Doing Digital Research, Being Digitally Researched

I’m teaching a course this semester that I’ve taught a few times before at WSU but never felt like I really had a solid grasp on what it was supposed to do, until now. The course is Digital Technology and Culture (DTC) 356, “Electronic Research and the Rhetoric of Information.” From what I understand, it began as a course co-taught by folks from the rhetoric faculty and folks from the library, with an emphasis on how to navigate the library’s electronic databases and resources and the increasing interlinking of rhetoric and information technologies in the relatively early days of the World Wide Web. Circumstances have changes substantially since then, both in terms of how undergraduates learn to navigate the digital resources of library databases and the Web and in terms of how the course gets taught and what its emphases are. In the WSU course catalog, its description is as follows:

Social and cultural role of information; research with electronic sources; production, validation, storage, retrieval, evaluation, use, impact of electronic information.

Following some of the guidance and excellent examples of my DTC faculty colleagues (here’s a version from Kristin Arola), I first taught it as something like a contemporary topics and concepts course in WSU’s Digital Technology and Culture major with a focus on the availability and findability of digital information, including units on intellectual property and the politics of search. My adapted course description was as follows:

This class explores the cultural, legal, economic, political, and social roles of information. We will pay particular attention to the ways in which the self and society shape and are shaped by our changing information networks, and we will look at the structures of those networks. We will examine such topics as social and collaborative networking, information retrieval and management, the function of creativity within an information economy, and copyright law. Throughout the course, students will be encouraged to understand the function and limits of rhetoric in an age of information.

While that worked well enough at first, I wasn’t entirely comfortable with it, and

was happy to take a break from teaching it for a while and teach Digital Technology and Culture 375 instead, “Language, Texts, and Technologies,” another core course in the DTC major that focused on historical aspects of the intersections of literacies and digital technologies, from Plato to McLuhan to Bogost, or as the WSU catalog put it:

Relationship between technology and communication; writing practices from a historical point of view.

I did well with that and very much enjoyed making that course my own, with a substantial part of it given over to reading James Gleick’s wonderful The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood and thinking about Turing machines, Borges and “The Library of Babel,” binary multiplication, Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage, poems that compute, Claude Shannon, chatbots and artificial intelligences, Vannevar Bush, and related topics. I try to design it as a fast-paced, dizzying tour of the history of writing and computing technologies, and I always get a kick out of teaching it.

This semester, I was back in the rotation for teaching DTC 356 again, and I knew I’d feel better about teaching it if I took the time to get a perspective on it that felt complete and properly oriented. So I did some substantial reading over the summer, and I looked at the excellent syllabus my WSU Vancouver colleague John Barber had put together, for which the course description is as follows:

DTC 356 Electronic Research and the Rhetoric of Information examines organization of digital information, and how this might influence interaction. Topics include organization theory, information architecture, search engine optimization, and search techniques for digital environments and interfaces. Students read and respond to major works and demonstrate knowledge through digital, multimedia projects.

I liked that, and drew a lot of inspiration from it, especially the parts about organization and architecture, and about SEO and search techniques, but felt like it still wasn’t quite my angle. At the same time, my wife Lauralea has been doing more and more interesting work with big data, first attending the STRATA / Hadoop conference and then being invited to it as a featured speaker, and following the cases of Jason Swartz and Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden has given me a growing sense of alarm. I’ve realized than a regular component of the DTC courses I teach is a focus not only on the promises of digital technologies but on the increasing dangers posed by them. And so my planning this summer took a significantly dystopic turn, to the point where my new course description for DTC 356 is as follows:

This course examines how the social, cultural, legal, economic, and political roles of information relate to research with and on electronic and digital sources and subjects. More specifically, it asks you to examine how research functions in the information age: not only the searches and research that you do, but the research that is done to and on you. That examination investigates possible parallels among academic research, market research, security research, and government surveillance. Course topics include the production, validation, storage, retrieval, evaluation, coding, analysis, use, abuse, and impact of electronic research and digital information.

The boldface type indicates what I think is my shift in emphasis, and I’m quite happy with it. It’s in part a dystopic course (here’s a PDF of the syllabus, with links to a lot of the sometimes scary supplemental readings) that requires students to formulate a data-gathering research project and gives them a quantitative vocabulary to do interesting basic statistical tests on the information they gather while at the same time guiding them through very recent research on our various massive shifts toward omnipresent societal surveillance.

I’ve got some next steps in mind with an eye toward publication, and I’m also wanting to propose an expanded version of this as a graduate seminar.

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Doing Digital Research, Being Digitally Researched

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