Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Digital English: How Technology is Changing What We Study

I posted an early draft of a module proposal last month, and I wanted to offer this update which is hopefully a lot cleaner and simpler to scan and get a sense of.  Below the module itself is my reasoning for why I think this is a great time for such a module to appear in the UK.

I'm currently writing up my PhD and at the moment this is a course without a home; if you know of any institution which you think might be interested in such a module then please let me know.  Also if you have any questions or recommendations for changes then I'd love to hear from you.


Digital English: How Technology is Changing What We Study
None (no computer skills needed)

This module aims to allow students to identify and interrogate the possibilities, and potential threats, digital technology offers to the study of English, and more generally to the practice of reading in the 21st century. 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 the way we read texts? What new texts might be created? Is technology really a threat to reading? What makes reading from a screen different to reading a book? How does literary theory need to change in order to    consider electronic texts, and can these digital objects make theory easier to approach? These are the conversations going on    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 putting us to work on the texts of our time.

The module begins with a consideration of the 'threat' of technology, particularly the popular discourses of screen reading and easily accessible material attenuating focus and attention. From there we will go on to situate the current technologies historically, consider the unique details of their forms and their potential impacts on readers, and then move on to how we might respond, how we can theorise, and how we can productively use these new tools.

As it encourages an advanced understanding of the increasing impact of digital technologies in the world, the course should prove particularly valuable to students who wish to pursue a career that might involve electronic modes of communication, digital content production, or further study of these issues.

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.


Module Specific Skills - On successful completion of this module, students should be able to:
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.


1. The dangers of digital - What does technology do to reading?
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. What does electronic literature look like (and how do we read it)? (onscreen)
5. “It doesn't feel right” - Neuropsychology and understanding what it means to hold a book.
6. E-reader anatomy - features of digital reading devices and their impacts on reading and research.
7. Digital subjectivities and electronic communities.
8. Amateur vs. expert - authority online.
9. Theory for electronic texts.
10. What comes next?
11. Summary, conclusions, and essay workshop.


This reading list is intended to indicate the sort of work with which the module is concerned; it is by no means comprehensive. Ideally a reading pack would be produced with a mixture of complete essays and extracts from longer works.

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

Mark Z. Danielewski. House of Leaves. London: Anchor, 2000

Robert Darnton. The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future. New York: Public Affairs, 2009

Stanislas Dehaene. Reading in the Brain. London: Viking, 2009

Jonathan Safran Foer. Tree of Codes. London: Visual Editions, 2010

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

Frederick G. Kilgour. The Evolution of the Book. Oxford: OUP, 1998

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

Maryanne Wolf. Proust and the Squid. Cambridge: Icon, 2008

Web based resources:

A Companion to Digital Humanities. eds. Schreibman, Siemens, Unsworth. Blackwell, 2007. (Available online at http://www.digitalhumanities.org/companion/)

Electronic Literature Organization (http://www.eliterature.org/)


The following list shows Universities ranked by the Guardian for teaching in English (Do they have a department with clear ties to the Humanities focussing on the study of digital materials or the impact of computer technology? (is there an undergrad option?) / Do they have undergrad English modules which include the impact of digitisation?):

Oxford (Yes - Oxford e-Research Centre (no undergrad) & Oxford Internet Institute (limited undergrad lecture series) / No)
UCL (Yes - Centre for the Digital Humanities (no undergrad) / No)
Cambridge (Yes - CRASSH Digital Humanities (no undergrad) / No)
St Andrews (No / No)
Warwick (No / No)
Buckingham (No / No)
Durham (No / No)
Exeter (No (CMIT Digital Arts & Humanities discontinued as of this year) / No)
Edinburgh (No / No)
King's College London (Yes - Centre for Computing in the Humanities (with undergrad course) / No)
York (No / No)
Aberdeen (Yes - Recoded at the Centre for Modern Thought (no undergrad) / No)
Queen Mary (No / No)
Leeds (No / No)
Liverpool (No / No)
Glasgow (Yes - Humanities Advanced Technology and Information Institute (with undergrad course) / No)
Essex (No / No)
UEA (No / No)
Bristol (No / No)
Brunel (No / No)

The vast majority of undergraduate English students who make it into a top 20 university (for their subject) will have no immediate access to academic discussion of how computers, the internet, digital reading devices, and the issues provoked by their use apply to their chosen field. In a time which is fast becoming defined by on- and off-line digital activities this seems to represent a failure to keep up with current developments in issues which will become increasingly relevant to society and scholarship, and also marks a space where universities outside of this ranking can very easily become competitive by demonstrating their sensitivity to the times, and to the needs and desires of their students.

It is, perhaps, too easy to assume that English students, by choosing their courses over, say, Computer Science, have made their decision to exclude themselves from such debates. The rise of postgraduate courses in the Digital Humanities at UCL and Kings, and the HATII undergrad course at Glasgow, not to mention the currently promoted AHRC theme of 'Digital Transformations' and the rise of the Digital Humanities as a significant international academic discourse, demonstrates that there are an increasing number of voices from the Humanities which wish to make themselves heard in this area.
Those few courses that are available, however, have a strong programming / production / Computer Science element, where radically unfamiliar skills must be acquired in order to take part, and a commitment to specialisation must be made early on. There is clearly a space for students who are interested in the impact of digitisation on Humanities study, but don't yet want to specialise, and also for those who want to interpret digital content without having to go about learning to code and produce such materials for themselves. The present situation is comparable to having Creative Writing as the sole approach to studying literature; practice, however significant and informative, is not the only way to encounter a subject.

This is certainly not to talk down the importance of Humanities researchers learning to code and markup text, indeed these skills are increasingly vital, but they involve a certain kind of specialised tuition and requirement of resources which is perhaps not yet available, or in many cases desirable, at
undergrad level. I would like to propose a course that could be taught as a 2nd or 3rd year optional module which would seek to fill the gap between an English course unable to talk about digital technology, and one which is so specialised as to be off-putting or impractical.

By focussing on the interpretation of digital materials and the impact of digitisation on English Studies I believe that it could be made non-threatening, and indeed actively appealing to undergraduate students seeking to expand their skills as they turn an eye to the job market beyond HE study. A graduate who is easily able to demonstrate how their degree might be a good fit for certain jobs, in sectors which might not otherwise have realised the value in their input, has to be more competitive as they enter the fray. With the contemporary literature and theory elements I would like to include it would also be a particularly appealing module for those students interested in contemporary experimental literature and the evolution of English Studies as a whole.


Nick said...

This looks really interesting and exactly the sort of thing I might have chosen when I was an undergrad.

Only two comments - whenever I look at modules I always scan the week-by-week to get a sense of their approach.

I wonder whether starting off with "The Dangers of Digital" might make it look like this is a module that's going to be quite negative about digital humanities; knowing you, presumably this is not the case.

Secondly, maybe you should take out that '101', it's a cliche and an Americanism.

Hope you find this a home!

cryurchin said...

Hi Nick,

Thanks for the comments. Starting off with the 'threat' of digitisation is a risk, I guess, but I'm keen to explore nuanced rebuttal to the idea, and want the idea fully set up first. For that first week I think students will already have an opinion one way or another, and I think it could be a productive debate to start on right away, a nice way in for the course. I certainly understand you concern though, and it may well get changed.

The second point...ok, yeah, change made!



Itinerant Poet said...

In response to nick, fair point but I like the idea that an option of thought isn't softly worked up to, this is such a turbulent time for digital media and English as a whole that I really like the idea of starting off with a 'negative'.
I would love to study this module, if no-one picks it up is there an online Market? (it seems that link never goes away).
I must admit that I am really intrigued by these ideas as alot of my writing is digital based, but my idea of English as a subject is very much based in the traditional, but that is rapidly changing.
Good luck with the module (and understanding anything of what I've said)

cryurchin said...

Hi Bexington,

Thanks for your thoughts. I don't know if there's an online market, but maybe there would be enough online interest to do some correspondence-type learning... Hmmm...in these times of direct action free schools maybe that really is the future, and it could be a really good thing, making resources available for anyone interested.

So yes, thanks for your thoughts and for making me think!


Yanny'sYak said...

It's so true.The world of technology is really putting tension on people (especially teachers) to amp up their game and evolve to meet the standards of this new world.

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