Sustainability Studies Research STSS 4965, TF 12:00 – 1:50, Sage 5711

Asthmatic Spaces: New York

Professor Kim Fortun (Sage 5114, x2199,, office hours F 2-3 and by appt)

This course will involve you in a collaborative social science and humanities research project focused on “asthmatic spaces.” The goal is to produce new understanding of asthma patterns, drivers and experiences in New York State. Real-time results will be shared with researchers undertaking similar research in Eastern Tennessee, Houston and New Orleans. Results will contribute to The Asthma Files, a public online archive of knowledge about asthma designed to promote scientific and environmental health literacy, in development at Research and reading materials for this course are available on this web platform, and on the course wiki at

You should purchase Gregg Mitman’s Breathing Space: How Allergies Shape Our Lives and Landscapes, available at the Union Bookstore.

The objectives of the course are multiple:
1. Enroll students in a collaborative, social science and humanities research process aimed at producing original findings.
2. Stimulate students’ ability to find and work with research material and digital research tools.
3. Enhance students’ understanding of the matrix of factors (social, economic, cultural, political, biological, geographic, etc) that shape complex problems (such as asthma).
4. Enhance students’ understanding of how different stakeholders perceive a complex problem (such as asthma), interact and impact how problems are dealt with.
5. Develop students’ capacity to communicate about complex problems (such as asthma).

You will move through four main phases of work, culminating in a “Portrait of Asthma in New York.” The first phase will give students the opportunity to explore a range of research material that can be used to understand asthma in New York. This “cache” includes news articles, government reports, scientific publications, and databases maintained by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In the second phase of work, students will analyze and annotate the research materials they have selected , oriented by templates (see below) that will develop their research skills and ability to leverage many different kinds of data and types of knowledge. In the third phase of work, students will draw from their annotations to contribute responses to a comprehensive set of questions (see below under “response papers”) about asthma in New York. This same set of questions is directing research in the other asthmatic spaces being studied (in E. TN, Houston and New Orleans). Through this phase, the students will learn about the benefits and challenges of research collaboration, both within their class research group and with the research groups at the other sites. In the fourth phase of work, students will develop portraits of asthma in New York that make creative use of the research material and findings they have developed in the course. In this phase, students will develop their capacity for data integration and effective communication about complex phenomena.

Your grade for the course will be based on the following percentages:
20 Annotations or Research Exercises 20%
5 Response Papers 15%
Portrait 25%
Reflection Paper 15%
Participation 20%
Portfolio 5%

Attendance is required. In order to receive participation credit for an excused absence, you need to submit an extra annotation or research exercise. Each unexcused absence will result in a two-point deduction from the final grade.

You are also responsible for maintaining electronic backup copies of you work. All work posted online will need to be re-presented in the portfolio turned in at the end of the semester.

Academic honesty is especially important when students are involved in research, and particularly in collaborative research. It is critical that work submitted by a researcher as their own is, in fact, their own . Citations must be included for both indirect and direct quotation, providing clear documentation of sources. This course will involve extensive use of digital resources and will involve students in the production of many digital documents and visualizations. Special care must be taken to properly cite digital resources. Please see the Student Handbook for complete guidelines on academic honesty. Here is a useful review of plagiarism: If I am able to confirm plagiarism on any assignment in this course, the student is likely to fail the entire course.


Annotations and Research Exercises
To fulfill course requirements, students will produce 20 annotations or research exercises. Scientific publications and interview tapes can be annotated using the template below. Students can also generate their own research material. If they conduct an interview themselves, for example, this will count as a research exercise. They then can analyze that interview and it will count separately as an annotation. Students can also do research exercises with online data sets such as those on air quality or asthma incidence in a particular space. An evolving list of research exercise possibilities will be developed throughout the semester.

Annotation Template for Scientific Articles and Interviews:
1. Who is writing/speaking and what is their expertise? Where does the author/speaker work and what is their organizational position? What prepared the author/speaker to occupy this position?
2. What topics and questions does the article/interview address? Does the author/speaker refer to related studies?
3. What methods and tools are used for the analysis?
4. What data is produced and used?
5. What are the primary findings?
6. What quotes usefully articulate the author/speaker’s key points and contributions?
7. What are the implications of the findings?
8. What economic, political, cultural, or scientific trends or factors seem to have shaped the author/speaker’s orientation?
9. What about the article/interview illustrates the expertise and bias the author/speaker brings to their work?
10. How can the article/interview contribute to our research group’s shared questions?

Research Exercise Possibilities:
• Document and analyze local news coverage of asthma and air quality for a selected time period.
• Using EPA data sets available online, document air quality in a particular neighborhood.
• Conduct an interview with someone with asthma, involved in asthma care or involved in asthma-related research – on air quality, for example..

Response Papers
Students are expected to complete five response papers. Each of these papers should provide a 500-word response to one or more of the questions below. These same questions are being addressed by partner research groups in New York, Eastern Tennessee and New Orleans. A response paper could address the question that asks about research on asthma –related issues in a given region. A response in New York State could describe the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health, and the range they of work they have done on childhood asthma. Alternatively, one could closely describe one particular study conducted by the Center. Yet another contribution could describe the studies conducted by New York State government researchers. The shared list of questions is as follows:

Accounting for Asthma
What spatial units (city or county limits, U.S. States, regulatory regions) are in play in the space of concern? What spatial delineations offer analytic and comparative purchase?

How prevalent is asthma, and who is tracking asthma prevalence?

What are the costs of asthma to families affected by asthma, to government, to businesses (in lost work days, for example)? Who is producing this information?

How has asthma been covered by local media? Where have causes of and responsibility for asthma incidence been placed? What points of interventions have been highlighted?

What kinds of civic organizations (environmental groups, patients or caregivers groups) are involved in asthma surveillance and care?

What kind of research has been done on asthma-related issues in the region, and what are the findings?

Etiologies of Asthma
What social, technical, political-economic, and biophysical features of the city (and its population) may contribute to asthma prevalence and patterns?

Are there notable occupational drivers of asthma in this area?

What is known about air quality and dynamics?

What can be learned about cumulative community risk using EPA databases and assessment tools?

Experiencing Asthma
How is asthma experienced by diversely situated people?

How have people integrated “experiential” knowledge with other kinds of knowledge?

Comparing Asthmatic Spaces
How is the space of concern conceived as a site of health, environment and politics? Is the space known as an asthma “hotspot,” for example? Is there a record of environmental injustice? Who are the players in this space?

Histories of Asthma
How has asthma in the space of concern changed since 1985? Since 1945? Are there new organizations working on asthma? Are there new treatments for asthma? Are more doctors or medical centers caring for people with asthma? Are pharmaceutical companies involved in new ways? Have government agencies changed the way they think about and respond to asthma? How has concern about climate change shaped the way asthma is understood?

Caring for Asthma
What forms of medical care are available (and not) to people suffering from asthma?

What forms of asthma education (in schools, for example) exist, and what is their orientation?

Who regulates environmental triggers of asthma, and what is their record and reputation?

Changing Asthmatic Spaces
What kinds of policy enforcement and change could change asthma incidence?

What would improve asthma care and education, and how could this build on existing infrastructure?

How could The Asthma Files (and explanatory pluralism) be expressed and leveraged in this space?

Portraits of Asthma
The aim of this assignment is to develop students’ capacity to creatively integrate and communicate data on a complex problem. Their selection of a focus and of relevant supporting material will be important. The way they organize the material, and articulate an overarching narrative will also be important. The goal is convey both the significance and complexity of asthma in the City of Houston by directing attention to something specific and noteworthy.

A portrait could draw out a particular pattern of asthma incidence for example, commenting either on its uniqueness, or (alternatively) on the way it is illustrative of trends elsewhere (connecting asthma burdens to poverty, for example). New York City’s Puerto Rican population has extraordinary asthma incidence, for example. A portrait could focus on and aim to explain this. Instead, a portrait could focus on a noteworthy stakeholder, like the coal industry in Eastern Tennessee or the petrochemical industry in Houston. Yet another approach could focus on how health care infrastructure in a particular space affects how asthma is understood and cared for. The State of New York, for example, is one of the states that participated in the National Asthma Survey. A portrait could creatively convey the results of the survey, and the impact it has had.

Each portrait will have a similar, five part structure (within which there is a great deal of flexibility):
• The first component is a short (but deep) essay, approximately 500 words long, that points readers to a particular dimension or pattern of asthma in Houston. This paragraph should be extensively cross-linked so that readers can drill down to supporting explanations, maps, etc.
• The second component is the material that the top level essay drills down to. The links can be to material found on the Internet, or to original material – a short story, or video of a dance performance, for example. There should be at least five links.
• The third component is a collage of illustrating images. There should be a minimum of five images in the collage
• Each of the images in the collage should have an explanatory caption with references. The captions comprise the fourth component of the portrait.
• The fifth component is a supporting bibliography.

Each portrait will be presented online, in poster form, and in portfolio form. Examples of what is expected will be presented and discussed through the semester.

Research Reflection Paper
The final assignment for this course is a reflective essay on the research experience. We will provide a template of questions that each student will need to address. We may ask, for example, how immersion in asthma information flows – daily ozone alerts, for example – affected their own sense of health and well being. We may also ask students to suggest priority actions on asthma, either at the federal or local level. And we will, of course, ask what they learned about the research process and collaboration.

Student Portfoilos
The portfolio submitted at the end of the semester will include all annotations, response papers and the “Portrait of Asthma.” In each student’s portfolio, the portrait should be presented with the collage of images first, followed by the approximately 500 word top-level paragraph. This will be followed by a links section (with the supporting explanations, maps and other visualizations that the top-level paragraph links to), in turn followed by the captions section and then the bibliography.