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New chair of New Media makes technology accessible
Larry Latour brings computer science expertise, passion for working with students

SEPTEMBER_2011. Larry Latour has a penchant for bringing big ideas in computing to learners of all ages. This newly appointed chair of the University of Maine New Media Department has worked with the MIT Media Lab and Santa Fe Institute to teach heady concepts like software re-use and complexity theory to everyone from graduate students to elementary school kids. An accomplished folk musician, Latour has already demonstrated his enthusiasm for working with New Media faculty and students.

When the new media faculty began the search for a new chair last year, they decided to use the opportunity to expand their connections and collaborations outside of their own department. Out of a pool of talented candidates, in the end they chose Latour, a Computer Science professor with a strong technical background complemented by an artsy bent.

Larry LatourLatour takes the torch from Art professor Susan Groce, who stewarded the department during a transitional year following the sabbatical of professor Owen Smith, who was instrumental in growing the department during the late 2000s.

Latour has only been on board for a few weeks, but he has already jumped into the job with relish. Latour has thrown his support behind an initiative begun by the faculty last year to enhance the integration of technical skills across the curriculum. He spent much of August surveying the literature on new media--its definition, cultural context, and pressing issues--and has started a blog where you can follow his thoughts on the direction of the department and the field.

Latour's return to New Media completes a circle that is a couple decades old. Latour helped inaugurate New Media at the University of Maine back when it was simply an interdisciplinary media program. Since then Latour has been active on the edges of new media, at the same time that he kept himself busy with prospective fresh first years in the Upward Bound program and performing as a folk/rock/blues musician in many local venues in the Bangor area. Latour describes this time as "riding the new media wave":

I interacted with New Media in a safe way, by riding the wave, not getting in front of it. I taught a fairly intensive course for gear head New Media students exploring Director, Lingo, and the architecture of interactive, event driven systems. There were very interesting topics to be explored--a behavioral, multi-process, multi-agent, actor based model of computation set within a funky framework of movies, scripts, sprites, and behaviors....

Fast forward 10 or so years. I was off in Computer Science working on software architecture and reuse, technology for K-12 education, and complex adaptive systems. During that time I participated in a project with the MIT Media Lab Epistemology and Learning group and the Santa Fe Institute for Complexity to teach complex adaptive systems to high school teachers and students. I also worked on a project with Seymour Papert to develop new programming paradigms for young programmers. Actually the University of Maine ASAP New Media Lab helped me to develop web presence for some of this work.

As chair, Latour sees himself playing a more proactive, wide-ranging role:

To get a working handle on the "New" in "New Media," I've needed to ground it by asking "New with respect to..," "Game changing with respect to..," "ahead of the cultural wave," and so on. I've looked at how media related technology has affected regional, national, and global politics, social networks, the financial world, the arts, communication and journalism, scientific inquiry, health care--what have I forgotten? This list is extensive, and the New Media department is directly in the middle of it all....

As a fellow liberal arts colleague likes to say, I'm a gear head. I like it that way because it's comfortable. I can lose myself in the mechanics. Here's the problem. New Media is by no means a comfortable discipline. Staying ahead of the wave means thinking outside of the box, predicting the future on a mere hint of where we're going, and then having the audacity to act on these predictions.

I see challenges ahead for the department. There's a delicate balance that needs to be maintained in any academic department between theory and practice, and there's a golden opportunity here to explore that balance in a department as young as New Media. We've always said that Computer Science is a relatively young discipline, if only based on the fact that most of its seminal work has been done by researchers that are still alive (or, as we get a bit older, recently passed on). Unfortunately Computer Science is becoming mature enough that it is fracturing into a number of sub-disciplines; database systems, software architecture, programming languages, 2D and 3D graphics, operating systems, security, networking, algorithms, complexity, and artificial intelligence, to name just a few. Undergraduate programs are top-heavy with very narrow domain courses that seem to need to be taught at all costs. The price is high. True innovation is left until the final Capstone experience, and once students get to that point a bit too much of their innovative spark has been squeezed out.

New Media on the other hand is still in its generalist phase. True New Media researchers still study and reflect on all aspects of the New Media problem, just as Computer Scientists did in the '50's and '60's. We can embrace this newness, developing synergies between faculty and students that we can't as easily do in a Computer Science Department of similar size. And that's the challenge--intense collaboration. The whole can be much greater than the sum of its parts.

Larry Latour is looking forward to meeting New Media students, parents, and anyone else who has questions or thoughts about the direction of the department. Please stop by his office at 408 Chadbourne hall, or call 207 581-4433.

Updated: 2011-09-16 by Jon Ippolito

Updated: 2011-09-27 by Jon Ippolito
Posted 2011-09-16 13:12:08 by Jon Ippolito
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