Kim Knight is an Associate Professor of Critical Media Studies in the School of Arts, Technology and Emerging Communication. Her research explores how digital culture affects negotiations of power and the formation of identity, particularly for marginalized groups. Professor Knight took a break to reflect on the impact COVID-19 has had on her research:

Describe your research for a lay audience.

My research focuses on the interplay of power structures and identity in digital culture, with particular emphasis on the role of gender and intersectional feminism in networked environments. Rather than thinking of the digital as disembodied or ephemeral, I approach it as an object of material importance as it produces, and is produced by, the lived realities of persons who are also shaped by race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability. In my current work, I use these lenses to examine phenomena such as wearable technology, maker culture, data visualization, and viral media. I use written and practice-based methods to try to communicate in a variety of modes with different audiences.

In addition to traditional creative and written scholarship, I frequently engage in public Humanities methods through Fashioning Circuits. The project began as an investigation into wearable media and technology. Wearables, and the questions that arise from joining computing to the body, remain an important part of the work in the project. But since our founding in 2011 our scope has expanded as we have done the work of exploring these questions and tracing these entanglements. Fashioning Circuits is now a place where we also engage with the rich histories and practices of computational craft, domestic technologies, soft activism, and so forth. These practices, often hyper-feminized and located within homes or community collectives, are an important and often unacknowledged pre-history of what is today referred to as “maker culture.” We both study and engage in these practices in our scholarship, creative practice, and community partnerships.

Recent projects include:

  • Co-editing special issue of the journal Hyperrhiz on the topic of “Buzzademia: Scholarship in the Internet Vernacular.” The issue examines the role of memes and other forms of internet pop culture in making research and teaching accessible to wider audiences.
  • “Black Ribbon for Mourning,” a data installation project in which viewers wear mourning armbands that pulse in response to data patterns based on the deaths of Black Americans in police encounters.
  • Fashioning Makers and Counterpublics: Critical Making and Public Humanities, a book manuscript in progress that explores the theoretical foundations of Fashioning Circuits and provides perspectives on implementing maker strategies into Humanities curriculum and community partnerships.
  • “Make Your Future: Girls Scouts in the School Day on Campus,” a day-long series of workshops for middle school students from DISD and east Texas middle schools.
  • Words Matter, an ongoing series of installations and events that uses maker strategies to prompt participants to reflect on the material importance of language.

How do you see your research making an impact in the future?

By studying power relations and identity in digital media, my hope is to help creators develop awareness regarding how media and technology impact lives, and to give audiences and consumers the tools to hold creators accountable. This aligns with ATEC’s focus on intentional future-making, which anchors innovation, communication, and development with attention to the social and cultural impacts of the work we do. Even my scholarship that is more theoretical in nature is developed with the goal of helping readers identify and articulate the more nebulous impacts of media and technology in their lives. 

In Fashioning Circuits, we do a lot of public Humanities work that involves community partnerships, where we bridge the social/cultural with the technological or creative. The impacts of that are easy to assess in the reactions of community members working with technologies or creative methods for the first time. It’s often activities like working with code, sewing, or creating poetry that they did not previously think they could do. I hope they walk away from these events feeling empowered to continue using these strategies, and with an understanding of the cultural and social impacts of the technologies and methods we employ.

What impact, if any, has COVID-19 had on your research?

It has been an impediment in a lot of ways. It’s hard to collaborate in a studio environment when most of us feel safest staying home right now. And it is difficult to carve out time for extra reading and writing while so much energy is going into supporting students, teaching re-designed classes, and so forth.

On the plus side, the move toward platforms like Zoom and MS TEAMS has been an undeniable force in helping people connect. Our lives are explicitly and heavily mediated right now. I think this might have positive effects in the way we think about our use of technology and how we connect with one another going forward.  Sometimes when there is a rupture like this, it can actually help make explicit things about our lives that had previously gone unnoticed. For example, when I was in graduate school, people had really just started studying how the Internet affected reading and communication. So, we started thinking a lot about reading interfaces, and one of the questions that this raised, that we hadn’t previously considered, was how print texts were already, and had always been, reading interfaces. It is possible that on the other side of this, whatever that looks like, people will be more cognizant of the level of technological mediation and the role of tech developers in their day to day lives.

What advice would you give the younger version of yourself?

Like many first-generation college students, I went to college because it was perceived as a pathway to upward class mobility. I started out at a community college and transferred to a four-year institution, largely a commuter school, working full-time and going to school part time for most of it. It took me quite a long time to earn my Bachelor’s degree. This orientation, towards college as a means of class mobility, means I had a very instrumental approach to being there and I didn’t quite understand the potential. It was very instrumental. And I missed a lot. I would tell my younger self (and in fact I tell my students all the time) that college is not just about what happens in your classes. There is a rich intellectual and creative culture all around. Go to talks. Participate in workshops. Allow yourself to also prioritize that kind of experience.