March 14, 2014
University of Michigan students interested in a deeper understanding of digital practices now have an opportunity to pursue an LSA academic minor in digital studies.
This path-breaking curriculum is the first step in a wider plan to build a coherent liberal arts program of research and teaching on the ever-changing technological landscape. U-M has reached a critical mass of professors producing groundbreaking research on all aspects of digital culture.
The Department of American Culture is host to this interdisciplinary effort that draws together a dynamic cross-campus partnership with the departments of English, History, Screen Arts and Cultures, Communication Studies and the Stamps School of Art and Design. Together they demonstrate the profound benefits that U-M students receive from interdisciplinary training, American Culture officials said.
American Culture is the home to this new minor because it has the faculty commitment and resources needed to devote to this nascent program. So, too, American Culture brings a wealth of experience managing similar interdisciplinary programs as it already houses the university's ethnic studies programs, like Latina/o studies, Asian/Pacific Islander American studies, Arab and Muslim American studies, and Native American studies.
Yet digital studies' home in American Culture might belie how truly transnational this new minor is. Digital studies is not just about American culture, it is about an emerging world culture.
Lisa Nakamura, the Gwendolyn Calvert Baker Collegiate Professor of American Culture and Screen Arts and Cultures, and Anthony Mora, associate chair of American culture and associate professor of history, are spearheading the effort.
Nakamura's own research on race and digital media shows how much can be gained by applying humanities methodologies to understanding the Internet's influence on our current discussions of identity.
"I can't think of a better place than Michigan for a curious and intelligent undergraduate student to receive a rigorous training in how to analyze digital media from a critical, analytical, and historical perspective," Nakamura says.
"We need to understand new phenomena like cloud computing, the history of the World Wide Web, and the surveillance and gathering of personal information. There are few places on most college campuses that one can do this outside of highly technical fields, which are not every student's interest."
Digital studies encompasses such new and diverse practices and methodologies immediately relevant to contemporary concerns. The field includes scholars who create digital archives, analyze online media, and/or disseminate text, image and video using new platforms and computational tools. Other academics study the everyday practices of digital culture, such as gaming, surveillance, social networking and online discourse.
"Any student who wants to understand American economics, interaction, culture or where we are headed in the times to come cannot afford to ignore digital media," says June Howard, chair of the Department of American Culture. "There is so much to gain from studying them in a sustained way."
A typical student in this new minor might put together an ensemble of courses focusing on digital economies and intellectual property debates; digital labor, race, gender and identity in online spaces; algorithmic cultures and computing history; digital games studies; online communities; shifting distribution channels for music, video, and other media; or digital textuality.
American Culture's faculty leadership notes that the new minor offers a unique approach to the study of the digital.
"The University of Michigan was well ahead of the curve in hiring some of the most innovative scholars working at the intersections of technology, digital media and culture," Nakamura says.
Students learn the methods and tools for studying, analyzing, and writing about their everyday engagements with electronic forms of community and culture in the United States from Twitter and Facebook to video games. Rapid technological transformations are altering our expectations for engaged citizenship and civic practices as well as scholarly research and publishing.
"American Culture and its partner departments will ensure that Michigan keeps pace with these changes," Howard says.