I was asked this very question during one of my first classes at Tech this week. When I introduced myself as a scholar of nineteenth-century literature, my students looked puzzled: what was a Victorianist doing at Georgia Tech? And why, they asked, was I teaching a writing class focused on the concept of being “born digital”? I found myself called upon to make the same connections in the classroom that I make all the time in my own research and, on occasion, at conferences and in interviews.
It’s easy to answer the question on a superficial level: I’m not only a scholar of literature, I’m a scholar of language and, therefore, a scholar of communication. I am also a writer and a researcher and all of these skills qualify me to teach writing (though it’s interesting that I — and the majority of my writing teacher colleagues — have never actually taken a writing class). So that could answer the why am I teaching writing part, but it doesn’t get to the deeper connections between my expertise in Victorian literature and my interest in the specifically digital pedagogy associated with teaching writing at Tech.
When I think about what is so interesting about the nineteenth century, I think of the sense of excitement, of discovery and progress we get from the newspapers, letters, novels and essays of the period; the feeling that new and amazing things were happening that were pushing the Victorians faster than ever before into a technology-filled future of possibilities. The way that technology like the steam engine and the printing press created networks of information and, almost overnight, transformed local and global communication, mirrors the way the internet and digital technologies have connected our contemporary world.
And so when I teach about our digital world and the way it has revolutionized communication, I am thinking about the Victorians and the new world opened up to them by train travel and the telegraph — a world that was transformed in notions of distance and time — and, commensurately, a world that seemed both promising and threatening in the possibilities it presented. In my writing classes, then, we think about the basics of communication and rhetoric and how they work in all the different media and how they are transformed in the era of digital communication.
I’m also thinking about materiality and the way Victorians commodified and fetishized it (museums,”Great” exhibitions department stores etc.), and the way we are dealing with losing it through digitization. In my “Born Digital” class we’re considering the ramifications of digitization on museums and exhibits, on book production, and on information storage. This focus on materiality is also reflected in my work on Steampunk, a literary and cultural movement which anachronistically strives to restore the notion of craft to contemporary technology by refashioning it “nineteenth-century” style.
In so many ways, then, the excitement and the reservations of the Victorians regarding the explosion of technology in their time are mirrored in our own. And it is in thinking about how the Victorians’ attitude towards the rapid transformation of systems like communication and information processing affected their ability to move forward that we can reflect upon our own.
So when I walk into a first-year writing course focused on the digital era, I am bringing with me all of the Victorians’ excitement and all of their reservations about a world transformed by technology. Think of it like this: I may be wearing a corset, but that’s an iPhone in my pocket.