We are all mired in historical circumstance. Some of us are knee-deep, and some of us are neck-deep. If you want to think seriously about the future, you have to think historically. There isn’t any other way to do it. Otherwise you’ll mistake the accidents of our current situation for some iron-clad law of the cosmos. You need to be aware of longer-term trends, how things play out. History never repeats itself, but it does kind of rhyme. Bruce Sterling, LoneStarCon 2 interview (1997)
When you hear the word “technology,” you may think of your computer or smart phone. You probably don’t think of the alphabet, the book, or the printing press: but each of these was a technological innovation that changed dramatically how we communicate and perhaps even how we think. Literature has always developed in tandem with—and often in direct response to—the development of new media technologies—e.g. moveable type, the steam press, the telegraph, radio, film, television, the internet. Our primary objective in Technologies of Text will be to develop ideas about the ways that such innovations shape our understanding of classic and contemporary texts, as well as the people who write, read, and interpret them. We will compare our historical moment with previous periods of textual and technological upheaval. Many debates that seem unique to the twenty-first century—over privacy, intellectual property, information overload, and textual authority—are but new iterations of familiar battles in the histories of technology, new media, and literature. Through the semester we will get hands-on experience with textual technologies new and old through labs in letterpress printing, bibliography, digital editing, and computational text analysis, including through field trips to museums, libraries, and archives in the Boston area.
By the end of this course, you will:
- Understand technology and new media as historical rather than exclusively recent phenomenon;
- Analyze books and other textual technologies as material objects and within their social contexts;
- Experiment with a range of textual technologies, both historical and modern, reflecting on how these hands-on experiences lead to new humanistic understanding;
- Examine the ways practices of reading, writing, and publishing interacted, thematically and materially, with contemporaneous technological innovations;
- Draw parallels between literary studies and diverse fields such as information science, computer science, communications, and media studies;
- Develop emerging proficiency exploring textual data with the computer programming language R;
- and Create original, public, creative research projects that consciously use media to convey their messages.
This course has been developed over many years and for too long didn’t include acknowledgements—which is to say I cannot trace all the teachers I should thank for their models. I owe many of the ideas here (and some of the lab assignments) to classes I’ve taken at the Rare Book School at the University of Virginia, and in particular Michael F. Suarez’s “Teaching the History of the Book” course. I have also been inspired by syllabi from many other generous scholars, including Whitney Trettien, Meredith McGill, Kari Kraus, Alan Liu, Matthew Kirschenbaum, and Lori Emerson.