Learning about Infrastructure, and Infrastructures for Learning: Insights on Pedagogy from the SIGCIS

Infrastructure on IIT's campus

As I mentioned recently on the listserve, this year there will be a panel on the main SHOT program discussing how SIG concerns are integrated into teaching. As part of SHOT's new website launch, comments from this panel (and several other roundtables) are being made available in advance. I'll be representing the SIGCIS at this teaching panel, and below I've posted a draft of my comments.

Please come to the panel if you are at the conference--the full title of the panel is "Integrating SHOT SIG Concerns into the Teaching of History of Technology: Rethinking Modes of Instruction in a Diverse Communities" and it takes place on Saturday, Oct. 12 from 10:30 am to 12:30 pm. It is part of the President's Roundtable program.

Learning about Infrastructure, and Infrastructures for Learning: Insights on Pedagogy from the SIGCIS

Our SIG is sometimes viewed as the “computer history SIG” and while that forms an important part of what we do, I would like to start by emphasizing that it is only one part of what we do. Members of our SIG work on topics ranging from telegraphy to labor history, and from voice recognition to video games. Collectively, we are interested in much more than a narrowly-defined computing history: our mandate is to study how computers, information, and society interact, shaping the human experience in the process. As a result, one of the main teaching goals of the SIGCIS is to help students learn how to contend with technologies of infrastructure that creep into all aspects of our lives, from the broadest to the most personal level.

We aim to teach students how these technological infrastructures, and our interactions with them, not only structure our collective experiences and our daily interactions, but shape and define our humanity in the process. By now, it is generally taken for granted that we are all cyborgs. But the mechanisms by which we grow into our cyborg selves and the historical changes that underlie these constantly-shifting identities are still poorly understood--and often ignored. Showing students how to apply lessons of this history in specific, actionable ways is one of the SIGCIS’s major pedagogical aims.

My comments fall into roughly three sections: the first two deal with how the content and topical concerns of our SIG influence larger pedagogical concerns, and the last one deals with teaching tools and media:

1. One issue that has been especially important for our SIG in both research and teaching is the issue of how to revise and rewrite narratives of information technology that have tended to privilege the West, and particularly the United States. Members of our SIG have continuously pushed the boundaries of where we should look for this history—changing the political, economic, and cultural meanings of this historical subspecialty in the process, and opening up a range of teaching possibilities.

For instance, Eden Medina’s work on Chilean cybernetics raises questions about ideology, and computing as a tool for social change, in a context that is completely unfamiliar to most students but inextricably connected to Anglo-American history. This allows students to see old historical issues in a new light. Jenna Burrell’s work on internet users in Ghana requires students to ask uncomfortable questions about user agency and who gets to define appropriate technological use. And Ross Bassett’s work on computing in India shows how a major technological power has heretofore largely been written out of computing histories produced and consumed in the Anglo-American context.

One way to deploy these insights in a class, which I have used to good effect with undergraduates, is to give the class information that might seem to conflict with the narrative(s) presented by their main textbook. Then, I ask them to write their own “alternative” history based on this new information. Recently, I did an exercise with my undergraduate history of computing class in which I asked them to read two of Professor Bassett’s articles which covered computing in India from the colonial period through the Cold War. Then, I gave the students a carefully-selected bundle of documents from my archival research in the UK National Archives, which showed British and Indian officials wrangling with each other over computing—and the Indian officials taking the upper hand.

I asked the students to write a narrative of Cold War computing, based on these articles and primary sources, that offered an alternative to the U.S.-centric narrative with which they might be more familiar. Their responses astounded me with their depth of insight and complexity. I realized that even at the undergraduate level, giving students the tools and guidance to participate in the process of rewriting our necessarily flawed histories can be an extremely fruitful exercise. It mirrors our own interests, concerns, and research processes, and it helps undergraduates understand history more as a discipline and process than as a mere product to be consumed.


2. A second and related issue for our SIG that affects teaching and mentoring in our subdiscipline is the range of students we do—or do not—get the opportunity to teach in our classes. For instance, when I teach my history of computing classes, I am sometimes the only woman in the room, and also sometimes the only out queer person in the room. Increasing the proportion of women, openly LGBTQ people, and those who question the heteronormative labor assumptions that still haunt fields like computer science and electrical engineering is an important part of the work of many SIGCISers: Janet Abbate, Nathan Ensmenger, Helena Durnova, Jacob Gaboury, Jennifer Light, Laine Nooney, and Corinna Schlombs to name just a few. Here there is certainly crossover with members of WITH: I am reminded of Donna Drucker’s terrific recent article on how the logic of punched card machines helped create Kinsey’s scale for describing human sexuality.

My own work focuses on why the proportion of women computer operators and programmers in the UK fell as electronic computing expanded, and how this process of labor contraction hindered the technological aspirations of that waning superpower. A fundamental aim of my research is to tell a story that shows how integral women’s labor is to nationally-critical high technology fields, even when their labor might not be valued appropriately or might cease to be present. It shows how absence, and the devaluation of labor, can be felt in many important ways, becoming triggers for other historical processes. At the same time, it paints a picture of early computing that few students are familiar with—and which many find heartening. To see that computing was not always a man’s world implicitly promises that it will not always be one in the future.

Perhaps most importantly, it shows how the dictates of the nuclear family and the organization of the postindustrial state, in ways both general and specific, have led to the current labor situation in high technology and who feels welcome or comfortable in the field—or even just talking about the field. That I find myself the only woman in the room in many of my classes is a historical process that my students will benefit from understanding, and my classes address these issues head on, using the latest historical scholarship that explains the relationships between gender, sexuality, technology, and labor. I know that some of my students will take this forward with them into their careers, using the different situations they’ve learned about from the not-so-distant past to model less homogeneous workplace environments.


3. The final issue that I would like to discuss deals with content delivery, communication, and information sharing. The SIGCIS maintains a fully-featured website (www.sigcis.org) with a syllabus repository, member directory, list serve, and blog. In SIGCISers’ classrooms, teaching technologies also play a variety of roles.

While I still teach with traditional face-to-face, mixed lecture and discussion methods in my classes, I have increasingly sought ways to use information technology infrastructure to extend the classroom’s reach and impact. I have sought ways to make students’ work more accessible to others in the class, to students surfing the web, and to interested parties at our university and beyond who would benefit from the important work that many students do over the course of a semester in my class. It frustrated me that even assignment responses that students might share with each other on our Blackboard course site would be lost behind that impenetrable wall of course management software once the semester ended.

In an effort to create an “outward-facing” classroom online that would add to the value of the class and engage the communications networks and cultures we are studying, I have almost all but dispensed with Blackboard, which now only functions as my document repository. I have transitioned to using a Wordpress blog instead, on which I ask students to periodically respond to writing prompts with short-to-medium length essays: www.mariehicks.net/blog. Sometimes these essays are straightforward and consist only of text, but the beauty of the medium is that students can also easily include links to documents, archival images, and so on. I do not post all of the students’ work—only certain essays are “approved” and therefore made public in the comments. I do this to ensure that we do not carelessly add to the misinformation that abounds on the web, and also to give students a manageable number of their peers’ responses to read and learn from. Since their writing will be public, for reasons of privacy and security I do not require students use their real names to post, though I know the identity of each poster for grading purposes.

A key part of this process is that it empowers students to use discourse as a tool, and allows them to see firsthand what we are teaching regarding the power and importance of information technologies. After reading about the effects of gender on infrastructure, (and the reverse), one of my technological history classes meticulously counted, described, and mapped the bathroom facilities on campus by gender and accessibility in order to make an argument about the formative effects infrastructure has on university culture. They showed how inadequate restroom resources for women and trans students created an othering, unwelcoming environment for these students, and they made a case for more women’s and gender neutral bathrooms. Within a few weeks of their project being posted on my blog, the university administration showed interest, asking permission to use their data and their map to help create more gender neutral facilities and help in the ongoing effort to make our campus more trans and queer friendly.

In conclusion, I would just like to point out that the emphases of the SIGCIS, and the evolving body of scholarship that allows its members to teach new and unexpected versions of information history, are far more varied than I can cover here, and we hope to welcome more scholars each year who will add new perspectives. But I do think that one unifying theme—that of infrastructure’s silent role in society—is an important commonality in the research and teaching of SIGCISers. From the hidden ScanOps workers toiling on the overnight shift at Google, to the exabytes of data collected by the NSA, to the recent push for superstar-led MOOCS, SIGCIS histories are now more relevant than ever for teaching and engaging broader publics.

Focusing in on the infrastructures that imperceptibly and sometimes unexpectedly shape our experiences in postindustrial and industrial societies can be a powerful bulwark against the fuzzy promises of simplistic technological solutionism promoted by the less historically-minded and more technologically exuberant. This brand of naïve technological determinism grips the imaginations of many of our students today, particularly the engineering majors who fill many of our classes. But, we have the tools and the histories to offer alternative explanations and alternative roadmaps through our information society: ones that can empower our graduates to act more effectively as engineers and as humanists, and to be attentive to the deeper political impacts and unintended consequences of their technical pursuits.