Placentations: Agential Realism and the Science of Afterbirths

It is now possible to download my dissertation entitled “Placentations: Agential Realism and the Science of Afterbirths” from the Queen’s Research and Learning Repository (QShare). Follow this link! And the abstract:

According to biological sciences, placentas are transient organs that are necessary for mammalian fetal development and produced by interaction of maternal and fetal cells, a process called “placentation.” The aim of this dissertation is to understand as well as elucidate effects of placentations. I employ an agential realist framework to do this analysis. As developed by Karen Barad, agential realism is a performative theory of the irreducible entanglement of matter and discourse that relates knowing and being as inseparable. Intra-action is the foundational operationalization of agential realism. Unlike interaction, which assumes that agential entities pre-exist their meeting, intra-action refers to the entanglement of mutually constituted agencies. Informed by this ‘onto-epistemology,’ I define placentation as the differential and entangled intra- and inter-species, intra- and inter-cultural, and intra- and inter-disciplinary production of placentas. This definition is ‘naturalcultural,’ presuming that nature and culture are not distinct realms occupied by distinct kinds of beings. Rather, such a duality is a performative effect of what Barad calls agential cuts enacted by the specific apparatuses that are employed to understand it. To understand placentation naturalculturally requires the breaching of disciplinary boundaries that relegate ‘culture’ as a topic proper to the social sciences and ‘nature’ to science. This dissertation breaches these boundaries, and in so doing opens up new avenues for thinking about placentations and their consequences. In order to empirically explore placentations, I interviewed and/or observed 31 scientists who study placentas, and reviewed scientific and other secondary sources. The main findings of this dissertation concern differences made by theorizing placentas in particular ways. Based on these findings, I argue that understanding placentations naturalculturally is not only a more accurate approach than the one predicating dominant scientific explanations, but also prompts new ethical, theoretical, and practical considerations concerning pregnancy, bioethics, environmentalism, health, and more.

PhD Complete

On August 7th, 2014, I successfully defended my dissertation. It was a privilege and pleasure to have Dr. Vicki Kirby as my external examiner, Dr. Joyce Davidson as my internal examiner, Dr. Myra J. Hird as my supervisor, Dr. Cathie Krull as a committee member, Dr. Sergio Sismondo as a committee member, Dr. Rob Beamish as Department Head, and Dr. Mark Rosenberg as the defense chair. These professors made my defense a very positive and enriching experience.

I want to especially thank Dr. Myra J. Hird for her tireless supervision of my PhD throughout the years. She was instrumental in helping me make this dream come true.

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 the meaning of the passages 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?