Current Affairs Higher Education

Making new work in digital English studies

I'm bringing together a couple things I've been reading. First here's a couple dog bites man stories:

And then I just finished reading Cory Doctorow's interesting novel Makers about a downtrodden, near future America, the potential of DIY networked technologies, and, ultimately, the suffocating weight of corporate inertia. In short, as we should already know, change is inevitable (and these days comes upon us faster and faster) but it is rarely what we think it will, let alone should, be.

We can wring our professional hands over the job market. There's reason to be concerned. Mark Bauerlein counts a mere 55 tenure-track jobs in traditional Brit Lit fields. And we can concern ourselves with the plight of graduate students in those fields. We can concern ourselves with the long term viability of continuing scholarship and teaching in those areas. No jobs; no grad students in those fields; eventually no one doing research or teaching in those areas, or so Bauerlein's argument goes, roughly. Of course there are already few students taking the courses, which is the underlying problem.

So we can jump to the kind of reporting we see in the Times about trying to excite more students about computer science and bringing it into the mainstream curriculum. This might remind one of Samuel Papert and Mindstorms 30 years ago: computational thinking is critical thinking. Then perhaps one could enter into some discussion of how English Studies ought to try to find its way toward computer science and digital media. Or perhaps we might follow Toffler and go with the more general recommendation that we "shut down the public education system."

In my view, it doesn't matter if one shares Bauerlein's love and valuation of the traditional English curriculum, agrees with Toffler's radical propositions, or believes in bending English to meet a new economy. 

In the end, English lives or dies on its ability to convince students that we have something valuable to teach them. If you don't think this is the case then spin me a scenario of a thriving English department sans majors. 

Makers is not a great literary achievement by disciplinary standards, but I found it a compelling novel of ideas. It's not a celebration of technology; it's not an "engineers to the rescue" sci-fi novel. The novel maps the complex relations among technology, labor, markets, the legal system, journalism, local and national cultures while mostly being a story about people. But it echoed with me in a weird way with the very core of the earliest notions of the liberal arts, as the skills a "free man" required.  

The liberal arts have changed in many ways since then, and we now have vexing notions of agency. And yet there remains something compelling about the promise of an education that will give you the skills to create agency. Yes I realize the theoretical issues there, but I'm thinking about how I would speak to a prospective student or parent here. Sure, maybe other colleges at a university would like to promise students the security of job preparation. But in 2010 (almost) we know that's snake oil. The liberal arts take up the risk/reward proposition in a different way. When job market risks start to rise, maybe the answer is to look for a different value out of your education. 

Doctorow's novel focuses on two geeks with the computing and engineering skills to build cool things immersed in a networked culture that allows them to collaborate in radical new ways, creating "new work" as it is termed in the novel. Maybe the liberal arts will never be that technical, but it is certainly that geeky. And in the novel, the two geeks are joined by an ex-journalist-turned-blogger who turns the world on to their inventions through her writing. But I'm not hunting for role models in the novel. Instead I am interested in the spirit of the DIY culture and the innovative communities that build up around it. Much of the novel revolves around the duo's invention of an interactive amusement-ride-cum-museum. And that's my model, such as it is. 

In my vision, the liberal arts ought to be a place where students can manipulate cultural objects and build new, interesting objects from them. It ought to be a site of creativity and innovative community. The liberal arts major ought to graduate with a portfolio of creative projects, a broader and more nuanced cultural literacy, and the communication skills to help others see the value/get excited about their work. Digital media rhet/comp plays a role in each of those areas. But perhaps it's most basic and essential role is in helping students develop the networked media skills to collaborate, create, and share. I'm not talking computer science or engineering here, but simply the digital literacy version of what writing papers once was (or purported to be).

Of course, as mentioned above, these things rarely work out as we imagine them. Who would have thought that reading English literature would become a cornerstone in the managerial literacy of 20th century industrial culture? And yet it did. And who would have thought that all that would be disappearing as quickly as it is? Strange times.

"New work" is based on our capacity to do "it" ourselves, with the tools that are available to us as students and faculty: to create exciting things, build communities around them, and share their value with the world. The liberal arts must be about what we are doing now, not some deferred value in a distant future. It's not the promise that today's learning will create future value/earnings after graduation. It's the promise that we will create value today with the hope that today's creation will lead to better future creations.