Towards a Sociology of Paleontology

I’m at the North American Paleontological Convention right now – perhaps you’ve gotten an email from me and wonder who I am! As you can see from my website and web presence, and hopefully if you look into my publications, I am a sociologist of science. My previous research has mainly focused on health and reproductive biology, but I am turning my attention to paleontology because I am interested in broader analysis of the role science plays in conversations about the anthropocene. I am also a huge paleontology fan, especially a fan of arthropods, and especially especially trilobites. Likewise I am utterly enchanted by the Burgess Shale and its weird animals (Opabinia – most of my students have seen my replica figure from ROM). I am interested in the science-society questions about the anthropocene noted above, and also in asking all kinds of wacky philosophical questions about ancient extinct animals. So I am here conducting interviews with scientists to learn more about their perspectives.

When I applied for a grant for my study, here is what I wrote:

Where transitions between prior epochs were marked by non-anthropogenic causes such as volcanic activity and asteroid strikes, the anthropocene marks time in which human activity has become the dominant cause of geological and climate changes (Lewis & Maslin, 2015). Yet the concept is highly controversial, and thus relevant to sociological study concerning how individuals and communities deploy scientific or other kinds of knowledge to take positions on social conflicts and debates. Paleontology is the study of life before the current epoch, known through tell-tale rocks called fossils. Paleontology produces knowledge about the prior status of the earth in relation to the present, and as such, paleontologists contribute much to social, political, and economic debates about environmental and climate changes and extinction. This study asks, How do paleontologists reflect upon and understand their work as it relates to debates concerning the anthropocene? Stratigraphy, the study of rock layers, highlights the relationship between the fossil record and geologic time. In stratigraphy, layers of rock represent different geological time periods, and different fossils are found in different rock layers. There are special fossils that play unique roles in describing ancient environments called index fossils. They are typically abundant in the record, diversified through time, and highly adapted to specific environments, giving paleontologists who find them instant knowledge of the age of rock layers. The study will specifically concern paleontologists who are experts on a particular class of index fossils: those of ancient arthropods called trilobites, which lived from the Cambrian (521mya) to the Permian (252mya). The “trilobite biostratigraphic scale” (Geyer & Shergold, 2000) is a way to tell time with fossils. But these fossils do not just tell ancient time; it has been shown that trilobite specimens collected today are contaminated with anthropogenic compounds such as plastics and flame retardants (John, M., Babcock- Adams, & Walker, 2017), while mining, urbanization, and climate change have exposed new fossil beds. As such, trilobites materially connect the present to the past. I anticipate that trilobites are important in facilitating our knowledgeable understanding of geologic time and thus the anthropocene. I want to know what paleontologists think about this.

This is why I am at NAPC! If you are interested in my study, I would be delighted to hear from you.

Book Review: Without Apology: Writings on Abortion in Canada by Shannon Stettner

I recently wrote a book review on Without Apology: Writings on Abortion in Canada by Shannon Stettner for Studies in Social Justice. After I wrote it, I decided to adopt the book as a text for my upcoming course in Gender Studies at SFU: GSWS 318-4 Reproductive Rights and Justice. 

Not only is this an important contribution to ongoing struggles for reproductive justice, but it is also an open access book under creative commons license. Adopting this as a text is part of my commitment to using open access resources in my courses whenever possible.

The journal is likewise open access, so you can freely read my review. I’ll add an excerpt here though:

Reflecting on the collection as a whole, I am struck by the ways in which the stories and experiences continue on in the real-time, real world struggle for reproductive justice both in Canada and globally. When I drive on Highway 1 toward Chilliwack from the Lower Mainland of British Columbia, anti-choice billboards pepper the landscape. In Judith Mintz’ chapter, an autoethnography of abortion after emergency contraceptive was ineffective, she writes of calling Motherrisk to discuss risks of birth defects from a failed “morning after” pill. We now know that Motherrisk is embroiled in its own horrific injustices, perpetuated by its flawed hair-testing laboratory that led to state-sanctioned kidnapping of many children in eastern Canada.[i] Worldwide, 25.5% of people reside in countries where abortion is completely restricted and about 14% where abortion is only permitted to save the life of the pregnant person.[ii] As of this writing, Ireland is set to hold a referendum on legalizing abortion. In Trump’s America, undocumented migrant teens in custody are denied abortions.[iii] When the reader sets these facts against the horrific experiences described in the book Canada, where abortion is not even illegal, it becomes clear that global reproductive justice will not rend itself easily or quickly. Without Apology is a commendable survey of abortion in Canada that gives space to a wide range of voices while also acknowledging the work still to be done.

[i] See for example

[ii] Approximately 40% of the world’s population lives in countries with permissive abortion laws, where one can legally get an abortion for any reason. See for these statistics and how they are measured.

[iii] See

Open Education and Paperless Classrooms

Although I have long incorporated open educational resources into my teaching predominantly so that students would not have to buy expensive textbooks, I haven’t until recently considered this to be foundational to my pedagogical approach in the university classroom. Having learned much over the past year, I now consider that incorporating open educational resources not only saves students money, but also contributes to the accessibility of the university and the democratization and decommodification of knowledge.

Open educational resources are those which are licensed in such a way that they are available for free for use by students and teachers. Many of these resources are also licensed such that with attribution they can be modified and customized. BC Campus has a list of such resources which is growing daily.

Using open resources acknowledges the communal nature of knowledge production and resists attempts to commodify what should truly be held in the common good. We also know that students will sometimes not enroll, withdraw from, or not purchase the readings for courses that have significant text costs. Textbook costs are a serious hindrance to the financial accessibility of the university, but the adoption of open educational resources in BC has saved students about $8million since 2010.

Kwantlen Polytechnic University recently announced a suite of courses with zero textbook costs called “Zed Cred.” I’m thrilled that many of my courses will rely completely on open resources as part of the Zed Cred suite.

Finally, I’ve recently moved to a “paperless classroom,” which means that all course documents are exchanged via the course management software used by the institutions where I teach. I was concerned that this would make grading more difficult or tiresome, but in fact it saves time with things like tabulations and keeping track of late assignments. Likewise, I need no longer carry around bags and bags of paper, and don’t have to worry about where I will store piles of assignments for the few years we are required to retain them. Plus, this obviously reduces the environmental impacts of paper, printer, and ink manufacturing.

Teaching Feminism and Fat Studies

This term, I’ve been teaching a special topics course in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University entitled “Adipossibilities of Feminist Fat Studies.” To my knowledge, this is the first fat studies course at SFU, although fat activism has taken place on campus for a number of years. With any new course there come many challenges, but this topic itself is also very challenging given current social, political, and economic discourse about fat. I shared the following with my students to set the tone for the course:

  • You do not have a body, you are a body
  • You have experiences, beliefs, and assumptions that are shaped by your embodied, worldly being
  • Your body is a site of politics, history, place, feeling, and memory
  • Your body in-folds your internal and external worlds; every day, you live this involution
  • We can’t talk about fat without talking about intimate places of our being
  • A body gives testimony of trauma and of thriving
  • Not everyone gets to equally enjoy, love, and agentially control their bodies
  • Weight discrimination is real, and intersectional
  • If you google anything to do with fat, it’s not safe to go alone

Fatphobia is real, pervasive, and structural, and can be found everywhere if one is attuned to look. Despite the current climate, I am very impressed with my students’ willingness to look and ability to find.

Review of The Biopolitics of Lifestyle: Foucault, Ethics and Healthy Choices, by Christopher Mayes

I recently published a book review of The Biopolitics of Lifestyle by Christopher Mayes in Fat Studies. Here is an excerpt:

What is especially productive in Biopolitics of Lifestyle is the clever disavowal of worn debates about the ethicality of, or personal responsibility for, fatness. Instead, Mayes reveals what he calls an “enabling network,” or intersections of knowledge, power, and subjectivity, which renders people who are supposedly harmful to society visible and governable. The enabling network makes “obesity” a major social, political, and economic problem, locates responsibility for harms caused by fatness in individuals, and simultaneously hides structural forces that contribute to corpulence. As such, “obesity” is a means by which members of society can be molded and disciplined in the service of state or capitalist interests.

This is a worthwhile book and the front cover artwork is wonderful.

My two upcoming courses at SFU

In the spring semester of 2017, I will be teaching two courses at SFU – one in Communication and the other in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies:

CMNS 342: Science and Public Policy: Risk Communication

In a globalized landscape, where threats of infectious disease outbreaks, bioterrorism, and natural disaster seem omnipresent, how do we (as communicators) translate scientific knowledge into actionable information for diverse publics? While “common sense” assures us that we simply need to deliver “the facts” in a comprehensive manner, what happens when scientific evidence is uncertain, controversial, or even suspect, to some of its most affected populations? How are these issues mediated and transformed through the ubiquity of new information and communication technologies (ICTs)?

This course examines the relationships between communication, science, technology, and public policy in the evaluation and management of risk. After introducing key theories, concepts, and problematics, each week will examine a different case study of risk and communication. Topics include: vaccinations, nuclear waste, HIV/AIDS, antibiotic resistance, tsunamis, and obesity. This case study approach will inform the final project, where students will work in teams to develop a podcast about a topic relevant to risk communication.

GSWS 210: Gender Today: Reproductive Rights, Reproductive Justice

Reproductive politics refers ongoing struggles to define, constrain, medicalize, technologize, spur, and/or prevent reproduction. This is an introductory course that builds interdisciplinary and feminist tools to analyze narratives, issues, practices, and arguments regarding reproductive politics as they manifest throughout the lifecourse, from preconception to end of life. Topics include reproductive choices, fertility, non-normative kinship, childbirth, child rearing, menopause and andropause, and the developmental origins of health and disease. Recognizing the topical and controversial nature of reproductive politics as well as the role of GSWS in transforming students into critical advocates for social change, assignments encourage students to engage in public dialogues on reproduction and to develop programmes of advocacy to advance reproductive justice.
If you are a prospective student and have any questions, please do let me know!

Book Review: Rendering Life Molecular, Natasha Myers

I’ve got a new book review published in New Genetics and Society on Rendering Life Molecular: Models, Modelers, and Excitable Matter by Natasha Myers. I really enjoyed this valuable and thought provoking book! Thank you to Martyn Pickersgill for facilitating the review!

Yoshizawa, Rebecca S. (2016) “Rending Life Molecular: Models, Modelers, and Excitable Matter, by Natasha Myers (book review).” New Genetics and Society.