My most ambitious aim as a teacher of American literature, book history, and digital humanities is to help students understand the mutually constitutive relationships between texts and the technologies through which they meet readers. Achieving this goal requires close attention to the media, both historical and contemporary, through which texts are composed and circulated, and the cultures which both create and are created by those technologies. My classes offer neither naive millennialism nor naive apocalypticism about technological and media change. Instead, we study the affordances and limitations of new media in different time periods, investigating how textual technologies have shaped the experience of literature for writers and readers. As I write in the course description for my “Technologies of Text” class, “Many debates that seem unique to the twenty-first century—over privacy, intellectual property, information overload, and textual authority—are new iterations of familiar battles in the histories of technology, new media, and literature.” By grappling with these historical debates, students gain valuable perspective on today’s computationally-saturated culture. To move them toward such understanding, I ask students to experiment with technologies old and new, and to think consciously about the ways their own media choices affect the message of what they write for my class and beyond. In this way, my classes courses have been central to Northeastern’s growing curriculum in digital humanities across departments in CSSH and even across colleges.
At both the undergraduate and graduate level, my classes balance close reading and discussion of individual texts with “humanities labs” that give students to experiment directly with the materials, media, and technologies we study. These labs include training in computational methods, such as text mining or GIS, but also work in rare books rooms. For literary texts, this hybrid approach stems from a conviction that a full understanding of any novel, poem, short story, or other work requires knowledge of the material circumstances of its creation and publication. In courses on popular C19 literature, for instance, students learn about Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story, “The Celestial Railroad,” by comparing editorial changes made to it in different newspaper reprintings rather than reading it in an anthology of Hawthorne’s tales. In the newspapers, the contested space of the text becomes immediately clear. After making such close, textual comparisons, however, I also lead students through mapping the bibliography of the story, so they can visualize the geographic and temporal sweep of its publication history. I see both of these activities as species of critical making—engagements with the material that lead to theoretical insight.
At the undergraduate level, I integrate the introduction of digital humanities skills into the content and goals of individual courses. My advanced undergraduate Technologies of Text class, for instance, is a sweeping history of the book “from the scroll to the scroll.” In the class we discuss works, from Plato’s “Phaedrus” to Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, that respond to technological change, as well as attending to the ways specific media shape readers’ responses to literature. In a class on Henry James’ “The Real Thing,” for instance, we mediate with the story on photography, art, and authenticity while comparing the story’s first British publication—in a literary magazine with illustrations—against its first American publication—in a newspaper juxtaposed with advertisements. Students immediately discern how these media would alter the reception of James’ work, and enthusiastically dissect “the message” of the text in each printing. Technologies of Text’s “humanities labs” engage students differently, asking them to learn through experimentation, tinkering, hands-on work, and even play. In the course students edit wikipedia, learn the basics of computational text analysis, and program Twitter poetry bots using the Python programming language. Before students learn to operate a 3D printer, however, they have also transcribed manuscripts by candlelight in a simulation of the medieval scriptorium, set type and printed on a letterpress, and spent significant time in the Rare Books room at the Boston Public Library. Together these labs helps students understand technology not as something invented a decade ago, but as a long continuum of human activity and choices.
One of my primary goals as a teacher is to work against notions of the “digital native” and the ruinous pedagogical consequences following from that designation. That our students have spent their educational lives using digital tools—researching online, using applications to learn math or spelling, watching Powerpoint lectures, or writing on smart boards—does not mean they have learned much about or from digital tools. In many ways, familiarity mitigates against critical engagement, while technological imagination is not now nor has ever been innate. It is one thing to be able to use a particular piece of hardware or software, and another thing altogether to imagine what it might do or mean if pushed beyond its typical use, or even more again to imagine what might be created in its stead. It’s these latter skills that I believe good digital humanities pedagogy must inculcate: not “how to use x tool”—though that’s likely part of it—but more “understanding how x functions, delineating its affordances and limitations, and then imaging y or z.” Such imagination depends on humanistic training, which inculcates a sense of other points of view, of other possibilities.
At Northeastern, I have been fortunate to mentor stellar graduate students through courses; comprehensive exams; dissertation work; and, most importantly, the development of large-scale projects such as Our Marathon. While the latter might seem primarily a research project, it should also be understood as graduate teaching. Our Marathon was a fast-developing, public-facing archival project with educational, non-profit, and corporate partners. We sought to collect as much media as we could to tell the story of the event, its aftermath, and its effect on citizens. As the founding project manager, I trained an interdisciplinary group of undergraduate and graduate students who then worked together to customize a platform, develop standards for collection, craft a public-outreach strategy, and work with partners such as WBUR to fund and expand the project. My proudest achievement in this project is that I was after nine months able to give it over entirely to those graduate students, who together build an outstanding contribution to public history.
My graduate courses seek to help students imagine new methodological and professional possibilities in an increasingly strained profession. I am skeptical of claims that digital humanities can (or should) “save” history or literary studies, or that “alt-ac” training entirely answer the crisis of the job market. However, I see the interdisciplinary, collaborative, and public mandates of DH work as profoundly generative for junior scholars and the larger profession. I would argue that many of the most pressing scholarly questions in the coming years will require true interdisciplinarity. By this I mean not individual scholars who dabble in many disciplines, but groups of scholars who can contribute their various expertise to a sustained and substantial enterprise. It is this future that I hope to prepare my students to meet with creativity and verve. Doing so requires not a pedagogy founded on particular technologies or tools, however, but on capacious scholarly and technological imaginations. In my graduate classes, I introduce students to encoding, digital archiving, textual analysis, mapping, and network analysis, and I challenge them to develop projects with life beyond our classroom. My spring 2013 graduate course, for instance, worked with Alex Gil and his team at Columbia to produce the first several days of content for the “Around DH in 80 Days” project. Students faced many obstacles producing a single class project rather than papers, and they learned much about the joys and frustrations of collaborative work. In the end, however, they made substantive contributions to an ambitious, ongoing project with a global audience. For many of them, this class project was their first experience of academic collaboration, and it well prepared them to take up important roles on initiatives in the NULab for Texts, Maps, and Networks and the library’s Digital Scholarship Group.