Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 sessions / week, 1.5 hours / session

Course Description

"Becoming Digital" traces the change in practice, theory and possibility as mechanical and chemical media are augmented or supplanted by digital media. These changes will be grounded in a semester length study of "reports from the front." These reports, found and introduced by students throughout the semester, are the material produced by and about soldiers and civilians on the battlefield from the introduction of wet photography during the Crimean and Civil Wars to contemporary digital content posted daily to Web 2.0 sites from areas such as Iraq and Afghanistan and possibly even the games and simulations they've inspired. Students will work through the ethical, aesthetic, technical and cultural problems raised by the primary content and secondary readings in three papers, a group project written with Inform 7, a presentation, and frequent discussion.

Course Requirements

Speak Up

Communication intensive subjects in the humanities, arts, and social sciences require at least 20 pages of writing divided among a number of assignments, at least one of which is revised and resubmitted. This class requires 4 writing assignments totaling 24 pages. Those assignments are 3 papers that total 21 pages in length, and one group project requiring the equivalent of 3 pages per team member. The second paper will be graded, commented, and returned for you to revise and resubmit. This course requires all students to participate in weekly discussions of the reading, and to make one formal 12-minute presentation on their selected readings. To guarantee sufficient attention to writing and opportunity for oral expression, this course is limited to 18 students.

Show Up Prepared

In-class participation consists of reading all assigned materials, completing all writing assignments and arriving on-time, and actively contributing to class discussions. Be prepared to be frequently called upon.

Make Sure Work Gets to the Right Place

All writing assignments must be double-spaced, use a legible font, have reasonable margins and observe proper spelling and grammar conventions. All reading assignments should be completed before class begins. Although you are encouraged to discuss ideas with your peers and read secondary sources, all of your individual assignment writing should be your own, or appropriately cited. Any style will do so long as the citations include all relevant information and are internally consistent. All team members should contribute to the planning, writing and testing of the group project.

Write Three Papers, Revise One

Each of these 7-page formal papers addresses a research question emerging from the class' readings, topics, and discussions. These questions often emerge from the part of a reading that refuses to make sense. Quality papers in the past have been written on topics such as how different eras understand the mind through different technical analogs — the writing pad of the 1910s gave way to the film strips of the 1930s and the sacrificial fantasy of hardware memory in the 1980s, and on how digital media highlights questions of access, broadcast and security in military operations that have been present since Brady and Gardner photographed at Antietam. The first paper is due in Ses #7. The second paper is due in Ses #12. The second paper will be returned 1 day after Ses #13 with comments and a grade. It must be revised — even "A" papers can be improved. The revision for the second paper is due in Ses #12. The third paper is due in Ses #22.

Collaborate on an Interactive Non-Fiction

If we can all agree that writing does something different when it's done longhand or on a computer, how different is it when it's coded? What about when it changes every time it's read? In groups of 3-4 students, this project will let you code the equivalent of an essay on digital media and representations of the front. That coding will take place in Inform 7, a natural language design system for interactive fiction. In this case, you'll be adapting it for the creation of interactive non-fiction. Interactive fiction (IF) was established with the creation of games like Adventure (1972) and Zork (1980). Interactive non-fiction (INF), however, is a much less explored way of writing. Build a space that addresses a theme and a set of readings from the course with the structures of IF: rooms, doors, puzzles, characters and reactionary objects. The project length is equivalent to 3 pages per team member. Near the beginning of the project, each group will informally tell the class their project topic and INF architecture. At the successful conclusion of the writing, coding and testing phases of the INF project, groups will walk the class through their work. That walkthrough will take place during the last week of the semester (Ses #24 and Ses #25) and will last for as long as a group needs to show off their work. Neither presentation will be graded, but both are important for the project.

Research and Presentation

The readings of "Becoming Digital" fall into one of two categories: theoretical and primary. The primary material consists of the "reports from the front," and takes the form of personal anecdotes, witness accounts, photo essays, films — basically any attempt at representing the theater of conflict. Although some of this primary material is canonical — Homer's Illiad relating the Trojan War, Herr's Dispatches on Viet Nam — much of it flies below the radar. And although some of the readings are posted to the syllabus, most of the material will be found by the students. Each week, beginning with Ses #2, our primary readings will be found by student research pairs. Each Tuesday, a different pair will introduce the material they've found for the class on that week's topic. That introduction is a formal, graded, 12 minute presentation. For example, if Research Topic 4 is on the Second Gulf War, and occupies Ses #13, #14, and #15, the two students who selected that topic will find material relevant to the class' discussions: clips from LiveLeak posted by Dronetek, blog posts by Armorgeddon, data based artwork created by The New York Times, video of runs through America's Army, etc. That material will be given to the instructor one week prior to the first topic day. That material will be the basis of class discussion for the three sessions of that topic. On the first day of the topic, the research pair will present the material and explain why they found it compelling.


This course is scheduled to meet 26 times this semester. Other than a loss in the class participation portion of your grade, I levy no additional penalty for up to two absences. Every absence beyond the second will result in your final grade being lowered by a modifier (A to A-, D+ to D). Students are responsible for all material and assignments discussed in class, even if those assignments and readings are not listed on the syllabus. You are responsible for finding out what you missed from your peers, catching up on the relevant material, and completing all assignments in a timely manner.

Course Grades

Three papers (3 x 7 pages) (20% each)60%
Research presentation (10 - 12 minutes)15%
Group project (3 - 4 x pages)15%
Class participation10 %

MIT Literature Statement on Plagiarism

Plagiarism—use of another's intellectual work without acknowledgement—is a serious offense. It is the policy of the Literature Faculty that students who plagiarize will receive an F in the subject, and that the instructor will forward the case to the Committee on Discipline. Full acknowledgement for all information obtained from sources outside the classroom must be clearly stated in all written work submitted. All ideas, arguments, and direct phrasings taken from someone else's work must be identified and properly footnoted. Quotations from other sources must be clearly marked as distinct from the student's own work. For further guidance on the proper forms of attribution, consult the style guides available at the Writing and Communication Center and the MIT Web site on Plagiarism.