50:350:394 Introduction to the Digital Humanities (Spring 2015)

What does the artist, historian, or literary scholar have to say about the computational platforms and formats that shape our digital lives? This course will address that question by treating digital technologies as both expressive media and as objects worthy of humanistic study. The goal of the course is to provide students with a space to use digital tools to create things (such as art, electronic literature, and games) and also to develop critical vocabularies for analyzing digital objects. We will examine a number of digital formats and platforms, from the MP3 to the Atari 2600 videogame system. Students will also examine a number of videogames, works of electronic literature, and a range of other digital objects. No technological expertise is required, and students will be encouraged to experiment and tinker with a variety of platforms. The class will take place in the brand new Digital Studies Center CoLab, a collaborative learning space in the Fine Arts building.


Professor: Jim Brown
Class Meeting Place: Digital Studies Center CoLab (Fine Arts 217)
Class Time: Tuesday/Thursday, 9:30-10:50

Jim's Office: Fine Arts 213
Jim's Office Hours: Tuesday/Thursday 11:00-12:00 [Make an Appointment]
Jim's Email: jim[dot]brown[at]rutgers[dot]edu

Course Website: http://courses.jamesjbrownjr.net/394_spring2015

Learning Outcomes
Students in this class will learn to:

  • analyze and synthesize academic arguments.
  • identify and then apply research methods in the digital humanities.
  • develop effective writing and design processes by creating drafts and prototypes and incorporating feedback from peers and instructors.
  • cultivate strategies for collaborating with others on writing and design projects.

Required Texts:
Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System, Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost
MP3: The Meaning of a Format, Jonathan Sterne
Flash: Building the Interactive Web, Anastasia Salter and John Murray

We will also read excerpts of other texts, and these will be provided as PDFs on Sakai.

Course Work
In this class, the following work will be evaluated:

  • Attendance and Participation
  • Reading Quizzes
  • "Follow-a-footnote" Presentation
  • Extended research project on a digital platform or format
  • Learning Record

Learning Record
Grades in this class will be determined by the Learning Record Online (LR). The LRO will require you to observe your own learning and construct an argument for your grade based on evidence that you accumulate throughout the semester. You will record weekly observations, and you will synthesize your work into an argument for your grade. You will construct this argument twice - once at the midterm and once at the end of the course. We will be discussing the LRO at length during the first week of class. See below for more details.

Success in this class will require regular attendance. I will take attendance at each class meeting, and your Learning Record will include a discussion of attendance. You are required to attend class daily, arrive on time, do assigned reading and writing, and participate in all in-class work. Please save absences for when you are sick or have a personal emergency. If you find that an unavoidable problem prevents you from attending class or from arriving on time, please discuss the problem with me.

If you are more than 5 minutes late for class, you will be considered absent. If there is something keeping you from getting to class on time (i.e., you have a long trek across campus right before our class), please let me know during the first week of class.

Computers, Smartphones, etc.
Please feel free to use your computer or any other device during class, provided that your use of it is related to what we are working on in class. Please silence cell phones during class.

Grades in this course will be determined by use of the Learning Record, a system which requires students to compile a portfolio of work at the midterm and at the end of the semester. These portfolios present a selection of your work, both formal and informal, plus ongoing observations about your learning, plus an analysis of your work in terms of the five dimensions of learning and the goals for this course. You will evaluate your work in terms of the grade criteria posted on the LRO site, and you will provide a grade estimate at the midterm and final.

The dimensions of learning have been developed by teachers and researchers, and they represent what learners experience in any learning situation:

1) Confidence and independence
2) Knowledge and understanding
3) Skills and strategies
4) Use of prior and emerging experience
5) Reflectiveness

In addition to analyzing your work in terms of these dimensions of learning, your argument will also consider the specific goals for this course. These goals are called Course Strands (these are also listed above in the "Course Objectives" section):

1) Analysis and synthesis of academic arguments
2) Identification and application of digital humanities research methods.
3) Writing and design process
4) Collaboration strategies

The LRO website provides detailed descriptions of the Course Strands and the Dimensions of Learning.

Your work in class (and in other classes during this semester) along with the observations you record throughout the semester will help you build an argument in terms of the dimensions of learning and the course strands. We will discuss the LRO in detail at the beginning of the semester, and we will have various conversations about compiling the LRO as the semester progresses.

Late Assignments
Due dates for assignments are posted on the course schedule. While I will not be grading your assignments, I will be providing comments and feedback. I will not provide feedback on late assignments. Also, late assignments will be factored into your argument in the LR (see the grade criteria for more details).

Intellectual Property
All writing and design involves some level of appropriation - we cite the work of others and in some cases we even imitate that work. However, copying and pasting existing texts, having another student complete an assignment for you, or any other violations of the university's Academic Integrity Policy will result in a failing grade. If you have questions about the that policy, please see the Dean of Student Affairs website.

The Office of Disability Services
From the The Office of Disability Services (ODS):

"The ODS provides students with confidential advising and accommodation services in order to allow students with documented physical, mental, and learning disabilities to successfully complete their course of study at Rutgers University – Camden. The ODS provides for the confidential documentation and verification of student accommodations, and communicates with faculty regarding disabilities and accommodations. The ODS provides accommodation services, which can include readers, interpreters, alternate text, special equipment, and note takers. The ODS acts as a signatory for special waivers. The ODS also works with students, faculty, staff and administrators to enforce the American with Disabilities Act of 1990."

If you believe you might require an accommodation, please contact the ODS early in the semester.

Technology Policy
We will use technology frequently in this class. Although I am assuming that you have some basic knowledge of computers, such as how to use a keyboard and mouse, and how to use the Web and check e-mail, most things will be explained in class. If you don’t understand what we are doing, please ask for help. If you are familiar with the technology we are using please lend a helping hand to your classmates.

Sakai, Course Website, and Email
You should check your email daily. Class announcements and assignments may be distributed through email. The course website will also have important information about assignments and policies. Pay close attention to the course calendar as we move through the semester. We reserve the right to move things around if necessary.

Emails to me must come from your wisc.edu email address. They must include a title explaining the email, a salutation (for example, "Dear Jim"), a clear explanation of what the email is about, and a signature.


** Denotes due dates that are not class meeting days
Students should be prepared for reading quizzes on any day that reading is assigned


In Class: Syllabus Review, discuss Learning Record, What do we mean by the term "digital humanities"?

Read: Kirschenbaum's "What is digital humanities and what is it doing in English departments? (Download on Sakai), Bartscherer and Coover's Switching Codes Introduction (Download on Sakai)
In Class: Discuss readings, discuss Learning Record

No Class--Weather Emergency

Read: Burdick et. al.'s Digital_Humanities Introduction (Download on Sakai), Berry's Understanding Digital Humanities Introduction (Download on Sakai), Ian Bogost's "Getting Real"
In Class: Discuss readings, discuss Learning Record

LRO Part A Due at midnight

Read: Emerson's Reading Writing Interfaces, excerpt (Download on Sakai)
In Class: Discuss reading, schedule Pecha Kucha presentations

Read: Kirschenbaum Track Changes, excerpt (Download on Sakai)
In Class: Discuss reading

Racing the Beam

Read: Front Matter and Chapter 1
In Class: Skimming and Outlining

Read: Chapter 2
In Class: Discuss readings

Read: Chapter 3-5
In Class: Discuss readings

Write: Preliminary research on at least two platforms
In Class: Share findings

Read: Chapter 6-8, Afterword
In Class: Research Method Debriefing

Flash: Building the Interactive Web

Read: Front Matter and Chapter 1
In Class: Skimming and Outlining

Project Proposal Due by midnight

Read: Chapters 2-3
In Class: Discuss readings

In Class: LRO Workshop

Midterm LRO Due by midnight

Read: Chapters 4-5
In Class: Discuss readingsLRO Workshop

Class meets during free period in Fine Arts 215 for Charlotte Markey's presentation

Read: Chapter 6-7
In Class: Research Method Debriefing

MP3: The Meaning of a Format

Read: Introduction, "Format Theory"
In Class: Skimming and Outlining

Read: Chapter 1
In Class: Discuss readings

Read: Chapter 2
In Class: Discuss readings

Research Method Paper Due

Read: Chapter 4
In Class: Discuss readings

Read: Chapter 5
In Class: Discuss readings, Project Status Reports

Read: Conclusion, "The End of MP3"
In Class: Research Method Debriefing


In Class: Project Status Reports, Workshop

In Class: Project Status Reports, Workshop

In Class: Workshop

Final Project and SOGC Due

In Class: Final Presentations

In Class: Final Presentations

May 6**
Final LRO Due by midnight

Rules of Engagement

What is the purpose of a graduate seminar, and how does one use such a space to usefully engage with texts? I offer this document as an answer to that question and as a kind of constitution for our class.

The military root of the phrase "rules of engagement" is unfortunate because we are actually interested in something as nonviolent as possible. Of course, any interpretation of a text will do violence to it. This is the nature of interpretation. We fit a text or a set of ideas into a pre-existing framework that we already have. This is unavoidable. But we can try our best to forestall that violence or to at least soften the blow. In the interest of this kind of approach, I offer the following rules:

1. Disagreement and agreement are immaterial.

Our primary task is to understand, and this does not require agreement or disagreement. The only agreement the seminar asks of you is this: I agree to read, consider, analyze, and ask questions about these texts.

In his essay "The Rhetoric of Hitler's Battle," Kenneth Burke presents us with a succinct encapsulation of this first rule of engagement:

The appearance of Mein Kampf in unexpurgated translation has called for far too many vandalistic comments. There are other ways of burning books than on the pyre - and the favorite method of the hasty reviewer is to deprive himself and his readers by inattention. I maintain that it is thoroughly vandalistic for the reviewer to content himself with the mere inflicting of a few symbolic wounds upon this book and its author, of an intensity varying with the resources of the reviewer and the time at his disposal. Hitler's "Battle" is exasperating, even nauseating; yet the fact remains: If the reviewer but knocks off a few adverse attitudinizings and calls it a day, with a guaranty in advance that his article will have a favorable reception among the decent members of our population, he is contributing more to our gratification than to our enlightenment" (The Philosophy of Literary Form, 191)

Of course, we will not be reading anything like Mein Kampf, but the principle still stands. We are more interested in enlightenment than gratification.

2. An argument is a machine to think with.

This is another version of I.A. Richards's claim that “a book is a machine to think with." The "with" here should be read in two different ways simultaneously. We read "with" an argument by reading alongside it. We "tarry" with it. We get very close to it and join it during a long walk. Notice that this requires that we stay with the author rather than diverging down a different path, questioning the route, or pulling out our own map. But "with" here also means that the argument is a tool that we must first understand before using. Our job is to learn how this tool works. It has multiple moving parts and purposes. It has multiple audiences. We need to understand all of this before we make any attempt to use the argument, and we certainly need to do all of this before we can even think about disagreeing with it.

3. Ask that question sincerely, or the principle of "generous reading."

Why the hell would s/he argue that? If you find yourself asking this question, then take the next step by answering your own question. Why would s/he argue that? If I am indignant about the argument, does this suggest that I am not the audience? If the argument seems ridiculous, is it relying on definitions that I find foreign? If I think the argument is brilliant, is it because I am in fact the target audience, so much so that I am having a difficult time gaining any kind of critical distance?

The principle of "generous reading" has little to do with being "nice." Instead, it is more about reading in a generative way, in a way that opens the text up rather than closes it down. This requires that we read a text on its own terms, understanding how an argument is deploying certain concepts and ideas (see Rule #2).


Reading Quizzes

We will have quizzes throughout the semester. These quizzes will be timed, and they will be based on the reading assignments. While we won't have a quiz for every reading assignment, students should be prepared for quizzes each day reading is assigned. You will be allowed to use the texts themselves as well as reading notes for those quizzes, and these notes can come in any form you'd like.

Reading notes as well as quiz results will be used as work samples for the Learning Record. If you take notes on paper and would like to use those as work samples, you will need to provide me with photocopies or scans.

Feedback on quizzes will be in the following form:

✔+ (Check plus)
Answers demonstrate a command of the material. It is clear from the answers that you've carefully read the material and have successfully understood the text's argument, evidence, and methods.

✔ (Check)
Answers demonstrate that you have read but that there are gaps in understanding. You have made some attempt to understand the text's argument, evidence, and methods, but those attempts have fallen short.

✔- (Check minus)
Answers demonstrate that you have not read the assignment or made any attempt to understand the text's argument, evidence, and methods.

Pecha Kucha Presentation

Once during the semester, each student will review a chapter from an edited collection about the digital humanities. You can choose a chapter from these collections: Digital_Humanities, Debates in the Digital Humanities, Understanding Digital Humanities, Switching Codes, Rhetoric and the Digital Humanities.

Reviews will take the form of a Pecha Kucha presentation - a presentation of 20 slides, each shown for 20 seconds (6 minutes and 40 seconds total). For more information on this presentation format, visit PechaKucha.org.

I will help students choose appropriate texts for review, and you should see me for approval before reading the text and preparing your presentation. Your primary task in this presentation is to explain how the argument works and how it relates to the books we are reading as a class. You should not focus your efforts on an evaluation of the argument or on whether or not you disagree with the author. See the grading criteria below for some tips about how to approach these reviews.

When providing feedback on these presentations, I will be looking for the following:

  • Does your presentation adequately summarize the text and its argument?
  • Do you explain the text's significance, its most important features, and its contributions to a scholarly conversation?
  • Have you explained how this text connects with the texts we're reading for this class?
  • Have you avoided a discussion of whether or not you disagree with the author? Have you avoided a discussion of flaws or shortcomings in the argument?
  • Have you followed the rules of engagement
  • Have you paid close attention to the design of your slides? Remember that you should probably use very little text (20 seconds isn't a long time for your audience to read through long lists of bullet points) and make effective use of images.
  • Is there evidence that you've practiced the presentation? This presentation doesn't require memorization, but the strict format requires that you rehearse and choreograph your performance.
  • Have you followed the Pecha Kucha rules (20 slides, shown for 20 seconds each)

Platform or Format Research Project

The texts we're reading in this class take up various digital platforms and formats from the perspective of the humanities. They examine the histories and cultures embedded in platforms in formats. Throughout the semester, you will be conducting your own detailed research project on a digital platform or format. Your task is the emulate the scholars we're reading and to put into practice some of the research methods you see them using.

This project is broken into multiple components. Follow the links below for more details.

Research Proposal

Due Date: February 27

Your research proposal is a 750-word document that describes what digital platform or format you would like to study. Your proposal should address the following questions:

  • What do you want to study and why?
  • Who else has studied this platform or format? How have they done so? If you have been unable to find any existing research, why do you think that is?
  • What kinds of materials do you plan to examine?
  • How do you plan to approach these materials? We have read research (Racing the Beam and Flash) that gives you some clues about research methodology, and you should cite those texts when discussing the method you plan to use.
  • You can make your argument using various media (words, sound, image, video, and so on). What medium are you planning to use for this project, and why?

While this document is not a contract and your project might shift as you do research, your proposal should demonstrate that you've done preliminary research and have carefully considered how you will approach this semester-long project.

When providing feedback on these proposals, I will be looking for the following:

  • Have you provided adequate and detailed answers to the questions listed above?
  • Have you cited our readings when discussing how you'll approach this research?
  • Is your proposal effectively designed? Can I easily follow your arguments and answers to these questions? The design of the document is up to you (subheadings, diagrams, etc.), but that design should demonstrate that you've designed it with a purpose.
  • Is your proposal generally well-written and free of grammatical errors?

Research Method Paper

Due Date: April 6

Throughout the semester, we've been reading the work of scholars who study platforms and formats, and we have been playing close attention to their research methods. Do they study certain kinds of documents? Do they study circuit boards or software? What methods do they use to approach these materials? Do they close read snippets of code, or do they conduct historical analysis of technologies?

In this 750-word research method paper, you will describe your own research method for your Platform/Format project. Your method might be nearly identical to one of the scholars we have read this semester, or it might be an amalgamation of these methods. In this paper, you should describe that method and why it will help you to study the object you've chosen.

When providing feedback on these proposals, I will be looking for the following:

  • Does your paper demonstrate that you understand the methods of the scholars we've read?
  • Have you carefully described your research method?
  • Have you justified your research method, explaining why it is the best fit for the evidence that you've found during the research project?
  • Have you described the materials you will analyze and how you plan to approach them?
    Is the document effectively designed? Can I easily follow your arguments? The design of the document is up to you (subheadings, diagrams, etc.), but that design should demonstrate that you've designed it with a purpose.
  • Is your proposal generally well-written and free of grammatical errors?

Final Project & Statement of Goals and Choices

Due Date: April 27

Your final project will show us the results of your platform or format research. The project can take any form and use any medium you choose, but you should choose that form or medium with a purpose. If you chose to make a short film, what is it about moving images that allows you to make your argument? If you choose to use sound, what does it afford you as you present the material? If you decide to write a paper, what is it about words on a page that make it the most useful medium for your project? These are just three examples, but the idea is to choose a medium and design your project with a purpose.

In addition to the project itself, you will compose a Statement of Goals and Choices (SOGC). This is an assignment that comes from Jody Shipka's book Toward a Composition Made Whole, and it asks you to reflect on why you built your project the way you did. There is no minimum or maximum number of words for the SOGC - it takes as many words as you think it takes to explain why you made certain choices and what you were trying to accomplish with the project.

The SOGC should answer the following questions:

  • What, specifically, is this piece trying to accomplish - above and beyond satisfying the basic requirements outlined in the task description? In other words, what work does, or might, this piece do? For whom? In what contexts?
  • What specific, rhetorical, material, methodological, and technological choices did you make in service of accomplishing the goal(s) articulated above? Catalog, as well, choices that you might not have consciously made, those that were made for you when you opted to work with certain genres, materials, and technologies.
  • Why did you end up pursuing this plan as opposed to the others you came up with? How did the various choices listed above allow you to accomplish things that other sets or combinations of choices would not have?

When providing feedback on your project and SOGC, I will be looking for the following:

  • Does your project demonstrate detailed and in-depth research of your platform or format?
  • Have you carefully considered your research method and made that method clear to the audience?
    Is your project effectively designed? Is there evidence that you've carefully chosen your medium and that the medium is appropriate for what you're trying to communicate?
  • Does your SOGC address all of the questions listed above?
  • Is your SOGC (or your project, if it uses written language) generally well-written and free of grammatical errors?

Final Presentation

Due Date: Presentations will happend during class on April 28 and 30

Your final presentation will be your opportunity to show off the work you've done during the semester-long research project. The format of these presentations will be the same as the Follow-a-Footnote presentations. They will be Pecha Kucha presentations (20 slides, 20 seconds per slide), and they will walk the class through your project, your research method, your findings, and the reflections you offered in your SOGC. Each presentation will be followed by a brief Q&A.

When providing feedback on these presentations, I will be looking for the following:

  • Does your presentation adequately describe your project, its findings, and its research method?
  • Does your presentation provide the highlights of your SOGC?
  • Have you paid close attention to the design of your slides? Remember that you should probably use very little text (20 seconds isn't a long time for your audience to read through long lists of bullet points) and make effective use of images.
  • Is there evidence that you've practiced the presentation? This presentation doesn't require memorization, but the strict format requires that you rehearse and choreograph your performance.
  • Have you followed the Pecha Kucha rules (20 slides, shown for 20 seconds each)