Between 2013 and 2018, I focused a chunk of my teaching on computation as a form of mediation, encouraging students to make arguments about literature, history, and culture without relying much on what-you-see-is-what-you-get (WYSIWYG) interfaces. One goal of this particular angle was to build knowledge around tool-agnostic practices and oft-ignored processes that typically shape humanities work with computing.
The early iterations of that angle, epitomized by a graduate seminar I called “Arguing with Computers,” were rather technical. Students, most of whom were new to computational methods, surveyed the basics of the command line, text editors, programming languages like R and Python, converters such as Pandoc, libraries including OpenCV, and techniques for tracking changes, retrieving and scraping content, recognizing patterns, attributing content to authors and characters, scanning images, creating bots, and preserving websites. Along the way, we also discussed keywords and debates in media studies.
“Arguing with Computers” was a lot. Too much, in fact. Curiosity about new methods was quickly dampened by routine frustrations with the machines in front of us, and our collective interests in literature, history, and culture were eclipsed by the desire to simply get a thing to just do its thing without error messages or debugging. We thus struggled to achieve the persuasive integration of computing with criticism to which we aspired; nonetheless, we learned a lot about critical technical practice, the default settings of popular technologies, and some common (if not pernicious) assumptions about computing that operate within humanities fields and disciplines.
Links to the Spring 2015 website and student abstracts for “Arguing with Computers” are below. I also point to related talks I gave in 2015 at the Universities of Waterloo and Minnesota.
Arguing with Computers
Spring 2014 and Spring 2015 | UVic English 507 | Grad seminar for 12 students
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, indeed, 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.
We will engage work by the following artists and scholars, among others: Anne Balsamo, Stephen Best, Ian Bogost, Jay David Bolter, Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Sharon Daniel, Mary Ann Doane, Johanna Drucker, Lori Emerson, Rita Felski, Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Alan Galey, Alexander Galloway, Alex Gil, Lisa Gitelman, Richard Grusin, Matthew Kirschenbaum, Lauren Klein, Alan Liu, Alexis Lothian, Tara McPherson, Lev Manovich, Sharon Marcus, Jerome McGann, Lisa Nakamura, Bethany Nowviskie, Amanda Phillips, Miriam Posner, Stephen Ramsay, Roopika Risam, Lisa Rhody, Stan Ruecker, Lisa Samuels, Susan Leigh Star, Jonathan Sterne, Dennis Tenen, McKenzie Wark, Jacqueline Wernimont, and Grant Wythoff.
Featured image as well as image of “said Bernard” excerpts of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves from “Arguing with Computers.” The latter was produced in dialogue with Stephen Ramsay’s “Algorithmic Criticism.” This page was created on 22 July 2019 and last updated on 5 July 2021.