Beyond the Classroom

One of the most vivid lessons I still carry with me from my time as a student came from a former art professor. He taught me that art suffered when it was confined to the classroom, designed only to please the instructor. The classroom could be our refuge to think and to create, but we were not therefore "students." We were artists, and we should take ourselves and our work as seriously as that title demanded. He encouraged us, therefore, to go out into the community and find the places where our work was most needed. I have striven ever since to capture that spirit in my own teaching, whether in science, technology, or media studies, or in computer science.

Courses I Can Teach

  • Introduction to Media Studies
  • Introduction to Science and Technology Studies
  • History of Computing
  • History of Artificial Intelligence
  • Web Design
  • Text Mining
  • Natural Language Processing
  • Introduction to Logic Programming

Teaching Critical Thinking

I design my classes to push students to take their thinking beyond the classroom. In the fall of 2018, I designed and taught Imagining Androids: The Past (and Future) of Artificial Intelligence. I built the course around a semester long final project and encouraged students to use the project as a springboard to deepen their existing engagements with AI, rather than producing projects that never live past the end of the course.

One student investigated the recent surge of interest in AI ethics regulation, which she was considering becoming involved with herself, through ethnographic fieldwork with the local Duke chapter of the Center for Effective Altruism. Another student investigated the history of a particular image analysis technology used for brain imaging in a neuroscience lab he belonged to, tracing its origins to a first use in brain imaging in the late 1970s, and raising questions about its future. A third student visually critiqued images and diagrams of the software interfaces now commonly used for mental health clinical interventions and designed prototypes of new interfaces inspired by 1990s era emotionally responsive AI systems. She intends to use these prototypes for her senior project, in which she actually plans to build these interfaces. Beyond giving frequent feedback on proposals, outlines, and rough, revised, and polished drafts, I support projects like these through the design of evaluations and assessments that enable students to take intellectual risks.

Contract Grading

I designed the research project in Imagining Androids around recent pedagogical writing by John Warner, Cathy Davidson, and others on "contract grading." Contract grading involves working with each student to develop a rubric appropriate to their particular project. If students discover that, even with my input on early proposals, that rubric is too ambitious, they can renegotiate the rubric, and revise and resubmit their project, with extensive feedback, as many times as is needed to achieve the grade they want. Because contract grading reduces the stakes of failure to just the work needed to keep revising, I have found students much more willing to experiment, and have received not only historical research papers, but also software demonstrations, ethnographies, and science fiction film scripts, all deeply yet differently engaged with the course material.

Teaching Knowledge & Skills

In order to support students' research projects, I have developed a successful set of practices for helping students master the knowledge that forms the bedrock of critical analysis. Drawing on Kenneth Higbee and others who study the psychology of memory in educational contexts, I designed an interactive mode of lecturing on historical topics in which students collaboratively recall and connect events from previous lectures to the topics under discussion. I have tested a variety of lecturing strategies using various ungraded formative assessments, and have found this method to be the most successful so far, although I continue to experiment with the method. The majority of students developed a fairly comprehensive knowledge of how major world events such as the Vietnam war, the space race, the world wide web, and the civil rights and women's liberation movements, shaped and were shaped by the major figures, systems, and paradigms from the history of AI and computing. Moreover, students were able to make use of this knowledge in discussions and case studies. In one instance, after I had asked the class to formulate strategies for persuading the U.S. congress of 1983 to invest in AI research, one group recalled that the Japanese government had invested heavily in AI the year before, and made use of that fact in their presentation, just as AI researcher Ed Feigenbaum had done himself when he testified before congress in the summer of that year.

Teaching Technology in Social Contexts

In addition to historical and critical courses, I have extensive experience teaching computer science classes both to computer scientists and to non-computer scientists. As a teaching assistant in Duke's introductory web design course, I led a lab section, occasionally lectured to the full room of over 100 students, and advised students on the design of a semester long web project. I encouraged students to find real world clients to develop their websites for, to better understand the conditions under which technology is really produced. Students developed websites for everything from clubs or student groups they belonged to, to companies they had connections to or planned to start.

I find one of the most exciting challenges in course design, particularly in more advanced classes, to be finding ways to let students to apply their knowledge to real world problems in the local community. As the head teaching assistant for the Brown's inaugural senior capstone web applications course, I supervised a team of other teaching assistants, and designed much of the course content. Moreover, I solicited real world projects from the Brown and local Providence communities, and mentored student teams through the design and delivery of those projects. Several student groups continued to work with clients on their projects past the end of the semester, including projects for for everything from teaching statistics to high school students using basketball, to helping ESL instructors teach writing. While this applied model has proven successful in technology courses, I have a great interest in finding ways to teach classes in the humanities, or in the interdisciplinary space between the humanities and technology, that similarly engage with the local community.

Why I Teach

One thing I have learned from studying the history of AI is that the fate of any field of science or indeed any human endeavor depends not the grand ideas of its present luminaries, but on how well prepared its students are to imagine its future. Whether in history, critical theory, or technology, I try to give my students the tools and perspectives they need to navigate the lives and careers on which they are embarking. Yet at the same time, perhaps the most important thing I try to instill is a sense of how much fun it is to master and apply new types of knowledge. I designed the assignments in my introductory web course section so that on the first day, students learned to use a sophisticated programming tool to help them create websites, and by the last day, they had built their own simple versions of the tool. I wanted to try to demystify the technology and show them what was possible with what they had already learned in so short a time, and I know this worked because, on that last day, from across the room, I literally saw one student turn to another and excitedly say, "look how far we've come!"