Snobbery

When Industrial Age technology began to catch up with the printing trade, several things happened. One of these was the splitting of a single profession into several. Though there had been compositors and pressmen and editors before, in most shops the roles were played by individuals who could slip in and out of them according to need. Personally, I loved this about the print shops I trained in as a kid. I think I always knew I wanted to write, but I loved the process of transferring words to product and wanted to learn every particular. I didn’t think one was better than the other–just different.

Few people have had the luxury I had, of learning both sides. By the time the Hoe lightning press was introduced in the 1840s, the printing trade had begun to divide. Editors and writers found themselves removed from the mechanical activities of adding ink to paper and folding and binding. The tasks were no longer combined in individuals the way once they had been. The technology of writing had been removed from the process of composition.

Of course, technology did have an impact on composition: new pens, better paper, the typewriter and, finally, the computer. But it wasn’t until the dominance of this last was established that the technology of production began to return to the act of composition. An early printer often wrote copy, set it in type, proofread the page and printed it. Only recently has something analogous become possible once more. This is wonderful, but the recombining also causes problems: Those who had come to be relegated to “support” status (like actual printers) are now agitating for equal status, in universities, at least, with the academic equivalent of the newsroom.

When the divide first occurred, printers and writers often came from the same stratum of society—naturally, for they had recently been one and the same. Even past World War Two, journalists tended to come from the same level of society as factory workers, farmers and printers. That is, they were rarely part of the elite. The rise in status of the profession came from new media possibilities and increased fame. Among the intelligentsia, journalism had something of a working-class odor right up to the time of Watergate, when the phenomenal success of Woodward and Bernstein changed perceptions of the profession completely. The same has been somewhat true for the computing staffs at our universities–though their ‘Woodstein’ has yet to appear.

In traditional academia, only a few people ever paid attention either to journalism or to printing. Though the Columbia School of Journalism has been around for more than a century, the explosive growth of ‘j-schools’ is a recent phenomenon. ‘Real’ writing was the purview of the poets, novelists and essayists who centered on English departments.

Rare was the academic look at the printing trade. Kim Merker at the University of Iowa was an exception. He strove to turn printing into an art–and in an academic environment. Merker loved poetry and wanted its presentation to match the content in care and beauty. His Center for the Book still “integrates training in book arts practice and technique with research into the history and culture of books.” He elevated printing and the study of the physical book to a level rarely seen.

Kim never thought much of me as a printer. I had not been trained with the reverence he had, not even for the job case. When I distributed type, I tossed the lead pieces into their appropriate places quickly and without much care. He stood each piece of type up in the case—after examining it for damage during the last job. He wanted the product to be a thing of beauty; I saw it only as a conveyance. As a printer, Kim was something of a snob—but the astonishing quality of his products made that forgivable.

There are lots of snobs in academia, some deserving but most assuming the position not from the quality of their own work but from its nature. What they are doing, such scholars believe, is inherently more valuable that involving most others. Merker carved out his niche amidst the home of some of the greatest snobs in the world of writers, Iowa City, site of the deservedly famous Iowa Writers Workshop. I don’t think, however, that he ever called anyone a snob (or thought of himself as one). He simply set out to make art of a craft—and succeeded.

I use “snob” here on purpose. I don’t really think of Kim as having been a snob, nor do I see most scholars as such—or the writers at Iowa. I am using the word because of the way I saw it used on Facebook recently, by a “Senior Digital Humanities Developer” at Duke University. He was referring to two articles I recently wrote about, calling them “utter academic snobbery.”

I think I understand where this person is coming from. Like many in the so-called “Digital Humanities,” he is struggling to convert a support role into a legitimate academic one—and feels disparagement, real or imagined, from those in more traditional academic positions. His mistake is to demand parity—or even to feel it is deserved. The gravitas Merker achieved was the result of years of work, attention to detail and careful analysis of what he was doing—real thought. He never demanded ‘a place at the table,’ as certain Digital Humanists do, today. He simply served himself.

I’ve been aware of academic snobbery ever since showing up to my first graduate class at the University of Iowa in mechanic’s blues with black and oily fingernails and a red rag in my back pocket. It’s real, but it is not something worth fighting—except by doing one’s own work.

Yes, academia is filled with strivers, con artists, flim-flammers or whatever else you want to call them. But every place is. What one wants to avoid is being one of them—and that, unfortunately, often seems where Digital Humanities is headed. There is nothing wrong with the field or with the concepts it grapples with. The problem is the twin feeling of aggrandizement and inferiority I see on the part of too many of its advocates. The problem is too much concern with snobbery.

Merker never tried to push poetry aside in favor of the book. He enhanced both through concentration on the book, making it an even more appropriate vehicle for the poetry. DHers, on the other hand, want to push aside older types of scholarship, replacing them with the digital rather than augmenting them through digital possibilities.

The argument between what I see as the DH dead-enders and those of us who want to explore digital tools within the contexts of other examinations is that the dead-enders see their field simply within the context of careers and computations. They have latched onto the ‘coming thing’ as the thing-in-itself rather than seeing it as a toolbox for taking the old and, as Ezra Pound commanded, making it new.

They could take a lesson from Merker. Hell, we all could.

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