December 31, 2004

Modern Language Reflections Part the Second

by Scott Rettberg · , 12:28 am

I spent most of the MLA convention in a hotel room with my colleagues interviewing candidates for Americanist and Creative Writing positions at Stockton. I could say a lot about this alternatively exhilarating and exhausting experience, but suffice it to say that I left the room having learned a great deal and feeling that the state of literary studies is strong. We talked with bunch of interesting and articulate people who care about teaching, who still like reading, who were able to position their work theoretically but who were not so caught up in subspecialized jargon as to have lost their sense of why they were professing English to begin with. Both in the interviews and in the process of reviewing some 400 plus applications that preceded the interviews, I felt that there was less canned identification with well-established theoretical niche markets, e.g. “Defamiliarizing the Subaltern Otherness of Embodiment in Whiteness Studies,” and real sense of that people are branching off into comparatively new territories. My overall sense is that people are writing dissertations that live less exclusively in theoryland, and spend more time closely reading works of literature in the context of knowledge from other disciplines such as history, art, design, geography, science and yes, even new media.

It’s probably a good sign that the annual NY Times article poking fun at the titles of MLA papers was self-evidently thin and aching with self-reflexivity: “every year a goodly number of those scholars tempt journalists to write articles, like this one, noting some of the wackier-sounding papers,” the journalist notes, before stretching himself to locate the wackiness. The discipline just may be in the process becoming less rigidly compartmentalized (which could make hiring committees accustomed to the “we’ve got one of those” Noah’s Ark method of staffing literature programs anxious) and simultaneously more interdisciplinary. The discipline is expanding its definition of what is literary, including pop culture, film, graphic novels, artists books and even a bit of electronic literature as subjects not only of cultural study but also of the more traditional brand of literary analysis. The fact that there is no clear “next big thing” in this cycle is encouraging to me, and is also encouraging for the place of new media studies in literature programs. In a discipline that is increasingly finding its relevance in textual studies writ large, electronic textuality will clearly have a seat at the table.

I did get away from the hotel room for two panel discussions. The first, “Evaluating Teaching and Scholarship in New Media” was both encouraging and frustrating. The context, if not the subject of the actual presentations, was established by the distribution of the Guidelines for Evaluating Work with Digital Media in the Modern Languages, a set of guidelines which the MLA approved in 2000 and revised in 2002, that clearly establish that the position of the MLA is that digital scholarship is increasingly relevant and that “academic work in digital media should be evaluated in the light of these rapidly changing institutional and professional contexts, and departments should recognize that some traditional notions of scholarship, teaching, and service are being redefined.” While this is probably old news for most of us, even technologically advanced institutions of higher learning are still in the process of revising their appointment, reappointment, promotion, and tenure procedures to acknowledge the importance of scholarly work in digital media and in particular the practice of reviewing such work in the medium in which it was produced.

In “Mixing It Up: Digital Arts and Digital Literature,” N. Katherine Hayles of the University of California, Los Angeles both argued for the relevance of interdisciplinary work in electronic media and spent some time showing the electronic work of her students at UCLA, collaboratively produced in graduate seminars by students from her own department and students from Design|Media, Theater/Film/Television, and other disciplines. As she has done elsewhere in other contexts, Hayles did a fair bit of “missionary work” here, arguing that english and literature programs and the humanities more generally must involve themselves in the study and production of new media work if they are to remain relevant in the context of contemporary textuality.

In “Establishing and Applying Best Practices in the Peer Review of New Digital Scholarship,” David Sewell, of the University of Virginia Press gave an interesting presentation on the peer review process involved in producing electronic editions, explaining that the press, and that academic institutions, have added a layer of technical review to the traditional scholarly review process, and demonstrating that the technical decisions that editors make in producing something such as an electronic edition of the correspondence of Emily Dickinson are as important and as theoretically informed as the more traditional editorial decisions they make. The categories of the XML schema are inseparable from the content of the end product.

From my perspective, the most compelling presentation was “Learning Tech from Hype to Ho Hum: One Department’s Digital Dreams, Deceptions, and Occasional Disappointments,” by Brooks Landon, the chair at the University of Iowa. I was intrigued by his presentation not because Iowa is particularly advanced in their utilization of electronic media, but because Landon described a process of enthused but befuddled adoption of technology in his program, which is likely echoed in other literature programs across the country. Landon first delineated some accomplishments at the U of Iowa, including hosting a seminar with Jay Bolter and Stuart Moulthrop back in the mid-90s, up through the publication of the Iowa Review Web and various other initiatives by Thom Swiss, including Iowa’s recent agreement to host a node of the Electronic Literature Organization starting next year. He also announced that Iowa will be conducting a search next year for a new line in new media studies. This is all encouraging. However Landon, starting by citing Bolter and Moulthrop’s decade-old presentation and discussion, continued to ask “where are the hypertexts?” and described frustrations with some furtive attempts to teach hypertext in a literary context. Subsequent questions from the audience left me with the impression that most scholars in literary studies have the impression that hypertext and electronic literature generally began and ended with Michael Joyce. One woman invoked the immortal question, “Where is the Don Quixote of hypertext?” and described her students’ confused interaction with hypertext (it’s distracting sigh it’s not like reading a book). Another woman, trying to be helpful, noted that “Twelve Blue” is still online. I was tempted to assign the poor soul the first two hundred pages of The Unknown followed by These Waves of Girls, Lexia to
and the collected works of John Cayley but decided there are some pleasures I should reserve for my students.

I didn’t get the chance to note that while the volume of hypertext and electronic literature produced to date is infinitesimal compared to an average year’s print literary production, I am comfortably able to teach two different courses in hypertext and in new media studies, which take works of electronic literature as their subject, without running out of material. I don’t need to stretch to find hypertext worthy of study produced in the last decade. It’s out there for anyone who is willing to look. Hayles did do an excellent of explaining some of the other literacies, or other media-specific techniques of reading that are involved in studying electronic literature, and in explaining that the comparision between the aggregate of “great works” in the print canon of literature and the fifteen or twenty years’ worth of electronic literature is fundamentally a stupid one to make. The ensuing discussion however left me feeling that one aspect of my own work, of my colleagues in new media, and of the Electronic Literature Organization should simply be to increase the awareness of existing electronic literature, to make it more widely available to the people who teach literature, and to provide some elementary apparatus for its study. The audience’s general impression that hypertext was a fad that went away with Michael Joyce was very frustrating to me, both as an author of hypertext fiction and as someone who teaches electronic literature on a regular basis. Another aspect of the situation that was not even addressed in the discussion is that traditional writing programs should be places where electronic writing is a part of the curriculum. Landon described an experience trying to teach hypertext as a failure because his students thought “it was fun, but then they wanted to go make some on their own, not to read it reflectively.” My reaction was A) They were probably not provided with the tools to read reflectively and B) If they wanted to go off and make some on their own, why on earth weren’t they allowed to? Why hasn’t the University of Iowa, home of the grand-daddy of all writing workshops, ever offered a course in creative writing for the electronic media? Where are your graduate courses? The answer to the “where is the great hypertext novel” problem might be closer to home than one might think.

I should also write about the panel on Artists’ Books, which was excellent, late last night, and also about the panel event at the Slought Foundation on Implementation in the context of artists’ books and other experimental literary projects. Johanna Drucker and Christian Bök were wonderful. It was the first experience I’ve had of listening to folks smarter than myself extemporaneously putting my and Nick’s work on the sticker novel into a theoretical context. We’ll link to the audio at Slought once it’s online, even if Nick and I sound like complete idiots. Here are some pics. Should write more but must sleep. I’m flying to Norway tomorrow and I need to get up and pack and leave town again. More later. Happy New Year.