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.