Future Infrastructure Blog

Future Infrastructure: From Research to Pedagogy

Surojit Kayal


Last year in Spring 2023, my colleague and former fellow of the Future Infrastructure cluster, Stephen Borunda and I were fortunate to teach a class titled Deserts, Islands, and Other Energy Infrastructures at the UCSB College of Creative Studies through their Crossroads 2.0 fellowship program. We had already been working for the cluster for a couple of years. Most of our work for the cluster till then was centered around carrying out partnerships with global organizations and compiling some resources on the emerging field of critical infrastructure studies. One of the persistent questions that kept coming back during this period was how to carry the conversation to a broader audience, most notably with our students; in other words, how to teach the topic of infrastructure. Part of that difficulty stems from the tricky nature of infrastructures themselves. Infrastructures are often designed to be ignored and forgotten: a car is more interesting than the road or the gas it runs on, a film is more interesting than its production logistics, a good meal is more interesting than the global supply chain that undergirds it. As Susan Leigh Star famously proclaims, infrastructures are invisible until they break down. And yet, there is no denying the enormous role infrastructures play in shaping modern life. How then to make them visible and interesting for our students? What would be an appropriate pedagogy of infrastructure? 

This question was already on our mind when we came across the CCS call for applications for an interdisciplinary class on topics around social or environmental justice to be taught by two graduate students from different departments. Stephen and I put together a proposal after a lot of deliberation with energy and the environment as the two main qualifiers. This is partly to give a more concrete focus to the larger field of critical infrastructure studies, and partly because energy is an abiding interest for both of us. We put Deserts and Islands in the course title as a way to signal the larger environmental dimension of infrastructures and to allude to the two terrains that we both respectively work with. 


We were fortunate to be selected and were then invited to develop the syllabus over a quarter and then teach it the next quarter. The syllabus design took countless hours of collaborative work over many drafts as we kept experimenting with design, assignments, and texts. The central questions we decided to investigate were: how do energy infrastructures intersect with social and environmental realities? Who are included or excluded in the design and worldview of energy infrastructures? How can we sense, study, and represent infrastructural systems? And finally, how can we build better infrastructures for more just futures? The questions were not random but were chosen with an eye toward issues of ecologies, power, perception, and future, which we identified to be key lenses through which to study infrastructure. 

We also decided to structure the class across three conceptual units. Our initial plan was to divide it across the topics of Extraction, Distribution, and Accidents as three temporal points in the lifecycle of an infrastructure. However, later on we realized that Accident is very much a part or modality of Distribution (or its failure) whereas they don’t quite address the question of futurity as a temporal unit. Thus, we decided to replace Accident with Future as the third unit. Within the units, furthermore, each week was devoted to a particular energy system: thus, Extraction had weeks devoted to coal, oil and minerals, all of which need to be physically extracted from underground. Distribution had weeks on Dams and hydroelectricity, the electric grid, and nuclear energy. And finally, two weeks in the Future unit were devoted to various forms of “green” energy systems. 


Our approaches in terms of the choice of texts and classroom activities had three guiding principles. The first might be called a global and postcolonial frame of looking at infrastructure. Infrastructures are rarely locally contained; they often sit at the center of transnational and geopolitical negotiations. Globalization is in many ways an infrastructural achievement whether through the pipelines of oil that runs from Azerbaijan to London (Marriott and Minio-Paluello), or the container ships plowing over the oceans (Khalili), or the undersea cables that enable global data flows (Starosielski). Thus, we sought to represent as many of the global regions in our syllabus as possible. Here’s a rough representation of the regions: 


Ken Saro-Wiwa. “Chapter 5: The Shell-BP Role,” Genocide in Nigeria (1992).

Anisia Uzeyman and Saul Williams, Neptune Frost (2021). 

R. Lane Clark and Stefan Misceher (dir). Ghana’s Electric Dreams.

Stefan Miescher, “Introduction,” A Dam for Africa  (2022).

Gabrielle Hecht. “The African Anthropocene.”

South and South-East Asia:

Mark Nowak and Ian Teh. Coal Mountain Elementary (2009)

Victor Seow. “Sights of Extraction.”

Tanmay Das and Malay Tewari. “Resistance Report: Deocha-Pachami Coal Mine Project.” 

Arundhati Roy. “The Greater Common Good.” 

Jason Cons. “The Times of Chokepoints.” Limn, Issue 10

Middle East:

 James Marriott and Mika Minio-Paluello, The Oil Road: Journeys from the  Caspian  Sea to the City of London, Verso, 2012

Asia Pacific:

Elizabeth M. DeLoughrey, “The Myth of Isolates: Ecosystem Ecologies in the Nuclear Pacific” 

Dan Lin & Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, “Anointed” (2018) 

North America and the Arctic:

Brenda Longfellow and Glenn Richards, Offshore (2013). https://offshore-interactive.com/

UCSB Graduate Students. A Field Guide to Oil in Santa Barbara

Robert Flaherty (dir). Louisiana Story (1958)

Mark Nowak and Ian Teh. Coal Mountain Elementary (2009)

Rafico Ruiz. “Living Arctic Infrastructures.”  

Lucien Darjeun Meadows, “Circling Eloh: A Meditation,” New England Review

Ralph Ellison, The Invisible Man (1952).

Stephen Borunda. “Sensing Radioactive Deserts: Mediating Florae and Rocks in New Mexico’s Anthropocene.”

South America:

Pablo Neruda. “Standard Oil Co.” in The Energy Humanities: An Anthology (2017).

Pablo Neuda. “Anaconda Copper Mining Co,”  in Canto General (1950)

Macarena Gomez-Barris. “The Intangibility of the Yasuní,” in The Extractive Zone: Social Ecologies and Decolonial  Perspectives (2017). 

Unknown Fields. The Breastmilk of the Volcano (2016). 

Our plan to have a wider geographical representation was not merely to facilitate an infrastructural world tour over the quarter. Our aim, rather, was to locate energy infrastructures as material sites and means of colonial domination, whether through the extraction of oil in Nigeria by US and European companies, or through US nuclear testing in New Mexico and the Pacific islands. 

The second design principle we had was that of interdisciplinarity. This was not only due to the fact that we were offering the course through the College of Creative Studies and not affiliated to any particular department. That surely aided us but we also believed that because infrastructures are imagined, negotiated, built, maintained and enjoyed by diverse societal actors, they require an interdisciplinary approach for better understanding. Thus, we sought to incorporate and synthesize texts and resources from multiple disciplines across the humanities and social sciences. No doubt, our own background in literature and film and media studies respectively meant that we had a fair amount of literary (Mark Nowak and Ian Teh, Pablo Neuda, Ralph Ellison) and cinematic (Louisiana Story, Neptune Frost) texts; however, we also made sure to read from other disciplines such as anthropology (Dominic Boyer, Brian Larkin, Macarena Gomez-Barris), history (Gabrielle Hecht, Stefan Miescher, Timothy Mitchell), cultural studies (Rob Nixon, Elizabeth DeLoughrey)as well as activist writings (Arundhati Roy, Ken Saro-Wiwa). 

The third design principle we adopted was that of multimedia. Because infrastructures are often globally distributed, rendered banal and invisible, they are a challenge to perception and representation. This necessitates a multimodal approach whereby infrastructures are not only written about but also seen, heard, touched, and felt in all ways possible. This addresses one of our central questions around how to sense, perceive, and represent infrastructures. This is why we sought to incorporate as many genres as possible in our syllabus. Thus we ended up having poetry, novel, journalistic writings, documentary films, sci-fi, graphic novel, creative nonfiction, zines, and even an interactive film in our syllabus. All these creative forms were however complemented by critical readings for our conceptual development. We decided to use Fueling Culture – a keywords book as a regular resource while incorporating more scholarly resources on weekly topics. 

The multimodal principle was also at the center of our instructional strategies. Because we had a small class size of 6 students, we were able to create a seminar style class with minimal amount of lecturing and plenty of horizontal discussion occasionally held outdoors. We emphasized the practice of horizontal learning from each other and designed activities accordingly. One of them included in-class screening of films and post-screening discussion. For the week on hydropower, we were also able to invite Prof. Stephan Miescher for a discussion of his 6 part documentary Ghana’s Electric Dreams together with his book on the same topic. For the week on oil, we visited the UCSB archives to go over historical documents on the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill which were specially commissioned from LA for the class. For the week on coal, we did a workshop on cookie mining, which is basically mining chocolate chips from cookies as a critical simulation of coal mining. Finally, on the last day of the class, we collaborated with another class of a friend of ours to conduct a zine making workshop. We used the zine as a sort of creative alternative to the normative ESCI forms for course reflection and feedback collection. 


After a lot of brainstorming, we decided upon three major assignments for the class. Our aim for the assignments was to encourage a mix of creative/critical thinking and a certain amount of collaborative work. For the collaborative part we decided to maintain what we were calling living documents where we decided to track the development of our understanding of the three major class concepts: energy, infrastructure, and environmental justice. So, we assigned two students per concept and their job was to fill the document with weekly responses to that week’s readings and then write a synthesis at the end. While we did end up with three documents and they do reflect the evolution of understanding, the assignment probably did not go as well as we envisioned. Partly because we had designed it with more students in mind with greater collaboration and less amount of individual work on it. With just two students working on a document, at times there were inactivity and not regular maintenance of the document. 

For the midterm, we had an assignment called Energy Infrastructure Starter Kits which was inspired by Prof. Alan Liu’s assignment on Critical Infrastructure Starter Kits. The idea was that each student would choose a topic pertaining to an energy infrastructure, do some research, and create a collection of texts, documents, and other artifacts for someone new to that topic. We had a great response as students worked on diverse topics from rubber infrastructure to lithium extraction, electric vehicles, mangrove forests, agrivoltaics, and the corn belt. The final project for the class was more open ended with the only requirement to combine a creative and critical approach to research. We worked with the students individually as well as collaboratively to help them develop their projects. Formally, they ranged from photo essays to poetry anthology, card games, youtube video, and ArcGIS story map. 


The class was a great learning experience for both Stephen and myself. We enjoyed the entire process of design, selection of texts, preparation of lectures, and all the activities that we were able to do. However, the class was really made enjoyable because the students bought into the idea, worked really hard throughout the quarter, and created some wonderful projects. Going forward, I am hoping to work with them closely and convert some of their works into potential publications for our Future Infrastructure cluster.

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Surojit Kayal
Surojit Kayal
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