What Lies Ahead: A Hi-Tech Course for a Digital Age

By Derek Schnake

How It Started

“How do we see our major pertaining to students entering the 21st century?” 

Professor Betsy Burow-Flak cites this question as the impetus for the creation in 2004 of English 400: New Literacies, Cultures and Technologies of Writing. The course focuses on the marriage of literature and technology, giving students the opportunity to learn and practice advanced writing innovations. 

“Actually, we’re kind of on the cutting edge,” Burow-Flak says. “There are not a lot of universities, even now, of our size that require a class like this.” 

English 400—taught by Professor Burow-Flak and Professor Allison Schuette—seeks to prepare students for the digital age and has had, therefore, to adapt.  The advent of YouTube and social media behemoths like Twitter has changed English 400 as much as it has changed history. 

Burow-Flak recalls, “I remember teaching the course when there were people saying, ‘Wow, there’s this thing called Facebook out there, and there’s really nothing like this.’” Currently, the course syllabus requires texts published in the past year, something uncommon for an English course. 

What Students Do

English 400 features radical writing evolutions like hypertexts, blogging, and podcasts. Burow-Flak’s students also utilize film-editing software to compile footage for a major video project.  One assignment even challenges the traditional academic stigma surrounding Wikipedia: students are required to edit or create a Wikipedia page. 

The class is not solely about creation; it is also about theory. Students comprehend the theoretical works of Clay Shirky and Jean Baudrillard, as well as new media dissidents like Nicholas Carr and Eli Pariser. Despite the emphasis on new media, the historical scope of class reaches back to the Gutenberg press, requiring students to contextualize writing technologies amidst centuries of development. 

What Students Say

Students moving into the digital age have found the course helpful. Chadd Sult, a senior English Major who writes and manages his own music blog, praises the class for its emphasis on current events. 

“I really enjoyed that class,” Sult says. “I really feel that it was the one class that I took a lot out of because it felt so up to date, whereas the rest of the English classes I’ve taken… feel like you’re studying the history of it all.”

For Sult, an English degree meant little without the proper bookends to history. As much as a student should look to understand history, he or she should also peer into the future. 

“The English literature that I want to study—what I want to do in my life—is more futuristic. I would love to see Valpo take this genre of class and repeat it throughout the curriculum.”

Where It’s Going

Burow-Flak sees more students coming along with the same progressive mindset as Sult. 

“I think English majors traditionally, at this University, have been behind the curve until fairly recently,” Burow-Flak notices. “On the first day of class, I would ask, ‘What’s your relationship to screen culture and what does that mean to you?’ And in the past there would be some real Luddite type of answers. But those are fewer and far between now.”

English 400, if anything, has now become a course where past and present collaborate to move forward—and Burow-Flak sees it that way.

“The thing I love about this course is that I learn so much. I can’t believe all of the things [students] are exposed to and have time to do and talk about. I learn a lot from that and we all learn together.”