Center for Science in Society discussion groups publish special issues of academic journals

Posted May 13th, 2008 at 8:14 am.

Ann Dalke photoAs Senior Lecturer in English Anne Dalke recalls it, she began talking with scientists on campus as part of an effort, over a dozen years ago, to integrate science into the work of students in the Gender Studies program. Eventually she found herself immersed in a series of conversations, hosted by the College’s Center for Science in Society (CSIS), that constantly challenged her own way of looking at the world.

Dalke found that regular exposure to the perspectives of scholars in the natural sciences and social sciences was enormously fruitful both to her research and teaching. Since she became active in the CSIS, she has collaborated on several articles and courses with Professor of Biology and founding CSIS Director Paul Grobstein.

McCormack photo An upper-level course on gender and science that she co-taught with Professor of Physics and current CSIS Director Elizabeth McCormack was especially illuminating, Dalke says. She credits the students in the course with helping the professors understand “why and how transdisciplinary work can be so generative of new ideas.”

Dalke’s training and orientation as a scholar of narrative remained a compelling part of her collaboration with scientists. “My work as a humanist is essentially about making meaning with words, and it was very important to me to record these conversations, to create a more permanent trace of what would otherwise be ephemeral,” Dalke says, explaining her role as the chronicler of many of the center’s efforts.

With the help of Grobstein and Serendip Webmaster Ann Dixon, Dalke began to post course materials and summaries of brown-bag discussions online, a practice that enabled her not only to document, but to continue the conversations—and to invite contributions from people from all over the world through discussion boards.

Jan Trembley photo As the editor of the Bryn Mawr Alumnae Bulletin, Jan Trembley ’75 is also an inveterate note-taker. A Ph.D. in classics and comparative literature, Trembley says that she has long been drawn to interdisciplinary efforts and interested in the sciences. In the course of writing a story about robotics at Bryn Mawr, Trembley was introduced to emergence theory, “a particular understanding of systems in which complicated, interesting, high-level functions arise unexpectedly out of simple interactions of low-level mechanisms.”

The CSIS’s working group on emergence, Trembley discovered, “was talking about ideas that had fascinated me since I was in college.” She joined the group, which met weekly over breakfast, and began taping and transcribing every discussion.

Now Dalke, McCormack, and Trembley have taken a further step in sharing the fruits of their deeply interdisciplinary collaborations with the world. Two peer-reviewed academic journals have recently published special issues that grew out of weekly discussions held by the CSIS.

With McCormack, Dalke co-edited On Beyond Interdisciplinarity, a special issue of the online Journal of Research Practice. Dalke and Trembley co-edited On Emergence Theory, a special issue of Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal.

On Beyond Interdisciplinarity has its origins in the brown-bag lunch series that the center hosted between 2002 and 2006. The lunch series focused on a theme “related to the understanding and relevance of science and technology by the world at large” for a semester at a time. Each discussion began with an informal presentation by a participant; although most presenters were members of the faculty, visiting scholars, students, and staff members also led discussions.

The issue includes contributions by Carol Bernstein, English and comparative literature (emerita); Jody Cohen, education; Alison Cook-Sather, education; Grobstein; Darla Himeles ’06, staff education coordinator; Alice Lesnick, education; David Ross, economics; Elliott Shore, history and information services; McCormack, Dalke, and former postdoctoral fellow Paula Viterbo, a historian of science. The editors also issued a call for papers to the publication’s international readership and accepted three articles from scholars in California, Texas, and Alberta.

The working group that produced On Emergence Theory, says McCormack, tended to be a bit more formal than the brown-bag series. Members sometimes presented research that they were polishing for publication or conference presentations.

On Emergence Theory includes contributions by Al Albano, physics (emeritus); Grobstein; Karen Greif, biology; former postdoctoral fellow Eric Raimy, a linguist; and three members of the Swarthmore faculty, as well as Dalke and Trembley.

Both publications, like the CSIS programs that inspired them, are unique, as demonstrations of collaboration taking place not only across disciplines, but across the traditional divisions among humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. “We’re very proud of these publications,” McCormack says. “I think they really show how successful the Center has been at bringing people together across campus and how valuable that has been for us.”

Trembley adds that the editors found it challenging to help each author write across fields to reach a broad audience. Each of them met that challenge well, Dalke says: “These articles report on new models of education that are contributing to the development of social democracies in the larger world. They demonstrate that the revision of educational structures brings with it a profound revision of the work we do as educators: using transdisciplinary methods and structures to reorganize familiar knowledge and produce new understandings.”

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