Category > Graduate Courses



New Media & Literary Interpretation:
Close, Distant, and Other Reading


Graduate Course – Winter 2012

Instructor: Alan Liu

UC Santa Barbara

Thur 2:00 – 4:30 pm, South Hall 2509


Digital methods shared with other disciplines have recently introduced new methods of literary “reading” that destabilize older methods and extend the interdisciplinary experiments of previous decades. This course uses the theoretical and practical tools of the digital humanities and new media studies to study the relaton between “close reading” and such methods as “distant reading,” “cultural analytics,” and “social reading” (with their component methods of text analysis, social network analysis, visualization, mapping, etc.).

The course is designed to be a hybrid discussion seminar and project-building workshop. We begin with discussion of selected theoretical readings and digital methods. Then students break into teams, choose a literary work, and collaborate in workshop/lab mode to produce a final project that uses digital methods to complement established modes of literary interpretation with some other kind of “reading.”  (Alternatively, students may work individually on projects designed to support or complement their dissertation topics.)  Students, for example, can choose a story or poem to data-mine, text-analyze, model, simulate, map, visualize, sonify, encode, remix, blog, social-network, or redesign as a database, game, app, database, hypertext, mobile or locative installation, or virtual world.  Individual students also undertake the following tasks: discover new online tools, prepare an annotated bibliography, write a brief research report, and write a final essay reflecting on the project. (Auditors participate in team projects and the minor assignments.)


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Course Description: Because of the recent, shared emphasis in many fields on digital methods, scholars in the humanities, arts, social sciences, and sciences increasingly need to collaborate across disciplines. This course reflects theoretically and practically on the new digitally-facilitated interdisciplinarity by asking students to choose a literary work and treat it according to one or more of the research paradigms prevalent in other fields of study.

Students, for example, can choose a story or poem to model, simulate, map, visualize, encode, text-analyze, sample, mashup, storyboard, blog, or redesign as a game, machinima, database, hypertext, or virtual world.

English 236 studentsWhat are the strengths and weaknesses of one kind of research paradigm by comparison with others, including the new paradigms in the literary field that some scholars have recently called distance reading (as opposed to “close reading”) and modeling? For instance, what is the relation between interpreting and data-mining or visualizing?

This graduate-level course begins with discussion of selected readings and demos to set the stage. Readings include: Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees, Willard McCarty’s Humanities Computing, Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman’s Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals, Jerome McGann and Lisa Samuel’s “Deformance and Interpretation,” and Stephen Ramsay’s “Algorithmic Criticism.” Demos include: the NetLogo agent-modeling environment, the Scratch visual programming environment, digital mapping tools, text-analysis programs, “mashup”-creation tools, the Ivanhoe literary interpretation game, visualization/ pattern-discovery tools, machinima-creation tools, Second Life, and other resources usable by non-programmers to create interesting projects.

After the initial unit of the course, students break into teams, choose a literary work, and collaborate in workshop/lab mode to produce a “proof-of-concept” final project. (Alternatively, students wishing to create a project in support of their dissertation may choose to work individually.) Collaboration will occur both face-to-face and virtually in the class wiki (possibly supplemented by virtual meetings in the UCSB English Department’s new Second Life instructional space). Final projects can be digital, video, acoustic, material, social, or some combination, but some digital representation must be created that can be exhibited on the class wiki or in the English Department’s gallery space in Second Life. Individual students also prepare research reports as well as write a final essay reflecting on the project.


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Course Description: This course consists of two parts:

J. M. W. Turner, Boats at Sea, c. 1835-40I. Romantic Landscape (7 weeks) This part of the course attends to the specificity of Romantic landscape during the so-called British “long 18th century” or (in art history) “great century”—i.e., to the unique contribution of Romanticism to an era when in great part landscape was art and art was landscape. Rivaled perhaps only by the novel, with which it was on intimate terms, landscape was the epic of the times. It was the familiar of that other great Romantic epic form: autobiography. This part of the course concentrates on the writings of the Wordsworth circle and the paintings and watercolors of John Constable and J.M.W. Turner. These materials are developed against a backdrop that includes 18th-century writers and painters, the aesthetic theories of the picturesque and sublime, and the history and theory of “descriptive” genres (including georgic and locodescription).

II. New Forms of Landscape (3 weeks) Whether developed in conceptual, metaphorical, or virtual form, navigable space—and often specifically landscape—is important to the contemporary artistic imagination. Paul Baran, Centralized, Decentralized, and Distributed Networks, 1960The course will conclude by making the transition through late-nineteenth-century landscape photography (Carlton Watkins, Eadweard Muybridge) to modern and contemporary forms of landscape imagination, including “land art” and new-media art. Materials include: the work of Robert Smithson, James Turrell, Andy Goldsworthy, Richard Long, Charlotte Davies, John Klima, and Sue Thomas as well as such forms as computer games and satellite imagery. The wager of the course is that we can learn something about the use of landscape as a major form of the social imaginary if we juxtapose Romantic poets and artists walking through nature and contemporary poets and artists browsing or navigating the networks.

The course is supported by an Online Image Gallery (login required).