headache…

Julius Axelrod

The image above is that of Julius Axelrod who, with Bernard Brodie, is seen as establishing paracetamol as a leading painkiller.

So, why Axelrod, why paracetamol?

A previous post introduced the idea of me using this blog to develop and rehearse my thinking leading to an academic article (hopefully), inspired by my observation of a pharmacology laboratory practical class.  The focus of this class was a test of the toxicity of paracetamol solutions.  This has a very practical rationale because paracetamol poisoning is so common, hence the importance of those dispensing the drug having a proper understanding of its adverse effects.

As I observed the students engaging in the ‘paracetamol array’ I was taken by the performative character of the activity.  The activity was ‘staged’ in the sense of being performed in a particular setting that gave the activity certain meaning.  Imagine this cluster of young people dressed in white lab coats conducting this test in the student bar?  In being wrenched from the lab its ‘meaning’ would change, there would be an ‘out-of-placeness’ about it; the authority and legitimacy of the activity as SCIENCE would be in question.  WHERE the array was conducted was important.  There was a distinct patterning to the movement of the students between paper, apparatus, chemical compound, and back to paper; or between the pairs of students working together (?) at their bench.

This notion of performance is important here as a key concept in posthuman understandings of science, indeed of helping me understand the activity as science.

So, in what sense might we say these students were engaged in science?

Let me begin with a very brief description of the setting (though I will give more detail of the activity later).

The space within which the activity took place was undoubtedly a ‘laboratory’ something like this,

CICB's_Laboratory

with approximately 50 students wearing white lab coats.  It had all the semiotic clues 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.

This sense of scientific activity immediately begins to break down the distinctions between science as knowledge and science as practice.  And it is this latter sense of scientific endeavour that has preoccupied the work of Andrew Pickering.  Andrew Pickering draws attention to the cultural portrayal of science as primarily cognitive, certainly a conception carried in higher education:

Scientists feature as disembodied intellects making knowledge in a field of facts and observations (and language, as the reflexivists remind us)

Andrew Pickering (1995) The Mangle of Practice: Time, Agency, & Science, Chicago: Chicago University Press (see also here)

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 in going beyond ‘science-as-knowledge’ he argues that this takes us to an understanding of science-as-performance.

This performative understanding of science turns many common-sense notions on their head.  Such notions can lead us to perceive the world as one where ‘facts’ and ‘events’ are there to be found and observed respectively.  Instead, Andrew Pickering conjures up a world of agency – human and non-human.

He uses the example of the weather to illustrate this. Weather acts upon us without us willing it.  Our response to weather is not purely cognitive, but requires non-human materiality in the form of clothes and shelter.  But clothes and shelter have to be understood as not simply extensions of human thought and action, as things that emanate from a human origin (usually understood as cognition).  While cognition plays a part, our responses cannot be reduced to the purely human realm.  Also, the non-human material world does not act simply as ‘tools’ (as things to keep us safe from the weather).  The constituent elements that make up clothes and shelter will continue to ‘do things’ – that is have effects regardless of human action.  It is not the clothes and shelter that have material agency, but the physical and chemical properties of their constituent elements.  However, conjoined with human action and thought they may  have particular effects, which then impact upon human action and thought – human behaviour and thought changing as a consequence of new capabilities afforded by clothing and shelter.  It seems common-sense but for the fact that this understanding often appears missing in everyday language – including academic and scientific.

This is best illustrated with reference to the relationship between scientific knowledge and scientific apparatus/machines, and especially the concept of temporal emergence.  But before I do that I need to briefly outline the process the students followed in the lab:

 The students were required to conduct a colorimetric assay of a paracetamol solution in order to determine the therapeutic/toxic concentration.

The assay involved the students following a procedure similar to this below:

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 machine for mixing, spectrophotometer), and a number of chemical compounds (water, sodium nitrate, sodium hydroxide).

Based on the reading from the 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.

 posthuman

Pickering’s discussion focuses on the relationship between scientific thought, practice and the apparatus (or machines) in the particular examples he investigates.  Scientific ‘machines’ work to inscribe material (non-human) agency.  He explores how in practice the development of scientific knowledge and practice operates like a ‘dance of agency’ between human and non-human with machines mediating this.

Let me try to illustrate this dance of agency as it might appear in the observed pharmacology lab by trying to distinguish between the moments of human and non-human agency:

Human Activity

  • reading array instructions
  • discussion with lab partner
  • measuring (water, paracetamol, acid, etc.)
  • dispensing solutions into test tubes
  • operating vortex machine
  • recording process and results

Human Passivity

  • waiting for the solutions to mix and settle

[during this period it is the material agency of the mixture that takes the lead and the students can do nothing but wait.]

Human Agency

  • placing samples into the spectrophotometer 

Human Passivity

  • waiting for the spectrophotometer to produce the results from the interaction between the basic materials (paracetamol) and the machine

Human Agency

  • 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

 

 

It is within this dance of agency that something called learning occurs.

We can perhaps view this as patterned activity in the sense of a grammar of practice where this grammar does not provide us with the specifics of each articulation.  While there will be a grammar to the students’ practice in the lab, we cannot know in advance what the particular articulations of learning will be in the interaction of human/non-human.  In this regard, learning objectives simply outline the teacher’s (or scientist’s) intentions, but in the end learning will be emergent often relating to specific tasks and problems; learning cannot be predicted other than in the doing of the array. Learning is an accomplished activity rather than a simple acquisition of external knowledge or cognitive activity. Learning is something that occurs in the completeness of the doing, and embodied and situated accomplishment (this will be explored in a further post).

Temporal emergence, then,  might be seen as relating the students’ emergent learning outcomes (ELOs).  These ELOs might develop in real-time (hence the emphasis on ‘temporal’) shifting from a concentration on the knowledge domain, to the need to align their partner to the task-in-hand, to just ‘getting through the day’, to recognition of a psychological resistance to some element of the course.

As part of the temporal emergence of their learning the student might usefully be seen struggling with aligning themselves to the task-in-hand, of applying the necessary protocols (following the instructions for measuring and mixing) for the array and their conceptual understanding (of chemical processes and their practical application).  There could be an iterative relationship between the grasp of the process and their conceptual understanding.  This would mostly likely be more visible or pronounced when something didn’t work (requiring a process of reverse engineering to see what happened).

I will come back to this idea of the way the materiality of the lab and the practical actions of lab-work ‘carry’ knowledge and understanding in another post.


Here, I have tried to relay my current understanding of a complex interpretation of scientific practice through a posthuman lens and its possible application to higher education learning.

Further posts in this series will explore the materiality of lab-work and how this ‘carries’ learning; the organised nature of learning as a social activity of alignment.

In the writing of these posts I am struggling with ideas that take me beyond my habitual zones of practice.  By the time I write another iteration of this it is likely that I will have altered some of my understandings.  It should go without saying that any comments and suggestions from readers would be vital in this process.

 

Advertisements

The place of love in open and engaged scholrship

TJC

 

The other day I took part in my first ‘Twitter Journal Club’ (#TJC15) facilitated by Laura Gogia from Virginia Commonwealth University’s AltLab.  The experience was exciting, disruptive, thoughtful.  Lots of things.  You can see the various streams here.

This TJC event occurred at a moment when I am re-thinking my sense of being an academic.  Indeed, the term academic sometimes feels awkward, especially, as Pat Thomson forcefully notes, at a time when scholarship as inquiry is increasingly being forged into the language of ‘brand’, and particularly the way academic CVs are ‘managed’ so that they contribute more directly to the (business) strategy of our institutions.  Like Pat I am about to work with a group of colleagues on developing research career strategies.  She asserts that she is not a BRAND and in doing so is working against the current flow in higher education.  Let Pat talk for herself:

Brand, narrative, what’s the difference really? Yet it still feels that the idea of a narrative is not the same as the idea of a brand. The terms come from somewhere different, and that matters. A narrative doesn’t emanate from a market even if it’s been put to work in one. And a narrative is perhaps not simply a one-thing, but is able to hold together in some tension different aspects of an academic life. It’s not homogenous. It doesn’t represent a singular product or self, if you like. And maybe the idea of narrative opens up more room for the interpreter too – the listener or reader who makes their own mind up about what a narrative means. Maybe a reader is a bit different from being a customer who buys something – or not. Maybe the interpreter is a role description which encompasses broader social and institutional politics and personal idiosyncracies.

Let me step back to the Twitter Journal Club for a moment.

In this space we co-created, we engaged in practices that were not bounded by the culture of ‘managed CVs’.  Yet, the practice was scholarly.  Indeed PRACTICE is the key term here, both in relation to the content of the paper we were discussing (such an interesting verb when used in relation to Twitter) and the activity we were engaged in.

Journal Clubs are part of ‘normal’ academic business, particularly within certain disciplines in the sciences.  One key rationale for such an activity is to bring doctoral students and faculty together around a number of central academic functions such as:

  • keep up to date with research within the discipline/field of study
  • assess students’ competencies in key academic skills
  • create a sense of belonging to a scholarly community within the institution and with a wider scholarly community.

But there was something refreshingly NOT NORMAL about our venture in the twittersphere.

Talking to some colleagues about how journal clubs are used in their disciplines/departments one theme often emerges – that it confronts students with the ‘reality’ of scholarly practice, of the “cut and thrust” of debate, of having to “defend oneself”.  Admittedly some colleagues refer to this culture as one that is not conducive to producing the kind of graduate attributes that they value, especially notions of openness and sharing of work.  Others, though, see it as a necessary part of the socialisation of students into ‘normal’ scholarly practice.

So let me focus a little bit more on PRACTICE in this context.

There is an interesting strand within scholarly reflections on PROFESSIONAL EDUCATION that are framed by sociocultural perspectives.  Again, it is best to let folks speak for themselves on this, then I will add my own spin on it:

It avoids treating material things as mere appendages to human intention and design, or as traces of human culture. Among perspectives that seem to be part of this pervasive shift, the material world is treated as continuous with and in fact embedded in the immaterial and the human. Therefore in this discus- sion, the term ‘sociomaterial’ is used to represent perspectives that are argued to form part of this shift.

Tara Fenwick , Monika Nerland & Karen Jensen (2012) Sociomaterial approaches to conceptualising professional learning and practice, Journal of Education and Work, 25:1, 1-13, DOI:10.1080/13639080.2012.644901

The idea of practice as the site of knowing questions the prevailing over-rationalist view of knowing in organisations by undercutting the idea that “individual subjects [are] the source of meaning and normativity” (Schatzki 2001, p. 12)…..Moreover, the inherent focus on knowing as a collective and heterogeneous endeavour establishes interesting connections between the site-based view and other approaches that understand cognition as a distributed phenomenon

Davide Nicolini, (2011) Practice as the Site of Knowing: Insights from the Field of Telemedicine. Organization Science 22(3):602-620.

What I take from these discussions is the idea of LEARNING as embedded and distributed in and across a wide array of practices, and that knowledge is accomplished or enacted in the contexts of practice rather than as something we transmit from our brains to our eyes, mouths and fingers through language – such as reading an academic article, writing notes, and speaking to the paper in a journal club.  Also, knowing, learning and practice are inherently collective endeavours.  Knowing as a distributed phenomena is enacted with and through the material objects our human bodies are entangled in and with.

For me, there is something distinct about the way we were coming to KNOW in the context of practice that was the Twitter Journal Club compared to how I understand journal clubs to often run.  Different kinds of knowing are constituted, different assemblages of practice cohering around the collective activities, different potential ‘selves’ enacted.

There was a beautiful symmetry in the enactments we were engaged in the other day and the content of the paper we discussed.  The paper, ‘Teacher Experiences and Academic Identity: The Missing Components of MOOC Pedagogy‘ dealt with the troubled identifications of a team of scholars in the context of what they call a hybrid MOOC.  In the paper they discuss the way they negotiated their presence in the MOOC environment; of experimenting  ‘with an ethos of scale, and with a notion of the teacher as present, but radically outnumbered’ (62); of being caught between being positioned as the locus of authority and of being lost in a distributed network of knowledgeable participants. They became aware that the teacher did not suddenly become invisible simply because the educative activity was taken out of the classroom to digital space.  Contrary to connectivist theories they saw that learning and knowledge did not simply arise out of the network, but was always and necessarily situated.  All participants came with histories, philosophies, dispositions.  The ‘network’ was a network in a particular space at a particular time, and involved a specific arrangement of concepts, theories, algorithms, terminology and material objects (that constitute the physical structure and organisation of the digital).  The specific positionings of ‘teacher’ or ‘student’ could not be prefigured by a theory but were enacted in the practices of logging in, typing, reading, as well as the keyboards, screens, cables, etc.  Our identities are performed and accomplished in the doings and sayings (including text) of the MOOC environment.

For the purpose of my discussion here, though, it is important that the paper discusses the way the practice of teaching was disrupted by the specific context of enactment – a hybrid-MOOC.  While the teaching team approached the practical task of running the hybrid-MOOC on the basis of collective knowledge (the inherited knowledge of what to do in this kind of situation – know-how), the hybrid nature of the enterprise and their particular philosophical approach (which inserted them as visible if uncertain actors in the MOOC) disrupted the usual ‘ongoingness’ of their practice.  Suddenly the know-how was not so un-thought; they had to think about what they were doing and why.

Similarly, our Twitter Journal Club was disruptive of the collective knowledge we brought to the event.  We constituted new or revised practices in-situ, in the actual typing-reading-thinking-scratching- sitting-watching; in the computational power of the algorithms that make tweeting possible.  Though each individual would bring different sets of experience of tweeting and ‘reviewing’ academic texts, we brought some collective knowledge of the core tasks.  However, the situation was different enough to make the process of doing very evident.  We were, I would suggest, making it up as we went along.  Our ‘learning’ to DO the task (a Twitter Journal Club) was distributed across a range of concepts, physical actions, and material objects that were brought together in a relatively unique arrangement.  And, of course, we will get better at it, because the more we DO it, the more certain tasks become un-thought, become part of the ongoing condition of accomplishing a Twitter Journal Club.

But what about LOVE?

Well, it just so happened that parallel to me engaging with the Twitter Journal Club I was reading a Hybrid Pedagogy article that spoke directly to the practices of ‘normal’ academic reviewing.  This led to reading HP’s policy on Collaborative Peer Review.  While some of the process, in particular making it up in-situ, was demanding, there was a real sense that all the participants CARED for each other.  We weren’t dismantling the paper.  Instead we mobilised it to generate discussion and lots of questions about PRACTICE.  While we did not make it explicit, there was a sense in which we cared for the authors of the paper, we respected their endeavour and their invitation to think.  It was  a PEDAGOGICAL activity.

I give the closing words to the authors of the HP article ‘Love in the Time of Peer Review‘:

Just as in pedagogical spaces, where we learn through peering review and peer reviewing — peer review is an opportunity to learn and teach simultaneously. In this way we transform scholarship into pedagogy and pedagogy into a form of love.

(Marisol BritoAlexander FinkChris FriendAdam Heidebrink-BrunoRolin MoeKris ShafferValerie Robin and Robin Wharton )