This post has been brewing in my mind for several months, probably since visiting Computers and Writing back in May 2012. I really enjoyed that experience, but I also found an entirely different population of scholars and digital practitioners than I am used to in my THATCamp/DH circles. Conversations, since then, with Cheryl Ball and some of my rhet/comp colleagues at Washington State (especially Kristin Arola and Mike Edwards) have underscored the fact that — quite often — institutional histories of the digital humanities fail to take into account the huge influence of Rhetoric and Composition and New Media Studies in helping to define the field. Take, for example, the following fruitful exchange I had with Ball last week during the Twitter conversation celebrating the release of Anvil Academic Press. The context of this conversation was my own anxiety about the role of digital scholarship in tenure and promotion, and the role of non-traditional presses in making the case for the value of digital scholarship. I’m amending this conversation for brevity, but you should get the gist of it.
I think she’s right. In other words, yes, traditionally literary studies has been quite snobbish towards rhetoric and composition as a field. Mike Edwards made this clear to me yesterday. Rhet/comp teachers dealt with freshman writing, wrote about teaching, and focused on method and production. Literary studies, on the other hand, has traditionally ignored questions of pedagogy and has preferred to focus on history, theory, and interpretation. I remember thinking as a graduate student that I couldn’t wait to stop teaching my upteenth section of Composition 101 and start teaching the Romantic poetry I found most compelling.
Early versions of DH, coming out of curation and archiving, have preserved this sense that scholars present a tradition rather than actively involve themselves in that tradition in a creative or productive way. This is the reason that Marcel O’Gorman has critiqued many forms of the digital humanities for having a “fever for archiving,”: not, in other words, truly taking advantage of the creative and inventive possibilities of online exchange and instead just moving old stuff to digital modalities. O’Gorman’s work is, by the way, influenced by Gregory Ulmer’s combination of teaching, literature, and an inventive approach to scholarship that challenges the very dichotomy I’m making here between literary studies and rhet/comp. And the work of Alex Reid often uses insights from rhetoric and composition to respond to conversations in the digital humanities. So, obviously, I (and O’Gorman) are talking in generalities.
David Parry argues similarly when he accuses the digital humanities of doing little “to separate itself from, or question, the humanities as such, which is why it can be the next movement which replaces the Birmingham school or Yale deconstruction.” Sure, Jerome McGann argues that scholarly editing is a deformance of text, Stephen Ramsay has associated algorithmic criticism with the Oulipo movement, and Bethany Nowviskie has aligned preservation with DH-inflected theories of making. But most of these moves have done little to change an institutional culture that largely sees preservation, criticism — and probably most importantly reading and writing as their most fundamental practices. I, too, was swayed when Derrideans made claims that there were no real separations between theory and praxis or between constantive and performative utterances. And yet, what did those arguments actually accomplish except to keep us doing exactly the same thing?
I’m pretty sure I am being too hard on the people I’ve cited above, all of whom have made tremendous theoretical contributions to the culture of building and making that I find compelling in the digital humanities. And yet, the fact that there aren’t more appeals in the digital humanities to the long (ancient, really) tradition of researching method and production found in rhetoric and composition is baffling to me. I truly believe that, especially in literary studies, our future as a discipline relies upon our ability to teach our students creative thinking. This is a major aspect of my new book William Blake and the Digital Humanities. We can do more for our students when we show them practical and applied uses for the literature we teach them, when we meld the content of literary history to the methods of composition that will enable them to think creatively in an increasingly complex world.