RStudio, Jupyter, Emacs, Vim: nothing that works properly is easy to use and nothing that is easy to use works properly

So I am preparing to teach quantitative analysis of social media data using R, the open source language for statistical programming. I usually do anything code-related in Emacs, because I already know how to use Emacs and you can do everything code-related in Emacs and I don’t want to install and learn the quirks of loads of different IDEs. But that argument won’t make sense from the point of view of my students, firstly because they won’t need to do everything code-related, they’ll just need to create R notebooks, and secondly because they don’t already know how to use Emacs, and learning how to use Emacs is hard because Emacs is weird.

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How to write a literature review

Yesterday, I was talking to a dissertation supervisee about what’s expected in the obligatory literature review. I had a similar conversation last week. I realised a little while ago that you can’t get a literature review right if you don’t know why you’re being required to do it – and that the point of doing a literature review is slightly obscure. This morning when I walked into my office and saw my notes still on the whiteboard, it occurred to me that it might be helpful to set down my thoughts on the matter somewhere slightly more permanent. Hence this blog post.

It’s basically just three lists of questions that you should probably think about answering for every single item of literature (article, book, chapter, etc) that you review. They’re the same regardless of whether you’re an undergraduate, master’s, or PhD student, and they should apply to pretty much any discipline that I’m aware of. Which list you use for each item of literature depends on why you’re reviewing the item in question, but thinking about which list is most appropriate should help you to figure that out if you’re not sure. By the time you come to actually submit your work, you’ll probably want to cut down what you wrote depending on how interesting the answers to the questions actually turned out to be. However, it will help you enormously if you’ve got them all written out in full in a draft somewhere.

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Management, ‘leadership’, and academic work

[Cross-posted on‘leadership’-and-academic-work]

In a powerful essay cheekily posted on the website of what may be the UK’s most obsessively corporate university, Suman Gupta bluntly asserts that ‘[t]here is no place for leaders in academia.’ (2015, parag. 1) As he observes, once academics-turned-administrators begin ‘imposing some Great Order… by managing and strategising and propaganda, seeking compliance and exercising opaque executive prerogatives, they start killing off academic work’ (2015, parag. 2). With its recent series of questionable management initiatives, from concentration of resources on bureaucratically-selected ‘strategic research areas’ to development of a (second) free MOOC platform on its paying students’ tab, Gupta’s employer must certainly have provided him with ample opportunity to judge the truth of this proposition. But the relevance of his critique is much wider than a single institution, as we see from the tragic case of Stefan Grimm: a highly successful medical researcher who committed suicide whilst being threatened over his failure to meet arbitrary funding targets (see Parr 2014). While the killing off of scholarly work does not invariably mean the killing off of scholarly workers, it is clear that, across the UK, the term ‘academic leadership’ is ‘now unequivocally taken [to mean] “management of academic workers and institutions from above”’, and those that practise it have come to be ‘regarded as being worth more than academics of any sort.’ (Gupta 2015, parag. 5) In his last words to his colleagues, the late Prof. Grimm put it more forcefully, describing his employing institution in terms that at least some readers of this article may find resonant: as he saw it, it had become ‘a business with very few up in the hierarchy… profiteering and the rest of us… milked for money’, wherein the ‘formidable leaders’ that do the milking ‘treat us like shit.’ (Grimm 2014, parags. 12, 10, 16, reproduced in Parr 2014) It hardly needs pointing out that there has never been an attempt to demonstrate that academic work benefits from ‘leadership’ in the sense described by Gupta and Grimm: top-down control by target-setting, HR-sanctioned procedural bullying, and ‘strategic vision’. The drive for ‘leadership’ is, rather, part of an ideologically motivated investment in management at the expense of labour, clearly seen in the ballooning of executive salaries, both inside and outside educational institutions, during an age of so-called ‘austerity’.

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Corpus linguistics. Distant reading. Available abstract.

In case anyone’s interested, the abstract is now available for Ann Hewings’s and my paper in the Digital Humanities in Practice series, ‘Corpus linguistics as distant reading?’ We’ll be presenting it to the Digital Humanities Thematic Research Network at the Open University in Milton Keynes, from 12.00 on 4 July. The event goes on until 14.00, but that’s including lunch. Thanks to Francesca Benatti for inviting us and organising everything! Neither Ann nor I is a digital humanist, but Francesca assuredly is, so I shall trust her judgement that this is a good idea and look forward to some interesting discussion.

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Now it seems…

…that the furore over my ‘Managerial humanities’ blog article has blown over (on the subject of which: a big thank you to Digital Humanities Now for making it their Editors’ Choice for the week of 30 April-6 May, to The New Inquiry for including it on the Sunday Reading List for 19 May, and to the Cyborgology people at The Society Pages for featuring it in an In Their Words list for 19 May), I am glad to report that I can at last get back to speaking to people face-to-face instead of endlessly arguing on the internet.

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The automation of intellectual labour: creative or otherwise, we’re all just workers in the end

In a recent blog post, Tom Campbell (2013) pondered the end of what has come to be known, since Richard Florida (2002), as the ‘creative class’ (or as Florida himself might prefer, the ‘Creative Class’). For those of you that don’t know, this social group is supposed to consist of ‘people who add economic value through their creativity’, including various kinds of ‘knowledge workers, symbolic analysts, and professional and technical workers’ who ‘engage in work whose function is to “create meaningful new forms”.’ (Florida, 2002, p. 68). Florida suggests that this class cannot be associated with the bourgeoisie of classical Marxist analysis because it is not defined by possession of property as Marx would have understood it: ‘Most members of the Creative Class [sic] do not own and control any significant property in the physical sense. Their property… is an intangible because it is literally in their heads.’ (ibid.) The latter statement seems remarkable only if one takes a superficial reading of Marx to be the last word on class. In fact, it describes a general characteristic of skilled non-manual workers, including members of the old professions: people whose income derives not from capital they possess but from work they perform, yet whose work commands a relatively high price on the labour market because its performance depends upon scarce forms of expertise. This describes the cool, smart, and quite possibly collar-less white collar workers Florida lauds no more nor less than it does doctors and accountants – and teachers too, whose work is precisely to develop expertise in others. These people belong to what Tony Bennett and colleagues (2009) prosaically call the ‘professional-managerial class’, which is – after the distant elite of politicians, high-ranking executives, celebrities, and the super-rich – the most dominant group in western societies today.

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The autonomous model of digital literacy?

On 20 March this year, I joined my head of department, Ann Hewings, in contributing to a cross-faculty staff seminar on using e-learning and large datasets for digital literacy development with undergraduate students. Unsurprisingly, there was discussion of digital humanities resources: in particular, the online Old Bailey Proceedings, 1674-1913, introduced by Francesca Benatti, and the Open University’s own Reading Experience Database, discussed by its director, Shafquat Towheed. Two librarian colleagues, Katharine Reedy and Sam Thomas, also spoke, explaining the Open University’s award-winning Digital and Information Literacy framework – in effect, a cross-disciplinary, skills-based curriculum to be studied by every Open University student alongside the knowledge- and skills-based curricula associated with each qualification pathway – and arguing that literacy training of this sort is most effective when integrated with substantive course content. Sam was kind enough to illustrate this point mainly with online activities that she and I had developed together for U214 Worlds of English – the mid-level undergraduate module that Ann and I were scheduled to speak about. (Ann was the chair of the team that produced U214; I played various roles on the team, including co-ordinating the online activities.) However, from my point of view, the most interesting presentation was the long opening talk by Robin Goodfellow of the Open University’s Institute of Educational Technology. Robin’s ESRC-funded Literacy in the Digital University seminar series has provided valuable insights into the conceptual and ideological basis of digital literacy and digital literacy training, and I’ll cover his talk last because it serves to problematise what the rest of us were talking about.

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