Building a database of research artifacts

This post is a part of a series covering my qualifying exam research areas. Scroll to the bottom of this post for links to each area, or click here for a general description of the process.

“It is better to live in a state of impermanence than in one of finality.” Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

Much of the early part of my qualifying exam preparation process was consumed with trying to come up with flexible-yet-precise titles for my exam areas. Since all knowledge is interconnected, this is always going to be a big challenge; but in the context of interdisciplinary new media theory and practice, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that it’s extra-super-hard to establish and maintain boundaries. Distinguishing between productive overlap (e.g. “History and Theories of Participatory Culture and Art Practice” is a powerful complement to “Interaction Design for Social Media and Pervasive Computing”) and outright redundancy (e.g. “The Poetics of Collaboration” would work as a subset of “History and Theories of Participatory Culture and Art Practice,” but would double-up on a lot of material if it were conceived of as a separate exam area) requires a whole lot of iteration and reshuffling. Some texts that began in one exam area are now comfortably in the middle of another. Because of the inherent either/or nature of the exam area structure (“text A is either in research area X, or it isn’t”), I found that some texts that were relevant to two or three of my research areas were being arbitrarily forced to exist in just one. What I really longed for was a non-hierarchical relational database that would provide an interface to my research alongside the more traditional “three exam areas” approach. Such a database would evolve as my own thoughts evolve. Like the impermanent, always-ahead-of-us dream space proposed by Bachelard, such an information architecture’s dynamism and impermanence would have the capacity to energize and liberate the imagination through serendipitous connection and unexpected emergence.

This website ( is an effort to model what something like that might look like. Using WordPress, I’ve set up custom taxonomies for each of my three research areas into which I can place “research artifacts” — reading notes and summaries, quotes, links to resources and RSS feeds from relevant sources, blog posts, tweets, etc. These artifacts can then be tagged with keywords, categorized, and discovered through sitewide searches, allowing them to be accessed from vectors beyond the tight ontological constraints provided by the exam areas alone. The goal is that this will make visible and usable (to me and to anyone curious about my work) the connections between materials across the totality of my research.

As of right now, I’ve got a pretty substantial backlog of stuff to integrate into this system (doing so is the main work ahead of me as I review and collate and reflect upon the material I’ve generated over the past few months), but curious readers can peruse my exam area archives as they evolve by clicking on the “blog archives” links below.

Qualifying Exam Areas

You can also download the latest version of my exam area descriptions and bibliographies in .pdf form here.

# Nov 24, 2010

“For Fable III explicitly to take up questions about entitlement spending, taxation, resource management, and the long-term financial health of its fantasy nation, and then treat those questions in terms of shallow moral binaries, makes it a party to the political discourse problem.”

Gamasutra – News – Analysis: The Role Of Narrative In Fable III

Progress Report: Qualifying Examination

[TL;DR: it’s been a whole lot of reading. Skip down to Qualifying Exam Areas for a description of exactly what it is that I’m reading about.]

In just under three weeks, I write my qualifying examination. Preparing for this ritual hoop-jumping has occupied most of my time over the past few months. It’s been an arduous and eye-opening process of discovering exactly how much I don’t know (or, at least, didn’t know when I started), and of teasing out the boundaries and relationships that define my research specializations and situate my dissertation project.

At iMAP, we’re following the exams schema set out by the School of Cinematic Arts’ Critical Studies program (with the addition of a “portfolio review” of creative work, which will take place in January). According to this schema, doctoral students need to identify three distinct areas of inquiry or specialization. Reading lists and descriptive statements outlining these research areas are submitted to the student’s committee in advance (I submitted the first draft of mine back in March of 2010), and the scope of the questions on the exams is limited to the material covered in the reading lists.

The exams themselves consist of five days of non-stop writing in response to three questions the student chooses from a pool created by their committee members. The answers to these questions take the form of imaginary dissertation chapters — which, hopefully, can become early drafts of actual dissertation chapters.

The official rule with this process is that the student should submit a reading list, then stick to it. While this rule undoubtedly has many good and practical reasons for existing, it’s a constraint I’ve had a bit of trouble observing. As I’ve read through the texts on my original list, I’ve learned more about exactly what it is that I’m investigating. References to other writers, projects, movements, and theories demand to be followed up on, and some of these tangents have ultimately become foundational to my research.

The big questions underwriting my work — questions around the poetic, social, and cultural implications of pervasive computing and social media — have functioned as a kind of razor here, shaving off truly irrelevant material and preventing the process from turning into a random walk. But my reading list now — and the ways in which I frame it — has evolved rather massively since last March. I expect it to continue to do so right up until I start writing on lucky December 13th.

With all this in mind, I present the following descriptions of my research areas, along with bibliographies for each.

Qualifying Exam Areas

I’ve also written a brief post on the ongoing role that this website is playing in my research:

Finally, you can download the latest version of my exam area descriptions and bibliographies in .pdf form here.

# Nov 15, 2010

“To put it plainly: I am absolutely committed to breaking scholarly publishing of its dependence on gatekeeping and transforming it into a Shirkyesque publish-then-filter model. No question. But our filters can only ever be as good as our algorithms, and it’s clear that we just don’t know enough about Google’s algorithms. O’Malley acknowledges that, but I’m not sure he goes quite far enough there; the point of opening up peer review is precisely to remove it from the black box, to foreground the review process as a discussion amongst peers rather than an act of abstracted anonymous judgment.”

falling indelibly into the past » Planned Obsolescence

“[While] the web may indeed foster the related sensations of volitional mobility, scan-and-search, and transformation, our understanding of these modalities needs another working through in order to discern how they underwrite particular spatialities and temporalities, enabling specific selves and particular publics.” (466)

-Tara McPherson, “Reload”

“The web’s chunking [or experiential sequencing] is spatial as much as temporal; our experience of moving through these chunks may seem akin to our experience of television’s flow, but this is also a boundlessness we feel we help create or impact. It structures a different economy of attention than that underwritten by flow. We move from the glance-and-gaze that theorists have named as our primary engagements with television (or film) toward the scan-and-search.” (464)

-Tara McPherson, “Reload”

# Nov 8, 2010

“Brothels and colonies are two extreme types of heterotopia, and if we think, after all, that the boat is a floating piece of space, a place without a place, that exists by itself, that is closed in on itself and at the same time is given over to the infinity of the sea and that, from port to port, from tack to tack, from brothel to brothel, it goes as far as the colonies in search of the most precious treasures they conceal in their gardens, you will understand why the boat has not only been for our civilization, from the sixteenth century until the present, the great instrument of economic development (I have not been speaking of that today), but has been simultaneously the greatest reserve of the imagination. The ship is the heterotopia par excellence. In civilizations without boats, dreams dry up, espionage takes the place of adventure, and the police take the place of pirates.”

Michel Foucault, Of Other Spaces (1967), Heterotopias