Blog Post

Industrial Origins of the Digital Age

English 90   Industrial Origins of the Digital Age 

Spring 2011  MW 1:15-2:30 MW

Humanities Lab, Smith Warehouse Bay 5, First Floor

Professor Cathy N. Davidson


DESCRIPTION: This is not a conventional historically-based literature course.  Rather, it begins with the steampunk version of history:  that is, how does the digital age imagine backwards to the Industrial Ageand vice versa.  The method is unconventional too.  Every other week we will focus on an imaginative work--a novel, a short story, a play, a film--roughly from the period between the Panic of 1873 and the Great Depression of 1929.  The following week, two to four students in the class (depending on our class size) will work together as a team to present, in a multimedia (including text) format, some analysis of a historical, sociological, scientific, or technological idea or event from that same time period.   So the rhythm of the class will be between (mostly) literary and philosophical worksTwain, Crane, Chesnutt, Chopin, James (William and Henry), Peirce, Bierce, Washington, Wharton, DuBois, Wells, Sui Sin Far, Zitkala Sa, Marx, Lewis, Sinclair, Darwin, Freud, Einstein, and/or others--and student-driven reading assignments and class activities that develop the cultural and technological contexts of the work.   


We will also have classes where students are asked to bring laptops, mobile devices, smart phones, and we will set up back channels and other digital forms of in-time response.  We will have other classes where we shut off everything but the lights.   Discussing the difference of these two experiences will be part of the analytical pedagogy of this course.


We will be making constant comparisons, forwards and backwards, about reading, writing, publishing, and all forms of multimedia communication between our current digital era and the last great age of mass communication and technological innovation (the inventions of telegraphy and telephony, electricity, photography, cinema, the automobile, the assembly line as well as the invention of graduate and professional schools, graded schools, letter grades, standardized testing, I.Q. tests, multiple choice testing, standard deviation and statistical methods, the Dewey Decimal and Library of Congress classification systems, the weekend, muckraking and sensationalist journalism, celebrity culture, the skyscraper, business schools, the office, the typewriter, the Brownie camera, dynamite, the machine gun, the gold standard, the blurring of the line between investment and banking, and on and on).  This was also a time of social ferment including reconstruction and its attendant racist and anti-racist civil rights movements, labor organizing, suffragism and womens rights campaigns, reproductive rights activism, lobbying on behalf of support for immigrants and the poor, and anarchist, fascist, and populist movements (of all ideological varieties). Virtually everything that is being invented now for a digital age had its origins in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century industrial age.   As Jimmy Wales, cofounder of Wikipedia, has recently said Everything should have a history button.  True enough!




ASSESSMENT:  Grades will be contract-based and peer-evaluated.   In what is one of the most famous blogs in recent pedagogical history, How to Crowdsource Grading, I described this method:  You may look at that blog to understand the method or contact the instructor.   Assignments consist of:  (1) readings, screenings, viewings, field trips;  (2) weekly blogs on a class-only private blog, in response to all class presentations, including comments on one anothers blogs); (3) a collaborative class presentation and self-evaluation (private) of the success and failures of the collaboration; (4) serious peer evaluation of all that weeks blogs in response to your collaborative presentation, including feedback on how to make an unsatisfactory blog post satisfactory; (5) two contributions to public knowledge; (6) a final, collaborative multimedia project.  You will note there is no midterm, final, or research paperthe other requirements are new equivalents and imaginings of these old, standardized course requirements.  A note on contract, peer-reviewed grading:  Detailed contracts spelling out what is required for each grade will be passed out the first day of class so that students can review them with care and make a considered and realistic decision about which grade and set of requirements works best for their schedule and needs that term.  Students and the professor will sign these before the end of drops-and-adds.  These contracts are binding. Failure to meet any of the terms of the contract results in a full point automatic grade deduction for the course.






Are you going to post the syllabus for this class?  I'm still playing around with the works you listed on the syllabus for "Your Brain on the Internet" and I'd love to see what you are assigning for this class.


barbara 'kittent' trumpinski-roberts




I'm glad the other one was useful to you.  This will be an evolving syllabus, with students helping to choose the next work as we roll along, and then also assigning work during the "context" week.  Of course I and the students will be posting what we choose and by the end we'll even have a full syllabus.  


I'm also collecting suggestions.  On Facebook, a friend suggested one of his favorite books for supplementary reading, Rebecca Solnit's River of Shadows, a cultural history of the rise of technology in the west at the end of the 19th century as told through the life of Eadweard Muybridge.  I'm happy for other suggestions.