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Digital Digs (Alex Reid)
We’ve been reading Manovich’s Software Takes Command in my media theory course. The driving question of the book is “what happens to media after software?” If that question strikes you as McLuhanesque, then I would say you are on the right track. The book has a historical element. It begins in the 60s and 70s, looking particularly at the work of Alan Kay and moves into the 80s and 90s where the process of “softwarization” as Manovich terms it starts to take hold. Here he gives special attention to Photoshop. The book ends fairly close to the present with some discussion of social media. However it would be inaccurate to think of the text as media history. It is really more conceptual in its efforts to understand the impact of software on how we understand media. To that end, I am interested in two particular ideas: software evolution and software epistemology as Manovich calls them.
Manovich’s discussion of evolution comes with the usual caveats that he is using the term metaphorically and that he doesn’t mean that software develops by the same mechanisms as biological entities. Fine. I didn’t really think that Photoshop and InDesign were getting busy on my hard drive anyway. On the other hand, the “metaphor defense” is a little unsatisfying. Isn’t it possible to say that evolution is an more abstract concept and that we can have different kinds of evolution (software and biology for example) without saying that such claims are any more metaphorical than language inevitably is?
Through the process of softwarization, older media (e.g. a photograph and a watercolor painting) get simulated. As Manovich points out, this is not a simulation of the material but a simulation of the tools and interfaces. So for example, with digital video, software simulates the ways in which we were able to interact with traditional film (playing forwards and backwards, cutting, panning, zooming, etc.), but we don’t get the material film. In creating these simulations for a variety of media, software blends them together through the use of common data structures. (n.b. And here, Manovich is using the term data structure different from its use in computer science.) By data structures, Manovich is referring to common file types, so that the photograph and the watercolor painting both become jpegs. That’s all fairly straightforward. Here is where this gets interesting though. Manovich argues:
software simulation substitutes a variety of distinct materials and the tools used to inscribe information (i.e., make marks) on these materials with a new hybrid medium defined by a common data structure. Because of this common structure, multiple techniques that were previously unique to different media can now be used together. At the same time, new previously non-existent techniques can be added as well, so long as they can operate on the same data structure.
So in Photoshop we can use techniques that simulate painting techniques on photographs and visa versa. I’m guessing anyone who has used Photoshop has messed around with all those filters. This is where we begin to see the hybridization of media. Two media that were materially distinct and had techniques that were tied to that distinct materiality are now able to combine to produce new media offspring.
That’s software evolution; now let me turn to software epistemology. Manovich writes, “Turning everything into data, and using algorithms to analyze it changes what it means to know something. It creates new strategies that together make up software epistemology.” Here I am reminded of DH, of course. But I would put it this way: our knowledge of an object isn’t in the object to be discovered but produced through the network of relations by which we encounter that object. This is as true for a novel or photograph as it is for a marmoset or a black hole. There’s no doubt that today that network of relations includes software as a powerful actor. Furthermore the hybridizing process of software evolution does mean that techniques can cross the material boundaries of older media. I.e., we can bring new techniques for creating knowledge about texts, and clearly we have.
My interests are more heuristic than hermeneutic however. So my curiosity now tends toward wondering how/if Manovich’s insight gives us a way to invent new media hybrids, particularly for the purposes of our academic work, though I am generally interested in the activity. My interests tend toward the mobile and the social, the everyday uses of media available to students and faculty. When I start to think about such matters it’s easier to see that it is not just about software. It’s easy to see how one could combine several commonplace social media applications–a collaborative composing tool like a wiki, realtime communication like twitter or google hangouts, and asynchronous discussion and documentation on a blog–to engage in a very different kind of scholarly and/or pedagogical activity than the one that current predominates in the humanities. With location-based data and smarter objects we can provide context-sensitive information. And yes we can find people out there doing those things, but doing it requires more than there being a new media hybrid with the right affordances. It also requires a pedagogical and rhetorical shift. It requires an epistemological shift where I change my mind about what’s worth knowing and what are useful ways to construct that knowledge.
I’m encountering this right now in a conversation on campus about eportfolios. Sure there are many valid questions to ask about eportfolios and we can point to institutions where they haven’t been successful, where the students and faculty find them counterproductive and onerous. On the other hand, I can point to more institutions where students and faculty find giant lecture courses and multiple choice tests counterproductive and onerous. Can we get rid of those too? Eportfolios are a media hybrid born of the recognition that our students work is largely digitally composed, regardless of discipline, and that we can thus put all that work in one place where we can take advantage of certain media-independent processes. The institution might be most interested in the assessment processes, but I am most interested in the sharing and discussing processes. But this is a clear example of an epistemological shift. Instead of putting effort into creating old media types with their historical epistemological constraints, one decides to do new kinds of work and value a new kind of knowledge.
Tomorrow I’m doing a brief digital composing workshop for FYC instructors as part of a Bedford symposium at Buffalo State. So this is me thinking through that somewhat. I am imagining an audience with limited experience teaching digital composition, as well as limited technical resources and a limited amount of time in a semester in which to do it. It’s really the time constraint that interests me the most because it points to the way we still think about digital composing within FYC, but I also want to give some practical advice. It is a workshop after all.
So we will be looking at two types of assignments: the slidecast and a Storify “essay.” As you probably know, the slidecast is technically easy to produce; you can make one with PowerPoint. It also creates opportunities for talking about visual rhetoric and design as well as a kind of oral presentation skill. I typically point my instructors (and their students) to Garr Reynolds’ site for advice on slide design. I typically do an assignment that is 3-5 minutes long with at least 10 slides and we typically pull this off in about 2-3 weeks of class meetings. The Storify essay is an assignment I haven’t actually done, but I think could be an interesting option, especially for a course that has a research component and wants to pay attention to social media conversations surrounding an issue. This kind of assignment would clearly be more text-based, although you can certainly incorporate image and video. Essentially though, you are collecting data from the web around a conversation and then weaving it together with text.
My plan is to introduce these two briefly and then give the participants some time to pick one to play with. However, I also want to say something about time. Typically I believe we still look at digital composing as a kind of add-on to composition courses as secondary to the goal of teaching academic writing. I think our program at UB is guilty of this, and it’s partly my fault. When I introduced the digital composition assignment requirement into our curriculum a few years ago, I presented it as something that could be contained within a short period of the semester. I did this out of a perception that it would be easier for the instructors to accept that way. Unfortunately it can lead to a situation where the digital stuff is in one place, which leaves the rest of the curriculum potentially “non-digital.” That’s not a model that’s going to work for us anymore. We need to recognize that all composing is digital and by that I don’t simply mean that we are using word processors. We are also using web-based research that comes in a variety of media, and we are employing a range of devices for accessing and composing media. The choice to compose a text-only, word-processed document is simply that: a choice. I mentioned in a workshop for our TAs a couple weeks ago that there’s no reason why one could have an entire composition course without producing a single document that looked like the conventional essay from the 1990s.
- A blog with updates about an ongoing research project, discussions about class readings, and reflections on one’s writing;
- A class webzine with essays that incorporate image, video, and audio;
- A collaborative wiki-based site organizing important concepts from the course;
- A slidecast as mentioned above.
I could go on, but you get the idea. When I look at the WPA outcomes, I think they could all be achieved through digital assignments. There is little reason to be passing around these MS-Word documents on paper or electronically.
Marc Bousquet has a piece in the Chronicle that is trending academically-speaking on “The Moral Panic in Literary Studies.” It would be easy to read this piece as a rehearsal of what has now become a familiar song, at least in English, about disciplinary turf wars among literary studies, rhetoric, and the other fields within such departments (but especially the first two). It would appear much of the comment stream gravitates toward those commonplaces. But this isn’t the 1980s or 1990s.
Bousquet’s argument begins with the declining numbers problem: fewer tenure line positions, a paucity of hires for new phds, and fewer undergraduates in classes. He then suggests that the one place in English that bucks the trend is digital composition. As he writes, “Scholars of composition and rhetoric generally teach graduate and upper-division courses packed with students who are passionate about the digital publication and media composition now inevitable in every walk of academic, professional, creative, and community-engaged communication.” He mentions doctoral programs, such as that at Clemson, with its 100% placement rate, that focus on such matters but do so in an interdisciplinary way.
I think to some degree what Bousquet says is accurate. Once upon a time, before I became buried in administrivia, I used to teach such courses, and they were popular. But is is also difficult to deliver that curriculum. To gain more than a passing familiarity with digital composing requires more than one course. There needs to be something a vertical curriculum. And that really means having more than one faculty member doing the work. Logistically, you need to offer three sections of your introductory course in order to end up with enough students to run the most advanced course that sits at the end of the sequence. If you had three or four faculty who were relatively free of administrative burdens so that you could offer 10-12 courses per year (at a typical 2-2 research load), then you probably could have a go at a legitimate professional-technical-digital rhetoric/composing curriculum at the undergraduate and graduate levels.
Bousquet describes the resistance he has encountered at Emory toward the idea of such hires. There aren’t other rhetoricians at Emory to resist the notion, but my sense is that the resistance to the digital is not a literary studies-only phenomenon. I think there is wider acceptance in rhetoric and composition, because computers and writing has been going on as a field of study since the 80s, but I think there are a good number of traditional rhetoricians and some compositionists who see digital composing as secondary (or tertiary) to a field that is focused on writing (i.e. print culture) or cultural studies. Like the literary studies faculty Bousquet describes, they too might look askance at technical and professional communication. In my own experience, I am as likely to find kindred spirits in media study or art or across the digital humanities as I am among faculty in rhetoric and composition.
So this is not the same old turf war. I’d like to think that it isn’t a turf war at all. That it is about trying to grow the pie rather than redistribute the crumbs on the plate. However it is a shifting in the identity of English departments. A few decades back, in a different millennium, literary study needed little defense: one studied literature because literature was valued across the culture. Today English departments need to explain why their majors are worthwhile. Often, the first thing they say is that English majors learn to write well. And today, the notion of what writing is has shifted toward the digital, so you would think that this would be a natural shift. But English has never really been about teaching writing; it’s been about teaching literature with improvement in writing being a claimed side effect.
What would be the role of literary study and literary history in a department where the focus had shifted, as Bousquet suggests, toward production and composition? For me the answer is relatively straightforward and comes from my experience working with students who were professional writing majors. Students are interested in such curricula because they want an education that has a career path. However, in my experience, these students are also interested in creative writing, in experimenting with digital media, and with understanding the role that writing and composing play in our culture. And part of that is literary study.