Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Do I Have a Dog in This Fight?

Kathleen Fitzpatrick has written some interesting things about current hand-wringing in the digital humanities blogosphere in "The Stakes of Disciplinarity."

This is not at all to say that such battles don’t matter — in fact, for those embroiled in them, institutional turf wars often matter enormously. But what I’ve spent the last few days pondering is why — what the real stakes of such wars of definition are, and whether there’s a better way of thinking about the questions of institutional structure that underwrite them. The result is an awfully long and somewhat rambly blog post, safely tucked below the fold, in which I work through my thoughts on these questions.

I need to start by saying something about my own position in all of this, as it’s that position that sets the terms for everything that follows. My doctorate is in English, from a pretty traditional literature-based program that espoused pretty traditional analog methodologies for the study of that literature. I went to that program, however, because it was the one institution that didn’t run screaming from my statement of purpose, in which I said that I wanted to work on the intersections of literature and contemporary media. With the exception of one course in cultural studies, though, all of the media-oriented work that I did in grad school was pretty much self-taught, because that institution — well, to say that its departments are siloed off from one another would be a significant understatement. There were at least two, and I think three, programs at the institution that my work could really have benefitted from, had I had any inkling that they were there.

Fitzpatrick concludes by bringing in two issues dear to my heart: 1) the way that academic labor -- sometimes in a very temporal, embodied, and even manual way -- comes back as a kind of return of the repressed and 2) the way that institutions actually serve sustainability that shouldn't be rejected too quickly. (An argument that Geert Lovink has also put forward.)

What such a reconstructed university would actually look like, I have no idea. Some folks have argued for fluid, shifting field groups, clusters of scholars working on similar, limited-duration projects or issues, and I can certainly see how such mobility would support the development of exciting new kinds of scholarship, but how you build a curriculum out of such flux, I have no idea.

Even more, how you build a staffing plan based on flux is impossible for me to imagine. It’s one thing if you’re starting with some number of tenured faculty members, and you give them the freedom to shift and move and reorganize themselves — but then what happens when one of them retires? How do you define the position that this faculty member occupied, and thus the position that you now need to fill? It seems almost unavoidable that shifting projects would demand equally shifting staffing resources, thus inevitably leading to an increasingly contingent labor market.

And it’s the realities of such labor issues, along with other, similar economic factors, that I’d argue underwrite our continued dependence on the disciplinary model that structures our institutions. It’s understandable, and it might well be impossible for us to escape.

As someone who advocates for the value of online scholarly work but produces a lot of old-school print criticism and who believes in interdisciplinarity despite my mainstream B.A., M.A., M.F.A., and Ph.D. in English, I'm sympathetic to those like Fitzpatrick who are trying to imagine the university of the future while working in the university of the present.

Of course, like any academic, I am part of a nomadic class and a person who periodically welcomes other nomads, so I do inevitably have a dog in this fight as well. The problem that Fitzpatrick describes -- the "we already have one of them" problem when it comes to media studies scholars in literature departments -- is one that takes place in conversations overheard on campuses across the country.

From my perspective, I think it is a matter of establishing how English functions as a methodology rather than just as a subject area. Questions about the relevance of English as a discipline and the future of the humanities are about much more than choosing subject matter that is either radically contemporary or canonically enduring.

After all, you can be an academic who makes material relevant no matter what the main period is that you study, if you have an interpretive procedure that brings something of value to public debates about culture, politics, civic spaces, community membership, persuasion, ideology, rules, daily routines, special occasions, or cataclysms that seem to signal new eras and attitudes.

Frankly, I've met many people who wrote dissertations about the eighteenth century who have far more useful things to say about online discourses and practices than others writing about World of Warcraft or cell phone novels. It's about the rigor of the analysis, the scope of intellectual curiosity, and how much communicating clearly and distinctively matters in a given person's scholarship. As they say, some of my best friends are bloggers . . . and Shakespearians.

Membership in an English department is about applying certain critical lenses of close reading to texts and interfaces defined broadly, about attention to how media mediate the sound and sight of particular objects of study, about thinking through experiences of literary or linguistic performance, about the idea that writers reshape genres as well as compose within received forms, and about how translation, adaptation, and rhetorical turns and tropes function in a global English that has a long history of both regional and transnational expression.

You only need one new media person if the category "new media" is merely a subject area to be checked off in a larger subject area called "English," but you need a whole department of people engaged in the cultural conversation taking place online if you think of English as a methodology.



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