Internet Cultures and the Public Humanities: Murmurs from New Haven

Marijeta Bozovic

This article is part of a SEEB series written and organized by Jennifer Wilson on the “Public Humanities.”

1. Internet Cultures: The Course

In the spring of 2018, with my colleague and collaborator Marta Figlerowicz (Assistant Professor of English and Comparative Literature), I set out to teach the most challenging course of my career to date. Our lecture course on “Internet Cultures” (taught in the pilot run to 50 students, ranging from first-years to graduating seniors, from English creative writing to Computer Science majors) aimed to pioneer an interdisciplinary but humanities-centric approach to studies of the Internet within Yale’s undergraduate curriculum.

Photo: nicolasnova / Flickr

The core ambition of the course is to offer students a historical overview and comparative cultural contexts for understanding the digital world that surrounds us, and which the majority of us use daily with little understanding of how search tools, categorization systems, citation counts, and more shape and limit our knowledge. Seemingly overnight, human beings learned to use and depend on computer networks for work, military operations, pursuits of scientific knowledge, religious proselytizing, political organization, searches for mates and social communities, illegal activities, and infinite varieties of play. For virtually every scholar I know working today, research and pedagogy begin and end on a computer. Yet we usually behave as if that mediating, shaping, and limiting context weren’t there. The very size and speed with which this gargantuan “cultural production” has become central to our lives defies understanding, much less study.

To harpoon the whale, we divided our course into three units: Histories, Networks, and Cultural Practices. We opened with the origins of the Internet, its prehistories in early computing and fantasies of the thinking machine, and the cybernetics craze. How did the ideologies of the Cold War shape the development of the Internet? Why did the Soviet Union fail in its networking efforts? From this historically oriented unit, we moved to a discussion of the social media and networks associated with the so-called Web 2.0. This unit serves as an introduction to interdisciplinary network studies, borrowing elements from computer science, network analysis, linguistic anthropology, and quantitative sociology—and incorporates practicum sessions in Yale’s Digital Humanities Lab. Our third unit ends the course with a cultural studies approach to a sampling of current online cultural practices—from re-mediations of experimental verse, art, and performance to hacktivism and global piracy.

While we felt that we ourselves were learning (and indeed, lecturing) on the fly, responding to near constant and un-ignorable daily crises in the news (net neutrality, Facebook’s algorithm change, Cambridge Analytica, the Russian hacker “red scare,” YouTube shootings), our behemoth somehow lumbered to a successful close with excited students and piles of inspiringly thoughtful final papers.

2. Internet Cultures: The Vision

The next prong of the “Internet Cultures” initiative is more ambitious still, and will need to wait for the next iteration of the course (planned to be offered every two years). The vision is to use our newly popular undergraduate course to develop humanities-based educational outreach in collaboration with the New Haven, Connecticut public school system. What do we gain when we commit to diverse and cross-generational conversations: with international scholars who began studying “new media” well before the Internet existed, but also with ostensibly “digital native” local high school students?

As a subject matter of so much popular interest, “Internet Cultures” seems particularly well situated to translate from the university curriculum to high school pedagogy and community outreach. Our hope is eventually to develop a funded summer program for New Haven high school students, taught each summer after the Yale lecture—borrowing from the same materials, and inviting recent undergraduate students into the classroom as co-teachers. Throughout, we will try to emphasize self-reflective, collaborative, networked, and open-access approaches, as well as a fundamental commitment to educational outreach and to public humanities engagement.

We mean to provide motivated New Haven high school students with new knowledge and skills; to bring them into Yale classrooms, libraries, and humanities laboratories; and to introduce them to undergraduate student mentors. Part of the dream, of course, is to recruit talented and underrepresented students into the humanities—something we generally fail to do before the undergraduate level, unlike our colleagues in STEM fields. (While our colleagues in the sciences have well-organized outreach programs and corresponding university infrastructural support—in part due to national funding structures—nothing of the kind exists in the humanities on any significant scale.) Meanwhile, the educational exchange would offer Yale students teaching and mentoring opportunities, outreach experience, and exposure to new areas and methods of research. We are trying, in other words, not only to make an impact through our own efforts, but also to teach generations of humanities students to incorporate outreach into their own research and pedagogy.

Every institution has its own pathways for outreach: ours is in a position to be generous. To get off the ground, we are relying on a number of new, established, and re-imagined institutional partners: the Yale Digital Humanities Lab; Whitney Humanities Center; Center for Teaching and Learning; Summer Undergraduate Research Initiative; and emerging Pathways to the Arts and Humanities. Each pledge of support, in our experience, made it easier to win the next.

Internal support for the “Internet Cultures” course, working group, and symposium (facilities, technical and administrative support, and funds) came through the Whitney Humanities Center, Digital Humanities Lab, and Center for Teaching and Learning. The Summer Undergraduate Research Initiative program, affiliated with the Office for Graduate Student Development and Diversity, brings a diverse group of undergraduates to Yale for eight weeks every summer.  The experience familiarizes students with the kind of work expected in graduate school; provides insights into careers based on PhD-level training; and fosters confidence regarding their own abilities and potential. Working with the Associate Dean of Diversity, we plan to integrate our summer high school program with this existing initiative. Working with the Director of Public School Partnerships, in turn, we are developing relationships with New Haven public schools through the new Pathways to Arts and Humanities at Yale, modeled on the well-established local Pathways to Science program.

Ultimately, we hope to establish Internet studies within Yale’s undergraduate humanities curriculum, and to give such studies a prominent place within the university’s outreach programs. We hope to create a shareable syllabus and lecture materials across several departments, programs, and ultimately institutions; and to develop a working model of outreach and resource-sharing practices in the humanities.

Wish us luck—or better yet, join us.

Marijeta Bozovic is an assistant professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures; Film and Media Studies; and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Yale University.

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