how to do things with a humanities phd

I've just finished a week discussing Bogost's How to do things with videogames, so I've got that book and its methodology of examining a media microecology in mind. I also just was reading over this report from JISC and the British LIbrary (via Cathy Davidson's blog). 

Here are the report's highlights (and I quote):

  • Doctoral students are increasingly reliant on secondary research resources (eg journal articles, books), moving away from primary materials (eg primary archival material and large datasets).
  • Access to relevant resources is a major constraint for doctoral students’ progress. Authentication access and licence limitations to subscription-based resources, such as e-journals, are particularly problematic.
  • Open access and copyright appear to be a source of confusion for Generation Y doctoral students, rather than encouraging innovation and collaborative research.
  • This generation of doctoral students operate in an environment where their research behaviour does not use the full potential of innovative technology.
  • Doctoral students are insufficiently trained or informed to be able to fully embrace the latest opportunities in the digital information environment.

Without wishing to make the situation seem overly dire, it's possible to read this report and be concerned that we are getting the worst of both worlds. On the one hand, traditional doctoral curriculum and research practices dissuade students from adopting new digital/network-enhanced methods. On the other hand, the digital distribution of research has the potential to be confusing and constraining for students. Simultaneously they are flooded with secondary research from a variety of sources while also facing increasing access problems to key pieces of research. Clearly our desire should be to flip that script so that our students are better prepared (and encouraged) to use digital-network methods to conduct their research, collaborate with colleagues, and share with their communities. At the same time, we want to make support students working with priamry materials and getting access to the research they require. 

As I was thinking through this, it struck me that Bogost's media microecology approach might be a productive heuristic for this challenge. How to do things with videogames does not attempt to provide an exhaustive list of potential activities or even to map out the whole territory from up high. Instead, he selects 20 fairly specific themes, some focusing on the formal qualities of the games (e.g. their treatment of space and textures), others having more to do with cultural roles games play (e.g. promotion, electioneering), and still others that are more personal/subjective (e.g. creating empathy or relaxation). However Bogost doesn't even note those categories. Instead we get something that is closer to a Latourian litany of things to do with videogames.

The tradition in doctoral education would at least appear to be the opposite of this. That is, even though individual students (and faculty) specialize, the specializations link up in a predictable and comprehensive way and one's specialization is built upon some level of comprehesive knowledge. A microecological approach, at least as I see it, suggests that elements might combine in unexpected ways, and that while the totality, seen from a great distance, might look the same (i.e. from the outside an English department still looks like an English department), from the inside (of any discipline), the relations might look very different. Of course the important thing here is to link this up with the challenges identified in the JISC report.

So here's an example using one of the "things to do" that Bogost selects: texture. In videogames, texture is a technical term refering to the surfaces of image objects. However Bogost also extends the term to the procedures applied to different surfaces (e.g. an icy video game texture would have a slippery procedure attached to it) and to feedback mechanisms (e.g. the vibration of a controller). How might we do things with humanities related to texture? 

First, this is an excellent opportunity to address the concern regarding primary materials. One salient issue with digitlzation is that many of the physical properties of primary materials are lost. While it is certainly useful to be able to search the digital text of an old manuscript, the texture of that object is lost. This is a concern that extends beyond the humanities as we think about broadening the sensory experience of digital spaces. While these might be understood as primarily technical problems (i.e. not humanities problems), humanists might have something to add in understanding the cultural, subjective, and ethical dimensions of textures. 

Second, we would probably say that we already study the textures of objects in the humanities. In that study we recognize that textures (and our reception of those textures) are not unmediated. Bogost takes up the examples of different painting textures employed by different artists. Most viewers of a Jackson Pollock painting would see the textures, but their recption of that texture will be varied. However we might also ask how we can build interfaces for feedback into our research. 

Third, thinking in my own field, texture might be a productive rhetorical concept as we move beyond the stricly symbolic realm into thinking about the embodied, material, networked nature of communication.

That's just a brief example and the particulars don't matter so much at this point. The point is that the humanities are reconceived as a litany of activities that might link up in unexpected ways. We continue to study the objects that are important to us. In fact, in some ways primary materials might become more significant, but the focus turns to what we do rather than what we represent.



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