This spring I will offering an experiential book history-meets-DH graduate seminar in the iSchool at UofI. This class will be an updated version of my NU seminar Reading Machines, adapted for the iSchool—though I still hope to have students from many units, including English and History. In brief, the class will trace a very particular genealogy of DH through book history, bibliography, and media studies, and work toward rich, historicized understandings of textual technologies. We will also get our hands dirty both metaphorically and literally. If all goes well in the next two months, Book Lab students will be among the first to work with a new letterpress set-up in the Champaign-Urbana Community FabLab.

I really wanted to convey the experiential aspects of the course in its (30 character) catalog title, and when searching around couldn’t invent anything better than Matthew Kirschenbaum’s Book Lab, which was itself an inspiration when planning all past and present versions of this class. I reached out to Matt, and he graciously allowed me to use the same title, so we will be the “Book Lab: Midwest Chapter” this spring.

Here’s the full course description, and here’s the link to the class in Course Explorer—I can’t wait!

“BookLab: Print to Programming” offers an applied history of new media from the hand-press period to the present. Our approach will draw on scholarship in book history, bibliography, information science, media studies, and digital humanities, an intersection described by N. Katherine Hayles and Jessica Pressman as “comparative textual media.” We will take this comparative, interdisciplinary approach first to better understand machines of reading (from the printed book to computer code) as material, historical, and cultural objects. We will examine how practices of reading, writing, and publishing have interacted—thematically and materially—with contemporaneous technological innovations over the past 250 years. This cross-historical examination will open new modes of materially-engaged critique for our technological present.

We will complement our readings with praxis, gaining hands-on experience  through critical making experiments using textual technologies from letterpress to zines to computer programming, as well as with archival materials from UIUC’s Rare Books and Manuscript Library. Together, weekly “book labs” and course discussions will help us consider relationships among modes of textual production, reception, and interpretation: including in our purview both “intellectual work,” such as writing, and “manual labor,” such as typesetting.

Through our discussions we will develop greater capacities to critically read machines, analyzing the political, cultural, and social forces that shape—and are shaped by—textual technologies. We will raise urgent questions around privacy, algorithmic bias, intellectual property, information overload, and textual authority, asking how a rich new media history might inform our technological present and contribute to a richer construction of the digital humanities and information sciences fields.

Update (2021-12-10): There’s now a syllabus for BookLab: Print to Programming available!