What is your course about?
“Internet (Micro-)Aesthetics” is a course centered on cataloging, analyzing, and historicizing the various vernacular classifications (cheugy, trad, vaporwave, dark academia, internet ugly, etc.) we users give to fleeting aesthetic phenomena online. This class aims, in essence, to take seriously and make sense of the minor aesthetic categories that nowadays seem to come into vogue just as quickly as they fade into obscurity.
What inspired your course?
My course takes a great deal of inspiration from my own Incredibly Online™ upbringing. I got my first taste of internet aesthetics on Tumblr (I know) in the early 2010s, right as “vaporwave” hit peak saturation. More immediately, I would say that this course took clearer form when I took a graduate seminar on kitsch with Caryl Flinn (U-M, FTVM); writing my term paper for that class—in which I posed “cheugy” as millennial kitsch—led me to take inventory of several minor aesthetic categories that had begun to proliferate on TikTok.
What can students expect from a class with you?
Students in this course can expect to engage with media objects small and large, from short-form videos (e.g., TikToks, Reels) to feature-length films (e.g., Zola); to explore repositories of micro-aesthetic forms where they lie (such as the Consumer Aesthetics Research Institute); and to think critically about their own positionality with regard to the politics of certain classificatory schema such as “digital blackface” or “trad.” Students can also expect to teach me about new internet aesthetics and born-digital terminology! What even is “rizz,” for example, and why won’t my 14-year-old niece stop saying it?
What’s the text you’re most excited about on the syllabus?
I’m excited to teach selections from Sianne Ngai’s Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting (2011). It’s a tough text, to be sure, but it’s a great one: if my students are anything like me, after reading her chapter on “the cute,” they will never again call something “cute” without pausing to reflect on what, exactly, they mean.
Is there anything else you’d like students to know about your course?
This course is writing intensive. Students will produce 2–3 weekly discussion posts in addition to two major assignments. The first will be an academic essay in which they critically analyze an internet (micro-)aesthetic. The second will be a more open-ended, creative research project (e.g., a video essay, podcast episode, piece of “internetty” creative writing, archive of texts, self-designed website, or another instructor-approved creative work), to be submitted with a critical reflection.
What does a typical day online look like for you?
I’m so glad you asked: I wake up, doom-scroll over coffee for half an hour, then wrench myself up from the couch, open my computer, delete a few emails, open Twitter, get bored, open Instagram, get bored, open Google Docs, get really bored, play some Duolingo, write a few words, rinse and repeat. Given the nature of my research, I also sometimes find myself hyper-fixating on the US patent registry or down some old computer science journal rabbit hole. It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it.