Film and Media Studies Hosts Rescheduled Controversial Speaker

On Wednesday, March 20, Professor John Cheney-Lippold of the University of Michigan presented his rescheduled lecture, “An Introduction to Algorithmic Identity.” The event, sponsored by the Film and Media Studies (FMST) Department, took place at 4:15 p.m. in Golden Auditorium.

Students in Intro to Film and Media Studies, as well as those in the Senior Seminar in FMST, were asked to attend, as Cheney-Lippold’s field of study relates closely to their course materials. According to the FMST department,the lecture centered around how algorithms shape our online experience and identity.

“[Cheney-Lippold spoke] about how our identities online are constructed in such a way that these algorithms shape us into certain categories that we ourselves may not identify with, and the implications of that,” first-year and Introduction to Film and Media Studies student Haley Ryan said.

The FMST department collectively felt that Cheney-Lippold presented an informative lecture backed by his research.

“Cheney-Lippold presented on a range of topics from his research offering insightful ways of conceptualizing and understand the role of algorithms,” the FMST Department said.

Ryan noted that the information presented at the lecture felt like an episode of the popular Netflix show, “Black Mirror.”

“I didn’t realize how much data was collected,” Ryan said. “To know that all that is being recorded and used to categorize…it’s very scary to see what if that was centralized, what someone could do with all of that. I was horrified.”

Cheney-Lippold’s visit sparked campus controversy earlier this year. The lecture was originally scheduled for November 5, 2018, but was postponed indefinitely a few weeks prior after students and parents expressed concern for his refusal to write a letter of recommendation in September for a student to study abroad in Israel on the basis of his personal beliefs. The University of Michigan had sanctioned him for his actions.

Many students said they were hesitant to attend the rescheduled lecture amidst the controversy. Prior to the rescheduled lecture, the FMST Department partnered with the Jewish Studies (JWST) Department and the Office of the Chaplains to host an open forum at the Saperstein Jewish Center (Sap) on Wednesday, March 6, designed to support students and combat these sentiments.

According to the FMST Department, the forum’s open conversation with students at the Sap aided in the creation of an alternate assignment of a 1000-word paper in response to the class reading for the lecture,

an excerpt from the introduction of Cheney-Lippold’s 2017 book “We Are Data: Algorithms and the Making of our Digital Selves”. Ryan felt as though this was a fair alternative to attend- ing the lecture.

“I feel like the reading itself was pretty short and everything… especially timewise I feel like it would take the same amount of time to write it as it would to attend the lecture,” she said.

Ryan said that the way her professor, Eli Horwatt, addressed possible concern by students regarding the lecture was reassuring.

“I knew that there was controversy about [Cheney-Lippold], but my professor reassured us that they had already had discussions and that people had already addressed [issues] and moved [the lecture] back,” Ryan said. “Therefore, I felt comfortable going.”

Contact Kirby Goodman at [email protected]