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Faculty Focus: Mark Sample Explores Critical Analysis and Creative Discovery Through Digital Studies

by John Syme

Mark SampleThe continually evolving liberal arts experience at Davidson got a boost in 2013-14 with the arrival of Visiting Associate Professor and Director of Digital Studies Mark Sample.

Sample balances form and content, the liberal arts and the art of all things digital. An early computer aficionado, he recalls his favorite store growing up in Akron, Ohio, was Radio Shack.

Sample's thesis at Georgetown in the mid-1990s, on representations of computers and the Web in television commercials, was a harbinger of his approach now to technology in the classroom.

"Back then, computers were for work, not play," he said. "But of course there is a very creative, playful side to computers, and that's what I love to bring into my teaching."

Yet Sample's academic background is primarily literary, not technological.

He holds a bachelor's degree in education from Ohio's Miami University, a master's in communication, culture and technology from Georgetown University, and a master's and a doctorate in comparative literature and literary theory from the University of Pennsylvania. Most recently, he served as associate professor of English at George Mason University.

Familiar Questions, New Approaches

Though he never studied programming formally, Sample's passion for computers has kept pace with technology as well as with his love of literature, from the days of his family's first home computer in 1982 to co-authorship of 10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10 (MIT Press, 2013). The book is about a single line of code that generates a continuously scrolling random maze on the Commodore 64.

"10 PRINT is aimed at people who want to better understand the cultural resonance of code," Sample writes on his blog, Sample Reality. "But it's also about aesthetics, hardware, typography, randomness, and the birth of home computing."

Sample's inaugural academic offerings at Davidson included two classes in digital studies: "Introduction to Digital Studies" and "Hacking, Remixing and Design."

"In my intro class, students go on a 48-hour ‘cell phone sabbatical,' in which they can only use their phone for calling. No texting, no Facebook, no Twitter, no Snapchat," Sample said. "Students finished that assignment with a new understanding of how they often rely on social media to connect with their friends, while simultaneously using social media on their phones as an excuse to avoid interactions with people around them.

"In ‘Hacking, Remixing, and Design,' students had final projects, so-called ‘impossible projects,' in which they design an ambitious Kickstarter-like idea."

Sample's arrival at Davidson coincided with the opening of Studio M, Davidson's new makerspace. His "Hacking, Remixing, and Design" students have already offered a workshop in Studio M for Professor Suzanne Churchill's seminar students, in which they rapid-prototyped new reading interfaces for online texts, for example, using ski poles as the means to scroll through ‘Snowfall,' a New York Times multimedia story about a deadly avalanche.

Sample's current research is an exploration of how "breaking things" can be means to critical analysis. For example, Sample has designed a computer program that automatically generates textual deformations of Wallace Stevens' "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird." Sample's program can generate 18,982,000,000 distinct versions of Stevens' poem, and while some of them are sheer nonsense, others are poetic in their own right. And all of them, Sample believes, can help us understand the original poem better, as well as poetic language more generally.

Teaching and learning possibilities continue to emerge at an exponential rate since the days when Socrates first expressed his distrust of the technology called "writing."

"Broadly speaking," Sample said, "digital studies is not about using the latest tools just because they're new, but about using digital technology to pursue the scholarly questions and creative paths Davidson has always valued."

The Board of Trustees recently approved Sample for tenure, effective Aug. 1.