Literature’s role in a digital tomorrow

Credit: Caroline C. Evans Abbot

Credit: Caroline C. Evans Abbott

Glasgow University is still a “World of Words”: an interview with Dr. Bryony Randall

Caroline C. Evans Abbott
Writer

We are now in the midst of the unquestionably beautiful days of life in Glasgow – but with them, an analogy emerges with the bare branches of the trees. As students bundle up and leaves make their seasonal descent, the architectural splendor of our campus is framed in a timeless, academic vignette, and stark contrast is thrown upon its denizens – no matter how cold it is, or how poetically beautiful campus looks, there always seems a justifiably-bare hand with which to operate the iPhone, android, or tablet… and a pair of eyes, downcast, with which to navigate it. Digital life springs up about campus as casually as ever, and here, the ancient and the contemporary coexist peaceably – though objectively, the latter presents an anachronous vibe. In an ever-expanding digital age, there appears to the naked eye a language barrier – how can students of the digital generation hope to relate to stuffy syntax, culturally creaky themes, rigorous reading, and arduously analytical writing required to study literature in today’s day and age? And most importantly, what is technology’s place in these contexts?

I sat down with Dr. Bryony Randall, a lecturer in the Department of English Literature at Glasgow Uni to get some perspective on these questions and to open the discussion to someone with an inside view. She retired her ambitions of becoming a barrister in favour of a life pursuing the application of her mind’s capacities to the things she loves – in her case, modernist literature, and much, much more. We sat in her office in University Gardens (overlooking some noticeably contemporary architecture) to discuss the relationship between students of the digital age and the study of the often-antiquated literature involved in the Department. I ask her about her use of technology in her role as a lecturer and she describes the University’s resources as an “evolving repository of information”, explaining that “like everything, it takes a while to get to know, but I find it very useful”. As she discusses the use of social media and its potential in both a professional and an academic context, it is clear that, like anything, a moderate approach to the implementation of these resources is critical to the success of the students as much as it is to the professor’s ability to effectively communicate to a digital generation… and to use older reading material as an example, there are some things digital media simply can’t convey.

Her informed views on the benefits of everyday technological communications such as Facebook and Twitter opened up the opportunity to ask some of the harder questions. As for her thoughts on the ways classic works of literature hold the continued capacity to enhance student use of digital resources – and how students of this generation can fuse the old with the new, she said:
“As it happens, one of my developing and major research interests is in editing – modernism in particular, and I’m working on a big new edition of all of Woolf’s fiction. That will be a traditional, chunky, hard copy, but as part of that, I’m also thinking about how digital technology can enable us to produce different kinds of editions of modernist texts.”

With the fire of an excited student, she explains her motivation: “apart from making literature digitally accessible, this would encourage people when they’re reading to understand that it isn’t a hermetically sealed product – that it’s gone through so many different iterations”.
And she’s right to be excited. The development of resources like these when accessible by the digitally literate student have a place on Glasgow’s campus – with hundreds of computers in the library (and even an online system by which to check up on availability), ready accessibility to information serves as great benefit to the research which is a driving force behind the University’s great success. Consistently placing in the top 100 universities in the world, it is no secret that Glasgow is one of the best research institutions in the UK, and it wants to stay there. The expansion of digital resource accessibility is as critical to university success in principle as it is in practice.

Benefits to the presence of digital resources in a classroom at any level of education cannot be understated, and in an ever-developing technological world, we are all expected to be digitally fluent by the time we arrive at this place in our academic lives. With Digital Literacy initiatives of every level cropping up all over, such as Education Scotland’s “G.L.O.W.” initiative, teaching students the proper use of digital resources is trending – and highly beneficial to their academic enrichment. In August of 2016, the Office for National Statistics reported that 82% of those questioned use the internet every single day – that’s 41.8 million UK residents actively online, an increase of 35% in the last 10 years alone.

With markedly increasing global commitment to digital literacy, supply and demand alone denotes the value of continued investment in technological resources by our University and others like it. It can be defined that the expansion of these resources has a net-positive correlation with the production of beneficial research across all disciplines – highlighting its importance not only as an academic tool, but as a cultural one. I catch the spirit of academic inclusivity bursting from my discussion with Dr. Randall, and expand in that direction to the burning questions. I want to know what the study of classic literature offers a student of today’s digital age and how students can relate to its themes. She responds excitedly, but thoughtfully.

“Literature, however you access it, offers descriptions of the world that biographical or sociological descriptions of human activity doesn’t”. She reflects further and presents with great poignancy. “Fiction’s capacity to investigate the interiority of a human subject, and the incredible diversity of what words can do – what literature does, again, is about creating worlds with words. Creating dynamics with words – creating kind of life forms – because that’s what literature does best. Why compete with the great things that other media are doing?”

Want to know where ‘somebody you used to know’ is with his life? Want to know where that guest lecturer you couldn’t stand went to college? It’s all there at the click of a button. The things which used to drive older generations crazy – questions which often went unanswered – are now no longer preciously guarded secrets of time. Our accessibility to this kind of social ammunition, presented in the same context as the raw information which we have come to rely on so heavily for our academic and professional pursuits, has the ability to make technology the center of our functionality due to such a personal and practical associations – thereby, it has become the center of our world. This presents technology from a different perspective by which students of the digital age are pursuing the study of literature – armed with their very own magic mirror.

Like the pursuit of research in general, these resources can encourage the cloistering of oneself inside a quiet little room for hours on end with only technology for an interactive companion – having the world at your fingertips in this context is a tempting and daunting opportunity. We not only have the ability to heighten our research, our academics, and our participation in cultural goings-on… we are redefining what it means to be cyborgs in that we really do ‘have the technology’ (to make a blatant reference to the ‘Six Million Dollar Man’).

In the age of technology, digital media’s place in the classroom at every level of contemporary educational systems is a well-established and ever-developing facet of our culture. The surge of technological advancement that our generation has borne witness to over the past decade alone has become an identifiable characteristic of our generation – we truly have grown up with the technology which has in turn shaped us. Learning to type while we learned our ABCs; learning to code while we learned our world capitals. We grew with technology’s seasons and adapted to its overwhelming power, both brutal and beautiful, and the vast majority of students today can easily navigate through social media, search engines, and digital archives with ease.

As students of this University and as citizens of this world, we are all equally charged with the responsibility of caring for, sharing, and utilizing digital resources for the benefit of a digital tomorrow. The manner in which we choose to do so may vary, and as time progresses, literary themes may become even farther removed from the context in which they were produced, but will never become obsolete. We are charged with the great responsibility of the magic mirror – capable of showing to us anything we could ask of it (if we dare to ask). But no matter our questions, and no matter the methodology with which we pursue their answers, we are forever residents of a world of words. As time moves forward and the cloisters stand still, we are charged with the responsibility of engaging with digital tools to heighten this magic and to use it responsibly – weathering all its seasons.