Originally conceptualized in 2016 as part of Northwestern University’s Digital Humanities Summer Workshop, and taught during Winter Quarter 2017, the goal of this undergraduate course was to explore the evolving nature of language and books in a digital age. We approached this by trying to develop creative ways of producing digital “editions” of some books currently housed in the University Library’s McCormick Library of Special Collections. To this end we studied theories and philosophies of language, the history of book production, and the ever-proliferating digital technologies, platforms and applications being developed for the web.
What surprised me the most about this course was how much intuitive technical knowledge and facility my students already had when it came to web-based forms (even those that were theoretically new to them), and how little familiarity they had with the nature and history of the physical book form!
I’m pretty sure everyone appreciated some portion of the course, though as I told them from the beginning, this was one of those courses that could only truly “come together” down the road, since there were so many moving parts. One of the exciting things for me was seeing students become equally enthralled with the “new” materials (the digital platforms) and the “old” ones (the rare books).
The student work you see here is nothing short of extraordinary. Digitality raises some of the most profound issues and questions that humanism can deal with: what is the nature of identity? What is the nature of communication? What is the nature of knowledge? What is the nature of embodiment? As we work with digital platforms and digital texts–and communicate increasingly with students and with each other in digital ways–the vexed and challenging nature of the medium becomes ever more important.
This medium is becoming at once more foregrounded and more invisible, and it is the challenge of the humanities to trace both those processes. To reflect on the digital is to reflect on the nature and meaning of the human, and on what we quite appropriately think of as the “limits” or “boundaries” of the human.
I benefitted from an enormous amount of inspiration and support for this course: intellectual, imaginative and technical. Three people without whom the course would never have got off the ground in the first place are the Digital Humanities Librarian, Josh Honn; Digital Humanities Post-doc, Daniel Snelson; and the IT Director of Weinberg’s Media and Design Studio, Matt Taylor.
I also got tremendous creative and technical help from Cecile-Anne Sison, Instructional Technology Lead, and director John Bresland, both of the Media and Design Studio. And, of course, the librarians in the McCormick Library of Special Collections—chiefly Sigrid Perry and Jason Nargis—were invaluable resources.
— Jules Law, Professor of English, Northwestern University