Summer Research Dispatch: Ryan Ikeda & Electronic Literature

01 Oct, 2018

Summer Research Dispatch: Ryan Ikeda & Electronic Literature

Each year, the Berkeley Center for New Media is thrilled to offer summer research awards to support our graduates in their cutting edge work. Below, Ryan Ikeda describes how he used the funds to research how digital media is taught in digital humanities and humanities courses.

The question how do we read electronic literature? coincides with another question—where do we find ourselves learning to read electronic literature? The answer to that question for me was in a classroom. I first encountered electronic literature in a “contemporary literature” seminar during my MFA program, in which we surveyed ELC volumes 1 and 2 alongside other avant-gardes archives including: then-called Ubuweb (now, ubu), Dworkin’s Eclipse archive of obsolete and out-of-print poetry. For one assignment, we were tasked with introducing a work of electronic literature to the class. Tell us about it, my professor said. Situated among various literary avant-garde the unstated premise to the course was that “electronic literature” is an avant-garde, a fringe poetics at the edge of print tradition. While we read Strickland’s seminal 2009 essay for Harriet, entitled “Born Digital,” the professor offered little – if any – attention to the formal or material aspects of the digital medium, and so many of our introductions followed suit situated ELC 1 and 2. For example, students examined works of electronic literature, such as Joyce’s Twelve Blue or Brian Kim Stefans’ The Dream Life of Letters, without considering, or even understanding, hypertext, flash – that is, how the underlying digital platforms make these works of e-lit possible, preferring instead a more thematic analysis unknowingly predicated on a separation of so-called “content” and “form”.

I share this anecdote for several reasons. One, it acknowledges the classroom as an important analytic site for the study of electronic literature, to observe electronic literature in praxis and as praxis of digital literacy. [side note: 99% of my undergraduates first encountered e-lit in a classroom; i.e., only 1 student got into it on his own.] Two, it suggests that the way teachers introduce electronic literature (i.e., pedagogy) influences how students situate, value, and, ultimately, read electronic literature. In the aforementioned case study, we can observe that how we teach e-lit matters just as much as that we teach it; our pedagogy informs student practice. Three, it questions the premise that teaching electronic literature automatically engenders digital literacy; or, how an indifference, ignorance, and/or inattention to digital media defaults to a print-based literacy. We can observe how electronic literature foregrounds its medium in a way that literature obscures and elides its analog, print medium-specificity.

But before we address the question of understanding “digital literacy”, I suggest we begin, inductively, by asking: what version of digital literacy exists right now? A way to approach this question is through electronic literature; and, more specifically, by designating reading – and the teaching of reading – electronic literature as sites of praxis, where we might observe literacy at-work in its “default settings”.