Should MLA members be experts in electronic environments?

Alex Reid has a typically thoughtful post this morning on the MLA’s recent white paper on the undergraduate major in language and literature.  There is something a bit embarrassing about the MLA’s assertion that competencies in reading and writing translate easily across different media and domains of discourse, and Reid does a good job unpacking this without devolving into snark.

I do think he lets MLA members off too easily, though:

And I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with the fact that MLA members are not experts in electronic environments. MLA members don’t need to have a special interest or facility with electronic environments. That’s not what we hire them for and it’s not what we educate them to do in graduate school. Some might have these interests; obviously I think the study of media networks ought to be a part of English studies; but it ought not to be a requirement of everyone! Nor should every MLA scholar or MLA in general necessarily think that their work needs to meet this goal of networked media literacy.

It is true that it would be overkill for everyone to take media networks as the object of their research.  And it’s also true that, right now, we don’t train people to do this in graduate school.  But I think it would also be fair to say faculty members and graduate students need to be far more adept than they generally are at using networked media as part of their research and teaching.  Jo Guldi’s recent meditations on what a networked scholarly journal might look like are relevant:

In going web 2.0, journals have the ability to mesh their publications with tools that will allow readers to better integrate journal essays with the rest of their research. A scholar using zotero and jstor can download the article pdf and the citation, ready for use in footnote. Web 2.0 journals will go further into this zone: a scholar using zotero, jstor, google scholar, and delicious can instantaneously find other scholars’ opinions of a particular article, the names of the disciplines and sub-disciplines they think it applies to best, and other articles of similar note to that particular scholar.

Think about how far we still have to go to get a critical mass of faculty and graduate students who can read this paragraph.  Zotero and delicious are well beyond the range of reference of most people I talk to, for instance. And yet, I would argue that if one’s not familiar with tools such as these, then it will only get harder to do research–no matter what your area of expertise. It’s not that I think everyone must use *these* tools in particular (maybe you’re all about Diigo), but the process of figuring out what they offer, and whether you can better achieve those goals with something else, seems critical.

Likewise with teaching.  I don’t think every single class *must* have a wiki, blog, and SIMILE-backed timeline–if they did, for instance, I’d have to find a different way to differentiate myself, which would seem like work.  But I do think that faculty should be rejecting these tools, when they do, for reasons other than, “oh, I don’t understand that.”  Or, “that’s not supported in Blackboard.”  Pedagogical literacy anymore demands that faculty have a certain expertise with technology so that they can make informed decisions about how best to organize and run their classes–even when those classes don’t have a technology component.

People are busy, so I’m not really suggesting that faculty members should retrain.  (Although maybe they should!  It’s not hard to learn Zotero, or wikis, or whatever.)  But looking forward, it seems clear that both undergraduate and graduate education need to reflect in a more sophisticated way about the varying kinds of technologies we use (or don’t).

This entry was posted in education, English major, higher education, mla, teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.