On the Eve of my M.A. Defense: Reflections on Building Bridges

Well, here I am the night before I defend my master’s project—one of the last requirements for a degree I never intended to earn! I thought I was coming to Dallas for my Ph.D. in Humanities (Literary Studies), but really I was just taking the first steps into the amazing, mind-blowing, foreign land of media studies. In May 2008—almost exactly two years ago—I was on my lunch break at the office where I worked in Florida, checking out the list of classes online and piecing together a schedule for my first semester at UT-Dallas. I was really pretty clueless about the entire state of Texas, the faculty at UTD, the program I would be attending, and my long-term graduate study goals. Back in grad school after a year and a half of working in the business world, I may not have had a clear focus, but I did have a mission.

This mission began to form after I read an article by N. Katherine Hayles in the 2007 issue of MLA’s journal Profession. The article, titled “Hyper and Deep Attention: The Generational Divide in Cognitive Modes,” basically convinced me that I needed to learn what this “new media” was all about or I would get left behind in an academic wasteland, outpaced by my peers who knew how to effectively use technology in their research and teaching. In her article, Hayles draws from a 2005 study that shows increased use of media (not just more time spent with media, but the increased variety of media used at once) signals major changes in brain development and learning styles amongst young people. The study dubs 8 to 18-year-olds “Generation M.” (of course, M = Media.) Hyper attention, resulting from consuming many types of media at once, means that kids can focus on playing video games but struggle to concentrate on reading novels. These concepts all sound rudimentary to me now, but two years ago they were true revelations. Here is the passage from Hayles’ article that really gave me a jolt:

The trend toward hyper attention will almost certainly accelerate as the years pass and the age demographic begins to encompass more people of Generation M. As students move deeper into the mode of hyper attention, educators face a choice: change the students to fit the educational environment or change that environment to fit the students. […] Digital media offer important resources in facing the challenge, both in the ways they allow classroom space to be reconfigured and the opportunities they offer for building bridges between deep and hyper attention. (195)

I was staring down a digital divide, and it was obvious that with my beginner level technical skills and non-existent foundation in media theory, I was on the wrong side of the canyon. So, as I sat in my office looking at classes that were still open, I opted for a class in media studies instead of literature without hesitation. (At UTD, media studies classes are not part of the regular curriculum for humanities grad students.) Would I be able to build a bridge across the divide?

The M.A. portfolio (the degree at UTD requires a portfolio of two papers instead of a traditional thesis) I am defending tomorrow really crystallizes my effort to “build bridges.” In my teaching, I have tried to get better at building bridges between student learning styles represented in Hayles’ distinction between hyper and deep attention. However, in my research—and in my M.A. portfolio, especially—I have tried to build bridges between analog and digital biases, techno-dystopia/utopia binaries, and literature and media studies. This last divide marks the original bridge I crossed two years ago as I selected a class in emerging media to see where it would take me. What I learned, though, is that this divide is really not a divide at all. Media studies—which is essentially a critical lens to look at the creation, circulation, and preservation of knowledge—is for me so implicated in literature that I can never again look at a text without seeing its medium. In opening my eyes and mind to a media-specific approach to literature, I have also realized that to study media is to study the political structures and ideologies that can easily go unnoticed in literary analysis (at least, in close-reading).

Both papers in my M.A. portfolio have given me a platform to practice media-specific readings of texts, though I still have a lot of work to do in sharpening my analysis. As I move on to begin (“every beginning is a beginning over” as Blanchot reminds me) a Ph.D. in English at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee next semester, I hope to blend and extend this interdisciplinary work in the program’s newly approved Digital Media degree plan. I am sure that I will miss the energetic faculty, brilliant students, and strong community feeling that flourishes in UTD’s Emerging Media/Arts and Technology departments. However, UWM has the advantage of integrating media studies “officially” into the English degree. In my view, that integration is not simply a bonus—it should be the standard. For without a clear understanding of how a text’s medium works to support the language and shape reading experiences, and without training in digital literacy and technology, how can literary scholars remain relevant? How can they build the bridges that Hayles and other academics are calling for? Media studies at UTD has opened my eyes to countless dilemmas and questions that students of literature need to be asking as our culture embraces all things digital.

Below are the abstracts for my two portfolio papers. If anyone is interested, I can provide the full-text.

Paper Title: DoubleClick Meets Dickinson: Remediating Poetry
Abstract: On the internet, where banner, pop-up, and in-text ads interweave with content, literature and seemingly unrelated words and images collide. Much of Emily Dickinson’s poetry appears on scholarly and nonscholarly web sites, but the format and visual appearance from site to site varies. Her words have come a long way from the manuscripts and fascicles that once filled the drawers of her desk in Amherst, Massachusetts. Yet, insofar as an origin fails to deliver us to the “truth” or an essential identity, digital iterations of Dickinson’s texts can actually be read as new poems. Dickinson is an appropriate subject, since her unique composing and archival methods show an awareness of writing technology and a desire to explore its limitations. Through a close reading of the poem “It troubled me as once I was—” across its versions, I determine that the web poses both an invitation and a challenge to poetry. New media invite experimentation and collaboration. However, poetry remediated on the internet challenges the boundaries of what qualifies as poetry. As Sharon Cameron points out in Choosing Not Choosing, unity or understanding is not produced through reading Dickinson’s poems in a fascicle context. “What is more radically revealed,” Cameron writes, “is a question about what constitutes the identity of the poem” (4).

Paper Title: Significant Intervals Between Print and Video Poetry
Abstract: Video poetry could be described as a hybrid, drawing from both the tradition of experimental film and emerging forms of digital poetry. Considering examples of 1920s avant-garde films that integrate poetry, there are useful similarities to be uncovered. However, there are also limitations to a historical or genealogical perspective that looks back on precursors to analyze what has changed or been realized in the digital. For one, this approach tends to assume a starting point and trace a causal chain that depends on locating a precursor as a lens for analysis. Kate Greenstreet’s recent book of poetry, The Last 4 Things, challenges such an approach. The printed book is sold with a DVD of video poems, which Greenstreet produced. While the video poems contain content from the book, readers are compelled to recognize the strategic differences between the two versions and to revise preconceptions about print poetry and its relationship to digital forms. The Last 4 Things provides a test case for exploring the differences in meaning and aesthetic impact when a particular poetic sensibility is presented in various media. This example will also serve to question a logic which places digital poetry in opposition to print poetry.

[cc licensed photo by Flickr user casch52]