what is academic (digital) discourse?

For a long time it seemed that we talked about “academic discourse,” some common set of discursive practices that characterize writing across the university. That seems less the case today. Today we more commonly refer to a constellations of genres and professional-disciplinary practices. Despite this, on an institutional level, it would not be surprising to see some reference something like academic discourse, a common set of rhetorical-compositional expectations for all students. Furthermore, your university, like mine, might establish a similar set of goals related to digital discourses or literacies. So I wonder what that’s supposed to look like? As I’ve argued here in the past, our expectations for undergraduates as writers, the genres in which we ask them to write, reflect in some fashion the genres in which we write as scholars. E.g., the literary or rhetorical history or analysis undergraduate essay is a reflection of the journal article.

My question in this post follows from this logic. If undergraduate digital literacy is a reflection of scholarly digital literacy, then what is it a reflection of? What does digital literacy look like in your discipline/profession?

The immediate skeptical/cynical answer in the humanities is that there is no digital literacy among scholars and that this part of the problem the humanities currently face. However, that’s an oversimplification. Clearly there are some scholars in the humanities that might be described as “digitally literate,” though that literacy takes a variety of forms: programming, web design, multimedia production, database archiving, social media, etc. We have scholars who use computing to study texts/media, scholars who compose born-digital scholarship, scholars who are experts in a range of digital-cultural practices, etc. (these are not mutually exclusive categories). We also have many, many scholars who wouldn’t see themselves in any of these categories but of necessity engage in a number of digital literate activities: we all use computers, the web, databases, digital documents, and a variety of applications (word processors, email clients, course management systems, etc.) in our daily work. 25-30 years ago that wouldn’t have been the case. I wasn’t a professor back then, but I remember visiting professors’ offices that didn’t have computers in them.

Is the contemporary expectation for a humanities professor’s digital literacy roughly the same as that of the generic entry-level corporate job? I.e., ability to use Office, email, etc., plus maybe some specialized facility with web/database searching. Is that what we mean, institutionally, when we say we want students to be digitally literate? Again, I think the answer to this question needs to be addressed on a disciplinary level, but I would say that for humanities undergraduates, I would add the following criteria:

  • communicate visually (i.e. some basic web, slide, document design)
  • archive/curate data
  • evaluate online sources
  • produce and manage an online professional identity across social media platforms
  • work collaboratively asynch and synch online
  • basic understanding of how hardware, software, and networks operate

Those are the technical/practical parts. To these, I would also add some critical-cultural understanding about

  • copyright, privacy, access and related social issues particular to the digital
  • a history of computing and culture (something like what you can get from The New Media Reader)
  • digital identity formation
  • diverse cultural practices emerging from digital technologies on a global scale
  • shifts in rhetorical-compositional practices
  • changing nature of work, education, politics

Is that enough? Is that too much? Did I miss something? And if we would expect the humanities undergrad to know such things, what would we expect from the humanities professor? (PS and if you’re starting in graduate school in the humanities this year, you might also want to speculate on what the answer to this question will be in 8 years.)

4 thoughts on “what is academic (digital) discourse?

Add yours

  1. Very interesting post, so often courses are created based on the skillset of the academics rather than the needs of the learner or the societal impact of the course or module.


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