Digital Literary Studies: The Map of the City that Is this Novel

Moacir P. de Sá Pereira (moacir at nyu)

Spring 2016, Waverly 668, TR 16:55–18:10

Office Hours: 244 Greene, 506, W 14:00–16:00

Course description

What is the relationship between the city and the novel? A century ago, the pioneers of American sociology in Chicago often looked to literature for inspiration. Later authors returned the favor in showing sociological influ- ences in their own urban imaginations. This class returns to this old push and pull with a distinct, contemporary spin. Three units—one on reading about the city, one on reading novels about the city, and one on making maps of the city as revealed in the novels—make up the semester and push us toward our goal of visualizing what the relationships between city and novel were, are, and could be. The maps we make will be digital, but no previous experience in programming or mapping is required. Students will learn everything during the semester, and they will be able to make their own maps and draw spatial conclusions about textual works for their final projects. The novels we read will be American works of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and they will focus geographically on the U.S. as well. The early sociological texts will be supplemented by more contemporary writings on the city as well as texts from the digital mapping debates in the field of geography.

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.

Dérive project

In a dérive one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there.

Twice this semester, you will go on a dérive for credit (you are of course more than welcome to go on more for fun). The dérive is often pitched as “getting lost on purpose,̦” and there is an element of that to this assignment, but it is about much, much more.

Dérive goals

This sounds like a lot, but the process will be, I hope, rather simple. A lot of the technical aspects of the dérive depend on attending the “GPS Markdown dérive omnibus” class meeting, but the technology should be in the background to how you feel the contours of the city, as Debord puts it.


  1. Starting point: Both dérives will start at a random location in Manhattan. For the first, you’ll pick a point at random that is within 250 yards of a Manhattan Citibike station using ArcGIS. For the second, the starting point will be a place we have geocoded from our novels that is chosen at random. Everyone gets a different point. Start a dérive on the Dérive app, fire up your GPS tracker, make sure your pen works, unfold your Field Papers atlas… oh, and turn off your social media notifications.

  2. Look around: Take in your immediate surroundings. Does something immediately resonate? Make a note of it. Head toward it. Look at it, listen to it, talk to it, taste it.

  3. Repeat: If something else grabs you and pulls you away, follow it. Take unfamiliar paths, though. Do something you’ve never done.

  4. Draw a card when stuck: It’s so tricky to let go of the relationality in the city that we’re so used to that it makes sense to have a third party direct us. Draw a card from the Dérive app. Note the card and where you drew it on your Field Papers atlas. Follow the card’s directions. Find the courage to fulfill the card’s instructions to their limit. But also understand when following the card’s instructions begins to simply reproduce regular moving in the city (say, following a bus down an avenue for ten blocks!). Let the cards direct you.

  5. Repeat: Keep moving, keep thinking, keep noticing, keep forgetting, and keep noting.

When you’re done?

When are you done? After n kilometers? After n hours? Perhaps… The dérive should be counted in kilometers and hours, though, to encourage enough space and time for you to get good and lost in at least your thoughts. Make sure your draw a bunch of cards and let your dérive be good and disrupted.

Make sure you’ve taken good notes in your Field Papers atlas, and hopefully your phone’s GPS didn’t completely fail you, but even if it did, paper backups!

Completing the dérive

Once you get back home, it’s time to write up the assignment, which is made up of three parts: a report (1,100–1,250 words), a shapefile of your journey, and the Field Papers atlas with all your notes. The report should be written in Markdown, and can definitely include any field recordings you made—photo (use imgur), video, audio—that you think help indicate how you made use of your time lost in the city and in your thoughts to synthesize the city with your readings.

If your phone’s GPS app behaved, making the shapefile is as easy as exporting the GPX file to CartoDB. If the GPS failed, you can use your Field Papers to build an electronic version of your journey in CartoDB.

The Field Papers are the Field Papers. Easy!

Enjoy yourselves, let your thoughts and instincts guide you, and be safe!

NyWalker project

Under the auspices of the NYScapes workshop, Prof. Thomas Augst and I have begun implementing a web application / data service called NyWalker. The goal of the project is clear: to provide hand-coded geolocation information for several American novels typically (but not always) centered around New York City.

During this course, we will undertake geocoding all four novels that we read, as well. The first novel we’ll do more or less together, but the last three are your responsibility. This is why it is important that you all have the same editions of the text.

Breakdown of responsibilities

Nil NilManhattan Transfernm
Nil NilOpen Citynm
Nil NilThe Flamethrowersnm


  1. Read the text carefully and make notes of proper names (capitalized!) that you think might be places and should be mapped. DO NOT GEOCODE AND READ AT ONCE. You will make piles of mistakes and not get much out of the novel.

  2. Use the login we give you to log into the system. You should already have a book assigned, and you can go straight to adding instances, which are mentions of a place in a novel. Every instance has a place attached to it (like a street, building, city, country…). Every instance also has a page number and a sequence attached to it (is it the first instance on the page? second?).

  3. The sequence and page should be pretty clear. To affix a place, however, you must search for it. Hopefully, someone has already added that place to the database. If not, you have to add it yourself.

  4. Try searching the gazetteer first. It should capture anything larger than a town and many very specific buildings. If the place you're trying to add is not in the gazeteer, try to find the coordinates by looking the place up on Wikipedia. Places tend to have a “GeoHack” page that includes coordinates you can add by hand.

  5. If you know where the place is already, you can skip the GeoHack and zoom in to it using the small map on the form. When you click on the appropriate point, the corresponding what3words address should automatically appear in the form.

  6. Fill out the source (GeoNames, Wikipedia, etc.), and mark the appropriate confidence level.

  7. Save, fill in the rest of the data for the instance, and move to the next one.


Once you have completed your data entry, you must write a short report (700–800 words) about your efforts. Include discussion of any especially difficult places you had to geocode, what kinds of issues they presented, and how you managed to solve them.

Digital story (final project)

The final project is made up of two very interconnected components, a digital story (most likely using Esri’s story maps software), and a long paper (2,500–3,000 words). Yes, you can reuse text from one project in the other, but you should keep in mind questions of genre and audience.


The object(s) of analysis for the digital story will be one of the novels we have read in class. You should read the novels carefully and closely, using the various texts we have read in class to inform how you read. Next you should perform an original geospatial analysis on the places mentioned in the novel or novels.

The goal is to tie together both methods of approaching and novel (or novels) and seeing how they resonate with each other.

The digital story will have at least 5 slides and make use of both maps and, where necessary, audio or visual material as permitted by copyright. The basic framework for the slides could be:

  1. Intro
  2. Data point 1 (map 1)
  3. Data point 2 (map 2)
  4. Data point 3 (map 3)
  5. Conclusion

In the long paper, you should use a similar structure but make your argument more clearly, making more use of the non-novelistic texts we read in class.

Both objects should follow conventional modes of scholarly attribution.

The digital story is clearly turned in as a url. The paper, however, can be submitted however you want to—paper, Markdown, etc.



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.

Nearly everything can be submitted electronically. Shapefiles, Markdown texts of dérives, and digital stories, of course, must be. On the other hand, anything with a word-count can additionally be submitted during class, printed out. I don’t want to deny you the pleasure of dropping a physical manifestation of your hard work on a hard surface at the start of class. The Field Papers atlas from each dérive absolutely must be submitted as a physical object.

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 20% 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 the second week.


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, along with my colleagues at NYU Data Services, will be exposing you to a lot of new tools and concepts. Our class will occasionally have digitally-focused classes in our classroom, where we will learn how to use ArcGIS and how to create digital stories that incorporate cartographic elements. These skills are difficult, and both I and the team at Data Services will try to help as much as possible. But please aim to attend each of these teaching classes, in order to gain familiarity with the technology that will come in handy later.

In addition to what Data Services offers, during the course of the class we will also learn how to write digital documents in Markdown, complete with embedded multimedia objects. We will also learn how to use a gazetteer as part of the NYWalker project.

None of this requires special previous knowledge.


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 novels listed above will be available on reserve or by other means. See the list of references at the end for details.

1. The organic, responsive city

This unit is made up almost entirely of scholarly work on the city in general from the fields of sociology, anthropology, and geography. Some texts, however, have a specific literary component to them as being influenced by, responses to, or examples of literary practice.

2. The city in the novel

Having read different ways we can consider the city as a process, bubbling with potential, it’s now time to see how (or if) these novels play with what emanates form that view of the city.

3. Qualitative GIS

As we wind down the semester, our thoughts turn to how we can synthesize our different approaches to the text. We’ve read social scientific takes on the city followed by novels that are engaged with New York City (and other places!). In the meantime, we’ve been collecting a pile of geographic data about these novels and don’t yet really know what to do with it. Now, with a few caveats, we’ll try to figure out new paths for analysis.


26.1, 28.1Introductions, WhiteheadPark (p. 1–12!), Burgess, and Wright
2.2, 4.2HarveyDe Certeau
9.2, 11.2LatourGPS, Markdown, dérive omnibus, Debord
16.2, 18.2ArcGISWharton, chs. 1–12
23.2, 25.2Wharton, chs. 12–24Dérive 1 due, Wharton, chs. 25–end
1.3, 3.3Dos Passos, “Ferryslip”–“Tracks”Dos Passos, “Steamroller”–“Longlegged Jack of the Isthmus”
8.3, 10.3Dos Passos, “Nine Days Wonder”–“Nickelodeon”Dos Passos, “Revolving Doors”–end
15.3, 17.3

Spring Break, no class

22.3, 24.3Cole, chs. 1–15Cole, chs. 16–end
29.3, 31.3Kushner, chs. 1–4Kushner, chs. 5–9
5.4, 7.4Kushner, chs. 10–13Kushner, chs. 14 & 15
12.4, 14.4Kushner, chs. 16–endGeospatial analysis
19.4, 21.4Dérive 2 due, Esri Story MapsHaraway
26.4, 28.4NYWalker report due, Woodward et al., Gibson-Graham Elwood and Cope, Pavlovskaya
3.5, 5.5Liu, RisamClass wrap-up and review
10.5, 12.5 Digital story due