Tuesday, March 4, 2008

"A very hopeful, gentler perspective of the world..."

Having nearly gone mad approving 80+ research topics over the past week, it's emails like this that make it all worthwhile:

Thank you so so so much for the advice on writing an essay in Friday’s lecture. Your class has been very insightful this year, and I have really enjoyed being in it because it has taught me so much and given me a very hopeful, gentler perspective of the world, and (as lame as it sounds) has given me a different outlook on how I view people based on the assignments, lectures, and exercises we have done, so thank you, you have saved me from becoming a crazy cat lady after all. (Sorry I think I took that too far.)

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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Teaching Carnival: Power & Everyday Life

So. The first couple of weeks of school have been a bit intense and weird, what with a brutal rape on campus and the strike and whatnot. But the picket line comes down today and everything on that end should get back to normal shortly. I really don't see how anyone could make the case that the uni doesn't effectively grind to a halt without its support staff - and it'll be great to have them back!

My Power & Everyday Life course is off to a good start, I think. Lots of people, over a dozen different disciplines, and they're engaged! Our first workshop was a way for students to get to know each other in small groups. Everyone chose the most important thing in their bag and explained to the others what it said about their personal attitudes and values. I saw lots of debit and credit cards, mobile phones (and quite a bit of concern about that being a bad thing), keys, sunglasses and even deodorant. All of this led quite nicely into discussing the assigned readings by Raymond Williams, Erving Goffman and Betty Friedan - and asking some questions about where, when and for whom is everyday life?

This week I'll be lecturing on the poetics and politics of everyday life, and the students will be discussing the revolutionary and creative potentials of subverting everyday life as well as conducting a quick-and-dirty postering campaign. I'll also get them going on their first assignment, inspired by Mass Observation. And if we're lucky, we'll have time to discuss the City of Ottawa's recent decision to put "We Support Our Troops" stickers on all municipal vehicles.

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Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Power & everyday life


Sociology 2700 - Power & Everyday Life

This fall and winter I'll be teaching a new (for me) course and I'm excited. I knew I wanted to reinvigorate my long-standing love affair with theories of everyday life (it is where we live, after all) by better combining them with technosocial studies, and better grounding technology and media studies in lived experience. But on a more fundamental level, I think I was happiest to be able to dedicate an entire course to "questioning everyday life and allowing everyday life to question our understandings of the world."

As a second-year undergraduate course open to arts and science majors, the first half of the course builds a foundation by focussing on historical and contemporary theories of everyday life and power relations. Drawing on my interests in material culture and feminist theory, I wanted to concentrate on how daily living involves shaping and being shaped by the people and things around us. The second half of the course focusses on technoscience as a primary force shaping everyday life today, and how this affects our different experiences with, and understandings of, everything from space and time to bodies and objects. If nothing else, I wanted students to get a solid sense of how even the mundane and taken-for-granted activities of our daily lives involve complex relations of power where it's not always clear and obvious who - or what - is in control. (And how sometimes, of course, the powers-that-be totally kick your ass but that doesn't mean you have to take it with a smile.)

In any case, I decided to stick to the equal parts lecture/seminar/workshop structure that's worked so well in recent classes, but I also decided to become more prescriptive with the assignments. Maybe it's the subject matter, or maybe it just has to do with becoming more comfortable and confident in the learning I want to facilitate, but this fall I also sense a greater willingness and desire to put my own politics and values on the line. This should be good.

Now, that's just one of five things on my to-do list so...

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Friday, March 9, 2007

Biotechnologies, bodies and boundaries

These days when not writing about the politics of touch, my efforts are going towards teaching. We only have three classes left (the final one is a poster session, yay!) and I already know I'll miss our weekly get-togethers. They're an unusually good bunch who just submitted major research papers on topics like the biopolitical implications of assigning life and death, social and political boundaries for biometrics use, transexuality and the construction of otherness, mobile technologies and perceptions of space and time, genetically engineered crops and uncommon ground, public debates on stem cell research, domestic appliances, gender and everyday life, and pharmaceutical regulation of human sexuality. Totally amazing.

The last two classes have focussed on technoscience and bodies. Last week put the beginnings and ends of life up for debate, and we talked about reproductive technologies, tissue culturing, selfhood, markets, property and regulation.

For example, the case of Amillia Taylor offers intriguing insights into the practice of neonatal medicine and the regulation of bodies, as well as public concerns around the practice of abortion and the constitution of life itself. Interestingly, there's quite a bit of ambivalence in this Daily Mail story. The hospital environment is clearly understood to be more controlled/controllable than the "outside" world, but no less risky if we consider the litany of medical problems the premature baby has already experienced within its walls. According to the story, "Amillia was conceived in vitro and has been in an incubator since birth." Born at 22 weeks, this means that the majority of her life--and the very status of her life--has been almost entirely regulated by biotechnology. At the same time her survival is most often described in terms of surprise or the miraculous. Her mother is quoted as saying "now she is beginning to look like a real baby," which suggests it was difficult to recognise her as such before then. And the article concludes by invoking the abortion debate and challenging the reader to ask when but not how life actually begins: "Babies can still be aborted for non-medical reasons at up to 24 weeks. Recent evidence shows that, of those born at 25 weeks, half of them manage to live."

On a more personal note, the pictures of the child startled me. I still have a hard time recognising this creature as something bound for this world no matter how much we try to bind her to it. The medical intervention initially struck me as artifice in the sense of mechanical art, and thus wholly unnatural. But I find all sorts of 'unnatural' things to be beautiful and good and I'm having a hard time explaining why I can't seem to recognise 'life' here. Maybe it's the implication in that final quote that if we can keep a baby alive at 25 weeks then we shouldn't be allowed to abort it at 24 weeks. The problem I'm having, maybe, is that I don't think either creature is a 'baby' or 'child' at all. In fact, it discomforts me that she has a name because it insinuates her into a social world I share and I have a hard time attributing selfhood to bodies kept alive. Plus, it totally disturbs me that Latour's collectives of humans and non-humans could constitute nothing but people, or rather that we assign different people to different sides of the human/nonhuman 'divide'. Biopower and biopolitics indeed.

Yesterday's class focussed on monsters, hybrids and the sexing of bodies. One of my favourite topics because it focusses almost exclusively on what happens between categories, we talked about everything from Goya's The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, to freaks, museums and reality tv to conjoined and parasitic twins, intersexuality, body modification, disability, circumcision, cosmetic surgery (including vaginal rejuvenation and designer vaginoplasty), commodities, markets, consumerism and the ever-present matter of taste. Generally a proponent of the 'three-sex' (female, male and both/neither) model, I also keep thinking about the idea that there is only one sex and it exists on a continuum from male to female and different people occupy different positions, like if you view sexuality as a continuum from homosexuality to heterosexuality and people occupy many positions along it over a lifetime.

Anyway, now I'm preparing for the final classes on technology and everyday life. Next week we take a look at domestication and technology, which includes domestication of and by technology, as well as domestic technologies. This means reading some really interesting work by Shelley Nickles on the history of refrigeration in terms of material culture and gender construction, and introducing students to Elizabeth Shove's work on material culture, consumption and practice-oriented design, as well as the larger Designing and Consuming: Objects, Practices and Processes research project and their forthcoming book on The Design of Everyday Life. The final lecture and discussion will focus on pervasive technologies from mobile phones to biometrics, and further investigate the fluid boundaries between public and private in our technologised everyday.

Have I mentioned lately how much I love my job?

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