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From Text to Txting: New Media in the Classroom

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Literary scholars face a new and often baffling reality in the classroom: students spend more time looking at glowing screens than reading printed text. The social lives of these students take place in cyberspace instead of the student pub. Their favorite narratives exist in video games, not books. How do teachers who grew up in a different world engage these students without watering down pedagogy? Clint Burnham and Paul Budra have assembled a group of specialists in visual poetry, graphic novels, digital humanities, role-playing games, television studies, and, yes, even the middle-brow novel, to address this question. Contributors give a brief description of their subject, investigate how it confronts traditional notions of the literary, and ask what contemporary literary theory can illuminate about their text before explaining how their subject can be taught in the 21st-century classroom.

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1 Roll a D20 and the Author Dies / Paul Budra

ePub

PAUL BUDRA

Some years ago a friend of mine would drive downtown every Sunday afternoon to play Dungeons and Dragons. The “dungeonmaster,” the person running the game, was a professor of literature at a prestigious university. All the other players had at least one graduate degree, and several were doctors of law or literature. They would spend up to six hours at a time pretending to be elves, half-elves, gnomes, halflings, or exotic humans negotiating the complicated fantasy world that the dungeonmaster described. My friend played a “dark” elf, a character who, though both a warrior and a magic user, was shunned by the society in which she was raised and so fled to the woods to commune with animals. My friend is an animal lover in real life, and the characters the other participants played were often reflections of their own personalities or professions: for instance, the characters played by lawyers almost never chose to battle monsters; they would attempt to negotiate with them. All the players became deeply involved with their characters. It was not uncommon for a player to leave the game sobbing if her character “died” during the game. And sometimes it was difficult to return to reality when the game was over for the day. At the conclusion of one of these sessions, the band of characters that the participants were playing “found” a treasure of gold and exotic jewels, a pleasing conclusion to an imaginary adventure. But after the session had dispersed for the day, one of the players got in her car and thought to herself, “Thank God. Now I can pay the phone bill.”

 

2 Consider the Source: Critical Considerations of the Medium of Social Media / Kirsten C. Uszkalo and Darren James Harkness

ePub

KIRSTEN C. USZKALO AND
DARREN JAMES HARKNESS

In 2009 Iran blocked its citizens’ access to Twitter and Facebook in an attempt to quell social discord about its federal election. A Ryerson student was threatened in 2008 with suspension for cheating because of setting up a study group on Facebook. The U.S. Marine Corps has banned the use of Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter. New media studies, especially those concerned with social media environments, are investigating the constructions, roles, and effects of the media that are proliferating in the information age. The variety of social media available to those with high-speed internet connections means that those with an inclination can publish themselves online. These technologies do more than create a platform for speakers, however. The infrastructure and interface of social media influence how messages are created and sent. McLuhan couldn’t have been more prescient with his assertion that the medium is the message; for social media, the software is the message. There are myriad social media platforms available, but this chapter will concentrate on the interfaces of three of the most widely used in North America: blogs, Twitter, and Facebook. Moreover, we will look at how the infrastructures behind the interfaces themselves construct, normalize, and proliferate the public images of the speaker. The technologies that run under the hood of popular social media help create and distribute online selves, cobble together communities, and share sound bites and narratives. A study of new texts on the boundaries of literature must consider the ways in which the medium creates the message. The interface defines new social media.

 

3 Voice of the Gutter: Comics in the Academy / Tanis MacDonald

ePub

TANIS MACDONALD

 

In none of the books on comics I have looked into . . . have I come on any real attempt to understand comic books: to define the form, midway between icon and story; to distinguish the subtypes. . . . It would not take someone with the talents of an Aristotle, but merely with his method, to ask the rewarding questions about this kind of literature that he once asked about an equally popular and bloody genre: what are its causes and its natural form?

LESLIE FIEDLER, “THE MIDDLE AGAINST BOTH ENDS”

 

[C]omics are a wandering variable, and can be approached from many perspectives. The restless, polysemiotic character of the form allows for the continual rewriting of its grammar; each succeeding page need not function in the exact same way as its predecessor. The relationship between the various elements of comics (images, words, symbols) resists easy formulation. The critical reading of comics . . . involves a tug-of-war between conflicting impulses: on the one hand, the nigh-on irresistible urge to codify the workings of the form; on the other, a continual delight in the form’s ability to frustrate any airtight analytical scheme.

 

4 Television: The Extraliterary Device / Daniel Keyes

ePub

DANIEL KEYES

Literary studies’ extension from the study of printed texts into the study of screen culture is consistent with literary studies’ analysis of how dramatic texts become theatrical events. The stakes for literary studies to consider screen culture as part of the extraliterary devices are consistent with the need to use criticism to excavate how screen culture reshapes our collective life world. As Raymond Williams in “The Analysis of Culture” so elegantly asserts:

 

One generation may train its successor, with reasonable success, in the social character or the general cultural pattern, but the new generation will have its own structure of feeling,1 which will not appear to have come “from” anywhere. . . . the new generation responds in its own ways to the unique world it is inheriting, taking up many continuities, that can be traced, and reproducing many aspects of the organization, which can be separately described, yet feeling its whole life in certain ways differently, and shaping its creative response into a new structure of feeling. (37)

 

5 Hypertext in the Attic: The Past, Present, and Future of Digital Writing / Andreas Kitzmann

ePub

ANDREAS KITZMANN

In a recent expedition through my attic I stumbled (literally) upon my old Macintosh Classic computer. Curious and in dire need of some extended procrastination, I hauled the squat cube out of its box, set it on my desk, and plugged it in. After a lengthy period of whirring and clicking, the smiling Macintosh icon finally emerged on the tiny black-and-white screen. Given that this old computer had its primary use during my days as a graduate student, the contents were predictable enough – the usual assortment of overwrought fiction, the odd poem, goofy computer games, hastily written graduate papers, dubious freeware, and my Ph.D. dissertation, both in its final form and its numerous incarnations. What caught my eye in particular, however, was a folder labeled “hypertext fiction.” Back in the day, which is to say the early 1990s, this folder represented in many ways the future promise of computer technology at its hyperbolic best. In that folder were the seeds of a veritable revolution, where the old traditions that guided written expression for centuries were to give way to a world of infinite possibility, variability, and unrestrained creativity. Written by daring pioneers of an emerging art form, the various authors were leading the charge to bring about the end of the printed book and replace it with a mode of expression that was joyously nonlinear and free to cross as many boundaries as the ever-increasing powers of the computer were making possible.

 

6 The ABCs of Viewing: Material Poetics and the Literary Screen / Philip A. Klobucar

ePub

PHILIP A. KLOBUCAR

 

My software did this to me.

CHRISTOPHER T. FUNKHOUSER, 2009

To date, relatively few analyses of the screen as an aesthetic form in its own right have been produced. Critiques of web design and interface usability maintain strong historical attachments to print and typographic disciplines, conceiving electronic communication as page- and document-based. The very term “screen” continues to prioritize the cinematic arts, often implying, whether intended or not, that the methods and ideas of film criticism are equally applicable to current programmable writing practices on the computer. However, as an increasing number of visual culture historians and film theorists realize, the screen as art object invites an increasingly wide array of cultural analyses, corresponding to the medium’s growing significance as both a mode of social interface and knowledge construction. Such developments, cinema theorist Haidee Wassan points out, tend to be addressed within film studies through critical explorations of malleability and multiplicity – metaphors, in other words, “wherein screens are reconceptualised as windows that shrink and expand on cue” (74). As a formative attribute influencing how the screen work is to be engaged, perhaps even interpreted, physical dimension, for Wassan, contributes to an effective materialist schema, according to which various traditional approaches to film-based media can be interrogated over a greater number of cultural contexts. As video emerges in newly consumable formats via devices and environments as divergent as Jumbotrons perched high above freeways and cell phones and iPads clutched in crowded subway cars, no single mode of usage seems dominant. How is it possible, Wassan asks, for traditional methods of film criticism to account accurately for this radical shift in the medium itself?

 

7 “Let the Rhythm Hit ’Em”: Hip-Hop, Prosody, and Meaning / Alessandro Porco

ePub

ALESSANDRO PORCO

Hip-hop emerged in the South Bronx during the mid-1970s, the confluence of individual ingenuity (Grandmaster Flash developing his Quick Mix theory), diasporic flow from the Caribbean (DJ Kool Herc’s sound system, dance-hall toasting), African American vernacular traditions (signifyin’, the dozens, ballads), popular American music (funk, soul, rock, disco), a local party and club circuit (Audubon Theatre, Harlem World, T-Connection), and economic and educational policies that transformed urban spaces into post-industrial wastelands.1 Four elements constituted hip-hop culture: DJing, MCing, tagging, and break-dancing. Interactions between the four elements produced what Greg Dimitriadis describes as “multitiered event[s] . . . dependent on a whole series of artistic activities and competencies” (16). These events ranged from block parties – where, like in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, DJs siphoned power from streetlights into booming Jamaican sound systems, and this radical détournement of city energy enabled a sonic reclamation of public space as a positive, communal place for dance – to more intimate, antiphonal ciphers performed by MCs in local parks and, soon after, at shows in New York City venues, both uptown and downtown. Graffiti tags appeared across New York’s cityscape, most notably on subway trains, as commuting traces of disillusioned African American and Latino youth. B-boy dance crews participated in simulated battle, their popping and uprocking expanding and expending the martial body’s physis. With their sidekick MCs, pioneering hip-hop DJs, such as Kool Herc, Grand Wizzard Theodore, Grandmaster Flash, and Afrika Bambaataa, provided the soundtrack for the scene: “I’d throw on the Pink Panther theme for everybody . . . , and then I would play ‘Honky Tonk Woman’ by the Rolling Stones and just keep that beat going. I’d play something from metal rock records like Grand Funk Railroad. . . . I’d throw on ‘Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ – just that drum part” (Bambaataa qtd. in Perkins 9). The break-beats and wildstyle mixes of early DJ-centric hip-hop had a simple goal: make people dance.

 

8 Thinking Inside the Box: A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of Television Studies / C. W. Marshall and Tiffany Potter

ePub

C. W. MARSHALL AND TIFFANY POTTER

There is a widespread sense that popular media are consumed by people with inadequate education and no ideas of their own: “the young, the ignorant, and the idle.” Social conservatives argue for the “danger” of media that engage in “scandal” and “smuttiness” that “in effect degrade human nature.” Given, however, that the first quotation is from Samuel Johnson’s 1750 discussion of the new genre of the English novel, and the second from Jeremy Collier’s 1698 attack on popular theatrical productions,1 modern objections to television’s supposed frivolousness seem rather benign. Every new art form seems to struggle first with early perceptions of its failure to live up to the standards of existing forms, and then with arguments that excessive attention to such forms will contribute to the lowering of intellectual and social standards.

As J. Paul Hunter notes of the early novel, “[L]iterary protectionists had, early on, begun to worry about competition from the popular culture that novels represented” (26). That protectionism continues with a vengeance in many academic institutions. This chapter will argue that television occupies a similar place in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries: a narrative experience shared by people of all classes and domestic geographies (and often international ones too, in the case of American television). Janet Wasko is right when she asserts that television is “a storyteller, if not THE storyteller for [our] society. . . . television inevitably is a fund of values, ideals, morals, and ethical standards. In other words, television is an ideological source that cannot be overlooked in modern societies” (3). Less convincing, however, is her repetition of old arguments that offer justification of the medium as a stepping-stone to ostensibly real literature: “Despite disparaging comments about television’s impact on print culture, some would point out that TV may serve as a catalyst for reading, as viewers may follow up on TV programs by getting books on the same subjects or reading authors whose work was adapted for the programs” (4). This perspective on television (“The more you know . . .”) denies television’s centrality as cultural discourse, rendering it secondary to print even in the introduction to a book titled A Companion to Television. Our interest in this chapter is not to pursue the reductive question “Is television literature?” It is, rather, to establish that methodologies of literary studies can be used to illuminate televisual narrative, and thus that television is a mode that contributes powerfully to the long history of the description and recreation of culture for audience consumption.

 

9 Middlebrow Lit and the End of Postmodernism / Clint Burnham

ePub

CLINT BURNHAM

The death by suicide of American novelist David Foster Wallace in the fall of 2008 had a resonance that went beyond the eerie similarity between his great theme of sadness and the crippling depression from which he suffered. Wallace – the author of the mammoth Infinite Jest, over a thousand pages long, including over a hundred pages of footnotes – was arguably the last postmodernist, the last experimental fiction writer in American or Anglo American literature. I do not mean there were not others, that there are not others, but Wallace’s death can be seen – must be seen – as the end of experimentalism.1 Which is to say that twentieth-century literary modernism – running from the minimalism of Mansfield and the exuberance of Joyce and the vernacular of Hurston to the silences of Beckett and the plots of Barth and the verbosity of Gaddis and the punk of Acker – has finally come to a shuddering halt. And the second “proof” of this ending – the subject proper of this chapter – is how it has been coming for a while, how the decline since the 1970s of formal innovation in general, in the novel, in fiction, has come to be the status quo of what constitutes literature.

 

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