English Literature Librarian, University of Michigan
Last week over at the Chronicle of Higher Ed, Brian Matthews broached the subject of “post-text scholarship” and its relationship to the English major of the future. A presentation claiming that “Film & Media” are poised to become the “new” English major prompted his thoughts .
This may be true in a sense. It may be that “new media studies” are poised to overtake the study of literature in terms of popularity and pride of place in the academy. It is harder to believe that it will simply replace the English major or that English major will stop doing what it has been doing for the last century plus in exchange for a new curriculum. That is, of course, open for debate, but my sense is that new media studies is developing as its own discipline, sometimes overlapping significantly with English departments, sometimes growing into its own department. Also, new media aren’t that new. The cost of entry has dropped in the last decade from prohibitive to nearly nil, and distribution networks like YouTube have emerged where there once were none. As a result, proponents of multimedia literacy are well-positioned to argue for greater institutional attention to the subject. I think they are right to do so. This gets us back to an old question about the English major, however. Is it about Literature or about composition? Many (maybe most) people would say both, but the American academy is littered with all sorts of bureaucratic arrangements that suggest the question is unresolved. Some writing programs are securely housed within the English department. Some are fully independent. Some live in a space somewhere between departments. Then there are the writing centers. Some English departments are wholly separate from the “writing program” as such or partner with the writing center as a kind of service outpost. Some times these centers are basically departments in their own right, sometimes they are part of a bigger service enterprise (like the library).
My point is that thinking of New Media as the English major of the future might not be the best way. For many situations, it just isn’t accurate. Also, it feels like a scare tactic. English department chairs certainly can’t afford to ignore the popularity and power of New Media, and there will undoubtedly be a significant increase in English/New Media course offerings over the next decade, but YouTube videos and written argument is not an apples-to-apples comparison.
Matthews’s post is interrogative for the most part, of course:
Imagine that the majority of students coming to your desk/office/studio are not writing a term paper but developing a video-based argument—using sound, data, images, and so forth. If this is how they are being evaluated, how do we help them? And likewise, if this is a major output for faculty and researchers, how do we enable them?
We tend to be a very text-based operation. And even as we migrate to digital content, it’s still text. What does this mean in a film-focused world? What’s the role of the library in a post-text world?
My feeling is that many silent assumptions are being made here. Certainly, we (the library, and we English Lit. subject specialists) need to be adapting to increasing “post-textual” needs, and based on local experience I can say that we are. But are we really heading for a “film-focused world” or a “post-text world”? Are we really meant to believe that A/V-based argumentation will be a replacement rather than a complement to “traditional” written argumentation? I’m skeptical, and it’s not because I’m old and set in my ways (although I may be both of those things).
I could go on, but I’d rather open things up for conversation. What do you think? Am I right to be skeptical? If you don’t share my skepticism, maybe you have thoughts on how we should be preparing for the future of video-based argument? Also, what about the other side of English department work (i.e., making new knowledge about literature, most of which is “historical” and “text”)? Whence Literature in an English major replaced by New Media studies?