Ignoring the Digital Elephant

by Rebecca Manery

The big news at the 2013 Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference held in Boston last month was the announcement, tweeted and retweeted, that the Zell Family Foundation was donating $50 million to the MFA creative writing program at the University of Michigan. In an Associated Press interview, Helen Zell, in whose honor the program has been renamed, explained the impetus for the donation: “What I’ve watched happen with the introduction of the Internet and media and blogging, I almost feel like this part of our education is under siege. The ability of fiction to develop creativity, to analyze the human psyche, help you understand people–it’s critical. It’s as important as vitamins or anything else. To me, it’s the core of the intellectual health of human beings.”

Ironically, I was at the conference to present, with three other University of Michigan instructors, a panel entitled, “Creative Convergences: Integrating the Arts and Technology in the Writing Classroom.” Each of us showed examples of undergraduate work that used multimedia and genre-blending to create compositions that were aesthetically and conceptually sophisticated. The example I showed, an excerpt from Molly Yaple’s four-part video poem, “Love Poems,” consists of a voiceover of Molly reciting her original text in combination with original and open-sourced video footage, music, and sound effects. The result is an integrated, complex, and moving work of art.

Like Zell, I have had the feeling, when reading responses to news posts or other public forums on the Internet, that literacy is “under siege.” Yet positioning printed literary works in opposition to web-mediated text ignores the potential of digital compositions to not only contribute to our collective intellectual health but to push at genre boundaries maintained by traditional creative writing programs. Of the nearly 500 presentations listed in the three-day schedule of events, less than a dozen included any mention of digital technology in spite of the significant numbers of digital journals registering their presence in the bookfair. If technology integration is part of the pedagogical focus of most MFA programs, you couldn’t prove it by the roster of presentations at AWP.

Any survey of the Web will uncover literary texts ranging from wince-producing to awe-inspiring. The same, however, can be said of a survey of texts in print. Privileging printed texts is a form of literary snobbery that working writers can ill afford to harbor. As digital humanities scholar Cathy Davidson reminds us, “To be valued by one’s time requires making oneself responsible and responsive to one’s time.”

Like many writers, I have a deep and abiding love for books made of ink and paper. But writers who ignore the potential of digital technology for not only distributing but creating texts risk becoming obsolete in their own time.

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