Planting hope in students matters. It is exciting to engage with them day-to-day as they struggle to grow into critically thinking, engaged people. That’s how I feel on a good day. Between those days, there is a deeper, more troubling feeling. Over time, a feeling of excitement, discovery and proposing interesting (if not now non-existent) solutions and system slowly gives way to another sort of feeling. What remains where there was once bubbling efflorescence is a stagnant cloud. In discussion, we collectively reach a shared outlook: Not only do we not live in the best of all worlds, the one we have isn’t even a particularly good one. It becomes clear that a lazy afternoon’s discussion can generate a slew of ideas that are more exciting than pursing than things “as they are.” We want them to get to that realization. In that awareness there is hope. My concern is that students come through this ordeal having lost that hope. It takes a serious amount of optimism to do battle with the plain pessimism that goes with critical engagement with Science and Technology Studies literature. What could be done to intentionally foster optimism towards engaging technoscientific problems more of the time?
To a certain extent, I think we do our students a disservice when we seek too stridently to stamp out an uncritical Sociotechnical optimism. By disservice, I mean that we kill accidentally their hope because it is so important to keep them from acting without thinking. I do not mean that we should not prune back the most invasive of power fantasies and techno-triumphalism. We educate at our best when we first calm and then disable the reactionary defense of the technosocial status quo. Thoughtlessness must be confronted. We do well to show thoughtlessness as both an externally constructed feature of the world and internal condition that prevents our best intentions and aspirations from coming forward. However, such an approach risks something else that brings these students into STEM fields. That something is the exciting and optimistic potential of their efforts to bring something meaningful into the world. That something is the belief that something can still be done. They have kept that feeling alive against all odds and we can snuff it out with a little careless effort. That is the tragedy of a thoughtless approach to STS Education In trying to help our students develop their talents for thinking critically we also send the message that these large-scale technosocial systems are too big, too obdurate, too clever, and our efforts too small, too compromising, and too naïve.
That message is one of fear. It is the fear that for all of our knowledge about technical systems we lack the efficacy to change them. But this fear runs precisely counter to what we as educators of STS must set out to do. Is anyone best served in raising again and again our objection to the shortcomings of the world- “But it could have been different!” if it is only to show them the failure of their predecessors? Is anyone best served by pruning their idealism about society and technology so brutally that it takes their optimism with it? We cut back the dead stems to encourage healthy growth. We challenge their idealism so that they can come to terms with and engage directly with the shape of their reality as it now exists. We want our students to confront naïve and idealistic thinking about science and technology. If we are not careful and attentive, we leave our students overly suspect of their own optimism as being itself a kind of idealism or naiveté. Some of the students who were at first most motivated leave our classrooms feeling as though they must rip up their own thinking and desires by the root because they came across a couple of spotty leaves.
What would I have us do instead? We must find the tools to show them more than the problematic rot that lives under the floorboards of their mind. Down below there are still places to ground our hopes. We must find the tools to show them that the feeling that things are too stable to be changed is an effect of the material conditions of the world they grew up in. We are all taught to identify with the stable obduracy of stone buildings, streets that have been repaired with regularity for generations, with ideas that are older than our country and a concept of nature that stretches its stability backwards into infinity. The illusion of reality’s stability is difficult to shake for those grown accustomed to it. It is easy to become overwhelmed with possibility and seize up with fear. It must be as terrifying as it is liberating to learn to swim in the middle of the ocean. The seeming stability of our everyday becomes our touch point for reality.
I want to give to my students my experiences of being in places like Kumasi, Ghana. There is a rush when we confront the uncanny: that which is similar but also unavoidably different. In Kumasi, other technosocial paths are taken. Even what a visitor from outside the country recognizes has stabilized in different ways. Students in that context grow up feeling with their guts the very obvious places where choices are still being made. People are choosing where to finish roads. People are choosing what buildings to construct. People are deciding which goods will be sourced locally and which goods will be sourced internationally. Technical infrastructure like cell phones are being adapted to meet the existing power and information networks, but also decisions are to be made about which networks will updated to work with particular cellphones. All the while, the hum of the street is that it could be different here. It already is different here. In these places where the process of social and technological negotiation cannot be made invisible, there is not a deficiency of experience, but instead this wealth of opportunity to see ourselves not as mere caretakers of someone else’s choices. We as people in our own right are organizing, understanding and figuring out decisions on our own terms.
Putting our students in the mindset to make some of these calls in their own lives requires optimism that can survive the rough process of confronting their own idealism. We all must support an optimism about their capacity to make meaningful change in the world. The onus for struggling for optimism does not fall on the shoulders of our students alone. We as graduate students and teachers of STS we must keep up our own optimism. We tell them that this world could be better in innumerable ways. When do we show them who we look to for hope? Who leaves us optimistic about the world? If no one can do right in our eyes, we are left with a serious and gaping problem. What I try to communicate to my students is that when the chips are down and it’s time to make a choice, they will live up to their and our shared hopes for creating a better technofuture. That some us tend diligently to that seed of optimism in this place gives me hope. That we both struggle to grow our optimism without feeding naïve idealism might be the grounds on which a positive connection with our students might be made and their own pessimism might be staved off. What goes on between us as students and teachers matters. So much of our ability to grow the next generation of critical thinkers depends upon forging positive relationships and an optimistic outlook on construction that encourages the best in our students to bloom into something wonderful.