New Digital Studies Center Opens

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As Jim Brown explains, digital studies can no longer be considered a “specialized” area of research, relegated to the backrooms of academia. Rather, digital technologies have permeated every facet of human existence, he says, demanding that we sit up and take notice.

“We need to know how these technologies work, how they shape our lives, and what they do and don’t allow us to do,” says Brown, the newly installed director of the Digital Studies Center at Rutgers University–Camden. “Only when we understand these digital tools can we learn how to use them to our advantage.”

Under Brown’s guidance, the Digital Studies Center aims to do just that. Established by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences in 2013, the interdisciplinary, collaborative research center kick-starts, facilitates, supports, and promotes projects that are made possible by the convergence of digital technologies with the humanities, and the natural and social sciences.

Guests are invited to celebrate the Digital Studies Center’s official launch at noon Thursday, Nov. 13, in the lobby of the Fine Arts Building, followed by a reception in the center’s physical space, located in rooms 215 and 217.

“I am excited to see the center’s growth this year,” says Robert Emmons, associate director of the Digital Studies Center at Rutgers–Camden, who was instrumental in building the center’s infrastructure and piloting several key initiatives. “We’ve hit the ground running this fall with engaging programming for the campus and community.”

digitalstudies-copyOne of the center’s primary objectives is to explore digital artifacts and technologies through intersecting academic lenses. Brown’s own research is indicative of the approach; an assistant professor of English, he uses the tools of rhetoric to explore the nature of software platforms.

“I look at how software persuades us, allows us to complete certain tasks, and shapes our experiences in meaningful ways,” says Brown, who examines the topic in his forthcoming book, Ethical Programs: Hospitality and the Rhetorics of Software.

The center is also focused on examining how digital tools, such as computational analysis or computer models, are increasingly integrated with traditional methodologies to conduct research.

A hallmark of the center’s mission is the opportunity for students to earn an innovative undergraduate certificate in the digital humanities. The 15-credit program fosters critical and practical engagement with digital technologies, in relation to traditional areas of study, such as literature, languages, history, philosophy, religion, and the arts.

“One of our goals is to get to that point where digital humanities is no longer considered an odd focus,” says Brown.

In addition to the “Introduction to Digital Humanities” course, students are required to take four courses designated as fulfilling the criteria. Among the initial offerings is Brown’s new course, “Videogames and Literature,” which examines the complex, evolving confluence of these mediums.

Students must also complete a capstone project, which requires them to build their own digital object and lead a two-hour workshop on how to use the digital technologies that they employed.

“The best way to learn a tool is to teach it,” says Brown, adding that similar research and experiential opportunities are also available for students not seeking a certificate. “We want to cultivate these fun and rewarding experiences for students. If they have the desire, we can provide the software and the right experts who can assist them.”

Opportunities abound for the faculty as well. The center supports and encourages faculty to use and study digital technology, or to investigate its impact in the world. Six faculty members, representing a wide range of disciplines, have been awarded Digital Studies Center Project Grants for the 2014-15 academic year. Among the projects produced thus far is an open-source digital bibliography tool for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, a pioneering digital resource led by the Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities at Rutgers–Camden.

digitalstudies-copy2The Digital Studies Center also aims to foster collaborative research and discussion through a series of workshops, lectures, and research presentations. For instance, on Sept. 30, it hosted a roundtable discussion exploring the impact of social media on the coverage of Michael Brown’s shooting and the ensuing protests in Ferguson, Mo.

Even the center’s physical space, comprised of two rooms located on the second floor of the Fine Arts Building, is being constructed with an eye on promoting inspiration and collaborative enterprise. Unlike traditional computer labs, featuring row upon row of desktop computers, the computer lab features mobile tables and whiteboards, enabling students to collaborate freely at workstations positioned around the perimeter of the room, or to reconfigure the stations into a large seminar table. The lab is also hospitable to visitors utilizing their personal devices.

Meanwhile, the research center serves as a flexible space for digital fellows, likewise featuring mobile furniture and equipment, as well as large, high-definition screens to showcase a variety of media, including software, films, videogames, and digital art.

“The idea isn’t to have more computers, but to make better use of technology,” says Brown. “The focus was on designing a physical space that enables participants to move about freely and use how they see fit – whether that means teaching or conducting research.”

The research center will also soon be home to the Rutgers–Camden Archive of Digital Ephemera (R–CADE), a collection of old, defunct technologies, such as original Nintendo sets, and early models of computers and cellphones, which students and faculty will be encouraged to take apart, research, rebuild, or repurpose. Brown hopes to create a White Paper Series based on the research conducted.

“Through all of these initiatives, we want to build a community and tradition of digital scholarship that is part of the fabric of Rutgers–Camden,” says Brown. “We want to tap into the incredible amount of talent on campus and encourage others to join us. Just like digital technology, we don’t know where it will go, but we’re excited to find out.”

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