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Karen Barad, "Reconceiving Scientific Literacy"

Anne Dalke's picture

Excerpts from Karen Barad, “Reconceiving Scientific Literacy as Agential Literacy, or Learning How to Intra-act Responsibly Within the World,” in Doing Culture + Science, edited by Roddey Reid and Sharon Traweek (Routledge, 2000):

Most commonly...thought of in terms of the successful transmission of knowledge about scientific facts and methods from knowing scientists to the ignorant masses. Viewed in this way, the problem of scientific illiteracy is seen as a massive transmission failure....

Science's authority has been weakened...not by highly specialized and generally inaccessible academic writings...but because the public senses that scientists are not owning up to their biases, commitments, assumptions, and presuppositions, or to base human weaknesses such as the drive for wealth, fame, tenure....concern has been expressed that the scientist's constructed isolation from the vagaries of the everyday world is a liability when it comes to finding vialbe solutions to scientific problems in the real world....some recent studies indicate an association between increased scientific literacy and increased skepticism toward science....public trust in science must be gained by making science more accountable and by setting the standards for literacy on the basis of understanding what it means to do responsible science.

...objectivity and agency are bound up with issues of responsibility and accountability....Agential realism is...about the real consequences, interventions, creative possibilities, and responsibilities of intra-acting within the world...scientific literacy becomes a matter of agential literacy--of learning how to intra-act responsibly within the world...understanding the nature of our intra-actions within the world....the goal of scientific literacy may not be copelling to many of the 'scientifically illiterate' who have already grasped its irrelevance....

I specifically designed [a course] to advance the agential literacy of my students, called "Situated Knowledges: Cultural Studies of Twentieth-Century Physics"....I offer brief descriptions of a few different moments of the course to illustrate the kinds of pedagogical methods that were utlized.

1....Sharon Traweek characterizes the culture of science as a "culture of no culture," which longs passionately for a world without loose ends, without temperament, gender, nationalism, or other sources of disorder--for a world outside human space and time." The course began with a student exercise designed to hep make scientific cultures visible. Students were asked to do their own "miniethnographies." They were expected to spend several hours over the course of a week obseving and identifying specific features of a particular scientific culture of their choosing....

2. A common way to think about science is as a body of knowledge. In this course, we talked about the limitations of this common conception, and the different implications that follow from thinking about science as particular kinds of open-ended and ongoing practices.... specific goal for this course is to find ways to present students with opportunities to learn the science while simultaneously learning about the changing nature of scientific practices...trying to make the practice-based nature of science evident....thinking about science is part of doing science....

The making of science is not separate from the making of society....

Appendix: Assessment
The first offering of this course was in the spring of 1997. The student enrollment drew from a very broad cross section of the college community, from first year students to graduating seniors, and from students who identified themselves as science-phobic to senior physics majors.

Needless to say, one offering of a course doesn’t prove anything about its effectiveness in promoting the overall goal of agential literacy. However, the results of this one offering are striking. The rate of return of course evaluation forms was very high, and nearly every student who handed one in expressed great enthusiasm for the course. Students who had not previously had any interest in science, and/or any confidence in their abilities in science, said that they felt empowered by the course to engage more with science. Science majors expressed uniform satisfaction with the course, many commenting on the fact that they had previously found something lacking about their science education. Science majors also commented on the fact that after taking the course they felt a responsibility to think about science s material-discursive practices and to do responsible science. Four students said that they were now planning to major in one of the science as a result of taking this class. Below is a sample of quotes taken from student evaluations:

Physics 6 has been a challenging and inspiring class. Over the course of the semester we critiqued the widespread belief that physicists discover a world that is independent of human beings and human culture. We explored new definitions of objectivity and reality that allow for contextual knowledge yet steer away from complete relativism. I have not yet formed a definite opinion on these matters, but this course has convinced me that a thorough understanding of the origins and meanings of scientific knowledge is an essential part of the scientific enterprise. Because of this course, I have chosen science, technology, and society as my humanities concentration. I believe that this course will have long-term effects on the way that I think about and practice physics. (from a senior physics major at the science and engineering college)

I am thrilled to see that a course like this has finally been offered. For as long as I have been studying the sciences, I have felt that a class like this is absolutely crucial. It covers an area much glossed over; science, what it means, ethics & thought. I am truly honored to have been able to take this class and hope it is offered again in the near future. This is one of the class types that I was hoping for/expecting when I came to college.

This class also taught me about myself and the world in which we live. I was never really interested in science in general but this class changed my outlook and showed how science has been and is an integral part of our society, and that it has also been influenced by events in history. It was a tough course that stretched my mind and one that I thoroughly enjoy. (from a student who was never very interested in science)

I never knew that science could actually interest me. Now I am fascinated with physics, the history of science, epistemology, and feminist theory….I have never experienced the sheer joy  of knowledge like I did in this class.

While I’m still wary of science, I feel much more confident and motivated to continue learning about the issues raised this semester. Now when I see a copy of a science publication, I actually pick it up instead of feeling intimidated. (from a student who entered the course ‘hating science”)

My faith in myself as an intelligent and contributing member of a community and of society has grown stronger during the course of this semester, and it is not attributable to being able to pass some test about the microscopic processes of food absorption in the colon. I cannot summarize what it is that I have learned from physics, but I feel that I have incorporated much understanding into my very being—and it is not in the form of verbal knowledge that I can readily regurgitate. This is a much deeper sense of well-being and understanding the universe on every level.

By far the best class I‘ve taken in college. It strongly influenced my thinking for other courses. I became very aware of the difficulties involved in any academic discipline….The ideas were presented so as to enable students to question and discuss the implications of science without trivializing science as a discipline. It provided me with new standards for evaluating ideas. Whereas before, I felt ‘science’ was beyond my realm—I now feel that I have the tools to consider the validity of these ideas. (from a graduating senior who expressed a reorientation in her relationship to her major discipline as a result of taking this course)