Chad Van de Wiele is a native Michigander, podcast lover, and a critical media studies scholar. He holds a PhD in Communication from the University of Illinois Chicago with a concentration in Black Studies. Dr. Van de Wiele’s dissertation is titled “‘Green Lights, Black Futures’: The Imaginaries of Surveillance in Detroit, Michigan.” Previously, Dr. Van de Wiele was the Assistant Editor for New Media & Society. 
[Responses have been edited and condensed for clarity.]

Q: Could you tell me a little about your scholarly background and research? 

I went to the University of Illinois at Chicago for my Masters and PhD, but before that I did my undergrad in public relations at Wayne State in Detroit. That’s really where I fell in love with communication studies and the more theoretical work done in the academy. I took a couple of years off after undergrad and I tried to work in PR for a little bit. [As far as my research,] I was initially interested in studying interpersonal communications (like social media and online dating) and I did some research there before doing a hard 180° and going into quantitative network analysis. Now I’m in full qualitative research and mostly focus on policing and the intersections between racialized structures, the technologies of policing, and the social and political contexts in which we see these technologies deployed.  

Q: What attracted you to DSI at U-M?

Part of what drew me to DSI is its proximity to Detroit. My dissertation research takes a broad approach around understanding the changes taking place in Detroit following its emergence from bankruptcy. The government has established this massive surveillance infrastructure throughout the city where there wasn’t one before. So I started with an interest there and then took a deeper, more substantive dive into the political and economic dynamics that cultivated that response and how the city governance really tried to rebrand Detroit after its bankruptcy. Obviously, the scholars and the work that comes out of the DSI are also fantastic, so it’s a “two birds, one stone” situation. 

Q:  How has being from Michigan influenced your scholarly interests?

Growing up in southeastern Michigan, I feel like Detroit has always been this kind of ominous figure, both culturally and socially. From a young age, I got to see past a lot of those narratives that painted the city in a negative light. Part of the reason for that is my family worked in Detroit—my dad worked for the Detroit Institute of Arts prior to Detroit’s violent bankruptcy. Between that and going to Wayne State for undergrad, I’ve always had a strong interest in Detroit. And that really helps narrow my focus on the particular aspects of policing and surveillance within the city. In addition to that, I was always really interested in the history of Detroit itself. If you look back historically, there is a really dark undercurrent of police brutality in the city. I kind of struggled to wrap my mind around why this happened in Detroit in particular, which was once a former beacon of industrial capitalism and democracy. 
A lot of the research I’ve done in this area started during the COVID-19 pandemic. I had this big plan of doing an in-person ethnography, but then a week later we were in lockdown so I had to pivot heavily. Because of that, a lot of my work has been remote, which is part of the reason why I wanted to use this next chapter in my academic career, during which I will be in close proximity to Detroit, to start cultivating more in-person connections and find ways to do community outreach, which is so important. 

Q: Tell me a little about the DIGITAL 258: “Digitizing the Carceral State” course you’re currently teaching. What can students expect from a class with you?

t’s not your typical class. I’m really intentional about not recreating some of the punitive structures that exist within carceral spaces themselves which have permeated into other areas of life, like the classroom. As we’re learning and going through the material, it’s also about unlearning a lot of the things I think we’ve been taught to consider normal. I run my classes almost like a sandbox: I want to expose anyone who takes my course to as many ideas as possible, give them the tools and resources to not only get through the classes, but to take with them beyond that as well. It’s a very holistic experience. 

Q: What’s your favorite text on your 258 syllabus? 

The Condemnation of Blackness by Khalil Gibran Muhammad.

Q: Why do you think it’s important to encourage communication studies? 

Everything is mediated. So the higher order, theoretical reason for encouraging communication studies is to enable critical and careful thought about what particular messages do. But also, practically speaking, the implications are pretty significant. You don’t have to look beyond our political or economic systems to understand how ideology is embedded in policy proposals and in the rhetoric of politicians. Being able to cut through some of that and differentiating between constructed fiction and reality will help us become more informed political agents. 

Q: What do you hope to accomplish as a postdoc at DSI?

Having the opportunity right out the gate to develop my course from scratch and run it is something I am really grateful for. But beyond that, especially for the second semester when I am not teaching, I’d like to establish connections that are not solely maintained through Zoom with folks in Detroit. I’m very passionate about working boots on the ground, so getting involved with folks at the Detroit Community Technology Project, the Detroit Justice Center, and so forth. I also desperately want to turn this dissertation into a book manuscript, or maybe get a couple of publications out of it so I can really start pushing this work. I think that a lot of insight can be gleaned from the story that’s unfolding in Detroit. 

Q: And, our final question—what’s your typical day online?

If I’m not filtering through all the different tabs I have open on Google Chrome, I’m typically avoiding the garbage fire of Twitter to the best of my ability. I check email and read lots of news. I’ll do grading and updating things on Canvas and then also listen to a lot of podcasts…