Privacy, Publicity,
& the Text Message


AMS 343 / ENG 238
Fall 2020

Wed, 1:30–3:20 +Practicum

Professor Grant Wythoff
Office Hours: Tue 3—5

sms icon Description

This seminar will explore how we negotiate the distance between ourselves and others through text messages. Texts sustain an ambient intimacy that is increasingly redefining borders that range from the interpersonal—via anonymous mental health support—to the international—via reporting platforms for immigrant communities. What technical and social expectations of privacy do we operate with when sending a point-to-point message? How do novelists incorporate text messages into works of fiction? What does it mean that Frank Ocean can sing, “you text nothing like you look”?

Students will apply methods from literary theory to text messages. They will learn about the technical standards of SMS, now twenty years old. Readings on epistolary novels, postal networks, and textual criticism will be paired with practica on telegraphy, T9, and community mesh networks. As a class that takes place remotely, we will explore what is needed to maintain our connections during a pandemic, both as individuals and as communities. To that end, we will also have the opportunity to work with the Philly Community Wireless Project, an organization devoted to digital equity and Internet accessibility.


This course centers on critical data literacies. This means that students will:

  1. review the numerical and categorical information that is collected about them when using social media and messaging platforms,
  2. learn how, where, and by whom their texts are encoded, transmitted, and stored, and
  3. experiment with alternative messaging platforms that will require them to learn some basic computational tools.

No prior experience with code or critical theory is required.

Required Books

Joanne McNeil, Lurking: How a Person Became a User (2020)

Amaranth Borsuk, The Book (2018)

Elaine Treharne and Claude Willan, Text Technologies: A History (2019)

sms icon Schedule


Week 1 | Sep 2

Texting in a pandemic.

Week 2 | Sep 9

The history of SMS.


Week 3 | Sep 16

What is community technology?

Week 4 | Sep 23

Digital equity and mesh networks.

Week 5 | Sep 30

The situation in Philadelphia.


Week 6 | Oct 7

Postal networks.

Week 7 | Oct 14

The epistolary novel.

Fall Recess: no synchronous meeting.

Week 8 | Oct 21

Visualizing the republic of letters.

Medium & Message

Week 9 | Oct 28

Theories of textuality.

Week 10 | Nov 4

History of text technologies.


Week 11 | Nov 11

The book as a textual container.


Week 12 | Nov 18

Presentations and farewells.

sms icon Administrative

COVID Caveat

No one expected to be here. Even now, it’s difficult to know what to expect from the world in the coming months. But despite the challenges of the pandemic, I am grateful to be here with you and am very much looking forward to our semester together.

Let’s begin by acknowledging that our learning throughout the Fall will happen amid dislocation, anxiety, uncertainty, awareness of social injustice, anger, and an election. Real life is never separate from this learning community. The pandemic and anti-racist uprisings have impacted all of us in very different ways. They have produced uneven effects in terms of physical health, mental wellbeing, and financial resources. I hope we can maintain an awareness of these facts and offer some kindness when things get tough for any one of us. We will need to be more communicative online than we have been in the past, especially if and when things get rocky.

This course is designed to be flexible and can evolve in its format and requirements depending on world events, our collective energy while learning remotely, and the direction our conversations take us. Given that we will all be meeting online, with different technological infrastructures and accessibility than we’re used to on campus, it may take a couple weeks before the group finds a rhythm, be it synchronous or asynchronous. So, please keep an open channel with me about what’s working and what isn’t, both for you and for the class as a whole.

Above all, I want you to know that your wellbeing—and that of your family and friends—will always be more important to me than this class. You don’t have to apologize 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 the class. My primary role as a teacher is to support you however I can. Let me know how I can do that better.

In General

If there’s a construction icon (🚧) at the top of a page, that means it’s still in process, subject to change, and open to your input!

If any student would like contribute or make edits to the course site via GitHub, feel free to submit a pull request. For anyone who does so, I just ask that you teach one of your classmates who has never used GitHub (or markdown, the command line, or static sites) about the process as you make your edits.

Honor Code

I regard plagiarism as a very serious matter. In this class, plagiarism consists of work taken partially or entirely from an uncited source (the Internet, a peer, a published article, etc.) and assumed as your own. Evidence of violating these guidelines will result in submission of the case to the Committee on Discipline. No one wants that to happen. It is therefore your responsibility, if you are unsure of what is and what is not allowed, to discuss the assignment with your instructor and then to adhere to the instructor’s guidelines rigorously.

Equal Access

The Office of Disability Services (ODS) offers a range of services to ensure that students with disabilities have equal access to Princeton’s academic and extracurricular opportunities. The office facilitates reasonable academic accommodations for qualified students who have submitted documentation verifying a disability. More information is available at


Princeton offers a variety of confidential services to help you through difficult times, including individual and group counseling, crisis intervention, consultations, online chats, and mental health screenings. These services are provided by staff who welcome all students and embrace a philosophy respectful of clients’ cultural and religious backgrounds, and sensitive to differences in race, ability, gender identity and sexual orientation. You can schedule an initial consultation online at

sms icon Acknowledgements

Thanks to all guest speakers, to Rachel Sagner Buurma and Jérémie Lumbroso for inspiration on the practica, and to Ryan Cordell, Amelia Acker, and Sara J. Grossman, whose syllabi and pedagogy influenced the design and content of this course.