An Interview with Robert Emmons of the Digital Studies Center at Rutgers University-Camden
Interview by Darren Wershler, Jussi Parikka, and Lori Emerson
May 15, 2017
Interviewers: What is your lab called and where is it?
Robert Emmons: We are the Digital Studies Center at Rutgers University-Camden.Rutgers-Camden is one of three campuses in the Rutgers system, the State University system of New Jersey. Camden is in South Jersey, just across the Ben Franklin Bridge from Philadelphia,Pennsylvania. Jim Brown is theDirector and Robert A.Emmons Jr. is theAssociate Director.
Interviewers: What sorts of projects and activities form the core of your work? Is there a specific temporal or technological focus for your lab?
Robert Emmons: We are two years old, so we're still fairly "young," but our main research project is the Rutgers-Camden Archive of Digital Ephemera (R-CADE). Our primary focus is providing scholars with software or hardware that they'd like to investigate, research, and/or repurpose. The R-CADE makes digital technology available to scholars for research and creative activities.
Scholars are free to take apart, dissect, and repurpose artifacts in the R-CADE as they attempt to understand their historical and cultural significance. While the R-CADE does not preserve in the sense of keeping objects in their “original” condition, the archive is in fact an exercise in the preservation of digital culture. By allowing for the study and exploration of digital ephemera, the R-CADE aims to ensure these digital artifacts a place in our histories and our various scholarly conversations. Each year the DSC hosts a symposium during which scholars share research and creative work. Scholars and artists work over the course of many months by researching and/or repurposing an object of study, and they share this work during the symposium. Our R-CADE Symposium features this kind of work.
In addition, we have a series of mini-grants that we award to people on campus, and this has funded a range of projects: a journal that publishes undergraduate biology research, an R user group for people in the humanities and the social sciences, various video projects (RobertEmmons is a documentary film maker, so we do a lot with digital video). Finally, we have a fellows program that allows scholars to do research and teach without any residency requirement. Fellows can teach online and attend fellows meetings via Skype. This year, we have an exciting group of fellows, including Judy Malloy, Claire Donato, Quinn DuPont, and others.
Interviewers: Who uses the lab? Is it a space for students, for researchers, for seminars?
Robert Emmons: We have two rooms. The ModLab is our research space, and the CoLab is our teaching space. Both are designed to be reconfigurable (moveable furniture, technology at the edges of the room, etc.) and have large flat screens that enable collaborative work. The ModLab is an open lab that hosts many events and is available as open lab and maker space, the CoLab is primarily for courses but also has some open hours. Both rooms are open to anyone on campus.
Interviewers: What sorts of knowledge does the lab produce and how is it circulated?
Robert Emmons: Our R-CADE project produces creative work and research; we also host a number of workshops. The lab has helped produce a number of digital video projects and also some websites (including a site for the Israeli Visions of Place art exhibition).
Our biggest project to date was an Electronic Literature exhibition called "A Matter of Bits." This ran in the Stedman Gallery on campus, and we exhibited more than 50 works of e-lit. Some of that work was displayed on vintage equipment (for instance, a C64 for Nick Montfort's translation of Amílcar Romero's Poema 21, a Mac Classic to display John McDaid's Uncle Buddy's Phantom Funhouse). We also displayed work on a Kinect, on iPads, and other equipment. This was a large undertaking, and the exhibition ran for three months. We also hosted the launch of the Electronic Literature Collection Volume 3 during that exhibition.
Interviewers: Tell us about your infrastructure. Do you have a designated space and how does that work?
Robert Emmons: The DSC consists of two spaces: ModLab and CoLab, thatwe have near complete control over. We can schedule classes in the CoLab at our discretion, and the ModLab is a dedicated space for events and projects we want to pursue.
Interviewers: What sorts of support does the lab receive?
Robert Emmons: Currently, we are supported by the College of Arts and Sciences. We closing a three-year start up from the Dean. We imagine that we'll need to pursue grants in the future. We've already begun to do this, but we and have success with internal University wide grants, but are still working on winning external grants. Two NEH DH Implementation grants and one "Projects for the Public" grant—none funded.
Interviewers: What are your major theoretical touchstones?
Robert Emmons: To date, our focus has been on e-lit, video game studies, media archaeology, and digital storytelling in various forms. Media archeologyis primarily represented by the R-CADE. So, while we don't have folks here working in media archaeology, we are very interested in enabling that kind of work (especially hands-on work).
Interviewers: What would you say is the lab’s most significant accomplishment to date?
Robert Emmons: I think the E-lit exhibition is our most significant contribution to date, though a close second is the official launch of our brand new dual-major program. It only took us two years to get this program approved and launched, which is fairly amazing given the red tape at state university. We were tasked with creating a B.A. program, but we were worried we would take majors away from many programs in the Arts and Sciences. So, we created a joint-major program. Students majoring in Digital Studies must choose another major in Arts and Sciences with which to pair their DS major. We also have an interdisciplinary minor program.
It is also worth nothing the R-CADE has expanded from a single panel half-daysymposium to this year's, which was an all day event with five panels,a workshop, a keynote speaker (Rachel Simone Weil) and a special guest (Warren Robinett) Q&A during a final dinner. We have the full intention to continue to build the symposium which may include expanding tomultiple days.
Interviewers: Could you briefly describe your plans for the lab over the next 3–5 years?
Robert Emmons: Our plans are to continue to expand the R-CADE Symposium. Previous years have hosted a single roundtable of scholars who study/repurpose a shared object of study. The 2017 symposium will be the first time we put out a CFP and invite panel proposals. Accepted panels can receive up to $1,000 for the purchase of materials. We're aiming for 3–4 panels for 2017, but I'd love for this event to be expanded—this will require grant funding.
Beyond this, we are hoping to identify digital projects on campus that we might seek funding for. Rutgers-Camden faculty are only now beginning to do digital work, so this will likely take some time. But we've already begun work on a couple of projects (some of this mentioned above).
Finally, our hope is that the DS major grows significantly in 3–5 years. This is key for us as we continue to try to build a community of students and faculty members pursuing digital work.
Interviewers: What makes your lab a lab?
Robert Emmons: Our focus is on collaboration across disciplines. I know everybody says that, but we actually support such work! Our major, our minor, the R-CADE project, and our mini-grants . . . none of this is situated in a single discipline or approach. So, we're a lab because we are trying to facilitate experimentation across disciplinary boundaries. We see our role not as a place where people can get/use digital technology but rather as a place where people can meet to work together on digital projects.