English Neuroscience (illustration by Bianca Yeung

Bianca Yeung, “Labs and Literature: A New Way Forward for Education”

By Bianca “Bee” Yeung

‘Hey now, I don’t want to be that guy, but trust me, I’m coming from a good place when I say this: you should really switch from Arts to Science.’ It was the pointy end of Semester 1 and one of the more good-natured lab assistants had been making conversation with us Chemistry students by asking the age-old question, ‘So what degrees do you all do?’ After nodding to the usual B. Sci., Med. Sci., B. Adv. Sci., he had been visibly shocked to hear that I, a Bachelor of Arts undergrad, had infiltrated the Chemistry Labs.

Alas, it’s been a common reaction when people hear of the combination of majors,
English and Neuroscience, that I am pursuing for my Arts degree. When it’s not a lab partner expressing their distaste for Creative Writing (‘You’re doing that at university?’) or a fellow writer demonstrating a flair for science-hating (‘I can’t believe you study molecules by choice…’) it’s often a state of befuddlement that makes me want to either shake the person in frustration or console them with a gentle head pat.

To all of them I say, “por que no los dos?”

So tell me: why not both? Our current academic system — in Australia, and in many parts of the world — is founded on the basis that disciplines are discrete and compartmentalised. There are even divisions within departments. Some academics build walls with their specialisations that only a select few can pass. This is not only accepted, but cultivated. Rivalries between faculties may seem laughable on the sporting field or during a scavenger hunt but the messages embedded in these aspects of student culture have ramifications in the classroom and far beyond. The pervasiveness of these great divides is rampant in the literature – think Snow’s The Two Cultures and Graff’s Professing Literature: An Institutional History. However, not all academics and students are blind to it.

An example of an academic approach to combatting these divisions is the Digital Humanities project “WhatEvery1Says: The Humanities in Public Discourse” (WE1S), which is currently operating out of UC Santa Barbara in the United States. The Curriculum Lab for the program is run by director and teacher Abigail Droge, whose role is to take a lead on pedagogy and advocacy aspects whilst ensuring a close dialogue between the research and practical outcomes in the classroom and community. In her blog posts she describes the struggle of having interdisciplinary projects realised in the current academic model that I have outlined above, particularly from a humanities point of view. Required ‘general humanities’ subjects, perhaps equivalent to Open Learning Environment units here at The University of Sydney, are often seen as irrelevant classes that must be ‘gotten through’ to meet course requirements. USYD’s strategic plan outlines graduate outcomes such as “Broader skills: critical thinking and problem solving” and “cultural competence” – qualities deemed to be transferable skills that are often attached to Arts degrees. Droge argues that there is far more to the humanities than these generic qualities, and that the power lies within the way we can weave vastly different disciplines together.

For its first foray into the classroom, WE1S launched the class ‘Reading with Scientists’ in Fall 2018, which delved into the idea of teaching literature in non-literary settings and vice versa. Class activities included ‘translating’ and ‘exporting’ texts, taking on the notion that words of a specific genre and form can be adapted to an unintended audience with impressive effect. This was done through a close study of MIT Press’ 2017 edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein which was ‘Annotated for Scientists, Engineers, and Creators of All Kinds’ (edited by Guston, Finn, and Robert). Students of both science and humanities backgrounds were then challenged with the task of completing a ‘reverse annotation’, where a scientific text such as a textbook was to be annotated with reference to Frankenstein. Droge, the teacher of the class, observed that: ‘some saw a supportive relationship between the textbooks and Frankenstein, with each providing notes of caution around scientific process. Others held Victor Frankenstein up to the standards of responsibility which the textbooks laid out for twenty-first-century scientists.’

Such a task has more powerful implications for the humanities than one might expect. By completing the annotations, students engaged in a translation process of sorts, enabling an unintended audience to glean insights from a world they may be vastly unfamiliar with. Discussions based on these ideas serve as advocacy for the vital role that the humanities play in the sciences. Later in the semester, a comparison of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Victor Frankenstein revealed numerous insights about figures who create a technology that in some way gets beyond their control. Meanwhile, H.G. Wells’ novella The Time Machine (1895) was studied alongside the website of Stanford University’s “Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources”, which develops approaches in thought around environmental issues. This pairing of a literary text with a scientific one provided a unique lens for study and discussion around climate change.

Inevitably, a number of issues still exist with this teaching model and these are acknowledged by Droge in her reflections. A number of questions arise — does this method serve to widen the gap between industry fields rather than close them? By making adjustments to a text in order to make it ‘readable’ for another group, is this simply creating a more prominent division? How can literature be used in such a way that it brings people from different occupations together rather than emphasising their differences?

In order for people of the humanities and sciences to walk hand in hand, they must first be united in mindset. A change of attitude from fixedness to openness — in mind and in dialogue. There must be a call for honesty, a decision to agree to disagree at times and above all, mutual respect for both disciplines. Essentially, there is a need for societal change. A process that begins with small conversations and grows through action and advocacy.

Yet, the barriers to this are numerous. Just this morning I read a reflective piece from a recent Eureka Prize winner. (The Eureka Prize is like an Australian equivalent of The Oscars, but for scientists.) In it, he mused over the mixed winnings for someone in his position. The prize was received gratefully (and even with some surprise — despite it being undoubtedly deserved), yet the implications of his award were conflicting. Some told him that new opportunities would flock to him, others warned him not to get too excited — having a title would hardly enable him to effect change on a significant scale.

It isn’t just the humanists who struggle to be heard. Even the words of highly renowned scientists with decades of research behind them fall upon deaf ears when it comes to global issues surrounding environmental science. Our generation will live to see the fallout when the state of our planet passes the “point of no return”. I am positive that all of us and those that come next will be shaking our heads — at our country’s leaders and our world leaders, asking, ‘Why didn’t anyone act sooner?’

This is where education needs to come in. Suffice to say, current models of integrated learning, including WE1S, have room for improvement. However, the power of combining disciplines must not be understated. Droge explains, ‘[b]y folding stories into each other, we can make the humanities (and the sciences) both more mobile and more porous: able to travel farther distances, and able to catalyze bigger conversations.’ Our society is tumbling forward into a land of new technologies at an alarming rate. But where are we headed and what will we do when we get there? These pertinent questions were grappled with by students in what I deem to be one of the biggest conversations of the Reading with Scientists course: Big Data and its associated dystopia.

In an epic study of Ursula Le Guin’s dystopic short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”, Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy and finally, Virginia Eubanks’ Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor, students investigated the human costs of technological innovation when it stems from algorithmic decision-making. Big Data is the idea that computational tools can be used to collect and analyse information on a massive scale — something that could certainly be used to improve the wellbeing of millions. Yet when choices concerning peoples’ lives are informed by ‘abstract calculations rather than compassion, or even common sense’ (Droge) the risk of fostering (rather than reducing) economic disparities becomes all too real. When it comes to people, it is the social and historical contexts, the qualitative reasoning that needs to be considered directly beside the decisions of the Data.

It is impossible to separate human beings from the humanities. Likewise, it is impossible to separate human beings from science. Both are grounded in storytelling, both form the very makeup of all that we are. Indeed, we are only human after all. Einstein noted that, ‘arts and sciences are branches of the same tree.’ My thoughts? Perhaps it may be that that same tree is one that bears two types of fruit.

Bianca “Bee” Yeung is a lover of learning. She is passionate about connecting people and ideas with others, and firmly believes that the intersection of disciplines is where this can occur. Bianca is currently an undergraduate student at the University of Sydney in Sydney, Australia.

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