book of fabric samples resting on bright-red wood floor
25
Jun
2014

Humanists and Our Books, Pt. 2: Becoming Books

/
Written by
/
Reviewed by Adam Heidebrink-Bruno and Sean Michael Morris
//
sample book” by liz west; CC BY 2.0

On Tuesday, June 3, Hybrid Pedagogy released an announcement and CFP related to the first long-form project to be undertaken by Hybrid Pedagogy Publishing. Two weeks later, we launched a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo to underwrite the creation of an open-source, interactive, digital music theory textbook. Kris Shaffer and Robin Wharton are collaborating to guide Hybrid Pedagogy Publishing. Kris has discussed some of his ideas in two Hybrid Pedagogy pieces, The Critical Textbook and Open Source Scholarship. This is the second of a three-part series of 1000-word essays in which Robin offers her thoughts about books, humanities pedagogy, and the future of academic publishing.


I ended Part 1 with the questions: Why are reading and writing books central to the work of humanism? And what kinds of books, and what sort of editorial processes can be most useful for humanists as well as the humanities? Because I teach writing-intensive courses in an English department, some obvious answers present themselves. Books are proper and traditional objects of study in literature courses, and students should be trained to understand and reproduce dominant forms to participate in contemporary rhetorical processes.

I’m less-than-satisfied with these easy answers, however. That stems in part from my own rather vexed disciplinary affiliation. While I’m fortunate to be a full-time “lecturer in English,” starting this Fall, I’ve often found it useful to think of myself as a scholar working in the humanities. Further, although some students who attend my classes are English majors, many of them major in other disciplines, and for all of them, it’s essential to help them connect learning in my classes with what’s happening in their other courses and communities beyond the academy. Especially in first-year composition, an introduction to literary studies is also often an introduction to the humanities.

4Humanities and the UCL Centre for Digital Humanities offer this working definition as part of their “The Humanities Matter!” infographic (PDF): “The Humanities are academic disciplines that seek to understand and interpret human experience [. . .], engaging in the discovery, preservation, and communication of the past and present record to enable a deeper understanding of contemporary society.” Given the emphasis on interpretation, preservation, and communication, it’s obvious what reading and writing books contribute to the collective enterprise. The “past and present record” is preserved in books, and can be “discovered” in them. Further, “interpretation” often involves reading, and “communication” is, of course, linked to writing.

Yet, part of this definition’s utility lies in its inclusiveness of that greater part of the “past and present record” that cannot be discovered in books, those “interpretations” that cannot be communicated solely in alphabetic text and static images. In fact, the more I’ve considered what role books play in our quest “to understand and interpret human experience” the more convinced I have become the books we study have a tendency to become surrogates for the “past and present record” with which scholars and students alike are trying to engage through humanistic inquiry.

For example, we read The Riverside Chaucer, or The Norton Anthology of English Literature in our classes because the original textual record in which Chaucer’s work or “English literature” are preserved are inaccessible to the average undergraduate student — in all kinds of ways. As scholars, we understand any particular edition is usually one artifact in a long textual tradition, and we read attentive to how that tradition is represented — or misrepresented — in the collated text and editorial apparatus. For the most part, though, our students have not yet learned to see books — particularly textbooks — this way. Students may view the book as a commodity, a placeholder for value to be bought and resold. Books are full of information that can be extracted, memorized, and then traded — via the test or seminar paper — for grades.

Paging through modern editions of medieval texts I study, I am struck by the magnitude of the editor’s task: to recast the rich multimodality of manuscript culture into an ekphrasis of words and, if one is lucky, a few tantalizing images. I find myself longing for hyperlinks to the expanding collection of high-resolution digital images of medieval manuscripts that are freely available on the web. I imagine what it might be like to engage in an “immersive reading” of the text accompanied by a LibreVox recording of the Middle English. A digital edition could satiate these desires and many others. It might be a fragile, ephemeral thing compared to the high-quality print editions lining my shelves, but it could be incredibly useful while it lasted.

In addition to providing richer multimedia representations of their subject matter, as Kris Shaffer observes in the The Critical Textbook, “multi-authored, physically hackable, and legally alterable” editions or textbooks could empower students as makers of texts. Open source digital texts have the potential to blur the line between reading and writing as they become sites of student composition. Through annotating, remixing, re-transcribing, or re-writing the texts we study, students might acquire a better understanding of the processes through which the historical record, and thus history itself, are constructed. To imagine digital books is not just to re-think what books can be, what forms they might take; it is to reconsider what books might do for critical pedagogy, to ask — as Kris and I have been doing often of late — whether the book is really an interface.

The codex is an amazing technology — portable, durable, and surprisingly versatile. Even so, it has functional limitations that circumscribe what we can do with books in the classroom. Further, the regulatory structure that has accreted around print as a mode of book production is counter-productive and often openly hostile to critical digital pedagogy of the sort I practice in my courses. Like Kris, I see Hybrid Pedagogy Publishing as an opportunity to experiment with making digital books designed with critical pedagogy in mind. And while I would like to make digital books that are as durable as currently available technology allows, I also think we should entertain the possibility of making books that become obsolete as soon as their immediate critical pedagogical purpose is fulfilled. In addition to raising questions about what books are and what uses they have, a turn to the digital provides an opportunity to revisit questions about who gets to make books and how the labor of making books should be compensated. Embedded in the inevitable question, “But how are you going to make any money?” are assumptions about who gets paid, for what, and why. Examining and calling into question some of those assumptions will be the work of my final installment.

Add to the Conversation

Leave a Reply

Explore Related Articles from Hybrid Pedagogy