Like many, my relationship towards digital technology has been one of both great anxiety and great excitement. The spectrum of this bipolar attitude is perhaps nowhere better demonstrated than in my home department. In the field of English we have those who are blazing academic trails in the wilds of the world wide web to great acclaim. But we also have those who still pretend they don’t own a cellphone, shrivel their noses at the mention of Facebook, and are probably even the tiniest ashamed about conducting their work on Microsoft Word rather than with the ascetic’s pen and paper. Their attitude, too, I must admit, earns much of my respect. But after my own attempt at rejecting all the daily goods of digital technology (an old job had burnt me on the Internet and the strange frazzled string– I feared — it was making out of my mind), I realized such Luddite extremism was not only impractical and personally-detrimental, but was justified — at least for me — on assumptions that made little sense. The print culture that had shaped my tastes and values after all, was just as historically contingent and man made as the culture evolving from the digital revolution.
Thus my new challenge became not fighting the tide of digital technology from a little off-the-grid hut in upstate New York, but trying to make sense of it and figure out the best practices for living, learning and making community under its powerful sway. I joined the English department at the Graduate Center in 2011 in order to put the anxieties and excitements of digital culture under the microscope. It was a happy surprise, therefore, to get the opportunity to explore these questions at a practical level as a Digital Fellow. No amount of theorizing about digital technology and its application to education matters if one does not confront the fact that its relative newness means there are still great barriers to entry. The first barrier is figuring out among an overwhelming set of options what digital tools are worth one’s time and attention. The second barrier is gaining proficiency in said tools, which can be as nerve-wracking as it is exciting. Crossing these barriers, while remaining engaged with one’s original work, can be near impossible and so it’s not surprising that there are many who avoid the digital realm at all costs. But, if we’re ever to learn the true potential of these tools we need people and institutions to invest time, resources and patience into exploring their potential without expectation that they immediately reveal their true worth.
So, instead of just theorizing about how digital technology might be applied to education I now have a chance to learn firsthand exactly what kind of work it takes to do so. And boy, it takes work! Just hacking a Word Press blog to meet the needs of a scholar or scholarly organization can take longer than one thinks. When it takes three hours to finally get one little box to show up right on a web page (three hours one could have used to read half a book!) one might start dreaming of log cabins and power outages. But it’s this sort of hands-on experience that has really got me thinking about how powerful the tools are that we have before us, and how we’re only just beginning to learn what we can do with them. Personally, I still think that the most powerful asset of digital technology is really only an intensification of print culture’s most powerful asset — that is, communication. As this year progresses I’d like to think about using digital tools to share and collaborate on work in increasingly specific ways. Ultimately, I think, the true success of the Digital Initiatives, both here at the GC and at large, will be determined by whether scholars — not just “digital scholars” — become so familiar with these new digital tools, that we no longer think of them as “digital,” but simply as the most useful, practical and enriching way of conducting one’s work.