Digital Literary Studies: Does It Work?

Moacir P. de Sá Pereira (moacir at nyu)

Fall 2016, 25 W 4th C-6, MW 15:30–16:45

Office Hours: 244 Greene, 506, T 15:00–16:30

Course description

Over the past decade, literary study has become increasingly, reflexively interested in investigating the methods that it generates. At the same time, the digital humanities have emerged to claim a part of growing English departments. This course serves as an introduction to both of these currents in contemporary literary study. We will consider both familiar forms of reading as well as new, different forms that have broadened the way we interpret texts, and we will then look to how the digital humanities, as an especially method-oriented subfield, brings these questions of interpretation into even sharper contrast. Students will, then, see how debates about interpretation are lived and experienced within the digital humanities, both in theory and practice. Finally, students will learn to use digital methodologies in their interpretation, with possible projects in textual analysis, topic modeling, and geospatial analysis.

Goals of the course

Novels available at the NYU BookCenter (hardcopies required)



The success of any course is directly related to the levels of engagement brought both by the instructor and the students. As such, class participation is vitally important. Similarly, though attendance is logically required for class participation, it is not sufficient. This class requires active participation both inside the classroom and outside. No “passive consumers,” as a professor of mine put it.

You can miss up to three meetings without penalty, and you can use these opportunities tactically, to provide space and time to either fulfill other obligations or recuperate from the previous night. I don’t care why you didn’t come. I start to care with the fourth absence, and I start to require documentation. Repeated unexcused absence quickly gobbles up the class participation component of the grade and begins to threaten your ability to even pass the course.

Because this course is discussion-oriented, active participation means, most importantly, participating in the discussions in class. But useful and engaged participation in discussions also depends on good preparation, which includes doing the reading for the course. I encourage (but will not collect) you to think of one or two points of entry into a discussion of a text for each meeting. This could be a point of confusion (don’t be shy!), a point of comparison/contrast between passages to another work, or a useful parallel to something outside the coursework. Come to class with questions, in other words, and writing them out as mini-prompts may be especially helpful.

Critical presentation

While reading the critical history of The Great Gatsby, each of you will give a short (8–10 minutes) presentation that introduces either one of the essays cited in the reading for that day or an essay you have found via JSTOR contemporary with that day’s reading. You will get to sign up for a time period on the first day of class. The presentation will also have a short (1 page) written component that you will turn in. The goal of the presentation is to introduce new knowledge to the class that it has not already had, thereby facilitating that day’s discussion. This presentation cannot make use of the computer in the classroom, and you should email the subject of your presentation to me 24 hours in advance.

Digital presentation

During the digital section of the course, each of you will give a short (8–10 minutes) presentation on a digital tool or project you have found online, possibly even making some quick use of the Gatsby dataset. The tool or project should be appropriate to that day’s work, meaning statistical analysis tools and projects fit for the Python days, while spatial analysis tools and projects fit better for the Carto days. You can sign up on the first day for these presentations. Your presentation will also have a short (1 page) written component that you will turn in. The goal of the presentation is to introduce a new form of digital reading to the class that may spark new ideas for final projects. This presentation can make use of the computer in the classroom, and you should email the subject of your presentation to me 24 hours in advance.

Novel presentation

While reading the two more “recent” notels, each of you will give a short (8–10 minutes) presentation that introduces secondary materials to the novel at hand, be it scholarly writing found via JSTOR or popular writing found online or in other publications. You will get to sign up for a day on the first day of class. The presentation will also have a short (1 page) written component that you will turn in. The goal of the presentation is to introduce new sources to the class that it has not already had, thereby facilitating that day’s discussion. This presentation cannot make use of the computer in the classroom, and you should email the subject of your presentation to me 24 hours in advance.

Final project

The final project is an extension of the work you have been doing all semester. It has two obvious components, as do the previous assignments, both an in-class presentation and a written component. The goal is for you to synthesize the different methods of reading we have learned over the semester to provide the foundation of a new, mixed reading of one of the semester’s novels. As such, you are encouraged to make use of the digital tools (and expand on your knowledge of them) while also keeping in mind the various secondary materials to which you have been exposed. Remember both Rita Felski's 4 Cs—curating, conveying, criticizing, composing—and the question guiding this course—“does it work?”—when considering how to develop the argument of your project.

The presentation will take the form of an extremely quick lightning talk, capped at a hard two minutes. The point is to make use of the presentation to show the class where you are in terms of thinking about your novel and what sources you have found useful. The lightning talk could use a chart, a map, or something similar.

After the lightning talks, the rest of that class period will be used as a workshop, where you work with the other students who have chosen your novel to amplify your own investigations. Keep track of the contributions of your classmates, as you will likely need to cite them.

The workshop completed, you will have a week to compose together the various pieces of work surrounding your novel into a longer (7 pages) written work that deploys mixed reading strategies in an act of curating, conveying, criticizing, or composing. The project should not have a thesis that it aims to prove, as such, but would rather describe the novel in a way that stimulates further analysis.

You are strongly encouraged to be thinking about the project all semester long, and you should have a good sense of at least the topic by the time we return after Thanksgiving. Making use of office hours is a great way to help your project take shape in the rushed final weeks of the semester.

Both the presentation and the write-up should follow standard scholarly guidlines regarding citation.



The assignment instructions, though detailed in the syllabus, may be enhanced or supplemented during the course. If you have any questions about an assignment, you should ask for clarification early. The assignments are due on the dates noted in the syllabus.

All of the writing can be submitted electronically.

Late assignments jeopardize both your and my rhythms in the class, so they will be penalized. I will give you feedback and will happily discuss any work with you, but grades should be considered final.

Additionally, grading is variable based on what you feel your strengths are. Each assignment will be worth at least 16% of your final grade, but the upper limit of the grade is set by you. You should email me how you slice up the pie by the end of October.


As indicated above, attendance is required. Three absences will be excused without supplemental documentation, and I encourage you to use these tactically. Catching up is your responsibility.

Subsequent absence requires formal documentation. Otherwise it begins to harm your final grade. Though class participation is only part of the final grade, extreme absenteeism (more than six meetings missed) may put your ability to pass the course at risk.

Please show up on time to class, as well.

Digital Learning

I will be exposing you to a lot of new tools and concepts. Our class will have digitally-focused classes in our classroom, where we will learn new skills. These skills are difficult, and I will try to help as much as possible.


Despite the presence of the digital, especially as the class gets deeper into the semester, our time in class is meant as a sanctuary from the distractions of the rest of the world. Furthermore, the class relies on discussion and engagement, and the front of a laptop screen is a brilliant shield behind which a student can hide, even unintentionally. During our meetings, then, there can be no use of electronic devices. Please also set whatever devices you have but aren’t using to silent mode.


Communication is vitally important to the pedagogical process, and this course depends on clear communication in both directions. If you have questions, comments, or concerns, the best course of action is to come visit me during my office hours as noted at the top of this page. If your questions, etc., cannot wait until then, then clearly you can also email me. I should respond within 48 hours.

This is a new course, meaning that there will be even more unfinished edges ready to scratch someone than in a typical course. We have a collective goal of learning, however, so if the unfinished edges get to be overwhelming, I’ll adjust the parameters of the course appropriately. I’m not out to catch you, nor is this course a process of grotesque punishment. Please don’t treat it as such.

Once more, with feeling: communication is vitally important to the pedagogical process. If you have concerns or worries, please let me know about them sooner rather than later.


If you have a disability, you should register with the Moses Center for Students with Disabilities (; 726 Broadway, 2nd Floor, 212.998.4980), which can arrange for things like extra time for assignments. Please inform me at the beginning of the semester if you need any special accommodations regarding the assignments.

Academic integrity

Please look at NYU’s full statement on academic integrity. Any instance of academic dishonesty will result in an F and will be reported to the relevant dean for disciplinary action. Remember that plagiarism is a matter of fact, not intention. Know what it is, and don’t do it.


The handsome, printer-friendly pdf version of the syllabus is available here.



Readings that are not the four books listed above will be available on reserve or by other means. See the list of references at the end for details.

1. That Old Gatsby, That Critique Gatsby

In the first section of this course, we’ll be returning to a familiar, canonical work of American 20th century literature, The Great Gatsby. Next, we will follow our own reading of the novel with a look at the novel’s critical history.

2. A Theoretical Break

Next, we take a short break to learn about the stresses offered by these more critique-driven forms of reading.

3. The New Gatsby, The Digital Gatsby

These five weeks serve as an opportunity to learn new methods of literary criticism, now based in digital tools. We will learn how to use Voyant to quickly see patterns in the text of \textit{The Great Gatsby}, Python to analyze the text within a high-level statistical programming environment,\footnote{The unit on Python is adapted from Jockers.} and, finally, NYWalker and Carto to learn how to make maps to analyse the geographical space of The Great Gatsby.

4. The New Novels, The New Systems

The semester closes with reading two new(er) novels that invite a systematic, totalized reading. We close with student presentations on their final projects.


1. 5.9, 7.9 No class Introductions, Massumi
2. 12.9, 14.9 Fitzgerald Fitzgerald
3. 19.9, 21.9 Fitzgerald Tredell (Critical presentations begin) (Adam and Jena)
4. 26.9, 28.9 Tredell (Kelsey, Sonja, and Grace) Tredell (Hugh, Joyce, Melanie, and Anna)
5. 3.10, 5.10 Bersani, Latour Sedgwick, Felski
6. 10.10, 12.10 No class Ramsay / Voyant and Gatsby
7. 17.10, 19.10 Intro to Python Python and Gatsby (Digital presentations begin)
8. 24.10, 26.10 Python and Gatsby (Jena) Python and Gatsby (Hugh)
9. 31.10, 2.11 NYWalker and Gatsby (Grace) Carto and Gatsby (Adam)
10. 7.11, 9.11 Carto and Gatsby (Melanie and Sonja) Election Day Fallout
11. 14.11, 16.11 Carto and Gatsby (Kelsey and Anna) Pynchon (Novel presentations begin) (Grace)
12. 21.11, 23.11 Pynchon (Hugh) No class
13. 28.11, 30.11 Pynchon (Kelsey and Joyce) Spiotta (Adam)
14. 5.12, 7.12 Spiotta (Melanie) Spiotta (Anna)
15. 12.12, 14.12 Spiotta (Sonja) Project workshop