Science Lab

Hey, I’m wondering: does science ever enter your classrooms?

“Transfusions” by Lynn Randolph in collaboration with Donna Haraway, appearing in Modest Witness (1997).

Has it ever swaggered in, a bit over-confident and disturbingly self-assured, stepped on some toes and maybe even stampeded over the class? Or does it await an invitation, like the vampires of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, hovering at the window, requiring permission before it can enter, all pale-faced and menacing? Perhaps you  invite it in, ask it to visit your Humanities class under the condition that it behave, that it not step on any toes and stay strictly on topics of so-called scientific fact?

Or, perhaps those of you in the Social Sciences are less wary of “Big-S” Science than some of us in the Humanities, perhaps you are invested in teaching scientific objectivity and methodology to your students.

My word choice is not accidental. Science and biotechnology can be scarily pale-faced: it can appear colourless and colour-blind, and can pose as genderless and classless, even when saturated with racism and even when invoked in the defense of white, hetero-normative standards of health and “normalcy.” I need only think of a woman’s yearly visits to the doctor’s examining table, feet up in stirrups with thighs all a-tremble, to know that medical practice is highly gendered. It doesn’t matter that the doc doing my pap is a woman; that she still uses a cold, gleaming metallic speculum to prod her female patients every other year or so in defense of their ovarian health when, for hundreds of years, women have been using much more comfortable materials for the mechanistically similar but sensationally different practice of masturbation, is just idiotic. We in the West have developed, marketed and bought in the millions all forms of silicone utensils for our non-stick, teflon-coated cookware, can we not just figure it out already and lube up a freaking bright orange spatula and give it a go up there?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately–over the past six months or more, really–about race, science, technology, and pedagogy. Thinking about how people approach definitions of race with science in-hand is really interesting to me. The spectre of eugenics haunts discussions of race to this day, which has in part resulted in people in the humanities skirting the intersection of race with scientific inquiry and theory. The problem I have with this approach–with an approach that emphasizes the social or “constructed” nature of race to the exclusion of its phenotypical and biological aspects–is that it neglects to address the fact that for many people, race cannot be dissociated from the body, and, as a result, neither can it be separated from how we understand (accurately or inaccurately) biology. That being said, I equally dislike approaches to the topic that attempt to separate “pseudo-science” from “hard science,” i.e., approaches that over-simply and assert that phenotype exists; race does not.  When Science is invited into the room to act the authority on the subject and to “explain away” the “fiction” that is race, I get real nervous.

But this is quite literally the stuff of an entire dissertation–I hope to investigate this topic further in my own thesis. I’m not doing it justice here. In fact, I’m actually digressing from my original inquiry: in what ways does science/Science enter non-science classrooms? In discussions of race, gender, sexuality? Or, do these topics constitute ground too shaky for the academic and cultural heavyweight, Science?

These questions were prompted by Mark Brown’s recent post over at Whose University, where he talks not only about the need for greater scientific knowledge amongst the (American) public, but also about the need for a particular type of scientific literacy: one that recognizes the sociopolitical dimensions of scientific inquiry and applications.  This form of literacy is what Donna Haraway refers to as “situated knowledges” (11) in Modest_Witness@Second_Millenium. FemaleMan_Meets_OncoMouse (1997) (Not exactly a shocker, is it, that a title like that dates from the 90s). Haraway promotes a defintion of scientific literacy that  involves learning “how not to be literal minded” (15). A non-literal literacy (I love it!) would allow us to tackle the myriad and ever-present intersections of science with our everyday lives–both social and biological. It would allow us, in Haraway’s words,  to “engag[e]promiscuously in certain moral and political inquiry about feminism, antiracism, democracy, knowledge, and justice in certain important domains of contemporary science and technology” (15).

So I’m wondering, is it my job to promote this form of scientific literacy? Is it yours? Is it something that demands a place in the Humanities and Social Sciences? In what ways have you encountered science in classrooms and learning experiences?


8 thoughts on “Science Lab

  1. Great questions about the role of science (capital and lower case) in the classroom! Given my interest in the Science of loneliness and how it has become intertwined with our cultural everyday — out of the lab and onto the Ipod touch–I think that a multiplicity of understandings of science, and how science “learns” us, are for sure necessary. Science cannot be left to navigate our everyday politics alone. That would be monstrous!

  2. Well said! Thanks for these thoughtful thoughts. As your examples suggest, science and technology often touch people’s lives quite personally, so we shouldn’t leave the study of science to the scientists. I teach a course on “Science, Technology, and Politics” that includes a few weeks on race and genetics, addressing some of the issues you mention. I often assign few of the essays posted on this SSRC website:

    • Thanks so much for the link, Mark. I really appreciate it! Hearing about your class on Science, Tech & Politics has gotten me curious about how the Health Sciences handles similar issues here at McMaster. Thanks again!

  3. “Science and biotechnology can be scarily pale-faced: it can appear colourless and colour-blind, and can pose as genderless and classless, even when saturated with racism and even when invoked in the defense of white, hetero-normative standards of health and “normalcy.” I need only think of a woman’s yearly visits to the doctor’s examining table, feet up in stirrups with thighs all a-tremble, to know that medical practice is highly gendered.”

    I think you are reading too much into this. What of the fact that virtually all medical instruments (think of the last time you had any dental work done) are crafted using stainless steel, as stainless steel is easy to sterilize, it’s durable, and doesn’t corrode. Are all medical instruments part of this genderization, or just ones that interact with your vagina? How do the silicone tools you suggest hold up after repeated use? Where do your assumptions on origins of these tools stem from?

    And here lies my main issue with assigning an increased value to the social sciences within the study of the physical sciences. It’s far too easy for a person’s personal experiences and feelings to taint findings and observations. Ignoring the obvious “shortcomings” of eugenics, one only has to look at how fundamentally tainted with ideology the earth-sciences has become, to virtually all involved… Or how white-privilege theory mirrors so closely the idea of original sin. I would advocate the opposite; that social sciences (especially when gender is the unit of analysis) should incorporate the physical sciences to a far greater degree than is what is happening today. I find that those who study humanities (especially gender-ideologues) forget that we are largely pre-programmed biological robots.

    Cool blog by the way!

    • Thanks for the scathing critique! It’s nice that you watered it down with a chipper compliment at the end. I think you and I are in agreement, although we arrive at the same conclusion via different routes. You’re right: the social sciences and the humanities need to engage with the physical sciences more. And while this may be happening in scholarship, I’m not sure how much it happens in classrooms. But I don’t think we’re robots! I know you’re just trying to goad me with that one, right? Right? Maybe we’re only partial robots? Maybe we’re cyborgs!

      And you’re right that I may be reading too much into the speculum issue. Yes, preventing infection is generally a good thing. Preventative health evaluations are also generally a good thing. In a way, you’ve caught me in the midst of a bit of a rhetorical move, there. In another way, though, I meant what I wrote. I’m not so much concerned with the history of the speculum (or its origins)–I’m sure it’s a long one that predates the exclusion of women from medical practice. My point is that now, at this moment in time, we (might?) have the technology to make the examination more comfortable and less invasive-feeling; plus, we also have many women practicing as physicians, and yet, the procedure still seems the same as it would have been for my mom when she was younger, or my mom’s mom. This may be a direct result of the bureaucratic management of state health care, where cost concerns (ie., using instruments that are durable and won’t corrode) override concerns for comfort. Are all medical instruments a part of this genderization, you ask. Well, jeez, I don’t know. But from where I stand, modern medical practice is in many ways rooted in a view of the body that sees it as an object, separate from the mind and/or the emotions, and this is gendered insofar that this view of the body (and of medicine) appears to come out of the masculinization of medicine (although both men and women are subjected to this type of view of themselves fairly often). Women medical practitioners (midwives, nurses) have for a long time been an integral part of a woman’s reproductive health; it’s a relatively recent phenomenon that saw women excluded from this type of medicine, or that saw the de-valuation of midwifery in the name of hard science. The systematic de-valuation of all facets of life deemed feminine (ie., domestic work, reproductive labour, grade-school teaching, etc) is directly linked to a sexist agenda that was invested in keeping women and their reproductive bodies at home where they could reproduce the family (both as a social and biological unit). So yes, I think that modern medical practice is rooted in a particular view of the body that was advanced by male philosophers, scientists and doctors invested in a worldview that saw women (and all associated with them, from emotions to sensuality) as inferior, dangerous, or downright pathological.

      I’m not sure you would agree with that reading. You might say that this is not the world we live in now. And you’d be right. But this gendered view of the body still permeates our modern lives. Perhaps you’d argue that medical practice should be objective, clinical, technical and non-emotional, for the sake of clarity. I would have to disagree with you on that one, whole-heartedly. I think people need more connection in their lives, and less bureaucratic management of themsevles as a series of manageable parts, rather than a messy whole.

      Generally, I think it’s much easier to look at the way we live now and say, “This is reality” than to look at how it might be, or how it might have been, because those “mights” are always subject to proof-tests grounded in the very “reality” they are trying to disrupt. Does that make sense? I guess what I’m trying to say is that held up to the light of reason what I’m saying might not hold true. But, I do know what I want, and desire is a different thing altogether from reason.

  4. I actually do believe that we, as humans (mammals) are largely pre-programed biological robots (animals in reality). One of the more startling observations I’ve made studying history is humanity’s capacity for narcissism and propensity to claim we are more than what we are. We are not just humans, we were made in God’s image; the universe was created to revolve around us, etc. I could go on… For some reason we all have a soul, whereas my (fictional) dog doesn’t. The reason I say we are largely pre-programed is that so much of what defines a person’s gender or sexuality (which essentially makes up a significant part of who they are), or even things like intelligence and temperament, are kind of with a person right from the get-go. I can only speak for myself, but my sexuality and gender identification has for the most part been with me since I was born. Cultural norms were definitely a factor (racist parents are more likely to raise racist children), but I feel that they merely funneled what was already there. Transsexual people often realize from a very young age that they are so. It’s also why a person can’t be “de-programed” from being a homosexual. So yeah, I don’t believe (for the most part anyways) that gender and sexuality are learned phenomenons.

    Truthfully, I wouldn’t even begin to discuss society and gender without discussing biology and anthropology first.

    And I do think that “medical practice should be objective, clinical, technical and non-emotional”. Reproductive health is an uncomfortable subject for many, especially when a stranger is prodding around your genitalia (as you highlight) for both the doctor and the patient. I prefer my medical experiences to be completely asexual. My next question would be, what would you feel if you went to the gynecologist and it felt… good?

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