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Anne Dalke's picture

citizen intellectuals

I also attended the conference, and was also quite heartened to learn of the varieties of ways in which conversational and socially responsive science is being taught @ a range of institutions; it's nice to see so many fellow-travelers!

I actually found myself most intrigued, though, by the conversations which highlighted the rough edges of this way of doing things, since that's where the learning can happen. So: what's the difference between doing politics and civic engagement? What happens to the "objectivity" when one is politically invested in the outcomes of one's experiments? What sorts of problems arise when research programs are explicitly directed by liberatory political goals? What troubles occur when "social value" is used as a standard from which to judge and fund the work of science?

I'd spent some time thinking about these questions before I got to the conference, but our conversations there highlighted them again for me. The interdisciplinary nature of the conversations also highlighted the challenge of dealing with each others' rhetoric and sense of certainty. As David Burns has commented, With friends like these...we should expect resistence by "those students who succeeded in the old way." But what was most remarkable about these discussions was that they were cross-generational; the greatest delight for me--what really distinguished this conference from others I've attended--was the incorporation of student perspectives in all the presentations.

But if the "key SENCER manuever," as David also reminded us, is "locating some interest," then where is the civic engagement in those projects that are less community-driven than student-initiated? How to market courses with topics that are important and hard to face, like "childhood obesity"? How to teach emerging activist-scientists pleasure and hope along with civic responsibility? How to help these students learn to evaluate (but not over-weigh the value of) other opinions?

A number of presenters talked about the difficulties they had applying the assessment tools SENCER supplies; what other measures for assessment might be used, other than those currently available to us? How much gatekeeping and guidance do our students need? One of us felt that "the worst thing is to send them on a wild goose chase"; another quipped that it's only responsible "to send someone who is interested in geese on a wild goose chase"; others of us (I include myself in this group) felt that identifying for themselves a worthwhile project to pursue is precisely the kind of work that young scientists need to learn how to do.

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