What is all this, anyway?
"petri dish" is cultured by me -- Katherine Pandora -- an associate professor who teaches and researches about scientific knowledge, the public, and popular culture at the University of Oklahoma. I focus on cultural histories of science, which start from the assumption that science's past is not the history of scientists alone, but that it encompasses the experiences of each one of us. Cultural histories are critically important in gaining productive insights into the real-world impact that tensions about scientific knowledge create. I am particularly interested in studying moments when the search for scientific knowledge is seen as belonging to the public as well as to professionals, and where expectations about the viability of conversations among diverse participants challenges presumptions that the scientific enterprise is, can, or should be set off from the wider world. This default assumption is one that has supported the perspective that scientists need only talk at or broadcast to the public, rather than being in conversation with the world beyond the laboratory, which requires the ability to listen as well as to speak.
A spin-off from my research is a lower-division course on Science and Popular Culture that I have taught regularly for more than fifteen years, and for much of this time "petri dish" was a side project for this class, allowing me to conjure up custom-made resources on the fly, taking advantage of the open web as a complementary learning space. The multidirectional linked-up mini-essays that petri dish contains became a set of improvisatory signposts for the more exploratory, less top-down-directed classroom I was striving to create.
Along the way, I found that pairing blogging with teaching was changing my ways of thinking, writing, communicating, learning, and researching. As a result, I've recently begun to reconfigure petri dish as more than a classroom companion, although it will still serve that purpose as well. The most obvious difference is that the posts will take up a wider range of themes, including my experiences with digital humanities in the classroom, as part of my scholarship, and in bringing the university out beyond its ivy-covered walls. More of my own research-in-progress will be incorporated into the blog, and in fact I'll be using what I write here on the open web as an incubator for an emergent "book" of an-as-yet-to-be-determined-form on science and popular culture. In short, petri dish serves as a touchpoint for these new projects as I move the majority of my work as an historian away from a preoccupation with print production and into the digital sphere: petri dish is about to be retooled as the hub for my DIY digital scipop skunkworks.
Where'd I come from? Why am I (digitally) here?
In 1993 I earned the first interdisciplinary History/Science Studies Ph.D. awarded by the Science Studies Program at UC San Diego -- the same year, as it happened, that the Mosaic web browser was released. In other words, I had just finished being trained to contribute to the small-scale academic world of 20th-century print at a time when digital technologies began contributing to the explosion into public consciousness of the Internet via the emergence of the world wide web.
I found the dynamics of the web fascinating, not least because it was only recently that I had been part of the world of journalism and publishing, which I had left to go back to graduate school (my first stint in grad school was to study cognitive psychology). I'd been an associate editor at a general interest magazine, California (probably more well-known under the name of New West, which founder Clay Felker gave it in 1976), where I worked under editors Scott Kaufer and Harold Hayes. Beyond the fact that I'd been torn between working in publishing versus academia, it seemed clear to me that computer-mediated communication was destabilizing business-as-usual, changing the nature of journalism (when was the last time you got your news by picking it up off the lawn?), business, politics, social life, and the public sphere in general. We weren't in Kansas any more!
Once my first book was published in 1997, I jumped into studying digital media and social change as a founding member of OU's Human-Technology Interaction Center, which for a decade served as a research crossroads for an interdisciplinary set of colleagues (from cognitive psychology, industrial engineering, computer science, MIS, and communications -- I was the lone humanist!). It was here that I entered the first phase of my "post-graduate" training on issues related to the online world. We brought out figures on the cutting-edge to help us work through our explorations (scientists and scholars such as Donald Norman on user-centered design, Peter Pirolli on humans as informavores, Lee Sproull on electronic communities, Carolyn Marvin on when old technologies were new, and Paul Edwards on the legacies of information systems from the cold war), and then kept on learning together for six years of our summer NSF-sponsored Research Experiences for Undergraduates program. Through the REU, I had the good fortune to supervise individual undergrad research projects — in history, the social sciences, and philosophy -- on human-technology interaction, and to work with a series of undergrad teams on prototyping a city-level elections portal and community issues discussion board.
How this would all transfer back to my home world of the humanities proved to be more complicated than I had anticipated, because my own interest in the online world was responded to most often with negativity (apathy, indifference, jocular condescension, incomprehension, distaste, dismissal, and even censure) by most other humanists and the administration. About 2005, the advent of social media and what came to be known as web 2.0 scrambled the information revolution once again, with even more potent social, political, economic, and epistemological repercussions. I struggled for quite some time with whether or not to re-pledge my allegiance to the world of 20th-century academic print, which seemed to be the best way to actually keep my career institutionally on-course.
In the end, I decided to throw in with the 21st century, and set off on a second course of self-study -- which was made possible by the existence of the vibrant online communities created by digital humanists and open content advocates in education. (To all of you -- thank you!) I headed up the humanities digital interest group @ou to help nurture digital humanities locally, and one of the by-products of that work is the creation of a Graduate Digital Certificate in Digital Humanities, and a shiny new Introduction to Issues and Methods seminar.
So, some typical questions I get, and some bloggy answers:
- Why spend time on research in the area of science & popular culture (isn't that just a sideshow to the main events in the history of science)? Flotsam and jetsam and historical memories is one reason why.
- Can looking at popular science change the way we see science itself? Try using child-sized depictions of Darwin to grow on.
- What happens in a class on scipop? Eavesdrop on ideas from students' final paper here and here.
- And is there anything special about Oklahoma's history in regard to science? 1957 and all that is a good place to start :-)