A Gorilla in the Classroom – Hobart and William Smith Colleges \
The HWS Update

A Gorilla in the Classroom

With the advent of modern technology like cell phones, laptops and PDAs and social networks such as Facebook and MySpace, these onetime conveniences are becoming increasingly necessary for global communication and indispensible to everyday life.

This semester, students in Assistant Professor of Media and Society Leah Shafer’s “Media and Theory” class have been, as the course syllabus says, “increasing their understanding of the global interactivity created by digital media by investigating the cultural impact of mobile communications.”  They have analyzed and written about the use of cell phones, surveillance cameras, digital projection, global position systems and data mapping.

To prepare for conceptualizing their own work, students researched new media art. Exploring the interactions between theoretical models and lived experiences, they worked to create multi-media proposals for interactive projects about texting technologies based on models studied in class, such as Paul Notzold’s “Txtual Healing” and Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz’s “A Hole in Space.”

“I thought it would be good for students to have the opportunity to apply these theoretical studies to real life experiences, specifically looking at how cell phone technology is changing the digital landscape,” says Shafer.

Through a grant from the Center for Teaching and Learning, students in Shafer’s class were able to receive feedback on their proposals from Notzold and award winning television producer/director Robert Andruszkiewicz during a virtual critique in the Learning Commons in the Warren Hunting Smith Library.

“This project creates an opportunity for students to have a chance to theorize and think through these dimensions of what is essentially an exhibition space,” Shafer says.  “The critique allows the students to question and interact with industry professionals and to hone their presentation skills.”

Following the critique, the students chose one of the proposals (“Going Ape”) to mount as a full-scale new media performance piece-with one student dressed as a gorilla and others capturing the reactions of the unsuspecting participants approached by the “gorilla.”  Using Facebook and crowd-sourcing techniques to implement their project after Thanksgiving break, the students worked together to stage the project in a public space on campus, enhancing their awareness of surveillance and privacy in digital worlds while engaging in theoretical study through interactive media experiences.

Ultimately, Shafer says, students are “examining the relationship between public space and personal expression, bridging the gap between the two.”