Skip to main content.


Re-doing Literary Interpretation: A Pedagogy

1. Following up on a pilot course I taught in academic year 2006-2007, I have created a suite of undergraduate and graduate courses titled "Literature+".1 The essential idea is stated on the wiki sites for the courses as follows:

Because of the recent, shared emphasis in many fields on digital methods, scholars in the humanities, arts, social sciences, and sciences increasingly need to collaborate across disciplines. This course reflects theoretically and practically on the new digitally facilitated interdisciplinarity by asking students to choose a literary work and treat it according to one or more of the research paradigms prevalent in other fields of study.

Students, for example, can choose a story or poem to model, simulate, map, visualize, encode, text analyze, sample, mashup, storyboard, blog, or redesign as a game, machinima, database, hypertext, or virtual world.2

2. During the first four weeks of the quarter, Literature+ courses meet in the usual manner of instructor-led classes. I begin by asking students to reflect on the normative practices of literary interpretation, concentrating on lower-order procedures of the sort now routinized as "close reading." Then I ask them to compare such interpretation to the normative research paradigms of other disciplines in the sciences, engineering, and social sciences where observation and the analysis of datasets are primary-level activities. To prompt the discussion, I assign readings from scholars who have recently suggested boldly different methods of literary interpretation borrowing from non-humanities protocols—e.g., Franco Moretti on "graphs, maps, trees," Willard McCarty on modeling, Lisa Samuels and Jerome J. McGann on "deformance," Stephen Ramsay on "algorithmic criticism," and Geoffrey Rockwell on text-analysis.3 I also demo some of the online or downloadable digital tools that (in the style of today's "Web applications" and "Web 2.0") allow ordinary, non-programmer users to create and share interesting projects.4 Examples from the "Toy Chest" that I keep on the Web include:

  • Text analysis tools (e.g., the tools provided through the TAPoR text-analysis portal).
  • Visualization/pattern discovery tools (e.g., the Many Eyes tools from the IBM Visual Communication Lab, the Gapminder World tool for animated statistics).
  • Mapping tools, both GIS-based and historical (e.g., Google Maps, the David Rumsey Historical Map Collection).
  • Timeline tools (e.g., Simile Timeline).
  • Social-network diagramming tools (e.g., PieSpy).
  • "Mashup" creation tools (e.g., Microsoft Popfly, Yahoo Pipes).
  • Simulation or modeling environments (e.g., NetLogo).
  • Visual programming systems (e.g., Scratch).
  • Tools for making machinima ("machine animation") descended from video gaming (e.g., MovieStorm).
  • Game-like environments for "roleplaying" literature (e.g., the Ivanhoe Game).
  • Online immersive social worlds (e.g., the instructional campus my English Department has created in Second Life where students can build, exhibit, and perform in a special zone).5

3. In the last six weeks of the quarter, Literature+ courses shift into studio or lab mode to build projects. Students form small teams of three or four, choose a literary work (or part of a work), and—as I explicitly require—do something with the work that is anything other than normative literary interpretation. The goal is to prototype a project able to provoke fresh thought about how literary scholars might "do" literature in alliance with—though sometimes also against the grain of—the way other disciplines do knowledge. Some projects concentrate on producing or modeling datasets while only secondarily re-rendering or "adapting" the original literary work; others reverse the proportions to focus on adapting literature while in a lesser way throwing off data or engaging in iterative modeling (change-the-parameters-and-see-what-happens experimentation). Examples of student projects include:

  • The Textones Project (assigns musical values to word types in Shakespeare's sonnets to create analytical soundscapes of individual poems).
  • The Borges Modeling Project (adapts a short story by Jorge Luis Borges as a film in which the parts of speech in the original text are mapped analytically over a corresponding typology of film techniques).
  • The Berlin Project (models the formal features of Jason Lutes's graphic novel Berlin: City of Stones through analytical image, film, and text adaptations—e.g., video animations that transform static forms into temporal durations).
  • The Alice Project (models the rules of spatial narrative underlying Lewis Carroll's Alice tales and their later film adaptations in order to reveal the generative constraints of "nonsense" art through analytical diagrams and montages).
  • The Ringu Transmission Project (creates an interactive timeline to track the new global production, publication, and dissemination patterns represented by the international Ring phenomenon, a proliferating, self-organizing set of novels, films, video games, and manga).
  • The Close Reading Re-visited Project (applies text-analysis, visualization, automatic translation, and plagiarism-detection tools to transform/deform texts analytically—e.g., into word-trees, word influence maps, tag clouds, punctuation patterns, etc.)
  • The Emigrants Project (plots the travels of the characters in W. G. Sebald's novel The Emigrants as a set of "Google Lit Trips" or annotated itineraries in Google Earth).
  • The Romeo and Juliet Facebook Tragedy Project (adapts Shakespeare's play as a set of Facebook pages complete with a "social graph" of character relations).6

4. The staging ground for Literature+ courses—serving both to facilitate collaboration and to present final projects—is a class wiki. While in the past I have used MediaWiki (i.e., local installations of the open-source wiki software best known for producing Wikipedia), currently I use PBwiki, an online hosted wiki platform with a strong user base in education.7

Intellectual Rationale: Toward Common Scholarship

5. Digital networked technology is now used across the board by scientists, engineers, social scientists, humanists, and artists who need each other's expertise to design the new generation of multidisciplinary research and teaching initiatives solicited, for example, by the NSF's Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship Program (IGERT), the NEH's Digital Humanities Initiative, the ACLS Digital Innovation Fellowships, and the MacArthur Foundation's Digital Media and Learning initiative.8 One consequence of such digitally-catalyzed collaboration is that the disciplines must now truly communicate with each other so that their perspectives cohere in functional software (whether "deliverable" software defined as a project's goal or merely facilitating software for collaboration and dissemination). After all, making software actually work even at the beta (or, more realistically, alpha) stage characteristic of most academic research projects requires resource-allocation decisions that enforce explicit, rather than fuzzy, consensus about goals and methods. The kind of communication I refer to is more fundamental than the normal interdisciplinarity by which one discipline borrows high-level concepts from another uprooted from underlying instruments and procedures—e.g., the prolific poaching engaged in by literary theorists in the past few decades in their roles as armchair linguists, psychoanalysts, anthropologists, lawyers, physicists, etc. Instead, digital networked technologies provoke cross-disciplinary communication at the level of underlying practices and methods, which, in my experience (gained through a series of collaborative digital projects), can lead to unsettling questions about why one's native discipline does what it does in the name of knowledge.9 (My favorite anecdote: a computer scientist on my campus—broad-minded but frank—who, upon hearing a fine literary interpretation in a planning meeting, paused reflectively and asked: "What's that for?" At which point, a social scientist piled on: "That's item one. Where are the other thousand needed for a sample?") Facing up honestly to such impasses, rather than retreating mutely into separate and equal expertises, requires going back not so much to first principles as to first methods.

6. Literature+ courses do not necessarily give a blank check to the thesis that interpreting literature should be "just like" making models, simulations, visualizations, statistical analyses, and other non-humanities constructs designed (in the vocabulary of Willard McCarty's philosophy of modeling) to make datasets "tractable" and "manipulable."10 But they play with the constraints and affordances of the dataset paradigm so as to encourage new thinking about the similarly tight yet supple constructs—forms, genres, styles, plots, characters, structures, contexts, etc.—of literature.

Addendum: Institutional Rationale

7. I also developed my Literature+ courses to address institutional impediments that will be depressingly familiar to all humanities scholars who develop digital projects or, more generally, lead collaborative projects requiring them to write grant proposals, learn new methods and technologies, train research assistants, organize collaboration and dissemination activities, and exercise ongoing budgetary and other administrative oversight. Where does all that fit in the normal workload of the humanities, which does not yet well accommodate (let alone directly reward) the new style of collaborative, technological research (as opposed, for example, to the writing of monographs)? And this at a time, too, when funding for fellowships and other traditional ways of packaging humanities research support is proportionally dwindling?11 How to mitigate the squeeze created by new workload amid shrinking resources? More precisely, what solution does not absolutely require systematic course relief or permanent FTE (full-time employment funding) for technical support and other research assistance—strategies that most university administrations would be hard pressed to offer humanities scholars on more than an ad hoc basis?

8. The solution hypothesized in my Literature+ courses is for humanists to include in their ordinary workload one or two workshop/project-building courses each year.12 "Collaboratory" courses of this sort effectively lighten an instructor's teaching load because they require less class preparation during the part of each quarter devoted to studio work. Yet they are not "instruction lite" for two reasons. One is that they call on all that an instructor can muster when first developing a course to create innovative syllabi, assignments, technologies, and other resources (which then serve as the platform for fresh instances of the course each year).13 The other reason is that such courses require instructors on a daily basis to apply the best of themselves in the act of mentoring individuals and project teams. Not instruction lite, in other words, but instruction different.

9. The bottom line is that Literature+ courses seem truly to meet the needs of students. As I have found, students are hungry for studio- or lab-style environments where they work shoulder-to-shoulder with humanities professors. In Literature+ courses, the main "content" delivered is actually the role-model and working habits of an intellectual pursuing humane knowledge with all best passion, skill, and openness to collaboration with others, including students.

Ideal Conclusion

10. There has never been a time when world issues on the scale of globalism, terrorism, and the environment have created such a need for radical interdisciplinarity in the academy. There has never been a time when the digital tools facilitating such interdisciplinarity have been more accessible, shareable, and useable. And, from the point of view of our students (who are idealistic about the future but also worried about their careers after graduation), there has also never been a time when the workplace seems more to reward "knowledge workers" able to collaborate via digital technologies across expertises, departments, firms, and nations. My Literature+ courses are packed, drawing students from many disciplines who sense that they are in the pipeline, for better or worse, to such a future. Can the humanities prepare its students not just to survive but to shape the future into what might be called, in complementarity to Literature+ , Dataset+? I mean by this a view of the world that exceeds the usual spreadsheets, databases, reports, and other bleak expressive forms that today sum up the knowledge of business, government, etc., to afford some measure of ethical intelligence, social awareness, communicational fluency, aesthetic/design sensibility, and other cultural quotients of a robust human knowledge?

11. Of course, a skeptic responding to such idealism might be suspicious that asking students to take a literary work and do anything with it other than literary interpretation in preparation for a more robust knowledge work can only be a recipe for dilution, popularization, and philistinism. But I have rarely, if ever, seen students more truly engaged with literature than in these courses, where they decide what is essential about a work that must be modeled in new paradigms and technologies so as to make literary experience tractable and manipulable in other disciplinary world views. During the studio/lab classes, I rotate among student teams to ask such questions as, "So what is this work really about? What does your project have to carry over no matter what?" Given that responsibility, students act as if they were at the sensitive stick of a jet fighter called literature.


1. The pilot course I refer to was an undergraduate Literature+ taught in spring quarter of academic year 2006-2007 ( I taught the more evolved undergraduate and graduate versions of the course in winter quarter, 2007-2008 (;
Undergraduate Literature+ courses are part of my English Department's Literature and Culture of Information (LCI) specialization, a curricular "track" for English majors awarding a supplementary credential. (See Both LCI courses and graduate courses on information technology are incubated in the Transcriptions Project, which my department started in 1998 with NEH funding to integrate information technology in the core of a literature program. (See

2. Quoted from the home page of the wiki for the graduate version of Literature+, <http://english236>, retrieved 5 February 2008.

3. Reading assignments in the graduate version of Literature+ include: Franco Moretti, Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History (London; New York: Verso, 2005); Willard McCarty, Humanities Computing (Basingstoke, England: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005); Lisa Samuels and Jerome McGann,"Deformance and Interpretation," New Literary History 30, No. 1 (Winter, 1999): 25 56; Stephen Ramsay, "Toward an Algorithmic Criticism," Literary and Linguistic Computing 18.2 (2003): 167 174; and Geoffrey Rockwell, "What is Text Analysis, Really?" Literary and Linguistic Computing. 18.2 (2003): 209 220.

4. Web applications refer to applications that can be used online through a browser without needing to install software on a local computer. A prominent example is Google Docs & Spreadsheets, which allows users to word-process and create spreadsheets through programs on Google's servers (and also to store and share documents on those servers). (See Web 2.0 refers to a constellation of developments in data architecture (e.g., database-generated Web sites than can be edited by multiple authors), social computing (e.g., collaboratively-created resources, comments, "friend"-interactions), and interface experience (e.g., "Ajax" principles allowing users to interact with content in a browser window in a manner more characteristic of software running on one's own hard drive). The early, influential definition of "Web 2.0" is Tim O'Reilly's essay "What is Web 2.0: Design Patterns and Business Models for the Next Generation of Software," 30 September 2005, O'Reilly Media, Inc., retrieved 8 September 2006, <>.

5. Links for these and other tools, along with descriptions and screenshots, are available at "Toy Chest," which I started and currently maintain on my department's Knowledge Base wiki. See "Toy Chest (Online or Downloadable Tools for Building Projects)," English Department Knowledge Base, University of California, Santa Barbara <>. I publicized a rationale for the Toy Chest to the Humanist listserv (Humanist Discussion Group) on 8 January 2008 (available in the list archive at

6. For these and other student projects, see the project pages on the course wiki sites for the 2007-2008 instances of Literature+ cited above. My description of these projects was written while the projects were still in progress. The final projects may vary.

7. Like other such wikis hosted by third parties (commercial or otherwise), PBwiki has the advantage of getting teachers and campus staff out of the increasingly unsustainable business of supporting proliferating wiki, blog, and other installations on their own servers, all of which require frequent upgrades and security patches complicated by "plugins" and "widgets" unique to each instance. PBwiki allows for both free and paid-subscription wikis (the latter with extra capabilities). See the PBwiki home page, Pbwiki, Inc., <>, retrieved 6 February 2008.

8. For information on these grant competitions, see the following Web sites (all accessed 3 February 2008): National Science Foundation, "Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship Program (IGERT)," <>; National Endowment for the Humanities, "Digital Humanities Initiative," <>; American Council of Learned Societies, "ACLS Digital Innovation Fellowships" <>; MacArthur Foundation, "Building the Field of Digital Media and Learning," <>.

9. Two recent collaborative interdisciplinary projects have most unsettled me in regard to my own discipline's assumptions and practices, and have also provoked leaps of thought about how literature might be done differently. One is a University of California funded multi-campus research group that I direct called the Transliteracies Project: Research in the Technological, Social, and Cultural Practices of Online Reading ( The other is the UC Santa Barbara Social Computing Group, which Transliteracies co-started in collaboration with the following units on our campus: the Center for Information Technology and Society, the Macarthur Foundation-funded Credibility and Digital Media@UCSB initiative, the Computer Science Department, and the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management ( project/working groups individual/social computing). This group is currently collaborating on designing a program to train graduate students in the new field of social computing.

10. McCarty: "Two effects of computing sharpen the distinction between 'concept' on the one hand and the 'model' on the other: first, the computational demand for tractability, i.e. for complete explicitness and absolute consistency; second, the manipulability that a digital representation provides" (Humanities Computing, 25).

11. We might remember elegiacally that the Guggenheim, NEH, and ACLS fellowships once supported a whole year of monograph-writing without requiring scholars to beg their universities to top off their award or to lien future sabbaticals. And once, also, major public universities in such states as California at least aimed to keep pace with premier private universities in regard to humanities resources, however many laps they stayed behind.

12. Though I have myself not yet tried it, an even more interesting variant of this strategy is to create lab/project-building courses that revolve around, or contribute directly to, a collaborative research project. For example, my colleague Patricia Fumerton has taught a variety of undergraduate and graduate courses on English broadside ballads in tandem with the NEH-funded English Broadside Ballads Archive (EBBA) digitization project that she directs. In these courses, students actually help transcribe ballads, contribute to an edition of essays about the ballads, etc. (See under "Recent Courses" on Fumerton's bio page on the UCSB Early Modern Center site, <>, retrieved 7 February 2008. For EBBA, see the project's site, <>, retrieved 7 February 2007.)

13. One way that forward-looking universities can foster innovation in the humanities is to provide seed-funding for assistance in developing such courses. On my own campus, I have helped draw up hypothetical plans for a digital "humanities incubator" for this purpose. The main idea is that groups of faculty could apply for an annual development seminar giving them access to high-level technology consultants, staff, and research assistants; cross-project brainstorming; and other resources/activities dedicated to hatching innovative humanities research projects and courses. The operative concept is a "project" with a common deliverable product (plus related courses) instead of the more usual humanities paradigm of talking-events (conferences, colloquia, etc.) leading only indirectly to fractured, individual deliverables (separate articles and books).

14. On this topic, see my Laws of Cool: Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), esp. Parts 1 and 2.

Alan Liu is a Professor of English at the University of California, Santa Barbara and a member of the Board of Directors of the Electronic Literature Organization (ELO).

Share this