Archibald Post 1: Social Influence and Cognitive Implications of Digital Media

In 1988, Cynthia Selfe demonstrated remarkable foresight as to burgeoning digital technologies’ momentous academic impact in her ADE Bulletin article “Computers in English Departments: The Rhetoric of Technopower.” Speaking in an age when personal computers could undertake basic data base and word processing functions, and with the Internet’s public release fast approaching, she acknowledges that

“As a profession, [academics] are just learning how to live with computers, just beginning to integrate these machines effectively into writing- and reading-intensive courses, just starting to consider the implications of the multilayered literacy associated with computers. In our departments, we are just beginning to see possibilities for using computers to encourage collaboration and communication among colleagues, to ease secretarial burdens, to support research and publication projects, to make scholarship accessible.” (63)

Whilst Selfe’s focus on issues of physical access to computers within academia has now become largely redundant,[1] her recognition that unequal access to digital information can create hierarchies of “technopower” is still pertinent; for example, specific administrators might be the only department individuals with access to information about faculty salaries, or student funding opportunities, both important sources of technopower in contemporary institutions where research and study opportunities are governed by university budgets. Selfe’s commentary is also particularly appealing due to her call to acknowledge the many facets of the computer revolution’s social impact. Since her article was published, the analysis of digital technologies’ role in academia and society at large has become just as important as its scholarly capabilities, but the social influence of digital technologies in the areas of research methods, publication avenues, pedagogical strategies, and further forms of academic communication could still benefit from increased scrutiny.

I’d like to pick up on an aspect of the digital and the humanities that we couldn’t expect Selfe to highlight in that earlier era of computing. The extraordinary technical advances that we have witnessed since the turn of the millennium demand that we pay attention to the cognitive implications of new media; we now think alongside and through digital technologies, and there is an incredible amount of research focused on this symbiotic relationship. I’m particularly interested in the cognitive effects of digital media usage with regard to student literacy levels. Having just learned what a digital humanities lab is, I’m wondering if such a lab would be an excellent space to explore this issue. Michigan State University’s Digital Humanities & Literary Cognition Lab (DHLC Lab, is one such center that would seem the perfect fit. The Lab focuses on tracking the history of cognition and media, and interrogating contemporary knowledge production. It also uses neuroscience technologies such as fMRI and EEG to investigate the literary. Although projects haven’t yet compared student reading habits when engaging with print and digital texts, a future study directly falling into this category is titled “Distraction and Digital Reading: Cognitive Patterns of Attention in Fiction Reading for iPad, Kindle, and Traditional Book.” I’m looking forward to reading the results, which I’m sure will be of interest to a wide audience—literary scholars, high school teachers, tertiary lecturers, and those in the fields of education policy and cognitive sciences. It seems as though the DHLC Lab is rare in it’s fusion of the cognitive and literary fields,[2] and it would be interesting to learn more about its lab culture, specifically the synthesis (and discordances) between its humanities and science concerns – perhaps I’ll be able to conduct an interview with a DHLC Lab member for our later project!

[1] It is now the norm for all tertiary staff and faculty to have a computer in their office (although the latter may be required to provide their own), and all students, staff, and faculty can access campus computer labs.

[2] After a quick Google search, the University of Paris’ Laboratoire Paragraphe is the only other research laboratory that I could find with a similar interdisciplinary focus.

Works Cited:

Selfe, Cynthia. “Computers in English Departments: The Rhetoric of Technopower.” ADE Bulletin. 90 (Fall 1988): 63-7. Web.

2 thoughts on “Archibald Post 1: Social Influence and Cognitive Implications of Digital Media

  1. I’m really drawn to the pedagogical side of DH as well. Having taught for the last five years, I was always amazed at students capacity for different types of reading. While I had many students who struggled to read printed texts–which they of course should be trained to read–they had a spectacular ability to critically read images, songs, and film. I guess I’m channelling Snow’s article here as he seems to understand literary professionals privilege traditional print reading over other forms of literacy (Snow 14). I’m curious to know what the research you’ve done on digital literacy so far leads you to think about this: what’s the likelihood that one day we’ll be accessing secondary-ed students on multiple forms of literacy? Should we? And could we even keep up with the new forms of literacy that they are constantly learning?

    And Michigan State University’s DHLC Lab’s work is fascinating. Thanks for point it out!


    • georgie a says:

      As to my take on your question about future educational strategies that utilize multiple forms of literacy, I think that it’s very likely! Students have different learning styles, so it seems logical that we take advantage of medial affordances that appeal to different modes of thinking. However, I think that the traditional concerns of close reading to create complex meaning and deep understandings will remain vital to literary studies, and the question of how to address this as students become increasingly attuned to hypermedia is already problematic, as evident by the mass public and scholarly criticism pointing out declines in reading levels and attention spans. I’m therefore interested in the way that digital literature such as hypertext fictions, digital poetry, and narrative-intensive video games can bridge the concerns of traditional humanities disciplines whilst appealing to ‘digital-native’ students. But keeping up with the new forms of literacy that these young ‘uns are constantly learning, now that’s a tricky one!


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