New initiative at Yale seeks to answer the question: What is the internet?

An illustration of a woman with exploration gear entering an open door in a computer monitor.
(Illustration by Michael S. Helfenbein)

One of the goals — and challenges — of “Internet Cultures,” a new teaching and learning initiative on campus, is to explore the unknown and unknowable. In fact, the term “internet cultures” often ends up in quotation marks because it is so malleable, according to Yale faculty members Marijeta Bozovic and Marta Figlerowicz, the co-organizers of the initiative.

The initiative, explain the organizers, is a three-pronged project that seeks to explore the internet from the perspective of the humanities. It consists of a flagship undergraduate course, “Internet Cultures: Histories, Networks, Practices,” a Whitney Humanities Center working group, and an educational outreach component.

The undergraduate lecture course will be taught in the spring 2018 semester, and will focus on the diverse histories, technologies, and cultural practices of the internet. The course originates in the Film and Media Studies program, but is cross-listed with humanities, English, as well as the Slavic languages and literatures, and the Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies Program. The course, while remaining committed to a humanities-centric vision of the internet as a human cultural production, will be interdisciplinary — borrowing elements from computer science (including coding exercises), network analysis, linguistic anthropology, and quantitative sociology.

Internet Cultures,” says Bozovic, assistant professor of Slavic languages and literatures, is designed to offer historical and comparative cultural contexts to students about the digital world that surrounds us—and which the majority of us use with little understanding of how search tools, categorization systems, citation counts, and more shape and limit our knowledge. “We live in a moment that is defined not so much by new technologies but by unprecedented integrations of technologies,” says Figlerowicz, assistant professor of comparative literature and of English. “The ‘Internet Cultures’ initiative has emerged from a realization of how little we all know about something we rely on so much.”

For many of us, our research and our pedagogy begins and ends with a computer. Yet we often behave as if that that mediating, shaping, and limiting context isn’t there. This is what we want to address with our students,” says Bozovic.

The second prong of the initiative involves bringing together a local social network of Yale faculty, students, and staff who are interested in these topics. “We are looking to find our intellectual interlocutors at Yale,” says Bozovic. Currently, many scholars and students work on related topics in relative isolation, without the benefit of an institute or special program on contemporary culture.

Figlerowicz and Bozovic conceived of the initiative as a highly collaborative project due to the diversity of approaches various disciplines bring to studies of the Internet. “We wanted to teach a class that would show students how many different disciplines you need to study the Internet, and in how many directions an interest in the Internet could lead you as a student,” says Figlerowicz. The two also bring the different perspectives of studying opposite sides of the Cold War, which they consider vital to understanding the history of the internet.

The third prong is a humanities-based education outreach program with New Haven Public School system. The organizers conducted a trial run of this over the summer in conjunction with the Humanities Program at Yale. Future iterations will be short summer courses targeting New Haven Public School students. Figlerowicz and Bozovic hope to use the educational outreach component of the initiative to recruit a more diverse group of students to study the humanities when they attend college. “We are hoping to demonstrate the enduring significance of the humanities at the same time as we are hoping to usher in a new and more varied generation of humanities students into our classrooms,” says Bozovic.

Internet Cultures” is funded by the Whitney Humanities Center’s Humanities/Humanity program and by the Digital Humanities Lab. A symposium also titled “Internet Cultures: Histories, Networks, and Practices,” which has been co-organized with Mina Magda, Christopher McGowan, Ingrid Nordgaard, and Anna Schechtman — graduate students from Slavic, English, comparative literature, and film and media studies — will take place Friday and Saturday, Dec. 1 and 2 at the Whitney Humanities Center, 53 Wall St. It is open to the public free of charge.

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