Life: Knowledge, belief, and cultural practices
|Harvey Mudd College
Humanities and Social Sciences
|Professor Marianne de Laet
office hours: TR 3-4
"the sudden intolerable knowing that everything is alive"
William S. Burroughs
Course description: In this class we explore cultural theories about, and attitudes toward, life and the human body. We focus primarily on Western culture - a culture dominated by technology and science, and hence fraught with controversy over the realities, possibilities, and promises of technological and scientific interventions in "life." But we examine life in a wider set of environments and circumstances as well. So we cover topics ranging from Melanesian origin myths to the human genome project; from the first autopsies to modern biotechniques of cloning and genetic manipulation; from early body snatchings to the trade of bodies and body parts in the global economy; from vampires to autonomous technical objects in science fiction. We will find that in all of these instances the question of what constitutes "life" and what delineates permissible interventions in it, is subject to controversy and debate, thus revealing cultural differences in practices, knowledges and beliefs.
Course goals: By the end of this course you will have a firm grasp of how "culture" informs positions and attitudes toward "life" - and vice versa. You will understand that the concept "life" gives rise to controversies in which a variety of positions is possible and that, in fact, such divergent attitudes towards life are at play (or at war) in your immediate world. You will understand how debates over medical technologies and biological science - science and technologies that are designed and motivated by the desire to actively intervene in health, medicine, or life - are motivated by these (often unarticulated) cultural attitudes. You will be able to reflect upon the relations between science, technology and culture, with respect for positions different from your own.
Writing: A 6-9 page paper is due in class on March 9; this paper forms a response to the readings so far. It can be a critical discussion of one text, a comparison of positions taken in two or more texts, or an in-depth exploration of a particular cultural attitude towards life. Your final project (due Friday April 28 by 5 PM) is an independent research project, executed in collaboration with 2 other students, that explores in considerable depth a controversy about life. In addition, you send me a brief, discursive (a few complete sentences, no bullet points) reading response by noon each Tuesday.
Schedule: You can find the course schedule through this link or through the link on the course home page. Note that instead of class on Feb 14 and March 21 I am showing a movie at 8 PM on those days. Please make sure you can attend and, if not, notify me in advance. You will then be responsible for watching the movie on your own and you will have to submit a brief report.
Texts to be used:
Lori Andrews and Dorothy Nelkin The Body Bazaar New York Crown 2001
Robbie Davis-Floyd & Joseph Dumit Cyborg Babies New York Routledge 1998
Sarah Franklin Embodied Progress New York Routledge 1997
Stefan Helmreich Silicon Second Nature Berkeley University of California Press 1998
Paul Rabinow Making PCR Chicago University of Chicago Press 1996
Marshall Sahlins Use and Abuse of Biology University of Michigan Press
Grading: To pass this course you must participate in (and usefully contribute to) class discussions and "show and tell" exercises; lead at least one discussion; demonstrate a working knowledge of the assigned readings; complete a 6-9 page paper; and execute a collaborative research project.
You will be accumulating up to a hundred points throughout the semester; your final grade depends on the number of points: 90 and higher gets you in the A range, 80-90 in the B's, and so on.
|Working knowledge of readings (as demonstrated in class discussions and email responses)||10|
|Contribution to class proceedings (includes show and tell)||15|
|Collected milestones for project||10|
Attendance. An all or nothing score. More than three unexcused absences
will drop your score to 0.
Working knowledge of readings. It is your responsibility to show me that you are engaging with the readings, in any way that you see fit. Write me, talk to me, take the lead in class discussions, bring related stories, texts, or ideas; in short, share what you learn. Before each Tuesday class you send me a brief, discursive response to the readings: give me a quote that struck you and explain what it means, why it struck you and how it relates to the theme of the week.
Contribution to class proceedings/show and tell. This is an important category: the success of any discussion-based class depends on the quality of all participants' contributions - expressed in your efforts to challenge both the course texts and your colleagues in the classroom. Class contribution is connected but not restricted to a working knowledge of the assigned texts; you are also expected to actively contribute to the "show and tell" part of the Thursday class sessions. To that purpose, you will collect information that pertains to the topic of this class - cultural perspectives on and practices around life - and bring this information to class. This information may come from media, other classes, your research, anything (see resources). Do not restrict your attention to your own research project (see below) but bring in materials that may be of interest to your classmates.
Lead discussion. You will prepare and lead at least one class discussion. This means that you come fully prepared to "open up" the text for multiple readings; it is also an opportunity to bring in your knowledge and interests, and make them appropriate to the topic at hand.
Paper. Individual, 6-9 page critical analysis/response to a selection of the assigned readings paper. Due March 9.
Project. An independent research project, carried out in a team of 2-3 students. You identify, describe, and analyze a controversy that concerns technical and scientific interventions in/reflections on "life." The final report on your research includes, roughly:
- description of the controversy - what is it about? And how "alive" is it? What is its relevance/importance?
- lay of the land - who are the players and what are their positions?
- unraveling these positions (main body of report) - how did players arrive at their positions, what is "in" these positions. This part of the report is based on collection and analysis of written materials, identification of players, interviews with players
- list of resources (including interviews)
Possible topics include: Stem cell research; Organ transplants; Gene therapies; AIDS in Africa; Reproductive technologies; Abortion; The human genome project - reading the "book" of life; Aging as a disease; Cloning.
Milestones. Throughout the semester you will hand in work that builds towards your final project: an initial description of topic and team; a research plan; an annotated bibliography based on library research; a progress report. Pacing of the project is as follows. On 2/2 you submit team composition and research topic; on 2/16 you submit a detailed research plan. This plan entails a brief summary of the controversy, a list of players, a list of literature and materials found to date, and a detailed plan for interviews or other research activities. On 3/2 you submit a progress report and preliminary bibliography; on 3/23 you hand in a complete annotated bibliography. An outline of your research paper is due on 4/6, and I expect the final research report on 4/28. Adherence to these deadlines will positively influence your grade; when you are not able to make a deadline, it is your responsibility to let me know.
Resources: A (non-exclusive) list of places to look: (on-line) newspapers (New York Times, LA Times, Washington Post); weekly or monthly publications (Economist, New Yorker, Newsweek, New York Review of Books, Nation, Heath, Psychology, Scientific American, Nature); scholarly journals (Social Studies of Science, Science, Technology, and Human Values, Configurations, Medical Anthropology, Medical Sociology); books.
Course policies: In putting together this course I have tried to make the program coherent and consistent - and the reading interesting and fun. Whether this translates into a successful learning experience depends on your engagement. The course has many ingredients and requires a variety of activities on your part. It's hard to predict where discussion will lead, whether readings are as exciting to you as they are to me, and if they are appropriate to your individual research projects. So I may make changes in the syllabus, as our discussions require. I invite you to talk to me about what you think. I will try my best to keep you informed about such changes if and when they occur, but it is your responsibility to keep track of things. Please remember that any discussion-based course is an experiment, the outcome of which depends on its participants. Ask when you are confused, and by all means let me know, as we go along, what you would like to see addressed; how your project is moving along; and whether you need more help, guidance, or instruction.
I view any class as a collaborative project. This means that I expect you to participate in, and contribute to, the quality of the proceedings; while I have tried to build in techniques and mechanisms to ascertain that, you are responsible for your own participation and for the quality of your contributions. Ultimately, the quality of your engagement will determine the quality of the class. But you are not on your own; I am available to direct, guide, explain, redirect. Use me as a resource. And talk to me. I value your input, and I will take it seriously.
The cultural or anthropological study of science, technology, knowledge, and belief, and of the social practices around these issues, is an exercise in tolerance. Or rather, it is a deep probing of what tolerance is and entails: the intelligent, open minded and respectful exploration of views other than one's own. We will be discussing matters on which you do not agree. I expect that you treat each other and your differences with interest and respect.
All work submitted should be typed. Syllabus and schedule may change.
Final research report due April 28 at 5 PM