Media design course reimagines hidden spaces on campus

What if the basement in Main Building – the location of the old bookstore – is equipped with Mac computers, tripods, cameras, a green screen and other media production items? What if the old Reserves Room in the library is transferred into a centralized space for Graphic Design and App Development?

Those are some ideas proposed by students in MEDS 260 – Media Theory– for a new Design and Digital Media Lab (DDM) on the Vassar campus. The presentation and screening of this project will tentatively take place on Friday, May 8, at 7:30 p.m. in Rocky 300.

In their final project, MEDS 260 students are divided into different groups. Each group is creating a short film (four-six minutes) to present a proposal for designing a new DDM Lab on campus.

Regarding the principles and motivations behind this project, Professor Eva Woods, the instructor of MEDS 260, said, “The goal for our final project is to complete, via the principles of critical design, a digital video that conceptualizes the need for a DDM at Vassar. Such a lab could function as a classroom for digital media production courses, for class modules or whole courses from other departments that are engaged with the Digital Humanities, Data Visualization, Game Development, Web Design/Graphics, and Mobile Media/App Development.”

She continued, “Critical Design involves radical collaboration, prefers showing to telling, and focuses on experimentation, clarity, process and human values.”

The students in MEDS 260 started this project on April 17, and are currently in their last stages of production. Stressing the significance of a new DDM Lab, Danielle Winter ’18, a member of the class, says, “Compared to many other colleges of comparable size and merit, our DDM facilities are poor and decentralized. Having a DDM will enrich the students by unlocking programs that will elevate projects and serve students as they search for work. It will also offer assistance for the Poughkeepsie community—it can offer workshops on basic computer skills and resume building, thus bridging a long standing gap between Vassar and its surroundings.”

Commenting specifically on the benefit of a new DDM Lab for Media Studies students, Cristian Uriostegui ’17 noted, “Media Studies students (as well as, according to our interviews, students from larger departments such as Film and Music) have no unified space for accessing digital media. The spaces available are fragmented, inaccessible, cluttered or some combination of the three. Spaces outfitted with modern technologies are in Vogelstein (video), Skinner (audio), the WVKR studio in Main (audio), New Hackensack (video), Sander’s Physics (computational software).”

He continued, “However, access to these spaces is obstructed to Media Studies majors (and others) by the need for card access and some of them are cramped and cannot properly house their equipment. The most accessible space for Media Studies majors looking to use digital technology is the Library’s Digital Media Zone, which is notorious for being a very transitory, chaotic, and stressful space which makes for a terrible learning environment. The DDM Lab would offer an alternative which isn’t transitory, is more technologically holistic (reflecting the state of our information-based society), and is centrally accessible to both Media Studies majors as well as other students.”

Each group in “Media Theory” has different visions for this new DDM Lab. Uriostegui talked about his group’s idea, which is proposed to take place in the Main basement. “The space would contain Mac desktops outfitted with digital software needed by students such as programs for video, audio, 3D rendering and editing. Utilizing the classroom spaces in the back, the space would also house courses both for the Media Studies department and beyond. Using the smaller rooms existing in the center of the space, more exclusive and expensive technologies such as cameras, professional audio recording equipment etc. could be housed and would require card swipe access,” said Uriostegui. Winter’s group, which imagines the Lab to occupy the old Reserves Room in the library, remarked, “It will feature movable workstations with convertible seating, short-term project storage, meeting and collaboration space, green screen/whitewall space, go-boxes for on the move filming essentials, work-study experts to consult on their program or skill of choice, frequent workshops, and essentially whatever the space turns into as it flourishes.”

To assists the students in “Media Theory” with their final project, the Media Studies department also invited a renowned digital media artist, Professor Ann Daly from CUNY State Island to coordinate this unit. Students are encouraged to work with Daly and interact with other students on campus, gathering information on the needs to have a space for Digital Media.

Professor Woods said, “Through intense collaboration with each other, interviews with members of the Vassar and nearby community, and incorporation of Critical Design techniques, students have been able to experience not only what it’s like to immerse oneself in a “d.school” environment, such as Stanford’s Hasso Platner Institute of Design, but also to get a taste of what many employers are looking for today, graduates with critical thinking skills, historical and hands-on knowledge of experimental aesthetics, and an ability to work collaboratively.”

Tackling a different aspect of the project, Uriostegui stresses the impact of this new space on low-income students. He said, “The construction of a DDM Lab is the perfect way for Vassar to follow up on the promise it has made (and is continually praised for) to low-income students. As a low-income student I have found myself at odds with higher-income students with access to the latest hardware (Macbook Pros, IPads, Macbook Airs etc.) as well as software (video/audio editing programs and more). This discrepancy between my lack of access and their abundance of it has contributed to my (and others’) generalized anxiety which stems from the social navigation of socioeconomic difference.”

Continuing, Uriostegui commented, “As an underprivileged Media Studies major without access to these technologies, I am forced to utilize technologies in compromising spaces such as the DMZ which floods with students and is plagued by never-ending alarms while my financially privileged peers do the same work I do but from the comfort of their own rooms: the resulting discrepancy in technological access is ultimately alienating. Creating a DDM Lab would create a technologically accessible space which would better equalize technological access for all of its students, creating an environment which supports young academics irrespective of their family’s financial standing.”

With the presentation and the screening of this project on May 8, the students in “Media Theory” hope that their proposals will be considered by the Vassar administration. Soshyan Petrolaus ’17 said, “The best case scenario is that the administrators at Vassar, and whoever else is in charge of planning academic spaces here, will share our vision about the design and digital media lab so that it can actually materialize at some point in the (hopefully near) future.”

The students also acknowledge the practicality of these ideas, pointing out that funding might come up as one of the obstacles. Jake Ellis ’16 noted, “In order to make this proposal a reality, I think the administration would have to figure out how to properly fund such an endeavor.”

Winter agreed, “The project, primarily, requires funding and staffing. With those two things—there is nothing holding the proposal back.”

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