New AET class explores issues of race and gender in technology

Monday, March 20, 2017
Photo of Yuliya Lanina by Susan Scafati.

Yuliya Lanina is a multi-media artist who is currently teaching AET 102: “Gender, Race and Technology.” The course is designed to expand students' awareness of issues affecting women and minorities in the creative and technological fields, and she has invited guest speakers from around the world to meet with her students. As an artist, her work ranges from paintings and mechanical sculptures to animations and video. Lanina has exhibited extensively both nationally and internationally, including Seoul Art Museum in Korea, SIGGRAPH Asia, Japan and Women and Their Work in Austin, Texas. We caught up with her recently to learn more about her AET course.

What will you cover over the course of the semester?

The purpose of this course is to expand students' awareness of issues affecting women and minorities in the creative and technological fields. The format of the class will vary between in-class discussions and guest presentations. We will be looking at current social trends, examining our own attitudes and biases and coming up with solutions. Topics will include education, hiring practices, diversity in workplace, gender and racial stereotyping, reasons for gender and racial gap in tech and much more. We will have nationally and internationally renowned guests from various fields at the intersection of art and technology, providing students an opportunity to find out more about fields within and beyond their interest and to make contacts. This semester's guest speakers will include Iraqi-born artist Wafaa Bilal, renowned for provoking dialogue about international politics and internal dynamics through high profile, technologically-driven art projects; Annina Rüst, a Swiss artist-inventor, known for her work in new media art including software art and electronics-based art; Dr. Mary Fernández, President of MentorNet, a division of Great Minds in STEM; Masha Godovannaya, a visual artist, queer-feminist researcher, curator, and educator, and a co-founder a queer-feminist affinity art group “Unwanted Organisation” in St. Petersburg, Russia; and Hinkle‑Turner, the author of the book series Women Composers and Music Technology: Crossing the Line. Volume one: United States.

What do you hope students will take away from this course?

I hope students become more aware of their personal biases and realize that ethnic and gender diversity is not just a recruitment tactic, but the key to industry success. The millennial generation is more diverse than any generation before them, and lack of diversity in tech industry is a core issue to be addressed. Guest speakers provide students with a variety of models for addressing these issues, working with or around them and coming up with creative ways to advocate for diversity, visibility and equality.

Why is this an important course for students in the AET program?

It is important for students to be able to recognize, examine and challenge their own assumptions and biases, especially as the future makers of entertainment media. Being aware of the power and the effect media and technology have on us as individuals and as society will help them become more responsible and accountable in the work they do after they leave college.

What has student response been like so far in the class?

Most of the students are excited about the class and see the need for it. Overall, students believe the course and the discussions are very necessary, and some leave behind a lasting impression. However, there are also students who think that the issues are not important or non-existent. Some feel that focusing on these issues only perpetuates them.

You’re bringing in a diverse range of guest speakers—some from outside of the United States—to speak to your students. Can you talk about why you chose some of the speakers and the perspective they bring to the table?

All the speakers are widely respected professionals from a wide variety of entertainment technology fields: gaming, art, film, music, performance, research, social entrepreneurs. The issues of gender equality and diversity are at the core of their practice. Each speaker has a unique perspective and creative solutions, from creating a documentary about elderly queer people to robots making statistics-inspired pies to performance art questioning violence and racism. Having speakers from other countries gives students a unique opportunity to see how creative people operate in other societies, often more oppressive than ours.

In addition to teaching, you’re also a working artist. How does this inform your academic interests and approach in the classroom?

I work at the intersection of art and technology: interactive sculptures, installations, film, animation and multimedia performance. I am also a Russian Jewish woman who fled the former Soviet Union because of anti-Semitism. One of the formative experiences has been witnessing my mother’s years-long battle with cancer, and her anxiety about disfiguring changes in her body caused by it. This started me on a path of redefining and questioning gender attributes in my life and art. My personal background very much informs my work, and therefore, I feel passionate about the subject at the core of my class.

What’s surprised you this semester in this class?

I was surprised to see how many people—some of my speakers included—are uncomfortable about speaking openly about their own encounters with racism or sexism.

Photo of Yuliya Lanina by Susan Scafati.

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