Humanities Accessed

Here’s my contribution to Josh Eyler’s “Disability Studies and the Digital Humanities (A Roundtable)”:

I want to begin this short presentation with a note of annoyance. For a little while now, every few weeks or so one of my friends posts an article on Facebook about a study concerning student note-taking. You know the one. Studies have confirmed, it would seem, that the pen has slain the keyboard. One such article from begins “When it comes to taking notes, the old-fashioned way might be best.” I will come back to this old-fashionedness in a moment. The article then goes on to say “People taking notes on laptops have a shallower grasp of a subject than people writing with their hands, and not just because laptops distract users with other activities such as web surfing, the new study suggests.” I am not a scientist, so I am not going to challenge the ultimate findings of this recent study. Nor do I dispute it. What has me so irritated, though, is the often triumphant (explicit or implicit) attitude on display when people post such articles. There is often a sense of relief, or of “I told you so.” I understand the nostalgia people feel for physical books and for pen and paper. There is enormous pleasure to be had in the tactile engagement with such storehouses of knowledge. The only problem, however, is that I am often excluded from such pleasures. A book sitting on my shelf in my office might as well be a continent anyway.

The short articles that I often see posted on the subject focus on the superiority of oldfashioned technologies versus newer digital tools. However, and unsurprisingly, looking at the actual study that spawned these articles tells a slightly different tale. In the most recent issue of Psychological Science, Pam A. Mueller and Daniel M. Oppenheimer, in an article called “The Pen is Mightier than the Keyboard,” conclude that students taking notes longhand do better in terms of knowledge retention than their laptop using peers, even when the distracting qualities of web surfing and other forms of multitasking are controlled for. The difference, perhaps counterintuitively, is that laptop users can record information faster. Because of this, they tend to transcribe almost verbatim what they hear, and this becomes a mindless task. Longhand notetakers, on the other hand, must be selective, and therefore end up processing information better. As Mueller and Oppenheimer state at the close of their article, “Although more notes are beneficial, at least to a point, if the notes are taken indiscriminately or by mindlessly transcribing content, as is more likely the case on a laptop than when notes are taken longhand, the benefit disappears.”

Now, I must admit to being somewhat unfair at the start of this presentation. Not everyone who recently posted this article, or variations of it, were doing so in the hopes of validating their own technological preferences. (This is especially true of anyone in the room who I am friends with on some platform or another.) And, I should note that the initial link that I began discussing does note, albeit at the very end of the article, that the issue is how information is processed and not the actual tool being used. What I take issue with is the title of the original article (“The Pen is Mightier Than the Keyboard”) and the link’s reference to “old-fashioned.” The real heft of the original study focuses on information processing, but the advertising focuses on a binary between new and old, between the physical and the digital.

In thinking about note taking, and the role of digital tools in this activity, I am not strictly speaking yet about digital humanities. Nor do I want to necessarily get into the debate of what exactly the digital humanities constitutes. Briefly, I prefer to think of digital humanities as a landscape without boundaries. I borrow the term landscape from Patrik Svensson, who charted five modes of engagement for digital humanities: “as a tool, an object of study, an exploratory laboratory, an expressive medium and an activist venue.”* Of these, I am most interested in digital humanities as an expressive medium, but more to the point, I’m interested in the ways that the digital enables freer flows of information, reconstituting and reconceptualizing what we think of as knowledge and authorship in the process. When someone suggests that the “old-fashioned” is best, they are not only professing a preference for physical book over a Kindle or ipad, but they are also revealing an anxiety about or suspicion toward the unavoidable ramifications of the digitization of knowledge.

This embrace of the “old-fashioned” is certainly not a recent trend, and maybe because I recently taught this text, this all reminds me powerfully of the Egyptian myth in Plato’s Phaedrus. Most of you, I am sure, are familiar with the story where one of the Egyptian gods brings his great invention, that of writing, to the King. How crestfallen the inventor must have been when the King, in a sagely and somewhat patronizing tone, tells him that the discovery of writing is nothing more than an aide to forgetting. The old ways are, in fact, best. Never mind that this critique of writing is occurring in a dialogue written by Plato, and that without this dialogue we would likely not know about this exchange. This encounter between past and present, and between two radically different seeming technologies is playing out again, and again. To find our modern-day Phaedrus we might look no further than a recent article in The New Republic by Adam Kirsch, called “Technology Is Taking Over English Departments: The False Promise of the Digital Humanities.” Never mind that I read this piece because it is posted to the magazine’s website.

After surveying and critiquing (sometimes justifiably) the triumphant tone that often accompanies Digital Humanities, Kirsch offers the following appraisal in his next-to-last paragraph: “The best thing that the humanities could do at this moment, then, is not to embrace the momentum of the digital, the tech tsunami, but to resist it and to critique it. This is not Luddism; it is intellectual responsibility. Is it actually true that reading online is an adequate substitute for reading on paper? If not, perhaps we should not be concentrating on digitizing our books but on preserving and circulating them more effectively. Are images able to do the work of a complex discourse? If not, and reasoning is irreducibly linguistic, then it would be a grave mistake to move writing away from the center of a humanities education.” There are many things going on here for Kirsch. One is certainly a nostalgic embrace of the old-fashioned, veiled in the trappings of “intellectual responsibility.” More troubling to me, however, is the insistent refusal to engage with questions of accessibility. We can curate books and circulate them more, but does that always help the physically disabled? And, aside from the alarmist notion that writing is going to be removed from the humanities curriculum, what about the fact that multimodal objects may be a great help to some students who process information differently, and therefore feel excluded by linguistic only expression. Within his nostalgic move he also expresses a normate position, thinking that we all learn, process, and engage the world in the same way. What is good for Kirsch is good, apparently, for the rest of us.

As a corrective to the retreat to the “old-fashioned” Humanities, I look to George Williams’s essay “Disability, Universal Design, and the Digital Humanities,” where he observes that “Digital knowledge tools that assume everyone approaches information with the same abilities and using the same methods risk excluding a large percentage of people. In fact, such tools actually do the work of disabling people by preventing them from using digital resources altogether.” He then goes on to argue that “We must broaden our understanding of the ways in which people use digital resources” (Williams). I would extend his conclusions here to say that we should not assume that everyone approaches information, be that digital or print, in the same way. To do so, as Kirsch does, excludes so many and enforces an expectation of normalcy. What I would like to call for is a dismodern Humanities. I take the phrase “dismodern” from Lennard Davis, who argues (in his book Bending Over Backwards) that we are all incomplete or disabled: “As the quadriplegic is incomplete without the motorized wheelchair and the controls of manipulated by the mouth or tongue, so the citizen is incomplete without information technology, protective legislation, and globalized forms of securing order and peace” (30). We are not self-sovereign, in either our minds or our bodies. We are all interdependent. One of the many reasons that I find this notion of dismodernism so compelling, and what I find generally provocative about Disability Studies, is that it carries with it an imperative to engage. We must engage with the world, with our neighbors, with the people next to us, with the technologies at hand and with the information available. Only in doing so, by engaging, can we become complete.

The self-satisfaction of retreating from the Digital signals not engagement, but a refusal. It closes off knowledge, and despite the nod towards greater circulation, the networks become difficult to navigate. I am certainly not suggesting that we need to do away with books, or that we need turn the Humanities into something abject, in favor of the Digital. Instead, I am just growing weary of the binary between past and present, new and old, normal and different. To recast this binary thinking, I will take one more cue from Davis. He rather famously argued that handicap parking is not a subset of regular parking, but rather the other way around. Regular parking is a subset of handicap parking. With this in mind, I want to argue that all issues of access in terms of information and the Humanities are a subset of issues of disability access. Open Access and net neutrality are not separate issues from universal design; rather, in the mode of a dismodern Humanities, these concerns and defining values of DH are a subset of the call for universal access.

*Patrick Svensson, “The Landscape of the Digital Humanities,” DHQ: Digital Humanities Quarterly 4.1 (2010)


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