Distraction Free Reading

Farewell (But Not Good-Bye)!

When Jennifer Cool, Jordan Kraemer and I co-founded this blog we began on a web page and a prayer, or if you prefer, an incantation. Drawing on an “if you build it, they will come” inspiration, we felt that starting a blog would be a great way to encourage more conversation about science and technology studies. As members of CASTAC, the Committee on the Anthropology of Science, Technology and Computing, we felt excited about the organization’s goals, and we sought ways to connect to the other members of the group who chose to hang their hat in this corner of the American Anthropological Association.

We launched with a “start-up” mentality in which content was king. Our goal was to bring in guest authors while also sharing our work. Our initial goals were modest: as long as we could consistently put up one interesting post per week, we were happy. I was excited to see our blog grow and eventually garner several hundred views a month. Going forward, we realized we would need to create a sustainable model to expand the blog’s content and reach, and thus the idea of an Associate Editing team was born. I crafted a structure roughly modeled after publication organizations in which Associate Editors (AEs) managed particular “beats” or specific topic areas of interest. The idea was to encourage AEs to contribute posts about their own research as well as solicit exciting up-to-date content from other CASTAC members, researchers, and practitioners engaged in projects conducted within the auspices of the anthropology and sociology of science, technology, and computing.

I am proud to say that this structure worked exceptionally well in a number of ways. First, it enabled people with more direct expertise in specialized areas to determine relevant content. It is helpful for a blog to have people with varying expertise be in charge of identifying and bringing in suitable content in hot new topic areas. Second, it brought in a staggering amount of content to the blog! Having 10 people plus an Editor-in-Chief each contribute a few posts not only shares the workload but also brings in a variety of information that a single person could not realistically produce. Third, it gave CASTAC as an organization a project that we could pull together and work on. It helped us remember why we valued being part of such an organization. Fourth, it considerably broadened the outreach of our content to have so many people Tweeting and sending out announcements about the blog and CASTAC activities. And finally, the AE team and their contributions promoted amazing conversations both within CASTAC and more broadly in academe and in industry.

One could frame the blog’s impressive growth with particular statistics, such as the fact that at launch CASTAC had 138 Twitter followers, and now the organization has nearly 500. The blog now often sees thousands of unique sessions per month, and is visited by people from 141 countries. Our content is varied indeed. Contributors have written over 120 posts about everything from MOOCs to zombies to zucchinis in space!

But numbers do not tell the whole story. The blog has accomplished many intangibles that deserve discussion. Obviously, the blog has provided a place for people to talk about their research, including recent books, conference papers and projects that people are excited to share. But I have also observed that the blog has been a place for people to experiment with ideas or use it to revive energy for projects and ideas that had been placed on the back burner of one’s research agenda. It is exciting to hear people say that participating on the blog gave them renewed energy to tackle projects and revisit ideas that now open up new and interesting intellectual pursuits.

Having a blog with its finger on the pulse of new STS research may also be a harbinger for new ways of disseminating information. Who can forget Traweek’s (1988) discussion in her classic work, Beamtimes and Lifetimes: The World of High Energy Physicists, in which it is stated that once articles about a new topic appear in peer-reviewed physics journals, the information is old to the researchers, as they have already circulated it rather more nimbly within scientific briefings. Does the CASTAC blog’s activity in circulating such up-to-date information indicate that the STS community may also be moving toward more flexible ways of sharing scholarly information?

In addition to research, the blog also offers rich sources of pedagogical information. I myself have directly benefited from the blog’s content in my teaching. For example, I was particularly interested in Nick Seaver’s post on auxiliary motives, and I literally pulled it off of the blog on my way to Anthropology of Technology class one day. We had an extremely interesting discussion about this topic and one student even discussed it on her final paper! It occurred to me that the blog offered a new delivery mechanism for STS pedagogy. Of course the syllabus contains what the instructor sees as the classics in the field. But the blog provides up-to-date information about what is happening at the moment, sometimes years before it will be ensconced in print and find its way onto a syllabus. The blog offers a new way of thinking about teaching that combines several elements to enliven STS research and practice. I found it stimulating to have at my fingertips such a rich repository of information, not only about research projects and early findings through fieldnotes, but also about methods and tools that people evaluate both within and outside of the academy.

It has been exciting also to hear positive feedback both behind the scenes at the blog, and from the general public. I have heard from some of the AEs that the blog and the process of helming a post written by a senior scholar helps open the door to a potential mentorship path in which graduate students can work with people from outside of their institution. Through working on posts together, students and junior scholars may learn more about their field and develop skills in tackling research projects in these areas. One of the reasons that CASTAC has been so popular is that STS scholars often find themselves as “lone wolves” in their institutions and it has provided a venue for interactional outreach. The blog and its activities continue those conversations in meaningful ways.

Colleagues of mine have also been quite complimentary about the information the blog has circulated. It has been referred to as a “first-class forum,” a “great venue” for STS scholarship, and a “favored go-to read online.” We even made our way onto Reddit Technology for a post on the technological sublime. It is particularly fascinating to see some of the content circulating well beyond academe, with posts such as Kelkar’s Knee Defender article and Cool’s piece on the #ALS Ice Bucket challenge going viral (by our standards). Although we began in the spirit of circulating scholarship, it will be interesting to see the direction the blog takes next, and whether it blossoms as a far-reaching venue that engages with the public and enables STS scholars to weigh in on matters of science, technology, and computing in a more general way. The purpose of being a scholar is to educate and inform, and it would appear that the CASTAC blog offers a venue to accomplish these goals more broadly.

A blog that is as successful as this has obviously benefited from the contributions of many people, too numerous to list here. Check out the About page for more information about our frequent participants, which we expect to expand. We are excited to open up a new category of participation on the blog of “Contributors” who will write two or more posts for the blog. We believe this category of participation will expand our content and outreach even further to bring in new voices to the blog.

I wish to call out several individuals without whom this effort would not have been possible. I would like to thank the outgoing CASTAC Co-Chairs Jennifer Cool and Rachel Prentice for their contributions to CASTAC and for keeping the organization going during some of its quieter years. Special thanks to Jennifer Cool for serving as the Executive Producer of the blog and providing counsel and guidance. I would like to thank the new CASTAC Co-Chairs Jennifer Carlson and Nick Seaver for their support of the blog and I look forward to hearing their ideas for new activities and projects.

I wish to extend thanks to senior scholars who helped us launch the blog, most especially Lucy Suchman, David Hakken, and David Hess. Their initial contributions framed the launch of the blog as something important and serious, and that is how we have been received ever since. Their posts set the tone for the blog. We thank them for their posts and interviews and look forward to hearing more about their work in the coming years.

Special thanks also to the first Associate Editors who worked hard to provide the blog with such an impressive array of content. I wish to thank Todd Hanson, Shreeharsh Kelkar, Jordan Kraemer, Ian Lowrie, Lisa Messeri, Luis Felipe R. Murillo, Casey O’Donnell, Beth Reddy, Nick Seaver, and Michael Scroggins for their work in writing posts and helming an impressive body of authors and contributors that considerably expanded the blog’s content in exciting ways. I would also like to thank our new Web Producer, Angela Kristin VandenBroek, who has been working very hard as Associate Web Producer and exhibits a terrific “can do” attitude that is bringing CASTAC’s technical functioning and the blog to new heights.

I wish to say that this blog would not have been possible without Jordan Kraemer, who is the new Editor-in-Chief! Jordan is currently serving as an Andrew Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at Wesleyan University, where she studies how social and mobile media shape everyday life in Berlin. She comes to this position having served as the blog’s Co-Founder, Inaugural Web Producer, and Associate Editor on the first AE team. She has seen the blog from its many vantage points, which I believe will be a tremendous asset to the position. I am excited to hear some of the plans she and her team are brewing, but I will not spill the beans here. All will be revealed in due course. Please watch this space for announcements about the new AE team for 2015, and some changes coming to the blog and to CASTAC’s public presence.

Although I am stepping down from serving as the Inaugural Editor-in-Chief, I am still a proud member of CASTAC and I will retain the title of Editor-at-Large of the blog. Basically, I will serve as a consultant to the new Editor as necessary. I have enjoyed being Editor and watching the blog grow. It has been a challenging but extremely rewarding experience. I look forward to seeing the new directions the blog will take while preserving its successful, foundational elements. I hope that the blog and the new team will fare well in the next few years, as we all continue to participate in the CASTAC organization. If the blog has shown nothing else, it has demonstrated that many loyal CASTAC members crave conversation beyond the yearly business meeting. It is terrific seeing so many young people attend the meetings and participate on the blog with such vigor. I look forward to participating in CASTAC conversations and other new projects in the coming years.

Best wishes for a Happy New Year!

Patricia G. Lange
Assistant Professor
Critical Studies
California College of the Arts

2 Comments

  • Lisa Messeri says:

    Patricia, thank you for your amazing job getting this blog rolling! It is indeed a valuable forum for new STS ideas (and scholars) to find voice.

  • Elizabeth Rodwell says:

    I am proud to be involved in this project! You launched while I was out in the field, and with my head in that it took me too long to make my way here. It’s so inspiring to be among a group of like minded scholars.

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