digital humanities digital rhetoric Digital Scholarship

digital natives in graduate school

As I ponder the entering English graduate school class of 2011 (expected grad date 2019, expected tenure date, assuming such things still exist, 2025+), I wonder about their technological proficiencies. The conventional, if not traditional, age for entering grad students would be mid/late 20s. They were born in the mid-late 80s (when I was in HS). They were undergrads in the last decade. They are the students of Web 2.0 (coined in 2004): facebook, mobile phones, youtube, online gaming, etc., etc. Spin them forward to their job market at the end of the decade or their tenure decisions in the middle of the next one. Faculty tenured in 2025 will be the foundation for undergrad students graduating in 2030. 

What kind of literacies will be expected of the BA/BS graduating class of 2030? Would anyone hazard a guess? One thing I'm fairly sure of is that whatever literacy the undergrad class of 2030 will develop will be reflected in the literacy of their professors, who are today's (and tomorrow's) English graduate students.

Here's the problem though, today's English graduate student digital natives are not. Not digitally native, I mean. In part, I am highly skeptical of Prensky's categories. Clearly there is more to digital literacy than the year of one's birth. Still, English phd students tend to come from fairly affluent families (especially on a global scale). They are obviously well-educated. In other words, they have had access. English, however, probably self-selects for an aversion to technology. That is, overall, English grad students are less technologically literate than their contemporaries. I don't think it would be unfair to say that, on a national scale, an English education fails to educate students to support a digital literacy. Just look at the curriculum and try to figure out where such an education might be taking place: in dark corners only. 

So English, and maybe other humanities, is attractive to those who cannot figure out the digital world or who find some principled reason to reject it (which is fine in my view, just as it is fine that the Amish reject many technologies). However, while it is fine for an individual or even a community to reject technologies, it probably doesn't bode well for an academic discipline. 

A number of years ago, I put it this way. Digital media is a kind of bet. You can bet that it won't be important and ignore it. Or you can bet that it will and start studying it, start incorporating it into your discipline. 15 years ago, when I was in grad school, I bet on the digital. But as a discipline we still bet that it won't be important (even though that is clearly idiotic). We still send out PhDs with little or no digital literacy, which in my mind is like sending out astronomers who don't know how to work a telescope: fine for a Ptolemaic solar system.

In saying this, I'm not saying that everyone must now focus solely on the digital! Do we focus solely on print literacy today? Of course not. Besides, the "digital" isn't just one thing; like print, it is many things. And yet, just as we can say today that all humanities profs are print literate, that they hold a common, high level of print literacy that they might help undergrads to develop, in the future it would seem necessary that humanities profs share a common, high level of digital literacy.

That would seem, quite obviously, to be the place where digital humanities intervenes: to facilitate the development of that literacy. It is not particularly troubling that we don't know what the demands of 2020 or 2030 will be for digital literacy. We can't see that far into the future in terms of many things. What is troubling is that we have little idea, and no consensus, about what kind of literacy digital humanities should represent in 2011. We need to figure that out and start getting our graduate students and undergrads (and maybe even faculty… one can dream) on that road.

Again, it comes down to that bet, and can anyone today imagine that the future of the humanities will not require critical, interpretive, rhetorical, and compositional methods for digital media that are at least equal in sophistication to those we have built for print?