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Writing Across the Curriculum

 

Holloway Hall

Wanted – Manager of the Wind
Shawn McEntee
Sociology

I have a hair trigger on my sociological imagination: I was listening to Ira Flatow on NPR’s Science Friday and heard that there is no 'leakage' associated with genetically modified (GM) crops; incidents in which GM species ‘volunteer’ in places they were not planted is 'a management problem . . . not an ecological problem'. Who is it that manages the wind again? My sociological imagination is off: I found the transcript on NPR’s website. The guest was the incoming president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Dr. Nina Federoff, and the conversation was about the value of science as an international language and a tool for building community in the world.

One of the most persistent difficulties in developing my students’ sociological imaginations is getting them to see ‘sociology’ in words that are well-established in common language. Culture is one such term. The implication of Federoff’s argument is that precision in scientific language allows us to cross cultural boundaries. What sociologists know, however, is that ‘science’ has its own culture; language, specifically the extent of shared meaning, establishes cultural boundaries.

Finding the shared meaning between students and faculty – literally making sure I understand them while trying to ensure that they understand me – is an arduous task. We do have ‘aha’ moments, but it often takes 20 minutes or so to arrive at one; it’s a really good day when we identify 3 in 75 minutes. The process is not unlike the journey my sociological imagination takes me on this time. Federoff’s repeated use of the phrase ‘highly domesticated species’ is indicative: the implication is that ‘highly domesticated species’ constitute a different ‘class’ of species. Really? Different than what? Corn is grass – or at least it used to be way long ago before human beings ‘domesticated’ it. And that term – ‘domesticated’ – is about as precise as my students’ field notes taken while observing for a paper: that party-goers’ roles include ‘looking like you are having fun’. How is it that one ‘looks like’ they are having fun? The implication is, of course, that they are NOT having fun – but, surely, that is not what my student means.

Sociologists are also particularly sensitive to ‘who’ is being discussed. My students argue that their use of ‘American’ is acceptable because ‘everyone knows’ they mean people in the U.S. This is, of course, after we’ve discussed that ‘American’ is ethnocentric precisely because people in the U.S. are far more likely to make that assumption than others. We also spend considerable time discussing the value – and consequences – of displaying similar assumptions; one of the consequences is point losses for displays of any of the ‘isms’ – sexism, racism, ageism, ethnocentrism – in written work.

Federoff’s use of the language also reveals what her culture has taught her; that ‘science’ not only can, but its purpose is to adapt plants and animals to production processes that meet human needs. This is vastly different than the science I practice which is to work with ‘natural’ systems (e.g., students’ minds in today’s college environment) in order both to understand them better and to find mutual benefit in doing so. So, I’m following Federoff – but I expect some tangible results; show me a GM crop management plan that ensures farmers who work with natural systems won’t find ‘volunteer’ genetic modifications or other ‘highly domesticated species’ hob knobbing with their cultivated ones. My ‘science’ – my sociological imagination – reveals that ‘science’ has a leakage problem associated with the shared meaning of ‘social scientific’ terms like ‘highly domesticated species’ and ‘managing’ genetic modifications. Until we get that leakage problem stopped up, I know a few farmers who could use a really good Wind Manager. And we sociologists will keep doing what comes ‘naturally’, crossing cultural divides to share our understanding of the unique cultures in which we all – even our students – live.

 

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