Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Science Technology and Society

Two days ago, I learned from Onward State (Penn State's news blog) that the STS department will be cut due to budget concerns in the coming year. Since then, I've learned that this was a "top down" decision. The department was informed without warning. Perhaps this is how academia works. The Faculty Senate still needs to approve the decision. Since STS is a relatively small department with a lower student enrollment, I can't see them deciding against the decision.

In addition to being an English major, I have been working on a Disability studies minor since Fall 2009, my junior year. This minor is a recent addition to the STS department and is co-directed through the English department. This interest began when I was forced against my will and better judgement into an honors seminar called "The Body: Disability and Enhancement" under Dr. Squier. What this had to do with English, I wasn't sure and I wasn't pleased at the grim look of "The Normal and the Pathological" by Canguilhem or the fact that it was going to be in class for three hours every Wednesday morning at 9 (gross!). But without any recourse, I began to suffer through. And the world turned upside down.

I don't know how I had made it so far without thinking about the implications of brokenness on academics and life. The belief in a universal broken  (fallen) is key to my worldview and beliefs. It should have informed everything. But it hadn't. It took a class in the philosophy and social history of disability in Western tradition for me to begin understanding the world I had missed. What astonished me most about this course was the vast influence our studies had on a range of academic disciplines and culture. A graphic novel. A film from the 50s. A philosophy text. A memoir. Theory. New York Science Times on Tuesdays. Assumptions of what it meant to be "well" and "ill", to be "able" or "disabled", to be "young" or "old", started to become tenuous words and ideas. I was forced to question where I had gotten them and their unquestioned validity. By what authority have I never questioned the constant social pressure for a super-healthy body? The marketing of drugs? The unspoken, unseen discrimination against the disabled? The framework of medical/moral/social implications behind each answer to these questions also pushed my assumptions in unexpected and new directions.

Since, I have taken courses through the minor program and interacted in a variety of ways with the STS program, studying in courses from philosophy to rehabilitation services and English courses. These professors came from both within and without of the department. This experience shows just the kind of diverse resources that STS both provides and brings together. For example, Dr. Silverman has been an instructor in STS and in philosophy, while her own research has been on autism and its social effects and now in rural sociology. Dr. Squier, who I can attest as being one of the most influential professors in my college career, also instructs in English and women studies.

STS also has a unique international commitment. Their studies are not meant or designed to stay within the classroom. When I went to India this summer, not only were several members of our team from this department, but I have sense been given the opportunity to explore my interactions with health, illness, and disability across cultures through an independent study. 

What I see in this is a commitment and belief in academics as it affects a whole life and not simply a mind game to play in order to get a degree. They are interested in just what the humanities claims to applaud and strive for: a way to understand and celebrate the human. Knowledge is not fragmented into specialized fields but the full academic study that engages the world through specific study. Life is not lived in a classroom. Knowledge and frameworks have long reaching impacts on both our own lives and the structure of our worlds. The practical and the theoretical are not antithetical to each other but are both necessary for a life of integrity, both thought and action.

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