theory & practice in a flexible, emergent university (part 1)

[D]igital scholarship is the inevitable future of the humanities and social sciences. . . .  [D]igital literacy is a matter of national competitiveness and a mission that needs to be embraced by universities, libraries, museums, and archives. . . .  How will younger scholars in the humanities and social sciences engage these new technologies and methods? . . .  [I]f more than a few are to pioneer new digital pathways, more formal venues and opportunities for training and encouragement are needed. . . .  A robust cyberinfrastructure should include centers that support collaborative work with specialized methods. (from “Our Cultural Commonwealth: The Report of the American Council of Learned Societies Commission on Cyberinfrastructure for the Humanities and Social Sciences,” 2006)

Through a long series of public and internal meetings, the University of Colorado at Boulder has recently started to think through the shape of a possible future school of Information, Communication, Media, Journalism, and Technology – an ungainly list of disciplines but one that gestures, I hope, to the possibility of a school that thoroughly supports interdisciplinary research and teaching. I also think this possible future school affords me the opportunity to think through what I would like to see happen – what would be my dream job? What sorts of research and teaching would I like to do that I cannot do now?

As one who writes, researches, and teaches between media studies, literary studies, history of computing, and artistic/literary practice, a future school or college dedicated to ICMJT would have to primarily support and stimulate 1) meaningful cross-disciplinary collaboration and 2) a flexible and emergent curriculum that is responsive to rapid shifts in education, technology, and even broader cultural values (regardless of the potential difficulties in creating a new administrative structure to accomodate such research and teaching). As Richard A. DeMillo asserts in From Apple to Abelard (MIT Press, 2011), “The institutions that will thrive in the coming century are the ones whose offerings are in demand in a world where there are abundant choices for higher education.”

And so, ideally, a future ICMJT school at CU Boulder would learn from small-scale successes – centers and labs across the U.S. 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 – and create a largescale school, I believe the first of its kind in North American, which would also include labs. I imagine this school as one that is structured not by departments but rather by overlapping conceptual groupings (perhaps akin to the units in the Leeds School of Business). Examples of such groupings might be Computer Arts, Communication, 21st Century Studies, and Media Studies (including studies of the book, analog technologies as well as digital technologies). Faculty could, but need not, align themselves (and their labs) with several conceptual groupings as a way to faciliate the kind of meaningful interdisciplinary work I mention above.

While the ICMJT discussion groups have been urged to avoid concerning ourselves with administrative structures, I would like to point out that, since CU Boulder is a Research I institution – one whose faculty research is foremost and which often drives teaching – in order for this new school to be a success, it will have to create new and innovative guidelines for tenure and promotion that reward rather than penalize 1) co-authored publications; 2) substantial digital-based scholarship (such as data visualizations, information retrieval, data mining, and computational analysis) in addition to conventional academic articles and monograph books; 3) innovations in publishing including electronic journals and e-books; 4) and finally, related to the foregoing three items, practice-based work in addition to theory-based work. I would like to place particular emphasis on the importance of practice-based research and teaching in this new school. l believe ‘doing’ media studies (whether one is studying the book, analog or digital technologies) is an essential component of understanding and then theorizing media – theory and practice ought to be equally valued for both research and teaching in this future ICMJT school. In other words, ‘doing’ and ‘creating’ are important not only for innovative research but also innovative (and effective) teaching and learning. As the technology journalist Anya Kemenetz writes, “Workers at every level benefit from an education that emphasizes creative thinking, communication, and teamwork – the very kind of excellence already offered at top American colleges.” With an appropriately innovative ICMJT school, CU Boulder, then, could be a in a position to become one of these “top American colleges.”

As such, I would like to advocate for a core curriculum that involves at least one year-long class that is dedicated to both theories and practices of media literacy (or, I might suggest, ‘fluency’ which implies a much higher level of sophistication and understanding). However, beyond a small handful of core courses, I would very much like to see a wide of range of courses dedicated to teaching or investigating what DeMillo calls “patterns of thought” that cut across numerous disciplines and that appeal to students’ desires to study cultural memes – especially in a way that cannot be captured by way of networks outside the classroom. I am convinced that DeMillo is right in observing that “universities that cling to principled but inflexible curricula are less likely to be able to survive the competitive onslaught that surely faces colleges and universities in the Middle.” Thus, one possible way to establish a flexible curriculum that affords students abundant choice is to develop, within each conceptual grouping, several streams from which students might choose their courses. A curricular stream in, for example, Computer Arts might involve a course first in media literacy followed by courses (possibly co-taught by faculty in the same or overlapping conceptual groupings) in digital art, music, literature, and communication – all of which would tackle the tight interdependence of theory and praxis from different disciplinary perspectives. Such a system has already been instituted by Georgia Tech’s College of Computing as they have created a “threaded curriculum” which allows students to choose any two threads to make a degree.

A prospective ICMJT school at CU Boulder affords us the opportunity to make ourselves into one of the most innovative, forward-thinking, and relevant institutions in the country that could very well attract not only top researchers but also top students who in turn, once they graduate, will surely be highly sought after by employers.

15 thoughts on “theory & practice in a flexible, emergent university (part 1)

  1. Grant Wythoff (@gwijthoff)

    We currently have a working group devoted to the same question at my university, though it’s directed more specifically toward the digital humanities and on a much more modest scale — “center” is the word being tossed around rather than “program,” “department,” or “school,” implying that we wouldn’t need to hire new faculty/staff but merely form a kind of connective tissue among the people we already have with this kind of expertise.

    At our last meeting, we looked at digital humanities centers around the country — how they’re structured, funded, the methods and assumptions behind their research, etc. I’m keeping a running list here, if it’s any help:

    1. Lori Emerson

      Thanks so much for the Grant – your list is extremely helpful. I hope you have some success in setting up a DH center/institute. From what I’ve been told, it sounds like faculty hires will be involved in this new school – which is very exciting and gives me hope.

  2. wordyweb

    Hi Lori, very thought-provoking post. I wonder how one could incorporate a critical reflexivity in the conceptualizing of digital scholarship and the construction of centres. Am I the only one to find the quote at the head of your post slightly frightening, in so far as “[D]igital scholarship is the inevitable future of the humanities and social sciences” and that this is “matter of national competitiveness”? For instance, in Canada, the major funding body, SSHRC, favours the digital economy, thereby constructing the future of knowledge. So whilst I am super-excited about our research, the thought that it is integrated in the economy is uncomfortable. I understand that this is far from where you stand. My question is critical from the perspective of institutional imperatives. To me, it is a point of resistance, but one that comes from within the institution.

    1. Lori Emerson

      Emile, thanks so much for taking the time to comment and I completely see your point about the ominousness of asserting that digital scholarship is an economic imperative. Any kind of institutional imperative is alarming and I suppose I tend to think that, ideally, we’ll soon reach the point where we need not forcefully argue for digital anything as attention to media, whether analog or digital, will simply be integrated into all kinds of scholarship. I don’t know if this addresses your concerned adequately or not…

      1. wordyweb

        Hi, maybe my comment was a bit out of joint, and I am not sure myself where to begin in terms of “resistance”, except through my own scholarly practice. A part of me wants to make it hard on the institution, to deconstruct its imperatives; and this might even be, in a contradictory way, a reaction to things like the exclusive use of open source software, which is the penny-pinching institution piggy-backing on (read co-opting) developers’ resistance to proprietary software. But, as you might already know, I am coming from a particular place…

        A bigger part of me is reacting to “usefulness” (aka instrumental rationality), which I think is squeezing aside critical questioning and knowledge as intrinsic (the latter is, at least in the West, at the origin of the question of philosophy — and by extension, the academy). I think the instrumentality is present even in some who are “critical”, in so far as they are coming from the humanities’ traditional approaches, but are tending more and more towards the social sciences, which in epistemological terms resembles the move of some humanists towards the natural sciences. I love these moves, but the crisis, I think, comes from losing sight of, on the one hand, the irreducible singularity of the humanities, and, on the other, the conditions that bring about such imperatives. Far from saying that we should stick to our traditional disciplines, I think that in crossing, branching out and reinventing disciplines, reflecting on the reflection on such a process is needed (no mistake in the last clause).

      2. Lori Emerson

        Thanks Emile for the clarifying post – I think I understand better now where you’re coming from and I think you make a great point about the need to think more critically about what’s at stake in changing the rules/stakes of the game. I admit that I have become…more pragmatic? more utiliatarian? in thinking about the worth of the humanities over the last couple of years but I have been mostly because it’s so clear to me that only very few undergraduate students will go on to do graduate degrees or pursue academia in general. The vast majority instead will enter the mainstream work-force and so when they do, I love to imagine sending out little quiet shocks of subversive, critical intelligence into the system.

  3. triproftri

    The proposal sounds very fabulous, Lori. Right now, at this very moment, my university is struggling to re-define itself by crafting a vision statement for the next 10 years and a serviceable set of goals. In the room at 22 Associate VPs, 5 faculty (myself included), the Provost, and two researchers. The President conducted 49 town hall meetings over a 3 week period, the transcripts of which were analyze for recurring themes. Only 1000 people attended/spoke at these meetings — this on a campus of 8000 faculty and even more staff. We’ve tried to avoid limiting ourselves based on the failing budget, but it’s difficult for some many administrators who have to say no on a daily basis to leave it behind. The biggest shock from the research is that we are a university of NO. And the verbiage used overwhelmingly was one that did not look towards the future. Interesting.

    With all of that being said, I’m struck by the fact the conversations we’ve been having at this public, comprehensive, master’s-granting institution parallels that of a research-focused university. We’d like to allow our faculty (and by that virtue, our students) to dream and dream big. In essence, we’re asking them to think about things they perhaps had not yet thought out (akin to asking digital humanities to stop replicating the codex form online and employ the strengths of new types of media to convey and visualize intellectual discourse).

    In my subcommittee, we were charged with creating goals around integrative learning (defined by the American Association of Colleges & Universities). We would like students, first and foremost, to understand that what they learn in biochemistry does not have to be discrete from the discussions in gothic novel and horror fiction. And that what they produce in each course can be understood, accepted, and expanded in another course of a different discipline. My dean (Arts & Humanities) has begun the long process of creating a Gaming “Program” with the help of all the other deans. It’s currently housed in the Computer Science department but it will grow; and the English Department should be part of it to discuss narrative. Our Communications Department has also proposed a new kind of interdisciplinary curriculum that takes from each department courses that aren’t even really on the books; they want the courses that offer production skills alongside those analytical skills. If we worked really hard, we could get the Library Science school’s history of the book course to work with my (phantom) DH literary studies class and include Art’s paper-making course. Can we do this? Why not? I don’t work in any these fields discretely in my scholarship. Why should my students?

    This is all to say that the proposal you’ve posted, Lori, is on track for pushing curriculum, well, into not being so curricular. And it works, it’s already working. David Silver’s courses at University of San Francisco combine service-learning, media, production, sometimes even architecture and food.

    I have some suggestions, just added sources of information:

    1) See the recent proposed guidelines for evaluating digital scholarship in literary studies — it’s tenure and promotion guidelines that are being vetted by NINES and sponsored, essentially, by the NEH ( Though these are literary specific, it’s a good starting place for any T&P process.

    2) See the Collaborator’s Bill of Rights ( Along with the program and new form of study, the university should consider the actual space and staff who will play a vital role in collaborating with faculty and students.

    3) Create an institutional memory: reward publishing in open access journals & negotiating creative commons or author rights for deposit in your institutional repositories. Get this put into the university-wide tenure and promotion guidelines instead of the department-level guidelines. It’s imperative to the success of any faculty member who wants to experiment.

    Ok, this has already gotten way too long, but it’s a grand, grand thing y’all are doing here!

    1. Lori Emerson

      Kathy, what fantastic resources you’ve given me to work with and add into this post and future posts – thanks so much for this. I think it’s crucial to me to demonstrate that what I’m suggesting is far from radical and is far from being representative of a minority opinion, so, one last time, thank you!

  4. Leonardo Flores

    What you propose sounds so promising! It’s the kind of flexible, interdisciplinary program that is in tune with the times. It is encouraging to hear the conversation is happening at such an advanced level (program, rather than center). It gives us lonely digital humanists in traditional programs a new hope…

    Has the empire struck back yet? I can’t imagine the ivory tower types being too thrilled with this kind of program, especially if it draws potential students away from their own.

    Best wishes on the dialogue ahead.

    1. Lori Emerson

      Thank you Leo for the encouraging comment – I’ve only heard some mild concerns from other faculty, no expression of outright alarm quite yet. I hope that most people will see the school as something that will benefit the university as a whole, even for those programs/departments who aren’t involved…I’ll keep you posted on what happens—

  5. Aaron Angello

    I think this is an amazing idea, and I’m glad to see it articulated so thoroughly. Thanks for doing this.
    It seems to me that the University of Colorado is an ideal campus for a school like this; the facilities are here – the resources at ATLAS, for example, are extraordinary – and the faculty is here, at least in part. We just need to reexamine the “truth” and authority of the rubric of 20th century scholarship. The “stuff” is here, the mindset is not.
    As you know, Erin Costello and I, under the guidance of Mark Amerika, were in discussion with ATLAS about pursuing a practice-based research PhD in media studies and new ways of writing within their existing program. We were really interested in creating something like you describe, only on a smaller scale. There seemed to be some positive reactions to the idea, but ultimately the problem of funding became an issue (of course). Mark needed to be relieved of some teaching duty so he could dedicate himself to the program. They were unwilling to do that. Rather they wanted us to apply, then seek out grants from corporations with the goal, it would seem, of developing some kind of product (very simplified, but you get the point). This is fine, I guess, but it undermines the value of scholarship for its own sake. I didn’t want my graduate work to be focused on ways I could benefit Amazon or Microsoft, hence I’m getting my PhD in the English dept with the goal of working and teaching in a program, or school, like the one you describe.
    Digital scholarship is the inevitable future of the humanities and social sciences, no doubt. The university just needs to realize it.
    Let me know what I can do to help in moving this forward.

    1. Lori Emerson

      Interesting comment here Aaron – thanks so much for taking the time to write. And I think you’re right – we do need to be aware or wary of becoming so utilitarian in advocating for theory/practice that we just end up churning out students for corporations (though there will inevitable be a lot of that…and as I write to Emile below, I do like to imagine sending out a little army of critical-minded subversives into the corporate environment…).

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