theory & practice in a flexible, emergent university (part 2)

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.

6 thoughts on “theory & practice in a flexible, emergent university (part 2)

  1. triproftri

    Lori, you have again highlighted some issues — beyond tenure and promotion — that we need to consider in Digital Studies, curriculum, program change, and strategic planning (the big-picture thing).

    UC Boulder seems to be a vibrant and accepting atmosphere for growing this type of collaborative community. By articulating these infrastructure investments, you are securing the maintenance of this “school.” Will this new school challenge the existing paradigm at UCB? Will it slide into certain undefined areas and become part of the existing infrastructure? Or is the construction of this school going to explode the traditional notions of research — specific to UCB?

    What I’m trying to get a handle on is the level of resistance. This will determine not necessarily the theory behind constructing the school but instead the strategies necessary to see its success. Once you have your infrastructure, just for the school, will there be a campaign to educate your colleagues on its efficacy?

    (I ask all of these questions because I assume that “new” = disciplinary battles based on my tenure & promotion battle in my department. But, I’m finding that not every university/department/college is similar to mine and that there are universities/departments/colleges dedicated to accepting the borders as places of productive rupture. Or is this an Anzaldua moment — master’s tools, etc.?)

    Nicely articulated here; very nicely articulated.

  2. Kirstyn Leuner

    Doing, Assessment, and Space: Lori, in your first post you suggested a blueprint for an ICMJT School that is “structured not by departments but rather by overlapping conceptual groupings,” and in this post you 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.” I cannot emphasize enough what this would mean to DHers, like me, who are located primarily in one department, but searching for their interdisciplinary media-studies “home” at CU. My search for this kind of collaboration and space was a primary factor in my applying to DU’s Institute for Digital Humanities, since that offered a set of peers and mentors to work with, even though we were all engaged in different digital projects, and though, sadly, this fellowship only lasts officially for one year.

    The ICMJT could be a workspace and collaboratory hub for those of us already working hard on media-oriented projects in departments across campus — perhaps if students and faculty are working on or beginning a new project, they could apply to be an affiliate or a fellow of the ICMJT School, which would offer them access to their resources (space, tech, people) without the requirement of coursework. (My perhaps irrational fear is that the resources this School offers would be difficult to gain access to use — at which point it would become yet another department-exclusive computer lab, perhaps with beautiful tools and space, but potentially with researchers’ noses pressed against the glass dreaming of admittance.)

    Also: I think that the university’s support in real estate and material tools for research and pedagogy in this School has a direct correlation to revised assessment policies and standards. The gifts of space and tools — even the opportunity to conceive of this School — are a sign that CU values the products that it will engender. (Thank you, CU-B!) That very material display of research support will provide a substantial call for serious consideration of assessment standards for digital projects of all kinds. I, for one, can imagine the benefits of being able to submit a digital exhibit or “chapter” of my dissertation — not as an appendix to it — and having that work critiqued and evaluated by scholars and professors perhaps not in the English department, but working alongside my Committee to help me contribute interdisciplinary, multimedia peer-reviewed scholarship that showcases both research and DH skills that are becoming more and more desirable for the job market.

    1. Lori Emerson

      Thanks so much for taking time to write such a considered, thoughtful response Kirstyn – and I do share your worry about exclusivity of new, shiny resources. I think my discussion group wants to see this future school be one that is open and flexible rather than closed…I’ll pass your comments on!

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