Genius and the Sharing Economy

Almost exactly two years ago, I found myself in deep funk about my employment, career, and profession (yes, all three, each with its distinct valences). My tenure case was in a weird limbo, contingent solely upon department enrollment numbers that I had no control over. I had taken an unpaid leave from my job in order to take some very low paying library fellowships that would hopefully pay off at some future point in the form of a finished monograph and better prospects on the job market. I returned from my library fellowship with energy about my scholarship, but not about much else. My ability to get a new job wasn’t really hinging on whether I finished my book, since my prospects for faculty positions were also limited by geography. My partner had a good job in a city we like and I wasn’t going to force him to move again and get a new job somewhere else just because the job I had done well for eight years was probably going away in a year.

My funk was exacerbated by a seemingly endless cycle of thinkpieces and “journalism” announcing the death knell of the Humanities. As a soon-to-be out-of-work English professor, I couldn’t help but absorb the sense of doom no matter how hard I tried to resist those narratives, and no matter how many people wrote wonderful opposition pieces that carefully countered the claims that the Humanities were dying. I was losing my job because of this death (which, like chivalry was always already in a perpetual state of dying). I was either a canary in the coal mine, or I was just going to be a person who lost her job while life and work went on for others. The constant beating of the Dead Humanities in these stories would continue as long as the Humanities and Humanities professors were still alive enough to die.

That October, one story in particular caught my eye:

“Colleges” Worry

I read this piece with interest, not just because I, like “Colleges,” was worried about my future, but because the picture that accompanied it featured somebody I knew. The guy in the picture, Jeremy Dean, was a few years behind me in my graduate program; I knew he had finished his Ph.D. and had gone on to work for Rap Genius — then Rap Genius, but now Imperial Genius (actually it’s just Genius at this juncture as far as I know) — from a close friend of mine from our program who still kept in touch with him.

Seeing the coverage in The New York Times, I felt a rush of pride about my graduate program, which I have always thought should be commended for its incorporation of technology skills into graduate student training. Looking at that picture of a youthful humanities Ph.D. working with a student at a computer, I thought: Look at this new generation of American Literature scholar, demonstrating that our work, contrary to complaints about literary theory and whatnot, is accessible. Pleasurable, in fact. As somebody who had been told declining enrollments in English would eventually lead to a negative tenure decision, I had a fleeting sense of affirmation: people used humanities skills every day when they talked about art and popular culture in social communities that were formed for the sole purpose of discussing how words convey and acquire meaning. Perhaps nobody wants to be a student or scholar of literature because the Humanities are boring and intellectuals are square, but lots of people think it’s cool to understand the text and subtext of rap or hip hop. Through the act of annotating lyrics online, users of the site Rap Genius help demonstrate that these interests are one and the same.

It’s a nice narrative. But as I noted, my feelings of affirmation were temporary. For one thing, underlying this rosy picture is a deeply problematic dynamic in which (a lot of) white site-users take work by (mostly) african american artists and claim a form of authority and ownership over it. I don’t have the stats on user demographics or know much about the founders beyond this and what’s in this 2012 Gawker piece, but it seemed like yet another place where white or otherwise privileged people could consume and produce black culture at a safe distance from living while black.

As Katy Waldman’s comments suggest here, early critics of Rap Genius already called it out for “pimping the butterfly,” so I take for granted that I need not do that at this late stage in its existence. But there’s also another issue here that I think hasn’t been as thoroughly dissected, and though I don’t think that I’m the best person to do this work, I do think academics should look into the labor that goes into making Genius a Higher Education product. In light of Genius’s recent moves, some of which are detailed in Evan Kindley’s recent essay on the “rise, and rise, of literary annotation,” I thought I might offer an opening salvo that would inspire others to examine the company’s profitable use of our not-for-profit enterprise.

To be clear, what follows here is not really commentary on Genius’s utility for classroom use — like any tool, your pedagogical mileage will vary. Nor do I intend to critique the site’s aspirations to “annotate the world.” Rather — and I apologize that my rhetorical goals sound so underwhelming — I offer here a description of some things I observed about Genius over a short period in 2013 that I hope other people working in higher education will find thought-provoking and compelling.

While I’m caveating, I should admit that it’s sort of weird to talk about a brief period of 2013 like it’s a crucial moment in history. It was like half a century ago in internet years, and Rap Genius has been around since 2009, so this is a days of yore story. But I think it warrants our attention now because it is still flush with venture capitalist money and its remaining founders have perhaps even grander aspirations than ever to play a formative role in our understanding of all kinds of discourse. More importantly, my 2013 observations have prompted me to write a blog post in 2015 because the site relies on what we used to call “crowdsourcing” but now understand in the context of “disruptive” businesses like Uber and AirBnB as part of the “sharing economy.” Like these and other businesses that are drawing greater scrutiny from academics and activists, Genius’ annotation principles are phrased in the terms of free enterprise, access to knowledge, and community building while also relying on a labor force of users that work for free. I don’t mean here to suggest that Genius doesn’t or can’t in some ways achieve or embody all of the lofty pedagogical concepts its creators proclaim in its contributor and education guidelines; however, as we have done with its more notorious counterparts, I think we should look a bit more closely at the politics of work that underpin its function as educational technology.

Having relayed what I’m up to here, I want to return to my sad-sack 2013 self, a 38-year-old academic on half-pay, paying her own health care with COBRA, and reading one sad article about the demise of the profession after another. As I said, I was originally drawn into the New York Times article by familiar figure in the photo, something that piqued my interest more than the caption, which made a tacit claim that I initially assumed the writer of the article itself would make: Rap Genius was one way to restore that “fade[d]” interest in Humanities that the headline claimed as a cause of “worry” and a matter of fact.

But when I read the article all the way through, there was nothing about Rap Genius except a brief reference to graduate students using it to annotate Homer and Virgil among several other references to different digital tools students at Stanford were using in established classes. In fact, there was no substantive connection between the article and the picture beyond the fact that much of article’s content focused on Stanford and the caption noted that person named Jeremy Dean was physically present at Stanford showing grad students “to teach the classics in the digital age.” The caption didn’t mention that Dean was employed by Rap Genius**, so somebody who didn’t recognize him might have simply assumed that he was a professor at Stanford or on the staff.

Although I was drawn in by the photo, I found that the article itself was pretty much the same thing I’d read elsewhere. The author, Tamar Lewin, presented some numbers as well as some qualitative claims from professors and administrators, allowing one typical narrative for declining interest in, and therefore support for the humanities (“it’s the economy, stupid”) to emerge and circulate alongside another that, whether intentionally or not, levels blame on scholars for the Humanities’ demise (professors are too assured of their own importance and in too numerous supply for the diminishing number of students who want to learn from them).

Although the photo tacitly promoted the gains that sites like Rap Genius had to offer a field losing students, I couldn’t help but feel that this unstated narrative had a chronology problem: if interest in literature had faded — more precisely, if the number of English had majors declined — it had done so despite this exciting wave of scholarship and classes at Stanford. Anybody who knows anything about Stanford LitLab knows that Stanford didn’t need a representative (“Education Czar,” in Genius’s parlance) from Rap Genius to kickstart a digital revolution there. In fact, the scholars featured in the article itself had been doing groundbreaking work with texts and digital tools for many decades — some even longer than the founders of Genius have been alive. I went from feeling a bit disappointed that I didn’t get to read a money quote from an acquaintance to feeling trolled by the article’s badly worded headline and its gloomy ending.

Admittedly, much of my sense of gloom came from the fact that I was already feeling the financial pinch of my impending unemployment and felt like I was squandering my library time reading sad articles and writing job applications. Additionally, in order to pay for my health care during my unpaid leave (this was before the Affordable Care Act), I had signed up to teach a 3-week online course in January because it came with a little extra money for teaching the course itself and a $4000 development grant. Before I got any of that money, I sat in a prestigious library unable to focus on transcribing a 16th century letter because I kept getting emails from my department chair and my Associate Dean about the proposal to get the online course approved through a campus-wide curriculum committee on deadline. But this brings me back to Genius, since the online course, on renaissance love poetry, also provided an impetus for trying it out. I thought that it might be the perfect tool to liven up a class that otherwise would meet in a lousy Blackboard site; I included an annotation assignment in my proposal for the course, using phrases like “with Rap Genius or Annotation Studio” as placeholders until I could give it more attention. The course was approved in late November and I began to build the site for it in between writing job applications and working on my book.

Save Humanities in Williamsburg

In early December, I got an email from the friend I mentioned before. She knew I was looking for jobs that wouldn’t require moving, and she’d seen one she thought I would be interested in. She sent me a link to it and said “You remember Jeremy from school, right?”

When I loaded the page, the picture on the left is what appeared. Yes, there was the New York Times photo, complete with the heading, and then the basic thrust of the headline reproduced as part of the position description:“Seeking Education Genius to Save Humanities.”

In the copy of the ad, as you can see there, it says “In order to truly save the humanities [1] we need to build out an education team to take our outreach to the next level and support educators already using the site.” The second item under the heading of “truly sav[ing] the humanities, “[2],” required signing up and “practic[ing] some annotations on a favorite text.”

Now here’s where I have to embarrass myself a little bit. There was a 48 hour period in which I saw in this ad a possible way out of my employment problem. I didn’t really know Jeremy well, but I could speak the language of our common graduate training and could speak from 8 years of experience of full-time college teaching in addition to the many classes I had taught as a PhD student. Moreover, I was going to be teaching an online course within a month that would very likely make use of their product; what better way is there to get to know it and its potential? I felt as if I could get this job.

Even as I was energized by a job in the area that required knowledge and skills I knew I had, I was bit put off by the ad itself — and not just the part that exploited the NYTimes “coverage” and pitched the company’s investment in “saving the humanities.” Obviously, it was a good way to capitalize on an article that barely even mentioned Genius at all and did not actually credit it with the potential to save the humanities. What bothered me primarily was the thing I kept coming back to when I imagined my application letter for it: it didn’t name a specific job title. It only stated that the company wanted to “build out an education team.” Any letter I wrote would have to simply articulate an interest in being part of a team and until I got myself in a room with some Genius higher-ups, I would have to accept on faith that being part of a team would mean full time employment with health benefits and retirement.

I was not initially bothered by the requirement to sign up for an account — after all, I was signing up anyway in order to test its utility for my online course — and I understood the command to “practice” using the site as common sense. Annotating was a good way to show you understand the product and the process; that you understood and followed the contributor guidelines; and that you were both a literature expert and yet also somebody who would not be an embarrassment when talking about rap.

Before I went about exposing my strengths and limitations in that highly visible way, however, I thought it made sense to gauge whether or not Jeremy remembered me and whether I might lay some groundwork informally to let him know I was interested in the job. So I wrote him an email to request a special educator account.

In which I write an embarrassing email.

Ok, I admit I sound like a huge dork or worse. “It would be the coolest?” Who would write that? The only reason I’m willing to share this is that I know that it shows the depth of my fears about unemployment. I mean, it may not have been obvious to anybody else, but I know how badly I wanted to get a job that wouldn’t fire me, and I know that behind every one of those exclamation points and hokey sentences was not enthusiasm for a product but a desperate hope that Jeremy would say something more about the job(s) they were trying to fill and acknowledge that he knew me. Anything he might say in response could give me an opening to say I was planning to apply and I really wanted to get a new job.

His response was cordial but brief; he set me up an account and said nothing else. I then logged into Poetry Genius site and found the page for “To his Coy Mistress,” which I had planned to annotate but almost immediately found too full of annotations to intervene. If I wanted to actually add to anything, I’d have to contribute an obscure poem that wasn’t already available there. I had the same experience with some of the rap songs I wanted to annotate. I finally found an LL Cool J song (please don’t laugh) that wasn’t in the site already, so I added it and started to work on my annotations. I was still working through my own annotation priorities in my head, mulling over what kind of sources I wanted to link to for information — whether wikipedia should be the standard or if I should try to find pages affiliated with scholarly work or something to that effect (remember I was thinking about this as a tool for a college class, so my concerns were a bit heady) — when a little window popped up and told me my annotations didn’t have enough images. I can’t recall precisely what the thing told me, but I think it temporarily suspended my ability to post “tates” (don’t get me started) and so I had to stop. I never went back, not because I was wholly convinced the site wasn’t useful for pedagogical purposes, but because of something serendipitous that happened the very next day.

I saw a tweet that said one of the reps from Rap Genius would be at the NYU Stern business school giving a talk about recent developments with the company. I was still on unpaid leave and had a mere 40 minute train ride to get there, so it seemed like a no-brainer that I should go. I thought at the very least, I could learn something that would be useful for my application letter. If I was lucky, I might see Jeremy and re-introduce myself, or meet somebody else that would be involved in hiring. So I went to the Stern “B” school — a place whose flyer-bulletin-board still haunts me — with very earnest and good intentions and I left in a very bad mood.

The person who was speaking was a man whose introduction I missed and so didn’t know until later — much later in fact, when he was in the news for being fired from the company he helped found. Yes, the man I heard speak that day in December 2013 was this guy, who was eventually fired but was still around and giving talks about business at NYU as late as March of the following year:

I didn’t know at the time who he was, or, obviously, that the company would eventually distance itself from him. But I knew right away I wouldn’t be introducing myself or asking about the craigslist ad; the nicest thing I can say about him was that he was obnoxious. He mentioned driving an Audi at least twice. He also repeatedly mentioned that he was Persian, seemingly apropos of nothing — I can’t imagine he expected the audience there to be at all concerned with the company’s exploitative whiteness. He also said some form of the word “fuck” in I’d guess about 60% of his sentences. Full disclosure, I use that word a fair amount myself, but I guess I did wonder how many business men came to the Stern B School and used it quite so much. I was pretty sure that it was rare for their speakers to use “-ass” as a modifier for every single adjective, but what did I know? I was just a grouchy-ass English professor whose tired ass could never run a business since she couldn’t even manage to keep a job.

Although I loathed hearing this man talk, I regretted having missed the beginning of the session. I got to hear quite a bit about Fashion Genius but not enough about the fact that the company now had business deals with a number of sites, including the New York Times. I was curious about that relationship given the recent article and photo; later in the Q&A, somebody asked him to talk more about how the Times deal worked and he showed very quickly on screen how users would login to New York Times via Rap Genius or the other way around. I still didn’t know anything substantive about the deal or partnership, though.

At this point, I became probably overly obsessed with the fact that Jeremy and Rap Genius were featured front and center in that Times article about the declining interested in the Humanities, and then with the use of that Times piece as a “hiring” strategy of sorts. Whatever their deal was, it seemed clear that The Times gave Genius the credibility to claim that [1] the humanities needing saving and [2] that increased traffic and content on their site was the way to do it. I’m not sure what Genius gave The Times in return, but I’ll just add here that the Genius guy giving the talk said the New York Times wasn’t going to be around in 5 years anyway.

In a room full of bright-eyed future businesspeople, I felt like a alien interloper and began to fashion my own tinfoil hat theories even though I suppose this sort of deal is how the marriage of journalism and commerce always works. More selfishly, I began to suspect that the job ad I had read was not actually a real job ad. (I know, kind of rich given my last post here).

I suppose anything I say from here on out could easily be dismissed as elitist or turf warring, or maybe just naive and overly-sensitive; it’s quite possibly true that my reaction to the Stern talk was rooted in my own vested interest in universities keeping Humanities programs funded. I generally have a very weak stomach for any kind of pro-capitalist language in academic and educational contexts, and in the winter of 2013, I was emotionally drained from trying to finish a book and find another job, and spiritually-speaking, I was running on fumes.

I left that talk without giving more than a glance at the table of free burritos, something that normally would have motivated me to prolong my stay. I decided that I would use the annotation software I had access to through my university for my online course, obviating the need for students to open accounts on a third-party, for-profit site. And I decided I wouldn’t spend any time applying for a job advertised on craigslist that was probably just trying to get educators to sign on and do free work or market research for them.

It is clear on the site that a lot of people find, or once found, Genius to be a useful place to have students work. Professors and teachers have uploaded content and shared resources for any educator who also signs up. I don’t like to tell other professionals what to do or not to do, and try not to second-guess my colleagues’ choices. People should keep using Genius in their teaching if they like it.

The call in December 2013 for people to join the team may indeed have been a call for applicants for benefits-eligible positions and Genius may have indeed hired from that pool. If I logged into my account, maybe I could see some information about the people who are part of the Education Team there, but I’ve forgotten my password and for some reason haven’t gotten the reset email.

Why have I written all this only to say “go ahead use it if you want”? Well, I think its value as a pedagogical tool is entirely relative to a given professor’s purposes and principles. It is not, in and of itself, good or bad for teaching. As I suggested at the beginning of this post, however, I do think we might evaluate its Education sites — Lit Genius and Poetry Genius, for instance — as entities that profit from voluntary academic labor. How much Genius profits from the educational portions is not at all clear to me, since I have no way of knowing the extent of its relationships with content providers and universities nor its traffic on pages that we can be designated as primarily “educational” in comparison to pages visited mostly be recreational visitors.

I suspect that in comparison with the Rap/Fashion/and its Beta-Annotate Everything enterprises, the material that is most often used by teachers and students for classes is really the least profitable stuff. But who knows, since other companies that are nominally involved in EdTech make a tremendous profit off of university contracts. On the one hand Genius isn’t like software such as, wherein the business model is almost wholly contingent on the content that professors and students provide. Without our students’ papers, that company wouldn’t have material to compare that a Google search couldn’t also find, and without our grammar notes, entered rubrics, and comments, it wouldn’t be able to improve and promote its machine grading. Unlike Blackboard and Banner, it’s not necessarily adopted wholesale by universities to an extent where a potential sale of the company would leave massive amounts of student private data vulnerable. On the other hand, having a section for Education is clearly a plus in the Genius business model, something that lends a do-gooder respectability in light of some of the business’ early missteps and provides a reason for people who would be turned off by things like this to still spend time on the site.

How much does a good Educational Team make up for the contempt that Mahbod Moghadam seemed to have for his audience at the business school that day or the contempt for students that we see in this tweet?

I think stuff like this makes it rather imperative that we find out more about how much Genius profits from its Education material and how much it pays the people who provide it. I believe firmly that people like Jeremy Dean are indeed invested in education, but how many Jeremy Deans does Genius actually employ on staff (**it no longer employs him!)? In a time where academic jobs remain scarce — thankfully I managed to keep mine—we should think carefully about the how our free academic work supports non-academic entities who claim to be saving us.

In 2013 it was apparently possible to imagine that Genius would change how we taught literature and Genius itself claimed if educators would just go annotate that the Humanities could be saved. In his recent essay on annotation, Kindley echoes those grander claims when he posits that, despite yielding rather pedestrian literary annotations, Genius “may well help to usher in a renaissance of online scholarship.” He goes on to add that “the site has already begun to build exegetical communities around undervalued parts of our culture,” and then wryly annotates the first claim with a “tate” of his own:

The annotation is offered ostensibly as a forlorn sort of jest; I gather, at least, that he kids only because he loves or is sad that so many of our ilk are out work. In fact, that comment takes on a degree of poignancy in light of an earlier annotation in which Kindley raises an important question about the economics of Genius’s recent attempts to claim academics and artists as part of the brand. After mentioning that Genius has started giving “Teaching Fellowships,” he notes the following:

And one of the readers annotating his piece offers the following response:

The opportunity to go to Brooklyn is indeed a good thing; I live in Queens, but I know how good it is across the bridge where many of my friends live. Really, I shouldn’t be so glib: it’s cool to be part of something devoted to teaching and a bonus to have your travel expenses paid. I think it is also, as I was saying at the beginning of this long-ass post, a great example of the fucking sharing economy and what’s wrong with it. Be grateful to people who use a small fraction of their VC money to fly you somewhere — but also think about the value of what you give them in return.

I’m using swears there in the hopes that I sound like a Genius when I say things I’m not totally sure about; I’m a bit out of my comfort zone talking about how a start-up makes and uses money. I’m really good with my own financial affairs and budget, but my academic expertise is in 16th and 17th century drama and history so I worry I don’t really know what I’m talking about. But perhaps you are somebody who knows a lot more about these things and perhaps you know where to look to answer some of the questions I’ve tried to raise here.

I have no doubt that Genius has content and a viable business model without content from educators. But I still want to know more about the role and real worth of our labor in an economy that asks the precariously employed to share while its founders and investors make money. Humanities scholars can see all the tensions of our professional choices in this economy: the fact that we do our work for pleasure, that others find pleasure in our work, and that the work we love is only lucrative for some.

**UPDATE: Jeremy Dean no longer works for Genius! He’s now with!