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UR ramps up focus on digital media studies

Rochester Business Journal
October 5, 2012

The University of Rochester is building a multimillion-dollar facility for its new interdisciplinary major in digital media studies, and this Meliora Weekend it will hold a symposium to look more deeply into its new area of study.
"The Humanities, Artistic Expression and the Digital Age: Innovation and Opportunities," will explore how the study of the humanities has become intertwined with and influenced by technology.
The event is seen as a way for the university to take a place of leadership in the field of digital media and its connection to the humanities, said Thomas DiPiero, dean for humanities and interdisciplinary studies at UR.
"This event is aimed at a broad audience interested in what's going on in the humanities today," DiPiero said. "We have a panel that represents a broad array of approaches to the arts and humanities. They'll be talking about what's constant in arts and humanities and what we can expect in the future."
The event, which is free and open to the public, is slated for 2 p.m. Oct. 13 in the Strong Auditorium.
Speakers include Stanley Fish, professor of humanities and law at Florida International University, author of the book "There is No Such Thing as Free Speech" and frequent columnist for the New York Times; Katherine Hayles, professor and director of graduate studies in the literature program at Duke University; and Tod Machover, professor of music and media at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Hugo Sonnenschein, UR trustee and president emeritus at the University of Chicago, will moderate the symposium.
Machover sees the intertwining of technology and the humanities in the MIT Media Lab. It has allowed him to present material and teach concepts to students in a more collaborative, interdisciplinary way, he said.
He also uses technology to promote collaboration as a conductor in residence with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. There he has created a project that allows the people of Toronto to create a symphony that reflects the unique sounds and style of the city.
Toronto residents are asked to upload different sounds from around the city, which Machover will compile and combine with his own work to create a musical piece.
As technology grows more powerful, it is changing the way people interact and the way education takes place, Machover said.
"Traditionally, students go to a large lecture hall and get a huge amount of material told to them, hopefully by a professor who is very good at doing that, and then their homework is some kind of creative project based on the material," Machover said. "I think really the opposite is a better idea."
Machover said many universities are headed in that direction, with students getting access to the basic information needed for a course through digital media outside of class.
"They can watch lectures online or get bite-sized bits of information as they need it," he said. "Then as they come together with people, they can focus on making something or solving something, doing experiments."
Because technology is always changing, it offers an opportunity to continually enhance the way learning takes place, he said.
"I'm a great believer that technology is one of the extremely vital and transformative forces in culture, and as with any transformative factor, they can pull us either way," Machover said. "So it's important to shape these technologies, and my conviction since I started in this field is that technology is the most malleable medium we have. We should be able to use it to enhance what people do in terms of teaching and learning abilities."
While Fish said he likely has a more skeptical view of the role of technology in the humanities, he acknowledged that it has transformed teaching and learning.
Technologies have evolved to the point where skill in using them has become almost a pre-requisite for graduates leaving college, Fish said.
"A student in the digital humanities will perhaps have a better chance of getting a job than students who know only traditional methods of scholarly analysis," he said.
Another justification for focusing on digital humanities is an increased likelihood of gaining funding for a project, he added.
"The idea is that outside funding agencies will be more attracted to such projects than to the traditional projects in the humanities," he said.
The traditional projects of interpretation, of trying to understand the context of a text or painting or sculpture, are also believed to be aided greatly by computers and digital programs, Fish said. Computers can mine and process data in a way that humans are not able to, given their limited attention.
Another view is that technology transforms the study of the humanities itself, freeing people from "the old-fashioned linear model of knowledge and instead moving to a more democratic view" in which information and analysis is open to a much larger audience, he said.
But while acknowledging the role technology has played in the humanities, Fish said he remains unconvinced.
"Given the people on the panel, I might be described as the spoiler in the group," he said.
The symposium dovetails with other lectures and panels UR has planned to bolster the focus on digital media. A lecture series being held over the next year will bring in scholars and practitioners to talk about what is available in different fields of digital media, DiPiero said.
Another series scheduled to coincide with the opening of the new facility next fall will bring in five or six well-known people in digital media studies, DiPiero added.
The digital media studies major began this fall, and a three-story facility is being built for it. The building also will be home to a new major for audio and sound engineering. The first floor will house an engineering fabrication lab where students can turn abstract ideas into reality, DiPiero said.
The second floor will be learning space and the third floor will have audio and video production studios.
UR has a strong capacity to be a leader in the field, DiPiero said.
"What we'll be doing is bringing our strong basis in liberal arts to these technological developments," he said. "We want to show how the arts and humanities is as complex and changing as any other field."

10/5/12 (c) 2012 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email

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