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Summer Teaching Dispatch: Nicholaus Gutierrez and Software Aesthetics

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Nicholaus Gutierrez was selected to teach “Software and Aesthetics” as a NWMEDIA R1B this past summer. Below, he describes the experience:

The topic of “Software and Aesthetics” was designed to give students a set of texts that could serve as reference points for some of the bigger ideas at play on the topic—for instance, aesthetics as not merely visual or auditory but as tactile, sensory, perceptual. Course readings touched on a variety of approaches to software and its relationship to aesthetics: from a critical discussions of GUIs vs. CLIs and the operative metaphors of computer desktops, files and windows to physical interfaces to glitching and data moshing, the goal was to encourage alternative ways of investigating, analyzing and critiquing those new media objects that we encounter every day but often take for granted without any critical reflection.

Equally as important, as an R&C course, the goal was to provide a set of texts that would open up discourses on aesthetics and computing and provide a fertile environment in which to ask questions that would lead to well-argued research papers. Combined with a sustained emphasis on using the resources available to members of the Berkeley community, from the University library to its academic search databases and curated research guides, students were encouraged to write papers that would allow them to analyze contemporary new media objects with an augmented understanding of their relationship to other historical movements and objects, of the sociocultural and political implications of their use, and of the technical elements and ideas that they might have produced.

Teaching a Summer breadth course on a new media topic is a unique pedagogical and intellectual challenge, and as a center whose focus is technology and digital media, BCNM provided an ideal environment for multi-disciplinary approaches to my course topic. Students in the course came from a wide variety of backgrounds and experience, which encouraged discussion of our texts from both humanistic and technical perspectives. This ended up being a productive double-edged sword. Having such a variety of backgrounds was especially useful when applying theoretical concepts to some of the more technical objects we examined—HTML/CSS, web browsers, geo-location apps, and so on. But it was difficult at times to move beyond a mere technical description of these objects and to critically analyze them in terms of their sociocultural uses.

These diverse perspectives, however, allowed me to design discussion and lessons specifically in terms of some key problems that I believe resonated both with the technical and humanistic perspectives: are Internet technology necessarily and in all cases democratizing? Do virtual avatars correspond in any way to real-world representations of race, gender and sexuality? Though difficult to sustain these kinds of inquiries in a condensed summer session, each week brought a new layer of depth and engagement on the part of students and the ways that they were interrogating software aesthetics.

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