Course Metadata

  • Course Number: ENGL475, Literature and Other Disciplines
  • Spring 2023
  • Classroom: CU Community FabLab
  • Class Time: Tuesdays and Thursday 9:30-10:50
  • Credit hours: 3 undergrad/4 grad
  • FabLab Open Hours:
    • Monday-Thursday 5-9pm & Sunday 1-6pm (public)
    • Friday 1-5pm (students in FabLab classes)
  • Skeuomorph Press Open Hours: TBA

Instructor Info

  • Ryan Cordell
  • Office: 614 Daniel St., Room 5147
  • Office Hours: Tuesday 11am-12pm and Thursdays 5-6pm in Skeuomorph Press, and by appointment
  • Phone: 217-333-2622
  • Email:

Course Description

What is a book, and what might it become? This studio-based course will be a historical, imaginative, and experiential introduction to one of the most enduring and influential human technologies, the book. Students will investigate intersections among media, literature, and computation in order to understand the history of the book and imagine its future. Students will learn about the technical skills that helped produce books historically, such as letterpress printing and binding, while cultivating new technical skills that will enable them to effectively use contemporary technologies such as 3D printing and interactive digital storytelling. The course will be housed in the CU Community FabLab’s new Skeuomorph Press and BookLab. Students will use the skills they develop over the course of the semester to develop multimodal creative or research projects, building their own print-digital books. As a studio course, “Building a (Better) Book” centers around students’ conceiving, developing, and workshopping these independent projects.


In developing this course I learned from many people and existing courses, such as Matthew Kirschenbaum’s graduate seminar, BookLab: How to Do Things with Books. I am especially grateful to have co-taught a version of this class in the summer of 2019 at Northeastern University with Élika Ortega, from whom I learned an immense amount and without whom this current class could not exist, and to Kenny Oravetz for pointing me to Kit Davey’s incredible artist books.

Shadow Syllabus

Really, all I want to write here can be found in Sonya Huber’s Shadow Syllabus. There is a lot of truth in this list for your college careers and beyond. Read it and believe it.

Pre- and Co-requisites

“Building a (Better) Book” presumes no prior experience and thus is well suited for all students interested in book history, digital humanities, publishing, design, critical making, or adjacent fields.

Course Materials

The majority of our readings will be available online. You will need to acquire the The Book, however, which is available through the campus bookstore.

  • Amaranth Borsuk, The Book (MIT Press, 2018)

Course Policies

Code of Conduct

The code of conduct for this course borrows directly from the stellar model outlined by Northeastern University’s Feminist Coding Collective. Their Code of Conduct and Community Guidelines are well worth consulting in full, but I have copied and lightly adapted those items most pertinent to the work we will do in our class.

  • It’s okay not to know: Assume that no one inherently knows what we’re learning. We all come to this class with different backgrounds and abilities; none of us (including the instructor) will know everything and that is okay! Encourage a space where it’s okay to ask questions.
  • Be respectful: Do not use harmful language or stereos that target people of all different gender, abilities, races, ages, ethnicities, languages, socioeconomic classes, body s, sexualities, and other aspects of identity.
  • Online spaces: Respect each other in both physical and digital spaces.
  • Collaborative and inclusive interactions: Avoid speaking over each other. Instead, we want to practice listening to each other and speaking with each other, not at each other.
  • Use “I” statements: focusing on your own interpretation of a situation, rather than placing blame or critiquing someone else.
  • Harassment clause: The following behaviors are considered harassment and unacceptable in this community (these are borrowed from the Django Code of Conduct):
    • Violent threats or language directed against another person.
    • Discriminatory jokes and language.
    • Posting sexually explicit or violent material.
    • Posting (or threatening to post) other people’s personally identifying information (“doxing”).
    • Personal insults, especially those using racist or sexist terms.
    • Unwelcome sexual attention.
    • Advocating for, or encouraging, any of the above behavior.
    • Repeated harassment of others. In general, if someone asks you to stop, then stop.

COVID Caveat

I have adapted much of the prose on this page and the linked syllabus pages from other courses offered in very different semesters. I have tried to adjust the course policies and expectations to account for the strangeness of the times. I am certain, however, that I have not imagined every situation that might arise, or fully accounted for the full range or extremity of situations you might find yourselves in this term. Frankly, I will rely on your understanding and grace as I teach this course in entirely new ways. I hope to extend the same understanding and grace to you.

Consider this caveat an override switch for everything—yes, literally everything—else on the syllabus. I mean this sincerely: everything on this syllabus and in this class is subject to this one clause. We’re all doing our best to learn together during an unprecedentedly difficult time. We’re working in new ways and in unusual environments. We are caring for others while trying to keep ourselves healthy, sheltered, fed, and sane. We are worried all the time, and some of us are dealing with fear and loss. Among all these challenges, I still want to come together and talk about the history and future of the book because I find this topic fascinating and—dare I say it, given this world we find ourselves in—important. I believe we can learn a lot from each other and even have some fun together in the next months. I will operate from the base assumption that each of you is here in good faith: that you are curious, engaged, and eager to do the best work you can.

Taking all that as given, I also want you to know that your health—both physical and mental—is always more important to me than this class. Your family and friends’ health is always more important to me than this class. You don’t have to apologize to me if attempting to learn during a pandemic forces you to work at a different pace from what’s outlined on this syllabus, or if we need to find an alternative path for you through this class. My primary role as a teacher is to support you however I can. Let me know how I can do that better. I mean all of this, sincerely. Let’s work together to meet the challenges and find the joys of this strange semester.

Class Engagement

This studio course requires active engagement in class activities, discussions, and studio sessions. There will be few lectures and we will not be building toward an exam. Instead, we will work together to build our facilities for thinking critically about media and to conceive, plan, and create innovative final projects. You should come to every class having read all of the required reading, watched the required videos, browsed the suggested resources, and so forth. You should enter the classroom prepared to discuss these materials with colleagues and complete both individual and group in-class assignments.


I will not explicitly grade participation in this course (i.e. “participation = 20% of final grade”), but I will take account of your reading and course engagement through your class preparation, our discussions, and related activities. As a reminder, all of our class grading contracts require you to:

Come to class prepared to discuss any assigned readings, games, videos, or other media. Participate actively in class activities and discussions, making observations and asking questions that help the class think together.

There are many ways to participate in a college class. Just a few of the most valuable contributions are:

  1. Raising ideas from our assigned materials for class discussion, including directing our attention to specific moments you found evocative, inspiring, infuriating, or otherwise salient;
  2. Asking questions about materials or ideas you found puzzling or difficult (I cannot overstate how valuable good questions are to a thriving class, and how desperately I wish more students were courageous in asking them);
  3. Sending pertinent materials discovered outside of class to the course email list, or bringing them to our attention during discussion;
  4. Assisting classmates with lab assignments or other in-class work amenable to cooperation;
  5. Visiting during office hours to extend course conversations around subjects or questions you find particularly interesting.


Maintaining an active class conversation requires that the class be present, both physically and mentally. “Attendance” does not simply mean that your body can be found in proximity to those of your classmates. You must also be mentally present, which means you must:

  1. Prepare any assigned media before class begins;
  2. Be awake, attentive to the conversation, and responsive to your colleagues;
  3. Have your materials in hand and ready for discussions or other activities.

Missing Class

You may miss the number of classes specified in your chosen grade contract and you need not provide an explanation. If you find yourself in extraordinary circumstances that will impact your attendance, please come talk with me during office hours. When you must miss class, it is your responsibility to find out what you missed, get updates on upcoming assignments, and/or ensure that you are prepared for future classes.

For as many absences as allotted in your grade contract, you will be exempted from the class preparation assignment. If you miss more classes than agreed, we may need to reevaluate your contract.

“Information Overload” Day

I do understand that the semester can get hectic. The reading load for this class is often challenging, and you must balance it with work in your other classes or a job. This semester will be especially challenging as you negotiate family, friend, and roommate situations amidst a pandemic. Most likely you will have days when you simply cannot—for whatever reason—complete the assigned reading. Please do not simply skip class, compounding your stresses, when this happens. Instead, you may take “information overload” (IO) days during the semester up to the number specified in your grade contract. On these days you will not be expected to contribute to class discussion and you will receive a pass on class preparation. In order to take an IO day, you must follow these rules:

  1. You must attend class, listen attentively to any lectures or class discussions, and take part in any activities or group work not dependent on the day’s reading. Your IO days cannot be used as additional excused absences.
  2. You must inform me before the beginning of class that you are taking your IO day. You may not wait until I call on you or until you see day’s the in-class assignment. I will deny any IO requests made during class. To that end: take special care to be on time if you plan to request an IO day, as you won’t be allowed to request one if you arrive late.
  3. When you decide to take an IO day, please simply submit “IO Day” to any course preparation assignments listed for that day so that I have a note.
  4. You may not extend an IO day into another class session.
  5. You may not take an IO day to avoid completing a major assignment. If you are unsure whether an assignment is “major,” the syllabus is a good guide. If a particular assignment has its own “assignment” page on the course website, it is a major assignment.

IO days are intended to help you manage the inevitable stresses of your individual semester. Use them wisely.

Digital Etiquette

In-class Devices

Some of this section and much of the rubric below were inspired by and adapted from this cell phone use rubric from Zombie Based Learning.

This should go without saying, but let’s say it anyway: while in class, you should be focused on class. You may think that you are an excellent multi-tasker, but there is a growing body of evidence that argues multitasking is a myth: trying to do multiple things simultaneously means you do all those things worse than if you focused on them serially—the act of multitasking literally drains your brain’s energy reserves In an online course like this one, it will be particularly challenging to stay focused on class activities during class.

In your professional lives, people will have their phones and other devices with them at their jobs, in meetings, at conferences, and so on. Adults do not have their devices taken away from them. They are expected to manage their own use. These days professionals are conducing much of their work virtually, in platforms much like we’re using for class. During class, please use your laptop and other devices for accessing our readings, class resources, or for finding outside materials pertinent to our discussions and activities. You should not use them to follow a game, message your friends, check your friends’ Tumblrs, commit (non course related) code to Github.

Device Use Rubric

The rubric below outlines my expectations for device use in this classroom. This rubric was developed for in-person classes and so probably doesn’t translate perfectly to online delivery, but its general principles still pertain. We can discuss these expectations in our first days together and edit them if the class agrees on amendments. You will assess your device use periodically and include these measures in your grade contract assessments.

1. Unacceptable 2. Below Expectations 3. Meets Expectations 4. Exceeds Expectations
Use is inappropriate. Device is a distraction to others. Examples: A student uses their device to play games, view material unrelated to the course, OR hold social conversations. Use is distracting to the student, their colleagues, and/or the instructor. Student frequently checks devices for information unrelated to the class. Example: A student takes out their phone to look at text messages several times in one class period. Device is not used except during designed times, or device use is limited to quick checks during times of transition. Example: a student receives an important text from a parent, which they check quickly during our transition between group work and full-class discussion, but waits to respond until an appropriate time. Device only used as an efficient academic tool for a direct purpose. Device is not a distraction. but used at appropriate times as an extension of work or learning. Examples: A student uses their phone to do research during a research project, or uses their laptop to create a collaborative document for a group project.

Academic Integrity

The English Department has the responsibility for maintaining academic integrity so as to protect the quality of education and research in our school and to protect those who depend on our integrity. Consequences of academic integrity infractions may be serious, ranging from a written warning to a failing grade for the course or dismissal from the University.

See the student code for academic integrity requirements:

Statement of Inclusion

As the state’s premier public university, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s core mission is to serve the interests of the diverse people of the state of Illinois and beyond. The institution thus values inclusion and a pluralistic learning and research environment, one which we respect the varied perspectives and lived experiences of a diverse community and global workforce. We support diversity of worldviews, histories, and cultural knowledge across a range of social groups including race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, abilities, economic class, religion, and their intersections.

Religious Observances

In keeping with our Statement of Inclusion and Illinois law, the University is required to reasonably accommodate its students’ religious beliefs, observances, and practices in regard to admissions, class attendance, and the scheduling of examinations and work requirements.

Religious Observance Accommodation Request form:

Other accommodations may be available.

Accessibility Statement

To insure disability-related concerns are properly addressed from the beginning of the semester, I request that students with disabilities who require assistance to participate in this class contact me as soon as possible to discuss your needs and any concerns you may have. The University of Illinois may be able to provide additional resources to assist you in your studies through the office of Disability Resources and Educational Services (DRES). This office can assist you with disability-related academic adjustments and/or auxiliary aids. Please contact them as soon as possible by visiting the office in person: 1207 S. Oak St., Champaign; visiting the website:; calling (217) 333-4603 (V/TTY); or via e-mail NOTE: I do not require a letter from DRES in order to discuss your requested accommodations.

Land Acknowledgment

Suggested by Native American House:

I recognize and acknowledge that we are on the lands of the Peoria, Kaskaskia, Piankashaw, Wea, Miami, Mascoutin, Odawa, Sauk, Mesquaki, Kickapoo, Potawatomi, Ojibwe, and Chickasaw Nations. These lands were the traditional territory of these Native Nations prior to their forced removal; these lands continue to carry the stories of these Nations and their struggles for survival and identity.

As a land-grant institution, the University of Illinois has a particular responsibility to acknowledge the peoples of these lands, as well as the histories of dispossession that have allowed for the growth of this institution for the past 150 years. We are also obligated to reflect on and actively address these histories and the role that this university has played in shaping them. This acknowledgment and the centering of Native peoples is a start as we move forward for the next 150 years.