ENGL 89500: Knowledge Infrastructures

NOTE: This syllabus has been altered to accommodate the circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic. Click here for the original syllabus.

CUNY Graduate Center | Wednesdays 4:15PM-6:15PM | Room 3305 | 2/4 credits

Course Website: https://kinfrastructures.commons.gc.cuny.edu/ or http://cuny.is/kinfrastructures

Course Group: https://commons.gc.cuny.edu/groups/engl-89500-knowledge-infrastructures/ or http://cuny.is/kinfrastructuresgroup

Syllabus on GitHub


Contact Info

Dr. Matthew K. Gold


(212) 817-7256

Office hours: Tuesdays 5pm-6pm and by appointment

Room 5307.04

Course Description

Infrastructure is all around us, rarely remarked upon. Indeed, the latent state of infrastructure is part of what marks it as such; as Susan Leigh Starr has noted, infrastructure studies involves the examination of "boring things."

This class will explore the emerging nexus of critical infrastructure studies and critical university studies, focusing on the infrastructure of scholarly knowledge. From our libraries to our journals to our conferences to our operating systems to our use of social media, scholars communicate through an entanglement of corporate and commercial interests. Beyond the obviously problematic commercial infrastructures built by predatory publishers and corporate conglomerates such as Elsevier, scholars routinely depend on for-profit publication venues and commercial journals to disseminate their work.

As a set of alternatives to the commercialized infrastructure of knowledge dissemination in the academy, the course will consider open access publication models, free software development, and university press publishing. Even as we explore such alternatives, we will critique them, considering the ways that such alternatives themselves depend upon commercial technical stacks, and considering whether these alternatives are equally available and accessible across the globe.

Topics to be explored include: introductions to critical infrastructure studies and critical university studies; the environmental impact of the cloud; the free software movement; academic publishing models; constructing open platforms. Students in the class will explore publishing platforms collaboratively created by CUNY and other partners, including the CUNY Academic Commons and Manifold, as well as others such as Humanities Commons and Zotero. The goal of the class, in the end, is to ask students to consider how and where their own scholarly knowledge is distributed, and by whom and under what terms.

Learning Objectives

  • Explore and become familiar with the fields of critical infrastructure studies, digital humanities, and critical university studies

  • Become more aware of knowledge systems and infrastructures we participate in

  • Consider the materiality of technical infrastructure and its entanglements in social, political, and interpersonal contexts

  • Make a collective intervention into the knowledge infrastructure of The Graduate Center and/or CUNY

  • Devote time and space to reading, thinking, and writing

Student Disability Services

It is Graduate Center and CUNY policy to provide appropriate accommodations to students with disabilities. Any student with a disability who may need accommodations in this class is advised to speak directly to the manager of Student Disability Services, located in Student Affairs, room 7301, or call 212-817-7400 as early in the semester as possible. All discussions will remain confidential.

Requirements and Structure

Weekly Reading and Discussion:

Students should complete all weekly readings in advance of the class meeting and should take an active part in class discussions.


Blog Posts and Class Discussions

Each week, one student will write a response to the assigned readings, to be posted by Tuesday morning the day before the class in which those readings will be discussed. These posts should offer a brief 1-2 paragraph response to the course texts and then should provide a set of 4-7 questions for group discussion. The post may also provide links to relevant related readings and resources. In class that day, that student will frame and initiate our discussion in class that week.

Other assignments should be posted to the blog as suggested below. Generally, we should try to use our course blog as a way to share information with each other and anyone else following the course from afar. Students who prefer to post privately may use our agreed-upon password to protect their posts.

Personal Narrative

Write a short (~500 word) blog post about some aspect of your personal knowledge infrastructure. You might think about how you keep track of citations, how you store/annotate academic articles, how you access academic texts, what systems you use to write. In your post, do some work to extend your knowledge of the infrastructure surrounding your topic/tool/platform and reflect a bit on your choices.

Ethnography Project

Choose one aspect of a knowledge infrastructure and perform a short (~500-1000 words) ethnography of it. This assignment will be expanded soon with guides and examples that will help you conduct an online ethnography.

Collective Intervention in GC/CUNY Knowledge Infrastructures (Final Project)

Through class discussions, we will come to a consensus on an intervention that we will collectively make into the knowledge infrastructures at the GC or in CUNY.

Students should complete a 500-word reflection on the collective intervention, to be posted on the course blog, due May 20.

Differential Credit Requirements:

  • Audit/2 credits: all assignments except Personal Narrative and Ethnography Project
  • 4 credits: All assignments


Regular participation in our class discussions and online spaces is essential.

  • Attendance and Participation (25%)
  • Blog posts (20%)
  • Personal Narrative (15%)
  • Ethnography Project (15%)
  • Collective Intervention Project and Reflections (25%)

Reading Schedule

items marked PDF will be uploaded to our course group


1/29 - Introductions

What is "infrastructure"? What is knowledge? What systems do we use ourselves, and what systems do those systems depend on? What issues are most important to us to explore this semester, and how can we together design a course that provides a meaningful learning experience for all of us? Reading through the syllabus as a whole, what changes would you like to make in this syllabus?


2/5 - Infrastructural Thinking

How can we theorize and understand infrastructure? Let's examine some works of infrastructure studies and consider the emerging field of critical infrastructure studies and its relationship to digital humanities.

  • Star, Susan Leigh. “The Ethnography of Infrastructure." American Behavioral Scientist, vol. 43.4, 1 November 1999. (PDF)
  • Bowker, Geoffrey C. and Susan Leigh Star. Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences (selections: "Some Tricks of the Trade in Analyzing Classification"; "Categorical Work and Boundary Infrastructures: Enriching Theories of Classification"). Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1999. (PDF)
  • Larkin, Brian, “The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure.” Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 42, 2013, pp. 327-343. (PDF)
  • Rueb, Emily S. and Eiko Ojala. "New York 101: Why are the streets always under construction?” New York Times. 18 August 2016.
  • Liu, Alan. "CI Studies Bibliography." Critical Infrastructure Studies.org. N.d.

2/19 - Networked Infrastructures

How might we consider the materiality of networks and cloud-based systems? To what extent is a network an infrastructure?

  • Mattern, Shannon. “Infrastructural Tourism.” Places Journal. July 2013.
  • Starosielski, Nicole. "Fixed flow: Undersea cables as media infrastructure." In Signal Traffic: Critical Studies of Media Infrastructures. Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 2015. (PDF)
  • Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham: Duke University Press, 2009. (selections in PDF)
  • Hu, Tung-Hui. A Prehistory of the Cloud. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2016. (selections in PDF)

2/26 - Digital Humanities -- Ways of Thinking

How have digital humanities approached knowledge, and knowledge infrastructures? What questions and concerns do we need to keep in mind when exploring DH and data-related scholarship?

  • Ramsay, Stephen, and Geoffrey Rockwell. "Developing Things: Notes toward an Epistemology of Building in the Digital Humanities." Debates in the Digital Humanities, edited by Matthew K. Gold, University of Minnesota Press, 2012.
  • Jackson, Stephen. "Rethinking Repair." Media Technologies: Essays on Communication, Materiality, and Society, edited by Tarleton Gillespie, Pablo J. Boczkowski, and Kirsten A. Foot, MIT Press Scholarship Online, September 2014. (PDF)
  • Gallon, Kim. "Making a Case for the Black Digital Humanities"." Debates in the Digital Humanities: 2016, edited by Matthew K. Gold and Lauren F. Klein, University of Minnesota Press, 2016.
  • Presner, Todd. Critical Theory and the Mangle of Digital Humanities,” in The Humanities and the Digital, eds. David Theo Goldberg and Patrik Svensson. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2014. (PDF)
  • Greenspan, Brian. "The Scandal of Digital Humanities." Debates in the Digital Humanities 2019, Eds. Matthew K. Gold and Lauren F. Klein. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019.

3/4 - Knowledge Systems, Data, and Infrastructures


3/11 - Commoning

  • Hess, Charlotte, and Elinor Ostrom. Understanding Knowledge As a Commons: From Theory to Practice. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2011. ( ebook freely available through library catalog): Introduction + Chapters 1, 2, and 3 (pp. 3-83)
  • Harvey, David. "The Creation of the Urban Commons." Rebel Cities. New York: Verso, 2012. (PDF)
  • Kathleen Fitzpatrick, "Working in Public." In Generous Thinking. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019. (PDF)
  • Sweeney, Miriam E. "The Intersectional Interface." In The Intersectional Internet: Race, Sex, Class, and Culture Online. Eds. Safiya Umoja Noble and Brendesha M. Tynes. New York: Peter Lang, 2016: 215-228. (PDF)


all classes online from here forward

3/18 - No Class -- CUNY-wide instructional pause

3/25 - Troubling

  • Haraway, Donna. "Introduction" and "Sympoiesis." In Staying with the Trouble. Durham: Duke University Press, 2016. (PDF)
  • Ahmed, Sara. "Conclusion: Disorientation and Queer Objects." In Queer Phenomenologies. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006. (PDF)

4/1 - Opening

Personal Narrative Assignment Due (OPTIONAL)


4/7 (TUESDAY) - The University

  • Fabricant, Michael, and Stephen Brier. Austerity Blues: Fighting for the Soul of Public Higher Education. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016. (All except Ch 5 in PDF)
  • Harney, Stefano, and Fred Moten. The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning Et Black Study. Wivenhoe: Minor Compositions, 2013. ("The University and the Undercommons" and "Logistics" in PDF)

4/22 - Libraries and Archives

4/29 - The Book (Visitor: Johnathan Thayer, Queens College)

Bonus: Dixon, Patrick. "Future of books and publishing - my visit to book factory - watch Futurist book being printed." YouTube. 22 May 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dc4dGcLjOJ4

5/6 - CUNY Distance Learning Archive (Visitor: Ed Summers, Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities, Documenting the Now)

  • work together to describe and process the CDLA materials we have gathered so far

5/13 - CUNY Distance Learning Archive (Visitor: Jim McGrath, Brown University, Our Marathon Project)



  • Collaboratively create a google doc that offers a basic description of the archive, the materials we've collected, and their locations. Broad strokes are fine for now, and we will continue to fill it in.

Optional follow-up from last week:

5/20 -- Wrap Up and Reflection

Final Reflections Due

Please write a 1-2 page reflection on the semester and on any aspect of our course. Some ideas and possibilities:

  • Since our CDLA project asks students to submit narratives to the archive, write a narrative about your experiences this semester that you might be able to submit to the archive
  • Write about your experience in the course. What worked for you, what didn't? How did you experience the move to distance learning?
  • Reflect on the course that might have been, and make suggestions for the next go-around -- what readings and topics were you hoping to cover that were moved aside once COVID-19 hit? What readings moved you and most stimulated your thinking?
  • How do you see the concept of either "knowledge infrastructures" or "infrastructural thinking" offering insights into your future work? How might you incorporate these concepts into your ongoing work?
  • Don't write a paper, but instead to do something creative and/or collaborative.
  • Do nothing. If it's too much to write a paper or even to think very much right now, take some well-deserved rest.


In its structure (and, in the case of the blog post assignment, occasionally its language), this syllabus takes direct inspiration from Luke Waltzer's Spring 2020 course on Critical Educational Technology at the CUNY Graduate Center. #citepedagogy