Hi, I’m Mark Sample, and I’m not a digital poet, but I play one in the classroom. Unlike many of netpoetic’s contributors, I am less a writer and practitioner of digital literature than a student of it. And by student, I mean teacher. I’m thrilled to be a contributor to netpoetic.com in this capacity, as an English professor who teaches all sorts of experimental literature to bewildered undergraduate and graduate students at George Mason University, Virginia’s largest public university.
One of the more challenging works of electronic literature I savor teaching is Brian Kim Stefan’s Star Wars, One Letter at a Time, which is exactly what it sounds like. Aside what’s going on in the piece itself (which deserves its own separate blog post), what I enjoy is the almost violent reaction it provokes in students. Undergraduate and graduate students alike are incredibly resistant to SWOLAAT, in most cases flat-out denying any claims Stefan’s reworking of Star Wars might make toward literariness.
The dismissive response of my students to SWOLAAT is only the most extreme example of what happens with many pieces of electronic literature, both in my classroom and in the wider world. For example, Johanna Drucker caused a stir this past summer in her review of Matthew Kirschenbaum’s groundbreaking Mechanisms, when she wrote that no works have “appeared in digital media whose interest goes beyond novelty value.” A bit aghast, Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Scott Rettberg both responded to Drucker’s remark, and I was struck by Rettberg’s observation that
ELO [The Electronic Literature Organization] has submitted a number of very good digital humanities grant proposals to the NEH, and we have had the same response nearly every time — on a panel of three reviewers, two will find the proposal worth funding, and one of whom will state flatly that it has no merit, not on the basis of the proposal itself or its relevance to the call, but because they find electronic literature itself to be without merit.
It occurred to me recently that the denial of electronic literature’s literary merit — whether it’s coming from my students or a distinguished NEH panel — is not due to a misplaced desire to preserve the sanctity of what counts as literature as it is sheer xenophobia.
Electronic literature is a foreign land.
Electronic literature might as well be the national literature of Cimmeria. To the uninitiated student or scholar, e-lit is at worst strange, incomprehensible, and inscrutable, and at best, simply silly.
So, I’m wondering, would the same process by which a stranger in a strange land grows accustomed to foreignness and even appreciates and incorporates cultural difference into his or her own life — could that process apply to e-lit?
Below (larger image) is a six stage model of intercultural sensitivity, designed by Milton J. Bennett in the late eighties and early nineties to describe the progress of individuals as they experience greater and more frequent cultural difference. And I think this model could help us introduce students to the foreign world of electronic literature.
In the early ethnocentric stages of Bennett’s model, individuals begin by first denying that cultural difference exists in the first place, either because of their own isolation or because of willful ignorance. Greater exposure to cultural difference next prompts a defensive posture, an us-versus-them mentality in which existing cognitive categories are reinforced and any comment directed toward one’s own culture is perceived as an attack. The last ethnocentric stage is characterized by a minimization of difference. Individuals tell themselves that “people are the same everywhere,” a superficially benign attitude that in fact masks uniqueness and still evaluates other cultures from a reference point within one’s own culture. The final three stages are marked by an understanding that behaviors, norms, beliefs and so on are all relative. The first ethnorelative stage is acceptance, genuinely acknowledging cultural difference and seeing that difference within its own cultural context. Next comes adaptation, when individuals change their own attitudes, behaviors, and even language to match their surroundings in an attempt to communicate and empathize. Finally, integration occurs when individuals move freely between cultures, practicing what Bennett calls “constructive marginality,” that is, seeing identity construction as an ongoing process that is always marginal to any specific social group.
If we think of electronic literature as a foreign land, then I propose we use this developmental model to accurately chart a stranger’s encounter with the genre. As my experience with Star Wars, One Letter at a Time illustrates, students first begin reading electronic literature in either the denial or defense stages (meaning they’ve either never experienced e-lit before or they have and they hate it). I can imagine an entire syllabus structured around the goal of moving students from denial to integration. Just as educators and sociologists have come up with practical strategies to facilitate the progress of study abroad students along Bennett’s continuum, so too can we design specific assignments that develop students’ competencies in each of these stages: from a total inability to read the differences between traditional literature and born digital literature to an integration of those very differences into their non-e-lit lives. And with each point in between, we target stage-appropriate skills and practices, meeting the students where they are, rather than expecting them to automatically appreciate the virtues of something as alien as Reiner Strasser and M.D Coverley’s ii: in the white darkness or something as unsettling as Jason Nelson’s This Is How You Will Die. This type of approach to teaching electronic literature would be far more rewarding (to both the professor and the students) than the kind of sink-or-swim model in Katherine Hayle’s theoretically dense (and nearly unteachable, as I’ve discovered) introduction to Electronic Literature.
Imagine too that we begin writing grant and publishing proposals with these stages in mind, understanding that committees and panels and editors are likely stuck in the ethnocentric stages, judging literature from what we might call the “Great Works” perspective. E-lit challenges this perspective, but not on grounds of literariness; it challenges existing notions of literature simply because it’s different. We can teach sensitivity to difference to our students, and we should model sensitivity in our own writings as well. Teachers and researchers of electronic literature are its ambassadors, and it is up to us to introduce strangers to the medium in a firm, but welcoming, guiding way.
[Note: an earlier version of this essay appeared on my own blog, Sample Reality]