Born Digital: Crafting the Modern Self

Project:

Our spring seminar on the categories that structure self, identity and community will use blended reality tools to explore how race, class and gender emerge from and challenge boundaries between the virtual and the physical, the imagined and the real.

What does it mean to be born digital? Students will engage creatively with the notion of selfhood, both in its history and in how it applies to their everyday lives, by creating blended reality archives that capture traces of their selves.

Team:

Ayesha Ramachandran

Ayesha Ramachandran is an assistant professor of Comparative Literature at Yale University.  A literary and cultural historian of early modern Europe, her work focuses on the long histories of globalization and modernity. She is the author of The Worldmakers (2015).

Marta Figlerowicz is an Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature and English at Yale. She is the author of two books, Flat Protagonists and Spaces of Feeling, and is currently at work on a new project on the phenomenology of digital media.

Crafting the self in a digital age: Born Digital

An ancient Greek maxim holds that knowing oneself is the beginning of wisdom. But what do we mean when we say “the self?” How do we construct our identities as private individuals, as members of given or chosen groups (families, friends), and as parts of larger communities? Are we always the same “self” — and, if not, what are the meanings of the interplay among our various selves? How are ideas about “the self” shaped by time and place?

With a grant from the Blended Reality project, Yale professors Ayesha Ramachandran and Marta Figlerowicz created Born Digital, which provided blended reality tools to help students explore such questions in their course entitled: Modernities: Selfhood, Race, Class and Gender. The idea: to have students use those tools to reflect on ways in which the sense of self is mediated by technologies and media..

Designed as a critical history of the self in the West from antiquity to the present, the course, taught in the spring of 2017, intended to provoke students to think more deeply about the categories that structure their sense of self, identity and community. The range of texts was broad across time and genre. Sources included Plato, Descartes and Shakespeare; Marx and Freud; the Kama Sutra, Judith Butler, Frantz Fanon, and Bollywood movies. Adding the technology, Ramachandran says, “gave us the opportunity to turn our classroom into a blended space—both physical classroom and virtual sandbox—where students could encounter the texts, ideas and objects we discussed from multiple perspectives.”

Figlerowicz and Ramachandran encouraged students to explore creating 3-D images and prints of objects of various kinds, and to analyze their experience with this emerging medium alongside better known forms such as poems, novels, plays, film, memoirs, and philosophical treatises.  Students were asked to analyze their own Facebook profiles as if they were assigned texts. The instructors also had students develop independent projects collating and discussing their own virtual archives. One student used 3-D scanning to create a model of her face, employing a split screen to show herself applying makeup as a way to reflect on the meaning of her Asian ethnicity in a white, western world. Several students experimented with activities that explored the interface between lived and represented experience.

“Part of working with blended reality,” Figlerowicz says, “is thinking about how material objects embody meaning in our lives. That direction was fruitful, she says, for considering how current technology fits in with other kinds of media. “It’s not that the book is old and passé and now we have this cool 3-D scanner,” she says. “The students were able to think holistically how all these creations fit into the longer history of technology, and have raised similar questions across time.”

Having incorporated blended reality into their course on an experimental basis — “We didn’t know going in exactly what would happen when we asked students to work with the 3-D scanners,” Figlerowicz says — they are eager to continue using it in the next iteration of the course in the fall of 2017. Ramachandran adds: “This was a unique opportunity to get undergraduates, who live in media-rich environments, to incorporate those experiences into thinking about questions of selfhood and identities. We wanted to bring more traditional humanities questions into conversation with this broader social, technological world that our students inhabit, and that is shaping them.