The Victorians, the Internet, and the Digital Humanities: Dr. Paul Fyfe Presents at WIU

On April 12th, 2019, Dr. Paul Fyfe of North Carolina State University traveled to WIU in order to deliver two presentations: a workshop about the digital humanities in the classroom and the lecture From the Telegraph to the Internet: How Information Lost Its Body. Dr. Fyfe was also kind enough to sit down for an interview about his work and life.

Dr. Fyfe answering questions after his lecture
Image Courtesy of Dr. Tim Helwig

In answer to the interview’s opening question about what he is currently reading, Dr. Fyfe not only shared the texts in question, but also made an important point about the connotation of what a professor reads: “Sometimes I feel like that question privileges the novel as the only appropriate answer.” He often uses this very question as an icebreaker for his own classes to lead into a discussion about what reading is and what his students assume about it. Dr. Fyfe also explained that the Digital Humanities are a way to analyze texts through computational elements. He shared that his favorite part of traveling to other colleges for events like this is the teaching element. Rather than standing up at the podium and acting as an elusive font of knowledge above the heads of the listeners, Dr. Fyfe treasures the opportunity to actually teach and explain his ideas. This was made evident in both the presentations he made later in the day.

At the workshop, Dr. Fyfe presented about how he and his students engage with the Digital Humanities. One of the most prominent aspects of this subject was the idea of making an argument through objects. For example, Dr. Fyfe assigns a steampunk project in which students must make an argument by creating a steampunk object and writing a paper to explain the argument within it. One example was a time capsule the student manufactured with power tools that held her essay and related to the not quite tangible idea she was exploring. Another was climate change survival headgear that included a working air conditioning element. Outside of steampunk, Dr. Fyfe still uses this method of making to evaluate students. Two individuals more based in the computer sciences than English created a book surveillance set that included a motion sensor camera which would snap a photo every time a book was opened. Students outside of English are the norm for these classes. This exploration of analysis outside of typical essays invites students to engage with a different kind of expression. In addition to discussing pedagogy, steampunk, and the digital humanities, attendees of the workshop also learned about the strange and provocative terms “whale punk” and “book guillotine.”

Later that evening, at his lecture, Dr. Fyfe took two seemingly unrelated concepts—the Victorian era and the internet—and brought them together. It turns out that the public reception and media coverage of the railway and the internet have similar, almost rhyming themes. Both experienced rapid growth and caused an economic bubble, were featured in extensively positive and extensively pessimistic press, were complained of being unfamiliar and alien, are attributed as the causes of physical maladies, and have been attempted to be comprehended through the body. This last point served as the main idea of the lecture—both the railroad of the Victorians and the internet of the modern age have been explained with physical, bodily metaphors, and in these attempts, we have disembodied the new technologies. It is rather difficult to point to the internet. The closest we can manage is touching the tubes in the many areas of the earth in which the hardwired aspects of the internet lie. But beyond that, we have to use metaphor to conceptualize the internet.

Dr. Fyfe was a delight to have on campus. He answered questions with passion and thorough thought, brought elements of comedy into his presentations, and managed to not only to create a bridge between the Victorian and the contemporary, but also between our understandings of them.