Course Info

AFAM 083 – First-Year Seminar in African American Studies

Penn State University


Professor Jim Casey 

Course Overview

This Freshman Seminar introduces some of the major themes for studying the relationship between digital technologies and African American life, history, and culture. We will read some of the foundational and recent work in Black digital studies and explore a wide range of digital projects and social media. Course readings and activities will focus on ways of telling stories about the past, including opportunities to practice curating archives, building exhibits, and storytelling. We will make class visits around campus to the libraries, centers, and departments related to African American Studies. The course is designed to help introduce you to life as a college student at Penn State, and to identify the resources and opportunities that will help your personal, academic, and professional journeys.

*Note that this course will be held via Zoom*

Course Learning Objectives

At the end of this course, students will be able to: 

  • Identify some of the academic, personal, and career support or development resources available to Penn State students to think intentionally about their academic and professional paths. 
  • Define key questions and terms at the intersection of Black studies and digital studies, and use those terms to discuss significant current debates and issues across the landscape of digital technology and data cultures. 
  • Critically analyze data and datasets through questions raised by course materials. 
  • Apply data analysis and visualization practices to digital and/or material domains.
  • Outline what it means to be an engaged student and demonstrate that ability in verbal and written settings. 


The materials for this course will be posted to Canvas and available online. There are no required print books or other materials to purchase for this course. 

Acknowledgement of Land

The Pennsylvania State University campuses are located on the original homelands of the Erie, Haudenosaunee (Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, Mohawk, and Tuscarora), Lenape (Delaware Nation, Delaware Tribe, Stockbridge-Munsee), Shawnee (Absentee, Eastern, and Oklahoma), Susquehannock, and Wahzhazhe (Osage) Nations.  As a land grant institution, we acknowledge and honor the traditional caretakers of these lands and strive to understand and model their responsible stewardship. We also acknowledge the longer history of these lands and our place in that history.

Course Policies

Please read these policies carefully. All information on this syllabus is subject to change. Any changes will be announced in advance and in writing.

[Local university course policies omitted from web version.]

Course Grade Breakdown

AreaValueDue Date
FYE Modules10Oct 1
Class Visit Reflections5Nov 12-19
Class Session Facilitation10varies
Mid-term Project20Oct 13
Final Project25Dec 13
Final Project Justification10Dec 13

Major Assessment Areas

Class Readings and Discussions

All course readings are available online and should be completed before the start of class. You should arrive to class having completed the reading and/or assignments and ready to participate in the day’s conversations and activities. Strong reading practices can help prepare you to participate fully and productively. During class we will review some of the proven strategies for keeping up with college-level reading loads in efficient and effective ways. 

Class Session Facilitation 

Students will co-teach many of our course sessions. You will work in groups of three to prepare and facilitate a class session.

Part of the responsibility of leading a class session will be gaining a greater familiarity with the materials, ideas, and debates around a topic. While I do not expect you to learn everything there is to know about a topic in only a few weeks, I will expect that you have thought intensively and extensively about what we might know and discuss as a class.

Timeline for leading a course session: 

  • 3 weeks prior: meet with your group to brainstorm possible topics and compare your notes on the day’s pre-assigned reading
  • 2 weeks prior: meet with me outside of class
  • 1 week prior: send out a related reading to the rest of the class 
  • Monday before your class: please send your class plans 
  • Lead your class session
  • 1 week after: submit your debrief statement

The other part of the responsibilities will be preparing the materials to help everyone learn together during your appointed class meeting. Start by locating and reading the assigned text for that day. Why do you think it might be included on the syllabus? What are the larger conversations around that subject? Can you draw in outside knowledge or things you have learned in other classes? This role is your chance to be creative and exploratory. Take us in new directions! Bring us fresh ideas or perspectives! 

Your group will need to: 

  1. Find an additional reading that relates to the day’s topic. Send me a copy of the reading to distribute to the rest of the class. 
  2. Create a plan to facilitate the class session. A plan should include: 
    1. 5-6 discussion questions
    2. Brief (~5 mins) group presentation that helps to get everyone on the same page around the day’s topic, key questions, or relevant materials.
    3. An activity to stimulate our learning. The activity can vary according to your preferences. We can think-pair-share, or we can respond to a series of questions in the Zoom chat. Or you can find something more interesting by checking out The Big List of Class Discussion Strategies!

Debrief statement:

  • After the class is over, please compose a written statement (~2 pages, double-spaced, 12pt font) that reflects on your experiences and ideas. While you are welcome to engage any range of topics, please make sure to respond to these questions:
  1. Describe what each group member contributed to the preparation. 
  2. What are the major takeaways from the class session?
  3. What did we leave out of the class session?
  4. What might we have done differently?
  5. Do you have any unanswered questions?

Suggested Campus Events

Note: I will send any information or announcements about relevant events throughout the semester. For one option, please consider attending this talk by Carol Anderson: One Person, No Vote – The State Theatre. (Anderson is the author of the award-winning and highly recommended book, White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of our Racial Divide.)

Mid-term Project: Data Essays

Due Oct 13

More information about this assignment will be provided in class. 

Final Project: Unessays

Due Dec 13

More information about this assignment will be provided in class. 


Week 1: Introduction

  • Welcome to AFAM 83
  • Please bring three works of Black media, art, or culture that interest you. 
  • Edwards, “How to Read a Book” (Canvas)

Week 2: What do we mean by “history” and “race?”

  • Trouillot, “The Power of the Story” from Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History
  • Watch “Race: The Power of an Illusion” – Episode 1 (YouTube) 
  • Manning Marable, “Black Studies and the Racial Mountain” (Canvas)

Week 3: What do we mean by “digital”?

Week 4: What is data? 

  • Bowker & Star, excerpts from Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences (Canvas)
  • Rawson & Munoz, “Against Cleaning” (Canvas)

Week 5: Data & Black Life

  • Johnson, “Markup Bodies: Black [Life] Studies and Slavery [Death] Studies at the Digital Crossroads” (Canvas)
  • Onuoha, “The Library of Missing Datasets” (External site)
  • McKittrick, “Mathematics Black Life” (Canvas)

Week 6: Stories & Silences

  • Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts.” (Canvas)
  • Mary Ann Shadd Cary Symposium Oct 1-2, 2021

Week 7: Monuments

  • Ater. “Slavery and Its Memory in Public Monuments.” (Canvas)
  • Monument Lab, Report to the City (External site)
  • Sinyangwe, Samuel. “I’m a Black Southerner. I Had to Go Abroad to See a Statue Celebrating Black Liberation.” (Canvas)
  • Williams, ”You Want a Confederate Monument? My Body Is a Confederate Monument” (Canvas)

Week 8: Food & Health

  • Williams-Forson, from Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs (Canvas)
  • Activity: Mid-term class review & refresher
  • Data 4 Black Lives, “The Impact of COVID-19 on Black Communities” (External site)

Week 9: Creating Black Digital Spaces

  • Banks, from Digital Griots (Canvas)
  • Brock, from Distributed Blackness (Canvas)
  • Excerpts from #HashtagActivism: Networks of Race and Gender Justice, Jackson, Bailey, Foucault-Welles (eds) (Canvas)
  • Pruitt-Young, Here’s Why The #BlackTikTokStrike Is Happening (Canvas)

Week 10: Algorithms & Resistance 

  • Cutts, “How Search Works” (YouTube)
  • Noble, Excerpt from Algorithms of Oppression (Canvas) 
  • Benjamin (ed), excerpts from Captivating Technology Race, Carceral Technoscience, and Liberatory Imagination in Everyday Life (Canvas)

Week 11: Black Data & Digitality

Week 12: Black Futures

  • Noble, “A Future for Intersectional Black Feminist Technology Studies” (Canvas)
  • Drew and Wortham, excerpts from Black Futures (Canvas)
  • Studio session

Week 13: Evaluating Black Digital Projects

  • Pegg, “Structure of the Observed Learning Outcome (SOLO) Model” (Canvas)
  • Activity: Developing Final Project Rubrics
  • Reading: Rather than pre-assign readings, this week we will create a reading list for Friday’s meeting based on the most recent news about data and its consequences. 

Week 14: No class

Week 15: Workshops

  • Activity: Peer review workshop part one
  • Activity: Peer review workshop part two
  • Studio workshop and check-ins

Week 16: Findings

  • Presentations and closing conversations
  • All final projects due by Dec 13 at 11:59 PM EDT.