Technologies of Text, Spring 2017

An experiential learning course in the English Department at Northeastern University

Author: Ryan Cordell (page 1 of 2)

Station Eleven, Day 1

Station Eleven is our final reading of the semester because it brings together so many of the themes of Technologies of Text into conversation. It is a book about media and memory, art and technology, preservation and ephemerality. For today’s prompt, I would like you to bring Station Eleven into direct conversation with a previous reading from the semester. You can choose whichever reading you want, but you should cite it specifically (at least one passage) and think through how it might speak to at least two passages from Station Eleven. You might illustrate how the reading complements ideas from the novel, or how the novel complicates the ideas in the reading. If you’ve read the entire book you can work from passages beyond page 164, but please include at least one passage from our first reading and, perhaps more importantly, don’t discuss any passages from beyond page 164 in our class discussion today. In other words, as best as we can, NO SPOILERS!

Student memes

Several students asked me to share the memes made by the class for our last lab, so here they are. In some cases I’ve linked the image to some context about the meme, particularly for those I was less familiar with (and now my age is showing, I’m sure).

Who needs students evaluations when you have student course memes?


Lab 10: Wiki

In this lab you will work with colleagues to improve Wikipedia articles originally composed by Northeastern students in previous semesters (both in ToT and in other classes). Both before and during that process we will discuss what makes a “good” Wikipedia article, and negotiate those standards as we try to create articles that will pass muster with the Wikipedian community. As we work we will also attend to the ways that Wikipedia’s standards can—even if inadvertently—enforce norms driven by the prevailing demographics of Wikipedia’s most prevalent and active editors.

Here are a few resources you should keep in mind as we work:

  1. You can create a Wikipedia account at Keep in mind that you can have an account that’s semi- or full anonymous, and you should strongly consider doing so. As Amanda Rust communicated, you can always choose to be less anonymous in the future, but you can’t really choose to be more anonymous once you’ve put identifying info out there. She also encourages you to think carefully about whether you want to pick a username that clearly identifies your gender.
  2. Amanda has also compiled an incredible set of resources on her teaching page. We’ll spend lots of time with these.

In your fieldbook, you should share a link to the article you worked on and describe the ways in which your group updates your chosen entry. You might link to the change history so I can see precisely what you did. In your reflection, consider questions such as:

  1. How do you understand Wikipedia’s standards (e.g. Neutral Point of View, No Original Research, etc.) theoretically, and how do they manifest practically? That is, how did trying to write an actual Wikipedia article force you to translate abstract principles into actual research and writing choices?
  2. In what ways does Wikipedia open up the act of knowledge production, and in what ways does it perpetuate older forms of gatekeeping?
  3. How do you understand the technical affordances and limitations of the Wiki platform? Consider this medium in relationship to previous media we’ve discussed this semester. Always historicize.
  4. Did you have any communication—direct or indirect—with other editors? What does it feel like to be a “newbie” and working towards a presumably similar goal (improving the encyclopedia) with strangers?
  5. Do you think you’ll edit Wikipedia articles again? Why or why not?

Lab 9: Into the Meme Pool

This lab is adapted from one developed by English Department Ph.D. student Kevin Smith, who TA’ed Technologies of Text in Fall 2014. I’ve included a number of memes created by that year’s students below to inspire you.

In class today we talked about how memes are created, why they work (when they work), and how they circulate. Thinking as English students, memes are a common and simple form of multimodal writing: they only work through a combination of image and text, and they (generally) follow relatively strict formal requirements. Their rhetorical velocity depends on how effectively they speak to particular communities, and whether they motivate members of those communities to share.

For this lab, we will make our own memes, possibly related to our class, though you can take on different topics if you prefer. Remember that memes work within communities: if your topic is too far afield from what a typical English professor might understand, then I may not be able to evaluate whether your meme works or not—and you might need to provide some additional context.

For your field book, you should include your meme and use it to reflect on the questions such as:

  • What did the act of designing your meme teach you about how it makes its meaning?
  • How are internet memes similar to historical forms of “viral media” we discussed in class, and how are they unique to our historical moment?
  • In what ways do memes depend on specific technological platforms, and it what ways do they not? That is, how does contemporary technology drive the production and reception of memes? Can you imagine memes existing in a different technological milieu?
  • What is the future of memes? Is this a cultural form that will stick around, or is it solely of our moment? How do you think memes might change in the future?

Some Resources:

  1. For understanding the history of a particular meme, Know Your Meme
  2. For creating memes, Memegen or Meme Generator (and there are many, many more as many of you probably already know).
  3. Just a few places to browse memes: and

Memes from Your Ancestors

and finally…

Lab 8 Prompt

In “Writing as Programming as Writing”—which, unfortunately, we were not able to read for this class—Geoffrey Rockwell connects the question of whether coding is writing to Socrates’ dialogue with Phaedrus—which we did read in this class, on day one—about the virtues and vices of writing itself:

we have a question which is suitable for this audience—a question which concerns code and whether code is in fact a form of textuality for which the rich tradition of the humanities around reading, dialectic, rhetoric, and reasoning are appropriate arts. Surely that is relevant to computing in the humanities—a discipline around the intersection of code and text—and, if we
can determine the nature of code and text, we might then return to the issue of programming as writing. We could even agree, like Socrates and Phaedrus, that tomorrow we are going to reproach programmers who, like speech-writers, have forgotten wisdom for codes.

After all we’ve read about coding in the past few weeks, where do you stand on this question? What relationship(s) do you see between coding and the activities we associate with humanistic study: writing, reading, discussion, and debate? What about between coding and artistic endeavor? Did engaging with more creative applications of coding toward generating art objects like our mad lib poetry (admittedly quite a simple kind of creative coding) change your perception of code? Do you see possibilities for creativity or critique in computation that you did not before? Is a poetry bot writing or creating or doing something else entirely? Beyond simple mad-libs style bots, what potential do you see for computer programs to contribute to culture?

In-class Prompt: Chandra Reading

Prompt: Consider the following excerpt from page 187 of Vikram Chandra’s book Geek Sublime:

The poet Kshemendra—Abhinavagupta’s student—left this advice:

A poet should learn with his eyes
the forms of leaves
he should know how to make
people laugh when they are together
he should get to see
what they are really like
he should know about oceans and mountains
in themselves
and the sun and the moon and the stars
his mind should enter into the seasons
he should go
among many people
in many places
and learn their languages

I have a sabbatical coming up. My plan is (1) write fiction; (2) learn a functional programming language; and (3) learn Sanskrit.

For Chandra, what is the connection between these three activities, as expressed in the selections we read from Geek Sublime? How are writing, language learning, and coding similar; how are they distinct; and how do they both inform and contradict each other? Refer to at least one specific passage we can discuss together in class.

Labs 7a, 7b, and 8

For labs 7a, 7b, and 8 you should download this zip file. You don’t need to unzip the file; we will import it as is into RStudio Server.

We will access RStudio Server at (the university has moved the software to more robust hardware).

There’s some prep work that you should do before Thursday, March 23 in order to be ready for our twitter bot exercise:

  • Sign up for a Wordnik account and then sign up for a Wordnik API Key. Wordnik is an open-source dictionary from which we will be drawing words to fill in our mad libs.
  • If you want to post to Twitter, you will need to create a new Twitter account for your bot. Think about what kind of bot you want to make and then sign up. Be sure to add a mobile number to the account, as we’ll need that for one the steps later on.
  • While signed into your new account, visit Twitter’s developer site. In the small bottom menu click “Manage Your Apps” and then “Create New App.” Fill out the required fields and then click “Create Your Twitter Application.” In your new app, navigate to “Permissions,” select “Read and Write,” and save settings. We’ll be getting some essential information from the “Keys and Access Tokens” menu shortly.
  • Choose a short snippet of a poem you like (less than 140 characters!) that you can use for your twitter bot.

In-class prompt: Lovelace & Babbage

One way of reading the history of Lovelace and Babbage is to mark their collaboation as a failed technological experiment (as Padua notes on page 29). The accomplishments of the Difference Engine were relatively modest, while the Analytical Engine was never completed. Recently, however, the history of Lovelace and Babbage has been recovered in many ways: Padua’s book, other popular histories such as Gleick, or even in the establishment of Ada Lovelace Day, “an international celebration day of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths.” Padua’s graphic novel goes even farther, constructing an alternate history in which Lovelace and Babbage’s vision jump-started the computer age nearly 100 years early (a similar premise to William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine).

Focusing on Padua’s book, what do we make of this reclamation and reimagination of Lovelace and Babbage? Why are we attracted to these particular historical figures? What social, cultural, or imaginative work are they doing for our computer age? How does an alternative nineteenth century help us think about the twenty-first century?

Labs 4 & 5: Letterpress

Technologies of Text • Spring 2017

Labs 4 & 5: Letterpress

Over the next two weeks you will be working in groups of 4 to plan, practice, and exeute a small letterpress project using a Book Beetle desktop letterpress (, which is based on a classic screw design such as the one used by Gutenberg or, later, the one at the heart of the English Common Press, the most prevalent printer for much of the handpress period (and the one used by folks like Benjamin Franklin). Ours is much smaller than theirs, of course, and so we can only print sheets up to 8.5×11″ in size. Given that many of you have never printed before, however, this will be plenty to occupy you!

We will detail safety for working with type and other letterpress essentials in class, but as a brief reminder:

  1. This will be dirty work. Wear clothes you don’t mind getting dirty. If you have an apron or smock consider bringing it to wear. If you have longer hair tie it back while working.
  2. Wash your hands before and after working with type, ink, &c.
  3. Don’t put type in your mouth: hopefully that’s obvious! More practically, don’t rub your hands in your mouth, eyes, or nose directly from handling type, ink, &c.

Here is the basic outline of our four sessions:

Day 1: Planning Your Project

Printing on a letterpress requires significantly more preparation than printing from a computer. Every aspect of letterpress printing is material: including the spaces! On this first day, I will overview the entire process so you have an idea of what you’re even planning.

Then, you will divide into crews of 4 and begin planning what you want to compose and print. To ensure you experience the full joy of the printing shop, your creation should:

  1. Include at least 30 words. I strongly encourage you to create a larger block of text, but if you do so be sure to pick one of the fuller fonts. You don’t want to get out of sorts, do you?
  2. Include at least one image from my woodcuts drawer.
  3. Include at least two distinct text blocks. Don’t bunch everything together in a single paragraph.

Day 2: Composing

Setting type—particularly for new compositors—can be a challenge. For our second letterpress day, I will demonstrate that process for you and then ask you to practice setting several blocks apiece. You should not expect to begin composing the actual lines of type you will use in your project, though you might use these planned lines to practice.

It will likely take you some time to get accustomed to precisely how you will need to align everything for your actual project (remember, including the spaces). Each member of your group should practice, and when you are not actually composing you should be observing those who are and discussing the process. This guide to setting type by hand is enormously useful if you need a reference.

Please be mindful of your cases and place type back in its appointed spot. I will give you all diagrams of the California job case layout to consult. Pay close attention, however, and remember that the type appears backwards. Note where the nicks are in the type, and mind your p’s and q’s!

As you are practicing your composition, I will come to each group to briefly discuss your planned printing project. In this way I can hopefully head off ideas that will be difficult to execute in the span of this class.

Day 3: Setting the Forms

With practice composing under our belts, on day three we will begin the production process. You should compose all the type blocks for your project, transfer them to your group’s galley, and tie them up to store until you are ready to print on Day 4. If your images will be locked up with your type, they should be included in the type block. If your images will be locked up separately, they should be left on your group’s galley nonetheless.

Day 4: Pulling the Press

This will be the big day! I will first demonstrate how type is locked into a chase using furniture and quoins. You will then take turns transfering your type from your group’s galley to a chase. You will lock up your type (and possibly separate images), ink your design, and print. Throughout you should take turns so that each member of your team can experience the different stages of the printing process. Note: it will likely take several pulls of the press (perhaps as many as 10-15) before you get a good image. Your type needs to build an even layer of ink before it will print clearly.

Handy Type Case Chart

Lab 3: Thinking with the Codex

Spring 2017
Technologies of Text

Lab 3: Thinking with the Codex

Whether thick, thin, brittle, smooth, dog-eared, or stained, every page discloses a unique identity that has been shaped by cultural forces over time. This identity is susceptible to change across different reading communities, but the material cues provided by the page perdure and are always present in the transmission of ideas. Designers make calculated decisions regarding the size, shape, colour, and quality of the material to suggest to readers what kind of page it is and how they wish it to be treated. Although a handwritten folio of animal skin in a medieval manuscript is as much a page as the leaf of a mass-produced paperback, the characteristics of each communicate vastly different messages about their respective manufacture, circulation, and cultural value. In this way, the construction of the page can be read as evidence of its social history.

Bonnie Mak, “Architectures of the Page”

from Aldus Manutius

For this lab, I have selected a set of books from Northeastern University’s Archives and Special Collections for us to investigate. I’ve arranged the books in pairs, each designed to illuminate a particular textual contrast: either over time, between technologies, or between cultures.

You should choose one pair of books and compare 3-4 pages from the first book with 3-4 pages from the second. You are not bound (pun so very intended) to pages I discuss, and in fact I encourage you to find others. Feel free to browse, carefully, for two you find particularly interesting. And then you should look and feel and smell and listen (but probably not taste) closely! Consider returning to Special Collections to spend more time with your chosen books. Then you should choose 3-4 pages from one of the digitized books I assigned for today’s reading and compare them with the physical books you studied.

Your fieldbook report should analyze salient similarities and differences among the pages in your three chosen books. Don’t simply list comparisons—though you might use bullet points to organize them—but work to understand significances. What do these comparisons tell us about relationships among technology, media, and culture during your texts’ periods? What do these books teach us about shifting reading, writing, and publishing practices? How does each set of pages signal what a book is, who a book is for, and what a book does during its historical period? What are the logics, codes, and protocols through which a codex operates in each period? Can you trace an evolutionary path from earlier books in your set to latter ones?

I strongly encourage you to link your thoughts and observations to our course readings, which can help you understand the features and effects I want you to attend to.

A book is a machine to think with, but it need not, therefore, usurp the functions of either the bellows or the locomotive.

I. A. Richards, Principles of Literary Criticism

Mark Z. Danielewski, *House of Leaves*


The pairs from which you can choose are:

  1. The “Dragon Prayer Book” (after 1461) and Ovid, P. Ovidii Nasonis Amatoria (1546)
  2. Wynkin de Worde, The History of Helyas (1901; reproduction of 1512 edition) and Guido Bentivoglio, Relationi fatte in tempo delle sue nuntiature di Fiandra e di Francia (1629)
  3. Buteo Delphinaticus, Bvteonis Delphinatici Opera Geometrica (1554) and Benjamin Franklin, Briefe von der Elektricität (1758)
  4. William Maitland and Others, The history and survey of London (1756) and Karl Baedeker, The Rhine from Rotterdam to Constance (1900)
  5. Charles Dickens, Sketches of Young Couples (1840) and Jacob A. Riis, How the Other Half Lives (1904)
  6. Alexander Jones, Historical Sketch of the Electric Telegraph (1852) and George W. Pierce, Principles of Wireless Telegraphy (1910)
  7. Alfred Koehn, Japanese Tray Landscapes (1937) and Amaranth Borsuk and Brad Bouse, Between Page and Screen (2012)
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