Facing the Demon

I mentioned in my last blog post that many of our recent debates have been about how to productively limit Prism, but I don’t think I realized how difficult that would be until I had the transparencies and highlighters in front of me last Tuesday. We started the exercise with Alex’s selection from Plato’s Allegory of the Cave and his parameters were something like, “Mark for allegories of the self, politics, and economics.” I completely blanked. I’ve read the Allegory of the Cave before, but I kept wanting to ask Alex to define the parameters more clearly or asking Bethany what we’re allowed to do, for example: “Can we highlight margins?”; “Can we highlight something twice?”; Or in Ed’s selection of images, “Should we be looking at the captions under the images?” All of these questions either went unanswered as part of the exercise or were promptly answered by a cryptic shrug from Bethany. That’s when I fully understood how frighteningly open Prism is to interpretation, not only the crowdsourced interpretation of texts  uploaded to Prism, but our personal interpretation of what Prism is and should do. I think that’s why I tend to lean towards limiting Prism as much as possible while we’re still defining what it is. The sky is the limit at this stage as we imagine what Prism can become (when it grows up), but we need one clearly defined use of Prism to begin to build it.

My technical knowledge is obviously limited, so I keep framing this issue of limitations in a context I can understand, that is, I think of developing Prism as writing a paper. Last week, I turned in a paper on The Waste Land and, to be honest, I was unhappy with what I turned in. I decided to write on The Waste Land for a course primarily because it’s so incredibly open to interpretation. Where I went horribly wrong was in allowing myself to get lost amidst all the interpretive possibilities of the poem and in the seemingly bottomless pit of criticism. I must’ve spent hours just book-hunting here in Alderman library and when I was finished taking notes, I had twenty single-spaced pages for a ten-page, double-spaced paper. I was paralyzed by possibility, and I was focusing on the shortest, most overlooked section of the poem (“Death by Water”). I spent so much time pursuing other critics’ interpretations of the poem that I not only lost my own focus, but I couldn’t bring myself to begin writing  and ended up producing something I didn’t want to own.

That being said, I find myself needing to impose limits on Prism so it doesn’t turn into some kind of shape-shifting, waste-landish, baby-faced bat monster (the Batacritical demon, just in time for Halloween). Of course I trust that we wouldn’t allow that to happen, but I just don’t want to spend too much time parsing out Prism in all its possibilities, feeling the need to develop it to allow for anyone to use it any way. As I said in my “Transdisciplinary Ethics” post, the possibilities absolutely must be considered eventually, but we need to start somewhere specific or we’ll get lost in the scope creep. We addressed this issue in the Scholars’ Lab grad lounge today and it resurfaced at our meeting this afternoon, and I think we came to a consensus: start small and generic, then build on that. We’re still figuring out exactly what that means, but it seemed to be that we were headed toward the initial goal of building Prism on the most basic level with one HTML text and one to four highlighters, and defining our audience as college instructors and students. Simple enough, right?

Brooke is a 2011-12 Praxis Fellow and MA candidate in the Department of English. She is currently working on a thesis which investigates Virginia Woolf's moment of being as a biographical, historical, and narrative phenomenon in Woolf's fiction and essays. Brooke is also a graduate research assistant in IATH, working on Alison Booth's Collective Biographies…

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