Monday, August 4, 2014

Attitude, emotion, and the stories in science

I feel a bit obsessed with the "What Is Story?" #whatisstory thread, one of many of the myriad fascinating tentacles of "A Burr In Your Sock" #burrinsock which I describe as the UrPost of the #CLMOOC. Just happened a couple of weeks ago on "The Undressed Art: Why We Draw" by Peter Steinhart (Knopf, 2004). On pp. 68-69 he describes John James Audubon's efforts to draw birds accurately. The key for Audubon was to draw the birds "alive and moving." His journal projects emotions and attitudes onto the animals: flycatchers had a pensive attitude, herons "waded with elegance and stateliness."

 Steinhart calls this "finding intimate points of contact." He calls on artists and ornithologists to be seductive, in a way more like a movie maker than our stereotype of the dispassionate naturalist: drawings should "excite in each individual thus happily employed [in examining the drawing] the desire of knowing all respecting all he sees."
It is this call from an historical giant in the field of science popularization to inject emotion and the art of the storyteller into what had theretofore been seen as a task for dispassionate and objective "recorders of fact" that I want to remark here, in the context again of reminding us of our historical roots, and the centuries-old struggle around "the two cultures."
Again, this feels like another tentative push towards the surface of the subterranean rhizomatic connection-making process I feel going on to articulate something about how this "emotion-injecting" into science somehow relates to the qualms I have about monetization of our teaching and the denigration of learning which seems to result from so much of commercialization. It's not that the injecting of feelings with which to connect into science and reporting are inherently degrading, rather there is a difficult to disentangle connection between two distinct branches of that root insight, the one represented by Audubon and his lively birds, which I relish, and the other by Leni Riefenstahl and her inheritors in the advertising industry, against which I struggle. How do we engage our students in the emotional thrill of discovery, the childhood eagerness to explore, neither losing the objectivity of the scientist nor adopting the manipulative techniques of the hustler?

Finally, I want to point to something about the pairing of attitude and emotion. This is how the incorporation – literally, the "bringing into the body" – of our learning is so supported by physical making tasks. The body must perform the movements, observe the safety requirements, coordinate the actions, and then appreciate the result. Our task is re-articulate those corporeal processes into communication events.