University of Victoria
Jentery Sayers
Spring 2015



Digital literary studies (DLS) are frequently associated with not only the interpretation of literature through computational means but also an investment in how literature changes through networked culture, algorithms, and new media. For instance, Alan Liu claims that—in DLS—“everything old and new is up for grabs again,” as scholars, artists, programmers, and an array of practitioners negotiate the tensions between imagination and simulation, writing and encoding, reading and browsing, mimesis and modelling, surface and depth, publication and transmission. Since this seminar is an introduction to DLS, it gives you the opportunity to survey a variety of methods and perspectives, and it is intended for students who are absolutely new to—and even skeptical of—digital humanities. The seminar’s design assumes that digital literary studies (in particular) and digital humanities (in general) are best understood through the combination of theory with practice. Such an assumption means that we will blend knowing and doing, resisting the prevalent-but-fallacious divides between techniques and concepts as well as intellectual and physical labour.

More specifically, the focus of this semester’s instantiation of English 507 is “Arguing with Computers,” which—as you might guess—is meant to be multivalent. First, it underscores the fact that we will be using computers and computational methods to make claims about literature and culture. By extension, we will ask how such methods shape our understanding of the purposes and aims of literary and cultural criticism. Are computational methods more “scientific” or “objective” than non-computational ones? Are they reductive? Are they too quantitative, or ever qualitative, or potentially ambiguous? How (if at all) do they facilitate exegesis, hermeneutics, or deconstruction? All of these questions point to two other interpretations of “Arguing with Computers”: we will develop a healthy resistance to computational methods, and we will experience frustration with technologies and practices such as programming, encoding, and processing. What concepts, habits, and beliefs congeal within and around computers, operating systems, and their default settings? What cultural questions do computational methods foreclose or restrict? How (if at all) are the constraints of computational analysis conducive to literary critique? And how is frustration with computing and its devices at once a matter of literacy, aesthetics, and culture—who gets to hack, and why? Finally, and perhaps most importantly: we will unpack how computation can be persuasively integrated into the histories and modes of literary and cultural criticism, including how we routinely interpret and perceive texts. At its core, how is computational analysis part and parcel of a longer legacy of defining mediation, of understanding reading and writing? How is human vision melded with computer vision, and under what assumptions about time, space, and labour? How do we combine existing practices in close reading, listening, and watching with emerging computational modes, such as “distant reading,” “surface reading,” pattern recognition, algorithmic criticism, web ethnography, scanning, and compiling? If these practices can actually be combined, then to what effects on English studies? That is, how (if at all) and when (if ever) do “multimodal” or human-computer approaches yield surprise for literary critics? Or tell us something new or unique about literature and culture? To be sure, we won’t produce definitive answers to all these questions. After all, there are already quite a few. However, they will pop up frequently throughout the semester, in our readings, discussions, and workshops, and I hope they spark dialogue and differences of opinion.

Instructor: Jentery Sayers
Office Hours: Tuesday, 10:30am-12:30pm in CLE D334
Email: jentery@uvic.ca
Office Phone (in CLE D334): 250-721-7274 (I'm more responsive by email)
Mailing Address: Department of English | University of Victoria | P.O. Box 3070, STN CSC | Victoria, BC V8W 3W1, Canada