Humanities in the natural sciences classroom

2015-04-08

I love to teach. I decided to return to the university to earn a Masters and PhD in history after being employed several years as an engineer specifically because I wanted to teach university students. Unfortunately because of my career path as a soft-money researcher, my teaching opportunities have been limited.

But every spring for the last four years I have had the chance to give lectures and lead discussions in my department’s upper level course “Ecosystem Management” (Naturvård). The week before Easter, I spent three days in the classroom discussing dam removal controversies, conflicts over species introductions and reintroductions, and the roles of networks in conservation policymaking.

The big idea that I try to impart to the Ecosystem Management students is that people have different values. Those values are not objectively right or wrong, yet we have to make decisions as individuals, organizations, and societies about which value to side with in a given controversy. Conservation actions and policy in the real world are not constructed from scientific “facts”, but from values which may or may not mobilise science as support. They always seem surprised by my lectures because they haven’t considered the social aspects consciously before. They are challenged in the discussion sections, one of which is a role-play of different groups involved in a dam removal controversy, to think like people coming from very different walks of life.

I hope that the students can carry the “people have different values” lesson with them when they enter the working world as biologists, advisors, or managers. I hope that they can be sensitive to the processes that bring about environmental policy and recognise the validity of positions contrary to their own.

It’s rare for humanities scholars to be teachers in natural science classes. Although “social” aspects of science can be included in curricula, these elements are often taught by natural scientists themselves or perhaps social scientists such as political scientists or economists. There is a missed opportunity here. Humanities scholars are trained to think about cultural contexts, historical situations, the power of language, competing interests, and meaning-making. These are all things that our natural scientists need to know and think about in their daily work. I think we are doing a disservice to our students if we are not teaching them about culture.

We need to get more humanities into the natural science curriculum and classroom. This will take some work. It will take looking beyond faculty boundaries when picking instructors for courses. It will take humanities scholars tailoring their messages to speak to the concerns of the natural scientists. It will take valuing the critical thinking skills that are at the core of the humanities. It will take reimagining our goals in undergraduate education: we need a shift from teaching what to do to why we do what we do.

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