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This was originally on my old blog, and because it’s about Meredith and my other project, I thought it would be fun to share it here too (with slight edits).

Back in February, I presented a paper written by Meredith at a conference on (human) bodies. She and her labmates were all doing field work at their respectively field sites so she and other folks in her lab weren’t available to present her paper. Because she’s a reproductive ecologist and I’m a terrestrial ecologist, among our group of friends, our fields are the most similar so I ended up presenting on her behalf.

I thought the conference was going to be super interdisciplinary, but it ended up being a bunch of people from the humanities (e.g., literature, philosophy, media studies, etc.) and me, the only scientist. Of course, a lot of “interdisciplinary” conferences that I’ve been to end up being mostly people in the sciences so maybe it’s not that surprising that I was the only scientist at a conference organized by a comparative literature department and Asian American studies department. It ended up being extremely educational for me, and here are some of the things I learned.

#1: Egads!  They don’t use PowerPoint!
I’ve heard that traditionally, humanities conferences and symposia involve a speaker getting in front of a podium and literally reading his/her paper. (I’ve heard that this is because how you phrase/say something in the humanities matters just as much as what you’re saying.) Considering how many PowerPoint presentations I’ve gone to that have been really boring, I was a bit worried about my ability to stay awake during the early morning talks or talks right after lunch.

I was pleasantly surprised though. A lot of the grad student presenters used handouts, PowerPoint or other visuals probably because they were a lot younger and less encumbered by tradition, and a lot of presenters wrote really compelling and interesting papers. I admit I did end up nodding off during some of the less interesting talks, but I think that’s inevitable for me at any conference – even very interesting ones. (According to my partner, my superpower is my ability to fall asleep in almost any setting.)

#2: (Over)analyzing popular media can be a very analytical and meaningful academic exercise
One of my favorite panel discussions was called “The Tyranny of the Normal”. In this panel, the speakers analyzed The Family Stone, Brokeback Mountain, and America’s Next Top Model. Not exactly traditional subjects/topics of academic inquiry. What the speakers brought up was the idea that minorities or people who are different are often “normalized” in the media in an attempt to make them more likeable/sympathetic.

In The Family Stone, for example, there was a typical “liberal” family complete with a deaf, gay brother in an interracial relationship. He was portrayed as “just another member of the family” even though there is an important difference and what was left out is just as interesting. First, he could still respond to people even when he wasn’t looking at them when they were speaking/signing. (Oops. That was some bad directing there.) Second, while there were love scenes and casual hand holding between his straight siblings and their respective partners, there was almost no physical contact or any display of affection between the deaf brother and his boyfriend other than a single signed exchange (I couldn’t remember if it was “I love you” or “You’re beautiful”) that wasn’t subtitled.

In the case of Brokeback Mountain, the movie was advertised as a love story first and a story about homosexuality second. The speaker mentioned that “homosexuality was used more as a tragic plot device.” I’m not quite as cynical as the speaker, but I do think that the marketers of the movie did that intentionally — they were probably expecting greater box office success by promoting a “love story that happens to be about two gay guys” rather than a “gay love story”.

I do agree with the core argument, though: for both movies, in their attempt to make the outsider characters more likeable, they glossed over or omitted ways in which the characters are different. I also think that both movies included those characters with good intentions. They’re a good start to get people to see homosexuality and/or disability as just a part of the whole human experience, but it would be nice if there were more stories about outsiders who are openly and consistently different (e.g., not part-time deaf) and are still accepted.

In terms of America’s Next Top Model, though, the speaker made some observations that made me dislike that show even more than I already do. I think I’m just going to be blunt here: although the show purports to make the modeling community more ethnically and culturally diverse and more empowering to women, that’s all just B.S.

The speaker’s paper was centered around one particular contestant, Danielle, who is black and from Little Rock, Arkansas. Right from the beginning, Tyra Banks was already making fun of Danielle’s southern accent and the gap between Danielle’s front teeth. Even though Danielle had no problem with either of those things and considered her accent and her teeth to be just a part of who she was, she eventually gave in and toned down her accent and agreed to have some work done on her teeth. In the end, she won the contest and was rewarded for her ability and willingness to place others’ expectations of her above her own sense of self, which I suppose shouldn’t be surprising because it’s a show about an industry that treats women and men as walking mannequins.

What is problematic for the speaker and me as well is this disingenuous attempt to paint an industry that: 1) enforces a very narrow (pun intended) definition of beauty/desirability/likability and 2) requires women (and an increasing number of men) to be flexible and accept modifications to their appearance in order to keep their jobs as “diverse” and “empowering”. I think the modeling industry has changed a lot over the years, but let’s call a spade a spade. Modeling still requires successful models to conform to a constricted definition of beauty and to obey others when making decisions about their appearance, and this show doesn’t do anything to change that. 

#3: Even very smart academics can have a hard time explaining the fundamental goals of science
One of the keynote speakers gave an excellent talk comparing the history of images of the human body. I really liked the part where he compared images in Western medicine vs. traditional Chinese medicine. He illustrated the way Western medicine tends to focus on the details with elaborate and extremely precise anatomical diagrams while traditional Chinese medicine has focused more on the function and morphology of the human body and the body as a whole with images of a man fishing or a little girl playing and you have to “hunt” for the medical condition of each patient. (The man had a subtle but irregular bump on his leg and the little girl had some other subtle sign that she needed medical attention.)

Then partway through his talk, he mentioned that science is a field that seeks “permanence”. During the Q & A, I asked if he could clarify what he meant by science studying “permanence” because from my understanding, scientists study things like stars, animals, landscapes and things that are changing all the time. He responded by saying when scientists are studying a plant, they’re not just studying that one plant, they’re trying to find something underlying that they can apply to other plants or other organisms or life in general.

I definitely agree with him that scientists try to generalize different phenomenon and look for patterns in one system that can be applied in different systems, but I think that’s very different from saying that scientists seek permanence. If there’s one important thing that I can think all good scientists know, it is that science is dynamic because our world is dynamic and our understanding of the world is constantly changing. Scientists are constantly improving upon previous hypotheses, constantly overturning past “truths”, and any undue attachment to a permanent theory is something that good scientists try to avoid.

Also, science is about disproving hypotheses. We can’t prove anything because there’s no way we can show with 100% certainty that what happens in one experiment and in one situation will always happen in all other experiments and other situations. I don’t think of scientists as bounty hunters looking for the elusive “permanent truth”. We’re more like people who are trying to clean a perpetually cluttered room; we throw out things that are garbage and try to leave behind stuff that will be useful.  We’re like housekeepers with fancy gadgets like thermocyclers and gas chromatographs and access to statistical software.

#4: Professors who contribute to the “chilly climate” don’t only exist in STEM fields in academia
Many of the women in STEM (science, technology, mathematics, engineering) talks that I’ve been to have cited the “chilly climate” (overt and subtle ways that men and women are viewed and treated differently) as a reason for why there are very few women in STEM fields in academia. During the Q&A portion of a talk on the increasing sexualization and objectification of men in fashion ads, two older, male professors asked very telling questions. They were puzzled by who actually pays attention to these ads and why on earth would advertisers think that feminizing men as being superficially fashion conscious and materialistic clothes shoppers be appealing?

I have to admit that the questions got me a little worked up because they seemed to be conflating femininity with clothes shopping, superficiality, materialism, and fashion consciousness. To give the professors the benefit of the doubt, I asked this in hopes of determining whether that part about “feminizing men” was just an unintentional gaffe: it’s interesting that we value some forms of consumption as being more worthwhile while others are dismissed as superficial and materialistic. What about buying a fishing rod or a fancy electronic gadget? Are those not also equally superficial and materialistic?

Unfortunately, one of the professors who posed the original question responded by saying that fishing rods and electronic gadgets are useful and practical, which suggests that the “feminizing” part wasn’t just an accident. Thankfully, another older male professor (not the two initial ones) commented rather jovially that we can’t deny that a fancy new fishing rod is also an excuse to brag to a friend so there are non-utilitarian reasons for why people purchase fishing rods, for example. Much later, I thought that it would have been nice too if I or someone else in the audience had also pointed out that considering the obvious fact that everyone in the audience was fully clothed, clothing can also be very practical and useful to all genders.

#5: Like academic scientists, academics in humanities can also be distracted by abstract/theoretical aspects and details of their research and overlook some of the more concrete and practical implications and/or the larger context
Disclaimer: This section might not be suitable for kids (if they can wade through it, haha).

One of the talks that I went to made me feel uncomfortable because it hit a sensitive spot. It was about maid cafes in Japan, specifically cat maid cafes. Most of the people in the audience and the speaker himself appeared to be fascinated by the phenomenon on an anthropological/sociological/cultural level. Because Japanese culture has a huge influence on all of Asia, it wasn’t the first time I had seen or heard of cat maids or hostess bars. After seeing the speaker’s PowerPoint slides with images of cat maids as they are portrayed in anime/manga though, it removed any doubt I had that there is an underlying sexual dominance/submission component to cat maids (where cat maids are consistently subs.) It troubled me when he said that most of the maids at the maid cafes greeted their (predominantly male) guests with a, “Welcome home, master.” What really troubled me was that the images were of predominantly naked women and many of them were bound and gagged, and there was no disclaimer or forewarning at the beginning of the presentation.

While I believe that the women who work as maids or cat maids do so by choice and not by force/coercion and there are strict rules against physical contact with the maids at the cafes, as a woman who grew up in Asia with very conservative relatives, I am troubled that the speaker showed those images but made no mention of the status of women in Asian culture in general. While things have gotten a lot better in Asia over the years, I just can’t help but see those images of cat maids and to an extent, the maid cafes, as an extension of the still pervasive treatment of Asian women as subservient objects. It perpetuates (maid cafes are extremely popular, and they’re starting to appear in other parts of Asia) and trivializes (“It’s fun!” “It’s just a form of entertainment.”) this image of a woman as a servant or something one has ownership over, like a pet. Even if women also go to maid cafes, they go there for aesthetic purposes, to admire the maid’s outfits like they would a painting or a vase. In other words, an object. Even if there are butler cafes appearing, they’re not as popular and mainstream.

Perhaps the speaker wanted to avoid the minefield of female subjugation, but I felt really uncomfortable that he could cavalierly show those images and make no mention of the broader cultural context in which those cat maids and cafes exist. (If a novelty racially segregated café appeared in the Southern part of the United States, I wonder if the American academics in the audience would still use the word “fascinating” as a way to describe them.) I’m hoping that one day, there will be more female CEOs and managers, female heads of households, and females in positions of power in Japan and all of Asia so that I won’t cringe at images of Asian women portrayed as fetishized servants or pet-servant hybrids.

#6: The pregnant body is fascinating from a scientific and philosophical point of view

To end on a positive note, I presented at a panel called “The Pregnant Body”, which I really enjoyed.  Meredith’s paper was a crash course in biological anthropology and reproductive ecology, with a focus on the female body. Because much of what we know about the human body is based on the male body, there is a lot of important, often medically relevant information that we’re missing. For example, heart disease presents itself in different ways in men compared to women, which has led to the under-diagnosis of heart disease in women.  Because human physiological responses are incredibly plastic – in other words, how the human body responds is greatly influenced by the environment – and most humans are living in very different conditions from when the human body evolved, it’s important to conduct these studies on populations that living in conditions similar to the way our ancestors did ~10,000 years ago to learn more about baseline responses.

Our ancestors had a tough life ~10,000 years ago though, as do many of the participants of the studies. Some of them are consuming barely enough calories to get by, which puts tremendous amounts of stress on a woman when she is pregnant. Other populations that are receiving sufficient calories are living on reservations where they’re struggling to restructure their once hunting-gathering society to fit with the wage labor economy. And they have to do this while dealing with a much higher birth rate than before due to access to calories.

So one ethics question that Meredith thinks is important to address is: what responsibilities do scientists who are studying female reproductive function have towards the people whose bodies they’re studying? These women provide scientists with baseline data to answer many important questions about the variability in female reproductive function, and in return, the women may get a small amount of money or perhaps vitamin supplements, but are there other ways to give back to a community that is struggling in many different ways without overstepping boundaries or compromising one’s scientific integrity? She doesn’t have the answers and neither do I, but it’s definitely something I hope that other scientists are thinking about.

The other panelist was a philosophy doctoral student who looked at Nietzsche’s view on the pregnant woman (who knew?). Maybe I’m being a bit unsophisticated, but Nietzsche’s theories on pregnant women sounds like some angst-ridden teen’s rantings. He had very black and white notions of what is strong and what is weak, and the weak are bad. And the strong helping the weak? That’s even worse. And pregnant women? They’re the ultimate embodiment of how awful it is when a strong human is helping out this weak, parasite-like fetus. (I’m paraphrasing here and obviously *not* an expert on Nietzsche.)

I’m not quite sure what Nietzsche had against pregnant women or fetuses since he wouldn’t be around in the first place if he weren’t first a fetus and if his mom weren’t pregnant. He wasn’t the first person to think of the parasite analogy though, which I think is pretty clever, and doesn’t have to be seen as a negative thing if you think of how amazingly cool parasites are. (Don’t believe me? Check out the life cycle of the parasitic flatworm.) Nietzsche also linked femininity to weakness, which bothers me, but I suppose that was typical of his time. (I think it’s also ironic that he was the one who was ill, and his mother and sister were the ones who took care of him.)

The philosophy doctoral student also mentioned this quotation from Adrienne Rich: “people in power are permitted to have a blindside to the full complexity of those not in power”. There’s so much in that statement that I still haven’t finished deconstructing. It reminds me of frustrating conversations I, or friends and family members, have had with people in positions of power who just don’t seem to get it.   It also reminds me to take stock of all that I have and to not take anything for granted. I’m luckier than most in many ways, and I’m glad I attended this conference. Woot!