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ENGL 668K Introduction to Digital Humanities

Matthew Kirschenbaum

In the midst of the 2009 MLA Convention, Chronicle of Higher Education blogger William Pannapacker wrote, “Amid all the doom and gloom . . . one field seems to be alive and well: the digital humanities. More than that: Among all the contending subfields, the digital humanities seem like the first ‘next big thing’ in a long time, because the implications of digital technology affect every field.” More recently, William Germano, editor-in-chief for 20 years at Columbia University Press and now Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences at Cooper-Union, opined on Twitter: “The spectacular rise of ‘DH’ as the most powerful digraph in the non-STEM academy.”

With the recent visibility and notoriety has come concern, critique, and even outright contestation. This year’s MLA in Boston, for example, featured a packed roundtable on the “Dark Side of the Digital Humanities” as one of the many dozens of sessions devoted to DH. All of this at a moment when higher education itself faces massive, truly unprecedented changes in the face of the emerge of MOOCs, the seemingly inexorable rise of adjunctification and contingent labor, challenges to the future of publishing and scholarly communication, and outright questions about the value (bottom line and otherwise) of the humanities disciplines themselves. Is DH complicit, or is it the last, best hope for a vibrant scholarly future?

Though the use of computers and computational methods in humanities research can trace a history going back decades before the popular advent of the Web, the white hot rise of digital humanities–as digraph and discursive construct, as emerging field with real academic infrastructure, and as floating (or flickering) signifier is arguably a phenomenon not seen since the rise of High Theory a generation earlier.

This course is designed to introduce students to current topics and critical issues in this diverse, complex, and rapidly changing “field.” Rather than seeking to offer a comprehensive overview, the course will be organized around four topical units or modules, each extending over a period of roughly three weeks. These are as follows: How to Read a Million BooksReimagining the ArchiveDigital Aesthetics/Digital Play, and The Changing Academy. There will also be introductory and closing class meetings.

For each module, students will read key essays and current statements from leading figures in the field, explore relevant projects and tools, and participate in intensive discussions, both in class and online. Though the English department offers this course under its “Readings” rubric, it is in truth a course as much about Doings as it is Readings. Evaluation will therefore be based on weekly hands-on exercises, blogging and other forms of public writing, class participation, fieldwork, a presentation, and a final, reflective piece of writing [read the Requirements for further details].

No technical skills are required or assumed other than a willingness to learn. Students must, however, be willing to engage in online activities, including various forms of social media.

The department will also be organizing a separate Colloquium on Digital Humanities. It is complementary to this course, not redundant. Students who elect to participate in both will thus receive an especially robust preparation for work in the digital humanities.

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