The Power of Literacy in a Digital Age

What do algorithms, veterans’ affairs, and Lil Nas X all have in common? They could all be found in conversation with each other this summer in the Freshman Scholars Institute course, HUM295: Humanistic Approaches to Media and Data.

Every summer, Princeton hosts the Freshman Scholars Institute (FSI), a seven-week-long summer program that invites a group of incoming students to experience intellectual and social life at Princeton. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, this year, FSI was held virtually.

HUM295: Humanistic Approaches to Media and Data, taught by CDH postdoctoral research associate Kavita Kulkarni, was among five courses offered as part of FSI this year. “The goal of Humanistic Approaches to Media and Data is to teach students media and data literacy,” Kulkarni said. “That is, to teach students to think critically about our screen- and data-saturated environments.”

Kulkarni acknowledged the importance of teaching skills that allow students to both read and write in these contexts as they develop media literacy. “Not only have the students been tasked with ‘reading’ the historical context and social and political implications of media and technology,” she said, “but also with learning how to write code to web scrape, create a dataset, and analyze data.”

Student projects allowed students to become better readers of digital media. One project was the Data Visualization Project. Luke Hixson, a student in HUM 295, said that the Data Visualization Project included “developing a research question, using Python to execute a Twitter scrape, data analysis, and ultimately data visualization.” Although Luke said that the conclusion of his project did not result in anything “ground-breaking,” he learned more about how to conduct research.

Hien Pham ’23, an FSI Course Fellow for HUM 295, was impressed by the range of projects the students embarked on through scraping tweets on Twitter. “Examples of their projects include looking into various topics that veterans care about (to counteract the stereotypical stigma that many veterans face); comparing discourse around Lil Nas X between cities with different levels of LGBT+ protection laws; or looking at current discourse around affordable housing or ICE immigration policies.”

Course readings were also instrumental in helping students analyze the ways media can reinforce cultural and racial biases. Luke said that he enjoyed reading Dr. Ruha Benjamin’s book Race After Technology. “Dr. Benjamin’s book invites us to question the so-called ‘neutrality’ of technology, and raises critical consciousness of how technology is developed and programmed with racially-coded algorithms.”

Altogether, Luke said that the course lectures, the readings, and the projects helped him become a better reader of digital media by helping him gain skills to “understand both the historical and social context of when the media was produced.”

Kulkarni said that HUM295’s emphasis on power was particularly well-suited for FSI students. “I find that FSI students are particularly invested in issues of equity and justice, and have a keen sense of what role media and technology play in amplifying or suppressing our social, political, and historical understanding of the issues that affect our lives on a daily basis,” she said. “This course was designed to tap into and expand that intelligence.”

Hien agreed that HUM295 coincided with FSI goals of helping prepare the students for their time at Princeton. “HUM295 has a strong focus on critical reading, discussion, and data analysis through intro-level coding, which are great skills for students to have regardless of their academic pursuits at Princeton,” she said. “Throughout the course, students also had the chance to bond with one another and receive intensive mentoring from the course staff, which eased many of their concerns about starting college and gave them a solid group of peers to begin their college journey with.”

This was the case for Luke, who found both HUM295 and the FSI to be helpful in coming to Princeton. “One of my fears prior to taking HUM295 was the fact that I haven’t been in school for six years,” Luke said. “How was I going to adjust to the academic environment? Fortunately, the design of the course was not meant to intimidate those who have no prior experience in coding or data visualization, but rather spark curiosity in those fields of study.” Furthermore, as a nontraditional student, Luke’s experience as part of the FSI cohort “introduced [me] to multiple academic resources, whether it was office hours, the Writing Center, the McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning, text labs, study groups, or even the Scholars Institute Fellows Program (SIFP). As I prepare to transition to Princeton’s campus, I anticipate utilizing these resources to help further my academic career.”

Kulkarni also found Princeton’s support system extremely beneficial in working with FSI. “Dean [Khristina] Gonzalez and her team have created an incredibly robust structure for ensuring that students are mentored through this intensive summer program and given the opportunity to build community at Princeton before the start of the Fall semester,” Kulkarni said. “And executing all of this virtually is no small feat! I also felt so grateful to have three undergraduate course fellows—Asia Matthews ’21 (African American Studies), Elliot Galvis ’21 (Classics), and Hien Pham (Computer Science)—and a graduate course assistant, Mi Yu (English), support me in teaching HUM 295. I couldn’t have done it without them, and really appreciated their ability to engage with and guide students across the disciplinary boundaries traditionally found between computer science and the humanities.”

Through learning digital literacy, HUM295 students are not only more prepared for their time at Princeton, but also better equipped to manage the evolving screen- and data-environments they will encounter throughout their time at Princeton and beyond.

This collaboration of teachers, mentors, and students through FSI was a valuable experience for all involved. Hien viewed her participation as a highlight of her Princeton experience. “I am immensely impressed and humbled by the amount of care and intellectual curiosity our students have shown throughout this summer,” she said. “Getting to know the students, their interests, and their strengths through each of our discussions was extremely heart-warming. I’m very proud of my students for their bravery to open up in class discussions, for their persistence in learning how to code, and for their supportive and collaborative spirit towards one another throughout the challenging Zoom-based summer.”

Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series on undergraduate engagement at the Center for Digital Humanities. Check out earlier posts to learn about the work of this summer’s NLP+Humanities Undergraduate Fellow and Princeton Prosody Archive interns.

Carousel image: “No State,” 2018, a photograph by the artist American Artist; photo courtesy of HOUSING, Brooklyn, NY.

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