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The Stakes of Disciplinarity

There’s been a lot of discussion in various internet settings over the last week, some of it pretty contentious, about the definition of the Digital Humanities and its relationship to digital media studies. (See, for instance, the debate started by Ian Bogost’s post, as well as that provoked by Dave Parry’s first and second takes on the issue.) Some of this debate arose, I think, from a sense of annoyance among folks who’ve been working in DH for years that suddenly, now, with the rise of social media and the visibility of those working in and on those forms, a bunch of attention is being paid to something called “digital humanities” — but the thing going by that name isn’t quite the same thing that it’s been for the past few decades, and the thing that DH has been is now being overlooked (or worse, dismissed) in favor of this new interest in digital media.

As someone who works in digital media, but feels a profound connection to the idea that I have of the digital humanities, I’ve found myself a little puzzled at moments, both by the debate and by the emotion behind it. I’ve intermittently had that sense of realizing, mid-argument, that you and the person with whom you’re arguing are using exactly the same words but are nonetheless speaking two different languages. And as Matt Kirschenbaum noted — correctly, I think — the fact that these battles over the definition of such terms are based in stereotypes indicates that they’re nearly always, and certainly in this case, institutional turf wars.

This is not at all to say that such battles don’t matter — in fact, for those embroiled in them, institutional turf wars often matter enormously. But what I’ve spent the last few days pondering is why — what the real stakes of such wars of definition are, and whether there’s a better way of thinking about the questions of institutional structure that underwrite them. The result is an awfully long and somewhat rambly blog post, safely tucked below the fold, in which I work through my thoughts on these questions.

I need to start by saying something about my own position in all of this, as it’s that position that sets the terms for everything that follows. My doctorate is in English, from a pretty traditional literature-based program that espoused pretty traditional analog methodologies for the study of that literature. I went to that program, however, because it was the one institution that didn’t run screaming from my statement of purpose, in which I said that I wanted to work on the intersections of literature and contemporary media. With the exception of one course in cultural studies, though, all of the media-oriented work that I did in grad school was pretty much self-taught, because that institution — well, to say that its departments are siloed off from one another would be a significant understatement. There were at least two, and I think three, programs at the institution that my work could really have benefitted from, had I had any inkling that they were there.

But then, as I finished there, I got hired here, in a joint position between English and Media Studies, and my fairly old-fashioned disciplinary Ph.D. was crucial both to landing the position and to getting started in it. My new home was an extremely traditional SLAC English department, some of whose members were quite skeptical of the entire media studies enterprise. On the other side, I had a horde of students who Got It Already as far as technology goes, for whom I needed to devise a program that would give them the best possible view of the field, a view that included its historical development, and not just the most up-to-the-minute work going on in it.

In other words, I had two constituencies whose apparent interests were orthogonal to one another, but with whom I needed to start and maintain dialogue — and even more, where I could, I needed to get them talking to one another.

This has been the m.o. of much of my career thus far: I’ve operated on the edges of a number of disciplines, fully fitting into none of them, but trying to find ways to get them to talk to one another. So I’m sort of a literature person, but stay on the fringes of the discipline. I’ve had good conversations with folks in American studies, though my work doesn’t have the interest in the historical, the national, or the hemispheric that would make me genuinely a member of that field. I’ve been to half a dozen Internet Research conferences, and have loved them, but my methodologies are vastly different from those of most of that group’s members. And I’m clearly in media studies, though even there my interests carry me a bit afield.

There was a moment in the academy when it appeared that “cultural studies” was going to be the place for the kinds of inter-/multi-/trans-disciplinary work that I’m interested in. But as Michael Bérubé pointed out last fall in “What’s the Matter with Cultural Studies?” — unsurprisingly provoking a hailstorm of response — the new field has failed in its efforts to get us to rethink the structure of the academy. It’s been absorbed into various disciplines as a methodology of sorts, and it’s been developed into a range of vibrant interdisciplinary programs, but it hasn’t torn down the walls between our departments. And it hasn’t made talking across those walls any easier.

What such a reconstructed university would actually look like, I have no idea. Some folks have argued for fluid, shifting field groups, clusters of scholars working on similar, limited-duration projects or issues, and I can certainly see how such mobility would support the development of exciting new kinds of scholarship, but how you build a curriculum out of such flux, I have no idea.

Even more, how you build a staffing plan based on flux is impossible for me to imagine. It’s one thing if you’re starting with some number of tenured faculty members, and you give them the freedom to shift and move and reorganize themselves — but then what happens when one of them retires? How do you define the position that this faculty member occupied, and thus the position that you now need to fill? It seems almost unavoidable that shifting projects would demand equally shifting staffing resources, thus inevitably leading to an increasingly contingent labor market.

And it’s the realities of such labor issues, along with other, similar economic factors, that I’d argue underwrite our continued dependence on the disciplinary model that structures our institutions. It’s understandable, and it might well be impossible for us to escape.

Speaking again from my own case: some years back, while the department that I was housed in was still mostly comprised of folks who’d been in it for decades, and who had a core disciplinary commitment to conventional models of literary studies, my institution was given an endowed position in media studies. This was to be a new position, the first one at the college wholly committed to the interdisciplinary program — but because the structure of the college is such that all faculty lines are held by departments, the program had to find a departmental partner with which to search. The department would get a new line, and a new member of their faculty with which to collaborate, but they’d also be responsible for housing, mentoring, supporting, and reviewing that new faculty member.

After discussion with my dean, I went to my own department and asked them to partner with us on this position, suggesting that English would be enriched by such a deep commitment to media studies, and arguing (if a bit more diplomatically than this) that media studies was in some sense the future of the field, that students were flocking to us from English, and that the department could play an important role in shaping its own future if we imagined a full partnership between department and program.

The department’s response was, in effect, we’ve already got you; we don’t need a second media studies person.

This move, now years ago, set in motion a chain of events that has resulted in media studies being converted to departmental status here. That position wound up going to another department in the humanities, where we successfully hired (and have now tenured) a fantastic scholar with a rich interdisciplinary approach to the field. But that second official member of the program resulted in an even greater influx of majors, creating even more pressure on us to expand. We were given a third position a few years back, which we again had to partner with a department on, and we opted to work with a third field; it became evident over the course of two years of searching with that field, however, that we were never going to agree on a person to hire. The third department wanted the position, and they wanted someone who did something with media, but they wanted it done using methodologies that were wholly recognizable to them — and that simply wasn’t going to work for us.

In other words, in order to be able to hire the person that media studies needed, in the subfields that we needed, working on the issues and with the methodologies we wanted our students exposed to, we had to become a department. We had to be able to control our own positions. We also needed our own space, rather than being spread out across the campus, and we needed a budget that could support the faculty that we were building.

All of these pressures had the inevitable result of shoving us into a disciplinary model. In order to make the case for departmental status, I had to argue that media studies was a coherent field with a commonly agreed-upon set of core texts and methodologies. And it is, sure — but the thing about those core texts and methodologies is that they’ve got their origins in a range of other disciplines, which media studies has brought together in conversation around the idea of mediation. Over time, of course, those conversations have resulted in something that begins to look like a canon, and that process of canon-formation has, as it has repeatedly in fields across the academy, resulted in debates about what’s in and what’s out, who’s really doing media studies and who’s not.

For instance: media studies folks, for a whole bunch of perfectly understandable reasons, get infuriated by literary studies faculty who teach courses in or write about film or television in ways that focus wholly on those texts’ narratives, as though they were simply differently formatted novels. There is, they argue (and rightly so), a whole history to the interpretive practices of media studies, as well as a history and a technological and industrial specificity to the media themselves, that is in these cases being completely ignored. But the result of these arguments can, in my opinion, all too frequently become a drawing of boundaries around what is and isn’t media studies, in ways that needlessly alienates sympathetic faculty in other fields, and that closes down the potential for fertile cross-disciplinary discussion.

So am I saying that, in my ideal university, anything goes — that any course that looks at film or television or some other media object, from any perspective, should be considered “media studies”?

Well, no. There are radically different programs out there calling themselves “media studies,” including both old-school film studies programs that have added television and digital media components to their curricula, and old-school communication programs that have rebranded the critical components of their curricula, and a host of old and new programs inbetween. And while I’m inclined to be all “let a thousand flowers bloom” about this proliferation, media studies being historically as interdisciplinary as it is, the academy is nonetheless replete with both good and bad models of interdisciplinarity — and simply taking up a theory, a text, or a method from another discipline and treating it as though it were part of one’s own, without the appropriate research into the history of and criticism surrounding that theoretical discourse, that textual mode, or that methodological apparatus falls way over into the Bad. So clearly not everyone writing about media is doing media studies, and some who think they are, aren’t doing so terrifically well.

But at the same time, debates about field definition are often less about determining what good work in a field might be than they are about the kinds of turf wars that Matt referenced, turf wars driven less by intellectual questions than by institutional and economic imperatives. If I’d had my druthers, I would likely have hired the candidate(s) I wanted to hire and still allowed media studies to remain an interdisciplinary program with close ties to older disciplines here on campus, but that wasn’t an option. Defining what was and wasn’t media studies — becoming disciplinary — was necessary to being able to hire the right faculty for our program, which was in turn necessary for helping the program develop in the directions we’ve laid out for it.

But I still wonder about the cost of that disciplinarity, about the degree to which we are now being disciplined by our need to define the field. What conversations won’t take place, now that our structure has become officially institutionalized?

All of this has been running through my head in reading the various threads of the debates about Digital Humanities and its relationship to other fields like digital media studies. For me, at least, a set of extremely fruitful conversations have begun across the DH/DMS border, and that border, not yet a wall, remains low enough that a number of us can move back and forth across it. I have no interest in moving the center of DH from where its long-term practitioners have been working, nor do I want to smuggle the entirety of my digital media studies colleagues into its territory. But I do hope that we can find a way — and perhaps a way that might model a new mode of interdisciplinary affiliation for the university at large — to imagine our borders less as walled structures than as the containing elements of Venn diagrams, somehow semi-permeable, allowing for overlap and intermingling rather than producing territorial invasion and defense.


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