Students attend two core courses in the Michaelmas term and two choices from a basket of course options in the Lent term. Students are also required to attend a lecture/workshop series and research seminar programme which will run alongside the courses. The course options vary from year to year, but may include the following.
Core Course 1: Digital Humanities Methods and Orientations
Core course 1 provides a critical introduction to digital humanities methods and orientations with a focus on collections data. Digital technologies are transforming the ways in which collections and archives of all kinds are theorised, understood, collated, re-built and re-thought, and by using the lifecycle of a DH project as a framework, students will gain a thorough grounding in the selection, application and evaluation of DH methods: from the creation of data, through the selection and application of methodologies, to the evaluation of outputs. We will cover a range of DH paradigms and methods, including text, images, mapping, networks, and big data, with an emphasis on the role of computational methods in humanities research, and a critical approach to existing work and to our own activities.
Materials for the case studies will largely be drawn from the collections of the Cambridge University Library and the Fitzwilliam Museum, including the archives of the Royal Commonwealth Society, Islamic manuscripts, scientific correspondence, historical maps, and aerial photography. An understanding of the nature, provenance, and scope of these collections, how collections are turned into ‘data’, and how this affects project outputs, will be fundamental to the course. The course will cover the basics of formats (XML, JSON), programming languages (Python, XSLT), query languages (SQL, SPARQL) and standards (TEI, IIIF), but the emphasis will be on the critical evaluation of technology in the humanities, rather than on the technologies themselves. Evaluation of existing work in the field will be a core part of the course, and in most sessions, students will be asked to come prepared to discuss critically a small selection of DH projects relating to the topic.
Core Course 2: Critical Technical Practice
This course provides an overview of computational approaches to the humanities, including the analysis of texts, images, sound, and other data media. We will open a series of ‘black boxes’, bringing in diverse critical approaches to the digital and will discuss the diverse forms of knowledge generated by computational research (in the humanities and elsewhere), giving students an understanding of the new epistemic cultures and experimental systems of the digital age. The course will include a mix of discussion based on readings and a series of practical experimentation sessions in both software and hardware, which will allow students to develop their own self-critical technical practices – some of which may be deployed in their portfolio project.
Students will develop a nuanced understanding of many of the fundamental ideas and concepts of computation in the digital humanities and elsewhere. We start from the materiality of computer processors – the unstable relationship between electronic circuits and discarnate data. We then look in detail at some of the transversal paradigms of computation, such as vectors, networks, and big data. What does it mean to represent a thing (material or conceptual) as a set of numbers? How does a computer program for processing texts, sounds or images embody particular theories of reading, hearing or seeing? We will tackle these shared issues in dialogue with contemporary datasets (touching on data journalism) from sources such as Open Climate Data, the World Inequality Database, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and Spotify.
Digital technologies are transforming cultures. Older forms are being re-mediated, new forms are emerging. Computational operations are expanding to become pervasive, operating at multiple scales, taking different material forms, combining into new assemblages. This is a matter of medium change, of the expansion of mediation itself, perhaps a matter of it becoming environmental. The world into which we are emerging is conditioned by developments in computing; machine learning and AI expand the realm of the computable – of what may be handled through machine logics, while the expansion of sensors, drones, platforms make environments and bodies newly available – for capture, treatment, processing.
This course explores the stakes of these transformations, asking how they have been, and are now, understood and articulated, how they are taking material form. We will study the operations and cultural imaginaries of the computational looking at literature, film, media art, everyday ephemera, and asking how they are reorganising our sense of the boundaries between image, sound, and text, and reorganising our sense and experience of time.
NEW to 2023: Digital and Media Art
This course looks at digital, machine, and media art through, and in some cases as, digital humanities work. It engages with diverse traditions of artistic explorations of technology, including web/net art, cybernetic serendipity, electronic contemporary music, live coding, and AI/generative art. We will be exploring some of the resonances between DH and digital/media arts at the level of practice (e.g. ‘creative coding’, data visualisation, sonification); in terms of their theoretical scaffolds; and in how they constitute modes of digital practice as cultural criticism.
Most importantly, this course will be seeking to tease out the ways in which digital and media arts can challenge digital humanities theory and practice; for instance, in considering embodiment, materiality, and hardware; in the epistemologies of performance (as artistic research), liveness and ephemerality; and in practices of emancipatory or disruptive technical interventions as forms of critique (esoteric programming, glitch art, hardware hacking). Since a crucial concern is the relationship between theory and practice at the intersection of the cultural and the digital, the course will include both seminars and experimental/practical workshops.
What is ‘distant reading’? Coined in 2000 as a satirical antonym to the ‘close reading’ of canonical literature, the term originally referred to any turning of critical attention to the ‘great unread’ of forgotten literary works. Subsequently, with the rise of readily available digital archives and computational resources, the term pivoted to refer to the computational study of literary history at a large scale. However, ‘distant reading’, understood not as a term but as a set of practices, has a much longer genealogy and a far wider scope than either of these definitions would suggest, both predating the rise of computing and encompassing not only literary texts but newspapers, political speeches, social media, and even audio, paintings, and the visual arts.
This course, which assumes no prior expertise in programming or data science, introduces students to the essential components of distant reading practice today.
NEW to 2023: Emancipatory Digital Practices
This course rests on the conviction that, in the digital realm, tools for dominance and tools for emancipation are largely interchangeable. Some of the instruments used to build and maintain hegemony can be reclaimed and repurposed by critical digital practitioners.
The aim of the course is to (re)combine critical theories of the digital with digital analyses of the cultural and the social. For that purpose, we blend theoretical and practical elements to provide the tools for critical thinking and action. On the theoretical side, students will have the opportunity to engage with diverse digital epistemologies and narratives on technological determinism, technological solutionism and hybridity. From there we proceed to a critical examination of internet platform ecologies and online (sub)cultures of dissent, from early hacking collectives to contemporary “culture wars”. We will also restate the problem of agency in the context of the debate on the possibilities and limitations of digital activism. With a focus on online/offline/hybrid counter-hegemonic practices, this course includes “lab sessions” during which students are invited to try out digital methods and techniques.
At the end of the course, students should have a better critical understanding of the interplay between social change and technological transformation and be equipped with intellectual and technical tools to become active producers rather than passive products of the contemporary knowledge industry.
Global Digital Humanities
This course considers digital humanities and its affordances in a global context. What does it mean to ‘do’ digital humanities globally, and how can it be more alert to the ethical needs and political legibilities of global populations?
Grounded in the literary, historical and philosophical questions raised by postcolonial and critical race studies, this module will examine how ‘difference’ and ‘otherness’ is encoded within and through our contemporary media culture and through digital practices, and how digital and technological processes are often consonant with colonial legacies and their resultant global inequities.
A specific focus will be the digital archive. What are its discontents? How does it remember? How does its memory itself shift with a shift in our medium? How do racialised histories of exploitation, dispossession, and apartheid seep into the framing of this digital archive? And can it be reframed to engage with how questions of race, class, caste, gender, and disability remain central to its overarching aims and propositions?
Materialities of the Digital
This course explores the materiality of digital culture through an investigation of the ‘things’ that undergird our networked world. It also introduces ways of thinking about how these things are made and connected with each other through networks, systems, infrastructures, and architectures.
A key assumption that underpins the course is that, to make sense of how people use digital technologies and how they build the material world that makes those technologies work, units of analysis beyond individual ‘users’ or ‘creators’ and their devices are essential. This means that the assessment of shifting patterns of interactions between states and corporations is fundamental to the process of theorisation. We will thus discuss and engage with the work of theorists from a range of perspectives including science and technology studies, the emerging area of critical infrastructure studies, development studies and global political economy.
We will investigate the societal and political implications of the routing of cables carrying power and digits across the oceans and into our houses, analyse what the global distribution of agglomerations of data in banks of parallel processors in the data centres that are essential to ‘cloud computing’ systems tell us about asymmetries of power, and examine how sensor networks become embedded in both built environments and wearable technologies.
We will explore the articulation of data from these sources in driving drones and autonomous vehicles and will consider both the physical infrastructure of borders and the systemisation of classificatory technologies, which justifies sorting people out into neat categories. Finally, we will look at how the choices made individually and collectively by people, whether ‘unorganised’ as crowds, or in ‘organised’ form as social movements, shape digital culture, its material environment – and how it impacts global environments.
What does it mean – asked art historian T J Clark, a year before the iPhone – to study visual art in the Age of Image-Machines, in which images are increasingly mobile, disembodied, and disposable? Conventional routes to understanding visual culture seem incompatible with the enormous scale of contemporary image production and the pervasiveness of computation, whilst we are finding new ways of addressing scale and technical mediation in historical visual culture and contemporary live media art. AI systems which learn to see are at the heart of social media, self-driving cars, the military and entertainment industries. This course will look at the gaps and bridges between the visual and other media – new and old – as hints of how the world around us is being reconfigured.
These issues raise a common question: how do we uncover the implicit visual theories in an artificial object? We’ll look at how people have negotiated this relationship (and the necessary mediations of the visual) within art and art history, exploring diverse Image-Machines – including visual AI – through close readings of various technical forms and network architectures. We will explore questions of embodiment and liveness in digital visual culture, particularly through exploring the prospect of computers as theatres (and ourselves as performers): a critical lens to explore visual culture through digital scenography, cross-reality performance, and live media art.