Media & Materiality Syllabus…Slowly Materializing

A few students have contacted me to ask for syllabi for my fall classes, and I’ve unfortunately had to tell them that the courses are still in development. I’m teaching two brand new courses in the fall, and both are proving to be somewhat logistically challenging.

Syllabus development is always a long, complicated process for me: when I build a new course, I typically spend weeks or months digging through all my books, journals, pdf’ed articles (yes, I do have this stuff organized in bibliographies, but I always want to make sure I haven’t missed something!), web bookmarks, and audio and video archives to find relevant material. I think about logical and rhetorical structure: what do students need to know about A before being exposed to B? What context C is necessary for appreciating concept D? How do I tie their assignments to the course material, and how do I stage those assignments? How do I ensure that I’m incorporating different types of assessment, to give students an opportunity to try out their ideas in different formats — and to give me a chance to assess their ability to examine those ideas in different contexts? What types of projects lend themselves best to individual work, and which would work best with responsibility distributed among a group? How do I make sure all group members are given credit for the work they did, and didn’t do? Am I distributing the workload evenly throughout the semester? Am I cutting back on the readings when an assignment is due? How do I work in opportunities for us to witness, or participate in, the course content in action, out in the world? Living in New York, it’s not hard to find a lecture or exhibition that pertains to whatever you’re teaching at any given time. That said, what relevant events are taking place while I’m teaching the course? What guest speakers should I invite, and what field trips should we take? Which of these events can I schedule whenever I want, and which do I need to schedule around?

Needless to say, it’s quite a process — one that, for this round, will likely continue right up through the start of the fall semester. Still, I thought I should post some of my initial thoughts and plans, so interested students can get a sense of what they’re in for…and so that I can solicit feedback.I welcome suggestions!

First, the “Media & Materiality” Course Description: This seminar examines media as material objects, as things, as symbolically charged artifacts, as physical supports for communication. Pairing case studies of contemporary and historical media forms, we’ll begin the semester by studying digital readers in relation to early print forms, computer databases in relation to early filing systems, broadband networks in relation to telegraph infrastructures, and hand-held screening devices in relation to early film exhibition technologies. Along the way, we’ll explore various theoretical frameworks and methodologies – from “thing theory” to media archaeology – that can be useful in studying the material culture of media. Some classes will be dedicated to guest speakers and field trips to museums or special collections. For the second half of the semester, the class will create an online exhibition of material media. We will collectively determine the exhibition’s theme and structure, but each student will be responsible for choosing two media objects or material networks, conducting primary and secondary research, and composing text and compiling media content for presentation in the online exhibition space.

We’ll take a few field trips, go out into the world to see and touch the “thingness” of media. We might arrange some guided tours through the Thomas Edison National Historical Park (where we’ll find some great material on the history of recorded sound and film!), the Morgan Library, or the zine libraries at Barnard and ABC No Rio — or maybe we’ll venture into the behind-the-scenes circulatory system of our wireless technologies. I try to schedule my classes at 4pm (the earliest available time slot for grad classes at The New School) so we can go on field trips during institutions’ open-hours. If you have other excursion suggestions, let me know…soon, please, so I can make plans!

I’d like to invite a few guests — librarians, curators, fellow scholars, media technicians and engineers, product developers — to join us, too. Confirmed visitors include poet/sound artist/scholar Kate Eichhorn and curator/scholar Christiane Paul.

abecedarium:nyc, see

Our class project will be the creation of an online exhibition (like this one, from the NYPL). Ideally our class would create a single exhibition, with a coherent theme, and with each student contributing work and then everyone contributing to the creation of “meta” and connective texts. But I realize that finding a common thread — one that’s not a “stretch” or a forced fit — among 20 students’ projects might be too much expect. So, we might see how groups form naturally among the individual projects, and create a cluster of exhibitions instead. We might use the Omeka platform, create our own system, or just do something simple and blog-based. We’ll talk about this together — perhaps in collaboration with a guest curator or exhibition designer. Fortunately, we have a few of those on-staff at The New School 🙂

Readings? I’ve got a lot of work to do here; there are so many good options, and I have to read through everything to make sure I’m choosing the most useful stuff. The way I see it, our readings and discussions will follow along four parallel threads:

  1. Theoretical Frameworks: these are the texts that will introduce us to various approaches to “materiality.” I’ll choose a few of the following for all of us to read together: Charles R. Aclund, ed., Residual Media (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007); Arjun Appadurai, “The Thing Itself” Public Culture 18:1 (2006): 15-21; Bill Brown, “Materiality” in Critical Terms for Media Studies, Ed. W. J. T. Mitchell and Mark B.N. Hansen (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010); Bill Brown, “Thing Theory” Critical Inquiry 28:1 (August 2001): 1-22; Fiona Candlin and Raiford Guins, Eds., The Object Reader (New York: Routledge, 2009); Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, “The Enduring Ephemeral, or the Future Is a Memory” Critical Inquiry 35 (Autumn 2008): 148-71; Wendy Hui Kyong Chun and Thomas Keenan, Eds., New Media Old Media: A History and Theory Reader (New York: Routledge, 2006); Mary Ann Doane, “The Indexical and the Concept of Medium Specificity” differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 18:1 (2007):; Vilém Flusser, The Shape of Things: A Philosophy of Design (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999); Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht and K. Ludwig Pfeiffer, Eds., Materialities of Communication, Trans. William Whobrey (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1994); Erkki Huhtamo, “Kaleidoscomaniac to Cybernerd: Notes Toward an Archaeology of the Media” Leonardo 30:3 (1997): 221-4; Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008); Friedrich A. Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, Trans. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1999); Rosalind Krauss, “Reinventing the Medium” Critical Inquiry 25:2 (Winter 1999): 289-305; John Durham Peters, Speaking Into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999); Bruce Sterling, Shaping Things (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005; Samuel Weber, “The Unraveling of Form” and “Television: Set and Screen” In Mass Mediauras: Form, Technics, Media (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press), 1996: 9-35, 108-128; Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz, “Media Materiality, “Memory” Special Issue, Configurations 10:1 (Winter 2002). Here are my delicious links on “material texts.”
    XXXXXWe won’t be using the following, but they represent other approaches to the study of technological “things,” “objects” and material media: Arjun Appadurai, Ed., The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986); Roland Barthes, Mythologies, Trans. Annette Lavers (New York: Hill and Wang, 1972); Jean Baudrillard, The System of Object, Trans. James Benedict (New York: Verso, 1996); Matthew Fuller, Media Ecologies: Materialist Energies in Art and Technoculture (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005); Daniel Miller, Ed., Materiality (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005); Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1934); Christopher Tilley, Ed., Reading Material Culture (Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell, 1990); Sherry Turkle, Ed., Evocative Objects: Things We Think With (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2007) [includes chapters on the archive, the datebook, the laptop, the radio, the World Book, the SX-70 instant camera, salvaged photos].
  2. Methodologies: Of course the methods we apply in our curatorial case studies will be informed by which theoretical frameworks we choose. The execution of the various critical strategies suggested by our theoretical texts will likely be new to many of us — and many of these strategies will require that we draw on methods from a variety of fields: art history, design history, cultural history, material culture studies, industrial design (which might in turn require studying corporate histories and accessing corporate archives), etc. So we’ll want to take some time to consider how to apply these strategies — i.e., how to “do” media archaeology, how to write a “material history,” etc. Readings might include: Siegfried Giedion, Mechanization Takes Command: A Contribution to Anonymous History (Oxford University Press, 1948); Jussi Parikka and Garnet Hertz, Archaeologies of Media Art” CTheory (April 1, 2010); Thomas J. Schlereth, Ed., Material Culture: A Research Guide (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1985); Siegfried Zielinski, Deep Time of the Media: Toward an Archaeology of Hearing and Seeing by Technical Means (Cambridge, MIT Press, 2006).
  3. Online Exhibition: This set of readings will help us think about how to frame our class project as an online exhibition. Readings will likely draw from Beryl Graham & Sarah Cook, Eds., Rethinking Curating: Art After New Media (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2010); Christiane Paul, Ed., New Media in the White Cube and Beyond: Curatorial Models for Digital Art (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2008); and Klaus Müller, “Going Global: Reaching Out for the Online Visitor“. We’ll also look at various models of online exhibition: CONT3XT.NET’s “History of Online Curating“; Amelie Hastie’s “Objects of Media Studies” Vectors Journal 2:1 (Fall 2006); the Whitney Artport exhibitions; SFMoMA’s 010101 exhibition; MoMA’s “Design and the Elastic Mind” online exhibition and other interactive exhibitions; the National Archives’ online exhibits; the Museum of the Moving Image’s web projects; the Franklin Institute’s Case Files; the American Association of Museums’ MUSE Award winners; and the showcase of Omeka-based exhibitions.
  4. Case Studies: the following texts will likely be used by individuals or groups as they pertain to their case studies for the online exhibition:
“My Record Player” by Great Beyond on Flickr:

Recorded Sound: John Corbett, “Free, Single, and Disengaged: Listening Pleasure and the Popular Music Object” October 54 (Autumn 1990): 79-101; Frances Dyson, Sounding New Media: Immersion and Embodiment in the Arts and Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009); Aden Evans, Sound Ideas: Music, Machines, and Experience (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005: Lisa Gitelman, Scripts, Grooves, and Writing Machines: Representing Technology in the Edison Era (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1999); Greg Hainge, “Vinyl Is Dead, Long Live Vinyl: The Work of Recording and Mourning in the Age of Digital Reproduction” Culture Machine (2007); Caleb Kelly, Cracked Media: The Sound of Malfunction (Cambridge, MIT Press, 2009); Stan Link, “The Work of Production in the Mechanical Aging of an Art: Listening to Noise” Computer Music Journal 25:1 (2001): 34-47; Jonathan Sterne, The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Production (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003); Will Straw, “The Music CD and Its Ends” Design & Culture 1:1 (2009): 71-92; Emily Chivers Yochim & Megan Biddinger, “‘It Kind of Gives You that Vintage Feel’: Vinyl Records and the Trope of Death” Media, Culture & Society 30 (2008): 183-95. Some delicious links on “records” and “cassettes” and some other relevant stuff.

“Handwriting” by CraftyDogma on Flickr:

Letters and Handwriting: Kitty Burns Florey, Script & Scribble: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting (Brooklyn: Melville House, 2009); Sigmund Freud, “A Note Upon the Mystic Writing Pad” In The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. 19, Trans. James Strachey (London: Hogarth Press, 1971); Esther Milne, “Email and Epistolary Technologies: Presence, Intimacy, Disembodiment” Fibreculture 2; Sonja Neef & José van Dijck, Sign Here!: Handwriting in the Age of New Media (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2006); Denise Schmandt-Besseratt, How Writing Came About (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996); Tamara Plakins Thortin, Handwriting in America: A Cultural History (Yale University Press, 2006); José van Dijck, “Composing the Self: Of Diaries and Lifelogs” Fibreculture 3. My delicious links on writing and notes. I have much more to add here!

Letterpress! by JChong on Flickr:

Typewriting: Lisa Gitelman, Scripts, Grooves, and Writing Machines: Representing Technology in the Edison Era (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1999); Friedrich A. Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, trans. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1999); Darren Werschler-Henry, The Iron Whim: A Fragmented History of Typewriting (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2005). My delicious links on the typewriter. I have much more to add here!

“Old Books” by Lilah Pops on Flickr:

Print/The Book: Nicholas A. Basbanes, A Splendor of Letters: The Permanence of Books (New York: HarperCollins 2003); Roger Chartier, Forms and Meaning: Texts, Performances, and Audiences from Codes to Computer (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995); Roger Chartier, The Order of Books (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press 1992); Johanna Drucker, The Visible Word: Experimental Typography and Modern Art, 1909-1923 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994); N. Katherine Hayles, “Print is Flat, Code is Deep: The Importance of Media-Specific Analysis” Poetics Today 25:1 (2004): 67-90; Peter Stallybrass, ‘The Library and Material Texts” PMLA 119:5 (October 2004): 1347-1352. My delicious links on books and textual form, and on e-books. I have much more to add here!

“Paperwork” by Sean Rogers1 on Flickr:

Paperwork/Files: Ben Kafka, “The Demon of Writing: Paperwork, Public Safety, and the Reign of Terror” Representations 98 (Spring 2007): 1-24.; Sven Spieker, The Big Archive: Art From Bureaucracy (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008); Cornelia Vismann, Files: Law and Media Technology (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008); Rowan Wilken, “The Card Index as Creativity Machine” Culture Machine 11 (2010). I have much more to add here!

“Why I Love My Vintage Cameras” by KatieW on Flickr:

Photography: Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990); Susan Laxton, “Flou: Rayographs and the Dada Automatic” October 127 (2009): 25-48. I have waaaay more to add here!

“Forgotten Projector” by Morgennebel on Flickr:

Film: Giuliana Bruno, Atlas of Emotion: Journeys in Art, Architecture, and Film (New York: Verso, 2002); Boaz Hagin, “Examples in Theory: Interpassive Illustrations and Celluloid Fetishism” Cinema Journal 48:1 (Fall 2008): 3-26; Miriam Bratu Hansen, “Benjamin’s Aura” Critical Inquiry 34 (Winter 2008): 336-75; Amelie Hastie: anything; Pavle Levi, “Cinema by Other Means” October 131 (Winter 2010): 51-68; Dominique Paini, “Should We Put an End to Projection?” October 110 (Fall 2004): 23-48; Vivian Sobchack: Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004); Jonathan Walley, “The Material of Film and the Idea of Cinema; Contrasting Practices in Sixties and Seventies Avant-Garde Film” October 103 (Winter 2003): 15-30. I have much more to add here!

“Old TV” by Mela Sogono on Flickr:

Television: Anna McCarthy, Ambient Television: Visual Culture and Public Space (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001); Anna McCarthy, “From Screen to Site: Television’s Material Culture, and Its Place” October 98 (Fall 2001); Lynn Spigel, Make Room for TV: Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992); Samuel Weber, “Television: Set and Screen” Mass Mediauras: Form, Technics, Media (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1996): 108-28. I have much more to add here!

“Cell Phone Tower” by CathrynDC on Flickr:

Telecommunications: Avital Ronell, The Telephone Book: Technology, Schizophrenia, Electric Speech (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989); Tom Standage, The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Centruy’s Online Pioneers (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1998); Kazys Varnelis, “Invisible City: Telecommunication,” in The Infrastructural City: Networked Ecologies in LA, ed. Kazys Varnelis (New York: Actar, The Los Angeles Forum for Architecture and Urban Design, and The Network Architecture Lab at Columbia University, 2009), 120-129. I have much more to add here!

“Atari 2600 Joystick” by Mark Ramsay on Flirkc:

Computer/Gaming Hardware: Paul Atkinson, “The Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men: The Computer Mouse in the History of Computing” Design Issues 23:3 (Summer 2007): 46-61; Patrick Crogan, “The Nintendo Wii, Virtualization, and Gestural Analogics” Culture Machine 11 (2010). I have much, much, much more to add here!

“Inside One Wilshire” by Xeni on Flickr:

Digital Media: Mark B. N. Hansen, Bodies in Code: Interfaces with Digital Media (New York: Routledge, 2006); N. Katherine Hayles, How We Became Postmodern: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999); Brian Massumi, Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002); Christiane Paul, “The Myth of Immateriality: Presenting and Preserving New Media” In MediaArtHistories, ed. Oliver Grau (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2007); Michelle White, The Body and the Screen: Theories of Internet Spectatorship (Cambridge, MIT Press, 2006).

Media Waste: Elizabeth Grossman, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health (Island Press, 2006); Lisa Parks, “Falling Apart: Electronics Salvaging and the Global Media Economy” In Residual Media; Jonathan Sterne, “Out with the Trash: On the Future of New Media” In Residual Media


Letterheads, From the Late Victorian New York Communication Internetwork

From the Records of the Post Office Department, National Archives and Records Administration



Digital Humanities and New Ways of Knowing. UCLA’s (Center for?) Digital Humanities and Media Studies recently released a “Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0,” which explains that DH is “not a unified field but an “array of convergent practices” that have the potential to profoundly transform the “production and dissemination of knowledge.”[1] A well-designed DH project fosters “attention to complexity, medium specificity, [and] historical context” and promotes “analytical depth, critique and interpretation.” It accepts that knowledge might exist in many forms: “it inhabits the interstices and criss‐crossings between words, sounds, smells, maps, diagrams, installations, environments, data repositories, tables, and objects.” The process of knowledge production is “anchored in making: making in the poetic sense of poeisis, but also in the sense of design carried out in action.” Digital humanists “make” knowledge, they build theory, by building things, designing websites, plotting maps, producing video and audio and, as always, writing cogently. Although one need not have expertise in all modes of production or communication – DH projects are necessarily collaborative in part because of the need to tap into others’ specialized skills – one should have basic literacy in these various modes. DH thus has a stake in the recent discussions about expanded “21st-century literacies.” As Stephanie Barish and Elizabeth Daley, who are affiliated with USC’s Institute for Mutimedia Literacy, argue, “To be literate today, one must understand how strategically chosen and juxtaposed combinations of media enable the construction and dissemination of meaning in ways that bypass or enrich traditional text and the spoken word. Indeed, one must not only be able to read such media, but also to author it.”[2]

Such knowledge work calls into question the distinction between theory and practice. And, through its continual reflection on process, this work also has the potential to raise critical questions about what constitutes knowledge, “who gets to create [i]
,… how it gets legitimated and authorized, and how it is made accessible to a significantly broader (and potentially global) audience.”[3]

Teaching Through the Digital Humanities. All this talk about scholarship might suggest that DH is primarily a field, or practice, for advanced scholars – for people who, as our traditional research models suggest, are specially trained and have been authorized to participate. In other words, DH seems like a faculty affair. Yet the critical skills and values that DH promotes – critical examination of methods, multiple “literacies,” collaboration, internationalization, interdisciplinarity, careful consideration of research presentation, making research accessible to wider publics – are also central to the 21st-century university’s pedagogical mission. DH might not be right for all types of classes, or for all faculty and students – the literacy of print-based reading and writing and research skills required for individual study are still an integral part of any contemporary curriculum – but there is significant opportunity for greater integration of DH into the classroom.

One impediment to that integration is the way many teachers have been trained to think about technology in the classroom. As Barish and Daley note, “To date, much of the support for university faculty to use media is directed toward technical services and basic pedagogical applications.”[4] Faculty are encouraged to use audiovisual materials in the classroom, to integrate social media, etc., “but the implications of their use, as well as the formal components and theoretical basis of multimedia, are not addressed.” Nor is “teaching with technology” instruction tailored to address specific intellectual content. If faculty become more aware of how technology might enhance their own scholarship, they are likely to approach classroom technology as something more than mere illustration or ornamentation. Possible means of introducing faculty to the potential of the Digital Humanities – or at least helping them to develop rudimentary technological literacy so they can more meaningfully integrate technology into their classes and perhaps encourage “multimodal” student projects – include sending faculty to the regularly occurring THATCamps or the Digital Humanities Summer Institute, or, given the number of talented, technologically adept faculty at The New School, hosting a summer “digital humanities boot camp” (much like the camp Parsons’ MFADT organizes for its incoming students each summer) on campus during the semester breaks.


As we encourage faculty to change the way they think about technology in the classroom, we must also reconsider how we ask our students to use these learning tools, and to what ends. “Although many students are involved in the creation of their own expressive media presence through personal webpages and social networking,” Presner and Johanson write, “they are infrequently engaged in either interrogating or applying these technologies in their learning and scholarship.”[5] Faculty should be helping students to develop both traditional and new (media) literacies and “the technical skills related to this literacy,” as well as…

tools for critical analysis, the ability to navigate across, reconfigure, and evaluate different media forms, the ability to negotiate and work across diverse cultures and communities, the ability to synthesize material and bring together different methodologies to solve complex problems, the ability to interpret and construct models for responding to real-world situations, the ability to critically evaluate the potentials and limitations of new technologies, and the cultivation of a broad understanding of the social, historical, linguistic, and cultural context in which they are learning and working.[6]

A well-organized DH project has the potential to reinforce all of these skills and promote critical thinking that is transferable to any kind of problem in any context, inside the classroom or out.

Presner and several colleagues have involved their students in the development of HyperCities, a well-funded, frequently lauded interactive map – or, as described on the website, a “a collaborative research and educational platform for traveling back in time to explore the historical layers of city spaces in an interactive, hypermedia environment.” On HyperCities, “student projects exist side-by-side with scholarly research and community collections and can be seen and evaluated by peers.”[7] He finds that his students “demonstrate a high degrees of skill in articulating a multi-dimensional argument in a hypermedia environment and bring together a wide range of media resources,’ including 2D maps, 3D models, photos, videos, audio, text, etc. Their success can likely be attributed to the fact that the existing content on HyperCities models for the students what a successful submission looks like – and because the public nature of the site, and the stature of some of their co-contributors, motivates students to take the challenge seriously. Through their work on HyperCities, the students come to appreciate the distributed, “processural, iterative, and exploratory” nature of digital scholarship.

USC’s Institute for Multimedia Literacy is based on offering many such experiences for undergraduates. The IML’s Steve Anderson and Anne Balsamo explain the program’s philosophy:

Participants in IML programs learn to “write” multimedia by first learning to critically read it. Students develop proficiency with the modes of formal analysis required for the critical evaluation of a wide range of multimedia artifacts—including images, video, sound design, information visualization, typography, interface design, and interactivity. In addition, students become familiar with the major theoretical frameworks guiding the development of contemporary multimedia applications and interactive experiences. One of the key concerns of multimedia pedagogy is ensuring that students avoid the uncritical adoption of conventions of commercial or entertainment media. The IML curriculum addresses this concern by exposing students to a broad range of multimedia genres—such as argumentative, documentary, essayistic, experiential, game-based, narrative, and archival forms—and by teaching the relative strengths and weaknesses of each. In their own projects, students are required to justify their authoring and design decisions to demonstrate that their use of media and techniques are appropriate to their overall communicative goal.

As students become critical readers of multimedia, they also learn to produce it in a scholarly way. Students gain experience in both individual and collaborative forms of multimedia authorship. Rather than positioning “multimedia literacy” or “scholarly multimedia” as an emerging field, the IML focuses on developing strategies of integration with existing disciplines and academic practices. The strength of the IML methodology is its modeling of pedagogical practices that are highly mutable, scalable, and flexible in implementation.

Wherever and however (in individual productions or group projects) these practices are implemented, that implementation must be followed up with critique. While students might learn to engage in a form of social or cultural critique through their multimedia creations, they must also learn how to critique their own multimodal productions – how to assess their success in serving their intended purpose, effectively making an argument, meaningfully (and not gratuitously) employing various modes of presentation, etc. As the rampant DH boosterism and invariably positive commentary on projects like HyperCities (despite its limitations) reveals, the Digital Humanities community has yet to build a tradition of critique.[8] In the DH classroom, a project isn’t complete when it “goes live” online, or when the video is screened; a period of reflection and critique must follow.


[1] Schnapp, Presner, et. al, 2. Presner writes elsewhere: “I consider ‘Digital Humanities’ to be an umbrella term for a wide array of practices for creating, applying, interpreting, interrogating, and hacking both new and old information technologies” (“Digital Humanities 2.0: A Report on Knowledge”).

[2] Stephanie Barish and Elizabeth Daley, Multimedia Scholarship for the 21st Century, Educause Forum for the Future of Higher Education (Educause, 2005): 39.

[3] Presner, “Digital Humanities 2.0: A Report on Knowledge.”

[4] Barish & Daley, 40.

[5] Presner & Johanson, 4.

[6] Ibid. For more on new “literacies,” see Henry Jenkins, “Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century” Occasional Paper on Digital Media and Learning (MacArthur Foundation).

[7] Presner, “Digital Humanities 2.0: A Report on Knowledge.”

[8] See Jennifer Howard, “Hot Type: No Reviews of Digital Scholarship = No RespectChronicle of Higher Education (May 23, 2010). USC’s Institute for Multimedia Literacy has developed a list of criteria for evaluating multimedia student work.


Trying to Wrap My Head Around the Digital Humanities, Part 2

Laying Bare the Process of Scholarship. This reflection on method and process is another defining characteristic of Digital Humanities 2.0. “From a distance,…much of what is currently done in digital humanities has the look of automation,” argues textual theorist Johanna Drucker; it often appears as if digital scholarship consists of feeding a data set into database, and waiting for it to crunch the numbers and perhaps graph or map the results.[1] Digital humanists “have to show that digital approaches don’t simply provide objects of study in new formats, but shift the critical ground on which we conceptualize our activity… The challenge is to structure instruments that engage and enable these investigations.” Sometimes these investigations happen when the instruments call attention to themselves. Matthew Kirschenbaum notes that the technologies he worked with in creating the William Blake Archive, a text-and image-encoding project that has been online since 1995, “constantly make their presence felt, visibly and palpably pushing back against the interface we attempt to enfold around them.”[2] This is a common occurrence in the digital humanities, he says, because “necessity often dictates that we adopt and adapt tools and technologies that were originally developed for other needs and audiences.”[3]

But in the 15 years since the Blake Archive debuted, new technologies have emerged that make even the most rudimentary sketch appear professionally produced; they often smooth over the cracks and create a semblance of rhetorical seamlessness. Likewise, new tools have the potential to further automate data input, crunching, visualization, and analysis. DH projects often use these tools, but do not do so uncritically. As Drucker says, “Digital humanities projects are not simply mechanistic applications of technical knowledge, but occasions for critical self-consciousness.” In creating an interactive version of her book The Virtual Window, Anne Friedberg discovered the limitations and affordances of the print and interactive formats: “the digital format is not at its best in building a complex argument; it works by accretion, by juxtaposition, by comparative assemblage. It is rhizomatic.”[4] Creating a digital humanities project requires that one consider the unique capabilities of particular instruments, media formats, etc., and employ those that are best suited to their particular project.

Foregrounding these considerations in the public presentation of a digital humanities project has the potential to open up the scholarly process to a wider audience, and to invite them into a conversation on method, value, even the purpose of research. Avi Santo and Christopher Lucas have noticed a shift “in scholarly work practice, from an emphasis on polished demonstrations of academic virtuosity to a foregrounding of scholarly process and collaboration.”[5] Blogging one’s research or posting drafts online and soliciting comments – through standard blog comments, or through platforms like Commentpress or Sophie – can “illuminate the shadowy process of critical thinking, encouraging readers not only to digest finished works, but also to learn from and evaluate the mechanisms of their creation.”[6] The public is thus not merely an audience for this work; it has the potential to critically engage with it and perhaps even contribute.[7]

The actions that constitute the research process in DH might seem foreign to our traditional models of humanities scholarship, which emphasize solitary study and single authorship. Presner describes DH as a “humanistic practice anchored in creation, curation, collaboration, experimentation, and the multi-purposing or multi-channeling of humanistic knowledge.”[8] Many proponents of DH draw particular attention to its collaborative nature, which helps it to “leverage the increasingly distributed nature of expertise and knowledge and transform this reality into occasions for scholarly innovation, disciplinary cross-fertilization, and the democratization of knowledge.”[9] This “distribution” of expertise and knowledge spans both traditional disciplinary boundaries and geographic boundaries. Inclusive, team-based DH projects are thus well positioned to respond to, and foster, interdisciplinarity and the globalization of education.[10] Computer scientists from California might collaborate on a project with designers from China, historians from Canada, and high school students from Zimbabwe.[11] By further integrating institutions outside the university – Presner mentions libraries, museums, archives, historical societies, advocacy groups, non-profits, schools, and local communities (I would add arts organizations) –  DH projects can become inter-institutional, inter-public, fostering “community-based learning experiences” that promote “new forms of civic engagement.”[12] Such ways of working have the potential to make possible new ways of knowing.


[1] Johanna Drucker and Bethany Nowviskie, “Speculative Computing: Aesthetic Provocations in Humanities Computing,” in A Companion to Digital Humanities, ed. Ray Siemens, John Unsworth, and Susan Schreibman, Hardcover., Blackwell Companions to Literature and Culture (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004).

[2] Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, “’So the Colors Cover the Wires’: Interface, Aesthetics, and Usability,” in Companion to Digital Humanities, ed. Ray Siemens, John Unsworth, and Susan Schreibman, Hardcover., Blackwell Companions to Literature and Culture (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004).

[3] The “Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0” exhorts scholars to not only think critically about how they use existing tools, but also to play an active role in creating new tools, as does George Mason University’s Center for History and New Media. Digital humanists should seek “not only to seek to understand and interrogate the cultural and social impact of new technologies, but to be engaged in driving the creation of new technologies, methodologies, and information systems, as well as in their détournment, reinvention, repurposing, via research questions grounded in the Arts and Humanities: questions of meaning, interpretation, history, subjectivity, and culture. (Schnapp, Presner, et. al., 6)

[4] Friedberg 153.

[5] Avi Santo and Christopher Lucas, “Engaging Academic and Nonacademic Communities through Online Scholarly Work,” Cinema Journal 48, no. 2 (Winter 2009): 133.

[6] Ibid. 133-4.

[7] Related concerns that are central to DH are open access, intellectual property rights (i.e., allowing content makers to control theirs), and digital preservation (See Brett Bobley, “Why the Digital Humanities?” 2008 [pdf no longer available] and Schnapp, Presner, et. al., 10). Making sure that these “knowledge productions” remain open and publicly accessible requires that scholars and librarians “work together to ensure that the output of our scholarly work is created, published, shared, and preserved appropriately” (Bobley, 3).

[8] Presner, “Digital Humanities 2.0: A Report on Knowledge.”

[9] Schnapp, Presner, et. al., “The Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0”: 5.

[10] There is much talk about how DH might reconfigure, or reinvent, the academic discipline. We might need a new university structure to accommodate this “transformation of scholarly practice from individuals working and writing in isolation to team-based approaches to research problems that cannot be conceptualized, let alone solved, by single scholars. Here, we are beginning to see the emergence of finite, flexible, and nimble ‘knowledge problematics’ that do not derive from or reflect entrenched disciplinary lines, methodological assumptions, or scholarly silos. I see these knowledge problematics as “virtual departments,” which exist only for a finite period of time, are agile, and are constantly built and dismantled. To use a term from the emergent field of digital cultural mapping, they might function as “overlays” on existing departments and institutions, connecting distant scholars and communities together and creating new feedback loops or among between them” (Presner, “Digital Humanities 2.0: A Report on Knowledge”).

[11] “Digital Humanities scholarship not only cuts across and unifies traditional fields in the humanities (literature, history, the arts) but also brings the tools—both technological and methodological—of other disciplines to bear on the analysis of culture and society. For example, tools from Geographic Information Systems (GIS) help historians to map the transmission of cultural artifacts; architectural modeling and simulation tools aid archaeologists in the investigation and recreation of ancient city spaces and societies; text-analysis and data-mining tools help linguists and literary scholars to detect and analyze patterns in the study of complex textual corpora (Todd Presner, Chris Johanson, et. al., “The Promise of Digital Humanities,” White Paper, March 1, 2009: 3)

[12] Presner & Johanson, 3.

On to Part 3…


Trying to Wrap My Head Around the Digital Humanities, Part 1

This summer I’m participating in an “academic think tank” organized by our Provost’s Office at The New School. We participants are charged with investigating possible areas for pedagogical innovation or the development of new academic initiatives. I’m looking at how we could make a space for the digital humanities — or digital, or “multimodal,” scholarship, or whatever you want to call it (I’d prefer that we call it something other than “digital humanities,” for a bunch of reasons) — at The New School. There’s already plenty of work going on here that approximates the digital humanities, and I think that if we simply recognized it for what it is, and pushed it a little father to claim it as a new form of scholarship, we’d be in a much better position to tap into communities of like-minded researchers and designers and into the DH grant pool.

Plus, over the past couple of years I’ve come to the realization that my current research exceeds the limitations of print-based presentation. I’m focusing on the historical layering of media infrastructures and material media systems in various global cities. Edward Soja acknowledges the limitations of print in representing geographic complexity:

What one sees when one looks at geographies is stubbornly simultaneous, but language dictates a sequential succession, a linear flow of sentential statements bound by that most spatial of earthly constraints, the impossibility of two objects (or words) occupying the same precise place (as on a page). All that we can do is re-collect and creatively juxtapose, experimenting with assertions and insertions of the spatial against the prevailing grain of time. In the end, the interpretation of postmodern geographies can be no more than a beginning (Postmodern Geographies: The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory (New York: Verso, 1989): 2).

I’m still writing a book, of course, for tenure purposes (I hope Minnesota will have me again!) — but I hope to supplement it with some interactive components, maybe even an entirely-online chapter. I’ve had the extremely good fortune to discover several like-minded colleagues with whom I’m now collaborating on the creation of an online platform that will support not only my research, but also the work for my new fall class and their fall classes — and, eventually, the research and coursework of any “urban” faculty at The New School.

For the purposes of our summer think tank, I’m trying to explain this new mapping project within the context of the digital humanities. I’ve been watching these DH people for quite some time now, trying to deal with my slight annoyance with their boosterism and seeming technofetishism. What eventually won me over was Tara McPherson’s thoughtful, temperate intro to the special “digital humanities” section in the Winter 2009 issue of Cinema Journal. I figured I should figure out what this enterprise is all about. So, what follows is the alpha version of a lit review; I have yet to integrate more of my own critical perspective.


Defining the New Digital Humanities. The Digital Humanities are not new; they’ve been around for almost a half-century.[1] In the early days, the term “digital humanities” was often used interchangeably with “humanities computing,” in which practitioners were “mobilizing the search and retrieval powers of the database, automating corpus linguistics, stacking hypercards into critical arrays.”[2] Much of the work was quantitative and focused on building “large-scale digitization projects (typically of literary corpuses) an the establishment of technological infrastructure.”[3] At the same time, scholars began incorporating new media technologies into their publications; “Writing in the Digital 1.0,” as media scholar Anne Friedberg calls it, involved the addition of digital concordances – in the form of packaged CDs or links to online supplementary materials – to conventional print books; “the digital material was largely illustrative and served as a supplement.”[4]

The second wave of the Digital Humanities (DH) are emerging, proponents say, amidst ever more rapid technological, social, cultural, and economic changes – changes for which “digital scholars” are beginning to develop appropriate “intellectual tools, methodologies, disciplinary practices, and institutional structures” to interpret an respond to these transformations.[5] These tools and methodologies must go beyond conceiving of new technologies as mere illustrations for, or processors of, traditional printed texts. As German scholar and “digital humanist” Todd Presner explains, Digital Humanities 2.0 is…

deeply generative, creating the environments and tools for producing, curating, and interacting with knowledge that is “born digital” and lives in various digital contexts. While the first wave of Digital Humanities concentrated, perhaps somewhat narrowly, on text analysis…within established disciplines, Digital Humanities 2.0 introduces entirely new disciplinary paradigms, convergent fields, hybrid methodologies, and even new publication models that are often not derived from or limited to print culture.[6]

Architectural historian Diane Favro and Christopher Johnson, Associate Director of UCLA’s Experimental Technology Center, for instance, use digital models of ancient funeral processions in the Roman forum not simply as “post-research presentations of their work, but [as] integral research tools.”[7] Their models allow for the “consideration of (funeral) events in situ,” which helps them better understand “how the Romans choreographed their processions to exploit the scale, orientation, sequencing, and symbolic associations of structures and places.” Similarly, media scholar Tara McPherson notes that, in some projects, databases allow for new ways of organizing data:

Our carefully collected evidence can now be animated in new ways, allowing us to present multiple lines of thought in relation to the materials at hand and to invite others to join us in this process in extended collaboration and conversation. Working with databases allows us both to present our arguments differently and to understand our materials differently.[8]

Rather than fetishizing the database, as some “first wave” scholars seemed to do, however, Digital Humanities 2.0 scholars consider other modes of “processing” a research project. They consider how particular questions or problems might lend themselves to investigation or representation through aural, visual, or interactive media; through maps, audio archives, documentaries – even video games. In some cases, a book – designed so that its material form reinforces its argument – might be the most appropriate means of giving form to an argument. This media-minded scholar, whom McPherson calls “multimodal” (I prefer her terminology because it does not privilege the digital at the expense of other, non-digital, yet equally appropriate and effective, media forms), “thinks carefully about the relationship of form to content, expression to idea.” She examines “what happens when scholarship looks and feels differently, requiring new modes of engagement from the reader/user.”[9] “How do you ‘experience’ or ‘feel’ an argument in a more immersive and sensory-rich space?” “Can scholarship show as well as tell?” “Will representing data differently change the ways we understand, collect, or interpret it?”


[1] Willard McCarty, “A Brief History of Humanities Computing, 1964-70” [Blog Pos]
Humanist Discussion Group (May 7, 2004):

[2] Jeffrey Schnapp, Todd Presner, et. al., “The Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0,” n.d.: 2.

[3] Todd Presner, “Digital Humanities 2.0: A Report on Knowledge,” May 13, 2010, Module m34246, Connexions.

[4] Anne Friedberg, “On Digital Scholarship,” Cinema Journal 48, no. 2 (Winter 2009): 151.

[5] Presner, “Digital Humanities 2.0: A Report on Knowledge.”

[6] Presner, “Digital Humanities 2.0: A Report on Knowledge.”

[7] Diane Favro and Christopher Johanson, “Death in Motion: Funeral Processions in the Roman Forum,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 69, no. 1 (March 2010): 31-2.

[8] Tara McPherson, “Introduction: Media Studies and the Digital Humanities,” Cinema Journal 48, no. 2 (Winter 2009): 121.

[9] McPherson, 120-1.

Part 2 comin’ up…


Finds at the National Archives

From the Post Office Department records, National Archives and Records Administration:

Morse Signature
Samuel Morse had excellent penmanship.
International Pneumatic Tube Company Promotional Literature
Most pneumatic tube system maps were removed from the files for “security reasons.

At NARA II in College Park:

The “no bags” rule meant I had to cart this crap around all day.

Archival Souvenirs

From the Western Union collection at the Archives Center at the National Museum of American History:

For Mom & Dad:

Indexed Map of Western Union Telegraph Lines, Pennsylvania. Click for larger image; Bellefonte’s right there in the center!

For Dave:

Indexed Map of Telegraph Lines, Illinois

For Sue:

Switchboard at Marquette, MI, 1919

Other Finds:

Rear of Switchboard, San Antonio, TX, 1918

“Every time an incision is made in the pavement, those noisy surgeons expose ganglia that are tangled beyond belief.” -E.B. White, “Here is New York,” 1949.

Con Ed Cables & Air Pipes at 4th Ave and 19th St. (just 4 blocks from where I now live)
Above-ground Telegraph Wires, Near the Old Western Union Headquarters @ Broadway, near Fulton

“Outside, alone on a delivery run, the uniformed messenger served as both visual advertising and as the direct customer contact for the telegraph company. Boys were to appear neat, speedy, polite, and responsible, with ‘Clean Hands and Face,’ ‘Uniform Pressed and Spotless,’ and ‘Cap Squarely on Head’…” -Gregory J. Downey, Telegraph Messenger Boys: Labor, Technology, and Geography, 1850-1950 (New York: Routledge, 2002), p. 68.

Cincinnati Telegraph Operators Say, The New No. 6 Remington Typewriter is “The Machine” for Western Union!


I’m in the process of migrating everything from my clunky old html site (she served me well for the past eight years) to this super-deluxe WordPress site, which will allow for much easier updating. Thanks to Joel for his help! The move is a work in progress, so I hope you’ll pardon all the typos and broken links for the next few weeks.

The new site obviously comes with a blog — the blog that features the stimulating post you’re reading right now. I realize I’m at least ten years behind the curve on this. That’s totally okay by me: I like being anachronistic. Maybe in 2117 I’ll start tweeting.


Into the Archives

I’m looking forward to two weeks of archival work at the NYPL here at home, and at the Lemeleson Center, the National Archives, and the Postal Museum in D.C. In reviewing NARA’s policies for visitors, I stumbled across, and was impressed by, their Digital Vaults.

I’ve logged a good number of hours in various archives — but I’m a bit nervous about this trip. This time, it’s not only about me and the “content”; it’s also about my ability to handle a bunch of other technologies.

Over a decade ago, when I was working in libraries’ institutional archives and architectural offices’ company archives, my research typically involved a staff member either wheeling out a cart full of boxes full of dusty documents, or leading me into a storage room, where I was given free rein to dig through filing cabinets. Depending upon the institution’s policies (or lack thereof), I either took notes on my laptop or with pencil and paper. Some places allowed me to make unlimited copies; in those cases, I’d typically copy anything that looked remotely relevant, then review my stack of Xeroxes later that night or when I returned home after days or weeks on the road. Back then, everything was on paper. All my archival material for my first book filled at least 10 3″ 3-ring binders.

I’ve visited other archives since then — but they all seem to have had rather restrictive reproduction policies. In some places, I was permitted to take only loose leaf paper and a pencil with me into the reading room. Other places allowed laptops. But, as far as I recall, nobody allowed cameras, scanners or digital recorders. Consequently, I missed out on earlier experiences to develop my digital archival (i.e., in-the-archives) research skills.

It’s not as if I was oblivious to the ways that digital technologies had been transforming research methods — particularly archival research methods. I had been using a citation manager; maintaining a database of notes; evolving a system for storing and classifying my pdfs, images, etc. The first “Making History Podcast,” from 2007, reassured me that, at least in my PDF’ing, OCR’ing, annotating, resource-organizing, and citation-managing, I was making good use of available software and hardware. Recently, several presentations at the “Past’s Digital Presence: Database, Archive, and Knowledge Work in the Humanities” conference at Yale addressed the use of digital technologies in the archives. I found Shane Lundrum’s “Camera, Laptop, and What Else?: Hacking Better Tools for the Short Archival Research Trip” particularly enlightening…. And, I must admit, intimidating. My research process sure wasn’t that regimented, and my research packing list rarely contained anything more technologically advanced then a cellphone.

I have a decent publication record — including a book with a good press and several book chapters and peer-reviewed articles — yet the relative lack of technological sophistication of my research methods for some reason made me question the effectiveness of those methods. (I think reading too many ProfHacker posts and listening to too many Digital Campus podcasts has somehow convinced me that early tech adoption is obligatory — as is the deep integration of technology into one’s teaching and research.) It made me wonder if I was missing out on something important because I don’t know how to write Applescript…and I don’t “get” Tweets…and I occasionally even have a hard time setting up a tripod. If this is where research is heading, if this is the kind of research I have to prepare my graduate students to do, am I falling behind?

Initially, my current project was only feeding into these concerns. Most of my previous archival work focused on texts — flat, static, docile paper documents. This time, I’m working not only with manuscripts and maps and blueprints, but also with archival audio, video, and film. Things with moving parts and plugs. Reading the National Archives’ policies for self-service audio and video copying left my head spinning. BNC connector? SUM jack? Awhoza? Awhatza? The list of crap I’d have to schlep down to D.C. on Amtrak seemed endless: I imagined myself rolling up to the archives in College Park, MD, with a UHaul full of recorders and cables and hard drives; the logistics of transporting all this stuff baffled me. Another issue was that I owned few of the tools they recommended — so my internal cash register was anticipating a pretty hefty bill at B&H.

Then Kevin and Jen, godbless’em, came to the rescue. Despite having a brand-new baby, they took some time to introduce me to a few audio and video recorder options, showed me how to record and upload, etc. I’ve chosen equipment for which there isn’t too steep a learning curve, but is still “robust” enough for me to maybe, someday, grow into it (I’ve always wanted to do more audio recording, so I decided to get a recorder that’s a bit fancier than I really need right now — so I can eventually learn how to use all those other features). Now I’m a bit less freaked out. I’m heading over to B&H tomorrow to do some damage.

And soon I’ll head into the archives with some shiny new geegaws in my toolbox. I just hope that all these gadgets don’t get in the way of my engagement with, and enjoyment of, the archival material. I don’t want to be so stressed out about, say, adjusting the resolution on my videorecorder or the gain on my audio recorder that I forget to engage with the content of the film or radio show I’m dubbing…or forget to appreciate that Holy crap, I’m watching something that maybe nobody has seen since 1933. If you ask me, that’s way more awesome than “super bit mapping” and Applescript.


Identifying Your Interests and Establishing a Research Plan

Constant Nieuwenhuys, Symbolische Voorstelling van New Babylon, 1969

In our Mapping the Field lecture (scroll down to the bottom quarter of the page, and see my “Mapping the Field” lesson and lecture notes) we’ll do our best to map out the field of media studies. It’s a tricky job, since media studies is a terrain whose borders are permeable and always shifting. This survey will hopefully help you to familiarize yourself with the ideas that others have thought and the work that others have done before you; the theories that have inspired research and creative work, and the research and creative practice that have generated new theory; the places and communities in which that practice has taken place; and the uses to which it has been put. Surveying the field and studying its history not only enable you to build on the work that others have already done and open your eyes to the possibilities — scholarly and creative — that lie before you, but these tasks are also imperative if you are to be able to contribute meaningfully to the field. And that’s what it means to be a graduate student: you’re committed to cultivating the field’s terrain.

We’ll also try to situate our own Masters program within that larger field, and, ultimately, give you some tools to help you to orient yourself within the field and chart a path through the program. Considering your own intellectual autobiography (see p. 4) will give you an opportunity to ask yourself some questions about how you’ve gotten where you are, and where you’re going. We’ll begin by looking at some sources for research and creative inspiration. Alan Fletcher, in The Art of Looking Sideways, demonstrates how improvisation, change, imagination, creativity, and our own identities conspire to generate ideas. You may already have plenty of inspiration – but, again, part of being a graduate student is knowing how to channel that energy, how to make your interests match the field’s, or the world’s, needs.

From Alan Fletcher’s The Art of Looking Sideways


One prime source of inspiration is our personal experience. Colin Robson (2002), author of Real World Research, calls this “starting where you are” (p. 49). Lindlof and Taylor (2002) say that “we problematize experience by noticing gaps and dislocations in our own explanations” of particular things or happenings (p. 74). “We might sense an incongruity, an irony, a contradiction, an ambiguity, or a mystery in a situation.” Why is the Hometown Times inconsistent in its coverage of foreign policy? Or, why is this huge media conglomerate releasing so many films espousing radical left-wing politics?

“Or we find ourselves in a new situation, one that defies our ability to explain it. Or we imaginatively put ourselves in the place of others who are confused or mystified.” How might my grandparents — or any older people — feel about learning how to use a computer? How might my straight-laced friend feel at a death metal show? “Or we experience moments that prick at our moral conscience.” Some of these “prickly” moments might be illustrative of larger public problems — on policy, law, human rights, social movements, politics, crises, etc. — that elicit our sympathy and deserve investigation.

When we do “start from where we are,” it’s important to “[r]emember that who you are has a central place in the research process because you bring your own thoughts, aspirations and feelings, and your own ethnicity, race, class, gender, sexual orientation, occupation, family background, schooling, etc., to your research” (Kirby & McKenna, qtd in Robson, p. 49). Fletcher, in the “Identity” section of The Art of Looking Sideways, helps us to think creatively about the natural and cultural variables that help to determine where we’re starting from. While this personal “baggage” is commonly regarded as “bias” that we must shed in order to achieve objectivity, Maxwell argues that “what you bring to the research from your background and identity” can be conceived as a “valuable component of research”; we should consider how to capitalize on our experiential knowledge (qtd in Robson, p. 50).

From Alan Fletcher’s The Art of Looking Sideways

We might also derive our inspiration from research itself — of either scholarly texts or popular media. A problem presented in a secondary source could inspire you to consult additional secondary sources on the same topic, or follow the research trail the author presents in his or her footnotes or bibliography. Or it could be that the source material inspires the research: you might have access to a set of a famous filmmaker’s personal papers, a collection of video art, or some other archive that you want to investigate. Or, as Fletcher suggests, we might apply creativity, imagination, or new practices of visualization – looking sideways, perhaps? – to approach the existing research from a new angle or in a new configuration. [Image: Fletcher, 2001, p. 74]

Although some critics regard the popular press as inappropriate sources for scholarly work — and out of place in any scholarly literature review — I disagree. Yes, it is important to know how to distinguish between scholarly and popular resources — if only to make distinctions of credibility — but there is no reason that a Vogue article or some popular webisode could not suggest a possible case study for your research. Furthermore, if you’re researching on the bleeding edge — on a topic on which no scholarly literature is yet available — there is no reason why an New York Times or an Cabinet article shouldn’t be included in your resource list — as long as you’ve got plenty of scholarly sources (on methodology or theoretical framework, for example) to fill out the balance of your list.

When asked how he developed ideas for his art and software projects, Alex Galloway, author of Protocol: How Control Exists after Decentralization (MIT Press 2004), Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture (Minnesota 2006) and, with Eugene Thacker, The Exploit: A Theory of Networks (Minnesota 2007), and winner of several Ars Electronica prizes, says:

oh yes that’s an easy one. i just read hacker magazines like 2600 and steal ideas from them! =) (email, May 25, 2005).

Okay, I’m pretty sure Alex isn’t officially endorsing theft — but he does show us that great new research or creative ideas can emerge from ideas borrowed from other (popular, subcultural) contexts.

In reviewing existing research, you might be excited about a theory, a subject, or a methodology you discover, and determine to study it further. Or, you might be motivated to fill a particular gap in the literature: why hasn’t anyone written about the effect of the latest “call to action” documentary on viewers’ behaviors, or about racial and gendered target marketing of mobile technologies? (I’m not saying that no one has written on these topics; I’m just throwing out hypothetical examples.)

Siva Vaidhyanathan, author of Copyrights and Copywrongs (NYU Press 2001) and The Anarchist in the Library (Basic Books 2004) and professor or Media Studies and Law at UVA, found his research topic at the place where his personal interests, his research interests, a social concern, and a perceived hole in the literature converged. He writes:

I found my research topic by listening to hip-hop in the early 1990s. I noticed the music changed. The musical bed shifted from what was a polyphonic melange of found sounds and musical samples — a language in itself — into a steady heavy bass line and simple, obvious samples. It was becoming less interesting, less thick and complicated, less funny and caustic.

I wondered if copyright conflicts had changed how artists make their choices. That was my hypothesis. Turns out, I was right. But I also discovered the interesting relationship between the law and creativity that runs through literature, film, television, and software as well.

Mostly, I yearned to read a cultural history of American copyright written by and for non-lawyers. I could not find one. So I decided to write one (email, May 19, 2005).

Perceived “holes in the literature” (or mediagraphy) have inspired many a thesis or dissertation — or even a term paper. But, as Lindlof and Taylor advise us, we need to wonder why there hasn’t been any work done in this area or on this topic. In the case of my “behavioral effects of call-to-action documentaries” example, such research would be fraught with methodological challenges: how could you prove a causal relationship between the documentary and people’s behavior? What methods would you need to employ to support your hypothesis (in proving causal relationships: experimental methods, for which the results would require statistical analysis) — and are you familiar with those methods? Or maybe nobody’s pursued a particular research topic because it’s not fundable. Lindlof and Taylor discuss how funding priorities shape research agendas (pp. 75-6). We’ll discuss funding in an upcoming lesson.

We might uncover some “research needs” in big, overarching “review essays” — like those in Communication Yearbook — that summarize the work in a field. Edited books bring together diverse views on a subject, and scholarly conferences — both those that are organized by discipline (e.g., the National Communication Association, the American Studies Association, the College Art Association, or the Society for Cinema and Media Studies), or interdisciplinary conferences that are organized around a theme (you should find several on H-Net) — highlight new, potentially inspiring work both within and outside the field. Finally, professors, colleagues at work, other artists, journalists, librarians, classmates — the myriad human resources at your disposal — shouldn’t be overlooked as sources of potential research topics.

Classes, too, can be a great place to explore and hone your interests. Justin Reedy and Madhavi Murty offer several tips for strategically choosing your courses: “Identify courses that will help advance your research agenda — both in terms of specific knowledge about the issues and relevant methods.” “Look both inside the outside the department for classes.” “Think specifically about the research questions you want to ask, and think about how you will answer them. Then pick courses to help you in reaching this goal.” “Try to use class assignments to advance your research agenda. If possible, use each seminar paper as a way to focus on a specific part of your overall agenda.” And “don’t be afraid to take a chance on a course that seems somewhat outside of your agenda or your comfort zone.”

Robson provides some useful caveats: Unsuccessful research, he says, begins with the following:

  1. Expedience: research undertaken because it is easy, cheap, quick or convenient;
  2. Method or technique: using research as a vehicle to carry out a specific method of investigation or statistical technique;
  3. Motivation by publication, money or funding: research done primarily for publication purposes rather than interest in the issue;
  4. Lack of theory: without theory the research may be easier and quicker, but the outcome will often be of little value (Robson 56)

Still, a few doozies slip through — and, unless they go undetected (as much bad reseach does), these studies make their way into the Annals of Improbable Research. Somebody actually studied feline reactions to bearded men.

Is this not totally awesome? Source:


We also have to ask questions about “the scene,” which is not the same kind of “scene” we’re referring to when we talk about the “fashion scene” or the “indie rock scene.” Lindlof and Taylor define the scene as “actors’ self-defined scope of social action” (p. 79). It is a “context in which a particular, recurring episode of social action takes place” (p. 79). The scene is a construct — just as a “concept” is constructed. Your scene might be the context in which family television viewing takes place, or the context in which newspaper editors establish the top stories for the day. We need to ask ourselves several questions of this scene: Is it researchable? Is it suitable for me to answer the research questions I want to answer? Is it feasible for me to work within this scene? Do I have the time and resources? Can I absorb and adapt to its cultural codes? (look through the emic and etic (intrinsic and extrinsic) lenses) Is working within this scene safe and ethical? If, for example, I want to study the way imprisoned serial killers respond to movies about serial killers, will I get killed while conducting my research?

Daniel Chandler, the wizard behind the Media & Communication Studies site, a wonderful resource, advises us to consider the following before setting on a research topic:

  • relevance: its perceived relevance to the academic department(s) in which you are studying;
  • supervision: the availability of tutors/supervisors within the department(s) who are interested in the topic and their willingness to supervise such a [research project]
  • interest: your existing knowledge of that topic and the strength of your desire to learn more about it;
  • competence: your likely ability to employ the proposed methods of data gathering and data analysis;
  • scale: the feasibility of completing the study within the time and resources available.

Barzun and Graff, in The Modern Researcher (2004), tell us that we can appropriately “scale” our projects by appropriately framing our research topics: “…your subject is defined by that group of associated facts and ideas which, when clearly presented in a prescribed amount of space, leave no questions unanswered within the presentation, even though many questions could be asked outside it.” (p. 17). In other words, you can’t address everything — so you need to sufficiently delimit your topic, and justify those limitations, to ensure that you’re setting up a solid, feasible project (This is the All-Time Number One recommendation I find myself offering to students as they design their research and production projects).

Wimmer & Dominick (2003) add a few other criteria for assessing the feasibility and appropriateness of a research topic (pp. 20-3):

  • Is the topic too broad? Can you really thoroughly investigate “the educational potential of children’s television” in a semester-long research project?
  • Can the problem really be investigated? If you want to examine how people with no access to mass media receive their news, how likely are you to find people for your sample?
  • Can the results of the study be generalized? Can you extrapolate your findings from a small sample to a larger population, or to different situations?
  • Is there any potential harm to the subjects?

Robson discusses the ethical considerations of research. You should keep in mind some of the concerns he identifies — risk of discomfort or trauma, challenges of maintaining confidentiality, etc. — both when you’re selecting a research topic (Do you need to submit an application to the Human Subjects Review Committee? If so, is it worth the hassle? See below for a critique of biomedical models of researcher ethics.) and when you’re reporting your findings (How do you deal with anonymous sources? What responsibility do you have to report any troubling information you uncover in your research? Can you publish the photographs you took during your fieldwork?).


If we identify something we’re interested in, we have to ask ourselves some questions to decide whether or not the topic is worth pursuing. “Is this idea congruent with my personal and researcher identities? Can I sustain my interest in this project over the long haul?” (Lindlof & Taylor, p. 77). Do I want to frame myself as an expert on this subject? Do I really want to make myself known as “that woman who made a documentary on mud wrestling?”

We also need to find out why we want to ask, and how we want to ask it. What are our purposes as researchers: are we explorers, describers, explainers, or emancipators? Of course, you might think of some additional roles that you wish to play, but Robson’s description of these four research “purposes” might help you to start thinking about research as active — about what you do as a researcher — and how your research “purpose” calls for particular research methods (pp. 59-60):


  • To find out what is happening, particularly in little-understood situations
  • To seek new insights
  • To ask questions
  • To assess phenomena in a new light
  • To generate ideas and hypotheses for future research
  • Almost exclusively of flexible design


  • To portray an accurate profile of persons, events or situations
  • Request extensive previous knowledge of the situation etc. to be researched or described, so that you know appropriate aspects on which to gather information
  • May be of flexible and/or fixed design


  • Seeks an explanation of a situation or problem, traditionally but not necessarily in the form of causal relationships
  • To explain patterns relating to the phenomenon being researched
  • To identify relationships between aspects of the phenomenon
  • May be of flexible and/or fixed design


  • To create opportunities and the will to engage in social action
  • Almost exclusively of flexible design

Sociologist Earl Babbie, author of Observing Ourselves: Essays in Social Research (Wadsworth 1986), suggests that before we set forth on a project, we step back, or outside ourselves, and ask what assumptions we’re making, or what “colored lenses” we might be wearing — whether we realize it or not — that influence the way we approach these concepts. He explains how our paradigms can influence the way we look at the media-world, what questions we ask about it, and what we regard as worthy subjects of study. He describes three paradigmatically-defined sociologists — the interactionist, the functionalist, or the conflict theorist — each of whom could be investigating the same phenomenon, but, because of their different paradigmatic “lenses,” pose very different questions to study it. These ways of reviewing the world, or thinking about how things work, inspire, and are inspired by, our theoretical frameworks:

The Theoretical Framework

Research — even research-based production — should be grounded in theory. Theory organizes the way we look at the world, and influences how we see ourselves as researchers or media documentarians or artists or practitioners. Theory informs our choice of research subjects, our choice of research methods, and the way we interpret our data and evaluate our work. As McBeath, Lincoln and Sullivan explain in their course on “Approaches to Media Analysis,” methods are the link between theory and “facts,” as a positivist might say — or, as a constructivist or critical theorist might say, methods are the link between theory and “understanding” or “meaning.” McBeath et al. put it another way: “a method gives us a way of ‘interpreting’ a theory for the purpose of using that theory to analyze the real world.” Scroll down to “the idea of research methods” in their syllabus for an excellent discussion of the centrality of the theoretical framework in all research.

John Creswell, author of Research Design: Qualitative, Quantitative and Mixed Method Approaches (Sage, 2003), addresses the “knowledge claims” — paradigms, philosophical assumptions, epistemologies, ontologies, or methodologies — of each of four chief design frameworks.

1) Postpositivist Knowledge Claims: that is, thinking after “positivism,” which posited the existence of an absolute, or “positive,” truth of knowledge — is derived from such 19th-century thinkers as Comte, Mill, Durkheim, Newton, and Locke. It’s typically what we regard as “scientific” research — that which employs the scientific method. And its primary assumption, according to Creswell, who quotes Phillips and Burbules (2000), are as follows:

  • That knowledge is conjectural (and anti-foundational) — absolute truth can never be found. Thus, evidence established in research is always imperfect and fallible. It is for this reason that researchers do not prove hypotheses and instead indicate a failure to reject (the null hypothesis).
  • Research is the process of making claims and then refining or abandoning some of them for other claims more strongly warranted. Most quantitative research, for example, starts with the test of a theory.
  • Data, evidence, and rational considerations shape knowledge. In practice, the researcher collects information on instruments based on measures completed by the participants or by observations recorded by the researcher.
  • Research seeks to develop relevant true statements, ones that can serve to explain the situation that is of concern or that describes the causal relationships of interest. In quantitative studies, researchers advance the relationship among variables and pose this in terms of questions or hypotheses.
  • Being objective is an essential aspect of competent inquiry, and for this reason researchers must examine methods and conclusions for bias. For example, standards of validity and reliability are important in quantitative research.” (Creswell 8-9)

We can see these “knowledge claims” at work not only in scholarly research. Consider, for instance, the groups lobbying for regulation of music lyrics or video games; their case is often built on “positivist” arguments that risque or violent media content causes aberrant behavior among media consumers.

2) Socially Constructed Knowledge Claims: Social constructivism is based on the work of Mannheim, Berger & Luckmann, Licoln & Guba, etc. and is based on the belief that individuals “develop subjective meanings of their experiences — meanings directed toward certain objects or things” (Creswell 8). These meanings are negotiated “socially and historically”; they are formed through interactions with others. This framework’s basic assumptions are as follows:

  • Meanings are constructed by human beings as they engage with the world they are interpreting. Qualitative researchers tend to use open-ended questions so that participants can express their views.
  • Humans engage with their social world and make sense of it based on their historical and social perspective — we are all born into a world of meaning bestowed upon us by our culture. Thus, qualitative researchers seek to understand the context or setting of the participants through visiting this context and gathering information personally. They also make an interpretation of what they find, an interpretation shaped by the researchers’ own experiences and backgrounds.
  • The basic generation of meaning is always social, arising in and out of interaction with a human community. The process of qualitative research is largely inductive, with the inquirer generating meaning from the data collected in the field.” (Creswell p. 8-9)

We see “social constructivist” views at play in the work of many artists who represent what Nicolas Bourriaud calls relational aesthetics. Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija, one of the “poster children” for relational aesthetics, sometimes cooks meals for people and calls it art. The Lucky Dragons participatory “workshop-style” concert at the 2008 Whitney Biennial involved the creation of sound through participants’ skin-to-skin contact.

3) Advocacy/Participatory Knowledge Claims: This framework arose out of some researchers’ frustration that constructivism didn’t go “far enough in advocating for an action agenda to help marginalized peoples” (Creswell 9). These researchers combine inquiry with a political agenda, and are often inspired by any of the following theoretical perspectives: feminist perspectives, racialized discourses, critical theory, queer theory, disability inquiry. Its basic assumptions are as follows:

  • Participatory action is recursive or dialectical and is focused on bringing about change in practices. Thus, at the end of advocacy/participatory studies, researchers advance an action agenda for change.
  • It is focused on helping individuals free themselves from constraints found in the media, in language, in work procedures, and in the relationships of power in educational settings. Advocacy/participatory studies often begin with an important issue or stance about the problems in society, such as the need for empowerment.
  • It is emancipatory in that it helps unshackle people from the constraints of irrational and unjust structures that limit self-development and self-determination. The aim of advocacy/participatory studies is to create a political debate and discussion so that change will occur.
  • It is practical and collaborative because it is inquiry completed “with” others rather than “on” or “to” others. In this spirit, advocacy/participatory authors engage the participants as active collaborators in their inquiries” (Creswell 11).

Rirkrit Tiravanija's "Untitled 2005..."

Tiravanija’s work could be considered activist, too. For his 2005 Hugo Boss Prize exhibition, he created Untitled 2005 (the air between the chain-link fence and the broken bicycle wheel), which the Guggenheim describes as “a self-built low-power television station, to demonstrate that individuals can be active contributors to their own media culture, rather than mere consumers of it. Using rudimentary electronic equipment, Tiravanija reveals how a broadcast can be transmitted over unused frequencies to a local community, circumventing traditional media networks.”

4) Pragmatic Knowledge Claims: derived from the world of Peirce, James, Mead, and Dewey — are based on the assumption that knowledge claims arise from action, situations, and consequences; “there is a concern with applications — “what works” — and solutions to problems” (Creswell 11). These researchers typically use a mix of qualitative and quantitative methods. What follows are pragmatism’s primary assumptions:

  • Pragmatism is not committed to any one system of philosophy and reality. This applies to mixed methods research in that inquirers draw liberally from both quantitative and qualitative assumptions when they engage in their research.
  • Individual researchers have a freedom of choice. They are “free” to choose the methods, techniques, and procedures of research that best meet their needs and purposes….
  • Truth is what works at the time; it is not based in a strict dualism between the mind and a reality completely independent of the mind….
  • Pragmatist researchers look to the “what” and the “how” to research based on its intended consequences — where they want to go with it. Mixed methods researchers need to establish a purpose for their “mixing,” a rationale for the reasons why quantitative and qualitative data need to be mixed in the first place.
  • Pragmatists agree that research always occurs in social, historical, political, and other contexts” (Creswell 12)

Students often wonder if it is essential to align oneself with a single school of thought. And if these various schools have such disparate, and seemingly contradictory, definitions of and approaches to “research,” isn’t each school of thought just an insular community that produces research only to legitimate its own existence? Sure, a positivist might discredit a constructivist’s research results, and an action researcher might be quick to dismiss the results of an experiment. But with increasingly interdisciplinary and collaborative research, the boundaries between these approaches don’t seem nearly so rigid. Sandra Bicknell, a researcher in museum studies, espouses methodological “pluralism”:

There is a superbly non-conformist view of method and approach in Mary Daly’s Webster’s First Intergalactic Wickedary of the English Language:

Methodolatry (n): common form of academic idolatry; glorification of the god Method; boxing knowledge into prefabricated fields, thereby hiding threads of connectedness, hindering New Discoveries, preventing the raising of New Questions, erasing ideas that do not fit into Respectable Categories of Questions and Answers (Daly 1987).

I have a feeling that there is a lot of this about. There have been a number of attempts to categorize…methodology. This ‘boxing’ of methods is, in my view, isolationist. It suggests either/or scenarios. One is either a supporter of the naturalist approach, or one is a supporter of the scientific approach; the study is either goal-oriented or goal-free; I am labeled a behaviorist if I watch what [people] are doing, or a follower of the school of cognitive psychology if I try to find out what visitors have learnt…; I use the tools of either the anthropologist, or the ethnographer, or the sociologist, or the psychologist, or the media critic; you either do quantitative work, or you do qualitative work; you do it either before the event or after; you either observe or you ask.

I, however, do not make sure ‘either/or’ choices. I am an unashamed pluralist who uses multiple methodologies as part of an evaluation scenario which has the clear intention of providing answers to the questions my colleagues want answers. I use multiple methods to give greater rigor, reliability and depth to the work I do. Each element is designed both to test and to complement the findings of other elements. The different methods add layers of information but also provide a means of identifying inconsistencies and weaknesses. (Sarah Bicknell, “Here to Help: Evaluation and Effectiveness” In Eilean Hooper-Greenhill, Ed., Museum, Media, Message (Museum Meanings) (Routledge, 1999): 283-4).

So, in short: you needn’t be a methodological purist. The challenge is to find a complementary combination of methods — all appropriate for your research problem or project — that, together, provide for greater “rigor, reliability, and depth.”

Furthermore, the lenses or frameworks through which we look at the social world, the media, humankind — or whatever our research “universe” might be — also influence the scale at which we conceptualize things, and how we break the world up into pieces, or concepts. If we were standing together on a street corner near The New School in New York, and you pointed across the street and said, “Hey, look at that!” I might ask, “What, that group of Parsons students?” Or, “What, that building?” Or, “What, the city?” The scale at which I’m looking and thinking — and the things my eyes and brain are attuned to — both influence and are influenced by the way I break up my world into concepts. Babbie tells us that concepts are merely figments of our imagination; they’re merely labels we apply to an assortment of observable or measurable indicators.

There are basically two kinds of definitions of concepts. The first, a constitutive definition, defines a word by substituting other words or concepts for it. A constitutive definition for “intelligence” might be “the ability to think abstractly.” The second, an operational definition, specifies procedures that enable one to observe or measure a concept (Wimmer & Dominick). We can “operationalize” intelligence by defining it as, say, the score on an IQ test. It should be obvious that having an operational definition is essential for researching any concept.

You might be interested in “concentration of media ownership” — but how will you measure that concept in a research project? How could you operationalize that variable? Or, you might be interested in “representations of gays and lesbians in mainstream film.” How can we operationalize something as amorphous and slippery as “representation”?

Any operationalization is bound to have limitations — which is why we often identify multiple indicators of a concept, and measure each of them, thus representing the concept as the composite of these measured indicators, or variables.

Concept Maps by Lantzilla on Flickr:

Some researchers have realized that various graphic representation techniques, like “concept mapping,” can prove useful in identifying research topics; identifying the component parts, or indicators, of concepts and the relationships between them; and suggesting search topics and subject areas for library research. Cynthia Tysick, an Arts & Sciences Librarian at the University of Buffalo, uses concept mapping to help graduate students organize concepts and develop search strategies.

You can either go “old school” — with paper and pencil (or, for some added flavor, colored markers!) — or “new school,” with one of the variety of mapping programs available online, either for free or through a free 30-day trial.

via Brenda Laurel, Design Research (MIT Press 2003): 204-5

B.J. Fogg (in Laurel, 2003), head of the Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford, presents another method for graphically representing research or design ideas. His “conceptual designs” model — with its overview, user description, storyboard of user experience, prototype, discussion of features/functionality, justifications for design (theoretical and practical), results of user testing, shortcomings of design, plans for expansion (what else is possible?), next steps in design process, summary — is essentially a research proposal adapted for design.

How might the conceptual design components map onto the components of a research proposal? And what questions might Fogg’s model lead us to ask ourselves that a typical research proposal might not? How might it be helpful to think about these things at the very beginning of the research process — even if, at this stage, we can’t answer all the questions Fogg proposes, and we couldn’t provide a fraction of the information required for a complete proposal?


Works Cited:

Earl Babbie, Observing Ourselves: Essays in Social Research (Wadsworth 1986).

Jacques Barzun & Henry F. Graff, The Modern Researcher, 6th Ed. (Belmont, CA: Thompson, 2004).

John W. Cresswell, Research Design: Qualitative, Quantitative, and Mixed Method Approaches, 2nd ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: 2003).

Norman Denzin & Yvonna Lincoln, Eds., The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research, 3rd ed. (Sage 2005).

Alan Fletcher, The Art of Looking Sideways (New York: Phaidon, 2001).

Eilean Hooper-Greenhill, Ed., Museum, Media, Message (Museum Meanings) (Routledge, 1999).

Brenda Laurel, Ed., Design Research Methods and Perspectives (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003).

Thomas R. Lindlof & Bryan C. Taylor, Qualitative Communication Research Methods, 2nd ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2002).

Justin Reedy and Madhavi Murty’s “Creating a Research AgendaInside Higher Ed (May 20, 2009).

Colin Robson, Real World Research, 2nd ed. (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1993/2002).

Peter Turchi, Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer (San Antonio, TX: San Antonio University Press, 2004).

Roger D. Wimmer & Joseph R. Dominick, Mass Media Research: An Introduction, 7th ed. (Belmont, CA: Thompson, 2003).