ELO: Theory, Practice, and Activism

ELO: Theory, Practice, and Activism

Claire Donato

One of several early career participants at the Electronic Literature Organization’s Summer 2012 “Futures” panel, Claire Donato comes down on the side of non-commercial, non-entrepreneurial, educational approaches to an emerging digital literary practice.

This series of short interventions were made at the “Futures of Electronic Literature” discussion at the bi-annual Electronic Literature Organization conference in 2012. Titled “Electrifying Literature: Affordances and Constraints,” the conference took place at West Virginia University in Morgantown on June 20th to June 23rd. The contributors were organized by Stephanie Strickland to offer suggestions on how to improve the organization as it attempts to re-define its mission in a shifting cultural, economic, and technological landscape. Ranging from the concrete to the poetic to the theoretical, the following nine short statements were made by a group of emerging artists, scholars, and practitioners from a variety of disciplines and backgrounds.

As Nietzsche says on brainyquote.com, “The future of the ELO influences the present just as much as the past.” When we submitted proposals to ELO, ELO 2012 was the future. For now, it is the present, but it will soon be past. Naturally, we find the future in the present, informed as it is by the past. For this panel, I’ve been asked to offer a few ideas about future expanded growth within the digital writing community. I wish to briefly offer a few suggestions of projects I think are realizable and that we should undertake as an organization in the future. The areas I am preoccupied with are undoubtedly linked to my past experiences, my sociocultural history.

America’s digital divide is, in ways, diminishing; however, access to and understanding of technology remains a matter of social justice. As per the ELO’s mission ‘to foster and promote the reading, writing, teaching, and understanding of literature as it develops and persists in a changing digital environment,’ one way I envision the ELO addressing the digital divide is via non-commercial, creative pedagogic initiatives in collaboration with educational non- profits and social justice programs. (Note: I am not a proponent of presenting technology’s cross-applications so that students are encouraged to use it for both creative and commercial purposes.) Over the years, I’ve worked for organizations including 826 Valencia, 826 NYC, the Penn Avenue Arts Initiative, and the New School’s Institute for Urban Education. In one way or another, all of these programs are devoted to helping students from underserved populations develop self-awareness and agency via the creative arts. By reaching out to these organizations and offering lesson plans online that address relationships between digital technologies and language art, the ELO could establish ties with new communities and increase awareness of what it means to read and write literary art in the early 21st century.

The digital divide is no doubt in a relationship with the academic divide. Many of the young adults I’ve worked with do not have the privilege of familiarity with new technologies. While many schools teach keyboarding, there are also many schools where students still don’t learn basic digital literacy skills due to inadequate technology or funding. In turn, their literacy skills are labeled at-risk. They may not have access to computers at home either. As members of the ELO, many of us are operating with current generation computing technology (e.g., the latest laptops, iPads, etc), whereas schools that are fortunate enough to have computing resources might be operating on equipment that is years out of date. As an organization, the ELO might develop classroom guides and materials for teachers addressing concrete ways to nurture reading, writing, and thinking alongside computer literacy skills. Just as importantly, we might provide some of our prior generation technology to underserved schools, perhaps around the Boston area, where the ELO is based.

Other ways I envision the ELO addressing social justice issues is via collaborations with institutions that work with the disabled, the homeless, veterans, and prisoners. We might also initiate artist-in-the-schools programs similar to those sponsored by the Millay Colony for the Arts, Teachers and Writers Collaborative, etc. At a time when federal budgets for arts education are in jeopardy, ELO’s potential work in public schools feels particularly crucial to me. For the sake of time, I will not expound on these ideas in detail here but am happy to discuss them further over the next few days or during the Q&A session.

Beyond collaborations with educational non-profits, I also think it is necessary for the ELO to preserve writers’ stories regarding their technology adoption practices over time. One idea may be to curate a series of interviews with writers of all ages about how technology has influenced their literary practices. As suggested at the last ELO Conference, we need to concern ourselves with archiving to preserve history so that we can reflect on the past to impact the future. Over time, I’ve become drawn more and more toward the electronic literature community’s international character, sense of humor, and inclusivity, which reminds me of international communities I first tapped into online as a tween—mostly sans Curlz MT and Floralie fonts, of course. In the past four years, I’ve seen a rare and diverse collection of new work presented at the ELO and other digital writing conferences. So long as the organization continues to advocate for an expanded field of writing and attract innovative work, I plan to remain a part of it. I hope my suggestions convey my belief that professional organizations should operate at the intersection of practice, theory, and activism.

Claire Donato holds an MFA in Literary Arts from Brown University, currently teaches at Fordham University, and is the author of Burial (Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2013). For more information, visit somanytumbleweeds.com.

Stephanie Strickland and Marjorie Luesebrink:

Luesebrink & Strickland: In almost complete contrast to Samantha Gorman, Donato would like us to look not toward those farther out on the technological-innovation curve, but those farther back, those on the other side of the digital divide. We cannot emphasize enough that we endorse this goal but must also confess that ELO has not found a realistic way to implement it. We do have a Standing Committee for Outreach on which we invite all interested members to serve. […]


E-Lit Futures 2012 Forum: Next in Line Fedorova