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Science is… neutral?

Keyword themes: positionality, composition form, language structure

This course is about how we construct/compose language (composition) and the means we choose to present these ideas to the world (rhetoric). We will, of course, look at engineering and STS (preferred to STEM) texts, but after teaching this course for five years, I have found some other important avenues that I also want to go down.

So let’s start by establishing a common understanding. I believe that we can never extract our selves from our work, we can never extract our humanness from what we create — as writers/students/engineers/scientists.

Academia at large (and plenty other professional fields) wants to remove the I, remove the self, privileging passive past tense. Scholar Alexis Pauline Gumbs says, “the passive voice is the language of the state. The status quo. The enforced state of being. The problem with the passive past tense is that it obscures the relationship between subjects and action, between what we do and how it impacts other people.The passive past tense is what you read in scientific journal articles, because it allows researchers to “take themselves out of the intimacy of their research towards the illusion of objectivity. Nothing is objective” (Gumbs 9).

So I invite you to consider your positionality. Positionality is concept that comes from Black feminist scholar Patricia Hill Collins, and to summarize: it’s an acknowledgment of how our individual identifiers (race, gender, social class, physical ability, sexual orientation, etc) uniquely shape our persepctives and broadly shape who has access and power in society. 

Why am I bringing up positionality? I’m bringing it up as a sort of antidote to neutrality and objectivity. Last semester, I raised the topic of positionality with my engineering students and received some push back. According to some students in that class, engineers are not concerned with individual positionality because engineers are the ones who follow the instructions, they’re not the inventors, they’re ones behind the scenes, they collaborate to complete a project and the individual is sort of irrelevant.

That conversation definitely challenged my idea of how to proceed with this course. For five years I’ve heard whisper jokes about how there’s only a handful of femme presenting (women) people in the field and in your classes. I have to believe that having a similar or dominant perspective in an entire field impacts the way the field functions.

You might not agree with what the students said in my previous class, or it might be your beliefs exactly. My goal here isn’t to prove those students wrong, but rather to disrupt our understanding of neutrality and objectivity.

Our first reading assignment is Science Under The Scope, a graphic text by Sophie Wang. What Sophie manages to do in this fun and interrogative source, is put into question some of our beliefs around neutrality and how our fields impact the global community. I also chose this text as an example of a scholarly, deeply thoughtful work, that is composed (composition) in a non-traditional manner. You have this freedom too! Similarly to language, prescribed forms for texts (research articles) are another way to “enforce a state of being.” Let’s break the fuck out and envision a new/better way to share ideas. Reminder: for the Public Comment portion of this module, please write a short reflection about your positionality as an STS student and your reaction is to Sophie’s text. Thanks all!

Bibliography

Collins, Patricia Hill, and Hill Patricia Collins. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (Perspectives on Gender). 2nd ed., Routledge, 1999.

Gumbs, Alexis Pauline. “The Problem With The Passive Past Tense.” Black Perspectives, 10 July 2018, www.aaihs.org/the-problem-with-the-passive-past-tense.

  • Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals (Emergent Strategy). AK Press, 2020.

Wang, Sophie. “Science Under the Scope: Full Series.” Free Rads, 25 Feb. 2021, freerads.org/science-scope-full.

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