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Syllabus This Is Your Brain on the Internet: ISIS 120

ISIS 120S-01, English 173S-05: This is Your Brain on the Internet (HASTAC Tag 1SIS 120)

IMPS Space (Interactive Multi-Media Project Space)

John Hope Franklin Center, Duke University


Instructor:  Prof. Cathy N. Davidson, John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies and Ruth F. DeVarney Professor of English,

Teaching Assistant: Alex Greenberg (Literature Program)

Teaching Apprentices:  William Hunt, Ashon Crawley (English Department)


This is Your Brain on the Internet is an experimental, innovative, adventurous, non-traditional, multidisciplinary, student-led, contract- and peer-evaluated course open to any student fascinated by how we come to know the world and how we may or may not know the world differently in the Information Age.  It is not for the faint of heart.  If you are not up for what John Seely Brown calls thinkering (thinking while doing, project-based thinking, evolving and progressive thinking), this is not a course for you.

Our quest in this course will be to explore many different, quirky, eccentric, and exceptional models of mind in order to force ourselves to think, together, about what models best suit our digital, interactive, collaborative age.  Although we are in a great era of neuroscience and are learning more and more about our mental processing, what we do not know about how our brain works is infinitely more vast than what we know.  Thus we make models to try to explain ourselves to ourselves.  Every era (and the present is no exception) and every culture imagines its own models of mind.  In the scientific method, this hypothesis then both shapes experiments and data collection and uses experimental findings and the data collected to test, refine, or (sometimes) refute the hypothesis.  

This class advances an argument:  We are living in one of the most momentous times of change in human history.  We have changed.  Now we need to name the paradigm that has already shifted.  It advances a second hypothesis:  If the old twentieth-century metaphor for the mind was the hardwired CPU, what if the model of mind for the era of social networking and interaction is the iPhone:   an App for everything, some come bundled with the technology but most you choose, each one is interconnected to others, you customize, you update, and everything is in constant need of a software update, and no ones iPhone looks alike?  It is not that some iPhones are defectivethey each have different Aps, and most of us never explore all of the Aps we have.  Especially if weve been told our iPhone is defective.

This class will be testing that argument in myriad ways.   We will be thinking together about how we know the world, how we think, and how we think about thinking as individuals, as groups, as a culture, as subcultures, in a historical moment, as mediated by and through technology.  The readings are intended as provocations.  Some are evocative, some controversial, all have strong points of view, all are polemical in the sense that they advocate for models of mind, collaboration, interaction, and mediation.  All are also situated in the sense that they do not look at cognition in an abstract sense, as divorced from social concerns, but as deeply rooted in cultural arrangements, so another focus of the course will be on new ways that humans interact with one another as friends, business partners, and members of a global information community--and, at the same time, with how we do not interact.  What are the divides?  What are the barriers?  In what ways do new arrangements reenact old disparities, old arrangements of privilege or inequality?   How can one express the potential and possibilities of the digital without losing sight of the real-world issues mirrored (and sometimes magnified) in virtual worlds and virtual relations?

How are collaborations different when they are face-to-face than when virtual, mediated by technology?  How are collaborations and interactions different one-on-one than performed with a group, different when a teacher or parent or other authority figure is or is not present?  Our own classroom will move back and forth between actual and virtual experiences, including observation of highly complex collaborative environments (including choreography, improvisation, and other ways of interacting with and without words), some of which involve technology and some of which do not.


The course is conceived as a trans-disciplinary exploration in which we will consider the deep structure of cognition and community in a digital age. Well learn from theoretical and expressive books and articles ranging from neuroscience to films and literature, from various experimental and mainstream films as well as from a range of non-traditional sources (websites, interactive games and virtual environments, new media art exhibits, a backstage tour, conversations with social networking activists and community organizers, demonstrations by performance artists and illusionists, Virtual Reality tours, etc.)

We will also learn from engaged collaboration (collaboration by difference) with others who have complementary skills, strengths, attitudes, and assumptions.  Every student will have at least three opportunities to work with partner(s) in the class and learning to be conscious and conscientious about that interactive, collaborative process is one of the learning methods of this course.  Each class will have pairs of student leaders.  


Choosing readings and supplementary online materials to view will be led by the students leaders of each class session.   Books may be obtained from the Regulator independent bookstore on 9th Street.

Readings will be chosen from among the following but some will be added or dropped by student leaders as the course unfolds.  Books are available from Regulator Independent Bookstore on Ninth Street, Durham.

Jean-Dominique Bauby, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

*Norman Doidge, The Brain That Changes Itself

Cathy N. Davidson and David Theo Goldberg, The Future of Learning Institutions in a

Digital Age [online; free download from MIT Press] 

*Anna Everett,  ed., Learning Race and Ethnicity: Youth and Digital Media (MacArthur

Foundation Digital Media and Learning Series) [selections online]

*Temple Grandin,  Animals in Translation

*Christopher Kelty, Two Bits:  The Cultural Significance of Free Software [selections


*Daniel Levitin, This Is Your Brain on Music

Mark Haddon, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

*Jeff Hawkins, On Intelligence

*Tara McPherson, ed., Innovative Uses and Unexpected Outcomes (MacArthur

Foundation Digital Media and Learning Series)  [selections online]

*Howard Rheingold, Smart Mobs 

*Clay Shirky,  Here Comes Everybody:  The Power of Organizing Without Organizations

This course is student-driven:  All classes will be lead by pairs of students who will also give us reading assignments (books, articles, websites, films) and writing/creating assignments (setting us ways to interact with the material prior to or in class as well as after it).  The student leaders for each session will also evaluate every other students contributions, a process that will continue throughout the class, on our class Wordpress site.   The purpose is for all of us to become used to peer evaluation, peer response, peer collaboration toward our mutual learning goals.   Students will be encouraged to respond back to the student leaders making the comments.


Evaluation Method and Course Requirements

Evaluation Method:

Your grade for this course is an A if you satisfactorily complete all the required units in this course.   You can decide at the beginning of the course if youd rather skip a unit and have a different grade.  The process is simple and in your control.  Grades dont matter (so far as the Teaching Team is concerned); it is you deciding which grade you want and fulfilling the contract for that grade.

This course is graded by a combination of contract grading and peer evaluation.  You will receive credit or no credit for each unit that is satisfactory.  Satisfactory is full credit.  Unsatisfactory (or not submitted) is no credit.   

Peers (details below) who are in charge of leading a class unit will determine if the blogs posted each week are satisfactory.  If not, they will give feedback for improvement and students will be given a chance to resubmit. 

The same is true for the other assignments, to be determined by peer feedback and feedback from the class and from the Teaching Team (Cathy, Alex, Bill, and Ashon).  The percentages are offered here simply so you can see how much a given assignment is valued and how much you will forfeit by not completing an assignment.

To repeat: You set the grade goal for this class.  If you satisfactorily complete all the course requirements, your grade for the course will be an A.   However, it is not expected that everyone will be trying for an A and theres no problem at all if you make a decision to go for another grade.  The grade isnt important; what is important is you taking control of the process and making a decision.   If you are a senior, or having a busy semester or for any other reason, you well may decide you dont want to try for an A in the course.  If that is the case, please talk to Alex about your plan to try for a different grade.   There is no problem planning a different grade.  It might make more sense for you to plan to skip one of the assignments or only do a partial assignment in order to concentrate on your major or another event in your life.  The point is, this is in your control.   And there wont be any arguing at the end of the class about grades.  We simply add up all the tasks accomplished.  

Course Requirements:

(1) CLASS ATTENDANCE/PARTICIPATION               (15%)   

It is expected that you will attend every class.  Theres no point in having face-to-face meetings unless they yield benefits, contribute to a collaborative environment of exchange.   If you will be missing a class, you are still responsible for the readings and filing the weekly blog.  If you will be missing class, please write to the TA with a brief explanation.  If absences are unavoidable, you can come up with a plan to, in a timely fashion, find a way to participate in the class, perhaps by doing the reading and filing a vlog before class.

            To watch and read on YouTube, All About Gunners.   This is a very interesting conversation about gunners in law schoolfrom the pov of people who are gun shy and dont like the gunners.  But the comments on YouTube respond to this video in interesting and pointed ways.  (Q: Is there anything worse than someone answering all the questions?   A:  Yes.  No one answering questions.  The Socratic method fails without back-and-forth interaction.  Discuss.)

(2) WEEKLY BLOG                                     (25%)

Think of this as an evolving final exam.  It has the same importance and weight.

Blogs must be completed by midnight the night before the class session.  All students are required to read the blogs by their classmates are encouraged to comment.   The student leaders are required to read, comment, and let students know if their blog is unsatisfactory and needs revision.  They need to offer useful and constructive feedback to aid revision.    These blogs will be for our class only and will not be available beyond our class.  However, students will be encouraged to also contribute to public forums and these posts may be reblogged for that purpose.

(3) LEADING A CLASS SESSION            (15%)

Think of this as the equivalent of a midterm exam.  Cathy Davidson will lead the first unit.    The entire Teaching Team (including Alex, Bill, and Ashon) will lead the second unit on evaluation and assessment.  

All other classes will be lead by students working in pairs or, sometimes, three.  (In the second half of the class, one session each week will be a formal presentation of a multimedia project and the other will be student-team led.)  

  • Books have been ordered from The Regulator Independent Bookstore on 9th Street.   You may select all of parts of these books or decide upon other readings.  You may also choose topics and shape your topics.
  • All readings must be assigned in class and then posted on the class blog a week in advance of your class.
  • Please check in with Alex about readings, assignments, reserve, movies to reserve, field trips, and other details.


Requirements: Two (in rare cases, three) people figure out what to assign to the class--both will receive the same grade; collaboration is part of the project

  • They plan their class presentation, including in-class assignments for us
  • They lead the class discussion
  • They read every student's blogs; if students don't blog about the class readings before class they work with Alex to count that as an "zero" on their weekly blog grade; if a blog is unsatisfactory, they give the student feedback on how to make it satisfactory.  The student has a "zero" until the class leaders deem that the student took the advice and reblogged satisfactorily. 

We will be talking about evaluation and feedback constantly.  How to give and received useful feedback, how to accept it critically but also undefensively is a skill almost never taughtand crucial for all of ones life.  This is a major feature of the course. 

  • After the class, the student leaders post their "lesson plan" for our class and their notesboth on the class blog and on the public HASTAC site developed for our class. 
  • You only receive credit if you fulfill all parts of this assignment, including the feedback on the other blogs and the public reblogging on the HASTAC site.


            --Each student is required to make one contribution to a significant public resource such as Wikipedia, either a new entry or systematic editing of a few entries.  Or contribution to a more specialized resource.

(5) FIELD TRIPS            10% each

            ATTENDANCE  +            PUBLIC BLOG  (on HASTAC or another relevant site)

            We will have some organized class trips.  There will also be an ongoing wiki of relevant current events to which all students will be encouraged to add throughout the course on our course website.   

Field trips scheduled during class time are required the way normal class participation is. 

If a field trip is scheduled outside normal class hours, it is highly recommended but it is understood extra-curricular scheduling is complicated.  If you cannot make the other field trips, you can offer a substitute and blog about them on the class blog and the public HASTAC blog.

Students will be required to post public blogs or microblogs (#TYBI) on at least two events outside of class and blog about them.


Think of this the equivalent of a final research paper.  It is multimedia, collaborative, and requires a full-class presentation and public posting of the final product.

  • Ideally four or five students work together on a multimedia and text-based project that requires original research and is presented to the class in a full-class session in the last four weeks of the class.  
  • You will also post a final version on the class site and reblog it to the HASTAC public site.

COURSE SCHEDULE  [Subject to change; please make sure to always check the class website for updates]

Wed Jan 13:  First day of classes

            Hand out sheets; students work with partners for 15 minutes. 

Roll and pass out syllabus.

UNIT #1:  From My Brain to Yours 


Jean-Dominique Bauby, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

            Flim Screening:  The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, dr. artist and film director, Julian Schnabel

            Interview with Schnabel:

Brain-Computer Interface entry in Wikipedia,

Brain Wave of the Future, The Washington Post,

Professor Miguel Nicolelis, Center for Neurobiology, Duke University,    Please take a thorough tour of this website, watch the videos, read the popular press, and then read two of the original scientific articles, available as pdfs on the site  [NB:  Dissemination of scientific knowledge is another of our topics in TYBI.  Keep track of how easy or difficult it is to obtain scholarly scientific information.  What if you werent a student at Duke?]

O'Doherty JE, Hanson TL, Lebedev MA, Henriquez CS, Nicolelis MAL, Incorporating somatic sensation in a brain-machine interface using cortical microstimulation,   Reference:. Front. Integr. Neurosci. 3: 1-10, 2009.

Nicolelis MAL, Lebedev MA. Principles of Neural Ensemble Physiology Underlying the Operation of Brain-Machine Interfaces. Nat. Rev. Neurosci. 10: 530-540, 2009.

Mon Jan 18MLK Holiday

Tues Night Jan 19:  Film Screening, Diving Bell and the Butterfly, on reserve at Lilly Library, details tba

Wed Jan 20   From My Brain to Your Brain.  Discussion led by Cathy Davidson:   Topics:  Brain activity v. communication.  What is communication?   What is the role of technology in mediating the transfer of information from me to you? How does the medium change what is communicated? Genres: Memoir, film, interview, Wikipedia entry, popular account, website, scientific papers, lab visit.  What about other genres such as science fiction? What do different kinds of genres put in?  What do they leave out?  [Pay particular attention to when something is fully fleshed out or vague and sketchyor not an issue raised in one place that, in another, is not even raised at all.] How does the message change from medium to medium?             

Mon  Jan 25  Discussion continues


Wed Jan 27FIELD TRIP:  Meet at the lab of Professor Miguel Nicolelis,  Center for Neuroengineering, 327E Bryan Research Building  [CHECK]  

Drop/add ends

Mon Feb 1  How We Measure:  Discussion led by the ISIS 120 Teaching Team.  

Assignment:  track and read as many of the comments as possible on this conversation. Find on Digg.  Find the AP and the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed accounts and the (typically snarky) comments.

How To Crowdsource Grading

Grading 2.0:  Evaluation in a Digital Age.


No Child Left Behind:  Policy and Debate

Wed Feb 3  How We Measure,  continued.  Issues of race, gender, power, class, social background and the debate, from the beginning of I.Q. testing, on whether intelligence and achievement are culturally determined, and how. 

Mon Feb 8 Peer Leaders:   _______________________

Possible topic:   Different Minds   (What Is Normal?)

Mark Haddon, Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime

Temple Grandin, Animals in Translation

Amanda Baggs, In My Language,  Baggs is an autistic woman who uses Computer-Mediated Communication to translate the language she operates in to  the world of non-autistics.   (Not being able to speak is not the same as not having anything to say)

Faye Ginsburg and Rayne Rapp, Enabling Disability:  Rewriting Kinship, Reimagining Citizenship, Public Culture (2001): 13, 3,  533-556.

Wed Feb 10

Mon Feb 15 Peer leaders:  _______________________

Possible topic:  Ways of Knowing

Daniel Levitin, This Is Your Brain on Music

[CHAT FestivalUNCFeb. 16-20]

Wed Feb 17   FIELD TRIP:   UNC Chat Festival

Mon Feb 22 --  Peer leaders: ___________________

Possible Topic:  Theories of the Brain, Theories of the Digital

Jeff Hawkins, On Intelligence

Web Feb 24

[Feb 26:  Last Day for Reporting Mid-term Grades:  let's discuss what this means in practical terms]

Mon Mar 1   Peer leaders:   _______________

Possible Topic:  Thinking Together, Digital Thinking

Tara McPherson, ed., Innovative Uses and Unexpected Outcomes

Wed Mar 3


NO CLASS MARCH 8 and 10:  Spring break

Mon Mar 15  Peer leaders:  ________________

Possible Topic:   Collaboration by Difference

Clay Shirky, Here Comes Everybody:   The Power of Organizing Without Organization

Howard Rheingold, Smart Mobs plus his many columns, websites

Wed Mar 17

Mon Mar 22 Peer Leaders:  _______________

Possible Topic:   Remix World Nixed  (Copyright and Copywrong, IP, limits on the digital)

Cristopher Kelty, Two Bits (available for free dowload)

Wed Mar 24


Wed Mar 31Peer Leaders:  _______________

Possible Topic:   Massively Multiplayer Virtual Worlds

Ian Bogost, Douglas Thomas, and other essays on collaborative worlds


Wed Apr 7   Peer Leaders:__________________

Possible Topic:  Digital Worlds, Real Worlds

danah boyd essays and blogs on who uses social networking sites, how, why, and what

they think of them, with discussion of race and gender differences in different sites and different uses of those sites; Anna Everett's Learning Race and Ethnicity; Lisa Nakamura's essays on race and digital labor. 


Wed, April 14   Prof. Davidson

Topic:   The Future of Thinking

Cathy N. Davidson and David Theo Goldberg, The Future of Thinking:  Learning Institutions in a Digital Age .  MIT Press, free download

 [HASTAC 2010: Virtual April 15-17:  Worldwide]

*HASTAC Co-Founders David Theo Goldberg and Cathy N. Davidson will participate in a bicoastal keynote conversation on The Future of Thinking.  Students in ISIS 120 are invited to be part of the Duke audience for this event, to ask questions, and to participate in this global conversation.


Wed April 21  Prof Davidson and ISIS 120 Team:   Wrapping up


[W3C April 26-30Raleigh, NC]

Wed April 28Last Day of Undergrad Classes



HASTAC Co-Founders David Theo Goldberg and Cathy N. Davidson will participate in a bicoastal keynote conversation on The Future of Thinking.  Students in ISIS 120 are invited to be part of the Duke audience for this event, to ask questions, and to participate in this global conversation.

HASTAC is delighted to announce the HASTAC 2010: Grand Challenges and Global Innovations Conference. Held April 15-17, 2010 and hosted by the Institute for Computing in Humanities, Arts, and Social Science at the University of Illinois, HASTAC 2010: Grand Challenges and Global Innovations will be a free, entirely virtual event held in a multiplicity of digital spaces instigated from sites across the globe.

This years event will focus on grand challenges and global innovations in the form of technologies, research, teaching, and inquiry that can be leveraged across personal, physical, geographical, institutional, disciplinary, and organizational boundaries.  HASTAC 2010 seeks to ask: what are the influence(s) of virtual spaces that can transcend boundaries to impact global innovations?  How will the next generation of digital technologies alter personal, physical, geographical, institutional, disciplinary, and organizational boundaries?  What are the grand challenges in humanities, arts, and sciences that will shape the next generation of global innovation?

In the spirit of including digital innovators from across the globe, HASTAC 2010 will feature:

       Keynote events hosted at research centers from across the globe during the conference.  Confirmed virtual hub participants include: Georg-August-Universitt Gttingen (GAUG, Germany), Kings College London (KCL, UK),  Laboratrio Nacional de Computao Cientfica (LNCC, Brazil), the Advanced Digital Sciences Center, Fusionopolis (Singapore), El Centro Nacional de Alta Tecnologa (CeNAT, Costa Rica), National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA, USA), Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center (PSC, USA), the Center for Computation and Technology, Louisiana State University (CCT, USA), the Center for Computational Sciences University of Kentucky (CCS, USA), the National University Community Research Institute (NUCRI, USA), Duke University (DU, USA), the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute (FHI, USA), the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH, USA), the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC, USA), the Institute for Multimedia Literacy, University of Southern California (IML, USA), the University of California Humanities Research Institute (UCHRI, USA). 

To foster innovation in research, HASTAC 2010 will feature special sessions on:

       Young scholars where undergraduate and graduate students can present works in progress and receive support and feedback from the HASTAC community.

       Disciplinary pedagogy where participants can explore the meaning of global innovation with the teaching of digital humanities, arts, and sciences.



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