About pjt111

Personal website (with links to courses, teaching portfolio, thought-pieces since 1995).

Science in a Changing World graduate program at UMass Boston

Short story:
As a student and environmental activist in the 1970s I developed an interest, which continues to this day, in ecological complexity as a challenge to conventional scientific ways of knowing. Although ecological and environmental researchers partition complex situations into well-bounded systems and backgrounded or hidden processes, such moves tend to be confounded by “intersecting processes” that cut across scales, involve heterogeneous components, and develop over time. These cannot be understood from an outside view, I concluded; instead positions of engagement must be taken within the “unruly” complexity.

As I developed this picture, my work in ecology and environmental studies opened out to interpretive studies of science and then to facilitation of critical, reflective practice. The integration of these three levels or angles is evident in my book, Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (U. Chicago Press, 2005). This work not only examines the problematic boundaries of the complex situations studied by scientists, but also interprets their efforts to build social support for adopting explicit or implicit boundaries and studying what is inside. Similarly for the complex situations interpreted by sociologists, historians, and other scholars in the area now known as science and technology studies (STS). Moreover, I explore ways to stimulate researchers (and students training to become researchers) to examine self-consciously the complexity of their social situatedness so as to change the ways they address the complexity of the situations they study. In recent years, I have transferred this three-level engagement with complexity from ecology to social epidemiological approaches that address the life course development of health and behavior.

Longer account:
My environmental activism during the early 1970s in Australia led me to switch from medical studies to ecological science. I had a mathematical disposition, so I chose to focus less on field studies and more on quantitative analysis and modeling, with a view to planning to prevent problems from emerging. I soon developed an interest, which continues to this day, in ecological complexity as a challenge to conventional scientific ways of knowing. Although ecological and environmental researchers partition complex situations into well-bounded systems and backgrounded or hidden processes, such moves tend to be confounded by “intersecting processes” that cut across scales, involve heterogeneous components, and develop over time. These cannot be understood from an outside view, I concluded; instead positions of engagement must be taken within the “unruly” complexity. Knowledge production needs to be linked with planning for action and action itself in an ongoing process so that knowledge, plans, and action can be continually reassessed in response to developments — predicted and surprising alike.
As I developed this picture, my work in ecology and environmental studies opened out to interpretive studies of science and then to facilitation of critical, reflective practice. The integration of these three levels or angles is evident in my book, Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (U. Chicago Press, 2005). This work not only examines the problematic boundaries of the complex situations studied by scientists, but also interprets their efforts to build social support for adopting explicit or implicit boundaries and studying what is inside. Similarly for the complex situations interpreted by sociologists, historians, and other scholars in the area now known as science and technology studies (STS). Moreover, I explore ways to stimulate researchers (and students training to become researchers) to examine self-consciously the complexity of their social situatedness so as to change the ways they address the complexity of the situations they study. In recent years, I have transferred this three-level engagement with complexity from ecology to social epidemiological approaches that address the life course development of health and behavior. This has resulted in new critical angles on heritability studies underlying nature-nurture debates (Nature-Nurture? No…: A Short, but Expanding Guide to Variation and Heredity, book ms.) and forms the focus of a current book project, Troubled by Heterogeneity?
This project on complexity and change had its beginnings, as mentioned above, in environmental and social activism in Australia that led to studies and research in ecology and agriculture (B.Sc., Monash University, 1975; research positions at Universities of Queensland and Melbourne, 1976-79). I moved to the United States to undertake doctoral studies in ecology (Ph.D., Harvard University 1985), with a minor focus in what is now called STS. Subsequently, I combined scientific investigations with interpretive STS inquiries, my goal being to make STS perspectives relevant to life and environmental students and scientists (MIT, New School, U.C. Berkeley, Cornell University, 1985-96). (Historical, sociological, and pedagogical cases have included the origins of systems ecology, socio-economic analysis of the future of a salt-affected irrigation region, systems dynamics modeling of nomadic pastoralists in sub-Saharan Africa, researchers mapping the conditions in which they work, and political ecological critique of the tragedy of the commons framework.) Critical thinking and critical pedagogy/reflective practice became central to my intellectual and professional project as I encouraged students and researchers to contrast the paths taken in science, society, education with other paths that might be taken, and to foster their acting upon the insights gained (Biology & Society program, Cornell, 1990-96; Eugene Lang Professor for Social Change, Swarthmore College, 1997-98; U. Mass. Boston 1998-present). Bringing critical analysis of science to bear on the practice and applications of science has not been well developed or supported institutionally, and so I have contributed actively to new collaborations, programs, and other activities, new directions for existing programs, and collegial interactions across disciplines (e.g., International Society for History, Philosophy and Social Studies of Biology, Program organizing, 1987-91, President and Executive member, 1993-99, Education Committee, founding chair and member, 1997-2005; New England Workshop on Science and Social Change, Organizer, 2004-present; editing Changing Life: Genomes, Ecologies, Bodies, Commodities, U. Minnesota Press, 1997). As a Professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston (1998-), I direct the Critical and Creative Thinking Graduate Program (1999-04, 07-), the undergraduate Science, Technology & Values Program (2004-), and the new Science in a Changing World graduate track (2009-). My aspiration is to foster education and research that supports people to become resilient and reorganize their lives, communities, and economies in response to social, environmental changes (Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research and Engagement, with J. Szteiter, book ms.).

My work at the intersection of STS and environmental sciences has been supported by Mellon, Wantrup, and Rockefeller Foundation fellowships (1985-86, 87-90, 96-97, respectively), and by visiting professorships at the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas and the Centro de Ecología, U.N.A.M., Mexico (summer 1992, 1993) and the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, Yale University (2003). My work at the intersection of STS and health sciences has been supported by NSF grants (2003-05, 06-09), and as a visiting scholar at the Pembroke Center, Brown University (2002-03) and the Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research, Austria (2008 & 2010). My work on educational innovation and interdisciplinary workshops has been supported by the Academy of Finland (1988), the University of Tampere (1996-2000), NSF grants (2004-05, 05-09), and the Chancellor’s Award for Distinguished Teaching at my university (2009).

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