The Digital Age (FYS 1399N14)

Instructor: Alan Jacobs
Time and Place: TR 11:00am–12:15pm, Morrison 205

Description: This class is all about questions: How is the rise of digital technologies changing some of the fundamental practices of the intellectual life: reading, writing, and researching? How does writing on a computer differ from writing on a typewriter, or (still more) writing by hand? Has Google made information just too easy to find? Is the experience of reading on a Kindle or iPad significantly different from that of reading a paper codex? Moreover, how are these changes affecting the intellectual culture and communal practices of the Christian faith? We will explore these questions through a range of readings and conversational topics, and through trying out some interesting digital and analog tools. But this is also a class in which we will reflect more generally on why you are here, in the Honors College of Baylor, and what you need to do (and be) to flourish. So we will also spend some time thinking about the character and purposes of liberal education, and I will explain to you why you need to buy earplugs and wash your hands regularly.

Texts: All your readings will be PDFs available in this Dropbox folder. Each filename begins with the last name of the author of the piece, so the readings should be easy to find. Also, there are essays and articles in the folder that I have not assigned, but that I may refer to in class.


  1. There will be frequent (pop!) quizzes on your readings, plus other in-class writing that you will get full credit just for completing; these will collectively count a total of 50% of your grade.
  2. You will choose a digital or analog tool with which to organize your academic life this semester, learn to use it well, and give two oral reports on it to the class (accompanied by handouts). 20%
  3. As a final exam, you will produce a major project, which could be a paper or could be … something else. (Details to be discussed later.) 30%
  4. Borderline grades will be decided by class participation.

Here’s a handy list of organizational tools you might try, starting with digital ones:

And now analog (paper-based) ones:

Here’s a guide to helping you think through the options — keyed to the Getting Things Done system, which is fine, though it’s not the only useful system out there. The key to this assignment is that you choose a tool and seriously commit to it, for this semester, anyway. You are of course welcome to ditch it as soon as the term is over. But what I am asking for is a semester-long experiment, so that you will have detailed information to share with the rest of us. N.B.: All the options I am suggesting here are free — if you want to pay for an app or service, you are certainly welcome to, but I wouldn’t ask that of you.

Policies: My policies on attendance, grading, and pretty much everything else may be found here.


This is an interdisciplinary, or perhaps multidisciplinary, class, and among the chief disciplines that will shape our inquiries are information theory and media ecology. So we’re going to start by getting ourselves oriented to the basic ideas of those two fields.

  • 8.21: Introduction to course
  • 8.23: Borgmann, from Holding on to Reality; Gleick, from The Information
  • 8.28: Strate, “A Media Ecology Review”
  • 8.30: continued discussion of the previous texts

So there’s some theory. Now let’s get some history and context. We are used to saying that we today have to deal with “information overload” — but that’s an old story. Let’s look at some then-and-now strategies for information management.

  • 9.4: Blair, “Reading Strategies”
  • 9.6: Dunlosky et al., “Improving Students’ Learning”

Those of us in my line of work like to believe that in our universities you can get information properly sifted, ordered, contextualized — and maybe you can even get some wisdom too. But the university is being changed by our current economic and technological environment.

  • 9.11: Meilaender, “Liberal Education”; Robbins, “Home College”
  • 9.13: [class missed by poor sick professor]
  • 9.18: Carr, “The Crisis in Higher Education”; Daniel and Wellmon, “The University Run Amok”
  • 9.20: Jacobs, “Renewing the University”

At this point it’s becoming clear that the university as currently constituted is part of something much, much bigger. Neil Postman called it “Technopoly.” It’s time for us to start exploring it, and especially the wing of Technopoly — the big digital-tech companies — that have the greatest influence over what we know and how we know it.

  • 9.25: Postman, overview of Technopoly
  • 9.27: Tufecki, “Facebook’s Surveillance Machine” and “Twitter and Tear Gas”
  • 10.2: NO CLASS
  • 10.4: Vaidhyanathan, three pieces on Facebook
  • 10.9: Interview with Tim Wu; review of his book The Attention Merchants

It all starts, now, when kids are quite young.

  • 10.11: Harris, excerpt from Kids These Days and two reviews of the book
  • 10.16: Freed, “The Tech Industry’s War on Kids”

More and more, scholars are focusing attention not just on the information the tech giants are sending to young people, but to the particular device through which they are sending it: the smartphone. And those scholars, by and large, aren’t very happy about this device. But whether we’re happy with out smartphones or not, we need to reckon with just how profoundly they have changed, and are continuing to change, us.

  • 10.18: Twenge, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?”
  • 10.23: first reports on organizational tools
  • 10.25: Wilmer et al., “Smartphones and Cognition”
  • 10.30: Tampio, “Look Up from your Screen”; Christakis, “Distracted Parenting”

One important question that arises from the ubiquity of smartphones is: How do they affect our experiences as readers?

  • 11.1: Baron, “Digital Reading”; Jabr, “The Reading Brain”
  • 11.6: Piper, “Out of Touch”; Thompson, “Reading War and Peace on My iPhone”

As people have reflected more and more on their experiences in Technopoly, we have seen something of a “tech backlash” — and what some people have called “the revenge of analog.”

  • 11.8: McKibben, “Pause! We Can Go Back!”; Hensher, “Why Handwriting Matters”
  • 11.13: Turkle, interviews about and review of Reclaiming Conversation
  • 11.15: Tarnoff and Weigel, “Why Silicon Valley Can’t Fix Itself”
  • 11.20: Sacasas, “The Tech Backlash We Need”
  • 11.27: Second reports on organizational tools
  • 11.29: Conclusion to course
  • 12.4: Major project due