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.