A Laboratory for the Future of Higher Education

Kenneth Knoespel

A young woman entering Georgia Tech asked about majors. She had perfect SAT scores and said pointedly, ‘Can you assure me that I won’t waste either half of my brain?’ This question is revealing because often Georgia Tech students think they must define themselves within a single field, limiting their strong desire to explore their intellectual creativity by bringing together multiple disciplines. For me the question emphasizes the crucial importance of LMC as an intellectual and creative setting enriched by the strengths of all of Georgia Tech.

Through the work of many colleagues and the steady support of Georgia Tech, LMC has become a laboratory for the emergence of curricula that integrates the humanities with science and technology.  In 2003 the National Academy of Sciences recognized the important of our work, noting in Beyond Creativity: Technology, Innovation, and Creativity that “The success and prestige that the school enjoys within Georgia Tech and the new-media community at large have created visibility that would have been unavailable if it had remained a traditional English department. With the help of creative campaigning by the [LMC], the engineers and scientists of Georgia Tech, faculty members who hold the majority of clout within the university, have had little trouble understanding the benefits and advantages of a program in digital media.”

Thomas Friedman reinforced the importance of Georgia Tech’s evolving curriculum in The World is Not Flat (2006): “What the Georgia Tech model recognizes is that the world is increasingly going to be operating off the flat-world platform, with its tools for all kinds of horizontal collaboration.” The rapid expansion of digital technology has reinforced the ways in which science and technology engages with other disciplines.  Today LMC includes not only faculty with distinguished work in literature and film but faculty with degrees in Engineering and Computer Science who have chosen to shape new degree programs that integrate work in the humanities with digital media. The consequences of this integration for our work at Georgia Tech have been enormous. The French philosopher Bruno Latour has remarked that LMC has become an important laboratory for the future of education. Over the past ten years, our work has become a model for universities not only in the United States but in other countries.  Together with the Ivan Allen College, we have been able to develop exchange programs and summer abroad programs in Asia, Europe, and South America.

LMC has become a laboratory for the emergence of curricula that integrates the humanities with science and technology.

When I arrived at Georgia Tech, I was using an IBM Selectric typewriter.  Soon I had a dual-floppy IBM computer in my office. By 1989 I was using a GT-issued prototype laptop to transcribe Newton manuscripts at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. I remember vividly the first e-mail I sent from my new home computer to a colleague at the university in 1987. I also remember the disbelief of aeronautical engineers when we presented ‘a take-off and fly-away’ of a helicopter on an Apple II computer rather than a Silicon Graphics machine. Together with colleagues, I learned that building degree programs that included applied work with computing and digital media enabled research that extended well beyond traditional boundaries in the humanities or social sciences.

Work at Georgia Tech has led to an undergraduate program in Computational Media and a graduate program in Digital Media that includes both a M.S. and Ph.D. A Bachelor of Science degree in Computational Media developed with the College of Computing has emphasized the importance of required courses in programming and the creative aspects of digital technology. The graduate program is recognized for its work in game development, augmented reality, digital theory, AI generated animation, interactive design, and Machinima. Nor do we forget our history: links between legacy media and digital media remain an important element in all the programs, as do the connections between humanities and science. The wildly successful Poetry@Tech, inaugurated ten years ago by the American poet, Thomas Lux, has become recognized across the country. Supported by generous endowments from Henry Bourne and Bruce McEver, Poetry@Tech reaches beyond the undergraduate and graduate programs to demonstrate how the study and the practice of poetry, often regarded as the core of the humanities, also works at the creative center of digital media.

Our collaborative educational laboratory is exemplified in the course on Global Issues and Leadership that I have developed with the head of the School of International Affairs.  The course brings students in the humanities and social sciences together with students from across the campus. Together the students develop briefings on major social and political issues confronting the United States and the world.  Chemical warfare, food deserts and obesity, the impacts of widening the Panama Canal, public education, digital security, and economic development in Africa have been among the projects presented. Each problem area has been presented to visiting leaders such as Senator Sam Nunn, Ambassador Andrew Young, Congressman John Lewis, Vice President of Coca-Cola Javier Goizueta, President and Executive Director of Georgia Public Broadcasting Teya Ryan, and President of the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education Steve Dolinger. Rather than focusing attention on a single discipline, the seminar stresses what is learned from applying the expertise of multiple disciplines to major problems confronting our societies. The course opens the artificial lines that often separate the humanities from other disciplines, and has reinforced the strength of Georgia Tech’s Core Curriculum that requires all students to have competencies in math, science, and computing.

We are participating in building the new university by building a living laboratory for the future of education with colleagues across Georgia Tech. I’m proud that each student who joins us helps in building a new university.

I developed another seminar, ‘Witness to a Changing Conscience,’ with GT Professor of Practice and Poetry@Tech visionary Bruce McEver, in which we explore the ways that major authors have documented changes in their thinking through their fiction and autobiographical work. Our students have considered Marcus Aurelius, Augustine, Montaigne, Jefferson, Emerson, Gandhi, Tolstoy, Martin Luther King, Thich Nhat Hanh, Flannery O’Connor, Orhan Pamuk. Recent visitors to the class include United States Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Bill Foege, Harvard Divinity School Research Professor Harvey Cox, and the writer and journalist Tom Schachtman.

I have often described LMC as an archipelago of teaching and research. Richard Utz, our current chair, recognized the school’s important work in Science Fiction by reminding us that we have become a Large Magellanic Cloud! The metaphor illustrates the importance of LMC’s relations with disciplines across the Institute. We are hardly isolated and are vital to the very future of Georgia Tech. We are participating in building the new university by building a living laboratory for the future of education with colleagues across Georgia Tech. I’m proud that each student who joins us helps in building a new university.

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