Why do you think you are entitled to understand everything you hear?

I was recently asked by a friend if I have ever had, considering that I have attended university for over a decade, a professor whose ‘accent’ was too difficult to understand. I am sure that in my younger years I complained about this. As a undergraduate, I was fundamentally concerned with grades and often just wanted to be given the information I needed to get an “A.” If the way a professor spoke presented barriers to this, I felt frustrated. I do not think this way anymore.

I will never forget what I learned, in a class taught by Canadian author Dione Brand, about the privileges articulated in my expectation that I should understand everything I hear. Brand held an endowed chair in the Women’s Studies department at SFU from 2000 to 2002. In a class on feminist creative writing that she taught, we read a short story (in this book by Jean Rhys, called “In the Rue de l’Arrivée”… I really had to dig into my memory and google to find it!) that had, if I can remember correctly, one or two passages written in French. This class was sometime in 2002, well before the existence of google translate. Since I do not speak French, I had no idea what the passages said but, sensed that they were central to the meaning of the story which I would have to discuss in class. During the class, another student raised their hand, asking their meaning and complaining that the publisher should have included a translation.

Brand said (as I remember it), “why do you think you are entitled to understand everything you hear? Or everything you read?”

These questions instantiated a shift in my perspective on the privilege of understanding. Imagine the humility behind them. My own preferred languages for speaking and hearing emerge from the sum of my personal experiences situated in larger social, political, and spatial nexuses. Others’ preferred languages emerge from theirs. Neither are “right,” and neither are “accented” – in fact, the idea of an “accent” in the first place marks the erasure of privileges which dictate whose pronunciation is the different, difficult one.

It is a privilege not to understand sometimes. I am glad I don’t get to understand everything I hear. It gives me the opportunity to check who I am in relation to others, to be humbled by the experiences of others, and to revel in the space that I do not yet, and may never fully, understand.

Teaching Writing

I think that there are substantial academic and professional benefits that can be gained from the development good writing skills. As such, an area of pedagogical specialization that I am committed to developing is teaching students how to write well. I have training in writing intensive learning from Simon Fraser University, and to further cultivate my expertise, I seek out courses to teach or TA that centralize writing outcomes in assignments. Because I am always in the process of improving my own writing, I very much enjoy the mutual benefits of talking about and practicing writing skills with students.

To that end, I developed a short writing tutorial presentation which I deliver to undergraduate students who must write essays for their course assignments. I am uploading the tutorial in PDF form as a simple contribution to the ‘world out there’ and hope that it will help other teachers or students.

I normally spend about one hour exploring good writing alongside this presentation. The tutorial is most relevant for social scientific courses in the 3rd year in which students write essays in draft stages by incorporating grader feedback.

Of course I acknowledge that ideas about “good writing” are not universal. I took this into consideration when editing the presentation to upload here. For example, I originally included a slide about semicolons, but deleted it because those tricky punctuaters can be controversial…

The tutorial is here: Critical Essay Writing

I hope someone finds it useful!

Dr. David Barker, 1938-2013

I am very saddened to hear of the passing of world renown epidemiologist Dr. David Barker. I had the privilege of meeting him 2010 when he came to lecture at Queen’s University, Kingston. I was given the opportunity to present some ideas to him – just 10 minutes – regarding important intersections between sociology and his science. What a wonderful moment it was when he told me, “I completely agree with everything you’ve said.” I later wrote an article concerning the transdisciplinary and social justice potentials of the Barker hypothesis and related theories of the developmental origins of health and disease (DOHaD). Needless to say, his research has had a major influence on my thinking and work. Rest in peace, Dr. Barker.

New Publication: Book Review of Rom Harré’s “Pavlov’s Dogs and Schrödinger’s Cat: Scenes from the Living Laboratory”

I wrote a book review for the journal Public Understanding of Science of Rom Harré’s Pavlov’s Dogs and Schrödinger’s Cat: Scenes from the Living Laboratory (Oxford University Press, 2009). Here is a short excerpt:

Harré spends considerable time describing the use of plants in experiments, phenomena that demand more scholarly and public attention. He paints a picture of science teeming with diverse vital matter: animals, plants, bacteria, lichen, humans, and even “imaginary beings.” The implied thesis emphasizes research with life rather than on life.

I think the book would work well as reading material for introductory courses in science studies or animal studies.

Public Perspectives on the Utilization of Human Placentas in Scientific Research and Medicine: New Publication

I have a new publication appearing in the journal Placenta entitled “Public perspectives on the utilization of human placentas in scientific research and medicine.” Here is the abstract:

Placental tissues are frequently utilized by scientists studying pregnancy and reproduction and in diverse fields including immunology, stem cell research, genetics, cancer research, and tissue engineering, as well as by clinicians in many therapies. Though the utilization of the human placenta in science and medicine has benefitted many people, little is known about public perspectives of this phenomenon. This review addresses placental donation, collection, and utilization in science and medicine, focusing on public perspectives. Cultural values and traditions, ethical paradigms and concerns, public understandings of science and medicine, and political considerations may impact perceptions of the utilization of the placenta in science and medicine, but systematic study is lacking. It is argued that knowledge of public views gained from empirical investigation may underpin the development of collection protocols and research projects that are more responsive to public will, spur more extensive utilization in science and medicine of this unique organ, and/or aid in the realization of the mobilization of knowledge about the placenta for clinical and educational ends. New avenues for research on public perspectives of the placenta are proposed.

Keywords: Placenta donation, Public understandings of science, Ethics, Donor perceptions

I wrote this article to point to the lack of research on public perspectives of the placenta, address the implications of this gap, and call for more research attention. The article serves as a backdrop for one of my current collaborative studies, which assesses women’s perspectives of donating the placenta to science and medicine in Campinas, Brazil.

I would like to thank the editors of Placenta and their anonymous reviewers. I was impressed by the process, feedback, and their willingness to consider publishing the work of a social scientist in a scientific journal.

I am very interested to hear comments and in particular would like to know of the perspectives of women who have given birth, women who have donated their placentas or been asked to donate, and scientists who study the organ. What is the meaning of the placenta for you? What do you think about the use of placentas in scientific research and medicine?

Knowing Menstruation Beyond PubMed

Several years ago, when I first started interacting with scientists, I went to a symposium featuring presentations of graduate and medical students’ research projects. One project undertaken by a medical student examined some aspect of menorrhagia, or excessive menstrual flow. His study required that participants measure their daily menstrual flow by noting the number of pads they used and by comparing the amount of blood soil on the surface area of the pads with a pictorial chart of standardized measures. This apparently is an established means to measure flow. However, it tends to be inaccurate, and he was encouraged by an audience member to have participants weigh the pads for better accuracy. The alternative was discussed, but it was remarked that it is not very practical for women, and thus the consensus seemed to be that using the surface area chart was the best approach.

Having at that point not spent much time with scientists, I did not want to go out on a limb in front of the audience with my comment, so I approached the student during the lunch break. Surprised by this seemingly crude means of measuring flow, I asked him why he did not employ menstrual cups, like the Diva Cup or a similar product, which could provide an easy and accurate means of liquid measure, particularly as the cups feature ounce indications on the side.

He had never heard of menstrual cups.

I was taken aback by this – that a researcher could undertake an entire project without having done what I consider to be basic research into the topic at hand. A simple google search, maybe a little outside the scope of PubMed, will reveal a wealth of information on how people who menstruate experience menstrual blood throughout their lives and the various means by which they manage their menstruation. While I couldn’t find studies on the prevalence of the use of menstrual cups, I do not believe this is a marginal means of managing flow, as Diva Cups can be commonly purchased in many drugstores and online, and are discussed in news media and online as means of managing flow that some women prefer.

I believe it is this medical student’s ethical and intellectual responsibility to inform himself of basic information regarding women’s practices and experiences of menstruation. I also believe it is his responsibility as a scientist to be aware of this possible method of measurement for his study, which has been used by other scientists to collect menstrual blood and may very well be superior to his initial method. Due care and attention not only to the “research subjects” but to the everyday lives of people may have vastly improved the quality of his measurements and therefore his research results. There may have been other benefits, such as sharing with participants an alternative to manage their menstrual flow, and providing this alternative without cost (indeed, Diva Cups are rather expensive). As menstrual cups are reusable, there may have even been an eco-ethical outcome for the research, should participants have liked the product and wanted to continue using it (this study assess women’s satisfaction with the Diva Cup and discusses the potential environmental benefits from reduced pad and tampon wastes). That being said, menstrual cups may not be suitable for every person who menstruates or every research study. My point is that this scientist should have known what a menstrual cup is.

This experience has bugged me for a while.

New Publication: The Barker Hypothesis, Obesity, and Transdisciplinarity

I have an article appearing in the most recent issue of the journal Social Theory and Health entitled “The Barker hypothesis and obesity: Connections for transdisciplinarity and social justice.” It is the culmination of work on the Barker hypothesis and obesity first set in motion by a visit to Queen’s University in March 2010 of epidemiologist David Barker and an invitation to present to him a 5 minute talk regarding sociological perspectives on his work. Here is the abstract:

Obesity is the object of incredible amounts of resources and attention purportedly aimed at reducing corpulence and increasing health. Despite this, consensus with respect to the definition, causes or solutions is lacking, making obesity a prominent knowledge controversy. In this article, I argue that the Barker hypothesis, a theory of foetal development, can support the redistribution of expertise necessary to address this knowledge controversy. A vast scientific literature confirms its argument that many diseases can be traced to the conditions for development in utero determined by the commingling of temporally and spatially complex processes. The Barker hypothesis does not support solely reductionist, biophysiological paradigms of health and disease, but rather evinces complex understandings that span biology, social positionality, place and generation. I argue that this makes the hypothesis significant for transdisciplinary studies of health and disease, and prompts consideration beyond the conventional bounds of epidemiology to new sites of understanding and action that may support movements concerned with body politics and justice for fat people. I point to literature on the potential for injustice engendered by the Barker hypothesis, and suggest that these critiques reveal the very necessity for transdisciplinary collaboration on obesity in the first place.

Alongside Dr. Barker’s visit, I found critical inspiration and challenges for ideas in this article in what is sometimes called “the fatosphere,” a nebulous collection of blogs and bloggers who write about fat. For example, I highly recommend Australian blogger Definatalie (Natalie Perkins) for her critical and candid writing style and her powerful artwork regarding fat.

The arguments I present in the article are tendentious and represent my attempt to contribute to the already-tendentious terrain of obesity. I welcome any feedback on the article.