Students Transform Public Science

Note: This article first appeared in TECHStyle: A forum for multimodal pedagogy and research by the Brittain Fellows at Georgia Tech

I teach a section of first-year composition I call “Science in Public.” The course’s thematic focus—public-facing science communication—prompts students to consider how journalists, artists, activists, researchers, and other communicators compose texts about the sciences that engage and move to action a broad, nonspecialist audience. Students adapt several of the rhetorical strategies and generic conventions of effective science communicators to craft their own public-facing texts as well: blogs, photo essays, websites, and other media. Throughout the course, we have interrogated how texts convince public audiences of the cultural importance, authority, and responsibility of science, as well as how students’ own rhetorical compositions “enter the conversation” and respond.

At a STEM-focused institution like Georgia Tech, I want students to consider how their work as future scientists, engineers, designers, and communicators will often need to be explained and made relevant to stakeholders, potential employers, and interested nonspecialists. I also want students to see how their university is actively engaged in the very rhetorical work we examine all semester long. For this reason, I designed one of the course’s major assignments, the “Transforming Tech Science” project, to highlight Georgia Tech as a place replete with rhetorical texts communicating the social and cultural significance of science. Students learn, for example, that a team of Georgia Tech science communicators translates the work of Tech scientists for public audiences in order to celebrate innovations, acquire sponsorship, solicit donations, and generally showcase Tech as a productive site of scientific research.

The Transforming Tech Science project requires that groups of four to five students examine the rhetorical purpose of an existing public text that references science at Georgia Tech. Such texts may include an article about mudskipper-inspired robots on Georgia Tech News or a profile of a Tech biologist on Popular Science. Then, the student groups must transform the existing text into a different medium and for a new rhetorical situation. Students might find a paper flyer hanging in the Clough Undergraduate Learning Commons that solicits participants for a laboratory study and transform it into a ten-minute TED Talk with students performing as the lab’s researchers. The requirement to “transform” an existing text pushes students to take seriously the distinct purpose of their own composition and the affordances of media. By extension, they must ask some form of the question: “How can this specific medium support my purpose in a way that my audience will understand?”

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The most effective projects grappled with these issues of medium, purpose, and audience at length; effective projects also took inspiration from the existing texts and expanded those texts’ rhetorical reach. For example, one group (David Jose Fernandez and three anonymous students) analyzed a physical model for Tech’s soon-to-be-constructed Living Building—an international sustainable building certification—located on the first floor of Clough. By considering the limitations of a static, physical model in depicting something “living,” the group analyzed the model as a text and transformed it into an Instagram page. They built the page using photographs they had taken of buildings, animals, and landscapes to visually simulate the vibrant experience of nature, sustainability, and human and nonhuman activity the future Living Building promises to facilitate; you can see several of these Instagram entries above.

Other groups used their growing familiarity with the interests of the Georgia Tech community to inform their transformations. One group found a years-old article reporting on a high-powered telescope used by Tech aerospace engineers—a telescope that, once a month, can be used by members of the public. The group decided to create a poster that could be digitally disseminated and displayed in locations across campus to call attention to one of the telescope-viewing nights—specifically, a night when the Ring Nebula in the Lyra constellation would be visible. The poster, shown below, combines attention-grabbing visuals and written text that informs its audience about both the advertised event and the telescope.

GT-Sort Poster
The poster above represents one group’s transformation of an existing text that references science at Georgia Tech. Specifically, the group of five anonymous students found a news article covering the arrival of the GT-SORT telescope and created an advertisement for an event in which the telescope could be used by the public.

I was also impressed by many groups’ deft manipulation of generic conventions. One group (Connor Ford, Joe Zein, and three anonymous students) transformed a paper flyer recruiting passers-by for a brain imaging study that they found on campus. Harnessing the ethos of the Georgia Tech brand, they created a fully-functional website that demonstrates such attention to detail and intentional design that the site could easily pass as an official Tech outlet for requesting public funds. Several groups were inspired by the practical possibilities of a new textile developed by Tech researchers that uses sunlight to generate energy, as reported by a Georgia Tech News article. In response, one group (Alice Choi and three anonymous students) created a social media-destined video ad targeting college students; another (Ryan Petschek, Coleman Alfaro, Vijay Krishnan, and Jaleen Walker) performed as North Face representatives giving a live sales pitch and offering a branded product launch poster; yet another (Maitreya Venkataswamy, Daniel Wang, and two anonymous students) developed a Kickstarter campaign video, displayed below, showing off a range of products that could be constructed with the solar-powered fabric.

Students’ exciting ventures into the rhetorical environments of public Georgia Tech science have motivated me to incorporate more local material into my courses. Analyzing and composing close to home, as it were, provides an opportunity to consider how our texts can serve and appeal to “real” audiences. In his discussion of ecocomposition, an approach to writing instruction that thinks through the relationship between writing and place, Mark C. Long suggests that teachers of writing communicate to students that the term “environment” means “more than discerned landscapes” and “nature.” Such an expanded understanding of environment would aim for more students to “find reasons to take their relation to their environment seriously” (137). I agree with Long’s recommendation. One of my pedagogical goals—getting students to view, through a critical lens, the myriad texts they confront every day—can be productively served by exploring the relationship between the environment of Georgia Tech and its texts.

 

Works Cited

Long, Mark C. “Education and Environmental Literacy: Reflections on Teaching Ecocomposition in Keene State College’s Environmental House.” Ecocomposition: Theoretical and Pedagogical Approaches. Ed. Christian R. Weisser and Sidney I. Dobrin. Albany: State U of New York, 2001. Print.

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Chapter appears in Mourning Animals edited collection

Receiving a book in the mail is delightful; receiving a book in the mail that contains a chapter of your own work is even better. I’m thrilled to be a part of the beautiful and important collection that arrived in my mailbox today: Mourning Animals: Rituals and Practices Surrounding Animal Death. The collection is edited by the great animal studies pioneer and advocate Margo DeMello and published by Michigan State University Press as part of its Animal Turn series.

My chapter, “Freeze-Drying Fido: The Uncanny Aesthetics of Modern Taxidermy,” considers taxidermy in new media, the pet preservation industry, experimental (or “rogue”) taxidermy, and two reality television shows that feature taxidermy and taxidermists: American Stuffers and Immortalized. My analysis suggests that much modern taxidermy may unexpectedly facilitate the work of memory and grief by emphasizing an animal’s death and the particularity of the animal who died.

Photo of the book Mourning Animals: Rituals and Practices Surrounding Animal Death and my chapter in it

Check out Mourning Animals and the other fine books in MSU Press’s Animal Turn series here.

Published! Essay on environmental thought and taxidermy

I am excited to announce the publication of my essay, “Bass Pro Shops, Environmental Thought, and the Anima(l)tronic Dead” in the latest issue of the peer-reviewed, open-access journal of philosophy and aesthetics, Evental Aesthetics. Publishing with this journal was a terrific experience, and I hope you’ll enjoy reading my essay as much as I enjoyed composing it (it was really fun to write).

Click here or on the image below for my essay, and do get in touch with thoughts and feedback!

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Image source: http://www.sacbee.com/news/business/biz-columns-blogs/cathie-anderson/article34950294.html

Cecil the Lion and the Meanings of Animals

When news of Cecil the lion’s illegal killing by an American trophy hunter hit my Twitter feed, I found the news sad but unsurprising. White American men hunting African mammals as a means to assert their white American manliness has a long history in American culture (think Theodore Roosevelt, Hemingway’s public persona, Carl Akeley, and so on). Far more shocking than the fact of Cecil’s death was the public reaction that followed. In addition to major news outlets providing fresh commentary and updates every day since Cecil’s death first made headlines, Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer’s office has been overrun by Cecil mourners, Palmer’s business’s Yelp page has been thoroughly trashed (when I first viewed the page it had over 6000 negative, Cecil-related reviews; at the time of this writing the staff at Yelp seems to have wrangled that number down to a cool 400+), and the #CecilTheLion hashtag features a staggering number of enraged, even threatening, cries of outrage from the public.

Ernest Hemingway and hunted lion
Ernest Hemingway and a lion he hunted and killed; photo from TomorrowStarted.com

I am not going to discuss whether some public responses to Cecil’s death were more “valid” than others. What I will consider is what the unexpected, dare I say bizarre widespread investment in the killing of Cecil the lion can tell us about the cultural value(s) of animals and how their existence becomes meaningful to large numbers of people.

The so-called “perfect storm” of variables that made Cecil a mournable animal has something instructive to tell animal advocates. In contrast to one writer who suggests that generating consensus about the immorality of Cecil’s death was “easy,” public outrage over the deaths of animals is highly unusual. Typically, even animals with names (ever heard of Satao? He was a “famous” bull elephant poached for his ivory last year) don’t garner much if any attention when they are abused and/or killed. Public interest in named animals is only slightly more prevalent than objections to, say, the nine billion unnamed animals killed every year in U.S. factory farms. The closest, recent event of an animal’s death that incited even a fraction of Cecil-level outrage that I can remember is Marius the giraffe. If you’ll recall, Marius was a captive, healthy young giraffe killed by Copenhagen zoo officials because his genes were well-represented by other giraffes in the zoo system.

The public didn’t care for the death of Marius. Knowing what we know about the rarity of large-scale interest in the death of an animal, we shouldn’t be too surprised that Marius and Cecil share some characteristics that make them sympathetic and, by extension, mournable. They both had names, of course, a feature important to their recognition as individuals. What if Cecil was not “Cecil” but “lion no. 281”? More important than names, perhaps, is the two animals’ status as charismatic megafauna. Both Marius and Cecil were members of species that are large, interesting, and, frankly, visually attractive. (Side note: the very features that made Cecil such a charismatic creature also made him a prized target for trophy hunters. He was a big, beautiful male lion, and that he’s a male lion is important: his symbolic value as kingly, regal, proud, brave, you get the idea, are the very attributes that make his victimization all the more pronounced. Would a female lion—no fluffy mane, no attendant associations with royalty, a member of the sex often coded as “weaker” even in animals!—inspire the same public outcry?) One researcher even called Cecil the “ultimate lion,” a feature which makes him, in my view, all the more ripe for symbolic and affective investment. Despite their similarities, the differences between Marius and Cecil are easy to spot. Marius lived in a zoo; Cecil lived on a protected reserve. Marius was killed for the sake of population management; Cecil was killed for the hell of it.

But wait: that Marius died for the sake of population management echoes a strain of thought that also contributed to Cecil’s death: the idea that people can kill certain “unnecessary” animals for the betterment of many animals. As it manifested in Cecil’s situation, the “kill one for the good of the many” idea suggests that trophy hunting–what Walter Palmer spent $55,000 to do–works as a tool for conservation. In the U.S., the formalization of hunting-equals-conservation dates back to, you guessed it! Theodore Roosevelt and like-minded sportsmen in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Some modern-day conservationists continue to argue that, beyond fun for hunters, trophy hunting may be good for wildlife, that killing some males of a species (like Cecil) will make room for up-and-coming males to spread their genes. Problems with this logic persist, of course, problems beyond the icky paradox of killing-in-the-name-of-conservation. Problems like the fact that, for all the money hunters shell out to kill an animal, a family in Zimbabwe will probably only receive $1-3 a year for allowing hunts to take place on their land. Moreover, while money from sports hunting does fund conservation efforts, making a single lion into a trophy doesn’t mean that only one lion will die as part of the bargain. As one of the researchers involved in the project studying Cecil attested in an interview, Cecil’s death will affect his pride and likely lead to the deaths of more lions, Cecil’s cubs being most at risk:

The consequence of killing one male — whether legally or illegally — is that it weakens the male coalition he was part of, often a brotherhood. A larger, stronger coalition comes in and usurps them, often leading to the death of the surviving brothers. The incoming males will generally kill the cubs of the incumbents. A simple-minded approach might have thought one less lion is one less lion. The reality is that one less lion can lead to the deaths of many other lions, as well as a reshuffling of their local spatial organization and society.

Do advocates for hunting-as-conservation measure this ripple effect?

The outrage surrounding Cecil’s death reminds us of the particular wild lives that make up the aggregating term “wildlife.” Such outrage over an individual animal’s death should encourage the animal advocacy organizations that seek to reintroduce the public to animals frequently understood as abstractions (I’m thinking of Farm Sanctuary and The Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy). Cecil became mournable, became meaningful, for members of the public because they recognized him as an individual–a someone rather than a something–a status humans typically reserve only for pets. In contrast, conservation initiatives typically think about animals as part of populations, as contributing genetic diversity or reproductive vitality to an abstraction we call species. What we have, then, is a conflict of definition: are animals “individuals” or sets of genes? Are they irreplaceable and singular or renewable, natural resources?

T.C. Boyle’s 2011 novel When the Killing’s Done provides a bit of guidance. The novel features two protagonists who care a lot of about animals—a wildlife biologist and an animal rights activist—and uses a “based on a true story” conflict about invasive species to expose the gulf that separates the biologist’s and the activist’s respective understandings of animals. While Alma the biologist argues that all the invasive species should be poisoned and, later in the book, hunted and shot, Dave the activist argues in contrast that the invasives should be left alone (with the implication, of course, that humans are the most invasive invasive species of them all).

Western gulls on Anacapa Island, one of the islands featured in the environmental drama of Boyle's novel. Photo credit: Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times
Western gulls on Anacapa Island, one of the islands featured in the environmental drama of Boyle’s novel. Photo credit: Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times

Despite their ongoing feud, Dave and Alma have a lot to learn from each other. Late in the novel, Dave introduces two nonnative raccoons to an island’s delicate ecosystem to both exact revenge on Alma and because he misguidedly thinks the raccoons would thrive there. And maybe they will, but at what expense to the ecosystem/other animals? In another standout moment in the novel, Alma receives insight into Dave’s perspective on animals: she has an unprecedented face-to-face meeting with one of the wild, invasive boars shot per her mandate. During that encounter, Alma experiences an unexpected and disorienting sorrow. Detailing the dead pig’s individual features, she sees the boar not as one of the hundreds of its invasive kin to be destroyed, but as a particular, and as she says, “perfect” creature. Standing before the dead animal, Alma “feels the sorrow in the back of her throat, the sorrow of existence,” and she struggles to keep in mind the logic that guides the pig cull: that “[t]hese animals have to be eliminated and if you stop to see them as individuals you’re done” (304). Alma’s perception of the boar as an individual temporarily weakens her resolve that all the boars require extermination.

Is thinking about animals as singular beings really irreconcilable with the goals of wildlife biology as Alma fears? Or, can the possibility of regarding each animal as an individual with desires, projects, preferences, and habits motivate ethical, creative conservation strategies that avoid rather than legitimate killing? Thinking about Cecil as simply a set of genes feels like a violation of his singularity. At the same time, thinking about Cecil in isolation obscures his immersion in a network composed of his fellow lions, environment, and other nonhumans. Cecil may not have even thought of himself as an individual in the same way that humans tend to think of each other as particular, autonomous selves. As Boyle’s novel helps us realize, then, animal activists and wildlife biologists should derive insight from each other’s understanding of what makes animals significant. Neither “side” provides a complete view of what animals mean to us, themselves, each other, and their environments. We need (as Cecil and countless other nonhumans needed and continue to need) collaborations among people who work and think with animals to promote not just the growth of populations, but attention to the many ways animals mean.

People as Prey: A Visit to the Field Museum

I am a little obsessed with taxidermy. So, during my recent visit to Chicago for the annual MLA convention, I had to make a trip over to the Field Museum of Natural History to check out their large and diverse collection of stuffed animals. Because of my enthusiasm for taxidermy, I knew that Carl Akeley, the “father of modern taxidermy,” worked as the Field’s Chief Taxidermist from 1896 to 1909. I was particularly looking forward to seeing the examples of Akeley’s work that the Field continues to display, including the famous “Fighting Bulls” group, a pair of elephants Akeley himself shot and killed (or, if you prefer the sanitized term, “collected”) during one of his many expeditions to Africa for such purposes.

Beyond Akeley’s work, the famous taxidermied animals I most looked forward to visiting at the Field were the Tsavo Maneaters. These two male lions terrorized construction workers building the Kenya-Uganda Railway for ten months back in 1898. During that time, the lions earned their name by killing and eating between 20 and 135 people (depending on who you read/believe). After a couple decades spent as trophy rugs in the home of the man who successfully hunted them, the Field Museum purchased, mounted, and displayed the lions’ hides under glass where they remain today.

The taxidermied Maneaters in their current home at the Field Museum
The taxidermied Maneaters in their current home at the Field Museum

Despite their age (and the fact that the Field exhibits many exquisitely taxidermied animals that emphasize the lions’ worn, scrawny appearance by comparison), the Maneaters continue to get a lot of attention. I watched other museumgoers Instagramming each other in front of the lions’ display while most of the other animals received passing glances from visitors at best. The museum also builds visitor expectations about the lions through the use of promotional signage: these signs, pointing visitors to the Tsavo Maneaters, depict lions that look much more fearsome than the old, stuffed cats themselves. The taxidermied Maneaters do not roar or show their teeth as do the lions on the signs; instead, they lie down and walk casually. Like all male lions in the Tsavo region, too, the Maneaters are without the full, bushy, distinctive manes usually associated with male lions, a conspicuous absence that contributes to their rather unassuming appearance.

A sign inside the Field Museum directing visitors to the Tsavo lions exhibit
A sign inside the Field Museum directing visitors to the Tsavo lions exhibit

The discrepancy between the lions on the museum’s signs and the lions on display got me thinking about what makes these animals so compelling as taxidermy mounts. To an extent, the popularity of the Tsavo lions has to do with what makes taxidermy itself so compelling. All taxidermy records some kind of human-animal encounter: a sportsman’s “accomplishment,” the early death of a popular zoo animal, a beloved pet with a bereaved owner. The human-animal encounter recorded by the Tsavo Maneaters, however, is uniquely written into the very chemical composition of the lion skins on display. Recent tests of samples of the Tsavo Maneaters’ hair confirm that the pair consumed human flesh during the months before their deaths. Unlike most taxidermy which one-sidedly reflects violence inflicted by humans, the skins of these lions–the very basis for taxidermy (dermy meaning skin)–attest to a history of violence wherein both humans and lions inflicted harm on each other.

In a recent article, June Dwyer argues that the human desire for wild animal companionship in the twenty-first century is so strong that we prefer to re-imagine meat-eating animals as vegetarians to fulfill the wish to “eat with them, not be eaten by them.” While I agree with some of Dwyer’s article, the enduring popularity of the Tsavo Maneaters, not to mention the several taxidermy displays at the Field that depict predation, suggest in contrast that the possibility of our becoming a predator’s lunch provides an opportunity to rethink our relationships with animals without diminishing the challenges involved with coexistence. Rather than obscure their man-eating, I think we paradoxically celebrate these lions because they dined on human flesh, because our bodies nourished theirs. I think we appreciate that we can’t re-imagine them as harmless or non-threatening. Even though their hides are worn and their mouths don’t arc into a growl, the Tsavo Maneaters remind us not only of our exposure to the acts of animals, but also that we are not the only animal who acts and who eats.