IAS 397: Computers Aren’t Calculators
IAS 397: Computers Aren’t Calculators
IAS 397: Computers Aren’t Calculators
IAS 397: Computers Aren’t Calculators
IAS 397: Computers Aren’t Calculators
IAS 397: Computers Aren’t Calculators

IAS 397: Computers Aren’t Calculators

Spring 2011 (20 Students)

Course Site

The Syllabus


History of Technology, Society, and Film Course (designed and taught with the approval of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at the University of Washington Bothell)

Full Course Title: “Topics in Science, Technology, and Society: Computers Aren’t Calculators”

Course Description

Pithily put, this is a course about computers and film. We will explore how film (as a mode of producing history and culture) corresponds with the history of computers and computation. That said, a bulk of our time will be spent watching and discussing films (from the 1950s to the present), as well as working through various approaches to computer culture. We will likely ask questions such as these: How do people learn about computers through film, and to what effects? How are computers socially or discursively constructed? How are they tied to questions of race, gender, sexuality, class, labor, and power? What kinds of identities and narratives form around them, and how? What are their aesthetics on the screen? How do they function as characters in films? Do they have agency, and in what ways or situations? How are all of these questions historically contingent?

The list goes on, and the point—at least for now—is that we will be concentrating our efforts not on, say, crunching numbers or processing data with computers, but on computers as objects of cultural criticism, acknowledging all the while the limitations of this perspective.

Aside from writing often, you will also be asked to experiment with collaboratively and actively engaging film. One crucial component of this class will be a Twitter-based backchannel (#bis397), through which we will (in a public forum) chat about films as we watch them. The reason for this experimental approach is for us—as we look at the same screen in the classroom—to investigate the potential of collective criticism and shared responses (laughter and frustrations included). Consequently, expect films in fragments. That is, we will often stop and chat about what we are seeing and hearing, not to mention what we are learning through the backchannel (where will we share comments, questions, and links). Indeed, we’ll press the limits of multitasking and determine what (if anything) it affords in an academic climate.

Learning Outcomes for the Course

By the quarter’s end, students should:

Become familiar with the history of computers (and computation) and demonstrate that familiarity in writing,

Be able to persuasively articulate (in writing and through in-class conversations) how computers are culturally embedded and why their techno-cultures matter,

Develop competencies in how to critically approach film, specifically as a mode of producing history and culture,

Experiment with collaborative and collective approaches to film, using a class “backchannel” as one mechanism, and

Write through various critical approaches to computer culture and explain the differences between them.

What I Learned

This was the first course I taught where the primary material consisted entirely of films. It was also the first course where I integrated Twitter into conversations and writing, with students “live-tweeting” the films they watched. When combined, Twitter and film studies allowed students to stretch conversation outside of the classroom, synchronously share their viewing experiences, pause and rewind films for additional discussion (online and offline), and consider what shared critical multitasking might look like in practice. Film also became an engaging way to learn about the history of computing, since we could ask—for example—how historical representations of both people and machines differ across genre (e.g., the documentary and the blockbuster), decades (e.g., the 1950s and the 2000s), cultures (e.g., hackers, engineers, librarians, and migrant laborers), and aesthetics (e.g., 1960s sci-fi noir and 1990s cyberpunk). IAS 397 was also the last course I taught at the University of Washington.

Course Evaluations

Available upon request.

(All images on the left are screen shots of the course site and blog, which I designed. They include stills from Giant Brains, Alphaville, and Desk Set.)