While critical thinking is important for all fields, teaching in the
interdisciplinary areas of Environmental Studies, Biology and Society, and Science and
Technology Studies (STS) has provided me opportunities to promote critical thinking in
special ways. Many of my undergraduate students chose my courses because they want to
complement their training in the life sciences with studies of the social context and
social implications of those sciences. Given this, I first encourage these students to see
that critical thinking can help them understand science more or less on its own terms.
For example, in my integrative Biology and Society course, "The Social Construction of
Life," students come to understand natural selection better by examining why Darwin
used the selection metaphor in preference to Spencer's phrase, "the survival of the
fittest." Similarly, I encourage them to distinguish genetics from heredity through an
assignment in which they invent and then describe an analogy for embryological
development. The assignment specifies that the analogous phenomenon should not rely on
a central controller, yet still be able to co-ordinate its own differentiation and change
and thereby make itself. Students have described, for example, improvisional dance,
cheese making, and a casual conversation in an elevator.
Such exercises prepare the students to take critical thinking a significant step further. Students use their images of developmental processes not only to think critically about claims that intelligence is genetically determined, but also to consider the social implications of and social support for the different scientific accounts. The idea here is that close examination of concepts and methods within any given natural or social science can stimulate students' inquiries into the diverse social influences shaping that science. Social contextualization can, in turn, suggest alternative lines of scientific investigation. This two-way interaction between science and social contextualization of science I call reciprocal animation; it enlarges significantly the sources of ideas about what else could be or could have been in science and in society.
Reciprocal animation and critical thinking inform my STS approach to environmental studies and the life sciences more generally. When STSers teach or write about science with the objective of engaging and influencing its practitioners they are implying, more or less, that science could be practiced or applied differently. I encourage graduate students from environmental studies, STS and other disciplines to use historical, philosophical, sociological, political, and literary interpretation in this spirit. For example, my "Social Analysis of Ecological Change"/"Interpreting Nature and Society" seminars examine Hardin's "tragedy of the commons," his idea that any non-privatized resource, such as the rangeland of nomadic pastoralists, will inevitably be degraded. One interpretative angle is to link First World scientists' interest in exotic situations to their concerns about situations much closer to home. The popularity of Hardin's thesis becomes an ironic inversion of a "tragedy of atomized individuals" in the West, that is, environments will inevitably be degraded when people have difficulty influencing social arrangements except through isolated individual actions as consumers. (As a simple example, individually people choose to commute on congested freeways. Although most of them would be better off with efficient public transport, they have few means of reaching a social consenus about this more sustainable alternative.) This kind of interpretation invites a shift in socio-environmental research -- Instead of empirical assessments of the tragedy of the commons in the Third World, a whole new line of investigation and theorization in the First World can be brought into focus.
By exposing points at which the science could be (or could have been) pursued differently, reciprocal animation and critical thinking open up a more difficult issue: Through what processes are alternatives actually realized (or deflected)? My STS work emphasizes how, in order to know the world and practice their science, scientists harness diverse resources -- from funding opportunities to metaphors, status hierarchies in their discipline to data available/collectable given the time allocated for the study. As a teacher I therefore highlight the diverse kinds of practical measures, not just conceptual shifts, needed to modify the development of the episode of science we are considering. Of course, the particular resources and their inter-linkages making up such heterogeneous constructions differ from case to case; reconstructions of their complexity require considerable practical experience. Heterogeneous construction can, however, be made accessible to students through exercises in which they attempt to map the diversity of influences on their own development, the ways these build on each other over time, and the different potential points of intervention. Eventually, I hope, they will bring a heterogenous constructionist view of agency to bear on their own research, applications of science, and other social interventions.
While I have found ways to introduce students to reciprocal animation and heterogeneous construction, it has been harder to draw them into using these approaches in their own STS or scientific studies. I cannot point to unanimous student approval; my courses challenge students in unfamiliar ways and they respond with challenging suggestions and criticisms. In fact, I invite and make room for this. However, I consider that I am on the right track when students comment that while my courses require harder work than other courses, the educational payoff makes the effort worthwhile. And, for me, the effort is definitely worthwhile. Developing these approaches to teaching and advising stimulates and reinforces the other strands of my larger scholarly project, namely, to open up space for reflexive, critical scientific practice in society and, in particular, in the academy.
4/95; revised 10/97 & 1/98