Professor rolls with changes in the digital media world


Since Lisa Nakamura began teaching courses about digital media in 2001, the course themes have evolved every year to match the fast-paced change within the online world.

“When I first offered this course at (the University of Wisconsin-Madison) in 2003, the students mostly wanted to learn how to build websites and were very disappointed when we didn’t teach them how to build them,” she said. “I never have people ask me how to build websites now.”

Nakamura, the Gwendolyn Calvert Baker Collegiate Professor of American Culture and Digital Studies in LSA, earned her undergraduate degree from Reed College in Portland, Oregon, in 1987 before receiving a master’s degree and Ph.D. from the City University of New York Graduate Center in 1994 and 1996, respectively.

She has been writing about the intersection of race, gender and the internet since then, with research specialization in digital game studies, feminist theory, and Asian American studies.

Lisa Nakamura, who began teaching courses about digital media in 2001 and at U-M in 2012, helped create a digital studies minor to provide recognition for students who had spent so much time researching it.
Lisa Nakamura, who began teaching courses about digital media in 2001 and at U-M in 2012, helped create a digital studies minor to provide recognition for students who had spent so much time researching it. (Photo by Jasmina Tomic, TED)

When she came to the University of Michigan in 2012, courses for digital studies were spread across different departments. Students with different majors were drawn to digital studies courses for a variety of reasons, such as the social or mechanical aspects.

Because the digital studies courses were not grouped together, Nakamura and other faculty approached the curriculum committee to create a minor to provide recognition for students who had spent so much time researching these topics.

“So if a student really learned a lot about algorithms and inequality, or social organizing on the internet, a traditional major degree might not make that obvious to an employer or a graduate program. It’s to give legibility to students’ work.”

Nakamura also is a professor of film, television and media, English language and literature, women’s and gender studies, and is director of the Digital Studies Institute, all in LSA. The Digital Studies Institute offers both an undergraduate minor and a graduate certificate. 

The most recent course she taught was a freshman seminar called “The Internet is a Trash Fire.” The curriculum covered an array of topics that analyzed the mechanisms of digital platforms, the social ramifications of online interactions, and the way that social media can shape perspectives and behaviors.

Students engaged with topics about online censorship, digital activism and internet ethics by looking critically at platforms like Reddit, YouTube, Tumblr and Twitter.

“We did some really fun things in there. We learned how to hold space for each other to see whether it was possible to do that online. We did a lot of experiential kind of experimentation to differentiate the ways we interact online and in person,” she said.

During the course, Nakamura invited a consultant from Facebook as guest speaker. As an activity, students submitted proposals to reduce hate speech on the social media platform.

 “She destroyed them all within five minutes,” Nakamura said. “They got a good sense of whether they could bring their policy to a company and see if they could successfully implement it.

“It was good because everyone emerged with a new sense of how complicated it can be when things go wrong and how these situations are the accumulation of a bunch of different factors that aren’t necessarily one person’s fault.”

In addition to the changes within digital environments, student interests and aspirations have also changed.

“When I started teaching in communication in 2007, the most popular job was to be a sportscaster,” she said. “And around the 2010s, people wanted to be celebrity social media producers and create content for celebrities like Britney Spears. Then around 2014 or 2015, the big thing was, ‘I want to work at Google.’

“And right now, people are so critical of Big Tech. I see more that students want to build an app that helps society. There’s this move away from wanting to make a lot of money in a large monopolistic corporation to being more interested in collective work or independent work or in non-profit work or work with activists.”

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Much like her students, Nakamura has taken an interest in TikTok, the 60-second video-based app that has become increasingly popular in the past year due to its addictive algorithm and the controversy surrounding the app’s ownership.

The app’s hyper-specific algorithm produces curated content for its users.

“I’m on ‘cow TikTok,’” she joked. “I would’ve never found it myself, but I’m glad it’s here.”

As a new social media platform, there’s little qualitative research or academic analysis of it.

“TikTok, because it’s the first new platform in 10 years, I think is incredibly interesting and people don’t know how to study it,” she said. “There’s no writing on it. No book on it. It seems like a good project for collaboration between a student and a faculty member. I’d be really excited to read about that.”


What memorable moment in the workplace stands out?

The last class meeting in my AMCULT/DIGITAL 334: Race, Gender, Sexuality and Video Games course when students demonstrated the games they had made on the big screen in our lecture hall. There were some unbelievably creative, funny and thought-provoking pieces that addressed race and racism, misogyny and disability. 

What can’t you live without?

I can’t live without swimming, Twitter, TikTok, video games, playing music on the banjo, mandolin and ukulele, and podcasts.

Name your favorite spot on campus.

The block of State Street right across from the museum and Nickels Arcade. I work in Mason and Haven halls and can get the best chicken pita, warm gloves, U-M swag, a last-minute gift for someone, in five minutes.

What inspires you?

Fred Moten’s writing, especially his book with Stefano Harney, “The Undercommons.”  Also Steezy’s “3 Choreographers One Song” series on YouTube. 

What are you currently reading?

I’m re-reading “Station Eleven,” a science fiction book about a pandemic, and the Murderbot books by Martha Wells.

Who had the greatest influence on your career path?

Donna Haraway, a professor emeritus at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her essay “A Cyborg Manifesto” gave me theoretical tools for understanding how to write about the internet and power. She also helped me in many invisible ways when I was a very junior professor.


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