Here’s a piece I’ve written for The New Yorker’s Culture Desk about a course I taught last semester at Brown and the interesting research project that emerged from it. First paragraphs below, followed by a jump. Come on back here to comment!
Hacking the Humanities
Last spring, I taught a literature seminar called “Before Wikipedia.” The subject was the history of encyclopedic writing, from ancient times to the present day. We read excerpts of Isidore of Seville’s “Etymologies” and Diderot’s “Encyclopédie” alongside works by Calvino, Sebald, and Flaubert.
The word “Wikipedia” in the course title seemed to attract an unusual preponderance of science majors for a seminar in comparative literature. There were physicists and mathematicians, a cluster of coders, an engineer, a neuroscience major. I teach at Brown, which has an open curriculum that encourages diverse course enrollments, but I’d never found myself in a room with so many young scientists patiently waiting for me to begin a lecture that I wasn’t planning to give.
In my experience, a successful seminar usually involves a mutiny quite early in the semester, when the students take over and my own voice is drowned out by the din of a crowded wheelhouse. This particular seminar’s discussions, however, began awkwardly. The silences I’ve learned to let hang in a classroom seemed unreasonably long. In the first week, I was further unnerved by an odd sound each time I’d turn to write something on the blackboard—the fluent skittering of fingers across twenty laptop keyboards, transcribing my scrawled words as though they’d be on an exam later in the week.