Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Medium Theory and Graduate Student Angst

I particularly fond of the term medium theory as a description of one of my major research interests, though I'm often met by blank stares when I use it. Time and again, I'm told that "media studies" would be a much better term. To me, to say one does media studies is like saying one studies literature or rhetoric. True in and of itself, but not overly useful as a short label used to explain the type of research one is to do. I'm not particularly interested in studying film (as media), television, radio, newspapers, magazines, music, and the like, the things people mean when they say "the media." For the most part, my interest really does lie in the medium. I do study "the message" but that's when I wear either my literature or my rhet/comp hats, though, of course, I strongly believe that I'm rarely wearing one hat at a time.

If I listed "literature" as my research interest, people would want to know more, and rightfully so. They want to know if I study French literature or English literature or Greek literature. And any hiring committee is going to want to know even more than that. They'll want to know that my dissertation is on Old English literature and that I have teaching and research interests in Old English, Middle English, and Old Norse literature, in science fiction and fantasy, and in 18th - 20th century medievalism. They're also likely to know that while I do "do" theory, I'm what Rob Pope calls a new eclecticist: I approach literature not from a theoretical perspective but use whatever theories seem most useful to whatever it is I'm trying to do, and that I'm just as likely to apply orality/literacy studies and medium theory, social memory, rhetorical criticism, and cognitive studies/cognitive poetics than I am to use "traditional" theoretical approaches. My dissertation, which explores Old English literature as the social memory of an oral-chirographic transitional culture draws from all of those, and from psychoanalytic criticism (trauma theory specifically), new historicism, postcolonialism as well.

And if I were to list "rhet/comp," "rhetoric," or even "composition studies" on a CV, anyone who doesn't know me is likely to feely slightly duped. Yes I do all three, but my particular focuses are in medieval rhetoric, rhetorical memory, oral/chirographic/print/digital culture, and computers and writing. I'm not interested in writing program administration or assessment or basic writing, etc. I'll read about these topics and I believe I should (and do) know something about them, but at this time I'm not interested in developing a research agenda around them or in teaching courses on these topics. I am quite interested in composition pedagogy, but that is, again, kind of like saying I'm interested in "medieval English literature" but I have no real desire to do serious work on John Gower or Middle English drama or a whole host of other topics which fall under that rubric. Sure I know something about most of them and I'll teach them, and I may even do research on them if my interests lead me in those directions, but my qualifications as a medieval english literature scholar no more means I'm prepared to do serious work with Middle English drama than my qualfiications as compositionist means I'm prepared to do serious work with assessment or writing program administration.

While there's a desire to declare Rhet/Comp a discipline all to itself (a desire I like to poke at but ultimately don't deny), it elides over the significant differences between rhetoric and composition studies, differences which are, to my mind, as great as the differences among them and linguistics, creative writing, and literary studies. One can specialize in writing studies and know more about literary studies than one knows about the history of rhetoric, and one can specialize in the history of rhetoric or even contemporary rhetorical theory and have no knowledge of current composition pedagogy. I have nothing against those who want to specialize in any particular field of English studies, but I am bothered by the fact that their desire to create narrow specialties often includes the desire to keep others, including those like me who draw from all the branches of English Studies, out of their special field. At least that's how I read people like Gerald Nelms, whose WPA-L post I linked to above.

This long roundabout post serves as a preface to what I'll post next time, a definition of medium theory which has made me want to reclaim the term as my own.

cross posted to Notes from the Walter J Ong Archives

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