Course Syllabus


Janet Abbate
Office Hours: By appointment, NVC 448

Jim Collier
Office Hours: By appointment, Lane Hall 215

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.

Course Format

A typical class meeting will be divided into three segments—a format that may vary somewhat from week to week. During the first segment, the two campus groups will meet separately to discuss the readings. During the second segment, the two campuses will meet jointly via WebEx for further discussion of the reading that synthesizes, questions, or applies our ideas. This segment of the meeting could involve addressing questions and claims posed by students, discussion leaders, or the instructors. During the third segment, teams will meet to plan and work on course projects.

Course Preparation

Our seminar will provide a unique forum for exploring and analyzing your ideas, and the ideas of your colleagues, in a congenial, conscientious, and directed manner. Importantly, seminars are collaborations. While you will refine your own thinking through reading, writing and discussion, you will also help others refine their thinking. The success of our seminar for both you and your classmates resides, in great measure, with your willingness to participate through your preparation.

For class meetings in which we do not have a presentation (please refer to the Question Formation and Response), please come to class prepared to discuss the assigned readings in depth with a working sense of how you understand the concepts, ideas and arguments we will address.

We ask that you come to class prepared with a key question or questions—on a selected reading or the readings as a whole—or an important sentence or passage that captures something you identify and want to examine about the reading; or an argumentative claim, or claims, that you make in relation to the reading; or a key word or concept that you find important and want to investigate. In addition, since we have the benefit of digital media, we invite you to use the Canvas Discussion and Chat functions as a means of discussion and preparation. These functions encourage dialogue to work through your thinking. While you are not required to use these functions, please feel free to use them in helping you prepare for class. We will refer to them when the opportunity arises.

Finally, we care deeply that you learn and know the course material in order to get a sense of STS as a field and a profession. And we want class to be fun. Sure, "fun" is rarely the first thing one associates with a graduate seminar, but there is great joy and fun in working together (even if we do not ultimately agree) to understand these impactful and complex issues. Science and technology are serious business and yet, perhaps most importantly, a human endeavor. We humans are lovely, bizarre, fascinating creatures. There's fun to be had in investigating our great accomplishments—and our great follies.

Through our collective preparation and understanding, we will take full advantage of this opportunity to learn in, and about, STS.

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 or self-satire (see Steve Woolgar, "It Could Be Otherwise: Provocation, Irony, and Limits") .

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.


Concept Map: Concept Map, Set of Claims, Roundtable Discussion: 20%
Mid-Term Exam: 25%
End-of-Term Exam: 25%
Question Formation and Response: Forum Questions, Key Word and Concept Entry, Class Discussion: 10%
Question Responses (4): 20%


Concept Map

The Concept Map assignment consists of three elements: 1) the Concept Map; 2) a Set of 3 Claims; and 3) a Discussion Roundtable. Initial versions of the Concept Main and a Set of 3 Claims, with a brief written discussion, are due at the midterm. Final versions of the Concept Main and a Set of Claims, are due when we hold the Discussion Roundtable.


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

Question Formation Fromat and Response

Each group will pose questions, and post key words and concepts, to the appropriate forum, and will lead class discussion. Members of the class will evaluate the presentation at the end of class. Scores and comments will be forwarded to the instructors. We will share comments, anonymously, with the presenters. We will provide an overall assessment of the presentation.

Question Responses

Class members not leading a given week's discussion will provide 300-500 word responses to selected questions. 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 responses: C
• 1 or nil responses: F


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.

Course Summary:

Date Details