Digital Culture and Liberal Arts

(Photo by me.)
(Photo by me.)

I was recently prompted (for an application) to write “a statement articulating the role of the digital arts, media, and technology for informing and positioning traditional liberal arts disciplines for success in the 21st century.” I didn’t have such a statement on hand, and spent several days working on it. Over the past few years, I’ve written quite a few similar types of statements for grant/job applications, and–despite the difficulty of distilling my thoughts on such issues–I’m increasingly aware that writing these documents is a great exercise for articulating values that may otherwise live in my head only in the abstract. Even more, I’m also increasingly aware of how fluid these types of statements are, and that they should be written and rewritten regularly as such ideas and values develop.

As I wrote this one, I began thinking about how valuable it could be to share these types of statements with the wider community. So here it is, my first articulation, which, I am sure, will continue to develop in the future.

By now it is old news that we live in a digital culture: students know it, teachers know it, and the Internet knows it. In the twenty-first century, teaching the digital–whether we call it digital humanities, digital liberal arts, or other designations–has by necessity become a liberal art in the classical sense: a subject considered to be essential for participation in civic life. If digital culture now affects and even supplements our modern adaptations of the classical Trivium and Quadrivium, then we should continually work to understand the role of digital arts, media, and technologies for informing and positioning traditional liberal arts disciplines for success. What new questions can we ask, how do these questions open up new means of exploration, and how can we imaginatively implement such explorations? Liberal arts have long adapted to cultural shifts, and emergent digital culture is just one more point on this long timeline. We should recognize a natural space for digital culture related to classical liberal arts, which allows us to capitalize on the digital to help this long-standing tradition to flourish in a fresh way.

One analogous example of traditional liberal arts undergoing adaptation in the face of cultural developments is the rise of print practices during the early modern period. Like our own present moment, print technologies also ushered in an era of anxieties and refashioning approaches to learning. Yet print did not leave past values behind, even after culture’s acceptance of the new technology; scribal and print practices continue to coexist even up to our present time, as digital emerges. Studying the literary and historical past–for example, through digital repositories of manuscripts and early print documents–allows us to see these parallels, as well as to create discourses for dealing with similar developments. Working with digital repositories of media (both historical and contemporary), for instance, reveals new ways that liberal arts can intervene in major issues such as critique and public engagement–both of which should be central to our future endeavors.

Adapting the critical discourses of liberal arts in light of digital culture particularly manifests in the classroom. Student experiences of media (old and new) are often remediated by conceptions gleaned from first encounters through preliminary stops at digital hubs like Wikipedia. In fact, I regularly encourage such forays into Wikipedia to gain background understanding; in many ways, the introductory materials found there are replacements for headnotes in traditional literary anthologies. One useful classroom activity to come from this is the analysis of a Wikipedia page for a specific text, raising key questions: What is highlighted, what is omitted, and how can we critique resources that are so easily taken at face value? When encountered in this manner, digital media enacts a symbiosis with the investigative values embedded in traditional liberal arts, as the digital sparks new ways to teach critical hermeneutics.

In digital culture, critical engagement also has the capacity to move beyond the classroom to return scholarship to the public eye. The proliferation of academic uses of blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and the ever growing number of online social media platforms speaks to this adaptation of scholarship in public life. Digital culture enables scholars–teachers as well as students–to speak beyond the walls of academia; indeed, it may be said that popular digital culture itself demands this shift, as it increasingly permeates our lives. Such openness is commonly cited as being at the heart of digital scholarship, thus offering new possibilities for returning liberal arts disciplines to the public eye in ways that move perceptions away from rhetorics of crisis in order to create collaborative, imaginative, and diverse links between academic and popular discourses.

In effect, the success of traditional liberal arts in a digital era is a matter of allowing space for these two spheres of culture to inform each other mutually. This means not only adapting liberal arts to encompass digital culture but also critically and publicly participating in digital culture with liberal arts values in mind. The goal, then, is to pursue the interplay of past and present, tradition and innovation, in order to accommodate learning within the wider culture as it continues to change.

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