View of a classroom from the back, looking forward to the large blackboard on the front wall over the backs of many stationary wooden chairs placed very close together.

The Politics of Chairs: What Kind of Classroom Would You Build?

design, The Double-Edged Sword

By Olivia Burgess
The Double-Edged Sword

A chair is just a chair, right? Well, since you’re reading this blog you probably won’t be surprised that my STS answer is not necessarily – there’s a lot more to it than that. 

Dr. Zhu’s campus talk last month began with a fundamental concept in STS that I’d like to revisit: technologies are not neutral. That doesn’t mean, like some of my students first assume, that technology is simply either good or bad, like an angel or demon sitting on your shoulder. It means that technologies are expressions of things that we value as humans, such as safety, freedom, connection, privacy, and so on. 

A still from The Simpsons: Homer Simpson (middle-aged male cartoon character) with an angel version of himself on one shoulder and a devil version of himself on the other.
Technological non-neutrality is not this simple.

Let’s go back to chairs and specifically those you would find in an in-person college classroom. If you google images for “college classrooms,” you’ll find many pictures of traditional teacher- and technology-focused designs – the ones that probably pop into your own head when you think about a classroom. 

An image found searching Google for “picture of a college classroom” shows a traditional classroom arrangement.

But have you ever wondered why a classroom is the way it is, or if that’s the way it should be? That’s a question that intrigues scholars of built pedagogy, the study of the physical representation of educational philosophies. A fundamental principle of this field is that technologies are not neutral. A classroom is not just a space to learn, but a place that embodies beliefs, values, biases, and ideologies. It is, dare I say it, political in nature. For instance, the built environment establishes what bodies can move in space and how easily. A classroom that one student might easily navigate may feel drastically different for a student with a disability or injury.

A laptop with html code and the word Poetry on the screen.

Does Poetry Require Humans?

computers, Poetry, Technology

By Christy Tidwell

To end National Poetry Month and my exploration of the relationships between poetry and science, I want to turn to the process of writing poetry rather than poetry that addresses scientific ideas. More specifically, who – or what – writes poetry? Can an algorithm write poetry? Poetry is usually considered a particularly human thing. It’s an art form that requires linguistic ability, and it is associated with subjective experience, emotion, and interiority. Algorithms have access to language, but they lack individual identity, experiences, and emotions. Algorithms can be programmed to write poetry, so the question is really: does that count as poetry?

Bot or Not (sadly now defunct) takes up this topic by exploring whether we can actually tell the difference between poetry written by a human and poetry written by a bot. Check out some samples and see how you do. Here’s one example to consider:

Red flags the reason for pretty flags.
And ribbons.
Ribbons of flags
And wearing material
Reason for wearing material.
Give pleasure.
Can you give me the regions.
The regions and the land.
The regions and wheels.
All wheels are perfect.
Enthusiasm.

Does this seem like the work of a human poet? If you’re looking for expressions of emotion and interiority – as I primed you to do in the introduction – you might suspect this is the work of the bot. It’s not, though. It was written by Gertrude Stein, who was famous for challenging expectations of language use anyway. Kind of a tricky one. Ultimately, though, Oscar Schwartz, one of the creators of Bot or Not, said that 65% of their human readers failed the test for some of the poems in their database, indicating that it’s not just about Gertrude Stein being Gertrude Stein. There’s some real confusion about what’s human about poetry – and about humans themselves.

Bluegrass band plays in the background, camera focuses on pipe, wallet, and a small in on a weathered wooden table.

Technology and Bluegrass: More Than Just the Electric Banjo

history, music, Technology

By Christy Tidwell and Matthew Bumbach

After Matthew Bumbach’s recent Brown Bag presentation on the history of bluegrass, I found myself thinking about the role of technology in the genre. I’ve long listened to bluegrass myself but have largely taken the technologies involved for granted. I wondered what we can learn about technology by thinking about its role in the arts and also what we can learn about bluegrass specifically by paying attention to its relationship to technology. To find out more, I invited him to discuss the topic.

Christy Tidwell: For any readers who may not be familiar with bluegrass, let’s quickly provide some basic information. How would you define bluegrass in just a couple of sentences? And what is the basic history of the genre?

Matthew Bumbach: Bluegrass music emerged from old time music and hillbilly string bands from the historically isolated region of Appalachia. The primary instruments in the genre are fiddle, mandolin, banjo, guitar, upright bass, and singers. Bluegrass emerged, as a genre, during the 1940s and 1950s and owes a lot of its character to the unique playing and singing of Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, and Earl Scruggs.

One of Bill Monroe’s first appearances on the Opry.

CT: With that established, I’d like to focus more specifically on the relationship between bluegrass and technology. People often tend to think about technology as high-tech or futuristic, and bluegrass is not seen as either of those things. Historically speaking, what technologies were important for the creation and dissemination of bluegrass music?

MB: That is an excellent question and one that we don’t often discuss when we talk about this genre. Bluegrass could not have developed the way it did without the microphone. In the early days of bluegrass, the entire band would gather around a single microphone in both recording and live performance applications. They would create blend and balance through the use of proximity to the microphone.

The microphone was first invented and introduced to the public in 1877 by Emile Berliner, but it would be decades before we had a microphone that was effective enough to do what the pioneers of bluegrass needed. E.C. Wente invented the condenser microphone (or capacitor microphone) in 1916, a much more sensitive microphone than the earliest moving coil mics from the previous century. It took several more decades for condenser microphones to be study and cheap enough for use by the general public.

I mention the microphone as an indispensable technological advancement in the development of bluegrass music because bluegrass was professional music played by professional musicians. Unlike old time and hillbilly music that was played in churches, porches, and barns, bluegrass music developed in part because it could be played live for large audiences. Virtuosic professional musicians toured the country spreading these new sounds. Furthermore, bluegrass spread through recordings and radio. None of this could have happened without the microphone.

Big Problem, Small Form: Climate Change Poetry

Environment, Poetry

By Christy Tidwell

Climate change can seem overwhelming. It’s so big, and responding to it will involve more than individual actions, so it’s easy to feel discouraged or fearful. It’s also tempting to simply deny that it’s happening and hope for the best. In This Changes Everything: Climate Change Vs. Capitalism, Naomi Klein writes about how easy it is for us to “look for a split second” and then look away, joke about it, “tell ourselves comforting stories about how humans are clever,” etc. She writes, “All we have to do is not react as if this is a full-blown crisis. All we have to do is keep on denying how frightened we actually are. And then, bit by bit, we will have arrived at the place we most fear, the thing from which we have been averting our eyes. No additional effort required.” Obviously, this denial does not solve the problem.

Poetry works against this denial in a variety of ways. Some poets simply describe the losses we face. Risa Denenberg’s “Ice Would Suffice” (2017), for instance, emphasizes how “species are lost, / spotted frogs / and tufted puffins forsaken” and observes how we remain “heedless of lacking space / or how long / our makeshift planet will host us.” From its title’s reference to Robert Frost’s “Fire and Ice” (1920), a poem about how the world might end, to its emphasis on failure and loss, Denenberg’s poem demands that readers face our own human decline and likely extinction.

Who Is Earth Day For?

Environment, history

By Frank Van Nuys

In 1976 my eighth-grade science teacher gave us an assignment that seems as if it possibly aligned with that year’s Earth Day activities. I recall this primarily because of its embarrassing results. We were told to dig up some soil from our family’s yard and bring it to school to develop our own little in-door plot for growing some plant or other. Being part of the only family in southwestern Ohio not possessed of an old coffee can or some other suitable container, I dutifully filled a black plastic lawn bag with what seemed like a lot of dirt and stuffed that in a gym bag. Managing to lug my Earth Day “earth” on to the school bus, I stuffed the gym bag in my locker. When the time came for science class, I opened the locker and discovered that the plastic bag had ruptured. I suppose I somehow wrestled my embarrassingly overflowing bag of dirt into class and eventually grew something, but that sickening demoralization of middle-school level humiliation was all that really stuck with me.

Poster for the ENACT (Environmental Action for Survival) Earth Day Teach-In on the University of Michigan – Ann Arbor campus in March 1970.

My hapless effort at dirt transplantation offers a metaphor of sorts for the Earth Day phenomenon. Well-intentioned individual efforts on behalf of noble aspirations to better the planet, even if more successful than mine, amount to relatively small achievements. The first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, was certainly a masterstroke in terms of generating citizen engagement and marketing an increasingly popular sentiment into a mass movement spectacle. It can even be argued that bipartisan passage of significant federal environmental legislation, such as the Clean Air Act of 1970, the Clean Water Act of 1972, and the Endangered Species Act of 1973, fed on momentum provided by Earth Day. Additional impacts included a surge in environmental organization memberships during the 1970s and growing influence of such organizations in legal actions against corporations and government agencies.

Understanding as Comfort: “The Sciences Sing a Lullabye”

Poetry

By Christy Tidwell

As I noted in my earlier discussion of Robert Kelly’s “Science,” poetry and science are not as separate as we might often think: they are both creative, and they both challenge us to see the world in new ways. In “The Sciences Sing a Lullabye” (2007), Albert Goldbarth illustrates another similarity between science and poetry by personifying the sciences (specifically physics, geology, astronomy, zoology, psychology, biology, and history) and imagining them as comforting figures.

Geology says: It will be all right.

Albert Goldbarth, “The Sciences Sing a Lullabye”

It is comforting to think, as Physics tells us, that our atoms will “dance / inside themselves themselves without you,” or, as Geology says, that “All of the continents used to be / one body. You aren’t alone.” Meanwhile, Astronomy comforts the reader with a reassurance that “the sun will rise tomorrow” while History hands us “the blankets, layer on / layer, down and down.” In other words, the processes of our bodies and of the world will continue, even without our attention. And science is what provides the evidence of this continuation.

Black and white photo of a man playing the banjo, with his hand blurred from fast movement.

A Brief History of Bluegrass

Events

On Tuesday, April 20, 2021, at 11 am (Mountain time), Dr. Matthew Bumbach will present a Brown Bag on the history of bluegrass. This free presentation will be held via Zoom, and more information is available on the SDSM&T Humanities & Social Sciences Facebook page.

Bluegrass music is all around us. Though the genre sprung from the old-time music of Appalachia, a historically isolated region, bluegrass has found its way deep into popular culture. With this increased visibility we are beginning to see more inclusion of bluegrass instruments in other genres. These include banjos and mandolins appearing in popular music, choral arrangements of popular bluegrass songs, and larger works for choir and bluegrass band. Some of these works preserve as many characteristics of traditional bluegrass as possible, while others simply borrow bluegrass instruments and apply them to folk song arrangements.

Dr. Matthew Bumbach will present a brief history of the bluegrass genre and map out its recent expansion.

Photo credit: Paul VanDerWerf, “Banjo Blur” (Flickr)

“First do no harm”: Poetry & Medicine

Poetry

By Christy Tidwell

As I observed in last week’s National Poetry Month post, both poetry and science provide us with new ways to see the world we live in. This week, I want to get more specific and consider one STEM field with a significant relationship to poetry: medicine.

Poets Imagining Doctors

There is a long history of poetry representing doctors and medicine. Robert Southey’s “The Surgeon’s Warning” (1796) provides one Gothic and rather gruesome vision of doctors (thanks to Laura Kremmel for the recommendation!). In it, a doctor on his deathbed worries about how his corpse will be treated:

All kinds of carcasses I have cut up,
        And the judgment now must be–
    But brothers I took care of you,
        So pray take care of me!

    I have made candles of infants fat
        The Sextons have been my slaves,
    I have bottled babes unborn, and dried
        Hearts and livers from rifled graves.

    And my Prentices now will surely come
        And carve me bone from bone,
    And I who have rifled the dead man’s grave
        Shall never have rest in my own.

This is an image of the doctor as monster, as one who perhaps deserves to receive the treatment he’s given others’ corpses (ultimately, “they carv’d him bone from bone”), and it reflects 18th century fears of doctors and surgeons themselves as well as those who worked alongside them (graverobbers, for instance).

Ritualizing Robots: Dr. Qin Zhu on Ethics & Human-Robot Interaction

Guest Speakers

By Olivia Burgess

If children are trained to treat robots with respect, saying “Excuse me, Alexa” instead of “Hey, Alexa?”, would they in turn treat other humans more respectfully? This is one of the many intriguing questions that interests Dr. Qin Zhu, who was the first speaker in our STS Speaker Series. 

On March 30th, Dr. Zhu gave a virtual campus talk on his research titled “Ritualizing Robots: A Confucian Approach to the Design of Ethical Human-Robot Interactions.” Dr. Zhu introduced a fundamental concept in STS: technologies reflect human values. For instance, a speed bump in a quiet neighborhood slows you down because people want to create a safe environment. If you do not slow down, your car may be damaged, which is both a physical and social punishment for disregarding the value of safety.

The same applies to robots: they are designed for a purpose, they embody human values, and how we interact with them says a lot about ourselves as moral beings. For instance, if you hit a robot, you may be more likely to hit another human.

Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) gives his laptop a puzzled look.

“What’s Facebook?”: Belonging and Communication Online

The Double-Edged Sword

By Olivia Burgess
The Double-Edged Sword

I recently binged the Netflix show Cobra Kai, which brings the characters from the 1984 film Karate Kid into the present. My favorite character in the show is not the original hero Danny Larusso (Ralph Macchio), but the down-and-out and hopelessly politically incorrect Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka), owner of the revitalized Cobra Kai dojo. 

Lawrence is particularly fun to watch as he struggles to learn how to use computers and the internet – from turning on a computer and accessing wi-fi to navigating social media and all the unspoken rules of internet communication. If you’ve watched Cobra Kai on Netflix or YouTube (where it originally started), you’re already better versed in the internet than Johnny, who’d likely guess “Netflix” was a movie about basketball.