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Home » Discover Rackham » Student Spotlight: Dimitrios Pavlounis

Dimitri laughs and says, “For fun, I do kind of the same things I do for work but with friends and drinks involved. I read, watch movies, hang with my colleagues, and play video games.” He almost makes grad school sound easy!

Far from it, though, and while his research involves many of those activities, it is certainly on a comprehensive academic scale. Dimitri’s dissertation examines how detective films and television shows have mediated sound recording technologies in order to trace historical connections between sound information (particularly the recorded voice) and institutions that regulate civic life and public order. He is developing a wide-ranging project about sound surveillance and cinema as a site where the technical, legal, and ethical implications of using sound-based technologies in detective work are performed, negotiated, and debated.

The origin for this work takes place in the 1910s when a detective used cinema to promote the sound surveillance technology for which he became famous. Dimitri explains, “He was famous for creating the detective dictograph, a primitive bugging device. He approached the film industry to create movies to demonstrate this device. He considered cinema to be the greatest deterrent to crime the world had ever seen, thinking potential criminals will see these devices in movies and think twice about committing crimes. Most of his films no longer exist, so I’m trying to reconstruct them as best I can.”

Unfortunately, the films got it wrong. He describes, “The films fundamentally misrepresented the device as a recording device when, in fact, it could only amplify and transmit voices, not record them. They really disavow the material limitations of this machine. Because of how it was portrayed in the media however, there were court cases in the 1910s where decisions were made based on this misunderstanding of the technology. The way the films constructed the dictograph, in a sense, made that imagined technology real, as if it had actual, material consequences.”

There are examples of this playing out even in today’s headlines. He says, “It is interesting now with data mining and more recent uses of surveillance technologies to see the misunderstanding or misrepresentation of what’s going on today. When it came to the NSA surveillance scandal involving Edward Snowden, President Obama had to clarify that the government is not actually listening to your phone calls and is not interested in content of your conversations. But content can mean many different things apart from the topic of a conversation. These are complicated issues, and I’m interested in how the media tries to understand this complexity and communicate it to a broader public and how they rely on older paradigms of surveillance to explain the present.”

He studies anxieties around sound recordings from the 1910s, post-World War II, the Watergate period and the present. Dimitri describes, “The challenge is hitting major historical moments of anxiety and debate to make the overall argument that this history is recursive. Each of these time periods can be their own study.” Indeed, Dimitri has so much content that his dissertation chapters tend to balloon, requiring some significant paring. His process helps: “I take each case study on its own, limit myself historically and thematically, do primary and secondary research, write it up and then put it aside. I’m doing it out of order chronologically then I’ll read through after completing each section, connecting the chapters and editing the entire dissertation. This is the biggest topic for my advisor and me. We meet a lot and end up talking about method and the writing process more than the content, which is more helpful for me. She knows I need to think through the writing process because it’s on my mind all the time.”

As happens for many grad students, Dimitri came to Michigan through the advice of one of our own. Dimitri’s Master’s advisor at the University of Toronto had been a postdoctoral fellow at U-M and alerted him to the new Screen Arts and Cultures program at Michigan. Dimitri put U-M on his list, but at his campus visit he says, “I was impressed by the resources and faculty who were immediately approachable, encouraging, and really interested in listening to grad students and what they want to work on. I had great discussions and got a sense that this was a community on board for building this new program. There was no tension; no one was resting on their laurels.”

And there hasn’t been. “Grad school has been great so far. Colleagues, faculty, and students are all fantastic. At U-M, there is a raw access to faculty in other departments, and interdisciplinary collaboration actually takes place here. Most of all, I have really enjoyed teaching the students here. The undergraduate program is a joint study that includes production, and I don’t have that background, so it is interesting to see how they are creative in ways that I’m not creative. This has challenged me in great ways. The students are extremely respectful and polite but are willing to butt up against what they are reading. They are trying to understand the materials in different ways. Teaching here has been one of the most rewarding aspects of grad school.”

Dimitri is focused on writing this year and will enter the academic job market once his dissertation is complete. He says, “This year, I don’t want to spend too much time doing job market stuff when I need to focus on finishing my dissertation. If the ideal job opens, that would be another thing. I’ll take opportunities as they appear but concentrate on finishing first.”

What will take him away from writing is participation in the Digital Studies Rackham Interdisciplinary Workshop. Dimitri explains, “A former communications colleague and I, along with professors from the English and Communications Studies departments, started this RIW. It became this island of misfit toys in that we found piecemeal students and faculty doing digital studies all over the university. We brought in speakers who otherwise may not visit, and we get to workshop each other’s ideas and help each other with our work. It has been a way to create access to resources that don’t necessarily seem readily available. Everyone has been proactive about getting word out. U-M is a place where if you locate a need, there are places here to fill that need. You have to be proactive, that’s something I’ve learned here. You need to be engaged and motivated to find resources, but the boundaries are much more permeable. It’s like you’re asked to push them and see what’s available. There is little of people saying ‘no’ here when you come up with these ideas, especially when you’re a grad student.”