theory & practice in a flexible, emergent university (part 2)Posted: November 26, 2011
I’d like to continue thinking here on the future of a possible school of ICMJT (Information, Communication, Media, Journalism, Technology) at CU Boulder by expanding on a few points I raised in my first post and proposing several important additions to my vision of what this future school could look like.
First, in my last post, I pointed out that such a school would have to support meaningful cross-disciplinary collaborative research and teaching. But why exactly? Rather than me attempt to speak from some non-existent trans-disciplinary perspective, take one of the fields I work in as an example: electronic or digital literature – digital born literature meant to be read or accessed on a computer and that makes the most of the digital medium. It’s my sense that while the shift from, say, printing press to typewriter undoubtedly was a catalyst for substantial changes in reading, writing, publishing practices, the shift to the digital computer has wrought far more radical changes – at least partly because, as Friedrich Kittler pointed out some time ago, it reduces all information to zeros and ones which in turn means the digital computer subsumes all media. As such, it seems to me that the future of electronic literature cannot be the study of digital textuality purely from a literary perspective -as the net artist (previously poet, perhaps even digital poet) Jim Andrews puts it, “the synthesis of arts and media reaches a crucial stage with the advent of the computer because the boundaries of representation between media are dissolved.” Or, if you look at any one of Jason Nelson‘s works, you will see it is equal parts video-game, poem, and net-art; it’s the kind of work that demands the expertise of more than one scholar.
Or, take a substantially better funded example of these new cross-genre digital works of art that befit the digital medium: Björk’s “Biophilia,” an app album that is a suite of “interactive, educational artworks and musical artifacts” whose production involved a team of software engineers, essayists, typography experts, producers, designers, narrators, animators, and so on. How could any one scholar account for the entirety of this multimedia work? While while might object that, by this logic, any work of art or literature demands acknowledgement by a team of scholars, I would respond by asserting that the digital is – as I point out above – a uniquely complex, even all-compassing medium that does not offer such a cross-disciplinary perspective so much as it insists upon it.
However, despite what the research and creation of these digital works require, simple encouragement of interdisciplinary, collaborative scholarship and teaching will not amount to anything unless the university is willing to revisit and revise its standards for tenure and promotion – standards which, at this moment, value single authored journal articles, monographs, works of art/literature. There are indeed precedents for this shift in standards and my colleague Katherine D. Harris was kind enough to point out several resources for evaluating Digital Humanities scholarship – the first of which is a white paper that came out of an NEH/NINES summer institute; the co-authors write that “Colleagues in all fields should have incentives and formal opportunities to pursue dialogue with other communities of scholars.” The second resource for evaluating digital work comes from a report produced by another NEH funded workshop, “Off the Tracks: Laying New Lines for Digital Humanities Scholars,” that partly addressed the new collaborative practices necessitated by the digital. Finally, Carolyn Guertin has also graciously pointed out that the Modern Language Association’s Committee on Information Technology has also been a leader in articulating appropriate T & P standards.
Furthermore, aside from substantially revised standards for tenure and promotion, the other crucial component to the production of meaningful interdisciplinary work is physical work-space and equipment appropriate for teaching and researching practice/theory-based work on media (analog as much as digital media). I would like to suggest that this future school could be very productively organized by research groups whose membership changes and fluctuates with the interests of the faculty and whose work, meetings, collaborations, experiments, and creations take place in labs.
In other words, coupled with a school that emphasizes methodologies based in theory-practice and collaboration is a materialist methodology that recognizes that scholarship/teaching can no longer take place purely in the realm of the mind – it requires understanding the material dimensions of any given medium or piece of technology. As I mentioned in my previous post, there are numerous labs across the country (such as the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities, the MIT Media Lab, the Critical Media Lab at University of Waterloo, the Digital Innovation Lab at University of North Carolina, or Stanford’s Program on Liberation Technology) who are pursuing on a small-scale just such a mission. However, CU Boulder is in a remarkable position to build the first school of its kind in the U.S. which is structured by numerous labs and research groups.