Category: Adventures in Pedagogy

Critical Imagination at the Intersection of STS Pedagogy and Research

*This post was co-authored by Emily York and Shannon Conley* In 2017, we established the STS Futures Lab—a space to critically interrogate plausible sociotechnical futures and to develop strategies for integrating pedagogy and research. But why a lab, and why a ‘futures’ lab? In a broader societal context in which futures thinking and futures labs are often subsumed within innovation speak, entrepreneurialism, and implicit bias regarding whose futures matter, it might seem counter-intuitive to establish a futures lab as a space for critical pedagogies. And yet, it is precisely because of our concern with the politics and ethics of technological world-making that we are inspired to intervene in this space. A futures lab, as we conceive it, is a space to cultivate capacities for critical and moral imagination that serve to check dominant assumptions about the future. We believe STS pedagogies are at their best when they are at the same time critical pedagogies—connected to the politics of knowledge production (Freire, 2018), and congruent with education as a ‘practice of freedom’ (hooks 1994, 4). Moreover, STS understandings of the messiness of knowledge production align well with reflexive practices of learning with our students in the classroom. However, to develop critical STS pedagogies that effectively engage our students, we have to start where we are in terms of our particular location and the students with whom we are working. The STS Futures Lab is an example of how critical STS pedagogies can, and perhaps must, emerge as a situated practice. One of the factors that makes STS pedagogies such a rich and varied set of practices is that they are developed and implemented in a wide array of disciplinary, institutional, and geographically diverse spaces, often heavily shaped by these spaces as faculty attempt to make material relevant to their students and aligned with learning objectives. This is to say, the very factors that constrain approaches to implementing critical STS pedagogies also constitute an opportunity. (read more...)

Archiving for the Anthropocene: Notes from the Field Campus

On a chilly Sunday afternoon in March, our Field Campus group walked through downtown Granite City, Illinois. Located just 6 miles north of St. Louis, the downtown was a markedly post-industrial landscape. Many of the red brick buildings were vacant and showed signs of lasting decay. Weedy patches of open land occasionally provided views of a large nearby factory. It was hard to tell if coffee and sandwich shops were closed forever. The factory, a U.S. Steel Corps manufacturing plant called Granite City Works was founded by two German immigrants in 1896, along with the city itself. In 2009, the National Air Toxics Assessment (NATA) ranked neighborhoods in Granite City at the second highest risk for cancer in the country, highlighting the plant’s coke ovens as a likely source (McGuire 2009). Coke oven emissions include benzene, arsenic, and lead (Earthjustice 2019) – that people breathe, and soils absorb. Another source of toxic air pollution has been the NL Industries/Taracorp lead smelter. Before its closure in 1983, the smelter contaminated over 1,600 households in Granite City and beyond, eventually turning into an EPA superfund cleanup site (Singer, n.d.). The US EPA recognized that the highest concentrations of lead in the air are around smelters. Lead in the air means lead in the soil. Tearing down houses in “blighted” sections of the city exacerbates the problem since demolitions release the lead in the paint of older buildings (Blythe 2019). Granite City is certainly a hot spot. As we walked through Granite City, we were guided by our local collaborator and artist Chris Carl, whose work with the urban renewal group New American Gardening “explores garden making on vacant lots and post industrial land.” Chris led us to the particular plot, pointing to a number of concrete blocks scattered around the ground. One of the blocks featured a warning symbol etched into its top, the other had the letters ‘Pb’ scrawled upon it – which, as he informed us, is the chemical abbreviation for lead. The blocks were Chris’s “DIY version of a lead remediation,” an intervention he began after a project by the College of Agricultural, Consumer, and Environmental Sciences and a visit by EPA officials who confirmed low levels of lead all over the area after conducting the requisite soil testing. The levels on the site we were standing on, however, had proven to be “off the charts.” Notably, both Madison County and the U.S. Steel Trust had provided funding for this pilot plot. (read more...)

Students as laboratory labor

What is the role of students in universities? There are ongoing contentious debates and campus protests about whether graduate students should be considered employees with the right to unionize. Likewise, the employment status of student athletes receives intense discussion from the media and scholars. These questions concern whether universities should acknowledge students as contributors and not just consumers for the institutions’ missions of research and education. (read more...)

SciCom: The Slippery Business of STEM Promotion

“One thing is certain: When something is scientifically complex, it’s harder to understand and to communicate” (sciencebranding.com). Regardless of its accuracy, this is a commonly repeated sentiment across many public domains. However, this particular claim was produced within the branch of marketing known as Science Communications with the peculiar intent of convincing drug companies they need to hire “creatives” to extol the virtues of biochemistry to physicians. This is just one manifestation of the Science Communications field, which includes academic journals, NGOs, and PR firms. Armed with the more edgy truncation “SciCom” (or SciComm), the field increasingly resembles other promotional paradigms such as experience design (UX) and immersion marketing, wherein the goal is to seamlessly weave advertising into the condition of being alive. (read more...)

Writing Science: Viewing Science as Social Practice in the Composition Classroom

Composition endures, in fact thrives, at universities that are heavily invested in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. But, this also means that composition instructors who are primarily trained in the Humanities and Social Sciences may encounter more and more students whose interests and majors are (for some) somewhat alien. Put simply, STEM topics do not readily offer themselves up to make writing assignments for broad audiences, and students may struggle in constructing them. A further challenge in working with STEM students has to do with their dispositions toward critiques of science and ideology. Students in STEM fields may not have been exposed to the possibility that social norms have been packaged into scientific knowledge production, and they sometimes find such suggestions threatening. One way to productively engage students STEM topics is to highlight that science as a social practice. That is, science not entirely viewed as the ‘discovery’ of facts, but as a pursuit embedded within particular cultural and historical contexts. Scientific knowledge is produced and disseminated by people for other people, and so must follow the social and rhetorical codes of its times. Viewed in this way, scientists do not ‘reveal’ the nature of the world, but rather make arguments about it. As those arguments ‘go public,’ their authors take on a broader set of interests, concerns, presuppositions, and stakeholders than might be encountered among expert audiences. (read more...)

Teaching (Non)Technological Determinism: A Theory of Key Points

How can we account for the radical uncertainty of change when we think about the future, but its seeming inevitability when it comes to the past?  This is, arguably, the hardest part in doing the history and anthropology of technology.  It is also, not surprisingly, the hardest to teach our students.  In what follows, I suggest that the experience of watching (and playing) sports might be of help here. (read more...)

The Second Project: Teaching Research through Collaboration

Editor’s Note: This is the third entry in the Second Project Series. You can read the second post here. This series explores an often undiscussed moment in professionalization: the shift from the research you began as a graduate student to the new work undertaken as an early- or mid-career scholar. This series is especially interested in personal journeys and institutional features that enabled or constrained this transition. If you are interested in contributing, please contact Lisa. Monday afternoons at least a dozen students and I gather to work on a collaborative ethnographic project. Some weeks we meet around a long, boardroom style table where we discuss article outlines, literature reviews, and “findings” crafted by our team members. Other weeks we organize around a handful of circular tables where small working groups tackle different pieces of the project—analyzing quantitative data using SPSS, creating GIS maps, coding qualitative survey questions, or co-writing a white paper, which we hope to have ready by the end of the year. About a third of these students have worked on the project since September 2014, when we conducted a door-to door survey across three Philadelphia neighborhoods. Others have joined the team along the way, interested in learning social science research on an active project. Many more, who worked on the first leg or two of the project, have since graduated. Most have stayed in touch and a few continue to collaborate with our group in some way, as professionals in nonprofits or community-based organizations, and also as graduate students in PhD and Master’s programs elsewhere. Among our group there is a real sense of community built around engaged interdisciplinary research focused on environmental health; this sense has been cultivated pedagogically through research design. Across academic contexts, teaching and research are treated separately, and are often pitted against each other. Research, we are told, comes first and teaching, second. To me, the outcomes of such division are ethically problematic. I also believe this division misrepresents our intellectual lives and scholarship. My second project is as much about addressing this misrepresentation as it is environmental health, technoscience, and urban landscapes. There is no question in my mind that teaching research, and collaborating with students has made me a better scholar. (read more...)

An Anthropologist Visits the Classroom: On teaching science (and religion)

Although I’ve never taught the book cover-to-cover, my copy of Latour and Woolgar’s (1986[1979]) Laboratory Life has been unpacked four times since I finished my Ph.D., six years ago during a final sweltry Florida summer. Their re-inscription of the Salk Institute has moved with me through the planned communities of D.C.’s suburbs, the tech-ifying Research Triangle of central North Carolina, and the cotton-cultivating arid flatland of west Texas. Now, Lab Life and I cohabitate—more peacefully than we used to—at one of New England’s dark-brick collegiate beauties. I’ve offered courses on the anthropology of science, in different iterations and incarnations, at George Mason University, North Carolina State University, Texas Tech University, and now Mount Holyoke College. As my nomadism gives way to more permanent settlement, I’m pausing to reflect on the modest successes (and felt frustrations) of sharing my passion for anthropology through attention to its liaison with science and technology studies. (read more...)