From Fish to Print: My 2012 in Review

Like the pair of mice in Leo Lionni’s classic children’s book, I had a busy year in 2012. It was a great year, but an exhausting one.

The year began last January with a surprise: I was mentioned by Stanley Fish in an anti-digital humanities screed in the New York Times. That’s something I can check off my bucket list. (By the way, my response to Fish fit inside a tweet.) Ironically, had Fish read my chapter in Debates in the Digital Humanities, which was published the very same week, he might have seen some strange correspondences between his stance toward the digital humanities and my own. This chapter, “Unseen and Unremarked On: Don DeLillo and the Failure of the Digital Humanities,” has recently become open-access, along with the rest of the book. Hats off to Matt Gold, the Debates editor, as well as his crew at the Graduate Center at CUNY and the University of Minnesota Press for making the book possible in the first place, and open and online in the second place.

In January I also performed my first public reading of one of my creative works— Takei, George—during the off-site electronic literature reading at the 2012 MLA Convention in Seattle. There’s even grainy documentary footage of this reading, thanks to the efforts of the organizers Dene Grigar, Lori Emerson, and Kathi Inmans Berens. I also gave a well-received talk at the MLA about another work of electronic literature, Erik Loyer’s beautiful Strange Rain. And finally in January, I spent odd moments at the convention huddled in a coffee shop (this was Seattle, after all) working with my co-authors on the final revisions of a book manuscript. More about that book later in this post.

All of this happened in the first weeks of January. And the rest of the year was equally as busy. In addition to my regular commuting life, I traveled a great deal to conferences and other gatherings. As I mentioned, I presented at the MLA, but I also talked at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies convention (Boston in March), Computers and Writing (Raleigh in May), the Electronic Literature Organization (Morgantown in June), and the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts (Milwaukee in September). In May I was a co-organizer of THATCamp Piedmont, held on the campus of Davidson College. During the summer I was a guest at the annual Microsoft Research Faculty Summit (Redmond in July). In the fall I was an invited panelist for my own institution’s Forum on the Future of Higher Education (in October) and an invited speaker for the University of Kansas’s Digital Humanities seminar (in November).

If the year began the publication of a modest—and frankly, immensely fun to write—chapter in an edited book, then I have to point out that it ended with the publication of a much larger (and challenging and unwieldy) project, a co-authored book from MIT Press: 10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1));: GOTO 10 (or 10 PRINT, as we call it). I’ve already written about the book, and I expect more posts will follow. I’ll simply say now that my co-authors and I are grateful for and astonished by its bestselling (as far as academic books go) status: within days of its release, the book was ranked #1,375 on Amazon, out of 8 million books. This figure is all the most astounding when you consider that we released a free PDF version of the book on the same day as its publication. More evidence that giving away things is the best way to also sell things.

I was busy with other scholarly projects throughout 2012 as well. I finished revisions of a critical code studies essay that will appear in the next issue of Digital Humanities Quarterly, and I wrapped up a chapter for an edited collection coming out from Routledge on mobile media narratives. I also continued to publish in unconventional but peer-reviewed venues. Most notably, Enculturation and the Journal of Digital Humanities, which has published two pieces of mine. On the flip side of peer-review, I read and wrote reader’s reports for several journals and publishers, including University of Minnesota Press, MIT Press, Routledge, and Digital Humanities Quarterly. (You see how the system works: once you publish with a press it’s not long until they ask you to review someone else’s work for them. Review it forward, I say.)

In addition to scholarly work, I’ve invested more time than ever this year in creative work. On the surface my creative work is a marginal activity—and often marginalized when it comes time to count in my annual faculty report. But I increasingly see my creativity and scholarship bound up in a virtuous circle. I’ve already mentioned my first fully-functional work of electronic literature, “Takei, George.” In June this piece appeared as a juried selection in Electrifying Literature: Affordances and Constraints, a media art exhibit held in conjunction with the 2012 Electronic Literature Organization conference. A tip to other scholars who aim to do more creative work: submit your work to juried exhibitions or other curated shows; if your work is selected, it’s the equivalent of peer-review and your creative work suddenly passes the threshold needed to appear on CVs and faculty activity reports. Another creative project of mine, Postcard for Artisanal Tweeting, appeared in Rough Cuts: Media and Design in Process, an online exhibit curated by Kari Kraus on The New Everyday, a Media Commons Project.

My own blog is another site where I blend creativity and scholarship. My recent post on Intrusive Scaffolding is as much a creative nonfiction piece as it is scholarship (more so, in fact). And my favorite post of 2012 began as an inside joke about scholarly blogs. The background is this: during a department meeting discussion about how blogging should be recognized in our annual infrequent merit salary raises, a senior colleague expressed concern that one professor’s cupcake blog would count as much as another professor’s research-oriented blog. In response to this discussion, I wrote a blog post about cupcakes that blended critical theory and creativity. And cursing. The post struck a nerve, and it was my most widely read and retweeted blog post ever. About cupcakes.

Late in 2012 my creative work took me into new territory: Twitterbots, those autonomous “agents” on Twitter that are occasionally useful and often annoying. My bot Citizen Canned is in the process of tweeting every unique word from the script of Citizen Kane, by order of frequency (as opposed to, say, by order of significance, which would have a certain two syllable word appear first). With roughly 4,400 unique words to tweet, at a rate of once per hour, I estimate that Citizen Kane will tweet the least frequently used word in the movie sometime five months from now.Another of the Twitterbots I built in 2012 is 10print_ebooks. This bot mashes up the complete text of my 10 PRINT book and generates occasionally nonsensical but often genius Markov chain tweets from it. The bot also incorporates text from other tweets that use the #10print hashtag, meaning it “learns” from the community. The Citizen Cane bot runs in PHP while the 10 PRINT bot is built in Processing.

Alongside this constant scholarly and creative work (not to mention teaching) ran a parallel timeline, mostly invisible. This was me, waiting for my tenure decision to be handed down. In the summer of 2011 I submitted my materials and by December 2011, I learned that my department had voted unanimously in my favor. Next, in January 2012 the college RPT (Rank-Promotion-Tenure) committee voted 10-2 in my favor. It’s a bit crazy that the committee report echoes what I’ve heard about my work since grade school:

Mark Sample presents an unusual case. His work is at the edge of his discipline’s interaction with digital media technology. It blurs the lines between scholarship, teaching, and service in challenging ways. It also marks the point where traditional scholarly peer review meets the public interface of the internet. This makes for some difficulty in assessing his case.

In February my dean voted in favor of my case too. Next came the provost’s support at the end of March. In a surprise move, the provost recommended me for tenure on two counts: genuine excellence in teaching and genuine excellence in research. Professors usually earn tenure on the strength of their research alone. It’s uncommon to earn tenure at Mason on excellence in teaching, and an anomaly to earn tenure for both. By this point, approval from the president and the Board of Visitors (our equivalent of a Board of Trustees) might have seemed like rubber stamps, but I wasn’t celebrating tenure as a done deal. In fact, when I finally received the official notice—and contract—in June, I still didn’t feel like celebrating. And by the time my tenure and promotion went into effect in August 2012, I was too busy gearing up for the semester (and indexing 10 PRINT) to think much about it.

In other words, I reached the end of 2012 without celebrating some of its best moments. On the other hand, I feel that most of its “best moments” were actually single instances in ongoing processes, and those processes are never truly over. 10 PRINT may be out, but I’m already looking forward to future collaborations with some of my co-authors. I wrote a great deal in 2012, but much of that occurred serially in places like ProfHacker, Play the Past, and Media Commons, where I will continue to write in 2013 and beyond.

What else with 2013 bring? I am working on two new creative projects and I have begun sketching out a new book project as well. Next fall I will begin a year-long study leave (Fall 2013/Spring 2014), and I aim to make significant progress on my book during that time. Who knows what else 2013 will bring. Maybe sleep?

[Header image: A Busy Year by Leo Lionni]

A Tale of Two MLA Bibliographies

Last month I questioned the Modern Language Association’s decision, handed down in the 7th edition of the MLA Handbook, to exclude URLs (i.e. web addresses) from bibliographies and Works Cited lists. My readers seemed to be divided, and Rosemary Feal, the Executive Director of the MLA, joined the conversation by outlining some of the reasons for the new style guidelines. I appreciated both Rosemary’s insider perspective and her levelheaded response to my rhetorical flourishes (I wrote with gleeful abandon that the new guidelines represented nothing less than “historiographic homicide”).

The fact is, as Rosemary pointed out, you can still include URLs, they’re just not there by default. I can live with that. I’m reasonably attuned to both my sources and my audience. I can figure out when I should include web addresses for my audience’s benefit and when I shouldn’t.

But the problem isn’t me. It’s computers.

What happens when ProCite or EndNote or Zotero generates your bibliography? What happens when novice scholars — as most of our undergraduates and even our graduate students are — use a machine-made bibliography, formatted automatically without any insight or intervention?

Or, what happens when you’re just in a hurry and you let the software finalize your research for you? This is what happened to me, in fact. Just a few days ago.

The problem isn’t me. It’s computers.

I had presented a paper at the MLA’s annual convention in late December, and several people asked me to send them a copy. It was a decent paper. Not overly ambitious, just me tackling a question I had about the unorthodox use of cut scenes in the PS2 game Shadow of the Colossus. I certainly didn’t mind sending out copies to friendly audience members. As I was looking over the document in Word before emailing it, though, I noticed something very strange about my bibliography. The list of sources seemed too bare somehow. Frail. Skeletal. Impoverished.

And of course I realized what was wrong. I had formatted the bibliography through Zotero, using the new MLA style guidelines. URLs were gone, vanished, kaput! The effect was quite dramatic, since many of my sources were digital born, published in online journals with no print equivalent.

Luckily, Zotero developers extraordinaire Simon Kornblith, Christian Werthschulte, and Sebastian Karcher have created several branches of the MLA citation style for Zotero, one of them being the “MLA Style for purposes where the URL is still required.” I promptly installed the style (and you can too, if you have the Zotero plugin). I reformatted my bibliography, and finally I saw what I wanted to see: direct links to whatever sources my readers would want to follow up on.

You know which bibliographic style I prefer, but what about you?

Here’s a little experiment.

I am including below the two different bibliographies from my paper “Playing the Cut Scene: Agency and Vision in Shadow of the Colossus. Both were automatically generated by Zotero. The first version of the bibliography follows the new MLA citation guidelines and excludes URLs. The second version follows older MLA practices and includes URLs. Which one do you prefer? Look them over and answer the poll at the bottom of the post.


  • Bogost, Ian. “Persuasive Games: The Proceduralist Style.” Gamesutra 21 Jan 2009. Web. 1 Feb 2009.
  • Ciccoricco, David. “’Play, Memory’: Shadow of the Colossus and Cognitive Workouts.” Dichtung-Digital 2007. Web. 14 Mar 2009.
  • Fortugno, Nick. “Losing Your Grip: Futility and Dramatic Necessity in Shadow of the Colossus.” Well Played: Video Games, Value and Meaning. ETC Press (Beta). Web. 21 Jun 2009.
  • Galloway, Alexander R. Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006. Print.
  • Juul, Jesper. Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005. Print.
  • Newman, James. “The Myth of the Ergodic Videogame: Some Thoughts on Player-Character Relationships in Videogames.” Game Studies 2.1 (2002): n. pag. Web. 25 Dec 2009.
  • —. Videogames. London: Routledge, 2004. Print.
  • Poole, Steven. Trigger Happy: Videogames and the Entertainment Revolution. New York: Arcade, 2000. Print.
  • Salen, Katie, and Eric Zimmerman. Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004. Print.
  • Sherman, Ben. “Story Mechanics as Game Mechanics in Shadow of the Colossus.” Gamesutra 28 Mar 2006. Web. 14 Mar 2009.
  • Squire, Kurt, and Henry Jenkins. “The Art of Contested Spaces.” Publications. Web. 15 Dec 2009.
  • Wolf, Mark J. P. The Medium of the Video Game. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002. Print.


  • Bogost, Ian. “Persuasive Games: The Proceduralist Style.” Gamesutra 21 Jan 2009. Web. 1 Feb 2009. <>.
  • Ciccoricco, David. “’Play, Memory’: Shadow of the Colossus and Cognitive Workouts.” Dichtung-Digital 2007. Web. 14 Mar 2009. <>.
  • Fortugno, Nick. “Losing Your Grip: Futility and Dramatic Necessity in Shadow of the Colossus.” Well Played: Video Games, Value and Meaning. ETC Press (Beta). Web. 21 Jun 2009. <>.
  • Galloway, Alexander R. Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006. Print.
  • Juul, Jesper. Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005. Print.
  • Newman, James. “The Myth of the Ergodic Videogame: Some Thoughts on Player-Character Relationships in Videogames.” Game Studies 2.1 (2002): n. pag. Web. 25 Dec 2009. <>.
  • —. Videogames. London: Routledge, 2004. Print.
  • Poole, Steven. Trigger Happy: Videogames and the Entertainment Revolution. New York: Arcade, 2000. Print.
  • Salen, Katie, and Eric Zimmerman. Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004. Print.
  • Sherman, Ben. “Story Mechanics as Game Mechanics in Shadow of the Colossus.” Gamesutra 28 Mar 2006. Web. 14 Mar 2009. <>.
  • Squire, Kurt, and Henry Jenkins. “The Art of Contested Spaces.” Publications. Web. 15 Dec 2009. <>.
  • Wolf, Mark J. P. The Medium of the Video Game. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002. Print.
[polldaddy poll=2485235]

The Modern Language Association Wishes Away Digital Différance

This is the first academic semester in which students have been using the revised 7th edition of the MLA Handbook (you know, that painfully organized book that prescribes the proper citation method for material like “an article in a microform collection of articles”).

From the moment I got my copy of the handbook in May 2009, I have been skeptical of some of the “features” of the new guidelines, and I began voicing my concerns on Twitter:

But not only does the MLA seem unprepared for the new texts we in the humanities study, the association actually took a step backward when it comes to locating, citing, and cataloging digital resources. According to the new rules, URLs are gone, no longer “needed” in citations. How could one not see that these new guidelines were remarkably misguided?

To the many incredulous readers on Twitter who were likewise confused by the MLA’s insistence that URLs no longer matter, I responded, “I guess they think Google is a fine replacement.” Sure, e-journal articles can have cumbersome web addresses, three lines long, but as I argued at the time, “If there’s a persistent URL, cite it.”

Now, after reading a batch of undergraduate final papers that used the MLA’s new citation guidelines, I have to say that I hate them even more than I thought I would. Although “hate” isn’t quite the right word, because that verb implies a subjective reaction. In truth, objectively speaking, the new MLA system fails.

The MLA apparently believes that all texts are the same

In a strange move for a group of people who devote their lives to studying the unique properties of printed words and images, the Modern Language Association apparently believes that all texts are the same. That it doesn’t matter what digital archive or website a specific document came from. All that is necessary is to declare “Web” in the citation, and everyone will know exactly which version of which document you’re talking about, not to mention any relevant paratextual material surrounding the document, such as banner ads, comments, pingbacks, and so on.

The MLA turns out to be extremely shortsighted in its efforts to think “digitally.” The outwardly same document (same title, same author) may in fact be very different depending upon its source. Anyone working with text archives (think back to the days of FAQs on Gopher) knows that there can be multiple variations of the same “document.” (And I won’t even mention old timey archives like the Short Title Catalogue, where the same 15th century title may in fact reflect several different versions.)

The MLA’s new guidelines efface these nuances, suggesting that the contexts of an archive are irrelevant. It’s the Ghost of New Criticism, a war of words upon history, “simplification” in the name of historiographic homicide.

The Open Source Professor (Screencast)

The folks at the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH) have posted an audio podcast of my recent Digital Dialogue presentation, “The Open Source Professor: Teaching, Research, and Transparency.”

As entertaining as it might be to hear me talk for thirty minutes, I thought it would be better to see the visuals that accompanied my presentation. So I’ve put together a screencast combining the audio and my slideshow. I shaved off the 30 minute Q&A session that followed, not because it wasn’t interesting (it truly was), but because I didn’t have a handy set of visual adds to go along with it. Perhaps I’ll create a screencast for the discussion part of the day, once I have time to put together some scenes that make sense.

In any case, here it is, “The Open Source Professor” as presented to MITH on October 27, 2009 (click the light green arrow under the slide to get started):

My Talk for MITH: The Open Source Professor

I’m in the midst of preparing for my upcoming talk at the University of Maryland’s Institute for Technology in the Humanities. The talk is October 27 and my title is The Open Source Professor: Teaching, Research, and Transparency. Here’s the abstract, written by me, uncomfortably, in the 3rd person:

What happens when the scholarship of teaching meets Web 2.0? Professor Sample argues the ideal result is the open source professor, a teacher and scholar who applies the tenets of the open source software community to his or her own professional life. This means sharing, conversation, collaboration, and reflection at every step in the teaching and research process, not just with the final product. Technology plays a key role in making open source professing possible, and Professor Sample will discuss the philosophical and practical implications of such a transparent approach to pedagogy and scholarship, as well as possible pitfalls for untenured faculty.

Come out to the University of Maryland in two weeks to see me, or stay tuned for information about the podcast. If I sound smarter than I really am, that’s because the webcam adds 10 points to your IQ.

Transparency, Teaching, and Taking My Evaluations Public

I recently wrote about why I’m making even the earliest scraps of my research public. It’s a move, in theory, that most academics would not object to. Nobody is going to give me funny looks for suggesting we share our research problems. After all, scholarly collaboration is something we’re almost all willing to profess a belief in.

So here’s something that may send a few strange looks my way. In addition to my research, I believe the other half of my job — teaching undergraduate and graduate students — should be as public as possible. Even if I weren’t an employee of the Commonwealth of Virginia, working in a publicly funded state university, I would still argue that virtually all aspects of my job — what I earn, what I teach, what my students think about my teaching — should be transparent.

One of these areas — what I teach — has long been public, as all my syllabi, reading lists, and assignments are online. In the latest version of my videogame studies course I even used the class wiki to document and explain any changes I made to the syllabus during the semester. tells us what a few self-selected students think about a professor, not what they think about a professor’s teaching.

Finding out how effective a teacher I am proves to be more difficult. Many professors and most students know about the informal ratings out there. MTV’s (I bet you didn’t know MTV was so dedicated to pedagogy) is the most popular site, but there are others. More often than not, though, these ratings are based upon a professor’s charisma or workload, rather than any kind of systematic statistical data. (Is a chili pepper statistically significant?) These sites tell us what a few self-selected students think about a professor, not what they think about a professor’s teaching.

My university’s own course evaluation system — salmon-colored forms students fill out anonymously at the end of every semester — is rigorous, qualitative, archived, and — happily for many faculty — almost completely invisible. I get these evaluations back, of course, and I have to share them with my salary and reappointment committees. But after that? In theory, George Mason makes the numerical score sheet for each set of teaching evaluations available to a wider audience.

In theory.

Good luck going to the university website and finding out information about the score sheets. Tracking down these evaluations reminds me of the scene early in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, when Arthur Dent discovers the plans to build a highway bypass through his property. Dent eventually uncovers the designs on public “display” in the cellar of the local planning office, “in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard.'”

Here is George Mason’s own equivalent of the “Beware of Leopard” sign:

Off Campus Ratings Accessibility Message

The above message is what any off-campus visitor sees when he or she attempts to access the database of teaching evaluations. On campus, the wiew [sic] isn’t much better:

GMU's TypoTo be fair, I’m hoping that the typo has been corrected since I captured this screen shot in May. But I wouldn’t know for sure. You see, it’s August and I’m off-campus right now, as are most faculty and students, and I can’t even electronically access my own teaching evaluations, let alone those of other professors, unless I’m physically there.

In short, my teaching evaluations are all but hidden to the world. Off campus they are firewalled. On campus, you might be able to find them, but only if you know where to look (and have a Mason ID and password). And once you get past those hurdles, the university only provides the numerical scores — not the written comments students may have left.

So I’m moving beyond my professions of faith in scholarly transparency into clear, deliberate action. And this is where I start getting funny looks, if not totally horrified ones. I’m releasing all of my teaching evaluations, complete with every single enthusiastic or blistering or apathetic student comment, to the public under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike license.

I’ve begun with the most recent set of evaluations I have, from Fall 2008, and as soon as I have the Spring 2009 batch, I will upload those as well. And I’ll begin working my way backwards in time, adding teaching evaluations from every semester I’ve been at George Mason University. You’ll find the evaluations online at Scribd (“The YouTube for Documents”), but since they are embeddable, I’ll post them here as well.

Below are the evaluations for ENGL 343, a new media class dear to me but which encounters resistance from students who discount electronic literature. By the end of the semester I have many stragglers, evidenced in the thirteen students missing from class the day I distributed the evaluations.

[scribd id=14082871 key=key-4usnb5zi533ttsszn7a]

And here are evaluations for ENGL 414, a small seminar for exemplary undergraduate majors that focused on American Postmodernism.

[scribd id=18105809 key=key-1v0xyubce27t7fphkerc]

I’ve discussed the lofty minded “why” I’m doing this, and I want to end with the more practical “what” — What can someone do with these evaluations?

There are obvious answers: prospective students may find them valuable, other teachers of similar material might learn what works and what doesn’t, and my own colleagues may gain a better sense of what goes on in my classroom. But I’m interested in the less obvious answers. For instance, I can use the evaluations as the basis for a teaching portfolio, in which I perform my own reflective analysis of the students’ feedback. Or, more experimentally, because the evaluations are under a Share Alike license, they can be remixed. I have no idea what remixed teaching evaluations might look like, but I would love to see what someone comes up with.

Such transparency can be intimidating at first, as I am surrendering control over what many professors dread reading themselves when the forms are returned in their sealed envelopes weeks after classes are over. But it is also liberating. Both the public and myself can only gain from the availability of my teaching evaluations. Think of it as open source teaching.

On Hacking and Unpacking My (Zotero) Library

Many of my readers in the humanities already know about Zotero, the free open-source citation manager that works within Firefox and scares the hell out of Endnote’s makers. If you are a student or professor and haven’t tried Zotero, then you are missing out on an essential tool. I use it daily, both for my research and in my teaching. [Full disclosure: I am not an entirely impartial evangelist for Zotero, as its developers are colleagues at George Mason University, in the incomparable Center for History and New Media.]

The latest version of Zotero allows you to “publish” your library, so that anybody can see your collection of sources (and your notes about those sources, if you choose). In my case, I’ve not only published my library on the site, I’ve updated the main sidebar on this very blog with a news feed of my “Recently Zoteroed” books and articles. As I gather and annotate sources for my teaching and research, the newest additions will always appear here, with links back to the full bibliographic information in the online version of my library.

How did I do this?

Why did I do this?

What follows is an attempt to answer these two questions. Before I address the how-to, though, I’ll explain the why-to: why I’m making the sources I use for my teaching and research public in the first place.

Sharing my Library in theory

Like many scholars in the humanities (I imagine), I initially had qualms about sharing my library online — checking that little box in my Zotero privacy settings that would “make all items in your library viewable by anyone.” Emphasizing the gravity of the decision, adds this warning: “Be very sure you want to do this.”

I do want to do this, I do, I do.

But why? We are accustomed, in the humanities, to being very secretive about our research. Oh sure, we go to conferences and share not-yet-published work. But these conference papers, even if they’re finished the morning of the presentation with penciled-in edits, they’re still addressed to an audience, meant to be shared. But imagine publishing your research notes and only the notes, shorn of context or rhetoric or (especially or) the sense of a conclusion we like to build into our papers. Imagine sharing only your Works Cited. Or, imagine sharing the loosest, most chaotic collection of sources, expanded way beyond the shallows of Works Cited, past the nebulous Works Consulted, deep into the fathomless Works Out There.

Proprietary software like Endnote reinforces the notion that the engine of scholarship is competition.
A paranoid academic (and most of us are paranoid) might worry that by sharing our pre-publication sources, whether they’re primary or secondary sources, we are exposing our research before its time. My sense is that we like to keep our collection of sources private as long as possible, holding them close to our chest as if we were gamblers in the great poker game of academia. And in this game, our colleagues are not colleagues, but opponents sitting across the table from us, bluffing perhaps, or maybe holding a royal flush. Proprietary software like Endnote, which by default encloses research libraries within a walled garden, reinforces this notion, that the engine of scholarship is competition rather than collaboration.

Or, to switch metaphors, sharing our sources in advance of the final product is like sharing the blueprints to a house we haven’t yet built — a house we may not even have the money to build, and meanwhile you just know there’s somebody out there, more clever or less scrupulous or just damn faster, who can take those blueprints and erect an edifice that should have been ours while we’re still at town hall getting zoning permits. We’ve all had that experience of reading a journal article or — damn it! — a mother effing blog in which the author tackles clearly, succinctly and without pause some deep research concern that we’ve been pondering for years, waiting for it to blossom into a Beautiful Idea in our writing before going public with it. And POOF! somebody else says it first, and says it better.

Keeping our sources private is the talisman against such deadly blows to our research, akin to some superstitious taboo against revealing first names. We academics are true believers in occult knowledge.

To put it in the starkest terms possible: before I published my library I was concerned that someone might take a look at my sources and somehow reverse engineer my research.

Let’s face it, I’m an English professor. It’s not as if I’m working on the Manhattan Project.
Are we in the humanities really that ridiculous and self-important? Let’s face it, I’m an English professor. It’s not as if I’m working on the Manhattan Project. My teaching and research adds only infinitesimally incrementally to the storehouse of human knowledge. I don’t mean to belittle what scholars in the humanities do à la Mark Bauerlein. On the contrary, I think that what we do — striving to understand human experience in a chaotic world — is so crucial that we need to share what we learn, every step along the way. Only then do all the lonely hours we spend tracing sources, reading, and writing make sense.

Looked at prosaically, public Zotero libraries may be the equivalent of a give-a-penny, take-a-penny bowl at a local store. This convenience alone would be useful, but the creators of Zotero are much more inspired than that. They know that sharing a library is crowdsourcing a library. The more people who know what we’re researching before we’re done with the research, the better. Better for the researchers, better for the research. Collaboration begins at the source, literally. And as more researchers share their libraries, we’re going to achieve what the visionaries in the Center for History and New Media call the Zotero Commons, a collective, networked repository of shareable, annotatable material that will facilitate collaboration and the discovery of hidden connections across disciplines, fields, genres, and periods.

And that is why I’m sharing my library.

Sharing my Library in Practice

Now, how am I sharing it? I’ve taken what seems to be an unnecessarily complicated route in order to incorporate my library into my blog. There is an easy way to do what I’ve done: Zotero has native RSS feeds for users’ collections, and all you need is to subscribe to that feed using a widget on your blog. In my case I could have used the default WordPress RSS sidebar widget. But I didn’t. I wound up working with both Dapper and Yahoo Pipes, and here’s why.

I didn’t like how the RSS feed built into included everything I added, including duplicate citations, snapshots that I later categorized as something else, and PDFs unattached to metadata (even if I retrieved that metadata later). In short, the default RSS stream looked messy in WordPress (but it looks great in Google Reader). [UPDATE: Patrick Murray-John’s awesome Zotero WordPress plugin solves these problems and makes the Pipes solution below unnecessary—though still cool.]

The online mash-up tool Yahoo Pipes is perfect for combining and filtering RSS feeds and that’s what I wanted to use. I can’t program my way out of a paper bag, but Pipes is simple enough that even I can use it. So why did I also use Dapper, another online tool that lets you do fun things with RSS feeds? Because Pipes for some reason would not accept the Zotero RSS feed as valid. I haven’t been able to confirm this, but I’m guessing it has something to do with Zotero’s API using a secure HTTPS rather than HTTP. Or maybe it’s because the Zotero feed is actually XML rather than RSS. Again, I’m not a programmer and I’m just fumbling my way around this hack. In any case I ran my Zotero feed through the Dapp Factory, which did accept it.

Next I dumped the Dapper feed into Yahoo Pipes, using several of Pipe’s operators to filter duplicates and attachment file names that were cluttering the RSS feed. Here’s is a map of my Pipe.

Using Yahoo Pipes to filter a Zotero library
Using Yahoo Pipes to filter a Zotero library

It’s quite simple, and with some experimentation I may improve my hack (for example, I’m toying with Feedburner as a substitute for Dapper, which may preserve more of the original XML, giving Pipes more raw data to manipulate and mash). But even right now in its kludged form, the result is exactly what I set out to do.

In addition to its simplicity, one of the advantages of Yahoo Pipes is the variety of output formats available. For my blog’s sidebar I have Pipes generate an RSS feed, but I could just as easily create an interactive Flash “badge” with it:

I find the possibilities of a portable, embeddable version of my Zotero library extremely evocative. It’s a kind of artifact from the future that our methodological and pedagogical approaches haven’t caught up with yet. Here is where the theory and practice of a collaborative library have yet to meet — and I want to end my manifesto/guide with a simple appeal: let’s begin thinking about the untapped power of this intersection and what we can do with it, for ourselves, our students, and our scholarship.

What I hate about books about videogames

There’s been a burst of scholarly books about videogames in the past two years, and I’ve been going through as many as I can get my hands on. While there are astonishingly bright spots in individual books, the books overall have repeatedly been disappointing. I’ve begun noticing trends of things I hate about academic books about videogames. Here are just a few of the problems I see:

  1. The books adopt an overly defensive stance, spending far too much time justifying their object of study, instead of, well, studying it. Countless books about videogames begin by quoting industry-wide sales figures. The books invariably draw some comparison to the film industry (as in videogames soon or have already overtaken the film industry in revenue generated). My problem with this defensive posture is, who cares? Would any self-respecting Joyce scholar begin an academic study by mentioning sales figures of Finnigan’s Wake? It doesn’t matter how big or little a part of our culture videogames are; the fact that they exist alone justifies their study.
  2. Once the books convince themselves that they’re worth taking seriously, they begin the same way, by talking about games and play. I have read countless rehashes of Huizinga and Callois and not once has a book said something new or somehow added something original to the discussion about play. And very few books seem aware of the latest anthropological models of play.
  3. The books strive to do too much, theoretically-speaking, and they miss their mark. There seems to be a deep urge to force literary and philosophical theoretical models upon videogames. This is not entirely bad, and I agree that critical theory has much to teach us about gaming. But many books are relentless in their pursuit of theory: Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Spinoza, Hegel, Marx, Heidegger, Deleuze, Foucault, Derrida, Baudrillard, Butler, Zizek, Badiou–and these might all be in the same book! The more ambitious books don’t just name drop, they also attempt to formulate an all-encompassing, master theoretical model (often composed a la carte from bits and pieces of different–and sometimes opposing–theoretical traditions).
  4. The cost of all this theory is that the books don’t do what we arguably need most: deep, close readings of individual games. And I don’t just mean “reading” in a literary studies sense, analyzing plot, themes, subtext, etc.; I also mean in a “ludic” sense, that is, attentiveness to the game-like elements of the work (structure, rules, interface, etc.). Many of the books are so hung up on proposing theoretical models that they don’t end up saying anything about videogames. If they do finally get around to examining games themselves, they do it in a breezy manner, saying a few words about GTA III and then moving immediately on to a few sentences about another game. Sustained, coherent, and innovative close readings are hard to come by. (To be fair, this criticism applies to other fields in the humanities, like literary and film studies.)

Of course, I admit that I’m generalizing here. And also (upon rereading what I’ve written) I believe I might sound a bit cranky.

As I’ve said, I have encountered a few eureka moments in these books. But my overall impression leaves me despairing. The field as a whole is spinning its wheels. Maybe I’m expecting too much too quickly? The field is young, after all. Or maybe I just haven’t read the right book yet?