50:209:303 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: Whitman Digital Commons, Room 102

Jim's Office: Whitman Center 104
Jim's Office Hours: Wednesday, 11:00am-12:30pm, or by appointment
Jim's Email: jim[dot]brown[at]rutgers[dot]edu

Course Website: http://courses.jamesjbrownjr.net/303_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 (available at bookstore)

Other readings will be posted to Sakai as PDFs

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

  • Attendance (10%)
  • In-class writing activities (10%)
  • Response Papers (10%)
  • Digital Trash Autobiography (20%)
  • Digital Life Cycle Project (20%)
  • Sustainable Digital Practices Workshop (30%)

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

Content Warnings
We will be reading and discussing material that addresses online harassment and abuse, and some of that material may contain references that you will want to know about in advance. I will do my best to provide detailed content warnings prior to each course reading. However, if you have concerns about encountering anything specific in the course material, please contact me via email or make an appointment to see me. I will do my best to flag content based on your requests.

Success in this class will require regular attendance, and I will take attendance at each class meeting. In addition, we will often complete graded work in class that cannot be made up. 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.

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.

University policies and resources

Academic Integrity
By enrolling in this course, each student assumes the accountability and the responsibility to be an active participant in Rutgers Camden’s community of scholars in which everyone’s academic work and behavior are held to the highest academic integrity standards. Cheating, fabrication, plagiarism, unauthorized collaboration, and helping or allowing others commit these acts are examples of academic misconduct, which can result in disciplinary action. This includes but is not limited to failure on the assignment/course, disciplinary probation, or suspension. All cases of academic misconduct will be forwarded to the Office of Community Standards for additional review. https://deanofstudents.camden.rutgers.edu/academic-integrity

Code of Conduct
Rutgers University-Camden seeks a community that is free from violence, threats, and intimidation; that is respectful of the rights, opportunities, and welfare of students, faculty, staff, and guests of the University; and that does not threaten the physical or mental health or safety of members of the University community and includes classroom space. As a student at the University, you are expected adhere to Student Code of Conduct: https://deanofstudents.camden.rutgers.edu/student-conduct

Rutgers-Camden has a wide range of resources to help you stay on track both personally and academically. The Raptor Cares Report (https://deanofstudents.camden.rutgers.edu/reporting) connects you to our Dean of Students Office and they can assist you with a variety of concerns: medical, financial, mental health, or any life issue that impacts your academic performance. You can share a concern for yourself, a classmate or a friend.

Office of Disability Services
The Office of Disability Services (ODS) provides students with confidential 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. 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 also works with students, faculty, staff and administrators to enforce the American with Disabilities Act of 1990. https://learn.camden.rutgers.edu/disability-services

Office of Military and Veterans Affairs
The Office of Military and Veterans Affairs can assist our military and veteran students with benefits, deployment issues and much more. Contact: Fred Davis 856-225-2791 frdavis@camden.rutgers.edu

Support for Undocumented and Immigrant Students
In an ongoing effort to support all students on campus, Rutgers University has established two offices to support undocumented and immigrant students with questions or concerns related to immigration status. The Rutgers Immigrant Community Assistance Project (RICAP) provides free and confidential immigration legal consultations and direct representation to currently enrolled students. For more information or an appointment, contact Jason Hernandez, Esq., at 856-225-2302 or jason.c.hernandez@rutgers.edu. The Rutgers Office of Undocumented Student Services provides one-on-one case management to assist undocumented students and help them access campus resources including financial aid, career services, health services, etc. For more information or an appointment, please contact Yuriana García Tellez at y.garcia@rutgers.edu.


September 5
Introductions and syllabus review

The Internet of Garbage

September 10
Jeong, parts 1, 2, and 3 (available on Sakai)
Response Paper Due

September 12
Jeong, parts 4 and 5

September 17
Phillips, "LOLing at Tragedy"
Response Paper Due

September 19
Massanari, "#Gamergate and The Fappening: How Reddit's algorithm, governance, and culture support toxic technocultures" (available on Sakai)

September 24
Alcott and Gentzkow, Social Media and Fake News in the 2016 Election
Response Paper Due

September 26
Parikka and Sampson, "On Anomalous Objects of Digital Culture" (available on Sakai)
Response Paper Due

October 1
Sindorf, "Symbolic violence in the online field: Calls for ‘civility’ in online discussion"
Response Paper Due

October 3
Menkman, The Glitch Moment (um), focusing on pages 1-33 (available on Sakai)
Response Paper Due

October 8
Class cancelled

Into the Dump

October 10
Gillespie, Custodians of the Internet (available on Sakai)
Roberts, "Digital Refuse"
Response Papers Due for Gillespie and Roberts

October 15
Visit Temple University Computer Recycling Center
Maxwell and Miller, Introduction
Response Paper Due

October 17
Maxwell and Miller, Chapter 1
Optional Response Paper Due (complete for extra credit)
Digital Trash Autobiography Writing Workshop

October 22
Skype visit by J.R. Carpenter
The Gathering Cloud, by J.R. Carpenter
Response Paper Due

October 24
Maxwell and Miller, Chapter 2
Digital Trash Autobiography Writing Workshop

Friday, October 26
Completed Draft of Digital Trash Autobiography Due by 5:00pm

October 29
Maxwell and Miller, Chapter 3
Digital Trash Autobiography Writing Workshop

October 31
Preparation for group presentations
Digital Trash Autobiography Paper Due

November 5
Skype visit by Joana Moll
Gabrys, Introduction

November 7
Group presentations on Chapters 4, 5, 6

November 12
Maxwell and Miller, Conclusion
Response Paper Due
Writing Workshop for Digital Life Cycle Project

November 14
***Prior to this guest lecture, you must visit the gallery and spend time with the LAMENT installation. Email me a picture of the end of the piece (Bing Crosby singing)***
Jennifer Scappettone guest lecture

November 19
Writing Workshop for Digital Life Cycle Project

November 21
Digital Life Cycle Project Proposal Due by 5:00pm

Sustainable Digital Practices

November 26
Digital Life Cycle Project Check-in
Sustainable Digital Practices Workshop planning

November 28
Sustainable Digital Practices Workshop planning

Friday, November 30
Digital Life Cycle Project Due

December 3
Sustainable Digital Practices Workshop planning (Jim will not be present in class)

December 5
Sustainable Digital Practices Workshop planning

December 10
"Dress Rehearsal" of workshop

Tuesday, December 11, 4:00-5:30pm
Sustainable Digital Practices Workshop, Digital Commons

December 12
Workshop debrief, course wrap-up
course evaluations

December 14
Workshop Reflection Paper Due


In-class writing activities (10%)

At various points throughout the semester, you will be asked to respond to writing prompts at the beginning of class. I will not announce these exercises in advance. These will be informal exercises, and they will be designed to spark your thinking and get you ready for class discussion. You will have roughly 10-15 minutes to complete these assignments, and they can take many forms: free writing, notes, mind maps, drawings, and more. They can be completed on paper or electronically, as long as you can show me something that demonstrates you have completed the assignment and addressed the prompt.

There will be 10 of these activities, 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. There are no word minimums or limits on these assignments, but what you produce should demonstrate that you've taken time to thoughtfully respond to the prompt.

If you are not present in class on the day we complete these exercises, you will not be able to earn credit for these assignments.

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.

Please bring a copy of these papers to class, since we'll refer to them during discussion. You will submit paper copies of these to me.

Outline of Reading (one-page maximum)
Using no more than one page, provide an outline of 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. As a class, you will build this workshop to get these students thinking about how their everyday digital practices produce or come into contact with "digital trash"? 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 Trash Autobiography (20%)

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?

These essays will be modeled on those published by the "Speculative Historiographies of Techno-Trash" project. While writing and revising, you should read the essays published there, which should provide inspiration and with a sense for the range of approaches you can take in this project.

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 your digital life in a sustainable way? How or how not? How could you change your practices?
  • What portions of your 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. In addition, you should plan to research the technology or technologies that you plan to write about.

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 show evidence that you've conducted careful research?
  • 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?

Digital Life Cycle Project (20%)

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 (5%)
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 (5%)
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.

1000-word essay (10%)
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 this class. Your essay is short, so you can't take on every issue we've read about, but you should explain how your research extends the work that other scholars do. What have you found in your research that calls into question, confirms, or perhaps updates their findings? This essay should be written in MLA Format (see the Purdue OWL for details).

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

  • Does your project reflect careful research into your chosen object?
  • Do your map reflect careful attention to design and provide us with a detailed picture of this object's life cycle?
  • Do you support claims with evidence?
  • Does the paper provide evidence that you've carefully written and revised?
  • Have you observed the word limits and other requirements of listed above?
  • Is your paper written in MLA format with few grammatical errors?

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

Sustainable Digital Practices Workshop (30%)

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 for students in the Ignite program on December 11 at 4:00pm in the Digital Commons.

The project will account for 30% 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 (10%)
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 (junior high and/or 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.

During the workshop, members of your team 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, members of your team will generate a document that discusses the strengths and weaknesses of your workshop and what you might do differently if you delivered it again.

Reflections and Discussion of Your Contributions (5%)
All members of the class will receive the same grade for the planning document and the presentation materials, since all of you will work together on this project. However, in this paper of 500 words, you will reflect on the workshop, what you might do differently if given the opportunity to run this workshop again, and discuss (in detail) your own contributions to the project.

Note: If members of the class indicate to me that someone is not completing work, I will meet individually with that student. Students found to be not participating in the project will not receive credit for the project.

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

  • Does your plan carefully lay out the workshop and consider as many contingencies as possible?
  • Do your presentation materials reflect careful attention to design?
  • Does your workshop make good use of the time and directly involve students with hands-on activities?
  • Does the final presentation represent thoughtful critical reflection about what you did and what you might have done differently?