Archive for category Writing

Writing tips I have after reading my friends’ anthropology dissertations in draft form

because wordpress is refusing to upload pictures actually relevant to my dissertation

Somehow, this must become words, if it’s what your dissertation is about.

A year and a month ago, I finished my MSc dissertation in Digital Anthropology, on a topic I usually simplify to ‘atheist summer camp and how digital technology is (and isn’t) used there.’ The 16,000 words I submitted at 3:00 AM on the last grueling day may eventually become a right proper ‘publication;’ in the meantime, I shortened it to a blog post for Material World (one of several recent anthropology-themed posts of mine).

The following year (which is to say, recently), a number of my friends went through the same process, and I helped with revisions. I hope my advice was useful to them; for me, it was also an opportunity to reflect on the process of writing and editing, and emerge with what I hope are useful insights on writing composing a large, multi-draft dissertation-type document that involves theory, research, and personal experience.

The Great Draft of the Internet abounds in generic writing and productivity advice, which one could, ironically, waste a lot of time reading. Some of it’s useful, some crappy, some usefully tongue-in-cheek, some implicitly extrapolable from the exemplarily productive, including censorious dictators. As such, the aims of this document are rather modest: writing’s a personal, contextual, and highly contingent thing, and it’s probably best to learn by doing and then reflecting. However, in terms of communicating knowledge of the writing process, de-contextualized useful advice has a tendency to sound both heroic and generic, speaking to ideals while bypassing the messiness of the writing process. Also, generally speaking, it’s difficult to remember what’s commonly taught in high school, to speculate on what may or may not be taught in school internationally, and judge what’s practical and what are the (rational and irrational) bugaboos of English majors and house styles.

Drafts are liminal: never meant to be displayed, and yet, necessary to write (and then, read) to make something deliverable and definite. The finish may be pleasantly beyond one’s original vision, though – if working in good faith – also inevitably compromised by (at best) the impossibility of depicting the whole of reality, and likely: time, inexperience, fatigue, apathy, and the tendency of the present to demand your attention. As David McDougall wrote on ethnographic film, in his essay “The Fate of the Cinema Subject”:

“For the filmmaker, the film is an extract from all footage shot for it, and a reminder of the events that produced it. It reduces the experience onto a very small canvas. For the spectator, by contrast, the film is not small but large: it opens onto a wider landscape.”

Similar arguably goes for all experiences one shapes to share – and the fieldwork-based anthropology dissertation with which I’m familiar (broadly speaking) adds the challenge of considering that experience in light of a theoretical framework. The form bleeds through unevenly in the process of production, at times barely comprehensibly – especially if you’re writing on complex topics. The overall multi-draft production process involves grasping at insight where it’s thick and cogent, while at the same time keeping an eye toward potential directions as yet unknown, as well as the expectations of your readers. One could compare the writing process to participant-observation itself: being in the draft, but not of it, one eye towards the immediacy of experiences (both the writing itself and the remembrances it describes) and the other towards a larger picture, saved insights you must sort through in retrospect. In short, writing is a chronological mess of past, present, future, aspiration and practicality. It’s living inside a non-linear test of Zeno’s Paradox, moving in multiple directions but never quite reaching the end. And then (in more ways than one) you submit.

These are some of the reasons why creative work is challenging, as the dissertation writer is essentially called on to do the work of a seasoned professional, whatever his/her level of comfort or interest in the creative process itself. If you don’t much like writing, the drafting process can make you feel like an introvert delivering a wedding toast that goes on for months. This is why drafts exist: because it is impossible to do all these things at once – and why the process of writing can feel imposing and the end product can turn out pretty satisfying it you work at it.

So get to work. The earlier you start, the better. Slacking off, surfing the web, getting more coffee, re-arranging your pens – we all do it, and (like complaining) it’s an integral part of staying sane. But the actual act of writing is what contributes to the end product, and the foremost contingency of the writing process is actually doing some damn writing, after which, I promise, you will feel better. The more time you spend writing, the more room there is for you to address the content of your ideas. As suggested above, this is a matter of finding both time and energy to write. So when you have the time, be sure it coincides with the energy to be productive. And if you have time but not the focus, consider taking a break lest you spend inordinate time staring at a screen, producing nothing, and calling it “work.” Then get to actual work and don’t beat yourself up, just write.

Don’t consider it “writing” until your words form complete sentences. There was probably more pressure in the days of paper to write in complete sentences, though now the temptation is great to vomit non-linear thinking into a word processor in the hopes of re-arranging it into complete thoughts later. A computer can be a great place to store half-finished thoughts for later, but it’s also a lot of mental work to re-input gibberish back into your mind for processing, much more exhausting than if you did the filtering and processing the first time around. So, where possible, get your thoughts into complete sentences and paragraphs ASAP. No matter how hard you work, you’ll likely spend a certain period of time pre-submission working furtively revising, so it’s best to get as far as you can before you get to that final stretch.

More importantly, the sooner you write, and the sooner you make it understandable to others, the sooner you can seek personalized advice, and move forth into higher-order concerns about the arguments you’re making. That’s what your professors and peers are there for, though they don’t like to receive phone calls past midnight (when you’ll often find yourself working), so you’ll likely find yourself puttering around the Internet for advice (which may have been how you found your way here). Pages like this one are much less useful than personal review, which can supplement these general generic outlines with the specific examples with which you’re wrestling.

Speaking of those arguments you should be making: Don’t just mention things, marshal them towards ends. What’s been written has been written, and it’s only interesting and/or useful contextually to the new thing you’re making. Ideally, you should have something to communicate, and something to say about it. This is, of course, a huge challenge of making readable academic writing: using extant bits of information relevantly, placing them in sentences and paragraphs that convey your discussion goals, their information, and the contextual framework that fits them all together.

For short advice on how to do that: we all get better with practice and good thinking and writing doesn’t develop all at once (see above).  To improve in drafting, I would suggest an imperfect relationship-in-development among sentences, concepts, and sources is generally preferable to lists of the same, with little indication for the reviewer what you intend to do with them. In other words, after your prose is readable, make progress toward fitting the bits together usefully. Don’t let drafts linger too long as clusters of hesitantly-connected information.

To choose what to keep and what to discard, don’t ask yourself “Is this relevant?” Ask: How can I make this relevant?” And if you can’t, delete it. If it’s exceptionally beautiful and you can’t bring yourself to cut it, save it in another document and use it for something else down the line. Have a justification, however spurious, for why a statement / paragraph exists, which you can then use to judge its potential uses. If you’ve worked hard on a section and it still doesn’t feel right, you may be missing the obvious: it’s not working, and you should cut it. Or save it for another piece in another time, when maybe you can make it right.

For example: this blog posts starts with a short narrative that hopefully engages with a bit of drama, establishes my relevant experience, and accounts for the year’s gap between this and my previous post. I included other credentials (my professional writing experience and B.A. in Writing) in earlier drafts, but removed them because I felt they derailed the piece’s focus and failed at establishing credibility: mentioning I wrote a thesis establishes experience, but you’ll likely decide whether I’m full of crap based on the quality of writing in this article, my writing degree and other work experience be damned. I cut and pasted those sentences into another document, and eventually re-worked them into the text here. Had I not been discussing the mechanics of editing, I would have left them out – as I did a direct link to this other Material World article I wrote. All this is not just a narcissistic ploy to discuss myself:  see how vaguely relevant discussion – things mentioned, but not necessarily applied – grinds this piece to a halt? I had another two paragraphs elaborating on an example directly from my dissertation, and I spent an hour developing them, but cut them because they largely duplicated (even more chunkily) info in this paragraph. Anyway, continuing:

Use active voice. You may be attracted to passive voice because it sounds vaguely intellectual – or when you’re an undergrad, because it tends to pad out word counts. However, in the dissertation, you’re much more likely to have the problem of staying under word count. More importantly, passive voice is emblematic of an issue problematic for academic writing: a lack of specificity, the lack of clarity it produces around who performs an action.  One of the good reasons to use passive voice is to evade directly mentioning an action’s performers, which you should do strategically, not by accident.

The easiest way to fix the passive voice / specificity problem is to make sure your sentences have an actor performing an action. People and things do stuff to other people and other things: this advice was constantly drilled into my head throughout high school and college, and yet it’s so easy to slip into writing in passive voice that I did it in this very sentence.  I could correct it by saying teachers drilled this advice into my head.

The composition classic The Elements of Style also mentions this (like I said, probably the most common bit o’ writing-teacher writing advice) in its current 4th edition, section II.2, page 18. Have a read of the Elements of Style, especially sections II and IV, respectively “Elementary Principles of Composition” and “Words and Expressions Commonly Misused”; I regard sections I and III as more take-it-or-leave-it-English-teacher preoccupations.

Write the paper you‘re writing, not the paper you didn’t write. As you re-draft, you’ll probably find your paper deviates from what you originally envisioned. As I stated above, this is partially from the thrill of discovery and partially from inevitable compromises. A result is often loose ends you don’t have time to develop – usually beginning with the vestigial remains of story about what you set out to produce in the first place, a personal narrative that has an unfortunate tendency to lodge itself at the beginning of a draft and send the paper down a multi-paragraph dead end. In the case of my dissertation, I began wanting to research evangelical Christian robotics enthusiasts and wound up studying atheists in the woods.  It’s an interestingly ironic reversal, but to explain it in the context of my dissertation would have raise more questions than it answered, encouraging the reader’s mind to wander from the lengthy path ahead. Developing such scaffolding and removing it are part of developing a project, as is laying desolation to large chunks of text you poured your soul into.

Don’t wait until the last minute to write your abstract. Draft it early. And make it understandable to someone who hasn’t spent months writing your dissertation.  I’ve added mine to my website, I stamp it across the ‘publications’ on my CV, so it’s fair to say I see it often – and yet, the further I find myself removed from the process of writing it, the colder I regard it. Compressed language like that may be technically accurate, but it also does the forest-for-trees-missing thing.  Still, I’m reluctant to tinker with it because it is what I submitted: the description of the dissertation I submitted. It’s taken me a year to realize that in some respects that simplification I mentioned at the start (“atheist summer camp and how digital technology is (and isn’t) used there”) isn’t necessarily a bad thing for what it is: a vague intro, regrettably light on the more interesting theoretical concerns, but not a thesis unto itself.

When you write your dissertation, you’ll have been immersed in the subject matter for a good many months, and anyone reading your dissertation probably doesn’t have your knowledge. They may want to know it, however, and will decide whether to read it based, in large part, on your abstract. Your markers, too, may know the theory or general framework behind your subject, but may not have knowledge of your specific topic. So be sure your abstract is technically accurate and inviting to someone who is interested in your topic and wants to know more. By the end of writing, you’ll be more or less insane anyway – and for some time after your submission, you may be pre-occupied with hyper-thoughts of better wordings.

You likely don’t agree with a lot of what I’m saying. This is because you realized I’ve made assumptions that don’t resonate with you. Communication is inherently assumptive, and early drafts especially so. After you’ve had the productive burst of actually getting something on the page, you can go back and recognize those assumptions in your own writing, and in revision, give them more nuance. Practicing writing is also much more useful than listening to advice; I suspect the personal nature of writing makes it easier (after a certain point) to develop by doing than to resonantly communicate useful aspects of the process; I imagine this post will – against my better efforts – resonate more sympathetically with those who have written a dissertation than those who are beginning writing one.  Just as I’ve chosen not to go back, however, and attempt to strip these apparent subjectivities from this blog post (and it is a blog post and not a thesis, where less revision is a luxury, and the temptation to revise tends to lead me to create fewer posts), this is less an exhortation to strive for possibly unattainable-perfection than encouragement to writerly self-awareness: to understand the possibilities out of which to choose a position, and go forth confident and aware. If you’re concerned about anything, just write. 

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Part 2: Mutual Awareness and Casual Exposure

London, Berlin, Dresden, Prague, Bratislava, Budapest, Corfu, Katerini

March 29 – April 18th

(Read Part One)

How long do you have to spend in a place to know it, or (at least) to make some worthwhile pronouncement about it and/or your experience with it? Anthropology says about a year and a half – that’s the standard length of time for doctoral fieldwork. Journalism often gets around the challenges of observation and authority by keeping a great many statements as quotes and attributions. Term papers go by the rule that if someone else said it, it carries weight. Yet limited personal experience with the new, exciting and different is something people is one people often feel compelled to share: IE, travel, something (especially on this blog) I’ve spent a great deal of my time writing about.

A friend of mine, a fellow Midwesterner who visited Europe last year, said that London “feels like it’s the center of something,” a statement with which I concur after having lived there for a year: the city is comfortable with its gravity and has a notable magnetic field. The thing that still strikes me as most endemically (if not uniquely) London as I experienced it is the incredible international diversity of the inner city, the emigrants, expats, natives, tourists, and travelers and the various shades of how one considers him or herself to be any of the above. London is a place that, comfortably embodied as itself, thrives on thoughts of elsewheres. The university scene in London is exemplary of that: I am in a program(me) with very few British students, and even fewer second or third-generation British. At one seminar, I looked across a room of 60 students and counted 40 different countries represented; the remarkable thing here is not the variety, but how commonplace it is. A port town and the former seat of Empire, a place that have always been enmeshed in international exchange, London today feels like a place where the world settles down for a time and then moves on.

“But that’s every city,” said an academic, visiting from Scandinavia, who I met at a conference. “Tell me something unique.”

The author, in front of the Olympics countdown clock at Trafalgar Square. Here’s what the Square looks like in Tweets.

London is, of course, getting ready to show itself to the rest of the world for the Olympics, at a cost currently estimated at £24 billion ($38 billion USD), up from an original bid of £2.4 billion – changes which operate on “selective logics of inclusion” for both internationals and locals (for a study on potential socio-economic and environmental impact, see here). This international welcome further comes as changes in policy are making it more difficult for foreigners like me to stay and work in the country. The current bonus one gets for paying overseas tuition and graduating from a UK university: until your student visa runs out to find a job (for me, January), or go into the general Tier 2 pool, in which case you must not only be the best person for the job but the only person, as employers are legally required to take a minimally qualified EU candidate over candidates from anywhere else. I don’t think this will change the character of England’s capital much, taken as a whole, but it will create frustrations for a lot of folks looking for a good life and a good living.

The Olympics will obviously be a thoroughly massive and momentous event, but it should also be noted that a common local sentiment regarding them is a fear of logistics: its going to be peak hour on the Tube all day, every day, and twice and packed. We who spend a lot of time here (native born, immigrant, expat, etc) love this city and most of us are totally stoked with the rest of the world visiting if you’d kindly form an orderly queue and not do it all the hell at once. Much like the experience of watching the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee flotilla along the riverside, struggling to see over the heads of the rows in front of you, its a thing that will likely be at its most accessible as televised spectacle, perhaps from somewhere else in Europe, funded by a sublet flat. My current plan: work on my thesis from the relative isolation of Iowa, where I am at present.

The Olympics, however – amidst all its televised glory, logistical complications, and legal clampdowns – highlight part of what makes the questions of my first paragraph so pronounced: ours is an age of mutual awareness and casual exposure.

As I mentioned in my previous post, part of the reason why this blog hasn’t been updated in so long is the migration of personal-storytelling-as-mass-broadcast to Facebook, and from the written blog post to the topical photo album. Among the bits of research I’ve become aware of as a student of Digital Anthropology, David Frohlich divides photography into three eras: in the first – roughly until 1920 – photos were used for documentation. Then, with the introduction of the personal camera, there was a shift toward ‘capturing memories,’ the “Kodak moments” of our families’ lives. Now, with the Internet, the photo is used as a means of outright communication as we regularly post pictures to discuss our lives, to tell jokes, to make political statements, to share the significant with the mundane. This shift is part of the social dynamic that underlies this excellent article disparaging a site I still happen to make frequent use of: “How Yahoo Killed Flickr and Lost the Internet.” Simply put, Flickr is for sharing pictures with people you don’t know, and one of the more pervasive myths of the Internet is that everybody knows everybody.

Eric Fischer’s tourist photo map of London, based on data from the Geotaggers World Atlas. Blue dots represent photos taken by locals, red by tourists, and yellow by people who could be either.

The Orloj (built: 1410, photo: 2005)

Vacation pictures were once stereotyped as dreaded albums and slide trays, ritual abuses inflicted by overactive hosts to their captive dinner guests.  You’ve seen the Eiffel Tower, you’ve seen your neighbor, and while the pictures of them together may hold an important memory and proof of experience for him/her, the interest you have in seeing the two together may vary.  The Internet – however – changed how one shares images, what one shares, and the concept of a ‘vacation’ and how you bring your friends with you – or the world to your friends. Pictures now appear limitless, but their quantity (and the times we take them) spread unevenly in time and space. I think of the preponderance of pictures I take when I’m on the road, along routes with which I have only tenuous, mass-mediated connections. versus the fewer, focused shots of places in which I’ve stayed for extended periods of time. This is vividly illustrated by Eric Fischer – who, using geotagged information – put together these maps  of where temporary versus extended residents have taken pictures. As far as the Internet is concerned, the global image of Prague has barely been photographed by any locals (other cities relevant to this series: Berlin and Budapest).

Modern-day variation?

Modern tourism is an act of possession, about seeing things – sometimes wondrous things – and appropriating them as part of our lives, as images and experiences that often converge around recognizable landmarks. In Prague, that is the Old Town Square, the heart of the tourist section, where you do as everyone does: stop and look at the Orloj, the astronomical clock. Built in 1410, it is the oldest timepiece of its kind still working, a rotating and revolving display of hours, minutes, the Zodiac, phases of moon, and the sun, with a procession of medieval vanities and saints rung by Death Itself. As any guidebook will tell you (apocryphally?) the clock was so beautiful that the local leaders blinded its creator lest he surpass it with a subsequent display in some other town. So the clock goes, and – as it has for over four hundred years –the cosmic procession continues, and all the tourists stop and look – as I did seven years ago, and I did this April, as if we can freeze time into something we can take with us.

The Old Town Square is a center for memento commerce, a nexus that one wanders into (purposefully and randomly) on the way to see any number of other sites.  On my trip the Easter markets were set up, surrounding the statue of church reformer Jan Hus, who was burned at the stake in 1415 for challenging the Church (many reforms he suggested were later pressed by Martin Luther) and whose death sparked nearly two decades of war.  This is the heart, too, of a visual performance of place, stacked with things seasonal and mundane, hundreds of varieties of hand-painted  hollow eggs and things labeled “Prague,” among which are: wooden dragon puppets, refrigerator magnets, Prague condoms, Prague sex dice, witches, crystal, the same “Born to Be Wild” shirts as were emblazoned with my summer camp’s logo over a decade ago and other quick-press themes (“Good girls go to heaven, bad girls go to “[place]”), plush toys of Zdeněk Miler’s “Mole” character, Mole books. Like the stacks of Royal Wedding kitsch in London that are now being supplanted with soon-to-be-discounted Queen’s Jubilee and London Olympics 2012, these are the marks of a particular image of place, their authenticity drawn from memories and associations of having been procured of a specific location.

The more we walk past that clock, however, the more we ignore it, blend in with it, and ingrain ourselves in a city on its own terms (even if largely as a part of its tourist ecology). Much as in Bourdieu’s idea of the habitus – that the environment contains cues that compel our behavior – we absorb things that surround us, and in growing comfortable with them ignore, turning attention to logistics and life and the background.The notion of difference – and exposure thereto – has been part of what has driven anthropology, too, in tension with the value placed on understanding through length of contact; the tendency to be unaware of so many of the norms of our environments, because of how ingrained they are, to be ‘homeblind.’ Or, to return – a similar sentiment expressed in an oft-quoted line by T.S. Elliot (a Midwesterner who moved to London), that we may “arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

For my own region, I remembered the space but forgot about the humidity. You can’t photograph the air, even though it feels like wet fabric in the summer. I flew from London to Minnesota and from there drove. It just gets hotter and more humid the further south you go – through Iowa, to Kansas, to Oklahoma, all the way through a continent of seasonal green parted by the blacktop, spending hours in a moving box of air conditioning. Back in the U.S. (at least for the summer), the visuals seem fixed, and so much right where I left it in Iowa, just a little older, even as the air reminds me less of my own memories than the tropical nightmare of a flooded London in Ballard’s The Drowned World, the city where, in reality, I had left changing sky and unchanging buildings.

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Part One: Every City that Ever Was

London, Berlin, Dresden, Prague, Bratislava, Budapest, Corfu, Katerini

March 29 – April 18th

World map in the hull of the Cutty Sark. Damaged by fire in 2007, the last remaining clipper ship re-opened for visitors in Mary 2012.

In January, I left the city for the first time since the week I arrived. When you haven’t seen the countryside for a while, any patch of grass or snowy field, sped by on a train, can remind you of everywhere. Places that I have never been look like places I have not seen for a long time.  I missed parking lots, the horror of great big Wal-Mart parking lots. One of the common criticisms of driving through the Midwestern countryside where I grew up is that it all looks the same, and that it goes on forever – yet there is always there, I’ve found, a reminder through space that the world is very big.

“The city is more beautiful than the country because it is rich in human history,” writes London native Peter Ackryod in chapter 46 of London: The Biography, an 801-page parade of historical fragments that portray London as “every city that ever was and ever will be,” (a quote Ackroyd borrows from Stephen Graham’s London Nights [1925]). Ackroyd claims all sentiments for London – for example, Mary Firth, aka Moll Cutpurse, is not just one of the city’s many celebrated historical criminals, but (like every damn thing) “symbolic of London itself,” her disguised femininity above all “a token of urban identity” (619). London is a “a city perpetually doomed” (p192) by the plague and fires, a place that has “always been characterized by the noise that is an aspect of its noisomeness” (66), and attempts to map it represent “an attempt to understand the chaos and thereby to migrate to it; it is an attempt to know the unknowable.” (104). Ackroyd’s London contains multitudes to the point of parody. To get a sense of the vibe of mythic London, I’d recommend looking through some Hogarth pictures; they’re much more thematically organized, evocative, funnier, and quicker to browse.

“Please tell us about an object in your home which has come from another country.” Interactive exhibition at the Geffrye Museum of the Home.

In well-known cities, there are always marked contrasts between the vibrancy of culture and the physical realities of people living in close proximity, in buildings that last centuries (or pretend like they can), that will break down, change hands, shift from business to tenement and back again. Ackroyd is right about how the city can feel all-encompassing:  the world seems to have been drawn to this place in its totality, beginning with the Romans who built the first permanent settlement in the first century CE.  International and intercultural coexistence is a conspicuous norm in most neighborhoods – like Golders Green, which I visited last week, and its streets of Orthodox-kosher Korean, Japanese and Chinese restaurants. It’s somewhat unnerving to visit Oxford (an hour away by train) and hear a uniform accent across the people you meet in the streets. Yet it would be a mistake to think that just because people have come together to make something new, in a place with a particular history, that their lives in the city are their only lives. That the things in the city are not contained by it is one of London’s great joys. It is partially for this reason that the posts on my blog tend to be weirdly formal and regrettably infrequent; the everyday stuff of pubs and museums and annoyances and fun has largely migrated to Facebook, where it sits with some 600 friends from around the world, mingling with their domestic lives.

Likewise, the cosmopolitan nature of the city disguises how small it really is; that London seems like it could envelope the whole world is a sentiment better struggled against than accepted. To view London as ‘every city’ is to lose the specificity of what it and every other city can be. It’s the danger when you stay anywhere for too long: you can forget there are other places, and the specifics of your own street mask their similarities to other streets. And then, all windswept vistas look alike.

Now in June – on the verge of returning to the American countryside (at least for the summer) for fieldwork –I’m scrambling to become a tourist in what has become my own city. It’s the leaving of London, though, for other cities that prompted this series of posts. Two months ago, I took a three-week trip through Europe with a friend from Iowa. It’s the ‘overseas short-term resident’ trip: go out and see “Europe,” because it’s all ‘right there.’ I left London to begin in Berlin, staying in the same place I did seven years ago: a hostel themed after the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which provided not only continuity with my previous trip (documented in these three posts), but unexpectedly a bookend for the trip itself with the mural on the wall, depicting a whale being called into being and a pot of flowers falling out a window and thinking to itself, “oh no, not again.” The story concludes on the Greek island of Corfu with hundreds of pots being thrown from windows, but we’ll get there soon enough.

London: The heap, as viewed from Acton Street, Early Spring

Destroyed in World War II and rebuilt for the Berlin Airlift, Tegel Airport will join Templehof as defunct sometime this month, leaving Berlin-Schönefeld and the newly-built Berlin-Brandenburg as the only ways into the city by air.

Berlin, 2005: The Palast der Republik under demolition

Leaving a mild winter in London into March in Berlin was a trip to a different archetypal set of aesthetics of urban life, beginning with the rain.  The image of London fog, drizzle and umbrellas hasn’t held for most of my nine months here; even throughout winter, days remained sunny, in part due to a two-year drought. That month, public service announcements finally responded reminding us to conserve water, just in time for a few rainy days to make them look out of place. Now the bus and train station signs read “Rain or Shine…”  Berlin’s weather was closer to that of a London of legend, overcast greys and drizzle, but the streets themselves are entirely Berlin, reflective dynamics of cool materials that the city makes its own, rising above the layers of history that crack open and are exposed.

That same space, 2012

London, by contrast, is – in a literal, physical sense – remarkably flat, and the grime of centuries past is (depending on the neighborhood) swept away or built overtop, “that great pile upon which the city rests” (Ackryod: 111).  Neighborhoods become trendy or posh or fall into collapse, gentrify or become derelict, and the city rises, decays and ultimately builds something else on its own ruins. Berlin embraces the myth of the modern; postwar, the Eastern and Western sides of the city worked to reinvent themselves in visions of alternate futures. London’s more visible aesthetic divides appear, often, to have happened practically. The industrial docklands in the East of the city – where the Olympics will happen – were built into the glass-and-skyscraper business district, while around Bloomsbury (where I’ve spent much of my year), the townhouses of eras passed were rebuilt with whatever resources could be found.  Now, these two-to-three story earth-toned mishmashes are being primped and restored in time for the Olympics, sending a message that the place’s styles have always been, will always be, up to date, despite the general transience of London’s population.

Seven years and there’s more continuity than I expected in Berlin, at least between a few days in May in 2005 and 2012. Lounge act Gayle Tufts still has a show going. The punks at the Alex have migrated to the open field where the Palace of the Republic once was, while around the corner from the Topography of Terror – the exposed torture cells from the Nazi secret police, beneath one of the last remaining sections of the Berlin Wall – the Trabi Safari lets you take a drive through the city in East German style. I picked up a few historic sights I hadn’t seen in 2005, but I was more there for the flight, as a launching point, and for nostalgia. When I went to China in 2007, I felt like I was leaving America for a different life, and that the two places marked a divide and I would have to be in either one or the other. With a friend from Iowa (who is living in Italy) in Berlin – a place I had been before with different people – I felt like life was continuous.

Like fields but unlike in inner London, the interiors and exteriors breathe with space. Having coffee in a shop and looking out on the streets near Friedrichstrasse Station and thinking: there are not enough people walking by to achieve the critical mass of the London street, where crossing lights lack authority, and after the first few people step into traffic, the pedestrians claim the intersection. And you cross, with so many people you will never meet again.

See more pictures at Flickr

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So I Moved to London to Study Digital Anthropology

Six years ago in late August I arrived in Yunnan – China’s most ethnically and geographically diverse province – to find a massive techno-cultural transition going on. Five years prior, in 2001, John Bryan Starr had published on page 249 of his book Understanding China that “with the important exception of The Sound of Music – which seems to have been seen at least once by every living person in mainland China – most available foreign films are cheap B-grade movies.” By 2005, the B-movies were still there (see above), but the availability had changed massively. As I wrote then of Yunnan’s capital, Kunming, in rather lengthy bit of research I never found a venue in which to publish:

Scattered amongst the hair salons and mini-marts and clothing stores and the Internet cafes are the disc shops. Their outside walls are cluttered with posters advertising the latest films and albums. Inside and outside are tables, stands, and shelves filled with D5s (single-layer DVDs, holding about 4.5 gigabytes of information) in thin cardboard sleeves. The sleeves are in their own plastic sheathes, which can be unsealed at the bottom… At any given store, a selection of more than 1,000 titles would be considered small. At the shop across the street from Yunnan Normal, I estimate there are over 2,500 different titles for sale. Copies of the same title are rubber banded together, and to see what movies are for sale it’s usually necessary to thumb through the baskets or shelves. Though Chinese and foreign movies are kept distinct and there is some organization by genre, for the most part the shelves seem to be sold with the sheer joy of variety overload.

This is a long way from a few years ago in Beijing, where [my instructor] said that vendors were hiding their movies beneath manhole covers.

I counted 20 such shops within a ten-minute’s walking radius, the opening of which had begun to accelerate in earnest around 2003. While I haven’t back to Kunming since 2005 (and China since 2008), I have noted that Kunming (truly a place I love, lest you view all this by its negative connotations) has been in the news for stores that copy the entire retail experiences of Ikea and the Apple Store. What I didn’t realize quite as much then was all this was only one aspect of globalization of media, something I had been living in small-town Iowa, and that was going to grow beyond physical media into clouds and streams, and beyond the largely one-way art of conventional distribution channels to a social-artistic experience.

All this brings me to why I find myself to the flat of an acquaintance (who I got to know through Facebook) in Camden right now, listening to numerous accents of the sidewalk traffic and the echo of train stop announcements, preparing to spend the year studying Digital Anthropology at University College London (UCL). It is the third year the programme is being offered, and (arguably) the programme is the first of its kind in the world.

While the title ‘Digital Anthropology’ may seem a little unconventional, research into “the social and cultural dimensions of information technologies and digital media” (as described on the programme’s web page) is important, something I first realized you could study back during my undergrad semester in Yunnan. Look at the Internet and think how much time you spend on it – and how its changed the way you make new friends, stay in touch with old ones, find information, conduct business, and (special to Facebook) build imaginary farms. Or the role of cell phone and social networks in the organization, suppression and prosecution of the recent riots in the city I’ll be calling home; as I write this, police are sifting through tens of thousands of hours of footage matching the clothing on masked rioters with footage of them unmasked. Look over this post and think about how comprehensible it might have been a decade or two ago.

Communication has changed dramatically – how its changing is important to try to understand and has implications of art, humanitarianism, business, and policy, and trying to understand some aspects of this is going to implicitly affect all our lives and perhaps explicitly be the focus of a good deal of my primary career.

While there are many academic programs worldwide studying these things under different names (“media studies,” etc), I chose Digital Anthropology in part because I liked the idea of rooting a methodological approach in social and cultural aspects, as well as UCL’s egalitarian ethos. The anthropology program here is known for its emphasis on research in material and visual culture – i.e., stuff, and stuff we can see – and their connection to social relationships. Objects. Keepsakes. Knick-knacks. “Of bleeding skulls and the postcolonial uncanny: bones and the presence of Nonosabasut and Demasduit”; “‘The hallmark of a doctor’: the stethoscope and the making of medical identity”; and “Your Trash Is Someone’s Treasure: The Politics of Value at a Michigan Landfill” to name three relatively recent article titles in the affiliated Journal of Material Culture. The program is co-led by Daniel Miller, whose book The Comfort of Things – concerning how residents of a London neighborhood relate to the objects in their homes, and build/maintain relationships with people with them – I found immensely enjoyable and insightful when I read it last year. As long as humans still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea, there will be stuff, and with it stuff to talk about.

This sort of grounding seems the ideal springboard from which go into new and social media, which at times can seem quite intangible and in other ways is very concrete – as in the record kept by an online message board, or the physical object of a pirate DVD. From several of my classmates who I’ve communicated with via Facebook (again, Facebook!), it seems as if at least a few come with some video/film in their backgrounds, something I fit right in with. For professional considerations, the program also enables me to build on my copywriting experience in BVU’s Marketing & Communications Department, as well as the understanding of the business environment and how websites are run, maintained, and monitored.

I’m not finished writing about Storm Lake yet – before I left earlier this month, I outlined a few entries I hope to write on the city, its people, places, and my time there. I’m not finished with piracy yet, either – building on what I looked at in Kunming in some sense may form part of my masters’ thesis. And, of course, I’ll be chronicling my life and studies in London through some of the same technology I’ll be studying. We’re all doing it – the studying and chronicling, I mean. I just found a place that gave it a name I liked.

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Whiskey Break! (Templeton Rye)

Most towns 20,000-some bicyclists pass through on RAGBRAI (The Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa) are known for something. It’s a strongly (though not exclusively) American  impulse: to find that one thing in one’s burg, no matter how small, that connects with the national consciousness, no matter how tenuously.

My hometown of Clarion (RAGBRAI overnight stop 1993, meet-up town 2007), for example, is the birthplace of the 4-H  emblem – each of the four leaves of a clover representing one of the H’s of the agricultural youth organization’s pledge.  I never joined 4-H, what with being a solid small town urbanite who grew up a full block from the corn fields. The local point-of-pride that interested me more was Glen Buxton, Alice Cooper’s lead guitarist, who retired to semi-obscurity in Clarion and whose death in 1997 sparked a brief media blitz. Once – while I was volunteering some service at the cemetery with a local youth group I was a part of – my quest to find Mr. Buxton’s gravesite was detoured by an adult leader who steered me toward the grave of a high school girlfriend of his who had died young, him lamenting (during the steering) that there were plenty of other people who had lived and died around here too. Anyway (whiskey is coming, I promise) at several local events during my own high school years, I portrayed O.H. Benson, the local school superintendent who, in 1906, decided to attach the clover symbol to the Wright County Agricultural and Homemaking Clubs, inspired by a gift of seven of the good luck charms from children at the one-room schoolhouse that now sits in the Clarion’s Gazebo Park. In 1911, Benson went to Washington D.C. to help develop such groups nationally and brought the symbol with him. Five minutes ago, you had probably never heard this story, but every child who goes through the Clarion-Goldfield public school system knows a simplified version of it by some combination of heart, hands, head and/or health.

Several miles up the road from Clarion is Woolstock, birth place of TV’s original Superman, George Reeves. Further in Southwestern Iowa, the McDonald’s in Denison has a wall display dedicated to native daughter actress Donna Reed. Towns without a vaguely-recognizable figure who was born or died there tend to adorn their welcome signs with gentle hyperbole like “Crossroads of the Nation” (Early, pop. c. 600) and/or hyperbolic puns like “A Gem of a Town in a Friendly Setting” (Jewell, pop c. 1,200) or hyperbole and gently-obscene-but-not-really puns like “The Friendliest Town by a Dam Site!” (Quasqueton, pop. c. 500).  While RAGBRAI didn’t pass through any of the above towns in 2011, one of the great joys of the ride is seeing how local pride manifests itself in the friendly people at each stop who are trying to sell you pie. A highlight this year for me: Oxford, in which photographer and resident Peter Feldstein took pictures of all but three of  town’s 800-some residents in 1984 and 2005-6 and published a book about it. Usually, however, a town’s fame does not precede it – nobody knows Elkhorn & Kimballton (2011 Day Two stops) have the greatest rural concentration of Danes outside of Denmark until they see a giant windmill and are confronted with a long line for ethnic pastries and – interest perked – later check Wikipedia.

An exception to this relative obscurity is Templeton (population c. 300, a 2011 Day Two stop) or “Little Chicago,” according to a serviceman in the Philippines as recounted by Templeton Rye company co-founder Keith Kerkhoff. During Prohibition, informal distillers around Templeton (Kerkhoff’s grandfather Alphons among them) made a rye whiskey known for it’s quality that was allegedly favored by Al Capone. Today, the legal variation of Templeton Rye has been selling out wherever it’s allocated in Iowa and going for $18 a shot in (Big) Chicago. Shortages caused by the four-year distilling process and Iowa’s alcohol distribution laws have turned finding the stuff into a cross-state treasure hunt. Templeton Rye jerseys were everywhere on RAGBRAI (look above and to the right) and personally, it’s been a factor in my switch from gin martinis to Manhattans. I won’t embarrass myself by attempting to describe the flavor with adjectives other than “tasty” and “drinkable,” though those are words I’ve never before used to describe whiskey.

Spirited Enterprise – Profile: Keith Kerkhoff, Founder of Templeton Rye

Keith used to play football for Buena Vista University (whose marketing department for which I work) and after graduating came within a few picks of making it to the pros. I was lucky enough to get to profile him – and the story of Templeton Rye – for the July issue of our magazine, BV Today. If you’re curious about how illicit Depression-era stills begat what’s fast becoming 21st-century Iowa’s best-known high-end beverage, 70s college football, the minutia of liquor distribution and three generations of the Kerkhoff family story, pour a shot  and fire up the ol’ PDF viewer.  I said one shot! You’ll want to keep a level head while reading.

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Get Your Entertainment [News] Elsewhere (and how[to])!

A while ago, I started a blog. Well, a different blog. It’s out there, floating on the Internet, available through Google searches for all to see but for all intents and purposes abandoned. This may or may not be a shame – there’s like one really good post on there, and a few whose memory makes me hesitant to journey back to whatever I thought I was thinking circa 2008. It was a different world then – America, perched at the precipice and forefront of a global economic disaster, was buoyed by ‘hope’ in a promising pending presidential election, and I was reading nearly decade-old issues of Transmetropolitan and thinking about the connections between them all.

Pop culture and current events – who among us can resist the urge to comment on them? Myself, I’m writing two new columns that will add to those great debates of our time that include: is the new Pirates of the Carribean movie worth seeing? Does Pokemon have anything to do with conflict diamonds? And what do college grads with bachelors’ in the humanities do with their evenings?

Note: I don’t have a picture of me reading anything I’ve written, so I used one I took one of someone else reading what they have. It’s Inez – who teaches at BVU, where we both work – reading from her short story contribution to “Cthulhu Unbound: Volume 2,” the second part in an eldritch series that mixes Lovecraftian horror with other genres – in her story’s case, film noir.

First, I’m joining the young rambly literate types over a Super Fine Magazine, who are fast at work cranking out such intriguing pieces of political-cultural commentary as “Pac Man, Flow, and Erving Goffman” and “Cosmo-Consumption: Liking “Everything” and Meaning It” To this fine titles this week I add “It’s a Miracle Things Don’t Fall Apart When Remembering Greatest Game Ever Played”, an exploration of the pretentiousness of sports movie titles like Miracle, The Greatest Game Ever Played, and especially the soon-to-be-released Things Fall Apart. An excerpt:

 In a line of dialogue in the Things Fall Apart trailer, Coach Ray Liotta demands “You want to do it on your own terms – that is the question.” He thus grammatically mangles the first line of perhaps the single most famous soliloquy in all of literature, fraught with self-doubt and ambiguity, into an imperative to follow the “take arms against a sea of troubles” side of the speaker’s great debate. While Denzel Washington’s coach fires his team up by describing how the mythological Titans challenged the gods, he forgets to mention that they failed and were imprisoned as a result (see also, the Titanic [the ship] [not the movie]).

Expect contributions once every few weeks.

Second: For the next few months, I’ll be contributing movie reviews to Double Take, a joint column with my friend Josh Moniz over at the New Ulm Journal, the prime printed news source for the smallish Minnesota city perhaps best known to outsiders as the home of the August Schell Brewery. If you’re in New Ulm, pick up a copy! If you’re elsewhere, you can view a PDF of the current entertainment section here. Double Take‘s been running for two weeks already, during which Josh and I have reviewed Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Roderick Rules and Scream 4.  This week, we’ll offer our take on The Lincoln Lawyer. It’s a decidedly speed-of-print affair, but promises to be promising.

Look also in the coming weeks for a new tab on this site that will better catalog these articles locales’ in the Great Elsewhere of the Internet – and the occasional post letting you know when something extra cool has been loosed upon the nets. Enjoy!

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Underground, Out West, Through Business and History: Pursuing the American Myth and Dream

Feature and Web Story Roundup, Quarter One 2011

The landscape was hilly, but quintessentially Iowa: nearby was an old windmill and not much further away a church, an idyllic late-winter landscape rendered slightly surreal by the 20 wetsuit-clad people standing in a circle in the middle of the field. We waited there to descend, one on the ladder at a time, down the shaft’s warm air 180 feet into the dark.

There are three ways in to Coldwater Cave – which, with 17.5 miles of tunnels, is the 33rd largest cave in the United States. The first entrance, discovered in 1967, starts in Coldwater Spring; it requires scuba gear and has not been used in decades. When John Ackerman, Minneapolis-based furniture upholsterer and caving enthusiast, was denied access to the second entrance (a 94-foot shaft drilled four years later by the Iowa Geological Survey), he – not without conflict and controversy – drilled his own. This was the entrance through which we went to spend the afternoon wading – sometime swimming – up several miles of underground river, guided by our gracious and enthusiastic host.

For more information on Coldwater (and the controversy over its ownership and entrances) check out this 2009 article from Iowa Outdoors magazine, posted online at Ackerman’s web site. For the February’s trip described above, I was primarily along for the experience, offered to BVU students and staff through the Department of Outdoor Recreation.  I also took the above picture and wrote this story for the University’s web site. Telling about these things is my job; the experiences and people along the way are some of its best parts.

For recent web stories, I’ve interviewed an alum returning to Japan to help with disaster relief and students raising funds and awareness to help the local high school music programs.  My most in-depth  BVU stories,  however, appear in print, in the magazine BV Today and alumni publication BV Briefs. The most recent issue of Today dropped last month; I’ve included in this post PDFs of feature stories I wrote that appear in it, as well as ones from two past issues. Enjoy!

“That Much Further West” (Feb 2011) tells the story of media studies professor Dr. Bruce Ellingson’s six months of travels to capture western America’s national parks via ‘high dynamic range’  photography – and how he utilizes the Internet to promote his work . Bruce and wife, Margie, traverse two landscapes – the iconic American West, and the brave new world of social media. I borrowed the title from a song and album from the band Lucero, who – like the story – deal thematically in Americana.  You owe it to yourself to check out Bruce’s pictures on Flickr – I could describe them with adjectives, but they’d only sound exaggerated. This feature was quoted in a subsequent story in the Des Moines Register.


“Opportunity, Next Exit” (Feb 2011) covers the winding career path of Brad and Dee, a husband-and-wife pair of alum, from internships in the Mexico Desert to an on-campus student business selling carpet scraps to a major street paving project in Omaha to hearing aids to software. Opening the story is an interview with Brad’s  mentor, owner of a southwestern convenience store empire that was – however one may view the enterprise – instrumental in the shift in economy on Native American reservations from barter and trade to cash-based.


“A Man of Many Words” (July 2010) profiles the dryly humorous and highly conscientious Dr. William Cumberland, professor emeritus of history, who was well-regarded by colleagues and students throughout his 33 years at BVU – and told the story of the school in his History of Buena Vista University, currently in print in its third edition. Cumberland is also an expert on the Jehovah’s Witnesses and author of several articles and a biography (Iowa Rebel) of Wallace Short, Socialist, onetime mayor of Sioux City, and “Iowa’s most distinguished radical during the 1920s and 1930s.”


“A Changing Practice” (Feb 2010) covers the career of an alum from a college football career cut short to becoming one of Phoenix’s most prominent cosmetic surgeons, in the process touching on changes in cosmetic medicine throughout the 2000s and how the ‘Great Recession’ hit Phoenix and affected people’s outlook on cosmetic procedures.


*Also, unrelated to anything above, last Saturday I recorded the concert of a friend – Cherokee, Iowa-based musician Andy Juhl – utilizing an experimental setup to cover nine musicians on stage with six relatively inexpensive cameras. Some of the footage has begun to trickle onto his Facebook page.

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