"I am a Minnesotan by birth and a traveler in wild places by vocation and compulsion." -Paul Gruchow

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Eng. 151H: Scientific Miniatures

Last night, I read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks in one sitting, the book I'm teaching for the third Writing Project for my Fall 151H.  Amazing, as I knew it would be.  It had finally stopped raining--and this morning, as I'm in town for internet and seeing the damage that ten inches of rain wreaked on Duluth, I'm feeling grateful that we only got four inches.  I have hopes that the blue sky and sunshine today will dry out the lawn enough that I can mow it this afternoon.  Seems like every time I think the lawn has dried out enough, it rains again.  But there are worse things to be curled up at the lake with tea, fleece, and a book.

I'm still working on formulating the syllabus for my Eng. 151H (Honors Rhetoric as Argument), but things are clearing up there.  I still remember when I assigned The Greatest Invention argument when I taught at Bowling Green and one of my students wrote maybe the best paper I'd ever seen for that assignment:  she argued that the telescope was the greatest invention in all of human history, the one thing that changed our lives and our world the most.  She argued that with the optics that allowed us to see so far away, we began to understand the true size of the universe and began to question our place in it (something that the Catholic Church had worked very hard to prevent).  And when we flipped the telescope and were able to examine the tiniest things, we began to question what else we didn't know.  It was a truly great paper.  So I'm thinking in terms of miniatures, of the microscope, and that's how I came up with this idea (it would be nice if I could make some sort of Scamp or tiny house comment here, but maybe I'll have to work harder to fit it in.)

And so, as my goal during my PhD is to never teach the same class twice, I've formulated this Scientific Miniatures 151.  The purpose of the class is to consider the importance of the small things we overlook--specifically insects (Silent Spring), animals and food systems (Omnivore's Dilemma), and human cells (The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks).  I want to talk about the various systems that these tiny things are a part of, how our understanding of them is colored by gender, politics, history, ethics, and more.  One of the things that was most interesting to me about Silent Spring was not simply the subject matter--and its importance in the scheme of things--but how much of the rhetoric of destruction came out of a post-WW2 mentality of American Exceptionalism and the beginnings of The Miracle of Modern Science.  We have the capability to do this, so why shouldn't we?  This sort of questioning I want to form the basis for the entire semester.  I'm not interested in asking students to pick a side or form binary arguments on what we're discussing--I want them to explore the complexities of the entire argument, because it's not as easy as swatting a mosquito.  Mosquitoes that I'm sure are absolutely loving the puddles left by this week's rain around the Cabin...

With Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma, as we talk about the miniature world of plants and and animals, I have no interest in trying to convert my students to vegetarianism.  That's not the point.  The point is that I want them to start to understand how they function in the food systems that run our world.  We're in Nebraska, full of farms and farmers and Montsanto, but they don't know what that means.  I want them to consider the complexities of water and the Ogallala Aquifer (as my 150 class last semester went to Don Worster's lecture, which was awesome), I want them to consider the implications of Montsanto, I want them to become aware of local food.  It's excellent that during this part of the fall semester, the farmer's market down in the Haymarket will still be going on.  Excellent opportunities for interviewing people.  I may or may not add a blog component to this project.

And for the final project, as we read Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, we'll talk about the miniature world of the human cell.  This book will offer a great opportunity to talk about issues like gender, race, and class--since Henrietta's cells were taken without her knowledge, used without her or her family's permission.  Henrietta's cells, known as HeLa, have been used in nearly every significant scientific and medical advancement since 1951, yet her family cannot afford health insurance.  There is much more to this discussion than simple ethics, the complexities of what we bring to the conversation are endless, considering the contemporary state of research.

On that note, I'm going to close up the internet, go home to the Scamp, make up the bed and stock the cupboards for my (probably) only Scamping trip of the summer.  Oh, how I adore 60 square feet.

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