Digital Curation For World-Literature Pedagogy At The Global Crossing Point of Singapore

poster / demo / art installation
  1. 1. Sayan Bhattacharyya

    Singapore University of Technology and Design

  2. 2. Alastair Gornall

    Singapore University of Technology and Design

Work text
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We describe theoretical and practical issues raised by our experience of teaching a core course in world literature taken by all undergraduates at a technology-focused university in Singapore.
Eric Hayot has argued that the loss of engagement with the allegorical and symbolic dimensions of the world, brought about by the “geometrization” of space and time wrought by Enlightenment rationality, needs to be addressed by attention to the complex world-making capacity of literature: how representations of space and time, and of their scales, operate within and across literary texts (Hayot, 2012). Our technology-minded students experience this “geometrization” acutely. In response, we took “world-making” at face-value, having our students, literally, make things.
Our students created group-based digital curation projects using the content-management platform Omeka. Our approach has some similarities with a use case for Omeka in pedagogy (Rohrbach et al., 2018), but also many differences. Reflecting the history and cultural influences of the multicultural city that is Singapore (Lim, 2004), our curriculum draws upon a broad range of thinkers — from ancient Greece and China, the mediaeval Arab world, as well as early modern Europe and modern India. Our students focus on similarities and differences between the thematic contents of these texts from very different times and places. Each project functioned as an “museum exhibit” combining digital artifacts and curatorial statements, with students linking together concepts, ideas and/or objects within individual texts and/or across texts. Public-facing activities made the undergraduate classroom “visible” (Renker, 2013) and made pedagogy accountable by holding students to the expectation that they become reciprocal partners (DeSpain and Travis, 2018).
We illustrate, below, how the allegorical and symbolic dimensions referred to by Hayot (or, at least, some approximation of these dimensions) can be accommodated in our use case. One of the texts that we use is Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān, an allegorical “novel” in Arabic written by the well-known Arab Andalusian philosopher and polymath Ibn Tufayl in the 12th century. In the novel, the protagonist passes through a phase in his adolescence, during which he explores the natural world, taking apart things and dissecting animals — in what has been usually read as an allegory of a proto-scientific outlook and an anticipation of the scientific method. Another text that our students read is Descartes’s Meditations, where the question of radical skepticism and scientific inquiry is broached more directly. Thus, an allegorical dimension is implicated in a connection which a student might choose to show between Ibn Tufayl’s Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān and Descartes’s Meditations — in the form, for example, of a labeled link in a network graph in which the nodes represent an artwork (such as painting, sculpture, etching or illustration) representing specific contents from chapters or sections of these two texts.
With regard to the symbolic dimension, our point of reference is C.S. Peirce’s notion of the symbol as a sign in which there is a “conventional” connection between sign and object. Thus, the symbolic dimension is involved when a student draws an analogy, representable as a link in the network graph between two nodes constituted by artworks representing the symbolic terms. For example, with respect to Red Oleanders, a 20th century Bengali play by Rabindranath Tagore that is part of our curriculum, a student could argue that darkness, as represented by the King’s dark cave in the play, is a sign for abstract knowledge, whereas light and color are signs for concrete objects. Likewise, a student could argue that in Plato’s theory of forms as elaborated in the Phaedo, an ideal form is a sign for abstract knowledge while instances of those forms are signs for concrete knowledge. Here, the twinned analogies that the student can establish between darkness and ideal form, and between light/color and physical instantiations of the ideal, operate in the symbolic dimension. Visual images from artifacts (such as the depiction of the darkness of the King’s chamber in a poster of the play from a recent production of it in Kolkata, India, and the depiction of colored flowers (oleanders) in that same production, could then be organized to provide a visible form to this analogy.
The practice of making remains controversial in the humanities (Klein, 2017). Questions remain as to whether the emphasis on “making” distracts from the centrality of reading and writing in an introductory undergraduate class. For this reason, we are currently moving in the direction of a more hybrid approach in which students, while continuing to use Omeka, will focus more on textual rather than visual artifacts.


DeSpain, J. and Travis, J. (2018). Introduction. In Travis, J. and DeSpain, J. (eds.),
Teaching with Digital Humanities
. Champaign: University of Illinois Press.

Hayot, E. (2012).
On Literary Worlds.
New York: Oxford University Press.

Klein, J. T. (2017). The Boundary Work of Making in Digital Humanities. In Sayers, J. (ed.),
Making Things and Drawing Boundaries: Experiments in the Digital Humanities
. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Lim, W. S. W. (2005).
Asian Ethical Urbanism: A Radical Postmodern Perspective. Singapore: World Scientific Publishing Company.

Omeka. Fairfax, VA: Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, and the Corporation for Digital Scholarship.

Omeka Documentation. Fairfax, VA: Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, and the Corporation for Digital Scholarship.

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