This class may be a bit different from most of your graduate classes. I hope you will see these differences as exciting and intellectually stimulating, but you should be aware of the following caveats as we begin (and thanks to Miriam Posner for writing the first draft of these caveats for her DH grad course). If you can face these challenges with persistence, verve, and (reasonably) good humor—and abide by the code of conduct outlined below—we should have an intellectually enlivening semester. If you have any concerns about these caveats, please come talk to me. I am confident we can find a way forward if we work together.
1. The course will itself be an experiment.
The concepts and structure of “Reading Machines” emerged from my experiences teaching experiential book and media history to undergraduates; my own experiences—alongside faculty, librarians, and graduate students—with hands-on archival work and instruction through organizations such as the Rare Book School and the Digital Humanities Summer Institute; and my growing conviction that theory and praxis must be intertwined in scholarly discussions of historical and contemporary textual technologies. This course will focus on inscription technologies from the hand press period to the internet, which we will come to understand through a range of readings and hands-on “humanities labs” in class.
An experiential course such as this opens itself up to many quirks: the syllabus may shift; a given tool might not work as expected; an experiment might veer off track or fail altogether. In other words, this course will require both an inventive spirit and patience from its students.
2. You will not produce a final seminar paper.
You will produce a final, (potentially) collaborative project that will ask you to be conscious about relationships among media and messages. Likely this project will require substantial writing, but it will not look like a 20 page seminar paper at semester’s end. Instead, your projects will require sustained work and will be multimodal, comprising text and other elements (e.g. digital images, maps, network graphs). Your projects may be fully digital, fully analog, or some hybrid of the two. These projects may well lead into more established forms of writing or publication, but we will not begin there.
3. You will collaborate (not just do group work).
Digital humanities projects often require collaboration among scholars who bring different intellectual and technical skills to expansive projects. This class will require you to work together both in class and for some of your assignments, distributing responsibilities and sharing credit.
4. You will be required to acquire some technical skills (old and new).
I do not require or assume any particular technical experience as we begin this course, but I will expect you to be willing to experiment with new tools and learn new technical skills throughout the semester. In this course, those skills will run the gamut from the historical—such as letterpress printing—to the contemporary—such as computer programming. “I’m not very technical” will not excuse you from the hands-on portions of the course any more than “I’m not poetic” would excuse you from reading Dickinson in a survey of American literature. Some of the tools we test you may find useful for your research program; some you will not. But I expect you to try them with enthusiasm and an open mind.
Code of Conduct
The code of conduct for this course borrows directly from the stellar model outlined by Northeastern’s Feminist Coding Collective. Their Code of Conduct and Community Guidelines are well worth consulting in full, but I have copied and lightly adapted those items most pertinent to the work we will do in our class.
- It’s okay not to know: Assume that no one inherently knows what we’re learning. We all come to this class with different backgrounds and abilities; none of us (including the instructor) will know everything and that is okay! Encourage a space where it’s okay to ask questions.
- Be respectful: Do not use harmful language or stereotypes that target people of all different gender, abilities, races, ages, ethnicities, languages, socioeconomic classes, body types, sexualities, and other aspects of identity.
- Online spaces: Respect each other in both physical and digital spaces.
- Collaborative and inclusive interactions: Avoid speaking over each other. Instead, we want to practice listening to each other and speaking with each other, not at each other.
- Use “I” statements: focusing on your own interpretation of a situation, rather than placing blame or critiquing someone else.
- Harassment clause: The following behaviors are considered harassment and unacceptable in this community (these are borrowed from the Django Code of Conduct):
- Violent threats or language directed against another person.
- Discriminatory jokes and language.
- Posting sexually explicit or violent material.
- Posting (or threatening to post) other people’s personally identifying information (“doxing”).
- Personal insults, especially those using racist or sexist terms.
- Unwelcome sexual attention.
- Advocating for, or encouraging, any of the above behavior.
- Repeated harassment of others. In general, if someone asks you to stop, then stop.
The majority of our readings will be available online or through a digital course packet. You will need to acquire the following books, however:
- Amaranth Borsuk, The Book (MIT Press, 2018)
- Sydney Padua, The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer (2015)