ENGL 200 F: Reading Literary Forms

Alien Minds: Poetics and Mathematics from Print Media to Artificial Intelligence

Meeting Time: 
MW 2:30pm - 4:20pm
AND 008
Aaron Ottinger

Syllabus Description:

Engl 200G: Alien Minds: Poetics and Mathematics from Print Media to Artificial Intelligence  

Meets: MW 2:30-4:20pm AND 008

Instructor: Dr. Aaron Ottinger, ajo3@uw.edu,

Office: Padelford B-415

Office Hours: MW 4:30-5:30pm or by appointment


This course is largely a study of the co-evolution of human consciousness and media, or what Katherine Hayles calls “technogenesis.” While we may not think of ink and paper, books, or literary texts as “technology,” one of the aims of this course is to rethink what counts as a technical object. Moreover, students will explore how our engagement with these various objects alters or determines how we know what we think we know. It is an important inquiry because, throughout the course of one’s day, it might seem that the brain is plugged into a mishmash of different media from different times and places, which requires one to ask, “how much of my mind actually mine?” Is there such a thing as a stable self if it is constantly plugging into, interacting with, and even embodying other ideas, voices, and rhythms? In an academic version of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” we will ask if we are already alien to ourselves, how so, and so what?


In an attempt to answer these questions, this class will focus primarily on the long eighteenth century. The long eighteenth century (roughly mid-1660s to mid-1830s) represents the proliferation of new mathematics (calculus, probability, non-Euclidean geometries), the appearance of data visualization (time lines), and most important for our purposes, mathematical approaches to psychology (associationism), much of which has been analyzed recently in conjunction with literature by critics such as Alice Jenkins, Rachel Feder, and Matthew Wickman. Parallel to these developments in mathematics and psychology, literary authors like Margaret Cavendish, Laurence Sterne, William Wordsworth, and Mary Shelley were also deeply invested in the idea that consciousness could be represented. But if artworks are also mathematical in ways similar to the fundamental underpinnings of consciousness, then perhaps a literary work could do more than merely entertain its audience. Indeed, the central claim of this course is that during the long eighteenth century, select authors began to exploit the possibility that language, specifically literary discourse, could function as a medium for intervening on (and thus changing) thoughts, emotions, and ultimately the self. If we could formulate this idea into a maxim, it might go like this: people do not think anew and therefore produce different literary texts; on the contrary, people encounter different literary texts and therefore think anew.


To put things in perspective, the course also functions as a map, drawing connections across time, from eighteenth-century print media to twenty-first-century digital media. The purpose behind this long history (really, it’s quite short!) is to better understand the epistemological impact of texts: How have texts altered what we think we know? By examining texts from different times and places by authors of varying backgrounds, we might bring into sharper focus exactly how texts have shaped the thoughts and feelings of readers in particular time periods—and thus, how human consciousness(es) have changed materially and fundamentally in the last four centuries.


Required Texts (in order of reading):


Module I: Alien Narratives: Reorganizing Knowledge


  • Sterne, Laurence. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. Oxford, 2009 [1759-67].
  • Sousanis, Nick. Unflattening. Harvard, 2015.


Module II: Alien Landscapes: Ecology of Reading, Shape, and the Power of Numbers


  • Coleridge, Samuel Taylor and William Wordsworth. Lyrical Ballads 1798 and 1800. Edited by Michael Gamer and Dahlia Porter. Broadview, 2008.
  • Horowitz, Eli, Kevin Moffett, and Matthew Derby, The Silent History.


Module III: Alien Adaptations: Monsters, Automatons, and Artificial Intelligence  


  • Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. Edited by Paul Hunter. Norton, 2012.
  • Kearny, Douglas. The Black Automaton. Fence, 2009.

Additional primary sources, as well as secondary reading materials, will be distributed in class and made available on our class’ Modules page on Canvas.

Course Outcomes


  • Students will develop and demonstrate an understanding of select literary concepts and devices—from narrative structures to metrical verse—through in-class discussions and written assignments.


  • Students will acquire an in-depth understanding of media and media theory, and how various media work together to determine human thoughts, feelings, relationships and the self.


  • Students will engage with and practice adaptation as a mode of accessing, critiquing, and preserving texts—but also making new ones.


  • Students will improve their academic writing skills, with particular focus on rhetorical decisions and effects.




60% Major Assignments

20% Adaptation Project and Presentation

10% Participation

10% In-class Reflections


This class has been designed to meet “W-Course Criteria,” and requires no special arrangement on the part of the student. According to the university: “A W course must require 10-15 pages of graded, out-of-class writing, in the form of a longer paper plus a revision or two or more short papers.”


Major Assignment 1: Alien Narratives (100 points/30%)

The first major assignment is an inquiry into the role of medium and narrative in determining how we think and/or what we know, by way of analyzing Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. Students will engage with a primary text (Sterne) in conversation with a contemporary artifact discussed in class (Nick Sousanis’ Unflattening), as well as secondary materials from class. Additional research is not required. Essays will be 5-7 double-spaced pages (roughly around 1,500 words) to meet the W credit, and should follow MLA style formatting (see the Online Writing Lab [OWL] for instructions). Students will receive numerical scores and qualitative feedback, including praise, suggestions for development, and questions for future research.    

Major Assignment 2: Alien Landscapes (100 points/30%)

The second major assignment is a creative, multimodal, non-fiction essay on the relationship between place and self. Students will engage with a primary text (one or two of Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads) and secondary texts assigned in class. Additional research is not required. Students will be asked to create a conversation between a Wordsworth poem on the relationship between a place and self and an artifact of the student’s creation, namely a photograph (or series of photographs) of place(s) that impact the student’s day to day thoughts and feelings. To meet the W credit, this essay will be 5-7 pages (or around 1,500 words) to meet the W credit, and should follow MLA style formatting (see the Online Writing Lab [OWL] for instructions). Students will receive numerical scores and qualitative feedback, including praise, suggestions for development, and questions for future research.    

Adaptation Project and Presentation (100 points/20%)

Following MA1 and MA2, students will explore the world of media adaptations by designing a contemporary version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Students will work in groups and will have the freedom to design and/or build (depending on the level of complexity) any artifact of their choosing. Consider, what will be the role of mathematics in your adaptation? How is your adaptation performative and/or poetic? And how will this combination attract a contemporary audience? On the final day of class, students will present their artifacts. During presentations, groups will have the opportunity to present their project, explain their decisions, and answer classmates’ questions. Projects will be graded by the instructor (70%) and peers (30%), based on several criteria. The purpose of the project is to learn new methods for engaging with literary forms; to understand the theory of adaptation and the production of artworks; and to consider how altering the medium of a work can alter the audience’s reading experience.

Participation (10%):

Students are expected to attend all classes prepared to discuss assigned readings with partners, in small groups, and/or as a class. Unexcused absences will result in one-half percentage point reduction from your participation grade (so every two absences equals 1% deducted from the overall class grade). Ten absences will result in a zero for participation. Attendance is taken at the start of each class. Late students are responsible for informing the instructor of their presence.

In-class Reflections (10%)

In-class reflections are short, low-stakes, written assignments to be completed for the purpose of encouraging discussion in small groups and as a class, but also to give students the opportunity to meditate on a question and answer in their own private fashion. Students will receive full credit so long as they attempt to answer the prompt’s question. Students absent on the day of an in-class reflection automatically lose the point for that assignment. In-class reflections will be collected before the end of each class and graded for completion only. These assignments do not count towards the W-credit. 

With the exception of in-class writing and the final Major Assignment 2, all assignments should be submitted electronically via Canvas. Each assignment will have its own rubric according to the course outcomes it targets. Students will receive numerical scores and qualitative feedback.

Grade Scale

Percentage Earned 

Grade-Point Equivalent

Letter-Grade Equivalent





















B / B+












B / B-









C / C+























C- / D+



et cetera

Late Work:

Each assignment will have a prompt available under Modules in Canvas. Deadlines for each assignment will be clearly marked in the prompt. Once the deadline has passed for an assignment, submissions will no longer be granted and the student will have to discuss the matter with the instructor. Late papers lose one point per day.

Plagiarism / Academic Dishonesty:

Plagiarism, or academic dishonesty, is a form of misrepresentation; it is the act of presenting a different author’s ideas or writing as your own.

Plagiarism includes the following:

  • failing to cite sources
  • failing to cite sources of paraphrased material
  • failing to cite sources of specific language and/or passages, i.e. quotes.
  • submitting someone else’s work as your own, i.e. substantial parts or the whole essay are written by someone other than the student

If you are unsure what plagiarism is or how to cite materials, please see the instructor or read the pages on “plagiarism” and “summarizing, quoting, and paraphrasing” at the Online Writing Lab (OWL). Because some cases of plagiarism follow from innocent confusion, if I suspect that material has been plagiarized, first the student will meet with me to discuss the matter in person. To receive credit, the student will have to re-write the assignment following proper MLA style formatting. As for the grade, the same policy regarding late work will apply (above).

If the problem persists, the student will receive a zero for the assignment and the incident will be reported to the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. Please review the College’s policy here: http://depts.washington.edu/grading/pdf/FacultyInfo.pdf (Links to an external site.)

Commitment to Diversity, Emotional and Intellectual Growth, and Future Applications

Because it is the aim of this course to include a wide array of views, students of color and minority students are especially encouraged to speak in class, ask questions, and lead group discussions. Some views expressed in class may conflict with students’ beliefs and values. While discussions of race, gender, and sexuality especially may challenge students’ personal perspectives, please bear in mind that all materials in this course are intended to challenge personal perspectives. So if the goal in this class is to grow intellectually and emotionally, students (and the instructor) are expected to question the limitations of their personal histories “to make room” for the personal experiences of others.

But the path to emotional and intellectual growth may not be won merely by challenging one’s own personal beliefs and values. To embrace new ideas, skills, and values for future use in different contexts, we must also conduct personal investigations that ask why our views are being challenged in the first place. Ultimately, this course is not intended to merely increase our knowledge of a list of terms, but more importantly to alter the fundamental ways in which we understand ourselves and our relationships to others (people and non-human things).


Additional Resources

If you would like help with your writing outside of class, you can visit CLUE, The Center For Learning and Undergraduate Enrichment, located in Mary Gates Hall Commons and open Sunday though Thursday from 7:00 p.m. to midnight. No appointment is necessary for CLUE. See their website, http://depts.washington.edu/clue/ for more information.


If you have a registered disability that requires accommodation, please see me immediately. If you have a disability and have not yet registered it with the UW Disability Service Office, please contact DSO at (206) 543-8925 or via their website, http://www.washington.edu/admin/dso/. I will do my best to provide appropriate accommodations for you.


Module I: Alien Narratives: Reorganizing Knowledge


Module I: Alien Narratives: Reorganizing Knowledge



Date, Skills, and Concepts


Texts Covered

Assignments and Due Dates

Week 1: 3/27

No class







of Mathematics

Meet and Greet: “Goals and Expectations”


Discuss Syllabus



Read: “Of Many Worlds in This World”


Discuss: Representational Artworks


Margaret Cavendish, “Of Many Worlds in This World”

Read: Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (TS) vol. 1 and 2


Eric Lindstrom, Romantic Fiat (excerpt)






Week 2: 4/3









In-class Inquiry:

Is Tristram Shandy a representational or performative artwork?


In-class Inquiry:

How is TS a mathematical text?


Writing Workshop: Writing a body paragraph




Sterne’s TS


Eric Lindstrom’s Romantic Fiat (excerpt)


James Loxley, Performativity (excerpt)


Euclid’s Elements (excerpt)


Finish TS vol. 2


Read: Alex Wetmore, Men of Feeling in Eighteenth-Century Literature: Touching Fiction (excerpt)


Read Levi Bryant, “Deleuze: What is Called Thinking?” (blogpost)







Digital Humanities

Define: Narrative


In-Class Inquiry: What is the role of Digressions in Narrative?


Lecture: “Digital Humanities: Literary History Mathematized”


In-Class Activity: Textual Analysis of TS using Voyant




Discuss MA1: Alien



Sterne’s TS vol. 2


Jeffrey Williams, “Narrative of Narrative (Tristram Shandy)


Bryant’s “Deleuze: What is Called Thinking?” (blogpost)


Wetmore’s Men of Feeling in Eighteenth-Century Literature (excerpt)


Moretti’s Maps, Graphs, and Trees (excerpt)



Read TS, vol. 3 (skip vol. 4) and vol. 5



Read Nicholas Carr, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” (optional)





Week 3: 4/10







Define: Medium


In-class activity: Hot and Cool Media


In-class Inquiry: “How Do We Know What We Know:  Tristrapedia and Wikipedia


Writing Workshop: Integrating Evidence: quotes, paraphrases, and figures (MLA style formatting)



Sterne’s TS vol. 3 and 5


Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media (excerpt)


Carr, “Is Google Making Us Stupid”


Lupton, Knowing Books, “Artificially Intelligent Books” (excerpt)

Read TS vol. 6









Define: Associationism



Writing Workshop: Introductions, Reverse Outlines, and Conclusions



Sterne’s TS vol. 6


Walter Ong, “Psyche and the Geometers” (excerpt)


Chinmoy Banerjee, “Tristram Shandy and the Association of Ideas” (excerpt)



Read Nick Sousanis’ Unflattening




Week 4: 4/17




Visual Media

In-Class Activity: “Grids and Gestures”


In-Class Inquiry: How are images/gestures mathematical?


In-Class Activity: “Reading Tristram Shandy through Unflattening



Writing Workshop: Reverse Outlines Peer-review


Sousanis’s Unflattening


Sousanis’ “Grids and Gestures” (excerpt)









In-class Inquiry:

“Narrative vs. Database”


Concluding Module I: “Poiesis: Past, Present, and Future”


Writing Workshop: Peer-Reviewing Introductions


Writing Workshop:

Talking through MA1

Sousanis’ Unflattening


Katherine Hayles’ How We Think (excerpt)


Giorgio Agamben’s The Man Without Content (excerpt)

Read: William Wordsworth, “Expostulation and Reply,” “The Tables Turned,” and “Tintern Abbey”





Module II: Alien Landscapes: Ecology of Reading, Shape, and the Power of Numbers


Week 5: 4/24






Space, Place, and the

“Lyric I”




The Power of


Lecture: Spatial Determination of the Self and the “Lyric I”


Define: Apostrophe


In-class Inquiry:

The Logic of Poetry: Indemonstrable Principles vs. the hic et nunc


In-class Activity: The Power of Numbers: Reading Poetry Metrically


Class Inquiry: What is the role of meter in the medium?


Wordsworth’s “Expostulation and Reply,” “The Tables Turned,” and “Tintern Abbey”


Matthew Wickman’s Literature after Euclid (excerpt)

Scott Brewster's Lyric (excerpt)


Read Wordsworth, “The Brothers”


Read Alice Jenkins, Space and the ‘March of the Mind’ (excerpt)



Ecology of Reading: Media, Shapes, and Associations [cont.]

Define: Ecology of Reading


Class Inquiry:

How does Associationism intersect with Landscape Poetry?



Discuss MA2: Spatial Construction of the Self

Wordsworth’s “The Brothers”


Water Ong’s Ramus: Method and the Decay of Dialogue (excerpt)


Jenkins’ Space and the ‘March of the Mind’ (excerpt)


Posthumus and Sinclair’s “Reading Environment(s): Digital Humanities meets Ecocriticism” (excerpt)

Due MA1, April 29th





Week 6: 5/1



Reading/ Place/Self




In-Class Inquiry: Ecology of Reading: How do the text, place, and self interact? What are the limits of "the book"?

In-class Activity: Media Experiment: Sensory Limits and Enhancements


Eli Horowitz, Kevin Moffett, and Matthew Derby’s The Silent History

Andy Clark's Natural-Born Cyborgs (excerpt)





Guest Lecturers: Elena Chernock and Jen Smoose


In-class Activity: Connecting Place and Self through Digital Photography




Read Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, vol. 1


Watch/Read Brassier’s “Prometheanism and Its Critics”


Module III: Alien Adaptations: Monsters, Automatons, and Artificial Intelligence 



Week 7: 5/8



Definition: Prometheanism


Shelley’s Frankenstein, vol. 1


Ray Brassier’s “Prometheanism and Its Critics”

Read Shelley, Frankenstein, vol. 2



The Sublime


Definition: the Sublime


Shelley’s Frankenstein, vol. 2


Kant’s Critique of Power of Judgment (excerpt)

Read Shelley, Frankenstein, vol. 3



Week 8: 5/15



Shelley’s Frankenstein, vol. 3


Kearny’s The Black Automaton




Read Gideon Lewis-Kraus, “The Great AI Awakening” in The New York Times Magazine, Dec. 14, 2016




Ada Lovelace’s Sketch of the Analytical Machine (excerpt)


Gideon Lewis-Kraus’ “The Great AI Awakening”





Week 9: 5/22



 Due: MA2, May 23rd at 10am










Week 10: 5/29

No class in honor of Memorial Day







Final Reflections

Final Presentations

Due extra credit assignment 6/2

Due final reflective writing assignment 6/2


Week 11: Finals Week











Catalog Description: 
Covers techniques and practice in reading and enjoying literature in its various forms: poetry, drama, prose fiction, and film. Examines such features of literary meanings as imagery, characterization, narration, and patterning in sound and sense. Offered: AWSp.
GE Requirements: 
Visual, Literary, and Performing Arts (VLPA)
Writing (W)
Last updated: 
January 10, 2018 - 10:01pm