In case you didn’t check your twitter feed, it snowed in Minneapolis this weekend

Tons of people documented the first “real” snow of 2012 in Minneapolis/St. Paul this weekend. I did too. I can’t remember how I decided to experiment with video and haiku in order to do my documenting. Maybe it was because my 9 year old was writing haikus in class last month? Maybe it was because I like the pithy form of haikus and was looking for a way to express and share my thoughts in my digital moment without offering up a long-winded voice-over? Whatever the reason, I decided to document the warm-up snow on Friday, the calm-before-the-storm on Saturday, and the first big snow (10 inches) on Sunday using my iMovie app and my limited haiku ability. Here they are:

snow falling as dusk
i wonder, will we see grass
again before spring?

i wouldn’t have thought
i would enjoy winter runs
but i really do

the snow really came
it’s a christmas miracle:
the forecast was right


Scientific Literacy and Bullshit Detection

Last night, as we were driving to swim lessons, my 6 year old daughter RJP suddenly, with no context, exclaimed, “I’m a scientist!” She likes to dramatically assert her identities in this way. Last year, she loved calling out to anyone within earshot, “I’m an artist!” Sadly, she doesn’t seem to be embracing/performing her artist identity that much this year. What is it about first grade that sucks the joy/imagination/creativity out of kids? After making this bold and somewhat unexpected proclamation and then not receiving much of a response from us, she continued, “My teacher says anyone who likes to ask lots and lots and lots of questions is a scientist. So, I’m a scientist!”

Her statement made me curious and inspired/provoked me to think more about curiosity, wonder, asking questions and how my understandings and practices of these do/don’t fit in with science and the scientific method.  But, because life with kids, especially kids who are trying to overcome the trauma of witnessing a kid puke in the pool at swim lessons a few weeks ago so that they can get back in and take their swim test, can force me out of my curious wonderings, I quickly forgot about RJP’s identity claim and my questions about it.

I forgot about it until this morning. While scrolling through my Tumblr feed, I came across a great quote by the super Awesome Neil deGrasse Tyson on the importance of scientific literacy:

To be scientifically literate is to empower yourself to know when someone else is full of shit.

Yes! I’m a proud bullshit detector (and deflector?). And, since I think that a lot of people, especially people who claim to know a lot (like grad students/academics) frequently spout shit, I was pleased to see someone offering up some tools for seeing through it. Learning to know when someone else is full of shit is an essential tool, one that should be regularly taught throughout formal education. I also liked seeing this quote because, for various reasons (some of which aren’t entirely clear to me), I find “shit” to be a great word; it’s rich with meaning (especially in queer theory) and fun to say.

Good little researcher that I am, I attempted to track down this quote. Before I actually found it (on the Nerdist podcast #277), I stumbled upon a quick video clip with NG Tyson discussing the importance of scientific literacy:

In this brief clip, NG Tyson describes how he is training his kids to be scientifically literate:

I immerse them in their environment at home, when we travel. What surrounds them, what forces them to think about how the world works.

And, he clarifies how scientific literacy is not just about reciting facts, but about asking:

How do you look at the world? What does the world look like through your lens? If you’re scientifically literate, the world looks really different to you. It’s not just a lot of mysterious things happening. There’s a lot we understand out there. And than understanding empowers you to first, not be taken advantage of by others who do understand it. And second, there are issues that confront us that have science as their foundation. If you’re not scientifically literate, it’s in a way, you are disenfranchising yourself from the democratic process and you don’t even know it.

I really appreciate reading the highly spreadable one-liner from NGT beside his longer description of what’s at stake with teaching scientific literacy. Seeing the world using a scientific lens is important. Attempting to understand how the world works and discovering rational/measurable (he discusses the importance of measuring results in the Nerdist podcast) explanations is essential for challenging/resisting the ways in which science gets wielded/mis-used/ignored by some (NGT devotes time to de-bunking intelligent design in the podcast).

In critically reflecting on his ideas about scientific literacy, I keep thinking about the questions that RJP’s “I’m a scientist!” declaration raised for me last night about curiosity and asking questions. I’m a HUGE proponent of asking questions and being curious. I write about it and teach it all the time. But, my version of curiosity and my methods and motivations for asking questions are sometimes in tension with the scientific approach, and its emphasis on discovering, measuring, classifying, scrutinizing, knowing. Years of feminist and queer theory have made me wary of these approaches and how they are used to regulate, control and colonize entire communities of people. As I write this post, I immediately think of critiques of science/scientific method offered by Sibohan Somerville, Emily Martin, Riki Wilchins, Carolyn Merchant, Michel Foucault and Donna Haraway. When I pose questions and practice curiosity, I’m not motivated by a desire to “know” or a need to discover, but by a passion to engage deeply with ideas, things, experiences and people.

But, even as I am reminded of these important critiques and I think about my own version of curiosity, I see the value in scientific literacy and developing tools for understanding how things work scientifically. We need these tools. Especially girls. RJP needs to be encouraged (by teachers, other students, pop culture, society) that thinking scientifically is important and that she’s not only capable of it, but can do it really well.

So, how do I reconcile my misgivings about “science” with my belief in its importance, especially for girls? By refusing to see it as an either/or choice. And by expanding my vision of curiosity to allow for a wider range of understandings of how we think about how the world works. In this vision, scientific literacy is just one of many literacies that we need to have in order to fight injustice and to be effective bullshit detectors. (And, like all literacies, it should be interrogated/challenged by the other approaches).

I want to inhabit a world in which RJP can claim the identities “I’m an artist!” and “I’m a scientist!” simultaneously and with the same amount of force and value. In listening to NGT’s passionate discussions about scientific literacy, especially on the podcast, I’m not sure he would agree. He seems to privilege scientific literacy as the primary tool for knowing about the world and being empowered within it. Especially when he describes science as the lens (as opposed to a lens or one of many lenses) through which to understand the world. I want to spend more time engaging with his ideas to determine if my assessment is correct.

Questions to Ponder

  1. Is Neil deGrasse Tyson privileging scientific literary over all other forms of literacy?
  2. NGT discusses the importance of questions, uncertainty and not knowing. How is this similar/different to my understanding of feminist curiosity and the value of unknowingness?
  3. What are all of the tools that a bullshit detector needs?
  4. How can I get RJP to stop freaking out every time she sees the kid who puked in the pool?

On Spreadability

In anticipation of the upcoming edited book, Spreadable Media (which looks pretty cool), I’m skimming old posts from Henry Jenkins on spreadability and looking over the Spreadable Media site. Today, I’m focusing on the distinctions between stickiness and spreadability, as discussed in Jenkins’ If It Doesn’t Spread, It’s Dead (Part Two): Sticky and Spreadable—Two Paradigms (2009). In this post, I want to identify a few passages for further reflection.

1. On consumers/readers as active agents, not passive hosts for “alien ideas”:

Consumers…are not simply “hosts” or “carriers” of alien ideas, but rather grassroots advocates for materials which are personally and socially meaningful to them. They have filtered out content which they think has little relevance to their community, while focusing attention on material which they think has a special salience in this new context. Spreadability relies on the one true intelligent agent — the human mind — to cut through the clutter of a hyper-mediated culture and to facilitate the flow of valuable content across a fragmented marketplace. Under these conditions, media which remains fixed in its location and static in its form fails to generate sufficient public interest and thus drops out of these ongoing conversations.

2. The 9 core distinctions between sticky and spreadable:

1. Stickiness seeks to attract and hold the attention of site visitors; Spreadability seeks to motivate and facilitate the efforts of fans and enthusiasts to “spread” the word.
2. Stickiness depends on concentrating the attention of all interested parties on a specific site or through a specific channel; spreadability seeks to expand consumer awareness by dispersing the content across many potential points of contact.
3. Stickiness depends on creating a unified consumer experience as consumers enter into branded spaces; spreadability depends on creating a diversified experience as brands enter into the spaces where people already live and interact.
4. Stickiness depends on prestructured interactivity to shape visitor experiences; spreadability relies on open-ended participation as diversely motivated but deeply engaged consumers retrofit content to the contours of different niche communities.
5. Stickiness typically tracks the migrations of individual consumers within a site; Spreadability maps the flow of ideas through social networks.
6. Under stickiness, a sales force markets to consumers; under spreadability, grassroots intermediaries become advocates for brands.
7. Stickiness is a logical outgrowth of the shift from broadcasting’s push model to the web’s pull model; spreadability restores some aspects of the push model through relying on consumers to circulate the content within their own communities.
8. Under stickiness, producers, marketers, and consumers are separate and distinct roles; spreadability depends on increased collaboration across and even a blurring of the distinction between these roles.
9. Stickiness depends on a finite number of channels for communicating with consumers; spreadability takes for granted an almost infinite number of often localized and many times temporary networks through which media content circulates.

I’m fascinated by this paradigm shift and its implications for how we understand and practice engagement online. I’d like to devote an Undisciplined Room podcast to this question. As a website developer, what does @room34 think about this shift? What are the implications for how business websites are created?

I’m also interested in what this shift does to our understanding of ethical engagement (in the forms of empathy, caring and paying attention/being curious about). In a more recent post (March 2012) on spreadability, Jenkins applies the theory to the #Kony2012 campaign. In this essay/post, he draws upon a recent working paper by Lana Swartz, especially her discussion of spreadability (getting people to pay attention and to share ideas and information) and it’s necessary complement, drillability (getting people to engage with ideas in a deep and meaningful way; to “drill down” to the complexity of the issue), a term she gets from Jason Mittell. He ponders the problems with the Kony campaign and how it’s been negatively received by its critics. Jenkins wonders,

whether despite our capacity for networked circulation, we have developed collectively the skills we would need for this kind of deliberative process. We do not know how much these other critiques are able to ride the coat tails of the rapidly circulating video, to what degree young people are inspired by the debate to think more critically about the frames they deploy in thinking about injustices in Africa or America’s place in the world.

In wondering about this issue, Jenkins cautions against both wholly dismissing the youth activist who were mobilized through Kony2012 and simply pushing for an increasingly complex articulation of the problem of/with Kony and the Kony campaign:

As Invisible Children’s critics seek to correct what they see as the simplifications and misrepresentations of the video, we can also hope they will do so in ways which respect the commitment of Invisible Children’s young activists, in ways which support their efforts to find their footing as political agents and make a difference in the world. There is a risk that a more complex and nuanced narrative may also be a disempowering one, one which, as so often happens, convince citizens — young and old — that they have nothing to contribute and that these matters are best left in the hands of experts.

On Empathy

This morning, I watched an RSA Animate video by Roman Krznaric, The Power of Outrospection (found via Brain Pickings).

I was drawn to it because of my continued interest in caring—caring about, for and with others. While not exactly the same thing, empathy is connected to care. Krznaric defines empathy in two ways: a. empathy as shared emotional response (you see someone crying in pain, it makes you cry too) and b. empathy as perspective taking (you are able to “step into someone else’s shoes” and understand their worldview/feelings/experiences).

I appreciate Krznaric’s emphasis on empathy, especially how it encourages people to humanize others and to try to understand “where they are coming from” instead of merely dismissing their ideas as wrong or too “different.” Krznaric is really committed to an “empathic revolution.” In addition to his RSA Animate video, he has tons of papers on the topic and a post on 5 easy steps for joining the empathy revolution. He is also in the process of collecting and sharing people’s stories. As a side note, I am pleased to see Krznaric using social media (blogs, twitter, YouTube) for his empathy project. Last year, I wrote an article critiquing a recent study that suggests that social media could be a main contributor to college student’s increased lack of empathy.

But (and you had to know that but was coming), even as I appreciate Krznaric’s focus on empathy, his shift away from pure introspection (self-help, it’s all about me!) and towards outrospection (stepping outside of ourselves), and his linking of empathy with radical social change, I was a little troubled by some of his language—discovering new lives and civilizations—and his proposals—an empathy museum where you can check people out or learn how to sew a garment from a South Asian factory worker or taking an empathy adventure, like George Orwell, in which you “tramp through the streets of London,” meeting new people and gathering endless material for your writings.

I am reminded of María Lugones and her excellent discussion of playfulness, world-traveling and loving perception. In it, she discusses how we might learn to playfully travel to other worlds, by seeing the people we meet through loving instead of arrogant eyes. She cautions against treating this travel as a holiday, aimed at discovering and attempting to “know” or fully understand (or conquer) these worlds or the people that inhabit them. Central to her argument is somethings that I find to be missing in Krzarnic’s discussion of empathy (to be fair, I’m basing my analysis of his theory on the RSA Animate, and not his essays and books): Writing as a woman of color, who must travel between multiple worlds (and identities), Luguones understands world-traveling to not just be a value we should aspire to do in order to understand others, but a survival tool that many people rely on in order to get by. She writes:

I wonder, who is Krznaric’s audience for this video? Who needs to be told to see/understand other’s perspectives and who already does by necessity?

I have more to say about the problems and possibilities of Krznaric’s empathy revolution, but, as always, I’m running out of time. I’m also having trouble writing coherently and concisely. Not sure why… Here’s one more thing that I want to mention about empathy: What if, when we experience empathy as perspective-taking, we weren’t stepping fully outside of ourselves into someone else’s life, but instead residing beside ourselves (and beside them) in an in-between space where we can see how our lives are connected and implicated in each other’s? So, empathy isn’t about “discovering new worlds,” but about refusing to ignore the richly complex and diverse worlds that we already inhabit. Hope that makes sense.

Speaking of empathy and becoming aware of others’ experiences in order to affect social change (which Krznaric does, roughly 6 minutes in), I came across a story on Colorlines about the Newark super Mayor, Cory Booker. He’s surviving on food stamps for in order to experience what it’s like to live on $30/week for food. He’s taking the #SNAPChallenge:

The SNAP Challenge gives participants a view of what life can be like for millions of low-income Americans. Most participants take the Challenge for one week, living on the average daily food stamp benefit (about $4 per person per day). Challenge participants find they have to make difficult food shopping choices, and often realize how difficult it is to avoid hunger, afford nutritious foods, and stay healthy.

When I have time, I want to research this initiative some more. What sort of empathy does it promote? What social justice actions are coming out of it? What would/does Krznaric think of it?