Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Moby Dick Model for Deeper Blogging

Image by Palmovish from DeviantArt
(creative commons license 3.0)
When blogging, getting beyond the superficial to the substantial takes conscious effort. After all, as a casual and social medium, a blog can trap us in the tidepools of everyday novelties and low-level commentary. 

But a blog can be used to sound a subject, to go deep. Derrick Clements has already used Moby Dick as a model for better engagement of topics in his "Going Deep in Digital Culture" post. He says Melville's novel is an example of "the type of profound commitment and thoroughness to a subject that twenty-first-century bloggers may employ" and that "just as Moby Dick stands as a testament to the human ability to commit to a single subject for more than a few minutes, blogs can, if one so chooses, be a great way to dive deep – as long as community-minded creators can budget their attention..."

Profound commitment to subject via blogging? Thoroughness? Can these really go together with blogging? Yes they can, but not usually without some conscious effort. Earlier I discussed three phases of academic blogging. A lot of the magic happens in that second stage where one shows diligence and discipline in honing a topic. One can move from the superficial to the substantial (to paraphrase my prior post) by including these four things:
  1. Analysis of primary texts
  2. Use of secondary texts
  3. Curation of content  
  4. Social proof
I would like to use the novel, Moby Dick, to teach each of these four components, on the way to asking my students to follow this algorithm for deepened blogging.

1. Ishmael Analyzes Primary Texts
Students of literature are expected to have first-hand experiences with the works they are studying. Real literary critics do not rely exclusively or even principally on secondary texts -- analysis and commentary by others. 

Ishmael models this very sort of wrestling with a primary text in Chapter 3, "The Spouter Inn." There, he discusses a large oil painting in that inn which requires "diligent study and a series of systematic visits to it" to make sense of. At first, the "unaccountable masses of shades and shadows" suggest "chaos bewitched." This was a working interpretation, a first pass at understanding the painting in question. And "by dint of much and earnest contemplation, and oft repeated ponderings" he decides this is not a bad interpretation.

But Ishmael is not content with a first pass. He looks closer, and knows that he can't draw his conclusions without taking into account the "black mass" centered in the picture. He gives a vivid description of it, which leads to further speculations -- this might be a midnight gale, a depiction of the four primal elements, a blasted heath, some winter scene. At last he decides this is a painting of a whale being impaled on the broken masts of a wrecked ship. And while he appropriately acknowledges input from "the aggregated opinions of many aged persons with whom I conversed upon the subject," he sets this interpretation forth as "a final theory of my own."

Whether we are analyzing a literary text or a digital phenomenon, we must show ourselves actively analyzing and interpreting. But this goes beyond merely expressing a personal point of view or responding with more emotion than thought -- an all too common component of contemporary blogging. This isn't Ishmael freaking out about Queequeg's appearance. No, in this chapter we see Ishmael studying, looking carefully and repeatedly, and then offering interpretations backed up by reference to specific features of the painting he examined.

Ishmael demonstrates this same careful, personal analysis of his topic within chapters that reflect his own experience with and reasoned reflections about various aspects of whales or whaling, such as in Chapter 86, "The Tail" or Chapter 92, "Ambergris" or the more famous chapter showing off Ishmael's interpretive prowess, Chapter 42, "The Whiteness of the Whale." Even when Ishmael fails to arrive at secure interpretations, what is always clear is that we are experiencing Ishmael's close reading of the phenomena, and this carries with it a clarity and authority of its own.

2. Captain Ahab Consults Secondary Texts
Setting aside the inherent moral problems in Ahab's quest, let's admire the captain as someone who accomplished his task -- of finding, if not defeating, Moby Dick. He did this by being an able analyst, bringing to bear not only his own experience but drawing upon that of others. Ahab didn't keep a captain's blog, but through Ishmael we see him as a careful and conscientious student who gathered and attended to the relevant secondary materials in his quest. 

In chapter 44, “The Chart,” Captain Ahab is shown pondering over ocean maps. “Almost every 
night they were brought out; almost every night some pencil marks were effaced, and others were substituted. For with the charts of all four oceans before him, Ahab was threading a maze of currents and eddies.” He surveyed the pertinent landscape (the oceans) and consulted available information (the maps) and engaged these sources through annotation.

In blogging on a certain topic, I might ask myself whether I have analyzed the pertinent landscapes of my topic or consulted the available "maps" that have charted the way. Am I being blown by every wind on this topic, or am I 'threading the maze of currents and eddies' to bring some discipline and coherence to my topic? 

If I begin to get serious about a topic, that seriousness shows up in how I have been willing to find, consult, quote, and refer to the secondary texts that complement my personal analysis.

3. Ishmael Curates
There comes a point when you aren't taking a topic seriously until you are curating content about it -- gathering and organizing the relevant material in order to make sense of it. One can view the entirety of Moby Dick as Ishmael's curation of whaling lore, but there are component sections that manifest curation more clearly.

In the "Extracts" section that begins the novel, Ishmael (or perhaps more accurately, Melville) has culled a wide variety of sources for quotations about whaling. Whatever we might think of this section in terms of the story (a tough way to get people interested), there is an authority that accrues to the writer or the narrator by manifesting so many pertinent passages. Consider what this did to Ishmael / Melville in constructing the larger tale. That's right, in the act of curating content, the choices made to include something -- and where and how to do so -- are interpretive acts that pave the way for interpretations to follow.

That kind of intelligent organizing of relevant content is the main activity of Chapter 32, "Cetology." There,  Ishmael analyzes “what the best and latest authorities have laid down” about whales in an effort to create “some systematized exhibition of the whale in his broad genera." This takes things a step further than the Extracts section, which has no clear ordering principle. Ishmael applies the categories of book formats to make sense of whale species, identifying the “folio” whale, the “octavo” whale, the
“dudecimo” whale, etc. Ultimately this classification system breaks down -- "Oh Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience!” he complains. But this is not wasted effort. New knowledge is acquired at the very points at which existing schema prove inadequate. In short, curation -- upon almost any principle -- not only makes sources easier to draw upon, but conclusions easier to draw. Curation is interpretation.

With online writing and digital tools, curation is a pleasurable and purposeful activity. I might ask myself if I have curated the appropriate content for the topic I'm studying, or if I have used the appropriate curating tool. At the very least, one should gather textual sources and scholarly authorities. But curation can include the organization of images, videos, animations, bookmarks, social media posts, etc. One might even curate people, organizing a network of specialists or interested parties who care about the topic.

4. Ahab Seeks Social Proof
Now, Ahab had some social issues. One might even call him anti-social. I'm not calling Ahab a paragon of personal relationships, nor would I call him a model leader. But if we can look past the devil in the dude, we can see how well Ahab worked his social network to get what he was after. Not sure I would friend him on Facebook if I had the chance, but Ahab knew the power of people to help him reach his goal. Above, I praised Ahab as a diligent student who used others' secondary texts to help him. But Ahab did not merely consult the writings or records of others; he directly communicated with others who could help him. In today's parlance, Ahab used a PLN (a personal or a professional learning network). There was actionable knowledge to be tapped from within the community of fellow whalers, and tap it he did.

Whenever the Pequod encounter another ship, Ahab suddenly became very social (in a limited but effective way). In encountering the Albatross in Chapter 52: "Ship ahoy! Have ye seen the White Whale?" shouts Ahab. When encountering the Jeroboam in Chapter 71: "'Hast thou seen the White Whale?' demanded Ahab." In Chapter 100, it's a ship from London that Ahab addresses in the same vein: "Ship ahoy! Hast seen the White Whale?" And again with the ship Bachelor in Chapter 115: "Hast seen the White Whale?"

You start to get the idea that Ahab has a singular purpose, and it has to do with finding this white whale. Each ship that Ahab encountered gave him either positive or negative knowledge about his quest, and he used this to adjust his plans. There is an authority to the present, lived experience of people who are involved in comparable if not identical occupations. Ahab worked his social network, and he got social proof for his quest. At last, in Chapter 128, when The Pequod meets the Rachel, Ahab gets the positive reply he sought.

Ahab succeeds in using his network to crowdsource for information, but he doesn't follow up so well in acting upon the feedback he receives. When in Chapter 131 he asks The Delight about their encounter with Moby Dick, he is told "the harpoon is not yet forged that will [kill the white whale]." This statement is punctuated by the corpse of a sailor from The Delight, killed in the pursuit of Moby Dick, dropping into the water during their conversation. 

One result of making clear what you are looking for by communicating this frequently to your social network is that others start to carry forward your quest for you. In Chapter 91, when the Pequod meets the Rose-Bud, it is not Ahab who asks them about the white whale; it is Stubb. Now, one might say he was under orders or that he had been formally deputized to continue Ahab's quest. But the fact of the matter is that it is human nature to want to assist others in finding what they clearly wish to find. 

In today's world of highly socialized media, where sharing is common, we are constantly forwarding to others others' interests and quests. This may be as formal as inviting someone to contribute to your friend's Kickstarter campaign. But it can be as casual, and as influential, as forwarding to someone the link to a document or article that one knows pertains to that person's line of inquiry. This is something that I've written more about in a post called "The Altruistic Scholar."

Bloggers can blog in isolation from the rest of the world, or in isolation from the many relevant people and communities who might care about their ideas if they knew of them. In deepening the academic quality of our blogging, we need to actively seek out communities of interest and connect with individual enthusiasts and experts (beyond just our peers). (See my prior posts about social proof).

When we alert others to our quest, and when we show that we've done the kind of homework that gives our quest some weight and authority -- other people are likely to assist us in our own quests -- which, hopefully, will be less fatal and more productive than Ahab's.