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Literature in the Digital Age: from Close Reading to Distant Reading

Learn new ways of interpreting literary texts, from time-tested methods to computer-assisted practices such as distant reading.

12,596 enrolled on this course

Reading in the Digital Age: an illustration of two hands, holding and operating a Kindle ebook reader.
  • Duration

    6 weeks
  • Weekly study

    4 hours

As we make sense of what we read, we construe meaning using the cultural technique of interpretation. Only rarely do we actually reflect this process: what are the means that help us understand literary texts? How does interpretation work? And how has our increasing use of electronic devices changed the way we read and interpret literature?

This free online course addresses these questions as it introduces you to a variety of ways of interpreting literary texts. We will look into time-tested methods such as close reading and will also address more recent practices such as computer-based distant reading.

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  • Week 1

    How we read today

    • Introduction

      Meet Professor Philipp Schweighauser and find out more about your fellow learners.

    • Reading in different media

      Discover how the proliferation of alternative ways of reading challenges us, consider how it enriches our reading experience, and ask yourself whether there is anything valuable that we lose along the way.

    • New reading strategies

      You will learn about two reading strategies that most of us use on a daily basis. Start to explore and discuss what it means to engage in these strategies.

    • Professional reading strategies

      Learn about two well-established and two more recently developed reading strategies, and gain insight into how professional readers read.

  • Week 2

    Close reading

    • I. A. Richards, New Criticism, close reading

      Find out about the history and development of close reading and take a look at an example analysis to see how it actually works.

    • How to close-read a poem, part I

      We will close-read a short text to illustrate the basic approach close reading takes and to demonstrate in a hands-on way how this reading strategy proceeds.

    • How to close-read a poem, part II

      Here is an opportunity for you to further improve your reading skills by producing your own close reading, observing other readers’ efforts, and discussing the results together.

  • Week 3

    Hyper reading & social reading

    • Hyper reading I: Definitions & strategies

      Now that you are acquainted with a professional reading method, we turn our attention to a reading strategy that we all use every day: hyper reading.

    • Hyper reading II: Further strategies, benefits & risks

      Explore what else literary scholars have to say about this particular way of reading, its various forms, and potentially detrimental effects on us. This will help you engage in hyper reading in a more self-reflexive manner.

    • Social reading

      What do you know about social reading? Learn how this reading strategy differs from all the others we discuss in this course and examine how its development was facilitated by the internet.

  • Week 4

    New Historicism

    • Historical contexts

      Explore how historical contextualization can help us understand a literary work. Along the way, join us on a visit to Basel's University Psychiatric Clinics and hear about Pound’s mysterious connection with this institution.

    • Literary-historical contexts

      In Pound’s case, literary-historical details provide a particularly exciting context to his work. During this activity, you get historical insights about his poems.

    • New Historicism

      Learn about the concepts of leading New Historicists such as Stephen Greenblatt, Jane Tompkins, and Louis A. Montrose and train yourself in putting these ideas into practice when reading and interpreting literature.

  • Week 5

    Distant reading

    • The strategies of distant reading

      Explore how, with the help of algorithms and methods borrowed from the social sciences and natural sciences, distant readers break new ground in dealing with literary texts and provide fascinating insights into literary culture.

    • Doing distant reading

      After getting acquainted with Franco Moretti’s Stanford Literary Lab and an example of distant reading provided by this research team, you will be introduced to an online tool that helps you carry out your own distant readings.

    • Euterpe

      Prof. Philipp Schweighauser invites Prof. Hugues Marchal to talk about his Euterpe project and ponder the pros and cons of distant reading. Join them and share your thoughts with us and your fellow learners.

  • Week 6

    Surface reading & the materiality of communication

    • The medium is the message

      By examining some of Marshall McLuhan's most important ideas, we turn our attention to the media, material and technological preconditions of all forms of communication, including reading.

    • Surface reading & the materiality of books

      Now we would like to equip you with a couple of concepts that will help you better grasp the importance of the material qualities of books and other reading surfaces.

    • Remediation

      See an example of how older print media can rise to the challenge posed by their more recent electronic rivals. You will also have the opportunity to think back on what you have learned in this course and express your conclusions.

Learning on this course

On every step of the course you can meet other learners, share your ideas and join in with active discussions in the comments.

What will you achieve?

By the end of the course, you‘ll be able to...

  • Reflect on the different lay and professional reading strategies that are available for reading literature today.
  • Describe the various media in which we read literature in the digital age.
  • Identify the strengths and weaknesses of different reading strategies.
  • Apply the core method of literary studies: close reading.
  • Investigate the various strategies you use on a daily basis as you read online texts.
  • Engage in a cooperative form of online reading called social reading.
  • Compare two forms of historical readings of literary texts: historical and literary-historical contextualization.
  • Discuss the uses and limitations of distant reading, a recent scholarly approach to literary texts that relies on big data and computer analysis.
  • Report on your own distant reading experiment, using the Google Ngram Viewer.
  • Explore approaches to literary texts that do not seek to interpret them but focus on their surface and materiality.

Who is the course for?

This course is for people from all walks of life who enjoy reading literature and would like to know how literary scholars interpret texts in the digital age.

If you are a student looking for an introduction to literary analysis, ‘Literature in the Digital Age’ will provide that.

The only requirement is that you like to read and love to reflect on your experience and discuss it with others.

This course is only facilitated at certain intervals. Learners are encouraged to support one another, share personal experiences, and see new perspectives.

What do people say about this course?

"I can honestly say that this course has been the most stimulating, intriguing and fun FutureLearn course that I have participated in. "

Who will you learn with?

Professor of North American and General Literature at the Department of English of the University of Basel, Switzerland. Tweets under @pschweighaus. (Photo credit: Peter Schnetz, University of Basel).

Who developed the course?

University of Basel

The University of Basel has an international reputation of outstanding achievements in research and teaching.

Learning on FutureLearn

Your learning, your rules

  • Courses are split into weeks, activities, and steps to help you keep track of your learning
  • Learn through a mix of bite-sized videos, long- and short-form articles, audio, and practical activities
  • Stay motivated by using the Progress page to keep track of your step completion and assessment scores

Join a global classroom

  • Experience the power of social learning, and get inspired by an international network of learners
  • Share ideas with your peers and course educators on every step of the course
  • Join the conversation by reading, @ing, liking, bookmarking, and replying to comments from others

Map your progress

  • As you work through the course, use notifications and the Progress page to guide your learning
  • Whenever you’re ready, mark each step as complete, you’re in control
  • Complete 90% of course steps and all of the assessments to earn your certificate

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