21 March 2014

What Professors Do: Spring Break

I'm working on a lecture I'll give at my own institution next month on "Digitizing the Humanities" in an effort to persuade the people at my own institution of the importance of investing in, practicing, and theorizing our digital future(s).

Increasingly, my own scholarly processes occur on-line.  I wrote a conference paper last year comparing the transitions from manuscript to print and from print to digital using scholarship -- articles and books -- obtained entirely on line and read entirely in digital formats. Arthritis has made writing by hand difficult for me for more than a decade, so there's no point in printing stuff out to mark it up, and these days I often read books or articles on iPad while tapping away on a computer.

Just to complete the digital loop, and for the sake of seeing if I could do it, I read the paper from my iPad rather than printing a copy to read from at the conference. For my non-academic readers who may be unfamiliar with this process, one of the things faculty do is go to conferences and read their papers to each other and then discuss them with each other and the audience. Our education system, in which faculty share ideas and habits of thinking with students in lecture or, ideally, small seminars, is another vestige of oral culture.

The dissemination of our ideas through oral delivery is a technology older even than the manuscript codex, one of a few lingering artifacts of the oral traditions of preservation and recitation of cultural memories that have shaped us as humans for millennia, even as we have shaped our cultural narratives through collective and repetitive telling.

As we move from printed materials toward digitally enabled methods of transmission and storage of uncertain sustainability and future, we also continue the shift from oral transmission of epic, lyrics, drama, political oratory, and education to something else, whether it's enabled by the (print and digital) technologies of writing or of audio and video recording.

What do we gain as we move to digital transmission of ideas? What do we lose?

We gain a lot of digital tools that enable faster answers to questions like, "What has been published about sexuality and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight?" We also get to ask different questions, like "Do men and women use pronouns differently in this digital corpus of letters from the early modern period?"

We lose books as physical artifacts. We lose (at least as digital technologies exist today) stable arrangements of text and image on a printed page. We lose certain familiar physical, spatial relationships to books that have enabled our habits of reading, though as screens and the devices they're embedded in improve, the relationships between print and digital will keep shifting.

The transition from oral to written took many, many centuries, and as I've already suggested, oral transmission of ideas is not completely gone. The transition from manuscript to print took several generations, and handwriting is also not gone: school kids still write stuff out, some people still send each other letters through the mail, the check as a financial instrument isn't quite dead, and we still put our physical, handwritten signatures on tax returns and credit slips and passports.

Even though technological change seems to be accelerating, the transition from print to digital is likely to go on for a few generations. We need to keep asking these questions: what do we gain? what do we lose?

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I've also graded a couple of sets of papers during my spring break, contacted a student's advisor, gotten a little more exercise than usual, caught up on sleep, and kept up with the usual routines of kid supervision, dog walking, and housework.

Unfinished items on the list: a couple of reports, letters of recommendation, preparation for next week's classes, and some reading for an article I'm working on together with a student. I'm about to power down for Shabbat, but I'll get to some of those on Sunday.