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"Re-Composing Digital Literature": Binaries, Boundaries, and Humanistic Expression

In "Re-Composing Digital Literature: Can You Find Electronic Writing on the Disciplinary Map?", Mauro Carassai probes critical questions that we currently face as members, students, and teachers of academic institutions. He begins his talk by referring to Andrea Lunsford's essay in Erika Lindemann's An Introduction to Composition Studies, which encourages the blurring of boundaries between media and genres. Carassai's inquiry into the divide between digital literature and electronic composition (and the separation between literature and composition studies in general) is, at heart, an inquiry into the disciplinary boundaries of academic institutions. His examination of the status of digital literature in English departments, as well as his suggestion of incorporating composition studies into literary studies, is a push towards interdisciplinary approaches to learning in academic institutions. While watching Carassai's presentation, I couldn't help but think about how HASTAC is such a great example of looking beyond borders and pushing towards interdisciplinary, collaborative, and open forms of learning, producing, and participating, and I am honored and proud to be part of such an amazing and supportive group of people. I was also reminded of Cathy Davidson and David Theo Goldberg's discussion about "The Future of Thinking: Learning Institutions in a Digital Age" (see report here), where they also talk about shifts in literacy, collaborative learning, etc. On a broader scale, Carassai's questions about borders and intersections (literature and composition, computer science and English, etc.) encourage us, as we work in our disciplines at academic institutions, to think about how we can broaden our knowledge base and ways of learning by incorporating knowledge and tools from other departments. 

Carassai points out that digital-born literary texts are still encountering resistance within English departments, and asks why it is that in an era of digitality, where reading is increasingly performed on screens, English departments are still hesitant and resistant to consider web designing and scripting as actual forms of writing. One of the reasons, as Carassai suggests, may be that products and processes of digital composition are considered as non-literary practices that utilize skills (e.g., programming) not traditionally exercised within the English departments; they are also considered merely as by-products of the new media culture rather than actual literary works deserving merit alongside traditionally-taught literary texts. These issues are also what my peers and I confront in our "Teaching Writing in a Digital Age" graduate seminar -- why not have digital composition as part of the required introduction to writing courses that all students have to take in their early years in college? What if students have to pass a digital literacy course before moving on to the next writing class? Would such writing classes (those that incorporate new media texts and encourage multimodal compositions) still be considered "writing"? What is "writing"? How can we use new media tools and technologies in writing classes and achieve the goals of writing classes (and what are the goals)?

In addressing the divide between composition studies and literature, Carassai refers to the works of Sharon Crowley and N. Katherine Hayles. Crowley's Composition in the University suggests that composition and literature have been entwined in an uneasy embrace, but literary scholars have managed to keep composition in the place they designed for it: at the bottom of the academic pecking order. Carassai observes that, in Electronic Literature, Hayles explicitly leaves out composition scholars as necessary contributors to digital literary practices, and that in examining literature's agency, no reference is made to composition and rhetoric. 

An intriguing point that Carassai brings up is how, in the shift between humanist and post-humanist paradigms, composition studies remain on the periphery compared to digital literary studies as the place to study human nature. He refers to the "ivory tower of literature" and the traditional notion that literature holds higher ground when it comes to understanding the human condition, while composition seems to disappear from the digital literary horizon. Carassai contends that both (digital) literature and (electronic) composition are humanistic concerns, and that at the bottom of it all, these two disciplines are more mutually inclusive than exclusive. [Note: visit the Google Wave linked to Carassai's talk -- Dave Malinowski posed an interesting question in relation to the "humanistic concern" in digital literature and composition studies]

Carassai ends with two considerations for us to think about:

1) Traditionally, composition is suppressed and subjected in favor of literature. Now, digital literature seems to disappear from electronic composition theorization. The disciplines and borders are still very much divided.

2) The issue of the "new" in new media scholarly debates needs to be reconnected to pre-existing rhetoric in composition debates.

I think we have entered an era in which, even as institutional disciplines are still enforced, we now have greater opportunities to challenge boundaries, cross borders, and work at the intersections of seemingly disparate fields. Again, HASTAC is a great example of this form of cross-disciplinary work. I'm also working on a M.A thesis which happens to be at the intersections of literary studies, new media, and composition and rhetoric theory. Thank you, Mauro, for the thought-provoking talk, and for reminding us to continue to push borders, to remain open to the contributions and importance of theories and ideas from all around us, and to keep in mind that we all share a "humanistic concern." 

A few last points I'd like to add to this report are just some of the things that struck me as key in terms of thinking about literary and composition studies in the digital age, and which I think are implicit in Carassai's talk:

  • Form and content (technical vs knowledge-based learning; processes vs acquisition of knowledge, etc.)
  • Materialities of texts (closely related to form and content; new media vs old media -- differences and similarities; materialities revealing a text's processes and integral to making meaning)
Thanks for reading, everyone! 

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