Fall 2022 Courses: Hidden Agenda Revealed!


I have two undergraduate courses this fall. I thought I’d post the syllabuses and also give away my hidden agenda.

English 358:358 Early Twentieth-Century Fiction

Syllabus (pdf)

What do James Joyce, Dashiell Hammett, Mulk Raj Anand, and Zora Neale Hurston have in common? All significant writers of English-language fiction, all active in the first half of the twentieth century, these writers lived through an epoch of global social upheaval—world wars, revolutions, mass migrations, the rise and decline of empire—and their work registers and responds to a world of crisis. Yet Joyce, the Irish experimentalist, writes nothing like Hammett, the pioneer of hard-boiled detective fiction; Anand, the committed Indian leftist, adopts very different perspectives from Hurston, the supreme Harlem Renaissance novelist. This course is a study in what is and is not shared in the fiction of these four writers and others of their era. Students will learn to analyze the forms and themes of exemplary fictions of the early twentieth century and to understand the variety of these fictions as a result of social contestation and collaboration. Readings include case studies in literary modernism (Joyce, Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner), detective fiction (Dorothy Sayers, Hammett), Harlem Renaissance fiction (Jean Toomer, Hurston), and Indian writing in English (Rabindranath Tagore, Anand).

English 359:207 Data and Culture

Syllabus (pdf)
Syllabus bibliography (pdf)

The digitization of wide swaths of the print record has opened up new challenges and opportunities for researchers in the humanities. This course introduces students to some of the key techniques used by humanities scholars to organize, manipulate, and analyze digital sources—attending both to longstanding scholarly institutions and practices that shape our understanding of digital texts (critical editions, brick-and-mortar archives, and quantitative methods within social, political, and cultural history) and to new methods for studying texts, cultural geography, and relations between and among producers and consumers of culture.

Students who complete this course will develop facility in the use of digital tools for the representation, curation, and analysis of digital text. In each case, however, we will place these relatively new tools within a longer history of humanistic inquiry and will ask: what insights can these tools provide, and what questions (and texts) do they marginalize or occlude? Our aim throughout is to examine how digitization and data science have changed the questions that humanists can ask of their sources. What does it mean to think of culture as data? What new histories do these tools and methods help us uncover? In what ways has digitization helped and hindered the ability of humanities disciplines such as history, literary studies, and art history to provide an understanding of the past that can speak to urgent questions in the present moment?

Hidden agenda after the jump (as they used to say in the Elder Days of Blogging).

I’ve taught Early Twentieth-Century Fiction many times. This year I’m assigning a few more scholarly essays. I’ve never taught this as a course in “modernism,” instead presenting modernist writing as one tendency among others an expanding literary field. But for the centenary of 1922, I really want to make “modernism” show its age. We’ll explore what was really distinctive about literature in the last era of mass reading culture, now that that era has been over for fully half a century.

Data and Culture, which I’m co-teaching with Meredith McGill, is new, making its debut after a long development period. The whole Rutgers Digital Humanities Initiative contributed to the course. Many colleagues, as well as a crack team of graduate students, worked on formulating the syllabus, and I’m particularly pleased to have a roster of DH faculty leading guest sessions this term: Francesca Giannetti, Paul Israel, Andy Parker, Kristin O’Brassill-Kulfan, and Sean Silver. Together I’m hoping we’ll conduct a nicely eclectic exploration of how both digitization (“data” as in “computer data”) and quantitative approaches (“data” as in “data analysis”) are useful for studying culture. And what is “culture”? In this course it could mean many things, from literary texts to historical memory to people’s preferences in baby names. I’m hoping that by the time students develop their final projects we’ll find out it means even more things.

The name “Data and Culture” was my choice, an attempt to dodge some of the confusions created by “digital humanities.” “The Data of Culture” would have been even more descriptive: it’s really an introduction to the ways culture can be made into data for analysis, and what that analysis can and can’t do. The hidden agenda is revealed in our insistence on giving some historical depth to our exposition of methods. We’re starting the unit on text digitization with non-digital textual editing, and we’re starting the unit on quantitative approaches to literature with some sociology-of-culture classics. These bring out the substantive issues you might investigate when you turn culture into data, issues which have mattered to the humanities and social sciences since before even Web 1.0, if you can imagine it.

Hopefully that will reduce the temptation to treat it all as the grand march of computation into every domain. At the same time it will hopefully also sideline the more superficial aspects of “Big Data” and “AI” talk, including the critique thereof, none of which, in my view, has much to offer on the substantive issues. There’s more to do here than find out which billion-parameter black box achieves top performance….and the humanities have more to contribute than a holier-than-thou posture about it.