20.478 fixing the MLA's problem

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Fri, 2 Mar 2007 06:48:00 +0000

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 20, No. 478.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

         Date: Fri, 02 Mar 2007 06:38:20 +0000
         From: Richard Cunningham <richard.cunningham_at_acadiau.ca>
         Subject: Re: 20.475 fixing the MLA's problem, or what should
the Town Crier cry?

Further to the discussion on the recognition of digital scholarship
started by Ian in H20.472 and continued by Willard in H20.475, I'd
like to add a couple of anecdotes.

Toward the end of the Fall term, 2006, in an English class devoted to
the study of New Criticism and New Historicism / Cultural
Materialism, in which I sought to provide students at the Honours and
MA level with a sense of the history of their discipline, I made the
comment that English, in its current state, is a dinosaur looking for
a tar pit in which to lie down. I had tried to show my students that
the discipline is NOT the natural way of doing things, but is created
and re-created (and indeed recreated) through institutional and
social pressures, and through the intellectual commitment,
engagement, and playfulness of its membership. I was trying to do in
a small setting for English studies what Kuhn did on a larger scale
for science--provide a history of our own discipline. I then showed
them several e-texts, concluding with Volume 1 of the Electronic
Literature Collection (at http://collection.eliterature.org/ ). I
assured them that students of their vintage, nearing completion of BA
or MA degrees, would in the near future compose interesting and
engaging PhD dissertations on e-literature. That, to borrow again
from Bob Dylan, "the times they are a-changin'." My students were,
to put it mildly, unimpressed. In fact, they were a little shocked,
and a little incensed. The anger came, I think, from having spent
four or more years devoting themselves to a discipline they had now
been disciplined into believing in, rather than questioning with the
critical reasoning English scholars so often so loudly proclaim is
their raison d'etre. Their shock came from finally being told the
church is not sacred, fixed, and eternal from one of the priests
themselves, but their failure to be impressed is the more worrisome
component of their response. I suspect the Jesuits and Lenin have
been here before me: we have to get them while they are young if we
are to change the way they think (and, dare I say, believe). Perhaps
if we could start teaching e-literature in first year classes we
could inculcate the revolution in thinking that seems necessary for
people in the profession to re-conceive what it is we do before the
majority, whose weight is carrying the rest of us along, finds that tar pit.

My second anecdote came to mind when I read "Although there are some
who are awake and puzzling over the changing present as it is
constituted, as it reveals possibilities for every discipline and
area of enquiry, the crowds of sleepwalkers are everywhere" in
Willard's note. It called to mind Katherine Hayles' assertion, in
Writing Machines (I think) and also (certainly) in "Print is Flat,
Code is Deep: The Importance of Media-Specific Analysis" that we have
been ""Lulled into somnolence by five hundred years of print, [and
that we] have been slow to wake up to the importance of
media-specific analysis. Literary criticism and theory are shot
through with unrecognized assumptions specific to print" ("Print is
Flat," 68). This came to mind because I recently visited another
English Dep't in which I taught Hayles' concept of MSA to a class of
their students, and while I was there was told, in as many words, by
a university administrator that the English dep't was in need of
being "dragged into the 20th century." And yes, this administrator
was aware that we are now in the 21st century. The point being made
was how far English studies seems to be lagging behind where it might
be (and, I would argue, as I suspect would most readers of Humanist,
where it should be). The concern here is that English is perceived
by someone a) outside the discipline, and b) in a position of some
power over it (us) as, well, if I may say so, a dinosaur looking for
a tar pit to lie down in.

I'm not sure the "revolutionary" idea of teaching first year students
that e-literature is both valid and vital will come in time to save
us. And by "save us" I don't mean 'prevent the university from
closing the English department.' If there's one thing that moves
more slowly than English its the institution in which it
operates. But surely we have that most natural of instincts, the
desire to survive? If students abandon us in droves, as I suspect
they are likely to do as they find our connection with their lived
existence less and less visible and less and less relevant, then we
will be in need of saving, and by then it'll probably be too
late. It's an "if" but it strikes me as one worth worrying about, if
not by everyone, at least by those "who are awake and puzzling over
the changing present."

Before ending, I'd just like to say that I recognize the irony in my
embarking on such a discipline-specific dialogue in response to
Willard's call to remove the "blinkers of disciplinarity
(departmentalism)." I'm not sure how heavily those in other
disciplines feel the 19th century pressing down on them, competing
for the future of so many aspects of their work. I do know that
there are others in my own discipline who share my concerns and
frustrations (both intellectual and professional). I wish I could
say that the blind a-historicism that impedes us is generational and
that all we need do is wait for a few more retirements, but I see
daily, in my students but also in others in my profession, people
younger than I am who seem to regard the computer and the digital
revolution as a fancy that will pass. On one point they and I agree:
something is going to pass away, but for my part I'm convinced it
won't be the digital revolution.

Thanks for reading.

Richard Cunningham
Received on Fri Mar 02 2007 - 01:59:29 EST

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