Edison’s Incandescent Lamp: Taking Robert Frost’s “Literate Farmer” Literally

"What's a star doing big as a baseball?" (Photo (c) Robert Goldwitz)
“What’s a star doing big as a baseball?” (Photo (c) Robert Goldwitz, 2013)

Below is the abstract for a panel paper I will give at the American Literature Association Conference in Boston, May 2013. The Robert Frost Society hosts the panel.

More than just a poem about two men debating the merits of scientific achievement, Robert Frost’s “The Literate Farmer and the Planet Venus: A Dated Popular-Science Medley on a Mysterious Light Recently Observed in the Western Sky at Evening” is a direct challenge to the reader’s sense of security about his own beliefs. In the poem, a stranger appears at a farmer’s doorstep one night. The stranger asks about the bright light in the sky, which he assumes is the planet Venus. The farmer, however, believes it is an “incandescent lamp” installed by Thomas Edison to lengthen the workday, much to the stranger’s astonishment. Critics suggest the farmer’s references to technology, evolution, and religion indicates he is well read and that he only pretends to believe light is a lamp. He takes this position to mock “the values symbolized by Edison,” including technological advancement, unquestioned faith in science, and an emphasis on thrift. The reader’s own incredulousness over the farmer’s notion that an incandescent lamp is the source of sky’s bright light makes it easy to believe he’s playing the devil’s advocate during the debate.

My alternative reading challenges that analysis by accepting the farmer’s belief that the light is, in fact, an incandescent lamp. The farmer is literate, but he represents a man well read in popular science, as the poem’s subtitle suggests. To support this reading, I contextualize the poem within popular print sources from the 1920s that encouraged faith in science and technology, causing readers to value beliefs and ideas backed up by scientific authority and reject any that were not—effectively closing off other avenues of thought.

In shaping his poetic response to this trend, Frost may have been influenced by William James’s “On a Certain Belief,” where James concludes that when beliefs masquerade as immutable facts, our understanding of the world becomes limited. In the essay, James describes his encounter with North Carolinian farmers who live on deforested land. He believes the scene ugly and depressing, but learns the farmers consider the denuded landscape a symbol of progress. James’s insight is that although his belief contradicts the farmers’, both beliefs are valid. Frost’s poem demonstrates that conclusion by leaving the men’s debate unresolved. Such a debate cannot be decided because what we consider a fact is, at bottom, a belief. Facts—scientific or otherwise—are only true and secure if we believe in them. As such Frost cautions the reader against dismissing another’s beliefs if they do not agree with his own, no matter how ludicrous they might seem. A better position remains open to questions and contradictions that perpetually challenge beliefs, including the ones posited by science.

Student-Led Discussions

(c) 2012 Robert Goldwitz
(c) 2012 Robert Goldwitz

“21st c classroom needs to be about thinking, collaborating, and creating #pk20”
(Tanya Sasser)

In the “Tales of Gotham: NYC in Literature” course I taught this semester, I challenged my students to lead all the class discussions. The responsibility for leading rotated among small groups of 3 or 4 students who were encouraged to master Prezi to present their questions.

This ongoing assignment had several pedagogical goals:

  • To make my classroom student-centered
  • To use technology with purpose
  • To help students learn to ask great questions so they might discover excellent answers.

The idea of the student-centered classroom challenged many of my students. Initially, some resisted the idea of working in groups. Most students were unskilled at creating decent presentations. They are accustomed listening to a lecture and answering the instructor’s questions, and so they had trouble asking good questions. By “asking,” I mean both senses of the word: They could neither construct a good question nor did they know how to ask it well.

Overcoming Resistance to Group Work
Perhaps the most important factor in helping students overcome their resistance to group work was technology. Specifically, the presentation software they used allowed them to easily collaborate online. They did not have to find a time when they could all meet in the library, for example, to plan the discussion. This was a boon especially to commuter students and for students who work off campus. One student usually took charge of starting the Prezi (or GooglePresentation), and everyone added some questions to it. The end result was that students really enjoyed working in their groups: the technology connected them and the finished project was a group effort that they shared with the class. Learning how to use Prezi together also prepared them to use it in their individual projects, or to tackle other software that was new to them, such as TimeGlider and Vuvox.

Using Technology with a Purpose
As we all know, most students use technology with a purpose every day, all day long. In general, from Facebook to Microsoft Word, they use these familiar tools always for the same purposes. In their other classes, my students are not often asked to explore other digital tools for academic purposes. Out of 80 students in my three classes, only one or two had even heard of Prezi. Most of them loved the way it allowed them to insert background images and add multimedia for their discussions and other projects they did for the class.  It helped teach students how to create an argument through design.

One common problem in these presentations was that students placed too much text in a frame. When shown a frame with a few carefully chosen words and one that was loaded with wordy bullet points or long paragraphs of historical context, students could easily see which frame was the stronger one. By the end of the semester, most students demonstrated the ability to use only essential words in a frame. Needless to say, this exercise develops their critical thinking skills because they must decide which words best articulate their claims and which ones to leave out.

More challenging was the problem with the images they chose for illustrating their frames. The solution led students to become familiar with online image archives. For example, in a discussion on Joseph Mitchell’s 1930s essay “Drunks,” the group illustrated a question with a clip art image of a beer mug, circa 2012. We compared it to an image of a fancy hotel menu from the New York Public Library’s online collection that had been used to illustrate another group’s discussion on Edith Wharton’s short story, “After Holbein.” Though it seems rather obvious why the latter image was much better than the former, many students expressed puzzlement and/or indifference. Through class discussion, they came to understand why a cartoon beer mug sheds little light on New York’s early twentieth-century saloon culture. As a result, they became acquainted with the many fabulous digital archives of images, from the New York Public Library to the Library Congress, and their use of them helped make the course readings far more alive and vital to them than if they’d stuck to the first image to pop up on a Google image search.

Asking questions
Asking a good question was by far the most challenging part of the assignment. This, in fact, surprised me. But it quickly became to clear to me that my students are rarely asked to ask a question in class. They’re much better at answering them, particularly if they’re asked to give factual answers. Thus, many of the questions they asked were about facts: “Who is Peter Lick [a protagonist Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale]?” “What is the weather like in Winter’s Tale?” When these questions were posed, I sensed the rest of the class’s boredom setting in–though few students understood why these questions failed to stimulate them.

After the first discussion, we critiqued the questions themselves. Comparing the more successful questions with others that fell flat, students learned the difference between a simple question and a critical one. They discovered that making a critical question can be as simple as changing the wording. Instead of asking “what is the weather like,” ask “why is the winter important in Winter’s Tale?” or “what role does snow play in Winter’s Tale?” Questions that begin with “how” or “why,” questions that engage wider issues and themes, questions that hone in on the significance of a single word or image that reappears throughout the book, questions that engage context–such as comparing the state of New York City in the 1970s, when Helprin wrote his novel, with the New York portrayed in the book–helped us dig out textual meaning and create lively discussion.

Delivery of the question posed yet another challenge: Often, students would ask the question and then, without taking a breath, proceed to answer it. The best method I’ve found for addressing this is to interrupt the student in a friendly way and ask them to hold off giving their answer. Some students drowned the class with a lot of context before asking their question. Best method: interrupt in a friendly way and ask student to just ask the question and supply the context later, if necessary.


As a result of this assignment, my students brought to their final research projects strong skills at asking probing questions about their chosen subject, and I think this led them to finding better, deeper answers. Standing in front of the class within the safety of their group as they led a discussion, as well as other group presentations, gave them experience in public speaking and prepared them for individual presentations of their final projects at the end of the semester. They were confident, practiced, and provided some terrific answers to good questions they’d posed to themselves.


Why Faulkner and the Digital Humanities Need Each Other: A Short Introduction

Four Definitions of "Digital Humanities"

On July 9, I delivered “Why Faulkner and the Digital Humanities Need Each Other: A Short Introduction” to the 2012 Faulkner & Yoknapatawpha Conference: Fifty Years After Faulkner. The conference is composed of an international array of new and seasoned scholars who come to read and listen to papers. The audience also consists of secondary-school teachers, college and grad students, as well as many with no academic affiliation at all. They attend because they have interest in (and love of) the work of William Faulkner. All kinds of people show up: Scientists, lawyers, economists, retirees, artists, librarians, and ad execs. Past years have seen at least one beautician and a Waffle House waitress (actually, she was a college student from Ukraine working in Florida for the summer). Some in the audience live in Oxford, MS, where the conference is held, and a few (many have died in recent years) knew Faulkner and his family. Thus, speakers are advised to keep academic jargon and pretension to a minimum and enjoy the sizable audience (50-100 people) that usually is very friendly as long as words such as Yoknapatawpha, Beauchamp, and Lafayette are pronounced correctly (or gentle correction will ensue). Given these circumstances, it seemed appropriate to introduce the panel I organized, “Virtualizing Native Soil: Faulkner and the Digital Humanities in the 21st Century,” with a brief and basic explanation of what it means to say “digital humanities.” Aside from this panel, all the papers were traditional in their scope and presentation.

A Prezi illustrates my talk. The presentation sweeps to the next circle every time CLICK appears in the text below.

As many of you have heard, the latest rage in academia is the digital humanities. In fact, the digital humanities is not a passing fad. It is here to stay.

What are, or is, the “digital humanities?”

The precise definition of “digital humanities” is still taking shape, and there are many definitions. Here’s a few I’ve culled from about three hundred different definitions offered this year by people with some connection to the digital humanities:1  CLICK [italicized definitions are paraphrased in the talk]

“A diverse and still emerging field that includes the practice of humanities research in and through information technology. It also includes the development of digital educational / research / teaching / archival / publishing resources for the specific use and study of the humanities and interconnected disciplines. The digital humanities is also concerned with an exploration of how humanities may evolve through their engagement with technology.
—Ernesto Priego

Ernesto Priego says the digital humanities is emerging; it uses information technology for research, education, archival preservation, and publishing. It is an exploration and an evolution of the humanities through and with its engagement with technology. CLICK

An interdisciplinary field with porous borders that is generally concerned with the impact of digital technology on traditional academic practices of teaching, research, and service.
—Matthew K. Gold

Matthew Gold claims the digital humanities is interdisciplinary. It is what happens when technology intersects with the traditional practices of teaching, research, and service. CLICK

It’s beyond interdisciplinary–it’s a new ecosystem that includes scholars, librarians, archivists, computer scientists, graphic designers, administrators, students, teachers, granting agencies (public and private), and anyone else interested in promoting humanistic ways of experiencing digital media (or digital ways of experiencing the humanities).
—Edward Whitley

It’s beyond interdisciplinary, argues Edward Whitley, because it extends beyond individual academic departments to all areas related to academia: from librarians to computer scientists to deans to granting agencies. CLICK

And finally, according to Roger Whitson, the digital humanities is “Making stuff, and using it to collaborate and connect with the public.” CLICK

I analyzed these four definitions using Wordle. CLICK [See image, above.]

Wordle, if you don’t already know, is a very simple text analysis tool that highlights words in a text according to frequency of appearance. It’s helpful for revealing keywords in a text, but also for revealing what’s not being explicitly stated, but implied (Try putting some Faulkner text into a Wordle and you’ll get some interesting results). Aside from digital and humanities, the words that pop out as being most used in these definitions are experiencing, teaching, research, interdisciplinary, includes, and technology. CLICK

What strikes me about this combination is that aside from “technology” all these words come from the realm of the traditional humanities. “All” we’re adding is technology: But technology changes things in a potentially dramatic way—whether it’s a positive or negative way depends on how the technology is used, of course. Nevertheless, technology can potentially change how we experience or process knowledge; it can change the way we teach and research; it can change the way we publish and disseminate knowledge. Technology forces us to be interdisciplinary: For example, some research projects may require historians, literary scholars, graphic artists, and computer programmers.

Technology also redefines for the humanities what it means to say “include”: For example, we can use technology to make contact with people and sources of information, such as in archives and databases, in multiple locations, simultaneously, any time of day or night. CLICK

Neil Fraistat suggests that instead of asking “What is the digital humanities,”2 we might ask, “What do you want from the digital humanities?” Or, to rephrase that, what does Faulkner Studies want from the digital humanities? CLICK

I think this is why I like the last of those four definitions, which can be rephrased as “We want to make stuff and use it to collaborate with others to connect with the public.” CLICK

Steve Railton’s several projects at the University of Virginia involving Faulkner are wonderful examples of that definition and what we as Faulkner scholars might want from the digital humanities. These projects include online sound recordings of Faulkner speaking, as well as mapping, timelines, and visualizing data. John Padgett’s William Faulkner on the Web is also an incredible resource for Faulkner scholars. Much of this material and its implications for Faulkner Studies will be discussed by the panelists today. CLICK

The integration of computer technologies with traditional humanities research, publishing, and teaching can “can help us imagine academic practices in new ways” (Sayers).3 This panel will give you at least a glimpse of what the digital humanities has and will offer to Faulkner scholarship. I hope it will inspire you to start your own project or contribute to a current one.

1All definitions taken from “How Do You Define DH?” A Day in the Life of the Digital Humanities, CenterNet, 2012.
2Neil Fraistat, “The Question(s) of Digital Humanities,” MITH, University of Maryland, 7 Feb 2011.
3Technology, Scholarship, and the Humanities: A Conversation with Jentery Sayers,” Simpson Center for the Humanities, 21 May 2012.

New DH Group for Graduate Students at Fordham University

Cattrell Key | Robert Goldwitz (c) 2012

In an effort to bring graduate students more opportunities to think about, discuss, and use methods and practices in the digital humanities, I am starting the Fordham Graduate Student Digital Humanities group in Fall 2012. In the spirit of THATCamp’s unconference style, the group will have unmeetings, where we decide together what we wish to discuss and do as a group. Here’s the announcement:

All graduate students are invited to join the new Fordham Graduate Student Digital Humanities group. The development and use of digital tools in research, publishing, and pedagogy has and will continue to become an important part of academic life, not just for “digital humanists” but for anyone working in the humanities. This group will meet on a monthly basis to discuss and learn about practices and methodologies in the digital humanities, particularly in the context of graduate studies and professionalization. The group will offer support and training to students preparing for a professional academic career in the humanities, one that most likely will require at least a proficiency in digital literacy for teaching, research, and publishing. Computer Science students with an interest in humanities scholarship are strongly encouraged to join this group.

My Day of DH 2012

Fort Zachary Taylor, Key West
Ft. Taylor, Key West | www.robertgoldwitz.com

This year, for the first time, I participated in Day of Digital Humanities, an event where digital humanists around the world create a blog post describing what they do for one day. Though I’m still feeling my way through what it means for me to take on the label “digital humanist,” I wanted to take part for several reasons. Being public about anything regarding my personal life is great way to make myself feel uncomfortable, so participating felt like a daring thing to do. Another challenge was how to make my relatively uneventful life sound interesting, since mostly what I do is work on my dissertation. To be sure, no matter how interesting one’s life might be, it’s easy to lapse into one’s dark, linty navel in a venue such as this one. I’m not sure if I found the right balance, but I’m glad I did it anyway. Click here to see my Day of DH post.

In creating their blogs at Day of DH 2012, many people focused only on activities related to their work in the digital humanities. My blog ventured beyond those specific activities. I believe that all our experiences are complementary to each other, whether academic, leisure, or the mundane. Though the lecture at the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum had little to do with the digital humanities, it nonetheless presented me with an idea for a future digital mapping project I might pursue (one needs a lot of backup plans in a dismal job market).

In the book Einstein in Love, Dennis Overbye makes the important point that in order to understand science and scientists, we cannot isolate scientists (such as Einstein) and their methods from their personal lives. It is true for anyone that personal experience and circumstance impacts one’s creativity, motivation, and ability to be persistent when working on something, even if it’s not as complex as figuring a theory such as relativity. The more one has exposure to a variety of experiences and emotions, the better chance one has to be loosened from habits of perception and interpretation and to engage in what Einstein called the free play of the imagination.1 It’s important to know, for example, that before he came up with the theory of special relativity, Einstein worked at a patent office at a time when people were submitting patents for inventions related to timekeeping. That he took long walks with his friend Michel Besso and discussed his work. That his wife got on his nerves, and she was depressed. All these personal details surround the time he spent working on the theory of relativity and played a role in his thought process. If Einstein were participating in “Day of Working on the Special Theory of Relativity 1904,” I would consider these details as important as the time he spent working out some calculations with a pencil and paper.

Though posting my swim workout for the day or mentioning a bike ride to a bakery on my “Day of DH” might seem like a non sequitor since it has nothing to do with “doing” digital humanities work, I argue that it, like everything else, is connected to whatever I do. It’s part of the human element in the equation “digital humanities.” We live in a networked world, and I don’t believe that network exists solely online, or is only a valid network if it spills out a screen. Part of my digital humanities life on that day was to create a blog about my life (with as little lint attached as possible) on that particular day.

1For more on Einstein’s free play of the imagination, see Gerald Holton, Einstein, History, and Other Passions, p. 202.