On Course: Students Explore Death in the Digital Age
By: Jay Pfeifer
DIG 215: Death in the Digital Age is one of my favorite classes to teach. One of the reasons is because it covers so many different media forms. We’re reading a novel right now, but we’ll talk about video games, listen to podcasts and watch movies and TV shows like “Black Mirror.”
Despite it being a Digital Studies course, this has a timeless quality. For centuries, people have imagined technology as having some sort of supernatural connection to the afterlife.
Thomas Edison actually tried to invent a machine to talk to dead people. And there’s a long history of people thinking about technology as a way to be in touch with the dead.
The class’s intriguing title attracts a great cross-section of students. We have seniors who want one last class that they will never get to experience any other time. We get Digital Studies and Film and Media Studies majors, as well as first-year students and sophomores. I really love the range of perspectives in the class.
Death is one of the classic things that liberal arts can talk about because there are so many different ways to examine it.
And this semester will be particularly interesting because this is the first time I will have taught it after the pandemic started.
A little bit later in the semester, we’ll talk about how technology changes grief. And the idea of streaming a funeral for people who can’t make it will be fascinating.
Three years ago, I think there were a significant number of students who felt that streaming a funeral wasn’t intimate and that it would not feel like the proper grieving process. I suspect that will be different when we have that discussion this semester.
Students get to work in a lot of different mediums in this course. One of their assignments is to make a short, three- to four-minute TikTok-style video that analyzes a contemporary work of horror. I think it’s easier to talk about media using media, so students will be talking about podcasts, video games—all sorts of media.
Then, at the end of the semester, we have a “haunted media” project. This is one of my favorite projects. Students have to take some sort of object and haunt it. A couple of years ago, a student created a Dropbox folder that had old photos that were glitchy and fragments of emails. It was basically evidence of some sort of awful event that had happened. The student was telling the story through this found media and it was really cool.
It is a creative project. They’re supposed to lean on history and theory, but they have to be creative. We’ll spend a couple days at the end of the semester doing “gallery days” where each student will present their work.