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Who's Number One?

AquamarineAura's picture

Sitting in a one room hut in Belize, sipping the freshest hot cocoa I’ve ever had, I was somehow able to both relax and enjoy the moment as well as think about just how much wealth I am a part of at home. I knew from the moment we landed in the airport that everything was smaller and possibly poorer in this country, but meeting a local family and seeing the way they were used to living is what has really stuck with me in the years since that trip. To explain, this was technically a science field trip with a group from my high school, but I feel like I learned much more about the culture of Blue Creek Village and the weather of the rainforest than I did about the topics you would find in a general science textbook.  

            Our school hadn’t done much in the way of preparing us for the trip beyond asking us to do some basic research on what sorts of plants and animals we might encounter on our two week trip. Thanks to info sessions and worried parents’ questions we knew that the main language was English, but that some of the locals were probably more comfortable speaking a Creole dialect of Spanish. It was also explained that we would be spending the trip rooming in basic cabins that had bunk beds but no bedding. What I didn’t realize until I arrived, however, was that these cabins had many cracks and openings for creatures to find their way in, and that even with our door missing it’s knob and lock, these lodgings were a step up from what the people of Blue Creek Village called home every day. The comparisons are hard not to make: running water for our shower and toilet versus a well and pump for their washing, a gas stove in our kitchen versus a stone and ash hearth on their main floor. Some things remained the same: there were no dryers so line drying our clothes was always the best option after giving in and remaining permanently damp, chicken and fried biscuits were staple foods.

            You may wonder why I would tell you all of this. It was a science trip, after all, not a cultural one. What I’ve found, though, is that culture will become an influence any time that a student or scholar travels, regardless of what they came to study. This was only partially intentional on our trip to Belize. I say partially because visiting one of the local families was planned into our schedule so that we could see some of local living, but we weren’t prepared much for it or expected to follow up. It was expected that we would enter the trip with open minds and basic respect for those who live in Blue Creek. During our stay there, I certainly felt like I learned a bit more about the way they live, and I captured the wonderful memories in photos to save forever. Clearly, the brief contact with a different culture has affected me, but there is no way of knowing if it changed anything for those that I met because I haven’t made any contact since.

            This brings up the question, however, of what is actually expected when scientists or students visit a foreign country. In our case, the locals knew that there would be some rich white kids visiting for two weeks and trying to learn about the local ecology before disappearing back to our comparatively glamorous lives. This wasn’t explicitly discussed or agreed upon, but simply implied by the nature of our school field trip. We were there to observe and learn about the rainforest and reefs, not to interact all that much. This is an interesting issue, however, since it makes me think about how rarely science students actually discuss their impact when travelling. If a student takes a trip with a group like habitat for humanity, it’s easy to discuss what differences they might make in the lives of those they are visiting, but when it comes to science, much of the emphasis is on observation and data collection.

            To look further into the impact that scientists have, I looked back at the character Piya from The Hungry Tide. Piya probably had a similar level of exposure to the local culture that my fellow students and I had when travelling to Belize. (We all knew a few phrases of the local language as well as how to navigate basic travel and interactions.) Once we actually entered the country, however, our experiences were focused differently according to the purpose of the trip. For us as high school students, the focus was on the individual learning that we could do about the area, but for Piya, there was a drive to contribute to the pool of knowledge contained within the scientific community.

            This is the point where priorities of scientists and students start to fall into two categories: their responsibilities as individual beings or as members of a larger learning community. In Piya’s case, she had become used to making sacrifices and enduring small hardships in order to uphold her responsibility of adding to the larger community. During her trip to the Sundarbans, however, she was also faced with situations that required her to think on an individual level. The best example of this is when she is deciding whether or not to stay out longer to observe the dolphins just once more. Her observations would be massively helpful to expanding the scientific knowledge of the dolphin species, and so she is ready to stay out for as long as necessary. She knows that this decision would affect Fokir and Tutul as well, though, so she pauses to find a solution that takes care of these two individuals and their needs since they have no reason to make sacrifices for the possible discoveries. She decides to give up her power bars which would allow her to prioritize both her commitment to her observations and contributions, but also to take care of the individual people who are impacted by her decisions.

            When her trip ends, Piya has had two very significant experiences. The first is her gathering of data on the dolphins of the Sundarbans, which was very important work for fellow scientists. The second is the loss of Fokir after the storm, which has an impact on both his family and his local community. In the end, Piya does her best to ensure that there are positive changes for both groups. She already knows that her new dolphin information will have a positive impact for the advancement of the sciences, but she probably also realizes what a negative impact Fokir’s death has on the village. This negativity is greatly lessened by her efforts after her trip, however, as the establishment of the new funds in his name ends up helping the entire community to grow. Her return creates a link with the village beyond her scientific needs and allows her to bond with the people on an individual level.

            I realize that my Belize trip is several years in the past at this point, but looking at it laid parallel to Piya’s [fictional] experience, I only want to go back even more. I want to meet with the people of Blue Creek village again, stay just a bit longer to learn what living there is like, and possibly do some closer studying of the wildlife and landscape. I now see that it’s possible to balance the two, but only as long as I remain aware that truly being a student of science requires multitasking as I juggle my responsibilities and contribute both to my own experience and the experiences of those around me.


***** as a side note, pictures and other accounts of the trip I mentioned can be found here:  *****


Anne Dalke's picture


What’s delighting me about this project is its bi-directionality: you use your own field experience to read that of Piya in The Hungry Tide, and then you use her experience to re-read your own. Doing this allows you to raise the important question of how much cultural training scientists get for their work in the field, how much they are taught (as you say) to “actually discuss their impact when traveling.” Where I’d like to nudge you now is not to “close” the paper by returning to—and desiring to reproduce--your own experience, but to use it rather to open up the range of larger related questions you gesture towards here, about how to do ethical field work, and what sorts of science education might be needed, to make this happen.

There’s lots of work being done now on “multicultural science education” (see, for example, the international volume on the “theory, practice and promise” of  Multicultural Science Education, as well as the journal of Cultural Studies of Science Education –and note that the current volume is on “ecological mindfulness and cross-hybrid learning”). But these initiatives are mostly focused on getting a more diverse range of students interested in doing science and being scientists. What you are asking is a different -- though very much related-- question: what happens when a particular cultural group arrives in a landscape where people from a different (perhaps a “non-science”?) culture live? What are the interactions—and what might be the possible interactions?—and implications of encounters in that contact zone which (@ least until recently) was not even acknowledged as a contact zone, where “the emphasis is on observation and data collection,” where students have been instructed (as you were) “to observe and learn…not to interact"?  What exactly constitutes “the larger learning community” in such a situation? Does it include the people who live in the area being studied? How can they be written out of the picture, as the scientists write themselves into it?

I’d be interested in seeing you do a more elaborate reading of how Piya negotiates this divide. She recognizes that she is very much dependent on local knowledge, and her exploitation of that dependency (not to put too fine a point upon it) results directly in Fokir’s death. Her decisions are far more tragic and far-reaching than the anecdote about sharing her power bars suggests. You gesture @ the very end to some of the larger implications of the way Piya has chosen to work, and seem to give her a “by” when you say that the “negative impact of Fokir’s death … is greatly lessened by her … establishment of new funds in his name,” that help the entire community, and help her to “bond.” I’m not sure that I agree with this claim, and the way in which you seem to suggest that such “bonding” is adequate compensation for the loss of Fokir’s life.

I am familiar with the fairly robust body of material written on the impact of white American tourists on the cultures they visit and the communities they intend to help (see, for example, Teju Cole’s well-known essay, The White Savior Industrial Complex, which challenges the impulse of well-intentioned Americans to do good in the world, particularly in Africa. Cole observes that “a good heart…does not always allow us to think constellationally … to connect the dots or see the patterns of power behind isolated ‘disasters’ … we see no need to reason out the need for the need.” More recently, Indigenous Action Media published another essay with a similar title and a similar message: Accomplices Not Allies: Abolishing the Ally Industrial Complex, which challenges the commodification and exploitation of allyship in the “activism industry,” calls such support and solidarity “criminal,” a means of perpetuating colonialism--and offers the alternative of being an accomplice, “a person who helps another commit a crime,” becoming complicit in a struggle towards liberation..….). I really do not know, however, what has been written by scholars exploring the very provocative subset of questions you raise, about the ethical responsibilities of scientists to those who live in their field.

Would you be interested in pursuing these questions for one of the other web events you owe (or will be owing) me? You might do this by first interviewing your geology profs on this question (Don Barber is the one who first suggested it to me as a problematic), then following their leads in doing some research, to find out how these questions are (or are not) addressed in science classes. And then perhaps (along the line of the faculty diversity training Nkechi is proposing) you might design a professional development workshop for science teachers, suggesting how the gap you have named might begin to be bridged. What do you think?

AquamarineAura's picture

Two things I want to address as response to your comments.

first has to do with something you said

“ you seem to suggest that such “bonding” is adequate compensation for the loss of Fokir’s life.”

I actually didn’t mean to imply that the two things were equal, simply that she saw a wrong she had done and tried to give back in a way that might partially make up for it. There’s nothing you can do that will bring back someone from the dead, but you can ease the pain of their loss and try to help those who miss the dead person to feel that loss in slightly less painful ways. Piya gave them a way to move forward and to refocus on things outside of that singular loss so that their grief (the village and/or Fokir’s family) wouldn’t just go on forever. 

the second thing I wanted to respond to,

I'm not sure that I would actually have the mental energy to go further into this web event at the moment because the idea of talking to other professors on the subject makes me very nervous. I may seem confident on the subject in my wods but I'm still sort of intimidated and don't feel like I have a solid enough footing or knowledge base of the topic to stand on. I could look into it further but it's not something I really leap for at the moment.

Anne Dalke's picture

It's a 2006 article by a Swat prof, Giovanna di Chiro, called ‘Teaching urban ecology: Environmental studies and the pedagogy of intersectionality,’ which describes the interface of college students and community folks/activists this way:

Traversing borders of different kinds—geographic, linguistic, epistemic, and cultural—our environmental studies class traveled this short distance to ‘meet our neighbors,’ as one student described it…with whom we would study the environmental problems of this corner of our shared bioregion and co-invent possibilities for socio-environmental change.  Engaging in a ‘contact zone’ experience, the class met with organizers in Nestras Raices’ bustling, multi-purpose space to listen, learn, and exchange our diverse socioecological knowledge systems and to share our visions for ‘sustainability.’