digital rhetoric

the relationship of English Studies to emerging media

As a digital rhetorician, it is not surprising that I take a professional, scholarly interest in emerging media from social media platforms to the latest devices. I am interested in the rhetorical-compositional practices that develop around them and the communities they form. I am particularly interested in how they are employed, or might be employed, for purposes of pedagogy and scholarly collaboration and communication.

However I don’t love these technologies. I am not a fan of them, and I do not teach the “appreciation” of digital media. I think this is something that is sometimes difficult for colleagues in literary studies to understand. Typically I think they do love their subjects. It’s a cliche after all that one goes to graduate school because one “loves literature.” To be fair, it is probably a broader cliche shared among more traditional disciplines in the arts, humanities, and natural sciences… to have a love of one’s subject. I suppose you could say that I have a love, or at least an ardent fascination, with rhetorical practices. I can sit in a dull, pedantic faculty meeting and become interested by the particular rhetorical moves that people make, what is allowable, what it isn’t, what people find convincing, and so on. I find emerging media interesting in this regard because we continue to struggle to figure out what those rhetorical practices should be. But I don’t love emerging media any more than I love faculty meetings.

I would estimate that I average less than one hour per day on my computer or iPhone for non-work related reasons. Like many of us in academia, the large majority of my work does require these devices. As an administrator, the plurality of this time is spent in email applications. There is no doubt that every aspect of my work–research, teaching, service–has been shaped by emerging media, just as my 20th-century predecessor’s work was shaped by the information-communication technologies of her era. And as an English professor, there’s no doubt that she studied those technologies (books in particular) and was an expert in their use. The 20th-century literature professor may have not realized it, but she was in a unique historical moment where the media objects she studied and the information-communication technologies she employed to do the studying were a part of the same media ecology.

This is not a matter of love or hate or critique or ideology. It’s a matter of history. Literary studies emerged in the late 19th century and early 20th century as a discipline (MLA formed in the 1880s) in the context of the second industrial revolution. It served to expand print literacy and establish an Anglo-American national identity. It didn’t really matter that Matthew Arnold saw religious poetry as a salve against the depredations of industrialization or that the New Critics supported southern agrarian politics. Literary studies wouldn’t have existed without electrification and the constellation of technologies around it or the economy it enabled. By the time we get to end of the Vietnam War, we’re already switching to a post-industrial information economy with new literacy practices and we’re far less interested in that patriarchal Anglo-American literary identity. English tried to adapt, but it never really did.

The End.

Then some new disciplinary paradigm may (or may not) emerge, one that would bear as much resemblance to the industrial age discipline as the industrial age discipline bore to its antebellum antecedents. It isn’t one that loves digital technology any more than the last one loved industrial technology. But it is one that teaches people how to communicate, how to be literate, in the contemporary world. We’ve long ago given up the idea of fostering an Anglo-American national identity, but like our predecessors, we continue to be interested in how identity shapes, and is shaped by, media. We can and should continue to study literature, but just as the dimensions of literary study changed in the last century, they will change again. They’ve already changed.

No doubt we will continue to see anti-technology clickbait jeremiads from English faculty, the sermonizing of the literary clergy (like this one). I will leave it to you to decide for yourselves if these are outliers or more representative of the discipline. On the flipside, there is plenty of techno-love out there in our culture, companies that want us to buy their products, and so on. Such rhetoric is deserving of skepticism and critique. But if we want to attack the love of media then that cuts both ways. In my mind the intellectual misstep of falling for the hype of emerging technology is no worse than the one that leads one to ardent faith in the technologies of the past. If anything, the latter is worse because it seems to suggest that perfection was achieved. What are we really believing there? That we had thousands of years of human civilization leading to the invention of the printing press and then the novel, that the novel is the final apogee of human expression in some absolute, universal sense, and that all that follows, drawing us inexorably away from the print culture that supported the novel, is a fall from civilization and grace and a return to barbarism?

What exactly are they teaching in grad school these days? I’m fairly sure it isn’t this. At least I don’t see this going on around me. I don’t see people in love with digital media either. But I don’t think they need to be or should be. They just need to understand it, use it, and teach with it, just as they did with print media in the past.



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