Digital Pedantry

Last week in one of my class meetings, I presented the following on a slide in anticipation of my students writing a paper about gender representation in television:
Do not use “female” or “male” as a noun!
Refer to “female characters” or “women,” but not “females”
This is a new addition to my list of common writing pitfalls, as I’ve noticed the disturbing trend of using “females” as way of referring to women – disturbing because it is ultimately essentializing and dehumanizing of women, going beyond grammatical pedantry toward a distinction that really matters concerning how we see and treat each other.
I must say that this call to address “the digital” raised similar pedantic hackles for me. “Digital” is an adjective, not a noun. And as with the slippage around “female,” discussing “the digital” evacuates that which it modifies: digital scholarship, digital pedagogy, digital citizenship, digital community. What matters most in all of these instances is the nouns – scholarship, pedagogy, citizenship, community – not the adjectival digital. This is not to say that adjectives don’t matter, as clearly digitizing these elements transforms their properties in vital ways that we must think through and address, but “the digital” is always secondary to the goals, practices, and impacts of those nouns.
As the director of Middlebury’s Digital Liberal Arts Initiative for the past three years, what has struck me as most important and vital in nearly every project, workshop, presentation, and conversation the DLA has sponsored is Liberal Arts as a mode of research, creativity, and learning, not the Digital facets that served to distinguish these nouns from typical activities at Middlebury. So yes, let’s try to reflect on “digital” as an adjectival modifier, an additional layer, and even (to reference other cringe-inducing buzzwords) as an element of transformation and innovation – but let’s retain our focus on the core nouns that are being modified.