Archive for the 'Gendering Technology' category

Why Don't The Humanities Bring Science Into Their Classrooms?

Nov 19 2013 Published by under Geekalicious, Gendering Technology, Logos, Pathos, Ethos

In my usual graceful manner, I barged into a conversation on twitter between @Drew_Lab and @LauraSBooth regarding this point: "I see scientists bringing in Steinbeck, I never see English profs bringing in science." Nuh-uh, I said, they do too bring in The Science! And I promised references.

This post is my reply. Some qualifiers: I don't claim this is an exhaustive round-up of what's out there. It's just what I know about and can lay my hands on quickly. Also, consider these ponderings.

1. Humanities and social science scholars have been studying, critiquing, and writing about science & technology since forever. There's even a whole field called Science, Technology, and Society, with journals and conventions and classes and even, in some places, one can major in it. Does any of this scholarly activity count as bringing in science?

2. I will acknowledge, these scholars are not running gels or differentiating equations in their classes or having poster sessions of latest results at their meetings. But is this what we need humanities and social science scholars to do, really? And what outcome do we expect or want if they do?

3. What do we mean by science? What kinds of things do we want brought into non-science classrooms? Does that differ significantly from field to field?  Is history of science good enough? Are critiques of science (STS, feminist theory) sufficient? Do we want humanities students to learn actual bits of science - and if so, what bits?  Is the entrance of science into the humanities/social science classroom to be a demonstration of the wonder of science? Are the students to learn the scientific method, to think like scientists?

I'll stop now.

If your campus has a women's studies program, there is a chance that someone in that program has been doing something with science in one of their classes. This will most likely be one of two things: history or critique. Women's studies scholars look at the history of lost and forgotten women in science, and the barriers women faced against their participation in science. Margaret Rossiter's three-volume Women Scientists in America is a comprehensive overview, but of course there is much to be said outside these volumes and about women outside the U.S.

Women's studies scholars also critique the practice of science, its processes and products. Books on these topics are too numerous to list.

There are many courses that take these topics as their subject or include them as a portion of the course.  There once was an archive of these courses accessible through the wmst-l site but the link seems to be broken now. The wmst-l listserv would be a source of information for people who have or are currently teaching courses in these areas.

STS programs list their courses: check out Stanford's program's offerings. I want to take Text Technologies: A History. That sounds so cool.  Take a look at their faculty list - they come from all sorts of disciplines. OMG Helen Longino is there! Fangirl moment!

I would also like to point out that the esteemed Janet Stemwedel, @DocFreeride, teaches about ethics and science. Surely that must count as bringing science into the classroom. Do not argue that point.

There are print resources. The book Feminist Science Studies: A New Generation ed. M. Mayberry, B. Subramaniam, and L. Weasel, contains several useful essays. Take "Difficult Crossings: Stories From Building Two-Way Streets" by Baker, Shulman, and Tobin. A several-years long program designed to help scientists bring women's studies into their classrooms and vice-versa, it did not try to do both at the same time. The project devoted an entire year to each. I would bet that this project yielded more publications than just this book chapter. It might be worthwhile looking for them, or just contacting one of the authors about it. This is the most organized approach I am aware of.There could be others, I just don't know about them, as this has not been an area I've focused on.

There are two more essays in the book, companion pieces by Subramaniam and by Witmore. Subramaniam was a biological scientist, Witmore a rhetorician. He analyzed her scientific writing as rhetoric. They each wrote about the experience and outcome. I believe any scientist or humanities scholar would find these pieces of interest.

I myself have collaborated with a social scientist,  and we produced a publication! "Telling Stories About Engineering: Group Dynamics and Resistance to Diversity". It is in NWSA Journal, vol 16 no 1 spring 2004 pp 79-95. It's in an anthology somewhere but you can get it at your uni library in the journal form.

Helen Longino famously collaborated with Ruth Doell to write Body, Bias, Behavior: a Comparative Analysis of Reasoning in Two Areas of Biology Science.  So yeah, publications are not classes, but actual collaborations of a non-scientist with a scientist are worthy of note, I think.

One last significant publication: Sally Hacker's book Pleasure, Power, and Technology: Some Tales of Engineering and the Cooperative Workplace. Hacker was a sociologist who actually took calculus classes. Then she wrote about the role intro calc performs in the lives of engineering students: how important calculus was as a gate-keeper, how it functioned as a maker of men from the boys.

This is a completely random listing of things that I think speak to the question of "English profs bringing in science".  There would be more links if my head hurt less right now.  It may or may not be helpful, and it may or may not answer the original question. I think that's about a complete CYA. I shall therefore stop now.

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The (Semi)Willing Suspension of Disbelief: Revolution

As it turns out, an attractive young woman can still hope to find a well-fit pair of low rise jeans in post-apocalyptic America. Charlie's parents must have thoughtfully looted all styles and sizes while fleeing after the electricity went off, so that when grown up, she'd be well-dressed to take on the walk through the woods to Chicago.

That was one of my first impressions of Revolution, a new NBC show. Everyone had relatively nice, well-fitting clothes, even after 15 years of no new manufacture, no washers and dryers, and no hot showers for the sweaty bodies laboring in those clothes. My mind wandered back to Lost, and how the characters got sweaty, grimy, soaked in rainstorms and so forth, until Ben Linus gave Kate that nice new dress.  Charlie's mother is Juliet Burke - possibly this is where she landed after the Incident, and not in the future fighting space aliens on behalf of humanity and a sulky teenage boy. Or perhaps they are all alternate timelines. Anyway, she dies offscreen in the first 10 minutes or so.  She's slated for 6 episodes so we'll probably see more of her in...flashbacks!

Charlie is also a sulky teenager, of the female variety, who wants to go exploring, even though Dad says she'll get raped.  The world is dangerous for women! There's nothing out there that's worth seeing! He wants to Taliban her up in the compound and keep her safe.  Joke's on him: he gets shot to death in the compound and she leaves to roam the wider world in search of his brother. It's okay, because he asked her nicely to do it.

The brother, in deep cover, is a cakewalk to find.  Charlie, along with her father's sexy doctor lover and the requisite shaggy-haired glasses-wearing science geek set out together as the unlikely band. Along the way they pick up a hawt archery dude. They fight off two rapists with some poisoned alcohol (did you see that, Deborah Blum?) and a well-placed arrow and boom! they're in Chicago.

Lady walks into a bar, sez "Do you know where my Uncle Miles is?" Bartender says, "No kid, I'm just trying to keep a low profile here." Lady pouts, bartender melts and next thing you know they're in the back room together. Not doing that. Just talking. Then Mr. Z and I got too sleepy to watch the rest of what we'd tivo'd. I think we were pretty far into the episode.  I'm guessing Miles agrees to help her search for her kidnapped brother even though he says he's just bait, and they set out on another leg of the quest next week.

Hilariosity in this episode, there was much. How could anyone stand to be in that bar after 15 years of no air conditioning or plumbing? Seriously, find some ethnic Germans and go to their biergarten. You know they will be brewing up Heifeweisse according to Reinheitsgebot.  Charlie does a dramatic voice-over: "If you were in the cities, you died. If you got out, you survived."  I'm pretty certain that most city dwellers (I include myself tho I'm in the burbs) would drop like flies without electricity of any source or kind.  How would you find food for yourself? Do you know how to produce your own food?  How long would it take you to learn? Could you learn fast enough so that you wouldn't starve to death? How are you going to learn if Google has already scanned all the books and they've been sent to the shredder? If you do make it out to the countryside, do you think Sharon Astyk is going to let every last blessed New Yorker trample her farm and eat everything in her larder? You'll look like a plague of locusts descending.  The farm folk will as soon shoot you as help you.  Okay, I don't think Sharon will shoot you but you never know.

So it takes a major suspension of disbelief to imagine our coddled city dwellers make it to the counstryside, learn how to farm and raise sheep (Sharon would say goats are a better choice), and manage to grab and defend some choice land, all while looting the aforementioned selection of jeans for their children's future needs.  The land looks like it's next door to the former planned community of Sylvania Acres (or equivalent). Maybe the houses were built in the fields so they were good to go. In Terra Nova they solved the pioneer problem by saying moar teknology! and dinosaurs! eating people! which was awesome, but the acting was so awful all you could do was cheer for the dinosaurs to eat moar people.

Charlie's younger brother has asthma, which makes it officially the favorite chronic disease of the post-apocalypse among show writers (Shannon had it in Lost) because a kindly knowledgeable doctor who just happened to survive along with you knows how to make natural remedies! Congestive heart failure, muscular dystrophy, chronic migraines, high blood pressure - none of it shows as well on tv as an asthma attack where a doctor can swoop in and RESCUE! And those asthma attacks are amazingly easy to relieve - just a pinch or two of this or that herb and voila! you wonder why anyone today is using inhalers.

The best part of all is that the laws of physics have completely changed! Not gravity, of course, or any of the physics having to do with the structure and use of items of steel and iron but just, you know, the electrical laws!

I won't mention the 15 year old postcard inside the RV that, exposed to the elements, is nonetheless in almost pristine shape; or the relatively high quality of the RV interior itself for that matter. We can allow that for dramatic license.  In fact, I'll allow the whole crazy bit of it, because this is a goddam prime time one hour scripted drama with actual actors, not another America Can Haz Moar Singing With The Celebrity Apprentices!  I want to cheer on their brave efforts, and hope it survives and is good, and networks don't quit doing this sort of thing. Maybe they're in purgatory...that would explain how they all suddenly know  how to farm and raise animals...and the nice clean clothing...hmmm...

I'll watch the second episode for sure, and see where this goes.

UPDATE: Finally watched the last 15-20 minutes. Crikey! Awesome sword play, and an ending as fun as finding the hatch! Let's not quibble over the laws of physics, shall we?

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ZOMFG!!! There Are Women Science Bloggers!!!!11!1!!

The interoobs have discovered (again) that women write science blogs!

Excellent summary, with even more excellent commentary, by Kathryn Clancy of Context and Variation, here.

Here's what I think. From the bottom of my cynical hairy-legged heart: Continue Reading »

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"The Myth of Black Disingenuity": Exploring the Intersection of African American History and the History of Technology

I failed to produce this post in time for DNLee's Diversity in Science carnival - Black History Month: Broadening STEM Participation at Every Level. That's mostly because I had a bunch of personal stuff going on in the past couple weeks that just wouldn't leave me alone. I think I'll be back to more regular blogging now.
You might have already read my brief post on Hercules, the chef enslaved by George Washington who eventually escaped to freedom. In it I noted "It was no small thing to be a chef under such circumstances, and the degree of technical skill required was surely astonishing." Even the highest tech 18th century kitchen still demanded a range and depth of technical competence that today's average pampered cook just can't imagine.
When I read about Hercules in that fantastic set of articles in the Philadelphia Inquirer, I might not have given much thought to the degree of technical skill he must have possessed to turn out state dinners in such circumstances. What put me in the state of mind to ponder such matters was a book I had recently begun browsing: A Hammer in Their Hands: A Documentary History of Technology and the African-American Experience, ed. Carroll Pursell. This book would be worth its price if only for the introductory essay which contextualizes the collection of primary sources that follows with the intersection of African-American history and the history of technology, all in a few short pages. Pursell speaks of the "prehistories" of these fields, and notes the following:

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How Do You Review Avatar?

Maybe you tell us why they're blue.

First the name. Avatar--if you play computer games, you may know this very well--is a character you use inside an unreal world. The word Avatar has its origins in Indian mythology. An Avatar (ava-tara in Sanskrit) is god's visit to earth to fix something that is broken. Vishnu, one of the three gods who protects creation, by necessity visits earth often. Vishnu, the puranas declare, is dark-blue in color (the original story teller was inspired by blue oceans, blue sky?).

Thank you, Scientific Indian.
Maybe you go pretentious.

The point, though, is that every art is defined by its medium. The reason I've referenced Greenberg in the context of Avatar - and please pardon the pretentiousness of the above paragraph - is that I think Cameron has deftly realized the potential of his medium, which is film.

That's Jonah Lehrer's take.
Maybe you go anthropological.

The trope is highly derivative of Mary Doria Russell's "The Sparrow" and "Children of God" which is probably why it all seems so anthropological. In this story, rather than have the natives possess a feature or essence that earthlings just can't understand, they possess a set of cultural traits that earthlings can totally get, if only they would put down their guns and test tubes and corporate quarterly reports long enough to whatever whatever.

That's Greg Laden.
Maybe you want to pretend you are trashing the movie, but you like it, but you are making fun of it, but you are pondering larger issues, too, but hey! those alien women are hot!

Speaking of which, one thing I was wondering about was that the aliens, and in particular the lead female character, were hot: lithely sexy, and barely clothed. It had me wondering what kind of rights the lead actress, Zoë Saldaña, has retained to the image. After all, it's clearly her, despite the distortions of the alien form, and that image is now in a great big digital bucket on some computers somewhere, and could be trundled out and reused in other films. I imagine it would be valuable information to the porn industry, which you just know is itching to get its hands on that technology. There must be some kind of legal protections for digital likenesses being hammered out somewhere, because one thing this movie is going to do is start making that potential problem acute.
I've been belittling the movie, but it really wasn't that awful.

That would be PZ Myers.
Or maybe you want to tell it like it is.

Behold, the ultimate in guilty colonialist fetish fantasy epic porn filmmaking, ever.

That would be Mark Morford's review, "Please mount my hot blue alien" at SFGate. Please do go read it. It's fab.

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Can We Talk About Science? I Mean, Really?

You should never, ever criticize something a New Atheist says about science and religion. Never tell them maybe it's not the best idea in the world to just go on about science/evolution + religion in whatever way, at whatever time, in whatever manner, for whatever reasons. In fact, you cannot criticize the speech of New Atheists even if your goal is not to tell them to shut up, but to suggest that they might get their message across better and more effectively if they tried delivering it in a different manner than the one they've been using, because suggestions like that are CENSORSHIP and it is telling them to SHUT UP and that is WRONG and MEAN.
If you have no idea what I am talking about just Google any of the following in combination: Mooney, Kirshenbaum, PZ Myers, Unscientific America. Be warned, it is not for the faint of heart.
On the other hand, if you are not a New Atheist, and you want to speak about Science and Religion, you might want to choose your words pretty carefully. People might question why in the world you have been allowed to blog on ScienceBlogs. They might question your scientific credentials. They might call you a word-twisting intellectually dishonest buffoon. They will offer nuanced critiques of your writing such as: pathetically wrong and mind-numbingly boring.
I am amused at the outrage caused by one of my newest Sciblings, David Sloan Wilson, who writes the blog Evolution for Everyone. The dude's not shy - he launched himself at Scienceblogs with a post on Science as a Religion that Worships Truth as its God. What's behind all the sputtering anger? I mean, this dude is not the first person ever to posit such notions. Why are everybody's knickers in such a knot? C'mon, you can't pretend that idea isn't out there and doesn't have some serious resonance. And I'm talking about more than "high school debate team" level, as one of his commenters complained. Let's review.

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What's With The Makeovers?

You are a male physics professor, and you want to improve science education. What could possibly be a better idea than to team up with a bunch of professional cheerleaders and make a video of them shouting out science tidbits while they shake their pompoms? Science cheerleaders!
I know, right? You wish you'd thought of it first, don't you?

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Cooking: A Primitive Protection Racket

Jun 24 2009 Published by under Gendering Technology, Manly Men, What They're Saying has John Horgan interviewing Richard Wrangham of Harvard on a variety of topics related to his new book Catching Fire. The part of interest to me - and to our ongoing discussion on patriarchy - relates to cooking as a "primitive protection racket" in which men agree to protect women's food supply in return for being fed so they can just hang out and do manly shit. It's a fascinating discussion, if you can get past Horgan giggling in sheepish delight every time Wrangham points out what a shitty deal patriarchy is for women.
Interestingly, this section of the interview is advertised as "ancient connections between food and sex" but it would more properly be described as "ancient connections between food and the sexual division of labor". I guess "sex" is more sexy and sells better than "sexual division of labor". Because Wrangham clearly points out that the sexual division of labor that involves women cooking and feeding men is NOT related to who's having sex with whom.
He also clearly makes the point that this sexual division of labor is not a result of our biology, but a consequence of a choice of a particular set of social relations - one of which, in modern industrial societies, we have chosen in many ways to undo. Single men are able to feed themselves, if only by ordering pizza, and married men often do the cooking these days.

Incidentally, the mini-review of Wrangham's book on Amazon illustrates why the term "mankind" is not an appropriate substitute for "humankind":

By making food more digestible and easier to extract energy from, Wrangham reasons, cooking enabled hominids' jaws, teeth and guts to shrink, freeing up calories to fuel their expanding brains. It also gave rise to pair bonding and table manners, and liberated mankind from the drudgery of chewing (while chaining womankind to the stove).

The second sentence is trying to have its cake and eat it, too. It sounds sort of nice on first glance with that oppositional mankind and womankind. Until you realize that those who were liberated from the drudgery of chewing were, well, everyone, women as well as men. The sentence sounds like it's working to say men got liberated from x while women got chained to y by the move to cooking, but that's not what happened. Humans got liberated from x, while simultaneously, a subset of humans, women, got chained to y. Using the term humankind would make it clearer that women simultaneously benefited from and were harmed by the move to cooked food. Using mankind as a substitute for humankind attempts to work both meanings into this sentence. First, the fuller and true meaning, that humans benefited from something that also harmed a subset of humans. Second, the less true oppositional meaning that men (only) gained and women were harmed. That second oppositional meaning also serves to reinforce the notion that mankind really means men and that women are a special (lesser) case of mankind - a subtextual meaning that the use of the word humankind in this instance would not convey.

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The Iron As Technological Art Object: Part II

When I was a young girl, I used to watch my mother at her ironing board. There was always a lot of ironing to be done. She kept a big clear plastic bag of clothes waiting their turn at the ironing board, and would sprinkle them with water - there was a special bottle for this sprinkling. I do not think we owned a steam iron when I was very young, and dampening the clothes in this manner was an attempt to help ease the wrinkles out during the ironing process.
Eventually I became old enough to assist in the never-ending ironing chores, and my mother let me practice on pillow cases, just as she did with my sisters. (My brothers, being boys, were exempt from such women's work.) Pillow cases were easy, nice and rectangular; Dad's white t-shirts were slightly more tricky, and from there on I graduated to jeans and then other fancier types of clothing.
Looking back on those years, I can't believe how much time we spent ironing, and how many things we ironed that never feel the touch of an iron today. Pillow cases! White cotton undershirts! Who irons such things nowadays, even though modern irons with all their advanced technology and wonderfully controlled settings would make short work of what we labored over in decades past. I own an Oreck Cord-Free JP8100C Steam Iron which is lightweight and a breeze to use, and yet I ironed a total of two articles of clothing with it in the past two years.
I thought about these things the past week at my mother's house, as I contemplated Jay Raymond's gorgeously photographed book Streamlined Irons.

iron with feet.JPG

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The Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia

Question: Did you know that there are National Historic Chemical Landmarks?
Answer: Yes, there are.
Question: What did the American Chemical Society declare to be its first National Historic Chemical Landmark, and where can you find it?
Answer: "Old Faithful", a Bakelizer or steam pressure vessel, vintage 1909. Phenol and formaldehyde were hardened at 150 C and 100 psi and voila! commercial quantities of Bakelite were the product. You can find it at the museum at the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia.

Old Faithful.JPG

I spent several delightful hours there yesterday afternoon and could easily have whiled away the entire day. Amazingly, this geekster's paradise is free to the public.
The Bakelite exhibit, along with one on semiconductors and another on medical lab equipment, led me to ponder how what we call "chemistry" involves an awful lot of physics, engineering, biology, and medicine. How we guard our disciplinary boundaries in the academy, when in real life they all mix promiscuously! But hey, I'm a biomedical engineer, what do I know.
Here's an overview of the museum interior, from the second level catwalk:

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