About CommForge2

CommForge2 is the course website for LAIS423/523, Advanced Science Communication, at the Colorado School of Mines. From here, you can link to student sci-tech blogs, read about the course, and comment on current events and stories. Welcome!

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Hormones and Voting

We were reading excerpts from Dorothy Nelkin's classic book Selling Science last week in class.  A fair amount of my students assumed Nelkin was a man when they read her work, by the way, so here's a lovely picture of her:

In class, we created a typology of classic science narratives that appear in media coverage of science and technology on the board, narratives such as:

  • The scientist as hero
  • The scientist as deviant, which only proves the real purity of the scientific enterprise
  • Technology as the cutting edge of history
  • Technology as potentially perilous and needing to be controlled
And so on.  The book is about 25 years old now, so I challenged the class to go online (we work in a tiny computer lab), to find modern sci-tech news stories, and to examine them for evidence of Nelkin's types.  I had also hoped students might venture to update her typology somewhat, given that things such as gender representations have (hopefully) changed in the last quarter-century.

We didn't get very far.

Shane (of Chewblagga) was the first to present his article, and he brought up the CNN news flap over the scientific study that claims that women who are ovulating and single are more likely to vote for progressives, where as married women are more likely to vote conservative.  Or, in other words, single chicks vote for Obama (because, as one of my students pointed out, moms tend to vote for the handsome guy).  But that only holds if your mom is single.  And ovulating.  Which, ew.

Also, CLEARLY, in the interests of fairness, we need to point out that both candidates are handsome.  I know because I watched the debates and was checking them out.  I'm not trying to make a political statement here, like about who would make a better President based on looks.  But how could you not notice?  Same for the vice-presidential debates!  I could hardly follow what they were saying because of all the handsomeness.

Plus, really, it's hard to keep all of the politics straight.  Most likely because women who menstruate can't multitask.  And how was I supposed to follow politics and policy with all that handsomeness and potential male fertility flying around?  I had laundry to fold!

Or perhaps it's just that women are having trouble figuring out which presidential candidate turns them on.

In any case, there's some lesson to be learned here, I'm sure of it.  Perhaps it's that Nelkin is right, and that scientific study that claims to settle some sort of social debate or controversy (such as whether women really are the weaker sex, thanks to the whole menstruation thing) is going to get a lot of news coverage, because in society we tend to want science to definitively decide some things for us.  And the power that women seem to be wielding as voters in this election--which is also about a lot of policies affecting women's rights--might be freaking us out a little.  It would be great if we just had some science to tell us what to do.  Nelkin--and other classic Science and Technology Studies (STS) texts we've read in class--have tried to show us both that science is not always performed so neatly, nor can it be neatly mapped on to social issues in such a way.  We're going to have to figure this out through politics.

We could also add that science that doesn't agree with our political values is quickly discounted as being sham science, and this is true on the left, and on the right, and with climate change, stem cells, abortion, or women's hormones, among other things.  Censoring the science is probably not good for the scientific enterprise as a whole, even if it might be good for women in the short-term.  So even though I find this kind of study (what I've seen of it) troubling from a personal and political perspective, I think CNN pulling the story is an odd move.  Better to improve your coverage, have the scientific debate out and out, in full view, with transparency.

Let the golem come forth, in other words.  Let the doing of science be visible.

Or maybe the lesson you learned in class is that you can easily get your professor off on some tangent, derailing her pedagogical goals, by bringing up an example like this.  Clearly, she's no good at multitasking, and now you know why.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Midterm Evaluation Interlude

Readers who are not in my class, forgive me.  I must take a brief interlude to address the concerns of students as expressed on their midterm evaluations.  Students, your feedback was both constructive and helpful, and though I can't make all of the changes you would like (such as moving the class to MWF, or having classes catered by Applebee's) I want to deal with a few of your concerns and suggestions.

1.  You would like for me to post an example of a good ARM.  Apologies!  I always do this for the ARM assignment, thought I had done it for this class, but now see that I haven't.  Examples of a "good" ARM and a "poor" ARM are now posted under "Assignments" in Blackboard.

2.  You would like me to get more input from quiet students.  Yes.  You are right.  This is something I struggle with as an instructor.  I get very animated and enthusiastic and am excited for the conversation to move along, and before you know it, only five or six people are involved in our classroom conversation.  The hacky-sack has made an appearance recently, so if you're a quieter student, be prepared to see that (and some other tricks up my sleeve) soon.  Don't forget, too, that everyone will need to participate in the upcoming presentation workshops.

3.  You would like clearer explanations for assignments and their requirements.  Let me remind you that we built the requirements for the blog together in class and that they are posted on Blackboard under "Assignments" in the "Blog" folder.  The video assignment was explained here, along with expectations.  A few of you mentioned you would have liked more time to work on the video project.  Me too!  I'll see if I can add more time in next time I teach the class.  But one of the purposes of it is to figure out how to make a video quickly and post it to your blog.  Steep learning curve, I know, but you did it, and you have that knowledge now.  In any case, I have created detailed materials for the Presentation and will post them on Blackboard today!

4.  One of you mentioned that there is an uncomfortable dynamic between undergrads and grads (with the grads being sort of know-it-alls who are going to get all the As).  I'm guessing not all of you feel this way, but for what it's worth, the grads are graded on a different scale from the undergrads, so their A's (if they get them) don't threaten your A's (if you get them).  Grads, don't let this dampen your enthusiasm for participating, but you might be aware of how you respond to undergrads.  Undergrads, keep in mind that CSM is funky in how they mix grad and undergrad class and that some times the grads may want to push ahead some.  That is just a dynamic we have to deal with.

5.  You would like to change the ARMs due date to facilitate better discussion.  Done.  You can now submit ARMs by the beginning of class the day the reading is due.  But keep in mind I won't have seen your ARM discussion questions, so you'll need to come to class prepared to bring them up.

Great comments, everyone, and I hope this post goes a little way towards addressing them.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Talk Nerdy To Me

Okay, that last post was a long one.  Those things were maybe on my mind for a while.

We're headed out of the video blog post section of the course (more on that soon) and into the presentation section.  Briana sent me this video, which I think is relevant to my last post, and to where we're headed next.

I don't agree with everything she says--engineers aren't the only ones with big brains, and tackling our grandest challenges, though they are really important.  But I like her invitation to speak with one another.  Looking forward to some nerdy talk!

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Those Who Can't Do, Teach

You've heard that saying before, right?  I don't know where it comes from, but it's typically used to disparage teachers and professors who stay locked in their ivory towers (or ivory labs) and are so disconnected from the world that they don't really understand what they are teaching about.  I think it's also a barb intended to undermine teacher authority in the classroom, along the lines of, why would I listen to you?  When's the last time you were in the real world? 

Fair enough.  I bet we've all had teachers like that--who are so passionately focused on minutia or, frankly, who are so bad at their job that we wonder how they can even get their shoes tied in the morning much less inspire young minds.  I'd like to believe they are few and far between, but in some cases:  those who can't do, teach.

But I think we could also ask how far this line of argumentation gets us.

Take this comment from a student (about me):  "Besides, she has never done lab research, she has no right to preach, teach, or grade this class."


First response (to myself):  Nope, I've never done lab research.  But I do have eight years of graduate school under my belt, more than fifteen years of teaching experience, I've published widely in the field, given over 30 presentations and talks in the US and around the world, to a wide variety of audiences, and...

Wait a minute.  I'm being defensive.  Though I am reminded of Olson's critique that those who most need science communication training are often those who most resist it.  And clearly this conversation is not really about facts, or credentials.  What the heck is going on here?

Second response (to myself):  But communication is really important.  We could cite that study done by Goldman Sachs (contextualized here) that shows that about 70% of project delays for oil companies comes from social barriers, which have miscommunication at their core.  Or point to publications and reports from the National Academy of Engineering, the National Academy of Sciences, ABET (which accredits engineering schools in the US), and a major survey done of engineering CEOs and professional engineers who argue that the one skill engineering graduates lack is communication.  Those guys rated "problem solving and communication" as the most important skill you'll need (math and engineering knowledge came in fifth).  We could look at book after book, textbook after textbook, speech after speech that argues that scientists and engineers need to know how to communicate because their work is increasingly important in the public sphere.

Shoot, I could even point to the email I got from a scientist colleague last week asking me to help him out because the very prestigious journal he just got published in is now doing video abstracts.  His will be the second one ever.  I would bet in a few years everyone will be doing them.   "How do I do that?" he asked.  "I don't know, but let's try!" I said.

But this is all just more data.  The deficit model in action.  I'm assuming that if this student knew what I know, he'd agree that communication is important.  But he might not.

And he's not alone in his belief about expertise and communication.  Last year, a faculty member on campus vociferously argued that I had no right to teach the course Nuclear Power and Public Policy because I'm not a nuclear engineer.

I'm tempted to argue:  well, then.  I suppose a World War II historian has to be a vet to write about that history?  Or maybe he should just be dead, so he can write about dead people?  Maybe we should get rid of all the technical professors on campus who have been out of industry for more than a few years?  

Absurd, right?  Is knowledge really so stuck in these tiny little boxes?  Is teaching just about how much knowledge you can accrue and then dump into a student's head?

But there I go, being defensive again.

Third response (to myself, and to you):  Sigh.  

If there's one thing I've learned over the years, it's that when a critique--however rudely put--really stings, it's probably because there's some truth to it.  I won't concede to the student's argument that I shouldn't be teaching this class because I haven't done lab work.  I think that's nonsense, and I would bet most thinking people would agree with me on that.

But here's the thing:  the practice of communication is still very much an art in a lot of respects.  There is a ton of research on communication, don't get me wrong.  But things are changing so rapidly that the "rules" of public communication in particular are shifting under our feet.

Meaning:  there are no hard and fast rules for what really works in every situation.  Sorry--there just aren't.  Meaning:  what really works in one situation might not work in another.  You can't plug and chug your way through a communication event.  Meaning:  we often know more about what doesn't work than what does.  Smart people are doing smart work in this area, but it's still pretty new.  Consider that it wasn't so long ago that

  • Every major American city had a newspaper (or two!), and people actually got their news from them
  • There were no 24-hour news channels
  • People corresponded through the mail
  • Blogs didn't exist
  • Smart phones and tablets didn't exist
  • If you wanted to watch a television program, you had to actually turn on your television.
I'm not that old, friends, and I remember the world that I have just described quite clearly.  The point is that things are changing rapidly, the rules of communication are in flux, and it's going to take effort and experimentation to figure this out.

Meaning:  from my perspective, we are all in this together.  I need scientists and engineers to teach me about their work so that I can communicate about it, and I hope they will want to learn about communication for the same reason.  We are building best practices and experience together (like my friend above who is courageous enough to try a video abstract for a major publication, for the first time).

I know this work can feel uncomfortable, or slow, or too subjective to be taught.  But hang in there.  Leave your cynicism aside for a moment and know that there are things we can teach each other, and learn from scholarship, and develop through practice.  It's a different kind of skill-building from what you learn in your other classes.  Still, I believe that it is possible to get better, and even to get really good, at communication.  

But only if you keep trying.