56:842:554 Writing Machines (Fall 2016)

What does it mean to write with machines? We have long used machines to write, and those machines have always actively shaped how writing happens. Today, this question is extended even further, since we are writing alongside computational machines. From algorithms that generate news stories to bots that edit Wikipedia to the various "autocomplete" functions on our devices, computational machines are doing a great deal of writing. This course will ask how such machines force us to reconsider what we mean when we say we write "with" machines. More than mere tools, machines are collaborating with us and, in some cases, writing with very little human intervention. Students will both read about and experiment with various computational technologies. No technological expertise is required.
[Cross-Listed with 56:606:611]

Photo Credit: "Machine Kills Fascism" by Jordi Bernabeu Farrús


Professor: Jim Brown
Class Time: Wednesday, 6:00-8:50pm
Meeting Place: Fine Arts 217

Jim's Office: Fine Arts 213
Jim's Office Hours: TBA
Jim's Email: jim[dot]brown[at]rutgers[dot]edu

Course Website: http://courses.jamesjbrownjr.net/554_fall2016

Learning Outcomes
Upon completion of this class, students in this class will be able to:

  • Summarize and analyze academic arguments about how digital technology affects writing
  • Apply critical concepts to a range of texts and technologies
  • Create computational objects in Python and Processing

Required Books

Texts Available for Download (Sakai)
Flusser, Vilém. "The Gesture of Writing."
Liu, Lydia. "Writing." Critical Terms for Media Studies
Wellbery, David. Foreword to Friedrich Kittler's Discourse Networks
Kittler, Friedrich. Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. (excerpt)
McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media. (excerpt)
Rotman, Brian. Becoming Beside Ourselves. (excerpt)
Hayles, N. Katherine. My Mother Was a Computer. (excerpt)
Frabetti, Frederica. Software Theory
Vee, Annette. "Understanding Computer Programming as Literacy." Literacy in Composition Studies
Bogost, Ian. "Procedural Rhetoric." Persuasive Games
Brock, Kevin. "One Hundred Thousand Billion Processes: Oulipian Computation and the Composition of Digital Cybertexts." Technoculture
Rieder, David. "Snowballs and Other Numerate Acts of Textuality." Computers and Composition Online
Van Ittersum, Derek. "Computing Attachments: Engelbart’s Controversial Writing Technology." Computers and Composition
Chun, Wendy. Updating to Remain the Same. (excerpt)
Jones, John. "Network* Writing." Kairos
Carlson, Matt. "The Robotic Reporter." Digital Journalism
Maher, Jennifer. "Artificial Rhetorical Agents and the Computing of Phronesis." Computational Culture

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

  • Talking Points (10%)
  • Lab Materials (15%)
  • Short Paper and Presentation (25%)
  • Final Project (50%)

Grades will be assigned on the following scale:

A 90-100
B+ 87-89
B 80-86
C+ 77-79
C 70-76
D 60-69
F 59 and below

Success in this class will require regular attendance, and I will take attendance at each class meeting. 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 10 minutes late for class, you will be considered absent. If there is something keeping you from getting to class on time (i.e., bus or train schedules), 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.

Late Assignments
Due dates for assignments are posted on the course website. Late assignments are not accepted.

Intellectual Property
Using the work of others without attribution, 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 digital 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. I reserve the right to move things around if necessary.


The Gesture of Writing
September 7
Reading: Flusser, Liu
Lab: Montfort, Ch. 1 and Appendix A

(How) Do Media Determine Our Situation?
September 14
Reading: Wellbery, Kittler (Introduction pp. 1-21)
Lab: Montfort, Ch. 2-3

September 21
Reading: McLuhan (pp. 4-21), Rotman (through page 56)
Lab: Montfort, Ch. 4

Writing and Code
September 28
Reading: Hayles (Prologue, Chapter 1, Chapter 2), Frabetti (Chapter 2)
Lab: Montfort, Ch. 5

October 5
NO CLASS MEETING - Please complete reading and we will discuss electronically
Reading: Vee, Bogost
Lab: Montfort, Ch. 6

October 12
Reading: Rieder, Snowballs and other Numerate Acts of Textuality, Sample, Vee, et. al. "The Role of Computational Literacy in Computers and Writing"
Lab: Montfort, Ch. 7

Writing In/With Machines
October 19
Reading: Kirschenbaum (through chapter 5, page 118)
Lab: Montfort, Ch. 8

October 26
Reading: Kirschenbaum, Van Ittersum
Lab: Montfort, Ch. 9

November 2
Reading: Chun "Inhabiting Writing," Jones "Network* Writing"
Lab: Montfort - Complete a "Free Project" from chapters 1-9, be ready to share the project in class.

Writing Without Humans
November 9
Reading: Carlson, Maher
Lab: Montfort, Ch. 10

November 16
Lab: Montfort, Ch. 11

November 23

Writing Machines
November 30
ELC Presentations
Lab: Montfort, 12

December 7
Lab: Ch. 13-14

December 14
Final Project Presentations


Talking Points (10%)

Each class day, we'll discuss a reading assigment, and you should arrive with a set of questions and ideas that you'd like to pose during that discussion. In preparation, you should prepare 1-2 typed pages of "talking points." The format of this document is entirely up to you, but it should be a way for you to organize your thoughts in preparation for our discussion.

You'll use your talking points during discussion and then turn them in at the end of class. I will only be checking to make sure that you're completing these assignments and that you're doing the readings. Talking points are graded on a credit/no-credit basis, and if you do not receive credit for a talking points assignment I'll ask that you come speak with me.

Weekly Labs (15%)

Each week, we will work through a portion of Nick Montfort's Exploratory Programming for the Arts and Humanities. The book guides non-programmers through some programming basics and demonstrates how we can use computer programming to explore a range of questions in the arts and humanities. The book is written for those with little or no programming experience, though if you happen to be an experienced programmer you will also have an opportunity to extend that knowledge.

Chapters in this book include small programming activities, and Montfort guides us through how to complete them. Your task is to attempt to complete the assigned chapter prior to our class meeting that week; however, we will also work together on the chapter during an in-class lab session.

Regardless of whether or not you complete the chapter, you must come to class with some piece of working code. This can be a program that Montfort gives us directly (meaning that it only requires you to type a program straight from the book), a program you've adapted from something in the book or a program that you've written entirely by yourself.

The only requirement to receive credit for the weekly lab session is that you show me an example of working code. At the beginning of the lab session, you will have time to get the code up and running either on your own machine or on one of the machines in the classroom. I will walk around the room and confirm that you've completed the assignment.

Short Paper and Presentation (25%)

Once during the semester, each student will complete a short paper and presentation that analyzes a work from the Electronic Literature Collection, Volume 3. Students will turn in a paper and deliver a presentation on the work they've decided to analyze. Students must tell me in advance which work they will analyze, and we will schedule due dates during week five of the course.

Paper (15%)
Papers are to be a maximum of 1500 words (papers exceeding this limit will not be accepted), broken into two sections. First, the paper must describe the artifact in question in 500 words or less. That description should address things such as: What is it? How does it work? Who created it? What tools were used to create it? If there is a narrative component, what are the basics of that narrative? If it is a work of poetry, what does the poetry evoke? The second section of the paper will be a close analysis of the object that makes use of at least one theorist we have read. This section must be no longer than 1000 words. The analysis section can take one of two directions: 1) It can use the artifact you're analyzing to help us understand a theory we've read in a new way; 2) It can use a theory we've read to understand the artifact in a new way. Regardless, you should make clear what your argument is, and you should use evidence to support that argument. Remember that 1000 words is not a great deal of space, and the scope of your argument should relatively small. This may require you to focus on a single portion of a text we've read or on a small piece of the object you are analyzing. The key here is to understand what can be accomplished in 1000 words.

When grading papers, I will be looking for the following:

  • Have you followed the guidelines described above?
  • Have you effectively described the artifact?
  • Have you effectively incorporated one of the theories we've read during class?
  • Have you clearly stated your own analytic argument of the object?
  • Have you supported your argument with evidence?

Presentation (10%)
On the day you submit your paper, you will also deliver a presentation to the class in the Pecha Kucha format. We will discuss this format in class, and I will deliver a sample presentation in this format. The basics are as follows: Each presentation must have exactly 20 slides and each of those slides must be displayed for exactly 20 seconds (you must use the autoplay function of whichever presentation software you choose to ensure this timing). The result will be a presentation that is just under 7 minutes and that encapsulates your paper (both the summary and analysis sections).

When grading presentations, I will be looking for the following:

  • Have you followed the pecha kucha format?
  • Have you effectively summarized and describe your artifact?
  • Have you effectively communicated your analysis of your artifact?
  • Have you made effective use of visuals?

Final Project (50%)

Your final project will be some sort of computational object, and it will be developed with the help of Montfort's Exploratory Programming. The project can take any form, as long as it is rooted in the lessons of Montfort's text, and students are free to work either individually or in groups. The scope and scale of the project is up to you, though you should keep in mind that you are limited by time and by your skills (and the skills of those in your group).

While the final project accounts for 50% of your grade, the project actually has three components:

Project Proposal (10%)
Your project proposal is a one-page document that describes your goals for the project. The document should do three things: 1) Describe the project in detail; 2) Explain how the project will make use of the approaches and lessons from the Montfort text; 3) Provide a description of your work plan and timeline.

When grading proposals, I will be asking the following:

  • Does the document effectively describe the project?
  • Is the project rooted in the approaches in the Montfort text?
  • Is the work plan feasible?

Final Project (30%)
The project itself will be some kind of computational object, which you will submit on the last day of class. You should submit something that someone else can execute and view (and, if applicable, interact with), and your project should include instructions for users/readers/interactors.

When grading projects, I will be asking the following:

  • Does the project work, and is it clear to a user/reader/interactor how it works?
  • Does the project enact the approach provided by Montfort?
  • Does the project use computation in an effective and compelling way?

Project Presentation (10%)
The last day of class will feature presentations for each final project. Presentations should provide some context for the project, explain its inspiration, describe the development process, and lay out what it hopes to achieve. Presentations must be no longer than 10 minutes and must include a demonstration of the project.

  • Does the presentation effectively describe the project, its development, its inspirations, and its goals?
  • Does the presentation make effective use of visuals?
  • Does the presentation effectively demonstrate how the project works?
  • Does the presentation observe the 10-minute time limit?

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).