The Digital Age: Reading, Writing, and Research

ENGL 380 (Spring 2013)

Instructor: Alan Jacobs

Description. How is the rise of digital technologies changing some of the fundamental practices of the intellectual life: reading, writing, and researching? How does writing on a computer differ from writing on a typewriter, or (still more) writing by hand? Have we lost anything by doing our research primarily by running online searches, as opposed to plowing through card catalogues and browsing shelved items? Is the experience of reading on a Kindle or Nook significantly different from that of reading a paper codex? Moreover, how are these changes affecting the intellectual culture and communal practices of the Church?

Assignments. Your grade for this course will be determined by your performance on four assignments:

  • A series of unannounced reading quizzes (20% of your final grade)
  • Participation on the class blog (40%)
  • Evaluation of a digital tool for knowledge management (20%)
  • A brief critical essay on a poem or story of your choice (20%)

Now, for the details. The reading quizzes are self-explanatory. Your participation on the blog should be as follows:

  • At least one post per week either reflecting on the readings we're discussing in class or calling our attention (via quote and/or link) to something else interesting that you've read;
  • At least one substantive response to a post by someone else. Further details: "substantive response" means something more than "That's awesome" — if you agree with a post, explain why you agree; if you disagree, explain why you disagree; if the post makes you think, explain what it makes you think.
  • You should take the same investigative, reflective attitude towards whatever you write about in your own posts. This is not the place for you to indulge any of that "Wheatie perfectionism" in which so many of you believe (but does not in fact exist): instead you are to try out half-formed and possibly crazy ideas to see what they feel like and to discover what responses they get.
  • Make sure your ideas are on the topics covered by this course, and make sure they are specific and detailed enough to be meaningful. "I think modern technology creates a lot of problems" is too vacuous to count as an idea.
  • Posts should be around 250 words on average; responses can be shorter.
  • If you're doing it wrong I'll tell you.

Now, about the evaluation assignment:

  • This paper will be due on March 28. It should be around 1500 words, and should be emailed to me as a Word document or, better, a PDF.
  • That means that you'll need to start experimenting with the tool of your choice as early as possible in the semester so that you'll have enough data to write a useful report.
  • The "tool" you evaluate must be something designed to help people manage information. It may be a web-based service or a desktop app. Some posibilities include Zotero, Delicious, Pinboard, Evernote, DEVONthink. Note that some of these are free, while others cost money. I will offer fuller descriptions of each, and of other options as well, in class.
  • You should install the tool as soon as you can and then use it to organize research and ideas for this course, for other courses, or simply for topics you're personally interested in. Explore as many of the options as possible; learning to use tags is especially valuable.
  • Your report should include links, screenshots, or both.
  • If you have trouble installing or using the tool, ask for help on the blog.

And about your critical essay:

  • This essay will be due on April 25. It too should be around 1500 words.
  • You should write a simple, straightforward textual explication of a poem or short story, using at least three critical or historical sources. I will use normal criteria for evaluating the paper: Do you write clearly? Do you provide good textual evidence for your points? Have you chosen your sources intelligently and used them appropriately?
  • You should read the story in a codex, consult only sources that are available in hard copies in our library, and write the essay by hand, with a pen, on paper.
  • After writing it, you should write a blog post describing the experience: what you liked about it, what you didn't like, how writing in that way differs from your usual practice, etc. Post yout thoughts sometime on Monday afternoon (April 29), and try not to look at the posts of others first. We'll then discuss the posts in class.

For my policies on the usual issues that students ask about, see this page.


(on days with no reading scheduled we will continue our discussion from previous periods)

1. How We Got Here

2. How Digital Knowledge Changes Institutions and Persons

  • 2.26 Cathy Davidson and Theo Goldberg, The Future of Learning Institutions in a Digital Age — a short book that can be downloaded as a PDF here; it is also available as a Kindle edition from
  • 2.28

  • 3.5 Excerpt from Clay Shirky, Here Comes Everybody; Nicholas Carr, "The Crisis in Higher Education"

  • 3.7


  • 3.19 Alan Jacobs, "Christianity and the Future of the Book" (PDF)
  • 3.21 evaluation essay due

  • 3.26 Two posts on digital Judaism, here and here; excerpts from David Noble, The Religion of Technology (handout)

  • 3.28

3. Lost and Found

  • 4.2 The Carr Debate: Nicholas Carr, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?"
  • 4.4 The Carr Debate: responses to Carr by Clay Shirky, Matthew Battles, and Sven Birkerts, among others

  • 4.9 Andrew Piper, "Out of Touch"; Philip Hensher, "Why Handwriting Matters"

  • 4.11 N. Katherine Hayles, "Hyper and Deep Attention: the Generational Divide in Cognitive Modes" (PDF)

  • 4.16

  • 4.18 Robin Sloan, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore

  • 4.23

  • 4.25 critical essay due

  • 4.30

  • 5.2 conclusion to course

changed September 6, 2014