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Writing in the Digital Generation: Essays on New Media Rhetoric
edited by Heather Urbanski
McFarland, 278 pages

Writing in the Digital Generation
Heather Urbanski
Heather Urbanski is an Assistant Professor of English and Director of Composition at Central Connecticut State University, in New Britain, Connecticut.

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Past Feature Reviews
A review by Seamus Sweeney

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The dedication of this volume reads "this book began in science fiction and fantasy fandom and so is dedicated to all those in that community." This is an intriguing set of academic essays on writing in the digital generation. One of the familiar tropes of declinist narratives of a lost golden age of the humanities is that writing and reading are in decline. Radio, television, the cinema, the internet -- all were supposed to kill off the written word. What has really happened is that a whole new arena for writing has been opened up to a mass writership. As Steven Johnson wrote in Everything Bad Is Good For You, the medium that has most to fear from the internet is television, and as has become clearer since, the internet's plethora of fora, blogs, wikis and chatrooms seems largely devoted to old style "real world" art and entertainment, rather than the creation of utterly new forms. Of course, "devoted" in this case does not imply an inert reflection, or a worshipful discussion, but a moulding into something entirely new.

Academics who wish to approach the exciting worlds of underground or alternative culture are often caught in a bind. They wish to retain the rigour and analytical stance of the academy (and, one could more cynically add, the tendency to jargon and verbiage), while nevertheless appearing comfortable in a protean world of shifting identities where credibility is king. The academic humanities are increasingly (some might say at times boringly) focused on exploring the liminal, the radical, the transgressive -- and yet the discourse of the academy can sometimes seem to drain what it considers of passion, of colour, of interest.

Heather Urbanski, assistant professor of English and director of composition at Central Connecticut State University, has edited a book that generally manages to remain engaging and engaged with its subject matter, while exhibiting scholarly rigour. In her essay, "Dean, Mal and Snape Walk Into A Bar: Lessons in Crossing Over," Julie Flynn writes "I find it difficult, if not impossible, to divorce my fannish and scholarly selves. Both worlds color the way I read any given text and each sphere influences the way I act in the other. The larger community that is Fandom, as opposed to one small fandom centered on a particular narrative, provides a way to consume narrative that incorporates unique rhetorical and exegetical strategies." Leaving aside my distaste for the phrase "consuming narrative," this passage provides an introduction to a theme of the essays -- the possible use of the techniques of Fandom in analytical and educational contexts.

Thus in Susanna Coleman's "Making Our Voices Heard: Young Adult Females Writing Participatory Fan Fiction," we read that "by applying these strategies of participation and interruption in the classroom, students (and instructors) can both better comprehend assigned texts and make their own voices heard regarding academic writing." Coleman uses a fanfic by Madam Luna based on a Japanese video game series called Pop'n'Music to illustrate and explore these strategies. Fanfic, and particular slashfic, is of great interest to many contributors, and it seems in the fields of rhetoric and composition in general. Their interest in particular in women's slashfic, is seen as a way of subverting heteronormative narratives of romance (to coin a phrase). The book ranges beyond science fiction and fantasy fandom, and one essay I found particularly interesting was Michael R. Trice's "Going Deep: What Online Sports Culture Teaches Us About the Rhetorical Future of Social Networks." I never realised that Google produces more hits for "Sports" than for "Politics" and "Sex" combined.

I would have welcomed more dissenting voices amidst the general cheerleading for the digital age. Perhaps some of this is my old fashioned, possibly quite patriarchal and Eurocentric and so forth suspicions that fanfics about Pop'n'Music may not quite be the zenith of global literature. However, there are more serious points to be made. In her introduction, Urbanski acknowledges the challenge posed by Siva Vaidhyanathan to the whole concept of a digital generation. Even in elite American universities, there is a digital divide -- many are simply not rich enough in either time or money to fully partake. Imagine what the situation is outside this microslice of humanity. For all the utopian claims of techno-evangelists, the information age is becoming one of greater inequality. Last year there was a by-election in the area of Dublin in which I live. Generally my first preference is given for the most hopeless independent candidate who at least has the merit of some original idea. In our constituency, this was a chap who advocated a form of direct democracy by means of the internet -- essentially pledging himself to obey whatever is decided by his constituents via web polls. What about those without internet access, whether through lack of means, lack of confidence, or indeed lack of ability, I asked in a post on his forum. There was no reply, at all. The irony that, for all the rhetoric of "interrupting" and "subverting" narratives, digital media may be becoming a tool to entrench rather than change social realities.

Further, I feel the book would have benefited from a firm, astringently cynical voice. In the final essay, Urbanski's own "Meeting the Digital Generation in the Classroom," what is described as "the virulence of the technophobes" is discussed. Urbanski describes encountering "what felt like a brick wall of nostalgia" for the printed text ("with its corresponding devaluation of digital media rhetoric") from colleagues for many years. "This perspective crystallised in the postings to the web site of the Chronicle of Higher Education by Emory University professor Mark Bauerlein. Urbanski finds Bauerlein "reflects what seems to me an ironic rejection of the very medium in which his ideas are often communicated." And yet, I feel the book would have benefitted from a Bauerlein, or even better the late great Neil Postman. Postman, author of Amusing Ourselves To Death and The Disappearance of Childhood, two books that combine a quality of provoking a new way of looking of the world with that elusive thing, "readability," died in 2003, just as the age of the blog was getting into its stride and before social networking became ubiquitous. It is hardly ironic to use a blog post or an online magazine article to reflect on the consequences for literacy of the digital age, and it is hardly hypocritical to be wary or critical of them.

Despite the caveats outlined above, there is much to ponder on reading these essays. Fanfic is, quite frankly, not my thing, but I can see how it is of great interest to the essayists.

Copyright © 2010 Seamus Sweeney

Seamus Sweeney is a freelance writer and medical graduate from Ireland. He has written stories and other pieces for the website Nthposition.com and other publications. He is the winner of the 2010 Molly Keane Prize. He has also written academic articles as Seamus Mac Suibhne.


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