Wednesday, June 22

Humanistic Approaches for Digital-Media Studies

The Chronicle of Higher Education
Information Technology
From the issue dated June 24, 2005


In April 1999 I wrote an opinion article for The Chronicle in which I called for new, principle-based curricula to prepare students for the emerging field of interactive design. I criticized the then-current interdisciplinary programs for inculcating conflicting models of the computer -- models that often reflected the design criteria of older media -- and I recommended a new kind of professional education that would recognize the computer as a representational medium with its own expressive properties.

At the time I wrote that essay, I was at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, teaching one course a year in interactive narrative, while spending most of my time leading projects in humanities computing. I became interested in curriculum after the publication of my book Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace (Free Press, 1997), which also coincided with the expansion of the World Wide Web and the growth of the first programs in new media.

As I spoke with designers in professional and university settings, I was struck by their shared confusion over how to evaluate the new digital artifacts they were making, like online newspapers, multimedia CD-ROM's, and interactive museum installations. They knew what they liked, but they didn't know why -- and people with different training liked different things. Without clear conventions to guide them, the designers were forced to rely on principles that reflected the constraints of the old printed page or film camera. It seemed to me that a humanities-based professional program could solve that problem, by looking at the computer as unique in its formal properties but still embedded in the rich representational traditions of older media.

In the fall of 1999 I joined such a program. The School of Literature, Communication, and Culture at the Georgia Institute of Technology had been offering a master's of science degree in information design and technology since 1993. The following fall I became director of graduate studies, and we began a process of updating the master's curriculum and designing a Ph.D. program in digital media, which admitted its first class last fall. So I have had ample opportunity over the past few years to experience the challenges of curriculum making in an emerging field.

Georgia Tech is a good place to think about a digital-media curriculum because it is unusual in bringing together, in one academic unit, a strong faculty of humanists who both make things and theorize about the media they use. My colleague Jay D. Bolter, for example, was the co-inventor of Storyspace, an early hypertext-writing environment, and is currently collaborating on augmented-reality applications, in which ghostlike video characters are superimposed on the world around us and interact with us. He is also the author of several books that examine the relationship between digital media and older traditions. Another colleague, Eugene Thacker, writes about the new understanding of genetics as an information medium and creates art that merges biological and computational codes.

In addition, the institution has a longstanding interdisciplinary culture that fosters collaboration between us and our colleagues in computer science, digital music, architecture, and engineering. As a result, we can take breadth for granted without having to constantly improvise interdisciplinary connections. Jay Bolter's augmented-reality project, for instance, is housed in the interdisciplinary Graphics, Visualization, and Usability Center, and is a collaboration between him and the computer scientist Blair MacIntyre.

At the same time, we have enough senior and junior faculty members within our own unit to concentrate on depth. For example, Michael Mateas creates story games based on artificial-intelligence programming techniques, Ian Bogost works on political games, and my own students create conversational characters. Our different approaches to games and stories expose the students to a wide range of design strategies.

The Georgia Tech degree programs differ from those of other universities in some significant ways. Most important, the master's degree is an academic, rather than a narrowly professional, degree. Some of our students go on to earn Ph.D.'s, although most go into professional work. Universities with a strong professional focus often have a less structured curriculum, relying on team-based projects and cooperative work with industry to prepare students for real-world jobs. Our students have summer internships making real-world artifacts like video games, informational Web sites, interactive TV programs, and digital-art installations, but the bulk of their training is in structured courses, including four required core lab courses and a required "Project Studio" course, which focuses on long-term, faculty-led research projects.

Like all digital-media and new-media graduate programs, ours admits students from a striking variety of backgrounds: programmers, artists, journalists, filmmakers. But unlike faculty members at many other institutions, we expect students to work outside their specialty. We want the filmmakers and artists to learn the principles of computational abstraction -- how to represent the world as objects with rule-based behaviors -- rather than just mastering the latest multimedia assembly tools. We want the programmers to integrate knowledge of interface-design principles with their understanding of the inner workings of a game, informational Web site, or immersive environment. We also want all our courses to share common methodologies, like iterative design and focused critiques. We include theoretical readings in all the core courses, working from a common reader so that we can coordinate the discussion across courses and semesters.

A program in such a fast-changing field can remain successful only if the faculty constantly improves and expands the curriculum in response to emerging technologies (like wireless communications and interactive television), emerging research fields (like game studies and the psychology of online communities), and the increasing sophistication of entering students. One strategy that helps to keep our master's program in information design and technology responsive without making it overly trend driven is the establishment of umbrella courses -- like "Experimental Media" and "Project Studio" -- that can be shaped to reflect the specialties of individual faculty members.

"Project Studio" has been one of the most successful elements of our curriculum. It is a required, repeatable course that engages students in team-based, faculty-led projects that produce deliverables, like a game about urban-planning decisions, within a single semester. Faculty members are eager to teach the course because it gives them free assistance with projects -- students get credit instead of pay for their research. It also ensures that all students in the master's program get a chance to work on well-conceived problems, giving them important experience with teamwork and in shaping their own projects, as well as items to include in their professional portfolios.

We have had to balance the responsibility of preparing our students for professional employment, which requires mastery of specific tools and practices, with our commitment to a curriculum based on enduring principles of design -- a body of knowledge that the faculty is constantly redefining as we debate and challenge one another. Because we came to the theory and practice of digital media from different disciplinary backgrounds, we bring many viewpoints on what is essential knowledge in the field and how it is best taught in the limited time available. Currently we teach two core courses that emphasize visual culture -- from the history of the alphabet to the creation of three-dimensional moving images -- and two that explore computational structures. Our faculty members continue to be engaged in reviewing and rethinking the program's learning goals, especially in the context of evaluating our students' impressive projects or of reviewing the semester's gloriously varied work at our semiannual Demo Days.

With an average of 15 to 20 master's recipients a year since 1995 and an expanding international reputation based on the research activity of our faculty members, the demand for a Ph.D. program at Georgia Tech grew steadily throughout the 1990s. The effort to start a program stalled for all the usual reasons that change is difficult at academic institutions. Faculty members outside the field questioned its validity while voicing fears that other fields would suffer from the growing popularity of digital studies. Faculty members within the field, drawn from very different disciplinary backgrounds, worried that we would not be able to reach a consensus about the curriculum. The general shift in literary and film studies over the last decades of the 20th century had been from a fixed creative canon to an expanded and contested creative canon, then to a contested theoretical canon. That meant that defining a curriculum could easily lead to ideological warfare. People avoided the task rather than risk dissension.

The initiative gathered momentum only after the faculty was coaxed into creating a list of possible texts (readings, artworks, films, digital works, etc.) that students could present for their comprehensive examination, the multipart written and oral test that qualified them for submitting a thesis proposal. Students would be asked to choose 50 works in each of four categories -- media theory, media traditions, digital media, and a specialty category of their own devising; they could be tested on any of those 200 works. The list began when we combined individual professors' research bibliographies, which allowed us to see the points of intersection (for example, everyone included Walter Benjamin's article "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction") and made visible to everyone many areas of individual expertise that had not previously been widely known -- like research on cognition and culture.

In addition to our graduates' need for a Ph.D. program, our master's program had been suffering from the lack of an undergraduate feeder program. With students coming into the program with very different kinds of preparation, we felt the need for foundational courses in graphic design, digital-media studies, video production, and other basic subjects. We therefore welcomed the opportunity to develop a joint undergraduate major with our colleagues in the College of Computing. Georgia Tech began to offer a bachelor's of science in computational media at the same time as our Ph.D. program started, and that undergraduate curriculum has already allowed us to rethink our course offerings as a multitiered structure. The new undergraduate courses have already allowed us to raise the level of our graduate courses and have also provided valuable instructional positions for our Ph.D. students.

It may be unusual for a master's program in a new discipline like digital-media studies to lead to Ph.D. and undergraduate programs. Many institutions start with a few undergraduate courses that coalesce into a major, and most degree programs begin at the undergraduate level and work their way upward. But several prominent universities have started master's programs in the past five years, including Carnegie Mellon University, MIT, the Rhode Island School of Design, the University of California at Los Angeles, and the University of Southern California. A few, like Simon Fraser University and the IT University of Copenhagen, have established Ph.D. programs. Each of those programs has its own emphasis, reflecting differences in academic organization and faculty specialties. For instance, Carnegie Mellon has been particularly successful in combining improvisational theater techniques with innovative computing research.

There are also a growing number of programs, mostly for undergraduates, in game design and digital media that emphasize industry-oriented training, and perhaps an equal number in new-media studies that emphasize theory over practice. That trend, though understandable, is disturbing because it suggests that digital media may go the way of film studies and film production, literature and writing, or art history and studio art -- fragmenting into two disciplines that barely communicate with one another.

The prospect reminds me of my experience as a graduate student in English at Harvard University, when I naïvely suggested taking a poetry-writing course with one of the greatest living American poets, who was then on the faculty. My adviser looked at me with horror: "This is not a trade school!" he barked.

It is an odd but persistent academic prejudice to view analysis and creation as antithetical enterprises. So far my experience at Georgia Tech has reinforced the opposite belief. I am more convinced than ever that it is best to teach and learn about digital media by combining humanistic critique with computationally sophisticated practice.

Janet H. Murray is a professor and director of graduate studies at the School of Literature, Communication, and Culture at the Georgia Institute of Technology.