Thursday, 13 January 2011

A (Very) Modest Proposal

- from great expectations -

I've been caught up in marking for the last few weeks, taking on some extra so I can save up some money to concentrate on the last push to complete my thesis.  As such I haven't really existed online (hence no blogging, apologies).  I have found time, however, to try and think (and panic) about what comes next, what to do after September?  After looking at the various university courses around the country I've decided that not enough institutions in the UK (though there are some, and they are great) are teaching Digital Humanities, Internet Studies, Cyberculture, Electronic Literature, etc., alongside conventional English Studies.  And I think that this is a real shame, I think that there can be a natural fit for them with one another, and indeed that fit is being acted out all around us, a tragedy if it goes unnoticed.

After MLA 2011 a lot of tweets and blogs and articles were going back and forth about whether the Digital Humanities were too exclusive, with their 'gods' and their cliques (this article seems to have, maybe ironically, become the industry standard to cite on this).  Johanna Drucker's recent comment that "if you can't build something, you aren't a digital humanist" is also fanning similar flames.  In any field factions emerge, and I'm not yet certain of the clarity of the boundary lines where DH stops and New Media starts (for instance).  But I can, unfortunately, often surmise a number of department's very clear distinction between English Studies and DH, Cyberculture, New Media, etc.: taught and not taught to undergrad English students.

From what I can tell DH doesn't seem exclusive, it seems proactive, and that can be intimidating to look at, this edifice of tweeting, blogging, serious, funny, prolific, experienced and precocious minds.  But intimidating is not the same as cliquey, and every DH-er that I've had contact with, online or off, has been welcoming, chatty, and unbelievably helpful.  Some of them aren't entirely sure if they're 'doing' DH, whilst some are very very certain.  The boundaries are contested even within the 'clique,' and this is healthy, this is good.

There are DH courses that teach things which Drucker would regard as not being DH, and there are courses which don't identify with DH when many people would wonder why they shy away from the term.  But this isn't the problem, or even a problem.  What seems in any way controversial is that these are rarely undergrad courses, and it seems so strange to me to keep anyone under 23/24 out of these debates unless they do so on their own time.

I'm probably not a Digital Humanist, though some of my research heads into that territory, and I don't know the solution, or if there is a solution, or if we even want a solution to what DH "is."  But to my mind the best way to settle debates of this kind is to throw undergrads at it and see what sticks.  Let the groups rise and fall early, let the factions bicker when some of their number are young, state funded, and have a bit more free time.  Most importantly, don't let people get bogged down in disciplinarity before they're aware of all the disciplines...

Anyway, I thought I might have a crack at writing a module that could start to bring some of these issues to English Studies undergrads.  Whatever your discipline I'd love to know what you think.

I'm aware that this kind of module might remain something of a hard sell in the current climate, so I've gone very canonical with my slim preliminary secondary reading list (the module website list would be annotated and more diverse), and quite restrained with the aims of the course.  That said, please tell me what's missing, if the module was picked up and proved to be a success then I'd love to push out a little more into the weirder and sometimes more wonderful.

It's not DH though...



Digital English
Matt Hayler (convenor)
None (no computer skills needed)
11 weeks
300 hours (including 1x2-hr seminar and 1x1hr workshop per week)

This module aims to introduce students to the possibilities and potential threats digital technology offers to the study of English. In an age increasingly dominated by computers and the internet this course will allow students to engage with the arguments that are going on all around them. How might technology change how we read texts? What new texts might be created? Is technology a threat to reading? Is reading a screen different to reading a book? What does literary theory need to do in order to consider electronic texts, and can these digital objects make theory easier to approach? These are the conversations going on all around the world as written texts become ever more diverse, and ever more accessible. As English scholars we have a unique education in the impact of writing on readers, and this module aims to be part of the early days of putting us to work on the texts of our time. Because it encourages an advanced understanding of the increasing impact of digital technologies in the contemporary world, the course should prove particularly valuable to students who wish to pursue any career that might involve electronic modes of communication.

We will look at a diverse range of experimental and canonical texts, from novels to poems to theoretical, philosophical, and even neuropsychological work in order to understand what might be different about digital. This diversity has two functions: i) to demonstrate the range of aspects of English study that digitisation affects (and what new aspects it necessarily calls into play) and ii) to allow students to focus on what interests them most about English as a subject, whether that be close reading, high theory, or trying to understand the changing pleasures of the written word in all its forms.


On successful completion of this module, students should be able to:

1. Module Specific Skills:
a. demonstrate an advanced understanding of the current and potential implications of various digital technologies on English Studies.
b. demonstrate an advanced ability to discuss what might make reading on screen different to reading from a printed page and the implications for readers.
c. demonstrate an advanced understanding of how written electronic texts are situated in a history of technologies of textual reproduction.

2. Discipline Specific Skills:
a. demonstrate an advanced ability to analyse experimental literature emerging in the twenty-first century and to relate its concerns and its modes of expression to its historical context.
b. demonstrate an advanced ability to interrelate texts and discourses specific to their own discipline with issues in the wider context of cultural and intellectual history.
c. demonstrate an advanced ability to understand and analyse relevant theoretical ideas, and to apply these ideas to literary texts.

3. Personal and Key Skills:
a. through seminar work and presentations, demonstrate advanced communication skills, and an ability to work both individually and in groups.
b. through essay-writing, demonstrate appropriate research and bibliographic skills, an advanced capacity to construct a coherent, substantiated argument, and a capacity to write clear and correct prose.
c. through research for seminars, essays, and presentations demonstrate advanced proficiency in information retrieval and analysis.
d. through research and writing, demonstrate an advanced capacity to make critical use of secondary material, to question assumptions, and to reflect on their own learning process.


Details of Learning and Teaching Methods:
Teaching is by one two-hour seminar per week. Students will be expected to participate in class discussion, and will be encouraged to hold independent small group meetings in preparation for the seminars. Seminar attendance is compulsory, and students are expected to participate in seminar discussions.


Formative or % Contribution:

Form of Assessment:

Size of the assessment e.g. duration/length

ILO’s assessed by this assessment:

Feedback method:
Seminar presentation and discussion and of study group findings
3 a, c
Oral feedback from tutor. Opportunity for office hours follow-up.
Reflection on current online activity
1000 words
1 b, c
2 b, c
3 b, c, d
Feedback sheet with opportunity for office hours follow- up.
What comes next? Speculative essay
2000 words
1 a, b
2 a, b, c
3 b, c, d
Feedback sheet with opportunity for office hours follow- up.
4000 words
1 a, b, c
2 a, b, c
3 b, c, d
Feedback sheet with opportunity for office hours follow- up.
Seminar Participation
3 a, c
Oral feedback from tutor. Opportunity for office hours follow-up.

1. The dangers of digital. What does technology do to English?
2. Scrolls to screens - how do electronic texts fit into the history of reading technologies?
3. What does electronic literature look like (and how do we read it)? (offscreen)
4. Hyperlinks and hypertext.
5. What does electronic literature look like (and how do we read it)? (onscreen)
6. Digital subjectivities and electronic communities.
7. “It doesn't feel right” - Neuropsychology 101 and understanding what it means to hold a book.
8. Theory for electronic texts.
9. Amateur vs. expert - authority online.
10. What comes next?
11. Summary, conclusions, and essay workshop.


Indicative basic reading list:
Module Reading Pack (online or purchase).
Week 1 reading available on module ELE site.

Selected secondary texts
A Companion to Digital Humanities. eds. Schreibman, Siemens, Unsworth. Blackwell, 2007. Available online at

Espen Aarseth. Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. Johns Hopkins UP, 1997

Sven Birkerts. The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age. Faber and Faber, 2006

Jay David Bolter. Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1991

Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. MIT Press, 1999

The Book History Reader. eds. David Finkelstein and Alistair McCleery. Routledge, 2002

Jeff Gomez. Print is Dead: Books in Our Digital Age. Macmillan, 2008

N. Katherine Hayles. Writing Machines. MIT Press, 2002

N. Katherine Hayles. Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary. University of Notre Dame Press, 2008

Matthew Kirschenbaum. Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination. MIT Press, 2008

George Landow. Hypertext 3.0: Critical Theory and New Media in an Era of Globalization. Johns Hopkins UP, 2003

Lev Manovich. The Language of New Media. MIT Press, 2001

Jerome McGann. Radiant Textuality: Literature after the World Wide Web. Palgrave, 2001

Jerome McGann. The Textual Condition. Princeton UP, 1991

The New Media Reader. eds. Nick Monfort and Noah Wardrip-Fruin. MIT Press, 2003

Indicative web based resources:

Electronic Literature Organization (

Exeter Learning Environment (ELE)

Other resources:
Reading for week 1 - Sven Birkerts and Alan Kaufman extracts on ELE site.