Amidst so much turbulence, I’ve been grateful to be developing a course that considers the intersection of science and democracy, and that centers the arts’ and humanities’ role in responding to uncertainty, injustice, and oppression. This work feels especially personal under the current circumstances, and especially urgent, and the Humanities Engage award has made it possible for me to devote the substantial amount of time that it deserves. I’m eager to engage in collective sensemaking with students, as well as with the artists who will participate in the Art’s Work in the Age of Biotechnology exhibition that will take place in conjunction with the course.
Both the seminar and the exhibition aim to situate contemporary genetics within a spectrum of past, present, and future ways of configuring bodies and technologies, and to prompt audiences to reconsider the relationships that humans form with one another and with other species. In designing the syllabus and laying the groundwork for related public events, I have prioritized content that addresses science’s relation to race, ability, and sexuality, as well as the environment. Guiding questions for the course will include, What kinds of public conversations should we be having, with whom, and why? And how can we go about facilitating those conversations, not only in our classrooms but also through public engagements?
Curator Hannah Star Rogers and I had initially envisioned the exhibition, which originated at North Carolina State University last year, as a physical installation that invited visitors to participate in hands-on activities such as pop-up labs, critical making, and participatory science, in addition to public talks. For the purposes of my graduate course, these engagements were particularly appealing because they offer opportunities to encounter the processes of science, rather than only the finished products. It has been difficult to let go of some of these plans. But as we’ve reimagined the exhibition in digital form, I’ve become increasingly excited to invite students to join me in thinking more specifically about the affordances of digital media, and how these affordances might enrich our pedagogy as well as our approaches to public scholarship and public engagement.
For instance, rather than attempting to replicate face-to-face conversations via videoconference (which can be exhausting, as anyone who has experienced Zoom fatigue knows well by now), what if we thought more strategically about what kinds of interactions are better suited to written versus spoken dialogue, and what kinds of information are better shared via video versus print versus other formats, and why. How might we refigure conversations among experts to become more inclusive of, and more responsive to, historically marginalized communities? How can we adapt our standard practices to better accommodate people (myself included!) who are exhausted by the pandemic and by our ongoing political turmoil? What kinds of thinking and behaving got us into this mess, and how might we begin to do better?
Exhibition artists are offering expansive, generous, and provocative responses to these questions. One workshop in development will focus on Afro/Indigenous Futurist Dreaming. Another involves meditating with microbes. One of the artworks attempts to find a common language to enable humans to communicate with plants. (The full slate will be announced in the coming weeks.) Encountering these works has helped me feel more sustained and more hopeful. I hope that the course will do the same for students, and that it will inspire a similar capaciousness in them.