#mla13 – The Future of English: Digital Work and Composition?

Posted by Roger Whitson on January 4th, 2013

If anything emerged – for me – as the theme of the first day of the MLA, it was crisis. I attended Todd Butler’s session on “Periodization and Its Discontents” where Richard E. Miller of Rutger’s University powerfully challenged traditional notions of covering literary periods in survey courses. It was a sentiment he first voiced in his 2005 book, Writing at the End of the World:

If you’re in the business of teaching others to read and write with care, there’s no escaping the sense that your labor is increasingly irrelevant. [...] And, so, to fight off the sense that words exercise less and less power in world affairs, one can declare that discourse plays a fundmental role in the constitution of reality. (5)

In the roundtable, when asked about the purpose of teaching outside of period boundaries, he countered with the observation that his core lecture classes had been reduced by 50% in the past few years. This phenomenon, he suggested, is the problem and makes the question of periodization totally irrelevant to the future of our discipline. Richard Utz, Chair of the Literature, Media and Communication program at Georgia Tech wrote in similar terms about the future of literary instruction in a recent blog post at The Chronicle of Higher Education. “[M]any English professors,” he argues, “have depended on literature (narrowly defined), written discourse, and the printed book as the primary elements in teaching and scholarship. But hidebound faculty members who continue to assign and study only pre-computer-based media will quickly be on their way toward becoming themselves a “historical” presence at the university.” Yet Utz also makes the observation that rhetoric and composition instructors, “the one that literary scholars, theorists, and creative writers have continually disdained as too practical and uninspiring,” will be “relatively immune” to the upcoming purge of English Departments.

For me, Utz and Miller’s reflections are not comprehensive enough to address a growing, serious, and complex issue. I found, for example, Miller’s suggestion that we replace “hiring 18th century scholars” (who were, unfortunately for a William Blake scholar like me, his example of choice) with passionate problem-posers to be a necessary but not sufficient response to the arguments made by administrators that English is simply not as relevant as it used to be. Todd Butler made a good point in a conversation with me afterwords, that appeals to relevance may obscure what is most exciting about history: it’s difference with the present. How can we preserve that difference if we are always making history like the present? While I agree with Leeann Hunter’s observation on Twitter, I see that we have a long way to go to both prove our relevance and retain our integrity as keepers of a tradition:

Richard Miller: we have to bring "passion" back to the humanities. Students need more motivation than a checklist. #s171 #mla13
Leeann Hunter

Further, anxieties over falling enrollment and newer technologies are also compounded by the growing problem of adjunct instruction. The Presidential Forum on Non-Tenure-Track Faculty Members and American Higher Education was certainly depressing, but also made me hopeful. The event, we learned, functioned as the first time non-tenure track faculty members made up the entirety of a presidential forum. Josh Boldt, creator of The Adjunct Project, delivered a powerful appeal to collaboration. I learned that over 70% of college classrooms in the United States are taught by NTT faculty, a figure that still astonishes me. Elizabeth Landers presented findings from the Committee on Contingent Labor in the Profession. She showed that, while much of the profession is off of the tenure track, the percentage of those with a Ph.D. who work without tenure is around 50%. Half of NTT faculty are MAs and PhDs. The forum also featured Maria Maisto’s discussion of evolving strategies employed by the New Faculty Majority, including the “Who is Professor Staff?” article and the connection many adjuncts make with the heroine of Nathanial Hawthorne’s The Scarlett Letter. It concluded with an interesting study by Robert Samuels of UCLA. Samuels presented work from his recent book Why Higher Education Should Be Free. He argued that many of the so-called tax-breaks and savings programs funded by the government actually favored richer families and – in some cases – only served as tax shelters. If we eliminated most of these programs, he noted, we could easily provide quality education (25 students per course or less) for every potential college student in the United States.

As one of the commenters noted in the “Periodization” panel, the challenges facing English departments go far beyond intellectual exercises. Many graduate students, she argued, felt impacted by outside economic forces over which they had no control. And these economic issues impact what graduate students feel they should be studying and researching. So, the move to multimodality and digital humanities – for example – isn’t simply about providing students with something they feel is relevant. It is a strategy for survival in an increasingly turbulent marketplace. And yet, as I quickly found out in the Workshop on Evaluating Digital Work for Tenure and Promotion, the academy is simply not currently organized in a way to embrace these changes as quickly as some young scholars might want them to. I agree that public education should be free, and that if we adopted Samuels’s approach, we could easily employ most (if not all) currently contingent workers at a living wage – with benefits. But I also understand that the political will for such a radical approach is probably not available in English Departments, not to mention the thousands of politicians, lobbyists, and businesspeople who make money thriving off of the government’s wasteful spending on tax breaks. Analogously, I found that truly digital projects like Jason Mittell’s open peer-reviewed book Complex Television would be difficult to use – by themselves – in a tenure and promotion case.

The tenure and promotion workshop was extremely valuable, and I suggest that anyone working in a tenure-track job with digital scholarship (or anyone evaluating such work) attend the workshop at least once. Headed by Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Katherine Rowe, and Alison Byerly, the workshop discussed how work is evolving in the digital humanities and strategies used by past candidates to achieve tenure and promotion. The only slight criticism I would give of the workshop would include the conspicuous absence of scholars from journals like Kairos or the field of Computers and Writing. Jody Shipka, for instance, recently demonstrated in Toward a Composition Made Whole, that multimodal work has been considered as a potential modality for scholars and students since at least the 1940s. The suggestion that English departments focus exclusively on written texts, she argues, is based upon disciplinary critiques made against the practicality and “unimaginative” nature of communication programs by English (often creative) writing instructors in the 50s and the 60s. It seems like many of these critiques reflect the same attitude Richard Utz identifies in his essay: that practical writing instruction, or practical instruction at all, has no place in an English Department. And yet, neither Jody Shipka nor Kairos editor Cheryl Ball were part of the workshop – despite both attending the MLA conference. It seems like a missed opportunity.

Despite this small issue, I found the workshop to be extremely illuminating for my own future scholarly endeavors. I learned, for example, that digital work requires scholars to promote themselves in ways that may be unfamiliar to them. They should 1) always make work-in-progress available to as many people as possible; 2) connect their more innovative work with conventional forms of publication; 3) make analogies to comparable work that makes sense to their tenure committee; 4) be sure to show how their work can is always in process and will continue to benefit scholars and their discipline in the future.

Alison Byerly and Katherine Rowe also discussed some of the things they look for when evaluating digital work. One of the major assets, but also major challenges, of digital work is the fact that it needs to be sustained over the long term. While monographs are fixed in print, digital work can change over time – and digital scholars should include plans for sustainability over the long term. It is also important to be able to articulate why a particular piece of scholarship doesn’t simply appear in print. A refrain I heard again and again in the workshop was “why isn’t this simply a monograph.” If something can be a monograph, it probably should be. However, if – as we saw with Jennifer Stoever’s Sounding Out! Blog -
modality matters to the work, then scholars need to be able to articulate why. Stoever’s work is an implicit argument for the importance of sound to scholarship in general, and thus powerfully shows why her work should be in audio form. Further, scholars need to be able to identify the audience of a particular digital work: in addition to noting how scholars in the field might benefit from the work, candidates should also outline the heterogeneous and potentially more expansive audience for work that is made freely available on the web. While the process of using digital work for tenure definitely carries a risk, the workshop leaders were careful to point out that there is also potentially a huge benefit: digital scholars have more authority over new modalities of work, and can use that to educate reviewers about these modalities. Reviewers also have an opportunity to learn something new about communication. Collaboration and problem-based research are also, often, major parts of digital work. Again, while these aspects carry risk, they are also quite innovative and can be used to the benefit of a scholar’s candidacy.

The rest of the workshop was filled with considering case studies and acting as a tenure and review board for considering them as tenurable pieces of scholarship. I found this part of the workshop to be immensely useful. Several of the faculty members in my group had served on T/R committees before, and were amazing at giving me insight into the process of proving significance and creating analogies to one’s work for the vast majority of faculty members deciding a case who may not understand the import of digital work. Perhaps the most interesting, and potentially thought-provoking, instance came when one of the group members mentioned the open peer-review process employed by MediaCommons on Jason Mittell’s work. Couldn’t this, he argued, be used to limit the number of scholars who can serve as external reviewers for a tenure case? For those not in the know, external reviewers write letters on behalf of a candidate’s tenure case. At most R1 Universities, these reviewers need to be at “arms-length.” What this means varies from institution to institution (Fitzpatrick, for example, defined “arms-length” as not being able to benefit from the tenure or promotion of a particular candidate), but others agreed that the collaborative nature of the digital humanities – along with the fact that many in DH promote and support each other’s work – might make it more difficult for DH candidates to find objective reviewers. It’s a fascinating controversy.

All of the panels provided useful complications to my view of the future of literary studies. If, as Utz argues, many English departments “may be closed and ‘English’ faculty [...] asked to join other departments,” we need to develop methods of evaluation and instruction that are flexible enough to face our discipline’s uncertain future. Given the complexity of deciding Mittell’s case, a traditional book contracted by NYU Press that has simply been digitized and opened to peer-review on the web, it makes me wonder if the conservative nature of our discipline will be able to withstand the onslaught of feet voting by students and administrators who want something different. Certainly there are political issues here, but English Departments can no longer ignore the political challenges in their own department: the voices we’ve silenced in over thirty years of casualizing labor, the potential allies we’ve ignored by ghettoizing composition and communication, or the technological changes we’ve refused to see as opportunities for enriching our traditional approaches to literature and culture.


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