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meeting the authors

Anne Dalke's picture

This week will be interestingly different from those previous, because you'll have the opportunity to meet w/ the authors of the texts we will be discussing. I've invited Paul Grobstein to join us on Monday, when we'll discuss both his essay on science as storytelling and revising, and mine on literature as a form of exploration. On Wednesday we'll be hosting a visit from Afsaneh Najmabadi, to discuss her essay on "Truth of Sex," as well as the decisions that led her from an initial BA and MA in physics to her current work, as professor of history and women's studies at Harvard.

So: post here your questions for each/any/all of these authors; give us/them a heads up about what you'd like to discuss/know more about/understand better/push back on in our/their essays. We'll all be interested to know what/how our essays have provoked you to think.

Pemwrez2009's picture

Starting sooner

Preface: I was told that my posting did not show up...and I am so frustrated that ...this sort of thing always happens to me! This is basically what I wrote before:

I really enjoy learning about educational structures and how looking at our development is crucial in our understanding of where we are and how we learn. It is so important to question the standards and framework of how we have been educated. In Paul's article I was really able to identify with the idea of learning in our youth and how that contributes greatly to the way we are able to understand material later in life. Even more importantly, this helps us to formulate our own ideas and understand why we are forming them.

The first model that Paul spoke of reminded me a lot of Barad's emphasis on agential realism. It had a similar feel of limitations and boundaries--no void space, no gray area.


Maybe it is our definitions of scientific thinking that need to change. Rather than understanding scientific thinking as the product of having a "math or science brain" but the idea of breaking things down and having a natural curiosity to explore questions we have concerning the physical world around us. Maybe that will even alleviate the problems we have with understanding quantum physics which is the obvious example of the conceptual existing with questions yet to be answered.


When reading Anne's article I was really inspired by how she explored what it is to be subjective. Subjectivity allows us to understand that interpretation matters. When reading an article we need to look at the material in more than one dimension. Though it is important to understand what an author is asking or claiming, we need to take into consideration or at least question where the author is coming from. When we put this idea to science, if we have been taught science in a very male-dominated environment we must question our understanding of the material on another level. Is the fact that this field is male dominated affecting our understanding of the material or even where the material is coming from and being pieced together.

Thanks Paul! Thanks Anne!




Sam's picture

It was a bit odd to come

It was a bit odd to come across the reader-response theory, as I've been debating the production of fanworks (fiction, art, etc) recently, and to see support for the concept in academic readings was a bit surreal! Just wanted to say.

That tangent aside, I really liked the way Grobstein's article laid out the idea of stories and how there is a growing disparity between the ingroup and the out. It's nicely summarized a major issue with academia, and what we've been discussing in this class in general-- how the stories told by science (and other academic fields, from what I've seen), have become incredibly insular. Academic literature is for practitioners already in that field, with no access for outsiders unless the outsider is willing to learn (and thus become a part of that group).

The idea that science is here to help make "new" stories-- that our findings today will lead to advancements in what we know and how we know it-- seems fundamental to science but it's not touched upon often enough until you get far along your studies. Another commenter pointed out high school science always being either right or wrong, which was how I had experienced science academically, but knowing from outside sources that it wasn't the case. The story idea is a great way to describe this to people who have gone through an academic world that seems hellbent on teaching people one thing (the right/wrong, fundamental unchanging truth), and then having to actually <i>go back and undo that flawed model</i> and replace it with a more nuanced one.

Paul Grobstein's picture

Stories throughout education?

Glad you like the "story" notion. And agree very much that the idea is relevant not only to science but to "academia" in general. Maybe we could revise the entire educational system to start with "more nuanced" stories? See /local/scisoc/elemsci/ for one effort along these lines.

sky stegall's picture

my inescapable feeling

i'm having a really hard time responding to these readings in a way that feels productive to me.  i mean, they're familiar arguments - i've been trying to tell my "non-science" friends for years that science is just another story of the universe, another way to look at and talk about the world (i'm almost entirely sure i brought this up in anne's class last spring, and quite sure i got it discussed in an education class i took two years ago... bmc's used to me saying this).  but by that same token, they feel almost old to me - ok, i get it, i've always gotten this part, what do we DO with it?  well, alright, professors at bryn mawr talk about it amongst themselves and sometimes with us, and they incorporate these ideas into their classes, and we have things like serendip, which are technically global forums (boy, does that ever make me nervous!), but... but the problem exists on so many other levels.  it exists with my intesely awful chemistry teacher at my first (very poor, inner-city, southern) high school, who not only invented the dry lecture format, but worshipped the ideal of science as having all the right answers (which were of course not accessible to me), who scoffed when i told her i wanted to do physics and told me, flat out, that i wasn't smart enough.   it exists with every post-bacc student i've had in the past three years who's complained that he or she has never had to use physics before, so why should they learn it now?  it exists with every politician who gets a new basketball gym named after him or her while the bio department has nothing to dissect, and the physics department can't buy calculators, and the chemists run out of glassware.  i know this is pretty uncharacteristically pessimistic of me, but that's my reader-response.  how do we change such a fundamental belief, at its roots; how do we shift the paradigm of science from that silly scientific method we learned in elementary school (yeah, paul, i was taught that first one, too, and i've disliked and mistrusted it since about fourth grade) to an inviting, accessible, assailable, HUMAN world of storytelling?  that's an even more involved and interesting question for me than solving the three-body problem, or finding a way to converge quantum mechanics and relativity.  and for me, for my children, for my daughters and granddaughters, it's a far more important question, because the answer to that one will lead to answers to the others.  

Paul Grobstein's picture

Contra pessimism?

"How do we change such a fundamental belief ... ?" Yep, that's "an even more involved and interesting question than ...". I suspect the answer is ... slowly, through education, with patience but strong commitment. Hope you'll sign on for the long haul. See /local/scisoc/elemsci/ for one such effort of the many needed.

Rebecca's picture

The dillemma of the color yellow

As I read Professor Grobstein’s account of the production of science, I found it very similar to mine.  More than once I have tried to explain to friends and family members (who are extremely intimidated by science), that science is not a black and white search for the truth but rather a process of trying to make theory that is more correct.  I had never really considered science as a narrative or story until this semester but I think it is a great way to present science. 


            I also found the section discussing “wrongness” in science very interesting.  It has always bothered me that science projects in high school and elementary school are so cookie cutter and, contrary to my personal research experience, they always work.  I think it would be interesting to create science experiments that would “fail” on purpose so that students could hypothesize about why the outcome of the experiment was not as expected and could attempt to recreate the experiment.


            Finally, as I read Anne’s piece it reminded me of a mind boggling experience from my childhood- when I realized that the color yellow I was seeing may not be the same color yellow that everyone else was seeing. I tried to figure out a way I could test this (for example: we could both look at a yellow object being reflected in a mirror-lol). I soon realized that no matter what color we were seeing, we had all learned to associate the word yellow with it.  This was a bit distressing as a child, however, now I think it's a beautiful idea.

Paul Grobstein's picture

"wrongness" and yellow

Actually, if we did real science in K-12 we wouldn't have to design science experiments to fail. Those experiences, which are indeed important, would occur naturally. As for yellow, I agree with you that its a beautiful idea that everyone may see it differently. What's even more interesting is that yellow is in fact ONLY a human construction; it has no physical reality. See /bb/neuro/neuro06/notes.html#color.

Flora's picture

one more thing

I question the phrasing of the title of the second piece, a tern Anne uses in the conversation, "whiteness on the page." When I first read it, I thought it would be a discussion of racial priveledge in printed texts. Why use "whiteness" instead of "an empty page"? I think here might be an instance in humanities where social responsibility and being aware of the implications/interpretations of your words might fit in. I'm not saying whiteness shouldn't be used, just saying that it should be used deliberately knowing the contexts in which the word is discussed. Wow! The difficulties of languages and vocabularies...



Flora's picture

Reading as Intra-acting

Reading these three pieces (I know we were only assigned the two, but I forgot) was certainly an exercise in standpoint epistemology for me. Since I am currently taking my third class with Anne, have taken a course on Emergence with Paul and attended a few meetings of the emergency working group, it was pretty impossible for me to separate my prior experiences with these authors from their texts. While reading the second piece, seeing the names of who was speaking (I recognized all but one name) was especially distracting to me because it caused me to picture each person's face, hear their voice saying the words, imagine the vocal inflections and gestures that went with the words, remember pleasant or unpleasant interactions with them, wonder how their kids were doing, etc. and, all in all, took my mind off the task of examining the words at hand. It's a good thing Anne likes reader-response theory because my response experiences were pretty crucial to my understanding of the words.


Anne's theories on the emergence of stories elicited less of a response from me than Paul's article on a similar topic. There were two reasons for this. First, I strongly agreed with Anne's description of the creation of meaning and her work both reinforced and expanded my own understanding of emergence in language by specifically discussing literature while I objected to Paul's frequent generalizations. Second, Anne's literary style was more pleasurable than the style Paul had to adopt for a journal article. While thinking in this vein on implications of language choice, I also found the structure of Anne's piece to be more emergent or bottom-up versus Paul's top-down. She used a few specific intra-actions of agents (teacher-student, telling-puns) to build up to a broad concept while Paul began with the broad goal of integrating science into culture and used specific examples to develop this concept (a more conventional academic style). It was interesting to read two pieces with similar aims approached so differently.

But my goal is not to compare the three texts, but to relate them to our work thus far. In all the texts we've read thus far, much of the material is presented as revolutionary. And, due to my experiences and academic background, much of the critiques and solutions are not new to me, so I find myself increasingly focusing on specifics of style and construction of argument versus content alone. In that sense, these are part of a theme. The two articles also strongly resonate with many authors' rejection of dualism, acknowledgment of agency and insistence on social and cultural context. Much of emergent theory does emphasize the agency of the world, which sounds like a feminist endeavor. So, why isn't complexity theory female dominated like other agential and multi-standpoint disciplines? Is it because it's couched in scientific jargon?



Paul Grobstein's picture

reader response

Its interesting/important indeed to recognize that similar things can be said in different ways, and that different people have different reactions not only to what is said but to how its said. Maybe we need people saying things in different ways to assure that all people can hear it?

rmalfi's picture


I think that these readings were good summaries of all the ideas we have addressed over the course of this class. I was especially interested in both Anne and Paul's articles by the relevance of these discussions to science education and accessibility. It was funny to look at Paul's comparison of the scientific model he was taught as a child and the scientific model he found later. I, too, remember the first model -- it's a basic, understandable format, and I imagine it's easy to explain to children. It's so black and white, right and wrong. I also remember learning the second model at some point, and definitely understanding it in college. We think of questions, we design methods to answer those questions, we get results, we tell a story about what we found, we ask more questions, and so on. I've said this in previous postings -- I feel like science has made a concerted effort to embrace this model of postulation and refutation (what Paul would call the "assailability model" perhaps). But I do agree that there is still this gap between the world of science and the non-professional scientist public. While the scientific community is free to postulate and refute, the public is fed a very different image...

I do think we all need to be trained to be scientists... and I agree that this doesn't involve being a math-genius or memorizing chemical pathways... it's fostering the feeling that one can ask questions, can criticize, can feel free to doubt and to formulate independent, different thoughts.

I see the scientific world trying, I do. In many ecology-based classes I have taken, we learn theories which help us to predict and understand phenomena in nature. It has always been made clear, to me at least, that these are stories. They don't always work, they sometimes don't explain a situation at all, and sometimes a combination of theories fits an observation. Theories are tools that we use, just like any other tool in science. We build on these theories when we conduct further research - we create new stories...

My question is, what does the scientific community really have to do differently? We're talking about a language problem, not really a problem with methodology, correct? It's the culture around science, not necessarily the physical practices of science that are the issue at hand here, correct? And while anyone can embrace scientific thought, without having to make a huge commitment to it, it is, ultimately, the mathematicians/staticians who can offer interpretations based on this "other," less ambiguous language... It's making it accessible and allowing everyone to have an influence on scientific pursuits that seems of more importance to me...

Thanks for these readings, guys -- I really enjoyed them!

“Logic: The art of thinking and reasoning in strict accordance with the limitations and incapacities of the human misunderstanding.”

-Ambrose Bierce 

Paul Grobstein's picture

Who needs to change?

"Its the culture around science ... that is the issue at hand here, correct?" Yep. And I agree that "the scientific community" contributes to that, and needs to change accordingly. But its far from the only thing in our (or any other) culture that encourages people to think in "black and white, right and wrong." So maybe there need to be wider changes? And maybe each of us ourselves has at least some attraction to "black and white, right and wrong" that needs to change as well?

eli's picture

Emergence and Ponderings

Synthesizing the two pieces by Professors Anne Dalke and Paul Grobstein, it seems that the common thread is story telling.

In Anne's piece, she uses the concept of emergence to describe how even a single word (such as in a pun) can be given two different meanings, and thus how one story can even spawn "in ways that are unpredictable beforehand--other tales not yet articulated." How is this useful for us in this course? As articulated best in the dialogue at the end, I believe it is pertinent since science, math, and computer languages have a concept that if you get the right equation or insert the right code, you will get a certain outcome. Or even, as in the example of computer languages, you will get one of a limited number of outcomes.

What was most useful for me was the snippet between Paul and Anne on the second to last page:

Paul: 'Having done a, b, c, and d, there are no a series of possibilities. You pick from among them.' That choice makes the use of language a generative process.

Anne: That's a really useful thing for literary studies to be aware of, because we still have this model of mathematical exactness, that you can get the right or the best interpretation, or the original meaning.

The reason this was particularly useful to me was because it demonstrates how our culture seems to have synthesized basic scientific processes as being a required standard for all walks of life. That you can get it right that Homer meant this. If you get just the right ingredients, you can make the perfect hamburger.

However, in my daily life I find myself operating much as Paul describes in the last paragraph of the dialogue. To paraphrase, the motivation is not to replicate, but to inquire into the state of another brain. Language for me is often about trying to not only illicit a certain response, to strike a certain chord in another person. It's also about 'testing' the other person, to see what is different about their response, to see how their see the world differently.

But for Anne, I would appreciate it if we could come out with a working definition of the concept of emergence, just to make sure we're all on the same page by what you mean.


Paul's article seemed to outline the journey of the class, so far, and our understanding of what science is. How science is not the answer for everyone, or the tool that everyone is accustomed to using. I particularly found the second section ("Science as a Method: Strengths and Limitations") to be useful. "When given to believe that science is about getting things right, students (and others ) are being seriously misled about the fundamental character of the scientific process." I like the idea that science is constantly testing itself, that is this constant cycle of re-evaluation.

I also found it useful in the fourth section how he outlined the emergence theory that Anne describes, where two competing ideas for how a nervous system develops eventually merged into a new story. Is there any way we can apply this to our discussion on incorporating more women into scientific fields? Would that be the emergence theory we are trying to advocate?

Paul Grobstein's picture


Maybe the idea you're looking for is that science (indeed inquiry in general) is as much about creating things never before seen as it is about uncovering what is? And that an effective method for doing so is to encourage different stories to bump up against one another in ways that generate new stories? Science is most generative when it has the most different stories bumping against one another and therefore there should be more different kinds of people involved in science?