Revisions: On Multimodal Scholarship

I’m finishing up the revisions on chapter 2 today, and have been thinking about the section “from text to… something more.” I’ve expanded my thinking about multimodal scholarship a bit, including the addition of these paragraphs:

Resistance to allowing scholarly production to take non-textual form runs deeply in many fields, and particularly in those that have long reinforced the divide between criticism (art history, literature, media studies) and practice (studio art, creative writing, media production). But one of the explicit goals of many media studies programs over the last ten years has been finding a way within the curriculum to bridge the theory-practice divide: to give our production students a rigorously critical standpoint from which to understand what they’re doing when they’re making media; to give our critical studies students a hands-on understanding of how the forms about which they’re writing come into being. And yet it remains only the rare scholar who brings criticism and production together in his or her own work ‚Äì and for no small reason: faculty hired as conventional scholars are only rarely given credit toward promotion for production work; faculty hired to teach production are not always taken seriously as scholars. In fields such as media studies, we are being forced to recognize, one tenure case at a time, that the means of conducting scholarship is changing, and that the boundary between the “critical” and the “creative” is arbitrary, if it exists at all. My colleague Alex Juhasz, for instance, has written critically about YouTube but has also done a tremendous amount of work on YouTube, work that is inseparable from the critical analysis. Eric Faden, in a slightly different vein, is a film scholar working almost exclusively in the form of the video essay. In the coming years, more and more scholars in fields across the humanities will be taking up such unorthodox means of producing scholarship, in order to make arguments in forms other than the textual. Other scholars, including Tim Anderson and Tom Porcello, are working on audio in audio form, and in digital media studies, the list of scholars both writing about and producing interactive work includes Ian Bogost, Mary Flanagan, Noah Wardrip-Fruin, and too many others to name here.

Numerous possibilities exist for these future argument forms across the humanities: exciting historical work is already being done in digital form, through the production of interactive archives and exhibits; visual anthropology has long used documentary film production in ways that other scholars in the field might adopt. Scholarly analysis, in other words, can take the form of video, producing a visual response to a cultural object or phenomenon; it might take the form of audio, layering sound in order to focus our attention on that which we ordinarily miss in the world around us; it might take the form of an interactive game, in which we encounter an interpretation of a scenario in the rules that govern it. It’s not too much of a stretch, after all, to argue that if authorship practices have changed, the very nature of writing itself has changed as well ‚Äì not just our practices, but the result of those practices.

What other examples of specific scholars or more general scholarly methods might I include here? I need to keep this section fairly tight, but I don’t want to overlook anything that would make the point that much more clear.

4 responses to “Revisions: On Multimodal Scholarship”

  1. Hey Kathleen,

    The one thing that struck me on your mention of Juhasz’s work is a preposition: “has written critically about YouTube but has also done a tremendous amount of work on YouTube…”

    I would have written “in YouTube” because “on” seems to engage the critical while “in” seems to engage the creative. But, then I am thinking of these spaces as repositories “in” which I can publish.

    Good luck with the revisions!


  2. I don’t know if this is something you’re looking for, but the BMC CS department has been exploring the use of producing creative projects in computer science in order to teach the fundamentals of programming. Kind of a tangent, really. But they have been criticized for appearing to let the students have too much “fun.” I wonder if there’s a similar criticism in the disciplines you outline, i.e. creative writing is too fun to be serious.

    There is, of course, some analysis of computer programs as texts, which many cs people scoff at, but I think there are some merits to the line of thinking.

    FYI, I was in an MFA program eons ago and I felt that divide quite keenly, to the point of being told in a literature course that I had nothing to contribute because I was just a creative writing student.

  3. @Cheryl — Thanks for this; I think you’re exactly right. There’s a distinct ambiguity to the phrase “she works on YouTube.” Something about these new modes produces prepositional problems.

    @Laura — Yes, on all counts! Our Intro CS course here at Pomona focuses on Java, using a series of game-type projects; I sat in on the class a couple of years ago and found it a fantastic way to get a wider range of students to care about code. And my MFA program fostered much the same divide: “you’re ‘just’ a writer” on one side, met with “those who can’t, teach” on the other…

  4. I’m not sure if my response will get at what you’re asking, but I think that non-traditional forms of publishing have played a part in ethnographic field research. I’m particularly thinking of the critical ethnographic documentary. It’s one thing for scholars to film their informants, but when scholars pay as much attention to mediating the genre as to their conclusions, it makes for a humanities project with “meta-relevance.” Religious Studies is beginning to experiment with this, but I know that a CGU PhD student in Media/Cultural Studies has been doing some really fascinating work on the idea of ethnography (and as personal journal.

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