The Digital Humanities, Makers, and Frameworks of Technology
Federica Frabetti (2011) writes that the digital humanities are in a unique position to question our “inherited frameworks regarding technology” (p. 2). Although Frabetti (and myself, shortly) will take this questioning much further, let’s start at the most basic question we can ask: we do we assume that institutions that enroll students indiscriminately (open enrollment) and community colleges must somehow have less new media instruction than others?
For one, our definition of new media has been primarily concerned with art, and high art at that. One must only needs glance at writing like Lev Manovich’s (2002) The Language of New Media to see that new media as new media draws much of its relevance from film and art installations. Mark B.N. Hansen (2006) likewise focuses his new philosophies of new media on new media art. However, despite the fact that we don’t discount student writing as not “writing” just because it happens to be essays rather than novellas, we do often discount student media work as not “art” because it is “student.” Few of our students in freshman level (or even senior level composition) are going to be able to create a 3-d cow that can be viewed by a remote handheld device (though iPads might make this easier) and talk about why that cow is representative of life with computing in general—but they might be able to make a short film. Is that film anything that should be shown in a film festival? Perhaps, perhaps not, but should aesthetics be our key concern?
The digital humanities/new media split, according to Frabetti, is a place where we can question such dichotomies, which is what I would like to do here. Why are the aesthetics of the creation and art our key concerns in teaching new media within composition? Why can we not develop a pedagogy of using technologies, new media, or the digital humanities to learn? I would argue that new media should not be, but perhaps become, a way to shut out the lesser aesthetically pleasing but just as rhetorically constructed new media project of the student who is just learning Photoshop or movie editing software for the first time and value the student’s work who comes from a privileged enough background to have learned these tools long before college. Is that what we want our classrooms to be like?
Technology, aesthetics, and writing have always been closely entwined. Technology has always had something to do with knowledge (whether that be writing as a way of memorializing language and thought or the actual production of letters). One issue I have with the attitude that “this sort of school probably teaches new media” and “this other one does not” is that it is closely entwined with the idea that those without knowledge must get that knowledge before getting access to technology (we have to write before we can create). Instead, I’d like to argue that technology can be a precursor to knowledge. I’m not arguing that a “little fat girl in Ohio” will magically start making movies (Coppola, as cited in Nakamura, 2008); instead, I am arguing that using technology in the process of writing might be productive for students that have less than privileged educational backgrounds before college.
Despite my own experience with open enrollment students that has been vastly positive and fun, I sense an overwhelming cloud of dread hanging about them in the academic community as a whole. It may be true that we cannot educate everyone—but it is also true in my experience that we cannot predict who can be educated or not by test scores, neighborhood statistics, gender, or race. The fact is (again, from my experience doing so) that the student who cannot write a very cogent rhetorical analysis of a film might well be able to remake part of that film. Once he or she has remade part of that film they might be able to think about that movie from the viewpoint of producer rather than consumer—a sometimes necessary move for good analysis. My own Technology Across the Curriculum ideals emphasize the idea that putting the technology first then doing the writing is one potential way to use new media or the digital humanities to get students thinking in the right way before they write.
It’s not often said, at least in published work, but there is a sense of humanization to the education people receive in open enrollment institutions. We say things like “here we’re changing lives.” While none of my colleagues say it aloud, I sometimes feel as if what they mean is “here we teach people to use the tools they already have to their fullest, to live their lives to the fullest.” We believe that writing is a necessary tool for that life, as is using technology more generally—using networks, making home videos, and knowing how websites are design might well be part of that.
To be human, indeed, is to use all technologies available to us to the best possible ends, just as we can define being rhetorical as using all available means of persuasion. Stiegler (1998) believes that to be human is to be technological. The human becomes human by learning tools. But Stiegler goes past the earlier work of Leroi-Gourhan (1993), who connects the first appearance of tool use in humans as the moment that we became human. Using the hand allowed us to speak, to stand upright—and to do many other things that we recognize as human. Just because these original tools made us human does not mean that they are the only tools that have defined us as human since. Furthermore, technology automatically carries memories for us—they are inscribed into it (Stiegler, 1998). Technology always helps us to remember, to gain access to our past, and to our consciousness. And our consciousness of our past is a necessary tool in becoming human. Frabetti describes this relation as technology being “the condition of the constitution of our relation to the past. In sum, it can be said that human beings ‘exteriorize’ their memory into technological objects, which in turn are nothing but memory exteriorized” (Frabetti, 2011, p. 6).
The question I pose, then, is whether just the technology of writing is enough to inscribe memory, especially for students who are only now learning to write for academia? And furthermore, even if just the technology of writing is “enough” to teach what we want to teach and have students learn what we want them to learn, why not try to get them to use all possible tools for getting there? Even moreso than traditional college students, the open enrollment student may need every chance to learn a concept, especially while in the process of pre-writing. Frabetti argues that digital technologies transgress the boundaries of technologies and mnemotechnologies (those meant and designed for memory, like writing); indeed, if we are to agree with Frabetti then all digital technologies can be used to preserve memory and therefore are not only very appropriate for the writing classroom but are especially useful for open enrollment classes.
The open enrollment instructor is not at all out of tune with this idea. Indeed, we encourage teaching with all “modes” and to all “literacies” to whatever extent is possible for the subject. In the rhetorical tradition after Plato, the artistry and sophistry of rhetoric has been mostly erased and disbanned, but the recent turn to new media (with its ties to art) is one possible fix for this. The use of new media and digital humanities projects reintroduces the sophistry and aesthetic appeal of writing and rhetoric more broadly. In the world of “but our students can’t write,” showing them as capable individuals who are artistic and articulate in other ways is a good technique for proving that students are getting it even if their writing skills are still developing.
Frabetti (2011) notes that the ways that we use technologies in the digital humanities change the way that we experience time, develop modes of thought, and what we understand it means to be human. Frabetti calls for more critical thinking to be done about the digital humanities’ use of technologies and their rationality. Furthermore, even Frabetti senses a connection between commodities, learning and technology use: “Questioning instrumentality is an essential step toward questioning the idea of knowledge as a commodity, and of the ‘neoliberal logic that views schools as malls, students as consumers, and faculty as entrepreneurs’” (Giroux, 2010, as cited in Frabetti, 2011, p. 17). Knowledge is nowhere more a commodity than in a school that works with our least prepared students.
They come to us with the idea that a college degree will change their lives (it may, it may not). They believe that somehow doing this thing—getting an education—will be the magical tool needed to get that job, move out of state, and “be someone better” (the last is a direct quote from one of my recent Writing Center appointments). Despite their detachment from larger institutions, open enrollment schools and community colleges do see the need to instruct with and within technology, especially in writing classrooms. They truly do care for their students, and seek out the best tools to help them learn—even if they have to make them themselves.