Blog Post

Digits and Fingers


Hello HASTAC Scholars!  I'm looking forward to learning more about your research and sharing ideas about the past, present, and future of digital scholarship and the Digital Humanities.  
I'll use this introduction to briefly introduce myself and the kind of things I imagine blogging about over the course of semester - mostly dealing with my research and teaching and how they intersect with questions related to new media, media history, and a broader concept of media literacy.  I'm currently a Ph.D. candidate in the English Department at the University of Iowa, where I specialize in 19th and early 20th century American literature and media history, with a specific focus on authorship, realism, and the history of writing technologies.  I'm in the final stages of writing my dissertation, "Inventing Authors: Marks, Media, and Materialities in the Age of Edison," a project that repositions realist authors and texts in the context of new technologies for recording language - from phonographs, typewriters, and cinema to smaller but no less important developments in printing, typography, and other techniques of word processing.  The project situates realist authors such as Twain, Howells, Bierce, Gilman, and Dreiser against the wider background of media history and new technologies for manipulating words, letters, and images on paper.  
Located at the intersection of literary and media history, my research examines what we might call the material and pre-digital histories of the Digital Humanities, by which I mean the histories that precede the digital but which anticipate the language, logic, and techniques of textual markup as we now take them for granted.  Most of my work revolves around trying to historicize concepts like "markup," "reality augmentation," and even fundamental terms such as "writing" and "editing."  I'm interested in how the Digital Humanities throws into relief the material surfaces of literary history, opening new methods of reading, writing, and editing the past that move beyond the hermeneutic tradition.  The Age of Edison strikes me as a rich period when different marks, media, and surfaces are challenging popular notions of what it means to read and write, anticipating many of the questions currently pertinent to digital media.
I'm also currently teaching a course at the University of Iowa entiteld "Reading and Writing Across Media."  Feel free to visit the course website and look around if you're interested.  I've designed the course as an experimental laboratory of sorts in which I'm trying out a range of digital pedagogies and platforms, from WordPress blogs to a Class Pinterest Board.  I look forward to sharing ideas about how to incorporate technology in the classroom as a supplement for traditional styles of learning.  Stay tuned for a post about Pinterest and its possibilities and drawbacks in the classroom.  While no technology can replace the fundamentals of good teaching (a lesson I learned from teaching three years of high school in New York City), I firmly believe that we need to start "poaching" corporate media and reappropriating them for educational purposes.  
Related to my research, I am also developing plans for a digital exhibit on Ambrose Bierce and William Randolph Hearst's typographic and telegraphic assault against the Central Pacific Railroad in the pages of the San Francisco Examiner.  Right now I'm playing around with Omeka, but I would love to hear more ideas about different platforms that can accomodate text and images.
The big question underscoring all of my work is how digital media, digital technologies, or the Digital Humanities (basically, anything with "digital" in the title) remediates, elides, challenges, or enhances the history of human culture and technology.  I remain suspicious that the "digital" inaugurates something new.  While new technologies have certainly opened new possibilities for writing, reading, and editing knowledge, so too did classification systems in the nineteenth century, or erasable ivory tablets in the age of Enlightenment.  What seems to be "new" about the Digital Humanities is the way in which the "digits" of human culture (i.e., the data of what we read, store, and edit) are no longer simply mediated by human "fingers."  In other words, ones and zeros have thrown the fingers into relief, remediating textual markup for the screen as opposed to paper and other material surfaces.  What does this shift away from the human touch of markup mean for the production of culture?  How does it open avenues to explore previous forms of textual markup on paper?  What would the history of textual markup look like?  How would we begin to read and write it?  And do we need machines to help us?  These are huge questions, of course, but they ultimately come back to what it means to "read" and "write" language, regardless of whether we do so with digits or those uncanny pre-digital "digits" called fingers.  
As a student and teacher of both the humanities and the digital humanities, I'm always looking for ways to make the past speak back to the future, rather than vice versa.  As Derrida famously writes, "by carrying us beyond paper, the adventures of technology grant us a sort of future anterior; they liberate our reading for a retrospective exploration of the past resources of the paper, for its previously multimedia vectors."  Excavating and investigating those vectors across literary history fuels my research and teaching.  

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