English 238: The Humanities and Data Science (Fall 2019)

Quarter: Fall 2019      Instructor: Alan Liu
Thursdays, 2:00pm – 4:30pm, South Hall 2509
“Nowhere in our history of the humanities did we come across an acute divide between the humanities and science. Both humanists and scientists search for underlying patterns, which they try to express in logical, procedural or mathematical formalizations. There is, moreover, a continuity between humanistic and scientific disciplines as regards the ‘nature’ of the patterns.”
–Rens Bod, A New History of the Humanities (2013)

This course explores today’s quickening mutation of the “liberal arts” into “data science,” a new universal mode of knowledge touching all fields. The course focuses on the join, but also split, between how the humanities and data science find meaning (scientific, epistemological, sociopolitical, and cultural) in patterns. Topics to be probed include: the history and present state of the humanities, the concept of “data science” (including the structure of today’s new programs and majors in the field), the idea of “data,” the idea and infrastructure of “big data,” humanities corpora and datasets (including the social and ethical problem of “representative” datasets), modeling as a mode of knowledge, visualizing data, narrativizing data, and interpreting data. The course includes but is not limited to approaches related to the digital humanities.

Assignments in the course include:

  • Defining a specific research topic of interest related to the humanities and data science,
  • Writing a research proposal laying out the aims and methods for studying that topic (the proposal does not actually need to be enacted during the course),
  • Supporting the research proposal with
    • a bibliography,
    • a “miniature big-dataset” (a sample of the envisioned dataset),
    • early experiments in researching the dataset,
  • Writing two research blog posts on the topic.

English 238: Critical Infrastructure Studies (Fall 2018)

Quarter: Fall 2018    Instructor: Alan Liu
Thursdays, 2:00pm – 4:30pm, South Hall 2509

Montage of my fathers engineers life (Photo: Alan Liu)

In an era when complexly hybrid material-virtual infrastructures, ranging from the micro to the macro in scale, seem to obviate older distinctions between the material base and cultural superstructure, how can the humanities, digital humanities, and new media studies join in an emergent “critical infrastructure studies”? What are the traditions of such studies? What are some especially high-value areas for intervention by humanities scholars of past and present periods, digital humanists, and new media scholars or artists? And how can such scholars learn from those in the social sciences and science-technology studies taking up similar matters?

Program input unit using punched film strip, Konrad Zuse Z1 computer (1938), Museum of Technology, Berlin
Program input unit using punched film strip, Konrad Zuse Z1 computer (1938), Museum of Technology, Berlin (Photo: Alan Liu)

This course explores the hypothesis that critical infrastructure studies is one of today’s renewed forms of cultural criticism and media theory. Looking at the world from the point of view of infrastructure — and of the people (and creatures) who at once shape and are shaped by infrastructure — allows us to ask different questions than those posed in the frame of “culture” or “media.” We’ll think broadly about the things, platforms, passageways, containers, and gates — material, mediated, and symbolic — that structure who we are in relation to the world and each other.

Assignments: Students create a “starter kit” exhibit of readings and other materials for infrastructure studies in their areas of interest, and they also write either a set of research blog posts or a research essay.

Schedule of Readings | Assignments | Course Bibliography

For additional resources, see the CIstudies.org site and bibliography maintained by Alan Liu.