In the Margins of the Laboratory Notebook: Race, Gender and the Rhetoric of Science

Course Description

Every day a new headline alerts us to the lack of race and gender diversity in the tech sector in Silicon Valley. Last year a Nobel Prize winning biochemist made the suggestion that women and men should be segregated into separate labs because women distract male scientists and cry when they are criticized. His suggestion was met on twitter by thousands of women scientists picturing themselves at work tagged with the hashtag #distractinglysexy. At the same time, science and technology are often lauded as objective systems capable of producing color and gender blind truths and social good for all of us.

This course pushes beyond the headlines and the hashtags to think about the complex relationship between gender, race and science. Together we will research chronically understudied voices and contributions in the history of science and technology and have the opportunity to read and participate in some of the efforts to highlight their stories. We will examine cases of science being used as a tool to justify discrimination: the eugenics movement in the United States, constructions of racial difference from 1600s to the present, a history of women and people of color being used as experimental subjects without their permission or knowledge. This course will introduce students to approaches to understanding the rhetoric and practice of science from scholars in feminist science studies such as Evelyn Fox Keller and Anne Fausto-Sterling and historians of science working on race and gender Evelynn Hammonds, Keith Wailoo and Londa Schiebinger. Together with these scholars’ argument and methods, we will work rigorously to think through why the historical and current underrepresentation of women and people of color in science and tech matters. Throughout the course each student will research a person, experiment, theory or initiative that demonstrates the knotty relationship between race and/or gender and science. These projects will be your answer to our shared question: what might it mean to tell a different story about science and technology, one that included the contributions of these neglected narratives? Your research argument should aim to raise questions about and name connections between race/gender and the practice and rhetoric of science and technology. This final project can take many forms. Depending on argument and audience you might write a scene to a play, craft a traditional academic essay, or design a piece of curriculum.

Assignments

Along with brief responses to the weekly readings and a reflection assignment designed for the end of the quarter, students will complete two major graded assignments (below). Each of these assignments could be featured in NSC students e-portfolios.

Wikipedia Edit-a-thon

College age students have been the main drivers in pointing out the underrepresentation of the scientific contributions of women and people of color on Wikipedia. On their own and in organized Wikipedia edit-a-thons, they have sought to write these figures back into the history of science. Students will choose a marginal figure in contemporary or historical science/technology; research this figure and organize a group Wikipedia edit-a-thon similar to the ones held on Ada Lovelace’s birthday every year. This is also an opportunity to think about the genre of a Wikipedia article and what Wikipedia is as co-authored, co-edited source, and why its promise of democratic knowledge hasn’t automatically produced a space where women and people of color are better represented than other peer-reviewed and behind-the-pay-wall sources.

Research Based Project that Elucidates Connections between Race/Gender and Science

Students will choose a person, research project, scientific theory or discovery that exemplifies the knotty relationship between race and science, gender and science or all three. They might focus, for example, on Rosalind Franklin’s role in the discovery of DNA or recent diversity initiatives at a local tech company or Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s navigation of racial identity and questions about race in his role as a popular scientist. Their argument should aim to raise questions and name connections about constructions of race and gender and the practice and rhetoric of science and technology, but it can take many forms. Throughout the course we will read plays, poems, and more traditional scholarly essays, each of which aim to elucidate and analyze these connections. Students will, in consultation with the instructor, have the freedom to work in the genre they find best fitted to their argument and audience.