I was lucky enough today to speak at a conference on Teaching Digital Writing, run by the Higher Education Academy's English Subject Centre. What follows is that talk in full, and it draws on a number of concerns which are central to this blog: the implications of digitisation, the resistance to digital books, and the importance of understanding the bodies of texts and readers when we attempt to consider the effects of making written texts, at least apparently, incorporeal. Thank you to everyone who organised and attended the event and made it such a success.
Digital Writing and Pedagogy
How Do We Teach, What Do We Teach?
I work in an English department, mostly teaching critical theory, and today I’d like to look at a deceptive question, one which I’m going to increasingly face in the discipline I’ve chosen: “how do we go about teaching examples of digital writing?” Now this is not a simple question. Before we can get to the ‘how’ of teaching something, we need to at least approximate what it is we are about to teach, if only to propose an appealing course. I’d put it to you that many students are just not certain what a digital text is, or what digital writing is, not really, and yet I feel that the worst thing we can do, as tutors, is attempt an exacting definition.
Now this might seem oxymoronic, but what I actually think it is, is potentially exciting. Digital texts, digital literatures, digital writing, these still somewhat ineffable things represent a rare chance for us to teach the ‘contemporary’ in the thick of it. English Studies has only rarely been about hunting for, or rote-learning, the proscribed meaning of texts. Often, ideally, it has instead existed as a way of identifying the jumping-off points where written texts allow us to explore our own state of being-in-the-world - how we might think, how we might understand, how we might strive. Unlike contemporary English literature classes I’ve both taught and attended, which seem to think that the ‘contemporary’ must end in 1960 if we’re to have any chance at critical distance, ‘digital’ offers another way, and I would say a compelling way, for our students to see the ways in which their subject wraps around them, to feel that they can live what they learn, and to think that ‘contemporary’ can actually mean ‘right now,’ and ‘tomorrow,’ as the story of the way we receive written material unfolds before their eyes.
In this spirit my talk will touch on a number of disciplines which I believe the digitisation of the written word opens up to the English classroom. This doesn’t represent an attempt to define the borders of the subject, but instead to ignore past delineations and see where productive exploration, symbiosis, and downright theft might allow us to teach better, and to get students feeling and realising what is being taught.
To begin then, how might we sketch a definition of digital work? If I hear the words ‘digital text’ then the frenzy of images that spring to mind, the substance of what I’d like to teach remember, leaves me baffled - are we talking about any written work which appears on a screen? And any screen? Will a television or a mobile phone do? Or must it be a computer? Is a Kindle or an iPad enough of a computer to qualify? And why? Do we really read differently on these things? And once we’ve settled on a carrier medium does a digital text include scans of a paper document? .pdfs? Photographs of existing texts? And are we just talking about Katherine Hayles’ ‘digitally native’ literature here, works made on, and for reading on, a pixelated screen? Because that seems to include most things now that we’re all word processing every document we produce, and then consuming a lot of it online. And what of books about digitisation, or that use digital forms remediated back into print? Or instead are we talking about books, any books, which interrogate, or have shaken off their material bodies…Ah! But that seems to hit somewhere closer to the nail’s head doesn’t it? It’s this change in bodies which is causing all the fuss after all. Because if popular media has taught us anything about digital and digitised books, it’s that they don’t ‘smell right,’ and that they don’t ‘feel right,’ and that you certainly can’t read them on the beach or in the bath.
For the record that last one’s actually not true. Jeff Bezos, the founder and president of Amazon.com, apparently reads his Kindle e-reader in the bath. He puts it in a one gallon see-through zip-lock bag. The touch screen works and everything.
But the body of the book, and we might as well talk about the book because that’s what the majority of the popular debate surrounds, the body of the bound paper book, the codex, is changing, and the new forms we are experiencing are not the product of a kindly received metamorphosis. There have been increasingly frequent attempts to begin ‘e-reading’ over the last ten or so years, prior to the watershed of the Amazon Kindle’s release in late 2007, and numerous commentators have lined up to warn us of the dangers of digital, particularly its lowly status in comparison to print. Sven Birkerts is perhaps the totemic example here, with his exhortation in the Gutenberg Elegies, that: “this may be the awakening, but it feels curiously like the fantasies that circulate through our sleep. From deep in the heart I hear the voice that says, ‘Refuse it!’”
What should we make of Birkerts’, and others’, resistance? I’m not sure. But we should teach it. We should teach it now, and we should teach it when all the journals are online, and when all the books are online, and we should continue to teach it when every student is doing their homework on a digital device. Because this resistance, whilst presumably futile, is all about bodies, those bookish-bodies holding books, and those bound-book bodies being held. And bodies books certainly have; books have chapters, from the Latin for head, caput, whilst pages have feet for their footnotes. The book’s body has a spine, and their contents can have an appendix. Even references to sections being ‘above’ or ‘below’ rather than ‘shallower’ or ‘deeper’ within the text suggest that it should be standing on its feet.
And where there are bodies there are interactions; nothing knows it even has a body until it starts to resist the world. Birkerts, in his article for The Atlantic, ‘Resisting the Kindle,’ discusses codex reading as existing as part of such an interacting system. He describes the system of libraries and filing that have grown up around the bound-book form, but he also describes how our bodies gain access via participation: “[t]hat system,” says Birkerts, “stands for the labor and taxonomy of human understanding, and to touch a book is to touch that system, however lightly.” He knows what it means to touch a book. I don’t think he expresses it that well here, but he is beginning to get to the root of all the ‘it just doesn’t feel right’ type of arguments.
Birkerts suggests that we can interact with ‘the labour and taxonomy of human understanding’ haptically, via our tactile interactions with objects. This seems to ring true; we interact with the world via touch, and always have. From primates’ becoming one with the forest canopy as they travelled, each brachiating limb extending out and amalgamating with the drooping liana, to the invention and mass deployment of hammers and other simple hand tools which extrapolated the skills of the naked arm, our species’ evolutionary history is based around touch and what the neurologist Frank Wilson describes as ‘incorporation.’ To incorporate something into ourselves requires that we treat an external object as if it was part of our flesh, and I use the Merleau-Pontian term intentionally. Heidegger would have called this ‘ready-to-hand;’ the sociologist Andy Pickering might describe it as a temporarily stable interaction between two subjects in a ‘dance of agency;’ an evolutionary cognitive psychologist like Merlin Donald might look at how ‘incorporated’ objects allow us to actually extend our cognition; and a philosopher, such as Andy Clark, might even see it, at times, as an extension of our minds.
Andy Clark and David Chalmers demonstrate how our interactions with objects might alter the locus of cognition from a place inside our heads to somewhere out there, in the world, forming a ‘coupled system’ between human and object ‘that can be seen as a cognitive system in its own right.’ In a very simple example they discuss the use of pencil and paper to jot down lecture notes, to do a hard sum, or to take a long list, all tasks which the human mind alone could not perform accurately. Cognition, at this point, is spread onto the paper and pencil, it forms an extension of the brain’s own short term memory. For Merlin Donald, if the notepad is a prosthetic short term memory, then a library represents much more long term storage.
Along with these extensions it is important to note that our hands’ interactions and brains’ contemplations are intimately linked. Frank Wilson’s study in The Hand, is an excellent entry point to this field, but contemporary research into gesture and pedagogy has provided compelling evidence of this symbiosis in action. Psychologists from the University of Chicago studied a class performing basic mathematics problems such as 3+2+8=BLANK+8. The students had to learn to resolve the equation by finding the single digit which is equivalent to 3+2, i.e. they must understand the concept of ‘grouping’ - adding numbers together to produce an analogue which balances the sum. In order to teach this act of ‘grouping’ tutors were getting students to draw a little ‘v’ shape with their finger under the 3 and the 2, physically tying them together. Sure enough students understood the concept significantly faster than when the technique was not deployed. But the researchers also found, over the course of the study, that it didn’t matter where the students drew the ‘v’ at all, it was the very act of making the gesture which introduced and sublimated the concept.
So our touchings of the world can have a profound effect. Both Clark and Donald suggest that what makes humans distinctive is not consciousness, per se, but cognition offloaded, cognition, to use Edwin Hutchins’ term, in the wild.
Part of what Birkerts, and others, might be mourning then, is that it may seem that we are taking our hands out of reading through digitisation, removing our ‘tactile observation’, as it were, and introducing a uniquely human kind of blindness. Tales of sudden blindness, of Milton, to use a literary example, or of Nietzsche, of Joyce, or of Borges, for all of their ability to shock us with our own fragilty, hold none of the horror of a true loss of touch, not just a numbness of the hands, but a removal of the skin from our sensation. To touch is never in our control - we touch against our will - always forced to maintain at least a point in pressure with something, hence our fascination with acrobatics, zero-gravity, or the weightlessness of floating in a heavily-salted sea, though none of these represent a true, total loss of touch or else they would become grotesque. Touch is never in our control, but for the most part it is controlled, we might think of pain as excessive touching, or the echo of a misplaced touch. We see the most important aspects of our world with our hands, our skin. No wonder that so many avid readers, so many holders of printed books, feel that they must speak out - do they not subconsciously fear that the new technology might make us, if not paralysed, then haptically blind?
It’s not my intention here to lay out how we should respond to these changes in the book form, whether we should receive them in a positive or negative light, whether we should receive them at all. But I do want to say that we should start to take these kind of changes seriously, not writing off any resistance as doom-mongering or Ludditisim, and certainly not saying what might actually amount to such, that these changes will never come, that the book will always remain in its present comfortable form. This last assertion seems the most problematic of all in some ways; it does a profound disservice to the rich studies of book history and textual criticism, disciplines, incidentally, which should certainly be used to contextualise the digital, which have demonstrated the profundity of the changes the form has experienced over the course of its 2000-some years of evolution. But it also ignores, once again, the contemporary experience of interacting with the written word; as Stuart Moulthrop has said: “[t]he book is already ‘dead’ (or superseded) if by ‘alive’ you mean that the institution in question is essential to our continued commerce in ideas.”
We are, potentially, on a road to no longer needing books, which is why we need to be able to articulate just why we might want them. When we are talking about what they do best, when we are teaching how the words on their pages are different to their words on the screen then we need to fully appreciate aspects of the form that we have often previously taken for granted. The page space, it’s borders and typography, it’s footnotes and endnotes, it’s indexes and contents lists, the covers which separate it from the world, the opacity of its leaves, its linear order, all of these things, which make up the book as we have come to accept it, are reconfigured into articles to discuss, rather than invisible facets of the gestalt we know as the codex.
Katherine Hayles puts our task succinctly:
By and large literary critics have been content to see literature as immaterial verbal constructions, relegating to the specialized fields of bibliography, manuscript culture, and book production the rigorous study of the materiality of literary artefacts…It is becoming overwhelmingly clear that we can no longer afford to ignore the material basis of literary production. Materiality of the artefact can no longer be positioned as a subspeciality within literary studies; it must be central, for without it we have little hope of forging a robust and nuanced account of how literature is changing under the impact of information technologies.
Now, it seems I’ve said a lot in defence of the traditional book form here, but what I really wanted to emphasise is that digitisation reinvigorates our discussions of the materiality of texts. When we take seriously the fact that books, digital or bound, have bodies, then we can start to get to the heart of the effects of the changes which we are seeing. If, as humans, we have extended our minds onto our artefacts in the past, then isn’t it likely that we will continue to do so? What better way to try and understand how we might put aspects of ourselves into digital reading then, than to consider how we have used the bound-book form to do the same thing?
As a very brief example we might consider Sherry Turkle’s notion of ‘objects-to-think-with,’ the use of artefacts to physically work-through what we might otherwise miss about an idea, or about our times. The bound book has functioned as just such an object, privileging linear thought, the elimination of error, and the packaging of ideas into discrete bundles which can stand in isolation, waiting for us to approach and discover them. A digital text, in many ways, functions oppositely. Let’s just take one aspect, the hyperlink, a device which Steven Johnson has described as “the first significant form of punctuation to emerge in centuries.” When considered as an object-to-think-with we can see why Johnson might well describe them as a form of punctuation; a hyperlink, an underlined blue word in an otherwise familiar page of script, even if unclicked, still has power, still has an effect. It exists to remind us that we can head out into other texts, out into the world, that where we are is not the final say, and that the boundary lines we have revered are blurred at best, and potentially inconsequential. In this one blue word we can see the potential to discuss what the word ‘text’ even means, to discuss copyright law’s inability to recognise the power of influence, and its related inability to adjust to these new ‘disembodied’ forms. We might also see how our own boundaries blur as much as the text’s, as our minds extend, and our society encroaches; the digital text might function as an analogue to ourselves. A lot can be said for a hyperlink.
In this way a course on digital writing could very well be based, ironically, around the bound book, taking a part of its anatomy each week, and then exploring it and seeing how digitisation might turn the effects of each element upon their heads. The footnote could be paired with the hyperlink, linearity with the internet, or codexical materiality with a perceived digital incorporeality that Matthew Kirschenbaum’s forensic studies might certainly justly refute.
Although I’ve tried to gesture toward a number of disciplines which I think have a logical place in the digital writing classroom, I’ve consciously resisted the term ‘interdisciplinary.’ Interdisciplinarity suggests, or I think should suggest, the adoption of alternative discourses, something which only comes from embedding yourself within a discipline which differs from that in which you have previously trained or written, or by collaborating with a practitioner from another discipline and allowing your voices to merge. At this point it is perhaps not appropriate, at least as far as teaching these changes is concerned, to attempt either, and for the most part this stems from the sheer range of disciplines required to interpret these events; to be interdisciplinary at this time, for these changes, would necessarily be to attempt polymathism.
However, specialisation is the privilege of established discipline, and we do not yet have that luxury, either in the Digital Humanities or in whatever subsection of such digital reading may provoke into existence. Any discussion of digital reading devices and their associated texts can no longer afford to ignore the diversity of fields required to begin mapping the effects of these early days, and whilst the study and pedagogy might not be truly interdisciplinary, it can be outward looking, generous, and deferential where appropriate. Although pursuing a discussion of the literary products which have marked the shift to a digital reading mode, Hayles again amply demonstrates this fundamental point, she says:
electronic literature is evolving within complex social and economic networks that include the development of commercial software, the competing philosophy of open source freeware and shareware, the economics and geopolitical terrain of the internet and World Wide Web, and a host of other factors that directly influence how electronic literature is created and stored, sold or given away, preserved or allowed to decline into obsolescence.
To this list I have added Philosophy, Evolutionary Cognitive Psychology, Biology, Neuroscience, Forensic Investigation, Copyright Law, Sociology, Textual Criticism, and Book History. All of these, for me, seem a natural, and logical fit alongside English Studies as it comes to focus on the objects and bodies of digital and digitised reading. Devices such as the iPad, and the Kindle represent potent sites which, without a discipline of their own, at least as yet, must mark a coming together of scholarship, and a concomitant adjustment to pedagogy so that students can begin to contribute to a variety of fields after an exciting period of education, the tools of which, the objects-to-think-with, they can very swiftly put into practice, instantaneously in the case of observation and reflection on the story which is unfolding around them.
We obviously can’t teach everything, but that’s always been true. A large part of university English study is about opening doors to new ways of thought via literary works. The same is true when we encounter digital texts, but the doors to more disciplines, whose effects might then be felt in all aspects of English Studies as we relearn the materiality we so often neglect, the doors to such disciplines become, perhaps, easier, and more logical, to open.
[Update - I previously suggested that the gestural research took place in Norway. This was a mistake, the researchers were from the University of Chicago and the source website is now hyperlinked, apologies]