Science / Engineering / Mathematics

The humanities strengthen the study of science (essay)

“Would you like to see the brain collection?” my guide asked, as we finished our tour of the Yale School of Medicine. What scientist could resist?

I was expecting an impersonal chamber crammed with specimens and devices. Perhaps a brightly lit, crowded, antiseptic room, like the research bays we had just been exploring. Or an old-fashioned version, resembling an untidy apothecary’s shop packed with mysterious jars. 

But when we entered the Cushing Center in the sub-basement of the Medical Library, it was a dim, hushed space that led through a narrow opening into an expansive area for exploration and quiet reflection. As my guide noted, it looked remarkably like a posh jewelry store, with lovely wooden counters, closed cabinets below and glass-enclosed displays above. 

And such displays! Where I had envisioned an imposing, sterile wall of containers, with disembodied brains floating intact in preservative fluid, there was instead a long sinuous shelf of jars just above eye level, winding around the room. Each brain lay in thick slices at the bottom of its square glass container, the original owner’s name and dates on a handwritten label. Muted light glinting off the jars, and lending a slight glow to the sepia-toned fluid within, gave the impression of a vast collection of amber. 

In frames leaning from countertop to wall or resting in a glass-topped enclosure set within the counter were collages of photos and drawings. Surprised, I stepped closer, glimpsed human faces, and found extraordinary science therein.

I had anticipated spectacle: materials displayed in a manner that entertains, yet distances the audience and makes what is viewed seem exotic and alien. Instead, I experienced science in its most human manifestation: specimens arranged to emphasize the reason they were of interest to their original owners, those who had studied them, and those now viewing them.

A typical collage showed photographs of an individual living human being alongside Cushing’s exquisite drawings of the person’s brain, as dissected during surgery or after death. The photographs were posed to show the whole person as a unique individual – and also, in many cases, revealed the presence of the brain tumor they were then living with, through the shape of the skull or as a lump beneath the skin. The drawings revealed the location and anatomical details of the tumor. The very brain that had animated the person and suffered the tumor reposed in its jar nearby.

One could not walk away unmoved.

On the personal level, I was reminded of various individuals I have known whose deaths were caused by brain tumors. The first, decades ago: an admired college mentor. The most recent pair, within the last year: the vivacious wife of one colleague, the young child of another. I remember them as people who enriched others’ lives with their grace and strength of character and I am grateful for the medical advances that gave them extra time to be part of their families and communities.

As a scientist, I was reminded viscerally that this is exactly what we mean when we say all science exists within a human context. Cushing’s work, memorialized so effectively in this small museum, began at a time when neurosurgery was crude and ineffectual, and hope for those with brain tumors was practically nonexistent. By his career’s end, he had introduced diagnostic and surgical techniques that lowered the surgical mortality rate for his patients to an unheard-of ten percent, a rate nearly four times better than others achieved.

The human patients on whom Cushing operated were everything to him, simultaneously providing motivation, subject, object, and methods for his research. In endeavoring to find cures for their conditions, he studied their lives and symptoms, operated on and sketched their tumors, and used what he learned from each case to improve his effectiveness. The purely scientific aspect of his work (advancing the surgical treatment of brain tumors) was inextricably linked with its humanistic aspects (understanding the histories and fates of the individual members of his clinical practice). Indeed, it was his methodical linking of the clinical and human sides of medicine that made his contributions of such lasting significance. Cushing himself stressed that “a physician is obligated to consider more than a diseased organ, more than even the whole man – he must view the man in his world.” 

Seen in this light, the juxtaposition of images inside the museum’s frames carries dual meanings. 

First, the combined images document the course of medical history, forming what the biographer Aaron Cohen-Gadol calls “the diary of neurological surgery in its infancy.” The very format of these still photographs, hand-drawn sketches, and carefully stained glass slides reminds us that Cushing worked in an era before radiological methods for brain imaging and, initially, an era when even still photography was rather cumbersome. Indeed, his own artistic talent and training was crucial for accurately recording the outcomes of his surgeries. The contents of the images capture the conditions of patients when they came to see Cushing, the treatment, and the aftermath. Collectively, they show how neurology and neurosurgery were practiced in Cushing’s day and how these fields evolved year by year throughout his career.

Second, the combined images directly influenced the course of medical history. Cushing deliberately correlated, through the information in the photographs, anatomical sketches, and medical records, the external indicators of otherwise hidden medical problems within the skull. This led to improvements not only in how neurosurgeons operated but also in how readily other doctors could recognize early external indications of brain tumors and send patients for prompt treatment. As Cushing’s biographers note, “Each patient is of historical significance now because our discipline of neurological surgery evolved through his or her care.” Moreover, because he trained a generation of neurosurgeons in these methods, Cushing helped ensure the continuing development of the field; a number of these junior colleagues, in turn, were instrumental in the creation of the museum that now makes the images publicly visible.

The juxtaposition of Cushing’s images therefore represents the very essence of how the humanities and sciences are intertwined: achieving his medical breakthroughs depended directly on his active depiction and analysis of human experience. 

As an educator, I find that the displays in the Cushing Center encapsulate why young scientists need to study their fields in historical and social context. Isolated technical proficiency would not have enabled Cushing to become the originator of modern neurosurgery; his intense focus on the human condition was essential. Indeed, Cushing mused in a letter to a fellow physician that he “would like to see the day when somebody would be appointed surgeon somewhere who had no hands, for the operative part is the least part of the work.” Similarly, to fully prepare for careers in science, it is essential that students grasp how the impetus for scientific work arises from the world in which the scientist lives, often responds to problems the scientist has personally encountered, and ultimately impacts that society and those problems in its turn. 

A very few scientists may be largely self-taught and spend their entire careers working on abstract problems in isolated research institutes without ever teaching a course, writing a grant or giving a public lecture. Even they, however, are influenced in their selection of research problems by the results that other individuals have previously obtained. And even they must communicate their results to other people in order to impact their field. Most of us interact far more directly with other people in our scientific endeavors:  they inspire our choices of major or thesis topic, pay taxes that support grants for our facilities and students, run companies that underwrite our applied investigations, propose legislation that regulates how we share data and maintain lab safety.

Some might argue that these considerations apply mainly to the life sciences, where the human connections are most tangible. They might think, for instance, that my own work as a theoretical physicist is too abstract to be influenced by societal context. After all, the field-theoretic equations I manipulate have no more race or gender or politics than the subatomic particles they describe. Yet my choice of research questions has unquestionably been affected by the contingent historical details of my own professional life: the compelling lectures that enticed me to switch fields during graduate school, the inspiring discussions with my doctoral adviser that established symmetry as a guiding principle, the discovery of certain subatomic particles at the start of my career and the decades-delayed confirmations of others. My sense of how science operates on both philosophical and practical levels has also unmistakably been influenced by my long-ago experiences as a graduate teaching assistant for History of Science courses and my ongoing conversations with scholars in Science Studies.

This is why programs that deliberately train scientists in the humanities are so essential to educating scientists effectively.  Every nascent scientist should read, think, and write about how science and society have impacted one another across cultural and temporal contexts. Not all undergraduates will immediately appreciate the value of this approach. The first-year students in my own college have been known to express confusion about why they must take that first course in the history, philosophy, and sociology of science. But decades later, our alumni cite the “HPS” curriculum as having had a profound impact on their careers in science or medicine. They remember the faculty members who taught those courses vividly and by name. They tell me the ethical concepts absorbed in those courses have helped them hew more closely to the scientific ideal of seeking the truth.

In the wake of C.P. Snow’s famous Rede Lecture on the Two Cultures of the sciences and humanities, academic programs were founded in the late 1960s and early 1970s (e.g., Michigan State University’s Lyman Briggs College and Stanford University’s Science, Society, and Technology program) with the express aim of immersing students in the deep connections between science and society. Decades later, those programs are thriving – and the impact of the ideas they espouse may be seen in changes that pre-professional programs in medicine and engineering have been embracing.

For example, the newest version of the Medical School Admissions Test (MCAT2015) incorporates questions on the psychological, social, and biological determinants of behavior to ensure that admitted medical students are prepared to study the sociocultural and behavioral aspects of health. Similarly, in 2000, ABET modified its criteria to emphasize communication, teamwork, ethical professional issues and the societal and global context of engineering decisions. An evaluation in 2002 found a measurable positive impact on what students learned and their preparation to enter the workforce.  

While pre-medical and engineering students are being required to learn about issues linking science and culture, most students in science fields are still not pushed to learn about the human context of their major disciplines. We faculty in the natural sciences have the power to change this. Many of us already incorporate “real world” applications of key topics in our class sessions or assignments; introductory textbooks often do likewise. But we can extend this principle beyond the classroom into the world of intellectual discourse and practice. As colloquium chairs and science club mentors, we can arrange regular departmental talks on topics that stress the interdependence of science and society: STEM education, alternative energy, medical technology, gender and science. 

As academic advisers we can nudge science students towards humanities courses that analyze scientific practice or towards summer internships with companies and NGOs as well as traditional REU programs. As directors of undergraduate or graduate studies, we can highlight science studies topics, interdisciplinary organizations, and non-academic career paths on the department website. Making these connections part of the life of the department can better prepare our students for their futures as capable scientists responsible to and living within society.

In the end, Cushing’s brain collection vividly reminds us why it is crucial to immerse natural science students in interdisciplinary science studies that incorporate the social sciences and humanities. It is not merely because hot new fields are said to lie at the unexplored intersections of fields whose borders were arbitrarily codified decades or centuries ago (though that is true).  It is not merely because the terms interdisciplinary, cross-disciplinary, and trans-disciplinary are presently in vogue (though that is also true).  It is because such cross-training produces scientists who are both more capable of extraordinary breakthroughs and more mindful of their broader impacts. The humanities truly strengthen science.

Elizabeth H. Simmons is dean of Lyman Briggs College, acting dean of the College of Arts and Letters, and University Distinguished Professor of Physics at Michigan State University.

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Study finds impact of pre-tenure status on publication rates at Korean universities

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In South Korea, publication rates change with tenure, study finds.

Liberal arts faculty need to get more involved in teacher education (essay)

How might we prepare better schoolteachers?

For over a century, colleges and universities have asked this question with varying levels of interest and commitment. Some have also asked questions more foundational.

Can teaching be taught? Or are some teachers just born with “the gift” -- an inherent ability to connect with young people and inspire learning? Should we devote resources to training teachers? Or should we simply encourage public policies that identify undergraduates who already posses the knack for teaching?

President Obama has ordered his administration to take up similar questions. Recognizing that “recruiting, preparing, developing and supporting great teachers has a direct impact on the learning and success of America’s students,” the Department of Education will issue new rules this summer for programs that train teachers.

Unlike the emerging debate over the Common Core, however, this pivotal moment to shape what gets valued in classroom instruction will draw limited attention. A relatively small subset of policy makers, K-12 interest groups, and schools of education will wrangle over the new guidelines.  

And a stakeholder once central to these discussions, faculty members in colleges of liberal arts and sciences, will again be missing from an important democratic conversation.

This renewed attention to teacher preparation is, nonetheless, significant. As the White House explained, “There is no more important factor in successful schools than having a great teacher in every classroom.”

Until now, the President and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have pursued this goal indirectly as part of a multi-faceted, bi-partisan education reform agenda that garners support from key business interests. Obama administration policies have encouraged competition, promoted merit pay, challenged tenure practices, demanded tougher performance measures, and required teachers to prove their instruction is tied to “college and career readiness” goals.

After years of qualified support, some schools of education and teacher unions are pushing back against this accountability agenda. Many will likely object to any proposed guidelines that retroactively connect student test scores to the preparation their teachers received years earlier. But these stakeholders will offer few significant alternatives to address the enduring criticism that the teaching profession draws from lower performing college graduates and benefits little from a surfeit of undemanding credentialing programs.  

By remaining largely silent for so long, colleges of liberal arts and sciences have contributed to these developments. By pushing big questions about K-12 teaching to the margins and assigning them solely to education specialists, institutions of higher education became complicit in trends that continue to make public education more separate and more unequal.

Rather than standing on the sidelines as these debates are resurrected this summer, faculty members in the arts, sciences and humanities should offer expert testimony. Federal policy on teacher quality directly impacts the quality of students enrolling in our institutions of higher education and ultimately shapes whether the best college graduates consider teaching as a viable and meaningful career. 

We can draw some lessons from the past.

When number-crunching industrialists tried to impose new purposes and teaching practices on the late 19th-century high school, the most vocal opposition came from professors of literature, history, mathematics, philosophy, physics, biology, and art. This liberal arts defense of teaching was loudest in the Midwest.

As early as 1879, University of Michigan President James B. Angell reminded institutions of higher education of their crucial role “apprising the public that teaching is itself an art.”  Michigan faculty, with appointments in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, spent the remainder of the century visiting schools, experimenting with new courses, and identifying a modest place for “pedagogics” in the curriculum.  

More significantly, these scholars joined peers at Northwestern, Berkeley, Columbia, Harvard, and elsewhere to actively champion state credentialing policies that elevated the importance of preparing teachers with subject-matter expertise. On campus, this broad-based faculty effort led to conferences on teaching, new faculty-alumni networks, and the formation of clubs that openly discussed how this subject matter might best be taught.  

But over time this tight connection between the liberal arts and teacher preparation practices fractured.  As historians ranging from Frederick Rudolph to Larry Cuban have shown, the 20th-century university became distracted by new purposes and research imperatives. The emergent field of “Teacher Education” soon separated itself from the liberal arts by promoting an increasingly technical conception of teaching. New credentialing expectations were established, not through campuswide collaboration, but by specialists who believed educational science could isolate and measure the constituent parts of good teaching. By World War I, semi-autonomous departments of education had effectively replaced the chairs of pedagogy that were once positioned firmly within the arts and sciences.

This history is relevant today and helps explain a century-long cycle of diminished instruction in American education. Without a professional core of teachers who are versed in the humanities and steeped in the great questions of science, schools are especially vulnerable to forces that reduce teaching to a series of discrete measurable acts. Yet the more teaching is dissected, the less attractive the profession becomes for graduates who might otherwise consider it a viable and meaningful career option. 

More directly, these reductionist policy trends obscure something that humanists care deeply about -- the enduring beauty of teaching and learning. As one outgoing pedagogy chair lamented in 1900, “the attempt to mechanize instruction is part of the monstrous error that free minds can be coerced; it has really the same root as religious persecution.”

By remaining largely silent for so long, colleges of liberal arts and sciences have contributed to these developments. By pushing big questions about K-12 teaching to the margins and assigning them solely to education specialists, institutions of higher education became complicit in trends that continue to make public education more separate and more unequal. 

This silence has had a disproportionately negative impact in poorer urban communities. The type of liberally educated teacher who once commonly taught in economically diverse public schools now migrates toward private institutions or to affluent suburbs. Meanwhile, policies that emphasize vocational “readiness” — at the expense of curiosity, creativity, and critical thinking — communicate a dispiriting message of doubt to disadvantaged students who might benefit most from these educational virtues.

This same policy landscape discourages bright, service-minded college graduates from considering teaching as a meaningful lifelong pursuit. Even Teach for America, which has notably placed thousands of teachers in urban classrooms, is increasingly viewed as a steppingstone or worse. Many of its more insightful and talented recruits quickly leave teaching for careers that more readily reward their capacity for independent thought and imagination.

This vocational pattern has drawn far too little attention. And, not coincidentally, a profession that once mitigated inequality now increasingly reflects it.

What can we do to push back against these trends? 

First and foremost, professors in the liberal arts need to get back into public school classrooms. Visiting schools and even observing our own former students teaching is not difficult to arrange. Even these modest experiences could profoundly alter our understanding of how much choice, accountability, and testing have shifted the instructional landscape since our own high school days. 

Secondly, colleges of the liberal arts need to do more in staking a claim to teacher education and, like our 19th-century predecessors, invite teachers, principals, and superintendents to campus for open conversations about what we all value when hiring teachers.

Third, we can accept that these bridge-building activities can produce expertise and authority. With this new legitimacy -- armed with insight on the ways professional expectations can dehumanize teaching -- we can demand a seat at the table the next time local, state, or federal policy makers meet to make consequential decisions.

Our current ignorance of classroom practice leaves us vulnerable to a powerful media message that repeatedly demeans teachers. Time spent in schools disrupts this narrative and could remind us what masterful teachers continue to do.

They teach for understanding. They encourage and support students with the knowledge that learning can be uneven, contradictory, and even frustrating. They demand deeper thinking, applaud passion, reward accuracy, tap curiosity, and otherwise help students discover the inherent human need to solve problems and experience beauty.

Such noble learning pursuits have long been the domain of the liberal arts and humanities. These fields best reward our creativity, connect us to others, and offer standards for excellence. And they also show us how to handle ambiguity, face disappointment, and recover from failure.  

As such, there is a growing understanding that the arts and humanities may offer teachers the most important instruction our children need to address a future only they can imagine.

In this light, we need not agree on whether good teachers are born or made.  But if we want committed teachers who ask big questions, model open inquiry, and honor a young person’s mind, college faculty in the liberal arts will need to speak up and properly accept their historical role as teacher educators.

A generation of college students is ready think more holistically about preparatory programs that, like teaching, can be interesting, dynamic, demanding, and meaningful. And they will need a big campus to discover why teaching is, by any good measure, a career worthy of their thinking.

Stephen Mucher teaches history at Bard College and directs the Bard Master of Arts in Teaching Program in Los Angeles.

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New study raises questions about global rankings of citations

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Analysis looks at how some universities benefit from "secondary academic affiliations."

 

Ohio State U. scholar finds path to tenure track with MOOCs

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A math scholar at Ohio State University finds a path to the tenure track with massive open online courses.

Essay on rejecting job candidates and those who don't apply

Terry McGlynn reflects on turning down those who applied for two openings in searches he led, and those who didn't apply to a teaching-oriented institution.

 

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UConn professor challenges a visiting preacher and finds himself attacked in conservative blogosphere

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When visiting preachers questioned students' values and called evolution a lie, an anthropologist decided to argue back.

When lectures fall short as a teaching tool (essay)

Sarah Demers tried (and failed) to teach a new card game to her family. She's the one who ended up learning something -- about when lectures aren't the right approach.

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Study finds increased STEM enrollment since the recession

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Since the recession, undergraduate enrollments have gone up dramatically, but primarily in engineering and biology and not at expense of humanities and social sciences, study finds.

Campuses must create formal networks for female STEM professors (essay)

Colleges and universities can't leave it to chance -- they must deliberately change a culture that often encourages female researchers to become isolated in their jobs, write Santa Ono and Valerie Gray Hardcastle.

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