Bryn Mawr College

Center for Science In Society

To facilitate the broad conversations, involving both scientists and non-scientists, which are essential to continuing explorations of
  • the natural world and humanity's place in it,
  • the nature of education,
  • the generation, synthesis, and evaluation of information,
  • technology and its potentials,
  • the relationships between forms of understanding.

The Two Cultures: A Conversation

The following is excerpted from an ongoing email conversation initiated by faculty at Bryn Mawr college who teach in the College Seminar Program, and is presented as a contribution to continuing general discussion of the "two cultures" dichotomy, first called attention to by C.P. Snow over fifty years ago. College seminar courses treat broad, general questions in a way that reflects joint planning by faculty from different disciplines. The conversation was begun by Peter Beckmann, Department of Physics, following the completion of a course on which he collaborated with Imke Meyer, Department of German. Paul Grobstein, Department of Biology, and Anne Dalke, Department of English, responded with the suggestion that the conversation be continued and broadened. Beckmann and Grobstein worked with Sandra Berwind of the English Department on a course several years ago, prior to her retirement. Further contributions to this conversation are warmly invited, and should be sent by email to pgrobste@brynmawr.edu. For another conversational exploration of the two cultures dichotomy, see Science and non-science: bridging the two culture gap.

Contributions are presented in chronological order but can also be reached individually using the directory below:
  • Grobstein
    Biology
    9 Feb 2001
  • Schram
    Social Work and Social Research
    12 Feb, 2001
  • Dalke
    English
    13 February, 2001


From Peter Beckmann, Department of Physics
January 27, 2001

I wonder if we, the faculty, are acknowledging the fact that "scientists" and "humanists" have different game plans. I am a scientist. I am not a humanist. My view is that we are biologically evolved physical entities in a physical world and my life goal is to provide the best models (or, if you prefer, stories) for understanding what it means to be a human being in the universe (or, rather, in this particular universe). To oversimplify, I believe that one does this through the current administrative avenues of "science" and "art." My life goal is to create a human field of endeavor called "scienceandart."

Students seem to think that a faculty member should do it all and that all sections of a CSem cluster are "the same" in some sense. I now realize that we have to get across the message that if the instructor is a scientist, the class (or the classes he leads) will be science-oriented and if the instructor is a humanist, the class will be humanities-oriented.

I simply cannot discuss what Sandra Berwind called "the meaty problem" in a literary text. The reason I cannot discuss a "text" in this way is that after four years of careful thought and hours of discussion with humanities colleagues, I have absolutely no idea what it means. A written work is a sequential series of sentences which tells a story. Clearly, when an author lived, the culture of his time, other works he wrote, and so on, are very helpful in trying to understand his story (or model or message - call it what you want). However, my prime concern is the message, not the delivery and certainly not the mode of delivery. In fact, I want to show that all modes of delivery are essentially the same! (People such as Wagner [Parsifal], The Who [Tommy], and Einstein and PBS together [General Relativity] come the closest. They get to more of our sense simultaneously. It's interesting how limited the "medium" of College Seminar is.)

When I write a paper for publication, I go to great lengths to try to make the paper completely devoid of anything that has to do with me as a person or my culture. That's impossible, of course, but that's the game plan. I'm trying to find the "best" story that describes the universe and everything in it. (The meaning of "best" is, of course, the whole purpose of my particular College Seminar class. Trying to argue why using Newtonian gravity to model the sun going around the earth is "better" than letting Apollo do it, is a very complex and subtle argument.) I note that Wagner's Parsifal, Shakespeare's Hamlet, Einstein's General Theory of Relativity, and Darwin's Theory of Evolution (to quote four of my favorite stories constructed by the same kinds of brains in individuals of the same species) are absolute equals in this story. I find it truly saddening that most academics simply refuse to even try to understand this thesis. I've met lots of scientists who sincerely appreciate theater, novels, poetry, music, painting, and sculpture, and the contribution they make to "the story," but I have yet to meet one single humanist on the entire planet that can tell me, even in the simplest terms, the roles of thermodynamics, evolution, Newtonian mechanics, quantum mechanics, or general relativity in the development of "the story." It's not the way it should be.

As far as I am concerned, The Beggarwoman of Locarno has something very important to say about how we model the world. Indeed, I can't think of a better way to get across this particular aspect of how the brain works. However, beyond a ten-minute summary (of the model) I can say nothing further concerning the literature, per se. Any discussion that I lead can only relate the model (i.e., the way people behave in certain circumstances) to the way the brain works. I cannot relate it to other works by von Kleist or what was going on in Europe at the time, or what he REALLY means (whatever that means)! As another example, Oedipus Rex presents one of the most beautiful examples of "a C = A + B model" of human behavior where A and B are the "yes-no choices" one makes. Of course, the "basis functions" A and B (kill, not kill; do as mom says, don't do as mom says, etc.) are no better a basis for the story than is the single basis function C. However, there are no words in the language (because there is no concept in our culture) for the basis function C. But all that means is that we have a lot evolving to do! So lets get on with it! If Sophocles were alive today I have no doubt he would love quantum mechanics (where these notions are prevalent) and that he would devote whatever time he had to to completely understand its mathematical foundations.

What I offer students is clearly very different from what Imke offered them (which was, of course, equally important). That's because our "training" (and I do mean training, not education) is different. I can teach these kids to abandon the silly structure and floweriness taught them by their high school teachers. I can teach them to write "the sky is blue" if, indeed, that is what they are trying to say. I can teach them the role of introductions and summaries (if they are appropriate) and all that kind of stuff. (Of course, Imke can do that all this stuff to.) However, I cannot teach them . . . . . . I don't know . . . . . I can't finish the sentence . . . . . . I never understood what Sandra, Gail, Imke were trying to tell me when I took what I thought was a very good essay to them. (Something about . . . . "an argument?" . . . . ) The fact that I can't put this in words says it all, doesn't it?

Why shouldn't students get the best of both worlds? Why shouldn't students' essays alternate between the humanist and the scientist?

My most successful course in the upper-level physics major is the course where I teach students to write a paper that could, in principle, be submitted to the Physical Review (a prestigious internationally-refereed physics journal). I play editor, referee, and publisher. The process mimics the real world (in both academia and industry) in that a typical paper goes through many drafts. Better students who work fast to minimize "turn-around" time, can have their paper go through as many as six-to-eight drafts. It's not acceptable until it's "right." Ask any physics major and they will extol the virtues of this process (and they will also tell you how much they hated my guts at about the third draft). It is one aspect of this process that I have to offer CSem students and I think this works.


Paul Grobstein, Department of Biology
28 January 2001

I certainly agree that we need to continue working to eliminate the reputation of csem as "an English class", agree that no faculty member can "do it all", and agree that students need to understand that different csem sections will be different because they are directed by different faculty members (as well as because they contain different groups of students). My own inclination, though, is to leave it there. I'm not comfortable following you beyond that to "we have to get across the message that if the instructor is a scientist, the class (or the classes he leads) will be science-oriented and if the instructor is a humanist, the class will be humanities-oriented".

Your logic would seem to require that we also deliver an infinitely long series of additional messages: if the instructor is male, the class will be male-oriented; if the instructor is Jewish, the class will be Jewish-oriented; if the instructor is gay, the class will be gay-oriented, and so forth. This would be unwieldy, to say the least. It would also be to reify categories in a way that I at least would find deeply frustrating. I am Jewish, but what I understand by that is quite different from what other Jews understand by it (and quite different from what may arise in the minds of many non-Jews when they hear the adjective Jewish). Similarly, I am a scientist, but what that means to me is not the same thing it means to other scientists, nor what comes into the minds of many non-scientists when they hear the term.

This may sound as if I'm trying to obscure rather than address your main point, the issue of differences in approach to understanding/teaching between you and some of your colleagues (both faculty and student). I'm not. I'm trying instead to clarify your main point, in part by setting it in an appropriate broader context. The categorization of humans by humans has a long history, invariably gets people into the same trouble, and also invariably has some logic/rationale behind it.

There is indeed some logic/rationale in this case. C.P. Snow tried very hard to get people to think about (and do something about) the science/humanities dichotomy over fifty years ago, and its a problem we're still wrestling with (cf Science and non-science: bridging the two culture gap) for reasons that I think your thoughts help to illuminate. The problem is not, in fact, as you yourself help to document, that "'scientists' and 'humanists' have different game plans". Wagner and Shakespeare are both best known for work done in the "humanist" realm, while Einstein's and Darwin's work was clearly in the "scientist" realm. Yet they are "absolute equals" to you, so the issue can't be "scientist" vs "humanist". Nor, I think, can it be simply a lack of reciprocity in what each group knows of the work of the other. Tom Stoppard, to cite but one example, certainly understands both thermodynamics and non-linear dynamics at a very deep level. That's not to say I don't think we need to continue to press efforts to make everyone ("scientists" and "humanists") more aware of the breadth of contributions to human understanding (encompassing the products of both "scientists" and "humanists", as well as a number of people who don't fall in either camp). I very much think we do. But this need is, I think, a consequence of the problem, not its origin.

So who and what is it that you are in fact contending with, frustrated by? What is the difference for which "science vs humanities" is actually a misleading stand-in? What are the "different game plans", and who represents them? The key here, I think, is not in any great difference in objective in "telling stories" (yes, this IS a common feature of both "sciences" and "humanities" (cf. The Nature of Inquiry). It does, however, have to do with "I go to great lengths to try and make the paper completely devoid of anything that has to do with me as a person or my culture" and with Sandra's increasingly famous assertion that one needs to find "meaty" texts to successfully engage students. And this in turn has a lot to do with how one conceives the nature of language and the uses to which it is put. Which in turn is central to "education", both in csem and more generally.

For the following thoughts, I owe a great debt to a number of colleagues (you and Sandra, as well as Alison Cook-Sather, among them) but most particularly to several groups of csem students. Two csem discussions stick out in my mind, one several years ago when you, I, and either Sandra or Gail Hemmeter were working together, and another this past fall, when I was working with Michael Tratner and Janet Monge. Let me tell the stories, and then the story I make of the stories.

The earlier discussion was triggered by my learning (either from Sandra or Gail) about the "hermeneutic circle", and being struck by the close similarity between that description of "critical analysis" and the "hypothesis/test" cycle of scientific research. And by a series of conversations you and I had about mathematics, its nature and role in scientific research, in which you asserted (correctly I think) that mathematics is indeed a "language". In a class session devoted to analysis of some poems (I remember sitting on the grass on a very pretty spring day), the conversation turned to the question of differences between "languages". If indeed there were highly unambiguous "languages" (mathematics, as well as, for example, computer programming languages), how come ordinary "language" was invariably highly "ambiguous" in interpretation (so much so that poetry was a legitimate art form and "literary criticism" a legitimate profession, with a method not dissimilar from "science")?

What emerged from the discussion was the idea that ordinary language is not "supposed" to be unambiguous, because its primary function is not in fact to transmit from sender to receiver a particular, fully defined "story". Ordinary language is instead "designed" (by biological and cultural evolution) to perform a more sophisticated, bidirectional communication function. A story is told by the sender not to simply transmit the story but also, and equally importantly, to elicit information from/about the receiver, to find out what is otherwise unknowable by the sender: what ideas/thoughts/perspectives the receiver has about the general subject of the story. An unambiguous transmission/story calls for nothing from the receiver other than what the transmitter already knows; an ambiguous transmission/story links teller/transmitter and audience/receiver in a conversation (and, ideally, in a dialectic from which new things emerge).

The past semester's relevant discussion originated in efforts to get csem students to do some "real scientific research" as part of the class. While only moderately successful (from my perspective at least) in its original intent, the unexpected highly successful upshot was to give me (and the students) a better sense of the relation between "scientific research" and human understanding, or at least of how the human brain relates the two. We were talking in class about whether males or females are more "unfaithful", and the students, nearly uniformly, expressed the strong opinion that unfaithfulness was more characteristic of males. When, however, I rephrased the question as "do you personally know more males or females who have been unfaithful?", substantially more than half the students reported knowing more unfaithful females than males. The obvious question (for me at least) was why do people believe things which are different from, indeed contradict, their own experiences? The answer, given quite explicitly by several students, was that one's own experiences are always "limited" and so they suspect that what they hear from many others, reflecting a broader set of experiences, may be more correct than what they experience themselves.

The message, of course, that links the two stories (or, more accurately, my story about the two stories) is that "understanding" (or whatever the brain correlate of this is) is fundamentally a social activity, not an individual one. And that "understanding" has, to varying degrees for different people, two sources: limited personal experience on the one hand, and, on the other, comparisons of one's own broader stories with the stories told by other people.

"Science", I would suggest, has evolved as an elaboration of the "infer from direct experience" approach, and it certainly has obvious and well-demonstrated strengths in its ability to share with minimal ambiguity "personal experiences" and to create stories whose origins in (collective) personal experience are made as clear as one can. "Humanities", I think, has evolved as as an elaboration of the "compare one's broader stories with the stories of other people" approach and, as such, is fundamentally and appropriately more dependent on language and its associated ambiguities. "Humanities" is not only older (at least as a socially sanctified activity) but has its own quite distinguished record of successes (giving birth to "science" among them). Most importantly, I think anyone (whether "scientist" or not) must necessarily admit that there are LOTS of areas of needed human understanding where the "scientific" mode provides (at least as yet) little or no assistance. My personal guess is that this will always and necessarily be so, but that's a longer argument and not critical to the present discussion. What seems to me an inescapable conclusion for the present (and foreseeable future) is that the "scientific" and "humanistic" approaches to improving understanding are both essential.

Alison and I have talked, over the years, about "science" as an "moving up and down" (infer from experience, test by experience) approach to advancing understanding, and "humanities" as a "moving laterally" (infer from comparing stories, test by comparing stories) approach, and I would argue that it is actually this difference in intellectual style, with its associated preference for different language usages, that creates what Snow called the "two cultures" gap. Its not a difference in objective nor even one of "sciences" vs "humanities" (there are, in each of those two camps, people of both kinds). It is instead a difference in .... how one is inclined to go about using and telling stories. Moreover, I think, for reasons given above, that it is a serious mistake to oppose the two. Indeed, I would argue that we ought to be helping students (and ourselves) to see the up-down style (perhaps more common in "science") and the lateral style (perhaps more common in "humanities") for what they in fact are: mutually supportive, rather than conflicting. It has been, and continues to be, largely so that the grist for scientific inquiry emerges from the story-comparing that more characterizes the humanities, and that the products of science in turn become a part of the story telling comparisons that fuel the humanities.

And THAT, it seems to me, is what we ought to be advertising the csem program as being about. Some students come to us more comfortable with the "lateral" style, others with the "up-down" style (just as some faculty are more comfortable with one or the other). Our objective ought not to be to promote either at the cost of the other but rather to legitimize and strengthen both, to help students who naturally favor one to see the benefits of the other, and, most importantly, to show all students how each both contributes to and makes use of the other. For this we need both experiences that reveal the power of the unambiguous AND "meaty" texts, which naturally engage students in the process of critically comparing their own broad stories with those of others. The latter is not for the purpose of arbitrary "literary" comparisons, and certainly not to try and deduce what the writer "really" meant, but rather to encourage students to compare world views and learn from that. And that, I assert, doesn't require that individual faculty "do it all", but only that each of us be willing (as you have illustrated) to draw on the products of both "science" and "humanities" as we work with students to try and create ever better stories of ourselves and our relation to the world (with, yes, the nature of "better" as part of the discussion).

I am a scientist too. My view too is that "we are biologically evolved physical entities in a physical world". And, as you know, I also share your sense that what we are all about, whether we know it or not, is making and testing brain models of ourselves and our relation to the universe we find ourselves in. None of that is inconsistent with my also being a humanist, a story teller who both listens to and tells stories as part of the process .... and you are one too, on the evidence of your email (which is entirely consistent with everything else I know about you). And yes, "we have a lot of evolving to do. So lots get on with it". Telling stories and having people (students and faculty) reacting to them, learning more from that, always "more than happy to meet our colleagues, scientific and otherwise, in the various netherworlds none of us have yet well explored, to do what science is really about (and humanity needs): increasing the range and number of observations being made sense of, by all of us ... (Two Cultures or One?)". The relevant observations are both of the world outside AND of ourselves (our "stories")


Anne Dalke, Department of English
30 January 2001

My own struggles since I started co-planning courses w/ scientists (to date: Liz, Peggy & Paul, as well as Kaye Edwards @ Haverford) is that the texts you bring into the conversation allow little space for me to enter as a reader; in Paul's terms, they "elicit no information from the receiver." This has less to do w/ the inherent ambiguity (or lack thereof) of the texts themselves than it has to do w/ the limits of me-as-reader. It's not that science uses "unambiguous transmission" which "calls for nothing" from the receiver, while those now-infamously "ambiguous/meaty" humanities texts call for a response; it's that different ones of us are enabled, by our different interests & training, to respond more fully to some kinds of texts & objects than others. (The differences among us have much to do w/ what we find interesting to attend to, what we take as our objects of study.) Because I understand so little science (guilty in Peter's charge against the scientific illiteracy of humanists), the science texts seem pretty inaccessible to me, don't engage me, don't invite me into a larger conversation. I'd hypothesize that the same thing happens to Peter when he encounters texts by von Kleist, etc. etc. Likewise our students. So one clear goal here would be to use ColSems to expand the frame of reference, the experiences we all bring to the texts we read. (In a not-unrelated innovation, I've just overhauled my course in Major Feminist Texts to include 4 hrs/week in field placements, in the hopes that students will be able to use them as lenses to analyze feminist texts; they will be bringing to the classroom something more than their own life stories: the stories of many other women.)

So: I find Paul's distinction between scientists who infer from direct experience & humanists who compare broader stories a "misleading stand-in," as well as remarkably inadequate/inaccurate (if I were bound to that binary--which I'm not--I'd hypothesize that the reverse is the case: scientists are continually repeating-&-comparing "stories/experiments," in a search for truth claims that are broadly replicable, while humanists--to follow Culler's book on Literary Theory, now all the rage in English House--are engaged in tracing the "special structure of exemplarity" of each text, w/ the range & scope of exemplarity always open for discussion).

But--though I don't find it at all useful to identify these two tracks, even in an-always-corrective relation to one another (talk about reifying categories)--what I do find enormously helpful is Paul's saying both that we are all "telling stories and having people react to them, increasing the range and number of our observations" AND that "understanding is fundamentally a social activity" (which is why I despair when students pull back from engagement in my courses, out of a fearfulness--or sometimes just impatience--w/ the give-and-take of classroom conversation). It is w/ this notion of learning as a social activity that I would center any upcoming ColSem revisions. We are physical beings in a physical world; we are also intellectual, emotional, spiritual, social beings. This notion of sociality is key for me (which is probably why I'm spending this morning writing this letter, rather than the essay I have due to someone I don't know). I'd be loathe to go to larger CSem classes (reducing the degree to which we can get to know our students; reducing the amount we can attend to what each one brings to the conversation; reducing the accuracy w/ which we can diagnose what else it is they need to know, in order to participate in the conversation; reducing the direct engagement of each student in the conversation). My own revisions have been in the direction of inviting them to know me--as a reader of texts, engager of the world, person of limited means & knowledge--better, and getting to know them better, as part of a community of knowers trying together "better" to know the world.


Paul Grobstein, Department of Biology
4 February 2001

I don't want in any way to detract from your suggestion that we need to "expand the frame of reference" so that everyone (faculty and students) has the wherewithal to engage with/appreciate more kinds of texts. And, obviously, we share a sense of the importance of conceiving "learning as a social activity". My feeling/experience is very much that things work best when we create an atmosphere of "learning with" students, rather than "learning from" instructors. And I agree that a good way to do this is have students learn about us (including our styles and limitations) as we learn about them ... all contributing to the individual and collective shifts in understanding that is "becoming better" at knowing the world and our (individual and collective) place in it.

At the same time, there is abundant evidence that the suggestion that we should all be "socially minded" isn't, by itself, going to satisfy all parties to the two culture dichotomy (lots of scientists, to take but one example, will shrug this off as irrelevant and fuzzy-minded). And I think you misunderstand somewhat both the possible explanation I offered for its existence and my motivations in doing so. My intention is not at all to "reify categories" (with the attendant placing of inevitable judgements and limitations on the activities of any individual). What I am instead trying to do is to understand enough of what underlies existing and socially significant categories so that they can be effectively DE-reified in the future (with an attendant freeing of individual minds to range as freely as they are capable of).

I do very much think you (and everyone else) should become more familiar with scientific texts so you can (among other things) pass your own judgement on their "meatiness". I'm pretty sure, though, that, having done so, you too will conclude that (with notable exceptions) they are NOT meaty. The reason is closely related to some of the points Peter made in his original message: scientists are trained, by and large, to NOT be meaty but instead to be precise. They are not SUPPOSED to call up different feelings/emotions/responses in different people; they are intended instead to call up as nearly the same response as possible in every one who reads them. In saying this, it is not at all my intent to express a value judgement on "meatiness" or its absence, and certainly not to urge one or the other be privileged/included exclusively in csem. Indeed, I'll argue shortly that a good csem course (like any good thinker, scientists/humanist/whatever) uses both kinds of materials. My point is only that there IS a difference between texts whose primary objective is to generate a similar response in all people and one whose objective is to speak in different ways to different people. Let me back up one step and come back to the "primary objective" notion in a bit ... can we at least agree that the texts which are the subjects of most of the humanities ARE "more ambiguous", ie tend more to call up different responses in different people? After all, those texts are the foundation of entire careers writing about their meanings. One can do something of that with a scientific text, but it would (does) certainly wear thin rather quickly; there aren't enough different possible meanings IN them to explore for any substantial period of time. So, people with different backgrounds create different texts, and approach texts with different expectations. Yes, we should be sure our students (and ourselves) are familiar with both styles and both approaches.

But WHY, other than "sociability", should we have both (instead of deciding, as many do, that one or the other is "better")? and WHY the difference in the first place? That's the pair of questions my suggested distinction between "infer from direct experience" and "compare broader stories" was aimed at addressing. And it WAS a "suggestion", not something I'm bound to, so I'd be perfectly happy to have it go by the wayside in favor of some better answers to the questions. But ... it really DOES seem to me to be the case that there are two at least somewhat distinguishable general ways to "make sense of things", one being by direct experience and the other being by comparing "broader stories". And it DOES seem to me that humanists are more inclined to do the latter (extensive footnotes to other commentaries on the same subject) while scientists are less so (references to research papers, reports of observatons, rather than footnotes to other commentaries). Here too, noting a distinction needn't imply a judgement, and certainly not an inclination to privilege one or the other way of doing things. Indeed, my reason for developing the argument was precisely to make it clear that BOTH ways of of making sense of things have their place, and that each needs the other as a complement.

So, does that finish the effort to make sense of (and hence contribute to eliminating) the two cultures dichotomy (and associated mistrust?). No, I don't think so. Nor was it intended to. It was an opening bid (in the present context), very much intended to trigger commentary (as per Anne ... thanks again). And additional suggestions. As also per Anne. I do hear the thought that another useful (perhaps additional rather than alternative) way of looking at the dichotomy is that it has to do with efforts to achieve "broadly applicable" truths as opposed to revealing the "special structure of exemplarity". I don't actually see this as "the reverse" of my suggestion, but rather as a contrast along a different axis. There is, I think, within science a similar dichotomy between "lumpers" and "splitters", those more interested in/intrigued by uniqueness and those more interested in/intrigued by generalizability. And one can, I think, be either a lumper or a splitter with regard to either direct observations or broader stories. Still, it is certainly possible that there are on the average lumper/splitter differences that contribute to the two cultures dichotomy. And hence another set of differences which we should, rather than choosing between, test for useful complementarities. And, finding them, incorporate mutually into csem offerings.

I have one additional (last, for now) thought about what leads to two culture suspiciousness, triggered by rather than explicitly offered by Anne. In my experience, non-scientists are frequently, at best, bored by, and, at worst, made uncomfortable by, a tendency of scientists to dichotomize, to create questions, and to ask "why"? when there would seem to be both more interesting and less threatening ways to proceed. We DO tend to be a little slow, a little compulsive, and, yes, a little more oriented toward making issues as explicit as possible, perhaps sometimes to a fault. On the other hand, we do sometimes came up with interesting things as a result. If we don't claim that our way is "better", or that the categories we create in order to be able to knock them down are "real", then maybe we could agree that the slower/more compulsive/more explicit way of doing things is, like other ways, part of the larger mix that we would like to include in csem (and, perhaps, another of the things that everyone can usefully be, to some extent)?


Michael Tratner, Dept. of English
5 February 2001

I agree with Paul's comment that the discussion of the two cultures dichotomy has significance beyond CSEM; indeed, it seems to me this dichotomy is popping up all over campus because of all the discussion of planning for Bryn Mawr's future. The centers highlight the dichotomy in ways that seem very useful, precisely because they do not line up neatly into two camps. The only center that seems to be a "humanities" center is Visual Culture. The one that seems to be a "science" center--Science and Society--seems to be planning for a very "meaty" discussion series, on Gender, and thereby raising the interest of quite a few humanities profs to come to their presentations. The other two centers focus on the social sciences and thereby bring the dichotomy right into the center of their discussions. I haven't attended any of the meeting of International Relations, but I have been going to the planning sessions for the Ethnicity, Communities and Policy Center, and have felt a kind of split between what could be called humanistic and scientific methods of addressing cultural issues. When discussing "ethnicity," for example, there seem to be two quite distinct ways of producing academic work: some would go out and do physical research to establish some numbers that demonstrate shifting patterns of ethnic groups in a given region, while others would select texts produced by those ethnic groups and develop "critical interpretations" of those texts, perhaps demonstrating that the notions of identity in them are unstable or shifting. Most of those attending the discussions of the center are familiar with both methods and recognize the importance and interdependence of the two methods: can you count who is in a given ethnic group without first dealing with the fact that the concept of ethnic identity is unstable and shifting? Is it really possible to interpret texts without some sense of the physical realities those texts are trying to talk about? Is there a difference, for example, between a situation in which texts say that identity is unstable and people are actually rearranging their participation in group activities and a situation in which texts say that identity is unstable but the group activities are remaining quite stable?

Yet, and here is the crucial point, it seemed to me that the faculty divide quite distinctly into those who do physical research and those who do textual analysis, and in the work produced by each of these two groups, very little is made of the kind of work done by the others. In textual analysis, the kind of work I do, there might be a passing nod to some facts, but rarely any use of them to draw conclusions. In physical research projects, there will similarly be some passing mention of conceptual difficulties, but very useful numbers get generated anyway. By participating in the discussions of the "Ethnicities" center, I have become aware of the limitations of my own work, but see no real way to bridge the gap between what seem scientific and humanistic ways of producing academic work.

I would thus very much like to have a discussion about the two cultures dichotomy that included social scientists as well as so-called "hard scientists".

What I have appreciated about the discussion so far is that the three who started it--Peter, Paul and Anne--have generated three different descriptions of the difference between the "two cultures," and all three descriptions seem useful and powerful. Peter stated that, as a scientist, he aims at producing work that is "devoid of anything that has to do with me as a person or my culture." Paul says that scientists try to "infer from direct experience", moving "up and down" between such direct experience and generalizations, while humanists "compare stories", moving "laterally." Anne says that scientists are "continually repeating and comparing stories/experiements" while humanists are engaged in tracing the "special structure of exemplarity of each text." It seems to me that each of these three descriptions is wonderfully stimulating for the questions it raises about what each discipline does and does not do. Am I as a humanist just expressing myself and my culture, exploring the peculiarities of exemplary texts, never saying anything that transcends my culture or personality? Is it possible to move up and down when discussing persons and cultures: what kinds of generalizations are possible about persons and cultures? What is the value of work which is devoid of personality and culture--does it contain the potential for transcending cultural and personal differences or does it lead to destruction of personality and culture? And of course, what does it even mean to put together or bring into dialogue humanistic and scientific work? Do we have any models for what such a combination could look like?


Janet Monge, Dept. of Anthropology
8 February 2001

I found these discussions very stimulating but think that you need a bit of "social science" in the mix. I don't want to muddle the very excellent points made by each side - it seems to me that Paul is a bit of an intermediary (at least from a social science perspective) but the recent history of departments of social science (especially anthropology), I think, can clarify some of the points here. I apologize in advance if I misconstrue the comments of others. I don't have the time at the moment to go back and check through all of the e-mails. If I wait, I will write nothing at all (this might be better!).

Probably you all know that many anthropology departments are in the process of splitting along exactly the lines referred to in these e-mails - what really amounts to a split on lines traditionally associated with the humanities and the sciences. Rather than taking part in fruitful discussions as we are doing here (even if that means coming to no agreement but at the very least respecting the points of view of others), these departments have gone off in totally different directions and latched onto other departments in which they can take part in more meaningful discourse.

I have been told on a number of occasions that I am not a social scientist and anthropologist; that my place is within the natural sciences as an evolutionist and human biologist. I could not disagree more; the nature of these e-mails slaps me in the face - my goodness, I clearly walk the fence. I am always about to tip over to one side or another but that would be academically dishonest of me.

I owe part of my comments here to what I distilled from working with Paul and Michael this fall semester. I found these discussions to be some of the most useful I have had as an academic. Both Paul and Michael represent pure mature scholarship to me - comments were self-reflective, candid, directed towards the achievement of more effective classroom techniques (not meant to impress anybody without relevant content). I wish that I had recorded them! It appears to me that many of us have had similar experiences with a different mix of people.

I think that we are all involved in exactly the same process. We construct an "argument" (in the sciences normally this is the "hypothesis") and we collect data to support or refute that hypothesis. This to me is the most creative part of the enterprise. Contrary to popular belief, this applies as strongly to the scientific enterprise as it does to the arguments presented in the humanities. The "hypothesis" stage of the scientific endeavor is very culture-bound….most scientists completely buy-into this without reflection on "why" but it does not take away from the notion that science as we do it is a product of historic and social developments in Europe and the US.

Then we collect data……The data comes in various forms: personal experiences, texts, experiments, interviews with other humans, observations of various sorts. The bulk of our discussions are directly associated with showing why these data pieces are most effective in supporting our arguments (and why we need not look for further information). All of this reflects personal choice although in experimental sciences, like physics, instrumentation, etc. can really limit the production of data points. I thought it was really cool when Anne stated that she now has her students in a Woman's Studies class do interviews with woman to increase their experience base; that bridges between the humanities and the social sciences (interview is a traditional data collection technique in anthropology and sociology).

We are all severely limited in the construction of our arguments! All are time-bound and culture-bound (in some cases, experience-bound - as with our students who, for the most part, have a very limited world-view). Every thing I have ever read in my life both benefits and is restricted by this, including the hard sciences. Thus, I never find science articles "socially sterile" and impersonal.

The differences to me between humanities and the sciences…….The sciences produce articles that are based on cumulative knowledge on that topic. Today's hypotheses are different than they were 6 months ago. Thus to fully appreciate an argument in the sciences, a vast background of information must be accumulated. If you are in the sciences, generally you can follow only a few hypothesis (those in which you are most directly involved) for your entire academic career. This is why Paul, Michael and I chose to study difference in the male and female brain as part of our "science". The articles reproduced the history of the endeavor and showed alternative points of view all using vigorous tools of data collection. Then we used popular articles on the very same topic to place this research into a social arena. It worked out OK. I think if we did it again, we could improve on this. In this context, the students could work in their own personal experiences and introduce their own biases as Paul pointed out in his first e-mail in this series. Was it "meaty"? I think so. Was it as "meaty" as discussions surrounding Anne Sexton's Transformations? I think so.

I don't think that scientists seek the "truth". Scientists attempt to falsify hypotheses and to clarify hypotheses. Sometimes a hypothesis stands for a very long period of time and is never disproved; that to me is different from finding the "truth". ( For example, I would argue that all life forms on the planet are governed by mechanisms of evolutionary change - this is consistent with every bit of data every accumulated on the topic.)You can determine what is more consistent with knowledge at the present time as Peter pointed out millions of e-mail ago. This is no surprise….some science is better than others….some literary criticisms are better than others too.

In the tuesday Times science section was an article on "the big bang" featuring 3 Princeton physics professors. By wednesday I arrived to give a lecture at Princeton in a newly renovated Frist Campus Center room that I was told was the old Physics classroom - Einstein taught here; generations of physics students were trained there. I was happy to take part in the "myth" told about the room. All of the old seats were repaired and preserved. I had the sense of history about the room. I totally believe in the exploration of knowledge about the universe as it unfolds in the research labs around the world on this topic. It was awesome. As an anthropologist, I have been told on numerous occassions that many Native American groups believe (and have data to support) the notion that the world was brought to this place on the back of a turtle at the beginning of time. So which is more truthful? To a scientist in the 21st century, obviously the first explanation is more plausible; to a Native American, obviously the second.


Paul Grobstein, Dept. of Biology
9 February 2001

I like not only Janet's content but its spirit. "If I wait, I will write nothing at all". No, MUCH better to have a conversation, jot down one's thoughts (however tentative) so they can play a role, one way or another, in what other people are thinking (and they in your thinking). And no, of course one doesn't have to have exhaustively studied the previous commentaries to have useful things to add.

In that spirit, a quick few thoughts I've been having, partly from our email exchanges but also partly from conversations over the past couple of days. Hopefully people I've been talking with can/will correct/expand on my sense of our conversations.

I share Michael's feeling that we have an interesting array of different parameters along which one might try to make sense of the "two cultures" dichotomy. Liz McCormack and I came up with two perhaps additional axes that may be relevant. One, with pretty direct relevance to teaching, is the distinction between "content" and "process", something Alison and I have been back and forth over a number of times over the years. Science courses typically have a "content" agenda, whereas this is perhaps less true of humanities courses? Certainly, my own movement over the years has been to lessen the "content" of my courses in favor of spending (the needed) more time on having students themselves work through/experience the kind of observation/critique/hypothesis generation/testing activities which ultimately yield content. Is a content/process preference part of the tension we're trying to understand (and resolve)?

The other parameter Liz and I thought about was that of "absolute" as opposed to "relativistic" presumptions underlying inquiry and evaluations of understanding. As it happens, I picked up Michael Krausz's new book, Limits of Rightness, at the reception for him yesterday. It would of course be nice to have Michael's words more specifically in the present context but the introductory paragraph of the book seemed to me relevant:

"One's conduct of inquiry is largely shaped by one's answer to the question whether there must always be a single admissable interpretation. Might there be more than one admissable interpretation, and under what conditions would they obtain? And under what conditions would it be inappropriate to speak of either one or more admissable interpretations?"

Is an underlying presumption of the presence or absence of a "single admissable interpretation" part of the tension we're exploring? (Here too my own evolution may be relevant. I've become increasingly convinced, as a "scientist", that observations are always and inevitably subject to multiple interpretations, that one can have BOTH relativism and rigor, but that is far from a common feeling among scientists; see, for example, "Two Cultures or One?").

While moving (perhaps) toward a better understanding (or at least catalogue) of what the tension actually is, I have become increasingly convinced that it is not in fact a "science/humanities" tension per se. As Janet points out, one can find the tension within particular disciplines. In fact, from conservations with George Weaver, Steve Salkever, and Michael Tratner, its beginning to seem to me that the tension may in fact be present in ALL disciplines. Peggy Hollyday and I, for example, have long recognized a difference in how the two of us approach biology. She characterizes herself as "literal-minded" and me as ... ? Could that be a part of what we're trying to make sense of, find a dialectic resolution for?

Steve also suggested that some historical perspective on the matter might be useful, that the "two cultures" issue is a relatively new one, and that some appreciation of its origins and development might shed some additional light on the matter. Needless to say, I'd be delighted if Steve took up the challenge of doing so.

Great conversation. Hope we can keep it going. In the spirit Janet exemplified. And with others joining in in that spirit as well.


Sanford Schram, Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research
12 February 2001

Michael Tratner alerted faculty from the Center on Ethniticies, Communities and Social Policy to this very interesting conversation on the two cultures. This is a topic that interests me greatly. I read the dialogue and have to say that it makes me think that faculty generally tend to over-identify with their institutional affiliations, academic training and intellectual orientation in ways that reify the two-cultures distinction beyond its initial value. As a social scientist (how's that for overidentification), I see this all the time. I am currently actively participating in a rump organization within the American Political Science Association to dethrone the rational choice, quantifying types and allow for more methodological pluralism. This sort of dissident activity is now happening in other social sciences as well. Yet, the social sciences are often passed over when the discussion of the two cultures comes up in a liberal college setting. I have taught at several institutions where this has happened. It is a real shame since social science (starting with its very name) is a vexed entity, caught between the two cultures and continually contesting its identity from within. Social scientists have to learn to live with the anxiety of signification (and alot of other anxiety too, but that is another story...or model). The fact of the matter is that the two cultures is an artifact of post-World War II academia. Neglecting the literary dimensions of science research reporting is devastating to any hope of robust objectivity--an objectivity that accounts for, rather than misleadingly seeks to eliminate, the value-laden features of science work. Equally devastating is ignoring the latent claims of referentiality in textual representation and how all producers of texts, scientific or literary, are what Steven Kelman once called "closet positivists." The issue is representation in all its modalities. Stories and models are competing forms of representation neither of which is totally dispositive in its attempts at referentiality. The problem of overidentification comes in thinking that one's institutional positioning can be used as an excuse for insisting that it is intellectually as well as academically legitimate to limit one's thinking to one mode of representation. As academics, we are often most rewarded for doing so. As human beings who are striving for knowledge, that will not suffice.


Anne Dalke, English
13 February 2001

One question for Sandy:
--for those used to different lingo, what's it mean to say that "all producers of texts" are "closet positivists," that "neither stories nor models are dispositive in their attempts at referentiality"? (I suspect, once translated, this will prove directly opposed to Peter's initial claim in this conversation....).

And one for Sandy and everyone else:
--when you say that "faculty tend to over-identify w/ their academic training . . . in ways that reify the two-cultures distinction beyond its intial value," I want to know what the value of this distinction IS. WHY do we reify it? WHY do we think it useful to maintain it? (either w/in or between our disciplines)?


Sanford Schram, School of Social Work and Social Research
14 February 2001

In response to Anne's questions, I plead guilty to not speaking English and will continue, as I have in the past, to promise to try to learn the language better, to forego using jargon, etc., etc. This makes me a casualty of my own criticism but I guess that is why we talk about these things. "Closet positivism" refers to that idea that down, deep inside we all to some degree want to make fact claims at one time or another. Neither stories nor models however can ever prove superior in doing so and require supplementation by other means of referencing the world beyond themselves. That is what I mean about referentiality.

Why we have the two cultures distinction is a great question. The answers I suspect have to do with the onward march of specialization and professionalization in the academy that push toward methodological purity in each of the various disciplines. Humanists and scientists start to see themselves as the academic equivalents of Catholics and Protestants, if not Palestinians and Israelis. While it is important to try to undermine the bifurcation of methodological approaches in the academy, it is also important to be realistic and recognize that there are powerful institutional forces at work in making that very difficult to do. I already have a full-time job.

For select disciplines that benefit by reputation, deserved as not, that they are seen to have the proven approaches to aquiring real knowledge, there is also privilege to be gained in adopting the purist point of view and of professing ignorance of other approaches. Only persons of privilege in the knowledge game can afford to profess ignorance of other ways of knowing and still be confident that they are seen as possessing valued abilities. Social scientists are often seen as fake scientists producing less than real facts; natural scientists often are accorded a more privileged standing in the knowledge hierarchy and thereby garner more financial support. And, I guess this is my main point, their indifference to other ways of knowing is more readily tolerated. Getting natural scientists to give up privilege is an important part of overcoming the two cultures dichotomy. Relatedly, the reification of the two cultures dichotomy serves to help consolidate that privilege.

I want to be real blunt here just for purposes of suggesting what I think needs to be done. It might be nice to think that everybody should meet everyone half way and that would be fair. In theory that makes sense but in practice the actual terrain of higher education suggests otherwise. It is like race relations. Racial justice involves the dominant groups going further in understanding the oppressed and marginalized.


George Pahomov, Russian
14 February 2001

Paul Grobstein's and Liz McCormack's diad of "content" vs. "process" has brought some thoughts into focus for me. There are two cultures but they are not the product of the sciences in opposition to the humanities. Rather they seem to lie in personality, mindset, sensibility. Some sensibilities (and I use this word rather than intellect because it includes affect) seek certitude, others thrive on ambiguity, or better, polysemia. In a sense it is the old war between absolutists and relativists. In linguistics, a discipline familiar to me, the contrast can be shown in the difference between the concepts of "sign" and "symbol," with a sign having one interpretation and a symbol having numerous ones.

Two generations ago in literary criticism (let's stay out of the present) people got on the Freudian band wagon because they were predisposed to monocausal interpretations, it was an act of faith on their part. The skeptics did not get on because they tended to see multiple causality. People who became, or did not become, Marxists acted in a similar fashion.

To push the thinking a bit further, in literature it is the difference between the tropes of "metonymy" (a rather "literal" figure) and "metaphor" a very "figurative" figure.

Now I will go out on thin ice. It seems to me that in an extremis example, academic sensibility is content-oriented while intellectual sensibility is process-oriented. Of course, no pure case exists.

In our world the urge toward absolute certitude is probably a Judeo-Christian inheritance especially if it were fiercely monotheistic and also the result of 19th century bad science: linear explanations, reductionism, monocausality. What do you think?


Linda Caruso Haviland, Arts Program
16 February 2001

I] My primary interest is in understanding and to some extent investigating ways of knowing ... particularly how ways of knowing and ways of being are intimately entwined or perhaps overlap or share identity in significant ways in which ontology and epistemology beget one another...

So--just staying for a bit with the notion of ways of knowing--I think:
a) that while sometimes generated by disciplinary models and approaches, they often overflow or transgress constructed disciplinary borders
b) that they may be larger in scope and subtler in dynamics than can be categorized by labels such as scientific or humanistic and may influence more broadly the direction of intellectual thought in any era or culture
c) that ways of knowing, in addition to shaping the intellectual models for any era or culture, also have important (and sometimes devastating) repercussions politically, economically, socially for all humans living in that time or place, particularly those who are marginalized in any way by the dominant power group(s).
and in what may SEEM like a slightly different vein...
d) that we must admit the aural, tactile, kinesthetic, the sensual and the possibilities of articulating knowledge in non-textual ways or even of not being able to articulate it at all if articulation means working within traditional modes of discourse.

Science/art/humanities....these are really part of larger practices of how we create knowledge, what counts as knowledge, and WHO count as knowers.... For example, the Two culture argument is capable of generating really useful and productive conversation....but as a woman and as a dancer in western society I'm keenly aware that I spent a long time being removed as any sort of valid epistemic subject from BOTH cultures as defined through most of the modern period. (I'm happy to send anyone the Guerilla Girls manifesto on women in the Artworld which is very funny but all too true).

II] In the discussion we seem to be ignoring the ongoing development of and shifts in western intellectual models of knowledge or thought... e.g.
--the move from more general philosophical inquiry towards philosophy of science, ethics, metaphysics, or aesthetics
--the move from the purely logical and geometrical to the empirical during the late middle ages/renaissance
-- the move to physics and math as the dominant epistemological models and the move towards more institutionalized and hierarchical body/mind dualisms, and so on...(pushing us towards a 'scientization' of knowledge and practice and towards more differentiation and specialization, even within specialized or differentiated disciplinesŠ)
--the shifting relationships of power and commodification to the development or the validation of knowledge and knowers
-- the attempts in this century to render all language, not just scientific discourse, completely unambiguous; or to couch intellectual inquiry of all sorts in the 'less fallible language' and structures of science or math; or to create totalizing schemes in science, the social sciences, AND the humanities that would enable human inquirers to finally succeed in their quest for absolute and unequivocal certainty...after all, social sciences or scientific historiography or analytic philosophy are not remnants of some antique past
-- that the post-structuralist bent towards (self)reflexivity has influenced the sciences and social sciences as well as the humanities or that one might consider that at least some of its (although 'its' suggests a unified movement, which is misleading...sorry) roots extend to Heisenberg, Bohr, and Einstein as well as the effects of the holocaust and socio-political movements on intellectual directions in post-war Europe and the US.

I don't mean to be giving a lecture on the history of art and science as I expect that any of you know much more about this than I do, but we do seem to talk as though the chasm between art and science has always existed, has always been the same in its dynamics or articulation, and, for some of us, will always be inevitable.

III] Why keep trying to model these ways of knowing through binary models??
ambiguous(meaty) text//unambiguous text
up/down//lateral
generalized//specific
individual//social
In our honest efforts to make the relationship between science and the humanities more fluid, or at least friendly, we seem to be replicating the same binary structure...which tends to be hierarchical although differently structured depending on your particular standpoint (although as Peter points out...how $ and power influence that structuring can have profound impact on individuals and the species alike). We ardently discuss how not to oppose the two, but as long as we see it as TWO and only two or some set thereof, the problem remains......It MAY be true that when asked to look at something we can only see foreground or background, but this phenomenon in no way accounts for the experience of seeing or seeing 'as' which may be less a rapid oscillation between two and more, perhaps, a dissolve of the binary structure all together??

IV] As to style, delivery, approaches...it seems to me that these have crossed and constantly do cross our constructed borders. Paul's description of the up and down between inferring from experience and testing by experience is an excellent description of any dance/movement improvisation session and scientists' own accounts of discovery often include experiences that we might describe as aesthetic if not downright mystical. And PeterŠI do concur with Anne that style, mode of delivery is important and not all modes of delivery are the same (unless mind/person is completely reduced to brain with no possibility it being a culturally emergent phenomenon/entity as well)ŠSince McLuhan seems to be coming back into vogue a bit perhaps I won't be considered too intellectually feeble if I suggest that the style, the form, the delivery can be part or all of the message? A work of art, or a lecture on string theory, or a human gesture can be subversive, offensive, seductive, revealing etc. according to its content, according to its form or mode of delivery, or both,Šor more.

V] I think we also seem to be conflating the experience of DOING SCIENCE and the experience of WRITING science... why should we assume that DOING SCIENCE--inferring from experience/testing by experience--is any less ambiguous, less messy than any other human venture (I'm making a general statement hereŠnot assuming that any of the scientists make this inference)...isn't there evidence to the contrary...isn't that pretty much part of Kuhn's schtick?? Can we even make sense of data initially if we don't have an explanatory model that fits in some loose way? Is empirical evidence always trustworthy and is our interpretation of the data (even that collected by machines that minimize the 'frailities' of human perception) always objective?? If that were the case then Galileo might have been able to render his observation of Saturn as a planet with rings instead of planet with what look like big loopy earsŠor 19th century anatomists would have been able to draw the female skeleton as they actually observed it right in front of them, instead of distorting the drawings to match an enculturated 'seeing,' i.e., very tiny head and very big hipsŠno brain and many babies. and, certainly, as Anne (and Paul and others) suggested, the comparison to others' stories (not to mention politics, personal bias, and operational paradigms) is vital, essential, and unavoidable in the process of science.

WRITING science happens, I assume, after the fact, so to speak, and the messiness, ambiguity, mistakes, confusion, are not supposed to be written in...it's meant to be clean, clear, etc. although to pretend (and I don't think Peter does) that it's devoid of personal or cultural bias has been demonstrated historically to be an impossible task (and this impossible quest is, of course, not confined to science alone so please don't think that I'm ragging on science or that I think the quest for truth is without merit). I agree with Kuhn, that the cleaning up of texts perpetuates the myth that science provides a more objective, clear, and TRUE picture and, therefore, better and more VALUABLE picture of the world...you don't need to be much of a cynic to suppose that the payoff of this account is not just the very important continuing progress of human knowledge but also the reification of science as the correct account with the added perks of power, status, funding, etc. I find some recent writers' (in the social sciences) accounts of their struggle to demolish the divide between field/lab work /notes and the writing-up of that work to be really interesting stuff. Although...poor dears, this will probably make them vulnerable again to those accusations of doing soft science. Nevertheless, while I think that the challenge to continue to produce work and writing that contribute to the broader field of knowledge while also acknowledging the personal/cultural/historical component in both the process and the product is difficult, I also think that it is crucial and energizing. Besides...I think that some of this unambiguous/ambiguous set-up is really a cover, in a sense... unambiguous, to some people, equals or is closer to the 'true,' which, as I just suggested, has payoffs above and beyond any contribution to the pool of human knowledge. I read a book many years ago.."A feather for Daedalus"...which suggested that science is, as Paul says, just a story...it's a very good story that works well because it's generated by a process that pursues validity, replicability, predictability, conceptual stability...and so on...but it's just a story. It may describe 'true'..that is physically extensional phenomena (maybe...maybe not?) but we can't really say if it's a TRUER story than any other story is.

Also...we're treating HUMANITIES as though it described or inscribed a fairly homogenous way of thinking, doing, writing. I was in graduate school in time to witness fairly caustic battles between philosophers who located themselves in anglo-american and in continental schools and the epithets were far more scathing than 'fuzzy' or 'soft.' The humanities, as Paul suggests, are rife with multiple and often contentious approaches within the same home discipline and there is often overlap between what we might think of as a humanist and scientific approaches. An obvious example is History. Although contemporary models caution us to beware of assuming that any historical reconstruction is totally objective and accurate, I think we'd be hard pressed to find an historian who wasn't trying, in some way, to get some part of the account 'right,' to provide available facts and tell a (not the) story as clearly and unambiguously as possible?

Besides...where are we putting arts and social sciences in such a scheme??

V] AS to meaty texts....hmmm. I might not find an organic chem text especially compelling reading, but books about science and books by scientists are often extremely interesting. It's just another world view to add to the stew and I like all the flavors. I also like some of the readings that Michelle chose in our science/art csem that enabled us to experience process and come to some conclusions about that and about our own relationship to the process and to the significance of the 'product' or outcome on our lives. Laboring through geometric proofs concerning bodies in motion (I think next time we won't make thm labor quite so much!) and then having a quick intro to a calculus model for considering a similar problem was really intriguing...asking which approach seemed more 'true'...which people liked better...which made more sense...and why... was extremely revealing on personal and group levels about how individuals frame and understand the physical phenomena of which they are comprised and by which they are surrounded. Reading books which demonstrate our (on the most individual and most general levels) response to science (now, then, or in the future) was also interesting. Deconstructing (in a general sense) and understanding our articulated or tacit beliefs and attitudes about all of these 'stories'...in the arts, in novels, in music, in games, in politics, as well as in science seem to me to be essential components of a rigorous and creative educational experience.

Reading work in what we differentiate as science, humanities, arts, social sciences
-shows the differences
-shows the similarities
-creates hybrid ways of considering situations
-melts or softens the boundaries
-reveal larger cultural or intellectual pressures, biases, models, or paradigms
I agree with Peter that we've already made choices that fit us well about how we see the world and that we are all pretty good at articulating these and that these are extremely valuable for our students to have access to ... We should definitely run with our strengths. BUT if we don't struggle a bit with these other ways of making sense of ourselves and of our universes why should our students?

The minute anyone puts words to paper, ANY words (not to mention pigment, sound, smell, touch, motion..not necessarily to paper although that WOULD be interesting)....she opens up space for any of us to dig in!!!

Peter, I need a little Math tutoring. If C= A + B where A is Kill and B is Not kill..wouldn't that read something more like C= A + (-A) which I thought would =0?? Not that zero as a concept isn't interesting, but what would a math formula look like that could indicate that C = the tension between Kill and Not Kill??

"For a parallel to the lesson of atomic theory. . .[we must turn] to those kinds of epistemological problems with which already thinkers like the Buddha and Lao Tzu have been confronted, when trying to harmonize our position as spectators and actors in the great drama of existence." (Niels Bohr, Physics and Human Knowledge)


Paul Grobstein, Biology
4 March, 2001

Interesting, relevant conversation at lunch today among a group of faculty gathered to talk about Human Diversity: Sex and Gender, in anticipation of Amber Hollibaugh's visit next Monday. Included myself, Peggy Hollyday, and Anne Dalke, who've been involved in our forum discussion to date, as well as Jane Caplan, Linda Schlossberg, and Sarah Willburn. I'll try and sketch the highpoints, but without attribution to particular people, both since I may misstate what someone said (or intended) and because I hope one or more of the participants will feel motivated to make their own points here.

There was some pretty frank expression of what it is that "scientists" do/represent that makes "non-scientists" uncomfortable, echoing some of the themes already expressed here: that "science" is treated as privileged in our culture, both intellectually and economically. And a bit of conversation about why that is, in terms of history (still hoping Steve will provide some thoughts on this) as well as broader socioeconomic forces (free enterprise) and intellectual/emotional dispositions (most people like "facts", as a source of security/stability). In trying to move toward better understanding/rapprochment/symmetry, the question of what "non-scientists" do that make "scientists" uncomfortable was also broached and briefly discussed.

What emerged, though, as the most interesting aspect of the discussion (for me at least) was more in the mode (as in recent forum postings) of the deeper tension being not between science and non-science but rather between two different intellectual "styles", with varying expressions of it occuring within virtually every discipline. Some people, it was asserted, are more comfortable "making observations", which is to say being observers of something outside of themselves which it is presumed (tacitly or explicity) is independent of them and unaffected by their study of it. Others prefer to work from an interactive posture, with the presumption being that the product of one's study is fundamentally dependent not only on what is being explored but also on the explorer. The former, it was suggested, are interested in "replicability"; the latter in "mutability". In one situation, the scholar is an observer/discoverer; in the other, a creator/player in the world under exploration. In one situation, it is predictability of patterns that is valued, in the other it is uniqueness.

One obvious question, of course, is whether one is inevitably locked into seeing these (or any other pair of dichotomous categories) as inevitably conflicting, and hence necessarily and unavoidably vying for privileged status. An alternative possibility is to treat them as examples of Hegelian theses and antitheses, out of which new categories emerge over time. Another alternative possibility (my own preference) is to see the two intellectual "styles" as in fact mutually beneficial and reinforcing: it is, perhaps, by characterizing the replicable that one acquires the tools to create the unique, and by conceiving the unique that one has the wherewithal to adequately test the replicable.

Along these lines, I want also to highlight Linda's puzzlement about why we always fall into "binary categories" (there is, I think, an interesting neurobiological question here), as well as her assertion that the "two cultures" concept itself privileges some forms of human activity over others. In conversation, Linda reminded me that Michael Polyani (among others) pointed out there are two (sorry, two at LEAST) forms of understanding: tacit knowledge and articulated knowledge. Academic culture (or at least OUR academic culture) has traditionally privileged the latter over the former, tending in consequence to disenfranchise, at least relatively, dance, along with other studio and performing arts, as well as "practical skills" of all kinds. Here too, I think one might look for a more tolerant, and appropriate, recognition of reciprocity and mutual value. A strong argument can be made that all knowledge, no matter how abstract, actually begins as "tacit" knowledge (and, conversely, that articulated knowledge originated and still functions primarily as a tool for enhancing tacit knowledge). Jeff Oristaglio, a graduate student, and I have been working on a new web exhibit along these lines. Its not finished, but, if interested, we'd be happy to have others look at and comment on it: http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/~pgrobste/ThreeDoors/.

What's the relation of all this to Sex and Gender, or to Amber Hollibaugh? Maybe the effort to come to a greater understanding of the value of human diversity in relation to sex and gender is not unrelated to doing so as well in relation to the variety of different ways that humans have of enhancing understanding. And Amber's new book is very much a triumph of acquiring the wherewithal to translate tacit knowledge into articulated knowledge, and, by virtue of that, of bringing into the public arena for discussion "tacit" knowledge that has previously been largely absent there.


Linda Suzanne Adams '03, McBride Biology (Environmental Studies) major
17 May 2001

I recently tuned in to some of the conversation on the "two cultures". It seemed that all were invited to join in so I'm forwarding a few thoughts from the perspective of a McBride Biology (Environmental Studies) major. Most of my life has been spent outside of the academic sector in the business world so my point of view is a decidedly non academic one.

As some of the conversationalists pointed out, division exists not only broadly between the arts and sciences but also between disciplines within each of these. I think it's necessary to consider this in trying to determine the nature of the separation. From my point of view it seems essentialy one of turf. Academics make their living and perhaps, more importantly, declare their identity, by trading in ideas. As these tend to be somewhat intangible goods they may feel more pressed than most to assert and defend the value of them. It's a phenomenon, however, that occurs in all human relations as anyone familiar with the social construction of corporations can attest. It's exacerbated by the fact that as we specialize more and more our work is less and less comprehensible to others and we feel a concommitantly greater need to assert its value.

The state of science education is another matter which may or may not be related to the tendency of academicians to guard their turf. My experience coincides with Dr. Beckmann's, "I've met lots of scientists who sincerely appreciate theater, novels, poetry, music, painting, and sculpture, and the contribution they make to 'the story,' but I have yet to meet one single humanist on the entire planet that can tell me, even in the simplest terms, the roles of thermodynamics, evolution, Newtonian mechanics, quantum mechanics, or general relativity in the development of 'the story.' "

For the purpose of understanding what's happened to science education in this country it may be more relevant to explore this phenomenon. How could "science" have been placed so far out of the box of many educated intelligent people? Why has it been given this "otherness" when it is, at its most fundamental level, the story of the natural world around us? What could be more relevant? This fascinating and beautiful world has been the source of inspiration for many creative discipilines including artists, writers, and inventors. It is a way of understanding who we are because we are not separate from the world around us; we are it and it is us. Is it any less important to a larger understanding than history, literature, social sciences, or other disciplines that are part of a liberal education? Is it any less essential to the "big" picture?

Personally I think this is a poignant and fertile area of inquiry especially considering that our lack of understanding and appreciation for the natural world is causing a wholesale destruction of it which may eventually lead to our own demise. I do NOT regard myself as a scientific person who disdains or impugns the value of other intellectual pursuits; quite the contrary I deliberately chose a liberal arts college because I wanted a broad exposure to the world of ideas.

I am very much interested in hearing from others, especially science phobes about this.


Paul Grobstein, Biology
27 May 2001

A bit belatedly, I want to bring into this conversation a talk I gave on The Brain's Images: Reflecting and Creating Human Understand (cosponsored by the Center for Visual Cultures and the Center for Science in Society, 18 April, 2001), and some subsequent discussions with, among others, Marc Lord, Anne Dalke, Sharon Burgmayer, Al Albano, Steven Levine, Michael Krausz, and Carol Vassalo. In addition, Linda Haviland's earlier thoughts in this forum are directly relevant and were on my mind when I prepared the talk. Again, I'll try and summarize, without direct attribution to others, to avoid misconstruals and in hopes they themselves will provide their own perspectives here.

A major point of the talk, relevant in the present context, was the assertion that the organization of the brain is such as to make every individual simultaneously a "painter" and the "audience" for one's own painting, with the "unconscious" part of the brain being, to a large extent, the "painter" and the "conscious" part being, to a large extent, the "audience". The assertion substantially blurs the border between "science" and "art", making every individual both "artist" and "scientist", and puts the interpretation of "ambiguity" at the center of not only both of these two sorts of human activities but all others as well.

A number of people pressed the issue of how literally one should take the metaphor of the brain as both "painter" and "audience" (in what ways does a person identified/self-identified as a painter (artist) do things differently from what all brains do?), and I feel gratefully challenged to pursue this issue further (along with the related one of whether there are or are not important differences between the "science" all brains do, and what a "scientist" does). A second set of challenges, however, seems more immediately germane here.

With regard to the "two cultures", Linda said "... as a woman and dancer in western society ... I'm keenly aware that I spent a long time being removed as any sort of valid epistemic subject from BOTH cultures", suggested perhaps we need "a dissolve of the binary structure all together", and noted that "The minute anyone puts words to paper, ANY words (not to mention pigment, sound, smell, touch, motion ... she opens up space for us to dig in". What the latter suggests is that the dichotomy between creator (whether scientist or humanist or artist) and "audience" perhaps needs itself to be rethought, that in academia (and elsewhere) we should be acknowledging more than we do the "performance", in which both the performer's creations and the reactions to them of the "audience" are essential components of the activity.

Perhaps I should regard what the brain does not as one part painting a picture for the other to see, but rather as a "performance", with the outcome reflecting a dynamic and bi-directional interaction between two (more?) brain regions with different distinctive abilities? There is certainly neurobiological support for/usefulness in the description I gave, but there is neurobiological reason as well to contend that it obscures some issues while highlighting others. More generally, though, might it be the case that the "two cultures", perhaps even the "academic" itself, is a "painting" done by one part of the brain, and hence emphasizing one set of things at the cost of others? Perhaps the explicit, language-based, descriptive at the cost of the implicit, action-based, engaged? Perhaps the two-cultures controversy, which doesn't, as discussed in the forum, seem to fall neatly along disciplinary lines or resolve entirely by "blending" sciences and humanities, is actually a stand in for a deeper tension? Perhaps there is a reason why the "performing arts" haven't fit comfortably into academia, that their emphasis on complex and unpredictable interaction is both the historical reason for their exclusion and a contemporary reason for embracing them anew?


Paul Grobstein, Biology
3 June 2001

Anne Dalke and I organized a session around our collective two cultures discussion at last week's College Seminar Workshop. Anne and Jody Cohen organized a second session on a different topic, at which, as it happened, some of the conversation at the first was continued. In addition to Anne, Jody, and myself, Mark Lord and Jonathan Kahana participated in both workshops. As earlier, I'm providing my own perspective of a conversation to which many contributed, in hopes that others will add their own perspectives.

In at least one sense, the starting point for the conversation was the thought that our academic activities may be undesireably emphasizing "the explicit, language-based, descriptive at the cost of the implicit, action-based, engaged", and that there is a resulting need to find ways to more effectively blend the two. An image that emerged was that "understanding" actually involved a continual, cylic interaction between unconscious ("implicit") knowledge, acquired through action, and more highly language-based, conscious, critical/synthetic processes which act on ("interrogate"?) implicit knowledge, and, in so doing, both altere it in the individual and make it more accessible to the public, collective intellectual enterprise. This image of the fundamental structure of understanding (the way the brain is "designed" (by evolution) to work) is consistent with observations from neurobiology/cognitive science. At least as importantly, it provides some explanation of some of the frustrations faculty experience with students (and, perhaps, with some of their own intellectual activities as well). Presenting and evaluating understanding primarily or exclusively at the explicit, language-based level is is neglecting the fundamental importance of the implicit, action part of the cycle (and also, perhaps, disadvantaging those having distinctive strengths related to this part of the cycle).

Its worth noting that there are striking parallels between an inclination to move toward a more inclusive style of college academic/intellectual activity, as it has been emerging in this two cultures discussion, and an increasing recognition within the education community that "hands on, exploratory, interactive" teaching modes are more effective in precollege classrooms ("We learn by doing - through interacting with the word and the world, through actively constructing and reworking our knowledge and experiences, and through thoughtful reflection" ... from the Philosophy of the (Bi-Co) Education Program, at http://www.brynmawr.edu/education/abouttext.html). Coming from different directions to similar places increases the confidence that there is actually a there there. And, in this case, it suggests as well that there are reasons to believe our conversation here can both be advanced by, and contribute to, a needed wider discussion.


Anne Dalke, English
13 June 2001

The workshops which Jane Hedley and Gail Hemmeter set up for all College Seminar faculty during the week of May 29-31 2001 were very rich for me. What I enjoyed most was the way in which a series of @ least four of the seminars built on one another. These included the two I helped kick off, which Paul describes above; also the one on "visual texts," led by Kathy Rowe and Jonathan Kahana, and another on "non-textual experiences," led by Linda Haviland and Joe Kramer. I trace below some of what I learned, insights that I think will be valuable in my CSem teaching this fall--and for many falls to come.

I. "Transcending Two Cultures": Paul Grobstein, Anne Dalke

We began by laying out two claims. The first one had to do w/ identifying a broad range of different uses of language: from scientific texts, which intend-to-be-precise, through the sort of ordinary language intending to "communicate information," to literary language, which is intentionally more ambiguous, playful, productive of interpretation and dialogue. We proposed that this spectrum was a useful rubric for thinking about what sorts of texts we want to use in our CSems, as well as what sorts of writing we want our students to do, how we want to help 'em use language: how ambiguous/how precise do we expect it to be; how directive, how open to interpretation?

We also acknowledged that the distinctions between these various kinds of language--and the sorts of inquiry they enable--are proceeding apace not just between scientists, social scientists and humanists, but w/in all of our disciplines (we learned, for instance, of the differences between the "intuitive" and "numerical" economists)--which complicates the question of what sorts of writing we ask our students to read and produce.

But our second--and far more ambitious--proposal was that while most of the work we do in our college classrooms focuses on these matters of language, much creative work is not language-based, much understanding a property of the unconscious, a form of tacit understanding that is not expressed linguistically. More profound work might be happening in our classes if we were willing to expand them to include more interactive/multiple levels of understanding. Although many academics don't pay attention to such matters, because they are not well articulated in language, we wanted to open a consideration of learning that involved other dimensions than just learning to use language well (the vision of CSem as a "writing course"), but rather by acting and being acted on.

So we turned our attention to the creative spaces lurking above/below/around the spectrum of languages available to us, focusing more on "activities of creation" than on "languages of distillation." We asked how we could learn to model better, in our teaching, a sort of creative, engaged interaction. One way might be to think of all of our students as performers, "physically committed and interpretively engaged" (what happens, for instance, when they enact The Three Billy Goats Gruff in the class? Will they see that, on the other side of the bridge, none of the goats can look the other in the eye, each one having sent those smaller than himself off to death?)

All of us participating in the session then traced the narrative of our upcoming CSem ("what story would you like to be able to tell about the course, when the semester ends?") and were also asked to interrogate its shadow side. (The irony, for instance, that a course which traces a historical quest for certainty ends in modern uncertainty.) We asked whether we can be too facile in bringing texts together into a "package," losing the integrity of things in themselves. Does the organization of the course convey a certain message? Into what structure of experience will it invite our students? How can we construct that shape in anticipation of the experience? We need to give them plenty of struggle time, and the tools to struggle w/.

We ended by trying to imagine our "mission statement," our "advertising slogan," and came up w/ at least one: "Not preparing for disciplines, but reinventing them: creating new ones."

II. Interpretable Texts #1--Incorporating Visual Materials: Jonathan Kahana and Kathy Rowe

Kathy initiated this session w/ the claim that one teaches best when one knows one's aims. She gave us several historical images to read, to demonstrate the value of using a visual image rather than a text: because the students will have an immediate response to it, will think they can read it, a reading which the rest of the class can then complicate and build on. The pedagogical paradox here is that the image which seems immediately accessible @ the beginning of class will turn out not to have been so by the end: students will be led into an awareness of historical difference, of presumptions they have brought to the work of "consorting w/ dead bodies." Particularly when working w/ historical materials, students are quicker to see heteroglossia in images than in texts (where they have to work so hard w/ the language to get the message); they can't get past the linguistic forms to see the ways in which it is conveyed. The visual image activites that process much more quickly.

Jonathan suggested to us that an audio-visual text is "impossible to own," in the way visual texts are (one cannot write on it, hold it still in one's hands); in fact, the "ownership" mentality is antithetical to the sort of critical reading of film that he tries to model in his classes. When he teaches films, he attempts to make his students self-conscious about how they consume the visual, by teaching them the reading skills they need to analyze something that will always remain "unownable," "unindividualizable." He focuses on the ways in which film has been designed for mass audiences, for being experienced in a crowd, rather than appropriated individually. Because of the "playedness" of film, viewers tend to think of it as eternally present. Jonathan tries to disengage them from that by animating the class as a site of recollection, inviting the students to appear in the classroom as a collection of receptacles of memory of their viewing experiences.

To "read" a film, as Jonathan explained it in our seminar and again to me afterwards, means to treat it as a text: that is, to subject it to a process of re-iteration that it is usually *not designed for.* Writing out one's memories of a film is one way to begin this reiteration; creating a collective description of a film with the class (by asking questions, by writing on the board, etc.) is another. Classes can't avoid beginning with the commonsense responses to these media (on the one hand, treating the film as pure information, as with standard-order documentary; on the other, treating the film as pure experience, which we are entitled only to like or dislike) , but they can build on these commonsense responses by converting the viewer's experience to a form of writing. So if one cannot literally write *on* or *in* the film/video text the way one can make notes in the margin of a print text, it is still possible to convert the cinematic experience to other forms of language; possible, and, if we want not to lose sight of the relation between film and video and the earlier technologies of representation, necessary.

III. Hot Topics and [Un]Teachable Moments: Anne Dalke, Jody Cohen

We began by asking how to "start" and how to "stop" such topics in the classroom, whether we can/want to control their introduction, what the risks and payoffs are, whether--for instance--there are neutral ways, or disciplined/disciplinary ways, to set it up so that unconscious material can be elicited, and productively dealt w/, in a college classroom. We acknowledged some of the dangers of being "caught in transformation."

We played w/ various metaphors for our roles as instructors: performers, analysts (in line w/ Lacan's notion of "the one presumed to know"), ring leaders (in which the class becomes the perfect crime, w/ everyone complicit in its commision, "something stolen out from under the control of the instructor, who says, "rip me off: find ways of taking something from me that you can use"), or more collaborative images, such as that of player coach, band leader (first violin? lead guitar?), in which the class--like the brain--generates information not through a leader, but via a set of interacting parts modifying one another, bringing about a sort of "leaderless revolution."

We differed on whether we "believed in power," and speculated whether committing to a particular way of understanding might mean adopting a position of power. Do we walk into class w/ a particular offering, and invite our students to join us in a conversation, involve them in the ways we go about exploring the world? What might it mean, rather than reading the assigned images, for instance, if students produced an image of the class (by filming it), related to themselves as images, saw themselves as part of language? Is such an intervention an application of the methodology of the course, or a direct rebuke to it? Is reading a basic requirement we will not release them from, or something that can get in the way of our figuring out major issues before the class? What best enables our students to "own" the questions they bring and we propose? How much are our students' intuitions acknowleged in our courses? Is thinking not as interesting as doing? Doesn't theory have consequences (if we think this, then that will occur)? How much of this is an unconscious process? We teased out a relation between the unconscious and the linguistic: considering the former grist to be examined by the latter, which then generates new experiences for the unconscious, which needs material to work w/.

IV. Interpretable Texts #2--Non-textual Experiences: Linda Haviland, Joe Kramer (and briefly, Michele Francl)

Linda's observation (on the Two Cultures website) that "as a woman and a dancer" she had long been "removed as any sort of valid epistemic subject" from most academic culture was my initial introduction to, and major intervention in, the whole train of thinking traced above. So it was a delight for me that she conducted this last session, which reconceptualized us all as operating in a more bidirectional/interactive state than is usual in the academy. The session began w/ questions of how we know what we know, how can we learn to live w/ the uncertainty of not knowing, whether we can acquire knowledge through experiment, and whether, in repeating experiments, we can repeat the experience. Then Linda put us through a series of exercises, inviting us to be creative and intuitive enough to project what we knew into 3 dimensions, to experience the profundity of bodily experience (in comparison to which video is a "flattened artifact," ethnography a "self-consuming" one). As she instructed us to take certain poses and invent certain dances, we learned about the ways in which the "strategy"of choreography is supplanted by the "tactics" of performance, and began to imagine ways in which movement might intervene in CSem: by inviting in "bodied ways of knowing," bringing the body back into doing research, and providing mechanisms, distinct from discussion, for letting in the unconscious. Analysis will naturally arise from such experiments and discrete experiences. It is like the Montessori method: simply offering more ways of accessing experience.

Wow!

This (not unrelated) quote, from Antoine de Saint Exupery, arrived via one of my students' signature lines:

If you want to build a ship,
don't drum up people together to collect wood,
and don't assign them tasks and work,
but rather teach them to long for
the endless immensity of the sea.


Frank L. Lambert, Chemistry, Occidental College (retired)
13 June 2001

Obviously, because I put www.shakespeare2ndlaw.com on line just one week ago (after being concerned with the problem of separated cultures a teaching-lifetime), I was intrigued by your discussion.

That you are working at/on it so vigorously is vital. The effort, the tension is or will be sensed by your students whatever your next steps are -- and that's success in the arena of good teaching!

You may find www.shakespeare2ndlaw.com unusually profitable as a side-note or a major nugget in one of your courses. An intro to that oft-feared "second law of thermodynamics", it was written for post-college adults who are not in science -- but certainly attractive to first-year non-science college students.

Titled "Shakespeare and Thermodynamics: Dam the Second Law!", www.shakespeare2ndlaw.com strongly emphasizes the human(e) importance of activation energies as "dams" or obstructions to the instant execution of thermodynamic predictions.

(This is where brilliant Tom Stoppard in his sparkling melange of ideas totally screwed up thermodynamics -- "everything is [NOT] cooling down, getting mixed up irreversibly"! Knowing about closed-system thermo from his physicist son, Stoppard didn't talk with a chemist -- or a biologist -- to learn about activation energies, chemical kinetics. As www.shakespeare2ndlaw.com develops: "Chemical kinetics holds time's arrow in the taut bow of thermodynamics for a microsecond or a millennia". Thus, the web site is a unique view for non-scientists of two important chemical concepts that have profound implications for one's view of the physical world, quite at odds with Stoppard's 19th century vestige.)

www.entropysimple.com, also qualitative, non-math, goes deeper into implications of the second law and introduces entropy -- from photosynthesis to cream spreading in coffee -- but it is less appropriate for most first-year students than shakespeare2ndlaw.com.

I hope these can be of use to you -- and that you might forward the URL of www.shakespeare2ndlaw.com to your colleagues in the Discussion group and others in the humanities. It really is an effective bridge to show them that science can play a vital role not only in understanding how the world works but in their philosophy of life. (Or forward to your chemistry people also.... Pehaps you would shock them by their learning from a biologist about humane aspects of chemical kinetics that they have never thought about!)

Best wishes in continuing your excellent approach to good teaching,