Category Archives: writing

Writing Process: NaNoWriMo and Me

I’ve been meaning to write about my writing process for quite a while now and am surprised, looking back through my blog archives, that I have not yet addressed it.

This post could alternately be titled “How NaNoWriMo Enabled Me to Write My Dissertation in Three and a Half Months” or “The Importance of NaNoWriMo for Academic Writing.” Or just “Do NaNoWriMo at Least Once, People.”

NaNoWriMo stands for “National Novel Writing Month” and has been going since the turn of the twenty-first century. I’ve done it myself since 2002, most years. No, I don’t have a published novel, and in fact I only finished two of them in that time. (And the first one didn’t even “win” — the only criterion for winning is having a file containing 50,000 words — because it came in about 40,000 words when it was done. Oh well. My best and first finished work, so I’m cool with it. In fact, I’m still working on revising that work and trying to cut a version of it into a 10,000-word short story.) But man, what I got out of it.

NaNoWriMo taught me how to write. I don’t mean how to write well, or grammar or mechanics or plot or anything like that. It taught me how to put words on the page. And, after all, that is the first step to writing something. You have to just start making words. Continue reading Writing Process: NaNoWriMo and Me

website to jekyll

While my research diary has stalled out because I haven’t been researching (other than some administrative tasks like collecting and organizing article PDFs, and typing notes into Mendeley), I have made some progress on updating my website.

Specifically, I have switched over to using Jekyll, which is software that converts markdown/HTML and SASS/CSS to static web pages. Why do I want to do it? Because I want to have a consistent header and footer (navigation and that blurb at the bottom of every page) across the whole site, but don’t want to manually edit every single file every time I update one of those, or update the site structure/design. I also didn’t want to use PHP because then all my files will be .php and on top of it, it feels messier. I like static HTML a lot.

I’m just writing down my notes here for others who might want to use it too. I’ve only found tutorials that talk about how to publish your site to GitHub Pages. Obviously, I have my own hosting. I also already had a full static site coded in HTML and CSS, so I didn’t want to start all over again with markdown. (Markdown is just a different markup language from HTML; from what I can tell, you can’t get nearly the flexibility or semantic markup into your markup documents that you can with HTML, so I’m sticking with the latter.) I wondered: all these tutorials show you how to do it from scratch, but will it be difficult to convert an existing HTML/CSS site into a Jekyll-powered site?

The answer is: no. It’s really really easy. Just copy and paste from your old site into some broken-up files in the Jekyll directory, serve, and go.

I recommend following the beginning of this tutorial by Tania Rascia. This will help you get Jekyll installed and set up.

Then, if you want a website — not a blog — what you want to do is just start making “index.html”, “about.html”, folders with more .html files (or .md if you prefer), etc., in your Jekyll folder. These will all be generated as regular .html pages in the _site directory when you start the server, and will be updated as long as the server is running. It’ll all be structured how you set it up in the Jekyll folder. For my site, that means I have folders like “projects” and “guides” in addition to top-level pages (such as “index.html”).

Finally, start your server and generate all those static pages. Put your CSS file wherever the head element wants it to be on your web server. (I have to use its full URL, starting with http://, because I have multiple folders and if I just put “mollydesjardin.css” the non-top-level files will not know where to find it.) Then upload all the files from _site into your server and voilà, you have your static website.

I do not “get” Git enough yet to follow some more complicated instructions I found for automatically pushing my site to my hosting. What I’m doing, and is probably the simplest but just a little cumbersome solution, is to just manually SFTP those files to my web server as I modify them. Obviously, I do not have to upload and overwrite every file every time; I just select the ones I created or modified from the _site directory and upload those.

Hope this is helpful for someone starting out with Jekyll, converting an existing HTML/CSS site.

research diary go

binding

Lately, I feel like I’m stuck in short-term thinking. While I hear “be in the moment” is a good thing, I’m overly in the moment. I’m having a hard time thinking long-term and planning out projects, let alone sticking to any kind of plan. Not that I have one.

A review of my dissertation recently went online, and of course some reactions to my sharing that were “what have you published in journals?” and “are you turning it into a book?” I graduated three years ago, and the dissertation was finished six months prior to that and handed in. This summer, I’ll be looking at four years of being “done” without much to show for the intervening time.

Of course, it’s hard to show something when you have a full-time job that doesn’t include research as a professional component. But if I want to do it for myself — and I do — that means that I need to come up with a non-job way to motivate myself and stay on track.

That brings me to the title of this post. My mother recently had a “meeting with herself” at the end of the work week to check in on what she meant to do and what actually happened. It sounds remarkably productive to me as a way to keep yourself 1) kind of on track, and 2) in touch with your own habits and aspirations. It’s easy to lose touch with those things in the weekly grind.

I decided I will have a weekend meeting with myself every week, and as a part of that, write a narrative of what I did. I’ll write it before I review my list of aspirations for the previous week and then when I compare, not necessarily beat myself up over “not meeting goals” but rather use it as an opportunity to refine my aspirations based on how I actually work (or don’t). As a part of that — to hold myself accountable and also to start a dialogue with others — I’ll be writing a cleaned-up version of that research diary once a week here. Don’t expect detailed notes, but do expect a diary of my process and the kinds of activities I engage in when doing research and writing.

I hope this can be helpful to a beginning researcher and spark some conversation with more experienced ones. While this is a personal journey of a sort, it is public, and I welcome your comments.

thinking about ‘sentiment analysis’

I just got off the phone with a researcher this morning who is interested in looking at sentiment analysis on a corpus of fiction, specifically by having some native speakers of Japanese (I think) tag adjectives as positive or negative, then look at the overall shape of the corpus with those tags in mind.

A while back, I wrote a paper about geoparsing and sentiment analysis for a class, describing a project I worked on. Talking to this researcher made me think back to this project – which I’m actually currently trying to rewrite in Python and then make work on some Japanese, rather than Victorian English, texts – and my own definition of sentiment analysis for humanistic inquiry.*

How is my definition of sentiment analysis different? How about I start with the methodology? What I did was look for salient adjectives, which I searched for by looking at most “salient” nouns (not necessarily the most frequent, but I need to refine my heuristics) and then the adjectives that appeared next to them. I also used Wordnet to look for words related to these adjectives and nouns to expand my search beyond just those specific words to ones with similar meaning that I might have missed (in particular, I looked at hypernyms (broader terms) and synonyms of nouns, and synonyms of adjectives).

My method of sentiment analysis ends up looking more like automatic summarization than a positive-negative sentiment analysis we more frequently encounter, even in humanistic work such as Matt Jockers’s recent research. I argue, of course, that my method is somewhat more meaningful. I consider all adjectives to be sentiment words, because they carry subjective judgment (even something that’s kind of green might be described by someone else as also kind of blue). And I’m more interested in the character of subjective judgment than whether it should be able to be considered ‘objectively’ as positive or negative (something I don’t think is really possible in humanistic inquiry, and even in business applications). In other words, if we have to pick out the most representative feelings of people about what they’re experiencing, what are they feeling about that experience?

After all, can you really say that weather is good or bad, that there being a lot of farm fields is good or bad? I looked at 19th-century British women’s travel narratives of “exotic” places, and I found that their sentiment was often just observations about trains and the landscape and the people. They didn’t talk about whether they were feeling positively or negatively about those things; rather, they gave us their subjective judgment of what those things were like.

My take on sentiment analysis, then, is clearly that we need to introduce human judgment to the end of the process, perhaps gathering these representative phrases and adjectives (I lean toward phrases or even whole sentences) and then deciding what we can about them. I don’t even think a human interlocutor could put down a verdict of positive or negative on these observations and judgments – sentiments – that the women had about their experiences and environments. If not even a human could do it, and humans write and train the algorithms, how can the computer do it?

Is there even a point? Does it matter if it’s possible or not? We should be looking for something else entirely.

(I really need to get cracking on this project. Stay tuned for the revised methodology and heuristics, because I hope to write more and share code here as I go along.)

* I’m also trying to write a more extensive and revised paper on this, meant for the new incarnation of LLC.

academic death squad

Are you interested in joining a supportive academic community online? A place to share ideas, brainstorming, motivation and inspiration, and if you’re comfortable, your drafts and freewriting and blogging for critique? If so, Academic Death Squad may be for you.

This is a Google group that I believe can be accessed publicly (although I’ve had some issues with signing up with non-Gmail addresses) although you appear to have to be logged in to Google to view the group’s page. Just put in a request to join and I’ll approve you. Or, if that doesn’t work, email me at mdesjardin (at) gmail.com.

Link: [Academic Death Squad]

I’m trying to get as many disciplines and geographic/chronological areas involved as possible, so all are welcome. And I especially would love to have diversity in careers, mixing in tenure-track faculty, adjuncts, grad students, staff broadly interpreted, librarians, museum curators, and independent scholars – and any other career path you can think of. Many of us not in grad student or faculty land have very little institutional support for academic research, so let’s support each other virtually.

In fact, one member has already posted a publication-ready article draft for last-minute comments, so we even have a little activity already!

Best regards and best wishes for this group. Please email me or comment on this post if you have questions, concerns, or suggestions.

よろしくお願いいたします!

*footnote: The name came originally based on a group I ran called “Creative Death Squad” but the real origin is an amazing t-shirt I used to own in Pittsburgh that read “412 Vegan Death Squad” and had a picture of a skull with a carrot driven through it. I hope the name connotates badass-ness, serious commitment to our research, and some casual levity. Take it as you will.

arsenal of research: organizing citations, PDFs, notes, brainstorming, and drafts

Post title courtesy of the tyrannical Brian Vivier.

Although I post about the content of my research quite a bit (when I do post), I thought I’d take a step back and talk about the research process today. I’m going to write about a very specific aspect: the ways in which the computer helps me organize and engage in my research.

Obviously, there are things like databases and library catalogs, which are a topic for another day. Many people I talk to don’t know the first thing about WorldCat, so it needs to be addressed! But let’s pretend I already have my sources. Now what do I do?

When I read, I’m very traditional. I take notes with pen and paper when I have a book or a photocopied source. In fact, I used to print out PDFs too, and highlight and write in the margins. Well, that turned out to be a terrible idea. Your highlights and margin notes are not very accessible when you’re coming back to the document later to brainstorm, outline, or write.

My lesson learned – learned after many difficult situations – was to take notes like I’m never going to see the source again. My advisor recommended I do this with primary sources, but if you take long notes that involve mostly direct quotes from the sources, there’s no need to buy the book or really even check it out again. There’s no need to keep binders and binders of printed-out PDFs. So that’s the kind of note-taking I do with pen and paper, first.

The next step is to get them into the computer, because I want them to be 1) stored somewhere safe (I do daily external HD backups, plus sync, more later on that), and 2) searchable, and also 3) copy and paste-able. But where to keep them? How to organize?

I have gone through several pieces of software trying to figure this out, and I’ve settled on Mendeley. I first used Scrivener even for note-taking, which is a great program, but bad for citation management. I then tried Zotero, but that turned out to be bad for PDF management. What I really wanted was a good database that would save my citations, any PDFs I happened to have (I’m currently digitizing all of my sources from my dissertation so they don’t get lost or damaged, and so I can free up my filing cabinet for other things), and ideally let me take notes and even annotate or highlight the PDFs.

Well, despite Mendeley being owned by the devil (Elsevier), it’s free and it actually does everything I need with only a few minor nitpicks, and does it in a way that makes me supremely happy. (My nitpicks are no nested bulleted lists in the notes, and no shortcut keys for bold/italics in the notes.) If you have a PDF attached to your citation and it has OCR, Mendeley’s search function will search not only your citations, notes, and annotations, but also inside the PDFs. It can be overkill at times, but it’s pretty amazing.

So step two of my research organization process is the painstaking, mindless, thankless task of typing my pen-and-paper notes into Mendeley under the appropriate citation. It’s boring but worth it. As I mentioned above, it searches all my notes, and I can copy and paste them into Scrivener, which I will address next. As I type my notes, at the very least I copy and paste them into brainstorming documents as appropriate (usually full quotes), and if I’m up to it, I do some free-writing to brainstorm how the source informs my topic and what I could write about related to it. This usually brings up new ideas I didn’t know I had.

What happens after I get all the notes typed in, PDFs organized and annotated if I have them? I next move over to Scrivener. I’ve been using it for over five years, for both research and creative writing, and can’t sing its praises enough. It’s a word processor that creates a database for your project, where you can store your reference materials, brainstorming ideas, notes, and draft. And more, if you can think of other areas you need to record notes in. Unlike old Scrivener (when I first started using it), you can now add footnotes and comments that port straight to MS Word when you compile your document for it, making the transition to final draft in Word very easy. (Sadly, publishers seem to prefer things that are not Scrivener databases when reviewing.) The typical things I store are the draft itself (of course), a research diary of brainstorming that I update periodically, brainstorming specifically about sources and particular concepts or points, and also under the “Notes” section the comments and suggestions and draft corrections I receive from others. So I keep my full writing process, except for mind mapping/concept mapping (another post), all in one place. It’s amazing.

I’m extremely happy with these two pieces of software; my only complaint is that neither of them does all of what I want, and I have to use two different things complementarily. Well, the situation is still significantly better than several years ago, when I used Mendeley Alpha and it deleted my entire library of citations multiple times. Yikes. Now its syncing works perfectly and I haven’t had a library failure yet. (Fingers crossed).

Next posts will include mind mapping software, how I take notes, how to effectively find and import source citations, and how I deal with multiple languages in my citations.

the first-world internet

I heard an interesting presentation today, but it concluded with a very developed-world, class-based interpretation of the Internet that I simply can’t agree with.

Although it’s true that more students are coming from abroad to study in the US (attributed in the presentation partially to budgetary issues in public schools in the US, another issue entirely), the idea of ‘globalization’, I’d argue, is really a concept based in the developed world. Yes, we have more students studying ‘cross-border’ topics, and interested in the world outside of the US. American students are coming into more contact with international students thanks to their presence in American universities, and perhaps gaining more cultural competency through this interaction. ‘Global studies’ are now a thing.

But this presentation talked at the end about the global power of the Internet, and globalization generally, about being able to reach across borders and communicate unimpeded. It doesn’t just have the potential to break down barriers, but already actively does so, this presenter posited. It doesn’t just encourage dissent but is already a channel for dissent, and an opportunity available to all.

International students in the US may be experiencing this power of the Internet, yes. But at home? Students from nations such as China and Saudi Arabia may not have experienced the Internet in this way, and may not be able to experience it back home in the same way as they can in the West, in Korea, in Japan, in other developed countries. (And I realize that’s a problematic term in itself.) Moreover, not all American students have experienced this Internet either. The students we find in universities generally already have opportunities not available to everyone, including their access to technology and the Internet.

There’s also the inherent assumption that this global access – and ‘global studies’ in general – takes place in English. While many students abroad are studying English, not all have this opportunity; moreover, their access to the educational opportunities of the developed world are limited to those opportunities they can access in English. Many undergraduates and even graduate students in the US limit themselves to the kind of global studies that can take place without foreign language competency. I realize that many do attempt foreign language studies and while the vast majority of undergraduates I encounter who are interested in Japan and Korea cannot read materials in their focus countries’ languages, they are often enrolled in language classes and doing their best. However, there are many more who are not. They do not come to the world – they expect the world to come to them.

And there are many, many students around the world who do not have access to the English Internet, or cross-border collaboration in English through the opportunities the Internet potentially affords (or doesn’t, depending on the country). They may not even have reliable access to electricity, let alone a data connection. This is changing, but not at the speed that the kind of thinking I encountered today assumes.

Related to this, another presentation talked about the power of MOOCs and online learning experiences in general. And yes, while I generally agree that there is much potential here, the vast majority of MOOCs currently available require English, a reliable connection, reliable electricity. They are by and large taken by educated adult males, who speak English. There is potential, but that is not the same as actual opportunity.

Overall, I think we need to question what we are saying when we talk about the power of the global Internet, and distinguish between potential and reality. Moreover, we need to distinguish exactly the groups we are talking about when we talk about globalization, global studies, and cross-border/cross-cultural communication. Even without the assumption of a developed-world, upper-class Internet, we need to recognize that by and large, our work is still conducted in silos, especially in the humanities. Science researchers in Japan may be doing English-language collaboration with international colleagues, but humanities researchers largely cannot communicate in English and cross-language research in those fields is rare. I can’t speak for countries other than Japan and the US, really, but despite the close mutual interest in areas such as Japanese literature and history, there is little collaboration between the two countries – despite the potential, as with digitizing rare materials and pooling resources to create common-interest digital archives, for example.

Even those international students often conduct their American educations in language and culture silos. Even the ones with reliable Internet access use country-based chat and social media, although resources such as Facebook are gaining in popularity. We go with what is most comfortable for us, what comes to us; that doesn’t apply only to Americans. Our channels of communication are those that allow us the path of least resistance. Even if Twitter and Facebook weren’t blocked in China, would they prove as popular as Sina Weibo and other Chinese technologies? Do Americans know what Line is or are they going to continue using WhatsApp?

If we find that English, money, and understanding of American cultural norms are major barriers to our communication, we might find other ways. Yes, that developed-world Internet may hold a lot of potential, but its global promise may not go in a direction that points toward us in America anyway.

ruins – the past, the real, the monumental, the personal

Did I ever tell you about one of my favorite buildings in the world? It’s a public housing project named Kaigan-dori Danchi 海岸通り団地 (not to be confused with the type of projects one finds in the US, it was perfectly desirable housing in its time). This particular danchi (“community housing” or – generally public – housing project) was located smack in the middle of the richest section of Yokohama, between Kannai and Minato Mirai, perhaps one of the richest areas of the Tokyo region. Here it is in all its dirty, dirty glory, with Landmark Tower in the background.

Yes. This is Kaigan-dori Danchi, one of the grossest “ruins” (haikyo 廃墟) I had ever seen. Or, I thought it was a ruin. You know, an abandoned building. Because it looked too much like a shell to be anything else.

Then I got a message on Flickr.

In it, the messager wrote that he grew up in Kaigan-dori Danchi and now lives in New York City. He advised me that yes, it’s still inhabited, and thanked me for putting so many photos of it on Flickr. (Yes, I went for a photo shoot of this complex, more than once – hey, it was on my walk home from school!) He felt nostalgic at seeing his boyhood home and was interested to see what it looked like now.

In other words, what I’d felt vaguely strange about as some kind of ruins voyeurism – the same kind of ruins porn that takes hold of nearly everyone who wants to take photos of Detroit, for example – turned out to be a two-way street. It wasn’t pure voyeurism; it was a way to connect with someone who had a direct experience of the past of this place, a place that was still alive and had a memory and a history, rather than being some monstrosity out of time – as I’d been thinking of it. I saw it as a monument, not an artifact.

So this was in 2008, a half year after I’d become obsessed with Japanese urban exploration photography, which was enjoying a boom in the form of guidebooks, a glossy monthly magazine, calendars, DVDs, tours, photo books, and more, in Japan at the time. (Shortly thereafter, and I CALLED IT, came the public housing complex boom. I do have some of the photo books related to this boom too, because there’s nothing I love more than a good danchi.)

As part of the research for a presentation I gave on the topic for my Japanese class at IUC that year, I’d done some research into websites about ruins in Japan (all in Japanese of course). These were fascinating: some of them were just about the photography, but others were about reconnecting with the past, posting pictures of old schools and letting former classmates write on the guestbooks of the sites. There was a mixi (like myspace) group for the Shime Coal Mine (the only landmark of the first town I’d lived in in Japan). The photo books, on the other hand, profoundly decontextualized their objects and presented them as aesthetic monuments, much the way I’d first viewed Kaidan-dori Danchi.

So I wonder, with ruins porn a genre in the United States and Europe as well, do we have the same yearning for a concrete, real past that some of these sites and photographers exhibit, and not just vague nostalgia for the ruins of something that never existed? How much of ruins photography and guidebooks are about the site in context – the end point of a history – and how much is just about “hey I found this thing”? How much of this past is invented, never existed, purely fantasy, and how much of it is real, at least in the minds of those who remember it?

These are answers I don’t yet have, but I’ve just begun on this project. In the meantime, I’m happy to share Kaigan-dori Danchi with you.

politics and anthologizing

In this past year, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how the form of the anthologies I study (literary individual author anthologies in Japan at the turn of the 20th century) impacts possibilities of reading and interpretation. I’ve also commented at a couple of conferences that the narratives of who these authors “belong” to have been shaped and guided in these anthologies, and have written that taking works out of their original contexts fundamentally erases a part of their meaning (in terms of the ways readers encounter them) and simultaneously alters the work in terms of its received meaning.

After doing some reading this morning, I realized that one thing links these various threads in anthologies, and it’s a word I wasn’t using: politics.

I want to talk specifically about the example of Higuchi Ichiyō. For much of her career, she wrote for the magazine Bungakukai (among others) which was a driver of the first Romantic movement in Japan. In her anthologies, of course her serial works from that magazine are included as whole pieces, as though they were wholes from the outset, which has its own implications for reading. But the other piece of this is that just as the editors were writing the Bungakukai coterie social and ideological connections out of her career in their prefaces, they simultaneously erased this connection – this fundamental supplier of meaning – from her works by taking them out of their original Romantic context.

The first readers of Ichiyō’s works would have seen them embedded in theory and poetry heavily influenced by western Romanticism, including translations of English works and illustrations of faded ruins and statuary. The readers of her individual anthology, as well as reprints in wider circulation magazines such as Bungei kurabu before her death, would have encountered a very different context: in the magazines, other “modern” mainstream Japanese literature (presented as unaffiliated with any coterie or group other than the influential publishers of the magazines), and in the anthology, Ichiyō’s own works as a cohesive and self-contained whole. No longer would her work be infused, by virtue of proximity, with the politics of literature at the time she wrote in the early-to-mid 1890s. She becomes depoliticized, ironically despite the heavily social and what I would call political themes of her work: that is, the plight of the lower class and the inequity of Japanese society at the turn of the 20th century.

Especially in her second anthology, published in 1912, Ichiyō becomes a timeless woman writer, an elegant author of prose and poetry whose works are infused with tragedy – just as her poverty-stricken life was, to paraphrase the editors of the two volumes. Yet it is not a structural tragedy that pervades society, as it is in her work, but a personal, elegant, and heart-wrenching individual tragedy, one that makes her work even more poignant without necessarily having political implications. I can’t speak to the Romantic movement’s attitude toward this kind of theme found in Bungakukai, not being as familiar with its politics as I should be, but I can say that Kitamura Tōkoku – the founder of Bungakukai – basically started his career with the publication of Soshū no shi, a piece of “new-form” poetry about a prisoner, written at the height of his political involvement in the late 1880s.

So there is an association, simply by virtue of publishing in the same venues, between Ichiyō’s politics and those of Tōkoku, and the literary politics of the Romantic movement vis-à-vis the multitude of other ideologies of writing that existed at the time. Yet in her anthologies, this politics disappears and her context is lost entirely, in favor of a new context of Ichiyō alone, her works as something that stand alone without interference from the outside world. It is a profound depoliticization and something to think about in considering other anthologies as well, both early ones in Japan, current ones, and those found elsewhere in the world.