Friday, September 9, 2005


Today is the first day of classes, and since fall term TAs don't start working for another couple of weeks, I thought I'd work on the classes I teach in the winter term. The courses are the same as last year - science & tech and urban cultures - but I want to make some changes.

Utterly discouraged by my fourth year students' inability to creatively engage social and cultural issues, to produce or evaluate non-scientific or non-textual knowledge, I've decided to add two small assignments for the urban cultures course.

Show-and-Tell : Students are required to bring an interesting object to class each week. The artefact - extraordinary or mundane - must be found somewhere in Ottawa and tell us something about the people or places around us. Each seminar will begin with students presenting their things to the class in traditional show-and-tell style and include critical discussions around issues of material culture.

Invisible Cities : Using a combination of observation, written, photographic and audio documentation, and critical interpretation, students are required to submit a short (5-7 page) ethnographic narrative of Ottawa according to the themes presented in one of Calvino's Invisible Cities.

In other words, I want them to go 'find' one of Calvino's cities in Ottawa and tell a story about it. For university ethics reasons, they can't do participant observation, and I'll have to give a brief lecture/workshop on other ethnographic methods and on interpretive frameworks, but I think this is a nice combination of empirical and creative work. I also want them on the ground, so to speak, actively engaging -and reimagining - the city in which they live.

As for my science & tech class, I've been inspired by archaeologist Michael Shanks' class on Science, technology, and culture - the design of ten artifacts and books like Bruno Latour's Aramis to base the seminar/workshop component of my course on particular scientific and technological artefacts. I've also added a new assignment.

The Secret Life of Technological Objects : Students are required to submit a two-fold study of a technological device they regularly use. The first part of the assignment provides a cradle-to-grave account of the life cycle of their chosen device, and evaluates the potential for more sustainable, more cradle-to-cradle alternatives. Students are expected to critically account for the values and interests of business, government, and private citizens at each stage of the cycle. The second part of the assignment comprises a personal one-week use diary of the device. Students are required to keep a log of each time they use their chosen device, the social and cultural contexts of use, and personal reflections on the role of that device in their everyday lives.

In order to prepare students for this assignment, I'll need to give a short lecture/workshop on the product life cycle and interaction design, maybe play with some oblique strategies. Evaluation will focus on students' ability to assess micro- and macro-scale social and cultural contexts, as well as the material and immaterial processes involved.

Of course I've kept the standard research paper and/or academic article critique requirement for each class, but they receive different weights in order to accomodate these other assignments. I'm also looking at different ways of organising the three-hour block we have with each other each week. At this point, it also looks like the required reading lists will also change, although probably not substantially. I also haven't decided if or how to include a weblog component. Still, I'm getting excited!

Now if I could just get out of my head the advice I recently got from a department colleague: "Don't spend too much time working on, or worrying about, your sessional lecturer positions because they won't get you any closer to a tenure-track job." I mean, how depressing is that? Surely my students deserve better, and quite frankly, I expect more.

Updated 8/9/05


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