composition, humanities, and the “digital age”

As with my last post, these are some thoughts toward my presentation at the upcoming Computers and Writing conference. Where the last represented some work toward my panel presentation, this post focuses is some thinking through of my participation in a Town Hall meeting on the relations between digital humanities and computers and writing. There I will only be speaking for five minutes, so this is some background material.

I should point out that I really have two kinds of positions on these issues. The first is as a scholar. As a scholar I generally make arguments with no real expectation of people agreeing with me. I might try to be persuasive but I realize I'm just presenting my viewpoint, one which I hope meets a standard of reason and scholarship but a viewpoint nonetheless. The other position is as a director of composition. In that administrative role, I expect that I have many instructors who would not agree with my scholarly viewpoint (see above). I don't expect them to and I wouldn't design a curriculum that demanded some dogmatic agreement with my views. For one thing I don't know that my views even lend themselves to dogmatic agreement, even if one desired such a thing. But even if they did, I wouldn't do it, and I would personally consider it professionally unethical to demand such an allegience. Instead, what is expected is an engagement in the disciplinary conversation regarding the teaching of writing, including the role of technology. In some respects, that expectation asks more of instructors than simply demanding them to do x, y, and z. But that's how that works.

So any, I suppose that's a kind of caveat. Now back to our regular programming.

I want to offer three ways of looking at digital humanities, where in the past I have mainly focused on two. The first equates digital humanities with humanities computing. Humanities computing is its own kind of interdisciplinary beast, but I think it is a familiar beast with decades of history. The second expands digital humanities to also include all the various humanistic interventions into digital media. This would include computers and writing, along with new media studies, the cultural study of technology, games studies, etc. etc. This makes the digital humanities far broader but still represents it as a constellation of specializations that are connected to one another through their interests in digital technologies, specializations that can be differentiated from something else that would be the non-digital/print/traditional humanities. Both of those are reasonable defintions. I favor the second and would advocate it as the understanding that is at work for funding agencies, presses, and other institutions that want to differentiate the digital humanities from other humanities.

However, I want to focus on a third alternative, one that recognizes that the future of all humanities is digital. In fact, the present of all humanities is digital. Take our own field of computers and writing. While I certainly don't believe every rhetorician needs to take up technology as the focus of his or her research, it makes no sense to me that one could develop a theory of writing that did not account for technology. Up until the last decade or so, perhaps it was safe to operate with an unexamined, implicit set of assumptions about the way print technologies operated in writing. Today and certainly into the future that is no longer the case. In short, our entire discipline needs to recognize that for decades, if not centuries, rhetoric has operated within a reasonably static assemblage of compositon technologies that had a significant impact on what composition might be and that that assemblage no longer exists in the same way. 

Put bluntly, the means available to me as a freshman in 1987 to access information (the university library), compose a text (pen, paper, typewriter), and distribute that text (xerox and US mail) were not that different than they would have been for a college student in 1887, 1787, 1687, shall I continue? Ok, they wouldn't have had a copy machine, and before 1887, there were no typewriters. But mostly typewriters were for creating finished products and there wasn't much use for copy machines, at least for academic student writing. Compare those differences with what is available to first-year students now. 

I am imagining this is painfully obvious. And yet, for the most part, our writing pedagogies remain unchanged in composition classrooms. Our assignments are largely the same. The humanities curriculum as a whole is basically the same as it was 30 years ago, with the exception of a few additional courses representing non-Western views and such. If one reads the WPA Outcomes Statement, what is there that couldn't have been there 30 years ago? The answer is the recently added digital plank? But what is the effect of the digital plank if it can just be added on without any impact on the existing planks? It is, quite obviously, an addition, one more thing to do. 

This is how we generally view computers and writing. It's one more thing to do. One more conference to attend. One more area in which to have journals and book series. One more specialization in the field. One more category to check on a 4C's proposal. 

And this is how we view the digital humanities as well. It's one more thing to do.

While that's ok, at least provisionally for the time being, I would suggest the following. In the 20th century it was necessary to make use of the latest available technologies to do one's work in the humanities. Do we imagine this will not be the case in the 21st century? One of the fundamental precepts of the humanities of the modern university is that the invention of the book (including the novel but not exclusively) facilitated a new kind of culture, especially a new academic culture. Do we imagine that such a technological innovation and cultural change could not happen again? Is not happening at this moment?

I think we tend to scoff at Steve Jobs rather facile intersection between technology and the liberal arts, in part because the humanities are so wedded to an Arnoldian mistrust of technology. On the other hand, it seems rhetorically savvy to take up invitations like Jobs' as an opportunity to participate in the world. Yes, we would say, the humanities do have an important role in the development of new technologies. We do have something to say about creativity, ethics, communication, community, and such that are integral to technological design and use, theory and practice.

And of course, rhetoric has always been focused on such questions! To the extent that we have always been focused on symbolic action, we have always addressed technology. For 26 centuries if not longer. To spin this toward the humanities, how does one imagine humans without technologies? How does one imagine literature or history or philosophy without technology? And in the 21st century how does one imagine these things without digital technologies? How would one bracket off the technologies in which one is immersed to practice a non-digital humanities?

As such, when I look at the digital humanities and computers and writing, I see us paired in a common condition of relative exile from the rest of the humanities and rhetoric. In some ways we support that exile through our development of expertise and specialization. However, ultimately, the future of the humanities and rhetoric must be digital. We need to work toward that integration. Our colleagues are depending upon us to do so, even though they might not realize it. This does not mean anyone abandoning a specialization but rather rethinking it through a new technological lens, just as those specialization were rethought or invented in the lens of late industrial technologies.