Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Twenty-First-Century English Majors

Although we'll have a project critique during finals week, today was the last formal meeting of the current digital rhetoric course that I've been teaching this quarter.

Our guest speaker was Mark Marino, who walked students through a range of his e-literature works and collaborative efforts, which he had organized as Diigo bookmarks.

Other guests have included Jonathan Alexander, David Familian, Joshua Fouts, James Kotecki, Peter Krapp, Julia Lupton, and Nedra Weinreich. In connection with their coursework, students also attended talks by Nick Montfort, Noah Wardrip-Fruin, Tom Boellstorff, Ian Bogost, and Virgil Griffith.

Despite the fact that I invited a range of speakers in connection with the umbrella topic of "digital rhetoric," I found that privileging a certain amount of literary analysis and creative writing made sense, given that the audience for the course was composed of English majors who were graduating seniors. Although they eventually became able bloggers and video essayists, the "adaptation" assignments that played to their strengths as book-lovers had much less steep learning curves and efficiently illustrated points from the media theory that they were reading about hypertext writing or game design by exploiting their pre-existing knowledge of literary studies. For example, I asked them to translate a poem into an electronic hypertext and a book-length work of literature into a game, which turned out to be surprisingly successful prompts for composition.

I try not to foist political engagement on my students, even though my own objects of study reflect my personal interests in state rhetoric and activist protest. Although my approach is typified by a recent article in media/culture on "Artificial Intelligence: Media Illiteracy and the SonicJihad Debacle in Congress," which was reviewed for mainstream audiences by Gameology, Kotaku, and Game Politics, I find myself teaching a lot more canonical e-lit to my students, so that they can bring the tools that they use with twentieth-century literature (periods, schools, genres, methodologies, etc.) to the twenty-first.

Thus, Marino was a natural choice for our closing session for a group of students who say that they now wish they could take more courses that study digital texts. He opened by appealing to their interests and asking where they might want to go with an English degree. Among the answers were "novel-writing," "law school," "advertising," "journalism," "teaching," "government service," and "business school," although at least two students were interested in graduate study in a digital media degree program. He put forth what they found to be a persuasive claim that English majors were particularly well-suited to interpret code in ways that even programmers could not, because they could see what code says as well as what it does.

Marino argued that the same interfaces that are used to "purchase tickets" or "buy books" could be repurposed for literary applications. He introduced students to the website for the Electronic Literature Organization, which he described as a kind of hospitable and welcoming "guild," and the portal for Critical Code Studies. He also showed only a small amount of the decade of material developed at his brainchild Bunk Magazine, which he argued used digital media much more creatively than commercial mainstream humor publications like The Onion, whose lack of interactivity Marino compared to showing pictures that you've taken of your television screen.

He described his enthusiasm for using any new technology to write a story, whether "Excel, PowerPoint, or Twitter." He pointed to Bunk's recent iPod stories issue as an example of his explorations of form and function. With Jeremy Douglass, he has been working on the concept of "Benchmark Fiction" and adaptations of the classic short story "The Lady, or the Tiger?" The tale of the man facing the uncertainties behind the two doors was retold with a chatbot, staged as a Google Fight, etc. He also showed a Borges story told through Diigo virtual sticky notes, "Marginalia in the Library of Babel." He also explained how a desire to break systems -- including customer service phone trees with live human beings -- had shaped a lot of his critical sensibility.

From a Virtualpolitik standpoint, I was particularly interested in his project with the actual code of a terrorist surveillance project in which he had to learn LISP and the relevant database structures in order to understand how -- as a cultural artifact -- it expresses the "logic of a culture" about matters of national security.

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