Legos Shutting-Down Gender Criticism?

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Girls, Blox, Bricks, and “Childhood Engineering”: We’ve written about the new craze for Goldiblox a bunch of times recently (here, here, and here), now that that young engineer from Stanford has formally “launched” the product. Legos appear to be joining the battle-cry … or they also might have started it (well, they seem to claim as much).

Here is some recent text I’ve been seeing all-over discussions about gender and, let’s say, “childhood engineering” (its a WYSK EXCLUSIVE — but seems to be difficult to load the stuff right now … not sure why). Here is the text, and above is the original picture:

“In 1981,” explains Giordano, “LEGOs were ‘Universal Building Sets’ and that’s exactly what they were…for boys and girls. Toys are supposed to foster creativity. But nowadays, it seems that a lot more toys already have messages built into them before a child even opens the pink or blue package. In 1981, LEGOs were simple and gender-neutral, and the creativity of the child produced the message. In 2014, it’s the reverse: the toy delivers a message to the child, and this message is weirdly about gender.”

Not sure if Legos has seized this little tid-bit trying to shut it down, and that explains why it is down, or perhaps the traffic to it is too high (though that seems unlikely, at best). Here is the piece, at least as I can see it from my facebook:

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If you can find it, check out the commentary. You could save this and write a modest piece in STS or even have students analyze the responses in an activity about gender and engineering…

 

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Teaching the Public Understanding of Science with Ancient Aliens

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I have had unprecedented success with a new lesson in STS and I thought I’d share it with you all on the blog. NOTE: I’ve also got a sheet that can be used for students to follow along and it provides some questions to orient discussion after viewing (if you’d like it, it is like some others I’ve shared, for example, related to the “King of Kong” as an easy way to teach students about the scientific community and philosophy of science or a handout used to teach students about controversies in science through a documentary on intelligent design). So, every semester, the chapters on the “public understanding of science” in Sismondo’s introductory text end-up being sort of boring to students.

However, working with a student over the last year, we found another way to “get at” the information. Instead of dealing directly with some of the issues associated with the public and science through the typical lens of “understanding,” we look for the public and science through another lens, that of “misunderstanding,” in this case about what is and is not science.

Enter: Ancient Alien Theorists!

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Ancient Aliens” is a series on the History Channel, self-described as:

Ancient Aliens explores the controversial theory that extraterrestrials have visited Earth for millions of years. From the age of the dinosaurs to ancient Egypt, from early cave drawings to continued mass sightings in the US, each episode in this hit H2 series gives historic depth to the questions, speculations, provocative controversies, first-hand accounts and grounded theories surrounding this age old debate.

In class, we just watch one episode, and it has been an incredible source of discussion ever since. During Season One, the fourth episode (which is just perfect for this lesson) is called “The Visitors.” Here is the summary:

If ancient aliens visited Earth, who were they, and where did they come from? Possible historic evidence and beliefs are examined around the world. The Dogon people possess knowledge of a galaxy they claim was given to them by a star god named Amma. The Hopi and Zuni people celebrate Kachinas, gods from the sky, whose headdresses and costumes appear to resemble modern helmets and protective clothing. Halfway around the world, Chinese legends tell of the Han leader, Huangdi, arriving on Earth on a flying, yellow dragon. Was this dragon more likely a spacecraft? Ancient astronaut theorists believe that these are far from chance encounters and that extraterrestrials not only interacted with us, but changed the course of human history.

The key is to ask questions after viewing like:

1. How do these “theorists” use the tools, rhetoric, and, thus, credibility of science to launch their claims?

2. What statements might be made or what portrayals do you see that link ancient aliens to the scientific enterprise? 

After we watched this, understanding how the presentation of scientific ideas (in this case, non-science), the students have literally no trouble dealing with Sismondo’s chapter, which features the deficit model of public understanding and the presentation of science and the scientific enterprise by journalists. The real joy, though, comes when Sismondo starts to discuss how some scientists short-cut the journalism process and go to the public directly — often, out of desperation (enter, again: Ancient Alien Theorists!)

Again, write me if you’d like a copy of the sheet or to discuss the teaching idea.

Images from: http://www.amazon.com/Ancient-Aliens-Season-One/dp/B0038M2AWI

GoldieBlox stirkes again

Last night in the states, the NFL hosted the Super Bowl, a night when the game is watched nearly as closely by Americans as are the commercials. Surprising, to me, was that GoldieBlox, which we blogged about before and before that, was featured. It seems that that toy is really making headway and this probably marks the “beginning” for this concept.

Here’s to finally making some pro-engineering gender normativity — finally, “doing” STS out in the broader public (for example, perhaps about as much as these esteemed folks at MIT).

*PS: I finally learned to spell GoldieBlox correctly; thanks to all the viewers that let me know that I misspelled it incorrectly every time in the past entries. Mia culpa!

Abandoned Places

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Abandoned places. Stunning visuals.

I am of the mind that abandoned places have something, analytically, to contribute to infrastructure studies. Once you click the link, you’ll see that the producers of this compilation (not sure how many pictures are truly “there’s”) suggest with the opening lines that this is something about what the entire world would like without people, which is sort of a pseudo-apocalyptic comment on global warming, the end of days, and curiosity about “a world without people” (anymore — or this documentary about life after people). The first lines read:

These real life ruins offer an eerie glimpse into a world without humans. Their dark walls inspire a sense of wonder like I’ve never felt before.

This should surprise no one. Perhaps the thought experiment is a good one for students, but generally thoughtful people don’t have to let their minds wander/wonder too far to know what a world without people would look like as our infrastructures remain slowly giving way to the elements.

What else might infrastructural relics like these tell us? Surely, it is fair to say that they would teach us something new every time we returned to them. However, one of the points that these might tell us, which archeologists and anthropologists have claimed for more than a century (and quite longer, I would guess), is that infrastructural remains indicate more than just “people” were here. Many of these remains (pictured above) are not ancient, either, so we don’t need to impose meanings on where these structures came from or how they were used in antiquity. These are contemporary ruins that sit precariously alongside “life as we know it” now. The point? Some, but not all, are state projects, meaning, of course, real people on the ground ultimately produced the structures that “remain,” but the attributional source of the work is a non-human entity called “the state” … these are pieces of evidence that the state exists somewhere, somehow. How to harness that insight for state theory would be a great bridge to infrastructure studies (and infrastructural relics might also be a nice play on literature for infrastructure studies that would sort of be like the relationship between STS and disaster studies, although, there is something really nice about a slow decay as compared to a momentary boom found in most disaster studies — exceptions, of course, exist).

Teaching STS: Teaching that time does not exist

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Times does not exist. At least, we think time does not exist.

According to Ferenc Krausz at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics in Garching, Germany, time is unlikely real.

Efforts to understand time below the Planck scale have led to an exceedingly strange juncture in physics. The problem, in brief, is that time may not exist at the most fundamental level of physical reality.

Check out the original Discovery reading here. It is an easy read and would do well if presented students in-class to read on-the-spot and then immediately discuss it. It has worked well for me to get at issues of “reality” in a surprisingly concrete way. Admittedly, this might seem like a no-brainer for long-time friends of social constructivism. Still, time is generally a great concept for an STS class, especially issues of “standards” and so on. We’ve discussed it once before on the blog here.

One of the comments is particularly nice for students to chew on:

This article was written in 2007, and I am responding to it and commenting on it in 2013. Why? Because “time” doesnt exist.

Also, of interest: notice that you have to raise time as real to tear it down as not real, signifying the significance of real-time for understanding the un-realness of time.

Infrastructure is politics by other means

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Spent the morning reading Petrostate by Marshall Goldman, and look what I find in my news feed: “Ukraine receives half price gas and $15 billion to stick with Russia.” Reminds us all that infrastructure (and control over infrastructure) is politics by other means. As Goldman mentions in the book (I’m paraphrasing): Who wants/needs nuclear weapons, when there is no mutually-assured destruction to curb the use of petroleum and natural gas!?

Stef wrote something about this recently too, but not about pipelines. Along these lines, I’m in the middle of reviewing Andrew Barry’s new book (about pipeline infrastructure and politics from a geography angle) for Science Technology ans Society (the EASST journal).

Door to Hell, 42 Years Later

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Proverbial “Door to Hell”, Derweze, Turkmenistan: Check out a video here.

The Door to Hell is a natural gas field in Derweze (also spelled Darvaza, meaning “gate”), Ahal Province, Turkmenistan. The Door to Hell is noted for its natural gas fire which has been burning continuously since it was lit by Soviet petrochemical scientists in 1971, fed by the rich natural gas deposits in the area. The pungent smell of burning sulfur pervades the area for some distance (Wiki).

Not the first time we talked about disasters on the blog. For example, about how Google worked in Japan post-Fukushima disaster to use Google-cars to help find missing persons. About how the intersection of infrastructure studies and disaster studies will likely grow in future years. More recently, we featured “Philip Mirowski’s Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste … an important and distinctive contribution to debates around the politics and economics of the economic crisis”.

Follow-up on Goldiblox

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Just saw this; more on actually doing something about gender in STEM, especially, engineering:

Fewer than 3 in 10 graduates in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are women. And barely 1 in 10 actual engineers are women. Early in a girl’s life, the toys marketed to her are usually things that don’t encourage her to enter those fields. GoldieBlox intends to change that by teaching them while they are young that these fields can be fun — and apparently epic, by the looks of this super-genius 2-minute video. Watch and learn.

Check out the video on upworthy here. Also, a previous post about it here.

Interdisciplinarity, crisis, and the future of academic institutions

Since the 2008 financial “crisis” (and it’s hard to keep calling something a crisis when it continues for 5 years), tenure track jobs have fallen by about 40%.  Many with PhDs are jobless, on welfare, working in tenuous positions, trying to find work in different sectors, or moving from one job to another—be it an adjunct position or more steady multiple year teaching contracts. Admittedly, the job market has been constricting since the 1980s, but now, there are fewer  jobs elsewhere to mitigate the effects of fewer academic positions.

I have been relatively lucky in this market compared to some.  I have had two positions since earning my PhD that have treated me with respect, decent wages, and health insurance.  These were harbors in the storm that many of my friends and cohort have not been lucky enough to find.  That said, I have racked up hundreds of dollars in fees to my dossier service and spent countless hours over the last three years preparing job letters and sending dossiers to potential employers. This has netted me two campus interviews and one phone interview.  In the meantime, I teach introductory courses to bright-eyed freshmen, take care of my family, research and write in whatever time I have left.

The personal financial troubles of visiting professors and adjuncts are compounded by the larger constriction of university funds. The 2008 crisis devalued endowments and investments for many universities.  While used to fighting for funds and support, humanities, social science, and interdisciplinary departments found themselves fighting for survival within their universities.  Funding was cut to many programs, and in some cases, entire departments were suspended. Technologies like MOOCs and machine graded essays moved in to fill in the gaps between fewer professors and tuition income pulled in by larger classes.  In some cases, both visiting and tenure track professors create online classes that threaten to replace them in subsequent semesters.

The important question for me—as the vagaries and cruelties of this new post-employment academic market have been addressed in nearly all ways elsewhere— is how this affects junior scholars who are attempting to craft an interdisciplinary research career in this tenuous and competitive market.  I have spoken of cabinet of curiosities in earlier posts as a way to imagine IR, but how does this measure up when hiring departments want people doing “real” IR?  What does this mean more broadly for projects that cross or question disciplines?  Research projects that grapple with the interconnected, global, rhizomatic, and immanent world filled with hybrid forms, spaces of flows, and networks are more crucial than ever. Does this new environment suffocate these important research plans?

So, perhaps getting jobs is harder in this market, but what about the future of the university with fewer tenured professors and (perhaps) fewer interdisciplinary humanities and social science projects? Traditionally, the university has been a space for intellectuals to speak subversively without fear or reprisal—especially important is job protection.  An adjunct or visiting professor will likely not even have the time to be a public intellectual.  There is no research leave or course buy out with grant money.  In fact, we are here to teach the classes for tenure track and tenured professors while they pursue their research careers.  They loan us their offices and we fight for time and space to do our own work while teaching, and, more often than not advising and serving the institution that offers visiting professors multiple one-year contracts. But this seems to me as part and parcel of the bigger problem looming over academia as an institution: neoliberal business practices imported to the university uncritically and whole-heartedly by a burgeoning administrative class. The safe space of the university is disappearing and it is unclear what will follow. In theory, I might be okay with a long term teaching contract with little to no research requirements, but what about the public intellectual who should be engaging with civil society and sharing publicly funded research?

The students certainly suffer under this new system, but this may not seem apparent to the students at first.  This is not to say that visiting and adjunct professors are “easy,” in fact, this seems to work in the opposite.  Visiting professors bring new research, disciplinary rigor, and generally plan their classes with the goals of the department and the university in mind.  Young undergraduate scholars may not have the opportunity to create long-term mentoring relationships with their professors, or even more simply, cannot choose them as their department advisors.  Long term, will they be able to request letters of recommendation from their overworked tenured advisor who teaches classes of 250 or from a visiting prof that now works at a different institution? Maybe two or three different places?

The open questions with which I would like to end: What will the university as an institution look like in the next decade or two?  Will tenure still be an option?  What departments will ascend in this neoliberal future?

Goldiblocks: Gender and engineering meet

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Anybody interested in gender, engineering, or infrastructure, especially, meta-issues, like training students in the sciences and engineering and all the related gender issues:

Check out this promotional video.

Golidblocks! This is a smart idea. There is a ton of literature about how women select out of the sciences and engineering, some of which is good work and some of which borders on the sexism it supposedly only describes; however, this angle, related to children’s toys and parenting strategies … just might be one of the smartest thing “done” in that line of thinking/concern.

If you’re teaching STS and you cover gender issues, a discussion of this might be useful.

It also reminded me, hauntingly, of this: when Barbi used to say “Math class is tough” … ugh.

Teaching STS: Controversies

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This is an extension of a previous post about teaching STS. So, teaching controversies is a mainstay of STS; if you need a good film to show, check out “Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial” replete with Steve Fuller weighing-in on intelligent design … and their are courtroom re-enactments and even a decent biology lesson for students that don’t have a strong background in basic genetics and/or evolution.

Of great interest for us is this: the film underscores the utility of theory in face of lame counter-factuals (which uninformed students tend to accept or privilege during discussion). Additionally, there is an incredible discussion, especially for high school or undergraduate students, about the difference between science and non-science. But, better than all of that, there is an implicit display of “truth” in three different forms — which makes for excellent discussion post-film — between “law truth,” “science truth,” and “religious truth,” which is great to show how truth is context-specific and what constitutes truth in law, science, and religion is only rarely overlapping.

Also, I have a handout already made to help students to navigate the documentary. Write me if you you’d like a copy or if you’ve used this clip for your own courses (send to: njr12 at psu.edu).

Lastly, if you’re already teaching Sismondo’s Introduction to Science and Technology Studies, the chapter on “Controversies” can be used with the film because midway through the chapter, Sismondo describes a set of 5 circumstances under which controversies can be “closed up” and those map onto the film wonderfully, making the bridge between in-class reading and an out-of-class film easy.

Writing Reflexively: Lessons from ANT

Qualitative Sociology is producing a special issue about using ANT to write-up qualitative results.

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Original from “Acting Man” at http://www.acting-man.com/?p=24647

One of the papers in now available on-line first, which is our paper about writing reflexive accounts from an actor-network approach (not actor-network theory). We had fun writing it, and, once you get toward the end, you’ll see that this paper is somewhat unorthodox …

Our title:

Beware of Allies! Notes on Analytical Hygiene in Actor-Network Account-making

Our abstract:

In science and technology studies (STS), reflexivity is not the foremost political or ethical concern that it is for some postmodernists, feminists, anthropologists, or those earnest students of Bourdieu. For us, reflexivity is a practical methodological concern. When reflexivity is raised in our scholarly communications it is, without irony, about crafting scientific communication (i.e., scholarly accounts like articles or books) reflexively. This paper therefore is an actor-network account of making reflexive actor-network accounts, specifically, in the process of writing-up qualitative research findings. It is a paper about research. It is a paper about the research process. As our empirical contribution, we report on research we previously conducted and about the subsequent steps we took toward a (publishable) way of reporting it. We are trying to honestly disclose how the process of preparing a reflexive account is more than merely a matter of cleaning upthe messiness of data, but also, and perhaps foremost, a process of finding, aligning, and occasionally distancing our accounts from our allies – in our case, actor-network theory (ANT) and reflexivity.

One paragraph with something of a hook:

As we transformed a presentation from the microcosm of professional conferences into a working manuscript for academic, peer-reviewed publishing, we encountered remarks about how reflexive we needed to be during our account-making, in particular, in our methods section. After delving into the reflexivity literature, we concluded that no “amount” of reflexivity could have made our account more reflexive because, in addition to reflexivity being part of the intransigent character of all forms of account-making, overt pleas for the epistemic virtue of adding or subtracting any form of reflexivity is an immediate dead-end for the analysts and a long-term dead-end for whatever (inter)disciplinary homes they inhabit (Ashmore 1989; Latour 1988; Lynch 2000). Our empirical analysis confirmed each of these insights.

Still, the question, “how much reflexivity was enough?” seemed all too real as we accepted critiques of our presentation(s) and received reviews of our paper. For us,
the practical problem was, how do we settle this obviously irresolvable suggestion-turned-
requirement?

Thus, the oddity that we poke-at in our paper is this: in theory, we know that nothing can be added to a paper to make it qualitatively more reflexive (no additional forms of looping-back or self-referential claims); however, that is precisely what we learn when we review our own experience: it is precisely because, in theory, nothing can make a paper more reflexive that critiques claiming that we are too reflexive or not reflexive enough are so difficult to overcome. These comments are, in theory, incomprehensible, but, in a practical sense, unavoidable if you want to present or publish your work in these academic circles where reflexivity lives…

What Would Wallace Write? (if he were an ethnographer)

David Foster Wallace and Installing (Social) Order on ‘Being Reflexive’ … we wrote this after blogging about these issues for a while regarding excessive hygiene, actor-network attitudes and ethnography, and about style in STS.

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Editor’s Note: Jan-Hendrik Passoth ( @janpassoth) is a Post Doc at the Technische Universität Berlin interested in Sociological Theory and Science and Technology Studies. His fellow writer, Nicholas J. Rowland, is an associate professor of Sociology at Pennsylvania State University, as well as a visiting scholar at Technische Universität Berlin. Both work on the sociology of infrastructures, about which they blog at installing (social) order, exploring the sociotechnical nerves of contemporary society.

In this other piece of our “ethnography and fiction” edition, these two researchers give an interesting follow-up to the contribution by Anne Galloway by focusing on a well-known fiction writer: David Foster-Wallace. They compare his work with ethnographic field report and use that as a starting point for a discussion about the importance of reflexivity.

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Comparing David Foster Wallace and an average ethnographic field report seems unfair at first. And, it does not get better…

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Teaching STS: Windmill Farms and Windfall (the documentary)

Visit to a windmill farm followed by a viewing of “Windfall,” the only anti-windmill documentary that is available; the juxtaposed experiences should provide more than adequate resources for a rousing discussion about people, wind, energy, and the environment.

Today, Friday, March 22, my STS class (Topics in Science, Technology, and Society) went to the windmill farm in Cresson, PA, which was built by Gamesa and is currently Pennsylvania’s largest operating windmill farm (more about Allegheny Ridge Wind Farm).

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At 22 degrees Fahrenheit being the warm part of the morning, we enjoyed a windy and snowy experience. This is unsurprising, though, given that the mountain ridge we visited was specifically selected for its high winds. These windmills were truly impressive up close, and the students were, despite the cold, the wind, and the snow, full of questions. While the oscillation of the blades did make an audible sound, even at some distance, we were all surprised by how violent the blades seemed to rotate as compared to how quiet and motion-less the bases were … it was almost tranquil, we agreed.

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The ridge, which is expansive, hosts 40 turbines, which are 2MW generators. While the return on investment for a free-standing windmill like the ones pictures is about 5 years, the ones we viewed had an ROI of nearly 20 years because of early quality control issues with the blades (they were splitting apart like bananas). According the farm’s website, “Estimated annual production: 200 GW.h (for an equivalent of 2,500 hours of full load/year)” which is impressive.

Our guide was great; his name was Michael Barton, a local forester and wind expert.

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About Michael Barton:

He earned a Bachelor of Science Degree in Forest Science (Forestry) from Penn State University in 1983. … In 2007, he received the “Sustainable Energy Education Award” in Pennsylvania sponsored by Gamesa Energy, USA. In 2008, Michael was the co-chairman of the Society of American Foresters (SAF) – Allegheny Section summer meeting entitled “Forest Land Issues Related to Wind Energy.” For that effort Mike was presented with the SAF Award for “outstanding service, dedication and effort for a successful Allegheny Society summer meeting.” (available here).

He told us today that this was his 248th tour of the wind farm, all of which he has done as a volunteer. I have taken students on these trips for half a decade, and will continue to. As a forester and environmental consultant, it is quite important to show students the significance of water quality on these ridge-lines. Of significance, the spot we are standing in this next photo is on the ridge that splits one-way to the Ohio Valley, and, thus, the water ends-up in the Mississippi River, and the other way to the Chesapeake Bay. Contamination on this site would pollute both directions. Barton helped oversee the environmentally safe work that went on here … also of note, this spot, it is perhaps 4FT from where a 35FT wide 1 million pound crane would have passed; cranes which are necessary to assemble the turbines). The water on site, was crystal clear.

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A final point of interest is that we would not have been able to take the tour earlier in the week because of the ice, rain, and snow. But not for reasons of travel. Instead, as Barton told the students, windmills of this caliber throw ice.

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“I’ve seen a sheet of ice as thick as my hand embed itself into the driver’s seat of a pick-up truck,” then Barton said, “if you had been sitting there, it would have probably cut you in half.” I noted the silent pause…

In all, it was a great experience. We are all in Barton’s debt for his good work.

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That said, later today we are going to starting viewing the only anti-windmill documentary that I have been able to find.

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The film is about:

Wind power… it’s sustainable … it burns no fossil fuels…it produces no air pollution. What’s more, it cuts down dependency on foreign oil. That’s what the people of Meredith, in upstate New York first thought when a wind developer looked to supplement the rural farm town’s failing economy with a farm of their own — that of 40 industrial wind turbines. WINDFALL, a beautifully photographed feature length film, documents how this proposal divides Meredith’s residents as they fight over the future of their community. Attracted at first to the financial incentives that would seemingly boost their dying economy, a group of townspeople grow increasingly alarmed as they discover the impacts that the 400-foot high windmills slated for Meredith could bring to their community as well as the potential for financial scams. With wind development in the United States growing annually at 39 percent, WINDFALL is an eye-opener that should be required viewing for anyone concerned about the environment and the future of renewable energy.

We will see how it goes.

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Teaching STS: Are military weapons used to kill other soldiers or civilians?

There is a post by Fabio Rojas over at orgtheory.net that might be of interest to those of your in STS and those of you teaching STS.

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<http://www.iraqbodycount.org/database/>

He reports on a simple question: are military weapons used to kill other soldiers or civilians?

This question, if brought in front of a classroom, raises a few poignant issues for STS, engineering designs, and designers.

  1. STS has a long history — and this appears in, for example, Volti’s Society and Technological Change much more prominently than, for example, Sismondo’s Introduction to STS — of studying military technology and the rise of the post-WWII U.S. military-industrial-complex. Especially, when I was trained in STS, MacKenzie’s Inventing Accuracy, which showed how social influences impact even internally controlled technological devices (in his case, ballistic missiles, which are thought to be impervious to outside influence once launched … of course, these are two differnt forms of “influence”, but it still made for a great book about military technology and why a device is just so accurate, or just so fast, or just so efficient, and so on. The rise of civilian deaths, which was a deep concern in MacKenzie’s book and one of the manifold reasons enhanced efficiency was pursued in the first place, so this lands as an interesting issue on that regard, especially in comparison.
  2. The “use” literature has long argued that the boundary between use and design is much more porous than was once previously appreciated by the STS community. I’m thinking of How Users Matter edited by Oudshoorn and Pinch as a high-water mark in that line of work. In this case, we see all sorts of instances where use influences design directly during testing trials for particular products, instances where use influences design long after production when tools meet new contexts of use (like dental tools being used in art museums to clean ancient masks), and, of course, the SCOT discovery that uses can be imposed on new designs for public consumption. None of these approaches really captures what seems to be happening in this case, moreover, in some cases, while there is a fine line between what constitutes a “military” weapon versus something a civilian might own legally, some instances are very plain.
  3. While there is not a ton of literature that I am aware of appropriate for the student-level, this also raises the philosophical/ethical concern about what responsibility engineers have for how their designs are used. I don’t mean to come off as naïve, but this is a serious question for students considering the profession (and, in my opinion, for us more broadly as well).

So, this is a rich case to get at a number of issues regarding weapons, the (US) military, and the politics of how technologies are used.

Teaching STS: Leap Seconds and the social construction of time?

This year is a great year to teach STS because we have a leap year, and students can learn alot about STS by studying time.

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As many of you know, “time” is a social construction, and it makes for a great topic to teach students about standards, units of reality, and the basic infrastructure that makes “modern” life possible. What also makes time such a great topic is how seemingly “naturalized” it has become (or been packaged to be). Time corresponds with the predictability of the Earth’s revolutions; times is, ironically, one student said, “in synch with natural rhythms.”

Leap years remind us where all that went wrong. It is important to convey to students one idea above all: the second has changed duration over time.

When early numerized “time” was being developed under the sexigecimal system (system of count according to measures of 60) by Egyptians and Bablyonians, the whole day was being “diced” into smaller and smaller units, down to the second. And this lasted for a long time, although the second was occasionally refined, it was not until 1954 that the International Committee for Weights and Measures redefined the duration of the second, this time in fairly scientific terms. Six years later, in light of the advent of the atomic clock, the second was redefined once again. Suddenly, the accounting for time started with smallest unit and “days” where built from there (rather than the inverse process, where the day was the unit to dice-up into smaller units).

Now, what’s interesting about this, in light of the leap year, is that there is now a rogue second that must be accounted for:

The International Telecommunication Union’s Radiocommunication Assembly, otherwise known as the international authority that keeps close tabs on time, will debate a philosophical question this week: They will decide whether to eliminate the leap second and in doing so break its tie to astronomical time.

Leap seconds

are added occasionally to synchronise ultra-accurate atomic clocks with the real length of the day, which varies slightly because of irregularities in Earth’s rotation around its own axis.

What is so nice about this example is that it will be though scientific consensus that we determine whether or not the, and I love the irony here,

The world’s timekeepers will decide … to break the age-old link between their official clocks and astronomical time based on Earth’s rotation.

This is a great lesson for social construction of science, philosophy of science, the role of induction, and a good, basic lesson (if properly fleshed-out) on challenging taken-for-grantedness in our daily lives (a good follow-up too: check out how the weight of the gram has transformed in light of radiation; both are good examples about how the units of measure that “make reality” are themselves far from uniform and stable).

Teaching STS: Where iPhones come from…

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Anyone teaching STS or related areas knows that a good reading is sometimes hard to find, especially if you’re not teaching graduate classes. Let’s face it, while you or I might love to discuss Law’s Portuguese ships or Akrich’s photovoltaic cells, students probably would rather hear about cell phones or electric cars (although, probably not Callon’s 1987 paper about them).

One solution I’ve come to is the “listening assignment” and here is why: readings in STS are geared almost entirely to advanced students, hence, we need more introductory materials that are direct, dynamic, and, per my preference, not second-hand regurgitation of more complex materials (even thought that is valuable for other reasons), and so I’ve started to incorporate “listening assignments” in place of a few reading assignments. Surely, students do read in my courses, but I’ve been trying this out for the last few semesters, and it has been sort of neat.

In listening assignments, students listen to a radio show or a pod cast, and that becomes the “baseline” for the day’s lesson and discussion.

I just found this about where iPhones come from, which will make a great listening assignment given that its well done and that students have an almost unending curiosity about (and attention span for) phones. This opens the door for discussion about the ethics of consumption, multinational corporations, conflict minerals, etc.

If you use it or try out a listening assignment, let me know, I’d love to discuss it over e-mail: njr12@psu.edu

Teaching STS: Geographic Diffusion of Facebook

The diffusion of innovations is a common topic worth discussing in basic courses in sociology, usually on the topic of cultural diffusion, as well as STS courses. While it is often not a problem to spread the good word about diffusion, a contemporary example, the spread of facebook, provides some interesting fodder for in-class discussion and student exploration.

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Here is a website, inside facebook, with some interesting images that students, in my experience, will be interested in using, discussing, and perhaps hazarding a few hypotheses. The images are US-focused, which is not ideal; however, explanations for some of the geographic distribution of facebook will help students to really understand how ideas like this spread.

What’s nice about it, in my opinion, is that it provides some opportunitites to discuss the various explanations for diffusion. For example, was facebook expensive to adopt early on as compared to later on? Was facebook an obvious improvement on technologies that preceded it? How did one “adopt” facebook? Do people “use” facebook differently? Is it analytically meaningful to count every “personal facebook page” as an adoption, even if it is rarely or never used? Why did facebook spread geographically first and then how do we explain further developments in adoption patterns?

I am contemplating an in-class assignment where students break into groups, assess the images and then present their conceivably competing understandings of why facebook spread the way it did, and, importantly, not the way it didn’t…

Teaching STS: Reinvention and Modification

I saw this in a student presentation yesterday about the role of adaptation in the process of diffusion, where we were discussing matters of re-invention and post-hoc modification/workarounds. I was somewhat stunned and the students in the class were mezmerized:

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What you see in the image above is a C5 Russian missile launcher removed from its “aircraft source” and then adapted/modified for use on the rollbar of a jeep/truck. There is also a video too, below the image available at reposter here.

Another of these “DIY” wartime inventions is a hand-held grenade launcher modified for individual use (the source being a slew of them mounted on the bed of a truck).

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All of these examples, along with the videos, could be used in lessons about diffusion and re-inventions, of course. My guess, however, is to ask the students: how does this make you rethink some of the ideas scholars have about diffusion and re-invention. Certainly, the old, fun ideas from STS about “using technologies in ways not originally intended by designers” is a good one here, but beyond that one could begin to rethink the, what one might call, “quick and easy” story of diffusion that seems to dominate the basic literature. I’m speaking here about the binary “1 for adopt, 0 for non-adoption” interpretation of spread. It becomes useless to think about C5 missile launchers in this way. Bringing up the old work of Akrich (1995, solar cells) and the newer work of De Laet and Mol (2002, hand-pump) leads to a much more nuanced vision of re-invention, modification, and localizatoin, but is even that enough? The role of “necessity” seems obviously right, but analytically weak as determining “moments of necessity” from conditions of non-necessity is a deadend for research. Taking a Weberian approach and forcing a claim like because of their geopolitical circumstances and cultural approach to the world around them, common Libyans are relatively more “resourceful” than their governmental/military counterparts also seems analytically weak. Is this a classic “drifting edges of global networks come together unintentionally and unexpectedly” making this outcome, as in, Soviet degeneration leading to the global sales of ersatz military resources (that almost nobody can maintain and) which are (therefore) cheap creates the conditions underwhich the only way to get additional utility out of these machines is in remaking their uses. I’m not even sure what one would call that sort of an analysis … “luck theory”? The motivation behind any modification, reinvention or workaround appears to be some combination of the need to localize and/or extend the utility of something (or a portoin of something). Trying to determine the motivation beyond mere “necessity” or “resourcefulness” is difficult to do. In this case, survival plays an obvious motivation factor; however, extending that to a broader framework seems foolhardy too. So, “where does reinvention come from?” ought to be an enduring question for our students and ourselves in STS…

Please note: reposter.net is a resposting site, so the original material comes from somewhere else, always:

Here are the videos, in order and linked to the original posts on alive.in/libya

Teaching STS: Challenging Technological Determinism in Caliente, NV

If you were raised on STS in America, then it is likely that you read about the death of a train town named Caliente, NV. This is:

Death by Dieselization: A Case Study in the Reaction to Technological Change
W. F. Cottrell
American Sociological Review
Vol. 16, No. 3 (Jun., 1951), pp. 358-365
(article consists of 8 pages)
Published by: American Sociological Association
This is not a bad read, and easy for instructors to challenge on the grounds of “technological determinism” on two accounts:
1. the town did not die because of the out-of-control technological advance of locomotives, and instead the government-military complex invested heavily in diesel locomotoves as part of mid-century war time efforts (potentially even linking technological advance with patriotism such that any resistance to the technology was seen as anti-American).

 

2. the town did not die because of the out-of-control technological advance of locomotives because like so many towns of this age and this sort, it had a uni-dimensional economy such that the town was susceptible to new technology that challenged the source of their economic security.
I like to emphasize on the account during steam train advances, however, as they are even more telling about this “technological determinism” that seems so easy to swallow for students. Sure, Cottrell shows how Caliente, NV, was run asunder by the advent and subsequent quickened spread of diesel trains on the American landscape.

 

However, during advances to the steam train, and I am referring to low-tensile boilers as compared to high-tensile boilers (and this is somewhat simplistic of train buffs, so please forgive me), it was towns like Caliente, NV, that gained the most! A student and I created this set of PowerPoint slides to explain this (you’ll have to download it to see the animation — the small white dots are “towns” set every 100 miles from the port town): check it out here (note, you’ll have to download it to see the cool animation).

 

As some of you know, I work in Altoona, PA, which was once a heart of the Pennsylvania Rail Road. Altoona, to some extent, suffered a similar death as Caliente, NV, to use Cottrell’s words.

Teaching STS with "A fist full of quarters"

One way I teach students the philosophy of science is by using the documentary “The King of Kong: A fist full of quarters.”

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Storyline

In the early 1980s, legendary Billy Mitchell set a Donkey Kong record that stood for almost 25 years. This documentary follows the assault on the record by Steve Wiebe, an earnest teacher from Washington who took up the game while unemployed. The top scores are monitored by a cadre of players and fans associated with Walter Day, an Iowan who runs Funspot, an annual tournament. Wiebe breaks Mitchell’s record in public at Funspot, and Mitchell promptly mails a controversial video tape of himself setting a new record. So Wiebe travels to Florida hoping Mitchell will face him for the 2007 Guinness World Records. Will the mind-game-playing Mitchell engage; who will end up holding the record? Written by <jhailey@hotmail.com>

The film is full of ideas from the philosophy of science. For example, logical positivists were obsessed with (1) establishing theories only from data and (2) considering what evidence either falsifies or verifies a theory. In the film, Steve Weibe, the up and comer in the world of competitive gaming, sends a score into Walter Day, the guy that runs the world record center, but the score is ultimately rejected because while the video tape recording appeared legitimate, the machine he was playing on was questionable. This one is good for the falsificationists too: the score he had could not be verified because of questions concerning the video game machine he used; however, because there was no concrete evidence — merely a hunch — of tampering, the score could not be entirely falsified either. Consensus among a group of experts emerged upon reviewing the evidence of Steve’s claim to have the new highest score on Donkey Kong. This nicely emphasizes the role of experts and how consensus over reality is as important as “reality” itself.

Now, thinking all the way back to Shapin’s work on early laboratories and experiments, Steve is invited to attend an annual competition where he can achieve his highest score “live” so that all the other experts can witness first hand his skill at Donkey Kong. He does, and the entire community of competitive gamers more or less warms to the newcomer. This is not a bad lesson in the role of social connections and acceptance of newcomers in science. This is a place to begin discussions of Merton’s norms of science, and, in particular, disinterestedness. However, there is much more to say about functionalism. His competitor, Billy Mitchell, the previous record holder and longstanding insider, sends in, at the last possible moment, a video tape of a score that beats the score Steve just accomplished in person. Merton reminds us that what is good for science tends to advance it. In this case, what’s good for Walter Day and competitive gaming also happens to be what’s good for Billy Mitchell. Bill’s sketchy video score is accepted and immediately posted on-line for the world of competitive gamers to see. Additionally, and in violation of the norm of communism, Billy’s tape is not shared with Steve, even thought Steve’s original tape, which was rejected, was shared with Billy.

The documentary is also funny in places, and it does a nice job showing how a group of gaming experts arrive at conclusions about the nature of reality through norm following, norm violation, and, importantly, consensus. If you teach STS, check it out; I’ve even got a sheet prepared for students to follow along (write me at njr12@psu.edu if you’d like to see it). Also, if you’re just interested, then check it out too.

One closing remark: those old games like Donkey Kong required a very different skill set as compared to contemporary games like Halo or Neverwinter Nights. It is nice to remind new students that games used to be hard in a much different way.

Teaching STS: Controversies

Teaching controversies is a mainstay of STS; if you need a good film to show, check out “Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial” replete with Steve Fuller weighing-in on intelligent design…

Also, I have a handout already made to help students to navigate the documentary. Write me if you you’d like a copy or if you’ve used this clip for your own courses (send to: njr12 at psu.edu).

Teaching and "The Doing of STS"

In 1992, Phil Heath wrote “Organizing for STS teaching and learning: The doing of STS” in the education and policy journal Theory into Practice, and while an abstract for this article is not available, it is about teaching students STS, specifically those students whom are not STSers (like us).

Really not like us…

The article is about children and infusing STS concepts, perspectives, etc. into the American K-12 educational landscape. The justification being that

“many educators are concerned that the existing curriculum in most schools is too narrowly focused, too historically bound, and too compartmentalized to deal adequately with these new challenges” (52).

Those “new challenges” mainly being the improvement of citizenship in a technological age. The authors make a number of thought-provoking points (and they state a lot of junk that I don’t care for from education types), but above all, I thought this might have some valuable cache for us:

“The formationof multidisciplinary and multigrade teams within the school system is fundamental to our successful infusion of STS and for sustained success” (57).

Group work, which when done properly, draws from the group’s knowledge, might be a way to get non-STS students to appreciate the concepts.Likewise, the author correctly writes that “current issues” is also a pool from which great examples can be drawn for use in the STS or social theory classroom wherein not everyone is a major or even interested in the theoretical issues.

Still, getting back to the article, it makes me wonder: why is STS such a joke in American K-12 schools? Pointing the figure at an honest American debacle, “No Child Left Behind,” seems like a good, fun start, but there is something about STS being, dare I say, excluded during childhood education and “ghettoized” among colleges and universities. Certainly, Penn State’s STS program termination comes at a time where I wonder for the future of STS (although, Harvard actioning a program at the exact same time was encouraging).

And a student said "Ah, so like, people with cultural capital don’t need Google…ohhhh, I get it"

The other day we completed our lessons on “social class” in introductory sociology. I present a number of basic models of social class in addition to the classics by Marx, Weber, and Bourdieu.

In the lesson on “cultural capital” one of the students did not seem to fully grasp the concept of cultural capital and did not fully understand what it meant for a person to have a command over valued cultural knowledge, styles, and practices.

To get started with some active learning, students take a mock quiz at the opening of the class; a cultural capital quiz, which they do not know is mocked, but of course it is rigged. For example, here is a slide from the quiz portion of the presentation about wine:

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The student who had difficulty on th quiz and with the idea of cultural capital spoke with me after class twice in order to arrive at a better understanding of this idea, and it was during our second short meeting, when I returned to this quiz question that he said something peculiar. Here is the slide we were discussing:

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I explained to him that as Bourdieu conceptualized cultural capital in the late 1960s until 1980s in France, a person with cultural capital would not really need to think to answer the questions contained in the quiz. To them, it would appear all too easy.

And the student said, “Ah, so like, people with cultural capital don’t need Google …. ohhh, I get it, they just automatically know shit and don’t really have to think about it.”

Not eloquent, surely, but it made me wonder. Surely you could agree with the student suggesting that Bourdieu implied and occasionally said that the elite effortlessly deploy cultural knowledge and styles because they know them so well; they were raised with them making cultural knowledge a second nature and their cultural capital reserves a “second inheritence.” On the other hand, the part about Google haunted me.

What role do search engines play in cultural capital? I wonder to what extent search engines (which supply relatively easy access to oodles of cultural knowledge) make cultural capital all the more useless. After all, what is the point of knowing a bottle of wine when I can just take a picture of its barcode and know detailed information about rainfalls in Spain’s Priorat during the 1996 season?