Introduction to Digital Studies

Updated 14 April 2019.


“Digital studies” names a range of interdisciplinary approaches to the critical and creative study of digital media. This course is your introduction to this diverse and rapidly shifting field. Our overall goal is to develop a critical vocabulary for the analysis of digital objects and cultures, from computer code, to video games, to social media, to electronic waste, and more. We’ll engage digital media from historical, aesthetic, technical, and political perspectives, with a particular eye toward how digital technologies increasingly shape most every aspect of contemporary life. To do so, we apply many of the traditional analytical tools of the humanities and social sciences, particularly literary and media studies, as well as creative and technical practices of tinkering, making, and design. If the various interests and approaches under the rubric of “digital studies” have a shared method, it’s that doing things is key to knowing things.

This is a wide-ranging class designed to provide many different points of entry into digital studies. To this end, I’ve organized this course around thirteen keywords: digital, code, infrastructure, network, memory, physical, interface, speculation, manufacture, play, glitch, labor, and waste. Each week we’ll dive into a specific keyword, all the while staying sensitive to the connections we can map across them.

This is not a “learn to code” class; you don’t need to know anything about computer science. When we do get our hands dirty, it will be in the service of experimentation and critical play. Your assignments will reflect this experimental approach as well. You’ll do “traditional” academic writing, but also create objects, craft artist’s statements, give presentations, and participate in regular “labs,” during which you’ll work hands-on with digital media technologies.


By the end of the semester, it’s my hope that you will:


The vast majority of class readings are freely available on the internet or posted as PDFs to the course ELMS site. There are three books that you should plan to purchase from the quality bookseller of your choice:

You should also have a working laptop running one of the following operating systems. You are welcome (nay, encouraged) to use your laptop during class to run experiments, take notes, access readings, and refine class discussions.

Note that relying solely a tablet or Chromebook will make some in-class labs challenging. If you don’t have a laptop available, I recommend checking one out from McKeldin Library. If none of these options suffice, please come speak with me before rushing out to buy an expensive laptop.

Here is also an incomplete list of the programs that you should plan to install over the course of this class. Note that you should not pay for any of these programs. Many do have options to pay but also have free demo modes that will suffice for our class. Not all are available for all platforms. I’ll flag in class the ones that are most imperative for you to download.

Should you choose to 3D print for the Object Lesson assignment, you may have to budget $10 to $15 for associated equipment costs.


Here’s the overall breakdown:

A Note on Deadlines and Submission Protocols

As we’re all coming to this class with different interests, backgrounds, and facilities; and as everyone’s semester follows different rhythms of business and calm; and as I want you to take ownership over the work for this class, I have designed the assignments with flexible deadlines so that you can decide which assignments you want to tackle and when.

You will complete two Lab Reports throughout the semester, described below. You should turn the first Lab Report in anytime before Friday 15 March (i.e., before Spring Break), and the second anytime before Friday 15 April.

The two main assignments of the course are a Short Essay and an Object Lesson, also described below. You have the option of choosing which one you’d like to do first in the semester, to be due on Sunday 10 March, and which you’d like to do second, to be due on Friday 26 April. You will complete both assignments—you won’t do two Object Lessons and no Short Essay, for instance—but you choose the order.

Assignments are due at 11:59 PM the listed days. I’ll reduce the grade one plus/minus grade level each day that it’s turned in late (A becomes an A-; B- becomes a C+; and so forth). I won’t accept assignments turned in more than a week late. If you have an extenuating circumstance that’s making it difficult for you to reach a deadline, please write me, ideally well in advance, so we can discuss alternatives.

You should submit assignments through ELMS in a .docx file format. I will not accept: Apple Pages files, PDFs, or links to Google Docs. I’m stringent about file formats because I use track changes to give you comments, and Microsoft Word doesn’t play nice with all other formats and programs. For assignments that are non-textual or cannot be mediated digitally (i.e., parts of the Object Lesson assignment), contact me about alternate methods for submission.

Finally, please use MLA formatting for all assignments. The Purdue OWL is a great resource if you need to brush up on this citation format.


The litmus test for participation is simple: do you come to class prepared and engaged? And when you contribute to the class in any medium, be it speech or text, do you do so in the spirit of collegiality, respect, and mutual betterment?

Note that “class participation” doesn’t mean always raising your hand at opportune moments. Indeed, dominating a class conversation can be the precise opposite of effective and respectful participation. As such, I take a wide view of “participation” to include the thoughtfulness of your contributions to the class as a whole.

Attendance is crucial to your ability to participate in the class. Not only do we all need to be present in order to learn together, many if not all of the crucial concepts build off each other, meaning that missed classes compound on each other. Attending lab days are particularly crucial given their importance to your Lab Report assignments. If you have a particularly nasty commute that causes you to be regularly late for class, please talk to me ASAP so we can work something out. Please see the PDF version of the syllabus for full UMD policies on course attendance.

Letter of Intent

By the end of the second week, please send me a “letter of intent”—essentially a short (c. 300 words) email to me letting me know your interests and experience. This is part of your participation grade.

Here are some questions to guide you:

Lab Reports

(with thanks to and modifications from Jim Brown)

Twice a semester you will submit a Lab Report drawn from your hands-on experience in one of our in-class labs. You will augment your in-class work with further outside exploration in the skill/tool/topic of your choice; for example, if you’re writing a Lab Report about our experience in the BookLab in Tawes Hall, you should return to the BookLab to learn more about it and the skills we explored there. Or if you’re writing a Report about video game emulation, you should continue to tinker with and explore different emulation platforms.

Each Lab Report has three parts:

  1. Initial Questions. [No word limit.] List the initial questions you have about the tool you’re investigating. What are you most interested in? What do you want to learn? You should also ask how the tool fits into the broader conversations we’re having in the class, either as a means of doing research or as an object of study in itself.
  2. Lab Narrative. [300 word maximum.] Give yourself a task with the tool, with the aim of answering your questions above. You should approach this task with the demeanor of an extremely sincere toddler. How does the tool work? What can you do with it, even if only in an hour or so of playing around? What did you try to do? What worked? What didn’t? What strategies did you use to investigate this tool or object?
  3. Conclusions. [300 word maximum.] Describe a potential project that would use this tool, either as a means to research or an object of study. You don’t have to actually complete the project, just describe it as specifically as possible. It should connect back to the play you describe in the Lab Narrative section.

Short Essay

Write a short essay (c. 1500 words) that puts one critical perspective we’ve discussed in class in conversation with a critical or creative source either within or beyond the class.

I want this assignment to be maximally flexible to your interests, while also giving you a chance to practice the kinds of critical writing about digital media that we’ll read throughout the semester. You might apply infrastructural or media archaeological study to a particular technical object; you might do a critical reading of a web series, video game, Twitter bot, or other kind of born-digital source; you might close read computationally generated poetry—the choice is yours. The key is that you are practicing critical analysis through the medium of academic writing.

You should be in touch with me a few weeks before you plan to submit the paper to discuss your approach and sources.

Object Lesson

Create an object that does some kind of critical work in digital studies, and write a short (c. 500 words) artist’s statement to accompany the object.

One of the major themes in this course is that doing and making are forms of knowledge production. To that end, this assignment asks you to get your hands dirty and create some kind of physical or virtual object that performs critical work in digital studies. What might such an object entail? We’ll discuss this at length in class, but you might create: a 3D-printed object that analyzes its own material creation; a piece of digital literature; a series of glitched images; data visualizations of your internet usage; or many other things inspired by the objects we analyze in class. I recommend using one of the technologies that we experiment with in class, but I’m open to alternatives for those coming in with different skill levels.

This is as much a creative project as it is a critical one. However, I’m not assessing this assignment on whether you’re a good artist or technically facile. Broken prototypes can be just as useful as operating objects. What helps them be useful is the artist’s statement that accompanies them: a short written component that discusses what you attempted to do and how successful you were in doing it. We’ll discuss more about what makes an effective artist’s statement in class.

Just as for the Short Essay, you should be in touch with me a few weeks before you plan to submit your object to discuss your approach and any support you need.

Lightning Talk and Final Portfolio

The “final exam” for this course is a portfolio of three short assignments designed to adapt and expand upon work you’ve done previous in the class. They are:

  1. A lightning talk (five minutes maximum), delivered the penultimate week of class, adapted from either your Short Essay or your Object Lesson. The goal here is to practice presenting your work to an audience of your peers. In your portfolio, you’ll include a cleaned-up and revised script of your talk, c. 500 words.
  2. A project proposal (c. 750 words), which should expand upon one of your Lab Reports. Here, you’re practicing developing models for future work. Note that your project should be achievable within the reasonable limits of your subject position: you shouldn’t propose something that requires massive amount of time or capital investment, but rather that you might do with a few months of concentrated work, or across another semester of this class.
  3. A self-reflection (c. 500 words), wherein you return to your initial letter of interest that you wrote to me in the second week of class. We’ll talk about effective tactics for writing self-reflections in class.


Each week follows the same rough model: we’ll introduce a concept on the first day with a creative or critical reading/object, then do a Lab that illustrates those concepts, and then come back together at the week’s end to situate that Lab work within a broader critical backdrop.

All readings not directly linked are available on ELMS, with the exception of the three books for purchase.

Week 1: Digital

Mon 28 Jan

Wed 30 Jan

Fri 1 Feb

Class cancelled on account of snow.

Week 2: Code

Mon 4 Feb

Wed 6 Feb

Fri 8 Feb

Week 3: Infrastructure

Mon 11 Feb

Wed 13 Feb

Fri 15 Feb

Week 4: Network

Mon 18 Feb

Wed 20 Feb

Fri 22 Feb

Week 5: Memory

Mon 25 Feb

Wed 27 Feb

Fri 1 March

Week 6: Physical

Mon 4 March

Wed 6 March

Fri 8 March

Week 7: Interface

Mon 11 March

Wed 13 March

Fri 15 March

Week 8: Spring Break

No meetings. I suggest reading the first half of Infinite Detail.

Week 9: Speculation

Mon 25 March

Wed 27 March

Fri 29 March

Week 10: Manufacture

Mon 1 April

Wed 3 April

Fri 5 April

Week 11: Play / Glitch

Mon 8 April

Wed 10 April

Fri 12 April

Week 12: Glitch / Play

Mon 15 April

Wed 17 April

Fri 19 April

Week 13: Labor

Mon 22 April

Wed 24 April

Fri 26 April

Week 14: Waste

Mon 29 April

Wed 1 May

Fri 3 May

Week 15: Presentations

No readings; we’ll have a gauntlet of lightning talks instead.

Week 16: Finals

We’ll hold the ostensible last day of class, Monday 5/13, for any overflow that we might have from the presentations. No matter what we choose to use the class for, there will be food. Your final portfolios are due on Tuesday 5/21.


Despite my name being up there as instructor of record, this class would not have been possible without support and input from too many people to name. I am indebted first and foremost to Kyle Bickoff, Setsuko Yokoyama, and Andy Yeh, with whom I developed the initial template of what is now ENGL290 at UMD. Matthew Kirschenbaum and Christina Walter provided valuable guidance through that process. Every teacher inherits the proclivities and activities of those who taught them, and I am particularly guilty of stealing wholesale from Andrew Johnston, Matthew Kirschenbaum, Kari Kraus, Marisa Parham, and Timothy Van Compernolle.

Thanks as well to those scholars on Twitter, whether those I know or those I don’t, who generously share their syllabi and teaching materials, both for content and new approaches to teaching itself. Jim Brown, Alan Liu, Shannon Mattern, Miriam Posner, and Jentery Sayers have been particularly generous in this regard, and our scholarly community benefits immeasurably as a consequence.

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