Books Digital Scholarship Rhetoric/Composition

preliminary thoughts on Technological Ecologies and Sustainability

I've started read Technological Ecologies and Sustainability eds. Dànielle Nicole DeVoss, Heidi A. McKee, and Dickie Selfe: the first book out of the Computers and Composition Digital Press (available here). This new press is an exciting proposition and it's great to see it come to life. Though I'm just getting into the text,  Technological Ecologies and Sustainability raises important new questions for us to consider. As the editors write in their introduction,

Why shouldn’t scholars and teachers of English studies once again envision a new institutional space for prioritizing propositions of compelling sustainable technological ecologies and establishing a temporary state of affairs? Why can we not imagine an institutional process that will eventually call that state of affairs into question, so that the process can begin again? We and our colleagues have brought to life unique and innovative institutional spaces before as we created (and continue to recreate) writing and learning centers or technology-rich labs and classrooms, as we create new techno-pedagogies out of each online space that leaps into existence (blogs, wikis, YouTube, Facebook, MySpace, etc.), and as we create new digital spaces for publishing online scholarly work. We are perfectly capable of creating institutional space for establishing temporary states of affairs on which we can base decisions in the service of sustainable technological ecologies. We are flexible and nimble enough to imagine policies and procedures that will, then, call a temporary state of affairs into question and begin Latour’s process all over again (collective gathering civil discussion  ranking of propositions  establishing yet another temporary state of affairs).

There's no doubt that we are in a challenging moment. It is nearly as difficult to figure out the questions that we need to ask as it is to seek answers to those questions. That process is not made any easier by the larger contexts of the economy and the changing nature of higher education (of which technological concerns are only one part). How should rhetoric and composition, or more broadly, English Studies, or even broader, the humanities, respond to the emerging practices of networked digital media? How should we approach the subject as researchers? How should we incorporate it into our curriculum? Into first-year writing? Into writing across the curriculum? Into undergrad and graduate degree programs?

Ideally the bottom line answer to these questions would begin with your degree of certainty in your understanding of where we will be in 2020. Unfortunately, I don't think anyone can have much certainty. As such it is imperative to move forward with a highly fluid and responsive set of tactics, which is something I see echoed in this collection.  The couple chapters I've already read all suggest that these tactics are heavily shaped by local, institutional forces. This is something I've suggested myself (so naturally I think it is a very astute observation 😉 ). That said, at some point, our disciplinary identity might shift so that the integration of new media would seem as normal as the integration of print texts, and then differences between local contexts will likely diminish as they have in terms of the expectations for English faculty in terms of books have. But that is quite a ways off, if it ever arrives.

In the first essay in the collection, Rylish Moeller, Cheryl Ball, and Kellie Cargile Cook, take up the question of tactics from the perspective of new faculty entering an institution. Specifically, the article recounts Rylish and Cheryl's experiences joining the Utah State faculty. As they argue,

One solution to this issue is to look at new English faculty as agents who manipulate certain pressure points at various times within a complex, political economic ecology—a social system demonstrated through material, measurable effects and affectations. These pressure points become more visible with the introduction of new agents and new technologies, both of which push the boundaries of a department’s constraints. 

This is an interesting perspective for me as I move to join the Buffalo faculty next semester. I think this is a useful essay for anyone in computers and writing entering a new position, or indeed any department hiring such faculty. Looking at the particular experiences of these faculty will likely give many readers new insight into what happens when digital media faculty are brought into a department. My own experiences at Cortland were not much different. At first I was given an office computer that was of little use to me. And it took a couple years to build a computer lab where I could teach my courses. The successes I did enjoy at Cortland came from building relationships with faculty and staff across the campus. This also seems to have been the experience at Utah State. It's really not surprising. And in the end, we might take comfort in recognizing the importance of good old-fashioned rhetoric and communication to these efforts.

In the end, it's not really anything new to reshape a department through new hires, but the move toward digital media takes this in a new direction. That is, making a move toward hiring faculty in a new literary specialization will make a difference internally to a department, but hiring digital media faculty changes the department's relationship to the material operation of a campus. Digital media faculty will establish connections and draw on resources that traditional literary faculty might never consider. For good or for bad, we shake things up.

So that's certainly one way to call the current state of affairs into question.

I'm looking forward to reading further into this collection.

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