Moby-Dick & the Digital Generation

"Call me Ishmael." Even if you haven't read Moby-Dick, you will probably know the novel's iconic opening line. Likewise, even if you haven't read Moby-Dick, you will have a rough idea as to what the narrative is about—Captain Ahab's frantic hunt of a white sperm whale. The very fact that people know about Moby-Dick without, in fact, knowing Moby-Dick testifies to the novel's cultural relevance and potency. Indeed, as we will see, Moby-Dick is about so much more than the mere conflict between man and nature.

This undergraduate seminar will consist of two main parts: In the first half of the semester, we will engage in a close reading of what many literary scholars and also the general public consider one of the (if not the) "great American novels." In the second half of the semester, we will look at Moby-Dick's continued presence in post-WWII popular culture. Accordingly, we will watch movie adaptations and read comic adaptation, but also explore some other texts in which Moby-Dick (and/or Moby Dick) plays a prominent role, including the Star Trek franchise, the video game Metal Gear Solid V: Phantom Pain, Nathaniel Philbrick's In the Heart of the Sea, and China Miéville’s novel Railsea.

Since the first part of this undergraduate seminar will pursue a close reading of Moby-Dick, the main objective here will be that students gain a deeper understanding of Moby-Dick and its socioeconomic environment; in particular, students will come to understand (and appreciate) what might be termed Moby-Dick's postmodernism avant la lettre, its rhetorical strategies, its ecological subtexts, its engagement with scientific discourse, and nineteenth-century whaling. The primary goal of the second half of the semester is for students to make sense of the continued cultural presence of Moby-Dick. Since we will discuss different media in this context, students will also attain an understanding of the operating principles of different media. In addition, frequent writing tasks will allow students to fine-tune their rhetorical strategies and their critical engagement with texts, while the final project will provide students insights into how literary and cultural studies scholars may find links to the digital humanities.

Important note: Since the title of this seminar is "Moby-Dick Meets the Digital Generation," students should be prepared to produce a digital project (scholarship or academic) at the end of the semester instead of a traditional essay/paper. This piece of digital scholarship may, for example, be a video essay, a mash-up composed of different Moby-Dick adaptations (which should communicate an idea to be made explicit in a written attachment), or some sort of digital commentary, while there are practically no limits to creative projects.


Sample Student Feedback

"I would have never thought that you could discuss a book in so much detail as we did, but I also didn't know how complex Moby-Dick is. I'm still fascinated about how much [additional] information and references to other literature, for example the bible, can fit into this book. I rarely ever discussed a novel that thoroughly and in as much detail [...]. I'm not going to lie, I went to a few classes where I thought that there can't be anything else that we haven't discussed yet and I sometimes got frustrated with the forum because I couldn't think of anything to write. But those discussions in class were definitely one of the most interesting things during the semester. I loved hearing about your views and interpretations of certain parts of the book. There were many ideas and conceptions I would have never had during or after reading Moby-Dick. [...] I feel like all the discussions we had actually helped me really understand the novel and encouraged me to read between the lines more often."

"What surprised me most [...] is the [...] presence Moby-Dick has in modern culture. Comics, games, movies and TV – for adults or for kids – the whale and its reach are everywhere. It is…fascinating, really, to go through the world and suddenly get this feeling of 'Hey, that's from Moby-Dick' while many people probably don't even notice it. I do sometimes wonder what Melville would say if he were here today and could see the kind of legacy he left behind. [...] Anyway, I personally loved this course. It was interesting, informative and I know I will take a lot of what I learned here along with [me]. Maybe that is partly because the grading format of the course demanded I deal with something involving Moby-Dick every week, but I didn't mind that, either. It was fun, digging deeper into all that made this novel so great, be it its history or its influence on modern culture."  

"[T]he course was very fascinating and I think everyone of us has gotten something out of it. One thing [...] I have noticed during the last months is that I really try to question literature/art/media on a much deeper level than before. Discussing all those topics with [the group] (in class and on the forum) really helped me to advance my skills in that matter. [...] One thing I really liked was the chill atmosphere (physically as well as online). I've never had the feeling of sitting in a [seminar] – more in something like a learner/literature group. The open discussions and casual format really help to provide a comfortable time while learning and talking about the book. I think other courses should adapt this style of teaching, too."

"Regarding the atmosphere, I sometimes felt like I was just sitting at a book club with Michael guiding us through the 1 1/2 hours. All in all, while it was quite a bit of work I still had fun doing it."