Tuesday, February 5, 2013

New media studies and self disclosure: some questions

Something I’ve noticed from my first New Media Genres graduate seminar this year: in the class introductions there was an abundance of really personal information—informal, private, embarrassing. There were identity disclosures related to sexuality. There were confessions. There were fans. There were passionate doubters. Some polemicizing. I made a joke about how everyone really needed group therapy more than a graduate seminar.

But the joke reveals something important, I think – just like when Linda Warley and I were teaching the Writing the Self Online graduate course, I discover that (like studying auto/biography) studying new media, because it involves using / doing / creating new media both produces passion as a byproduct of research, and then compels the disclosure of this passion in the work. Mommy blogs. Antonio Banderas fan fiction. Pottermore. Anti-Twilight memes. Gay dating / hookup sites. Bikini photos and Google searches that never go away. Due South. LOLcats. Food porn.

Are researchers in a/b studies a little prone to incorporating their own a/b into their work? Yup. It’s probably because they are hyper-aware of the grounding of most narratives in the self, and the grounding of the self, provisionally always, in shifting and competiting narratives, overlapping with and constituting our shared histories. I have noticed that work in this field often blends the practice of life writing with the theorizing of same.

Are researchers in new media studies a little prone to informality, shorthand, fannish expression, multimodal communication practices? And do they root a lot of their work in their own experiences and thus seem to write a lot about themselves? Yeah. It's true in my own work on personal mommy blogging for example--and the piece I've linked, tellingly, found its home in the journal Biography.

Is this a bug, or is it a feature?

I mean, when suchlike happens in a literary classroom it is called the Oprah’s Book Club problem: I don’t care if this novel brought up some long-simmering issue from your childhood and you couldn’t bring yourself to read the ending because the middle made you cry for three days. We may want to study the means by which emotional reactions are brought about. We may want to study some audience effects on a larger scale (Janice Radway and the reading of Reading the Romance) but mostly, that audience is not understood to be the critic doing the critiquing. Identity politics is for cultural studies, not usually for literary reading. (I’m exaggerating, but this is by and large conventional, if not everywhere or in all circumstances or niche endeavours.)

So new media researchers housed in English may well be at some kind of disadvantage because they have to be so personal and so Oprah’s-Book-Club in their own work: it breaches disciplinary standards of critical distance, the focus on form. This is again similar to some of the difficulties faced by auto/biography scholars, at least historically: there is assumed to be no art in the recitation of the facts of a life—nothing to interpret, and so no fit focus for a real academic.

It seems we cannot study new objects—new media, auto/biography writ broad—without fundamentally altering scholarly practices in English (and perhaps elsewhere), challenging values. Even if someone is rooted firmly in the prior art (getting a PhD in English, examining standard literary materials [what a funny, telling locution!]) a serious move into new objects of study seems to inevitably entail a radical shift in perspective, in practice. We are moving from new criticism and its sole focus on the text, to all the flavours of post structuralism and theory that focused on structural questions and power, to ... what has been termed participant ethnography and from there a squishier kind of content analysis based on our own expertise in the "communities" whose texts we are examining?

That’s research--but what about my class? As for how the classroom changes, it seems to me that like in the theory wars (and the focus on race/class/gender and the move toward cultural studies) teachers and students are a lot more exposed as thinking, feeling, variously-positioned subjects. This makes us all vulnerable, and may call for a new kind of teaching practice, a sensitivity and a willingness to make a safe space, somehow.