For Penn Undergrads, New Digital-Humanities Minor Offers Unique Perspectives on Conventional Ideas

Michele W. Berger | mwberger@upenn.edu | 215-898-6751
Friday, November 10, 2017
Lasher Printing Co. Building (Flickr Creative Commons/Sherry Nelson)

As part of her new “Digital Lives of Books” course, English professor Whitney Trettien plans to bring her class to the old Lasher Printing Co. Building, seen here, which no longer publishes printed material but is now a data center. (Flickr Creative Commons/Sherry Nelson)

Whitney Trettien has a unique perspective on books. The work of this assistant professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania sits at the intersection of digital humanities and Renaissance literature.

In her course “The Digital Lives of Books,” to be offered for the first time during the spring 2018 semester, she’s turning on its head the idea that books can be only what they’ve historically been: tangible objects with words printed on a page. The class will consider the evolution of where readers purchase these items, from physical store to online retailer, as well as how authorship has transformed and what Trettien describes as the “shady underbelly” of digital-book piracy.


Whitney Trettien

Whitney Trettien, assistant professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania.


​​​​​​​“I want students to understand the pressure points and the pivots,” Trettien said. “Digital technologies are changing our culture, our politics, how we interact. How are they changing literature and the literary landscape?”

Trettien is one of the Penn professors actively incorporating digital humanities into her curriculum, as part of a new minor spearheaded by the Price Lab for Digital Humanities.

The initiative right now includes courses from the departments of Anthropology, Classical Studies, East Asian Languages and Civilizations, History, History and Sociology of Science, Political Science, Religious Studies and Sociology in the School of Arts and Sciences; the Fine Arts department in the School of Design; the Computer and Information Science department in the School of Engineering and Applied Science; and the Annenberg School for Communication. But Stewart Varner, Price Lab’s managing director, said he hopes and expects the list of approved courses and number of partner departments to grow.

The idea for the minor arose as he and colleagues started encountering more and more Penn students with interest in digital humanities. Though the Price Lab has offered undergraduate fellowships since its inception in 2015, there was no formalized structure in place to meet this new-found demand. Varner saw an opening that his group could fill.

“We wanted to find a way to make technical training and the humanities a little more thoughtful, so people could go through steps in sequence but also come out the other end with a credential,” Varner said.

Anyone interested in the new minor must complete six courses from three tiers.

To start, students choose at least one but no more than two from a trio of classes: “Introduction to Digital Humanities,” “Computational Data Exploration” and “Introduction to Computer Programming.”

“Taking at least one of these will ensure that everyone has the basic skills for dealing with data computationally,” Varner said.

In the second tier, students start to specialize, he said. “There’s a class on text analysis, on material past of the digital world, a database class, how to effectively organize digital files, digital video and social statistics. There will also be a course called ‘Mapping for Social Justice.’ Humanities minors will take two of those Tier 2 classes.”


I want students to understand the pressure points and the pivots. Digital technologies are changing our culture, our politics, how we interact.

Whitney Trettien, assistant professor of English, speaking about digital humanities

The third tier is the most open, giving students the choice to shape a course within their own areas of interest.

“So if you’re a history major, at the third tier, maybe there’s a class in the History Department that engages digital techniques, or you could negotiate with your instructor to have a digital component built in,” Varner said. “Instead of writing a 10-page paper, perhaps you do an equivalent digital project or an independent study.”

As someone already immersed in the world of digital humanities, Trettien said she’s thrilled at the innovation happening at Penn in this arena.

“I see myself as an ambassador between traditional spaces and new hybrid methods of learning and teaching. I hope the digital-humanities minor is the opportunity for students to meet and mingle,” she said. “It can become a cross-disciplinary space of inquiry.”

Trettien’s book class may help. Not only does she hope to bring in poets who write code rather than words and have students trace the ethnography of a book, but she’s planning several site visits, including one to the old Lasher Printing Co. building on Noble Street in Philadelphia. It no longer publishes printed material; today it’s a data center.