What Should 21st Century Studies Do?

Center Research Theme for 2012–13

For 2012–13, scholars from the humanities, arts, and sciences will join the Center for 21st Century Studies (C21) in answering the question, “What Should 21st Century Studies Do?”—a deepening and extension of the 2011–12 theme, “What Is 21st Century Studies?” Here are some initial answers.

21st century studies should study the present and very recent past

Already scholars and artists have set out many issues of pressing concern for the current century. These concerns have emerged from the late 20th century and take particular transdisciplinary forms when placed in relation to our 21st century future. Examples of such concerns include, but are in no way limited to, issues such as urbanization, mobility, migration, or transportation; risk, security, terrorism, or finance; climate change, sustainability, or water; public health, aging, nutrition, or sexuality; genetic engineering, neuroscience, or nanotechnology; intellectual property, social media, or digital culture.

21st century studies should foster contemporary, cutting-edge interdisciplinary work in the humanities, arts, and sciences

Such work raises new questions, extends disciplinary and interdisciplinary boundaries, or reflects upon the current state of knowledge production. This commitment to the contemporary, however, does not mean that 21st century studies should only concern itself with the present moment. It is often only the past that can effectively illuminate the present moment in its specificity.

For example, contemporary concerns with questions of gender and sexuality have prompted historical scholars to investigate earlier formations of queer, straight, and other sexualities, which in turn provided new insights on our own gendered and sexual formations. Critical race studies has both provided new perspectives on and been strengthened by historical study of racial science and the history of racial relations around the world. Ecocriticism and environmental studies have unearthed a marginalized prehistory of ecological and nature-oriented writing and thinking that helps to shape our current ecological practices. And recent interest in new forms of digital media has helped to accentuate study of earlier media formations like photography, print, architectural drawing, or linear perspective, which reminds us that what was most new about new media was how they remediated prior media forms and practices. Such scholarly and artistic recursivity will help to transform our received understandings of the humanities, arts, and social sciences, and these new understandings help to transform our futures.

21st century studies should deploy digital modes of research, analysis, and representation brought about by the explosion of digital culture at the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st centuries

Examples of such new modes of research include the formation of new digital archives in support of scholarship in the humanities, arts, and sciences; the creation of new public digital spaces and common formats (such as blogs or wikis or other forms of social media) for the sharing of academic scholarship, arts and letters, and public discourse; the use of new digital technologies in designing, constructing, and decorating the built environment; and the creation of new forms for studying and creating native digital media like electronic literature, games and gaming, or any forms of art created, circulated, and interacted with primarily through digital technologies. Scholars and artists should continue to develop and to interrogate the use of high-speed computing and data mining techniques in analyzing cultural texts, images, and data as well as to devise new forms of graphical presentation of complex quantitative, qualitative, or creative information.

21st century studies should develop new scholarly methods for examining the most urgent and significant concerns of the present time

In the 21st century university, disciplinary boundaries have been becoming increasingly more difficult to draw. Questions of genetic engineering, for example, have turned into questions of law, culture, and ethics. Questions of film, music, and literature are now inseparable from questions of sampling technologies and intellectual property. War and counterterrorism have increasingly become questions of computer programming, hacking, or coding, of the design of video games or the mapping of transnational geographies.

21st century studies should take up the pressing political and economic challenges facing the university, the nation-state, and the world at large.

As those of us in Wisconsin know only too well, higher education—particularly in the liberal arts—is coming increasingly under attack in times of economic and political crisis. Scholars in the arts, humanities, and social sciences must lead the way in imagining alternative institutional formations for the 21st century university, taking into account the proliferation of non-traditional forms of knowledge production and dissemination made available by socially networked media. Furthermore, in the face of historical increase in social and political activism across the globe, it is incumbent upon 21st century studies to find ways to collaborate with and to analyze these new forms of collectivity at the state, national, and global levels.

During the 2012–13 academic year, C21 will work to generate additional answers to the question, “What should 21st century studies do?” These answers will grow out of the individual and collective work of the 2012–13 fellows, our public programming, and an engaged C21 public.