Syllabus: The Computerized Society—A Cultural History of the Computer in the US

fall 2018 @ middlebury college.

Course Overview

The scenario of the computerization of the most highly developed societies allows us to spotlight…certain aspects of the transformation of knowledge and its effects on public power and civil institutions—effects it would be difficult to perceive from other points of view. —Jean-Francois Lyotard,The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, 1979

What theorist Jean-Francois Lyotard called “the computerized society” turns out to be about far more than just machines. Technological developments are inextricably linked to other factors: culture, politics, economics, war, identity, race, class, gender, the law, region. In this course, we take an American studies approach to the history of the modern computer to grasp its history—and therefore its present significance. Students encounter a wide range of sources, maintain weekly reading journals, and complete three analytic essays that begin with creative prompts to generate compelling historical interpretations of technology and its contextualized importance in America and the world; additionally, they have the opportunity to explore digital modes and tactics of historical analysis in the course. Class meetings feature both multimedia presentations by the professor and extensive discussion and conversation—a hybrid of lecture and seminar approaches. With materials assigned for the course, students explicitly practice the skill of navigating a large body of material; you are not expected to memorize every word, but rather to develop your capacity to process large amounts of information in order to locate key evidence, arguments, and perspectives and wield those effectively in constructing your own evidence-based historical interpretations. Evaluation for this course uses a customized version of specifications grading in which the students choose the levels at which they wish to work in the course.

Overall Course Objectives & Learning Goals

  • Acquire a deeper historical and cultural understanding of the computer’s significance in American life.
  • Make interdisciplinary connections between history of technology, cultural history, film and media studies, and other approaches to the topic of the computer.
  • Expand capability to process evidence, information, and arguments from written and visual sources as well as classroom lectures and discussions.
  • Sharpen ability to make convincing, compelling, and original evidence-based arguments in dialogue with the interpretations made by others.
  • Improve ability to move from initial encounter with too much material through steps of skimming, registering elements of interest and relevance, positioning materials in existing conversations and debates, and refining analysis of elements into an evidence-driven position and interpretation of one’s own.
  • Increase capabilities in discussing the history of the computer, including skills of listening and speaking; linking your comment to a prior comment constructively; and debating topics using evidence in frank but civil tones.
  • Exposure to or advancement in skills of using digital software and media tools (digital journaling, film editing, sound editing, text-mining analysis, visualization, design thinking) for humanistic analysis and communication.


Tu 09/11 Introduction: The Computerized Society

Required Material:

·     The Syllabus

·      Roy Rosenzweig, “Wizards, Bureaucrats, Warriors, and Hackers: Writing the History of the Internet,” American Historical Review 103, 5 (December 1998), 1530-1552

·      Raymond Williams, “The Technology and the Society” (1974), in Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort, eds., The New Media Reader (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2003), 289-300

·      James W. Cortada, “Studying History As It Unfolds, Part 1: Creating the History of Information Technologies,” IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 37, 3 (July-September 2015), 20-31

·      James W. Cortada, “Studying History As It Unfolds, Part 2: Tooling Up the Historians,” IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 38, 1 (January-March 2016), 48-59

·      Timeline of Computer History, Computer History Museum

Th 09/13 Introduction 2: Early Adventures in Programmability

Required Material:

·      Ceruzzi, 1-21

·      The Machine That Changed the World documentary film, dir. Nancy Linde (1992), Part 1, “Giant Brains”

·      David Suisman, “Sound, Knowledge, and the ‘Immanence of Human Failure’: Rethinking Musical Mechanization through the Phonograph, the Player-Piano, and the Piano,” Social Text 28, 1 (2010): 13–34

·      Alan Turing, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” (1950), in The New Media Reader, 49-64

Su 09/16, midnight. Research Journal Due: Syllabus, Google Doc on Canvas, midnight.
Tu 09/18 Digital Trajectories: The Computer and World War II

Required Material:

·      Ceruzzi, 23-53

·      The Machine That Changed the World documentary film, dir. Nancy Linde (1992), Part 2, “Inventing the Future”

·      Paul N. Edwards, “Why Build Computers? The Military Role in Computer Research,” in The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996), 42-73

·      Norbert Wiener, “Men, Machines, and the World About” (1954), in The New Media Reader, 65-72


·      Peter Galison, “The Ontology of the Enemy: Norbert Wiener and the Cybernetic Vision,” Critical Inquiry 21, 1 (Autumn 1994), 228-266

Th 09/20 Gender and the Early Computer

Required Material:

·      Jennifer Light, “When Computers Were Women,” Technology and Culture 40, 3 (1999): 455-483

·      W. Barkley Fritz, “The Women of ENIAC,” IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 18, 3 (1996), 13-28

·      William F. Vogel, “‘The Spitting Image of a Woman Programmer’: Changing Portrayals of Women in the American Computing Industry, 1958-1985,” IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 39, 1 (July 2017), 49-64

·      Maya Wei-Haas, “The True Story of “Hidden Figures,” the Forgotten Women Who Helped Win the Space Race,”, 8 September 2016

·      Hidden Figures, dir. Theodore Melfi (2016)


·      Nathan Ensmenger, “The Black Art of Programming,” in The Computer Boys Take Over: Computers, Programmers, and the Politics of Technical Expertise, 27-49

·      Elaine Showalter, “The Brilliance of the Women Code Breakers of World War II,” Washington Post, 6 October 2017

·      Rhaina Cohen, “What Programming’s Past Reveals About Today’s Gender-Pay Gap,” The Atlantic, 7 September 2016

Su 09/23, midnight. Research Journal Due, Google Doc on Canvas, midnight.
Tu 09/25 The Cold War’s Electronic Battlefield

Required Material:

·      Ceruzzi, 54-80

·      Paul Edwards, “‘We Defend Every Place’: Building the Cold War World,” and “Sage” in The Closed World, 1-41, 74-111

·      Andrew Meade McGee, “Computerizing America: Presidents, Business, and Politics in a Digital Age,” in The American President and Capitalism Since 1945, eds. Roger Biles and Mark Rose (University of Florida Press, 2017), 207-228

·      JCR Licklider, “Man-Computer Symbiosis,” The Transaction of Human Factors in Electronics (March, 1960), 4-11, in The New Media Reader, 73-82

·      Dr. Strangelove, or How I Stopped Worrying And Learned to Love the Bomb, dir. Stanley Kubrick (1964)

Th 09/27 Open – Discussion
Su 09/30, midnight. Research Journal Due, Google Doc on Canvas, midnight.
Mo 10/01 Essay 01 hypothesis/outline due, upload to Canvas by 11:59pm.
Tu 10/02 The Cold War and the Democratic Personality

Required Material:

·      Fred Turner, “The Cold War and the Democratic Personality,” in The Democratic Surround: Multimedia and American Liberalism from World War II to the Psychedelic Sixties (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 151-180

·      Marshall McLuhan, “The Medium is the Message” (1964, from Understanding Media) and “The Galaxy Reconfigured or the Plight of Mass Man in an Individualist Society (1969, from The Gutenberg Galaxy), The New Media Reader, 193-210


·      Donna J. Drucker, “Keying Desire: Alfred Kinsey’s Use of Punched-Card Machines for Sex Research,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 22, 1 (January 2013), 105-125

·      2001: A Space Odyssey, dir. Stanley Kubrick (1968)

Th 10/04 Automation and Its Discontents

Required Material:

·      Ceruzzi, 81-103

·      Vannevar Bush, “As We May Think,” The Atlantic (July 1945), in The New Media Reader, 35-48

·      Andrew Utterson, “Computers in the Workplace: IBM and the ‘Electronic Brain’ of Desk Set,” in From IBM to MGM: Cinema At the Dawn of the Digital Age (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 16-32

·      Desk Set, dir. Walter Lang (1957)


·      Ted Friedman, “Filming the ‘Electronic Brain,” in Electric Dreams: Computers in American Culture (New York: New York University Press, 2005), 47-78

·      Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan, “The Secret History of Silicon Valley and the Toxic Remnants of the First Computers,”Gizmodo, 20 November 2015

Su 10/07, midnight. Research Journal Due, Google Doc on Canvas, midnight.
Tu 10/09 Knowledge Workers: Identity and Power in the Emerging “Information Economy”

Required Material:

·      Steven Lubar, “Do Not Fold, Spindle, or Mutilate: A Cultural History of the Punch Card,” Journal of American Culture 15, 4 (Winter 1992), 43-55

·      Lisa Nakamura, “Indigenous Circuits: Navajo Women and the Racialization of Early Electronic Manufacture,” American Quarterly 66, 4 (December 2014): 919-941

·      Lisa Nakamura, “Indigenous Circuits,” Computer History Museum Website, 2 January 2014

·      Silicon Valley, dir. Randall MacLowry and Tracy Heather Strain (2013)


·      Daniel Bell, “The Social Framework of the Information Society,” in The Computer Age: A Twenty-Year View, eds. Michael Dertouzos and Joel Moses (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1979), 163-211

·      Joseph Weizenbaum, “Once More: The Computer Revolution,” in The Computer Age, 439-458

·      Daniel Bell, “A Reply to Weizenbaum,” in The Computer Age, 459-462

·      Tara McPherson, “U.S. Operating Systems at Mid-Century: TheIntertwining of Race and UNIX,” in Race After the Internet, eds. Lisa Nakamura and Peter Chow-White (New York: Routledge, 2012), 21-37

·      Alex Sayf Cummings, “Of Sorcerers and Thought Leaders: Marketing the Information Revolution in the 1960s,” The Sixties 9, 1 (Spring 2016), 1-25

Th 10/11 Beanbag Capitalism: From Computing to Communication at Xerox PARC

Required Material:

·      Ceruzzi, 103-119

·      Michael A. Hiltzik, “Utopia,” in Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age (New York: HarperCollins, 1999), 52-67

·      Douglas Engelbart, From Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework (1962), in The New Media Reader, 93-108

·      The Machine That Changed the World documentary film, dir. Nancy Linde (1992), Part 3, “The Paperback Computer”


·      Ivan Sutherland, “Sketchpad: A Man-Machine Graphical Communication System” (1963), in The New Media Reader, 109-126

·      Douglas Engelbart and William English, “A Research Center for Augmenting Human Intellect” (1968), in The New Media Reader, 231-246.

·      Roy Ascott, “The Construction of Change” (1964), in The New Media Reader, 127-132

·      Alexis C. Madrigal, “The Hut Where the Internet Began,” The Atlantic, 7 July 2013

Su 10/14, midnight. Research Journal Due, Google Doc on Canvas, midnight.
WEEK 6  
Mo 10/15 Essay 01 due, upload to Canvas by 11:59pm.


Tu 10/16 Countercultural Computing

Required Material:

·      Fred Turner, “The Shifting Politics of the Computational Metaphor” and “Stewart Brand Meets the Cybernetic Counterculture,” in From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 11-39, 41-68

·      Stewart Brand, “Spacewar: Fanatic Life and Symbolic Death Among the Computer Bums,” Rolling Stone 7 December 1972

·      Theodor H. Nelson, From Computer Lib / Dream Machines (1970-1974), in The New Media Reader, 301-338

·     Triumph of the Nerds, Part 1: Impressing Their Friends; Part 2: Riding the Bear; Part 3: Great Artists Steal, dir. John Gau (1996)


·      Theodor H. Nelson, “A File Structure for the Complex, the Changing, and the Indeterminate” (1965), in The New Media Reader, 133-146

·      Theodor H. Nelson, Nicholas Negroponte and Les Levine, From Software–Information Technology: Its New Meaning for Art (1970), in The New Media Reader, 247-276

Th 10/18 Care For a Nice Game of Chess? The Rise of the “Personal” Computer


Required Material:

·      Paul Ceruzzi, “Inventing Personal Computing” in The Social Shaping of Technology, eds. Donald MacKenzie and Judy Wajcman (Philadelphia:Open University Press, 1999), 64-86

·      Ted Friedman, “Apple’s 1984,” in Electric Dreams, 102-120

·      Meryl Alper, “‘Can Our Kids Hack It With Computers?’ Constructing Youth Hackers in Family Computing Magazines (1983–1987),” International Journal of Communication 8 (2014), 673–698

·      Alan Kay and Adele Goldberg, “Personal Dynamic Media” (1977), in The New Media Reader, 391-404

·      WarGames, dir. John Badham (1983)


·      Seymour A. Papert, From Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas (1980), in The New Media Reader, 413-432

·      Langdon Winner, “Mythinformation,” in The New Media Reader, 587-598

·      Nicholas Negroponte, From Soft Architecture Machines (1975), in The New Media Reader, 353-366

·      Joseph Weizenbaum, From Computer Power and Human Reason (1976), in The New Media Reader, 367-376

·      Richard A. Bolt, “‘Put-That-There’: Voice and Gesture at the Graphics Interface” (1980), in The New Media Reader, 433-440

·      David Sims, “How Apple and IBM Marketed the First Personal Computers,” The Atlantic, 17 June 2015

·      8 Bit Generation: The Commodore Computer Wars, dir. Tomaso Walliser (2016)

·      Silicon Cowboys, Jason Cohen (2016)

Su 10/21, midnight. Research Journal Due, Google Doc on Canvas, midnight.
WEEK 7  
Tu 10/23 Cyborgs and Cyberpunk

Required Material:

·      William Gibson, “Burning Chrome,” the Omni (1982), reprinted in Burning Chrome (New York: Harper Voyager, 2003)

·      Sherry Turkle, “Video Games and Computer Holding Power” (1984, from The Second Self), in The New Media Reader, 499-514

·      Bill Nichols, “The Work of Culture in the Age of Cybernetic Systems” (1988), in The New Media Reader, 625-642

·      The Machine That Changed the World documentary film, dir.Nancy Linde (1992), Part 4, “The Thinking Machine”


·      Tron, dir. Steven Lisberger (1982)

·      Blade Runner, dir. Ridley Scott (1982)

·      Blade Runner 2049, dir. Ryan Gosling (2017)

Th 10/25 Open – Discussion
Su 10/28, midnight. Research Journal Due, Google Doc on Canvas, midnight.
Mo 10/29 Essay 02 hypothesis/outline due, upload to Canvas by 11:59pm.
Tu 10/30 The Rise of the Internet

Required material:

·      Ceruzzi, 121-154

·      Andrew Blum, Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet (New York: HarperCollins, 2012), 1-103

·      Janet Abbate, “Privatizing the Internet: Competing Visions and Chaotic Events, 1987-1995,” IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 32, 1 (January- March 2010), 10-22

·      The Machine That Changed the World documentary film, dir. Nancy Linde (1992), Part 5, “The World at Your Fingertips”


·      Bradley Fidler and Morgan Currie, “The Production and Interpretation of ARPANET Maps,” IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 37, 1 (January-March 2015), 44-55

·      Bradley Fidler and Morgan Currie, “Infrastructure, Representation, and Historiography in BBN’s Arpanet Map,” IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 38, 3 (July-September 2016), 44-57

·      Jan L. Bordewijk and Ben van Kaam, “Towards a New Classification of the Tele-Information Services” (1986), in The New Media Reader, 575-586

·      “Internet History from ARPANET to Broadband,” 2007 Congressional Digest

Th 11/01 Tubes: A Material History of the Internet 

Required Material:

·      Andrew Blum, Tubes, 105-271

·      Megan Sapnar Ankerson, “Introduction: Web Histories and Imagined Futures,” Dot-Com Design: The Rise of a Usable, Social, Commercial Web (New York: NYU Press, 2018)

·      Christine Smallwood, “What Does the Internet Look Like,” The Baffler 18 (December 2009), 8-12, republished here


·      Nancy Baym, “How Music Fans Built the Internet,” Wired 10 July 2018

·      Shannon Mattern, “Scaffolding, Hard And Soft: Infrastructures As Critical And Generative Structures,” Words in Space, 18 September 2014

Su 11/04, midnight. Research Journal Due, Google Doc on Canvas, midnight.


Tu 11/06 The World Wide Web

Required Material:

·      John Perry Barlow, “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” (1996)

·      Lewis J. Perelman, “School’s Out,” Wired 1, 1 (April 1993)

·      Tim Berners-Lee, Robert Cailliau, Ari Loutonen, Henrik Frystyk Nielsen and Arthur Secret, “The World Wide Web” (1994), in The New Media Reader, 791-798

·      Katrina Brooker, “‘I Was Devastated’: Tim Berners-Lee, the Man Who Created the World Wide Web, Has Some Regrets,” Vanity Fair, 1 July 2018

·      The Matrix, dir. Lana and Lilly Wachowski (formerly the Wachowski Brothers) (1999)


·      Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron, “The Californian Ideology (1995)” in The Internet Revolution: From Dot-com Capitalism to Cybernetic Communism (Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures/Network Notebooks, 2018)

Th 11/08 No Class – Take a break, catch up on things, get out ahead on assignments, Professor Kramer is at the US Intellectual History Conference
Su 11/11, midnight. Research Journal Due, Google Doc on Canvas, midnight.


Mo 11/12 Essay 02 due, upload to Canvas by 11:59pm.
Tu 11/13 Life In the Search Engine: The Power and Ethics of the Algorithmic Society

Required Material:

·      Siva Vaidhyanathan, The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry) (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), xi-148

·      Fred Turner, “Burning Man at Google: A Cultural Infrastructure for New Media Production,” New Media & Society 11, 1 & 2 (2009), 73-94

·      The Matrix Reloaded, dir. Lana and Lilly Wachowski (formerly the Wachowski Brothers) (2003)

Th 11/15 Who Owns the Future? The Matrix

Required Material:

·      Vaidhyanathan, The Googlization of Everything, 149-217

·      Joshua Adams, “Thinking About Google Search As A Colonial Tool,” Medium, 17 March 2018

·      Fred Turner, “Burning Man at Google: A Cultural Infrastructure for New Media Production,” New Media & Society11, 1 & 2 (2009), 73-94

·      The Matrix Revolutions, dir. Lana and Lilly Wachowski (formerly the Wachowski Brothers) (2003)


·      Gideon Lewis-Kraus, “The Great AI Awakening,” New York Times, 14 December 2016

·      Daniel Kreiss, Megan Finn, and Fred Turner, “The Limits of Peer Production: Some Reminders from Max Weber for the Network Society,” New Media & Society 13, 2 (2011), 243-59

·      Terms and Conditions May Apply, dir. Cullen Hoback (2013)

Su 11/18, midnight. Research Journal Due, Google Doc on Canvas, midnight.


No Class Happy Thanksgiving!
WEEK 12  
Tu 11/27


Cultural Crises of a Computerized Democracy: Alone Together in the Digital Era 

Required Material:

·      Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (New York: Basic Books, 2011), 1-34, 127-149, 241-306

·      Zeynep Tufekci, “What Happens to #Ferguson Affects Ferguson: Net Neutrality, Algorithmic Filtering and Ferguson,” The Message, 14 August 2014

·      Zeynep Tufekci, “The Latest Data Privacy Debacle,” New York Times, 30 January 2018

·      Zeynep Tufekci, “We Already Know How to Protect Ourselves From Facebook.” New York Times, 9 April 2018

·      Zeynep Tufekci, “The Looming Digital Meltdown, New York Times, 6 January 2018

·      Robert Homan, “Think Different,” Boston Review, 21 August 2018


·      Emilio Ferrara, “How Twitter Bots Affected the US Presidential Campaign,” The Conversation, 8 November 2016, updated 16 February 2018

·      Sue Halpern, “Are We Puppets Yet in a Wired World?,” New York Review of Books, 7 November 2013, 24-28

·      Evgeny Morozov, “Solutionism and Its Discontents,” in To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism (New York: PublicAffairs, 2013), 1-16

·      Safiya Umoja Noble, “Introduction: The Power of Algorithms,” Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism (New York: NYU Press, 2018), 1-14

·      Brendesha M. Tynes, Joshua Schuschke, and Safiya Umoja Noble, “Digital Intersectionality Theory and the #Blacklivesmatter Movement,” in The Intersectional Internet: Race, Sex, Class, and Culture Online, eds. Brendesha M. Tynes and Safiya Umoja Noble (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2015), 21-40

·      Kate Crawford, “Letter to Silicon Valley,” Harper’s Magazine, February 2017, 36-38

·      Virginia Eubanks, “The Digital Poorhouse,” Harper’s, January 2018

·      Kevin Roose, “Silicon Valley, Meet Organized Labor,” New York Magazine, 7 September 2014

·      Her, dir. Spike Jonze (2013)

Th 11/29 Political Crises of Computerized Democracy: Cyberwars and Hacked Elections

Required Material:

·      Ceruzzi, 155-159

·      Electric Frontier Foundation, “NSA Spying On Americans,” n.d.

·      Philip E. Agre, “Surveillance and Capture: Two Models of Privacy” (1994), in The New Media Reader, 737-760

·      Zeynep Tufekci, “Facebook’s Surveillance Machine,” New York Times, 19 March 2018

·      Zeynep Tufekci, “YouTube, the Great Radicalizer,” New York Times, 10 March 2018


·      Fred Kaplan, “We’re Wandering in Dark Territory,” in Dark Territory: The Secret History of Cyber War (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016), 265-286

·      John Naughton, “Has the Internet Become a Failed State?,” The Guardian, 27 November 2016

·      Hacking Democracy, dir. Simon Ardizzone and Russell Michaels (2006)

Su 12/02, midnight. Research Journal Due, Google Doc on Canvas, midnight.
WEEK 13  
Mo 12/03 Essay 03 hypothesis/outline due, upload to Canvas by 11:59pm.
Tu 12/04 All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace?

Required Material:

·      Richard Brautigan, All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace,  also here

·      All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace, dir. Adam Curtis (2011), Part 1, Love and Power: The Influence of Ayn Rand; Part 2, The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts: Ecology, Technology, and Society; Part 3, The Monkey in the Machine and the Machine in the Monkey: The Selfish Gene


·      Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World, dir. Werner Herzog (2016)

·      Jill Lepore, “The Hacking of America,” New York Times, 14 September 2018

Th 12/06 Conclusions – Discussion
Su 12/09, midnight. Research Journal Due, Google Doc on Canvas, midnight.
FINAL 12/16 Essay 03 due, upload to Canvas by 11:59pm.

Required Material

(Available at Campus Bookstore or online at book retailer of your choice; also available on either electronic reserves or at the library circulation reserves desk)

  • Blum, Andrew. Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet. New York: HarperCollins, 2012. ISBN-13:978-0061994951
  • Ceruzzi, Paul E. Computing: A Concise History. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012. ISBN-13: 978-0262517676
  • Turkle, Sherry. Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. New York: Basic Books, 2011. ISBN-13: 978-0465031467
  • Vaidhyanathan, Siva. The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry). Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011. ISBN-13: 978-0520272897
  • Wardrip-Fruin, Noahand Nick Montfort, eds. The New Media Reader. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2003.ISBN-13: 978-0262232272
  • Additional required articles, films, and websites on course website, electronic reserves, and library reserves.


This course focuses on the acquisition of three areas of knowledge: (1) mastery of the topical focus; (2) improvement in historical research methods of processing evidence to articulate original, compelling interpretations with grace, style, and clarity of communication; and, less intensively, (3) exposure to or advancement in skills of using digital software and media tools. None of these are formulaic types of knowledge; rather, the goal is to improve your capabilities as the practitioner of a craft and discipline: the art of historical and contextual argument and interpretation, in this case when applied to the cultural history of the computer and when experimenting with new digital tactics of analysis and communication. Evaluations—both qualitative and quantitative—serve to help you develop your capacities as a historian, wielder of evidence, maker of arguments, user of digital tools, and thinker about American culture.

In this course, you as the student are able to decide what grade you wish to pursue through my adapted version of what is called specifications grading(adapted from Professor Mittell’s version of Linda B. Nilson’s approach, for more see her essay). It takes a moment of adjustment from traditional modes of grading, but it gives you much more control over what you wish to put into and get out of the class.

In specifications grading:

  • You choose a “bundle” of assignments to complete depending on what your own goal is in the course for a grade.
  • You can choose to pursue a C, B, or A bundle.
  • You receive an evaluation of Satisfactory / Unsatisfactory on each assignment based on realizing the stated learning goals for the assignment (see Assignments section for those).
  • Your final grade is based on the bundles of assignments you complete.
  • Modified grades of plus and minus will be used to register exceptional work on the required assignments or when a student’s assignment falls between two bundles.
  • Some assignments merely need to be completed; others receive more extensive qualitative feedback. Professor Kramer is always available to discuss your work in the course so that expectations are clear.
  • Important: your final letter grade is not an assessment of your intelligence, your abilities, or your value as a person—in fact, grading is never a reflection of who you are as a person; they are merely an attempt to reflect what you learned in the course: no more, no less.
  • Professor Kramer is always available to confer expectations in the course so that they are clear and understandable, no matter what bundle of assignments you choose to pursue.

C Bundle – Students who complete the following will pass the course with a grade of C:

  • Actively attend all course meetings, with up to 4 absences, per the attendance policy below
  • Complete at least 6 of the 12 weekly research journals, 1 of the 3 hypothesis/outlines, and 1 of the 3 analytic essays to a Satisfactory level in relation to the assignment learning goals
  • Complete at least 1 of the 6 Digital Analysis Supplements

B Bundle – Students who complete the following will pass the course with a grade of B:

  • Actively attend all course meetings, with up to 3 absences, per the attendance policy below
  • Complete at least 9 of the 12 weekly research journals, 2 of the 3 hypothesis/outlines, and 2 of the 3 analytic essays to a Satisfactory level in relation to the assignment learning goals
  • Complete at least 2 of the 6 Digital Analysis Supplements to a Satisfactory level in relation to the assignment learning goals

A Bundle – Students who complete the following will pass the course with a grade of A:

  • Actively attend all course meetings, with up to 2 absences, per the attendance policy below
  • Have at least 4 days in class when Professor Kramer notes engaged participation
  • Complete 10 of the 12 weekly research journals, 3 of the 3 hypothesis/outlines, and 3 of the 3 analytic essays to a Satisfactory level in relation to the assignment learning goals
  • Complete at least 3 of the 6 Digital Analysis Supplements to a Satisfactory level in relation to the assignment learning goals

Tokens & Flexibility

Since you take this course in the context of your other classes and your lives, there is some flexibility built in to accommodate unexpected challenges and struggles and to allow you to revise an assignment that was not satisfactory for the first try. Students may exchange up to 3 tokens to:

  • Eliminate an absence from their attendance record
  • Revise and resubmit an assignment

Saving Your Work

Don’t work directly in Canvas when possible. It is highly recommended that when possible you compose your assignments in a word processing program or on your computer itself and then paste or upload into Canvas so as not to lose any work.

Citations and Formatting

All assignments should use Chicago Manual of Style for citation and formatting.

Full assignment descriptions and learning goals are listed below in the Assignments section.



You are expected to attend all class meetings on time, having done the readings, thought about the material, and prepared to engage in discussion and in-class activities. The class mixes lectures with discussion, so active participation and engagement is required. Attendance will be taken regularly—being late two times counts as one absence. Students who miss a class should find out what they missed from their classmates and learn the necessary material. Professor Kramer will note which students demonstrate particular engagement during each class meeting, as seen through productive and respectful participation in conversations, which fulfills one of the specifications for the A bundle.


Effective participation in class discussions involves both listening attentively and contributing to conversations effectively. Special commendation is given for effective responses to the comments made by other students, linking one’s own perspective to the existing conversation while adding a new dimension to the discussion.

Academic Honesty

All work you submit must be your own and you may not inappropriately assist other students in their work beyond the confines of a particular assignment, in keeping with the Middlebury College Honor Code. The minimum penalty for academic misconduct will be a failing grade (F) for the course and further academic and disciplinary penalties may be assessed by the Academic Judicial Board. The definitions of plagiarism and cheating used in this course are consistent with the material in the College Handbook, Chapter V. You are always welcome to confer with Professor Kramer if you are not sure about a specific aspect of how the Honor Code relates to the course.


As the father of a child with learning differences, Professor Kramer welcomes the opportunity to work with all kinds of students and will communicate with the student, Student Accessibility Services, the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Research’s Learning Resources team, or other campus or off-campus people or offices to accommodate any special needs or issues. You are welcome in this course! Additionally, students can use SensusAccess via Middlebury to convert any files to a more accessible format.

Students with documented disabilities who believe that they may need accommodations in this class are encouraged to contact me as early in the semester as possible to ensure that such accommodations are implemented in a timely fashion. Assistance is available to eligible students through the ADA Office. Please contact Jodi Litchfield, the ADA Coordinator, at or 802-443-5936 for more information. All discussions will remain confidential.

Good Communication

Always feel free to reach out to Professor Kramer if you are encountering problems in the course or that are affecting your efforts in the course. Professor Kramer promises to strive to communicate expectations for course as clearly as possible.


Weekly Research Journals                             

The weekly research journal is a digital document in which you can begin to register and process what you are making of a particular source we are studying in the course. The journals are meant to be exploratory, not final or complete or definitive. The first journal must focus on the syllabus itself as one of the two readings/viewings.

Directions: Select at least two (2) of the readings or viewings that most intrigued you each week and respond to the following prompts for each source on the Canvas GoogleDoc:

  • What are three key specific pieces of evidence this source uses (a quotation, an image, a filmic detail, some other element)?
  • Describe as carefully as you can the most important detail from your perspective. Don’t tell us what it means, just describe it.What do you see, hear, sense, or notice about the detail? Again, just describe, don’t analyze just yet.
  • Now, write down what you think the detail means? Why is it significant? Why does it matter? Try to write one sentence in which you find precise language. Words such as “because” are often useful to use to connect your detail’s description to its significance.
  • If you tried to paraphrase the “argument” of the source overall, what would it be, in one-two sentences? Describe the argument generously, not to dismiss it but to give a new expression to is essential interpretation.
  • What puzzled you about this source, its argument, and its use of evidence? What did not make sense to you?
  • What convinced you the most about the argument you take the overall source to be making?
  • What are the explicit or silent positions with which this source is in dialogue? Who’s at the “table” of whatever conversation this source is joining? In other words, what do you think is the interpretive debate or discussion the source addresses?
  • How might this source be related to another source or element you have encountered in the course?
  • Additional notes and ideas

Learning goals:

  • Notice specific details from sources.
  • Describe detail effectively and evocatively in language.
  • Begin to analyze specific details in a source, describing why they are present in the source, what they mean, why they are significant.
  • Begin to articulate questions about the source effectively.
  • Connect and link the details, positions, and interpretations of one source to details, positions, and interpretations of other sources.


Writing is an iterative process far more than we realize. It requires outlining, drafting, organizing, reorganizing, and adjusting to achieve a compelling, graceful, well-executed narrative. These three hypothesis/outline assignments make explicit the process of moving from sources to your own analytic interpretive essay. The assignments help you begin to organize your interpretation, evidence, and argumentation (the linking of evidence to support an interpretation) leading up to writing each essay. Your outline should contain:

  • A tentative title that suggests to the reader what the argument or core theme of the response is. Extra points for pithy and witty titles, but there is nothing wrong with a solid and clear one either.
  • A list of at three to six specific details from the sources you think matter the most to your future essay.
  • An outline of potential topic sentences for the paragraphs of your eventual essay
  • In one to two sentences, describe the positions or interpretations with which you disagreein your essay. Describe the other positions here, but you do not need to explain why or how your interpretation diverges. In other words, with whom are you in dialogue and conversation?
  • In one sentence, try to articulate the core question your assignment explores.
  • In one to two sentences, offer your hypothesis. What is your response to the question you raise and how does it specifically arise from your interpretation of your evidence? How, also, does it relate to other perspectives and interpretations exactly, in terms of differences in evidence type, relationship of evidence to argument, or conclusions themselves? Important: you do not necessarily have to “prove” another perspective wrong; we are not in a courtroom of law here. Rather, we are in pursuit of clarification and precision. Try to add a wrinkle to other interpretations if you find them convincing: how do we notice something new and surprising, but also how do we make slight corrections and clarifications to other interpretations? Small additions and clarifications matter to the craft of inquiry as much as dramatic new claims—and often the later relates to the former in crucial ways.

Learning goals:

  • Notice specific details from sources.
  • Describe detail effectively and evocatively in language.
  • Begin to deepen analysis of specific details in a source, describing why they are present in the source, what they mean, why they are significant.
  • Accurately frame existing debates and dialogues.
  • Frame a specific, useful, and original core question about source material effectively.
  • Connect and link multiple sources effectively and with clarity.
  • Articulate a crystallized and fully developed hypothesis.


Your goal with each of the three essays is to develop an effective, graceful, convincing, evidence-driven argument in dialogue with other interpretations. Often these work best by connecting or contrasting specific details to each other and then explaining how or why they do. The strongest arguments tend to attribute causality and correlation by assigning agency to specific people, processes, or forces. In our course’s case, how were computers not merely a static mirror of larger historical or contextual factors, but an active, shaping agent of historical change or continuity? How were computers a crucial vessel of historical meaning and action?

Try to write, edit, and revise to achieve clarity of expression in graceful, stylish, logical, well-reasoned prose. All assignments should use Chicago Manual of Style for citation and formatting. Take advantage of Middlebury’s Writing Tutors program, resources, and people at the CTLR as often as possible.

Note that each essay assignment contains a creative prompt to help you sharpen your historical thinking, and to have a bit of fun.

To work through your source materials as evidence effectively, most essays bring sources together in subthemes rather than focusing on sources in sequence. This is not always the case, but most often it is.

Learning goals/Rubric:

  • Argument/Thesis – Articulate a fully developed, cogent, convincing, gracefully phrased, evidence-based argument in dialogue with existing interpretations.
  • Evidence– Present and describe specific, concrete evidence from sources to support the argument.
  • Argumentation–Convincingly connect evidence to argument; links details from sources to the larger argument and its sub-arguments with logic and precision
  • Active Contextualization– Presence of contextualization, which is to say an accurate portrayal of historical contexts in which evidence appeared. Assign causality and correlation clearly in the articulation of argument
  • Style– Present a logical flow of reasoning and grace of prose, including:
    • an effective introduction that hooks the reader with originality and states the argument of the assignment and its significance
    • clear topic sentences that provide sub-arguments and their significance in relation to the overall argument.
    • effective transitions between paragraphs
    • a compelling conclusion that restates argument and adds a final point
    • accurate phrasing and word choice
    • use of active rather than passive voice

Essay 01

You have been asked by Wired magazine to develop an analytic essay about the early history of the computer from its inception through the Cold War. Pick a topic from the following themes for your essay: gender, race, militarization, cybernetics, craft vs. systemized knowledge, or human-computer interaction. Select 1-3 items from required materials thus far in the course to use as your source material. Be on the lookout for a recurring question that has arisen in your reading journal and use it to frame your analysis of a set of materials you have encountered thus far in the course. How do the details in the sources “speak to” a particular theme? What do they tell us about the theme? Using specific evidence, precisely referenced and describedfrom those items, develop an article forWired (which is to say for a smart, general audience) of under 1500 words. Be sure to explain a particular dimension of how your theme shapes our understanding of the early history of computation and the computerized society. Consider how our materials suggest the ways in which your theme played out in and through the development of the computer. How does the past moment in time contextualize your theme? More crucially, how does your theme reveal something new, precise, and convincing about the past moment in time? Refer to the guidelines for assignments in the “Expectations” section of the syllabus.

Essay 02

You have been asked by Apple Computer to design a new personal computing device. Your job is to draw a sketch or diagram of this machine (either by hand and then scanned or born-digital). Then, in under 1500 words, develop an analytic essay in which you contextualize what is significant about your design in the context of the history of the personal computer we have been studying these last few weeks (from its prehistory at places such as Xerox PARC to the emergence of the personal computer in the countercultural context of the 1960s and 1970s). You will not be evaluated for the excellence of your design (or your drawing skills!), but rather by how you are able to develop an evidence-based argument that connects specific aspects of the materials from class (lectures, readings, viewings) to an articulated and compelling position/argument/ interpretation about the details of your new personal computing device design. How and why does your device build upon and/or extend the history of the concept of “personal” computing as we have studied it in the course? Be sure to refer to the guidelines for assignments in the “Expectations” section of the syllabus.

Essay 03

You have been asked by a major motion picture company to pitch a sequel to The Matrix Trilogythat specifically addresses the development of the Internet. Your pitch should be no more than 200 words and specifically imagine a film that speaks to the history of the Internet. Then, in under 1500 words, develop an analytic essay in which you contextualize what is significant about your pitch to what you take to be the most relevant details, arguments, and analysis from our readings, viewings, and lectures about the phenomenon of the Internet, Google, and social media. You will not be evaluated for the aesthetic excellence of your cinematic vision (though aesthetic excellence is welcome!) nor for the probability that you have imagined a Hollywood blockbuster (though more power to you if you have!), but rather by how you are able to develop an evidence-based argument that connects specific aspects of the materials from class (lectures, readings, viewings) to an articulated and compelling position about the details of your pitch and how and why they speak interpretively to the stakes of social life in an “Internet,” “Googlized,” and “Alone Together” society. Be sure to refer to the guidelines for assignments in the “Expectations” section of the syllabus.

Digital Analysis Supplements

Since we are studying the cultural history of the computer, we might investigate how digital tools and media might enhance historical and contextual analysis. Each of these Digital Analysis Supplements offers a different way to harness digital tactics, strategies, tools, and approaches to either analyze sources more productively or communicate findings more compellingly. These are meant to be experimental, and each offers an opportunity to reflect on how computer-assisted inquiry fostered (or did not foster) better insights or ways of communicating insights.

Learning Goals:

  • Use digital approaches to discover new aspects of sources.
  • Use digital approaches to communicate interpretive findings in more compelling ways.
  • Use digital approaches to create more effective linkages between sources and arguments about those sources.
  • Develop reflection on the potential of and problems with these new modes of analysis and communication of historical inquiry.

1. Digital Annotation and Table Building for Better Evidence-Based Argumentation

Annotation: For text materials, you can use a PDF application such as Adobe Acrobat Reader (which is free to download) or Adobe Acrobat Pro (now sometimes called Adobe Acrobat DC; or you can use Preview as well on an Apple machine but the annotations tool works slightly differently). If you are scanning pages, you will need to convert your photographs into an OCR (Optical Character Recognition) format in a PDF file. Once you have an OCR file in Adobe (all the PDFs in the course are OCR ready, but if you wish to scan excerpted pages from our books, you will need to OCR-scan them independently), select the Comments feature as a tool (usually it is a little talking bubble on the menu bar). This will allow you to paste in comments that then get compiled into a list on the right of the screen. If you enter text into comments, the comments are then exportable from Adobe Acrobat through the menu above the comments that features three dots (click on the three dots and then select “Export to a data file” on the menu).

For film and video, use the annotation function in Panopto. Unfortunately, there is no way to export annotations, but you can cut and paste them into a text file or word-processing document.

For some examples of annotation work, see Michael J. Kramer, “Writing On The Past, Literally (Actually, Virtually),” Issues in Digital History, 4 February 2014.

Table building: Use the table significance template to paste your annotation information into the respective columns. Then begin to add description and significance to their respective columns. Here you are using a table to begin to develop your argumentation—the linking of evidence to argument or interpretation. It is also intriguing to consider how almost all digital tools, platforms, and publications are structured by databases that begin as tables.

For some examples of table building, see Michael J. Kramer, “What Does Digital Humanities Bring to the Table?,” Issues in Digital History, 25 September 2012.

One-paragraph reflection: Did annotating digital sources directly alter your sense of them? How? What did you notice about your thinking as you developed your annotation table? Did you reach or develop new understandings of the source? What was frustrating about the process of digital annotation and table building? What felt worth the effort?

2. Voyant Text-Mining

Voyant is an online text-mining tool that can “measure” texts and re-represent them as various visualizations. Instead of “close reading,” it offers a mode of “distant reading,” which is to say using computation to see patterns in the text (or large corpora of texts) by measuring words counts and relationships among words. Many digital humanities scholars are interested in using text-mining tools such as Voyant to explore patterns in “big data” amounts of literary texts (100,000 Victorian novels, etc.). But we can also tentatively explore text-mining in small ways using Voyant. Try entering a set of our readings (one-five) into Voyant and analyzing the results. Did the results confirm what you already knew? Did they suggest anything surprising or unexpected? Embed your Voyant results on Canvas in a text entry using the Voyant embedding tool (the checkbox in upper right of each panel). Write a one-paragraph reflection on the process of using the tool. To embed the Voyant results switch your WYSIWYG text box to HTML editor in order to paste the HTML code. Draft your response outside Canvas to be sure not to lose your writing.

3. Mind Mapping

Tools such as MindMeister,, IThoughts, and MindNode offer canvases for creating flow charts and “mind maps” of ideas. Try out using MindMeister as part of one of your weekly research journal or for one of the hypothesis/outline assignments. Write a one-paragraph reflection: did the mind map alter your processing and organization of source materials? Did it help you structure or restructure your essay outline? How or how not? There is a space to upload your embedded file and paragraph reflection in Canvas each week, or, when it works best, you can put a link in to your Google Template Research Journal or Hypothesis/Outline template (you cannot embed files there, however, only place a hyperlink).

4. Digital Timeline

Timeline.JS is a web-based tool that allows you to construct a Timeline with multimedia using Google Sheets to house your data points. Experiment with Timeline.JS as either an analytic tool as part of your weekly Research Journal or Hypothesis/Outline assignments or try incorporating it as a communications tool to illustrate a point about change or continuity over time for one of your essay assignments. Write a one-paragraph reflection on the process of using the tool: did it help you organize your source materials, argument? Did it illustrate an argument effectively? If so how or how not? For examples of digital timelines, see Michael J. Kramer, “Line Dancing,” Issues in Digital History, 29 March 2016.

5. MakerSpace 3D Design

Much of computer history marks a dematerialization of objects into the virtual spaces of digitality, but in recent years there is a move back to the material world. Particularly for Essay 02, you might explore creating a 3D version of your new “personal computer” design being proposed to Apple at Middlebury’s new MakerSpace. Or you might think of another way that creating objects helps you explore a topic in your Research Journal or Hypothesis/Outline assignment. Include a one-paragraph reflection on the process of 3D work: did you discover new aspects of course materials or your own interpretive work for assignments through this approach? What were they and how did your perspective and thinking shift from this approach?

Some examples:

(1) Beginner level: Draw it, make it by hand, use Legos or blocks or paper

(2) Intermediate level: Try a 3d mockup in Sketchup, Sketchfab, CorrallDraw, Photoshop, or take something from Thingaverse, or use another 3d modeling software of your choice

(3) Advanced level: Use your 3d model to create a physical object with 3D printer or CNC laser cutter or mill, from an exported Vector file

6. Video or Audio Component

For those interested in video or audio production, here is an opportunity to explore how to develop historical and contextual analysis, interpretation, and narrative in video or audio forms. This assignment might work particularly well for those who wish to create a “trailer” to accompany their cinematic pitch in Essay 03, but one might also explore video or audio supplements to any of the essays. Please confer with Professor Kramer if you wish to do this so that you can shape your work in relation to historical and contextual analysis as required in the assignments. Other creative uses of video or audio welcome for those who wish to explore those modes of communication in relation to themes and assignments in the course. Again, please confer with Professor Kramer. Each use of video or audio should be accompanied by a one-paragraph reflection on what you discovered in exploring the cultural history of the computer through video and audio approaches. What differed from writing about a topic? Did video or audio change the way you expressed you described your sources, linked them to your interpretation, or organized the narrative for your assignment? If so, how did it do so and what still resembled using writing for these assignments?

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