By CHARLES ANZALONE
Published May 4, 2023
In her first UB semester, Meera Bai Singh took special notice of the course “Living Well in the Digital World.” A biomedical sciences major on a pre-med track, she bonded with functional medicine, which places the patient at the center of care while evaluating all causes that lead to health complications. Singh believed in promoting sustained health versus just curing an ailment.
“I thought the course would be a great way for me to do some more investigation of and reflection on how technology could impact human health, both mental and physical,” says Singh.
With the end of the semester in sight, Singh’s course lessons have extended to the personal. She now recognizes the time she spends following celebrities on social media. She is learning to monitor her moods from the almost inevitable life comparisons.
Others in the class would do well to note Singh’s trajectory. The message of the innovative “Living Well in the Digital World,” which breaks down the history of “human flourishing,” past and present, is getting through.
“It definitely made me more aware,” says Singh, a transfer student who describes herself as a psychology major “in a previous lifetime.”
“I am able to discern patterns in my own social media and technology where I wasn’t necessarily able to before. I’m starting to make sense of, ‘Oh, wow, I spent a lot of time on this app and I follow a lot of celebrities on this app.’ And I tend to feel upset after because I am looking up these people who I am comparing my life to.”
That’s just the tip of the “human flourishing” iceberg. In just its third semester, “Living Well” — team-taught by Neil Coffee, professor in the Department of Classics; Kristen Moore, associate professor in the departments of Engineering Education and English; and Andrew Lison, assistant professor in the Department of Media Study — sets an ambitious tone.
The short synopsis is nothing less than the pursuit of eudaimonia, Aristotle’s word for living a thriving and fulfilling life. For the ancient Greek philosopher, this was no greeting card version of happiness, Coffee points out. “Eudaimonia instead was a holistic goal of exercising one’s abilities, having a purpose and doing good toward others,” he says.
“Living Well” puts this concept of eudaimonia in the context of the explosion of digital and media technologies. How do we thrive within this new frontier, controlling technology rather than having that technology control us?
“The first aim of the course is to introduce students to major, salient perspectives on what it means to live a thriving life,” says Coffee, who contributed a module on living well circa pre-digital thought.
“We start in classical antiquity of the Greeks and Romans because their philosophers had a particularly robust discussion of what it means to live a fulfilling life. For the three ancient philosophers we study in the course — Aristotle, the Stoics and the Epicureans — their answers focused respectively on deep engagement in activity that is morally good, strengthening the mind to achieve tranquility, and finding a way to experience more pleasure than pain.”
After that, the course jumps forward to the 20th and 21st centuries to ask how technology has changed the ways in which we can or should thrive, Coffee explains.
How does personal digital technology present challenges to our well-being? the course asks. The third and final module focuses on ways individuals and groups take back control of their digital spaces to ensure benefit to their own well-being.
Always present is encouragement to students to goes beyond intellectual study and perspectives, allowing them “the conceptual and conversational space to see if any of the perspectives might aid the students in their own lives,” Coffee says.
Late April found team-professor Moore in Norton Hall teaching about 40 students how data visualization influences the narrative agenda and sets the table for consciousness.
As a designer, you control the story, Moore told her class. Understand the way the digital world has been designed and for whom. Adopt a designer’s mindset and strategies when thinking about design. Design your own digital lives purposely.
Their purpose that day: Understand why we’re doing data collection and what the data visualization requirement brings to your understanding of design, research and reflection.
“I would say that taking this course has helped me to feel more comfortable at UB,” says Singh. “Dr. Moore, Dr. Lison and Dr. Coffee have all done a great job at designing a course that requires us to be creative and to think critically, while still creating a more flexible environment that values us not only as students, but as people as well.
“All of the assignments have asked for us to include our personal experiences, which has allowed me to better connect with the material and take some time to reflect,” Singh notes. “All three professors have done a wonderful job at creating a class community that isn’t focused on our majors, year, academic accolades, etc., but focuses on us as individuals and the various ways we connect that exist both within and beyond the classroom setting.”