On Openness and Interdisciplinarity

One of the bugaboos troubling the discussion of openness at MLA11 has been the question of whether making one’s work available via social media does anything to raise the profile of the (digital) humanities on and/or beyond campus.

Maybe it does and maybe it doesn’t. Or, as Samuel Cohen (reported by Tim Welsh) put it in the MLA11 panel on the Open Professoriate (#openprof): is Newt Gingrich going to read your blog? That is, a blog or a Twitter stream does not turn a specialist into a public intellectual. But it can be a first step.

This winter term I am the Ernest G. Moll Fellow in Literary Studies at the Oregon Humanities Center. In the interest of outreach for the Humanities, OHC fellows agree to give a public interest talk related to their discipline. Most fellows do so at the local Osher Center for Lifelong Learning, or perhaps at a local High School or the Public Library.

This year I proposed a digital alternative that would not be limited to a specific time or place, whose audience might extend beyond a handful of bodies assembled in a room in downtown Eugene. I figured that a blog or a series of slidecasts might reach beyond my campus and local community.

I tried something similar last year when I posted a slidecast of a talk I gave on Ladino Literature at Temple Beth Israel in Eugene. About eleven people attended the live lecture. I don’t want to imply that listening to a slidecast on a computer provides the same experience as attending a live lecture, but the numbers are clear: as of today the slidecast has 1022 views and has been downloaded 15 times. Not very high absolute numbers for the internet, but they represent a considerable gain over the live attendance by any metric.

Social-media enabled openness can also increase communication across disciplines, or in the case of the MLA, across subfields of a broad discipline. My own research is on medieval Iberian and Sephardic culture. As I followed the #MLA11 twitterstorm I was working on a poem by a 13th-century Hispano-Hebrew writer named Todros Abulafia.

In my academic work I read mostly within my own disciplines and related fields: medieval and early modern studies, Hispanic and Latino studies, Jewish studies, linguistics and some fairly canonical critical theory. I do not generally come across eco-criticism or critical code studies. Following #MLA11, and most importantly because colleagues presenting at the MLA had posted copies of their papers online, I was able to read emergent work at the bleeding edge of our field long before it reached publication. Openness is what allowed this to happen.

This has real implications for sparking interdisciplinary discussion and critical work that goes far beyond the gee-whiz novelty factor that attracts criticism and generates skepticism. Or, to quote Erin Templeton’s remarks from the Open Professoriate panel:

How open can something like Twitter be if it is filled with people who always already share (more or less) the same perspectives and ideas? Where does difference come from?

Here is one example of difference, albeit one within the field of critical literary and cultural studies (broadly writ). This morning I read Mark Sample’s paper on Sim City. Though I had heard of Ian Bogost and had read some of his blog entries on openness, I had never read any of his ideas on procedural logic in video games. Sample’s essay (a fine piece of humanism if you ask me) sparked in me a series of insights about the procedural logic of the chivalric novel Amadís de Gaula (Spain, 1507), which students of mine have described as “a video game.” From there I began thinking about how print technology might have helped to shape the narrative of Amadís in its transformation from medieval manuscript into early modern bestseller (and eventually, into Cervantes’ running gag in Don Quijote).

Eventually, I will be turning my critical lens onto a 16th-century Hebrew translation of Amadís published in Constantinople, and thanks to twitter and the Open Professors out there, I will be bringing Erin, Mark, Ian, and a few other new ‘friends’ with me. And whatever results from that discussion will also be posted as the texts of talks, and slides, and tweets.

Newt Gingrich will probably not read any of it, but colleagues, students, twitter and facebook followers, and a fuzzy cloud of keyword searchers will. And perhaps more importantly, in communicating my own ideas to this (imagined) general public, I am forced to think about my work —and the humanities in general— in terms of its value for a community that reaches far beyond my campus or discipline.