Rensselaer Professor Named Andrew W. Mellon Distinguished Scholar of the University of Pretoria, South Africa

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Professor Audrey Bennett studies cross-cultural and transdisciplinary communication that makes use of transformative images that permeate global culture and impact the way we think and behave. Bennett was recognized as the 2015 Andrew W. Mellon Distinguished Scholar at the University of Pretoria, South Africa.

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December 16, 2015

Rensselaer Professor Named Andrew W. Mellon Distinguished Scholar of the University of Pretoria, South Africa

Audrey Bennett Conducts Workshops and Delivers Plenary Talk Focused on Visual Technologies

Troy, N.Y. — Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) Professor Audrey Bennett studies cross-cultural and transdisciplinary communication that makes use of transformative images that permeate global culture and impact the way we think and behave. Bennett, who serves as an associate professor in the Department of Communication and Media in the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, was recognized as the 2015 Andrew W. Mellon Distinguished Scholar at the University of Pretoria, South Africa.

As the Mellon Distinguished Scholar, Bennett traveled to South Africa to visit the university to collaborate with the faculty and staff involved with the University of Pretoria Department of Visual Arts Visual Technologies project, which is funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The project explores critical encounters with the digital, curatorial, archival, creative, and theoretical dimensions of technology in contemporary society. While the focus of the Visual Technologies project includes the making and showing of, and writing about, visual technologies that advance and improve the human condition, Bennett focused on the latter during her visit to the university.

I am honored to receive this distinction,” said Bennett. “It has afforded me the opportunity to extend my research agenda on the study of images that, through user engagement, aim to yield transformative meaning. Transformative meaning occurs when the viewer interprets the image’s intended message and reaches profound understanding evidenced by changes cognitively and behaviorally. The Mellon Distinguished Scholar distinction also provided opportunities for me to participate in stimulating cross-cultural conversations about the complex problem of children’s health in South Africa and collaborate on the development of curriculum aimed at instilling a sense of social responsibility in design students at the University of Pretoria.”

During the visit, Bennett conducted two writing workshops, one of which was a research-related workshop for postgraduate students and staff in the arts cluster, while the other, which focused on design education, was offered specifically for Information Design staff.

Bennett also delivered a plenary talk titled “Design, Play and Social Justice.” During the talk, she discussed her collaborative research on the making of visual technologies that are aimed at the ethnic and intellectual diversification of science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (STEAM) education in the United States. The presentation also included a discussion of a final-year B.A. Information Design curriculum project that is intended to improve health education for children in South Africa. The project is currently being used as a case study for a publication co-authored by Bennett and two Information Design staff members, Fatima Cassim and Marguerite van der Merwe, who also facilitated the design project.

“The design project culminated in physical toolkits aimed at cultivating South African children’s awareness of nutrition, hygiene, disease awareness and prevention, and social health,” said Bennett. “In November, we presented four of the toolkits in a group exhibition at Interplay, the 2015 conference of the International Association of Societies of Design Research that took place in Brisbane, Australia. In the refereed paper that accompanies our exhibit, we introduce ‘generative play’ to describe the co-designing method that the Information Design students used that included play therapists, families, and other stakeholders from the local community in Pretoria, South Africa.”

Bennett received her bachelor’s degree in studio art from Dartmouth College, and a master’s in fine art in graphic design from Yale University School of Art. Bennett’s current research contributes to a hypothesis called interactive aesthetics (IA) that aims to democratize control of images in society. IA explains the use of technology to place communication designers in virtual collaboration with lay users, where technology makes it easier for remote participants in various stages of the design process to work together.

Bennett currently conducts fieldwork to investigate the use of interactive technologies to affect social change. Her research agenda in this area includes two primary strands of inquiry. First, Bennett studies the use of interactive technologies in the prevention of new HIV infections in Kenya and Ghana, which was funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). Second, she investigates the use of interactive technologies toward ethnically and intellectually diversifying STEAM education, particularly computer science, with indigenous art curricula, which is funded by the NSF and Google Inc.

Bennett is the co-editor of the Icograda Design Education Manifesto 2011, and participates on the advisory board of the Journal of Communication Design. She also directs baohouse.org, a virtual design studio for user-centered research on global images.

Bennett’s research is an example of the work being done at The New Polytechnic, a new paradigm for teaching, learning, and research at Rensselaer, the foundation of which is the recognition that global challenges and opportunities are so great that they cannot be addressed by the most talented person working alone, nor even by a single discipline, sector, or nation. The New Polytechnic enables collaborations and dialogue between talented people across disciplines, sectors, and global regions, in order to address the complex problems in the world.