The Digital Is about Doing

Little Jack Horner
Sat in the corner,
Eating a Christmas pie;
He put in his thumb,
And pulled out a plum,
And said, “What a good boy am I!” ~ Mother Goose

For those of us who aren’t coders, the digital can feel distant, just beyond arm’s reach. Though we can touch a screen, though we can type at a keyboard, we don’t necessarily feel like the digital is something we can be creative with—at least not in the same way as we have been with crayons and construction paper, chalk, or clay. And yet those who are comfortable with the digital (even, we might say, comfortable in the digital), tell us that the digital can be a playground, a place for experimentation and discovery.

Then we get behind a Wordpress site and, well, the “dashboard” doesn’t exactly invite us to take the platform for a drive. Similarly, online teachers and instructional designers who report that they “have fun” in Canvas take on the form and aspect of an aficionado, like someone who enjoys rare and stinky cheese. The digital becomes hip, fashionable—or worse, as obscure as the melancholy wink at the end of a French film.

Most often, the digital is served to us, especially in our professional lives. One institution uses Microsoft Outlook, while another uses Gmail. This one uses Asana to track projects, while someone else lives and dies by Basecamp.  (And some of us still just jot lists on paper!) Canvas, Moodle, D2L. Wordpress, Omeka, Scalar. In almost all situations, the digital we use is the digital offered, the digital that our institution supports. In fact, the tools we can use for our scholarship, creative work, self-expression, curation and archiving, are usually dependent upon what people who are not us are willing to put labor into. To answer our help desk questions. To offer assistance. To train us to use.

Finding a bridge across the span between those who dream about the digital and those who support the digital is rare. But perhaps what’s worse is that those of us caught between rosy enthusiasm on the one hand and gray pragmatism on the other never actually get a chance to figure out what the digital means to us.

Which is too bad. Because the point of the digital is to put your fingers in it. To mess and muck about and pull out that one thing that is truly meaningful to you. It’s like going to a movie and really liking that one scene, or reading a book and really liking that one character. So much, in fact, that you end up talking about it to your colleagues, your family and friends.

The digital doesn’t need to be aspirational. It doesn’t need to be revolutionary. Nor does it need to be purely practical. The big idea behind the digital is that it can be—it should be—what you want it to be, what you make of it.

Martha Burtis, Director of the Digital Knowledge Center at the University of Mary Washington and one of the minds behind the Domain of One’s Own initiative, says in “Beyond Websites” “that the web is not something that is happening to us, but rather it is something we are creating … Domain of One’s Own is about giving us a space where we can build something that is wholly by and for ourselves.” Middlebury’s Domains project, MiddCreate, is digital not so much in the sense that we can use it to build websites, but more that it is a space on the web where we can make something we want.

But MiddCreate is only a beginning, an opening, a digital gateway that will help us begin to uncover literacies we never knew we had. Look, for instance, at The Open Anthology of Earlier American Literature, compiled and edited by Robin DeRosa, a professor at Plymouth State University, and her students. Or consider the Digital Polarization Initiative led by Mike Caulfield of Washington State University Vancouver, and created by students from several colleges and universities. These are projects that started as experiments, and that were completed by people who, when they began, didn’t understand 1. What they were doing; 2. How to accomplish the task before them; 3. What the end result would be.

But that didn’t stop them.

If I want  to see a bird fly across the sky, I have to move my eyes. If I want to appreciate a piece of music, I may  have to move my body with the rhythm, in order to “feel” the music. If I want to understand a story or a novel, I have to move my mind, my imagination, and my emotions.

In saying this, Leo Van Lier encourages us to embrace agency, our ability to move, to do, to enact. It is not about doing something right, or doing what someone else tells us we can or cannot do. Agency is our most natural reaction to the world. And we can react this way to the digital, too. We don’t have to be the merry aficionados, nor the contemplative pragmatists. We can engage the digital as we are moved to engage it. Knowing what’s possible only gives us a landscape; discovering what we want to do, where we want to drive on that landscape, is vastly more important.

Sean Morris

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