Critical Designer/Activist Engineer
Critical Designer, Activist Engineer:
Making Things and Making Things Happen
Olin College / Fall 2016
Instructors: Sara Hendren and Deb Chachra
Mondays and Thursdays, 1:30-3:10
Call us Sara and Deb or Debbie, respectively, both she/her. firstname.lastname@example.org / email@example.com Sara’s office hours are here, updated regularly. Deb’s office hours are by appointment.
What happens when design and engineering research results in activism, human rights work, politics, or matters of equity and justice? Engineers and designers are often thought of as “problem-solvers” in mostly technical, practical, and formal senses. But this class explores the equally compelling history of engineering and design projects that raise difficult questions, aid marginalized communities, address urgent social issues, or create new social conditions.
We’ll talk to designers, artists, and engineers who work on issues of sustainability, power, health, education, and more. And we’ll run our own experiments in creative design work for the public good. The class includes significant reading, field trip(s) and guest lectures, short experiments, and a culminating project.
We want you to witness and be inspired by the exciting, expansive fields of what are variously called social design, engineering for the public good, socially engaged art practices, and many other names. However, we also want you to be well versed in the many, many pitfalls of so-called “activist” work with technology—when it’s under-informed, poorly researched, focused on form and not on substance, it risks not only being ineffective, but can lead to actual harm. We take this risk seriously, so this course will have you mostly listening, learning, listening and learning some more, and, finally proposing—not carrying out fully-fledged projects in one semester. Trust us on this: We can have fun and be at play with ideas while also operating with due diligence as socially-minded engineers and designers. Humility and questions are your trusty companions here, your true north. We want to help you to lay a foundation; you will have many, many future opportunities to build the house.
The class will have four streams, or tracks, running in parallel throughout the semester. They’re intended to ground our work in reflective practice, informed action, playful inquiry, and humility in the face of complexity. Each week we’ll visit all or most of these themes and activities:
Research: Gather Information, Read, Write
Participate: Volunteer, Ask Questions
Play: Ideate, Conduct Experiments, Create
Reflect: Take Stock, Document, Make Connections, Revisit Ideas
Our streams will play out in these activities throughout the semester.
Weekly readings/viewings: Each week’s required and suggested readings, media viewing, and listening will be posted below. These clusters of material will be emergent as students decide on their volunteer activities and timely issues arise, but will always be posted at least one week in advance of their due date. Some will be organized around guest speakers, while others will be tailored to our ongoing discussions and experiments.
We’ll work as individuals or in teams, in class or on your own, on some short exercises to activate your ideas. These are meant to free up your imagination as you think about what it means to design for a public audience and will seed ideas for your final project proposal.
We’re assembling a fantastic lineup of guests whose practices span engineering, design, and artwork in a political and social manner. Think of these guests as three-dimensional “texts” to augment your work but also your introspection as you consider your future career choices. Where and how did these guests get their formative experiences as makers? What risks did they take? Where is their expertise, or lack thereof, and who are their audiences?
The last month of the semester will be devoted to a significant project, to be showcased during Final Events week. The project will take the form of a substantive proposal: a portfolio including a ‘looks-like’ prototype, a set of images or a short text documenting it in action, a short essay that provides the larger context for your design, and a brief personal reflection (or similar work in different media). Besides the short experiments described above, there will be some scaffolded pre-project work to help us explore possible projects and configurations, whether individuals or small teams. Read more about your project plan and final deliverables here.
Documentation and Reflection
This is a design course, an elective in the design stream at Olin, so it’s got continuity with the reflective practices we’re asking you to develop elsewhere in the curriculum. We’ll rely on a lightweight “capture today” system, asking you to document your learning in one image; we’ll also ask for some periodic in-depth reflections. We’ll give you a notebook too!
Clock Time/Calendar Time
There will be things you produce for this class on clock time: you will set aside time to complete assignments. But there will be many more things about this class (and indeed, about education) that happen on calendar time: that is, you will engage for relatively short intervals over a long period, and your understanding and perspective will emerge and evolve with time. This is certainly true with volunteering, but it’s also true of the ideation process: the time it takes for ideas to percolate and mature. And it’s true of any complex reading and discussion practice as well. Be alert to this contrast—and remember to suspend your doubts when you can. Take the long view.
This is a class in its first iteration, one that we will collectively and significantly shape. Please be prepared to be flexible! In order for us to be responsive to the particular direction of the group, we need to ask you to be responsive in return. Some readings or class time arrangements may change, but we’ll always make sure that everyone understands why and has enough time to respond.
Experimental grading: This course is offered as an ‘experimental grading’ course: we will provide formative and summative feedback throughout the course, and the designation of ‘EG’ on your transcript will reflect that you completed the course’s learning objectives. Keep returning to the Knowledge, Skills, and Attitudes section when you’re wondering what’s being assessed.
It is Olin College’s policy to comply fully with all state and federal disability laws. Olin does not discriminate against applicants or students with disabilities, and will consider modification to academic programs where necessary to ensure that our requirements are not discriminatory, as long as the modifications do not fundamentally alter the nature of our programs. The Office of Student Life coordinates services for students with learning disabilities, sensory impairments, psychological disabilities and medical conditions. Students are responsible for identifying themselves to the Assistant Dean of Student Life for Advising and providing appropriate documentation of their disability and need for accommodation in a timely manner. Students requesting accommodation should contact the Assistant Dean of Student Life for Advising as soon as possible after matriculation.
Services for students with learning disabilities may include, but are not limited to, academic accommodations, coaching on organizational and time management skills, faculty notification and academic advising. Services for students with physical, sensory, or psychological impairments as well as medical conditions may include, but are not limited to, academic accommodations, assistance with adaptive technology, accessibility accommodations and academic advising. Any specific modifications granted will be based on detailed discussions with each student about their particular situation, and on information from a medical care provider concerning the student’s disability and related needs.
We assume that all of us learn in different ways, and that the organization of any course will accommodate each student differently. Please talk to us as soon as you can about your individual learning needs and how this course can best accommodate them. Even if you do not have a documented disability, remember that other support services are available to all students. Academic Integrity:
All students are expected to behave with high levels of academic integrity. This includes being respectful of your fellow students, the shared space, and other people you interact with, and adhering to the Olin Honor Code. Because learning from and being inspired by the work of others is an important component of this course, we will discuss attribution and citation in more detail throughout the semester.
Thursday, Sept. 1.
No class. Required reading:
Ursula Franklin, The Real World of Technology. Available here as audio. Greg Jobin-Leeds and AgitArte, When We Fight We Win: Twenty-First Century Social Movements and the Activists that are Transforming Our World.
The two works are meant as companions and as foundational texts to shape our semester together; we’ll refer back to them often. Reserve copies will be on hand for you in the library, but we also recommend shopping around now for copies.
As we emailed you a few weeks ago, please be in contact with your volunteer site of choice. We’re factoring in an expectation of about 4 hours per week, with travel time, and we’ll be planning the rest of the out-of-class work accordingly. Be thinking now about the venue you’d like to pursue; please reach out if you need ideas or strategies for finding what you want. The requirements are:1) you’ll be interacting with people in your role, and 2) there should be some socially- or politically-motivated mission behind the work.
Some quick ideas include:
— soup kitchens and homeless shelters — immigrant/refugee services — tutoring in after-school programs or clubs — visiting a nursing home — visiting a day center for adults with developmental disabilities — queer/trans advocacy groups — environmental advocacy groups — Engineers Without Borders
Check idealist.org for opportunities too!
Think about your schedules and transportation availability as you google around for possibilities. There are plenty of places to go within a few miles of campus. But think, too, about whether you’d like to do your work on a Friday afternoon (say, at a shelter in Harvard Square) and give yourself an experience outside of Needham. Try to find a place with an ongoing need for folks to just show up for a couple of hours a week; you’re not meant to take on an extra project for this.
Monday, Sept. 5.
No class. Labor Day holiday.
Thursday, Sept. 8.
First class meeting. Introduction and overview. Report on volunteer ideas and contacts.
Monday, Sept. 12.
Volunteering reflection and troubleshooting. Session with Emily Ferrier in the library on How to Find What You’re Looking For. Research for fact finding, secondary sources.
Thursday, Sept. 15.
Syllabus in depth. Short activity. Session on How to Find What You’re Not Looking For. Cultivating a wide lens for discovery, serendipity, and idea generation. Discussion on calendar time and clock time. Readings for Monday’s session with guests announced.
Friday, Sept. 16.
Debrief from design hunt, starting with a look at this Defensive Architecture archive. Discuss readings of both books.
Monday, Sept. 19.
Guests: Olin professor Scott Hersey, and international community development workers Shelton Oakley Hersey, Anathi Pefile, and Nobuhle Kumalo (Cosmo City, South Africa. Discussion about engineering, public health, social enterprise, and culture/community.
Thursday, Sept 22.
Discuss readings, including Ethan Zuckerman’s The Perils of Using Technology to Solver Other People’s Problems, and Scott’s short experiment.
Monday, Sept 26.
With Scott Hersey, Shelton Hersey, Anathi Pefile, and Nobuhle Kumalo again to report back on short exercise and hear more about their work.
Thursday, Sept 29.
Bret Scott, The Hacker Hacked
Mary Joyce, “Six Activist Functions of Technology.”
How Crisis Mapping Saved Lives in Haiti.
And take a look at projects:
Mapping Police Violence Wikipedia edit-a-thons (one example of many)
Monday, Oct 3. (Alison Burtch had to cancel, alas.)
Watch four speculative/critical design videos in class, and then draw/design your own critical futures scenario.
Corning: A Day Made of Glass Berg: Dumb Things, Smart Lights (more info here.) Superflux: Song of the Machine (more info here.) Michael Kontopoulos: Water Rites (more info here.)
Read: Tobias Revell, Critical Design lecture.
Read: Luiza Prado, Questioning the “critical” in Critical and Speculative Design.
Tuesday, Oct 4.
Required attendance at Alice Dreger lecture. 6:45-8:15 pm, Library.
Thursday, Oct 6.
Read Alice Dreger, When Medicine Goes Too Far in the Pursuit of Normality, and “Ending Forced Genital-Normalizing Surgeries.”
Discuss readings and new design experiment. Homework: Plan two hours of independent broad, roving research based on what you’ve seen in media and projects, your volunteerism, your early ideas for a possible project. Use this as an opportunity to create, test, and practice using a system to keep access to ideas. Include the beginnings of a “personal canon”: five projects you love, wish you’d done yourself, would love to repeat. They can be art/design/engineering or any combination, and they don’t have to be related to your volunteerism. They’re just things that you love without much reservation, things that inspire you.
Due in two weeks: Olin-facing design experiments. See handout.
Monday, October 10. School holiday, no classes.
Thursday, Oct 13.
Read: Langdon Winner, “Do Artifacts Have Politics?”
The Critical Engineering Manifesto
Ursula K. LeGuin, A Rant About Technology
Optional homework: Watch Children of Men.
Discuss readings, two hours of research evidence, and check in about design experiment.
Monday, Oct 17.
Guest: Microbiologist, artist, and Creative Director at Gingko Bioworks, Christina Agapakis.
Readings: On the (Olin-facing) public drive and her essay on two cultures.
Thursday, Oct 20.
Report out from Olin-facing design experiment.
Discuss readings, plus lengthy discussion of project ideas in groups and as a whole. Assignment: another round of background research.
Monday, Oct 24.
Guest: Margaret Middleton, exhibition designer, on inclusive design for all families and abilities in public institutions.
Thursday, Oct 27.
Discuss readings, volunteerism, and new design experiment: The Giveaway Project.
Monday, Oct 31.
Guest: Kipp Bradford, MIT Media Lab and more.
Thursday, Nov 3.
Giveaway Project Due, and gallery walk/share-out. Discuss readings and projects. Final project scope defined and scaffolded plans assignment.
Monday, Nov 7.
Guest Allison Burtch, who also works at UNICEF Innovation.
Studio: project work.
Thursday, Nov 10.
Studio: project work.
Monday, Nov 14.
Field Trip! Design Studio for Social Intervention. We leave from the rotary at noon. Should be back by 3:40. Please take a look around their web site and come with questions.
Thursday, Nov 17.
Studio: project work.
Monday, Nov 21-Thursday, Nov 24.
Thanksgiving Break, no classes.
Monday, Nov 28.
Studio: project work.
Thursday, Dec 1.
Studio: project work.
Monday, Dec 5.
Studio: project work.
Thursday, Dec 8.
Studio: project work. Last day of class. Check in with all teams in prep for final presentations the following week. Final event TBD.