> classes > becoming digital, fall 2011


Becoming Digital: Writing about Media Change

Becoming Digital explores the cultural and humanistic implications of the transformations that occur after text, images, audio recordings, and other media of art and communication become susceptible to computation. The course initially considers what digitization means for specific media and how the concept of the digital arose in our culture. Then the course turns to look at the consequences of making media into digital data. Students study the algorithmic processing that is made possible in the case of particular media objects such as articles and photographs. They consider the effects of the transmission of media in digital communications and social networks. Finally, they learn about the cultural implications of the analysis of massive stores of media objects, ranging from millions of digitized books to the contents of the World Wide Web itself.

Instructor: Prof. Nick Montfort, nickm at nickm dotcom
Class meets 11:30pm-1pm Tuesdays and Thursdays in 14E-310
Textbook: The New Media Reader. Edited by Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort. MIT Press, 2003. (You can find discounted "hurt" copies, which are always readable and usually not very damaged, at the MIT Press Bookstore in Kendall Square.) A small selection of articles are required reading for everyone for class discussion, but all students are also expected to use The New Media Reader overall in their research, as one resource in preparing their papers and presentations.

Office hours

My regular office hours are 1-2pm Tuesdays in the Trope Tank, 14N-233.

I am also glad to meet students by appointment in 14N-233, or in E15-329, or on AIM. I use the screen name "coachmontfort" for meetings with students.

Class format, participation, evaluation

Our class meetings will include short lecture segments (in other words, presentations by me), in-class exercises, discussion, workshop discussion of student papers, and student presentations.

The syllabus (this Web page) was last updated on November 8, 2011. This is a plan for the class which may change as the semester progresses. It may happen that time needs to be allocated differently to allow adequate workshop critique, for instance, or the syllabus may contain an error that needs to be corrected. If a significant change is made to this page, I will notify the class either by email, or in class, or both.

Citation format

We'll use the Chicago Manual of Style Author-Date system. To see how this system works, FIRST visit this page, and THEN click on the "AUTHOR-DATE" tab a few paragraphs down the page.

Papers, revision, and presentations

Very general, high-level topics for the three papers are described below. These paper topics will be discussed further in class and each student will choose a more specific formulation of each topic during the discussion.

Students are required to revise and resubmit either paper 1 or paper 2 even if the first draft is of high quality, 15%. The type of revisions will be determined in consultation with the instructor. It may focus on revision of style and format. It may also involve expanding the research originally done to include new sources, or expanding the methods that were used to include new approaches to the topic. A revision that addresses problems in the original paper can also improve the paper 1 or 2 grade.

Regarding oral communication, students will be asked to participate in class discussions, to do impromptu and expository presentations in class, and to do two prepared presentations, one using audiovisual support (10%) and one without (10%). Other discussion participation and shorter presentations correspond to 5% of the final grade.

Because discussion, peer critique, and in-class short presentations are an important part of this course, coming to class is a requirement. Each voluntary absence from class will cause a student's overall grade to be reduced by 5% of the total grade (5 points out of 100). Absences due to illness or the like are not voluntary and will be excused. Voluntary absences include going for a stroll on the river, skipping class to study for a test in another class, or being unable to attend because studying for other classes has caused complete exhaustion.

Students can gain an extra 5% by making an appointment and going to Writing Center to get additional help on a paper, up to a maximum of 5%. This is, while multiple visits are a great idea, the bonus only applies once.

According to the Institute, CI-H subjects such as this are to involve assigning traditional college essays ("pages" of writing "divided among three to five assignments") and must "provide a foundation in general expository writing and speaking." Nevertheless, we will find some in-class writing time for the 21st century — for discussing and doing some forms of contemporary digital writing and online communication.

The Writing Center

The Writing and Communication Center (12-132) offers you free one-on-one professional advice from published writers about oral presentations and about all types of academic, creative, and professional writing. Go to and click on "Appointment." If you cannot find an open appointment slot, do not despair. There are always cancellations on the day of the appointment. Click on the clock in the upper left-hand corner of each day's block. Whenever a cancellation occurs on that day, you will be automatically notified by email. Because several people might receive that same message, go online ASAP to schedule that open spot; 96% of clients who want an appointment end up with one if they use the Wait List. The Center's hours are listed on the online scheduler. The best way to guarantee yourself an appointment is to schedule early!

Sep 8

Introductions, instructor presentation about the field of digital media, instructor presentation about scholarly and critical writing, in-class exercises on research, writing styles, publication formats, initial selection of paper 1 topics.

Sep 13

Required reading: (First introduction) "Inventing the Medium" by Janet Murray and (Second introduction) "New Media from Borges to HTML" by Lev Manovich. Discussion of these articles.

Sep 15

First lab in the material history of computing in The Trope Tank (14N-233), paper 1 discussion of topics and research directions.

Sep 20

Required reading: (2) "As We May Think" by Vannevar Bush and (5) "Man-Computer Symbiosis" by J.C.R. Licklider. Discussion of these articles, in-class lightning presentations on computers in advertising.

Sep 22

Paper 1 workshop.

Sep 27

Paper 1 due. Instructor presentation on digitization and media change, initial selection of topics for paper 2.

Sep 29

Required reading: (8) Excerpts from Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework by Douglas Engelbart and (21) excerpts from Computer Lib / Dream Machines by Theodor H. Nelson. Discussion of these excerpts, screening of some of "the mother of all demos," paper 2 discussion of topics and research directions.

Oct 4

Paper 2 workshop.

Oct 6

Paper 2 workshop.

Oct 13

Paper 2 due. Required reading: (35) "A Cyborg Manifesto" by Donna Haraway and (36) "The GNU Manifesto" by Richard Stallman. Discussion of these manifestos, instructor presentation on revision, in-class revision exercise.

Oct 18

Library research - printed, paper resources in digital media.

Oct 20

Required reading: (48) "You Say You Want a Revolution? Hypertext and the Laws of Media" by Stuart Moulthrop and (49) "The End of Books" by Robert Coover. Discussion of these articles, in-class digital writing exercise.

Oct 25

Paper 1 or 2 revisions due. Instructor presentation on massive cultural datasets, initial selection of topics for paper 3, selection by each student of a page to present about next class.

Oct 27

Required reading: (54) "The World Wide Web" by Tim Berners-Lee, Robert Cailliau, Ari Loutonen, Henrik Frystyk Nielsen, and Arthur Secret. Discussion of this article, in-class short presentations on older Web oddities and media change, discussion of paper 3 topics.

Nov 1: No class.

Nov 3

Second lab in the material history of computing in The Trope Tank (14N-233).

Nov 8

Instructor presentation on oral presentations and use of audiovisuals, in-class observation and critique of recorded oral presentations (by people not in the class) on digital media topics.

Nov 10

Presentation workshop. Definitely bring at at least two pages of writing; optionally, bring slides for critique.

Nov 15

Presentation 1 (first session, 7 presenters). On the same topic as paper 3, with audiovisual support.

Nov 17

Presentation 1 (second session, 7 presenters). On the same topic as paper 3, with audiovisual support.

Nov 22

Paper 3 workshop.

Nov 29

Paper 3 workshop.

Dec 1

Paper 3 due.

Dec 6

Presentation 2 (first session).

Dec 8

Presentation 2 (second session).

Dec 13

In-class digital writing exercise.