Even though our online exhibition, Gut Instincts, still is in the early planning stages, I have begun thinking about what comes next. How will people interact with the exhibition? What will the audience gain from viewing the works of art? How can I incorporate this exhibition into my classes?
The integration of the arts in science education is an idea that has been gaining traction in recent years. Indeed, proponents of this approach have altered the familiar acronym STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) to include the arts, creating STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, mathematics). SciArt Center (http://www.sciartcenter.org) certainly is a great example of this convergence of the disciplines. Other programs, too, like the STEM to STEAM initiative at the Rhode Island School of Design (http://stemtosteam.org) and STE[+a]M Connect program at UC San Diego (http://steamconnect.org) are creating spaces where practitioners of the sciences and the arts can collaborate.
I’m a big fan of these programs. As The Bridge virtual residency program already has demonstrated to me, partnerships between artists and scientists allow each partner to see his or her own field in new ways. Thinking about one’s work from a new perspective enhances one’s creativity and almost certainly leads to the generation of new ideas. But how do collaborations between artists and scientists translate to the classroom? How can my students use our proposed online exhibition on the microbiome?
In the spring of 2016, I will be teaching BIO 202: Microbiology at Davidson College. At some point during the semester, we certainly will discuss the microbiome. As part of our discussions, I would like the students to read a primary research article related to the general theme of Gut Instincts, and then view our exhibition. I’m sure the combination of the science and the art will led to spirited discussions. Is that enough? Should I try to more intentionally link the science and the art? If so, how? Because we seem to be living in an age of assessment, should I assess the effectiveness of the exhibition on student learning? Again, if so, how?
These questions are a few of the ones I will be considering as we complete our residencies. If anyone has any suggestions, I’m all ears!
The Polysemies of Language, Science, and Art
I just read physicist-feminist Evelyn Fox Keller’s The Mirage of a Space between Nature and Nurture (2010). Keller parses the rhetorical split between “nature” and “nurture,” in order to reveal that scientifically speaking they are not separate. Keller argues that scientists and science writers must use more precise wording to identify the “gene,” gene function, the complexities involved in phenotypic expression by way of lifelong human development.
The earliest distinction between the two terms goes back to the sixteenth century, when in 1581 British educator Richard Mulcaster claimed, “Nature makes the boy toward, nurture sees him forward.” (Keller, 17) Shakespeare made the more memorable discrepancy, when he had Prospero degrade Caliban in The Tempest (1623) by describing him as “a born devil, on whose nature / Nurture will never stick.” (Keller, 17)
To distinguish the difference between the two realms – nature and nurture – is not however a bifurcation, which is what Francis Galton, the cousin of Charles Darwin and father of eugenics, did in his English Men of Science: Their Nature and Nurture (1874). From this point forward, Keller shows, the “particulate gene” – the misunderstanding that the gene names a localizable particle in which “DNA makes RNA, RNA makes protein, and protein makes us” – has held sway. (Keller, 79)
Keller is the master of analyzing the language of science. While laying bear the slippages in meaning that occur in the uses of one word, “gene,” she elucidates its complex workings to a lay audience – readers like me, an art and architectural historian. Keller makes complex systems elegant, accessible, and beautiful.
This is the task Dave Wessner and I face in curating the online exhibition Gut Instinct. How do we communicate in solid and sophisticated terms the workings of the microbiota (gut bacteria) and the microbiome (its DNA)? Polysemy – bearing many meanings and interpretations – is inevitable here.
The understanding of science comes to those who are not scientists by way of language and visualization – through words and art – both of which are subjective and labile. While a problem for geneticists, as Keller has shown, the polysemy of language, science… and art is the very stuff of aesthetics. Polysemy is at the heart of aesthetics, viz., the experience of collective reality. The surprise of art is how it teases out unforeseen polysemies: the way in which artists, when asked to interpret a scientific concept such as the microbiome, bring new metaphorical interpretations to what are considered to be objective facts. They bring new angles to the world of hard evidence. Let the polysemic ramble roll!