Lida Zeitlin-Wu can tell you all about wine—she has a Level 3 certification from the Wine and Spirits Educational trust. She also has a PhD in Film & Media from the University of California-Berkeley where she wrote the dissertation, “Seeing By Numbers: Color Systems and the Digitization of Perception,” which we discuss in this interview. [Responses have been edited and condensed for clarity.]

Q: Tell me a little about your scholarly background and research.

A: I’ve always seen myself as a very interdisciplinary scholar, as my background is a little bit all over the place in the sense that I've made a lot of pivots between different disciplines. In undergrad I majored in Russian and Visual Arts and then began a PhD in Comparative Literature. At the time, I thought that Comp Lit would’ve given me the most flexibility in terms of combining literature and visual art, but I ended up finding that flexibility between media in the Film and Media Department. But before transferring to the Film Department, I’d never taken a film class in my life! Right now, I describe my work as at the intersection of media studies, science and technology studies, and critical race studies. That said, I’ve always had a strong interest in the topic of color, even as a literature student. My current book project (which came out of my dissertation) tells the story of how something we tend to think of as very subjective and ephemeral—color—became so closely associated with numerical representation and measurability. For example, if you go to the paint store, every little gradation of color has a corresponding name and serial number. I’m tracing the history of how that came to be, which ultimately leads me to making a longer argument about how numerical and modular color predate the emergence of digital technology to as early as the late nineteenth century. That’s the media studies argument. The broader argument reframes color as an experiential category that has been historically manipulated and calibrated to suit the interests of power structures.

Q: You have a background in creating visual art. How does this fit into or influence your media studies work?

A: My art was very much about colors, material, and process rather than conceptual work; it helped me think about visuality in a different way in my literature classes. I’d looked at some graphic narratives, but I was actually more interested in the ways that writers can evoke impressions of colors through highly specific words (my BA thesis was about Nabokov’s approach to color in his writing). In other words, what does it mean to write visually? That said, my art background is coming back in ways that I didn’t expect: in the class I’m currently teaching, we’re doing some hands-on activities like using a Pantone Color Picker (just purchased by STAMPS for a practice-based class on color that coincidentally meets at exact same time as mine) to help students ask how digital color is or isn’t different from other ways of thinking about color.

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

A: Coming from a film department, I’m excited to actually be in a space where everyone is focused on the digital. I’ve always had a bit of impostor syndrome because I don’t have a background in film (I’m more of a TV person), but in the DSI, I’m suddenly “A Film Person.” I think it’s just really healthy for scholars to be in different disciplinary spaces, so one of the major things I was excited about was being in an interdisciplinary environment. I also like that the DSI is a research institute rather than a department, and that it’s at a publicly funded university. I’m really committed to public education and the variety of students I have the opportunity to teach. It’s also nice to be a little closer to home [Chicago].

Q: Tell me a little about the DIGITAL 357: “From Prisms to Pantone: Color, Race, and Technology” course you’re currently teaching. What can students expect from a class with you?

A: Color might seem like a really niche topic, but it actually encompasses so much of lived experience. At its core, my class invites students to develop a more nuanced understanding of the relationship between technology and culture. I want to show the ways in which racial bias is embedded in media infrastructures rather than just in terms of representation. Although not every week in this course is focused on race, there is a throughline in the syllabus about the ways in which screen technology has been calibrated to favor paler skin tones. Overall, I want my students to think about technology historically and I want to get them away from the Silicon Valley myth that technological progress should be embraced without critique.

Q: I saw that your course offers a final project option that isn’t a traditional seminar paper. What’s the importance of incorporating non-traditional final projects into a syllabus, and what advice do you have for instructors who are interested in doing so?

A: That came from seeing what instructors around me in the DSI were doing. It was almost overwhelming to think that I didn’t have to assign a traditional paper! One thing I’ve done to incorporate a creative final project option is scaffolding throughout the semester. We have no midterm, but two short assignments: one traditional paper and one creative project so that students can see which mode of project suits them best before deciding on their final project. I’m excited for the second short assignment, which is for students to create a parody version of the Pantone Color of the Year with an accompanying fake press release.

Q: What’s your favorite text on your 357 syllabus?

A: Even though I’m not a hardcore film person, I have a soft-spot for Richard Dyer’s White. It’s a valuable text for thinking about racial bias in media, and at the time that this book came out (1990s) whiteness hadn’t really been studied in itself as a racial category in visual studies.

Q: What kind of texts or objects do you look at in your book project?

A: The objects I write about are primarily color systems, which aren’t really objects—they’re abstractions. So with that in mind, I look at color wheels and paint charts that are used to calibrate screens or commodify different colors as well as writings by people who were trying to theorize color, like Faber Birren. As for a more concrete example, one of my chapters looks at postwar American domestic interiors, so for that I look at articles and advertisements published in women’s magazines that associated colors with personality types.

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

A: I’m one of two Curriculum Development Fellows, so one of the things I'm responsible for is developing a range of courses at DSI on race, gender, and ability as they intersect with technology. I’m also taking part in some cool collaborative writing projects. One is on meditation apps, the wellness industry, and Silicon Valley. I also want to keep working on my book project. I hope that teaching 357 helps me reframe aspects of my dissertation; I think teaching is one of the best ways to understand what’s really at stake in your own research. Oh, and apply for jobs. It’s tricky to meet all of my goals!

Q: And, our final question—what’s a typical day online for you?

A: Weirdly enough, the only social media I’m on is TikTok, which I don’t even check every day. This is a boring (and bleak) answer, but I check my email, job listings, and my calendar, and read the news when I can bear it. I do subscribe to newsletters by food writers, so I read through those. And I watch a lot of TV—streaming counts, right?