Blog Post

"Media and the Senses," Or a Look Back on a Summer Institute in the Arts & Humanities

This summer, I was fortunate enough to be able to participate in the University of Washington's Seventh Annual Summer Institute in the Arts & Humanities (SIAH). Now that the SIAH is over, I want to take a minute here to unpack my experiences as they relate, in particular, to emerging forms of collaboration in the arts and humanities, the creative and critical use of technologies, and articulating "expertise" in interdisciplinary contexts. First, though, a word about the SIAH. 

About the Summer Institute in the Arts & Humanities

SIAH 2008, Photo 2

Created by the Undergraduate Research Program in collaboration with the Simpson Center for the Humanities at the University of Washington, Seattle (UW), the SIAH is an intensive and immersive undergraduate research opportunity for twenty UW students.  Each academic year, there is a new SIAH theme, teaching team, and student group.  While, this year, the theme was "Media and the Senses," in the past other themes have included "Culture and Globalization" and "New Directions in Cultural Research." For each SIAH, through a competitive process, undergraduates apply to participate; and the selected twenty students receive not only academic credit for their participation, but also Mary Gates Endowment Research Scholarships

Together with Carrie Bodle (Visiting Lecturer, School of Art), Axel Roesler (Assistant Professor for Interaction Design, School of Art), and Phillip Thurtle (Assistant Professor in Comparative History of Ideas and History and Adjunct in Anthropology), I was a member of this year's SIAH teaching team for "Media and the Senses."  As a group, we developed the curriculum for this year's SIAH.  By the end of "Media and the Senses," students were asked to:

  • + Synthesize technical skills with critical and creative practices.
  • + Participate in weekly "media labs," where they learned how to use software such as Adobe Flash, Final Cut Pro, and Audacity (with an emphasis on creative projects).   
  • + Pursue modes of creative thinking and imagination that carry scholarly potential in the arts and humanities, particularly through projects that stress the role of the senses in the production, circulation, and use of media.
  • + Contribute regularly to a multi-authored course blog. 
  • + Present their work at a one-week-long exhibition at the UW's Jacob Lawrence Gallery.
  • + After the exhibition, revise their work and present it again, in a different forum, at a formal, academic symposium
  • + Submit a final "process book" or portfolio of their work, including a final statement on their research as a process. 

For more on the SIAH, visit the Undergraduate Research Program's website.  A syllabus, in brief, is included there. 

Collaborations During the SIAH and Beyond

SIAH 2008, Photo 1

The SIAH was the first time I have team-taught a course, let alone an intensive undergraduate research institute in the arts and humanities.  For me, at least, what participating in a teaching team implied was a willingness to revise, to link (through lesson planning and the selection of course material) my scholarly investments with those of others, to engage in conversations in a decentered classroom, and, in the presence of students, to be willing to constructively disagree with other members of the teaching team about pressing issues related to the SIAH theme, "Media and the Senses."  In fact, those moments of disagreement have become vehicles for my own research, pressing me to think through the warrants that subtend my own inquiry and the archives I am working with.  In the classroom, they were also chances to explore differences across methodologies and disciplines and ask why those differences make issues matter in the first place.  Collaboration for the teaching team, then, did not always equal consensus, and that lack of consensus gave the students opportunities (at least in my opinion) to articulate multiple, divergent approaches to a single research question. 

This being an institute that attended, in part, to (digital) media, we did ask the students to contribute to a multi-authored course blog (using WordPress).  I could spend time unfolding what, exactly, they blogged about and the forms of media they used (including digital video, writing, and photography); however, what I will instead mention is how the blog corresponded with other collaborative activities.  Rather than being a means to an end, or a way of completing an assignment, the blog became a shared space for developing and receiving feedback on ideas, circulating announcements about local events, posting work in progress, in-class note-taking, making jokes, and storing lesson plans.  That said, the blog was never a space distinct from, say, the classroom.  It was simply one part of a multimodal learning environment in process.   And even though most students pursued individual projects over the course of the SIAH, it would be reductive to think that collaboration did not occur in other areas, at other moments.   Here are a few examples of those "other moments" that I can think of:

  • + Looking to each other for help in becoming more familiar with software (e.g., Final Cut Pro),
  • + Working together in a gallery space to set up and present their work to the public,
  • + Conducting ad-hoc critiques and practice presentation sessions outside of scheduled class time,
  • + Attending off-campus events and bringing those events back into the classroom (and onto the blog) for further conversations,
  • + Assuming particular roles for large-scale projects, such as publicizing the SIAH exhibition and symposium,
  • + The use of Facebook and YouTube to communicate and organize,
  • + Helping each other drastically revise and modify their projects, and 
  • + Lending each other the necessary materials for their projects.

If nothing else, what all of the above suggest to me is the importance of generating a collaborative climate early in any given course.  True, the SIAH is an exception to the course rule in many ways.  Nonetheless, what I've been thinking through as of late is how to use it as an example for future, project-based courses in the humanities, including courses on the digital humanities and technoculture studies.  What I've learned thus far in my teaching career is that such climates can really feed back into your own pedagogy and research.  I learned so much from each of the SIAH students this quarter not just because they were all really smart, but also because collaboration helped produce a space for risk-taking, student-generated content, lively debates, and innovative research trajectories. 

At this point, I have a few questions about fostering collaboration in the arts and humanities:

  • + How do instructors and students continue collaboration after the quarter or semester is over?
  • + How do we help generate institutional conditions that are more favorable to collaboration in the arts and humanities?
  • + Per Jed's recent post, how might collaboration spark communications across classes and classrooms?
  • + What are some of the dangers of collaboration, particularly for students?  For instance, how does it enable certain forms of dominance?  How is it gendered and racialized?  When it is only valorized, what do we ignore? 
  • + What would a labor theory of collaboration look like, and how would it differ from the ideals we might map onto collaboration?

Here on the HASTAC blog, I intend to return to these questions during the next year.  In the meantime, I'll end this section on collaboration with a quote from Sohroosh Hashemi, a student from the SIAH and a major in Business: "The Summer Institute has been intense. The faculty expect a lot from us. I've read some heavy theory that I would probably never have come across in my other classes. I've also been challenged by the other students. They're all intelligent and have great ideas. They have definitely motivated me to work hard on my project. Their perspectives and feedback have caused me to rethink my project several times." 

The Creative and Critical Use of Technologies for SIAH Projects

SIAH, Photo 3

In one way or another, each member of the SIAH teaching team has an investment in using technologies for creative and critical purposes.  And I will say that my initial expectations of how SIAH students would mobilize technologies in interesting and innovative ways were no doubt exceeded by the SIAH's end.  A large number of students learned new software, repurposed existing technologies, and produced new intermediated forms. Among each of the brilliant projects presented, here are a few projects (with photos from the students' gallery exhibition) that I can point to as examples:

By Jennifer Mao (Photography and Psychology), a "hands-on" art piece that explored synesthesia, music, and painting by blending video, audio, and a "mixed" canvas:

SIAH, Photo 4

By Kendal Lund (English), Nishali Nanayakkara (Comparative History of Ideas), and Will Damon (English and Laws, Societies & Justice), an installation piece that, through video, engaged the audience at the intersections of embodiment, "looking at/looking around" and "quantum learning":

SIAH, Photo 5

By Sarah Wang (Informatics), a "virtual guestbook" for gallery audiences to provide real-time feedback on the exhibition via mobile devices:

SIAH, Photo 6

By Sohroosh Hashemi (Business), a proposal for a "theremin shirt" that used a theremin for both sample audio and motivation and, if actualized, would sonify space through new approaches to apparel:

SIAH, Photo 7

By Sol Hashemi (Photography), an innovative approach to photography, which, by simultaneously defamiliarizing and animating time and space, attended to the "epic beauty" of everyday objects:

SIAH, Photo 8

By Justin Vice (Comparative History of Ideas), a "performance journalism" project, which allowed for real-time photographs of the exhibit's opening reception to be taken and then immediately displayed on a gallery wall:

SIAH, Photo 9

By Gretchen Cook (Design Studies and Women Studies), an installation piece that invited the audience to sit and watch popular childbirth scenes from TV and film while listening to birth narratives emerging from midwifery practices:

SIAH, Photo 10

By Regina Wandler (Community, Environment & Planning and Comparative History of Ideas), an installation piece where the audience would listen to gendered sounds from urban environments and database their responses:

SIAH, Photo 11

And finally, by Seungwha Lee (Art History and Communication), an installation piece entitled, "Googling Race and Gender," which asked the audience to, in a public gallery space, Google Image search the race and gender with which they identify, as well as other race and gender combinations, and document their experiences:

SIAH, Photo 12

As SIAH student, Nichole Poinski (Comparative Literature) points out, the SIAH was "a rare opportunity to actively engage in scholarly research while pushing the boundaries of what 'research' can be."  From my vantage as a member of the teaching team, "pushing the boundaries of what 'research' can be" includes looking closely at the very "research tools" we use for inquiry, how those tools are culturally embedded, considering their creative potentials as things more than "tools," and presenting, in multiple spaces, to a variety of publics, our work in process.  Often times, these questions are a matter of asking others to inhabit and experience that process. 

For future courses, I'll likely not have a gallery space at my disposal for student presentations.  Still, I very much like this idea of pressing students to consider how processes can be inhabited and combining---somehow, some way---critical distance with immersion. 

Re-Thinking Expertise: "To Expert" in the SIAH

SIAH, Photo 13

Toward the end of the SIAH, I began thinking about how participating in such an intensive arts and humanities research institute forced me (and others) to reposition the "expert."  Given my observations, it seems like expertise in such interdisciplinary contexts is really a matter of "to expert," not "an expert," authority, or individual possessing know-how.  As I have said before, this summer, the most productive learning and novel creations occurred when ?expert? shifted from a noun to a verb or from a person to an experience.  Here, again, are a few examples from the SIAH: 

When artists, such as Andrew Franks (DXArts), Julia Bruk (DXarts), Jason Hirata (Photography and Comparative History of Ideas), Claire Fox (Comparative History of Ideas and Comparative Literature), and Laura Paul (Comparative History of Ideas and DXArts), did not simply ask questions of the art they and others had already made, but also mobilized their collaborations and conversations with others to produce new art forms that raise pressing questions about where art is going and how it is perceived.   

When Brittany Dennison (Philosophy and Creative Writing), whose work is pictured below, pursued the cultural implications of traditionally scientific terms, looking particularly at how people feel and are affected by the notions of entropy and heat death:

SIAH, Photo 14

When Ari Kirby (Classics, Greek, Linguistics and English), produced multiple media forms to first visualize and sonify the complexities of written and spoken languages and to then imagine a new expertise in translating those languages:

SIAH, Photo 15

When Christopher Stevenson (English and Creative Writing) and Nichole Poinski (Comparative Literature) brought poetry out of the book and into a gallery space, emphasizing the materiality of language and asking the audience to engage something other than a complete, linear or static work of art:

SIAH, Photo 16

All of this exemplary undergraduate work does more than inspire me. I now want to include conversations about the very act of producing expertise in all of my courses.  For example, I'm becoming increasingly intrigued with assignment sequences that ask students to generate their own archives for research questions and then share those archives (online and in class) with me and other students.  Granted, this move somewhat destabilizes the traditional notion of a (printed) syllabus; nevertheless, it encourages students to not take for granted the foundations they are building upon.  It also makes teaching all the more exciting---"to expert" is to collaborate across projects, sites of knowledge-making, and forums for sharing research. 

Before I finish here, I want to thank the sponsors of the SIAH and, of course, the members of the SIAH teaching team and the SIAH students.  It's been a pleasure. 

[Each photo in this blog entry was taken by a SIAH student or teaching team member.]

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4 comments

This is just fantastic. Like the postings by other HASTAC Scholars of the conference they attend, this makes me feel a little less bad about having missed this incredible collection of events and experiences. You do a great job of making me feel like I'm there (almost). I hope you let the SIAH folks see this . . . it's the best possible publicity and wrap-up of what was clearly a major effort.

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Thank you, Cathy.

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I agree, very inspiring to see such exemplary undergraduate work, and such nice documentation!

Regarding the question of "expertise" -- a topic much on my own mind recently -- I just posted a CFP that came through my inbox today: "Expertise: Media Specificity and Interdisciplinarity." I don't have any answers, but it's certainly an issue that all of us working in interdisciplinary spaces have to confront.

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Thanks, Whitney, especially for the CFP.

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