A New Media Scholar’s Dilemma

For a grad­u­ate stu­dent in an Eng­lish Ph.D. pro­gram, one of the big mile­stones on the road to the dis­ser­ta­tion is the Oral Exam. In my case this involves five pro­fes­sors, a list of 60–80 books, and two hours in a (rhetor­i­cal­ly) smoke-filled room. Since I’m work­ing on con­tem­po­rary lit­er­a­ture and new media, one of the chal­lenges I have to deal with is how to address nov­els, films, tele­vi­sion shows, video games and more as part of the same “list.” How does one put these things togeth­er? How can a video game be read as a text along­side Gravity’s Rain­bow or Brave New World?

One way to approach this ques­tion is to include the work of lit­er­ary and cul­tur­al crit­ics who are already look­ing at new and tra­di­tion­al media side by side. Fol­low­ing that line, I try to keep up with the aca­d­e­m­ic blog Grand Text Auto, which cov­ers “com­put­er nar­ra­tive, games, poet­ry and art.” One of its con­trib­u­tors, Noah Wardrip-Fru­in, is work­ing on a book about dig­i­tal fic­tions and com­put­er games that looks per­fect for my Orals list—and he’s pub­lish­ing it, chap­ter by chap­ter, on Grand Text Auto for blog-based peer review. It will come out next year with MIT Press, but for now, it’s a work in progress.

All fine so far—I could list it as “forth­com­ing” and direct my pro­fes­sors to the link. But what hap­pens when I start com­ment­ing on this book as I read it? What are we to do with the knowl­edge that this “text” will most like­ly change between now and next year? Does this item on my Orals list sig­ni­fy a draft of the book, the blog and its com­ments, or the expe­ri­ence of read­ing and writ­ing into the MS myself (includ­ing, per­haps, respons­es from the author)?

I find the dilem­ma par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ing because it touch­es on a cen­tral con­flict in human­i­ties schol­ar­ship. Are we pas­sive observers of the lit­er­ary scene or active par­tic­i­pants in it? It’s a rare aca­d­e­m­ic crit­ic who thinks of call­ing up a poet to ask her what she meant in a par­tic­u­lar line, but that’s exact­ly the kind of con­nec­tion that our hyper-con­scious, dig­i­tal­ly medi­at­ed world offers up.

P.S. After all of this hand-wring­ing, it’s obvi­ous I’m not going to have time to read Noah’s book before I take my exam, so it’s off the list. But I can’t wait to dig in next month!

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  • Jenny says:

    “As a grad­u­ate stu­dent in an Eng­lish PhD program,“the author should be able to catch and cor­rect a dan­gling mod­i­fi­er when he com­mits one, espe­cial­ly in his first sen­tence. I did­n’t read on.

  • Ed Finn says:

    Ouch! So much for try­ing to hit a col­lo­qui­al tone. Point tak­en, Jenny–I’ve fixed the sen­tence. I’m not as dumb as that made me look, I promise.

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