Post-text scholarship? What do English Lit. Librarians think?

About Aaron McCollough

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?

4 Responses to “Post-text scholarship? What do English Lit. Librarians think?”

  1. Stephen says:

    I suspect there will not be a move away from text based arguments in my lifetime, though the move towards multimedia arguments may be more prevalent in some areas.

    I could see an argument that is on the web (blog/wiki, etc.) that includes sections of text with citations linked to supporting materials, multimedia presentations (ppt slide shows that summarize the material, video discussion), and perhaps comment/forums set up for discussion of the presentation. In fact, were I currently teaching a comp course, I might be inclined to have students work on something like this. It is an exciting idea.

    One of the problems with the idea of video based arguments is that they privilege a population. Right now, one can write a great paper with limited resources. Through in the need for a camera, post-production tools, web space along with the necessary expertise to make it all come together, and the idea of video as a tool for making a scholarly argument becomes problematic.

    I would also suggest that most people working in an English department are not able to fairly evaluate new materials. Knowledge for the new presentation formats needs to include design knowledge, digital knowledge, and who knows what else.

  2. Laura says:

    A few thoughts —

    * Andy Warhol said that “art is anything that you can get away with” — isn’t literary studies anything that scholars can get away with? The English Department often ends up being a big tent for scholars who study texts — however we define a text — written, visual, temporal, spatial. Yet anything that scholars produce that counts for tenure and promotion still needs to be a written text in most cases.

    * Despite the pressure to publish in the same old ways, the classroom ends up being a space to take chances. Many faculty at our institution routinely assign new media projects in courses, and our writing center (which is in our library) states that it supports “compositions in a variety of media.” We’ve made a huge investment (facilities, equipment, services, people) in supporting new media in student work, and we’ve worked with both faculty and students to learn together how to evaluate new media compositions. We have many students who say they never got the knack of composing a paper until they had to produce a visual argument in a media project.

  3. aline soules says:

    Your piece is, as usual, very thoughtful, prompting me to give it some thought before commenting. My thoughts about this are mixed at this point. This is partly influenced by my sabbatical project where I gathered 500 names of literary authors writing in English (primarily 20th and 21st century authors) in order to compare biographical information among four sources–two commercial databases, Wikipedia, and other Web sources as retrieved through Google. It isn’t my project that influences me so much, but the actual names (the list is at The names come from texts and curricula for various English lit courses and, if you recall, I sent an email and inserted a piece in Biblio-Notes asking LES librarians to suggest omissions, etc. With thanks again to my fellow LES librarians, the resulting list contains many names of “graphic novelists” and what are essentially “comic artists.” While readers may disagree with me, I do have a sense that the growing interest in combining text and still images in our literary output moves us closer to media. What’s the next step? A combination of text and moving images? There’s also flash poetry, which can appear only in moving form. Off the top of my head, I forget the name of the faculty member at UC, Santa Barbara who is a leader in this effort. You look at the words moving on the screen, something that cannot be replicated in a standard print form. So we have still images moving into the literature texts and we have the text flowing into the moving images on a screen. When do we call that “media” and how much further does it have to go before it is called that? Then, there’s audio. When one of my poems is accepted for online publication, I am often asked to provide an audio file to accompany it to provide the “reader” with an enhanced experience. As the lines blur among these elements, how do we differentiate among them and does it matter? It is all “art” in some form.

    Coming at the question from another direction, how many of our students are now reading less text and displaying more reluctance to read ‘straight’ text? I make tutorials for students because they don’t read instructions. This provides them with a combination of images and audio, with the text displaying in JAWS or Closed Captioning for our students who require ADA elements. Very little appears on the screen. Perhaps this doesn’t happen at Research I universities (I haven’t been a librarian at a Research I university since 2002), but I suspect that it does, if to a lesser extent.

    The end result is that we have students who don’t read as much and creations that are more media-oriented or, at least, contain more media elements. I have also heard that movies (think Hollywood) are the literature of our age. Ultimately, I expect that blended art forms will be the way of the future and, unlike Stephen, I think it will happen in my lifetime. It’s evolutionary and we may not realize that it has happened fully until we are in its midst.

  4. John Glover says:

    Interesting post, Aaron–thanks for starting the discussion.

    I don’t see a wholesale shift to new media argumentation coming in the immediate future at my university, at least to judge by the infrequency with which new media assignments crop up in English or in University College (our Composition/First Year Experience folks). While individual assignments do and will come along, I expect written English to remain the focus. It’s a different story for some departments–mass communications, advertising, or new media program–but there’s a big difference between having those fields, even if they’re thriving departments, and changing what we teach and support as the primary mode of discourse.

    As to what scholars will study, I think Laura’s comment about the big-tent approach covers it. Except in the most conservative of departments, new media, graphic novels, film study, etc. all will eventually wind up under the canvas, even if they aren’t currently there. How heavily they’ll be studied, however, and when they’ll be taken up, is another matter. People have been talking about the increasing narrative complexity of video games for a long time, and they do substantially outperform Hollywood at this point in terms of revenue, but a search of MLA for peer-reviewed journal articles published since the start of 2010 garners a grand total of 7 for “video game,” 867 for “film,” and 1989 for “novel” and “short story” combined. Those aren’t comprehensive searches, but in so far as MLA reflects what literature scholars are doing right now, it suggests that we’re going to be supporting collections, instruction, and research involving traditional textual formats for a little while yet.

    Also, are we in academia training burgeoning academics, or are we training people for the workforce? That answer varies from institution to institution, and often from department to department, but I saw little mention of the workplace in either the Chronicle or the LJ article.

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