literary studies

Digital Tools for Academic Success

Over the past few years, I’ve been mentoring current Princeton graduate students through the GradFUTURES Mentor Collective. While all my mentees have various career aspirations — both in and out of the academy — one thing has been recurrent. All seek guidance on how to complete the most crucial task of graduate school: the dissertation. While I have a forthcoming article about this due to be published in PMLA, I figured it might be worthwhile to resume my blog posts with a bit of advice about some digital tools and the accompanying strategies that helped me complete my own dissertation. While I wouldn’t say it was perfect (I did a lot of revisions when it came time to publish it as a monograph), it did allow me to win the Peter Lang Young Scholars Competition, as well as get two postdoc offers and invitations to two campus visits for tenure-track positions. While I ultimately did not stay in academia, many of these tools have helped me in my non-academic work as well, so I hope they will be useful to more than just my mentees.

Zotero

This is an obvious one, of course. Everyone nowadays seems to be aware that citation softwares such as Zotero (but this is by far not the only one available) are time savers. That said, I’ve noticed that many do not use them. In my case, I started using it later than I should have, once I had a complete draft of the dissertation. When I realized what I was missing by not using a citation software, I meticulously reread the draft and input each source manually (or using the browser connector if possible). While this tool might have better served me earlier in the process, I found that rereading the draft I had with citations in mind was actually a useful exercise. This allowed me not only to streamline my citation process, but also to evaluate how I was using citations in the work and if each reference was really pulling its weight. Furthermore, when the time came to revise the dissertation into a book and my publisher required a different citation style (Harvard rather than MLA), changing this was as easy as a click of a few buttons!

Scrivener

I’m lucky that my friend and former colleague suggested Scrivener early on in my writing process. While I had been used to drafting everything in Microsoft Word, Scrivener allowed me to focus on the essential — outlining and getting words down. How? Well, first off, it was a fantastic tool for outlining. By organizing my work in its online binder, I was able to determine as many subsections that would allow me to make my arguments across my five chapters, while also uploading and classifying my digital sources. Scrivener’s split screen option then allowed me to draft each of these micro units with my sources right there, all in one window. This was groundbreaking for my process! For each section, I would first give myself a target number of words, then go from there. With no need for formatting and no pressure of perfecting citations and footnotes (I could include them, but didn’t need to divert from my main tasks to reformat everything — Microsoft is so bad with formatting in my opinion!), my mind was freed up to focus on what I was actually saying. When I reached my target number of words and was happy with the draft, I could easily export it and then assemble entire chapters in a Word document to send to my advisor. While once I had the Word documents, I abandoned Scrivener, I suspect there might also have been a way to continue using this tool for the rest of the process. Indeed, now that I am working on my second academic project, I intend to use Scrivener the whole way through!

Pomotodo

You might have heard of the pomodoro technique, a tool that does not need to be digital but does allow you to ensure you don’t get too engrossed in your work to take a short break and stretch your legs. For me, this was a big problem and when I learned about this technique, I immediately looked for an app that would allow me to put it into practice. I found Pomotodo. This (mobile or desktop) app combines the power of a to-do list with the pomodoro technique, allowing you to log 25 minute work sessions on any item in your list, then suggesting (but not forcing you to take) a 5 minute break. The app allows you to record very granular details about what you did in the work session, and I found that including multiple smaller, but specific subtasks for each larger objective I had (for instance, not just dissertation chapters, but also subparts) allowed me to ensure that I made the most of each 25 minute interval. Once you have logged a sufficient amount of work, the analytics available on the app can also provide insight into your work process. I, for instance, learned that I was most productive on writing tasks in the morning and that I would spend the whole day on lesson planning if I let myself, even when all that time wasn’t really necessary. The data visualizations helped me realize how I could make myself work more efficiently. While I no longer use this tool, it was very useful when I was juggling teaching, research, and the job market and the more I used it, the less I needed it.

Trello

While I started using Trello as a collaborative tool for the Oulipo Archival Project, I quickly realized that it was the ideal free tool for me to keep track of all my varied projects and deadlines. When I learned many years after completing my dissertation about the Google Drive integration, I realized just how much more powerful this tool could be, especially for my work at SAE Institute or Crimson Education where we work entirely in the Drive. I use Trello as an interactive to-do list, with the lists being categories of work (I have “academia,” “consulting,” and “personal” at the moment, but I believe at the time I had “dissertation,” “teaching,” “job market,” “articles,” and “conferences”), with each card on the list being one project, and with each card containing relevant notes, links, and to-do lists. This is a tool I still use today in all aspects of my life, whether collaborative or not. For instance, my husband and I have a shopping list Trello, and I even have one for my baby!!

These are just a few of the tools I remember using to improve my dissertation work, but this list is clearly not exhaustive. What tools did you use to streamline your research, teaching, or even your work beyond the academy? Leave a comment below! I’d love to learn more!

2019 Peter Lang Young Scholars Competition in French Studies

I am pleased to announce that my dissertation, The Oulipo’s Mathematical Project (1960-2014) was just announced one of the winners of the 2019 Peter Lang Young Scholars Competition in French Studies! Looking at the titles of my fellow winners’ work, I can see that I am in very good company. This means that my manuscript is now under contract with Peter Lang Oxford, so please keep a lookout for it in 2021!

Winners of the 2019 Peter Lang Young Scholars Competition in French Studies

 

Digital OuLiPo: Learn Python the Hard Way

I wanted to write a brief blog post in praise of this free online textbook for Python. Over the January break, in order to move onto more complicated parts of my project (the Cent mille milliards de poèmes was a fairly basic introduction to programming), my technical lead proposed that I work my way through this textbook.

Written by Zed A. Shaw, this book has been helpful on many levels, not least of which because it introduced me to using the terminal rather than relying on some outside program. For my Cent mille milliards de poèmes annex, I had primarily been using AptanaStudio, which was a very powerful piece of software that allowed me to avoid learning the basics of programming. The first few chapters of Learn Python The Hard Way forced me to acquaint myself with the terminal.

The bulk of the chapters were similar to Code Academy, but working through the exercises outside of an online platform and then running them on the terminal was more pedagogical, as was the way the activities built upon themselves. I now feel more autonomous in my programming.

So for anyone else looking to learn a new (programming) language, I would highly recommend this free and easy online resource. Anything worth learning is worth learning the right way, and in this case, the “right” way seems to be “the hard way”!

Digital OuLiPo: Unexpected Results

The Structure

The purpose of my 5th annex was to create an interactive table of contents that could simultaneously house both the text of Calvino’s Le città invisibili (in the original Italian and English translation) and academic work on the novel that deals with each of the individual cities. Since there is so much academic criticism on this text that covers a variety of topics and spans multiple disciplines (like the novel itself), I wanted to create a rigorous structure in which I could house this criticism along with relevant source texts that Calvino used in the composition. As Calvino’s text is meticulously ordered according to a geometrical structure indicated by the table of contents, I thought this would be an appropriate way to organize this information.

The table of contents of Le città invisibili gives way to the following parallelogram (Source):

TinderBox

The tool I used to create this interactive table of contents was TinderBox, which produced a hyptertext from Calvino’s novel structure (which could already be considered a hypertext in many respects). TinderBox allowed me to reproduce this structure, but with the text inside each box. Now, a reader can navigate throughout the novel in a linear fashion or a nonlinear one (I indicate possible paths with arrows), in Italian or English (I included the text in both languages).

While pondering how to collect the data for the next level — scholarly work on Invisible Cities as well as source documents — I realized that this was the exact scholarly research that I am already doing for my dissertation. Accomplishing this research, while important for my dissertation, is therefore outside of the scope of this digital humanities project.

Through this project, I have gained a great appreciation for TinderBox as a note-taking tool, and I will continue to use this unique digital space for my own personal use. This new way to organize information is an unexpected result of my digital humanities. However, as I will not be able to make this annex publicly available (as it contains numerous documents that are still under copyright), I have decided to drop it from my project.

McGraw Teaching Seminar: Disciplinary Knowledge and Practices

The Preliminary Assignment

Our second meeting of the McGraw Teaching Seminar focused on disciplinary knowledge and practices. To prepare, we were assigned to groups composed of participants in drastically different disciplines. I was paired with a chemist, a political scientist, and a classicist. The assignment was to meet and discuss, learning about our own disciplines through the eyes of “novices.” Our assigned discussion questions were as follows:

  1. If you were to take an introductory course in my field, what would you expect to learn?
  2. What would you want to learn more about?
  3. What particular challenges do you think you would confront?

We then had to answer the following two main questions:

  1. Write a paragraph or two that reflects on the various novice responses toward your introductory course that you received from members of your breakout group.
  2. Write one course goal and a lesson for a class of novices in your field that addresses how you would respond to one of the perspectives you received from your breakout conversation. What would your goal be? And how would you design a class meeting around advancing students toward the goal?

My Responses

1. The first question that arose was: what is an introductory course in French? Language or literature or culture? In other words, is the focus teaching language as a tool or is it to help students read literature? There is an implicit answer to these questions in the way language and literature departments are structured: introductory courses tend to be language classes, with the goal to get students to more advanced courses in literature or culture. For the purposes of our discussion, we restricted talk to an introductory French language course.

We decided that a novice in an introductory language class would expect to attain basic competency in terms of communication. There was some discussion about which competencies were most important: oral or written. This conversation evolved into a more important one: how much of a language class consists of basic exercises in grammar and conversation? Language is a tool, determined by how students need to use it. This is true for any language: for instance, in academia, scientists speak a different “English” than that of a literary scholar or historian. In an introductory language course, how do you integrate how students will eventually use the language — elements of culture, literature, politics, history, etc.?

2. One course goal that should be necessary in an introductory French language class should be promoting a broad understanding of the history, culture, and literature of the French and francophone world. While spending class time on larger cultural discussions might seem antithetical to teaching a language or worse — a waste of precious class time — I believe that activities based on authentic cultural documents can promote discussion-based classes that leave a greater impression on students. Rather than isolating grammar points, such activities allow students to see grammar in action and participate in a culture that is not their own, promoting cultural understanding. There are two main dangers associated with this method: first, preparation takes much longer; second, these activities risk to discourage students if not properly scaffolded.

Activity based on Current Events

In light of recent events, an appropriate activity might take the form of discussion about last Friday’s terrorist attacks throughout Paris. This could involve “reading” some of the Twitter hashtags and images that have sprung up in support of Paris. Using Twitter hashtags as authentic documents is not only politically relevant, but is also a level-appropriate pedagogical tools since they consist of very few words and images linked to a specific context.

A hypothetical activity might have students look at the descriptions and images that people were posting to find their loved ones, have them discuss what they were doing at the time of the attack (this would be an excellent way to practice the two types of past tenses — the passé composé and the imparfait) and then to move it to a larger discussion of the greater significance of the attacks. To target the conditional tense, one could have students debate the French political response and its potential repercussions. Such an activity would also be a good moment to reflect on France’s colonial history and relationship with former colonies, many of which are Muslim-majority.

While some might criticize such an activity as impossible given the language level in an introductory class, as long as the objectives are clear and the activity is properly scaffolded, students will likely be more invested in current events than in a rudimentary discussion of how they got dressed in the morning. Indeed, French teachers have the obligation to discuss this tragic event at any level, as some of these students might hope to study abroad in France one day. Activities of this nature contribute not only to a more complete understanding of the French language (which is inseparable from the culture), but to the greater goals of a university education — to create well-rounded and engaged citizens.

Digital OuLiPo: Coding as Analysis

Given my lack of formal training in programming, the order in which I pursue this project depends upon the relative difficulty of each annex. Therefore, I have chosen to begin with the 3rd and 5th annexes. Annex 3 is a simple exercise that can function as a basic introduction to programming in Python, while Annex 5 involves no coding at all, just becoming familiar with a ready-made tool called TinderBox, which can produce hypertexts.

Step 1: Creating the Data Structure of the Cent mille milliards de poèmes

From what I understand so far about Python and object-oriented programming languages, Annex 3 is a simple exercise that I will be able to complete even as a beginner. Indeed, in order to program this text, I need to think like a computer. The Cent mille milliards de poèmes is composed of 10 sonnets, each of which — like all sonnets — has 14 lines. In computer science terms, a sonnet is an array or a collection of elements, to which each can be assigned a numbered index (so, lines 1-14). Since corresponding lines of each sonnet rhyme with one another, they can be swapped. This creates an array of arrays and each verse can therefore be represented by two indices: one indicating which numbered line it is (1-14) and another indicating to which poem it belongs (1-10).

As a former math major, this type of thinking is not foreign to me. It is the practical aspect of creating a program to manipulate these verses with which I am unfamiliar. For instance, in mathematics, you could label these verses however you want. With Python, you have to begin with 0 and not 1. Item 0,0 in my program therefore corresponds to the first verse in the first poem.

Step 2: Performing Operations

Once I am able to create the data structure for my program based on these insights, I will be able to write a program to generate “random” poems from Queneau’s prefabricated elements. This is my second step: performing operations on these arrays. I have experimented in allowing the reader choose one line of one sonnet and now I am trying to come up with a satisfying way to generate pseudo-random sonnets. Since a computer cannot generate pure random numbers, I am designing my own pseudo-random number generators (PRNGs) that will have some relation to the reader — or user. As the Oulipo is starkly anti-chance, this seems promising to me, since computers are utterly incapable of generating truly random sonnets from this collection. Instead, I will create a unique “key” based on user input. Below is some brainstorming:

  • Using the current date and time in order to determine which verses to pull. That way, the reader can generate a new sonnet every second. However, I will need to subject this date to some calculation, as a simple 14-digit string of the time and date (for instance, hh-mm-ss-MM-DD-YYYY) will result in very similar poems generated year to year, decade to decade, century to century, and millennium to millennium. Additionally, the first digits of the hours, minutes, and seconds, do not allow for all numbers between 0 and 9.
  • Pulling a number based on the computer hardware on which the poem is produced, but such numbers are often longer than 14 digits.
  • Using the coordinates of earth in the galaxy to generate such a number.
  • Ask the reader to input data about him/herself—age, height, weight, etc.—to generate the numbers. This will also certainly lead to the same problem as the first bullet point.

Exploring these possibilities is putting me in an Oulipian mindset, helping me understand their conception of chance by forcing me to create the way they do.

Insights into Computer Influence

I expect that learning to program the Cent mille milliards de poèmes will help me as a researcher to understand the text on a deeper level. It is clear from the paratextual elements (an epigraph by Alan Turing and a “user’s manual”) that even the author was inspired by computers. Indeed, he even had someone program it around the time it was first published. Understanding how computers function will therefore help me to grasp Queneau’s intentions for this odd volume.

I have never been satisfied with online versions of this text that require the reader to push a button and then get a “random” poem out of a hundred thousand billion. And even now that I understand that these versions by their very nature cannot produce truly random poems, I am still dissatisfied. Regardless of the method, these versions still seem to limit reader involvement, which I suspect is key.

The Oulipo members themselves grappled with this same issue as they created computer programs of early texts such as this. They were interested in the potential of computers as tools for text production, but always treated it with a grain of salt. Making my own computer program has helped me both understand the way computer programs function — teaching me the basics of coding — but it has also made me more critical of the Oulipian notion of chance and how it is to be understood.

Digital OuLiPo: The Plan

As a former math major who is now completing a Ph.D. in literature, the term “digital humanities” certainly appealed to me. Indeed, in my own research practice, I attempt to use unconventional tools to examine an experimental writing workshop called the Oulipo. With this in mind, I decided to embark on a project with the Center for Digital Humanities @ Princeton, which I hope will teach me basic concepts of exploratory programming as well as create an interactive addition to my dissertation work.

Below is a summary of my initial expectations for this project, which I intend to complement with periodic blog posts in the hopes of inspiring other academics (or even amateurs) to pursue their own projects. The description that follows is a modified version of the initial proposal I submitted this month, however I expect that much will change, as the process of learning to code is already forcing me to refine my original goals and nuance the scope of the project.

Chapter 1: Set Theory

The first chapter of my dissertation deals with set theory, a late 19th/early 20th-century mathematical development that attempted to replace the original foundations of mathematical study (the number) with a new language of “sets,” or collections of objects, called “elements.” Set theory was popularized in France by an odd, semi-clandestine group of former École Normale Supérieure mathematics students that published under the pseudonym of Nicolas Bourbaki starting in the 1930’s. This group’s influence extended beyond mathematicians in the period following World War II, including the Oulipo. The focus of my first chapter is to examine the extent of this influence and understand exactly what how the Oulipo has applied set theory to literature, as well as what distinguishes this work from other movements of the time that were influenced by Bourbaki such as structuralism.

With this in mind, I have decided that my first digital annex will view texts as sets of words or perhaps other elements. By choosing canonical texts (in both French and English) and creating an interface that will allow the reader to experiment with basic set theoretical operations, such a reader can learn to treat literature mathematically. An obvious example of such work would be to allow readers to find intersections in vocabulary, for instance examining the common words in plays by Racine and Corneille. This prefabricated humanities computing would also serve as an introduction to a specific brand of digital humanities scholarship for scholars.

Chapter 2: Algebra

In this chapter, I understand algebra broadly as the mathematical discipline dealing with mathematical symbols and the rules for manipulating them, including basic counting, arithmetic, elementary algebra, number theory, and abstract algebra. For the annex, I have chosen the canonical Oulipian procedure, Jean Lescure’s S+7, in which one takes a text and replaces every noun (S=substantif) with the noun that is found seven entries later in a dictionary of the author’s choice. My program will allow the user to experiment with the S+7 on individual texts, as well as with the procedure itself. Some potential avenues: replacing S with another part of speech (verb, adverb, etc.); applying a more generalized S+n and seeing how the difference in n’s changes the result (including an S-7 function for readers to verify the validity of Oulipian S+7s); changing dictionaries; etc.

Chapter 3: Combinatorics

Combinatorics is a branch of mathematics dealing with the study of finite or countable discrete structures. Central to the Oulipo and its aesthetics, the study of combinatorics deals with questions of probability and entropy, which helps us understand the Oulipo’s insisted opposition to chance.

My third annex will be a digital edition of Raymond Queneau’s first Oulipian text, the Cent mille milliards de poèmes (1961), which allows a reader to permute the corresponding verses of 10 pre-written sonnets in order to create 100000000000000 (or one hundred thousand billion) new ones. In Queneau’s original paper edition, the reader has the freedom to select certain poems, adding a pedagogical intention to the text. Unlike the electronic versions that the Oulipo created in the 1960s and 1970s and other amateur versions available on the internet, I hope that my version will restore some of this original freedom to the reader of this constrained text.

Chapter 4: Algorithms

The fourth chapter of my dissertation deals with algorithmic literature, written with computers in mind and often reformatted for computers. In its early years, the Oulipo experimented formally with computers, creating interactive electronic editions of various texts. However, this early interest in technology eventually waned and disappeared entirely in 1981 when a tangential group known as the ALAMO[1] (Atelier de Littérature Assistée par la Mathématique et les Ordinateurs) was created by computer scientist Paul Braffort and mathematician Jacques Roubaud. In 2004, the Oulipo released a CD-rom[2] through Gallimard with interactive computerized editions of several of their texts. Essential to my fourth chapter is understanding the nature of these early examples of proto digital humanities work and why the Oulipo abandoned them.

The fourth annex will consist of an electronic version of Un conte à votre façon (1973), a choose-your-own adventure tale of three little peas in a pod. While several online editions already exist, there are improvements to be made regarding the reader’s involvement. As this text is inspired by computer programs and therefore by algorithmic flowcharts and graph theory, I want to integrate my program with the graph corresponding to all the possible nodes of the story, which will allow the reader to understand various “glitches” that occur in Queneau’s “program.”

Chapter 5: Geometry

This chapter deals with geometry, which comes from the Greek for “measuring the earth.” Since the mathematical discipline deals with abstracted space, how does one reconcile this with the physical space in which we live. This becomes a central problematic in two Oulipian texts, both of which exhibit geometrical structures indicated by the table of contents: Italo Calvino’s Le città invisibili (1971) and Michèle Audin’s Mai quai Conti (2014). Both of these authors meticulously organize their novels according to geometrical structures in an attempt to reconcile the messiness of their topics with the regular design.

In Italo Calvino’s Le città invisibili, the Italian author organizes a fragmented and incoherent collection of theoretical prose poems according to a rigid mathematical figure (a parallelogram). However, the philosophical and theoretical content of each of the pieces does not seem to correspond with the crystalline structure. My fifth annex will take the form of an interactive table of contents for Calvino’s novel, where one can enter into the text from any angle, allowing for multiple readings that lead to various conclusions, as the author indicated he wanted in his Six Memos for the Next Millennium.

[1] http://www.alamo.free.fr/pmwiki.php?n=Alamo.Accueil

[2] http://www.gallimard.fr/Catalogue/GALLIMARD/CD-ROM/Machines-a-ecrire