I was having this conversation yesterday with a colleague, and it relates somewhat to my last post about Computers and Writing. How does the study and use of computers and networks relate to the general practice of specialization in academia? More to the point, we were discussing whether expertise in computers and networks should be embodied in a particular individual in a department just the way expertise in literary periods or linguistics is. Or should it instead be knowledge that is shared by faculty across specialization?
Now that I think about it, the answer is quite simple. It’s a matter of degree, of intensity. One certainly can specialize in one of many aspects of computers and networks. One could study new media literature or gaming or technical communication or composing practice and so on; one could focus on cultural dimensions–race, gender, class- on national or global levels. And so on. One could intersect technology from a different specialization. E.g., one could be a medievalist who is interested who uses computer networks to analyze period texts or a linguist analyzing networked discourses.
Also, there is a degree of common knowledge with technology. In English, we are well-trained in the use of books; we are print-literate within a particular set of discourses. Most English faculty know how to use a word processor well enough to compose an academic article or a course syllabus. They know how to send and receive e-mails and make basic, if somewhat ham-fisted, use of the web. A smaller group could use Excel for a grade book or make a PowerPoint. An even smaller group, but still a significant number, have the knowledge to use a CMS. In my department I would estimate this last group to be somewhere around a 1/4 to a 1/3 of the tenure-stream faculty.
So where does one draw the line between specialization and common knowledge? You might answer that every faculty member should know what we expect our graduating undergrads to know. For example, I’m not in literary studies, but I know more about literature than our undergrads. But then it starts to get tricky. Our English Education grads receive specialized instructions in secondary education teaching methods. I have knowledge of pedagogy research but the two do not quite overlap. One might go so far as to suggest that English Education is not fully within the discipline of English. And in most departments the "education" part is delivered outside of English departments.
When you look at our department, our English Education and Professional Writing majors learn how to make podcasts, videos, websites, and so on; they learn a little about desktop publishing and graphic design. They use blogs and wikis. But from the perspective of English, these things might all be deemed to be outside of the discipline, in the way that writing and teaching are not part of English Studies.
So you can see the interesting tension this creates for the discipline. On the one hand English may wish to define itself broadly, so as to maintain its centrality in the Humanities in the American academy. It used to be that English-as-literary-studies could view itself as the place where you came to "learn to write" and "to be an English teacher." But in order to make those claims now it must include areas outside literary studies, particularly it must absorb some technical knowledge. Individual faculty should be as knowledge about the entirety of their field as their undergrads, right?
On the other hand, it can respond by defining itself in more narrow terms.
Many people fight for inclusiveness in English. They look to explode the canon. They want to include rhetoric and composition or cultural studies or creative writing and so on. That would be ok with me. But I’d also be happy going the other direction. I’d be happy to see "English" draw up a list of specific authors and define itself as the discipline that conducted formalist analysis of these authors’ texts.
I know there is a thing in academia about spawning mini-me’s. I don’t think everyone should know what I know because I know the "important stuff." Most of my colleagues think I am a technology expert because I have a blog, can make a web page, and can record a video podcast. But you don’t become an expert because you can do what tens of millions of people worldwide can do. Knowing these things does not make me a specialist anymore than the fact that my colleagues have the technical ability to read a book makes them specialists. My specialization stems from my knowledge of research and teaching methods that allow me to study networked media practices and teach them to students.
Suggesting that other English faculty should be able to do what my undergrads can do with technology is not asking them to share in my specialization. It’s asking them to have a general level of knowledge.
By the way, I am not making that suggestion. I’m happy for English to forever define itself as strictly the study of a specific set of printed texts and let that path take them wherever it may.
7 replies on “computers, networks, and English specializations”
Good post: I think the intensity argument is right.
Another appropriate analogy might be “theory”: Most departments probably have “the theory person,” but would also expect everyone to have at least *some* awareness of theoretical stances, and some concomitant recognition of the methodological consequences of those stances.
Likewise, it seems clear that, while more and more people specialize in new media or technology, an ideal department would also expect at least some competency in technological approaches.
Neat comment! I have been conducting research on just this topic, albeit at the individual, rather than department, level. Do scholars who specialize in their research fare better in terms of earnings, promotion, mobility, & visibility? And how does the degree of specialization shape collaboration patterns that scholars engage in? For papers on this topic, see my website:
Yes, “theory” is an apt analogy, particularly as it creates anxiety if not hostility among more traditional faculty. It’s a way of trying to insulate the authority of existing faculty by saying “that’s something that is outside my area of expertise; I don’t need to know that.”
This note is from someone who has had technology up to the ears. I have worked as a programmer, systems analyst, have debugged and designed countless databases, information architect, and more, all jobs revolving around networks and the internet. I also have a graduate degree in literature and am pursuing a PhD in literature. With that out of the way I would like to say the less technology gets wrapped up in the study of texts the better. The technophobes are reacting to a true concern and not simply lacking a skill. I applaud them. I won’t be using any technology beyond a laptop and a projector in class with my students. There is no web component I’d use or build. Texts are the thing. How or why technology gets caught up in English is a bizarre problem I leave to someone else.
First off, sorry for the comment moderation. I’ve been experiencing some comment spam.
Obviously I disagree with MTC in the choice s/he makes about the integration of technology. I would wonder if MTC believes English majors should acquire technological literacy, and if so, where that might happen (apparently not in MTC’s class).
I do agree that “Texts are the thing.”But how does one define “text” in this context? Simply as printed word? Not even in MTC’s definition, who plans to use a laptop and a projector. More importantly, though hidden here, texts ARE things. And as things, we must understand their materiality.
But I can answer the last question, and it really isn’t so bizarre. How/why does “technology” get caught up in English? Simple: b/c English is the study of technology. It’s the study of a set of practices stemming from writing and print technologies. If you view English strictly as literary studies (which I would view simply as ignorance of what people with English PhDs study), then you might say that English studies a particular subset of artistic practices within these technological practices. But you’d be wrong IF you said that, since there are many, many English PhD’s who study texts that are not “literary.”
Now, if “English” wants, it can choose to remain this way and become the study of a set of historical practices, as we move away from print technologies into other modes of textual production. Or it might choose to try to encompass new technologies. Or, most likely in my view, some portion of English Studies will move toward new technologies and the remainder will become the study of a historical set of practices.
Either way, however, English is the study of technology. It has simply occluded the role of technology in order to valorize the role of the author–and it has done this for ideological purposes.
Now all that said, I certainly don’t mean to suggest that someone with an English degree ought to have the same kind of technological literacy as someone with a computer science degree or the kind of experience that MTC has.
I do, however, think the answer to the question of what kind of technological literacy humanities students need to acquire is open and shifting… largely because emerging technologies create an open and shifting context. However, that debate is really only open to people who have the knowledge and interest to enter it, people like MTC, even though s/he wants to leave it to someone else.
Thank you for the response. I enjoyed it and want to respond. I understand about spam. I just finished having to write a captcha for an application I’m writing at a programing job, since yes I still have to do that while studying literature, so no problem with the lag.
> I disagree with MTC in the choice s/he makes about the integration of technology.
I have no problem with texts gone digital, students using technology and I use it myself quite extensively. I just don’t want to be the one who teaches it. It seems like perhaps communication arts, computer science, some other dept. would be more adept at this. I should clarify and admit that I am a Comparative Literature graduate student. I was vague on this point.
> I would wonder if MTC believes English majors should acquire technological literacy, and if so, where that might happen (apparently not in MTC’s class).
I think I answered this…yes I think it needs to happen. If it happens in English or Comparative Literature then this would be to the extent that they need to figure out how to use technology in order to present their work. If technology figures into my work it would appear more as a problem of technology. Perhaps The Question Concerning Technology would be a text which would appear on that bibliography.
> I do agree that “Texts are the thing.” But how does one define “text” in this context? Simply as printed word?
I don’t care if the text is on paper or a screen. When I say text I mean the writing one reads, not so much the type of book, printed or digital.
> … texts ARE things. And as things, we must understand their materiality.
Most certainly. They push their way into our space and we respond to them. I admit that their appearance as printed books or as virtual books affects the overall experience of the book but I am not sure that book and text are synonymous.
> How/why does “technology” get caught up in English? Simple: b/c English is the study of technology.
I wonder if Derrida’s text in States of Theory “Some statements and truisms…” doesn’t come into play here. Literature caught up in other ‘things’…. Not that I don’t see what you mean but that all I am rambling now and wondering if English or Literature doesn’t get mixed up in all kinds of things…like History, like Technology, like Feminism, like….And perhaps I jealously guard literature…ask as de Man does in Resistance to Theory…what is literature. Is it really all those other things…
> It’s the study of a set of practices stemming from writing and print technologies.
I don’t disagree about the fact there is a study of this set of practices…but I am, I guess, most interested in the study of the writings themselves, regardless of how they were printed or what technology had to be employed to allow that writing to be inscribed.
> If you view English strictly as literary studies (which I would view simply as ignorance of what people with English PhDs study)
Perhaps knowing that I work in Comparative Literature explains why I am not sure what people in English study.
> then you might say that English studies a particular subset of artistic practices within these technological practices. But you’d be wrong IF you said that, since there are many, many English PhD’s who study texts that are not “literary.”
I admit that I have privileged the study of literary texts.
> Now, if “English” wants, it can choose to remain this way and become the study of a set of historical practices
Are the texts historical practices?
I truly enjoy my programming work. I just don’t think that to read Kafka or to read Shakespeare or to write on either of these the focus needs to center on technology.
I do have an undergraduate degree in English btw but I don’t remember much emphasis on technology in the English dept. at my university. I do recall a kind of technicity…the idea that somehow a technology could be applied to writing and that if you did x your writing would end up this way or that way. I am not sure that English is scientific, that it is a science. Does the relation you suggest between English and technology position it that way? As a social science like anthropology or sociology?
Thanks MTC. I agree that the study of literature does not need to focus on technology. I simply see that any literary text is a historical-technological object and the product of a technological practice (writing). This is not all that a literary text is, but it is these things.
You raise Derrida’s specter here. I think here in terms of the classically Derridean argument of how writing is made supplemental. Traditionally (as in New Criticism) we tend to study literature as a transcendent, aesthetic experience. Thus we set aside the material contexts, including the technological/writing.
Clearly I am not arguing for some techno-determinism of literary production. However I don’t believe in a universal literacy either, that by learning to read literature one becomes literate in other discourses.
So the question for me is will English remain the project of becoming literate in the study of print texts (canonical, literary, or otherwise) or will it shift? English became central to education b/c print literacy was central to our culture. As the culture moves to new forms of literacy, will English shift to remain in the center or will English stay where it is and lose its centrality?
It’s an interesting question you ask about English as a social science. Rhetoric, my own field, is in some ways humanistic and in some ways like a social science. Some rhetoricians are very much like social scientists, conducting ethnographies or even quantitative studies sometimes. That hasn’t been my thing, though perhaps I have been moving in that direction. Regardless, I don’t expect literary studies to move in that direction. I simply think that if it wants to think of itself as offering liberal arts literacy instruction for the next generation of students, it will need to account for the technological spaces in which those literacies will unfold.