Fall 2015

Sonja Schmid
Office: 462 NVC
Office Hours: By appointment

James Collier
Office: 215 Lane Hall (Bay 1, 2nd floor)
Office Hours: 11:00-12:00 and by appointment

Course Description

This seminar introduces graduate students to the field of Science and Technology Studies (STS) and its major ideas and texts. We will address how STS differs from other fields and the advantages and limits of our unique interdisciplinary approach. Drawing on anthropological, historical, philosophical, and sociological methods, we will explore topics such as the foundations of scientific knowledge; science as a source of social power and authority; understanding technological systems; race, gender, and postcolonial perspectives; and public engagement with science and technology. You will become familiar with the major questions and theories that have been debated by STS scholars and learn how the focus of the field has changed over time. Together, through critical reading and discussion, question formation and analysis, timed responses (in exams), and collaborative research and presentation, we will learn to think and communicate as STS scholars.

Course Goals

• To identify and examine major ideas, approaches and texts in the field of Science and Technology Studies (STS).

• To recognize, consider, analyze, evaluate and integrate frameworks available through anthropological, historical, philosophical, sociological and STS inquiry as a basis for understanding issues arising from the dynamic, reciprocal relations among science, technology and society.

• To convey—intelligibly, cogently and persuasively—the questions, evidence and arguments supporting our observations and judgments regarding science and technology in society.

Online Design

Well before the age of content management systems—like Scholar—a few well-intentioned, often foolhardy and bewildered, educators made course websites. I (Collier) was among them. As my bewilderment gave way to fascination, I continued to make course websites. Sonja kindly indulged my desire to make this site for our course.

I find the romantic idea of an open democratic society on the Web hard to shake. Consequently, making a public website conveys a willingness to allow the use of our pedagogical materials and to encourage meaningful participation on our wiki by an interested pubic.

While the digital execution of my pedagogical motives seems quite clear (and least to me), the practical execution of my intentions in our site's layout may not be as "crystalline" to the user. What follows, then, is a peek into my thinking (a bit scary, that) regarding how you might best access and use this site. Please permit the untangling of the following metaphor ...

    The Course Website is our home.

    The Home Page is the front door through which one can, and perhaps should, enter the course. Please bookmark the home page and to access our course materials directly and not through Scholar (it being an entrance found through the garage, perhaps)—unless you so choose.

    The Course Calendar is the central room of our house. All of our activities run through the course calendar. Each time you come to our website, please consult the calendar first.

    Our Scholar site acts like a finished, well-appointed garage—a space for storage, the Resources folder for example, and to hang out and talk, the Messages function for example. Many neat tools inhabit the garage, but we prefer the comforts of our tiny house.

    The Wiki offers an "outdoor" (public) space—a front porch, perhaps, or patio—a place for thoughtful conversations and lively debates where friends may visit as they will.

    Each assignment occupies their own room (see above the central drop-down menu). Still, if you will forgive the repetition, the course calendar provides a guided approach to our online resources.

Absent my more or less colorful description, please fully acquaint yourself with all the elements of the course website, the wiki, and Scholar and determine how you might best take advantage of the course resources and your learning goals through our online presence.

Course Narrative

What is a life in STS? A vocation? A job? A style of voyeurism? A form of academic careerism? Revenge for past academic disappointments? One long inside joke? A vehicle for social transformation? ... I regard STS as a vocation that is a vehicle for social transformation ... I realize that this perspective sets me apart from many, but of course not all, who dwell in STS these days. (original emphasis) — Steve Fuller, The Philosophy of Science and Technology Studies, 2006, 5.

While intentionally provocative Steve Fuller's questions, and perspective, encourage reflection beyond his initial goading. Fuller captures not only a central dilemma that STS practitioners face—What is a life in STS?— but also, in his subsequent questions, the potential outcome of choices we will make for what a life in STS can, and should, entail.

Knowing Fuller's work, one understands why he appeals to 'vocation' as opposed to 'job' and 'careerism'. To consider STS a vocation, one must accept the religious inflection of pursuing a 'calling'—a divine calling, even—to occupy a certain place in the world and to declare and take up significant, purposeful work. Such work goes beyond mere on-site observations for personal gratification (voyeurism) or enrichment (careerism). Such work cannot continue if seen as a way to "get back" at powerful endeavors (revenge), in the natural sciences and engineering, that command ever-greater resources and seem driven to subsume academic inquiry to an empirical, data-driven autocracy. And such work cannot reduce to irony (see Steve Woolgar) or self-satire (an inside joke).

Is STS, then, a vocation that offers—or aims to offer—a way toward a better collective future? Answering 'yes' to this question suggests a rather unflattering grandiosity—and also a serious belief, commitment and obligation to what one does when one does STS. Answering 'no' to this question, while perhaps conveying a more grounded view, still requires us to assess what we have to gotten ourselves into and, in turn, the nature of our responsibilities.

Our course will explore many, but certainly not all, facets of STS. We take a thematic and historically oriented approach. Through the course readings, discussions and assignments, we trust you will entertain questions about not only what STS is, but also what STS can and should be. Taking up these questions together, we will imagine and begin to build a life in STS.



Leading Discussion: Question Formation, Keyword Entry, Class Discussion, Synthesis

Each group will pose questions and post keywords to the appropriate forum on the wiki will lead the class discussion. Each group member will revisit the questions, keywords and discussion and post a synthesis to the wiki. Members of the class will evaluate the presentation through an on-line form. Scores and comments will be forwarded to me. We will share comments, anonymously, with the presenters. We will provide an overall assessment of the presentation. (Please refer to the Question Formation assignment.)

Question Responses

Class members not leading a given week's discussion will provide 350-500 word responses to selected questions to the appropriate forum on the wiki. As the responses are time sensitive, you will not have an opportunity for late submission. Responses will be evaluated, given the number completed, as follows:

    • 4 responses: A
    • 3 responses: B
    • 2 or nil responses: F


Our exams will follow the pattern—although with much less scope and depth—of the preliminary exam found in this program (and in many other graduate programs).

A Social History of STS

Given the highly experimental nature of the assignment, risk and imagination yields reward. Our assessment resides, in large part, on your willingness to complete the steps of the assignment in a coherent, timely manner. The steps of the assignment will lend us opportunities for evaluating, and offering advice on, the group's progress.


Please purchase the following three books:

All other required readings will be provided through the course website.

Honor System

This course follows university policies pertaining to academic honesty and plagiarism. If you any have questions please ask us, or consult the Graduate Honor System web site.

Principles of Community

This course affirms and adheres to Virginia Tech's Principles of Community. If you have any questions, please ask us or consult the Principles of Community web site.

Introduction to STS