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?