-library loan (things like microfilm – the type of sources that are often available, at least for my period, online through databases), that costs everyone money: my library, their library. Does ILL really make more sense than providing some kind of buy-in to subscription services for a reasonable fee? I’m not a librarian – and don’t know the economics of everything – but I think we need to at least start having a conversation (between academics, librarians, and database companies) about how we could all work together. Both the elite institutions, and those of us who have left the elite nest at the conclusion of our graduate training.

I’ve been encouraged to talk to our library about subscribing to at least one critical database, and I’ll probably broach the subject with our librarians (and see what suggestions they have). But truthfully, I am at a land grant institution, one without massive resources or a wonderful Asian studies collection. I’m a lot more interested in making sure my students have access to books, so I can stop lending out my personal copies of tomes I consider basic acquisitions for an academic library. The thousands and thousands of dollars a year it would cost to negotiate access that would benefit only me are, in my opinion, better spent on acquisitions that would benefit a lot more people. 

I’m not ashamed for holding a TT position at a school without a history of being a hotbed of Asianists. Really, that describes most of us – few of us will wind up at institutions that look like the universities where we trained as grad students. Even a relatively lateral move – say, from one UC to another – is not going to mean a total equivalency in regards to resources (for one thing, different schools – even the bastions – have different emphases in their collections). Isn’t this the kind of discussion we should be having? The debate over open access to academic publications acknowledges that databases are a relatively new, very important issue – and access to those resources is incredibly important. The accessibility of primary source databases should be part of that discussion. And, just like bigger conversations on teaching and research, this is something that I want my field to be participating in. Keeping an eye on AHA discussions is great, but there are some specific issues here that we need to be discussing, not just skirting the edges of in broader, discipline-wide conversations.

Things have changed a lot since my advisors did their training. I just hope that it doesn’t take another forty years for us to collectively figure out how to manage the changing landscape of the past ten.

Thoughts on our 2014 AAS Roundtable, Part I

Chinese typewriterI just returned from a rousing Association of Asian Studies annual conference in Philadelphia, which is the annual gathering to wallow (in the most wonderful way) in Asian studies for a few days with old friends & new friends. What follows are some (probably confused and somewhat random) thoughts on the panel I was part of (part I) & some expansion on things I only touched on in a few minutes (part II) – I think we’d all like to keep a conversation going & I hope this year’s AAS (and our panel) was a piece in getting that conversation going and sustaining it.

I was part of a roundtable called “Charting the Digital in Asian Studies: Promises, Realities & the Future of Teaching and Research.” It was spearheaded by one of my best friends in the field, Amanda Shuman (PhD candidate in East Asian history at UC Santa Cruz) – we talked last spring about getting a panel on “digital humanities” together (because we’re not really doing as much discussion as a field about tools & methodologies for teaching & research as we should) & Amanda did the legwork. To our great surprise, we were actually accepted. Amanda was unable to attend in person this year because she was recently delivered of child, but she Skyped in to the panel (the technical issues are a story for another day, I suppose).

I was really delighted to be included with a very experienced panel of fellow Asianists doing some really amazing work. Hilde de Weerdt (professor of Chinese history at Leiden) was our discussant & also introduced her own very new course aimed at getting students both working with classical Chinese sources & using digital tools to map those sources (in this case, correspondence). We also had Alan Christy (professor of Japanese history at UCSC), who I met for the first time (having heard a lot about him from Amanda) last year when he graciously allowed me to tag along to a workshop in Santa Cruz set up to discuss a long-running UCSC course with a significant digital component (Eternal Flames: Living Memories of the Pacific War). This go-round, he discussed another project with students involving a large collection of photographs of Okinawa in the 1950s, also under the auspices of the Center for the Study of Pacific War Memories at UCSC. Sue Fernsebner (professor of Chinese history at University of Mary Washington) – my undergrad mentor who I’ve written about here – talked about her experiences designing and implementing an undergraduate methods course with digital components (she posted some links & description over on her blog). Finally, Nick Kapur (post-doc at the Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies at Harvard) discussed his involvement in Harvard’s Digital Archive of Japan’s 2011 Disasters.

It was in one respect a little disappointing (having absolutely nothing to do with my fellow panelists or our discussion!): it seems a shame that there are so few panels at the “premier Asian studies conference” dealing with the practical matters of teaching & researching concerns (related to the digital or not; but bluntly, I think the issues we were talking about were largely just as useful for people who have no interest in “the digital” or computational tools). Ian Bogost, one of my favorite (and grumpiest) people in academia, has written a fair amount about the problems inherent in these “digital humanities” discussions (and certainly, a lot of other people have, too). I’d like to think we weren’t simply (in Ian’s words) “pat[ting] ourselves on the back for installing blogs and signing up for Twitter” – I am always keenly aware of the general lack of knowledge among historians at large. The general theme of our roundtable was access (in various permutations), and in its teaching manifestation, one even the technophobes among us should be interested in: how do we, as Asianists, get our students into sources – beyond the limits of those available in translation – when our students generally don’t have the capability to read those languages?

This isn’t a “digital humanities” problem, it’s a “we teach things in languages other than English” problem. Alan described the types of discussions he’s had with students who come in wanting to research a variety of topics. “Do you read Japanese?” he queries. Of course they don’t. “Well, there are all sorts of things in Japanese; nothing in English; sorry, pick something else.” I’ve only been installed in a faculty position since last August & I’ve had this same conversation multiple times. “Great idea!” I say, when a student trots out an interesting research topic, but one I know that’s simply not feasible given linguistic limitations. “But you can’t.”  I jealously look at my Americanist colleagues, who can cull from their plethora of English-language sources to find things their senior capstone students can work with. It’s not that I don’t have sources; I have tons of them! But they’re in Chinese. I would love to find ways to introduce my students to sources that are not only in my general area and happen to have found their way to English translation (to have a useful collection of sources – in English – like this is rare enough; one reason Sue’s methods course was based on the Taiping Civil War, since there is a weighty 3 volume set of documents/documents in translation), but things I have worked with extensively in my own research.

It’s really inspirational (I hate using that word; it sounds schlocky in the context of teaching, but it’s true) to listen to Alan talk about taking students who don’t read Japanese into Japanese archives in Japan and having them really get into sources. Obviously, they can’t read them, but he noted that students’ abilities to suss out relevant sources is really quite impressive – particularly considering their lack of linguistic skills. How might we use digital tools to facilitate that sort of experience? Who doesn’t want their students to be excited about research – excited about archives – and to have them being excited about doing work in a foreign language they don’t know? Wow!

That’s why it’s disappointing to me that we had a somewhat sparsely attended panel at our “premier” conference, because I really think this is the sort of discussion that is most fruitful at a place like AAS. Sue mentioned that the American Historical Association conference had a lot of panels concerned with teaching & research methodologies; I’d like to hear from historians in other areas (and I do like hearing what methods, tools, and approaches my colleagues are using), but honestly, I want to hear from people who teach classes in areas like me. I want to hear Alan, Hilde, Sue & Nick (and others) talk about how we get students into foreign language materials in productive ways – and yes, that often involves what falls under the heading of “digital humanities.”

I think Ian’s criticisms from a few years ago of “digital humanities” are well taken, but one reason that I occasionally feel a little defensive is that a great many other people aren’t trying to lead undergrads through a very foreign history, where the tools of our trade are things in foreign (and very difficult!) languages. Can you blame us for getting a little excited about what must seem very pedestrian tools and oh-so-twenty-years-ago methods to academics in compsci or other “computational” fields? Ian talked, in a 2011 post, about the problems of “digital humanities” borrowing, rather than inventing, tools:

… the digital humanities more frequently adopt rather than invent their tools. This is a complicated issue, related to the lack product development and deployment experience in general among humanists, and their lack of computational and design abilities in particular. (By contrast, most scholars of physics or biology learn to program computers, whether in FORTRAN or MatLab or with even more advanced and flexible tools.) As a result, digital humanities projects risk letting existing technologies dictate the terms of their work. In some cases, adopting existing technology is appropriate. But in other cases, the technologies themselves make tacit, low-level assumptions that can’t be seen in the light of day. While humanists can collaborate or hire staff or otherwise accomplish technical novelty, it’s often at a remove, not completely understood by its proponents. The results risk reversing the intended purpose of the humanities as public spies: taking whatever works from the outside world un- or under-questioned.

This is all very true (and a good cautionary point – Alan & Sue both talked about their efforts at learning more of the ‘under the hood’ stuff); on the other hand, most scholars of physics or biology don’t learn Chinese, Japanese, Korean (on top of much more pedestrian European languages, of course) and their classical antecedents in some combination. On some level, griping at us because we don’t also program is just dumping salt into the wound of language acquisition (which we already have to do a lot of). How can we design tools – or even know what we’d like to accomplish – if we haven’t mastered the basic tools of our historical trade? On the other hand, when do we learn how to program? During grad school? While scrambling to get tenure? After tenure? Never? Since I do hang around the edges of game studies, I know a lot of people (including Ian) who are incredibly technically proficient and I never forget that I’m barely competent in the most basic of ways when it comes to using technology. But do I really have to try and catch up to them, on top of just trying to be the best Chinese historian I can be? Is anything less than this just feeding the problem – am I one of those people patting myself on the back for being barely technologically competent? I’d like to think not, but I don’t know.

In any case, some of this is very specific to certain subsets of the historical discipline, which is precisely why I’d like to see more discussion and debate at our conferences (and our big conference in particular). It would sure beat seeing yet another person stand up and read us a 10 page paper in a flat monotone, don’t you think?

Speaking of patting ourselves on the back for using Twitter, the live tweeting at AAS is pretty dismal (and that’s being generous), much to my chagrin; but (not surprisingly), all of my fellow panelists can be found there:


Hopes and Dreams and Money

I had a long post regarding the cancellation of the fiscal year 2011 Fulbright-Hays competition written up.  It – mostly a ‘What winning the Fulbright-Hays has meant to me’ post – depressed me too much, so I’ve deleted most of it.  I was recently told I was being “practically nihilistic” about the future of America and American academia, and this is one reason why.  Even though I have won a Fulbright-Hays and have that money safely in the bank (literally and figuratively), the news was devastating for what it signals about our priorities and the future.  I hope, though, that this tremendous shock to those of us in fields that rely on the Hays and similar grants to get our work done will mean a more positive, active direction for the future.  I’d like to feel less nihilistic, and a lot of us would like for our future to look a little brighter – and maybe we can make it so.

A few links to relevant posts on the issue (also see the Facebook group that has sprung up):

The official cancellation notice (US Department of Education)

Acknowledging the Value of Fulbright-Hays Research Grants (The China Beat)

Has the Fulbright-Hays Cancellation Affected You? (China Dissertation Reviews)

Killing Fulbright-Hays (Sean’s Russia Blog)

The Fulbright-Hays is Cancelled.  Do Something (Christine & Rokas)

What follows below are  a few notes on what this whole disaster has stirred up in my mind, as a recipient of a FY2010 Fulbright-Hays (that would be last year’s competition).

For many of us, tucked alongside the leap from “PhD student” to “PhD candidate,” the crafting of dissertation prospectus, and putting committees together is the scramble to secure funding for our fieldwork abroad.  In the case of doing research in China, we have to put in serious time: even accessing archives can be a true test of patience, and one that requires cooling one’s heels while trying to rustle up letters and introductions from the right people.  It’s possible to fund such ventures on your own, of course, but since a life in academia is generally a losing proposition financially, it doesn’t make much sense to go into debt over it.  And it’s difficult to acquire a nice big nest of savings on a teaching assistantship – or it is at many schools in many areas.  So we write, edit, rewrite, edit some more, solicit letters of recommendation, order transcripts, write, and edit in the hopes that one of those nebulous “committees” will read our applications and deem our projects worthy of funding.

It’s a crapshoot at the best of times.  What do the committees want?  What’s going to catch their eye?  Writing a proposal is partially a game – a game of showmanship.  Knowing what to say, how to say it, and how to frame your proposal to generate the maximum appeal is a fine art.  I was lucky enough to have professors who turned a critical and knowledgable eye towards my essays and CV and helped me put together an application that was, in the end, successful.  It was step one in really learning how to play the funding game.  A successful application meant that I could move to China for a year and research my dissertation – a crucial, unavoidable part of writing a dissertation on modern Chinese history, funding or no.  It’s a step I would have had to take at some point, but winning a Hays meant that I didn’t have to dip into my own (non-existant) funds to do so.  It also meant I got to stay “on track” with my graduate career, and didn’t have to stress about how I was going to put food on the table and work on my dissertation.

Unfortunately for this year’s applicants, the rules of the game were changed on them last minute.  Actually, the rules weren’t changed: the game was just axed entirely.  The Fulbright-Hays program (which includes more than just the Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad (DDRA) component) was totally defunded at the last minute.  Well – not even last minute.  Last year, we were notified in late April of our application status.  This year, after weeks of being told that decisions were coming, the competition was cancelled in late May.

On the one hand, we’re used to bad news in higher education.  On the other, losing the Fulbright-Hays – for only a year, or even more terrible to contemplate, forever – is more than just bad news.  Maura Cunningham at the China Beat succinctly summed up my feelings on why this is really, really bad news:

What concerns me most about the cancellation of the Fulbright-Hays isn’t necessarily its immediate effects on my colleagues and myself, though those aren’t insignificant. Rather, it worries me—even frightens me—that with this action the U.S. government is signaling its lack of commitment to education and forging bonds with communities abroad. Programs like the Fulbright-Hays grants aren’t just about supporting individual scholars; they have a larger mission of promoting work that collectively helps all of us contextualize the world we live in and recognize how it has come to look the way it does. By not providing the funding necessary to support this year’s crop of applicants, the government is implying that such work isn’t important, that we can exist in a global community but don’t need to understand it.

I have a shelf full of books whose acknowledgements indicate that American leaders grasped the significance of this mission in the past. I am now concerned, however, that few are willing to continue it into the future, and this loss, surely, will be to the detriment of all—not just graduate students.

An easy target for those of us in area studies is area studies itself.  Lots of books exist on the subject; certainly we could spend all day talking about Cold War formations of knowledge and power structures.  There’s no doubt that there were and are problems with that structure, and I appreciate the fact that many dream of alternatives.  But there are legacies that aren’t so negative – such as the Fulbright grants.  In an era when universities are more interested in making money than promoting scholarship and education, there were (and are) funding sources that give money simply for the purpose of advancing knowledge and broadening our view of the world.  And as huge a difference as the Fulbright-Hays has made for generations of graduate students, its funding was really a drop in the bucket compared to other national issues – the FY2010 competition clocked in at under $6 million, funding nearly 150 projects on incredibly diverse topics.

One of my favorite essays, and a particularly terrifying one, comes via the edited volume Learning Places: The Afterlives of Area Studies (Duke, 2002).  I first read Masao Miyoshi’s “Ivory Tower in Escrow” towards the end of my first year, while in my Japanese history course at UC San Diego (the article was originally published two years prior in boundary 2, the version I quote from below).  Miyoshi describes the “ivory tower” in the United States as increasingly bound to corporate R&D interests (and the increasing irrelevance of the humanities to that project), and considers the role academics in the humanities have played in allowing the humanities to become increasingly irrelevant.  It is startling – saddening – that Miyoshi’s article was published 11 years ago.  How far we have come (?).  What would this essay read like today?  Yet it seems more important than ever to take heed of his warning, issued over a decade ago:

It is pathetic to have to witness some of those who posed as faculty rebels only a few years ago now sheepishly talking about the wisdom of ingratiating the administration—as if such demeaning mendacity could veer the indomitable march of academic corporatism by even an inch. To all but those inside, much of humanities research may well look insubstantial, precious, and irrelevant, if not useless, harmless, and humorless. Worse than the fetishism of irony, paradox, and complexity a half century ago, the cant of hybridity, nuance, and diversity now pervades the humanities faculty. Thus they are thoroughly disabled to take up the task of opposition, resistance, and confrontation, and are numbed into retreat and withdrawal as ‘‘negative intellectuals’’ —precisely as did the older triad of new criticism. If Atkinson and many other administrators neglect to think seriously about the humanities in the corporatized universities, the fault may not be entirely theirs.

If all this is a caricature, which it is, it must nevertheless be a familiar one to most in the humanities now. It is indeed a bleak picture. I submit, however, that such demoralization and fragmentation, such loss of direction and purpose, are the cause and effect of the stunning silence, the fearful disengagement, in the face of the radical corporatization that higher education is undergoing at this time. (48)

I don’t know how world shaking my Fulbright-Hays will be.  I don’t know what my future career looks like. But I know that whatever comes in the future, I don’t want it (or me!) to be labeled  “insubstantial, precious, and irrelevant” or “useless, harmless, and humorless.” I was fortunate enough to win a Fulbright-Hays, an opportunity that this year’s applicants won’t get, and future graduate students may not get, either.  It’s symptomatic of a very diseased whole, and I sincerely hope that the sudden shock of this cancellation means that we will take a good hard look at ourselves and our institutions. I hope that we’ll rise to the challenge that Miyoshi set out eleven years ago.  The time for silence has long passed.

I hope that this year is a fluke (though I fear otherwise), and that life-changing emails like the one I got will start flowing again soon.  But it’s not going to happen by keeping quiet and allowing the status quo to continue.  We have been too silent, allowed ourselves to be too fragmented, and lacking in direction.  This is yet another wakeup call for all of us – maybe we’ll listen this time.

The Fearless Muse

Some assorted musings that are far from complete, probably painting plenty of things with too broad a brush, and a bit kneejerk in reaction.  Well, these things happen – it’s a start, and I’ll sort some of this out later.

What shade of blue is the sky?

A Killscreen piece has been making the rounds of late (“‘Game designers want to be artists without knowing what that means’“).  I confess it rubbed me the wrong way for a lot of reasons, some that I haven’t quite put my finger on.  It’s just … well.  A little too simplistic, even for a simplistic laundry list of questions, I think.

Why do you think game designers are so misinformed [about what art is]?

I’m generalizing, but game developers are coming out of computer science or a different side of universities, if they’ve studied art at all. At most, they’ve had one or two art history classes and most of those are boring. People haven’t taken time to understand what it means to be an artist.

Let me say at the outset: I think it would be great if more people had more courses in things like art history, or history, or art, or literature, or foreign languages (multiples).  I am a huge believer in the benefits of the ideal model of the liberal arts education (whether or not it’s attainable, feasible, or has existed for a long time is a debate for another day).  But this isn’t about courses.  What this is really about is being a culturally well-rounded person: crash courses and college courses can help, but they certainly don’t make up for simply living your life in such a way that you’re steeped in a variety of cultural things that you’re constantly thinking about.  What department you’re in doesn’t have much to do with it.  Plenty of people in the humanities are not exactly paragons of cultural beings.  I am certain there are art historians who have no idea of “what it means to be an artist.”

Mei Lanfang 梅兰芳

It’s not simply about “taking the time” to think about something; it requires energetic, sustained engagement.  When I think of my development as a historian, it’s something that’s happened over a very long period of time, and much of it has simply happened in the course of living my life the way it wound up (Sharp points to this in a later comment – the process is ongoing).  There was – is – no way to force it.  The disciplinary example is a red herring.  This isn’t about disciplines – the art historians who haven’t thought very much about “what it means to be an artist” probably haven’t done so because that’s not what it means to be an art historian in their corner of the Ivory Tower.  It’s also like asking what shade of blue is the sky: there is no right answer.  It’s such a broad question as to be meaningless.  What kind of artist are we talking about?  A dancer, a musician, a writer, a painter?  Are we talking about a choreographer, a prima ballerina, or a member of the corps de ballet?  A composer, a conductor, a pianist, a first chair flute, a second row trumpet?  They’re all artists, after all – but it all means something very different.  Besides, many art historians aren’t going to have any better idea how to approach many kinds of artists than I: it’s not an all-encompassing field, after all.  Does Sharp have any idea “what it means” to be a Chinese opera star?  They are artists, after all.  Then again, does it really matter if he does – or doesn’t?

But I don’t want to poke petty little holes in an argument that I don’t particularly disagree with; I just think it’s framed in the wrong way.  This isn’t about what computer science majors are or are not doing – it’s about what’s prized out there on the open market in a lot of ways.

Here’s what I’d like to consider: what kind of person is the industry selecting for?  Are they selecting for people who are likely – regardless of background – to be culturally well-rounded, with plenty of examples and a broad worldview to draw on?  The ones who have “thought about what it means to be an artist,” or any number of other things?  What kinds of backgrounds are important?

Well, now that you mention it …

The “developers wanna be artists but have no clue what that means” article was sent my way by a friend who actually wanted to bring up a (related) issue – one that’s bound up with the background/breadth question.  I will preface this with: I am not, nor have I ever been, a student of game design, an aspiring designer, an actual designer, or a computer science major.  I’ve never taken a CS class and I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be any good at it (luckily, I’ve never had to try!).  I can’t code, couldn’t design a game for you if you held a gun to my head, and so on. Brenda Brathwaite gave a talk at GDC ’11 on how game design students need to have a coding background. Not just background, actually, their degrees should involve the “same level of coding as a comp science degree” (this statement is what my friend took umbrage with).  “This sort of ignores all the other things that go into making a good game designer, no?” is a dumbed down version of my friend’s argument against such thinking – requiring comp sci levels of ability cuts out the people who can master the basics and acquire a good understanding, but aren’t ever going to be proficient in the way that a comp sci specialist will be.  Which isn’t to say some people aren’t going to have that level of mastery, just that maybe it shouldn’t be an expectation?

I get the need for strong basics.  Here’s an example from my own field: one of the tools of our trade, one of the most basic building blocks of our work, is language ability.  It is critical to what we do: we must have a certain grasp on modern and classical Chinese, regardless of our eventual research subject, and we must pass tests demonstrating the standard of proficiency our advisors deem sufficient.  However – and this is a big however – we are not expected to have the “same level of Chinese mastery as a Chinese literature major.”  Some people assuredly do, many of us do not, and it funnels our research accordingly.  I was told by a professor that they approached their dissertation topic from angle B because their linguistic abilities were insufficient for angle A.  Said professor still turned out brilliant work – and it’s a story that’s not uncommon.  You can be proficient without being a specialist.

What caught my eye was the statement that by not expecting students to attain computer science standards of specialization in coding, programs are sending out ill-prepared students and the lack of education “has to stop. We owe the students more.”  Ok, maybe so; but here’s the more important part, I think – one that has precious little to do with code if you sort through it:

Unfortunately, many programs – if not the great majority of game design programs – mislead their students into believing they will get game design jobs when they graduate, and that is simply not true.

Yes, programs do owe their students more, and it includes things like being frank, upfront, and honest when it comes to things like “potential for gainful employment.”  This is a huge problem in graduate school, where there are far more hopeful PhDs than will ever be jobs.  There are a lot of people who aren’t particularly upfront or honest with potential or current students (I felt very lucky to have a wonderfully supportive, yet really honest, undergraduate mentor who had a number of frank discussions with me on the state of the Ivory Tower and what I was getting myself into).  How about not letting in loads more students than the job market can realistically support?  Let’s be honest – even if every single program out there required every single hopeful student to attain “computer science” levels of coding ability, there still wouldn’t be enough jobs for everyone coming out of such programs (and it’s likely that a lot of talented people would fall by the wayside thanks to the addition of a certain level of specialization that’s going to be unrealistic for otherwise really talented and useful people).

Flock of Geese (Egyptian, c. 1350 BC, housed in the British Museum)

But of course, being a business these days, that would be bad for the program bottom line – and we couldn’t have that, could we?  It’s a shameful problem that exists in many corners of the education sector (and makes me just as angry, if not more so, elsewhere and closer to home) and yes, we do owe the students more, including not leading them on years long wild goose chases for jobs that don’t and won’t exist, regardless of how well they do or don’t code.  Maybe that ought to be a rant at GDC next year.

Back to my own corner of the Ivory Tower, there are several programs that have pretty impressive records of success (even with the lousy academic job market).  I think one thing worth noting is that often, professors wind up “taking a chance” on students who may not have a “classical” background that clearly led to a given field or speciality.  The equivalent, if you will, of taking a chance on the student who may not come in with computer science levels of coding but brings a lot of other things to the table – sometimes nebulous, undefinable qualities.  Except these days, it seems more likely to fall in your favor than not – specialization is still expected, yes, but future employers increasingly want to know what other skills a fledgling academic is going to bring to the table.  What sets you apart from all the other specialists who have the same general specialty as you.  Negotiating the line between the demand to specialize and the demand to be broad and wide-ranging is one of the orders of the day.

In a glutted job market, there’s something to be said for taking a chance, both before, during, and after the education process.

The Fearless Muse

Balanchine & (a young) Farrell

While pondering these issues, I find myself thinking about George Balanchine’s last great muse, Suzanne Farrell.  She’s an interesting character – one of those dancers with that nebulous je ne sais quoi (the dramatic story of her rise-fall-rise and the prominent position she occupies in the history of modern ballet doesn’t hurt).  Most people agree that she wasn’t a particular star technically (e.g., she wasn’t “known” for, say, her jumps), but as the choreographer Maurice Béjart (who took her & her husband in after they were forced to leave the New York City Ballet) said about her musicality – it was as if the music came through her.  That is, part of her “something” was one of the hardest things to train people at – she was just naturally gifted, and it remained one of her greatest strengths as a dancer, technique absolutely aside.  Incidentally, it was also something Balanchine noticed during her audition for the School of American Ballet – and undoubtedly one reason he took a chance on the girl from Cincinnati despite her wonky left foot with a fallen arch.  His gamble paid off in spades.

Anyways, Balanchine loved her for many reasons, but there are a few that get mentioned with some frequency: first, she was fearless.  Unlike many ballerinas, Farrell wasn’t afraid of being off balance or falling off pointe.  She wasn’t afraid of making mistakes – mistakes that sometimes led to revelations.  Second (and likely connected to the first), she was willing to experiment, to try, no matter how crazy an idea may have sounded.

This was important.  Because, you see, George Balanchine had never been en pointe.  According to Ferrell, when they were working – creating – in the studio, Balanchine would remind her of this fact.  And while working, he would ask her about things that they had never attempted before: “Is this possible?  Is that possible?”  (Think on that: another definition of what it means to be an “artist,” no?  And a little revelatory that one of the greatest – if not the greatest – choreographers of the twentieth century had never actually practiced one half of his “instrument” at all.  He didn’t always know what it was even capable of!)

“I don’t know,” she would respond, “but we can try.”

Arthur Mitchell, Balanchine & Farrell rehearsing Slaughter on Tenth Avenue