After a career that began as a software developer, incoming assistant professor of communication Noura Howell decided to make a change. She no longer wanted to just make technology that was written to code; she wanted to consider the social impact of that code she was writing.
“Technology is never neutral, even though technology companies often try to pretend it is,” states Howell. “I realized that I wasn’t really supposed to have opinions or care about the social impact of the code, but ignoring that furthers racial injustice and economic inequality. I started to realize that sometimes people’s values are worth questioning rather than just reinforcing.”
Howell enrolled in the Ph.D. program at the University of California, Berkeley, where she earned her doctorate in the field of Critical Making. Now she designs, builds and studies people’s experiences around biosensing technology and then contributes tactics for designing interactive media to support our emotional, embodied and social interactions with the biosensory data. And while she knows that making technology like an app isn’t going to end racism, Howell says that Critical Making prompts the discussions and fosters the debate and reflection we need to be having on social issues.
“Instead of making technology to solve problems, Critical Making is about making technology to explore problems,” she explains. “Instead of making technology to support people’s values, Critical Making is about making technology to help us critically reflect on those values and assumptions.”
Howell is excited to return to Raleigh after growing up in the Cary area and will teach COM 367 Multimedia Production and Culture this fall. She sees a lot of potential to do interdisciplinary work within the Department of Communication as well as the College of Design and Textiles and the Department of Computer Science.
“I love teaching tangible design and teaching students to use microcontrollers to design and build interactive technology,” she states. “And I’m always amazed at the projects that students create, like an interactive geometry game that’s kind of like Twister where you’re solving geometry puzzles using your body. The deepest sense of accomplishment I get comes from seeing students pursue their passions.”
At UC Berkeley, Howell points out that she was fortunate to be steeped in a culture that emphasizes compassion, ethics and social justice.
“I was able to learn from students, staff and professors there,” she says. “I’m now more accustomed to self-reflection and self-critique about my own prejudices. That’s something I really want to bring forward in my new role as an assistant professor.”
In addition to new research projects she envisions in the future, Howell says that her future definitely includes a dog.
“I look forward to meeting everyone at NC State, but as a huge dog lover, I also want to meet your dogs!”