Proposal for a first-year lit course: Small Data

Big data, as we all know, is what it’s all about. As the CEO of the AI company ImageNet has put it: “Data drives learning.”

Except it really, truly does not.

Consider a rock on the beach. It’s surrounded by data: from the local ecosystems, to the weather patterns on the horizon, to the stars that come out at night.

But that rock will never learn a thing. 

Data doesn’t drive learning. Learning drives data. The capacity to learn—interpret, and understand—determines what even counts as data. 

That’s where literature comes in. It’s just some marks on a page. But literature is what happens when some of the those marks, strangely, start to matter. 

Since very ancient times, writers have been attracted to exactly this kind of moment: when we suddenly see where the data are headed. Even—the singular—a datum. 

So, in this course, we will read and comment on some classic (and, mostly, very old) works of small data. Texts that do a lot with a little. Poems, lines, even single words that demand our attention. Plays and stories about the necessity of noticing, the challenge of interpreting, and the detail that changes everything.

What do they study, again?

Here is a partial, but entirely factual, listing of session and/or paper topics at the recent conference of the Modern Language Association (MLA), the major annual meeting for North American literary academics:

Matter
Negotiating
Space
Africa
Bertolt Brecht
Japanese modernity
Economics
Composting
The idea of “West Asia”
Time
Old Norse Folklore
The Armenian genocide
TS Eliot
Feminist activism
Israeli-South African relations
Dada
Milton
Second-language instruction
Immigration
The Cold War
Sports
Bars
The First World War
Borders
Singapore
Animals
Being black in Germany
Barcelona
Neoplatonism
Saint Theresa
Suspicion
The English Civil War
Calgary
Neoliberalism [natch]
Tommaso Campanella
Mental Health
How to get a good government job
Dance
The Middle Class
Recent European geopolitics
Data visualization
Life in occupied Palestine
The libidinal economy of data [sic]
Cognitive science, re: memory
Subjectivity
Sound
Ice
Rock
Oil
Bodies
Imperialism
Neurolinguistics
Masculinity
Elmore Leonard
Tea
Geography
Childhood
Doing business in Italy
Whales
Forgiveness
Amiri Baraka
Psychoanalysis
Privacy
History
Faulkner
Food
Union democracy
Being Jewish
Ireland
Aging
Disability
Gay animals
The National Security Education Program (NSEP)
Laughter
NAFTA
Scientific experiments
Being a Muslim woman
Francoism
Boycotts
Postwar Japan
Pipelines
Things
1714 in Catalonia
South Asians in Africa
The 1970s
Light
Israel
Cervantes
Pragmatism
The Sun, the moon, and the stars.