Sep 16

Eye Rolls, Corporatization, and Wikipedia

I’m once again teaching my first-year composition course about Wikipedia, and so on the lookout for when the “free encyclopedia that anyone can edit” makes the news. Notable stories in the past couple years include the lamentable scarcity of female editors (and the abuse those few female editors face), manipulation by marketing firms, and grudge-holders seeking revenge. Last week Wikipedia featured, briefly, in the ongoing debate about the corporatization of American universities. The example touches on two lessons I hope my first-year students take away from their composition courses — evaluating sources and the importance of knowing one’s audience — and reveals what I take to be a major disconnect between a corporate ethos and an academic one.

The University of Iowa recently announced that its 21st president will be Bruce Harreld, a former executive at IBM, Kraft, and Boston Market. The choice has been, to put it mildly, unpopular. Inside Higher Ed‘s Kellie Woodhouse notes that fewer than 5% of faculty and students approve Harreld’s appointment, primarily because of his lack of experience in higher education administration, and even Business Insider picked up the story. Cathy Davidson, among others, sees the announcement as further evidence of the corporatization of the public university, a trend has become all to common and was exemplified this summer by Scott Walker’s gutting of the University of Wisconsin system. (As Caroline Levine cogently explains, Walker’s move was political and ideological rather than budgetary).

So how does this connect to Wikipedia? Harreld’s critics point out his performance in a public forum, which began with a presentation that Kembrew McLeod of Slate calls “rambling,” then continued with a Q&A. Here is a video of the forum, queued to the moment that most upset his detractors:

Sara Riley, who identifies herself as an attorney and a second-generation Iowa grad with kids recently graduated and currently enrolled, calls out Harreld for his comment that Iowa should aim to become a “public Ivy”. Riley asserts that Iowa is a public Ivy, and has been since the 1980s, to which Harreld snidely responds, “I’ve seen the website, too.” In answer to Riley’s, “which website?” he replies “Wikipedia.” When Riley says, “I don’t go to Wikipedia, I’m an attorney,” Harreld rolls his eyes, unable to hide his derision. He doubles down on his source a minute later, assuring Riley that he does remember what Wikipedia says about Iowa’s status as a public Ivy. (For the record, Riley cites a better source.)

The exchange, and particularly the eye roll, reveals a lot. The truth is not measured in mass appeal #quote #quality #innovation #inspiration #CSISpadina #torontoThe educational model that colleges and universities promote distinguishes authoritative, trustworthy sources from biased, unrepresentative, or ill-informed ones. (So does Wikipedia, for that matter: and it doesn’t even consider itself reliable). Harreld’s implication that such distinctions are silly, that it doesn’t matter where he gets his information, reveals a fundamental disconnect with the faculty, staff, and students he will lead as president of the university.

But that’s not the biggest issue. If I’m being honest, I use Wikipedia just about every day (Riley probably does to). Not for nothing is it the seventh most visited site: it’s an efficient, accessible resource, and it’s mostly right most of the time. There’s even a case to be made that Wikipedia can help us rethink liberal education in the twenty-first century. Rather, the issue is one of audience. I don’t cite Wikipedia in my scholarship, I don’t prep class based on Wikipedia, and I would certainly never bring it up in a job interview as evidence that I’d researched my prospective employer.

At least in the clip, Harreld seems not to understand why academics might object to such a source, and that misunderstanding, to my mind, gets at one of the fundamental disconnects between the corporate ethos and the academic ethos. For speed and efficiency, Wikipedia is just fine. But for accuracy and rigor, a better source is necessary. Stakeholders in an institution whose mission is to “advance scholarly and creative endeavor through leading-edge research and artistic production” have a right to expect more from their leaders.

Jul 08

Alice’s Adventures in Google-Land

This year marks the sesquicentennial of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland — or, as it’s more typically referred to, Alice in Wonderland. I’ve been thinking a lot about the history and reception of the Alice books lately. This week I was pondering the two titles, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Alice in Wonderland. The difference matters. Google searches are an index to the popular lexis, and Google Image searches for the two titles look really different. This is immediately visible in the categories Google suggests:

Google Image CategoriesAlice’s Adventures in Wonderland is on the right. The first four categories are book covers, characters, quotes, and movies. The most prominent image for “characters” is Jessie Wilcox Smith’s 1923 illustration, and the top two movie posters are for the forgettable 1972 film, which starred Michael Crawford as the White Rabbit. If we look past the categories, we see a mix of book covers and the Tenniel drawings (click the picture to enlarge it):Screenshot 2015-07-07 15.22.43 Disney is recommended as a category, but doesn’t otherwise appear in the top images. Searching Alice in Wonderland, though, gives us something different (again, click the image to enlarge it):

Screenshot 2015-07-07 15.28.37

The first two categories are “cast” and “Disney” (and the cast is not of 1972 film but of the 2010 Tim Burton one — produced by Disney). In this search “characters” pretty much means “characters as depicted in Disney’s 1951 cartoon,” an emphasis reflected in the costumes, too. Even the “drawings” category shows Disney’s, not Tenniel’s, and most of the images are from the Tim Burton film, with a smattering of Tenniel and of the 1951 cartoon.

Disney has pretty successfully appropriated Carroll’s text, and his adaptation arguably looms larger than Carroll’s in the popular imagination. Disney dominates the popular visuals for Alice in Wonderland, despite being essentially absent from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. So is Disney’s 1951 cartoon, Alice in Wonderland, responsible for the truncated title?

The short answer is no. Paramount’s 1933 film used the shortened title, and in their recent study of the publishing history of the Alice books, Zoe Jacques and Eugene Giddens note that the “diminutive version had circulated in the popular imagination almost since the original publication” (205). Their bibliography includes a 1903 film, Alice in Wonderland, though not until 1910 did a book use the truncation.

Just as Google’s search results give us some insight into the popular perception of the culture text, Google’s Ngram Viewer give us a broad historical picture. Ngrams chart the occurrence of words in the Google Books corpus. Here is the search for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland from 1860 to 2008:

Screenshot 2015-07-07 15.42.00As is typically the case with ngrams, the trends are easily explained. We see a sharp rise beginning with the initial publication, when reviews would have begun, then negative slope until the mid-1870s, when Looking-Glass bumped Wonderland back into the spotlight, and a sharp spike in the late 1880s, corresponding to Henry Saville Clarke’s popular stage production. The second rise corresponds to the first centenary of the book but is more likely explained by the adoption of Carroll’s text, with its references to size- and mind-altering substances, by the counter-culture of the 1960s (think Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” or the Beatles’ “I Am the Walrus”).

Keeping in mind the difference in scale, here is the ngram for the truncated title:

Screenshot 2015-07-07 15.49.56The graph confirms Jacques and Giddens’s claim that the truncated title showed up pretty quickly. This graph differs from the above: it has a steadier rise, peaking in the mid-1930s, presumably with Paramount’s Alice in Wonderland (1933). The title got a slight bump during the war years, but the slope in the years following Disney’s Alice in Wonderland (1951) is negative, not picking up again until the 1960s. Disney’s film may now dominate the Google results for Alice in Wonderland, but the studio adopted rather than introduced the shortened title — and their cultural dominance doesn’t show up until later, at least not in the (admittedly limited) ngram results.

Jun 15

Victorian Vogue and Disney’s Alice

On Wednesday I head to Richmond for the Children’s Literature Association’s annual conference, and this post previews what I’ll be talking about.

2015 marks the 150th anniversary of Alice in Wonderland. The Lewis Carroll Society of America is hosting a series of events, including an exhibition at the Morgan Library in New York, and Harvard’s exhibition is viewable online. In the century and a half since its first publication, Carroll’s book has been adapted for television, theater, film, and even board games and soap. And of course, advertising. If you watched television in December, it was hard to miss this commercial:

Once you know the commercial is a riff on Alice, the tea party and the size-changing marshmallow fit the theme. But the Alice-ness is first established by the entry into the Target logo, the head-first dive after the White Rabbit (here replaced by Target’s canine mascot). Alice-white-rabbitThat visual doesn’t allude to the book — Carroll doesn’t tell us the precise manner in which Alice enters Wonderland. Alice follows the rabbit and is “just in time to see it pop down a large rabbit-hole under the hedge.” Then “In another moment down went Alice after it, never once considering how in the world she was to get out again.” The illustrations aren’t much help. Tenniel’s illustrations show the rabbit checking his wrist-watch, and in the next image Alice is already down the rabbit-hole, opening the curtain to reveal the tiny door.

In Disney’s 1951 adaptation, though Alice enters the rabbit-hole head first. (You can see the scene on YouTube, if the clip hasn’t been taken down). That image has entered the public consciousness, and Target counts on shoppers to recognize it.

I take the phrase in my title, “Victorian vogue,” from Dianne Sadoff, who argues that we must consider “the production, distribution, and exhibition situations of films that adapt classic novels” (Sadoff, xiv). In other words, the context in which an adaptation is produced matters. Understanding an adaption requires more than just comparing it with the original. Disney’s Alice in Wonderland is no exception. Walt Disney’s interest in Alice started early: he produced “Alice’s Wonderland” in Kansas City, and brought it with him to Hollywood. He eventually produced 57 Alice cartoons, De Alice's Abenteuer im Wunderland Carroll pic 03though they have little to do with Carroll’s story, beyond the title: mostly they’re a vehicle for the novelty of blending live action with animation. Disney also screen-tested Mary Pickford for a live-action Alice in the early 1930s, abandoning the project when he learned of Paramount’s competing film. But Disney secured the copyright for the Tenniel illustrations only after the release of Snow White in 1938 (Gabler, 215), and that’s when studio really got to work on Alice. (It’s plausible he hoped to get a film together by the 75th anniversary in 1940, though I haven’t seen anything particular to suggest that).

By the early 1940s, of course, the world had more important things to worry about. To understand the context in which Disney’s 1951 film was produced, we’d have to consider Disney’s films supporting the war effort, and how World War II changed the relationship between England and America (and consequently how an American film based on a much-loved English text would be received). And of course, we’d want to think about the role of the Alice books in American culture in the first half of the twentieth century. Sadoff adapts her title from F. R. Leavis, who felt that Victorian novels were particularly “in vogue” in the 1940s. So that’s a lot of historical pressure affecting the production and reception of Disney’s film.

But this week I will look at a smaller, parallel history: the company’s story meetings and drafts of the film. Meeting notes and research reports from the archives show Disney’s storywriters responding to public perceptions of Alice in Wonderland and even considering biographical and scholarly works. Walt Disney was supposedly mystified by “the symbolic meanings people kept finding in The Three Little Pigs,” and responded with a phrase that’s quoted in most of his biographies: “we make the pictures and then let the professors tell us what they mean” (Schickel, 151-2). In that statement Disney seems dismissive of academics, of whom F. R. Leavis is a fine prototype (Leavis wrote one of my favorite academic sentences: “The great English novelists are Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James, and Joseph Conrad” (Leavis, 1). Such confidence). But the archives show something different – Disney did care what “the professors” said. As I will argue this week, storywriters responded to contemporary events and the cultural reception of Carroll’s Alice books, and knowing that fact should shift how we think about Disney’s adaptations.

Works Cited

Gabler, Neal. Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination. Reprint edition. New York: Vintage, 2007. Print.
Leavis, Frank Raymond. The Great Tradition: George Eliot, Henry James, Joseph Conrad. New York University Press, 1963. Print.
Sadoff, Dianne F. Victorian Vogue: British Novels on Screen. Minneapolis: Univ Of Minnesota Press, 2009. Print.
Schickel, Richard. The Disney Version: The Life, Times, Art and Commerce of Walt Disney. Simon & Schuster, 1968. Print.