Ignoring the Digital Elephant

The big news at the 2013 Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference held in Boston last week was the announcement, tweeted and retweeted, that the Zell Family Foundation was donating $50 million to the MFA creative writing program at the University Michigan. In an Associated Press interview, Helen Zell, in whose honor the program has been renamed, explained the impetus for the donation: “What I’ve watched happen with the introduction of the Internet and media and blogging, I almost feel like this part of our education is under siege. The ability of fiction to develop creativity, to analyze the human psyche, help you understand people–it’s critical. It’s as important as vitamins or anything else. To me, it’s the core of the intellectual health of human beings.”

Ironically, I was at the conference to present, with three other University of Michigan instructors, a panel entitled, “Creative Convergences: Integrating the Arts and Technology in the Writing Classroom.” Each of us showed examples of undergraduate work that used multimedia and genre-blending to create compositions that were aesthetically and conceptually sophisticated. The example I showed, an excerpt from Molly Yaple’s four-part video poem, “Love Poems,” consisted of a voiceover of Molly reciting her original text in combination with original and open-sourced video footage, music, and sound effects. The result is an integrated, complex, and moving work of art.

Like Zell, I have had the feeling, when reading responses to news posts or other public forums on the Internet, that literacy is “under siege.”  Yet positioning printed literary works in opposition to web-mediated text ignores the potential of digital compositions to not only contribute to our collective intellectual  health but to push at traditional genre boundaries maintained by traditional creative writing programs. A glance at the AWP Conference schedule confirms that writers and teachers in creative writing programs are giving scant consideration to the uses of  digital media for professional and pedagogical purposes: of the nearly 500 events listed, less than a dozen included any mention of digital technology. Of these, several were concerned, not with literary practice per se, but the potential offered by digital technology to research MFA programs, break into print, or fund publishing projects.

Any survey of  the Web will uncover literary texts ranging from wince-producing to awe-inspiring. The same, however, can be said of a survey of texts in print. Privileging printed texts is a form of literary snobbery that working writers can ill afford to harbor. As digital humanities scholar Cathy Davidson reminds us, “To be valued by one’s time requires making oneself responsible and responsive to one’s time.” Creative writers who ignore the potential of digital technology for not only distributing but creating texts risk becoming obsolete in their own time.


Associated Press. “Wife of Billionaire Sam Zell Gives $50 Million for Writing at University of Michigan.” Ann Arbor.com. n. pag.  7 March 2013. Web.  Accessed 12 March 2013.

Davidson, Cathy. “Humanities 2.0: Promise, Perils, Predictions.” Debates in the Digital Humanities.  Ed. Matthew K. Gold. University of Minnesota Press, 2012.  n. pag. Web.  Accessed 19 March 2013.

Yaple, Molly. “Love Poems.” You Tube. Web.  Accessed 4 March 2013.