In Which I Hope I’m Wrong (or, Notes from a Small Cranium)

Prepare to aggregate the phenomena.

Normally I would be cautious about doing this, but something about the recent presidential campaign and the widespread support for Romney’s barely disguised loyalties to class and race (see below), urges me on.  Historian of science Darin Hayton blogs today about coverage in the Independent of a stunningly retrograde piece of biological determinism: In the current Trends in Genetics, Stanford geneticist Gerald Crabtree claims  that due to genetic complexity humans are “intellectually fragile” and thus, Dr. Crabtree says, unsurprisingly growing dumber over time as a species.

Don’t ask. Fortunately Hayton captures the sloppiness of Crabtree’s  genetic-materialist argument for us, redolent as it is with “the tried and true cranial-volume correlation.” Hayton’s post also prompts me to ask:  Is it coincidence that the Stanford researcher feels he can broadcast his essentialist concerns just as Princeton faculty member Christy Wampole indulges in some of her own retro, essentialist sharing? Her critique of irony-laden hipster sensibilities, which appeared in last week’s New York Times,  posits a remarkably old fashioned notion: That of pure human experience  being sullied by modern culture. At her essay’s prescriptive center is the idea that certain, admirable human types (children, the elderly, persons with disabilities, all who “suffer”) live more real lives than do those who regularly traffic in irony.

Earlier today, I posted a piece about her claims on the blog of the Philadelphia Area Center for the History of Science and I won’t rehash my discomfort with them here; suffice it to say that thoughts of Francis Galton have come up more times in one day than one would like.

Composite Portrait in the Style of Francis Galton (From Truman State University, at

Nor do I want  to identify a cultural trend if all this is really only matter of a few outliers at work. But reading about Crabtree, I can’t help but  wonder if there isn’t a new endorsement out there, and a potentially influential one at that (…The words of Stanford and Princeton faculty? Ideas disseminated in an Elsevier journal? The New York Times? By a presidential candidate?) for the idea of human types, and for the historically related notion that biology determines culture.

Obviously those eugenic ideas never go away entirely in the U.S.; conservative social trends and  biological explanations of human conduct are perpetually co-produced, as Troy Duster has shown so clearly. But these ideas do seem to have had some new life breathed into them in the last few months, at least for some arbiters of cultural and biological knowledge in our midst.

If my own cranial volume turns out to be sufficient to the cause, and I’ve got this right,  prepare to worry.

Opening the Lab: STEM Equity for Students with Disabilities

From ISci Science Access Blog (

The exclusion of persons with disabilities from STEM disciplines is something I’m just starting to study.  If you know this blog, you know this is not really a set of discriminatory practices that I’ve  written about here.  And that is both telling and troubling because it is an aspect of STEM equity that should be integral to our thinking on the subject, not a distinct set of considerations, let alone one that trails after our more familiar concerns with race or gender discrimination.

I want to use this space to formulate questions about disabilities in scientific and technical disciplines, and as usual it is not a matter of looking for what we might label good- or ill intentions.  Instead we need ask questions like these, about seemingly practical decisions:  Why do some STEM instructors, when asked to accommodate students with disabilities, see insurmountable safety issues? Or prefer the use of classroom aides for students with disabilities rather than technical or procedural innovation that might lead to more direct student participation? Why do disabilities officers to whom I’ve spoken often find STEM departments less able to “find time” to make changes than other parts of the university?

I think one recent effort to address accessibility in the science lab holds a kernel of important ways to think about all this.

Take a look at this recent newspaper article, “Blind CU-Boulder Student Inspires Lab Changes,” by Whitney Bryen.  At the University of Colorado at Boulder, one creative and highly focused student, her willing instructors, and some innovative Disabilities Services staff members have together developed ways to make laboratory processes accessible to visually impaired researchers.

The student, Amelia Dickerson, is blind and had been frustrated by limits to her immersion in laboratory work for chemistry courses.  Working with the school’s disabilities services team, Dickerson’s chemistry professor Susan Hendrickson began to make material and procedural changes to lab practices that among other things allowed the student to ascertain experimental results through non-visual means.  Note how simple some of the changes were: for example, the addition of notches to the printed calibrations on lab glassware, at a cost of just 25 cents per test tube.

Look closely, as well, at the changes that involved higher-tech interventions, such as the school’s purchase of  a $900 apparatus that can help translate visual laboratory data into auditory information.  There are many more apparatuses of this nature on the market, such as those available from Independence Science,  and I’ll be writing about those shortly.

For now, I want to make the point that it is not cost alone that has stood in the way of wider laboratory adoption of such technologies; after all, very few labs have undertaken the 25-cent innovation, either. Rather, I see a belief among scientists that such translations are not translations at all, but alterations of laboratory data.  That is, I see an uncritical acceptance of the idea that it is the data’s visuality, its expression on a graph or instrument panel for scrutiny by the researcher in that form, that gives it meaning. In this view,  to re-present the data in any other format would be to change it.

Most scientists presume some optimal association of scientific form and content but unlike Hendrickson, never make such associations explicit. So conventional practices seem unassailable.   Thus is the student with disabilities rendered an unlikely future scientist in the eyes of many, without anyone actually saying that’s what’s happening. (These conventions of scientific display, incidentally, are a focus of  Science Studies, my home discipline).  My point here is that exposing and thinking about such epistemic features of STEM practice will help us understand and address discrimination faced by persons with disabilities, just as it has illuminated racial and gender inequities.

We know that science sees its procedures as the essence of its rigor. And, indeed, the precision with which a specimen or instrument is handled, or with which measurements are taken, is undeniably crucial to virtually every experimental protocol. But customary understandings of how that precision might be achieved are unnecessarily narrow.  And exclusionary.  CU-Boulder, and other sites such as the University of Washington’s Center for Universal Design in Education,  are taking on that exclusion.

As I tried to show in Race, Rigor and Selectivity in US Engineering, unexamined notions of technical rigor served for generations in America to reinforce the exclusion of HBCU researchers from science. So, too, notions of what counts as a precise handling or accurate measurement in the lab today reinforce the idea that accommodations for physical impairment necessarily reflect loosened standards of precision or accuracy.   Amelia Dickerson and some of the folks at CU-Boulder think this situation cannot stand. We should follow their lead.




Not just STEM, or, Why the American Economy Needs Humanities Majors



Poster from Federal Art Project/WPA

This blog usually focuses on opening the door to science occupations for groups traditionally under-represented in those fields.  Obviously, one aim here is the creation of more opportunities for rewarding and remunerative STEM-related careers for women, minorities and persons with disabilities.  All good. But I have to turn our attention for a minute to a logical fallacy that such activism might unfortunately support: the idea that higher education in the humanities and social sciences is a bad idea for any young person hoping for a paying career.

This is a trope that goes with the pervasive idea that American is suffering from a STEM talent shortage as “competitor” nations build their technical workforces…Which in some narrow sense might be the case, but the answer to that shortage is to provide more kids with higher quality, more welcoming science programming, NOT to turn young people away from their non-STEM passions and pleasures!

Frank Bruni’s column on “The Imperiled Promised of College” restates that not-very-good idea in today’s New York Times.  He fittingly notes the unaffordable cost of college for too many Americans today, but less helpfully sees a worrisome insistence among many students on dead-end degree programs that lead to less-than-meaningful working lives:

 Philosophy majors mull questions no more existential than the proper billowiness of the foamed milk atop a customer’s cappuccino. Anthropology majors contemplate the tribal behavior of the youngsters who shop at the Zara where they peddle skinny jeans.

As is often the case with such plaints, students’ engagement with humanities, arts and social science disciplines comes across in Bruni’s telling as pointless and naïve. But why should we accept that these venerable intellectual pursuits are occupational cul-de-sacs? You would have to accept the existence of an awful lot of social and cultural constraints in the process of doing so.

First:  You would have to accept that the low employment prospects for today’s humanities and social science grads mean that those disciplines are inherently a waste of everyone’s time and money—including the time and money of the anthropology, art history, film studies and philosophy majors who make up some of my brightest and most engaging students.  I will not be the one to tell these kids to suppress their fabulous curiosity, creativity and insight.

That first judgment in turn rests on the presumption that as a nation we cannot afford to create jobs for our arts and humanities graduates. The WPA famously produced some of the most enduring art, drama, and civil architecture in American history, but if that kind of outcome is too touchy-feely for you, think more practically.  Imagine not just the wealth of student experience and cultural excitement that a nationwide artist-, designer- or writer-in-residence program for American high schools would generate, but how students’ expressive abilities and communications skills would improve!  (…according to many educators, the very same  “soft skills” too many of our engineering students lack!)

And what about the democratic (dare I say, “global”?) potential of a nation with more science writers, equipped with federal grants to support their work for local newspapers? Or , with more social scientists specializing in research on the origins and impacts of science, technology and medicine…with funding to share their findings with both expert and community groups?  Our university humanities and social science programs can produce superb practitioners to fill these and many other positions.

Instead, Bruni and others wring their hands in unimaginative supplication to the conventional economic analysis that privileges industrial profits and  the projects that assure those profits.  The impoverished cultural and civic life that this vision projects for America is truly depressing… And, offers another instance where today’s low level of public resources for American arts and letters is naturalized as necessary for a healthy economy, asserting that we just don’t have the money for activities that don’t make money  (…or, make money for those who already have a way to make money, that is; NB how CEO salaries continued climbing throughout the recession).

Would we need big political and cultural changes to bring about this kind of renewal for the status and scale of humanities in American higher ed, a new and unfamiliar vision of what matters, and why? You bet…and just the job for artists, writers, philosophers and historians!

STEAM Vent…or, My Art/Science Problem

With sudden frequency in the last few weeks, at various STEM-related events  I’ve encountered the idea that arts programming would be a valuable addition to science, technology, engineering and mathematics pedagogy.  If STEM programming  is meant to draw as-yet-uninterested young people into technical occupations, or disinterested taxpayers into supporting science education, STEAM seems intended further to entice these audiences  by highlighting the fun and beauty and sensory adventure inherent in those realms.  In almost every invocation of this kind, the arts are  seen to be synonymous with creativity and innovation.  Science educator Martin Storksdieck, of the National Academy of Sciences, nicely summarizes these aims of STEAM advocates in his post, “STEM or STEAM?”.

Until last night, I hadn’t put a great deal of thought into STEAM. In the interest of full disclosure, let me say that I had a previous career in the fine arts.  Analyzing the claims (both persuasive and not) that educators and curators have historically made for the cultural, societal and intellectual benefits of exposure to the arts felt like something I’d already done a lot of.  Not to mention: my brain has been taxed  just by trying to understand how STEM education is playing out in America; I didn’t feel I could take on STEAM.

But last night, I heard a lecture by an artist committed to STEAM activities that has prompted me to think and blog about this trend. Rebecca Kamen is a sculptor who, among other projects, has been helping high school science students integrate art into their research.   Her career has been spent drawing on science as inspiration for her artwork, often with the support of scientific institutions (as a fellowship recipient or visitor).  She spoke last night at the Philadelphia Area Center for the History of Science (PACHS) about her career, and most recent work with collections of the American Philosophical Society and Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia.  She was enthusiastic and clearly deeply moved by her encounters with scientific discovery and its depiction. She genuinely seems to wish the same awe-filled and energizing experience for her audiences.  And I left the talk worried about STEAM.

First, let me say that I really like a lot of Kamen’s sculptures. She looks at scientific inscriptions from all eras (say, an ancient Chinese astronomical text or the familiar Periodic Table of the Elements) and renders the forms she sees there as looser, almost organic,  hand-hewn three-dimensional shapes.  With rough surfaces and cartoon-like contours, these quirky objects felt to me, when I first saw them, like the scientific products of a very non-scientific civilization; they are both mysterious and funny, aspiring to credibility in their imitation of meticulous scientific illustrations, and comic in their soft, smeared versions of those formal conventions…. Above all, her sculptures seemed to pastiche all scientific projects throughout  history with equal humor and tenderness, perhaps reminding us that one era’s cutting-edge science is another’s antiquity. Had I not heard her talk, I would have presumed that Kamen’s work was meant to shake up our veneration of science… to remind us that even the most esoteric  and exalted products of human imagination can, in a certain light, assume the naivete of the kindergartener’s  scribble or the expressive urgency of the first cave painting.

Rebecca Kamen, Hive, 2008

But in the course of her talk, it became clear that for Kamen,  there is no historical perspective, no irony, no relativism. She told of her “awe and wonder” at the visual representations that have accompanied science through time, and spoke repeatedly of being moved to tears by the “beauty” and “magic” of scientific discovery.  Let’s put aside for today the gap between my initial impressions of the work and the artist’s intentions; it’s her messages about art in the realm of science that I want to examine.

Rebecca Kamen, Across the Way, 2004

In that unabashed adoration for her sources of inspiration (and by extension, for her patrons), I heard something that bodes ill for STEAM. I fear the injection of arts into STEM teaching may be a way of shutting down criticality about science and technology, and discouraging reflexivity among scientific practitioners (whether students or professionals),  instead bringing the high-culture cache of fine arts to a realm already steeped in privilege and self-congratulation.

A colleague at the talk, Darin Hayton,  was troubled by Kamen’s historical errors, such as the mischaracterization of the scientific illustrations she celebrated.  (You can read his own blog post about it here.) A number of these  errors were obvious to the historians of science in the room with knowledge of the periods and practices to which Kamen referred. For Hayton, those errors point to Kamen’s elision of the  literary strategies and political conditions that have historically brought science into its authoritative cultural position. Another colleague, by contrast, felt that this artist simply, “Makes her own context.”  True enough, but I think that is exactly what worries me about Kamen’s program.  I think in putting historical and cultural specificity out of sight, Kamen discourages us from questioning how science deploys beauty for its own ends, or how our very notions of beauty (or  “genius” or “creativity”) arise from contingent cultural conditions…conditions with important social ramifications.

For over 200 years in America,  we’ve heard arguments for the automatically humanizing, not to say democratizing,  effects of bringing artists into scientific and technological realms.  But more often than not,  this “collaboration” has served to flatter and elevate science and technology.  In its more critical forms, art has rarely been welcomed into  the science museum, corporate headquarters,  or (I suspect) STEM curriculum.  One major exception, well worth revisiting online,  was the 2008 “Molecules that Matter” show, curated at Skidmore  College in partnership  with (and displayed at), the Chemical Heritage Foundation, a setting which has often shown far less provocative art-about-science.

In that show, the uncertain and even disturbing social features of science were displayed alongside the lovely and enticing. Many more wonderfully challenging art works about science and technology, sometimes created in collaboration with non-artists, are readily found in art studios, galleries and museums. If STEM is really to open its constituent disciplines  to more equitable, more self-critical practices, awestruck adoration of science and technology  is the last thing we need.  That’s what science too often provides for itself. Instead we should be asking: For whom is science beautiful, and why, in a culture? Who gets to say what beauty is? Whose voices go unheard? In short: We need the disruptive, transgressive,  or at least, open inquiry that art can bring to its subjects, not its flattery.

Engineering Education in Perspective

Several excellent essays describing engineers as educators with social values and ideological commitments–left, right, and center–appear in the latest Technology and Culture. This journal, for those who don’t know it, may sound  narrowly academic but it frequently offers articles that are low on jargon and high on material of interest to practitioners and policy makers. This special issue on engineering education can prime the pump for new approaches to engineering education reform, and for some vital critical thinking on matters of race and identity in engineering, as well. For anyone who teaches humanities courses for engineering students, Matthew Wisnioski’s contribution, “‘Liberal Education Has Failed:” Reading Like an Engineer in 1960s America,” offers a fascinating backstory and more than a few constructive suggestions for sustaining that sometimes thankless pedagogical task. The fun may start, though, if we put it on our syllabi for just those courses…

Seating Social Scientists at the STEM Table

In what we can now see is a noticeable trend, social scientists have lately taken a new interest in engineering equity, outlining the broad trends and, vitally, recurrent challenges faced by diversity-focused and other socially informed efforts in technical fields. Earlier this year, Karan Watson, an electrical engineer at Texas A&M also widely known for her work in engineering instruction and administration, guest edited an issue of the Journal of Engineering Education that presented incisive social scientific studies of institutional habits.  Carroll Seron and Susan Silbey, meanwhile, are bringing an anthropological and sociological perspective to the study of engineering education reform efforts. They have shown that engineers’ focus on measurable outcomes, in the classroom and when working for clients, gives short shrift to “what cannot be measured.” That leaning may well arise from the pressures of accreditation and employment, but Seron and Silbey help us see that inclusion, social responsibility, and other hard-to-measure projects thus remain marginalized in engineering, even among well-intentioned reformers.

Happily, a new journal, Engineering Studies, in which their essay appears, promises many more contributions to this conversation.  As Watson notes, engineering education is a field with clear interest in self-study and reform, but one that tends to dismiss the meaning of past lessons.  She tells us that,

Education innovation deserves the same discipline, imagination, and effort that we are willing to put into other complex engineered systems.

The new humanistic and social scientific attention to engineering education seems poised to jump-start just such an engagement. Let’s hope that universities, used to maintaining sturdy distinctions among their technical, humanistic, and pedagogical functions, support this collective effort.