Building and Sharing (When You’re Supposed to be Teaching)

Much of what I do in my classroom doesn’t necessary count as “digital humanities.” I certainly don’t present my classes as digital humanities classes to my students—or to my colleagues, for that matter.

If anything, I simply say that we’ll be doing things in our classes they’ve never done before in college, let alone a literature class. And literature is mostly what I teach. Granted, I teach literature that lends itself to digital work: electronic literature, postmodern fiction, and even videogames. We do a great deal of close readings in these classes. It’s familiar, even comfortable territory for my students. But we also—and this is what surprises my students—spend much of our time building and sharing.

In fact, if I were to change the title of this essay to reflect my students’ perspectives, it might look something like this:

Building and Sharing (When We’re Supposed to be Writing)

And at the end of this title would come one of the greatest unspoken assumptions both students and faculty make regarding writing: writing:

((For an Audience of One))

So the “sharing” part of my title comes from my ongoing effort—not always successful—to extend my students’ sense of audience. I’ll give some examples of this sharing shortly, but first I want to address the initial word of my title: Building. Those who know me are probably surprised that I’m emphasizing “building” as a way to integrate the digital humanities in the classroom. One of the most popular pieces I’ve written in the past year is a blog post decrying the hack versus yack split that routinely crops in debates about the definition of digital humanities. In this post, I argued that the various divides in the digital humanities, which often arise from institutional contexts and professional demands generally beyond our control, are a distracting sideshow to the true power of the digital humanities, which has nothing to do with production of either tools or research. The heart of the digital humanities is not the production of knowledge. It’s the reproduction of knowledge.

The promise of the digital is not in the way it allows us to ask new questions because of digital tools or because of new methodologies made possible by those tools. The promise is in the way the digital reshapes the representation, sharing, and discussion of knowledge.

And I truly believe that this transformative power of the digital humanities belongs in the classroom. Classrooms were made for sharing. Where, then, does the “building” part of my pedagogy come up? How can I suddenly turn around and claim that building is important when I had previously argued the opposite, in a blog post that has shown up on the syllabuses of at least six introduction to the digital humanities courses?

I need to explain what I mean by building. Building, for me, means to work. And when I say work, I mean the opposite of thinking. I get this idea from a short essay by Peter Stallybrass that appeared in the PMLA in 2007. Stallybrass’s article has the provocative title “Against Thinking,” and in it, he argues that we think too much and don’t work enough.

Thinking, according to Stallybrass, is the hobgoblin of big minds. Thinking is boring, repetitious, and “indolent” (1583). On the other hand, working is “easy, exciting,” and “a process of discovery” (1583). Working is challenging.

This distinction between thinking and working informs Stallybrass’s undergraduate pedagogy, for example, the way he trains his students to work with archival materials and the English Short Title Catalog. In Stallybrass’s mind, students—and in fact, all scholars—need to do less thinking and more working. “When you’re thinking,” Stallybrass writes, “you’re usually staring at a blank sheet of paper or a blank screen, hoping that something will emerge from your head and magically fill that space. Even if something ‘comes to you,’ there’s no reason to believe that it is of interest, however painful the process has been” (1584). This is a key insight that students and scholars alike need to be reminded of: tortured and laborious thinking does not automatically translate into anything of importance.

Stallybrass goes on to say that “the cure for the disease called thinking is work” (1584). In Stallybrass’s field of Renaissance and Early Modern literature, much of that work has to do with textual studies, discovering variants, paying attention to the material form of the book, and so on. In my own teaching, I’ve attempted to replace thinking with building—sometimes with words, sometimes without.

I’ll share a few examples here from my own teaching, which broadly fall into two categories: collaborative construction and creative analysis. By collaborative construction, I mean a collective effort to build something new, in which each student’s contribution works in dialogue with every other student’s contribution. A key point of collaborative construction is that the students are not merely making something for themselves or for their professor. They are making it for each other, and, in the best scenarios, for the outside world. Collaborative construction obliterates that insular sense of audience inherent in more conventional student assignments. As for the concept of creative analysis, I mean that as a kind of antidote to the vacuous and shape-shifting term “critical thinking.” Creative analysis is the practice of discovering knowledge through the act of creation—through the making of something new. Rather than having students write papers, which often involves the worst aspects of thinking that Stallybrass derides, I ask the students to do something they find severely discomfiting: creating something new for which no models exist.

As examples of collaborative construction, I offer up my students’ Portal Exhibit and a cross-campus effort to renetwork of House of Leaves. With the Portal Exhibit, students in my George Mason University Honors College course on Technology in the Contemporary World used Omeka to build an online exhibit dedicated to the groundbreaking game Portal. The exhibit was entirely student-designed, and though the results fell short of my initial vision for the exhibit, the students encountered a number of practical and epistemological challenges that deepened their understanding of the both the game itself and the way we talk about and make sense of videogames more generally.

A more decentralized version of constructive collaboration occurred in my Fall 2011 Post-Print Fiction class, in which my students read Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves alongside four other classes at four universities or colleges (Converse College, Temple University, Emory University, and the University of Mary Washington). All five classes then participated in an online forum that strove to replicate as closely as possible the original online House of Leaves discussion forum, which at its peak had hundreds of participants and thousands of posts. Our classes were, in a sense, rebooting the forum.

As examples of creative analysis, I want to point to several types of mapping and modeling projects I’ve used. In a postmodern fiction class, I’ve had students build abstract models of a novel (obviously inspired by Franco Moretti’s notion of distant reading).  In a videogame studies class I’ve likewise asked students to design an abstract representation of an NES game, a kind of model that would capture some of the game’s complexity and reveal underlying patterns to the way actions, space, and time unfold in the game. As I’ve reflected upon elsewhere, I try with such projects to turn my students into aspiring Rauschenbergs, “assembling mixed media combines, all the while through their engagement with seemingly incongruous materials, developing a critical thinking practice about the process and the product.” In the videogame class I’m also experimenting with game design projects as alternatives to traditional final papers. The very act of designing a game instead of writing a final paper changes the students’ sense entirely of what they’re doing and who their audience will be. Students know that a final paper will be read—hopefully—by only one person (if that). A game, however, already presumes an audience.

If I were to say what unites these various forms of building in my classroom, I might use the term “deformance,” a portmanteau coined in 1999 by Lisa Samuels and Jerry McGann. A combination of “performance” and “deform,” deformance is an interpretative concept premised upon deliberately misreading a text, say, reading a poem backwards line-by-line. More recently, Stephen Ramsay demonstrates in Reading Machines how computers allow scholars to practice deformance quite easily. I would add (and I doubt Ramsay would disagree) that it’s not only texts that can be deformatively reshaped, nor are computers necessary tools for deformance. As my students build—both collaboratively and creatively—they are also reshaping, and that very reshaping is an interpretative process. It is not writing, or at least not only writing. And it is certainly not only thinking. It is work, it has an audience, and it is something my students never expected.


Originally published by Mark Sample on October 19, 2011. Revised March 2012.

Originally a lightning talk given on October 18, 2012 as part of CUNY’s Digital Humanities Initiative.

About Mark Sample

Mark Sample teaches and researches contemporary literature and new media in the Department of English at George Mason University. A vocal practitioner and critic of the digital humanities, Professor Sample has contributed to Hacking the Academy (University of Michigan Press) and Debates in the Digital Humanities (University of Minnesota Press). He also has a collaboratively written book forthcoming from MIT Press, which combines critical code studies, software studies, and platform studies, as well as more traditional forms of literary and textual scholarship to understand creative computing on the Commodore 64. Professor Sample is a regular contributor to ProfHacker, a feature at the Chronicle for Higher Education that focuses on pedagogy and scholarly productivity. He also writes for Play the Past, a collaboratively edited scholarly blog that explores the intersection of cultural heritage and games.