Design and DH in the Media Studies Classroom

Cinema Journal Teaching Dossier
DH and Media Studies Crossovers Vol. 3(3)
Grant Wythoff
Columbia University

In the Spring of 2014, I worked with a group of Columbia University undergraduates to tackle the question of what happens when readers move from the page to the screen. This advanced seminar on “Screen Reading” drew from a number of disciplines, including media theory and digital humanities (DH) with some forays into book history, bibliographic criticism, archaeology and media theory. Each of these fields offers a very different set of lenses for understanding technology’s relationship to culture. Toggling from one to the next, however, presented a challenge for a group of English majors unfamiliar with focusing exclusively on “secondary” sources about textual interfaces, largely independent of any “primary” literary text conveyed by those platforms. In the end, we found that rubrics borrowed from the field of design studies best knit together these diverse approaches in a way that left us with insights on the status of reading in the digital age that were informed by the deep history of reading practices.

The impetus for this issue of the Cinema Journal Teaching Dossier is the idea that while DH and media studies share many of the same motivating questions and research assumptions, scholars in these two disciplines are only just beginning to sense their points of overlap. Take for example the media theorist Bernhard Siegert’s description of his discipline, which since the 1980s has understood changes in cultural and intellectual history to be products of “inconspicuous techniques of knowledge like card indexes, media of pedagogy like the slate, discourse operators like quotation marks, uses of the phonograph in phonetics, or techniques of forming the individual like teaching to read and write” (Siegert 2011). DH, a community of practice engaged in building their own “techniques of knowledge”, similarly encourages us to think about the way that today’s increasingly ubiquitous research tools like relational databases, digitized texts, and the keyword search all structure our understanding of and relationship to the past.

This very brief article is meant to provide the reader with a sense of how design can serve as a particularly helpful “bridging concept” for teachers looking to align the concerns of media studies and DH. Though I can only provide here an overview of the rubrics we used in one particular lab session, the entire course (including syllabus, assignments, student blog posts, and readings) is available online via GitHub at

GitHub is a version control system primarily used in software development, a means of keeping many different programmers on the same page when collaborating on a project. Recently, GitHub has been taken up by humanities researchers in the service of collaborative writing, hosting and updating live syllabi, and even collaboratively editing digital editions. This is of course the subject for another article entirely. But suffice it here to say that for those interested in learning more about creating your own open access courseware through GitHub, the standard starting place is Brian Croxall’s Forking Your Syllabus, with follow up how-to posts by Lincoln Mullen and Dave Perry. For learning GitHub in general, I suggest Julie Meloni’s “A Gente Introduction to Version Control” or, for the more adventurous, Scott Chacon and Ben Straub’s Pro Git.

The idea for this course came while teaching a group of high school students who read their assignments using a wide variety of platforms: long essays scrolling across smart phones, newspaper articles read on school library CRT screens, short stories printed out and folded into makeshift bindings. The differences in these experiences frequently wormed their way into our conversations, as the students were often left frustrated by something they couldn’t quite articulate about the interface. Whenever I suggested an “imaginary” technology that might solve some of the problems the students had with their reading experiences — five bookmarks that could be instantly and seamlessly toggled between, recall not just of a passage but the location and context of that passage on the page, a physical object that remained as a token of the text just read — they seemed to light up before realizing that these were all affordances of the book.

What kinds of assumptions, I wondered, were hard coded in the way we read on screens that have been inherited from the book? And, on the other hand, what new forms of literacy descend from our digital devices that exceed all of our previous, culturally conditioned expectations? The structuring question of the course on Screen Reading was thus whether or not we accept the idea that a change in format can have dramatic effects on the ways we read. In order to better understand the “newness” of digital media, we explored the history of reading practices from Renaissance humanism to machine reading. The materiality of literature has been emphasized in different ways throughout academic book history: from the importance of the book as a unit of knowledge production to the instabilities of textuality across print, manuscript, and XML versions. But in this class, I wanted to be able to draw on our own everyday practices with screens. So, we set out not only to apply historical practices to contemporary interfaces, but also to use the intuitive, embodied sense of the text we get as users of screens in order to understand our distance from this historical past.

Studies in interface design provided us with a lexicon for describing this otherwise ephemeral quality of everyday user experience, and challenged us to be hands-on in our approach to questions of history and aesthetics. During one lab session at Columbia’s Studio@Butler we performed a series of user tests on four online textual annotation platforms: SocialBook, produced by the Institute for the Future of the Book, MIT Hyperstudio’s Annotation Studio, the lyrics annotation site Rap Genius, and Prism, developed at the University of Virginia Scholars’ Lab. The two rubrics that guided us were the semiotic engineering theory of human-computer interaction (HCI) as outlined by Clarisse Sieckenius de Souza and Jakob Nielsen’s usability heuristics.

Figure 1: Annotation Studio by MIT Hyperstudio

Figure 1: Annotation Studio by MIT Hyperstudio

The lab assignment sheet is available here.

As de Souza describes it, the semiotic engineering theory of HCI views interactive computer systems as

one-shot messages sent from designers to users. Through the system’s interface, in many direct and indirect ways, designers are telling the users how they can, should, or must interact with the system in order to achieve a particular range of goals anticipated at design time (Souza 2005).

Figure 2: SocialBook, by Institute for the Future of the Book

Figure 2: SocialBook, by Institute for the Future of the Book

So, the main focus of the lab is to ask of each annotation interface, who does it think we are? These different platforms variously address their user as author, reader, editor, designer, and admin. One, Rap Genius, restricts itself to the male pronoun. I asked students to think about the lexicon each interface made available to us for interacting with the text: comment, add note, save, underline, etc. Jakob Nielsen’s ten usability heuristics aided in this process by providing us with questions on how the system makes us aware of what it’s doing as we use it (Nielsen 1994). So, when something goes wrong (perhaps a note isn’t saved where the user expected it, as often happened with the first version of Annotation Studio) how does the system help or allow the user to recover? What “real-world conventions” do the interfaces draw upon in allowing the user to interact with the text, and why were certain conventions selected over others?

Figure 3: Prism, designed by University of Virginia Scholars’ Lab

Figure 3: Prism, designed by University of Virginia Scholars’ Lab

While the “semiotic perspective is particularly attractive for HCI because it underlies the fact that every computer artifact necessarily introduces new signs or sign systems in its users’ universe” (Souza 2005), many of the sign systems available to readers of electronic texts are borrowed from preexisting iconographies. So, one task of the lab is to pay attention to how technologies of literacy like scrolling, bookmarking, page, index, tab, and bookshelf all become metaphors in the digital age. A systematic approach to the interface allows us to ask whether there are any traces of these original tools and techniques in their metaphorical afterlives.

Figure 4:  Rap Genius

Figure 4: Rap Genius

By emphasizing the design decisions that went into old and new technologies of reading in their conversations and writing assignments, students in this class were able to historicize and conceptualize their roles as users of interfaces that are embedded with particular assumptions about value and usability. Engaging with these concepts from design was an experiment in coming to specific terms with the present as a means of understanding the past. I imagine that many more such experiments are possible in media studies and DH curricula, and would love to hear from teachers working on similar projects.



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