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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Can Literary Criticism be Crowdsourced?

Wednesday, March 28, 2012


They say that research and teaching should ideally be interrelated; so here's a research question for you that has been sparked by my teaching: can literary criticism be crowdsourced?

Before explaining how and why this question might be worth asking, a bit of background on where it comes from. Over the past couple of months, I have been doing a lot of close reading exercises with my OU students. For one module, I ran a discussion forum looking at a short, 20-line excerpt from Marlowe's Doctor Faustus. The forum received around 100 different replies and ideas in response to it. Admittedly, many of my questions were leading ones: to ask students to find an example of enjambment and to say how this characterises Faustus implies that there is enjambment in the passage, and that it plays an important role in our perception of Faustus's mind in turmoil. Answers ranged from the superficial (as one might expect on this First Year generic arts module) to the spectacularly insightful. But what struck me was that across the full spectrum of 100 answers we really got to grips with the extract. Students picked it apart, noticed and explained things that even I - with a trained eye - had missed or not thought about.

At the same time as this was running, I was also marking my way through 60 second year essays looking at a particular passage from Wordsworth's The Prelude. Again, some students spotted the same things that I had thought about when I looked at the passage. But others pointed out methods and approaches that I had not considered. After marking 60 essays on the same text, apart from wanting never to read Wordsworth again (this effect being temporary, I hope), I felt that I had an astonishingly rounded idea about the way in which the language in the extract was working - a better idea than I, as a trained critic, had formed through my own close reading.

Which therefore leads on to my initial question: Can criticism be crowdsourced? Could a Wikicrit work?

Such a question, informed by a twenty-first century model of knowledge creation, would take us ironically back to the gestation of our discipline of English back in the early twentieth century. In the 1920s, I.A. Richards argued that criticism should and could be seen as equivalent to a science. Through the proper training in literary methods of analysis, students and critics should be able to reach the "correct" interpretation of how a text (usually poetry) is functioning, and by extension to reach objective judgements as to its relative value compared to other samples of similar texts. As part of this scientistic methodology, Richards and the subsequent New Critical school argued that extraneous conflicting variables ought to be removed. Students and critics should not be told biographical information about the author, since if one knows that a sonnet is by Shakespeare one might naturally be led to evaluate it more positively than if one knows it to be by Middleton. To prove his point, Richard used to set his students a test, asking them to identify and evaluate various unattributed works by various authors ("good" and "bad") and to "comment freely in writing" upon them. He called this test, "practical criticism." Typically, students failed, spectacularly. In a letter, Richards wrote:
Oh strange beyond report, thought or belief, all the Candidates … with only one exception prefer Mrs Wilcox [who provided the really worthless piece] to Landor, Hopkins, Belloc, De Quincey, and Jeremy Taylor at their very best!
Despite these perceived failings, Richards' 1929 book on Practical Criticism which emerged from the experiment cast a long light (or shadow, depending on your views) over the discipline. To this day, the rebranded "close reading" forms an integral part of literary courses.

The influence of practical criticism has not gone unchallenged. Historicists would argue that to treat a text as if it is hermetically sealed from the culture which produced it is naive. We can only properly understand Shakespeare if we understand the conditions of Renaissance theatre and the Elizabethan court in which he was writing. Political forms of criticism (Marxism, feminism) have taught us that we always read from a prior ideological position, such that stripping away the marks of authorial identity from a poem is only to remove the tip of the iceberg. The deeply ingrained cultural presuppositions still lie beneath the surface and support the way in which we read. Indeed, Richards himself aknowledged that "The precise conditions of this test are not duplicated in our everyday commerce with literature."

But whilst we should be aware of the inherent artificiality of the "close reading" methodology, a crowdsourced practical criticism might still be productive. My students had been taught about Marlowe's life and works, and Wordsworth's relationships in Romanticism (indeed, the latter was vital to a full understanding of the set passage, given that in it Wordsworth was addressing an unnamed "friend," who we can deduce was Coleridge). They were thus to a certain extent reading through a historicist lens.

However, when running my discussion forum and marking, I noticed that over the course of 50 to 100 comments on the same piece, these issues balanced out to their proper proportions. If I was editorially to represent the range of arguments and ideas in a summary essay, I would have certainly introduced issues of context (Marlowe's performance possibilities, Wordsworth's links with Coleridge); but for the most part I would have drawn attention to issues of form and literary method, issues that any single person - myself included - might have missed. Students were not asked to evaluate whether they thought the passages were relatively good or bad - and in any case most would have noticed that the fact that they were on university syllabi naturally implied the former - but I suspect that had they done so, I as "editor" would have found views coming down democratically on one side. Some "practical criticisms" may have been outliers. However, by the end of the two exercises I had a reasonably firm view of a consensus about how the language was working. The "crowd" had achieved a solid, crowdsourced, practical criticism - and one in which ideological prejudice would have been reduced by the sheer quantity and diversity of respondents.

Of course, that word "editorially" that describes my position implies that a crowdsourced criticism would not, after all, be doing much new. What does a single scholar do when they begin a new project? He or she reads and assimilates a wide range of existing critical views on the subject, to triangulate and form his or her own opinion. Before they can write, first they must understand what the existing consensus is. However, there is still a sense in which the single scholar tries to come up with their own view in opposition to the mass - after all, there is no point producing a work (other than for textbooks) that simply recapitulates existing views. By definition, in order to be published scholars must contribute something new to the field.

Clearly, a crowdsourced practical criticism would not be able to contribute something new in this sense; it could not put that text into context or relationships with other works by the same or other authors, which is what most professional scholarship is about. I am talking about crowdsourcing close reading of individual texts. Such a model of multiple anonymous authorship might be an efficient - perhaps even more efficient - way of doing this type of niche, microscopic criticism. One of Wikipedia's "five pillars" is:
We strive for articles that document and explain the major points of view in a balanced and impartial manner. We avoid advocacy and we characterize information and issues rather than debate them. In some areas there may be just one well-recognized point of view; in other areas we describe multiple points of view, presenting each accurately and in context, and not presenting any point of view as "the truth" or "the best view".
The risk of individual scholarship is precisely that the one scholarly view is presented as being the "best view" or "the truth," when of course with literary texts do not sustain single interpretations, much though the discipline may adopt scientistic ideals of objectivity. A crowdsourced criticism would remind us of the multiplicity of interpretations - Wikicrit would always be subject to new additions or alterations - whilst at the same time it could perhaps arrive at a more insightful reading of a text than any one reader (professional or otherwise) could attain.

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Posted by Alistair at 10:51 am

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