Teaching SKAT: Resources in ASA’s TRAILS database

Dan Morrison, Vanderbilt University

All ASA members now have access to TRAILS (Teaching Resources and Innovations Library for Sociology–we love our acronyms!), a teaching resource repository included in the annual membership fee. This is a welcome change since access to TRAILS previously cost $25/year, and many faculty, both tenure-track and those working outside the tenure-track, found this expense unreasonable. There is nothing worse than being nickeled-and-dimed by your professional organization! As a former TT faculty member at a teaching-intensive institution with few resources, this extra expense came out of my own pocket.

For SKAT scholars, TRAILS has some important material from many of our sub-discipline’s top scholars. TRAILS is a potentially valuable resource for those teaching courses in SKAT-related fields and can also provide important insights into how our colleagues are introducing the field to future scholars. In this brief review, I describe the types of resources currently available in the repository, provide short descriptions of exemplary entries, and conclude with a call for your participation.

Resources

As of mid-February, there are 34 items categorized as “Science and Technology” in the TRAILS database, including 32 syllabi and two writing assignments. Of these materials, 33 were published in 2010, the inaugural year for TRAILS and one was published in 2015. Syllabi are categorized by “grade level.” Syllabi labeled “College 100” are intended for first-year students, “College 200” for second-years, and so on. Among the 32 syllabi in the database, five are level 100, seven are level 200, nine are level 300, four are level 400, six are the graduate level, and one is listed as uncategorized. Among the writing assignments, one is at the 300 level and the other is listed as appropriate for all undergraduates.

Exemplars

Teaching Technology and Society through Science Fiction

One of the more interesting writing assignments was created by Kristin Holster of Dean College. For this assignment, students read and analyze one of four texts: 1984 by George Orwell, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, Foundation by Isaac Asimov, or Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. Students write a short paper identifying five technologies in the book that did not exist when it was published and comparing them to five technologies that exist today. Students also discuss how the technologies reflect the social conditions of the author’s time and place. Finally, students write about the social impact of their selected technologies, citing appropriate evidence from course readings, outside sources, and the novel itself.

In the write-up about the assignment, Dr. Holster cites pedagogical research which suggests that nontraditional readings can provide accessible means to explore sociological ideas and concepts. In this case, science fiction requires the reader to develop critical and analytic skills.

This assignment meets several learning goals that STS scholars have for their students, including:

  • To help students consider the reciprocal impact of technology on society and society on the development of technology.
  • To develop students’ ability to apply the concepts learned throughout the semester to specific examples from a science fiction novel.
  • To help students improve research skills by requiring them to locate and critically evaluate evidence from internet sources.

Holster’s assignment is an excellent example of the creative work we often find in SKAT scholarship. I encourage those whose interest is piqued to download this assignment and adapt it for your own courses.

Leading Scholars Lend their Syllabi

In addition to the two writing assignments currently in the TRAILS database, many scholars, both junior and senior, have contributed their syllabi. This is a particularly rich set of documents, contributed by major SKAT scholars, such as Adele Clarke, Jennifer Croissant, Mary Frank Fox, Scott Frickel, Tom Gieryn, Daniel Kleinman, Michael Lynch, Alondra Nelson, Laurel Smith-Doerr, and Stephen Zehr. Obviously, this is an incomplete list, and picking from them is quite daunting!

The “grade level” and topical diversity of these offerings is significant, from Mary Frank Fox’s directed study course on women in science and engineering to courses on gender and technology from Adele Clarke and Maren Klawiter. There are several strong graduate level syllabi. In Tom Gieryn’s syllabus, he provocatively argues that the sociology of science has run out of steam and is in need of revitalization. Scott Frickel’s graduate course begins with an analysis of the structure of science as an institution and ends with an examination of current controversies in genetics and environmental risk. Daniel Kleinman’s graduate syllabus is noteworthy in its organization, covering many of the “highlights” of our subfield while offering students pathways for further exploration in the field.

A few syllabi cover more specialized topics. For example, Christopher Hencke’s course on science and technology in the workplace for advanced undergraduates and graduate students asks students to consider both the transformation of work and workplaces, and the construction of technologies that guide, limit, and change the meaning of work itself. Daniel Kleinman’s “Sociology of the University” course asks how institutions of higher education are changing in an era of globalization and fiscal austerity. In addition, this course reviews the state of knowledge production, the politics of disciplinarity/interdisciplinarity, the role of public intellectuals, and the commercialization of the university.

Contribute!

Although TRAILS accepts items in several categories, including assessments, bibliographies, class activities, essays, images, lectures, PowerPoint, videos, and websites, few of these resources carry the “Science and Technology” label. In addition, it has been about six years since the bulk of resources were uploaded into the TRAILS database. Therefore, I end this post with a call for participation. What effective teaching ideas do you have that others could learn from? With only 34 resources, there is a lot of room to grow, particularly for assignments, exams, bibliographies, videos, and other teaching resources. Syllabi are still welcome, too! Visit the TRAILS website to learn about how to submit.

Daniel Morrison is a Research Fellow at the Center for Biomedical Ethics and Society at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center, and he is a member of the SKAT Publications Committee.