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Ebola: an opportunity for an interdisciplinary approach to the crisis of the ‘anthropocene’

October 18, 2014

UPDATE 2: The Hewletts, who did in-depth study into the anthropology of the Ebola, confirm my own uninformed intuition. I am trying to get a copy of their book to read!

UPDATE: Thanks to a friend, here is a link to an article that looks at Ebola from a medical anthropological perspective

Between moving and traveling, I had not always been the most up-to-date with what was going on the world beyond what was most pressing to my immediate circumstance. When I first heard about the Ebola break-out going out in Sierra Leone, then in Guinea and Liberia, there was then a belief that the situation was not that bad because they appeared confined to the poorest African countries, and they appeared to be contained. However, things started to change when the virus was brought onto the shores of the United States, and as the virus circulates, a sense of near hysteria turned it into an international crisis. The same thing had happened with AIDs in the 1980s even if the epidemiology of that disease is different, with a less obvious and visible symptoms due to a longer incubation period.

Of course, Ebola is an international crisis. It is rare for an outbreak to be contained when there does not yet exist a systemic structure for containment (not even if you make it difficult for those from the poorest nations to enter your land of promise). Moreover, we do know that devastation at the health level also means devastation at multiple levels. History has multiple narratives and recollections of the various recorded plagues known to mankind, and their implications in the aftermath. The first decade of the twenty-first century has seen more than its share of epidemic, from the SARs to avian flus. Steven Sonderbergh’s Contagion (2011) almost seems like an eerie premonition of what is to come.

But as everyone knows/suspects by now (even Bloomberg has been alternating its news concerning decelerating stocks with tactical concerns surrounding the issues of Ebola), Ebola is not just a healthcare crisis but perhaps a crisis at the level of the anthropoce and humanitarian. Injecting funds and facilities and expertise helps,  but as we know, an insular approach has not been helpful and could potentially be the impediment to finding a solution. However much experience and knowledgeable medical expertise can contribute to combating the disease, the only way to do something different than before is to also engage the interdisciplinary expertise that include not only economists, communication experts, and strategists; but also sociologists and historians of medicine (and perhaps even philosophers of science), as well as cultural geographers, who had made it their business to study the implications of healthcare and medical practices not just within the presentist regime, but across different lifetimes, to lend insights and even provide recommendations that would have escaped the purview of those very much focused specifically on contingencies. Even scientists working in other non-medical areas could use the models and knowledge base they have developed to aid greater understanding of the system surrounding the epidemic, and it is a systemic problem in itself.

However, pure scientism is not going to give the needed holistic view needed to deal with the problem beyond the fire-fighting level.  After all, even those tasked with dealing with the problem are still humans, and we need to understand how to create solutions that work with human nature and predisposition, as well as with cultural and infrastructural conditions. In fact, if interdisciplinary knowledge and application is ever needed, this is the time when it is in greatest dire need, and not merely at a sophistical or rhetorical level. Interdisciplinarity is also needed to break out of the provincialism that inhabits the practices of scientific disciplines, given that localized assumptions about epistemic practices are what can contribute to communication breakdowns

One of the problems with the whole approach to dealing with this outbreak at the policy level is the lack of engagement with the people who study both the sociology and history of infectious diseases, and the lack of ability of the people making policy decisions at the highest level in knowing how to work collaboratively on the issue (or to know how to assemble different cells of expertise) – this probably stems too from a shallow understanding of the meaning of expertise and the lack of epistemic trading between various specialists who are the gatekeepers and the decision-makers. It does not help of course that having in-depth knowledge of a disease without the accompanying ability to compare across different facets of the system of which the disease is a constituent produces half-baked attempts at arriving at any resolutions. Decision makers need to include humanists and social scientists who study the organic/human conditions in relation to the sciences that desire to palliate and alleviate the negative conditions.

That said, there is no easy way to deal with the problem, and that an interdisciplinary approach brings with it new challenges as one has to be willing to take the time to shifts one’s mental framework at a time of high duress and great difficulties. But it also the ripe time to begin forming interdisciplinary teams that would produce recommendations and alternatives through their analyses of whatever information and data there are

#Cosmoschat for Writing in the Natural Sciences Unit (July 14-18, 2014)

July 18, 2014

We did it the old-fashion way!

We did it the old-fashion way!

cosmoschat 8

#opinions vs #facts

What they thought of the presenters

What they thought of the presenters

Cosmoschat 5


#finale for the new cosmos series.

#finale for the new cosmos series.

All the thoughts came running out, beyond the mandatory questions!

All the thoughts came running out, beyond the mandatory questions!

cosmoschat 7

#origins and #myth-making



Science Fiction as Science Studies on the History of Science

July 17, 2014

What you see in this post are some reactions and thoughts that came to mind in this very intense week as I think about my own larger intellectual interests, my recently completed dissertation, my organization of my ECR research projects and publications, and the class that I have been teaching this week.

If you have seen my previous post and also the tweetchat, most of you reading this probably already know that I have been teaching a week-long intensive class on science communication that tries to bring in a bit of history of science (and some history of technology). What I did not quite emphasize was also the role of fiction in science communication and in communicating the history of science.

On Wednesday this week, I brought in not only some science news magazines, but also two issues of Analog: Science Fiction and Fact. This came in the heel after I assigned them their first homework, which was to analyze between historically scholarly scientific writing with more recent publications, as a way for them to understand that style is not static; neither does academic scientific communication has to be inscrutably unreadable to a non-specialist. That established the historical aspect of the craft, though, had there been more time, we might have gone a little bit more into how that craft develops differently by the content being produced. Even then, I gave them, in the first lecture, the different forms of overlapping science communication, across different platforms, that share similar raison d’etre even if at first glance, they appear different in their purposes.

So, when I ended up bringing those magazines, including the hard SF journals, to demonstrate the humanistic relevance of scientific thinking in the past, despite the divergent direction that the sciences have taken today, I was able to show them videos produced by scientists/science communicators that connect current day science with historical science, and that fiction is the key to tracing that genealogy of science, from a perspective that is irremediably historically contingent. From there, I could also begin to explain that connection to other humanistic studies. I find such a strategy to be more attention grabbing to the students than if I were to spend too much time pontificating about how literature tries to study science or why philosophy and science have strong historical connections. In fact, I am interested in thinking about how I could one day produce a course that is all about learning history of science through works of hard science fiction, or even just fictions that are interested in interpreting science contemporary to the period in which the fictional universe is set in.

As part of understanding the role of fiction not only in scientific pedagogy, but also in humanistic interaction with science, I was amazed at the number of the students readily adopted such forms of thought experiments (even if rather unconsciously on their part), a fictive-factive motif, in their class presentations, after having only had three days of 90 minutes of class, with my having barely scratched the surface of that! One of the joys of teaching science communication is demonstrating not only the multiple ways of conveying what science is about, which is what I have been trying very hard to convince scientists and humanists alike of, but also of other ways of thinking about the production of scientific knowledge, why we choose to produce scientific knowledge only in particular ways, or inhibit the parameters of acceptability and legibility of scientific theories and facts.

A student astutely pointed out that there is nothing new about scientific communication or even the production of science, which seems to follow the same narrative path for decades on end. Fiction allows one to historicize the moments in science that never went down into the history books of science because they remain ‘crazy’ conjectures and a series of what-ifs – through fiction, one is able to bring all of these speculations to light; speculations that are important in the production of the science which made it as the ‘science’ that remain in the fringe or is largely not visible. What I want is not for the students to become creative writers of fiction, though there is nothing barring them from that, but to understand how fiction can be a way of studying facts directly, and that such a method can be deployed even for the production of non-fictional works to allow critical discussions of the science to happen.

Such an experience, in connecting between my own research and an experimental andragogy (I wonder how such an experiment would work when one teaches an interdisciplinary course of science and the humanities to both middle school and high school students), really got me thinking again about whether fiction, through much modifications at a logical, philosophical, and other methodological levels, could become that medium where we can have not only a rich conversation about science-to-science intra/trans/interdisciplinary relations ie bio-physics or medicine and the environment, but what it means to do science studies within the humanities. It means the reconsideration of a landscape that has dictated how the sciences have been discussed by humanists, and the suspicion in which scientists have often viewed humanistic interpretations of their very epistemically hierarchical fields.


P.S. Some of the more opinionated students in the class did not find the Carl Sagan Cosmos to be very compelling (too ponderous and what they thought were not very compelling use of history), at least the pilot episode, so they do not want to watch more. Be interesting to hear more tomorrow,  at the tail end of the class!

Syllabus for Natural Science Writing Unit (July 14-18, 2014)

July 14, 2014

I was offered to teach one week of a larger writing course mainly addressed at freshmen and incoming freshmen on the topic relating to writing in the natural sciences. So, instead of making it into a comp class, which I have no experience of ever doing or teaching, I decided to make it into a science communication and writing class, where I can draw on my actual experience as a professional writer and scholar. I have them look at everything from academic research articles to curated tweets and blog-posts forms of popular and news writing. Oh, we also listened to some rap music and will watch some awesome videos. Then, they are going to use their writing skills to present, orally, their ideas, and try to sell their science ideas to myself and their classmates. We also did a bit of history of science.
Weekend before class: Watch Carl Sagan’s Cosmos Episode 1, and the new Cosmos series with Neil Tyson de Grasse in preparation for class discussions on Tuesday and Friday. Prompts to guide viewing will be provided on Sakai by Friday (7/11) at 2 pm.

7/14 Introduction to the session.
Lecture 1: Different Modes of Science Writing: Past and Present.
Group work (getting into groups of 3): Text diagnosis and presentation.
Homework: Read only the abstract (if available) and the introduction of two academic science pieces: one historical and another based on the present-day. Use the same article that I have provided you in class (or, you are welcomed to choose another topic and paper of interest to you. Google scholar or your library’s science databases will guide you. I will provide you a list of databases you can investigate. The topic of the historical and current day articles need not be similar. Then produce a 200-word (250 words max) diagnosis comparing both articles based on the elements discussed in the lecture and from class practice. Print and bring to class. I will post links to sites where you can obtain articles published before the 1950s. Only research articles (no letters, or review essays, or news reviews, even if they might be of an academic nature) such as the ones you have seen in class are acceptable for the purpose of this exercise.

7/15 Class discussion, free-writing, and peer-reviewing.
Homework: Group work (group will be formed before the end of class). Each group will select a theme that their members can agree upon, then each member of each group will find an article that will work in relation to the theme that their respective groups have decided on. Come to class prepared with a summary of the selected article.

7/16 Lecture 2: Science Communication: In and Beyond Academia
Discussion of the Carl Sagan Cosmos episode.
Group work: get into the groups that were formed the day before and discuss selected articles among group members in preparation for group presentation the following day. Guidelines for the presentation will be posted on Sakai the day before.
Homework: Meet with your group members to complete the presentation. Presentation can take any form, but involves communicating and selling your ideas to the instructor and coursemates.

7/17 Class Presentation. A jury of your peers will judge your group. A rubric for evaluation will be provided.
Homework: Complete a draft of a piece of 500-800 words writing (it can be in any of the format we would have discussed in the past few days and during lectures). You can revise from the writing you have already done on Monday, or produce writing based on your group presentation that is independent of the presentation material. Also, watch the Degrasse Tyson Cosmos episodes if you have not done so already in preparation for the next day.

7/18 Work-shopping of the drafts – first 30 minutes.
Final discussion of the Cosmos Episodes – tweetchat or chalkboardchat – the students decide.
Wrapping up class.
Homework: Finalize the drafts and hand them via Sakai’s dropbox before midnight of the same day.

Storified Tweet Chat on My Experience Finishing Up (Formally) that Interdisciplinary Dissertation

June 4, 2014

UPDATE 2: Wow, the veritable slashdot has a reader posting about the MLA. See final sentence “The MLA doesn’t want to reduce enrollments, but they think the grad school programs should be quicker to complete and dissertations should be shorter and less complex.” Knowing what I know today, I probably would not have taken the humanities PhD. I would just take a PhD program that gives me strong training in methodology (in the different forms), project management, as well as to learn something I probably would not have been able to were I just an auto-didact. Then use that to apply to a humanities project if I see fit, while remaining aware of the thinking process, including working on complex projects for the purpose of learning without all that politics. Somehow, I feel that all attempts to deal with the humanities crisis merely makes the humanities even less attractive than what it is, and I can begin to sympathize with views that see the humanities as becoming irrelevant within the US.

UPDATE: For all the difficulties encountered, I am thankful for having been given a two-year no-service-required fellowship. Without that, I would not even have gotten to the point I am in right now such as being able to finish the dissertation. Or, maybe, if that had been the case,  I would  just have been more practical and less ambitious, therefore producing a more definable, smaller, but still good enough (if not great) dissertation, one that follows most naturally from all that I have read for my prelims, with mostly other add ons to improve arguments. But then, I would not have discovered my true love for history of science, a love that eluded me when I first took a class that meshes that with philosophy of science as an undergraduate science major requirement (a love that became evident during my defense).  Or, maybe, if I had tackled the original object of my research choice, I might still have ended up doing some history of science. Who knows. Life, and its unpredictable events, do strange things to your mind, body, and soul. At the end of the day, I find myself coming full circle in a way that is dramatic yet anti-climatic, with the ingredients synthesized to become the me that is now. I never think that grad school can actually be a way to find oneself, especially since it is supposed to be so punishing that your personal identity fades away, leaving only a shell  to be filled with academiaspeak. This is illustrated by how ‘former’ academics keep obsessing about the structures of academia more than a year after leaving academia. Let’s not even begin with the academics within the system.

The defense is done, an experience in itself. A few months later, I will be formally conferred. But that part is not interesting, and not worthy of much discussion.

Rather, it is the process, the stumbling, the small victories, the learning experience, the doing what is right, or not right for you, the fit, the drama…When I have more time, and when more thoughts have sunk through, I will develop a fuller post. As of now, the process of intellectually living and pursuing the life of the mind, whatever that means, has just begun. The apprenticeship has come to an end, but the real challenges just got started.

#Humblebrag: when your recently submitted dissertation made the headline of your university’s news

May 16, 2014


My email to the UCSC Campus Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor, Alison Galloway

April 2, 2014

For those who need to know the background, check out the open Facebook page


As an international and Fulbright-sponsored graduate student who is coming to an end of her graduate studies, I find the recent events at UCSC where student strikers were arrested despite holding a peaceful protest, to be very disturbing. I am from Malaysia and the intimidating acts from figures of power are not new to me. Many university students from my home country have fallen victims to draconian and arbitrary misappropriation of law in service of the corrupt authorities of my country. But for me to find this happening in the US, at a rate that is increasingly alarming (not to mention the very high rates of incarceration of minorities and marginalized communities) during my six years here shows me that the system of democratic practice and due process is fast crumbling.

As an exchange scholar, I am supposed to educate my community back home of the democratic cultural and political practices in the US, but instead, all I am finding are acts of violations and increasing intolerance. I hope that this will be resolved very quickly, and the students, who are merely drawing attention to a situation of economic exploitation, be released.


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