Novel Ideas

Digital Pagans Suckled in a Creed Outworn


“The world is too much with us,” Wordsworth laments at the outset of one of his well-known sonnets. For literary scholars, especially those who study Wordsworth and his contemporaries, the complaint is a familiar one: “we lay waste our powers;— / Little we see in Nature that is ours; / We have given our hearts away.” For some reason, over time, humanity has separated itself from the natural world that gave it birth, and Wordsworth makes it clear in the preface to Lyrical Ballads that the affectations of culture and city life are the culprits. Entrenching ourselves in our civic enclaves, we lose touch with what’s “out there,” the supposedly authentic experience of living with(in) Nature, where we can “see into the life of things.”

Wordsworth, of course, was talking about the dichotomies of civilization and nature, of civics and ecology, of modern and ancient, and of orthodox and pagan. He was talking about them at a pivotal time in British history, in the aftermath of the French Revolution and subsequent fallout when the limits of Enlightenment-born social and civic models seemed like a fast-approaching storm. However, I would suggest that the sentiment also applies to the way that many young literary scholars view the professional world on whose gate they’re knocking today.

The job market

The world is indeed too much with us, with emphasis on too much. The traditional professional infrastructure for literary scholars is, to put it mildly, overburdened. “Glut” is a term often used to describe the current oversupply of well-qualified job candidates for a scant amount of job openings (some of which have the rug of funding pulled out from under them halfway through a search) every year. Thus, expectations and standards inflate; what used to be a solid resume won’t cut it.

As just one example, The Chronicle of Higher Education has run a few articles in recent years bemoaning the “avalanche” (read: glut) of mediocre research publications. On the anecdotal side, I’ve heard people talk about the difficulty of wading through so much extant research when a lot of it seems highly derivative, either by way of restating others’ claims with slight (perhaps even seemingly trivial) modifications, or by way of embedding a project within too many layers of discourse to seem to be of any importance (as one of my favorite professors once put it, “what Critic A has written about Critic B’s observation that Author C may have been thinking of Author D’s comment”).


All of this is to say that the zeitgeist of today’s younger literary scholars might fairly be described as one of alienation, a similar kind of alienation that Wordsworth observed between the city-dwellers and the “ministry of Nature” that they had renounced. We toil for years, often significantly delaying “life events” such as starting a family, for just the chance that our long-honed and hard-fought-for ideas might be read by a few other experts in our field before they fall into the oubliette of history, perhaps popping up on a WorldCat search now and then only to be skipped over when the date of publication is deemed too old or our names aren’t recognized as one of the lucky few who rise to represent entire (sub)fields of scholarship.

Destination: storage B.

Digital means of distribution and publication have therefore seemed increasingly viable as the basis for a new kind of professional model. In a recent article in the Journal of Victorian Culture, Amber K. Regis surveys recent high-profile academic forays into the still-anarchic world of digital dissemination. “Traditional methods of dissemination are too often locked behind expensive subscriptions and paywalls, or couched in an alienating academic language, to achieve this reach and popular significance,” she argues. “Social media, however, provide a (virtual) paper trail for impact. Their use requires a different performance, a voice appropriate to their open, inclusive nature.”

Countering fears that blogging, Tweeting, and similar digital channels would force academic writers to “dumb down” their complex ideas, Regis presents “public engagement [a]s something that occurs while research is taking place and not simply after the fact.” The benefit for researchers, she suggests, lies in the recuperation of what has been lost: the academic as public intellectual. Regis concludes that “[t]he future for Victorian Studies”—and here I would venture that we could replace Victorian Studies with any literary subfield—“is therefore inextricably linked to innovation on the social web, and here the career young are setting the standard.”


My immediate reaction to Regis’s article is one of celebration: yay! we youngsters have something to offer beyond (poorly) emulating the methods of a previous generation! Hopefully, unlike Ginsberg, we won’t see the best minds of our generation destroyed by madness. I’m hoping that Novel Ideas is at least headed in the same general direction that Regis indicates, and beyond that, I wonder how my other work could better embrace the forward push. I’m at a point in a graduate student’s career that naturally leads to a significant amount of reflection. I’m finishing coursework, composing a program of study, and looking forward to roughly six to nine months of reading for my doctoral candidacy exams. After that, the dissertation. How will my work matter?

I’m increasingly attracted to the idea of a non-traditional dissertation, though I know that this will be a tough sell to my future committee. I’ve found myself drawn to paratext and literary annotation in Romantic literature—my recent presentation at the 2012 British Women Writers Conference and my upcoming presentation at the 2012 International Conference on Romanticism both deal with Charlotte Smith’s use of paratext in her poetry—which seems to lend itself to digital analysis and composition as well as to a blend of close and “distant” reading.

“I really like spending time with you, dad, but is this the best way for us to read a bedtime story?”

Particularly compelling is the increased visibility and collaboration that non-traditional dissemination of ideas seems to facilitate. I’m thinking here of the still-in-progress 18th Century Common, a digital meeting ground for scholars, students, and the greater public to share insights and questions (Kirstyn Leuner is writing a great series of blog posts about the Common for HASTAC).

In the end, I think, it all comes back to the role of the public intellectual. Put simply, we want to matter, and we want to do meaningful work. Like Wordsworth, we’d “rather be / A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn” out in the wild of public engagement rather than take orders in the even older model of walled off, monastic scholarship. Our nostalgia, though, is hardly naïve, as much as the word is hurled as an invective against Romantic thought. We don’t look to the past as a place to which we can—or should—return (nor did Wordsworth, for my money). We continue the Romantic project, in a way, as much as it can be called a project, by digital means. We’re a new kind of pagan, but like “old Triton,” we “blow [our] wreathèd horn.”


—Trey Conatser