Chemical Unknowns: Toward a Preliminary Environmental History of Fear

Because I’m not currently going in nearly enough directions, I thought I would share this kernel of an idea that I hope to develop in the coming months. On a whim, I submitted a proposal for the “Framing Nature: Signs, Stories, and Ecologies of Meaning” semiotics conference in Tartu, Estonia. On some impish level, I rather liked the idea of attending a semiotics conference in Estonia, but it was a terrific event full of interesting paper. And I met some wonderful people. The call for papers came out while I was working on a broader grant proposal surrounding the toxic century (more on which soon), which I see as being a useful organizing theme for much of my mercury work and other research interests on the history of chemical hazards since World War II. Coming out of that grant proposal, I had found my curiosity piqued by the assertion in some sociological circles that toxic chemicals provoked new kinds of fear. It’s an interesting proposition, and I flirted with it in the grant proposal, but was reluctant to take the idea too far. Along came the call for papers, and maybe this was my chance to play with some of the ideas that had captured my imagination. Here’s the proposal I submitted to the conference (the paper’s title serves as the title of this post):

We live in a toxic century. While we cannot see it, each of us is a walking, breathing artifact of humanity’s toxic trespasses into nature. Sociological findings suggest that persistent organic pollutants scare human beings in new and special ways. This has more to do with what we do not know about their danger than what we do know, and those unknowns strike at the epicentre of how fear is individually and culturally manifested. The method through which persistent organic pollutants assault human and environmental health, the manner in which they proliferated after World War II, and the unanticipated consequences of their spread are key characteristics of this new landscape of fear. Persistent organic pollutants contaminate rather than merely damage; their pollution penetrates human tissue indirectly rather than attacking the surface in a more straightforward manner; and the threat from exposure is not acute, but rather slow, chronic, and enduring. That we lack a full understanding of the hazards they pose and have little control over environmental mobility distinguishes chemical toxins in the litany of environmental hazards. As a result, a rising culture of fear associated with new toxins is an explicit and unmistakable feature of the post-World War II world.

I mean to investigate fear’s environmental narrative and how it has unfolded during the toxic century. A growing fear of chemicals over the past seventy years is a distinct cultural phenomenon, and it warrants some careful historical analysis. My paper proposes to develop an environmental history of fear, using the global proliferation of persistent organic pollutants as its vehicle. I am especially interested in charting change and continuity in chemical fear as an abstract notion—over time and across geographic space—drawing on cultural responses to chemical threats in Canada, Japan, Sweden, and the United States. I argue that chemical hazards combine with scientific uncertainty, industrial obfuscation, regulatory inaction, and ineffective public communication to formulate an algorithm for social malaise centred on environmental fear.

The good news/bad news upshot was that my paper was accepted. Good news, because it afforded me the opportunity to explore the history of toxic fear a little further. Bad news, because I was embarking on another project before wrapping up an earlier one. It turns out the session was filmed, and you can see my paper in truncated form (I managed to eke out ~5000 words in preparation for the conference):

I’d love to say the paper was well-received. Maybe it was. The Twittersphere got this far:

I did get some very good feedback after the session and a number of good ideas I ought to pursue. But the presentation and the conference served its purpose in providing me a chance to test-drive a rough draft.

So: toxic fear. In a future post, I’ll expand on its historiography. Or, rather, how drawing from other aspects of the history of psychology and emotions and fear, we might start to draw up a framework for thinking about the history of toxic fear. Just before leaving for Estonia, I was taking the train between Hamilton and Toronto. In the hour it took to get to Toronto, I had mapped out a series of questions and what form a book project on toxic fear might take (note to self: try to find the essay on the back of which I did that scribbling). But the moral of the story is you never know how or when a new project idea—however good, poor, or foolish—might jump out at you. Or how quickly its scope will come together into a viable outline…

Digital History, Also Too: Student Impact

A word on teaching and ways to alter the classroom experience from my grant application.

I see a series of interwoven expected impacts on student learning:

1. A genuine investment in creativity & knowledge communication:

In general, the current approach to undergraduate assignments looks something like this. The instructor requires some form of written essay. The student works feverishly to meet the course expectations, mimicking (but not fully understanding) the complex and rigid rules of expository writing. The instructor grades the essay, providing comments on style and content. The student looks briefly at the instructor’s response before burying the paper in filing cabinet. The essay never sees the light of day again. This is unsatisfying.

Exploring data visualization and working with students to share their results more broadly encourages students to become more aware of potential audiences for their research (and not limiting their thought process to what they think the instructor wants to see). This invites students to take greater ownership over their work, and in my experience students have engaged much more willingly in more and better work habits as a result. I firmly believe that this approach treats students like emerging scholars and they are more likely to realize their potential because of that greater deal of respect.

2. A community of makers:

Building on that first point, I am intrinsically committed to the idea that the learning experience is enhanced when students become knowledge producers instead of just knowledge consumers. By turning students into makers of knowledge, it is possible to create the context in which active, self-directed inquiry and learning become the keystone of the educational experience. Through developing data sets and then critically analyzing them, students are creating the information they need. In producing visual representations of that information—through word clouds and flowcharts and infographics—they are also more involved in how their findings will be interpreted.

I see this as the fundamental characteristic of the Humanities in the 21st century: Whereas previously, research consisted of excavating—digging deeper and deeper into archives—today creating intelligent content is a constructive exercise. The data is available and constitutes a series of building blocks. The researcher and the collaborative teams of researchers get to build rather than burrow. The new, interactive classroom will encourage teamwork, experimentation, and inventive balancing acts to see what the data will and won’t yield.

3. A more holistic approach to problem solving:

I want to encourage Humanities students to learn at the bench, to use a concept taken from how the sciences are taught. In effect, the humanists’ digital lab is the new bench, a place where learning comes from doing, where students are encouraged to experiment and innovate. This environment invites students to get their hands dirty and to let the past (in the case of historical research and analysis) capture their imagination.

Thanks to Web 2.0, students have access to infinite amounts of information on their laptops and in their smartphones. The new intellectual challenge involves thinking critically about these new technological research tools and what the technology allows us to do. In many respects, our students are better prepared to ask and answer these questions than faculty. That constitutes an exciting teaching dynamic, where the instructor might adopt the business adage of being in command but out of control—allowing the students to “find” learning for themselves within the confines of a pre-arranged rubric. The danger endures, however, that these digital technologies threaten to make us the tools of our tools, to use Henry David Thoreau’s old phrase, but the central challenge to students is to break free from their tools—retain that capacity for traditional critical thought—and solve intellectual and technological problems in tandem. From the thought processes involved in coding and computational thinking, students will engage in more vigorous forms of problem solving, not just in their research and analysis, but also in the manner in which they communicate their findings.

I appreciate the irony in stressing the instruction of a number of quantitative research methods, but accepting that effectively evaluating the project’s results poses a bit of a qualitative quandary. In many respects, this project involves putting a teaching philosophy into practice. Similarly, gauging student success will need to be structured, on the one hand, quantitatively on their comprehension of the digital techniques, and qualitatively through the creative expression of their research communication and dissemination on the other. Whether or not this proves successful on a broader basis will be determined both by student enrolment and retention over a longer period of time and by evaluating the quality and quantity of the research data on the history of public health.

Earlier posts on DH are here and here.

Digital History, Too: Public Health History

More from my Paul R. MacPherson Teaching Fellowship application:

“C’est la peur de la grande histoire qui a tué la grande histoire.”

Drosophila became the ubiquitous lab subject because of the confines of the academic semester. Its capacity to reproduce so prodigiously meant that Biology students could study multiple generations of their test subject over the course of a single, three-month term. Similarly, the digital humanities allow historians to capture greater data sets in shorter amounts of time. Whereas my own undergraduate research experiences were limited by the amount of microfiche I could stand to read within the time constraints of a semester’s term paper, data mining and mapping make it possible for today’s students to take on ever more ambitious projects if only we could bring the requisite technical skills to them. Moreover, it is now possible to shift the emphasis from data collection to data analysis—having them think about what their data is trying to tell them.

The vehicle for my project’s endeavour is an expansive history of public health, though the training guides for subsequent use may be applied more generally. My teaching and research interests live at the interstices of the histories of science and the environment, and themes in the history of public health are consistent with the curriculum I already have listed in the university’s Undergraduate Calendar. Writ large, questions of occupational health, hygiene, and environmental well-being offer an inexhaustible series of directions for student inquiry and on a scale previously unwieldy to scholars. As a topic, it lends itself to historical GIS mapping of various industrial diseases and cancer clusters, as well as textual analyses dating back to the 17th century. Students producing maps and timelines on the origins of specific environmental pollutants or the discoveries of health hazards stand to contribute not just to their education but to a scholarly reimagining of the field. Further, given McMaster University’s reputation for the health sciences, the history of public health points to History’s contemporary relevance, and might create opportunities for cross-campus collaboration.

During the tenure of the fellowship, I will identify discrete research projects on the history of public health, designed to introduce and develop digital humanities skills from Levels I to IV. The plan involves not just listing a series of disparate skills, but in establishing the most efficient build from one skill set to the next over a series of different courses. The instructional videos will be designed to aid students with little or no training in digital humanities to participate at each level so that they are not disadvantaged if they did not take the introductory course.

Previous post is here.

Digital History

Yesterday I learned that I was named the Paul R. MacPherson Teaching Fellow for 2014-2015. This is nice news and very flattering; I’m honoured by the vote of confidence in my teaching, and especially pleased at the prospect of having time to devote to merging my teaching and research interests more fully. My application proposed integrating digital humanities techniques throughout my undergraduate curriculum (with a focus on the history of public health), while also preparing guides and directions for colleagues who might want to explore similar avenues.

Over the next few days, I will post bits and pieces from my application as a means of sharing my plans for the coming year. Digital Humanities (or DH) has become the buzzword du jour in scholarly circles, and it has become a funding priority, too. I remain a bit agnostic to much of the rhetoric surrounding its great promise, but I do see valuable applications in the classroom (as outlined below and in subsequent posts). I’ll return to this point, but I think much of the current literature and debate over DH—that it’s either the salvation of the struggling Humanities disciplines or the final nail in their coffin—is woefully misguided. I’m not sure DH needs to be quite so oppositional; rather, I see it as being complementary to traditional research inquiry rather than a singularly incompatible new direction.

But more on that in due course. In my proposal, I outlined a plan for DH development as well as exploring novel approaches to knowledge communication. I maintain a commitment to the traditional essay form and the importance of effective writing skills, but I think they can be supplemented by asking students to engage with design, aesthetics, and visual communication. I will expand on this in the blog over the course of the coming year.

But here’s the background and rationale from my proposal:

Big data is more than just an established trend in knowledge acquisition; it marks a seismic shift in the academy, in economics, and in culture. From social networks to demographic analysis to online media, complex methods of digital data collection dominate contemporary modes of knowledge production and consumption. No body of evidence is considered more compelling or persuasive than massive quantities of data. And more data: according to Wired magazine, we have entered the “petabyte age,” the consequences of which “force us to view data mathematically first and establish a context for it later.” This brave new world poses distinct challenges and opportunities for the future of Humanities teaching and learning.

The sheer weight of current data demands more than ever a humanist interpretation, but traditional academic disciplines have not adapted their methodologies rapidly in acknowledgment of these paradigm shifts. As a result, the Humanities appear out of touch with present methods of acquiring, analyzing, communicating, and disseminating information. This may be playing a role in a growing disenchantment among students about the value of a Humanities education. While I resist the notion that the foundational value of our disciplines has become less relevant, I appreciate the rationale behind the popular sentiment and recognize that we could be more proactive in blending the lifeblood of a Humanities education—critical thought, analysis, communication—with the technological possibilities inherent in the 21st-century knowledge economy.

Indeed, I read this tension as a golden opportunity to reinvestigate and reinvigorate our approaches to pedagogy and classroom instruction. It behooves us to think critically about how this new era of big data has transformed not just the world around us, but also how we study it. One option to deflect these criticisms of archaic programs is to develop a stronger profile in the digital humanities in our research and especially in our undergraduate teaching. The array of digital humanities practices can provide our students with new approaches to our traditional skill set and better prepare them for the emerging job market, which values independence, creativity, and intellectual versatility.

A rash of popular and scholarly literature highlights the digital revolution we are currently witnessing, and how it stands to transform education and the job market. While trends in this literature range from wildly enthusiastic to downright apocalyptic, the consensus would indicate that we have crossed the Rubicon. As the authors of Uncharted: Big Data as a Lens on Human Culture assert, “We have gotten used to a world in which we generate or obtain data and then analyze it however we want.” Similarly, books and articles on the digital humanities and its capacity to harness the new wave of infinite data is growing exponentially. In History circles, specifically, a renewed interest in “big” history—across time and space—is suggestive of the potential these methods offer.

My project involves re-visioning the manner in which knowledge acquisition and communication take place in the undergraduate History classroom. I propose integrating a suite of digital humanities practices across my undergraduate curriculum in order to provide a model for colleagues in my department and throughout the Humanities. Further, I mean to develop novel approaches to visualizing data in historical analysis—infographics, posters, and 3D media—working with students to articulate how design, aesthetics, and non-textual communication might open avenues to different forms of analysis and storytelling while reaching new audiences and fresh understandings. Whereas students are adept at consuming intelligent content through digital media, I propose to train them to create intelligent content in this new environment, drawing on the traditional research and analytical skills merged with newer computing techniques.

McMaster University is exceptionally well-positioned to become a leader in digital scholarship. The Lewis & Ruth Sherman Centre for Digital Scholarship constitutes an incredible resource for teaching and research using these new tools and for pushing the boundaries of how we might be communicate these findings. Similarly, MIIETL is at the forefront of these new approaches. While the resources exist, we could stand to see greater uptake within the more traditional Humanities disciplines. Through practicing digital humanities in the undergraduate classroom, I also propose to develop a series of tools and guides to support independent learning for both instructors and students.