3 Questions: Sulafa Zidani on tech, culture, and a critical

Sulafa Zidani is an assistant professor within the Comparative Media Research Program whose work focuses on digital tradition: the social, political, and cultural dynamics through which expertise operates and the position it performs in transnational energy. She is engaged on her first e book, which focuses on multilinguistic memes and facilities the creators of those memes. By trying into the lives and work of those international meme makers, the e book tells the story of globalization within the digital period as it’s expressed by untranslatability, emotions, and humor.

Zidani spoke with SHASS Communications about her analysis and her expertise at MIT.

Q: The intersections of the technological and the artistic are central to your work. How does the interdisciplinary nature of an MIT schooling lend itself to this type of humanistic and technological pondering?

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A: That is my second yr at MIT, and in that point I’ve I seen how aligned MIT’s academic method right here is with my work. Learning expertise and tradition from a important transnational perspective, I consider it’s essential to be a part of conversations that cross between disciplines and departments, conversations the place the designers, engineers, and entrepreneurs of tomorrow are studying important views and confronting moral dilemmas. MIT is the place the place these conversations are going down. I’ve college students in fields starting from enterprise to engineering, biology, to astrophysics. Collectively, we look at among the pressing questions our society is going through: What characterizes on-line cultures at the moment? How did we get to this place the place misinformation and racism unfold extensively on-line? What makes some on-line areas extra connective or extra divisive?

One of many elements I admire probably the most in MIT schooling is the push for fascinated about options. When confronting tough questions, it’s comprehensible that many people get caught within the challenges of the current. But, MIT college students show in my class that they’ve a forward-looking method that regularly returns to questions like: How will we make issues higher? How will we create higher content material or invent higher expertise with out replicating current issues? On this method, MIT is a good place to reinforce prolific pondering round expertise and tradition.

Q: On-line civic engagement is a central a part of so many individuals’s political expertise and publicity — and also you look at this engagement on a transnational scale! How do you method on-line fieldwork, particularly engagement on points that depend on native nuances and humor, remixed with transnational tradition? How are varied sorts of energy at play in these exchanges?

A: In my work on transnational on-line civic engagement, context is vital. Oftentimes in analysis, after we scale as much as giant datasets or transnational case research, we compromise on a deep and intimate data of the information. In my work, I preserve a worldwide scale whereas additionally centering data of the context that the information is stemming from. I analysis web content material in languages that I communicate, from locations through which I’ve lived, and cultures which I do know by my heritage data, lived expertise, and my schooling.

Context helps us perceive analysis information higher. For instance, in my paper on mashup and remix culture in the Middle East, I look at memes and movies in Arabic. My understanding of the language and tradition helps me determine what hides between the traces, that may be primarily based on the accent getting used, phrases which are particular to a area, to a technology, or to a subculture, and the political backdrop that on-line content material may be conversing with. That is particularly essential in humor, which depends on unspoken elements to impress laughter.

One more reason that context is central in my work is as a result of symbols we use in a single place won’t maintain the identical that means in a unique context. One instance which demonstrates this distinction is the picture of Pepe the Frog, which I focus on in an interview with journalist Nancy Guan. Within the context of the U.S., the picture of Pepe the Frog is usually utilized in misogynist and antisemitic alt-right memes. Nevertheless, in Hong Kong, the face of Pepe the Frog reveals up in memes, graffiti, and protest indicators as a illustration of pro-democracy activists.

Researching on a regular basis communication is fascinating. To really perceive energy in these sorts of mundane-yet-creative types of content material, particularly to know the nuance round them, we should spend time attending to know the historical past that led to them and the occasions and tradition occurring round them.

Q: You’ve written on decolonizing syllabi in media, communications, and cultural research. What does that strategy of inclusive pedagogy appear like within the classroom? What has been your expertise of bringing that pedagogy to MIT?

A: My method to inclusive pedagogy is centered round embracing variations, which I interpret as inviting our variations into the classroom somewhat than pushing them out in favor of consensus. Within the first few weeks of sophistication, as everyone seems to be attending to know each other higher, I pay particular consideration to the data and expertise that college students have already got. I then information college students to attach ideas to their current data, be that their life expertise or data they acquired in different lessons. I’ve discovered that this methodology enriches our class discussions and results in a deeper understanding of the course materials.

By way of pedagogy, working with MIT college students has been an mental delight. I’m frequently amazed on the number of expertise college students convey to the category and their eagerness to interact in dialogue. College students add in views primarily based on their pursuits, their majors and minors, and their desired profession paths. They do that by elevating questions that concern them, like “How will we construct a greater social media surroundings?” and by sharing their experiences being a part of social actions or fan cultures. Since I intention to convey a worldwide and important perspective into my lessons, MIT’s numerous scholar physique implies that college students may add some contextual data or draw our consideration to essential related occasions going down in different places around the globe. 

Many media research programs, particularly foundational and introductory programs, have historically favored views that heart what we name the “Western” world, particularly scholarship produced by white European and North American males. Such syllabi current the sort of data because the canon, which then places data produced by ladies, Indigenous individuals, Black individuals, and different individuals of colour — each in and out of doors of “the West” — as much less essential. Many teachers have tried to deal with this by including one week of their syllabus with readings from underrepresented views, however I believe the sort of answer can cement the view of those views as marginal. I’ve written extra about this in my article in Media, Culture & Society the place I recommend precise methods for creating extra inclusive syllabi and school rooms.

Whereas one syllabus or one class can’t alone rid us of the shadows of colonialism that we now have inherited in larger schooling, I consider that centering our college students is a good place to begin.


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