Welcome to Handbooks of (Digital) Humanism


Merrill 314, Tuesdays, 2:30-5

Study Hall/Office Hours: Mondays, 2-5 and by appointment

Course Description

Writers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in England were very self-conscious about how they used language: they thought deeply and critically about how, when, and why to use certain kinds of figures, whether common metaphor or less common pyramis (a poem structured like a pyramid).

This class begins from the idea that today’s digital creators employ the same method to control digital media: we too use figures that shape how we think about the possibilities for creation. But most of us are not as self-conscious about these figures: for example, a cloud is diffuse, nebulous, untethered from the physical world. But the cloud is in fact dependent on a series of servers, on the coal that produces the energy to maintain those servers, on the wires that make wireless capabilities possible, etc. This course will explore the humanist rhetorical handbooks of the English literary Renaissance as a means to two ends: one, to better understand the literary production of canonical authors like Shakespeare; and two, to engage with digital humanisms and the rhetoric of digital creativity in the twenty-first century. We juxtapose readings from Renaissance rhetorical handbooks with poetry and essays from that period and with digital humanities scholarship.  As a final project in this course students will produce a digital rhetorical handbook that will account for the internet.


This class will fulfill the pre-1800 requirement and 400-level seminar requirement for English majors.


(available from Amherst Books; all other readings available on the Schedule page)

  • Aristotle, Poetics, trans. Anthony Kenny (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).
  • Sidney’s ‘The Defence of Poesy’ and Selected Renaissance Literary Criticism, ed. Gavin Alexander (London: Penguin Books, 2004).
  • Ben Jonson, The Complete Poems, ed. George Parfitt (Penguin Classics, 1975, 1988)
Statement of Accessibility

Students requiring assistance or appropriate academic accommodations for a disability may contact me after class, during office hours, or by appointment. You must have established your eligibility for disability support services through the appropriate University channels. I also understand, however, that we all have different ways of learning, and that the organization of this course may work well for some but pose issues for others. Please communicate with me as soon as you can about your individual learning needs (registered or not) and how this course can best accommodate them. Do not hesitate to ask me to speak louder or make projections larger.

  • Explorations (20%): Individual.  3 per student over the course of the semester. 1-2 page written explanation (plus example) of 2-3 figures of speech; 1 research question. Posted to course blog; starting point for class discussion.
    • The best explorations will: clearly define the assigned figures based on sources, assigned readings, and/or examples, and propose a research question. Students will be responsible for presenting their research and research questions in their assigned weeks.
  • Progress reports (10%): Group. 2 per semester, one in week 6 and one in week 10
  • Final Project (50%): Group. Students will work in teams to build a handbook to the figures of the internet. Groups may choose to develop either backend or front end content, depending on inclination and ability. Each group will have responsibility for a certain section of the WordPress site, but will complete individual portions of that section.
  • Participation/Attendance (20%): Group/Individual. The success of this course and of your final projects depends on your generous, thoughtful, respectful, and whole-hearted contributions. Each class session will ask you to absorb lectures and discussion of readings, to present your own conclusions about assigned figures, and to work collaboratively with others both in supervised and unsupervised conditions. In each course session we will address your individual concerns related to the final project; the more you bring up the more your classmates and I can help you!

In this class, we will be thinking critically about the uses of technology as we develop our own rhetorical handbook; therefore, laptops in class are a near necessity. I count upon you taking responsibility for your own active learning: this means that you must recognize the correlation between paying attention in class and successfully mastering the course material. Additionally, cell phones are not permitted, and any distracting use of technology (checking Facebook, texting, sexting, shopping on Zappos) will result in you being counted absent for the day.

Further Notes on Technology

Crashes, failures, lost passwords, server errors, slow internet, no printer ink: these are inherent to life in this digital age. They are not an emergency, nor are they an excuse for late work. I encourage you to institute work habits that will mitigate the annoyance these issues cause, such as: always backing up and keeping copies (both physical and digital) of your work; working ahead of deadlines; saving often; or being willing to troubleshoot your device or switch devices entirely. HOWEVER! We will be trying new, exciting, and difficult things in this class, which WILL produce failures, whether on our part or on the part of our technology. Practicing good work habits will prevent devastating losses, and I am here to help you. Asking for help is not weakness; it means you are learning.


I have drawn inspiration for this course from the work of several people who have made their DH syllabi available online, including Jentery Sayers, Johanna Drucker, and Brian Croxall. Jess Waggoner provided me with discussions of classroom accessibility and syllabus best practices. These debts will only grow as I teach this course.


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