Play, experiment, and digital pedagogy

CSIRO_ScienceImage_7630_test_tubesFirst of all, a hat-tip to Willard McCarty: during a talk at Bath Spa University in March of this year, he quoted early-twentieth-century English critic I. A. Richards and it was this that crystallised my scattered thoughts on my students’ encounter with digital approaches to English literature. Richards prefaced his book Principles of Literary Criticism with the highly suggestive notion that ‘[a] book is a machine to think with’. Richards’ image was not an idle one: an ardent believer in the interplay between the arts and sciences, both his book and the book in the abstract – like any piece of technology from the automated looms of the late eighteenth century onwards – embodied human-designed creative procedures. Through the book, by bringing to bear those same human processes of thought, we are able to examine civilization and what it is to be human: the very task the book was designed to ‘re-weave’.[1] In the digital age it is hard to avoid the resonances: the preeminent machine of our age – the computer – is also governed by human procedures (programming) and ‘processing’ has now become almost entirely associated with computers. Yet we forget that books are, as Richards is implying, an invitation to be (re)processed by humans. What I want to emphasise is that this re-processing – what we less starkly call literary criticism – can be envisioned as a series of procedural building blocks.

What I’m also drawing upon has been defined by Ian Bogost as ‘procedural literacy’. Developing the idea that computing programming is a kind of literacy, Bogost proposed that ‘any activity that encourages active experimentation with basic building blocks in new combinations contributes to procedural literacy.’ Such a literacy in processes and procedures (such as I have described) becomes a foundation that can be applied elsewhere: ‘[e]ngendering true procedural literacy means creating multiple opportunities for learners—children and adults—to understand and experiment with reconfigurations of basic building blocks of all kinds.’[2]

This movement between play, experimentation and a critical awareness in the processes of interpretation was evident during a session on my undergraduate module Digital Literary Studies. Students were introduced to distance reading and invited to work with Voyant Cirrus on eighteenth-century novels. It was apparent in the workshops that the preliminary results of this analysis were not immediately significant or meaningful. So, the next stage involved playing with word choices, selecting synonyms to create clusters of meaning, or choosing antonyms to gain critical leverage. Given these were historical texts, another step involved researching historical inflections using the OED. Some students wanted add another interpretative layer: using Google’s N-Gram Viewer (with caution) they zoomed out even further. It was interesting to watch. The movement between these steps was not linear: some students moved back into the print copy of the novel for a close reading; some students shuttled back and forth between a few key procedures.

The initial surprise that textual visualization did not produce an immediate interpretation was a useful warning about the technological lure of instant answers. Instead, results became merely a first step in a series of experiments: each set of word choices – let’s call them hypotheses – required us to re-think the interpretative assumptions about the text(s). Moreover, the significance of the results was also subject to constant discussion, as if the text itself was changing shape. What my students discovered via this experimentation is the fascinating tension between different processes of interpretation: between what I. A. Richards might call re-weaving and what Lisa Samuel and Jerome McGann termed ‘deformance.’[3] The aim of the session was to generate some analyses of the literary history of the novel between 1660 and 1799; but the session also enabled students to slow down and reflect on their processes of interpretation: it trained them to be procedurally literate.

I started with citing I.A. Richards, part of a group of critics and intellectuals who in the early twentieth century placed close reading at the heart of English Studies. Despite its varied fortunes it is still there. What is most resonant for me and my students is the interplay between close reading, digital reading and procedural literacy. Experimentation puts both students and tutor at the very edge of their knowledge, but it is a place that is productively challenging. In also helping students to see their learning as series of processes that can be modified and reiterated, we are also enabling them with a critical and creative self-awareness that fits them for the rapidly changing twenty-first century world.

[1] I.A Richards Principles of Literary Criticism. 3rd ed. London: Keagan Paul, 1926, vii.

[2] Ian Bogost, ‘Procedural Literacy: Problem Solving with Programming, Systems, & Play.’ , 52:1&2 (Winter/Spring, 2005), 32-36.

[3] Lisa Samuels and Jerome McGann, ‘Deformance and Interpretation.’ New Literary History 30:1 (1999), 25-56.



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