Material of language

NYU ITP, Spring 2021. Instructor: Allison Parrish. Send me e-mail.

Class schedule, including session outlines, tutorial notes, readings and assignments.


Language is more than just words and meanings: it’s paper and ink, pixels and screens, fingertips on keyboards, voices speaking out loud. Language is, in a word, material. In this course, students will gain an understanding of how the material of language is represented digitally, and learn computational techniques for manipulating this material in order to create speculative technologies that challenge conventional reading and writing practices. Topics include asemic writing, concrete poetry, markup languages, keyboard layouts, interactive and generative typography, printing technologies and bots (alongside other forms of radical publishing). Students will complete a series of weekly readings and production-oriented assignments leading up to a final project. In addition to critique, sessions will feature lectures, class discussions and technical tutorials. Prerequisites: Introduction to Computational Media or equivalent programming experience.

Ethos, practice, programming

“Let us have no more of those successive, incessant, back and forth motions of our eyes, tracking from one line to the next and beginning all over again—otherwise we will miss that ecstasy in which we have become immortal for a brief hour, free of all reality, and raise our obsessions to the level of creation.” — Stéphane Mallarmé, “The Book: A Spiritual Instrument,” Selected Poetry and Prose, edited by Mary Ann Caws (New York: New Directions, 1982), p. 82.

This class concerns what happens when language becomes manifest in the world, with a particular focus on forms of language or forms of manifestation that foreground computation and/or interactive media. Our methodology for approaching these themes is free-form, drawing from critical making, speculative design, creative writing, and the humanities. In particular, the class asserts that making things is one of the most effective ways of learning how to think critically.

Organization and expectations

Around half of our time in class will be dedicated to lectures, presentations and discussions of assigned readings. The other half will be dedicated to hands-on tech tutorials that demonstrate how to make new work, using computational techniques similar to (or inspired by) those used in the works we’re discussing.

Students will be assigned a series of “sketches” on these topics, which encourage you to make something (an object, an intervention, a computer program, etc.) that engages with, expands upon and/or challenges the content of our discussions. We’ll spend a good deal of time in class “workshopping” the results of these meditations.

By the last class session, students will be literate in practical, historical and theoretical approaches to language as it is manifested in the world. Students will have made several prototype projects that exercise this literacy and a final project that shows their mastery of the material presented in class.


Wherever possible, this course focuses on open source software, and on doing things from scratch. It’s true that many of the techniques we’ll look at can be accomplished with the click of a button in commercial design and media production software, and it’s also true that open source software can’t often compete, feature by feature, with commercial software packages. However, open source software does have significant advantages: first, you can use it without paying rent; second, in using, adapting, and contributing to open source software, we contribute to a body of knowledge that belongs to everyone; and finally, open source software allows us to look at the “guts” of the techniques under discussion in the class, so we can better understand them.

The primary programming language in the tech tutorials in this class is Python. Some familiarity with programming is assumed (ICM or equivalent); no previous familiarity with Python is needed. We’ll spend a handful of sessions near the beginning of the class getting students up to speed. Complete notes for most tech tutorials will be supplied as standalone, easy-to-modify Jupyter Notebooks. Students are encouraged and expected to apply their own expertise in computation, design, and fabrication to the work they produce in this class.


Class schedule with readings, assignments and due dates.

Grading Policy

Component Percentage
Attendance and participation 30%
Weekly assignments 6 x 8% (48%)
Final project 22%

Here’s the breakdown of how grades correspond with percentages.

Grade Percentage
A 90 to 100
B 80 to 89
C 70 to 79
D 60 to 69
F Below 60

For students taking the class as pass/fail (i.e., all ITP students), anything below a B (79% and below) will be graded as a fail. More information on ITP’s grading policy here.

Reading and materials

Readings are made available either as links to documents on the web or as handouts. Generally, the first twenty to thirty minutes of alternate classes will be devoted to a discussion of the reading.

Assignment and project expectations

This class has seven deliverables: six weekly assignments and a final project.

Please use this form to turn in your homework assignments.


There are a total of six homework assignments, which in aggregate are worth 48% of your grade. In addition to complying with the parameters of the assignment as outlined in class, you are expected to post (to your blog) documentation of your assignment. This documentation should include a description of what goals you set out with, what you accomplished, what your next steps would be if you were to continue to follow this line of investigation, and what works (artworks, literature, your own research, academic papers, etc.) you understand your work to be in dialogue with. For assignments that require programming, your documentation should include a link to your code.

Students may be called upon (and are encouraged to volunteer) to present their homework assignments in class.

Homework assignments will not be accepted after their respective due dates.

Final project

The final project is free-form. Use it as an opportunity to show your understanding of class material through the process of making something that critically engages with it.

There are two deliverables associated with the final project:

  • The final project presentation, which you will deliver during one of two final project presentation sessions near the end of class. These presentations will be accompanied by critique from your classmates and guest critics. You show your work and justify your methodology (inspiration, goals, technical challenges, etc.) in a presentation lasting no longer than 10-12 minutes (leaving plenty of time for critique and Q&A).
  • The final project documentation should consist of documentation of your final project work (video, still images, text, sound recordings, etc., depending on the shape the piece takes) along with (b) a discussion of methodology and (c) any source code (if applicable) for the project. (Basically, I’m expecting a nice, meaty blog post.)

Due dates and scheduling for the final project and the final performance will be posted on the class schedule.

Evaluation rubric

Work will be evaluated according to the following criteria: compliance, gregariousness, and stubbornness.

  • An assignment is compliant if it meets the brief.
  • An assignment is gregarious if it makes connections between course content and the rest of the world; e.g. your own interests as an artist, designer, technologist, etc. and/or other fields of research and practice.
  • An assignment is stubborn if it provides evidence that its maker was opinionated about what they wanted to accomplish and did not let small setbacks (whether conceptual or technical) deter them this end.

Each assignment will be assigned a score of 0, 1 or 2 in these categories, in accordance with the extent to which the assignment demonstrates the properties described.

  • 0: No evidence of quality
  • 1: Meets expectations
  • 2: Shows exceptional effort

Each category will be weighted equally when assigning a final score to each assignment.

Attendance, lateness and in-class behavior policies

You are expected to attend all class sessions. Absences due to non-emergency situations will only be cleared if you let me know a week (or more) in advance, and even then only for compelling personal or professional reasons (e.g., attending an important conference, going to a wedding). If you’re unable to attend class due to contagious or incapacitating illness, please let me know (by e-mail) before class begins.

Each unexcused absence will deduct 5% from your final grade. If you have three or more unexcused absences, you risk failing the course.

Be on time to class. If you’re more than fifteen minutes late, or if you leave early (without my clearance), it will count as an unexcused absence.


Statement of academic integrity

Plagiarism is presenting someone else’s work as though it were your own. More specifically, plagiarism is to present as your own: A sequence of words quoted without quotation marks from another writer or a paraphrased passage from another writer’s work or facts, ideas or images composed by someone else.

Statement of principle

The core of the educational experience at the Tisch School of the Arts is the creation of original academic and artistic work by students for the critical review of faculty members. It is therefore of the utmost importance that students at all times provide their instructors with an accurate sense of their current abilities and knowledge in order to receive appropriate constructive criticism and advice. Any attempt to evade that essential, transparent transaction between instructor and student through plagiarism or cheating is educationally self-defeating and a grave violation of Tisch School of the Arts community standards. For all the details on plagiarism, please refer to page 10 of the Tisch School of the Arts, Policies and Procedures Handbook.

Statement on accessibility

Please feel free to make suggestions to your instructor about ways in which this class could become more accessible to you. Academic accommodations are available for students with documented disabilities. Please contact the Moses Center for Students with Disabilities at 212 998-4980 for further information.

Statement on counseling and wellness

Your health and safety are a priority at NYU. If you experience any health or mental health issues during this course, we encourage you to utilize the support services of the 24/7 NYU Wellness Exchange 212-443-9999. Also, all students who may require an academic accommodation due to a qualified disability, physical or mental, please register with the Moses Center 212-998-4980. Please let your instructor know if you need help connecting to these resources.

Statement on use of electronic devices

Laptops will be an essential part of the course and may be used in class during workshops and for taking notes in lecture. Laptops must be closed during class discussions and student presentations. Phone use in class is strictly prohibited unless directly related to a presentation of your own work or if you are asked to do so as part of the curriculum.

Statement on Title IX

Tisch School of the Arts to dedicated to providing its students with a learning environment that is rigorous, respectful, supportive and nurturing so that they can engage in the free exchange of ideas and commit themselves fully to the study of their discipline. To that end Tisch is committed to enforcing University policies prohibiting all forms of sexual misconduct as well as discrimination on the basis of sex and gender. Detailed information regarding these policies and the resources that are available to students through the Title IX office can be found by using the following link: Title IX at NYU.