50:209:301 Digital Trash (Fall 2018)

It’s easy to consider digital life in terms of abundance. Photos are immediately saved to the cloud, and even spam is archived in our Gmail accounts. The “Trash” icon on our desktop is left over from a time when hard drive space was a concern. But the notion that the digital offers infinite resources is a fiction. The Internet is not an unlimited space of pure virtuality; it is a collection of server farms gobbling up energy spewing carbon dioxide. Digital devices are constructed from mined materials that exploit workers and economies, and those same devices are dumped without much concern for environmental impact. And the content we produce on various social media platforms attracts attention, which is itself a precious commodity. We produce a lot of digital trash. This course will ask students to consider the cultural, ecological, and political consequences of that trash. What kind of trash are we producing, and should we be considering more sustainable approaches to the digital devices that end up in landfills and the text, images, sound, and video we distribute online?

This is an Engaged Civic Learning (ECL) course, meaning that the course is concerned with linking what we do in the classroom with the Camden community and thinking critically about responsible citizenship and community engagement. One of the key learning goals for this course is that students should leave the class with the ability to "clearly articulate the concerns discussed in this class to a public audience." You will be developing this skill during a final project: You will design and execute a "Sustainable Digital Practices" workshop with high school students from Camden.

Photo Credit: "e-Waste" by Curtis Palmer


Professor: Jim Brown
Class Time: MW, 9:35am-10:55am
Meeting Place: Fine Arts 217

Jim's Office: Fine Arts 213
Jim's Office Hours: Monday, 11:00am-12:30pm
Jim's Email: jim[dot]brown[at]rutgers[dot]edu

Course Website: http://courses.jamesjbrownjr.net/301_fall2018

Course Learning Outcomes
Upon completion of this class, students will be able to:

  • Understand the economic, political, and environmental impacts of digital trash
  • Critically analyze and create arguments about digital trash
  • Apply the vocabulary and concepts of sustainability to their own digital lives and habits
  • Clearly communicate the ideas and concepts discussed in this class to a public audience

Engaged Civic Learning Outcomes
This course fulfills the Engaged Civic Learning general education requirement. Upon completion of this ECL course, students will be able to:

  • Communicate effectively with community members by developing a workshop for high school students that address the challenges of digital trash.
  • Work constructively with local high school students to address the public challenges of sustainability in our digital lives.

Required Books

  • Greening the Media, Maxwell and Miller
  • The Internet of Garbage, Sarah Jeong (e-book only)

Other readings will be posted to Sakai as PDFs

Course Work and Grades
Undergraduate student grades will be determined based on:

  • Attendance (15%)
  • Response Papers (10%)
  • Digital Trash Autobiography (10%)
  • Supply Chain Project (25%)
  • Sustainable Digital Practices Workshop (40%)

Grades will be assigned on the following scale:

A 90-100
B+ 88-89
B 80-86
C+ 78-79
C 70-77
D 60-69
F 59 and below

Success in this class will require regular attendance, and I will take attendance at each class meeting. You are required to attend class daily, arrive on time, do assigned reading and writing, and participate in all in-class work. Please save absences for when you are sick or have a personal emergency. If you find that an unavoidable problem prevents you from attending class or from arriving on time, please discuss the problem with me.

If you are more than 5 minutes late for class, you will be considered absent. If there is something keeping you from getting to class on time (i.e., bus or train schedules), please let me know during the first week of class.

Computers, Smartphones, etc.
Please feel free to use your computer or tablet during class. However, I ask that you put away smartphones. If you have a specific reason for using your phone for class related activities, please meet with me to discuss.

Late Assignments
Due dates for assignments are posted on the course website. Late assignments are not accepted.

Intellectual Property
Using the work of others without attribution, having another student complete an assignment for you, or any other violations of the university's Academic Integrity Policy will result in a failing grade. If you have questions about the that policy, please see the Dean of Student Affairs website.

The Office of Disability Services
From the The Office of Disability Services (ODS):

"The ODS provides students with confidential advising and accommodation services in order to allow students with documented physical, mental, and learning disabilities to successfully complete their course of study at Rutgers University – Camden. The ODS provides for the confidential documentation and verification of student accommodations, and communicates with faculty regarding disabilities and accommodations. The ODS provides accommodation services, which can include readers, interpreters, alternate text, special equipment, and note takers. The ODS acts as a signatory for special waivers. The ODS also works with students, faculty, staff and administrators to enforce the American with Disabilities Act of 1990."

If you believe you might require an accommodation, please contact the ODS early in the semester.

Technology Policy
We will use digital technology frequently in this class. Although I am assuming that you have some basic knowledge of computers, such as how to use a keyboard and mouse, and how to use the Web and check e-mail, most things will be explained in class. If you don’t understand what we are doing, please ask for help. If you are familiar with the technology we are using please lend a helping hand to your classmates.

Sakai, Course Website, and Email
You should check your email daily. Class announcements and assignments may be distributed through email. The course website will also have important information about assignments and policies. Pay close attention to the course calendar as we move through the semester. I reserve the right to move things around if necessary.


Response Papers (10%)

Throughout the semester, we'll be reading a number of essays and chapters, and we'll be discussing these readings in class. In order to effectively participate in class, you'll need to complete these readings. But beyond just reading them, you'll also need to arrive in class with a clear sense of what you want to talk about. What questions do you have? What was confusing? What did you find particularly interesting? What connections do you see between this week's reading and last week's? These are the kinds of things we'll address in response papers.

There will be 10 response papers, and they are worth 1 point each (meaning that each paper represents one percentage point of your grade). Papers will be are graded on a credit/no credit basis. You will receive a grade of either 1 point or 0 points on each paper.

Papers follow a very specific format and have word count restrictions. Failure to follow these guidelines will result in a grade of zero.

Outline of Reading (one-page maximum)
Using no more than one page, provide an outline the reading. You can do this with roman numerals, with bullet points, or in some other format, but your outline should reflect that you understand how the argument is put together and how its different pieces fit together. This outline should be useful to you (providing you with notes for class discussion) while also demonstrating that you've read and understood.

Explanation of why we're reading this in a class called "Digital Trash" (100 words maximum)
Each of our readings addresses the concept of digital trash in some way, though it may not engage that question directly. This means it may not be completely obvious why we're reading certain things in this class. In this section, your job is to briefly explain how this reading fits in this class.

Potential ideas for your final project (100 words maximum)
Your final project will involve constructing a "sustainable digital practices" workshop for local high school students. How did this reading help you think about that project and how you will approach it?

What were the most confusing parts of this reading? (no limit)
Were there ideas, terms, or concepts that you didn't understand? Ask those questions here, and be ready to ask these questions in class. The more questions you list in this section, the better evidence you're providing that you've productively engaged with the reading. Don't be afraid to ask a lot of questions of clarification.

What were the most interesting parts of this reading? (no limit)
While the previous section focuses on things you didn't understand or that you'd like us to clarify, this section is about questions that will help us discuss the reading. What struck you as especially interesting? Why? Also, consider these questions: How is this reading related to other things we've ready and discussed? What is unique about the chapter's argument or method? How did it help you think about the idea of digital trash in a new way? These are just a few examples of how you might approach this section. Again, try to ask as many questions as possible.

Digital Life Cycle Project (25%)

Our readings have demonstrated that digital devices are made of a range of chemicals and components, and in this project you will trace the creation, use, disposal, and reuse of a single digital device. You will choose the device and then conduct research on the product's life cycle. What goes into making it? Who sells it? Who uses it? Is it reused or resold? How is it disposed of, and where? These are some of the questions you'll be asking during this research project.

This project should be seen as preparation for your final project. The research you do in this project will help you design a workshop for local high school students, and your work should help you consider the best ways to get those students to reflect on their own approaches to digital trash.

The project has three components:

Project Proposal
Your proposal is a one-page document that explains which device you've chosen to research, your plan for what kinds of sources you plan to use in your research, and a detailed timeline of tasks that you'll need to complete. The proposal is not a contract, and things will certainly change as you pursue the project. But this document will get you thinking about what needs to be accomplished during the project.

Life Cycle Map
You will produce a map that visualizes the life cycle you're researching using icons from the noun project. This map should be as detailed as possible and should provide your audience with a rich snapshot of the digital lifecycle you have researched.

1500-word essay
You will write an essay that reports on the results of your research and that explains how your research speaks to the issues we've read about in Greening the Media. Your essay is short, so you can't take on every issue in Maxwell and Miller's text, but you should explain how your research extends the work they do. What have you found in your research that calls into question, confirms, or perhaps updates their findings?

[This assignment is based on Grant Wythoff's Supply Chain Project]

Digital Trash Autobiography (10%)

What kind of digital trash do you produce? In a 1000-word paper, describe your own digital practices and what kind of waste is produced by them. Remember that we are thinking about "digital trash" broadly. We are interested in the devices that end up in landfills, but we are also interested in your social media posts, email, word processor documents, and more. What do you produce digitally, and how much of it could we considered to be trash? How sustainable are your digital practices? What impact do they have on those around you, on the environment, and on the broader technological environment?

In this 1000-word essay, you will reflect on one or more of the following questions:

  • What counts as "trash" in your everyday digital practices?
  • How do your digital practices affect the environment, whether we consider that term to describe the natural environment or the digital spaces in which you interact?
  • Do you approach digital life in a sustainable way? How or how not? How could you change your practices?
  • What portions of your digital life are most rife with trash?

    This list is not exhaustive, but it should at least indicate the kinds of things you should address in this paper. The paper does not need to address all aspects of your digital life. It may make more sense to narrow things and choose a specific aspect of your interactions with digital technology.

When grading these papers, I will be asking the following questions:

  • Does your paper coherently and concisely address your own production of or interaction with digital trash?
  • Do you support claims with evidence?
  • Does the paper provide evidence that you've carefully written and revised?
  • Have you observed the word limits?
  • Is your paper clearly written with few grammatical errors?

Sustainable Digital Practices Workshop (40%)

This is an Engaged Civic Learning (ECL) course, meaning that the course is concerned with linking what we do in the classroom with the Camden community and thinking critically about responsible citizenship and community engagement. One of the key learning goals for this course is that students should leave the class with the ability to "clearly articulate the concerns discussed in this class to a public audience." You will be developing this skill during your final project. You will design and execute a "Sustainable Digital Practices" workshop with high school students from Camden.

By applying some of what we have discussed in class, you will design a hands-on workshop for students. You have already reflected on your own digital practices and have mapped the life cycle of a digital object. You will now apply what you've learned to create an experience for local high school students. In partnership with the Rutgers-Camden Center for the Arts and the "Digital Trash" exhibition running in the Stedman Gallery, you will will guide students through activities that allow them to think critically about what information they share and what kind of "digital trash" they produce. The workshop should, just as we have throughout the semester, address both physical devices and digital content.

You are tasked with planning and designing the workshop based on the readings and activities in the first two units of this semester. While the exact activities of the workshop are up to you, you might consider replicating some of your own assignments on a smaller scale (for instance, having students do some of the supply chain research you carried out for your own projects), or you might design entirely new activities. You will run this workshop twice, for two different groups of students, providing you with an opportunity to reflect on the workshop after its first iteration and to make changes based on your experiences.

The project will account for 40% of your grade, and here are the different components of the project:

Planning Document (15%)
Think of this as a "lesson plan" of sorts. It should lay out the learning goals of your workshop, the key concepts you want attendees to understand, and a detailed plan for how you will use your time. This document should be very detailed and should account for various contingencies. What if technology falters? What if an activity is falling flat? What if you don't have as many students as you planned for? What if you have too many? This list is not exhaustive, but it reflects the kinds of questions you should be asking.

Presentation Materials and Documentation (15%)
Your workshop will likely involve some slide presentations, materials to hand out to students, instructions, and more. All of this should be carefully designed, keeping in mind your target audience (high school students), your time constraints, and your learning goals. Remember that you are trying to convey what you've learned about "digital trash" to this group of students in a workshop format. There should be an experiential component to your workshop - this is something more than just a presentation. So, your materials should plan for hands-on, engaged learning activities.

Reflective Observations and Synthesis (10%)
During the workshop, members of your teams will be tasked with recording observations. What's working, what isn't? What would you do differently next time? Which activities were a poor fit for your audience? Which activities seemed to work particularly well? These are just some of the questions you'll be reflecting on during the workshop. Based on these observations, you'll develop a presentation that identifies strengths and weaknesses of your workshop and makes a plan for the next iteration of the workshop.