the cognitive-media ecologies of graduate curriculum


I seem to have developed a recent preference for the term “cognitive-media ecology.” It’s not a term one finds readily bandied about, but it references a familiar concept or at least an intersection of two familiar concepts: media ecology and cognitive ecology. Though they are separate fields with the latter including a more constellation of empirical methods (both are interdisciplinary), both are interested in questions of how environments shape individual and cultural human experience and thought. My own interests in this varied area of investigation are connected to concepts like new materialism, assemblage theory (DeLanda), second empiricism (Latour), and so on, which tend to the less anthropocentric end of these studies. When it comes down to it, my scholarship follows a new materialist, media-cognitive-ecological-rhetorical approach to understanding how emerging technologies shift our capacities for thought, action, and communication, often within the specific contexts of higher education.

In other words, the topic described in the post title, as odd as it might sound, is right where I like to work.

Here are a few things I will point to but not rehearse:

  1. The transformation of the university since the 1980s including overproduction of PhDs, adjunctification, the shift of costs to students, increased administration, etc. The current abysmal job market for those seeking tenure-track jobs.
  2. What activity theory and genre studies tells us about how genres develop and function in communities, including graduate curriculum genres such as seminar papers, dissertation proposals, and the dissertations themselves.
  3. The emergence of digital technologies in the same 30-40 year period (the first home PCs appeared in 1977 I believe). While this may seem like a tertiary matter to graduate curriculum in the humanities, one has to keep in mind that our 20th-century disciplines were born from an analogous technological revolution (the Second Industrial) at the end of the 19th-century: literacy and literate culture as we have understood it make no sense outside of that context.

So all one really needs to do here is hold those points plus the theoretical concepts mentioned above in one’s head for a while and see what thoughts come out.  For example:

  • There’s nothing intellectually, ideologically, or ethically “pure” about any of the work we have ever done. It’s always been messy, material, compromised, historical, and so on.  Whatever affective commitment (e.g. love for one’s work) that one might have won’t change that. Whatever ideological commitment one might have won’t change that either. I don’t mean that as a condemnation, but only to ask that we dispense with the ubi sunt business.
  • Our genres, pedagogies, courses, methods–really all the trappings of our disciplines–form from the cognitive and rhetorical capacities made available to us through our relations to our media ecology. This is not technological determinism but a complex historical process that results in assemblages (genres for example) that manage to perpetuate. It’s a process in which we academics participate both individually and collectively and thus in which can intervene. As a result, shifts in the media ecology result in disciplinary-paradigmatic challenges.
  • The cultural and institutional function of our discipline has fundamentally been about its (perceived) relationship to literacy. The demands of literacy/electracy undoubtedly change over time, but, at least since the Second Industrial revolution, there’s been a need for students to develop a literate capacity to function in technologically, professionally, bureaucratically complex discourse communities that are quite unlike the rhetorical practices of their adolescence. That basic fact hasn’t changed; we still talk about our students’ need to learn to communicate. What has changed though is the perceived relationship of English Studies to that task, where we have come to say three things simultaneously:
    • Our discipline is not especially interested in new literacies (or electracies if you prefer); our focus is primarily historical.
    • We are ambivalent about “preparing” students to join a workforce (even though really it’s all we’ve ever done).
    • Whatever work we might do in this area can be accomplished by adjuncts (which is another way of saying it isn’t what “we” do).

What does all this have to do graduate curriculum? Well, first, graduate curriculum emerges from these same conditions. We typically make the mistake of saying graduate school in English Studies is intended to prepare students to be professors. That’s only half true. It’s true that we generally imagine our students as planning to become professors, and they tell us as much. But the curriculum doesn’t prepare them for the job. It’s true that graduate courses will teach students something about their area of specialization, knowledge which they  then might in turn impart to students in classes that they are asked to teach. And the experience of writing seminar papers and then a dissertation teaches students research practices that they will employ as scholars. However, those are really indirect side effects of the curriculum; if they were intended then we’d be far more explicit about those elements.

So the upshot of this is that we have a discipline of academics with varying, but generally strong, affective and/or ideological commitments to an extant historical practice; a general unwillingness or at least ambivalence about addressing the task of supporting student literacy, which has been the implicit if not explicit cause of English’s centrality to higher education for the last century; and a graduate curriculum that was never designed to prepare students to do anything, even be professors.

So in relation to the situation in which we find ourselves, this results in one of two general options.

  1. The discipline and graduate curriculum make no intentional changes. We simply say, become a student in our program and learn how to do certain disciplinary work. There’s a chance you’ll become a professor, but probably not, and we’re not really going to do much to prepare you for that job or really any job. Just come take the classes and write the dissertation because you want to do those things, not because they represent some investment in a future of any kind.
  2. Do something different than what we’ve done in the past.

I’d say there’s a 99%+ chance that overall as a discipline we will choose door #1. It’s what we have always done. The only difference is that 30-40 years ago, one might have said to an incoming class of graduate students that 50% of you will get degrees and 70% of those folks will eventually get tenure-track jobs (so about a third of an incoming class), today that number might be more like one in five or one in six. But there’s really no need to dwell on such numbers because ultimately the ethos of our discipline is that we, both students and faculty, do the work we do because we love it, not because it has any future.

And indeed it probably doesn’t have much of a future. Eventually the system will implode but so what? Something will replace it as there will likely continue to be a need to develop the rhetorical capacities of college students, and there will need to be some way to prepare and certify the faculty that do that work.  There will even need to be research to support those activities. All of that will emerge from the capacities of the cognitive-media ecologies we inhabit.