Ben and Rebecca

chinesebox72dpiBen Sheredos and Rebecca Hardesty gave us a real treat last night.

In a brilliant double act, which one audience member aptly described as ‘thrilling,’ they presented a subtle, self-reflexive consideration of the problem of interdisciplinarity in Science Studies.

He is a recent graduate of UCSD’s program in philosophy and cognitive science currently doing a postdoc with a group of biologists studying circadian rhythms. She is a PhD candidate in our Communication Department, with a background in formal epistemology, currently embedded in a neuroscience lab.

Ben kicked off the proceedings with a ‘talk within a talk,’ outlining the lengthy discussion and review process by which circadian rhythm scientists decide how to represent biological clocks in their diagrams. He then turned the analytical lens on himself, describing the exasperating peer review process he is currently suffering through as he tries to get a paper on the diagrams published in a history and philosophy of science journal.

Rebecca’s presentation followed a similar structure. First she narrated the ironic tale of how her scientists have developed a mouse model of Down’s Syndrome that they insist is the ‘gold standard’ for studying the condition. In defiance of this verdict, however, they do not use it in their own research because it is expensive, aggressive, short-lived, non-procreative, and doesn’t mimic the cognitive impairments found in humans. Pulling the camera back, she then mused on why the various audiences for her talks refuse to recognize her work as truly interdisciplinary between philosophy and science studies.

The whole thing was as satisfying and ingenious as a Chinese Box, with drawers full of treasures and hidden compartments springing open at a touch.

In the Q&A, Lilly Irani sketched all the different players and constituencies that Ben and Rebecca had mentioned, and asked whether ‘interdisciplinary’ was really the right term. ‘What do you actually do when you’re with the scientists?’ she asked Rebecca. The answer was totally unexpected. Rebecca is one of the few native English speakers in the lab, and, in her capacity as a ‘comm person’ she serves as sort of translator. She will tell the Anglophone scientists what one of their English-as-a-second-language colleagues said, sometimes having to use phonetic approximations for unfamiliar technical terms, which in turn get translated into scientific English. ‘Worthy of another whole book,’ Lilly opined.

Rebecca’s answer to Lilly’s question lay so far outside any notion of ‘communicating across fields’ that it made a nonsense of the whole arid concept. It was so jarringly human that it had the effect of replacing the notion of interdisciplinarity with something warm-blooded and alive, something about aligning with one another’s needs and interests, making ourselves useful, and promoting dialog at all levels and registers.

Complex, candid, and subtle, this colloquium session was a true lesson in communication.

5 thoughts on “Ben and Rebecca”

  1. Here’s the reading I was referring to, thinking about what makes these sites of science work and promise future productivity. It’s about knowledge producing encounters across difference (a term that might accommodate more of the kinds of conflicts and circulations we heard about last night than interdisciplinarity):
    Anderson, Warwick. 2000. “The Possession of Kuru: Medical Science and Biocolonial Exchange.” Comp Studies in Society and History.

  2. Oh, also this piece by Gabriella Coleman on doing an ethnography (making visible) of Anonymous was really helpful for me:
    It complicates what we do as empirical researchers — simply making visible, describing doesn’t capture why some of our research travels or finds sustenance and some of it doesn’t

    1. What a riveting piece. I especially love this passage about how Coleman gained the respect of the hackers she was studying:

      “For most of the winter and spring of 2011 … I subjected myself to the mindless repetition of being interviewed over eighty times by journalists. I have answered the same questions over and over again in print, in TV and in film interviews. After a few months of doing this type of media-work—and it quickly came to feel like the drudgery associated with some forms of work —it became evident that I was gaining some access, respect, and trust via these appearances, many Anons peppering me with comments, reflections, praise, and critiques after they watched a news segment, read an opinion piece, or watched some public lecture. My ethnographer’s magic, to borrow a famous term coined long ago by Bronislaw Malinowski, may lie in how I handle myself in public lectures and the media: something I never expected when commencing this project. The work of ethnography is often about the private lives and thoughts of individuals or concerns public modes of interaction, not acting as the public face, in this case, of a faceless entity.”

      Marisa Brandt also had some great comments on the FB thread about her ethnographer’s magic with the ‘Virtual Iraq’ folks at the VA. Great food for thought about analogous efforts, such as, just to take a random example, expanding the number of departments that can participate in an interdisciplinary program…

  3. I wish I had been there, but am thrilled to be able to read about it here. Also, incidentally, I was on a panel at James Madison University recently about scientists in the public sphere and my fellow panelist from NASA, upon hearing that I came from ucsd’s comm/science studies remarked that he had recently met a very interesting speaker from there: Rebecca Hardesty.

    I have been thinking a lot about what interdisciplinarity means in my new home at JMU in a very unique STEM department that is committed to integrating what they call “social contexts” into the undergraduate curriculum at all levels. It’s very different from my work studying nanoengineers at UCSD, where I was an outsider. I have just today finished working on a proposal with two of my colleagues — a cyber networking/security expert, and a systems dynamics modeling & public policy expert — to team teach a yearlong sequence on cyber physical systems, and my perspective is present on just about every page of the 20-page proposal. It’s challenging and exciting to have colleagues and students approach me frequently and the starting point is not why are you here but how can you help us to think about this problem holistically and how might we collaborate.

    At the same time I love the thought above about how the day-to-day practice of being interdisciplinary may be about basic translational work, and other practices that might be rather quotidian but absolutely fundamental to working together.

    1. Reading this comment alongside Marisa’s reminiscences on the Facebook thread, Rebecca’s talk, and what I know of Sarah Klein and Yelena Gluzman’s performance studies approach, it’s becoming clear to me that UCSD-Comm-and-Science-Studies people have some powerful ethnographers’ magic. Is there something subversively feminist about the notion of ’embedding’….?

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