Your work in BookLab will unfold through these major assignments:

1. Discussion Prep

Assignment Overview

Assignment Details

For each week week of class there are readings listed under Core and Penumbra. The core readings are just that: central to the week’s discussion and lab. Everyone should read these closely and prepare to discuss them. The penumbral readings try to capture a broader spectrum of scholarship pertinent to each week’s theme, which I could not require because time is, sadly, finite. Each week you should choose one of the penumbral readings, based on your own interests, to read and be prepared to reference as a means of expanding our conversation together.

To prepare for our discussions, each week you should draft 2-3 substantial questions or critical observations that highlight details of interest from the readings, connect ideas across the week’s readings (or even across different weeks), or probe the boundaries or limitations of the assigned texts.

The goal of this assignment is not to test your knowledge of our readings, but to prompt dialog, so I try not to be prescriptive. In general, however, your discussion prep should:

  1. Get beyond basic questions or observations of fact and instead work toward questions or observations of significance.
  2. Demonstrate close thought about the frameworks of our texts, as well as about the relationships among them.
  3. Emerge from (and refer to) specific ideas, pages, quotations, scenes, &c. from our specific assigned texts rather than broad or generic concepts.
  4. Genuinely open toward discussion and debate during class (i.e. no leading the witness, your honor).
  5. I would add to these one more, which I do not require but which I always encourage: Engage with our texts through a spirit of generous thinking. I try to include a range of perspectives in our readings, and you will certainly disagree with some ideas in some of them. I assign a number of articles with which I disagree, because they articulate ideas I believe worthy of serious consideration! As we read and discuss together, we will find many opportunities for critique, so I would encourage you to work first toward understanding and contextualization—to pause, just a moment, when you feel that first impulse toward deconstruction to consider whether you are reading generously or suspiciously, and whether the mode you have chosen is in fact the right one for the rhetorical moment.

Particularly in a graduate class, students can be tempted to write 3 lengthy paragraphs, but I strongly urge you to stick to 3 well developed sentences, either declarative (an observation) or interrogative (a question).


Assignment Overview

Assignment Details

Over the first two weeks of the semester, you will pick a work—perhaps literary, perhaps not—that you are interested in getting to know very well. Ideally one edition—or more!—of your work will be held in the UIUC Rare Books & Manuscripts Library. Throughout the semester, you will conduct ongoing research into the material and social history of your work using both physical and digital archives, and contribute short, regular reports in which you relate its history to our weekly course themes and labs.

Adopting a Book

There are a few rules for picking your work:

  1. Your job in this assignment will be easier if you pick a work with a history, rather than something published in the past few years. Essentially, you want a work with a long enough history—multiple influences, editors, owners, editions, adaptations, acquisitions, and/or other cultural manifestations—that you will have lots to write about, and many ways to apply our course ideas to it.
  2. I use “work” here rather than “book” because while I suspect most of you will choose things that are books, capaciously conceived, I am open to works that might trouble the edges of that definition. And indeed things that are in one version books might also have been published serially in periodicals, or in an interactive digital CD-ROM version in the 1990s, or re-imagined as a tv show or video game. We will talk about media and remediation in this class and so your work can explore those boundaries.
  3. Your work also should have editions published in the “print to programming” era. It’s okay to choose a work first produced before the periods covered in our class, but the social life of the work should extend into the periods studied in our class. So a medieval manuscript that was never published in print or digitized might not work, but a work that began its cultural life as a manuscript but was then remediated through multiple editions in the print to programming eras could work well.
  4. Avoid works whose material histories scholars have already studied to an exhaustive extent. You may be very interested in Hamlet, but it might be difficult to find new things to say about its material or cultural histories. Fortunately, there are lots of books out there (literally millions) that have received little, if any, scholarly attention from book historians, bibliographers, or digital humanists. A good many of these went through multiple editions in previous generations, even if they have not become canonical in ours.
  5. If you are interested in books as data, you might make sure that your book has been digitized, and perhaps remediated into multiple digital editions (e.g. digitized images available through a collection such as HathiTrust, text data available for text mining). Even better if there are multiple digitizations you can compare.
  6. I advise you to consult with me as you decide on a work. I reserve the right to ask you to switch—even after your first report—if your chosen work seems unlikely to lead to a successful assignment. I would much prefer—and I suspect you would much prefer—to have these discussions before you have invested significant time in research or writing.

Book Reports

As the semester progresses, you will use our readings, class discussions, archival visits, labs, and independent research to slowly unfold a history of your chosen book. You should think about these reports as an ongoing, incremental research paper. You will complete six reports in total.

Your reports will have three objectives:

  1. First, you should use them to reflect on our readings and discussions, and develop your own preliminary arguments in response. You should reference our readings regularly and directly, with citations in the style of your choice.
  2. Second, your reports should reference your chosen work, and expand your analysis of it in light of a specific week’s themes. Sometimes a week’s themes will suggest comparisons with the history of your work, and other times our themes might suggest contrasts. Sometimes you might reflect on the structure and form of your work, sometimes on its content, or sometimes on related works in its genre or format. Not every word of every report must directly reference your chosen work, but it should serve to anchor your thoughts. I expect you will be able to relate any week’s ideas to just about any chosen work. If you are struggling with doing so, however, please do come chat with me during office hours.
  3. Finally, your reports should reflect analytically on our work in the given week’s Book Lab, connecting theory with praxis. Each week I will write a brief prompt about the lab, which you can use as a launching point. With your chosen work as a fulcrum, your reports should use our readings and discussions to contextualize our applied work in laboratories, use our applied work in laboratories to enrich our understanding of concepts from our readings, and use both lab and readings to expand our understanding of your work’s social, political, or artistic histories.


There are no specific due dates tied to your Book Reports. You should choose weeks in which the themes particularly speak to you—or in which the themes have particular relevance to your chosen work—to inspire reports. However, there are a few logistical requirements to ensure that you manage your time effectively and, frankly, to ensure that I am able to provide regular feedback.

  1. First, you may not submit more than one report in a given week, so you should plan for staged submissions rather than clustering them together.
  2. Second, you must submit at least three reports before spring break (March 11) to ensure that your work does not cluster at the end of the semester, which will help both you and me succeed this term.
  3. You should write and share your work in an accessible online location, such as a Github repository or a Google Drive folder. Please share the link with me so I can keep up with your work and ensure you are meeting the deadlines outlined in #2.
  4. There is a Canvas assignment through which you should share the URL where you are publishing your reports.

Textual Technology Experiment

Assignment Overview

Assignment Details

Finally, once during the semester you will conduct your own experiment with textual technologies or media. In brief, you will either extend your work with one of our lab technologies, bring together multiple modalities from our labs, or even introduce a textual technology or medium we were unable to explore in class. Your goal will be to delve more deeply into a particular book technology or medium than we can in 90 minutes, gain a more robust understanding of the scholarly literature touching on that technology or medium, and produce a materially-engaged analysis. Your experiments should, like our labs, bring together theory and praxis and be engaged with material texts, capaciously construed.

I encourage enthusiasm and risk taking in these experiments. You may choose your topics and technologies at your own discretion, and complete your experiments on your own calendar, though I would not recommend putting your experiment off until the end of the semester. You may also collaborate on these experiments if you and a colleague want to explore a similar technology.