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Focal Flexibility

One of my favorite metaphors for humanistic inquiry is “unpacking.” Sometimes it feels like an over-full suite case springing open, scattering previously unseen clothing and toiletries all over the place and revealing that present that grandma brought for you nestled there in the center. Sometimes it feels like carefully and laboriously picking the infinitely delicate locks on a briefcase, not knowing if what you’ll find inside will be precious or just some long-forgotten trash.

Unpacking means finding and reveling in richness and awe-inspring reality. Facility with unpacking is a tantalizing scholarly goal.

Little wonder, then, that my students balk a bit when I force them away from that goal. During one session where the professor and I were trying to get students to plot the interrelationships of some articles by finding their commonalities (either topic or approach or theoretical underpinnings), one student complained that “it seems like we’re reducing these articles down to their least interesting, most simplistic components.”

And we were, in a way. We were doing the opposite of unpacking. We were packing them carefully into suitcases, shirts on one side and pants on another, with no thought to the color, weave, or provenance of the individual pieces.

Focal Flexibility – by Iris Jastram

It hadn’t occurred to me before that moment how important focal flexibility is — the ability to see a given work in all its richness and unpackable complexity, and also see it as one of a constellation of other works — to be able to plot it dispassionately amongst its peers, and also gaze at its internal universes.

Published inRandom ThoughtsTeaching and Learning


  1. I nominate Iris to be the Derik Badman of library instruction illustration.

  2. I wouldn’t want to insult Derik by calling my scribbles similar to his work. :-)

  3. […] Timothy Burke rejects Fish’s dehumanizing view of the digital humanities in his wonderful essay, The Author is Human. “In DH, authors are not dead, just brought down to human scale,” he writes. Authors aren’t the cultural monoliths of the pre-digital humanities — great minds that dominated the minds and imaginations of their times or ours. Authors are just… authors. In a sea of other authors, each one authoring away, any one author is uniquely that author. It’s just that that author’s intentions and effects do not completely overshadow other authors’ intentions and effects. In a way, I think Burke is saying something similar to what I said about focal flexibility. […]

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