English 706: New Media Interfaces and Infrastructures (Fall 2013)

New media scholarship is pushing beyond the study of texts or artifacts and attempting to study the systems, infrastructures, codes, and platforms that produce those artifacts. By examining and tinkering with the interfaces and infrastructures of new media, scholars across various disciplines and subdisciplines are looking to develop research methods that account for how interfaces are shaped by computational and networked infrastructures.

In this course, we will examine and enter this conversation, exploring how new media technologies expand the available means of persuasion and shape writing and expression. We will read and apply theories that link our interface experiences with texts, images, and sounds to the computational infrastructures that help to shape those experiences. We will also work in various digital environments to produce digital artifacts and scholarship. No technological expertise is required for this course, and students will have the freedom to tinker in platforms with which they have little or no experience.


English 706: New Media Interfaces and Infrastructures

Professor: Jim Brown
Class Meeting Place: 2252 Helen C. White
Class Time: Wednesday, 9:00am-11:30am
Office: 6187E Helen C. White
Office Hours: Monday 12:30-2:30 [Make an Appointment]
Email: brownjr [at] wisc [dot] edu
Website: http://courses.jamesjbrownjr.net/706_fall2013

Course Goals:

  • Analyze and synthesize recent scholarship on digital media
  • Research various hardware and software platforms
  • Collaborate on digital media projects

Required Texts:

These texts are available for purchase at Rainbow Bookstore

  • Brooke, Collin. Lingua Fracta: Towards a Rhetoric of New Media
  • Chun, Wendy. Programmed Visions: Software and Memory
  • Galloway, Alexander and Eugene Thacker. The Exploit
  • Jones, Steven and George K. Thiruvathukal. Codename Revolution: The Nintendo Wii Platform
  • Kirschenbaum, Matthew. Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination
  • Ramsay, Stephen. Reading Machines: Toward an Algorithmic Criticism
  • Wardrip-Fruin, Noah. Expressive Processing: Expressive Processing: Digital Fictions, Computer Games, and Software Studies

Other Readings (available for download):

Learning Record
Grades in this class will be determined by the Learning Record Online (LRO). 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 LR) at length during the first week of class. See below for more details.

Course Work (More details available in Assignments section of the website)

  • Attendance
    Success in this class will require regular attendance as we discuss the readings and share work.
  • Questions for Discussion
    For each assigned reading, I will create a Google Document in which you should post questions for discussion. See the Assignments section for more details.
  • Group Lab Projects
  • Final Project (group or individual)

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 scholarly arguments
2) Digital Media Research
3) Collaboration

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.


Introduction: Beyond Screen Essentialism

September 4
Read: Kirschenbaum (through page 158), Montfort

September 11
Read: Kirschenbaum, Burgess (Dropbox)


September 18
Read: Wardrip Fruin (through page 168), Bogost (Dropbox)

September 25
Lab Day

October 2
Read: Wardrip-Fruin, Rieder "Snowballs"
Book Review: Lauren

October 9
Software Studies Presentations
Read: Chun, Losh (Dropbox)


October 16
Read: Jones and Thiruvathukal, Montfort and Bogost (Dropbox)
Book Review: Jenna

October 19
Midterm Learning Record due at noon

October 23
Lab Day
Book Review: Jim

October 30
Read: Banks, Prologue and Introduction, (Dropbox), Rieder "Gui to Nui," Selfe and Selfe (Dropbox)
Book Review: Rick

November 6
Open Lab
Book Review: Kathleen


November 13
Platform Studies Presentations
Book Review: Neil

November 20
Proposals for Final Project Due
Read: Galloway and Thacker
Book Review: Deidre and Anthony

November 27
Read: Brooke, Manovich (Dropbox)
Book Review: Maggie

December 4
Read: Ramsey, Brock "One Hundred Thousand Billion Processes: Oulipian Computation and the Composition of Digital Cybertexts"
Lab Day (Eric Alexander visits)
Book Review: Andrew

December 11
Final Presentations

December 17
Final Learning Record due at 9:00pm


Questions for Discussion (Google Docs)

For each reading, we will have a shared Google Document in which you will post questions prior to class. These contributions will not be graded, but participation is required.

By midnight on Monday, you should post two different kinds of questions to our Google Document:

1) Questions of Clarification
These questions should be about terms or concepts you didn't understand or about moments in the argument you found unclear. These questions are, for the most part, focused on understanding the reading, and we will address these first during class discussion.

2) Questions for Discussion
These questions are more geared toward opening up class discussion, and they can be focused on connections you see to other readings, the implications of the argument we've read, or ways that you think the argument might be applied to research questions.

This document will be open during class discussion, and it will serve as a collaborative note-taking space.

Book Review Pecha Kucha

Once during the semester, each student will review a book that is cited by one of the texts we've read as a class (you cannot review a text that is on the syllabus). 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).

Your primary task in this review is to explain how the argument works and how it engages with other scholarship. 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, and please feel free to ask me questions.

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?
  • Have you followed the Pecha Kucha rules (20 slides, shown for 20 seconds each)

Software Studies Presentation

During our unit on software, we will be reading about different approaches to analyzing new media objects at the level of code and computation. In groups, you will testing out these approaches and analyzing computational objects. The objects we will be analyzing are:

Reagan Library, a work of electronic literature by Stuart Moulthrop
Taroko Gorge, a poetry generator by Nick Montfort
ELIZA, a version of the famous ELIZA chatbot created by Michael Wallace

Each of these objects is written in Javascript, but you do not need to be an expert in Javascript to conduct an analysis of them. As you examine the code, you might find the W3Schools documentation on Javascript useful. Each group will be assigned one of these objects and will be tasked with doing three things:

1) Providing a detailed explanation of how the program works. This explanation should be accessible to non-programmers, but it can and should contain snippets of code along with explanations of that code. The key here is to provide a detailed account of how the software is doing what it is doing.

2) Providing an interpretation of the object's use of computational processes using some of the theories and approaches we are examining in class (including, but not limited to, concepts such as expressive processing, procedural rhetoric, invisible code, etc.)

3) Create a "remix" of your assigned work.

The first two tasks will be completed as part of a collaboratively authored paper, but the third will most likely take the form of a web page. In class, we will discuss some ways of approaching the remix portion of the assignment.

You will share your papers with me and classmates using Dropbox, but you can use Google Documents to collaboratively author those papers. In addition, you will have the opportunity to present your work in class. This presentation will be a somewhat informal one, in which you will walk us through how your object works and how you've chosen to remix it.

When responding to these projects, here are the questions I'll be asking:

  • Have you provided an accessible and accurate account of how this object works
  • Does your interpretation of the work link computational mechanism to surface effects, explaining how computation is being used as an express and/or rhetorical medium?
  • Does your remix transform the work, taking the existing data and processes in a new direction to make new arguments and express new ideas?
  • Is your paper clearly written and generally free of grammatical errors?
  • Does the project show evidence that the group has effectively collaborated on both the paper and the remix?

Platform Studies Presentation

In Racing the Beam, Bogost and Montfort try to draw attention to an area of new media research that has been neglected - platform. Offering a description of the various levels of new media studies - reception/operation, interface, form/function, code, platform - they suggest that a platform is "a cultural artifact that is shaped by values and forces and which expresses views bout the world, ranging from 'games are typically played by two players who may be of different ages and skill levels' to 'the wireless service provider, not the owner of the phone, determines what programs may be run" (148). A study of platform is a study of what shapes and constrains the design and use of certain new media artifacts.

While Bogost and Montfort say that platform studies need not focus on hardware (as their study of the Atari 2600 does), we will be undertaking a platform study by way of hardware. While the software studies project focused on the code and form/function levels (along with some attention to reception/operation and interface), this project moves to platforms.

The class will be divided into two groups. One group will study the Nintendo Entertainment System, and the other will study the Macintosh Classic. Our focus is not only on these pieces of hardware (though, we will look at them closely) but also on the platforms out of which they emerged. We will study the NES console as a window into the NES platform and the Macintosh Classic as a window into the Macintosh platform.

One goal is to examine how "hardware and software platforms influences, facilitates, or constrains particular forms of computational expression" (Bogost and Montfort). While this is a focus on how platforms affect design and designers, we will also be interested in how that platform shapes the end user experience.

The aim is to use these two pieces of hardware to ask broader questions about the platforms out of which they emerged, and this approach is one more way of paying close attention to the "guts" of our various new media interfaces and infrastructures.

Just as we did with the software studies project, you will produce both a paper and an informal presentation. You will share your papers with me and classmates using Dropbox, but you can use Google Documents to collaboratively author those papers. In addition, you will have the opportunity to present your work in class. Again, this presentation will be a somewhat informal one, in which you will walk us through the system you are studying (both at the level of the particular piece of hardware and its platform).

When responding to these projects, here are the questions I'll be asking:

  • Have you provided an accessible and accurate account of the technical details of your object of study and its platform?
  • Does your study demonstrate how the platform shapes or constrains the activities of both designers and end users?
  • Does your study shed light on the particularities of this platform, the cultures out of which it emerged, and its various idiosyncracies?
  • Is your paper clearly written and generally free of grammatical errors?
  • Does the project show evidence that the group has effectively collaborated on both the paper and the presentation?

Final Projects

The final project for this course will be a paper and/or a digital object that accounts for new media at the level of both interface and infrastructure. Throughout the semester, we have talked about theories and approaches to new media that move beyond reception or surface effects. We have attempted to link these surface affects to various computational mechanisms and infrastructures. You will continue this work in the final project.

The final project can be a continuation or expansion of one of the group projects (software studies or platform studies), but it does not have to be. You can collaborate with other students, or you can choose to work on your own project.

If the final project is a piece of writing, it should be the length of a typical journal article (roughly 6000-8000 words), and you should have a particular journal in mind while writing it. If your project includes both writing and a digital component, the writing can be shorter than this. If your project is a purely digital composition, it should (on its own) demonstrate a significant scholarly intervention.

Projects are due on December 11, and we will do informal presentations of projects on this same day. The possibilities for this project are pretty much wide open, but you will need to complete a project proposal (500-1000 words) by November 20. That proposal should include the following:

  • Abstract: 250 words that explains the project, its argument(s), and its intervention(s)
  • Research Question(s): What question or questions are you asking? This should be a clearly articulated question or set of questions that engage with existing research.
  • Method/Approach: We've covered approaches and methods such as software studies and platform studies. While you are not confined to these methods for your project, your proposal should lay out what method or approach you plan to use. That might be a qualitative research method, rhetorical analysis, any of the approaches we've covered in class, or any other method that is appropriate for what you hope to accomplish.
  • Work Plan: What will you accomplish between November 20 and December 11, and how will you accomplish it? This should be as detailed as possible, and it should provide a realistic timeline for your work.

I will provide written feedback on these proposals that addresses the feasibility of the project and that helps you further refine your research questions and approaches.

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).