30 years ago, I was an undergrad and just starting a job working for a start-up, family business in the nascent IBM PC clone market. We assembled computers and sold them on to retails. We distributed hard drives and other components. We consulted with small businesses to provide them with IT solutions for point-of-sale, inventory control, accounting, etc. Those of you who were there know the drill. Monochrome computers, C prompts, no mouse, no windows, 8088 CPUs, RAM measured in kilobytes, 10MB hard drives the size of a kid’s lunch box. Could I have envisioned 2018? Sure, sort of. I mean I read Neuromancer.
I was also an English and History double-major at Rutgers. They were the two largest majors in Rutgers College at the time (the Arts and Sciences college of the university in New Brunswick). Shakespeare, Detective Fiction, Arthurian Romance, The Crusades, World War 1, America in Vietnam: these were all English and History classes with hundreds of students enrolled in giant lecture halls: semester after semester, year after year. Maybe it’s still that way at Rutgers. If so, they’re a bit of an outlier.
Imagining the future/present of computers would have been easier, I think, than imagining the demise of the humanities. In the end the two were bound together. Not because computers are necessarily anti-humanistic but rather because the humanities, especially English was born in the early 20th century with an expiration date. Despite the hypothetical possibility that English Studies need not be bound to print technology and culture, in the end, that’s what has happened. And there’s nothing wrong with the humanistic study of print culture. I’m sure it will carry on, in some fashion, for a very long time. It just isn’t going to be central to how we understand communication as it operates in our living culture.
So it makes me think about 30 years forward. Assuming we still have something like today’s tenured professors at universities (a future that is far from guaranteed in America), I am confident there will be faculty who research the contemporary cultural, political, and professional practices of communication, in whatever media prevails. In short, there will be professors who extend the rhetorical tradition into them media ecologies in which they and others live and work. Of the rest of English Studies, who knows? I would guess some smaller version–akin to classics, art history, or philosophy today–will exist.
And it probably won’t take 30 years to get there.
In part, I’ve been thinking about this because I’ve been idly following the vlogger Casey Neistat recently in his efforts to imagine this new business of his called 368. Basically, it’s a kind of school… sort of. It’s a place where vloggers and podcasters might come, gain access to tools and support, learn how to up their production game, and get business advice in terms of marketing and finding an audience. In a recent vlog, Neistat made the astute analogy between contemporary vloggers and Buster Keaton in that they are both working in an emergent medium/genre and trying to figure what is possible and how to achieve it. His business model seems essentially based on this observation and the opportunity that lies in figuring out how to become the MGM of YouTube (or maybe more accurately United Artists).
I suppose in part I’ve thought of my own work as a less entrepreneurial/commercial and more scholarly version of this objective: to invent/discover/study rhetorical practices and genres for an emerging media ecology. That’s me as a member of the Florida school who was raised by wolves and a copy of Ulmer’s Heuretics read by moonlight.
I will admit that I’ve never been the best professor for the student who wants to be told what to do. Maybe that sounds like a fake criticism, like saying in an interview that your greatest weakness is that you work too hard or that you’re too honest, but I really don’t mean it that way. There’s a place and time for direct instruction, and I try to give it, but I can admit that’s not my strong suit. I’ve always come more from the perspective of saying “Here are some tools. Find something interesting about them and give it a go. If the whole thing falls about, I don’t really care as long as you learned from it.” It’s a fine pedagogy, in its way, but it really only works with students who have some intrinsic motivation related to their work. I’m capable of enough reflection to know that’s my own version of a mini-me pedagogy, because that’s how I learn. I find something I care about and then I bang and grind away until I get somewhere.
I think it’s premised on the notion that while we think it is unwise to try to reinvent the wheel, trying to figure out how one invents something like that, taking your own journey through invention… well that’s what learning is to me.
What does this have to do with looking 30 years back and forward? Good question. I suppose it has to do with my basic plan for moving forward–claiming an interest, banging, grinding, experimenting, inventing. It’s the opposite of institutional/disciplinary humanistic methods, which are fundamentally homeostatic