Posthuman exploration of learning in a pharmacology laboratory practical – consequences for academic development
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Over some months I have shared my reading and thinking related to a writing project that drew on practice and posthuman theories to inquire into the nature of learning. You will find these posts here, here and here. My blog has been a space for sharing my ongoing intellectual work in an open way, and sharing its messiness. In this full public draft you will see how I have built directly on my previous posts, but also how I have further developed the emergent ideas. The blog has thus acted as a place to rehearse my writing. I would welcome any feedback as a kind of open source review of this draft.
When we think of learning we usually think of the brain, of learning as a primarily cognitive activity. When we think of higher education learning this assumption becomes even more evident. This cultural default is seen in the distinction offered by the terms ‘knowledge’ and ‘skills’, where knowledge is the weightier and more important of the two, especially in its uncoupling from the physical. And if this is how we habitually imagine knowledge what of the spaces within which higher education knowledge is acquired? Do we imagine them as spaces of the mind?
I recall standing in one such space. This was not the objective almost abstract space often referred to in ‘how to’ teach texts. This was a particular space, new to me but very familiar to its inhabitants. I looked out from my corner and observed rows of benches arranged in parallel lines. Along each row were stools, clustered in pairs along one long edge of the bench. Computer screens and keyboards took up some of the space in front of the stools. There were instruments on the benches that I will later learn are ‘vortexes’ that vibrate and help to mix solutions in test tubes. Facing the stools across the wooden surface are shelving that stretch along the other long edge, forming a kind of wall. And on the shelving stood beakers, and pots, and books. At one end of the bench stood a sink, and a weighing machine enclosed in a glass cabinet. All benches were the same. Elsewhere in the room were other machines, other computer screens and keyboards, other kinds of measuring equipment, and a large screen at the front of the room where the lecturer’s slides were displayed. The first impression was the shier quantity of machines or equipment of different kinds. This is different from the learning spaces I am used to where, apart from a computer and some form of table, it is paper and books that are mostly present. My social scientific space is not the “…place densely stacked with instruments and materials and populated by researchers” which represents the scientific space as noted by Karin Knorr Cetina (Cetina, 2009, p. 25). I was immediately fascinated by the array of equipment and what this meant for the activities I observed. This was not the social science space I was accustomed to but a pharmacology laboratory practical. The spatial arrangement obviously says something about the structure and culture of knowledge and the signature pedagogies of chemistry and pharmacology (see Shulman, 2006 for discussion of signature pedagogies).
Also in the room were bodies, lots of bodies. In fact a little over 50 bodies. Initially the social distinction between the bodies was not apparent since all wore white laboratory coats. The distinctions become clearer as the bodies took up their allocated places. ‘Students’ were defined by sitting in pairs on the stools, forming ‘work stations’ in their relationship with that part of the bench, and shelving, and computer. The benches were thus populated in this way. At the sides of the room were others who were not that distinct from those who were obviously the students in this setting. They were similarly young, similarly dressed. While they were ‘students’ in the sense that they were conducting postgraduate studies, in this particular setting they are ‘instructors’ and so are socially different to the undergraduate students arranged around their workstations. There was one other person also dressed in a white laboratory coat. Their status as ‘lecturer’ was more clearly marked, being older than both ‘students’ and ‘instructors’, dressed differently beneath the laboratory coat, and perhaps importantly, standing at the front of the room by the screen looking down across all the benches.
My own position in the room was not neutral; it was not without some regard. I was there to see what ‘teaching’ meant in different disciplines in my university. My role as an academic/educational developer meant that I worked with lecturers across the disciplines to ‘develop’ their academic practice, particularly in relation to teaching and learning in higher education. But I come from a particular background, from a sub-discipline in the social sciences. What exactly did ‘teaching’ mean when this became the object of reflection for a chemist, and in this instance in the discipline of pharmacology? It was developmental in that I felt the need to observe disciplinary teaching in order to better understand the context of practice that would be reflected upon by a colleague taking one of our courses. But it also related to a key methodological approach in academic development, that of ‘decoding the disciplines’ (Middendorf & Pace, 2004). If I was to support colleagues from a range of disciplinary backgrounds to grasp the pedagogical knowledge (Shulman, 2006)needed to support student disciplinary learning, I needed to understand the pedagogic context of practice and its specific disciplinary modes. And this indexes the ontological terrain upon which I stood and observed the pharmacology laboratory practical before me. My observation was filtered, for the most part, through the lens of constructivist discourses of learning that placed the student learning experience as central to pedagogical concerns (Ramsden, 2006). I was attuned to trying to understand how the students went about the business of learning in this context. The heterodox view in academic development is that better understanding of the student experience of learning leads to better teaching.
But, as I stood there observing the activity I found myself making mental notes that related to two sets of literature that I had been engaging with – practice theory and posthumanism. I was intrigued about how knowledge and learning was embedded in and across the varied practices the students were engaged in, and how this worked against a view of learning that placed undue attention on the purely cognitive (Nerland & Fenwick, 2014). Simultaneously I was taken with the ‘dance of agency‘ between students and the non-human – the way we might understand how ‘doing’ science may be ‘unthinkable’ without also considering the active role of the apparatus the students engaged with and the chemical compounds they relied upon in the laboratory activity (Pickering, 2010). That is, the way the students’ knowing and learning was essentially mediated by and entangled with apparatus, technology and chemical compounds. I found myself asking the following questions: What would learning look like if we went beyond the constructivist paradigm? How useful might it be to explore learning as socially embedded and distributed across human and non-human domains? And what implications would this have for my own practice as an academic/educational developer?
My approach in this paper is ‘posthumanist’ and ’emergent’ in orientation. As such it differs in emphasis to more traditional, humanist accounts of learning in higher education. It touches directly on constructivist theories of learning, which are distinctly humanist. As I will argue, my approach does not discount the importance of human agency in the learning process, but it does displace such agency as the final point of analytical reference. Instead, I extend constructivist understandings so that we consider the way human actors, processes, concepts, and non-human materials are intimately related. I argue that understanding, knowing and learning are effects of this entanglement of human, discursive and non-human. In doing this I am deeply influenced by the practice turn in social theory, especially the idea of knowledge as embedded in practice. Consequently, learning is viewed performatively, as an emergent quality, as something that emerges from practice and is not exterior to it.
I begin by outlining the activity undertaken in the pharmacology laboratory practical I observed. This works to introduce two initial readings of the situation – one based on the ‘Approaches to Teaching Inventory’ (Trigwell & Prosser, 2004), and the other ‘threshold concepts’ (Meyer & Land, 2005). This allows me to outline the doxa of my practice as an academic/educational developer and set the ground for extending this humanist approach. The next two sections then present a different ontological reading of the laboratory practical drawing on a combination of practice theory and posthumanist science. This seeks to integrate the conceptual and material dimensions of the setting and so pose generative questions about how we might understand learning in this particular context.
What does a pharmacology laboratory practical look like?
The focus of this class was a test of the toxicity of paracetamol solutions. The pedagogic rationale for this activity can be seen to be threefold. It offers the students opportunity to practice a procedure that is fairly common to the testing of substances. Secondly, it provides a practical context for the application of pharmacological knowledge. And finally it has a very practical rationale because paracetamol toxicity is one of the most common forms of poisoning worldwide, hence the importance for those dispensing the drug having a proper understanding of its adverse effects. The students were required to conduct a colorimetric assay of a paracetamol solution in order to determine its therapeutic/toxic concentration. The assay involved the students in the preparation of a series of paracetamol solutions (some with known concentrations and some ‘unknown’) for comparative purposes involving processes of measuring (weighing and liquid measures), use of various apparatus (pipettes, including Eppendorf pipettes, flasks, vortex machines for mixing, spectrophotometer), and a number of chemical compounds (water, sodium nitrate, sodium hydroxide). Based on the reading from a spectrophotometer the students then had to construct a standard curve (based on Beer’s Law) and determine the concentration of paracetamol in the samples of ‘unknown’ toxicity. Essentially, the spectrophotometer measures the degree to which light that is passed through each solution is absorbed by the solution. The reading from the spectrophotometer is then plotted on a graph using Beer’s Law. Consequently, the greater the toxicity of the solution the higher the rate of absorption.
In observing the pharmacology laboratory practical we witness a range of human activity, including students reading array instructions from their work sheets; laboratory partners discussing the procedure, conferring over measurements and interpretations; measuring (water, paracetamol, acid, etc.) and dispensing solutions into test tubes; operating the vortex machine in order to mix the solutions; placing samples into the spectrophotometer and then interpreting the results; charting the graph and locating the toxicity of the ‘unknowns’; and all the time recording the process and results. It is clearly busy. Students are constantly moving around their benches, interacting with each other, using equipment, and writing. The lecturer moves around the room observing, asking pairs and individual students questions, offering advise. The teaching assistants also observe, question and advise. They can be seen standing back and looking across the benches they are responsible for, checking whether students are following the procedure correctly, paying particular attention to the production of the correct solutions. These instructors are some times called upon by students to advise, and at other times they step in at critical moments. Advice is often formative, sometimes summative. But what is the meaning of this activity? What is it about all this activity that leads students to comprehend the discipline of pharmacology? There would be little point to all this activity if it did not enable students to better understand pharmacology, indeed lead to a change in understanding and a new orientation to the world.
Within the scholarship of teaching and learning this issue of understanding is often configured around the privileging of student-focused conceptual change approaches to teaching (Trigwell, Prosser, & Waterhouse, 1999) or deep learning (Marton & Säljö, 1976). In my role as an academic/educational developer I am frequently encouraging my faculty colleagues to re-orient themselves from a content (disciplinary knowledge) centred approach to teaching to one that considers teaching in light of the student experience of learning. Consequently, much of the knowledge base of my own practice are empirical studies of this student experience (Entwistle & Peterson, 2004; Entwistle & McCune, 2004; Prosser, Ramsden, Trigwell, & Martin, 2010; Trigwell & Prosser, 1991; 2006) and of university teachers’ pedagogic intentions . In many ways this perspective forms a doxic frame of reference for academic/educational development work. My tendency then would be to view the pharmacology laboratory practical through this lens.
An early iteration of this doxic frame is a study conducted by some of the key thinkers in the scholarship of teaching and learning, Keith Trigwell and Michael Prosser (Trigwell & Prosser, 1996). This study sought to examine university teachers’ pedagogic intentions by exploring the extent to which their teaching approaches were student/teacher centred and oriented towards information transmission or conceptual change. This research is particularly relevant here because it focused on the teaching of first year chemistry and physics. Significant is the association between student centred approaches and conceptual change. This analysis was further developed and formed the basis for the ‘Approaches to Teaching Inventory’ which has become a fairly widespread instrument for evaluating and mapping teaching styles (Trigwell & Prosser, 2004). The research asserts that deep learning is strongly associated with student centred approaches to teaching. Informed by this approach we might follow the lead offered by Michael Prosser and colleagues and inquire into the relationship between the pharmacology lecturer’s conception of disciplinary knowledge and the teaching strategies and intentions behind the laboratory practical (Prosser, Martin, Trigwell, Ramsden, & Lueckenhausen, 2005). We would want to examine the extent to which the lecturer conceived of chemical knowledge as a set of isolated pieces of information and skills or was based on related concepts, issues and procedures. Furthermore, we might then seek to understand if these concepts, issues and procedures are understood as linked or related in an integrated fashion. We would then observe if this way of understanding chemical knowledge manifested in particular pedagogic practices.
Another useful way of interpreting the activity in the laboratory practical is through ‘Threshold concepts’(Meyer & Land, 2005). Here, the emphasis would be on the identification of particular concepts, processes and practices essential for students to fully enter a disciplinary way of thinking and so promote deep learning. For instance, Vincente Talanquer
(Talanquer, 2015) states that,
If we were to ask chemistry teachers and instructors to list some threshold concepts in chemistry, it is likely that many of them would include concepts such as “Atomicity”, “Chemical Bonding”, “Intermolecular Forces”, and “Chemical Equilibrium”. (p.4)
Talanquer’s argument is that chemistry students often encounter particular difficulties in grasping the underlying meaning of key features of disciplinary knowledge. For instance, students will understand chemical compounds in an ‘additive’ or ‘intrinsic’ fashion, viewing the different elements that make up a compound as static. ‘Learning’ then becomes a matter of adding on bits of knowledge. Transformation of their disciplinary understanding comes about when they grasp the dynamic and emergent properties of both compound and element. This also challenges the pedagogic assumptions made by educators. Talanquer notes the tendency for educators to argue that undergraduate students, particularly in earlier years of study, cannot deal with the overly abstract nature of these ontological aspects of disciplinary knowledge and that they have to concentrate on teacher centred information transfer approaches in order to build a base for later, deeper thinking. This gives rise to what Courtney Ngaia, Hannah Seviana and Vicente Talanquer term a ‘toolbox’ approach of loosely related topics, the introduction of chemical nomenclature, and isolated skills (such as laboratory protocols) (Ngai, Sevian, & Talanquer, 2014). Instead, these authors propose the need to base the chemistry curriculum on sets of central questions aimed at the development in students of authentic ‘chemical thinking’. They develop this proposal through a discussion of ‘chemical identity’ as a disciplinary specific, but cross-cutting threshold concept. Chemical identity refers to the ways of thinking associated with identifying one entity as distinct from another, and doing so in relation to its extrinsic and dynamic properties.
We could imagine, therefore, viewing the pharmacology laboratory practical using these concepts. As with the ideas suggested earlier, these are also oriented towards developing pedagogic practices that maximize deeper forms of learning. We might be guided, therefore, to inquire into whether the way the laboratory practical is set up encourages students to see both the integrated nature of what they are doing (applying knowledge, operating equipment, following protocols, measuring, interpreting and reporting) and allows both students and educators to uncover implicit assumptions about chemical knowledge and properties. This last point is central to the studies on ‘chemical identity’ conducted by Talanquer and colleagues. This would suggest that any assessment of learning that might be going on in the laboratory practical would be focused on students’ ontological assumptions and how these influence their chemical reasoning.
It is my view that both of these are perfectly legitimate and worthwhile approaches to take. Both offer academic developers and educators more widely a lot of thoughtful and considered material for reflection on academic practice and student learning. And both are based on similar ethical commitments to maximizing deep learning for as many students as possible. But let’s go back to the initial observation. Here we see a dynamic setting that not only involves interaction between different categories of human agent – student-to-student; student-to-teaching assistant; student-to-lecturer; teaching assistant-to-lecturer; teaching assistant-to-teaching assistant; teaching assistant-to-student; and lecturer to all. But we also see the necessary interrelationships between all these human agents and objects of various kinds – work benches, pens, computers (and the algorithms that make them function); presentation software, chemical substances and compounds, vortex machines, spectrophotometers, taps and sinks, measuring machines; as well as concepts, issues and procedures. To speak predominantly of the human and the cognitive, as do the approaches I have reviewed, seems to bypass essential ingredients of the ontological landscape of learning. And so, it is the relevance and importance of ‘artefacts’ that I want to turn to in the next section.
Protocols, epistemic objects, and knowledge centred activity
Beyond the mainstream of the scholarship of teaching and learning, and academic development, are theories of practice that take seriously the interaction of human and non-human that could usefully be applied to the learning context before me. Practice foregrounds “…the acts of making knowledge” (Cetina, 2009, p. 9). This seems apt for an educational setting. And so learning and teaching might be about doing things, and I want to argue it is about human engagements with the world, and specifically how this relationship between human and non-human can be understood as central to epistemic practices. In this section my emphasis is on the role of non-human objects in the mediation of epistemic practice. Therefore, I propose that the particular knowledge being dealt with in the pharmacology laboratory practical is situated within the practices undertaken in the laboratory and mediated by the engagement with non-human objects and the protocols the students follow in their testing of paracetomol toxicity. I will be using the terminology of ‘epistemic objects’ and ‘epistemic practices’, drawn from the work of Karin Knorr Cetina (2009)(epistemic cultures), and Monika Nerland and Karen Jensen (Nerland & Jensen, 2014). The array and the protocols the students follow are examples of what Nerland and Jensen call epistemic objects. In this particular case it is the inquiry into the problem of toxicity and how to determine it that organizes the activities undertaken in the laboratory. They provide examples such as the way ‘care’ operates as an epistemic object for nurses, or medical procedures for doctors. Epistemic objects invite purposeful activity such as assessing, evaluating, recording results, etc. It is these practices that we can term epistemic. But first I want to explore how the artefacts that are necessary for epistemic practices can be usefully discussed in terms of tools and signs.
How artefacts work as tools and signs to create a laboratory practical
The scene I observed in the pharmacology laboratory practical had all the semiotic cues that would lead most observers to conclude that what was going on in this space was science. The benches and the other non-human artefacts – measuring instruments and machines, as well as water and various chemicals function both as ‘tools’ that enable the practices of scientific endeavour (and science education in this case) but also as ‘signs’, signaling a particular meaning to the practices undertaken in this space. The Danish anthropologist Cathrine Hasse has examined the way objects work simultaneously as tools and signs in relation to scientific practice and technology. For instance, she discusses the use of ‘Paro’, a piece of adaptive technology (socially assistive robot) designed to bring comfort and stimulation to the elderly and those with Alzheimer’s (Paro works as a robotic pet that can be stroked, will pur, etc.) (Hasse, 2013). Hasse suggests that simultaneous with working as a ‘tool’- as a robot it works to calm agitated patients, it also functions as a ‘sign’ in the sense that it ‘speaks’ to us in a meaningful fashion. Building on insights developed by Vygotsky and taken up in activity theory ‘tools’ can be seen as those things that mediate human action on their environment whereas a ‘sign’ mediates this internally on our consciousness. The use of tools can have a transformative effect on the material world as when, proposes Hasse, we learn to develop and use an axe in order to cut down trees with the intention of building a house. Although signs are oriented to consciousness they are also implicated in human action on their environments. Again, Hasse notes, as when an axe becomes meaningful to human activity (a sign) in terms of its role in securing desired shelter, or as an aggressive weapon to defend oneself or dominate others. Hasse argues that in reality the distinction between tool and sign breaks down as we treat artefacts meaningfully.
What does this mean in the context of the pharmacology laboratory practical? Hasse’s argument indicates that learning in this context is related in some way to the meaningful relationship with artefacts, in this case material apparatus as well as concepts and processes. The particular arrangement of bodies, apparatus and the circulation of concepts at play in this space constitute it as a ‘laboratory’, as a particular kind of space linked to specific structures of knowledge and social activity – science. Earlier I noted how different this space was to the social scientific one I am more familiar with, and that the abundance of artefacts was a significant feature of this difference. Mirroring Hasse I could say that it is this specific functioning of artefacts as tools and signs that makes it a pharmacology laboratory practical. It is this arrangement of bodies to artefacts and processes that, according to Karin Knorr Cetina (2009), produces what we call scientific knowledge. This is an approach that views scientific knowledge as an effect of what scientists do (and often do with artefacts) rather than as a disembodied object of cognition.
A laboratory can also bee seen as working simultaneously as a tool (a delineated space for a specific activity) and as a sign (the spatial and social arrangements within the space as well as the artefacts and procedures giving legitimacy to the activity as science). Laboratories gain their social significance in turning aspects of the natural order into epistemic objects that are manipulated through the operation of particular methodologies. Importantly, though, for Knorr Cetina laboratories are not just spaces within which social agents act upon natural objects. The scientist, or the science student in this case, is not the social counterpart to chemical compounds or water or machine. Within the laboratory the students do not deal with chemicals in their natural state but in transformed states as ‘images, extractions, and a multitude of other things’ (Cetina, 2009, p. 32)and instead scientists work with “…object images or with their visual, auditory, or electrical traces, and with their components, their extractions, and their “purified” versions” (p.27). In this particular space the students engage with paracetamol through a trace, through an electronic representation of the degree of light absorption as worked through the (spectrophotometer). The students will seldom engage with the ‘things themselves’. Knorr Cetina’s argument is that scientists are also transformed by the laboratory, molded behaviorally depending on the social organization of specific scientific enterprises and the reliance on artefacts for conducting scientific activity. For instance, she contrasts the epistemic cultures that arise in large scale high energy physics experiments such as those in the CERN particle accelerator, compared to smaller scale molecular biology experiments. Only certain kinds of human activity are available or legitimate within the context of the laboratory, and the objects of the laboratory delimit social agency. There is then, for Knorr Cetina, disunity in practice between these two scientific endeavours, the scientists do different kinds of science, produce different kinds of knowledge. The two examples in her study represent two different epistemic cultures.
The pharmacology laboratory practical takes on the character of a ‘workshop’ similar to the molecular biology work in Knorr Cetina’s study of epistemic cultures. The whole point of the activity in the room is to intervene and manipulate chemical compounds. Scientific endeavor in this context is not framed by a principle of non-interference, in fact the opposite. From this orientation of scientific endeavor comes the actual behaviours the students have to engage in, and which can be captured in the protocols they are required to follow. While the term protocol can often refer to seemingly non-signifying activities, from the perspective of epistemic culture they are in fact deeply significant. Protocols can be seen as epistemic practices related to particular conceptions of scientific endeavor. Similarly, the various artifacts that make up this space as a laboratory, and not some other kind of space, should also be understood as epistemic objects (Cetina, 1997). It would, I think, be a mistake to consider the various machines and containers, for instance, as only having instrumental value (act as tools). Instead, they do epistemic work related to the development of scientific expertise (also act as signs). The ability to understand the toxicity of any paracetamol compound is unthinkable in the absence of these artefacts. Scientific knowledge is therefore bundled with epistemic objects and epistemic practices. There is, then, an intimate relationship between the ‘expert’ (the lecturer as well as the science student) and ‘epistemic objects’ (the way tools function as signs) (Cetina, 1997). The knowledge work of the students can be seen to be done through the interaction with epistemic objects and “…the reaction granted by them” (Cetina, 2008, p. 83). This interaction is mediated via ‘protocols’, the particular procedures by which the scientist conducts an experiment, in this case a paracetamol array. Protocols take on the character of ‘knowledge centred practice’ as defined by Karin Knorr Cetina. This doesn’t mean that protocols enable students to access or acquire knowledge as something that lies outside of their doing in the laboratory. To be proficient (that is approach being expert) means that the various objects such as beakers, pipettes, vortex machines, etc. become almost invisible in the hands of the student. That is the object in mind is that of producing the results. It is to this object of knowledge that the student stands in relation, not the artifacts surrounding them and which are necessary for producing the results. They are a means to an end, simple tools. It is only when something goes wrong that the student will suddenly be in relation to the artefact directly.
This routinized mode of behavior means that the boundaries between human and non-human, and between artefacts blurs. Let me give an example. As part of the protocol students use Eppendorf pipettes to measure out specified quantities of water solution. On first attempt the student may be all too aware of the separation of human mind and eye and hand with the instrument of the pipette and the solution to be measured. It has an awkward quality about it, the movement stilted, slow, considered. However, once the student has become more proficient the boundary between all of these becomes less obvious. This resembles the transparency between objects and human and non-human found by Karin Knorr Cetina in her study of epistemic cultures cited earlier (Cetina, 2009). This kind of routinized procedure is common to much laboratory and scientific practice. While the practice contained by the protocol is a knowledge centred practice, and thus an epistemic practice, it is also mindless in that students might not, in any particular moment, be conscious subjects related in a direct way with certain artefacts or processes. It is the practices of holding pipettes, manipulating pipettes, picking up beakers, holding test tubes, reading instructions or the visual displays on electronic weighing machines that are most evident. Far from being an external, disembodied object of mind, knowledge of paracetamol toxicity is bound up in the protocols, and thus entangled with instruments, processes, chemical compounds, computer algorithms, digital displays, as well as concepts and equations. Monika Nerland and Karen Jensen (Nerland & Fenwick, 2014), for instance, have investigated the way procedures are essential for how nurses and computer engineers engage with knowledge. The procedures and various artefacts this entails (texts and documents for nurses, and information technologies for the engineers) directly mediate their professional learning. Also, these intermediary objects function simultaneously as tools and signs (c.f. Hasse, 2013). These artefacts mediate understanding of how certain chemical structures interact with the human organism in potentially dangerous ways. This knowledge is both embedded in the practices I observe in the laboratory and distributed across them, no matter how mundane they may seem.
The totality of action as epistemic object and the dance of agency
In the previous section I examined some consequences of moving away from the acquisition metaphor of learning and how this confronts us with the idea of learning as a ‘doing’, to borrow from Karin Barad’s work (Barad, 2007). The intent was to make explicit the humanist and social-constructivist presumptions of learning entailing the inter-action of quite separate entities – knowledge and the knower. I sought to extend this understanding by introducing the power of artefacts as mediating this relationship, and giving artefacts a distinctive sense of agency or power in this process, in particular the elaborated discussion of artefacts functioning as tools and signs. I gave special attention to the way the laboratory protocol followed by the students had epistemic value, that it was a practice of knowing. But there still remained a distinction between knower, knowledge, and mediating artefacts. The work of posthumanist scholars invites us to further extend such understandings and to examine the ‘agency’ that ‘things’ have, to glimpse the tantalizing possibility that test tubes, Eppendorf pipettes, and chemical compounds themselves can be regarded as agentic. Through this lens the laboratory protocol, I argue, becomes a ‘dance of agency’ (Pickering, 2010)between human and non-human. What we call learning is an effect of this performance.
From paracetamol toxicity as epistemic object to array as phenomenon
Karen Barad’s (2007) work critiques the separation of scientific practice, such as measuring quantities of paracetamol, or reading the spectrophotometer display from scientific knowledge and theory. Although her work focuses on particle physics she details how the act of measuring or observing cannot be separated from scientific knowledge. For example, she considers the act of observing light scattered from an atomic particle and captured on a fixed photographic plate, rather like taking a photo. The ‘phenomenon’ or ‘event’ is neither the atomic particle nor the light itself, but the light as captured by the measuring apparatus. As with a camera the photograph is not the observed object itself but an effect of capturing the light on light sensitive material. The phenomenon is an ‘event’ that incorporates the particles, the problem under consideration (the epistemic object) and the act of measuring/observing (epistemic practice) (Barad, 2003, p. 171). Following Barad the paracetamol array and protocol as a whole is the phenomenon, rather than the toxicity of paracetamol itself. The phenomenon involves a related set of active elements including the lecturer’s intentions for the laboratory practical, the activities of the teaching assistants, the students’ engagement with the task, the functioning of the apparatus, and the action of the chemical compounds. It is worth remembering that I noted earlier the students do not encounter the toxicity of paracetamol directly. They encounter an electronic display of the degree of light absorption. And it is this that stands for toxicity. Similarly, the toxicity of paracetamol has to be considered as an effect of the measuring activity and not as an abstract quality of the chemical compound. After all, the problem of paracetamol toxicity emerges from the relationship between the compound and the human organism. Toxicity is not in and of itself a quality of the chemical compound outside of its relationship with an organism and the mechanism by which that compound enters the human body. This reiterates the main point of the previous section, that knowledge and learning are effects of the phenomenon as a whole.
Knowledge as performance and the dance of agency
This approach takes us beyond ‘science-as-knowledge’ and to an understanding of ‘science-as-performance’. Through a series of studies Andrew Pickering deconstructs the cultural motifs of scientific work and demonstrates the folding together of human and non-human activity, and explores how in reality the development of scientific knowledge and practice operates like a ‘dance of agency’ between human and non-human.
Let me try to illustrate this dance of agency as it might appear in the observed pharmacology laboratory practical by trying to distinguish between the moments of human and non-human agency, following the sequence of activity required by the protocol:
|Human Agency||Human Passivity|
|Sequence 1||· Reading array instructions
· Discussion with bench partner
· Measuring (water, paracetamol, acid, etc.)
· Dispensing solutions into test tubes
· Operating vortex machine to mix paracetamol solutions
· Recording the process
|· Waiting for the solutions to mix and settle|
|Sequence 2||· Placing samples into the spectrophotometer||· Waiting for the spectrophotometer to produce the results from the interaction between the basic materials (paracetamol) and the machine|
|Sequence 3||· Interpreting the results from the spectrophotometer
· Charting the graph (based on Beer’s Law) and locating the toxicity of the ‘unknowns’
· Recording and reporting the results
We see here that what I previously referred to as epistemic practices correlates with human agency in the laboratory practical. If we take sequence 1 the acts of measuring, recording, dispensing, mixing are classic examples of epistemic practice. However, this epistemic practice folds into and around moments where the students have to wait on the action of chemical compounds or machines to do their work. In these moments it is the non-human artefacts that have agency. For example, while operating the vortex machine it is the material agency of the mixture that takes the lead and the students can do nothing but wait. This is visually observed in the laboratory where we see the deliberate, if at times hesitant, movement of the students as they co-ordinate their actions in relation to the artefacts they rely upon to conduct the array. In one moment limbs are moved to enact measuring, or holding, or writing. In the next the student stands and waits, passive for a moment while the lead is taken over by the vortex machine. The activity takes on the character of a choreographed performance, hence the utility of Pickering’s terminology.
Viewed this way, as Barad argues, it is difficult to think of scientific knowledge as some how abstracted from the doing of science. Pharmacological knowledge is inseparable from the handling of Eppendorf pipettes, from measuring, from waiting for a vortex machine to do its work, from encountering the visual display of the spectrophotometer and performing an act of imagination to read this as being ‘toxicity’. It is inseparable from the benches and the physical organization of the laboratory. In other words, learning is something accomplished by corporeal beings, in specific places, and with artefacts. It is not a purely cognitive event. If the ‘science’ the students are engaged in is a phenomenon, as Barad claims, then learning is also an effect of the phenomenon and so is entangled with non-human action.
I began this paper by making reference to how my attention was drawn to the abundance of artefacts in this space, and how the particular relationship between people and artefacts in a specific location (a university) constituted this space as a pharmacology laboratory practical. The abundance of artefacts in this space matters to learning. Building on the notions of epistemic objects and practices, in this conclusion I want to propose that it is worth considering knowledge as embedded. This approach requires us to understand learning in ways that take use beyond that normally conveyed by humanist philosophies, and requires us to think differently about the aim of academic/educational development.
Having said that the students do not engage with paracetamol toxicity directly, this does not mean the students only engage with representations of the real or the material. Along with the symbolic (texts, diagrams, speech) the students do engage with a material reality. In the humanist paradigm this material world can sometimes get lost, obfuscated, hidden. It is not present in the same way as thought, the cognitive, and language. Yet, I hope I have convinced you that in spaces such as the pharmacology laboratory practical we are confronted with an abundance of material artefacts, we are confronted with matter. Through epistemic practices students encounter not just a symbolic world of representations (which we often take to be knowledge) but also a world of material meaning. Students’ ideas, concepts, and theories of chemical interactions with the human organism have to be understood as part of a wider material configuration that includes chemical compounds, measuring instrumentation, visual displays of light absorption, benches, pens, computers, and other bodies (the lecturer and the post doctoral students) (for a detailed discussion of material configuration and scientific practice see Barad, 2007). It is not the case, I argue, that science education and the material world are separate entities. It is through the calibration and choreographing of bodies, artefacts, and concepts that students might cross thresholds into different ways of being in the world.
Consequently, the artefacts are not neutral but are products of particular conceptions of what constitutes science. The Eppendorf pipette, paracetamol compounds, and the spectrophotometer are brought together in a particular kind of relationship with the students’ bodies in a specific place; and the students’ behaviours are modified and regulated by these artefacts. It is these particular, rather than general, articulations that we can call the phenomenon, and it is the phenomenon that is the epistemic object and simultaneously constitutes and envelopes the epistemic practices. This is why scientific knowledge is inseparable from specific scientific practices. It is why the abundance of artefacts ‘matter’; it is why learning is not something separate from the flow or dance of agency.
All of this has consequences for the practice of academic development. If academic development is framed by metaphors of acquisition then it mirrors the conception of knowledge as somehow dis-embedded from social practice and the material world (Boud & Hager, 2012). I want to finish, therefore, with some questions that are worth pursuing in order to re-frame academic/educational development practice. If we take the posthuman perspective seriously then what becomes the epistemic object of academic practice? What are the consequences of this for what constitute our epistemic practices? I believe that these two questions can form the basis for a productive research agenda.
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