Imagine Alternative Sciences and Identities

Science and identity are perhaps two of the most commonly mentioned terms in the field of Science, Technology, and Society (STS). How does science shape our identities and how do our identities affect the process of developing science? To examine the relations between science and identity, this essay will delve deep into the following papers: Situated Knowledges [1] and A Cyborg Manifesto [2], which are both written by Donna Haraway, an outstanding feminist scholar. I will first introduce these papers briefly and then put them into dialogue to see how they contribute to the understanding of science and identity together.

Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective was originally published in Feminist Studies in 1988. Essentially, it is a paper that heavily criticizes traditional science and the kind of objectivity it represents. Instead, it advocates a new vision of objectivity: feminist objectivity. Haraway starts off by claiming that the present science is an arena of masculine power that awes abstraction, universality, and pure objectivity, while denigrating specificity, particularity, and subjectivity. There is a clear line between these two categories. The former is pursued and the latter is avoided. Those who believe in this image of science are in fact the ones who know less about science. These people believe the so-called scientific objectivity is valuable and convincing because it will not be contaminated by human cognition or perspective: it is absolutely true and is not subject to change. However, she argues, even though this is what science has been shown in the textbook, it is not real – scientists know quite honestly that science is socially constructed; it relies on human beings and the knowledge it produces is “manufactured knowledge (Page 577).” But the way people worship scientific objectivity cannot promote real understanding or real knowledge. To offer an alternative, Haraway promotes a “feminist objectivity” that emphasizes the situatedness of knowledge, addresses connections and relations, and embraces resonance but not dichotomy. It blurs the boundary between objectivity and subjectivity. Here, she points out that all knowledges are situated within particular contexts and can only be viewed from certain perspectives. Therefore, there is no singular or universal understanding of knowledge. Knowledges must be plural. Under this feminist objectivity, human identity is welcomed, because identity actually assists us to gain true understanding. What she also mentions is that feminist objectivity does not equal relativism since relativism negates contexts or perspectives so that responsibility also disappears. One can only know by committing to a situation, to a standpoint, to a perspective. Genuine feminist objectivity is formed by numerous partial perspectives; it calls attention to an alternative science.

Three years after Situated Knowledges was published, in 1991, Haraway wrote another influential piece: A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism. To set the context, Haraway spends half of the paper criticizing the dominating belief of abstract individuation, “a man in space (page 152),” and the embedded dichotomies it includes are men vs. women, humans vs. animals, humans vs. computers, etc. Haraway challenges the understanding of these dichotomies by stating the boundaries they draw and the separations they produce are not constructive to our society and ourselves – these dualisms inevitably split people further apart and yield conflicts. In addition, as a human being, one has been forced to begin knowing oneself from one’s body and it is exactly because of the power assigns to one’s body that we must develop an alternative way to construct identity. Hence, as its title entails, Haraway comes up with an alternative identity – the ironic cyborg, which is opposite to “a man in space.” It is ironic because it is meant to confuse, to challenge, and to amuse. Because the cyborg has no historical origin in Western cultures and does not belong to any of the existing categories, there is no way to refer it to any classical concept or even talk about it based on our current language. It is, in fact, a fusion of all categories and all concepts. It emphasizes on connection and affinity, not separated distinct identity. Haraway relies on this imaginary cyborg to disclose the political issues in society. For instance, none of race, class, or sexual orientation naturally exists to define identity. Cyborg informed politics should also bear its characteristics. She goes on to talk about an example of how a woman survives as a cyborg at different locations, such as home, market, and school, to show the importance of not framing woman’s identity through man, but as a cyborg that affiliates with animals, machines, and other artifacts. Therefore, to destruct the current identity also means creating new possibilities. Haraway offers one of them.

These two papers share plenty of commonalities. First of all, they both imagine alternatives on fundamental concepts: one on science, the other one on identity. Haraway approaches these papers similarly by setting out to criticize the status quo and then constructing other possibilities, both through a feminist epistemology, which is the second commonality. Her feminist epistemology embraces partiality, particularity, plurality, ambiguity, and situatedness, almost on the other end of absolute objectivity, as shown in both papers. The purpose for imagining alternatives is to create a more inclusive and thus more understanding reality by deconstructing and reforming the present world. Haraway believes that human, science, and technology all need to participate in this process, because human produces science, science is included in technology, and science and technology together influence human. They are all connected and related.

Nevertheless, there are also quite a few differences between Situated Knowledges and A Cyborg Manifesto. In Situated Knowledges, Haraway only confronts science and scientific objectivity. She challenges science as an entity but does not mention human identity or how it can be affected by science. Certainly, what lies behind her argument of situated knowledges is feminist epistemology. Manifesto is based on Situated Knowledges, but instead of solely looking at science, it problematizes the whole idea of identity, including the identity that results from scientific development. Moreover, Manifesto goes one step further – it sits upon feminist ontology, whose embodiment is the ironic cyborg. Therefore, this paper is not only questioning how people think (i.e. epistemology), but indeed more deeply on what make them think this way (i.e. ontology). In Situated Knowledges, Haraway talks about objectivity through science. In Manifesto, she points to subjectivity through identity. While discussing objectivity is similar to looking around at the world outside of ourselves, examining subjectivity is reflecting on our own honestly. She draws connections between identity and science in Manifesto by implicitly asking these two questions: Is our subjectivity truly defined by ourselves as free human beings? Or is it still somewhat or even completely structured by the scientific objectivity? Of course, the reality falls into the latter and this is why she fights for alternative science and identity. They can actively shape each other on multiple levels.

Why are science and identity important? Because they both speak to power. Power is the overarching theme that affects science, identity, society, and all of us. Unequal distribution of power and even the existence of power are the causes of numerous social and political issues. To provide alternative ways to think about and then construct science and identity is to disclose different power relations and to be aware of them. Can we balance power and solve all the problems? Haraway does not give us an answer. It is certainly an ambitious goal to erase all the boundaries in our world, but it does not hurt to imagine what if they don’t exist and what the world will then look like. Imagination is good. To imagine alternatives is even better.

In this essay, I briefly introduce two seminal papers by a famous feminist Donna Haraway: Situated Knowledges and A Cyborg Manifesto. I then discuss how they both relies on a feminist epistemology that emphasizes plurality and particularity, while Manifesto goes a step further to inform a feminist ontology. Both papers speak about how science and identity can influence each other and how it can be problematic when they are based on ideas such as separation, objectivity, and so on. Haraway, therefore, imagines alternative sciences and identities that aim at destructing the present understanding of them and reconstruct new connections that focus on affinity and situated perspective. These alternatives, hopefully, can disclose a clearer view of power relations and hence help create an inclusive world.

References

[1]  Haraway, Donna. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective,” Feminist Studies 14.3(1988): 575-599.

[2]  Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York; Routledge, 1991), pp.149-181.

Truth Claims in Science, Technology, and Society

Within the field of Science, Technology, and Society (STS), one notion has been discussed and debated pervasively: truth claims, more specifically, scientific truth claims. What does it mean to claim a truth? What does a typical truth claim entail? This essay aims at delineating the dominating discussions surrounding the idea of truth claim in STS. Throughout this essay, I will argue that scientific truth claims are always socially constructed – they are produced, not discovered; they connect to human beings, objects, and the environment, instead of being isolated on their own. First, I will start by introducing how general audiences perceive scientific truth claims and whether scientists hold the same belief. Then, I will move on to draw the picture of developing truth claims in science. A few key STS concepts will be presented and examined. After that, I will talk about some effects that can be caused by these truth claims. Finally, several methods to disclose the real nature of truth claims will also be investigated.

Scientific truth claims are trusted by general audiences. What can be considered as a scientific truth claim? For example, the moon rotates around the earth – this is a truth claim. An elephant weighs more than a lion – also a truth claim. To hold belief in a truth claim, one first needs to trust. Steven Shapin, in his Rarely Pure and Never Simple: Talking about Truth, notes that “people’s trust in science is based upon their acceptance of certain transcendental and absolutist stories about science. [15]” Therefore, for general audiences, truth claims in science are really true. They are not to be questioned. They are, simply, facts.  But people do not always set out to these truth claims so easily. Shapin also talks about how people used to judge whether a certain claim is true by evaluating if the one who claims is reliable or familiar [16]. At that time, the reliability of men was taken into consideration more seriously. Later around eighteenth century, people began to assign more weight to expertise [16]. It is acceptable if the truth claim is not made by somebody we know personally, as long as that person is an expert in a relevant institution that belongs to the field. Abstract and isolated knowledge claimed by formal institutions means truth. Nowadays, it is hard to convince anyone without referring to media, press, colleges, research labs and so on. This is how general audiences trust.

However, are these truth claims absolutely true? Should they be taken as facts? To answer these questions, many STS scholars look closely at how these truth claims come into being. Bruno Latour describes in detail of how a certain truth claim like “the DNA molecule has the shape of a double helix” is constructed [9]. Take this statement as an example for now. First, it is claimed based on many experiments that are completed in different laboratories. Second, these experiments are conducted by various human researchers. Third, these human researchers discuss and argue with each other during the entire study period (sometimes even longer). They often, if not always, actively seek for allies that will support their own ideas. Finally, one side will dominate the discussion and therefore the experiment results from this side with be considered as a scientific conclusion. Here, it means that “the DNA molecule has the shape of a double helix.” When being presented to the public, this scientific conclusion is crafted as a black-boxed truth claim, leaving all these experiments, labs, or human researchers’ names and actions aside. Clearly, the situation in the experiment laboratories can be crucial. The way each piece of discussion or argument is framed is also vital. One more example: thanks to Collins and Pinch, we are able to learn that scientists have yet reached a consensus whether female whiptail lizards have lesbian mating habit or not [3], simply because there are too many doubts and confusions in either side of the debate. Examples like these two are numerous. What Latour intends to address is that scientific truth claims are always socially constructed. Their construction relies on social relations – one may have more say if he or she has gained trust from a big name. Hence, these truth claims are not isolated absolute truths as perceived by the general audience. They are true only in specific situations, if, luckily, one is hidden from the fighting on the backstage. They are not black boxes and they will never be.

What’s more, these truth claims tend to change. In Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact, Ludwik Fleck, by delineating how syphilis has been understood across time, discusses deeply about the change of thought collective and thought style [6]. If we listen to Fleck’s words and clarify thought collective as a collection of thoughts of a certain topic and thought style as the most prevailing style of thought for that topic in a specific period of time, then here the change of thought styles for syphilis is clear: syphilis was first seen as a mystery, then a pathogenetic idea, and finally an etiological disease entity, due to Wassermann reaction [6]. Similarly, Kuhn describes how a scientific paradigm can shift because of an “accident.” Different from Fleck’s thought collective, Kuhn’s scientific paradigm focuses more on a specific disciplinary (i.e. a closed community), and his accident means something that is unexpectedly discovered or derived but ultimately adjusts the direction of the entire paradigm [8]. One example can be Coulomb’s law. Paradigm shift is an ongoing process. It happened before and it is still undergoing at present. Foucault [7], Clarke et al. [2], and Rose [12] all point to the paradigm shift from medicalization to biomedicalization. To uncover the problematic notion of race in science, Fausto-Sterling [5] and Pollock [11] both draw the maps of how race is perceived, used, and in fact not being legitimate for bone density research and heart disease studies respectively. Therefore, truth claims are subject to change. They are not only socially constructed but also time dependent. They are not universally true.

While truth claims are situated in contexts and time, they inevitably will influence the world in one way or another, especially when they are embedded in artifacts such as technology. Yes, technology, as one form of scientific product, conveys truth claims. The procedure of “materializing” truth claims involves categorization, classification, standardization, etc. Bowker and Star have talked extensively about what they mean by classification and standardization [1]: Classification is a segmentation of the world, either based on time, or space, or both time and space. The resulting categories of classification are consistent and complete within themselves, while being mutually exclusive among each other. Standardization, however, is the process of imposing a certain classification to enable the collaboration of various things so that they can work together. Classification and standardization collaboratively materialize scientific truth claims. For instance, to produce a touch-screen smartphone, both classification and standardization have to be involved to include certain truth claims from biology, cognitive science, ergonomics and more. The consequence is that although this smartphone is suitable for some people, it is not friendly to everybody – imagine a blind person using it. Additionally, it can only be used in some occasions, but not all the contexts – imagine if there is no electricity. Hence, the world is then classified and/or standardized by these artifacts and by the truth claims they represent. These artifacts have politics. Langdon Winner delves deep into this issue and concludes that artifacts are always political [18]. Atomic bombs are designed to deter and destroy. When being materialized as artifacts, truth claims can have real political impacts to the world and to us in positive and/or negative ways.

Due to this effect, numerous scholars have proposed approaches for scientists to understand the possible results of their “truth claims” and then make science and technology more inclusive for people. Latour raises an “actor network approach” to think about how artifacts, as actors who have independent capability in the world, can affect people’s lives by substituting, shaping, or changing their actions [10]. He focuses on both the power of human and non-human actors and how they relate to each other to form a network. Cowan, when examining the history of cooking stove in the United States, proposed the inclusion of consumer by looking at the “consumption junction,” where consumers actively chose among competing products [4]. Back to then, people tended to think about producers solely and ignored consumers entirely, not including them in the whole network. Rosenberger and Verbeek learn from phenomenology and come up with the idea of “postphenomenology” [14]. Postphenomenology’s focal point is the relation between human and technology and it cares more about empirical analysis. Four major human-technology relations include embodiment relations, hermeneutic relations, alterity relations, and background relations [14]. They also raise the concept of “multistability” to talk about the flexibility of technology to be understood and used different under distinct contexts by distinct people [13] [14]. Different from all the approaches above, who are basically theoretic frameworks, Vertesi et al. introduces a variety of design methods that are used widely by designer and researchers to study human-technology relations [17]. Examples include participatory design (i.e. design with stakeholders) and reflective or critical design (i.e. design to reflect and provoke). All these scholars suggest means to think more deeply and comprehensively about artifacts and technologies and what they bring to human beings and our society.

Scientific truth claims are not isolated. They situate in contexts and time and they rely on people to be developed. Even though general audiences prefer to view truth claims as ultimate truths, they are always socially constructed. They are not neutral and therefore bring real impact to our lives. Scholars advocate various ways to think about science and technologies more inclusively, but it is everybody’s responsibility to open the black box of truth claims and understand everything better.

References

[1]  Bowker, Geoffey C., and Susan Leigh Star, Sorting Things Out: Classification and its Consequences, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999, Intro and Chapt 1 (pp. 1-50).

[2]  Clarke, A.E., Shim, J.K., Mamo, L., Fosket, J.R., & Fishman, J.R. (2003). “Biomedicalization: Technoscientific transformations of health, illness and U.S. biomedicine.” American Sociological Review, 68(2), 161-194.

[3]  Harry Collins and Trevor Pinch, “The Sex Life of the Whiptail Lizard,” from The Golem: What You Should Know about Science, pp. 109-119.

[4]  Ruth Schwartz Cowan, “Consumption Junction” in Bijker, Wiebe, Thomas P. Hughes and Trevor Pinch The Social Construction of Technological Systems.

[5]  Fausto-Sterling, Anne. “The Bare Bones of Race,” Social Studies of Science 38.5(2008): 657-694.

[6]  Fleck, Ludwick. Genesis and the Development of a Scientific Fact. First published by Benno Schwabe, Basel, 1935; English translation by Bardley F. and Trenn T.J., University of Chicago Press, 1979.

[7]  Foucault, M. (1978). Excerpts from The history of sexuality, Vol 1: An introduction.

[8]  Kuhn, Thomas S. “Scientific Paradigms.” In Sociology of Science edited by Barry Barnes, 80-104. Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1972.

[9]  Bruno Latour, Science in Action. How to Follow Scientists and Engineers Through Society (Harvard), pp. 1-100.

[10]  Bruno Latour: “Where are the missing masses? The sociology of a few mundane artifacts”, in Bijker, Wiebe E.; Law, John, Shaping technology/building society: studies in sociotechnical change.

[11]  Pollock, Anne. Medicating Race: Heart Disease and Durable Preoccupations with Difference, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012. Introduction, pp. 1-27.

[12]  Rose, N. (2007). The politics of life itself. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press (Introduction pp. 1-8).

[13]  Rosenberger, R. (2014). “Multistability and the Agency of Mundane Artifacts: from Speed Bumps to Subway Benches.” Human Studies. 37: 369-392.

[14]  Rosenberger, R., and P.-P. Verbeek. (2015). “A Field Guide to Postphenomenology.” In: Postphenomenological Investigations: Essays on Human-Technology Relations, R. Rosenberger and P.-P. Verbeek (Eds.). Lexington Books, pp. 9-41.

[15]  Steven Shapin, “Rarely Pure and Never Simple: Talking About Truth,” Configurations 7:1 (1999), 1-14.

[16]  Steven Shapin, A Social Construction of Truth. Civility and Science in Seventeenth Century England (Chicago), Epilogue.

[17]  Vertesi, Janet, David Ribes, Laura Forlano, Yanni A. Loukissas, and Marisa Cohn (2016). “Engaging, Critiquing, and Making Digital Systems: Crossings between STS and Design,” in The STS Handbook. Cambridge: MIT Press.

[18]  Winner, Langdon, “Do Artifacts Have Politics,” in The Whale and the Reactor (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), pp. 19-39.

Do Justice to Your Data

I met with my advisor two weeks before a major conference deadline. It was a Saturday. She had a coffee in her hand, and she was telling me how some other students had so many things to write in their paper:

“I guess this may due to culture. You know, both of them have so much to say. The finding section is already 9 pages and it’s only one-third of all the findings!”

I listened closely and replied that I never had so much to say. It in fact sounded pretty weird to me that people wrote so long. My advisor continued to say, data had to go through the researcher to be visible and I might affect those data. I was stunned. Yes, I know as a human being I’m not the kind of person who can talk on and on. I feel more comfortable when I can keep silence. However, for writing an academic paper, I know I have to write and I will certainly make sure that I offer as much data as it requires. But my advisor said:

“Yes I know. But still, your data will go through you. They are expressed in the way you express.”

I suddenly realized her point and yelled: “OMG I feel so bad about my data! They are suffering just because I don’t have much to say!” Since then I know I have to do justice for my data – these are great data which have value in themselves. They should not suffer because of me.

Interviews

I guess it’s fair for me to say that my June and July have all been spent on interviewing people: I did sixty-eight interviews in total. Some of them were short, some of them were long. I have never talked to so many people during any summer in the past twenty-five years. Interestingly, neither have I ever answered so many questions in two months.

I interviewed people who were old, who were young, who were men, who were women, who lived in rural villages, who grew up in urban cities. I asked them how they used their mobile phones, what they did with WeChat, how they played around with emojis and stickers, how they learned farming knowledge, and how they communicated with their children abroad. People answered my questions. Some of them answered in hasty, so I often had to repeat my question. Some of them were super talkative and energetic. They led the conversation, while I had to find my own way of asking them questions, if possible. Sometimes people were quite nervous when hearing the word “interview”, so I ensured them that there would be no provocative questions and they were all protected by the law in the U.S. (people laughed when they heard this). A common reaction that I got was that people felt they had nothing to offer: “I don’t know anything. I don’t really use smartphone/WeChat/emojis. I don’t know how to use them. You probably should interview that guy, he knows more than me.” When I said I would love to know why they didn’t use those things, they were usually more confused – anyway, why does one want to know why other people don’t know a certain thing?

I interviewed people in days and at nights. I visited them by walking, by motorcycle, by car, by bus, by subway. In rural villages and the small town, I simply went and visited without bringing anything other than my notebook and pen. Instead, people offered me watermelons to eat generously (because it was summer). Occasionally, they even invited me to lunch or dinner, and they were sincere. For urban citizens, I paid for their coffees, milk teas, juices, snacks, etc. Basically, I paid for their time so that they could answer my questions. In the city, it was not unusual for me to spend more than half an hour to get to the location for interviewing. However, in rural regions, all I needed to do was to walk or hop on a motorcycle – it wouldn’t take me more than ten minutes to greet someone in person. Because of the interviews in rural areas, I was able to do some exercise by walking. Because of the interviews in urban areas, I was able to enjoy various beverages.

Was I nervous? Was I afraid of anything as a first-time interviewer (an interviewer, how dubious!)? Certainly! While most of the time I was confident and well-prepared (in my opinion) to both ask and answer questions, I became infinitely nervous when people asked me this question: “So, what are you doing these interviews for?” There was a more intimidating version of this question: “What’s the meaning of these interviews?” I worked hard to try to calm myself down by blattering whatever I could think about at that moment: “… You know… I’m interested in how culture affects people’s use of technology and how technology affects people’s lives… I study how you use your mobile phone so that I can improve these phones…” People were confused. They twisted their brows and lost in thought, trying to translate my nonsense into human language. Later I became tired of explaining my “research objective” to people: “I need to write a paper. It’s my summer homework. That’s why I have to interview you.” People were more convinced by this answer: “Wow, you still have to write a paper? You study so hard! Why not just send out some questionnaires or get some data online? Take a break young girl!” My latter answer worked better, because people were more open when they knew this was for my homework, not some mysterious research projects.

I have to confess that I was tired of traveling around and talking to people from now and then. But, I always felt happy talking to people and listening to them sharing their thoughts and feelings with me. Here was a new person, somebody I didn’t really know about, yet he/she was willing to communicate with me. Sounded like magic. Each of them had an individual world with them. I was fortunate enough to visit sixty-eight different worlds in two months, and I was pretty satisfied that I now had a chance to understand the larger world through so many diverse lenses. For some of the worlds, if it was not because of the interviews, I would never be able to imagine them. Communication is indeed beautiful.

First Time TA in GaTech

This past semester, my second semester in Georgia Tech as a PhD student, I TAed for CS4660 Educational Technology. This was not my first time of being a TA. When I was still a master student, I TAed twice for two graduate classes in my major. I took these classes before, so it was not too difficult for me to TA them. Plus I was not the only TA. This time, not only I was the single TA, but I didn’t take this class before. All the students would be undergrads, and I was no familiar with the undergrads in the US at all. Being a PhD student in School of Interactive Computing, I would say I knew a decent amount of knowledge of technology, but I was in no means an expert in education. How could I be a good TA with all the barriers above? I had to say TAing for this class definitely posited a challenge for myself.

I didn’t know a lot about pedagogy. Therefore, I didn’t perceive myself as a structural TA with many intellectual rationales behind. Nevertheless, from my previous experiences as a TA, I knew what would always work was to be kind, be responsible, and work hard. I cared about students in a sense that I would like them to learn well. Because most of my responsibility for TAing CS4660 was to grade students’ reading critiques, I wanted students to know that I cared about what I was doing through giving meaningful feedback.

What did I learn? The first thing that came to my mind was that being a TA carried a whole lot of responsibility. I knew some of the responsibilities before I started, but I learned other ones later. I expected students to care more about grades than to learn new knowledge (I used to be like this when I was an undergrad). Yes, there were students that were like this, but there were other students who were eager to learn. What could a TA help? To help create a more inviting learning environment and a more friendly learning experience – for each individual student. As a student myself at GaTech, I often felt the learning environment around me was more competitive than nurturing. Therefore, to encourage students to really learn instead of competing, I left notes where both insights shined and weaknesses shown in their critiques. I also thanked them for willing to share their own stories with me. My positive feedback strategy worked out when students told professor that they felt it was okay to really have opinions in this class, not the opinions that they “should” have, according to the textbook or the instructors.

As I said earlier, I didn’t know anything about a typical undergrad’s life or how he/she learned in class when I started. Because of this lack of understanding, I was afraid that I would not be able to be understanding. However, to my surprise, I soon (a week of into the semester) found out that these undergrads were in fact very similar to myself: they worried about their grades, they wanted to have fun outside of class but they didn’t really have much spare time, they worried about their job and they also worried about their future, etc. Initially, I though American undergrad culture would be very different from the one I experienced in China before. But according to what they wrote down in their critiques, no big difference really. Being able to identify these commonalities between myself and these students made me feel I could empathize them better.

Throughout this entire semester, I cared about the students and I graded each assignment cautiously. This was something that I would continue to do if I would be a TA in the future. What’s more, after 2 or 3 weeks, I could recognize each one of the students and their critiques. Since then, I started to give more individually-tailored feedback. This worked. I remembered giving this feedback last time and then saw this student worked on his/her assignment this time accordingly. I was happy about this and I was also proud of myself – for really worked hard on the class materials that I didn’t have previous exposure to. Another thing that I would love to keep doing was to keep promise. Never once did I handed back their assignments late.

In terms of improvements, there were a few things that I wanted to work on. I noticed students having problems inside and outside of class, but they didn’t come to my office hour for help. Did I reach out to them? No. Because I was not sure whether it was okay for me, as a TA, to email them and check in. I regretted for not acting earlier since one student came to meet towards the end of this semester and asking me questions about the requirement of the assignment. I wondered why this student did not come earlier, and maybe I should encourage students to come and ask any questions. In addition, my own student life became pretty stressful in March and April. At that time, I realized I wasn’t able to grade as carefully as I earlier did. I tried to change, but I failed. I guessed this was more a problem of myself other than the students, but still I hoped I can figure out some solutions to balance my workload.

Overall, I had a great experience of being a TA this semester. I felt lucky to be trusted by both the students and the instructor. Most likely I will continue to be a TA next semester. Hopefully I will have another great time with students again.

Reflection, on I2S Competition and groupwork

My team, Eating Right, won both Ideas Track Runner-Up and Best Poster awards in the 2016 Ideas to Serve (I2S) Competition held at the Scheller College of Business at Georgia Institute of Technology on April 8th. This competition is intended to encourage current GaTech students and recent alumni to think about how to create a better world through feasible and concrete ideas. During the night of the 8th, all the finalist teams presented their posters and gave a 1-min pitch to the audience. I was so happy to see that there were so many projects that cared about issues of global relevance, not only in the United States. Initially, I didn’t really expect us to win anything, since I didn’t know if people valued this kind of work. However, it left me feeling deeply encouraged, because people did care, and they were even willing to spend money on this.

Just to give you context: our team, Eating Right, aims at creating a mobile app that will provide valuable and trustworthy dietary information for diabetes affected households in India by presenting entertaining cooking show videos. Our project started in October 2015( as a collaboration between Georgia Tech and the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad (India) ) , and Jasmine started working on it then. After one month, I, a Human-Centered Computing PhD student, joined the team. Recently in March, two more Human-Computer Interaction students (Sam and Tanisha) came on board.While Jasmine and I focused on the research aspects, Sam and Tanisha brought design expertise to the team. Prof. Neha Kumar advised us from the onset and helped us communicate with collaborators in India. All of us, including our professor, are women.

What makes teamwork impactful in our case?

  1. People. All four of us have sufficient background in Human-Computer Interaction design and research, which makes it easier for us to communicate. Although we have similar backgrounds, we do hold diverse skill sets. Sam and Tanisha were originally from India so they can speak different Indian languages and draw on their understanding of Indian culture. Jasmine had done fieldwork in India, and could anticipate the challenges we might face later. I am a researcher who has read a lot about ICTD and have a deep understanding of how to approach this research using human-centered design. Together we are advised by Prof. Kumar, who is an expert in ICTD research. We are also supported by our collaborators in India, who offer first-hand data about users and valuable inputs for our research and design outcomes.
  2. Work ethic. I believe this is important in every field, not only in teamwork. Nevertheless, to keep a good work ethic can be really challenging when there are too many things going on at the same time, which is often the case for a graduate student. We face this challenge bravely and deal with it professionally. We rely on emails to communicate most of the time and all of us are very responsive – to emails, text messages, or phone calls. Because we are invested, the project is able to make steady progress. We stick to deadlines as best we can. If we cannot keep our promise, we let all team members know.
  3. Coherent understanding, all the time. We communicate in timely fashion to make sure that everybody is on the same page. This not only covers work assignments, but also high level objectives. For example, we do believe that user research can make a difference and design should be based on specific contexts and users’ needs. Communication sounds tedious and time-consuming sometimes, but it can foster understanding, which allows the entire team to work more effectively.

These bullet points above address some things that good teamwork should include, but they are not enough. What I find amazing in the Eating Right team is that we are all open to making mistakes and we learn through failure – the working environment we create is a safe learning environment, not a competitive one. When one of us says something that sounds not so right to others, others will ask questions and start a discussion. No one is offended. For instance, I’m not familiar with Indian culture so I have tons of questions (I know some of them must sound naive to Indians). My teammates are always willing to explain whatever detail I’m looking for. I try to do the same. I believe, because of this positive learning environment, people’s skills are leveraged, good work ethic is acknowledged and followed, and a coherent understanding can be nurtured.

Certainly, we are all motivated and passionate about this project from the bottom of our hearts.

I used to be a believer of individual work, but my experience in the Eating Right team changed my mind. When a team works well, productivity will be high, and everybody on the team can learn. It is amazing when teamwork presents its power, and I hope to experience more awesome teamwork in the future. Of course, to make this world a better place, you need a team, or maybe a larger team. 🙂

Be calm or be engaging? Thoughts on UbiComp

Two crucial ideas act as foundation for Mark Weiser’s article The Computer for the 21st Century [1]: First, “the most profound technologies are those that disappear.” (page 94) Second, “whenever people learn something sufficiently well, they cease to be aware of it.” (page 94) I’m going to examine the latter one here.

I am unable to agree with Weiser’s statement, though I can see where he comes from. According to the example of street sign he provides afterward and what he believes as “only when things disappear in this way are we freed to use them”, I can tell that he is considering about those objects that work as “tools” or “media”. He believes that tools can serve people well when they “disappear”. This underlying idea works for objects as street signs because these objects are relatively simple and the corresponding tasks they are trying to achieve is also simple (street signs show information about streets). Thus, this idea may not work when the level of complexity increases for either the object or the task. For instance, color pencil, which is a simple tool for drawing, can be used in several different ways when being operated by an experienced painter, such as burnishing and impression. Under this situation, one actually needs to be aware of the pencil to be able to achieve distinct effects, because how the pencil is used affects the result of drawing directly. I therefore argue that depends on the complexity of both the object and the task, people either increase or decrease their awareness about this object, when they learn something sufficiently well.

The problem is: how shall we take advantage from this different degrees of awareness wisely? In ubiquitous computing, this question can be hard to answer. I would like to say that this really depends on the type of things and what they are trying to achieve, but I have no idea on the criteria of categorizing things, if any. Rogers says technologies can be engaging in UbiComp [2], but she doesn’t offer a good reference for researchers to judge the type of technology here. I can see the possibility for this issue to become even more complicated as UbiComp technologies are used by different people with different cultural backgrounds. Should technology be engaging when its user doesn’t value engagement much? More similar questions can be posted.

I’m not going to try to answer any question here. But I would still love to say again that we, no matter as researchers or practitioners, should place human in a central role when designing technologies. Only by designing technology in a human-centered sense can we be aware of the diversity among both people and situations. There is no universal design. Maybe it doesn’t really matter if technology is calm or engaging. Human matters.

References

[1] Mark Weiser. 1991. The Computer for the 21st Century. Scientific American 265, 94 – 104. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/scientificamerican0991-94

[2] Yvonne Rogers. 2006. Moving on from Weiser’s Vision of Calm Computing: Engaging UbiComp Experiences. In Proceedings of the 8th International conference on Ubiquitous Computing (UbiComp ’06). Springer-Verlag Berlin, Heidelberg, 404-421. DOI:http://dx.doi.org/10.1107/11853565_24