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Teaching with Literature in the Digital Age

I wrote Literature in the Digital Age with several audiences in mind. I wanted it to be a starting point for faculty in literature departments interested in learning more about Digital Humanities (especially those skeptical about whether it really added anything to literary studies). I wanted it to be useful to graduate students who hadn’t been trained in digital methods and wanted to get a sense of what was at stake. And I wanted it to stir the curiosity of anyone interested in how literature is adapting to the digital age.

Most of all, though, I wrote it for students and teachers of undergraduate literature classes.

“Literature in the Digital Age” vs. “Introduction to Digital Humanities”

When I was asked to teach the first session of “The Digital Text” at the University of Toronto in 2011, I did a lot of research on how these sorts of classes were taught. I saw some amazing syllabi, but most were disappointing. I was particularly unhappy with the model of the “Introduction to Digital Humanities” class. I felt then — and I feel now — that “Digital Humanities” is much too broad a designation to be useful as a focus for an undergraduate course in a literature department. For grad students who already know their field, maybe. But for undergraduates who are still getting their bearings on literary studies, a much more useful approach is to focus specifically on how the digital age is affecting the field of literature.

Rather than teaching “Intro to DH,” I like to teach “Literature in the Digital Age.” (Note that I am currently teaching a course that is on the books as “Intro to DH” as “Lit in the Digital Age” — so if you’ve been assigned “Intro to DH,” don’t let the name get in the way!) In the classroom, I break this down into four units. The first, focused on theory, sets up the big questions about how digital textuality implies new models of consciousness and of political and social organization. The second unit looks at digitization — at what happens when you digitize a text that was originally published in print or in manuscript. The third unit (one I find sadly lacking in too many “Intro to DH” classes) looks at born-digital literature: at the new expressive possibilities of texts written and read on digital devices, including videogames (which I’d really like to see become a key part of the literature curriculum). The final unit (another frequent casualty of “Intro to DH” courses) focuses on the way that contemporary print literature is responding and adapting to the digital age.

I’ve structured my book into these same four sections. Though I’ve had some success shifting the order around (moving digital-age print literature to the beginning of the course works well, as does teaching born-digital before digitization) this remains my preferred order.

How much hands-on coding you want to work into this course remain very much up to you, and depends especially on the size of the class. When I taught this class at the University of Toronto, I had huge 200-student lectures, but each also met in 20-student tutorial groups with TAs, so we were able to work in lab sessions on quantitative analysis and text encoding. Currently, at San Diego State, I’m teaching a small group of 20 students, so I’m going all out with coding: we’re learning HTML, CSS, Twine (a truly amazing way to teach programming through hypertext fiction), and the R programming language. But I’m still using the basic structure and approach laid out in this book, and relying heavily on it to set up the theoretical and historical “stakes” of DIY coding (for instance, setting up the importance of Twine through theoretical debates in the 1990s about hypertext and the “short-circuit” model of digital publication).

Literature in the Digital Age and/as “Introduction to Literature”

In trying to reframe and refocus the standard “Intro to DH” course into a class about the ways that literature is adapting to the digital age, my intention wasn’t to create a general “Introduction to Literature” course. But more and more, I realize that Literature in the Digital Age works well in that role. By approaching literary history through the frame of contemporary digital media, and by expanding focus beyond print and into born-digital forms and videogames, the book offers a nice balance of the canonical and the cutting-edge, and offers up-to-date frameworks for approaching centuries-old texts. This wasn’t how I originally envisioned it, but I hope this book is used in Intro to Literature courses. And in a very generous and very early review on Twitter, Alan Liu agreed:

Here, then, are some suggestions for texts and resources on a unit-by-unit basis, as well as some sample syllabi and examples of assignments and essay questions.

I’ve divided this guide into three sections:

Course Units, Key Questions, and Suggested Texts

Below, I break the book down into a number of discrete units and sub-units. Each sub-unit corresponds to a chapter of Literature in the Digital Age, and each unit to a section of the book. For each sub-unit, I suggest some guiding questions for lectures and recommend some texts to assign. (I indicate texts more suited for graduate or honors upper division classes with “grad” in parentheses.)

Unit 1: Theory (1-3 weeks)

1a. Is Literature Dying in the Digital Age?

Key questions:

  • Is our privileged notion of rational, linear subjectivity premised on a medium — the book — that fostered the ability to concentrate in depth and at length?
  • Is this model of subjectivity being recast in the face of a new medium that encourages discontinuous reading habits?
  • If print supported the notion of the individual, does digital textuality imply notions of group consciousness?
  • Does the digital — with its promise of unrestricted access and universal participation — herald a more democratic age?

Suggested texts:

1b. Media Shifts: Literary Thought in Media History

Many of the topics and texts listed here are more suited to graduate than to undergraduate classes, but the chapter itself provides the basis for good undergraduate classroom discussion.

Key questions:

  • How did literary thinkers respond to earlier shifts in literary technology, from oral to written language and from manuscript to print?
  • How closely did their anxieties parallel the anxieties of writers like Carr and Birkerts, and the enthusiasms of writers like Shirky and McLuhan?
  • How did modernist writers and theorists respond to the rise of electronic media such as radio and television? Was the challenge of new media fruitful for literary thought? How?
  • How was the rise of literary studies as a discipline spurred by the rise of new media (mass media, radio, film, television, etc.)?

Suggested texts:

  • LitDA, ch. 2
  • Ann Blair, Too Much to Know (grad)
  • Andrew Piper, Book Was There (grad)
  • Jessica Pressman, Digital Modernism (grad)

Unit 2: Digitization (4-6 weeks)

2a. The Universal Library

Key questions:

  • The digital medium makes it technically possible to grant universal access (free and instantaneous) of any printed text that has been scanned and made available online. How does this change our conception of what a (print) library is and what it does?
  • What would be the social and artistic consequences of universal digital access to every literary text?
  • If universal digital access is technically possible, why has it not been achieved in practice? (Copyright!)
  • What are the most significant differences between the major contemporary attempts at building universal digital libraries (Project Gutenberg, Google Books, the Digital Public Library of America, etc.)? Which is the most appealing and why?

Suggested texts:

  • LitDA, ch. 3
  • Jorge Luis Borges, “The Library of Babel”
  • Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (excerpts)
  • H. G. Wells, “World Brain: The Idea of a Permanent World Encyclopaedia”
  • Robert Darnton, “Google and the Future of Books”

2b. Digital Editions and the Complexity of Remediation

Key questions:

  • Many writers of the print era (Blake and Dickinson among them) chose not to publish in print. What motivated their aversion to print publication?
  • Can digital editions resolve or rectify the shortcomings that these authors identified? What are the advantages of digital presentation?
  • When a digital edition sets out to “rescue” a text from print — or to offer an “enhanced” experience — can it offer a truly “authentic” re-presentation? What is lost in translation from analog to digital?
  • Do collaboratively edited digital editions have the power to transfer authority from editor to reader?

Suggested texts and resources:

2c. Quantitative Approaches to the Literary

Key questions:

  • When so many other disciplines have adopted quantitative methods, why do literary studies remain mostly qualitative in methodology?
  • What are the possibilities and the pitfalls of quantitative literary analysis?
  • What is the history of quantitative literary analysis? What arguments have been presented for and against numerical analysis of literature?
  • Can literature be treated as data? Is literature data?
  • How do searchable digital archives change literary research?
  • What can be learned about literary texts from relatively simple computational techniques such as word frequency lists, word clouds, and type-token ratios?
  • What greater insights are promised by “big data” techniques such as topic modeling?
  • What advantages does TEI XML present over plain text? Is the logical structure of XML capable of representing the complexities of literary meaning?

Suggested texts and resources:

Unit 3: Born Digital (4-6 weeks)

3a. Short-Circuiting the Publishing Process

Key questions:

  • Aside from the much-discussed formal differences between print and digital texts (interactivity and multimodality), how do practical aspects of digital textuality (such as ease and low cost and distribution) change literature and literary production?
  • How did the model of print publication (as demonstrated in Robert Darton’s “Communications Circuit”) impact print-era notions of the literary? How are these notions changing now that anyone can self-publish their works digitally? Does censorship disappear in the “short-circuit” digital model? Does literary quality decrease as the volume of literature increases?
  • Is fan fiction literature? Does it aspire to the title of literature? What distinguishes fan fiction from self-consciously literary digital literary movements like Alt Lit?
  • Is digital publication shifting emphasis away from originality as an evaluative criterion for literary excellence? Is the digital age wiring us into a “hive mind” of group consciousness and collaborative authorship?

Suggested texts:

3b. Interactivity: Revolution and Evolution in Narrative

Key questions:

  • Does born digital fiction revise or obsolesce traditional print-based understandings of narrative?
  • What did early theorists of hypertext find so attractive about the form? What political and social potential did they see in its non-linearity and its leveling of author and reader?
  • Why did the rise of hypertext coincide with the preeminence of theory?
  • Why did hypertext not live up to its early hype?
  • What can born-digital fiction do that print fiction cannot?

Suggested texts:

3c. Multimodality, Literature, and Videogames

Key questions:

  • The digital medium is capable of carrying all expressive modalities (text, sound, still and moving images). What happens to literature when it is introduced into such multimodal mixtures?
  • What can the history of opera — especially as theorized by Nietzsche and Wagner — tell us about the social possibilities of integrated art forms?
  • Do multimodal forms make it more difficult to concentrate on literary elements? Is literary text “at home” in multimodal forms?
  • Can a multimodal digital work without words be considered literature?
  • Are videogames literature?

Suggested texts:

Unit 4: Print in the Digital Age

Key questions:

  • How is print literature adapting to the digital age?
  • When print authors seek to retreat from the digital — to produce anti-digital or un-digitizable works — what strategies do they pursue? Are these successful?
  • Can print and the digital be considered independently in the digital present, or have they become so tightly intertwined as to become inseparable?

Suggested texts:

  • Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad (including digital version of chapter, “Great Rock and Roll Pauses”) and Black Box
  • Jonathan Franzen, Freedom and “Farther Away”
  • Mark Z. Danielewski, House of Leaves
  • Jonathan Safran Foer, Tree of Codes
  • Jessica Pressman, “The Aesthetic of Bookishness in Twenty-First Century Literature” (grad)

Sample Syllabi

I have taught versions of this course at the University of Toronto, University of Guelph, and San Diego State University. Sample syllabuses are linked below.

Sample Assignments and Essay Questions

Sample Assignment: Creative Intervention (digital submission; varying length)

Make a creative intervention into one of the texts studied this term (any part or all of the Carr/Shirky/Birkerts debate; The Medium is the MassageBodyWorldA Visit from the Goon Squad).

Your task is either to alter or to add to the text(s) in question, so as to highlight a particular interpretation or to fill in an important gap that the text(s) leave(s) open.

Examples of such interventions might be:

  • “Altering” a web-based document or documents (the Carr/Shirtky/Birkerts debate, Dash Shaw’s website, Jennifer Egan’s website, the New Yorker or Twitter version of “Black Box”) in order to advance a particular argument
  • Rewriting/redrawing a key scene or incident
  • Writing an entirely new scene or incident to shed new light on the text(s)
  • Imagining a key event from the perspective of a different character
  • Writing a new ending, or adding an epilogue

Sample Assignment: Quantitative Analysis with Type-Token Ratios (3 page essay)

Devise an experiment involving Type/Token Ratios. You may choose to compare TTRs in texts by different authors, in different texts by the same author, in different sections of a given text, etc. Why did you select your particular texts? What did you expect to find? How did this compare to what you found? What are the limitations of your experiment? How could it be improved?

Sample Essay Questions

  • The debate between Nicholas Carr, Clay Shirky, and Sven Birkerts is not only about digital media; it was also conducted via digital media. What is the relationship between the form of this debate and the ideas expressed in it? (In other words, what is the relationship between the medium and the message?) Do the characteristics of digital debate (instantaneous publication, universal access to any interested party, the ability for readers to leave comments, and so on) serve to justify Carr’s pessimism, or to validate Shirky’s optimism?
  • Given its arguments about the nature of print, many readers have questioned whether a printed book is an appropriate medium for Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium is the Massage. In your essay (a) describe any shortcomings you see in the print format of The Medium is the Massage and (b) describe how you would design an electronic edition of the work to address these shortcomings. (Feel free to “flip” this question — i.e., to argue that the printed form of The Medium is the Massage is appropriate to its message, and that this message couldn’t be delivered in electronic form.)
  • Focusing on a particular digital edition of The Waste Land, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, or any manuscript poem by Emily Dickinson, present an argument about whether this edition can be said to “rescue” the text from its earlier print forms. What are the most significant differences between the print and digital editions of your chosen work? What is gained, and what is lost, in the transition from the print to the digital form?
  • Though they wrote some fifty years before the first appearance of large electronic literary archives, Jorge Luis Borges and Virginia Woolf both present analyses relevant to present-day literary databases like Google Books, the Internet Archive, and the Digital Public Library of America. Borges seems to present a negative case, suggesting that access to too much information can overwhelm rather than enlighten. Virginia Woolf seems to imply something more positive: that electronic databases can eliminate access restrictions related to class, gender, and geography, and thus democratize knowledge. In your paper, pair one or both of these writers (Borges and/or Woolf) with two or more of the archives listed on the syllabus (Google Books, Internet Archive, Digital Public Library of America, JSTOR, Project Gutenberg, EEBO, the Modernist Journals Project). Use the ideas of Borges and/or Woolf to critique your selected archives — or use the archives to critique the ideas of Borges or Woolf.
  • In his New York Review of Books article “Google & The Future of Books,” Robert Darnton suggests that the Internet is making possible a truly democratic “Digital Republic of Letters.” In “The Library of Utopia,” however, Nicholas Carr suggests that Darnton’s Digital Public Library of America will include many features that “would probably interest only a small group of scholars.” How relevant is an archive of printed books and manuscripts in the digital age? Are today’s “universal libraries” being designed to meet the needs of a privileged elite? Answer these questions by focusing on the articles by Darton and Carr and looking at two or more archives listed on the syllabus (Google Books, Internet Archive, Digital Public Library of America, JSTOR, Project Gutenberg, EEBO, the Modernist Journals Project).
  • As literary critics like Mikhail Bakhtin and Erich Auerbach have argued, modernist writers developed techniques for including multiple voices in their works in response to a specific set of historical circumstances, including the rapid development of communications technologies, world war, and the spread of empire. Auerbach singled out Virginia Woolf as the most important single modernist to pursue “multi-voidedness,” arguing that she used techniques like free indirect discourse (FID) to make literature more inclusive and democratic. Imagine that you are hired to produce an electronic version of Mrs. Dalloway and given full creative license to adapt the story using images, video, sound, and elements of gaming. How would you use twenty-first century technology to carry out the modernist mission of including as many voices as possible? What social or political message would your electronic edition of Mrs. Dalloway carry in our present-day context?
  • Critics like Kenneth Goldsmith have hailed the “uncreative writing” of Alt Lit writers like Steve Roggenbuck and Tao Lin as the future of literature. They argue that Alt Lit writers’ focus on mundane aspects of digital life, combined with their tendency to remix and reappropriate the work of others rather than create something truly original, is producing a new form of fiction uniquely suited to our age. Do you agree or disagree?
  • In The Medium is the Massage, McLuhan says, “The young today reject goals. They want roles—R-O-L-E-S.” The interactive features in many born-digital works seem to respond to this demand for a more active role in the literary experience, effectively transforming the reader into a co-creator of the narrative. Not all forms of interactivity are alike, however. Which model of interactivity do you think is more appropriate for today’s readers: the tree-like branching structure of Stephen Marche’s Lucy Hardin’s Missing Period; or the conversation-like structure of Emily Short’s Galatea? Which of these more accurately captures the experience of “choosing” in our world today? Which one is more relevant to (or better “trains” its readers for) the choices we face in our everyday lives?
  • Critics belonging to the “reader-response” school of literary criticism, such as Wolfgang Iser and Stanley Fish, have long argued that all reading is necessarily “interactive.” For them, the printed page is like a musical score, and the reader is like a musician who actively brings the text to life through the act of reading. This is especially evident in modernist print works like Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street,” which requires significant effort from the reader in piecing together the strands of narrative and bringing them into a coherent shape. Comparing “Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street” to Lucy Hardin’s Missing Period or Galatea, present your argument for which is more “interactive.”
  • What is the fate of literature in the era of multimedia? In The Birth of Tragedy, Friedrich Nietzsche implicitly celebrated Wagnerian opera as the ultimate art form: one that harmoniously combined all the arts, including literature, and promised to somehow bring about psychic balance in its audience. Do new born-digital multimedia forms (including videogames) promise the harmonious integration of literature with the other arts, or do they represent a hostile takeover of literary art by noisier, flashier, more immersive media like music, video, and games? Will these new born-digital multimedia forms have a positive or a negative effect on readers? Make your argument by writing about any combination of the following: Inanimate Alice, Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries, Sword and Sworcery.