Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Teaching Carnival: When I grow up I wanna be a teacher

This fall I'm teaching ANTH/SOCI 2035 - Introduction to Sociology of Science & Technology. Although it's the third time, only now is it starting to feel good, like a favourite sweater or the right rhythm, properly worn. I've changed the class each time because each time I've learned something new about teaching and learning, and even a bit about who I am and who I want to be. (What can I say? I'm a geek.)

So the first thing I decided was to want more for, and expect more from, my students and the teaching assistant this time. I refuse to pander to the lowest common denominator in all other areas of my life, but I let them slack off a bit last term. And I have lots of small goals this term, instead of trying to do and change too much, too fast. In terms of content this year, knowing that I'll be teaching the fourth-year seminar version next term has made it much easier to focus on what an introductory class needs.

A consistent challenge in designing and teaching this course has been the number and range of students. There are 70 students from 8-10 different disciplines in the arts and sciences that take the class; most are second-year, but a strong minority are third-year undergrads--and this makes for a wildly variable knowledge and skill set with which to work. But thankfully, it also makes it near impossible for me to be surrounded by like-minded people who agree with me all the time. I've yet to have a student in this class who didn't teach me something valuable!

(Incidentally, this makes me think a lot about professional environments because it's such a different scenario. No, seriously, think about it. How often do you know--or know of--the people you see speaking at a conference? How often do you run across perspectives that are seriously divergent from your own? How do you deal with difference and disagreement? What are your social--not individual--ethics? Sociologist Nick Stevenson suggests this: "[C]osmopolitanism, education and citizenship should be judged by the extent to which they enable citizens to learn from one another and engage with the Other. It is this rather than the passing on of radical certainties that is likely to enhance the necessary dialogic capacities suitable for a global age."

This is hard. Personally, I can't stand indignant dilettantes and knee-jerk anti-intellectualism--which makes it particularly challenging for me in some scenarios. But we all have monkeys we need to get off our backs, so this is basically a problem we all face. I guess what I'm saying is that sometimes how we challenge others, or how we disagree, is more important than whatever we're disagreeing about. Repeat after me: "Don't be an asshole. Mean people suck." The best thing about the recent week-long workshop at the Banff New Media Institute I attended was that most people didn't know each other beforehand, and most would never have run into each other if left to their own devices. We were challenged to make new friends and learn from them; we were compelled to trust strangers even though they offered us no truth in return. We were encouraged to take the non-disciplinary route, but we were allowed to 'agree-to-disagree' with each other. It was very very good.)

So, back to the course structure. I have them for a three-hour class once a week, and I've had great success with dividing that time equally between lecture, group discussion and workshop activities. I should note though that this arrangement would be significantly more difficult and less effective without a teaching assistant. It really does take two of us (although it should take seven of us, damn it) to interact with a group that large.

This year I've organised the class into two distinct parts: one foundational and the other exploratory. For the first five weeks students are assigned a short textbook to read: Science, Technology, and Society: A Sociological Approach. This gives them a solid introduction and frees me to cover specifics in my lectures. The workshops during this half of the class are strongly methodological. We go out to do observational exercises, we look at different ways of interpreting what we see and do, and we explore ways of working together based on shared concerns rather that matters of fact.

The second half of the course is divided into three themes that allow students to further explore some of the issues covered in the first half. We'll be focussing on technoscience in terms of risk and control; bodies, subjects and objects; and publics and democracy. Students are assigned a selection of book chapters and articles to read, and the content takes on more overtly political and ethical issues. In part, this is due to my committment to critical pedagogy, and also to my interest in fostering some kind of service-learning and social ethics. Workshops become more experimental and playful--How to Start Your Own Biotech Cult in 5 Easy Steps--while also becoming more critically rigorous.

I've decided to change the assignments a bit too. There are still no exams, and students are still required to complete a major research project on a technological device they use every day. But I've divided that assignment into two: the first one is the library research bit, and the second is observational and interpretive. For the first time I've created a list of journals from which the students must get their sources--I did this to introduce them to a coherent body of literature and community of scholars with shared concerns, and to encourage them to browse past issues instead of only searching databases. The second assignment requires that students keep personal use logs, and then apply some of the ethnographic and anthropological methods we explore in the workshops to their own experiences. The objective of both assignments is to teach students about science and technology as material culture, and to cultivate a responsible and reflexive attitude towards their own consumption and use of new technologies.

A third research assignment was also added in order to get students to engage with difficult theoretical concerns in manageable ways. The topic is cyborgs and hybrids, and students are required to answer three essay questions based on a set of assigned readings and additional library research. And finally, in order to encourage dialogue students are required to moderate a small group discussion on assigned readings, and in order to encourage social and political awareness they are required to give a short presentation on current events in science and technology. (Take, for example, the most excellent discussion topics provided by The Planet Formerly Known As Pluto and Reclusive Mathematicians And Their Genius Prizes.)

And the last change I've made that I want to mention is the decision to post all my class handouts on the course blog. Over the term students--and others--can downlod pdfs of all the assignments, reference guides and workshop activities. I've put a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license on them all, so feel free to do with them what that allows and let me know!

Reference:
ANTH/SOCI 2035 - Winter 2006
ANTH/SOCI 2035 - Winter 2005

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