Breaking Conventions: A Hitchhiker’s Guide to Scholarly Research in a Digital Environment
On May 25, 2011, NPR did a story about PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel and his controversial plan to pay twenty-four teenagers one hundred thousand dollar fellowships to drop out of college for two years and start their own companies. Thiel feels that the modern education system is too slow in reacting to change and actually stifles new, innovative thinking (Peralta). This is a sentiment that seems to be growing in regards to the American system of education. In his speech “Changing Education Paradigms,” Sir Ken Robinson, PhD, a renowned education expert, also worries about the idea of free thinking and innovation in an education system based upon old techniques and paradigms. The question that remains to be fully answered is, how do you teach students to be creative and think in new ways, but do so in a way that provides them with a legitimate education? Here at Brigham Young University, our Writing about Literature in the Digital Age class has been exploring this same question in terms of scholarly writing.
On the first day of class, many of us were shocked to learn the parameters of our new writing class. There would be no traditional papers, no secluded, private writing that only Dr. Gideon would read, instead, we would blog. Our research and our ideas were going to be cast into the web where our classmates and anybody else can read them. Our tools for this class would be the Internet itself. As a class, our focus has been on how we consume, connect, and create. Social discovery and human filters were to combine with traditional libraries to help us research our book of choice and write meaningful criticism on our blog posts. Oh yes, and we were required to document our actual research process during the semester on our blogs. Yikes! We would be breaking scholarly conventions that had been drilled into us during our time at college. This stuff wasn’t peer-reviewed. Can it be worth anything if it hasn’t been in a scholarly journal? Worst of all, my writing was going to be available for anyone to read? Needless to say, this was new grounds for all of us.
Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, is an expert at breaking conventions. When the book that defined his career was published in 1979, it was an instant success, and its popularity spread to all parts of the world. The key to Douglas’ success is the way he was able to break the conventions of the genre he was writing in while showing an understanding and appreciation for the same unspoken rules he was breaking. The result was an unforgettable galactic comedy. Professor Shlomo Maital, a senior research fellow at the Technion Institute of Managment and author of TIMnovate a blog for innovators, praises Adam’s for his ability to break conventions and as inspiration for other innovators (par 4). Adams’ success can be measured in the fact that these stories have been adapted for radio, book, audiobook, TV, movies and even a play. Douglas skill at the craft shines through in all formats, and his fans all over the Internet agree that no one can successfully imitate the way he writes.
There are certain unspoken rules in any genre that all readers pick up on implicitly which, without conscious thought, they use to compare a work with others and therefore determine its value. So, when Adam’s takes an unexpected turn right before satisfying the unspoken conventions his readers are waiting to find, we find it funny because we are pleasantly surprised. Douglas tips his hat to the same convention he laughs at, and we are in on the joke.
One character that meets conventions while breaking them is Marvin the Paranoid Android. Reading blogs and fansites online, I’ve seen that he is a favorite of many Adams fans. A chronically depressed robot who can’t stand humans or other robots, and is constantly complaining, “Life, don’t talk to me about life” (Adams 63). Who wouldn’t laugh? We find value in Marvin as a comical character because he meets one important convention of the Science Fiction genre. Most science fiction include androids in some way in their stories. Quite often these androids are super intelligent and are dealing in some sense with the ability to act and feel emotionally like a human. Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation is one popular example of this. Classic examples in literature are Asmiov’s Robot series, beginning with I Robot and Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? All of these address the issue of combining robot intelligence with human characteristics such as emotion. We love Marvin because he fits this category. Marvin has the largest “brain” in the galaxy and calculates complicated problems lightning-fast--when he feels up to it. Douglas breaks conventions by parodying this idea and showing what the most pathetic of human emotions would look like in a robot. We, the readers, like this because we see ourselves and recognize the irony of a super-intelligent yet emotionally unstable robot in Science Fiction. Carl R. Kropf says that Adams’ reversal of conventions comments “on the bankruptcy of the genre’s paradigms and rais[es] questions about the nature and the function of the genre” (62). Our writing class, by breaking conventions of scholarly writing, is also raising questions about the nature and function of the genre and how it should evolve in the digital age.
The Big Question
Breaking conventions can be a risky business if someone wants their work to be taken seriously, especially when dealing with long-standing traditions like the Science Fiction genre or even scholarly research and writing. It is, if I may be permitted to mix metaphors, like walking a tightrope standing over thin ice. One misstep and you fall through. If writers move too far away from the conventions of their genre, they run the risk of not being taken seriously or appearing to be careless in their craft. On the other hand, those who play it too safe compromise their initial purpose to create something fresh and new. To successfully break conventions, it is necessary to show a mastery of those same rules you are breaking. Douglas did this perfectly in his writing. There is no doubt his jokes are carefully crafted to address convention and turn it on its head. By meeting the requirements his readers expected he was able to break them with greater impunity. Nevertheless, Adam’s books are not often seen as literature worth studying and writing about in schools or scholarly works. The question remains, How do you break conventions while creating something that can be taken seriously in scholarly research and writing?
Douglas Adams broke the conventions of the consumption of information when he wrote Hitchhiker in 1978. The idea of an electronic book that stored millions of book’s worth of information in a small, hand-held device was something new. “The reason why it was published in the form of a micro sub meson electronic compenent is. . . [it] would require several inconveniently large buildings to carry it around in” (20). With monumental amounts of information literary at Arthur Dent’s fingertips, the Guide was a prophetic vision of e-books and online encyclopedias such as Wikipedia.
Writing and reading in the digital age involves new methods of consumption as well. This involves both the consumption of books and the consumption of information as we research. In our class we were encouraged to experience at least one of our readings in a format other than the printed book, just to see what the benefits and drawbacks of each medium is. Matt Harrison has been looking at comic book version of Ender’s Game, considering the role of comic books as literature. Carlie Wallentine and I have been experiencing our books in many formats including text, audio, movie and others. This has been beneficial to me as I have been looking at Adams’ humor and experiencing it in different ways led me to consider how humor works in different mediums and how Adams has created humor by the way he breaks the conventions of his genre.
Our consumption of research information has also changed with this class. In her research on Where the Red Fern Grows, Amy Whitaker has used art to explore people’s interpretations and how art can enhance the study of literature, as has Rachael Schiel while studying Borges. Ben Wagner has used twitter to research and find what people are saying about The Great Gatsby. Scholarly Journals are not the only places where people are writing about literature. The digital world offers many ways to consume literature and information. It can be surprising to see how many people care and write meaningful things about the books we have chosen to study.
Adams also knew the value of breaking conventions in order to connect poor Arthur Dent with other characters and the information he needed. Imagine how much more lost he would have been without his Babel Fish. The Babel Fish is essentially a plot device that allowed Arthur to understand any alien language that was being spoken to him. The fact that translation was done by a small, telepathic parasitic fish breaks the convention of Science Fiction by downplaying the role of science in this aspect and giving an important role to nature. We, as a class, did not have access to any Babel Fish, but we were able to find tools online that allowed us to connect to people and information otherwise impossible to find in a traditional library.
In general, connecting as a class in the digital world as well as the physical, has enriched our research. Social bookmarking (diigo, in our case) has been one tool that we have been using to share our discoveries with our classmates. As we come across resources or ideas that deal with our topics of study, we have been able to easily share these with our classmates. This has worked for our general topic of study as well as to share information about each other’s specific texts. Also, social networks have served as a great tool for connecting with people who care about our novels. Goodreads, for example, has allowed several of us to post questions and topics of conversation to forums about the books we are studying. The benefit of this is we are getting opinions and ideas of people who are invested in our book of choice and have spent time reading and thinking about it. It isn’t always a golden nugget of information, but has often proved enlightening.
While studying our primary texts, we have been encouraged to use social networking and other tools online to connect with people who have emotional stock in the books we are studying. This has led to meaningful communication with people who have insightful things to contribute. Annie Ostler has talked in class about the value she has found in fan sites or forums where blacks have talked about their responses and perspective on Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. This has been an invaluable resource to her as it offers a perspective that she could otherwise never experience, a perspective extremely valuable while studying a Toni Morrison novel.