the inevitable question
Last week in lecture, a brave student put up his hand and asked: isn’t all this technology dehumanizing?
For the past week, I’ve been trying to think of how to respond to this question, wondering how I might situate my own interest in new media while keeping the question open. I think the question of “the human”—how this idea or category functions in relation to the key ethical, political, legal (juridical), cultural, and environmental concern—is absolutely fundamental and can not be wished away with short responses. It probably requires a multitudes of tweets and retweets just to get the ball rolling.
The following post goes someway to provide a rough sketch of what I see as some of the important underlying issues in the human/post-human debate. It also provides a few cultural texts/contexts that have helped me to think about the impact of digital media on teaching literature and the arts.
a bit of background
The question of the (de)human was raised in response to my clumsy introduction of deqq.com, a microblogging application we have implemented to open an extra channel for students and instructors to continue discussions beyond the lecture hall—extra in the sense of being in addition to seminars, regular office hours, and Moodle fora. It is important to note that this concern about the (de)humanizing effect of social media surfaced in the midst of a larger anxiety about a change in the format of the course delivery.
This semester my Emily Carr colleagues and I have been charged with teaching English 101: Intro to Poetry & Drama as a lecture course (with breakout tutorials) rather than as a seminar course. Predictably, the format change has caused significant trepidation among students and faculty, even before the course began. Many saw it as a regressive move—a retreat to the old model of the sage on the stage.
i like change
I should confess that, despite misgivings about the economic impetus for restructuring of first year English, I saw the change as a valuable opportunity:
- to rethink the curriculum,
- to radically shift our approach to teaching literature and composition,
- to work together with a group of seven colleagues (7 sages on the stage) to re-animate the lecture format.
I saw and see this change in the delivery model as a vital point of entry into a much larger set of questions around 21st century cultural literacies, especially these impact Art, Design, and Media education.
Having taught first year English for most of past fifteen years, mainly in seminar classes, I am familiar with the pros and cons of small group learning. Furthermore, I have no interest in returning the massive survey courses—e.g., English 101: Beowolf to Hemingway. Yet, from my teaching, learning, and research on creative and critical collaborations, I’ve become concerned about a kind of complacency (mine own and others) with regard to received knowledge about the role and function of culture. A concern that, for me, goes to the heart of how and what we teach when we teach English.
teaching beyond print-culture
In the context of English, Critical thinking is one of the key learning outcomes. This usually means that students are encouraged to practice textual analysis (close reading, see also this howto from the Harvard Writing Centre) and to participate in in-class discussions (usually modeled on the Socratic method). Critical thinking is important. Given the current anti-intellectualism of our political leaders, I think it is vital. However, what often passes for critical thinking tends to rely on various out-of-date assumptions about communication and the importance of print culture.
What happens when we consider 1/ the nature and transformation of texts as we move from analogue output (objects) to digital texts (an environment) and 2/ the impact of communication technologies on staging and mediating meaningful dialogue or debate? In a nutshell, I wonder how long English, as an academic discipline, will last after the disappearance of the book. What comes next?
Being able to interpret or unpack literary texts and then to be able to engage in dialogue with one’s peers—these are absolutely fundamental skills. And university English can be (often is) an extraordinary opportunity for many people to learn about influential cultural texts and critical contexts. Having devoted a life to reading, studying, writing about, and publishing literary texts, I am aware of power of Literature and print-based culture.
Nevertheless, we need to be clear that English Studies, as it developed during the twentieth century, came to be dependent on the availability of print media, which was became affordable with the mechanization of printing processes (movable type), and print-based literacies, which were a major focus of government investments in educations and culture. As consequence, English as we now know it is deeply intertwined with the development both of mass media and the influence of the British Empire.
Since the 1950’s with the advent of television and the emergence of post-colonial resistances throughout the English speaking world, this has begun to slowly change. Across a number of fronts, there has been a dramatic shift in power and a growing mistrust of print-culture, particularly outside dominant cultures. (Perhaps, I need to follow this up on a post about Stuart Hall and legacy of the Birgminham University Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies.)
if you google it, does it not bleed?
The state of literature, the nature and meaning of twenty-first century comminications technologies, a world without printed texts—books and newspapers—these are huge philosophical and sociological concerns. And I can’t begin to answer them here. I’m not even sure, to be candid, that I want to save English by transforming it, or updating it. Still, I have trouble ignoring the impact of new media on how, why and what we teach under the guise of English.
What strikes me about our current situation—in many ways this is crucial to how we might positively transform the Humanities—is that the new modes of communication, which are irrevocably reorganizing all facets of twentieth century life, have yet to take hold in English class. Granted many of us now rely on Moodle, Blackboard or other Course Management Systems. Most universities I know have committed to “smart classrooms” and trying to provide faculty with computers and lcd projectors in the classroom. And in many institutions, the course packs that replaced books as a less expensive alternative are in turn being replaced by Open Courseware. I imagine too that many instructors are increasingly dependent on Youtube, Flickr, Google and other web-based tools to provide supplementary materials.
In good old Marxist terms, one might have talked about this change in terms of base and superstructure. I might ask how can we discuss about the importance of English Literature, when even the most committed of us have all begun to abadon books? If reading and writing are what matter to us, why are we not shifting our focus on to wiki’s, blog post, email discussions, or even tweets.
Why are more of us teaching courses like UBC Prof. John Beasley Murray’s wiki-based “Murder, Madness, and Mayhem: Latin American Literature in Translation”? Granted this is a Spanish Literature course, but I sure we can develop similar approaches with English texts and contexts.
If it is critical engagement that motivates us, might we not be more inclined to find connections between the growth of English what do we make of Google’s recent struggles with China?
social knowledge / social space
Relative to books, newspapers, and other older forms of mass media, Social media open new possibilities for educators and cultural producers, particularly for artists, educators, and designers.
It used to be that if you wanted to participate in political dialogue you would have to travel to a particular space: Agora, Altingi, Parliament, House of Commons. Likewise for so called “higher learning,” one would have to travel to the University: Bologna, Oxford, Heidelberg, Harvard, or the U of T. The central buildings for these great universities were their libraries. Much like the banks or treasuries at the centre of political capitals, the university library functioned as storehouse for what was most valued: information, debate, knowledge.
The traditional function of libraries has been superseded. Digital Archives such as Project Gutenberg or perhaps more importantly those collected by Google are rendering libraries obsolete. This does not mean that I think librarians and archivists are no longer relevant (as my original draft of this post suggested (see comments bellow). In fact, the opposite is true their knowledge and skills are increasingly important as we struggle make sense of the at times overwhelming flow of information. With the emergence of the web and growing ubiquity of mobile communications, individuals can participate in political dialogue, scholarly research, and various cultural forms of cultural production from almost anywhere. The most powerful institutions will be those who can facilitate access to their massive storehouses—e.g., MIT or the Bodelian library at Oxford.
The example of the Back Dorm Boys (wikipedia entry), featured in the above video, is instructive: the original response by the English speaking media to their viral youtube posts was to poke fun and to marvel at the number of “hits” these videos they were getting. Few recognized that these videos were produced by Wei Wei and Huang Yi Xin, two students at the Guangzhou Arts Institute, or that their off-centre mimickry of American culture might be anything but a pale imitation of the real thing, if one is allowed to refer to the Back Street Boys as such.
The a tendency to disparage new forms of communication limits the development of new ideas, and in so doing, it allows for the exclusion of individuals and groups who don’t immediately fit the norms of a dominant culture. Perhaps the ability to normalize or naturalize certian modes of representation to the exclusion of others is, unfortunately, one of the most enduring legacies of the Humanist project.
Arguably some of the most influential and innovative interventions in contemporary culture are happening off or under the radar of West’s major arts/culture institutions, and are often hard for people to recognize or accept as Art or Culture. This idea, as controversial as it is, has been fundamental to the reconfiguration of curatorial practices, particularly in the wake of curator Okwui Enwezor’s radical (re)programing of the Document for Documenta XI across a series of geographically dispersed platforms (Frieze Article)—to give one famous example.
a conclusion of sorts
This long, a slightly rambling post has touched on a number of complicated issues around the cultural politics of representation, including thinking about the history of English Studies, the Enlightenment, Post-coloniality, contemporary Curatorial practices and more. The points I’ve raised in the post are but the tips of a much larger idea flows, which I will continue to explore in future posts. Nonetheless, I hope they might help situate this prickly question of “the human” or more to the point our assumptions about the dehumanizing nature of these technologies with were are so embroiled.