It has been a head-spinning few days, needless to say. But I’m starting out today by posting the first of the talks I gave at the MLA, as part of Russell Berman’s presidential forum entitled “Language, Literature, Learning.” Any responses or comments would be greatly appreciated
Networking the Field
I’m extremely pleased to have the opportunity to talk a bit today about the ways that digital communication practices are reshaping the fields of language and literature. These changes are of course at the heart of my book, Planned Obsolescence, just out from NYU, as well as at the heart of the work I’ve been asked to do in the new MLA office of scholarly communication, where we’re exploring the degree to which digital publishing and new forms of social media will affect our means of conducting and exchanging our work as scholars and instructors. A fair warning: I tend to think of my role within the organization – only half seriously – as being “chief transformation evangelist,” and so what I’m presenting today is significantly less research-oriented than it is polemic, the main thrust of which is this: the profession is already entirely digital. What remains is for us to catch up with what that digitality means, and how it means.
Anxieties about the effects of digital media abound: it’s too often taken as read that the technologies that facilitate such easy communication are causing our actual communication skills to deteriorate. There’s little new in this; any media theorist confronted with a narrative about the deleterious effects of new modes of communication will happily point to Plato on the “forgetfulness” that the technology of writing would produce in the souls of those who learn it, or even Alexander Pope’s sense of print as a “scourge” for learned souls. It has always been so: new technologies are perennially imagined to be not simply the enemy of established systems but in fact a direct threat to the essence of what it is to be human. Similarly, change in language is always taken for deterioration. Today’s text messaging is undermining spelling and grammar, and Twitter is replacing critical thought with soundbites. And everyone knows that the kids today are managing to graduate from college without knowing how to write.
There is, as there always is, a kernel of truth in these anxieties. Our students’ ways of knowing, as much as their ways of communicating, are absolutely in flux – just as are our own. But, as is always equally true, a too-close focus on the change that makes us anxious can cause us to miss other important things that are also happening. Such blindspots are apparent, for instance, in the National Endowment for the Arts’s 2004 report, Reading at Risk, which famously put forward a “a detailed but bleak assessment of the decline of reading’s role in the nation’s culture,” presenting compelling survey data that indicated that “[f]or the first time in modern history, less than half of the adult population now reads literature, and these trends reflect a larger decline in other sorts of reading” (vii). The conclusions drawn by the report underscore a set of very conventional anxieties about the contemporary media landscape: the decline in reading uncovered by the report is not just a value-neutral shift in forms of information consumption, but rather “an imminent cultural crisis” (xiii), given the ties the report draws between literary reading and forms of active citizenship vital to a thriving democracy. While the report is careful to stipulate that “no single activity is responsible for the decline of reading,” it nonetheless argues powerfully for the role of various forms of electronic media, including television, video games, and the internet, in contributing to the decline.
Such, in any case, is the conventional wisdom, which the NEA revisited and reaffirmed in its 2007 followup, To Read or Not to Read. But such apparently overwhelming evidence of reading’s decline in American life might run the risk of blinding us to signs of literary culture’s continued proliferation, including the increasing number of devices and platforms and services through which we read today. The field of the literary continues to expand, even if its forms are changing in ways that might make it more difficult to recognize and more difficult to understand. Even the NEA at last began to acknowledge this diffusion of the forms that the literary has taken in contemporary U.S. life when, in its 2009 update, Reading on the Rise, the agency noted that a great deal of reading is taking place online, even if it stopped well short of admitting that digital reading is of equal value to that of books.
Coming nearly a decade into the 21st century and 15 years into the internet’s popularization, this extremely belated acknowledgment that reading online is reading reveals something of the failures in conventional thought about the changes in literacy in the digital age. These failures can be seen in Reading at Risk, which in amongst all of the panic raises but fails to account for one curious bit of data: “Contrary to the overall decline in literary reading,” the report notes, “the number of people doing creative writing – of any genre, not exclusively literary works – increased substantially between 1982 and 2002. In 1982, about 11 million people did some form of creative writing. By 2002, this number had risen to almost 15 million people (18 or older), an increase of about 30 percent” (22). In other words, even before the spread of blogs and Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr, more people in the U.S. were doing more writing than ever before – and the opportunities for such writing, and for sharing this writing with others, have simply exploded since 2002.
Given this explosion, I would argue that the challenge we face today in our encounter with the digital future of our fields does not come from a media culture, or a student population, that refuses writing; instead, it lies in the need to recognize that the forms of writing that engage so many today are writing, and to figure out how to put those forms to work for us, rather than dismissing them as inherently frivolous and degraded. This is a challenge that many faculty today are meeting in their classrooms, by experimenting with individual and group blogs, with Twitter, and with other forms of social, networked communication, often to great effect. These modes of engagement with online writing often work, in to give students a sense of audience, of writing as an act of communication and critical exchange, that far exceeds that produced by the research paper; online, their words are subject not just to the scrutiny of a single evaluator, but to that of a broader group of readers engaged in thinking about the same questions. However formal or informal the location of the writing may appear to us in comparison with the properly MLA-formatted research paper, the act of communicating on an ongoing basis with a broader audience – practicing over and over the art of staking out a position, presenting evidence, engaging with counter-arguments – or frankly, even just the art of being interesting and amusing – can only help produce better writers, and clearer thinkers, in any venue.
This seems obvious enough. But the need to understand these new, networked, often less-than-formal modes of writing as writing applies equally to us and our own work. The horror that greets the idea of taking a blog seriously as a locus of scholarly writing – or even more, the idea of taking Twitter seriously as a form of scholarly communication – reveals a serious misunderstanding of the nature of those forms: what they are, and what can be done with them. The standard dismissal of Twitter as a scholarly tool suggests that no serious argument can be made in 140 characters, and there’s of course a real truth to that. But that dismissal betrays a failure to engage with the ways that scholars actually use Twitter today, and the things that can be done in those 140 characters: scholars share links to longer pieces of writing; engage in complex conversations in real time, with many colleagues, over multiple tweets; and more than anything, perhaps, they build a sense of community. This community is ready with congratulations and sympathy, and is eager to share jokes and memes, but it’s also ready to debate, to discuss, to disagree. More than anything, it’s ready to read – it’s not just a community of friends but a community of scholars, an audience for the longer work in which its members are engaged.
And it must be acknowledged that some of that longer work is taking place not in books and journals but on blogs. Many scholars today are publishing significant chunks of their writing in informal venues online, whether as a means of getting feedback on work in progress or as an alternative channel through which an author can reach an audience more quickly and directly. There may be work that cannot be done in the form of blog posts – there may be times when a scholar can benefit from the format of the journal article or the discipline of the book – but that the blog might not be everything does not mean that it is nothing. It is a mode of communication, of engaging with an audience, that must be taken seriously on its own terms. The blog has never been just a forum in which one can gripe about the travails of day-to-day life, whatever the conventional assumptions about it might suggest; the blog instead provides an arena in which scholars can work through ideas in an ongoing process of engagement with their peers. That spatial metaphor – the arena – is much to the point here: really grasping how something like a blog might serve scholarly communication requires understanding that a blog is not a form, but a platform – not a shape through which are extruded certain fixed kinds of material, but a stage on which material of many different varieties – different lengths, different time signatures, different modes of mediation – might be performed.
I have no doubt that many scholars experience a kind of reflexive horror at the thought of everyone having their own platform, or channel, if you prefer a broadcast metaphor; we’ve all already got too much to keep up with without everyone being free to publish whatever random thoughts happen to occur to them. But imagine for the moment what our writing lives might be like if we did each have our own platform. What if you were able to subscribe to a particular scholar, following her work over time and engaging with her as it comes into being? What if she followed your work as well, and the conversations you had around your shared work were able to produce more new collaborative projects? What if others were able to follow those conversations in process, providing additional input as you worked? What if those conversations produced a community of scholars that you trusted, a community that you could rely on to alert you to new work by new scholars to whom you ought to start paying attention? What if communities of scholars like this were able to say to one another the academic equivalent of hey, I’ve got a trunk of costumes, and we can use my uncle’s barn: let’s put on a show!? What kinds of performances might we develop on such a flexible, dynamic communication platform?
There are of course better and worse ways to use all of these writing platforms; there are pointless Twitter accounts, and there are bad blogs – just as there has always been, if we’re willing to admit it, no shortage of pointless journal articles and bad books. The difference is that in the age of print, in which access to publishing platforms was controlled, scholars came to associate the conferral of distinction with the moment of publication; the fact that a text existed meant that somebody somewhere thought it worthy of attention. In the age of the open platform, distinction is no longer associated with publication, but instead with reception, with the response produced by a community of readers. In order to take the work that is done on the web seriously, on its own terms, we need to understand how communities of scholars engage one another on such platforms, how they respond to the work published there, and how those responses generate more, better work. What we know to be true of our students is equally true of ourselves: the work we do gets better with practice, as more regular informal communication with one another leads to more meaningful formal communication, and a wider audience leads to broader engagements and better feedback.
That wider audience is at one and the same time a crucial aspect of the web’s open publishing platforms and a key component of what makes many scholars nervous about them. Open platforms like blogs and Twitter enable scholarly work to reach a broader reading public, but they also allow that broader public to respond, a prospect that can be quite anxiety-producing – no less for us than it is for our students. But if the crisis that has plagued scholarly publishing for the last several decades – not to mention the ostensible crisis that many pundits have noted to exist for the humanities in general today – has in some sense been produced by the relative smallness of the audience for our work, then doing that work in the open, where it can be seen, is a crucial step. If we reach out to a broader audience, by encouraging intellectual exchange with readers and writers beyond the academy, we have the potential not just to help our own work in and of itself, but to help the academy more broadly in its attempts to communicate its continuing importance to contemporary society. If we’re brave enough to engage directly with the public, we might have the opportunity to demonstrate a bit more about what it is that we do, and why what we do matters.
That communication requires an open platform, and it requires an openness to speaking a language with which a generally educated public can engage. And here we might begin to see creeping in a version of the concerns expressed about text-messaging’s degrading effect on teen writing abilities; is the network destined to dumb everything down? Will a scholarly blog inevitably turn into scholarship-lite? Of course not. But in the same way that writing on a networked platform has the potential to get our students to think seriously about audience, it presents that same potential to us: we could all stand to think about audience as well – what readers we want to reach, when, and why. There is a time and a place for highly professionalized language, for difficulty, and there is equally a time and a place for drawing more general readers into our discussions. Like our students today, we need to be fluent in multiple vernaculars, and we need to be able to translate our ideas across them.
Networking the field, by connecting scholars and their work through digital platforms, will no doubt have some disruptive effects: it will disrupt our assumptions about how distinction is created; it will disrupt our sense of when it’s appropriate to release new work; it will disrupt the ways that we traditionally engage with one another. But allowing these disruptions to be as productive as possible requires that we let go of our anxieties about them, that we understand that scholarly communication via these new platforms is scholarly communication, and that we allow these new platforms to teach us new ways of reading and writing together, in the open.