Thursday, April 08, 2010

An Open Letter to English Departments about What "New Media" Means

Dear English Department,

There have been many apocalyptic futures imagined for you, should you maintain your identity as a department devoted to texts published in print, in a time when paper is not only less likely to be the medium for disseminating new ideas but also for personal expression and collective statement of all kinds. As someone who holds four degrees in English literature (B.A., M.A., M.F.A., and Ph.D.), I don't think the training in close reading and interpretive extrapolation that you provide is irrelevant for the modern world. Nor do I predict that we will rapidly arrive at a post-literate age, given the continuing value of the written word and the efficiency and durability of alphabetic formats. ("ASCII is forever," many might say.)

But I do have to protest your continuing resistance to including digital nonfiction genres in your courses of study. Literary nonfiction in print has become a recognized part of the canon: essays, memoirs, chronicles, and speeches are regularly taught. Supreme Court decisions and Congressional hearings are even considered legitimate objects of study. Writing about travel, scientific inquiry, household management, religious conversion, and forced captivity are stock subjects in English departments.

At the same time hypertext fiction, electronic poetry, and interactive online drama are embraced with great excitement. As long as the objects of study are both properly virtual and properly fictional, they belong in the department catalog.

But write about nonfictional forms of computational media and watch the puzzled expressions and polite dismissals begin.

This is not English, you say.

Only it is.

It is most of what constitutes English at the moment, not only in the United States or Great Britain or any of its former possessions, but all around the world. What bloggers in Baghdad create or text message-makers in Finland fashion may have useful lessons to share with English departments, their students, and the institutions in which they teach and learn.

Please include digital nonfiction in your department's course offerings next year.

Respectfully submitted,

An Author

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