Sew the Bear: A Meditation on the Place of the List in Academic Life
University of Central Florida
Craig J. Saper
University of Maryland Baltimore County
Citation: Mauer, Barry and Craig J. Saper. “Sew the Bear: A Meditation on the Place of the List in Academic Life.” Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures, no. 19, 2019. doi:10.20415/hyp/019.g03
Abstract: When anthropologists and archaeologists seek to know how people lived––not what they say they value, but what they actually value––they look at trash, including yesterday’s grocery or to-list, for evidence of actual behavior. This essay runs an experiment on a theory of, and through, to-do lists. The to-do list theory here interrogates the demands of the academic institution to fulfill a list of duties. The academic institution has quantified knowledge production to only include “productivity” without regard to arguments about what counts as knowledge. What gets on the list, and what is not on the list? One can easily imagine an academic noting that, “None of my colleagues will ever read this lyric essay. They have likely never read any of my scholarship except to check-off a quantifiable box -- amount of peer-reviewed articles ___.” The university committee members could not care less about the qualities of the work, its texture, its form. Nothing counts on the institution’s list unless, of course, it brings prestige or external funding to the university. In that way, this essay fills a space on a list, though it aims beyond that to make us reconsider the value of knowledge production within academic institutions.
Sew the Bear
- Read “The Agent-Based Modeling Canvas: A Modeling Lingua Franca for Computational Social Science”
- Read EAB handouts
- Prepare presentation for Social Sim group
- Respond to R’s class proposal
- Do assignment for FCTL online course for session 3
- Add D to planning for Ghent
- Send Fast Track info to FSU people
Reply “no” to J
- Reply to S
I dream of the day when I have deleted everything off my list and there is nothing left. On that day, I will lie in the soft grass in the sun and feel at peace. Until then, I have a list and when it is not in front of me my mind is thinking about it, prioritizing it, adding to it, feeling stressed by it. I am incomplete until my list is finished.
Footnote: The completed list exists only as an asymptotic ideal. Once one thing is crossed-off, more appear as if to fill a void. The dream of the “soft grass in the sun” is a necessary lie that both makes the list possible and its completion impossible. If lists of topics, categories, procedures, and deadlines form a pillar of academic life, then citations, readings, annotations, and footnotes form another.
The muse did not learn to write by starting with the lyric or the epic. She first wrote lists. Bob paid his taxes with three oxen and two jugs of oil. He still owes a cow and three bushels of wheat. Literature came later, unless you consider the list to be a form of literature, which I do.
Footnote: With every detailed list comes the inevitable stray-mark, what Roland Barthes called the asemic -- not yet signifying what's next in the literate list -- but signaling how even the most careful accounting has a remainder that will never make it on to the list.
The list, though seemingly simple, is anything but. It assumes a system of categories and presents an inventory. Category: things I have to do today, and things to buy at the store. On my computer: lists of folders filled with lists of files. These categories and inventories are implicated in complex structures of social relations and sign systems.
Footnote: Those “complex structures of social relations and sign systems” are now tied up with social media and Do It Yourself (with lots of help). With YouTube the category of DIY repairs now includes the list of procedural logic to fix, for an example from my recent list, a heating element in a dryer which if not installed perfectly will mean re-repairing the electrical wires melting off until you remember to buy special shrink wrap connectors. A list is only as good as the processes and procedures one must use to cross it off once and for all instead of every month or two.
Without my list, I have a hard time focusing. I read for brief periods and I keep switching between activities. I call it “back-burnering.” When I’ve worked for a while on one thing and feel my attention slipping, I switch to another thing (usually another open file on my computer desktop), thereby moving what I was working on to the backburner.
Footnote: The difference between getting nothing done, and seemingly everything, is the line between serial-ADD or what Barthes called panic-boredom -- finish one thing and on to the next without pause -- and with overlap. But, of course, the very thing that makes the hyper-productivity possible, the lists, also is the threat of never finishing anything on the list because, like a row of dominoes, once you've missed one deadline then everything else on the list gets pushed and perhaps pushed over. When I complete one thing, and send it off, ahead of schedule, editors and collaborators notice, and instead of giving my list a break, they send more as a taunt. Add this if you dare.
Anthropologists and archaeologists have changed our understanding of significance. Sure, we still look at the official pronouncements of a society’s major figures and institutions. But if we want to know how people lived – not what they say they value but what they actually value – we look at their trash. In the trash heaps: evidence of actual behavior. In the trash heap: yesterday’s grocery list.
Footnote: One could imagine someone writing an entire essay on their to-do lists -- absurd? It would be part of the genre that builds an argument from, for example, a one-line fragment of an imagined list by Friedrich Nietzsche: ... forgot my umbrella. With the expectation that Friedrich needs to find his umbrella -- so he would have crossed it off his to-do list.
I have felt a sense of unease about making lists on my computer, though I’ve been doing it for over two decades. My concern is I leave no trace of my trash. I use the same list and change the list many times a day – adding to it, deleting things from it. This practice leaves me with the sense that I don’t do enough because I can’t look back at what I’ve accomplished. Of course, I have a CV that shows significant achievements (significant to the institution). But it doesn’t include books I’ve read, contacts I’ve made, or papers I’ve graded. And CV work takes time. I have a list of over thirty things to add to my CV. Looking at my daily list gives hardly any sense of what I’ve done, but only what I will do.
Footnote: My pet-peeve. Knowledge depends on us reading other people's work; writing reviews both for potential publishers, and after publication for journals -- for other readers. The foundation of knowledge? It is readers all the way down. Yet, anything that doesn’t make it into my works cited page is missing from the list of achievements. And, yet our reading lists are everything -- I recently made a list of my books because my university was moving me to a smaller office and had “no space to store your books” because “why do you need all those books” -- so we made a list in preparation to discard at least a thousand books. I can keep three hundred. I need to winnow my list.
I have considered using my lists differently. One method would be to keep things I’ve done on the list, but just put a line through them.
Tell B. that you have too much on the to-do list to add a lyrical list essay.
Another method would be to keep a second list of things that are done – just cut and paste from the “to-do” list to the “done” list. Then I could see the patterns more clearly. The problem, of course, is that it’s too much. If I do an average of 10 things on my list per day, that’s 3650 things per year. How much of this “done stuff” do I need to record?
Footnote: √ also works.
When I think of lists as category systems, I think of Borges and his “Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge.” It contains a list of all animals, divided into 14 types:
- Those that belong to the emperor
- Embalmed ones
- Those that are trained
- Suckling pigs
- Mermaids (or Sirens)
- Fabulous ones
- Stray dogs
- Those that are included in this classification
- Those that tremble as if they were mad
- Innumerable ones
- Those drawn with a very fine camel hair brush
- Et cetera
- Those that have just broken the flower vase
- Those that, at a distance, resemble flies
My lists make few nods to coherence other than it being a list of things to do.
Footnote: Reply to B's reply. One list always implicates another list. The list of bees always depends on the list of flowers. In fact, the bee without the particular flower has no place on the list except in the category of “Those that, at a distance, resemble flies.”
Tasks related to my academic and personal live/s find their places on one list. I have a longer list with lower priority things. On that list have been the same things for years and years – write a will, repaint ironwork on front porch.
Footnote: A last will and testament is the most interesting of listing and accounting -- since it is your one definitely read posthumous publication. You may never publish that next book or article, but you will at least have readers for that final list -- although you won't have the luxury of being among readers after it is “read” to your heirs. We seek to protect the fiduciary will of the dead, especially the wealth of the ruling class. Protecting lists and lists of ideas and topics for future, unrealized, projects is another matter. Novelists have these sorts of agreements, with Harper Lee's will being the most infamous recent case, but, as with Lee, once the genie, or rights, are out, it is impossible to put them back in. Posthumously, one can expect that everything on every list will be mined by someone to distribute your every thought, list, or whim, and embarrass you and contradict your goals and intentions -- not just for your 15 minutes of fame, but for eternity. Yet, do not fret; the ruling class can protect their economic wealth and keep it from being distributed to the general public. Even posthumously, they use their hordes of lucre to protect their money-as-free-speech, and readers will marvel at their listing of belongings and wealth accumulation. The academics give away everything on their lists both personal, private, and concerning disciplinary knowledge. Maybe they should have lists of ideas not to be shared? “I hereby leave the following list of ideas to my daughter to never be shared with anyone: . . ..”
With each item, there is a feeling, a sense of obligation mixed with various degrees of attraction and repulsion, pleasure and pain.
Footnote: A footnote is a promissory note -- “borrowed this idea or line from so-and-so, and with this note I have fulfilled my obligation to that informant.” The debt is so great, the obligations so many, and the return so distant and obscure that an academic learns to efface the anxiety of influence with claims of supposed “originality” -- and certainly who would claim that one academic’s list is identical to, or lifted from, another’s? We should publish our lists as lyric essays.
I am equally fascinated with the inventory. As a music lover and former record collector (I still have a few hundred records but no longer buy vinyl), I was struck by the ordering principles laid out in High Fidelity. Records can be arranged by genre, by alphabetic order, by year released, year acquired, most recently listened to, and – most intriguingly - by girlfriend at the time of listening. The archivist orders things according to a set of institutional standards – the Dewey Decimal System, for example – but the mind doesn’t work that way. We make associations and inferences in all directions, using all kinds of logic.
Footnote: Knowledge of music is so inextricably linked to lists and list-making that we even have a term that every musical performance depends on: the play-list; the play-list suggests some kind of innate connection to the supposedly separate activities. The associational list might also suggest the limitations of the list on the printed-page -- perhaps lists are already evolving beyond print-literacy's 2-dimensionality (i.e., 1, 2, 3, down the page and marking time in one direction) to include musical and echoic and visceral relationships among each note. Repetition, harmony, and allusion now come into play. And, a 1, 2, 3 ...
Because I believe in the power of discovery, I want to keep alive the role of chance. Chance is the accidental encounter of one thing with another thing. It exists somewhere between pure order and pure chaos (not that either can be absolutely pure): Lautréamont’s “beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella.”
Footnote: Cage’s notion of chance was to use multiple rules and strict constraints to avoid the habituated response; the force of habit is where ideological and reified ideas (about composition and listening) reside. That said, it is crucial to allow the sewing-machine’s seams to show in every montage so that the reader can retrace the list of sources even back to an imagined note about an umbrella potentially left behind. The so-called chance strategies could just as easily be called constraining-spurs. See also Derrida’s Spurs.
The engine of chance is constraint. A set of possibilities. Two nouns and a verb.
Footnote: See note above, which is an uncanny coincidence since the note for #13 was written before the addition of #14. Academics often own pets -- especially cats. I suspect that Maple is a dog, but maybe that doesn’t matter. Academics are inherently cat people. And, cats have been famously associated with the avant-garde since in mid-18th century, first in Paris and later in London, among bohemian artists and writers. The cats may infect their owners with a parasite that makes the owners love their cats somewhat irrationally, and in this way cats became associated with the Surreal associations of these starving artists. By the early 19th century, children began playing with cats, and around the 1850s, “some cats were seen on paper fans, matchbooks, bookmarkers, and the like” (Lynnlee, p. 28). By the 1870s, interest in cats as pets had become so widespread that writers referred to it as a “cat fever,” “cat cult,” “cat fancy,” or “cat craze.” “Of late years there has been a rapid and promising growth of what disaffected and alliterative critics call the ‘cat cult,’ and poets and painters vie with one another in celebrating the charms of this long-neglected pet” (Repplier AQ. Agrippina. Atlantic Monthly. 1892;69:760). Although #14 seems like a personal chore unrelated to academia, pets might be fueling the experimental tenor of academia. List making may be a symptom of a cat-induced parasitic ailment.
Are there discoveries waiting in my list? In most cases, I choose what the things on the list are. My academic life is somewhat unusual. I have carved out a degree of freedom. Sure, there are bureaucratic requirements, as with any job. But no one tells me what to study or research or how to write or where to publish. No one tells me what to teach or how to teach it. I am open to advice and I seek it, but I have remarkable freedom. I check the boxes on my annual evaluations, but I can do so by publishing comics and teaching about propaganda and working on a grant project with computer scientists.
Footnote: The demand of the academic institution depends only on fulfilling a list of duties. It has quantified knowledge production to only include “productivity” without regard to arguments about what counts as knowledge. One can easily imagine an academic noting that, “None of my colleagues will ever read this lyric essay. They have likely never read any of my scholarship except to check-off a quantifiable box -- amount of peer-reviewed articles ___.” The university could not care less about the qualities of the work; they will not read the comics mentioned in #15, nor will they read this lyric essay -- it would be a chore for a digital bot or administrator to add it to their list of duties. Nothing counts on the institution’s list unless, of course, it brings prestige or external funding to the university. This essay fills a space on a list.
Paul McCartney: “Looking up, I noticed I was late.” Some things are time sensitive. Whenever possible, I add a due date.
Footnote: “I'm late” is the phrase women associate with a potential pregnancy. And, a “due date,” of course, marks a mother's labor in giving birth. Perhaps GLBTQ Boards will propose absolutely particular schedules not regulated by the abstract rules of patriarchy's time-management systems. Instead the utopian lists and due dates would be connected to our own particular bodies' schedules. What would that world look like? Why not? What not give it a try? Or, is the institution inherently patriarchal at the level of lists, schedules, procedures?
But a due date gives no hint to how long the work will take. It might take 30 seconds or a year. If I start to feel stressed, I remind myself that no one dies because an English professor is late. But maybe the English professor who is always late one day has no job. The tasks that require more time might need lists of their own lists – sub-lists.
Footnote: A famous theorist in Rhetoric at UC-Berkeley was asked to teach a course on symptomology at the medical school. She went to a few meetings. In one of the meetings, someone mentioned that adding this new course to the curriculum meant that they would have to cut another course to make room in the tightly scheduled list of courses. The theorist imagined herself in some imagined future of ill-health. The heart surgeon would greet the famous theorist as they all entered the operating room. The surgeon would tell her how much she had learned in the famous theorists’ imagined course for medical students. Of course, there was a trade-off, the heart surgeon would explain, and she was, sadly, not able to take the course in heart surgery, but not to worry, she knew Derrida’s work backward and forward. The famous theorist bowed-out graciously. Years ago when the famous theorist was my mentor, she asked that I not reveal her name if I did publish about the incident since she did not want to make any of her potential and imagined surgeons feel bad.
With the list constantly disappearing, I forget what I’ve done. Was it worthwhile? Does it amount to anything? “I am a generalist,” I say. “That won’t fly,” they say. I grasp that I needed a level of abstraction that would put it all in perspective – “all things are rhetoric,” I announce.
Footnote: Although I was involved in the textbook project on rhetoric, it did not continue after our first rejection. If I gave up on a project on my list after one, two, three, or four rejections, then I would have published little. I collect rejections on a special list -- some are hilarious. Most point to the absurdities of the system involved in peer-review; only the acquisition editor matters. Clear that hurdle and you are much more likely to eventually get a book contract. Nowadays, authors can track the files they send -- and have a message sent when someone looks at, or downloads, a file (e.g., a book proposal). One recent rejection from a prestigious university press located in New England was from an assistant's email, without a name signing-off, and was sent without the proposal ever looked at, read, or considered. So much for peer-review.
The lyric poem is not an epic. An epic covers a large area of time and space. It contains many events and places. It is not trapped in a single perspective. A lyric is shorter, about smaller things, and orients the person to the world. It is about a feeling, but one not entirely reducible to words. It relies on the analogy, a kind of algebraic formula: A is to B as C is to D. The relationship of C to D is known (it is the vehicle). The relationship of A to B is unknown (it is the tenor), but its meaning emerges when juxtaposed with C and D.
Footnote: The lyric depends on the analogy between a list of attributes or experiences and a fictional voice (or in this case two voices) of the narrator. My favorite lyric poems are about making poetry -- a meta-, or second level, lyric poetry. So, it is not a direct reflection or address, but a lyric echoic sounding board or hall of mirrors.
The lyric poem is thousands of years old, the essay only a few hundred. The lyric essay is a hybrid, part poetry, part prose, but hard to know where one ends and the other begins. In this moment, I don’t have a vehicle for my lyric essay. I have a tenor: “I am to my list as C is to D.” What is C and D?
Footnote: Wordsworth wrote “Anecdote for Fathers” and we answer with “Anecdotes for Academics.” I misread the above as “I have a tenor: I am too busy for my list.”
Havelock argued that one of the advantages of writing is that it could be reviewed. In it, patterns could be found. Thus, Aristotle could see the narrative patterns in the works of Sophocles, which enabled him to create his Poetics.
Footnote: Abstracting patterns allowed for the notion of themes, concepts, and ideas to develop in the era that Havelock describes, and now we are looking for an analogous de-abstraction from the ideas back to the lyric body. Before he suicided, Spalding Gray produced his “Monster in a Box,” a narrative about the process of writing a tome of a novel. He would point to a page in the large stack of pages in his unfinished novel, and describe, in detail, what was happening in his life at that moment when he was working on that page in the never-finished novel. The poignant anecdotes in the performance become a meta-narrative and a list of annotations to the process of writing a book or essay. It is a profound performance as it relocates the narrator's body and soul back into the abstract process of writing.
No man is an island, and my list is not just about me. It is about relationships and without knowledge of my relationships the list gives hardly a clue to its significance. J, my collaborator on many scholarly works, told me about the release of the Hüsker Dü podcasts. I want to talk with him about it so I add it to my list.
Footnote: In the context of this list, Hūsker Dū is also a popular board game in Denmark that translates to “Do You Remember?” -- It could be the name of this, and every, list. In a perhaps apocryphal story, the band asked someone from Scandinavia for a name for their band, from Minnesota. With the name of this game, they named their band, and perhaps created a sound track for reading this list?
We live in a world in which we are increasingly surveilled and assessed. And we participate in the surveillance and assessing of others. The COACHE survey is one such exercise, in which I watch the university and report on it. I report on myself in my annual evaluations, award binders, and promotion portfolios. The university is productive. I am productive. Algorithms are making lists of my activities all the time, and they are processed and sold and used in ways that I can only imagine.
Footnote: What falls outside of the quantification of academic assessment? What is the remainder that is not incorporated into the reports and survey results? This essay, if published, will be a check mark on an assessment, and that assessment will be assessed, ad infinitum. Only the marginalia and annotations escape this assessment regime. In fact, how will I even begin to place it on an annual assessment form? Editor of an article? co-author? Lyrical notes have no place in this regime -- and I will be punished if I write-in a category that as-of-yet does not exist.
Am I productive enough? Others publish more than I do. They get more grants than I do. They get better teaching evaluations than I do. My friends tell me not to compare myself to others. I get it ... don’t put yourself down. Sure. But there is more to it. I am looking for mentors, for pathways, for strategies I don’t have. How can I get these things unless I compare myself to others and see what they have done that I haven’t done?
Footnote: Publish and perish. To get an interview you now need a book either published or at least pending review. The contradiction is that you are being judged by future colleagues who have nothing like your productivity or excellence. And, if you have any desperation, arrogance, or resentment, then you will be rejected. Your teaching load will make your current level of productivity impossible, but there will still be a demand to continue to make lists of the many peer-reviewed publications that you have produced since the quantification of everything has demands for lists -- lists to assess.
Do I do things that aren’t on my list? Sure. I read blogs, drink tea, and play with the dogs. The list is for the non-routine. And I can be spontaneous – driving past a new store, I make a mental note to return and maybe I put that on my list.
Footnote: My imagined ideal lyric poem is a series of footnotes and lists that almost correspond to the mundane of everyday life as if Gertrude Stein wrote the lists of my day.
I hesitate to put on my list “learn another language.” I have studied four (French, Russian, Spanish, and old English). I have virtually no comprehension in any of them. Learn programming languages. I struggled with HTML. I may die before I gain knowledge of these things. Am I ok with that?
Footnote: Footnotes are like the chorus in a lyric confession. The notes tell us what the wider community of voices thinks? Is this acceptable? Something to regret? Who else has thought these thoughts? Where can the reader find these thoughts in other essays, poems, and books? The footnotes are a choral background to the main actors.
My grandmother used to tell me I had “big eyes.” What she meant is that I would take on more than I could do. I filled my plate with food but couldn’t eat all of it. I see knowledge in the world around me and I want all of it. I see the projects I could do and I want to do all of them. I go through phases of saying “yes” more often and then, overwhelmed, saying “no” more often. Saying yes is more satisfying. My colleague told me to under-promise and over-deliver.
Footnote: That advice makes sense in business where you have promised outcomes. What if we applied the advice to “under-promise and over-deliver” to other aspects of life? Love? Socio-political thought and theory? -- immediately it sounds like a business proposition. In love we promise to “lasso the moon” as in It's A Wonderful Life, but end-up not delivering, which in Hollywood-morality is the secret of happiness. What about in our imagining possible sociopolitical futures? Why not wildly promise a utopia of mutual satisfactions and a revolution of the word and a happiness unimaginable? It may not work out, but the other path is resignation, subjugation, and defeat to the business gods.
There are goals in my head that aren’t on my list. Save the world. How can that be on anyone’s list? When would you cross that off? And yet I don’t know a teacher who doesn’t have that goal in mind. Maybe they understand it differently – maybe they want to cure all the diseases. I just want people to value the right things, to overcome denial, and to understand limits. There’s a limit to what humans can do to the Earth. There’s a limit to what humans can do to ourselves and to each other before we are sick. And we have crossed these limits. How do we achieve sanity? How can the collective subject come to know itself? To see its blind spots? How can we reach these goals in an age of electronic media and artificial intelligence? In an age of surveillance and the spectacle? In an age of propaganda and right-wing cults?
Footnote: In the UK, the system is called REF, and the criteria includes “impact” more than quantity of books published. So, once we determine that it could be otherwise, we open the door to recognizing that our current system might have once made sense, but no longer does make sense. That said, I actually enjoy writing -- so, I can also imagine the assessors taking that away from me.
The list was the first form of writing. All other kinds followed. Taxes had to be paid. Debts had to be accounted for. Administration grew. Hierarchies, regulations, procedures, discipline.
Footnote: The nightmare is when the accounting changes in mid-stream, and no one knows what the new “tax scam” will hold. We know that many “deductions” will no longer be allowed, and that our taxes will rise because we live in a state that supports higher education in the US using state tax revenues. The list is changing, and no one knows where they stand. The list is not our friend.
I like the lists the Surrealists created about film directors: “Watch/Don’t Watch.” I created my own list about music: “Listen/Don’t Listen.”
Footnote: The avant-garde also had books that no one should be forced to read -- the long 19th century novels by Thackeray, for example. With every list comes a negative list, often hidden, but loaded and treacherous. We only read a few of the modernists, and mostly gossip about those instead of reading them. How to find the books and essays missing from the must read lists?
The first rule of creative writing: Find your voice. Barthes understood there is something else going on – a “self” is a collage of fragments help together by tissues of myth.
Footnote: Identity infects everything with an obligation to find something authentic. Is it lost? It is covered? What if it is right there on the surface? Should we uncover the phantom threads and tangents?
Everything breaks down. Everything we want to keep from breaking down needs maintenance. Everywhere I look, something needs maintenance – the cars, the house, my body.
Footnote: With the increase of man-made wild weather, everything breaks down. This year alone we have been hit with a cyclone-bomb (that apparently is a technical term), and a super-cyclone. Fires, hurricanes, floods, avalanches, tsunamis, droughts, famine, and those are now regular, if not normal, events. And, I’m writing these words with my dwelling’s electric, water, and indoor plumbing off for a week. Everything breaks down. Infrastructure is crumbling. The grid is failing. The seas they are a rising. And, I'm wearing a wool cap and snow jacket inside to keep from freezing.
The sum of these obligations annoys me. I accumulate. I depreciate. I fight entropy.
Footnote: A list is elastic and, therefore, entropic. Annoyance is the comedic side of tragedy. I was crossing the street near a college campus in the crosswalk, and a kid dashed in front of me probably to get to class on time for the exam, and a car didn't stop and hit him. The kid turned and the look on his face was annoyance; he would certainly be late for class, miss the exam, and who knows what else. His body and head hit the pavement. Blood poured out, and I saw the look of someone near death. It was not a profound look; it was annoyance at the inconvenience and the unexpected inability to meet an obligation.
Footnote: √ Sew the bear.