Information Studies 289 -- Knowledge

Phil Agre
Office: 229 GSE&IS Building
Phone: (310) 825-7154

Fall 2006
Monday 1:30pm - 4:50pm
Dodd Hall, room 146

This is a course about knowledge. Its main idea is that an analysis of particular types of knowledge as social phenomena can facilitate innovations that dramatically improve people's access to that knowledge. Examples will be drawn from law, physics, history, Near Eastern and African studies, public health, microbiology, and engineering.

Each class meeting will have three parts. During the first part, we will discuss the previous week's readings in a seminar format. During the second and most important part, we will discuss particular types of knowledge that individual students are interested in, analyzing them using ideas from the readings and then brainstorming ways of improving access to them. And the third part will be a lecture that introduces the readings for the subsequent week.

The main requirement of the course is a scholarly paper that uses ideas from the readings and discussions to analyze a particular type of knowledge and explain how that analysis motivates new methods for promoting public access to that knowledge. The assignment for this paper is on the Web at:

Each student should also select a week during the course when the course readings provide the best context for discussing their particular type of knowledge, and then prepare an informal presentation about that type of knowledge and the possible modes of access to it. The assignment for this discussion is here:

Grades will depend on the term paper (70%) and presentation (30%). There are no exams.

There are ten required texts. All of them are worth the time and money. They should all be on sale at the bookstore, but they might also be available more cheaply from used bookstores on the Internet: <> or <>. Note that one of the readings, Watson, will be available as a reading packet. If you are unable to afford all of the readings, which would be understandable, they are all available for reading in the department's laboratory.

Ash Amin and Patrick Cohendet, Architectures of Knowledge: Firms, Capabilities, and Communities, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. This book is unfortunately somewhat expensive, but it is worth the money because it is packed with ideas.

Isaiah Berlin, Three Critics of the Enlightenment, edited by Henry Hardy, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000. The chapters we are reading were originally published in 1960.

Harold J. Berman, Law and Revolution: The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983.

Geoffrey C. Bowker and Susan Leigh Star, Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999.

Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, edited by L. G. Mitchell, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. Originally published in 1790. If you already have another edition of Burke then fine, but otherwise please buy this edition (it's cheap) so that we can all refer to the same page numbers in class.

Bruno Latour, The Pasteurization of France, translated by Alan Sheridan and John Law, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988.

V. Y. Mudimbe, The Invention of Africa: Gnosis, Philosophy, and the Order of Knowledge, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988.

Edward Said, Orientalism, New York: Pantheon, 1978.

Steven Shapin, A Social History of Truth: Civility and Science in Seventeenth-Century England, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Helen Watson, Singing the Land, Signing the Land, Geelong, Australia: Deakin University, 1989. This book is out of print, but a reading packet will be available for it.

I unfortunately ought to emphasize that I do not necessarily endorse these books. They represent a range of controversial ideas, and our goal is not to agree with them but to use them critically in analyzing the past and possible futures of particular types of knowledge.

(I tried to have reading packets made for the few chapters that we will be reading from Berman and Shapin, but it turns out that those packets would be more expensive than buying the whole books.)

Course schedule. The readings indicated for each week should be completed after that week's class. There is no reading before the first class meeting.

Week 1 (October 2nd).

Read Burke, pages 1-100.

Week 2 (October 9th).

Read Berman, Chapters 3-5.

Week 3 (October 16th).

Read Shapin, Chapters 3 and 6.

Week 4 (October 23rd).

Read Berlin, pages 5-20 and 122-242.

Week 5 (October 30th).

Read Said, pages 1-166.

Week 6 (November 6th).

Read Mudimbe, except Chapter 4.

Week 7 (November 13th).

Read Bowker and Star, Chapters 2, 3, 5, and 8.

Week 8 (November 20th).

Read Latour, Part I.

Week 9 (November 27th).

Read Amin and Cohendet.

Week 10 (December 4th).

Read Watson.

Papers are due on Monday, December 11th.